End Game

I’m really becoming a huge fan of Paul Tremblay.

I’ve always enjoyed horror, ever since I was a kid; I used to love watching Creature Features on WGN in Chicago, and getting scared–sometimes having nightmares. But the supernatural has always interested me, as well as horror; in the 1980’s and even into the early 1990’s I saw myself as becoming a horror writer rather than a crime writer. And while I’ve written some “scary” stories and novels, I don’t know that I could classify them as horror– I think Sara and Sorceress are probably the closest I’ve ever come to writing horror; maybe even Lake Thirteen would count (it certainly bears my favorite cover of all my novels). But I see myself as more of a fan of horror than a writer of it; as I’ve said many times, I tend to write more about human monsters than supernatural ones. I had heard great things about Paul Tremblay before I started reading his actual work; my friend Megan in particular is a big fan of his, and based on her recommendation I started reading A Head Full of Ghosts, but it didn’t really strike my fancy that first time, and so I put it aside and moved onto something else. I did pick it up again later, and then, of course, I couldn’t put it down.

After finishing The Coyotes of Carthage, I was looking through the TBR piles, pulled out a book or two before putting them back, and then finally decided to read a second Tremblay, The Cabin at the End of the World.

It was a most excellent choice.

The girl with the dark hair walks down the wooden front stairs and lowers herself into the yellowing lagoon of ankle-high grass. A warm breeze ripples through the blades, leaves and crab-like petals of clover flowers. She studies the front yard, watching for the twitchy, mechanical motion and frantic jumps of grasshoppers. The glass jar cradled against her chest smells faintly of grape jelly and is sticky on the inside. She unscrews the aerated lid.

Wen promised Daddy Andrew she would release the grasshoppers before they got cooked inside the homemade terrarium. The grasshoppes will be okay because she’ll make sure to keep the jar out of direct sunlight. She worries, though,, that they could hurt themselves by jumping into the sharp edges of the lid’s punched-in holes. She’ll catch smaller grasshoppers, ones that don’t jump as high or as powerfully, and because of their compact size there will be more leg-stretching room inside the jar. She will talk to the grasshoppers in a low, soothing voice, and hopefully they will be less likely to panic and mash themselves against the dangerous metal stalactites. Satisfied with her updated plan, she pulls up a fistful of grass, roots and all, leaving a pockmark in the front yard’s sea of green and yellow. She carefully deposits and arranges the grass in the jar, then wipes her hans on her gray Wonder Woman T-shirt.

Ironically, in my earlier paragraphs I talked about writing crime because I want my monsters to be human; ironically, the monsters in Paul Tremblay’s latest, sublime entry into the horror genre could easily be considered a crime thriller as well because his monsters are all too human, and this set-up is just as terrifying as any supernatural horror novel I’ve ever read. Being out in the country has never really appealed to me very much (ironically, my current work-in-progress is set out in the country) precisely because it’s no safer out in the country than it is in the city; at least in the city someone will hear your screams or cries for help. The very isolation of the country is part of its terror for me; in no less part because country people always smugly assert (and reassure themselves) that crime and murder are MUCH more likely to happen in the big, bad, dangerous city.

Sidebar: I still think there’s a terrific essay to be written about the proliferation of rural horror/crime novels in the 1970’s, directly tied to the inherent racism of white flight from integrated schools and neighborhoods to the suburbs and the country, and perhaps someday I will have the confidence to write the essay based on that abstract theme.

Tremblay has set his terrifying tale in a small cabin on a lake in upstate New Hampshire, close to the Canadian border, where our heroes–a married gay couple (Andrew and Eric) are spending a ‘back-to-nature’ vacation with their adopted child, Wen. The story is told in the present tense (always creepier in horror, seeing the action unfold as it happens rather than in the much safer past tense–it’s happening as opposed to it’s already happened) and the point of view shifts between the two dads and their young daughter. Wen is out on the lawn catching grasshoppers and naming them when a big man appears suddenly out of the woods, friendly and nice, he tries to win her over but ultimately fails, sending her running inside to warn her daddies that they are no longer alone in their rustic cabin–with no cell service and no wi-fi (which, ironically, was part of the cabin’s original appeal–to unplug; that appeal will righteously bite the in their ass now that a Dionysian influence has arrived in their idyllic world).

The big man, Leonard, isn’t alone; he has three friends with him, all wearing similar button-down shirts in different colors and jeans: Redmond, kind of an asshole every-straight-man; Sabrina, a nurse; and Adriane, who is older. As the three family members barricade themselves into the cabin, the four seemingly normal visitors let them know they are there to present them with a horrible, horrific choice: they have seen, in visions and dreams, that the apocalypse is nigh, but have been shown the cabin and the small family, and told that if one of them will voluntarily sacrifice himself, the end of the world will be stopped.

This is, of course, every parent’s worst nightmare: a threat to not only their family but to their child, and Tremblay does an amazing job of letting us, the readers, get to know all three of the family members, developing them into complicated, realistic characters with backstories and levels and layers; I also applaud him for writing about a same-sex family and making the characters absolutely real. (This is how you do it, people; read the book and take notes). Wen is completely believable as a little girl; the family bond and love is absolutely real; and that makes the horror even more horrible, more horrifying, more of a gut-punch…as we go through every step of the process with them, all over the course of less than twenty-four hours, as their lives are irrevocably altered and changed, as they refuse to believe the story of their visitors, but slowly but surely the wonder begins to creep in…what if this is absolutely real and they are indeed messengers from God?

I will leave it to the horror academics to discuss the symbols and symbolism threaded throughout the story–but I have to bring up the colors of the shirts the visitors are wearing, and the fact there are four of them: representing the four horsemen of the apocalypse along with their warnings of doom. The questions of faith, of existing as gay in a heterosexist society, of family and love–all of these are beautifully explored and written about, and the building of tension and suspense is unparalleled; it’s really hard to put the book down and walk away from the story without finding out how it all ends–will they make the sacrifice, or will the world end? Are the visitors right–and how will anyone ever know if they were, because the world not ending doesn’t prove anything if the sacrifice occurs.

