A Wager of Blood

Ten years ago, I had the pleasure of editing a truly spooky horror novel called A Wager of Blood by J.W. Coffey. It’s a murder mystery with ghosts that transcends time itself. The first edition went out of print a while ago, but Hadrosaur Productions has a few copies in stock and we’re pleased to offer them at a 50% discount from the cover price.

Here’s the cover blurb: “On a night in 1760, Matthew Harper played a seemingly innocent game of chance in the parlor of the inn he owned. But, before the night was over, the inn belonged to Newell Thornton. Matthew, his wife, and two other people lay murdered and the Inn burned to the ground. 240 years later, Zachery Harper is determined to reclaim the Thornton Inn for the Harper family. What he doesn’t know is the old Inn holds the key to that ancient murder, the gateway into Zachary’s private hell, and the souls of the four murdered people. He is soon swept up into a diabolical game of chance where his own soul is the prize, and dice are loaded against him in a demonic wager of blood.”

One of the things that was fun for me assembling the first edition of the book is that the game of craps features strongly in the novel. I designed a little dice image for the section separators. The novel has eight great reviews over at Amazon.

The author, J.W. Coffey put together a neat book trailer for the novel that tells you a little more:

A Wager of Blood makes a good, fast spooky summer read. It might be a little to scary if you wait to read it when the nights turn chill in the run-up to Halloween! You can order the novel at: http://hadrosaur.com/bookstore.html#Wager-Blood

Westercon 70

Next weekend, I’ll be a program participant at Westercon 70 in Tempe, Arizona, also known as Conalope and LepreCon 43. Julie Dillon is the artist guest of honor, Connie Willis is the author guest of honor, Bjo and John Trimble are special media guests of honor. Sharing the spotlight with them are local author guest of honor Gini Koch and toastmaster Weston Ochse. Be sure to drop by the Westercon 70 page at westercon70.org to get details about the location, all the guests, and programming.

I will not have a dealer’s table at the event, but Duncan Rittschoff of Duncan’s Books and More will have a selection of my books in the dealer’s room. Also, it sounds like we may have copies of Straight Outta Tombstone in time for the show. I’m keeping my finger’s crossed!

Here’s my schedule for the event, which of course is subject to last minute change. Also, apologies if I missed a fellow panelist in the program grid.

Saturday, July 1

  • 3:30-4:30pm – The Return of Space Opera – Room: Jojake. With the return of Star Wars, the success of The Expanse on TV and Pierce Brown’s Red Rising, the space opera has returned. The panelists look at the appeal of these action-filled adventures where the science doesn’t get too hard and the characters have plenty of drama and romance. On the panel with me are Colette Black, H. Paul Honsinger, and Michael D’Ambrosio.

Sunday, July 2

  • 9:30-10:30am – The Science of Steampunk: What Makes the Gears Go Round? – Room: Jojake. Steampunk style is filled with all sorts of clockwork creatures and fantastical machines. Scientists and authors look at the science and tech behind airships, submarines, and giant mechanical spiders. On the panel with me are Ashley R. Carlson, Bruce Davis, Suzanne Lazear and Steve Howe.
  • 11:00-noon – The Future of Steampunk Writing – Room: Jojake. Vaughn Treude and Arlys Holloway will join me to discuss our thoughts on the future of steampunk writing.
  • 12:30-1:30pm – Autographs – Room: Cloister. Drop by the autograph table and I’ll be happy to sign books for you! Jenn Czep, T.L. Smith, Thomas Watson, and Natalie Wright will also be signing at the same time.
  • 3:30-4:30pm – Jackalopes and Other Cryptids – Room: Sand Lotus. In honor of Conalope’s mascot, authors will pay tribute to the strange creatures that may or may not inhabit the dark corners of the world. On the panel with me are Weston Ochse, Thomas Watson, and Ernest Hogan.
  • 5:00-6:00pm – Alien Autopsy of ET – Room: Dolores. Would it be possible for an alien species which found water poisonous to even land on Earth? How would two hearts work? What does green Vulcan blood say about their circulatory system? Join scientific experts and authors as they get to the guts of creature creation and make sure that “damned alien biology” is more than just a vague explanation. On the panel with me are Syd Logsdon, Bruce Davis, Jacqueline Lichtenberg, and Thomas Watson.

Monday, July 3

  • 9:00-10:00am – Exoplanets – Room: Augustine. In this presentation, I discuss how exoplanets are discovered and present some highlights about the kinds of exoplanets that have been discovered.
  • 3:30-4:30pm – Steampunk Roundtable – Room: Jojake. What is it that makes Steampunk an enduring pop-culture phenomenon? Attend this roundtable discussion of steampunk represented by contributors in a variety of fields. On the panel with me are Katherine Stewart, Dirk Folmer, and Madame Askew.

