Reviewed by Jerry Levy
The story goes that in the 16th century, the chief rabbi in the city of Prague, Rabbi Juddah Loew ben Bezalel, erected a golem from the mud and clay of the Vltava River to help the Jews during their persecution by the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II. The latter had decided to expel or kill Prague’s Jews owing to malicious accusations of blood libel, the belief that they used the blood of a Christian child during Passover.
The golem, an enormous unformed creature possessive of supernatural strength, did exactly as planned, attacking and killing all those who sought to harm the Jews. So much so that The Emperor pleaded with Rabbi Loew to deactivate the monster and in turn, he would stop his assault on Prague’s Jews.
Legend tells us that the remains of the golem (indeed deactivated by the rabbi but with the understanding that it could be brought back to life if Rudolf II reneged on his promise) were stored in the attic of Prague’s Old-New Synagogue. Legend? Well, perhaps. But apparently, so many people made the trek to view the golem (including the Nazis) in the years that followed, that the synagogue was forced to remove the lowest three metres of the stairs leading to the attic from the outside. Today, the attic is not open to the general public.
It seems reasonable to assume that anyone who were to encounter a golem would immediately scream and run as fast as they could in the opposite direction. Not so Timm Otterson, doctor of veterinary medicine and author of the book All Creatures Weird and Dangerous, who would undoubtedly gaze in contemplation at the golem and determine whether the latter required some sort of medical assistance. And if so, use his veterinary training to try and heal the creature.
This then, constitutes the premise of All Creatures Weird and Dangerous, the story of a veterinarian who encounters strange creatures (‘cryptids’) in his travels, and, using his acquired learned skills, attempts to work his medical magic (such as when he removed a chain and large dog collar chain from the stomach of a unicorn – yikes!); although in fairness, on one occasion, the thunderbirds in New Mexico, actually helped him (when he and his son cascaded perilously down the side of a mountain). Along the way, we are introduced to a whole phalanx of weird cryptids, including a unicorn, chupacabra, sasquatch, various fairies, thunderbirds, mermaids, and others. It’s like a modern-day re-telling of Jules Verne’s classic Journey to the Centre of the Earth, where living prehistoric creatures from the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras were encountered. Well, not quite the same (as the plots are vastly different), but still, with unknown and sometimes terrifying creatures lurking around every mountain top, bush, tree, and lake bed, we can draw a parallel.
On the face of it, this seems like nothing new. We’ve seen these types of stories not only in Journey to the Centre of the Earth but also in fantasy tales/movies like King Kong, Frankenstein, The Mothman Prophesies, Harry and the Hendersons, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, The Legend of Boggy Creek, Ondine, Splash, Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book…and many others. But All Creatures Weird and Dangerous is a different type of story, a quite unique one, told from the perspective of a real-life veterinarian. It is also storytelling with a heart (the author’s deep respect, love, and empathy for all living things, no matter how creepy they may be, is prevalent throughout), and with a message – while not in the least preachy, it chronicles man’s devastation of our planet (climate change, overfishing, poaching) and the terrible consequences, not only for man himself but also for animals. Quoting John Muir, the 19th-century Scottish-American naturalist and environmentalist, Otterson adopts the same philosophical outlook: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”
Where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul. Of course. And Otterson does a stellar job illuminating just that, the healing world of flora and fauna, such that the reader feels a certain intimacy with them, and nature herself becomes nothing less than a character in the book. Here’s one example: “For me, it was heaven. There were old dirt roads all over the property and abandoned fields that had become meadows or groves of bamboo. There were ponds full of fish, turtles and frogs where they had once watered their livestock. There were several houses with barns and greenhouses. But most importantly, there was nature. I saw water moccasins and alligators, and alligator snapping turtles, foxes, and deer. The far end of it even had a rookery for egrets with thousands of white birds nesting in the cypress trees high above the water. We would paddle our canoes and pirogues (that’s a Cajun kayak) around the trees looking at the chicks above and trying to spy the lurking alligators as they waited for a meal of failed fledgling.”
Although we are introduced to a whole “other-world,” a world replete with both myth and imagination (along with a liberal sprinkling of science), some of the most endearing moments in the book occur when the author brings his family and friends into the mix. We come to learn how his grandmother managed to navigate The Great Depression when her husband died unexpectedly of a heart attack at an early age. And there are delightful scenes of gatherings, many of which revolve around food and eating. But also around shared camaraderie involving veterinary medicine, hiking, exploring, and story-telling. A certain homespun quality reminiscent of Farley Mowat (whom the author references), Will Ferguson, and even Stuart McLean, infuses All Creatures Weird and Dangerous. Added to the fun are charming illustrations of many creatures, cryptid and non-cryptid alike, scattered amongst the pages. They’re not exact replications (they obviously couldn’t be because although we have ideas, we don’t for certain know what, say, a sasquatch looks like up-close), but good enough to spark one’s imagination.
While an engaging short book (it runs roughly 150 pages), with many attributes, All Creatures Weird and Dangerous might have benefited from more dialogue in certain strategic spots. There are long stretches of uninterrupted narrative, with no dialogue. It wouldn’t have been necessary to incorporate copious amounts of speech (since this wasn’t a play), but still, there is always a place for dialogue. A perfect spot for it would have been when Otterson and his son tumble down the side of a mountain. It appeared the author had broken his leg/ankle. He might have called out with a sentence like this: “Damn, I think I’ve broken my foot.” Adding: “I don’t think I can stand.” And his son, who took a heavy blow to his ribs from a large rock and may have broken them, might have responded in kind (what’s that old adage? – a little less telling, a bit more showing). In any case, this lack doesn’t really detract from the book
Overall, All Creatures Weird and Dangerous is a wonderful read, an unusual gem of a book, highly recommended for those who find wisdom by keeping an open mind to the mysteries of the world. And to those who grew up sleeping with the light on and who believed in monsters lurking in their closets.
All Creatures Weird and Dangerous is published by Guernica Editions.