Happiness is An Option

I’ve always enjoyed a good mystery with a supernatural edge to it; the line between crime fiction and horror is often blurred. Take, for example, The Silence of the Lambs. It’s often lauded as the first horror film to win an Oscar–but there’s no supernatural beings involved, no ghosts or vampires, or anything like that; the protagonist is an FBI agent trying to catch a serial killer…so is it really horror? Are slasher films/books actually horror or crime? (I think it depends on whether or not the slasher is actually something not human–like Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers, or just crazed human killers, like the Scream movies or even the first Friday the 13th, which is the only one I’ve actually seen.)

But then it’s really hard to define and delineate what work falls into what genre; and oft-times, there’s crossover between the various ones–there’s western horror, for example, just like romantic suspense bridges the line between romance and mystery. So where precisely on the spectrum of genre does the work of Barbara Michaels lay? There are often supernatural elements to her fiction; sometimes there aren’t. Ammie Come Home is my favorite ghost story of the many I’ve read–and I enjoy it just as much every time I reread it–but it’s also a mystery, and there’s also some romance in the book. The romance itself is rarely the focus of her books, but it is there and cannot be ignored; likewise, most stories that have supernatural elements (ones that are actually supernatural in origin or man-made frauds) inevitably have some mystery to them; what do the supernatural forces want–or in the case of fraud, what are those who are committing the fraud after? What do they want?

House of Many Shadows was the second Barbara Michaels novel I read, and remains one of my favorites to this day.

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The sounds bothered Meg most. Calling them auditory hallucinations helped a little–a phenomenon is less alarming when it has a proper technical name. Meg had always thought of hallucinations as something one saw. She had those, too, but for some illogical reason it was easier for her to accept visual illusions as nonreal than to ignore the hallucinatory sounds. When you were concentrating on typing a letter, and a voice says something in your ear, it was impossible not to be distracted.

The problem was hard to explain, and Meg wasn’t doing a good job of explaining. But then it had always been difficult to explain anything to Sylvia. Sylvia knew all the answers.

“The dictaphone was absolutely impossible. I couldn’t hear what Mr. Phillips had said. Voices kept mumbling, drowning out his voice. Once the whole Mormon Tabernacle Choir cut out the second paragraph of a very important memo.”

She smiled as she spoke. It sounded funny now, but at the time it had not been at all amusing.

Sylvia didn’t smile. “The Mormon Tabernacle Choir? Why them?”

Meg shrugged helplessly. “No reason. That’s the point; they are meaningless hallucinations. The doctor says they’ll go away eventually, but in the meantime…Mr. Phillips was very nice about it, he said he’d try to find an opening for me when I’m ready to work again, but I couldn’t expect him to keep me on. I had to listen to some of those tapes three times before I got the message clear, and there was always the chance I’d miss something important. And I’d already used up all my sick leave. Three weeks in the hospital…”

“You should be thankful you weren’t killed,” said Sylvia. “To think they never caught the man who was driving the car! New York is an absolute jungle. I don’t know how you can stand living here. May I have another cup of tea?”

Meg poured, biting back an irritated retort. She couldn’t afford to offend Sylvia, especially now, when she was about to ask a favor, but the cliches that were Sylvia’s sole means of communications had never annoyed her more. Why should she be thankful she hadn’t been killed? She might as well be thankful she didn’t have leprosy, or seven-year itch; or thank God because she had not been born with two heads. It was just as reasonable, and a lot more human, to feel vexation instead of gratitude. Why me, God? The old question, to which there was never any answer…Why did it have to be me in the path of that fool driver; why did I have to land on my head instead of some less vulnerable part of my anatomy; and why, oh, why, God, did Ihave to have these exotic symptoms instead of a nice simple concussion? Why do I have to be the poor relation, with no savings to fall back on, while Sylvia…

Sylvia’s close-set gray eyes were intent on the teapot. “Such a nice piece of silver,” she murmured.

I love Barbara Michaels’ work, and one of the happiest days of my reading life was the day I discovered she also wrote as Elizabeth Peters, which meant even more reading joy for me (and eventually, I came to prefer the Peters books to the Michaels; but make no mistake, I love all the books). The set-up for House of Many Shadows is right there in the beginning; poor Meg’s life has been upended by being hit by a driver who didn’t stop, and because of the hallucinations she suffers from as a result–with no idea of how long she will suffer through them–she is unable to work, and her distant relative Sylvia–whom she doesn’t seem to care much for–is her only hope. Sylvia–we all know people like Sylvia; without a sense of humor and whose response to any crisis is to come up with a plan and make it work–has a house in the Pennsylvania Dutch country, she’s not sure what she wants to do with it, but Meg can stay there rent-free, and Sylvia even comes up with a “make-work” solution so Meg won’t feel like she’s freeloading (it isn’t until much later she realizes that is what Sylvia was doing; at the time she kind of resents it); doing an inventory of the contents of the house and its attic, as Sylvia is thinking of donating the house to the local historical association. Sylvia’s stepson from the previous marriage that wound up with her owning the house is living on the property as a caretaker, in a cottage behind the main house–Meg remembers him from their childhood as a horrible tease she couldn’t much stand–and soon she is off to the wilds of the Pennsylvania country side.

At the end of the second chapter-the first after she arrives at the house–Meg experiences a hallucination in front of Andy, the stepson, and their relationship hasn’t changed much, apparently–which rattles Andy terribly; when it happens again a chapter or so later is when Andy confesses that he, too, has seen the same hallucinations she did–so are they hallucinations? Or are they seeing ghosts?

This set-up, of course, is absolutely brilliant: what better heroine for a supernatural story than a woman who’s had a brain injury that causes her to see hallucinations? The chilling touch that Andy has also seen the same hallucinations in the house that she has is terrifying; and as she slowly gets to work in the attic, she and Andy start discovering things about the history of the house, including the fact that the original property owners, back before the American Revolution, were brutally murdered in the original house that stood on the property; the current one was built over it. So, what happened 250 years earlier? Both Meg and Andy become a bit obsessed with the ancient murders, and as they continue to see things in the house, they slowly but surely start putting together the truth of what happened to the original property owners–while falling in love, of course.

