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!

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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!

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.

Colonel Albert Fountain Meets Carmilla

In the cemetery behind my house is a gravestone with no body underneath. I see it almost every day I’m home when I take my daily walk through the neighborhood. Albert J. Fountain was the fourteenth lieutenant governor of Texas, serving during the reconstruction years of 1871-1873. After he finished his term, he moved to Mesilla, New Mexico. He’s probably most famous as Billy the Kid’s defense attorney in 1881. His interest in the infamous Lincoln County War and other cattle disputes continued. In 1896, Fountain was on his way home from collecting affidavits about people involved with cattle rustling. He was traveling with his eight-year-old son Henry. Fountain was 57. The two disappeared in White Sands. All that was found was a buckboard and a pool of blood.

It’s long been suspected that Fountain and his son fell prey to those men he investigated. I once read that Fountain’s wife encouraged him to take his young son, feeling that no one would be monstrous enough to harm a small child. Something about that always felt just a little naive given the reputations of cattle rustlers. I also thought it seemed naive of Fountain to agree. He was certainly not inexperienced and had lived through difficult times.

When David Boop asked me to submit a story for the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone, my thoughts went immediately to the Albert Fountain disappearance. What fantastical explanations could I come up with for the event? What if Fountain took precautions to assure he would be safe? I also thought about Albert Fountain as an older father. In the 1800s, being almost 50 years older than his son, did he worry about the possibilities of watching his son grow up? Those questions along with the pool of blood led me to thoughts of vampires.

As it turns out, the novel Dracula would not be published until a year after Fountain disappeared. That’s when it occurred to me that the novella “Carmilla” by Sheridan Le Fanu had been published in 1871, and collected into the book In a Glass Darkly with other stories in 1872. It’s not clear how widely the book was distributed in America, but it’s certainly possible it was known.

I used “Carmilla” as a way to introduce my protagonists to the concept of the vampire while they’re attempting to solve the disappearance. One of the things that appeals to me about Carmilla is the way the vampire is almost phantom like, stalking her victim in dreams. The novella also raises interesting possibilities about child vampires long before Claudia appeared in Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire.

So, how exactly do vampires relate to the disappearance of Albert and Henry Fountain? I’ve dropped several big hints in the description above, but the best way to know is to pick up a copy of Straight Outta Tombstone to find out.

Also, one week from today on October 14, I’ll be at the New Mexico State University Bookstore at 1400 East University in Las Cruces from 1:00-3:00pm for an informal discussion of “Fountains of Blood” and a book signing for Straight Outta Tombstone. I’ll also have copies of Owl Dance and Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order along with me, if you want more adventures from the characters in my story. I hope I’ll see lots of my Las Cruces friends at NMSU next week!

New Orleans Vampire Haunts

Two weeks ago today, I drove into New Orleans right as the solar eclipse began. It seemed particularly auspicious since I had come to town for a book signing at the amazing Boutique du Vampyre. Unfortunately, New Orleans was out of totality’s path, but my daughter and I were fortunate enough to have solar eclipse glasses on hand and we were able to share the eclipse with Lia, one of the wonderful vampire assistants who works at the Boutique. Vampire that I am, who works at night, I enjoyed the eerie dimming in the middle of the day at the French Quarter. Here I am checking out the eclipse.

Since my last visit to New Orleans, Boutique proprietor Marita Crandle, has opened a speak easy specializing in serving traditional absinthe called Potions. I found it a pleasant alternative to some of the more boisterous New Orleans night spots. I visited on two nights during my stay and enjoyed good conversation, drinks, and even some puzzles and games. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a vampire or two in attendance. If you’d like to visit, you’ll need to stop by the Boutique du Vampyre during business hours and ask.

One day while walking around the French Quarter, doing research for my novel Owl Riders, my daughter and I stopped in front of the Ursuline Convent. I told her the story of how in the 1700s, the French sent a group of young ladies to New Orleans to find husbands. These ladies were noted for carrying casket-shaped cases. Unfortunately, the young ladies were abused and forced into prostitution. Afterwards, the cases were placed in storage in the convent’s top floors, which are sealed off to this day, even in the sweltering New Orleans summer. As we stood there, the gates opened and three very large, very expensive cars rolled in. It struck me that whoever that was would know the secret of what sat in the top floor of the Ursuline Convent! By the way, if you like scary stories like this, you should know that Marita Crandle has a new book called New Orleans Vampires – History and Legend coming out on the 25th of this month. I’ve preordered my copy and know it will be fantastic! Clicking the title will take you to the order page.

The signing itself was on the afternoon of Wednesday, August 23. Unfortunately, my schedule forced me to do a mid-week signing, but even so, several people dropped into the shop early on, even a couple of people specifically to see me and have books signed. The signing hit a quiet spell during the middle as occasionally happens, but things picked up again around 5pm and more people came in and chatted with me about books. It was a good time and here’s a photo Vampire Assistant Lia took of me at the event.

If you’d like to pick up signed copies of my vampire novels, just click on the links below:

The Boutique also has copies of The Astronomer’s Crypt and Straight Outta Tombstone. Those aren’t on the website as of this posting, but I bet if you call them at the phone number at feelthebite.com the Vampires or their assistants will be happy to help you out.

Beautiful Sunsets

My work “day” at Kitt Peak National Observatory gets going in earnest when the sun sets. We have a saying at the observatory that beautiful sunsets mean poor observing. For better or worse, we’ve had some beautiful sunsets this past week.