Or are they just insane?

I highly recommend this book, and cannot wait to read more Tremblay.

Breathe

One of the things I love most about books being turned into television series–or mini-series–is reading the book while I am watching the show. I discovered how amazingly fulfilling and fun and joyous this could be with Big Little Lies, and I’ve tried–sometimes failing–to do this every time Paul and I start binge-watching and loving another adaptation.  (Little Fires Everywhere remains my biggest disappointment; I cannot believe I did not have a copy of the book on-hand, or waited to watch until I had one in my clutches)

When I saw the first preview for HBO’s Lovecraft Country, it literally blew me away. I literally thought to myself, wow, I cannot WAIT to watch that, and was even more delighted to discover that it was, in fact, a novel. I got a copy, placed it on the mantle, and the week the first episode aired, I started reading. (Obviously, I do not read as fast as I used to.) I love love LOVE the show, and the book is actually pretty marvelous, as well. I finished it last night as I waited for the way-outer bands of Hurricane Laura to reach us here in New Orleans–all we got was a tropical storm effect, I am terrified frankly to look up what actually happened where the eye came ashore, and will have to gird myself with more coffee before I do look–and I am pleased to report the book finishes just as strongly as it starts–and that the entire book is fucking fantastic.

lovecraft country

Atticus was almost home when the state trooper pulled him over.

He’d left Jacksonville two days before in the secondhand ’48 Cadillac Coupe that he’d bought with the last of his Army pay. The first day he drove 450 miles, eating and drinking from a basket he’d packed in advance, stopping the car only to get gas. At one of the gas stops the colored restroom was out of order, and when the attendant refused him the key to the whites’ room, Atticus was forced to urinate in the bushes behind the station.

He spent the night in Chattanooga. The Safe Negro Travel Guide had listings for four hotels and a motel, all in the same part of the city. Atticus chose the motel, which had an attached 24-hour diner. The price of the room, as promised by the Guide, was three dollars.

I’m going to be honest right up front: I’ve never read H. P. Lovecraft. Oh, the horror, literally, right? When I was a kid I bought a copy of The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath and other Stories, and it just…well, it just didn’t do it for me. I lost interest several pages in, and gave up; and have never since returned to try the Lovecraftian waters. As I grew older and became more and more aware of the horror genre, I also became aware of how much of an impact and influence Lovecraft had, not just on horror, but on the sisters that genre is usually lumped in with, fantasy and science fiction. Lovecraft is honored and saluted and studied and written about, over and over again; new anthologies explore his worlds and “cosmic horror”; so many horror writers and fans claim, on their social media pages, to have attended “Miskatonic University” (which, to be fair, is far less annoying than those who claim “the School of Hard Knocks,” har har); and of course, over the past decade (perhaps longer; who knows? I don’t, and don’t care to find out) you cannot be involved in publishing, or a fan, as I am, of the horror genre and not been aware of what I have come to call “the Lovecraft Wars.” (The Lovecraft Wars, in short, debate the legacy of Lovecraft and his vile, racist beliefs; the standard defense is a shrugged ‘he was a man of his time’–to which the only proper response, frankly, is so was Hitler–and whether or not he should continue to be honored as an influential author; I don’t know the answer to those questions, frankly, and it’s not my writing community so I have no skin in the game. But you cannot help but be aware of this ongoing conflict.)

Anyway, I was pleased when I saw the trailers for HBO MAX’s Lovecraft Country, which clearly centered Black people, and when I found out it was also a book, I decided to get it and read along while watching the series. I was also a little disappointed to see, based on the author photo on the back cover, that author Matt Ruff appeared to be white–which also seemed to be a whole other field of land mines; the #ownvoice debate.

And then I started reading, and watching.

The book is set in a post-Korean War pre-Brown v. Topeka Board of Education United States; when racism was not only permissable and acceptable to the majority of white people but was often enshrined into law; separate bathrooms, denial of service, mob violence and burning crosses were, horrifyingly enough, just a part of everyday life for Black people. The police weren’t there to help protect them; they were there to force them to continue to live their lives on their knees–and kill them if they tried to rise. Lovecraft Country doesn’t flinch away from this or try to downplay it in any way (either book or television show), and there were times I found it hard to keep reading and would put the book down–only to think to myself, that’s some serious privilege there, bud–this is what Black people experience to this very fucking day and they can’t just ‘put down the book’ and walk away from it; refusing to read it because it makes you uncomfortable and makes you squirm makes you even more complicit than you already are. So, yes, there are some parts to the book that will make white people uncomfortable–but you need to get over it, for any number of reasons but at least one is because the book itself is a revelation.

As I’ve said, I’ve not read Lovecraft, but I got the sense from reading the book that the interconnected stories that make up the book are all inspired by, or retellings of, some of Lovecraft’s; only now centering Black people and their struggle against not only supernatural forces but against the casual, every day racism of the society in which they live. Atticus is returning to Chicago from Jacksonville because he received a letter from his estranged father about a family legacy; Atticus’ mother, it turns out, was descended from a slave who was raped and impregnated by a master who was also a very powerful warlock and part of an ancient society with peculiar beliefs centered in the book of Genesis. His uncle George is the publisher/editor of the travel guide mentioned in the opening of the book; eventually Atticus and George go on a road trip to Massachusetts–to Lovecraft Country–along with a childhood friend named Letitia (Tish)–to find Atticus’ father and they wind up in a very chilling and scary place called Ardham (Lovecraft wrote about Arkham–and I will always wonder if Arkham Asylum from the Batman universe was an homage to Lovecraft as well). They deal with racism every step of the way, “sundown towns” (towns where people of color were required to be outside the city limits by sundown or else suffer the consequences), and corrupt racist cops.

