A little moth-eaten around the Edges

The_Moth_Diaries_FilmPosterNo, I’m not talking about myself here! Although, admittedly the image staring back at me in my mirror could do with smoothing out, peeling off the old and pasting on a younger, fresher smile once in a while. At least you still have a mirror image, I hear the vampire enthusiast among you cry. You are right, one should always be grateful for small mercies in life and after-life.

Actually, my comment about being a bit moth-eaten around the edges was aimed at the movie “The Moth Diaries” which I finally got around watching last weekend when I wanted a break from writing chirpy travel articles about Spain and Portugal.

Although I’m not strictly saying that the film was boring – far from it – it just took such a long time getting round to what it wanted to say that I was tempted to shout “aren’t we there yet” at my laptop screen, like an impatient child sitting in the back of a car on her way to Harry Potter World.

I liked the moth element of this supernatural tale, which of course was chosen because it mirrored the protagonist’s happiest childhood memory; only the vampire knew how to twist and pervert this life-sustaining memory into something deadly and morbid.

Bela_Lugosi_as_Dracula,_anonymous_photograph_from_1931,_Universal_StudiosWhat I found interesting was the fact that this supernatural caper went back to the pre-Dracula days in the vampire genre when vamps where emotional life suckers rather than the blood-slurping variety. These are, of course, the type of vampires one is more likely to encounter in real life than the fangy Count D.

It made me think back of my school days and how certain types of people simply cannot bear to see others being friends or lovers without wanting to insinuate themselves into the middle and sucking the life out of that relationship.

Oddly enough, elements of the Transylvanian school of thought, as I call the emotional life sucker folklore, will be creeping into my 2nd Willow adventure too, although for the moment I have put this to the backburner to finish another book.

How do you prefer your creatures of the night? Biting with gusto into a throaty, full bloodied adventure or wheedling their way into the heart of the matter like a sly maggot?

 

(picture source Wikipedia: The Moth Diaries is a 2011 Irish-Canadian horror film directed by Mary Harron. It is based on a 2002 novel of the same name written by Rachel Klein)

Small Critters, big Impact

If you’re writing a paranormal story and are determined to use animals to set the scene, you may want to hold back on the gnashing teeth of wolves, gnawing fangs of killer rats and toothy grins of giant snakes until you’ve read this.

While it’s easy to write something atmospheric and eerie with animals such as bears, wild boar or wolves, because they occur naturally in a rural landscape, writing urban fantasies is often limited to creatures that have been “turned”, either by magic or by man-made means, into something that they are not normally, such as being way beyond their normal size and unusually bloodthirsty.

Here in the United Kingdom we’re not blessed with inquisitive city-dwelling wolves or nosy bears having a go at our dustbins. Vampire, horror or ghost stories include a staple diet of certain creatures of the night that lend a paw to the overall feel of a location. If your story’s set in the city centre of Nottingham, Chicago or Berlin, you might struggle to find a critter worthy of a mention.

It’s the fantasy genre, I hear you groan, just make it up as you go along…but the rule is that within our fantasy world logic still has to apply to really draw our readers in.

The more familiar some things are to our readers – and the more logical – the more shocking the fantastical will be, when it gate-crashes into our worlds. However, this artistic device has to be applied within reason.

Inserting a silky web and hideously fat, red-eyed, tarantula-sized spider will lend great atmosphere to a dark and twisted tale; perhaps a vampire’s kidnap victim is locked in a crypt or basement with little hope to escape and is wordlessly watching the spider munch one of its victims, foreshadowing his or her own fate? Your readers will feel a pleasurable, spooky tingle creep up and down their spine, urging them to turn the page and find out what happens next to the human in peril.

Take the same silky web and insert a cuddly but fanged hamster feasting on a marshmallow and your reader is putting down the book with a “what the f*** was that?” If your heroine is chased by a giant gerbil with insatiable bloodlust you’re not likely to get a second book sale either, so what do you do?

Tiny critters can have a big impact, but choosing the right ones can be difficult. Spiders, flies, hornets and bats, urban foxes, homeless cats and starving abandoned dogs all work in a creepy urban setting, as do crows, mice and rats. Koala bears, wombats and puppies not so much.

Cover of "The Birds (Collector's Edition)...

Cover of The Birds (Collector’s Edition)

The same applies to supernatural beings. Vampires are cool and can be quite sophisticated beings – they work well in any setting and can adapt easily. Let them wear coat tails and sip cocktails with the upper classes in Cheltenham or dress them in a creased linen suit and put their feet up in an office in downtown New York. When they pounce, the impact on your reader will be the same.

