Monday, November 30, 2020

Blast From The Past Movie Review: VAN HELSING (2004)

I first saw Van Helsing back when I was in college. I don't remember too clearly how much I liked it then--I think I liked it broadly but didn't like the end. I did use a GIF of Richard Roxburgh's Dracula as an AOL Instant Messenger avatar, at least for awhile.

The film podcast Myopia Movies dedicated October as vampire-movie month, with Van Helsing originally planned as the Patreon special. Although I wasn't slated to participate, I'd rented the movie already and so watched it anyway. Here's a free snippet and instructions how to get whole episode FREE. And now my review..

The Plot

Amnesiac Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) is a monster-hunter working for a Vatican knightly order. Owing to how many of the creatures he kills revert to human form upon death and how close-mouthed the Vatican is about supernatural threats like vampires, werewolves, etc. he's viewed by the general public as a serial killer and is the most wanted criminal in Europe. After dispatching Mr. Hyde in Paris when we first meet him, the Vatican sends him to Transylvania to assist the Valerious family in their centuries-long battle with none other than Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh).

Upon arrival he allies with Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsdale), the last living member of the family after the presumed death of her brother Velkan (Will Kemp), and does battle with Dracula and his three brides. Things get complicated...Dracula seems to have some kind of prior history with Van Helsing and the vampire king has a very dangerous and complex plan involving none other than Frankenstein's Monster (Shuler Hensley) and werewolves.

The Good

*For starters, the movie is pretty exciting and never dull. That's why, even though there's so much to criticize about it, I'm going to give it a good review. It's just plain fun. I watched about 1/3 of it on the elliptical at the gym and it made the time go by so much faster.

*The acting works. Hugh Jackman is good as Van Helsing, while David Wenham is fine as the inventor-friar Carl. Kate Beckinsdale does a decent job as Anna. Hensley, who won the Tony Award for his role as the pitiable but dangerous Jud Frye in Oklahoma!, puts a lot of pathos into his portrayal of Frankenstein's Monster. But the one who's clearly having the most fun is Richard Roxburgh, who plays Dracula himself. He chews the scenery like he's chewing on somebody's neck and it's always entertaining. In particular he plays Dracula incredibly snarky and I liked that.

*One innovation Van Helsing brings to vampire films is the characterization of Dracula's vampire brides. Rather than just being residents of the Count's house of horrors in Transylvania without individual characterization (this fanfic even depicts them as a sort of hive mind), they play a major role in driving the plot and have personalities.

*I also liked the characterization of Frankenstein's Monster. Rather than some freak with the mind of a toddler (or in the original film an executed murderer) in the body of a professional wrestler, he's very intelligent, has some very pointed things to say about monster-hunting, reveres Dr. Frankenstein as his father, and is even a devout Catholic despite being, well, the parts of seven men strung together and reanimated with electricity. I think this is more heavily tied in with the novel where the creature was more intelligent.

*There's a lot of humor in this movie. I laughed out loud several times.

*The Valerious patriarch who goes missing before the story begins is referred to as "the King of the Gypsies." Given how in the original Dracula novel and the 1992 film Bram Stoker's Dracula his minions are explicitly depicted as being Gypsies (or Romani as they prefer to be called), this seems like a deliberate choice to deconstruct the old story. Rarely does one put "thoughtful" and this film together in one sentence, but it looks like they put some thinking into it.

The Bad

*For all its spectacle and fun, there's a lot of stuff that doesn't make a lot of sense. For starters, when Anna tells the villagers that Van Helsing is the first man to kill a vampire in over 100 years, that raises some questions as to what exactly the Valerious family has been doing in all the centuries they've been fighting Dracula. Have they been keeping the vampires contained as much as possible to keep them from harming others, but avoiding killing them outright because that might provoke revenge attacks? Given how they don't initially know where Castle Dracula even is, that seems unlikely. Does Dracula primarily use werewolves and human minions, with the vampires only coming out to fight occasionally? It would've been better if Anna had lectured the villagers about their ingratitude for Van Helsing saving their lives.

*The action goes back and forth from Transylvania to Rome, often by carriage. Does distance mean anything? If Dracula has a townhouse, it'd probably be in a much closer big city like Bucharest.

*Also, why does Van Helsing try to kill Dracula with methods that don't work (in this universe) like the silver stake? If the Valerious family has been fighting Dracula for centuries and tried various means of killing him (Anna talks about burning, stabbing, clubbing etc., which means they've gone hand-to-hand with him repeatedly), why aren't they sharing this with the Vatican? And why didn't the Vatican share this with Van Helsing? Someone has blundered.

*Does being a vampire mean lack of volume control? Dracula and his brides sure like to yell and scream overdramatically, especially the shrieking-prone brides. Roxburgh's hammy Dracula is fun, but the brides can get pretty annoying.

*For a world in which Catholicism is factually true, their take on Catholic theology is...dubious. For starters, Valerious the Elder making a vow to God (and apparently some kind of deal with the leadership of the Church) that nobody in his family would go to Heaven until Dracula was dead and the cardinal's worrying the entire Valerious family would end up in Purgatory if the family were killed before Dracula's death. Firstly, even if Valerious the Elder was foolish enough to make such a vow in the first place (see the Hebrew judge Jephthah), the cardinal has no reason to think God would honor it. The only way for this to make sense theologically is if the most extreme version of the apostles' authority to bind and loose (see Matthew 16:19) and that the Catholic leadership and in particular the Pope are the successors to the apostles in authority are both correct. If Catholicism is factually true the latter works, but the former is really pushing it. On a lesser note, Purgatory is temporary, even if it is unpleasant, so the Valerious family will enter Heaven eventually. When dealing with a timeframe of eternity, even a century or two matters little. Also the film implies that Van Helsing is actually the Archangel Gabriel, who has taken human form but lost his memory. Angels do not work that way.

It would have been much better if the Valerious family has been keeping Dracula contained in Romania, but they've recently suffered a series of reverses like the disappearance of Anna and Velkan's father. Van Helsing is sent in as reinforcements, since if the family is wiped out, Dracula will be free to spread his dark influence across Europe. And give Van Helsing a more conventional origin story. He's just a monster-hunter working for the Vatican and that's it.

