Modern Monsters – Frankenstein

Frankenstein and his monster might be one of the monsters on this list most removed from his source material, and I doubt it will find its way back any time soon. I think the closest modern approximation of the creature I’ve seen is Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole (don’t ask). There is very much that could be said on the original novel and very much that has been said on it. I think perhaps the most startling information related to the story of Frankenstein is that Shelley had a miscarriage at some point previous to starting her short story turned novel. Considering the many themes of the book that relate to an abhorrent fatherhood and a neglected, deformed child, it’s worth considering. There’s a lot to examine within the original text, but I want to focus on the modern depiction of Frankenstein and his creation, especially after he became a green, hulking, monosyllabic force rather than an erudite but neglected individual driven by compulsion.

Three silent films exist before the 1931 Frankenstein. The first, simply titled Frankenstein, was created by Edison Studios. Unlike just about every other silent film, a version of this movie was found in the 1970s, and has since been released on 35mm and DVD. The plot shares the bones of the classic Frankenstein novel, but the creature and his killing are more similar to the later 1931 version. He’s described as “loyal as a dog” to his creator, and is driven into a rage when he sees his creator with his bride. In a strange ending for the film, the monster realizes he can never be with his creator, and he holds his arms out to a mirror, fading away entirely. Frankenstein enters the room, and in his reflection is the monster. His bride joins him, and the monster fades away entirely. Since the film is in public domain, I can post a version of it here:

The other two films, Life Without Soul and The Monster of Frankenstein, are more straightforward adaptions, with some changes, and they are lost films. It’s entirely possible Life Without Soul faced similar copyright issues of Nosferatu, as the names of the characters are changed, and the monster is referred to as the Brute Man. There’s many things I find interesting about the 1910 adaption of Frankenstein, the most of which being the monster reflected in the mirror. The monster’s dog-like obsession with his creator to the point of jealousy of Frankenstein’s bride mimics a little less of the neglected child and reads a little more into a queer interpretation of the text, though I am waiting to get to that, because I have a whole James Whale to talk about. Hold onto this split image of the creature and the doctor, because it’s going to get used a lot.

It is of note that the 1910 Frankenstein is probably the happiest ending for Frankenstein. He’s not killed by his creation, nor forced through torturous hoops to defeat him, and in the end he gets the girl and the house and gets to move on with his life. This will be mimicked, eventually, in the Bride of Frankenstein, but not before he goes through some stuff.

The reflection of the monster in the mirror as Frankenstein looks on in horror speaks to a more traditional reading of the literature and an occasionally egregious correction: the “Frankenstein” the majority of pop culture refers to is the monster. To the point of parody at times. The flagship Monster High character is, of course, named Frankie Stein, a name that’s been used a hundred times before her and will be used a hundred times after. And the creature is a monster. He murders a child in a rage, he launches an elaborate revenge plan, and once he has enraged his creator to the point where he has nothing left, the creation  has him chase him all over the Arctic Circle so they are forever locked in a game of cat and mouse. But the truth is, Victor Frankenstein himself is the one who created life and then cast it out because it didn’t match his definition of beauty. He left a mummified baby on a doorstep and was surprised years later when that baby came back with a knife. Frankenstein has evolved into an egomaniac, a man so desperately involved with his own success he ignores everything else around him, and is unafraid to break covenant with man and God to achieve his aims. Frankenstein’s monster is vengeful, and he enacts some murders of his own will driven on by nothing more than to see his creator suffer, but Frankenstein is as much a monster.

The 1931 Frankenstein is the image of the monster. If you have ever eaten a bowl of Frankenberry cereal, or done the Monster Mash, or joined the Monster Squad, or watched any number of Saturday morning cartoons, or shouted “It’s alive!”, that is the version being referenced. Here is the description of the creature from the text of the original novel:

His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

And the description of the pop culture Frankenstein’s monster, via TVTropes:

The “standard” appearance of the monster, usually consisting of a square head, greenish skin (despite the classic Universal films all being released in black and white), enormous proportions, a scarred or stitched forehead, and bolts (actually electrodes) on either side of the neck.

The story is similar, though it begins with Henry Frankenstein in the midst of creating his monster. Fritz, his hunchback assistant, brought a criminal brain for the creature, and he is placid, almost childlike up until the point that Fritz antagonizes him with a lit torch. Henry finds the monster has strangled the assistant, and they lock it up, deciding to destroy the creature. Of course, it doesn’t work, and the creature escapes, drowning a girl out of misunderstanding, bringing the villagers to raise their torches and pitchforks and mob the mad scientist in his tower. Frankenstein escapes to marry his beloved Elizabeth, and to be seen again in the sequel.

When it came time to make that sequel, James Whale was brought back on production, and, fearing nothing could compare to the original, he decided to make a movie that almost parodied it. The two movies together make a whole book, and the opening of the Bride of Frankenstein is a scene from the fateful night Frankenstein was first told around a campfire. Mary Shelley (played by Elsa Lanchester, who also plays the Bride) has just finished telling her husband, Percy Shelley, and their friend Lord Byron the tale of Frankenstein’s monster, and they ask her for more. The movie proceeds to pick up right where the previous one ended, with more senseless violence by the monster, Henry recovering from his injuries, and the town still burning. Dr. Pretorius arrives, a Mephistopheles of sorts to Frankenstein’s Faust. As Frankenstein has given up his mad scientist ways, Pretorius convinces him with homunculi of his own creature, tiny creatures he keeps in jars. The creature, meanwhile, attempts good. He saves a woman from drowning, tries to interact with others, and is chased out until he meets a blind man, the first act of human kindness ever granted upon him. But their happy union is destroyed when two hunters arrive, recognize the monster, and drive him into the graveyard. Here Pretorius finds him and convinces him to aid him in his attempts to create a mate for the creature. This leads to the Bride’s creation, who rejects the creature soundly, and as the monster rampages, he allows Henry and his wife to leave, declaring, “We belong dead!” as the roof crumbles around them.

The Bride of Frankenstein is possibly more influential than its original, with the Bride, who has less than ten minutes of screentime, inducted among the Universal canon. She’s been parodied and her likeness used nearly as much as Frankie’s before her, and the two movies introduce many elements that would be staples of old school monster movies and send ups of those films. From here on out the creature would no longer be the astute, revenge driven complex creature, but a caricature. And very often a good one.

Which means now I get to talk about the gay elephant in the room. James Whale directed Frankenstein and the Bride of Frankenstein (and the Invisible Man, we’ll get to that), and was an openly gay man in 1930s Hollywood. This is more common than one might think. The debate on the queer undertones in specifically the Bride of Frankenstein has raged on, with many reading into Pretorius’ character (the actor who, reportedly, was told to play him “like an over the top caricature of a bitchy and aging homosexual”), to the monster’s relationship with the hermit, and to the innate act of an “unnatural birth” itself in relation to Frankenstein and his monster. Two aspects seem to be the main reason for the homosexual debate in the Bride over its original: the hermit character, and the camp nature of the piece. It is decidedly camp. It was made to be that way. And camp is often associated with gay culture and queer men, which probably plays no small part in interpreting the film. However, I think the hermit plays a more compelling argument. He is the only one to show kindness to the creature out of any of the characters of either movies, except Maria, the little girl, who was drowned for her trouble. The thing I’ve always found most striking in the Bride is that the monster never really seems to ask for a mate. Pretorius does. Frankenstein suggests it as well. But the monster is looking for a friend. This article posits, among many assertions, that the same word is used to describe the hermit and the Bride herself. The hermit is his first friend, and is the one who teaches him the word. He uses that word again when speaking of the Bride.

