Usborne's 'World of the Unknown: Monsters' – Final Part Of 1970s Paranormal Book Trilogy Coming In September
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It comes as no surprise that following 2019's very successful rebirth of Usborne's 'The World Of The Unknown: Ghosts', and 2020's arrival from deep space of 'The World Of The Unknown: UFOs', that Usborne have seen fit to release the third part of that sacred 70s trilogy of paranormal starter texts for so many of us with a shiny new version, 'The World Of The Unknown: Monsters'.
Available to pre-order now, the re-print comes complete with a new foreword by writer, presenter and comedian Robin Ince, a reissue of this primary text on cryptids means you'll be able to enjoy the last in this heavily influential, and by turns fun and terrifying, series of children's books from the 70s without having to pay out a month's rent for a second-hand copy.
We've covered the Usborne books on Ghosts and UFOs elsewhere on Higgypop, and it's no surprise to say we're huge fans. If you're unfamiliar with these books, we'll give you a quick intro, and then take a close up look at how of the most influential children's book publishers handled the broad topic of monsters back in the 1970's, and why we think it's worth a few pounds of your hard earned cash in the 21st century.
'The World of The Unknown' Series
Usborne Publishing was founded in London by Peter Usborne in 1973. It set out specifically to be a publisher of high-quality children's books by putting a lot of effort into the design, illustration and editorial. In a similar way to Ladybird books, the illustrations in Usborne books would draw you into the subject, and the text would hopefully provide a bit of education and stimulation for our Angel Delight and Smash-powered 70s kiddy brains.
The combination of engaging content with an educational angle meant Usborne books became very popular in school libraries – and these Mysteries of the Unknown books were always in high demand.
Usborne adept at using the technology of the time to produce full colour, vividly illustrated books. And having cast their eyes around at what 'other kids' were reading at the time, used novel page layouts often more resembling comic books than text.
'The World Of The Unknown' series of books started arriving in 1977. Although it might seem strange to think about a children's book publisher tackling such heavyweight paranormal subjects as UFOs, ghosts and monsters, the reality was that at the time, children's playgrounds were rife with talk of aliens and all kinds of paranormal events. Children's TV was regularly screening some heavy going shows, from the occult elements of 'Doctor Who' through 'Children Of The Stones' and 'Shadows', you couldn't move for hauntings and the undead. Add with the arrival of 'Star Wars', 'Close Encounters' and a remake of 'King Kong' in the cinemas, suddenly the idea of aliens arriving from somewhere far, far away or giant monsters roaming the earth didn't seem so ludicrous to your tiny brain.
'Monsters' was written by Carey Miller, a name I was not familiar with. A quick search tells us that she spent many years in primary education with a long stretch as a head teacher in London. She has several children's books published and is now writing novels. This lends credence to Usborne's claim about the focus on the educational aspects within their books. Though you might consider these subjects as fairly flippant, one of the key reasons this series of books were so popular back in the day was the editorial tone adopted. They didn't hype the subject up or treat it as a joke, they presented it in a straightforward manner with a sense of reverence. Providing evidence, asking questions, showing maps and diagrams, offering some possible explanations. Ultimately leaving you to ponder the subject and discuss it with your friends, or cower under your bedsheets at night should you be so inclined.
The Book Itself
'Monsters' is perhaps a very broad term, and the book does a great job of trying to cover all monstery bases available. Kicking off with a definition, it goes with the all-encompassing 'any strange creature' and sets the scene by stating 'there have been monsters of various kinds throughout history. Some actually existed, others were only thought to exist, some were created by story-tellers and others were a mixture of fast and fantasy.'
Following that broad all-encompassing definition, we're straight off into the first section of the book titled
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Monsters Of Myth & Legend
This section includes a look at the monsters of Ancient Greece, including Sirens, the Cyclops and, on a beautifully illustrated page, the Minotaur and Medusa. The image of Medusa in this book is one, like some of the illustrations in the UFO and Ghost books in this series, which has stayed with me since I first read the books in the late 70s.
Next up is Grendel, from the Old English poem Beowulf, and again a fantastic image shows Grendel attacking the sleeping men in the hall.
A few pages in and we've already covered Ancient Greece and Beowulf – how's that for sneaking in a dose of education under cover of scary monsters?
This section is rounded out with a look at dragons. Notable for the key reason that it includes one of the goriest illustrations in a children's book, that of John Lambton slicing up the Lambton Worm. Covered in spiked armour, dripping in blood, the 'worm' is being hacked into slices and impaled on spikes and yes, this is another of those images that mesmerised the audience and primed us for the video nasties of the 80s.
Prehistoric Monsters – Discovering Dinosaurs
The next five pages take us through dinosaurs, from their discovery and the initial confusion about what they were, how the dinosaurs evolved over time and a special feature on 'the fiercest beast to walk the earth' – the Tyrannosaurus Rex. Included is a great geological timeline taking you from the Pre-Cambrian up to the present day showing some of the key forms of animal life alive at that time. Again, the educational remit is on display here, this is a succinct way of helping children to understand evolution, geological time, and how man is separated from dinosaurs by millions of years.
