Let the Music Play

I had already decided to make January a theme month on the blog, and to once again make it Short Story Month, with the goal to read a short story every day. As such, I was looking around the shelves of the Lost Apartment for anthologies and single-author collections, and it occurred to me that I have a book at the office that would be absolutely pitch-perfect for this: The Best American Noir of the 20th Century, edited by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler. It’s a gorgeous volume; absolutely beautiful, and it’s also signed by Otto. I must have picked it up one year at the MWA Board event at the Mysterious Bookshop. But it literally is a time capsule of great noir stories, going back to 1923, and what better education in not only short stories, but noir, than to read this marvelous collection, one story at a time, day by day?

I’ve also ordered Lawrence Block’s latest anthology of crime stories inspired by pictures, Alive in Shape and Color.  I may have to extend Short Story Month to Short Story Quarter, and read a story a day until April. Which really isn’t a bad idea, frankly. This is also the period where I’ll be putting together Sunny Places Shady People, the St. Petersburg Bouchercon anthology, so reading short stories should be a priority, don’t you think?

I certainly do.

I also finished reading Krysten Ritter’s Bonfire last night–Paul was at a play.

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 State Highway 59 becomes Plantation Road two miles after the exit for Barrens. The old wooden sign is easy to miss, even among the colorless surroundings. For years now, on road trips from Chicago to New York, I’ve been able to pass on by without any anxiety. Hold my breath, count to five. Exhale. Leave Barrens safely behind, no old shadows running out of the dark woods to strangle me.

That’s a game I used to play as a kid. Whenever I would get scared or have to go down to the old backyard shed in the dark, as long as I held my breath, no monsters or ax murderers or deformed figures from horror movies would be able to get me. I would hold my breath and run full speed until my lungs were bursting and I was safe in the house with the door closed behind me. I even taught Kaycee this game back when we were kids, before we started hating each other.

It’s embarrassing, but I still do it. And the thing is, it works.

Most of the time.

Alone, locked in a gas station bathroom, I scrub my hands until the skin cracks and a tiny trickle of blood runs down the drain. It’s the third time I’ve washed my hands since I crossed the border into Indiana. In the dinged mirror over the sink, my face looks pale and warped, and the memories of Barrens bloom again like toxic flowers.

This was a bad idea.

The trauma that is high school is something that many of us apparently never get over, and it’s certainly becoming a crime fiction trope. But this isn’t a bad thing. As I said, almost all of us have traumatic memories of high school, and therefore can relate to the characters and the stories in these types of books. Hell, I’ve drawn from my own high school traumas enough times in my own work to recognize it as a trope of my own (Sara, Lake Thirteen, and both Chanse and Scotty have moments of reflection on their own past that are directly drawn from mine).

Bonfire is a compelling read, and very well written. Abby Williams, our main character who is telling the story in a first-person point of view, fled her hometown of Barrens after a traumatic childhood that included the painful death of her mother from cancer, her father’s religious mania and the resultant brutal parenting that came from it, being not popular, and having her best, childhood friend, Kaycee Mitchell, turn on her and terrorize her with a group of mean girl new friends. But towards the end of their senior year, Kaycee and her friends all became ill–with very odd and strange symptoms. It turned out they were faking it, and Kaycee disappeared. Now, there are some complaints about the factory near town, Optimal Plastics, that has revitalized the dying town but may possibly be poisoning it. Abby, now an environmental lawyer for a non-profit firm that handles such cases, is leading the investigative team and thus has to come back to Barrens to not only run this investigation but deal with her own demons. But are her theories and investigation tainted by her past, and her relationships with people from when she as a child? And why is she so obsessed with the missing Kaycee–whatever happened to her? Was she really faking it, or were the girls really sick? And what the hell is going on in Barrens?

Obviously, the sickness of the girls reminded me a lot of Megan Abbott’s brilliant The Fever from a few years ago; which was based on an actual case. And Ritter’s debut novel is crisply written, with a powerful sense of scene, character and plot that continues to build until it comes to its conclusion. I really enjoyed the book tremendously, and resented not having the time to actually sit down and read it through; I did manage to do so last night while Paul was at a play. It’s probably one of my favorite reads from the year, and I highly recommend it. Well done, Ms. Ritter.

