Cryptozoology Collection

Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark. Cryptozoology A-Z, Simon and Schuster, 1999.

Paul Harrison. The Encyclopaedia of the Loch Ness Monster, Robert Hale, 1999.

W. Haden Blackman. The Field Guide to North American Monsters, Three Rivers Press, 1998.

These three encyclopaedias reflect differing approaches to cryptozoology. The Coleman/Clark is by far the most scholarly, following Jerry Clark's similar encyclopaedias on ufology and forteana, with illustrated articles on a wide range of "unknown animals" along with the people and organisations that search for them. There is a comprehensive bibliography.

Yet this book has real problems, mainly, I suspect, stemming from Loren Coleman's association with the International Society of Cryptozoology, an organisation which in many ways has aspects of a Bernard Heuvelmans appreciation society, where the ideas and world views (in which cryptids are real flesh and blood, pelt and paws animals, rather than inhabitants of the goblin universe of the human imagination) of the pioneer are not to be challenged. A reverential tone towards Heuvelmans, and to a lesser extent towards Ivan T. Sanderson, is adopted here, and opposing and sceptical viewpoints are not presented. This I think is the real problem; instead of such viewpoints being presented and challenged, they are simply ignored. This even extends to Loren Coleman's own excellent sceptical re-evaluation of the Loy's ape fiasco, and his suggestion that some early bigfoot reports were hoaxes.

It may also explain the eccentricities of the biographical entries, which feature entries for some fairly obscure American crytozoologists, but does not provide separate biographical entries for such figures such as pioneers Rupert T. Gould, Charles Gould, Constance Whyte, Ralph Izzard, Charles Stonor, Frank Lane, or modern figures such as Ulrich Magin, Michel Meuger, Graham McEwan or Jonathan Downes. Also missing is the bigfoot pioneer Peter Byrne, who seems to have become a non-person after some ideological dispute with Rene Dahinden, a guy who shared Stanton Friedman's penchant for threatening to sue colleagues for libel.

Paul Harrison's encyclopaedia on the Loch Ness Monster is by no means as authoritative as Coleman's. Harrison is a former police sergeant who has turned to Nessie hunting from studying Jack the Ripper, where he received egg on his face when a book he wrote on that subject confused two people with the same name. His encyclopaedia is a more modest affair; most entries refer to individual witnesses which, is all well and good if you know the witnesses' names already. I must say, however, that it does bring a mass of material together.

Harrison would no doubt like to agree with Coleman, given the various digs at sceptics throughout his book; but he is honest enough to record that all the most detailed monster photographs have turned out to be hoaxes (It's Loren Coleman here who has egg on his face for refusing to accept the hoax explanation of the surgeon's photograph); and that there are real problems about LNM sightings being accounted for by any one sort of animal, something which becomes very apparent when looking through the diverse accounts of land sightings chronicled here.

An anecdote told by Harrison suggests that to many witnesses and other people Nessie is something other than a 'normal' flesh and blood animal. Relatives of his who were North Sea fisherman, and had presumably braved force 10 gales on several occasions barely batting an eyelid, refuse to take their boat on a short cut through Loch Ness at night in case they meet the monster: "There is no way I would want to cross that Loch after darkness; something peculiar is in there - large and not of the twentieth century. We should let it be."

Here we are close to Andy Roberts's ideas about 'The Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui', that these monsters are symbols of the 'absolute otherness' of wild nature, zones of total non-human wilderness where people are intruders. This is more in keeping with the folkloric treatment of monsters in Blackman's light-hearted survey of American monster lore. Blackman, by presenting the monsters of modern cryptozoology, Native American tradition, cowboy humour and modern urban legend together, emphasises their common origin as creatures of the darkness beyond the camp fire, and of the wilderness under a child's bed. Blackman sees, as do Machin and Meuger, modern cryptids as the secularised, naturalised descendants of the cosmic beasts such as Wendigo, heart of ice, summoner of storms, caller of beasts from the forests, symbols of the raw power of wild nature, the utterly implacable force of creation and destruction, from which human beings strive to carve a secure home.

Of course, both Blackman and Coleman may be right, there are plenty of real animals such as wolves, snakes, hyenas and the like which are also wild beasts of the imagination. But these real animals are losing their symbolic power; today we are told that wolves are big cuddly doggies and TV envisions dinosaur pups as being as cute as Bambi; we have to look elsewhere for the monsters our imaginations need. Sometimes we see them in wild storms, scurrying clouds, overflowing rivers, but all too often we see them in the faces of strangers. If some cryptids are downfallen gods, others are dehumanised people. When imperialist aggressors of all races decide some stranger is in the way of the land they want for themselves, they turn them into subhuman "beasts in human shape" as happened to the Niattawo of Sri Lanka or the Chuchunaa of Siberia. If every Australian aboriginal had been massacred by 1850, and they remained only as dehumanised figures in folklore, would they not now be the subject of cryptozoology, becoming more bestial still in the process?

The ease by which covert racist fantasies, such as that Neanderthal people were hairy and had dark skins - assertions for which there is no evidence whatsoever - creep into the cryptozoology of such impeccably liberal figures as Loren Coleman. Of course, artists like Burian drew Neanderthals as dark and hairy, because that's how European racists envisaged the 'primitive', and the ease with which cryptozoologists mythologise the third world as a primeval wildness where dinosaurs may be found round any corner, and the 'natives' have never seen a picture of one in a book, should give us pause for thought. -- Peter Rogerson, originally published in Magonia Supplement.


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