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.

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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.

Rudolfo – Where Old World Meets New

Today, I continue my look back at the origins of Vampires of the Scarlet Order. In the previous installments, I looked at the original stories set in the present day, which introduced the vampires Daniel, Mercy, and Marcella. By this point, around the end of 2001, beginning of 2002, I started to see a story arc developing. After writing “Vampires in the World of Dreams” I knew there were ancient vampires, but I had yet to explore who they were and what they did. That’s when I had the idea to introduce Rudolfo. He’s a vampire who came to the new world with the conquistadors, dropped into a long sleep and emerged in the modern world. I first told his story in a pair of stories which appeared in the zines Parchment Symbols and Night to Dawn.

Rudolfo-Mags

Rudolfo’s first appearance was in the story “The Last Conquistador” which tells the story of a physicist named Jane Heckman performing tests on a new explosive and waking the slumbering vampire. Hungry, he kills two of her graduate students. Angry and frightened, Dr. Heckman confronts the creature which attacked her students. Rudolfo is intrigued by the woman scientist and chooses her to be his guide in the new era. The story appeared in Issue 9 of Parchment Symbols magazine.

After writing the story, I grew curious about Rudolfo’s origins, so I wrote the story “The Scarlet Order.” This story is set in 1492, during the reconquest of Spain. Rudolfo is a poor human, whose father is a caballero blockading Granada. When his father is killed, Rudolfo seeks revenge, only to fall in with a band of ancient vampire mercenaries—the Scarlet Order, led by Lord Draco. The story appeared in Issue 3 of Night to Dawn magazine and would ultimately become the first chapter of Vampires of the Scarlet Order.

Rudolfo became an important part of the Scarlet Order story. He soon becomes Draco’s second in command, which led to one of my favorite moments from the novel, which I read and made into a short film. The illustrations by Steve Gilberts are from the print edition of the novel.

As I envisioned it, the alliance of vampires was fragile at best. Rudolfo brought a semblance of stability to the Scarlet Order, but even he can only take it for so long. After about 50 years, he travels to America and joins Don Juan de Oñate in his conquest of New Mexico. However, the low population in the new world and the horrors of Oñate’s expedition drive Rudolfo into a deep slumber.

When he awakens, he finds a world he can live in, but he’s soon swept away. This leads Dr. Jane Heckman on a quest for the old Scarlet Order vampires. When she meets up with Daniel, Mercy, and Marcella, she’s not altogether happy with what she sees, but soon she learns they must stop an evil greater than vampires.

If you’d like to learn more about Rudolfo and the vampires of the Scarlet Order, be sure to enter my Rafflecopter giveaway. I’m collecting entries until the end of the month. See the first post in this series for more details or just click here to enter the Rafflecopter giveaway

Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini was a great stage magician and one of the highest paid Vaudeville performers of the 1910s and 1920s. Houdini_in_Handcuffs_1918 He was born Erik Weisz, but took the stage name Harry Houdini to honor the Victorian magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, who was known for his work creating magical automata. Houdini’s fame largely rested in his amazing escapes. He could free himself from handcuffs, straightjackets, water tanks and he even allowed himself to be buried alive under six feet of earth. That last stunt nearly did kill him, but he emerged far enough, his assistants saw his hand and were able to pull him to safety.

Posters advertising Houdini often showed him dematerializing from imprisonment and materializing elsewhere. Despite this, Houdini himself never claimed any of his escapes were the result of supernatural powers. In fact, he actively sought to expose people who made such claims, especially when they used those claims to defraud people. He was a member of Scientific American committee that offered a cash prize to any spiritualist who could demonstrate real supernatural abilities. In that way, he was very much like James Randi, the magician and skeptic who offers a similar prize today.

