Here I Go Again

Facing down yet another Monday like a beast.

I went to bed early last night–just watching the Nadal-Medvedev final in the US Open was exhausting, in addition to the emotional rollercoaster of the LSU-Texas game the previous night, and putting finishing touches on the volunteer project (we’ll be tying up loose ends all week, I suspect), and around nine-ish last night I was just worn out, and went to bed. I slept off and on all night–not sure how that’s going to play out today–but I guess we’ll see. I have two long days in a row for the first time in a few weeks, and I fear my body is no longer used to that abuse…but I guess we’ll see. Now that I have a half-day on Wednesday instead, it might make things easier for me in the middle of the week.

Here’s hoping, at any rate.

I printed out the first four chapters of the final rewrite of the Kansas book last night, and it’s better than I thought it would be–the chapters I’ve already done need some work, and I need to seed the rest of the story a bit more. I’m trying something different with it–just as I did in Bury Me in Shadows, which is first person present tense–I am trying to do this in a remote third person point of view in the present tense. I noticed that despite my attempts to keep it in present tense, I slipped into the past tense a number of times out of force of habit, which is one of the reasons why I am writing this in the present tense; I want to not only shake things up for me as a writer, but break the habits of doing things the same way every time. I want to continually push myself as a writer and as a story-teller, and the best way to do that is to expand and try different things, different styles, different methods of storytelling, different ways of presenting the narrative and writing different kinds of crime novels. Laura Lippman is a master of this; her last few novels have all been dramatically different in style, voice, tone, and presentation–After I’m Gone, Wilde Lake, Sunburn, and Lady in the Lake–there’s definitely a Lippman sensibility to them, but the stories and storytelling and construction of the books are all dramatically different. That’s kind of what I want to do with my own stand-alone novels; I’ll probably always come back to Scotty, and as I’ve said recently, there’s another Chanse novel I’m probably going to try to write sometime next year–but the entire point of the stand alones was to do different things and experiment with style as well as story and writing.

But now that all that’s left is wrap-up on the volunteer project–thank the Lord, you have no idea what an enormous venture this was–I can start getting caught up this week on everything else that has slid while I focused all of my prodigious energy on getting it finished. I love doing volunteer work; I often take things on that I shouldn’t, as they interfere with my writing and staying on top of everything else in my life, but I like helping out. One of the primary reasons I love my day job so much is because I feel like I’m helping people make positive changes in their life, and at the very least I am helping people get STI’s cleared up, if nothing else. I need to finish an essay by this weekend, and I have to finish a first draft of a short story that’s due by the end of the month. I’d also like to get some work on the Kansas book done–it may not be finished when I want it to be finished, but that’s also life, and I am certain I can get it finished, at the latest, in December. I also remembered I have a novella a publisher is interested in that I need to get to work on; it’s a long short story but there are any number of places where it can be expanded easily, and so I should be looking at that as well.

This has been, all in all, a pretty good year for me–I had a short story collection come out in the spring and a novel this month–and while I’d like to get both of these novels that are in progress finished and out by next year as well, I don’t think that’s going to happen, which is perfectly okay. Bury Me in Shadows took me a lot longer than I intended to get finished, and that’s perfectly okay; it happens. But I also think I can get a strong revision of it finished this December, and then I can get it turned in for January; a strong push and the Kansas book can be turned in at the end of January, and hopefully by then, doing a chapter a week,  I can also have a strong first draft of Chlorine finished as well. I also want to get more short stories written, as I would love nothing more than to have another collection out sooner rather than later. I’m also nominated for an Anthony Award for my short story “Cold Beer No Flies” from Florida Happens, which is pretty awesome; I sold my short story “This Town” to Murder-a-Go-Go’s (and the story was received pretty well by most reviewers; probably the most, and best, feedback after publication I’ve ever had on a short story) and I also sold my story “Moist Money” to Dark Yonder, which I’m pretty pleased about.

I’m still reading both Rob Hart’s The Warehouse, which I hope to have more time to read now that the volunteer project is under some sort of control, and  James Gill’s Lords of Misrule, which is giving me a rather pointed history of racism in New Orleans, and it’s not pretty. We New Orleanians know there’s still systemic racism here in the city, as well as individual racism, but the history of slavery and racism in New Orleans is unique to this place and different than everywhere else; we had an entire middle-class of free people of color before the war, who weren’t obviously slaves but had to show deference to white people and were segregated out of places frequented by whites; Barbara Hambly’s brilliant Benjamin January series, beginning with A Free Man of Color, and Anne Rice’s The Feast of All Saints, are excellent fictional representations of that weird second-class citizenship the free people of color of New Orleans and Louisiana experienced. It’s still appalling, though, to read about lynch mobs and murderers never brought to proper justice for their crimes. Stained in blood as it is, New Orleans has a fascinating history, and has always been one of the more interesting places in this country.

And tomorrow is officially my new book’s birthday! Huzzah!

And now back to the spice mines.

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I’d Die Without You

I have always been amazed at how uninterested Americans–particularly the ones who worship symbols like the flag, the national anthem, etc.–are in learning, and learning from, our shared history as a country.

