Imagining a Haunted Observatory

I’m excited to have a new book out as we go into the holidays at the end of 2016. I thought it would be fun to revisit a couple of posts I wrote at the Scarlet Order Journal when I was writing The Astronomer’s Crypt that discuss the inspirations for the novel. Also, I’m giving away a Kindle copy of the novel. Scroll down to the bottom of the post to find out how to enter! The novel takes much of its inspiration from my work at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Southern Arizona. One of the telescopes I operate is the observatory’s flagship telescope, the Mayall 4-meter shown here.

4-meter

Since I wrote my original post, I have heard stories that chairs in the old lounge on the so-called Utility floor could sometimes be seen to be rocking by themselves, as though occupied by ghostly inhabitants. Also, one night back in the 1990s, I once could have sworn I saw a flashlight beam from the catwalk. When I called the telescope operator on the radio though, I was assured no one was outside.

Even without these scary stories, the Mayall is eighteen stories tall. On a typical night, only three or four people inhabit the building. It’s a big space that literally moans in the wind. One night, the power went out and I had to climb the staircase in the dark, accompanied by nothing but the sound of creaking vents and the thudding of my own heart.

4-meter-stairs

When it was built, the plan was for astronomers to stay in the building. Later, it was found that heating the rooms made for poor images at the telescope. So, the rooms were abandoned. They still exist, and are used for storage, but it can be a little unnerving to walk down an empty hallway that curves around the building, frozen in time from the early 1970s.

4-meter-dorms

Large as the building is, there are also some rather cavernous spaces. Again, some of these spaces are used for storage. You can find computers from the 70s, 80s and 90s, plus parts from outdated instrumentation. When you walk into a space like this, is it so hard to imagine something lurking in the shadows?

4-meter-storage

The 4-meter telescope is a large, sophisticated machine. A lot of power is needed to run it, and pipes carry such fluids as water, glycol, and even oil throughout the building. There are numerous service facilities throughout the structure. Some of the spaces remind me of something from a science fiction film. What could be lurking around the corner in this photo?

4-meter-tunnel

The Mayall 4-meter is an amazing facility. It’s the place where the observations that led to the discovery of dark matter were made. It’s about to undergo a refit that will put it on the forefront of dark energy research. Personally, I’ve seen everything from asteroids to distant supernovae to gravitational lenses at the telescope in this building. However, on some dark and stormy nights, I’ve walked down some of these corridors and wondered if I really was alone!

astronomers-crypt-453x680

The Astronomer’s Crypt is now available as an ebook at the following retailers:

In honor of the season, I’m giving away a copy of The Astronomer’s Crypt for Kindle. Click the following link to see if you’re an instant winner: https://giveaway.amazon.com/p/c1ab0e67aed8c0d9 .

The giveaway ends on January 6, 2017.

New E-book: The Astronomer’s Crypt

This week marks the release of the ebook edition of my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt which tells the story of astronomers, ghosts, drug dealers, and a monster from the beginning of time colliding at an observatory during a ferocious thunderstorm. Here’s the cover and the back cover blurb.


astronomers-crypt-453x680If you scare easily, don’t read this book.
If you dare to read it, you’ve been warned.

Two years ago on a stormy night, in the dead of winter, Mike Teter experienced something that would change his life forever. Mike was a telescope operator at the world renowned Carson Peak Observatory in New Mexico. We won’t tell you what he saw that night on the mountain nor what happened afterward on a dark stretch of highway, because it would haunt you just as it has haunted Mike. But what we will tell you is that Mike is back at Carson Peak. And what he witnessed that night two years ago is about to become a reality…


This horror novel, of course, was inspired by many nights working as an observing associate at Kitt Peak National Observatory. In fact, cover artist Laura Givens clearly used the Mayall 4-meter as her model for the telescope enclosure on the cover. This is fitting, since the building was the inspiration for the enclosure in the building. The Mayall 4-meter is a labyrinthine building filled with twisting corridors, dark stairways, and darkrooms abandoned when astronomical cameras went digital. People have taken wrong turns and gotten lost in the building. Bats sometimes congregate at the top of the dome. More than once, visiting astronomers have commented the 4-meter would make a great setting for a haunted house.

