I’ll Be There

I loved to read when I was a kid; it’s something I came to early in my life and has never left me, really.

I used to  buy books through the Scholastic Book catalogue (which didn’t count against my allowance), and check out books from the school library and the Tomen branch of the Chicago Public Library, which was about three blocks from our apartment and on the way to Jewel and Woolworth’s; my mom used to drop my sister and I there while she went to the grocery store. When we got our allowances, she would walk us up to Woolworth’s, so we could spend our dollar-a-week. My sister would get 45 records, which only cost 79 cents.

I spent my money on comic books.

I started with Sugar and Spike and Archie comics; eventually I moved on to super-heroes and horror comics. My parents never restricted my reading material–they preferred to restrict my reading time only–and so i kept buying comics, all the way through high school, with occasional other forays into the world of comics throughout my life. (I have the comixology app on my iPad, and scores of comics I’ve bought and downloaded but have yet to read.) But comic books have always played a part in my life, inspiring me and teaching me how to tell stories in a different way than books do.

Recently, Alex Segura tagged me in a “post a comic book every day” thing on Facebook, and digging through the Internet to find the comics that influenced me brought back a lot of memories.

One of the strangest–but true–stories about my books and how they came to be is that Dark Tide was inspired by a comic book. This one, in fact:

bloody mermaid

January 1972, when I was eleven years old, I chanced upon this comic book on the comics rack at the Woolworth’s a few blocks from our apartment in Chicago. I often bought horror comics from time to time, mixing them in with my super-heroes, but this one, for some reason, always resonated with me. I don’t know why I bought it, but that cover is pretty fucking spectacular, isn’t it?

In the 1980’s, when I wanted to be Stephen King, I started writing a horror novel called The Enchantress, which was totally about a killer mermaid. I wrote an introduction and four chapters before giving up because I didn’t know where to go with it from there–like I’ve said before, plot is always my biggest problem–and in all honesty, it was totally,  at least in structure, a rip-off of Peter Straub’s Floating Dragon. I also used the same types he did for the main characters: a woman, a young boy, a man in his early thirties, and a retired older man. All of it was bad other than the chapter introducing the woman, which I’ve tried at very times to reshape into a short story. It was also set in the panhandle of Florida in a small town named Tuscadega; which I used again as the setting for my story “Cold Beer No Flies”, in Florida Happens (available for preorder now!). I eventually renamed and revised the story into one called Mermaid Inn; again, keeping the story about vicious, killer mermaids. Mermaid Inn eventually morphed into Dark Tide; in fact, the entire story is pretty much set at a place called Mermaid Inn, only I moved it to south Alabama, below Mobile.

Wild that something I read when I was eleven inspired a book I published forty years later.

And were there killer mermaids? Afraid you’ll have to buy the book to find out. 🙂

And now, back to the spice mines.

Some Like It Hot

Our weather forecast for today is grim; thunderstorms and downpours and flash flooding. Happy Saturday! Right now, even at this early hour, it’s already grim and gray outside; yesterday my sinuses were bothering me–another sign, not only of impending heavy weather but that I’m getting old because I am predicting the weather with my body–and I was incredibly tired when I got home. I repaired to my easy chair and read some more of Bryan Camp’s The City of Lost Fortunes (it’s wonderful, preorder it now), and then watched the first episode of two Netflix series, the Lost in Space reboot and Troy: The Fall of a City. I enjoyed both–although of course with Troy, I know how it ends–and there was a moment when Helen was telling Paris the myth of Actaeon and mentioned the goddess Diana and I was all “wrong! Helen would have called her Artemis!” which then sent me into another spiral because Wonder Woman is also from Greek mythology yet her name is Diana…and did the Greeks have the name Diana, or was it Roman? Yeesh, my mind.

It’s getting darker and the wind is picking up.

The plan for today is to do some writing, do some cleaning, and finish reading Bryan’s book. I also need to catch up on Riverdale and Krypton. Heavy sigh. I am really happy with some of the work I’ve been doing this week, and need to stay focused. I want to get “Don’t Look Down” finished, and I need to write an introduction to the short story collection, and there’s another story that needs to be done, and I still haven’t work on that revision based on editorial notes on another story. As you can see, it never ends for one Gregalicious. But as I said, I’m enjoying the work–which I couldn’t say last year–and that’s always a plus. I think the direction in which I am taking the Scotty novel in Chapter Eleven is quite fun and different; whether I am right in that assumption or whether it’s more a symptom of my creative ADHD, I suppose we’ll see once we have the first draft completed. But I have to have a completed first draft in order to see, don’t I?

Heavy heaving sigh.

Anyway I’ve got two more stories read for The Short Story Project. First up is “Office at Night” by Warren Moore,  from Lawrence Block’s anthology In Sunlight and In Shadow:

Margaret heard the train rumble by as Walter looked at the papers on the desk. The cord on the window shade swung, whether from the trains’s vibrations or from the breeze through the window, she didn’t know. She couldn’t feel either, nor did she feel the blue dress–her favorite–clinging to her curves. All she saw was Walter, and all he saw were the files in the pool of light from the desk lamp.

