Cryptozoology literature has a problem.
Too often, popular cryptid books perpetuate unreferenced tales, elevating certain unwarranted details that are probably not factual, but opinion. Any references are often poor quality work, frequently web sites or blogs. There is a distinct lack of original scholarship, and generally poor scholarship overall. Cryptozoology proponents are notoriously adverse, even hostile, to criticism. This is a downer because I want better books on these subjects.
What follows is my review of The Monster Book: Creatures, Beasts and Fiends of Nature by Nick Redfern, published in 2016 by Visible Ink Press. Visible Ink sent me this book before it was released but I just got to it now. I have to start with some caveats so I, hopefully avoid being misunderstood.
First, I like some of Nick Redfern’s stuff. He’s a highly entertaining writer, speaker, and general spokesperson for paranormal subjects. His living is made by writing popular books. This book was entertaining. There is plenty of room for that in the world. It was not written for someone like me, though. It seems to be aimed more at the younger crowd just getting into the subject. Also, the book is not actually entirely on cryptozoology if you consider that some of these “monsters” may be supernatural stories or occult tales (i.e., Hexham’s wolf creature, the dancing devil, vampires). But, it includes many typical cryptids and mentions the word early on. For those other authors and commentators who stress the “scientific” aspects of cryptozoology (note: not Redfern), they sure leave a wide berth for the supernatural to creep in. There is internal confusion about what cryptozoology is today. Is it serious? Or is it monster stories? That’s for another post but consider the issues I found within this book.
The cover blurb calls it a “comprehensive resources” of monsters that “details each beast with through research while recounting the facts in an engaging narrative”. The framing of the book is that “scientists and zoologists” say these creatures are not real and “historians” conclude they are folklore and legend. But the stories are so compelling, they must be real. The ~200 entries, averaging a page or 2 long, are categorized in loose general themes – canids/felids, UFO creatures, vampiric beings, ape men, etc. It is arranged much like Visible Ink’s Unexplained by Jerome Clark from 1993, another entertaining book. That one, however, had references. The lack of references in this book makes it basically worthless to me and for anyone interested in following up on the items presented.
There are no references for any section except for an occasional mention within the text of where a quote or story came from. Many of the entries consist of long quotes taken from old newspaper accounts, other books, or websites. Was permission gained to use these quotes? It doesn’t say that. It is important and standard practice for nonfiction books to cite the source of quotes. For most of the quotes in this book, the reader is given little or nothing to go on to track it down. More concerning is that several of the quotes appear to be taken from websites, possibly forums, and blogs – all of which are hardly credible sources. For instance, the entry on “Giant Salamander” cites “researcher” Steve Plambeck. The quote is taken from his Blogspot blog. I had to do the searching for the site myself to find Plambeck is an admitted “armchair cryptozoologist” with no discernible credentials for concluding that the Loch Ness monster is actually a giant salamander. While perhaps quotable as an interesting take on the matter, it’s hardly a credible foundation to form the sole basis of this book section. Well, to be fair, Redfern also quotes “researcher Erika” in another extensive quote in this section without context. I Googled the text and found that it appeared in a similar format via posts on the Mysterious Universe website where Redfern writes. There, the quote from “Erika” was linked to the site “WeirdAnimalReport.com” – a cryptid-fan site (I’m being generous because this site looks like it’s infected with malware). There were no sources of information in this section that I would consider actually worthwhile to inform my opinion. An editor that would approve this quote from a first-name-only unattributed source is astoundingly careless.
Even Pravda, the Russian fake news tabloid is used as a source for another entry! Quoting amateur speculation is not what I would consider “thorough research” or even “facts”. The lukewarm evidence presented – questionable references and often unbelievable quotes – are not even close to a decent response to the scientific position that these animals don’t exist as described. It’s by no means a “comprehensive resource” as the entries leave out so much discussion and context. In the broad sense, The Monster Book is a fun foray into these monster tales.
In other details, the photos are stock, sometimes simply inserted as filler and unhelpful and ugly. Some sections have odd titles that are listed in a useless alphabetical sorting. It has an index but some head-scratching entries like “people of Brazil, bird” and “killing creatures, horse-“. The creature described by the ship Pauline is listed under “attacking the Pauline”. A few entries are just laughably incomplete or focused on one person or tangential aspect. For example, the Montauk monster entry is mostly about skeptical writer Joe Nickell and not the popular information provided by Tetrapod Zoology’s Dr. Darren Naish who clearly IDed the creature as a raccoon. The chupacabra entry is hollow and does not even mention the plausible ideas about what prompted these sightings. The McCooey quote about Yowie appears differently on pages 220 and 244. Some entries just end and don’t quite make sense. Overall, the book exhibits sloppy construction and editing.
The entry for alligators in NYC sewers was particularly horrendous. Without a reference, Redfern mentions the exploits of the city official who went hunting for them. This story is from Robert Daley’s 1959 book “The World Beneath the City.” However, the book was not a credible source but it made for a great urban legend.
“The legend of alligators in the sewers — discarded pets that have grown large in the bowels of the city, the story goes — leans heavily on a widely cited three-page section of the book.”From New York Times
In addition to much text that was not written by Redfern, some language in this entry was repurposed from his previous Most Mysterious Places on Earth.
I don’t know where this story came from but I probably wouldn’t want to: Witness Mark Cherry said an albino alligator killed someone in the subway 1966. I want to read this entire account! Wait, you guessed it. No reference. It could be entirely fabricated (and sounds very much like it is). This leaves the gullible reader thinking these tall tales have a basis in fact. There are no records that alligators killed anyone in NYC ever. The plausible reasons why alligators are found in out-of-place locations (in the warm months) is not mentioned. This is how the book rolls.
The two entries for a goat man creature (both from Texas) actually confused me as there is no mention of the more famous Maryland or Pope Lick goat “men”. The “Moca vampire” entry – just over 2 pages – contains 8 (!) references to sucking of blood or blood removal, laying the vampire suggestion on sickeningly thick without any factual basis. Dead animals are never entirely exsanguinated, but the blood has coagulated or leaked out. This is important to the legitimacy of the tales. Redfern ignores key elements of scholarly cryptozoology: folklore, cultural influences, sociological factors, and psychology. Unfortunately, this is really common in popular cryptozoology that is heavily sensationalistic. The opposite approach I call “multiplex” – where the experience of the monster has many and various factors and considerations. The multiplex approach – the more accurate one because the world is indeed a messy place and one simple answer is never the right one in all cases – requires significant research, expertise and good scholarship. Such an approach is very rare in the field today.
I noted dozens of other things wrong with The Monster Book entries, factual and otherwise, but I won’t detail them here. I got tired of reading the cliche “possibly?” and “maybe…”. This is pure speculation but some will certainly accept the content as nonfiction instead of storytelling. Don’t reference this book for anything but enjoy it for the fun stories. Hopefully, it leads kids to explore the topics at a much deeper, more substantial level.
A final note: This book was named one of the best cryptozoology books of 2016. No mention is given to my pick – Hunting Monsters by Darren Naish – an actual scholarly book with references. Maybe it was because Hunting Monsters was only in Kindle then. But it was in paperback in 2017, and still went unmentioned. The best books typically do because they show the flaws in pop cryptozoology (see Abominable Science, Searching for Sasquatch, and Tracking the Chupacabra). This says an awful lot about the aims of the cryptid proponents, doesn’t it?