Amarillo by Morning

So, this morning when I woke up, as my first cup of coffee brewed, I dialed the COVID-19 testing hot-line for staff at the day job and made an appointment to get tested. They scheduled me for 9:20 am; I was called at around eight thirty, which left me with about fifty minutes to wake up, drink some coffee, and pull myself together. Our clinic’s COVID testing set-up is in the parking garage which is the ground floor of our building; staff simply drives into the garage and pulls up to the area where the tents and check-in desk are set up, and the doctor comes out and swabs your nose. Needless to say, as I swilled down coffee and brewed another quick cup to take with me in the car, my nerves were definitely feeling a bit frayed. Saturday was a better day than Friday; yesterday was better than Saturday. So far this morning I seem to feel okay other than fatigue–going up stairs to put on a T-shirt and shorts to drive over to the office made my legs and hips ache a bit; it also triggered a small coughing fit (note: the only time my lungs feel tight is when I cough; other than that I breathe fine and they don’t phase me at all. But when I cough, I feel a tightness in the center of my chest that is pretty severe–but as I said, once the coughing spasm passed, I feel fine) but I got dressed and drove over to the office. It didn’t take long as the streets are pretty empty–there’s some traffic, to be sure, and a pandemic and over-burdened hospitals doesn’t seem to be stopping people from driving like thoughtless assholes–and then I pulled into the garage, got checked in, signed my consent to be tested form, and Dr. Halperin came out and swabbed both nostrils.

And while I can see why the vice-president thought it was invasive–I imagine anything put it any of his orifices would be invasive to him–it really wasn’t that bad. It’s certainly not the worst thing I’ve ever had done to me; I’d certainly rather get my nostrils swabbed like that on a regular basis than have an abscessed tooth ever again, and the worst part of it wasn’t the invasiveness at all. The worst part is the chemical on the swab–it doesn’t quite burn per se, but the closest experience I can think of to it is when you accidentally and deeply inhale mothballs; my eyes watered and it burned a little bit, but not painfully.

In a best case scenario, the test results will be back within 2-4 days–it may be longer, who knows? But I have to go into a strict quarantine until the results do come back, which means not leaving the house or running any errands or doing much of anything. Of course I have gloves and masks, so I can theoretically do some things and leave the house if necessary, but I shouldn’t really take the risk of infecting someone else by going out in public until I know for a certain whether I currently have it, or did have it, or don’t have it at all. I was also a little confused because I’d assumed there would be a blood draw to go with the swab test, but I am also conditioned to thinking about testing for different viruses (HIV, syphilis, and Hep C) so I assumed the testing would also have to involve blood. But then I realized, afterwards as I was driving home, that mucous doesn’t carry the HIV, syphilis or Hep C viruses (virii?); but the COVID-19 virus can be airborne transmitted–which means it must be in the mucous membranes along with the antibodies.

At least that makes testing for it that much easier, so that’s kind of a plus?

I also noticed, this morning, a little bit of PTSD kicking in from the good old HIV/AIDS pandemic days–“oh, look, I need to get tested for a potentially fatal virus and have to wait days to get the results back”–but I quickly tamped that down, shoved the lid closed and firmly padlocked it. I suppose it’s a bit of a surprise that particular version of all the PTSD’s I have locked behind various doors in my brain took so long to try to worm it’s way out, but it did finally show up and I was able to beat it down rather easily.

Thank you, coping mechanisms, developed over several decades of seemingly endless trauma.

I didn’t have to take a nap yesterday, but after we finished watching Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, a lovely stand-alone film follow-up to the wonderful Miss Fisher series from Australia (it was kind of an Indiana Jones-lite adventure, set in Palestine in 1928 and quite fun), I got down my copy of Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror and opened it up to the chapter about the Black Death. Yes, I recognize that my recent fascination with plagues and epidemics and pandemics is probably morbid, given the current state of affairs in the world, yet my curiosity had always had a bit of morbidity to it and it’s really not surprising that it would take this kind of turn. (And I’m actually kind of glad; I was glad to finally read “Death in Venice” even if it left me a little cold; and it also led me down the path to rereading “The Masque of the Red Death”, and back into my Daphne du Maurier short stories) Realistically, while everyone talks about the Spanish influenza pandemic of a hundred years ago, primarily because it was the most recent pandemic (note to self: reread Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse Pale Rider”), the worst pandemic in history was clearly the bubonic plague, the Black Death, or, as it was known more simply during the fourteenth century, “the pestilence.”

Here’s how the chapter opens:

In October 1347, two months after the fall of Calais, Genoese trading ships put into the harbor of Messina in Sicily with dead and dying men at the oars. The ships had come from the Black Sea port of Caffa (now Feodosiya) in the Crimea, where the Genoese maintained a trading post. The diseased sailors showed strange black swellings about the size of an egg or an apple in the armpits and groin. The swellings oozed blood and pus and were followed by spreading boils and black blotches on the skin from internal bleeding. The sick suffered severe pain and died quickly within five days of the first symptoms. As the disease spread, other symptoms of continuous fever and spitting of blood appeared instead of the swelling or buboes. The victims coughed and sweated heavily and died even more quickly, within three days or less, sometimes in 24 hours. In both types everything that issued from the body–breath, sweat, blood from the buboes and lungs, bloody urine, and blackened excrement–smelled foul. Depression and despair accompanied the physical symptoms, and before the end “death is seen seared on the face.”