She had put the papers in the file cabinet and rested her arm atop the folders for seemed like–could have been–a lifetime ago. The phrase brought a slight smile to Margaret’s face. Any time could be a lifetime, depending on how long you lived. And she had thought from time to time that she and Walter might have had a lifetime together. Before she had died.

I really enjoyed this story; which is about lost opportunities and melancholy. Margaret was a large woman while alive; tall and big boned, tauntingly called Large Marge by the cruel children in the small town where she grew up. This made her withdrawn and shy. As soon as she was able she moved to New York, moved into a rooming house, and got a job, slowly starting to build a life for herself and leave “Large Marge” behind. Then she accidentally is killed–not in a crime or anything, just an accident–and her ghost visits the office where she worked, and loved her boss–but that past history made her unable to speak up, unable to say anything, unable to make a try for happiness. Like I said, it’s more about that sense of sadness and melancholy than a story with beginning, middle and end; but it’s incredibly well written and that melancholy…wow.

The next story was “Still Life 1931” by Kris Nelscott, also in Lawrence Block’s  In Sunlight and in Shadow.

She first noticed outside Memphis: they didn’t ride segregated in the box cars. At the time, she was standing outside yet abotehr closed bank. The line of aggrieved customers wrapped around the block–men in their dusty pants, stained workshirts, caps on their heads; women wearing low heels, day dresses, and battered hats.

Lurleen looked just different enough to attract attention. Her green cloche hat was a bit too new, her coat a little too heavy. Her shoes were scuffed like everyone else’s. but hers were scuffed from too much travel, not age and wear.

This story is absolutely amazing, and one of the most powerful in this collection, which is saying a lot. Set in the early 1930’s, Nelscott captures the era perfectly; the failing banks and the desperation of people losing their savings; the racial issues in the deep South; and Lurleen’s own sense of who she is, of right and wrong. When the story opens, Lurleen, recently widowed, is taking the train to small towns and cities all over the South, closing bank accounts she’d opened years earlier and withdrawing all the cash. The story opens with her in line at one bank where a run has happened; the bank has closed “temporarily”, but the sign on the door doesn’t indicate any time when the bank might reopen. As the story progress, we learn that Lurleen, before her marriage, worked for the NAACP, going around the South and interviewing witnesses and survivors, documenting lynchings and racial violence in the South. The story is powerful; Lurleen is well developed, and I was sorry when the story ended because I wanted to know more about Lurleen and the work she had done, the work she was going to begin doing again. According to the author bio, Nelscott is planning to write more about Lurleen, which is kind of exciting; I certainly hope she does.

And now back to the spice mines.

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Axel F

GOOD FRIDAY. I slept in, which was absolutely lovely, and am now enjoying my first cup of coffee this morning. The herd of cats are outside my windows, gathered for their morning feeding, and Scooter is firmly ensconced on my desk–it’s going to be a long day of him needing attention, I suspect–and am looking forward to  my three-day weekend. It looks gorgeous outside, honestly; I think I might clean the windows today, as well as work on cleaning the house. I also need to hit the gym; it’s been well over two weeks at this point, and I’m not going to get leaner sitting on my ass thinking about it, quite frankly.

I am also procrastinating running some errands as well as cleaning. I am also planning on getting some writing done, and some reading. I’ve gotten some fantastic ARC’s this week, and there are a couple of other novels I’ve been meaning to get to  as well; I am hoping to get to one of those this weekend. The primary problem here, of course, is that I can’t decide which to read. I am also almost finished with Joan Didion’s essay collection, After Henry, which, despite its bad name, is quite enjoyable. I am still abstaining from buying new books until I get the TBR more manageable and under control, but am itching to get my hands on another Didion non-fiction.

Yesterday I worked some more on “Don’t Look Down” and another one that’s been languishing, “A Holler Full of Kudzu,” but I also realized yesterday as I looked at the unholy mess that is “Don’t Look Down” that I am going to simply approach these stories as I do a novel; in other words, just write everything as it comes to me, and worry about editing and revising later. That quite often works for me when I am writing a novel, so why not apply it to a short story? I also want to get a final first draft of those stories done this weekend, as well as “Once a Tiger” while also revising and reworking “My Brother’s Keeper”; Sunday is not only Easter but it’s also April 1st, which is when I intended to put all short story work aside and dive back into the novels. (I may use Sunday for the short stories, and move on to Scotty on Monday; I may just use Sunday as a buffer day between them all, who knows? We’ll see, won’t we?)

We are also watching the second season of Santa Clarita Diet, which is just as funny, charming and clever as the first. I have also started watching Krypton, the Superman prequel on Syfy, and I am enjoying it. It’s getting some so-so reviews, but I am enjoying it so far; I’ve always loved the Krypton stories, and John Byrne’s comic book mini-series The World of Krypton from the original DC reboot in the 1980’s is still one of my all-time favorite comics. Some of the elements from that mini-series are showing up in this show–not having followed comics as much over the last twenty years or so has limited my knowledge of things; of what is considered canon now and what is not; but some of the things I am seeing in this show were things I first became aware of in The World of Krypton. I also need to get caught up on Riverdale; at least I have things I can watch while doing cardio at the gym!

