Friday, September 22, 2017

Halloween Reviews- Walking After Midnight: Tales For Halloween

For the Halloween season this year, I wanted to do a book review series. There's quite a range of works here. Some are short, spooky campfire tales, others are longer, slower gothic horror. Some are Lovecraftian. Some are old folktales. There's even a bit of creepy poetry.

For the most part I tried to stick to horror anthologies, but there one or two full novels did end up in the mix.

I'm going to try to post a new review every week until Halloween, and maybe keep going through November. Depends on how quickly I can read through them. Here's my first review of the season.





The stories in Walking After Midnight are short and simple in a good way. They feel like tales you might tell a friend to pass the time while you’re driving down a lonely lightless road at 1am. They also reminded of the classic creepy books from my childhood. Books like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark or, well, Scary Stories For Sleep-Overs.

The book is a quick read and while the stories won’t necessarily frighten you, they will certainly get you in that eerie autumn mood.

Hat Man
The first story is actually the weakest of the bunch on its own. It borrows too much imagery from Slenderman, Freddy Kreuger and Shadow People mythology without adding anything new. Even so, an anthology often works best as the sum of its parts and The Hat Man, when viewed as part of the book as a whole, adds that essential “boogeyman” element to the Halloween season.

Hayride
Who doesn’t love a fall hayride? It’s an integral part of any trip to an orchard or harvest festival. Just make sure that the ride is actually supposed to be part of the attractions.

A Good Samaritan
Everyone knows someone, or knows someone who knows someone, who has met a person in apparent need on a lonely road and felt that creeping anxiety that something wasn’t right...

Walking After Midnight
In the titular story, a man returns to the small rural town he left many years ago. While reminiscing with an old friend, he gets an idea to visit an old forgotten graveyard the two of them used to explore when they were kids. As they tromp through the cracked, eroded tombstones, they soon realize they are not alone in the dark. But it’s just the old sheriff giving them a hard time, isn’t it?

Into the Abyss
Ouija boards are just a goofy toy invented in the 1890s as a parlor game. Despite all the moral panic, a piece of cardboard with numbers on it and a little wooden planchette can’t actually summon spirits, can it? No points for guessing.

Trick & Treat
Shelley loves Halloween (don’t we all?) Unfortunately she and her husband live way, way out in the middle of nowhere. Despite all her spooky decorations, no trick-or-treaters ever come. Until tonight.

Walking After Midnight is an eerie, quick read. An appetizer to get you ready for more as the days grow short and the wind starts to smell of autumn leaves.

You can get a Kindle copy here


Monday, September 18, 2017

More scarecrows

Here's another entry from my scarecrow blog. Check out the whole thing here!


WINNOWINGS
The autumnal forces that give scarecrows life infuse every piece of their body. So much so that even sloughed-off scraps-- bits of burlap, rotten straw, shriveled gourds, and more- possess their own living essence. These remnants often form miniature bodies for themselves from whatever further fragments they can gather, creating tiny creatures called winnowings.

Like their larger cousins, each winnowing is unique. Unlike scarecrows, however, these smaller creatures usually have no desire or compulsion to guard a field and will often wander off to find their own purpose. Winnowings often gather together in small groups for companionship. There are even rumors of entire cities of these beings hidden in the remote places of the world.

Here is just one example of these groups.  From left to right, the winnowings are:

Routinier- His body is formed from an old wooden skeleton toy with dry roots for feet and neck, an old gourd for head, and a thin fabric strip from an old scarf for arms. Routinier has a fondness for sneaking up to hide under open window  to listen to the tunes played on old gramophones and these new radio receivers that are becoming so popular. He often sways his scarf-arms to the music, practicing for the day when he can make his own music, once he figures out just what produces those sounds he loves so much.  

Inglenook-  A couple of napkins stuffed with old straw, Inglenook was once a teru teru bozu (a small rural Japanese charm to bring good weather). He hung from the rafters for a few months before being blown under the porch in a fierce storm. Carried deeper under the house by wind and curious rodents, he eventually settled into a snug corner just under the big pot-bellied stove in the kitchen, a spot that remained warm even in the coldest winters. The house was abandoned and torn down decades ago, and now Inglenook wanders with his companions to find a new home. Preferably with some place warm and snug to sleep.

Farceuse- Formed from a small pumpkin that was forgotten in the patch after the larger gourds were harvested. She possesses a strong gift for acting and imitating voices thanks to months of listening to the workers at the farm. Farceuse often puts on short comical plays for the enjoyment of her companions, and any other fellow travelers they might be spending the night with.

