Posted by: Loren Coleman on July 27th, 2011
Looking at a book in the context of its time and the turmoil under which it was published is often helpful in understanding it a bit better.
How have we all internalized the cryptozoology study, in French, Monstres des lacs du Québec: mythes et troublantes réalités by Michel Meurger and Claude Gagnon (1982), and the version which was modified and republished in English, as Lake Monster Traditions: A Cross-cultural Analysis by Michel Meurger and Claude Gagnon (1989)?
I recall, with great anticipation, the days when I trekked to Quebec during the early 1980s, camping out at many of the lakes said to be inhabited by the various monsters researched by Meurger and Gagnon, and searching Quebec bookstores for my first copy of this specific French book. I did eventually find it in a tiny Quebec shop, and even though I could not read French, I very much enjoyed obtaining this treasure.
It was obvious the authors had done quite a bit of research, especially regarding finding original sources and old illustrations.
My wife (at the time, ex- now) is the granddaughter of the first chair of the French language department at Dartmouth College. Her French-born mother would translate passages of the book for my entertainment when I use to bring it on family visits to Hanover, NH.
Michel Meurger. Photo by Patrick Huyghe.
When the book came out in 1989, from Fortean Tomes, I was delighted to read it completely in English. However, I was disappointed by what I felt to be a shift in tone. The earlier book was about the data and was a celebration of discovery of the information found in Quebec. Yes, there was a good level of skepticism in the book regarding fogs, fish, and phantom reports (as there should have been) that all that was seen were not monsters. But it was done with a good measure of passion and joy.
The English language book, from what I had heard, was the end result of an alleged feud between Meurger and Gagnon. Gagnon wanted to merely present the data. Meurger wished to populate the book with his debunking theories about folklore being the root of most cryptozoology. As fate would have it, Fortean Times and Fortean Tomes were going through a similar shift, as well, and the perfect storm occurred in this book. It became the book that many would point to for years saying that most cryptids were more folkloric that physical. The original point of the 1982 book, I felt, was lost in translation.
I thus saw this book being rather reflective of the actual historical change in the editorial policy at Fortean Times. Some of the fun in publishing appeared to go out of the sails of Fortean Times. The establishment of Fortean Tomes and the publishing of Lake Monster Traditions signaled an expansive commercialism in Fortean Times that was reinforced with their purchase by John Brown Publishing soon afterward, in 1991.
It will be recalled that the London-based company John Brown Publishing was formed in 1985 by John Brown who had previously run Virgin Books. Brown began with two magazines – the adult comic Viz, for which John Brown had secured the rights, and HotAir, Virgin Atlantic’s inflight title. Buying Fortean Times in 1991 demonstrated the popular nature of the magazine, but also mirrored the transition from the old days of The News to the new look, feel, and tone of Fortean Times. FT had a lot more to do with debunking than traditional Fortean skepticism in the new John Brown days. This trend in the magazine continues into the present era of publishing about cryptozoology, although John Brown sold FT to investors about a decade ago.
In many ways, I saw the new English version of Fortean Tomes’ Lake Monster Traditions in 1989, as the screaming banshee in the middle of a dark Quebec lake, foreshadowing the coming debunking transformation of the Fortean journal from witty and merry, to woeful and unhappy.