Red Eyes Fly by Night

Dear Readers and Vampire Fanatics,

“The mouth . . . was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth. . . . The nails were long and fine, and cut to a sharp point . . .” This description from Bram Stoker’s book Dracula is of one of the most  famous vampires of all time. The very name “Dracula” brings to mind bloodshot-eyed, nocturnal vampires, garlic flowers, flitting bats, coffins, broken mirrors, old, foggy graveyards, wooden stakes, and crucifixes.

If you guessed “Count Dracula” as the answer to my last blog question–Who said, “‘Listen to them–the children of the night. What music they make!'”?–you are correct. The count spoke those words to the solicitor Jonathan Harker from England, his newly arrived guest at his castle in Transylvania. The young man would become the count’s prisoner and victim. The words from the quote refer to the wolves howling in the valley far below–wolves, we learn, that did the count’s bidding!

Irish author Abraham “Bram” Stoker (1847-1912) wrote Dracula in 1897, having been influenced by John Polidori’s book The Vampyre, written in 1816. Stoker’s book introduced the character of Count Dracula to the world. Considered a classic Gothic Horror Invasion story, it spawned many movies, particularly in the 1930s and ’40s made by Universal Pictures Hollywood. Vampires remain popular to this day in books, films, plays, and musicals.

Stoker’s work tells the story of Count Dracula’s attempt to move from Transylvania to England where he hopes to find new blood, spread his curse of “the undead” to form an army, and avoid defeat at the hands of a small group of men and a woman led by the Dutch professor Dr. Van Helsing. Part of the story is set in Whitby, England, where Stoker spent summer holidays. Dracula is seen as an evil, unsympathetic character throughout.

Bram Stoker was an invalid as a child. His mother used to tell him horror stories at bedtime! Thus began Stoker’s obsession with the undead and tales of horror. He made a remarkable recovery from his childhood illnesses, going on to become an athlete at Trinity College in Dublin. He graduated with honors in mathematics but was employed as a civil servant and theatre reviewer before turning to fiction writing. He published his first story in 1872. Stoker was lifelong friends with horror fiction writer, J. Sheridan Le Fanu (In a Glass Darkly; Uncle Silas; and, his vampire tale Camilla); and, with English Shakespearean actor Sir Henry Irving, whose looks and mannerisms are believed to have been the real-life inspiration for the character of Dracula. Irving never played the role of Dracula on stage, much to Stoker’s disappointment.

In 1878, Stoker married the beautiful Florence Balcombe, but their marriage wasn’t a happy one. Supposedly, Stoker came to revile women. Some say that he wrote Dracula so that women could literally have the life sucked out of them!

Stoker was well traveled and spent seven years researching the history and lore of Eastern Europe, including vampire myths, Transylvania, and the Carpathian Mountains. Some literary historians believe that an actual historic figure from fifteenth-century Transylvania, Vlad Tepes III Dracul, was the model for Stoker’s count. Vlad was known as Vlad the Impaler. The bloodthirsty tyrant of Wallachia earned his name by killing anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 Turks and European civilians by impaling them on tall stakes. Then, he would prop them up mile after mile at the border to dissuade future invasions. Stoker originally named his vampire Count Wampyr but was intrigued by the name “Dracula” after researching about Wallachia. Dracula in Romanian meant “son of the dragon.” In Ireland, the term Droch Ola translates to “bad blood.” In North America, Dracula means “devil.” (Notice that Vlad’s wooden stake image carried into Dracula as the way to kill a vampire.)

Stoker wrote twelve novels, including his most famous Dracula, and numerous short stories. To date, over 1,000 novels and 200 films have been made about Stoker’s vampire. There is an annual Bram Stoker Festival in Dublin, Ireland, from October 28-31.

Stoker was a frequent visitor to the United States, meeting Presidents McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt as well as one of his literary idols Walt Whitman. In London, he was friends with poet William Butler Yeats and the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The castle of Count Dracula might have been inspired by Slains Castle in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, at which Bram Stoker was a guest of the 19th Earl of Erroll; or, possibly by Castle Bran in Transylvania, of which Stoker saw an illustration.

