My Life With Vampires

Today finds me in Denver, Colorado at MileHiCon 50! If you’re in town, I hope you’ll drop by. You can get more information about the event at: http://www.milehicon.org.

As we approach Halloween, I find myself looking back at how I developed an interest in vampire fiction. I think the first vampires I encountered were the Scooby-Doo episodes “A Gaggle of Galloping Ghosts” and “Vampire Bats and Scaredy Cats.” At the risk of spoilers, we find that both vampires are really criminals engaged in a scam. Somewhat scarier to me was the 1979 version of Dracula starring Frank Langella. That opened up an interest in Bram Stoker’s novel, which I remember starting, but not finishing at the time because I was 12 and easily distracted.

Illustration for Vampires of the Scarlet Order by Steven Gilberts

It was another 1979 film that really got me thinking about vampires and that was Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, which I saw in 1984. The film’s atmospheric quality and Klaus Kinski’s genuinely creepy portrayal of Dracula set a standard for me. Even so, I didn’t really get captivated by vampires until I started working at Kitt Peak National Observatory in 1992. At the time, the observatory had both solar astronomers working at the McMath Solar Telescope (as it was known then) and “stellar” astronomers working at night on the other telescopes. Those of us who worked at night jokingly referred to ourselves as the vampires of the observatory because we weren’t seen before sunset and went to bed before sunrise.

As it turns out, one of my co-workers at the time was a fan of vampire fiction. She encouraged me to finally read Dracula from start to finish. I read much of it during a stormy night on the mountain. Periodically I had to go check conditions outside and I kept imagining that predatory eyes were upon me. This really hooked me on vampire fiction. Soon after this, she encouraged me to read Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. From there, I dove right into The Vampire Lestat and Queen of the Damned. Even so, I didn’t really think about writing my own vampire fiction until nearly a decade later.

In 1995, I had moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico and soon got involved with the Border Book Festival. I hosted a panel in 2000 and afterward, my friend Janni Lee Simner asked, “What do you suppose a vampire would make of Las Cruces, the city of crosses?” She followed that with a comment by telling me if it sparked a story idea, I was welcome to it. A few days later, while driving to Apache Point Observatory, I had an idea for a story about a vampire astronomer who moved to Las Cruces. That story became “Vampire in the City of Crosses” and I sold it a few weeks later to the magazine The Vampire’s Crypt.

The story and those that followed suggested that the vampire was on a quest. His quest led him to discover the vampire mercenaries who called themselves the Scarlet Order. Those stories all came together to become the novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order. Once I got that far, I wanted to explore how the vampires decided to fight for human kings and that led me to the prequel, Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order. As mercenaries who fight for human causes, my vampires aren’t the kind to sit around and brood about their immortal existence, seduce mortal girls a fraction of their age, or sparkle in the sunlight. In short, I’ve enjoyed spending time with them these last seventeen years. They make great companions in the Halloween season. If you’re looking for a good read this time of year, learn more about the books at http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#scarlet_order.

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Star Trek: Phase II

A few days ago, I came across a listing on the Eaglemoss website for a replica of the Starship Enterprise based on the design that would have been used in the television series Star Trek: Phase II.  This series has fascinated me since I first heard about it right around the time I first heard about Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In fact, the first poster for the movie I had seen featured the Phase II Enterprise. I decided I needed one for my collection.

I remember picking up a magazine sometime in 1978 announcing the forthcoming movie Star Trek: The Motion Picture. As a young Star Trek fan, this was exciting news indeed. The article also mentioned a planned television series called Star Trek II was on hold.  Apparently the sets and models for Star Trek II would be upgraded and used for the new movie. The article, as I recall, expressed some hope that if the movie proved a success, Paramount would move ahead with the series. This was like a dream come true. A new Star Trek movie and series.

As time went on, I heard less and less about the new series. I didn’t really get the story about what happened until I read Susan Sackett’s The Making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture a year or so after the movie came out. Even then, that book only contained tantalizing hints. Essentially, it revealed that soon after the cancellation of the original series, Gene Roddenberry had been approached to develop some new version of the series. The first culmination was the animated series. After that, a movie was developed but the script was ultimately rejected. Finally a TV series—Star Trek II or Star Trek: Phase II—was given the green light for development. It reached the point that they had signed most of the original cast and they were about to begin shooting when suddenly Star Wars came out and Paramount decided to turn the pilot script into a movie.

