Vampyr

A few weeks ago, I discovered a vampire film from the 1930s that I had never encountered before. Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, the movie Vampyr was filmed about the same time as Universal’s Dracula but was released about a year later. The film features an original script with elements inspired by Sheridan Le Fanu’s stories “Carmilla” and “The Room in the Dragon Volant” which appeared in the collection In a Glass Darkly.

Unlike other vampire films of the period, this doesn’t involve sinister castles in Eastern Europe. Instead, at its heart, the film feels a lot like some of Hammer Studio’s better vampire films from the 1960s. We meet a fellow named Allan Gray, ostensibly on a fishing trip in the French countryside, who stops at an inn. We learn at the beginning that Gray is interested in the occult and soon strange things happen. A man visits his room on his first night and leaves him a package, with the instructions that the package should not be opened unless the man dies. Gray then takes the package and follows ghostly shadows to a neighboring mill. A shadow of a rifleman seems to guide him to a point where the shadow then joins the corporeal rifleman who has been sitting in one place the whole time.

Gray ultimately leaves the mill and goes to a nearby manor house. Right as he arrives, the Lord of the manner drops over, as though dead. It appears that he’s killed by a gunshot from the shadowy rifleman, but that’s not all clear. He may easily have had a heart attack or a stroke or been harmed by some other supernatural force. At this point, the film takes on a more familiar vampire narrative flow, at least for a while. We learn that the lord’s older daughter, Léon has been preyed upon by a local vampire and she cannot be allowed to die, or she will turn into a vampire too. The lord’s younger daughter, Gisèle is also under threat of becoming a vampire. When the lord does succumb to the gunshot, or other injury, Gray discovers that his parcel is a book about vampires and how to deal with them. He teams up with the servants of the house to hunt the vampire.

Like Dracula, Vampyr is an early sound picture. The movie works to keep dialogue at a minimum and gives us a lot of information on narrative intertitle cards and on the pages of the vampire book. The movie also relies a lot on visual imagery to tell the story. I’ve already mentioned a little about shadows that become detached from their owners, but there are other odd elements, such as skulls that turn to face the room’s occupants and hints that we’re seeing what characters perceive rather than what they literally see. At one point, Allan himself seems to split into two spiritual forms. One form is left behind. The other form returns to the mill and finds both where the younger daughter is locked up and his own dead body in a coffin. He then becomes the dead body who is transported from the mill to the graveyard whereupon his spiritual selves reunite.

As a fan of vampire literature, one thing I love about this film is how it associates the vampires with ghosts and phantoms. The only other film I’ve seen that used is Nosferatu and even there, it’s only hinted at. I also liked the fact that the film’s “Master Vampire” appeared as an elderly woman who has men in her thrall. One of those men may also be a vampire, though it’s never entirely clear. I also love the experimental nature of this film. On Monday, I talked a little about “superhero fatigue” and really that’s a subset of seeing the same things over and over again in film. It’s nice to see a film dare to experiment with images and trust the audience to interpret what it’s seeing. And that’s what makes this film special. I’ve given it an interpretation, but you may see some elements differently depending on whether you take them literally or symbolically.

If you’re a vampire fan, it’s definitely worth checking out Vampyr. Of course, you can check out my vampire fiction by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#scarlet_order

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Pterodactyls, Mummies, and Magic

I’m beginning to think the French are particularly adept at making steampunk films. I enjoyed 2013’s Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart which had lovely animation and used steampunk images and metaphors to tell a tale of falling in and out of love that included among other things a loving tribute to Georges Méliès. Last week, I discussed the 2015 animated film April and the Extraordinary World drawn in the style of cartoonist Jacques Tardi. This week, I take a look at a film that precedes both of these, 2010’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, which is based on Jacques Tardi’s comic book series of the same name.

The film is directed by Luc Besson, probably best known in America as the director of The Fifth Element starring Bruce Willis. Adèle Blanc-Sec is a writer and adventurer living in 1912 who, as the movie opens, has traveled to Egypt to look for the mummy of the physician of Ramses II. Meanwhile, back in Paris, a professor uses mental powers to resurrect a pterodactyl at the French Museum of Natural History. The pterodactyl breaks free and manages to kill a high ranking French official. Like in The Fifth Element, many disparate characters and situations eventually come together, sometimes with humorous results. Sometimes tragedy ensues. In the end, I felt like I had been treated to a good and satisfying yarn.

