Rhythm is Gonna Get You

Thanksgiving Eve is here, and I am about to make my famous mac’n’cheese for the office potluck. Yes, I am going into the office on one of my vacation days, but there are worse things I could do. I have some errands to run today anyway, so after I leave the office I shall run them. It’s also payday, so I get to spend a moment or two or three paying the bills this morning. Yay? I guess I should just be grateful I can pay the bills, right? I have a book to pick up at the library and the mail, and I should also stop and get some groceries while I am out; not a major shopping expedition–perhaps enough to get us through until Saturday, as I am not going anywhere near any place to shop on Friday.

That would be madness.

And while that will make a dent in my day, it’s fine. I’ll just do some cleaning and organizing–my electronic files, particularly in the cloud, where I just throw things with a flippant I’ll worry about organizing them later mentality on an almost daily basis, with the end result that the files are a complete and utter mess. I also want to get some more work done on reimagining the current book. I’m now torn as to whether the first chapter is necessary or not; or if I should simply start the book with his arrival at Birmingham airport. There’s something a bit cliche about starting a book with your main character arriving at an airport, and that also would mean a shit ton of back story to shoehorn in, so that it all makes sense–so there, I’ve just worked that out in real time, see how a writer works? I struggled with revising the first chapter yesterday, so naturally my mind went to, this is hard maybe I can just cut the chapter. 

Always, always, always looking for the easiest, laziest way to do something. Shameful, really.

I also managed to waste some time yesterday trying to track down George Washington Cable’s stories about Madame LaLaurie. A post by the Preservation Resource Center here about the LaLaurie house on Facebook yesterday led me down into that wormhole; I shared the post along with the comment I am going to write about the LaLaurie house of horrors someday (see: Monsters of New Orleans) and someone commented that Cable had written short stories about Madame LaLaurie (who is probably most famous outside of New Orleans due to her being a character on American Horror Story: Coven, played by Kathy Bates), and so then I went for a deep dive, trying to see if I could find copies of the stories on-line. I got sidetracked into Project Gutenberg for a while, where I found his novella Madame Delphine, which was NOT about Delphine LaLaurie. I did eventually find the stories I was looking for, and will read them at some point.

Cable is not the only writer from the past to write about New Orleans and Louisiana history that I’ve not read; I’ve also not read much of Arnett Kane or Robert Tallant or Lafcadio Hearn or Lyle Saxon; some, but not much. I’m not entirely sure they are completely trustworthy as sources, but I am going to read them for ideas at the very least. I also need to spend some time at the Williams Research Center and the Historic New Orleans Collection, as well as the Louisiana Research Center at Tulane. I’m greatly enjoying these little journeys into New Orleans’ past that I’ve been taking over the last year; I am still reading Richard Campanella’s Bourbon Street, which is giving me a definite feel for colonial New Orleans, which is going to be enormously helpful.

Especially for this Sherlock Holmes in New Orleans short story I’ve agreed to write; which will also entail reading some Holmes stories, to get a feel for the vibe and the tone and the voice. I’m enormously fortunate that I have two dear friends who are Sherlockians, and have agreed to read my story before I turn it in for pointers and notes and so forth.

And on that note, perhaps it’s time for me to head into the spice mines. I have a lot of cheese to grate for the mac’n’cheese….have a lovely day, Constant Reader!

12715213_1024357524291934_3489297474571056252_n

People Everyday

Hulu is streaming a two-part true crime documentary about a string of unsolved murders of women in Jefferson Davis Parish, Murder in the Bayou. I have a copy of Ethan Brown’s book of the same title, released a few years ago, but haven’t read it yet (instead, it’s sits on a shelf in the mini-bookcase to the right of my desk, where I also keep other nonfiction–histories, true crime, cultural studies–about both New Orleans and Louisiana; books which I delve into periodically in order to come up with ideas for stories (novels and short stories and novellas, etc.), or background for the same. (One of the many reasons I laugh when people refer to me as ‘a New Orleans expert’ is because I am everything but an expert on the city; there are literally hundreds of volumes of reference books information about New Orleans I’ve not read and know nothing about)  Mr. Brown came to the Tennessee Williams Festival a few years ago, but I didn’t get to meet him or see any of his panels, but I did pick up his book that weekend.

So, you can imagine my surprise the other night when I opened the Hulu app on my television (ten years ago that sentence would have been as unintelligible to me as Latin) and I saw it listed as a show I might be interested in. “Huh,” I thought, clicking on it, “I wonder if this is the same story as the book I’ve not read?”

Sure enough, it was.

