Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories

There’s something about the long, dark nights just as autumn turns into full-fledged winter that seems especially suited to spooky tales. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the Victorians were especially fond of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. Of course, one of the most famous ghost stories of Christmas is none other than A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. The novel itself does a very good job of making the ghosts frightening and my favorite adaptations are the ones that truly capture the chilling moments. However, A Christmas Carol is not the only Christmas ghost story Dickens told.

Charles Dickens published “The Signal-Man” in the 1866 Christmas edition of his periodical All the Year Round. “The Signal-Man” tells the story of a traveler who comes upon a lonely railroad signal-man who tells him the story of a ghost who appears every time disaster is about to strike the train line. There’s not much Christmas in this tale, but it’s full of atmosphere and foreboding. It struck me that the traveler tries to find rational explanations for the ghost that sound a little like Scrooge dismissing Marley’s ghost as more gravy than grave. It also struck me that the lonely signal-man bore more than a passing resemblance to my spooked telescope operators in The Astronomer’s Crypt. A lonely, isolated setting works well in any ghost tale. “The Signal-Man” is available to read in Charles Dickens’s collection, “Three Ghost Stories” available at Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1289/1289-h/1289-h.htm.

Another fascinating winter ghost story is “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street” by J. Sheridan Le Fanu. This was first published in the January 1851 edition of the Dublin University Magazine. This is a story about two cousins who take up residence in a haunted mansion in Dublin only to be beset by mysterious thudding footsteps and apparitions of a man with a noose about his neck. Of course, Le Fanu is most famous as the author of the vampire tale “Carmilla” which inspired both Bram Stoker’s Dracula and my story “Fountains of Blood,” which appears in the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone. As it turns out, “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street” was ultimately collected in the book In a Glass Darkly alongside “Carmilla.” There are several free versions of LeFanu’s haunted house story, but the one I read was at: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lefanu/aungier/.

Like Dickens, Le Fanu makes an effort to rationalize the ghost before revealing that the haunting is real. It’s fascinating to me to see the tug-of-war between the spiritual and the rational at this time period. To be quite honest, I have felt this tug-of-war myself. I’m a professional scientist who is a trained skeptic. Yet, I’ve had experiences I can’t completely explain. I’ve taken photographs that appear to show ghostly shadows and I’ve seen lights where they shouldn’t be.

When I wrote the first part of The Astronomer’s Crypt, I set it during the long dark of winter on a stormy night. I based it on a real night that I experienced when I was alone, servicing the instrumentation. I had a strong sense of dread and felt certain something was coming to get me. Wind caused the dome to rattle and it whistled like a ghostly wail. Even though I was dressed in a heavy coat, I couldn’t get warm. It was a relief when I finally escaped the observatory for the morning and snuggled into my blankets. If you’re looking for yet another Christmas ghost story, you can read my fictionalized account of that night at http://www.davidleesumers.com/Astronomers-Crypt-Preview.html.

Here’s wishing you many bright lights and clear winter days to dispel the ghosts of the long, dark nights around the solstice.

Anthology Announcement: Exchange Students

I’m excited to announce that on February 1, Hadrosaur Productions will begin reading for a new anthology with the working title, Exchange Students, which will be edited by Sheila Hartney.  I thought this would be a great time for Sheila to tell us a little about herself and how she got the idea for the anthology. I will share the link to the anthology guidelines at the end of the post.


I started reading science fiction as soon as I learned to read. When I was a little girl in Utica, NY, the room that held science fiction books was off-limits to little kids, so I had to sneak in when a librarian was turned the other way and then hope some kind librarian would actually let me check the books out. Otherwise I had to persuade my older brother to check the books out on his card. That same brother belonged to the Science Fiction Book Club back in the 1950s and early 60s, and tried to keep me from reading his books by putting them on a high shelf he thought I couldn’t reach. He was wrong. I figured out how to reach it.

I attended Jim Gunn’s short story workshop in Lawrence, Kansas, and from it came my Writer’s of the Future story, “Kidswap”. Over the years I’ve attended other workshops, notably the Taos Toolbox, and the one that came along with being a Writer of the Future. Chris McKitteridge, who has taken over from Gunn was in my workshop. In the service of name-dropping, Fred Pohl was a guest instructor back when I took it.

The job that has had the most impact on who I am is that for ten years I was a ticket agent at National Airport in Washington, DC. It was an enormously difficult and stressful job much of the time, but it taught me to think on my feet (literally, as I stood for eight hours in high heels on a concrete floor), to solve seemingly unsolvable problems, and best of all it came with free travel. I got to see the world.

I am not sure how much my own love of science fiction was an influence, but my son is in a PhD program in astronomy.

Currently I live in Santa Fe, NM. The amazing clear night skies are perhaps the best thing about living here. A close second is that so many science fiction writers live here or very near here, and I count any number of them as friends. I even got to see last year’s eclipse with one well known writer.