Each section of the book focuses on another person who is a part of their immediate family/friends group, dealing with some kind of different, supernatural experience: the next part of the book centers Tish buying a big empty old mansion in a whites-only part of Chicago that also happens to be haunted, and so on–Tish’s sister has her own story; Atticus and his father go looking for journals of another warlock and encounter a haunting; George’s wife and son have their own stories as well–but all these stories are connected by a thread that goes back to Atticus’ family legacy and a war between different covens of warlocks for not only supremacy, but knowledge and power.

The book is exceptionally well-written, and as I said earlier, unflinching in its depiction of a racist society from the point of view of those consistently victimized by it, and it’s a toss-up between who is scarier–the warlocks and the forces they unleash, or the horrible racists, so entrenched in their horrific beliefs and values that they can’t see Black people as human beings. The fact Ruff chose to call his primary character Atticus didn’t escape me, either; Atticus being also the name of the noble white hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, which is, while a beautifully written novel, one which has become increasingly problematic to me over the years for any number of reasons. I greatly enjoyed reading the book–and in all honesty, it made me curious to read Lovecraft at some point after all these years; although it’s certainly not going to be a priority for me.

I will read more of Ruff’s work, though; the descriptions of his other books sound incredibly subversive, which appeals to me.

I recommend this book highly.

Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)

And a happy 4th of July to you, too, Constant Reader.

It’s always bothered me that people consider this our national birthday, when it’s really not. July 4th is actually Independence Day; when the Declaration of Independence began to be signed and we officially shrugged off the yoke of the British Empire. Independence was, of course, qualified; it was independence for white men, naturally; women still were second-class, and no slaves were freed with this declaration. It would take almost another hundred years before the abolition of slavery; 150 for women to get the right to vote; and full equality with the straight white man is still a dream to be fought for in our laws and courts and hearts. But we can celebrate the ideal that was established by the flawed founding fathers, who were, as are all men, imperfect–no matter what the mythology we are taught from birth claims.

And it cannot be denied that our country was built over the bones and blood of the indigenous people whose land was taken from them.

So, there will be political speeches, and fireworks displays, and firecrackers going off and scaring pets pretty much the entire day. There will be picnics and barbecues and no mail delivered. Flags and parades and patriotism on display wherever you look. Hell, even I’m going to light some charcoal and cook out later today. But the United States is generally incapable, as a nation, of self-reflection and critical analysis of its past, present, and future; such is seen by a segment of the population as a lack of patriotism (because somehow blind allegiance to a party and its members, as well as slavish devotion to the symbols of democracy, rather than to the democracy itself, is somehow seen as true patriotism) and derided. But it is only through self-criticism, critique, and reflection that the democracy grows stronger with mistakes corrected and the course reset.

For no one is truly free and equal until all are free and equal.

I took yesterday as a day of rest; I answered some pressing emails in the morning and then walked away from my computer. I watched Hamilton (see other blog post) which was truly delightful; we finished Season Two of Titans, which was also marvelous, and Dick Grayson finally emerged from the shadow of Robin and donned the Nightwing costume in the finale (Season 2 was so much better than Season 1, and I liked Season 1; cannot wait for Season 3); and then we moved onto a Mexican series called The Club, which was highly entertaining and fun. We’re not even halfway finished with it, either, so we have several more nights of cheesy fun as our heroes establish themselves as Ecstasy dealers to the upper class of Mexico City–and the lead, Pablo, is absolutely gorgeous.

It was lovely having a relaxing day, as it always is; one in which I cast aside my cares and worries, and simply get lost in being entertained. I slept well again last night–I have quite a streak of that going now, which is absolutely lovely–and so now today, I am going to spend the day the way I usually spend my second day of the weekend–reading, writing and cleaning. The sink is filled with dirty dishes, and the dishwasher is also full (of clean dishes, that must be put away) and at some point this weekend I need to buy a new broom, clean the filter in the vacuum cleaner, and actually clean the floors. Today I am going to work on some in-progress short stories, while tomorrow I am going to work on the Secret Project (it would be lovely to get it finished tomorrow, and sent off to the publisher, but you know how that usually winds up). I also want to spend some time with Kelly J. Ford’s Cottonmouths, perhaps even finishing it, which would be lovely; I really need to get back into the swing of reading every day, else I have no prayer of ever getting caught up on the always-growing TBR pile.

I’m not sure what stories I am going to work on today, to be honest. There are several which are finished in the first draft form and need to be revised, things added and changed; still others are incomplete and need to have a first draft finished in order to get things worked on a bit. I was thinking about trying to take on “Please Die Soon,” “Gossip,” and “You Won’t See Me”; but there are any number of others that are simply begging to be finished. I’ve also got those novellas in progress–four or five, at last count–and it would be lovely to make some sort of progress on some of those as well. I also am quite aware I am most likely being overly ambitious here; laziness will inevitably seep into my bones at some point and I’ll just say the hell with it and walk away from my computer.

And on that note I am heading into the spice mines. Wish me luck.

Somewhere

Sunday morning, and all is well in the Lost Apartment.

Yesterday was, well, yesterday, and I think I was still kind of off-balance from sleeping well and not feeling sick, you know? Naturally, my computer decided hey he slept well and doesn’t feel sick, so let’s start acting up!

Oh, poisoned Apple. How sharp is thy sting.

Another night of good night’s sleep, and I am choosing to accept that the computer frustrations of yesterday–irritating as they may have been–were really more of a sign from the heavens (the Fates, the Muses, the Gods, whatever) that i really needed to not work at all yesterday and just kind of have a lovely, do-nothing kind of day. We finished the first season of Titans, which was nice, and moved on to Season 2 (in which the first season’s entire storyline, and cliff-hanger, was resolved relatively quickly–so quickly that I kind of questioned it; very rushed…but then as the episode progressed to its finish, I understood why–they wanted to get to the meat/villain of Season 2 as quickly as possible: the reformation of the team and the return of Deathstroke as the big bad). I’m not sure if we aren’t going to see Kory or Hawk and Dove anymore; which is a shame, as I like them all. We shall see, I suppose; I guess we’ll be blazing through season 2 this week.