And now back to the spice mines.

Tonight, I Celebrate My Love

Thursday. The weekend is nigh, and Paul and I are considering going to see It at long last, as there is no LSU game on Saturday. I also am going to Costco, and want to make it to the gym to do some detestable cardio. But I will also do some stretching, so there’s that. I really need to start getting into a regular habit of going again. I always feels so much better after I work out…you’d think that would be enough motivation to go, you know?

But you would be wrong.

I also am looking forward to getting back into my reread of The Haunting of Hill House, which blows me away on every reread. October is almost over, and so my concentration on just reading horror will come to an end with October 31st; I will go on to End of Watch by Stephen King when I finish this reread, and then I’m going to dig into all the ARCs and advance copies I got at Bouchercon, which is terribly exciting. Laura Lippman, Alison Gaylin, Ivy Pochoda, and Adam Sternburgh! My new Donna Andrews, The Finch Who Stole Christmas, also arrived yesterday, which is terribly exciting. I have a lot of great reading in store.

I worked on revising the new Scotty a bit yesterday, and was terribly pleased to discover that what I’d already written wasn’t, in fact, a steaming pile of crap like I thought it was. Distance does, in fact, help. So I am going to try to get those initial chapters all revised by Sunday before putting it aside again and diving back into the WIP, for it’s last tweaks. I’m feeling a lot better about all of this, to be honest…not sure where this burst of out of nowhere self-confidence has come from, but there you are.

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

For Throwback Thursday, here’s one of my sluttier Halloween costumes, Gay Beach Volleyball Player.

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Faithfully

I am all packed and ready for Bouchercon. I have to do some cleaning around here this morning–we don’t have to leave for the airport until around noon–and tonight I will be in Toronto. Huzzah! Obviously, I am very excited. Our flight lands around six fifty; then we’re taking a train to Union Station and then walking the less-than-a-mile to the hotel. Thank God our suitcases roll…the one we are checking feels like it weighs a hundred pounds. I already paid the checked bag fee last night on-line; hopefully we won’t have to pay an excess bag fee. Ah, well, so what if we do? I’ve got a carry on and my backpack; Paul is carrying on his back pack. It’s not a very long flight, either; only two and a half hours. ANd tonight I am meeting friends in the bar for drinks, and the madness begins.

I’ve been sleeping well the last few nights, so of course, tonight I’ll be in a hotel and probably won’t sleep at all. But that’s all right; Bouchercon is always exhausting. I probably won’t get to post much while I am gone…too busy seeing people and laughing and having a good time to sit down and blog. We are taking the MacBook Air, and I’ll have the iPad, so you never know; stranger things have happened.

I’m about halfway through Burnt Offerings and am really enjoying it; I know it’s a ‘haunted house’ book although nothing terribly strange has happened yet, but the house is definitely have an affect on the Rolfe family, who have rented it for the summer…and it’s very well done. The sense of creepy foreboding is done extremely well. I’ll undoubtedly finish it on the plane and have to start reading another book–I am only taking two other books with me on the trip; resisting the urge to grab another, frankly, but truth be told, I’ll probably get a shit ton of books AT Bouchercon, and I have a gazillion ebooks and comic books on the iPad. My guess is I’ll finish reading Burnt Offerings at the airport, and start reading another on the flight. My second choice book for the week is also short–The Vines by Christopher Rice, which was a Stoke Award finalist a few years ago–so it’s entirely possible I could have it finished today as well. The other book I am taking is Victor Lavalle’s The Changeling; I am doing an excellent job of sticking to only reading horror this month.

Last night I watched NCIS: New Orleans for the first time, and….well, the city looks terrific. I’ve watched the original NCIS, usually in marathons on the weekend while reading or cleaning, and I’ve always kind of liked it; it’s not something I go out of my way to watch, but I’ve never minded watching when it’s on. The New Orleans edition…has some really atrocious Southern accents, for one thing. But the city looks terrific, and at least they don’t make really bad local references in an attempt to be colorful (no one ate gumbo, for example, or mentioned jambalaya). The plot of the episode I watched was interesting, and apparently the show has a lesbian character, which is kind of cool. But…I probably wouldn’t watch it again unless I want to see New Orleans. It is nice seeing New Orleans on television, and shot beautifully.

