27 October 2009

A Cryptozoology Flashback: Monsters You Never Heard Of

Monsters You Never Heard Of
By Daniel Cohen (1980)

Halloween means “monsters” to me, and so in my continuing efforts to occasionally do reviews off the standard blog track (uhm, does my blog have a track?), I’ve returned to a childhood favorite of mine: a folklore book for juvenile readers about a passel of less well-known mystery creatures, or “cryptids.” The title uses a dangling modifier—try to avoid this, kids—but then Monsters of Which You Have Never Heard is the sort of pedantry up with which I shall not put.

I was an avid reader of books about cryptids when I was younger. I’m a skeptic now, but I still have an interest in these “real monsters” from a folkloric perspective. The author of most of my favorite books on the topic when I was a kid was Daniel Cohen, who has made a career of writing for juveniles about cryptolozoolgy, ghosts, the occult, UFOs, and the paranormal. From what I can tell from my research, Mr. Cohen is a skeptic himself, and reading over Monsters You Never Heard Of as an adult reveals that Cohen likely doesn’t believe in most of these creatures. He’s always willing to admit that most of the evidence for the existence of these monsters is anecdotal. When I was younger, I tended to miss the author’s more cautious language, and I imagine he wanted it that way. When I was eleven it was more fun to think that the Jersey Devil was real instead of a local superstition.

Cohen slyly admits his intentions in the first chapter:
I warn you, however, that if you are looking for hard evidence that any of these creatures exist, you are not going to find very much of it here, because there isn’t very much. Most monsters have proved to be extremely hard to catch, and these are no exceptions.

But then, if we could catch them and classify them, they really wouldn’t be monsters anymore, would they?
Hence, my classic contradiction: remain rational, embrace the enjoyment of the irrational.

The creatures in this volume, as the title indicates, are minor leaguers compared to the All-Star Squad of Sasquatch, the Loch Ness Monster, and the Yeti. Some of the creatures seem closer to paranormal occurrences (“The Hairy Hands” and “Demon Dogs”) or UFO mythology (“The Dover Demon”). When I first read Monsters You Never Heard Of, I really hadn’t heard of any of these monsters, except perhaps the idea of maxi-sized snakes. A few of these monsters have gained greater notoriety since the book’s publication, such as the Jersey Devil and the Cattle Mutilation Mystery, because of cable TV programs and The X-Files. At the time, all I had was re-runs of In Search Of…

There are eleven obscure monsters/phenomenons in the book, each with its own chapter.

The Jersey Devil: No doubt, the J.D. is the star of the book. It snagged the paperback cover, a great illustration by Phil Hale (see the top of this post) that drew me to purchase the book in the first place. I still think this is the best artwork I’ve seen of the Jersey Devil, visualizing him in a more natural combination of body parts than most other pictures, which often border on the comic. (For example, the image on the left, from a 1909 issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer, published during a sudden rash of sightings. Appears somebody even shod the J.D.) The Jersey Devil is a sort of horse-bat-kangaroo mixture that reputedly terrorizes the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, a wilderness set down in the urban mass of the state. It this setting that originally pulled me toward the story—it’s such a wonderful place for a horror tale, and it has a fittingly bizarre and frightening-looking monster. Some filmmaker needs to craft an atmospheric horror flick about the Jersey Devil. Cohen’s chapter deals with some of the legends about the monster’s origin, and the two “flaps” of sightings during the twentieth century. I’ll settle for one of Cohen’s explanations: a combination of spooky folklore and occasional spottings of sandhill cranes.

Spring-Heeled Jack: Victorian steampunk has given this hopping public nuisance of the mid-19th century a lot more exposure. If there were a real Spring-Heeled Jack, he was on his way to turning into an underworld superhero.

Phantom Animals: This is a bit of a dull chapter, since it deals with the appearance of mundane creatures (big cats, kangaroos) in unexpected places. These are more likely occurrences than some of the other monsters in the book, but with the exception of the Surrey Puma, the phantom cats and kangaroos aren’t that interesting.

