On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears

On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears

On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears

On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears

Synopsis

Hailed as "a feast" (Washington Post) and "a modern-day bestiary" (The New Yorker), Stephen Asma's On Monsters is a wide-ranging cultural and conceptual history of monsters - how they have evolved over time, what functions they have served for us, and what shapes they are likely to take in thefuture. Beginning at the time of Alexander the Great, the monsters come fast and furious - Behemoth and Leviathan, Gog and Magog, Satan and his demons, Grendel and Frankenstein, circus freaks and headless children, right up to the serial killers and terrorists of today and the post-human cyborgs oftomorrow. Monsters embody our deepest anxieties and vulnerabilities, Asma argues, but they also symbolize the mysterious and incoherent territory beyond the safe enclosures of rational thought. Exploring sources as diverse as philosophical treatises, scientific notebooks, and novels, Asma unravels traditionalmonster stories for the clues they offer about the inner logic of an era's fears and fascinations. In doing so, he illuminates the many ways monsters have become repositories for those human qualities that must be repudiated, externalized, and defeated.

Excerpt

Ever since I was a small boy I’ve had a phobia about deep murky water, or more accurately, a fear of what might be living in such waters. A seemingly harmless swim in a weedy lake sends my imagination into overdrive and I can almost see the behemoths and leviathans rising up to gnaw off my extremities. I’m a grown man, for God’s sake, and a skeptic as well. But no amount of reasoning with myself can begin to dispel the apprehension. I’ve never ruined a beach picnic by refusing to get in the water, nor have I needed to be talked down from an anxiety attack. Like most other “lite” phobics I just cringe a little bit and get on with the swimming. I’m annoyed by my irrational fear of sea monsters, but I’ve resigned myself to coping with it.

When I was living in Cambodia I occasionally went swimming in the muddy Mekong, but I winced at the idea that more species of giant fish live in the Mekong than in any other river in the world. Mekong catfish can grow to be eight or nine feet long and weigh between six hundred and seven hundred pounds, and goliath freshwater stingrays can be over twelve hundred pounds. Moving geographically to the deep seas of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, one finds an enormously long silvery snake-like beast called an oarfish. This nightmarish fish lives at depths of three thousand feet and has been seen and captured only after rare surfacing episodes due to illness. This ribbon-like giant, with striking red-headed “plumage,” can grow up to fifty feet in length and probably inspired many early sailor . . .

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