Linda S. Godfrey
New York: TarcherPerigee, 2019. 322 pp., hardcover, $25.
You might believe that the trouble with people is that, to paraphrase the humorist Josh Billings, they know so many things that just ain’t so. If so, prepare to have your worldview shaken. This lively book of eyewitness accounts boasts chapter descriptions that alone would be worth the interest of any dedicated cryptozoologist: “Crybaby Bridge,” “The Texas Lobo Girl,” “Ohio Manwolves,” “Hawaiian Flying Dogman,” “Hairy Men of the Ancients.” As we proceed through the book, we are offered a seemingly endless procession of stories about cryptids. Upright canines, dire dogs, hybrid mystery cats, Lilliputian people, prehistoric creatures that time forgot, chupacabras, Snarly-Yows, and other “elements of lore and legend”—all are accounted for and anatomized here. This book is neither a cynically credulous, Weekly World News–like sensation-mongering grab bag of shaggy dogmen stories nor a dusty tome with a creaky and hedging scholarly apparatus, but an interesting, if sometimes exasperatingly discursive, collection of weird encounters.
The book is also a treasure-trove of odd facts. Did you know that wolf apes like chewing gum? I certainly never suspected as much. Were you aware that upright canines like to hang out around cemeteries, but also favor “deserted buildings, campgrounds, and military bases”? (Apparently they fear television cameras the most, particularly ones which happen to be pointed in their direction.)
Linda Godfrey piles incident upon incident of first-hand accounts of sightings of strange and hybrid creatures, some of which bring to mind the 1896 H.G. Wells novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. The author stresses that she has only included reports which are “sincere and truthful to the eyewitness’s experience.” Sometimes her accompanying theories seem rather far-fetched, but she usually brings out some interesting points: for instance, that there have been many sightings of “upright canines” which “bear a resemblance to Anubis.” Or that accounts of Bigfoot may go back as far as Gilgamesh and Enkidu, or may even be connected to the biblical character Esau, who, according to Genesis, “was large, smelly, and entirely covered with red fur!”
True to its subject matter, I Know What I Saw is itself something of a hybrid: part journalism, part oral history, part speculation, and with a certain amount of scholarly apparatus applied, if none too rigorously. The bibliography is not impressive, consisting principally of citations of website articles, magazine pieces, pop paranormal tomes, and a superfluity of the author’s previous published works. Furthermore, although Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, California, and even Hawaii are mentioned as frequently cited sources of strange phenomena, the book seems rather Wisconsin-heavy, which is no surprise, since the author is a lifelong resident of that state.
Nevertheless, the tone is evenhanded and informal throughout, and there are occasional references to Greek myths, Native American legends, and “ancient traditions” which lend the book some gravitas. Godfrey admits she is no folklorist, but she seems to be well able to distinguish between fake news, urban legends, folktales, myths, and “creepypasta,” a new genre which consists of crowd-sourced, “collaborative, never-ending stories” about uncanny beings. Her narrative also displays welcome flashes of humor. Two examples will suffice:
[A] legend says a local minister shot and killed a wolf ape that measured ten feet in length. He nailed the carcass to the church wall and displayed it, perhaps as a lesson to any other half-ape, half-wolf creatures, referring to it as Satan’s pet. He was said to have sold the putrefying carcass to a sideshow and moved to San Francisco, where he was gruesomely killed for some unstated reason, sparking an additional legend of a curse on killers of wolf apes.
Prince George’s County [Maryland] rates high on the list of goat man-infested places if urban legends are to be your guide. It features three—count ’em—three related legends stemming from an unknown scientist’s animal experimentation running amok . . . In all the legends, the scientist is driven to the woods, armed with an ax. One variant says his departure was due to his going mad over the experiments, another says it was remorse over ruining the cure for cancer, and finally, my personal favorite claims the scientist accidentally changed himself into a half-man, half-goat creature and fled to the nearby wilds where he resides today.
Books about inexplicable occurrences and improbable anomalies have a long pedigree: among the most famous are the myriad citations collected in four books by Charles Fort, published from 1919 to 1932. Nearly 100 years later, Godfrey, who has published over a dozen books on this topic, and can therefore reasonably be cited as an authority, has written another book about Things Which Shouldn’t Be So—but which, apparently, are.
Can we trust the evidence of our senses? Ms. Godfrey is somewhat noncommittal, but seems to think that, in most instances, we can and we should. Aren’t the stories we tell one another akin to the warning cries that animals exchange among themselves to signal predators in their midst? Ms. Godfrey speculates that they may at least be “subtly disguised handbooks for survival in a ‘goblin universe’” and concludes with the wise admonition that “legend is not synonymous with untruth.”
Francis DiMenno is a humorist, historian, and longtime music critic who blogs at https://dimenno.wordpress.com/.