Had I known the truth about this book, I probably wouldn't have read it for Halloween Bingo, but I would have enjoyed it more if/when I did read it.
Some spoilers from here on out, though I'm not going to go into a long, detailed summary.
There is no actual monster. The summary I read on the library's listing made it seem that there was an actual monster menacing this little coastal town in Essex. Had I known the actual contents of the book, I might have still been interested, but not for Bingo.
It's the 1890s. Scientific discoveries are altering the world, and so are philosophical discoveries. The characters in this book all have to confront the ways their world is changing because of new knowledge. Not everyone embraces it, not everyone trusts it.
The Essex Serpent is a legend from the 17th century, renewed because an earthquake has literally shaken the foundations of belief. No one has actually seen it -- this black dragon-like thing with wings -- but they have seen its effects. A fisherman's boat disappears. A goat dies. A child is lost. And the monster is easily blamed.
Because it's easier to blame monsters than to look truth in the eye.
Cora Seaborne was married at her father's orders when she was sixteen. Her husband was viciously abusive, so his death is not mourned but celebrated. Of course, she does so quietly, respectfully, because to acknowledge his cruelty would be to face the monstrous truth. Cora loves science, she loves fossils, she loves knowledge. As a widow, and a fairly wealthy one, she is now free to indulge her passion.
Luke Garrett is a surgeon. He is a bit of a misanthrope -- he reminds me of Ludwig Horace Holly in both personality and physique -- but he is talented beyond compare. Unfortunately, his vision of what surgery can do is far beyond what the medical profession is prepared for.
Will Ransome is the country parson, not afraid of rationality and knowledge, until it comes right into his home. It's not that he believes only God has the power to work miracles, but . . .
Martha, the socialist. Stella Ransome. Charles Ambrose. Cracknell. Naomi. Joanna. Thomas Taylor.
All of them stand at this border line, rather like Moonlight Graham. Once they cross it, they can't go back.
It's not just a matter of scientific knowledge either. Cora hunts for fossils, hoping to find evidence that the Essex Serpent was a real thing, perhaps an icthyosaur or plesiosaur. There is, after all, the carved serpent on the pew in Will's church, which mocks him to the point of wanton destruction. But chiseling a wooden snake into smithereens is a whole lot easier than denying human passions. Will's wife Stella is dying of tuberculosis, Will is in love with Cora, Luke is in love with Cora and proposes a surgical treatment that might help Stella, but all those emotions are as insidious as any other serpent.
And then, of course, just when everyone is at the height of panic and passion, the monster turns up, a huge, hideous, rotting THING on the beach. No wings, no black scales, just a silver skin and gills like any other fish. Rotting like any other dead fish. The old man dies because he was old and sick. The other monstrous vision turns out to be the decaying hulk of the missing boat. The vanished child reappears, a frightened runaway.
I'm not sure any of the characters was particularly likeable, and at this point I'm hungry for some characters I can like and cheer for. Luke was brilliant but insufferable. Cora was still trapped by the prisons of convention, unable to understand her own emotions. I wondered if she even knew how to love, when she seemed so eager to do so. Will understood love but also had to experience its guilt.
If The Essex Serpent had been presented to me as an examination of how the discoveries, social as well as scientific, of late Victorian England were destined to affect individuals, I probably would have enjoyed this book much, much more. It's tremendously over-written; I didn't need fourteen dozen reminders of Cora's love for the mud and dirt. I think it would have been vastly improved if there had been one rational mind focused on the Essex Serpent as a reality. But I didn't write it.
I'm leaving it at the Monsters square because the theme of the monster, the great winged dragon (it might have been a pterosaur, too, but that's never mentioned) beast, runs through the whole thing. And the villagers were indeed afraid of just such a threat. Plus, something did wash up on the beach, even if it was just a putrefying oarfish.
But this isn't a Halloween novel. It's not Stephen King or Clive Barker. It's not even Barbara Hambly or Anne McCaffrey.
If I weren't so disappointed, I'd probably give it a higher rating. Then again, if it were a better book, I wouldn't have been so bored.