The Inevitable Cycle

This summer, I had a wonderful opportunity to visit Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. It’s famous as the site where Percival Lowell observed Mars for many years, recording his observations of the canals he—and most mainstream scientists of the day—believed they saw. Lowell-Crypt It’s also the observatory where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto. Of course, in mythology, Pluto is the Roman god of the underworld and a figure closely associated with the spirits of the dead. As I’ve mentioned in a couple of other blog posts here at The Scarlet Order, it’s also the site of Percival Lowell’s Crypt. In the photo, you see my daughters and I visiting the tomb.

If you look carefully at the tomb, there are two epigraphs, one on each side of the door. The one on the right reads, in part, “Everything around this Earth we see is subject to one inevitable cycle of birth, growth, decay … nothing begins but comes at last to an end … though our own lives are too busy to mark the slow nearing to that eventual goal …” The words on this astronomer’s crypt go a long way to explaining what draws me to horror. Birth, growth, and decay are not only inevitable, but all can be frightening. Horror provides a mechanism for taking a look at the things that frighten us and getting a handle on them.

The epigraph continues: “Today what we already know is helping to comprehension of another world. In a not distant future we shall be repaid with interest and what that other world shall have taught us will redound to a better knowledge of our own and of the cosmos of which the two form a part.” The quote comes from Percival Lowell’s book, The Evolution of Worlds. Horror might be scary, but it reminds me that humans can overcome even the worst terrors to accomplish great things. In fiction that can be defeating a villain or a monster. In real life, we might conquer our fears to expand the borders of human understanding.

Lowell-telescope

Right next to Lowell’s crypt is the telescope where he observed Mars for many years. This visit was my first opportunity to go in, see the telescope and even look through it. We didn’t look at Mars, but the view of Saturn was unreal. We could see resolution in the clouds and the rings were sharp and beautiful. If the ghost of Percival Lowell wanders the observatory grounds, I suspect he’s proud of the job the people there do of giving the public a glimpse at the universe, which can be at once scary and beautiful.

I certainly hope to scare you when The Astronomer’s Crypt comes out, but I also hope you’ll see how people overcome fear and accomplish great things. Even though I hope to show you scary things in that novel, I also hope to show you some of the beauty that this universe and the people who inhabit it possess.

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Responding to Reviews

This past weekend, I was at LepreCon in Phoenix, Arizona. On Saturday, I was on a panel called “Responding to Reviews.” The authors and artists gave some great advice and I thought it was worth sharing some highlights. The panel is below. In the photo below you see Educator KellyAnn Bonnell, yours truly, writer and game designer Shanna Germain, Jennie Breeden, writer and artist of The Devil’s Panties, and game designer Ben Woerner.

reviews_panel

Of course, as an author or artist, when you get a review, positive or negative, it can be problematic to respond with much more than a very polite, “thanks for sharing your opinion.” This is pretty common advice and the panel generally agreed with it.

The panel moved on to discuss what constitutes the most helpful reviews. The panelists cited reviews that give clear examples of what worked for them and didn’t work for them in a book. Also helpful is when the reviewer can cite why something worked or didn’t work. I noted an example of a reviewer mentioning an element of my novel Children of the Old Stars that didn’t work for her. That inspired me to create an important plot point in Heirs of the New Earth that addressed the issue.

The panelists also noted a frustrating tendency of some reviewers to review the artist rather than reviewing the art. As an example, a person might see a statement by a character in a story and assume that reflects the author’s politics or personal preferences, then attack the author’s perceived philosophy. Unfortunately, these reviews are never helpful because they’re never about the work. They’re just a case of the reviewer having their buttons pushed and then venting.

Related to this, KellyAnn discussed the issue of evaluating reviews. She noted that she generally ignores the top 1% of positive reviews and the bottom 1% of negative reviews as outliers. It’s the stuff in the middle that often has the best constructive criticism you can use to help you evaluate your own writing.

Another aspect of the panel was simply coping with poor reviews. Ben noted that there’s an actual physiological response that causes us to look at bad things and remember them vividly. It makes sense as a survival instinct. Don’t go back to the place that hurts. It’s one of the reasons bad reviews tend to sting so badly and stay with us. Shanna noted that she keeps one of her favorite positive reviews handy and reads it over any time a bad review comes in. It helps her to remember the good work she’s done and move on. Jennie noted that sometimes a bad review comes in and if you sit back and think about it, it’s clear the reviewer is having a problem in their own life.

