Monday, November 11, 2019

A Scarecrow backstory


Dwizzen on his way to the harvest festival with a friend.


In the course of designing the scarecrows for my picture book, The Scarecrow Harvest Festival, I came up with basic backstory notes for each most of them. This was mainly to help direct the characters' designs, but I was also toying with the idea of creating a "companion" book- a sort of field guide to the scarecrow characters in the vein of The Goblin Companion by Brian Froud and Terry Jones, one of my absolute favorite books. I even briefly started a blog specifically to post more fleshed-out scarecrow biographies. While the blog fizzled, I still like the idea of fleshing out my scarecrows' backgrounds. Who knows, I might actually end up writing that field guide. Or maybe I'll even convert some of them into Dungeons & Dragons NPCs and post them on DriveThruRpg.

Anyway, he's my first scarecrow biography. Enjoy!


DWIZZEN

The story of Dwizzen is really the story of Elihu March and Thomas Steiner, two young men from farming families in the River Valley.

When Elihu was five years old, an accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. Though his father was compassionate, his brothers and children from neighboring farms mocked him relentlessly for his disability, calling him useless and a burden. But one boy did not. Since he first learned to talk, Thomas Steiner struggled with a severe stutter that made even simple sentences difficult. He felt a deep kinship with Elihu and the two became fast friends.

In Thomas’ father’s field was a grove of trees that the boys often used as a refuge. It was their secret island where they could get away from the day’s difficulties for a little while. Thomas would carry Elihu to the trees in the early morning where the latter would spend the day reading the books his father bought him. At night Elihu would regale Thomas- and eventually some of the other farm children- with the things he had learned. He told tales of the giant birds that had once roamed the Valley and left their fossilized footprints in the brownstone. He told of the preacher who had tried to build a metal messiah under the direction of ghosts. He told of the great city to the west that was the center of the world where every language was spoken. And many more tales. He also helped Thomas work on his stutter by giving him poems and speeches to read slowly out loud.

One day Thomas and Elihu went out to their landlocked island after a strong nor’easter had blown through. Several trees had been knocked down and Elihu noticed that an army of seedlings had sprung upon them. Having read many books on botany and ecology, he was keen to study the new sprouts and soon noticed that the plants formed micro-environments on different parts of the fallen trees. The flora growing on top of the root-ball was different from the flora growing in the pit, which was different from the mosses, lichens, and liverworts growing on the roots themselves, which were all different from the other plants in the grove. Elihu took careful notes on his findings and, with the encouragement of his father and Thomas, submitted them to a botanist at the nearby college. To his surprise the professor wrote back, impressed with his work, and invited Elihu to give a lecture on his findings. Word of the young man’s research soon spread to other members of the faculty and thence to other universities of the River Valley and beyond. He received more offers to speak about his discovery and was soon making a regular circuit of all the major colleges of the Northeast. At first, he was carried into the lecture halls on Thomas’ back, but a professor at the local college donated a wheelchair so he could get around easier.

Dwizzen enjoying some grilled corn at the festival.

Thomas and Elihu grew ever closer and soon their friendship developed into something more. When Elihu’s father passed away, the two of them moved into his old farmhouse together. They wed the next spring with a ceremony in the old grove of trees where they had spent so much time in their youth.

In time the expanding town bought up Elihu and Thomas’ land to make way for expansion. When the couple moved to a new farm, they took one of the old, tipped-over logs with them as a reminder of their home and of the natural curiosity that had brought them success. Weathering and cracking had given the stump the rough semblance of a face, so Thomas and Elihu thought it would be only appropriate to give it a body as well. And a name of course. For that, they chose Dwizzen, which means "having the appearance of a dried, wrinkled fruit". A playful reference to the thick, gnarled bark of the scarecrow’s head. Dwizzen’s log head was too heavy for the body to hold up, so they gave him Elihu’s old wheelchair.

