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.

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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.

New Mexico Witch Stories

When people think of witchcraft in the United States, they often think of the Salem Witch Trials of the seventeenth century. However, that is far from the end of the story as far as witchcraft in America is concerned. In 1848, at the conclusion of the Mexican War, New Mexico Territory was added to the United States. Many of the people already living in New Mexico suddenly found themselves living in a new country, and many of them believed in witchcraft. Back when I first started my Clockwork Legion steampunk books, I originally expected the series would have more of a supernatural/horror element than it did and I started researching these tales of witchcraft.

Witchcraft in the Southwest

One of the books I found was Witchcraft in the Southwest: Spanish and Indian Supernaturalism on the Rio Grande. The book is available at Amazon.com and serves as the source for these tales.

In 1882, a man named Felipe Madrid was arrested in the town of Tierra Amarilla in Northern New Mexico. He was accused of torturing a woman he believed was a witch. Years before, Madrid had an affair with the woman. After they broke up, he started seeing other women, but came down with a “loathsome disease.” He believed that his ex-girlfriend was a witch and she had cursed him. Following an old belief, he planned to abduct her and make her cure him. He sent three of his friends to where she lived and they brought her to his house. Madrid tied the woman’s hands and told her that he would whip her to death if she did not cure him. She protested her innocence and said she could not cure him. He whipped her until she finally promised to cure him. She called for ointments and medicines and while she was waiting for them to be delivered, she finally escaped. Madrid was arrested and put on trial. He was convicted of committing assault and battery and had to pay a fine of $150.

Just a few years later, in the town of Chimayo, New Mexico, a 40-year-old woman was accused of being in league with the Devil. She was taken from her home by three men, stripped of her clothes and stabbed to death.

These two accounts come from New Mexico’s court records and illustrate that people in New Mexico still held a strong belief in witchcraft during the late nineteenth century. People in New Mexico generally thought there were three ways someone could become a witch. First, it was believed that certain children were fated to become witches. Parents grew fearful if any of their children showed any signs of strange or deviant behavior. Second, many witches were said to have voluntarily taken up the craft to get revenge on someone who had wronged them. The third group of witches consisted of those who were said to have sold their souls to the Devil himself for money or power.

There are stories of women who would seek out advanced practitioners of witchcraft and learn from them. In the village of Las Placitas, near Albuquerque, a woman named Juanita was ostracized because she had a bad temper. She sought out a known “bruja” named Felicia, who taught her how to prepare herbs and use them to make magic.

Occasionally, advanced practitioners in witchcraft would get together and conduct formal schools in how to bewitch people, cast spells, and transform into animals. Legend has it that one such school existed in the Central New Mexico town of Peña Blanca. Aspiring witches who attended this school were said to have learned from the Devil himself how to transform into such animals as owls, doves and dogs.

The witches of New Mexico were often said to gather in conclaves. There is the story of a man who lived near Taos who noticed that some of his aunts and uncles would all disappear from time to time. One night he decided to follow them. They rode out to a house concealed in an arroyo. The man crept up to a window and saw his uncles and aunts dancing in the house with some other people. After a while, a goat was led into the room. All the people ceremonially kissed its tail. Once the goat was led away, a black snake came into the room and flicked its tongue at each of the people in turn. As the snake slithered out of the room, some of those gathered went into the other room and retrieved a man’s corpse. All of those present sat down and dined on the human flesh. It seems many of the stories of witch conclaves from New Mexico include this bizarre combination of dancing, kissing a goat’s tail and the involvement of a black snake.

As the first novel of my Clockwork Legion series developed, it soon became apparent that Fatemeh Karimi wasn’t a witch, or even close. She was a strong-willed woman accused of witchcraft and tried. I’ll look at a couple more tales of nineteenth century New Mexico witchcraft next week, plus tell the story that set me on the path that led to the creation of Fatemeh, who ended up nothing like the people of these stories. However, if you want to see what did end up in the book, read Owl Dance. Although this novel isn’t scary in it’s own right, I have written scary stories in this world. A Cthulhu-mythos inspires story from this world will appear later this year in the anthology Lost Trails II: More Forgotten Trails of the Weird West.

Scary Fairy Tales

A trend that’s developed in recent years is to produce gritty reboots of classic fairy tales, which amuses me because in many cases, it’s hard to get grittier or more frightening than the original stories! Children’s book and movie adaptations often give us the impression that fairy tales are lighthearted moral tales. What’s more, the original Grimms’ Fairy Tales were actually titled Kinder- und Haus Märchen which translates as Children’s and Household Tales. In fact, the collection compiled by the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm consists of old German folktales and they were meant to be passed down to children, so they could pass them down to their children, but that didn’t mean the tales were lighthearted!

