Facing Monsters

This week, many of us will be visited by an assortment of monsters coming to our doors to politely ask for treats. It’s likely we’ll see zombies, vampires, assorted creations of Dr. Frankenstein, and perhaps even some scary clowns. Many of us will also watch scary movies featuring these same monsters, or settle into a comfy chair to read a spooky book.

So, why exactly do these monsters hold sufficient power over us that we still devote an unofficial holiday to them? I think it’s safe to say most of us don’t believe we’re hiding from evil spirits by dressing up. Most of us have access to food and housing and despite the fears many politicians would like to instill in us with help from the media, we are, on the whole, pretty safe.

I came across a fascinating article at PBS.org that addresses the question of why we fear monsters by Leo Braudy. If you want to read it, you can find it at: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/column-well-always-obsess-fear-monsters

In the article, Braudy suggests that societal changes over the last couple of centuries have given rise to five monstrous archetypes. I’ve had some fun thinking about how the monsters from my novels might fit into these groups. The titles are links and you can click on them to learn more about the books.

The monster from nature represents forces humans think they’ve harnessed but haven’t. The monster I’ve written that fits that best would be “He Who Kills With His Eyes” from The Astronomer’s Crypt. He’s an ancient Native American elemental spirit released from his prison on the story’s hapless observatory and is very much kin to monsters like Godzilla or the shark from Jaws.

The created monster represents our own creations turning against us. The super soldier vampires of Vampires of the Scarlet Order represent this danger. Scientists use nanites to create these monsters who represent a danger not only to humanity but to parallel worlds.

The monster from the past represents a creature from our pagan past who challenges our Judeo-Christian beliefs. Braudy suggests Dracula is an example of this. My Scarlet Order vampires from Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order do have elements of this in that they have great strength and immortality without recourse to a deity. The ghosts in The Astronomer’s Crypt might be better examples of this in that they haven’t moved on to heaven or hell and they gain strength from the release of dark forces.

The monster from within represents our own repressed, dark psychology. The duality of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde is a classic example, but I think my Scarlet Order vampires are good examples of this as well, especially in Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order where Alexandra and Draco must face the monsters they’ve become in becoming vampires.

The monster hoard which is the mindless, intractable collection of monsters such as zombies. For this, I’m actually going to turn to my steampunk works. The hive mind Legion and those humans Legion controls and connects in Owl Dance have certain zombie-like properties. At the very least, they represent giving oneself over to the collective like the Star Trek’s Borg.

So, what’s your favorite monster? Which of these archetypes does it fall into, or does it defy classification?

Hope you have a happy and safe Halloween and the only monsters you face are fictional ones.

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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:

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.

Too Early for Halloween Decorations?

As long as I can remember, people have complained about Christmas decorations appearing in stores earlier in the current year than the previous year. This year is the first time I can remember people commenting—mostly in a lighthearted way, it seems—about Halloween decorations appearing early. As it turns out, I actually don’t mind a little lead time on the Halloween season. I love Halloween, but because of my observatory job, I only get a couple of weeks at home in a month. If I’m working on a writing or editorial deadline, I might not get to a store that has decorations to remind me Halloween is approaching until very close to the date. fsf-sep2016 Also, although I attend several science fiction, steampunk, and comic conventions each year where cosplay is encouraged, I don’t often get to go full-out since I’m appearing as a professional on panels. Halloween is a definite chance to play.

Speaking of conventions, when I was at Bubonicon in Albuquerque a couple of weeks ago, I picked up a copy the David Gerrold Special Issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction from Gerrold himself. He was kind enough to sign it for me. The issue has proven to be worth the money just for Gerrold’s fine science fiction novella “The Further Adventures of Mr. Costello” and Peter S. Beagle’s “The Green-Eyed Boy,” which is a prequel to The Last Unicorn. However, I’ve also been enjoying the fact that the issue contains several spooky tales about ghosts and murder most foul. It’s done a great job getting me into the Halloween frame of mind!

2020-visions As an aside, David Gerrold is actually the first professional science fiction author I met. We met at a convention in California circa 1981 and he signed my copy of his book The Trouble with Tribbles which told how he created the Star Trek episode of the same name. I was honored to appear alongside Gerrold in the anthology 2020 Visions edited by Rick Novy. The anthology tells stories set in the year 2020. You only have a little more than three years to find how good we did predicting the future!

Back on the subject of Halloween, this is one of those years where I have to work at the observatory on the big day itself. Unfortunately, that means I can’t really go all out on costuming this year, but I’m still thinking about dressing up. Perhaps I’ll go as an astronomer’s ghost in honor of my forthcoming novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt!

