Why Don’t We Live Together?

Saturday, I think, right?

God, it was miserably hot yesterday. I know, it’s New Orleans in July; the dog days of summer (I’ve never really quite understood what that meant, honestly; probably something about how a dog pants or something–so hot I was panting like a dog, or something along those lines anyway–it always makes my think about my grandmother’s mutt dog, Shag, lying down in the shade and panting) as it were, but it still does bear comment periodically about how motherfucking hot it is here sometimes in the summer.

I slept deeply last night, and didn’t really want to get out of bed this morning. I’ve been feeling tired again lately–not that horrible exhaustion I had for those months earlier this year, thank the heavens–and yesterday was one of those days again. It may be the heat, which is the most likely explanation, but I am not wanting to go back out into it today either–I am debating the wisdom of waiting to go to the grocery store until tomorrow or even seeing if it can be put off until next week sometime–which is probably self-defeating in some ways; but I also need to write this weekend (since I didn’t do much of that this past week) and I worry that going out into the heat and lugging bags of food into the house will defeat me for the rest of the day (which is always a possibility).

Decisions, decisions.

During our The Faking of the President on-line promotional appearance the other night we were talking about the 1970’s–if I considered myself a child of the that decade, and I actually do; I do remember bits and pieces of the 1960’s, but I turned nine in 1970 and that decade more shaped who I am rather than the 1960′–and as I mentioned yesterday, I’ve kind of started looking into the films of that decade a bit more. I kind of wanted to watch more Hitchcock movies yesterday–I was going to go for some of his 1970’s work, Frenzy and Family Plot, to be exact–but they are no longer on Amazon Prime for free (they were for quite a while) and that interface has also changed again and become even more user unfriendly; I cannot understand why Amazon cannot get its shit together on their streaming service, but came across the original film version of The Stepford Wives, either on Prime or the TCM app on HBO MAX, and settled in to watch that again. It’s a film (and novel) that is firmly anchored in the paranoid zeitgeist of the 1970’s, and fits very well into a reexamination of what was going on in that decade.

As I mentioned on the live stream the other night, the 1970’s were still a decade where wives were still defined as people in terms of their husbands; it was still very difficult for women to get credit on their own (this was actually how the subject came up–student loans and student credit cards), and I mentioned that my mom’s first credit wasn’t actually in her name, but as Mrs. (Dad) Herren. She had been working as long as I can remember, but her financial identity was still as the spouse of my father. The Women’s Liberation Movement began in the late 1960’s–espousing the radical concept that women were actual human beings in their own right and didn’t solely exist in terms of the man in their lives–and the 1970’s was when the stigma of divorce began to lessen; women no longer stayed in bad marriages or with abusive husbands. Rape was still basically a misdemeanor; spousal abuse was accepted and almost expected, and women were very much second class citizens, primarily defined as wives and mothers (this has changed somewhat, but really, not enough). Ira Levin wrote The Stepford Wives as a sort of social satire, but it was no less terrifying as a result; the revenge of men against women’s liberation. (You never hear the terms Women’s Lib or ‘libbers’ anymore) The Stepford Wives basically took the concept of how dehumanized women were to the nth degree; men really only want beautiful women who don’t think for themselves, think they’re wonderful lovers, live for their men and children, and should primarily focus on making sure their homes are spotless and perfect so their men don’t have to worry about anything but their jobs. The film leaned into this fully; I think the best part of the book was the fact that it never really explained what was going on in Stepford; it was alluded to, of course, but the truth was so terrible that the women–main character Joanna and her friend Bobbie–couldn’t possibly imagine what it was.

But seeing the actual Stepford wives, played by actresses, up on screen, truly epitomized not only how horrible what was happening in Stepford was, but how strange it was for Joanna and Bobbie to deal with, strangers who had only recently moved into town. Paula Prentiss played Bobbie–and why she was never a bigger star was something I never fully understood–and of course, stunningly beautiful Katherine Ross played Joanna–which made it all the more terrifying; she was so perfectly stunning and beautiful, how could you possibly improve on Joanna? The film of course couldn’t leave the truth ambiguous and merely hinted at; which was part of the power of the book…you never were completely sure if Joanna was simply going crazy because the truth of Stepford was presented so casually and normally. (Don’t bother with the remake; despite a stellar cast, it’s truly a terrible movie.)

