Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Feasters Below

This is a thought experiment, coming up with a semi-plausible explanation for cryptid monsters in a story. Will this hold up as hard science? No, of course not. I only seek to help suspend disbelief just long enough for people to enjoy the story. The premise for the story is a small town in Pennsylvania comes under siege by these beasties and the locals rally to fight them off. These monsters are not supernatural, do not have magic powers and are meant to be part of the natural world we've yet to discover.


Homo Chthonisis (Underworld Man, from the bastardized Greek chthonic/chthonian) A newly discovered member of the Homo genus in Hominidae, the great ape family. H. chthonisis replaces P. paniscus (the bonobo) as the closest extant relative to humans. Preliminary research indicates that divergence from the line leading to modern man must have taken place over two million years ago when H. habilis and H. ergaster were the dominant hominids. The extent of worldwide habitation within the deep world is unknown, nor is there even a preliminary theory of how the species has spread. Eusocial, subterranean, burrowing, this creature is every bit as much a marvel of evolution as is man.


There have been a number of cryptid hominids claims over the years from yetis to Big Foot and skunk apes, all supposed survivals of ancestral human forms. Skeptics have argued against the possibility of such creatures given human encroachment into unexplored habitats, territorial needs for supporting a viable breeding population, and the lack of any supporting evidence within the fossil record. Because of the very habitat they live in, infrequency of visits to the surface and ritual cannibalism of their dead, it becomes very clear why we have had so little contact with them.
The biggest question puzzling anthropologists is why H. chthonisis has remained successfully hidden for so long but is now suddenly thrust into contact with human civilization. Early speculation on habitat destruction zeroed in on the process of hydraulic fracturing, aka “fracking,” used to increase the rate of oil and natural gas recovery from reservoir rock formations. While the wellbores never came near the deep caverns where the colonies reside, it is well-established that gases and hydraulic fracturing chemicals can migrate great distances, contaminating groundwater supplies. The prevailing theory is that the subterranean ecology has been disrupted, thus forcing H. chthonisis to come to the surface for forage.

Physical Characteristics

H. chthonisis is believed to have undergone incredible selection pressures in its underground environment with physical divergences from hominid anatomy that are radical and unprecedented. Many evolutionary biologists would have flatly rejected any speculative theories concerning the existence of such creatures and find their theories woefully inadequate to explain the incontrovertible evidence lying before them.

The bodies, while seeming hairless, are covered in nearly invisible fine hairs that can detect the subtlest of air currents. The skin is gray and leathery, able to stand up to the abuse of burrowing. Their limbs are knotted with muscle like chimpanzees, pound for pound stronger than humans. They are natural contortionists and can maneuver their bodies through gaps that defy belief, a necessary skill underground.

For subterranean-adapted creatures, it is surprising that they retain highly-developed, lemur-like eyes. The deliberate cultivation of bio-luminescent lichen in their colonies is the answer. The eyes have a fully-developed nictitating membrane, unknown in primates save for the Calabar angwantibo. The membrane is not only opaque but highly reflective and shutters the eye instantly when exposed to a bright light source. Needless to say, the result of a flashlight in a dark tunnel playing across a snarling face with eyes glinting mirror-like is enough to unnerve even the most solid researcher.

H. chtonisis’ ears are highly developed and almost seem as if they belong on another animal. They are almost bat-like, understandable given their reliance on a form of improvised echolocation. The ears are very mobile and can be raised out from the head to capture sound or tucked flat against it to protect the ear canal from debris when burrowing. The tongue is used to create a sharp clicking noise, the “ping.” While the auditory cortex is not nearly as developed and specialized as with chiroptera or cetaceans, it is more advanced than with blind humans who have developed similar techniques for coping with a lack of sight. For H. chtonisis, there is no primary sense, all are used together.

H. chthonisis possesses a more pronounced muzzle than any other ape and the jaws are used intensively in fighting. The mouth contains powerful fangs and the jaw opens to a larger degree than with any other known hominid. In combat, the attacker will instinctively maneuver for the throat and a quick kill.

The hands are well-articulated allowing for fine motor control. When the fingers are held together with hardened nails at the fore, the hands now become an excellent digging tool. The paddle-like feet help push dirt behind in tunnels and provide excellent leverage against loose material. The toes remain very nimble.

Locomotion is varied; individuals are equally at home with a bipedal gait, a kind of scurrying on all fours, and a frog-like crawl used for digging and shimmying through tunnels. They are also adept climbers and can swarm up a rock face as quickly as they move across level ground.

H. chthonisis is able to deal with anoxic environments that would cause a human to pass out and can slow respiration and metabolism so that even the foulest air can sustain them. This is an adaptation shared by the naked mole rat.

H. chthonisis is unique among known hominids, living in a eusocial arrangement similar to naked mole rats, possibly driven by similar selection pressures. There are three roles in the colony: breeding female (queen), worker, and soldier. Fertile males and females are considered part of the queen’s court; the males compete for breeding privileges and the females serve as nursemaids for the babies. Sterile males and females serve as workers with larger examples of either sex also doubling as soldiers. The species is wildly dimorphic with queens being considerably larger than members of her court. Pheromones released by the queen will keep the fertile females in a state of induced sterility. The death of the queen allows fertility to return and will precipitate a power struggle among the incipient queens until one finally asserts dominance.

All H. chthonisis pregnancies seem to result in multiple births, litters of four or five undersized and underdeveloped babies.

Despite rumors of humanzees, it is generally accepted that human beings and other great apes cannot interbreed successfully. It is accepted that human ancestors such as Cro-Magnon and other hominids such as Neanderthal were capable of interbreeding. Reports of abductions of human victims seem to follow the pattern of one colony raiding another for breeding stock. Usually juvenile fertile males are abducted but females have also been documented. Fresh sources of genes are required to keep the colonies from becoming inbred. While there are no documented cases of hybridization, the level of chromosomal similarity is greater than that  found in equines who are well-known for hybridization.


The deep world cave systems represent an entirely new biome, more reminiscent of the deep sea thermal vents than anything on the surface. The base of the food chain relies on chemosynthetic microorganisms and strange species of symbiotic lithovore lichen. The sun holds no power here. Once the energy is in the food chain, we see vaguely recognizable cave-adapted species predating on each other. There are a mixture of fish, lizards, arthropods, and mammals.

Major competition mainly comes from rival colonies.


H. chtonisis’ efforts are split between hunting, forage, and fungiculture. They are indiscriminate omnivores and will eat anything they can catch.

H. chthonisis will farm fungus in a mix of colony feces and vegetative material carried in from the lakes. This fungus represents a major dietary staple and also an emergency food supply when the hunting is scarce.

Cannibalism is a way of life in the deep caverns. Warfare with neighboring colonies is constant and raiding for territory and fresh meat is routine.

Tool Use

H. chthonisis has been observed making use of simple tools. Equipped with formidable natural weapons, they’ve not had any need to develop handmade weapons. There is evidence of the making of ropes from plant fibers, the weaving of baskets from dried plant material taken from the lakes, crude water skins, and the construction of bone and hide boats. They do not ride in these boats but use them as floating baskets when fishing. They deliberately propagate bio-luminescent lichen through their colonies.There is also evidence of fire use but it seems to have more of a ritual use than for anything practical. Any part of their behavior whose purpose cannot be immediately divined is usually attributed to religious or ritual purpose; this may simply be a deficiency of imagination the the part of the observer.

Colony Construction

Due to the lack of weather underground, construction efforts are not so much about protection from the weather but defensive structures. Rocks will be stacked into unmortared walls to create choke points or enhance the defensive character of a location. Natural galleries will be expanded upon for living space. Fungiculture is carried out near the latrines. Colony stink is very important for identification and any individual who does not smell right is subject to attack.

The inner chambers are where the queen and her court reside. The breeding chambers with creches for the young are located adjacently.

A considerable question arises from the digging proficiency of H. chthonisis in the loose soils of the surface world. Considering the rocky conditions of the deep world and the lack of any previous knowledge of their existence -- excepting wild tribal folklore of vaguely humanoid monsters -- there are many questions raised. Why have we not seen them before? How were they able to keep themselves so well-hidden? What else might be lurking down there that we’ve yet to discover?

Psychological Characteristics

H. chthonisis represents a sidetrack on humanoid evolution, an alternative take on the human template. They are intelligent, tool-using, have speech (though difficult to recognize as such since half of what they say is beyond the range of human hearing.) The eusocial society puts most of their brainpower back in the breeding chambers of the colony; the workers and soldiers commonly encountered are clever but lack the mental acuity of the queen and her court.

While proper studies have had little chance to show progress, it is suggestive that H. chthonisis workers are smarter than chimps and the queens could be on the cusp of human-level intelligence. There is much empirical evidence of planning, strategizing, and implementation of complex actions. These are not dumb animals operating on instinct.


  1. "Any part of their behavior whose purpose cannot be immediately divined is usually attributed to religious or ritual purpose; this may simply be a deficiency of imagination the the part of the observer."

    This is, of course, completely unrelated to any practice from archaeologists when confronted to unidentifiable prehistoric object, and all resemblance would be purely fortuitous?

    Tremor with morlocks? That's something I'd like to see indeed. Otherwise, it sounds good enough for my suspension of disbelief at least.
    And the open conclusion, 'what else may be there?' is a nice point as well, allowing for more options later.

    1. Not quite Tremors. I need to clean up the outline to reflect some of the newer ideas I've had.

      The main character is a kid who's been damaged goods since his father did a murder-suicide to take out the whole family. The bullet meant for him didn't penetrate the skull and left him unconscious and bleeding; he was the only survivor. He's living with his uncle who is a war vet who has his own issues with being a productive part of society. The kid is quiet but always alert, always observing. Understandably jumpy given that his own father tried to kill him. If something like that can go wrong, who knows where the next terrible surprise is coming from? So he tries to compensate for this existential insecurity by being as relentlessly competent at as many practical things as possible, a young survivalist in the making.

      His uncle is one of those loner types who never really reintegrated with society. He lives outside town and makes his money running a small-scale pot farm. He pays the cops to look the other way, keeps his nose clean, and everybody's happy. He's a big fan of all things Fortean but from a skeptical point of view. He wants to believe, is sure there's crazy, weird stuff out there but won't accept a hoax.

      The feasters are foraging more openly on the surface thanks to the fracking. One of the first places they hit is our main character's property. A worker comes into his room and attacks only to get a bullet through the head. The kid sleeps with a gun under his pillow? Yes. Who the hell does that? Someone who has vowed to never let anything life throws at him to take him by surprise. He had the gun in case of armed intruders -- it doesn't matter to him whether or not the intruder is human. He actually feels a sense of relief since he now knows what the threat is and can kill it.

      He's not meant to be role model protagonist, not the kind of person you point to and say "this is healthy." But he is uniquely suited to the situation at hand.

      So the rest of the story is about rallying the residents to secure the town. Video footage of what's going on is treated as a hoax by the news networks because "you can do anything with computers these days." Fox was going to run the story as a slow news day Friday piece but that got blown out of the water by a celebrity sex scandal.

      The uncle's contacts in the weird things internet community help to figure out what they're dealing with based on the dead specimens and thus give us some exposition.

      The resolution I have in mind for the story is that enough workers and soldiers have been killed that the queen decides to leave the town alone. The National Guard arrive too late to provide any help. Upon the advice of his colleagues from the internet, the uncle has invoked some legal black magic to keep the town from getting taken over, turning it into a collectively held corporation with sole access and rights to the subterranean hominids. The town becomes the center of corporate and academic research into the entire deep world.

      The ending will require some massaging for plausibility's sake.

      Given that we've seen too many horror stories that absolutely depend on the complicit stupidity of the cast to make them work, I'd like to see a horror story where the level-headed competence of the main characters are able to prevent things from getting too out of hand. I'm not sure if I can plausibly get away with a body-count of zero dead humans but I'd like to try.

    2. Sounds good to me.
      So you intend to avoid :
      cliché 1) Darwin-awards contender stupidity.
      cliché 2) Government cover-up ; the media just don't care instead, which is quite logical
      cliché 3) No-one in the outside world will ever know it afterwards, and things return to status quo
      And probably cliché 4) Early deaths just for the sake of it (though it may make showing the threat they are slightly more difficult)

      Do you intend to have passages underground? It may be difficult, due to the extreme disadvantages the heroes would have there; on the other hand, they may have guns.

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  3. whoops -- can't edit post after posting.

    1 through 3 ruin a good monster movie and #4 would be an extra challenge -- making a threat scary without needless slaughter. It's like trying to do a clean stand-up comedy act. Possible? Sure. Harder than doing a dirty set? Much so.