I also managed to read some short stories. First up is  “The Downward Path to Wisdom” by Katherine Anne Porter, from The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter.

In the square bedroom with the big window Mama and Papa were lolling back on their pillows handing each other things from the wide black tray on the small table with crossed legs. They were smiling and they smiled even more when the little boy, with the feeling of sleep still in his skin and hair, came in and walked up to the bed. Leaning against it, his bare toes wriggling in the white fur rug, he went on eating peanuts which he took from his pajamas pocket. He was four years old.

“Here’s my baby,” said Mama. “Lift him up, will you?”

This is another one of those Porter stories that just wasn’t for me. I mean, I get what she was doing; the entire story is told from the point of view of a small child, and she manages to really get that way children have no sense of time perfectly. The passage of time either seems incredibly slow and other times is really fast; and the way the child observes the clashes and moodiness and volatility of the adults around him is sort of interesting; but the story itself isn’t interesting at all. Not really for me, I guess; I should just park Ms. Porter’s collection back on the shelf and be done with it, frankly. But I also remember that I had a much greater appreciation of “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” this time around, and keep thinking, well, maybe I’ll appreciate one of the others in a different way this time.

Yeah, well, it didn’t happen with this story.

Next up was another Sue Grafton story from Kinsey and Me, “Falling off the Roof.”

It was six a.m and I was jogging on the bike path at the beach, trotting three miles in behalf of my sagging rear end. I’m thirty-two years old, weighing in at 118, so you wouldn’t think I’d have to concern myself with such things, but I’m a private eye by trade and I’m single on top of that. Sometimes I end up running for my life, so it will never do to get out of shape.

I had just hit my stride. My breathing was audible but not labored, my shoes chunking rhythmically as the asphalt sped away underneath my feet. What worried me was the sound of someone running behind me, and gaining too. I glanced back casually and felt adrenaline shoot through my heart, jolting it up to jackhammer pace. A man in a black sweat suit was closing ground. I picked up speed, quickly assessing the situation. There wasn’t another soul in sight. No other joggers. None of the usual bums sleeping on the grass.

This story is terrific. Kinsey is hired by a man who thinks his brother brother was murdere; he fell off his roof and the police ruled it an accident. However, he was in a really bad marriage that seemed to suddenly settle down some in the weeks before the death, and the brother suspects the wife had something to do with the death–despite her rigid, airtight alibi. Kinsey starts looking into things, and soon becomes fairly certain that it was a murder; the trick is figuring out how she did it and got away with it…which leads Kinsey to going undercover at a Mystery Book Club. This story is clever, clever, clever, and one of my favorites of the Kinsey short stories.

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

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Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go

I overslept this morning, which is really fine; I feel very rested, which means I needed the sleep and my muscles, which have felt tired all week, don’t this morning; so there you have it. I have some errands to run in the early afternoon, and I also have some writing to do today; I need to finish a chapter in the WIP and finish one in the Scotty. I should probably do so organizing and of course, the Lost Apartment is a mess. I also need to revise two short stories, whose due dates are rapidly approaching. Next weekend I will be in Alabama for the Murder in the Magic City/Murder on the Menu events, and the next weekend is the final parade weekend of Carnival (yes I am missing the first weekend for the first time in years). I do hate missing the King Arthur parade; I have lots of friends and acquaintances in that one, so I generally get buried in beads. I can’t believe I agreed to miss that weekend, but I also was so busy making sure it wasn’t the final weekend of Carnival that I didn’t notice.

Stupid, stupid, stupid Gregalicious.

Heavy sigh. I finished watching the first season of Black Sails last night, both at the gym and then when I got home after; I am, as I have said, really enjoying the show. I can’t quite figure out why I didn’t like this show when I tried to watch it several years ago, but I am really enjoying it now and glad I gave it another chance. I suspect I didn’t pay enough attention to it as I watched, and you kind of need to pay attention. There’s a lot going on, there are a lot of cross-plots, and lots of scheming. I don’t think I much cared for the way the women were treated in the first episode or two, either; it appeared that the women were all whores or mistreated terribly by men. But that’s not the case; the women are stronger and smarter than the men, and Eleanor Guthrie, who runs Nassau, is developing into quite the cold-blooded manipulative she-devil, which I am also rather loving. And of course, you can never go wrong with a hot, sweaty men in tight leather pants. My favorite, of course, is Tom Hopper, but Zach MacGowan, who plays Captain Charles Vane (and also played Roan on The 100; I thought he looked familiar) isn’t a slouch either.

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I also read two short stories last night, both horror, to keep the Short Story Project going.

The first, “Minuke,” by Nigel Keale, is from a very thick book edited by Marvin Kaye called Ghosts:

The estate agent kept an uncomfortable silence until we reached his car. “Frankly, I wish you hadn’t gotten wind of that,” he said. “Don’t know how you did: I thought I had the whole thing carefully disposed of. Oh, please get in.”

