Monday, October 31, 2022

Happy Halloween: Return to the Haunted Queen Mary

Back in 2009, I posted this account of our very creepy visit to the Queen Mary, sometimes referred to as the most haunted hotel in the world, as part of our 13 Days of Halloween Celebration that year. I thought it might be fun to revisit the goings-on of that ordeal, and include an update about the legendary ship herself.

Several years ago I went to a training event in Long Beach, California and was housed aboard the former luxury cruise ship The Queen Mary, now a floating hotel. This ship has a history of hauntings including phantom swimmers and wet footprints beside a long-drained swimming pool, a ghostly woman who roams the ship, the sounds of screams and scraping metal, and the occasional sighting of a man who was once crushed by a watertight door. 

 Now I've got a little tale of my own to add to the mythos. 

  First, let me tell you a bit about the ship.

Most people are surprised to learn that the Queen Mary is much larger than the Titanic! She's so big that when you look down her corridors, you can see how the deck is curved downward from bow to midship and back up again to the stern. 

She has several restaurants and bars onboard, and hosts a massive Sunday Brunch in the grand ballroom that I believe is touted as the single largest room ever built inside a ship. (Been there, in the dark and creepiness, and trust me, it’s huge!) 

There's also a small shopping mall, a large museum below decks, and a "Ghost Ship" tour that takes groups to some of the haunted locations and recreates spectral visits with special effects. 

The ship even hosts one of the largest Halloween bashes of ghost tours, mazes and all night parties in Long Beach called The Shipwreck--15 Nights of Terror. 

So...did we have anything creepy happen while on the ship?  Actually....yes!

While exploring the decks one evening, David and I got onto one of the many elevators and pressed the button for one of the upper decks. The door closed but instead of going up, the elevator went down. :O 

David tried pushing buttons to stop it, but it continued to carry us down, down, down, deck after deck. When the doors finally opened, we were seriously spooked, and in an unfamiliar place--a very dark, cavernous room. We stepped off, looked around, stumbled through the black toward a light. There were large glass cases with memorabilia, nautical pictures on the wall. Our wayward elevator had carried us down into the belly of the ship, and we were in the museum! 

Except the museum had closed hours before. We were the only living souls there (though I can't say we were the only souls). 

We wandered around looking for a guard, an exit, an escape…anything! The exits were all gated or locked. We yelled. No response. Tried to tap a code on the bulkhead. Nothing. At last we had to admit the obvious...there was no way out except back up the dysfunctional (?) elevator. But neither of us were keen to get back on. What if we got marooned inside the obviously possessed contraption?   

We eventually found to courage to step back aboard and held our breaths as it carried us to the upper decks. We found our way to our cabin with no more interference from mischievous spirits, but our fellow conference attendees were so intrigued by our story of the runaway elevator that they scheduled an impromptu—and self-guided—ghost tour of the Queen Mary to be held after dark the next night.

The famous and eerie haunted swimming pool.

Trust me, there is nothing like wandering around a really vast, reportedly haunted vessel in the pitch black (especially in places we really weren’t supposed to be, according to the cordial security guard who was quite amused by the merry band of camera-toting spirit seekers he confronted). 

We scouted decks, corridors, massive halls and deserted staff areas for hours in search of…something. Something we were sure was going to be around the next turn in the hall or empty room. 

But nothing ever…materialized. 

 Still, I can honestly say that—aside from one possessed elevator—I think we did come away with a gentle contact from the spirit world. 

On our last night there, I was startled from sleep by the sound of my suitcase buckles rattling and shopping bags rustling in the next room. I woke David, my heart pounding, and we both prepared ourselves to confront a burglar…but when we went to the room and turned on the lights, there was no one there. Our cabin door was still locked from the inside and nothing had been taken. It seemed our mysterious visitor who had been rustling about in my suitcase had exited right through the closed door. Or maybe the walls. 

And that, in a nutshell, is the slightly creepy tale of my stay on The Queen Mary.

After conjuring up this tale, I decided to check back in with the haunted ship some 18 years later. I was saddened to learn that in the years since we visited, the ship has fallen into disrepair and was even declared in danger of capsizing! 

