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!

Knightly Creatures

Godfrey of Bouillon, holding a pollaxe. (Manta...

Godfrey of Bouillon, holding a pollaxe. (Manta Castle, Cuneo, Italy) Français : Godefroy de Bouillon, en tenue de héraut portant une hallebarde (pollax, arme d’hast). (Manta Castle, Cuneo, Italy) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Willow the Vampire and her friends are facing a monumental battle – where to turn to for weapons that can slay mysthical creatures intent of swallowing the Earth?

Crusading knight Edwin Strongarm might be the answer – or rather the loot he brought back from the First Crusade and bequeathed to his son Edwin Junior, who in turn and through the ages bequeathed it to Eddie Strongarm, the very Eddie who went to prison for chopping up his wife and baking her in a pie…the very Eddie, who is now Willow the Vampire’s friend.

The First Crusade took place between 1096 and 1099. It was instigated by the Council of Clermont led by Pope Urban II, who clearly had an axe to grind after some 3,000 Christian pilgrims had met with a sticky end in Jerusalem.

Under the banner of some of Europe’s most illustrious noblemen such as Count Raymond of Toulouse from Provence in France, Stephen of Blois, Godfrey of Bouillon and his brother Baldwin, Bohemond and Robert of Normandy, who was William the Conqueror’s eldest son, eighty thousand people of minor nobility, peasants and their wives and children trudged the long, long way to the Holy Land in search of plunder…naturally under the guise of their religious convictions.

The crusaders would later seek to justify their foul deeds and massacres with all sorts of mumbo-jumbo, but it stands to reason that those few who actually returned from the First Crusade had so much blood on their hands they knew it would never wash off no matter how hard they prayed for the remainder of their lives.

crusaders Français : Les chefs de la croisade ...

What creatures did they encounter and what were their experiences. Hunger, thirst, sore feet? Their greatest problem was that of horses – since the crusaders got themselves mixed up in constant war fare, most horses simply didn’t survive for long – others were eaten, when the crusaders faced starvation during sieges or when they had to flee from the Turks, who had devastated the landscape so the crusaders could not find food or shelter.

When the First Crusaders crossed into the Holy Land there were probably still Syrian brown bears and Arabian ostriches around. They are now extinct thanks to overhunting and losing their habitats to humans – also gone are the Nile Crocodile, jungle cat, White Oryx, European Water Vole, the Caucasian Squirrel and the Cheetah, for the same reasons: human greed and stupidity. What the Ottoman empire didn’t wipe out with over-hunting, the modern human managed quite quickly by drying swamps, planting far too many pine and eucalyptus forests in places where there hadn’t been any before and encroaching on animal habitat with urban over-development.

Nubian Ibex.

Nubian Ibex. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, the Nubian Ibex still survives in the Negev desert and Sand Cats, Arabian Leopards and striped hyenas are still living in what is now Israel, but all are threatened with extinction. Among the nocturnal animals Edwin Strongarm and the other First Crusaders might have encountered are some 33 different species of bats, death stalker scorpions and our old friend the green toad, which isn’t strictly nocturnal, but likes to croak in the night as well as Marsh frogs, which prefer the night but might be active during the day in summer. Not exactly rich pickings for a starving army of 80,000 you might say.

Godefroy de Bouillon, a French knight, leader ...

Godefroy de Bouillon, a French knight, leader of the First Crusade and founder of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So why drag perfectly respectable, murdering crusaders and other religious fanatics into Willow the Vampire’s story? Mainly because Edwin Strongarm, alongside his knightly brethren, would have been able to loot all manner of ancient artefacts from besieged cities like Antioch, Arqah near Tripoli and most notably Jerusalem, the Holy City.

An illustration of Vikings on a boat.

Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont of 10...

If Willow and her friends are to succeed in preventing the world from ending, they’ll need weapons…weapons that can slice through supernatural defences and make away with their magical foes. The tolerant pagan world of the Vikings clashed with the emerging fanatical world of Christianity. When the first Viking ships arrived in England in 789, the world of Freya and Thor, Odin and Loki was still largely intact.

