It's been a while since I last reviewed any notable cryptozoological publications on ShukerNature, so here are my thoughts concerning one that I received recently.
Back in the 1990s and originally assisted by fellow bibliophile Steven Shipp, I prepared a bibliography of cryptozoology books that was published in issues 6, 7, and 8 of the Centre for Fortean Zoology's periodical Animals and Men. It proved so popular among readers and crypto-researchers alike that, since then, I have periodically updated and expanded it, so that it currently contains many hundreds of entries divided into several sections, and it can nowadays be directly accessed online here, within my official website.
Until last November, however, there had never been a book devoted entirely to reviews of cryptozoological books and related subject matter, which thereby constituted a notable gap in the literature appertaining to mystery beasts. But all of that changed when Matt Bille's Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library was brought out in both hard-copy and e-book format by Hangar 1 Publishing.
Already known for two previous non-fiction books devoted to current and former cryptids alike as well as his longstanding interest in such creatures, Bille has provided a most valuable service in compiling this third offering, which for the most part consists of cryptozoological book reviews penned by him that originally appeared on his Matt's Sci/Tech Blog, plus a number of additional ones specially written for this book in order to render his coverage of the literature more comprehensive.
This 311-page book is divided into four sections: Cryptozoology Books; Related Sciences; Crypto-Fiction; and A Marvelous Miscellany. There is also an explanatory introduction, plus a couple of afterwords, acknowledgements, and an index/bibliography. Apart from the wonderful front-cover picture (cover design by Doug Hajicek), there are no illustrations, but these are not really necessary in a book of this nature.
The Cryptozoology Books section, which by definition is the crux of this entire publication, follows on from the book's detailed introduction, spans pp. 1-123 (approximately one third of the total content), and is divided into five subsections. These are: A Basic Library of Cryptozoology (which includes reviews of books that Bille deems essential, seminal works of cryptozoology); Primates (reviewed books devoted to the likes of the yeti, bigfoot/sasquatch, and other man-beasts or ape-men); Land Animals (includes reviewed books documenting all manner of – mostly – terrestrial cryptids, including mystery cats, thylacine, and putative mammoths, but also mothman and various amphibious Congolese monsters like the mokele-mbembe and emela-ntouka); Lake and Sea Creatures (reviewed books researching freshwater monsters, sea serpents, other marine mystery beasts); and Others (reviews of general cryptozoology books surveying a wide range of cryptids rather than concentrating upon certain specific types).
The Related Sciences section, spanning pp. 124-220, contains reviews of books that, although not devoted wholly to cryptozoology, often include some crypto-content and/or deal with mainstream zoological subjects of considerable background relevance to mystery beasts. It is divided into three subsections, whose respective titles readily reveal the subject matter of the books reviewed within them. Namely: Paleontology and Evolution; Environment and Exploration; and Zoology of Land, Sea, and Air.
Crypto-Fiction, spanning pp. 221-254, is a less serious, fun section in which Bille presents one subsection devoted entirely to his personal Top Three favourite cryptozoologically-themed novels, and a second subsection containing reviews of a wide range and sizeable number of other crypto-novels. Some of these are classic works, others are less familiar, and there are a few that were entirely new to me but which I fully intend to acquaint myself with at some point.
Last but by no means least of the four sections is A Marvelous Miscellany, spanning pp. 255-272, which definitely lives up to its title, containing reviews of books devoted to the far fringes of cryptozoology and beyond, including beasts of mythology and folklore, ostensibly supernatural and paranormal entities, speculative future evolution of wildlife, and some wholly unclassifiable but no less fascinating subjects.
In two afterwords, respectively entitled Cryptids and Me and A Few Contributions of My Own, spanning pp. 272-279, Bille offers some brief thoughts regarding certain cryptids that in his view may indeed exist, and documents his previous cryptozoological publications. The remainder of the book consists of an acknowlegements section and an extensive index (which also incorporates a bibliography).
Throughout this book, the reviews by Bille vary considerably in length, but they are always balanced, informative, and informed. Moreover, whereas he is not afraid to highlight areas or coverage that he does not personally agree with, he is never rude or hostile in his treatment of them (unlike the belligerent, dogmatic attitude of certain other figures who have inputted within this field of study at one time or another down through the decades). Indeed, Bille's objective take is what makes his reviews so interesting and entertaining, because one is never struggling to discover the real book obscured behind an opaque veil of prejudice and bias, which is a most welcome, heartening change from so many reviews of cryptozoological works that I've read - or endured – over the years.
