Saturday 16 January 2010

Review: On Monsters - a history of our fears

Hearing the word monsters - what do you think of? The Cyclops, Gorgons or dragons from ancient tales? Grendel and his mother? Werewolves or demons? Frankenstein's creation? Godzilla and King Kong? Serial killers? Nazi war criminals? Aliens? Genetic mutations? Monsters from the Id?

In medieval times and in some parts of the world today witches were thought of as monsters and accused of such things as stealing babies and making men's penises vanish.

All of these and more can be found in the pages of On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, a new book by Stephen T Asma.

Sometimes the monsters live in distant lands - weird and wonderful creatures from traveller's tales. Sometimes they live among us - those who look strange or even those who look normal but are monstrous inside. Sometimes they live within our own minds, in our nightmares or in feelings we struggle to control.

However much the rational mind might say "There are no such things as monsters", human beings from ancient times to the present day have nevertheless always managed to find them. They are ever-present, despite what we have done to banish or kill them.

The ancients attempted to lock them in the land of monsters, behind a huge iron gate that was believed to exist somewhere beyond the explored world. Medieval Christians exorcised or executed them. Rationalists dissected them. Today we try to capture them in the pages of novels, the silver of the screen or the virtual worlds of our computers.

But such containments are never strong enough. Monsters seem to have a power to mutate that defeats all attempts to eliminate them for good. As we lay one type of monster to rest, another springs up to take its place within the realm of our fears.

So perhaps it time to take a good look at them - which is exactly what On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears does.

On Monsters is far more than just catalogue of beasties and their backgrounds - or a "bestiary" as such things have been called. As the subtitle says, it is a history of our worst fears - and delves deeply into what what we have found so terrifying about monsters as well as why we are so fascinated with them.

Whatever creature stirs your darkest thoughts, you will probably find it in the pages of this book. Open it with care, for may not only find yourself walking amongst monsters, you may recognise them lurking within yourself.

Asma suggest that monsters embody our deepest anxieties and vulnerabilities and how we handle monsters reflects how we handle uncertainty, ambiguity and insecurity. Understanding them helps us to live in a world that is becoming increasingly less secure and more ambiguous.

It's been about a month since I was sent a preview copy of this lovely book from publisher Oxford University Press and it has taken me quite a while to finish it. I've really enjoyed reading it, but it is one of those books I've wanted to take my time over. That isn't because it's boring - quite the opposite in fact - it is just so full of fascinating and thought-provoking facts that I found I wanted to digest each section before going on to the the next one.

The book was officially launched on January 14 at £16.99 in hardback. It is available in bookshops and via Amazon

On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears

1 comment:

Antony said...

Thank you for the book review.

Any thought can become a thoughr-form, be given life by our own imagination and subconcious. This is one theory of how Monsters came in to being.


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