Book review: The Science Of Monsters - Matt Kaplan

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HOW did humanity come up with such a range of monsters, from dragons, basilisks and vampires to leviathans, sphinxes and “greys”?

The Science Of Monsters - Matt Kaplan

Constable, £12.99

Matt Kaplan’s entertaining study is part popular science, part popular ­culture, and seeks to find the rational basis for our irrational fears.

Elephant skulls, for example, have a large central space where the musculature of the trunk fits – did Ancient Greeks, on seeing this, come up with the one-eyed Cyclops? Sir William Gell, the classicist, met Sir Walter Scott in 1831 and sketched for him the skeleton of a dragon preserved in a church in Rhodes.

Scott was unimpressed, thinking it “a tremendous lizzard [sic]” – nine years before Sir Richard Owen coined the term for “terrible lizard”, dinosaur. The condition of sleep atonia – a temporary paralysis often accompanied by a sense of someone compressing the chest – might explain medieval succubi as well as modern-day alien abductions; and the natural conditions of bodily decay (bloating, fingernails and teeth appearing longer because the body contracts, and blood staining on the teeth) might have led to the idea of a vampire. Some of the speculation seems to be trying a little too hard: might the chimera (part lion, part goat, part snake) be an amalgamated fossil? Might not there be a simpler explanation – the human imagination?

The chapter on dragons is one of the most interesting here, with the sudden combustion of methane or coal gas being advanced as an explanation for the dragon’s fiery breath. Although this might not ­explain scaly skin and wings, Kaplan shows by close reading of texts like Beowulf that the flames are present, but descriptions of the body curiously absent (when Wiglaf enters the burial mound, nothing whatsoever is left of the serpent). Dragons, like vampires, appear somewhat defanged in contemporary culture – think of ­Eragon or Pete’s Dragon or, if you must, Twilight. He comes up with a very satisfying explanation for this de-monstering. We are all quite aware that there is no such thing as a ­dragon or a vampire.

What are we afraid of nowadays? The chapter on the ­insane artificial intelligence points to some very modern anxieties, though they can be traced back to pre-technological roots; Kaplan doesn’t mention the “stone warriors” in Tablet X of the Epic of Gilgamesh, but they seem to me to be the precursor of the made monster. Kaplan is much better on the “xenomorphs” of Ridley Scott’s Alien films.

The life cycle corresponds closely to how the malaria parasite, the botfly and schistosomiasis replicate: is the real fear here of parasitic disease? Kaplan notes, wittily, that the one scientific blunder is that the aliens seem to rip, shred, bite and spray humans with acid at every conceivable ­opportunity – not the best ­survival strategy for a species which requires a host to ­perpetuate itself.

Terror, nowadays, seems to work best when it is rooted in the absolutely mundane. The birds in Hitchcock’s The Birds don’t need metal feathers like the Stymphalian Birds Hercules had to kill. The car in Christine is indistinguishable from any other Plymouth Fury. Perhaps best of all, the House in Mark Danielewski’s House Of Leaves doesn’t advertise that time, space and sanity get twisted inside it. «