1. I love your latest book “Man-Made Monsters: A Field Guide to Golems, Patchwork Soldiers, Homunculi, and Other Created Creatures”. I was amazed to find so many different types of “created creatures”! Were you surprised to learn what a vast topic this was?
I suppose the answer to this question is both yes and no. I was well aware that the notion of “created creatures” was prevalent in both folklore and history but I suppose I hadn’t realized just how prevalent. When I was asked to write the book by the publisher, I initially had of course in the back of my mind, the idea of Frankenstein and so forth but as I thought more about it, other ideas began to pop up – the Golem, homunculi etc. Maybe we’ve become so used to the idea of Frankenstein, mainly through popular culture, that a lot of these other ideas get pushed to the side – but they’re still there. The idea of being able to create life for them selves, independent of any Supreme Bring, seems to have intrigued our ancestors down the years and this has manifested itself through the folklore and traditions of groups and civilizations in the past. So it’s not really surprising that the topic is an extremely vast.
2. Your book is a reasonable, respectable 185 pages. With such an interesting and diverse topic to discuss, was it hard to not end up writing a gigantic tomb? Did a lot need to be cut throughout the editing process?
This of course leads on from my first point. Because the idea of life-creation is so fundamental to us, it has generated a great deal of speculation – scientific, literary and folkloric – all as you rightly say very diverse in both scope and nature. Therefore, when I was researching the topic I came up with a massive amount of information and I think, if I had not been limited, I could have written a book which was twice as long. Before I finally submitted it to the publisher I had to go through a fairly rigorous editing process which cut out some rather interesting material which unfortunately had to be sacrificed. And of course I should pay tribute to my publishing editor, Gina, who did a first class job as ever. There’s always the possibility of another book in order to use the edited material you know!
3. In discussing probably the most iconic of man-made monsters, Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, you tell the tale of Giovanni Aldini, Mr. Pass, and George Foster, and how their story may have influenced and informed Mary Shelley when writing “Frankenstein”. It’s such a fascinating tale, have you considered turning your section about the trio into a screen play?
I’m glad you found the story of Giovani Aldini, the tragic George Foster and the mysterious Mr. Pass – possibly one of the influences for Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” – so fascinating. I found it so myself, possibly because of the colorful characters and the development of the story itself. In fact I would agree with you that there is the basis there for a novel or a film – all the elements are in place. I think there have been a couple of drama-documentaries made for television but they were very short and perhaps didn’t do full justice to the subject. But yes, turning the section into a screenplay is certainly an idea worth thinking about. Judging by the response I’ve received from some of the readers it would certainly be a hit.
4. When doing research for “Man-Made Monsters”, were you surprised to find so many stories of created creatures linked to religions?
Not really. One of the most fundamental questions which man has faced down the centuries is “Who or what created me?” or much broader terms “How did life – both human and animal – come about?” For many people the answer was linked to some sort of supernatural belief. This has often been linked into the idea of a Creator Being which usually forms the basis of religious ideology. Thus in, say, Judaism and Christianity, the idea that man was created by God “from the dust of the earth” is taken as a fundamental principle and is still accepted by many people today. The question then arises – “Can man also create beings – with or without the help of a Supreme Being?” . The answer in some circles seems to have been “yes” but not as perfectly as those which the Supreme Being had created. This of course led to the fear that the beings so created would be monsters. But the root of that belief and fear lay in a religious perception and I don’t really think that the idea of life-creation can be easily disentangled from religion.
5. Do you think there is something to learn about humanity by studying our history and fascination with creating life outside of the natural order?
I certainly think that there’s something to be learned by studying these legends and beliefs which is why I think I write about them. All these old legends – not just those about the creation of life outside the natural order but also those about vampires, werewolves and other terrors – address very fundamental questions and provide an interpretation of the world which out ancestors used with the information that they had available to them. In this respect, these old stories and legends are in many respects as important as the actual historical documentation that has come down to us because they provide an insight into the thought processes of former times. This is what I try to explore in my books and I think the question is not “Do these things exist or have they happened?” but “Why do we want to believe in them or that they happened?” Many of these so-called “horrors” have continued to fascinate us both in books and film for many, many years. I think if we explore further into any of these subjects, it tells us a bit more about ourselves.
