Wednesday, October 10, 2012

This Story Will Scare You on a Microscopic Level

The best thing to do in October is to curl up under a warm blanket and read something that gives you the chills. That's why October is the month when I read the most short stories, because they are the scariest. Does anyone else think this -- that, for some reason, a creepy short story is creepier than a creepy novel? Why is that?

 (Autumn, by Jacek Yerka)

So for the rest of October I will be recommending some stories that terrify me. I'm thinking that most of them will run along traditional Halloween lines: ghosts, witches, decaying mansions. But the first scary story on my list doesn't have any of those things. One of the reasons I love it is that it manages to scare you in a completely unexpected way. It's "The Rotifers," by Robert Abernathy, and it scares you with microorganisms.

 (Now that I've read the story, this picture gives me the creeps.)

Robert Abernathy was a science-fiction writer in the 40s and 50s, and he published "The Rotifers" in the classic science-fiction magazine if in 1953.

 It's about a boy whose hobby is looking at things through his microscope, and who discovers the tiny creatures called rotifers living in the water of his pond:

"There was a garden there, of weird, green, transparent stalks composed of plainly visible cells fastened end to end, with globules and bladders like fruits or seed-pods attached to them, floating among them; and in the garden the strange little people swam to and fro, or clung with odd appendages to the stalks and branches. Their bodies were transparent like the plants, and in them were pulsing hearts and other organs plainly visible. They looked a little like sea horses with pointed tails, but their heads were different, small and rounded, with big, dark, glistening eyes."

(Oh my god, this one does look like a tiny glowing person. That is especially scary.)

The genius of this story is the way it gives you a frightening alien experience without using any actual aliens. The world of the microscope slide -- so tiny and isolated that it gives you claustrophobia -- is more alien than any alien planet. And there is no need to invent alien life when we have creepy, creepy rotifers right here on earth.

 (Electron microscope image of rotifers and THEIR JAWS.)

Rotifers are real, and they are fascinating creatures. They have wheels of tentacles on their mouths. They have been evolving for millions of years without sexual reproduction. Apparently, they have been stealing genes from other life forms and just splicing them right into their own genes. Okay, rotifers are tiny and harmless, but come on. That is genuinely frightening.

Come to think of it, why aren't more scary stories inspired by microscopic life? If you look at it up close, it's all horrifying. I mean, the hydra?

(It's reaching out to get you.)

Moss animals, the predators that feed on rotifers?

("Bryozoa (moss animals)," from Ernst Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur, 1904.)

 And the scariest of all: the water bear. Someone needs to give all of these guys their own science-fiction stories.

 (Water bears like this one are basically indestructible, even in the vacuum of space.)

 (It's less scary when you remember that it's also called the "moss piglet.")


  1. Wow - I remember that story as a kid - so fantastic!! Thanks for letting me know the author/title. Great ending with the tardigrades, too!

  2. Elizabeth you took my sediment exactly - the Water Bear thing is terrifying - and it would be so easy to make - no eyes, a weird little speaker jack mouth and it looks like it's made out of inflated tent canvas - yet it's the most terrifyingly strange thing in the world! They need to make some seriously screwy horror movies about these guys, INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN PART 2 - THE WATER BEAR ENGINE or something like that