I Just Called To Say I Love You

How was your Thanksgiving? Ours was rather lovely; we had our deep dish pizza and a lovely visit with our friend Lisa; then Paul and I watched three movies on Netflix: Fourth Man Out, Closet Monster, and Handsome Devil. We also watched another episode of a Hulu original series, Future Man; which we had given one more episode to get better. And the fourth episode definitely delivered. We laughed a lot all the way through it; and it finally started delivering on its premise.

The three movies were all gay films, which we generally don’t watch very often. I know I should be supportive of gay films, but so often they’re aren’t very good–or at least that used to be the case. When a major studio makes one (Philadelphia, In and Out, To Wong Foo, etc.) they’re awful; indies always mean well but don’t have the budget to really do them well or cast good actors, so we stopped watching them a long time ago. Every so often, a film like Beautiful Thing or Latter Days will come along, but still, fairly rare. My incredibly cynical self is very pleased to say that the three films we watched yesterday were enjoyable in varying degrees, which also makes me tend to think that perhaps we should watch more gay cinema. And really, isn’t mainstream film always a crapshoot, too?

Fourth Man Out was the first movie we watched; its about a group of four guys who’ve been best friends since they were kids and then one of them comes out to the others. It was a comedy, so the coming out was handled in a comedic fashion; the friends were a little taken aback, and then there was some awkwardness about what you can or can’t say around your gay friend which was sweet and kind of cute. The gay character was a mechanic, so there was a sense to me of ‘see, a gay guy can be just a regular guy’ about the movie which was well-intentioned but…the really charming part of the movie was watching the friends try to help him navigate the gay dating world, and there was a really charming scene where they take him to his first gay bar. And the ‘meeting someone from on-line’ trope was treated as comedy (and who hasn’t met someone whose picture wasn’t them?) and there were some moments that I thought might have been in questionable taste–but overall the film was charming. The lead, gay Adam, was played by Evan Todd, who’s very good-looking:

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His best friend, Chris–and their relationship/chemistry was quite charming, was played by the impossibly good-looking Parker Young:

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Another one of the guys was played by Glee’s Chord Overstreet, almost recognizable in a heavy beard. But the movie’s true charm was the relationship between Adam and Chris; how they learn from each other and grow and finally find their perfect matches because of their friendship.

Closet Monster starred Connor Jessup from American Crime, who is an appealing and talented young actor I would pretty much watch in anything.

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This movie was apparently very popular on the indie art film festival circuit and won lots of awards; for me, it was the weakest of the three and were it not for Connor Jessup, we would have probably stopped watching. As a little boy, around the time his parents broke up in a very nasty and volatile break-up, young Oscar witnessed a violent hate crime against a gay teenager–and that, plus the divorce, have been deeply internalized and traumatized him as he comes of age as a gay teenager with an interest in horror movies and a desire to become a make-up artist for horror films. He’s applied to the best school for this in New York, and cannot wait to get away from this awful town he lives in. He’s desperately unhappy–who can’t relate to that–with big dreams, and is developing a crush on another boy he works with at a Home Depot type store. Wilder, played by Aliocha Schneider, is coolly confident in himself and tries to draw Oscar out of his own shell, with some success.

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The point of the movie is ultimately that Oscar needs to stop spinning his wheels and move in a positive direction in his life; and it does eventually get there after a bizarre costume party where he has his first sexual experience with a stranger and comes to terms with his feelings for his mother; his relationship with his father remains unresolved. But it was an arty film; Oscar’s hamster speaks to him in Isabella Rossellini’s voice–he got the hamster originally the day his mother left his father so it symbolizes the last time he was happy; and there’s a lot of moments where the director slaps the viewer in the face with his symbolism and hidden depths. There are some gorgeous shots, particularly at the end, but there are also some serious plot holes. But as I said, Connor Jessup is a very talented and appealing young actor, and he carries the entire movie.

The last film we watched, Handsome Devil, was by far and away the best of the three. Set in an Irish boarding school obsessed with its rugby team, it’s from the point of view of young Ned, who is bullied by his schoolmates in no small part because he doesn’t care about rugby and doesn’t fit in; he is played charmingly by Fionn O’Shea. He comes back to school against his will–his father and stepmother live in Dubai and for some reason he can’t live with them there; it’s kind of implied that he’s an inconvenience for them. He’s delighted when he gets to school to find out he’s got a single room and won’t be sharing. There’s also a really funny sequence where he talks about his English teacher; he simply turns in the lyrics to old songs for papers and get’s A’s; the song that is handed back to him with an A written on it to illustrate this voice over is Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Walk Side,” which is hilarious if you know the words.

