The Inevitable Cycle

This summer, I had a wonderful opportunity to visit Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. It’s famous as the site where Percival Lowell observed Mars for many years, recording his observations of the canals he—and most mainstream scientists of the day—believed they saw. Lowell-Crypt It’s also the observatory where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto. Of course, in mythology, Pluto is the Roman god of the underworld and a figure closely associated with the spirits of the dead. As I’ve mentioned in a couple of other blog posts here at The Scarlet Order, it’s also the site of Percival Lowell’s Crypt. In the photo, you see my daughters and I visiting the tomb.

If you look carefully at the tomb, there are two epigraphs, one on each side of the door. The one on the right reads, in part, “Everything around this Earth we see is subject to one inevitable cycle of birth, growth, decay … nothing begins but comes at last to an end … though our own lives are too busy to mark the slow nearing to that eventual goal …” The words on this astronomer’s crypt go a long way to explaining what draws me to horror. Birth, growth, and decay are not only inevitable, but all can be frightening. Horror provides a mechanism for taking a look at the things that frighten us and getting a handle on them.

The epigraph continues: “Today what we already know is helping to comprehension of another world. In a not distant future we shall be repaid with interest and what that other world shall have taught us will redound to a better knowledge of our own and of the cosmos of which the two form a part.” The quote comes from Percival Lowell’s book, The Evolution of Worlds. Horror might be scary, but it reminds me that humans can overcome even the worst terrors to accomplish great things. In fiction that can be defeating a villain or a monster. In real life, we might conquer our fears to expand the borders of human understanding.

Lowell-telescope

Right next to Lowell’s crypt is the telescope where he observed Mars for many years. This visit was my first opportunity to go in, see the telescope and even look through it. We didn’t look at Mars, but the view of Saturn was unreal. We could see resolution in the clouds and the rings were sharp and beautiful. If the ghost of Percival Lowell wanders the observatory grounds, I suspect he’s proud of the job the people there do of giving the public a glimpse at the universe, which can be at once scary and beautiful.

I certainly hope to scare you when The Astronomer’s Crypt comes out, but I also hope you’ll see how people overcome fear and accomplish great things. Even though I hope to show you scary things in that novel, I also hope to show you some of the beauty that this universe and the people who inhabit it possess.

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Patriotic Horror

This Independence Day finds me working through the copy edits of my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt, which is set roughly this time of year. I have to admit, I thought it would feel strange to work on a horror novel during the height of summer on such a celebratory holiday, but somehow it hasn’t been as discordant as I would have thought. Performing a Google search on “Patriotic Horror” I find a few web sites with suggestions about horror movies for the long 4th of July weekend.

On reflection, perhaps this isn’t so unusual. After all, how many slasher movies essentially start out with people going camping in the woods? Of course, the original summer blockbuster, Jaws, is a thriller set on the beach during summertime, and the story even spans the July 4 holiday. When I spent a summer on Nantucket, where the ocean scenes in Jaws were filmed, not only did we scare ourselves with visions of shark-infested waters, we sometimes thought we could hear the ghost of Maria Mitchell tromping though the observatory named in her honor late at night.

Maria Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket

Maria Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket

Horror and Americana seem strangely linked sometimes. After all, Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, with its New England setting, is not only a creepy story, but takes us back to the early days of the nation. Sometimes even modern authors look back at the past and charge up the reputations of real heroes, such as Seth Grahame-Smith did when he wrote Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.

One movie on those lists of patriotic horror films stood out to me: The Omen starring Gregory Peck and Lee Remick. It makes the list because Peck played an ambassador to England and the devil’s son, Damien, seems to move himself ever closer to the president of the United States over the course of the movie. This was one of the first horror films I remember watching with my dad and it genuinely terrified me despite my dad’s assurances it was all pretend and his Mystery Science Theater 3000-style ribbing of the film. I certainly hope The Astronomer’s Crypt scares readers as much as The Omen scared me and that it might even provide some good memories for families who share it together.