The Stepford Wives, book and movie, both also fit perfectly into the paranoia of the decade; the 1970’s was a time where conspiracy theories abounded; there was a lot of interest in UFO’s and the Bermuda Triangle and Revelations/the end of the world, not to mention after Vietnam and Watergate mistrust of the government and elected officials were higher than ever before. But I also see The Stepford Wives as part of another literary trend/trope of the decade; the 1970’s was also a time when, as I mentioned on-air the other night, that white flight from the cities to the suburbs and rural eras began in earnest (although it was never, in the books, attributed to its real root cause: integrated public school systems and neighborhoods). There are at least three novels I know of that take the white flight to the rural areas (better schools! clean air! zero crime!) and turn them into horror novels–Burnt Offerings, The Stepford Wives, Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home– where the urbanites discover far greater horrors out in the country than they ever encountered in the city; there are probably more (I am not certain The Amityville Horror fits into this category), but those three would make a great starting point for a thesis/essay. (Interesting enough, both book and movie of The Stepford Wives ends with a throwaway bit about the first black family moving into Stepford; I would absolutely LOVE to see a reimagining of the film by Jordan Peele from the perspective of the black family moving in, because the paranoia of the wife beginning to suspect that all is not right with all these white women who are devoted to housework and their families could also be played with from a racial as well as gender perspective.)

And as I watched the film again yesterday, I realized that my mother, with her obsessions with cleanliness and order, kind of was/is a Stepford wife.

I plan on spending the rest of this morning getting my kitchen/office–horribly out of control yet again–into some semblance of order before diving back into Bury Me in Shadows. I’d like to get the changes necessary done to the next three to four chapters today, and perhaps another four to five tomorrow, which would get me almost to the halfway point. I also need to compile a comprehensive to-do list for the coming week. I also want to spend some time with Blacktop Wasteland today as well.

We started watching a new series last night–Curon, which is an Italian show set in the Tyrol, in a region that changed hands between the Austrians and the Italians numerous times. The town is built on the shores of a lake, where the original town was submerged when the river was dammed; all that remains of the old town is the church’s bell tower, jutting up out of the water. There’s a story that if you hear the bells ringing, you’re going to die–and some seriously weird shit is going on in this town. The show opens with a flashback to the past, when a seventeen year old Anna is hearing the bells ringing and her father orders her out of the massive luxury hotel they live in; she’s not sure but she thinks she sees herself shooting her mother–a nightmare that haunts her the rest of her life. Flash forward to the present, and Anna is coming back to Curon, after leaving an abusive (it’s hinted at) husband with her twin children, now seventeen–Mauro and Daria–from Milan. Her father makes it clear they aren’t welcome there–but when Anna disappears the next day the twins are there to stay. It’s filmed very well, and there are apparently tensions still in the village from the olden days of the war between Austrians and Italians; Mauro is also hard of hearing and wears a hearing aid; Daria is boisterous, outgoing, and kind of a badass; and the teenagers they encounter, both outside of school and in it, are also kind of weird. There’s all kinds of history there, slowly being revealed to the viewer, while the tension continually builds. What is the dark secret of the town of Curon?

I also, while typing that last sentence, realized Curon also fits in with the trope of the urbanites coming from the big city to the country, and discovering far greater horrors there than they left behind in the city.

Interesting.

Single

Well, Constant Reader, we’ve made it to Thursday again; how lovely is that?

I have a busy day ahead of me, so I am priming myself with as much coffee as I can hold–which I will undoubtedly regret later, when I can’t sleep tonight. I did sleep well last night–only waking up around six when Scooter decided to lie on me, purring and kneading me with his paws, but I fell back asleep relatively easily. I could have slept for another three or four hours, frankly.

