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Archive for July, 2008

As many of you who know me, know, I am a eagre booster of Comrade Iain Banks and his fine output of novels.  To those who read science fiction to any extent, you will know him, and perhaps praise him, though I know there are many revilers out there, with reasons understandable, for disliking Iain M. Banks, author of bestselling novels, by science fictional standards, Consider Phleabas, Use of Weapons, Inversions, Matter, The Algebraist.  To the more hoighty-toity types out there who must have their literature with a capital L, a group I can sometimes be included as well, Iain Banks is known for his ‘classics’ of a odd fiction like Dead Air, Complicity, The Crow Road and….The Wasp Factory, his debut novel and one of the nastiest and most unsettling pieces of fiction I have yet to read.  Much nastier, and shocking than much written by that Chuck fellow…what was his name, whose outrage mongering seems a tad forced of late.  Ahem.   I like The Wasp Factory, but this essay isnt exactly a panegyric, or a summary; the post below reminds that reading the book first is a good idea.  Besides, panegyrics are boring, though hardly dead if one bothers to read biographies or the newspaper, and the real meat ofThe Wasp Factory, besides all the murder and brutality and delightful black humour is its take on what is called in academic shorthand ‘the construction of gender’.

That gender, our shared social understanding of what men and women, and those in our minds caught in between, is constructed is not much in debate nowadays, at least amongst many of the more ‘intellectually’ motivated.  The list of feminist scholars and theorists, amongst many others who have questioned how ingrained in our bones, bodies and genes the social activities of sex is a very long one indeed, and I won’t go into it here.  Likewise, the grotesque and its relationship to the body, that grotesque equals disharmonious (to borrow from The Prisoner), both for good or ill, especially as described by Mikhail Bakhtin (an It-theorist if there ever was one in English studies) and others after him, is important here, but not crucial.   I’ve tried to go light on the theory; not because theory is bad, per se, but they do tend to bore non-academic audiences who might actually give a hoot.

I also hate to spoil the endings of books, but in this case knowing the ending of The Wasp Factory is absolutely necessary to an understanding of the book’s themes.

Spoilers abound ahead: you have been warned.

UPDATE: I just learned two days (August 21) that Iain Banks linked to this essay, which is a great honour.  I’ve cleaned the essay up a bit, at it been published shortly before a long move, but it remains mostly the same, just more readable, hopefully.

(more…)

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EXCERPT FROM “A GENERAL HISTORY OF THE INSECTS OF SUMATRA” by
Simeon Van Berger Op Zoom, translated by Jules Fischer, published in Britain by Random
House, 1958.