Melorrhea- Another runt pumpkin with the added mobility of twig arms and legs and a few scraps of cloth that she sewed into a dress. She is a lover of music like Routinier. But where he wishes to conduct, Melorrhea is far more interested in composition. One might even say to an excessive degree. Several of her pieces, if played in full, last over six hours. She writes her compositions on old scraps of cloth, bits of wood, slips of paper, anything she can find. Melorrhea does not save her compositions, preferring to leave them wherever the group stops for the night as a little “gift” for the fans she is sure she will one day have.  This is not a problem as Melorrhea possesses an eidetic memory and can write down the entirety of her song at will.



Monday, September 11, 2017

Scarecrows I Have Known

So here's a new thing I'm doing. Scarecrow drawings!

Last year my son was finally old enough (four, to be exact) to really started enjoying Halloween almost as much as I do. As part of our spooky autumn festivities, I took him to a bunch of farms and orchards. Among all the corn mazes, pumpkin patches and hay rides, by far his favorite things were the scarecrows.

Since then he’s pretty much been on a non-stop scarecrow kick. Sure it fades from time to time as his obsession turns towards mummies, skeletons or pirates (naturally). But scarecrows are always there in the background.

A few months ago I started doodling scarecrows for him during slow periods at my job. As I drew, I made up little stories for each scarecrow, building up a pretty detailed lore.  Eventually I decided to develop a book. Two books actually. One will be a picture book for my son at his current age (also for my daughter who is herself a voracious book lover even at only one and a half years). The other will be a sort of “field guide” in the vein of Brian Froud’s Goblin and Fairy books, made for when my kids both get a little older.

I thought I’d share some of my scarecrow drawings with you guys, along with the background stories I created for them. I’ll be posting the original doodles, usually made on notebook paper or the backs of my daily schedules, along with more refined redraws.

Original sketch
The Redraw



HASPENALD

As a consequence of their habit of standing in one place in the field all day, many scarecrows develop an almost obsessive interest in studying a particular thing in their local environment. Some will learn the calls of every bird, insect and animal that wanders through near.  Some will catalog the size, shape and color of every single  rock in their field down to the smallest pebble. Some will identify and name every single spider they can find. And so on.


Haspenald’s obsession is the night sky. As the sun goes down, one can always find him in the middle of his cornfield gazing up at the stars. He has memorized the placement and  movement of hundreds of them. He knows the seasons of meteor showers and can even recognize the difference between planets and stars. Though he has never read a book on astronomy- and indeed, cannot read at all- he has learned a great deal about the nature of stars and planets from the Traveler Crows that visit his field. More on them later.

I'll be posting more entries on a new blog here.

The Pope Mastodon

Here's another article I wrote for the latest issue of Tracks and Trails, the newsletter for Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, Connecticut.

I've had a fondness for mastodons ever since I worked at the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History (though when I was working there it was called the Ruthven Exhibit Museum). Two of the most prominent exhibits in the prehistoric life hall were a pair of complete skeletons of these hairy pachyderms (well, technically not complete- a few bones were substituted from other, less complete finds. And a couple bones were even recreated using early 3D-printing). Their enduring presence at the museum left an indelible mark on my memory. And apparently I wasn't alone in my fondness for these beasts as the mastodon was declared Michigan's official state fossil in 2002.

The U of M mastodons. Male on the left, female on the right.


Here's a clearer view of the female skeleton. Though she's not as dynamically posed as the male, she does have the distinction of being on display at the museum for several decades before her counterpart was unearthed and assembled.  

A close-up of the male's right femur, which was 3D-printed from a mirrored digital model of the left femur. You can clearly see the triangular "pixelation" due to the low resolution of this earlier technology.

And since I'm gushing over mastodons already, here's a set of mastodon footprints also from the U of M Natural History (Fotprints! From a mastodon! Could there be a finer fossil? Surely everyone must know by now that my other big fossil obsession is fossil trackways.)  


It was a very pleasant surprise to find that Connecticut has its own mastodon- though this one is sadly in storage at the moment. Fingers crossed that it'll eventually find a permanent home somewhere. 

Writing this article took a bit of basic detective work since the bones have been moved around so much. But I actually got to see them in real life AND discovered a very cool museum out on the western edge of the state.

Due to the newsletters limited space, I only got to share a few of the photos I took of the Post mastodon. But lucky for us a blog has no such limitations, so you'll get so see a lot more than the poor newsletter readers. Because really, who can ever get enough of looking at mastodon bones? 

Anyways, here's the article in full.


THE POPE-HILL STEAD MASTODON

It was not so long ago that giant beasts roamed New England. Under the shadow of retreating glaciers, amid the conifers and cold prairies that have themselves migrated far to the North, mastodons roamed. Protected from the chill winds blowing off the ice sheets by coats of thick, woolly fur, these distant cousins to the elephant and the more well-known mammoth inhabited Connecticut until nearly 12,000 years ago.   

Though mastodons look similar to mammoths- a confusion that is not helped by their scientific names (Mammut americanum for the mastodon, Mammuthus primigenius for the woolly mammoth)- the two animals had several distinctive differences. Mastodons were lighter-built with shorter legs. They also had a flatter back and head as opposed to the mammoth’s sloping back with its large fat-storing shoulder hump. 

A side-by-side comparison of a Mastodon (in front) and Mammoth (in back). Note: models not to scale. Or, er, color in the case of the mastodon. Mammoth model from Safari Ltd, Mastodon from tams7prairie on Ebay. 
The biggest difference, however, lay in the structure of their teeth and what they ate. Mastodons browsed on trees and bushes using large, cone-shaped cusps on their teeth for crushing tough twigs and leaves. Mammoths had ridged washboard-like teeth for grazing on grasses. Due to these different dietary preferences, mastodons inhabited the dense, scrubby forests of prehistoric America while mammoths stuck to the open grasslands.

(note: I didn't mention this in the article that got published in the newsletter, but "mastodon" means "breast-tooth". It was named by the French naturalist Georges Cuvier, who thought the tips of the cusps looked like human breasts. Uh, okay... if you say so, Georges.)

Tooth comparison. On the left is the Mammoth's ridged, grass-grazin' tooth. On the right is the Mastodon's pointed twig-crushin' and browsin' tooth. Also not looking particularly boob-like. Tooth models from the U of M Natural History Museum


The arrival of humans in North America is believed to have contributed significantly to the extinction of both woolly beasts, though the warming climate and changing habitats also probably played a significant role. Yet even though the mastodons may no longer roam America, their bones still lie waiting in the Earth

In 1913, workers digging a trench at Hill-Stead, the farm and house of Farmington industrialist Alfred A. Pope, uncovered just such a cache of giant bones. Realizing the significance of this find, the superintendant of Hill-Stead contacted the Peabody Museum. A team of experts from Yale guided by Professor Charles Schuchert, head of the museum’s paleontology department at the time, led the workmen in an excavation that unearthed a nearly complete mastodon skeleton. The body was missing only its tail, the small bones of the feet and its tusks. Though one of the latter would eventually be discovered a few months later.  

Workmen from the Hill-Stead site with bones. Picture courtesy Colleen Swift, Assistant Director of the Institute for American Indian Studies

The excavation was a local sensation and over the course of a week almost 2,000 people flooded the Hill-Stead property to get a glimpse of the bones being removed from their tomb. Numerous newspapers- some from as far away as Maine- reported on the discovery. It is not surprising that so many folks took an interest in this find. The mastodon had long held a fascination for Americans ever since the first five pound molar was dug up on a New York farm in 1705. Initially the creature to whom this giant tooth belonged was call the incognitum or “unknowable”.  But throughout the 18th century many more teeth, tusks, jaws and other gigantic bones were tilled from the soil, allowing scientists to identify the beast as a cousin to the elephant, though one that was unique to North America. Thomas Jefferson himself would use the mastodon as a symbol of the strength and vigor of the New World to counteract the belief among European intellectuals that the fauna of America was smaller and weaker than that of Africa and Europe.  

Jaw bone with considerably worn-down tooth cusps. In storage at the Institute for American Indian Studies

Since it was first freed from the ground in Farmington, the Pope mastodon has had quite a journey around Connecticut. At various times it has been housed at Yale, at the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History in Storrs and briefly at the Hill-Stead property itself. However, the majority of the skeleton’s time has been spent at the Institute for American Indian Studies in Washington, CT. The Institute, as stated on its website, “preserves and educates through discovery and creativity the diverse traditions, vitality and knowledge of Native American cultures.” The Pope Mastodon would make its first stop there in 1977  when the IAIS- then called the American Indian Archaeological Institute- incorporated it into a larger exhibit on the archaeology and life ways of the early Paleo-Indian inhabitants of Connecticut. It would remain on display until 1989, when it was sent into storage at the University of Connecticut, though it returned to the IAIS in 2015 for a 40th anniversary retrospective on the museum’s history.