Clearly the telescope on the cover isn’t in the Arizona desert. The novel is set on a fictional peak in the Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico. When I first went to work for Kitt Peak, one of its draws was the relative ease of access compared to almost every other observatory I’ve worked at. I wanted to drop the creepy building into a remote and isolated place where help wasn’t just a phone call away.

The idea for this novel came to me during the World Science Fiction Convention in San Antonio which was held in 2013. My editor asked if I had any ideas for a creepy or suspenseful novel. I pitched the idea of a haunted house story set at a telescope and we tossed ideas back and forth over the course of the weekend. I left WorldCon that year with a nearly complete outline for a novel. Now, three years later, you can read the results. When you visit the retail sites, you’ll see this is Book 1 of the “Wilderness of the Dead” series. Yes, I have plans for at least two more books set in the Carson Peak Wilderness area of New Mexico. Lots of creepy stuff happens in the old towns and surrounding mountains.

You can pick up the e-book of The Astronomer’s Crypt at:

Remembering Houdini

Happy Halloween! I hope everyone dropping by will have a safe and enjoyable celebration. This Halloween finds me operating the Mayall 4-meter telescope instead of trick-or-treating, but I do plan to bring some spooky reading with me to the telescope to celebrate the occasion.

Today also marks the ninetieth anniversary of Harry Houdini’s death. Houdini fascinated me as a kid and the more I’ve learned about him over the years, the more he intrigues me. Not only was he an amazing escape artist and magician, but he was a pioneer in both cinema and aviation. However, what has always fascinated me most was Houdini’s work as a skeptic. The photo below shows Houdini in a “spirit” photograph of him interacting with Abraham Lincoln through the magic of a double exposure.

500px-houdini_and_lincoln

Houdini became interested in the occult and spiritualism after his mother died in 1913. He wanted to contact his mother beyond the grave. However, back in his early days as a performer, he masqueraded as a spiritual medium himself and began to recognize that the mediums he contacted had just updated and recycled tricks he himself once used. Ashamed of his own past, he started a crusade to expose fake mediums and show people how they performed their tricks.

By 1925, Houdini’s show went from his familiar routine of escapes and magic tricks to showing how psychics and spiritualists performed their tricks. Houdini chronicled his exploits in a book entitled A Magician Among the Spirits which he co-authored with C.M. Eddy Jr. Reportedly, it’s this book which cost Houdini his friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of Sherlock Holmes.

Doyle himself was a strong believer in spiritualism, though interestingly he’s associated with his own share of intellectual fraud. Probably the most famous case was helping to publicize the Cottingly Fairies. In this case, two young cousins photographed themselves with dancing pixies. However, the cousins later confessed that the “fairies” were illustrations from a popular children’s book of the day called Princess Mary’s Gift Book. I first read about this case in James Randi’s book Flim Flam. Of course, Randi himself was influenced to investigate the paranormal by Houdini. I was honored to meet the Amazing Randi when I was in college, where he did his own demonstration of psychic “magic.”

In 1926, Houdini planned to start a new book about religious miracles with C.M. Eddy Jr. and none other than H.P. Lovecraft. Although an outline and three chapters were written, plans for the book were derailed by Houdini’s untimely death later that year.

Despite Houdini’s efforts to debunk the paranormal, his widow Bess went on to attempt to contact her dead husband through the aid of spiritualists. It’s said her final attempt happened eighty years ago tonight on October 31, 1936. The séance was broadcast on the radio. The medium, Ed Saint, called out on to Houdini to make himself known, but no answer came. After an hour, Bess called an end to the séance. At that point, a very localized, violent storm broke out. Supposedly it was clear over the surrounding area. It only rained over the séance location.

I hope you stay warm and dry this Halloween and may all your encounters with ghosts and spirits prove pleasant ones.

