An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

June 25, 2020

Mittman and Hensel: Demonstrare. Classic Readings on Monster Theory / Primary Sources on Monsters

Asa Simon Mittman and Marcus Hensel, eds. Classic Readings on Monster Theory: Demonstrare, Volume 1 and Primary Sources on Monsters: Demonstrare, Volume 2. Leeds: ARC Humanities Press, 2018.

Reviewed by Melissa Ridley Elmes (

Monsters and scholarship on monsters have received robust attention in the modern university, with courses centered on or at least featuring teratological subjects appearing in literature, language, Classics, History, Art History, archaeology, and film, media, and cultural studies curricula, among others. And of course, monsters have always been a source of interest and fascination for the general popular culture audience in any given society. One of the challenges of putting together such a course, or of entering into monster studies as an independent researcher or enthusiast looking to know more, has been gathering and collecting resources to teach and learn with; in the absence of any single book devoted both to critical and scholarly materials and also to primary sources such as literary texts and images, professors have historically been required to develop their own “monster studies” coursepacks and pedagogical materials, and students and enthusiasts, their own reading/looking/watching lists, tasks made even more daunting by the inherently interdisciplinary nature of the subject. In today’s university, where the majority of professors are untenured and teaching increasing courseloads, the time and effort required to pull together such materials can detain and derail efforts to offer more coursework on monsters and monstrosity, even as their importance and interest as subjects of critical study continue to increase. In today’s society, where Googling “Monster” results in “About 1,120,000,000 results” as of the writing of this review, it’s difficult to know where to start as an independent learner or where to continue as an aficionado. Enter Asa Simon Mittman and Marcus Hensel with this two-volume set: Classic Readings on Monster Theory/ Demonstrare Volume 1, and Primary sources on Monsters/ Demonstrare, Volume 2.

If J.R.R. Tolkien and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen are the originators of the critical field (and they are widely credited as so being) Asa Simon Mittman is the Mensch of Monster Studies. Over nearly two decades of work he has collaborated with countless other scholars on edited collections, museum exhibits, conference programs and sessions, special issues of journals, and through his role as co-founder and President of MEARCSTAPA, an international and interdisciplinary society devoted to the study of monsters, offering undergraduate and graduate students, emerging and junior scholars, and senior scholars, alike, rich opportunities to enter into and make their own contributions to the field. Mentor as much as master of the subject, Mittman’s career goal of broadening the field (“total world monster studies domination,” if you will) seems closer than ever to fruition with the appearance of these books, designed as a set but readily employable as standalone volumes as well. An Art History professor, Mittman has teamed up with Marcus Hensel, an expert in Old English monsters and monstrosity, and an international roster of scholars in Classics, languages and literatures, and history ranging in career levels from graduate student to professor emeritus, to deliver a thoughtfully collated and brilliantly conceived, inclusive, and interdisciplinary resource that both communicates the history of the field and provides ample room to explore and discover new avenues of study within the selected primary sources, offering a generative reading experience geared towards promoting a robust future.

The first book, Classic Readings on Monster Theory, provides a curated set of five critical studies specifically focused on theorizing monsters and monstrosity, and four studies from “allied theories” that have helped to shape the direction of monster studies through intersectional and interdisciplinary avenues. The “Classic” in the title is apt, as the essays and excerpts in this book are from older studies that represent the foundational critical framework for the field. The monster theory section leads off with J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Monsters and the Critics,” the 1936 lecture-turned-essay that opened up the idea of examining the monsters in Old English literature as subjects of scholarly interest in their own right. This essay is followed by excerpts from John Block Friedman’s 1981 The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought and Noël Carroll’s 1990 The Philosophy of Horror. Rounding out this section are two watershed works from 1996: Michael Camille’s important (and too-often overlooked beyond Art Historical circles) “Rethinking the Canon: Prophets, Canons, and Promising Monsters” and the insta-classic “Monster Culture: Seven Theses” written by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. The “allied theories” section includes excerpts from Edward Said’s 1978 Orientalism, a foundational work in postcolonial studies; feminist and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva’s theory of “abjection” from her 1980 Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection; the introduction to J. Halberstan’s 1995 queer examination of “Gothic Monstrosity” in Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters and the introduction to Rosemary Garland Thomson’s 1996 Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, an influential work in disability studies. Each text is preceded by a page of notes including a critical introduction, reading questions, and further reading, all intended as orientation and guide for students and those new to the field.

