Cryptobeast Roundup

J. Robert Alley. Raincoast Sasquatch: The Bigfoot/Sasquatch records of Southern Alaska, Coast of British Columbia and Northern Washington from Puget Sound to Yakutat. Hancock House, 2003.

Chad Arment. Cryptozoology: Science and Speculation. Coachwhip publications, 2004.

Ronan Coghlan. A Dictionary of Cryptozoology. Xiphes Books, 2004.

Loren Coleman and Patrick Huyghe. The Field Guide to Lake Monsters, Sea Serpents and other Mystery Denizens of the Deep. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin. 2004.

Nick Redfern. Three Men Seeking Monsters: Six Weeks in Pursuit of Werewolves, Lake Monsters, Giant Cats, Ghostly Devil Dogs and Ape Men. Paraview Pocket Books, 2004.

Linda Godfrey. The Beast of Bray Road; Tailing Wisconsin's Werewolf. Prairies Oak Press, 2003

Just as ufology has become divided between those who are searching for the real physical phenomenon or phenomena which they believe underlie UFO reports, and those who mainly interested in the folklore and social meaning of these narratives, so cryptozoology has become divided between those seeking for real 'paws-and-pelts' animals, and those whose interest is more in creatures of the imagination. All positions on this subject are represented here.

Chad Arment's approach is clear, he is looking for real animals, following in the footsteps of earlier generations of naturalists who found creatures like the gorilla and the okapi by examining eye witness testimony and traditional stories, a technique he calls ethnobiology. The first half of his book is clear attempt to situate cryptozoology as a real science, and to separate it from paranormal and mysterian speculation. Yet the moment we come to his accounts of lesser known cryptids, many taken from old newspapers and books, we are plunged into a world of folklore. These accounts , some of which he admits were hoaxes, include a girl stolen away by a giant eagle (perhaps one of the ancestors of the Oliver Larch/ Thomas story); a gorilla in Pennsylvania in the 1920 's; the worst and baddest snake of them all; the legend of the stoneclads; tales of the fierce naked bear; or of tales of modern mermaids. It's hard not to see these stories as metaphors of the essential wildest of the world. Of course it might be argued that similar roles have been played by, say, gorillas and wolves, where there is indeed a real animal, though one whose behaviour is often far removed from the folk image.

Coleman and Huyghe, and Alley make equal paws-and-pelts claims for their particular beasts. However where Arment quotes original sources at length, these two books use summaries. Coleman and Huyghe follow the standard field guide approach, with a few representative accounts to build up their illustrated portraits of their self-produced classification scheme. Here one sees some accounts which look very much as if they refer to real animals, often based on individual sightings rather removed from popular traditions. But once again, as we come to the more obviously popular and emotive lake monsters, that position changes. It doesn't take much of a boggle factor to imagine that there might be loads of undiscovered denizens of the deep, dark oceans, but when it comes to lakes and rivers the situation changes. The list of lakes with monsters is just too large: look at the list for the Irish Republic for example. Some are from fairly large lakes, but others are in what can be little more than outsized ponds. It's as if monsters were being reported from the Manchester Ship Canal or Thorpe Park! Furthermore the witness descriptions from one lake are often contradictory.

While Arment's or Coleman and Huyghe's way of presenting accounts makes for easy reading, Alley's classic technique for bombarding with one account after another in continuous text overwhelms rather than instructs. Again the emphasis is very much on sasquatch as a real paws and pelts animal. Like ufology however there is the perpetual dearth of truly unambiguous physical evidence, what evidence there is tends to be either inconclusive, and there are the stories where people find good evidence like a body, but there is always some reason why it cannot be collected. So there is not one road kill, no old bones, no unambiguous hair, no Bigfoot ever wanders into town to rummage through the dumps like the bears do, no wounded baby Bigfoot adopted as a pet, nothing on the every increasing number of camcorders, webcams, mobile phone cams. No one would say these things have to be common, but to never ever happen is very strange.

What is apparent is that there is a tendency to interpret all sorts of ambiguous experiences, such as strange noises in the night, or a car being pelted with stones as Bigfoot events. The stone pelting for example is the sort of thing which might equally likely have been blamed on poltergeists. There is also, in this account, the suspicion that some of the stories have been rather edited to remove some of the more fantastic or paranormal elements, for example Alley quotes the alleged Bigfoot vocalisations recorded by Adrian Berry in 1972 , but omits the aura of the paranormal and general weirdness which surrounded that story.

