Thursday, October 22, 2015
My friend Richard Lee Byers posted the cover from an issue of Magnus: Robot Fighter on Facebook, and spurred a memory of something I haven’t thought of for decades. An early bit of writing, all the way back to seventh grade, in fact, when I was an erstwhile student at Canton Elementary School in rural Georgia.
My seventh grade English teacher was a bit of a hippy, as many young women were in the 1970s. We’ll call her Miss C. Miss C played guitar and sang folk music. The students all liked her because she was cool in a way that most of our teachers weren’t. Heck, some of my grade school teachers had also taught my parents, which gives you some idea of how long some of them had been in the school system. But Miss C was young and hip and all about encouraging kids to be creative. She often asked us to write short stories, and as I already enjoyed doing that sort of thing, I looked forward to those assignments.
Miss C also liked to give us cool things to read, and one day she had us read a Ray Bradbury short story Marionettes Inc, about a company that would provide you with a robot duplicate of yourself which could take care of the less pleasant parts of your life. Being a Bradbury story, it took a dark turn of course.
Then Miss C told us that she wanted us all to write a story about what we would do if we had a robot duplicate of ourselves. Most of my classmates wrote one page stories about sending their duplicate to school or using it to prank their friends.
But not me.
I had recently read Gold Key Comics’ Magnus Robot Fighter issue #37. If you’re not familiar with Magnus, he was the hero of a comic book science fiction series set in the far future. In a society that relied more and more on robots to do the work of humans, Magnus was a constant voice of warning against people becoming too dependent on their mechanical servants. When robots went rogue, Magnus would destroy or disable them using nothing but his bare hands and a form of super karate. The series was drawn by one of my favorite Tarzan comics artists, Russ Manning, and really, it was a sort of futuristic version of Tarzan, where the hero had been raised, not by apes, but by a robot who had achieved an almost human level artificial intelligence.
Anyway, in issue #37 (which I didn’t know at the time was actually a reprint from about a decade earlier) Magnus ran into a scientist who was creating robot duplicates of animals and humans, seemingly for entertainment purposes, but of course he had secret, evil plans. See where this is going?
My story about my robot duplicate turned into a battle with a villain who planned to replace highly placed government officials with robot duplicates and to eventually rule the country. He was using the money generated by the sales of his seemingly harmless robots to fund his nefarious schemes. Like the villain in the Magnus story, my bad guy had an underground base, (built under the bank where my mother worked, if I recall correctly) and much like what happened in the comic, the base was flooded by a burst water main in the climax, and I had to escape by swimming through dark corridors. The villain drowned of course and his plans came out.
The story was probably ten pages or so, written by hand, and Miss C loved it so much that she had me read it out loud to the class. I got an A+ on the assignment and much praise from my classmates.
Certain elements were cribbed from the Magnus story, but most of the plot and such were all me. So yeah, I’ve been a storyteller since I was just a kid.
Anyway, that’s what I remembered when I saw that cover. Thanks, Richard!
Sunday, October 18, 2015
As a lifelong lover of ghost stories, I was thrilled when I learned that authors were being sought for Spirits of the Season, a collection of stories set at Christmas and featuring ghosts and romance. Ghosts have played a role in two of my Victorian Gothic suspense novels, Nocturne for a Widow and Sea of Secrets, and my geeky little heart was delighted at the challenge of creating a Christmas ghost story.
Anglophile that I am, I knew already that Victorian Britons traditionally shared ghost stories at the Christmas season—a fine tradition, to my mind. After all, what is cozier than gathering with friends to be deliciously frightened? In particular, I was intrigued by the idea of creating a ghost story that ended on a note of hope and optimism. Some of the most memorable classic ghost stories, of course, are bleak ones (think of “The Beckoning Fair One,” “The Judge’s House,” and “The Monkey’s Paw,” for a start), but for a Christmas theme I wanted to offer readers something more hopeful and uplifting—without sacrificing spookiness.