This has a few interpretations, of course. Supposedly Whale discussed that “the Monster would have the mental age of a ten-year old boy and the emotional age of a lad of fifteen”, which suggests that he wouldn’t be interested in any romance and certainly not a bride, not in the traditional sense. Friendship is all the monster has ever truly wanted, affection from his father, the innocent kindness of a child, the warmth of another human being. Pretorius offers him a bride, and the monster only wants someone who is like him. The other interpretation is the more obvious. The use of “friend” to define male companionship and female companionship offers a bisexual view of the monster’s interest. He lives, briefly, as roommate and companion to the hermit and intends to live longer with the Bride. If the hunters had not arrived, how long would the monster have stayed there, learning, receiving kindness, living a domestic life with another man?

Friends and coworkers of Whale refuse the queer interpretation, saying he was an artist first, only interested in providing the best vision for any film, but I find that shortsighted. As a gay artist, I find it nearly impossible not to include some queer reading into my text. I also find it nearly impossible not to interpret in the same way. Queer artists even in the Hollywood system have managed to create things that resemble them, and life experience colors nearly every piece of art any artist has created. We are painting, writing, and filming from our perspective. Saying there’s no queer reading to a text created by a queer person is a paradox. I don’t know if James Whale created the Bride as others suggested, as a dismantling of a heterosexual system, as a camp parody of his own work, as a venue to work out his own internal conflicts or ideas. I don’t like putting words in the mouths of creators long gone. But as a queer woman who creates things on a regular basis, I don’t think there’s another way to interpret his work.

There are other adaptions of Frankenstein, as recognizable as these others. The Curse of Frankenstein, which helped establish Hammer Horror’s brand and style, was an incredible success and borrowed many elements from the book, though it bares a passing resemblance to it. Buffy the Vampire Slayer did a Frankenstein plot twice, and the second time, with Adam, was probably the most derided part of its season (except for Riley). Penny Dreadful tries for a more complex and traditional version of the creature as well, and while I haven’t seen enough of the seasons to judge it properly, he remains a prominent character, along with the Bride. And of course, the most famous parody of Frankenstein is Young Frankenstein, which follows the 1931 film beat by beat, borrowing elements from its sequel as well. It is a near perfect parody with some iconic bits. Frankie appears in Marvel comics, DC comics, and even the series Fables.

Frankenstein is unlike the other monsters, because the creature is a singular entity. People fight werewolves or become vampires, but the Frankenstein’s monster is himself, whoever that may be based on who’s writing it. There are Frankenstein-esque creatures. Among the many, many, many depictions of Frankenstein in pop culture on Wikipedia, the film Ex Machina is listed. So when I describe the other monsters as relating to us some kind of “other” or filling in for our anxieties, what “other” matches best with Frankenstein? Frankenstein’s monster has been goofy, tragic, heroic, villainous, incapable of speech, and capable of the most beautiful words any man can hope to say. What defines this monster and his creator? What do we keep coming back for? Is it possible we identify both with the monster and Frankenstein himself? We see in us the capacity to become like God, and in that hubris create monstrous things. We see a creator struggling to build his magnum opus and failing. We see a man who loves his wife and his family and is repaid his slights by losing all of this. And as for the creature, we see in us a thing born into this world unfairly and then immediately cast aside. We see a thing that could’ve been beautiful, could’ve been kind, could’ve been any number of things, but because of how society and even his own father reacted to him, he becomes a dark thing with dark urges. His desire to be loved is only matched by his desire for revenge. He is angry. And someone else made him this way. Maybe there is no “other” in Frankenstein’s monster. Maybe there is only ourselves.

I do recommend checking out the Universal version of Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein, as well as reading the original book, which is in public domain and can be found for freeYoung Frankenstein as well, for the three people in this world who haven’t seen it. I adored the short film Frankenweenie by Tim Burton when I was younger, though I haven’t seen the full length movie. The role of the monster in Monster Squad does actually mimic the Universal one without the child drowning and it’s rather sweet. Rocky Horror Picture Show is possibly the ultimate gay send up of Frankenstein, and I did actually enjoy the Laverne Cox production as well, though nothing quite beats the original. I also implore you to seek out Anthony Stewart Head’s role in a Rocky Horror special. I do enjoy Penny Dreadful but not enough to watch more than one episode in a go, though that may be because the overly sexual nature of it is a little ridiculous in even the best of times. Still, the monster in that version I’m fond of, and his story plays out (as far as I’ve gotten) in a familiar way. I actually don’t have too many Frankenstein themed works I’m very fond of, which is sad because I have such an affinity for the monster and dress up as the Bride at any given opportunity. Though I am doing this examination as part of my 1950s monster mash story, which is on hiatus for another month before part two begins, though Frankenstein plays more heavily into my Victorian era monster mash, of which you can read an excerpt here. I’m leaving the big three after this, but there are still some monsters to go.

The Lantern – Historical Notes

Very few notes today. I did research into the gold rush and the sort of methods used to mine gold there, but honestly I went closer to coal miners and the sort of towns they left behind. When I went hunting for mining songs too, I mostly found songs for coal miners. I could also go into the legend I borrowed from, but I kind of only found it in a few places, and I was really just struck by the image of a giant skeleton with a lantern in its chest walking the desert.

The truth is, this came out a little rushed and even a week late, because I have given myself way too many projects. With the next chapter in this story being what it is, I have a ton of research I wanted to get through before I even started writing it. For that reason, June will skip a normal chapter of Deadlands. I plan to put out a Tales from the Deadlands, which are shorter and a little more easily managed (and I have one half-written), but another proper chapter won’t appear until August 21.

I have a few more Modern Monsters pieces I was going to write, but really I’m going to give myself May off to sort through the many, many projects I’ve been working on. I’ve been pretty proud of myself for doing this for a year consistently, along with my writing blog, which has been updating with a consistent story as well. Last year I was incredibly motivated and able to keep up with all this, but I think I need a short break to get back that motivation. There will be little things posted here and there in between, but nothing major until August. Thank you for your patience!

Modern Monsters – The Wolf-Man

I was going to write a whole big thing about werewolves back in November when I was writing my southern werewolf family drama for NaNoWriMo, but time got away from me, and the amount of research I’d have to do to tell the entire cultural history of the werewolf is beyond what I’m really willing to do. But almost as much as vampires, I love werewolves, and that love started young when I watched the 1941 The Wolf Man starring Lon Chaney Jr.

The thing is, everything we modern western folks believe about werewolves is, more or less, made up. The famous poem from The Wolf Man that everyone quotes doesn’t even mention the full moon. In its entirety:

Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night

May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright

Which explains why, in the movie, he transforms over many consecutive nights, not just on the night of the full moon. The idea of transforming on the full moon would be introduced in its sequel, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-Man. Here is where the verse is changed so that the transformation is no longer in the autumn, but under the full moon, and the full moon also causes Larry Talbot to rise from his grave. This will continue a common trend of werewolves being seen as one of the undead community, a sort of honorary status they get for being a night stalking monster.

Universal had an earlier werewolf movie, and in fact it’s listed as the earliest werewolf movie. The Werewolf (1913), which is now a lost film, like many silent movies. Apparently a fire in Universal Studios in 1924 destroyed a lot of movies. For that reason I only have the summary from Wikipedia:

Kee-On-Ee, a Navajo woman, becomes a witch after erroneously coming to believe that her husband has abandoned her. She teaches the same skills to her daughter Watuma, who transforms into a wolf in order to carry out vengeance against the invading white settlers. Then, 100 years after Watuma’s death, she returns from the dead to kill again.

It is the first Universal Horror movie, and while I can find absolutely no real information about it, it does also continue the trend of lycanthropy coming from a mystical place, usually of cultures that the majority of people have no real knowledge of. In The Wolf-Man, Larry Talbot effectively receives his curse from a Romani man, though this is one of the more sympathetic portrayals of a stereotype. Maleva, in the film, is treated as a grieving mother, her seeing her son’s death paralleled by how Lawrence eventually dies in the film, with Maleva narrating as Lawrence transforms back into a man. Despite codifying many werewolf tropes, The Wolf-Man seems to play them differently than expected, though it does seem at the end of every werewolf movie, the protagonist has to die (if the protagonist is a werewolf).

