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.

Shelley-Godwin-Byron

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.

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.

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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.

Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, when we remember those men and women who fell in the service of our country. I’ve been fortunate that all my close relatives who went off to war came home again, though not all of them were unscathed. My grandfather, who served in the Army Air Corps in World War I had his arm shattered and nearly removed by a biplane propeller. Because of his service and his injury, he received a veteran’s benefits. Sadly, during the Great Depression when those benefits were sometimes his only source of income to feed and house himself and his three children, members of his own family accused him of taking handouts from the government.

I really didn’t know much about my grandfather while I was growing up. He died when I was only three-years old. Just about ten years ago, my mom came for a visit and wanted to see the town she grew up in. It’s a small town called Des Moines, New Mexico, in the far Northeastern corner of the state near Capulin Volcano. We walked through town and then went out to show my daughter the volcano. We discovered the ranger manning the desk actually knew my grandfather when he was alive, and she told us several stories about him. It turned out to be an unexpected treat!

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Afterwards, images of the real-life horror that would result if a volcano like Capulin erupted today haunted me. They swirled around with stories of my grandfather, and I wrote a story I called “Cherry Blossoms in the Springtime.” About a year later, it was picked up for an anthology called This Ain’t No Rodeo edited by Carol Hightshoe. This was a benefit anthology to raise money to assist injured rodeo bull riders. I’ve given a few stories to benefit anthologies over the years and I rarely know how effective they proved to be. I just discovered that the anthology raised $700 for it’s cause. I’m proud to have helped with that and I’m pleased that it happened through making a closer contact with my grandfather through the power of stories.

In the story, I imagine a veteran of World War I who happens to be a champion rodeo rider who fell on hard times due to the Great Depression. To make matters worse, a geologist arrives, announcing Capulin Volcano is about to erupt. The veteran enlists a friend to help save the town. The solution was based on a story my graduate advisor used to tell about saving a town by venting a volcano through explosives. My grandfather wasn’t a rodeo rider, nor has Capulin Volcano been active in recent memory, but I think it was a fun story. I’m sorry to say This Ain’t No Rodeo is out of print, so I may have to find it a new home.

At any rate, the story was intended not only as a way to remember my grandfather, but as a way to honor the bravery of those men and women who have served in the armed forces. Of course, many of those men and women made the ultimate sacrifice and never made it home. Memorial Day is often considered the unofficial start of summer, which includes fun and games. Sports like rodeo may not be limited to summer, but can certainly be part of the season. Before we dive into the fun, let’s take a moment and remember those folks who made that ultimate sacrifice and have given us the freedom we enjoy.

Hotel Transylvania 2

This week is off to a good start with the release of Lost Trails 2: Forgotten Tales of the Weird West which includes my Lovecraftian horror story “Reckoning at the Alamo.” I wrote about the anthology in detail over at David Lee Summers’ Web Journal on Saturday. Yesterday, I joined several of my fellow contributors to the anthology Gaslight and Grimm on a podcast discussing the anthology. I had the chance to briefly mention my forthcoming novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. Of course, as noted in the podcast, some of the stories in Gaslight and Grimm are pretty dark in their own right. If you want to check out the show, visit The Catholic Geek: Gaslight & Grimm. The podcast was great, chaotic fun. Afterwards, I took time to hang out with the family and watch Hotel Transylvania 2.

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As it turns out, I haven’t seen the original Hotel Transylvania, but my kids brought me up to speed with the one bit of information I needed to know. Human Jonathan Loughran has married Mavis, the daughter of Count Dracula, who runs a hotel for monsters in Transylvania. Jonathan and Mavis had a child named Dennis.

The conflict of the movie centers around the question of whether or not Dennis is a vampire like Mavis or a human like Jonathan. Mavis’s dad, Count Dracula, of course wants Jonathan to be a monster. Jonathan’s family would like Jonathan, Dennis, and Mavis in the “human” world of California. All of this becomes a simple metaphor for race relations. Can we love another who is somehow different than us? It’s a sweet family film with few surprises and a few laughs.

Of course it plays on several vampire tropes. The vampires can’t go out into the sun without heavy duty sunscreen and they can hypnotize humans. What’s more, the vampires can all transform into bats and other creatures. As I’ve said before, this is something I’d love to see explored more in vampire stories and media.

The monster world is filled with other creatures besides vampires. We also see Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, the Blob, and the Wolfman—complete with a litter of ferocious pups. I liked the joke where Frankenstein’s Monster introduces himself as Frankenstein, but backtracks to explain that technically he is the Monster. Interestingly, there is actually literary justification for the monster calling himself “Frankenstein” since he sees himself as the son of his creator.

For me, the very best horror-comedies such as Young Frankenstein and Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein offer a few genuine scares to offset the laughs. Hotel Transylvania 2 makes an effort on this score, but for the most part, it comes off like the safe camps it pokes gentle fun at. You never have the feeling anyone was really in danger. Despite that, the movie was a fun way to spend an evening with the family and might be a good way to introduce younger children to the classic monsters we all grew up with. Just don’t forget to pull out the real classics when they get a bit older!

The Other Scarlet Order

About a year ago, I posted that I’d discovered another Scarlet Order title about vampires. At this point, all four volumes of Dance in the Vampire Bund II: Scarlet Order have been released in English and I’ve just finished reading the set. Here we see them pictured with my two Scarlet Order novels.

Scarlet Order Books

As it turns out, there are some interesting ways Nozomu Tamaki’s Scarlet Order manga are similar to my novels. In his story, the queen of the vampires, Mina Tepes, starts finding clues to the origins of vampire kind. In much the same way, the origins of vampires plays an important role in my Vampires of the Scarlet Order. In the manga series, nanotechnology is used to attack Mina’s headquarters. In Vampires of the Scarlet Order, nanotechnology also plays an important role, but it’s more directly related to the origin of the vampires. Likewise, both series involve mysteries that span the ages.

In my series, the Scarlet Order refers to the team of vampire mercenaries led by Desmond Drake. I think I can say without spoiling anything that Nozomu Tamaki’s Scarlet Order refers to a new direction for vampire kind as a whole.

It’s worth noting that in the manga, although Mina Tepes is several hundred years old, she maintains the form of a young girl. Since she’s romantically interested in the werewolf Akira Regendorf, this creates more than a few scenes that I found uncomfortable to read and see in drawn form. That said, my Scarlet Order vampire Mercy Rodriguez was turned as an older teen—albeit one who had already borne two children—and retains that form. After all, the Scarlet Order vampires remain as they were when they become vampires. I could imagine some readers might be just as uncomfortable reading about Mercy as I was about Mina at some points.

Despite this one issue, I would recommend Dance in the Vampire Bund II: Scarlet Order to mature vampire fans. What’s more, it would be interesting to see a crossover between the two series. I think a meeting between Mina and Desmond could prove quite interesting!

You can find out more about my Scarlet Order novels at:

Finally, I’ll wrap up with some news. I just completed reviewing my editor’s second pass of The Astronomer’s Crypt. The book should be moving on to copy edits soon. I hope I’ll have a release and a cover reveal before long. Be sure to stay tuned!

Varney the Vampyre

Over the last three years or so, I’ve been reading the penny dreadful Varney the Vampyre. It’s taken that long partly because my edition is 1166 pages of tiny type and partly because penny dreadfuls were largely written to fill a weekly page count more than edited for quality. Nosferatu-Varney At times, it could be quite the slog and more than once I thought I wouldn’t bother to finish, but I finally persevered and made it through.

There’s a very good article about Varney at the Victorian Gothic Blog. I especially like their plot synopsis and definitely agree the final section of Varney is the best. Throughout the novel, the titular hero is villainous, sympathetic, romantic, and even interviewed. In 1166 pages, he embodied just about every major vampire trope I can think of. If I had to tell you what Varney most reminded me of, it was Dark Shadows—not necessarily in the sense of quality, but in the sense that reading Varney was not a little like following a Gothic soap opera!

My edition of Varney credits the writing to James Malcolm Rymer. However, the original penny dreadful contained no writing credit. There is some debate as to who actually wrote Varney. Most point to Rymer or Thomas Peckett Prest. In fact, Wikipedia says it was both. To me, it seemed like Varney must have been written by at least two people and perhaps more. Varney is a long, rambling story and parts are definitely better and tighter than others, making me think there must have been at least two, if not more writers involved.

I was fascinated to see that in the final section, Sir Frances Varney interacts with historical figures such as Oliver Cromwell and King Charles II, especially since this is something I like doing in my historical vampire fiction. Although the storyline focuses on Varney, my favorite characters ended up being Admiral Bell and his steward Jack Pringle, who end up being Varney’s foils in much of the book. Unlike Dr. Van Helsing who works to outwit Dracula, Jack and the Admiral often foil Varney’s plans unwittingly by just being in the right place at the right time!

I’ve mentioned it before in other posts, but one of my favorite elements of the vampire lore in this story is that Varney requires moonlight to heal. If you shoot him on the new moon, he might die. Furthermore, he can walk around in broad daylight. However, it’s the moon that gives him his power to recover from injuries. I thought that was an interesting idea that could be used more in vampire fiction.

As you read this, I’m working my way through the second editorial pass on my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. I hope to return it to my editor by the end of next week, then it’ll go to the copy editor for final cleanup. I’ll have more news soon!

Blacula

I enjoy watching good horror B-movies from time to time. Sometimes I discover some great moments and find a few surprises. Blacula is one of those films that I’d heard about a long time ago, but never managed to watch. Blacula-Poster Recently, I discovered the title character was played by William Marshall, an actor whose work I admired from such TV series as Star Trek and The Wild Wild West. It was enough for me to push the movie up to the top of my viewing list.

There’s no question, Blacula is a B-movie with several plot holes and a low budget, but it also included some interesting story ideas and, for better or worse, may have even introduced some tropes to the vampire genre. The best scene in the movie is arguably the opening in which William Marshall plays Mamuwalde, an African Prince who petitions Count Dracula to help end the slave trade. Dracula shows himself to be a truly heinous villain, by not only embracing the trade, but then turning Mamuwalde into a vampire he deems “Blacula” and locking him in a coffin so he may listen to the death of his beloved wife Tuva. I gather Marshall worked with the writers to develop this opening, which gave the film both some dignity and an interesting twist. Plus, it helped to show Mamuwalde as an early example of a sympathetic vampire.

After the credits roll, we cut to a pair of embarrassingly stereotypical gay interior decorators buying the contents of Dracula’s castle to ship them to Los Angeles. Once in Los Angeles, they free Mamuwalde from his coffin, unleashing him on the city. He soon meets Tina, a woman who he recognizes as the reincarnation of his wife, Tuva. The idea of an undead monster meeting his reincarnated lover first appeared way back in The Mummy starring Boris Karloff, but I think this may be the first time the trope appeared in a vampire film. Of course, it’s become common since then, appearing in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Dracula Untold and We Are the Night to name a few.

The movie continues with a fairly straightforward vampire movie plot. Mamuwalde seduces Tina, while leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. Dr. Gordon Thomas, a pathologist for the LAPD is on the case and discovers all those Mamuwalde kills are turning into vampires. One of my favorite humorous scenes involves Thomas sweet-talking his wife to help him go the cemetery to dig up one of the recently deceased. I asked my wife whether or not I’d have to sweet talk her, and she answered I might have a hard time stopping her from helping. Though she concedes she would make me do the hard work of digging while she kept watch!

I hesitate to give spoilers in case you want to watch the movie for yourself, but the ending involved what I think may be the first instance of a trope that’s now common in vampire fiction and film. I will say that the scene is well played by William Marshall and involves some suitably creepy special effects.

One of my personal favorite aspects of Blacula is that Mamuwalde transforms into a bat, an ability shared with two of my Scarlet Order vampires, Marcella and Daniel. Although the effect is cheesy in this movie because of budget limitations, I’ve wondered what it might look like with quality CGI. So far, the closest I know is Dracula’s transformation into a swarm of bats in Dracula Untold.

I found it refreshing to see a predominantly black cast with some great parts for the women as well as the men. Also, it turns out William Marshall wasn’t the only Star Trek veteran in the cast. A morgue worker is played by Elisha Cook Jr., who Trekkies might recognize as Samuel T. Cogley, Attorney at Law. In the end, while I’m hard pressed to call Blacula a great vampire film, it is a fun diversion for a vampire fan’s afternoon and you might even discover where some classic tropes were introduced into the genre.

Cover of Dragon's Fall: Bondage

Finally, I’ll wrap up today’s post by noting that I have three copies of Dragon’s Fall: Bondage to give away. These are Kindle ebook copies which present the complete first part of my novel Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order. All you have to do to get one is leave me a comment telling me about a favorite classic vampire film and give me a way to contact you. You must be over eighteen years of age to enter. I’ll give away copies until they’re gone.