Susan Sackett gave a little more detail than this broad outline in her book, but not much. I finally located a book that gave much more detail about how the series started and the circumstances that caused it to go from being a series to a move. This book was Star Trek: Phase II, The Lost Series by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, who at the time they wrote the book were respected novelists who had done a couple of Star Trek novels, but would go on to be producers of Star Trek: Enterprise.

The book is really quite the treasure trove, and not just for the Star Trek fan curious about the Star Trek series that never happened. If you’re interested in developing stories for the screen, this book includes Alan Dean Foster’s treatment for the pilot episode, “In Thy Image” along with Harold Livingston’s complete first draft script. These would ultimately be modified to become Star Trek: The Motion Picture. What’s more, there’s also the complete screenplay for an episode called “The Child” which ultimately was rewritten as a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture doesn’t have the best reputation, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the movie. Of course, it becomes clear from the Reeves-Stevens’ book that much of the problem stems from the fact that it is the pilot episode of a TV series. It’s not supposed to leave you sitting on the edge of your seat. It’s supposed to introduce you to characters and settings who will leave you sitting on the edge of your seat in future episodes. Susan Sackett’s book made clear that it was a pilot episode further watered down to be palatable to network executives and take as few chances as possible. That said, while I think Harold Livingston’s first draft script has better elements than the movie, the ending of the movie is much stronger than the one he first wrote.

Unfortunately, Star Trek: Phase II The Lost Series is now out of print. I had to buy a used copy. If you’re at all interested in Star Trek or writing for the screen, I highly recommend it for its candid look behind the scenes of the screenwriting process. I’m finding it very helpful in a project I’m working on, but can’t talk about yet. Hopefully I’ll be able to say more soon about that project, but in the meantime, this is a good excuse to once again share the short film whose screenplay I wrote. Enjoy!

If you like this clip, you can read the full story in my novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt, available at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01N5EH8QP/

Steampunk Batman

One of the appeals of alternate history and steampunk is the ability to imagine wrongs of the past made right. Of course, one of the most notorious villains of the Victorian age was Jack the Ripper. For me, my first Jack the Ripper tale wasn’t alternate history, but science fiction. It was an episode of Star Trek written by Robert Bloch called “Wolf in the Fold” in which Chief Engineer Scott is accused of committing some very Jack the Ripper-like murders.

One of my earliest exposures to alternate history was the graphic novel Gotham by Gaslight written by Brian Augustyn and illustrated by Mike Mignola. It imagines that Jack the Ripper travels to Gotham City and starts his murder spree again, only to confront Batman. I bought and read the graphic novel soon after it was released in 1989. I was in graduate school at the time and comics were one of the few things I had time to read. It’s hard to call the original Gotham by Gaslight steampunk. The story pretty much limits itself to technology that was well established in the nineteenth century. That said, the artwork reminds me more than a little of Jacques Tardi’s artwork in The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec. Also, it’s worth noting that Robert Bloch, who wrote the Jack the Ripper Star Trek episode, also wrote the graphic novel’s introduction.

Earlier this year, Warner Brothers produced a direct-to-video animated adaptation of Gotham by Gaslight. I knew I wanted to reacquaint myself with this story. I watched it on Netflix and liked it enough, I went out and bought a copy. I discovered Best Buy has a special edition that includes a reprint of the original graphic novel—very cool because that meant I could refresh my memory of the original without damaging my first edition.

As it turns out, the plot of the movie is quite a bit different from that of the graphic novel. This becomes apparent right away when it opens with Pamela Isley (better known to many Batman fans as Poison Ivy) working in a burlesque house and becoming the Ripper’s first murder victim. I have to admit to mixed feelings on this point. One on hand, it feels a bit like a betrayal of character to make Pamela a victim. On the other, it establishes right away that you can’t take your expectations of certain characters for granted and that does pay off as the movie progresses.

It’s pointed out in the commentary that the graphic novel was only 40 pages long and that doesn’t really provide enough material to fill out a 70-minute movie. What I like is that they didn’t add stuff just to add stuff. They fleshed out the mystery and we got to see my favorite aspect of Batman—we got to see him working as a detective, hunting for clues and actually figuring out who the Ripper is.

