Post-Brexit Monsters

Three beastly new novels. Part one: Sarah Perry's The Essex Serpent

BY Patrick Langley in Culture Digest | 30 AUG 16

Monsters have been prowling the placid fields of British literature for centuries, from the fearsome foes of Beowulf (c.700–1000 CE) to the snozzcumber-guzzling giants of The BFG (1982), and from Lewis Carrol’s Jabberwocky (1871) to the bloody-fanged beasts of Angela Carter. Three novels published recently have made worthy additions to that canon: The Essex Serpent (2016), by Sarah Perry; Beast (2016), by Paul Kingsnorth; and A Monster Calls (2011), by Patrick Ness (which will be released as a film this October). Whilst all of the books engage with Britain’s deep myths and ancient monsters, each feels oddly of the moment – one marked, in the UK, by disturbing eruptions of violence. After Britain’s decision to leave the EU, to pick one shocking statistic, reports of hate crimes rose by 57%.

Was I alone in feeling that terrible forces had been awoken by Brexit? That, for the rough beasts of misguided nationalism, their hour had come at last? Perhaps not: a forthcoming book about the Referendum, written by David Cameron's chief spin doctor Craig Oliver, will be titled Unleashing Demons. This dark turn in recent events has, somewhat bizarrely, coincided with the release of Pokémon Go, an augmented reality app that populates real environments with collectible monsters. It was therefore inevitable that, this summer, my reading habits have turned towards the monstrous, partly as an attempt to figure out what in Cthulhu’s name is going on.

The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry’s second novel, is set during the 1890s. The book explores the clash of faith, science, rationality and hysteria in an era that resembles our own: there is a housing crisis, war is raging in Afghanistan, and economic inequality is deeply entrenched. At the heart of the novel, slithering through the characters’ waking and dreaming minds, is the titular serpent: a winged sea-snake, which locals believe is responsible for all manner of social ills, from murdered drunks to disembowelled goats. Equally impressive as Perry’s monster – which is based on an actual myth – are her gimlet-eyed descriptions of the Essex landscape. Her lilting prose brilliantly captures the treacherous, tidal territory where land and sea mingle with one another: an unmappable region that is ‘uniform in its strangeness'. This landscape reflects the uncertainty of the era, in which Britain’s Christian foundations were radically shaken by modern science.

All good monster stories rely on a degree of restraint on the part of the author. Reveal the monster too early, and you destroy the suspense. Perry’s deft stage-management of her sea serpent – which, until the final reveal, it is only ever glimpsed – sustains tension in the face of the reader’s scepticism. Is the monster a silly hoax, we wonder? A zoological case of mistaken identity? A new species of dinosaur crawled out of the primeval swamp of Darwinian evolution? A punishment sent from God? Or is it a figment of mass hysteria, conjured into being by human fear of the outsider, the other, the alien?

In Lord of the Flies (1954), a group of stranded schoolboys mistake a dead pilot for a hideous ‘beast’, giving way to an irrational fear that breeds a culture of paranoia and tyranny. William Golding’s point is the monsters we invent can prove more dangerous than actual ones. In The Essex Serpent, Cora Seaborne, a widowed amateur naturalist who goes in search of the fabled beast, echoes this belief: ‘There’s nothing to be afraid of… Except ignorance.’

Patrick Langley is a writer and critic based in London, UK. He is a contributing editor of The White Review.