Saturday, July 30, 2011

Unfinished Business #10: Dragon’s Ark: The DIY “Book Tour” Part II

On Friday, Elizabeth and I walked through golden morning to the Alpine County Sheriff’s Office to present Dragon’s Ark to Christine Branscombe, deputy, support services coordinator, and beta reader. She expressed her delight, but then confessed to being a Twilight fan. I raised a warning finger, cast an amused scowl: This is not a Twilight novel. But I bet she’ll be scared to her toes when she closes that last page and I hope that Tom Linder will be pleased by my brief look at search and rescue.

We breakfasted at the J. Marklee Toll Station café, one of those Funky Joints with Good Food (metal patio furniture with a side of excellent omelet). There, we were joined by Pete, an English transplant in his mid-60s.

Pete was in the middle of a summer-long bike ride from Canada to Mexico. He planned to make it Bridgeport, 70 miles to the south, that day. This involves, among other travails, a 3,000-foot climb over 4 miles up through Monitor Pass, before the road drains down to the eastern desert. We offered prayers and luck. We wondered about him throughout the day.

We next stopped by Alpine County Health Services near the village of Woodfords to present a copy to Dr. Richard Harvey, Alpine County health officer, and his staff. With their help, Dr. Dave Sutton became a more credible character. But the real-life doctor was, sad to say, away in Berkeley, mere miles from our house. The receptionist enthusiastically received the copy on his behalf and wanted to know when it was going to become a Hollywood movie. This question I could only embarrassingly laugh off.

From there, we rode on down Diamond Springs Road, a lonesome, two-lane roll through cattle ranches and scrub desert, my favorite kind of road, to nowhere in particular, just enchanting country, open sky, and Nature’s surprises, both grand and sly, everywhere. Still, as we rolled along, it saddened me to think how much of its fine detail I’d missed capturing in Dragon’s Ark.

When we reached the large Woodfords Community headquarters of the Washoe Tribe (known here as “Hung-a-Lel-Ti”), we found echoes and near-emptiness. Except for a voice urgently murmuring behind a tightly closed door, no one was about. Certainly not Beverly Caldera and Hector Caldera, who graciously admitted a grimy researcher to the Washoe Community Library on another Friday years ago and allowed him to fumble among their books and files in search of details on Washoe history and culture for the small but important role they play in Dragon’s Ark. I shyly left a copy, my business card, and a clumsily scrawled note on Beverly’s desk, like a friendly passing ghost.

I hadn’t told anyone we were coming. I’m sure it wasn’t me. Honest.

After we stole across the Nevada border to visit an antique store in Gardnerville, we returned along Diamond Springs Road again, toward the mountains.

Back in Markleeville, we took the little road up from Grover Hot Springs Road (as you will in the novel) to a pretty hilltop where sits the Alpine County Museum, my first stop on my original research trip. Here, thanks to its then-curator Ellen Martin, I first learned that the real Alpine County would not fit within the story blooming wildly in the flowerpot of my mind.

And so my imagination swung its wrecking ball. With that god-like confidence that all creative liars since Homer have known—why else do we write stories?—I knocked the museum down and constructed a new one . . . except, notably, for the old jail next door, with its grim interior, part cast-iron jail cell, part blacksmith shop, a perfect setting for a monstrous encounter with moonlight’s cold blade.

 "This is no jail. It's a torture chamber"-- Dr. David Sutton

Since we arrived, Elizabeth and I had picked up sidelong gossip about the small-village politics of Markleeville, a story known everywhere, in Dragon’s Ark, too. From these bitter tidbits, we saw how things can change, even in the slow rhythms of an alpine village.

For one, Ms. Martin was long gone, having abruptly departed for another museum job. In her place sat a soft-spoken Quaker woman, dressed for her faith and whose name I regrettably failed to capture. This time, I was reluctant to donate my book. I felt obliged to firmly warn her that Dragon’s Ark was not a Christian Pacifist novel by ten country kilometers, but she gently and generously reassured me that her husband might like it.

O-kay, we think as we politely stroll out the door, eyes wide over a fixed grin, my befuddled mind screaming with imaginary headline:

“Local Man Divorces Quaker Spouse, Leads Decadent Violent Life After Reading Burchfield Horror Tale.”

