Vittorio the Vampire

I just returned the copy edited version of The Astronomer’s Crypt to my publisher. VittorioTheVampire While working on edits, I like to read good prose, which helps me stay focused on picking the best words possible in a scene. I’ve always enjoyed Anne Rice’s prose, so was delighted to discover the last of her vampire novels that I had not read in my “to read” stack. This was Vittorio the Vampire which was the second of her two “New Tales of the Vampires” series.

Aside from a brief discussion of the Vampire Chronicles in the first chapter, Vittorio the Vampire stands apart from all of Rice’s other vampire novels. Even Pandora, which falls under the “New Tales of the Vampires” series includes events from the more famous “Vampire Chronicles” and Pandora herself is a character in a few of the Chronicles.

Set circa 1450, during the height of Cosimo de Medici’s power in Florence, Vittorio the Vampire tells the story of Vittorio di Raniari, a young nobleman educated in Florence. Vittorio’s father runs afoul a coven of vampires, who rampage through the castle and kill Vittorio’s family. Vittorio himself is spared by a beautiful vampire in the body of a young woman named Ursula.

After burying his family in the castle crypt, Vittorio travels toward Florence when he comes across a town mysteriously free of the sick and the infirm. He soon learns the vampire coven is behind this. The villagers pay a “tribute” of people to keep the vampires away. Ursula finds Vittorio and invites him to meet the coven. Once he arrives at their castle, he finds the village’s old and infirm in coops, stored away for food. The vampires invite Vittorio to join the coven, but he refuses. Instead of killing Vittorio outright, the vampires spare him, thanks to Ursula and he’s taken back to the village.

Because the vampires started to turn Vittorio, he’s not left unaffected. It turns out he now has the gift to see angels. The angels lead Vittorio back to the vampire castle to destroy the monsters. The problem is, Vittorio has become smitten by the beautiful Ursula. I’ll leave my summation there to avoid spoilers, though you can probably guess some of what happens from the book’s title. Even then, as with most good books, the real magic is in the details.

At its core, Vittorio the Vampire is simply the story of how young Vittorio became a vampire, but that description doesn’t really do it justice. It’s also the story of Vittorio and Ursula’s love and how that love story relates to God’s will as articulated by the angels. Although physical immortality is an issue, Vittorio lives in a world where it’s assumed he’ll have spiritual immortality if he follows the angels. So, for him, the choice of becoming a vampire actually becomes a choice of following God and becoming truly immortal or being trapped in a human body forever for the sake of love.

I’m a little sorry there isn’t another Anne Rice vampire novel waiting in the wings. Back in 2014 when Prince Lestat was released, there was some discussion that there might be more Vampire Chronicles. I hope that proves to be true. If not, I know Ms. Rice has many other good novels I haven’t yet sunk my teeth into, plus many other vampire and horror novels by other authors await as well.

As for The Astronomer’s Crypt, I don’t yet have a release date, but I’m told I should see galleys by early September, which is really the final opportunity to review the manuscript before publication. So, it shouldn’t be too long after that before you can read it—I say hopefully!

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.

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.

Penny Dreadful

I watched the first season of the Showtime series Penny Dreadful. Vampires, Victorians, the beginnings of popular literature, Timothy Dalton and Billie Piper were all ingredients I couldn’t resist. Penny Dreadful I did find the show entertaining, but I also found it less an homage to penny dreadfuls and more an updated version of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially since the movie version of League never really lived up to the comic books’ promise.

Penny Dreadful the series tells the story of Sir Malcolm Murray, hardened African explorer and father of Mina Murray, famous for marrying one Jonathan Harker and coming to the attentions of Count Dracula. Sir Malcolm wants to rescue his daughter from the clutches of the vampires and seeks help from a young Dr. Frankenstein, an American adventurer named Ethan Chandler, and Vanessa Ives, a one-time friend of Mina’s who is also a force to be reckoned with. Skirting the periphery of this group is none other than Dorian Gray, the famous portrait subject. For those familiar with the subject matter, this group almost is the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen! All we’re missing are Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, and Dr. Jekyll, but they’d certainly feel at home in this story. In fact, checking the IMDB page, it looks as though Dr. Jekyll does eventually make an appearance in the series.