The disease was bubonic plague, present in two forms: one that infected the bloodstream, causing the buboes and internal bleeding, and was spread by contact; and a second, more virulent pneumonic type that infected the lungs and was spread by respiratory infection. The presence of both at once caused the high mortality and speed of contagion. So lethal was the disease that cases were known of persons going to bed well and dying before they woke, of doctors catching the illness at a bedside and dying before the patient. So rapidly did it spread from one to another that to a French physician, Simon de Covino, it seemed as if one sick person “could infect the whole world.” The malignity of the pestilence appeared more terrible because its victims knew no prevention and no remedy.

The chapter is pretty horrific, and it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to live through in the fourteenth century. It’s impossible to know how many people died because they died so quickly that graveyards overflowed and burial pits had to be dug; people simply dragged the bodies of their dead loved ones to the pits and dumped them there. Estimates were obviously guesses and sometimes exaggerated; one monk’s reported death toll for one particular city, in fact, was more than what its recorded population showed. But it’s not inaccurate to guess that one third of the European population died during the pestilence; towns disappeared, families completely died out. Farms went untended because the farmers and their families died; there were also undoubtedly consequential deaths, not from the plague but because of it; young children whose parents had died starved to death, etc. Naturally they thought it was the end of the world, a punishment from God for sin; and the fourteenth century, which Ms. Tuchman describes as “calamitous”, was certainly ripe for that kind of belief.

One of the interesting things to me about this current pandemic is–and this may entirely be because I am not paying attention and my social media is sort of a bubble; but I cannot believe someone would be saying this about the pandemic and no one i know would notice it and be outraged enough to post about it–where are the evangelicals? Where are all those “end times” preachers and ministers and con artists to prey on the fears of their congregation? Why isn’t anyone pointing out that this could actually be the “rapture” where God is calling his own to him? I have seen that some trashbag minister called this God’s punishment for the gays–but it didn’t gain any traction.

Maybe one of the outcomes of this pandemic will be the ending of that nonsense. I rather doubt it, but you know, hope springs eternal.

I did read for a while yesterday–I got further into Ammie Come Home and I read a short story by Harlan Ellison, “On the Downhill Side”, from his collection Deathbird Stories, which I’d originally read years ago, before I moved to New Orleans, and this story is set in New Orleans. Oddly enough, when I opened the ebook in my Kindle app on the iPad (I was actually looking to see if the collection included his Edgar winning “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”–it does) it was already opened to that story, so I read it, and as always with Ellison, loved it–and while it certainly is brilliantly written, it was written by someone who didn’t live here. I did love the story; like all of Ellison’s stories, the humanity in it was overwhelming and identifiable and relatable. I’ll probably give it, at some point, its own entry here.

And now I am feeling a bit tired, so I am going to go rest for a bit.

Sexy-Shirtless-Guys-8

Take Me Home, Country Roads

And here we are, Sunday morning, and the dawn of a new week. I am still controlling things with copious amounts of DayQuil–it really works wonders.

I finished reading Daphne du Maurier’s story “The Menace” yesterday, and am not quite sure what to make of it, to be honest. It was very strange, and again, like “The Archduchess”, not your typical du Maurier story (if it can be said that there is such a thing as a typical du Maurier story), but I also wasn’t certain how it fit the supposed theme of the stories in The Breaking Point–people pushed to their breaking point, and how they react or behave once they break. But it was an interesting read, and I’m not sorry I read it. I may wait before moving onto the other stories in the collection I’ve not read yet–“The Limpet” and “The Lordly Ones”–because these last two seemed like lesser stories…but it’s also kind of nice to know that du Maurier didn’t always hit it out of the park, too.

Makes me feel a little better about myself, don’t you know.

I also started rereading my favorite ghost story of all time, Barbara Michaels’ Ammie Come Home, which is just as charming, enchanting, and compulsively readable as it was the first time I read it, many many years ago when I was a just a child.

Yesterday was okay, health-wise, for the most part. It comes in waves, it seems, and I dosed myself regularly with DayQuil. At one point yesterday I wasn’t paying attention to the time, and  I could feel my nose starting to run and my temperature starting to go up, so I walked into the kitchen and dosed myself. I started shivering for a moment and then it kicked in and that was that. So, DayQuil, if you’re ever looking for testimonials…you know where to find me. The DayQuil seems to help keep the fever down, and to help with the coughing. There was a slight headache now and again, with several minor dry-coughing fits throughout the day, but no uncontrollable shivering, which for me was really the worst part of it other than feeling off. I am still sticking to my plan of getting tested tomorrow and self-quarantining for the rest of the week–it’s the only thing that makes sense and is responsible. I cannot assume that what I have isn’t the COVID-19 virus, and I cannot put other people at risk (any more than I already have–which is quite a lovely burden to shoulder, I might add). At worst, I’ll exhaust my sick and vacation time staying home for the week; at best, I’m getting better and not getting anyone else sick. I hate the thought that I put people at risk more than anything else, but I also didn’t know, so there’s that–but does that make it any better? Obviously, deliberately infecting people is worse, and now that I’ve been sick, I know better than to go to work every day until I know I don’t have it, or until I know I did have it and have taken the time to get over it completely.

