A world of bizarre creatures in a drop of seawater

Coming back to my love of science and belief in monsters…

Sometimes the monsters are tiny. Consider yourself lucky in those moments. So, next time you’re at the beach going for a swim and you get an extra big mouthful of seawater, don’t think about the fantastically alien looking creatures you’re swallowing. Remind yourself instead that you’re the monster this time.

Drink deep, people.

The monsters in our family tree

Scientists have discovered a startling fact — compared to our not-too-distant ancestors (5000 BC), we are weaklings. Or as one of the researchers said, “the people back then were monsters by comparison. what you see today is quite pathetic.”

skeletonBritish researchers examined human bones from time periods spanning 5300 BC through the present day. What they found was that the oldest of the bones were comparable to those of today’s elite athletes. The average guy of today wouldn’t stand a chance in one-on-one with the average prehistoric man. You can read the original scientific study here, or try these summary articles in Outside magazine or the Daily Mail.

Why were people so much stronger back then? Because their lifestyles demanded it. There was no agriculture. Food had to be foraged and hunted. The humans back then had to have the physical stamina to roam—and run—great distances, all the time.

With the invention of agriculture, obtaining food became much easier, so we didn’t have to work as hard as a result. And, some speculate that our diets became poorer as a result.

side by side

So what’s the main takeaway? If you plan on travelling back in time several thousand years, you’d better be well armed.

But what about the future? As our world becomes more mechanized, as the physical demands on our bodies lessen, will we shrivel even further?

(Image source: Daily Mail)

Want to buy the world’s most haunted island?

Off the coast of Venice lies the small island of Poveglia. If you have several million lying around, it can be yours.


But there’s a catch. It comes occupied. With ghosts.

Danse_macabre_by_Michael_Wolgemut  The history of this island is fascinating. The Venetians and Genoese fought over this island in the middle ages, but the real trouble started with the arrival of the Bubonic Plague in the 14th century. Plague victims were shunted to the island and sealed off. The dead were burned on funeral pyres in the center of the island. This history was repeated when the Black Death returned in the 1600s. Thus came the legends of ghosts. (The plague peroids of European history have always fascinated me. Maybe that’s why I like zombie stories so much.)

In the late 1800s the island was home to a mental asylum (always prime breeding ground for ghosts). There were rumors of torturous dsc_0215experiments on the mentally ill performed by a doctor driven mad by ghosts. The doctor committed suicide by jumping from the hospital tower.

More recently, an American ghost hunter/tv show host claims to have been possessed by a ghost while visiting the island, and the reconstruction of the hospital stopped abruptly and the project was abandoned, with no reason given.

Now the Italian government is hoping a developer will swoop in and turn the island into a high-end resort. I can’t wait for the stories that will follow that one.

(Hospital image courtesy of muchmoremuchier.com)

Nightmares reimagined

From sleep disturbances to disturbing art.

When I was younger I suffered through night terrors. I would be in the grip of a nightmare, screaming with my eyes open. It took a lot for my parents to bring me out of each episode. To this day I can still remember the theme and feeling of those nightmares.

I grew out of them. But I still have random incidents of what’s called hypnopompic hallucinations. Occasionally as I’m waking up I’ll see fantastical, otherworldly insects crawling on my bedside or dangling from the ceiling. The first couple of times it happened I scoured my bedroom looking for the centipede with a thousand legs and razor-sharp spines. I soon realized that they were leftover fragments of dreams. Now when I see these creatures I just close my eyes again.

I’m not alone in my sleep issues. Nicolas Bruno is a photographer who has dealt with sleep paralysis since he was 15. Sleep paralysis is pretty much what it sounds like: the body is weak and immobilized either when drifting off to sleep or waking up, and the person experiences strange and terrifying dreams or visions. As Bruno told 1o9.com:

“I have experienced bone chilling hallucinations and extreme terror during these dreams. Faceless silhouetted figures, embraces from shadow-like hands, warping of reality around me – all while [feeling] completely paralyzed.”

What did Bruno do with these terrifying experiences? He turned them into art. He’s created scores of photographs that reconstruct the content and mood of these dreams. Below are two of my favorites. Check out his website here for more.



(Both images: Nicolas Bruno)


Sci-fi is failing us

Sc-fi is supposed to prepare us for the future, but no one gave the script to the robot creators.

The Terminator came out nearly 30 years ago. It lit the warning flare for a whole generation: artificial intelligence (machines, computers, robots, etc etc) will become self aware and will attempt to obliterate mankind. In the movie, this was done by Skynet, a high-powered war machine. Just as Star Trek has pushed us toward a more egalitarian society, the Terminator franchise has subconsciously tried to prepare us to battle human-hating robots.
And it’s been effective.
Take Japan’s repeated efforts to create companion robots, such as this nurse robot from Koroko robotics company:
Creepy, right? Can’t you imagine her peeling off that fake skin and shooting you down with red glowing eyes? Something like this Arnold Schwarzenegger metallic monster:
Now those “geniuses” at Boston Dynamics are fouling it all up. They’ve created a vicious robot that looks like… a galloping, headless goat/horse/metal hybrid, both fast and clumsy at the same time. Vicious. Silly. Unpredictable. Death bringers all the same.
Watch this video and you will realize how confused and ill prepared you will be when this robot is hunting you down.
Nope. We only know how to fight humanoid, Schwarzeneggeresque robots. Not these crazy things.

