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Monday, 2 January 2017

Cryptozoology—The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name...



A Kelpie.  Or maybe a horse, standing in water...
Review of Cryptozoologicon Vol I, by John Conway, C.M. Kosemen and Darren Naish. ISBN 978-1-291-62153-2

My guilty secret is out. DD discovered a few months ago that I love to be scared witless at the idea of mysterious creatures,  whose natural habitat is the urban myth. She bought me Cryptozoologicon Vol I for Christmas, and it's a winner.

As a child, I listened to months of reports filed from Darkest* Africa by James Powell's expedition who were hunting for the fabulous Mokele-Mbembe. In common with the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot and the Chupacabra, the shadowy dinosaur-like Mokele-Mbembe managed to keep one step ahead of all its pursuers, despite their highly developed brains, opposable thumbs and state-of-the-art equipment. Nobody Powell's team spoke to had ever seen the thing themselves, but their grandfather's neighbour's cousin's wife, or the delivery man's son's best friend knew someone who'd...well, you get the general idea.  Mokele-Mbembe was always somewhere else. It was off on its travels, rumoured to be terrorising the next village along the Congo. Funny, that.

Like Comet Kohoutek and the Millenium's River Of Fire, media excitement was in inverse proportion to results in the search for Mokele-Mbembe. Those African folk employed exactly the same technique English villagers use.  When strangers roll into town asking questions, tell them exactly what they want to hear.  Nod, and smile confidently at any pictures or maps they show you. Then point them a few miles further down the track, where they'll find someone who knows a lot more than you do. That gets rid of your pesky visitors, and often earns you a big fat tip into the bargain.


London's River Of Fire? Or tail of a Bird Of Paradise?
Three cheers, then, for scientist Dr Darren Naish and his fellow contributors to Cryptozoologicon! They aren't taken in by this sort of malarkey, whether home-grown or exotic. They set out to shine a light on the sloppy and wishful thinking that brings cryptozoology into disrepute, and their illustrated book does exactly that.

Cryptozoologicon asserts that "...cryptozoology should be seen as a mixture of sociology, psychology and ethnology as well as zoology." With this objective in mind, the book examines a selection of weird and wonderful creatures. Each is given a chapter to itself, and an illustration.  These are often quirky, and quite honestly with a few exceptions they aren't as entertaining as the text. One of those exceptions is the Chupacabra on Page 34, illustrated by John Conway. A thing more of suggestion  than detail, it stopped me going out into woods after dark for a night or two, I can tell you!

Like all the best books, Cryptozoologicon produces nuggets of fascinating (and genuine) information where you least expect it. If you've ever wondered how bats evolved or why there aren't any large, water dwelling marsupials, this book gives you the answers. It also gives a disturbing insight into how images can be manipulated. A prime instance of this is the De Loys' ape.  In one of my few criticisms of this book, Cryptozoologicon provides only a re-imagined illustration, when it needs the inclusion of the original photograph in its cropped and uncropped versions (you can find both at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_Loys'_Ape).  Touted as a missing-link ancestor of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the De Loys' ape was publicised by anthropologist George Montandon, at around the time the dangerous idea of eugenics came into the public arena. Go figure, as our American brothers and sisters (every one of them sprung from Eve, whether mitochondrial or biblical) would say.

I loved this book, especially as it seems to support a theory I've held for a while. At least some of these creatures owe their existence to what the emergency services call "false alarms with good intent". 


Mum! The babysitter's here!
Imagine you are the parent of a mischievous Bronze-Age child, and living in the middle of Flag Fen. Their accident-prone antics drive you insane. Which is the best way to stop him or her from drowning—a) scream at them at least ten million times a day to keep away from the water or b) invent some terrifying creature living in the bottomless depths that will carry him/her and their friends down to its watery lair, to be gobbled up at leisure?


Answer a) relies on constant watchfulness and repetition, and every parent knows children are selectively deaf at the best of times. Accidents happen the second your back is turned, so why not recruit a watcher in the deep? One who never sleeps, and is always on the lookout for an easy meal,  mwahaha...

To sum up, if you're absolutely certain those noises you heard while camping were the mating cries of Bigfoot, and that breeze rushing past your face on a midnight walk was your close call with an Aloo, Cryptozoologicon is most definitely NOT the book for you.

On the other hand, if you're fascinated by why legends are born and develop, and how people always try to explain away the unusual, you'll devour this book like a hungry Kelpie.

* we were allowed to call Africa (and Peru) that, in the far-off days of childhood fiction.