Apparently, after her forced closure due to the catastrophic pandemic shutdowns in 2020, regular maintenance and repair work for the already aging vessel suffered or ceased and her problems began to compound. She's leaking, for one. And her lifeboats were causing stress to her structure. They've since all been removed and stored in a nearby warehouse. At one point, there was even talk that the Queen Mary should just be sunk!

In February of 2022, $5 million was set aside to try to address some of her repair needs, however by some estimates she may need as much as $23 million for immediate repairs, and a total of $289 million for complete renovation and upgrades before she could be re-opened. 

With the state of California in dire straights, it's difficult to know how much will be available to dedicate to the grand old girl to get her back ship-shape. 

Hopefully this majestic and historic vessel won't end up going to her watery grave. 

Have a wonderful Halloween...and a great week. 

Friday, October 28, 2022


Chloe Grace Moretz stars in this SF tale.

Almost a year ago, the big news in my hometown of Marshall was that a production company from Amazon Prime Video was here filming a series. This week The Peripheral, a science fiction thriller based on a 2014 novel by William Gibson, debuted on the streaming service, sending our little town into a legitimate tizzy. Much of the population watched the show just to see familiar locations around town—the music venue known as The Depot turned into a dive bar, an old warehouse turned into a 3D print shop where the heroine works, local roads and the main bridge over the French Broad River as backdrop.

William Gibson, of course, is the author of the groundbreaking Neuromancer (1984). He coined the term "cyberspace" for "widespread, interconnected digital technology" in his short story "Burning Chrome" (1982) and expanded on the concept in award-winning novels in which his protagonists are biologically hard-wired to be connected to (and interacting in) that virtual reality. So, films like THE MATRIX, TRON and so on, all owe their foundational ideas to Gibson.

In The Peripheral, our heroine, Flynne (Chloe Grace Moretz), is working a dead-end job at a 3D print shop in a small town in NC, living with her mother (Melinda Page Hamilton) who is blind and suffering a brain tumor and her military veteran brother, Burton (Irish actor Jack Reynor of MIDSOMER). Her brother supplements their income by competing in virtual reality games, but Flynne is more talented. (In a nod to the recognized misogyny of the gaming world, Flynne never competes under her own name and avatar, but always as Burton’s male avatar.) So, when a Colombian corporation comes calling asking for someone to test their new VR system, it’s Burton they contact, thinking he’s the one who has reached the highest gaming level. They offer big bucks for the trial, so Burton persuades Flynne to step in for him.

When she puts on the headset, she’s transported to the London of 2099. The CGI here is worth watching for, with glittering lights, bright costumes, huge classical statues that at first seem to be projected in holograms across the city (but on closer observation are actually structures suspended in air), and so on. But, of course, neither Flynne nor those of us watching at home can figure out what is going on in this dazzling future, or why it seems so real, or why she’s being asked to do what she’s asked to do without question (kidnap a woman on the orders of one “Aelita” (Charlotte Riley), who then disappears).

Back home in 2032 NC, Burton and Flynne have attracted the malevolent interest of the local bad guy, Corbell Pickett (Louis Herthum) and his gang, for reasons that aren’t yet exactly clear beyond pure meanness. She has to buy her mother’s drugs from them because she can’t afford the local pharmacy, but even their price is too steep until Burton’s disabled military buddy Conner (ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI’s Eli Goree) shows up to threaten a suicidal shoot-out to save her.

After Flynne spends a couple of sessions in future London, most of which is admittedly pretty confusing, a mysterious organization called the Research Institute headed by an exotic Cherise Nuland (T’Nia Miller) puts out a contract on the dark web to eliminate the one person who might know where Aelita is. Don’t ask me how, but this results in a pitched battle at Burton and Flynne’s home in the woods. Fortunately, Burton’s former military buddies are drinking with him around the campfire when it goes down. All are linked via haptic implants a la Neuromancer and manage to protect Flynne and Mom in the house for quite a while but still might lose the battle without the help of Conner who shows up late in the game to save the night.

I will say I was mostly lost during the first episode and distracted by some monumental rookie mistakes on the science fiction tech side. (More on that later.) But by the second episode, the story and characters had started to sort themselves out, and I had begun to be invested in both Flynne and Burton. I’d begun to care about them and what happened to them. Part of this is due to the authenticity of their setting, which is handled with care and respect (which seldom happens with regard to Appalachia), and their accents, which are decent (which almost never happens with regard to our part of the country). The London setting and storyline is less relatable, not because it’s set in the future (I’m a science fiction fan, after all; I can put myself there), but because the worldbuilding and characters are less defined so far. I’ll reserve judgment on that part of the story until I see more.

