Sunday, November 27, 2011

Slices of Space and Time

Deciding what the best photo I’ve ever taken for this week's Red Room's Creative Challenge was a medium-stature order because, for one, my lists of favorites are always fluid and, two, I’m a fairly competent amateur with a camera. So picking the best—or more fairly, my favorite—took some cogitation. The one above is currently first with me (but check back tomorrow).

The magnificent metal creature above—maybe 20 feet tall, maybe defending us from Godzilla—was captured in pixels in October 2008, during my wife’s and my fifth anniversary vacation. It was marching across the autumn hills of the magnificent Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, New York, west of the Hudson River, near West Point. Storm King is a stunning open-air museum featuring landscape sculptures from around the world. The camera was 35mm Canon digital, which I should really learn to use someday.

The sculptor’s name, unfortunately escapes (though I suspect it may be one Mark di Suvero; corrections encouraged). 


Another highlight—and initial draw--of Storm King was Andy Goldsworthy’s “Wall.” Goldsworthy is perhaps my favorite living artist.

A couple more follow, strictly for your entertainment:


Strictly from Artiness: taken on the same trip, Museum of Modern Art, New York.


I love cemeteries. James Whale would smile. Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland, California. June 2009.

(Copyright 2001, photos 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.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Extra Bites and Other Draculas (part of an occasional series)

(part of an occasional series)

By Thomas Burchfield

I have read that more movies have been made about Dracula than any other literary character with the exception of Sherlock Holmes.

I can’t confirm this claim, but I certainly haven't seen all of them. Nor do I plan to. None of those I have seen are great movies, even as horror movies, though a tiny handful of them are decent entertainment. Some are pure disasters (two of them by great directors).

In the 1930s, Universal Studios seemed to lack the same fervor for a Dracula franchise that they brought to the first three Frankenstein classics. The Vampire King was only fleetingly glimpsed in a coffin in Dracula’s Daughter (1936), a film I’ve seen three times without remembering much about it, except for its murky lesbian theme. Otherwise, the Count was left to sleep, forgotten in his tomb.

In 1943, Universal finally got around to resurrecting him with Son of Dracula. The good news was that they decided to employ the best special effects available in a worthy attempt to make Dracula into a magical shapeshifter, backed up with an excellent atmospheric production. The story, like my novel Dragon’s Ark, imagines Dracula in America, in this case, New Orleans. (An inspiration for Anne Rice? Ask her.)

The bad news?  Simple: Lon Chaney, Jr. as Dracula. Why this baffling decision? Surely, they didn’t mistake Bela Lugosi for dead, as he was appearing for Universal in drecky movies like Ghost of Frankenstein. He even played the Monster in Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (a better movie than it sounds, especially its dynamite opening).

As for Chaney as Dracula, while the actor could deliver on occasion (Of Mice and Men, The Wolf Man, High Noon), he remains, I’m afraid, the dullest Dracula in horrordom. His leaden manner, like a bored bank president’s, weighs the movie down like clay. It’s not his hypnotic stare, but his acting that puts his victims to sleep. The result is one of those movies that inspires such comments as “ . . . but they blew it.”

If not Lugosi, a better Dracula would have been legendary character actor John Carradine whose tall gaunt physique nicely mirrors Bram Stoker’s creation. In fact, Carradine did don the black cape for Universal twice: in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. But these were mildly amusing, hurried cheapjack shows with Universal wringing the last drop of blood from the sponge before pretty much tossing it out to dry. Carradine appeared once more as the Count in Billy the Kid Meets Dracula (1966), but that’s one not on my Big Sleep list.

In the 1950s, Dracula, of course, struck like lightning in the person of Christopher Lee. Otherwise, there seem to have been only a few stabs at the character: Return of Dracula, (1958) featured Francis Lederer (a real interesting chap as you’ll see from the link) as another Dracula-in-America. I saw the beginning as a little kid, but don’t recall too much beyond my mother sending me to bed long before it was over.

I’m probably missing a few things, including Andy Warhol’s Dracula (not on the Big Sleep list, either; Warhol’s Frankenstein was plenty.) So, we’ll fly on to 1973’s Dracula, a non-supernatural version with a game Jack Palance as the Count. (Palance, a Method actor, allegedly complained that he identified with Dracula a little too much.) Written by Richard Matheson and directed by Dan Curtis, it was a fairly entertaining movie, with some good action scenes.

