Inquiring Minds (Cannibals vs. Headhunters) – Mark of the Spider

In my new book, The Mark of the Spider, nature photographer Sebastian Arnett expresses considerable discomfort at the thought of exploring deeper into the heart of Borneo for fear of cannibals or headhunters.

In Chapter X, Johnnie Walker, an operative of the Australian Intelligence Service, tries to put him straight about the matter:

The Mark of the Spider - 3D

During four months in Tenom, I’d never heard of headhunters or cannibals until Johnnie brought them up.

“You know, mate, word gets around. It’s not likely that you’ll run into a lost tribe or anything like that. Even the remotest Dyak wear bras now. Some of them anyway,” he said. “And, just to keep the record straight, headhunters are not cannibals and vice versa.”

My drink in hand, I turned to him and gaped.


“Headhunters are not cannibals, and cannibals are not headhunters. Two totally different kinds of behavior.”

“You’re nuts,” I said, shaking the ice in my glass for another refill.

“No, I’m not. I learned that from a mate in the service. He’s an ethnologist. Studies primitives.”

Johnnie looked at me as though I should be reassured.

“You’re absolutely nuts.”

“An educated man like you working practically in the wilderness, you should know this stuff. Cannibals are okay; headhunters, well, sometimes they go looking for trouble. But they only go after their enemies to settle scores or to collect a little juju,” Johnnie said.

The Aussie infuriated me. He claimed to be a bookish intelligence analyst but he knew an awful lot about the wild. And how does a desk jockey get a tan like his? Not from the sun shining through an office window.

It turns out that Sebastian had reason for concern.

More in The Mark of the Spider: Book 1 of the Black Orchid Chronicles, available in ebook and trade print editions only from Amazon.


Inquiring Minds (Australian Spies) – Mark of the Spider

An Australian spy, Johnnie Walker by name, stands out as one of the first key characters to appear in my supernatural suspense novel, The Mark of the Spider.

Johnnie, who describes himself as an economic attache in the Australian consulate in Borneo, sidles up to nature photographer Sebastian Arnett in a bar in Tenom and offers to buy him a drink.

Ever skeptical,  Sebastian susses out that more lies behind this offer than a simple act of friendliness.

That drink leads Sebastian to near catastrophes, visions of the mythical black orchid and an encounter with headhunters. And the story is just getting underway.

Australia-Borneo map

Australia in the 1850s. Borneo is off to the northwest. Photo: National Library of Australia

As Johnnie and his colleagues in the Australian Intelligence Service pop up from time to time throughout the book, it’s fair to ask how much of their story is fact and how much is fabricated. The short answer is, neither Johnnie nor AIS is real, but the intelligence interests I write about are.

Borneo lies more than 3,400 miles (5,480 km) northwest of Australia. That’s a seven and a half hour flight, but in the vastness of the Southwest Pacific, the two countries rank as relatively close neighbors.

So, it stands to reason that Australia would want to keep track of events in Borneo, and who better to do the job than a fictional guy like Johnnie Walker of the Australian Intelligence Service.

And, like most countries, Australia employs a long list of secretive groups devoted to gathering and analyzing information about the world around it and the dangers that world might pose.

Just for fun, I did a little research into the real Australian spies after making up my own. I learned that the real Australian intelligence community is organized around six umbrella agencies:

  • Australian Security Intelligence Organisation
  • Australian Secret Intelligence Service
  • Australian Signals Directorate
  • Defence Intelligence Organisation
  • Defence Imagery and Geospatial Organisation
  • Office of National Assessments

Johnnie would probably find a job in the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, which is not to be confused with the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (real) or the Australian Intelligence Service (fabricated).

Yum, alphabet soup from Down Under.

You can get an overview of the Australian intelligence community in the 2011 Independent Review of the Intelligence Community Report, which can be found online here.

The Mark of the Spider is available in ebook and trade paperback editions from Amazon.

Inquiring Minds III (Borneo) – Mark of the Spider

Without Borneo, there would be no Mark of the Spider.

My supernatural suspense novel, the first of the Black Orchid Chronicles, follows nature photographer Sebastian Arnett, who is cursed with the power to kill with his thoughts but has no control over this lethal ability.

That curse had to come from somewhere, and I wanted a location far from the American experience in time, distance and culture. The more remote, the better. And if it was still wild, or at least untamed, even better still.

After all, the guy is going to think of people dying — as we have all done from time to time — and THEY DIE! That’s outside the normal American experience.

The opening location in the book also needed to have orchids, lots and lots of orchids. I call the series The Black Orchid Chronicles for a reason.

Worldwide, there are about 28,000 species of orchidaceae. And Borneo alone has about 1,500 species. That ought to keep a nature photographer busy for a few months documenting all those flowers for a wealthy Middle Eastern patron.

Sounds like my kind of place.

One Island, Three Nations

So, Borneo, orchids, native tribes, headhunters and demons.

The island is the third largest in the world, after Greenland and New Guinea. (Australia swamps them all, but is considered an entire continent rather than just an island.)

Still, Borneo is big enough to house (parts of) three different nations — Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.

Much of the action in The Mark of the Spider takes place in the Malaysian section in the north and northeast. Rural towns with names like Kota Kinabalu and Tenom host some tense scenes, and the book opens in Taman Pertanian Sabah, the Sabah Agriculture Park, with its collection of hundreds of native Bornean orchids.

As in other resource-rich parts of the under developed world, outside forces imperil the orchids and the people who live among them. Illegal logging, fires and forest damage have reduced the natural habitat of many species, and gold mining and illegal burning has led to the extinction of hundreds of orchid species.

In his travels into the Heart of Borneo, Sebastian has a fateful encounter with Dyak tribesmen. More than 200 ethnic subgroups living along the rivers and in the mountains of Borneo, each with its own dialect, customs, laws, territory and culture, make up the Dyak (also spelled Dayak).

One ancient Dyak woman presents him with a black orchid, starting a chain of events that will have Sebastian running for his life.

Borneo. Cool place. A lot happening there. Check it out.

The Mark of the Spider, Book 1 of the Black Orchid Chronicles, is available from Amazon in digital and trade paperback (5.5 x 8.5″, 334 pp.) formats.
Enjoy it today; review it tomorrow.