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But he winds up with a roommate after all, Connor. Connor can’t go back to his old school–he was kicked out for ‘fighting’–AND it turns out Connor is a great rugby player; the long-missing piece for the school’s team which will make them champions. Ned reacts by moving all of their furniture to the center of the room, kind of forming a Berlin wall. They also have a new English teacher this term, Mr. Sherry, who is played by Sherlock’s Andrew Scott. Mr. Sherry, and his class, reminded me of Dead Poets’ Society, and I don’t think that was accidental. But Ned and Connor slowly become friends–Connor is Ned’s first friend, really–and of course there’s the requisite homophobia (they all treat Ned like he’s gay, but we never really know for sure) and obstacles for the boys to face before the film’s end. This movie is really charming, and is about friendship, and has some absolutely lovely moments. O’Shea is fantastic as Ned, and you can’t help but root for him as he learns who he is and what being a friend really means; Nicholas Galitzine plays Connor and does a fine job with a less complex part; but the chemistry between the two boys is terrific. I highly recommend this movie.

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It was also highly educational to watch these films, and it also made me realize that I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to gay-themed films; I should probably watch more of them in the future–and I think I’m going to. Watching these movies reminded me of the kinds of novels Kensington used to publish after the turn of the century; particularly the novels of Timothy James Beck. I miss those novels, and Kensington did a great job of finding and publishing fun gay-themed novels in those days. I was one of Kensington’s authors; Kensington was where the first three Scotty books were published, and pulling together the Scotty Bible has also put me in mind of those days again. Kensington first published Rob Byrnes,  and also those wonderful novels by Michael Thomas Ford. Kensington was also home to William J. Mann’s fiction, from The Biograph Girl to The Men from the Boys, All-American Boy, and several others; Kensington also published Andrew Beierle’s The Winter of Our Discotheque, which remains to this day one of my favorite gay novels.

Sigh.

And now back to the spice mines.

What’s Love Got To Do With It

I finished my reread of Hell House last night, and it does, in fact, hold up rather well. It was, frankly, a most satisfying way to close out my Halloween Horror month of reading; even if it was a reread, and a book I’ve read several times before.

I first read it when I was a teenager; it was one of the many mass market paperbacks I found on the wire racks at the Zayre’s in Bolingbrook. The cover was rather non-distinct; black, with a photograph of a woman in a red halter dress, carrying a candelabra and looking back over her shoulder, a terrified look on her face, her long dark hair being blown backwards by the same wind pushing the candle flames backwards, with the title above it in red letters: HELL HOUSE. I had watched The Haunting several years earlier, and was absolutely terrified by it; I hadn’t yet realized that it was based on a Shirley Jackson novel. So when I saw Hell House, I did think that it might be the same story, and of course Hollywood had to change it to Hill House. So I bought it, took it home and started reading.

It was similar, but it wasn’t the same story. By any stretch of the imagination.

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It had been raining hard since five o’clock that morning. Brontean weather, Dr. Barrett thought. He repressed a smile. He felt rather like a character in some latter-day Gothic romance. The driving rain, the cold, the two-hour ride from Manhattan in one of Deutsch’s long black leather-upholstered limousines. The interminable wait in this corridor when disconcerted-looking men and women hurried in and out of Deutsch’s bedroom, glancing at him occasionally.

He drew his watch from its vest pocket and raised the lid. He’d been here more than an hour now. What did Deutsch want of him? Something to do with parapsychology, most likely. The old man’s chain of newspapers and magazines were forever printing articles on the subject. “Return from the grave”; “The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die”–always sensational, rarely factual.

Wincing at the effort, Dr. Barrett lifted his right leg over his left. He was a tall, slightly overweight man in his middle fifties, his thinning blond hair unchanged in color, though his trimmed beard showed traces of white. He sat erect on the straight-back chair, staring at the door to Deutsch’s bedroom.

What Deutsch, an old and dying billionaire, is proof that either that afterlife exists, or that it doesn’t. In order to get that proof, he is willing to pay an almost obscene amount of money, and do pretty much anything. He is, in fact, assembling a team to send to the “Mount Everest of haunted houses,” the Belasco house in Maine; more commonly known as Hell House.

