The Calm Before the Storm

Alfred Hitchcock was a great film director, and was responsible for some of the best movies ever made, from Rebecca through Notorious through North by Northwest to Vertigo to Strangers on a Train to The Birds to Psycho; the list of great Hitchcock films goes on and on and on and has been studied by film academics and written about; you certainly cannot forget Truffaut/Hitchcock, either. Lost in the discussions of his abilities as a filmmaker (and how he was somewhat abusive to his leading ladies) is his contributions to the culture in other ways. Alfred Hitchcock Presents ran for years; an anthology show like The Outer Limits or The Twilight Zone, he presented bizarre stories (often based on short fiction; perhaps the most famous episode of all was based on a Roald Dahl short story in which a wife kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, which she then cooks and serves to the investigating police officers) on a weekly basis and the show ran for a long time. (It’s available to stream now, and I keep meaning to dive back into the show.

But Hitchcock also was a master, before it was a thing, of licensing his name out for use; his name meant something as a master director of film suspense, and in addition to the television series there were also anthologies, also published under the aegis of Alfred Hitchcock Presents–my grandmother used to buy and read them; so did my parents–and even today one of the best short story markets for crime is Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. There were anthologies for adults, anthologies for teens and anthologies for kids.

And there was also The Three Investigators.

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Bob Andrews parked his bike outside his home in Rocky Beach and entered the house. As he closed the door, his mother called to him from the kitchen.

“Robert? Is that you?”

“Yes, Mom.” He went to the kitchen door. His mother, brown-haired and slender, was making doughnuts.

“How was the library?” she asked.

“It was okay,” Bob told her. After all, there was never any excitement at the library. He worked there part time, sorting returned books and helping with the filing and cataloguing.

“Your friend Jupiter called.” His mother went on rolling out the dough on the board. “He left a message for you.”

“A message?” Bob yelled with sudden excitement. “What was it?”

“I wrote it down. I’ll get it out of my pocket as soon as I finish with this dough.”

“Can’t you remember what he said? He may need me!”

“I could remember an ordinary message,” his other answered, “but Jupiter doesn’t leave ordinary messages. It was something fantastic.”

“Jupiter likes unusual words,” Bob said, controlling his impatience. “He’s read an awful lot of books and sometimes he’s a little hard to understand.”

“Not just sometimes!” his mother retorted. “He’s a very unusual boy. My goodness, how he found my engagement ring, I’ll never know.”

She was referring to the time the previous fall when she had lost her diamond ring. Jupiter Jones had come to the house and requested her to tell him every move she had made the day the ring was lost. Then he had gone out to the pantry, reached up, and picked the ring from behind a row of bottle tomato pickles. Bob’s mother had taken it off and put it there while she was sterilizing the jars.

“I can’t imagine,” Mrs. Andrews said, “how he guessed where that ring was!”

“He didn’t guess, he figured it out,” Bob explained. “That’s how his mind works…Mom, can’t you get the message now?”

“In one minute,” his mother said, giving the dough another flattening roll. “Incidentally, what on earth was that story on the front of yesterday’s paper about Jupiter’s winning the use of a Rolls-Royce sedan for thirty days?”

And that is how The Three Investigators series (technically, in the beginning  “ALFRED HITCHCOCK and the Three Investigators”) began. While it’s not as smooth, per se, as the opening of the Trixie Belden series in The Secret of the Mansion, this is also a dramatically different series, and will always have a place in my heart as one of the best series for kids–if not the best–ever published. It never reached the same heights of popularity as Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys; which was a shame, because it was a much better series than either of those. For one thing, the Three Investigators actually considered themselves to be professional detectives; Nancy and the Hardys, amongst with most of the others, were strictly amateurs (although in the Kathryn Kenny books, “the Belden-Wheeler Detective Agency” became kind of a running gag or thing; it was what Trixie and Honey decided they wanted to be when they grew up; and frankly, I’ve always kind of wanted to see a Trixie-as-an-adult hard-boiled series). And while this opening is a little longish about getting to the point, it eventually does; Bob is a highly excitable young man who works at the library, and this is also our first look at Jupiter Jones, and one of the best things about the series is Jupiter; he is the central character and there would be no Three Investigators without him–and he is one of the most remarkable, and original, characters in kids’ mystery series fiction.

I always thought of Rocky Beach as a sort of stand-on for Long Beach in this series; this is where the boys live, and it’s just south of Los Angeles and a drive to Hollywood. This is where the three boys who make up the titular team of the series live; the third investigator, whom we have yet to meet in this opening, is Pete Crenshaw. And that bit about the contest and the Rolls-Royce? It’s very important. Access to a vehicle, and someone to drive them around, is an integral part of the creation of this investigative agency; they can’t always count on getting rides or paying for cabs or only involving themselves in cases they can investigate on bikes; this is the impetus Jupiter has been looking for to open the agency. Jupiter’s message to Bob is impenetrable to his mother; but it makes perfect sense to Bob–and therein lies another one of the great charms of this series: Jupiter lives with his uncle Titus and aunt Mathilda; the couple own and operate the Jones Salvage Yard, a sprawling junkyard where they repurpose other’s people things, or fix them. Jupiter himself is quite adept at wiring and repairing things; just one, as we the readers will find out, of his many skills. Hidden deep within the salvage yard is the wreck of a mobile home, which the boys use as “headquarters”; over the years Jupiter has managed to hide the mobile home behind piles of junk. The yard is also surrounded by an enormous, tall wooden fence, and Uncle Titus has encouraged local artists to paint murals on the fence. With the help of Bob and Pete, Jupiter has created “secret entrances” into the salvage yard, with tunnels through the piled up junk; that way the boys can come and go as they please without having to use the main entrance. They also have a covered workshop in another area hidden from view; Jupiter’s message to Bob is simply Red gate rover, come over come over, the presses are rolling. Bob knows this means,  come to headquarters, use red gate Rover, and we’re printing our business cards. 

“Red Gate Rover” means use the entrance through the fence that is a mural of a team of firefighters fighting an enormous blaze; there’s a dog watching them, and the knothole in the dog’s eye will spring the hidden gate open. And sure enough, once he gets there, the printing press is rolling and Jupiter presents him with a card, that reads:

THE THREE INVESTIGATORS

We Investigate Anything

? ? ?

–and also has their names. Jupiter is, naturally, the first investigator with Pete as second; Bob is Records & Research, since he works in the library and is their best writer; it is his job to write up their cases. As such, and with an understanding that all cases also need to be introduced as well as get sufficient publicity for their agency to get clients, Jupiter has decided on two things: to ask Alfred Hitchcock to introduce their cases, and offer to help find him a truly haunted house, as he is looking for one for his next film. Using the Rolls-Royce, driven by a very proper British chauffeur named Worthington, Jupiter and Pete call on Mr. Hitchcock at the studio. (The Rolls-Royce, by the way, has every luxurious amenity available to a limousine in that time; and is gold-plated, which sticks out. It was originally commissioned by a Saudi oil millionaire.) They bluff their way in–partly because Jupiter pretends to be Hitchcock’s nephew, even arranging his face to imitate his expressions and voice and patterns of speech–but Hitchcock isn’t that interested in introducing their cases, but has no worries about them looking for a haunted house for him. (While they are calling on Hitchcock, Bob has gone to the library to research something–Jupiter writes the words Terror Castle on the back of one of their business cards and offered no explanation.) But when Jupiter does his impression of “Hitchcock as a 13 year old”, Hitchcock is offended and promises to introduce the first case as long as Jupiter will never do the impression again (and, it is to be noted, the introduction and afterward, as supposedly written by Hitchcock, is clearly done so grudgingly; this was a genius touch by author Robert Arthur–and over the course of the series Hitchcock not only grows fond of the boys but starts sending clients their way).

The thing I loved perhaps the most about this series (outside of the wonderful titles for the books) was they actually were investigators. They actually solved the mysteries they were investigating–well, Jupiter did, mostly–through observation and interpretation of data. Jupiter was, in many ways, kind of a young Sherlock–and he often referred to Holmes. Another thing that was very clever about the series is that the stories were rarely, if ever, told from Jupiter’s point of view; Bob and Pete were always the point-of-view characters, representing the reader, who also couldn’t figure out what was going on. Since it mattered for suspense and storytelling to not know what Jupiter was thinking, Bob and Pete stood in for the reader, confused by the cryptic things Jupiter said–or casually observing Jupiter noticing something that didn’t make sense.

Another thing that, in my opinion, makes the series stronger than others is it is made, very plain, from the very beginning that fat-shaming is a bad thing. Jupiter is described as stocky or husky; he deeply resents being called fat, and whenever someone cruelly makes such an observation, both Pete and Bob always get angry and jump to his defense (Jupiter was also a child star, playing Baby Fatso in a Little Rascals type television show; his being a fat child made him the butt of the jokes in the show and he DESPISES being laughed at)–compare that to how Bess is frequently mocked for being hungry and chubby in the Nancy Drew books, or the depiction of the Hardy Boys’ supposed best friend Chet Morton as an always-hungry, overweight comic relief and foil they always laugh at–yeah, not cool, Stratemeyer Syndicate, not cool at all.

