copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman
What lies beneath? Three-fifths of the earth’s surface is covered with water, and the oceans are deep. Strange, shadowy shapes weave and waver beneath the waves, suggesting fabulous creatures beyond human ken. As well as warnings of boiling seas, the maps of ancient and medieval mariners were crowded with images of mythical sea monsters that sailors swore they’d seen. These strange, misshapen creatures, sometimes of colossal size, greater even than that of the sailing ships from which, allegedly, they were seen, are revealing, if not of nature per se, of human nature, at least, and of the nature of fantasy.
Usually, scientists believe, such creatures have some real-world inspiration, but they are products of fear more than of observation, a part of something mysterious giving rise to something even more baffling and horrible. Exaggeration is often at work, too, in the creation of the serpents of the sea. Attributes are multiplied, enlarged, combined, or, in a few cases, denied. Jules Verne combined a parrot’s beak with an octopus to create the giant squid of which he writes in 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea, and the delta of a river may have given birth to the many-headed Grecian hydra that Hercules and Iolaus slew. Columbus, as we saw in a previous post, may have mistaken manatees for mermaids.
As an American Museum of Natural History piece points out, monsters are also born of misinterpretations, with seaweed being taken for sea serpents and a “deformed blacksnake” having been thought to be a newborn specimen. Moreover, stories told one place are retold in another region, and, often in the retelling, the monsters at their hearts are reformulated and recast, becoming different, at least, if not more hideous and menacing. Before long, there is such a disparity between the original monster and its offspring that any family resemblance is lost, and the two relatives are mistaken for entirely distinct creatures. Sometimes, such monsters are even “manufactured,” purposely, as hoaxes, as the article observes, citing none other than P. T. Barnum as a perpetuator of such a fraud. The showman’s version consisted of a monkey’s head, a fish’s tail, and, perhaps, fish bones and papier-mâché.
However, the world’s oceans, especially at their lowest depths, offers many a strange creature that, with a little modification, might well suggest possibilities for horror story monsters. We’re going to mention only one in this post--the anglerfish, which is known for its method of obtaining prey and its way of reproducing others of its kind.
A moveable fishing rod of sorts grows from their foreheads. It is baited, so to speak, at its tip with an blob of flesh that attracts would-be carnivores of the deep. The anglerfish can wiggle its fleshly fishing rod, called an illicium, in all directions to lure prey close enough to its jaws for the anglerfish to swallow them in a single gulp. The jaws spring into action automatically, by reflex, when the prey brushes its illicium. Some anglerfish are luminescent. Both jaws and stomach can expand so that the anglerfish can swallow prey twice its own size.
Some anglerfish have modified pectoral fins that allow them to “walk” upon the ocean floor, where it conceals itself in the sand or among seaweed. It can change the color of its body to camouflage itself.
Their method of mating is as peculiar as any of the anglerfish’s other characteristic behaviors. When the male reaches maturity, its digestive system degenerates to the point that it is no longer able to feed itself, and it attaches itself to the much larger female’s head, biting into her flesh. The male’s body then releases an enzyme that digests its mouth and the flesh of the female at the site at which the male has attached itself to her, fusing the two sexes so that the female and what is left of the male--eventually nothing but its gonads, or sex organs--share the same blood supply.
There are as many as eighteen families of anglerfish, including humpbacks, monkfish, frogfish, seadevils, footballfish, sea toads, and batfish. Those who have sampled them compare their taste to that of lobster tails.
“Everyday Horrors: Anglerfish” is the part of a series of “everyday horrors” that will be featured in Chillers and Thrillers: The Fiction of Fear. These “everyday horrors” continue, in many cases, to appear in horror fiction, literary, cinematographic, and otherwise.