The chimera in the mirror

Mashed-up mutants aren’t only the stuff of legend and fiction.

Imagine a creature that’s part lion, part eagle and part snake, a creature that breathes fire, a bad-ass scourge. One that looks like this:



It’s called a Chimera, and it exists only in ancient Greek mythology. It’s not the only hybrid creature in literature and pop culture.

There’s also the Griffin, also Greek, a lion/eagle mix.


These creatures, imaginary as they are, are genetic abnormalities. They are not supposed to exist in nature, mythological metaphors to serve some higher literary purpose. In Left Among the Mutants I wrote about mutating animals (and humans) as a way to convey change, loss and grief.

But it turns out that, to some degree, many of us are freaks of nature. We may all be a little monstrous.

The New York Times published an article that suggests that many humans harbor cells with completely different genetic codes. Theoretically each one of our cells should have the same genetic codes. Not so.

For example:

–A British woman donated blood, and the cells were a mix of Type O and Type A. People are supposed to be only one blood type. Scientists concluded she absorbed cells from her twin brother

–Another woman gave birth to children who were not genetically hers. Doctors say that she originated from 2 separate genomes; some of the other genome gave rise to the eggs of 2 of her 3 children

–In one study, more than half of women had cells with the Y chromosome in their breast tissue. Women aren’t supposed to carry the Y chromosome at all – the Y is men only

Note that this is called chimerism, courtesy of that lion/eagle/snake creature.

How does all this happen? Scientists are just beginning to explore this question. What we do know-at this very early stage-is that we may not be who we think we are. We may be others as well.

Aside from the scientific implications, what could this mean for literature? Movies? TV?

Come on, writers, there’s a whole mountain of possibilities waiting to be mined.

Watch this movie: Attack the Block

British horror done right…


The British are known for many things: great music, bad food and teeth, and their one-time love of controlling the planet. But they’re not as well known for horror movies. Maybe this is good: they have little to prove, so there’s no pressure.

Case in point: two of the best horror movies of the past decade: 28 Days Later, a zombie-ish movie that starred Irish actor Cillian Murphy, and one of the coolest, underrated, most bad-ass and too-short-lived doctors from Doctor Who, Christopher Eccleston. It’s a hard-edged, smash-bang-fun time. Whatever you do, avoid the sequel (which shall remain nameless), as it nearly ruined the whole thing.

The second film is a horror/comedy, Shaun of the Dead, with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Couple dry British humor with gore and you have a classic. 

And then there’s Attack the Block, a low budget (I’m assuming) indie-style horror. Why low budget? Well, the monsters are kind of… rough. And the movie features the classic horror fail: the empty city streets. 

Get over it. I did, and it was worth it.

So here’s the plot in a nutshell, ripped straight from IMDB: a teen gang in South London protect their block from an alien invasion. There you go.

First, it’s great fun. The action starts pretty early, and once it starts, it rolls along, not too slow, not too fast. It lies somewhere between 28 Days Later (super serious) and Shaun of the Dead (tongue-in-cheek), though more toward the 28 Days Later end of the horror spectrum.

What stood out for me, most of all, was the unique set-up. You meet the teenage hero, Moses, as he, along with his juvy gang, are mugging Sam, a nurse on her walk home. Moses is cruel, someone who you would not choose to identify with, but over the course of the movie, he morphs into the hero of the story, in part because the other characters (drug dealers, vicious aliens) are so much worse, and in part because the extreme situation he finds himself in (battling aliens), forces him to grow as a person.

Rent this movie. It’s worth it, not just because it’s fun, but because it’s a great example of the anti-hero in drama, and it also shows another of my favorite literary conceits: the ordinary man (men and women in this case) forced to confront extraordinary circumstances. None of these people are Jason Bourne or James Bond, and their fight scenes reflect that, which makes it all the better. 


Want to kill Hitler? Good luck with that

Attention time travelers, killing Hitler, while noble, may not be as easy as it sounds.

One of my favorite web sites, io9.com, compiled several literary/TV attempts to kill Hitler, and the results are not particularly encouraging.

In a nutshell, all the literary/TV tries either 1) fail miserably due to the bumblings of the time traveler, 2) end up working, only leading to an even worse outcome, or 3) actually CAUSE Hitler and WWII as we know it.

Now, I wasn’t aware that this was such a common trope. I’ve seen the Doctor Who episode, Let’s Kill Hitler, which actually had little to do with the big bad himself, and was more about developing one of my favorite Who characters, River Song (for a good intro to all things Who, watch the two-parter Silence in the Library). Hitler was quickly forgotten in the first ten minutes or so.


And I remember watching one of the items on io9’s list – the Twilight Zone episode (in full here) where Katherine Heigl (!) time travels to visit baby Hitler. She’s not there for a friendly visit, and not to give it away, but history incorporates her mission with no noticeable change in the timeline.

Several of the other books/stories/etc on the list are intriguing, and worth a look. Read this clever short story here, in its entirety.

The moral of this story?

Time travel as a dramatic device is great for one reason – there are endless permutations and possibilities. One simple concept – killing Hitler – can be spun in countless entertaining ways. As long as it’s well executed, it will work.