Asa Simon Mittman and Peter Dendle (eds), The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous

Asa Simon Mittman and Peter J. Dendle (eds), The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012). 598pp. £90 Hb. ISBN 978-1-4094-0754-6

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From the serpent-legged Typhoeus in Hesiod’s Theogeny to the über-stylish parade of sparkly teen vampires that bite and brood their way through the pages of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels, monsters are conspicuous and enduring features of the popular landscape. As an index of social fears and desires, the monster’s anomalous, mutating form casts a long, looming shadow over all aspects of cultural production, defining what it means to be – or not to be – human.

Given the formidable resurgence of creative and academic interest in monsters in the wake of 9/11, The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous promises to make a timely contribution to the emergent field of ‘Monster Studies’, a ‘theoretical discipline’ that editors Asa Simon Mittman and Peter J. Dendle identify as ‘the most recent in a long series’ of multidisciplinary initiatives, ‘from Women’s Studies to Gender Studies to Transgender Studies, from Africana Studies to Peace Studies to Jewish Studies’ (3). While some members of the groups implicated in this statement might take exception to their alignment with monstrous (not to mention fictitious) beings, Mittman and Dendle’s companion nonetheless succeeds in bringing together a cadre of established scholars to reflect on the ontological and epistemological quandaries posed by the monstrous body in its various contexts. Bookended by a foreword by John Block Friedman, author of The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought (1981), and a postscript by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, whose Monster Theory: Reading Culture (1996) is routinely credited with inaugurating the field of ‘Monster Studies’, the collection spans continents and millennia in its expansive scholarly sweep, taking account of medieval zoomorphs, posthuman cyborgs, Islamic demons, Western appropriations of the vagina dentate motif, and a host of other aberrant phenomena which I will outline more fully below.

The volume itself is divided into two discrete but interlocking parts: ‘History and Monstrosity’ and ‘Critical Approaches to Monstrosity’. The chapters gathered together under the aegis of ‘History and Monstrosity’ seek to contextualise monsters within and across a range of cultures and historical periods, from Ancient Greece to modern-day Japan. The second part of the volume, ‘Critical Approaches to Monstrosity’, analyses the monstrous through reference to theories of gender, sexuality, race, posthumanism and postcolonialism, while also asking what monsters might reveal about the culture from which they spring. Within the bipartite structure of the companion, the essays are arranged not by chronology or geography, but alphabetically by author name. This editorial system, claims Mittman, is intended to avoid imposing ‘Western chronological divisions – arbitrary enough in the context for which they were designed – upon the rest of the world in a way that does not arise organically from each culture’s internal history and progression’ (10). While Mittman’s circumspection regarding diachronic ordering strategies is valid enough, the editors’ decision to eschew these strategies entirely does make for a rather disorientating reading experience. If, however, part of what defines the monstrous is its abnormal formation, then this is a volume that studiously replicates the peculiarities of the subject matter with which it contends through its own eccentric organisation. Read in sequence, the essays form a body of scholarship that is as discordant, random and unpredictable as the anatomy of any monster. In the first part of the companion, for example, D. Felton’s meditation on monstrosity in Ancient Greece and Rome sits between Henry John Drewal’s analysis of the African water deity Mami Wata and Michael Dylan Foster’s ‘Early Modern Past to Postmodern Future: Changing Discourses of Japanese Monsters’. These three essays, when considered alongside one another, reveal some intriguing connections between Greek mythology, African folklore and Japanese urban legend by highlighting the intractable, cross-cultural entanglement of feminine beauty, monstrosity and danger. Felton’s references to the Homeric Sirens, then, resonate with Drewal’s examination of Mami Wata’s ‘terrifying yet seductive’ powers (80), as well as with Foster’s account of a distinctly modern monster, Japan’s kuchi-sake-onna, or ‘Slit-Mouthed Woman’, whose masked visage has haunted the imaginations of Japanese schoolchildren since her emergence in the late 1970s (148). Such connections are fascinating, but by its very nature a companion ought to guide the reader in the negotiation of new scholarly terrain; at times, the dizzying breadth of this volume – in concert with the abrupt shifts between chapters – could leave readers unfamiliar with this subject area feeling somewhat lost, struggling to map their own route through the vast and varied monster-scape that the contributors set out.

In the light of Mittman and Dendle’s own specialisms (medieval art history and literature respectively), it is perhaps unsurprising that this companion showcases a significant concentration of expertise in the art and literature of the Middle Ages. This expertise is writ large in Michelle Osterfeld Li’s examination of the oni in medieval Japan, Karl Steel’s chapter on medieval teratology, Debra Higgs Strickland’s ‘Monstrosity and Race in the Late Middle Ages’, and Chet Van Duzer’s cartographical analysis of monsters in the West. Medieval depictions of monstrosity also figure prominently in Francesca Leoni’s ‘On the Monstrous in the Islamic Visual Tradition’ and in Karin Myhre’s study of animal hybrids in China. Moving beyond the fifteenth century, Persephone Braham conducts a compelling investigation into the origins of the ‘monstrous Caribbean’, in which she argues that narratives involving ‘Amazons, cannibals, sirens and other monsters’ (17) played a pivotal role in the development of early modern globalisation by functioning as ‘a preeminent mode of discourse between Latin America and the colonial powers that interacted with it’ (47). Elsewhere, Surekha Davies considers shifting definitions of monstrosity in European culture from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, and Abigail Lee Six and Hannah Thompson trace the ‘changing face’ of the monster in the nineteenth century through reference to a familiar roster of canonical Gothic novels including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). In a more contemporary vein, Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock tracks recent reconfigurations of the monstrous in American popular culture, while Dendle’s conclusion queries the persistence of monstrous belief in the twenty-first century.

The chapters which Mittman and Dendle have drawn together in The Ashgate Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous are predictably varied in their thematic scope, interpretive depth and scholarly tone – so much so that it is difficult to identify an ideal reader for a volume of this kind: while the essays which are most thoroughgoing are likely to risk alienating the general reader, those that take a broader approach may be of little use to scholars who are more than cursorily acquainted with the world of the monstrous. If the wide-ranging nature of the topics covered by the featured contributors is at times bewildering, the essays are nonetheless unified in their attempt to expose the slippery category of monstrosity to new critical scrutiny. In this way, the companion sheds some much-needed light on the range of cultural work performed by the monster, foregrounding its evolving capacity to test the limits of our knowledge and our humanity alike.

Melanie Waters (Northumbria University)