Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Madison Vampire Coven strikes!

Last night, the Madison Vampire Coven had its second official Halloween reading, this year at Borders West. From left: me, Fred Schepartz (author of Vampire Cabbie and Jordan Castillo Price (author of the Psycop series).

(BTW, those aren't stains on my shirt, they're spots on the camera lens. I swear.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Of Kings and Nobel Laureates

King Arthur is the vampire of fantasy.

By that I mean that everyone has written about him, and he's come full circle from vicious Dark Ages battle leader to tragic romance hero to YA fantasy fixture. To write about King Arthur is to stand in a line that starts in 1136 with Geoffrey of Monmouth and shows no signs of ending:

Still, most Arthurian revisionists don't bring the chops that John Steinbeck did.

Steinbeck won a Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer, and the United States Medal of Freedom. He wrote The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, The Red Pony, and East of Eden. So when he decided to delve into Arthuriana, it was significant.

Alas, he didn't live to finish it. Begun in 1956, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights was based on the original Arthurian novel, Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur. Steinbeck did massive amounts of research into Malory, intending to retell the stories without losing the flavor and atmosphere that had so affected him as a young reader. And he got it right...mostly. Its unfinished status means it's hard to know if what we now have is truly the manuscript Steinbeck intended. He retells seven tales, beginning with the life of Merlin and ending with Lancelot and Guinevere's first embrace. But in only the final two stories do the characters, events and moral themes really come to life.

In "Gawain, Ewain and Marhalt," three questing knights meet three women who specialize in leading knights on quests. The adventures themselves are exciting and action-packed, but what's really intriguing are the relationships between the men and women after they pair off. Each knight learns something about themselves without consciously realizing it, and each lady demonstrates the power women could wield even when denied swords and shields. The final line of Marhalt's adventure, in fact, sums up the gender issues with bone-shuddering succinctness.

But it's Ewain's adventure that finishes the chapter, and rightly so. An untried knight, he finds that his questing lady, though older than the others, is also a brilliant tactician and trainer. She schools him in technique and discipline, and presciently warns him that the longbow, a weapon easily obtained and mastered by commoners, will spell the death of the knights and their feudal society. Then she accompanies him on his first battles.

The final chapter, "The Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot," brings the world's best knight front and center. We learn what kind of man inspires such a fearsome reputation, and we see how his best intents derail him toward the tragedy we all know is coming. The story ends, in fact, with the first irrevocable step on that path, and it strikes the reader's heart almost as vividly as it does Lancelot's.

These two tales alone make the book worthwhile, and with the exception of Mary Stewart's The Wicked Day, are the best contemporary Arthurian stories I've read. Oddly, in both Steinbeck and Stewart Arthur himself is a supporting character. But while Stewart chose to tell her story through Mordred (and in her earlier trilogy, the tiresome figure of Merlin), Steinbeck adopts Malory's tactic of jumping wherever the action is.

I disagree with Steinbeck when he says, as quoted in a letter, "Arthur is not a character. Perhaps the large symbol figures can't be characters, for if they were, we wouldn't identify with them by substituting our own." To me Arthur is the character, and all the others exist only to illuminate aspects of his personality. As Christopher Reeve once said (apropos of playing Superman as a fairly normal guy), "You can't play the king; the people around you play to you being king." Those people need the king as much as the king needs his people.

Who wrote (or played) your favorite King Arthur?

Monday, October 26, 2009

The trailer for BURN ME DEADLY

The music is "Belthane Fires by Laura Powers. Used by permission.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Hammering the Count

Thanks to the patience of my wife, aka the mater familias, we've celebrated the Halloween season by marathoning Hammer's Dracula series. Starting with Horror of Dracula, we've watched Brides of Dracula, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Dracula has Risen from the Grave and most recently Taste the Blood of Dracula.

I've seen all these films before, but this is the first time I've watched them in sequence, and close together. And you know what?

Hammer seriously dropped the ball.

No, really. They got a lot of things right: atmosphere, suspense, music. But they blew it all in the story department.

How? By making a dozen successful Dracula movies, and making none of them about Dracula.

This is doubly sad since they had a definitive Dracula, Christopher Lee, in harness. Tall, good-looking, with a tremendous voice, he was an ace just waiting to be played. Yet he never was. He became simply a standard monster, who more often than not had little motivation for his actions. And that voice? Relegated to a few lines per film (hell, in Dracula: Prince of Darkness he doesn't say a word). In most of the series he never even has a conversation with another character. He stalks through the films, cape aswirl, beckoning young women to their doom. And that's about it.

It says something about Lee's onscreen presence that, despite these restrictions, you remember him so vividly. To see just how good an actor he was at this stage in his career, you have to track down films where he played secondary roles, such as The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll for Hammer, or his turn as Mycroft in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. He could be charming, funny, relaxed and debonair. Yet his signature role took advantage of none of this.

As I said, this isn't news to anyone, especially Lee. He's gone on at length about how he struggled to get screenwriters (particularly John Elder, the pseudonym for Hammer producer Anthony Hinds) to do more with the character. But Hammer, one of the last "factory" studios, thought it knew what sold, and so kept using Dracula as a boogeyman in tedious stories about youth both Victorian and (in Dracula AD 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula) contemporary. Or, as the mater familias put it when the films would cut from Dracula to one of these nondescript period teens: "Oh, God, not more character development."