Like a lot of writers I’ve worked at a variety of jobs: paralegal, retail, temp office work, nurse’s aid. I worked at an art gallery here in Santa Fe for two and a half days and then was fired for “unbridled exuberance”. Yeah, really. I also ran for office once. The Kansas State House. You can probably guess that I lost, but it was a fascinating and educational thing to have done.

So far as hobbies go, I crochet and embroider, and of course read a lot. Half or a bit more of what I read is non fiction, and I’m especially entranced by epidemiology, earth science in all forms (earthquakes, volcanoes, continental drift), genetics and human evolution, dinosaurs, the list goes on.

My favorite authors at present are James Van Pelt, a fabulous short story writer and nice guy, and Connie Willis, a fantastic writer of novels and perhaps the sharpest and funniest person I’ve ever known.

As for the Exchange Students idea, one of my relatives wrote a story that referenced an exchange student from ancient Rome, which immediately struck me as a great idea and I asked if I could steal it. They said yes, of course, and I wrote a short story which goes by the title “Exchange Student”. In generating ideas for a possible anthology, the exchange student idea was always there.


I hope you’re as excited about the prospect of the Exchange Students anthology as I am! Now, be sure to check out the guidelines and start thinking about the tale you want to tell about an exchange student of the past, present, future, or across dimensions. http://hadrosaur.com/ExchangeStudents-gl.html


Uncanny Encounters

During my first year of graduate school, I joined a small acting troop that called itself the Socorro Little Theater and we put on a series of related one-act plays known collectively as The God’s Honest: An Evening of Lies by playwright Jules Tasca. The idea is that in each play, one or more characters is lying and through their lies some truth is revealed. The whole thing was done with minimalist sets that could be used in each of segments. Below, is a photo from the segment called “The Twin Mendaccios” where I play Clarence, a poor befuddled soul who isn’t sure which twin, Terry or Thomasina (both played by the same actress), that I’ve been to the movies with, had dinner with, or even slept with!

While performing in the play, the director, Carolyn Abbey, had me hard at work adapting my short story “A Matter for Madness” into a stage play that we hoped to perform. I’m sorry to say, the stage play was never produced, but the story did go on to be one of my first story sales. Also, the play’s protagonist, John Mark Ellis, would go on to be one of the heroes of my Space Pirates’ Legacy series and is featured prominently in the novel Heirs of the New Earth which is on sale for half price at http://hadrosaur.com/bookstore.html#heirs.

It’s from this perspective that I turned my attention to the book Uncanny Encounters—Live! by Paul McComas and Stephen D. Sullivan. The book collects eight short plays with distinctly science fictional or horror elements in the vein of The Twilight Zone. Some of the plays are very short. In fact, the shortest is only one page, but published in 2015, “The Most Terrifying Three Word Dystopian/Dark-Fantasy/Horror Story Ever Written” proves to be the most chillingly predictive piece of science fiction I’ve ever read. I won’t spoil it. You’ll have to read the book or see the play to know what I mean!

As someone who fell in love with stagecraft many years ago, I’d enjoy watching or performing in any or all of the plays in this volume. That said, my two favorite pieces were “Corona Encounters” by Stephen D. Sullivan and “Be Mine” by Paul McComas. These were two of the longer plays in the volume and I suspect they grabbed me as much as they did because there was a little more time to explore the characters and watch them change as they reacted to the events. “Corona Encounters” tells the story of a UFO enthusiast who has calculated the time of the aliens’ return and the skeptical photographer she convinces to go out to the desert with her. It starts out as a lighthearted romp that takes a chilling turn. “Be Mine” is the story of a man who dabbles in Voodoo magic to win the heart of a woman who is in a relationship with another man. The problem is that once our hero wins the woman’s heart, he can’t stop using the magic.

If you’re an actor, director, producer looking for fresh material, I highly recommend taking a look at this volume. For that matter, if you’re a reader looking for a great read, this is worth putting on your list. It’s available at: https://www.amazon.com/Uncanny-Encounters-Sci-Fi-Screams-Horrific/dp/1499706014. Contact information for performance rights is in the book. Like The God’s Honest, these plays are designed to work with minimalist sets. So, even though they’re science fiction and horror, don’t let the potential cost scare you. These should be adaptable to companies working with even modest budgets.

If you want to learn more, you can hear an interview with Stephen and Paul at: https://narrativespecies.wordpress.com/2016/10/16/paul-mccomas-and-steven-sullivan-navigate-uncanny-encounters-rod-serling-used-to-tour-the-nation/

Ten (plus) Years at Kitt Peak

David Lee Summers, Christian Soto, and Dick Joyce at the annual AURA service awards ceremony.