There is some truth to the notion. Clouds can make dramatic sunsets, but they also obscure the view of even the most powerful optical telescopes. Red sunsets are often caused by dust or smoke in the air. Both are bad for observing in their own right. They make the sky hazy, but they can also settle out on telescope optics, which then becomes a problem when the weather gets even better. Unfortunately, big telescope optics are not easy to clean and the particulates can even damage them.

The wind that kicks up particulates or dries out the brush, giving us fire conditions, can also be a problem for observing. An unsettled atmosphere can make objects magnified with a telescope look fuzzy and distorted. It’s what we call bad “seeing.”

Nights with these kinds of poor, but not stormy conditions, can be the most difficult in my work life. We have to be ever vigilant to make sure the winds don’t get too high to safely operate the telescopes or the clouds don’t build up to ones that might drizzle. Even a little bit of water on telescope optics can ruin a telescope operator’s night. The wind can actually blow the telescopes around enough that we have a difficult time tracking targets precisely.

Our best nights are those when the sky is clear and calm at sunset. A few high clouds on the horizon aren’t ideal, but they’re not necessarily terrible. This was a sunset taken on a pretty good night.

This sunset’s pretty cool because I caught just a little of the “green flash” effect. I was just using the camera on my Kindle, so it doesn’t look as green as it did watching it, but you can see the after image of the sun just above the setting sun itself. That’s caused by atmospheric dispersion stretching the image of the sun like a prism or a rainbow. So you see the green/blue light of the sun set after the yellow light.

So, yeah, you can have pretty sunsets on good nights, too. They may just be a little less dramatic than the sunsets on the difficult nights.

If you want to see what happens when I imagine a truly dramatic night at an observatory, read my book The Astronomer’s Crypt. You can learn more about it here: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html.

Like telescope operators, vampires also come out when the sun sets. I imagine a vampire telescope operator in my novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order. Read a sample chapter and learn more at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/VSO.html.

Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis

In 1993, one of my co-workers at Kitt Peak National Observatory introduced me to the Vampire Chronicles of Anne Rice. At that point there were just four volumes in the series. I picked up a set and read straight through them. I loved the way her vampires were able to travel leisurely through history and see things in our modern world with wonder and passion. An example is the way 17th century French vampire Lestat de Lioncourt discovers rock and roll, makes it his own, and wakes the Queen of the Damned herself. This long view of history appealed to me both because of my inherent love of history and my love of science fiction. After all, that’s much of what science fiction is about, looking back at history, understanding how people and technologies change, and then projecting those changes into possible futures. Thanks in part to Anne Rice, I would try my own hand at vampire fiction, gave it a science fictional twist and Vampires of the Scarlet Order was born.

I’ve continued to follow the Vampire Chronicles over the years and it feels like a circle of sorts has been completed with her latest entry in the series. princelestatrealmsofatlantis As Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis opens, we learn that a vampire named Roland has captured a strange, human-looking creature. He can drink all the creature’s blood, which is more satisfying than even human blood, and the creature will appear to die. Despite this, the creature will awaken soon after, its blood regenerated. Roland shows this creature to the ancient and powerful Rhoshamandes, who has fallen out of favor with the vampire court led by Prince Lestat. Roland suggests the creature can be used as a tool for Rhoshamandes to regain power.

Meanwhile, in another part of the world, another creature hears a familiar name in the radio broadcasts of the vampires. When he attempts to confront vampire Benji Mamoud who hosts the broadcast, vampires confront him and corner him. The creature then dispatches the two vampires. While all this is going on, Prince Lestat, back at the vampire court, has started having dreams of a great city that fell into the sea. Lestat has become prince of the vampires by becoming the host of Amel, the spirit responsible for the existence of the vampires in the first place.

From the title, it should come as no surprise that Lestat ultimately discovers a connection between the strange creatures, the spirit Amel, and the lost city of Atlantis. Like the vampires, the new creatures, who call themselves Replimoids, have aspects that are both likeable and frightening. This story of the Replimoids and Atlantis is the reason I feel like I completed a circle. The series that led me to my science fictional take on vampires has now taken its own science fictional turn. There’s a simplicity and almost innocence to Rice’s visions of advanced civilizations and their constructs that reminds me of the science fiction from the 1950s and 60s. This might be a little surprising for people used to contemporary SF, or used to some of the dark historical realities presented in the earlier Vampire Chronicles, but it mostly works in the context of the story.

Like the previous entry in the Vampire Chronicles, Prince Lestat, Rice tells the story from multiple points of view and we get to spend time with several of the vampires she’s introduced over the course of the series. In one of my favorite chapters, Lestat meets his old friend Louis de Pointe du Lac in New Orleans. I had fun following their walk through familiar French Quarter landmarks such as Cafe du Monde, Jackson Square, and Pirates Alley. As a long-time fan, this was all great fun, but I could imagine the stream of characters being a little overwhelming for a new reader.

As a fan of the Vampire Chronicles, I enjoyed spending time with Lestat, Louis, Marius, Benji, Gabrielle and the others again. I found this an interesting turn in the story and would be delighted to follow the vampires into another adventure. For people new to the Chronicles, I would suggest they start with the early volumes such as Interview with the Vampire or The Vampire Lestat and read through at least Queen of the Damned before diving into this latest volume.