He pulled his car forward and frowned. “It puts me in a rather awkward spot. I suppose I;d better tell you all I know about the case, or you’d be suspecting me of heaven-knows-what kinds of chicanery in your own.”

As we set off to see the property I was interested in, he shifted the cigarette to the side of his mouth,

“It’s quite a distance, so I can tell you on the way there,” he said. “We’ll pass the very spot, as a matter of fact, and you can see it for yourself. Such as there is to see.”

This is a ghost story, or more properly, the story of a haunting;  it was originally written and published in 1950–which makes the story sixty-eight! It’s also told in a classic horror trope that is hardly used anymore, because it’s become cliche–someone is telling the story of what happened to someone else, a disinterested party. Stephen King has used this method a time or two; most notably in his novella “The Breathing Method” from Different Seasons, and sometimes in short stories. It’s a very classic trope–Dracula is an epistolary novel, after all, told in diary entries and letters. But at the time “Minuke” was originally published, horror wasn’t considered a form of literature and as such tropes hadn’t evolved into cliches quite yet, and it’s a well-told tale. The house of the title is merely a bungalow, built in the housing boom of the post-war era, and therefore its tenants are the first to live there; it is too young of a house to have a haunting, and yet it does. It turns out, you see, when the foundations were being dug, they came across some ancient Norse grave markers…(of course, at the time the story was written Poltergeist was many years away in the future, and the ‘never build on an Indian burial ground’ theme hadn’t become deeply engrained in the culture).

(Aside: the collection Ghosts is a gorgeous, leather bound edition with gold inlay and a ribbon page marker that I purchased for a few bucks off a sale table at Borders many years ago; I don’t know why I’ve never dipped into it before, but it’s going to definitely play a role in this year’s Short Story Project.)

The second story I read was “Fallen Boys” by Mark Morris, from Best Horror of the Year Volume Three, compiled and selected by Ellen Datlow, and originally published in Jonathon Oliver anthology The End of the Line:

When the child screamed, Tess Morton felt guilty for having to repress the urge to snap at it. She was aware that it wasn’t Matthew Bellings who should be punished, but his tormentors, and yet the boy’s cry of pain or distress was so whiny that it grated on her nerves.

The reason she felt little compassion for the child was because she knew it took almost nothing to provoke a wail of complaint from him. Matthew would cry out whenever someone barged into him in the school corridor; whenever a football was kicked towards him in the playground; whenever a classmate flicked a paper pellet at him, or snatched a text book out of his hand, or pushed in front of him in the lunch queue. Indeed, the merest slight would cause Matthew’s red-cheeked, strangely wizened face to crumple, his mouth to twist open and that familiar, toe-curling bleat to emerge.

This story, about a class field trip to an abandoned tin mine (now open as a tourist attraction and advertised as an education experience for children), is predicated on a horrific truth about bullying that we don’t like to acknowledge or understand; one that Stephen King exposed and explored powerfully in his own debut novel, Carrie. 

When we read accounts about bullying, and how teachers and other adults look the other way, we are horrified by it; when we read short stories and novels about bullying  our hearts naturally go out to the victims and we loathe the bullies and their enablers; long for their comeuppance, and are infinitely satisfied when it does come. But that bears no resemblance to the reality. That comes from the emotional distance, and the pleasant lies we so often tell ourselves, the lies about who we are as people, and how we would behave in certain circumstances–we identify with heroes and see ourselves as heroes; part of the brilliance of Stephen King’s work is he so often lays bare that horrific truth that we aren’t all heroes.

Take Tess Morton, the teacher taking her kids on this field trip. The story is completely told from her point of view. She knows that kids are bullying Matthew, and she also knows that as the voice of authority she has to try to put a stop to it. She does try, but it’s not taking because Matthew himself irritates her and sometimes she herself wants nothing more than to give him a good slap. This is the same way Miss Desjardin, the gym teacher who stops the shower assault on Carrie White in the opening scene of Carrie, feels about the victim; she has to punish the girls who did it, but Carrie irritates her, she wants to smack her a good one, and she understands why Carrie is bullied.

This is also why school–the hallways, the playground, the cafeteria, the gym–is so scarring for so many people, because they are so evocative of Lord of the Flies or The Hunger Games.

This is a great story; Morris builds his suspense beautifully, and the denouement is rather sudden when it happens–more than a little reminiscent of EC Comics, but it’s also rather satisfying.

And now. back to the spice mines.

Dancing in the Sheets

The sun is shining, and the temperature has climbed to 49 degrees. The boil-water advisory ended finally last evening–it’s just not a crisis in New Orleans unless we have a boil-water advisory!–and here I sit this morning, ensconced at my desk with a cup of coffee, a load of laundry tumbling in the dryer, with great expectations of the day. I went to the gym last evening after work, and my muscles, while a bit tired, still feel stretched and worked and supple, if that makes sense. Probably the best thing about rededicating myself to physical exercise again is how much better I feel; I don’t ache or feel tired the way I did just last week, and the stretching and the treadmill are also making me feel ever so much better. Today, I am going to clean (if it’s Saturday I must be cleaning) but I am also going to write, edit and read today. Paul is going into the office to work (it’s that time of year again) and so I have the day to myself. I want to finish the first draft of “The Trouble with Autofill” and I want to edit “Cold Beer No Flies.”