Like in The Haunting of Hill House,  a team of four people are going to go into the haunted house to, basically, see the phenomena, observe and document it, and, if possible, cleanse the house of the infernal spirits haunting the house. Two teams have gone into the house in the past; with one exception, all of them were either killed or went insane.

That one survivor, Ben Fischer, is a part of this expedition.

Dr. Bartlett, though, is no Dr. Montague; who merely wanted to experience the phenomenon at Hill House and write a paper about it; Dr. Bartlett’s life’s work has been based on the theory that hauntings, or so-called paranormal phenomena, are not actually caused by ghosts or spirits, but are simply residual energy. He has designed a machine that will reverse that energy and therefore cleanse Hell House–or any other haunted house. His much-younger wife, Edith, believes in him and his work…but there are issues within their marriage; he is a polio victim and the polio has also left him impotent; Edith herself has issues with sex and her own sexuality and this sterile, sexless marriage is a refuge for her.

The other two members of the party, Ben Fischer and Florence Tanner, are both mediums. Ben was a mere teenager when he went into Hell House the first time; he was the lone survivor, the one Hell House could not kill or drive insane. He has since stopped used his psychic gift. Florence is a beautiful woman who has her own ministry and believes her gifts come from God; she believes ghosts are spirits that have not moved on and it is her duty to use her gift to help them move on, through love and the power of prayer. She and Dr. Bartlett have competing beliefs and values…and once they are all inside of Hell House, the terror truly begins.

Richard Matheson was a great writer; many of his writings were made into films–Stir of Echoes, Somewhere in Time, I Am Legend, The Incredible Shrinking Man–and many of his short stories became classic Twilight Zone episodes–he wrote “Terror at 20,000 Feet”–and Hell House was filmed as The Legend of Hell House, which I also saw as a teen and it absolutely terrified me.

It’s awesome that the book holds up.

Mickey

My wonderful book about the classic horror novels of the 1970’s thru the 1990s, Paperbacks from Hell, attributed the boom in horror fiction to three bestselling novels that set the stage: Thomas Tryon’s The Other, Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. I read all three of these books when I was in junior high school; the Tryon and the Levin remain two of my favorite novels, and I reread them periodically. But after reading The Exorcist one time, I’ve never felt the need to have a copy on hand, nor have I ever felt the desire to go back and reread it. It did occur to me sometime within the past few years that I should give it another go; my primary memory of the book is, of course, the crucifix masturbation scene which everyone in the seventh grade discussed in breathless whispers whenever someone new had read the book. I may not have ever owned a copy; I may have borrowed it from someone. There were any number of paperback copies floating around my junior high school, the binding bent and broken and covers battered as they were passed around from kid to kid. It also occurred to me that many of my memories of The Exorcist were not from the book, but from the incredibly disturbing film; it was a huge hit and was nominated for ten or eleven Oscars (winning maybe one or two). Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells,” used extensively in the score, was also hugely popular. (All three of the books were made into films; The Other the only whose film version wasn’t a success–but it’s hard to see how it could have been filmed successfully; although it would be really cool if someone tried it again.) So, Labor Day morning, I took down the copy of The Exorcist that I bought recently and read it again.

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The Exorcist is undoubtedly an important work in the horror genre; it helped create a boom and directly resulted in a lot of really talented writers getting some great books published over the next thirty years or so. I had noticed, though, that not many people who write horror ever include it on those “Best Horror” lists, or list it as an influence. I read a book in the last year or so that was undoubtedly influenced by The Exorcist; Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, which I really enjoyed and also put me in mind of a reread of Blatty’s blockbuster. The fact that Blatty is a homophobe made me a bit uncomfortable going back to the book–okay, he may not be a homophobe, but he certainly felt welcoming and admitting LGBT students at Georgetown University meant the school had betrayed its Jesuit heritage and should be stripped of its standing as a Jesuit university (you can read about that here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/04/education/edlife/how-georgetown-became-a-gay-friendly-campus.html?mcubz=1).

So making millions of dollars about a child masturbating with a crucifix is kosher–I guess because, literally, the devil made her do it–but treating LGBT college students as human beings is a crime against Catholicism. Got it.

And to be fair to Mr. Blatty, I only vaguely remembered the above incident; and wasn’t 100% sure I was correct, so that didn’t play into my reread of the book (I didn’t go looking into it until this morning, while actually writing this entry).

