Apocalyptic Visions

While in Tucson recently, I stopped off at a comic shop to see what’s new. As I browsed the shelves, my eyes fell on the title Scooby Apocalypse. The premise is that the familiar gang of Scooby, Shaggy, Velma, Daphne, and Fred are on the scene as nanites are released, transforming humanity in monsters and unleashing worldwide catastrophe. apocalypse comics I browsed through the first issue and saw lovely artwork and soon realized they had created a science fictional reason for Scooby to be able to talk.

Before I go too much further, I should explain that I grew up in the early 70s, watching Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? and a host of other Hanna-Barbara cartoons when they first ran. In fact, you might say Scooby was my first introduction to horror. Even if they did pull off rubber masks and reveal that the villain was always a crook in a suit, the ghost in Vásquez castle and the Spooky Space Kook both freaked me out as a kid. The influence Scooby has had on me was evident when Fred Cleaver at The Denver Post said the characters in Vampires of the Scarlet Order reminded him of the Scooby Gang. In fact, while working on The Astronomer’s Crypt, the copy editor noted that the protagonist, Mike Teter, had a “Velma moment” and I had to laugh.

Also, I’ll note that as a writer, and especially a horror writer, apocalyptic fiction has a certain appeal. After all, one of the things writers want to do is maximize the emotions felt by the characters in their stories. Putting characters into an apocalyptic scenario allows us to see what these characters do in the very worst possible situations. In that sense, The Astronomer’s Crypt is very much an apocalyptic novel, because I trapped people in a confined space with minimal resources and threw real-world villains, ghosts, and true apocalypse-bringing monsters at them. This kind of scenario clearly has a strong appeal with writers and readers as evidenced by such books as Stephen King’s The Stand, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, and Lois Lowry’s The Giver.

So, when I saw old favorites like the Scooby gang thrown into an apocalyptic scenario, I had to check it out. I’m happy to say the first two issues of Scooby Apocalypse were pretty good. They reminded me of one of my favorite Scooby-Doo movies after the original: Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island. In fact, Daphne and Fred work for television, just as they did in Zombie Island. Like the movie, Apocalypse imagines that the gang are now grown-ups. However, in this case, the series is something of a reboot and in this world the gang meets for the first time as adults.

I was eagerly awaiting issue 3, but discovered that my local comic shop in Las Cruces sold out before I got there! I have a copy on order, but while waiting, I made a second interesting discovery. It turns out DC Comics has another Hanna-Barbara story imagined in an apocalyptic reality. This time, they took the silly cartoon Wacky Races— inspired no doubt by such slapstick comedies as 1965’s The Great Race—and imagined it in a Mad Max-like post atomic horror.

For those who don’t remember Wacky Races, it imagines colorful characters like the beautiful Penelope Pitstop, the villainous Dick Dastardly and his dog Mutley, the handsome Peter Perfect, and the inventive Professor Pat Pending racing in different venues around the world. Among the characters racing are a beaver, a bear, and a pair of cavemen. In the new comic, Wacky Raceland, all the same racers are there but now in a world with such creatures as “sandtipedes” and such hazards as nanite storms. Imagining the silly cartoon in a post apocalyptic world works surprisingly well and the second issue even brought an unexpected tear to my eye. I’ll likely be following this one for at least a little while.

My one concern about apocalyptic fiction is when people in the mainstream start taking it a little too seriously. Apocalyptic scenarios are fun to throw at fictional characters. They’re important for writers to posit as cautions to society. Apocalypse 13 However, I grow wary when politicians start telling me apocalypse will result when I vote the other guy. These scenarios are rarely that simple. If an apocalyptic scenario is imminent, I don’t believe that fixing it is as simple as voting for one person over another. I want to know how you’re going to inspire us to work together to move the world away from the apocalypse envisioned.

For those who want to see my story of a strong leader leading people through apocalypse, check out “A Garden Resurrected” in Apocalypse 13 published by Padwolf Publishing.

The Weather as Monster

Happy New Year! This year, I rang in the new year at Kitt Peak National Observatory. My shift started on the first and I wanted to get to the observatory before too many people who had been up late celebrating hit the road. Also, this time of year, there can be ice patches on the road to the observatory, which meant that I wanted to be as alert as possible during my drive. Up here at the observatory, the weather is force we have to contend with regularly. The photo below shows a rain storm happening in the valley below the observatory. Imagine what it’s like when a storm like that is on top of us!