Friday’s “book tour” ended at the Alpine County Library, another site both of narrative and research. The book was gratefully accepted by Rita the librarian and will find its way onto the lending shelves.

With day almost done, we headed up to my favorite spot in Alpine County: Monitor Pass. Relieved not to find Pete the Brit Bicyclist sprawled by the side of the lonely road, we wandered for a while. On our first drive up here, many years ago, it was toward dark and we encountered a louring purple snowstorm and sensed eternity everywhere, in the gaps behind the curtain of spinning snowflakes.

I was not able to work this spot into the novel. But Eternity is still here.

After a delicious dinner at the Stonefly in Markleeville, we found a rowdy acoustic country trio, complete with violinist, playing at the Cutthroat Tavern, perfect ending to a Friday--especially when the lead singer announced they’d do a tune by “the greatest country band that ever was” before launching into “Don’t Pass Me By.”

Saturday morning, we stopped by Sorenson’s, the final stop. Like elsewhere, the owners were absent. After lunch, I wandered among the cabins, took a few snaps from scenes that will be recognizable when you read Dragon’s Ark (like I know you’re going to).

From there, it was home.

 "At trail's end, Jeff found a gazebo."

I did no readings. Most everyone to whom I hoped to present copies was somewhere else. But to me, my shoestring “book tour” was a success anyway. I had returned to the beloved mountains of Alpine County.

What more could I have wanted?

(Re-edited 8/9/11)

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield
Photos by author, copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark is available right NOW, published by Ambler House Publishing. It can be ordered in both paperback and e-book editions through your local independent bookstore, through Amazon, Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, Smashwords, and Scrib'd. His original comic screenplay Whackers  is now available in a Kindle editon, also from Ambler House. Other material can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. And if you're still not tired of him, he can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Unfinished Business #9: The Dragon’s Ark DIY “Book Tour” (Part I)

The World of Dragon's Ark

You may have noticed a sag in my marketing efforts for my novel Dragon’s Ark (Ambler HousePublishing; $15, available in POD through your local bookstore, Amazon, Barnes& Noble, Powell's Books, and in e-book versions on Kindle, the Nook, and at Scrib’d).

The reasons for my slow activity may relate to the High Summer Season; certainly, with its tiny resources, Ambler House, a midget micro-publisher, is no Random House; and I’m definitely at work on my next novel, a 1920s Prohibition gangland saga titled Butchertown, which is rat-a-tatting along very nicely.

At least I’ve managed to squeeze in a “book tour.”

The “book tour” lasted two days. On Thursday a week ago, my loving, ever-patient wife and I jumped into the Rav 4, rushed north and east through California’s overbuilt Central Valley, then huffed and puffed up Highway 50, through gold-painted and oak-studded hills into the magnificent California Sierra. We crossed Echo Summit at 7,382 feet and wound down toward South Lake Tahoe, then turned south on Route 89 over Luther Pass to enter small, but beautiful, remote and magical Alpine County: "Two people per square mile and you," they say. To which, I would add, "And a certain, shark-eyed immigrant fiend."

Our two days in the mountains were really a long overdue Thank You tour to express gratitude to those friendly, hardy souls who happily shared with me bits of information and local lore about life as it’s lived in a remote mountain community. They also received free, signed books. For me, it was just being there, after three long years away.

Dragon’s Ark, I must inform the unfortunate many who have not yet opened the door to its darkling world, is far from a pinpoint portrait of Alpine County, a necessity dictated by the story that took wing during a summer sunset in 2003. For one, the county’s population was actually too small. So I doubled it, from around 1,100 to 2,200, constructing a whole new (and larger) town in the eastern flats, snug against the Nevada border like a dusky puzzle piece. For another, it was imagination that raised the titular mountain and cut the deep mysterious canyon it looms over like a cold-eyed god.

Town, mountain, canyon: three things you should not expect to find when you take the Dragon’s Ark literary tour of Alpine County (renamed “Monitor County”).

The first real landmark we came to was Sorenson’s Resort, just past the intersection where Highways 88 and 89 briefly melt together. Renamed “St. Ives” (from a brand of skin lotion, not the nursery rhyme) for the novel, it’s the serene piney setting for the novel’s first horror and about the most popular, well-known spot in the area, even constituting its own separate community. We always try to stay here when we come up, but this time, no affordable cabins were available.

