Saturday, February 10, 2018

Land Crocodiles of the Mesozoic- Director's Cut

Back in December, I wrote another article for the Dinosaur State Park newsletter. This piece was all about Crurotarsi, that sadly overlooked sister group to dinosaurs that dominated the Triassic and early Jurassic. I had to keep the original article short in order to fit it into the alloted space, but here on my blog I've expanded it out and added a couple new entries.

In paleoart crurotarsans are usually portrayed as being very scaley and crocodile-like. Which makes sense considering that crocodiles and alligators are their modern descendants in the same way that birds are the modern descendants of dinosaurs. But dinosaurs were a very diverse group with all sorts of unusual appearances and behaviors, so why wouldn't their cousins be similarly varied? For that matter, why couldn't crurotarsans have a body covering besides scales and thick osteoderms? I've tried to impart some of that diversity to my depictions of the animals here, even giving some of them a covering of pycnofiber "fur".

We usually think of dinosaurs as the dominant animals of the Mesozoic. However, throughout the Triassic and into the early Jurassic, dinosaurs were only a small component of Earth’s fauna. Instead, the positions of “ruling reptiles” were held by a group called the crurotarsans. This taxon, which is also sometimes called Pseudosuchia, is represented today by the twenty-three species of crocodiles and alligators, all aquatic ambush predators. In the past, though, crurotarsans were significantly more diverse and included among their ranks: small, swift terrestrial predators; armored herbivores; fully-marine mosasaur-like specimens; giant, dinosaur-like carnivores and many other varieties. Many crurotarsans possessed a row of thick armored plates along the back, a feature still present in modern-day crocodilians in the form of hardened osteoderms.   

Crurotarsans are the sister taxon to the Avemetatarsalians, the group that includes dinosaurs, modern birds, and pterosaurs. Together Crurotarsans and Avemetatarsalians make up the group Archosauria or “Ruling Reptiles”.

Crurotarsan fossils are found all across the East Coast of North America and many of them likely once lived in Connecticut. These earliest crocodile relatives were primarily terrestrial, possibly because in the Triassic and early Jurassic the large aquatic ambush predator niche was filled by the superficially crocodile-like (but not closely related) phytosaurs and the giant amphibian metoposaurs.

A model of the phytosaur Rutiodon at Dinosaur State Park. Note the nostrils up near the eyes, a feature that distinguishes phytosaurs from crocodilians.
The giant temnospondyl amphibian Metoposaurus from Dinosaur State Park.

As mentioned before, a group of these crocodile relatives was actually herbivorous. This group, known as the aetosaurs, somewhat resembled the more well-known ankylosaur dinosaurs, though they were more lightly than the club-tailed dinosaurs.  It might be better to compare their appearance to that of armadillos or pangolins, though with the armor only along the back.

The Stegomus model at Dinosaur State Park is, unfortunately, hard to get a picture of since it's so small and sits in the middle of a diorama on the far side of the trackway. Instead here's a Stegomus from The Last Days of Pangea exhibit that was displayed at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut until July 2017. 

In 1896 the armored back carapace of a dog-sized aetosaur was discovered in Fairfield, Connecticut by the famous paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh. This creature, dubbed Stegomus, had an upturned, pig-like snout which it may have used to root around in the soil and pull up tubers and rhizomes. A model of Stegomus can be seen in the Triassic river delta diorama at Dinosaur State Park.

A pair of juvenile Stegomus foraging for seaweed on the shore. One has encountered a curious octopus taking a short stroll on the sand and is flaring it's (hypothetical) oral flaps in a manner similar to the modern Toad-headed Agama Phrynocephalus mystaceus.

In the early 1900s, the fragmented skeleton and armored back plates of what appeared to be another species of Stegomus were discovered in a quarry of Early Jurassic sandstone near East Longmeadow, Massachusetts. These remains were later identified as those of a  predatory crurotarsan and subsequently renamed  Stegomosuchus. While the fossil is too fragmentary to make many guesses about its mode of life, the structure of its legs show that it was a  land-based hunter. It’s size and build also suggest that it might have filled the ecological niche of a small, quick predator similar to a weasel.  Some researchers have suggested that Stegomosuchus may have been the maker of Batrachopus, a type of fossil trackway found throughout the Connecticut Valley.

