Bloody buggers

Strangeways: Murder Moon
Matt Maxwell, Luis Guaragña, Gervasio and Jok, Steve Lieber, Guy Davis, Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá
Highway 62 Press

Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures
Bill Schutt

It’s never too late to be terrified for Halloween, and two recent books offer a choice: scary mythical monsters or critters that have been mythologized by scared people.

Local graphic novelist Matt Maxwell makes terror work with his first book, Strangeways: Murder Moon. Maxwell, who lives in El Dorado Hills, puts a Western spin on the traditional werewolf tale, turning a ferocious furball loose on a jaded Civil War vet. Seth Collins is riding a stage toward his sister’s place to deal with some family business when the coach is attacked by something monstrous. Collins, one of two survivors of the horrific attack, finds himself dealing with a suspicious town under the thumb of some thievin’, no-good varmints and his own family troubles.

Maxwell’s story weaves together traditional elements of both the Western and horror genres in a compelling way, but he’s not so wrapped up in tradition that he can’t throw in some insights about politics and history. What’s more, he adds a few new and creative twists to werewolf mythology. It’s a delicate balance, and helped mightily by the firm, bold drawing that completes the graphic novel. The panels take on a texture that depicts brutality without a lot of gore and leaves the emphasis where it belongs: on Maxwell’s fine story.

While Maxwell stretches his skills within the realm of myths, Bill Schutt seems determined to shatter them—and rightly so. Myths abound about bats and other blood-sucking critters, and Schutt, a biology professor, straightforwardly dispels the misinformation. His delightfully icky, occasionally funny look at the animals, insects, leeches and fish that feed on blood slips science in while the reader is focused on the really gross stuff—like how in the hell a fish can mistake a penis for another fish. You’ve heard about it on Grey’s Anatomy; Schutt describes how the candiru, a fish more feared on the Amazon River than the toothsome piranha, swims up a urethra and then can’t get out without a lot of trouble—and some surgery.

Schutt’s been studying vampire bats since graduate school, and a good chunk of the book is devoted to the species he knows best. A minority among bats, the vampires have come in for a lot of hate, and a good number of innocent fruit- and insect-eating bats have been killed because of their sanguivore brethren.

It’s this section of the book where Schutt introduces a good overview of how science works in his descriptions of research, observation and collaboration with others who work in the field. He’s also got an excellent, easy-to-follow explanation of exactly how some species of bats evolved to eat blood.

But of all the blood-feeding critters Schutt covers—accompanied by wonderfully helpful and informative drawings by Patricia J. Wynne—the most difficult, icky, make-you-scratch section is the one on bed bugs. Schutt’s description of a colony of bed bugs in a glass jar, attracted by the heat from his hands, was creepy enough. But when he described how the researcher fed them—by exposing his arm to a bit of mesh covering the jar and letting them suck—it was time to skip ahead a little.

Those little buggers can hide anywhere, and Schutt’s descriptions of the difficulties New Yorkers have had getting rid of bed-bug infestations are far more frightening than any fish that only lives in a South American river. After reading the section on bed bugs, Wynne’s drawing of a couch on the curb with a sign that read “Free” was far more terrifying than any monster.