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. 

Back in the Saddle

Getting back on a bike after an 18 year hiatus. . . .

Joe Curtin 3/2017

“How does it feel?”

Brian, my new best buddy from Chicago Harley-Davidson, stood a few feet away on the tarmac of the parking lot, his hands on his hips.  He watched me settle in on the 2012 FXDF Dyna Fat Bob that he had sold me a few days earlier.

“It feels like I haven’t been on a bike in 18 years,” I replied.

This was my fifth bike but my first Harley.  I had sold number four, my pristine ’94 Honda Magna, way back in 1998 shortly after my daughter was born, swearing I would one day ride again when she was raised proper and off to college.  Much to the wife’s chagrin, I kept that promise to myself and when I spotted the bright orange FatBob on the Chicago Harley-Davidson website, I bit hard and took the bait, hook, line and sinker.

Sitting on it now, I wondered for just a moment if I should have worked my way up the food chain a bit—a Sportster, maybe?  This bike was big.  Everything about it appeared chunky and oversized, and the forward-mounted foot controls?  Seemed a mile away.

It was heavy too—every ounce of the 700-pound advertised wet weight.  I could feel every minute of my 58 years on this earth and realized at that moment that I was woefully out of shape.

Nonsense. 

C’mon JoeIt’s just like riding a bike—a really big bike. I raised myself up off the custom Corbin seat a few inches and adjusted my stance.  With a firm hold on the grips, I rocked the sleeping beast back and forth a bit between my legs, gauging the center of gravity, getting a feel for the tipping point.  I eased back down into the bucket of a saddle and squared my shoulders up.  With some trepidation I peered out over the cowl and assessed for one last time, the long footprint of the FatBob from fender to fender. 

Beefy 130mm front tire adorning slotted cast aluminum wheels.  Check. Blacked out Lower fork legs. Check.  Crinkle-black 103in V-Twin with polished cooling fins.  Check.  2 into I into 2 exhaust pipes with a vented shield just like the ones that cool off Tommy guns.  Check.  Chrome, full metal jacket covers over the rear shocks.  Check.  Stout 180mm rear tire under a beautifully sculpted bobtail rear fender. Check.

The muscular, but somehow elegant profile harkened back to a 1950’s aesthetic of hot rods and bobbers rolling out of garages across America in the late 1950’s. Cruise nights, hamburger stands and heavy fuel, high octane drag racing at on empty stretches of backroad at 3:00AM.

I swallowed hard and nodded to Brian, hoping he’d seen this odd behavior before.  “All right.  Let’s light ‘er up.”

 Sun blistered off the low-slung chrome console crowning the expansive orange tank as I flipped the switch cover open, unlocked the ignition and twisted the switch full left to IGN.  There was a whir and few metallic clicks preceding the glow of the console’s analog instrumentation and the running lights, dim but discernable, under a cloudless sky.

I thumbed the OFF button to RUN, waited for the red oil light to fade and hit START.

It had only been a few days since I had heard this motor running in the show room but it still caught me off-guard.  The initial belch from the Tommy Gun 2 into I into 2 pipes was a deafening thunder-clap, followed by staccato gunfire—no, mortar fire.  A steady barrage of mortar fire.  It sounded like war.

The few people milling around in the parking lot turned their heads to look approvingly.  She was fitted with a dyno-tuned Screamin’ Eagle Stage 1 kit and Rush slip-ons with 2” baffles.  I wasn’t going to be sneaking home late at night anytime soon with this monster unless I was riding through a hurricane.

It was alive beneath me now, shaking and growling like a junkyard dog at the end of its chain.  I goosed the throttle and the rumpy exhaust note smoothed into something more harmonious but every bit as menacing.

I steeled myself for take-off, gripping the bars in a controlled panic.  And then something happened. 

The uneven thrumming of the big Twin-Cam shuddered up the down-tubes and into the chrome triple-clamps, climbed the black risers and pulsated across the drag-bars into my hands.  Like a stream of electricity, it coursed up my arms, and across my shoulders, meeting at my spinal cord before flooding my central nervous system like a tsunami rampaging through the streets of an oceanfront village.  At that singular moment the bike immediately felt 100 pounds lighter and perfectly balanced.  I remain convinced to this day that this instance was nothing less than a supernatural transmutation of iron and leather into flesh and bone.

 I casually blipped the throttle again before extending my hand to Brian, “Hey man, thanks for everything.”

“No-thank you”, Brian replied, shaking my hand.  He looked out past the parking lot at the flow of traffic on Patriot Boulevard. “You’re good.  Be careful.”

I nodded, reeled in the clutch and toed down into first gear with an audible “chunk”.  This was some heavy-duty Iron.  Milwaukee Iron.  American Iron.   It felt good.  Solid.  I smiled. “Better than good.”

I rolled the throttle on slowly while releasing the clutch.  The gobs of torque from the 45-degree V-twin proved remarkably forgiving, giving way to a much smoother take-off than I had anticipated or deserved.  I short-shifted into second before officially exiting the parking lot and leaned into the access road that ran parallel to the main thoroughfare that was Patriot Boulevard.  I grabbed third and carefully rounded the bend, circling behind the dealership when I noticed the strategically arranged orange cones and pylons on the smooth blacktop to my right. 

Chicago Harley operated one of the sanctioned riding schools in the area and although the sign clearly stated Course Closed, I felt it was put there just for me.  I throttled down into a decent downshift, veered hard right, and rumbled up the curb onto the course.

The bike grew lighter and more grounded with every subsequent lean into and around the pylons. The precious few minutes I stole gliding around the controlled environment did wonders for my growing confidence and more importantly, recalled the forgotten but intuitive nature of the counter-steer.

I rolled discreetly off the course I and motored my way through the light traffic of residential Glenview, chipping away at nearly two decades of rust while contemplating what course of action I was going to take for the 45-mile ride home to the south suburbs of Chicago.

At the first stoplight I rolled to a halt atop my new mount feeling like DiCaprio at the bow of the Titanic.  An older gentleman in a massive Suburban pulled up alongside me, his window open, our faces separated by only a few feet of unseasonably humid air.  He was sporting horn rim glasses and a snappy white ascot atop his balding head.  Our eyes met and he glowered at me a long moment before powering up his window with an irritated shake of his head—obviously not a fan of the pipes. 

I had nearly forgotten about that part.

The long red turned to yellow then finally green.  I cranked the throttle a ¼ turn and left the malcontent and his urban assault vehicle in my side-view mirror.  The entrance ramp to I-294 South loomed up ahead to my left.  I dumped it into third and launched onto the feeder ramp, hitting fourth gear as I made my way onto the super-slab and eased into the moderate traffic flow.  Cruising along at a steady 65mph, the dank air that had hung over the morning like a soggy blanket gusted over me in a wave of cool wind more refreshing than anything I had felt in eighteen years.

I twisted my right wrist and snicked into 6th gear.  The big V-twin purred effortlessly beneath me in overdrive at 75mph, emitting a soothing mantra-like humming that was unconditionally peaceful.

A semi blew by on my left, the airstream left in its wake nudging me over in my lane like a school bully shouldering his way down the hallway at first bell, a subtle reminder that there are some things in life that you should let pass you by.

Riding a motorcycle isn’t one of them.