Tuesday, July 4

  • 9:30-10:30am – Bullets in Space: Putting the “Sci” in “SciFi – Room: Campanile. Hard sci-fi requires intensive research and lots of math to make sure everything adds up. We talk about that process, where to find the scientific answers and how to make sure your story doesn’t get bogged down in physics calculations. On the panel with me are Michael D’Ambrosio, Steve Howe, Amy K. Nichols, and Thomas Watson.
  • 11:00am – noon – Autographs – Room: Cloister. Another opportunity for you to get your wares signed by me and other panelists! Those other panelists would be Michael D’Ambrosio, T.L. Smith, Thomas Watson, Stephine Weippert, and Connie Willis.
  • 3:30-4:30pm – Reading – Room: Boardroom. In honor of release day, I plan to read my short story “Fountains of Blood” from Straight Outta Tombstone. There’s also a good chance, I’ll be able to give attendees a special, early, sneak peak at a very exciting short movie project I’ve been working on. Also reading during this session will be Cynthia Ward and Thomas Watson.

It looks like it’s going to be a busy weekend, but I can’t wait. Also, just for fun, if you come to the convention and cosplay a character from one of my books, I’ll give you a free book from those I have in stock at hadrosaur.com. Since I won’t have a dealer’s table, I may have to send it to you afterwards, but we’ll make it happen!

Astronomy and Wildlife

I suspect one of the last things people consider when they think about working at an observatory is encountering wildlife. However, it can be a surprisingly common part of the job. During my last shift at Kitt Peak, I had two very close encounters with wild animals, both at the room where I stay. The first happened in the afternoon when I was heading out to do my laundry. I looked over to my left and saw a bobcat walking away from me. It stopped and looked at me, then continued on its way. Unfortunately, it vanished before I could get a photo. Two days later in the morning, I heard a rustling by the garbage can near my dorm room. I turned and looked out the window and a very disgruntled bear walked by, just outside my room. I was able to get a photo of the bear just before he disappeared into the woods.

Wildlife encounters aren’t limited to the wilder areas away from the telescopes. Sometimes wildlife visits us in the control rooms. I’ve seen ringtail cats on three separate occasions in observatory control rooms. For those not familiar with ringtails, they’re not actually cats, but a member of the raccoon family that lives in the desert southwest. One time, we saw a ringtail in the control room of the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope. He peered out at us through a hole in the ceiling tiles. Another time, I was working at the 2.1-meter telescope when a ringtail jumped out of the ceiling, landed by a computer, growled at us, and then disappeared into a conduit. Another time I looked over and saw a ringtail in the control room of the Mayall 4-meter telescope, peering out from behind a garbage can. This was especially remarkable, since the console room for the 4-meter is some twelve stories above the ground. As the observer and I were trying to figure out what to do about the animal, it disappeared down a conduit never to be seen again.

Famous astronomers are not immune from wildlife encounters. I once heard a story that Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered Pluto, had finished observing one night at Lowell Observatory and was walking to his room in the dark. He saw what he thought was a dog and held out his hand to pet it. The animal backed away, growling. The next morning, a caretaker spoke to Tombaugh and said he’d seen some strange tracks in the snow. It appeared that someone had approached a mountain lion very closely!

Encounters like this helped to inspire a scene in The Astronomer’s Crypt where the telescope operator, Mike, encounters a raccoon at the telescope. I won’t give more details than that to avoid spoilers for the scene, but it’s the kind of reality from my day-to-day life at the observatory that I’ve tried to inject into the novel. You can learn more about the novel at http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html. And remember, you can learn about all of my books and short stories by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com

Saturday Morning Cartoons

Perhaps one of the things I miss most from years gone by is the ability to tune in to network television on Saturday morning and find a wide variety of animated cartoon programming. Much of this is due to television networks in the period of 1992 to 2002 deciding they didn’t make enough money to continue supporting animated programming. Also, around 2001 my wife and I decided that neither cable nor satellite TV were necessary items for our budget and we could see all the TV we wanted with other media such as DVDs. Of course, our decision was all part of the national trend that helped to kill animation in the first place. Not many people eschewed broadcast TV altogether as we did that early, but the number of choices available made it harder for networks to justify the expense of animation when certain cable networks specialized in it.

I grew up watching cartoons in the 1970s. I fondly remember many teams of crime-solving kids from shows such as Scooby-Doo and Josie and the Pussycats. The Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner Hour provided some great comedy, much of it originally produced much before my time. I was already a Star Trek fan and loved the animated adaptation that aired in the mid 70s. There were even some cool live action experiments during that time such as Land of the Lost about a family trapped in a land of dinosaurs and the superhero-themed Shazam/Isis Hour.