In 1977, the BBC produced a videotaped version, an almost scene-for-scene adaptation of the novel (not necessarily a virtue with me). It starred suave Louis Jourdan as a Frenchified Count, making a handsome but featherweight, concierge Dracula. The only memorable thing about it was Frank Finlay as a coarse and eccentric Van Helsing. The production tried hard, but no matter, videotape would make Gone with the Wind look cheap and flat. Even the outdoor scenes have that canned, studio-inflected feeling.

In 1979, Universal released a splashy version, starring Frank Langella and Laurence Olivier. This one was based on the Broadway revival of the original—and terrible—stage play that also featured sets by Edward Gorey. Unfortunately, nothing of the great Mr. Gorey remains in the film. I despised this version the first time I saw it, partially because the Byronic/Freudian hot pants interpretation of Dracula, as embodied by the then-young Langella, holds no interest for me. (They also failed in not opening the film with Harker's journey to Transylvania, one feature every adaptation should contain, no matter what else they do.) 

Also, this Dracula's supernatural effects also seem ludicrous and cheap for all the money they spent elsewhere. However, the second time around, I picked up on some eerie, clever touches by director John Badham and enjoyed Freddie Jones’s fly-specked turn as Renfield. Maybe a third look will improve my attitude.

Around that time, Werner Herzog, one of the greatest film auteurs ever, did a remake of Murnau’s Nosferatu. As the original is already a great movie, this seems a questionable idea, at best. In the end, I found it a mismatch between artist and material. Herzog’s slow, hypnotic style seems like it might work at first, but after awhile the film slackens and the scenes seem rushed, the acting sloppy, and there’s not one image as striking as the shadows cast by F.W. Murneau. Klaus Kinski is alright as Orlock, but Max Schreck is still smiling up from Hell. As for Herzog, I think it’s a mere misstep in a great career.

Then, in 1993, came Bram Stoker’s Dracula, directed by Francis Coppola, a title I’ll take down—up next time.

(BUT no column next week, as I will be on Thanksgiving vacation. A safe and warm holiday to all of you! Thanks for coming by!)

(Re-edited 11/21/11; Laurence Oliver . . . really now.)

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, Scrib'd and now at the Red Room. His original comic screenplay Whackers  is now available in Kindle, Nook, iPad and on Scrib'd, also from Ambler House. Other material can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. Not enough for ya? He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

In a Palace of the One Percent

In mid-October of this year, my wife and I spent a four-day weekend on a thousand-acre working ranch located in the San Juan Valley of southern Colorado, a few miles across the border from New Mexico. The ranch sits about seven miles up from the two-lane main road that winds through that exhilarating landscape. The pavement faded out barely a mile in. From there, we rode dirt the rest of the way, up a pine- and oak-wooded mountain until the last hundred yards where it finished in smooth, freshly laid bluish bitmac that circled in front of a large log cabin facing the San Juan Mountains: 8,000 feet; clear, thin air.

And I mean large cabin: this one covers at least 2,500 square feet, sitting on top of a three-car garage (automatic door, of course) and a six-bed sleeping loft above the sprawling living room. There were three other richly appointed guest rooms toward the rear, off a long hallway along the side facing south, and then the large main bedroom facing the San Juans, where Elizabeth and I slept and could watch dawn rise over the San Juans every morning. The entire cabin is warmed by radiant floor heating and is constructed of massive pine logs (type unknown), grouted together with composite glue.

The elaborate—though, as we learned directly, cheaply built--plumbing rises from a mountain stream two miles below, the water driven through a couple of pump stations. The same stream also winds through a large gravel quarry on the property and is habitat for trout. How and whether this all works together must be taken up elsewhere.

Our wonderful generous host is the daughter of a wealthy Chicago banker who died last year. He willed the ranch to his grandchildren, but, it is feared, they are too urbanized to embrace this high-country palace. Whatever we may think of the set-up here, a far worse fate may await this heaven, as I saw in the suburbs of Pagosa Springs.

As an OWS supporter (or at least its underlying principle), I will not pretend one bit that I didn’t enjoy the hell out of my stay, don’t want to return and have no desire to live in such a place (though I’d want a smaller, cozier space, and simpler and sturdier plumbing.)

From my understanding, the Banker was one of those broadly built, strutting, growling, cigar-chomping, whisky-swilling capitalists who roamed the plains of the twentieth century in large rumbling herds: maybe an enjoyable, novelistic character to know within short slices of time under certain conditions, but perhaps not at others. (Today’s species of rich man—the one-percenters--seems clad in  sleek chrome, with a thin gleam of egalitarianism on an easily scratched surface, if you’re of a mind to claw away.)