Part of the issue with The Exorcist is that once you are aware of it, it’s really not that shocking anymore. This book was a shocker when it was first released; it was denounced far and wide as demonic–including by the Catholic Church (which is even more perplexing on the reread, because the book is very very Catholic), and the scares involved how shocking it was. I seem to recall Blatty based the book on an actual case of an exorcism from the early 1960’s, or perhaps the 1950’s–I don’t recall exactly. So, after forty-odd years the shocks and scares are no longer shocking or scary; my memory of the first read of the book is vague so I cannot remember if it was more pruriently shocking or if it was, indeed, scary to the twelve year old who read it all those years ago. But knowing the story, and what is coming, and knowing that the shock value has completely worn off in the intervening years, I was able to read it and evaluate it simply as a novel.

And it doesn’t, sadly, hold up very well.

I was torn about blogging about The Exorcist, because I generally don’t like to criticize other writers and other books publicly; but it’s an old book, and the author has made a fortune off it. There’s also the suspicion that knowing how homophobic the author is might have played into my disappointment in the reread, but let me give you some sentences:

Looking down at the pain in those sensitive eyes, Chris surrendered; couldn’t tell her what she really believed. Which was nothing.

In fact, Chris had smelled nothing, but had made up her mind she would temporize, at least until the appointment with the doctor. She was also preoccupied with a number of other concerns.

She seemed to be thinking, and still in this posture, she stepped outside and joined her son, who was waiting on the stoop.

Her eyes still on her notes, Sharon probed at the silence in a strained, low voice.

Chris looked at him appraisingly, with gratitude and even with hope.

There are lots more examples; weird analogies, and strange character behavior. It’s also really hard to tell who is the main character. Chris MacNeil, the mother, is a divorced atheist actress; her marriage failed, according to the book, because her husband couldn’t bear being Mr. Chris MacNeil; his wife’s success and fame was too much for his ego to handle, and Chris not only understands but doesn’t blame him. He is a neglectful father to Regan, which also doesn’t bother her too much. She is renting the house in Georgetown because she’s appearing in a movie being filmed there, a musical remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington which has an added subplot about campus unrest and protests (which sounds absolutely terrible) shoe-horned in; her main home is in LA. Yet once her role in the movie is finished, she stays in Georgetown inexplicably; Regan is being home-schooled by Chris’ secretary, who does double duty as Regan’s teacher–so there’s no reason for them to stay other than the fact that it’s necessary to the plot for her to remain in close proximity to Georgetown University’s campus. The filming is over before the possession truly gets going; so…

There are also some bizarre behaviors exhibited by Chris as well–she will have an encounter with her strangely acting daughter, be terribly upset, and then go downstairs and have a pleasant conversation with her housekeepers about the film they went to see. It becomes very difficult to have sympathy for her, because she isn’t really fleshed out as a character. The book is also told from an omniscient point of view, so the reader has a very hard time engaging with the characters or feeling deep sympathy for them; certainly it’s hard to identify with any of them. Sharon, the secretary, is a complete cipher; as are the Swiss couple who work as housekeepers. Burke Demmings, the director of the film and a friend of Chris’, is a vicious and cruel drunk who openly mocks her servants; which she just dismisses as “oh, that’s just Burke.”

Because her housekeepers aren’t people who should at least be treated with a modicum of respect as human beings?

The police detective who becomes involved in the case–Burke ends up dead at the foot of the steep staircase down to M Street behind the house–is incredibly annoying; he never gets to the point and dances around the subject and is one of the most unbelievable cops I’ve ever encountered in fiction; he seems a bit like Columbo, but at least the viewer knew that Columbo was actually incredibly smart and that was his method. You never get that sense with Detective Wilderman; he’s just annoying.

Father Karras is by far the most likable and interesting character in the book; and I suppose the reason it’s called The Exorcist. Damien Karras (it’s funny; at the time the book was published the name was unusual but interesting; of course The Omen has forever altered the perception of that name) is having a crisis of faith; his own homosexuality is hinted at but subtextually; his ‘friendship’ with Father Dyer is hinted at, they have a lightly teasing homoerotic kind of friendship but it’s never really gotten into; although one of the insults the demon throws at Karras is an accusation of homosexuality, which rattles him. There’s also a scene where Father Dyer mentions that ‘the gays are leaving the priesthood in droves.’

But the underlying premise, and theme that drives the book, is that Catholicism is real, the one true Faith; even though the demon is apparently an old Babylonian god named Puzuzu–who predates Catholicism and Jesus–the power and faith can defeat him. The ultimate sacrifice of Father Karras in taking in the demon and then killing himself–what happened to the demon? What happened to his soul? Does he redeem himself with this act?