The other Universal Horror werewolf movie that’s a little more recognizable would be Werewolf of London (1935). This also follows the suit of a “mystical brown people culture” being the cause, as the werewolf bite happens in Tibet. This also takes a Scooby-Doo approach to lycanthropy, in that he changes in direct moonlight. It features an early version of Lon Chaney Jr.’s transformation as well, though this werewolf is full clothed. It follows a similar storyline as The Wolf-Man, including the desire to kill the person it loves most (seen parodied in that Futurama episode).

Werewolves are a little strange in that there’s no real defining fiction for them before movies came around. There are definitely legends, but unlike Dracula or Frankenstein, they don’t have a central piece of literature to turn to. There are books and stories, but many of them have more to do with Faust than they do with modern interpretation of werewolves. An exchange is made with a devil character (or with the devil, as is the case of Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf) and shapeshifting takes place. These characters can change shape at will, and often they are given immortality as well. Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers, wrote The Wolf Leader based on folk tales. In it a shoe-maker takes revenge by making a deal with a wolf that walks on its hind legs, and at first hunts and then is hunted by the town.

The book I’ve found referenced as a book with werewolf themes that I find the most interesting is Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Written by Robert Louis Stevenson, the original novella is probably ruined for its twist now being common knowledge. It is, by all effects, a mystery novel. Our narrator is Gabriel Utterson, who learns his friend is being blackmailed and may be under the sway of a hideous man named Edward Hyde. The mystery is solved after Jekyll commits suicide and leaves a note to his friend, detailing how his transformation took place. Like much werewolf fiction, it touches on themes of duality, the internal vs external, the nature we suppress and what may happen if we let that animal run wild, and ultimately is only solved by the death of the character that changes. In this case, the transformation is self-inflicted as well, and once Jekyll realizes he may be stuck as Hyde forever, he ends his life, hoping never to release such evil into the world. It’s worth noting that in the original work, Hyde is described as undescribable, and then later as ” small and very plainly dressed”, with the person viewing him given a sense that something is not right with him. In all other adaptions, he becomes monstrous, either huge and hulking, the embodiment of a man’s rage and impusle, or small and impish, like a gremlin. My favorite thing about this connection to werewolves is that it’s most plainly spelled out in Alvin and the Chimpmunks Meet the Wolf-Man, in which while a werewolf stalks these pre-adolescent mutated forest animals, they put on a play of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (No, I did not look that up. Like I said, I loved the Universal monsters as a child, and consumed just about anything that had to do with them.)

There is a book, written in 1933, I see referred to as the Dracula of werewolf literature. It seems to be an early version of The Howling, taking the suppressed desire and sexual themes of werewolves to their deepest end. It deals in rape, incest, sexual promiscuity, bastard children, a sort of Fifty Shades of Grey meets the Marquis de Sade. It also questions human nature, whether we are products of our parents or our environments, how we are the impulses we choose to hide. It would be loosely adapted into The Curse of the Werewolf by Hammer Film Productions, a story that seems perfectly tailored to their interests. It’s worth noting that a huge backdrop of The Werewolf of Paris was political tension of the time, with our main protagonist and werewolf Bertrand hiding out in the Paris Commune. The Commune was home to the radical movements in Paris, a largely socialist space that ruled separately from the French National Goverment. There is a lot to its history, which is primarily bloody and war-ridden, and a more complex overview of it can be viewed over here. As far as I can tell, The Werewolf of Paris comments on both the brutality seen on Paris streets and from the capitalist government. The story may have a lot more to do with social classes and victims of a social hierarchy.

The truth of the matter is, there aren’t that many female werewolves. Werewolves, historically, are tied closely with witches, as are many shapeshifting legends, but in modern fiction, they are rare, unless the story is about a lot of werewolves. It’s perhaps because we’re generally uninterested in writing anything but men, especially when we can tie into a dangerous masculinity, or perhaps because we’re more interested in seeing women as sexy cats, but female sexuality and werewolves do have some intersection. Most often the tale of Red Riding Hood is re-contextualized as a werewolf story, either in a literal sense with Red Riding Hood starring Amanda Seyfried, or in a more dream-like sense with The Company of Wolves. This fairy tale is often contextualized as a puberty story anyway, and adding a werewolf to it, also a monster associated with puberty or other major life changes, it creates a dangerous dichotomy of male and female sexuality. Werewolves and Other Shapeshifters in Popular Culture breaks it down as a “Beauty and the Beast” tale, where the masculine and the feminine meet. The monster becomes gentler, while the human (usually female) becomes more in control. In theory, part of what draws these feminine archetypes to a masculine monster is the draw of its masculinity, but its also what makes the monster dangerous. (Again, as a lesbian I have issues with lots of this, but I will say that straight people seem to fully believe these masculine/feminine dichotomies and are more than willing to play them out in fiction.)

And when a woman is the werewolf? Just as werewolves seem to exhibit the worst of hyper-masculine traits, it exemplifies the traits of a “dangerous” woman. She becomes more sexual. She is mean and doesn’t hold her tongue. She tempts and seduces. We see this in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we see this in True Blood. She’s rarely given the introspection of a male character, often there as an instigator or a source of conflict. There are exceptions to this, though, the best of which is probably Nina from Being Human. She takes much of the strangeness in stride, and lycanthropy in that universe is treated something like a sexual disease. Like her partner, she learns to live with it, and together they get on until the second half of the series which is crushingly depressing. It’s a strange case of the domestic werewolf, in a show where domesticity is the highlight of many of these monsters’ day, in which many issues the monsters are facing are expressed due to an argument over the television schedule and doing the dishes. And for that show, the domesticity works. It reinforces how out of place the monsters feel in their own bodies, how desperate they are to not be this way, and makes their struggles all the more tragic for showcasing them in a world that we recognize. It all plays into that “other” nonsense I talked about before.

The werewolf is an ancient thing, like the vampire. It exists in many forms. It is a protector, it is a beast to be slayed, it is a walking embodiment of the things we fear about ourselves. The common proverb is homo homini lupus, or “a man is a wolf to another man”. It’s worth noting that the original form of this is “Lupus est homo homini, non homo, quom qualis sit non novit”, which is translated often as “man is a wolf, not a man, to a stranger”, though it’s literal translation is a little more complicated than that. Werewolves, in nearly every modern example, embody the things about us that we are scared of. Aggressive sexuality, a penchant for murder and mutilation, the desire to devour others, and most jarringly, this thing isn’t inherently known by looking at someone. Any person could be a wolf. We don’t know until the moon is full, or they drink their potion, or the wolfbane blooms. It’s why it plays well into a feminine archetype, because the monster is unexpected coming from such a source, but also why it emphasizes a masculine archetype. And for those in the non-binary, who feel neither masculine or feminine, or feel they move between those roles, it offers a literal transformation.

I consume a lot less werewolf fiction than I do vampire, though I also think there is less werewolf fiction than vampire. Still, I have recommendations. The Howling takes the fear of the masculine to its logical extreme, and the werewolves don’t even really show up until late in the film. It seems to take a good chunk of its themes from The Werewolf of ParisGinger Snaps is treated as the feminist answer to the werewolf question and implicitly ties it into puberty and periods. I’ve probably detailed out my love for BBC’s Being Human, but the first two seasons in particular are really good at showing various monsters in domestic settings and building on that “other” that many monsters try to represent. The werewolf in that series tries hardest of the main three to have a normal life and possibly fails the hardest at it, though he’s the one who ends up with a loving family until the later seasons hit. I literally could not watch series four. The first episode I gave up. I’ve never watched the American version of it, so feel fee to tell me how the monsters play out in that version. As usual, I recommend a Terry Pratchett novel. The Fifth Elephant does a wonderful job of deconstructing that homo homini lupus while playing up some aspects of werewolves I feel get underwritten, as well as some “old country” ideas without implictly throwing a culture under the mystical bus. I do think everyone’s favorite An American Werewolf in London is honestly one of the best werewolf movies ever made, with an amazing soundtrack, and deals in a number of these themes. I’m very fond of Bigby Wolf from the Fables comic series, though I am less fond of the series than the first time I read it whenever it started. He’s something of an inversion of the werewolf trope. Originally the Big Bad Wolf, he was granted a pardon and lycanthropy via magical knife, and since coming into the human world has humanized. He has his badass wolf moments, but he is, ultimately, a kind man who looks after his family and who tries to do the right thing. I didn’t completely enjoy Fables: Wolf Among Us for many reasons (primarily its continuity issues), but he does face off with the Jersey Devil in that game, and that’s reason enough to look into it.