With the current vampire craze, as well as the seemingly unending cycle of horror sequels and remakes, it's interesting that no one's tried a new series with someone like Gerard Butler (who played the Count in Dracula 2000 but not its sequels). Hopefully if this happens, they'll let the actor do more than walk through musty sets sporting red contact lenses and melted-crayon blood.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Big announcements

With the release of BURN ME DEADLY just around the corner (mark your calendar: November 10), I can now officially say it won't be the last Eddie LaCrosse novel. Eddie will return in DARK JENNY in winter 2011, followed by a fourth (currently untitled) adventure in summer 2012.

In addition, I'll be introducing a brand new world in fall 2011 with the release of THE HUM AND THE SHIVER.

Tor Books will be publishing all three. More details on each title will be forthcoming.

Thanks to all the readers who responded to Eddie and his world. I hope to keep him on the case for many more adventures!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

And the winner is...

Sorry for the delay in posting this. The winner of the signed copy of BURN ME DEADLY is...

Sarah Jean, a.k.a. Kierae.

I don't have an e-mail address for you, so if you read this, contact me!

Thanks to everyone who commented, and there will be more giveaways in the near future!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Fiery surprise: the awesome beasts of Dragon Storm

In an earlier post, I promised to reveal the only other cinematic dragon that came close to rivaling the awesome Vermithrax from Dragonslayer. I discovered it quite by accident on a Saturday night, on the SciFi Channel (now known phonetically as "SyFy").

Those of you familiar with these weekend original movies know they're usually one thing: crap. Bearing titles like Mansquito, Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus and Rock Monster, these movies sport bad acting, Photoshop-worthy special effects and the same Eastern European scenery whether set in East Tennessee (Megasnake) or the mythical land of Lockland (Attack of the Gryphon). They used to be fun, in an MST3K kind of way; lately they've just been dreary and worst of all, boring. Occasionally there's a great idea (as in Warbirds, in which an all-female WWII bomber crew fights pterodactyls) but it's usually derailed by inept and sloppy execution (as in Warbirds).

And yet occasionally, like the daisy blooming atop a manure pile, you can spot an incongruous bit of beauty. Such a film is 2004's Dragon Storm.

I'm not proclaiming this a great film; far from it. It suffers all the defects typical to made-for-SciFi/SyFy movies: bad acting, illogical writing, "kingdoms" populated by less than two dozen people and metal props so clearly made of plastic they wave in the wind. Maxwell Caufield, in a Barry Gibb wig, plays the woodsman hero and handles his bow and arrow with all the dexterity of a porpoise trying to send a text message. John Rhys-Davies, who can't possibly need the money this bad, is the evil monarch in a crown that looks like it came from a Burger King kids' meal. Former Playmate Angel Boris plays the strong-willed princess (there's no other kind, after all). And the whole thing is directed by the actor who played Flounder in Animal House.

So what makes this movie so special? The dragons.

I don't know how they managed it, since the rest of the movie looks like it cost about five dollars. But the dragon effects are absolutely top-notch CGI. Somebody clearly went above-and-beyond the call of duty here. The beasts are designed well and logically, they're composited into the scenes with care, and they have a tangible reality that many of the flesh-and-blood actors don't manage.

The credits list Yancy Calzada and Stephen J. Brooks as the visual effects team leaders; I can only assume one or both of them has a soft spot for dragons and put in lots of overtime to make these look as good as possible. They look so good, in fact, that they make the rest of the movie appear even worse. It's as if Industrial Light and Magic designed the UFOs for Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Here's the trailer, with glimpses of what I'm talking about.

If you've seen a SciFi/SyFy original movie that surprised you by being, at least in some aspect, actually good, leave a comment about it before 10 PM Saturday and you could win a signed copy of my upcoming novel Burn Me Deadly.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

And the winner is...

The Madison Horror Film Festival is over, and the winner of the DVD of Blacula and the signed copy of Blood Groove is...

R.K. Charron!

I also consider myself a winner, since in spite of the bludgeoning pain of having my wisdom teeth out, I still managed to get to the festival and meet director Stuart Gordon:

Thanks to everyone who commented on my blog, and look for more horror-related posts and giveaways as we get close to Halloween!

Monday, October 5, 2009

The lair of local dragons

Two weeks ago, I described my quest to discover the origin of the Norwegian dragons lining some of the roofs in my new home town of Mount Horeb, WI. My quest led me to a secluded valley outside town where I found Little Norway. Immediately I knew I'd come to the right place: note the dragons along the top of the visitors' center:

These aren't the original dragons, though, that inspired their kin in Mount Horeb. Those are found guarding Little Norway's crown jewel, the Norway Building:

The Norway Building was constructed for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. It was designed and built in Norway, then disassembled, shipped to Chicago and reassembled. After this it was moved to an estate near Lake Geneva, WI before being purchased by Isak Dahle and moved in 1935, for the final time, to its permanent home outside Mount Horeb.

(The history of this extraordinary building is covered in great detail in The Norway Building of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.)

And the dragons?

In 1992 the building went through a major restoration and refurbishment. For this first time since it resided at Lake Geneva, dragon ornaments graced all three roof levels. These dragons were crafted and installed by Scott Winner, Little Norway's current owner:

"Dragons were put on buildings and vessels to ward off evil spirits," Winner told me. "The dragons originally on the Norway building had rotted due to old age, and were replaced with identical new carvings treated to make them more durable. This included six coats of Lucite paint."

And the dragons in Mount Horeb? They were created using templates Winner provided to the industrial arts department at Mount Horeb High School.

So my quest had ended. I knew the origin of these enigmatic guardians. But this knowledge made them no less impressive, and not one bit less magical. How could they be anything else?