The first Three Investigators story I read was The Mystery of the Moaning Cave. We were in Alabama one summer, and staying with a cousin of my mother’s who had a son my age who also loved to read, and loved mysteries. He had a stack of library books, and I picked up my very first Hardy Boys read, The Mystery of Cabin Island, out of the stack. I was two chapters in when he finished reading his book (The Mystery of the Moaning Cave) and asked me to swap books with him. I was enjoying the Hardy Boys, but the cover of the Three Investigators book he was offering me was tantalizing, plus that title! How could a cave moan? I started reading, and was soon swept up in the story–which remains, to this day, one of my favorites in the series. It reminded me of another book I greatly loved as a child, The Mystery of the Haunted Mine, but the problem was my library didn’t have any of these books, and I could never find more of them anywhere. In junior high a friend of mine was a fan of the series, which led me to reread The Mystery of the Moaning Cave, which I loved all over again, and then its predecessor, The Mystery of the Screaming Clock, which was also amazing. I eventually discovered, on a birthday trip to Toys R Us, an entire shelf of the books; I got five–The Secret of Terror Castle, The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy, The Secret of Skeleton Island, The Mystery of the Laughing Shadow, and The Mystery of the  Coughing Dragon. 

I honestly don’t recall how I was able to collect the rest of the series, or where I got them or what order in which I read them, but I did eventually read the entire series. Later, the series moved on to other authors other than Robert Arthur and the quality became more hit-and-miss, but even the worst Three Investigators case was better than the best books in other series. I still love the Three Investigators, and occasionally will take one down to reread it, again marveling at how well constructed the books are; how tight the plots and how strong the characterizations. I also loved how something small and simple, like the search for an escaped parrot (The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot) would lead to a massively complicated and interesting case about a massive art theft, or the search for a missing cat with mismatched eyes turned into The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy, or a near car crash led them to a small European principality and international espionage in The Mystery of the Silver Spider. Their cases inevitably started small, but eventually grew into something major; like they grabbed onto a loose, seemingly unimportant thread that unraveled a much larger case.

One thing that always amused me was how adults rarely, if ever, took them seriously. Jupiter’s aunt and uncle, and the parents of Pete and Bob, always looked at their “firm” as a “little mystery-solving club”. Inevitably the adults who pooh-poohed their abilities had to eat their words. I also loved that Jupiter wasn’t athletic but was smart. I identified with that a lot more than I did with the Hardy Boys, who were literally good at everything they tried.

The death of Alfred Hitchcock was an enormous blow, and the publisher–Random House, I believe–introduced a mystery writer for a while to replace Hitchcock, but the quality was already starting to decline, and eventually even the fictitious mystery writer, Robert Sylvester, was replaced by another fictitious entity; but the book in which the switch was made didn’t avoid the truth of Hitchcock’s death, and they actually handled it very well.

And some of the earlier books are seriously dated now; The Secret of Terror Castle centered on the home of a silent film horror star whose career was derailed by his speaking voice when talkies came; obviously, that would have happened around ninety years ago now, so there wouldn’t be any contemporaries still alive. Likewise, The Mystery of the Screaming Clock centered on someone who was a sound effects expert for radio suspense shows–which would, at best, have been seventy years ago now.

I’ve never believed this series was as popular as it deserved to be, nor did it get the attention it truly deserved. The books have been out of print for awhile now–maybe you can get used copies, there may even be ebooks now, I don’t know–but they should still be available. I would love to write one of these, to be honest.

They were the shit, y’all.

Closer to Heaven

Yesterday was Friday, and I was tired.

Really, really tired.

I slept for ten hours last night and woke up still exhausted this morning–bleary-eyed and bone-tired. It makes me a bit nervous, as the last time I was able to sleep so much, or do deeply, only to still be tired, was when I was sick this last time, and whatever that was, I sure as hell don’t want to see it return again. I just feel what we used to say down south–“bone tired”. (Hmm, that’s not a bad title.) So, while I have things to do today–we need to swing by the Cat Practice to get Scooter another bag of food, for one, and I definitely need to do some writing and cleaning and organizing around here, if I have the energy–and in a worst case scenario, I can always simply curl up with some books or short stories. I did manage to do some reorganizing/rearranging of the books last night–out Netflix app on the Apple TV is all fucked up; I’m probably going to have to delete and download it again, which is an enormous pain in the ass. Our wireless was also running ridiculously  slow the last few days, so I rebooted the cable box and the wireless router yesterday, which signed me out of everything fucking thing and I just was too tired to deal with that shit last night. We wound up watching an incredibly bad gay movie on Amazon Prime–I won’t name it out of respect for the effort, time and money that went into it, plus I don’t like dumping on gay creators–during which both Paul and I dozed off here and there, before it was over and I finally retired to bed. I was also too tired last night to focus on doing any reading–which was definitely a lost opportunity, and one that I deeply regret. I’d like to finish reading Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin this weekend; it’s really quite wonderful, and I’d like to move on to his We Disappear once I finish it. I’ve also got a lot of short stories to read–not the least of which is W. Somerset Maugham’s “The Letter,” and I simply love that it’s the source material for one of my favorite Bette Davis movies, of the same name–and there’s another one, by Mark Twain, about an incident that happened at the court of Charles VI in France (I stumbled on this story somehow; the true story it’s based on is detailed in Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, which is starting to seem like a really great inspiration for me, almost Biblical in its inspiration). Plus I have, as I noticed last night as I reorganized the books, The Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor and the latest Lawrence Block anthology–Mr. Block does some seriously excellent anthologies, for the record–and so there’s all kinds of good reading on hand should I have the mental acuity to focus on some reading today.

It’s also not a bad idea to read the stories I am currently readying for submission by the end of the month. Perhaps I should spend the day in my easy chair with print outs of stories and perhaps spend some time with some of my favorite short story writers. It’s also not a bad idea to revisit Bury Me in Shadows, which I have decided to completely overhaul–the problem is the main character’s age, but because I envisioned it originally as being about a teenager, I was stubbornly clinging to that idea, and it actually works better if I advance his age to having just graduated Pre-Law from college and readying to attend law school in the fall; this having a free place to live in the summer and a paying job that is relatively easy makes more sense for the character to agree to what he’s doing; plus it eliminates the entire what is his mother thinking in letting him do this? It will also require me to do some other tweaking (not that kind of tweaking, those days are long in my past, thank you very much), but I also think it’ll be stronger and a better story for it.

Which is always a plus.

I would like to do some work this weekend on other stories that are currently hanging in stasis right now, not the least of which is my pandemic story, “The Flagellants.” I’m not certain why that story is nagging at me; I don’t know what it’s going to be or how its going to end; so I guess it’s one of those stories that will reveal itself to me as I write it, which is madness, really.

Recently someone–I think Gabino Iglesias? I could be wrong–tweeted asking writers to stop talking about how much they hate writing, and his tweets really resonated with me. I don’t hate writing, but it would be easy to assume that I do from reading what I post, tweet and blog about writing. I do love writing; I love everything about it, even the frustrations and irritations–which I usually have to express to get out of my system. Publishing is an entire different subject than writing; I reserve the right to always be able to bitch about the publishing industry and its quirks and utter seeming ridiculousness whenever I please, along with the right to complain about being frustrated with the writing process at any time. But I want to make it very clear that I love writing and that’s why I do it. I love writing what I write, even though I am well aware (and if I wasn’t, have been told enough times by my heterosexual colleagues) that there’s not really any money in writing gay crime stories. But I like writing gay crime stories; I like writing gay characters, and I also feel like the full potential for gay crime stories has yet to be tapped. But I’ve dabbled with heterosexual narratives in my short stories, and if I am ever going to write a novel about straight people–or centering the straight point of view–the short stories are an excellent way to practice.

And…every new story I finish writing puts me that much closer to a second collection of stories, which is very exciting to me. I was originally calling the second collection Once a Tiger and Other Stories, but I am thinking about changing it to This Town and Other Stories, primarily because “This Town” is a better story than “Once a Tiger” and secondly, I like the symbolism of “this town” referring to New Orleans–even though that’s not what the Go-Go’s were referring to in their song of the same title, which was the inspiration for my story. (My original collection began as Annunciation Shotgun and Other Stories before metamorphosing into Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories.)

I also started writing a blog entry about my love of The Three Investigators, which will probably go up at some point over this weekend; depends, I suppose, on when I finish it. And there’s a shit ton of emails that need my attention in my inbox as well; but I just can’t face that yet today. Maybe later on, after I get some things done, I can spend some time answering emails (as drafts to send on Monday) as well as writing some that I need to send.

But I just heard the dryer stop, which means I need to go fold some clothes and add another load to the dryer, and my coffee cup is also empty and in dire need of refilling; my stomach is growling as well, so it’s probably time for me to push away from the desk, get more coffee, fold some clothes and then have some Honey-nut Cheerios–which has been my pandemic breakfast of choice these days.

