Saturday, December 8, 2018

Dr. Joseph Barratt: an eccentric fossil hunter from Connecticut

I recently wrote an article for the Winter 2018 edition of Tracks and Trails, the newsletter for Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, Connecticut where I work.  Presented here is the article in full with some extra illustrations that wouldn't fit in the newsletter.

You can check out more of my articles for the Dinosaur State Park newsletter in the following links:

Go here to read about the crocodile relatives that ruled the East Coast in the Triassic.

Go here to read about long-necked tanystropheids from North America.

Go here to read about a Triassic reptile from New Haven, CT with an unusual jaw.  

Here's an article about a mastodon skeleton found in Connecticut.

Here's an article about Professor Edward Hitchcock, the first person to scientifically study the dinosaur tracks of the Connecticut Valley. (Also, here's an article I wrote for Atlas Obscura about Hitchcock).

And Here you can read a poem Professor Hitchcock wrote expressing his frustration at his inability to find bones of the Valley trackmakers

Anyway, here's my latest article.

by John Meszaros

Is it possible that the fossil footprints found throughout the Connecticut Valley were made not by dinosaurs but by an ancient species of four-toed humans? Well, no. Not really. But such was an idea proposed by  Joseph Barratt, a 19th-century doctor and polymath from Middletown, Connecticut. In his heyday, Dr. Barratt was a significant contributor to the study of the Valley’s tracks and also a close friend to Professor Edward Hitchcock, the first person to study the tracks scientifically.

Joseph Barratt's portrait in the possession of the Middlesex County Historical Society.

Dr. Barratt was born in 1796 in Derbyshire, UK. He acquired two medical degrees in 1819 and subsequently emigrated to the United States, settling first in Phillipstown, New York, then in Norwich, Vermont. In the Green Mountain State he became a surgeon and a professor at the American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy established by Captain Alden Partridge. Dr. Barratt followed the Academy when it relocated to the then bustling port city of Middletown in 1824. The school returned to Vermont just a few years later, but Dr. Barratt chose to stay behind to practice medicine in his new home. When Wesleyan University took over the old Academy buildings, Dr. Barratt taught a number of botany classes at the fledgling school, though he was never formally part of the staff. Botany was a major interest of Barratt’s early in his career, and he made several major contributions to the study of North American flora. Over 3,000 mounted plants that he collected make up a significant portion of the herbarium at Wesleyan University. Many of his duplicate specimens were later given to the New York Botanical Gardens and constitute an important component of their collections as well. In addition to botany, Dr. Barratt also studied the history of the local Native American peoples and published a number of pamphlets on their languages.

Eventually, Dr. Barratt’s focus turned towards geology and Connecticut Valley footprint fossils in particular, due in no small part to his proximity to the Portland brownstone quarries just across the river from Middletown. His extensive studies of the prints brought him into contact with Professor Edward Hitchcock with whom he became close friends. Barratt provided Hitchcock with a number of quality trackway specimens for the latter’s growing Ichnological Cabinet at Amherst College in Massachusetts (now housed at the Beneski Museum). One of these slabs- which had previously been used for 60 years as a paving stone in Middletown- was described by Hitchcock as “the gem of (his) collection”. The professor even named a species of footprint, Chimaera barratti, in honor of his friend (today this species has been reclassified as a type of Anamoepus).

The tracks that Professor Hitchcock referred to as the "gem of the Cabinet", which he purchased from Dr. Barratt. Photo taken by me during a visit to the Beneski Museum.

Newspaper articles from the 1800s provide tantalizing hints that Dr. Barratt may have actually found fossil bones in the Portland quarries. There is little concrete information about these alleged fossils, however, and  It’s possible that he was merely describing regular rocks that he perceived to be bones. Still, the idea that he had collected real bones- sadly lost to modern science- is fascinating considering how rare fossil skeletons are in New England.

