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Quick, name a vicious fish from the Amazon River that kills humans.
Pffft! You said, “Piranha,” didn’t you? Don’t lie, you did.
Well, I don’t know if the piranha just has a poor press agent (or a good one, depending on the fishy creds we’re trying to establish), but under most circumstances, piranhas don’t kill.
That’s not to say that they aren’t dangerous. Those teeth certainly are sharp, and people occasionally lose fingers and toes to piranhas. Most attacks occur when there is a lot of other food such as fish entrails floating about, but their reputation as a fearless killer is a myth.
The piranha is a scavenger, mainly eating off of things that have already died. They only rarely attack live prey, and almost never kill.
But wait a minute, you say, didn’t Teddy Roosevelt witness an entire cow being devoured in “under a minute”? He did indeed, but that was a setup, with purposely starved fish. Despite their reputation from the movies, you don’t have much to fear from these sharp-toothed fish unless you are wading through chum.
But there is another fish in the Amazon River that poses a serious risk to humans, especially to guys.
Meet the pacu.
Chris, pictured here, is now known around the village as Christine
Now you might already be getting an uneasy feeling just from the sheer size of that thing. While the pacu are related to the piranha, they are much larger, reaching up to three feet in length and 55 pounds. You could feed a large family with just one of these monsters.
Teddy Roosevelt also wrote about the pacu in his book Through the Brazilian Wilderness, but only to pronounce them “delicious eating.” You would think he would have mentioned the teeth.
[ We're the pacu! We're the pacu! We're the pacu! Chomp, chomp, chomp! ]
And as weird and disturbing as that mouth full of human-like molars looks, what they do with those teeth is even worse. Although the pacu is not native to Papua New Guinea, it was released there in the 90′s as a food source and has since been dubbed the “ball cutter,” which is every bit as bad as it sounds.
While the pacu mainly use their teeth for cracking seeds and nuts, it’s apparently not too selective about which nuts to crack.
At least two fishermen in Papua New Guinea have been castrated by the pacu since it’s introduction and subsequently bled to death.
There is even an unsubstantiated report that a 24-inch pacu actually jumped out of it’s aquarium in Fort Worth, Texas, in order to bite its owner on the testicles. These fish apparently zero in on the crotch like an ornery three-year-old. Losing a finger doesn’t sound so bad now, does it?
The pacu are sold by pet stores as a “vegetarian piranha,” but they can quickly outgrow a home aquarium. Some unprepared owners have been known to release their fish into lakes and streams when they grow too large for their tanks.
When the pacu recently made headlines after having been found in an Illinois lake, biologists were quick to point out that it is a tropical fish and could not possibly survive the winter.
More ominously, for US swimmers, pacus have been found in 19 states, including warmer states like Florida, Texas, and California, where it’s chances of establishing a large population would presumably be much better.
It sounds like shrinkage could actually be desirable if you’re swimming with a fish like that.
The almighty Jassen Bailey has given The Wicked a great review over at The Crow’s Caw.
“This is one of the coolest paperback I’ve ever laid eyes on. This is the total package.”
You can read the review here.
More than that, however, Jassen has allowed James to guest blog about The Wicked, specifically the excellent characterization found within the book. It’s a wonderfully insightful read.
And if that’s not cool enough, they’re giving away two copies of The Wicked and one copy of James’s fantastic collection, People Are Strange. All you have to do is go to the comments section and post your top 10 favorite horror novels and movies from the 80s. Couldn’t be easier!
Again, you can find the review, essay, and contest here. Dig it!
Recently, a writer friend on Facebook posted about how he hated the “who you know” model for advancing his writing career, but he acknowledged that most of his opportunities came from people he knew. I can relate.
It’s not just in writing, the whole world revolves on a “who you know” axis. Every job I’ve ever gotten has been because of who I knew, whether directly or indirectly. Friends and contacts are an invaluable resource that you can and should be using to further your writing.
There is social media, like Facebook and Twitter, but there are other methods as well. We here at Shock Totem have a variety of ways that we try to aid writers in developing their talent on our message board. There are two very popular flash contests that we host regularly, as well as the underused Writer’s Workshop section for critiques, submission calls, etc. And we are happy to provide them.
We want to see writers improve and succeed, particularly horror writers, since that’s what we’re all about. There are a whole lot of fantastic writers slogging away in the trenches, and we’re doing what we can to lift up those whose work we deem to be noteworthy.
But as I replied to my friend, “who you know” has a darker side as well.
While we can and should be promoting our writer friends, there is a fine line between encouragement and enabling. If your friend has written and published a great book, buy it, and encourage others to do so. But if your friend has written and published a book that is rife with spelling and grammatical errors or just poor writing, you’re not helping them by promoting it as a “must read”. In fact, you’re harming them.
The whole idea of promotion is to widen your circle, so that not only your friends and family buy your books out of a sense of obligation, but also their friends and so on, until people who have no clue who you are are tweeting about how much they enjoyed your book. But if people buy a book because someone hyped it on Amazon or Facebook, only to discover that the book is bad, how likely are they to buy another book based on that person’s recommendation?