Ghosts also advertise their services as being versatile and flexible. They might secretly prefer to haunt a mansion in Belgravia but are just as capable of scaring the living daylights out of someone reading about a rundown brownstone in the Bronx.

Pixies, fairies and nymphs in Manhattan, Paris or London on the other hand are distinctly out of place. While a fairy queen with an attitude will have a big impact in Sherwood Forest, the Forest of Dean or even the Black Forest (especially when bursting out of a cuckoo-clock), a winged, miniscule madam zipping along Sunset Boulevard, LA will only succeed in getting squashed without ever fulfilling the promise of magically drawing your reader into your story.

In other words, the location you have chosen for your story should determine the type of creatures you insert into the plot and that they should be used in a logical way.

English: Studio publicity photo of Alfred Hitc...

English: Studio publicity photo of Alfred Hitchcock. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Choosing the right tiny critter for the occasion can be hard for writers. If like me, you detest anything that buzzes, the very mention of anything with six legs and fifteen eyes can put you off delving into research. But think back to the Indiana Jones films, how Indie hates snakes and bugs – it made us love him all the more for this chink in his armour…for one glorious moment he was just like the rest of us, no longer a super hero.

Français : Borsalino identique à celui d'India...

If the tiny creature of the night is to signify a flaw in your protagonist or is to be a signpost for heartache still to come, great care should be taken to choose the right creature, namely one that will stick in our mind, not just be a gimmick.

If your creature is to be a metaphor for darkness and your villain’s evil schemes – the rats leaving the ship in Nosferatu for example precede his arrival and widespread, plague-like death – than choose an animal or supernatural being that represents all you want to say about your villain.

Why not surprise us with something common place that suddenly turns nasty, when you want to describe a loner-turned-serial killer? The impact is so much greater and such a critter will stay with us long after we’ve closed the book. If I’m not mistaken Patricia Highsmith wrote a short story once about common garden snails killing somebody which has been haunting me ever since…forcing me to circumvent the slimy assassins with big steps whenever I see them, just in case they decide my time’s up.

Indiana Jones

Indiana Jones (Photo credit: creative location)

I can envisage a beautiful moth fluttering in through an open balcony window where it attacks the half-awake sleeper in his bed, gorging out his eyes. How about a toad in a city park that inserts toxic slime into its bench-dwelling, homeless victims before feasting on their flesh?

Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” worked so well because we largely ignore the birds in our city surroundings…unless they bombard us with their droppings, that is. Ordinary sparrows and starlings, gulls and crows with a murderous attitude are far more terrifying than a ten-foot parrot with a death wish chasing us down our street.

The point is that such creatures exist in real urban landscapes and we take them for granted without really noticing them…which makes their sudden appearance far more frightening. Turn a squirrel into a twenty foot Godzilla and its laughable but not scary. Making the same squirrel stand out with unusual behaviour rather than unusual size will turn them into something truly terrifying and memorable.

Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This may seem very obvious when laid out in a blog, but all too often we find novels with werewolves trapped on subway trains in New York, when they’d rather be in Sherwood Forest and Godzilla-pretenders languishing in cramped conditions in England’s historic towns, when they’d rather be chasing Japanese maidens along comfortably wide highways in Osaka.

#3407 Mongolian gerbil (スナネズミ)

#3407 Mongolian gerbil (スナネズミ) (Photo credit: Nemo’s great uncle)

So before you sit down to write your urban fantasy novel, get to know your critter and its habitat!

Not making the same Mistakes in the Afterlife

It seems that some of us never learn and are doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again. Some never learn with regard to money and fall for every conman they meet, others fall in love with the wrong person every time, but won’t hear of changing their ways, when friends tell them to stay clear of cheats and ruthless seducers.

Some people never think of the consequences of their actions and believe they will be forgiven, no matter what they do – their charm and winning smile allows them to get away with murder during their lifetime; in some case, quite literally, but in their afterlife they’ll have to face up to what they did.

Only when we are brought face to face with our demise do some of us realise we cannot go through life without leaving some mark, even if we believe ourselves to be a fairly unassuming nobody, who wouldn’t hurt a fly or invisible, because we are of no interest to society at large. Words can often cut more than we realise, hurt even more than an actual blow. Yet rarely do we go back and say sorry or try to make amends to relative strangers or those we do not deem that important to our happiness.