*Also, Van Helsing's knightly order is pretty multi-faith...there are Muslim mullahs, Sikhs, and Buddhist monks present at its headquarters in the Vatican and Dracula comments that Van Helsing has been trained by "monks and mullahs from Tibet to Istanbul." That kind of ecumenism isn't something that would happen in that era. Leo XIII was Pope at the time and although he was more left-wing politically and economically, he wouldn't acknowledge salvation outside the Catholic Church (that didn't happen until Vatican II), let alone outside of Christianity. Furthermore, when faced with evidence that the Cross and other specifically Christian holy items have supernatural power against evil, I imagine non-Christian witnesses would convert relatively quickly. This is empirically factual evidence of the truth of Christianity, and Catholicism specifically. Better to have it all Catholics, but multiple ethnicities. The Japanese Christians would have just come out of hiding, there's the Eastern Rite drawn from the Greek world, the Middle Eastern Maronites (whom ignorant Westerners might assume were Muslims), etc. 

Hmm...Van Helsing trained in ninjutsu by one of the Hidden Christians? That'd be cool. Such a character could've even been a replacement for Friar Carl if they wanted to go with "martial arts" over "steampunk technology"--a man who'd secretly practiced Christianity as an instructor in the genocidally anti-Christian Shogunate's official ninja academy would do a very good job in training VH in sneaking around and assassination.

*Valerious the Elder's vow is also a missed opportunity for when Dracula attempts to seduce Anna. He can play up the idea that she'll never go to Heaven, so she might as well live forever on Earth. And owing to the people's ingratitude toward the family for protecting them from supernatural threats, might as well eat them too. Even if theologically that's all nonsense, Anna might not know that and Dracula can use it to manipulate her.

*Although the brides do more than just perv on Jonathan Harker (who isn't even in the film), they could have been better developed as characters. Per the almighty TVTropes, in interviews the actresses revealed a lot about their is Dracula's favorite and primary wife, another was a Gypsy in her mortal life, and one hates Anna because she thinks that Dracula will try to make her one of his vampire brides. Some of that stuff is hinted at in the film (Anna and vampire bride Aleera seem to be on a first-name basis with each other), but not enough.

*A "king of the Gypsies" with a bad-Latin name? The Gypsies/Romani originally came from India. Depending on how assimilated they are (this one even became a Romanian prince), they might have Hungarian or Slavic names. The only way this works is if Anna and Velkan's father was elected to the position, as a sort of liaison to the non-Romani. Also, Valerious was the ancestor's first name, not his family name. I don't really have an issue with the first names--being Christians a Biblical name like Anna makes sense and Velkan sounds appropriately Eastern European, but their ancestor's first name becoming their last name? How did that happen?

The Verdict

Fun, but don't think about it too much. 8.0 out of 10. If you want to listen to my colleagues--who were much less merciful--make fun of the movie, sign up for the Patreon here.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

A Mongol-Japanese-Russian Alaska? Independent From the US To This Day?

Here's another goodie from (the alternate-history forum)--a timeline entitled "A History Of Alyska To The Year 1900." The author seems to have created this scenario as a setting for fiction, much like I've done with a lot of timelines I've posted on the site, and it's pretty cool-sounding.

The timeline starts out with an introduction written in-universe as a definitive history of Alyska written by one of its citizens. The narrator states that the kingdom is little-known due to its problems with the United States (which still exists in this timeline, even with a divergence during the reign of Kublai Khan) and he'd like to set the record straight. Based on the narrator's own name, the names of some of the cities, and the name of the kingdom itself, it appears to be culturally Russian, but the history of Alyska goes much, much further back.

Highlights of the timeline:

*A Mongol settlement is established in North America by Kublai Khan as sort of a vanity project after the Mongol navy, exploring north of Japan, follows the islands to the Alaskan mainland. Although the settlement ultimately fails due to more urgent priorities in Mongol China, knowledge of the mysterious land across the water and that there'd once been trade between it and Asia and Mongol and Chinese settlement there never leaves the Asian consciousness. And owing to misconceptions and miscommunications, many people believed that this lost colony was the source of the Mongol khans' great wealth, giving people incentive to go looking for it later.

*Owing to their interactions with literate, state-based Asian societies, the Tlingit people form a sort of miniature empire further south after the early Mongol-Chinese settlers push them out of their original lands.

*Although the early Japanese explorers of Alaska don't find the rumored Mongol city of gold, they do realize how incredibly rich the fishing is, and that becomes the basis for Japanese colonization of Alaska. There's a theory that Basque fishermen were active in the Grand Banks/Newfoundland area of present-day Canada before Columbus, but to them it was just a place to fish and then dry their fish rather than a "New World."

*The Japanese government comes to use Alaska as a dumping ground for disgraced samurai, illegitimate children of the nobility, criminals, etc. and then when said people's descendants begin using it as a base for piracy, ends up waging a trans-oceanic war to bring these people under control. This whole scenario reminded me of Henry II forcing the lords of Ireland into submission lest they cause problems later. 

*Alyska is not considered part of "the Western world," which means it's either considered part of the Asian sphere (given its founding that would make sense), the Orthodox/Russian sphere, or the Communist world.

The author hasn't posted an update in several days, but his most recent post indicates he's going to discuss how Alaska functions under the rule of the Ashikaga Shogunate, how the Tlingit state develops, and the impact of the later Japanese colonization on other native peoples. Definitely looking forward to this.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Movie Review: LOVE AND MONSTERS (2020)

Although COVID has prompted most movie theater chains to close their doors, there are still a few small theaters in and around Atlanta showing movies and still a few smaller movies coming out. One such film is called Love and Monsters and based on the trailer I saw online, it looked pretty cool. So having the whole week of Thanksgiving off (teacher life FTW), I decided to go check it out...

The Plot

When an asteroid threatens to destroy Earth, the nations of the world unite to destroy the oncoming death rock with nuclear missiles...which works. The problem is, the fuel from all these rockets falls back to Earth and starts mutating insects, reptiles, amphibians, etc. into gigantic and predatory forms. Humanity is knocked off the top of the food chain, with only a few survivors hiding in underground bunkers seven years later.

