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Issue 129

On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears

Stephen T. Asma (Oxford University Press, 2009)

BY Graham T. Beck in Critic's Guides | 01 MAR 10

Stephen T. Asma, Pencil drawing of the Manticore monster, 2008. Courtesy: the artist.

For those wondering what to call a furry quadruped with a bladder built to shoot caustic excrement at enemies, Stephen T. Asma, a professor of philosophy at Columbia College in Chicago, has a new book to help out: On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears. It’s packed with tales of penis-stealing witches and spine-tingling stories of human depravity that make Danny Boyle’s slapstick undead in 28 Days Later (2002) and Stephanie Meyer’s chaste bloodsuckers in the Twilight films seem like suitable company for a Sunday social. A contemporary bestiary unwilling to stand on the scaly shoulders of those that came before it, On Monsters also surveys the grotesque history that it meticulously recounts and offers a series of cultural and conceptual lenses with which to consider things that go bump in the night.

Moving roughly chronologically, Asma starts with the Ancient Greeks; works his way through medieval demons and Christianity’s varied approaches to them; basks in the laboratory light that the scientific revolution casts on medical curiosities; wonders, with help from Sigmund Freud, what evil lurks inside each of us; and eventually asks where cybernetics, biotechnology and body modification will lead. Throughout these broad categories, certain themes reappear: xenophobia, unruly passion, detachment and possession shape this history like the snakes of Medusa’s hair.

Asma never offers a definition of the word ‘monster’. He tells us that, etymologically, it derives from the Latin root monere (to warn). ‘To be a monster is to be an omen,’ he writes. ‘Sometimes the monster is a display of God’s wrath, a portent of the future, a symbol of mortal virtue or vice, or an accident of nature. The monster is more than an odious creature of the imagination; it is a kind of cultural category, employed in domains as diverse as religion, biology, literature and politics.’ Asma prefers to think of ‘monster’ as a prototype category and monsters as having a ‘family resemblance’ rather than an essential set of fixed characteristics.

Despite this seemingly fundamental side step, On Monsters is as rigorous as is to be expected from a book published by Oxford University Press, perhaps occasionally too much so for a general-interest reader. Amongst quirky research gems such as the Bolinthas myth and the secondary floret of a Nepaul barley plant (which at one time was considered ‘perhaps the most obviously useless structure in the vegetable kingdom’) lie zombie sentences like this: ‘Homeotic genes regulate the development of an embryo by regulating smaller scale gene sequences, often acting like repressor molecules that bind onto specific DNA sites and block RNA transcription and subsequent protein production.’

Asma isn’t a consummate stylist; when he puts pen to paper it usually has the clarity and plodding inevitability of academic prose. His drawings, on the other hand, kept me reading late into the night. Like any good treatise on monsters, Asma has taken the time to render certain specimens in pencil on paper. From a tusked Behemoth to a mustachioed John Wayne Gacy, these strange, personal and tender additions were some of my favourite parts of the book. They’re as much fun to chat about as many of the text’s written frights. As Charles Baudelaire said: ‘Nature is ugly, and I prefer the monsters of my fancy to what is positively trivial.’

Graham T. Beck is a writer and critic based in New York, USA.