One of the great things about the Michaels books is that she brooks no foolishness with her supernatural elements; it’s clear Dr. Mertz (her real name) was well read on the subject of the occult and other belief systems–they pop up, again and again, throughout the Michaels novels, and in many instances, I first heard of certain occult books and cults from reading them. I know I first read of The Golden Bough in a Michaels novel; Dr, Mertz knew her folklore and occult religions, and made very good use of that knowledge, not just in this book but in others–Prince of Darkness comes to mind–and of course, she was an excellent, excellent writer.

House of Many Shadows also holds up; despite the dated quality of the book–no Internet or computers or cell phones–it’s still a great story.

For Your Own Good

As Monday rolls around again–huzzah?–and we’re in the last week of April. These last two months have certainly lasted forever, haven’t they? Christ the Lord.

I did something really strange yesterday morning; or rather, more strange than my usual, which is pretty strange. I started writing another Scotty book. It may come to nothing, but ever since the title Quarter Quarantine Quadrille popped into my head a couple of weeks ago, my mind has toyed with the thought over and over again. And since the intro to every Scotty book opens with an homage to the opening of a truly famous classic novel (Rebecca, The Haunting of Hill House, Lolita, Peyton Place, to name but a few) the thought crossed my mind that I could do an homage to “The Masque of the Red Death”, so I looked it up on-line and cut and pasted the first two paragraphs into a word document, and started playing with it a bit. I’ll probably look at the openings of other pandemic-related fictions, like Death in Venice or The Plague before finally deciding on which one to actually use–or even if a Scotty quarantine book is something the world wants or needs–but the actual opening of the first chapter came to me on Saturday night, while we watched that dreadful Chris Hemsworth as a mercenary movie: as I watched a fight scene where Hemsworth’s character took on basically a team of soldiers by himself and killed them all in less than two minutes, Paul said, “I wonder how long this script was? Two pages of dialogue, maybe?” and I thought to myself, this is probably what a Colin novel would have to look like, and from there I leapt to Scotty, Frank and Taylor sitting around during quarantine, watching a movie like this, and Taylor saying, idly, “This is what Colin actually does when he’s not here, isn’t it?” and then forces the questions I’ve been asking myself over the last few books–especially in the last one–about morality and ethics and how do Scotty and Frank and the family look past what Colin’s source of income is? And since I signaled at the end of the last book that Colin was on his way home…and it did come up, during the book, that being involved with Colin makes them targets…that maybe, just maybe, it was time to deal with that in a Scotty book. So I wrote the first few paragraphs of a first chapter, where exactly that happens: they are watching an action/adventure movie when Taylor makes the observation, and the awkward conversation that ensues from it.

It might be a false start and a dead end–Lord knows I already have enough on my plate without trying to write another Scotty book on top of it–but…stranger things have happened.

I also reviewed my Sherlock Holmes story, which was actually much better than I ever dared dream; revising it and making it stronger will not actually be the odious chore I feared it might. On the other hand, I cannot be certain that the editor will feel much the same way about the story as I do, so it must be honed and refined and polished till it gleams in the light of day. (Ironically, I couldn’t remember the end….) But I did a much  better job than I thought I had–yes, I am my own worst critic, this is absolutely true–and this pleases me to no end. The story itself works, and just needs a little bit of tweaking the language and an added sentence here, a subtracted sentence there…yes, I am very pleased with it. Once I get it in shape, off it goes–and I think my other one that’s due this week only needs a tweak here and there as well.

HUZZAH!

Always good news.

We also watched Hustlers–didn’t care too much for it; sorry, felt like it could have been much better–and then the first episode of the Penny Dreadful spin-off, City of Angels, set in Los Angeles in 1938, and I liked it. A lot. It has a very noir sensibility, crossed over with some supernatural/horror elements, and it addresses not only race but Nazi infiltration into Los Angeles in that year–and pulls no punches. Draw your own conclusions, but I thought it was terrific, and look forward to watching the rest of the season. Nathan Lane is very well cast as a hardboiled LA homicide detective, and you can never go wrong with Natalie Dormer. I then watched–while Paul got ready for the week–watched a historical mini-series on Starz called Maximilian and Marie de Bourgogne, I think a multi-language production? Sometimes it sounded like French, sometimes like German, sometimes like something in between; perhaps Flemish? Anyway, it’s quite well-produced and this royal couple never gets the attention they quite deserve, given their marriage resulted in nearly five hundred years of wars between France and Germany (through its many iterations, from Holy Roman Empire to Austrian Empire to German Empire). The fifteenth century is an interesting time; one of blood feuds between branches of both the royal families of England (the Wars of the Roses) and the French Valois (the Orleans and Burgundy branches, respectively; ending with the Burgundy branch being absorbed into the House of Habsburg…so yeah), and a tighter unifying of the Holy Roman Empire into a hereditary throne for the Habsburgs. It was also the century in which Spain was freed of Moorish occupation and unified into Spain again–and once again, the Habsburgs wound up getting involved there and absorbing another throne. I’d known about the series for quite some time, and was glad to see it finally available to stream on one of my (too many) services. Yay, HISTORY!!!

I woke up feeling tired this morning, so I decided to make today another vacation day, stay home and get some things done around the house. I may venture out to the grocery store, but then again, I may not; those trips always seem to exhaust me, and why push it if I don’t have to? I have to be jealously guard my health these days, and my energy–bearing in mind the subconscious depression and angst can also be wearing down my body fairly regularly; another post-Katrina lesson–sometimes you’re not even aware of the depression bogging you down until it actually does. I spent the weekend pretty much in a complete state of exhaustion; it was very odd, and limiting in what I was able to work on and get done. Don’t get me wrong, I am delighted I reread all these in-progress short stories that have been languishing in my “edit” folder for so long–so much so that I actually got ideas on how to fix and rewrite and revise them all; there may be a massive flurry of submissions coming to the few publications out there that take crime stories–but the lack of energy I experienced for the majority of the weekend wasn’t very helpful, really.

And it seems to have carried over into today as well. Yay? Not really.