I am also kind of interested, now that I have Jackson Square Jazz in an electronic version (I did print it out as well), to read both it and Bourbon Street Blues again, with an eye to seeing how Scotty and his family first came together. I am very aware that Scotty’s best friend David has disappeared from the series; I never mentioned anything about him again after the third book and the resurrection of the series post-Katrina. One of the things I should probably do is prepare a concordance of the series; this is the eighth one I am writing, and I am sure I’ve changed things over the years. (I did notice, for example, that Scotty talks about the apartment on the floor above him in Jackson Square Jazz as being a three bedroom; I don’t think it remained a three-bedroom post-Katrina. I may have even changed that in Mardi Gras Mambo. And since there’s an important subplot in this book about the house itself…yes, I need to make sure there is consistency. Or is this an excuse to not work on the new book? I am taking the manuscript with me, and I hope to read it again this weekend, so I can get a handle on everything that’s going on in the book and figure out how to move it forward again.)

Also of interest: I’ve already gotten a rejection from an agent, and it didn’t phase me at all. I don’t know if this is a sign of growth and maturity, but it neither depressed me nor upset me in the least. My only reaction was okay then! Thanks for replying so quickly! and I crossed her off the list.

Maybe I’m getting better at this whole thing.

Maybe I’m not. I don’t know. I’ve also reevaluated the whole thing with the manuscript, as well. If no agent shows any interest in it, I’ll figure out something to do with it, and then start working on another one to try to get an agent with.

This is really way too healthy for me. Maybe it’s the Bouchercon euphoria.

We’ll see.

And so, as I head off to Canada for a lovely long weekend of love and laughter, here’s a hunk to hold you if I don’t post until I get home:

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My Love

Ah, Thursday.

At this time next week I’ll be in Toronto at Bouchercon! Woo-hoo! Although I glanced at the weather forecast and was horrified to see that it’s apparently winter already up there; forecasts in the 60’s? Dropping into the 40’s at night? Madness, absolute madness.

My panels, if you are there and would be so inclined as to hear me speaking, trying desperately to sound like I know what I am talking about (and usually failing), are:

 Best Anthology, which is described as Meet the editors of your anthology Anthony nominees.

Moderated by Sarah M. Chen, the panelists are Lawrence Block, Jay Stringer, Eric Beetner, Jen Conley, and Greg Herren (me!).  It’s Friday morning at 10 am, in the Grand West Ballroom.

 Reading the Rainbow, which is described as An LGBTQ panel.

Moderated by Kristopher Zgorski, the panelists are  Stephanie Gayle, Greg Herren (me!),
Owen Laukkanen, John Copenhaver, and Jessie Chandler. The panel is at 2:30 on Saturday, October 14th, in Sheraton Meeting Room B.

I will also be at the opening ceremonies on Thursday night, during which the Macavity Awards will be presented; I am nominated for Best Short Story. (Eep! At least I have lots of practice being at awards ceremonies where I lose.) I’ll be missing the Anthony Awards Sunday, as we will be flying home at the time, but it’s still quite an honor to be nominated.

Look forward to seeing everyone there!

Here’s your Throwback Thursday hunk for the morning, model/actor Ed Fury:

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I Won’t Hold You Back

Being from, not only the South but also from Alabama, I am very particular about Southern fiction, and fiction set in Alabama (there is more of it than you might think; there is certainly much more of it than To Kill a Mockingbird). Robert McCammon has written some exceptional Southern horror fiction set in Alabama; I absolutely loved Boy’s Life, while I have yet to read Gone South (which is in the TBR pile). He actually  set a book in the part of Alabama I am from; it was a good book, but it bore no more actual resemblance to that county than anything other book set in the rural South; it was as though he simply put up a map of Alabama and stuck in a pin in it, said “okay this is where it will be set” and worked from there. But it was a good book that I enjoyed; it had some interesting things to say about religion–particularly the rural Southern version of it. I myself want to write about Alabama more; I feel–I don’t know–connected somehow when I write about Alabama in a greater way than I do when I am writing about New Orleans, and that’s saying something. Mostly I’ve written short stories, the majority of which have never been published; only two have seen print, “Smalltown Boy” and “Son of a Preacher Man.”

