Wednesday, 19 January 2011

"On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears," by Stephen T Asma

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Recently Mark was watching one of his Christmas presents from me - the "Alien" blu-ray box set - while I was in bed reading and avoiding being freaked out by chest-bursters. However, it struck me that my choice of reading - "On Monsters" - was a little perverse in the circumstances, as it references the "Alien" quadrilogy. I was avoiding something that I find scary, but reading about why I might find it scary.

"On Monsters" was the book that fascinated me enough to make me decide to read more non-fiction. The author, Stephen T. Asma, presents a wide-ranging analysis of the concept of monstrousness, taking in mythology, biblical monsters, the persecution of witches, taxonomy, criminal monsters, teratology, horror, terrorism and cyborgs. The extensive list of areas that Asma tries to cover means that there might be something to appeal to your particular aspect of interest (I went into this book interested in the psychology of horror, but less interested in teratology, for example).

In my time in academia I found that academic books and works of critical analysis are frequently dry and unengaging. However, Asma has a very occasional digression into anecdote, mainly in the brief introduction, that helps the reader to warm to his writing style. In the main text he still has an eye for the weird - most of the book is weird - with an occasional quirky moment of revelation or turn of phrase that appeals to my sense of the absurd (witches were thought to have tattoos, and accused witch John Palmer was said to have been branded with a "some sort of bizarre tattoo of a dog (inexplicably named 'George')", and was able to transform himself into a "trouble-making toad").

Asma has some fascinating insights that took hold of my imagination. He refers to the idea that the hysteria of the Salem witch trials might have been caused by rye grain that had been tainted by ergot (a parasitic fungus that causes hallucinations when ingested). I think I have heard this idea before, but it is no less fascinating for that. A theory that I hadn't heard before was that some mythical creatures might have been inspired by our ancestors' attempts to make sense of dinosaur bones that they had discovered (Asma quotes a theory by Adrienne Mayor that the common image of the griffin bears a strong relationship to the skeleton of the psittacosaurus, a "parrot beaked dinosaur"). Asma also writes interestingly about P.T.Barnum and the Feejee mermaid (a taxidermy hoax constructed from the bottom half of a fish and the top half of a monkey), horror and Eli Roth's argument that horror films thrive at times of traumatic change, and the idea of the "uncanny valley" (the theory that we relate better to characters in computer games when they are humanoid, but become uneasy if the simulacrum is too convincing).

The chapter that I actually found most fascinating, was the chapter that I initially felt less interest in - the chapter on criminal monsters. I generally avoid true crime books because I find them prurient and exploitative. However, Asma puts forward the interesting argument that, in calling someone who has committed a violent and criminal act a monster, we are closing off scientific attempts to understand what drives a person to perform such an action. He is perceptive enough to acknowledge the visceral, emotional reaction that maybe we don't want to understand the impulses behind an action which is monstrous (I'd extend this to say that if we find a human psychological impulse behind a monstrous action, we are forced to recognise its potential within ourselves, and this unsettles us). He is particularly interesting when writing about the neurology of the criminal: that psychopaths show damage to the paralymbic region of the brain which, depending on the specific area of the brain, can result in selfish and impulsive tendencies, or in total lack of empathy coupled with no understanding of fear responses.

If I did find any fault with this book, it was that it tries to cover too broad a scope and, in doing so, lacks detail in the areas it tries to cover. But it does provide an interesting introduction to a number of areas, some of which I now feel like I would like to explore more. I also now have a further reading list. I wanted to read two of Marina Warner's books anyway ("No Go the Bogeyman," "From the Beast to the Blonde"). Asma - I always feel I should do the academic thing of calling authors by their surname - also mentions Pliny's "Natural History," a "Beowulf" translation by Frederick Rebsamen, Mark Burnett's "Constructing Monsters in Shakespearean Drama and Early Modern Culture" and Noel Carroll's "The Philosophy of Horror," all of which I now would like to hunt down.

This review had taken a while to write, as I have been quite busy and tired recently. But, serendipitously, this has somehow taken me full circle. I started this review remembering how I was reading the book while Mark was watching "Alien." I'm now typing this in the front room while Mark has on "Alien: Resurrection," and at the more gruesome points I am being advised not to look up from my laptop (I know, I'm a wuss). But sometimes at the moments when I am being told not to look, a little bit of me wants to look. This is at the root of what makes the idea of monsters so intriguing: that which terrifies us, also exercises a terrible and almost irresistible fascination. We are scared, but we also want to understand why we are scared - and this is at the heart of Asma's book, or at least at the heart of my reaction to it.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

My bedside table

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

The pile of books for my consideration on my bedside table seemed so high, even for me, that I just decided to come over all Nick Hornby (actually, now I write that, it sounds a little rude) and measure how high it is.

13 inches!

Although I have to confess that the pile does include a dictionary (I needed it a couple of times for "On Monsters"), and "How the Mind Works," which is pretty thick. I think I need to get down to some more reading....

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Damn you, Twitlonger

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

As Twitlonger posts - a way of cheating I thought I might use when I want to write a review longer than a tweet and shorter than a normal blog post - don't seem to connect very well to my blog, this is what I wrote....

"I Shall Wear Midnight" by Terry Pratchett - a book aimed at his younger readers, so this doesn't have the complexity of ideas of some of his other plots, nor does it have the inventive intensity of word play of some of his other novels. However, it might be my favourite of the Tiffany Aching novels - as an intelligent and resourceful heroine she is a strong contender to be a "good role model" for girls, and the threat she faces in this novel (The Cunning Man) is effectively sinister and creepy. The Nac Mac Feegle are entertaining and funny, as always, and I liked this book enough to stay up until 1.30 one morning finishing it. Thank you Alicia for a great Christmas present!

Sunday, 2 January 2011

A grim thought for the New Year from Stephen T. Asma

"Monsters are symbols of the disgusting, with their decaying flesh, mottled limbs, and rotting, putrefying tissues and organs. In short, monsters are thumbnails sketches of our own destiny. It is our human fate to slowly fall apart and to cause revulsion in younger, healthier witnesses."

Happy New Year everyone!

My New Year's Resolutions

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I don't normally make New Year's Resolutions. No-one ever keeps them, and you only feel like a fool when you get to the end of the year and realise that you haven't done anything that you intended to.

However, when I wrote my last blog and realised how long it had been since I had last written on here, I thought maybe I should make some reading and writing based resolutions.

You can take it as a given that I think I should try and write on my blog more.

Also, as I tend to read a few books at the same time, maybe I should introduce some variety into my reading. So I will try to be reading at any one time:
1 - A nonfiction book to challenge my brain and extend my knowledge a bit more. I've nearly finished "On Monsters" - review to follow soon - so my next non-fiction might be either Stephen Pinker's "How the Mind Works" or Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Eveything" from my book shelves.
2 - A classic from my ereader to improve my reading education further and maybe try to get a few more of those elusive books on the BBC essential reading list covered.
3 - A more modern challenging fiction book - I might return to "The End of Mr Y."
4 - I'm allowed a breakfast book (a book for purely fun reading when my brain can't handle anything too challenging). I think of these as breakfast books because I can't read anything too intelligent early in the morning.

Also - and this is more an aim than a resolution - I think I'd like to try to get something published this year.

I haven't even started on standard resolutions, like I need to try to eat healthier this year and lose a bit of weight.

I know New Year's Resolutions hardly ever get kept. But I hope that, in putting them publicly on here, I will have to do something about them or else at the end of this year anyone who has read this article will have the perfect right to say to me, "Well, did you...?"