Father Karras was interesting to me (he is constantly described, not just in the text but by characters, as ‘looking like a boxer’–whatever that means: “they told me you looked like a boxer”.) as a character, and I would have loved to have seen the entire story through his eyes; the loss of faith, his struggle with choosing the church over his mother; the relationship with Father Dyer; his doubt that Regan is actually possessed and the slow dawning that demons, and therefore, his faith, are real; and why he would make that ultimate, final sacrifice.

I’m glad I reread the book, even though it was kind of disappointing. I greatly enjoyed the television series, which was recently renewed for a second season (yay!), and it is an important book in the genre; no matter what quibbles I have with it, its importance cannot be denied, and I think horror aficionados should read it.

Jeopardy

So, yesterday was my birthday. Fifty-six officially; although I always add a year to my age on New Year’s Day for the sake of simplicity. I had some trouble falling asleep on Saturday night; a combination of restlessness and heartburn. I wound up sleeping in till almost ten; which is late for me but since I didn’t really fall asleep until around three in the morning it wasn’t that much sleep. But I had a lovely day, really. I kind of just laid around and reread In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes, rewatched The Philadelphia Story on TCM (Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant were both robbed of Oscars), then watched The Nineties and The History of Comedy on CNN before finally watching last night’s Game of Thrones.  I also thought about the new Scotty some; I have today off from work as my birthday gift to myself, so I plan on doing some writing, line editing, and revising, and thinking about what I’m going to write next before actually sitting down at the computer is always a wise thing to do (although usually I never had the time to do that, thanks to deadlines). There’s a serious moral dilemma coming for Scotty in this book; one that really has been needing to be dealt with in the series for quite some time, but I’ve dodged it and avoided it; this is the book where I am finally going to have to have him face up to it, the way I am bringing it to the forefront so he can no longer avoid it is, if I do say so myself, rather clever.

Or it’s just going to be a steaming pile of shit. There’s no middle ground, really.

It was kind of fun to reread the Hughes novel; it is a masterpiece of noir that has been sadly overlooked for many years. Hughes was an exceptional writer, and I do admit that opinion is based on my having read only two of her novels, this and The Expendable Man (which, sadly, was her last and published in 1962). It’s not easy to find Hughes’ novels. I do feel safe in calling Hughes one of the best writers of her generation, and certainly one of the best noir writers of all time, based on those two books because they are just that good. I do have a copy of her The Blackbirder, which I want to read before the end of the year. In A Lonely Place was also filmed, directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame; the film is significantly different from the novel, but it’s also outstanding. The new edition of the novel, from New York Review Books (who also have republished The Expendable Man and The Blackbirder), includes an afterward by the wonderful Megan Abbott, who is not only one of this generations greatest writers but also one of crime fiction’s most knowledgeable critics; her literary criticism is intelligent, thoughtful, incredibly well-written, and certainly puts me in my place whenever I am lucky enough to read some of it; I would love to read her study of literary and film noir, The Street Was Mine. (Whenever I read her criticism, any thoughts I might have about pursuing academic criticism–gay noir, gay representation in crime fiction, the heyday of romantic suspense from the 1950’s till its unfortunate death in the 1980’s–go out the window.)

Her all-too-short essay in the back of this edition alone makes the cover price worthwhile.

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It was good standing there on the promontory overlooking the evening sea, the fog lifting itself like gauzy veils to touch his face. There was something in it akin to flying; the sense of being lifted high above crawling earth, of being a part of the wildness of air. Something too of being closed within an unknown and strange world of mist and cloud and wind. He’d liked flying at night; he’d missed it after the war had crashed to a finish and dribbled to an end. It wasn’t the same flying a private little crate. He’d tried it; it was like returning to the stone ax after precision tools. He had found nothing yet to take the place of flying wild.

It wasn’t often he could capture any part of that feeling of power and exhilaration and freedom that came with loneness in the sky. There was a touch of it here, looking down at the ocean rolling endlessly in from the horizon; here  high above the beach road with its crawling traffic, its dotting of lights. The outline of beach houses zigzagged against the sky but did not obscure the pale waste of sand, the dark restless waters beyond.

He didn’t know why he hadn’t come out here before. It wasn’t far. He didn’t even know why he’d come tonight. When he got on the bus, he had no destination. Just the restlessness. And the bus brought him here.

Isn’t that an incredible opening?