I finished up this part of the discussion by noting that I like to look at the reviews of my favorite authors and remind myself that very successful authors get bad, good, and neutral reviews too.

Are you a writer or an artist? If so, I’d love to hear what you think is helpful in a review. Likewise, I’d love to hear how you cope with the bad reviews. Are you a reader? What do you look for in reviews when you buy books? Do you look at the reviews?

The Town Where Only I am Missing

“The Town Where Only I am Missing” is the literal translation of “Boku Dake ga Inai Machi,” an anime and manga better known in the United States as ERASED. Erased My college-age daughter recommended the show to me and it marks the first time I’ve watched an anime series as it was being aired in Japan. It tells the story of Satoru Fujinuma, a manga artist, haunted by his childhood, when three children were abducted and murdered. Satoru also has the power to slip backwards in time along his own history and relive events, which has allowed him to save lives, but also leaves him the worse for wear.

Satoru’s mom is a former news announcer who sees the person she suspected of being the murderer from years ago. The problem is, the murderer is aware of her attention and strikes first, killing her. In order to save his mother, Satoru slips back in time eighteen years until he’s ten years old—the time two of his classmates and another child are killed. With the knowledge of of his twenty-eight-year-old self, but in the body of a ten-year-old kid, he must prevent the murders that have haunted him, so he can prevent the murder his mother.

Normally, my taste in horror runs to the supernatural variety—ghosts, vampires, monsters from the beginning of time—that sort of thing. Stories about serial killers usually don’t engage me much. However, this story is played more for the mystery and suspense than for the potential horror aspects and the time travel premise is handled in a sufficiently fresh way to make this story particularly engaging. In fact, this show demonstrates some of the most nail-biting cliffhangers I’ve ever seen.

I’m hard pressed to say the series was perfect. Satoru seemed to have an easy time convincing his classmates to help him. Also, I guessed the identity of the murderer two or three episodes before that person was revealed and we weren’t exactly given a lot of suspects to keep us guessing. That said, J. Michael Straczynski, the creator of Babylon 5, once said it’s not whether or not you know the story’s ending, but how good the journey is getting there. In this case, I felt ERASED took me on a very satisfying journey. Although the show isn’t billed as horror, it created characters I genuinely cared about and, at times, felt scared for their safety. The series did this a minimum of on-screen violence—a restraint anime isn’t always known for.

You don’t have to be missing from the town where ERASED is set. You can stream episodes for free on Crunchyroll.com.

A Vanishing Past

I’ve been working on a new short story that deals with a topic that’s at once close to my heart and more than a little frightening in a real-world sense. Set in the world of my Old Star/New Earth series, it tells a story of space pirate Captain Ellison Firebrandt and his father. Unfortunately, his father suffers from dementia. This part of the story is inspired by my mom who suffered the same thing. Despite my mom’s dealing with dementia, I never really realized that it wasn’t “just” brain chemistry but involved a physical alteration of the brain. This public domain image from Wikipedia provides a pretty dramatic illustration of the effects that can happen.

Alzheimer's_disease_brain_comparison

In the last years of my mom’s life, she lived in fear of forgetting who she was. Her short term memory became quite poor and she would forget whether or not she’d taken medications without assistance. Although she would remember events in her distant past with some clarity, I found that she started to forget events from my past, including many of the friends I’d had in high school and college. In a way, it felt as though my own past were being slowly erased, which I think was scary for both my mom and I.

One of the challenges of the anthology I’m writing for is that I have to show the person finding a path through the disorder. Unfortunately, no cures have been identified and there are few medications or therapies that can help, which makes finding a path out difficult. Fortunately, I’m writing science fiction, so I can imagine some hope in the future.

Writing science fiction, I do give the story a bit of an additional horror angle. The company Bradbury Firebrandt works for uses nanotechnology to keep him strong. He’s been an asteroid miner for so many years, he can do it even with the impairment of dementia and the company uses technology to keep him working, almost like an enslaved zombie. This is a future that I don’t want to see, but can imagine all too easily.