Blood-Sampler-375 One of the best known of Grimm’s Fairy Tales is “Schneewittchen” or “Little Snow White.” In 2002, I purchased a copy of the tales in German which included the original notes. I was writing a lot of my vampire tales at the time and I couldn’t help but notice how vampiric the Snow White story is. In the story, Snow White’s mother pricks her finger while doing needlework. A drop of blood falls on new-fallen snow covering an ebony window pane which makes her wish for a pale child with lips bright as blood and hair of ebony. I realize that in medieval times, pallor was considered a sign of wealth, but the pale creature associated with blood made me think vampire almost right away. In the original notes, the Grimms describe a romantic sleigh ride with Snow White’s mother and father. The blood on the snow with the ebony almost takes on the connotation of black magic.

Later, Snow White’s step mother demands her heart as proof of her demise. This scene is even in Disney’s version. When Snow White does bite into the poison apple, she’s laid to rest in a glass coffin. In the Grimms’ original, the wicked queen actually kills Snow White three times. She’s resurrected not by a handsome prince’s kiss, but instead when the handsome prince’s men drop the coffin, dislodging the apple piece in her throat. I took these vampire-like elements, emphasized them, and wrote them as “The Tale of Blood Red” which appears in the collection Blood Sampler available in print from Alban Lake Publishing. You can also find the ebook at Amazon.

Another story I’ve been thinking about lately is “Der Teufel und seine Grossmuter.” The most straightforward translation of the title is “The Devil and His Grandmother.” In the story, interpreted this way, the devil appears before three runaway soldiers and gives them a whip that can produce gold from thin air. In seven years’ time, the devil will return and pose a set of three riddles. If the soldiers answer correctly, they can keep the whip. If they fail, they will be carried off to Hell to serve as the devil’s minions. This deal-with-the-devil story is pretty heavy stuff for a kid’s story. Not to mention the whole theological implications that the devil has a grandmother!

Now, “der Teufel” can also be translated as “dragon.” This is most pronounced in translations of the Biblical book of Revelation where Teufel is used both for Satan and the metaphorical dragon in St. John’s vision. When der Teufel appears in the story, he flies in on wings and breathes fire. To me, that seems more like a classical dragon than a devil, so I translated the story as “The Devil and his Grandmother.” Not too long ago, I gave the story a steampunk twist, set it in India and mechanized the dragon. “The Steam-Powered Dragon and His Grandmother” will appear in the anthology Gaslight and Grimm coming from eSpec Books. They are running a Kickstarter Campaign right now. Please click the link and check it out. There are some awesome rewards and it’s the best way to find out how a mechanical dragon can have a grandmother any more than the devil himself!

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.

Carmilla and Marcella

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I had never read Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s vampire novella Carmilla. As it turns out, I started writing a short story featuring a couple of the Scarlet Order vampires set in the early 1890s. The story is set a few years before the publication of Dracula, but it occurred to me that characters in the story might be aware of Carmilla which was published in 1872. As such, I put the novella at the top of my reading list. Once I finished, I realized it would likely be a favorite of my vampire Marcella shown here in illustrations by Nick Johns and Steven C. Gilberts.

Marcella Montage

I found Carmilla to be an engaging short read. After a carriage overturns, the title character appears wounded and in need of recovery. She’s left in the care of a nobleman and his daughter, Laura, while Carmilla’s mother continues on urgent business that will last several months. Laura and Carmilla form an immediate close attachment, but Carmilla is somewhat of a strange character. She appears in Laura’s dreams. Carmilla often sleeps well past noon and she seems to have an almost romantic interest in Laura. In various reviews, I’ve seen much made of this relationship in that it arguably depicts one of the earliest Lesbian relationships in fiction. While I do find that interesting, it’s hard to call it a very progressive depiction since Laura finds the attraction repulsive and it seems to be one of Carmilla’s “evil” characteristics.

Of course, Carmilla turns out to be a vampire. We learn that she’s repeated her pattern of stalking young ladies over the years, taking aliases that are anagrams such as Mircalla and Millarca. It occurred to me that Marcella is a near-anagram of Carmilla and this would be one reason she’d find the story attractive. In the story I’m writing, Marcella wants to warn a human friend about the dangers of vampires without revealing herself to be a vampire. Carmilla turns out to be a good book for that objective, since it details the vampire’s strength and cunning. It also shows the lengths one must go to in order to destroy a vampire should that be necessary.

I found a couple of the vampire characteristics in Carmilla especially interesting, since they rarely appear in modern vampire fiction. First off, Carmilla seems to haunt one victim at a time, draining the victim slowly until they finally succumb to blood loss. In this sense, the vampire is almost like a ghost or a harmful spirit. Also in the novella, Carmilla seems to be able to transform into a large cat-like creature. Marcella would certainly find this interesting, since the Scarlet Order vampires are shapeshifters, but it’s a characteristic you don’t find in many modern vampire stories.

Carmilla may not be a book for a all modern vampire fans. At times, Le Fanu does ramble on and it’s unclear how characters such as Carmilla’s “mother” actually relate to her. I couldn’t decide whether or not the mother was a human thrall or another vampire. I wonder if Le Fanu had any ideas on the subject. Still, as a fan of vampire folklore and stories, I found it enjoyable and I know my vampire Marcella would be a fan, especially given a nice unsettling twist Le Fanu throws in at the end of the tale.

