There’s really nothing like a good night’s sleep, is there?
Well, that first cup of coffee after a good night’s sleep is pretty close.
Tonight is my late night; bar testing in the Quarter, and as such I have the morning and early afternoon free. I intend to get some cleaning done as well as some writing (that’s always the intent, but it never seems to happen quite the way I have planned; primarily, methinks, because I have a tendency to over-plan what I can get done as well as the ever-popular easy distractions).
Last night, while I alternated between American Horror Story (ugh) and the final game of the World Series–nicely done, Cubs–I finished rereading Be Buried in the Rain by Barbara Michaels.
The old pickup hit a pothole with a bump that shook a few more flakes of faded blue paints from the rusted body. Joe Danner swore, but not aloud. He hadn’t used bad language for six years, not since he found his Lord Jesus in the mesmeric eyes of a traveling evangelist. He hadn’t used hard liquor nor tobacco either, not laid a hand on his wife in anger–only when she talked back or questioned his Scripture-ordained authority as head of the family.
It would never have occurred to Joe Danner that his wife preferred their old life-style. Back then, an occasional beating was the natural order of things, and it was a small price to pay for the Saturday nights at the local tavern, both of them getting a little drunk together, talking and joking with old friends, going home to couple unimaginatively but pleasurably in the old bed Joe’s daddy had made with his own hands.
Since Joe found Jesus, there were no more Saturday nights at the tavern. No more kids, either. Joe Junior had left home the year before; he was up north someplace, wallowing in the sins he’d been brought up to hate…only somehow the teaching hadn’t taken hold. Not with Lynne Anne, either. Married at sixteen, just in time to spare her baby the label of bastard–but not soon enough to wipe out the sin of fornication. She lived in Pikesburg, only forty miles away, but she never came home anymore. Joe had thrown her out the night she told them she was pregnant, and Lynne Anne had spat in his face face before she set out on a four-mile walk in the traditional snowstorm, to collapse on the doorstep of her future in-laws. They had raised a real ruckus about it, too. Methodists. What else could a person expect from Methodists?
I loved Barbara Michaels, which was one of the two pseudonyms used by Dr. Barbara Mertz (the other was, of course, Elizabeth Peters). She was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in the 1980’s, and her books were consistently excellent. Be Buried in the Rain was one of my favorites she published as Barbara Michaels; not quite as favorite as Ammie Come Home, House of Many Shadows, The Crying Child, or Witch, but definitely right up there with them.
The opening, which I’ve quoted above, gives you a slight picture of just how good she actually was. In those brief three paragraphs she sketches out a very clear picture of Joe Danner and who he is; without any physical description, I can see him perfectly in my head. This is shortly before he comes across a surprise in the country road; in a place called Deadman’s Hollow, where the county road cuts through the overgrown, gone to seed estate called Maidenwood–the skeletons of a woman and a baby. That discovery is the key to the story of Be Buried in the Rain, and it’s a terrific story. Julie, our first person p.o.v character (I resisted the urge to call her Our Heroine) is in medical school; her mother and family pressure her into spending the summer between classes at Maidenwood, helping care for her eighty-five year old malevolent grandmother, Martha. Martha is truly monstrous, and Julie spent four years as a child in Martha’s care at Maidenwood while her mother worked her way through college. After being retrieved by her mother, Julie has never returned to Maidenwood, and for the most part has blocked the memories of those four awful years out of her mind…but her return to Maidenwood starts bringing the horrible memories back.
At the heart of the story is the mystery of the identity of the skeletons, and where they came from. Local legend has always held that Maidenwood was the site of a British colonial settlement called Maydon’s Hundred that was wiped out in an Indian massacre; Julie has a love interest in an archaeologist named Alan whom she was involved with before, who was always interested in finding the remains of Maydon’s Hundred. Martha grimly put a stop to that, and her nastiness to both Alan and Julie also ended their relationship. Now both are back at Maidenwood…a crumbling, dirty old manse with an overgrown, almost oppressive vegetation surrounding it, as there hasn’t been money for decades to keep the place up.
The atmosphere is fantastic; Michaels is at her best at describing the oppressive heat and humidity, the overgrowth, the darkness inside the house that is not only literal but symbolic. It brought to mind memories of my own childhood summers in Alabama at my own grandmother’s–but my grandmother wasn’t a monster like Martha. It also reminded me of an idea I had for a book about Alabama…
I really do need to write about Alabama.
And now, back to the spice mines.