It also looks like a beautiful day outside. Have a lovely Saturday, Constant Reader!

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Casting a Shadow

And it’s Friday again! Cue the dancing horses.

I have a lot that I want to get done this weekend. I need to get those stories pulled together, and I want to get started on finishing off the Secret Project. Stupidly, I also started writing another short story yesterday, “The Flagellants,” which I am not really sure what it’s going to be about, or how to even finish the stupid thing. (An\d because I am twelve years old, sometimes when I think the title quickly it sounds like flatulence, which is a joke I may make in the story because I am twelve years old.) And yes, I got the idea from the bubonic plague chapter in Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror; during the fourteenth century’s bubonic plague outbreak, the church was already in disrepute and many felt that the plague was God’s judgment on a sinful mankind, so there were some religious cults that sprang up; the flagellants movement was one of these, and it was enormously popular and spread throughout central Europe, primarily Germany. These penitents would march through town and flagellate themselves with whips and cat o’nine tails and knotted ropes, trying to take on the sins of all mankind.

Naturally, I found this interesting, and I really liked “The Flagellants” as a title, and we’re kind of in the midst of a pandemic…granted, we’re not that far into it as of yet, but we’ve already seen ridiculous behavior in the name of Jesus–so far, nothing I’m aware of from other faiths–but I began to think about it some more and wondered, what if this becomes more lethal and lasts longer than anyone is even considering now? The second wave of the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 was much worse than the first, and in the wake of the Great War (aka World War I) and said pandemic there was a huge religious revival in the US during the 20’s–we tend to only think of that decade as flappers and bathtub gin, but that wasn’t all that was going on during that decade (it was also the decade that inspired Sinclair Lewis to write Elmer Gantry, and the decade of Aimee Semple McPherson)…and the old “what if” questions started running through my head, and I remembered the religious fanatics who always protest at Mardi Gras and Southern Decadence…and yeah, that’s kind of how stories get born. I’m not sure where this story is going to go or what it’s going to become–it’s kind of fun and different than anything I’ve written before–and I’m not entirely sure it’s going to end up as a crime story, which makes it even more fun.

I slept really long and well last night, and didn’t want to get up this morning, which was lovely–and a long time coming. It’s been a while since I’ve had such a great night’s sleep, and it was absolutely wonderful. I feel rested and ready to go mine some spice this morning.

As expected, Joey Burrow was the Number One draft pick last night, taken by the Cincinnati Bengals–and I said to Paul, “it’s going to be weird rooting for the Bengals now”–one of the many reasons I don’t get so far into the NFL is it is impossible for me to not root for former LSU players and their new teams to do well; and I really can’t devote more time to the NFL than I already give to the Saints. But after last night, I feel it’s pretty safe to say the Saints are Louisiana’s favorite team, and now the Bengals are our second favorite. I also never pay attention to the NFL draft, but I did last night because I wanted to see how the LSU players would do in it. Five players in the first round, I believe–Joey Burrow, K’Lavon Chaisson, Patrick Queen,  Justin Jefferson, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (which is a record, I believe, for LSU and one short of the overall record)–and now I need to go read the Advocate to see how the rest of the team did, and where they wound up.

Obviously, I will always love this 2019 team and everyone on it. It’s kind of hard not to, after the dream season they just gifted us with–and it’s going to be a very hard act to follow; every LSU team going forward is going to be compared to this one.

This weekend, I hope to get some more writing done. I didn’t get hardly anything written this week (after having such a great writing weekend last weekend), but I do need to finish revising and polishing these stories that are due, and maybe even work some more on some of these ones that are in progress–I may just keep writing “The Flagellants” and see where it goes, just letting it develop as it goes–and I need to start getting some other stuff prepared to get back to work on. I also want to do some reading this weekend; I’ve really fallen behind on that, and I want to make reading more of a priority; it certainly is a better thing to do with my time than falling into Youtube rabbit holes.

And now back to the spice mines.

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Who’s That Girl

Ah, Trixie Belden.

Not as well known or as beloved as Nancy Drew, I always kind of preferred Trixie to Nancy; and not just because she was kind of an underdog in comparison. No other kids’ series was/is as popular as Nancy Drew; even the Hardy Boys can’t compare to Nancy’s popularity.

But…I liked Trixie more than I liked Nancy. Sometimes Nancy seemed insufferable; and in all fairness to Nancy, that was more a result of the “new” Nancy that resulted from the revisions of the original texts, beginning in 1959, and this “new” Nancy appeared in the newer books as they were released as well. This Nancy was too perfect; she was good at everything, she was nice and polite, she was such a goody-two-shoes I was amazed Bess and George could stand her–although they weren’t much better. The Nancy of the original texts had more of a personality; she was a goody-two-shoes, to be sure, but she also had a lot of self-confidence and self-assurance, and she was a good person who enjoyed helping people. But when the books were revised–and this new Nancy became the Nancy of record for all new books, going forward–they basically took all of her personality away and left a one-dimensional cardboard cutout. I didn’t give up on the series, by any means, but..new Nancy was someone I wouldn’t have liked in real life.

Trixie Belden, on the other hand…seemed like a real person, or at least she did at first. Like Nancy, there was a definite turning point in her behavior in the series which happened when the original writer–Julie Campbell–stepped aside and was replaced by a bunch of ghostwriters using the pen name Kathryn Kenny. (Julie Campbell, by the way, also wrote some of the Cherry Ames ad Vicki Barr series, using the name Julie Tatham.) Trixie lost her temper, was fidgety, was a tomboy with no use for girly things, and hated doing her chores–to the point where sometimes she hurried through them so quickly she kind of did a shitty job. But she was at heart a nice kid, and regularly felt bad when she had misbehaved and tried to make up for it after the fact. She also sometimes blurted things out that hurt other people’s feelings–immediately feeling horrible about it–and these were all things, aspects of her personality, that made her relatable–as opposed to perfect paragon of virtue Nancy Drew, who was so emotionless she might as well have been a Stepford wife.

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“Oh, Moms,” Trixie moaned, running her hands through her short, sandy curls. “I’ll just die if I don’t have a horse.”

Mrs. Belden looked up from the row of tomato plants she was transplanting in the fenced-in vegetable garden.

“Trixie,” she said, trying to look stern, “if you died as many times as you thought you were going to, you’d have to be a cat with nine lives to be with us for one day.”

“I don’t care!” Tears of indignation welled up in Trixie’s round blue eyes. She scooped up a fat little worm, watched it wriggle in the palm of her hand for a minute, then gently let it go. “With Brian and Mart at camp this summer, I’ll die of boredom. I mean it, Moms.”

Mrs. Belden sighed. “You declared you’d suffer the same fate if we didn’t buy you a bike three years ago. Remember?” She stood up, frowning in the glare of the hot July sun. “Now, listen, Trixie, once and for all. If you want to buy a horse like the one you fell in love with at the horse show yesterday, you will have to earn the money yourself. You know perfectly well the only reason your brothers could go to camp is because they are working as junior counselors.”

Crabapple Farm, Trixie reflected, was really a grand place to live, and she had always had a lot of fun there, but she did wish there was another girl in the neighborhood. The big estate, known as the Manor House, which bounded the Belden property on the west had been vacant ever since Trixie could remember. There were no other homes nearby except the crumbling mansion on the eastern hill, where queer old Mr. Frayne lived.

The three estates faced a quiet country road two miles from the village of Sleepyside that nestled among the rolling hills on the east bank of the Hudson River. Trixie’s father worked in the bank in Sleepyside, and Trixie and her brothers went to the village school. She had many friends in Sleepyside, but she rarely saw them except when school was in session. Now that her brothers, Brian and Mart, had gone to camp, there was nobody but her little brother, Bobby, to play with.

Trixie impatiently kicked a hole in the dust of the path with her shoe.

“It’s not fair. You wouldn’t let me try for a job as a waitress or anything. Maybe I could have gone, too.”

“You’re only thirteen,” her mother said patiently. “Next year we might consider something of the sort. Dad and I are really sorry, dear,” she added  gently, “that we couldn’t afford to send you to camp this year.”

Trixie suddenly felt ashamed of herself, and she impulsively threw her arms around her mother. “Oh, I know, Moms, and I’m a pest to nag at you. I won’t any more, I promise.”

As I said, I greatly enjoyed the Trixie Belden series when I was a kid, and while some of the later volumes were also quite good, it was also very clear that the first six–the Julie Campbell written ones–were clearly written by someone other than those who continued the series, and were also vastly superior in terms of character, plot, setting and the writing, frankly. Just this opening of the first book in the series, The Secret of the Mansion, was quite excellent; look at everything that is set up in those first paragraphs and in the dialogue between mother and daughter: you can tell there’s deep affection there; we establish that Trixie has three brothers, two of whom are spending the summer working as junior counselors at camp; Trixie is prone to being overly dramatic; her father works at the bank and her mother likes to garden and grow her own vegetables; they live near a small town on the east bank of the Hudson River; they only have two other homes nearby–the empty Manor House and across to the road from that one is the Mansion, where a creepy old man lives (I doubt the author was using the word queer in the modern sense here; more likely the old definition, “odd.”).