6. Out of the diverse bunch of man-made monsters you discuss in your book, which one is your favorite and why?
I don’t think I have a particular favorite since all of these beings interest me. Of course, I was intrigued by the myth of Frankenstein, simply because it’s so culturally known and I had read Mary Shelly’s iconic book many years ago. As well as that I’d watched all the old Frankenstein black and white films , and it had always intrigued me. But then I was also interested in the Golem and in the works of the early alchemists. And as I dug more deeply, researching the book, I came across more and more interesting things – ancient mechanisms and mechanical beings for example – and as I looked at them, the more my interest grew. So I suppose asking me to choose between them is like asking me to choose between my children – all have their own differences and fascinations so it’s really impossible for me to pick. If I was actually forced to, I would perhaps say Frankenstein, mainly because of the interesting story of Giovanni Aldini, but I’m not really sure.
7. One of my favorite creatures discussed in your book is the Golem. Can you tell my readers a little bit about them?
The Golem springs from Jewish tradition and folklore. Once again it addresses the question – “Can Humanity itself create life?” – which taxed certain of the early Hebrew thinkers. The answer was that Mankind might be able to create life but that it would do so imperfectly. Even God, it was suggested, had created an imperfect prototype – Adam Kadmon – before He actually created Adam. The Golem was a large man-like figure which was created out of clay but had only a limited intelligence. It could only be created by the holiest rabbis, using a formula which had been learned directly from God Himself, through the secret Book of Creation (the Sefer Yetzirah). Part of the formula was to write the word or a number of signs (aleph) emet (meaning “truth”) on its forehead or on a clay tablet which was placed under the figure’s tongue and this would bring it to life. In some cases the word was supposedly written in the rabbis own blood. However, it should be stressed that the word alone would not give life but the accompanying rituals and observances. In order to destroy the Golem, the first aleph was removed leaving met (meaning “dirt” or “inert matter”) whereupon the Golem would crumble and return to dust. A number of extremely holy rabbis allegedly created Golems but not one was really able to control them properly. The most famous Golem was said to have been created by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Maharal of Prague (c1520- 1609). The creature was created at a time of great Jewish persecutions by Christians in Prague by Rudolph II, King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor and was designed to protect the Jewish community. However, the Golem became too powerful and began to develop a consciousness of its own (as some of them were said to have done) and began to attack the Christian quarter of the city, killing many Christians there. The Marharal was forced to confront the creature on the steps of what is now the Old New Synagogue in Prague. According to one version of the tale, Rabbi Loew tricked the Golem into either bowing down or opening its mouth to sing Psalm 92 (which was being sung when the Golem arrived) and removing the clay tablet. However the Golem did not return to dust but rather remained inert and was stored in the geniza (a place where religious documents are kept) of the synagogue. It is supposedly there to this day. There are many stories around it such as one that in World War II it attacked Nazi soldiers who were going to destroy the synagogue. Indeed today the Chief Rabbi of Prague, Karel Sidon, receives hundreds to requests to visit the geniza of the Old New Synagogue to see if the Golem is there – all of which are refused. However, the Golem is still a figure of Jewish folklore and one which I, like yourself, found particularly intriguing.
8. Swamp Thing: Alex Olsen, Alec Holland, or an elemental entity that mistakenly thinks it’s Alec Holland?
Like yourself, perhaps, I was a fan of DC Comics – I still maintain a great interest in them – and picked up on the Swamp Thing in the early days. I haven’t been following it recently though, although I think it’s still going in various forms. It’s an intriguing entity because it looks at a number of issues. As you quite rightly point out, there were all sorts of entities which were believed in many cultures to lives in the various swamps and marshes of several countries. So it could be places in one of those categories. There were, however, too creatures which lived particularly in parts of America during the 1800s which were said to be the spawn of swamp creatures and runaway slaves. Some were said to be genetic mutations caused by inbreeding amongst settlers in the deep swamplands. Such beings were supposedly prevalent in the Louisiana and Florida swamps and were supposed to attack travelers who came through their area. Later, as cultural referents changed, these became the supposed results of scientific/genetic experimentation which are said to be still there. Even in places such as Michigan and in the Kirtland area of Cleveland, Ohio we find legends of the “Melon Heads” which are said to be the result of experimentation . So these elements also feature in the idea of the Swamp Thing. When we first talked about Man Made Monsters, I talked with the publisher about including such things, even Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but it was agreed that we would keep it to easily identifiable creatures for this book. But you never know, there may be another book on the subject further along the line and then I may get round to tackling the iconic image of Dr. Alec Holland.