One of these survivors is Joel Dawson (Dylan O'Brien), an artistic young man whose tendency to freeze in the face of danger relegates him to boring and safe duties in a California colony. Communicating with another colony via CB radio, he discovers his high-school girlfriend Aimee (Jessica Henwick) is alive about 85 miles away. Tired of essentially being the ninth wheel in a colony of several couples--who don't even bother trying to hide all the sex they're having that he's not--he sets off on what his friends believe to be a suicide mission to reunite with Aimee. Along the way he encounters survivalist Clyde Dutton (Michael Rook) and child survivor Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt) that he's kind of adopted, who teach him how to survive in this dangerous new world.

The Good

*In a world of remakes, sequels decades in the making, reimaginings, etc., it's good to see something totally original. That was one reason I made sure to go see it, and in a conventional theater as well, to ensure the film makes at least some money that's not streaming-based and harder to quantify. Hollywood is so damn risk-averse these days it's annoying.

*Although the overall plot is a bit derivative (more on that later), the story itself is well-constructed with foreshadowing, Chekov's guns being on the mantle before they're fired, etc.

*Although our hero starts out as kind of a wimp who needs to Man Up To Survive In A Dangerous World (TM), the film doesn't depict his other talents as useless, unmanly, etc. His talents with cooking and art and his good memory come in handy at different times through the story. It's fairly well-balanced in that regard--rather than devaluing Joel's "beta" interests or alternatively blowing them up to be more important than being able to survive in a monster-infested wilderness, the film shows the importance of being well-rounded.

*The film both deconstructs and reconstructs the tropes of men making grand romantic gestures to impress a love interest, although to be fair Joel and Aimee were already dating before the apocalypse happened. Not going to go into more detail for reasons of spoilers.

*The overall message of (informed) courage in the face of fear is especially important in these COVID-wracked days. Seriously there's being cautious and listening to medical advice and then there's the paranoid nuttery I've seen on social media. Although again no details for reasons of spoilers.

*I liked some of the critter designs.

The Bad

*My earlier comments about originality only go so far. Dutton is pretty obviously a second-rate version of Tallahassee, Woody Harrelson's tough survivor from Zombieland. One review I've seen basically describes this film as what happens when somebody sees Zombieland and decides to do something like it. Given how many of my writing projects emerge similarly I can't be too judgmental, but they could have differentiated it a bit more.

*There were several times, especially later in the film, that I was looking at my watch or even got my phone out because it had gotten boring. The film isn't bad per se, but it could definitely be tightened up.

The Verdict

I saw one of the last Love and Monsters showings in Atlanta at an actual theater for $7-ish. I would wait until it becomes available for rental on Amazon or whatever video-streaming service you prefer if seeing it in theaters isn't an option. Rent it, don't buy it, especially not for the $20+ it's selling for online in late November 2020. 7.0 out of 10.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

My Convention Setup For Convention Applications

As part of a convention application, I need to submit an online photo of my typical setup at a genre convention. Having searched the Interwebs and social media, I only found a couple photos, period, and most of them were fairly bare-bones (only my earliest books, no tablecloth) shots of my early conventions rather than the more elaborate ones that came later.

So here's a shot of my typical setup, somewhat abbreviated because I'm using my card table rather than the six-foot table most conventions provide.

Owing to the table's smaller size, I wasn't able to get all of my books onto it, but here's my current convention inventory, broken down by genre:

Battle for the Wastelands-A post-apocalyptic steampunk military fantasy with a lot of political intrigue. I describe it as "Dark Tower meets Game of Thrones." First in a series.

"Son of Grendel"-A Battle for the Wastelands prequel novella featuring the villain's eldest son leading a counterinsurgency mission. It takes place around a year before the main book.

The Thing in the Woods-My debut novel, a tale of Lovecraftian horror set in small-town Georgia rather than the typical rural New England. It stands alone as a creature feature, but the story continues with...

The Atlanta Incursion-The sequel to Thing, featuring one of the surviving characters as a college student in Atlanta and a confrontation with a new otherworldly threat. This gets into more science-fiction territory than Thing does, but I would still consider it horror.

Little People, Big Guns-This horror-comedy features little people (they don't like being called "midgets") fighting predatory badgers...and worse.

The Best of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Vol. 2-This is a collection of around twenty sword and sorcery stories (think Conan the Barbarian) featuring my Viking tale "Nicor."

Flashing Steel, Flashing Fire-My first independently-published book, a collection of ten science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories.

The Cover and Book Copy For THE WALKING WORM

Over the last few months I haven't been writing as much as I'd like to and spending a lot of time on writing-adjacent activities like marketing. One of those activities is arranging for cover art, since getting a good cover, getting it designed and laid out, etc. is dependent on other people in a way that actually writing isn't. I'd actually finished The Atlanta Incursion well before the publication date, but I had to get all this other stuff taken care of.

So I decided to get the cover for The Walking Worm, the second sequel to The Thing In The Woods, done well in advance of actually finishing the manuscript. Considering my tendencies to dawdle, the fact I'd shelled out for a high-end cover gives me a strong incentive to actually finish the manuscript and start paying that cover off.

So here's the cover by the mighty Matt Cowdery:

This is the first canonical image of series protagonist James Daly (right) and MJ-12 agent Thomas Bolton (left), who briefly appears in Thing and plays a much larger role in TAI. James is a college freshman in TAI, while Bolton is probably in his early 40s.

(In some back-story I've written for Bolton he was an early 20s rookie MIB in 1993. If the series goes well, young Bolton will have his own prequel novel, The Battle of Dulce Base.)

And here's the current draft of the back-cover copy. The book includes the mythology introduced in TAI, but is a small-town creature feature more in the vein of Thing. Spoilers for TAI if you haven't read it yet..


At long last James Daly has finally gotten to UNC Chapel Hill , but every dream comes with a cost. James works for MJ-12, a covert agency that has fought extraterrestrial colonization since the 1940s, and now faces a threat much closer to home…

Now a junior, James is part of UNC Chapel Hill’s ROTC program, a disguise for his real role serving in the secret war against the murderous alien Grays and, since the defeat of the Thing in the Woods and the battle beneath Atlanta a year ago, keeping watch for the predatory Kraken. And although he’s achieved his childhood dream, there’s trouble in paradise. His girlfriend Amber Webb won’t move in with him and, more dangerously, a fellow MJ-12 agent has disappeared in a nearby town.

