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Incredible Stories: World Mysteries…

Incredible Stories: World Mysteries Explained

by Liz McLeod

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Incredible Stories is a spin-off book to a 2003 ITV series that covered six of the better known legends thave have continued to pique interested in Western societies even in an era of scientific method. The series covers discussion of Big Foot, Tutankhamun's Curse, the Nasca Lines, the Plagues of Egypt from Exodus, Atlantis, the Bermuda Triangle, and Vampires. Incredible Stories is written almost in a prose version of the original tv transcript and is a particularly light read that flows extremely well. The approach taken in each of the chapters is to identify the mystery and the claims for the existence and then introduce some simple scientific rationale for what really happened. Incredible Stories seems to be pitched well for a younger reader and might be a nice way to introduce a little easy scientific rationality to perhaps an early teen reader.

Incredible Stories starts and ends badly. The middle sections are all fine but the chapters on Big Foot and on Vampires are really not great. The chapter on Big Foot suffers from this being a written description of the tv series. The reason that is a problem in this particular chapter is that it discusses at some length the visual descriptors. The famous footage of hoaxers wearing gorilla suits is only possible to visualise with a memory of those short sequences. The analysis of the footage would be hard to appreciate without it. The chapter also has the problem of being far too extensive in attempting to support the evidence for Big Foot before it is eventually disproved which makes for slightly tedious reading as different attention-seeking Americans are given voice for their fantasies.

Equally, the Big Foot chapter is simply too narrow in scope. It would have been a much more effective introduction to the cryptozoology in question had it not focussed on America's Pacific Northwest. While Big Foot is geographically bound to that area, the origin certainly is not. A bit more science would have been useful in discussing the movement of people and their myths. Sasquatch is not at all unique and the fact that it bears such close resemblance to the Yeti is not at all a coincidence. This is not raised once but the movement of people across the ancient land bridge over the Bering Strait would have brought their beliefs and more importantly their history across the same bridge. The real mystery is not whether Big Foot exists but what this creature originally was in the lore of the peoples that went on to inhabit parts of the Americas and also the Tibetan plateau.

The concluding chapter on Vampires is just a little annoying. It is annoying because it focusses on New England vampires - hardly the home of the vampire tradition. Much of the chapter is taken up by dispelling the Hollywood illusion of the vampire myth as originally created by Bram Stoker. This is nice material to slap down fans of Twilight which might be extremely useful for the most appropriate age of readership but it is not a mystery. The extensive discussion of the Hollywood vampire only reinforces that image and the sole use of the word revenant in the chapter is insufficient to shake that picture. What is actually nice about the chapter is that it provides a proposed solution - consumption (tuberculosis). At least in the New England example it provides a compelling rationale for the vampire myth and it does not take too great a stretch of imagination to see that explanation working elsewhere.

Including the chapter on Vampires is a little annoying because of what it keeps out. It is something of a surprise to read about an Incredible Story from New England to do with supernatural forces and it not to be about the Salem witch trials. That is a far more interesting tale and one with much more global resonance in respect of the New England region.

However, the other four chapters are all perfectly fine. Tutankhamun's Curse is particularly well handled. The description covers the excitement of the time and the significant breakthrough that Carter's find proved to be. This was the great archaelogical discovery of the 20th century and the introductory section of the chapter makes that clear. The chapter also only gives relatively scant coverage to the curse itself. The dismissal of the curse is quite amusing in the simplicity used - frankly most of those alleged to have died from the curse were never anywhere near the tomb. The odds of some connection existing in the deaths of a few different people is quite high - such connections normally are not drawn but on the occasion of Tut's Curse there was a brief popular hysteria to support enquiry into patterns that had limited if any causal relationship.

The brief discussion of the dangers that do exist in such ancient places is reasonably well covered. Fungal spores and to a lesser extent trapped gasses make up the real threat rather than supernatural beings.

The Nazca Lines are possibly the least well known of the phenomena covered in the book. This chapter is the most interesting in the form of the eventual hypothesis provided. The introductory section of the chapter alludes to the Nasca acting on the basis of alien intervention with some nice circumstantial evidence helping to build that picture without it ever being drawn too obviously. The part of Peru where the Nazca lived is an exceptionally tough place to inhabit. Most troubling of all in this hostile environment is the devastating lack of water. The hypothesis generated by Johan Reinhard that a combination of deity worship, ritual, and most importantly water sources were the purpose behind the lines. It is an eminently plausible hypothesis and is described in elegantly simple terms.

The Plagues of Egypt is a reasonable chapter. The purpose of the chapter is to provide a scientifically plausible narrative to the sequence of the 10 plagues that struck Pharonic Egypt in the time of Moses and Aaron. The chapter dismisses the tenth and most brutal of the plagues as being fiction despite it being the one linked to Passover and so the most interesting of the lot. A hypothesis associated with the 10th plague is given one line and then dismissed out of hand. Aside from that plague, the others are all relatively well explained as part of a series of disasters that would logically follow from some environmental disaster catalyst.

However, the Plagues of Egypt are not the real mysteries of the Book of Exodus. The real mysteries are who Pharoah was (which is covered and a received wisdom answer provided), why God went into such detail of things like animal husbandry and crop rotation when handing out his laws, how come it is Aaron who is the real benefitor of Moses's solo mission up the mountain, and most importantly what happened in the Sinai Desert when Moses ordered Levi to take actions that can only really be read as being outrageously repressive. Of course, this is popular science at the easiest and not historical analysis and the chapter is perfectly fine without going into these layers of bible criticism.

Atlantis is a chapter that this reviewer recalls well from the tv series thanks to the narrator's accent producing an amusing rendition of the word Santorini. That aside, the Atlantis myth is given full air and is very well described including use of narrative from Plato. The historicity of Atlantis remains questioned but the chapter comes down on the side of the myth not springing out of nothing. The sighting of Atlantis within the same region as that the myth most likely comes from seems very sensible. Not being hung-up on the description as being to the west of the Pillars of Herakles also makes sense as described. The chapter serves as a nice introduction for those new to the ancient eastern mediterranean by placing it in its rightful place as a bastion of pre-Greek greatness.

The chapter on the Bermuda Triangle is well done. Recognising that the mystery is extremely well-known, there is not much time wasted on the unusual disappearances. It is a part of the world synonymous with hard to explain phenomena. The approach the chapter takes is to posit some unlikely theories and then delve into the detail of the methane hydrate hypothesis. Whether this hypothesis is actually correct is not currently known as there are suggestions that methane hydrate releases have not happened in the Triangle. However, it is the quest to provide a scientific explanation that is under discussion in this chapter. Finding comparable maritime hazard areas such as the Witch's Hole in the North Sea, the chapter attempts to build evidence for the methane hypothesis. It is never proven beyond reasonable doubt and the reader is left to draw their own conclusion but it is a nice balance for a newly enquiring mind.

Incredible Stories is a nice introduction to some legendary mysteries. It does not always hit the right targets well but it is a useful tool for non-fiction reading that will hold enough interest because of the spookiness of some of the mysteries. The quality of the science is not what matters, it is that this book provides a nice balance to help out on the route to a rational understanding of even the most inexplicable of phenomena. ( )
  Malarchy | Sep 24, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0233050736, Paperback)

Incredible Stories will link the Nazca lines of southern Peru to the El Nino phenomenon, follow the latest archeological evidence to the possible Atlantis site of Santorini in the Mediterranean, and bring both the Abominable Snowman and the Vampire out of the shadows. Contemporary science can now explain a great deal of phenomena, but the rational explanations the scientists offer turn out to be more scary than the mysteries they replace.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:10 -0400)

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