They also made it more steampunk than the original, but it’s not a gratuitous addition of gadgets. Instead, they added a World’s Fair, which was very much a showpiece of technology at the time, and they gave the police an airship. This latter works because in Batman: The Animated Series the police are shown as having airships, so it was great to see that idea explored in this alternate history version. They also gave Batman a couple of steampowered gadgets. Of course, Batman always needs cutting-edge technology in his work.

There’s great voice acting in the movie with Bruce Greenwood as Batman, Anthony Head as Alfred the Butler, and Jennifer Carpenter as Selina Kyle. The DVD’s special features are pretty much teasers for other DC/Warner film projects, but the Blu Ray includes a couple of bonus Batman cartoons, a commentary and a making-of featurette. All in all, this ended up being one of my favorite adaptations of a DC comic book. It seems like the makers of the live-action DC movies could learn a thing or two from the animation department.

Of course, if you’re in a steampunk mood, you should check out my Clockwork Legion series. I have plenty of airships to go around, plus there’s even the New Orleans World Cotton Exposition in the fourth book—one of the original World’s Fairs. You can learn more about the series by visiting: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion. If you’re in Las Cruces, I’m signing copies this morning at COAS Books downtown from 10 until noon. If you miss that, I’ll be at Branigan Library tomorrow from 2 until 4pm.

Star Blazers 2202 – Part One

I grew up with reruns of the original Star Trek. I was eleven-years-old and obsessed with Star Wars when it came out. However, there was a third series I loved as much as those and that was Space Battleship Yamato, perhaps better known to American fans as Star Blazers. The series was something of a mainstay of Japanese television and cinemas from 1974 until 1983 when the movie Final Yamato was released. In 2010, a good, albeit dark, live action movie was made. However, what I’ve been delighted to see is that the anime is being given a quality remake. Season One, set in the year 2199, was released six years ago. Season Two, set in 2202, started its run last year. It’s being released as a series of seven movies, which will then be broken up into television episodes. What’s more, the new Star Blazers has finally garnered US distribution and I’ve just finished watching the first half of Star Blazers 2202.

In the first season, aliens known as Gamilas have invaded the solar system and bombed the surface of the Earth until it’s uninhabitable. What’s left of humanity has retreated underground. They receive a message from an alien called Starsha who sends plans for a fantastic wave motion engine. She says if they can build a ship and get to her on the planet Iscandar, she can give them technology to clean up the planet. Captain Okita gathers a crew aboard the titular Yamato and they set off. At the risk of a spoiler, they succeed, though not without sacrifices and major changes to galactic regimes.

In the second season, a new enemy has appeared called the Gatlanteans. Somehow, Earth has managed to build a whole fleet of warships based on Yamato’s technology in a very short time and the “somehow” is addressed as part of the mystery of the series. In the meantime, the former crew of the Yamato receive a psychic distress call from a goddess-like alien called Teresa. She needs help and is also threatened by the Gatlanteans. However, Earth doesn’t want to help. It’s up to the crew of the Yamato to reunite in defiance of Earth’s government to find out who Teresa is and help her if they can.

One of the things I loved in the first season was that they took some care to update the science, and while the series takes some liberties in the name of telling a good space opera yarn, it was not bad. The second season does allow itself to fall into some 70’s SF tropes. The Gatlantean’s mobile base, which looks like a planet-sized comet is sometimes called a Quasar. Scientists today wouldn’t call it that—though it is reasonable that such a body would probably have huge radio emissions and might resemble a Quasar at first glance. Also, the asteroid belt is far too densely populated.

Both seasons are full of blink-and-you-miss-it moments. At times this can make watching the series a challenge, but it also means the series stands up to repeat viewings. I often catch things on a second or third pass that I missed the first time. This is also a series I enjoy watching both in subtitled and dubbed versions. The subtitles help me focus on the dialog while the dubbed versions let me just look at what’s going on while people are talking.

One thing the 2202 season has added that’s interesting is product placement. There are some familiar logos appearing here and there. It’s a little sad, but anime of this quality is notoriously expensive. I’m willing to put up with some of this if it allows the creators to continue making a quality show.

I’ve heard the updated Star Blazers called one of the best science fiction anime. I’d actually go a little further. It’s easily one of my top ten favorite all-time science fiction series and possibly even one of my top five. It’s definitely worth a look. The complete season one along with the first half of season two are available with subtitles at Crunchyroll.com. It’s available with English dubbing at Funimation.com. Note, to watch most of season two on Funimation you currently have to subscribe, but if I read the release schedule correctly, it’ll be available without subscription starting on August 31.

What about the second half of season two? As I mentioned, season two is being produced as seven motion pictures. Only five of those have been released in Japan. Two are still awaiting release. It appears that Crunchyroll and Funimation are putting the series on hiatus at the mid-point until the series is finished. If you’re a fan of Star Blazers or just want more information about the show, Tim Eldred runs an excellent website: OurStarBlazers.com.

Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur

This past weekend I watched a movie that’s been on my “want to see” list since it came out in 2004, Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur. It promised to deliver a more historically accurate vision of King Arthur than other films and I was pleasantly surprised to see that it more-or-less succeeded in a Hollywood action movie sort of way. The movie came to mind when I received my contributor copies of the anthology Camelot 13.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fan of Arthurian history and lore. On a subject where there are nearly 1500 years’ worth of lore and fiction, no one can create a new version without people bringing their own perceptions to the table and nitpicking this element or that. With that said and before I go too much further, I’ll note that the earliest documents on which the Arthur story is based essentially say that around 500 AD during the Roman occupation of Britain, a general led the Celtic tribes in a campaign against the Saxons and there was a big battle at Badon Hill. Arthur’s name doesn’t even appear in the history’s until almost 300 years after he supposedly lived.

In the film, Arthur is the son of a Roman general and a Celtic woman who rose to the rank of general himself. He leads an elite band of Roman conscripts stationed near Hadrian’s Wall. The Saxons are invading the island and Arthur is given the mission to go retrieve the son of a Roman consul favored by the Pope who lives north of the wall before the Saxons rampage over their villa. As the Saxons move in, the Celts, led by Merlin, form an alliance with Arthur. They fall back to Hadrian’s Wall where their version of Mt. Badon exists and have a climactic battle. In this version, Guinevere is a Celtic woman who is also a fighter. Without looking too closely at the details, all the elements fit interpretations of the history I’ve seen.

As it turns out, I cover some of these same events in my novel, Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order. However in my version, Arthur is a Christian Celt with some Roman training. His knights are also Celts, including Lancelot, who in my version is from Brittany. Guinevere is a Roman noble. I actually wrote a version of the battle of Badon Hill for the novel, but left it “off camera” for the novel since none of the protagonists were there. What’s fun for me is that I think both versions of the story are valid interpretations of the history such as it’s known. Of course, in the novel, I end up introducing King Arthur to a vampire who wants to find the Holy Grail because he think the artifact will help him find redemption. If you want to go on this quest, you can learn more about Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order at http://www.davidleesummers.com/dragons_fall.html

Of course, if you want even more far out explorations of Arthurian Legend, be sure to check out Camelot 13. Copies will be available at Amazon next month, but you can order a copy today at http://hadrosaur.com/collections.html#Camelot13

Good Art by Bad People

It can be a real shock to learn that people you admire have done terrible things. Recently the news has been filled with stories of Bill Cosby’s sexual assaults. Just a few years ago, the speculative fiction world was shaken by allegations of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s child sexual abuse. It hurts and even feels like these people we’ve allowed into our hearts and homes through their work have betrayed us. This in turn raises a challenge. What do we do with the art created by such people?

Thee’s a good and thoughtful article at the Paris Review by Claire Dederer on this subject, with a special focus on the films of Woody Allen. You can read the article here: https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2017/11/20/art-monstrous-men/

I believe Ms. Dederer makes an important point in her article. None of us are perfect. We’ve all done stupid, mean, or hurtful things at one time or another. Hopefully most of us haven’t committed acts as terrible as those committed by Bill Cosby or Marion Zimmer Bradley, but all of us get caught up in our own selfish or thoughtless needs and desires at times. What’s more, this struggle against our worst natures is at the very root of what makes good art.

As an editor, I’ve read and published numerous submissions from prisoners. I’ve never been good about keeping detailed statistics on things like this, but my impression is that the acceptance rate among prisoners is about the same as the general population. Now, it’s rare for a prisoner to tell me why they’re serving time, but clearly they were convicted of a sufficiently serious crime to be incarcerated. Despite that, I have found in these works something worth sharing with a wider audience. I also feel like these people are paying their debt to society by serving time. Many of them are honestly trying to improve themselves by expressing their feelings through art. I feel the effort deserves reward.