As for how our character saves himself, I’ll leave that as something you can read about if and when the story gets published—and I’ll be sure to share that news. What I will say is that I’m very thankful for the final years when I got to spend time with my mom and hear the stories of the early years of her marriage to my dad and spending time living with her cousin in post-World War II Los Angeles. My own past may have vanished somewhat from her life, but I still got to know her better and hopefully as I work through the story, I’ll be able to convey at least a few of the complex emotions that go with helping an older relative through the difficulties of dementia.

Sudden Death

There’s a morbid joke that goes like this: I want to die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather, not screaming in terror like the passengers in his car.

One of the things that makes early October challenging for me is that it’s the anniversary of my father’s death. He died many years ago of a heart attack surrounded by doctors and nurses fighting to save his life.

My dad’s death has never really stopped haunting me and I think it goes a long way to explain my interest in vampire fiction. After all, vampires are immortal. However, I’ve come to realize there’s another dimension to the appeal of vampires. Anne Rice introduced me to the idea of vampires who don’t necessarily want their victims to suffer. In effect, they’re companions in those last, terrifying moments of death. A vampire can create a death that’s not only peaceful, but almost pleasurable. Even in Nosferatu, Lucy doesn’t die alone. Orlock is with her, almost loving her. Her death has purpose in that she’s sacrificing herself for her village.

Nosferatu-Lucy

Death is inevitable and it’s often an important component in horror fiction. Sometimes, the subject is explored in depth as in the vampire stories I discussed. The vampire might prove to be a tragic figure, denied the death he’s able to grant. Other times, it’s the shocking tragedy of death that motivates the characters into action and provides the adrenaline rush for the reader. A vampire who rips people’s throats out is likely to be seen more as a monster to be hunted rather than a sympathetic character in his own right.

Dragons Fall

When I wrote Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order and Vampires of the Scarlet Order, I was most interested in exploring vampires coming to terms with their immortality and living in a world where death not only happens all around them but where they are often the cause of death. The vampires use their power to be mercenaries so they can exist in a world with humans. Because they want to coexist with humans, they endeavor not to be cruel when they kill. When they can, they place a pleasant fantasy in the mind of the victim. Otherwise, they endeavor to be merciful and quick.

Death in The Astronomer’s Crypt is more sudden and horrific. The creature who deals death has no interest in humans, perhaps even actively hates them. In that sense, the monster is more like a force of nature. You don’t know who the monster is going to kill or why. The only choices are get out of its way or try to stop it, and the latter may prove futile.

The way death is addressed in the story sets the tone. Even a story where no one dies can raise questions about death. For example, a story of torture might not have death, but the reader may question whether it would be better for the tortured character to die. In a psychological horror story, the question may be whether or not madness is a type of death.

Unfortunately, we don’t get out of this life alive, but this aspect of horror has allowed me to explore this difficult subject and to find ways to appreciate the time I have with those I love.

The Scarlet Order Series

Right after I completed Vampires of the Scarlet Order, I wrote synopses for four more novels of a proposed series. Dragons Fall The first was Scarlet Order: Dragon’s Fall which told the Scarlet Order’s origin story. Scarlet Order: New World would have told the story of Rudolfo joining Don Juan de Oñate as he marched into New Mexico, and his romance with a young Spanish bride named Mercedes Rodriguez. The third novel was Scarlet Order: Revolution which would have told the story of Draco, Roquelaure, and Alexandra during the French Revolution. Finally, I imagined a sequel to Vampires of the Scarlet Order called Scarlet Order: Nosferatu.

I started on the first of these novels soon after Vampires of the Scarlet Order was released. I set out to write Dragon’s Fall during NaNoWriMo in 2005. I actually did write 50,000 words as planned, but it was still far short of a finished novel. What’s more, I felt like I had written myself into a corner. As with any project like that, often the best thing to do is to set the project aside, while I worked on other things. I returned to my Old Star/New Earth series and wrote the final volume, Heirs of the New Earth, and a prequel to the series called The Solar Sea.

In 2007, LBF Books which published Vampires of the Scarlet Order, was sold to a new owner. The new owner proposed that I write a series of five novellas based on the Scarlet Order Vampires. Dragon’s Fall was intended to be told in four distinct parts, and really, each of those parts was a novella in its own right. After NaNoWriMo, I essentially had two and a half of the novellas done. What’s more, I knew I wanted to give one of the characters more back story, and that provided another novella’s worth of material, so I agreed.