While making my condom packs yesterday I watched two movies on HBO MAX: Eyewitness and Foreign Correspondent. Both were enjoyable, if flawed; the second more flawed for being a product of its time (1940) more than anything else. Eyewitness was also very much of its own time–the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, and is particularly memorable for being the first major film roles for William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver. Watching the movie put me back in mind of the 1970’s and all of its bitter cynicism. Hurt plays Darell Deaver, a Vietnam vet who now works as a janitor in an office building in the evenings; yet can afford a fairly decent apartment in Manhattan–which I suppose was still possible in the 1970’s–and his best friend is Aldo, played by a very young James Woods (also playing a racist Vietnam vet). In the building where Darell works is the office for a Vietnamese businessman (played Chao-li Chi, best known as Chao-li from Falcon Crest; obviously, back then it wasn’t an issue having a Chinese-American actor play a Vietnamese character) whom both he and Aldo remember from Saigon. Mr. Long has gotten Aldo fired from his job, and one night Mr. Long is brutally murdered while Darell is in the building. Darell, thinking Aldo killed him, pretends he didn’t find the body…but the newspaper reporter covering the case (Sigourney Weaver) he’s been watching on the news and has a big crush on, so he begins a minor flirtation with her. She thinks he knows more than he’s saying, and so plays along with the flirtation….not knowing she is more connected to the murder than he actually is. It’s a nice neo-noir film, if a bit flawed, and watching it reminded me of how much things have changed in our society and culture since then–and also reminded me of other things about the 1970’s; the rampant paranoia, for one, and how New York was in decline (or at least, seen to be in decline by the rest of the country), and was a much grittier, messier place. It also reminded me of how much public perception in the United States towards Jews and Israel have shifted–there’s a subplot about Sigourney Weaver’s parents being Russian Jews who managed to escape that is more important than is let on at first, and Christopher Plummer has a role as Weaver’s actual lover who is an activist helping Russian Jews escape from behind the Iron Curtain. Morgan Freeman and the guy who played Adam Schiff for years on Law and Order play the police detectives investigating Long’s murder–which was an interesting twist.

Foreign Correspondent was one of Hitchcock’s first American films, and since it was made in 1940 and was about the possibility of war breaking out in Europe (it already had; the movie was set in August of 1939), as one can expect it was very anti-Nazi and pro-Britain. Joel McCrea plays a reporter for the New York Globe who, as a crime reporter, is seen by the publisher as someone better equipped to handle reporting the double-dealing and backroom deals prior to the possible outbreak of war. McCrea does a good job in the role–if his character is quite a bit naive–and eventually he falls (as one does so frequently in Hitchcock films) madly in love with the daughter of the head of the Peace Party, who is supposedly working very hard to prevent the outbreak of war. There’s a typical Hitchcockian plot about a Dutch diplomat who is party to a secret treaty between Holland and Belgium and a secret clause only known to the signatories who is being pursued by the Nazis; a double stands in for him and is murdered very publicly–but the McCrea character knows he’s a phony and the search is on for the real diplomat. The suspense that Hitchcock is known for is there, and props to the studio and Hitchcock for doing a plane crash at sea in the third act–it’s totally not how a plane crash would work, of course, but no one in 1940 would know that–and, of course, as required by the Hays Code there is a rousing happy-ever-after ending with McCrea reporting from London during a bombing raid a la Edward R. Murrow, and as the credits roll a rousing rendition of a patriotic American song plays.

I had a headache for most of the day yesterday, so I didn’t read or write at all, but despite the headache, I couldn’t help but think about both movies, and how their stories couldn’t really be updated very much to a modern era–perhaps Eyewitness could be, more so, since television reporting isn’t going anywhere, but do newspapers even have foreign correspondents anymore? I don’t think so.

Paul and I are also watching a German Netflix series called We Are The Wave, which is interesting and rather well done; it’s based on the old “Wave” experiment that was actually done at a high school and then made into a movie, with a book adapted from it later; about how easy it is for fascism to take hold. It was done as an experiment, a teaching moment for an instructor for his class to show them–who wondered about how the Germans could embrace such a toxic political philosophy as Nazism–precisely how easy it was. This show is a bit different in that it shows that Nazism is again on the rise in Germany, and the “wave” in this show is actually a resistance movement towards both capitalism and Nazism. It’s interesting, only about six episodes long, and we are almost finished. We won’t be able to finish tonight because I am doing one of those Zoom on-line promotion things for The Faking of the President anthology.

And on that note, I am heading back into the spice mines. Have a lovely Thursday, Constant Reader.

One and One Make Five

So, after feeling human again on Friday and posting about it both then and yesterday, what do you think happened? If you guessed “Greg fucking relapsed,” you would be absolutely correct.

And this was the worst I felt since getting sick all over again. Chills and violent uncontrollable trembling? Check. Fever and headache? Check. Complete and total exhaustion? Check. It was horrible, frankly, Constant Reader. I wrapped myself up in blankets and retired to my easy chair, cued up Jonny Quest on HBO MAX, and drifted in and out of sleep for about five hours as I made it through the rest of the first season of the show–and yes, while I really wasn’t paying much attention (drifting in and out of sleep) I did see a lot of problematic stuff; and as the show progressed more, Hadji became more and more difficult to watch without groaning and thinking Dear God what were they thinking?

