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Beast echoes Benchley's Jaws (1974; see separate entry). Benchley replaces the white shark in this novel with a near mythical creature, Architeuthis dux, the giant squid. Homer refers to it in The Odyssey, and seafaring Norsemen made it part of their mythology. Shore dwellers have long known of its existence because dead specimens have occasionally washed up on beaches. Few have seen live giant squid and marine biologists still have not learned much about their life processes. Accordingly they retain their mystery, and their size and power make these usually peaceful creatures a source of possible menace.

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It is this potential on which Benchley capitalizes. As Darling says of the terror experienced by his assistant: "The thing has opened a dark door inside this young man. It's weird how things we don't understand can arouse demons we don't even know we have." This capacity for terror is what Benchley exploits. How they respond to their fear defines the characters of the novel. Some of the characters deny their fear; they insist on ignoring the danger, and like Liam St. John they perish because of their foolishness. Others panic, putting others in danger. And still others such as Whip Darling respond cautiously and with intelligence to their fears.

Although humanity versus nature is an important theme in most of Benchley's fiction, it is perhaps best worked out in Beast. The menace created by the giant squid is a natural response to what humans have done to the ocean. Overfishing and pollution have ravaged the giant squids' feeding grounds; its move into human territory may be likened to that of mountain lions moving into suburbia in California or the movement of other predatory species such as coyotes and owls into urban areas through much of the western United States. They need to eat, and what remains of their natural hunting grounds has too little food to support them. Underlying much of the action is the idea that the human deaths could be prevented if people would treat nature with respect; the ocean's resources should be better managed and its creatures should be respected as both valuable resources and as dangerous animals.

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