Admittedly, the only actual penny dreadful I’ve read is Varney the Vampire—and I’m not all the way through. Also, thanks to Stephen Sondheim, I’m familiar with the story of Sweeney Todd, the barber who supplied fresh meat for pies in Victorian London. Based on what I know, Penny Dreadful the series doesn’t really resemble the classic penny dreadfuls. To be honest, Varney the Vampire has more in common with soap operas than it does with most modern horror. It endeavored to stretch situations on as long as possible, providing more scandals than actual sex and in many cases, more pratfalls than violence.

As period horror, I found Penny Dreadful entertaining and generally well told. Like many contemporary cable series, it does have the unfortunate tendency to be heavy-handed with the gratuitous sex and violence. Just to be clear, I call it gratuitous when the sex and violence happen and I don’t quite believe it would happen that fast or don’t really understand why it’s happening between those people. Aside from that issue, I thought it was interesting and fun to see those classic characters meet up.

Of course, the delicious irony here is that many of the characters here are from classic literature. Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Picture of Dorian Gray are all represented. I suppose the title Penny Dreadful sounded better than the title Classic Literature. Even so, the producers do give us a good look at everything from the theaters to shipyards in Victorian London. They show us both how the wealthy and the poor lived. I’ve enjoyed Penny Dreadful because it’s been honest that there were a lot of scary things about Victorian London besides vampires, werewolves, and other monsters that lurk only in the nightmares of authors.

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.

Sharks and the Walking Dead

Today is release day for my steampunk novel The Brazen Shark! It tells the story of samurai who steal a Russian airship in 1877 to foment war with Russia so the Shogunate will be reinstated. Meanwhile, a couple from New Mexico Territory on their honeymoon work to reveal the plot so the world won’t fall into chaos. This is the third of my Clockwork Legion series and it’s available at Amazon as an ebook and in print.

Admittedly, The Brazen Shark is not a horror novel, and this blog focuses on my horror fiction along with horror that I find engaging and worth recommending. Acheron Highway As it turns out, Sky Warrior Book Publishing, who publishes The Brazen Shark does have a number of fine, frightening novels and anthologies. About a week ago, I listened to the audiobook edition of the dark urban fantasy novel Acheron Highway by Gary Jonas. The novel opens when Miranda Hammond walks into the office of Jonathan Shade. The thing that makes this remarkable is that a stalker literally stole Miranda’s heart. She has an incision in her chest and the heart is just plain missing. Shade himself is no stranger to death, having defeated it once himself. He takes the case and while he does, he must contend with zombies who have been raised by the lovesick goddess Persephone who is seeking the man of her dreams, Charon, the ferryman who has gone missing. Shade reminds me a bit of Jim Rockford from The Rockford Files. He’s the kind of detective who does his best to stay out of the trouble he gets himself into. In one scene worthy of a Ray Harryhausen movie, Shade must fight animated skeletons in a bowling alley. The ending is by turns frightening, shocking, and set up perfectly. If you like dark urban fantasy, be sure to check out the Jonathan Shade novels by Gary Jonas. Acheron Highway is available at Amazon.

Sky Warrior also publishes These Vampires Don’t Sparkle and the Zombiefied series edited by Carol Hightshoe. These Vampires Don’t Sparkle includes my Scarlet Order vampire story “Luftgeist” which tells about Lord Draco’s fateful voyage aboard the Hindenburg. The anthology Zombiefied: An Anthology of All Things Zombie includes my story “The Zombie Shortage,” which tells the story of a community that has recovered after the zombie apocalypse but find finds it has become too dependent on zombies. Zombiefied: Hazardous Materials includes my story “Born-Again Miners,” which is set in the same world as The Brazen Shark. It tells the story of mine owner Randolph Dalton who discovers a cheap source of labor. Dalton was the antagonist in the first novel of the Clockwork Legion series, Owl Dance. So yeah, turns out there’s some scary potential in my steampunk books after all!