I slept very well again last night, which was lovely, but I did feel tired most of the day yesterday. Going up and down the stairs seemed to really tire out my legs. But my breathing seems to still be okay–no tightness in my lungs, no restriction to my breathing–and while there were a couple of dry coughing fits (which go on until my lungs ached), for the most part my respiratory system seems to be functioning properly. So far so good this morning–although I should probably take a shot of DayQuil pretty soon; certainly before my second cup of coffee.

We watched a lot of episodes of Kim’s Convenience last night, which is a really cute and charming show that occasionally takes on some interesting and topical subjects. It’s very well cast, and I think my favorite character is the mom, who is absolutely hilarious. After a few hours spent with the Kims, we decided to try something else, and I remembered that we have Apple TV Plus (yes, we have too many streaming services, and I know I really should take the time some time to sit down and figure out which ones we need and which ones we don’t), and so I clicked over to that app and saw that Stephen Spielberg’s reboot of Amazing Stories was available, so we watched the first two episodes. The show is aptly titles, by the way–it is amazing. The stories are what Harlan Ellison called speculative fiction–that terrific catch-all that covers horror, fantasy, and science fiction, with all the crossovers and gray spaces in between. The first episode dealt with time travel; the second with spirits trapped in limbo, and both were so incredibly well done. The writing and acting and directing were pinpoint sharp; and the production values made it very clear we were watching a Spielberg production. The first starred Dylan O’Brien of Teen Wolf fame, and despite being about time travel it never created the paradox issues that usually pop up with time travel and was entirely satisfying at the end, with everything wrapped up beautifully. The ghosts in limbo story was equally emotionally honest and strong, about the bond of love between two young girls of color who were track stars and best friends since they were children, until one dies in a tragic accident. The two episodes were so sharp and strongly written they reminded me of Ellison and one of my favorite short stories of all time, “Paladin of the Lost Hour,” which was filmed as an episode of the mid-1908’s reboot of The Twilight Zone (that remains one of my favorite television episodes of all time as well); I am really looking forward to watching more of Amazing Stories–which reminded me I also pay for CBS All-Access, which means we can also watch Jordan Peele’s reboot of The Twilight Zone, which is also incredibly cool. It also made me think that the reboots of these shows should do what Rod Serling and the producers of other such shows in the 1950’s and 1960’s did–buy speculative fiction short stories from masters of the genre to film. Goddess knows there are plenty of them around these days.

And now I’m starting to fade a little bit, so I think I am going to repair to my easy chair and take it easy for a while. Have a lovely, and safe, Sunday, Constant Reader!

clayton snyder

Coal Miner’s Daughter

Wednesday, and here we are, in the middle of the week suddenly. It’s also a new month; didn’t March seem to last forever, to the point where it actually felt like it wasn’t just March but Bataan Death March? Does anyone besides me even know what the Bataan Death March was? Americans’ grasp and knowledge of our own history is astonishingly slender and leaves a lot to be desired–which is why the same policies that have failed, repeatedly, throughout our history–“trickle down economics”, anyone–always end up coming back around and fucking us all over again, repeatedly, as new generations continue to be fooled by the desire of the rich and the corporations to fuck us repeatedly, counting on the knowledge that no one knows it has all happened before.

It is astonishing how no one studies the past so we can learn from mistakes made and not repeat them, isn’t it?

I’m actually not, as today’s title might suggest, a coal miner’s daughter but actually a coal miner’s grandson; my grandfather was a coal miner, and received disability until the day he died for the black lung disease he acquired as a result. Alabama isn’t known for coal mining, and I do know that he used to go away to work in the coal mines, so I’m not exactly sure where it was he went to do the work; as a child I didn’t really listen to the stories as closely as perhaps I should have, or it’s the old memory-sieve thing, but I do remember seeing Coal Miner’s Daughter in the theater when it was released, and thinking, when they showed the shack Loretta Lynn grew up in, how similar it was to my maternal grandmother’s house. The house my father grew up in–where my grandfather lived up till pretty close to when he died, I think–wasn’t as ramshackle as my maternal grandmother’s. It never dawned on me to think about how much poverty my parents grew up as children; my maternal grandfather died when my mother was around eleven, and so the only money they ever got was his military pension from serving in the Pacific during the war–and it wasn’t much. My grandmother used to make most of her children’s clothes as well as her own; when I was a kid I remember my mother had mad sewing skills, but they fell into disuse as we moved up the economic ladder as I got older. My parents were, in fact, a perfect example of the upward mobility, the American dream, as it used to exist in those decades that followed the second world war. They married young and moved to Chicago when they were barely twenty and had two small children; they both worked in factories while my dad went to school at night to finish his engineering degree. By the time they were thirty they owned a house in the suburbs and my father was on his way up the corporate ladder; my mom stopped working when he finally made it to management and we were transferred to Kansas. It was always ironic to me that when I was a small child my parents both worked while everyone else I knew’s mom was a housewife; when the economy shifted in my teens my mother became a housewife while most other families became two income.

I didn’t grow up in Alabama, but I grew up thinking of Alabama as home and was raised to have a fierce, deep pride in not only being Southern but in Alabama. I grew up understanding the importance of both Alabama and Auburn football to the pride of the state, and pride in that the fierce rivalry between the two programs was one of the biggest and best in college football. My love for Alabama has grown more conflicted over the years, as I began to reexamine things I was raised to believe in as moral and right and developed my own code of ethics, morality, and right and wrong. Writing Bury Me in Shadows is, in some ways, an attempt to regurgitate and make sense of that through writing. The vast majority of my writing has always firmly centered New Orleans, and writing about New Orleans is probably what I’m best known for, if I am known at all. I have written bits and pieces here and there about other places I’ve lived; I turned Fresno into Polk for the frat boy books, and Tampa into Bay City for other stories, and of course, with the exception of Dark Tide, which was set in the panhandle of Alabama, I primarily fictionalize where I’m from in Alabama as Corinth County–which is where the main character of Dark Tide was from.