I also recommend a more complete oral history of the werewolf as narrated by Blake Smith here. I probably recommend Monster Talk too often for non-skeptics to really enjoy, but it’s a good deconstruction of how modern werewolf myths came about, and he even tracks down the first usage of the silver bullet. I like seeing how folk tales evolve through re-telling, and it’s a pretty good break down of exactly that.

There are fewer adaptions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that I’d recommend. Inevitably they all seem to add a prostitute character to murder, I think to tie them into Jack the Ripper style story telling, including a silent film adaption fo the book which may be one of the earliest adaption of that tale. I absolutely loathe The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, both book and movie, and I think I watched the 2007 BBC adaption of a modern day Jeykll that I also found incredibly boring and unwatchable. Perhaps the best adaption of Jekyll and Hyde is Bruce Banner as the Hulk. It plays into the things we fear about ourselves, the quiet and studious Banner turned into a huge, monstrous man. I don’t read many Hulk comics, so my biggest familiarity with the characters comes from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s worth noting in that continuity that Banner attempted to end his story the same way Jekyll did, and the same way many werewolf stories end.

The first part of my 1950s monster mash has just completed it’s final chapter over at my writing blog, and I’m in the middle of preparing part two, which deals entirely in werewolves. I also tie werewolves and Dr. Jekyll together rather plainly in my Victorian monster mash, of which you can read an excerpt here. I plan on borrowing some folklore for future chapters here, though they may be a little closer to home than expected.

Modern Monsters – Dracula

I am, at this exact moment, working on two stories that borrow heavily from and are inspired by the Universal Monsters (one of which you can already start reading at my writing blog). I was raised on Universal Monsters. I grew up with Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. I loved Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Invisible Man, as well as less known classics like Dracula’s Daughter. And these movies are highly influential. The reason we view Frankenstein’s monster as a large foreheaded, platform shoe wearing, monosyllabic brute is because of Boris Karloff’s performance as just that. It’s for the same reason Dracula has evolved into a handsome aristocrat, wearing a cape and unable to drink… wine. These movies have become classics, relevant beyond the time period they were filmed in, and directly influenced how we viewed monsters.

Since I am so in love with monsters, and since I am so heavily influenced by the Universal Monster movies, I thought I’d examine those movies in context, starting with the greatest. Dracula is actually based on a 1924 play that was authorized by Bram Stoker’s widow, which may explain some inconsistencies with the actual book Dracula. Bela Lugosi played the title character in the play, which is what directly led him to being cast in the movie, and according to the Wiki article on the play, it was his first English-speaking role, being from Hungary. The 1931 movie was not the fist filmed production of Dracula, of course. A 1921 Hungarian silent film called Dracula’s Death gets that honor, though the film is now lost to time. The film itself had little to do with the actual novel, featuring a woman beset upon by frightening visions after she meets an asylum inmate claiming to be Count Dracula. This is about the most information I can find on this film, and it seems anyone can.

More famously, Nosferatu was released in 1922, while Dracula  was still in copyright. Surprisingly, this film follows more closely than the more recognizable films. The first half of the movie is the book. Thomas Hutter (Jonathon Harker) goes to Count Orlock’s (Count Dracula’s) castle, becomes beset upon by midnight phantoms and discovers Count Orlock’s true nature, escapes, and suffers a mental breakdown for it. It includes Count Orlock’s journey across the sea on a doomed ship, and, most interestingly, spreads plague wherever he goes. Count Orlock is more associated with rats than any other creatures, to the point of his rat-like features and plague bearing nature. The film simplifies the ending, with Ellen (Mina) sacrifices her neck by keeping Count Orlock there until the sun rises, destroying him, and the Ellen and Thomas embrace. The film was well received in its time and as much as the Bela Lugosi performance is considered a classic, iconic, and still remains a genuinely good film. I had the pleasure of viewing it with a live orchestra a few months ago, and it more or less holds up. It is haunting. The shadowy form of Orlock as it creeps towards Ellen’s bed, the madness that overcomes Thomas, the empty streets as plague wipes out an entire town, it is, except for a few scenes which belie its age, a symphony of horror.

I mention Nosferatu not just because I adore silent films, but because the notion of Count Orlock carrying the plague is in line with vampires I’ve discussed before. Vampires are very many times related to illness. Tuberculosis is referred to as the White Plague, and it killed thousands, but to hammer in the point, it was a family disease. One person would die, and supposedly return to the family after death, spreading it that way. I don’t want to repeat myself too much here, but vampires as a disease is a common enough interpretation. Of course, vampire myth is as varied and wild as the cultures that have vampires (see: all of them). For every outrage at Edward Cullen sparkling, I’m reminded that vampire watermelons are a real legend, and ascribing a singular folklore to a mythology as vast as this is impossible. It’s worth noting Nosferatu was also nearly lost, as the Stoker estate set out to destroy as many copies as possible. This is a running theme with silent films.

I wonder if the reason the Universal Monsters have defined the monsters in our heads is because, for many of them, this is the first time they are on screen. The visual medium of film is something finite. It creates images that stay with us through generations. Similar to how Harry Potter will always look like Daniel Radcliffe, and Dorothy is defined by Judy Garland. Film is still new, and as a visual medium, it is often striking, memorable, and genre defining. DraculaFrankenstein, and The Wolf-Man were filmed when movies were starting to become a thing. Dracula isn’t the first on-screen appearance of a vampire, but it’s the first one that was seen by a massive populace, and was catapulted into movie history. So now, even people who’ve never seen a black and white movie can see a man in an evening cape with long teeth going “bleh”, and they say, “Vampire.”

I am remiss to talk about movie Dracula without discussing book Dracula. While the movie Dracula condenses many elements of the book, it still carries over its themes and ideas. Made in a time when the copyright was still in place, Dracula was, in the grand scheme of things, fairly new. So it does owe a lot to the book, and to the many, many Victorian vampire novels that came before it.

The original novel of Dracula is good. It is drenched in Victorian morals and themes of good Christians winning out against hairy, women-stealing foreigners, but it is still good. It’s worth noting that it came after a long string of Victorian vampire novels and it borrows elements from many of those. Carmilla, notably, has a female vampire who embeds herself in the home of another young woman, visiting her in her sleep every night, transforming into a large black cat, and drinking her blood slowly and purposefully until she’s discovered, and a team of men go to her grave to chop off her head. Varney the Vampire as well was a penny dreadful that ran for two years, which features an aristocratic vampire who harrasses a family. Many modern day vampire tropes are ascribed to Varney, including the two fangs leaving puncture wounds, hypnotic powers, superhuman strength, and the fact that he doesn’t drink… wine (or eat food). He’s also a sympathetic vampire, as he despises his condition, though he’s also a bitter, lonely man who turns a woman into a vampire out of spite. Dracula may owe the most of his design to Varney.

Many, many people have read various things into the character of Dracula and the themes of the novel. Anxiety seems to be the primary one. Of what, there is little agreement. Anxiety over colonialism, anxiety over capitalism, anxiety over religion, or homosexuality, or racial mixing. Similarly, vampires before this embodied anxiety over plague and disease, or anxiety over war, or anxiety over the afterlife. Monsters have always stood in for an “other” and given form to the anxieties we as a culture are experiencing. (If you’re wondering why alien invasion fiction was so popular in the 1950s and 60s, look into the Cold War.) Vampires are good for representing many “others”. Homosexuality is an easy one, and they’re a pretty good stand in for the predatory gay. After all, they corner people against their will, penetrate them, exchange fluids, and make more of their own. Capitalism also gains a stand in, since they are aristocratic in nature, often oppressing the villagers in their own home regions, often Eastern European, where communism and socialism thrived. Their tolls of blood mimic the blood spilled by workers for the benefit of one man or corporation. I’ve always viewed the original book of Dracula as a fear of immigrants, who come from across the sea to attack good Christian women and turn them into bloodsucking monsters.