Full Frontal Bear

Judging from these photos, I have an inkling that this portrait of the Banker is true.

The Banker was a big game hunter. I’m not opposed to hunting in principle, when practiced legally and sustainably. I even accept the argument that American hunters are in the main law-abiding, and are vital allies in the conservation and environmental movements (as seen in this recent NYT article) . . .

. . . but again, this is another issue too elaborate to follow here, except to say no one leaves this life physically alive and, like it or not, we’re all irrevocably bound to the mysterious epic cycle of Life and Death, no matter how righteously we try to entangle ourselves from it. All that is up to Someone Else.

Still, the more I think about the stuffed bear, the bobcat, and the mountain lion, I sink into greater sadness and deeper anger at the pointless cruelty, vanity and waste of their deaths. These animals are top predators, each of whom plays a vital role in their ecosystems. They are not food animals for us. They mostly do not exist in excess populations that endanger other species, necessitating their culling (though exceptions may be made for mountain lions).


And despite their contrived poses of savagery and aggression—they are only skins stretched around molds—it’s safe to disbelieve that any one of them was killed in self-defense. If so, someone needed to take a forest safety course, and quickly; or, at very least, be prohibited from going anywhere near a nature trail.

They were killed for one reason only: vanity. Male vanity. A man taking life solely to show his power, wealth, and weight.

Trophy hunting, we understand, is an old tradition in primitive societies around the world. For most of our millions of years here, we were favored prey of carnivores everywhere, so the human male’s ability to hunt and kill, both to bring back the meat, and to defend himself, his family and community, was perfectly right. It can even be viewed as a holy act through a certain frame.


Having hunted myself long ago, I well-remember the racing river of adrenalin through my system, the mounting suspense and thrill of hunting. (I never hit anything, but yes, I could take up hunting again under certain circumstances.)

Still, to take a life, to take its light, no matter how considered or urgent the reason, is always a deadly serious matter and what we see here is not serious at all, but simple violent strutting, better suited to an end-zone dance on a fall Sunday afternoon. While on a hike around the property, my fellow hiker and I came upon a metal hunter’s nest nailed halfway up a tree and I thought “Cheaters . . . can’t even get down in the brush and stalk.”

The vast majority of humans no longer live in the savannahs and forests, or even on farms. At this point in time, we are not the endangered. We are the endangering. And, in a horrific paradox, if we carry on as we are, in parasitic pursuit of a so-called freedom (a human and spiritual idea that plays little or no role in the workings of Nature) we will become the endangered again. But it’s not the leopard in the tree we will have to worry about—it’s the ruthless might of Nature Herself, stronger than any of our bombs.

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

(Photos 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.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Read This Book

This week, the Red Room has challenged its members to write about our favorite book for sale on the new Red Room bookstore.

A-ha! I thinks to myself. I could praise Red Room member David Corbett’s novel Do They Know I’m Running? or, recommend any number from member Peter Straub’s distinguished oeuvre.

But, at the end of this short paragraph, lie ten words stretching seductively on a thin mattress of clear digital air: 

“Yes, you're welcome to recommend one of your own books.”

You mean, praise my own book? Dragon's Ark? Really? Just like that? As my heart wings skyward, I look for an oxygen mask to fall from the ceiling. The sun hangs just out of reach, my fingertips brushing its soft molten surface. I shall melt into its liquid hot sea as my light spreads throughout the universe! Even Stephen Colbert will embrace a studied diffidence that will lead him into the priesthood!

Let’s see . . . “Dragon’s Ark is the one Dracula novel that towers above all other books ever written. Not since Leopold Bloom thought about God while seated on the . . . .”

Nah, that’s a bit much. Maybe. Let’s go for a more lolling modesty.

“If Dragon’s Ark had thundered onto the literary scene 60 years ago, Saul Bellow would have packed up his pencil box and retired to Peoria. Take that, Edmund Wilson!”

As you can tell, I’m finding this difficult.

To permit me to say nice things about something I’ve done, for me to ladle the same praise on my novel Dragon’s Ark that Michiko Kakutani slathers on Michael Ondaatje like warm honey, would daunt few of the other authors I’ve known in my life. Many are the writers who secretly believe their books are better than everyone else’s. I’ll bet my next five dollars in royalty payments that, once in awhile, Dan Brown sits staring into a corner, muttering to himself “Robert Ludlum is unfit to vacuum and shake the crumbs from my keyboard.” Even Harold Robbins supposedly crowed—yes, crowed--that he was a greater writer than Joyce and Hemingway.

I was raised by a mid-Westerner, who, was, in turn, raised by an iron-clad Upper Michigan Presbyterian. I lived fifteen years in the Midwest. Some of you may know what means. Some of you may not. What that means is that not only are you not allowed to blow your own tuba, it’s only polite to claim the tuba belongs to someone else.

Praise my own book? In public? Are you kidding? . . . would you like me to strut boldly naked through Union Square for an encore? We do all this doggish groveling to reviewers and authors, wheedling like Oliver Twist for blurbs and reviews and now you tell us we can personally recommend our own book?

Dragon’s Ark! The vampire novel that fans of Ordinary People have been waiting for!”

Mmmmmm . . . try again.

As I’ve said elsewhere, the Dracula myth has been dozing upside down in my brain cave since I was knob-high to the TV set, mostly in mute secrecy. “Mostly” because whenever I did dare loose it from its cage, out through my mouth, the response would be funny looks, not the ‘ho-ha, that’ll be scary and clever” kind.

Adults, teens, and children alike murped in ever-shifting shades of disapproval, disdain, and outright pallid fear. Fire-purple sneers from parents and teachers and parents of teachers, the word “junk” usually flashing by from somewhere in the word train; curled lips, raised eyebrows while they repeatedly banged me in the nose with a copy of Moby Dick. “You have to be the next Steinbeck and Fitzgerald!” can hang like a horse collar on a guy.

Hisssssss! Boooooooo!” said a warm, soft, buxom, farm-bred, homespun, Catholic, leftist feminist for whom I carried a soggy sputtering torch for far too long. Oh well, horror fans and writers are a tad on the conservative side anyway.

And then there was the woman, a supervisor at a psychiatric institution near Oshkosh, Wisconsin, who spluttered with genuine moral disdain: “What? You’re a writer? You mean you’re one of those people who live in their own little worlds and don’t care about anyone else?”

You didn’t know such individuals existed? Oh, dear dear reader they have and they do. You may be sitting next to one right now. Pity these people. Pity them because now, with writers everywhere thanks to digitalization, they must feel surrounded by the Zombie Horde. (We, of course, will eat their brains, because, well, where else are we going to get our ideas?)

No, it wasn’t until long after the blessed rise of Stephen King and when people started realizing that John le CarrĂ© was a serious writer, that I dare let Dracula’s wing untangle so he could flip open my skull cap and lead other of my many dreams up into the starry night.

I think I experienced the same revelation Stephen King experienced during his brief sojourn in a traditional literary workshop of the Iowa type: No matter how earnestly realistic and “relevant” I tried to be, tale of vampires and cowboys, spies and plunderers, spoke to me more as a writer. I never consulted Richard Stark’s sales figures. I just knew I wanted to explore that fictional realm more than any other—where people do things in the world and often suffer surprising and terrible consequences.

Nowadays, a certain confidence and pride occupy genre writers, both justified and, more often, not. And thanks to that digital technology, thanks to this teeming marketplace where millions of books jostle like fleas, there is no other choice but to be your own salesman somehow, a cruel development for those of shy and modest temperament and whose books may be far far better than anyone else’s, especially those who shout most loudly and cleverly.

So: It’s time to be arrogant, plain and simple.

Dragon’s Ark is a darn good read. There are several 4- and 5-star reviews on Goodreads and Amazon to prove it, plus praise from David Corbett and others on its cover. It’s a scary, colorful, exciting, and dramatic novel. It has all the familiar, but fundamental pleasures of genre fiction, good and great alike: narrative drive, bracing energy, and vivid background and characters. It’s also written in a fresh interesting, entertaining style with wit, humor, and a fresh subtext. Dragon’s Ark imaginatively weaves together themes not often seen in horror fiction of its type in bloody good diverting fashion.

I hope you read it. I hope you’re entertained. I hope you’ll like it.

As Gene Autry said, “It ain’t braggin’ if you done it.”

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

(Photo by author)

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, Scrib'd and now at the Red Room. His original comic screenplay Whackers  is now available in Kindle, Nook, iPad and on Scrib'd, also from Ambler House. Other material can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. Not enough for ya? He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.