Bury Me in Shadows is my first book-length writing about Corinth County; and I decided to show it from the perspective of a native who didn’t grow up there, whose mother moved away before he was born, and has spent very little time there–and hasn’t, in fact, been there since he was eight years old. I am having some fun with it–you can’t go wrong with a meth lab, a burned out plantation house, and the rural woods in northwest Alabama–but it needs some work, and I think I’ve been away from it long enough now so that when I do have the time to go back and start revising and reworking and getting it ready to turn in, my eyes and perspective will be fresh.

I am starting to get more tired though, and it’s harder to get up in the morning than it was earlier in the week. I am only working the morning shift today; this afternoon I have some errands to run and I am going to do some work at home. I think that will help me with the tiredness–the screening process can be draining–and if I get my work done early, I can maybe spend some time reading or writing. I was too tired to read much more of “The Archduchess,” the du Maurier tale I am trying to get through this week, but it’s very interesting. The darkness that always imbues her work is there as the story goes on, which is about a very small European nation whose spring water has some kind of mystical rejuvenating power, but I haven’t gotten to the meat of the story as of yet. But it’s interesting, and I am curious to see where she is going with the story.

I also have a gazillion emails to try to get answered at some point today.

Just thinking about it makes me tired.

And on that note, it’s off to the spice mines. Have a lovely, lovely day, Constant Reader.

e4ebb2626bb0f2c5677c16d9ac93abbc

Forever and Ever Amen

Yesterday afternoon I got sucker-punched; there I was, having a good day and getting things done and then–WHAM! Right between the eyes–Southwest sent me a reminder email about my scheduled and ticketed trip to New York for the Edgars at the end of April. The 30th, to be exact, but because of the symposium and other duties, I was going to be flying up there on the 28th, hence the reminder email. It didn’t help that the email reminded me that today would have been the closing for TWFest/S&S, and I got teary-eyed and sad and overwhelmed and had to get off the computer and away from the world for a little while.

It was out of the blue–I’ve said this before and it’s my own advice to other people (“remember something unexpected will happen–a tweet, a Facebook post, an email–that will catch you off guard and trigger something internal”) but it’s still rough when it happens, and it did, in fact, derail the rest of my day; there was no writing accomplished yesterday, and I didn’t really do much of anything afterwards, other than binge a few more episodes of Ozark (greatly enjoying this third season; the performances are stellar, particularly Laura Linney and Julia Garner) and then went to bed early. I slept fairly well, and this morning I feel even, but man–was that ever rough yesterday or what?

This week I have to go to work at 8:15 at our other building (campus?) every morning before leaving around noon to head to our other building (campus?) on Elysian Fields for the afternoon shift. Adapting to what is essential a 9-to-5 life isn’t going to be easy for me; it’s something I’ve managed to avoid my entire life until age fifty-eight, although I have to confess (as I said the other day) there really is something to eight hours five days a week. I like getting home earlier than I usually do (around eight), and I just have to  adjust to having those early evenings free. Hurricane season is coming, and so is termite swarm season and the time when stinging caterpillars rain down from the live oak trees like something out of C-level horror film from the 1950’s–usually the second bill on a drive-in double feature; you know the kind of film I mean–and then comes the heat and humidity of the summer. It’s already hotter this year than it usually is at this time of the year; I can only imagine how truly unbearable July and August are going to be this summer. There are but two days left in this hellish March, and then it’s April. (And I do hope nobody is foolish enough to play pranks on April Fool’s Day…)

I’ve decided since my attention span is so limited that it’s time to go back to both the Short Story Project (which I’ve been doing these last few weeks, really) as well as the Reread Project. I had considered rereading Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic next, since I don’t really remember much of it at all, but have decided to reread one of my all time favorites, and definitely my favorite ghost story of all time, Ammie Come Home by Barbara Michaels. It’s been awhile since I read it, and it was, of course, the first novel by Michaels I read. I had originally watched the Made for TV movie that was based on it (The House That Wouldn’t Die, starring none other than the magnificent Miss Barbara Stanwyck), and then later found it in a volume of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books (remember those?) about a year or so later at my grandmother’s. I eventually bought a used paperback copy when I was either fifteen or sixteen and read the full novel, and it’s been a favorite of mine ever since. (In those days, I preferred her work as Barbara Michaels–it wasn’t until years later that I really got into her novels under the name Elizabeth Peters, and there was no turning back from that moment.)

I have a lot of emails in my inbox to answer–remember, I was in a flurry of responding to emails when I got the reminder from Southwest that derailed my entire day yesterday–as well as to sort and file. I’ve absolutely got to get back on that horse and dive into my emails headfirst today, and I’ve got to generate some others and consolidate all my notes and create an overall to-do list. My primary concern with so many seemingly endless tasks is that I am going to forget something important; I need to get my equilibrium back–hopefully getting used to my next work schedule will be helpful in that regard–and I need to get better organized.

I always seem to be saying that, don’t I?

Hmmmmm.