But I have about a million emails to reply to, several more to initiate, and then I’ going to probably head first into the spice mines, where I need to stay for most of the day. Since I am taking a vacation day, I need to make it worthwhile.

And so, on that note, I am heading back into the spice mines. Have a lovely and productive Monday, Constant Reader. I know I hope to.

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The Calm Before the Storm

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

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

And there was also The Three Investigators.

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

“Robert? Is that you?”

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

“How was the library?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE THREE INVESTIGATORS

We Investigate Anything

? ? ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were the shit, y’all.

Ring of Fire

One of the fun things about reading history is it gives me a lot of inspiration. Rereading the Black Death/bubonic plague chapter in Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror recently, I stumbled across this:

The apparent absence of earthly cause gave the plague a supernatural and sinister quality. Scandinavians believed that a Pest Maiden emerged from the mouth of the dead in the form of a blue flame and flew through the air to infect the next house. In Lithuania the Maiden was said to wave a red scarf through the door or window to let in the pest. One brave man, according to legend, deliberately waited at his open window with drawn sword and, at the fluttering of the scarf, chopped off the hand. He died of his deed, but his village was spared and the scarf long preserved as a relic in the local church.

And so, an idea for my own story, “The Pestilence Maiden,” was born. So far it consists of one sentence: “Death again walked the crumbling, hole ridden streets of New Orleans.”

Great opening, isn’t it? But it’s not really a crime story; since the Pestilence Maiden would be a supernatural, purely symbolic creature representing the plague come to New Orleans, yet again.  After all, New Orleans has a long history of epidemics–yellow fever, typhus, cholera; hell, we even had bubonic plague in 1916–so is it so far out of the question that we would have a Pestilence Maiden walking the streets of the city? No, not really.

I returned to work yesterday, and it was lovely to get out of the house for a while and be out in the fresh air. I am working at doing the screenings; basically, our facility is open for certain services (the food pantry, the pharmacy, some lab work by appointment) and so everyone who goes into the building needs to be screened for symptoms, given a sticker and a mask, and some hand sanitizer before they go inside. Anyone with symptoms gets sent across the parking lot for COVID-19 testing; we no longer require a fever or multiple symptoms–all you need is one. We are also offering optional HIV testing for anyone who gets a COVID-19 test; we also have oral swab kits for people who want to pick one up and test themselves at home–but their exposure has to have been more than three months out, rather than our usual anyone can get an HIV test at any time we are open for testing. I’m very glad and happy that we are back to providing some HIV testing; we may not be what we were but at least we are able to do something, you know? I also suspect that people are violating quarantine for sex hook-ups, which means there’s going to be a strong need for STI testing once “shelter-at-home” orders have been lifted.

I mean, yay for job security, I guess? Even if it ghoulish.

I would much rather the HIV pandemic come to an end, frankly, even if puts me out of a job.

I finished rereading Crocodile on the Sandbank last night, and, well, Dr. Mertz deserved to be named a Grand Master for that book alone. The voice of Amelia Peabody–everything about Amelia Peabody–is absolute genius. Rereading the book, I fell in love with Peabody and Emerson and Evelyn and Walter all over again. The brilliance of how she constructed this book, those characters–I mean, wow, the woman was an absolute master. I mourn every year since Dr. Mertz’ death that there is no new Amelia Peabody adventure to enjoy, to laugh out loud at the rapier-like wit of the dialogue, and the frank adoration of both couples, not only for their partners but for their beloved friends, who all shared this initial adventure together and literally all met during the course of this book…wow. Just wow. It will get its own blog post soon enough, but oh, how I love and miss Peabody and Emerson.

I really missing visiting them and their Egypt.

It’s also Pay-the-Bills day, which is never, no matter what anyone might think, much fun. But I whipped through them all, and am glad to  have that mess behind me. I am also wondering about when I can schedule a Costco trip. I’d rather not go on the weekend, for obvious reasons–if there was a line to get in Wal-mart, I can’t imagine Costco isn’t doing the same thing, you know–but there are things I need to get from there, and so might as well bite the bullet and figure out when I can go. (The case of Pellegrino alone…)

We started watching Murder is My Life, an Australian crime series starring Lucy Lawless, on Acorn streaming last night. One can, of course, never go wrong with anything if Lucy Lawless is in it, and it’s actually quite fun and well done. (I was watching while at the same time racing to finish Crocodile on the Sandbank.) It’s always fun to find a new show, and let’s face it, Acorn is one of the esssential streaming services if you like British and/or Australian crime television.

How is everyone doing out there these days? Difficult times, to be sure–and it’s okay to get overwhelmed sometimes. While I have never–who has?–been involved or experienced anything this epic and global before, I’ve actually been through a local natural/manmade disaster; and some deeply personal level stuff that required my acquisition of numerous coping skills and mechanisms. Those coping skills have come in handy, believe you me, since the curtain came down and the world shut done to deal with this global pandemic. And as it seems to stretch out in front of us endlessly, with no real end in sight–there’s no way of knowing, so we are still charting strange new waters–just always remember this, Constant Reader: when you are starting to get overwhelmed by the scope and enormity of the macro, find something micro to fixate on, and focus on that–something small you can handle, get taken care of, and can be in control of; whether that’s cleaning out old clothes from the closet or dresser you will never wear again, or doing your windows, and a deep clean of your floors, including baseboards–that focus will get you through. Every single time, it will get you through.

And on that note, I am going to head back into the spice mines. I am working from home today–the endless data entry–and need to get working on my emails.

Have a lovely Wednesday, Constant Reader, and stay safe.

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Your Cheatin’ Heart

I love Harlan Ellison.

So, as you might remember, I recently read two wonderful Harlan Ellison short stories (to be fair, every Ellison short story is wonderful; his lesser efforts are better than most writer’s best), “On the Downhill Side” and the Edgar Award winning “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” both included in his collection Deathbird Stories. At one point I had a mass market paperback edition I’d picked up in a bookstore; I literally have no idea where that is–probably lost over the years during a move or something, or it may be on the bookshelves; at this point who knows? But I’ve gathered and collected Ellison collections over the years–recently getting, from eBay, the very same mass market paperback edition of Strange Wine, which was my gateway drug to reading Ellison–and even got the enormous collection The Essential Ellison, which still sits proudly in my bookcase.