This morning I woke up still feeling a little dehydrated, but I wasted all of yesterday–I was too exhausted to do anything much more than use the remote, make some soup, and later make something to eat for dinner–and am hoping that I will feel well enough long enough to get some things done. I have to go back to to work in the clinic the next two days, so I really need to be up to speed for sure those two days. When I looked at our schedule it looked really filled up, so I will be seeing people pretty much all day. I also lost a day of writing yesterday, which really is upsetting. I am going to finish posting this, go through my emails, and then I am going to reread the Sherlock story, make some notes, and work on the revision some more.

My kitchen is also a complete and total disaster area, so I am going to have to do something about that as well.

We tried watching another crime show on Acorn last night but we couldn’t really follow it–there are a lot of disparate threads going on that will eventually come together into the main story, I assume, but at this point it’s hard to follow, and so we finally gave up on it and watched North by Northwest. I had never seen it, and maybe it was because I was so wonky and out of it yesterday, but I didn’t think it was that terrific. I did love the set-up; the whole mistaken identity thing and someone’s life gets terribly disrupted by getting accidentally involved in international intrigue, but it worked much better in The Man Who Knew Too Much. There are some great visuals, though–the crop duster chasing Cary Grant, the climactic scene on Mount Rushmore–but I never really bought into Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint falling in love, which also kind of spoils it. (Paul and I also enjoyed the fact that Cary Grant looked older than the woman playing his mother.)

So, as long as how I feel right now lasts, I’m going to try to get stuff done. I don’t feel nearly as good as I did on Friday–that was the best I’ve felt this year, I think–but at least this morning I am not feeling sick or exhausted, and I am counting that as a win. I need to stop thinking that once I feel better that it’s all over–same issue with that nagging back injury–and keep doing what it was that got my past feeling sick. For example, I am drinking water this morning before I have a cup of coffee, and I may only have the one cup rather than the three or four I usually do. Caffeine dehydrates, and if dehydration is the root cause of all of this, well, I need to cut it back until I am pretty certain the dehydration is no longer an issue, don’t I?

Still learning, after all these years, to deal with my impatience.

And on that note, I really need to get to work on this kitchen’s utter disaster before heading back into the spice mines. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader.

King of Rome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

3 investigators 1

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.

I Hope You Dance

New Orleans is almost completely shut down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chiseled in Stone

Sunday! It’s raining and gray outside this morning; I’m not sure (because I haven’t looked) what that means for today’s parades (Femme Fatale, Carrollton, and King Arthur–which is over fifty floats and loaded down with gay men, most of whom I know so I always get buried with beads), but I will take a look later. This morning i need to get some work done, and I need to make it to the gym for the start of week three of my workouts–which means today is three sets rather than two of everything. However, I decided it only made sense to cut the treadmill/cardio part of my workouts during parade season; it only makes sense, you know–as I am doing a lot of standing and jumping and walking during the parades. We only went to the night parades yesterday–Sparta and Pygmalion–because Paul was sleeping during the day (it’s festival crunch time, and he stays up really late working) and yes, I could have gone by myself–but it’s not as much fun without him. If the parades are–heaven forbid–rained out, then I will have a lot of free time to get things done, rather than trying to get them done before and after the parades.

Instead of parades yesterday afternoon, I spent most of the day writing some and finishing rereading Mary Higgins Clark’s Where Are the Children? It really is a hard book to put down, which was, of course, Mrs. Clark’s biggest strength as a writer–that, and her ability to tap into women’s biggest fears. I’m writing a rather lengthy post about the book already–so I won’t discuss it too much here. And if the parades are cancelled, I’ll probably get that finished today.

So, I intend to spend this morning prepping for the gym and answering emails, then when I get home from the gym I’ll get cleaned up and write some before the parades get here–if they are, indeed, coming; they might just be delayed. There aren’t any evening parades today, so of course they can all have their scheduled departures pushed back; they may also abandon the marching bands and walking crews to roll in the rain. I don’t know if we have the physical stamina to stand in the rain for four hours–neither one of us can risk getting sick at this point–but then again, there are overhanging balconies at the corner, so who knows? I guess I’ll judge how bad the weather is when I am walking to the gym this morning.