But the sun is rising and the world is gray outside my windows, and it’s about time for me to head into the spice mines. Stay safe, everyone, and have a lovely day.

Diego_Instore

I Will Always Love You

Constant Reader should know by now that one of my favorite writers is Daphne du Maurier. I was a teenager when I first got my hands on a copy of Rebecca, and I have reread the book every few years ever since. Around this same time–I think I was thirteen?–I also got a copy of her short story collection, Echoes from the Macabre, and become forever also enchanted by her story “Don’t Look Now.” These short stories were kind of a revelation to me; I hadn’t read many short stories at this point outside of the ones I had to read for English classes (and quite frankly, forcing teenagers to read “The Minister’s Black Veil”, with all due respect, should be considered a violation of the Geneva Convention, as is making them read “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”), and her mastery of subtlety, and weaving small details that turn out to be hugely important later was one of the things I admired the most about du Maurier. Over the course of the next few years I would return to du Maurier, to read The Flight of the Falcon, Frenchmen’s Creek, The Winding Stair, Jamaica Inn, The King’s General, and Rule Britannia. I didn’t love these other novels as much as I loved (love) Rebecca, but I became an enormous fan of du Maurier and her writing style; I also loved how she subverted tropes and genre expectations with her novels. I also loved that she wrote across a broad range of genres and styles with her work; you never really know what you’re going to get when you pick up one of her novels.

I had gotten a copy of her short story collection The Breaking Point several years ago; it contains some of the same stories as Echoes from the Macabre (“The Pool,” “The Blue Lenses”–bloody fantastic story, and “The Chamois”), and opens with “The Alibi,” which I read as part of the Short Story Project a few years back (was it last year? The year before? Does time have any meaning anymore?) but the other day (was it last week? Two weeks ago? Time has no meaning anymore) when I was talking about “Death in Venice” in reference to du Maurier’s “Don’t Look Now” and someone asked had I read du Maurier’s “Ganymede”? I had not, so I looked it up and was most delighted to see it was included in The Breaking Point; I just hadn’t gotten into the book far enough, and it is sandwiched between “The Blue Lenses” (which you really must read) and “The Pool”; which explains when I never progressed further in the book, having already read those two stories.

So, having now read both “Don’t Look Now” and “Death in Venice”, I thought it was perhaps time for me to read “Ganymede,” which is the du Maurier tale most often academically associated with “Death in Venice”–but it is very different.

They call it Little Venice. That was what drew me here in the first place. And you have to admit that there is a curious resemblance–at least for people like myself, with imagination. There is a corner, for instance, where the canal takes a bend, fronted by a row of terraced houses, and the water has a particular stillness, especially at night, and hte glaring discordancies that are noticeable during the day, like the noise of the shunting from Paddington Station, the rattle of the trains, the ugliness, all that seems to vanish. Instead…the yellow light from the street lamps might be the mysterious glow you get from those old lanterns set in brackets on the corner of some crumbling palazzo, whose shuttered windows look blindly down upon the stagnant sweetness of a side-canal.

It is, and I must repeat this, essential to have imagination, and the house-agents are clever–they frame their advertisement to catch the eye of waverers like myself. “Two-roomed flat, with balcony, overlooking canal, in the quiet backwater known as Little Venice,” and instantly, to the famished mind, to the aching heart, comes a vision of another two-roomed flat, another balcony, where at the hour of waking the sun makes patterns on a flaking ceiling, water patterns, and the sour Venetian smell comes through the window with the murmur of Venetian voices, the poignant “Ohé!” as the gondola rounds the bend and disappears.

In Little Venice we have traffic too. Not sharp-nosed gondolas, of course, gently rocking from side to side, but barges pass my window carrying bricks, and sometimes coal–the coal-dust dirties the balcony; and if I shut my eyes, surprised by the sudden hooting, and listen to the rapid chug-chug of the barge’s engine, I can fancy myself, with my same shut eyes, waiting for a vaporetto at one of the landing-stages. I stand on the wooden planking, hemmed in by a chattering crowd, and there is a great surge and throbbing as the vessel goes hard astern. Then the vaporetto is alongside, and I, with my chattering crows, have gone aboard and we are off again, churning the water into wavelets with our wash, and I am trying to make up my mind whether to go direct to San Marco, and so to the piazza and my usual table, or to leave the vaporetto higher up the Grand Canal and thus prolong exquisite anticipation.

As Constant Reader knows, I spent a mere twenty-four hours in Venice on our trip to Italy back whenever that was (2014? 2015? Time has certainly ceased to have any meaning), and it was certainly not enough. Our trip was timed beautifully to avoid crowds of tourists I expected to see in Venice, Florence, and Pisa; it wasn’t planned that way but simply worked out for us. We arrived in the city on a bright sunny early afternoon; lugged our bags through the narrow streets to find our hotel, which was a charming family business on a back canal, not far from the Rialto Bridge and a very short walk to the Piazza San Marco. It did turn gray and start drizzling a bit as we walked around exploring the beautiful city, and I was completely enchanted by it; twenty four hours was certainly not enough. I did stand in the Piazza San Marco and say, quoting Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “ah, Venice.”

I’ve also been writing a story set in Venice, which I’ve been wanting to do since I was there–and probably should have done before now. It’s called “Festival of the Redeemer,” and in some ways it’s yet another homage to “Don’t Look Now”, but it is also it’s own story–it was kind of inspired by “Don’t Look Now”, but as I write it it’s become something else entirely. So, I wanted to reread “Don’t Look Now”–and then of course moved on to “Death In Venice,” before coming around to “Ganymede.”