We decided to save Sorenson’s for the trip out and drove on to Markleeville, Alpine County’s major urban center, whose teeming population of 150 has rocketed up to 200 since my last visit. Fortunately, unlike other rural tourist destinations, Markleeville has not yet tarted itself up too much, remaining funky around its soft edges among the pine-blanketed mountains. We actually had trouble parking in front of our motel, The Creekside Lodge, a clean and simple second choice for Alpine County getaways.

The Sheriff's Office

Thanks to construction delays on Highway 89, we were too late to make it to the Alpine County Sheriff’s Office, where I intended to leave my first copy for Christine Branscombe and Tom Linder, who provided law enforcement and search-and-rescue information.

We walked around for a while. I found a nest of fearless barn swallows in the motel breezeway (photos turned out poorly). We hiked down to Markleeville Creek, listened to the silver song of a high mountain stream, no better music in the world (no not even Bach and Debussy).

 A block from downtown Markleevile

Elizabeth needed a nap and I needed to tire myself out to fight off oncoming insomnia, so I drove out to Grover Hot Springs State Park (past where major characters Dave and Carla Sutton and smooth, sneaky Bob Garner dwell). In addition to its hot springs, (favored by Russian tourists), this is also one of the best spots around to hike and camp. This is also where Dave Sutton was caressed by the sweetly eerie dreams that inspired him to move to Monitor County.

Grover Hot Springs
I hiked through a wide meadow under a clear blue sky and golden sunlight, along lively silvery Hot Springs Creek. Sierra peaks loomed on three sides. I hiked until I felt good and tired, two miles and well over an hour, took pictures, got pleasingly lost, and prayed that, when Death comes calling, we would meet here. But I safely found my way home, tired like I wanted to be.

 Henry West's Throne

We had dinner at the Wolf Creek restaurant (setting of atleast one scene) and hoisted a few at the attached Cutthroat Tavern, joshing with the locals, showing my book around. (In the novel, the bar’s front stoop is the jealously guarded throne of angry, alienated, alcoholic, arachnophobic, agoraphobic, and fiercely colorful Henry West.)

Then it was to bed, and a restless night.

(To be continued)

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield
Photos by author, copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark is available right NOW, published by Ambler House Publishing. It can be ordered in both paperback and e-book editions through your local independent bookstore, through Amazon, Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, Smashwords, and Scrib'd. His original comic screenplay Whackers  is now available in a Kindle editon, also from Ambler House. Other material can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. And if you're still not tired of him, he can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Great Film Draculas: Max Schreck as Nosferatu


Some think of me a Dracula-movie fanboy: One who lies for endless hours in my coffin, a TV nailed to the inside lid, my eyes painted with every shadowy frame of the hundred-plus adaptations and variations on the story that have unreeled across TV and movie screens in the last ninety years. 

Then, I rise from my coffin at sunset and casually clamber into your house, suck your blood, sow cruel dreams and leave you an anemic, raving husk.

Actually, though, I live by day and like spy films, mini-series, Brit/Euro mysteries, Art films, Film Noir, and Westerns more than I do most horror films. (Check out this sneer at the iconic True Blood. Then come n’ get me, fanboy!) In fact, if you press me hard enough—say with single malt—I’ll say that not only will I never see every vampire movie ever made, I don’t even like most Dracula adaptations.

Further, of that tiny handful I do like, there’s only one that I’d call a great movie and even makes my shuffling list of great horror films (James Whale’s Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein, The Haunting (1963), The Innocents, Night of the Living Dead, Session 9 and a few others that waft in and out with my mood, like a moonlit curtain stirred by a cool wind).

That one Dracula movie—as singular as the Count himself--is Nosferatu: Eine Symphonien des Grauens, directed by F.W. Murnau (who would later direct Faust and Sunrise, great movies both). Released in 1922, it remains my favorite overall adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel and still conjures a weird magic, casts a tantalizing and eerie shadow.

Along with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu is a classic example of German Expressionism, an art movement that lasted through the 1920s into the 1930s when the Nazis took over. The style remains hugely influential, falling like moonshadow over the films of Fritz Lang (a pioneer) and Alfred Hitchcock, the Universal horror films, Film Noir, and the films of Tim Burton and others.