9. What’s your next project my readers can look forward to?
We’re looking at a number of options at the moment. This year I’ve produced about four or five books – some in America, some elsewhere and in a number of languages – and I’m taking a little bit of a breather in the run-down to Christmas and take a bit of time with my family. I’m also doing some comic work – I used to work scripting comics – and book design, so I’m not really idle. But I’m still talking about a new book, particularly with New Page, but I don’t want to say too much as the ideas are still being considered. But one thing I will say – here will be a new book out next year and I think I will be part of an anthology which is coming out from New Page. I’ve been asked to contribute and the contribution is already written. So watch this space!
10. Parting shot! Ask us here at The Magical Buffet any one question.
O.K. Is there really a Santa Claus?
Absolutely, because I believe in justice, mercy, and duty.
Perhaps I should explain, my answer is informed from my reading of “The Hogfather” by Terry Pratchett. In it Death and his granddaughter Susan work together to save the Hogfather or else the sun would not rise. Pratchett’s Death (who speaks all in capital letters) starts:
WHAT WOULD HAVE HAPPENED IF YOU HADN’T SAVED HIM?
“Yes! The sun would have risen just the same, yes?”
“Oh come on. You can’t expect me to believe that. It’s an astronomical fact.”
THE SUN WOULD NOT HAVE RISEN.
She turned on him.
“It’s been a long night, Grandfather! I’m tired and I need a bath! I don’t need this silliness!”
THE SUN WOULD NOT HAVE RISEN.
“Really? Then what would have happened, pray?”
A MERE BALL OF FLAMING GAS WOULD HAVE ILLUMINATED THE WORLD.
They walked in silence for a moment.
“Ah,” said Susan dully. “Trickery with words. I would have thought you’d have been more literal-minded than that.”
I AM NOTHING IF NOT LITERAL-MINDED. TRICKERY WITH WORDS IS WHERE HUMANS LIVE.
“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need…fantasies to make life bearable.”
REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little – “
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
“They’re not the same at all!”
YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET – Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.
“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point – “
MY POINT EXACTLY.
So yes Dr. Curran, there absolutely really is a Santa Claus.
About Dr. Curran:
Dr. Bob Curran was born and raised in a remote mountain area of County Down in Northern Ireland. Leaving school at 14, he worked in a number of jobs including gravedigger, lorry driver, professional musician, journalist, and even as a scripter of comics. He traveled extensively in many countries before returning home to settle down and work in the Civil Service. Later, he went to University where he obtained degrees in education, history, and educational psychology, whereupon graduating as a teacher.
Although he still teaches, much of his work is now regarding community development within Northern Ireland. In this capacity, he acts as a consultant to a number of cultural bodies within the Province. He deals with cross‐border matters with the Irish Republic, working for the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.
Sitting on a number of cultural committees, Curran has also worked directly as a governmental advisor and as a consultant to several bodies which have been set up by other governments. He also acts as a consultant to a number of tourism companies, giving lectures and conducting tours on many topics of local and national Irish history.
As a writer, Curran has been extremely prolific and has approximately 38 books to his name mainly on the subjects of history and culture. In addition, he has a number of works published in other languages including Japanese, Italian, French, Portuguese (Brazil), Spanish (Spain and Mexico), German, Urdu and Latvian. He has also served as a contributor and consultant to various radio and television programs both for private companies and national networks.
Married and with a young family, Curran continues to live in Northern Ireland on the picturesque North Derry coast, not far from the celebrated Giant’s Causeway.
To see all of his work available from New Page Books, visit their website.