In 1922, Arthur Conan Doyle visited Houdini in his home. Conan Doyle, the famed creator of Sherlock Holmes, was a believer in spirit communication. A regular way for spirits to communicate during séances was by writing on slates. Houdini arranged an elaborate demonstration to show Conan Doyle that slate writing could be accomplished by trickery and required no supernatural means. There’s a great article that describes the meeting at the Scientific American website. When Houdini finished his demonstration, he told Conan Doyle, “Sir Arthur, I have devoted a lot of time and thought to this illusion … I won’t tell you how it was done, but I can assure you it was pure trickery. I did it by perfectly normal means. I devised it to show you what can be done along these lines. Now, I beg of you, Sir Arthur, do not jump to the conclusion that certain things you see are necessarily ‘supernatural,’ or the work of ‘spirits,’ just because you cannot explain them…”

In 1926, Houdini hired the famed horror authors H.P. Lovecraft and C.M. Eddy Jr. to write a book about debunking spiritualist miracles called The Cancer of Superstition. Unfortunately, Houdini died before the book was finished. Despite that, Lovecraft’s detailed synopsis for the book survives as do three of Eddy’s chapters. It just goes to show that writing spooky, supernatural stories doesn’t require an actual belief in the supernatural. Much as supernatural stories compel me and even though I’ve seen a few strange things here or there that I can’t easily explain, I stop short of believing that they have paranormal explanations without much more proof.

If you’re looking for some good spooky stories, might I suggest either Cemetery Dance, Issue 66 or These Vampires Don’t Sparkle? Both are wonderful collections and the links will take you to their pages at Amazon.

Victorian Spiritism and Science

One of the things that fascinates me about the Victorian age is the way such things as spiritism and belief in the paranormal paralleled a period of increased scientific accomplishment. Mumler_(Lincoln) It’s as though the harnessing of unseen and intangible forces such as electromagnetism and steam brought about a desire to understand the unseen forces of the spirit realm. Séances and attempts to contact the dead became popular. In fact, Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, famously held a séance in the White House. Not only did people claim to talk to the dead, some people claimed to photograph them as well, bringing us back to Mary Todd Lincoln. She’s shown in this photo taken by William H. Mumler. As it turns out, Mumler himself was a fraud, exposed by no less than P.T. Barnum, and the image of Lincoln was created through a double exposure.

Ghosts were not unheard of before the Victorian age, but people certainly seemed increasingly preoccupied with them during the nineteenth century. One theory I’ve heard is that it’s related to the rise in people moving from farms to cities beginning during the industrial revolution and increasing through the Victorian age. People suddenly found themselves in more cramped, less familiar surroundings. It certainly seems possible that people could have imagined the spirits of loved ones appearing as a kind of comfort after being uprooted from more familiar environs. What’s more, as more people moved into cities, there were higher rates of death and disease, which might lead to a desire on the part of people to find ways to see loved ones again.

Another suggestion I’ve encountered is more mundane. The Victorian age brought about the introduction of gas lamps, and the pipes weren’t always well sealed. One could easily imagine someone who breathed in poor quality air beginning to see things.

A Christmas Carol

As an author, I’m always fascinated by literary explanations. I’ve seen some point to nothing less than Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol as one of the inspirations for the rise in spiritism. The book was, after all, released in 1843, right at the beginning of the Victorian age and was wildly popular, receiving both critical acclaim and being adapted for the stage within a year of release. I do find it fascinating that aside from the ghost of Jacob Marley, most of the ghosts in A Christmas Carol aren’t actually spirits of people who died, but are more angelic figures, concerned about the redemption of Ebeneezer Scrooge.

My novel Lightning Wolves explores this almost contradictory rise of rationality and spiritism as the scientist M.K. Maravilla decides to investigate sightings of a ghost camel near Arizona’s Mule Mountains. Such sightings are actually part of the historical record and may have been precipitated by real camels brought over during the American Civil War.

So, have you heard any other explanations for the rise of spiritism in the nineteenth century? Any stories that might provide some more insight into this interesting period of history?

Skeptical

A little over a week ago, I was aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California for Her Royal Majesty’s Steampunk Symposium. The ship has become famous as a “haunted attraction” and stories of ghost sightings are common, so it’s not surprising many of us spent time discussing ghost sightings that have occurred. I have even had an experience aboard the ship three years ago that I can’t easily explain which I documented at the Accidental Ghost Hunter’s Blog. Here we see the first class pool, which is often touted as the most haunted place on the ship, and was indeed where I experienced my own strange encounter.

Queen Mary Pool

Now, if you read the Accidental Ghost Hunter post, you’ll see that I consider myself a skeptic. Some people are often surprised when they discover I am both a skeptic and write stories about paranormal subjects such as ghosts and vampires. However, I really see no conflict. First of all, I’ve written and enjoyed stories about dragons and gryphons, even though I suspect most people will agree they don’t really exist. The folklore of mythical creatures is fascinating and the stories can provide insights into the human condition that might not be possible if they were rooted in reality.

That said, it’s also true that I don’t entirely dismiss the idea of ghosts. I’ve had experiences I found difficult to explain and I’ve heard compelling stories from others that make me wonder if such entities do exist. A couple of weeks ago, I came across a statement by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry which says, “Deniers are not Skeptics.” The statement articulates their position on climate change deniers, but I would argue it could be more broadly applied. After all, it’s just as irrational to deny something without evidence as it is to accept something without evidence.

Now, as pointed out in the CSI statement, Carl Sagan once famously said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I agree with that wholeheartedly. Proving ghosts—or any paranormal phenomenon for that matter—requires extraordinary evidence and such evidence simply hasn’t appeared. Even my own experiences don’t qualify since I can’t eliminate non-paranormal explanations for the events. I don’t believe the existence of ghosts has been demonstrated, but I don’t deny their possibility either.

As a storyteller, I find it very gratifying when something I write resonates with a reader, David Lee Summers Vampire-Scarlet-Order-800x1190 such as the time a construction worker admitted to being creeped out by the idea of vampires haunting the Rio Grande Theater as I described in Vampires of the Scarlet Order. He said he often felt like something was watching him from the balcony. I don’t think either one of us believed there really were vampires, but something about considering the possibility allowed us to connect and move on to a discussion about our fears and how they often prove to be unfounded.

So, have you ever had a strange experience you can’t explain? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

A Vampire’s Guide to New Orleans, Part 2

Last week at the Scarlet Order Vampires Journal, we featured Part 1 of “A Vampire’s Guide to New Orleans” by Steven P. Unger. Now we’re proud to present the conclusion of this fascinating look at the Crescent City.


ANNE RICE AND THE VAMPIRE CHRONICLES

Lafayette Cemetery (Photo Corutesy of Phil Orgeron)

Lafayette Cemetery (Photo Corutesy of Phil Orgeron)

There is no one who has done more to bring the vampire into the New Age than Anne Rice, born and bred in New Orleans, with her novel Interview with the Vampire and the films and books that followed. Those who have profited mightily from the popularity of True Blood and Twilight owe her a great debt.

The ultra-retro St. Charles Avenue Streetcar will take you close to Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, the gravesite of Louis de Pointe du Lac’s (Lestat’s companion and fellow vampire in Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles) wife and child and where Louis was turned into a vampire by Lestat.

The Styrofoam tomb from the film Interview with the Vampire is gone now, but you can easily find the site where it stood, the wide empty space in the cemetery nearest the corner of Coliseum and Sixth Street.

During the filming of Interview with the Vampire, the blocks between 700 and 900 Royal Street in the French Quarter were used for exterior shots of the home of the vampires Louis, Lestat, and Claudia, trapped through time with an adult mind in the body of a six-year-old girl. In fact, the streets there and around Jackson Square were covered in mud for the movie as they had been in the 1860s when the scenes took place.

The perfectly preserved Gallier House at 1132 Royal Street was Anne Rice’s inspiration for the vampires’ house, and very close to that is the Lalaurie House, at 1140 Royal Street. Delphine Lalaurie, portrayed by Kathy Bates in American Horror Story: Coven, was a real person who lived in that house and was indeed said to have tortured and bathed in the blood of her slaves—even the blood of a slave girl’s newborn baby—to preserve her youth. She was never seen again in New Orleans after an angry mob partially destroyed her home on April 10, 1834. There is a scene in American Horror Story where Delphine escapes from the coven’s mansion and sits dejectedly on the curb in front of her old home. A private residence now, some locals still swear that the Lalaurie House is haunted, and that the clanking of chains can be heard through the night.

