A delightfully serious—well, mostly—dissection of monsterland.
Give a nod of welcome to our old friends: rukh and the Minotaur, Chimera and the Sphinx, Charybdis and the leviathan, griffin and the cockatrice, ghosts, demons, spirits, zombies, vampires, werewolves and HAL 9000. What a parade, and we clearly love them, for a goodly number have been around for centuries. However, asks science journalist Kaplan, why do we willingly scare ourselves? And from what dark materials did we fashion these golems and Medusa and dragons? Kaplan plumbs a wide array of possible natural explanations: the simple amplifications of lions, tigers, bears and boars; the mutations that cause extremes in animal appearance; the mixing of bones in tar pits and in the general fossil record (of which the griffin is a prime example). The author mostly stays on solid ground, taking the monsters apart to see whether they might have come from some sort of natural science or history. There are moments when he can be somewhat cute, overreaching for jokey asides or the dumb puns, but more often than not, he is on the path of scientific fun, deconstructing zombie brews, the behavioral ecology of vampires or the geological challenge of being buried alive. As for the evolutionary advantage: “Like lion cubs play-fighting in the safety of their den, monsters may be allowing threats to be toyed with in the safe sandbox of the imagination.”
The appeal of monsters never stales, and in Kaplan’s hands, these characters shine.