Sinister Village Life?

This blog is called Creatures of the Night and some of you might ask what does village life have to do with the theme of vampires?

Well, Willow the Vampire lives in a small village in the fictional county of Stinkforthshire. Stinkforthshire-upon-Avon has just 5,000 inhabitants – unlike the village I grew up in, which has around 10,000 souls during the winter months and around 300,000 during the summer, when holidaymakers flock to the Baltic Sea coast for their beachside frolics.

A recent blog post of one of my regular readers (yes, you Loonyliterature!) dealt with the problem of indulging in creative writing outdoors when the sun is shining, but being hampered by everything and everyone a village can muster to combat such frivolous outbursts of creativity.

Michelle’s blog post prompted me to explain, why my heroine Willow and her vampire family left the safe anonymity of the Big City for a rural life. As the novel progresses, the reasons behind this move from the streets of London to the fields of Stinkforthshire become clear, but it is my own particular obsession with the negative aspects of such enclosed communities that caused me to place my vampy family in a rural setting in the first place.

Blue plaque re Dorothy L Sayers on 23 & 24 Gt....

Blue plaque re Dorothy L Sayers on 23 & 24 Gt. James Street, WC1 See 1237424. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can’t remember, if it was Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes or Dorothy L. SayersLord Peter Wimsey who said that villages were sinister places. There are good reasons why Agatha Christie let so many of her murder mysteries play out in rural settings – Miss Marple’s village of St. Mary Mead is a micro-cosm of the evil world at large.

In towns and cities people live cheek by jowl, they notice things, they report to the police or at least to other neighbours; in villages the most heinous crimes go unreported because everybody closes their minds, eyes and ears to what is going on around them…mustn’t upset the status quo or the village won’t win the title of Best Flower Display again in the national competition!

In remote villages all manner of horrors can occur – think Salem! Bigots and ignorant people thrive in enclosed environments. While the religious fanatic might have carte blanche to pester anyone foolish enough to arrive too early at the bus stop, an outsider simply dressed in a more modern style becomes an outcast and object of ridicule for the entire village.

At night the hypocrite leaves his well maintained home, crosses his manicured lawn, throws a critical glance at his neighbours’ floral displays and slinks off to the village brothel to enjoy an enslaved young girl or two.

The curtain-twitcher, who during the day observes everybody’s comings and goings, sits down to her poison pen writing task at night to make sure her letters catch the early morning post.

The cleaner who comes to tidy up, polish and vacuum clean at dusk, has a quick rifle through the chest of drawers, the writing desk and opened letters to see what juicy blackmail material is offering the greatest earnings potential.

My first novel Willow the Vampire and the Sacred Grove served to set up the world in which Willow, her family and friends live. The follow up novel Willow the Vampire and the Würzburg Ghosts will delve deeper into what it’s like to grow up in a village environment and what eccentric or plain horrid people live in such places (in the fictional county of Stinkforthshire and beyond).

My own experience of growing up in a village is one of suffocation – and, having lived in villages later in life as an adult, I found the village world even more suffocating and detrimental to my development as a writer and human being.

Village

Village (Photo credit: johnnysam)

I love nature, observing animals in their natural habitats and hiking or cycling through the countryside, but the lack of humanity that I experienced as a child and young adult in the enclosed village world has put me off for good and I cannot envisage ever living in a village again.

What about you? City slicker versus rural pumpkin?

 

What’s eating little Red Riding Hood?

Gray Wolf I

Following on from my last blog, I’ve been thinking about my childhood reading experience, when coming across Little Red Riding Hood for the first time. Frankly, ever since I read the Brothers’ Grimm fairy tale about some thick-headed girl who cannot tell her grandmother from a fully grown, hungry wolf I have been pleading for the wolf and all its canine kind.

I recall that my initial reactions were outrage and disgust: why should the poor beastie suffer such a fate? Anyone as stupid as little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother deserves to be eaten, surely?

Over the centuries wolves have gotten an exceedingly bad press for no good reason. Shy and secretive, wolves are the original canines who came to live with man – to keep our ancestors company, help them hunt, assist with shepherding live stock and be generally man’s most loyal friend.

How did we repay this splendid species? We hunted them to extinction in most parts of Europe and are still cheerfully killing them in the USA and elsewhere in the world…for their skins, for their eerie howls, for their fairy tale bad press. The Ethiopian wolf has only some 500 remaining specimen living in the wild – they are among the most critically endangered animals on the planet, as are Red Wolves, where only some 200 individuals are still surviving in the wild today.

Wolves and other canines have been around for hundreds of thousands of years – but since we began to take them into our homes some 14,000 years ago, we’ve done pretty much all we can to destroy them in every way we can – from hunting them for their fur to domesticating them and turning them into overbred, often crippled and in permanent pain lapdogs with hideous shapes that no longer allow them to breed unaided, breath or walk without difficulties (go to Crufts and meet any terrier, German Shepherd or British bulldog for example).