Dracula was not an immediate best seller in 1897 despite reviewers’ praise. Sadly, Stoker didn’t make much money from it and died a poor man, never living to see the worldwide popularity of his most famous character. Dracula finally reached its iconic status in the twentieth century when its movie versions started to appear, in particular, the unauthorized Nosferatu, in 1922. This sparked legal battles between the movie’s maker, F.W. Murnau, and Stoker’s widow. Interestingly, litigation caused the novel and film to grow in popularity!

In 2009, an authorized sequel was published entitled Dracula the Un-dead by Stoker’s great-grandnephew Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt.

In 1931, Universal Pictures Hollywood released its movie version, starring the 6’1″, Hungarian-born actor Bela Lugosi (1882-1956) as the count. Spin-offs followed for Lugosi and other actors of the time. Since 1931, the book has never been out of print. Other actors to play the count include Max Schreck, Lon Chaney, Jr., Christopher Lee for Britain’s Hammer Film Productions, Frank Langella, Gary Oldman, Luke Evans, and Richard Roxburgh.

Bela Lugosi’s movie roles were sparse due to his heavy accent and limited English. In addition, he didn’t want to be typecast as a horror villain. Playing Count Dracula, which he did only two times (in 1931 and 1948), was his greatest role. He was often paired in other horror pictures with Boris Karloff, who usually got top billing. The two worked well together but were never close friends. Lugosi’s career and finances declined. He became addicted to doctor-prescribed opioids for severe, chronic sciatica from war injuries he sustained in military service. Near the end of his life, he sought medical intervention and used money earned from starring in low-budget Ed Wood movies to pay his hospital expenses.

Bela Lugosi, a Roman Catholic, died in 1956 and is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California. His ex-wife Lillian and their son, Bela George Lugosi, made the decision to have him buried in one of his Dracula cape costumes.They believed that it would have been what he wanted since he was a fan of the occult. Contrary to popular belief, Lugosi never left such burial instructions himself. The cape he wore in the 1931 film survives today in the ownership of Universal Studios.

Sources:  Dracula, by Bram Stoker; “Dracula,” “Bram Stoker,” and “Bela Lugosi” from Wikipedia; IMDb.com; biography.com; dublintown.ie: and, telegraph.co.uk.

So get a clue, Readers. To which character from classic horror films did Maleva, the old “Gypsy” fortuneteller, speak these words: “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a (      ) when the wolfbane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright”? Come back next time for the hair-raising answer!

 

 

 

 

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My Creation, Myself

Dear Readers and Gothic Horror Fiction/Film Lovers,

Many writers, especially in their earliest works, will create one or more characters like themselves. Admittedly, all four of my detectives have at least one of my traits. Here are some my head detective, Lanyon “Lanny” Wyatt, and I share; and, yes, there is a Gothic horror tie in.

Lanny and I love classic movies from Hollywood’s Golden Age. He and I are also enthralled with nineteenth century British fiction. His hero is Sherlock Holmes. Mine are many from that era–in particular, the authors who wrote Gothic Horror fiction and Gothic Romantic literature. One such novelist was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, author of Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus.

I find it interesting that for her novel–and for all film and play spin-offs–Mary Shelley created her characters with mere pen and paper. But her protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, created his “character,” a monster, by stitching together parts of cadavers from questionable sources, infusing it with the creator’s own evil tendencies!

The novel is a masterpiece of bleak themes, namely, dangerous knowledge, creator/creation relationship, abuse, prejudice, rejection, lack of family identity, abandonment, loneliness, isolation, futility, and revenge. (Don’t read it while depressed!) It spotlights how the monster–or anyone!–possessing humanity, goodness, intellect, and sensitivity, can become violent when refused sympathy and companionship. As a result, even the monster’s vilest actions have evoked pity and sadness in many readers and moviegoers. (Kids, this is what literary people call “pathos.”) The scintillating story plot and memorable characters became grist for the Hollywood film-making mill in the 1930s and ’40s.

In honor of Mary Shelley, the Frankenstein novel, Universal Pictures’ films of  the work, and the month of October–all of which for some conjure up images of deepening twilight, jack-o’-lanterns, and graveyards–here is some interesting trivia related to Frankenstein:

Mary Shelley (1797-1851) wrote Frankenstein in 1816 when she was eighteen years old. It was publishing anonymously in 1818 when she was twenty, not least out of concern that she might lose custody of her children. No one could have imagined that a woman had written such a work. Indeed, many thought that Percy Shelley had written the book, especially since he had written the preface. Today, scholars believe Mary Shelley wrote it.

