No entry today – lots of stuff going on. See you soon!
The Unprecedented Discovery of the Dragon Islands (or TUDDI for short) by John Kelly and Kate Scarborough is a book which I remember very fondly. I first saw it as a child in a bookstore that no longer exists, and my memories of it got so fuzzy that I eventually became convinced I had dreamt it up. Searching for “realistic dragon book”, “living trap monster”, and similar terms led nowhere. Eventually, by some quirk of fate I searched Amazon for “dragon island” and checked the results for the 90s… and there it was. I hadn’t imagined it after all. And since it’s mostly pictures, I’m covering it under Obscure Modern Monsters rather than ABC Reviews (needless to say I give it 5 gigelorums).
TUDDI is a big, colorful coffee-table book for children of all ages. It presents itself as the illustrated diary of young Lord Nathaniel Parker as he and his ship get lost at sea, and end up finding a fabulous archipelago where dragons and sea serpents exist. Lord Parker writes to Belinda, his main squeeze, and a lot of TUDDI’s humor comes from his stuffy aristocratisms. The book ends all too quickly and suddenly – sequel hook? It certainly feels like the authors could fill several more “episodes”, but sadly I don’t think they have (if you’re the authors and you’re reading this, take note).
The main reason you would want to read TUDDI as fans of ABC, mythical creatures, speculative biology, speculative evolution, and all-around great art, is the creatures. Some are new takes on old classics, while others are completely new organisms with no equivalents. Even speculative insects and plants are painted in loving detail.
Above you can see TUDDI’s take on the sea serpent. An enormous, sea-going reptile convergent on the whale, complete with baleen. Lord Parker and his friends find a dead one on the beach with ominous sucker markings on its body…
I’ll just give a small sample of what’s inside. There are unicorns. There are griffons, which hunt in packs, feed on the unicorns, and make a go at our heroes. There are giant ratites with faces that look like the old duck-rabbit illusion. There are carnivorous plants. There are Cambrian relict arthropods. There are aquatic-adapted shrew-things.
The gorgon is an all-original creation and one of the things I remember most from the book. It’s literally a living bear-trap, one that lies camouflaged amid tree roots and snaps shut on whatever steps on it. It’s a nasty piece of work, and I like that a lot of it is left to the imagination. We’re not even sure what it evolved from, but I’m guessing some kind of primate?
Of course, it wouldn’t be the Dragon Islands without dragons, would it? The dragons themselves are marvelous organic balloons, big pink bloated floating translucent fire-breathing plankton-straining gilled soarers. They’re exactly as awesome as they sound.
Variations: Rolling Calf
A duppy is a type of ghost or spirit native to Jamaica. While described as the souls of dead people, duppies have much in common with Old World shapeshifters and roadside tricksters. They may be found in bamboo thickets and cottonwood groves, and feed on bamboo, “duppy pumpkin”, and strangler figs. Duppies appear from seven in the evening till five in the morning, and sometimes at noon. Duppy activities range from simple mischief to arson, beating, burning, poisoning, and stoning, but they are powerless against twins and those born with a caul. A left-handed crack with a tarred whip and the burning of certain herbs keep them away.
Some of the more dangerous duppies include Three-foot Horse, whose breath is poison and which can outrun anything, but which cannot attack those in the shadow of trees. Then there is Whooping-Boy who rides Three-foot Horse while whooping loudly. Long-bubby Susan has pendulous breasts that reach the ground, and which she throws over her shoulders. Old Hige, the witch, is fond of abducting children, but can be confounded by rice thrown on the doorstep – the duppy cannot count above three, but is compelled to count the grains anyway.
Then there is Rolling-calf, one of the worst and most feared duppies. “Rolling” in this context means “roaming”, as in “rolling through town”. It is a shapeshifter that can appear in a number of guises. The best known is that of a hornless goat, black or white or spotted, with a corresponding caprine stench. One of its front legs is human, the other is that of a horse, and the two hind legs are those of a goat. Its tail curls over its back. Its eyes are red and glow like blazing fires. Flames come from its nostrils. There is a collar on its neck, with a chain that drags on the ground and rattles ominously. The rolling-calf can also appear as a cat, dog, pig, goat, bull, or horse, with the brindled-cat form being particularly dangerous. It can be as small as a cat, or as big as a bull.