Wolves are intelligent and beautiful animals. My fascination with them prompted me to make them a part of Willow the Vampire & the Sacred Grove. My ancient vampires can turn into all sorts of creatures of the night, including wolves. I’m intrigued by the way wolves communicate with each other through body language and long distance “phone calls”, i.e. howling.

Gray Wolf, Canis lupus

Gray Wolf, Canis lupus (Photo credit: ArranET)

I’m moved by the fact that wolves and their kin form a lifelong monogamous relationship with their partners and that both parents are actively involved in bringing up their cubs.

May their howls echo through the forests long after the despicable species “mankind” has been wiped from the face of the Earth!

Who’s afraid of Fairy Tale Forests?

Forest lake in summer

Although strictly speaking, they are not a “creature of the night”, forests scare me…perhaps because traditionally they are the natural habitat of creepy, crawling, scary things?

Growing up in Northern Germany, one is rather blessed with an abundance of forests, mysterious lakes and rivers. Am I freaked out by forests because trees are sinister ancient beings, whispering behind my back, as I’m trying very hard not to be eaten by wolves?

Erm…no…they’ve all been slaughtered by mankind, so nothing scary left in that canine quarter. What about bears? Nope, they went the same hearth-rug way as the wolves. Perhaps it’s the wild boars that still roam the Northern German forests? Nope, they are quite shy creatures and usually run away.

So why am I scared? I blame it on literature. Forests in books are often depicted as quite anti-human. Think of the forest in Harry Potter, where gigantic spiders have made their home or the way Tolkien uses trees and the forest to actually go into battle in The Lord of the Rings.

There’s also Little Red Riding Hood herself…not to mention Hänsel and Gretl, whose plight terrified me as a child – and in Germany children get to read the Brothers Grimm stories as originally intended – for an adult audience – not the watered down Victorian translations published in the English language versions of the famous fairy tale collection. Witches are burnt in ovens, children get eaten and nasty stepmothers have to dance with hot irons strapped to their feet until they die…the original Brothers Grimm stories don’t show a lot of mercy to culprits, I’m afraid.

Stamp description / Briefmarkenbeschreibung De...

Image via Wikipedia

Trees…every one of them offering a huge living space for all manner of animals, from birds, mice, bugs, slugs, worms, spiders and other insects to mischievous spirits, dwarfs (Zwerge) and fairies. Trees should be viewed as friendly, life-giving beings. Their wood can be burned to keep us warm and safe. Yet, literature rarely seems to view them that way.

Getting lost in a forest – let’s face it, who hasn’t left the trail for a clandestine pee behind a tree – is an unpleasant experience. As soon as it gets dark on a winter’s afternoon, forests turn into something unutterably hostile…a veiled threat behind every pine branch, danger lurking behind every oak and underneath every upturned elm root…the primeval fear humans have of the unknown?

Vampires are rarely seen in forests – even Willow the Vampire is suspicious of the Sacred Grove and its magical properties. Forests are not exactly a good hunting ground either – there are far too few humans in them nowadays. Modern vampires like to hang out with the young, bright and beautiful things in cities…there are easy pickings among inebriated teenagers…

TV shows like True Blood are rather unusual in that they depict vampires living everywhere, including rural areas, where the loss of victim after human victim would soon flush out the supernatural being and earn them a stake through the heart for their trouble. Not that the vampire genre is based on logic, you understand.

When I started out writing Willow stories, I wanted them to take place in a rural setting. Small villages in the middle of nowhere are scary places, too, no matter how picturesque they might appear to the visiting tourist. Just like trees they sustain a multitude of life, but make no mistake, there’s real danger lurking in Stinkforth-upon-Avon’s community!

Are trees so ancient, they can no longer comprehend the feelings and thought processes of lesser “mortals”, even vampires, who can “live” their afterlife for centuries? Are small village societies so cut off from the rest of society that they make their own rules? I grew up in one, perhaps that’s why I chose a small village as the scariest of settings I could think of.

A little Owl-Post for You

Deutsch: Ein Waldkauz (Strix aluco). English: ...

Image via Wikipedia

After my post about Otto the Snake one gentle reader pointed out there are quite a few people who are terrified of snakes…so today I’m writing about something a little fluffier, if not friendlier – owls!

Owls live pretty much everywhere on our planet, except for Antarctica. No vampire lore like Willow the Vampire & the Sacred Grove would be complete without a hooting owl or two to set the scene and get us in the mood for a bit of blood-curdling storytelling. If it weren’t for the biting, scratching, hair-pulling and morbid fascination vampires hold for me, I’d probably have made Willow an owl rather than a vampire child!

