Friday, September 25, 2009

The Grey Men of the Desert of Dust

The Grey Men of the Desert of Dust 1:

The Grey Men of the Desert of Dust 2:

The Grey Men of the Desert of Dust is one of my few "Mural" pieces. The narrative of the story is driven more by an archetypal series of images and concepts than by characterization, creating an effect of a long, perplexing mural.

I've been told that works like this are almost unpublishable in the current reading environment because of the nonexistent use of character driven plots. That probably won't stop me from writing them though, and I have some hopes, some day of writing an entire book in this mode.

It would be my own Sistine Chapel of the weird. It would also be an attempt to take the "weird" or "uncanny" story and do something with it that I do not think has been successfully done to date. It is a characteristic of these kinds of stories that they start to flounder past a certain size. Lovecraft's The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath always seemed to fall a little flat of my expectations, and I have yet to find a truly "weird" novel.

I might record and post another one of the mural pieces at some point.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sea Serpents, Science and Vampire Squid

(While not discovered by the Galathea Expedition, many more examples of Vampyroteuthis Infernalis, the "vampire squid from hell" were dredged up from the bottom.)

The Galathea Expedition of 1950-52 is a little known but endlessly exciting excerpt from the history of marine science. The Danish project was instigated when the zoologist Dr Anton Frederik Bruun gave a presentation in which he discussed the possible existence of sea serpents to a public audience. The story was picked up by the journalist Hakon Mielche who was so interested in the topic that he contacted Dr. Bruun and together they conceived of an expedition to research what creatures lived in some of the deepest sections of the ocean.

I find this narrative so interested because it seems as if Dr. Bruun really did hope to find a sea monster during their two year voyage, while Mielche was incredulous and consciously used the image of the serpent to raise public support and funds from wealthy Danish supporters, including the royal family. The idea of hunting for a sea serpent struck so deeply at the heart of Danish national identity and was able to be harness so effectivley by a publicist like Mielche because for many generations the Scandinavian people in general and the Danish in particular have served as a major locus of sea monster accounts, and some of the earliest medieval chronicles come from this part of Europe.

I've gone over some of the papers produced by their voyage, and the collection of deep sea oddities is quite substantial, as is Bruun's disappointment that in the end they did not find the fabled serpent.

It is yet another example of the ways in which myths and cultural beliefs can shape the focus of the sciences. Indeed, it sent a group of Danish scientists around the world, and to the very depths of the sea.

For more information:

The Letters of Madness

The correspondences between the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the Swedish author and playwright August Strindberg have long held my mind in curious fascination. Not only because they took place during the period of Nietzsche's deepening insanity, but because the ostensibly sane Strindberg does not seem to have noticed this, or else, even rejoiced in the fact.

In what I believe is their final correspondence
, Strindburg writes entirely in the form of a Latin poem in which he exclaimed "Jelw, Jelw manhnai!" I want, I want to be mad! and "Interdum juvat insanire!" Meanwhile, it is a joy to be mad!

I have to, in my own eccentric way, appreciate a mind that can so sympathize with another that is perched upon the very edge of reason, and still converse in kind.

I believe Strindberg's sometimes spotty reputation is more deserved than Nietzsche's, I find both to be intriguing and worthy of further investigation for any adherent of the eccentric and spectacular. I'm currently writing a PhD disseration on the topic of Nietzsche and science, and hope one day to pick up more of Strindberg's works.

I've seen an English translation of the Swedish film "The Freethinker" that documents Strindberg's life along with his creative output. It is a more than surreal experience in places and the narrative of the "documentary" spins imperceptibly from biography, to fiction, to the actors describing their roles and interviewing members of the Swedish public about their views on the writer.

For more information:

And no further information would be complete without:

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Last Man

I first encountered The Last Man in an art galley in Liverpool, England. It was painted by the English romantic John Martin (1789-1854), and I was immediately struck by the vastness of it. Often in the course of my scholarly or literary studies I am given cause to contemplate the end of things.

The poem "The Last Man" emerged many years later while I began collecting pieces for my upcoming collection Songs Unsung, Poems Unspoken and it also features in an issue of Fantastic Horror, a lovely community of eerie and horrific works that can be accessed in the Links of Interest section of this blog.

I do hope you enjoy it, even though I know it may seem macabre to some readers.

More information on John Martin:

Monday, September 14, 2009

Der Beobachter

I have long been an admirer of Swiss artist Peter Birkhäuser (1911-1976) and his works inspired by the analytical psychology of Carl Jung.

I'd also recommend checking out Light from the Darkness: The Paintings Of Peter Birkhäuser with psychoanalytic commentary by Jung's disciple Marie-Louise von Franz. The text is in English and German, and I hope to be able to pick up a copy, both for the fascinating images and to improve my language skills. If I ever get my hands on one I'll be sure to give a more thorough review.

Check out more of his work at:

Heteropoda davidbowie

Just because David Bowie is a subject that can never be exhausted, I thought it would be fun to spread the word of an internet discovery at the intersection of my love of strange animals and good music. Apparently a German scientist has named a rare species of spider after the the artist in an effort to raise awareness of its endangered status.

And of all the celebrities he could have chosen, Bowie seems a good fit, not because there are any close family resemblances between Ziggy Stardust and Heteropoda davidbowie, (I don't really know how it would be anatomically possible for a spider to have a god given ass, for instance) but because David Bowie's sheer staying power is a fitting role model for any threatened species. Heteropoda Aqua might have a bleaker future ahead of it.