In these days of self-publishing, when anyone can write a short story one day and offer it for sale the next, a lot of sub-par writing is being published, promoted and praised. Writing is a difficult and laborious process, you don’t go from joker to genius overnight. Take your time; get a real, honest critique from someone who not only knows good writing from bad, but also isn’t afraid to tell you which camp you’re in.
Even literary giants started by writing poorly. But in the days when getting a book published was difficult, they had knowledgeable editors who were not afraid to tell them that their story needed work. Nowadays, if your only editors are your friends, how can you be sure that they are giving you an honest and educated opinion?
If you’re a writer, seek out someone who isn’t afraid to tell you that your story stinks, and can offer helpful suggestions to make it better. And if you’re an enabler, promoting or endorsing sub-par writing because the writer is a “nice person” or you want them to promote your book, knock it off. You’re operating on the dark side.
I’m by no means an expert on 16th century France, but I’d imagine it would involve an unhygienic population, rampant disease, chickens running everywhere, cheese and wine. Now that I think about it, it’s probably not that different from modern day France, only with less chickens and more antibiotics.
What I wouldn’t have thought of was Martha and the Vandellas. I’ll bet you didn’t either. But in 1518 in Strasbourg, a woman named Frau Troffea began dancing in the streets. Not for just a few hours, either. According to reports, she danced for four to six days, stopping only when she collapsed from exhaustion. That’s one serious case of boogie fever.
Worse yet, others began to join her. After a week there were thirty three other dancers and after a month, an unbelievable four hundred people had joined in the involuntary rave. Don’t think of it as college night at the pub, these people were writhing and foaming at the mouth, screaming or making animal noises and rolling in the dirt. Most of the people who were afflicted died of exhaustion, starvation or stroke.
Disturbingly, this was not an isolated incident. Outbreaks of dancing mania were reported throughout Europe as early as the 7th century and continued through the 17th century. That’s over a thousand years of sporadic outbreaks of dancing leading to death. Let that sink in for a moment.
A German account from 1278 featured 200 people dancing on a bridge so frenetically that it collapsed, killing many participants. Survivors were treated at a nearly chapel dedicated to St. Vitus, giving rise to the name St. Vitus’ Dance for the strange phenomenon. Other theories regarding the origin of dancing mania include epilepsy, pagan rituals, ergot poisoning and collective mass hysteria, although all of these explanations are problematic.
An Italian variant was known as tarantism, as victims were supposed to have been bitten by a tarantula wolf spider. Tarantism is also unique in that those afflicted were not out of control. They usually followed a pattern of dancing throughout the day, but stopped at midday to rest and bathe, only to resume dancing until sunset. They then stopped again to eat a light meal and sleep until sunrise, a pattern that could go on for weeks. Cases of tarantism in southern Italy have been reported up through 1959, although tests on spiders in the region have virtually disproved the theory that spiders were responsible.
The bottom line is, no one quite knows what caused the dancing plagues or why they stopped. If you’ve ever been to a rave, you might be tempted to say they are still with us, they just result in fewer deaths.
Most Shock Totem readers are likely familiar with a little slice of hell on earth known as Centralia, Pennsylvania. This is the coal mining town that was featured in the video game series and film Silent Hill. It was also a missed opportunity for the Shock Totem staff when we visited last August, as our host, John Boden, refused to take us there. There’s still a bit of bad blood over that incident, but that’s a bit off the subject. =P
It all began in 1962, when some sanitation workers were burning trash right next to an exposed vein of high quality anthracite coal. The surface flames were quickly extinguished, but the fire continued to burn in the coal deposits under the town, resisting all efforts to contain it and finally forcing the evacuation of almost all of the town’s inhabitants by 1981.
Of course, this was the height of the Cold War, so naturally if Americans were lighting the earth on fire, the Russians would have to top us, right?
Well, they did a fine job.
In 1971, Soviet geologists were doing exploratory drilling in the Karakum Desert, near the town of Darvaza, in present day Turkmenistan. They unexpectedly hit a large underground cavern filled with natural gas, resulting in the collapse of the drilling rig. Because of concerns that the poisonous fumes would pose a danger to the population of Darvaza, the geologists decided to burn off the gas.
What they didn’t account for was the large quantity of gas in the chamber and lower reserves. The crater, with a diameter of 230 feet (70 meters), is still burning today. Local residents refer to it as The Door to Hell.
I’m not sure if anyone has tried to lower a microphone into it to actually record the cries of the damned, but I don’t think it would go well if they did. This thing is massive and HOT!
One of the hallmarks of speculative fiction is an attempt to predict the future. From science fiction to alternate histories to apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic fiction, an attempt to map out future events is a constant and takes many forms. Dystopian novels such as Nineteen Eighty-Four or Brave New World were intentionally trying to portray future events and technology. With prediction as a goal, you would expect them to get at least some things right.
(By the way, I’m still waiting for those killer view-screens, but only if they are one way.)