The Tawny Owl, a beautiful tortoiseshell coloured creature, is a resident of Europe, with a habitat stretching from Scandinavia in the north to Italy in the south. Tawny Owls prefer a woodland and open grassland habitat, where they can hunt small mammals like rodents, such as voles and mice. Owls have excellent night vision thanks to their enormous eyes.

The Snowy Owl lives in arctic climes and has a beautiful coat of white fluffy feathers that enable it to blend in and practically disappear from sight as it glides over the snow-covered landscape called the tundra. A large number of owl species hunts at night, relying almost entirely on the dark to hide and protect them from larger predators. Arctic summers, however, have very long days and thus the Snowy Owl is forced to hunt during daylight hours to find food. The snowy coat helps the owl to stay safe.

Owls may look quite cuddly but they are strong and silent killers which strike from above. An attacking owl swings its feet forward as it gets near its prey. Spreading its toes widely, the owl tries to grab its prey and trap it, so it cannot escape. The owl’s talons slash and pierce the prey’s skin, more often than not the victim dies straight away, but if it doesn’t, the owl will kill it with a nip to the neck bone.

The owl’s long tail feathers stabilize the airborne predator as it swoops down for the kill. Forward-looking, large eyes enable the owl to be a good judge of distances and its powerful legs help to cushion the impact of landing and crushing its prey to the ground.

Owls have acute hearing and the shape of their head enables them to hear a sound on one side of the head just a fraction of a second prior to catching the sound with the other ear. The reason for this amazing hearing is not that owls are nosy and want to listen in on their neighbours’ conversations – this acute hearing helps the owl to accurately pin point mice and voles in utter darkness by just the tiniest of sounds made by the prey’s movement in grass or undergrowth.

Vampires like Willow have very acute hearing, too. Their supernatural powers enable them to hunt for humans in total darkness; they just concentrate on the blood pulsating in human veins and the thumping of human hearts…well that and the fact that most humans reek of either sweat, aftershave, deodorant or perfume…and some of them stink of all of the above!

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).

 

What’s Bartholomeoaw’s real Catty Secret?

For those of you who have already finished reading Willow the Vampire and the Sacred Grove, Bartholomeoaw’s secret will be a “cat out of the bag”.

Willow’s pet is a little  more than meets the eye – which for most people in Stinkforth-upon-Avon means a mangy old cat that has seen better days and should perhaps better stay at home instead of going on vampire hunt.

While Bartholomeoaw has the appearance of a domestic cat, there is more to the species of cat that meets the eye from anyone’s perspective. Cats are often referred to as the ultimate hunters. As strict carnivores – notwithstanding my own cat’s hankering after digestive biscuits – cats in the wild eat mainly meat.

In nature we will find cats in practically all the regions our planet has to offer – from deserts in Africa to the icy cold horizon in the Arctic. Only Australia and Antarctica are cat-free zones. Famous for their grace and strength as well as astonishing agility, cats come in a huge range of sizes, colours and “danger factor”. From the massive lions of Africa to the kitty in your shoe-box, they all have in common that they bewitch us with their beauty, their elegance and mysterious stare!

The species CAT is actually split into three sub-families. There are big cats of the Pantherinae family, which includes lions, tigers, jaguars and leopards for example. Then there are the much smaller cats, the Felinae, which range from pumas, bobcats, lynx to ocelot. The graceful cheetah is in a category all on its own, namely the Acinonychinae.

The main difference that separates these families are the flexibility of their larynx. Who hasn’t shuddered at a lion’s roar in the zoo, when their yawn suddenly erupted into that ear-shattering noise? Only big cats can roar – probably just as well, or my own cat would have driven me to distraction long ago!

Cheetahs don’t have retractable claws like other cats and they are also much, much faster runners than other cats, or indeed other animals for that matter.

Domestic cats like Willow’s cat Bartholomeoaw often lie on their side so we can stroke their tummies. They learn how to do this when they are still kittens, namely when their  mums grooms them every day by licking their fur. It also serves as a warning pose to enemies in nature, since cats with their tummies exposed, their four legs outstretched, their teeth bared and their claws flexed can turn around in seconds to bite and scratch anyone who comes to close.

When you get to know Willow’s pet a little better, you will realise that stroking Bartholomeoaw’s tummy is not an activity to be undertaken without taking special precautions…like wearing oven-mitts for example!

Domestic cats might eat anything from mice and frogs in the garden or fields surrounding your home to raiding bins in cities or eating dainty portions of cat food in our kitchens. In the wild feral and domestic cats might even hunt rabbits, a prey nearly their own size.

Domestic cats are not adverse to a morsel of nice fish, while cats living in Stinkforth-upon-Avon might occasionally feast on vampires-turned-bat and wash it all down with a slurp of blood-wine.