Being written in the 70s before the theory of an asteroid impact wiping out the dinosaurs had been developed, the book can only offer up suggestions as to what ended the reign of these beasts. Was it an inability to adapt to the new forms of vegetation growing on the earth at the time, or rather prophetically, a change in climate which wiped them out? Other theories have been put forward, the book concludes, 'but the puzzle is still unsolved.'
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Serpents In The Sea
This section kicks off with the statement that with the earth being two-thirds ocean at a depth of up to eleven kilometres in places, it is impossible to have explored all of it, therefore it is possible that unknown sea monsters could live there. This is exactly the kind of thing readers of these books loved to hear – 'show us a chance these things could be real!'
This section covers such fishy foes as Monongahela's monster, a giant sea serpent estimated at 45m long spotted and caught by two whaling ships in 1852, a similar giant serpent seen in the North Sea in 1881, and the story of five teenage divers off Florida in 1962, allegedly attacked by a beast with only one survivor.
The story of the kraken is discussed. An old Norse word to describe a giant sea beast, the book presents the theory that perhaps this was a giant sea squid, with the shape the squid makes on the surface could be mistaken for a sea serpent.
Monsters Of Today
This section was the most interesting to me, presenting reports on three different monsters that just possibly were currently living alongside side us on the planet.
First up, the Yeti, or Abominable Snowman. A map is used to show where sightings of the Yeti have been reported. A number of different reports of Yeti encounters is presented, and we're shown a drawing of a Yeti footprint compared to a human. And yet, no photo of a Yeti has ever been taken.
The lack of any conclusive evidence is echoed on the following pages which look at the cousin of the Yeti, the Sasquatch or Bigfoot. Again, we're told about the sightings, they're plotted on a map, we're shown a parade of primate footprints, and even a drawing of some frames of the famous Patterson-Gimlin film. But we're told many think the famous footage of Bigfoot is a hoax, and that nobody has yet managed to prove Bigfoot's existence. Fair enough, but that doesn't mean they DON'T exist, right?
The next 'Monster of Today' should raise a cheer from British readers as it's the Loch Ness Monster. The book outlines some famous sightings, and even explains how Nessie could be a survivor of a family of prehistoric creatures, trapped in the loch since the end of the last ice age. We're told about the scientific explorations to attempt to find evidence of the beast, and that how whilst some people are convinced by the photos taken, others are not so sure. Again, leaving the opportunity to believe open for all us trainee Fox Mulders back in the day.
The final section of the Monster of Today is a bit of a cheat, as it's about man-made monsters in film. It takes us back to those glorious pre-CGI days of film making, showing us the secret of making a monster coming to life on screen as a man dressing up in a green rubber monster suit and headpiece.
Some of the monsters featured include Frankenstein, HAL in 2001, King Kong, the Mummy and even, taking things right up to date, Jaws the mechanical shark.
The book ends with a double page 'dictionary of monsters' spread, from Anubis to Yeti, but it was the multi-headed Scylla and rather cool looking Werewolf illustrations that stayed with me.
I always found the monsters book the weakest of the three. That isn't any criticism of the writing or illustrations, both of which are at the high standard you'd expect from Usborne. The attention to detail and absolute focus on the target audience for the books is still there - an audience who find the books as engaging now as they did forty years ago. The problem was that with the other two books in the trilogy being about ghosts and UFOs, monsters didn't get a look-in. My logic is that because monsters are to some degree grounded in reality - dinosaurs, large lizards and giant squid were still around, or had existed at some point – they lacked the exotic allure of things that could possibly be from another dimension. Come on! Actual aliens or dead people, versus a hairy Yeti man running round the woods. No competition!
Will I be buying a new edition of this book? Definitely, there's room on my shelf for all three reissued books in the holy trinity of primary school paranormal books. Even if I feel Monsters is the weakest of the three, it is still a fantastic read today. Reacquaint yourself with this updated classic.
What's interesting to me is that my children aren't bothered about these books at all. Perhaps like the increasingly expensive Lego kits for grown-ups that are being released in ever greater numbers, Usborne have worked out that the original audience have moved on, and there's a generation of us out there hoping to reclaim some aspects of our youth. I can't speak for all children out there, but none of the ones I know seem very much interested in ghost, UFOs or monsters. Their loss!
For many of us, these books formed a key, formative part of growing up, so opening the pages once again and seeing the images that shocked you as a child provides a pleasant hit of nostalgia. I think they also prepared us to some degree for the fictional horrors contained in the video nasties lying just around the corner in the 80s, and the nightmare threat of nuclear Armageddon which hung over us for much of that decade. For that, surely, we owe the writers, designers and illustrators of these books a debt of thanks.
'The World of The Unknown: Monsters' is released on September 30 2021, but is available to pre-order now on Amazon.
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