These films told stories from the margins of German society and human conscious. They created an alchemy of silver light, angular shadows, disorienting camera angles and often bizarre sets. Considering the history of those times, some have wondered what exactly these films mean and whether they predicted the coming horrors.

Nosferatu follows Dracula’s plot line quite closely, but like most good adaptations of novelistic works, creates its own path. The producers, Prana Films, failed to get permission from Stoker’s widow, Florence, to make their adaptation, thinking that they could avoid a copyright suit with simple name changes. (For one, Dracula was renamed Orlock; Jonathan Harker, Hutter; Mina Harker, Ellen).

They fooled no one, especially Florence Stoker. She relentlessly and successfully sued. All copies were ordered destroyed and Prana closed shop after this one film. But the attempt to drive the stake through the heart of this classic also failed and this Dracula, as he should have, escaped the garlic-tipped stakes of the vampire hunters.  (The twisted tale of Nosferatu’s near-brush with oblivion and its resurrection is well told in David Skal’s excellent cultural history of Dracula, Hollywood Gothic.)

Nosferatu does look somewhat creaky and dated today—it starts slow, the special effects are simple, and the broad theatrical performances by the supporting cast makes even me smirk—but it has a fearless imagination, brought to life by Murnau with help from co-producer and designer Albin Grau and captured with painterly compositions, create a rare experience. Nosferatu has the charge of a great dream—vivid, choppy, disjointed, fragmentary, unsettling, and haunting.

Watching Nosferatu is like struggling to remember a dream upon awakening: It’s a montage of fairy-tale fragments, starting from the moment that Max Schreck as Orlock creeps like a spider from his burrow across his castle courtyard to welcome the fly into his parlor (though I wish they had held that shot just a little longer, to increase the sense of entrapment, to corner not just Hutter, but us).

From there, it’s one eerie moment after another: Orlock’s stalking of Hutter; his journey on the freighter to Germany; the way he springs like an erection from his coffin; his slow walk up on the ship’s deck from the subconscious to reality, a black shadow against the sky.

Nosferatu is the first movie made from Dracula and its star, Max Schreck, is the first of the great screen Draculas. Schreck’s name—his real one--is from the German for “terror” and he lives up to it as the most ugly, most bizarre Dracula of all. Great makeup portrays him as the product an unholy union of rat, bat, spider and human corpse, a pestilential fiend, a picture of decay, degradation and stark, mindless hunger, a creeping spirit who turns the world around him into a pale desert with his every step.

He is a creature made of shadow: I still smile at the sight of his iconic silhouette creeps up the stairs and reaches for the door to Ellen’s room and how its clawed hand grabs her face. I also love Orlock’s end, after Ellen traps him by her bed until sunup with the promise of human love, a nice departure from Stoker’s version. Throughout the film, he fades in and fades out until he finally dissolves in the morning sun. Like the memory of a dream, his image is intangible, but real.

Max Schreck was a noted German character actor in his day. He stood 6’3” but seems even taller in Nosferatu. Even without the fantastic makeup, he was striking, which made him more suitable for characters parts than leads. It also led to fanciful speculation that he really was a vampire. But he was as mortal as the rest of us, dying of a heart attack in 1936.

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Guest Posting This Week at the Book Designer: The Power of Persistence

Welcome: This week I'm guest posting about my experiences as an indie publisher at the Web page of Joel Friedlander, the Book Designer and the interior designer of my novel Dragon's Ark. Joel's a great guy, a pioneer in this field and the place the start for those of you considering trekking this long, lonesome, but rewarding trail.

Thanks for coming by!

Thomas Burchfield

Friday, July 1, 2011

Losing His Religion: Judgment by Ambler

Judgment on Deltchev was Eric Ambler’s first novel after a 10-year hiatus that started in 1940, at the dawn of World War II. It tells the story of Foster, an English playwright suffering from writer’s block, who accepts what he believes will be an easy newspaper assignment: attend the circus trial of Yordan Deltchev, an Eastern European politico accused of treason by an oppressive Soviet-dominated government (unnamed but one that resembles Bulgaria or Albania): Attend trial, file reports, come home. A lark.

