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.

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.

Hotel_Transylvania_2_poster

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!

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.

Strike Three

Science fiction arguably started with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of humans attempting to create life. Victor Frankenstein fears and despises his creation and the creature comes to hate his creator. Of course the novel also has strong elements of horror which come through the creature’s fight for survival and his struggle against Frankenstein. As science fiction developed, it found an identity that often didn’t include the attribute of horror. However, one important place where horror and science fiction come together is in the post-apocalyptic novel.

Strike Three

This week, I had the pleasure of reading a new post-apocalyptic science fiction novel called Strike Three by Joy V. Smith. In the novel, a coalition of nation states unleash weapons of mass destruction against the world’s major powers. Those major powers, in turn, strike back with nuclear weapons. The result, is a literal scorched Earth. No plants or animals survive on the surface. Those areas that suffered nuclear attack are rendered uninhabitable for many years to come. Most of the United States is relatively lucky. Although the virus unleashed destroyed all plant matter, it died off relatively quickly after it had nothing more to feed on.

Those humans fortunate enough to seek shelter underground with sufficient supplies were able to survive the catastrophe. These folks are now charged with rebuilding a life above ground. They must plant trees, reintroduce animal life, and try to build a new society. In many ways, the novel is more concerned with the process of rebuilding than it is with the horror of destruction. However, the horror looms in the background as bodies are found in some cities and must be dealt with. Not everyone who survived is out to help others. In once case, the survivors must cope with a dangerous, but competent militia group.

One particularly fun aspect of this novel is that I was written in as a character. It’s a brief scene, but I get the honor of starting the science of astronomy in this brave new world.

One aspect I’ve often found interesting about post-apocalyptic novels is their intrinsic hopefulness. No matter how bad the disaster that befalls humankind, there are always those who fight and find a way to survive. Joy V. Smith’s Strike Three is a quick read that focuses on those positive aspects. If you want to check it out for yourself, you can find it at Smashwords and at Amazon.

I first met Joy when Hadrosaur Productions recorded her time travel story Sugar Time for audio. We’re in the process of preparing a new print edition of the Sugar Time stories. In the meantime, you can check out the original audio book at hadrosaur.com

Frankenweenie

Frankenweenie_(2012_film)_poster

I had a chance to watch Tim Burton’s 2012 stop-motion film Frankenweenie this past week. This is an interesting film in that it’s one of the few cases I can think of where a director essentially had the chance to remake his own film. The original version was a short starring Daniel Stern, Shelly Duvall, and Barrett Oliver filmed in 1984, but only released in its full form as a special feature with The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Frankenweenie is largely an homage to James Whale’s 1931 film Frankenstein. In both versions of Burton’s film, young Victor Frankenstein has a dog named Sparky, who is hit by a car. Inspired by his science teacher, he uses the power of electricity to bring the dog back from the dead. The dog wreaks havoc on the neighbors and they ultimately chase him to a windmill which is burned to the ground. In the end, Sparky proves himself to be a hero.

The original is set in a Southern California town. The lighting, settings, and black-and-white cinematography remind me distinctly of the films of Edward D. Wood, Jr., who Burton would pay tribute to a few years later. The newer version of the film is set in a town called New Holland and features a cast of characters who recall an assortment of people from monster films from the 1930s through the 1980s. Sparky wreaks havoc, but even worse havoc is wrought when Victor’s young peers also attempt to reanimate dead pets.

There’s a lot to like in the new film. I particularly liked that the boy Toshiaki’s pet is a turtle named Shelly (great homage to Frankenstein’s creator) who becomes a monster reminiscent of the kaiju, Gamera. I also liked the fact that this animated film isn’t a musical. Now don’t get me wrong, I like a fun animated musical, but I think there are plenty of stories that lend themselves to animation, that don’t lend themselves to songs.

There were a couple of things I liked less about the remake than the original. Well acquainted as Tim Burton is with James Whale and the Universal monster films, I was disappointed that the child named Edgar E. Gore was more reminiscent of the stereotypical “Igor” than he was of Dwight Frye, who originally played the doctor’s assistant. The latter would have felt more organic to me in Burton’s artificial world.

In the original film, Sparky dies because Victor is playing ball with him and the dog runs out in the street. The scene felt like it belonged. In the new movie, Victor’s dad follows the path of so many stereotypical Hollywood dads and worries that his son isn’t active enough in sports, and tries to get him involved in the baseball team. Victor hits the ball and Sparky runs after it, where he’s hit by the car. The world of Frankenweenie is so delightfully warped that it’s almost funny that Victor’s dad is concerned about how normal his son is, but it didn’t quite erase the feeling of a contrived Hollywood father/son relationship.

All in all, this provided a much-needed light respite from my work on The Astronomer’s Crypt. If I dare invoke a baseball analogy, I’m down to the home stretch. I hope to have the novel turned in to my publisher by mid-May.

