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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Superheroes

This past weekend I saw Deadpool 2 with my daughter. I enjoyed the film and particularly its theme of seeking out love and family in the wake of violence and chaos. It’s funny with a lot of self-aware, and sometimes inappropriate, humor. It also left me pondering Hollywood’s current obsession with superheroes. I sometimes feel like I suffer something I call “superhero fatigue.” Sort of a groan that escapes involuntarily when I see another new superhero film announced. Yet, I do go back to some that particularly grab my eye. Films like Logan, Wonder Woman, and Deadpool have engaged me in spite of my fatigue.

I loved superheroes as a kid, both from comic books and on television. I probably discovered them on television first through such shows as Filmation’s Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure and the famous Batman television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. Discovering my friends from TV in comic book form no doubt helped me improve my reading. Because of when my birthday fell, I was only four when I started Kindergarten. I was younger than most of my classmates and smaller. My size probably wasn’t helped by my mom smoking while she was pregnant with me. As such, I have the familiar story of being the small kid picked on relentlessly by his classmates. I know I loved superheroes because I loved to imagine myself having super powers and impressing the other kids in class. Of course, super powers would also have given me the ability to beat up the worst of the bullies.

As an adult and a writer, I see superheroes in a different light. I’ve come to recognize that all good superheroes have limits or weaknesses and the best stories are when the villain pushes past those limits and weaknesses. All the best superheroes have people they love and they can be hurt when the people around them are hurt. That’s how Deadpool 2 starts.

As an adult, there are still dangerous forces I sometimes feel powerless to stop, such as climate change, poverty, and overblown man-children with nuclear arms who like to taunt each other through social media. Because of that, there’s still appeal in wondering whether I could do something about them if I had superpowers. Yet, it’s often the more mundane, day-to-day challenges that cause the most anxiety. Will my daughter be safe at school? How can I afford that bill I forgot about? Where did that bad Amazon review come from? Did they even read the book I wrote? Even if I had superpowers, those things probably wouldn’t change. I have to work through my limitations to find solutions to those things. I have to teach my daughter to be aware of possible dangers and avoid them when possible. I maybe have to sacrifice something for that bill, or reevaluate my finances. I should be brave like a superhero and look at that review and see whether or not there’s something I can learn from it.

The closest thing I’ve ever written to superhero fiction is Vampires of the Scarlet Order about a team of vampire mercenaries who must save humanity from itself. Can vampires be superheroes? Just ask Marvel’s Blade, who was brilliantly portrayed a few years ago by Wesley Snipes. As it turns out, I first learned about Blade when Neal Asher compared my book to Marvel’s movie and comic book series. My vampires have great power. They can move fast and have great strength. They’re hunters, but they have limits. Among other things, they can only work at night and they can be destroyed. As with the heroes in Deadpool 2, they also find family in unexpected places. If you care to see my take on superheroes, visit http://www.davidleesummers.com/VSO.html to learn more.

New Orleans Book Signing

This Friday, May 25, I’ll be signing copies of my novels, Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order, Vampires of the Scarlet Order, The Astronomer’s Crypt, and Owl Riders at Boutique du Vampyre at 709 1/2 St. Ann Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

Boutique du Vampyre is a unique store that offers everything from jewelry and apparel to art and dolls to both vampires and mortals who are friends of vampires. My two Scarlet Order novels are clearly right at home at Boutique du Vampyre and I’m proud to be featured on their shelves alongside such authors as Alys Arden and Bruce T. Jones.

While The Astronomer’s Crypt doesn’t feature literal vampires, I’ve long thought of those of us who work all night long at observatories as kindred. We start work at sunset and leave before sunrise. It’s possible to avoid the daylight entirely in the job. Some observatories do have actually have crypts on site, and perhaps it’s not surprising that we hear our share of ghost stories. There are also more than a few mundane dangers that come with working at remote high-altitude locations late at night. The book imagines what happens when ghosts, gangsters, a monster from Apache lore, and astronomers collide during a terrible thunder storm. The Astronomer’s Crypt may not be a vampire novel, but it sits comfortably in their company!

Owl Riders is my latest novel and like The Astronomer’s Crypt does not feature vampires. Much of the novel, though, is set in the New Orleans French Quarter and the character Marie Lalande is a Voodoo practitioner. What’s more the novel’s protagonists, Ramon and Fatemeh Morales, live on the same French Quarter block as Boutique du Vampyre. This will be the novel’s first official book signing and it seems fitting to release it so close to Ramon and Fatemeh’s fictional home.

While getting ready for the signing event, I was going through files on my computer and found a book trailer I’d created for the novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order about twelve years ago, but never released. Overall, I felt like it held up. The only problem was that some of the information at the end was incorrect, but I was able to fix that with some judicious editing. So now, the trailer is live on YouTube and you can watch it here.

I created the trailer from illustrations Steven C. Gilberts did for the novel and gave it some film stutter and scratches, so it had the feeling of old vampire films I remember watching, such as Dracula or Nosferatu.

After the signing, I’ll be reading from my vampire novels at Potions Lounge on Bourbon Street. If you come by the signing the staff at Boutique du Vampyre will give you all the details about when to join us. If you’re in New Orleans for Memorial Day weekend, I hope you’ll join us for a truly special event. If you can’t make it, you can order signed books from Boutique du Vampyre by visiting http://www.feelthebite.com.