Of course, many books are written for simple entertainment, not to predict future events; but in hindsight we can always pick up similarities between old novels and current events that can be passed off as coincidence.
And then there are times when the coincidences can get downright creepy.
The sinking of the RMS Titanic was an appalling disaster. One thousand five hundred and seventeen lives were lost, more than two-thirds of the people on board. It has spawned a large number of literary and film versions, but none of them are as interesting as the first one, titled Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan, by Morgan Robertson.
In his book, Robinson writes of an 800-foot British luxury liner named Titan. Titan has a three-thousand passenger capacity and is considered to be a crowning achievement of maritime technology and virtually unsinkable. Because of this presumed invulnerability, only the minimum number of lifeboats required by law are on board, with a capacity far below the number of passengers and crew. On an icy April night in the North Atlantic, 400 miles from Newfoundland, Titan strikes an iceberg. The accident happens right around midnight while traveling at 25 knots (too fast for conditions). Titan sinks, killing most people aboard.
Sound familiar? It should. It’s the same basic plot that has been used for every other movie or book based on the Titanic disaster, from the Third Reich to that other guy. You know, the one that did The Terminator? The big difference is Robinson’s book was published in 1898, fourteen years before the RMS Titanic was even built, yet the similarities between the book and the actual events are so spot on that you could read the book and think it was a fictionalized account.
In your face, Philip K. Dick!
With a sharp mind and a keen knack for realism, as well as the ability to recall the most minute of details, Frances Glessner Lee should have been destined for greatness. The wealthy young heiress should have been a force to contend with, in the history of law enforcement and forensic sciences, and to some extent, she is.
However, being a woman during the depression era, she was denied a formal education based on her gender. It was not until she was in her fifties that a friend, Dr. George Burgess Magrath, was elected to the position of Medical Examiner of Suffolk County, MA. One of his new duties was to report on the probable causes and circumstances surrounding unexplained deaths.
During conversations with Magrath, Lee was fascinated by the details and descriptions of unsolved cases, and she came to the conclusion that there was a need for training in the field of murder investigation.
The focus of the period seemed to be mainly through police science and eschewed most medical approaches. In fact, there were only a few states that required their coroners even possess a medical degree. Lee hatched a plan. She funded and set up a Department of Legal Medicine and based it out of Harvard University. She gave seminars and lectures and began a curious and helpful hobby—building dollhouses.
These were no ordinary dollhouses. They were re-creations of crimes scenes, full of death and mayhem. The attention to detail, astounding. The tiny wooden cupboards were stocked with miniature food packages, the lights worked, minuscule pencils had lead tips and could be used to write with, they were fully functioning houses on a smaller scale.
Then the dolls were added, and the tone of the pieces changed. A doll-sized bed splashed with blood as the victim sprawls across it. Another lays face up in a basin tub as tap water pours into her open mouth drowning her. A doll lays on a kitchen floor, before a small stove with a smaller pie cooling on its top, a knife planted in her back. A doll of a man lays face down in front of a re-created liquor store. The meticulous details, all executed by the wrinkled hands of this sad genius. Lee dubbed these models, these perfect re-creations of actual crime scenes, “The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” after a popular police saying.
Lee continued to work and assist the law enforcement community until she died in 1962 at the age of 83. She was in the midst of a final and very personal model. She called it “The Swedish Porch,” and it was a delicate and accurate model of a room in her own house where she liked to sit and reflect. This model had no dolly corpses or blood stains, no foul play or dark deeds, just closure.
This final model went unfinished.
You can find that book here.
Note: This post does not reflect how things are handled at Shock Totem.
So you just finished a 5,000-word story. Read on…
Have you ever heard an editor say a story needs to grab him—or her—within the first few pages? Have you ever thought about what that means for you, as a writer? What it really means?
In the business of reading slush, where hundreds of stories pour in weekly, those first couple pages can mean the difference between rejection and acceptance. Some editors say a story needs to grab hold from the opening line, and while some authors pull this off with ease, others take a slower approach. Some authors start with explosions, while others light small fires that grow and grow…
Because some stories beg for the explosive intro, and others require a slow build. It all depends on the tale (excluding flash fiction, which has no excuse not getting right down to business). But how often is a great story overlooked because an editor—and there are plenty who subscribe to this school of thought—thinks a story needs that WHIZBANGPOW! opening?
I recently finished a 5,300-word story. In standard submission format—12pt Courier font, double-spaced—it’s 29 pages long. Now let’s discuss exactly what that translates to: Changing the format to Times New Roman, single-spaced, the story shrinks from 29 pages down to 11. What was once the first three pages an editor sees is now barely a quarter of the way down page two, and the story starts halfway down page one! So we’re talking a mere 483 words.
Frightening. But it’s worth thinking about.
We, the writers, must impress within the first few pages, right? We’re told this over and over again. But depending on the publication that standard may be an illusion, because in standard submission format, those pages represent but a handful of words—not pages. And that’s just to keep the door from closing, let alone getting your story across the threshold! And beyond that there’s a whole new set of obstacles.
Less than 500 words…