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)!

Prickly like a Writer?

One of my favourite animals is the European hedgehog. Although there are as yet no hedgehogs in my Willow the Vampire stories, I’m determined to include one or two in future plots. Why?

A hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus)

A hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well firstly, because they’re cute and seem just the type of animal a child-vampire like Willow would enjoy observing in her garden. Secondly, because this particular writer has a lot in common with hedgehogs – not in looks, you understand, although most people who’ve met me in the flesh would say that 3,000 bristles sounds about right!

Hedgehogs are nocturnal insectivores, a group of mammals that includes shrews, voles and moles. These spiky little wonders are frequent guests to our suburban gardens, munching their way through worms, slugs, bugs and young birds that have fallen out of the nest.

Nearly all insectivores walk with a plantigrade gait on account of their flat-footedness, keeping their entire soles, heels and toes on the ground when they stroll through our hedgerows, vegetables patches or through wood- and grassland in the wild. They tend to be shy and secretive, and when they feel threatened they roll up into a spiked ball, displaying all of their 3,000 bristles to full effect. Razor sharp, these bristles are meant to protect them from inquisitive predators like foxes…I don’t know about the hedgehog, but it usually works for me.

Their Latin family name is Erinaceidae and their spread covers Europe, Asia and Africa, where desert hedgehogs live in burrows, keeping out of the heat during the day and coming out at night to hunt.

Just like me after my chemo therapy, hedgehogs have poor eyesight, but good hearing, by which they locate their prey (in my case that happens to be ladies behind the counters of bakery shops praising the yumminess of their Danish pastries and muffins).

During winter the European hedgehog, having spent the rest of the year in gaining a layer of fat (just like me), goes into hibernation. The animal makes a cosy nest from twigs, grass and dried leaves, before having a last feeding frenzy and finally settling down for a very long sleep. If this sounds an all too familiar pattern of behaviour, you’re probably a fellow writer…

Although I’m not nocturnal, having my best writing times very early in the morning, I’ve met many writers who say they prefer to write late at night, when it’s quiet and there are fewer distractions around. Just like the European hedgehog though, I feel the need to curl up into a bristly ball, when somebody addresses me as “oh, YOU’RE the writer lady”…which happens more often than I’d like.

I don’t know what it is about writers…there seem to be only two categories around…those who are outgoing to the point of being pretentious and utterly irritating and those who don’t like to talk about how they put words onto a page and get the stories out of their heads.

Some writers will whip out their latest opus at the drop of a hat and ask, if they should sign their book for you…no matter how inappropriate the situation. They don’t even wait to ask if their book might be something you’d like to read…they just assume THEY WRITE ergo YOU must be a fan.

Hedgehog

Hedgehog (Photo credit: Kimu_tae)

Other writers, and this is the category I belong to, feel there should be time off for good behaviour. I mean…I write for a living…I get commissioned to write things all day long…when I go out, I want to be somebody else…instead of a hedgehog, I wouldn’t say NO to being an engaging Large-eared tenrec for a change or perhaps a Ruwenzori otter shrew with webbed feet…or better still, an Elegant water shrew with a gorgeous black coat and white tummy.

If I were an electrician, carpenter or window cleaner, would people still want to know in excruciating detail how I go about my daily business?

The Mouse that roared

Deer mouse, Peromyscus maniculatus 8360 lores

Image via Wikipedia

Having posted about cats, owls, hawks and wolves, it’s about time I devoted some lines to their nocturnal prey. You’ve probably already read my blog about Willow’s hamster Mr Nibbles, but mice also feature in Willow the Vampire and the Sacred Grove and will continue to make an appearance in the follow up novel.

Mouse-like rodents are a relative newcomer on the evolutionary front, being only a few million years old. Collectively most of them are referred to as the Muridae family with various sub-families. Mouse-like rodents now inhabit most parts of the world – obviously not our oceans, but I wouldn’t be surprised if one day some deep-sea diver discovers a mouse with gills!

While the majority of mice live their lives as tiny, nocturnal, seed-munching ground-dwellers with a pointy nose, long whiskers and tail, others live near water or even in it, in trees or in underground tunnels. Scientists have identified more than 500 species of Old World mice and rats, from the little pests known as house mice and brown rats to adorable and endangered dormice, which go into winter hibernation and can snooze for up to 9 months of the year.

In the New World mice and rats can range from fish-eating to climbing rats, although the majority of rodents live on the ground, such as grassland or forest habitats. Rats and mice make up around 80% of the species collectively known as the Muridae family. Lemmings, hamsters, voles and gerbils are a very distinct sub-family. Hamsters in the wild are quite fearless and aggressive creatures, ready to defend their solitary habitat with all they’ve got.

Just the names of many mice are apt to make us go “aaaaaawwww”: there’s Dormouse with her bushy tail, the red-brown coloured Deer mouse, or the Bank vole reminding us of Ratty in Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, published 1908.

There’s also the cute Harvest mouse clinging on to tall grass with her paws and tail, the striped grass mouse in her harsh savannah habitat, the delightful Cairo spiny mouse with her big button eyes or the Wood mouse with her large ears or the miniscule Gray climbing mouse with her very exceptionally long tail, which she wraps around tall grasses to get purchase when she feeds.

One of my favourite rodent names is the “Meadow jumping mouse”, a little creature that moves in short hops, but can, when pushed, jump up to one meter into the air. Another favourite is the Fawn hopping mouse (I feel a theme emerging!), a nocturnal burrower with enormous feet (compared to the rest of its body) and a long tail to balance it in mid-hop, when it darts away from danger.

Their lives may be harsh and short, but whenever I’ve watched voles on a river bank or wood mice in a forest, I’ve often thought how much humans have in common with these little creatures. We also lead relatively short lives and tend to live it at break-neck speed to cram in as much adventure as possible.

Deutsch: Es ist Eine Maus. Ich weiß nicht, welche.

Image via Wikipedia

No matter what evolution or nature throws at us, we tend to adapt. Nature might be all powerful – it’s perhaps just as well we cannot control tsunamis, earthquakes or erupting volcanoes – but just like mouse-like rodents, we have always managed to roar back at misfortune: “Bring it on! ‘Cause we’ll still be standing, when the storm has passed!”

NB : The Mouse that roared (1959, directed by Jack Arnold) is a delightful comedy featuring Peter Sellers, Jean Seberg and none other than William Hartnell (a later Dr. Who incarnation).

A little Flight of Fancy

Part of the birds of prey display

Image via Wikipedia

As a small child Iwas haunted by recurring nightmares in which a bunch of monsters would chase me endlessly. Fortunately, every time they caught up with me, I was able to sprout a pair of wings and fly away just at the critical moment.

My recent question “what creature of the night would you like to be” prompted one reader to mention hawks – and as they are also one of my favourites, here are a few facts about hawks in particular and birds of prey in general.

Collectively they are known as raptors. That’s a term many people became more familiar with, when Spielberg’s Jurassic Park was released in 1993, since raptors of a different kind feature rather prominently in the film. There are no raptors or birds of prey in Willow the Vampire and the Sacred Grove, but future books in the series are likely to have these wonderful animals in them.

Bram Stoker’s vampire Dracula (published 1897) might have turned himself into a blood-sucking bat to harass Lucy, Mina & Co, but raptors are creatures “who seize and carry away” (the Latin word raptor means just that). They don’t generally hang around outside our windows, waiting for the perfect opportunity to nip us in the neck!

Hawks, like all raptors, have hooked bills, so they can tear their prey’s flesh from the bone. They also have powerful feet with talons to grab their prey and hold on to it. Their large eyes are perfect for spotting prey in daylight and at dawn. Raptors are also famous for their spectacular aeronautical skills; they are superb acrobats of the skies.

Each hawk family seems to have different ways of hunting. Sparrow hawks and goshawks like hunting by stealth: sitting high up on their perch – a branch in a tall oak for example – they will watch their victim for a while, before seemingly appearing out of nowhere to carry out their ambush. Harris hawks like to hunt in pairs or even as a small group. A female Harris hawk with a nest with chicks to feed with often team up with a group of male hawks to go hunting at dawn.

While some of the group flush out the prey – rabbits, rats or other rodents – the other hawks will cut off the victim’s escape route and intercept them. The team will share the spoils afterwards, so everybody gets fed.

Hawks kill their prey with their exceptionally strong grip, squeezing the life out of them. The African harrier-hawk has incredibly flexible legs for example that can bend at extreme angles, allowing the bird to grope around inside tree hollows for small mammals or nesting birds hiding inside.

In popular fiction hawks and eagles often appear as magical beings, which side with either good or bad. In J. R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings hawks are spying for the evil antagonist Sauron, while eagles ally themselves with the good hobbits and wizard Gandalf.

The Bird of Prey

The Bird of Prey (Photo credit: CJ's)

In the film version of comic book hero Flash Gordon’s adventures (Flash Gordon, 1980, directed by Mike Hodges), cruel Ming the Merciless is eventually overcome by Flash Gordon receiving help from Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed) and his Hawkmen. These Hawkmen are not entirely reliable and trustworthy though. Prince Vultan initially betrays Flash Gordon, but later comes to his aid, when the Hawkmen’s kingdom on Sky City is destroyed by Ming the Merciless.

It seems to me our relationship with hawks is ambivalent. Throughout the centuries mankind has trained hawks and other raptors for hunting. Pampered and prized from before the Middle Ages to our present day, such hunting birds live a life of captivity, while their cousins in the wild delight us with their amazing aerial displays. Perhaps we have always been too envious of their ability to master the skies to allow them their unfettered freedom?

I’m still in two minds what type of raptor will feature in Willow the Vampire and the Würzburg Ghosts; having already assigned a certain task to owls, I find there should be a bird antagonist, too.

If you had to write a short story containing a raptor, what species would it be?

Bloodsuckers – By popular Demand

None - This image is in the public domain and ...

Image via Wikipedia

Thank you all for responding to the previous blog by naming the creature you’d like to be transferred into by your friendly neighbourhood wizard or fairy godmother. Needless to say, this calls for further investigation into the kind of animals some of you have chosen. Starting with the lovely Dutch contingent among my blog readers, I’m taking a closer look at mosquitoes today.

Like Indiana Jones I detest bugs and other insect critters. In fact, anything that flies around the room usually gets my undivided attention, followed by hysterical screams of “buzz off and bite somebody else for a change”…

Female mosquitoes get their food by biting and sucking the blood of living beings, such as animals and humans. In that they are quite similar to vampires described in Willow the Vampire and the Sacred Grove, but that’s where the similarity ends and rest assured, no self-respecting vampire living in Stinkforth-upon-Avon would ever wish to transform into one!

Female mosquitoes use their long feeding tubes to pierce the skin of their victims and then they suck up that lovely red juice of life. Blood gives the mosquito-lady all the extra protein she needs to produce eggs from a tube at the very bottom tip of her body.

Mosquitoes belong to the group of insects called arthropods – along with spiders, crustaceans, centipedes and various other invertebrates. Together they account for ¾ of all known animal species on our planet and there remain millions more of them to be discovered by scientists.

Some arthropods are venomous and are so lethal their bite can actually kill a human or even larger animals. The mosquito bite is not fatal because of the insect’s own poison – it can kill because a mosquito bite transmits malaria and other deadly diseases, while the little critter is busy sucking human blood.

The very first arthropods appeared on Earth some 530 million years ago and scientists believe these creatures were the first ones to leave the sea (crustaceans being among the very first arthropods). Arthropods were also the very first to sprout wings and take to the sky.

Given how much longer these creatures have been on the planet than humans, they are naturally extremely well adapted and have managed to slay more of us than probably any other animal. Perhaps malaria-giving mosquitoes have taken on the task to avenge all those wonderful animals we drive to extinction on a daily basis? Maybe it’s not the mighty lion who’s leader of the animal kingdom, but this tiny buzzing thing?

Before the eco warriors among you rush out to the great outdoors to re-name a few mosquitoes affectionately “Buffy”, “Willow”, “Edward Cullen” or  even in honour of Anne Rice‘s “Lestat”, please remember that mosquitoes slay indiscriminately. Their victims include millions of women and children. There is no effective vaccine at present and so far, the little bloodsuckers have won every battle we’ve waged against them.

In 2010 some estimated 1,238,000 people died from malaria and in 2009 an estimated 225 million cases of malaria were reported. Although insect repellent, mosquito nets and the draining of standing water near human settlements have had some positive effect, once bitten the suffering inflicted is intense and 60% of the victims are children in Africa.

If we could only find a way to reprogram mosquitoes! They could spread death among murderous tyrants, thieving politicians, dishonest bankers and other corporate monsters…now that would truly be a step forward in evolution and in pest control.

Next time I’ll be looking at hawks, as chosen by one of you. Not a cuddly animal either, but certainly preferable to arthropod bloodsuckers!

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.