James’ investigation alongside senior MJ-12 agent Thomas Bolton, whom he blames for the death of his best friend Eli Schwartz, results in an awful revelation. A creature spawned from the last underground nuclear tests has taken root, its telepathic powers a match for James’ own strange talents. To find its missing agent, MJ-12 must do battle against fellow Americans infested with deadly parasites, a battle that could stretch the secret agency’s capability to its very limits.

Right now I've completed about 16,000 words in TWW. Since Thing is 56,000 words and TAI around 60,000, I would expect this to be around the same length. At the rate things are going and given how I want to run the entire manuscript through writing group and then have it professionally edited, I would expect this sometime late next year.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Abraham Van Helsing...Marriage Counselor? Or What Happened After BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA

In late October, I watched the 1992 horror-romance classic Bram Stoker's Dracula for the film podcast Myopia Movies. After having watched the film, done the podcast, and reviewed a lot of discussion on TVTropes, I wondered what happens next? 

The film ends on ambiguous note--Dracula is mortally wounded by Quincy Morris (Billy Campbell) and Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves), but the latter's wife, the rapidly-vampirizing Mina (Winona Ryder), prevents them from finishing him at gunpoint. This is after having gone so far as to attempt to use sorcery (an ability she gained after drinking his blood far more willingly than in the novel) to prevent them from catching Dracula during daylight. She takes the dying vampire to Castle Dracula's long-disused chapel where he seems to repent of his wickedness, the light of God restores him to his human form, and Mina finishes him off. The scene is accompanied by voice-over narration that sounds like Mina's account written in her journal after the fact, so she survives the experience. 

However, there's still the awkward situation that she's married to Jonathan, whom she has all but cuckolded with a monster. TVTropes users point out that at minimum their relationship is on the rocks and less optimistic ones think it might never recover. This rather grim fan-fic depicts Mina coming out of the castle a sadder but wiser woman and then leaving Jonathan. Jonathan is left mourning the wreckage of his life, hoping Mina will return but privately doubting it.

(This could be Poor Communication Kills--Mina apparently left a note that he couldn't bear to read. For all we know, she was just letting him know she needed a week or two to ponder what had happened and she'll be back. She's got a lot to process, after all--her fiancé mysteriously disappears, her best friend Lucy sickens, Dracula in the guise of a handsome foreigner attempts to seduce her and half-convinces her she's his reincarnated wife, she breaks off a budding affair to quickly marry said fiancé when it turns out he's still alive, Lucy is killed by Dracula in a jealous rage and rises again as a monster, and then Dracula partially transforms her into a monster too. She flip-flops on helping her husband and friends kill Dracula to save her from darkness and ultimately it's her who redeems--and then kills--the vampire king after holding her husband and friends at gunpoint. At minimum, things are going to be really, really awkward.)

However, there's a much more cheerful alternative--marriage counseling with Abraham Van Helsing. After all, he's a doctor, he's eyewitness to the whole situation, and he's apparently very knowledgeable about vampirism (and theoretically what responsibility, if any, both parties have for their actions under the vampire's influence). Here's the relevant scene:

Note his extreme insensitivity, both toward Mina for Lucy's death and vampirism and Jonathan for his abuse by Dracula's brides. Jonathan was held captive for weeks and repeatedly fed upon (in an extraordinarily sexual fashion) to keep him from escaping, but he discusses this as though Jonathan had been unfaithful. This is not "infidelity" (Van Helsing's words), this is straight-up rape. Although in my rarely humble opinion Dracula set Mina up--using some kind of psychic ability (the memories of a past life she only remembers when he shows up and plies her with absinthe) on top of the simpler expedient of keeping her fiancé from her and feeding off her best friend to make her sexually frustrated and stressed out and vulnerable to his attentions--she still chooses poorly, whereas Jonathan has no choice at all. If he thinks Jonathan is an adulterer rather than a rape victim, he'd probably view Mina even less sympathetically, especially given how she turns on everybody at the movie's climax.

So...your fanfic plot, should you choose to accept it, is to tell the tale of Van Helsing providing marriage counseling to Jonathan and Mina after the events of the film. And using Van Helsing's extreme insensitivity and manic tendencies (seriously, watch the scene where he discusses Lucy's possible transformation into a vampire with her suitor Quincy Morris and humps Quincy's leg while referring to Lucy as "a bitch of the devil"), it should be as hilariously horrible (or horribly hilarious) as possible.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Dracula and the Gypsies: A New Story Idea?

For Myopia Movies' Halloween vampire month, we watched the 2004 action-horror film Van Helsing for our Patreon feed (it's not posted yet, but don't worry it'll be there) and the 1992 sort-of classic Bram Stoker's Dracula as a public episode. I posted on Twitter a couple times about the two films' (and possibly the original novel's) portrayal of the Gypsy (Romani) people.

Let the record state I'm generally not a fan of "political correctness" or its more modern and virulent "woke" and/or "cancel culture" mutations. Seriously, a whole lot of their antics remind me of Cultural Revolution "struggle sessions," only on Twitter, and they sure love to eat their own. I'm not going to accuse the original novel or the 1992 film of being racist toward Gypsies like  this article does simply because I'm aware of what the anti-Gypsy stereotypes are and neither story uses them. Gypsies/Romani are often stereotyped as beggars, thieves, cliched fortune-tellers, and even kidnappers of children. Heck, Cher put out a song about how the Gypsies were disdained as "tramps and thieves" in the American South in 1971. However, in the 1992 film and a graphic novel adaptation using text from the book, Harker makes the following remark:

"The Count's gypsies, fearless warriors who are loyal to the death to whatever nobleman they serve - day and night they toil, filling boxes with decrepit earth from the bowels of the castle."

Not only are they NOT work-shy bums and petty criminals, they're very diligent workers and even, to cite TVTropes, a Proud Warrior Race. The "loyal to the death to whatever nobleman they serve" even reminded me of the samurai code of Bushido. Making this particular group of Romani into some kind of band of Eastern European samurai might not be historically accurate (IIRC most Romani were peddlers, metal-workers, etc), but not only is it anti-stereotypical, it's actually kind of cool.