Recently Dwizzen’s chair has been fitted with bicycle wheels to make it easier for him to navigate his fields. Like his human creators, he is very interested in the succession of plant communities. He has seen neighboring fields go fallow and give way to meadow, then savannah, then young forest. He often ponders what will happen when his own field is finally reclaimed by the land. Perhaps he himself will become the nursery for a new forest.

(The word Dwizzen, by the way, comes from The Word Museum: The Most Remarkable English Words Ever Forgotten by Jeffrey Kacirk. This book is the source for most of my scarecrow names, as you'll see in future installments.)

Monday, November 4, 2019

Spooky Space: A late Halloween treat

Back at the beginning of October, I put together a star talk for my planetarium job all about “spooky” space objects. The show did decently, but I really wanted to share it with a wider audience. So here’s my late Halloween treat to everyone.

Most of the spooky astronomical objects I’ll be talking about are nebulae (singular nebula)- massive interstellar clouds of gas and dust that are the birthplaces of stars. There are three main kinds of nebulae:

Reflection nebulae, which are illuminated by the light from nearby stars reflecting off the particles within it.

Emission nebulae, wherein the gas and dust themselves glow due to being energized by the radiation from nearby.

Planetary nebulae, which are spherical shells of superheated gas thrown off by a dying star (they’re confusingly called “planetary nebula” because their round shape made them look like planets in early telescopes).

On Earth, we often form images out of the random shapes of clouds, so it’s not surprising that astronomers have extended this habit to clouds in space. Let’s look at a few of them here.


Image Credit: NASA/ESA

IC 63, The Ghost of Cassiopeia Located, as you can guess, near the constellation Cassiopeia. Hydrogen in IC 63 is being bombarded by the intense ultraviolet radiation of Gamma Cassiopeiae, a blue-white subgiant star. This radiation charges the hydrogen particles in the cloud with energy, causing them to give off the eerie red glow seen in this image. Visible light from Gamma Cassiopeiae is also reflecting off the cloud, creating the blue color seen near the top of the image. Thus IC 63 is both an emission AND a reflection nebula. This intense radiation is also blasting away at the cloud, sculpting it into the eerie figures seen here.



Image Credit: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license


The Ghost Nebula, vdB 141 A reflection nebula located in the constellation Cepheus near Cassiopeia. The creepy humanoid figures with raised arms are “fingers” of gas being sculpted by the radiation from nearby stars. Within each finger is an embryonic star, feeding off the cloud’s gas and dust. The amber-brown glow comes from the reflected light of nearby mature stars.


Image Credit: NASA/ESA

Cat’s Eye Nebula NGC 6543: A planetary nebula in the constellation Draco, NGC 6543 is a series of concentric gas shells thrown off at regular intervals by a dying star.


Image Credit: NASA/ESA and STScl

The Bat Shadow- HBC 672: As a star coalesces out of its parent nebula, it begins to spin and its gravity pulls some of the gas and dust into a ring orbiting its equator.  Eventually this ring condenses into planets, asteroids and other solid bodies. Astronomers have obtained many fascinating and beautiful pictures of stars with these dark equatorial rings. My personal favorite- and one particularly appropriate for the spooky autumn season- is this picture of the young star HBC 672. Here the star’s dust ring is partially blocking the light it’s emitting, creating two prominent V-shaped “wing shadows”- visible in the upper part of the image- against the bright nebula around it.

HBC 672 is located in the constellation Serpens, a rather dim constellation associated with Hercules.


Image Credit: NASA, ESA, .R. O'Dell (Vanderbilt University), and M. Meixner, P. McCullough, and G. Bacon (Space Telescope Science Institute)

Helix Nebula NGC 7293: A creepy eye-like planetary nebula located in Aquarius. And one of the closest planetary nebula to Earth.



Image Credit: G√∂ran Nilsson & The Liverpool Telescope
. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

The Skull Nebula, NGC 246  A planetary nebula located in the constellation Cetus. This nebula is moving rapidly through space and interacting with the interstellar dust in front of it, causing the leading edge- at the top here- to glow brighter than the rest of the cloud.