I remember Michael McDowell from the 1980’s, when the horror boom was at its highest crest; I never read his work but I was aware of it. I remember reading the back covers of his Blackwater books and not being particularly interested in them; there was just something about them, and their Alabama setting, that somehow didn’t ring right to me; I don’t remember what or why, but I do remember picking them up several times in the bookstore, looking them over, and putting them back.

In recent years, McDowell has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts; he was a gay man who died from AIDS-related complications in 1999. I wasn’t aware that he was part of the writing team who published a gay mystery series under the name Nathan Aldyne until sometime in the last few years, and I’d been meaning to get around to finally read one of his horror novels, the reissue of The Elementals (which included an introduction by my friend, the novelist Michael Rowe–whose novels Enter, Night and Wild Fell are quite extraordinary)–which again is set in Alabama, only this time Mobile and the lower panhandle of Alabama that sits on either side of Mobile Bay (the same area, in fact, where I set my novel Dark Tide, only my novel was set on the other side of the bay). My friend Katrina Niidas Holm recently asked me to read the book so we could discuss it drunkenly over cocktails at Bouchercon in Toronto later this month; this morning I sat down and read it through. (It’s not very long; 218 pages in total.)

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In the middle of a desolate Wednesday afternoon in the last sweltering days of May, a handful of mourners were gathered in the church dedicated to St. Jude Thaddeus in Mobile, Alabama. The air conditioning in the small sanctuary sometimes covered the noise of traffic at the intersection outside, but it occasionally did not, and the strident honking of an automobile horn ould sound above the organ music like a mutilated stop. The space was dim, damply cool, and stank of refrigerated flowers. Two dozen enormous and very expensive arrangements had been set in converging lines behind the altar. A massive blanket of silver roses lay draped across the light-blue casket, and there were petals scattered over the white satin interior. In the coffin was the body of a woman no more than fifty-five. Her features were squarish and set; the lines that ran from the corners of her mouth to her jaw were deep-plowed. Marian Savage had not been overtaken happily.

In the pew to the left of the coffin sat Dauphin Savage, the corpse’s surviving son. He wore a dark blue suit that fit tightly over last season’s frame, and a black silk band was fastened to his arm rather in imitation of a tourniquet. On his right, in a black dress and a black veil. was his wife Leigh. Leigh lifted her chin to catch sight of her dead mother-in-law’s profile in the blue coffin. Dauphin and Leigh would inherit almost everything.

Big Barbara McCray–Leigh’s mother and the corpse’s best friend–sat in the pew directly behind and wept audibly. Her black silk dress whined against the polished oaken pew as she twisted in her grief. Beside her, rolling his eyes in exasperation at his mother’s carrying-on, was Luker McCray. Luker’s opinion of the dead woman was that he had never seen her to better advantage than in her coffin. Next to Luker was his daughter, India, a girl of thirteen who had not known the dead woman in life. India interested herself in the church’s ornamental hangings, with an eye toward reproducing them in a needlepoint border.

On the other side of the central aisle sat the corpse’s only daughter, a nun. Sister Mary-Scot did not weep, but now and then the others heard the faint clack of her rosary beads against the wooden pew. Several pews behind the nun sat Odessa Red, a thin, grim black woman who had been three decades in the dead woman’s employ. Odessa wore a tiny blue velvet hat with a single feather dyed in India ink.

Before the funeral began, Big Barbara McCray had poked her daughter, and demanded of her why there was no printed order of service. Leigh shrugged. “Dauphin said do it that way. Less trouble for everybody so I didn’t say anything.”

This is an auspicious beginning to a novel that straddles the line between Southern Gothic and horror; but in using the word horror I am thinking of the quiet kind of horror, the kind Shirley Jackson wrote; this isn’t the kind where blood splatters and body parts go flying or you can hear the knife slicing through flesh and bone. This is the kind of horror that creeps up on you slowly, building in intensity and suspense until you are flipping the pages anxiously to find out what happens next.

