On Monsters, By Stephen Asma

He's seen the future... it's rotten
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In this elegantly produced, wide-ranging study, with a decidedly humane price-tag, Chicago professor of philosophy Stephen Asma observes that monstrous creatures "are symbols of the disgusting, with their decaying flesh, mottled limbs, and rotting, putrefying tissues and organs". That is, "monsters are thumbnail sketches of our own destiny. It is our human fate to slowly fall apart and to cause revulsion in younger, healthier witnesses".

In working towards his conclusion that our odium for such creatures is a tacit fear of our own death, Asma is steeped in sources as varied as the Bible, Plato, Hollywood, and Shakespeare, who would have had celluloid moguls hungry for his talents after writing in Othello of "men whose heads/ Do grow beneath their shoulders". Asma also meditates upon the horrors perpetrated in Cambodia, and by those "monsters" who forsook normality; such as the 1920s Chicago murderers, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.

Freud declined a newspaper's offer of $25,000 dollars to analyse them. Crass as that offer may have been, it recognised that the mind is, as Milton wrote, its own place. Asma is alert to notions such as that the Salem witch trials perhaps resulted from delusions fostered by spoiled rye grain. He has a ready eye for such biological formations as hermaphrodites; and is ready to admit that "when I read Pliny's description of a tree-climbing octopus, I laughed smugly for half an hour". But then "a nagging thought occurred... and after some research into cephalopod biology, I discovered to my embarrassment that octopi do indeed occasionally crawl on land".

While Asma delineates many fantastic creatures, his book is essentially a study of the mind as both a warped and pioneering force. Naturally, he refers to Stephen King, but overlooks the novelist's fine study of the subject, Danse Macabre. It notes of Richard Matheson's The Shrinking Man that "luckily for us, Matheson... is more interested in Scott Carey's heart and mind than in his incredible catabolism". Meanwhile, one could equally welcome, on land, in 3D: The Octopus Terror.