I also now have to make the all-important decision on what to read next. I think I’m going to take a break from books that I have to read and read something just for the fun of it, and I think I’m going to choose a cozy by a writer I’ve not read before. When I said I wanted to diversify my reading–and started, last year, doing so by reading more authors of color–I didn’t just mean reading books by authors marginalized by race or sexuality; I also meant books outside of what I generally read. I don’t read a lot of cozies, and I’m not exactly sure why that is; I’ve read Donna Andrews, Elaine Viets, Leslie Budewitz and others, but I am now questioning whether or not those actually qualified as cozies? I generally get cozies in the gift bags given out at conferences, and I do buy them from time to time–I support women writers, and I do feel like cozies are treated as somewhat less than by the crime  genre in general–and I also feel like it’s time to change that perception, and give cozies their due. I have an interesting looking one on hand from Ali Brandon, Double Booked for Murder, and I think that’s what I am going to read next. My cozy reading is woefully less than what it should be, and I want to start making up for that lost time. After that, I’ll probably move on back to the books I need to read and one of my reading projects, whether it’s the Reread Project or the Diversity Project (I am thinking Mary Stewart’s The Moonspinners is way overdue for a reread), or even, perhaps, some Cornell Woolrich.

Woolrich is one of those pulpy writers from the mid-twentieth century who wrote a lot of books and short stories, but was also a miserable alcoholic and a gay man who lived with his mother most of his life. He wrote the story Hitchcock adapted as Rear Window, and wrote several other important noir-esque pulpy novels. I had started reading The Night Has a Thousand Eyes a few years ago, but got sidetracked by something else–probably reading for an award–and never got back to it, which is a shame; I greatly enjoyed it, and I find Woolrich to be an interesting character. I wish I had the time and the energy and the wherewithal to devote more to writing nonfiction; I think a biography of Woolrich would make for interesting reading (I also have always wanted to do one of John D. MacDonald, but again–would I ever have the time to read his–or Woolrich’s, for that matter–entire canon? Not entirely likely; maybe once I’ve retired from the day job and have days to fill with writing and reading and research); I am also curious because it seems most writers from that time period–including Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald–all had drinking problems; as did Woolrich. I’m not surprised a gay man living in those times lapsed into alcoholism–it’s a wonder more gay men of my generation don’t have lingering addiction problems.

I’m still dealing with my creative ADD problem, alas; being aware that it’s going on and happening doesn’t make it easier to control. I just realized yesterday–as I was writing notes in my journal about another short story idea (“Die a Little Death”) that I’d also completely forgotten about “Never Kiss a Stranger”; which is still yet another long story (novella?) I am in process with, along with “Festival of the Redeemer,” and still another I’ve not pulled out and worked on in over a year. It’s absolutely insane how many works I currently have in some kind of progress, which means ninety-five percent of them will most likely never be finished or see print. (Well over a hundred short stories or novellas; I have at least four novel manuscripts in some sort of progress; and fragments of at least five other novels–and none of this is counting essays in progress, either…yeah, it’s unlikely that I will ever finish all of this. And still I persist. Just like I will never read all the novels I want to read, I will never finish writing everything I want to write. Sigh.)

All right, I’m going to go read for a little while before I brave the rain to go to the gym. Have a lovely Sunday, everyone.

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Sweet Freedom

Ah, Monday, which this week is my short day. I didn’t (of course) get as much done this weekend as I would have liked; but the truth of the matter is I really need a day to run errands and do chores–which exhausts me–and then another day to just chill out and relax to get ready for the next week. But I am not beating myself up over not getting things done as planned any more; a to-do list is merely a list of things that have to be done at some point, without deadlines and/or pressure. (Well, actual deadlines do have to be followed, but you know what I mean.) I did spend the weekend getting caught up on things I watch (Animal Kingdom) and some movies I’ve always meant to watch (The Faculty, which was amazingly and gloriously ridiculous) and an absolutely brilliant documentary about Psycho (78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene) and how it changed everything and influenced everything that came after it. It also called to mind how Anthony Perkins deserved the Best Actor Oscar that year and wasn’t even nominated–one of the biggest crimes in Oscar history.

