Monday, September 19, 2011

New School Dragons

"Dragons, now, dragons...the thing about dragons, or a thing about dragons, is...after the primordial stories about them, when belief was waning, say, during the Renaissance, is that the conception of them shrank. You take a look at some of those old pictures, and the dragons are usually shown from the size of, say, a sheep, up to the size of an ox, or slightly larger. Often the knight on his horse fighting the dragon towered over the crawling beast. It wasn't until well after the Victorian age that they started to swell up again; it was as if they had to grow to awesome size to compete with the redoubtable machinery and vehicles of science or the dinosaurs so recently rediscovered and popularized. Nowadays, of course, the dragon of Fantasy is seldom smaller than an elephant, but not so titanic as an apatosaurus, to allow a slim margin of artistic believability."

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Bell Witch: Monster Week Day 7

The Bell Witch sort of just sneaks in here under the rubric of "monster," mainly because in my mind it's "one of them there Unknowns," rather like the Jersey Devil, or Springheel Jack, or Mothman. Also because I've enjoyed this version produced by Ripley's Believe It Or Not!/True Demons And Monsters, with its wild interpretation of what was reported as an invisible phenomenon. What was "Old Kate"? A witch? A ghost? A ghost witch? It certainly acted like a poltergeist. Scree-hee-hee, everybody.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Bonnacon: Monster Week Day 6

The Bonnacon (or Bonacon, or Bonasus) is a peculiar type of wild beast, described as large, hairy, and bovine, with the mane of a horse and horns that curve inward on themselves, so that as defensive weapons they are of very little use. The way this monster protects itself is by releasing a blast of dung and foul wind so powerful it can devastate a spread of land over three acres, burn down trees, and singe the fur off hunting dogs. The Bonnacon is first mentioned in Pliny, and from there it spread to bestiaries throughout Europe. Some feel that it may have been some kind of misreported bison or buffalo.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Beasts of Revelation: Monster Week Day 5

Back in the early Seventies, my family belonged to...a peculiar religion. Even the people in charge did not call what they did Christianity, although they used a Bible, of sorts, translated by a mystery inner cabal to fit their odd beliefs. They were a Millerite-type religion, constantly setting dates for the end of the world, duffing it, then hastily covering their behinds, all the while proclaiming the infallibility of their pronouncements. Anyway, at the time every single book and "magazine" (as they called their pamphlets) was illustrated with these Jack Chick-like cartoons of Revelation, showing their unique spin and interpretation of John's visions of the end times, including their own political gloss on their meaning. Eventually my parents wised up and we left their organization, but not before I missed every birthday, Christmas, Halloween, and secular holiday between the ages of six and fourteen (such celebrations were deemed worldly and even demonic). By the time I got out, we knew who the real monsters were.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Water-Folk: Monster Week Day 4

Like the sea monster or sea serpent, various types of aquatic "people" share in the terror and mystique of the underwater world. But in addition to the common danger of being killed and devoured, the water-folk often pose a threat to the identity, to the very soul of those who encounter them.

There is a passage in the Bible describing how, at the end of time, the sea will give up its dead; perhaps because this verse seems to imply a different destiny for those lost there, the land under the sea was envisioned as a weird limbo, outside the normal fate of the dead. A fairly recent variant of this theme is Davy Jones' Locker. Creatures who would drag you down to this destiny were to be feared. Mermaids, in the earliest stories about them, would foretell and even raise storms to wreck sailors who ventured over their realm.

Closer to shore and even in inland waters such as rivers, lakes, and wells, the water-folk would be even more personal and humanoid, though always with a strong element of the watery world in their physical make-up, whether frog, turtle, or fish. They would be just as interested as their oceanic brethren in drawing victims underwater, whether to eat, enslave, or even marry them. More sinister than that, they might strike at their very humanity, changing their human body so that it resembles their own, making return to dry land impossible (this trope is used by H. P. Lovecraft in his Deep Ones). But worst of all they could trap the human soul: the Irish merrows kept them in soul cages, and the Russian vodyanoy in porcelain cups.

On a more benign note, it was a medieval notion that everything on land had a fish counterpoint in the sea; thus, sea-lions, sea-horses (and in those days "fish" applied to anything that swam). The imagination worked on anything unfamiliar drawn from the ocean, and various types of wonders were reported and elaborated on, so that monk-fish and bishop-fish were sometimes spoken of as resembling their terrestrial counterparts, and even acting piously until returned to their watery home.

Monsters such as Jenny Greenteeth in England or the kappa in Japan were used as explanations for drownings and also as warnings to avoid dangerous stretches of water. In that sense they can be said to serve a useful purpose. Kappas, if befriended or defeated, can also grant benefits such as bestowing superior medicinal skill.

Even without deadly intent, encounters can still be fatal. Stories abound of mermaids or water nymphs dragging those with whom they are enamored down with them, not understanding that they will drown. In an old Japanese folk tale a fisherman is taken by a turtle to the fabulous realm of the Dragon King. He spends an hour there, and then returns to the surface with a small box that he is warned not to open. He finds that three hundred years have passed; curious and puzzled, he opens the box, only to release his true age. In an instant he crumbles into dust.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Sea Monsters: Monster Week Day 3

It is a commonplace observation that we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the depths of the waters of the earth, and it is from the mystery and uncertainty of those depths that the sea monster arises. While the dragon is the pre-eminent trial and foe of the hero, the sea monster doubles that danger, inhabiting and mastering as it does an element foreign to human life, ventured into only with great risk and skill. Its ancientry is legendary: since the primordial conflict of Marduk and Tiamat, heroes and gods such as Perseus, Thor, Beowulf, and Sinbad have encountered water monsters and sea serpents; yet it is one of the few marvelous beasts from legend that modern man still seeks the possibility of in deep lakes and oceanic abysses. To merely see one rising from the depths and then sinking back into darkness is reported as an occasion of fear and awe, a vision or portent of power breaching from an unknown world.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Dragons: Monster Week Day 2

"I never imagined that the dragon was of the same order as the horse. And that was not solely because I saw horses daily, but never even the footprint of a worm. The dragon had the trademark Of Faerie written plain upon him. In whatever world he had his being it was an Other-world. Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of Faerie. I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighbourhood, intruding into my relatively safe world, in which it was, for instance, possible to read stories in peace of mind, free from fear. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever the cost of peril."

--from On Fairy-stories, by J. R. R. Tolkien.