Built in 1789, Madame John’s Legacy (632 Dumaine Street) is the oldest surviving residence in the Mississippi Valley. In Interview with the Vampire, caskets are shown being carried out of the house as Louis’ (Brad Pitt) voice-over describes the handiwork of his housemates Claudia and Lestat: “An infant prodigy with a lust for killing that matched his own. Together, they finished off whole families.”

1135 Decatur

RESOURCES FOR VAMPIRES

As a service to this most vampire-friendly city (http://www.vampirewebsite.net/vampirefriendlycities.html), the New Orleans Vampire Association describes itself as a “non-profit organization comprised of self-identifying vampires representing an alliance between Houses within the Community in the Greater New Orleans Area. Founded in 2005, NOVA was established to provide support and structure for the vampire and other-kin subcultures and to provide educational and charitable outreach to those in need.”

Their Web site also points out that “every year since Hurricane Katrina, the founding members of NOVA have taken food out on Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas to those who are hungry and homeless.” (See http://www.neworleansvampireassociation.org/index.html.)

FANGTASIA, named with permission from HBO after the club featured in True Blood, is an affiliation of New Orleans-based musicians and film and TV producers who for three years have presented a multi-day vampire-centric event of the same name, the first two years at 1135 Decatur and last year at the Howlin’ Wolf. You can follow their plans and exploits via their blog at http://www.fangtasiaevent.com/fangtasia-blog/.

Next year FANGTASIA hopes to create “the South by Southwest of Global Vampire Culture” at an as yet undisclosed location in Greater New Orleans. As they describe it:

    Moving beyond this third consecutive year, FANGTASIA is building a broader international draw that will bring fans to not only party at club nights, but also attend conferences, elegant fashion shows, film & TV screenings, celebrity events as well as an international Halloween/party gear buyers’ market.

    Participants will experience gourmet sensations, explore our sensuous city and haunted bayous… as well as epically celebrate the Global Vampire Culture in all its sultry, seductive, diverse and darkly divine incarnations. Additionally, FANGTASIA is strategically poised months prior to Halloween to provide corporate sponsors and vendors a perfect window to connect with their core demographic. This also allows FANGTASIA to actively support and promote existing major Halloween events in New Orleans and beyond.

On the subject of vampiric Halloween events, for 25 years the Anne Rice Vampire Lestat Fan Club (http://arvlfc.com/index.html) has presented the annual Vampire Ball (http://arvlfc.com/ball.html), now as part of the four-day UndeadCon (http://arvlfc.com/undeadcon.html) at the end of October; and on the weekend nearest Halloween Night (for example, November 1, 2014) the Endless Night Festival and New Orleans Vampire Ball takes place at the House of Blues (http://www.endlessnight.com/venue/).

Boutique du Vampyre

The Boutique du Vampyre (http://feelthebite.com/boutique2013.html) is a moveable (literally—they’re known to change locations on short notice) feast of vampire and Goth-related odds and ends, many of them locally made. There are books as well—you may even find a copy of In the Footsteps of Dracula: A Personal Journey and Travel Guide if they’re not sold out. Their Web site itself holds a surprise treat: a link to a free video cast of the first two seasons of Vampire Mob (http://vampiremob.com/Vampire_Mob/Vampire_Mob.html), which is just what the title implies.

Finally, no visit to the Crescent City would be complete, for Vampire and Mortal alike, without a taste of absinthe (http://www.piratesalleycafe.com/absinthe.html), or even more than a taste. There is a ritual to the preparation and serving of absinthe that should not be missed; one of the sites that does this authentically is the Pirates Alley Café and Absinthe House at 622 Pirates Alley.


Steven P. Unger is the best-selling author of In the Footsteps of Dracula: A Personal Journey and Travel Guide, published and distributed by World Audience Publishers (http://www.amazon.com/Footsteps-Dracula-Personal-Journey-Travel/dp/1935444530/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1262485478&sr=1-1).

In the Footsteps of Dracula can be ordered from your local bookstore or online at www.amazon.com, www.amazon.co.uk, www.barnesandnoble.com, www.amazon.fr, www.amazon.de, http://www.amazon.com/Kindle, or with free delivery worldwide from www.bookdepository.co.uk.