Like Hitchcock, Barratt also speculated on the identity of the trackmakers. He initially agreed with the Amherst professor that the largest prints had been made by gigantic birds. Over time, though, his ideas grew increasingly strange. He concluded that many of the prints had been made by a three-fingered, four-toed archaic human that he dubbed Homo tetradactylus. He also believed that alleged “bones” found in the Portland Quarry belonged to several species of ox and elephant that had been domesticated by these four-toed people. His belief in the human origin of the tracks led him to conclude that the sandstone beds of the Connecticut Valley were not of Mesozoic age but instead from a much younger time period that he dubbed the Kalorimazoic or “Age of Warm-Blooded Animals”. In 1874 Barratt compiled his theories into a self-published pamphlet titled “Fossil Wonders of a Former World”

Barratt became increasingly stubborn in his convictions and eccentric in behavior. He constantly ridiculed Professor Hitchcock’s ideas, souring the relationship between the two men and eventually alienating himself from other geologists as well.

Professor Edward Hitchcock. Public Domain.

A memorable example of Dr. Barratt’s eccentricity occurred in 1859 when he applied to present his work at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Springfield, Massachusetts, but was rejected-  in no small part due to the fact that Professor Hitchcock, with whom he had become estranged, was head of the Association. Undeterred, the night before the event he gained access to the building where the meeting was to be held and hung drawings and diagrams of his research all over the walls. Association members arriving the next day were highly amused by the display. Dr. Barratt circulated among them, pontificating about his theories and apparently unaware that he was the object of their amusement, assuming instead that they were laughing at Hitchcock for being such a fool as to dismiss his geological theories.

A modern reader may find Dr.Barratt’s beliefs laughable, but it’s important to remember that dinosaurs had not been discovered when he began studying the Connecticut Valley tracks. Even when the Terrible Lizards were formally named in 1842, they were believed to be lumbering, quadrupedal behemoths not at all like the graceful, bipedal creatures that had clearly made the prints. As mentioned before, Professor Hitchcock himself believed that the tracks had been made by giant birds like the moa of New Zealand and stubbornly stuck to his own convictions even as evidence for their saurian nature began to mount.

Sadly, as Dr. Barratt aged he grew increasingly senile and obsessive. He eventually ended up living above a drugstore in a small apartment that was a veritable wizard’s laboratory of botanical specimens, stone slabs, stuffed birds, brains in alcohol, minerals, skeletons, microscopes, and other curiosities. His mental condition deteriorated to the point that he was unable to take care of himself. In 1880 he was committed to the Connecticut Hospital for the Insane, where he died of a stroke two years later.

Though Barratt may have alienated many of his peers in his later years, he must still have had some staunch, caring friends, for his tombstone is a work of paleontological art. Cut from two slabs of Portland brownstone, the vertically standing portion features a set of well-defined Grallator footprints while the horizontal piece bears natural molds of two felled tree trunks. The front of the tombstone bears salient information about Dr. Barratt- though his name is unfortunately misspelled as Joseph Barrett. On the back of the base, between the trunk molds, is carved the phrase “Testimony of the Rocks”, the title of a book by Scottish geologist Hugh Miller. The creativity of Dr. Joseph Barratt’s headstone is a fitting final tribute to such a colorful figure in the history of New England paleontology.

Dr. Barratt’s grave can be found in Indian Hill Cemetery in Middletown on the western slope of the titular hill.

Dr. Barratt's grave in Indian Hill Cemetary, Middletown, CT. Portland sandstone crumbles over time so parts of the grave have, unfortunately, broken away.
Dinosaur footprints on the back of the grave.

Molds of fallen logs on the back of the grave. The log on the left has been badly eroded. 

"The Testimony of the Rocks"
While researching and writing this article, I developed quite an affection for Dr. Barratt. His wide-ranging curiosity and diverse hobbies are traits I can strongly relate to. Unfortunately, he was never able to focus on any one subject and thus never saw any single project to completion- another trait I can relate to on a deep level. It saddens me that a lot of the things written about him- both in modern times and during his own lifetime-  dismiss him as a quack and laughingstock. Dr. Barratt deserves better and I hope my article brings at least a little more awareness to him.


