On Monsters by Stephen Asma

Asma_MonstersAsma, Stephen T. On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Genre: nonfiction

Summary: If we be human, then need we monsters? In other words, is one of the defining characteristics of humanity the creation of monsters and the monstrous? After all, monsters have always been around. They lurk in our literature, religions, myths, imaginations, landscapes, histories, and (gasp) even in ourselves! Asma takes an omnivorous approach to this topic, exploring the evolution of monsters in relation to science, philosophy, art, literature, psychology, even popular culture. Asma also takes a long hard look at the evolution and mutation of heroes — those summoned to face and defeat what the rest of us fear.

Critique: Why should men and babies worry about witches? Who was the greater monster-slayer: Charles Darwin or Alexander the Great? Why are we more afraid of female monsters?

With innovative provocation, this book invites readers into the world’s most frightening realms to confront the most wondrous yet horrific aspects of human nature: the creating and killing of monsters.

According to Asma, “Each era expresses different fascinations with monsters” but regardless of time, culture, or technology, key features of what makes a monster are consistent. And its these consistencies that wind up communicating a lot about how humans see the world, each other, their desires, their fears, their enemies, and their heroes.

This is a terrific read for writers who deal in horror, the Gothic, paranormal, fantasy, maybe even political thrillers — any genre wherein monsters are made. And it should not be overlooked by anyone noticing the recent trend in Hollywood to create conflicted, sympathetic villains competing against dark and seedy heroes (or antiheroes). Think Iron Man, The Lizard, Bill the Butcher, Walter White, Batman, and Sherlock Holmes. Lately, the line between good and bad is a murky one to draw. And Asma’s research goes a long way helping us understand not just THAT this is happening, but WHY. Why we doubt who’s good, who’s bad, and who needs done away with. The word “monster” stems from Latin monstrum, rooted in monere, to warn. Monstrum can also be found in demonstration, which originally meant “proof that something is true.” So then, monsters are warnings and, perhaps, they are also flares of truth.

Ignore your aversion to footnotes, citations, and source quotes. Asma is a good storyteller and precise researcher with a mind like a lantern able to lead you ever deeper into the dark.

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