That’s a lot of background and character work, yet it feels organic and not in the least like the bane of all writers, the infamous “info dump.” Soon, Trixie’s mom agrees to pay Trixie five dollars a week with help around the house and garden and sometimes watching her six year old brother, Bobby, and that way she can save money to buy her horse. Shortly after this, Trixie notices moving trucks arriving at the Manor House–her mother has forgotten to tell her that the wealthy Wheelers have bought the place and are moving in–and they have horses. Trixie grabs Bobby and they take off to meet the new neighbors, where she meets her soon-to-be best friend, Honey, who is sickly and ridiculously well-mannered and pale, along with some of the other staff–including Miss Trask, Honey’s governess, and Regan the groom.

The Secret of the Mansion was probably one of the best first novels of a kids’ series ever published. Not only did it introduce us to the Belden family, it did so slowly–we wouldn’t meet the other two members of the family until the third book, when Mart and Brian returned from camp in The Gatehouse Mystery–and we also met the boy who would become the other important tentpole of the series: red-headed Jim Frayne, crazy old Mr. Frayne’s grand-nephew, whose mother had died leaving him at the mercy of a horrible and abusive stepfather, Jonesy. Jim ran away and came to find his great-uncle, only to find out that he’d been hospitalized and in a coma. There was also some depth to the stories, as well–poor old Mr. Frayne’s wife had been bitten by a copperhead snake, he was rushing her to the hospital and their car broke down, and she died waiting for him to get help; the old man went mad with grief, left the car where it was broken down and would never allow another car on his property. The house also began to crumble and get in pretty bad shape–he supposedly had a lot of money, most of which most people assumed was hidden in his messy mansion (old Mr. Frayne was a hoarder). Trixie and Honey are trying to help Jim–Trixie is sure there is money secreted in the house–and eventually, Jonesy shows up after Mr. Frayne dies in the hospital, and Jim runs away again–leaving a note for Trixie and Honey. The old house also catches fire in the night and burns to the ground the night Jim runs away–there’s a lot of action and excitement in the book, including Trixie saving her brother’s life when  he, too, is bitten by a copperhead–and again, character development, as Honey becomes more and more outdoorsy and healthy and more like Trixie, and the two girls become more bonded in their friendship. The book also sets up the sequel, The Red Trailer Mystery, (which was actually the first book in the series I read)–in which the girls and Miss Trask hit the road to go looking for Jim–who actually inherited the small fortune Mr. Frayne had left behind, safely invested. They do find him–and solve another mystery–and it turned out that Jim’s long-deceased father was a college friend of Honey’s father, so the Wheelers adopt Jim, writing a lovely end to the story of the runaway red-headed boy with nothing.

As I mentioned earlier, there was a noticeable shift in tone, continuity, and who Trixie was as a character with the switch in authors, from one author writing under her own name (I believe her name was actually Julie Tatham Campbell, or the other way around). The last two books she wrote, Mystery off Glen Road and Mystery in Arizona, were kind of light on the mystery and stronger on the development of the characters and their friendships/relationships with each other. With the invention of “Kathryn Kenny” as a pseudonym to make other authors,  the books became more heavy on the mysteries and the new authors didn’t care so much about continuity or the established history of the characters: Trixie became more “girly” than tomboy-ish, for one thing, and they started playing up the “boyfriend/girlfriend” dynamic between, not only Trixie and Jim, but Honey and Brian Belden, as well as Mart with Diana Lynch (who was first mentioned in The Red Trailer Mystery, and joined their club, the Bob-Whites of the Glen, after being the central focus of The Mysterious Visitor). They added yet another member to their group, Dan Mangan, Regan’s nephew, in The Black Jacket Mystery–although the core group of five appeared in every book, Diana and Dan often got left out of their future adventures, begging the question of why were they added into the group in the first place? Some of the later books were good, fun mysteries–The Marshland Mystery, The Mystery of Cobbett’s Island, Mystery of the Emeralds, The Mystery of the Missing Heiress–but that core strength from the characterizations in the initial six books was missing from the rest, and as the series continued beyond those first sixteen (a long period of time passed before “Kathryn Kenny” started writing again) the stories and characters grew weaker, which was a shame.

The series gradually evolved from a “how to start a mystery series for kids” primer to “how to ruin a mystery series for kids” primer, which is a shame. I’d match those first four volumes against the first four volumes of any other kids’ mystery series and Trixie would, almost without exception, win, hands down. She was never as popular as Nancy Drew–no one was–but I always thought Trixie and her friends, having fun and adventures in the Hudson valley north of New York City and in the lower Catskills, would have made a fun television series for kids.

I’ll always have a soft spot for Trixie….and The Secret of the Mansion remains one of the best mysteries for kids ever published.

Did You See Me Coming?

And somehow, just like that, we made it to Wednesday again. Well done, Constant Reader; sometimes it feels like we’re just not going to get there.

So, yesterday morning between screenings, I checked out my iCloud drive to just see what precisely I have in progress at the moment (not counting everything else that has been unfinished for years) and the count is: four novels, four novellas, and at least nineteen short stories. (And y’all wonder why I talk about having creative ADHD. Barbara, please.) Then again, should I get all of these things finished by the end of the year, I would absolutely have another short story collection completed (there are already several unpublished, finished stories I have in my “to submit” folders as well, and three that have been sold–two of which are out now–in The Beat of Black Wings and The Faking of the President; so at some point that second collection will be ready to go within the next year or so*) and so it looks as though the dearth of Gregalicious publications will be solved once he gets off his ass and starts finishing things.

Heavy heaving sigh.

One thing I noticed yesterday as I drove to my essential job (yes, my job is considered essential) is that there was a lot more traffic then usual at that time; and then I remembered driving home Friday night after work in heavier traffic than usual as well. Oh no, I thought, I wondered how long it would be before New Orleanians couldn’t stand the isolation anymore and despaired; but there was so little traffic on my way home from work last night that I managed to play one song on my phone through the car speakers as I pulled onto the highway and it was just finishing as I pulled into a parking space across the street from my house (yes, I managed to hit every light as green once I got off the highway too; I LOVE when that happens), so maybe it’s not so bad after all.

These are such strange and new times, and I’m never really certain what to think about them, you know? Or to try to think ahead; this week is about all I can handle right now, thank you very much and good night.  But I’m also a planner, even if the plans and their timing remains somewhat amorphous all the time; it’s just kind of who I am. I’m also aware that if you don’t plan ahead a bit, you tend to get very surprised along the way and that is never, ever a good thing.

Yesterday I discovered, entirely by accident, that one of my favorite old movies–The Letter, starring Bette Davis, had actually been a short story by W. Somerset Maugham first, before he himself adapted it into a play which then became the basis for the two film versions (the more famous Bette Davis version was actually a remake of the Jeanne Engels version from the previous decade), and it was in the public domain, so I downloaded a copy of it to read for the Short Story Project; it’s a long story, clocking in at over 13,000 words, which in today’s world I suppose would make it a novella. I am, of course, rather excited to read the original source material, and I’m not sure I’ve ever read Maugham before–just another one of those great old white male writers I’ve never read; and it occurs to me just now that one of the things I should reread for the Reread Project is Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. I’ve never really gotten Hemingway, and certainly didn’t when I was forced to read him in high school–hating the experience so much I never went back to him–but maybe it wouldn’t hurt to give Papa another turn. Perhaps as a more mature adult and reader I can appreciate him more (although my recent reread of The Great Gatsby made me hate the book even more than I already did); but I certainly didn’t mind reading some other Old White Men over the years, like Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser (I should tackle the massive An American Tragedy sometime; I really liked Sister Carrie when I read it), and I should probably make up one of the greatest gaps in my reading history–The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which I’ve never read–but I’ve read a lot of Twain over the years.

It is absolutely insane how many works I have in progress! (I just reread the opening of this entry again) But I do believe that perfectly illustrates my point about my creative ADHD….and there are even more short stories than that, really; those are the ones I’ve worked on at some point over the last few months. And of course, more ideas come to me all the time. Heavy heaving sigh.

And on that note, I need to get ready to face my day. Have a good Wednesday, Constant Reader!

*the third, “The Carriage House”, has been sold to Mystery Tribune, and I’m not sure when it will be released; so stay tuned!

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If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got The Time

One of the things I find fascinating about many people is their dedication to nostalgia; their insistence that some past time of their life was somehow this incredibly magical time of innocence (which it could conceivably have been); a utopia paradise of some sort where everything was right with the world and everyone was so happy and–you get the picture. It’s like how people glowingly refer to high school as one of the “best times of their lives” (which, frankly, is terribly sad and tells me more about their present circumstances than I’d care to know); the past wasn’t magic and neither were our childhoods. If they mean I liked life better before I knew how awful it can be, that I can understand–and I do think that is what they actually mean, even if it isn’t what they are actually saying: they preferred life when the bills and putting food on the table was someone else’s responsibility; when the biggest worries were who will I go to the Homecoming dance with and I have to study for that History test and so forth. But my teenaged years weren’t halcyon and rosy. The 1970’s was a very strange decade of reaction to the 1960’s–and for a queer kid, first trapped in a middle to upper middle class suburb of Chicago and then a small rural town in Kansas, it was hard. I’ve no desire to ever relive high school or go back to being a teenager. Sure, it might be easier to be a queer teen  in a Chicago suburb now–but I suspect it’s not that different in a rural high school in Kansas now than it was forty years ago.