Towards the end of the Viking age, which lasted roughly from 700 AD to 1100 AD, more and more Vikings had turned towards Christianity, because it ensured their survival in a rapidly changing world, a world that had lost all tolerance of other faiths and belief systems. The First Crusade and the Vikings are on the same timeline, therefore it makes sense for me to investigate what wonderful conflicts, weapons, magic and folklore might be plundered from that part of history. The two are also a great metaphor for what’s about to happen to the world of Willow the Vampire: one regime ends and a new one emerges.

Although technically First Crusaders were forbidden to loot and even enter besieged or conquered cities, they still did so in small groups and Edwin Strongarm was just one of many for whom greed proved stronger than his religious convictions. Later crusades were even less fastidious and many treasures were brought back from Byzantine. During the First Crusade, the Byzantine Emperor still paid the crusaders for their efforts, largely to prevent them from looting and to keep them on his side, but in later crusades this was no longer the case and looting became the established way in which these “men of god” sought recompense for their troubles.

The next blog post will deal with the type of army Willow might have to assemble, if she and her friends are to succeed in saving Earth from Ragnarök.

Malice Strikers unsettle our World

With the sub plot nicely under way and my two spies decided upon, I can pay more attention to what type of creature of the night Willow the Vampire and her friends might have to do battle with in the series of novels I’m writing.

Dragons are always a favourite with me – there are so many different interpretations of their origins and their purpose. Humans were not around when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, so how come we have so many variations of dragon, Lindwurm and Niðhöggr in our legends and folkore stories?

The Nidhogg or Niðhöggr is the malice striker that gnaws at the roots of our World Tree. Interestingly, this serpent-come-dragon from the Norse mythology is particularly keen to unsettle Niflheim, one of nine Norse worlds. Niflheim is the place where those live who can die of old age and sickness…in other words, humans. Could the Niðhöggr be a symbol for nature itself?

Dragon Green

Dragon Green (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Early humans must have cursed and feared powerful nature every day of their lives. It takes so little to put our lives in peril. Cold, thirst, hunger – having no shelter, food and drink will soon wear us down and kill us. Malice on the other hand is not a concept that nature subscribes to; it is a purely human trait of character. Although it must have felt to early human dwellers, those hunter gatherers turned farmers that nature had it in for them, when their first attempt at harvesting crops failed thanks to either lack of rain or far too much rain coming at the wrong time of the year.

The Nidhogg or serpent lives in Hel, right underneath the World Tree Yggdrasil. When the world falters and Ragnarök unleashes all the nasty critters, monsters and hellish creations from the underworld, Willow the Vampire and her friends will have their hands full finding weapons that can defeat such powerful foes.

From Northern Antiquities, an English translat...

From Northern Antiquities, an English translation of the Prose Edda from 1847. Painted by Oluf Olufsen Bagge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The World Tree’s roots were believed to hover over Niflheim to protect it and the Malice Striker nibbles at this root from below. Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda interestingly also refers to the Niðhöggr as being a sword. Could the serpent or dragon in this case be a two-sided sword, one that doesn’t necessarily act out of malice, but chooses to punish where punishment is due?

As we have seen in this series on creatures of the night, many animals have been accused and maligned unjustly. Humans might have felt that nature was something to be feared and battled with, a powerful foe that strikes when least expected to unsettle our world and put us in jeopardy. Is our relationship with nature as ambiguous as our relationship with dragons, I wonder?

Given the state our planet is in, it is more plausible that we are the serpent gnawing away at the roots of our world. The creature of the night who is our worst enemy is clearly not the serpent, the dragon, the Nidhogg – it is mankind itself.

Oh boy, Willow the Vampire really will be busy creating a better world!

One foxy new Friend

With squirrel spying for the antagonist, Willow the Vampire needs a creature of the night that can be her eyes and ears in the villain’s camp.

Unlike James Bond, real spies I imagine are unassuming, non-descript sort of people – let’s face it, if a chap built like Mr Daniel Craig walked into your office, you’d remember him for a VERY long time, wouldn’t you? In fact, he’d be the talk of the office for weeks!

Willow the Vampire therefore needs a nocturnal creature that’s so familiar in our landscape – rural or urban – that we don’t bat an eyelid when we see it. Budding young author Sarah Baethge (The Speed of Darkness) voted in favour of foxes the other day and I think she’s got a very good point.