Critics bashed the book when it first came out in 1818, calling it “a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity” (John Croker, conservative member of Parliament). But Gothic fiction was popular, so the novel quickly gained a wide readership. A revised version was published in 1831 with Mary Shelley’s name on it. In the introduction, she downplayed her role, saying she had merely written a transcript of her dream, perhaps “to avoid the scandal of her own brain” (Lepore).

In 2018, M.I.T. Press, with leaders from the Frankenstein Bicentennial Project at Arizona State University, published an edition of the original text, annotating it for “scientists, engineers, and creators of all kind.” It was funded by the National Science Foundation as a cautionary guideline for designers of robots and artificial intelligence: “Scientists’ responsibility must be engaged before their creations are unleashed” (Lepore).

But Frankenstein was original and revolutionary, considered the first major science fiction novel. The author is also credited with inventing the concept of the “mad scientist” and what would become horror fiction.

Mary Shelley wrote the novel on a dare from her fiance, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, their mutual friend, another poet, Lord Byron, and the physician John Polidori. In June 1816, the group was housebound for three days in Cologny, Switzerland, near Lake Geneva at the Villa Diodati due to stormy weather. To stave off boredom, they sat before the fire reading ghost stories from the book Fantasmagoriana. Byron suggested they have a competition to see who could come up with the best ghost story. Try as she might, Mary Shelley experienced writer’s block. Then . . . an idea came to her in “a waking dream” in which she saw a “pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together.” Needless to say, she won. (For his story, Polidori wrote The Vampyre, the first modern vampire story, which later influenced Bram Stoker to write Dracula.)

The book’s settings are Switzerland, England, Scotland, an island in the Orkneys, and the North Pole.

Mary Shelley’s literary ambitions and free lifestyle were ignited by the work and reputation of her unconventional mother, Mary Wollstonecraft (Godwin), who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. She died when Mary was only eleven days old. Another tragedy could have influenced the author. Before starting Frankenstein, her baby daughter Clara had died at the age of six weeks. She often dreamed that she and Percy brought the infant back to life by rubbing warmth into its body in front of the fire.

Another influence on Mary Shelley might have been from the experiments of Luigi Galvani, which were “concerned with the destructive nature of power when allied with wealth.” In addition, the Shelleys had visited the real Castle Frankenstein on a trip to Germany. An alchemist named Konrad Dippel used to live there. He had tried to create an elixir to make people live for over a hundred years.

The author often echoes John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, of which the monster was well read. The creature identifies strongly with the poem’s Satan, who felt abandoned and desirous of revenge. The book’s monster is also well-spoken: “Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred.” And “I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel . . . ” The monster remained unnamed in the novel, often referred to as “monster,” “creature,” “demon,” and “it.” Over time, the name “Frankenstein” came to apply not only to its creator but to the monster itself. (See the movie from 1948, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.) Even Mary Shelley had no other name for her creation.

On March 18, 1910, Thomas Edison released his fifteen-minute film of Frankenstein, one of the first horror movies ever made. Thought lost, the film was rediscovered in the 1950s. (Catch it on YouTube!)

Between 1931 and 1943, Universal Pictures Hollywood made five Frankenstein movies. English actor Boris Karloff (1887-1969) starred as the monster in the first three Frankenstein movies (1931, 1935, and 1939) after making eighty other films. He is still recognized as one of the true icons of horror films.

Boris Karloff’s real name was Sir William Henry Pratt, the youngest of nine children. He and his family were members of British aristocracy, but he left all of that behind to become an actor in America. He took many jobs in Canada and California to make a living before becoming a famous actor, namely, farm laborer and plaster bag carrier. He overcame his childhood stuttering but not his lisp or bow-legs, the latter two evident in many of his films, including the Frankenstein movies.

His mother, Eliza Sarah Millard Pratt, had some East Indian ancestry, which gave Karloff his relatively dark complexion. That made him stand out in British society at the time. Karloff’s maternal grandaunt was Anna Leonowens, who wrote about her life as a governess in the royal court of Siam (Thailand). Her tales became the basis for the musical The King and I and the novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon.