The first time I heard of Ellison was when I read Stephen King’s brilliant introduction and evaluation of the horror/speculative fiction genre, Danse Macabre, which reminded me of many great films and books and TV shows I’d loved, and introduced me to still others. Shortly afterward, I was at a friend’s apartment drinking–this was my early twenties–and she had that copy of Strange Wine, and I thought, oh, Harlan Ellison! Stephen King praised him to the skies! I need to read this. I asked if I could borrow it and she gifted me with it (and in all honesty, I thought less of her for not wanting it back, particularly since she raved so much about how good it was), and then I took it home with me that night and the next morning I read the intro and the first story, “Croatoan,” and there was no looking back from that. I devoured the book, learned the term “speculative fiction” (which I much prefer to horror, science fiction, and fantasy; when I worked at Lambda I tried, unsuccessfully, to get that award category title changed to simply Best Speculative Fiction), and also became interested in writing it. This was during the time when I worshipped Stephen King so much that I wanted to become a writer like Stephen King, but wasn’t skilled or trained enough to really write really good speculative fiction–or fiction, really, of any kind. I still write it periodically, and some day when I have the time I’ll work on my short story collection Monsters of New Orleans more (hat tip to Lisa Morton; she suggested I do it years again at World Horror Con in New Orleans); in fact the story I started writing yesterday, “The Pestilence Maiden”, would be for Monsters of New Orleans. I looked for more of Ellison’s works every time I went to a bookstore for about a year after that, to no avail, and eventually Ellison got pushed to the back of my mind.

A few years later, one of the major networks (I want to say CBS) rebooted The Twilight Zone as, I think, maybe a summer replacement series (when that was a thing), and I noticed in the TV Guide one week that one of the two stories in that week’s episode was based on Stephen King’s truly creepy short story “Gramma,” and decided to tune itn. “Gramma’ was the first half hour, and it was totally creepy, just like the story; I stayed turned for the second half, which was called “Paladin of the Lost Hour” and starred Danny Kaye and Tim Reid of WKRP in Cincinnati fame. The story was powerful and beautiful and brilliant, and made me cry. As I watched the credits roll, I saw, to my joy and surprise, that it was based on a Harlan Ellison story and he may have even adapted it into a teleplay. It became a goal of mine to read that story, and so I began haunting used bookstores, looking for Ellison collections. I never, ever regretted reading an Ellison collection, and eventually I did finally find a collection that included “Paladin of the Lost Hour,” which remains to this day one of my favorite short stories.

I was reminded of Ellison recently because of a Twitter thread about short stories; I think perhaps Art Taylor may have started it, looking for short stories to teach in one of his classes (it may have been Facebook); and someone mentioned Ellison’s Edgar Award winning “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs.” (I, of course, suggested “Paladin of the Lost Hour,” which also led to a discussion of The Twilight Zone episode I mentioned earlier, which is actually now on Youtube; you can watch it here. I also didn’t know, until looking up the link, that it was Danny Kaye’s last screen appearance, and he deserved a goddamned Emmy for it; and I’m not even a fan.) I knew I’d recently downloaded, at some point, some Ellison collections to my Kindle app when they were cheap and/or free, so I decided to look to see if I had it. When I opened Deathbird Stories, it was open to “On the Downhill Side,” which turned out to be set in New Orleans; I read it, loved it, and then went to the table of contents, and sure enough, “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” was in it. (I must have read it before; I am certain I read my paperback copy of Deathbird Stories, but I didn’t remember either story.)

This is how “On the Downhill Side” begins:

I knew she was a virgin because she was able to ruffle the silken mane of my unicorn. Names Lizette, she was a Grecian temple in which no sacrifice had been made. Vestal virgin of New Orleans, found walking without shadow in the thankgod coolness of cockroach crawling Louisiana night. My unicorn whinnied, inclined his head, and she stroked the ivory spiral of his horn.

Much of this took place in what is called the Irish Channel, a strip of street in old New Orleans where the lace curtain micks had settled decades before; now the Irish were gone and the Cubans had taken over the Channel. Now the Cubans were sleeping, recovering from the muggy today that held within its hours the deja vu of muggy yesterday, the deja reve of intolerable tomorrow. Now the crippled bricks of side streets off Magazine had given up their nightly ghosts, and one such phantom had some to me, calling my unicorn to her–thus, clearly, a virgin–and I stood waiting.

Had it been Sutton Place, had it been a Manhattan evening, and had we met, she would have kneeled to pet my dog. And I would have waited. Had it been Puerto Vallarta, had it been 20 36′ N, 105 13’W, and had we met, she would have crouched to run her fingertips over the oil-slick hide of my iguana. And I would have waited. Meeting in streets requires ritual. One must wait and not breathe too loud, if one is to enjoy the congress of the nightly ghosts.

She looked across the fine head of my unicorn and smiled at me. Her eyes were a shade of gray between onyx and miscalculation. “Is it a bit chilly for you?” I asked.

New Orleanians, of course, as I have noted before, are very protective and pedantic about fiction written about the city by people who don’t live here (always said with capital letters: People Not From Here)–this also stands for lazy journalistic features that always, inevitably, get everything incorrect–and in this beautifully written and incredibly poetic opening, there’s an error: the Irish Channel isn’t a strip of street, it’s an actual neighborhood, running alongside the Garden District from Jackson to Louisiana and from Magazine to the river. (I don’t know about the Cubans–I don’t know of any concentrated Cuban immigration to New Orleans, but I know enough not to question it because there’s so much about this magic place that I do not know, which is why I am reading New Orleans history) But the opening of this story is simply gorgeous, and the imagery Ellison uses is absolutely perfect; I particularly like the sentence Vestal virgin of New Orleans, found walking without shadow in the thankgod coolness of cockroach crawling Louisiana night–and wish I had written it.