Thinking about this subject has also helped me to understand my inherent problem with America’s celebrity worship. As a culture, we seem all too ready to give people power simply because they’re famous. People become afraid to speak up when a famous person does terrible things. Admittedly many famous people do hold real power. They’re heads of companies or manage staffs, but the fact that they’re famous makes people more afraid to speak up. People know they’ll be judged in the court of public opinion when they say a famous person did terrible things. In fact, certain celebrities are quite adept at turning their fans against accusers.

I think there is a real danger when society attempts to dictate what art is available for people to consume. Imagine the government telling you to throw out your video tapes of I Spy and burn your copies of The Mists of Avalon. Now imagine what else they’ll decide is not moral enough for you to consume. Another possible and more subtle consequence is that you could create a situation where the only artists available are the famous ones, which would only exacerbate the celebrity problem. Turning that around does offer something to consider when you feel betrayed by an artist. Always remember, there are many other artists out there eager to tell you stories, show you their movies, and paint amazing canvases.

Just remember, those artists are human and subject to temptation. Just like you.

Gamera

I think it’s fair to say that I grew up watching a lot of media from Japan. A lot was anime such as Tetsujin 28, Mach Go, Go, Go, and Gatchaman, perhaps better known here in the United States as Gigantor, Speed Racer, and Battle of the Planets respectively. However, I can’t overlook the role of giant monsters, or kaiju. Godzilla is clearly the most famous, but when I was a kid, my hero was Gamera.

I was thrilled to find Blu-ray copies of Gamera’s first eight films a few weeks ago. I’ve slowly been working my way through them. I’ve run into some people who think Gamera is part of the menagerie who battled Godzilla during his ongoing reign as King of Monsters. In fact, Gamera was the property of an altogether different movie studio. Godzilla’s stories were filmed at Toho Studios. Gamera was competitor Daiei’s entry into the kaiju arena.

For those not familiar with Gamera, he’s a giant fire-breathing turtle with tusks awakened from arctic ice during a dogfight between US and Soviet forces. Although he goes on a rampage for energy in the first film, he seems to have a soft spot for humans, and children in particular. In later films of the series, he’s revealed to be something of a guardian for humanity, protecting them from other monsters. The first eight films take place during Japan’s Shōwa period—the reign of Emperor Hirohito.

To be perfectly honest, the first eight Gamera films are far from great cinema. There’s a good reason several of them were featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000. However, I’ve long had the sense that the people behind the film series knew their limitations and had fun with them. At one point Gamera defeats a shark monster called Zigra, then plays a couple of bars of his own theme song on its back. Afterwards, he does a little dance. Another great moment comes in Gamera Super Monster when Gamera is ordered to go on a rampage by aliens and knocks over a sandwich board advertising a Godzilla film. Scenes like these make me think the Shōwa Gamera films have more in common with the 1960’s televised Batman than with films like Manos: The Hands of Fate filmed just down the road in El Paso, Texas.

As it turns out, Gamera was reimagined for a trilogy of really good films in the 1990s. These Heisei-era Gamera films gave a solid backstory to the titular turtle. He still attempts to protect mankind as a whole, but he’s still a giant monster and is prone to mass destruction. Not everyone likes Gamera in these films. The Heisei-era Gamera films also presented some cool glimpses into life in many different parts of Japan. I highly recommend Gamera: Guardian of the Universe and its two sequels.

My love of these films is a small part of what makes me the writer I am today. As a kid, I was drawn to the action and good-natured humor of these films. If it weren’t for these films, I probably wouldn’t have sought out more serious Japanese films like those of Akira Kurosawa, which gave me a deeper appreciation of Japanese culture and storytelling. Writing what we know is, among other things, writing what interests us. So watching Gamera films as a kid, was a first step toward writing my novel The Brazen Shark about samurai resisting cultural change in an alternate, steampunk Japan.

If you’d like to learn more about The Brazen Shark and my inspirations for the novel, I’ll be interviewed on the radio this Friday, July 13 on KTAL Community Radio from 12:30 to 1:00pm Mountain Daylight Time. My friends in Las Cruces can listen on the radio on 101.5 FM. For my friends outside the area, you can listen at: https://www.lccommunityradio.org/stream.html