Gaslight Gathering and Other Steampunk Fun

gaslight-gathering-logo Next weekend, I’ll be at Gaslight Gathering in San Diego, California. This year, Gail Carriger, best selling author of the Parasol Protectorate Series will be Guest of Honor. Also presenting there will be my friends Madame Askew, Denise Dumars, Dee and Hal Astel, and Madeleine Holly-Rosing, creator of the Boston Metaphysical Society comic. The event will be held at the Town and Country Hotel from Friday, October 7 through Sunday, October 9. There will be costuming workshops, teapot racing, absinthe, movies and more!

Here’s my schedule:

Saturday, October 8

  • 10am-11am – Garden Salon One – Gothic Literature and Its Influence on Steampunk. I’ll join Writer Guest of Honor Gail Carriger, along with fellow steampunk writer Dru Pagliasotti for a lively discussion about Gothic literature and how it has influenced the Steampunk genre.
  • 1pm-2pm – Garden Salon One – Zombies, Vampires, and Ghosts – What are your favorite monsters? I’ll again join Guest of Honor Gail Carriger, along with fellow writer Todd McCaffrey for a panel that explores different monsters and paranormal creatures who have appeared in steampunk books. Which ones work best? Which are our favorites? Which didn’t work so well in both literature and the cinema!
  • 4pm-5pm – Vendor Hall – Autograph Session
  • Sunday, October 9

  • 10am-11am – Garden Salon One – Victorians and the Paranormal Presentation. We will look at ghosts, seances, spirit photography, and mysterious creatures such as Spring-Heeled Jack and Arizona’s ghost camels that have so fascinated our Victorian forefathers.
  • 11am-12pm – Vendor Hall – Autograph Session
  • 12pm-1pm – Taking The Horror out of Monsters. Not all monsters are monstrous. Some monsters are darn near lovable. Who are your favorite monsters and why do you like them better than certain people. On the panel with me are Gail Carriger and Todd McCaffrey.
  • doapromo2

    It seems fitting to announce the anthology Den of Antiquity in this post about forthcoming steampunk goodness. This anthology collects writings by members of The Scribbler’s Den, a writing group gathered on The Steampunk Empire, a great online social network for steampunk enthusiasts.

    When one thinks of a den, one tends to think of comfort. A cozy room in the house—a quiet, comfortable place, a room for conversation, reading, or writing. One doesn’t tend to think of high adventure, dragons, vampires, airships, or paranormal creatures. And yet, that’s just what you’ll find in these pages. Stories of adventure and mystery! Paranormal, dark, and atmospheric tales! The fantastical and the imaginative, the dystopian and post-apocalyptic, and everything in between!

    So settle in to the coziest room in your house, plop down into your favourite armchair, and dive in to the Den of Antiquity.

    This anthology which is slated for release on November 5 includes stories by Jack Tyler, E.C. Jarvis, Kate Philbrick, Neale Green, Bryce Raffle, N.O.A. Rawle, David Lee Summers, William J. Jackson, Steve Moore, Karen J. Carlisle, and Alice E. Keyes.

    My story in the anthology is called “The Jackalope Bandit” and it’s an exciting new story featuring Larissa and Professor Maravilla from my Clockwork Legion novels in a brand new adventure in which a six-foot tall mechanical jackalope robs banks and payrolls along the Rio Grande. Can Larissa and the professor solve this mystery from their armchairs in the den? Find out on November 5!

    The Robots Are Taking Over

    I spent this past weekend at Bubonicon in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Yesterday, I moderated a panel called “Are Robots Still Scary? Danger Will Robinson!” As it turns out, I suggested this panel to the event organizers because it occurred to me that I work with a robot quite a bit at Kitt Peak National Observatory and it’s a far cry from the anthropomorphic robots of pulp sci fi and probably more irritating at times than scary. The robot I’ve spent most of my time with is called the Hydra gripper. The reason it can be irritating, is that I’m one of the guys who has to go fix it when it breaks down!

    hydra

    The gripper is on the right-hand side of the photo above. Its job is to pick up the fibers on the left side and position them on the plate so that they line up with objects on the sky. When the telescope is pointed at the target, light from the objects will go downstairs to a spectrograph, where it will be broken into a spectrum and projected on a camera. Astronomers can take that light and analyze it to understand the chemical composition of the objects they’re studying. These objects can range from stars, to galaxies, to nebulae. Some objects are nearby, others are among the most distant in the universe.