Croquet in the Old West

About three years ago came news that a new photo of Billy the Kid might have been unearthed. Experts hired by National Geographic purported that the tintype showed Billy and a number of his associates on John Tunstall’s ranch in Lincoln County, New Mexico playing croquet. You can see the full photo and learn more at National Geographic’s site. The detail below supposedly shows Billy on the left with Tom O’Folliard in the center pointing at him. On the right may be Sallie Chisum.

I love this photo on many levels. If this is Billy the Kid, we now have an image of him wearing a cardigan and a bow tie, playing croquet with his gang. Tom O’Folliard was Billy’s best friend. Like Billy, O’Folliard was shot and killed by Pat Garrett. Sallie Chisum was the niece of prominent rancher John Chisum, who in turn was a business partner of Billy and Tom’s boss John Tunstall. Sallie Chisum lived in Lincoln County until her death in 1934. To put that date in perspective, my mom, the daughter of New Mexico homesteaders, would have been seven years old. Sallie Chisum is important to historians because her diary contains stories about both Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett.

Historians have been debating whether or not this photo actually shows Billy the Kid, the Regulators, and their associates. Whether or not Billy the Kid is in this photo, we do see a scene of people in the Old West playing croquet. We know croquet sets were sold in New Mexico because Gazette of Las Vegas, New Mexico ran an ad featuring croquet sets in 1878.

In my Clockwork Legion novels, I have a character named Billy McCarty. When pressed, I tell people Billy may or may not be Billy the Kid. In many ways, he’s like the person in the photo, who also may or may not be Billy the Kid. I’m not a historian, but a fiction writer. As a fiction writer, I’m allowed to ask, what if this photo really depicts the Billy of my stories. What if his boss, Englishman John Tunstall, introduced him and his friends to croquet? What if he was an aficionado of the game?

I play with this idea in my latest novel, Owl Riders. In the novel, Ramon Morales first encounters Billy teaching the men who work at Onofre Cisneros’s warehouse in Nogales how to play croquet. As the novel progresses, we find that Billy has skills with a croquet ball and mallet that rival his skills with a six-gun.

You can learn more about Owl Riders and read the first chapter at http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_riders.html

On Saturday, I mentioned that I’ll be signing my vampire books at Boutique du Vampyre in New Orleans. This will also be the formal debut event for Owl Riders. You might wonder if that means that there are vampires in my new steampunk novel, especially in light of my Billy encountering vampires in last year’s Straight Outta Tombstone. In fact, there are no vampires in the new novel, but Boutique du Vampyre is in the same block of the French Quarter where Ramon and Fatemeh Morales live in the novel.

Saddle up and take flight with the Owl Riders!

A Vampire in Daylight

In my novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order, I introduced Daniel McKee, a vampire who works as a telescope operator. In my novels, the vampires often need to find ways to earn incomes since I’ve always been a bit skeptical that it’s easy to stash away vast amounts of wealth given nothing but time. Of course, being vampires, my characters must find night work, which can be a challenge, especially in some professions. Fortunately, Daniel was an astronomer when he became a vampire, so his progression to an all-nighttime position wasn’t difficult.

Daniel is autobiographical only in the sense that he’s a telescope operator. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, the Mayall 4-meter is undergoing a major refit. The entire top ring in the picture above will be coming off and replaced with a new top ring that holds 5000 optical fibers which will be used to collect light from millions of objects around the sky. Because the refit is so extensive and so time-consuming, there’s no nighttime work to do on the telescope, so those of us who work as telescope operators have been spending one shift a month supporting the refit operation during the day. I find myself wondering what Daniel would make of that!

In fact, Daniel would probably quit to find an operator’s position elsewhere. Otherwise, he might find work to do that would allow him to remain on a nighttime schedule, such as programming or manual writing. Sadly, Daniel would miss out on a fascinating engineering endeavor and some good camaraderie. In the photo above, the engineering crew is installing a scaffolding that will give them access to the telescope’s top end. However, the scaffolding isn’t just for access. It will help hold the telescope struts in place after the current top ring is removed and before the new one is installed. It will be sturdy to support people and to assure that the telescope will function after this exercise is over.

What’s more, observatories require more than night time staff to function. There is a large contingent of people who work at the observatory during the daytime. They support the infrastructure, such as water services, electricity, and internet. They provide engineering support, keeping the telescopes operational years after construction when original parts are no longer manufactured and the telescope must be upgraded to work with new electronics. This is a great team of people that I unfortunately don’t get to interact with on most nights because they go home right as I’m starting my work day. So it has been great to get to know some of these “unseen” co-workers.

Sadly once you become a vampire, even good people can look like a tasty treat, so perhaps it’s just as well Daniel wouldn’t interact with the observatory’s day staff, but I’m delighted I’ve had the opportunity!

You can read more about Daniel’s adventures in Vampires of the Scarlet Order. Learn more about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/VSO.html

The adventures of the Scarlet Order before Daniel became a member are featured in Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order. Read a sample chapter and learn more at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/dragons_fall.html

I will be signing both of these novels next month on the Friday, May 25 at Boutique du Vampyre in New Orleans, Louisiana from 3-6pm. That’s the Friday of Memorial Day weekend. I’ll also be doing a special reading from the novels afterwards at Potions, an amazing speakeasy bar nearby. Be sure to drop by the signing to learn more about the reading. Mark your calendars!

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 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!