A rolling-calf is the soul of a particularly wicked person. Butchers and murderers return as rolling-calves, as do Obeah men; the latter can also set rolling-calves on people. Rolling-calves are found in bamboo and cottonwood as well as caves and abandoned houses, coming out on moonless nights in search of sugar (they are fond of molasses) and breaking into cattle pens.
Rolling-calves can wreak all sorts of evil and blow “bad breath” on their victims, but they can be warded off in a number of ways. Flogging them with a tarred whip always helps, as does sticking an open knife into the ground. Even more useful is the fact that rolling-calves are terrified of the moon to a comical extent.
But whatever method is used to escape a rolling-calf’s clutches, you would be well-advised to leave the premises at once. The rolling-calf will return with a vengeance.
Beckwith, M. W. (1924) Jamaica Anansi Stories. G. E. Stechert and Co., New York.
Beckwith, M. W. (1929) Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaican Folk Life. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.
Lei le, Leile, Liwo
The Falajitax snakes are both violent ogres and benevolent rain-bringers. The Makka of Paraguay believe that they come from humid areas and bring the water with them wherever they go. Most falajitax live in the Chaco forests.
A falajitax has a head like that of a rhea. When it rears up with its body out of sight, it looks exactly like a rhea, and fools many hunters into coming too close. It wears earrings. Its massive serpent body is beautifully colored with eye-catching stripes. But a falajitax need not stick to one form, as it can assume any appearance it wishes, including human and equine guises. A falajitax disguised as a horse can tempt people into riding it, galloping with them into a lake where they drown.
At best, the falajitax are intelligent creatures that can be reasoned with by shamans. Falajitax often protect sources of honey in the forest, and the shaman can placate them by singing and soothing them with a sort of balm. A group of Makka and their shaman were permitted to harvest honey, and the falajitax next guided them to their secret stores of honey. The snakes finally appeared in the shaman’s dreams, telling him that they would live in peace with the Makka.
The falajitax that chased a rhea-hunter was much less friendly. With its head raised, it would beckon him to approach, then lie down and roll up as he came closer. When he discovered the deception, he rode off at full speed, with the falajitax following close behind, jumping from branch to branch like a monkey. When the hunter reached a burned field, the falajitax stopped moving, for such places are unpleasant to the snake. The man returned with other villagers and killed the helpless falajitax, taking its beautiful skin, but after they hung it out to dry it started to rain. The torrential downpour stopped only after they had thrown the skin away.
At worst, the falajitax are little more than anthropophagous monsters. They often swallow people alive, but victims can escape by cutting out the serpent’s heart from within – a difficult proposition, considering that a falajitax has multiple decoy hearts around its neck, with the real heart located in its tail. It took two days for one hunter to find the falajitax’s heart and slay it; by then, his hair and clothes had been dissolved and his skin was decomposing. Fortunately for him, his wife’s magic comb restored him to health. But if the falajitax decides to kill first, then there is no escape. The snake constricts its prey to death and then introduces its tail in its victim’s anus, making it walk like a macabre puppet.
Arenas, P.; Braunstein, J. A.; Dell’Arciprete, A. C.; Larraya, F. P.; Wilbert, J. and Simoneau, K. eds. (1991) Folk Literature of the Makka Indians. UCLA Latin American Center Publications, University of California, Los Angeles.
Variations: Apsai, Apshai
The XXXVIth chapter of the Egyptian Book of the Dead refers to the corpse-gnawing beetle Apshait. In typical apotropaic gestures, the soul of the deceased threatens the apshait with a knife, and runs it through with a spear.
The apshait may have originated in carrion beetles found in the bandages and bodies of poorly-prepared mummies. Later texts confuse the apshait with the tortoise, which dies as Ra lives.
Budge, E. A. W. (2015) The Gods of the Egyptians, vol. II. Dover Publications Inc., New York.
Budge, E. A. W. (2016) The Egyptian Book of the Dead. Dover Publications Inc., New York.
Variations: Yooaltepuztli, Youaltepoztli, Hacha Nocturna, Night Axe, Night Hatchet; Tooaltepuztli (Sahagun, typo)
Thud. Thud. Thud. The Yohualtepoztli reveals its presence in the mountains of Mexico with a loud, intermittent sound, much like that of an axe being driven into wood. This is what earns it its name, from yohualli, “night”, and tepoztli, “axe” or “hatchet”. It is a spirit or phantasm associated with Tezcatlipoca, and it exists to torment nocturnal travelers.
