For Halloween, I thought I’d tell you the story behind my latest foray in the horror genre.
When I decided to write my first vampire novel, Blood Groove, I had a problem. Its name was Count Dracula. As the gold standard of vampires, his cape cast a very long shadow. Every literary vampire, from Lestat to Edward Cullen, is measured against the king of them all, and I knew mine would be as well. I needed a vampire that could stand side by side with the legendary count, so that I could both pay homage and tweak this convention.
Fortunately, I’d already created a vampire like that in my short story, “On the Count of Z.” Unfortunately, that story was written mainly as a parody, part of an ongoing attempt at Victorian pastiche. The hero, Sir Francis Colby, was equal parts Van Helsing, Conan Doyle and Churchill, and in other (unpublished) stories he battled gargoyles and even Frankenstein’s monster. His encounter with the vampire Baron Zginski was goofy in the extreme, hinging on the great Spiritualist’s observation that Zgisnki didn’t actually breathe. But when I rewrote the story’s framing sequences so that they took place in the novel’s 1975 Memphis setting, it worked like a charm, and I had chapter one of my novel. That also became the world’s introduction to Sir Francis.
Many of my favorite “writers of the fantastic” were from the Victorian era, or wrote as if they were: Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Machen, HP Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe. In the short promotional film for Blood Groove (see it on my “Media” page), director Lisa Stock used a very famous Victorian vampire author as a stand-in for Sir Francis. The described a world torn between the enlightenment of technology and the pull of superstition, in which we ignored those things in the dark at our own peril. And they wrote and spoke in a vivid, vaguely purple language that still delights me. I mean, shouting men were described as having verbally “ejaculated,” at which the ten-year-old in me still giggles.
When I was asked to contribute a story to Haunted: Eleven Tales of Ghostly Horror, I recalled a Sir Francis story that I’d never quite finished. It involved a radio for speaking to the dead, and as all the Sir Francis tales had punny titles, I called it, “What’s the Frequency, Francis?” after the R.E.M. song, which in turn was inspired by a bizarre event in the life of newsman Dan Rather. I unearthed and revised it, adding a little dig at the current crop of “Ghost Hunter” reality shows. It came together, I felt, quite nicely. Fortunately so did the editors.
With the current steampunk boom in full swing, I’ve considered writing a whole Sir Francis novel. But as a reader I have a low threshold for pastiches, and I just don’t know if I could sustain the tone for that sort of length. Still, there are plenty of finished and half-done short stories featuring this character, so he might show up again. For now, you can find him hunting vampires or saving the world from malevolent ghosts. And ejaculating.