On Daniel Cohen’s “Monsters You Never Heard Of”

If you’ve heard my talk on my book Monsters of Ohio, you’ll know that when I trace my lifelong interest in monsters of the maybe-they-exist-maybe-they-don’t variety, I come back to two main sources.

The first is Scooby-Doo cartoons, which were among the very first media I consumed in my life, and which were concerned exclusively with monsters that may or may not be real; each episode began with a seemingly real monster or ghost of some kind, which the characters reacted to as if it was real, and each episode ended with that monster being unmasked as fake.

The other source? It was a book I had purchased at a grade school book fair about monsters I now know are called crytpids, like the Jersey Devil. I had long since forgotten the title. I had long since forgotten the author’s name (if I had ever even noticed it as a child). I didn’t remember much about the contents, aside from a chapter on the Jersey Devil and a black and white photo of policemen affixing a “The Jersey Devil Is A Hoax” sign to a tree. I didn’t even remember what became of the book or when, why and how I got rid of it, getting rid of a book being quite unlike me.

What I did remember was the cover illustration. Depicting a red-eyed, fang-mouthed Jersey Devil with huge bat-wings and a rather lion-like body perched in a tree, the cover was seared into my brain. It used to scare the hell out of me. Not so much that I didn’t read and re-read the book, of course, but enough so that I had to be very careful with how I handled the book when reading it, limiting my exposure to the cover as much as possible (I would have a similar experience with Whitley Strieber’s Communion when I attempted to read it as a young adult; the subject matter fascinated me, but I found the alien face on the cover terrifying and avoided looking at it while I read).

I forgot everything about the book, then, save that image.

And then Loren Coleman tweeted a couple of covers from the many Daniel Cohen books at the International Cryptozoology Museum, and I saw that same, scary Jersey Devil that was imprinted in my imagination and so scared me as a child: It adorned Monsters You Never Heard Of by Daniel Cohen.

The late Cohen had written over 200 books in his career, many of them targeted toward young readers and dealing with monsters, ghosts and the paranormal. Cohen’s 1991 The Encyclopedia of Monsters was a source of mine for Orange Eyes, one of the monsters in my book and, as far as I have been able to determine, Cohen was the first person to collect and share the story of Orange Eyes, outside of a few newspaper reporters (W. Haden Blackman’s 1998 Field Guide to North American Monsters, which included an entry on Orange Eyes, listed Cohen’s Encyclopedia as a source).

Interestingly, I was recently looking for a good example of writing about monsters for kids, and I thus looked to Cohen’s output. Within the last several months I read one of his books for adults (the excellent The Great Airship Mystery: A UFO of the 1890s) and several of his books for children (America’s Very Own Monsters, Phantom Animals and Supermonsters).

Finally armed with the title and author of the book with the scary cover I read as a little kid, I was able to order Monsters You Never Heard Of (Dodd, Mead & Company; 1980) from my local library.

After a very brief three-page introductory chapter, each of the book’s remaining 11 chapters deals with a particular monster. Most of these are from the world of cryptozoology and folklore and, despite the title, are hardly little-known…although given that the target audience is comprised of children, then perhaps the monsters would be “new” to readers encountering this as their first book on cryptozoology, as I first encountered it all those years ago. Cohen basically means lesser known than Bigfoot and The Loch Ness Monster:

“Creatures like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster are well known,” he writes. “But there are many other monsters that some people believe exist now, or have existed not too long ago. These monsters just have not received the right publicity. Here, for your education and entertainment, are accounts of a dozen of these lesser-known monsters—monsters you probably never heard of before.”

The monsters include Phantom Animals, Thunderbirds/Big Birds (here referred to as “Big-Big Bird”), The Dover Demon, the giant snakes of South America, the Tazelworm and The Goatman, Grunches and other similar monsters of lover’s lane (Of which Orange Eyes is an example, although not mentioned in this particular book). Oh, and, of course, The Jersey Devil.

There’ are also chapters devoted to British legends Spring-Heeled Jack , demon dogs and “The Hairy Hands” of Dartmoor. Finally, the chapter entitled “Invisible Killers” deals with cattle mutilations, and tells some dramatic stories of some “suspects.”

Re-reading the book as an adult, I was surprised with how familiar I was with most of the contents. I don’t think I was remembering what I was reading from 35 years ago so much as that Cohen rather competently and compellingly covers subjects I have read about time and time again in other books on cryptozoology and monsters since then, some of them as recently as this summer (The Dover Demon case, for example, was covered in North American Monsters: A Contemporary Legend Casebook).

Though written for children, I don’t think it is written in such a way to alienate adult readers, though the sentences are notably short and concise. It wouldn’t be a bad first book on cryptozoology and folklore for adults, really, although I do wish Cohen had included notes or at least a bibliography, pointing interested reader in where to go next for more information.

For children, it is, of course, a perfect first book on the subject…as long as they’re not as sensitive and imaginative as I was, anyway, as I was afraid of seeing the Jersey Devil pop up in my Ohio neighborhood for a time after reading this.

As for that cover, it’s lost its power to scare me—just as monsters like the Jersey Devil don’t scare fortysomething me the way they did grade-school me—but its still a potent image. I didn’t remember the face being quite so exaggerated. Looking at it today, it’s clearly not as realistic a portrait as I thought it was in my youth.

That said, the copy of the book that arrived from the library was a bound hardcover, having only a blank yellow cover, so I didn’t deal with the cover image directly this reading. (The image above is taken from the Internet.)

It does leave me with one mystery about this book, however; who is responsible for the compelling cover image in the first place? The book itself offered no clues.

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