The women of Dracula I find fascinating, and I could write a ten page research paper on Mina, Lucy, and the brides, the Madonna-whore complex of the book, how they become hypersexual in adaptions (and Lucy in her original form, who courted several men and was disappointed she couldn’t marry all of them), and how they are treated, but instead, I’m going to talk about Dracula’s DaughterDracula’s Daughter is a direct sequel to the 1931 film and it features, yes, Dracula’s daughter, a woman named Marya Zaleska. Like Varney from before, Marya is a sympathetic vampire who considers her state a curse. She steals Dracula’s body and burns it, attempting to break that curse. Here is what is most interesting about Marya Zaleska: she realizes her bloodsucking is a compulsion, and so she seeks psychiatric help. She meets Dr. Jeffrey Garth, and begs him to help her. What’s more interesting is how this ties into her compulsions. Marya specifically preys on young, attractive women. She paints and invites women back to her studio, where she succumbs to her compulsions and bites her while she is barely even clothed. Later, Marya takes a young woman hostage, which leads to a scene described as “the longest kiss never filmed”.

I think, perhaps, the most informed vampire story since Bela Lugosi graced the screen as a vampyr is the 1985 film Fright Night. Here, our vampire is a villain, a force beset upon Charley Brewster and his friends. This is probably a more overt reference to Dracula, as Charley clearly plays the Jonathon Harker, his girlfriend Amy as Mina, and his friend Evil Ed as Renfield (there’s always a Renfield). There’s even a moment where the resident vampire hunter, Peter Vincent, looks at a pocket mirror and realizes that the vampire has no reflection in it. Jerry (I adore that the vampire’s name is Jerry Dandridge, it’s so generically middle America) is Bela Lugosi’s Dracula played in a modern era. While not an aristocrat, he’s clearly rich, or has money, since his house is large and filled with stuff, and he invokes a following. His might-be-gay lackey follows his word to the letter, and seems to enjoy his own immortality through being made of green goo. Ed similarly becomes infatuated with Jerry (I use this word purposefully) after a sudden encounter with him, and transforms into a vampire as well. Like Renfield, he’s obsessive, desperate for his own immortality, and reduced as a human being into a desperate, blood hungry, mentally shattered pawn. Amy becomes entranced by him, adding an extra level of terror, since she is a teenage girl, and is turned by him, much like Mina is in the original novel, and she is saved by the vampire hunter and her beloved, her demons cast out of her. While many, many vampire stories try desperately to tie in sexuality with the blood drinking, anything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to The Moth Diaries, this is one that makes that sexuality come across as dangerous and transformative. That dangerous sexuality and disregard for humans as more than meals is made more obvious in the better-than-expected remake, in which Jerry spends one scene watching a Real Housewives scene in which the women discuss their implants, right before Charley finds girls literally kept prisoner in the basement below. It weaves together the power the vampire wields, the sexuality it exudes, and the danger the characters are in even when they don’t know it as well as the original novel and the movie that spawned a thousand others.

Modern vampire movies are remaking Dracula. They are expanding on it, they are sympathizing with it, they are subverting it, but they are ultimately working off the baseline of Dracula. I believe horror writers have read a vampire book that isn’t Dracula. I may even believe they’re familiar with the works of John Polidori and James Malcolm Rymer. But the pop culture framework, the shorthand for vampire, and the countless jokes that continue to this day are all based in the 1931 film. Dracula was the first true pop culture vampire. The book is certainly better remembered than its predecessors, and the film is ranked highly among monster movies and classic movies. And perhaps what’s most interesting in Dracula’s evolution as a character is how he and his kin have grown from emotionless, consuming monsters to sympathetic creatures burdened by their curse.

As a lesbian, I tend to identify very strongly with lesbian characters, which explains why I write so many characters as lesbians, and also explains why I’m so invested in many of these monster movies. The characters of Carmilla and Marya Zaleska have informed more of my writing vampires than any other vampire fiction. And as an “other”, I identify strongly with the “other”. I could write a hundred papers on gay vampires and plan to write a hundred more stories using just that, but what I will say is that these creatures identifying with an “other” has made us identify with them. So whatever vampires are meant to represent, or whatever they have represented to people in the past, those narratives have given way to sympathetic portrayals of creatures we would otherwise refuse to understand. Immigrants, gays and lesbians, addicts, people who are invisible in society until deemed a monster, and then the hunt begins. It’s also possible, with the advent of the sexy vampire, that people are just completely willing to give a pass to handsome men doing terrible things, but I like to believe that we learn to identify with the monster and, in a sense, the people society would choose to reject.

I adore vampires, so I consume vampire fiction near constantly. If you are looking for more modern vampires to engage in, I recommend the 1985 Fright Night and its remake, both which have its high points and its low points. For more lesbian vampires, The Moth Diaries is a fairly good film based on a book I never read, and it gives a more ambiguous vampire, and deals heavily in those anxieties. In a completely different vein, the Carmilla web series is a delight from start to finish, and its ending came at a time when lesbians were near constantly dying off in fiction, giving a heartwarming reprieve to those of us who wish for a happy ending. Carpe Jugulum is a Terry Pratchett book that makes fun of many vampire tropes (including the vampire watermelons) and is a delight from start to finish. It’s in a long series known as the Discworld, but you do not need previous knowledge to pick it up. (Monstrous Regiment is also in this series, and features one of my favorite vampire characters written.) If you are a fan of the classics and haven’t seen the Spanish version of the 1931 Dracula, it was shot on the same set at night while the English version was going on, and they set out to make a better movie. And they did. For the art crowd, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a Persian-language film described as “the first Iranian vampire western”, which throws in a lot of elements discussed and is a very interesting watch. For those who love Hammer Horror, The Vampire Lovers is an actually fairly straight forward adaption of Carmilla, with all the things you love about Hammer Horror thrown in. And if you haven’t see What We Do in the Shadows yet, like the Pratchett example, it’s a parody of many vampire tropes, and it’s delightful.

You can tell I consume a lot of vampire media. Sitting down with this, I was trying to come up with my favorite vampire book or movie, but honestly it’s such a rich fiction with so many diverse elements, I find it hard to choose just one. There are many, many elements to vampires that make them fascinating, and it makes audiences want to see more. Of course, with us being burned out on Twilight and the like, we probably won’t be seeing any big name vampire story any time soon, but we still enjoy the supernatural. We still want to see more of it. And, honestly, I really enjoy vampires as an aspect in a larger supernatural world. They can play foil to many others (most notably werewolves). They are more interesting when they share the screen, which is probably why they do so many times.

Again, you can start reading my 1950s monster mash that borrows almost exclusively from the Universal Monsters here, as well as an excerpt of my Victorian era monster mash (I like what I like) that I’m in the midst of editing here.

The Lonely House – Historical Notes

It has been a beast getting back into consistently writing after I did NaNoWriMo and even now I’m struggling to get back where I was. Doing this bi-monthly is extremely helpful, but I still have to be writing weekly to get where I need to be. So, this chapter was a little shorter, and probably a little less in-depth than I could’ve gotten, but I am ramping back up to more character driven chapters. It also means I haven’t been getting out the content I’ve wanted to, including Cryptid Corners and a new little examination of monsters. If you’re interested in the other projects that have been occupying my time, I have started posting Laemmle High, a 1950s monster mash that deals in themes of otherness, relationships, and fear of the future. I’ve also got a few more side projects I am working on in my own time, but I’m hoping to get back into it here. A few major chapters are coming up, and I’m very excited and also very scared to get to them.