Among many other things; my to-do list is ridiculous, quite frankly. But the only way to make progress is not to get overwhelmed by the enormity of the list but rather to keep plugging away at it.

I finished reading Miami by Joan Didion earlier this week, and it was quite good. Didion’s writing style is quite amazing, actually, and while the story of the book might seem, at first glance, to be rather dated; the truth is it is still very much appropriate to our modern times. Miami is a look at the Cuban exiles in the city, how they relate to each other, and how they impact south Florida politically; and to a lesser extent, the relationship between the US government with them as well as with Castro’s Cuba. During the Cold War Cuba was a much more terrifying apparition, close as it was to Florida, and it’s amazing how people do not realize the political clout, as a result of their sheer numbers, that the Cuban immigrants weld in that part of the state, and in the entire state as well. The importance of Florida as a swing state cannot be discounted; and therefore the Cuban-American community’s influence on national politics is something that has to always be considered. (A present day comparison would be the Puerto Ricans moving to Florida today in great numbers as a result of the hurricane destruction of their island; the difference being those Puerto Ricans are already American citizens who can register to vote and can impact 2018 already.) Didion’s look at Miami in the 1980’s, as a Caribbean city on the mainland, is also reminiscent of descriptions of New Orleans as the northernmost Caribbean city; the thing I love the most about Didion’s work is how she makes you think. Reading Miami made me want to write about Miami; I’ve been wanting to write about Florida for a long time, as Constant Reader already knows. Something to ponder.

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I also started reading Mark Harris’ Pictures at a Revolution, which is a look at the film industry through the lens of the five films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1967, and how they were made. Harris’ thesis is that was the year that bridged the gap between old and new Hollywood; and the five Best Picture nominees illustrated that perfectly: an expensive musical flop (Doctor Dolittle); two old style Hollywood pictures about race (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night), and two films that illustrated new Hollywood and its influence by European filmmakers like Truffaut and Fellini and Antonioni (Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate). I, of course, have always been fascinated by Hollywood history and have been ever since I read Garson Kanin’s Tracy and Hepburn and Bob Thomas’ Selznick as a kid; this book is right up my alley, and since it’s been awhile since I’ve read any Hollywood history, I am looking forward to reading this (and his Five Came Back–I’ve already watched the documentary based on it).

The Short Story Project also moves apace; I am frequently surprised as I look through my shelves for something to read how many single author collections and anthologies dot them. My Ipad also has quite a few loaded onto the Kindle app; I often buy them when they are either free or reduced in price, and so my Kindle app is filled with books I’ve not yet read, primarily because I don’t like to read on it (which I realize is nothing more than stubbornness; if I can watch movies or television programs on it, why resist reading books there?) Yesterday I found my battered old Dell paperback of Agatha Christie’s The Golden Ball and Other Stories, which I remember loving as a child. I was looking for my copy of Lawrence Block’s first anthology inspired by paintings–those of Edward Hopper– In Sunlight or in Shadow, which I would have sworn I’d purchased in hardcover; yet it wasn’t anywhere on the shelves or in any of the TBR piles, before remembering I’d bought it as an ebook when the Macavity nominations come out; Block’s story “Autumn at the Automat” was a finalist, along with mine (I still can’t believe it) and I wanted to read all the other nominated stories for an entry, so the immediacy of the need required buying the ebook. It is a handsome volume, though, so I’ll need to buy a hard copy to pair with the new one. (New bucket list item: write a story for one of these anthologies by Lawrence Block)

Once I’d located it on the iPad, I scoured the table of contents and landed on a Joyce Carol Oates story, “The Woman in the Window.” I have to confess I’ve not read much of Ms. Oates; I am not even remotely familiar with what she writes. But she, too, was a Macavity finalist last year, for her story “The Crawl Space” (which also won the Stoker Award), and that story creeped me the fuck out. I know she’s been a Stoker finalist before, but I also think she tends to write across genre a lot and therefore isn’t pigeon-holed in one way or the other.

Beneath the cushion of the plush blue chair she has hidden it.

Almost shyly her fingers grope for it, then recoil as if it were burning-hot.

No! None of this will happen, don’t be ridiculous!

It is eleven A.M. He has promised to meet her in this room in which it is always eleven A.M.

This story, frankly, isn’t as strong as “The Crawl Space,” but it’s an interesting exercise in how thin the line between lust and loathing is; the woman of the title is a secretary having an affair with a much wealthier man, and as she gets older and older she is feeling more and more trapped in the relationship; he is married and he often has to break plans with her for his wife. There is also a shift occasionally to his point of view, and he’s not so fond of her anymore, either. Passion has cooled but habit has set in; and the way those lines can get crossed is chilling–and how destructive such a relationship can be to both parties, emotionally and mentally, is explored in great detail yet sparse language by Ms. Oates. The story’s not as creepy, as I said, as the other; but the end–which she leaves kind of hanging–you do feel that something awful is going to happen; maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but eventually.