As I read more of the story, it’s spectral beauty began casting a spell on me; Ellison didn’t try to write about New Orleans like a native or a local; his ghostly spirit with the unicorn, trapped like Lizette in the realm between worlds because of unfinished business, is also new to New Orleans, and sees it as a tourist would; and I realized how wise he was to make this storytelling choice; it makes errors not only acceptable but forgivable (I really can turn into a hellish banshee on this topic) and he also wrote some beautifully evocative lines about the city that I wish I had written:

I despise Bourbon Street. The strip joints, with the pasties over nipples, the smell of need, the dwarfed souls of men attuned only to flesh. The noise.

The Saint Louis Cemetery is ancient. It sighs with shadows and the comfortable bones and their afterimages of deaths that became great merely because those who died went to be interred in Saint Louis Cemetery. The water table lies just eighteen inches below New Orleans–there are no graves in the earth for that reason. Bodies are entombed aboveground in crypts, sepulchers, vaults, mausoleums. The gravestones are all different, no two alike, each one a testament to the stonecutter’s art. Only secondarily testaments to those who like beneath the markers.

It really is a gorgeous story, almost dream-like in its telling, and I absolutely loved it. I then moved on to the Edgar-winning “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”:

On the night after the day she had stained the louvered window shutters of her new apartment on East 52nd Street, Beth saw a woman slowly and hideously knifed to death in the courtyard of her building. She was one of twenty-six witnesses to the ghoulish scene, and, like them, she did nothing to stop it.

She saw it all, every moment of it, without break and with no impediment to her view. Quite madly, the thought crossed her mind as she watched in horrified fascination, that she had the sort of marvelous line of observation Napoleon had sought when he caused to have constructed at the Comedie-Francaise theaters, a curtained box at the reat, so he could watch the audience as well as the stage. The night was clear, the moon was full, she had just turned off the 11:30 movie on Channel 2 after the second commercial break, realizing she had already seen Robert Taylor in Westward the Women, and had disliked it the first time; and the apartment was quite dark.

The murder of Kitty Genovese, based on my limited knowledge of Harlan Ellison and his work, seemed to weigh pretty heavily on his mind; he wrote this story, clearly influenced by the Genovese murder and the stories that arose around it; I also distinctly remember reading an essay he’d written in which he talked about it–I believe it may have been the introduction to Alone Against Tomorrow, or in one of the mini-essays he wrote about each story collected within its covers; I cannot remember which. But I remember how clearly appalled and horrified he was, not just by the murder, but the way the witnesses did nothing, tried nothing, said nothing, to either stop the murder or to help the hapless victim. As his spirits in “On the Downhill Side” are waiting for their green light to ascend to the spirit plane from this mortal realm, “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” delves, not into the inhumanity involved in every aspect of the Kitty Genovese murder, but what created that very inhumanity, as Beth, new to New York, begins to see the dark, malevolent spirit that drives New York and sometimes, occasionally, demands blood sacrifice; and as she begins to harden her own shell in order to survive. It’s an extraordinary story, well worthy of the Edgar; although I am surprised it was so honored, as it blurs the boundaries between different genres–and back in the day, Edgar judges tended to be very strict about what was and wasn’t a crime story.

And yes, I will be delving back into Ellison’s short fiction–as a crossover between The Short Story Project and The ReRead Project.

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Mighty Love

I love nothing more than a great ghost story (which is why, although I loved the book, I was enormously disappointed with Peter Straub’s Ghost Story; it’s an amazing novel and a horror classic and one of my favorite horror novels of all time, but it is emphatically not a ghost story). I’m not sure why I love them so much, but even as a kid, reading the mysteries for kids I always gravitated towards the ones with some kind of ghostly title: The Ghost of Blackwood Hall, The Haunted Fort, The Phantom of Pine Hill, The Ghost at Skeleton Rock, The Haunted Showboat, The Ghost in the Gallery, etc. The ghosts and hauntings in these books were never real–just like the ghosts and monsters on Scooby Doo Where Are You? weren’t–but I still was drawn to them.

There was an ABC Movie of the Week when I was really young that I absolutely loved: The House That Would Not Die. It starred Barbara Stanwyck as a woman who moved into a house she’d inherited from a relative, along with her niece, and of course, the house turned out to be haunted. The story was terrific and it scared me a lot–and you can never go wrong with Barbara Stanwyck; I may even have watched it with my grandmother, who was a big Stanwyck fan. A few years later, we were somewhere–some people my parents knew had invited us over for dinner, and before and after, as the adults, my sister and I were deposited in the den to watch television and entertain ourselves while behaving. They had books, which I gravitated towards, I pulled down a volume of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and found a ghost story inside. As I started reading, I was drawn into it and I realized it was the same plot, the same story, of the TV movie I’d liked, and kept reading. I read the entire thing that evening–it was condensed, after all–and thought, oh, I’d like to see that movie again.

Flash forward and I am in college, browsing in a second-hand bookstore when I find a worn paperback copy of the book. Pleased and delighted at the opportunity to not only read it again but read the entire version? For fifty cents? Absolutely.

It was Ammie, Come Home, which is one of my favorite ghost stories, and favorite novels, of all time. It was written by Barbara Michaels–for another dollar I picked up two more of her novels, Witch and House of Many Shadows. I loved all three books, but I’ve always preferred Ammie, considered it my favorite. Over the years Michaels–and her alter-ego, Elizabeth Peters-became one of my favorite writers of all time. I love her books, no matter what the name or brand or whatever you want to call it; they are all witty, with strong, likable female characters, there’s some little dash of romantic interest involved in all of them, and a very strong suspense component. The Peters novels were more mysteries; the Michaels sometimes involved the supernatural, and sometimes they didn’t.

But, oh, how I love Ammie, Come Home, and I recently, during my isolation, took it down and made it a part of this year Reread Project.

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By five o’clock it was almost dark, which was not surprising, since the month was November; but Ruth kept glancing uneasily toward the windows at the far end of the room. It was a warm, handsome room, furnished in the style of a past century, with furniture whose present value would have astonished the original owners.. Only the big overstuffed sodas, which face one another before the fireplace, were relatively modern. Their ivory brocade upholstery fitted the blue-and-white color scheme, which has been based upon the delicate Wedgwood plaques set in the mantel. A cheerful fire burned on the hearth, sending sparks dancing from the crystal glasses on the coffee table and turning the sherry in the cut-glass decanter the color of melted copper. Since her niece had come to stay with her, Ruth had set out glasses and wine every evening. It was a pleasant ritual, which they both enjoyed even when it was followed by nothing more elegant than hamburgers. But tonight Sara was late.