I have a few minor complaints about this first volume overall: there are a number of typos and small-word omissions scattered throughout and the citation practices are inconsistent (this is, of course, due to the fact that these essays were originally published in different venues, but even within individual essays at times there are inconsistencies which the editors might silently amend); there is an inconsistent employment of cross-referencing (bold-printing names that appear in more than one essay) that doesn’t really work as it is presented (maybe offering a footnote or side note with the cross-referenced page(s) would be more helpful?) and finally, and somewhat disappointingly, the reading questions at times are leading in nature rather than designed to promote open-ended inquiry; for example, the first two questions for the Kristeva piece are: “Why did Kristeva choose to write in such a prickly, difficult style?” and “How does this affect your reading process and ultimate understanding of the text?” Although surely not intentional, as worded these questions paint the essay in a negative light for the target audience and direct readers to offer a critique grounded in its “prickly” and “difficult” tone rather than in its contents (and frankly, as I have experienced in my own classes, Tolkien’s essay is likely to be viewed by current students as just as difficult, if not more so, to understand.) All of these concerns could easily be remedied in future editions of the volume and do not detract from its overall pedagogical importance and usefulness.

The second volume is a collection of primary texts representing literary and visual monsters from ancient Babylon’s Epic of Gilgamesh to the 2009 creation of Slender Man. These have been selected to provide something of a historical overview of monster stories and figures, with a fairly even distribution between premodern, early modern, and modern works. The emphasis is on the Western literary and visual canon, with most texts either classics taught in Western Civ and literary survey courses or British, American, or Canadian in origin. This is intentional and specific, as per the back cover copy one of the aims of these books is to demonstrate “the consistent, multi-millennium strategies the West has articulated, weaponized, and deployed to exclude, disempower, and dehumanize a range of groups and individuals within and without its porous boundaries.” Longer texts are excerpted to emphasize the scenes featuring monsters and monstrous figures. All texts from the premodern period appear in translation, many of these commissioned specifically for the volume and providing lively and engaging, student-friendly renditions. The volume editors have further normalized and modernized the language of Renaissance texts, so that the entire volume’s contents are accessible to readers whether they have exposure to earlier forms of English or not. There are multiple texts included which provide cross- and comparative reading of particular monster figures in different eras and cultures: for example, the Old English Beowulf (here, excerpted with permission from Roy Liuzza’s absolutely splendid translation for Broadview Press) and John Gardner’s modern retelling from the monster’s point of view, Grendel. There are also texts that challenge an easy understanding of monsters as such, like Edgar Allan Poe’s doppelgänger tale, “William Wilson,” and Theodore Sturgeon’s plant-monster horror story, “It.”

Together, these volumes comprise an insta-course in monsters and monstrosity, providing a syllabus of primary and critical secondary sources that is readily customizable for any variety of undergraduate literature, critical theory, or general ed. courses in civilization or culture; with further enhancement from a knowledgeable professor they could also be used in graduate courses, especially at the Master’s level for a special topics course on monsters or as a general topical survey. The first volume could also be assigned, in part or whole, as a theoretical framework in Art History, film and media, introductory theory, and similar types of courses. Experienced monster scholars may not find much in these volumes that they don’t already know, know of, or have in their libraries, but the books are a convenient repository of commonly-consulted materials and worth the purchase as such. They are also an outstanding resource for students, independent study, and for enthusiasts and aficionados of monsters and monster studies and (in the paperback format) reasonably priced for the student and general audience. Taken in whole or in part, separately or together, these books seem destined to spur a new generation of readers to appreciate the many ways that monsters are good to think with, and to rise to the challenge of listening and responding to what they have to tell us.

Melissa Ridley Elmes
Lindenwood University