As it turns out, the original comic series goes all the way back to 1976 and predates the K.W. Jeeter’s 1987 letter to Locus magazine where he gives Victorian fantasies the name “steampunk.” Even so, the adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec have all the hallmarks of good gonzo, historical fiction. We see a 1912—and even glimpse an ancient Egypt—where technology is so advanced for some, that it’s indistinguishable from magic. We see a pterodactyl brought back to life. For reasons that become clear over the movie’s course, we discover that Adèle wants to bring a mummy back to life. I have no problem calling this movie set just before World War I, steampunk.

Steampunk literature has brought us some strong female protagonists. Among them are Alexia Tarabotti in Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, Briar Wilkes of Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker and Agatha Heterodyne of Phil and Kaja Foglio’s Girl Genius. I’d like to think that Fatemeh Karimi and Larissa Seaton of my Clockwork Legion novels could also stand by their sisters. There’s no question that Adèle Blanc-Sec qualifies. In fact, one thing that impressed me about the movie was Adèle’s lack of interest in romance. There’s a young scientist who is enamored with her, but she doesn’t share his infatuation. Her character isn’t defined by any kind of a romantic interest. Like many good action heroes, her character is defined by the object of her quest.

If you’re looking for a good steampunk romp, it’s hard to go wrong with The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec. In its way, it’s very much an heir to Jules Verne’s own extraordinary adventures. Perhaps being a countryman of Jules Verne or Georges Méliès helps when you set out to make a steampunk film. I think Hollywood could do worse than pay attention to France’s successes in this area.

If you enjoy The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec and would like more rollicking tales featuring strong women, be sure to check out my Clockwork Legion Series.

April and the Extraordinary World

A few weeks ago, my friend William J. Jackson posted a review of the movie April and the Extraordinary World on his blog. William is the author such novels as An Unsubstantiated Chamber and Cerulean Rust. Be sure to check out his blog and his books at the links above. When a steampunk writer of William’s caliber recommends a steampunk movie I haven’t heard of, I take note.

April and the Extraordinary World is a Belgian-Canadian-French co-production based on the visual style of Jacques Tardi, who is probably best known for the early steampunk graphic novel series The Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, which was adapted into a live action movie in 2010. April and the Extraordinary World came out in 2015 and starts by imagining a scientist named Gustave Franklin who has been creating super soldiers for Napoleon III. When the emperor comes to visit, there’s an accident and the two most promising super soldiers escape—a pair of hyper-intelligent Komodo dragons named Rodrigue and Chimène. If that last sentence alone doesn’t make you want to watch this film, I’m not sure what will!

We then jump ahead many years to a future where Napoleon IV rules France. Many scientists such as Einstein and Fermi have just vanished and the governments of the world are secreting away what scientists they can. Gustave’s son and grandson are working on a formula to regenerate the cells of animals to heal any injury and possibly extend life indefinitely. They come to the attention of those who are making scientists disappear and pass the formula on to their daughter, the April of the title, just before they disappear.

We now skip ahead a few more years to a point where April is a young adult and a scientist in her own right. The police are trying to round up any scientists they can get their hands on to work for the government. Meanwhile other mysterious forces have discovered that April has continued work on her parents’ formula. She finds she must get to the bottom of this conspiracy of vanishing scientists in order to learn the fate of her parents.

Even though we’re now in the world of the 1940s, everything is still steam powered. The streets are clogged with smoke and dirty. Gas masks are the province of the elite. This alternate 1941 Paris is a beautifully rendered, if frightening steampunk world. The artwork not only takes inspiration from Jacques Tardi, but from Japanese filmmaker Hiyao Miyazaki.

One minor issue I had with the film was that early on, it makes a point of telling the audience “this is alternate history” and “this is how we’ve changed the world from the one you know.” The best speculative fiction works by just introducing you to the world and showing it to you in such a way that you suspend your disbelief. That said, this straightforward approach may make this a good film for introducing those who don’t understand steampunk to steampunk.

My one other minor issue is that for a plot so embroiled in the work of scientists, some of the technology seemed almost magical in its amazing abilities. This magical element is part of what reminds me of Miyazaki and its beautifully rendered, but I might have enjoyed the film just a little more if some of the inventions we saw seemed just a little more plausible.

Those minor nitpicks aside, I highly recommend the film. It’s one of those I rented on Netflix, then immediately decided I needed a copy and was delighted to find one at my local Barnes and Noble. It was in the anime section, appropriately next to Miyazaki’s films!

