Monsters of New Jersey: Mysterious Creatures in the Garden State by Loren Coleman and Bruce G. Hallenbeck
“As in all investigations in New Jersey, as elsewhere, it is best to approach your quest with an open mind, critically, skeptically, and patiently.”
I suppose it’s fitting to start my review of Monsters of New Jersey: Mysterious Creatures in the Garden State with the last sentence in the book. Author Loren Coleman, the world’s leading cryptozoologist and Fortean, succinctly puts what any armchair monster hunter (or any paranormal investigator, for that matter) should know: There’s a lot of weird stuff out there, and whether it’s real or not, we have to be careful before we believe it or debunk it.
A natural companion piece to his earlier Mysterious America, Coleman’s new book focuses solely on the creepy critters of New Jersey. Once again, the gamut of oddities from the goblin universe is explored here, from more well-known creatures such as Bigfoot and sea monsters, to lesser-known beings like lizardmen and flying humanoids.
The first chapter details what is surely New Jersey’s most prominent monster, the Jersey Devil. Part folklore, part hoax, and part genuinely unexplained phenomena, the Jersey Devil supposedly resides in the Pine Barrens, south Jersey’s vast, million-acre wooded area that is largely unpopulated. The Jersey Devil doesn’t fit into any neat cryptozoological archetype. The most common descriptions claim that it has the head of a horse or ram, bat-like wings, and cloven hooves. It supposedly emits a mournful, high-pitched wail described as a cross between a shriek and a whistle. The author does a good job pointing out which parts of the story are pure fabrications, and which parts of the legend are truly unexplained.
Then we’re on to winged weirdies, which include giant birds, flying humanoids, and more. Mentioned is one of my favorite stories, from September of 1880, in which a winged man was seen flying over Coney Island towards New Jersey. Being a Brooklyn native, I can tell you that if anything weird was going to happen around here, it would probably involve Coney Island and New Jersey.
Bigfoot is up next, or as he is known in the Garden State, “Big Red Eye,” for his distinguishing feature of glowing red eyes. Mr. Coleman does a good job of distinguishing the classic Bigfoot of the Pacific Northwest from the usually less bulky hairy hominids of the east coast. Tied into the New Jersey sightings are reports from New York, Long Island, and down to Florida, where they call their man-beast the Skunk Ape. It’s interesting to note how the sighting patterns of these creatures over the years seems to indicate a migratory pattern, as they are seen more frequently down south as the weather up north gets colder.
The next chapters deal with the Hoboken Monkey Man, which is in all likelihood just a homeless person, and the “St. Joseph’s Cat’s Eyes” of Jersey City. We then move down to Cape May, as the author tells us about the long history of sea monster sightings on the coast of New Jersey. Lots of normal creatures have washed up on the shores over the years, and in the past they were assumed to be monsters. But there is one story in chapter on fresh water monsters that is 100% confirmed: the great white shark attacks in Matawan in 1916. A great white apparently swam inland into fresh water and started attacking swimmers in the town. These true events went on to inspire the novel and movie Jaws.
The last chapter is very short, and details some accounts of alligators in the sewers (and elsewhere) as well as lizardmen, humanoid beings with scaly skin and lizard-like appearances. There is a great appendix to the book as well, which is a chronological list of Jersey Devil sightings, furnished by The Devil Hunters, official researchers of the Jersey Devil.
The Good: Loren Coleman is perhaps the world’s leading cryptozoologist, and for good reason. So if you need a book on cryptids and strange animals, you need look no further. I’ve reviewed some of his other books in the past, including Bigfoot! The True Story of Apes in America, so it’s no secret that I love his writing style. Informative yet accessible, he continues that trend in Monsters of New Jersey, and occasionally breaks the fourth wall to give the reader a wink and a nod. I received this book on Saturday, and was finished on Sunday afternoon. Part of that is due to the fact that the book, since it only focuses on New Jersey, is only 120 some-odd (and some very odd) pages. But it’s also a great read that never loses the reader’s interest. There’s a good mix of monsters in here, from the well-known to the obscure. When something is a hoax or just too “out there” to be believed (such as the giant bird made of wood that could speak perfect English, and would inflate like a balloon and float away when attacked), he is not afraid to call it like it is. Most of his books have great appendices, and this one is no different.
The Bad: There is not much I could say against this book. I should perhaps address the bias I have, as I live on Staten Island, just a stone’s throw away from Jersey (and a very strange place in its own right). So I could see this book appealing more to people from New Jersey or some of the surrounding states like New York and Pennsylvania. Any true cryptozoology enthusiast will love the book, but the casual reader may not be able to relate as well as a local. The book does seem a bit short, and a few chapters seem rushed, but Mr. Coleman addresses the reader in his acknowledgements, indicating that during the writing of this book, he lost his mother, some friends, had some true family tragedies, and more issues in his life that perhaps delayed this book and maybe even forced him to cut it short. But it in no way detracts from the book. I just always want more.
The Ugly: Besides the horrific-looking creature on the cover of this book, there’s nothing really bad about this book. Some pictures would have been nice, allowing the reader to see the Pine Barrens, or the Blue Hole, but again, it doesn’t detract from the book.
The Bottom Line: If you have even a passing interest in cryptozoology, you should get this book. Amazon.com has it for $9.32, which is a bargain. The book covers a lot of ground, with a lot of reports, in a little over 120 pages. It’s a good primer on cryptids on the east coast, and a great companion piece to Mysterious America. Highly recommended.
Final Score: 95%