If you’re looking for some good summer scares, check out my Book Info and Excerpts page for some ideas. May all your scares this Independence Day be imaginary ones and all the ghosts you meet be friendly.

Visiting Edgar

I must have been about eleven years old when my brother pulled a book off the shelf and took it outside to read a poem that immediately captivated me. Although it was a bright and sunny day in Southern California and we sat in the shade of an orange tree, I was carried to a dark and dank chamber where I saw a frightening apparition atop a bust of Pallas Athena mouthing the word, “Nevermore.” Of course the poem was “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. Just a few years later, I would meet Poe again when a high school English teacher assigned “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Those two events turned me into a fan of Poe for life.

Poe-0530-Nicki

Over Memorial Day Weekend, I attended Balticon, a science fiction convention in Baltimore. The convention was held at the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel, which is just around the corner from the place on Lombard Street where Poe was found “in great distress” by Joseph W. Walker on October 3, 1849. It’s not entirely clear what Poe was doing in Baltimore or why he was outside the public house on Lombard Street where Walker found him. What is known is that Poe died in the hospital just four days later at age 40. He was then buried in an anonymous grave at Westminster Hall. In 1865, a movement began to create a more fitting memorial for Poe and by 1875, that culminated in the creation of the Poe Memorial at Westminster Hall where Poe is now interred along with his wife and mother-in-law. While in Baltimore, my friend Nicki Fatherly took me to see the Poe Memorial.

Poe’s interests were far-ranging. He wrote criticism, contemplated scientific discovery, imagined detectives, and was fascinated by the darker sides of human nature. He wrote poetry, essays, and prose. That range has influenced me to explore many topics and forms in my writing. Because of Poe, and authors he influenced such as Ray Bradbury, I’ve felt encouraged to write science fiction, horror, and fantasy. It’s why I write poetry, short stories, and novels. I’ve even written a few reviews. I was glad to visit Poe’s memorial in Baltimore and pay tribute to a man who continues to influence so many over a century and half after his mysterious and untimely passing.

How My “Day” Job Inspires My Writing

This past week, I wrote a guest post for Lachesis Publishing about how my “day” job in astronomy inspires my writing. I put day in quotes because I work from sunset to sunrise at an astronomical observatory. You can read the post at http://lachesispublishing.com/?p=7256.

4-meter

In the article, I mention three ghost stories that have rational explanations. In the first one, the police called the observatory saying they had received a 911 call. When the telescope operator checked the number where the call originated, it turned out it was from an empty elevator, locked down and closed for the night. Only someone who knew where the elevator’s power was could have made the call, which was unlikely. Needless to say, the operator was pretty freaked out and thought it must be a ghost. It turns out, what the operator didn’t know is that several of the phone lines on the mountain had recently been slaved together in a phone upgrade. The 911 call came from some kids playing a prank, who I heard ultimately ended up in a lot of trouble!

The second story was about a breaker in one of the spookiest hallways being thrown. Turns out that one wasn’t so mysterious. There were more observers than normal in the control room and they were brewing coffee, making bagels in the toaster and running the microwave all at the same time on the same circuit. Most likely they just popped the breaker from all the cooking they were doing! Still, it was awfully spooky going down that hall looking for that switch.

The third story was about a rocking chair in the lounge rocking all by itself. This one is the hardest one to be sure about. The dome at the top of the 4-meter enclosure rotates so the telescope can look out and weighs some 500 tons. When it moves, it’s like a freight train. If the dome moves, things vibrate, so I could believe the chair would rock if that happened. That said, the people who’ve seen this say the dome was not moving. It’s hard to miss, so I don’t doubt them. If I had to guess, it has more to do with the building being something of a skyscraper, as you can see in the photo above. When the wind blows, it sways slightly, which might have set the chair to rocking. This is the one incident that I don’t have direct personal knowledge about, so who knows. What I do know is that they’re moving our control room into that room, so there will be plenty of opportunities to see if chairs move on their own.