Reading was always my escape from the pressures of a world into which I really didn’t fit–and one that from my earliest memories as a child I knew I didn’t belong in. Reading was a godsend for me, and I read ravenously. I was always being told to go outside and play instead of reading; the most effective punishments were the ones either prohibiting me from reading or limiting how much I could read, and the earliest signs of my obsessive/compulsive disorder were evident with my discovery of the mystery series for kids, which was the next gradual move for me as a reader from the Scholastic Book Fair mysteries. My goal has always been to finish collecting all the series I read and collected as a child: the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, the Dana Girls, The Three Investigators and Trixie Belden, as well as the lesser known ones like Biff Brewster, Ken Holt (over whom I had a weird bonding moment with James Ellroy), Rick Brant, Vicki Barr, Judy Bolton, Cherry Ames, Kay Tracey, and Connie Blair. (I also collected the Chip Hilton sports series.) I still have the copies I had as a child, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I discovered eBay and tried to finish collecting the series. I don’t have room in the Lost Apartment to display them proudly in a bookcase–I have far too many books; and many of them are boxed up and stored–but I refuse to rid myself of them, because I keep holding out hope that someday I will live in an apartment or condo or house where I can have a room filled with bookcases that will also serve as my office.

But eBay gradually led me to collectors’ and fan pages of these books on Facebook..occasionally someone on one of those pages will be selling a copy of something I need to complete my collections.  There is a generic page for series books in general, and then there are individual pages for Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, respectively–and probably still others for the other series that I don’t know about. I know there are also fan websites and serious scholarship on the kids’ series–some of them make for interesting reading, if you have some free time (or are wasting time you should be spending on writing). Some of the fan websites also have conferences and trips–the Nancy Drew group, for example, has an annual trip to where one of the books was set, and tours and so forth to visit the places Nancy also went to look for clues in the course of her investigation. (They were in New Orleans a few years ago; I was going to register–it’s not cheap–until I realized it was more about being a fan than anything else.)

And boy, do these people take their series fandom seriously. I’m not as rabid or as devoted as the majority of them; periodically I might reread one of the series books (I’d love to write an essay about the Ken Holt series, which was darker and more hard-boiled than any of the others; which was why James Ellroy and I bonded over them–which is still so weird to me), but I don’t reread an entire series from beginning to end, and while I used to remember plot details quite vividly, as I’ve gotten older those memories are fading.

I’ve not watched the new CW series Nancy Drew–well, I watched the first episode but didn’t keep watching; primarily because I haven’t had time and Paul and I usually watch shows together–at least, I like to give him a chance to watch something I might enjoy before moving on to watch it on my own (like Riverdale). Maybe he’ll be interested in Nancy Drew, maybe he won’t; I thought he’d like Riverdale but he didn’t. Maybe Nancy Drew is something I’ll wind up watching while he’s working in the evenings; I don’t know. But I’ve also not seen the recent film adaptation, Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, either. But boy, do these Nancy Drew fans take their Nancy Drew seriously. They were outraged that Nancy Drew had sex in the first episode (because Nancy of course never had sex in the series; I don’t even think she even enjoyed a chaste kiss from Ned in all 58 of the original books) and Ned Nickerson was black! Nancy Drew was not only having sex but she was having sex with a black teenager!

The pearls were clutched so tightly! And if you stuck a piece of coal up these people’s asses, it would have come out a diamond. There was a lot of moaning and whining about people’s childhoods being ruined (really? Mine is still just fine) and the “horrors of political correctness” and on and on and on. In other words, Nancy should be a virgin and only know white, straight, cishet people. Got it.

Anyway, Hulu recently announced that they are doing a Hardy Boys series; however, instead of Bayport the town is Bridgeport; their first case is their mother’s murder; and rather than being 18 and 17, their ages will be 16 and 12. Their father is off investigating the murder and so he deposits them with their aunt in Bridgeport, but they soon realize their mother’s death is somehow connected to the town–and everyone in town is a suspect.

Yes, these are significant changes to the original canon of the Hardy Boys, but also remember: The Mickey Mouse Club did two serialized versions of the Hardy Boys, making them also about 13 and 14. The Hardy Boys fans are fan with this, of course, and with the other changes Disney made…so what’s the problem? As someone pointed out, in response to all the whining and moaning about ruining characters and childhoods and “political correctness”, someone also commented, grumpily, “I suppose Chet will be slim, gay, and black”–which actually sounded kind of good to me, frankly. The character of Chet is overweight and loves to eat (kind of like Bess in the Nancy series) and also like Bess, his appetite and weight are the subject of lots of jokes, teasing and sometimes humiliation. Not really cool, if we’re being completely honest.

And yes, all of these people are grandparents with graying hair and are white people. All of this whining and complaining over two television series based on characters that have evolved and changed and been rewritten multiple times in the nearly hundred years they’ve been around–to appeal to  new generations of readers. The original versions of the books were all revised in the 1950’s and 1960’s because they were loaded with racial and ethnic stereotypes that were beyond offensive; naturally, the nice old white people prefer the original texts (big shock, right?).

And if any kids’ series need to be turned into television programs, can I vote for The Three Investigators and Encyclopedia Brown?

I am really tired of this whole “you’re ruining my childhood” nonsense. Unless they are traveling back in time to do so, your childhood hasn’t changed.

I’ve always wanted to write a book about kids’ series fans and conventions; I might just have to now. I mean, I get it–people don’t like change, and something that was beloved when you were a child you want frozen in amber forever. But I just wish these people would unpack their issues with the updates and changes–and nothing gets my gorge going more than the ever popular whine of every racist, misogynist, and homophobic piece of shit out there: politically correct. Sorry you don’t feel safe expressing your hateful bigoted opinions any more without consequence.

I’ve also always wanted to write my own middle-grade series; I used to think about that all the time when I was a kid, even up to coming up with characters and titles for the books in the series because of course I did. I don’t know if I can write middle-grade or not; but it’s worth a shot sometime.

And of course, I can talk for hours on the subject of the kids’ series. Perhaps someday I will.

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Before

As Constant Reader is no doubt aware, I’ve been worried recently about my inability to sit down and write. I’ve done some writing, of course, in drabs and dribs here and there; applauding myself for getting as many as a thousand written in a day–which is a major drop off from what I used to be able to manage, pre-pandemic, although I must confess it’s been quite a while since I’d had one of those days before the world shut down. But I am very pleased to report–despite innumerable, continuous frustrations with my computer and its inability to function properly (thank again, Apple Mojave update; may your code-writers burn in hell for all eternity without respite or mercy)–that yesterday I managed to not only write, but I put down over three thousand words in slightly more than an hour and finished the first draft of the Sherlock story–thank you, baby Jesus–and now can let it sit for a while before I revise it again. It’s very rough, and probably more than a little bit jumbled, but I have it done and with a few reminders this week of Doyle’s style, I should be able to get it finished and turned in on time.

Huzzah!

I cannot tell you how nice it felt to get three thousand or so words down in such a short period of time, Constant Reader. It’s nice to know those muscles haven’t atrophied, and are still there when I need to call upon them. I’m also really glad to have the story draft finished; regardless of how good or bad it might be, it’s lovely to have a draft done so I can revise it and fix it at leisure during the last few days (eleven, actually) before the deadline hits. It’s caused me so much stress, quite frankly, and I am so relieved to know that I can still write, and my usual amount at that, even during a pandemic with all these additional stressors and irritants going on. And believe you me, there are plenty of those enough to go around.

I did start rereading Mysterious Skin again yesterday afternoon–after finishing the story, doing a load of dishes, folding clothes, and straightening the kitchen–and I am totally loving it. It’s weird–I do remember reading it before; I distinctly remember the cover, with pieces of cereal scattered across it, but I don’t remember actually reading it. I also remember the story, but mostly from the film. The reason I am finding it strange that I don’t remember reading it before (and to be fair, I didn’t remember a lot of things in the books I’ve reread in the Reread Project so far–I didn’t remember that there was a living mummy in Crocodile in the Sandbank; I thought the dolphin rescue was in Mary Stewart’s The Moon-spinners but it was actually in This Rough Magic; I didn’t remember there being a love interest in Nine Coaches Waiting…etc. etc. etc.) is because it’s resonating with me as I read it; I was a teenager living in Kansas during the time the book is set; I’d been to the state fair in Hutchinson; I’ve been to Pretty Prairie and I’vve even been through Little River, and the way Heim describes the countryside–it’s like being there again. Maybe when I first read the book I was still compartmentalizing my past; I used to do that quite a bit, shutting the door on painful memories of a deeply unhappy past, and lately I’ve begun unpacking all of those memories a bit more–not sure why, but that’s a subject for another time. But I am enjoying the book a lot, as I thought I would, and am really looking forward to getting deeper into it.