I liked the fact that this was very much alternate history that asked what if the level of science and technology had changed. I liked that April was a strong woman—and not necessarily in the butt-kicking way. She was smart and solved problems with her brain, yet was a well-rounded character who had believable feelings about the people around her. In tone, it accomplished much of what I also shoot for in my Clockwork Legion novels. You can learn more about them at http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

The Coming of the King

Last week, I finished reading Nikolai Tolstoy’s novel The Coming of the King. Tolstoy draws from such diverse sources as The Mabinogion, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, Beowulf, and the Norse Eddas to tell a story of post-Arthurian Britain through the eye of Merlin. This Merlin isn’t the advisor of Arthur we’ve come to expect from works like T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, but rather a shaman living nearly a century after Arthur’s defeat at Camlan.

The book runs the gamut from action, to ribald humor, to surreal visions. I especially loved the fact that one of Merlin’s teachers is the Salmon of Lyn Liw. At times this is a dense and challenging read and I’m not sure I would have gotten as much out of it if I hadn’t read several of the stories of The Mabinogion plus some of the Norse Eddas. Still, I found this a compelling look through the eyes of a Celtic shaman and may have to give this another read in the future.

Tolstoy himself is something of an interesting figure. I gather he’s a distant cousin of Leo Tolstoy. He’s also the stepson of Patrick O’Brien, who wrote the outstanding Aubrey & Maturin series of naval epics set during the Napoleonic wars. Having grown up in Britain, Tolstoy developed an interest in Arthurian literature, and I especially enjoyed his non-fiction book, The Quest for Merlin. That book introduced me to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, which in turn inspired my poem “The Passage of Merlin” which was reprinted at Eye to the Telescope earlier this year.

When I first discovered Arthurian literature and started processing it, I had a vision of creating a work similar in scope to Tolstoy’s The Coming of the King. I envisioned telling the ultimate Arthurian tale. Of course, many far-more-noted authors have also done so, ranging from Mark Twain to John Steinbeck to the aforementioned T.H. White. Tolstoy sidestepped the trap of writing “yet another Arthurian fantasy” by writing about people who lived a generation or two after Arthur and were influenced by his legacy.

I’m often asked how an author can create fantasy that isn’t derivative of the epic fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien or the sword and sorcery of Robert E. Howard. One answer is simply to read the classics. The ones Tolstoy drew from are good choices. Grimm’s fairy tales are also good choices. In that way, a writer can get to the roots of fantasy. From that basis, you can start adapting the themes and types of characters to situations and locations that mean something to you.

My first professional fantasy (and steampunk) sale was a story I was moved to write after reading Moby Dick and then Ray Bradbury’s accounts of writing the novel’s screenplay. I replaced sailing ships with airships and whales with dragons and wrote “The Slayers” which was published in Realms of Fantasy. You can learn about the reprinted edition at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/slayers.html.

As for Arthurian legends, I had a lot of notes and ideas and wrote some stories. I added vampires and my love of the movie Nosferatu and melded it into Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order. You can learn more about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/dragons_fall.html

Of course, a lot of these old stories can be dense and a challenge to follow. One of the ways I dealt with that was by retelling the stories in my own words and finding the parts that were important to me and emphasizing them. I felt brave enough to record one of those retellings and put it up for sale several years ago. It’s my retelling of Culhwch and Olwen from The Maginogion.

I was really fortunate that the story also captured the imagination of a co-worker from Kitt Peak named Kevin Schramm, who also played accordion for an outstanding band called The Mollys. Kevin and Mollys lead singer Nancy McCallion were kind enough to record some music for my reading. You can find out more about the recording at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/cando.html. Just one word of caution if you go to buy the audiobook at Amazon, make sure to go to the Marketplace sellers and buy it from Hadrosaur Productions, and not the person who thinks they can get more than $600 for my recording. It would be nice if they shared some of their profits with me if they actually managed to sell the CD for that price!

Revisiting Contact

When I visited the VLA a little over a week ago with my wife and daughter, I couldn’t help but note they had copies of both the novel Contact by Carl Sagan and the Robert Zemeckis film based on the novel on prominent display in the gift shop. This is perhaps not surprising given that a large portion of the novel is set at the VLA and a large portion of the movie was filmed there as well. My wife and I decided to pick up a copy of the movie on DVD to replace our aging VHS copy.