I’ll be sure to let you know if this story I’m working on gets accepted. Whether or not it does, I’m grateful it finally prompted me to read one of the classics of the field. IN the meantime, you can read more about Marcella in Vampires of the Scarlet Order.

Haunted by Ghosts and Vampires

First off, congratulations to Lady Naomi of the Scribbler’s Den, who won the Halloween Treats giveaway! I’ll be sending her a copy of my chapbook Bat Flight South of Roswell. Thanks to all of you who entered the contest!

Today’s post follows up on my Haunted Observatories post of September 21 and first appeared at the Lachesis Publishing Blog.

As I write this, I’m hard at work on my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt, which tells the story of an observatory haunted by the ghost of its founder. Much of the novel is inspired by my own experiences at observatories. Last month, I put out a call for haunted observatory stories and I’ve heard some interesting tales.

Dressing Room2

Author and editor David B. Riley tells me he heard stories of shadow entities at Chabot Observatory in Oakland, California. He had a roommate many years ago who worked for Oakland Park Police and swore people were seeing entities around there. Shadow entities are also known as black ghosts.

So far, my most convincing ghost encounter was with one of these shadow entities on the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. I was in the changing rooms of the First Class swimming pool and took a photo. I thought I saw a person reflected in the flash, but when I walked that direction, no one was there. When I looked at the photo on my computer and adjusted the contrast and brightness, I saw a figure standing there, apparently in an old-fashioned bathing suit. For some reason, this person was not illuminated in my flash! You can read the full story at the The Accidental Ghost Hunter Blog. Although it’s not an observatory, we have set telescopes up on deck, so maybe it counts after all!

HRMS-Telescopes

Dr. Don Terndrup of Ohio State University told me a story about an observatory where visiting astronomers were cautioned about the woman in white. She would appear in the morning, not long before sunrise, holding a tea kettle. Sure enough, the observers would be working late into the evening when the door to the observing room would slowly creek open. They’d turn around and there would be a woman in white robes holding a kettle.

It turns out the woman was the observatory director’s wife, who would get up early to make tea for the astronomers visiting the observatory. Apparently she never understood why the astronomers always seemed so frightened when she would appear!

In last month’s post, I told the story of James Lick, who is buried under the pier of the 36-inch Telescope at Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton in California. Dr. Elinor Gates who works at the observatory tells me astronomers routinely tell tourists who come to public night at the 36-inch that Lick’s ghost will appear at 10pm and see how they’re doing. Of course, the astronomers guiding those sessions are just joking.

Lick_Observatory_1900_(cropped)

All jokes aside, it’s said that one family has seen the ghost of James Lick in the Director’s Cottage at Lick Observatory. Dr. Gates lives in the cottage and says she hasn’t seen a ghost … yet. That said, the family claims to have had several encounters with the ghost and won’t be convinced the house isn’t haunted.

As you can tell from both of these stories, there’s a common thread of astronomers joking about ghosts. We work in dark, quiet buildings late at night. Often our minds do play tricks on us. I definitely pull an element of dark humor into The Astronomer’s Crypt. As it turns out, astronomers don’t always joke about ghosts. Sometimes we joke about vampires as well. I work as a telescope operator and that means I’m rarely seen at the observatory except between sunset and sunrise. One of my co-workers used to say we were the vampires of the mountain.

This particular co-worker was a fan of vampire novels and convinced me to sit down and read Dracula by Bram Stoker. I’ll never forget the night I read the scene in the novel where the ship carrying the vampire blows into Whitby Harbor. The townspeople find the crew of the Demeter missing. The ship’s captain is dead, lashed to the ship’s wheel. The only living creature is a massive dog or wolf that leaps from the ship and runs off into the storm. The night I read this, a particularly fierce storm blew over Kitt Peak. My duties required that I go outside to check on the buildings periodically … in the howling wind, pouring rain, and cracking lightning. Every time a bush rustled or a wind howled through a tree, I was convinced a wolf was going to leap out at me. I’ve been a fan of Dracula and horror novels ever since!

Bat-in-Flight--72-dpi

A few years later, I had occasion to write a vampire story. I pulled from what I knew. I told the story of a vampire who operated telescopes. He only appeared between sunset and sunrise and never complained about the hours. He never told ghost stories to scare his observers because he wanted them unwary, not suspecting he might attack at any minute. This story went on to become a central chapter in my novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order.

Although I won’t admit to being a vampire and I can’t honestly say I’ve seen a ghost at the observatory, I’ve certainly been able to channel those spooky experiences into my writing. Through them, I get to explore the stories of people rising to meet impossible challenges, which in turn tells me much about what makes us noble as human beings.

Here’s wishing you and yours had a very Happy and Spooky Halloween!