Rain-120819

Clouds that threaten rain or snow keep us closed not only because optical telescopes can’t penetrate such a layer, but also because the precipitation will damage the equipment. One job of a telescope operator is to make sure the equipment remains functional and observers stay safe.

Rain and snow actually can present a bigger hazard than simply stopping observing. Rain can cause rock slides on the road to the observatory and has been known to unseat boulders larger than my car! The wind up here can blow strong enough that it’s almost impossible to open the door to the telescope enclosure. In fact, one night we had a wind gust so strong that it caught the door and slammed it into the back of a co-worker’s head, stunning her! She went to the emergency room, which is over an hour away, but fortunately she proved to be okay.

Sometimes when we get snow at Kitt Peak, it builds up on the catwalk that surrounds the outside of the building, where we can walk around and get an unobstructed view of the surroundings. If temperatures freeze that snow becomes chunks of ice which can plummet fifteen stories to the ground below. One of those hit my boss’s car, destroying his trunk.

Stephen King wrote about monsters lurking in a mysterious fog in his novella The Mist. However, sometimes I find the weather itself can be as scary as any monsters I might imagine out in it. I explore that idea in my forthcoming novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt. When I write about weather trapping people in buildings and doing damage because something large has been hurled into a dome, I’m writing from experience!

I hope the weather doesn’t get too severe for you in this new year. If it does, I hope you can relax somewhere in warmth and safety with a good book. Until The Astronomer’s Crypt comes out, I might suggest Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order or Vampires of the Scarlet Order. All best wishes for the new year!

Stephen King’s It

stephen_king_it_cover

I’ve spent much of this summer reading It by Stephen King. It’s taken a while partly because it’s a long novel and partly because I would take breaks and read other things. As I reached the end of the novel, it occurred to me that this is one of those novels that really demonstrates the problems I have with the five-star review system that most on-line retailers have foisted on us—and I admittedly propagate by having a five-talisman review system in Tales of the Talisman Magazine.

The novel moves back and forth between 1958 and 1985. In 1958, a group of children in the small town of Derry, Maine learn about the supernatural source of a series of child murders and start on a course to try to defeat the evil. In 1985, those children have grown up. We learn they’ve vowed to reunite if the evil reappears.

Parts of this novel are brilliant, well worth a five-star rating. Stephen King once again shows himself as someone who builds wonderful characters and delivers some truly frightening moments. He not only gives us scary clowns, he offers insight into why they’re scary. The way he runs the parallel narratives in 1958 and 1985 is nicely done.

That said, parts of this novel are less than brilliant and perhaps only warrant one or two stars. The kids themselves feel a bit like the sterotypical band of misfits—the fat kid, the black kid, the abused girl, the stuttering kid, and the kid with asthma. There’s an infamous sex scene near the end. I’ll only say my big problem with it is that it felt forced and so-doing, it feels a little like I took a wrong turn while browsing the web and came across a page I didn’t want to see.

Much of the novel just felt a little long-winded for the relatively simple plot. I’d say that would warrant it three stars except that King never manages to be boring so maybe it gets bumped up to three and a half or four, depending on your rating system and how generous you feel.

So, what is it, a one, three, or five-star book? If I call it a five-star book one could say I’m being over lenient about the one-star parts. However, even the one-star bits are effective. King takes the misfit kids beyond the tropes. Heck, even that sex scene appears to scare most people who read it! A three-star rating implies it’s an “average” book, but even that doesn’t really do it justice.

I’m not going to go quite so far as to make a grand call to end the five-star rating system for books. However, as a writer, I do ask you to be thoughtful when you give those ratings and write those reviews. Don’t trash a book because there was a part you hated. Don’t gush over a book because there was a part you absolutely loved. Try to give a balanced review that touches on both the good and the bad. This isn’t really about sparing an author’s feelings. It’s about giving a fair and considered opinion to your fellow readers. Of course, if the author stops by, knowing both what worked and didn’t work is more helpful than just knowing you loved or hated the book. (Although I don’t mind too much if you give the book five stars and tell me how much you loved it!)

