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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Two Hundred Years of Scares

On Friday, June 10, 2016, I received the manuscript of The Astronomer’s Crypt marked up with my copy editor’s notes. The date is auspicious and perhaps a little ominous, since on June 10, 1816, Lord Byron rented Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva in Switzerland. He stayed there with his physician, Dr. John William Polidori, and invited noted poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and Shelley’s fiancée, Mary Godwin to join them. The weather was unseasonably wet and cold that summer and the three were confined indoors. In that time, Mary Godwin wrote the first draft of Frankenstein while Byron started a work that Polidori would finish called The Vampyre. The summer was immortalized at the beginning of James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein. Here we see Mary Godwin regaling Shelley and Lord Byron with a tale of gods and monsters.

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Essentially the summer of 1816 at Villa Diodati marked the beginning of both modern horror and science fiction. It also marked the beginning of two classic tropes of horror fiction—the man-made monster and the vampire. Sure, the vampire existed in folklore before this, but it’s Byron and Polidori who unleashed the creature’s fictional potential.

In many ways, I see my novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order as a tribute to that summer two centuries ago. Vampires of the Scarlet Order It’s the tale of ancient vampires fighting man-made monsters. Of course, as in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the men who create the monsters don’t fully understand the powers they invoke. Like Polidori and Byron’s vampires, the Scarlet Order vampires are at once frightening and seductive. If you haven’t already delved into this world, I hope you’ll click here to learn more about Vampires of the Scarlet Order.

While watching James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, I realized The Astronomer’s Crypt takes some of its imagery from the movie that reenacts the Villa Diodati gathering. Right in the opening scene, Elsa Lanchester as Mary Godwin talks about Frankenstein creating the monster on a stormy night at his mountaintop laboratory. In essence, The Astronomer’s Crypt is all about a monster running amok at a mountaintop laboratory! I saw other parallels in the movie as well, but revealing them would be spoilers at this early stage.

I think both horror and science fiction got off to an auspicious beginning two centuries ago. I hope the next two centuries will continue scare us and challenge us even as we dream of the future.

Dead Man

Back on Halloween, I posted about Leiji Matsumoto’s anime Gun Frontier over at David Lee Summers’ Web Journal. DeadManPoster I argued that the series was an acid western. The term was coined by reviewer Jonathan Rosenbaum to describe the 1995 film Dead Man starring Johnny Depp. I finally had a chance to see Dead Man, which I found at once dark, surreal, and not a little disturbing. In many ways, Dead Man and Gun Frontier are indeed cut of the same cloth.

Dead Man tells the story of an accountant named William Blake who is promised a job and travels well to the town of Machine. At the town’s one, large factory, Blake learns someone has already been hired to fill the job. Despondent, Blake goes to the saloon, meets a local girl and they immediately have a liaison. Afterwards, the girl’s ex-lover appears, hoping to make up. Blake and the lover exchange gun fire. After which, the girl and the lover end up dead despite Blake’s lack of skill with a gun. Unknown to Blake, the lover is the factory owner’s son.

Blake runs, but he is wounded and passes out. He’s awaken by a Native American man who is trying to dig the bullet from his chest. The Native American man, who calls himself Nobody, then nurses Blake back to health. When Blake is well enough to talk, Nobody believes the accountant is really the famous poet reincarnated, only now he will make poetry with his guns and kill white people.

The factory owner—played by Robert Mitchum in his last role—sends three bounty hunters after Blake. The three bounty hunters squabble and eventually the most ruthless of the three kills the other two, and even eats one of them. Meanwhile, Blake kills two U.S. Marshals and experiences visions. All of this is accompanied by a haunting guitar score by Neil Young.

In his review of Dead Man, Jonathan Rosenbaum argued that not only does an acid western have a hallucinogenic quality, it’s the polar opposite of the traditional western, which is a journey of hope. An acid western is a journey toward death and decay. In that sense, an acid western is reminiscent of a horror. Horror can certainly have a hallucinogenic quality if reality is called into question and the journey of an acid western is often one that forces us to look at our most primal fear, the inevitability of death.

We Are the Night

This past summer, Marita Crandle, owner of Boutique du Vampyre in New Orleans recommended the film We Are the Night on her VBITE Webcast. wir-sind-die-nacht I finally had a chance to watch it about a week ago and found that it was an interesting film. The film was made in Germany and is presented with English subtitles. The original title was Wir sind die Nacht.

