Treat Yourself to a Scary Read

This week, my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt is Lachesis Publishing’s Book of the Week.

In my novel, astronomers, ghosts, drug dealers, and a monster from the beginning of time collide at a remote observatory during a violent thunderstorm. You might ask why a professional astronomer who operates telescopes would set a horror novel at an observatory. There are actually several reasons I chose to present this as a venue for a scary tale.

First, one of the scariest movies from my teen years was Ridley Scott’s movie Alien. Part of the reason the movie was so effective was that I was a big Star Trek and Star Wars fan growing up. Alien allowed haunted house horror to encroach on the “safe place” of science fictional optimism and action. Sure, Star Trek and Star Wars had their scary moments, but those moments were soon relieved by the heroes escaping the scary situation, a logical scientific explanation, or even humor. In Alien, the scary moments never let up. What’s more, the space ship was dark, dank, and full of shadows, not like the bright and colorful ships of those other science fictional franchises. For me, having a monster on the loose in an astronomical observatory is very much a call back to Alien.

Setting a horror story at an observatory is also something of an homage to one of the masters of twentieth century horror, H.P. Lovecraft. He was fascinated by astronomy and actually wrote scientific articles. Of course, he imagined ancient creatures from the depths of space to be among his horrors that tormented those people who dared to look in dark places.

Arguably one of the most important reasons for setting a horror story at an observatory relates to the adage, “write what you know.” I’ve worked at observatories for twenty-two of the last thirty years. Ironically, I feel comfortable and even safe working at observatories. However, some of the scariest stories happen in places where we don’t expect horrific things to occur. It’s one of the reasons Ray Bradbury could scare people with a story set at a fun carnival, and why Stephen King could scare us so effectively with a resort hotel in the Rockies. If you watch science shows, you’ve undoubtedly seen an astronomer speaking about the mysteries of the universe. You don’t expect something horrible in that situation.

And yet, it’s never far from the back of my mind that horrific things can happen. We’re at a remote site with wild animals. Observatories have big industrial equipment that come with their own safety issues. We work in the dark, in big, windowless buildings. When the power goes out, it can be really and truly dark. I’ve made the mistake of going into rooms without a flashlight and having doors close behind me and becoming quickly disoriented. There are access hatches that open into big, open areas. Those of us who work at observatories have to be ever vigilant to make sure accidents don’t happen.

I’ve also spoken at some length about how some observatories have literal crypts in or near their structures. James Lick is buried in the pier of the 36-inch telescope and Percival Lowell is interred in a mausoleum just outside the 24-inch telescope where he observed the features he thought were Martian canals.

In The Astronomer’s Crypt, I dared to take a place I loved and then scared myself by imagining the worst possible things happening. This Halloween, I dare you to come along with me and peer into the dark places behind the scenes at an observatory.

Lachesis Publishing has sweetened the deal making this a great Halloween treat. They’ve reduced the ebook from $4.99 to 99 cents for the rest of October at:

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Aliens with Tentacles

I’m in the process of assembling a presentation for Wild Wild West Con in Tucson, Arizona that discusses the origins of terrifying aliens from space coming to invade the Earth. The presentation dovetails with the convention’s theme, “Cthulhu For President.” H.P. Lovecraft describes his most famous creation as, “a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind.” During my research, I discovered that Cthulhu is part of a long line of terrifying monsters inspired by octopi and squids.

Personally, I’ve always found cephalopods fascinating and a little mysterious. Octopi often seem elusive when I visit aquariums and either hide or don’t give me very good photo ops. This is one of the best photos I’ve taken of an octopus at the Seattle Aquarium in 2008:

octopus

That said, when I invented the Alpha Centaurans for my novel The Pirates of Sufiro, I gave them tentacles to make them immediately distinct and “alien” as I was getting the action off the ground. When Captain Firebrandt from The Pirates of Sufiro returns in Kepler’s Cowboys, I wanted to give him a truly dangerous and frightening opponent in the water. The first thing that came to mind was a giant squid.

My octopus-inspired aliens and scary squid are really heirs to a science fiction trope that goes well back to the nineteenth century. For some reason, the Victorians found squids and octopi truly frightening. Camille Flammarion was, in many ways, the Neil deGrasse Tyson of his day. He wrote popular science books about astronomy and biology. He also wrote science fiction. In his book, Lumen, he imagines extraterrestrial beings from a star in the constellation Andromeda who live in water and must “keep their tentacles in unceasing motion.”

In The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells described the Martians as having pulsating bodies, a beak-like mouth, and lank, tentacular appendages. Although Jules Verne tended to steer away from aliens in his fiction, one can make a case that he capitalized on the Victorian terror regarding cephalopods when he had a giant squid attack the Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

By all accounts, H.P. Lovecraft was an avid reader and would have been familiar with the works of Wells and Verne—and possibly Flammarion as well, who was widely translated and in circulation during Lovecraft’s youth. So, it’s really no surprise that in 1926 when Lovecraft created his most famous monster, he would invoke the image of the octopus to inspire terror in his readers.

When I created my tentacled alien for The Pirates of Sufiro, I gave it little conscious thought, but it’s clear I was being inspired by those early works as well. When I put Captain Firebrandt up against a giant squid, I knew Verne had inspired me. Whether conscious inspiration or not, it’s all enough to make me think twice the next time I order octopus sushi or calamari rings. I’d hate for our cephalopod overlords to be displeased!

The “Monsters” of Star Trek

I remember the first episode of the original Star Trek I watched. I must have been around five or six years old and Captain Kirk was being chased around the desert by the largest, most ferocious green lizard man I had ever seen. Monsters-Star-Trek When the creature first appeared hissing and growling with its strange, segmented eyes, it would have sent me to hide and watch from behind the couch if our couch hadn’t been backed against a wall. Scared as I was, the episode hooked me and even made me feel a little sorry for the green lizard man when Captain Kirk finally beat him. That likely was not only the beginning of my love of Star Trek but my love of monsters as well.

In 1980, soon after the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a book appeared at my local bookstore called The Monsters of Star Trek. It was a thin book clearly designed to capitalize on the new movie. On the cover was the Gorn—the lizard man from my childhood—so I had to pick it up. The book discussed mind-bending aliens such as the Talosians from the series pilot and Sylvia and Korob from Star Trek’s twisted Halloween episode “Catspaw.” It talked about dangerous animals such as the giant space amoeba and the ape-like Mugato. Browsing through the pages today, it strikes me that the original Star Trek dealt with vampires not just once but twice. In the first season, they met a salt vampire, then in the second, they met a vampire cloud that Kirk obsessively hunted. No doubt this contributed to my own vampire novels.

Of course many of Star Trek’s monsters prove to be misunderstood aliens or aliens who don’t understand humans. The most recent Star Trek movie, Beyond had an alien that definitely fell into this latter category—a swarm-like race led astray by an outside force. (I won’t say more, lest I give spoilers). I’ve always found swarms a bit scary, since they’re a large force with a single purpose, operating like one organism. For me, the best zombie stories work from this basis. One zombie is a little scary. A bunch of zombies working in concert is really scary! You can find my zombie stories in the anthologies Zombiefied: An Anthology of All Things Zombie and Zombiefied: Hazardous Materials from Sky Warrior Publishing.

As it turns out, zombies aren’t my only look at the scary swarm. In Owl Dance, I introduce Legion, a swarm of microscopic computers who decide to help humans evolve in the second half of the nineteenth century causing near disaster. Legion clearly took some inspiration from Star Trek. In fact, one of the chapters in The Monsters of Star Trek is called “Androids, Computers, and Mad Machines.”

I never really thought of myself as a horror writer or even a horror fan until I started reading Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft as an adult and writing my first vampire stories. That said, it’s interesting to look back and see how scary stories were influencing me even from an early age. Still, it should really be no surprise. I’ve often said my interest in science fiction novels began from paying attention to the writer credits on the original Star Trek. One of those writers was none other than Robert Bloch, a writer mentored by H.P. Lovecraft who would go on to write the novel Psycho. Bloch wrote the Star Trek episodes “Wolf in the Fold” about an evil entity who possessed Scotty and made him a murderer, “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” which featured Ted Cassidy from The Addams Family as a decidedly creepy android, and the aforementioned Halloween episode “Catspaw.” If you’re looking for some good creepy TV, you could do worse than hunt up copies of these episodes on video!