However, I do agree with the "woke" crowd of the importance of varied, non-stereotypical representation of minority groups in media. Not only does it avoid encouraging negative stereotyping and its unfortunate consequences (ranging from the hypocritical snobbery in the Cher song to outright violence like this recent series of attacks on French Romani after rumors of child abduction), but it also allows for more complex and interesting stories.

So here's an idea I had for a Dracula story focused on the Count's Romani servants that takes place during the actual novel. The Gypsies living around Castle Dracula have served him and his vampire brides as general-purpose minions, warriors, etc. for centuries and he in turn has protected them from rampant racism (Gypsies were actually legally enslaved in Romania for a long time) and spared them his predations. Although the Gypsies serving the Count are probably Eastern Orthodox or Catholic, Dracula as a verifiably-real supernatural figure might occupy some kind of spiritual position among them, since regardless of the faith they practice many Romani include certain elements that may date back to India.

But now the Count wants to move to England. As depicted in the book and film most attend to their traditional duties as his servants and bodyguards and some might even think this is a chance to travel to what is to them an exotic new place (Britain), but there is conflict within the community. Some feel like their patron is going to abandon them to the racism and cruelty of broader Romanian culture, while others (perhaps more educated or more zealously religious) have come to realize just what Dracula is and the danger he represents to the wider world. Given how Dracula has historically been the community's protector and how a Romani community in this time and place is more likely to be traditional and insular, the elders might put down grumblings by dissidents. After all, if the alternative is rampant persecution, members of minority groups often have unpleasant choices to make. I'm not going to judge Iraqi, Syrian, and Egyptian Christians for their support of secular dictators and I know darn well why Jews have historically asked "is it good for the Jews?" re: the ascension of a new king or a political development.

However, when Dracula returns to the Transylvania with several hunters hot on his trail, the conflict within the community reignites. As in the book many will fight to the death to protect their Count against outsiders, but others might want to stay out of it or even assist the vampire-hunters. And given what's going to happen to the Gypsies in forty years, the traditionalists may have a very good reason to mourn the loss of their protector.

Given my own work obligations and higher-priority projects, this is something I probably wouldn't write myself. Owing to how it's set so deeply into a culture that's not well-known by outsiders, it might be a good idea for anybody who wants to take this story and run with it to do extensive research. Googling isn't going to be enough unless you find some real primo academic journal articles like this one on Muslim Roma--the Writing Excuses podcast recommended attending festivals to learn about different ethnic groups. Here's a big one in Spain, for example, and another in France. There was a Gypsy music festival in New York City that went virtual due to this year. Failing that, libraries (especially college ones with a lot of really niche books) or someone more familiar with the culture to assist would be good ideas well.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Patton In Korea? Two Versions of a Communist Confederacy? 1196 Byzantine Revival?

Still self-banned from the alternate history forum, but I still check on the public sections for good stuff to read. Here are some of my latest choices:

Patton in Korea-In which the...controversial...General George Patton doesn't die as a result of a car accident at the end of World War II and after a very brief retirement, is recalled to the colors to command US troops in the Korean War. Only a few chapters in and so far so good...Patton is restoring discipline that in actual history had been seriously allowed to lapse and remembering lessons of WWII that the peacetime army had forgotten to make the North Koreans' opening advance a lot more difficult. But it's not all sunshine and roses--Patton is having territory issues with MacArthur, who's diverting resources for something Patton dismisses as just "an amphibious landing." We'll see how this goes.

Union Blue and Dixie Red: A History of the Communist South-The author of this timeline makes the argument that an independent Confederate States of America would have a lot of the same social conditions that Czarist Russia had, and like Russia might be vulnerable to a Communist takeover if it lasted into the 20th Century. I like the alternate-timeline ephemera--quotes from historians, politicians, books, etc.--that offer hints as to how this happened. The divergence from real history is that it's the North, not the South, that violates Kentucky's neutrality first, and that causes a lot of trouble.

To Live and Die In Dixie: A Communist Confederacy TL-Fellow author Sean C.W. Korsgaard has been tinkering with the idea of a successful Confederate secession that later falls into Communist revolution for years now. The novel that takes place in this timeline involves a reluctant African-American soldier named Malcolm Little (real-life Malcolm X) on a mission to infiltrate the Red Confederacy for the U.S., but getting there is the fun part. The divergence from the timeline seems to be during our history's Seven Days Battle, which in this timeline is referred to as the Six Days Battle. The opening post hints that a lot of "victorious Confederacy" clichés will be avoided--Lee apparently will die a hated pariah rather than a national hero.

The Eagle of the East, Rhomania: An Eastern Roman Timeline-My first professional publication was a military-history article on the 1071 Battle of Manzikert, which kicked off the large-scale Turkish settlement in Asia Minor and the beginning of the end of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire. In this scenario, the incompetent and pleasure-loving Byzantine Emperor Alexios III Angelos is deposed by two Anatolian Byzantine aristocrats disgusted by the Empire's failure to defend the Emperor's frontiers against the marauding Seljuk Turks. They reform the military and push back against the Seljuks, but the Venetian doge Enrico Dandalo still hates the Byzantines and he's got an army of Crusaders to plot his revenge.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Finding My Books at Libraries...

Many moons ago, while listening to the writers' podcast The Sell More Books Show, one of the hosts suggested a good way to get readers was to donate books to libraries. This advice I followed, donating copies of the first edition of Flashing Steel, Flashing Fire and later The Thing In The Woods to the Cobb County library system, the library system I grew up using.

When I started seriously self-publishing, however, I took that strategy into overdrive. Here's a running list of the library systems that have my books.


Cobb County: Like I mentioned earlier, a copy of Thing and two copies of FSFF, both at the central library in Marietta. I recently donated an additional copy of Thing, two copies of its sequel The Atlanta Incursion, and two copies of Battle for the Wastelands. Those have not yet been catalogued, but I will check again and update this post as needed.

Gwinnett County: The Gwinnett County library system has got two copies each of Thing and its sequel The Atlanta Incursion, which so far comprise my Lovecraft-inspired "Long War" fictional universe. Both copies of TAI are kept at the headquarters location, but one copy of Thing is at the headquarters and another is at the Suwanee branch. I'd donated one copy each already, but I saw on the website an absolutely absurd amount of holds for TAI--at one point I think as many as eight people were in line for it--and a significant number for Thing too. In early October I donated an additional copy each of Thing and TAI and they were logged in the system within a few days. As of November 9, 2020 there are four holds on two copies of TAI and zero holds on two copies of Thing. I'm not sure why I'm so popular in Gwinnett, but maybe I'll donate more if the backlog continues.