As you can no doubt tell from this post, I am something of a skeptic. However, at the observatory we often look at stars hundreds of light years away, to see how their atoms and molecules behave. Some people who first learn about the vastness of the universe begin to wonder at how insignificant we humans are. However, if you look long enough, you really begin to wonder where we came from and what happens to the little spark of energy that keeps us alive after we go. When stars blow up, they don’t vanish. Their material is recycled and becomes the material for a new generation of stars. Does our life force simply vanish? It’s not so hard to believe it might still exist in some form. Being a skeptic only means that I require hard evidence to believe in ghosts and I haven’t seen that evidence yet. Nevertheless, I’ll keep wondering and I’ll keep exploring these ideas in my fiction.

A Witch’s Grave

Last week, I discussed some tales of witchcraft from Marc Simmons’ book Witchcraft in the Southwest, which I read while conducting early research for my novel Owl Dance.

Witches didn’t always get the upper hand in their dealings with people, as demonstrated in nineteenth century court records. There is a story of a witch who poisoned a bowl of hominy soup as a way of getting revenge against a man. The man was suspicious and did not eat the soup. Instead, he added some herbs and spices of his own so it looked and smelled different. He sent it back to the witch as a gift. The witch ended up eating her own soup and grew ill.

Aside from those cases that are part of the court record, it’s hard to say how much truth there is to these stories of witchcraft from nineteenth century New Mexico that Marc Simmons relates in his book. However, it is clear that people believed in witchcraft and the stories have left a powerful legacy that is still evident in the twenty-first century. This is what led me to research New Mexico’s witch trials in the first place.

The small town of Mesilla in Southern New Mexico is famous as the place where Billy the Kid stood trial. After the Civil War, Mesilla became an important commercial, transportation and social center. In addition to Billy the Kid, such historical figures as Kit Carson and Pancho Villa were known to have spent time there. The historic town square is dominated by the brick edifice of the San Albino Catholic Church. About a half a mile from the church, down a street called Calle de Guadalupe, a little less than a city block from a house I once occupied, is the San Albino Cemetery.

witch-grave

The cemetery looks like something straight out of a western movie. Wooden and adobe crosses with Spanish inscriptions fill the grounds. There is no grass—only a few trees. In addition to the simple crosses, there are a number of ornate graves with beautiful sculptures. Other graves are mounds of earth covered in tile. Many of the graves date from the end of the nineteenth century.

However, one grave stands out among them all. Near the center of the grounds is a six-foot by six-foot solid block. A tall cross adorns the top of the block. Most notably, there is no name nor inscription on this strange tomb. The locals have dubbed this “The Witch’s Grave.” It is said that a woman was buried at the site and a large rock was placed on her grave. The rock was then surrounded by concrete, forming the block that sits on the site today.

It is said that the witch entombed there is attempting to break free. She tries to find cracks in the tomb so she can dig her way out. To prevent this, the folks of Mesilla continuously repair any cracks they find in the tomb. Over the years, the tomb has grown in size from all the repair work. One could dismiss this as simple superstition.

However, there’s a story that a few years ago, a group of teens went to the cemetery. They dared one of the girls to lay on the grave. As she stood up from the grave, she was suddenly and inexplicably struck by seizures. It was so bad, an ambulance had to be called. The girl’s mother never let her have contact with her friends after that.
Had the woman entombed in the witch’s grave once sought revenge against another? Did she go to a school of witchcraft so she could seek power and money? Her story is not discussed in Mesilla. What is known is that the spirit of a woman from the nineteenth century—from the height of witchcraft in New Mexico—still frightens the people of Mesilla to this very day.

Another Astronomer’s Crypt

In earlier posts, I’ve discussed astronomers who are interred on the grounds of telescopes they were associated with such as Percival Lowell at Lowell Observatory and James Lick at Lick Observatory. Brashear_tablet_cryptWhile reading the January 2016 issue of Sky and Telescope magazine, I discovered two astronomers interred under the pier of a telescope I didn’t know about: John and Phoebe Brashear. The Brashears are interred under the Keeler Telescope at the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh.

