This essay was published in Craig Heinselman's compendium Elementum Bestia earlier this year. It was written for an audience interested in cryptozoology, but, if that does not include you, please don't be deterred.
Cryptofiction – One Reader’s Thoughts
By Matt Bille
It’s not clear who created the genre of cryptofiction. Perhaps the unknown composer of Beowulf gets credit. More likely, the art goes back to some Cro-magnon telling stories around the campfire of how he saw a strange, unknown breed of short-faced bear (no doubt the size of a mastodon) or rediscovered a presumed-extinct cave lion.
There was a spate of cryptofiction (CF) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that produced some very enjoyable work, mainly in short story form. The writers were not just the expected culprits like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, but included such luminaries as Rudyard Kipling (sea serpents) and Jack London (mammoths). Some of the short stories involved were told in the straightforward manner of a news report. Wells’ “The Sea Raiders” is a standout in this group: those who read about his murderous cephalopods could be forgiven if they thought the material was nonfiction. Chad Arment has put together a wonderful collection of such cryptofiction at http://www.strangeark.com/czfiction.html.
CF continued to crop up in all kinds of works, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan series, where his great apes are just one of many unknown species that play greater or lesser roles. But I want to focus this essay on cryptofiction’s most common 21st-century form, the CF novel. I’m defining a CF novel as one where the main plot centers around discovery or rediscovery of a species of animal (a “cryptid”) not recognized as existing by mainstream zoologists. The modern CF novel might be said to descend from Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, written in 1912 and still in print. Most CF novels would be classified as thrillers, although genres like mystery, SF, and horror can all have cryptid themes.
That covers a lot of ground, and the lines around this subgenre are fuzzy ones. What, for example, does one do with Whitley Strieber’s superb The Wolfen? His creatures are natural animals, and he makes them quite believable, but I think of it as a horror novel. Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s equally gripping Relic is a scientific thriller not based on any reported cryptid, and I never figured out whether to call it CF until the sequel, Reliquary, moved the story firmly into the realm of science fiction and saved me from further pondering.
There is also the problem of classifying cryptofiction with supernatural or mystical elements, as in Robert Masello’s Bestiary and Philip Kerr’s Esau. I suggest these are probably still CF, though a bit genre-bending. There are plenty of novels which include cryptozoological elements as secondary or even incidental components (Michael Crichton’s Sphere and Arthur C. Clarke’s The Deep Range, for example), but we’ll set those aside here.
In this reader’s opinion, the truly great CF novel has not been written. There are some top-shelf examples of the genre, with Eric Penz’s Cryptid, Petru Popescu’s Almost Adam, and Steve Alten’s The Loch all come to mind, but nothing I’ve read so far is really transcendent, the way Elizabeth Kostkova’s The Historian is for vampire fiction. There’s no reason there can’t be such a cryptonovel, given the inherently dramatic nature of the subject matter and the many human, scientific, and political conflicts which may be involved. It just has not quite been done yet.
By way of comparison, the vampire novel would seem to have been drained dry, with hundreds or thousands published since Mr. Stoker got the whole thing started in 1897. Yet Anne Rice made a fortune by providing a new and literate take on the legend eighty years later, and then Kostkova essentially did the same thing again, only even better, in 2006. If great novels with a fresh approach can be created in a genre as crowded as this, they certainly can – and, hopefully, will – be published in the CF realm.
Who writes cryptonovels? The authors can be established thriller writers who just choose to do a plot concerning an unknown or unconfirmed animal, or cryptid (e.g., Philip Kerr). They can be cryptozoological researchers who use the novels as a way of exploring what might be the truth behind cryptid tales (e.g., D. L. Tanner, Lee Murphy). They can also be thriller writers who start in CF and branch out from there (e.g., Steve Alten). They can even use the cryptid as a central part of a plot meant to explore some other topic. Frank Peretti did that in his Christian-themed Monster, where his sasquatches just happened to be in the same area as an ape-raising mad scientist who accidentally proves evolution doesn’t work.