This observation is not, by the one, a partisan one, despite my comment about American symbols; the vast majority of Americans, no matter how they fall politically, have little to no interest in our history…and thus, we are doomed to repeat it, over and over again.

Friday, as is my wont, I chose to take comfort in rereading some history; in particular, the Dred Scott v. Sandford Supreme Court decision.

Everyone knows the name, and everyone knows what the ruling was. Historians and jurists both agree it was without question the worst Supreme Court ruling in our history, and it certainly deserves every degree of vilification it has received since it entered our collective history, if not more.

Essentially, the case was about this: Dred Scott was a slave whose owners had taken him into free states, and therefore, by living in a free state, was entitled to his freedom. The case, from beginning to end, went on for nearly twenty years. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Roger B, Taney, threw the case out based on these legal considerations:

  1.  Negroes could not be United States citizens, therefore they could not sue in federal courts;
  2. the laws of Illinois could not affect him in Missouri, where he now lived;
  3. his residence in Minnesota Territory north of the Missouri Compromise line could not confer freedom because the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional.

The Missouri Compromise was legislation reached in attempt to settle the slavery question; Missouri was allowed into the Union as a slave state, but a line was drawn across the continent below Missouri. Anything new state or territory above the line was free; anything below slavery was legal. This ruling essentially said that slavery followed the flag, and any anti-slavery laws in states in the north did not apply to slaves brought into those states or territories.

Taney’s ruling in the first part was actually even worse than quoted above (from Robert Leckie’s The Wars of America, a really good summary of each war the United States has participated in, through Vietnam); his actual ruling said “Negroes and descendants of slaves.” There were more free people of color living in the United States than most people commonly suppose; in New Orleans, they were an entire class of society, with rules and etiquette and customs (an excellent mystery series is Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series, set in New Orleans in the 1830’s; Benjamin is a free man of color and went to medical school in Paris, but as a black man he cannot practice in the United States. Anne Rice also wrote a terrific novel about the free people of color, The Feast of All Saints). This ruling invalidated their citizenship–it might have been second-class, but it was still citizenship nonetheless. The newly elected president, James Buchanan, connived with Taney to come up with the ruling, and put pressure on other justices to agree to the ruling, thinking it would end the slavery question once and for all.

Needless to say, it did not settle the slavery question. Instead, it inflamed passions on both sides, with the almost inevitable election of Abraham Lincoln, secession, and civil war.

Taney remained chief justice until he died in 1864, and is known to history as one of our worst Supreme Court justices. The Dred Scott decision lives on in infamy, even if most people don’t really know what the case was about, what it’s background was, and what happened because of it. During the Civil War, both Lincoln and Congress not only ignored Taney but the rest of the Supreme Court as well. Lifetime appointments, you see, and pro-slavery justices appointed to appease the slave-owning southern states–they could not trust the court to be impartial–which they showed they were definitely not in the Dred Scott case–and it took decades for the court to regain its luster and credibility.

Which, of course, they proceeded to destroy again in the 1890’s with the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which essentially legalized segregation. It wasn’t until Brown v. Topeka Board of Education that the arc of American justice began to bend away from racism, bigotry, and legalized discrimination.

I also had a brief moment of hilarity yesterday when I imagined what social media might have looked like (had it existed) in the 1850’s, with the abolitionists and the proslavery people fighting about the legality of owning people.

Someone had posted, about a year ago, somewhere about something about how we all need to pull together as Americans!!! The country has never been this divided!!!

The excess of unnecessary punctuation should give you an idea of where the poster fell on the political spectrum.

That was, however, one of the few times I broke my rule of “do not engage on social media” and replied, The hundreds of thousands killed in the Civil War would beg to differ with that statement.

There has always been a divide in this country; rural v. urban, rich v. poor, conservative v. progressive. Our country has never quite lived up to the lofty ideals it was founded upon; slavery was written into the Constitution, the Supreme Court ruled it legal and then later legalized segregation. Religious, gender, racial and sexuality-based bigotry continue to this day.

That divide will always be there, and sometimes it’s more rancorous than others. We are living in a particularly rancorous time; but if you look back through American history, as I tend to do, you will see that rancor and hatred between opposing opinions has always existed.

Everyone knows that George Washington, for example, had wooden teeth. But in the eighteenth century dentistry was not what it is today and dental hygiene and health was almost primitive. It was very rare for anyone past the age of forty in that time to actually keep their teeth. They all wore false teeth. Washington’s just fit him poorly, and newspapers that resisted his presidency mocked him for his bad dentures. So, George Washington’s teeth have entered American lore and everyone knows that about the first president.

As a nation, we really need to know and understand our history better.

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Freedom

Thursday. I don’t have to go in until later today, which is nice; it gives me the morning to slowly wake up and get going. I didn’t sleep well last night for some reason so I am going to be really tired this evening; which is fine, I suppose. Maybe I’ll sleep well tonight, who knows? Paul came home just as I was getting ready to go to bed, which was nice. Normality, such as it is, has returned to the Lost Apartment. I started reading William J. Mann’s Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood. It won the Edgar several years ago for Best Fact Crime, and I’ve been wanting to read it for years. I’ve know Bill for years–I was also there at the Edgars the night he won–and have always enjoyed his work.

