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!

Nocturnal Girl Power

Just like Spielberg‘s Indiana Jones I’m not very fond of bugs – which is where the similarity between me and the intrepid antiquities hunter ends, give or take a wrinkle or two which I might share with Mr H. Ford.

Apart from ladybirds, butterflies, dragonflies and moths, there was only ever one other insect I felt a certain affection for: the glow worm.

Ever since I sat through an open air theatre performance of a Shakespearean play in Regent’s Park, I have had fond memories of the little lantern guys. Just when I was about to nod off (not being overly fond of the Bard), a squadron of glow worms came out and started to circle just above the actors’ heads. Talk about being in the limelight! Not sure, if the actors noticed it at the time, but if they did, no doubt they must have relished this vote of approval from the animal kingdom.

Glow worms, or Lampyris noctiluca to be precise, belong to the family Lampyridae, a family made up of several species of fireflies, which are distributed around the world. All their larvae glow thanks to a chemical reaction in their bodies that produces light and a miniscule amount of heat. Nobody knows exactly why glow worms do their glowy thing, some say it’s to scare off predators, others say it’s to remind predators that glow worms taste foul to put them off an assault.

Glow patterns are used as a sort of sign language to communicate with others of their own species – namely to attract the opposite sex – as well as frighten off anyone who wants to eat them.


Glowworm (Photo credit: WAHa.06×36)

Girl glow worms and fireflies often mimic the glow pattern of other firefly species in order to attract hapless males and then devour them – not in the romantic, sexy sense, you understand – no, firefly girls lure males as prey. I had thought the little critters rather cute, now every time I think of them, a picture of gold-digging, busty blondes emerges in my writer’s imagination, the type of woman who seems to have a golden halo but whose heart is as cold as ice. Interestingly, only female glow worms have the ability to shine their little lanterns.

Given that it’s usually the boys in nature who posture, bark loudest, puff up their chests or adorn themselves with richly coloured plumes, the humble glow worm seems to have developed remarkable girl power – strong enough to mimic a LED light indicator on a TV or hi-fi set. Girl glow worms can only shine their light for a few weeks to tempt males who happen to fly past.

After mating, Mrs Glow Worm lays her eggs and then shortly afterwards dies. Her offspring has the ability to track the slime of snails and uses said slimy creatures as a rich food source, while growing up. The larvae are able to paralyze the snails with some sort of venom and then suck them dry. Remind you of anyone? Well, vampires in part but more to the point, our old friends the spiders do just the same – as Frodo and Samweis Gamshie find out in Lord of the Rings.

Glow worms are not worms at all – though so far nobody’s threatened to report them under the UK’s trade description act for wrongful advertising. Fireflies are beetles, about 25 mm in length. It may take two or even three years after Mrs Glow Worm has mated and laid her eggs before the larvae turn into fully paid up, adult membership only glow worms themselves.

Glow worms hig res 003

Glow worms hig res 003 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While most other critters in the animal kingdom, including humans, have a larger male than female, the firefly girl power extends to much larger females than males. Mr Glow Worm at the time of mating is just 15 to 18 mm in length, so easily overpowered by Mrs Glow Worm’s ample forms as well as her glowing personality. Treat them mean to keep them keen? Well, there’s the remarkable coincidence of skinny men seemingly preferring ladies with ample proportions in the human realm…and those glowy, tall, busty blondes usually dump their guy for the next big spender, don’t they?

Lampyris noctiluca (Linnaeus, 1767) English: A...

Lampyris noctiluca (Linnaeus, 1767) English: A Common Glow-worm larva hunting snails at Riez de Boffles, France. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m still undecided if Willow the Vampire’s encounter with glow worms will be a friend or foe situation. The temptation is to have glow worms working in league with Hamadryades, mythical creatures, which attach themselves the moment they are born to trees. For the remainder of their magical life they are then bound to the tree. Hamadryades look quite human, despite their amalgamation with the tree, but they display plant-like characteristics which might have a completely different agenda to Willow the Vampire, who is trying to save the Earth.

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).