And reading it is making think about my own novel, Sara, to date the only novel I’ve published that is set in Kansas. Maybe I should reread some of my own work for the Reread Project? There’s quite a bit about my old books I honestly don’t remember–and I really should start keeping a list of my character names, at the very least. I think when I started up on the Kansas book again a few years ago, I had reread Sara and was horrified to realize I was using the exact same character names I’d used in it; in fairness, those character names have been hanging around in my head since I wrote my first novel forty years ago–the terribly written, highly cliched, trite handwritten manuscript that no one will ever see because I am not going to include it in my papers, should I ever get my shit together and get those donated–and I always recycle from unpublished work. I just started writing about Kansas and of course those names popped out–and so later, when I went back to work on another Kansas book those names popped right out again.

And oh, those Kansas memories, of towns named Council Grove and Salina and Cottonwood Falls; Neosho Rapids and Hiawatha and Yates Center; Garden City and Great Bend and Junction City; Derby and Newton and Pratt. The six towns that consolidated into my high school: Americus, Bushong, Allen, Dunlap, Admire and Miller. The other high schools we played against–Olpe and Madison and Hartford, Waverly and Lebo and Reading. Little towns that were drying up and blowing away; a couple of blocks, some abandoned buildings, maybe a little post office and a gas station. Bushong was just off the road the bus took from Americus to Northern Heights High School, which was about a half-mile or so east of Allen–which there wasn’t much to, either. You couldn’t see much of Bushong from the road; there were railroad tracks there when I was a teenager, and so the bus always had to stop, open the folding doors, and see if there was a train coming or not. There were bushes and trees hiding the remnants of the town from the state road–the Americus Road, is what we called it–but you could still see the roof of the abandoned all-grades-in-one school. Back when we lived in Americus we didn’t have street names or house numbers; Google Earth assures me that is no longer the case. We used to have to pick up our mail at the post office; everyone had a post office box. I remember our combination: three turns right, stop on 3,  a full left turn and stop between 8 and 9, turn back to the right and stop on 5.

The things you remember, right? But I’m sure I am remembering some things wrong; I invariably do, as I said the other day.

But, as I said, the thing is I am remembering, and I am not recoiling from the memories, which is also really nice. I’m not sure when the exorcism of my old demons from past lives occurred, but it did; I’m kind of sorry I shut all the memories away for so long. I think some of it has to do with writing Bury Me in Shadows, which started making me remember Alabama–I have no memories of living there, but I used to spend a few weeks down there every summer until we moved to the suburbs, at my grandmother’s house; I am setting the book in a county based on where we are from and my grandmother’s house is located precisely where my character’s grandmother’s house is located. (The funny thing is I keep trying to make things fit, but the truth is I don’t have to make anything fit into what I remember; it’s fiction, so I have the freedom to change whatever the hell I want to; the story itself is patched together from stories my other grandmother used to tell me when I was a kid–probably half-truths at best, outright lies at worse; perhaps some family legends? I don’t know, but those stories have hung around in my head for most of my life.) I’ve been wanting to write this story for quite some time, and even wrote it as a short story called “Ruins” back in my twenties, while I lived in Fresno.

The one thing I need to be careful about is I don’t want to mirror the ghost story I told in Lake Thirteen, which kind of makes me nervous. I’m always worried that I repeat myself; as a very kind reader gently asked me recently, how many car accidents has Scotty been in? 

Sadly, more than I want to admit.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me.

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Out of My Head and Back in My Bed

We are all unreliable narrators of our own lives.

Probably one of the most interesting things–to me–about getting older is discovering for myself how differently I remember things in my past than other people do.  I used to think about writing personal essays–“I Haven’t Stopped Dancing Yet” is probably the best one I’ve ever done, and one of the few that have ever been published–because I love them, and the way some of my favorite writers can produce the most insightful and touching ones. But then I always have that doubtful voice in the back of my head–who cares about your personal experiences? Why do you think your insights are more valuable than anyone else’s? Who would be the audience for these?–and you know, FUCK that voice. I fucking hate that voice, and it’s always there, whispering, not sweet nothings, but vicious you’re nothing’s in my head.

And for the record, I’m pretty damned proud of “I Haven’t Stopped Dancing Yet.”

But perhaps the worst part of that snide, hateful voice is that it’s always there, you know? When I think to myself, hey, you should write a personal essay about this and then…yeah. My friend Laura, whose amazing personal essay collection My Life as a Villainess will drop soon–buy it buy it buy it–and I were talking about this very thing once over drinks (always over drinks) several years ago; I was telling her how much I loved her essays and that I wished I could write personal essays, with my usual “I can’t do anything” default, and she replied, “You write one every day. What do you think your blog is?”

Touche, as it were.

But….I can never seem to silence that voice.

Another reason why I back away from writing personal essays or the occasional thought that I might want to write a memoir–or a lengthy series of personal essays about my life which can then be stitched together into a memoir–is because my memory is so faulty, and the older I get, I find–when checking actual facts against my memory–inevitably I remembered wrong. For years, I believed we left the city of Chicago for the suburbs in the winter of 1969; why that winter, I don’t know–even though intellectually, after thinking about it some more, I realized my memories were lying to me. I was ten when we moved, I turned ten in 1971, so we moved in the winter of 1971–and we only lived there for four and a half years–which seemed so much longer than it actually was! Just as how I thought, after Katrina, I’d sheltered at my parents’ for months, when it was actually just a little over two weeks. I was only gone from New Orleans for about six weeks in total, actually; it seemed like I was gone for an eternity. My memory lies to me, all the time.

And how I remember things is different from how other people remember the same things. I think we tend to make ourselves the heroes in the story of our own lives, and so we rewrite our histories a little, so we look better than we actually were. Our memories are also seen through the haze of our collective other experiences, emotions, and perceptions; I might remember someone as being distant and cold, why they remember the encounter as two strangers being polite to one another. I used to think my first impressions of people were always the correct ones and evidence of my remarkable perception; but that is also demonstrably false. After all, once you’ve closed your mind to someone it’s terribly easy to interpret their behavior and the things they say through the filter of that initial observation, thereby turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’ve taken to not entirely trusting my first impressions of people the older I’ve gotten, and people who put me off when we first met have turned out to be lovely; and lovely people I instantly liked have turned out to be horrible.

So, how could I trust my memories enough to write them down?  Joan Didion said we tell ourselves stories in order to live, but I think we tell ourselves lies in order to live with ourselves is actually a more accurate statement.

So, what is real and true in our pasts? How does one examine the truth of your own memories?

I am regularly amazed at the lies I tell myself about my past, and how I’ve told myself those lies so many times that I’ve become convinced they are truth. How can I ever write any kind of memoir when I already don’t trust my memories–all of which I would have been willing to swear at some point were honest-to-God truths?

This blog is, in some ways, a remembrance project for me; to remember events in my life, and career, and how things actually were. I kept a diary for years–I still carry a journal around with me, but I don’t record my thoughts and feelings in it; it’s mostly for ideas about books I’m reading or movies I’m watching or for working through issues with things I’m writing or for writing down ideas for stories or books or essays; hoarder Greg has kept most of those journals from the days before blogging, when I used to record things down in a book so I could process emotions and anger and other things I was going to do; to talk about my dreams and my ambitions; as a way to escape whatever misery was going on in my life. I rarely revisit them; perhaps some weekend when I am bored and don’t want to write I should start going through them again–but in all honesty, the self-absorption can be a bit much to take.

I also don’t like to revisit my past that much, which is yet another reason for me not to write a memoir. I wasn’t a person I liked very much until I was in my mid-thirties, and even then I was still a work in progress. My friend Jeffrey Ricker said to me the other day on Twitter: “I always forget you weren’t born full formed in New Orleans, like Athena from Zeus’ forehead.” A lot of it had to do with being miserably unhappy with my life, of just kind of drifting, of having no self-confidence (I may have issues with that still–particularly when it comes to my writing–but it’s nowhere near as bad as it used to be, so I have made progress; I don’t let it ruin my life anymore, which is a good way to go), and not having the slightest idea of how to go about making my dreams come true. I always wrote–I wrote short stories in high school, I wrote a novel while in college, and then wrote three more, and of course was writing short stories the entire time–but it was very easy to give up after getting some rejections; to assume that becoming a publisher writer was something outside of my particular skillset, and to just give up and go back to being miserable. There’s really nothing from that period of my life I think would even be interesting enough to write about.

So, I generally shy away from the idea of writing a memoir, despite the enormous temptation. I don’t remember things the way they actually happened, but rather, how they happened through the prism and fun-house mirrors of my own mind. Whenever we tell stories about ourselves, we inevitably make ourselves sound better than we may have actually beenLook at the carefully curated lives we see of friends and acquaintances and relatives on social media.