But the Summerwind House. I first heard about it watching the Discovery Channel’s A Haunting (Season 1, episode 2, if you’re curious). It’s a fairly generic haunted house story told in a fairly generic reenactment fashion, but what struck me the most about the episode was that those who’d purchased and lived in the house consistently referred to it as looking so lonely. It was repeated a number of times through the episode, by separate people if I recall correctly, and that resonance struck me as far more creepy than anything in the episode.

Summerwind was originally known as the Lamont Mansion, purchased by Robert Patterson Lamont. There are a couple of notable incidents in the house, but the primary one is that Lamont one night found himself confronted by a ghost. He fired a pistol at it, and then he and his family fled, abandoning the home. Other owners of the house are listed as Arnold and Ginger Hinshaw, who were haunted to the point of nervous breakdown, and Raymond Bober, Ginger’s father, who authored a book about the hauntings in the house. This has been called into question, since neighbors claim he never spent a night in the house at all. It seems, as with the Amityville house, neighbors and later tenants never experienced any hauntings, and were annoyed at the supernatural tourist attraction it became.

There are two primary reasons I ended this story with a lightning strike. Summerwind did burn down. By 1985, it’d been completely abandoned, with neighbors hoping to have it demolished, and teens using it as a place to hang out and vandalize. While the attempt to have it torn down failed, in 1988, lightning struck the house, burning it to the ground. Arson was not suspected, though a suggestion was made that local teens might’ve left a fire burning. Attempts have been made to rebuild, but Summerwind is gone for good.

The second reason is I’d recently read The Picture in the House, a short story by H.P. Lovecraft. I’ve never read a short story by Lovecraft that wasn’t aggressively racist, this one included, and I found this particular short story disappointing for various reasons (Lovecraft is described to me so often as much more interesting than it actually ends up being), but there’s something charming in Lovecraft’s pulp endings. Like Reanimator, this has a very classic ending derived from previous fiction, in this case Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. The thought of being in a cursed place, or being in a tense situation surrounded by fear and anxiety, to escape at last, and to turn around one last time to see that place crack and crumble into ruin, there’s a startling image there. It’s probably why Lovecraft survives, despite all his faults. Next to the interweaving of the mythos, there are striking images, ideas so pure and strong, it’s hard to discount them entirely. So I left it with the image of a cursed place burning to the ground thanks to a lightning bolt. I decided to use it.

This story was sort of a reprieve for me while I got my life back together. Next time there will be much more story and a lot more history, and I’m hoping to post some things in the interim. I am posting monthly as of right now to Black Cat Fiction, my writing blog, as well as bi-weekly to my Fear Street recap blog, and I hope to have a few more short stories up soon. Summer is looming ever closer, though, which is my busy season, so hopefully I can maintain my momentum.

The River – Historical Notes

Lien and Jing-Shen Tong were two of the first characters I actually created for Deadlands, besides Gabe and Violetta. I knew from the start Violetta would have this strange vision of a muddy river and decided to put her in one at some point. Her scene floating there is also one of the first things I wrote for Deadlands, though it’s been altered since inserting it into the actual story. I was not really a fan of westerns when this initial concept came to me, but I was aware of the tropes associated with the genre. The Chinese medicine man is still a fairly common trope in media today, as Americans have never really stopped seeing Asians as strange and mystical. Like my desire to have non-standard western protagonists, I wanted to humanize the tropes we are used to seeing and actually look at the cultural landscape of the period. I spent most of my research hoping to find information on the daily lives of Chinese immigrants, the sort of customs that were specific to them, so I could paint an accurate picture of their lives, but around this time in history, anti-Chinese sentiment had reached a fever pitch in America. From the University of Illinois:

By the 1880s Chinese immigrants were being viewed not only as an inferior and undesirable population, but also as an actual threat to American culture, American government, and even the Caucasian race. Peoples of European background could not understand how the Chinese could live in such crowded, poor conditions and work so hard for such low wages. They concluded that the Chinese possessed some super-human power, perhaps a result of their mysterious religion, their strange and isolated culture, or induced by smoking opium which allowed them to accept their situation and continue to work hard. Novelists wrote stories in which Chinese characters were outwardly quiet and submissive but were inwardly sinister and cunning. Some of these Yellow Peril novels predicted that Chinese immigrants were part of a secret plan to invade and take over the government of the United States replacing American culture with that of the Chinese.

In 1885 and 1886 the United States saw two major events where white Americans took out their anger on Chinese immigrants. The Rock Springs Massacre or the Rock Springs Riot, sparked by white mine workers who were angry that the Chinese workers were more likely to be hired due to their being paid lower wages, was started when ten white men attempted to kick the Chinese workers out of a desirable spot, resulting in them beating six Chinese workers, one of which who later died from the injuries. It ended in a mob descending on the workers, threatening them with guns, stealing their gold, and in some cases just shooting them and robbing their corpses. The Chinese workers fled and went to Washington, only to be threatened there as well. In 1886, similar mobs killed Chinese immigrants and forced 200 of them on ships, vowing to “sweep the city clean of Chinese”. More of the timeline can be seen here.

A large problem was that white Americans could not understand the Chinese immigrants and saw them as alien. Noticeably, the Naturalization Act of 1870 actively excluded Chinese immigrants due to the belief that they could not be assimilated. It wouldn’t be until 1898 American born Chinese were allowed to be citizens (it would not be until 1924 American Indians would be considered citizens either). The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 also refused any more Chinese immigrants. It would not be repealed until 1943.

The main role of the Chinese laborers in wild west stories are 1) gold miner who immigrated during the rush, 2) launderer, and 3) track layer. These do seem to be the main jobs taken, though they also participated in agriculture and fishing, and approximately 200 fought in the Civil War, primarily on the side of the Union. Women were rare to immigrate with their husbands or on their own, due to lack of work available to them, and the cost of immigrating. The 1870 census listed 60% of Chinese women in the US were prostitutes, which was used to make immigration for women all the more difficult. I couldn’t tell how many were actually sex workers, as some listed were also married and formed families and are noted to be part of the Chinese Christians. There does seem to be a large crossover with Chinese immigrants and African-Americans as well. I found 57% of interracial marriages with Chinese Americans was with African-Americans, and in the reformation South, Chinese workers set up grocery shops in primarily black communities.

Lien wants to go to Boston because of the New England Female Medical School (founded in 1848, which also graduated the first African-American female physician in 1864). It tried to find information on historical Chinese medicine that Jing-Shen would have practiced, but it mostly brings me to Traditional Chinese Medicine ™, the historical nature of which I could not quite determine. Not helped is that in the 19th century, Western missionaries were pushing western medicine in China, meaning that’s the only articles I can read on. Accupuncture does seem to be a component of Chinese medicine, and teapills were a thing I read up on, though I don’t understand enough about any kind of medicine to discuss them.  I looked for Chinese doctors that operated in America historically, but again the information is muddled. I would have to do more in depth research.

As for the monsters, there’s not much on either of them. I searched for “Chinese water ghost” hoping to find something I could use, and came across the shui gui, which I believe is literally translated “water ghost”. From the World of Chinese:

Shui gui are “water ghosts” and are the spirits of those who’ve drowned. Only once a shui gui lures another person to their death by drowning will their spirit be free (替身tì shēn, “replace the body.”) At that time, the spirit will return to the world of the living, while the hapless victim will become a new shui gui. In this way, shui gui create a cycle of bad luck and dangerous places.

This is about the most I can find on it. Similarly, I searched “California ghosts” hoping to find a local legend or area specific one, and I came across the California Ghost Deer. It is a mysterious, large buck with 10 points on its horn on one side and 12 on the other. Hunters claim to have shot at it, and it missed or the deer didn’t react at all. There’s an article on it here.