The movie opens with a lovely homage to the Demeter sequence in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The passengers and crew of a doomed airliner are all dead, except the three vampire women who clearly killed them. After they escape into the night, we meet a young woman named Lena who picks a man’s pocket, only to be pursued by the police. The night after the chase, Lena goes to a creepy amusement park that could be at home in a Tim Burton film. In the bowels of the park is a night club run by the three vampires from the beginning of the film. The vampire Louise finds Lena compelling and soon attacks her, turning her into a vampire.

As the movie progresses, we get to know more about Louise’s companions. Charlotte, who is mostly silent, is a one-time silent movie actress who left behind her daughter when Louise made her a vampire. Cheerful Nora became a vampire in 1997 and just loves to have fun. We also learn that there are no male vampires in this world.

Many authors, myself included, have used vampires as a way to explore the idea of immortality. I’ve seen numerous stories that use vampirism as a metaphor for drug addiction. This was the first time I’d seen vampires as Amazons and a metaphor for feminist empowerment. The idea appealed to me, since I’ve imagined fae as Amazons in my story “Amazons and Predators” which appeared in Bad Ass Faeries 3: In All Their Glory.

According to interviews, the director made a deliberate decision to steer away from Dracula references, opening scene aside, and took most of his inspiration from Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novella Carmilla. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never read Le Fanu’s novella, but I found it on Project Gutenberg and plan to correct that oversight in the near future.

I was also interested to learn that the creepy amusement park is a real place called Spreepark in Berlin. Here’s an article with some photos and information about the place. This looks like a terrific vampire lair!

Overall, We Are the Night was an interesting film that made me think. Exploring behind the scenes has encouraged me to read a novella that I should have read years ago. It’s hard to ask for more from a film. I’m glad I followed up on Marita’s recommendation.

What We Do In the Shadows

Shortly before Halloween, I was browsing Netflix for some good films to get in the spirit of the season. What We Do In the Shadows popped up as a recommendation. With some trepidation, I decided to try it. In my experience most horror-comedies end up being campy, silly, or both. Often they err on the side of just being sweet enough to rot a vampire’s fangs. A few are brilliant such as Young Frankenstein.

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What We Do in the Shadows proved to be a pleasant surprise. It wasn’t brilliant like Young Frankenstein but it was still loads of fun. It’s told in the style of a reality show or documentary following the night-to-night lives of four vampires: 379-year-old Viago, 862-year-old Vladislav, 183-year-old rebellious youngster Deacon, and 8000-year-old Petyr. The four vampires share a flat in Wellington, New Zealand. There’s a loose plot thread about Deacon’s thrall Jackie who wants to be a vampire, a young man named Nick who becomes a vampire during the course of the movie and Nick’s friend Stu, a computer programmer who helps introduce the vampires to technology.

As with a lot of mocumentaries, they set up numerous situations for the characters to play off each other. For instance, we learn that Viago is very fussy and wants his housemates to put newspapers down when they bring a victim home to kill them. A few scenes later, we see Viago seducing a victim while putting newspaper down. It’s fun, but it could get old fast if it was just one gag after another. One thing that helps is that the movie does a good job of playing with both traditional vampire lore and pop culture. They poke fun at Twilight, The Lost Boys, and Blade, plus the whole thing is a riff on Interview with the Vampire. At the same time, there are interposed scenes that look at the history of the vampires and their impact on history.

Another thing that makes this movie worthwhile is that it doesn’t forget to be scary. There are a few moments that were honestly creepy, such as Petyr’s first appearance and later when Nick is being stalked by the vampires. There are even a few moments that were a little sad. The two main sad points both involve spoilers, but they do keep you invested in the characters and a little uncertain whether or not the movie will have a happy ending. The pacing could drag at times—one of the things that keeps the movie from being brilliant—but my interest in the overarching story and the characters pulled me along even through the slow moments.

One thing I really loved about the movie was how the vampire lore reminded me of the lore I created for the Scarlet Order novels. I think that’s a reflection of the fact that both the movie makers and I really love classic vampire films. Vampires of the Scarlet Order takes a lot of inspiration from the classic Universal monster films as well as Nosferatu. I could certainly imagine a great story in which one or more of the Scarlet Order vampires spent time with Vladislav, Viago, Deacon, Petyr, and Nick.