So, today’s plan, computer cooperation pending, is to revise the Sherlock story and revise another for a submission deadline on July 1. I know what I need to do with the Sherlock story, and I also know what I want to do with the other story–which is a long shot (aren’t they all?) and hopefully, if I can get both of these done today, I can spend the afternoon finishing reading the Woolrich preparatory to moving on to Kelly Ford’s Cottonmouths.

I also need to do some straightening up and filing work–the on-line files yesterday was what triggered the computer issues, which led to research on-line, which led to frustration, which led to watching LSU clips from last season–but while I was doing dishes and later folding laundry I figured out how to correct Bury Me in Shadows, my Civil War ghost story Gothic, so that was kind of a win for the day, don’t you think? And over the past few days I’ve also figured out how to rewrite and restructure the Kansas book. So, if I can focus on the Secret Project this week, get those stories revised and submitted today–I should be able to spend July revising Bury Me in Shadows and August revising the Kansas book, and then both will be out of my hair for awhile–so I can also focus on Chlorine.

Oh, I also figured out what “Never Kiss a Stranger” needs, and how to fix it as well, so that I can finish it.

Maybe yesterday wasn’t such a loss as I thought I was after all…

I also think I need to figure out and map out the rest of my year–June 30th will bring the first half of the year to a close, and might as well set some goals for the second half, since so many things beyond my control this first half of the year derailed me every step of the way; I am also (huge step here) not beating myself up for not managing to figure out a way to get my writing done during a pandemic, chronic illness, and the world essentially going insane outside my windows.

BUT–if the world going insane outside my windows means systemic societal change, more power to the insanity and might I add, such insanity is far overdue?

And on that particular note, tis time to return to the spice mines this morning. Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader.

King of Rome

It’s Saturday, and I am feeling better. Yesterday was much better than Thursday; I drank a lot of fluids and didn’t seem to have any stomach issues; the headache came and went, and I coughed what probably was a normal every day amount of coughs–something in my throat that needed clearing–and while I did still have some fatigue and chest tightness, I was able to do some things as long as I took a break after. I did the dishes, and watched The 39 Steps. I did some laundry, and spent some time on Youtube. I moved necessary information from my old journal (now full) into my new one. We also watched Knives Out last night before retiring to bed, which we also enjoyed.

I did try to read, but it was tiring–awful, really, when you are required to stream for entertainment because it’s less taxing mentally–so I wasn’t able to do much of that. So, I put my fiction novel aside–Night Has a Thousand Eyes by Cornell Woolrich, and took down The Proud Tower by Barbara Tuchman, which is quite good; it’s her study of Europe in the generation/decades leading up to World War I. I had started it years ago and never finished–I don’t remember why, quite frankly–but was able to pick up again and read it here and there while I could focus. The lovely thing about non-fiction, and history in particular, is that you don’t have to worry too much about what came before where you’re reading if you pick it up again years later…history is history.

I also downloaded a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which I have never read, and thought perhaps that I should; how does the book that many historians consider partly responsible for the outbreak of the Civil War because it so enflamed abolitionist sentiments in its readers (never, ever doubt the power of fiction to help bring needed change) hold up today? I’ve read some interesting pieces on Gone with the Wind–book and movie, both for and against lately–and that put me in mind of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I had reread a novel about the Civil Rights movement a few years ago that I read when quite young (The Klansman, by William Bradford Huie, a native Alabaman who taught at the University in Tuscaloosa; and the title was definitely a play on The Clansman, the novel Birth of a Nation was based on) and thought it even more powerful now than I did when I was a child; I saw the justifications of the horrific racist white people for what they were and it was plain to me, even as a child, that they weren’t the heroes of the story, even though they were the central characters of the book. So, I went to Project Gutenberg and downloaded a PDF of the book, and as I started reading the first few paragraphs…well, let’s just say the writing style is very dated and leave it at that. There’s also the use of the N word right there on Page One–which of course was common usage in the 1850’s and pretty much up until the 1950’s or 1960’s…and I started thinking that maybe someone should–since the book is now in the public domain–rewrite it and update for modern times? Or perhaps someone could do something like Alice Randall/The Wind Done Gone with it? Or perhaps it should best be left alone? The debate over these old books, primarily focused on Gone with the Wind lately, (and really, it’s mostly about the movie, not the book) and what should be done with and about them, is one I cannot make up my mind about. There’s probably a blog entry on that coming as well.

So far so good this morning. I don’t know if the fatigue is gone, but I slept for a very long time and very deeply. I still have a headache and my stomach is still bothering me this morning, so I am going to try keep putting in fluids since the dehydration issue seems to still be going on as well. There really are fewer things I loathe more than not feeling well, quite frankly. The weird issue with my stomach is that it literally feels tight and sore, like I did some kind of way too intense, way too long abdominal workout, and everything feels kind of bloated and gross? I’m not making that as clear as I should–use your words, writer boy!–but I’m not really sure what’s going on with it. I keep hoping it’s not anything serious, but…it’s still quite strange. The headache is coming and going; I’ll feel it for about fifteen minutes, and then it goes away before coming back. It’s not excruciating, more of a throb than anything else, and then it’s gone. Not enough to even take Tylenol over, frankly, but maybe I should; it might control it and keep it from coming back.

I’m hoping to have both the energy and the focus to write today; failing that, to at least read for a bit. When I finish this I have some emails to address–when do I not have an absurd amount of emails to answer–and hopefully can get most of that resolved before moving on to a highly productive day. One can dream, can’t one?