A pair of Stegomosuchus playing keep-away with a fern frond.
Batrachopus footprints at Dinosaur State Park.

Batrachopus with fingers for comparison.

In 1996 the partial skeleton of Protosuchus, a close relative of Stegomosuchus, was discovered in fossil-rich Early Jurassic sandstones of Nova Scotia. Although it was still a terrestrial animal, the dog-sized Protosuchus displayed many characteristics of modern-day crocodiles, including teeth in its upper jaw that fit into notches on the lower jaw and large muscle anchor points on the back part of the skull to give it a more powerful bite, suggesting that it might have taken down larger, stronger prey than its cousin would have.

Protosuchus relaxing on a pine branch while a couple of Kalligrammatid lacewings drink the salt from its tear ducts. These insects were remarkably butterfly-like in appearance, including having sucking mouthparts and wing scales.

The remains of a cat-sized crurotarsan called Erpetosuchus were discovered in 1995 in Triassic sandstones near Cheshire, Connecticut. The light, lean build and small teeth of this creature indicated that it, like Stegomosuchus,  was also a swift runner dodging through the undergrowth in pursuit of prey. Fossils of Erpetosuchus have also been found in Scotland, indicating that Western Europe and North America would have shared many common fauna when they were pushed together in the great land mass of Pangea during the Triassic.

One of the more intriguing crurotarsans  (to me, anyway) is Euscolosuchus, known only from a few fragmentary back plates, vertebrae and ribs discovered in a Virginia quarry. The armor on this creature had distinctive spines on its sides which would have given it good protection from predators. The most unique features of Euscolosuchus, though, are the spines that project backward from each section of carapace and overlap the plate behind it. When the animal was walking with its back straight, these spines would have laid flat. However, if its carapace were curled up they would have stuck out like the spikes on a hedgehog or an armadillo lizard (Ouroborus cataphractus). Though no purpose for these backward-facing spikes is mentioned in the scientific literature, I can’t help wondering if this animal would indeed have rolled up in a ball like the aforementioned hedgehog, presenting its back spines to any curious predator.

Euscolosuchus curling up into a defensive position with the spines on its carapace projecting out.

Speaking of predators- In 2015 paleontologists described Carnufex, a 9-foot long crocodile relative from North Carolina that walked on its hind legs, giving it a strikingly dinosaur-like appearance.  Carnufex, whose name means “Butcher”, would have been the top predator in its environment. Its head was adorned with numerous bumps and ridges, suggesting that it had some sort of ornamentation. Probably nothing as large and flashy as the double head-crests of Dilophosaurus, but more akin to the blunt horns of Allosaurus. This does, however, provide indirect evidence of social display in Carnufex, either to attract mates or to warn off rivals.

Carnufex getting a tooth-cleaning by a pair of furry (well, pycnofibery) Erpetosuchus.

10 million years after Carnufex, another large crurotarsan named Postosuchus dominated the forests of Triassic North America. Like Carnufex it was also bipedal and would have looked quite a bit like a theropod dinosaur. The skull of Postosuchus was, however, blunter and rounder than its predecessor and had less ornamentation, though it did have prominent ridges over the eyes that might have blocked sun glare from above.  Its large forward-facing eye-sockets indicate that Postosuchus was a visually-based predator, while it’s elongated nostrils suggest that it had a good sense of smell. Postosuchus was first discovered in 1980 in Texas with an eastern species described in 2008 from remains found in North Carolina. This specimen preserved evidence of its last few meals, which consisted of an aetosaur, two different species of mammal-like reptiles, and a medium-sized primitive amphibian.

Postosuchus surveying her territory.
Beneath the North Carolina Postosuchus researchers also found the nearly complete specimen of a smaller crurotarsan called Dromicosuchus. Bite marks on the skeleton show that it had been attacked by a predator just before it’s death- possibly by the large creature found on top of it- though it is also possible that both bodies were simply washed together in a flood. Though Dromicosuchus was badly crushed, it’s long, slender limbs indicate that it would have been another swift, agile predator perhaps taking up an ecological niche similar to a fox.

A pair of Dromicosuchus play-fighting

While dinosaurs may be the most well-known and popular Mesozoic ruling reptiles, they shared their world with a diverse company of their more crocodilian cousins and would even have, for a time, lived in the shadows of these beasts.


Emerson, B. K and Loomis, F. B. 1904 "On Stegomus longipes, a new reptile from the Triassic sandstones of the Connecticut Valley" American Journal of Science 17 (4) 377-380

Fraser, Nicholas and Henderson, Douglas, 2006 Dawn of the Dinosaurs: Life in the Triassic (Life of the Past). Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis

Ksepka, Daniel T. and Dzikiewicz, Kate, 2016 "Last Days of Pangea: In the Footsteps of Dinosaurs" Bruce Museum, Greenwich, Connecticut

Liutkus-Pierce, Cynthia M.; Fraser, Nicholas C.; Heckert, Andrew B. 2014 "Stratigraphy, sedimentology, and paleontology of the Upper Triassic Solite Quarry, North Carolina and Virginia" The Geological Society of America, Field Guide 35

Lucas, Spencer G.; Heckert, Andrew B.; Huber, Philip 1998 "Aetosaurus (Archosauromorpha) from the Upper Triassic of the Newark Subgroup, Eastern United States, and its Biological Significance" Paleontology 41 (6) 1215-1230

McDonald, Nicholas G. 2010 Window Into the Jurassic World, Friends of Dinosaur State Park and Arboretum, Inc., Rocky Hill, Connecticut

Olsen, Paul E. 1998 "Paleoecology and Paleoenvironments of the Continental Early Mesozoic Newark Subgroup of Eastern North America": In Manspeizer, W. (ed.) Triassic-Jurassic Rifting and the Opening of the Atlantic Ocean, Elsevier, Amsterdam, 185-230

Olsen, Paul E.; Sues, Hans-Dieter; Norell, Mark A. 2000 "First Record of Erpetosuchus (Reptilia: Archosauria) from the Late Triassic of North America" Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 20 (4) 633-636

Peyer, Karin; Carter, Joseph G.; Sues, Hans-Dieter; Novak, Stephanie E.; Olsen, Paul E. 2008 "A New Suchian Archosaur from the Upper Triassic of North Carolina" Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 28 (2) 363-381

Scheyer, Torsten M. and Sues, Hans-Dieter, 2016 "Expanded Dorsal Ribs in the Triassic Pseudosuchian Reptile Euscolosuchus olseni"  Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology e1248768 

Sues, Hans-Dieter, 1992 "A Remarkable New Armored Archosaur from the Upper Triassic of Virginia" Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 12 (2) 142-149

Sues, Hans-Dieter; Olsen, Paul E.; Carter, Joseph G.; Scott, Diane M. 2003 "A New Crocodylomorph Archosaur from the Upper Triassic of North Carolina" Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 23 (2) 329-343

Sues, Hans-Dieter; Olsen, Paul E. 2014 "Stratigraphic and Temporal Context and Faunal Diversity of Permian-Jurassic Continental Tetrapod Assemblages from the Fundy Rift Basin, Eastern Canada" Atlantic Geology 51 139-205

Zanno, Lindsay E.; Drymala, Susan; Nesbitt, Sterling J.; Schneider, Vincent P. 2015 "Early Crocodylomorph Increases Top Tier Predator Diversity During the Rise of Dinosaurs" Scientific Reports 5: 9276

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Even More Two-Sentence Horror Stories

Here are some more two sentence stories that I wrote during quiet hours at work. Enjoy!

You can read the other installments of this series here and here.

O’Fallon, MO  12:27 PM
For a moment I saw a boy’s face, mushroom white with empty eye sockets, staring up at me from beneath the ice. Then it flicked its flat, eel-like body and vanished into the depths of the frozen lake.


Salamanca, NY 3:05 PM
Dozens of black, mummified hands, suspended from the ceiling by fishing line, rotated slowly in the sunlight streaming through the attic window. I knew now why my mother had kept me away from this room until my 23rd birthday.


Orono, ME  4:12 PM
Autumn leaves swirled around my in a breeze I could not feel. For a moment they formed the outline of a human figure before dancing away in the red twilight between the skeletal oaks.


Norris, TN  8:22 AM
I’ve been wandering these windowless, wooden corridors for months now with only the puppets hanging from the ceiling to keep me company. At this point, I’ve given up trying to find that little door that leads back to the dollhouse in my grandmother’s attic.


Eleanor, WV 4:44 AM
He threw the knife on the floor and pressed a hand towel to the bleeding wound on his arm.
“Oh, but we aren’t even close to finished,” the tumor whispered as it stared up at him from the sink.


Florissant, MO 9:28 PM
He watched the yellow butterfly explore his hand with its long proboscis. As it took flight, patches of his skin detached and fluttered after it out the open bedroom window.


Des Moines, IA  10:22 PM
On quiet nights like this, she would often dream of the city she’d left behind, outside the comforting blanket of her host’s skin. It had been almost a decade since she’d shed her human limbs and burrowed deep into his warm, nourishing flesh.


????????   3:13 AM
He gazed out the ship’s window to admire the swirling, lightning-lit clouds of Jupiter. The coffin was there again floating just above the storm, its skeletal occupant thrashing and pounding on its translucent sides.


Cody, WY  8:55 PM
While hunting for the wolf that had been killing my cows, I came across a man’s skin hanging from a tree. It was slit up the middle and the interior was bloodless and clean, though it was coated with a shedding of stiff, black hairs.


Tecumseh, MI  9:15 PM
I was almost asleep when the humming started again just on the edge of my hearing. Ice prickled down my back as the long shadows stepped out of the walls and surrounded my bed.


Searcy,  AR  11:23 PM
On Monday Cheryl hired an exterminator to get rid of the spiders infesting her house. On Wednesday, the Quiet Things that the spiders had been keeping at bay began to seep into her dreams. 


Portland, CT 6:12 AM

I kicked the overturned boat and jumped back in horror as a bloated, white corpse struggled out from underneath. It squelched and slipped in the mud for a few seconds, then deflated like a balloon as a horde of black ants poured from its mouth.

Monday, January 29, 2018

More Two Sentence Horror Stories

During some slow days at work, I passed the time by writing some two sentence creepy stories. Creating these feels a lot like writing a haiku. Since there's such a small space to work in, I start with a single, potent image and try to punch it up as much as possible.  You can read my first go at two sentence horror here.

Also, as before I've titled each story with a time and place to give them a feeling of being "grounded". A feeling that maybe if you visited these towns, you might hear whispered rumors of a strange thing that happened to somebody's cousin or best friend this one time...


Groton, OH 2:34 PM
Since the main path was flooded, I had to take a detour through the meadow to get home before dark. As I walked, I did my best to ignore the brush of invisible fingers through my hair.


Bemidji, MN 6:45 AM
He went to sleep figuring he’d have a doctor look at the discolored patch on his arm in the morning. By the first light of dawn, the fungal strands spreading from his dried husk had covered everything in the bedroom.


Aviles, FL
Everyone is careful to never acknowledge the soft, boneless hands sprouting from the ground all over town. Even glancing at them directly makes the faces in the trees sob for a full night straight.


Toledo, OH  8:21 PM
I knew as soon as I opened the door that the thing standing on the porch was not my brother.  It wore his skin, but I could clearly hear the wooden joints creaking inside him and see the grain in his painted wooden eyes.


Ann Arbor, MI  2:05 AM
By this point I’d spent so many nights alone in the graduate library that I didn’t even flinch when the Lady in Green glided past me in the stacks, her feet three inches above the floor. I kept my gaze fixed down at the book in my hand so I wouldn’t have to see her egg-smooth face or the rounded stump where her left hand should have been.


Arco, ID 7:23 AM
That summer Queen-Anne’s Lace flowers sprouted all over the burnt remains of my neighbor’s house. When I dug one up, I found that the thick root bore the face of his daughter who had disappeared the year before the fire.


Port Jefferson, NY  5:46 PM
I saw him at the bottom of the basement stairs again, staring up at me without a sound. He can stare all he wants, but I’ll never tell anyone where I hid his body.


Lahaina, HI  2:53 AM
I turned to look at the hallway mirror. After a few seconds, my reflection turned to look back at me.


Lewes, DE  9:18 AM
After the storm, I discovered that the old oak in the corner of the backyard had fallen down. When I cut open the trunk, I found a hollow shaped like a man curled up in the fetal position.


New Paltz, NY  6:34 PM
My son was super excited to get the pumpkin home from the farmer’s market. That changed, though, when we cut a lid to scoop out the seeds and found a brain inside.

Monday, January 22, 2018

New State Cryptids Post!

After a busy season of other writing projects, I'm finally adding another entry to my Cryptids State-by-State blog. Eventually, I'll have entries for all 50 states, plus US territories like Peurto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, etc. You can read past cryptid entries here

Today's cryptid comes from Arizona. It's the infamous... 


In 1886 a most unusual photograph appeared in an issue of the Tombstone Epitaph, the local newspaper of Tombstone, AZ. The photo depicted the carcass of a gigantic, leather-winged, knife-beak monster nailed to the side of a barn. Several men stood in front of it to show just how wide its wingspan was. According to European settler folklore of the Southwest, the creature was a Thunderbird- a being from the mythologies of many Native American nations that was said to create thunder with its wingbeats. Thunderbird or not, the creature also bore a striking resemblance to a prehistoric pterosaur and may, according to some, have been a living example of the group. Supposedly the animal in the photo had been shot by ranchers.

Many people believe they have seen a version of this mysterious picture somewhere, either in a magazine or on TV. But no one can say exactly where and when. And despite diligent searching, no one has yet been able to find the original photograph or even the copy of the issue of Epitaph that it supposedly appeared in. Has the photo been completely lost to history? Or is it possible that it never even existed? Perhaps the Thunderbird photo was just an urban legend. But then how could so many people recall having seen it?

 For one thing, it is quite possible that some people are actually recalling one of the numerous fake Thunderbird photos that have cropped up over the years. Photos produced either for movies, as attempts to recreate the alleged original, or as outright hoaxes.  

It’s also possible that people are hearing the legend and unconsciously attaching vague memories of some other picture they have seen. The image of a gigantic winged monster nailed to a barn is quite striking and evocative, so perhaps human minds have simply filled in their own ideas of what it looks like. In psychology, this is called confabulation, defined as the unconscious creation of distorted, fabricated or misinterpreted memories. In pop culture, this is also referred to as the “Mandela effect”, based on the false memory many people have of Nelson Mandela dying in prison in the 1980s. As another example, many people claimed to recall a kid’s movie from the 1990s starring comedian Sinbad as a genie named Shazam (this confabulation has been made murkier by the creation of a spoof scene from this non-existent movie, which you can see here). Or the fact that people can remember the title of the children’s book series The Berenstain Bears as being spelled “Berenstein”. Memory is malleable and spotty. The brain will often fill in blank spots with its own concoctions. So in the case of the elusive Thunderbird photo, it may be that many people’s brains are simply taking a brief glimpse of a fake Thunderbird photo- or a photo of something else entirely- and welding it to the urban legend that has been built up over the years?

It’s significant that this report of a flying monster is not an isolated incident. Newspapers of the 1800s- particularly papers from the American West- were rife with tales of dragons and other flying beasts. The majority of these tales were outright fabrications designed to drum up sales during a slump. It’s quite possible that the Thunderbird story started off as one of these tall tales and was repeated over the years until it fell into collective memory, creating an air of mystery and authenticity.

As to the picture of the beast on the barn itself, it should be noted that newspapers of the late 1800s did not actually use photographs since the technology of the time could not do photo transfers to cheap paper stock. Instead, newspapers relied on drawings of events to illustrate their stories.  If there ever actually was an original Thunderbird photo, it more than likely did not come from a newspaper.


Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Review: The Haunted Chamber by K. B. Goddard

The Haunted Chamber is a quick read. Just a few short tales done in a deliberately old-fashioned writing style in homage to classic ghostly writers such as M.R. James, Elizabeth Gaskell,  Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and others. Goddard’s stories will ease you into the spooky wintertime spirit (I suppose you could read them at any other time of year,  but a Victorian- or Victorian pastiche- ghost story is most effective on a dark, cold night with a light snow falling outside the window). 
The ghosts in these works are more mysterious than monstrous, less The Grudge, more The Haunting of Hill House- though the phantoms of  “Shadows” and “The Inn at the Crossroads” are very real threats to those on this side of the Eternal Door. 

Each story features a different species of Victorian specter. The titular Haunted Chamber, as its name implies, revolves around a series of mysterious events that occur whenever someone spends the night in a particular room in an enormous mansion. Although the happenings are clearly supernatural in origin, the exact cause of the haunting is left ambiguous.

The specters of The Inn At The Crossroads, by contrast, are much more clear and hostile towards the Living. A warning to those who would trifle with beings from the Other Side.

The spirit of Sir Henry’s Folly, however, is much more benign. Though she does play tricks on her mortal neighbor, it is only to make sure he does not transgress the ancient- and sometimes forgotten- pacts that humanity has made with the land.

The Crying Ghost is one of those apparitions whose lingering sorrow keeps her attached to her old dwelling. The solution that finally grants her peace is unusual but ultimately a happy ending for both the living and the dead.

Shadows, on the other hand, features a much more malevolent wraith- though not precisely what one would consider a conventional “ghost”, for it comes from a very mortal source.

Lastly, Lifting the Veil delves into the Victorian obsession with the Afterlife and communicating with those who have passed on. And with the possibility that sometimes that journey may be only temporary. 

 Goddard’s tales are a satisfying read if you’re a fan of classic ghost stories or even if you’d just like a quiet night of spectral tales by the fireplace (or at least some crackling fireplace sounds from Youtube playing on your phone, which is what I used).

You can get a copy of The Haunted Chamber on Amazon.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Review: Nightmare Soup by Jake Tri, illustrated by Andy Sciazko

Since my previous post was all about spooky Yuletide stories, I thought I'd review some more horror books for the holiday season (okay, I admit this is also partially to finish reviewing some of the books I read for Halloween, too. I had big ambitions, folks!)

Folks who grew up in the late 80s/early 90s will remember well Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories To Tell in The Dark. Well, mostly people will remember- and are probably still haunted by- the books nightmarish illustrations by Stephen Gammell.  As far as I know, no other kid’s horror book since then has really been able to precisely capture the raw hiding-under-the-covers-all-night fear of that book and its stories.  But Nightmare Soup, written by Jake Tri with illustrations by Andy Sciazko, digs its twisted, ghostly roots dug pretty deep into that world.

The tales in Nightmare Soup are short and simple, like creepy tales kid’s would tell each other while sitting around a lone flashlight in a dark room (kids still do that, right?). The stories are all original but clearly drawn from contemporary horror and urban legends such as monstrous clowns, aliens and ominous, lurking Beings From Elsewhere like Slenderman and The Rake. There are also several works dealing with creepy real life animals- skin-burrowing botflies and the tongue-replacing sea louse Cymothoa exigua- that have gained infamy thanks to the internet. Many of these tales have the feel of Creepypastas, the internet’s answer to old campfire tales.

Andy Sciazko’s creepy black-and-white drawings are very clearly done in the spirit of Stephen Gammel’s illustrations. While some of the pictures are quite effective, I can’t help feeling like the art is trying a bit too hard to gross out the reader or project that nightmarish shock that Gammel’s art had.  That is not to say they aren’t good. Indeed, the illustrations often compliment Jake Tri’s stories quite well. And some of them can be extremely eerie.  But it’s the difference between finding a room with blood and innards splattered all over the walls and ceiling versus coming across an otherwise clean room with a few small crimson drops leading to the basement door.

There are some excellent stand-out stories in this book. I particularly like the poem The Sloth. I would not normally have thought of these slow, sleepy xenarthrans as being horror material, but this poem makes them into a particularly creepy predator that stalks its prey slowly, but inevitably catches them. The accompanying artwork is effectively macabre and unsettling.

I am also fond of the tales Full Moon Guests and Mr. Wilson, Their twist endings feel as if they’ve been pulled right out of old EC horror comics.  And, of course, I can’t help but enjoy the story Tongue- because really who can resist a story featuring the ghoulish charm of the aforementioned Cymothoa exigua.

If there is a flaw in Nightmare Soup it is that it seems to be trying to emulate the look and feel of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark without having enough of its own identity. I do genuinely admire the attempt to capture that nostalgic fear that Alvin Schwartz’s original books spawned in so many kids. I think this anthology will be most effective on modern kids who don’t know Scary Stories and will get the chance to experience that squeamish fear for themselves.

You can get a copy of Nightmare Soup on the book's website.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Christmas Ghosts

Illustration by James McBryde for the M. R. James ghost story "Oh, Whistle, And I'll Come to You, My Lad". Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Now that the Halloween season has passed- well, HAS been passed for almost a month now- it seems like it should be time to put away all the ghosts and witches and other creepiness and start getting ready for the winter holidays* 

But the season of hauntings and creepy things lurking in the woods is far from over. It’s only just beginning, in fact. For many cultures, winter is a time when the walls between worlds grow thin and beings from Another Place step into our plane of existance. If you look into Yuletime traditions outside of America, you’ll find hordes of ghosts, witches, trolls, household spirits and other supernatural things creeping around the outside walls or hiding behind the stove.

One of the better-known examples of Yuletide spookiness is the British tradition of telling ghost stories around Christmas. When you hear  “Christmas ghosts” you probably think of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” (and maybe also the line about how “there’ll be scary ghost stories” from the song “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” sung most famously by Andy Williams).  But this was just one in a long history of tales. And indeed, it wasn't the only Christmas ghost story Dickens’ wrote.  

Winter ghost stories have been told in Europe for centuries, but in Britain, the tradition really took off in the Victorian period. These tended to be what you might call “cozy” stories. The protagonists were often well-to-do or at least comfortably off. The hauntings frequently took place in or around a stately manor or otherwise well-furnished dwelling. There was little of the macabre alien horror of William Hope Hodgson, Arthur Machen or the later pulp writers like Lovecraft. Nor did Christmas ghost stories possess the desperate, psychological horror of Edgar Alan Poe or Mary Shelley. These were tales meant to spook, but not horrify. Something to create a little creepy fun on a cold winter’s night.** A good example of this scary but ultimately harmless haunting is M.R. James' "Oh Whistle And I'll Come To You, My Lad", available to read here

James, by the way, is one of the better known ghost-story writers. Head academic administrator first at King's College in Cambridge, then at Eton College at the beginning of the 20th century, he was renowned as a medieval scholar and antiquarian, as well as a prolific author. Each year around Christmas he would write a new ghost story then invite his close friends, academic fellows and favored students to his rooms at the College where he would read the tale out loud by the flicker of a candle or a crackling fireplace.

There are many, many more creepy things lurking in the shadows around the winter holidays. I’ll detail a few more of them in future posts.

For now, here are a couple of great articles that delve deeper into the origins and traditions of the British ghost story:

*(If you’re into that, of course. I personally love Christmas, but I know there are plenty of people who aren’t big on this time of year. For some, it’s the constant barrage of commercialism. For others, Christmas is a time of painful memories and loneliness. Some just aren’t that into it. I can understand all those points.)

** As with any literary genre, of course, there are plenty of exceptions to the "cozy haunting" style of Christmas ghost. See, for example, Dickens' strange "To Be Read At Dusk"