Here Be Dragons!

I promised some more information on my new book in progress, Horla.

What would a dragon be doing here?

With the release of Jonah at the end of last year, I’m becoming comfortable writing in the genre of grounded sci-fi, albeit filled with psychological suspense and thriller elements. My current tagline for Horla is “Imagine if Jurassic Park was written by Tom Clancy” and I think it’s still an apt description!

The idea for Horla began with a dream I had a couple of years ago. It featured a very powerful image of a dinosaur emerging from the waters off Bournemouth beach in the middle of holiday season.

It was an image I remembered vividly and began to develop an idea from it. In the original story idea, a genetically engineered dinosaur escapes while in transit on a cargo ship. It emerges ashore in full view of hundreds of beachgoers. In the subsequent panic and media bonanza, a scientific observer notices abnormalities in the behaviour and physiology of the animal suggesting it had lost some of its organic faculties having undergone surgery. It turns out to be a highly secret, weaponised dinosaur that is now loose in a modern British city.

From this outline, you can gather that it was going to be a classic monster story. The original premise was a Jurassic Park-inspired story of scientific meddling and human weakness, compounded by government secrecy and blundering.

However, in researching, I discovered some extraordinary myths and folklore around dragons that coincided with the writing of my previous book, Jonah, which changed my mind about where I wanted to go with the story.

I quickly decided that the deeper human responses to being challenged by the mysterious and unknown were far more interesting than the straightforward “people trapped somewhere with a monster” trope. Historical ‘human vs monster’ narrative follows the standard ‘This town ain’t big enough for both of us’ model – their proximity results in conflict which can only be resolved by the destruction or expulsion of one or the other. The big thrills come when the ‘outsider’ is displaced into the culture and environment of humanity, be it King Kong in New York, Tyrannosaurus Rex in a theme park or Godzilla in New York (again). And, of course, the humans tend to win and the monster is destroyed; in later incarnations there follows a lukewarm “tut-tut, dearie me, how naughty” ecological conservation message that nevertheless doesn’t critique the basic premise that destruction of the outsider is the only option.

Dragon folklore offers something very different. The history of dragons and humans was a story of co-existence and interaction for thousands of years. Only in the last thousand years did the relationship turn sour; the spread of Christianity seems to have precipitated a crusade against dragons which changed their characterisation from benevolent guardians or local overlords into demonic tyrants with twisted, dark origins.

Typical Western dragon – four-legged, winged and horned
Typical Oriental dragon – long, sinuous body, wingless, whiskered

It’s not unreasonable to make the case for Christianity’s role in creating this cultural watershed – the devil of the Book of Revelation is characterised as a dragon, while the fire-breathing Leviathan in the Book of Job is an archetype of Satan in many commentaries. While Eastern dragons remained wise, benevolent interactors that protected and partnered human interests against divine attacks, Western dragons became baleful, greedy treasure-hoarders and cattle-rustlers who demanded the sacrifice of virgin daughters and maliciously burnt up any village gutsy enough to defy them. Only the advent of the noble Christian knight removed the scourge of the dragon from various pockets of Europe.

The interesting and challenging fact is that dragons have been described in folklore across the entire globe within the same timeframe. It’s not inconceivable that ideas could travel far even in ancient times, but it seems extraordinary that the same creatures could be analogous and distinctly identifiable in the millennia-old myths of Aboriginal Australian, Native American, Chinese, South American, Indian and European peoples simultaneously. Dragons have impacted human culture in ways that defy conventional mythology – they are a truly cross-cultural phenomenon and retain an ancestral and present-day grip on the human imagination.

Horla is just another blip on the timeline of dragon lore that extends for millennia into the past, and may well continue for millennia to come. Dragons offer a compelling question that invites hard scientific investigation, despite flying in the face of scientific convention – for that reason, research based on folklore remains firmly rooted in the pseudoscience of cryptozoology and its few committed researchers.

I introduce the idea in Horla that dragon-like animals survive to this day, lost to science and modern humanity by virtue of their intelligence and familiarity with us. They have used their ingenuity to hide themselves following the persecution and slaughter of the Middle Ages. In the process, they have lost touch with humanity’s development into a modern technological culture, which proves to be their Achilles’ heel. The rediscovery and captivity of a specimen therefore remains the subject of extreme secrecy. Until it escapes.

Horla is currently in the late stages of the first draft. I expect to release it in May 2018. I’ll be posting more updates on the process as we go!

 

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