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The Siren's Call: A beastly menagerie

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Scan through digital images from the Aberdeen Bestiary and you'll find a marvelous stew of myth and reality.

Alongside familiar animals — leopards, panthers, hyenas — this glorious 12th century illuminated manuscript includes some strange ones: A satyr, for instance, with a humanoid shape and a thoughtful expression on its face, and a dazzling phoenix, resting in a goblet as flames encircle the cup's rim.

Bestiaries were attempts in the Middle Ages to catalog the world's living things, whether they had been truly observed or rumored to exist. And it's no wonder that modern writers have been inspired by the idea of a fanciful menagerie to create whimsical bestiaries of their own — Borges did it, and so have the VanderMeers, Ann and Jeff, to give just two examples.

Several new books made me think of these golden, beastly books of yore, for the subjects of "Tracking the Chupacabra," "Monsters of the Gévaudan," and "Kraken" seem like nothing less than fugitives from a bestiary — creatures that have slipped from its pages and fled to the jungles of South America, the woods of France and the depths of the sea.

Managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, Benjamin Radford goes in search of a vampirish beast prowling the Americas in the last 15 years in "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore" (University of New Mexico Press: 202 pp., $24.95 paper). Think of the chupacabra, he suggests, as "Bigfoot's Hispanic cousin" — but unlike that legendary biped that leaves behind footprints, the chupacabra leaves a bloody trail of half-devoured sheep, goats, dogs, cats and anything else it can lay its claws on.

As dramatic as it sounds, the Spanish name translates into the very undramatic "goat sucker." What an undignified name for the world's "third best-known monster"! Who are the other two? Radford says they're Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster.

His book begins with the creature that started it all: A 4- to 5-foot-tall, spiky-backed being with an oblong skull that eyewitnesses say attacked farm animals in two Puerto Rican towns in 1995. A model of the beast leers from the book's title pages (see for yourself in the accompanying photo gallery). In the years that followed, more sightings occurred in Mexico, Chile, Brazil and the American Southwest … and in Spanish pop culture as well, where the monster battles the Fantastic Four, stars in horror movies and even figures in storylines of novels by celebrated writer Rudolfo Anaya.

But when you compare several dead chupacabras (Radford includes photos) with the space alien-like creature on the book's title pages and with eyewitness descriptions, you scratch your head. These caracasses — shot and killed by ranchers — just look like dogs with long snouts and sharp teeth. What's going on?

Radford argues that the "chupacabra panic" arose from a merging of many factors, including superstition and group psychology, the influence of a big Hollywood horror movie ("Species") on key eyewitnesses, and an actual livestock predator whose DNA, it turns out, makes it a coyote of some kind. What happened, Radford's insightful book shows, is that "rumor combined with sensationalized news reports [to] create a monster."

His book offers a fascinating look at the vitality of modern legends, at the way that stories about real, factual incidents can warp, evolve and travel between communities with incredible speed.

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A similar point is made by history professor Jay M. Smith in his careful, thoughtful reconsideration of another Chupacabra-like animal in France, "Monsters of the Gévaudan" (Harvard University Press: 378 pp., $35). This beast killed sheep, cattle and the peasant women and children tending them in a mountainous area of France's Languedoc province in the 18th century.

Instead of just retelling the story, Smith is after "a clearer picture … of how the beast came to be 'made' — that is, how the beast took on the dimensions it acquired, how its activities impressed contemporary imaginations, and how the suspenseful story of the hunt expressed and magnified issues that shaped the culture of the times." He's a skilled storyteller, bringing a distant time and place vividly to life for the reader.

The same fears and rumors that transformed an obscure member of the Canidae family into the beastly goat-sucker also went into the Gévaudan monster's transformation. And when the monster turned out to be a large wolf, do you know what happened? People refused to accept the truth, Smith writes, insisting "that the monster of the Gévaudan had to be a surprising and unusual creature."

Those involved felt a need to embellish the story (they didn't have to worry that Steve Kroft of "60 Minutes" would come along and check the facts). Stories, engravings and other ways of commemorating the animal's killing by Louis XV's gun-bearer applied shades to the beast with an especially heavy gothic hand.

Here, then, in Radford and Smith's interesting books, you have a recipe for myth — equal parts imagination, expectation and stubbornness.

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There are other cases, however, where imagination pales next to reality, which is true of "Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid" (Abrams Image: 224 pp., $21.95) by Wendy Williams.

Frightening stories of early seafarers' sightings of serpentine sea monsters are found all over the world. Williams, a former reporter and co-author of a book about the clash over an attempt to build a wind farm off of Cape Cod, opens "Kraken" with one such riveting tale: In 1873, two hapless herring fishermen in Newfoundland's Conception Bay encountered a monster with a beak "as big as a six-gallon keg" that wrapped its arms around their little boat and tried to tear it apart.

"The two feeding tentacles, several times the men's height and covered with serrated rings inside the suckers, shot out over the gunwales of the skiff," writes Williams. The creature fled after one of the fishermen cut off these tentacles with a hatchet — one would be lost, but the other 19-foot-long segment would eventually help prove the existence of giant squids.

Such fables of sea monsters, Williams shows, are really just a scrim concealing a marvelous marine group, the cephalopods. And with squid, Williams writes, we surprisingly have much biologically in common — for example — the neuron and the camera eye, "nature's most complex style of eye." Williams accompanies scientists into the field, including Julie Stewart and John Fields, who study the magnificent Humboldt squid in the waters of Monterey Bay, and neuroscience professor Joe DeGiorgis, who studies squid to better understand ourselves.

Williams writes with a deft, supple hand as she surveys these spindly, extraordinary beasts and their world. She reminds us that the known world might be considerably larger than in the days of the bestiary-makers, but there is still room for wonder and strangeness. In fact, let Steinbeck have the last word, since Williams graces one of her chapters with an epigraph from him: "An ocean without its unnamed monsters is like a completely dreamless sleep."

Owchar is deputy book editor of the Times. The Siren's Call appears monthly at http://www.latimes.com/books

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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