McDowell introduces all of his characters in those few short sentences; Dauphin and his wife, Leigh; her mother Big Barbara; her brother Luker and her niece, India. Odessa also has a part to play in this story, and the only other character who doesn’t appear in this opening is Big Barbara’s estranged husband, Lawton. Lawton, like Mary-Scot, only plays a very small part in this tale, and so the reader doesn’t need to meet him until later.

(I do want to talk about character names here; the Savage family all have names that have something to do with Mary Queen of Scots; the deceased is Marian, her long dead husband Bothwell; Mary-Scot is as plain a reference as can be, whereas her two brothers were Mary Stuart’s husbands: Dauphin–her first husband was Dauphin Francois, later King Francois I of France–and the deceased elder brother, Darnley; the romantic Queen’s second husband was Lord Darnley. Marian’s –of Mary–deceased husband Bothwell bore the name of the Scottish Queen’s third husband, the Earl of Bothwell. These Savage men died in reverse order of the Queen’s husband’s though; Bothwell first followed by Darnley,  and of course, as the only one living, Dauphin will die last. Also, there’s never any explanation for why Big Barbara is called Big Barbara; usually in Southern families the reason you would call someone “Big” is because there is a “Little;” there is no Little Barbara in this story, and I’m not sure where Luker came from as a name, either. I wondered if it was a colloquial pronunciation; names and words that end in an uh sound turn into ‘er’ in Alabama; Beulah being pronounced Beuler, for example, so I wondered if his name was Luka…)

The McCrays and the Savages are families bound by decades of friendship and now marriage; they have three identical houses on a southern spit of land in the lower, western side of the Alabama panhandle in a place called Beldame; Beldame is very remote, bounded by the Gulf on one side and a lagoon on the other; during high tide the gulf flows through a channel into the lagoon and turns Beldame into an island. There are no phones there nor power lines; electricity is provided by a generator and there is no air conditioning. Oh, how I remember those Alabama summers without air conditioning! One of the three houses is being lost to a drifting sand dune and is abandoned…and as the days pass, the reader begins to realize there’s something not right about that dune…or about that house.

The book reminded me some of Douglas Clegg’s brilliant Neverland; that sense of those sticky hot summers in the South, visiting a place you’re not familiar with and is kind of foreign (the primary POV once the story moves to Beldame is India, who has never been there before); those afternoons where the heat and humidity make even breathing exhausting, the white sugary sand and the glare from it, lying in a shaded hammock just hoping for a breeze–the sudden rains and drops in temperature, where eighty degrees seems cold after days of it being over a hundred…the sense of place is very strong in this book, and Beldame is, like Hill House, what Stephen King called in his brilliant treatise on the genre Danse Macabre, ‘the bad place.”

I really enjoyed this book. A lot. And it has made me think about writing about Alabama again; this entire year I’ve been thinking that, and now feel like it’s a sign that maybe I should.

And now back to the spice mines.

Dirty Laundry

Wednesday! I have my biannual doctor visit this morning, so won’t be going into the office until later; I am doing bar testing this evening as well. I hope to get more edits put in–seriously, passing the halfway point made such a mental difference; each page I finish it like another step down the other side of the mountain. I am really looking forward to finishing; I know exactly what I have to do with this in the final draft, and am really really excited about finally finishing and getting it out there.

Huzzah! Yay, me!

So, Paul had dinner with a friend last night, and while I was waiting for him to come home (I’m not enjoying the book I’m reading and may put it aside), I decided to watch a documentary on HBO: Bolshoi Babylon.

Wow.

Over the last few years I’ve become obsessively interested in ballet; but most ballet stories are generally about women–understandably so; the men are primarily there, for the most part, to show off the women and their skills–but male ballet dancers are fascinating to me. For one thing, their bodies are amazing, and for another, what they can make their bodies do is even more amazing. It’s rare for a male ballet dancer to outshine his female counterparts; but when they do, they become big stars. (Nureyev, Baryshnikov, etc.) The world of ballet also seems very dark to me, very noir; the way the dancers torture their bodies to make beauty and art, the fragility of the egos, the constant need for approval–and of course, as dark as it is, it can get even darker.