Foxes have had a rough time over the centuries and have received an awful lot of bad press. To me, people who indulge in blood “sports” are nothing short of obscene, deranged monsters, but to many the hunting of foxes with hounds is a great amusement. They claim that foxes are vermin and therefore have no right to complain if they are hunted to exhaustion and then torn apart by dogs. Hm…it could be argued that this is EXACTLY what should happen to bankers, politicians and all those who indulge in blood “sports”. In fact, judging by the worldwide press and comments on the internet, there’d be millions of people in favour of making this a new Olympic discipline!

As a child I used to visit my uncle and aunt, who at that time lived in a small town at the Dutch/German border, where my uncle worked as a customs officer. He was a keen huntsman, but deplored the practice of gassing fox and badger sets and would have been disgusted at hunting animals with a pack of hounds.

One day he discovered a burrow full of dead foxes – a mum and her litter. Only one tiny fox cub was still alive. He took it home and nursed it back to health with the view of one day releasing it back into the wild.

My cousin and I used to take the fox out for walks on a leash, just like a dog. One day my cousin wanted to visit a friend (she was quite a few years older than me) and she took the fox with her on the train. As predicted, the ticket collector appeared and demanded to see a ticket for the “hound”. My cousin quickly pointed out that the rules of the railway company said nothing about paying for foxes – if the ticket collector showed her the relevant passage in the rule book, she’d certainly pay but otherwise…

After a long, drawn out battle with the might of the Deutsche Bahn (German Railways), the little fox travelled for free – and I guess we all knew at that moment my cousin would one day be joining the legal profession (she later became a judge).

Many years later, when I lived in south-east London, I had a family of foxes visiting my garden on a regular basis. One foxy mum even brought her young ones to see my shed in the early morning hours. They would climb up on the roof, from which they had a great view of the 90 foot, back-to-back gardens on Telegraph Hill. Their child-like cries would wake me up and their peculiar scent marking would terrify my cat.

Foxes are incredibly agile, being able to leap up to a meter into the air before pouncing on their unsuspecting victim with deadly accuracy (rats, voles, mice, frogs, snakes). Foxes have incredibly good hearing, as they will stand still in the high grass or undergrowth listening out for any little rustling noise, high pitched squeak or swishing mousy tail.

Fox

Fox (Photo credit: jans canon)

Their new born cubs are blind and helpless, looking very much like puppies, but after two weeks the cubs begin to change, their legs, ears and snout become longer, their coat changes colour from a non-descript brown to a rusty red. Being able to change your appearance is a great asset for a spy – in winter some foxes are able to change their red or brown coat to white (Artic fox).

Eventually, their mum takes them out and at eight weeks the fox cubs used to scamper about in my garden, as happy in the warm morning sun as any human toddler. When it was time to go to “bed”, they would snuggle up to their mum in the undergrowth that lurked at the bottom of my garden – that bit I’d never gotten round to tidying after I’d moved in.

Willow the Vampire will need a foxy friend, who’s smart, streetwise, has excellent senses of smell, hearing and sight. Willow is going to face some pretty monstrous opponents in her next adventure and needs all the help she can get!

Fox

Fox (Photo credit: Natasha Lloyd)

It also pleases me to think that the squirrel, which we all think is so harmless and cute, will be acting on the side of the villain, while an animal like the much-maligned fox will be acting on behalf of my heroine.

Little vampire

Little vampire (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At least in fiction, there can be some poetic justice…who knows, my vampires might even hunt a banker or two…

(picture credit DK: Children’s Encyclopedia of Animals, ISBN 978-1-4053-4885-0, published in 2009)

Natural Mischief Maker

Having established what kind of animal forms my protagonist Willow the Vampire is going to take, I can turn my attention to the antagonist of my story. What type of creature might serve such a villain?

The world tree Yggdrasil with the assorted ani...

The world tree Yggdrasil with the assorted animals that live in it and on it. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Unlike other vampire storytellers, I have linked my vampire realm with that of the Vikings, so I’m turning to the mythology of the Norse sagas for my inspiration.

