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.

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