Image Credit: NASA/STScl Digitized Sky Survey/Noel Carboni
The Witch Head Nebula, IC2118: Located in Orion, this reflection nebula is illuminated by the glow of the blue supergiant star Rigel which forms the left knee of the constellation.

Image Credit: NASA and STScl

The Shadow Person Nebula NGC 1999: Another nebula located in Orion, this cloud reflects the light from a bright star known as V380 Orionis.  The creepy black silhouette in the middle was originally thought to be a dark cloud blocking the light behind it. It’s now known that this object is actually a void of space in the middle of the cloud, possibly caused by nearby stars blowing the gas away.



Image Credit: ESA, NASA, & Mohammad Heydari-Malayeri (Observatoire de Paris, France)

The Ghost Head Nebula NGC 2080: Located in the southern hemisphere sky in the constellation Dorado. The Ghost Head is an emission nebula formed from ionized gas. The eyes of the ghost, A1 and A2, are hot, glowing blobs of hydrogen and oxygen. A1 is illuminated by a single star, but A2 is lit by multiple celestial bodies. Both blobs are very young- only 10,000 or so years old- evident by the fact that they have not been blown away yet by the solar wind of the stars inside them.



Image Credit: European Southern Observatory (ESO). licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International

Skull and Crossbones Nebula NGC 2467 Also located in the Southern hemisphere. This object Is actually several star-forming regions widely separated in space. From Earth, though, they all lie along the same line of sight and thus appear to be one single mass.


There are, of course, plenty of spooky objects in the night sky that aren’t nebula. For instance:

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, AURA/Caltech, Palomar Observatory

The Pleiades. Stars are born in nebulae, condensing down out of the diffuse gas and dust under the force of gravity. This often results in several stars forming in close proximity to each other, in a group called an open cluster.  Such is the case with the Pleiades, also known as the Seven Sisters. Located on the back of the constellation Taurus, the Pleiades are the easiest cluster to see from Earth. As the cluster’s nickname suggests, seven of the brightest stars are visible with the naked eye, though a good telescope will reveal hundreds more.

Centuries ago the Pleiades were said to be highest in the sky around All Hollow’s Eve, a time halfway between the autumn equinox and the summer solstice when the souls of the dead were believed to wander the Earth.  Because of this, the Pleiades came to be associated with the dead- though not necessarily in a negative or malignant way.

It should be noted that nowadays due to the slow wobble of the Earth’s axis- known as precession- the Pleiades are actually at their highest point in the sky around November 21.


The Hyades in Taurus.
Image Credit: Till Credner. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Hyades Another open cluster with a creepy association. The Hyades form the V-shaped face of Taurus. They are mentioned in the Weird horror stories of pulp author Robert W. Chambers. In Chambers’ fiction the Hyades are associated with The King in Yellow, a mysterious play that drives anyone who sees it mad. In the play, the alien city of Carcosa, which is haunted by the King, is said to lie somewhere among this star cluster.

Aldebaran, the red giant star that forms the eye of Taurus, appears to lie within the Hyades. This is just a trick of perspective, though, since both Aldebaran and the cluster lie along the same line of sight when viewed from Earth.


The constellation Perseus with Medusa's head, depicted in Urania's Mirror, a series of 32 celestial cards published in 1824. Here Algol is on the top of Medusa's forehead for some reason. 
Image Credit: Public Domain, image restored by Adam Cuerden.

The Demon’s Eye, Algol: This star is located within the constellation Perseus, which is named after the Greek hero who slew the gorgon Medusa. Early observers noticed that this star would dim and brighten over the course of several days. At the time people had no explanation for this phenomenon, so the star was called “the Demon’s Eye” because of its seemingly supernatural ability. With more advanced telescopes, astronomers discovered that Algol is an eclipsing binary- that is, two stars orbiting each other.  Binary and even multiple star systems are common throughout the galaxy due to the fact that stars are born so close together (our own sun, which is by itself, is a comparatively rare occurrence).  The two stars of Algol happen to be oriented so that when they’re seen from Earth one star will periodically block the light from the other one. When both stars are visible from Earth, Algol appears bright, but when one star is eclipsed by the other, Algol dims. Algol is often portrayed as the winking eye in Medusa’s severed head, which Perseus holds.