The would-be CF author has a dual problem. First, the novel must be a good novel, with believable characters, stories, etc. The usual rules of good writing – people, motivation, story, and conflict – all apply in CF as they do everywhere else. So do details. Dean Koontz’ much-quoted (by me, anyway) maxim is that you can ask a reader to accept one major improbability as long as all the other features of the novel, including the small details, are solidly grounded in reality. (Koontz has not always followed his own rule, but it’s still a good one.)
That does not rule out minor liberties in geography or history, which crop up in non-cryptid writings by everyone from Stephen King to Dana Stabenow without hurting the story, but there are limits: James Michener’s creation of fictitious states in his novel Space was a jarring distraction even in the hands of a skilled writer. (I do hope Dana Stabenow somehow reads this: a novel putting her sleuth Kate Shugak on the trail of Alaska’s legendary Hairy Man would be great fun.)
The second part of the writer’s problem is the cryptid. A horror writer can invoke the supernatural and get away with almost anything, but a CF author can’t. The author has to make Koontz’s big improbability (the cryptid, in this case) seem probable, or at least plausible. The cryptid must be more or less consistent with the existing record and, to a large degree, scientifically believable.
Dedicated readers of cryptofiction are not a large lot, and the writer must appeal to a broader thriller/horror/etc. audience to make a novel successful. However, cryptozoologists are a hard-core bunch, well-read in the facts and theories of their field of interest. If an author attributes the Lachlan Stuart photo from Loch Ness to Tim Dinsdale, there will be hell to pay. It’s almost like writing a Star Trek novel, where an error on some obscure point of Vulcan protocol will draw a deluge of emails calling the author a Romulan or worse.
An author introducing a new or surviving creature has to assume many readers will have, or will look up, sufficient information to judge whether the creature involved might really exist. In James Robert Smith’s enjoyable thriller The Flock, I could generally get past the problems with undetected survival of his terror birds, but was stopped short when one “laughed” at the abstract idea of a dog taking him on, and I almost gave up on the book when the critter actually got a mental image from human hunters.
Sometimes CF authors seem not to know how to get to their tale, and so they gloss over too much. Robert Masello in Bestiary described his animals well, but never explained where they were for millions of years before they ended up as living treasures in care of an Iraqi dynasty. Sometimes authors go the other way, throwing a blizzard of scientific jargon at the reader in hopes said reader will thus buy into the creature’s reality. Dave Freedman’s Natural Selection, which mixes a few real data points and many imaginary (and some impossible) ones, is the most egregious offender on this point. (The astonishing thing is that, to read some reviews by major media outlets, this actually worked. The absurdity of Freedman’s flying mantas was somehow passed over, and I suppose I must give the author some credit for this accomplishment.)
For the author who plans to tell a series of stories in novel form, growth from one tale to the next is always possible and highly welcomed. I wrote harsh reviews of Steve Alten’s original Meg and its sequel, but Alten had improved as a writer by the second sequel, and did a better job as both author and cryptozoologist with The Loch. Likewise, Lee Murphy’s Naitaka corrected what I thought were flaws, most notably in characterization, that had marred his debut novel Where Legends Roam.
Human characterization is the hardest thing for any author to get right, and CF is even less forgiving than most thrillers in this light. The author must not only give us real people, but make us believe in how they would react when faced with the incredible.
Imagine being alone in the forest when confronted by a sasquatch. Some of us would stand and stare in fascination: some would reach for a camera or a gun; some (probably including me) would want to stay but would likely, by reflex, high-tail it out in search of reinforcements. The author needs to think about why this person is in the woods, what shaped their character, and how they would greet a giant, smelly, supposedly non-existent ape. Likewise, the quiet guy who was reluctantly dragged along on an African cryptid expedition should not suddenly burst forth with a long explanation of why a given fruit is probably good dinosaur fodder, unless it’s been established that 1) animal nutrition is his expertise and 2) his character is likely to grab the spotlight if opportunity presents itself.
In some novels (I’ll pick on Natural Selection again here), the author offers us a collection of two-dimensional folks who summon no sympathy from the reader even when they are eaten or dismembered. At the other extreme, Robert Laws is so sure his characters in Ferocity will hold the reader’s attention (and he’s right) that the cryptid gets two brief mentions in the first six chapters. (Laws’ book was going to be on my top picks, but his leaving his British mystery cats’ ability to hide from direct vision unexplained spoiled it for me.) Likewise, one of the reasons I admire Almost Adam is that Popescu’s characters keep us turning the pages even when his australopithecines are “off screen” and not even being discussed.
