Today we’re excited to welcome Nicholas Kaufmann to Ink Heist with a guest post titled “Turning to Stone”. Nicholas talks about how he came to love the research process and the book that inspired him to write The Stone Serpent, the latest book in the series focusing on Medical Examiner Dr. Laura Powell, which is out now through Macabre Ink! And now, we turn things over to Nicholas so he can tell you about the inspiration for The Stone Serpent and some weird yet true examples of the science of petrifaction.
“Turning to Stone”
A Guest Post By Nicholas Kaufmann
Back in 2020, when I began writing my bestselling novel The Hungry Earth, I discovered a newfound love of research, particularly when it comes to strange-but-true science facts. I even wrote an article about it for Ink Heist last year called Weird Science or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Research. For The Hungry Earth, I took a deep dive into the weird but true science of fungi. Now that the next book in the Dr. Laura Powell series is out, The Stone Serpent, I’m happy to say my love of researching weird science didn’t leave me.
The Stone Serpent starts with the discovery of a petrified corpse. Laura thinks it must be a fossil, but every indication says the person died earlier that same day. Therein lies the mystery at the heart of the novel and also the challenge I set for myself. How, using real-life science, could a human body petrify so quickly?
First, let’s define some important terms here so there’s no confusion. There’s a difference between a fossil and something that’s petrified. A fossil is any evidence of life that’s been preserved in rock, such as droppings, eggs, or footprints. It doesn’t have to be an actual organism. Petrifaction, on the other hand, is the process by which organisms become fossils. Over time, often thousands or millions of years, the organic tissue is slowly replaced by minerals, which is what happens to petrified wood. But I didn’t have millions of years to play with, I only had one day for the body to petrify. What was the answer? Was there an answer?
Through my research, I soon learned I wasn’t alone. A group of 19th century Italian scientists also wondered if the human body could be petrified in a speedy manner. These curious explorers of natural science with names like Efisio Marini, Girolamo Segato, and Paolo Gorini were looking for ways to preserve and study cadavers. They discovered they could petrify those cadavers by replacing their biologic liquids with chemical preservatives through intravascular injections. It allowed the scientists to maintain the exact features of the deceased, and preserve tissue, internal organs, and even hair, mostly in a state of stone hardness. Each scientist had his own personal formula for petrifying bodies. For example, Paolo Gorini, who performed hundreds of cadaver petrifactions in his time, used a formula that included mercuric bichloride and muriate of calcium. Many of these petrified cadavers still exist today, perfectly preserved in the Paolo Gorini Museum of Lodi in northern Italy. If you ever decide to visit, you can also check out Gorini’s extensive collection of preserved severed heads!
Gorini’s morbid urge to chemically preserve bodies and detached body parts makes me think of him as a kind of lovechild of Herbert West and Dr. Frankenstein. It’s a wonder he hasn’t been prowling the pages of horror novels for decades.
Gorini and his fellow scientists’ chemical petrifaction formulae are man-made science, but it turns out the natural world has ways of quickly petrifying living creatures as well. In Arusha Region in Tanzania, nestled within the Gregory Rift, sits Lake Natron, widely considered the deadliest lake in the world. Why? Because animals that enter its waters are turned to stone.
Its reputation is a bit of an exaggeration, but the science is real. Lake Natron is a landlocked salt lake. Over time, as the desert heat evaporates its water, what’s left behind is a higher concentration of salt, just like the Dead Sea or the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Except there’s also an active volcano beside the lake that spews a dark, muddy lava that’s rich in natron, a naturally-occurring sodium and the source of the lake’s name. In fact, natron is the same stuff the ancient Egyptians used to dry out cadavers for mummification. As the lava pours into the lake, the natron makes it even saltier than it already is, while the lava turns the water hot enough to cause third-degree burns. All of this results in a lake that’s like a caustic, preservative cauldron. (To make it even scarier, a variety of factors including microorganisms and the water’s high alkalinity conspire to give the lake a blood-red color!)
Now imagine a passing bird dives into the lake, thinking it’s going to get itself a nice fish to eat. The scalding heat instantly kills the bird, and thanks to the natron and the high level of salt, its carcass becomes calcified into a hardened, stonelike state and sinks to the bottom. When the lake waters recede during the dry season, the shore is littered with these chemically-preserved carcasses. It’s a sculpture garden of dead birds.
But it gets weirder. Only three creatures are known to survive the deadly waters of Lake Natron. One is a kind of tilapia fish. The second is a type of blue-green algae. And the third is flamingos. You read that right. The goofy-looking pink birds people keep plastic replicas of on their lawns. Flamingos evolved in such a way that Lake Natron’s temperature and high salinity don’t bother them. On the contrary, it gives them a plethora of algae to eat and a chance to breed safely away from their natural predators, all of whom avoid the lake because it’s deadly to them. Who knew flamingos were so tough?
There’s one last story I’d like to share with you from my research into petrifaction, and unfortunately, it’s a sad one. Part of me wishes I’d never come across it so I could continue to live in blissful ignorance. In 1980, some loggers in Georgia cut down a chestnut oak and discovered the tree was hollow. Inside the trunk was the perfectly preserved, mummified body of a dog. They think he was a hunting dog from the 1960s who chased something small like a squirrel into the tree. The dog followed it up the hollow tree trunk, but the higher he climbed, the narrower the space became until finally he got stuck. Heartbreakingly, he could neither back down nor turn around, and he most likely died there inside the tree of dehydration. The loggers who found him gave him the nickname Stuckie.
But again, it gets weirder. Because Stuckie died inside the tree, the carcass was protected from hungry scavengers. Furthermore, the dry environment inside the tree dehydrated the carcass. But that’s not what preserved him. You see, the chestnut oak contains natural tannins, which is the same substance used for tanning and preserving animal hides into leather. The tannins seeped into the dog’s body and prevented him from decaying. It preserved Stuckie for all those years. In fact, you can visit Stuckie today at the Southern Forest World Museum in Georgia, where his mummified remains are on display, still wedged inside the hollow tree where he died. Or just Google “Stuckie the Dog” and you’ll find plenty of pictures of this unfortunate pooch. Just be warned, if you’re a dog lover it’s a heartbreaking sight.
So whether it’s mad Italian scientists, the caustic cauldron of a deadly lake, or the bad luck of a hunting dog in the woods, it turns out there are plenty of ways to become petrified that don’t require the slow passage of centuries. I was relieved that there were answers to the challenge I’d presented myself, but more than that, I was thrilled to discover once more just how wonderfully weird real-life science can be.
Nicholas Kaufmann is the Bram Stoker Award-nominated, Thriller Award-nominated, Shirley Jackson Award-nominated, and Dragon Award-nominated author of eight novels of horror and dark fantasy, including the bestsellers 100 Fathoms Below (with Steven L. Kent) and The Hungry Earth. His short fiction has appeared in Cemetery Dance, Black Static, Nightmare Magazine, Interzone, and others. In addition to his own work, he has also written for such properties as Zombies vs. Robots, The Rocketeer, and Warhammer. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. Visit his website at https://www.nicholaskaufmann.com, and learn more about The Stone Serpent.