    With most of the horror movies I've seen, the characters are either annoying, stupid, jerkfaces, or a combination of the three and you end up rooting for the monster or axe-killer.

    As a stylistic component, if filmed, I'd like to avoid the cheap jump-scare. Violins rise and set your teeth on edge, hero closes the medicine cabinet door to reveal NOTHING behind him in the mirror! Music rising again, hero creeps closer to closet with gun raised. As the music reaches the peak he reaches out to open it and pauses. He says to girlfriend "You don't have a cat, right?" She shakes her head. He empties his gun into the closet door. It is pushed open as the monster inside slumps to the floor.

    Passages underground, yes. One of the advantages for the hero being a scrawny kid is that he can go in there like a tunnel rat from Vietnam. I'm thinking a pistol with a maglite attachment, a knife and a satchel charge. (Yeah, uncle's a survivalist. He has this along with canned food and plenty of beer.) He goes down there and blows the damn tunnel. No big deal, they're like gophers. Big, scary, killer gophers. It's his Caddyshack moment.

    The whole idea is to play with expectations and do the unexpected but not in a predictably unexpected way. I don't want it to be like the idiotic broad genre parodies where the jokes are telegraphed, mailed by certified letter, and then hammered into your skull just in case you didn't catch the reference. "This is funny because it is contrary to expectation! You must laugh at this joke which was old when the stars were young! Derp-derp herpy derp-derp!"

  4. It's an interesting idea fundamentally, though there are a few questions I would like addressed.

    1) How the heck did the hominid ancestor of H. chthonisis get over to (what I presume to be) North America. If I remember correctly, Beringia was still underwater and kind of required an ice age for such migration.

    2) How pronounced is this "muzzle" on these mole people? I don't really recall (modern) primates having muzzles extend to other mammalian animals.

    3) Wasn't it also said that fire make food easier to be digestible for humans, so wouldn't it have a more expanded use other than religious (at least for the court)?

    4) I can only assume that there'll be a kind of "post credit scene" or stinger for sequel encounters.

    Still, the idea of basing the social structure on the naked mole rat is interesting, though I can't help but wonder if there is a potential primate analogue.

    1. 1) Unsure. There was a promising but ultimately failed novel called the Descent (unrelated to the movie) about subterranean monsters in a vast deep world ecology that lies deep in the crust, a world-straddling cave system we weren't able to detect seismologically for some reason. It ended up failing because the writer invoked supernatural stuff halfway through what was supposed to be a reality-based book and you had the Vatican going underground to find the literal source of Satan. Pretty dire stuff.

      2) Muzzle. Like baboons.
      Can't embed IMG in reply. Closed muzzle.

      Open muzzle, displaying fangs.

      3) Yes, and fire led to the human jaw decreasing in size while allowing more calories could still be consumed. Big jaws with big muscles allow for primates to spend most of the day eating. Humans with cooked food can wolf down the necessary calories quickly and then take the time to try hunting. A chimp spending the day on an unsuccessful hunt is at a huge calorie deficit.

      If I allow the feasters to make too much use of fire, then I have to explain why they aren't more human.

      4) There are no known eusocial mammals outside of two species of mole rats. (though the definition is argued and there's claims other mammals could qualify but I don't find a link.) The kicker for me is that it's independently evolved multiple times among arthropods, I believe the two mole rats developed it independently from each other as well. So I think it's not unreasonable to imagine hominids under similar selection pressures as the mole rats to develop a similar strategy.

      Irreducible complexity has been constantly disproved but I couldn't begin to imagine how to describe the steps of going from standard hominid to eusocial. Can't imagine how the bugs did it, either. But I also have a hard time coming up with an explanation for the eye and biologists smarter than me have done a good job of it.

    2. Just wondering, but fire burns oxygen, so it could explain why they don't use it much, if the oxygen of their caves is not renewed fast enough.

    3. That's another valid point. Even with the ability to survive in barely breathable environments, fire would be taxing.

  5. Jolly, I'm still working one the Feasters sketch. Haven't given up, just haven't gotten it to where it works. You and your damned muzzle. You're welcome to use the sketches I already sent you.

    Also, during the climax, it'd be funny (To me anyways), if the kid, whicle rigging the tunnel to blow, makes a bunny out of the C4, as an homage to Caddyshack. He's a kid, after all. Smartass seems to come natural with the age.