I can see why the latter two stories (“Death in Venice” and “Ganymede”) are academically linked; there are similarities between the stories: two older men coming to Venice on a holiday; the city wasn’t either’s first choice of vacation spot; and soon after their arrival they find themselves obsessed with a beautiful teenaged boy. In the Mann story, his main character is a rather stuffy and pompous author whose successes and literary brilliances have earned him an honorary nobility in Germany; in the du Maurier, he is a classics scholar, an utterly unbearable pretentious snob, and basically a pedophile with a taste for post-pubescent boys. In the Mann story, Aschenbach’s obsession with teenager Tadzio is portrayed as both something noble and pure and beautiful; no lust, nothing impure, nothing to see here; it’s an aesthetic and pure admiration for the young man’s classical and breathtaking beauty, which inevitably leads to Aschenbach’s death because he has become aware of the cholera outbreak but he cannot bear to leave his beautiful young man behind. The story has thus been embraced by academia as a classic–even though the entire story rings with a hollow inauthenticity that renders the entire thing a pointless masturbatory exercise on Mann’s part: by trying to make a bold sentence about aging and death and the pursuit of beauty and love in a pure form, it overlooks the simple, basic thesis that Aschenbach is drooling over the good looks of a fourteen year old. Aschenbach is nothing more than another Humbert Humbert, convinced that his “love” for a child is something noble and pure rather than its tawdry reality.

Du Maurier doesn’t have that same sentimentality and nobility of purpose than Mann apparently had when undertaking his tome; she saw right through it and saw the story for it was, and her pastiche–if it was indeed influenced by the Mann story, and not something she thought up herself–lacks sentimentality and doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it actually is: the self-justification of a pedophile for what happened to him in Venice–and the damage his peculiarity of taste causes. But du Maurier’s unnamed narrator (another trick of which du Maurier was fond; not naming her main characters) reads much like Humbert Humbert; he is trying to justify his tastes, predilections, and desires for young boys as something noble–but du Maurier exposes the tawdriness underlying his unsavory tastes. The object of his obsession also goes without name other than Ganymede; which our pedophile starts calling him once he sees him waiting tables in the Piazza San Marco, and is reminded, not only by what he does for a living but by his youthful beauty, of the myth of Ganymede–the only time in Greek mythology in which the beauty of a young man so moved Zeus that he brought him to Olympus, made him divine, and replaced his female cupbearer, Hebe, with him. And so the young man becomes Ganymede in the myth being spun by our narrator.

Nor is our narrator the only villain in this tale; Ganymede’s uncle notes the narrator’s interest in Ganymede and thus prepares to exploit the attraction; one is never certain whether Ganymede himself is in on the scam, or is an unwitting prop in his uncle’s procuring. The story, of course, concludes with a tragedy–most du Maurier tales do–but unlike Aschenbach, our narrator does not die in Venice; but causes the death of his obsession. The story concludes with our narrator back in London, living in his two-room flat in Little Venice, remembering his experience and remembering his Ganymede and the tragedy that ensued…but the story closes with him talking about another young waiter at another restaurant, in this “little Venice”, one who reminds him of Ganymede and the delusions he built up around him; he is doing the same thing with this new shiny object that has crossed his path…it is clearly, as du Maurier makes plain, his pattern.

I greatly enjoyed this story, and while I can see the parallels, as I said, with “Death in Venice”, I feel du Maurier took a more honest and realistic approach to telling her story than Mann did with his. I will reread this story again–its a great story–and will probably dive into some more du Maurier this summer.

cin2-play hard4

The Silky Veils of Ardor

As Constant Reader knows, Gregalicious loves short stories. He regrets deeply that they are much harder for him to write than novels (I’ve often joked that I find it much easier to write a novel than a short story; the word count limitations are hard for me as I always tend to write probably more than is needed to illustrate a particular point–take this sentence, for example), and I am sure part of this insecurity comes from my oft-told tale about my first writing professor, who earwormed his petty nastiness into my brain and soul. (But also this gives me an enormous sense of personal satisfaction in that I know I’ve published more fiction than he did during his time on this planet; to this date, I still cannot find a single fiction publication for the prick.)

And while I am a firm believer in the mentality that writers should always be paid–even if merely a token–for their work, I will often write short stories if requested, and don’t mind donating a story for a good cause. The two stories I had in Bouchercon anthologies weren’t paid, nor was my story for Murder-a-Go-Go’s; like I said, when I am asked to write a story I am genuinely so flattered that the editor thought enough of me and my work to ask. I like writing short stories, even if they are a struggle for me, and there aren’t many places where one can get them published these days.

I was enormously flattered to be asked by short story master Josh Pachter to write a story for his anthology of stories inspired by the music of Joni Mitchell. The irony, of course, is that while I am familiar with Ms. Mitchell and her work–and I like what I know of it–I am not as familiar with her canon as I am with women singer-songwriters like Stevie Nicks, Dolly Parton or Carole King; I also realized that the songs of hers that I could name off the top of my head–“Free Man in Paris”, “Help Me”, “Big Yellow Taxi”, etc.–were the same ones anyone could; I wanted something not quite as famous and perhaps a little more obscure, something to which a Joni Mitchell fan would say oh yes, of course you chose that song.