I have to say, I was really impressed with The 39 Steps. Yes, it was filmed in 1935 and yes, it’s rather dated now; but you can see how masterful Hitchcock was as a director. There’s not as much suspense in it–primarily due to the datedness of the movie–but it’s interesting, and I’ve always wanted to read the novel. I also found it interesting that Madeleine Carroll, who played the lead, was also the kind of icy beautiful blonde heroine Hitchcock gravitated towards for most of his career. But the concepts of the film–a man (played by Robert Donat) who unknowingly stumbles onto an espionage ring, and a female agent is murdered in his apartment, he is blamed and no one will believe the story he is telling; which she told him when he basically rescued her, and so he has to unmask the conspiracy in order to clear himself of the murder, is also Hitchcock’s favorite kind of story: what I call the “right man in the wrong place at the wrong time” kind of thing. Bourbon Street Blues was originally conceived that way, and let’s face it, almost all of the Scotty books really boil down to that simple concept–Scotty keeps accidentally stumbling into trouble. I do recommend it; other than being incredibly dated it’s quite fun to watch.

And if you haven’t seen Knives Out, you absolutely must. The crime is so amazingly Agatha Christie-like and complex that it’s like she wrote it herself, and the cast is magnificent–like those wonderful all-star film adaptations of Christie they started making in the 1970’s, like Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile (which I want to rewatch but can’t find it streaming anywhere). The cast is absolutely perfect–every last one of them–and I do hope this signals the return of these kinds of films.

And now, I am going to go to my easy chair and wrestle with Woolrich for a bit before answering emails and writing.

I Hope You Dance

New Orleans is almost completely shut down.

Yesterday I ventured forth to the office, to do my data entry and to clean my desk area. We had several meetings via the Internet, and several trainings–including one in which we were taught how to do work from home–and I wound up bringing my work home with me. We also had a department meeting on-line, to explain things we could be doing while self-quarantined and to make up hours lost by the shutting down of our testing programs. After my enormous freak-out on Monday (yes, it wasn’t a pretty thing when I got home from the office Monday afternoon), I feel a bit better about my job. It’s so weird, because I am used to being out there on the front lines doing testing and getting people treated…and to be instead isolated at home is a strange thing. What was even weirder was driving home. Under normal circumstances I would never leave the office at six; if I did, I wouldn’t take the highway home because I have to take the big off ramp from I-10 West to I-90 to the Westbank, and the bridge traffic usually has the highway backed up to Claiborne, where I get on the highway. Yesterday I didn’t even have to brake, that’s how light the traffic was–at six pm on a Tuesday. There were cars on the highway; I could see cars on the streets below (the highway is elevated as it passes through downtown)–and there were some peoples strolling on St. Charles…but other than that, nothing.

We finished watching Toy Boy last night, which was terrific and a lot of fun, and ending its first season with a terrific cliff-hanger to set up the second season. It’s great for bingeing, y’all; good trashy escapist fun to make you forget that we are trying to survive and live through a terrifying pandemic and the even more terrifying economic fall out from said pandemic. I also have to remember that I cannot stay inside the entire time; I need to get out of the Lost Apartment and take walks, enjoy the sunshine and the weather, and to take my phone or camera with me. No matter how introverted you are, you need to get out of the house sometimes–unless, of course, your introversion has turned into agoraphobia, which naturally means going outside would be the absolute worst thing for you to try to do.

I still have three stories to try to get written by the end of the month, and I am definitely going to give it the old college try. My mind has clearly been somewhere else over the last week or so–it’s hard to believe it’s only fucking Wednesday; this past weekend seems like it was years ago, last week a different life entirely and Mardi Gras? A different reality completely.

I haven’t even been able to focus enough to try to read–which is weird, as reading is always where I go for escape.

But the nice thing about working from home is that I can clean while taking a break from my data entry; I can also have trainings or webinars on my computer to listen to while I clean and organize the kitchen–and I can even broadcast said trainings and webinars to my television while cleaning the living room. This is a strange new work reality–it’s been years since I worked at home primarily–and one I am going to have to adapt to. I saw someone posting on social media yesterday a poll over whether people thought once this has passed, if things will go back the way they were or will be different. It’s a silly question, because this is a big cultural and societal change; it can never be the way it was before again–just like New Orleans isn’t the same city it was before Katrina, and it will never be that city ever again. Things never go back the way they were; just like the United States will never be the same country it was before 9/11 again.

We don’t know what our new reality is going to look like once we get past this crisis, so trying to speculate is kind of an exercise in pointlessness.

But one of the things, the mantras, that helped me get through the aftermath of Katrina was to focus on the things I could control. One of those things was my body; post-Katrina was probably the most dedicated periods I’ve ever had to my health and fitness and my physical appearance. Since the gyms are closed that’s not really a possibility this time around; although I can still stretch every day and go for nice walks, it’s not the same thing as hitting the weights three times a week. I also focused on my writing and editing; I didn’t write as much as I did before the interregnum–there were times I thought I’d never write again–but that didn’t stop me from my editorial duties, and I did eventually start writing again; this was the period that produced Murder in the Rue Chartres and “Annunciation Shotgun” and Love Bourbon Street. I also think writing–particularly since I’d be writing about a non-virus non-pandemic world–will provide a nice escape for me.