Their world of mythological creatures includes Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir, Fenrir the Wolf, trolls, dragons and all manner of bizarre monsters that live in Niflheim, the underworld. There’s Nidhogg for example, a wicked serpent type dragon that’s cheerfully nibbling away at the great world tree Yggdrasil, or Hel, a giantess ruler of the underworld, where the sinners and wrongdoers end up and where monsters dwell. There are also dwarves (Dvergar) and elves (Álfar), as well as a plethora of gods and goddesses.

What about Jörmungandr, a sea-serpent that’s not unlike the German depiction of a “Lindwurm”, a type of elongated, snake-like dragon? Or  Huginn and Muninn, two ravens which belong to the god Odin, whom they keep informed of all that goes on in the nine worlds over which he rules? Odin also keeps two wolves, Freki and Geri; surprisingly, wolves seem to have a leg in each corner – Fenrir acts on the side of evil whereas Freki and Geri act on the side of good.

As Willow’s journey into vampire heritage progresses, she will get to meet some pretty strange creatures of the night as well as doing battle with quite a few monsters.

While the antagonist and his henchmen are strictly creatures of the night, Willow is a Child of Light. Some of her friends are human and can therefore move about during daylight. This calls for two types of go-between creatures, which can spy for either side and report back to the respective “generals” of the battle I’m preparing for Willow to enter into.

The tree Yggdrasill, complete with Ratatoskr, ...

The tree Yggdrasill, complete with Ratatoskr, the four stags, Níðhöggr and Veðrfölnir. This is the title page of the book. The list of illustrations in the front matter of the book gives this one the title Title: The Tree of Yggdrasil. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Starting with one of the smallest creatures, Ratatoskr is the squirrel that climbs about in the branches of Yggdrasil. A squirrel seems quite a harmless creature, but this one is not as straightforward as it seems.

Ratatoskr is a messenger between the eagle roosting on the very top of Yggdrasil and the tree’s roots, where Nidhogg dwells. Ratatoskr’s task is to repeat word for word to the serpent monster what the wise eagle up above has said; however, the clever squirrel doesn’t do as he’s told and winds up both mighty parties with slanderous gossip and lies in order to provoke both creatures. While two are arguing, the third does as he pleases!

Many scholars believe the squirrel is a symbol for constant change in our existence – it upsets the status quo with its slander and lies; it gnaws away at Yggdrasil’s branches just like the Nidhogg. Nature is in perpetual change – so are we.

Willow’s world is about to change beyond recognition; the familiar sight of a squirrel will be comforting at first…until the little scoundrel is unmasked and the truth revealed.

Squirrels have the habit of squeaking high-pitched alarm calls when someone or something invades their territory. Modern scholars have argued that Vikings imagined squirrels to say malicious things behind their backs, so the role of messenger who keeps feuds between two opponents alive was assigned to the squirrel in the Viking’s mythological world.

The red squirrel, which is likely to have been the inspiration for the scoundrel Ratatoskr, is an endangered species in the UK, which is mostly due to the introduction of the grey squirrel and also due to loss of habitat. Red squirrels are unobtrusive, inquisitive and full of natural mischief; it seems appropriate to insert a few of them into the rural landscape of Stinkforth-upon-Avon.

Since my antagonist will try to reason with Willow the Vampire first, before deciding on more drastic measures to get what he wants, he will need a spy to learn of her plans. As a daytime creature, the squirrel is ideal. It can spy on Willow and her friends, while the underworldlings sleep in their coffins and burrows.

This image was selected as a picture of the we...

This image was selected as a picture of the week on the Malay Wikipedia for the 41st week, 2010. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There you have it: Spy number one sorted (the name’s Squirrel…James Squirrel…her Majesty’s secret agent)!

Hopefully in a couple of days, I’ll have found contender number two, a creature of the night suitable to spy on behalf of Willow and her friends.

Identity Crisis, Moi?

Having just returned from meeting the real Willow, beautiful, wide-eyed, charming  and with green ice lolly remnants covering her cheeks, I simply cannot envisage turning her fictional equivalent into anything as weird as an aardwolf in my next novel.

Today was the first time the real Willow met her fictional alter ego in book format – she immediately wanted to use her new-found vampire strength to show that rude 6-year-old boy in her school where to stick his threats. The real Willow, you understand, is quite a bit younger than the vampire equivalent…but she is as resourceful as my fictional heroine…and just as brave. A little wolf cub with green cheeks growling at the world!