Not being an expert in crime fiction–there’s so much of it to read, and there’s more new stuff all the time, so it’s hard to keep up with the new let alone trying to read everything already published–I am unable to place In A Lonely Place into any kind of context as far as the history of crime fiction is concerned, but Abbott does this beautifully in her afterward. But it’s very clear in this opening paragraphs that Hughes is addressing alienation in this book, and toxic masculinity, which may have seen its ultimate pinnacle in the second World War (the alienation of returning veterans, and the difficulty of readjusting from war to peace was also being addressed in films like The Best Years of Our Lives) and by having Dix, her main character, pretend to be writing a novel also took on the glut of post-war war novels that so many returning soldiers were writing; novels that continued to proliferate for several decades beyond the war.

The first time I read the book, having already seen the film, I was more focused on the story itself rather than an examination of how deftly Hughes creates her story, the language and imagery she chooses, and the nuanced way she creates her character. On this read, knowing how it’s going to end, I was able to pay more attention to these things, and was able to marvel at how brilliant the entire package is.

A recurring motif in the novel is fog; Hughes uses the fog as a metaphor for the fog in Dix’s brain; and we are never sure when Dix’s mind changed, making him lethal. He was raised by a puritanical uncle, Fergus, who is currently supporting him while he writes his novel–but there is a limit to the support, and while in our time $250 a month may not seem like much, at the time of the novel it was a fortune, just over $2500 in today’s dollars. Dix’s resentment of the uncle–we never learn what precisely happened to his parents–who is rough on him and has always made him work, even when he was in college at Princeton trying to fit in with the idle rich sons of privilege and then goes into detail how humiliating it all was, doing things for them for ‘tips’ until he could manipulate events to make it look as though he were the wealthy one and the sad unfortunate, unpopular boy he used for money were the dolt. In this way, Hughes also makes a sly commentary about class and privilege (which, in my opinion, she does far better than Fitzgerald did in an entire novel with The Great Gatsby, and she does it only in a few pages). So, there was always some kind of a chip on Dix’s shoulder; the war simply gave him a way to channel that anger and discontent and alienation. Now the way is over, and Dix is having to find a new way to channel those diabolical energies–and he does, in committing murder.

The entire tale is told through Dix’s perspective, which also makes him one of the first unreliable narrators in crime fiction. (It was done before, but never quite so lethally.) So, when we see the other characters–and there are only three: his old war buddy Brub, now a police detective; Brub’s wife Sylvia, whom Dix despises on first sightl and of course, the love interest, Laurel Gray–is she the femme fatale he thinks she is, or is that just a product of his own warped sense of right and wrong? Who is Laurel, of the reddish gold hair and the tempting figure? Is she the hard-as-nails user he thinks she is, or is she an entirely different character altogether?

In  A Lonely Place is a masterpiece of noir, and hopefully, this edition will elevate Hughes to the position both she and the book deserve in the annals of our genre.

And now back to the spice mines.

 

I Know There’s Something Going On

Yesterday I got notified that one of my favorite comic book runs, DC’s 1988-1992 Starman, is now available digitially on Comixology. I may have squealed like an excited little gay boy. This version of Starman, which came after the Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot, was one of my absolute favorite comic series of all time. As a birthday gift to myself, I bought and downloaded the first two issues. I am really looking forward to reading this series again in its entirety. I hope it’s as good as I remember. It never really took off, and was eventually cancelled for low sales, which was a real pity. I’m curious to see what I think about it now that I’m older.

Yesterday was one of the most miserably hot and humid days in New Orleans that I can remember. I took a shower after my workout yesterday morning–and then another after running errands. The thing about humidity that you tend to forget is how it sucks the life right out of you; it’s exhausting navigating and operating and trying to function in it. I have nothing but the utmost sympathy for those who have to work outside in August in New Orleans–meter maids, mail carriers, construction workers, etc.

And last night, we went to see Dunkirk.

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The story of the mass evacuation of the Allied forces at Dunkirk is one that has always stirred me; had the evacution/rescue of the British/French forces there not happened, the war would have been over and Nazi Germany would have won. The way the ordinary British people stepped up, in the face of incredible danger and possible death, and sailed personal boats across the English Channel to help rescue their army is one of the greatest war stories of all time. As soon as I heard that Christopher Nolan was making a film about it I knew I wanted to see it.

And while it took a while for me to go, we finally saw it last night.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more affecting film about the horror of war before.

