This Week’s Prompt:32. As dinosaurs were once surpassed by mammals, so will man-mammal be surpassed by insect or bird—fall of man before the new race.
The Resulting Story: Gil’s Gone
So, we have a couple wonderful things to talk about! So many horrifying ideas. I have worked with this concept before, for my own pre-society purposes, but I’ll try a different route than last time I touched on this one. We’ve talked about cyclical surpassing and ages a few times already, here and here. But now we have the notion of a much grander movement: an entire kingdom replacement. And this is new.
It is firstly an almost apocalyptic notion. The surpassing of the dinosaurs was their complete extinction, and the arrival of (eventually) a level of organization and planning that was utterly alien at the time. If there are any reptilian civilizations, they are so utterly obliterated as to be effectively non-existent. The horror of the future advancing suddenly on a viewer, and the world rendered unrecognizable, is often a reactionary thing.
The deep seated fear of the passage of time is common in Lovecraft, and in this it takes a biological form. The powers of the future will not only out pace us in prominence and intelligence, but they will also forget what to us seems so grand and powerful. We talked about that with Ozymandias here.
Now, insects and birds do share a few common components worth examining as horror authors. Both are occasionally impressive group animals. Both are often shockingly more intelligent then they seem, crows being quite ingenious and ants practicing almost human levels of sophist action in architecture, planning, and agriculture. Neither has a terribly expressive mouth and far less expressive eyes, an important aspect of the alien and horrifying.
Birds are less …strange, relatively speaking. Alot of their strangeness I know is thanks to this wonderful comic artist humon, who outlined the mating styles and courting of a number animals and is a fun resource for strange or alien ideas of romance or the like. Birds do flock, and of course there is the famous war they waged documented by the amazing Alfred Hitchcock (and the…admirable recreation by Birdemic). They are a bit more rife with folkloric and mythological imagery, however, and such things are my favorite to talk about.
Races of intelligent birds brings to mind first the Tengu birds of Japan. The tengu are, at varying times, aggressive demons, angry ghosts, dangerous protectors, and mountain spirit. They often are practices of ascetic arts. They also often tricked, as mischievous spirit are, and well versed in sword play.
The next notion is that of the Garuda Garuda bird, who is a flaming bird that nearly destroyed the Naga. As a group of entities, it is exclusive to Buddhism. In Buddhism the Garuda has wings many miles wide that cause hurricane wings when flapped. Such vast and cosmic creatures border on that existential fear of wind and weather, and would be worth additions beside things like the Great Old Ones in terror they inspired. They could likewise level mountains, and warred with the Naga frequently, sometimes taking human form.
Insects, however, are far far more bizarre. The sheer variety of terrors they inspire is astounding. From vast organizations to small scale assaults, insects are frightful characters. I’d detail all of them, but Tom Waits did it better here:
There is some folklore precedent for insects ‘taking over’. In myth, there are the Myrmidons who are (despite human appearances) born of ants. These legendary soldiers, renowned for their discipline, served beside Achilles at Troy and were among the finest in the world. Bee’s have an even more impressive history. Three bee maidens gave Apollo his famous prophetic gift in Greece. The San people of the Kalahari tell of a dead bee becoming the first human after falling into the ground as a seed. In Hindu myth, the form of a bee was used to kill the demon king Arunasura, who could not be slain by bipeds or quadrupeds.
With all this folklore, where to go with our monsters? Well, that depends a great deal on how we tell this story. There is the obvious way: as the apocalypse occurs, in rapid action. After all, the dinosaurs were quickly overcome, weren’t they? We could frame it as an alien invasion from within, a sudden hostility of the planet to mortal presence. Except…that’s not what happened to the dinosaurs. Sure, the death of the lizard kings was rapid. But the rise of mankind took millions of years to occur.
Such a vast scale is hard to communicate in a narrative. We could take on a sort of historical view, as a text book instead of as a disaster movie. But that borders on the dull unless done exceptionally well.. A mix of the two, as is the style of Planet of the Apes (which also features a humanity overcome and displaced by another species) could work, following the human survivors in an essentially alien world.
That latter seems the best. It allows an alien setting, amongst a reshaped world, while avoiding the time displacement. The plot is less obvious, but fleeing the new arrivals should not be hard to write as a starting point. Surviving to some safe place (which is invariably, it seems, not safe) is a common enough idea, although it tends to be used only in the few centuries after the apocylpse has touched down.
A nice alternative to the sanctuary narrative might be a rescue narrative. While maybe a little more upbeat (at least possibly) then horror is normally, being captured and held by alien forces for unknown (and given our monsters place in the line of history, perhaps unknowable) purpose is terrifying in it’s own right. And for good reason.
There is a stability we, as a species, insist upon. We are the top of the food chain among things we can see, particularly in Western ‘civilized’ societies. The Netsilik and other Inuit peoples, who rely much more on animals and hunting for survival then domestic animals, ascribe the reverse. We can hunt, only because the animals pity us. Such a notion is utterly alien to the world of Western theology and philosophy, beyond a few possible exceptions of animal nobility and particularly naturalistic philosophers.
Threatening stability, rendering humanity another animal, puts our fear of chaos and ourselves on center stage. The uncertainty between our kinship with animals (such as cats and dogs) and our…well, feasting on them (as in cattle and sheep) and a general fear that we are not much more than them. There is a very of subordination of place in the cosmos (a common concern in Lovecraft’s) as well as the creation of alien terrain. For, the dinosaurs did not give way merely to humanity, but to all mammals as the apex predators and herbivores. How strange a world, where the chief forest hunter is not the wolf by a flock of hawks or peacocks. What adaptations would they have to help them prey on their new food?
Some of these are starting to form into concrete concepts, with new venues of perception and awareness available to the great garuda birds that is lost to us. The way to traverse between stars and worlds, the way into minds and souls, a race so much more aware and intelligent then we that the comparison would be as if brutes were to call their burrows shining metropoli. There is something…terrifying in beholding something so aware as to look down upon mankind, and I think a rescue of sorts from whatever occult experiments such vast things wish to preform on such small creatures. And there is a lack of avian monsters in the mythos…
If you’d like to support the Society, receive more stories or research, or are feeling generous, please check out our Patreon here.