We have finally come to the end of the mustalid series and are now entering the realm of Hyaenidae, which consists of four different species, the aforementioned aardwolf and the spotted, brown and striped hyenas.

Erdwolf, Namib-Nord, Namibia, 2005

Erdwolf, Namib-Nord, Namibia, 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If ever there was an oddball among the mammalian contingent, it is most certainly the aardwolf. The word “aard” comes from the Dutch or rather the Africaans and means “earth wolf” (Erdwolf in German), probably because the aardwolf lives in burrows to escape the hot African sun during the day. It’s not a creature Willow the Vampire would ever come across in rural Stinkforthshire, that’s for sure!

Looking like a cross between a hyena, a wolf and a jackal, the aardwolf carves out a meagre existence in the scrublands of Southern and Eastern Africa, where it hunts mainly insects like termites, larvae and occasionally feasts on carrion. Just like the cute aardvark, the aardwolf has a long, sticky tongue that can hoover up some 200,000 termites in a single night, which it grinds down with its peg-like teeth.

The aardwolf is quite a lot smaller than its cousins the hyenas and to look a little more imposing, the aardwolf has a mane that can stand erect to lend more gravitas to its owner. Although the four members of the Hyaenidae look very much like dogs, they are actually classified as cat-like, carnivorous mammals, being closely related to civets and cats, when it comes to their skeletons.

Aardwolf

Aardwolf (Photo credit: tim ellis)

Aardwolves sleep during the day in their burrows and come out at night to hunt, when the searing sun has gone down and insects start being active again. With their slender dark muzzle, striped body, large pointy ears and long bushy tail, aardwolves are a sight to behold.  They are mostly found in grasslands and savannahs, as they are very specific with regard to the food they eat and typically live, where their favourite type of termites likes to dwell.

A fully grown aardwolf weighs around 9 to 14 kg (ca. 18 to 28 pounds) and is around 40 to 50 cm tall. While its hyena cousins have four toes, the aardwolf gets about on five toes per paw. Upon reaching maturity aardwolves can produce between 1 and 5 cubs, which are born during the rainy season, when termites thrive and are at their most active.

Young aardwolves spend the first 6 to 8 weeks with their mum in the burrow and at 3 months old they emerge for supervised foraging trips. At 4 months old they start hunting independently from their mums.

Aardwolf

Aardwolf (Photo credit: siwild)

In captivity aardwolves can live up to 15 years. Unfortunately, in some areas of Africa the aardwolf is hunted for its fur, in others it is poisoned, although mostly it is not regarded as a threat to livestock and tolerated by farmers. Marauding wild dogs on the other hand are a threat to the aardwolf, while a fully grown, powerful hyena would regard a dog probably as a tasty snack.

Looking at the strange creature snuggled up in its burrow, I wonder if the aardwolf isn’t suffering from some sort of identity crisis. A skeleton that’s more like a cat with its front legs being longer than the hind legs and a downward sloping spine, a name that reminds us of aardvarks, an insect diet to match and a fur that looks like a stripy hyena – what creature of the night looking like that wouldn’t wish for a lucky break, where it could swap with an 11-year-old vampire girl?

However, there are precious few open grasslands and savannah-type territories in Stinkforthshire and African termites are also not so easy to come by, when you live in England.

If Willow the Vampire is going to explore, whether the grass is really greener on the other side – namely if being a different creature for a while is more fun – I must find a nocturnal animal that matches her personality and aspirations or she ends up being like comic book hero Spiderman, all animal cudos but no real sense of who she is.

Perhaps Willow could find an aardwolf in a zoo…rescue her…see what it’s like being a creature that’s been given a bit of a raw deal by evolution? A creature that carves out a meagre living while others around it are having a feast on the victims they slay…perhaps by becoming a put-upon being like the aardwolf  for one night, Willow the Vampire could learn something important about those who have power and those, who do not? Hm…

No hang on, I already did that in the first novel – I made my main protagonist a GIRL…that’s enough evolutionary trouble to be getting on with!

What’s in a Name?

One of the reasons why I’m exploring the riches of the nocturnal animal world is that my Willow the Vampire character is eventually going to learn how vampires transform into other animals. So apart from finding out more about a whole range of interesting creatures of the night, there’s the writer’s desire to “find an angle” that will set a whole plotting process into motion.