Pemberton, S. George 2015. History of Ichnology- Ichnological Eccentrics: The Curious Case of Dr. Joseph Barratt of Middletown, Connecticut. Ichnos 22: 57-68

Thanks also to the Middlesex County Historical Society for providing documents related to Dr. Barratt.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Two Sentence Autumn Horror Stories

Autumn is an eerie season. The nights get longer, the air colder. The ground becomes wet and boggy. The leaves turned to skeletons reaching for the void above. Autumn is a season when spirits are out, most prominently around Halloween. But even the more festive Yule season has quite a creepy edge itself.

In celebration of the spookier side of Autumn, I've been taking pictures of appropriately seasonal scenes and using them as inspiration for some two-sentence horror stories. Here are five of them, with the pictures that inspired them. You can check out more of my two-sentence horror stories here, here and here.

Glastonbury, CT 1:34 PM
Their anger only grew each day that their faces remained uncarved and their interiors unlit by the soul-candles of the Returned Dead for whom they’d been grown. Now they have found a place with plenty of fresh souls and they will claim them all, whether or not the original owners are actually dead.

Rocky Hill, CT 9:30 AM
They found him lying in the fallen leaves under his great-grandmother’s magnolia, quite dead and covered in thousands of tiny, ring-shaped bites. So preoccupied were they with his body that none noticed the crimson droplets glistening on the tips of the tree’s winter buds.

Middletown, CT 11:34 PM
Peering out the frost-edged windows, I saw a mote of green phosphorescence bobbing over the tall marsh grass and assumed it was just the ghost of Mr. Jameson out for a midnight stroll. Only when the glow moved closer did I see that it emanated from a collection of human heads trapped within the transparent belly of a beast whose own head and limbs were hidden by the darkness.

Cromwell, CT 1:23 PM
No matter where we move, the water tower always finds us eventually. It still believes we are its children, and it will not sleep until it has absorbed us all into its rotting wooden womb.


East Hampton, CT 12:48 PM
When I finally worked up the courage to peer into that ruined tower, I saw only a carpet of ferns and nothing more. Not until I went to sleep that night did I see what lay beneath them and realize the fate of that thing that we’d chased out of the little door under the cellar stairs last autumn.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Halloween Monsters! Part 15

Another day of weird monsters by Nicholas Cloister!  Believe it or not, this freaky slug/lamprey/naked mole rat, the Bhorda,  is a gigantic, monstrous seal. It’s inner, circular mouth can extend out like the proboscis of a priapulid (or a certain infamous biomechanical extraterrestrial), an ability that it uses to snatch prey from icebergs- and the occasional ship.

This monstrous pinniped also boasts another power that’s particularly creepy. According to the RPG creatures blog: “In areas where the ice is too thick for the Bhorda to penetrate, the creature can apply a deep and extended bellowing roar to create cracks in the ice and break it open. The vibrations of this sound are powerful but must work on the ice for some time before it comes apart. Surface instability can be felt from above, and a deep eerie song is audible even through thick layers of ice.”  

I’ve always found polar environments particularly haunting. The cold and quiet. The sense of isolation. The strange, beautiful shapes of icebergs. The endless white plain of the Antarctic interior. The Bhorda's low, rumbling call- perhaps detectable only as a faint rumbling deep in one's bones-  adds the perfect eerie element to a story set on the ice. 

I doubt it was intentional on Cloister’s part, but the Bhorda reminds me a little of the giant stop-motion walrus created by Ray Harryhausen’ for the 1977 movie “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger” 

I couldn't find a video of the walrus scene on Youtube, so this picture of it will have to suffice.

You can read the Bhorda’s full description at the RPG Creatures blog

Friday, October 26, 2018

Halloween Monsters! Part 14

Another creature from Nicholas Cloister. This one's a particularly creepy and tragic monster. The Enjirach were a race of feathered reptiles (so, dinosaur people?) that were hunted to extinction by humans who coveted their beautiful plumage. However, these feathers had the ability to restore life, so Enjirach corpses that were not completely plucked bare rose from the dead and continue to wander the world, kept in a perpetual undying limbo. To quote Nicholas blog:

"The remaining Enjirachs cannot naturally die. What few feathers they retain keep them alive, but are not enough to restore them to a life of breathing. A long time ago their flesh fled their bones, and cold blood dripped out of dissolving veins. Flies and worms took care of the sinews and left-overs while their hardy skeletons stayed erect and mobile, enforced and animated by the magical power of the feathers." 

This actually sounds like the plot to a gothic novel. I could totally see the Enjirach fitting in perfectly with the old D&D Ravenloft setting. Or even the 90s World of Darkness series.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Halloween Monsters! Part 13

Finally back with a new creature artist. Nicholas Cloister is a Swedish artist who does a lot of fantasy- and especially RPG-related- art. A few years ago he created a series of "system neutral" monsters that could be fitted into any role-playing game. The creatures each had detailed, unusual histories and habits and were very much unlike most other typical RPG monsters.

Nicholas posted his monsters on a blog and eventually combined them into a book that you can get at RPGNow. I'd highly recommend the book even if you don't actively play RPGs. It's great for casual perusing.

Marine Biology is one of my favorite subjects, so naturally, I chose one of his aquatic monsters for my first post.

Ghords are giant mollusks that filter-feed using six huge siphons. They can also use these intakes to defend themselves by biting, making ghords a sort of marine invertebrate hydra. Like hermit crabs, these huge invertebrates seek out the shells of other mollusks- in this case, giant clams- to serve as protective housing for their soft, vulnerable bodies. You can read the Ghord's full description here.

From an RPG standpoint, I really like the fact that ghords are not automatically a threat. In many roleplaying games, creatures often seem to exist only to immediately attack the party. Just a collection of stats and special abilities. But I've always tried to give my own gaming worlds a full ecosystem of fantastic creatures that have their own behaviors and biology unrelated to how they interact with an adventuring party.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Halloween Monsters! Part 12

Two more monsters from Arlin Ortiz, You can find all of Arlin's Monsters on his Tumblr.

I love slimey things in all their myriad forms. Cellular and acellular slime molds (which are very different organims). Placozoa. OphrydiumNostoc. I could go on. So what could be better than slime people? I want to play one!

I also love creatures made from inanimate objects, like Japanese karakasa obake and other tsukumogami. Worms made entirely out of magical ink are exactly my kind of critter.

That's it for Arlin Ortiz' monsters. Next time I'll be featuring some particularly unusual beasts from another one of my favorite creature creators.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Halloween Monsters! Part 11

Another critter from Arlin Ortiz!

As you may have noticed, I'm fond of small, fairly innocuous monsters in my RPGs. I particularly love the idea here that a couple of wizards just made a simple little animated thing out of sticks on a bet. These are almost as great as those living dust bunnies from 2nd edition D&D.  I want a whole army of little walking stick men and crawling inch-worm dust bunnies.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Halloween Monsters! Part 10

Here's another monster from Arlin Ortiz

As stylized as the artwork is (those heads remind me of the Draags from the 1973 French animated film Fantastic Planet), I find the whole idea behind the Vigil pretty creepy. Just the thought of wandering into the woods and being stalked by gigantic hands popping out of the ground seemingly at random, trying to grab you and drag you towards a larger, more dangerous foe. Seems awfully familiar...

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Halloween Monsters! Part 9

Here's another monster from Arlin Ortiz! Because who doesn't love a good octopus-bird?

All of Ortiz' Monsters are compiled on his Tumblr page here.

I love the idea of a small, common animal with a nightmarish twist. Finches and sparrows are such common, even boring birds. You see hundreds of them every day and probably barely even notice. Imagine walking past one of these ubiquitous flocks of nondescript LBBs (Little Brown Birds- the proper birdwatcher nomenclature) and suddenly feeling a strange sense of dread and fear.  You have no idea where it's coming from and keep walking until you finally chance to notice that one of the birds has small, twitching tentacles tucked up under its beak.

Another creature in a similar vein is the skiurid of D&D 3rd edition. It's a black squirrel that creates an aura of cold darkness and can actually drain a small amount of energy from a person and condense it into an acorn that it collects for the winter. Skiurids are one of those things that regularly got put onto "stupidest D&D monster" lists back when that was a big trend (I alternately hate and love those things. Hate because I think the authors are boring, unoriginal RPG munchkins who only like big, terrifying monsters that can rip you to pieces. Love because I've found some of my favorite D&D monsters through those lists), but I love 'em.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Halloween Monsters! Part 8

The next set of creature designs are by Arlin Ortiz. As I said in my previous Halloween Monsters post, role-playing games and their bestiaries have had a huge effect on my own creature designs. Ortiz' monsters are given descriptions and statistics in a clean and stripped-down style clearly done as an homage to monster profiles from the 2nd edition D&D Monster Manual.  

Ortiz' printmaking style reminds me of classic fantasy illustrations by Ruth Robbins' woodblock print interior illustrations for Ursula LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea. It also reminds me of J.R.R. Tolkien's artwork, particularly his own designs for his Lord of the Rings books.   

I love the playful, somewhat goofy look of this particular creature, the Brick Golem. The idea that they are found "where wizards live, in the place of a chimney..." is intriguing. Is this an attempt at building a camouflaged guardian?  Or do some wizards just like turning everything around them into a golem? 

You can see more of Arlin Ortiz' artwork at his website. Or check out all his monsters on his Monster Pamphlets Tumblr blog

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Halloween Monsters! Part 7

Here's the last day of weird creatures from Stanton Fink. Tomorrow I'll be showing off some monsters from another artist I'm a fan of. As you'll soon notice, a lot of the creature designs I like are inspired by Dungeons & Dragons and other roleplaying games and several of the creatures in this post are described in the style of a game entry.

 I've always been a huge fan of RPGs and books like the Monster Manual (for you non-roleplayers, that's the book that presents gaming statistics for all the creatures in D&D) have strongly influenced my own approach to creature design.

Name: Trimeggidoriu, "Great Lord of Alchemy," "The Bottle God"

Type: Alchemical demon/ ascended dragon

Magnitude: 7

Appearance: A three-headed, triple-crowned dragon of changing description, encased within a large flask.

Notes: Trimeggidoriu was once a dragon sorcerer who attempted to ascend into godhood. Unfortunately, it lacked sufficient power or worshipers to do so, leading to an extremely unpleasant accident at Trimeggidoriu's apotheosis. Fortunately, enough worshipers survived to recapture and reconstitute their Bottle God's essence within a giant flask.

Now the Bottle God seeks to claim the title of "Great Lord of Alchemy" in the hopes of achieving godhood once more. It teaches its followers the secrets of immortality and of transmuting base metals into gold, and silver, though, only after extracting pledges of eternal servitude first.

Trimeggidoriu considers its rival, Haalimenies, to be a talentless hack, and seeks to thwart and stymie that particular hated enemy in all things (Haalimenies, likewise, returns his rival's antipathy, as well).

Name: Haalimenies, "Great Lord of Alchemy"

Type: Alchemical demon

Magnitude: 6

Appearance: A scaled biped with a long tail, and three long stalks topped with a sun-face and two moon faces. A human face emerges from the torso.

Notes: Haalimenies is one of several powerful demons in a millennia-old contest to seize the title of "Great Lord of Alchemy." Aside from becoming the number one demon lord in charge of Alchemy, it is unsure what specific benefits and privileges that title will bestow upon the bearer. Most assume that it is a matter of vanity, as countless demons have waged countless bloody feuds for the sake of gaudy affectations.