Frankenstein and Dracula

I had to work at Kitt Peak National Observatory during Halloween this year, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the day. I went to work wearing a pair of Frankenstein bolts and a pair of goggles as an homage to the Universal Frankenstein films.

Halloween 2013

As the classic days of the Universal Horror films were winding down, they started bringing many of their monsters together. There was Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in 1943 and 1944’s House of Frankenstein brought Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolf Man and Dracula all together. However, they never really did a direct pairing of their two biggest stars, Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula.

That idea is one that’s long appealed to me, and I did my own version of the encounter as part of my novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order. Here’s an excerpt where the vampire Marcella DuBois meets a set of creatures at a top secret lab in the New Mexico desert.


    An alarm sounded as we ran out through the double doors. I looked around, expecting to see armed soldiers descending on us. There weren’t any surrounding buildings. We were out in the middle of a moonlit desert—scrub brush dotted an otherwise barren landscape. A single paved road cut a straight line to somewhere. A truck and two unmarked jeeps were parked alongside the road.

    “Stop them!” shouted a voice from behind us.

    I turned around, the scientist and the three gray creatures flanked the building’s door. One of the creatures raised a gun and aimed it at Marcella. I expected the gun to fire an energy ray of some sort. Instead, it launched a probe attached to the gun by two wires. The probe bounced off of Marcella’s bare shoulder. With a snarl, she rushed the creature that had fired the Taser. Faster than I could see, Marcella grabbed the creature’s bald head and twisted. I expected to hear the crunch of broken bones. Instead, the creature knocked Marcella’s arms away and sent her flying.

    I ran forward with the scalpel and thrust it into the eye of the first creature I came to. The rat-like eye exploded into black tar-like pus. The creature’s mouth opened in a silent scream as it fell back into the wall. The scientist and the third creature pulled me off and dragged me struggling into the building. They hauled me into the laboratory. The creature pushed me into a chair and held me while the scientist examined my arm.

    “I see the vampire removed the nanite nodule,” he mused as he
    poked the tender spot on my arm none-too-gently. “I suppose she didn’t want any competition. We’ll soon fix that.” With that, the scientist moved toward the locker containing the glass nodules.

    Marcella and Monster

    “I don’t think so!” called Marcella. She stalked through the doorway carrying in her arms the body of the gray creature who had fired the Taser. She hefted the body over her head and hurled it at the scientist, knocking him into a chemical storage shelf.

    The creature that held me let go and stomped toward Marcella. She threw herself at the creature, forced its head to the side and drove her fangs into its neck. The creature struggled; threatened to dislodge her. I jumped
    up from the chair and grabbed one of its arms. The creature kicked backwards, catching me in the shin. With a crunching of bone, I collapsed to the floor. Marcella continued to hold the gray creature and drain the life from it. Ultimately, it collapsed to the floor. She spat out a mouthful of blue-gray ichor. Her tongue, dyed blue, hung out. “I think I’m gonna be sick. That thing is definitely not human.”


Vampires of the Scarlet Order

Visit www.davidleesummers.com/VSO.html to learn more about Vampires of the Scarlet Order and find places to buy. I hope you had a terrific Halloween! I’d love to hear if there are other monster meetups you’d like to see.

Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein

Recently, the question was raised about film adaptations of favorite books. Because of that and because I just recently reread Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I thought it would be fun to watch Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 adaptation of the novel, which attempts to be closer to the book than many earlier adaptations.

Despite the movie’s attempt to be more faithful to the book than other interpretations, there are some key differences. For example, in the novel, Henry Clerval is a friend from Geneva who joins Victor Frankenstein at college in Ingolstadt after the monster is created. In the movie, Clerval is a fellow medical student that started about the same time as Victor. Another difference is that Professor Waldman dies in the movie and his brain is used for the creature.

Another key difference between the film and the book is that time is significantly compressed in the movie. In the novel, years pass between Victor’s arrival in Ingolstadt and the penultimate scene that occurs on the night of his wedding to Elizabeth. Also, The action happens over a much wider range of geography. In the movie, all of this seems to happen over the course of weeks and the settings are confined to Ingolstadt, Geneva, and the North Pole. Also, Branagh expanded significantly on the penultimate scene—the moment that leads Victor to chase the monster across the ice of the North Pole.

The time compression makes some sense given the scope of a movie as opposed the scope of a novel. For the most part I had no problem with that, though I might have enjoyed it more if they had found a way to compress it a little less.

An interesting element of the novel is that in spite of the fact that Victor is reanimating corpses, it doesn’t really explore the theme of immortality or life extension. The corpses are treated simply as inanimate matter. The movie not only explores this theme but pulls it to the forefront, which explains the reason for the change to the penultimate scene.

I thought the cast of the movie was great. Branagh himself played Victor, Helena Bonham Carter was Elizabeth, Robert DeNiro was the creature and John Clease was Professor Waldman, and that’s just the beginning of the fine cast. Many of them give over-the-top performances, but really that seems to fit the fact that the story is a Gothic romance.

The bottom line is that the book and the movie have key differences. Although I enjoyed the book more than the movie, I’m hard-pressed to say that one is “better” than the other in this case. The movie explored the important themes of the novel and even expanded on one that seemed neglected. It got the period right and provided gorgeous visuals of everything from the lab to the Frankenstein manner in Geneva to the Swiss Alps.

I hesitate to judge whether Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein would be enjoyable for someone who hasn’t read the book, but as someone who has, I found it an engaging way to spend two hours reliving a novel I enjoyed.

Frankenstein Revisited

While working on a new story a couple of weeks ago, I decided to go back and reread Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. I was particularly interested in revisiting Victor Frankenstein’s motivations in the novel and descriptions of his laboratory and working conditions. It’s been nearly 20 years since I last read Frankenstein and it was fascinating to take a fresh look at this novel that has had such a strong influence on both science fiction and horror.

The photo shows my cherished copy of Frankenstein illustrated by Berni Wrightson, introduced by Stephen King, and published by Marvel Comics. It’s a beautiful edition and reprints are widely available. For my reread, I downloaded a copy from Project Gutenberg, so I could more easily carry it around on my Kindle. Here is their page for Frankenstein: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/84

The plot of the novel has often been obscured by the famous Hollywood adaptations, so a brief, hopefully spoiler-free synopsis is worthwhile. The novel opens as Captain Robert Walton is leading an expedition to the North Pole. They see a mysterious figure traverse the ice on a dog sled. Some time later, the ice breaks up and they find another man on a dog sled barely alive, floating on the ice. They pull the man aboard and discover he’s Victor Frankenstein, a scientist from Geneva, Switzerland. Frankenstein proceeds to tell Walton how he came to be at the North Pole.

Frankenstein was a happy youth, surrounded by friends, including his adopted cousin Elizabeth Lavenza and their friend Henry Clerval. He reads extensively and discovers books about alchemy in his father’s library. Once he reaches his teens, Frankenstein goes to university at Ingolstadt where he learns about then-modern science. He gets the idea to combine his knowledge of alchemy with modern natural philosophy concerning chemistry and electricity to create life. He creates a body from cadavers and soon succeeds with his plans. However, he is so horrified by his creation that he turns from it and it runs off into the night.

Frankenstein goes on about his life for about two years, then is called home when his little brother is found murdered and the prime suspect is the family’s beloved housekeeper Justine. There is a trial and Justine is condemned to death. Soon after the trial, Frankenstein is hiking among the glaciers and is reunited with the monster, who tells him what he’s been doing for the past two years.

The monster went to a village and quickly found himself shunned. He hides near a small cottage and observes the DeLacy family. Observing them over the course of a year, he learns to speak, read and write. However, when he finally decides to make himself known to them, he is chased away. Some time later, he rescues a little girl from a stream, only be shunned and chased away by her father. All of this causes the creature to seek revenge on the man who created him.

The novel had much more impact on me now than it did twenty years ago. Some of that is simply that I’ve read more widely and understood more of the references. Some of it has to do with the fact that I’m now a parent. In many ways, the novel stands as a critique of people who create a child, then abandon it to their own self-interest. The creature is intelligent, but he doesn’t know love and he doesn’t learn to govern his violent emotions.

Frankenstein’s motivations were fascinating. His childhood interest in alchemy is scorned by one professor, while somewhat indulged by another. Together, this leads to Victor finding a way to merge the ancient arts with modern science. After he creates life, and the creature has gone out into the world, it’s interesting to see the way that the society of Frankenstein’s day allowed him to avoid responsibility for his creation until it was too late. There may have been no TV, computers, or video games, but Frankenstein found plenty to occupy himself with for large periods of time between encounters with the creature.

The creature himself appears doomed to his fate by his horrific appearance, but I find myself wondering if he would have turned into the “vile daemon” of the novel if he had been nurtured by a loving father rather than scorned as an unwanted child.

The experiments themselves were also interesting. Shelley avoids detailed description of the apparatus. It’s clear chemistry and cadavers are involved. Likewise, it’s implied that electricity is used, but she doesn’t explain in detail. What I found particularly interesting is that Frankenstein creates life not in a remote castle as depicted in the movies, but first in his apartment in Ingolstadt, then later attempts to recreate his experiment in a two-room thatch hovel in the Orkneys.

Perhaps more interesting than the experiments from a writer’s perspective were the descriptions of travel and how long it took to get from one place to another and how readily this time was accepted by people. There are some good tidbits here for writers who want to explore historical fiction.

Although the novel is often cited as discussing the problems of science gone wrong, the line that sticks with me most from was spoken by the creature to Victor: “You are my creator, but I am your master; obey!” To my mind, that’s the line that brings the novel home to everyone. How many of us have, at one time or another turned away from our parents or even God—no matter our specific religious beliefs—and made just that demand?

If you only know Frankenstein from the movies, you should definitely go check out the novel. If it has been some time since you’ve read the novel, I think it’s one worthy of a second look. I definitely enjoyed rediscovering this classic novel.