Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Review: Register Prehistoria

Mention prehistoric animals and a person’s thoughts will most likely go to dinosaurs. Then perhaps to the more popular Pleistocene animals like mammoths, sabertooth cats, giant ground sloths. Maybe a fossil enthusiast will think of ammonites and trilobites.

But there is so much more diversity to the 4 billion years of life on Earth. Piles and piles of creatures deserving more attention. That’s where Stanton Fink’s Register Prehistorica comes in.

Fink’s tome, which doubles as a coloring book, showcases an eclectic mix of trilobites, pterosaurs, mammals, echinoderms, amphibians, and even stranger beasts. The book covers a temporal range from the dawn of multicellular life in the Ediacaran all the way to the 1800s.

Fink gives each creature its own character with interesting anecdotes about unusual behavior, history of discovery, or odd name origins. See, for example, the trilobite Triproetus bonbon- whose species name refers to the French chocolate candies- because the creature’s extremely well-preserved fossils were a “treat” to discover. Or the fearsome mesonychid mammal Ankalagon saurognathus, which was named after a dragon from JRR Tolkien’s Silmarillion.

Animal reconstructions are meticulously detailed, with lavish attention given to each tooth, scale, and osteoderm. Many of the illustrations are the first depictions of animals that are only known from a few fragmentary bones or shell pieces buried in an academic paper.

The backgrounds, by contrast, are quite simple, often little more than broad strokes to suggest scenery in the manner of a Japanese sumi-e or a Chinese shui mo hua ink painting.  This juxtaposition can be a bit jarring at first, but the simple backgrounds help to highlight the details of the subject animals without distracting from them.

Even cats like Register Prehistoria.

Fink has drawn and written many, many more books covering all sorts of obscure and fascinating prehistoric creatures. Register Prehistoria is an excellent jumping-off point to discovering more of Earth’s ancient diversity.

You can get a copy of Register Prehistoria here.

You can get a book of Stanton Fink's Ordovician animals here.

And, of course, Trilobites!

Monday, June 29, 2020

Review: Feeder by Lucinda Moebius

The world is full of supernatural monsters: vampires, lycanthropes, ghouls, and even stranger things. Many humans have glimpsed them, but few realize that the seeming diversity of creatures that stalk the shadows are all simply aspects of a single species of energy beings, called “were”.  These creatures have existed since the beginning of the universe, evolving in parallel with the mortal world. Were’s heightened senses allow them to see and feed on the life forces of other creatures. With the energy they gain, they can perform all sorts of supernatural feats- most notably shapeshifting into the forms of animals and thus giving rise to legends of werebeasts.

Maria Christine, the protagonist of Feeder, is one of the “nicer” were, since she typically only feeds on murderers, rapists, and the dying. But even she has little regard for humanity beyond a source of sustenance. She lives on the edge of both human and were society, scraping together a living as best she can, occasionally aided by a sympathetic were nun. Her transient, marginalized existence makes the readers sympathize with her even as we watch her stalk and drain humans prey. Her struggle also keeps her grounded even as the story gradually reveals more of her impressive powers.

Throughout the story, Maria is chased by two other supernatural  beings called simply the Hunter and the Warrior. Both are also energy beings made flesh, and implied to be distant offshoots of the were.  They work together to prey on Maria’s kind just as they prey on mortals. The story stumbles a bit with these two, as they aren’t particularly developed characters, aside from the Hunter’s sense of conscience. Their names are not particularly evocative. I wish they had better descriptors than just “Hunter” and “Warrior”. I do know their story is explained in the sequel, however, so hopefully we’ll see more depth from them there.

Halfway through the book, Maria is forced to flee her old haunts. She eventually runs into an organized pack of were who quickly become a surrogate family. It’s intriguing to watch tough, survival-driven maria gradually learning to open up and trust her new “father” and “siblings”. Though the ease with which they accept her did make me a bit suspicious that they had ulterior motives (no spoilers on whether that suspicion was well-founded).

I’ve long been a fan of urban supernatural fantasy, particularly the classic 90s World of Darkness and the Underworld films. The setting of Feeders gives me a similar vibe to those works, though  I like the twist that all these different supernatural beings described by mortals are actually just permutations of the same creature.

Feeder is a good, fast read for fans of urban fantasy and vampire tales who are looking for a twist on the familiar themes. You can get a copy here.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

New picture book

Now that The Scarecrow Harvest Festival is all done, I'm looking for an agent and/or publisher for it. 