Nolan’s film is a completely immersive experience, and everything about the movie is designed to keep you anxious and on the edge of your seat the entire running time of the movie. There are only a few, brief moments where you can actually sort of relax; and those brief seconds of respite immediately fade into another rush of tension and adrenaline and anxiety. There is very little dialogue in the movie, and almost all of the emotion is conveyed by the faces of the actors, which is even more affective than over-the-top histrionics would have been.

One of the things I learned from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was that the reality is far harsher and much more horrifying to witness in person than to see on television or on film; the reason Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke is so affecting is the film of the aftermath, after the water was gone and what was left behind, triggers the memories inside my own mind from when I returned and drove around to see the  devastation for myself. A film camera is limited–even in IMAX–to how much it can capture in a shot; the reality of the flood aftermath was immersive; you couldn’t look another direction and not see horror.

As immersive an experience as Dunkirk is, it therefore stands to reason that the horrors faced by the soldiers and sailors and the British citizens in their pleasure boats sailing the channel and watching as war planes flew overhead, witnessing ships being bombed and torpedoed in front of them, was at least a thousand times worse than watching a fictionalized film version in an IMAX theater in Harahan. The choice to show the story from three different perspectives–a soldier wanting to get home, an RAF pilot, and the crew of the private boat Moonstone crossing the channel to answer the call–and to not show those stories unfold in the usual timeline but rather at different times–was a calculated risk that could easily could have failed, turning the movie into a mess that made no sense–but superb editing and cross cuts made it quite effective in unsettling the viewer and ramping up the tension and terror. (I predict many, many technical Oscar nominations for this movie–from sound editing to editing to cinematography–and it will probably win more than a few of them.)

It’s an amazing achievement in film.

Is it historically accurate? Probably not; it leaves the viewer with the sense that it happened over the course of a day or so when it was really a little over a week; all the soldiers and sailors seen on camera were all  white; and obviously some of the characters, if not all of them, were fictional. But…when the credits rolled I was emotionally drained and exhausted, and I am still processing the images I saw.

It also occurred to me, as we drove home in a downpour, if ever there was a time for TCM to schedule a World War II film festival–after the events of the last week or so, it’s now, as some people need, apparently, to be reminded of the horrors that were Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

Have a lovely Sunday, every one.

Billie Jean

So, I didn’t get any writing done yesterday because I sat down with Lyndsay Faye’s The Gods of Gotham at long last, intending to read only one chapter–and then the next thing I knew it was time to make dinner and I was on page 100. Reluctantly I put the book down and made dinner; after which we watched Orphan Black, Game of Thrones, and the first episode of Amazon Prime’s The Last Tycoon before repairing to bed for the evening. Lyndsay’s book is extraordinary and exceptional; I’m both sorry and glad that I waited so long to read it–glad because I am clearly going to love every word of it; sorry that I could have savored it so much sooner. Heavy sigh.

So many books, so little time.

I am greatly enjoying this season of Game of Thrones, and am very curious as to how it is all going to shape up. Last night’s episode was terrific; when the credits started rolling I was like, “it’s over already?” That’s always a good sign, frankly; and Dame Diana Rigg’s final line as Lady Tyrell was just absolutely perfect.

We then switched over to Amazon Prime to try out The Last Tycoon. I’ve never read the Fitzgerald novel because, frankly, it was unfinished, and God knows I’d never want anyone to read anything of mine after I die that was unfinished. But I was curious to see this, as a sucker for old Hollywood. The show is set during the era of the big studios and their star system; where the studios crafted very careful images of their stars and turned out movie after movie after movie. My fascination with this time began when I was a kid and read Bob Thomas’ biography Selznick; I went on to read Tracy and Hepburn, biographies of stars like Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Clark Gable, amongst many others; histories of Hollywood, and so forth. I’ve always wanted to write about that period; it’s really a great time for noir and crime, but again–research. Anyway, I was curious to see how the show was, and I was more than a little impressed. Fitzgerald had first-hand experience with Hollywood and the old studio system, and clearly the character played by Matt Bomer (who is just breathtakingly beautiful, and would be stunning in black and white) is based on Irving Thalberg; the genius producer with a heart problem who is aching to make the perfect film before he dies. Kelsey Grammer is also good, as always, as the studio boss, and the rest of the cast, none of whom I really recognized, are all good in their parts. There was also a big plot twist at the end of the first episode that I didn’t see coming, so kudos to that! It’s also filmed beautifully; the sets and costumes are spot on and everyone looks like they just stepped off the set of a 30’s movie. I am really looking forward to seeing more. I hope it’s not disappointing!

