Insects are all around us, from spiders living in your hard drive and the corners of the room, silverfish eating your precious books, beetles clicking, butterflies fluttering…you get the idea, I don’t have to get all poetic. Insects outweigh us and outnumber us, and cockroaches at least are supposed to be able to outlive us, come the nuclear Armageddon. Yet they are little mentioned in fantasy books.
I suspect this is because it is hard to make bodily parasites interesting, and certainly not attractive, unless you are a die hard entomologist. However, they have been, and remain a part of the human experience, and will without doubt travel with us when the human race gets to the stars. Maybe they will mutate? What would happen then?
Human parasites can be external and internal. External ones are ticks, fleas and lice, and I would include leeches. I remember reading an old sci fi story – possibly Bradbury – where the unpleasant time traveller gets his comeuppance when he is attacked by the dog sized lice that live on the dinosaur he was going to kill. Gerald Durrell the naturalist, in his ‘Garden of the Gods’ mentions getting up with flea bites from dogs in the bed with him, and an influx of ticks and scorpions into the house.
Ticks, fleas and lice can all carry diseases. Ticks can cause paralysis in animals, fleas are the renowned carriers of the Black Death, and lice can carry typhus. Typhus was a problem during WW1, and I recall a scene in ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ where they use a match to burn the lice from the seams of their clothes, and also melt the fat from lice to use as boot polish. Details like this from real life can add enormously to a novel. These details add colour to primitive conditions, bad taverns and prison cells, all possible settings in novels. Bed bugs are a parasite that is still common, and the experience of waking up covered in bites would be a great revealer of character. The Ruth Park book series ‘Harp in the South’ describes bedbugs that live for generations in the poor city tenements, and it makes for gruesome reading. Fleas don’t usually live on humans, but dogs, cats and rats are common hosts, and anyone travelling could encounter them.
Leeches have a long history of use, and indeed are still used medically today. Blood letting was a cure for many ills in the past, and leeches were used in this. Today leeches are used to extract blood from wounds in operations such as plastic surgery. While on this vile and fascinating aspect, I will also mention maggots. Maggots from blowflies can grow extremely fast, and in enormous numbers. They eat the rotten flesh in a wound, and are also used medically today, although you need to use the right type of maggot, or risk more than your wound being eaten. Using maggots and flies in a story would add a lot of power to a description of a death, or a battlefield.
Beetles, cockroaches and other scuttling beasts such as scorpions usually invoke variations on fear and nausea. So really you could add them to a romance as a way to test out the hero or heroine. Do they grab a glass and show it outside, or scream and stomp? Show your readers a sensitive or brutal side without having to tell them. There is a species of beetle known as the deathwatch beetle, which makes a clicking noise and lives in wall spaces. It was popularly thought to provide a countdown to death when heard at a deathbed. Authors as varied as Mark Twain, Ray Bradbury and Thoreau have mentioned the deathwatch beetle and it’s terrible ticking countdown to death.It’s a writer’s job to infect the imagination of others. Click To Tweet
Internal parasites are almost – but not quite – too disgusting to discuss. From worms in your digestion, to tiny crab like creatures in your eyelashes, a plethora of internal microbes to giant flesh eating worms in the Amazon, there is scope for anyone’s horrific imagination here. Explorer tales of the Amazon and Africa, particularly if they get lost, are a treasure trove of descriptions of egg sized lumps that contain worms for instance. Star Trek and the ‘Wrath of Khan’ use these as the dreaded mind worms.
Apart from indicating a lack of hygiene or general poverty, parasites and insects can be used in other ways. I used insects as a basis for some creatures mutated from living on a high radiation planet, and there are many sci fi stories where insects of enormous size are used as a pattern for aliens. The hive mentality of the Borg in Star Trek, or the 60’s book ‘Walk Through Tomorrow’ by Karl Zeigfreid (a pseudonym for Lionel Fanthorpe) where the double heroes face off against giant ants in a crazy but excellent time travel swap with his distant descendant/ancestor. Well worth a read, by the way.
So the insect world, and the disturbing creatures that prey on humans is a rich area for ideas and to provide colour and realism to a novel. People have a hard wired yuck factor to many of these, and so that is well worth exploiting. Make your readers squirm, sympathise and feel itchy. It’s a writer’s job to infect the imagination of others.
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Photos from Flickr, internet archive book images.
Random references in Wikipedia as well. My advice? Don’t google maggots.