Dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts have been a big part of Western Culture, especially the dominant English, French and American cultures, for centuries. This has been acknowledged by scientists, historians, and artistic commentators, but there are relatively few overviews of it. So, it was to my delight that Allen A. Debus finally wrote a book on this obsession and its permutations, the 2010 work Prehistoric Monsters: The Real and Imagined Creatures of the Past That We Love to Fear.
The first chapter discusses the beginning of the interest, all the way back to ancient times, when the Greeks, Romans, Chinese, native Americans, and others interpreted giant strange bones as those of dragons and giants. This interpretation only took a scientific, naturalistic approach in the 18th century as the Enlightenment dismissed supernatural explanations for natural phenomenon. The second and third chapters refer to early American paleontology and its pioneers like Thomas Jefferson and Charles W. Peale, whose fertile imagination turned the remains of giant sloths and mastodons into evidence of frightful monsters. The fourth follows with a discussion of the showman Albert Koch who compiled mastodon and whale skeletons into more frightful monsters.
Chapter five is an overview with our fascination with prehistoric humans, the legendary cavemen. They deserve their own book, really, but the chapter shows their place in the prehistoric pantheon in culture. Chapter six is a long one, talking about the rise of interest in the Mesozoic and prehistoric reptiles, and their eclipsing of fossil mammals. They were equals until the 1930s, then the dinosaurs ruled supreme to the point that museums like the Field Museum have put their fossil mammals into storage to make room for more dinosaurs. The seventh chapter is a digression into the scientific fantasies of Charles H Sternberg, a scientist who wrote vivid reconstructions of what he discovered.
Chapter eight is an overview of the biggest dinosaur superstar that is still the king in the public eye: Tyrannosaurus rex. Chapter nine looks into Tyrannosaurus’ spinoff in the context of Japanese post-war culture crisis: Godzilla himself. Chapter 9 is dissociated from the others, discussing how in fiction human beings can come into contact with prehistoric animals.
It’s an easy read, and a fast one, but one that was a ton of fun. We know today of the Jurassic Park movies and the rule of Tyrannosaurus in popular culture, so it’s fascinating to learn about the history of what came before. The history of science and culture is well-covered, but the history of the prehistoric is really fascinating. This belongs on the shelf next of Don Glut’s Dinosaur Scrapbook, Adrienne Mayor’s The First Fossil Hunters and Fossil Legends of the First Americans, and Debus’ own Paleoimagery and Dinosaurs in fantastic fiction.
My main complaint is the lack of structure. Each of the chapters can easily be seen as its own article. Debus does write for G-Fan, The Prehistoric Times, and other magazines. It’s best viewed as a compilation of related articles rather than a coherent narrative itself.
The other complaint is the lack of color illustration. However, many of the original images are in black and white, and there’s enough images to show key concepts and examples of the material discussed. Still, familiarity with the discussed material does help a lot, and it helps to look up the discussed fiction, art, and personalities that fill this volume.
I give the book 89/100-not perfect, but entertaining, readable, and very interesting. I recommend it to all dinosaur fans, and especially the ones who have interest in the history of the prehistoric animal in the eyes of scientists and laity alike. I’ll soon review the other Debus books, as they are just as good and complement each other very well.