Traditional vampire lore has the blood-sucking fiends transform into wolves, rats and bats, but I’ve always been intrigued what animal characteristics they might display, if vampires changed into something a little more cuddly, like a soft Sable or a cheeky pine marten for example (yep, also members of the mustalid family, thought I just smuggle them in).

Wolverine (Gulo gulo)

Wolverine (Gulo gulo) (Photo credit: guppiecat)

Having finally reached the largest member of the mustalid family, the wolverine, I was beginning to wonder if this might not be a creature Willow the Vampire would love to transform into, when I suddenly remembered that

a)      Wolverines are not actually nocturnal and –

b)      Stinkforth-upon-Avon, where Willow lives, is in England and wolverines prefer to hang out with reindeer and caribou in Eurasian and North American forests.

Botheration!

For one glorious moment I thought I’d found just the oddball creature most suited to turn supernatural in the context of a vampire story. Let’s face it, Willow couldn’t possibly turn into a baby aardvark, no matter how cute we all thought they looked…and werewolves are past trending, don’t you think?

Looking like a cross between a bear and a wolf, the wolverine has many names and is also known as Gulo gulo, which is the Latin word for glutton, Vielfrass in German, carcajou, skunk bear and quick-hatch…and naturally, they are also famous for being Hugh Jackman’s alter ego Logan.

Originally born as James Howlett, the Marvel Comics superhero character turns into Logan and Wolverine through a series of rather unpleasant adventures, which were transferred from the comic book page to the Hollywood screen with the X-Men series of films. Logan or rather Wolverine is a mutant with quite unusual powers.

Cover of "Wolverine: Logan"

Cover of Wolverine: Logan

He has acute animal senses, retracting bone blades or claws on each hand and a remarkable ability to recover from wounds very quickly. He also is super-human strong and frankly, rather grumpy (Wolverine, not Mr Jackman! Obviously I wouldn’t know about that…although in interviews he’s always struck me as rather cheerful…his wife might say differently…who knows how he might react when asked to take out the rubbish bins or wash the dishes).

The wolverine in the wild lives mainly in tundra and coniferous forests. Like the fictional Logan it is very strong, indeed so strong that reindeer and caribou had better watch out, since a fully grown wolverine can pull them down and live off their flesh for quite a while. However, the wolverine prefers to scavenge carcasses of caribou or elk, which have been left over by other hunters. It builds tunnels under the snowy covers and pulls its half-eaten prey below the surface to eat the rest up to half a year later.

Wolverines also hunt rabbits and small rodents…which is not so good when considering that members of Willow’s extended vampire family might just happen to transform into a rat…nope, turning Willow into a wolverine is definitely off the menu!

The wolverine inhabits a large territory, which it rules in a solitary fashion and will cover up to 24 kilometres in a day to find food; they augment their carnivore diet with berries and plants during the summer months.

Gulo gulo Deutsch: Vielfraß English: Wolverine...

Gulo gulo Deutsch: Vielfraß English: Wolverine Dansk: Jærv (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wolverines can weigh between 11 to 18 kg (24 to 40 pounds) and can grow to just under 2 meters (6 ft.) in size. Their life span in the wild forests and tundra of Eurasia and North America is between 7 and 12 years. They are technically speaking omnivores, but like all mustalids have a penchant for meat-munching.

Lady wolverines give birth to two or three young during late winter or early spring. Their young are called kits and they typically live with their mothers until they reach the age of 2, are ready to reproduce and start looking for their own territory.

Looking at the fully grown wolverine on National Geographic’s website I can’t imagine this could be the creature that formed the basis for werewolf legends. It may be agile, strong, a good climber and swimmer, even a tough cookie when it comes to surviving in harsh habitats, but it’s just not very sexy.

Wolverine: X-men Origins

Wolverine: X-men Origins (Photo credit: §atsukiame)

 

 

Nope, the bear like body is not the stuff supernatural icons are made of…once again, I mean the wolverine…not Mr Hugh Jackman…on whose body I can neither comment knowledgably nor do I wish to…in case Mrs Hugh Jackman ever comes across this blog by accident, while Googling on the random words of Wolverine and grumpy.