In the story I went on to write for the collection, “Upon a Ghostly Yule,” 18-year-old Felicity Reginald, a supporting character from my gothic romance Sea of Secrets, attends a Christmas house party in 1856 that goes from merely miserable to actually perilous. Because of her scandal-ridden family, Felicity is treated as an outsider, so she is all too willing to fall in with a rash scheme concocted by her only friend: masquerading as the ghost of an 18th-century belle, Lady Garnet, who died tragically young after a wasting illness and has purportedly haunted the family ever since.
Borrowing the identity of a ghost, as any reader of supernatural stories could have told Felicity, is of course a Very Bad Idea. During her impersonation the real spirit of Lady Garnet latches on to her, eager to experience the life that was denied her, and the specter exerts more and more control over Felicity until she is in danger of being completely subsumed into Garnet’s personality. With the unexpected help of a onetime suitor, Sir James Darrington, Felicity is ultimately able to cast off the spirit’s possession—as well as the sense of isolation and paralysis that had been holding her back from living fully.
When I started to plot the story, I approached it by thinking about two of my favorite classic ghost stories: Algernon Blackwood’s “The Woman’s Ghost Story” (1907; listen to it here) and E.F. Benson’s “How Fear Departed From the Long Gallery” (1911; read it here). Both authors were masters of the ghost story. Blackwood was an acknowledged influence on H.P. Lovecraft and had an exceptional gift for creating an atmosphere of almost unbearable tension, as in “The Empty House” and “The Willows.” “The Woman’s Ghost Story,” in which a bold young woman determines to spend the night alone in a haunted house, is one of his gentler tales.
Benson is perhaps better known today for his comedic Mapp and Lucia novels, but his reputation as a prolific and extremely talented writer of spooky tales is beginning to reassert itself. Among the vast number of those he wrote, it is difficult (if not futile) to try to single out particularly fine examples, but his skill at chilling the reader’s blood is particularly evident in the vampire tale “The Room in the Tower” and the grisly “The House With the Brick-Kiln.” “How Fear Departed From the Long Gallery” was reportedly his personal favorite among his stories, and it is nothing short of masterly in the way it travels from lighthearted country-house comedy to increasingly tense supernatural suspense verging on outright terror... and from there to a breathtakingly poignant epiphany at the climax. Then he returns to a welcome touch of comedy at the very end to bookend the tale.
These two stories, both superb, are quite different in plot and tone but are united by the crucial roles played by empathy and compassion. I’m not certain if spoiler alerts are required for works more than a century old, so I’ll just come out and say that in both tales a woman’s compassion toward the specter brings about a joyous outcome. In one case this is the unhappy spirit’s release; in the other, it is a seismic shift in the nature of the haunting from tormented and vengeful to peaceful and benevolent. The poignancy with which these stories portray the power of compassion makes them particularly memorable to me, and I decided that for a Christmas story, a redemptive plot arc resolved by a moment of transcendent compassion would be ideal.
During the writing, however, the story mutated (as stories tend to do), and the climax took on a form rather different from what I first envisioned. The role of compassion ended up being hidden for most of the story, and for that reason the influence of the Benson and Blackwood stories may be difficult to detect. But empathy, which one might call the mother of compassion, is very present in Felicity’s feelings toward the tragic Lady Garnet. Felicity feels the same frustrated loneliness and sense of being an onlooker in her own life that Garnet experienced as an invalid. Initially this sense of connection on Felicity’s part appears to have negative consequences, because it essentially opens a conduit between the two that allows Garnet’s spirit to take possession of her. Without giving too much away, however, I think I can say that the empathy is not felt solely by Felicity, and that is what ultimately makes this story a joyous one—and one that captures some of the Christmas spirit of benevolence and goodwill toward men (and, of course, women).