I entirely used Google translate for the Chinese in these segments since I know no one who speaks Chinese. Hopefully it was short enough that I didn’t embarrass myself too badly. I was going to do another Cryptid Corner in November but ended up getting swamped with NaNoWriMo this year, so if you are missing content I recommend checking out my southern werewolf story I posted on my writing blog. This of course has made it difficult to write the next chapter as well, so I’ll be chugging along to get that finished by the end of December. Once I’ve properly rested from my overdoing it in November, more things will appear on this site, and you can keep checking my other blogs as well.

Danse Macabre – Historical Notes

Tales of the Deadland was intended to be sort of out of continuity stories, shorter and less character focused than the rest of Deadlands. It was an excuse to take concepts that might take more fleshing out and still get to play with them. I have a handful of ideas for more tales, including with characters we have not met yet.

Danse Macabre is a rather famous concept, the French translation of “Dance of Death”. According to Wikipedia (I know), the horrors of the 14th century, which included famine, the Hundred Years War, and the Black Death, brought forward a didactic poem to remind us all of the inevitability of death. Visual examples started popping up in the 15th century, showing up in paintings, on churches, and on walls. The idea is that it does not matter who you are, if you are rich, if you are a king, you will inevitably perform the dance of death.

The version I borrowed heavily from was the version written by French composer Camille Saint-Saens in the 19th century. From the wiki page for that:

According to legend, “Death” appears at midnight every year on Halloween. Death calls forth the dead from their graves to dance for him while he plays his fiddle (here represented by a solo violin). His skeletons dance for him until the rooster crows at dawn, when they must return to their graves until the next year. The piece opens with a harp playing a single note, D, twelve times (the twelve strokes of midnight) which is accompanied by soft chords from the string section. The solo violin enters playing the tritone, which was known as the diabolus in musica (“the Devil in music”). The first theme is heard on a solo flute, followed by the second theme, a descending scale on the solo violin which is accompanied by soft chords from the string section. The first and second themes, or fragments of them, are then heard throughout the various sections of the orchestra. The piece becomes more energetic and at its midpoint, right after a contrapuntal section based on the second theme, there is a direct quote played by the woodwinds of the Dies Irae, a Gregorian chant from the Requiem that is melodically related to the work’s second theme. The Dies Irae is presented unusually in a major key. After this section the piece returns to the first and second themes and climaxes with the full orchestra playing very strong dynamics. Then there is an abrupt break in the texture and the coda represents the dawn breaking (a cockerel’s crow, played by the oboe) and the skeletons returning to their graves.

You can listen to it here.

I stole largely from Henri Cazalis’ poem associated with the song to do the poem within the story. It has been a good long time since I’ve attempted poetry, and it felt fine to stretch those muscles again.

If you are wondering if Halloween was celebrated in the old west, the answer is not really. According to Lesley Bannatyne, it arrived in America in the 1870s, where it was viewed as an immigrant holiday, particularly of the Scottish and Irish. It was printed about in newspapers as a sort of trend piece. But Victorians were searching for new rituals and romance, and in the 1880s Halloween became conflated with romance and passion.

Halloween celebrations in the Victorian age seem to be made of one part romantic inspiration, one part reconstructed history, and one part Victorian marketing. Halloween stories became almost operatic with regard to passion, and less concemed with actual ghosts. In and amongst the stories offered to female readers, which had such titles as “Love’s Seed-time and Harvest,” “Love Lies A-Bleeding” and “If I Were a Man I’d Shoot Myself,” lie gems like “The Hallow-e’en Sensation at Gov’ner Dering’s.” In this tale the heroine is determined to live loveless because she believes the man she loves does not care for her. She takes up a dare to go into a dark, secret passage on Halloween night. The lady disappears, the guests grow fearful, but then the hero climbs into the dark after her, finding her frail form crumpled and faint from a fall. Love ensues; Halloween triumphs.

I’d heard of things like looking into a mirror while eating an apple at midnight on Halloween to see your future husband, but I hadn’t heard of other things, such as following yarn through dark barns to find handsome men, and it seemed like more of an excuse for more parties and to offer more mystery to their romance. Disguises and costumes appeared in the early 20th century. History.com places our current Halloween traditions as growing in the 1950s:

By the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become a secular, but community-centered holiday, with parades and town-wide parties as the featured entertainment. Despite the best efforts of many schools and communities, vandalism began to plague Halloween celebrations in many communities during this time. By the 1950s, town leaders had successfully limited vandalism and Halloween had evolved into a holiday directed mainly at the young. Due to the high numbers of young children during the fifties baby boom, parties moved from town civic centers into the classroom or home, where they could be more easily accommodated. Between 1920 and 1950, the centuries-old practice of trick-or-treating was also revived. Trick-or-treating was a relatively inexpensive way for an entire community to share the Halloween celebration. In theory, families could also prevent tricks being played on them by providing the neighborhood children with small treats. A new American tradition was born, and it has continued to grow.

I went with a more generic All Soul’s Day, thinking Gabe and Violetta probably didn’t bother with Halloween if they even knew about it, but still wanting to give the Danse a distinct day on the calendar. For those not raised Christian or anyone who wasn’t given a crash course in this, All Soul’s Day is commonly on Nov. 2 as a part of the Allhallowtide (Halloween, Oct. 31; All Saint’s Day, Nov. 1), which also matches up with the Day of the Dead celebrated in Mexico. These are distinctly religious holidays and, if you’re Catholic, you may also know it as The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed. Anglicans and Protestants also celebrate these days in slightly different ways. I borrowed a little from the Day of the Dead as well, with the altar being made of flowers and leaving out of offerings for the dead, as well as giving the skeleton woman a sort of La Calavera Catrina look to her.

I wrote this at the same time I was writing December’s chapter of Deadlands, and they may end up having a few things in common symbolism wise. I don’t know if I’ll be posting between now and December 21st as I have a few other projects I’m working, projects that can be viewed at both Black Cat Fiction, my sister blog where I post short stories and various concepts, and Welcome to Fear Street, a blog where I read, recap, and review every Fear Street book from the 90s and beyond. I do hope to be posting more Cryptid Corners in the future, and if there is any monster in particular you like hearing about, I would love to do the research.

The Lost Ship of the Desert – Historical Notes

I am going to be completely honest with this one. When I first came up with the idea of this one, I one hundred percent was thinking of that scene in Holes where the find a rowboat in the vast endless desert. It’s a fascinating image, a lost boat or ship, lying their useless with no water for miles. I then named this segment “The Lost Ship of the Desert”, decided to Google “ship found in desert” just to see what pops up, and learned the Lost Ship of the Desert is a thing.

There are two common versions of the ship, one being a Spanish explorer vessel, the other being a Viking ship (also likely an explorer vessel). In the Sorora Desert in California, several emigrants and travelers have remarked on seeing a ship, some claiming they could lead researchers to the exact location (only to have something stop them from getting there), others passing on tales. While certainly an interesting sight in the long expanse of any desert, this does have some reasoning behind it. This website explains it as so:

How could a ship come to rest on desert sands so far from salt water? One explanation holds that an exceptionally large tide from the Gulf of California may have collided with an exceptionally heavy runoff from the Colorado River at the delta, producing a flood which broke through the land barrier to the Salton Sea. The cresting waters could have carried a ship over the natural dam and down into the Salton Sea basin. The flood would have then retreated, leaving the vessel stranded.

With other explanations being very similar. The Spanish Galleon is the most common version I saw, but the Viking ship popped up quite a bit as well, occasionally as a ghost ship itself. The Los Angeles Star apparently reported on it up to 1870 (accounts ranging back to the 18th century), claiming that the hull was full of gold and bullion, printing any accounts that were told to them. I did find one confirmed example of a ship lost in the desert (and filled with treasure), a Portuguese ship called Bom Jesus on Namibia’s desert coastline. Miners and archaeologists found it after a long time searching.

