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Sunday 1 March 2015

Bigfoot on Parson's Creek

Here is a retro-Fortean novel with a difference. It wasn’t written in the 1960s, and it isn’t a pastiche of the 60s style. But it’s set in the 60s, and it takes the reader back to a time when the subject of Bigfoot was a lot newer and fresher than it is today. On Parson’s Creek, written by Richard Sutton last year, is told from the present-day perspective of a grandfather recalling events that took place when he was a teenager in 1967. The book probably isn’t as well known among cryptozoologists as it ought to be, because it’s marketed as a Young Adult novel – aimed at readers the same age as the protagonist was when the events occurred. But I found the book equally gripping, even though I was closer to that age in 1967 than I am today!

On Parson’s Creek is a very clever story, and a refreshing change from all the usual clichés of Bigfoot fiction. The basic concept of the novel sets two major challenges for the author, which he then proceeds to solve in a surprisingly effortless way (it surprised me, anyhow).

The first big challenge is the 1960s setting. Of course, that does simplify things in some ways, because there was far less cultural baggage associated with Bigfoot then than there is today – no childishly bickering squatchers versus skeptics, no endless cycle of student hoaxes on YouTube, no urban legends, no internet memes. “Reality TV” is mentioned in the initial framing scene, while the main story refers to Ivan Sanderson’s book on the Yeti and the Patterson-Gimlin film (which was brand new at the time)... but that’s it. Aside from that, the protagonist has a clean slate to work with, free from socio-cultural preconceptions.

So why do I say the 60s setting is a challenge for the writer? It’s obvious if you think about it. Despite all the reality shows and YouTube videos, Bigfoot is just as much a mystery today as it was then. So we know, from our present-day perspective, that the story can’t end with the public outing of Bigfoot as a giant bipedal hominid (which would be the standard ending for a story set in the present or near-future). So how does On Parson’s Creek end? With my limited imagination, I could only think of two rather disappointing outcomes: either the supposed Bigfoot sightings would turn out to be a Scooby-Doo style hoax, designed to keep inquisitive teenagers from discovering criminal activity of some form or another, or the whole thing would end with a vague, open question: Was it Bigfoot or wasn’t it? I’m pleased to say, though, that Richard Sutton manages to come up with a more satisfying resolution than either of those!

The other challenge becomes apparent in the first pages of the novel. This is a hyper-realistic narrative, not a work of escapist fiction. To be honest, this put me off a bit at first. As regular readers will be aware, I have very little patience with anything except escapist fiction! But again, the author makes it work, and it’s the avoidance of all the usual escapist tropes that gives the novel its impressively fresh feel. The protagonist doesn’t just plunge straight into a search for Bigfoot, which then occupies him single-mindedly for a few days before reaching a dramatic climax. Yes, he investigates local Bigfoot rumours – not just by physical exploration but by talking to people and reading books – but it’s something he does on and off, over a period of months, in between other more mundane activities. There are other local mysteries, too – such as forgotten industrial relics and decades-old tragedies no-one wants to talk about – which may or may not have a connection with Bigfoot. Perhaps the most “realistic” aspect (for anyone who can remember being a frustrated teenager) is the way all the adults tell conflicting accounts of the same events – all with equal apparent sincerity!

There are a number of subplots running through the novel, including one relating to the protagonist’s fascination with Newtonian physics. This sits rather awkwardly with the broader narrative, but it really appealed to me because I too was a big fan of Isaac Newton as a teenager. And I still am... my book Pocket GIANTS: Isaac Newton is out tomorrow!

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