Thud. Thud. Thud. The dull blows continue, and the traveler breaks out into a cold sweat. Fleeing seems like a good idea, but paradoxically they would be best advised to follow the noise to the yohualtepoztli itself. It manifests as a humanoid creature resembling a headless man. Instead of a head, the yohualtepoztli has a stump, like that of a felled tree. The chest cavity is open and hollow, the heart visible inside, and framed on both sides by what look like small hinged doors. The doors flap loosely as the yohualtepoztli moves, and their impact against each other causes the dull thuds.
Priests, warriors, and other fearless people should immediately grab the yohualtepoztli’s heart and hold it tight, threatening to tear it out. Then the creature can be asked for fame, glory, riches, strength, and other gifts. It will offer an agave thorn in return for its freedom, but it should not be released until three or four thorns have been gifted. In turn, those agave thorns guarantee the capture of as many prisoners of war – and therefore, of as much fame, glory, riches, and strength.
Holding onto a yohualtepoztli’s heart is a harrowing experience. Less brave people may immediately pull out the heart without bargaining and run home. If this happens, the heart should be wrapped up in cloth and left overnight. By morning, if the heart has transformed into agave thorns, bird down, or cotton, then it is a good omen. If coal or rags are left instead, then bad luck is sure to follow.
But for those cowards who fear the yohualtepoztli and dare not approach it, there are no rewards. They will flee in terror at the sound of the night hatchet, and misfortune will befall them.
Nuttall, Z. (1895) A Note on Ancient Mexican Folk-lore. The Journal of American Folklore, v. 8, no. 29, pp. 117-129.
Robelo, C. A. (1908) Diccionario de Mitologia Nahoa. Anales del Museo Nacional de México, t. V, Mexico.
Sahagun, B. (1829) Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España, v. II. Alejandro Valdés, Calle de Santo Domingo, Esquina de Tacuba, Mexico.
Is this an “Art of ABC” or a “Making of ABC” entry? It could be both, so I went with Art because it’s all about the art.
Part of my job in making ABC entries is painting the illustrations. And like every semi-competent artist I despise everything I do. But sometimes I think I’m really missing the mark with a painting, and decide to start over for a number of reasons. What might those be? Let’s take a look at some dishonorable discharges.
Some do-overs are simple. I decided the first Aloés I painted (top) just wasn’t interesting enough. Too generic, primary-colored, and simple. Too flat. And the “pear-shaped” crown, well… let’s just say it looked like crap.
The Mbielu-mbielu-mbielu was painted during a time when I wanted to be as creative as possible. When I set out to draw the creature with planks on its back, I originally made the top image, taking the planks to heart. But it didn’t seem creative enough at the time. After consulting with my housemate at the time (who is definitely one of the Top 5 People I Respect The Most), the suggestion was “why not teeth that look like planks?” So I went with that and made the hippo-mesoplodont you see below. But now, in retrospect I’ve been trying to keep ABC depictions more “conventional” to go with the research, so I included a sketch in the entry that combined both.
One thing was for sure: I was not going to paint a stegosaur.
I’ve also been trying to push back against things made up by other authors, in a bid to go back to the roots. The Pilou has no description, just the fact that it makes noise. Dubois saw fit to describe it as a dormouse-elf, and I wanted it to be different. I decided to do a sort of fuzzy jumping spider creature, seeing that those are a lot cuter than dormice, but it couldn’t seem to work for me (left). I eventually threw in the towel and made a dormouse creature anyway. It’s me, I’m part of the problem…
The Pyrallis has been incorrectly described as a dragon-insect following Woodruff’s lovely image of one, so I definitely wasn’t doing that. The creature described almost certainly was a moth drawn to flame, but that wasn’t as interesting. Maybe a firefly? That’s on fire, after all. A tail-glowing scorpionfly with a lit match for a proboscis? Now we’re talking!
I redid this one due to material issues. I had been using textured watercolor paper, and at the size which I did it, the texture overwhelmed a lot of detail (top). So I repainted the whole thing on newly purchased hot-pressed watercolor paper, the fine grain doing a much better job (bottom). I do think the lighting turned out better in the original though. Look at how bright it turned out!
This one’s a lot simpler. The original Shoo Fly I thought was really simple and generic, with only a snorkel-proboscis as a clue that it lived underwater. So I took the head and thorax of a horsefly, the flattened abdomen of a botfly, and took some cues from the awesomely-named Strashila incredibilis to round out the portrait of the submarine fly.