Cover of Dragon's Fall: Bondage

The first of these novellas was published in 2010. Set in Hellenistic Athens, Bondage tells the story of the slave Alexandra. Sold to Theron, a mysterious banker, she wonders about her new master who is never seen during the day. As time goes on, she notices that slaves called upon to serve Theron in his chamber in the night do not return the next morning.

When Alexandra’s turn comes, she learns Theron is a vampire who binds his slaves, takes his pleasure with them, then drinks their blood. She refuses to be a victim, but as she fights his embrace, Alexandra ingests some of Theron’s blood. Now a vampire herself, she becomes Theron’s concubine. Yet even as she learns the ways of the vampire, Alexandra yearns for freedom.

Dragons-Quest-200x300

The second novel in the series was The Dragon’s Quest. In this novella, Aonghas Deas-Mhumhan — called Desmond — is a dragon lord in the service of King Ambrosius. He longs for the king’s daughter, the beautiful Guinevere. However, her heart belongs to the king’s young ally, L’ancelot.

When Desmond and his friend Arthur are sent to battle Saxon invaders, Desmond is mortally wounded. He is saved by Wolf, a vampire who is seeks the Holy Grail in hopes that it might bring salvation to their kind. Desmond knows he and Wolf cannot find the Grail alone. He returns to court where he finds that Guinevere is pledged to Arthur but still longs for L’ancelot. Now king, Arthur is anxious to remove L’ancelot from court for a time, so he agrees to Desmond’s request for aid in the search for the Grail cup.

After these two novellas were released, my publisher changed owners once again. This time, the new owners decided that rather than release five novellas, they’d simply combine all of them into one book as originally intended. So, you can find both of the novellas above along with three more in Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order. In the complete novel, you discover how Desmond and Alexandra meet and form a band of vampire mercenaries. All three of these volumes are still available. The Dragon’s Fall novellas are still a great way to check out the world of the Scarlet Order on a budget.

Thanks to everyone who has joined me on this ten-year anniversary retrospective of the creation of Vampires of the Scarlet Order. There are still just a few days left to enter the Rafflecopter drawing for one of my vampire books. See the first post in this series for more details or just click here to enter the Rafflecopter giveaway

Walks Through the Cemetery – Part 3

Last week, I discussed the man who shot Billy the Kid, who is buried in the cemetery behind my house. It turns out there’s a gravestone for the man who defended Billy the Kid at his trial as well. Fountain This one’s an interesting gravestone in that no one is actually buried under it. Albert Fountain and his son disappeared in 1896 and to this day, no one knows what happened to them.

Albert Fountain’s career started during the Civil War, when he was a sergeant in the Union Army’s California Column, which took New Mexico back from the confederacy in 1862. After the war, he moved to El Paso, Texas and became a Republican politician at a time when it was not popular to be a Republican in Texas. He served in the Texas State Senate and served as Lieutenant Governor for a time. His views angered many Texas Democrats and he was challenged to several duels. Some suspect his unpopular politics may have played a part in his disappearance some thirty years later.

He returned to Mesilla in 1873 and opened a law practice, making use of his fluency in Spanish. He also founded a newspaper called The Mesilla Independent in 1877. He defended Billy the Kid in 1881, but lost the case. Fountain would continue to be involved in the Lincoln County troubles until his disappearance. He disappeared near White Sands on his way home after bringing charges against Oliver M. Lee and William McNew, who were accused of altering cattle brands. All that was found of Fountain and his son was the buckboard wagon they rode.

Fountain makes a cameo appearance in my novel The Brazen Shark. Lightning Wolves In the novel he defends farmhand Billy McCarty and newspaperman Luther Duncan. They’re accused of breaking jail, which they did at the end of Lightning Wolves. Fountain is interested in the case because he sees it as the army trying to interfere with freedom of the press. In another play on history, although I never expressly say Billy McCarty is Billy the Kid, it is suggested. So, the novel presents an alternate version of the famous trial.

In this case, walking through the cemetery introduced me to a mystery that caused me to dig a little deeper into the history of the region. I found some interesting connections that made a good story, though I fear no solutions to this unsolved mystery.