This month, I received my ten-year service award from the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy for my work at Kitt Peak National Observatory. The awards were presented following an annual presentation on the state of the observatory. Other award recipients included my boss, Dick Joyce, whose been with Kitt Peak for 45 years and one of my fellow Observing Associates, Christian Soto, who is celebrating his five-year anniversary. The photo shows the three of us at the University of Arizona ballroom where the presentation was given.

As it turns out, I’ve actually worked at Kitt Peak for more than a decade. I was tempted away from graduate school in 1992 and worked at the observatory until 1995. During that time, I watched the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope’s construction and served as one of its first four operators. I left because my wife and I were expecting our first child and I wanted a job that allowed me to be home more of the time. So, I went to work helping to finish commissioning a 1-meter telescope run by New Mexico State University. In late 2007, a former co-worker from Kitt Peak called me up and said they needed experienced telescope operators and asked if I wanted to return. At that time, I was a full-time writer and editor and wasn’t sure I did want to, but I agreed to an interview. They offered me a job and after much soul-searching I decided to return. I started in February 2008. So, now that it’s October, that means I’ve actually worked at Kitt Peak for about fourteen years. Unfortunately, human resources said I was away too long for my previous seniority to count, but my boss has expressed an interest in rectifying that if possible. We’ll see if that happens.

I feel like I made a good decision in returning. One surprising fringe benefit was that I became a more productive writer even though I was working full time. I suspect there are a few reasons for that. First of all, it forced me to better organize my time. Also, it put me into a position where I was interacting with people face-to-face more regularly, which I think helped me to bring more depth and emotional realism to my writing. Of course, the story of my departure and my return directly inspired elements of my novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt.

In the book, Mike Teter leaves the observatory because of a frightening experience. As it turns out, his experience was based on something that happened to me in my first tenure at Kitt Peak. It was a windy, stormy morning and I had gone up to make sure I’d serviced the instrumentation for the morning. The wind rattled the dome and there was an energy in the air. I had an unshakable feeling that something didn’t want me there and some kind of force was coming to remove me from the mountain. That frightening feeling went away after I’d had some sleep and I didn’t leave because of that incident, but I asked myself what if there really had been an evil force? What if it had manifested? Would I have been able to stay if my fears had actually materialized? I channeled that experience into the novel’s prologue. I know prologues often get a bad rap, but I made it a prologue not because it was “optional” but because it was an inciting incident that happened a few years before the main action of the novel.

If you’re in the mood for a scary read this Halloween week, you can read the entire prologue for free at http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt-Preview.html. If you get to the end and find you’re hooked, I have information about how you can order a copy of the novel. Hope you have a spooktacular week!

DeadSteam Trailer

Two weeks from today, on October 1, Grimmer and Grimmer Books will release its dreadpunk anthology DeadSteam. The term dreadpunk refers to Gothic inspired horror and fantasy, often with something of a steampunk flavor. The TV series Penny Dreadful was a good example.

As for the book itself? Reader beware: to open this tome is to invite dread into your heart. Every page you turn will bring you closer to something wicked. And when the dead begin to rise from the steaming pits of hell, only then will you discover that it is already too late. Your life is forfeit.

Featuring an introduction by Leanna Renee Hieber, author of The Eterna Files and Strangely Beautiful saga, DeadSteam plays host to the scintillating writing of Jen Ponce (The Bazaar, Demon’s Cradle), Wendy Nikel (The Continuum), Karen J Carlisle (The Adventures of Viola Stewart), Jonah Buck (Carrion Safari), and more…

With seventeen chilling tales of dreadpunk, gaslamp, and dark steampunk, DeadSteam will leave you tearing at the pages, desperate for more. For within these pages, the dead rise from their graves to haunt the London Underground, witches whisper their incantations to the wind, a sisterhood of bitten necks hunts fog-drenched alleyways lit only by gaslight, and only one thing is certain: that dread will follow you until you turn that final page.

And that sinking feeling in the pit of your chest? That fear that something is following you, watching you, hunting you? It is not for nothing. Look over your shoulder, dear reader. Watch behind you. Listen to the whispers in the darkness.

But know this … it is all inevitable.

I’m excited that my story, “A Specter in the Light,” is part of this anthology. The story was first published in the anthology Six-Guns Straight to Hell, which has been out of print for five years now. So if you missed the story in its first incarnation, be sure to catch it in this new volume. It’s a truly chilling tale of mining engineers using a Tesla coil to bring light to a mine, only to reveal an ancient horror.

If this has not been enough to tantalize your interest in the anthology, editor Bryce Raffle has debuted the book’s trailer today. Take a look:

I think this will make a great book for getting into the Halloween spirit. What’s more, you don’t have to wait to order. It can be preordered from major retailer’s right now. If you’re a book collector and prefer your books in hardcover, they can accommodate that as well! Drop over to https://deadsteam.wordpress.com/pre-order/ and order your copy today so you can have your copy right at the beginning of October. While you’re at the site, be sure to visit the blog links and read interviews with the authors, including yours truly!