The darkening windows blossomed yellow as the streetlights went on; and Ruth rose to draw the curtains. She lingered at the window, one hand absently stroking the pale blue satin. Sara’s class had been over at three-thirty…

And, Ruth reminded herself sternly, Sara was twenty years old. When she agreed to board her niece while the girl attended the Foreign Service Institute at a local university, she had not guaranteed full-time baby-sitting. Sara, of course, considered herself an adult. However, to Ruth her niece still had the touching, terrifying illusion of personal invulnerability which is an unmistakable attribute of youth. And the streets of Washington–ven of this ultrafashionable section–were not completely safe after dark,

Even at the dying time of year, with a bleak dusk lowering, the view from Ruth’s window retained some of the famous charm of Georgetown, a charm based on formal architecture and the awareness of age. Nowadays that antique grace was rather self-conscious; after decades of neglect, the eighteenth century houses of the old town had become fashionable again, and now they had the sleek, smug look born of painstaking restoration and a lot of money.

Ammie, Come Home is possibly one of the best constructed, if not the very best, ghost stories I’ve ever read. As you can see from the opening paragraphs, Michaels does an exceptional job of setting everything up, giving us insights into her main character, Ruth Bennett, and her relationship with her niece. We go on to find out that Ruth is probably in her mid to late forties, was widowed in World War II, never remarried, and for the most part, it’s implied that her husband’s death pretty much was the end of any romance in her life; something she isn’t terribly interested in. This is, of course, foreshadowing–but not the way the reader might think. Yes, in the opening scene of the book, which features her niece Sara getting a ride home from one of her professors, that ah, yes, Ruth and Dr. Pat MacDougal are going to fall in love-but there’s more to Ruth’s history than that, which of course is the mark of the truly terrific writer. We also glean that childless Ruth has grown deeply fond of her niece Sara–and disapproves of Sara’s boyfriend Bruce (mainly because of his youth, the way he dresses, and what she thinks of as his smug superiority).

(This last, by the way, is the only part of the book that feels dated. Written and originally published in the 1960’s, Sara and Bruce are both college students and Pat works at a college–he’s a cultural anthropologist with a specialty in superstitions and rituals–so, as anyone who knows anything about the 1960’s knows, it was a decade of youthful rebellion and anti-establishmentarianism. There are occasional asides from both Ruth and Pat about the generation gap–this was also the first time this phrase was used, during this period–where the kids want to make change. There are a few mild arguments over that, but it’s always very good natured and never gets very deep. But the very generation gap is part of the structure of the novel; when strange things start happening in Ruth’s home, particularly involving Sara–Ruth and Pat immediately think of mental illness; Bruce is the only one open-minded enough to see the truth; that the house is haunted by a malevolent spirit–and there may even be more than one.)

It’s also very clever of Michaels to use that generational divide to explore the notions of the supernatural and a spirit world–because Bruce is given a forty-eight hour deadline to convince the older two in their quartet that Sara isn’t mentally ill but is being haunted. So, as Bruce convinces them–helped by more apparitions and events in the house–the reader is also being convinced that what’s going on in the house is supernatural in origin. How she does it is a master class in suspense/horror writing; and there are some lines that just the reader to the bone: And what looked back at her through Sara’s eyes was not Sara.

The ghost hunters eventually get to the bottom of the haunting of the old house in Georgetown by finding out the deeply hidden truth about what happened there centuries earlier, and finally freeing the spirits trapped to the house.

And maybe the creepiest, yet saddest, thing is the disembodied voice they hear, over and over, in the back yard, calling Ammie….come home…..come home…..Ammie…. —which is described as “it sounded like what the wind would sound like if it had a voice.”

And despite the dated 1960’s references, the book still holds up, over forty years later.

I rediscovered Michaels in the mid to late 1980’s, which was when I also discovered that she also wrote the Elizabeth Peters novels, and that the absolutely delightful Crocodile on the Sandbank, which I’d loved, wasn’t merely a stand alone, but the first book in a long-running, and completely fantastic, series featuring heiress Amelia Peabody and her Egyptologist husband Emerson. There isn’t a single dud in the Amelia Peabody series–and there are smart, funny, clever, and intricately plotted–and over the years the Peabody-Emerson clan had children, raised them, and those children grew up to be involved in the adventures of their parents–and every book, save one, actually took place in Egypt at the turn of the twentieth century. I need to reread Crocodile on the Sandbank, and in fact, would love to revisit the entire series. She wrote two other series as Elizabeth Peters as well–the Vicky Bliss series and the Jacqueline Kirby–as well as stand alones; every Peters novel is a gem, as is every novel she wrote as Barbara Michaels.

And now back to the spice mines.

I Fall to Pieces

And this morning I woke up to the good news that my COVID-19 test came back negative, which now begs the question: what was wrong with me? Was it some weird combination of sinuses, allergies, flu, stress and exhaustion? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely thrilled to not have this and for this whole thing to be over, but…I’m very glad to know that I wasn’t infectious and out in public for a while. So I am just going to take the win, tomorrow’s a paid holiday, and I’m going to take the weekend to sort things out and hope I feel better and continue to rest.

I did wake up this morning feeling good for the first time in a very long time, which is also terrific. Today was the first day where I woke up and felt like myself–I have some things to deal with this morning, as I do every morning, but this time I woke up and didn’t dread dealing with any of it-and since I feel good, that makes me wonder just how much of this has been stress related? Probably more than I want to admit to; and there was probably some PTSD there as well. I also need to remember that feeling fine is also a relative thing and that it comes and goes with the PTSD stuff-and there could even be something today that makes it worse–always remember your emotions can turn on a dime when you’re going through something like this–and there’s never any indication that your mood is going to swing, or how wild that swing is going to be. Fun stuff–and the mood swinging lasts for a while after the situation normalized, too. 2005-2009 was not the most emotionally stable period of my life, if I am going to be completely honest, and fortunately most of it is now hazy in my mind. But I know there was some bad behavior on my part to people who didn’t deserve it–and I hope that I apologized for it.