Now there were a few distractions in the first episode, as I mentioned. As science fiction writers, we can all testify to how hard it is to write near-future SF. Mind you, I don’t think this is a problem William Gibson had; I think it’s a problem his adapters (writer Scott B. Smith, executive producers Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan of Westworld, the series) are having. In the near-future, technology is always outrunning the average writer’s imagination. Things are just moving too fast.

For example, in The Peripheral, the show’s creators have Flynne’s lower class family using a beat-up Roomba to clean their house. Remember, this is only ten years in the future. But theirs is not a ten-year-old Roomba, which any self-respecting poor family might pick up at a yard sale and keep together with duct tape and ingenuity. No, this is a futuristic Roomba that hovers! A hovering Roomba wouldn’t pick up a damn thing—it’s a vacuum cleaner, not a flying saucer for cats! And the disabled Conner uses a unicycle that connects with a motorcycle to make a motorized trike. Why? When four wheels are so much more stable and can even now be engineered to climb stairs. This is what happens when visually oriented filmmakers write SF. The actual science fiction ideas get lost in the desire to look cool and “science fiction-y.”

Still, there is much to like about The Peripheral beyond the fact that it’s set in my hometown. Look past the bloopers and the flawed first episode to give it chance. (New episodes of The Peripheral air Fridays on Amazon Prime Video.)

Cheers, Donna



Thursday, October 27, 2022

Creatures from another world

If I think it's hard to find suitable human stock photos for my book covers, that's nothing when compared to finding pictures of aliens. If the alien is basically a human with a few small changes, that can be done in Photoshop. A good example is Admiral Ravindra. His people, the Manesai, have far better eyesight than Humans and their eyes look a bit like a cat's. Which is what I did with this image.

 If it was going to be good at anything, I figured Midjourney would be good at aliens – real aliens that originated on their own distant planets.

My Dryden Universe stories all feature Yrmaks, green, scaly, warlike. MJ did a good job for them based on this description. "A full body alien warrior, tall, powerfully built, green skin, yellow eyes, crocodile-like head, green armor". 


But when it came to a totally non-humanoid alien, MJ was waaaay out of its depth. I spent hours trying to come up with a convincing Ptorix but a being without a neck was out of its league. Here's a description I wrote years back.

They are essentially conical in shape, something they exaggerate with their clothing. They have no neck and the head ends in a dome. The body is covered in short blue fur. Their four arms end in a number of tentacles which can be deployed in a variety of ways. Think of a sea anemone and you've about got it right. They have four short legs but these are usually hidden beneath their robes. Three eyes which change color according to mood are located almost equidistant around the top of the head, enabling a Ptorix to see almost the whole way around its body without moving. They have two 'mouths', one – resembling a proboscis – for eating, the other for breathing and speaking. So from a human viewpoint, they're pretty weird.

This is what MJ came up with given "cone shaped alien, blue skin, wearing a full length blue cape, ornate decoration, weird eyes, trunk-like nose."

Including four arms with tentacles instead of fingers was not in the ball park at all. I kept trying to simplify to get some sort of result.In the end I gave up on getting a full body image. These are the best head shots.


Great weird eyes

A better idea of the proboscis

Too humanoid - but what the hey

I ended up settling for the humanoid version because it looks aggressive and it includes curves and ornate decoration which is characteristic of the Ptorix.

To be honest, something like MJ would have been great back when I created the Ptorix. I think perhaps I wouldn't have been quite so 'out there' with their weirdness after I'd tried to get a likeness. Ah well. It is what it is.

I had much better success with an image of a Berzhan, a sentient being at the core of Crisis at Validor. Here she is.

She looks a little bit like a Chinese dragon so I was able to help MJ in finding something that fit.

Next time I decide to create an alien critter for a book, I fully intend to try out my ideas with something like Midjourney. It will definitely help me come up with something convincing - and help when I need to write descriptive passages, too.

At the moment I'm creating pictures as I plot. So far it's the easy stuff - the island where there's archaeological remains of an ancient Yrmak presence and some pictures of loot. Who knows? I'm might have a new book out, probably next year. 

Thanks MJ.