Vampires of the Scarlet Order

Now, my favorite part of It had to do with a large and ancient spider, which reminded me a bit of the ancient beings the Scarlet Order vampire novels. King’s spider is a bit more primordial and powerful than mine. Also, mine is more a trickster and his is downright evil. You can find my spider in Vampires of the Scarlet Order.

Horror and Romance

David and Kumie

This weekend started off with Valentine’s Day. Although the day is past and the chocolate is on sale, I still find myself reflecting on love and romance. For some, that might seem at odds with a blog focused on horror topics, but I submit they can go hand in hand. Horror is an intense feeling of fear and dread. In real life, I’ve experienced this less with myself than with those I love. A case in point being the day when my wife told me about her cancer diagnosis. After that were the days and weeks of doctor’s appointments, surgery and chemotherapy. I felt intense fear through that period, but I’m relieved to report that this story had a happy ending. She battled the cancer monster and won. I look forward to the day when that will be true of everyone who has to fight the cancer monster.

Arguably the worst kind of personal horror is to be trapped in a terrible reality with no escape. Fictional examples include the Vampire Louis in Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire and David Drayton in Stephen King’s The Mist. I picked these two because they are characters who did their best to find some sanity through companionship. Louis has Lestat and Claudia. Dreyton finds Amanda Dumfries. Romance as an anchor to stay sane in horrible circumstances is a powerful metaphor. As such, I’m not surprised that it’s been explored so thoroughly in vampire stories. I’ve used it in my novels Vampires of the Scarlet Order and Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order.

The photo at the top of this post is one I took with my wife at the Arizona Renaissance Festival a couple of years after we were married. It was a chance to play two people who joined together to use arcane powers against the world. I like the photo because it suggests any number of stories. Are we vampires? Are we dark wizards? Whose skull is that we’re holding and why? It also reminds me that as writers we should draw from all our life experiences no matter what genre we’re writing. After all, the whole point of the exercise is to explore facets of the human experience.

Vampires of the Scarlet Order

In reality, the only arcane powers I hope to enrapture you with are my words. If you’d like to join me for a frightening story and do something to help people battle the monster of cancer, you can buy a copy of Vampires of the Scarlet Order from the Writer’s Unite to Fight Cancer Bookstore at Amazon.com: http://astore.amazon.com/writersunitetofightcancer-20/detail/097545336X

The Mist

This Christmas, my daughter gave me a copy of the standalone edition of Stephen King’s novella, The Mist. This was a fine and frightening tale of a group of people who are stranded in a supermarket when a mysterious mist populated by horrific monsters rolls over a small Maine town.

The Mist

The Mist is a good example of what makes the best horror. Although there are monsters and some graphic violence, what makes this novella work are the different characters and how they react to a frightening and hopeless situation. Some characters do their best to be rational and think the situation through. Some characters completely lose their minds. Some try to make themselves useful. Some just raid the beer section and get drunk, trying to escape from reality. The most interesting confrontations are not those between the humans and the frightening creatures outside, they’re between the humans who have different approaches to how to deal with the situation. I was especially captivated by King’s depiction of the romantic liaison between the protagonist and a woman in the store. In a slasher flick, this might be an excuse for the monster to make an appearance. King simply uses the scene to explore how humans deal with stress and a need for companionship in a time of crisis.

It strikes me that there are some similarities between The Mist and my novel-in-progress The Astronomer’s Crypt. Both involve being trapped inside a building by a frightening and mysterious storm. Some people try to help each other, while others look out for themselves. King has given me some good things to think about as I consider how my characters react to each other as the story unfolds.

As The Mist draws to a close, Stephen King makes an interesting observation about endings. He mentions the “it was all a dream” ending and suggests it might be more satisfying than the ending he presents. In fact, I’ve always found the ending where the characters discover that the events were all a dream or their imagination to be a cop-out. I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for happy endings, but I feel they need to be earned. The characters have to work for them, not simply wake up. I prefer a dark ending or an ambiguous ending if it feels like the right one for the story.

Do you have a favorite horror novel or story? If so, I’d love to hear what made it especially effective for you.

Psychic Vampires

Doctor Sleep

It’s been awhile since I’ve bought a book fresh off the presses and read it immediately. I read Stephen King’s The Shining earlier this year and when I discovered that his forthcoming Doctor Sleep was a sequel, I went to one of my favorite bookstore sites and pre-ordered a copy. I spent this past week captivated by his latest book.