Yesterday I was fatigued–my energy failed me in the afternoon–and that’s concerning, as I said earlier, but there’s really nothing I can do about whatever was wrong with me other than accept that it wasn’t COVID-19 and go on with everything in my life-and be extremely cautious going forward to make sure that I don’t get it now. It’s funny–knocking on wood here–but somehow I made it through the the HIV/AIDS pandemic without getting infected (I’ve never had any STI–gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, trichomoniasis–other than HPV, and of course I had the bad kind, but without any re-occurrence) and so far I’ve not managed, despite Mardi Gras and a public contact job screening people for COVID-19, to not get that, either. At least so far–and I am going to be a lot more anal about going out in public and being around people from now on, too.

I read some more yesterday on Ammie, Come Home, and I marvel at how marvelously constructed this novel is. There’s never any point where it drags at all, and Barbara Michaels knows precisely how to build suspense and terror in such a… I want to say genteel way that makes it even more terrifying. The spectral encounters the characters have in the old house in Georgetown are absolutely heart-thumpingly terrifying and scary and creepy; it’s truly one of the most perfect ghost stories ever constructed…which is why it is one of my favorite novels of all time. Barbara Michaels was always considered a Gothic suspense writer, and some of her novels don’t have a supernatural touch to them, but the ones that do (House of Many Shadows, Witch, The Dark on the Other Side, Be Buried in the Rain, The Crying Child) are some of the best, quietest horror novels I’ve ever read; she built a quite large audience of readers who would most likely never read horror–but she certainly straddled the line between suspense and horror-which is why I think Gothic is such an interesting term.

Once I get this Sherlock story wrangled and under control, I am looking forward to going back to Bury Me in Shadows. It’s been on my mind a lot lately–and I’ve been having, as I previously mentioned, a lot of strange little creative bursts over the past week or so–and so today, once I get the business I need to get taken care of taken care of, I am going to get organized. I am going to whip this desk area into shape, organize all my notes and everything that is scattered all over the place, and be ready to hit the ground running once Easter has passed. I want to get this story finished–as well as several others that are in process–and then I am going to set a writing schedule to get Bury Me in Shadows whipped into submission shape so I can get it sent in to my publisher so I can then focus on doing the same for the Kansas book….and then I am going to start pulling together Chlorine. I probably won’t be this organized–I never am as organized as I plan to be, nor do I ever stick to the schedule I always try to stick to–but I like organizing and I like coming up with plans–that’s the sort of thing that makes me happy, and I am going to focus, as one always should in times of crisis, on doing things that make me happy.

And on that note, I am going to go take a shower, get cleaned up, and get moving again.

Have a lovely day, Constant Reader.

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Okie from Muskogee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris-Mears

The Chair

I finished reading “Death in Venice” last night, and it occurs to me that I might have been better served rereading “The Masque of the Red Death,” actually. I’ve not read it since high school, and yet it is always there, somehow, in a corner of my mind. There have been several instances, for example, in my life where the story has come to me as the perfect analogy for whatever was going on or whatever situation I found myself in; and its underlying theme–there is no escape from death–is one I’ve always wanted to write about, but whether to do it in fiction or non-fiction form; that is, as ever, the question.

Don’t get me wrong, “Death in Venice” was perfectly fine, and I can see why it is so acclaimed. It didn’t really connect with me as much as I would have liked to engage with it, but Mann’s style is so formal and distant that the characters are kept from the reader as a sort of arm’s length; it’s a very distinct picture of a particular character and I got a very strong sense of who he is from it–but he isn’t someone who particularly interests me very much, nor is the strange obsession with the beautiful young Polish boy Tadzio–absolutely pure, of course, and entirely intellectual; nor sordid thoughts of lust or physical desire to be found on that particular beach on the Lido in Venice, interesting. The extraordinary passivity of the man as he is subconsciously aware that his inability to leave Venice because he must continue to look at, follow, and stalk this teenager will inevitably lead to his death was something I never really quite grasped or understood; perhaps, as ever, I am too stupid to understand the big underlying point of the story, with my low peasant tastes and faulty, not classically educated intellect. It was sort of a Lolita-esque type story, and I think my tastes are too honed to favor writers like du Maurier, Shirley Jackson, and Patricia Highsmith to not expect there to be some dark noir twist to it at the end, and to be disappointed to not find it there. (I also thought the whole part of him having his hair dyed and his face painted wasn’t really anything to do with trying to look younger or because Tadzio made him care about his appearance more, so much as it was like getting the corpse ready for the viewing; but your mileage, as always, might vary.)

It has been a long, trying week, and like everyone, I am trying to muddle through the best I can using a combination of judicious amounts of alcohol and prescription medication. I love my day job (although I will now and forever always reserve the right to be highly annoyed by it from time to time), but even under the best of circumstances, it can be emotionally and mentally exhausting–and when you’re both emotionally and mentally exhausted, you feel that way physically as well. I find myself having to force myself to do normal, every day routine things; putting the dishes away seems like an unconquerable chore and when it’s finished, I need to sit for a bit. I watch the clock every night dreading the inevitable time I have to go to bed–because then I have to wake up to what has been almost consistently worse news every morning since before Carnival started, and somehow pull myself together to go to work. I also know that I’m lucky to have a job to go to every day, and I am hopeful I’ll remain lucky.  But…my primary whine now is that I have to get up at six to be at work every day–yesterday, today, and Friday, at any rate–and that just is too early for me to be completely functional. But it beats the twelve hours days I usually put in when I get up this early, I suppose.

Today my goal is to get through most of my emails and try to get some things settled; as much as I can, at any rate, and make some decisions about things I have to make decisions on. Maybe tonight I can get some writing done; if not, I am going to finish reading du Maurier’s “Ganymede,” and reflect on the influence/effect of Venice on not only her two stories (including “Don’t Look Now”, which i reread this past weekend) but on “Death in Venice,” as well as whether I can see influences of the Mann story on her two stories on death in Venice. It’s an intellectual challenge of the sort I used to rather enjoy; the kind of essay and/or article I love to write that no one wants to publish or see from me. (And maybe I can find a copy of the “The Masque of the Red Death” somewhere on line free to download; all of Poe’s work is in the public domain, so it shouldn’t be difficult to locate, frankly.)