In Willow the Vampire’s adventures I love to play with the notion that humans rarely get a chance to put things right, while vampires do, since they have their eternal afterlife to seek redemption. Meeting a large number of ghosts in her next adventure, Willow will for the first time understand the value of being a vampire, of not being mortal.

Ghosts are troubled spirits. Some seek revenge for the wrongs done to them during their lives, others cannot find peace, because they did someone a wrong they never had the chance to put right. Others again had an unhappy life, sometimes because of their own making. There are those men and woman who only ever date the brainless, but pretty and never find true happiness as a result. Others like to subdue and conquer in their relationships and are only content when they can humiliate those they call their friends. There are bullies and sadists, eternal victims and martyrs and those who are too arrogant to care much about anything.

A vampire’s afterlife is quite different from that of a ghost. The Egyptians depicted their dead looking very much like they did in life. The Book of the Dead shows people wearing the same style of clothes, eating the same type of food and doing similar things to those they did in life. Some ghosts reappear as animals, mostly as birds, in some cultures, while vampires have the option how they want to return and can change their appearance almost at will – at least with some practice and with the help of ancient magic. Vampires will retain some of their human characteristics, some will even be enhanced, but on the whole they will turn into quite a different creature to the one they were when blood still pulsed through their veins.

While our bodies might be cremated or buried in some grave, many people believe our souls or spirits remain, either floating to some paradisiacal land called heaven or tumble straight into hell for our “sins”. Traditional Romanian folklore puts vampires far more into the same category as ghosts than modern fiction has done since Bram Stoker wrote his Dracula. Modern vampires spend their afterlife chasing teenage lovers, fighting for justice or simply battling against werewolves for the sheer fun of it.

I’d like to believe that someone, no matter what they were like in their first life, would use their afterlife to contemplate about the mistakes they made the first time round and try to put things right. The afterlife will last an awfully long time – a whole eternity in fact – so trying to atone for the things we did wrong and gaining redemption from those we wronged during our lifetime seems one of the few things truly worthwhile doing when we’re dead.

(animation source: heathersanimation.com)

A little Flight of Fancy

Part of the birds of prey display

Image via Wikipedia

As a small child Iwas haunted by recurring nightmares in which a bunch of monsters would chase me endlessly. Fortunately, every time they caught up with me, I was able to sprout a pair of wings and fly away just at the critical moment.

My recent question “what creature of the night would you like to be” prompted one reader to mention hawks – and as they are also one of my favourites, here are a few facts about hawks in particular and birds of prey in general.

Collectively they are known as raptors. That’s a term many people became more familiar with, when Spielberg’s Jurassic Park was released in 1993, since raptors of a different kind feature rather prominently in the film. There are no raptors or birds of prey in Willow the Vampire and the Sacred Grove, but future books in the series are likely to have these wonderful animals in them.

Bram Stoker’s vampire Dracula (published 1897) might have turned himself into a blood-sucking bat to harass Lucy, Mina & Co, but raptors are creatures “who seize and carry away” (the Latin word raptor means just that). They don’t generally hang around outside our windows, waiting for the perfect opportunity to nip us in the neck!

Hawks, like all raptors, have hooked bills, so they can tear their prey’s flesh from the bone. They also have powerful feet with talons to grab their prey and hold on to it. Their large eyes are perfect for spotting prey in daylight and at dawn. Raptors are also famous for their spectacular aeronautical skills; they are superb acrobats of the skies.

Each hawk family seems to have different ways of hunting. Sparrow hawks and goshawks like hunting by stealth: sitting high up on their perch – a branch in a tall oak for example – they will watch their victim for a while, before seemingly appearing out of nowhere to carry out their ambush. Harris hawks like to hunt in pairs or even as a small group. A female Harris hawk with a nest with chicks to feed with often team up with a group of male hawks to go hunting at dawn.

While some of the group flush out the prey – rabbits, rats or other rodents – the other hawks will cut off the victim’s escape route and intercept them. The team will share the spoils afterwards, so everybody gets fed.

Hawks kill their prey with their exceptionally strong grip, squeezing the life out of them. The African harrier-hawk has incredibly flexible legs for example that can bend at extreme angles, allowing the bird to grope around inside tree hollows for small mammals or nesting birds hiding inside.

In popular fiction hawks and eagles often appear as magical beings, which side with either good or bad. In J. R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings hawks are spying for the evil antagonist Sauron, while eagles ally themselves with the good hobbits and wizard Gandalf.