And the Long War series isn't the only thing I've got in Gwinnett. There's also a copy of Battle for the Wastelands at the Five Forks branch. That one is available now, so there probably isn't nearly so much demand. I also donated a copy of Little People, Big Guns and that's available at the Collins Hill branch. That's under "Matthew Quinn" rather than "Matthew W. Quinn," so it doesn't show up in the same author search. The library also has "Son of Grendel"  at its Collins Hill branch, so the system has all of the Wastelands series so far. It also has my short story collection Flashing Steel, Flashing Fire at its Lawrenceville branch.

(And perhaps when the pandemic eases enough people are comfortable with live events, maybe I'll see if a Gwinnett library is willing to host one.)

PINES: This statewide library network serves most counties in Georgia and I made ample use of it when I lived in Lovejoy and McDonough. I donated a Thing copy to the Griffin-Spalding County Library in Griffin when I was selling books at the town's Mistletoe Market some years ago. That copy is still there, while a copy one of the library staff purchased at the Next Chapter Con North Georgia independent authors event the year before last is at the Dalton-Whitfield Library in Dalton. More recently, I was interviewed in the Dalton newspaper and donated several of my books to the Dalton-Whitfield and Calhoun-Gordon libraries and the Athens-Clarke librarians bought a copy each of Thing and TAI at an event I did earlier in 2022. PINES now has three copies of Thing, three copies of TAI, one copy of Battle, one copy of "Son of Grendel," and one copy of Little People. People from all over Georgia can read them now. :)

DeKalb County: The DeKalb County library system has got three copies of Battle, one at the Dunwoody branch, one at the Decatur branch, and one at the Tucker branch. It also has a copy each of Thing at the Tucker branch and the Decatur branch and TAI at the Tucker and Decatur branches as well. At the 2019 Decatur Book Festival I checked with library staff and the copy of Thing at the Decatur branch had been checked out three times, something I rather liked. Little People, Big Guns has a copy each at the Decatur and Stonecrest branches.

Fulton County: The Fulton County library system has got two copies of Thing, one at the Peachtree library in Midtown and the other at the Wolf Creek library in the southern part of the county. The library also has a single copy of Battle for the Wastelands and Little People Big Guns, both at its central library in downtown Atlanta.


Carter County: Two members of a conservative-leaning writers group I'm in organized a book drive for the Carter County public library system after reading in another Facebook group that the library system is in severe need of books--they had only eight science fiction and fantasy books in the whole library system, for example. I donated single copies of Thing, TAI, Battle, SOG, HFQ, FSFF, and LPBG over the summer of 2021 and they have since been catalogued. The Carter County libraries are located in the towns of Olive Hill and Grayson.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Princess Elisabeta The Ibbur, Or a Judeo-Calvinist Interpretation of BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA

The most recent episode of the film podcast Myopia Movies covers Bram Stoker's Dracula, the 1992 Francis Ford Coppola classic known for its beautiful visuals, the awesomeness that is Winona Ryder, and Keanu Reeves' questionable accent. The following discussion contains spoilers for a movie that's nearly 30 years old, so be ye warned...

When I first saw it in high school, what stuck out to me was that they gave Dracula of all people a redemption arc. The count (Gary Oldman) begins the story as a Christian warrior fighting the invading Ottoman Turks and renounces God when his wife Elisabeta, incorrectly thinking he was killed in battle, commits suicide and the priests tell the grieving Vlad she's in Hell. What I remembered was that upon learning Mina Harker (Winona Ryder) was the reincarnation of his lost love, his resolve to do evil weakens--he initially refuses to turn Mina into a vampire even though she very much wants it (!) and when the hunters confront him, he initially flees rather than try to fight them. This I attributed to his realizing that Elisabeta is not in Hell--was his rebellion against God and the atrocities he committed as history's infamous Impaler a mistake? Is he now reconsidering all his life choices?

More recently, as I became more familiar with Calvinism, I even concluded that although most vampire fiction is very heavily Catholic, this one is actually rather Reformed. Dracula was predestined by God for salvation from before Creation (see Ephesians 1:4), but he rebels against God, cursing Him for Elisabeta's death and (he thinks) damnation. However, those who are truly His are never out of His hand, even though they may try to jump from it. God is determined that Dracula be redeemed and so He allows Dracula to become a vampire--the count will be saved even if it takes 400-odd years to do it.

(In the meantime Dracula commits all sorts of horrors, but if God is in control, one could argue He allowed this for His own purposes--delaying the Ottoman invasion of Europe to prevent mass apostasy from Christianity, punishing the corrupt boyars and criminals the historical Vlad was known for treating harshly, etc. And given how some historians think Vlad's crimes might have been exaggerated by his enemies, he might not have been as monstrous as one might think.)

But what about Elisabeta? Doesn't reincarnation go against the Bible? Hebrews 9:27 pretty explicitly says man dies once and then the Judgement and in Bram Stoker's Dracula, Christianity is explicitly true--crosses/crucifixes, communion wafers, etc. have supernatural power against evil. I'm assuming Elisabeta was a Christian and the idea that people who commit suicide automatically go to Hell is not biblical, so one would assume she's in Heaven. However, the Bible does contain the account of the Witch of Endor, who manages to summon from the dead none other than the prophet Samuel, who repeats the prophecies of divine judgement he made on Earth. Some Christians believe this was actually a demonic being impersonating Samuel, but this entity does not seem to be any different from Samuel when he was on Earth. In any event, Samuel's prophecy of Saul's death comes true and a test of a true prophet is whether their predictions come true. And then there's the spirit God sends to torment Saul (see 1 Samuel 16:14-23), although that could be depression or some kind of mental illness rather than an actual supernatural entity--"spirit" in this case could mean "mood" rather than an angel or demon. After all, when David shows up he soothes Saul by playing music, not by exorcising him. :)

So perhaps Mina Harker in the present day is not actually a reincarnation of Elisabeta, but is sort of possessed by her? The notion that a living person can be possessed by the spirit of a dead person actually ties in with the Jewish concepts of dibbuk and ibbur. Although the idea comes from 16th Century Jewish folklore rather than Scripture, it does seem somewhat appropriate given that Winona Ryder's father is Jewish and she describes herself as such too. An ibbur is a dead person temporarily possessing or at least joining with a living person in order to accomplish a religious duty. In this case, tying in with the idea that Vlad was predestined for Heaven despite his crimes, this is Elisabeta returning to Earth for the purpose of leveraging Vlad's ultimate repentance. This would explain why Mina only starts remembering her "past life" as Elisabeta when she encounters Dracula in the present day--there is no indication beforehand she's anything but a sweet-natured (but as I noted in my review, extremely horny) British schoolteacher. And it's appropriate that Jonathan and Mina get married in what seems to be the Eastern Orthodox fashion--as a princess of Transylvania, Elisabeta was probably Orthodox herself, even though Jonathan is Anglican in the novel and I assume Mina is too.