On the day his only child, a daughter named Sara, was born, Karloff was filming Son of Frankenstein. He reportedly rushed from the Universal Pictures’ set to the hospital wearing his bulky Frankenstein’s monster costume and full makeup. Sara was born on November 23, 1938–her father’s 51st birthday! He said at the time of her birth that Sara was the best and most expensive birthday present he ever received. His monster shoes weighed eleven pounds each and were four-inch platform boots, making his 5’11” height look even more formidable.

Despite playing such a fearsome character as the monster (he also played Imhotep in The Mummy in 1932), Karloff was really a kind, charming gentleman whose favorite pastime was growing roses in his backyard. The actor was often listed in his Universal movie credits only as “Karloff” because he was so famous and inimitable.

Karloff narrated and was the voice of the Grinch in the cartoon television special of Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966). He has two stars on the “Hollywood Walk of Fame”–one for movies and one for television.

When asked about being typecast as a monster, Karloff is quoted as saying, “My dear old monster. I owe everything to him. He’s my best friend.” He died in 1969 at the age of 81 from complications of emphysema after years of smoking. His net worth was estimated at $20 million (by 2019 standards).

Sources:  Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley; mentalfloss.com; “Mary Shelley,” “Boris Karloff,” and “Frankenstein,” from Wikipedia; Biography.com; IMDb.com; and, The New Yorker, “The Strange and Twisted Life of ‘Frankenstein,'” by Jill Lepore, February 5, 2018 .

So get a clue, Readers. Which famous character of horror literature and movies said, “Listen to them–the children of the night. What music they make!”? Come back next time for the chilling answer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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From Shakespeare to Hip Hop: The Evolution of “Swag”

Dear Readers and Verbivores,

Lately, I have spent considerable time (and $$$) purchasing swag to help promote my book, Nutmeg Street: Egyptian SecretsLoving words as I do, I started wondering about the origin of the word “swag.”

Swag as a word has a fascinating history. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and/or smspantherpress.wordpress.com, the word has been traced to Scandinavia in the 14th century when swag meant “bag.”

By 16th century England, it had come to mean “a blustering, lewd person,” usually someone who was rich and wasteful and couldn’t care less if he spilled goods from a bag he carried. Some thought swag was short for “swagger,” meaning walking or behaving in an overly confident and typically arrogant or aggressive way.

Shakespeare resurrected swag in the late 17th century when his character Puck spoke it in A Midsummer NIght’s Dream–not in a complimentary way! By then, it had evolved to also mean “a bulging, swaying belly.”

By 18th century England, swag was slang among thieves for “a bag of stolen loot or goods.” You can probably see how this came to be, considering the word’s history.

Of course, the word swag caught on in the U.S. By the 1960s, it meant “a tote bag with promotional items,” a meaning that is alive and growing today.

But swag really took off in the 21st century when Hip Hop culture coined the phrase Turn your swag on. Translation: “sense of self-confidence and style.” In fact, Jay-Z is often credited with popularizing swag as a term in North America with his songs, “All I Need,” and “Swagga Like Us.” In addition, Sean Combs temporarily changed his name to Swag. And swag was the Hip Hop Word of the Year in 2011.

Some people believe that swag is an acronym, standing for “Stuff We All Get.” Nowhere is that more true (if you’re rich and famous) than at the Academy Awards. Swag bags given to the Oscar nominees continue to grow in value yearly. Want a $1,000 bottle of balsamic Italian vinaigrette? Maybe a $135 bejeweled bottle of hand sanitizer? A $280 bottle of organic maple syrup? Or a $45,000 African safari? Get nominated for an Oscar, and the swag is yours!

So get a clue, Readers. Watch for other words that represent our living, evolving language. And don’t forget to pick up your swag bag, which might be heavier than your Oscar!

 

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Pumpkin Lore Galore!