In general it is the size of Sumatran insects that is most remarkable, rather then any
general deadliness to the species of man; the density, humidity and fecundity of the Sumatran
jungle, especially in the Achinese highlands, guarantees that most insects found there will be large.
Most are harmless, as hopefully this work has done at some lengths to assuage the reader in lands
remote and altogether more civilised then the isle of Sumatra.  There is, however, a curious but
also potentially lethal exception to be found on this tropical island, to which this chapter will now
turn.  The Sumatran Red Tiger Beetle, or Vorocarnisae sumatranus, sole amongst predatory
insects, has a dangerous habit during its larval stage of eating out the insides of a human skull,
brain and all.  Despite this terrifying behaviour, the Sumatran Red Tiger Beetle is practically
unknown outside of Sumatra.  We hope to rectify this situation somewhat.
The Sumatran Red Tiger Beetle is a member of the Cicindelidae family, better known to
the public as the tiger beetles.   Tiger beetles as a whole are identifiable by their large bulging
eyes, long, slender legs and large curved mandibles, in addition to an inability to fly well and a
quickness of foot on the ground; those species common to North America are ground-dwelling
predators, often startled out from under rocks during the day or seen prowling at night.
Vorocarnisae sumatranus shares some of these characteristics, particularly as it is equipped with a
heavy pair of mandibles and long slender legs.  In other ways it is morphologically distinct.
The eyes, for instance, are very diminutive, especially in the adults, and it is unlikely that
vision is heavily used in hunting.   Although its antennae are filiform, the Sumatran lacks the
fivefold segmentation of tarsi found in other Cicindelidae. Indeed, so distinct is the Red Tiger
Beetle from all other species of Cicindelidae that it has a genus all to itself; the closest living
relatives are the large South African beetles of the genus Mantichora.  Even then, the Sumatran
Red Tiger Beetle stands apart, notably in its bizarre and lethal form of reproduction.  To this day,
it is the only species of tiger beetle known to be deadly to man.
The mature adult of the species is not as active a hunter as other members of the family
Cicindelidae.  Its body is considerably more rotund, its double pair of mandibles arranged in a
vertical rather then lateral fashion.  Along its elytral are several brightly coloured ovals, the
vestiges of special glands, phosphorescent in nature, present on the larvae.  Like all tiger beetles,
the Sumatran is brightly coloured, especially on its legs and underside of the thorax, with the
elytra being much duller, variegated only by alternating stripes of light and dark browns.  The
elytral, as in most tiger beetles, is fused and incapable of opening, forming an excellent protective
shield.  The pronotum teeth are especially smooth and well-linked together.
Nearly 2.5 inches in length, Vorocarnisae sumatranus is primarily an ambush predator,
waiting carefully for prey as large as frogs.  The presence of numerous fine hairs on their limbs
allows them to sense vibrations made by prey, whereas the fused tarsi are heavily clawed and
well-adapted for climbing and digging burrows.  The adults are nonetheless usually found on the
forest floor, often hidden by fallen logs or leaves.  They are most commonly seen by humans
around or on corpses, which earned the beetle its popular name in Indonesian, badanmak, or
‘body-eater’.
Like all beetles, Vorocarnisae sumatranus, goes through holometabola, or complete
metamorphosis, changing from a worm-like larva to a quiescent pupa to a beetle during its life.
The Sumatran Tiger Beetle depends upon the decaying remains of higher animals for
reproduction.  The adult female, after a short mating season, lays a cluster of eggs in a cavity on
the corpse of a large animal like a water buffalo or orangutan.  The eggs hatch very quickly, and
the new oligopod grubs, brightly coloured with alternating stripes and possessing a jaw structure
much better suited to chewing and rasping then the adults, burrow into the decaying body through
an orifice.  For unknown reasons the larva have active phosphorescent organs, although this may
be related to driving away other scavengers or startling predators.  The larva, after upwards of ten
days, emerges and crawls away to pupate.  Although this in itself can be ghastly to humans, it is
no worse then what maggots or other scavengers do.  Vorocarnisae sumatranus,, however, has
adapted a considerably more terrifying way of feeding.
Somehow, long ago, the Sumatran Red Tiger Beetle adapted itself to lay eggs in a living
host.  The eggs are usually deposited in the ears, and after hatching, the larva, very small, quickly
crawl down the main cavity and find their way into the brain, where vast amounts of protein can
be rapidly accumulated for growth.  This is extremely painful for the victim, who is often aware of
a kind of burning sensation in the immediate hours afterwards.   The larva usually devour non-
essential sections of the brain first, leaving the basic pulmonary, cardiac and sensory systems
operating until the end.  The pain grows worse and worse with every passing day. In the final
phase of this predation, the victims eyes roll back into the head due to the larva’s actions upon the
main optic nerves.  Still functioning, the victim’s eyes can see the greenish glow of the larva at
work.  Death is almost always inevitable, and there is no known method of prevention or removal
of the larva, short of cutting open the head or pouring pesticide down the ear.  Neither treatment
is likely to save the victim.  Luckily, because the Sumatran Red is a relatively sluggish animal, and
because they are easily spotted, deaths are rare, even if highly visible.  The victim is often
rendered near insane by the larva, perhaps leading to Achinese legends of demonic possession.
The first widespread knowledge of the Sumatran Red only came, however, after the Dutch
invasion of Aceh in the 1870’s; the Dutch soldiers, unused to jungle warfare, often fell prey to the
Vorocarnisae sumatranus, and thus the symptoms came to be known as ‘Dutch madness’.