I also signed the contract with Mystery Tribune yesterday for my story “The Carriage House”–remember how last week actually started out with good news in my world? That also seems like a million years ago, doesn’t it? I’m always happy to sell a short story, and it’s always lovely to sell one to a mainstream market with a gay main character. (You can talk about how publishing needs to diversify all you want, but it’s still not easy to sell a story with a gay main character to a mainstream market.) It’s a terrific story, or at least I (and the people at Mystery Tribune) think it is, and it’s a concept that’s been lying around in my head ever since we first moved out of the carriage house and into the main house the first time, in June 2005, and came back to me when we moved back into the main house in December 2006. Many years ago–probably when I was far too young–I read a book by (I think) Gerold Frank, a true crime account of The Boston Strangler. There was a bit in the book about a woman who ran a boarding house, and began to suspect one of her tenants might be the Strangler; he was always agitated and acting strange the day of the murders, etc.; lots of circumstantial evidence but nothing ever definite. She remembered one day him staring at an advertisement in a magazine featuring an African-American woman for about ten minutes or so, rather obsessively; and she thought to herself, the next victim will be a black woman and sure enough, it was. You know, that sort of thing; the sort of thing that would be the basis for a Hitchcock movie (I’ve never seen The Lodger, which is a Hitchcock film–possibly based on a novel–about a woman who begins to believe one of her tenants is Jack the Ripper. I’ve always wanted to see it.) and it’s always been something that’s fascinated me. I used to joke that I never wanted to be one of those people interviewed on the news with a caption under my name (NEIGHBOR OF ACCUSED SUSPECTED NOTHING), but the concept of living in close quarters with a serial killer, or a thrill killer, or a killer of some sort–and beginning to suspect that you do, has always been an interesting thought and something I’ve always wanted to write about. “The Carriage House” is a culmination of all those thoughts and inspirations, and I am delighted you will finally get a chance to read it.

It’s also one of those stories that I originally thought would be a short novel, but it works much better as a short story.

More on that to come, of course, and now, back to the spice mines.

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Only One Love In My Life

Hey there, Friday. Here’s looking at you, Kid.

So all the stuff with Romance Writers of America finally came to an end yesterday with the resignations of their president (good riddance) and his partner in crime, the executive director (see ya!). What does this mean? It means that perhaps the long and slow and painful process of rebuilding the organization can begin–and a lot of the nasty racists outed themselves, which is always a good thing. Me? I’d rather know who they are myself–same with the homophobes and the misogynists and all the others.

But all of this reminded me of one of my favorite mystery novels of all time: Die for Love by Elizabeth Peters.

Elizabeth Peters is one of my favorite writers of all time, bar none. I am also an enormous fan of her more supernatural pseudonym, Barbara Michaels. Her novels as Peters, though–my God, so clever and witty and laugh out loud funny. I absolutely adore her Amelia Peabody series; decades of reading pleasure as we follow the adventures of heiress Amelia as she meets, falls in love and marries  her Egyptologist husband Emerson–all the while solving murders and catching antiquities thieves. The series was wonderful.

But Die for Love isn’t a Peabody novel. Peters also wrote two other series; one featuring an assistant museum curator named Vicky Bliss (some of the best opening lines ever), and another, featuring Jacqueline Kirby, head librarian at a small Midwestern college who is sharply intelligent and knows how to not only take advantage of an opportunity but squeeze every bit of use out of it as well. The earlier Kirby novels are quite intelligent and well done; The Murders of Richard III is a particular standout, in which a Richard III society’s members begin to be murdered in the same manner–and order– as the King’s victims in the Shakespearean play of his life.

Jacqueline, as head librarian, has a budget that allows her to travel to literary events–in order to increase her knowledge and to find authors/books to highlight and stock in the library–and generally finds events in places she wants to visit. So she decides to visit a romance convention in New York, and murder–and hilarity–ensue. I’ve always loved this book, and one of the things that is perhaps the funniest–or was to me, over the years, but now I’m kind of rethinking it–is that Jacqueline, who is a speed reader, reads some of the romance novels written by the biggest names in the business while she’s investigating the murder, and realizes I can do this. She also starts, whenever she has a spare moment, scribbling away at her own romance novel.

In the next, and sadly, final book of the Kirby series, Naked Once More, we find that Jacqueline is no longer employed as a librarian as she is now an international bestselling romance novelist. Naked Once More is just as funny as Die for Love, frankly; all of Peters’ books are delightfully witty and funny.

I should reread Die for Love. Let me add it to the Reread Project.

I am putting in eight hours today rather than my usual half-day Friday because I am taking Monday off for the game. We’re supposed to have horrible weather tomorrow morning (hail, tornadoes, flash flooding), so welcome, Clemson fans? But then I am coming home and hoping to get back to the writing. I am working on a secret project–Lord, how many things am I working on at the same time?–which actually started coming together the other night, and I am anxious to get that all done, hopefully over the course of this weekend, along with the website copy I need to write and some short stories, as well as some more work on Bury Me in Shadows.

We started watching Manhunt on Acorn last night, and it’s intriguing; we will continue, and then another episode of Messiah, which is really picking up speed. I’ve also heard good things about Dracula, and of course HBO’s adaptation of The Outsider premieres this weekend as well. Sex Education and Schitt’s Creek are also back, if not already, then soon–so that’s my television watching in my free time sorted for quite some time.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines. Have a lovely Friday, everyone.

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Do They Know It’s Christmas

Christmas Eve, and all through the house–not a kitty is stirring, and we don’t have a mouse.

It’s a bright sunshiny morning here in New Orleans, and I slept very late because we stayed up watching a show on Acorn TV (a streaming subscription I’d forgotten I had) called Loch Ness, which was highly entertaining, fairly well written, beautifully shot, and well acted. I do recommend it–there were some definitely unanswered questions in the resolution, but it pretty much wrapped itself up for the most part, and as I said, we really enjoyed it. Loch Ness also looked incredibly beautiful; I always pictured it as cold and gray and foggy–assuming, of course, that it was shot on location.

I also woke up this morning–late–to see that Romance Writers of America is burning to the ground this morning, having had their board make a decision that being called a racist is much much worse than actually being a racist, or doing and saying racist things. I have my own issues with RWA, of course–a long-standing policy of passively encouraging homophobia and queer exclusion, which I thought they were getting better about, but active institutional support of racists and racism against authors of color has completely and irrevocably erased those thoughts once and for all; because quite naturally pointing out homophobia would mean being punished for doing so–because the only thing worse than homophobia is being accurately accused of it. Shame on you, RWA, shame on you.