Like all Ambler characters, Foster is a callow naïf, a well-meaning chap, unsophisticated in the ways of the world, especially the workings of politics. This is the kind of suspense story I’m most drawn to. I don’t have much feel for the steel-jawed-hero fiction created by writers like John Buchan that continued with Ian Fleming’s James Bond and is now epitomized by Lee Child’s Jack Reacher—not that these novels don’t have their pleasures, but where’s the suspense with someone you know is going to win for the good every time and stay much the same guy he was at page one? (For that, I always went to upside-down, inside-out moral world of Richard Stark’s Parker.)

Think of it this way: James Bond represents the kind of man many of us might like to be. The Eric Ambler hero is the man most of us are. At the very least, this raises this stakes, heightens the danger.

Foster expects the Deltchev trial to be a minor propaganda show aimed at a lower case dissident. However, after he’s greeted at the train station by Georgi Pashik, a jumpy, odorous man clothed in a seersucker suit (and a most memorable character, thanks to Ambler’s perceptive, vivid prose), Foster, impulsively decent and honest, finds himself dangerously lost in a hall of broken mirrors, of revolution and counterrevolution, of betrayal and counter-betrayal. Few corpses sprawl across the page, but danger is always imminent as the shadow of war and history reach inside Foster’s mind and soul.

In his introduction to a Carroll & Graf paperback of Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios, Greil Marcus quotes a friend of his who read Ambler’s post-World War II spy novels after reading his run of classic pre-War novels that included Dimitrios. The friend said that the writer who invented the modern thriller appeared to have had lost his “sense of dread” in the decade between his 1940 novel Cause for Alarm and Deltchev.

This seems to be true. Ambler was a true-believing Leftist in the years leading up to World War II. Against the rising tide of Nazi-inspired dread that swept across Europe in the mid-1930s, there was, weirdly to us now, a counter-tide of optimism on the part of European Leftists. You can sense this in Ambler’s classic cloak and dagger novels from that period, starting with Background to Danger. Under the gritty realism, sophistication, and nuance, beats the heart of an idealist, an author who is certain that, no matter how bad things seem, social justice and equality, the rise of a “New Man,” peek brightly from beyond the horizon.

The source, the inspiration, for this “New Man” was, with horrible irony, Soviet Russia and Hitler’s co-monster, Josef Stalin. This can be seen in Ambler’s portrayals of the pivotal characters who guide the Ambler hero through shadowy back alleys, where Fascist Capitalism does bloody battle with Progressive Socialism, to safety and wisdom—they’re often Russian and employed in the secret service, roughhewn and willing to use violence, but avuncular, lively, humane, and reassuring.

Anyone who has done more than glance at a history book will know this is wholly false. That it was illusion became brutally clear on August 23, 1939, with the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact that both proclaimed neutrality between Hitler’s Germany and the Soviet Union and divided up Eastern Europe into “spheres of influence.” World War II started just over a week later, when Hitler’s Wehrmacht and SS blitzkrieged into western Poland. Stalin was hardly passive as his Red Army rolled up the eastern half. The New Man's mask fell away to reveal a New Monster.

“I’d really lost my subject matter,” Ambler was quoted as saying with typical understatement. While lesser, stupider people clung even more desperately to Soviet ideology (somewhat like today’s Tea Partiers clinging to their own absolutist illusions) and shallow apostates spun like weathervanes toward other ideologies to satisfy their cravings for easy absolutes (think extreme Leftist turned extreme Rightist David Horowitz), Ambler quit novel writing.

But Eric Ambler was no quitter. He joined the British Army as a private, later became a documentary film producer for the British government (working with such lights as John Huston) and a successful screenwriter.

The differences between his early novels and later ones are clear in terms of their outlook (though the writing remains superb, the atmosphere vivid and the narratives entertaining and absorbing). Judgment on Deltchev reveals a mind more mature, wiser and, maybe somewhat sad to say, much more sour than the sophisticated idealist of the 1930s.

In the ruin of war and the spread of Soviet tyranny, Deltchev portrays politics, especially as practiced in Eastern Europe, as a web of sordid, grubby intrigue, where each side cancels the other out in moral turpitude; where even the “good guys,” with their secret agendas, are compromised souls who can’t be wholly trusted. In fact, they can’t even trust themselves, making, in my view, Ambler’s later novels, into bitter ruminations on perception and politics. In this world, politics, to Eric Ambler, makes a poor leaky vessel for the human spirit.

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author.

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.