Halloween Short Stories and Poems

Talisman 9-1 Cover

Subscriber and contributor copies of Tales of the Talisman volume 9, issue 1 have now been shipped out. It occurs to me this is a great issue for Halloween. Christian Martin’s story “Sabotaged” is a scary psychological thriller set aboard a space station. Davyne DeSye’s “…I Win” is a stylish and Gothic look at Death. C.J. Henderson delivers a chillingly twisted Cthulhu mythos tale. These along with many of the stories in the issue make it a good issue to curl up with this autumn. Of course each issue is lavishly illustrated by such artists as Tom Kelly, Laura Givens, Kathy Ferrell and Jag Lall. Between the stories you’ll find blood curdling poems by such folks as Marge Simon, Charles Templeton, and Noel Sloboda. Issues are now available at TalesOfTheTalisman.com and at Amazon.com.

While on the subject of spooky poetry, you should drop by the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s On-Line Halloween Poetry Reading at http://www.sfpoetry.com/halloween.html. There you’ll find recordings of some great speculative poets reading scary Halloween poems absolutely free.

Space Horrors

If you prefer that your horrors come from beyond the Earth, be sure to check out the anthology Space Horrors published by Flying Pen Press. In this collection, you’ll find tales of vampires, zombies and alien menaces among the stars by such Lee Clark Zumpe, Sarah A. Hoyt, Selena Rosen, Dayton Ward, and more. My understanding is that the first edition will be going out of print at the end of the year, so this is a great time to grab the book at Amazon or Barnes and Noble. I’ll be starting discussions with the authors soon about a second edition. If all goes well, that should be available by next Halloween.

Hope you’ll check some of these out. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you’re reading this Halloween season.

Halloween and Dia de los Muertos

This coming week, we celebrate two of my favorite holidays, Halloween and Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. Below is a calaveras skeleton I bought at the Day of the Dead celebration in Mesilla, New Mexico three years ago.

As a horror writer, it’s perhaps no surprise that I really enjoy the thrills and chills of Halloween. When I was a kid, though, it was a bit of a forbidden thrill. My dad was raised to believe that Halloween was a pagan tradition and I never sensed he was entirely comfortable with it. My mom never had a problem with the holiday and I regularly dressed up and went out trick-or-treating. The first Halloween I can remember, I dressed up as a spooky black cat. Perhaps that explains why some of my vampires transform into cats and why a big mountain cat rounds out my poem “Alone with the Astronomer Ghosts,” which you can listen to here: http://www.sfpoetry.com/halloween.html

The funny part about my dad’s discomfort with Halloween is that I also think of him as the person who really got me thinking about horror. We used to watch old horror movies together. He would regularly throw in Mystery Science Theater 3000-style comments about the movie (years before there was a Mystery Science Theater 3000!) making them fun, but no less haunting.

No doubt the forbidden thrills of Halloween played a big part in the creation of the Scarlet Order vampire series along with much of the other horror I’ve written. I find tapping the emotions of horror is a great way for me to explore the human condition and peer into those dark places that we might not be able to explore through more mainstream fiction. Clicking the cover below, you can learn about the latest Scarlet Order novel and explore some of those forbidden thrills for yourself.

Of course, all these memories get to the root of Dia de los Muertos, which follows on the heels of Halloween. It’s a holiday for remembering those loved ones who have gone before. It’s especially powerful for me personally in that my father died in October 1980 and my mom in November 2009. It’s hard not to think about them this time of year. This year, my daughters and I plan to celebrate their memories by making a loaf of Pan de Muertos, the Bread of the Dead. A few years ago, I wrote a Day of the Dead poem for my dad that was first published in Macabre Magazine. Enjoy!

    Pan de Muerto
    by David Lee Summers

    All Soul’s Day—The Day of the Dead—
    Picnics and parties at the cemetery.
    Gravestones decorated with flowers,
    Pinwheels, photos, favorite toys,
    Candies and pan de muerto—
    The Bread of the Dead.

    My daughter and I make the bread.
    She beats the eggs—even in death,
    There is the memory of new life.
    I add the orange essence – memory
    Of the orange trees Grandpa—
    My dad—loved so much.

    Together, my daughter and I add the
    flour—grown from the soil where
    Grandpa now rests. Together we
    Kneed the dough—making a
    Connection across time.
    Grandfather to father to daughter.

    We set the bread out with a photo,
    Some Halloween candy, and many
    Happy memories. Sleep that night is
    Restless. There is a chill in the air.
    Morning comes and a chunk is gone
    From the Bread of the Dead.