    The reason for this post’s title, is that we’re about to get another robotic spectrograph at Kitt Peak. This one is called DESI (which stands for Dark Energy Spectrographic Instrument). Hydra allows us to take spectra of upwards of 200 objects at a time. DESI will let us take spectra of 5000 objects. You can read more about DESI in this press release from the Department of Energy’s Berkeley Lab. The goal of the instrument is to get spectra of all the known galaxies obtainable by the 4-meter in order to understand the phenomenon that’s been dubbed “dark energy.” Along the way, we’ll build an incredible database of spectra available to the entire astronomical community.

    This week, I’ll be helping to test a prototype of DESI on the Mayall 4-meter telescope. The fibers of DESI are so closely packed that they aren’t moved around by a system like a gripper. Instead, each fiber is a little robot that turns on its own to optimize its position on the sky. Because of this project and the number of people it takes to get a project like this off the ground, DOE has helped to fund a new, larger control room for the Mayall. You can see the original on the left below. The new control room is on the right.

    New-Old Control rooms

    As it turns out, ghosts and stories of haunted observatories feature prominently in my forthcoming novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt. Our new control room is one of the “haunted” spaces in the Mayall. It used to be an old lounge and there were two rocking chairs that would sometimes be seen to rock on their own even when no one is in there. It remains to be seen if there are any ghosts, or if this motion was just due to sway of the building. If there are ghosts in the building, I hope they like company, because there’s going to be a lot of it in the coming years!

    Ghostbusters

    This week, I took my daughters to see the new Ghostbusters, a film I’ve been looking forward to despite several controversies. Of course, reboots and remakes always come with a certain amount of controversy. Will it be as good as the original? Why is this reboot necessary since the original is a classic? The thing is, to me, the 1984 Ghostbusters was itself a kind of reboot. Since 1975, I thought of the Ghostbusters as these guys:

    Ghost Busters cast photo via Wikipedia

    Ghost Busters cast photo via Wikipedia

    The photo comes from the Saturday morning TV show Ghost Busters featuring Forrest Tucker as Kong, Larry Storch as Spencer, and Bob Burns as Tracy the Gorilla. The show typically featured the guys going out to a haunted castle to exterminate the ghost of some famous villain or monster such as Billy the Kid, Dracula, or Dr. Frankenstein and they had a set of gadgets not unlike those in the more famous movie about a decade later. It was cheesy, silly fun.

    When the 1984 movie came out and proved to be a big hit, Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson became the Ghostbusters everyone knew and they’ve remained that way until this year, though I’d like to point out that at least for a little while in 1987, the Ghostbusters were these guys.

    Ghostbusters

    This is me and three friends from college who investigated a ghost sighting at the University of Southern California as part of a class taught at New Mexico Tech about the Paranormal and the Scientific Method. Our final project for the class was a research paper about any aspect of the paranormal. A friend at USC told me about a ghost sighting and our professors agreed that an on-sight investigation would be a good project.

    In short, students at USC thought they saw a ghost in a basement room. After a few initial sightings, these students gathered together in the basement. That night, the ghost, who had been resting on a pool table, hopped off and pushed one the students in front of several eye witnesses. We interviewed all the people involved and saw a trend that the people who could give us the most detailed descriptions were the ones who believed the most in the paranormal. We visited the room and saw several interesting optical phenomena involving lights under the door. The upshot is that we came up with an explanation for the phenomenon that didn’t involve ghosts.

    Really, that was the point of the exercise. Was our explanation correct? In fact, there’s no way to know. James Randi famously said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” We didn’t find extraordinary evidence for a ghost sighting, but we couldn’t actually say a ghost sighting didn’t occur. I rather enjoyed this experience and for a long time, thought about ways I could pursue paranormal investigations more professionally. The problem was, I couldn’t figure out a way to do it and be funded or without ripping off people. I ain’t afraid of no ghosts, but that wasn’t enough to make a career.

    All of this brings me back around to the new Ghostbusters movie. One of the things I actually liked better about it than either the 1975 incarnation or the 1984 incarnation was that the Ghostbusters weren’t entrepreneurs taking money from people to hunt ghosts. They were civil servants—though admittedly civil servants off the official record books. Their research was publicly funded because it did a public good.

    One thing both the 1984 and the 2016 versions did brilliantly was to poke fun at both popular paranormal research and academia. I related well to Dr. Erin Gilbert in the new movie as she came up for tenure review while her almost-forgotten book on ghost hunting was suddenly getting unwelcome attention. After all, I’m an employee at a prestigious astronomical observatory whose boss has expressed some concern about me being the author of a book about a haunted observatory. Fortunately, in the end, my boss has been more supportive than Erin’s were in the movie and I’m not looking for other work. At least not yet!

    In the end, I enjoyed the new Ghostbusters. I can’t say it was perfect. I felt parts went over-the-top, but that happens for me with a lot of comedies. Still, it succeeded at telling a similar, yet not identical story. When it comes out on video, I’ll buy a copy and sit it on the shelf next to my copies of the 1975 and 1984 incarnations. Which one I drop in will depend on the particular story I’m in the mood for at the time.

    The Race is On

    This past spring, I signed a contract for my horror novel The Astronomer’s Crypt about a week before I turned in the third of my Clockwork Legion steampunk novels, The Brazen Shark. Editor Joanna D’Angelo of Lachesis Publishing sent me her edits for The Astronomer’s Crypt on September 15. Editor Irene Radford of Sky Warrior Publishing sent me her edits for The Brazen Shark exactly one week later on September 22. It’s certainly enough to feel like a race!

    Despite some coincidental timing, it’s really not a race. Both of my editors have a common goal. They want to help me make the books they’re working on the best they can be. I do have deadlines for both projects—The Brazen Shark is actually due before The Astronomer’s Crypt, but how long after that each book takes to achieve publication will depend on how satisfied my editors are with my work and the production queues at each of the publishing houses. So, even though it’s not a race, it’ll still be fun to see which one comes out first! Either way, these will be novels nine and ten, marking something of a milestone for me.

    SummersOwlDance

    The Brazen Shark continues the adventures of Ramon Morales and Fatemeh Karimi from Owl Dance and Lightning Wolves. Set in 1877, this third novel tells the story of their honeymoon in the Pacific and how they get caught up in a plot by samurai to steal a Russian airship in order to overthrow the Meiji Emperor. This story steps away from the familiar wild west setting of the first two novels and goes further afield. Of course, while you’re waiting for this novel, you can be sure to read Owl Dance and Lightning Wolves! Those who want even more of Ramon and Fatemeh will be delighted to know that book three of the series will not close it out. I am already contracted to write a fourth book in this series, tentatively titled Owl Riders. I’m still working out plots and I don’t want to give away any spoilers for The Brazen Shark, but I can tell you that you’ll get to see a very steampunked version of New Orleans in the series’ fourth installment!

    The Astronomer’s Crypt is intended to be the first of a series called “Wilderness of the Dead” which accounts the spooky happenings of a fictional wilderness area in the Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico. This wilderness includes Carson Peak Observatory, a ghost town called Toledo with a haunted mine, and a number of caves, which are portals to other dimensions where monsters from ancient history were trapped by Apache warriors. Although this is a new series, you get a taste for my horror by reading my Scarlet Order vampire novels Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order and Vampires of the Scarlet Order. As you can imagine, with a title like The Astronomer’s Crypt, it must be set at the observatory. I can tell you that the second novel is tentatively titled The Miner’s Tomb and we get to know the ghost town near the observatory quite well.

    So, with two series in the works, will there be a race between Owl Riders and The Miner’s Tomb? That’s a good question, but at this point, I expect Owl Riders will be written first. It’s the novel that’s actually under contract with a deadline. Lachesis has made a strong verbal commitment to The Miner’s Tomb, but the paper hasn’t yet been signed. Still, who knows what the future may bring!

    Finally, I received a lovely review of The Solar Sea from fellow author, Erica Miles. You can read it at Amazon.com.