The Hairy Hands: “No, really, officer—I wasn’t drinking! A pair of hairy disembodied hands grabbed the steering wheel and drove me off the road!” I imagine this excuse never goes over well. But on one stretch of road in legend-haunted Dartmoor, a few people have tried it. The story of the Hairy Hands is a creepy one and great for Cub Scout campfires, but it would seem the conditions of the road are the main reason for caution. Cohen makes no mention that even Dartmoor locals think tales of the Hairy Hands are ludicrous.

Demon Dogs: These canines would seem easy to lump with “Phantom Creatures,” but the “Black Dogs” of England are more a ghost story phenomenon than a cryptid one. (And a Led Zeppelin one.) A few of the tales that Cohen relates here are freaky in a Gothic way, especially one about a soldier apparently scared to death by the black dog that haunts Peel Castle on the Isle of Man, Moddey Dhoo. (As I kid, I thought the name was hilariously close to “Scooby-Doo.” Oh, I still do.) The chapter eventually goes on a tangent with tales of “The Wild Hunt” and unrelated business about a dead body found on a riverbank. However, this chapter inspired me to read The Hound of the Baskervilles for the first time.
Big-Big Bird: This chapter should really be titled “Thunderbird,” since it’s about the Native American myth of a giant bird of that name. Perhaps Cohen was worried readers would think it was about the hallucinations people have after downing a bottle of Thunderbird. Although the current existence of a condor with a thirty-foot wingspan is implausible, this sort of flying monster has always seized my attention. I almost wrote a novel about one back in 2002. This chapter also introduced me to the “Thunderbird photograph” legend, which is almost as much a story as the super-bird itself. Supposedly, a photo was taken for the Tombstone, AZ Epitaph in 1886 of men posing with an enormous bird they had shot down . . . but nobody seems able to locate the photo, and the original story can’t even be substantiated. People claim to have seen the photo and lost or given it away. I still see people on the ‘net claiming they’ve looked at the photo; this is a good example of a false memory planted by a vivid description. The way Cohen describes the photo, I could imagine I had seen it.

The Dover Demon: Here’s a one-shot monster that fits the description of “grays” from modern UFO mythology. Some teens in Massachusetts thought they saw an odd spindly-limbed, big-headed creature one night. That’s it. Get back to your homework, kids.

The Biggest Snake: Anacondas in the thirty-foot range are proven, and it seems possible that larger ones might exist. But the anecdotal story in this chapter about a 115-foot snake? Must have got loose from the streets of Khemi in The Hour of the Dragon. Most of the stories in this chapter sound like people unable to judge length accurately and making up enormous numbers. We would eventually get a pretty fun B-monster movie out of this concept, however.

The Tazelwurm: I often see this animal spelled tatzlewurm, and it’s the most subdued “monster” in the volume. It’s also the only one that I think might possibly exist, or have existed until recently. As a child I never cared much for the idea of a mystery creature that was nothing more than a small two-legged Alpine lizard. It just wasn’t large or mysterious enough for me. Still isn’t.
The Invisible Killers: Today, this is called “The Cattle Mutilation Mystery,” and often gets linked to UFO activity, Sasquatch-like creatures, or cults. Cohen does tells a chilling story about an invisible monster that seems a bit like the Id-beast from Forbidden Planet. Ultimately, Cohen seems more skeptical about the cattle mutilations than any other creature in the book. “What happened? Well, the whole thing could be made up.” Yes.

Goatman and the Grunches: A wild hairy creature is leaping out at neckers at Lover’s Lanes across the world! I wonder who in the fraternity drew the short straw and had to wear the ape suit for this stunt. Even as a child, I thought this chapter was a let-down for a ending. I’ve never heard anything about the “Grunches,” a New Orleans variant. Perhaps N.O. has too many other southern Gothic mysteries to keep itself busy. The Grunches should hire a publicity agent.

The book is written in simple and straightforward language for its younger readers, and there is no possible way I could re-capture the magic of my childhood readings, hidden under the covers with a flashlight. But some of these creatures still have their dark, wicked power of churning my imagination. And I still love the Jersey Devil.