I did slightly less research into sea shanties than I did into traditional cowboy songs, but I tried to hunt down an appropriate tune for this one. Where previously I’d learned cowboy songs were not work songs, sea shanties certainly were. Most websites I looked at divided them into short haul shanties (for tasks that required quick pulls over a short period of time), haylard shanties (for work that required more set up between pulls), and capstan shanties (long repetitive tasks that require sustained rhythm). Also unlike cowboy songs, which are generally about how terrible it is to be a cowboy, I found few traditional shanties about the hardships of being a sailor, though hardships abound. The song I ended up choosing was “The Fish of the Sea”, a song I find actually a little goofy, but it’s refrain matched my intent most of any song I looked at. It does appear in Assassin’s Creed, if you’d like to listen to that version here.

Things will slow again here during the fall/winter months, though look forward to a bonus story this Halloween. I am also updating my general writing blog Black Cat Fiction with spooky stories all month long, the first already being posted here. And if you are still looking for something scary, my Fear Street recap blog is currently going through the 99 Fear Street series, updated every Sunday. There will be a lot on my plate the end of this year, but I’m very excited for the December chapter, and there will hopefully be more additions to the Cryptid Corner.

Dead Man’s Circus – Historical Notes

Originally I had two very similar ideas for two different chapters of Deadlands, and in the end I merged it into one. The other was a snake oil salesman tale, playing off the real usage of mummies in medicine in the 17th century, and I think if I could go back I’d focus more on that than the carnival of terror aspect I went with. The original idea, and the one I ultimately went with, followed more the urban legends of carnivals or houses of horrors that accidentally (or intentionally) show real dead bodies. I merged the idea of the mummy and the dead person coming back for revenge and ended up with the Mummied Man, who probably more closely resembles the monster from Stranger Things over the Mummy.

I tried to research carnivals and fairs in this time period, and this is where I struggled. I didn’t want to do a traditional sideshow. I didn’t want to write on conjoined twins and werewolf boys, though it might’ve fit in with the story. What I wanted to focus on was gaffs, tricked exhibits, the most famous of which is P.T. Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid (Barnum will come up a lot). These are done by taking different parts of different animals and crafting them together. Gaffs still exist in oddity shops and have a thriving industry online. A number of the ones featured in the Silverton Circus were mimicked from what I found on eBay. I wanted to touch on some of the tricks and performances we think of when we think of early circuses or traveling fairs. I give a shout out to pickled punks as well, which are merely preserved fetuses in a jar. Circuses had juggling acts, pantomimes by clowns, trapeze acts, and stages to present exotic animals. A comprehensive look at Victorian era circuses can be found here.

P.T. Barnum started his circus business in 1835, where he purchased and presented a blind slave woman named Joice Heth, sold as “George Washington’s nursemaid” supposedly lived to the age of 160. She was only eighty and died the next year, and Barnum charged fifty cents a ticket for her autopsy. The tradition of buying slaves and presenting them as exhibits isn’t without precedent. Human zoos were a very real thing and apparently have not died out completely, which is a gruesome thought in its own right. In 1836, Barnum opened up a museum of oddities, including living people such as albinos, giants, magicians, and varying other people. His first major and most famous hoax is the Feejee Mermaid. The mermaid had a history already of appearing in oddities museums, previously being mostly dugongs, and in Japan they sold a similar item. He also took a distant cousin, who stopped growing around six months old and remained 25 inches tall. He lied about his age (he was stated to be eleven, when he was actually five), groomed him to stand and impersonate political figures, and named him General Tom Thumb. More famous people he exhibited was Fedor Jeftichew “The Dog Faced Boy” and Captain Costentenus “The Tattooed Man”. By the time the 1890s rolled around, however, science had given explanations for many of these conditions, and people stopped finding joy in making light of such things.

For more information Barnum and freakshows in general, I suggest these links.

There doesn’t seem to be much of a history of gaffs in particular. People clearly enjoy making them, for all the websites I’ve found to buy them at, and they are still purchased. These curiosities did not seem to fool anyone in their time, but like haunted houses and other graphic displays, we are in it for the thrill. Since they are fake, it’s doubtful any were made of real humans. If you’re more interested in learning about the times we ate people to cure our ills, which I won’t go into much because it’s more of a Renaissance thing than an old west thing, I’d recommend these podcasts, which discuss it in detail.

Side note: I am trying to use my writing muscles more and more, and the best thing I’ve found for that is having a story I am constantly updating. I started a writing journal for other ideas I’ve been working on to help me in my goals. Please visit if you want more stories from me.

The Music of Deadlands

At some point in the storytelling process, music became a part of the narrative. I think it started with the scene in Sound of Thunder, in which I originally envisioned Gabe and Marie singing to each other. I wanted to look up authentic cowboy songs, and at the time I was working in a library that had an extensive music collection. I still have scans of particular pieces I found useful or relevant when I worked close enough to a music library in college.

My biggest concern in using cowboy music in this was a level of authenticity. I’m not one hundred percent concerned about historical accuracy, I’ll admit. I like stories. I do enough research that it feels real, and honestly you can get some great ideas just reading history, but I would hate to include a song and learn later that it was created in 1925. And it seems, in my research into “the singing cowboy”, authenticity has been the concern since those interested started collecting cowboy songs. John Lomax and Jack Thorp, the two most recognizable figures in collecting traditional American songs, both traveled the American west to record and write down songs. Thorp traveled 1,500 miles through New Mexico and Texas, and of the two I find him the more genuine character. Thorp did his work in 1889 and 1890, before the rise cowboy songs as entertainment, though I also did some reading on Jules Verne Allen, who was one of the first “singing cowboys” in the entertainment business and performed from 1928 – 1931 in a troupe called The First American, dedicated to Native Americans. Comanche, Taos, and Cochitl performed traditional dances, and afterwards Allen would croon to the crowd.

While these persons found firsthand accounts from real cowboys of cowboy songs, it seemed that there was difficulty in recreating it fully. Thorp mentions it was difficult to find cowboys who had a decent voice, and those that did couldn’t remember full songs. Many songs stole melodies and were retold over various people, notably “Red River Valley” has the same melody as a Gaelic/Irish folk song. Like Norse mythology or Roman beliefs before the Greeks rolled around, a lot of this stuff can’t be found in its original form simply because it wasn’t written down until much later, or because it was shared orally, and in that changes and new ideas were introduced or taken away. Collectors of cowboy songs might complete songs through seven different sources, and Lomax admits he got many of his songs from letters written to him. Deviations from the original might be noted, or not, depending on who was writing.

The other thing I found interesting in the myth of the singing cowboy was that these were not work songs. They were leisure time songs, sang to soothe animals, to keep themselves awake around the campfire, or just to pass time. Work songs are often rhythmic, meant to mimic the labor being done, something that’s uncommon in cowboy songs. They also weren’t often together, and any singing would’ve been a solo venture. Through varying first person accounts, cowboys can’t quite agree if singing does or does not really happen on the job. Thorp himself (a ranch hand for many years) claims he never heard any singing on the job, but at night something like a low hum would rise up, not loud or bad enough to scare any animals, just something to kill time. Cowboys apparently often refused to sing to the folklorists or were uninterested in sharing, and both Thorp and Lomax recount times they either stayed in the back of cowboy activities, or stayed back so they were not easily visible.

A few anecdotes to cowboy songs: I discovered Bill Jack Curry, a black saloonkeeper in San Antonio, is credited with providing “Home on the Range” to researchers, which was then named President (elect, at the time) Franklin Roosevelt’s favorite song in 1932 which propelled the “cowboy songs” music industry. In 1934 Arizona couple William and Mary Goodwin tried to claim copyright on that song, claiming they’d done so in 1905, but the courts proved the song had been in print as early in 1873.

Unrelated to the historical music, I’ve forced myself to pick up the pace some with family troubles and hospital visits making it either hard to find the time to finish these or hard to find the motivation, and I’ve created a playlist of western and spooky themed music to use, appropriately titled Deadlands. I feel it captures the mood I go for here rather well, and so I share it with you here.

No historical music to be found, and near the end is the song that inspired the creation of Leith and Aggie. I must also credit the Indie Western playlist, which is where I found the majority of this music.