Yeah, not going anywhere near that dumpster-fire of an organization.

So, what am I going to do today, with this gorgeous day? Am I going to try to get writing done? Am I going to try to do much of anything on this fine Christmas Eve here in the Lost Apartment? Or am I simply going to curl up in my easy chair with a book? Probably going to just curl up in my chair with my book. I am getting further into Laura Benedict’s The Stranger Inside, and greatly enjoying it the deeper I get into this interestingly twisted tale. I do have some cleaning and straightening up to do around here, but I can save that for later this evening. We are venturing out to see Rise of Skywalker tomorrow–thank you, everyone on my social media feeds for not posting spoilers–and of course, this weekend is the college football play-offs, with LSU facing Oklahoma in one semi-final.

But there’s plenty of time between now and Saturday for me to get stressed about that.

I’ve also been looking through Victoria Holt’s Kirkland Revels, which is one of my favorite romantic suspense novels of the mid-twentieth century (originally published in 1962!) primarily because it has a unique spin on the genre of the preyed-upon heroine: she’s pregnant with the heir to the family fortune and estate. A pregnant romantic suspense heroine? I think Kirkland Revels might even be the only romantic suspense novel with a pregnant heroine–I can’t think of many novels of any kind where the heroine was pregnant almost the entire course of the story, other than Rosemary’s Baby–which is actually an interesting observation. (I also believe that Rosemary’s Baby is perhaps one of the most brilliant studies in paranoia ever written; Levin did much the same with The Stepford Wives; no one wrote paranoia better than Levin, and he is also one of my favorite writers. His canon is well overdue for a revisit.)

I also may rewatch the premiere of Megan Abbott’s television series adaptation of Dare Me. It was really quite good, and a second viewing will possibly enable me to write a post about it that doesn’t simply say “OMG it’s so good you have to watch it.”

GAH. SO little time to do all the things I want to do!

And on that note, I should probably finish this and go do something, anything, else.

Have a merry Christmas eve, everyone.

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Bad to the Bone

The push for more diversity–amongst writers and subject matter–in publishing this last decade has not only been welcome, but is also long overdue. It hasn’t been smooth sailing by any means–there are those writers who feel threatened somehow by the push for diversity in publishing, and then try to push back, Publishing isn’t a zero sum game by any means; I seriously doubt the market for cisgender white narratives will ever go away. For many years, the heavy lifting for narratives outside that default has primarily been borne by small press, who did an excellent job despite the many obstacles presented by the realities of the book market. The larger, traditional New York publishers tend to suck all the oxygen out of the room, leaving precious little behind for the small presses–who nevertheless persisted.

And while I have never defaulted to the cisgender white male narrative with my reading, my default still remained lily-white for the most part. Sure, I was primarily reading books by and about women, but at the same time they were always white women. It was quite sobering to realize, upon a closer examination, how segregated my reading was. I have always believed there is no better educational tool than reading, even if you only read fiction. Fiction can be an excellent way of learning about attitudes and life, in general, for people that are different from you; and it was shocking how much I patted myself on the back for my “diverse” habits that was solely about reading primarily female authors. So I made a conscious choice for 2019 to focus my reading more on books by authors of color or queer authors; and it’s been an incredibly joyous and intellectually stimulating enterprise.

There was no reason for me not to have read Walter Mosley before other than subconscious racism, frankly. And I’ve read some truly extraordinary works by writers of color this year, including but not limited to Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay, Angie Kim’s Miracle Creek, Rachel Howzell Hall’s They All Fall Down, S. A. Cosby’s My Darket Prayer, Kellye Garrett, and so on.

I also hope that this year-long focus has integrated my TBR list, and it will now come more naturally for me to read writers of color or queer ones, without having to make it into a project.

I read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad several years ago, and while I am not big on magical realism by any means, I absolutely loved the book. It was incredibly powerful, highly imaginative, and beautifully written. He went on to win not only the Pulitzer but the National Book Award; I went to see him interviewed at a special event/signing and was again, terribly impressed with him. I started reading his zombie novel, Zone One, but got distracted by something else I was required to read–I think I had to moderate a panel or something, so I had to read the work of the panelists–and somehow never got back to it. I shall, obviously, correct that oversight. I also have a copy of John Henry Days, which I shall get to eventually.

I was also really excited to get a copy of his new novel, The Nickel Boys.

the nickel boys

Even in death the boys were trouble.

The secret graveyard lay on the north side of the Nickel campus, in a patchy area of wild grass between the old work barn and the school dump. The field had been a grazing pasture when the school operated a dairy, selling milk to local customers–one of the state of Florida’s schemes to relieve the taxpayer burden of the boys’ upkeep. The developers of the office park had earmarked the field for a lunch plaza, with four water features and a concrete bandstand for the occasional event. The discovery of the bodies was an expensive complication for the real estate company awaiting the all clear from the environmental study, and for the state’s attorney, which had recently closed an investigation into the abuse stories. Now they had to start a new inquiry, establish the identities of the deceased and the manner of death, and there was no telling when the whole damned place could be razed, cleared and neatly erased from history, which everyone agreed was long overdue.

All the boys knew about that rotten spot. It took a student from the University of South Florida to bring it to the rest of the world, decades after the first boy was tied up in a potato sack and dumped there. When asked how she spitted the graves, Jody said, “The dirt looked wrong.” The sunken earth, the scrabbly weeds. Jody and the rest of the archaeological students from the university had been excavating the school’s official cemetery for months. The state couldn’t dispose of the property until the remains were properly resettled, and the archaeology students needed field credits. With stakes and wire they divided the area into search grids, dugs with hand shovels and heavy equipment. After sifting the soil, bones and belt buckles and soda bottles lay scattered on their trays in an inscrutable exhibit.