I never really fell out of love with cartoons, but the 1990s ended up being another high point for me. That was in the early days of my astronomy career and cartoons became an escape from my working life. They were also a welcome treat when my first daughter was young. What I particularly remember from that period were some exceptional superhero shows such as Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men. There were also some great animated superhero parodies such as Earthworm Jim, The Tick and Freakazoid.

Of course, for all the gems, there were many forgettable shows as well. Still, what I find amazing living in the times we do is how many of these shows that I thought I would never see again are readily available on video or with the touch of a button on the internet. For a guy like me who occasionally wants a dose of nostalgia, these are great times. That said, the real joy of those Saturday mornings was the fun of discovery and I think that’s what I really miss is having that easy means of discovering new favorites.

Giving people a way to discover new authors was much of the reason I edited Hadrosaur Tales followed by Tales of the Talisman. Publishing those magazines also helped me appreciate the economic reality that caused the networks to take Saturday morning cartoons off the air. Like TV shows gone by, you can still get most of the back issues of both magazines. There are some great stories there by authors such as Neal Asher, Nicole Givens Kurtz, David Boop, and Janni Lee Simner and many more. You can find the back issues of each at:

As it turns out, I can do better than just give you nostalgia, Hadrosaur Productions has published two anthologies of stories set around planets discovered by NASA’s Kepler mission. Be sure to check out:

Villains and Antagonists

When I started the rough draft of my novel Owl Riders, I had a set of characters whose goals were going to be odds with the novel’s protagonists. As I’ve come to the end of writing the rough draft and have come to know those characters and understand their motivations better, I find myself pondering the nature of villains and antagonists.

It can be great fun to watch a movie or read a book and encounter a true villain who blocks the hero at every turn, but ultimately meets their comeuppance at the end of the story. That said, there’s an old saying that no one sees themselves as the villain of their own story and I think there’s truth to that. In general people have a set of objectives and sometimes one person’s objectives will exist at cross purposes with another person’s. When those people come into contact, there’s conflict that can help drive a story.

I do think in certain types of stories, such as horror stories, it’s possible to imagine a character such as a demon who understands they’re an agent of evil and actively pursues that objective. Even there, a character who sees themselves as “evil” might see themselves as bringing some form of balance to the cosmos and thus performing a necessary function. My character Mr. Vassago in The Astronomer’s Crypt falls into that category.

Often when I think of the most wicked villains, I think of characters like Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon whose only motivation seems to be personal greed and power. It’s tempting to dismiss such characters as cartoonish caricatures except that some people in real life do seem to fit this mold. Villains like this can be fun to write and it can be fun to imagine their ultimate humiliating defeat, but sometimes its more interesting to explore how a character got to be like this and explore any redeeming characteristics they might have.

Another great villain is Darth Vader who thought he was bringing peace and order to the galaxy by choosing the path he did. Although the handling of his origin story is soundly criticized, it was still satisfying to see his ultimate redemption when he defeated his master who was motivated primarily by greed.

Perhaps a more frightening type of villain is the true monster like the xenomorph in Alien motivated by the need to feed and make little aliens, but who can’t be reasoned with. At some level, this type of monster is very understandable and not necessarily evil—after all, it just wants to live—but the only way to defeat this type of villain is to destroy it utterly.

Most antagonists in fiction aren’t going to fit these almost archetypal extremes. Most are going to be people like you and me. That might feel cheated or wronged. They might see an opportunity and try to exploit it. They might actually feel like they’re attempting to do good, but don’t realize they’re causing harm to others. These are the types of antagonists I’ve tried to create in Owl Riders and what makes them scary to me is when I realize that I don’t always have to reach too far from my experience to create a character who my protagonists might see as a character who needs to be stopped.

Do you have a favorite villain or antagonist in fiction? What makes them a particular favorite of yours? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts in the comments.

The Magic of Old Books

This past week, I finished the rough draft of my fourth Clockwork Legion novel, tentatively titled Owl Riders. These novels are steampunk steeped in history. The first novel, Owl Dance starts in a wild west very much like the wild west of history. However, as an alien character called Legion interferes in human affairs and humans themselves gain confidence in their inventions, the world of the novels gradually diverges from the world of history.

Because I start in the world of history, I like to do my homework and understand the places and peoples I describe in my books. Even when I diverge from history, the cultural experience of the people in the novel will be the same up until the divergence point. Reading books that discuss the history of the region and peoples I’m writing about is, of course, important, but one thing I like to do over and beyond that is find books written by people who lived at the time the book takes place.

One of the challenges of Owl Riders is that I have some scenes set in Persia of 1885. I found some good histories of Iran which gave me insights not only into the country in the nineteenth century, but how that history helped to shape the modern country. However, I wasn’t sure what I would find written at the time period. A search at my local library didn’t turn up anything. On an off chance, I went to COAS, our wonderful used bookstore in Las Cruces and happened on a book called Land of the Lion and Sun by Absalom D. Shabaz, published in 1901. The book’s subtitle is “Personal Experiences, the Nations of Persia—Their Manners, Customs and Their Beliefs.”