Equally, it is evident from the content of his reviews that Bille has actually read all of the books in question (in turn reliably demonstrating just how prolific a reader of cryptozoological writings he is, and therefore an ideal person to prepare a work like this one). That may seem a strange statement to make, but as an author myself I am only too aware – painfully so, on occasion – that in all too many instances, a so-called reviewer either has never actually read the book in question or has merely paraphrased the blurb on its back cover or front flyleaf!
Over 20 years ago, I prepared my bibliography of cryptozoology books (which includes not only their titles and authors but also their publishers, places of publication, and dates of publication) in order to provide newcomers and longstanding crypto-researchers alike with a comprehensive listing of published books on the subject – a subject whose literature until then had never been presented in such a readily accessible manner, enabling would-be readers of such books to discover instantly what was out there and containing sufficient supplementary information to assist them in tracking down such works.
Now, with Of Books and Beasts, Bille has ably augmented my efforts by providing an excellent companion work, a veritable pocket library, in fact, that provides very useful, fair-minded synopses and personal opinions concerning around 500 such books, and which will I feel be of immense value to the same audience of readers as my list is aimed at. There is nothing else like this book out there, so I am very happy that it also happens to be a very worthy contribution in its own right to the cryptozoological literature – one that I spent much of the day dipping into after its review copy arrived in the post, because it was simply far too engrossing to put down once opened! So I heartily and unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone eager to learn about the vast diversity of books nowadays out there that deal with mystery beasts.
Finally: or as Lieutenant Columbo would say at this point in the proceedings, just one more thing… (ok, two, in this particular instance – a couple of minor quibbles). Firstly: I'm somewhat bemused by Bille's arranging of his book reviews within each subsection or section. For the most part, it seems to be chronological (although see a little later in my present review), from earliest to most recent publication date, but this is not entirely adhered to. For instance: in the Others subsection of Section 1 (Cryptozoology Books), the first book to be reviewed is Maurice Burton's Animal Legends, published in 1957, which is followed in strict chronological order by a further 34 titles (I'm counting the four Quammen books as a single entry as this was how Bille reviewed them), the last of which is Kelly Milner Halls's 2019 book Cryptid Creatures: A Field Guide. But then, for no apparent reason, the next book reviewed in this same subsection is Michael Newton's 2007 book Florida's Unexpected Wildlife, after which another ten reviewed books follow, arranged chronologically from 2007 to 2020. Why were these not incorporated into the previous 35-book chronological listing, instead of being separated into their own 11-book chronological listing directly following it?
No reason is given, so I am wondering if these final eleven were last-minute reviews by Bille, possibly written to fill some perceived gaps in his coverage but submitted too late to be worked into the main body of reviews? If so, a very short note explaining this inconsistent ordering of reviews would have been most useful (even just a two-word subtitle – Stop Press, or Late Additions – would have sufficed). Moreover, for reasons again unexplained, in the Other Crypto-Novels subsection of the Crypto-Fiction section, and also throughout the section A Marvelous Menagerie, the books reviewed are not arranged chronologically at all, but are instead arranged alphabetically, by author surname. Why not stay with a chronological ordering? Strange.
Secondly: by its very nature, the content of this book is a personal, subjective one, inevitably guided by Bille's own particular interests and influences. In other words, no two compilers of such a book would have included the same entries, and divided them up into sections of the same proportions or subjects. Having said that, I do feel that more space should have been devoted to cryptozoology books per se, and less to (in particular) the Related Sciences section. This book's unique aspect, and no doubt its greatest single selling point, is that it is the first one to proffer an extensive series of reviews of cryptozoology books, so in my view the Related Sciences section could have been greatly reduced, with no serious loss to the book's worth, and replaced by far more cryptozoology-themed book reviews. As it is, I can think of a fair number of crypto-books for which one might expect to find reviews included here, but which are not represented. For instance, although there are a few reviews of books devoted to certain specific types or geographical groupings of feline cryptids, neither edition of the most comprehensive book ever published on such creatures globally is represented by a review, which is clearly a major omission. I may be wrong, but wasn't the book in question entitled Mystery Cats of the World…?
"Looking for a concise but reliable survey of the most noteworthy cryptozoological books past and present? Look no further - here it is!"
Dr Karl Shuker, quoted on the back cover to Of Books and Beasts.