Victorian Parasites

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Archive for the tag “imagination”

Amphibious Monsters and the Great Moon Hoax.

After a not insubstantial break I have finally composed another post for your perusal – the theme this time is something to do with monstrousness and nineteenth-century imagination.

On reading Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, I was struck by a passage concerning the fossil remains of dinosaurs:

The animal to which the name ichthyosaurus has been given, was as
long as a young whale, and it was fitted for living in the water,
though breathing the atmosphere.  It had the vertebral column and
general bodily form of a fish, but to that were added the head and
breast-bone of a lizard, and the paddles of the whale tribes.  The
beak, moreover, was that of a porpoise, and the teeth were those of a
crocodile.  It must have been a most destructive creature to the fish
of those early seas.[1]

What Chambers describes here is a monstrous aquatic chimera; straddling definition as part fish, part reptile (ichthyosaurus literally meaning fish-lizard) the ichthyosaurus represents a candidate for science fiction. In a somewhat dismissive review, Francis Bowen refers to such creatures as ‘amphibious monsters’.[2] Chambers’ successive linear development theory, from animalcules to perfect man, not only posits these monsters as a ‘necessary step’, but also uncomfortably creates an evolutionary link between monsters and man. This very link is a popular source of anxiety in the late nineteenth century, whether as the transitory monster of Jekyll and Hyde, or the degenerated Morlock of The Time Machine.

So I was thinking about this evolutionary monstrousness (largely in relation to parasites – my raison d’être) and I stumbled across what is now one of my favourite anecdotes concerning nineteenth century imagination. In 1835, the New York Sun published a series of hoax news stories[3] in an attempt to boost circulation (it worked!) The stories reported the advancement of a telescope that enabled  the discovery of life on the moon. Falsely attributed to Sir John Herschel, the series depicted a colourful landscape with white beaches, hills topped with quartz crystals, glades studded with vermillion amethysts, a bay of rainbows, lunar palm trees, unicorns, goats, biped beavers, and bat people. There were even ‘strange amphibious spherical creatures’ that rolled around the pebble beach.

The author then begins a description with this curious sentence: ‘The next animal perceived would be classed on earth as a monster.’ I was surprised by the relatively tame description that followed. The ‘monster’ was described as a bluish creature like a goat or an antelope with a perpendicular horn and beard. It was agile and ran at great speed, ‘springing from the green turf with all the unaccountable antics of a young lamb or kitten.’ The agility of a kitten hardly strikes fear into my heart and the implication of a monstrous hybrid loses gravitas in light of the winged bat hominids whose cultural practices are described at length. Indeed even the authors concede that the kittenish behaviour of ‘this beautiful creature afforded [them] the most exquisite amusement’. The article goes on to describe intelligent creatures similar to human beings (but with wings) and even identifies two races of this new species, which appear to possess language and notions of etiquette. They build temples, are vegetarian and share all they have – a utopian vision. The authors even go as far as to say:

The universal state of amity among all classes of lunar creatures, and the
apparent absence of every carnivorous or ferocious creatures, gave us the
most refined pleasure, and doubly endeared to us this lovely nocturnal
companion of our larger, but less favored world.

The Great Moon Hoax, New York Sun Lithograph (1835)

Though perhaps little more than a really good read, the series does demonstrate the evolutionarily monstrous, made good. The Derridean notion of ‘turning them into pets’[4] holds true and dispels the myth that an alternate path of evolution would produce anarchy. As the theme of the ‘monstrousness’ seems in conference vogue this year (themes for two I’ve been to already) I hope I’ll hear more about this in September when I present a paper on the fictional pandemic at the 10th global conference for ‘Monsters and the Monstrous’.


My paper will be entitled: Death, Disease and Discontent: The Monstrous Reign of the Super-Virus.

[EDIT: The Great Moon Hoax is mentioned by Augustus de Morgan in A Budget of Paradoxes p 337. <> with details about circulation, publication, speculations on the author and similarity to Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Adventures of Hans Pfaal’.]

[1] Robert Chambers, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) transcribed from the John Churchhill Edition. e-book #7116 Project Gutenberg (Release Date: 2004)

[2] Francis Bowen, ‘A Theory of Creation. A Review of “Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation” (Boston: Otis, Broader and Company, 1845) e-book #24648 Project Gutenberg (Release Date: 2008)

[4] ‘Monsters cannot be announced. One cannot say “here are our monsters” without immediately turning the monsters into pets.’


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