My blog served me well for remembering things during the Time of Troubles; it actually began as a way to start writing again, of making myself sit down and write something every day. It has evolved over the years into something else, something different; I’m not even really sure how to classify it. I talk about television shows and movies and books I enjoy; I talk about my day to day life and experiences; the way I view things and my hopes and dreams, and my struggles with my writing. It is, of course, much more carefully curated now than it was in the beginning–more lies of omission, I suppose, is how it would best be described. It’s now a habit; on those rare days when I don’t have the time, or can’t find the time, to write an entry it bothers me all day–in fact, it’s been awhile since I have missed a day, and usually it’s because I’m out of town.

I guess this entry counts as a personal essay, doesn’t it?

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After the Event

I’ve loved, and been fascinated, by ancient Egypt ever since I was a kid. I don’t remember when, precisely, Egypt became so lodged into my brain; but for as long as I can remember, the ancient history of one of our oldest civilization has intrigued me, and held my interest. I’m hardly an expert–not even close–but I remember pestering my parents to subscribe to the Time-Life Great Ages of Man series; the very first volume of which was, naturally,  Ancient Egypt (for the record, I still have my entire set of those books). Cleopatra, of course, also interested me; I’m not sure if my Egyptian interest came before or after watching the Elizabeth Taylor version of Cleopatra on television. (I still am terribly interested in Cleopatra; the court intrigues and politics of the Ptolemy dynasty makes the Borgias and the Medici look like pikers. I always wanted to write a book about–of all things–Cleopatra’s older sister Berenice, who briefly overthrew their father and took the Egyptian crown. The Romans sent legions to support her father, so her reign was very brief. Her younger sister, Arsinoe, who fought Cleopatra for the throne–only to be defeated by Caesar, also interests me.) I’ve always been interested in Akhenaten (loved Allen Drury’s two books about the Amarna revolution, A God Against the Gods and Return to Thebes), Tutankhamun (of course), and Hatshepsut (I read a great Scholastic mystery set during her reign called The Mystery of the Pharaoh’s Treasure, and I think I bought a copy from eBay a while back; I may have the name wrong.)

But as much as I love Egypt, I didn’t love it enough to read Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings. I borrowed it from the library, and couldn’t get through the first chapter.

Sorry not sorry.

As a teenager who loved mysteries, I gravitated towards women authors once I’d fairly exhausted the canons of Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, and Erle Stanley Gardner primarily because I couldn’t relate or identify with the crime novels being written by men at the time. Grim and hard-boiled and toxic masculinity wasn’t a combination I was terribly interested in at the time; I did appreciate noir (discovering James M. Cain when I was about nineteen was wonderful), though–but that was because I associated it with all those great movies I used to watch with my grandmother. I eventually came around, and started enjoying John D. MacDonald and Hammett and Chandler as I got older.

But when I saw this book on the paperback rack at the grocery store in Emporia, I had to get it. It was a mystery; blurbed by one of my favorite writers, Phyllis A. Whitney, and of course, that was the Sphinx on the cover. I bought it, read it, loved it–and forgot about Elizabeth Peters for about a decade or so (I came back to Barbara Michaels in my mid-twenties, and when I discovered she was also Elizabeth Peters, it didn’t register with me.) Then one day I was in the Waldenbooks and More on Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa when I saw a book on the end cap that called to me: The Last Camel Died at Noon, plus an unmistakably Egyptian scene on the cover. The title and the cover alone sold me–and I also knew by then that Elizabeth Peters was the same writer as Barbara Michaels. I bought it and when I got home, I opened to the first page and started reading….about a page in I stopped. Wait, Emerson and Peabody? I turned back to the beginning of the book and there it was, on the BY THE SAME AUTHOR page: THE AMELIA PEABODY SERIES, and the first title was Crocodile on the Sandbank! 

You can only imagine my delight. I loved those characters, loved that first book, and to find out now there was a series? I read The Last Camel Died at Noon cover to cover in about twenty-four hours, and the next day I went back to Waldenbooks and More and bought the entire series, and settled in to get reacquainted with two of my favorite fictional characters of all time.

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When I first set eyes on Evelyn Barton-Forbes she was walking the streets of Rome–(I am informed, by the self-appointed critic who reads over my shoulder as I write, that I have already committed an error. If those seemingly simple English words do indeed imply that which I am told they imply to the vulgar, I must in justice to Evelyn find other phrasing.)

In justice to myself, however, I must insist that Evelyn was doing precisely what I have said she was doing, but with no ulterior purpose in mind. Indeed, the poor girl had no purpose and no means of carrying it out if she had. Our meeting was fortuitous, but fortunate. I had, as I always have, purpose enough for two.

I had left my hotel that morning in considerable irritation of spirits. My plans had gone awry. I am not accustomed to having my plans go awry. Sensing my mood, my small Italian guide trailed behind me in silence. Piero was not silent when I first encountered him, in the lobby of the hotel, where, in common with others of his kind, he awaited the arrival of helpless foreign visitors in need of a translator and guide. I selected him from amid the throng because his appearance was a trifle less villainous than that of the others.

I was well aware of the propensity of these fellows to bully, cheat, and otherwise take advantage of the victims who employ them, but I had no intention of being victimized. It did not take me long to make this clear to Piero. My first act was to bargain ruthlessly with the shopkeeper to whom Piero took me to buy silk. The final price was so low that Piero’s commission was reduced to a negligible sum. He expressed his chagrin to his compatriot in his native tongue, and included in his tirade several personal comments on my appearance and manner. I let him go on for some time and then interrupted him with a comment on his manners. I speak Italian, and understand it, quite well. After that, Piero and I got on admirably. I had not employed him because I required an interpreter, but because I wanted someone to carry parcels and run errands.

My God, that incredible, incredible voice.

By the end of the second page, I was madly in love with Amelia Peabody; by the end of the third, I wanted to be Amelia Peabody. How could you not love her? She’s fiercely intelligent, even more fiercely independent, spoke her mind, got straight to the point, and had no desire whatsoever to deal with frivolities, sentimentality, and so forth. The youngest child and only daughter of a classics scholar, her six older brothers got married and left her home to take care of their father. She speaks four languages fluently, and frequently curses the accident of birth that left her a female. Her father died and left her everything–which her brothers thought was fair, until it turned out he was a lot richer than anyone thought and had left her half a million pounds, which was an insane amount of money in the late nineteenth century. Unmarried at thirty-two, she considers herself to be too plain, too old, and too sharp-tongued to ever marry, and has decided she is going to die a spinster. (I could never respect a man who would allow his wife to dominate him, but at the same time I could never allow any man to dominate me.) She decides to use her fortune to travel to visit the places she’s always dreamed of and read about in books–which is what brings her to Rome, along with her paid companion–whom she doesn’t care for, and just chance puts her in the forum at the same time as Evelyn, who faints and Peabody, of course, takes charge. She decides to help Evelyn–who was seduced away from her wealthy family and “ruined”, as well as cut off, and she’d come to Rome with the man she thought she loved only to be abandoned by him, with no clothes but what she is wearing and not a penny to her name. Peabody and Evelyn hit it off, she sends the paid companion back to England and engages Evelyn as her new companion, and they depart for Egypt.

So, now two of our players are now in place; it’s time to meet the other two. Once they are all checked in at Shepheard’s in Cairo, Peabody is quickly besotted with Egypt, and pyramids, in particular–and reading Peabody’s descriptions of the country, you cannot help but fall in love with it, too (not a problem for me; I was already there before I read the book). They go to the Antiquities Museum one afternoon–the director was a friend of Peabody’s father–and Peabody is put off by how disheveled and disorganized–and dusty–everything is. She picks up a dusty pot and begins to wipe the dust from it, only to have an enormous man explode with rage at her. They give each other what-for–they are suitably matched in that regard–and this is Emerson, archaeologist with a passion for discovery and knowledge and preserving the past. Emerson’s brother makes apologies, and a spark is lit between Walter and Evelyn. Soon, the Emersons are off to their dig at Amarna, and Peabody and Evelyn rent a sailboat–a dahabeeyah, to be exact–and begin their trip down the Nile.

Naturally, they stop at Amarna, and stumble into quite a bizarre mystery, which includes an animated mummy and several attempts on our troop’s lives. But the four are definitely up to the task–there are times when I laughed out loud–and hilariously, while both Peabody and Emerson become quite irritated with Walter and Evelyn, who can’t see that the other is madly in love with them; Peabody and Emerson are also falling in love, and refuse to see it, bickering and fighting and–oh, it’s just wonderful and charming, and I know I am failing to do the magnificent Ms. Peters’ work any kind of justice. Amanda is just so, so wonderfully fearless and courageous and pure, and doesn’t even worry about her own safety when those she loves are in danger. The book has a most satisfying resolution, and I remember putting it down that first (much as I do every time I reread it) with a happy smile on my face. The Peabody and Emerson books bring me a lot of joy.