The Nickel Boys is built around a true story; the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida; the discovery of the secret graveyard by archaeology students and the long history of abuse in the school came to light through some amazing investigative journalism done by the Tampa Bay Times. I read the reporting when first published; I took extensive notes and thought there’s a really good novel in here, filed it away for future reference, and then didn’t think about it again until last year, when I read Lori Roy’s brilliant The Disappearing, which was also inspired by the reporting on the Dozier School; Roy went in a different direction with her story, though, and it was easily one of my favorite novels of last year (if you haven’t read Lori Roy yet, get thee forth to the bookstore or library and get started immediately). When I first read about Whitehead’s new novel, I immediately recognized its inspiration, and having greatly enjoyed his previous book, I made a note to get this one when it was released.

It is quite exceptional, from beginning to end.

It is the story of one of the Nickel boys, Elwood Curtis, beginning with how he came to wind up there–a gross, horrifying injustice that can’t be corrected or fixed, given our broken justice system–and so a promising, bright young boy of color, with plans for college and a future, basically is thrown away by society and wasted (which begs the question: how many more times does this happen, every fucking day?), and then his survival at this brutal, horrific school; how the whites and blacks are segregated, even there, and the aftermath; what happens after he and a friend make a break for it and try to escape so they won’t be killed there.

The best literature is that which shakes your worldview, makes you think, makes you reassess everything that you thought you knew; makes you reevaluate things you believed. This novel is stark and brutal and heartbreakingly real; you root for Elwood to survive, to get past this–gradually you begin to feel that way for all the boys, and your heart breaks for all the potential that was lost in places like Nickel; the endless potential we as a society still throw away daily, because of racism and classism and bigotry.

This is a very powerful novel–one I’ll be thinking about for a long time. Highly recommended.

Rock Steady

Watchmen is, quite frankly, brilliant television.

While I would never consider myself a comics nerd, I did grow up with them, and have periodically returned to them as an adult. I’m a fan of the genre of super-heroes, but would never consider myself anything more expert than any other sideline, keeps up with it slightly, fan. (Although the world of comics fans endlessly fascinates me; I’ve loved attending the local version of Comic Con, and suspect the bigger ones would be too overwhelming and too much for me.)  Anyway, that’s a roundabout way of saying I’ve never read the source material for this show, but have heard about it for years. I’m enjoying this show so much I now want to go back and read the original source material (which I’m sure is now readily available, certainly) as well as go back and watch the film that was made of it several years ago. I would say that’s a statement about how much I am enjoying the show, while admiring it at the same time; I now want to know the entire story, or as much of it as I can glean to get a better understanding of the show.

A need I never felt, quite frankly, with The Walking Dead, and only somewhat with Game of Thrones (I won’t commit to reading that entire series until it’s completed, thank you very much).

The Saints also managed to win a heart-attack inducing game yesterday, which I was felt quite certain they were determined to lose for some unknown reason. But they managed to get the last second field goal and dodged the bullet; the Panthers missed their own just moments before. The Saints aren’t playing as solidly as I would like, but I would imagine there’s an adjustment period when you have to switch quarterbacks again–and it takes some time to get fully back into the old rhythms again. Still, we’re having a glorious football season in Louisiana, one that I hope everyone is taking the time to enjoy.

This week is Thanksgiving, and as I’ve been thinking about American mythology a lot lately, it seems only fitting that yet another myth looms on the horizon; a holiday where Americans gather to be grateful and give thanks for what they have…as the final, massive full frontal assault of Christmas commercialism looms just over the horizon. I watched another couple of hours of World War II-Pacific theater documentaries yesterday–I’m not sure why I am so drawn to that particular period of history lately, or that particular theater of that particular war; draw your own conclusions–and again, found myself as a present-day prosecutor, trying the United States for war crimes for the use of nuclear weapons on civilian populations. It is easy to be judgmental in hindsight; my living room in New Orleans in November 2019  is vastly different than the Oval Office in Washington in July 1945, and I certainly don’t have the future of the world in the palms of my hands; it’s easy to question decisions of the past with the hindsight of the present.

But I also find it hard to believe we would have used nuclear weapons on Germany.

Hindsight.

Looking back at the past with the mindset of the present.

Watchmen‘s entire approach to racism and the past is incredibly powerful, and also incredibly important. A pivotal event in the narrative is the obliteration of the a economically strong and growing black community near Tulsa back in the 1920’s; a horrifying racist slaughter and eradication of a community for daring to believe American mythology and trying to live the American dream as non-whites.

It also got me thinking about diversity, and the push for it in publishing, particularly in crime fiction lately, given some of the incidents that have occurred recently at crime events, or involving crime fiction organizations over the last few years. It occurred to me that inclusion, and diversity, are important words that may not carry with them their own importance; what we are really trying to accomplish is the desegregation of publishing and the creative arts; integrating writers of color and queer writers into the mainstream of publishing. Integration and segregation are much more powerful words; but desegregation is an incorrect term, in that it presupposes that there are separate but equal publishing worlds, which isn’t true; perhaps that’s why integration isn’t the word we use about talking about diversity in publishing.

But I think integration gets the point across more than inclusion does.

I am still reading both The Nickel Boys and Bourbon Street, hope to get more of the Whitehead read today, in fact. This first day of Thanksgiving week vacation–after three days of essentially relaxing and doing something periodically, but mostly doing nothing active–needs to be more of an active day than a passive one. I am going to work on my emails today, I am going to write today–not sure just quite yet what it is I will be writing, but I am going to be writing today for sure–and making other arrangements as well. There’s a lot of filing and cleaning that needs to get done, but I am going to be home alone all day with the needy kitty–who will insist on sitting in my desk chair once Paul leaves for the day–and I am determined to get all of this finished….or at least progress. I’ve kind of been letting a lot of stuff slide because I haven’t wanted to deal with it; well that day of reckoning has now arrived.

And on that note, it’s back to the spice mines.

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