Chargers

No, this isn’t a post about a football team that started in Los Angeles, moved to San Diego, then returned to Los Angeles. This past week, I operated the WIYN telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. About halfway through the week, the charger circuit on the telescope failed. The WIYN is a telescope with a 3.5-meter primary mirror, making it the second largest aperture optical telescope at the observatory. This large telescope needs to track the sky as smoothly as possible to get the precise measurements we make of astronomical objects. Because of that, the motors don’t actually work off a power cord plugged into the wall that could be subject to brown outs or power spikes. Instead, we have a charger circuit that charges up a set of small batteries. The telescope drives actually are powered by the batteries, shown in the photo to the left.

Although I have some experience with electronics, I’m not actually an electrical engineer. When failures like this occur, my job is less to make a repair, but to see if I can find a way to limp along for the rest of the night and continue to take data in spite of the trouble. However, the circuit is so fundamental to the telescope’s operation and the problem bad enough that I couldn’t even limp along. We had to close up and wait for more expert help in the daytime.

Fortunately, our expert electronics crew was able to repair the charger circuit in less than a day, so we were back on sky and taking spectra of galaxy clusters the next night. What has always amazed me about the charger circuit on the WIYN telescope is that a bank of relatively small batteries can move a 3.5-meter telescope. Those batteries need to move the telescope in three axes. The obvious axes are altitude and azimuth. As WIYN tracks the sky, images rotate in the field of view, so there’s also a rotator that keeps north up in the images.

The charger system strikes me as a metaphor for my approach to seeking inspiration for my writing. The charger system takes current from the wall in whatever form it exists, uses it to charge batteries, which change the form of the current to produce good telescope motion. I take inspiration from my work in astronomy, from the books I read, the movies I see, and my time interacting with friends and family, allow myself to process that through my brain and turn that into the stories and novels I write.

I have taken variable star data with telescopes that use wind-up clock drives and that has helped to inspire and inform clockwork gadgets in my steampunk stories. I once helped an astronomer to take one of the deepest images of the center of our galaxy in the infrared, which helped me to imagine a voyage to the center of the galaxy in my Space Pirates’ Legacy novels. Working late nights on a lonely mountain top in meandering buildings informs my horror. If you’re a writer, I’d love to hear about some things that have inspired your writing in the comments below.

Explore the worlds I’ve created at http://www.davidleesummers.com

After Punk

I had a great signing yesterday at Boutique du Vampyre in New Orleans. For those who missed the event, I left behind some signed books which can be bought through their website. Tonight, in Baltimore, eSpec Books will be unveiling a cool new anthology that features my story “The Sun Worshiper.” Unfortunately, my schedule doesn’t allow me to attend, but I would encourage anyone in the Baltimore area to go check out the release party tonight at Balticon. Click the link for more information about the convention. Meanwhile, allow me to tell you more about After Punk and my story.

While mankind can scarce hope to pierce the Veil without crossing it, a few intrepid souls will ever bend their will against the aether, combining artifice and the arcane to uncover its secrets.

From voodoo death cults to the Day of the Dead, mummy parties, the wheel of reincarnation, the practice of death portraits, and so much more, these tales leave no gravestone unturned.

Be it heaven or hell or the limbo in between, the hereafter is about to get ‘Punked.

With stories by Jody Lynn Nye, David Sherman, Gail Z. Martin and Larry N. Martin, James Chambers, Michelle D. Sonnier, Jeffrey Lyman, Bernie Mojzes, Travis I. Sivart, Jeff Young, L. Jagi Lamplighter, Danielle Ackley-McPhail, and yours truly.

My story, “The Sun Worshiper,” is about a spiritualist named Dinela Stanton who is invited to a mummy unwrapping party in London hosted by a prominent scientist. When she arrives, she finds all her fellow guests are scientists who have denounced her as a fraud. To make matters worse, it would appear that the scientist who invited Dinela is attempting to perpetrate a deception of his own.

The story was born from two sources. When I was in elementary school, I had the opportunity to see the Tutankhamen exhibit as it toured the United States. I was captivated, as were many, with all the wealth and beautifully preserved items found in the king’s tomb. Of course, as a young boy, I was both creeped out and fascinated by things like canopic jars and mummified cats.

I’m also intrigued by the Victorian obsession with séances and attempting to contact the spirit world. While studying the paranormal and the scientific method in college, I learned how many spiritualists managed to fool people. Despite that, I sometimes find myself wondering what would happen if a real spiritualist would come along and demonstrate real ability to the most ardent skeptics. To my mind, a true spiritualist wouldn’t help but be captivated by the idea of contacting the spirit of an ancient Egyptian mummy, and might even stick around in the face of her detractors.

After Punk is available in paperback and ebook at: