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

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.

The Super-Human Power of Choice

Before I forget: for those of you who enjoyed reading the first two chapters of Willow the Vampire & the Sacred Grove, I’ve uploaded chapter three on the Sample Chapters page.

The animals I’m going to mention today have no business being in a blog titled Creatures of the Night, since they’re not nocturnal – but they possess a particular super-human power that links them with the vampire genre.

Vampires in modern fiction can transform into bats, rats, wolves or foggy apparitions; they can scale walls and mountain-sides whilst hanging up-side-down, fly through the air, jump several meters up into the air and hypnotise us with their stare. In folklore vampires can be anything they wish to be: babies, ghost-like ghouls, beautiful sirens who want to seduce us or devils that want to devour us whole.

In Joss Whedon’s superb TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dracula can even reform after Buffy has turned him to dust by staking him through the chest. Various methods for killing vampires are described in folklore as well as modern fiction, using a wooden stake through the heart and exposing them to sunshine being among the best known and most popular methods.

All vampires have something in common with tortoises, tuataras and parrots though, which has ensured their continued existence in our collective psyches: their super-human longevity. Living forever – or at least well beyond our allotted time – has been an enduring theme in literature.

Whilst nobody really knows how long whales, lobsters and other marine creatures actually live – we typically murder everything that moves before we have time to find out anything about the other living being – tuataras are known to live for more than 100 years. As lizards they are the oldest “living fossil” on Earth, having survived for 225 million years. They saw dinosaurs come and go, witnesses our ape-like ancestors desert their arboreal nests and take to the grasslands and were present, when white invaders landed on the shores of the Maori’s homelands.

Tuatara Sphenodon punctatus

Tuatara Sphenodon punctatus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The tuatara has a unique arrangement of teeth; in a single row in their lower jaw fits snugly between two rows of sharp teeth located in their upper jaw. The word “tuatara” stems from the Maori language and means “crests on the back”, since the tuatara is an inhabitant of New Zealand and has a dorsal crest to be proud of. Their powerful claws dig small burrows during the day, when the tuatara needs to protect itself from the mid-day heat.

Tuataras continue to grow until they are 35 years old – indeed, some tuataras have been known to continue growing until they are 50 – and have been known to live for 120 years and more. Parrots typically outlive their owners and have to be included in the owner’s will to ensure they’ll have a home, after the owner has died. As for tortoises, we still don’t know for certain how long some of their order can live.

Our own mortality and the uncertainty of the existence of an afterlife are a powerful motive for conjuring up creatures of the night like vampires. My own cancer was partly responsible for my wish to finally complete my Willow the Vampire novel…something to leave behind after my demise…in the absence of any super-human powers like being able to re-assemble myself after I’ve been “dusted” by the NHS!

There are two types of tuataras, one that is threatened with extinction with only 400 specimen left in the wild on North Brother Island (genus: the Sphenodon guntheri tuatara) and more than 60,000 individuals of the Sphenodon punctatus living dotted around in 30 island habitats off the north-easterly coast of New Zealand’s North Island. Unlike humans, the tuataras’ sex is determined by the temperature at the time of incubation. Both varieties belong to the reptile order of Rhynchocephalia.

In the animal kingdom super-human powers are the norm, not the exception. From the highest jumper, the flea, to the fastest land mammal, the cheetah, animals are far better adapted to the world around them than we are…Wouldn’t it be great, if we used the one and only truly unique feature we have, our laughter, to do something GOOD with it? Now that would truly amount to a super-human power, wouldn’t it?

…but instead of using our unique ability to laugh about our lack of super-powers, we are seemingly intent to wipe out anything that makes us feel jealous.

Just as well our lifespan isn’t anything like the tuataras’ or the common vampire’s (genus Vampiricus bitey-puss)!

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.

Willow and the Afterlife

RAIOimage113

Image via Wikipedia

Whether or not one believes in ghosts, ghouls, zombies, vampires and similar apparitions, writing about them is great fun and has for centuries been a staple source for writers of many genres. As mainly creatures of the night ghosts are supposed to come out at midnight and haunt places and people, where they’ve had an unhappy time, while they were still alive.

As I am preparing the groundwork for Willow the Vampire’s second adventure (Willow the Vampire & the Würzburg Ghosts), I’m reading up on all manner of horrible events that might cause a whole army of the dead to rise up and take revenge.

Ghosts are deemed to be the spirit or soul of a dead person or even animal that can suddenly become visible to the living or return to “life” in the form or shape of other manifestations, such as sounds, smells or a difference in temperature in a room.

Hollywood ghosts might be either cute and cuddly (Caspar) or truly scary (The Woman in Black); they are often depicted as wispy white, floating shapes, like the proverbial fluttering sheet in the wind or a nightgown on legs. Sometimes they are the translucent skeleton jumping out at us, at other times they are the headless zombie seemingly appearing out of a wall, before gliding off down the corridor.

Do I have to believe in the existence of such a paranormal manifestation to write about it? No, I guess not. Do I believe in ghosts…well, not exactly. At least, until I had a rather singular experience some years back I would have said, no, most decidedly not, I do not believe in ghosts or people coming back as spirits to haunt the living, no matter how annoying some relatives of mine might have been during their lifetimes.

Walking back from the supermarket one day when I was still living in London, I was caught out by a heavy thunderstorm. The afternoon turned to night with flashes of lightning illuminating the sky. I hurried home – just a ten minute walk normally, but burdened with heavy shopping bags and an umbrella struggling to stay in my hand I had to fight my way up the steep hill on which I used to live.

To this day I don’t really understand what happened. A picture of my beloved grandmother, who died in 1986, flashed up in my mind. She was trying to say something to me…and as I “watched” with my mind’s eye how her mouth attempted to form a word, I stopped in my tracks, just for a couple of seconds –  but it was enough to save my life!

Lightning struck the car standing to my right hand side. The lightning bolt set off the car alarm and, I guess it bounced off the car, setting off the alarm on the house on the opposite side of my street. The bolt of lightning had struck just 30 cm in front of me – had I not had my grandmother’s vision flashing up in my mind to arrest my steps, I would have been the lightning bolt’s target instead of the car.

Was this a “ghost” or a guardian angel or some kind of friendly spirit protecting me? I shall never now. Once indoors, I stood in my hallway, my hands shaking, trying to make sense of what had happened. The flash of light, the ear-splitting crack as the full force hit the car, the alarms going off right next to me…and my grandmother saying STOP.

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).