Foreword to A Consternation of Monsters

Foreword by Rik Winston, host of UFO All Night  

(hear the whole thing for yourself in Episode 00 of the Consternation of Monsters Podcast.)

Monsters are my bread and butter. My radio show, UFO All Night (check your local listings) largely revolves around them. And every night I take call after call from listeners who claim to have seen them—be they the little green ones who fly unidentified in our skies or the ones who leave behind only giant footprints and blurry photos. I also take calls from those few deluded souls who still insist monsters do not exist in the first place (he types with a wink and a smile). I have to think about monsters quite a lot. One of the things I’ve never wondered about monsters, though, is what might be a good collective noun to describe them.

Most of us know the standard collective nouns of nature: swarm of bees, gaggle of geese, pack of wolves, pride of lions, herd of cattle, pod of whales, school of fish, team of horses, and the one people like to cite the most, a murder of crows. But there are far better, more creatively-conceived, collective nature nouns out there. Dig around just a little and you’ll find a mob of emus, an army of frogs, a busyness of ferrets, a sneak of weasels, an array of hedgehogs, a parliament of owls, and a cackle of hyenas, among many others. Another I particularly enjoy is an unkindness of ravens. However, the collective noun I find most apropos to primates of all shades is: a shrewdness of apes. Monsters, though? Never once considered it.

A consternation is the collective description your author, Mr. Fritzius, came up with for monsters.1 It not easy to remember, sure, but it has a nice alliteration to it. Merriam Webster defines it as: a strong feeling of surprise or sudden disappointment that causes confusion. Describes the feelings generated in the typical monster encounter perfectly. Who’s going to argue with him?

Naturally, the internet.

Trouble is, folks online can’t seem to agree on a term of their own, either, or whether or not one should even exist. Most seem happy to argue that because the term monster does not describe a single species in the first place, applying a collective noun to it is a useless proposition and that no one should bother to try.2 (I have a collective noun for a lot of those people too, but it’s not a term I could use on the air so I’ll avoid it in print as well.) I disagree with them.

While monsters may come in many different forms and even different species (a few of which may yet prove to be real, living, breathing, formerly-legendary animals someday), the base idea of the monster—the unknown thing in the darkness—is one of the most powerful concepts in history, and one found across all cultures. Monsters, in this way, have been with us from the dawn of time, have accompanied our species on its journey across the ages, and even now lurk in the darkened corners of the allegedly enlightened world of the 21st century. The archetype monster alone deserves a collective noun.

Let me tell you a story about monsters and your author’s home turf of West Virginia…

Once or twice a year, representatives from one of the various cable television channels devoted to learning, science or history phone me up to ask if I’d like to host a television version of my radio show. For various reasons—my being the antithesis of telegenic possibly one—it’s never quite worked out. But, every year they try again and once in a while they throw enough money at me that I venture forth from my comfortable broadcast studio to investigate the strange and unusual out in the real world. This is how I found myself in Durbin, West Virginia, back in the mid-oughts.

West Virginia is a state with a fairly large pedigree when it comes to the strange and unusual—some of which you’ll learn about in this very collection. I could probably do a whole TV series set there—and others have tried. Durbin itself is not precisely a weird place, though. It’s a beautiful-yet-tiny community smack in the middle of the Monongahela National Forest, not far from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Green Bank. And it is a place that has remained largely unchanged for most of the past century. You can stand on the main drag through town—US 250, right across from the bright yellow train station of their scenic railroad, the Durbin Rocket—and other than the Coke machine in front of the general store, you’d swear you had been transported back to the 1940s or earlier. We were there to use the Durbin Rocket to recreate footage for a story about the Ghost of Silver Run.3

One of the locals who’d been watching us film approached me for an autograph, and he happened to mention that he too had once seen something strange akin to a ghost. He was hesitant to spell it out at first, but I could tell from his manner that whatever he’d seen had shaken him so badly that the very memory threatened to overcome him right then. I had to know his story. With some encouragement, he explained that, as a teenager, he had once heard some odd noises coming from atop the tin roof of his family’s barn. He crept out into the night, his daddy’s shotgun in hand, only to find that the noises were being made by the boot-clad heels of a figure standing atop the barn. And that figure, he told me in a whisper, was none other than a headless horseman.