The Bird of Prey

The Bird of Prey (Photo credit: CJ's)

In the film version of comic book hero Flash Gordon’s adventures (Flash Gordon, 1980, directed by Mike Hodges), cruel Ming the Merciless is eventually overcome by Flash Gordon receiving help from Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed) and his Hawkmen. These Hawkmen are not entirely reliable and trustworthy though. Prince Vultan initially betrays Flash Gordon, but later comes to his aid, when the Hawkmen’s kingdom on Sky City is destroyed by Ming the Merciless.

It seems to me our relationship with hawks is ambivalent. Throughout the centuries mankind has trained hawks and other raptors for hunting. Pampered and prized from before the Middle Ages to our present day, such hunting birds live a life of captivity, while their cousins in the wild delight us with their amazing aerial displays. Perhaps we have always been too envious of their ability to master the skies to allow them their unfettered freedom?

I’m still in two minds what type of raptor will feature in Willow the Vampire and the Würzburg Ghosts; having already assigned a certain task to owls, I find there should be a bird antagonist, too.

If you had to write a short story containing a raptor, what species would it be?

In Defence of Otto the Snake

English: Snake, boa constrictor guyana red tail

Image via Wikipedia

Indiana Jones might hate them, but snakes like Otto in Willow the Vampire and the Sacred Grove are not nearly as threatening as they seem and they are certainly not slimy either.

I shall be eternally grateful to my old school teacher at primary school who invited a variety of people into our school to introduce us to their unusual pets and small animals kept in zoos. Among them was a man who looked after a number of snakes. As a child I believed – like many people – snakes had slimy skin with which they slithered on the ground like a snail or slug.

When the nice gentleman from the zoo exhibited a variety of snakes in our classroom, the bravest among us were allowed to touch the snakes and, not wishing to appear a wimp, I volunteered to stroke the snake he offered us. Naturally, the snake’s skin wasn’t slimy at all and actually rather beautiful. Boa constrictor snakes like Otto have fine, granular scales. Scales on a snake are not separate things but are simply a thickened part of their skin and are therefore connected to it.

Some snakes have rather novel ideas about protecting themselves from being disturbed by intruders. I’m not sure what tactics Otto the snake usually employs when he wants to be left alone for a peaceful slumber by the hearth, but the European grass snake for example just rolls on its back with its mouth wide open and plays dead to prevent predators from taking a lively interest in its fleshy parts. Some snakes pretend to be nastier than their bite by mimicking the bright colours of really poisonous snakes.

Snakes don’t have legs, so they can’t just pick up their chins and run off. Their skeletons consist of little more than a skull and one very long backbone to which hundreds of curved ribs are joined. The snake’s jaw is loosely connected, which enables it to stretch enormously, when swallowing prey whole. When snakes go for a swim, they wriggle from side to side, propelling themselves forward in that way.

Among the 2,700 types of snakes only 300 of them can actually kill people. Less than a quarter of all snakes are poisonous, but some are really good wrestlers who can strangle their prey. Snakes live in all sorts of habitats, except where it’s really cold – think Otto and his place by the warm hearth!

Some snakes are tiny and would fit into the palm of my hand, while others – like Otto – can grow to lengths of 10 meters, large enough to eat a whole crocodile for breakfast. In fact, boas can eat prey 5 times their own diameter thanks to their kinetic jaws. Their teeth are curved and, by first moving prey to one side with their teeth and then to the other, the boa can eventually push large prey down into its throat.

Curiously, snakes don’t need to eat very often and can survive without breakfast, lunch or dinner for quite a number of months before they feel peckish again. Boas are arboreal, which means they live mostly in trees.

Boa constrictors like Otto can swallow a large rat whole, but they typically squeeze the life out of their victims first. Female snakes are usually bigger than male ones, so we’ll see if Otto meets his match in Willow’s forthcoming adventure (Willow the Vampire and the Würzburg Ghosts).

 

Hello world!

Welcome to Stinkforth upon Avon!

Eleven-year-old Willow Band lives with her mother Alice and father Dylan just outside the small village of Stinkforth, an otherwise vampire free community.

Growing up is never easy but when you are a vampire child with a musician dad who’s got an eye for the ladies, a mother with a deadly secret, a great uncle who’d like to dissect you and an aunt who left you a dubious legacy, you need to keep your fangs and your wits about you to survive!

Willow and the Wishing Tree is a book by Maria Thermann. We hope you’ll enjoy her children’s vampire stories based in Stinkforth upon Avon, an entirely slayer free zone.