Mysteries of Planet Earth: An Encyclopedia of the Inexplicable

By Dr. Karl P. N. Shuker

Carlton Books, Dubai, 1999, 192 pp., paper, $22.95.

Reviewed by Douglas Chapman

Dr. Shuker has an especial knack for surveys of strange phenomena, whether cryptozoological in nature -- or of greater sweep. This volume should be attractive to everybody because many of its mysteries will be new to a majority of readers.

The book's three sections are "Mysteries of the Natural World," "Mysteries of the Supernatural World," and "Mysteries of the Vanished World."

In the first section, one of the most startling attractions is the Geep, a creature consisting of cells mixed from both an early-stage goat embryo and an early-stage sheep embryo. This is something one will definitely not find in nature, even though the details of its combination were described in a Nature paper.

Also in the section are observations about the apparently mythical earth hound, a corpse-devouring creature rather like a weasel or a rat. Descriptions vary slightly, but its ghoulish eating habits are consistent. It seems more mundane than the usual fauna of legend, and somehow more real.

Readers of issue #12 of Strange (to which Shuker contributed "More Mystery Plants of Prey") will enjoy "Beware the Trees of Terror," one of which is the Brazilian Devil Tree -- the branches of which are said to grab the unwary. Shuker, of course, points out its dubiousness but does not write off the possibility of poisonous trees in Madagascar, and notes that the latter island "may still hold some significant surprises in store for future botanists." Czech explorer Ivan Mackerle wrote to Shuker in 1998 about the former's expedition that year, during which it became clear that people in Madagascar did not know about "their" man-eating tree legends but did know of fatal trees. Mackerle was able to find the "kumanga," a tree poisonous when flowering, and also heard of the "andrinditra" and the "lumbiru." Of the former, cattle have been poisoned when eating from the tree or drinking nearby; of the latter, people who sleep beneath it are not thought likely to stir again.

Other things may not be as rare or extinct as many have believed. Bill Gibbons, a Scottish explorer now residing in Canada, heard that a British man who visited Mauritius had spotted what seemed to be a dodo, a creature thought to have died out centuries ago. Gibbons' wife was born in Mauritius,  and people she knew told him about the dodo-like birds that had been observed walking along the beach by the little-explored Plain Champagne, a rainforest area, at dawn and dusk. Gibbons admits the seeming dodos might be giant petrels or some other identified bird,  yet wants to mount an expedition to Mauritius.

Some mysteries are less linked to the "natural" world, more to the "supernatural."

Those who enjoyed Strange #18 will find "Don't Fear the Reaper" to be a good summary of the research that Strange Magazine editor/publisher Mark Chorvinsky presented in that issue. In "Welcome to the Twilight Zone: Close Encounters of the Creepy Kind," the Goatman is profiled, as well as Mark Opsasnick's enquiries into its origin.

Weirdness can strike anywhere or anyone. Vincent Price, no stranger to the strange, in November 1958 experienced a message from the beyond. He was taking a plane from Hollywood to New York and saw, in bright shining letters upon clouds, the headline "Tyrone Power is Dead." No one else saw it, and when he alighted he was informed by friends that Power had indeed died.

The chapter entitled "The Golem of Prague" is headed by a painting captioned as "Prague's legendary golem as depicted on the cover of Fate magazine." The painting actually depicts Middle-Earth's legendary Gollum. This is almost certainly a Brothers Hildebrandt illustration of a scene from J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. It is easy to see how this error occurred at the design department of Carlton Books. The creature looks like it could have been made of clay, the names involved are very similar, and it even initially fooled the present reviewer. This is a minor slip-up in an otherwise admirable achievement in graphics. The visuals adorning this Shuker work are beautifully designed and chosen, and few of the photographs and illustrations are familiar.

Moving light wheels on, under or above the sea are the subject of one chapter in the book's first section. Michael Shoemaker's analysis in the 1995 Fortean Studies is cited at length. Shuker makes clear that: "One thing is certain. Unlike many unexplained phenomena, the mystery of the oceanic light wheels is one that could well be solved within the near future, if only science would make a determined effort to investigate it thoroughly." He quotes Shoemaker on how to best go about it.

In the final section, an amazing ancient giant underwater temple, the Yonaguni "pyramid" off the Ryukyu Islands -- built perhaps 8,000 years ago -- comes in for examination. Other unexplained structures have also been found near these islands. Whether they are human constructions or are strange facets of nature, they are awe inspiring.

Other amazements -- and there are a great many -- chronicled in the book include the blue tigers of China, the healing fishes of Kangal, lesser "Nessies," luminous insect swarms which seem to be UFOs, the possible present-day existence of the Steller's sea cow, unclassified globsters, malign mists, winged "men," "giants in the earth," and a prehistoric cave painting that may be of a Great Auk.

All are united by the organizing principle of the book: everything within is linked to the planet Earth. Because Shuker chose to deal with the less-known inexplicables, the book avoids the repetition so common in books of this type. Because of his wider range of knowledge than most in the field, his latest collection should appeal to all forteans and much of the general public.