Varla Ventura likes to investigate the bizarre. After writing “The Book of the Bizarre” and “Beyond Bizarre,” she began work on “Among the Mermaids: Facts, Myths, and Enchantments from the Sirens of the Sea,” a new book that recounts old mermaid tales and gives quirky facts on these hybrid animals. After she turned the book in, Animal Planet aired its infamous fake documentary on mermaids, proving that Ventura’s not the only one interested in these mythological creatures.
I spoke to Ventura about what surprised her most while doing her research, what modern accounts of alleged mermaid sightings are like, and how mermaids in mythology can differ from mermaids in popular culture. She also gave me tips on other pieces of bizarre knowledge, like why you can’t file a lawsuit against the devil (in Pennsylvania).
MTV Geek: Why mermaids?
Varla Ventura: Mermaids are one of those magical creatures I’ve always been fascinated with. Last year I started doing some research on collections of digital books for the same publisher that published this book, Weiser Books, and I was reading a lot of old volumes of folklore. I kept finding all these wonderful old mermaid stories. I think in our current culture mermaids are seen in too flattering of a light. They are much darker creatures than we give them credit for, and I wanted to write about that, too.
Geek: What surprised you the most while you were doing your research?
Ventura: Probably that I did have a couple of people who gave me firsthand accounts of mermaids. I put a call out for this, asking people to write to me about mermaid sightings. I was very surprised that I got responses. Since then, more people have told me that they’ve heard mysterious sounds out at sea they couldn’t explain, or things like that.
Geek: Are these stories similar or are they pretty different?
Ventura: They’re pretty different, although the main one that’s in the book is a woman and her mother who had a very similar experience. They were in a hotel in Bermuda and they were in one of those bungalows out over the water. They both reported seeing something in their room that night. The daughter sent me a sketch of what she’d seen, and it was a merman. But other people have said they were out on a foggy night and heard a song they couldn’t place, or sounds that sounded like singing or humming and no one was around.
Geek: Getting over to the mythology part of mermaids, were there any mythological stories or traits that surprised you, because they’re not like what we think of when we think of mermaids?
Ventura: Yeah. In the old Irish folklore, which is the most prevalent as far as written records go, mermaids are attractive creatures that have a dark side. In one story that’s been told in maybe a dozen different ways – in my book it’s “Lutey and the Mermaid” – a man named Lutey gets tricked into helping this mermaid. She’s been washed up in a tide pool and she needs to get home or else her husband will eat her children. There are many quirky things like that, that seem to be consistent. There’s usually a dark, menacing merman lurking behind, in the palace below. Their goals are ultimately to drown their victims.
Geek: How did you pick the stories you included in the book?
Ventura: I definitely had to have some help from my editor on that. I had about ten additional stories and we narrowed it down. My main criteria was that the stories were a really good read. I picked a couple of my old favorites. I went with a couple that made me laugh, and one or two that I thought represented different times and places, including a really funny one from the early 1900s. It’s about a mermaid in Central Park. Two men fashion a tank to the back of a early Model T kind of car and take her out for a joyride. I wanted a well-rounded selection of classic mermaid tales.
Geek: Did you find many mermaids in comic books, or things like that?
Ventura: Well, of course one of the first DC comic characters was Aquaman, who debuted in 1941 as a powerful underwater hero. He could communicate telepathically with the sea creatures and even had an octopus sidekick for a while. He later joined The Justice League. There were a bevy of sea and water related characters that were featured in the comics, including a magical Lady of the Lake, and a nemesis named Ocean Master. I think this character had an influence on me as a child. There was also Namor the Sub-Mariner who was a Marvel character who actually pre-dated Aquaman; he appeared in 1939. They shared a lot of characteristics and there was actually an unofficial character crossover, where DC's Aquaman and the Sub-Mariner are in the same issues; it's issue #72. I have not read this issue; it was one of the last Aquaman and it came out in the 1970's. There was also a DC comics character called Little Mermaid, part of the Super Friends series. She could turn her legs into fish fins and breath underwater. She often helped Aquaman, but of course he got all the credit! All of these adventures bring up Lemuria and Atlantis, which are ancient underwater "lost" cities. I did see “The Little Mermaid” anime version. That’s got a great, dark twist to it compared to the Disney version. There’s definitely a lot of creepy sea creatures and mermaid-like beasts in anime, for sure.
Geek: Would you say the recent Animal Planet “documentary” got more people interested in mermaids?
Ventura: I think it reinvigorated the fascination with mermaids. I know that a lot of people believed that they were real and didn’t see the opening disclaimer that it was docu-fiction. I think it did bring up some fascinating ideas. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released an official statement after the documentary came out, saying that mermaids are not real. I also thought it was fascinating they’d go to such great lengths to say that.
Geek: You’ve carved out a niche for writing about bizarre things. What else have you written about in the world of the bizarre?
Ventura: I have two books of bizarre trivia that came out in the last few years. That’s everything from strange medical maladies, weird things in the news, phobias, bizarre laws. For example, there was a man in Pennsylvania who tried to file a lawsuit against Satan for his bad luck. It was thrown out of court on the grounds that Satan did not live in Pennsylvania. I have another book that’s coming out that’s similar to “Among the Mermaids” in that it has some fiction and it’s about banshees, werewolves and vampires. I was even recently asked whether I’d rather be a mermaid or a vampire. I think that is actually kind of a good question to put to readers, whether they’d rather be a mermaid or vampire. I think I would ultimately rather be a vampire, but I do see the appeal and desire to be a mermaid.