In 1849, young John Brashear viewed the moon and Saturn through a telescope owned by a traveling showman and fell in love with astronomy. Eleven years later, he would meet a Sunday School teacher named Phoebe Stewart and the two would marry in 1862.

John Brashear became a skilled machinist in the Pittsburgh steel mills, but maintained his love of astronomy, which he shared with his wife, Phoebe. Lacking money to buy a telescope, they built a 5-inch refractor in 1875. The telescope so impressed Samuel Pierpont Langley, director of the Allegheny Observatory, that he encouraged the couple to try their hand at making a reflecting telescope.

John took the challenge and set to work grinding and polishing a 12-inch mirror. In those days, the silver coating for telescope mirrors was applied in a hot, chemical bath. John finished the mirror and placed it in the bath to coat it, only to have it shatter. After a restless night, he went to work at the mill and returned home to find that Phoebe had cleaned up his optical shop and had all his tools ready to start again. John went on to make a whole new mirror and ultimately left the Pittsburgh mills to start a company building astronomical and scientific instrumentation.

The Brashear Company built the interferometer used by Michaelson and Morley in 1887 to disprove the existence of the aether that scientists of the time believed supported light waves. This work paved the way for Einstein’s relativity theory. They also built the spectrograph used at Lowell Observatory used to detect the first galactic redshifts. John Brashear would go on to become director of Allegheny Observatory and spent four years as the Acting Chancellor of the University of Western Pennsylvania.

John-Phoebe-Brashear

The quote on the tomb’s plaque is adapted from Sarah Williams’s poem “The Old Astronomer to His Pupil” and reads “We have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.” Do the Brashears haunt the observatory where they are buried? Somehow, I think they’re too busy appreciating the night sky to bother the astronomers working today. That said, I do find myself looking at the photo of John Brashear here and thinking he looks a lot like the fictional astronomer Robert Burroughs from my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. Whats more, the ghost of Robert Burroughs is an old astronomer with a troublesome pupil. John Brashear may or may not haunt Allegheny Observatory, but I’m starting to wonder if he haunts my novel!

If you’d like to know more about the Brashears, be sure to check out the January 2016 issue of Sky and Telescope and a pair of articles by Al Paslow and Tom Dobbins. Those articles were the source of many of the facts cited in this blog post.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Long before Jack Skellington started exploring the boundaries between Christmas and Halloween in The Nightmare Before Christmas, ghosts have had a way of haunting Yuletide festivities. Of course Charles Dickens did a lot to make that association with the ghosts of A Christmas Carol. However, the combination of long, cold nights with the high emotions of the season actually make ghosts feel very natural this time of year.

As we head into Christmas week, I thought I’d share this poem I wrote a few years ago. It was first published on the website of Private, an international magazine of photographs published in France.


    Ghosts of Christmas Past

    As the year draws to its end, and
    Darkness is reluctant to release the
    World, I am pleasantly haunted by
    Glowing specters of Christmases past.

    I remember the tractor and train
    I could climb aboard and ride.
    I remember the tree glowing brightly
    and the smells of Christmas dinner.

    More than those, I remember Dad
    Sharing his time with me, with
    Those toys. I remember the music
    Love and laughter that filled the house.

    Years later, I find that I’m the dad.
    Though my own father and the toys and
    Time we shared are long gone, the music
    Love and laughter are still there.

    Only the voices have changed.


On one hand, this poem is a straightforward look at how I found myself growing up and becoming a dad. However, I see at least two other layers to it. One idea is that ghosts are not literal physical manifestations of those who have gone before, but they’re manifestations of emotional energy. In that sense, perhaps the ghosts of this poem are real. Also, while I don’t believe in literal reincarnation, this poem shows why the idea has appeal. There’s no question, life is cyclic and younger generations will often find themselves in situations similar to those their parents and grandparents faced.

Whether you’re celebrating with family, remembering lost love ones, or just doing your best to keep warm on a long winter’s night, I wish you the best of the season.