In the meantime, though, I'm already working on a new picture book about two of my favorite things: Halloween and cryptids. See, Cryptid Halloween is just like Human Halloween, but with little differences. Instead of carving pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns, cryptids carve cantaloupes and other melons. Instead of decorating with bats, rats, and cats, cryptids decorate with fur-bearing trout, jackalopes, and flying platypus.  And, of course, instead of dressing up as monsters to trick-or-treat, cryptids dress up like human kids, as you can see below.

Mothman (or, rather, Mothgirl in this case)

Champ from Lake Champlain

The Fresno Nightcrawlers

I'm still working on designs for other cryptid trick-or-treaters, and working on a book dummy. Stay tuned for more!

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Review: She Walks in Shadows edited by Gemma Files and Silvia Moreno-Garcia

H.P.Lovecraft’s fiction didn’t include many women. Not, I think, out of sexism, but more because almost all of his protagonists were reflections of himself- bookish scholars or sensitive creative men of Anglo-Saxon descent from New England.

The few women who do appear in his works offer intriguing story possibilities, though. There’s the lonely, bookish Lavinia Whateley from the Dunwich Horror, body-swapping Asenath Waite of The Thing on the Doorstep, the enigmatic gorgon-lamia Marceline from Medusa’s Coil, and more. She Walks in Shadows explores these characters and other aspects of the Lovecraft mythos from a female-presenting perspective.

With many anthologies, the stories can be hit or miss. Some good tales alongside average stories. Though, admittedly, which stories are “good”, “bad” or just “mediocre” is highly dependent on the reader’s own tastes.  With that in mind, I’m pleased to say that I found every story in this anthology enjoyable. Each is different in tone, subject, and style, yet each offers an intriguing facet to Lovecraftian horror.

In many of these stories there is another strain of fear paralleling cosmic horror. It is the Earthly fear of being controlled, undermined and ignored by people who have more power. A fear that all too many women- cis, trans or non-binary- can understand.

One thing that can make this anthology difficult is the fact that it’s often necessary to have read the original stories to fully understand what’s going on. This is especially true for stories based on more obscure works such as “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”, and Lovecraft collaborations like “Medusa’s Coil”, and “The Mound”. This can make the anthology difficult for more casual readers of Lovecraft. It’s not a good starting place for newcomers looking to explore the mythos writing of other writers beyond the Old Man of Providence’s tales, but it a rewarding read for those who have already waded deep into that dark universe.

Some of the stories that particularly stood out for me include:

 “De Deabus Minoribus Exterioris Theomagicae” by Jilly Dreadful. Certainly the most stylistically interesting piece. Written as a bibliographic study by a PhD candidate. The actual story unfolds through numbered notes within the paper. Its structure is reminiscent of the subtle “clerical” horror of an SCP Foundation entry.

“Hairwork” by Gremma Files is a sequel to Medusa’s Coil, a story that Lovecraft ghostwrote for Zelia Bishop. The original tale had interesting potential that was undone by its ridiculously racist ending. This new work, however, reframes the narrative to create a powerful, interesting twist.

“T’la-yub’s Head” by Nelly Geraldine Garcia-Rosas combines Mesoamerican myth and history with the lost world of K’n-yan, found beneath an earth mound in the ghost-written story, The Mound.

She Walks in Shadows is a fantastic collection of stories exploring the female side of the mythos. You can get a copy at Innsmouth Free Press

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Small Fossil Tracks of the Connecticut Valley

A new article I wrote for the Dinosaur State Park newsletter. Some of the tracks can be a bit hard to pick out in photos, especially when they're at the small scale of a newsletter page, so to make them as clear as possible, I created illustrations of the fossils to accompany their entries. Enjoy!


Although dinosaur footprints are the most abundant and well-known fossil tracks in the Connecticut Valley, they are not the only traces of ancient life in southern New England. Insects, fish, and other small animals of the Mesozoic also left their own marks preserved in stone. There are dozens of different trace fossil species from tiny animals throughout the Valley, a few of which are detailed below.