A very different interpretation of cryptozoology is provided by Ronan Coghlan's dictionary, which lists just about every conceivable kind of mystery animal going, along with quite a few inconceivable ones. All that seems to be missing from this dictionary are Gef the Talking Mongoose and Spring Heel Jack. Again, while a minority of the strange creatures listed here may indeed be genuine paws and pelts animals uncatalogued by official science, others are clearly inhabitants of the goblin universe of the human imagination. Some of them are strange hybrids, perhaps leading to speculation that the brain stores images of bits of animal anatomy separately, and these somehow have to be assembled together correctly in order to create a mental image of the whole animal, and that sometimes this process goes wrong, with the result that we can see these bizarre hybrids.

But these hybrids are also cultural symbols, representing disorder, chaos and sin, just as deformed babies were so perceived in the Renaissance. Drawings of these babies often show fantastic features, which no real fetus however malformed could show, again hinting at some of the processes by which modern accounts of impossible wonders are generated. Many of the other creatures of cryptozoology seem to be euhemised mythical beasts symbolising the forces of wild nature, or the primal chaos monsters, the defeat of which signifies the imposition of order on the universe. The various hairy hominids and wild men represent the fear that one can fall out of human civilisation back into the instinctive realm of the purely animal.
 
The human imagination can go to darker places than wild nature, Stoneclad and Flintheart seem to symbolise a negation of being itself, freezing life out of everything. Some of the nameless things in science fiction get close to this, but perhaps the nearest equivalents in the modern imagination would perhaps be that of a walking glacier of solid hydrogen, or the idea that some high energy experiment gone wrong will collapse the vacuum state and create a hole in being which will swallow up everything.
 
On a lighter note there are the creatures of whimsy, such as the many strange North American beasts enumerated here, the products of the local tall story, liars and Ananias clubs which were part of the social scene in pre-cinema America. Judging by some of the more recent stories listed here, this art is still alive and well in High Schools, and not just in the States.

Surely not even the most dedicated paws and pelts cryptozoologist will insist that hairy hominids in Britain are real animals, yet several are mentioned here, walking the road from Manchester to Sheffield, patrolling the back streets of Todmorden, or inhabiting a small patch of woodland between Rhos on Sea and Llandudno, but such are featured here, with a British Hominid Research Society to investigate them.

Such creatures, and even stranger are the central enigmas at the heart of Nick Redfern's account of his adventures with Jonathan Downes, rumoured to be the world's only human-sofa hybrid, and his goth sidekick Richard Freeman. The result is something like Buffy the Vampire Slayer played by the cast of the Young Ones. In this often hilarious account, our intrepid trio go off in search of strange beasts and even stranger people, such as the doctor who has sinister cellar in which some even more sinister creature may be kept, a mad old witch who warns them to beware of the boggarts, and a guy who is being persecuted by some of the nastier demons from Buffy.

Whether any of this exists outside their own imagination, fuelled partially by an intake of mind-altering substances of various degrees of legality is anyone's guess. Redfern seems to at least half believe in the boggarts, which the mad old witch tells him are super-tulpas dreamed up by nine old Druids and which feed on human fear. This comes from her arcane knowledge, gleaned no doubt from her reading the special copy, bound in human skin, of Ye Olde Bokes of Chas. Forte, wherein the idea of elementals feeding on human fear gets its first telling.

If Arment, Coleman and company are the respectable face of cryptozoology, then Downes is perhaps one its wildest, weirdest and least respectable faces, and you might suspect that such truly weird things only happen in the presence of such as he. Indeed Redfern seems to think that having escaped to America in pursuit of lurve, all this is behind him. Linda Godfrey's book might cause him to rethink. For surely the upright, walking, dog-headed thing of Elkhorn, Wisconsin is as boggarty as you can get, and one suspects very much indeed that its paws and pelt will be very hard to find indeed. Yet the people who reported it are, presumably as sincere as any Bigfoot witness on the Pacific Coast. Godfrey herself suspects a psycho social interpretation, suggesting it is the product of misperception of a variety of animals, though she amuses herself by speculating if bipedal canids could have evolved.   |PR|
 

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