(This could also cycle back to Catholicism--Elisabeta might be in Purgatory and redeeming Vlad, whose renunciation of God was prompted by her own suicide, could be part of the sanctification process prior to her own entering Heaven. However, Dracula's sins are so egregious that even if his last-minute repentance means he doesn't go to Hell, if there's a Purgatory he'll be spending a lot of time there while Elisabeta goes on. That kind of weakens the romanticism a bit, although they'll be reunited eventually.)

However, upon actually watching the film, it seems I didn't recall a lot of the details correctly. Vlad's resolve to do evil does weaken, but his repentance is much vaguer--after he is mortally wounded by Mina's husband Jonathan and their American friend Quincy Morris, Mina takes him to the long-abandoned chapel of Castle Dracula. The dying count reaches for the cross and asks God why He has forsaken him ( forsook Him). However, when Mina tries to pull the blade out of his chest, Dracula stops her and tells her "it is finished" (sound familiar?).  

Suddenly the light shines down, the candles in the chapel ignite, and the cross Dracula had desecrated so long ago heals. Things get a little theologically fuzzier from there--Mina thinks it was her love that released everybody from the powers of darkness and claims her and Dracula's love is stronger than death--but the light of God does revert the demonic-looking Dracula to his human form. At Dracula's request Mina shoves the knife all the way through his heart and the burn from the Communion wafer disappears from her forehead, indicating that her own growing vampirism has been quelled. Dracula dies apparently seeing something pleasant, Mina cuts off his head to make sure the deed is done, and the film ends implying Dracula and Elisabeta have been reunited in Heaven. Here is the complete scene for your review.

So although claiming Bram Stoker's Dracula is some kind of Christian film is really stretching it (although belief in reincarnation is blatantly heretical, the idea that God temporarily sent Princess Elisabeta's soul back to Earth to ensure Vlad goes to Heaven is still really pushing it), I figured some folks might find this interesting. 

If you want to read BSD in a purely orthodox fashion, Mina remembering a past life as Elisabeta could be the result of Dracula consciously or unconsciously using psychic abilities to fill her head with memories of 15th Century Romania, her consuming mind-altering absinthe, the fact she's a late teen or early 20-something with an overactive imagination infatuated with handsome, charismatic foreigner, or a combination thereof. Mina's thinking it was her love and not God's manipulating circumstances over 400-plus years to save Dracula is her own ego (this is, after all, from her diary written after-the-fact), not a definitive theological statement. After all, the fact she all but commits adultery with a monster who imprisoned and tormented her husband and killed her best friend shows she's not perfect.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Blast From The Past Movie Review: Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Myopia Movies, the film podcast I'm a regular participant in, did Bram Stoker's Dracula for our October-themed month on vampires. I remember when the movie came out in 1992 (I wasn't allowed to see it, being in elementary school at the time), although I do remember reading about one of the video-game versions in my friend John's Nintendo Power magazine. I finally got to see the film in high school, when I had my own membership at Blockbuster Video.

However, high school was many, many years ago and the original premise of the podcast was re-watching childhood favorites to see if they were still good. So when the time came to brainstorm for the current season, this one of the movies I really pushed for. Here's the episode. And now for the review.

The Plot

British lawyer Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is sent by his law firm to make the final arrangements for an Eastern European nobleman to purchase some land in London. There's just one small problem--said nobleman is none other than Vlad Dracul (Gary Oldman), the infamous impaler of history and a vampire to boot. He sees Jonathan's locket with an image of his fiancée Mina Murray (Winona Ryder) and becomes infatuated because she reminds him of his dead wife.

So, being evil, he leaves Jonathan for his vampire brides to consume and sets off to London. He feeds off Mina's friend Lucy (Sadie Frost) and attempts to woo Mina, who begins remembering a previous life as Dracula's wife the Princess Elisabeta (also played by Ryder). However, one of Lucy's suitors contacts Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) to deal with Lucy's mysterious "illness" and Jonathan escapes, marrying Mina in an Orthodox ceremony at the nunnery where he's recovering. Dracula as you can imagine is a bit angry and now the war is on. And Mina finds herself surprisingly conflicted...

The Good

*The film is simply beautiful, even though now with improved camera technology it looks a bit aged. The sets are good, the costumes are good, etc. The clothes are well-designed. For example, I get serious Byzantine vibes off Dracula's brides and the robes Dracula wears in one scene, which make sense considering historically Vlad the Impaler was Eastern Orthodox for most of his life. And they use the costumes to make subtle character points--Mina's clothes are a bit out of fashion because she's a schoolteacher wearing her rich friend Lucy's hand-me-downs. It deserved the Academy Awards it got for costuming and makeup.

*I liked some of the characterization. They made Mina a great deal hornier than I recall from the book--she's eager to get married to Jonathan right away and they have a make-out session right before he leaves for Transylvania and she and Lucy at one point kiss (!) in the garden of Lucy's estate. Add Jonathan's prolonged absence and Lucy's "illness" and it's a lot more understandable that Mina might be tempted by the Count. And Dracula is more sympathetic than one would expect of an explicitly Satanic predator. He was a Christian knight victorious in war against the invading Muslim Ottomans--who to spite him tricked his devoted young wife Elisabeta into committing suicide by convincing her he'd been killed in battle. The priests told Vlad that because she'd committed suicide she automatically went to Hell and Vlad proceeded to totally lose it, railing against God and desecrating the church to become a vampire.

