BOOK REVIEW: In Search Of Real Monsters

Friday 27th May 2022

BOOK REVIEW: In Search Of Real Monsters

Mytho Recommends:
In Search Of Real Monsters Richard Freeman (Mango 2022)

What a book of layers this is! At times, reading it is like walking tentatively through an overgrown department store, never quite sure what might show itself on each floor, never knowing exactly how to read the signs. Maybe that is something like being in the real rainforests explored here, where the big beasts – as the writer explains – are most populous and yet are most difficult to see.
On the ground level of ‘In Search Of Real Monsters’, Richard Freeman’s account is of a serious and zoologically sound endeavour, conducted through numerous expeditions, from Mongolia to Guyana, over the years, seeking revenants of animals long ago classified and documented but now thought to be extinct, like the Tasmanian Wolf. And there are plenty of examples – Zanzibar leopard, the Takahe bird, Bermuda petrel – of supposedly extinct animals that have ‘come back from the dead’ to give heart to the seekers. These are not fools’ errands.
Next level up, are those expeditions here in search of animals that have never been classified and documented in ways that the mainstream institutions of science accept: hominids like the almasty or as yet unclassifiable beasts like the desert-dwelling Mongolian Death Worm. These animals live in the stories of their sightings and in their yells heard through the trees; they leave only enigmatic traces: tracks, nests, broken boughs. These beings are subject to that physics of the borderland where cameras fail to function, artefacts are lost or whisked away by unsympathetic collectors, cadavers are thrown away by people who “had no idea of the value of such a specimen” and the almasty is just outside the door.

The stories and the strange circumstances around their sightings constitute an entire level of this book. It is alive with rotted bridges, giant worm casts, the blood of leeches, ‘lost valleys’, the CIA, a Father of the Devil appeased with coins, vile stenches, the “black periscope-shaped object” that breaks the surface of Lake Tele, snakestones, a fire-eating cow, remote cheese factories and worms that turn iron green. And these are just the ephemera on the fringes of the expedition!

But there is another layer, perhaps it is the cellar or basement of the store? It’s a darker and more disturbing place than the rest of the book, it only opens in the last few sections. It’s about a crossing place, an intermediary zone of human and unhuman bodies, of eating each other and sex. It’s there in the vomiting and diarrhoea after the consumption of unfamiliar foods, the heat stroke and exhaustion that lays the seekers low, the man with two thumbs on his right hand, the author finding himself “in the eye of the twister”, the search for the half-gul half human child, and the tents shredded by the winds.

If you enjoy a multi-faceted narrative, then this is an adventure in words to be savoured and troubled by, and one that leaves the question – ‘what are the REAL Monsters?’ – tantalisingly open to wonder.

Jonathan Downes
Cryptozoologist, naturalist, musician, singer, composer, poet, novelist and Director of the Centre for Fortean Zoology since 1992. Jon was born in Portsmouth in 1959 and spent his infancy in Nigeria and his childhood in Hong Kong. His wife Corinna died of cancer in 2020, leaving him with two stepdaughters and a six year old granddaughter called Evelyn.