Dear Readers and Pumpkin Lovers,

Right about this time each year, my mind starts thinking PUMPKINS. They’re everywhere! In large cardboard bins in front of grocery stores. On greeting cards that were on display before August ended. In candy form at CVS and See’s Candies. Pumpkin Spice Lattes at Starbucks. You get the idea. My attention to the nutritious orange orb, however, has much to do with three events: fall harvest time, the approach of Halloween, and my fond memories of carving jack o’ lanterns with a variety of grimaces. Then, my twin sister, cousin, and I would set them aglow with real candles on the front porch to ward off evil spirits prior to heading out to Trick or Treat.

Some of my current fascination centers on recipes containing pumpkin. In fact, stay tuned for the October 31st Newsletter where Moki will feature one of his favorite, delicious pumpkin recipes!

But did you know that there are many legends about pumpkins? Some are from Native Americans. I googled “pumpkin folklore,” and below is a partial list of what I found. And did you know that Pumpkin Festivals abound worldwide? Check those out on Google. And get your orange-colored glasses ready.

So get a clue, Readers. If you like pumpkins for whatever reason, check out some of these fascinating stories. Or better yet, write one of your own, and share it with me. I will be glowing with anticipation.

Recommended Books of Pumpkin Stories from Native American Myth and Legend

Princess Scargo and the Birthday Pumpkin:
Children’s book illustrating a Native American pumpkin story of New England.
The Sun’s Daughter:
Picture book for kids based on an Iroquois legend about the three sisters Maize, Red Bean, and Pumpkin.

Native Plant Stories:
Excellent collection of Native American folklore about plants, by Abenaki storyteller Joseph Bruchac.
Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden:
Interesting book about Native American farming traditions narrated by a Hidatsa woman.
Native American Food Plants:
Comprehensive book on the names and traditional uses of food plants throughout Native North America.

 

 

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Summer Leaves, so . . . Autumn Leaves?

Dear Readers, Gardeners, and Botanists,

The other day, I was staring up at an impending, annual avalanche. Thousands of leaves! The deciduous devil in my neighbors’ yard is a liquid amber tree. Its thickest foliage overhangs my back fence and soars high above my rooftop. As usual, I gave a sigh and had my rake at the ready. Then, an idea occurred to me. I decided to thwart the deluge! With my kind, cooperative neighbors’ approval, my gardener relieved the tree of a number of its leaf-laden boughs. Yay! Why didn’t I think to do this years ago?

Few outside of San Diego understand that we really do have seasons here. They’re just more subtle. According to the calendar, summer leaves us on September 23rd though our summer heat here lasts until Halloween! That doesn’t stop the swelling piles of autumn leaves, however. In fact, the dry desert winds that buffet us from the East each October may hasten the Crunch Fest.

So get a clue, Readers. Since I can devote more time to writing this autumn and less to raking, maybe a plant-themed mystery will emerge for our detectives to solve! After all, we are talking about Botanic Hill, aren’t we?

 

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In a Comma Coma

Dear Readers, Writers, and Grammar Police Officers,

I have spent the last week poring over my formatted copy of Nutmeg Street: Egyptian Secrets for the second time. (This doesn’t count the 100 times before formatting.) My goal is to catch every error I can so the public doesn’t have to. To my horror, I have found that I am guilty of comma abuse! My mind has been whirling in commas such that I have thought of little else. You might say I am officially in a Comma Coma!

How could those pesky punctuation marks have sneaked in initially and gone undetected for so long??? My excuses are that in my rush to get my thoughts down when composing my story, the rules of commas flew out of my head; and, I’ve been too close to my own work for some time now to see the superfluous little devils. I am no longer capable of doing a “fresh eyes” read.

In my defense as an English major and literacy teacher, I really DO know comma rules:

  • Never in restrictive clauses but always in nonrestrictive clauses;
  • Between two independent clauses but never before a dependent clause;
  • With coordinating adjectives but never with cumulative adjectives;
  • Not in essential appositives but always in nonessential appositives.

The list goes on, but I won’t bore you with anymore!  (That comma after “on” is correctly placed, by the way.) But I will regain consciousness, and my work will be better for my present delirium.

So get a clue, Everyone. Errors happen in writing! Be prepared to read, reread, and reread your work again! (Yes, that’s a beloved Oxford comma after “reread.” It stays.) And don’t be afraid to ask some Fresh Eyes to read your work, too. It just might prevent a Comma Coma.

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