I Know What I Saw by Linda S. Godfrey

I Know What I Saw: Modern-Day Encounters with Monsters of New Urban Legend and Ancient Lore By Linda S. Godfrey Tarcher Perigee, 2019

Not since the late, great radio host Art Bell have fans of cryptozoology, monsters, myths, and all things creepy had a champion as smart and sympathetic as Linda Godfrey, author of a dozen books on unknown creatures and indefatigable interviewer of devotees, dabblers, and doubters. Her latest book, I Know What I Saw: Modern-Day Encounters with Monsters of New Urban Legend and Ancient Lore, is a passionate and immensely readable breviary of the unknown. 

She starts things off with the basic questions that haunt any book of this kind: 

Twenty-six years of “chasing” monsters later, it still comes down to this: Are these sightings simply a combination of mistaken species of known animals, truly undiscovered animals, hoaxes, and coincidence, or are they somehow - perhaps through the power of myth and legends - intertwined with the human mind? 

When all speculation is over, she writes, fans, enthusiasts, and researchers want to know: are these things real, or otherworldly? Tangible, or imaginary? “My suspicion these days is that it may be both,” Godfrey writes, “and that our reality operates on a scale from dense matter to realms the human eye cannot see.” 

And yet, the book is absolutely brimming with human eyes seeing all kinds of things: biped dogs with glowing eyes, “phantom quadrupeds,” “dire dogs,” “witchy wolves,” ghost cats, deer-human hybrids, good old-fashioned werewolves, and a dozen other strange apparitions flash across these pages in a blur - and of course with not one scrap of actual, clear evidence. That’s the besetting weakness of books like this: the leap of faith at the heart of their claims. Godfrey indicates a reality that’s equally composed of both the tangible and the imaginary, but that’s just poetry; reality is by its very definition tangible. Until there’s tangible evidence of Thing X, Thing X doesn’t exist. 

Godfrey’s book - her delightful, completely involving book - is chock-full of things that therefore don’t exist, at least not as they’re described. “Phantom quadrupeds” and “witchy wolves” are actually quadrupeds and wolves until the adjectives can be parsed in a Petri dish. 

It’s hugely entertaining to go along with Godfrey while she interviews so many of the people who say they saw these creatures. Godfrey is a skilled listener and a wonderfully assured storyteller, a very natural combination of sympathy and common sense even when she’s dealing with fairly obvious charlatans. 

In this as in all cases, one of the surest signs of a charlatan is also one of the most prominent: just look for lightning striking twice. The cryptids that are the subject of Godfrey’s book must 

perforce be astonishingly rare; hundreds of millions of people are outside and travelling every day along roads, through woods, and across fields, and only an infinitesimal fraction of them ever report seeing an orc or a dire wolf or what have you. When it comes to Bigfoot, it’s practically a cliche: not only is the encounter vividly memorable, it’s also unique in the experience of the eyewitness. Somebody sees a sasquatch once, while hiking with his kids in Green Mountain-Tahuya State Forest, and he’s just one more stunned witness to something he can’t explain. Somebody sees sasquatch in every state forest, campsite, and Denny’s parking lot, and he’s a charlatan or delusional or both. 

Godfrey’s assemblage of such first-person reports includes a distressing number of people who seem to bump into the supernatural every time they step outside. A man named Mark (last name withheld), for instance, twice spots small hairless creatures “about the size of a four-year-old human” - once in a Mexican cave system and once in Maquoketa Caves State Park in Iowa. A man named Garrett Aziz has multiple encounters with a “phantom hound” in California. Repeat witnesses crop up over and over, and their prevalence creates a sub-strata of distrust that saps some of the good humor of Godfrey’s project. 

And what of Godfrey herself? She claims to have seen a sasquatch in rural Wisconsin on a couple of occasions, despite the fact that rural Wisconsin is full of people who’ve lived there twice as long without ever seeing or even contemplating a sasquatch. It’s impossible to avoid suspecting that the contemplating helps make the seeing happen. 

So I Know What I Saw will very likely fail to convince a skeptical reader that any of the beasties it describes are real in that pesky scientific sense of “tangible and verifiable,” and I’m not sure that would have changed if Godfrey had been more rigorous in weeding through her witnesses. In one sense, the narratives are the point of an enterprise like this: as a scientific collection of anecdotal evidence, the book is very nearly useless, but as a collection of campfire tales, it would be tough to imagine anything more effective. Take it along the next time you go camping and scare yourself catatonic once the sun goes down. 

—Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.