Not all characters, of course, are equal. By the nature of all fiction, length and pacing dictate that some characters will remain undeveloped. That’s no excuse for stereotypes, though. Examples in CF (especially prominent in CF-related films) include the skeptic who dismisses everything until the cryptid makes human McNuggets out of him or the wise old Native who tells the disbelieving white visitors to stay out of the woods. A personal non-favorite of mine is the business executive who is already wealthy and successful but casually orders or even personally commits kidnapping, murder, etc. in pursuit of more money or to settle a minor score. Even Enron wasn’t the Mafia.
The CF reader wants to be transported into a setting that is right for the animals involved and feels real to the reader. Eric Penz in Cryptid did this better than any other CF author I’ve read, making us see, hear, and smell our surroundings in the Northwest forests. I compared him to Barbara Kingsolver in this regard, and I meant it. One can do a good job with slightly less detail, as Alten did with Loch Ness and Popescu with Kenya, but the point is the environment matters to any cryptid, and thus to any writer or reader of CF.
The writer does not need to explain the plausibility of each point in so much detail that the story bogs down or halts. I remember reading a Tom Clancy novel that went on for two pages about how you make an automobile gas tank, and I remain convinced Clancy had given in to the temptation of simply showing off. CF authors should resist.
The flip side of that is that there’s no excuse for a flat-out wrong detail that most readers will catch. Alten gave us such a moment in Meg: Primal Waters when a prehistoric “flashback” offers us a Steller’s sea cow cruising a tropical lagoon without dying instantly of heatstroke. James Robert Smith does it when one of his characters brings out a Doberman weighing 170 pounds, almost twice the upper end of the bell curve for this breed. (I’ve already had a friendly exchange with Lee Murphy about his next novel – the guys on Mythbusters tried his hero’s playing-card-as-lethal-weapon trick, and it can’t be done.)
The last question that comes to mind is whether there’s a distinction between CF and “monster” thrillers. I think there is, but we are back to drawing fuzzy lines again. When the point is to have an exciting plot about terror, danger, and death, the author is usually not overly concerned with ensuring the creature (note I did not say “cryptid”) is plausible. James Rollins’ Ice Hunt is a first-rate page-turner, but his cetacean “grendels” not only survived 50 million years with no fossil record, but then survived while entombed in ice for fifty thousand years, and the explanation for all this is less than convincing. Just read it as a thriller and enjoy.
Taken together, all these points ask a lot of the would-be writer of great CF. No author will never convince every reader that his sasquatches have the right diet or that her giant octopus has the right mating habits. But he or she needs to show they’ve done the homework without drowning the reader in details that slow the story.
There is an enormous amount of unplumbed material in the crypto-world. We have several novels on sasquatch, but none on Africa’s dodi or Asia’s orang-pendek. We have several on Loch Ness, but almost none exploring sea serpents. Cryptid tales, by their nature, tend to involve exotic locales and often would, in real life, be the catalyst for many competing interests. They set up the most interesting kind of people stories – the kind where true character comes out under great stress – and offer the chance to enlighten readers on the scientific plausibility of the entire field of cryptozoology.
All this is, as I said in the headline, the opinion of one (albeit voracious) reader. Some people may love books I think little of, and vice versa. What is most important about CF is that it’s a vibrant, growing field, drawing in new authors who publish through all venues - large traditional presses, small presses, and self-publishing ventures.
I guess the bottom line of these notes is to tell writers of CF that there are many people eager to read your work, but we expect something of you, too. We expect you to treat the subject with seriousness and depth, not just have the cryptid pop out and chomp someone every now and then. The world needs more good CF, a lot more, and there’s room at the top for great CF. So go forth and write well.
Matt Bille is a writer of non-fiction cryptozoology (see his books Rumors of Existence and Shadows of Existence, both from Hancock House). He is working on a CF novel which has yet to find a publisher, and hopes any hints of professional jealously do not color the above essay. Matt’s website is http://www.mattwriter.com/.