One of the things I found most interesting about Doctor Sleep was that it was a novel about psychic vampires. This is hardly a new concept. Lots of authors have imagined vampires that drain psychic energy instead of blood. However, King’s twist is that the psychic energy must come from children with telepathic powers—the so-called shining of the first novel. Not only do they drain the psychic energy, they must rip it from the children by torturing and killing them.

Now some people who know my work with Tales of the Talisman Magazine may find it odd that this storyline would work for me. After all, I have a strict guideline about no stories that depict violence to children. The reason I have that guideline is that there was a spell where I received several stories that glorified violence to children, as though the person writing the story honestly fantasized about such violence. I don’t find that enjoyable and, fortunately, Stephen King doesn’t go there. He skillfully crafts characters that are truly evil. His images of torture are the nightmare images parents have about their own children, not the hateful images of a deranged mind. Despite that, he gives us glimpses of the psychic vampires’ lost humanity. He shows us the tragedy of these characters without diminishing the evil of their actions.

Another element I found interesting about the novel was the way it paralleled the narrative of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It’s not exact, which good homages rarely are, but I was struck by parallels between Dracula’s Mina and Doctor Sleep’s Abra, between Doctor Van Helsing and Dan Torrance. Right down to the final battle—and I’ll avoid spoilers—where there’s a long distance chase to a strange, hostile land.

All in all, Doctor Sleep proved to be a good Halloween read this year. It’s certainly worth checking out. If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear what you thought. In the meantime, if would like some more tales of vampires, please take a few minutes and drop by my new and improved author page at davidleesummers.com and check out Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order and Vampires of the Scarlet Order.

Pleasant dreams!

‘Salem’s Lot

Around Halloween I like to sink my teeth into a good vampire novel. This year, I decided to dive into a book I’ve been meaning to get to for quite some time, ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King. The photo below is one of the early mass market paperback editions, the one I have in my collection.

‘Salem’s Lot tells the story of a writer named Ben Mears who returns to a town where he had a horrifying experience as a child so he can exorcize some personal demons. Soon after he arrives, strange things begin to occur. A young boy named Ralphie Glick disappears and soon afterward his brother Danny dies. In the meantime, two men have purchased the Marsten House, which literally looms over the town. After Danny’s death, people around town begin contracting strange symptoms that look a lot like anemia. We eventually learn that the men who purchased the Marsten house are a vampire and his Renfield-like servant.

King takes his time with the first half of the novel, introducing us to many of the town’s residents, most of whom have the proverbial skeleton in the closet. Even though these are flawed characters, King gives us enough information to care about them.

It was interesting for me to consider the protagonist, Ben Mears. As editor of Tales of the Talisman Magazine, quite a few stories come across my desk featuring writer protagonists. Typically these stories set my teeth on edge because they feature a wildly idealized image of a writer that’s far more successful than the story’s author will be if they don’t improve. From that perspective, I found Mears refreshing. Although the character had some success it was clear his more recent books weren’t doing as well as earlier novels. King himself had recently found success with Carrie and I couldn’t help but wonder if he was channeling some of his own fear. Would Carrie be the height of his success? Would he eventually disappear into obscurity? The lesson here is that to make a successful writer character, don’t make that writer more than you are.

As for the overall plot of ‘Salem’s Lot, it felt like a Hammer film set in a small Maine town. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I like Hammer films and I enjoyed seeing how the vampire manipulated the members of this small, rural community. In many ways, that reflects many of the Hammer films, where Dracula would manipulate villagers that seemed to exist out of time. Still, it’s hard to say King added much to traditional vampire lore, or even carried it much beyond what was shown in the movies.

Two things in particular stood out for me about King’s vampires. First, I really liked the way he was able to portray them as both alluring and revolting at the same time. That really captures the spirit of the old vampire folklore. Also, I like the fact that King’s vampires had very phantom-like qualities and could even disappear. One thing that’s really become a trope of modern vampire fiction is to spend time telling us why none of the folklore about vampires is correct. King joyfully embraces the folklore and makes it a seamless part of the narrative.

Overall, I found ‘Salem’s Lot to be a satisfying vampire escape. It’s hard to call it a groundbreaking novel, but there were parts I found very effective and the overall metaphor of a vampire manipulating a village out time was particularly successful.

Have you read ‘Salem’s Lot? If so, I’d love to hear what you thought.