So the lesson here is to learn to reinvent yourself Heteropoda davidbowie and you too may survive the fickle whims of public opinion like your namesake.

Hooked on Hookahs

I never realized before coming to Toronto just how popular hookah smoking was becoming.

A variety of sheesha bars and restaurants in Toronto and Ottawa now offer a wide and often fruity assortment of flavoured herbs for the curious smoker to experience. There is generally the view that it is less harmful and addictive than other forms of smoking and is more appealing because of its exotic apparatus and aura of mystery, but the truth of the matter is that the health effects of hookah smoking are not well known, and in the middle east the ritual is usually reserved for old men sitting around and playing cards.

Not to discredit the entire hookah movement, it is an unusual and interesting experience that I may even enjoy repeating in the future, but just because it's herbal doesn't mean it's a better alternative to tobacco (which is itself a herb), and people should not convince themselves otherwise.

Also, if you do want to go to a sheesha bar, keep in mind the sanitary factors associated with smoking, the hookah should be clean and generally comes with a plastic attachment that is discarded after use.

With these things in mind, feel free to make an informed decision about whether or not you feel comfortable smoking it. The hookah isn't going away anytime soon.

Some links of interest:

Absinthism and Reefer Madness

While sitting on the bus in Ottawa over the summer I overheard some high school students talking about absinthe as if it were a kind of hallucinogenic and I was given cause to smile at the formidable reputation of the green fairy, that Belle Dame sans Merci.

Few seem to know its history as an early precursor to marijuana's reputation for reefer madness. The truth of the matter is that mass hysteria is not the privileged child of the modern age. In the 19th century deaths were blamed on it, civil disorder, and especially the seemingly insane behaviour of eccentric artists. It was only relatively recently that import bans and other sanctions began to be relaxed in countries around the world with a growing realization that absinthe in the end is just another alcoholic beverage, liable only to get you drunk.

In fact, if taken in moderation (diluted as it was often intended) a bottle of absinthe can be comfortably enjoyed for a year or more, which is a considerable benefit over other "hard" liquors.

In Canada the most common type available is Hill's Absinth, but in my experience La Fee's Parisian absinthe makes for a generally milder and more enjoyable drink.

Their websites can be found at:

Also, for information on its relatively innocent side effects:

Emilie Autumn

I discovered Emilie Autumn less than a month ago, but I've quickly added her to my list of delightfully pseudo-Victorian showfolk. Her songs generally involve edgy violin work with her characteristic vocals and electronic flourishes, sometimes harsh, sometimes sweet, but always engaging.

I tend to prefer her softer work such as "Rose Red", "Marry Me", "What If", "Rapunzel", "Save You", "Shalott" and the delightfully macabre nursery rhyme "Miss Lucy Had Some Leeches".

She's worth checking out at Youtube where wingedzephyr has put together several lovely backgrounds with timed lyrics to Emilie's songs.

See the page here:

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Zombie Ants and Suicide Rats

There are a number of parasites that radically alter the behavior of their hosts once infected, sometimes in surprising and dramatic ways.

Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is a fungal parasite that requires very specific conditions in which to live. In order to ensure that it develops in these conditions the parasite infects a species of ant and makes its host seek out and attach itself to a leaf in exactly the right conditions that the fungus needs in order to survive. The fungus then kills the ant and continues to develop until its fruiting body grows out of its victim’s head, eventually exploding and releasing thousand of thousands of spores.

The case of Toxoplasma gondii, however, is even more exceptional. The reproductive stage of this parasite’s life cycle can only be completed inside the stomach of a cat, but it can infect almost any warm-blooded mammal. When it infects a rodent, it actually destroys its fear of the smell of cats. Not only does the hapless rodent no longer fear cats, but it becomes attracted to them, and encourages riskier behaviour in the intermediary host.

And that’s not all. Toxoplasma gondii can infect humans as well. The behavioral changes are still being reviewed, but could be substantial. Nicky Boulter, a researcher from Australia has commented that:

"Infected men have lower IQs, achieve a lower level of education and have shorter attention spans. They are also more likely to break rules and take risks, be more independent, more anti-social, suspicious, jealous and morose, and are deemed less attractive to women. On the other hand, infected women tend to be more outgoing, friendly, more promiscuous, and are considered more attractive to men compared with non-infected controls. In short, it can make men behave like alley cats and women behave like sex kittens."

This is of exceptional interest because at any given time a substantial portion of the popular (around 40%) are infected by this parasite since its primary host is such a common household pet.

For more information on Ophiocordyceps unilateralis:

And for Toxoplasma gondii:

The Innocent Tongue Crab

Ah, the beauty of nature never ceases to amaze me.

I once thought that all ultimately symbiotic relationships first emerged as parasitic ones in the earliest annals of organic history, for what else but the predator-prey relationship could bring two disparate species into such intimate contact?

Lichens are also a good example of this, since they exist as a symbiosis between an algae and a fungus in which the fungus provides structure and protection while the algae provides energy through photosynthesis. The trick is though, that the fungus is actually eating the algae, but not quickly enough to inhibit the overall growth of the symbiotic organism.

I don't know where I stand on this view right now, but it appeals to me to think of such necessary and vital cooperation among different species as the historical result of an inversion of the old predator-prey duality.

This critter, though, while being exceptionally fun (its "face" looks like an opera mask!) is also the most bizarre example of this that I have been able to find.

Please, read, learn, and enjoy its strangeness at Wikipedia: