In books and movies, a monster is often more than just a monster. Maybe it represents anxiety, or corruption, or the id — all of which are themes that slither under the surface of Sarah Perry's new book, The Essex Serpent. Set in England at the end of the 19th century, "it's about the return of a mythical beast that's menacing the local villages," Perry tells me. "An atheist, Darwinist, progressive widow comes down to the Blackwater Estuary, determined to find out what this monster is — and while she's there, she meets a man of the cloth who is determined to protect his flock from the hysteria and the terror that surround them."
On the real-life Essex Serpent
My husband and I are both from Essex, and one thing that American listeners may not know about Essex is that it's the butt of jokes in the U.K., so it's considered to be the most unglamorous, foolish and vulgar of places. And Essex actually has a lot of history, and a lot of ancient myth and legend in it. And my husband told me, as we were driving through the Essex countryside, that a great beast had been seen in 1669, near the village of Henham on the Mount. And that immediately struck off the idea for the book. It was like someone lighting a match in a dark room, and then suddenly you can see all these pictures on the wall. My imagination went into overdrive.
So I said, what if it came back, when ideas around the fossil record and paleontology, and the debate between science and religion and superstition and rationality were really kind of the common currency, and it was something people talked about a lot?
On preferring to be afraid of monsters, rather than to learn about them
I think it's a really human failing, that we nourish and nurture our fears and our prejudices, and we don't really want people to turn up with their facts and their statistics and show us that we're wrong, because our fears are ours, and we can construct them to suit our own ends. And obviously increasingly since the book was published, that has seemed more and more relevant, I think.
On the monsters Perry is afraid of
I find myself now a different writer from the one who wrote The Essex Serpent. I'm more afraid than I have ever been, because, you know, the state of politics recently — what's happened in the U.K., what's happened elsewhere — has shown me that my tendency to be a benevolent humanist and think the best of my fellow men has perhaps been misplaced, and actually that there has been a fermenting of ill will and a fermenting of willful ignorance that was maybe going on the whole time, and I didn't notice. So I had my eye fixed on other monsters, and the whole time, there was something waiting in the water. And it sort of burst out, and it's been quite chastening, actually, to be the person that wrote The Essex Serpent, which ultimately I think is a relatively hopeful book, and have been confronted with the possibility that there are monsters that can't be vanquished. Not with the power of friendship, not by the power of grace — that maybe they have to be lived with for a while before we know what to do about them.