I’ve not read Joe Hill before, and there are several reasons for that; none of which would make any sense to anyone who is not me; I am nothing if not aware of my own eccentricities, which is why I generally don’t share them with people; I don’t need someone else to point out that something doesn’t make sense. But I do have a copy of his short story collection 20th Century Ghosts, which I spied on the shelves as I looked for my copy of the Block anthology. Aha, I thought, perfect. I can read a Joe Hill story for the Short Story Project. So, I curled up under a blanket in my easy chair, waited for Scooter to get settled in my lap, and started reading “Best New Horror.”

A month before his deadline, Eddie Carroll ripped open a manila envelope, and a magazine called The True North Literary Review slipped out into his hands. Carroll was used to getting magazines in the mail, although most of them had titles like Cemetery Dance and specialized in horror fiction. People sent him their books, too. Piles of them cluttered his Brookline townhouse, a heap on the couch in his office, a stack by the coffee maker. Books of horror stories, all of them.

No one had time to read them all, although once–when he was in his early thirties and just starting out as the editor of America’s Best New Horror–he had made a conscientious effort to try. Carroll had guided sixteen volumes of Best New Horror to press, had been working on the series for over a third of his life now. It added up to thousands of hours of reading and proofing and letter-writing, thousands of hours he could never have back.

He had come to hate the magazines especially. So many of them used the cheapest ink, and he had learned to loathe the way it came off on his fingers, the harsh stink of it.

I did not mention the elephant in the room; said elephant, of course, being that Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son. (The Kings are a very literary family; Mr. King’s wife Tabitha is a poet and a novelist; their other son Owen also writes, as does Owen’s wife, Kelly Braffet; I read a novel by Ms. Braffet sometime in the last couple of years–not aware of the King connection–and greatly enjoyed it.)

But simply based on a reading of “Best New Horror,” I have to say Joe Hill is also a terrific writer. And while it, like some of his father’s work, bears a strong resemblance to something I would have read in an Tales from the Crypt or House of Mystery comic book–that is not a criticism. I loved those comics, and the stories I read in them; they had a deep influence on me not only as a writer but as a reader. “Best New Horror”, as you can tell by the opening, tells the tale of Eddie Carroll, a writing teacher and a long-time editor of the Best New Horror series, a chore he has learned to loathe and, basically, phone in every year for the money. This resonated with me; as an anthology editor myself, one of the reasons I stepped away from editing them–or took a break from doing it–was because it was becoming rote; a chore rather than something I found joy in doing. Eddie is an example of why I stopped–I didn’t want to become like him; embittered by the experience and tired of not finding anything fresh or new (unlike Eddie, I was able to keep the experience fresh because each anthology I did was a new topic; if I had done twenty anthologies with the same theme I would have gone on a killing spree). But in the mail comes a story from a new writer that is simply brilliant; original and fresh and resonant and horrifying in its reality; the story reinvigorates Eddie and makes the editing job no longer a chore; he has to have this story, and will do whatever he has to in order to track the writer down…but as with any horror  tale of obsession, it’s not going to end well. But Hill brilliantly keeps stringing the reader along, and the ending is just absolutely brilliant and clever. I am really looking forward to reading more of these stories.

And now, I must get back to the spice mines. There are clothes to fold, dishes to wash, floors to clean, stories to write and edit; I am probably coming back here for another entry later as I am trying to get caught up on posting the stories I’ve read–but I make no promises. I have another story to write as a call for submissions crossed my computer screen on Thursday; I have an unfinished story that I can repurpose, but I also need to get a first draft done so I can work the story out.

Until later, Constant Reader.

Got a Hold on Me

Friday morning, and a short day at the office. I am very pleased to report that looking out my windows this morning I see no snow and ice, so I think perhaps this cold snap has finally come to its bitter end. We’re now having water pressure problems in the city, a boil water advisory, etc. etc. etc. Heavy heaving sigh. But other than that, things are going well. Like I said, I have a short day today; I am going to go to the gym this afternoon when I get home from the office, and I am going to spend the weekend writing and editing and reading. I started writing another short story yesterday, “The Trouble with Autofill,” which I think is kind of clever, and have lots of other editing and writing to do. Woo-hoo! Exciting weekend, no? I also want to get some reading and cleaning done. But I think as long as I keep going–sticking to my goal of positivity and focus, things will go well.

Maybe today’s blog should be titled When You Believe.

So, my agenda this morning is to get my kitchen cleaned up, get better organized, clean out my email, and do some writing. I’m going to get the mail before heading to the office, and I also need to pack my gym clothes so I can just ran in, grab the bag, and head back out the door. I also have lost three more pounds this week, finally breaking through that pesky 214 pound plateau I was at–I haven’t weighed 211 in years, so huzzah for working out! Now to keep going.