I finished watching the show yesterday afternoon, and then of course, got the book from the bookshelf and started reading it…and didn’t stop until I was finished. I hadn’t intended to do that; I actually started writing this post after I finished watching the documentary series and simply reached over to the bookcase and pulled it out–mainly to see if there were photographs in it–many true crime books do–and since it didn’t, I started reading…and then couldn’t stop. I’ll talk some more about both the documentary and the book in another entry; I want to think about it some more, and the issues that came to mind while watching/reading–but again, as I said earlier, it was yet another example of how little I know about not just New Orleans, but Louisiana in general. As I read more New Orleans history, and get to know my city better with each read, I find myself expanding my former-tunnel vision view focusing on New Orleans only to expand out into Louisiana as well. It’s a truly fascinating state, really–as someone said in the documentary, there are three Louisianas: New Orleans; north Louisiana; which is really part of the Protestant Bible Belt and could just as easily be part of Arkansas; and south Louisiana, which is overwhelmingly French and Catholic; heavily Cajun, in all honesty. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Atchafalaya basin, too; I sort of have an idea about writing about that area. Most of my Louisiana fiction has been confined to writing about New Orleans, or places on the I-10 corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and sometimes dabbling on the North Shore. I am sure every state has just as rich and diverse and colorful a history as Louisiana/New Orleans; but I also don’t live there, and Louisiana with its strange mix of Creoles, Cajuns, Spanish, and Americans, with the attendant cultures, brews up a strange and endlessly fascinating gumbo.

I realized also yesterday while going through my blog drafts that I have never published my blog entry about reading Gary Krist’s Empire of Sin, which was what sent me down the Louisiana/New Orleans history rabbit hole in the first place.

empire of sin

“The crime,” as detectives would later tell the newspapers, was “one of the most gruesome in the annals of the New Orleans police.”

At five a.m. on the sultry morning of May 23, 1918, the bodies of Joseph and Catherine Maggio, Italian immigrants who ran a small grocery store in a remote section of the city, were found sprawled across the disordered bedroom of the living quarters behind their store. Both had been savagely attacked, apparently while they slept. Joseph Maggio lay face-up on the blood-sodden bed, his skull split by a deep, jagged gash several inches long; Catherine Maggio, her own skull nearly hewn in two, was stretched out on the floor beneath him. Each victim’s throat had been slashed with a sharp instrument.

A blood-smeared ax and shaving razor–obviously the murder weapons–had been found on the floor nearby.

The book opens with an examination of the strange case of New Orleans’ most famous serial killer: the Axeman. Julie Smith wrote an entire novel  based in the story called The Axeman’s Jazz; it might be the second or third Skip Langdon novel. Poppy Z. Brite wrote a short story with the same name, and of course, American Horror Story: Coven also included the Axeman in its litany of past New Orleans horrors–in the Ryan Murphy version, he stumbled into the Robicheaux School for Girls (read: witches) and they killed him; his ghost haunting the house ever since. The mystery of the Axeman’s identity, of course, has never been solved–as well as the why.

Empire of Sin, however, isn’t about the Axeman entirely; it’s really a history of the Storyville district (again, another notorious part of New Orleans history, probably best known for its appearance in the Louis Malle film Pretty Baby, which probably, with its creepy pedophilia, wouldn’t hold up too well today), and really focuses on the man known as the mayor of Storyville, Tom Anderson, who rose to great wealth, notoriety, and political power through his successful bordellos there–even going so far as to providing the district with its own police force. It’s a story of immorality, the struggle between reformers trying to turn New Orleans into a city free from sin (they won small victories but New Orleans remains New Orleans to this day) and Anderson’s struggle against those “virtuous reforms.” He eventually failed, and Storyville was shut down, but Krist tells a fascinating story, extrapolating his tale of Storyville’s struggle to stay open and functioning (the money being made there brought with it the ability to, of course, buy off the police and politicians), along with the stories of corruption, murder, prostitution, violence and racism extant in the city at the time. It’s also a story of how Storyville also, surprisingly enough, gave birth to jazz music, and provided a way for musicians of color to make a successful living playing music. Storyville was the incubator that provided sustenance to the musicians playing this new form of popular music, enabling them to make a living while developing a wholly American form of music.

Reading Empire of Sin is what sent me down the road to reading history, as I said before, and as I love history, it also made me aware of just how little about New Orleans I actually do know. Discovering little throwaway bits in the book–that there were male prostitutes who serviced men with “more exotic tastes”–reminded me of how frequently, and almost completely, queer history has been successfully erased, and that made me start thinking about, well, doing something more about it. Reading this book inspired two short stories I’ve not finished–“The Blues before Dawn” and “A Little More Jazz for the Axeman”–and also inspired a potential series set during the time. It’s also what gave me the idea for my collection of noir/crime/horror stories that I want to write, Monsters of New Orleans.

I cannot recommend Empire of Sin highly enough.