I hope you’ve enjoyed my tour of the Spooky Skies. In the future I might transcribe some more of my themed planetarium shows in posts here.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Triassic Fossils of the East Coast: Oddities

Here's another article I wrote for Tracks and Trails, the newsletter of Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, Connecticut. This is part of an ongoing series about Mesozoic animals that inhabited Connecticut and other parts of the East Coast. I've also written about pseudosuchians, tanystropheids, and an unusual little reptile with a particularly strong bite.


OTHER BEASTS OF THE TRIASSIC
By John Meszaros

In the Connecticut Valley, we are fortunate to have a pretty extensive record of Mesozoic life in the form of trackways.  Skeletons and other physical remains, on the other hand, are extremely rare. Fortunately, bones from dinosaurs, crocodile-relatives and other reptiles have been found in other rift valleys along the East Coast in New Jersey, Virginia and the Carolinas.  Since these rifts formed at the same time as the Connecticut Valley, it’s highly likely that prehistoric animals from these locations would have also lived in our state.

The following creatures are just a small sample of the diverse life that would have walked the rivers and lakes of Connecticut in the age of dinosaurs.


Icarosaurus
This odd, palm-sized lizard sailed through the Triassic treetops, held aloft by fan-shaped “wings” formed from membranes of skin stretched over its elongated ribs. Icarosaurus was not a true flyer, but rather a glider like the “flying” squirrel of North America or the Draco lizard of South Asia. Icarosaurus was just one of a group of insectivorous lizards called kuehneosaurs that used their skin-flap wings to sail through the open canopy of the Triassic forest.

The only known specimen of Icarosaurus was discovered by three amateur fossil hunters in a New Jersey shale quarry just West of the Hudson River Palisades.



Uatchitodon
While the infamous venom-spitting ability of Dilophosaurus is purely an invention of Hollywood and Michael Crichton, there was at least one venomous reptile in the Mesozoic. Found in Triassic rocks from North Carolina, Virginia and Arizona, the pointed fossil teeth of Uatchitodon possess distinctive grooves running down their sides. Grooves that bear a remarkable resemblance to the venom-delivering canals found in modern-day cobras and Gila monsters. Like these reptiles, Uatchitodon probably injected venom into its prey with a quick bite.

Uatchitodon is currently only known from fossilized teeth. The animal’s appearance and even its relationship to other prehistoric reptiles is unknown. Though rather than being a lizard or a snake, it is thought to be a member of the archosaurs- the group that contains dinosaurs, crocodiles and modern birds.


Doswellia
Today, the ecological niche of semi-aquatic ambush predator is dominated on every continent by the crocodilians. But this has not always been the case. In the late Triassic the top ambush predators of Connecticut’s tropical rivers were metaposaurs and phytosaurs. But prowling the rivers even before these two was a greyhound-sized reptile called Doswellia.

With its long, narrow snout, flattened, boxy body and armored back, Doswellia bore an uncanny resemblance to a modern crocodile, though it was not closely related to this group at all. Instead, Doswellia is believed to have been a sister group to the archosaurs as a whole.

Doswellia’s narrow snout and conical teeth- perfect for grasping slippery, wriggling prey- indicate that it was primarily a fish-eater.

Fossils of Doswellia were originally discovered in Virginia, with another separate species later unearthed in New Mexico.

