Fresh Blood From Old Wounds

(Originally published in On Writing Horror: A Handbook by the Horror Writers Association, 2006, Writers Digest Books)

Fresh Blood from Old Wounds

–or the alchemist meets the biochemist.

Horror stories have been around at least as long as the first campfire, so let’s face it, gang—there’s not a lot of really original stuff out there.  Sure, once every couple of generations, a Clive Barker will unleash a Books of Blood upon an unsuspecting populace and we all take a step back and peer a little deeper into our dark side looking for that fresh meat.

I admit it.  I’m a sucker for the classics.  Growing up reading Famous Monsters of Filmland and watching Creature Features and Screaming Yellow Theatre, I developed a soft spot in my black heart for the archetypical man-as-beast monster.

My first novel, Daughters of the Moon, dealt with vampires—not a terribly original concept, but I did my best to keep it fresh and contemporary.   I placed my protagonist, Erszebet Bathory, the Blood Countess of 16th Century Europe, in 1980’s America and hooked her up with a rock n’ roll garage band.  I can say with no small amount of pride that she was the first vampire to meet her doom on the spiky end of a splintered Fender Stratocaster guitar neck.

With my obligatory tribute to bloodsuckers under my belt I moved onto another tried-and-true—the werewolf.  I was well into my second or third month of researching the material when I was struck by the similarities between the ground-breaking Human Genome Project which had been dominating the news at the time, and the transmutational aspirations of the Alchemist.

While outlining Monsterman, I had blessed the hero (a young-adult werewolf to be) with a brilliant father; a genetic biochemist and alchemist who sought to parlay his ground-breaking genetic research into a cure for the corrupted bloodline of his centuries-old inbred werewolf clan. 

Alchemy, I had learned, holds at its core, three basic goals: the transmutation of the baser metals into gold and silver, the discovery of an elixir by which life may be prolonged indefinitely, and the manufacturing of an artificial process of human life.  The keystone for this three-fold quest was the discovery and fabrication of a powder or liquid universally referred to as the Philosopher’s Stone.  With the Philosopher’s Stone, a seasoned alchemist could conceivably not only transform lead into gold, but also distill the Elixir of Life, the spiritual fluid which forms the wellspring of human existence.

Aside from the metallurgical aspects of the first objective, the goals of the biochemist and the genetic engineer vary little from their medieval predecessor.  By deciphering the chemical letters of the genetic code the Human Genome Project has provided us with an essential blueprint, a map, of what makes us human.  Upon identifying the 25,000 genes and sequencing the approximately 3 billion base chemical pairs that make up human DNA the information was put into a database and the resultant technology was made available to the private sector.

Almost overnight limitless applications were crossing boundaries: from medicine to food to energy to environmental resources and beyond.  Walls came tumbling down in hard medicine research as the new biotechnology enabled overnight advances that were unfathomable only a decade ago.  Life Sciences has now grown into one of the largest sectors in the U.S. economy.  The completion of the Human Genome Project has been called the greatest achievement in medical science since Dr. Salk’s polio vaccine and the discovery of penicillin.  Cancer fighting DNA enzymes are on the verge of FDA approval and many predict human life spans can be increased geometrically. Cellular regeneration—indeed, complete cellular reconstruction is now a feasible application.  Need a new liver?  The next generation will be able to manufacture a fresh, compatible organ from the stem cells harvested from the subject’s placenta at birth. Designer babies—you will be able to pick and choose your child’s sex, hair color, and basic physical make-up—are right around the corner.  A new dawn for mankind is breaking just over the horizon. 

Oh, and they also made green glow-in-the-dark bunnies—just to see if such a thing could be done. 

Eduardo Kac, a self proclaimed “bio-artist”, persuaded a French laboratory to splice fluorescent genes from a jellyfish into a rabbit embryo. The altered embryo was planted in a female rabbit, which gave birth to a bunny that glows neon green when placed under ultra-violet light (You just knew the pocket-protector crowd was going to have a field day with this).  

The ability to cut DNA from one organism and splice it into another is the foundation of biotechnology.  It is the process that allowed the French scientists to create a glowing bunny and is nowadays considered routine.  In theory, they could have used the same technique to create a glowing human baby.

So great is the potential for abuse that the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health devoted 3% to 5% of their annual Human Genome Project budgets toward studying the ethical, legal, and social issues (ELSI) surrounding availability of genetic information.  Now that’s probably a nice chunk of change and I’m sure ELSI will provide high moral ground but policing and enforcing any guidelines they provide will prove next to impossible.  If the private sector can generate glow-in-the-dark bunnies just for grins, I shudder to think of what our own government is doing behind vaulted doors with this transgenic philosopher’s stone.

Bio-technology, gene-splicing, genetic mapping, cloning, stem cell research—the prospects for the horror writer are boundless.

But here’s the best part: DNA is interchangeable between species. 

You see where I’m going with this? 

The Island of Dr. Moreau is rising up out of the ocean and swallowing entire continents.