Bolshoi Babylon is about the acid attack on ballet director Sergei Fimin several years ago; I remember when it happened. Fimin was a star of the ballet, became the artistic director, and then was viciously attacked, acid thrown in his face, and a long, painful recovery from the attack followed–he eventually got the sight back in one eye, but remained blind in the other. A male dancer in the company was behind the attack; Fimin had passed over his girlfriend for a lead, and he wanted revenge for his love. (I was very much reminded of the Tonya-Nancy figure skating drama; ballet and figure skating also have a lot in common.) But the documentary simply uses the attack as a launching point for an examination of the world of the Bolshoi; its internal and external politics, and also focuses on some of the dancers and what their lives are like.

It was riveting.

I’ve long wanted to write a noir about figure skating, and another about ballet. Watching Bolshoi Babylon only emphasized that desire; alas, I have this manuscript to complete, a Scotty to write, and I am also toying with that horror novel. But I think I shall continue my researches into both figure skating and ballet; Paul got home and watched the end of the documentary, and he agreed that it would be interesting to go to the New Orleans Ballet.

I also have been crushing on Italian ballet dancer Roberto Bolle for years now; thank you, Sarah Hilary, for bringing him to my attention!

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I also got involved in an interesting discussion on a friend’s Facebook thread about author Louise Penny, whom I’ve not read, and who was just here in New Orleans to accept the Pinckney Prize, as this year’s recipient. I had to miss the event, as it was last week. But I do have a copy of her first novel, and I will try to read it before Bouchercon.

So much to read before Bouchercon! I can’t believe I have homework.

Head over Heels

So, apparently a lot of people lost their minds yesterday because the BBC announced that the next Dr. Who is going to be a woman. I’ve never watched the show, but I know that people who do are very devoted; some of my friends are very devoted fans of the show (none of those friends, incidentally, lost their minds over this) so I have a passing knowledge of it. Paul and I were also big fans of it’s spin-off series, Torchwood. (And seriously, the mini-series “Children of Earth” is so fucking amazing that you should watch it immediately if you haven’t seen it. You don’t need to watch Torchwood from the beginning, either, to enjoy it.)

Personally, I think it’s amazing that a show that’s been around fifty years–and as such has had plenty of time to do this–has done so. One of the best things about Spiderman Homecoming, for me, was the diversity of its cast and the whole nonchalant way Marvel Studios went about making the cast diverse; it was no big deal, and I didn’t even notice. It was until after the film was over that I realized that not everyone in the movie was white. (They also showed a preview of Black Panther before the movie, and it looks amazing. Two big thumbs-up to Marvel Studios for diversity! Now, if you could work on the ‘woman-as-lead-in-the-movie’ issue….)

Maybe it’s because I belong to a minority group, but I’ve never really understood the resistance to diversity and change.

Nothing ever stays the same, you know? Isn’t that the biggest lesson we learn in life? The only constant is change?

I finished reading The Great Gatsby again yesterday; and I will admit to enjoying it more this time than I did the first time. I still don’t know that I would call it a ‘masterpiece,’ or ‘The Great American Novel,’–both hyperbolic claims I have seen made over the  course of my life–but I did enjoy it more as an adult than I did as a teen. I will talk some more about The Great Gatsby here, but I am going to let the book, and my thoughts about it, marinate a little more. The reread did, however, confirm something I’ve said for years; that Andrew Holleran’s great gay classic, Dancer from the Dance, owes an enormous debt to Gatsby; I’ve been known to refer to Holleran’s book as The Gay Gatsby. I feel relatively certain some scholar somewhere has written a paper conflating the two; I may even give Dancer  a long overdue reread so that I can do something similar here.

Game of Thrones was quite fun last night, and a nice beginning for the end.

This week, I plan on getting a lot done. We shall see if that comes to fruition; but I hope to finish writing “A Holler Full of Kudzu” this week, and maybe rewriting another story before jumping back into the WIP this weekend.

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

Here’s a hunk to kick off your week right, Constant Reader:

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Mood: Cheerful

Music: You Belong to Me by Taylor Swift