I also did some reading; I read some short stories, which was fun, and I also read more of  Lou Berney’s November Road, which I am trying to read slowly, so as to savor every word and every moment. It really is brilliant; I have to say this is a top notch year in the world of crime fiction, with terrific novels being released left and right–this year has also seen Laura Lippman’s Sunburn and Alison Gaylin’s If I Die Tonight, with Lori Roy’s exceptional The Disappearing and Megan Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand being released this week, and so many amazing others I haven’t gotten to yet. My reading isn’t as public or as frequent this year as I would like, simply because I am judging an award yet again so am trying to focus on reading for that–hence the Short Story Project–and I worry that the great books are going to continue to stack up in my TBR pile, and thus defeat me in the process of ever catching up.

I really need to stop agreeing to judge prizes.

One of the stories I read yesterday was “Almost Missed It By A Hair” by Lisa Respers France, from Baltimore Noir, edited by Laura Lippman:

Had it not been his body in the huge box of fake hair, I like to think that Miles Henry would have been amused.

At least, the man I once knew would have seen the humor in it: a male stylist who made his fame as one of the top hair weavers in Baltimore discovered in a burial mound of fake hair at the Hair Dynasty, the East Coast;s biggest hair-styling convention of the year. It had all the elements that guaranteed a front page in the Sunpapers, maybe even a blurb in the “Truly Odd News” sections of the nationals. Television reports swarmed the scene, desperate for a sound bite from anyone even remotely connected to Miles. Yes, it all would have been sweet nirvana to Miles, publicity hound that he was. If he had lived to see it.

I knew him pretty well. I knew him when he was Henry Miles, the only half-black half-Asian guy in Howard Park, our West Baltimore neighborhood. His exotic looks ensured that he never wanted for female attention, although they also made him a target for the wannabe thugs who didn’t much cotton to a biracial pretty boy spouting hiphop lyrics. He was a few years older than I was, so our paths crossed only rarely. Besides, he was the neighborhood hottie and I was a shy chubby teenager with acne. The different in our social statures, as well as the difference in our ages, limited us to the socially acceptable dance of unequals. Meaning, I stared at him and he didn’t know I was alive. It was only when we were grown and found ourselves cosmetology competitors that we began to talk to each other.

This is a great story, and yet again further proof of how important the voices of diverse writers are. A murder that takes place at a convention for African-American hair and nail technicians? And frankly, I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a short story as much as I enjoyed this one. I know nothing –or at least, very little– about African-American hair, although I know it’s a very fraught issue. But from the wonderful opening of the discovery of a dead man’s body in a box of fake hair all the way through the finish, the authorial voice is strong, and what makes it even stronger is how she deftly explains, in a non-info-dumpish way, about weaves and wigs and styles and hair sculpting and everything that goes into what women of color deal with when it comes to hair.

Brilliant, and brava.

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Got a Hold on Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nah, she just popped a molly.

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

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

“I was in an accident,” Newsome said.

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

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

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

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

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I Just Fall in Love Again

Monday, and I have the day off. This is day three of my four-day weekend, and it feels lovely. I feel incredibly rested, and I even woke up early this morning–earlier than I have the last two days, at any rate–and so clearly, the chamomile tea last night was enormously helpful in getting me to sleep.

I finished cleaning the downstairs yesterday, and today I will be tackling the upstairs. There’s only so much I can do upstairs without rearranging or moving things, and I am not sure how well that will go over once Paul returns, so instead I am going to just clean and organize and perhaps empty out drawers and so forth before tackling the floors. I’ve done absolutely nothing as far as working on the revisions are concerned, but I am going to do that today. Yesterday I repaired to my easy chair and finished watching season one of MTV’s Scream. I’m not really sure why Paul and I stopped watching; I do know at the time the MTV app on Apple TV was kind of wonky, and for some reason we didn’t care very much for the characters. But picking up on it last night, I found myself really enjoying going for the ride. Maybe it’s because we were watching them as they aired originally? Maybe Scream works better as a binge? I’m not sure one way or the other, but I do know that I’ll have it on while I am cleaning the upstairs. And I still have yet another day off! How wonderful is that?

I did make some notes on some ideas I have for short stories in progress yesterday while I was watching Scream; I also watched a documentary on HBO about the Children of God religious cult; apparently there’s a completely different documentary on Netflix about this cult, focusing on different victims. Who knew? But watching gave me the idea for a story (of course) so I scribbled down some notes on it as well. I have yet to get back to Tomato Red, but I will probably do that today; taking an hour to revise than an hour to read, giving up on both around five, at which point I will repair upstairs and start cleaning while watching Season 2 of Scream. 

