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DarkEcho Horror Death by Rick Berry
The DarkEcho Files

KIERNAN, MEGALODON TEETH & URSCHLEIM

For more than six years Paula Guran published -- in email form on a weekly basis -- an eccentric newsletter for horror writers and others. This commentary came from it.

DarkEcho
03.30.00
V.7 #11

Perhaps it was the ear infection. I was literally unbalanced without knowing it. I never realized how disturbed my physical equilibrium was until -- after stumbling on familiar terrain -- I wound up slightly bloodied and bruised

Or maybe is was the drugs. The introduction of antibiotics and steroids that initially distorted before bringing the intentioned counterpoise.

Of course it was partially the communion. A couple of days spent away from the keyboard and in the company of fellow horror goddess Fiona Webster that included a conversation about Urschleim and the monstrous prehistoric shark Megalodon. (Along with knowing a lot about horror, Fi has a scientific sort of background and also knows a lot about sharks...and Patti Smith...and other stuff.)

Tales of Pain & Wonder (cover)Whatever it was -- and perhaps it was nothing more than the immense talent of the writer herself -- I found myself finishing Caitlin R. Kiernan's new collection from Gauntlet, TALES OF PAIN AND WONDER, with a sense of awe. Here is what a collection of stories should be but rarely is -- a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Not that the "parts" are not to be admired in and of themselves, it's just that, when read all together, you find new resonances and chords, rhythms and interplay that can not be detected as easily reading the stories here and there over the years. I can think of a few collections that do this, but *this* is a first collection compiled from stories written over only a five year period. Amazing.

Doug Winter's introduction places Kiernan well for the reader. Peter Straub, in his afterword, gives her work a superb literary write-up. He masterfully identifies the elements that combine to make her stories the unique work they are. Among much more, Straub touches on the factors that most struck me.

Collections and collectors; specimens and curiosities kept caged or behind glass. Characters wrapped in rationality of science exploring what Straub calls "Otherness." The remaining characters find themselves examining Otherness as well, whether assisted and led by the "scientists" or not. Remnants of lost or hidden species are found, never new ones. What revelations are made usually occur as the result of a physical and/or psychic journey inward and downward, below.

megalodon toothBut, like Megalodon teeth, TALES OF PAIN AND WONDER is really only the fossilized remains of something that swam much deeper and, fed by massive death, grew much larger than can be easily comprehended. Although Kiernan, a trained paleontologist as well as a writer, shows us only the teeth -- they are all, perhaps, we could bear to understand -- *she* knows the structure of the monster.

Then there is the nature of Kiernan's bleak decaying ruin of a world peopled by the lost children -- whatever their age -- who are her "disenfranchised protagonists." They arise from the muck and desolation rather than being born, bubble up from a kind of legendary societally-created Urschleim. Ancient yet new, terrible and beautiful -- they are transcendent filth.

You see...

Shark skeletons were (and are) formed of cartilage, less durable than bone and not prone to fossilization. What we know of Megalodon comes only from its fossilized teeth which were composed of a bone-like enamel-coated substance. Megalodon is thought to have resembled the modern great white shark, only much much bigger. With teeth identical in shape (triangular and serrated) to a great white's -- but much much bigger -- Megalodon is thought to have been about 40-50 feet long, the biggest predator ever known. A great white with jaws big enough to swallow a cow whole. Estimates vary on how long ago it lived, but between 5 million and 1.6 million years ago is an accepted range. Some believe that Megalodon still survives in deep uncharted waters. Perhaps the same depths that would shelter Urschleim, the primordial living mud, if it existed.

You see...

megalodonIn 1857, Ernst Haeckel, a respected German biologist who studied microscopic life at the bottom of large bodies of water, postulated the existence of what he termed _Urschleim_ (protoplasm). Urschleim was supposedly a deep-sea mud that was the progenitor of life itself. In the late 1860s (after Charles Darwin published THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES in 1865) ships involved in the laying of the Britain-U.S. telegraph cable brought up the first dredgings of deep sea mud. A sample of gelatinous ooze from one of those expeditions made its way to Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin's friend and public advocate. Huxley found in that mud what he thought were skeletal remnants of the disorganized protoplasm that Haeckel had described as Urschleim Huxley gave this "organism" a proper scientific name: Bathybius haeckelii, after its "discoverer." But the mud never grew. In later years, the development of new biochemical techniques and improved microscopes revealed the complexity of the cell and the absurdity of the notion. As Richard Ellis said in DEEP ATLANTIC (1996): "Bathybius disappeared forever into the abyssal oblivion reserved for 'hopeful monsters,' those scientific discoveries that their introducers are so anxious to find that they overlook the reality of the facts that might disprove the existence of their inventions." But the *idea *of primordial mud stayed around for a bit, promulgated primarily by pseudo-scientists who were the rough equivalent of today's New Agers.

You will eventually find a coherent review on HORRORONLINE as well as a more rational introduction to the author in an interview there. But, just at the moment, before the abrasions heal completely and I regain all of my balance; before I forget a conversation; I want to say: TALES OF PAIN AND WONDER is monstrous fossil teeth and progenitive ooze.

[Thanks to Fiona Webster for the data as well as the original chat.]


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