Monster Impulse

MonstersSome people are impulse buyers. In fact, retailers count on it. All those last-minute items next to the cash register while you wait your turn to consume—they beckon the unwary. I have to admit to being an impulse book buyer. I have to keep it under control, of course, since books are “durable goods” and last more than a single lifetime, with any luck at all. A few years ago I was in the shop of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. It was my last day in the city where I’d spent my post-graduate years and I didn’t know when I’d ever be back. What could help me remember this visit? A book, of course. Why I chose Monsters, by Christopher Dell, to mark this particular occasion, I don’t know. I love monsters, yes, but why here? Why now? Why in the last hours I had in my favorite European city? It was a heavy book, hardcover and unyielding in my luggage. I had to have it.

More of an extended essay than a narrative book, Dell’s Monsters begins with a premise that I never tire of contemplating: religions give us our monsters. At least historically, they have. There is an element of the divine as well as the diabolical in the world of monsters. As a student of art, what Dell has put together in this book is a full-color unlikely bestiary. These are the creatures that have haunted our imaginations since people began to draw, and probably before. One exception I would take to Dell’s narrative is that the Bible does have its share of monsters. He mentions Leviathan, Behemoth, and the beast of Revelation, but the Bible is populated with the bizarre and weird. Nebuchadnezzar becomes a monster. Demons caper through the New Testament. The Bible opens with a talking serpent. These may not be the monsters of a robust Medieval imagination, but they are strange creatures in their own rights. We have ghosts as well, and people rising from the dead. Monsters and religion are, it seems, very well acquainted.

The illustrations, of course, are what bring Dell’s book to market. Many classic and, in some cases, relatively unknown creatures populate his pages. They won’t keep you awake at night, for we have grown accustomed to a scientific world where monsters have been banished forever. And yet, we turn to books like Monsters to meet a need that persists into this technological age. About to get on a plane for vacation, I know I will be groped and prodded by a government that wants to know every detail of my body. Sometimes I’ll be forced into the private screening room for more intimate encounters. And for all this I know that William Shatner was on a plane at 20,000 feet when he saw a gremlin on the wing. Like our religions, our monsters never leave us. No matter how bright technology may make our lights.

See Serpent

GreatNewEnglandSeaSerpentSeeing, it is said, is believing. I have a feeling that this truism may have become effaced somewhat in this age of deft photo manipulation and apps that are marketed to insert ghosts and UFOs into any picture. Nevertheless, anyone who has seen anything genuinely puzzling knows that it creates a lasting impression. A world without mystery, although a capitalist’s dream, is a nightmare for everyone else. So it was, now that October is here, I settled down with J. P. O’Neill’s The Great New England Sea Serpent. I found O’Neill’s book in a used bookstore a few weekends ago (appropriately water-damaged), and since I have a fascination with the ocean and monsters, this seemed like it would appeal to both of my avocations. It did indeed. O’Neill isn’t a sensationalist writer, but rather she is a normal person with normal jobs who has an interest in strange animals. Beginning in 1751 and up to three-quarters through the twentieth century, people had been spotting a classical sea serpent along the New England coast, and occasionally on ocean voyages across the Atlantic. Of course, we’re told, sea serpents don’t exist.

The Great New England Sea Serpent is a compendium of sightings from many reliable witnesses over the centuries. Of course, to many it is impossible. To me this appears to be the same kind of arrogance we apply to the universe—if we haven’t catalogued it by now, it doesn’t exist—to suggest there are no monsters of the deep. As any oceanographer will tell you, we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about our own oceans. If you turn your globe (or app) just right, there are views of our planet where virtually no land is visible. We are a watery planet. Even with current technology, the deep ocean is difficult, and very expensive, to explore. Who knows what might be lurking there right off the bow? O’Neill’s account is full of old salts and snarky journalists, but at the core of it all is a humility in the face of the largeness of the sea. What do we really know?

Of course, there is a fear of literalism. The Bible (and other ancient texts) take sea monsters for granted. Leviathan is a dangerous beast and, no matter what the pundits say, is no crocodile. And yet, for the past several decades the reports of the New England beast have dried up. Where has our beloved sea serpent gone? I have to wonder with both our polluting our oceans and our increasingly efficient (and massive) ships, if we haven’t simply forgotten that ancient maps used to leave space for dragons. Our great ships, guided by GPS, and our oceans running a temperature, are sure signs that greed has surpassed wonder. Have we, in our self-centeredness, slain the last of our dragons? O’Neill, please understand, does not call them dragons. Hers is a sober and straightforward account. But when October comes I just can’t help but hope there are still some monsters out there, deep under the waves.

Blown Away

NovNationalGeoWith the weather that has dropped down over much of the US this past week, I can’t help but think of the religious implications of the weather once again. I’ve had a couple of discussions of my weather book, and perhaps it will be worth reviving; meanwhile the meteorological divine is alive and well. I recently had the chance to look through a November edition of National Geographic. We used to subscribe, but with the loss of too many jobs and the attendant moves, they became literally too heavy, and since the magazine is relentlessly prolific we finally had to donate our back issues to a loving home. In any case, this November’s issue proffers a cover story on Tim Samaras, the storm chaser who was killed by a tornado back in May. It was tornados that first led to my interest in the divine implications of the weather since the twister is often described as the symbol of an angry deity. The article on Samaras, however, took a different approach to the tornadic.