Haalimenies teaches mortals various secrets of alchemy in order to transmute base metals into gold and silver, as well as to transmute glass into gemstones. Haalimenies also uses subterfuge to slowly mutate his mortal students into clones of himself, thereby allowing Haalimenies to spread further mischief in the world.

Type: ?
Magnitude: 6
Appearance: Unknown: all accounts of the Lulu describe it differently, often radically and contradictory.

Notes: The Lulu is a bogeyperson who lurks in dark corners in order to prey on children. It may or may not be a daeva, though, of an unidentified strain of evil.

The Lulu's preferred victims are mischievous children, though, in a pinch, it will readily attack well-behaved children and adults, too.

Name: "Biophobia 5"

Type: Extradimensional Intruder

Magnitude: 8

Appearance: A tremendous, vaguely serpentine creature, maybe 500 feet long. It has large, superficially blade-like forearms that it can grow or slough off as per its whims. It has a cluster of spherical "sacs" where its head should be. The sacs are filled with dangerously hyper-reactive ectoplasm.

Notes: The Biophobias are the various beings native to another dimension, where all living things there are made of ectoplasm. These creatures are termed "Biophobia," or "life-hating," because of their apparently universally pernicious intent here, and are ranked in order of their dangerousness.

Biophobia 5 is the largest and most physically powerful of all the recognized Biophobias, eclipsing even 1 and 4 in terms of raw destructive potential. It is given such a comparatively low ranking, however, because it has an attention span of around 15 to 20 seconds. Its behavior is extremely erratic: in some cases, it may pursue an opponent for hours, only to abruptly choose a new target at the last moment, or it may rain literal destruction one minute, then retreat the next. Its few visits to the physical world have been confused with catastrophic freak accidents of nature, usually either tornadoes or meteor strikes.

As of this writing, Biophobia 5 is currently trapped in the Underworld, in a remote region referred to by the uninspired name of "Canyon of the Damned." The ex Viscount Phongo lured it there and imprisoned it by having the abomination wedged in a narrow pass. He intended to tame it and use it as a warbeast of unparalleled horror, though gossip suggested that he intended to graft his mind into its body.

This gossip lead to the spontaneous formation of a conclave, and within 10 minutes all the demon lords present unanimously voted to strip Phongo of his rank, title and holdings, as well as simultaneously add his name to the Black List of Doom.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Halloween Monsters! Part 6

Another small batch of monsters from Stanton Fink. Today it's Undergrowth Oddities. Critters you might find scurrying amongst the bushes underneath the tall, ancient oaks, hemlocks and magnolias in the unexplored depths of the forest.

Clearly inspired by Baba Yaga's house on hen's legs- but this time with the entire rest of the hen attached. I love the idea of this creature scampering through the brush, its little inhabitant- a gnome, perhaps? or a killmoulis? or the tiniest of goblins- sitting in a chair by the window watching the scenery speed by.

Simply titled "The Earth God's Tree", this is one of those pieces that immediately suggests a short vignette in my mind. I can see the lizard slowly emerging from the swirls and gnarls of an ancient tree, opening its mouth to disgorge a bouquet of juggling hands. It's a surreal image, but something that would fit perfectly in a magic-haunted forest.

Quote the Deviantart page:

"The Emperor's Egg is a species of nocturnal, ambulatory fungus that wanders about in deciduous forests of Faerie during late Spring and Summer. When they emerge from the leaf litter, they remain encapsulated in their veils, thus creating their name. When an emperor's egg is ready to spread its spores, its cap and stalk bursts through its veil.

The 'eggs are edible, being so deliciously delicious, and mind-bogglingly sapid so as to drive mortals irrevocably insane with delight.

Although larger fae do eat them, the actual practice of hunting and eating 'eggs is considered a taboo topic. This is because pixies and sprites adore 'eggs as playmates and pets (thus, discussion of eating emperor's eggs is tantamount to discussing killing and eating the family pet in front of children who are armed with sharp, pixie-dust coated weapons). In fact, there is an infrequent practice of politely disposing of unwanted mortals among fae by inviting the aforementioned unwelcomed guests onto an "'egg hunt," only to abandon them to the tender mercies of irate pixies and sprites."

It's worth mentioning that in our world there actually are several types of gallinaceously-named fungi, the Chicken of the Woods, Laetiporus sulphureus, the Hen of the Woods, Grifola frondosa  and the Turkey Tail Shelf Fungus Trametes versicolor Then, of course, there's the Bird's-Nest Fungus, Cyathus striatus.

Review: Jack of the Lanterns by E. J. Hagadorn

Jack of the Lanterns by E. J. Hagadorn is a short story retelling the legendary origins of, in case you couldn’t guess, that most iconic of Halloween symbols, the Jack O’Lantern. It has the feel of an old folk tale told around the light of a stone hearth,  autumn wind howling against the shutters, flickering orange firelight casting strange shapes on the rafters that could be merely shadows, or could be something more.  This tale is replete with burial mounds, deals with the Devil and of course ghostly carved gourds holding the souls of the dead. It even has some of the feel of Alvin Schwartz, he of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark fame.

This is the story of Jack Stinge, wealthiest farmer in a hamlet called Downan Burns that lies on the edge of a dark, ancient swamp. Folks know not to go into the mire, for anyone who does will never be seen again. Some even say the Devil himself lives among those old, gnarled trees. Jack knows the truth, but he guards that secret closely.

Jack grows vegetables for the townsfolk to turn into lanterns. Pumpkins, squash, turnips- anything that can be hollowed out and lit with a candle.  Into these vessels Jack carves the faces of the dead and disappeared so that their souls can follow the light home for Hallowe’en. Everyone fears and hates Jack, but none dare to threaten him. His are the only crops that will grow. And the villagers need his lanterns. 

Things change though when a stranger comes to town. William Willisp is a young man who wonders about the secrets Jack hides. And, more importantly, what happened to all those people who vanished in the swamp. 

Woven into this tale is the theme of the abused becoming the abuser. Of the man who has been mistreated allowing the anger and cruelty to eat him inside until it turns around on others, some who deserve it. Some who do not.

 One small note: while this story is a good read for adults and older kids, there are a few scenes of murder and one F-bomb. The killing isn’t graphic or gory, but some parents might enjoy being warned in advance if they want to share this tale with their own children.

A quick read at 86 pages, Jack of the Lanterns is a good, moody introduction to the Halloween season. You can get a copy here.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Halloween Monsters! Part 5

For today's Halloween creature design post, I thought it'd be fun to post a couple of aquatic anomalies. All artwork by Stanton Fink

The Deviantart text for this first one reads:

"The Sirhibail, or "ladder bullock," a fabulous fish that can thrust its head above water to eat birds. It is surprisingly violent if approached."

And a couple more:

The Brahmamachli, and the Sivamachli, two fabulous, horned fish.

Here's a sea elephant and some tiger fish

"Lungyu, 龍魚, are a race of fish-like dragons that are protective of mortals. Different castes have different forms.

Tiger-shaped Hulungyu, 虎龍魚, are aggressive, seeking to attack evil spirits, especially those that cause fires.

The elephantine Baolungyu, 象龍魚, are enigmatic and deliberately obtuse sorcerers who weed out unworthy petitioners with flowery language. To the worthy, they teach magic secrets and bring rain."

Sea Elephant, by the way, is also the common for an adorable genus of swimming snails called Pterotrachea:

This last monster is based on a description from an actual old Bestiary:

"The Sarmatian Sea, which is otherwise called the East Germanic Sea, nourishes so many fish unknown to those who live in warm regions, so monstrous that [there is] nothing more so. Among others, there is one made exactly like a snail, but thick as a wine cask, having horns almost like those of a stag, at the end of which and on the branches of which there are little balls [or bulbs], round and lustrous, like fine pearls. It has a very thick neck,; its eyes shine like a candle, its nose is roundish and made like that of a cat, with a little bit of hair all around [it], having a very wide-slit mouth, beneath which a projection of flesh hangs on it [that is]rather hideous to see. It has four legs, and wide, hooked paws which serve it as fins, and a rather long tail, all spotted and colored in various colors, like that of a tiger. It stays out at high sea because it is timorous: for I am assured that it is amphibious, partaking of water and of land. When the weather is clear, it plants itself on the seashore, where it grazes and eats what it finds [to be] best. Its flesh is very delicate and pleasing to eat; whose blood is good for those who have diseases of the liver or lungs, as is that of the giant turtles for who are afflicted with leprosy
Ambroise ParéOn Monsters and Marvels (translated by Janis L. Pallister)"

Friday, October 5, 2018

Halloween Monsters! Part 4

Here's another creature creation from Stanton Fink.

Quote the Deviantart entry:

"Chaos is a gigantic protist that often imitates a castle. It is a powerful being, having achieved great mastery over earth and water magicks. Mostly because simply smashing its comparatively tiny opponents into red puddles with its tower-like pseudopodia gets very boring very quickly."

I always love "living buildings" whether it be a haunted house possessed by a ghost or, as in this case, an organic creature that has formed itself into the semblance of a man-made structure. In old 2nd edition Dungeons & Dragons there's a creature called a House Hunter (oh geez, I just got the real estate joke there) which is a kind of giant Mimic. It's one of my favorite old school D&D monsters- after the duck bunnythe living dust bunny and the modrons, of course. Heck, I'd love to see an adventure with a bunch of the "organic robot" modrons living inside a gigantic "organic building" house hunter. Or maybe this Chaos protist here.  

Anyway, Chaos is clearly named after the genus of Sarcodina amoebae, microscopic predators and scavengers that live on the bottoms of freshwater environments. 

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Halloween Monsters! Part 3

Day 3 of creatures for the Halloween season and here's another piece by Stanton Fink. From the Deviantart entry:

"The Acanthosphinx is a sparrow-sized animal that superficially resembles a large sphinx moth. The adult has five compound eyes, a tremendous proboscis tipped with a pair of strong jaws, allowing it to feed on flowers and tree sap, making it something of a minor menace to Underworld gardeners. Further caution must be given, as what appears to be soft, velvety fur is really an array of tiny, needle-sharp, venomous calcite spines.

On the other hand, they have a melodious song, composed of tinkling chirps. Demons often enjoy listening to Acanthosphinx sing while the horrid bugs investigate the tears of living prisoners, considering the whole spectacle to be wonderfully entertaining.

As for the larval Acanthosphinx, it must be noted that what appear to be large, paired spines are actually tremendous clusters of venomous bristles. Beyond that caveat, the less said about the vegetarian horrors, the better."

What's not to like about a Burgess Shale weirdo like Opabinia masquerading as a Sphinx moth? Sphinxes (Sphinges? Apparently that's the other plural form of that word) are already pretty weird lepidopterans. If you've never seen one in real life, they look remarkably like hummingbirds as they flit from flower to flower.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Halloween Monsters! Part 2

For day 2 of my monster showcase for Halloween here's another creature from Stanton Fink.

Here's the description from his Deviantart entry:

"The so-called Fortress Goddess, or 'Toride no Megami', is a gigantic fish that swims in watery regions of both the Spirit World and the Underworld. 'She' behaves as though she were a normal fish, sucking up potentially tasty morsels, and ignoring everything and everyone who does not catch her attention. Her myriads of followers, and divine and infernal children, though, all claim that she is very sentient but detached.

Even so, a clique of marine demons, calling themselves the "Love of the Goddess," or 'Megami no Ai', use the Goddess as a fortress, making their lair within the hollowed out, reef-like dorsal spines. Of course, the demons have no ability to control their Goddess' movement, not that they care, of course."

As a big biology/ecology nerd, I love the varied forms that symbiosis can take in nature, so a gigantic fish with commensal demons living in a stacked pagoda-reef on her back is exactly my kind of monster.