At some point I also need to get to work on some of these short stories and the Secret Project again, but who knows when that time will present itself again? I find myself so tired when I get home from the office–at least yesterday, and certainly those days of last week when I went in rather than working from home–and this getting up so goddamned early is also a challenge for me, to not be tired when I get home; although it is rather lovely to get home so quickly, regardless of the time of day.

Last night we continued with The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which is truly so much better than I ever dared to hope. It did occur to me last night, as we watched two episodes back-to-back, that the show is following the same trajectory as both Dark Shadows and True Blood–a small town with all the typical dysfunction any soap viewer knows to expect from a show centered in a small town; and how the supernatural aspects begin to amp up in an accelerated fashion once the show actually begins. Dark Shadows brought forth first ghosts and then a phoenix; after that came the vampire and the flood gates opened. Likewise, on True Blood, once Bill the vampire showed up, the little Louisiana town of Bon Temps began the epicenter of all kinds of crazy and bizarre supernatural events and creatures. I understand the necessity of it all, but once you go so far, there’s really no dialing it back. I’m glad they decided to send Sabrina to the witch school and leave her traditional school; by embracing the witch half of DNA and signing her name to the Book of the Beast it defied the way these types of shows usually go, with the mortal half always holding sway over the witch half, and not using her powers, etc. etc. etc.–which has always felt…contrived to me; after all, if Darren had no problem with Samantha being a witch and using her powers, 90% of the plots of Bewitched wouldn’t have been possible. (More on that later–and the implicit sexism of that show, which really needs to be explored.) But we’re enjoying Sabrina, and hoping that it doesn’t eventually–as these shows always, inevitably do–“jump the shark”–which is why we finally stopped watching Supernatural a few years ago (although we still love the show and remember it fondly; we have no desire to go back and watch the last few seasons).

And on that note I now have to go get ready for another day in the spice mines. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader, as much as you can.

beto-malfacini-model

Tear Time

Friday and a rather chilly, grayish day has come to usher in the weekend. I was exhausted last night when I got home from work–which has been happening more and more lately–and slept really well. Paul didn’t get home until late, so we weren’t able to watch anything last night–but we made our plans for the weekend; since we really don’t care about the Super Bowl we’re going to try to get caught up on the shows we watch this weekend. I also want to get deeper into the Dorothy Hughes novel I am reading, Dread Journey. It’s relatively short, so I should be able to get through it relatively quickly, if I can devote the time to it.

This week wore me out somehow–I can’t remember the last time I was so worn down by a week in which it wasn’t parade season or I wasn’t on a trip somewhere. Not sure what that’s about, but it’s also part and parcel of the reboot I need to do on my life and my weekly routine. Most of all I need to start taking better care of myself, for one thing–particularly when it comes to health-related issues; there’s doctor’s appointments and blood work I need to have done that I somehow never seem to get around to, and that’s a big no-no. Last year was supposed to be the year that got taken care of–and it actually didn’t turn out that way.

But…at least now when I am home and too exhausted after work to write or read or focus on a TV show, I have lots of LSU game highlights from this past season to stream on Youtube.

I’m not, I think, going to try to overdo things this weekend; or make a to-do list that I will never finish, you know? I do need to update the to-do list I have running–I think I accomplished almost everything I needed to on the list yesterday, and there are some emails I need to send this morning before I head into the office later this morning–and I have several blog posts I’ve started writing and need to finish–my rereads of Victoria Holt’s Kirkland Revels and Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley have reviews I’ve started and not finished, for example. And as I begin to move on to the next book in the TBR pile, I should get those out of the way because I will also have to write a review of Dread Journey.

And I have some short stories I should finish, and others I should revisit.

The publishing world has really been a dumpster fire for quite some now–first the RWA mess, and now the whole American Dirt dust-up. Both dust-ups ultimately boil down to the same thing: what responsibility do writers have when they write outside their own experience? Particularly when it comes to the marginalized? I have always held that a writer can write about anything they wish; anything that intrigues them enough for them to sit down and spend the time constructing a novel is something they should write about. I chose to write a novel about rape culture in a small town, but I chose not to write it from the point of view of the victim, but rather that of someone else in the town, another player on the football team who wasn’t involved in the incident–but is close friends with the boys who did. I’ve been struggling with this manuscript for several years now; partly from a sense that maybe I wasn’t the right person to tell this story; was centering a teenaged boy rather than a teenaged girl in this story the right choice; was i doing a kind of To Kill a Mockingbird thing, trying to do a #notallmen type thing that would ultimately be offensive?

I like to think the fact that I actually do worry about these things is a good sign.

Anyway, I’ve always said that writers can write anything they are interested in, but have a responsibility to get things right. I’ve written from the point of view of women before; I’ve written from the point of view of a teenaged girl before. Do I, as a gay man, have a right to write about straight women/girls? Of course I do, and no one has ever told me that I don’t. But I also owe it to women–and all the women I’ve known–to create multi-faceted, complex, complicated women characters that are believable and whose experiences are also believable. Likewise, a cisgender straight person writing about gay men have a responsibility to gay men to get it right and create real characters rather than fantasy, and a white person writing about an oppressed racial minority particularly has a responsibility to that minority to do the work and get it right. As writers, we don’t always get it right, and we owe it to that minority to listen when they say we got it wrong.

We need to do better.

And comparing minorities of any kind–religious, racial, gender, sexuality, ethnic–to vampires and werewolves and zombies to justify writing outside your own experience? Shows that you don’t have the empathy to write about any minority. You can’t compare actual human beings to mythological creatures as a justification for writing about them because we actually exist. 

And if you can’t understand how horrible and odious making those comparisons are…well, I’m not going to read your work because I can be relatively certain it won’t be any good.

And on that note, those emails aren’t going to answer themselves.

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