SOURCES

Colbert, Edwin H. (1996) A Gliding Reptile from the Triassic of New Jersey, American Museuem Novitates. 2246(3282) 1-23

Dilkes, David and Sues, Hans-Dieter (2009)  Rediscription and Phylogenetic Relationships of Doswellia kaltenbachi (Diapsida: Archosauriformes) from the Upper Triassic of Virginia, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29(1): 58-79

Heckert, Andrew B. et al. (2012) A New Species of the Enigmatic Archosauromorph Doswellia from the Upper Triassic Bluewater Creek Formation, New Mexico, USA, Palaeontology 55(6): 1333-1348

Mitchell, Jonathon S. et al. (2010) Grooves to Tubes: Evolution of the Venom Delivery System in a late Triassic "Reptile", The Science of Nature.

Ponce, Denise A., et al. (2017) The Osteoderm Microstructure in Dosweliids and Proterochampsids and its Implications for Palaeobiology of Stem Archosaurs, Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 62(4): 1-13

Sues, Hans-Dieter (1991) Venom-conducting Teeth in a Triassic Reptile, Nature 351: 9 May

Sues, Hans-Dieter (1996) A Reptilian Tooth with Apparent Venom Canals from the Chinle Group (Upper Triasic) of Arizona, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. 16(3): 571-572

Sues, Hans-Dieter, et al. (2013) Doswellidae: a Clade of Unusual Armoured Archosauriforms from the Middle and Late Triassic, Geological Society, London, Special Publications 379: 49-58

Weems, Robert E. (1980) An Unusul Newly Discovered Archosaur from the Upper Triassic of Virginia, USA, Tranactions of the American Philosophical Society, 

Wong, K. (2000) Icarosaurus Comes Home to Roost, Scientific American, September 27







Saturday, September 14, 2019

Spooky podcasts, part 1! The Wrong Station

Welp, it's September 14th. That's close enough to October for me. Time to get the Halloween festivities started!

I listen to a lot of podcasts while I'm driving. I enjoy a variety: history, D&D, culture, social issues, narrated stories. But my favorite, by far, are horror podcasts. And one of my absolute favorite horror podcasts is The Wrong Station.



Imagine you’re driving down a dark, lonely road late at night. To keep yourself awake you turn on the radio and flip through the stations. There’s some static, a couple old crooners.  Then you come across a voice. The narrator is warm, genial. He speaks directly to you as if you and he are old friends. He wants to tell you a story. Music drifts in. A piano. Pleasant at first. Perhaps a little melancholy. Perhaps a tad ominous. 

Something isn’t quite right. A subtle, but unmistakable dread drips into your gut. The narrator continues and you slowly realize you’ve turned into, well, the wrong station.

The Wrong Station draws from the same slow-burn horror of classic radio programs such as “Quiet, Please” or “Lights Out”. It is like the Twilight Zone, but with more body horror. Sometimes the full horror only dawns on the at the end. Sometimes the exact nature of the horror is left mysterious and only hinted at. But you know you have glimpsed a dark place and you cannot fully shake off the cold whispers you have heard.

Music and sound effects are rare, so there is little to distract you as the narrator reels you into deeper, darker waters.  I would highly recommend The Wrong Station to anyone who likes a good slow-build dread in their scary stories.

And if you're not sure where to start, one of my current favorite episodes is Classic Car. It gives you a good sense of the show's flavor.

You can find episodes at this website:

Episodes are also available on Apple Podcasts and anywhere where you can find podcasts.

Follow them on Twitter at: TheWrongStation



Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Scarecrow Harvest Festival!


After a year of hard work, my picture book is finally finished! It's pretty great seeing all my art and words in print. Putting this thing together really taught me a ton about layout and design. I even created my own font for the cover here.

As I designed each scarecrow character for the book, I wrote a few notes of background for each. I'd really like to flesh them out more and put them together in their own book in the style of The Goblin Companion by Brian Froud and Terry Jones. 

I'm actively looking into agents and publishers for The Scarecrow Harvest Festival, but in the meantime, you can get your own copy on Amazon. It's great for any kid (or adult, of course) who loves autumn and the harvest season.










Saturday, July 20, 2019

Review: Voices From Below by E. A. Rappaport



Voices From Below is the tale of ex-thief Halia and her companion, ax-wielding warrior Xarun, as they try to rescue their deceased friend, the wizard Minaras, from the underworld. 

The protagonists are more moral than many fantasy characters cast from a similar mold. Halia was once a thief (justified since she grew up scrounging on the streets), and Xarun has a history of cruelty and tyranny, but both are working hard to grow beyond their pasts and actively help others as their friend Minaras once did.

Paralleling their quest is the story of Oswynn, an apprentice mage who suddenly finds himself without a master and with access to powerful transmutation spells. Oswynn knows he is working with dangerous magic, but the allure of its power is too strong and he will have to face severe consequences for his actions

Also paralleling Halia and Xarun’s adventure is the revenge quest of Inar, a woodcarver who lost his brother to a wizard’s magic. Much of Inar’s plot is driven by his own deep-seated prejudice, and while the leaps of logic he makes may seem ludicrous at times, his delusional thinking is all too disturbingly realistic.

Voices is the seventh of nine books that form an “interlocking matrix” of several series which all share books between them but emphasize different characters and themes from each volume. Despite being in the middle of the series, Voices contains enough references to previous events for a reader to easily piece together what has gone before. It is a big credit to Rapapport’s storytelling that he can make this tale stand on its own reasonably well, though it will definitely help to read the other books in the matrix.

My biggest critique of Voices is that the characters’ emotional reactions often seem dulled and stilted. Characters never seem to be truly sad or angry, even if their words suggest it. Dialogue can also be too expository and matter-of-fact at times. While thankfully no one ever uses the dreaded “as you know”, their call-backs to previous books can swerve dangerously close at times.


Despite their often flat emotions, the characters themselves are interesting and believable. The world has plenty of creativity with lots of story potential. It’s not a perfect read, but fans of fantasy adventure- especially of fast-paced, quest-based plots like the Pathfinder or Dungeons & Dragons shared-world novels- will enjoy it.

You can get a copy of Voices From Below on Amazon or at the author's web site, Owl King Publishing, LLC

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Review: Rogues of Merth by Robert Zoltan


Rogues of Merth is a collection of tales grown by author Robert Zoltan from the thorny, often carnivorous garden of classic Pulp sword and sorcery. The heroes of these tales are the poet-swordsman Dareon Vin and his companion, the warrior Blue- the latter so nicknamed because of the cerulean tattoos that cover his body (only the people of his culture may know his true name, however). Each man comes from the extremes of civilization and bears their indelible marks: Dareon possesses the culture, craftiness and decadence of the cities, while Blue has the instinct and openness- and sometimes naivete- of one who wanders the open plains and forests.

Their home, Merth, is a porous world with myriad realities weaving in and out of its fabric. Indeed, Dareon and Blue can’t seem to go more than a few weeks without stumbling into another plane of existence or accidentally unleashing a relic from the ancient world. There are hints that a higher power may be tugging the duo along in their adventures. Whether it be Fate, the unnamed gods of Merth, or Dareon’s supposedly imaginary Lady Luck pulling the strings, one cannot say. Along the way they meet and must contend with numerous supernatural oddities: time sailors, demonic diptera, curse-flinging ghosts, laughing gods, serpent goddesses both malignant and benevolent, and even stranger entities.

If there is anything to critique in these tales, it is that at times Dareon and Blue seem a bit too passive about their strange adventures, drifting along wherever the unknown powers take them, escaping dangers and fighting monsters as they come. I would have liked to see a little more agency on their part. But that is a minor point

I would highly recommend Rogues of Merth to readers looking for stories of classic sword and sorcery infused with the adventuresome blood of Leiber’s Lahnkmar mixed with the weird, alien ichor of Moorcock’s ancient Melnibon√©.

You can get a copy of Rogues of Merth on Amazon.  

And check out Robert Zoltan's site Dream Tower Media to see his other work and listen to episodes of the fantastic Literary Wonder & Adventure Show podcast, which I've talked about before.