Describing the fatal May 31 tornado in El Reno, Oklahoma, Robert Draper, the article’s author, tends more toward language of the diabolical. Defining the terminal whirlwind as a “dense, moist leviathan,” Draper adopts the language of the chaos monster of antiquity. Over time leviathan came to be associated with evil (although originally it was morally neutral), even with the devil. That isn’t a biblical assessment but in a modern world swiftly becoming depleted of superlatives, leviathan has come to stand in for Satan. A few sentences later the trees are shaking “as if possessed by the devil.” Weather is often the provenance of the divine, but it can also be the tool of the devil. And since this was a fatal storm, one must be careful of blasphemy.

I have never witnessed a tornado first-hand, but I have been within a few miles of one or two. The utterly savage and random nature of the destruction translate to one of the most frightening atmospheric conditions imaginable. Reading about the growing storm, knowing that it will eventually murder the protagonist, reminds me of the stresses that led to my line of research at the very beginning. We have overcome so many of our natural predators that being completely vulnerable to the weather bestows a kind of metaphysical cast to it. We can still be frozen, washed or blown away, or overheated by the weather. It can desiccate us and begin wildfires to consume us. Its scale is immense. The origins may seem celestial, but the results infernal. Perhaps I will return to my book on the weather; it is clear that it remains one place where human power must bow before something so immense that it can only be divine or diabolical. Or both.

Hic Sunt Dracones

Even a visionary like Thomas Edison can’t know the directions in which an invention might be taken. The idea of the moving picture has immersed human beings in an alternate reality that is sometimes difficult to separate from the physical world we daily inhabit. As soon as movies were invented, producers and directors began to explore the depths of fear with the monster movie. What they were really exploring was the mystery of religion. I frequently write of the nexus of religion and the monstrous, and Timothy K. Beal wrote a book on that subject a decade ago in which I found another affirmation of my suspicion. Forthrightly titled Religion and its Monsters (Routledge, 2002), Beal’s playful yet serious exploration of the scary traces the origins of monsters to Genesis, and even earlier. Taking on Leviathan, the biblical sea serpent, Beal demonstrates the pre-biblical pedigree of this fierce monster and shows that, like most truly frightening entities, it began as a god. Indeed, what we call religion today grew up around fear of those forces beyond our control, a nature so harsh it could be none other than divine. The writers of the Bible clearly knew this story as Beal traces it from Genesis to Job, from Psalms to Jonah, from Leviathan to Devil.

In a shot/reverse shot formation, Beal takes us to modern-day monsters and shows their religious origins. Those things that frighten us on the big screen crawl there from their origins in the temples, shrines, and chapels of religions that don’t manage to subdue evil completely. The claims are made that the gods are stronger than the chaos that surrounds us, but they are still fighting nevertheless. From Dracula to Godzilla, the monsters have the gods on the run. And when the human protagonists finally get their monster pinned down, they discover that it is often God wearing a mask. Our monsters are gods gone bad. How else could they revive from the dead at the end of the reel? They never truly disappear. And if they do, there’s always more where they came from. The reason, Beal concludes, is that we are, in fact, the monsters.

According to the analysis of W. Scott Poole, Timothy Beal, like myself, falls into the “monster kid” generation. As I grew up, I quickly learned that to confess my interest in monsters was to risk the labels of juvenile, naïve, and immature. Grown ups are interested in money and sex and power. Only kids have any interest in dinosaurs, mythology, and monsters. An epiphany of sorts, however, seems to be unfolding. Scholars of religion in my generation are peeling back the rubber masks of our movie monsters and are discovering the face of the divine. Perhaps we are all adolescents at heart, fixated on the weird and bizarre because the paths to money, power, and temptations of the flesh are blocked to us. Or perhaps we are the Magellans charting a course for regions off the map. It is those regions, as Beal reminds us, that are illustrated with sea serpents and inscribed hic sunt dracones, “here be dragons.” Doubt it? Read your Bible and find out for yourself.

On Faithful Monsters

From the moment I saw Stephen Asma’s On Monsters summarized in the Chronicle of Higher Education, I knew I had to read it. Having been fascinated by monsters as a child, and then having grown out of that fascination, this book is a respectable way to indulge my juvenile interests while learning something. The book’s subtitle, An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, reveals perhaps why I was so compelled by this particular volume. Those of you who follow this blog know that I contend that religion and fear are very closely related, well nigh inseparable even. As Asma delves into the origins of our monsters, he pauses for a while on the Bible.

The Bible hosts its share of monsters. From lengthy descriptions of Leviathan and Behemoth to tantalizingly creepy references to Azazel and the night hag, the writers of holy writ were as aware of monsters as we are. Asma focuses on the fantastic beasts described in the apocalyptic material, Daniel and Revelation. Obviously not intended to be taken literally, the descriptions of these fantastical beasts represent various ancient empires that threatened the early Jews and Christians respectively. Their monstrosity rests in their intent to destroy, not their hideous physical form. To quote from our host, “monsters are not creatures of natural history but symbolic warnings of a horrifying life without the Abrahamic God (or, in the case of Christians, without his son).”

The ancient fascination with monsters very likely has religious roots. These beings appear to stand outside the rationally created order and lurk in places where the divine is not. The fear they engender leads to the very religion that shuns them. Vampires fear a crucifix, demons are banished at the name of Jesus, and even the headless horseman shuns a church. People run to their faith to protect them from monsters, and monsters, in their turn, provided early believers with a rationale for their faith.

The Devil in the Deep Blue Sea

The latest podcast is now up and running. This is a discussion of Leviathan and the ambivalent outlook on water in the ancient world.

Surfs up!