Dracula Untold

While in New Orleans, the movie Dracula Untold was recommended to me. Unfortunately, between family business and my book signing, we didn’t have time to watch there, but my wife and I picked up a copy when we returned home and thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Dracula Untold is an origin story for Dracula. It imagines Vlad the Impaler facing the choice of handing over 1000 boys to be trained as Ottoman Jannissaries or go to war with the Turks. Facing insurmountable odds, Vlad seeks out a master vampire and asks for help. The scene where Vlad and the master vampire confront each other in the cave gave me chills. It’s effective in its own right, but it also reminded me of the scene in Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order where Desmond wakes up in a cave and meets the ancient vampire, Wolf.

In many ways, Dracula Untold tells the same story as Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order but with a slightly different premise. In Dracula Untold we learn how Vlad became the vampire Dracula. In Dragon’s Fall we learn the story of how the British vampire Draco became a mercenary for Vlad, giving rise to the Dracula legend. Many of the same historical events are used as backdrops, though the overall story takes many different turns.

Another element I found particularly interesting in Dracula Untold was the vampire Dracula could turn into a swarm of bats. The CGI was neat to watch and really makes me want to see someone visualize Drake and his ability to turn into a swarm of flies.

The movie itself has some issues. In particular, I found the enforced three-day time limit for the movie’s main story strained my ability to believe the large troop movements. Also, I found it a bit difficult to believe that even one strong vampire could decimate an entire army as much as Dracula did, though I could certainly imagine battle scenes like those in Dracula Untold appearing in a Scarlet Order vampire movie. The short run time also kept us from getting very much character depth—an unfortunately common trait in many modern movies. Despite those issues, I’d still have no problem recommending the film to someone who likes an action-oriented vampire film.

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Not only do I like vampire action, but I like supernatural myths. One of the deleted scenes showed Dracula having an encounter with the witch Baba Yaga. I saw why they felt they had to cut that scene, but I wish they had found a way to make it work within the context of the movie.

For those who would like to see my vision of vampire mercenaries and the history of the Turkish invasion of Transylvania, be sure to find a copy of Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet order. You can order signed copies at Boutique du Vampyre. Of course, you can always get the ebook at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

Space Zombies

This past week, I watched the series Captain Herlock: The Endless Odyssey with my daughters. For those not familiar with the character, Captain Herlock is a space pirate whose primary objective is living a free life. His name is most often translated as Harlock—I gather in Japanese the “her” and “har” sounds are made with the same characters. His name is always pronounced as “Harlock.”

harlock

In this story, an entity called the Noo, which came into existence during the first hellish milliseconds of the Big Bang has found a portal to our time, and plans to use the Earth in a plot to break free and assert control over the universe. The Noo is essentially fear incarnate and it kills the first four scientists who discover it and possesses their bodies, essentially using the bodies as its slaves.

noo

These zombies are in some sense your classic slow moving, shambling variety with some important differences. Controlled by the Noo, they are wicked smart. They are also powerful zombies, who control a space vessel and guns capable of wiping out a fleet of spaceships. If smart zombies with guns don’t scare you enough, they can control you at a distance through your fear. I like these zombies because at some level, they go back to the roots of zombie lore, and are essentially slaves, yet they have some differences that make them as fresh as rotting zombie corpses can be.

Also, related to recent science news, the zombies used Pluto as a base for a while. It was interesting to see how the animators viewed Pluto and its moon Charon. Although they didn’t make direct reference to it, Pluto has greater significance in creator Leiji Matsumoto’s science fictional universe. In Galaxy Express 999 Pluto is the planet where humans who upload their minds into machines leave their bodies in cold storage. It strikes me these bodies could have been ripe vessels for Noo!

Unfortunately, finding all the DVDs of The Endless Odyssey is quite difficult in the United States. Volume 1 isn’t too difficult to find, but the rest are only intermittently available and often for over $100 per 3-episode DVD. Fortunately, the series is available to watch on YouTube. Hopefully, the owners will release a new edition at some point!

Zombiefied 3 low res

What’s not difficult to find are good zombie stories in the United States. Two great anthologies are Zombiefied: An Anthology of All Things Zombie and Zombiefied: Hazardous Materials. You’ll find a story by me in each along with stories by such authors as Lyn McConchie, Cynthia Ward, David Boop, Dayton Ward, and Rie Sheridan Rose.

Also, thinking of places known for zombies, I’ve added a countdown to the sidebar. I’ll be signing my Scarlet Order vampire novels at Boutique du Vampyre in New Orleans on August 22 from 3 to 6pm. If you live in New Orleans or will be visiting the Big Easy that weekend, please drop by. I’d love to meet you!