So, I did what I often do in these situations: I asked my friend Michael Thomas Ford (aka That Bitch Ford), and he immediately came back with “You should pick ‘The Silky Veils of Ardor.’ It’s about that hot guy all the high school girls fall in love with and breaks their hearts.”

That was definitely intriguing, so I looked up the lyrics and listened to the song several times as I listened to Joni’s sweet voice singing them…and I knew immediately what story I was going to tell.

jonicover.final

The elevator doors opened. Cautiously, her heart thumping in her ears, she stepped out into the hotel lobby and took a quick look around. At the front desk, a young woman in uniform was checking in a couple. They didn’t look familiar. But it had been so long since she’d seen any of them…would she recognize anyone?

She didn’t notice she was holding her breath.

She walked across the lobby to the hotel bar entrance. A reader board just outside said WELCOME BACK BAYVIEW HIGH CLASS OF 1992!

The black background was faded, the white plastic letters yellowed with age.

The urge to head back to the elevators and punch at the UP button until the doors opened, get back to her room and repack her suitcases—everything she’d just carefully put away neatly in drawers and hung in the closet—was strong. She resisted, recognized the need as irrational, closed her eyes, clenched her hands until she felt her ragged bitten nails digging into her palms.

You can do this you can do this you can do this you can do this….

A dull murmur came from the hotel bar, laughter and talking, the rattle of ice against glass, the whir of a blender. From where she stood, she could see the bar was crowded, cocktail waitresses in too-short black skirts and white blouses with trays balanced on one hand maneuvering expertly around groups of people.

Maybe no one there was from the reunion. Maybe she was early. Maybe—

You can do this!

She’d always had social anxiety. Had never made friends easily, couldn’t make small talk, sometimes said the wrong thing, alienated people without even knowing what she’d done. Parties and dances had always been agony. Even with friends, people she felt relatively certain actually did like her, there was always the irrational fear she’d say the wrong thing, forget a birthday, commit some horrific social faux pas that would turn them against her, show them what a damaged, worthless person she actually was. She’d started seeing a therapist after college, years after she should have, but her parents thought therapy was all touchy-feely mumbo-jumbo for the weak and all you had to do was suck it up and forget about it, not worry, lock it all away in some dark corner of your mind and move on.

I have never attended a high school reunion, and frankly, have little to no desire to ever do so–with no offense intended to anyone I went to high school with. Our school was very small and remote, for one thing–my graduating class had only 48 students, and at that point, were the largest graduating class in our high school’s history. It’s not easy to get there–one would have to fly into either Kansas City or Wichita, rent a car, and drive for at least an hour just to get to the county seat, and of course, my high school was about nineteen miles (give or take) north of the county seat. I do think about going back from time to time, more to take a look around and see what’s different now as opposed to then; to refresh my memories a bit for writing about the region–which I’ve done somewhat already, but not nearly as much as I could. Using Google Earth has already shown me that my memory is faulty–I’ve fallen into Google Earth wormholes frequently–so while there is some idle curiosity about going back, there’s very little desire or motivation. It’s difficult, I think, for my classmates to understand that I really don’t have much desire to revisit that time of my life; it’s certainly not their fault but the four or five years I spent in Kansas also contain some of the darkest periods of my life.

I wrote a short story about a high school reunion under my Todd Gregory pseudonym; “Promises in Every Star,” which eventually became the title story of my Todd Gregory collection. I first had the idea for that story when I received the invitation to my ten year reunion, back in 1988; the title is a lyric from one of my favorite til Tuesday songs, “Coming Up Close,” from my favorite album of theirs, Welcome Home, which I can listen to over and over again, and have, many times; it’s definitely in my Top Five favorite albums of all time. I don’t remember where I originally published that story, but it was many, many years later, after I had the original idea and wrote the first draft (in long hand), and after that, I figured I was finished with high school reunion stories.

Until “The Silky Veils of Ardor.”

As I listened to the song, the more the story began to take shape in my head; a high school reunion, twenty-five years later; returning to the town where she went to high school for the first time since she graduated and moved away with her family. I had already written the opening, for another short story; as I revised and retooled that particular story, the character grew and changed and wasn’t the timid, nervous, medicated woman she originally was–but I loved that original opening, and decided to lift it from the initial drafts of that story onto this one. I found the original word document of the first draft, erased everything after the opening few paragraphs, and renamed the file THE SILKY VEILS OF ARDOR. The rest of the story flowed out of me after I finished rereading and tweaking the original opening to fit the new story, and I was off and running. I revised the story several times, and one of the things, one of the points, I was trying to make with the story is about how differently we see high school than our friends and classmates did–which is an idea I’d been toying with after an exchange on social media with some of my classmates after I’d posted something–a status update or a blog post, or something along those lines–about how miserable I’d been in high school; my friends were all astonished because how remembered high school was very different from the way they remembered it, and me. I remembered feeling isolated and lonely, like an alien from another planet set down into their midst; a freak everyone kept at arm’s length. They, on the other hand, remembered me as being popular and well-liked by everyone.

And that, my friends, is where this story came from. I still think about those tricks our memories play on us; our inability to see what was right in front of us if we could just see clearly.

The book will be officially released on April 7th from Untreed Reads; you can preorder it at any vendor that sells ebooks. There’s a stellar line-up of writers, and some of the proceeds are going to charity.

