Lake Monsters



Meurger, Michel (with Claude Gagnon). Lake Monster Traditions; a cross-cultural
analysis. Fortean Tomes, 1989.


Pierre Bedard lives on the shores of Lake St Francois, in Quebec, He believes there are two monsters in the lake - one which has a scaly back and six or seven fins and one with a smooth black back, at least 20 feet long, His father, Philipe Bedard, saw the smooth backed once and described it as a 'dead tree' that 'transformed into a fish`.

Another witness, Louis Philippe Roy, thinks the St Francoise monster is a giant sturgeon. Henri-Louis Gaulin describes it as 'like a submarine`, but Toussaint Dostie disagrees; 'It's a little like a crocodile,' he says.

Michel Meurger prints a table showing the variety of forms reported from Lac St Francois. At least four sorts of monster seem to be involved - the 'big fish', the 'horse-head', the 'living log' and a boat-like creature. Lake St Francois is 21 miles long; Lake Mephremagog, to the south, is 32 miles long and seems to be inhabited by five different monsters, Meurger notes: "Given thee appetite attributed to this animal ... different species of predator as large as these could not co-exist in one lake."

A cryptozoologist might suggest that witnesses were describing the same phenomenon in different words. This is precisely Meurger's point. His book is about the way that received notions, the cultural background of the witness, and the limitations of his vocabulary combine to colour perception, As such, Lake Monster Traditions is of vital interest not only to cryptozoologists but also to readers of Magonia and indeed to every student of Fortean phenomena.

The author is dealing with a complex and unquantifiable subject, and as such his book is not an easy read. The first and longest chapter - which follows an introduction perhaps unfortunately subtitled 'The origins of facticity' - reports the result of field trips to Quebecois and American lakes. Meurger and his colleague Claud Gagnon uncover a diversity of accounts that must surely discomfort hardline cryptozoologists - can anyone believe that real monsters, even in the relatively acceptable form of giant fish, exist in more than twenty Quebec takes?

Later chapters go a long way towards explaining this phenomenon. Meurger examines lake monster traditions in Europe, mixes in a little folklore, and suggests that contact with the American Indians' own rich mythology of serpent and sacred lake helped to generate the sort of 'mythic landscape' in which modern-day lake monster reports could flourish.

By examining tales of bottomless lakes and secret connecting channels, Meurger is able to put monster reports in their cultural context, "Cryptozoologists will always fail' he writes, "because they try to explain a general myth in local terms. All they can catch are stunning waves and huge sturgeons, which solve only why the legends have fixed on a particular lake, but not the particular form of the legend ... monsters and the mythical landscape are transformed into speculations. Each helps the other: the monster, being the most discussed, reinforces the mythical landscape and plays the role of an harbinger of probability; the mythical landscape, in turn, helps the belief in the monster to withstand the disillusions of the search."

Lake Monster Traditions is the first truly 'three-dimensional' lake monster book, It puts flesh on the bare bones of Campbell's mirage hypothesis and Binn's poorly reported otter and deer, and is a much richer, more rewarding work than those of either of the earlier sceptics. Meurger is more inclined to celebrate human imagination than he is to tut-tut at human credulity, and his richly illustrated book ranks among the very best ever written on anomalous phenomena. From Magonia 33, July 1989. Reviewed by Mike Dash

1 comment:

Mike Dash said...

I have literally no recollection of writing this. It's kind of you to demonstrate my accelerating advance into decrepitude in such stark terms!