I’ll admit it, I’ve always been a fan of cryptids. I have a past of gullibility surrounding them in the face of all rationality. Fox Mulder would know where I’m coming from when I say I want to believe that they’re out there. But with that said, I’ve just been served a rich dish of steaming reality by skeptic Daniel Loxton and paleontologist/geologist Donald Prothero, and I enjoyed every page of it.
Cryptids, if you’re not familiar with the term, are creatures that are rumoured to exist but are currently unknown to science. Examples include Sasquatch, Yeti, Nessie . . . well, just look at the title of the post. I only realised once I saw the book description in Discover Magazine how long I had waited, and wanted, for someone to figuratively sit me down and have the I’m-sorry-but-Santa-isn’t-real conversation with me about plesiosaurs haunting the world’s deep waterways and giant primates roaming the forests of North America.
The field of research into these mystery animals is known as cryptozoology, and there was a time when I was a lad that I thought it’d be pretty swell to be a cryptozoologist. I’d spend my life on the track of these elusive beasts, funding my expeditions with the money I would no doubt make from tomes filled with my fascinating adventures.
I guess it all started with Unsolved Mysteries. I was six, or maybe seven. Host Robert Stack was speaking in that smoky voice of his about whether there might be a prehistoric creature in Lake Champlain. Then comes the story about the family who saw it, and the dramatic reenactment featuring either a rough CGI or puppet creature emerging from the waters of the lake. I was enthralled, and as always with Unsolved Mysteries I had recorded the episode on VHS. For at least a week after that I remember getting up at the crack of dawn and sneaking downstairs before anyone else got up, just so I could have the TV to myself and watch the Champ segment again. It was eerie and irresistible. It didn’t help that I was already a hardcore dinosaur nut at the time and this was probably a relict prehistoric sea monster living on the freaking border of Quebec and New York.
I was so obsessed with Champ that the very next summer my parents took the family on a road trip to Lake Champlain. Here was my chance to see the monster! I remember three things clearly. The first is eating dinner before heading to the ferry that would take me across the aquatic lost world of Champlain. The placemats at the restaurant had a map of the lake on them with cartoonish pictures of a sea serpent. I was only an hour away from beholding the real thing with my own eyes! The second thing is being on the ferry itself, where I spent the whole trip leaning on the outdoor railing, trying to take in as much of the lake surface as possible, waiting to glimpse the mystery for myself. The third thing is my disappointment. I didn’t even see a wave or boat wake that might have been Champ.
That trip didn’t sour my interest in cryptids. Who cares if I hadn’t spotted the monster of Lake Champlain, at least that random family on Unsolved Mysteries had. In years following I soaked up the cryptozoological literature. I read everything I could get my hands on about Bigfoot, the yeti, Ogopogo, Nessie, Caddy, Mokele Mbembe of the Congo, sea serpents and strange marine corpses washed up on shores around the world . . . I dug all of it, and I did for a long time. I studied stills from the Patterson-Gimlin Bluff Creek Sasquatch film as if I was the first person to ever see them, trying to spot proof of authenticity in the image. I oozed over pictures of the Zuiyo-maru carcass, which turned out to be badly decomposed basking shark. I felt a bitter wave of sadness when I learned that the iconic “Surgeon’s photo” of the Loch Ness Monster was a hoax. Wishful authors convinced my squishy, Dino-drenched mind that if there weren’t sauropods surviving in the Congo river basin, there was at least something giant, mysterious and straight out of the Cretaceous period there.
As I got older I tapered off from reading cryptozoology books, but still, whenever some new cryptid footage shows up in the news that looks like it was filmed with a brick–you know the kind, your original Nintendo Gameboy displayed more pixels–I’m all ears (or eyes). I just can’t pass on those headlines that say things like “COULD THIS FINALLY BE PROOF OF BIGFOOT?”. The worst and most shameful of these immediate leaps to attention occurred in 2008 when two men claimed to have found a Bigfoot body and were keeping it in a freezer. There were already pictures of the “corpse” released. The story made it to the news. I went and got my family. I told them Bigfoot had been found. I announced it on Facebook, and to this day one of my friends makes a note to remind me of the time I fell for one of the dumbest hoaxes ever. Because of course it was a hoax. It was an ape suit that two guys froze in ice. As the story blew up, before investigators went to thaw and test the body, I went all in with it. And the worst part is I wasn’t a kid anymore: I was a 22-year-old that wanted way too much for something to be true.
I loved Abominable Science! from page 1. Loxton and Prothero, while writing the chapters separately, complimented each other perfectly. Loxton was fascinated by cryptids as he grew up, the same as me, and he makes this very clear from the outset. He enjoyed them so much that it was what led him to career in scientific skepticism; this way he could continue to study them, but now from a empirical and historical standpoint. The conclusions he draws from his large and well-referenced body of research, of course, are that the cryptids explored in this book are almost certainly not real creatures of flesh and blood, as he demonstrates their historical origins and the folkloric mythologizing surrounding them, to the hoaxes that thrust these creatures into the public consciousness, to the obvious fact that no irrefutable evidence has been produced for their existence. Prothero does much the same, though he is more critical than Loxton of how inconsequential cryptozoology subcultures and the widespread belief in these creatures might be, suggesting that it can encourage anti-scientific thinking in a time when our societies need generations of scientifically literate, rationally-minded people to remain progressive on the world stage.
Despite their differences of opinion, their book is impeccably well researched, readable and extremely respectful. Never does it read in a condescending tone towards believers, but rather strives to uncover and clarify the history, hoaxes, facts and (lack of) evidence surrounding unknown animals. It got me laughing a few times, and the writing was always congenial. They make it clear that belief in cryptids, whichever they may be, spans all ages, professions, educational backgrounds and levels of society. If anything, our fascination and love of monsters is a binding human trait that is shared across cultures all over the world.
It’s convenient I should read this at the end of the year, as this is my favourite book of 2013. It’s an excellent piece of skeptical literature. I’d recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in cryptids. Maybe you’re convinced some of these creatures exist, or maybe you’re like me and have harboured a longtime fascination, but deep down, in the mystery-loving part you that doesn’t want to admit it, you know that most of them probably just aren’t out there. Whichever camp you’re in, Loxton and Prothero will break everything to you gently, I promise.
Pages: 432 FoA pages: 32,455