I devoured the entire series, loving them all–the way Peters deftly ages her characters and deepens their relationships, and of course the children…one thing that will always make The Last Camel Died at Noon special for me was that was also the adventure that introduced our merry band of archaeologists to Nofret–and therein lies another tale, for yet another time.

I am so, so delighted I reread Crocodile on the Sandbank. If you’ve not read this series, you really should treat yourself to it, because it is just that: the most amazing gift you can give yourself.

Always

Kansas.

We moved to Kansas the summer I turned fifteen. It was a bit of culture shock; we’d been living a middle-to-upper middle class suburb of Chicago for about four years then, after spending eight or nine years in a working-class, very blue-collar neighborhood in Chicago, populated primarily with eastern European immigrants, or second, maybe third, generation Americans from central to eastern Europe. All I really knew about Kansas, before moving there, was that it had been a part of the Dust Bowl during the depression; I’d read about “bleeding Kansas” in history books; and of course, tornadoes and The Wizard of Oz (which is a movie I’ve never cared for; I watched it once as a kid and never again). Neither Nancy Drew nor the Hardy Boys ever had an adventure there; nor had any of the other kids’ series or Scholastic Book Club mysteries I’d read. But it was in Kansas that I actually started writing seriously, and began to think about being a writer when I grew up. (It was also in Kansas that I had the bad creative writing professor, and other bad history professors; I actually cannot think of a single decent teacher I had at the university level in Kansas–but then again, I was incredibly miserable when I lived in Kansas and it’s entirely possible that misery bled over into every other aspect of my life.)

I also don’t want to make it seem as though the five or so years I spent there were completely miserable. I did have fun–I was always desperately trying to have fun to distract me from the terror that arose from my sexuality, which was a secret that must be guarded from everyone at all times; it’s laughable to think about it now, but that terror was very real to me then.

It was in Kansas I started writing about teenagers, and while none of that stuff I’d written was publishable–I still have the handwritten novel I started writing there somewhere; the thought of rereading it turns my stomach as I can only imagine how incredibly bad, trite, and cliched it all was–but those characters have lived on and appeared in my actual published work as an adult; primarily I kept the character names and the basis of who they were, fleshing them out and (hopefully) making them three dimensional. Sara is, to date, the only book I’ve published that is set in Kansas; Laura, the main character in Sorceress, is also from Kansas–but the book is set in California. And of course I’ve been playing with the Kansas book now for something like fifteen years–hopefully, that will be finished and done this year.

I love to read about Kansas, and two of my favorite crime writers–Lori Roy and Sara Paretsky–are also from Kansas; Lori’s first novel, Bent Road (it’s brilliant, as is everything she writes) is set in Kansas; Sara, of course, primarily writes about Chicago but wrote a stand alone several years ago called Bleeding Kansas I’ve always wanted to get around to. Nancy Pickard also wrote two stunningly brilliant novels set in Kansas–The Virgin of Small Plains and The Scent of Rain and Lightning; I cannot recommend them enough. One cannot talk about Kansas books, either, without mentioning Truman Capote’s “true crime novel” In Cold Blood, which I like to reread every now and then.

There’s just something noir about Kansas; I don’t know how to describe it, or why it feels that way to me; but there’s just something about the wide open spaces and the wind, that Peyton Place-like feel to the small cities…Emporia (the county seat; we lived about eight miles out of town in an even smaller town called Americus) even had its own full blown scandal where a minister and the church secretary had an affair and murdered their spouses; it was even made into a two-part mini-series filmed on location in Emporia starring Jobeth Williams as the femme fatale. Those small towns, scattered all over the northern part of Lyon County, once thriving and bustling but now barely hand on when I lived there…the abandoned schools, still standing (they’d all been consolidated into one high school in the 1950’s) in the emptying little towns…our consolidated high school, out in the middle of the country with the football field backing up to a pasture; and the explosive boredom for teenagers. I always turn back to Kansas somehow, whenever I am thinking creatively or wanting to write a new short story–so much material, really. Emporia even had a cult; the old Presbyterian College of Emporia had gone bankrupt sometime in the early 1970’s and The Way International had bought the campus, turning it into The Way College of Emporia and I have to tell you, those kids from The Way College were terrifying–and there were lots of stories and urban legends about what went on there on that campus; how much was true I’ll probably never know, but I do know they used to have armed security guards patrolling the edge of campus, and every teenager knew not to ever get cornered anywhere with no possible escape by two or more of those kids….they always traveled in groups, never less than two and rarely more than six, but always in multiples of two. They always looked very clean cut, but you knew them by the nametags they were required to wear, their empty glassy eyes, and the big smiles on their faces.

There’s also the story of the bloody Benders, serial killers who operated an inn and murdered their guests in the nineteenth century before disappearing; I’m sure every nook and cranny of Kansas has some kind of horrible tale of murder hidden away.

And about three or four miles from our high school–you had to turn right when you reached the state road from Americus to get there; if you turned left towards Council Grove you’d pass this place: an abandoned nuclear missile base, that is still there. We used to go there sometimes for kicks–opening the door and listening to the strange sounds from deep inside and water dripping. I had plenty of nightmares about that missile base.

But the only other gay novelist I know from Kansas is Scott Heim (or at least the only one I know of who sometimes writes about Kansas). I read his debut novel Mysterious Skin sometime in the mid to late 1990’s, and was blown away by it (the film is also quite good). Mysterious Skin is set in Kansas, of course, and while it is a literary novel, and a quite good one, for me there were some elements of noir to the story; I have moved it to the The Reread Project pile and hope to get to it again relatively soon, so i can discuss it with more credibility and authority. I’ve not had the opportunity to read his other two novels, In Awe and We Disappear, but I’m adding them to the “need to get a copy” list.

Over this past weekend I read a short story Scott wrote for Amazon; part of something called The Disorder Collection, along with stories from several other authors. You can buy “Loam” here; it’s well worth the ninety-nine cents.

We agreed to share the driving. The early-morning flights had left us feeling run-down, but my sisters said my eyes looked the least bleary, so I should drive first. The clouds had gone gray; it had started to rain. But we could take our time. The afternoon we’d been dreading lay before us in hot, wet highways flanked by sorghum and corn and glistening shocks of wheat. It was late summer, already harvest season, and the fields shuddered in the wind, the grains full and heavy as though fed with blood.

At the rental counter, a cheery, silver-haired clerk had offered us a white sedan, but Louise had disapproved. “A simple compact is fine,” she said, “and no extra options. Just make sure it’s as black as possible. Is ‘funeral black’ a color?” She’d glanced across the desk to Miriam and me, urging us to smile. No one had smiled since we’d met in the arrival lobby with hesitant hugs.

The clerk didn’t seem to grasp Louise’s reference, but when she collected our licenses, she was attentive enough to catch our dates of birth. She turned and yelled, “Girls, come look–triplets!”

It had been years since we’d been subjected to this kind of foolishness. We watched as her pair of coworkers stood from their desks and approached the counter. I could guess what was coming next: we didn’t look anything alike; we had varying shades of brown and blond hair; even our bodies and the ways we dressed, so different. Louise stopped their small talk before it could start, outstretching her hand to silence the room. “Look, our father just died, okay? Let’s sign what we need to sign and get this over with.”

One of the things I love about Heim’s work–and having only read one novel over twenty years ago and now this short story–is that he often writes about the aftereffects, and the aftermath, of traumas and how the victims deal and cope. This is something that interests me; I often think and wonder about how people who’ve dealt with something–my husband is a serial sex offender; my father murdered my mother, my grandfather was a serial killer–they had no control over cope and go on with their lives; I’m actually writing a story dealing with that sort of thing right now (one of the many stories I have in some sort of progress right now; it’s called “He Didn’t Kill Her”), and also those who were directly victimized–how do they deal? How do they cope? How do they go on with their lives after something so traumatic happens to them?

This is why this century’s reboots and sequels to Halloween interest me, because they show how Laurie Strode, years later, was psychologically damaged and who she became; one of the things I loved about the Scream films is they showed how everything that has happened to her has turned Sydney into a different person from who she imagined she’d be before the murders started.

Heim doesn’t write about the peripherally damaged; he writes about those who actually were damaged first-hand. In “Loam”, his triplets are clearly damaged by something that happened to them when they were children; they are returning to bury their father and clearly have not been back to Kansas in years. It isn’t clear what happened to them–it may have just been bad parenting in the beginning–and it isn’t until they stop at a second-hand store (what we used to call “junk shops” when I was a kid) and find some strange and mysterious pictures of their first grade classmates on a table that the memories of the past–and what they went through–begin to come to the fore.

I do wish Scott Heim would write more. This story, sad and dark and mysterious, is everything I love to read.

This: The afternoon we’d been dreading lay before us in hot, wet highways flanked by sorghum and corn and glistening shocks of wheat. It was late summer, already harvest season, and the fields shuddered in the wind, the grains full and heavy as though fed with blood–I wish I’d written that.

Buy it or borrow it if you have Amazon Prime. It’s very well worth the time.

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