Please welcome guest author Lee Murray to the blog today! Lee writes fiction about monsters. Here she discusses how one might use facts from the real world in their monster-y tales!
When it comes to monsters in contemporary fiction, one of the biggest tasks of a writer is to achieve that magical nirvana we call suspending disbelief. We have to breathe life into our monsters and make the reader truly believe that such a being could exist. Happily, for me, I live down under in a country where monsters are part of our everyday dialogue. No, I’m not from Australia where there are cantankerous blue-headed birds who could eviscerate you with a single swipe, kickboxing roos, snakes that can turn doorknobs, and spiders the size of your face. Don’t even get me started on their drop bears. Instead, I’m from further south, in New Zealand, a country which has none of the monstrous creatures of our neighbours. Okay, so that isn’t quite true. We do have the poisonous katipō spider, a tiny fellow in a batman suit who lives under mouldering driftwood, but who is so shy that I think I’ve only seen one in my entire lifetime, and yes, we have some largish wētā-beetles who can get rather ornery if they’re disturbed, some not-so-nice jellyfish, and the ubiquitous wasp. Although, these creatures don’t exactly have kaiju-esque proportions. I can see you thinking how I must be really stretched for monstery inspiration down here in the land of the long white cloud. And you’d be wrong. We have an entire menu of wonderful monsters to choose from.
Take the poua-kai, for instance. Polynesian peoples, including New Zealand’s Māori, still tell stories of these enormous bird-monsters with their glossy black and white plumage, green wingtips and a blood-red crests. Swift and deadly, the man-eating poua-kai is said to have swooped from the air at speeds of eighty kilometres an hour (50mph), smacking into its prey with the force of a small truck, before plucking them up in their razor-like talons. So, it was exciting when, in 1871, Julius von Haast described an extinct species of eagle, the largest known to have existed, which had been previously been discovered in a South Island marsh. With a shortened wingspan adapted for its forest habitat, the Haast eagle (also known as Te Hokioi) was a raptor capable of taking down the mighty moa, a now-extinct flightless bird which stood over three metres (10ft) and could weigh up to two hundred and fifty kilos (550 pounds). Claims that this monster could carry off people occurs frequently in the oral histories of the Māori people, convincing accounts which were also recorded by several European scholars, including Governor George Grey. In recent years, Japanese geneticists began extracting DNA from moa remains with a view to resurrecting the species, a notion that one of our local politicians suggests could be achievable within the next fifty years. Not wanting to wait that long, I wrote a time travel adventure for children, BATTLE OF THE BIRDS, a “my-first-monster” story that pits the gentle moa against a ferocious Te Hokioi antagonist in a battle for supremacy playing out a millennium ago between New Zealand’s flying and flightless birds.
Then there are the magnificent taniwha, perhaps the most famous of our local monsters. Typically associated with bodies of water, these legendary creatures take various forms including dragons, whales and sharks. Often touted as guardians, they are also thought to have been fickle and proud creatures, sometimes luring people to their deaths and eating them whole. Over time, Māori historians and storytellers, have used the term as a metaphor to describe a powerful chieftain, one who is not to be trifled with. Today, in their role as guardians, taniwha still impact on our local affairs and development.
But the existence of these lizard-dragon-serpent monsters isn’t just the stuff of legend and metaphor, not since palaeontologist June Wiffen discovered fossil evidence of theropods in the Te Urewera forest back in the 1970s. Hard scientific evidence that T-Rex-like monsters once roamed these lands. In fact, since the first Taine McKenna adventure, INTO THE MIST, was released, the New Zealand government has funded a two-year search for further fossil evidence in the Ureweras ‒ the novel’s setting. The results of the study are expected to be reported shortly. But what about those giant lizard taniwha that Māori chieftains warned Captain Cook about during his third voyage to the country in 1777? Don’t those sound a lot like our national taonga-treasure, the tuatara (a Māori term meaning ‘peaks on its back’)? It’s interesting that the tuatara shares a classification with no other species. What if a larger Sphenodon existed in that same forest where other therapods are known to have roamed? Let’s just say that some of the connections, I uncovered in my research are so compelling, I’m not sure I’d recommend walking New Zealand’s famous Waikaremoana track without a military escort!
In INTO THE SOUNDS, my most recent Taine Mckenna thriller, I called again on Māori histories of the taniwha, this time in its sea serpent form. It should be remembered that Māori mythological tales aren’t simply stories, but deep-seated cultural beliefs. They are integral to our identity as a people, and as such any use of these accounts in story must be treated with sensitivity and tact. However, what’s fascinating is that so many of the stories about kraken are supported through oral histories of other cultures, historical accounts of encounters with kraken, and actual scientific observations because colossal squid do exist and can be found in the Southern Ocean. While writing INTO THE SOUNDS, I took a research trip to New Zealand’s National Museum, Te Papa, and observed the only colossal squid specimen in existence, which (despite having shrunk) weighs just under five hundred kilograms (1100 pounds) and measures approx. five metres (15 ft) in length. A female, this squid is the biggest scientists have preserved to date; but it’s possible that larger ones exist... For a storyteller, the temptation was simply too great.
It’s easy to dismiss the legends and stories as being just that: cautionary tales to teach and entertain. But where do these stories come from in the first place? Is it that people have conjured up fictions that have later been found to be true, or are they empirical truths immortalised in fiction and mythology? For a storyteller, the blurry line between hard fact and best-loved fiction is where story possibilities abound and any connection to fact, even a tenuous one, can help to suspend our readers’ disbelief and create credible living breathing monsters. Because, when it comes to monster fiction, the fact is, well, the facts help.
More about INTO THE SOUNDS:
On leave, and out of his head with boredom, NZDF Sergeant Taine McKenna joins biologist Jules Asher on a Conservation Department deer culling expedition to New Zealand’s southernmost national park, where soaring peaks give way to valleys gouged from clay and rock, and icy rivers bleed into watery canyons too deep to fathom. Despite covering an area the size of the Serengeti, only eighteen people live in the isolated region, so it’s a surprise when the hunters stumble on the nation’s Tūrehu tribe, becoming some of only a handful to ever encounter the elusive ghost people. But a band of mercenaries saw them first, and, hell-bent on exploiting the tribes’ survivors, they’re prepared to kill anyone who gets in their way. A soldier, McKenna is duty-bound to protect all New Zealanders, but after centuries of persecution will the Tūrehu allow him to help them? Besides, there is something else lurking in the sounds, and it has its own agenda. When the waters clear, will anyone be allowed to leave?
About Lee Murray:
Lee Murray is a multi award-winning writer and editor of fantasy, science fiction, and horror (Australian Shadows, Sir Julius Vogel). Her titles for adults include the acclaimed Taine McKenna series of military thrillers (Severed Press) and supernatural crime-noir series The Path of Ra co-authored with Dan Rabarts (Raw Dog Screaming Press). Among her titles for children are YA novel Misplaced, and best-loved middle grade adventure Battle of the Birds, listed in the Best Books of the Year 2011 by New Zealand’s Dominion Post. Dawn of the Zombie Apocalypse, the first book in a series of speculative middle grade antics will be published in 2019 by IFWG Australia. An acquiring editor for US boutique press Omnium Gatherum, Lee is a regular speaker at workshops, conferences and schools. She lives with her family in New Zealand where she conjures up stories for readers of all ages from her office overlooking a cow paddock.