If you enjoyed this glimpse behind the scenes, I hope you’ll add “Upon a Ghostly Yule” to your reading list and that you’ll find it a fun addition to your holiday—whether that holiday is Christmas or Halloween!
Thursday, October 15, 2015
Monday, October 12, 2015
Things have been busy around here, so I haven’t had a chance to stop by and talk about Halloween as much as I have in years past. It’s still my favorite season, and I’m doing my best to keep up the spooky traditions, watching horror movies, reading horror fiction, etc. Cliché as it sounds, now that I’m an author, I don’t have nearly as much free time as I used to, but I’m working the Halloween stuff in where I can.
October got off to a great start with the Monsterama Convention where I was a guest. Plenty of Halloween style stuff going on, including a guy in a perfect replica of the suit from CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON swimming around in the hotel pool during a pool party, plus the original underwater stuntman from the movie, Rico Browning, was a guest. All that creature stuff made me want to re-watch the movie, which I did when I got home from the con.
I also got to meet and talk to David J. Skal, author of THE MONSTER SHOW and HOLLYWOOD GOTHIC, two terrific books about Universal monsters and the phenomena they generated. I read GOTHIC several years back but this is a new edition with mew material added. I could have listened to Skal talk all day. He had some great stories and he’s a true ‘monster kid’. Get his books. They’re great.
Movie-wise, I’ve gotten in viewings of John Carpenter’s THE FOG and the Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper thriller, MURDER BY DECREE. I plan to watch THE DEVIL RIDES OUT with a friend who’s never seen it. Still my favorite Hammer Horror film. I’ve also got tickets for a theater showing of both 1931 versions of DRACULA, the Bela Lugosi version and the Spanish language version that was shot at the same time with different actors. I’ve never seen Drac on the big screen, so this should be a blast.
On the reading front, Marvel Comics just released a trade paperback of the collected MONSTER OF FRANKENSTEIN, and I’ve been reading that, along with selections from Ray Bradbury’s THE OCTOBER COUNTRY. I’m also reading a new collection of H.P. Lovecraft’s letters to Robert Bloch. Acting as a mentor to the future author of PSYCHO, who was a mere lad of 15 when he first wrote to Lovecraft, HPL gives a crash course in writing horror fiction to the budding writer, and in the history of the genre itself. Fascinating stuff. The fact that I got to view the originals of some of these letters this summer while I was in Providence at the John Hay Library, certainly makes it more interesting.
So anyway, yes, much Halloween happenings going on. Hope you’re having a spooky October as well.
I’m binge watching THE FLASH right now as I had fallen behind on the show and my pal Cliff was kind enough to loan me the first season on Blu-ray. I’m enjoying all the references and in-jokes for comic fans. It’s a fun show, with likable characters and a protagonist who seems to genuinely enjoy being a super hero and using his powers to help people. As usual, DC’s TV shows could teach their theatrical releases a thing or two. I understand there’s a Flash movie in development that isn’t connected to the show. I’m sure it will be grim and gritty and dark which is about as far from The Fastest Man alive as you can get.
Tuesday, October 06, 2015
Yes, I know it’s Halloween season, but my friend Amanda DeWees has written a nifty ghost story set at Christmas, so I wanted to recommend it. The Victorians loved to tell Ghost stories at Christmas. Most of M.R. James’ amazing stories were written to be read during the Yule season. Amanda has written a delightful Christmas ghost story set in the Victorian age that fits right in with the (ahem) spirit of those times.
The thing I enjoy the most about Amanda’s writing is her character’s narrative voices. Her viewpoint characters are always so well written and entertaining that it makes reading their adventures a pleasure, like spending time with a friend. Upon a Ghostly Yule is no exception. Felicity is an engaging heroine and I enjoyed hanging out with her. The wonderful thing about this story is that it supplies everything one might want from a Victorian romance and manages to generate a couple of real chills too. It’s October as I type this, so a ghost story was welcome, but I plan to read it again at Christmas time.