These early Jurassic tracks consist of double rows of two scratch-like marks (“furcula” means “forked”, and Bifurculapes trackway looks as if they were made by the tips of two Y-shaped legs dragging through the mud). The tracks are often found in association with ripple marks, suggesting that they were made by aquatic insects crawling across the floor of a shallow playa lake. Several specimens zig-zag, implying that the animals were being pushed off-course by a current and repeatedly correcting their path. It’s not currently known what type of organisms made these traces, though the forked shaped of the tracks suggests at least some may have been made by crustaceans, which have biramous appendages.

These sinuous grooves were made by the tails and lower fins of fish as they swam near the bottoms of shallow temporary pools. Specimens of Undichna are extremely rare in the Connecticut Valley, although fossils of the primitive fishes that made them- Semionotus or Redfieldius- are quite common. These shallow lakes would have been prime fishing spots for the large theropod dinosaurs and crocodilians that inhabited the Valley.

 In the 1850s geologist Edward Hitchcock discovered a curious fossil impression in Triassic sandstone near Hadley, Massachusetts. The rock slab was covered in what he described as “spheroidal cavities”. To a modern viewer, this unusual trace might look as if someone had pressed a large sheet of bubble wrap into the soft mud. Hitchcock interpreted this fossil as a collection of “tadpole nests”.

 (I admit my illustration above came out a little weird for this one. Below are photos of the original fossils in the Edward Hitchcock Ichnological Cabinet at the Beneski Museum of Natural History.)

But what are tadpole nests, exactly? If you come across a temporary vernal pool in late spring, you’ll often find it swarming with hundreds of little black tadpoles clustered along the shallow edge. As the water slowly dries up, they excavate dimples or “nests” in the sediment by wiggling their tails and slowly rotating in circles, either to feed on the bottom or to escape the desiccating air. As the shore of the pool shrinks, the tadpoles move with it, continuously digging new nests until the bottom of the pool is covered in a shallow circular or hexagonal depressions.

There is some controversy about what made the Batrachoides impression. Some scientists have pointed out that similar patterns can be created by intersecting ripples. But the possibility that this unusual pattern was created by frog young is intriguing. 

Currently known from a single specimen found at a private fossil site near Holyoke, Massachusetts. this unusual fossil is an almost complete body impression- including legs, abdomen, and head- made by a resting chelicerate, an animal from the group of Arthropods that includes spiders, scorpions, mites, ticks, and vinegaroons. Such creatures are distinguished by their mouthparts, called chelicerae, that move up and down rather than horizontally as insect mandibles do.

The outline of Cheliceratichnus, including the impressions of its two massive chelicerae, suggests that it was created by an organism closely related to the modern solifuges or sun spiders. 

Cheliceratichnus was discovered at the end of a fossil trackway known as Acanthichnus cursorius, which shows feet impressions as well as drag marks from the tips of the creature’s heavy mouthparts. The sun spider created these tracks by walking backwards, a behavior found in many modern chelicerates.


 Lower Jurassic Arthropod Resting Trace from the Hartford Basin of Massachusetts, USA. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Another scarecrow backstory

As I explained in a previous blog entry, in the course of drawing and writing my picture book, The Scarecrow Harvest Festival, I came up with backstories for most of the characters. Maybe someday I'll compile them all into a companion volume, but for now, have another one! This is the story of that guy in the middle up there with the wrinkled suit and the head full of candles.


The road from Deerford to Souhaven is a long, lonely route passing old, tangled forests thick with vines and brambles, shadowed by hemlocks, and haunted by vampires, glowackus, and stranger beasts. The swamps along the trail bristle with quilled horsetails and clumped sword sedges, the waters dappled with the green of duckweed and alive with choruses of frogs, whispering night birds, and screaming fisher cats. There are blocky sandstone ridges marked by the fossil paths of long-dead saurian beasts and haunted by their ghosts. 

The loneliness and foreboding dread on this road can be overwhelming. Thus it was a great relief for travelers in decades past when they came to one particular marsh along the trail that was aglow with fireflies gathered in such huge numbers that one could read by their combined light. This marsh was a sign that they were within sight of the unsurprisingly-named Firefly’s Rest, one of the only inns along this dark trail.

The inn and marsh were fondly remembered landmarks for many years. But, sadly, progress marches on in the River Valley. The stream that fed the marsh was diverted and the wetland itself filled in to provide land for fields. And with the marsh went the fireflies. The inn remained prosperous, many guests agreed that an intrinsic part of its charm and magic had been lost along with its titular insect greeters. Millicent Tunis, the owner of the new fields built on top of the marsh did not forgotten the importance of the fireflies, though. She had many fond memories of being greeted by them when she passed the marsh on the way to Souhaven when she herself had been a young woman trying to make her way as a trader. To honor their memory, and to advertise the inn, she and her family set out dozens little lanterns in their fields, creating their own swarm of dancing lights to greet guests. Initially they made the lanterns themselves from metal scraps but soon guests of the Inn began to donate their own lanterns, some of them brought from distant lands specifically to place in the fields

For a while Millicent and her family hung the lanterns themselves. That proved to be exhausting work, however, and the family had a hard time balancing the task with planting, harvesting and other work.

The Autumnal Powers looked upon this situation and breathed life into the old scarecrow that stood in the field. They dubbed him Feuillemorte and gave him the task of keeping the lanterns lit and the memory of the fireflies alive.

Nowadays Feuillemorte wanders the fields nightly, inspecting each lantern to make sure it’s lit. His own head is made from a driftwood stump and adorned with magic candles that will only burn themselves, but do not touch the dry stalks of the field. 

Travelers still bring lanterns from all over to hang in Millicent’s Firefly Field. A few months ago, the innkeeper even began cataloguing the stories behind them, and collecting them in a hefty book in the inn’s small library. 

Locals and travelers alike have developed an affection for Feuillemorte as well, and volunteers have ensured that he receives consistent repairs and a new outfit once the old one gets too ragged.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Review: F4 by Larissa Glasser

The Finasteride is a luxury cruise ship grafted into the back of a drugged and comatose kaiju, the titular F4, or Fury-Beast 4- so named because it was the fourth in a wave of titanic alien monsters that broke through a dimensional gateway to wreak havoc in our world. Despite being repeatedly bombed to Hell, the creature regenerated too fast for anyone to truly kill it. Eventually somebody figured: why not sedate it and turn it into a cruise liner?

Carol is the bartender on this ship. It’s a decent gig, and an escape from the transphobic trolls she’s been dealing with on the mainland. Things seem to be getting better for her, so of course the ship’s captain has to turn into an amorphous horror and shunt the whole vessel into a nightmare-dimension of violent mutations and alien energies. And things just get crappier from there. While the crew and passengers transform into monsters, Carol and her friends make their way through the literal bowels of the vessel to try to escape the flesh phantasmagoria. Or at least survive until it’s over.

F4 is a gonzo novella that reads like 70s New Wave pulp science fiction mixed with an 80s creature feature and a little bit of the SCP Foundation dropped into classic 1990s Doom.

The action on the Finasteride is broken up by scenes of the incident on the mainland that drove Carol to the ship in the first place. These chapters are slower and grounded in the mundane world, reading more like a crime thriller and providing a nice anchor to the craziness on the F4.

It’s refreshing to read a story about a transwoman front and center as the protagonist. Also refreshing to read a story about a transwoman that isn’t a prurient, often cis-authored, drama focused only her struggles with being trans.  Though the transphobic bullshit Carol has to deal with is certainly not glossed over. She puts up with constant micro-aggressions- and a lot of regular aggressions, too. Heck, the reason she ended up on the ship in the first place was to get away from a concerted transphobic harassment campaign (which bears similarities to the way the media and trolls victimized Claudia Charriez during the assault trial of her ex- a deliberate parallel that Glasser herself pointed out in an interview).

Despite the hellscape erupting all around Carol, she remains focused as she tries to keep her companions safe. And as we see in the mainland story, she tries to do the right thing even when she knows it's going to bite her in the ass hard.

Carol is also not at all shy about her anatomy, which brings up one thing to be aware of when going into this novella: the dicks. Sweet Christmas, are there a lot of dicks. Girldicks. Kaiju dicks. Crab-monster dicks. Maybe even one or two cisguy-dicks. Dicks even become a major plot point. But you get used to it. Just go in expecting dicks and you’ll be fine.

The ending of F4 does feel like it needed more set-up. There’s an island shaman who pops up right at the end with hardly any foreshadowing. And Carol has some sort of epiphany regarding her relationship to the kaiju that I didn’t fully understand.

Overall, though, this is a fast, fun, action-heavy read good for folks who like pulp horror featuring protagonists who are just done with all this crazy monster shit. You can get a copy of F4 on Amazon, though I got mine at the Lovecraft Arts & Sciences store in Providence.