Fibula, tibia and a knee cap. From the IAIS storage.

Close up of the tibia showing marks left by roots that grew around the buried bone

An analysis of the Pope Mastodon also undertaken in 2015 by the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History determined the animal had died between 14,775 and 14,255 years ago, making it the oldest discovered mastodon in the Northeast.

Tired of looking at Mastodon bones? Of course you aren't! Here's a pile of ribs.

Okay, last photo. Here are a couple toe bones and a vertebra in the back. Note the long spinous process on top of the vertebra, and compare it to the pictures of the articulated skeletons at the beginning of the article. These processes anchored the thick muscles of the mastodon's neck and front legs.

Currently the Pope Mastodon is housed once again in storage at the IAIS.  But even if you can’t see the bones themselves, the Institute is definitely worth a visit to learn about the history and living culture of Native Peoples- particularly the Peoples of Connecticut such as the Schagticoke, Golden Hill Paugusett, Quinnipiac, Mohegan, Mashantucket Pequot, Eastern Pequot and other Nations. 

The Institute for American Indian Studies Museum and Research Center is located at 38 Curtis Road in Washington, CT. 

Check out the IAIS' website here


Monday, August 14, 2017

The Myth of Izanami and Izanagi


Izanami and Izanagi creating Japan with the Heavenly Spear Ame-no-nu-boko. Painting by Kobayashi Eitaku. Source: Wikimedia Commons 

In my novel, At Yomi’s Gate, the source of main character Sakura’s transformation is the Spear of Creation which merges her with the fire deity Kagu-tsuchi-no-kami. But where did this god and the divine spear come from in the first place?

Both have their origins in ancient Japanese mythology, specifically in the creation of the islands of Japan by the deities Izanagi and Izanami.  In my book the priest Izu briefly summarizes this story for Fumito, Ikuko and Sakura, but I thought readers might be interested in a more detailed account of the myth.

The most famous record of the Japanese creation story comes from the Kojiki, or “Record of Ancient Things”. The book was written in 712 AD under the direction of the imperial court as a legendary account of the origins of the Japanese people and, especially, the divine ancestry of the ruling clan.  
According to the Kojiki, the land that would become Japan was originally nothing more than a floating oil-slick that “drifted like a jellyfish” (actual translated words. Not necessary to the story, but I love the image of proto-Japan as a big, blobby jellyfish). Seeing that the land was incomplete, the  divine husband and wife Izanagi and Izanami dipped the Heavenly Jeweled Spear (Ame-no-nu-boko) into the briny oil and stirred it up. When they withdrew the Spear, the liquid dripping off its tip piled up to form the Japanese archipelago.

Once the islands were formed, Izanagi and Izanami descended to Earth and had sex after some rather, uhm, talkative foreplay. To quote the Donald L. Phillipi translation of the Kojiki:

“Then Izanagi-no-mikoto said:

‘My body, formed though it be formed, has one place which is formed to excess. Therefore, I would like to take that place in my body which is formed to excess and insert it into that place in your body which is formed insufficiently, and thus give birth to the land. How would this be?’

Izanami-no-mikoto replied, saying:

‘That will be good’”

Steamy.

During their love-making, Izanami orgasmed first and cried out in pleasure. This annoyed Izanagi, who thought it improper for the woman to climax before he did (Nice, bro. Though at least he acknowledged that women DO orgasm, which I don’t think most Western men figured out until, like, the 1960s).

As a result of Izanami’s impropriety, she gave birth to Hiruko the Leech Child, who was born without bones, arms or legs. The couple sent him away in a reed boat, not considering him one of their proper children due to his deformity.

If you’re feeling bad for poor Hiruko, don’t worry.  He struggled through many hardships but eventually managed to grow a skeleton and became the god Ebisu, patron deity of fisherman and luck, and also one of the Seven Gods of Fortune, some of the most popular Japanese deities. So in the end he did all right for himself.

Anyway, after Izanagi and Izanami’s first failed attempt at procreation they tried again, this time with the male god climaxing first. Apparently that was the magic formula because Izanami gave birth to a ton of deities. Just an absolute ton, you guys. The names go on for like eight pages.  Born at the very end, however, was Kagu-tsuchi the fire god, who burned Izanami’s womb so badly during labor that she died. Izanagi, filled with rage, chopped off Kagu-tsuchi’s head and dismembered him.