I’d hoped to get more reading done this weekend, but hey, there’s only so much time, right?

Before going to bed every night I’ve been rereading an old favorite, The Secret of Terror Castle. One of my favorite kids’ series was always The Three Investigators; although back when I was a child Alfred Hitchcock got star billing in the series, despite rarely appearing in the books themselves. The books were ‘introduced’ by Hitchcock, and there was always a final chapter where the boys met with Hitchcock, discussed the finer points of the case with him, and he asked some questions that weren’t necessarily explained in the narrative. This quite naturally caused problems when Hitchcock died; they replaced him with a fictional author, and by the time several books with this author character were published, I had aged out of the series and moved on to other reading material. I think they even replaced the writer with someone else even later, and I would imagine they had to redo the first books that had Hitchcock, since they were now dated. But The Secret of Terror Castle is even more dated than one would think; it was predicated on the idea that a silent film star’s manager and business partner would still not only be alive, but young enough to be physically active and not seem ancient to three thirteen-year-old boys. Since the silent film era was phased out in the early 1930’s–even being generous and saying it lasted until 1932 would mean that it was eighty-five years ago, and anyone old enough to be a business manager in 1932 would be well over one hundred now! The books are out of print now, and hard to find–again, my childhood collecting days has a nest-egg of sorts in my kids’ series books, which I could always sell on eBay should I ever need cash.

But as I’ve been rereading The Secret of Terror Castle these last few nights–a chapter or two per night, as I am falling asleep–I am again struck by how well-written and well-plotted the books are. The Three Investigators–originally the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Series, then Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators, finally just The Three Investigators–were each individuals, developed and well-rounded, never acting out of character–and there was also a strong sense of continuity throughout the entire series (I’ve never finished reading the series; when it stopped being hardcover and went to paperback originals, I stopped; the writing in the later books wasn’t as tight and the plots not as well thought out, or I was older–but rereading the books as an older man who also happens to be a mystery writer, The Secret of Terror Castle is certainly holding up); there weren’t the continuity mistakes that riddled, say, Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and the Dana Girls–which had everything to do with transitions from original text to revisions. The Three Investigators always had to solve a mystery; following clues that often took them from a basic case–a search for a missing parrot, for example, that led them to an entire series of parrots, all trained to speak a single clue. All the clues had to be put together, and then their meaning figured out; so a lost treasure could be found (this was The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot), and I’ve always loved treasure hunts. Often times, the keys to solving the mystery lie in the boys’ abilities to observe things that they didn’t think about at the time, but later didn’t make sense–a little boy’s gold tooth led to the solution of The Mystery of the Vanishing Treasure, for example–but again, the problem with the series later was getting past the death of Hitchcock, and the books becoming a little dated with changes in technology and so forth. Even when I first read The Secret of Terror Castle, when I was about twelve, it couldn’t really be current because, as mentioned before, the manager would have been borderline too old–at least older than he appeared to be in the text.

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I picked the book up again, really, because I watched Truffaut Hitchcock, a short documentary on HBO the other night about the famous week-long interview Francois Truffaut conducted with Hitchcock about every film in his long career, his direction of them, and his vision for each film. These interviews became a book, and a very influential one, according to some of the directors in the documentary who talked about reading it and being influenced by it when they were young–including Scorsese, Bogdonavich, and Fincher. I’ve also been thinking about how, when I was a kid, there were all these anthologies with Hitchcock’s name on them–Alfred Hitchcock Presents Tales to Terrify You, that sort of thing. Hitchcock of course simply had licensed his name for these books–like he had with The Three Investigators–and of course, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, which still exists today. (I imagine those anthologies were stories collected from the magazine.) Getting a story into AHMM is on my bucket list…and of course, I’ve never submitted anything to them. As this year is ‘cross things off my bucket list’ year, I’m going to submit something to them–one of these stories I am working on hopefully; if not, maybe something new I haven’t started working on yet. The documentary is quite good, by the way–I highly recommend it. Listening to Truffaut and Hitchcock discuss movie-making–story telling–can also be useful to writers.

Man, would I love to reboot The Three Investigators! When I was a kid, I wanted to write one, or a Hardy Boys, or a Nancy Drew. I also wanted to write my own kids’ mystery series. Maybe I should put those on the bucket list?

And now, it’s back to to the spice mines.