It’s been years since I watched the film, even longer since I read the novel, but it was fun to go back and see it again. One element that was fun was the behind-the-scenes look at both Arecebo Radio Observatory and the Very Large Array. This is the kind of behind-the-scenes look I wanted to give people with The Astronomer’s Crypt and also, to some degree, with The Solar Sea. While I’ve never visited Arecebo, I have worked at the VLA and recognized the control room and other places in the control building. It was great to see those places again. One thing I noticed, though, was that in the movie, the astronomers themselves operated the telescopes. In real life, specialists who know the instrumentation actually operate the telescope. Scientists might be in the room analyzing data as it comes in, but even that is somewhat rare. For the most part, I chalk this up to streamlining the storytelling and keeping the number of on-screen characters to a manageable number.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie more on this viewing than I remembered. I like how the movie focuses on the human reaction to alien contact more than the science fictional elements of the actual alien encounter. We see a wide variety of reactions from the general public, to religious figures, to politicians. While we see some paranoia, most of the extreme reactions come from … well, extremists. The acting is fine with Jodie Foster turning in a believable performance as astronomer Eleanor Arroway. I also especially enjoyed seeing Tom Skerritt as David Drumlin, head of the National Science Foundation, one of Ellie’s chief critics and ultimately her rival to meet the aliens. Another fun appearance was John Hurt from Alien and Doctor Who as the eccentric billionaire S.R. Hadden who funds Ellie’s experiments.

As I recall, the movie is a generally faithful adaptation of the novel. I was pleased to see that the movie didn’t include one element of the novel I really disliked. I’m not certain how necessary it is to give a spoiler warning for a novel that’s over thirty years old, but just in case, I’ll cover this element in the next paragraph. Skip over it if you haven’t read the book and don’t want the spoiler!

In the novel, Ellie has a stepfather named John Staughton. He’s a university professor who raises her after Ted Arroway dies. It’s ultimately revealed that Arroway is not really Ellie’s father, but that Staughton was her biological father all along. To me, this felt like academic elitism of the worst order. When I read it, it seemed as though Carl Sagan was saying that brilliant Dr. Eleanor Arroway couldn’t really be the daughter of an ordinary working man, but required the genetics of an actual PhD scientist in order to be as smart as she was. Of course, this impression could be unintentional, and it could have resulted from an editor’s suggestion at some point in the revision process to add more drama to the story. That said, it was bad enough, it almost proved a showstopper for me when I read the novel.

One element of the movie that was both fun, yet dates the film was the addition of scenes with President Bill Clinton. On one hand, it adds a certain credibility to the film, but it also sets it indelibly in the past. Of course, that will happen with almost any near-future science fiction and it’s perhaps better to fix it in time than let the older tech in the control rooms and older cars on the streets be the main “tells.”

Ultimately, I think both the novel and film are great in that they provide a look into the mind of Carl Sagan, who long served as an important spokesman for science and astronomy. Like Urania by Camille Flammarion, Contact provides insights into Carl Sagan that his non-fiction alone couldn’t provide. We get to see more of his hopes and fears and even though many of us never got to meet him, we still have the opportunity to know him better.

Dying to Get to Mars

In the novel A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter escapes from Apaches in the Arizona desert by going into a mysterious cave where he succumbs to mysterious gasses. Soon afterward, his spirit is transported to Mars where he becomes substantial again and makes a new life as a warlord of Mars. It seems a very odd way of getting to Mars and one that’s probably doomed to failure if you or I were to try it. However, John Carter was not the first literary hero to get to Mars via this unusual method of transportation.

A Princess of Mars was first published in 1917. In 1889, the French astronomer Camille Flammarion published the novel Uranie (or Urania as it’s known in English). In mythology, Urania is the daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. She’s also the great granddaughter of Uranus, for whom the planet is named. Urania is the muse of astronomy. Camille Flammarion was, for all intents and purposes, the Neil deGrasse Tyson of the Victorian age. His popular works on astronomy inspired a generation around the world. In many ways, he was a true life astronomical muse.

The novel is told in three parts. In the first part, Urania takes Camille Flammarion on a journey to the stars. She shows him worlds orbiting other stars and the life inhabiting those worlds. He learns that life can come in many different forms. So far, this makes Uranie the oldest novel I know that imagines life on planets outside our solar system. In the second part of the novel, we meet one of Flammarion’s colleagues, George Spero, who is courting a woman from Norway named Icléa. George and Icléa have a long, intense courtship that includes discussions of the nature of thermodynamics, orbital mechanics, and the nature of death. Eventually they travel to Norway to get married. Before the ceremony, George decides to take a balloon to make measurements of the Aurora Borealis. At the last minute Icléa jumps in the balloon with him and off they go.

Alas, part way into the journey, the gas valve breaks and the balloon begins a rapid descent. In order to save George, Icléa jumps from the balloon to the frigid waters of the lake below. The balloon begins to rise and George is saved, but he’s unable to go on without Icléa and jumps out. He misses the lake and hits the ground and the two join each other in death. Sad for the loss of his friend, Flammarion goes to a séance. There he learns that George and Icléa have taken on new forms on the planet Mars. What’s more George is now a woman and Icléa is now a man! This brings us to the end of part two.

Part Three is a combination of essays about telepathy and other unexplained phenomena, how they could be, and a ghostly visit to Flammarion from George where we learn more about the couple’s new life on Mars. I won’t say much more, I’ve given spoilers enough. Still, I found it interesting that death on Earth and rebirth on Mars was not unique to Burroughs in early science fiction. I have no idea whether or not Burroughs was directly influenced by Flammarion, but Burroughs would have been a teenager when Uranie was released in the United States and Flammarion’s work was widely read. It was, after all, Camille Flammarion who inspired Percival Lowell to build an observatory in Arizona to study the planet Mars.

If you’d like to read this interesting, science fiction novel, it’s in the public domain in the United States and available to download from Project Gutenberg at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/41941.

Revisiting Excalibur

As the year began, Lachesis Publishing decided to put the ebook of Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order on sale for 99 cents through January 21. Because of that, I’ve been thinking back to some of the inspiration for the novel.

I’ve long been a fan of Arthurian lore. In many ways, that fandom began back during my university days soon after watching John Boorman’s film Excalibur. After the film, I remember hot debate about how closely the film followed the “true” legend of King Arthur. I found myself wondering what exactly people meant by “the ‘true’ legend of King Arthur.” Soon after that, I was at a used bookstore in Albuquerque where I found a book with the historical and early literary texts that were the root of the Arthur legend. This opened up a whole new world to me and told me that the Arthur story is far more nuanced than I originally thought.

What most people think of as the “true” story of Arthur is based on the novel Le Morte d’Arthur written by Sir Thomas Mallory in 1485. It includes many of the familiar elements of the story including Arthur pulling the sword from the stone to become king, the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere, and the quest for the Holy Grail. It’s also written approximately a thousand years after the historical Arthur would have lived. It’s built up from numerous folk tales Mallory would have known and put together into a single narrative. In fact, the sword in the stone, Lancelot, and the Holy Grail don’t appear in the earliest Arthur narratives.

As it turns out, the earliest Arthurian history from a Welsh monk named Nennius can be summed up as: “Arthur was a warlord who won many battles against the Saxons, until he finally defeated them at Badon Hill.” Even this version of the story wasn’t written until almost three or four hundred years after Arthur would have lived. Since that time, numerous folk tales developed. Many are reminiscent in tone to the tall tales of Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan from the American frontier. I’ve read speculation that Lancelot started as the star of his own set of French Celtic folk tales and was then grafted onto the Arthur stories. Others say he has antecedents in minor characters from the earlier Celtic stories of Arthur.

This past week, I watched Excalibur for the first time in about twenty years. Admittedly, it’s been about fifteen years or so since I last read Le Morte d’Arthur, but it struck me that the movie did a tolerably good job following the plot of Mallory’s novel. Many have criticized the movie for its depiction of Arthur and his knights in bright, shiny armor. However, it struck me that this is a valid interpretation of Mallory, in much the same way as it would be valid to present a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar with characters in Elizabethan garb. One can make a case it’s the way it would have been visualized by audiences at the time of the novel’s release.

Back when I wrote Vampires of the Scarlet Order, one of the characters mentioned that the vampire Drake was, “a British peer, a Dragon serving King Ambrosius.” The character goes on to explain “Ambrosius was King of the Britons before King Arthur. This was all around the year 480 A.D.” When I decided to write Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order which tells Drake’s origin story, I thought it would be fun to explore what I’d learned about Arthurian history and lore.

As an author, I put together some of my favorite ideas and pet theories of what the “true” King Arthur story was like. I knew people would expect to see Lancelot so I created a reason for him to be there, yet “erased” from history. It was a fun exercise and we also travel to other points in history as well. We go to ancient Greece and to England just after the Norman invasion. The novel ends in Mallory’s time in Eastern Europe where a certain famous nobleman often associated with vampires is coming to power. You can pick up Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order as an ebook at the following retailers. But hurry, the 99 cent special ends this weekend!