In our world, Kagu-tsuchi is still worshipped, often under the names Ho-musubi or Hi-no-kami. He is seen as a purifier who cleanses and renews with his flames, but also as a destroyer. Fire is never very far from people’s minds in a volcanic land like Japan.  Particularly in the past when buildings were made entirely of wood and having your entire house burn down was expected at least once in your life.

Kagu-tsuchi’s fate in the world of the Magma Sea, however, is a bit different...


Also, Izanagi eventually tried to visit Izanami’s spirit in the underworld of Yomi. But the account of that journey will have to wait for a future post.

Also also, hopefully if you're reading this, you know about my novel, At Yomi's Gate. But just in case, you can get it from Createspace here.

Or in Paperback and Kindle from Amazon.

SOURCE

Kojiki Translated by Donald L. Philippi. Published by University of Tokyo Press

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Review: LARC Transmissions: Tales from the League of Atlantis Reborn Colonies


In S. Shane Thomas’ LARC Universe (short for the League of Atlantis Reborn Colonies), humanity has found the legendary city of Atlantis- and it turns out it's actually an ancient starship! By reverse-engineering the craft’s technology, the peoples of Earth build several massive space arks and launch them into the open sea of the galaxy to find new homes for humanity.

LARC Transmissions is an anthology of more than forty short-short stories chronicling some of the adventures of the LARC colonists, along with other denizens of Thomas' universe.

Through the course of the journey we the readers learn of the first rulers of the galaxy- the dragon-like Anunnaki (frequently shortened to Anki) and their created servitors, the shape-shifting Nephilim who brought knowledge and civilization to ancient man in the cities of Sumer and Babylon- though their motivations were far from pure altruistic desire to uplift a young species, as we soon learn.

We also explore newfound worlds alongside the colonists, discovering a diversity of alien beings. Thomas clearly has an eye for speculative biology as we meet among others: telepathic, walking carnivorous plants; microscopic beings traveling inside mobile cities that resemble yellow anteaters; “ghosts” made of dark matter; giant intelligent crustaceans beneath the ice of Enceladus; and more.

At least one of the LARC ships is also the home of some serious experiments in genetic tinkering by the brilliant, but somewhat morally-ambiguous Dr. Erin Jeffries. The doctor gives us human protagonists who have been supplemented with the ultra-resilience of tardigrades along with men and women granted immortality through genetic hybridization with Antarctic krill, plus a few other genetic marvels.

The sweeping canvas of LARC Transmissions recalls Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles whilst the frequent sketches of alien biology bring to mind Olaf Stapledon’s Starmaker, or the Planetary Odyssies of Stanley G. Weinbaum. The stories of the Anki and Nephilim, meanwhile, are a good mixture of ancient mythology and the classic science fiction trope of Ancient Astronauts.

Despite the short length of each tale, they manage to build together into an engaging narrative, and even the few stand-alone tales provide an interesting glimpse into as yet unexplored regions of the galaxy.

Whether you have read Thomas’ other books or not, this anthology is an excellent journey through the universe that he has created. You can get a copy of LARC Transmissions on Amazon. And check out Thomas' website here.

Review: The Unaustralians by Oskr Wyldkat



Max is pissed. About what she’s not exactly sure. She just knows shit’s not right in the world and she wants to bring it all crashing down so everyone can start again. The depression-induced suicide of her friend Box is the final push that sends her off on a trip along the southeast coast of Australia with her pothead boyfriend Henry in tow to find... again precisely what she doesn’t know. But she knows she’ll discover it eventually among the ecofighters, energy-breathing hippies, techno-ravers and other counterculture “freaks” she and her boyfriend meet along the way. Or maybe she’ll find the will and way to make everything finally go up in a big fireball when she joins up with the probably-psychotic, definitely dangerous Jenny Mental.

Or maybe not. Max really has no idea.

The Unaustralians is part Catcher in the Rye, part Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with a bit of Fight Club’s ennui-driven violence mixed in. Oskar Wyldkat’s prose is quick and quite beautiful at times. The plot meanders about quite a bit, but then so does Max. She encapsulates well the aimlessness and desire to “mean” something (along with the naiveté and, well, dumbass-ness) which is the plague of most young adults.

The ending comes rather abrupt. It does, though, feel like a fitting denouement to Max’s search. I hope there will eventually be a sequel. But then again, maybe it’s best to leave her at this cliffhanger...

You can get a copy of the Unaustralians on Amazon.