I started watching Black Sails again this week. I tried it several years ago, and just couldn’t get into it, even going so far as to think it kind of boring. I don’t know why; it has everything I love–pirates, beautiful locations, great period costumes, hot sweaty men in buccaneer outfits–but for whatever reason I just didn’t get into it. Maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention? Something. Anyway, I am enjoying it a lot more this time around, so I am in for all four seasons. I love pirates–always have–despite having given up on the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise after the second movie–and while I am not sure why that is the case, I just have. I’ve always wanted to write a pirate novel; and I still have a Scotty adventure having to do with Jean Lafitte’s treasure still floating around in the back of my  head. I’m making all kinds of notes as I watch this show–reread Treasure Island, do some research on pirates, reread The Deep–so who knows? My creativity is certainly flowering these days; and I do think this go back to your roots thing is really working for me. I am doing that with my workout program–all the way back to how I got started, in 1994/1995; and carrying my little blank book around has certainly kick-started my creativity. How cool is that?

I’ve also added a lot of fun Alfred Hitchcock movies to my watchlist on Amazon Prime, some I haven’t seen and others I already have: Saboteur, The Birds, Shadow of a Doubt, Topaz, Frenzy, Psycho, Family Plot, and Vertigo.

The Short Story Project is also continuing; I read a shitload of short stories on my Snow Day Wednesday, but am still doling them out two at a time here. 😉 First up today: “Lord of Madison County by Jimmy Cajoleas, from Mississippi Noir, edited by Tom Franklin:

“Are yall ready to worship?” says Pastor Jerry. He’s got his eyes shut, one arm raised high to Jesus in some weird half-Nazi salute. Frosted hair slicked back, bald spots barely showing. Graphic T-shirt that says, Lord’s Gym, and has Christ bench-pressing a cross on it. Cargo shorts that he still thinks are cool.

I’m a little ways back in the youth room, chewing on a pen cap. The worship band kicks in; it’s all reverbed guitar and concert lights and the bullshit praise lyrics projected onto a screem behind them. You know, the songs that are the kind of crap you say to your girlfriend but it’s supposed to be about God? You are beautiful. You alone are my rock. You alone are my one and only. Oh, Jesus, baby!

Out in the crowd of youth-groupers are my customers. The girl with her hands up in the air giggling, singing louder than anyone? That’s Theresa. Everyone thinks she’s weird, that maybe she’s one of God’s holy fools, but they all agree that she’s on fire with Jesus.

Nah, she just popped a molly.

This is a great opening; I had wondered if anyone was going to address the Southern relationship with religion, and Christianity, in particular. My own psyche has been deeply scarred by a love-hate relationship with the Southern brand of Christianity; the entire nation was recently stunned by the Alabama evangelical embrace of pedophile Roy Moore–which was something that neither surprised nor shocked me. I need to write about religion; I do wish someone with a book called Religion in America: A History of the Turbulent American Relationship with God. Writing is very therapeutic, and I do have such a story that I’ve been working on for going on thirty years; I seriously doubt anyone would publish it. Anyway, I digress. This story, about a young drug dealer who has a fraught relationship with his mother, his father, and his mother’s boyfriend, is very clever and tightly written, with surprise twists and turns that take it in directions I didn’t see coming. Doug, kicked out of his wealthy private school where he was making money dealing to the rich kids, realized the best new market for his merchandise was the youth group at a local church. His dealing increased the youth group’s membership, and he has his own fraught relationship with Pastor Jerry, whom he rather despises, while dating Jerry’s daughter Kayla. Kayla is the big surprise here, a femme fatale right out of the James M. Cain classics, and a true delight. I’d love to read more about Kayla.

After Mississippi Noir, I took down The Best Horror of the Year Volume Four, edited by Ellen Datlow, and the first story there was Stephen King’s The Little Green God of Agony.”

“I was in an accident,” Newsome said.

Katherine MacDonald, sitting beside the bed and attaching one of the four TENS units to his scrawny thigh just below the basketball shorts he now always wore, did not look up. Her face was carefully blank. She was a piece of human furniture in this big house–in this big bedroom where she now spent most of her working life–and that was the way she liked it. Attracting Mr. Newsome’s attention was usually a bad idea, as any of his employees knew. But her thoughts ran on, just the same. Now you tell them that you actually caused the accident. Because you think taking responsibility makes you look like a hero.

“Actually,” Newsome said, “I caused the accident. Not so tight, Kat, please.”

There’s a reason why Stephen King is one of my favorite writers. One of the reasons is his uncanny ability to get into the heads of his characters, turning them into three dimensional beings that sound like someone you know. Kat, the physical therapist for an incredibly wealthy man–“the sixth wealthiest man in the world’–is tired of her job and tired of her patient. He won’t do the work required to get better and she is tired of watching him waste money and time on quick-fix quack cures that don’t do anything. This time, he’s brought in a small-time preacher from Arkansas who is going to exorcise the demon of pain from Newsome; it’s all she can do to keep a straight face and not say anything. Finally, she can’t resist and the preacher, Rideout, calls her out on a lot of things, seeing deep into her soul and telling her truths she doesn’t want to face herself, let alone share with anyone. And then the exorcism begins…in Danse Macabre, his later 1970’s/early 1980’s study of the genre, King talks about how horror comics of the 1950’s influenced his writing; as I was reading this story I could easily see it illustrated in Tales from the Crypt or House of Secrets. It’s terrific, absolutely terrific, and I was reminded again of why I love nothing more than curling up with Stephen King’s writing. It also vaguely reminded me of his novel Revival; I think this story may have triggered his creativity in that direction.

And now, I have spice to mine. Have a great Friday, Constant Reader!

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Give It Up

It rained overnight, and is still damp and gloomy this morning. There really is nothing like sleeping during a downpour, is there, the constant strumming of the rain, the comfort and warmth of the mattress and under the blankets, is there?

Yesterday was a crazy busy day for one Gregalicious, who got up in the morning and did some work, cleaned, and then walked to Comic Con for a signing and a panel. The signing was fun, and the panel discussion about creativity and creativity triggers was also a lot of fun; as exhausting and draining as it is to do public appearances, I also always somehow forget, in the nervousness and terror of having to speak in front of a room full of people, how much I actually enjoy talking about writing and creativity. So, there’s that. I then came home, watched the ice dance final at US Nationals, and then the Saints play-off game, which was a nail-biter down to the very last play of the game (GEAUX SAINTS!). We stayed up and watched the Golden Globes before going to bed; I also managed to get some brainstorming done in my journal, and I also read a short story, to keep the Short Story Project going.

One of the truly fun things about the panel was that Tom Cook was on it. Tom was an animator/director for Hanna-Barbera in the late 1960’s/1970’s, and of course, one of the shows he worked on was Scooby Doo Where Are You, which tremendously influenced me in the direction of mysteries and crime when I was a kid. So meeting Tom, and thanking him for the influence, was kind of a thrill for the weekend for me. I am starting to feel energized about writing again, which is very cool.

The short story I read was “East Wind,” from Daphne du Maurier’s The Doll and Other Lost Stories.

the doll

Nearly a hundred miles west of the Scillies, far from the main track of ships, lies the small, rocky island of St. Hilda’s. Only a few miles square, it is a barren, rugged place, with great jagged cliffs that run deep into deep water. The harbour is hardly more than a creek, and the entrance like a black hole cut out of the rock. The island rises out of the sea a queer, misshapen crag, splendid inits desolation, with a grey face lifted to the four winds. It might have been thrown up from the depths of the Atlantic in a moment of great unrest, and set there, a small defiant piece of land, to withstand forever that anger of the sea Over a century ago few knew of its existence, and the many sailors who saw its black outline on the horizon imagined it to be little more than a solitary rock, standing like a sentinel in mid-ocean.

“East Wind” is an early du Maurier tale, from early in her career (which people seem to want to divide into ‘pre’ and ‘post’ Rebecca); and in some ways the inexperience shows. The story is, as so many of her later stories are, very matter-of-fact; simply told with a move this  to that to the other; unemotional and simple. However, what is actually missing from this story that shows up in her later stories are layers of detail and complexity; stories like “Don’t Look Now” and “The Birds” have so many layers to burrow through, so much detail, and so much creepy, quiet horror that they continue to haunt the reader once the story is told. “East Wind” is an equally unpleasant tale, but doesn’t have the impact of the later stories in its telling.

As I started reading it, it reminded me of one of my favorite Stephen King stories, “The Reach”, which was the final story I think in Skeleton Crew, and was originally called “Do the Dead Sing?”, which is, in my opinion, a far superior title. That story was from the point of view of an old woman, dying in her bed on a cold, blustery winter night, and remembering something that happened many years ago–while also hearing her beloved dead one’s calling to her to join them. The story was brilliant and beautiful and haunting, and as I said, remains one of my favorite King stories to this day.

The du Maurier tale is similar in that it is about a remote island, where the inhabitants have very little contact with the outside world and because of a limited pool, have become more than a little inbred. The east wind of the title is brutal, blasting away at the little island and making the seas rough, so a brig of foreign sailors is forced to take shelter in the harbor, foreigners who don’s speak the same language. These exotic to the islanders strangers have an odd impact on the islanders, who become intoxicated in the strangeness and newness of this experience, which eventually leads to seduction and murder, changing and scarring the island forever; and of course, once this has happened and the east wind stops blowing, they get back in their ship and sail away because, of course, it was nothing to them. This is, of course, a terrific theme that du Maurier returns to again and again in her work; the dionysian influence of an outside force that causes trouble and then moves on without a care, leaving damage in its wake. The story itself, which is short and unemotional, is important as an early work because the reader, the duMaurier afficionado, can see how she developed themes she used extensively in her later career; her fascination with the concept of the unfeeling outside force on ordinary people’s lives, and the disruption such an influence can cause.

And now, back to the spice mines.