What’s to stop a government from engineering a genetically crossbred man-beast in its quest for the perfect soldier?  Let’s take your basic infantryman, combine the savagery of the wolverine with the tenacity and speed of the mongoose and create the ultimate killing machine.  A new amphibious threat?  The Creature from the Black Lagoon is not as far-fetched (funny-looking, sure) as it was in 1954.  We share so many chromosomes with our ocean dwelling brethren that the development of gills within a human mainframe would seem perfectly feasible.  Lest you think I’m going a bit off the deep end here, check out this headline from the New York Times, November 27, 2002:

Stem Cell Mixing May Form a Human-Mouse Hybrid
By Nicholas Wade

Space allows me to include but a snippet of the entire article, but it speaks volumes:

Dr. Irving L. Weissman, an expert on stem cells at Stanford University, said that making mice with human cells could be “an enormously important experiment,” but if conducted carelessly could lead to outcomes that are “too horrible to contemplate.”

. . .outcomes that are “too horrible to contemplate.”   I love that line and as a horror writer I choose to ignore Dr. Weissman’s advice and contemplate the experiment’s outcome with great forethought and I must admit, a touch of glee. 

Finding horror in the laboratory is nothing new.  Shelly’s Frankenstein is of course the most famous, and a fine example of how a 21st century scribe may benefit from mining the same stratum.   The good doctor’s dream of creating human life from existing tissue is a hell of a lot more feasible today than when Shelly had penned it in 1831.  And that makes it all the more frightening.  Frankenstein has been adapted and re-worked ad-nauseam but it is fair to say no one has applied a bio-technical upgrade to the story more successfully than Dean Koontz in his brilliant four-book series dealing with the re-animated giant and his mad creator.  No one can accuse Koontz, along with Kevin J. Andersen and Ed Gorman, his collaborators on the first two of the planned four-part series, of grave-robbing (sorry) for revisiting this timeless classic. 

In 1990, the father of the techno-thriller, Michael Crichton, reached back to 1912, dusted off Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The lost World and created a mega-franchise with Jurassic ParkWhat made Jurassic Park such a compelling read was Crichton’s ability to convince me that creating genetically engineered dinosaurs from amphibiously-enhanced scraps of their DNA was entirely possible.  Crichton, armed with a medical degree from Harvard, incorporates just enough scientific jargon (for the layman) to back it up and it was that silver of believability that swept the novel off the sci-fi shelves and propelled it into the heart of mainstream America. 

The science at our fingertips is no longer science fiction and the gleam of the new technology belies the abhorrent potential lying dormant just below the shiny surface.

Robin Cook, another doctor-turned-novelist, saw the bio-storm coming years ago and invented the sub-genre known as the medical thriller.  Cook saw long ago the potential for terror visible only through a microscope.  Bio-terrorism and bacterial poisoning are frightening realities that most of us don’t like to even think about, much less discuss.  Verbalization makes it all the more real, you see.  A quick scan of some of some recently published essays from bio-med graduate students at San Francisco State University Medical School casts an eerily prophetic tone on some of Cook’s earlier work:

“The Bio-tech Century: Playing Ecological Roulette with Mother Nature’s designs.”

*GM Microbes invade North America (*genetically manufactured)

“Killer Virus: An engineered mouse virus leaves us one step away from the ultimate bioweapon.”

“Biohazards: The Next Generation?”

Pretty scary stuff, by any standard, but again it is the very plausibility of the threat combined with our inherent fear of the unknown that makes it doubly frightening. 

This generation’s fear of the altered chromosome is no different than the fear of the split atom felt by our parents and grandparents back in the early 1950’s.  Nuclear power and its fallout spawned a new sub-genre in horror films; the Atomic Monster.  Mutant amphibians, enormous insects, and half human/half fish-like carnivores poured out of upstart studios almost quicker than the film could be developed.  Sure, most of the stuff was drive-in movie filler and more comedy than horror, but there were rare and thoughtful exceptions.  Chief among these was Godzilla; unmistakably Japanese and clearly representing the nuclear paranoia entrenched in the national psyche of the island after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The footage of Tokyo smoldering in radioactive ruin beneath the monsters fiery breath remains a powerful metaphor and a humbling experience even when viewed today.  Cold War paranoia was not limited to Japan and in 1953 Warner Brothers released the giant mutated ant saga, “Them” amongst the continued nuclear testing taking place on our own desert soil.  Oppenheimer’s terrible gift lent an all too-real face to fear and changed the world forever.

Biotechnology will also change the world—you can bank on it. 

The most tragic horror starts in the laboratory wrought from the minds of brilliant men with only the best intentions—just like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster.  

Nuclear power and radioactive fallout.  Biotechnology and gene splicing.  Different fruit from the same Tree of Creation.  As long as man continues to uproot the foliage of Eden and slog deeper into the primordial soup from which we crawled millions of years ago, we will carry with us the potential for our own destruction.  As a parent it makes me shudder.  As a horror writer, it makes me tingle. 

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