This sounded perfect, a personal viewpoint of someone living in Iran within a few years of my story’s time period. On closer inspection, I discovered that the book was written as a guide for people hoping to be Christian Missionaries in Persia. I’ve just started the book and I find that Shabaz was raised a Christian in Persia and had to deal with the reactions of his friends and neighbors. This actually proves to be an interesting viewpoint because it combines elements from both my protagonists, Ramon Morales who is a Catholic-raised lawyer visiting Persia for the first time and Fatemeh Morales who converted to the Bahá’í Faith as a young woman and then left home.

For me, the real magic of a book like Land of the Lion and Sun is that I can hear the words of the author speaking directly to me across more than a century. I can read a personal perspective in the language of the time, with all the attitudes and prejudices of the time intact. I think it’s important to start by reading modern histories precisely because an author of a particular time can’t help but share their prejudices. It allows me to separate the perceptions of the historical author from history as it unfolded. I look forward to seeing how Mr. Shabaz experienced the history I’ve read about and see where that might lead me as I prepare to revise my novel.

While you’re waiting for the fourth novel, be sure to catch the three novels that are already published. Clicking the titles will take you to pages with more information:

Haiku

Last week, I learned that one of my haiku was selected as a finalist for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association’s Dwarf Stars Award and will be appearing in this year’s Dwarf Stars Anthology. Here’s the poem:

dead jackrabbit glares
at my car
with one glowing eye

The poem first appeared last Halloween in Lupine Lunes, an anthology of horror poems and short stories edited by Lester W. Smith of Popcorn Press. Pick up a copy to see several more of my haiku plus some great poems and stories by such folks as Deborah P. Kolodji, David C. Kopaska-Merkel, Gary Davis, Deborah Walker, and Stephen D. Sullivan. Clicking the book cover will take you to Amazon’s page for the book.

I imagine there are a few people who will look at my poem and say that it’s not truly a haiku. Many of us were taught in school that a haiku is a three-line poem of five, seven, and five syllables respectively. In fact, that’s rather a poor approximation of the most formal Japanese approach to haiku.

In fact, in Japanese, a haiku is typically written as only a single line. A formal haiku will be heard as three lines of five, seven, and five sound-beats. The word for those “sound-beats” in Japanese is on, literally “sounds” and often translated as syllables. However, poetically, these sound-beats don’t really work like syllables. As an example, take the name of Japan’s northern most island: Hokkaido. To an English speaker, that’s three syllables. In Japanese, it’s spoken as “ho-(pause)-ka-i-do-o” or five sound-beats. Another example might be the word for one’s spirit or will, seishin, two syllables in English, but in Japanese there are four sound-beats, spoken as “se-i-shi-n.”

The upshot of all this is that the 5-7-5 syllable structure in English often results in haiku that are wordier and clunkier than their Japanese counterparts. My poem above is written in lines of five, three, and five syllables. This English-language haiku structure is called a lune because its structure resembles a crescent moon. It’s also the reason an anthology focused on werewolf stories and poems is called Lupine Lunes.

One of the goals of haiku as a poetic form is that it endeavors to capture a moment in time, a little like a snapshot. More than a snapshot, though, it also tries to present the emotions that go with that moment in time.

My brother, Dean Summers, has been writing haiku since 1969. His haiku have been published in such acclaimed journals as Modern Haiku, Frogpond, The Heron’s Nest and Cicada. With Ruth Yarrow, he served as a judge for the 2004 Haiku Society of America Merit Book Awards. I can’t honestly remember whether I first learned about haiku from Dean or in school, but much as I’ve always loved the form, I was afraid to play in the haiku sandbox for a long time, just a little intimidated by his success.

What finally motivated me to really explore the form was discovering so called “scifaiku” and “horrorku,” basically haiku with science fiction and horror elements. As someone who already wrote science fiction and horror, this allowed me to move haiku into my “comfort” zone. I could imagine future moments in time or scary scenarios and imagine what my feelings would be and play with that in word form. In fact, encountering a dead jackrabbit by the side of a dark Arizona highway was a real moment in time involving an authentic sense of horror. Fortunately, all it did was glare, otherwise I might not be here to write this post!

I need to give a shout-out to my daughter Autumn Summers who helped me find a good way to explain on as related to haiku structure. Be sure to visit her craft blog at: https://entropycreations.wordpress.com/

My brother, Dean, has a great page about haiku which includes an in-depth article about haiku structure, tips for writing haiku, and several of his poems at: http://www.hollybooks.com/haiku.htm