(From a Christian POV this is a warning against idolatrous devotion to a romantic partner, self-absorption, and false doctrine. Had Elisabeta not been so unhealthily devoted to Vlad she wouldn't have committed suicide and had Vlad not been so self-absorbed and possessive--he acts more like God had wronged him than wronged Elisabeta--and valued her more than God, he wouldn't have lashed out like he did. And had the priests not incorrectly claimed suicides were automatically damned at the worst possible time, his grieving might have proceeded along more normal channels rather than leading him to become a Satan-worshiping mass murderer.)

*The soundtrack is good too--the film got another Oscar for Best Sound Editing. The credits song "Love Song For a Vampire" is sad and beautiful and the instrumental stuff does well for setting an ominous tone.

*It's got a very high-quality cast. Winona Ryder does a good job as Mina--much like Alien Resurrection, I think she's the best performer in the film. (And per a well-documented Wikipedia article, she was the one who brought the script for what was supposed to be a TV movie to Francis Ford Coppola, so there's even more credit to go around.) Gary Oldman does a good job as Dracula. Anthony Hopkins might be a little too manic as Van Helsing, but he's entertaining. Although Reeves' accent is inconsistent and sometimes he comes off as a bit monotone, I didn't have a problem with his acting per se.

*The film puts Vlad the Impaler's actions in the context of the Fall of Constantinople and the Ottoman invasion of Eastern Europe. Yes, he was a monster (even if there's some speculation that his horrors were exaggerated by his German enemies), but there's a reason he's a national hero in Romania.

The Bad

*My single biggest problem with the movie is how incredibly boring it was. Part of it is that it mimics the original novel, which is written in an epistolary format (letters, diary entries, etc) and so there's a lot of what Nic calls "talky-talk," but there's also the long draggy second fifth or so of the movie in which Dracula comes to Britain to try to seduce Mina. Someone on the almighty TVTropes mentioned a fan-edit that removed the romantic plot that cut around an hour. Seriously, one of the podcast regulars actually fell asleep with a drink in his hand while watching the movie. I got my phone out around 1/3 of the way into the movie, probably during the sequence where Dracula in his guise as a foreign prince visiting Britain is taking Mina out on various dates while, unbeknownst to her, his vampire brides are keeping her fiancé captive and feeding on him.

*Speaking of that, surely Jonathan told Mina about where he'd been and what happened to him after she came to Eastern Europe after getting the letter he was alive and recovering in a convent. She has a lot more reason to hate Dracula beyond what he did to Lucy and yet that's what she seems most angry about when he comes to her and she knows what he is. She should also be angry he had held her fiancé captive and let monsters feed on him for weeks. Taking it a step further, she might have realized that Dracula was keeping Jonathan captive (and thus away from her) and causing Lucy's illness to make her emotionally vulnerable to his seduction. Watching it now I see just how manipulative and predatory Dracula is, and not just in the "drinks blood" sense. Even if Dracula is super good-looking and charismatic, even if she finds his occult nature intriguing or pities his unhappy back-story, even if she's somehow channeling the long-dead soul of his wife and isn't fully herself, why doesn't she realize just how much of a creep he is? In one of their scenes together she seriously Does Not Get It and things just get worse from there.

*Per the above, Mina and Jonathan's relationship doesn't get built up well. Building up Dracula is necessary to realistically show why Mina would be tempted into an adulterous relationship, but what is so special about Jonathan? He's certainly a decent person by any standard, but is he interesting? If they wanted to contrast him with Dracula's physicality and animal magnetism, emphasize that as a lawyer he's schoolteacher Mina's intellectual/career peer? The book does describe him as "uncommonly clever" and "full of energy" and apparently he can speak multiple languages and that's something she might admire. In the episode Nic theorized that they wanted to minimize Reeves' role to avoid accent problems, but that was less of an issue than Mina's actual husband and the original novel's protagonist getting minimized. Even if Dracula and Mina are the real protagonists of this version of the story, Jonathan is underdeveloped even as one of two romantic choices for Mina, let alone a major character. Better a character with a badly-done accent than no character at all.

*What's with Van Helsing getting so excited that Lucy is getting victimized by a vampire? At one point he tells Quincy Morris (Billy Campbell) that Lucy is going to become "a bitch of the devil" and starts humping his leg. Remember, dear reader, that Quincy is one of three men vying to be Lucy's husband. Quincy is right to call him "a sick old buzzard." Hopkins is appropriately zany, but jeez. Someone theorized that he's excited that he's been proven right that vampires exist, but this is at the price of Lucy's safety and ultimately life. There's feeling vindicated and then there's being an ass. Are we supposed to like him?

*The film strongly implies that the historical Vlad's crimes were after he became a vampire, as a consequence of his rage against God. I'd thought that his realization that Elisabeta was not in Hell (because she's been reincarnated as Mina or her soul has somehow become attached to Mina in the present day--never mind that reincarnation is not part of orthodox Christianity, period, and "possessed by the dead" is actually more like the Jewish concept of a dibbuk or ibbur) was making him reconsider his path of destruction. That's what I was referring to when I brought up Calvinism in the episode, although I'm not going to go into a lot of detail about how this would relate to predestination for spoiler reasons. That doesn't seem to be the case here, or at least it's very subtle. Given Dracula's arc in the film, that could have been highlighted more.

*Keanu Reeves' accent is inconsistent. He tries to sound British and sometimes it works, but Ted Logan from the Bill and Ted films comes through quite often. From my understanding, this got mocked a whole heck of a lot when the film came out.

*Sadie Frost doesn't really stick out much as Lucy. Per TVTropes Laura Dern was considered for the part and given her performances in the Jurassic Park films (I don't recall having seen her in anything else), I imagine she'd have been an improvement.

*Dracula was already buying up property in Britain when he noticed how much Jonathan's picture of Mina resembled his dead wife and Renfield--who has no idea Harker has gone to Transylvania--is eagerly awaiting Dracula's coming. So what was he planning on doing in Britain before he got the idea to try to get his hands on Mina?

The Verdict

Much like Blade Runner 2049, a beautiful bore. If you watch it for the acting and visuals, don't forget you have a fast-forward button. 6.5 out of 10.