Medusa’s Gaze and Vampires Bite: The Science of Monsters

What’s that bump in the night? You sit up in bed, trying to pinpoint its location. It’s not beneath you, so at least there you’re safe. Nothing fell in the closet either. The bump came from outside your room.

Goosebumps beginning to prickle, you try to stay calm. You work on your breathing—one…two…three…as the numbers progress, you lean down for the baseball bat lying beside your crumpled chip bag, bringing it up quick in case there really is a monster under the bed. The cool wooden finish of the bat slides across your skin as you put it in both hands, still looking out the open door for any shadows. Monsters can’t really pop out of DVDs just because you watched them, right? Imagine a hairy gorilla-man rising from the cases by the TV, stringy and smelly, his eerily human eyes peering from a pasty gray face as he hustles toward your room. Or maybe Lord Bendy is going to appear in a burst of ink right next to you. No teleportation required! Have fun suffocating in the black pitch of that wronged grinning god. Or much worse—what if someone’s breaking into your apartment? You kick the covers off and leave the bed, bat cocked to counter the thief.

The night crawls. Then there’s another thump. You pause, suddenly puzzled. You wait. There’s another bump. All three have been muffled, and you realize they came from outside the front door. Your hammering heart begins to slow. You keep listening for a certain cue that could fit into this equation.

Two more thumps, then voices; low and mellow with a couple chuckles. The bat clatters on the floor as you sigh and drop back into bed. It’s Saturday. Your neighbors just came back from another round of partying, long past midnight.

Good job, sleuth! You figured out there wasn’t a monster in your home. Matt Kaplan does the same with science when he brings you into the fantastic pages of Medusa’s Gaze and Vampires Bite: The Science of Monsters.

Kaplan’s premise is simple: to use science and history to uncover possible origins of the beasts that elude scientific classification. He spotlights monsters from land, sea, and sky, drawing on extensive research of each to narrow down the suspects. Here’s a good one: back in the early days on the Mediterranean Sea, the people of Crete didn’t have the tools to fully understand the earthquakes that were known for occasionally devastating the island. What they did know were tremoring ground, erupting volcanoes, and ash covering the sky as chaos reigned and everyone ran around trying to dodge the disaster.

Well, Crete is also known for its share of Greek mythology. Perhaps, Kaplan considers, the Cretes explained the earthquakes with tales of a powerful beast that stalked a labyrinth deep below the earth. Dark and musky, it charged intruders on sight, gaining easily with its sheer size and force. Maybe, according to Kaplan, the Cretes believed that this beast occasionally flew into thunderous fury, bellowing and stamping and smashing until the world above shook from its rage. The creature was half-bull and half man, and had two long horns growing from its head…it was the Minotaur!

The entire book is like this. It’s a dream for anyone who wants to appreciate cryptids from a more logical perspective. By no means does it demean believers or take out the fun—Kaplan’s vivid descriptions of these monsters shows a healthy respect for the fear that truly brought them into being. The dawn of living creatures destined eternal mysteries that would introduce themselves as discomfort and terror. Humans met these fears and assigned them fangs, slime, and billowing wings of proportions they had never seen. Kaplan’s imagery conjures the same sense of fearful awe that must have taken hold of our ancestors as they reified supernatural beasts out of the snarls in the woods.

His prose is another big plus for this book. Kaplan’s excellent writing keeps you moving without a hitch as you navigate his legendary map. It might get a little foggy for the scientific neophyte, but overall it’s fun and easy to understand. Devout to the immersion of scientific journeys, the book itself is typed in crisp, professional font on nice paper. It brings one the image of reading an anthropologist’s field journal.

Even picking up the book feels like the embark of an archaeological trek. The cover is slightly grainy to the touch, creating a smooth texture that tempts your fingers along it over and over as you read. Upon the cover is a snarling dragon, its body peeling down three biological layers: skin, muscle, and bone. The dragon is not making the effort to look especially fearsome, but the style fits the illustrations on many an old map that beware ye of their monsters. Besides, that slit pupil, that curled maw, and those wicked claws are testament enough. Kaplan and his editors planned an immersive trip you’ll be glad you signed on for. Check it out today for a scientific perspective on the monsters that enrich our imaginations as we try to make sense of the scary unknowns in our world.

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Author: The Invisible Pilot

I'M GONNA WRITE FOR THE GAME OF NERDS

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