All right, back to the spice mines. Here’s a Monday hunk to get your week off to a great start!

IMG_1701

 

How Much More

Tuesday!

As I mentioned yesterday, on Sunday I reread one of my favorite Agatha Christie novels (although in mentioning favorites, I forgot So Many Steps to Death; her espionage novels were absolutely delightful), Endless Night. 

One of the things I loved the most about Christie is how she wasn’t afraid to try different types of crime fiction; she was probably best known for her two primary private eye series, one with Hercule Poirot and the other with Miss Marple, but she wrote over eighty novels, plays, and collections of short stories. She had a very keen eye for character (she is often criticized for the lack of character development; I never had that sense as a reader–she was able to sum up her characters very quickly and easily, able to use a few brief sentences and paint a vivid picture of who the person was; a skill I wish I had) and psychology; she was also a master of plotting. She knew how to create and manage suspense (the suspense is almost unbearable in And Then There Were None, for example); and she pretty much wrote everything from espionage thrillers to psychological suspense to murder mysteries to serial killers to…you name it; she wrote it.

But Endless Night is one of the most incredibly different things she wrote; and she wrote it very late in her career, publishing it in October of 1967.

endless night

The title comes from William Blake‘s Auguries of Innocence:

Every night and every morn,
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night,
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.

According to some quick Internet research, the book was one of Christie’s own favorites, and received a very warm critical reception.

It’s easy to see why.

This is how the book opens:

In my end is my beginning….that’s a quotation I’ve often heard people say. It sounds all right–but what does it really mean?

Is there ever any particular spot where one can put one’s finger and say: “It all began that day, at such a time and such a place, with such an incident?”

Did my story begin, perhaps, when I noticed the Sale Bill hanging on the wall of the George and Dragon, announcing Sale by Auction of that valuable property, “The Towers,” and giving particulars of the acreage, the miles and furlongs, and the highly idealized portrait of “The Towers” as it might have been perhaps in its prime, anything from eighty to a hundred years ago?

I was doing nothing particular, just strolling along the main street of Kingston Bishop, a place of no importance whatever, killing time. I noticed the Sale Bill. Why? Fate up to its dirty work? Or dealing out its golden handshake of good fortune? You can look at it either way.

Isn’t that a terrific beginning?

(And “in my end is my beginning” is also what Mary Queen of Scots took as her motto during her long captivity at the hands of her cousin, Elizabeth I.)

Endless Night is, for wont of a better descriptor, a Daphne du Maurier novel written by Agatha Christie.

The book is told from the first person point of view of Mike Rodgers, a young man about town who is just kind of drifting from job to job. He winds up at The Towers, on a plot of ground known as Gipsy’s Acre, which was apparently cursed by the gipsies forceably evicted from the plot of ground centuries earlier…and the place has known nothing but tragedy since. There’s also a sharp, blind turn in the road just before the place, where plenty of people have been killed in car accidents. But while looking at the place, Mike encounters a young woman named Ellie…and before long, he and Ellie have embarked on a romance, and have decided to buy the land and build a new house there to spend the rest of their lives on. Mike has no real friends, and a bad relationship with his mother. And as it turns out, Ellie is quite wealthy…and once he is introduced to  her affluent world, things start to go very badly. Should they have listened to the old woman who warned them to stay away from Gipsy’s Acre? Is Mike a reliable narrator?

There’s an enormous twist in the book as well, which completely turns the narrative on its head, and makes you question everything you’ve been led to believe; a twist well-worthy of du Maurier. As they were contemporaries, I wonder if the two women ever met?

I love this book, and think it should be paired with du Maurier’s brilliant My Cousin Rachel, which for some reason was recently filmed again (I may watch the remake when it’s available for free streaming; it’s hard to imagine that it’s better than the original, which starred Olivia de Havilland and a very young Richard Burton). Someone should really write a compare/contract essay/piece of literary criticism about the two books; I kept thinking of My Cousin Rachel during this reread; now I really want to reread My Cousin Rachel.

Last night, I also started reading the latest Rebecca Chance, Killer Affair, and was sucked into it almost immediately; it’s Chance at her absolute best, and can’t wait to read more. I also started the final, definitive line edit of the WIP yesterday; since I always feel like the second half of my books don’t get as much attention from me as the first, I am trying something incredibly new for me: I am starting the edit with the second half of the book.

I hate line editing.

And now, back to the spice mines.