And thanks again to Josh Pachter for inviting me.

Here’s a link to Joni singing the song–this is the video I listened to for inspiration.

Okie from Muskogee

Thursday morning, and I am working from home today; or taking a mental health day–I’m not sure which it will be as of yet. This week has been fraught, to say the least, and by the time I got home yesterday I was exhausted and literally just collapsed into my easy chair for cat cuddles and mindless Youtube viewing. I don’t precisely remember what led me down that particular rabbit hole, but I at one point found myself listening/watching music videos of the Archies, Josie and the Pussycats, the Monkees, and the Partridge Family. (Hanna-Barbara animation, by the way, wasn’t very good–and the voices! My God, the speaking voices of the characters was like fingernails on a blackboard.) We also continue to watch The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and seriously–if you’re home, have Netflix, and are looking for something really fun to binge, you can’t go wrong with Sabrina.

I think what is making this week particularly hard is knowing that this weekend was when the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival/Saints & Sinners was supposed to be taking place; I was looking forward to seeing friends and making new ones, hanging out in the Quarter, staying in our posh suite at the Monteleone while coming home from time to time to keep Scooter company, and then launching into the next week energized and ready to get back to writing. Instead, I am physically and emotionally drained; the weather is spectacular (although I would imagine those from up north would consider this too hot–it is much warmer than it usually is in late March), and who knows what fresh hell tomorrow will bring? This morning I woke up at seven, but stayed in bed almost another two hours simply because I didn’t want to face my emails or whatever the new reality for today was going to be. But I can’t, in fact, stay in bed all day–no matter how much I want to–so I finally rolled out of bed and am now on my first cup of coffee and thinking already about how best to make use of the day.

I did read “The Masque of the Red Death” again finally last evening; I found a pdf on-line free for download (thank you, public domain!) so I downloaded and printed it out and read it while a cat purred in my lap. As I was reading it–it’s really more of a fable or fairy tale than an actual story; there’s no real characters, and the only one who has a name–Prince Prospero–is never developed into anything remotely human or three dimensional; as I said, it’s more of a fable illustrating the futility of trying to escape from death than an actual short story. And yet–yet it still resonated with me more than “Death in Venice”, which, though, I am still thinking about a few days later, which means it affected me probably more than I originally thought.

Either that, or all these stories–linked by plagues and Venice, in some ways; it was easy to imagine Prospero’s palace being on the Grand Canal–are linking and fusing together in my mind somehow; so perhaps the essay I am thinking about isn’t so far-fetched and out of touch with reality as perhaps I may have originally thought. I am going to spend some time today reading du Maurier’s “Death in Venice” pastiche, “Ganymede”, and I will let you know how that goes. I still don’t seem to be able to commit to a full-length novel, but I also do remember that I did read an awful lot in the aftermath of Katrina–in fact, I remember rereading All the President’s Men as well as a book about the criminal conduct of Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew–and so am thinking I might be best off turning to my non-fiction reading. I am still reading Jason Berry’s City of a Million Dreams, and I am thinking about getting down my copy of Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror and rereading her chapters about the bubonic plague’s first, and most deadly, visits to Europe.

I made a post on Facebook yesterday, a little annoyed, about how the condos being built on my street two lots over is continuing despite the shelter-in-place order, essentially saying so glad the condo construction going on two lots over from my house is considered essential. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad the guys are working and getting paid; these are scary times, particularly for those living paycheck to paycheck, and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone getting paid-, but I can’t help but think about their safety, and I also can’t help but wonder who in the hell is going to buy a condo in this economic climate? As of yesterday Louisiana had 1,795 confirmed cases and 65 deaths, most of them in Orleans Parish, but it’s spreading gradually to the outer parishes, who are even less equipped to deal with a pandemic than Orleans. Anyway, this led to an idea for a noir short story called “Condos For Sale or Rent”, and I actually scribbled down the opening to the story last night…and it also kind of made me think about, as is my wont, quarantine/pandemic fiction. I wonder what post-flood New Orleans fiction would be like; now I wonder about how this whole pandemic/quarantine event will impact not just crime fiction, but fiction in general.

And here I am, already thinking about a pandemic short story, and even last night, before switching on Sabrina (that’s how the Youtube wormhole started; I was thinking about Sabrina, and how she was originally a character on Archie–so I looked for the old show on Youtube, found the video for “Sugar Sugar”, which featured Sabrina working a kissing booth, and then I got sucked in), I was thinking about a Scotty book during the pandemic/quarantine. Obviously such a book cannot be written now–without knowing what’s going to happen with COVID-19, you cannot tell the entire story–but it’s not a bad idea to take notes and come up with thoughts about it.

I also just remembered Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse Pale Rider is set during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918; perhaps I should read it again. Not a huge fan of Porter, either, to be honest; I read The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (I was looking for “Miss Brill,” not realizing at the time that was written by Katherine Mansfield rather than Porter) and was underwhelmed by them. Maybe I should give it another whirl? Maybe my tastes have matured and deepened enough by now for me to develop an appreciation for Porter. I should probably take another run at Hemingway–I only read The Old Man and the Sea and A Farewell to Arms, both of which were required for a lit class in high school and I hated them both–although Hemingway is precisely the kind of writer I’d hate if I knew in real life.

And on that note I am heading back into the spice mines. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader, and do whatever you need to in order to keep yourself safe and uninfected.

Chris-Mears