That’s right, a headless horseman.

A horseman who, for reasons we can never be completely certain of due to the passage of time, no longer possesses a head.4

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Headless horseman? Riiiiight. That guy was yanking your chain, Rik.” And, logically, you’d be right. In our allegedly enlightened times, the very idea that a headless horseman actually exists, not to mention that someone would admit to seeing it, is utterly absurd. I wanted to reject it outright myself, except that I had seen the man’s face as he told his story and he was one scared dude. Which isn’t to say he wasn’t crazy, or hadn’t been sipping from a jar of Eldridge County moonshine before he saw his horseman. But he fully believed he had seen himself a monster that night long ago.

Most people would dismiss the man’s tale as legend and folklore. Those labels are often slapped onto strange and unusual concepts that are not openly accepted. The trouble with dismissing legends and folklore, though, is that, like their cousins religion and mythology, there is at the heart of them a hard kernel of belief. At some point in history, someone believed in these monsters and legends powerfully enough that they passed the information on—be it in oral accounts, cave paintings, or the printed word. These legends and myths always make for fantastic stories, because deep down we’d really like to believe them. In the face of all evidence to the contrary, we want to believe. And belief, my friends, is a powerful thing. You can dismiss it if you like, but I don’t advise it. To do so is like trying to dismiss a barrel of mercury—it’s slippery, beady stuff and if you can’t keep all of it in the barrel, you’re in serious trouble. Oh, and it might just kill you if you’re not careful with it.

I did not then, nor do I now dismiss the man’s account of the headless horseman of Durbin, just as I also do not dismiss the Mothman of Point Pleasant, nor the Monster of Flatwoods, nor the Hocco of Mississippi, nor the various gods, angels, shadowy mobsters, Men in Black, wise old women, or once-and-future kings of rock & roll that also appear in this collection. Or the monsters. You’ll find a whole consternation of them in these pages.5 And it’s an apt term for them, because those of us who want to believe are forever in a state of consternation over the reality of such creatures, just as we would be consternated were we ever to meet one ourselves.

A warning: the monsters you’ll find here don’t always lurk forth baring fangs and claws, either. Often, they simply walk on two legs—we shrewd apes often being the most monstrous of God’s creatures.

I’ve not yet met the author of this book. I can tell from his work, though, he knows a thing or two about the power of belief. I bet he knows the fear of it, too. He also seems to know that the best way to get my attention and to secure my services at writing heavily-footnoted introductions is to drop my name into one of his stories. Next time I’m in the Mountain State, we’ll have to have a beer. Or maybe share a sip or two from a jar of that Eldridge County mountain nectar.

— Rik Winston

1 At least he didn’t call it a mash.
2 One wise soul, David Malki, the brain behind the fantastic online comic Wondermark, has created a list of collective nouns for various classes of supernatural creatures found in literature and legend. Among the ones he has provided that I love are: an academy of apparitions, a racket of banshees, a penumbra of spirits, a solace of Baba Yaga, a drove of elves, a fondle of unicorns, a clubbing of chupacabra, a ruminance of bigfeet, and an audacity of gargoyles. But he offers none for monsters as a whole.
3 Lady on a train got killed, came back to haunt the Silver Run Tunnel. The real Silver Run, north in Ritchie County, lacks a proper historic train engine, such as the Durbin Rocket.
4 Or, for that matter, a horse, since there was no mention of one accompanying the figure atop the barn. How the man knew it was a horseman, per se, remains unclear. Spurs maybe?
5 As well as members of an unkindness, a pod, a penumbra, a pack, a sneak, and possibly a solace to boot.

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