High Strangeness and Family Romance: a review of Sharma Shield's "The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac"

In author Sharma Shield's The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac, an American family are touched in surprising, tragic and often poignant ways by their connection with a large upright bipedal ape named, improbably, Mr. Krantz.  Mr. Krantz can talk - well enough, in fact, to seduce a woman named Agnes away from her husband and son.  Her son, a sensitive boy named Eli, even meets Mr. Krantz, stuffed into a too-small suit, with tufts of thick and gnarled hair betraying his animal nature, before his mother leaves to begin a new life in the woods with her lover.  The event is a catalyst of "high strangeness" which affects generations of his family in various ways.  

Dr. J. Allen Hynek, famed investigator of the unexplained and anomalous, coined the phrase “high strangeness” and defined it as “a measure of the number of information bits the [UFO or Bigfoot, or whatever] report contains, each of which is difficult to explain in common-sense terms”.  In less pedantic terms, it means that some people have reported some truly strange things.  And even in some otherwise "predictable" encounters with the inexplicable, there are sudden left turns into the absurd or bizarre.

Dr. J. Allen Hynek

Dr. J. Allen Hynek

To wit: consider the variety of weird shit people have reported.  There have been Versailles time shifts, flying red-eyed humanoids that famously prophecy destruction, and a 1924 siege of demi-apes on the cabin-full of frightened hunters, all of which are strange enough to merit "high strangeness" as a descriptor.  

But the case of high strangeness par excellence is the case, beginning in 1930, of Gef the talking mongoose.  Gef (read Jeff) could not only speak to the UK family whose house he lived in (largely unseen), but had a real way with words as well.  His first recorded words were to call the man of the house a "fat-headed gnome".  He was a self-proclaimed "extra, extra clever mongoose" who told the world "I'll split the atom!  I am the fifth dimension!  I am the eighth wonder of the world!"  The whole tale has a sort of dream logic to it - it doesn't make any rational sense, and yet it couldn't have been any other way.

The case of Gef the mongoose was never definitively resolved because it cannot be explained.  Sure, you could say that it never happened, or it was a lie.  Even so, a whole family, father James, mother Margaret and daughter Voirrey, claimed to have seen and communicated with him, and whether or not they were lying, disturbed, or deluded, Gef left a mongoose-sized imprint on UK popular culture.  Talk about "high strangeness".  

Each chapter of The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac is a discrete story in time, sometimes following Eli as he becomes a dentist, family man and professional Sasquatch hunter, sometimes following some member of his family as they ride the riptides left in his wake.  The chapter titles are most often accompanied by parenthesized dates, beginning in 1943 and concluding either in 2006 or entirely outside of space and time, depending on your viewpoint.  "Hunter's Almanac" resists easy summary.  It is at once a novel of family romance (in the Freudian sense, not the Flowers in the Attic sense), a tale of the uncanny, and, necessarily, a story about a haunted man's search for meaning.  Like many cases of "high strangeness", it is both funny and oddly humane.  

Not every chapter is as uniformly compelling and odd as the novel is when it is at its best, but even at its weakest it has more imagination than many works of more mainstream speculative fiction.  And like the most famous cases of Forteana and the unknown, it coheres, not because it makes sense, but because it seems to confirm that the world never made sense in the first place - at least not the sense we arrogantly insist that it make for us.  In The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac the emotions of its characters, whether a neglected housewife who finds comfort - and later, horror - in the form of an magic, threadbare skull cap, or the inscrutable but not altogether inhuman Mr. Krantz himself, feel realistic even if the events of the plot are far from it.  

Though UFOs and monsters pervade the realm of speculative fiction, they are all too often of a kind of humdrum sort, all little grey big-eyed (or worse, insectoid) aliens and bloodthirsty monsters.  "High strangeness" is rare.  But like oft-told or well-worn tales of the uncanny, "high strangeness" often seems to contain an illogical, but terribly human aspect which could and probably should complement more works of science fiction, horror and fantasy, if not literature itself.  

Sharma Shields has accomplished exactly that with The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac, a novel which knows that the North American ape is inherently weird, silly and improbable, but which nevertheless takes it as seriously as Kafka did cockroaches.  As deadly serious, if inexplicable, as Gef the talking mongoose. 

But then, as Shields and Gef show us, not everything should or can be explained away.  In fact, if you're anything like me, huge chunks of life are unfathomable, impenetrable, and ludicrous.  I always hope to find art that reflects that.  Call it the new new weird.