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The Carcaphane

The cacarphane is first mentioned by name in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, Book 8, wherein he describes it as a “four-footed beast, twelve cubits long, possessed of great teeth like a saw, a thick black tongue and a tail, both like rope. It has thick scales upon its back, and short black fur along its legs and sides.” Pliny implicates the beast as a terrible hunter, capable of cunning ambushes, using its teeth to saw branches from trees to lay deadfalls and to saw through the legs of horses, a favoured meal. Pliny also insists the carcaphane is unable to swim and is likely to be easily scared by fire; nonetheless, he insists a man will die if crossing paths with a cacarphane on a Tuesday, especially if the beast comes from the left side. The cacarphane may have been known much earlier, as it is alluded to in the Histories by Herodotus; the tokens and jewels of the Scythians are said to be covered in “terrible knife-toothed beasts”. Certainly the pioneering archeological work of Sergei Rudenko substantiates this claim, though he himself does not support this theory and doubts if Scythians and carcaphanes ever interacted.

In Christian bestiaries, such as The Historie of Four-Footed Beastes, by Edward Topsell, from 1607, a fairly late era compendium of earlier monstrosities, the cacarphane is allegorically employed as sin; its saw-like teeth cut down a tree to capture its prey, much as sin can cause a fall into darkness. Though few in Europe had ever seen a carcaphane, and indeed no physical evidence was ever brought of one from ‘Tartary’, it was included, alongside the lion, elephants and hyenas, in the debate over the manner of reproduction. Whether it did so backward or forward being the subject of dispute, with Sir Thomas Browne, in Vulgar Errors, Bk. 3, supporting the backward ‘pizel’, whereas in Horwart von Hohenburg’s Thesaurus, from 1628, the point is made against. Such theoretical and theological debates, however, did little to clarify the nature of the cacarphane, which was little more then a legend to most Europeans.

The carcaphane is generally considered a creature native to the Russian steppe and to Siberia, and yet very little is accurately known from that quarter, either. Cossacks are said to have feared the cacarphane, when they feared little else, and thus had little contact with it, a beast known for its relative speed, cunning and resilience; Yermak Timofeyevich, who first crossed the Urals, reportedly sought in vain for it, but always the Tartars said the animal had moved on, always ahead of the explorers, always elusive, always farther east. Amongst some Altai tribes, the teeth of dead cacarphanes were used as shears. Almost certainly, carcaphanes was worshipped and feared by the Kalmyk, Omiak, Telengits, Chelkans, Khants and Mansi, among many others, showing up as a fearsome devil in many religious rites, though this is hard to confirm because of the spread of Orthdox Christianity in the wake of the Cossack settlers.

The carcaphane seems to have avoided the Russian camps and town spreading across Siberia, to the point that it all but disappeared from the Steppe by the late 17th century. Yerofey Khabarov is said to have sighted several solitary cacarphanes along the Amur in the 1650’s, though Bering eighty years later was to sight none of the creatures from his ships, and despair of them as merely as legend. The story was everywhere the same: as civilisation spread across Siberia, the cacarphanes retreated. One abberant case is related by the French encyclopedist Diderot, who during a visit to the court of Catherine the Great, during the fall and winter of 1773, remarked in his journal on a story then current in St. Petersburg society, relating that “un bette terrible, possessé des griffes comme epée et un machoire comme une scie … terrorise les inhabitants d’un village Siberienne, mais n’aucun person pouvez l’attrapé.” Though too ill to travel, Diderot studied any rumour and report about the creature, compiling anecdotal evidence that indicated a large, heavy carnivore, clearly not similar to a bear and much fleeter of foot, with very heavy teeth and a thick body, was responsible for the attacks, which soon subsided. Nikolay Muravyov, in his memoirs, wrote that as governor of Siberia, he received occasional reports of cacarphane sightings, and some trappers even attempted to sell pelts of the predator, short-furred, stiff, too inflexible, and prone to rotting away even when properly cured.

Bronislaw Piotr Pilsudski, a Polish scientist exiled to Sakhalin Island in the late 1890’s by the Tsarist government, reputedly observed carcaphanes at close proximity, but as he drown in the Seine in 1918, the report was never compiled, and all his papers were lost. The only definite evidence of a, regrettably slain, cacarphane was reported in early 1904, when one Captain Feodor Kruzych shot and killed one in northern Manchuria. The sketches and pelt survived the Russo-Japanese War, though he did not; the pelt, later photographed and put on display in the Far Eastern State University, was completely lost during the Russian Revolution. It is entirely possible that carcaphanes still exist in the wilds of eastern Siberia, but no sightings have been reported in the last hundred years, meaning that for all intents and purposes, the carcaphane has disappeared.

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