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).


Why Vampires?

Why did I make the heroine of my first novel, Willow Band, a vampire? I could have chosen for her to be a super hero with amazing powers. Instead, I created a little creature of the night that eats postmen for breakfast and bankers for supper.

One of the many regular questions a writer is being asked is where to your ideas come from? It’s a difficult question to answer and may be quite different for every writer out there. In my case – or rather in the case of Willow the vampire entering this world – it was the fact that there is a real little Willow alive and happy living in London…and she is a vegetarian! What started out as a joke to make Willow’s Mum laugh with a short story I had written about Willow and her family of vampires, became soon a full blown idea for a novel…indeed a whole series of books.

So why are we so mesmerised by the vampire genre? Ever since John Polidori’s The Vampyre was published,  soon followed by James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampyre, then later Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla and, of course, Bram Stoker’s Dracula at various stages of the nineteenth century, we’ve had a never ending thirst for more blood-curdling vampire stories or so it seems.

Many people believe that so many cultures in the West share the vampire myth because the idea of blood sucking fiends dates back to pre-historic times, perhaps even to the dawn of humanity. When food was very scarce and a clan’s very survival was at stake (pardon the pun), cannibalism was not unheard of among prehistoric peoples. Many cultures believed that drinking their slain enemies’ blood after battle would imbue them with their enemies’ strength, bravery and honour.

The Vikings, according to  Old Norse sagas, mention vampires and there were cults where high priestesses would collect the blood of human sacrifice victims to appease the gods. In the Balkans and throughout Eastern Europe the vampire is quite a different creature – mostly one that lives off the life force of a living being, but not a creature of the night that sucks blood.

Haven’t we all come into contact with people whom we’d perhaps like to describe as vampires? People who seem to drain us off our very energy, who are clingy, seemingly pitiful, but actually rather manipulating?

Known as vrykolakas in Greek and strigoi in Romanian folklore, the spread of vampire lore and their followers has been consistent since the 19th century, when the vampires stories mentioned above were supposedly expressing the “fears of an age”, the Victorian’s worries over sexuality, patriarchy and general loss of morals in an industrialised future. This seems rather too simplistic, given that the fear of dying is as old as humanity itself.

Vampires like Willow and her kin do have so many attractive advantages that it is hard to resist writing about them. I had never envisaged myself to be a “fantasy” writer, had in fact started writing a completely different, reality based novel for children, when Willow walked almost fully formed into my feverish brain and became the flawed heroine of a vampire book.

Perhaps my sadness to see the real Willow grow up so quickly and not being part of her every day progress had something to do with it? Maybe undergoing cancer treatment at the time and being more than usually preoccupied with morbid things caused me to choose the vampire genre?

In Western folklore the vampire is often depicted as a woman overpowering a man and draining the life force from him. Perhaps the idea that Willow should be a powerful being that can’t be pushed around by a male dominated society was at the bottom of my inspiration?

It is clear to me that inspiration for my writing comes from so many mysterious sources that it will be impossible to decide, which one was responsible for the creation of my fictional characters. Overheard snippets of conversation often find their way into my short stories, as do annoying habits displayed by those near and dear to me…where does your inspiration to write come from?

Surely a question impossible to answer for the majority of writers?


Willow the Vampire and the Sacred Grove takes a very different view of vampires. ..they are a life-force to be reckoned with!

Now out as a paperback novel, available at (ISBN-13  978-1468114683)

NB: Picture above Eduard Munch’s Vampire from