When I’m not keeping up with the latest in chilling fictional tales, I’m on a never-ending quest to find the next creepy thing. Usually this extends to serial killers, folktales and other increasingly terrifying things, but occasionally I like to take things a step further and read about books about monsters. There’s something really fascinating about what different cultures consider to be scary, and let’s be honest here, the imaginations of people from long ago are pretty wild. Who first came up with the manticore, the terrifying man-eating creature with the body of a lion, the tail of a scorpion, and the face of a man? Who was the first person to imagine the Penanggal, a vampire who detaches their head from their body and flies around as a floating head with guts hanging down?
There are so many strange and wondrous creatures out there, and I can’t help but feel that a very small percentage of my soul actually believes in monsters like this. Luckily, I’m not alone in feeling this, because I’ve compiled a list of 10 nonfiction books about monsters. These books range from old school medieval bestiaries, studies on singular monsters, and books about the cultural analysis behind why we might believe in monsters to begin with. Take a look, perhaps you’ll start believing yourself.
1. The Field Guide to North American Monsters by W. Haden Blackman
If you want to learn about a whole range of creatures, you could do worse than The Field Guide to North American Monsters. This comprehensive guide features a range of creatures from all over the North American continent, as well as tips and tricks for what you do if you meet one of them. That includes Bigfoot, the Chupacabra, the Pope Lick Monster, the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, and more. This guide has the privilege of sitting on my bedside table, because I never know when you're going to need to consult it.
2. The Loch Ness Monster: The Evidence by Steuart Campbell
Is it a plesiosaur? Is it a kelpie? Is it something that defies science? Who knows, but skeptics and believers alike have always held a measure of fascination for Nessie, the famed Loch Ness Monster. In this extensively referenced book, Campbell examines the facts and fictions that surround the legend of the monster. He reviews films, photographs, and sonar evidence to prove the existence of a creature. There are many books about Nessie out there, but this one is particularly special.
3. Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and Haunting by W. Scott Poole
From the witches of Salem to Freddie Krueger to alien invasions to mysterious wilderness beasts, it seems as though Americans have been obsessed with the idea of the monster since colonial times. Monsters in America isn't simply a study of monsters themselves, but the very real human psychological impetus behind them. Poole analyzes the various threats to the cultural status quo, and how those threats give way to new and strange monsters. This is a fascinating cultural study of comic books, oral histories, films, personal papers, and a lot more. It may sound dry, but it's a truly fascinating novel.
4. Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite: The Science of Monsters by Matt Kaplan
While Monster's in America studies the American collective social consciousness, Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite studies the science that could have possibly given rise to these monsters. Kaplan travels the world with a journalistic eye, attempting to uncover the historical origins of many famous monsters. Did fossils contribute to the human belief in dragons? What made people first believe in werewolves? In vampires? While most of these monsters stuck around in the collective consciousness due to how terrifying they originally were, how did certain monsters grow to be less scary over time? Mixing storytelling with scientific fact, this book just might make you into a believer yourself.
5. On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears by Stephen T. Asma
On a grander scale, On Monsters studies the worldwide cultural impact of monsters and how they have evolved over time. Beginning by studying some of the monsters that Alexander the Great allegedly encountered while in India, this treatise moves through time to learn about the tales of monstrous people in the New World, headless with their face on their chest, and also studies how Romans used to treat their "monstrous" children. This book is unique in that it pays special attention to the impact of monsters that were literally created by humanity, including how the thoughts and experiences of pregnant woman could potentially turn their unborn children into monstrous creatures themselves.
6. Monsters: A Bestiary of the Bizarre by Christopher Dell
Chock full of awesome illustrations, Monsters: A Bestiary of the Bizarre is a dark visual history of scary monsters from every country and culture. From devils and demos, to dragons and hybrids, this book may not go as in depth as some of the other books here, but the visuals alone will make it worth it.
7. A Medieval Book of Beasts: Commentary, Art, Text, and Translation by Willene B. Clark
For those of you who like their monster a little more historical, there's this translated medieval book of monsters. Bestiaries were all the rage back in medieval times, and this "Second-family" bestiary is the most frequently produced version. This gorgeous book is full of a modernized English text, fun commentary, and absolutely gorgeous illustrations directly from the time. If you thought your imagination was crazy, just check out the imagination of people from medieval times!
8. The Big Bad Book of Beasts by Michael Largo
Back in medieval days, bestiaries were more than just compendiums of strange and mysterious monsters, back then the unicorn lived on the same page as the narwhal, elephants and griffins shared the same space. The Big Bad Book of Beasts modernizes the concept for the 21st century, mixing "real" with "unreal" in this fun encyclopedia of the curious and strange. Not only will you learn about mermaid, chupacabra, and minotaur, but you'll also learn why cats rub up against legs, what the fastest bird in the world is, and what you would call a group of hippopotami. The answer to the last one is "a bloat."
9. Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast by Jay M. Smith
In 1764, a young shepherdess was killed and partially eaten while she was tending her flock of sheep in the town of Gévaudan, France. Eventually, over a hundred people would fall victim to a creature that would eventually achieve mythic status throughout the country. What was the strange Beast of Gévaudan? Why did it decapitate more of its victims? Why did it prefer the flesh of women and children? What made these people believe that it was anything other than a pack of wolves? All of these questions and much more are answered in the book, studying just how fascinating a series of strange situations that morphed into a monstrous memory that's still alive in French folklore today.
10. The Jersey Devil by James F. McCloy
Here's a book about a hometown hero of mine. T he Jersey Devil centers around the mysterious Jersey Devil, a strange creature that stalks the sandy marshes of the Pine Barrens of New Jersey and occasionally emerges to terrorize small towns in New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. The origins of the Devil are pretty fantastic: back in the 18th century, the unfortunate Mrs. Leeds was in labor with her 13th child. As the labor agonized on, Leeds cursed her offspring and willed it from her body, which transformed the baby into something strange and horrifying. While many sightings of the Devil are the results of mass hysteria or downright fraud, it's still a fascinating story, all of which is depicted in this book. Even if you aren't from New Jersey, this is a fascinating tale of a local monster and how it came to be.
Image: Simon Wijers/Unsplash