I started writing that short story “Burning Crosses” yesterday, and am trying really hard to not allow fear to stop me from working on it. I think it could be a really good story, but…it’s also potentially a dangerous one to try to tell. but I can’t let fear of reaction stop me from working on something. That’s just not a good thing, you know?

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“Everyone in Venice is acting,” Count Girolamo Marcello told me. “Everyone plays a role, and the role changes. The key to understanding Venetians is rhythim–the rhythm of the lagoon, the rhythm of the water, the tides, the waves…”

I had been walking along Calle della Mandola when I ran into Count Marcello. He was a member of an old Venetian family and was considered an authority on the history, the social structure, and especially the subtleties of Venice. As we were both heading in the same direction, I joined him.

“The rhythm in Venice is like breathing,” he said. “High water, high pressure: tense. Low water, low pressure: relaxed. Venetians are not at all attuned to the rhythm of the wheel. That is for other places, places with motor vehicles. Ours is the rhythm of the Adriatic. The rhythm of the sea. In Venice the rhythm flows along with the tide, and the tide changes every six hours.”

Count Marcello inhaled deeply. “How do you see a bridge?”

“Pardon me?” I asked. “A bridge?”

“Do you see a bridge as an obstacle–as just another set of steps tp climb to get from one side of a canal to the other? We Venetians do not see bridges as obstacles. To us bridges are transitions. We go over them very slowly. They are part of the rhythm. They are the links between two parts of a theater, like changes in scenery, or like the progression from Act One of a play to Act Two. Our role changes as we go over a bridge. We cross from one reality…to another reality. From one street….to another street. From one setting…to another setting.”

I love Venice. We spent a mere twenty-four hours there on our trip to Italy several years ago, taking the train from the magnificent station in Florence through the Italian countryside north and then across the lagoon to the Venetian station. I walked ahead of Paul through that Italian station, unable to wait to catch my first glimpse of the city from the top of the stairs rising from the piazza and vaporetto station on the Grand Canal.

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I was enchanted from that first glimpse.

I’d always wanted to visit Venice–ever since reading Daphne du Maurier’s brilliant story “Don’t Look Now” and seeing the film version, which is incredible–and also Anne Rice’s Cry to Heaven. Seeing Venice, even if was only for twenty-four hours, was wonderful. We were also incredibly lucky because Venice wasn’t crowded; apparently that’s become a huge problem (goo.gl/ePMQjT). It was even a problem when Berendt was writing The City of Falling Angels.

The title comes from a sign Berendt saw one day while strolling around Venice, near an old church that was crumbling and in need of restoration: BEWARE OF FALLING ANGELS. Apparently, the statues of angels on the sides of the church and along the rooftop had become loose with the rotting of the masonry, and one had fallen, almost hitting a pedestrian. The book reminded me so much of Venice, and why the city had enchanted me during my all-too-brief visit. I want to write about Venice; I’ve been toying with a story for years, and as I am just now starting to write my Panzano story, maybe I will soon write the Venice story.

Anyway, Berendt is best-known, of course, for his book about Savannah: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which I read decades ago when it was new. I enjoyed it; it was an examination of the quirks and curiosities of the city, built around the lens of a murder committed by a member of Savannah society. The City of Falling Angels is the same type of book, only viewed around the lens, not of a murder, but the burning of the Fenice Opera House. It did turn out to be a crime; two men were convicted of arson, but Berendt uses the fire, the investigations, and the subsequent trial, to view Venice; and along the way he takes a look at the quirks, eccentricities, and curiosities of a place that, like Savannah, is quaint and historic and beautiful–yet also very small. A lot of the things he talks about in the book–the concerns of locals that Venice is no longer for the Venetians, that the city is losing its neighborhoods to tourism; that poorer and middle class Venetians are being pushed out in the name of tourism–are concerns that we locals now have about New Orleans, so that made the book even more interesting to me. When we were there, we stayed overnight at a wonderful little family run hotel just off the Rialto Bridge and on one of the side canals; the Hotel San Salvador. We, too, had a lengthy conversation with two of the young women working there–members of the ownership family–who told us the same thing: Venice is no longer for the Venetians. Their family can no longer afford to live in the city, despite owning a hotel there; they live on the mainland and commute into the city. Most of the city’s apartments are being bought up by foreigners who then rent them out to visitors, so it is also affecting business for establishments like the Hotel San Salvador. I loved the hotel, it was charming and quaint and cozy; I loved the second floor lounge overlooking the canal below, and the family who owned and operated it were so nice, friendly, and charming. If and when we return, we will undoubtedly stay there again.

I’ve met John Berendt exactly once; he was very nice, and I liked him. I like his books, too. My character, Jerry Channing, who appears in both The Orion Mask and Garden District Gothic, and whom I’ve considered spinning off into his own series, is based on him only in that he writes the same kinds of books and articles Berendt does; kind of a cross between Berendt and Dominick Dunne. (I still might spin Jerry off; a lot of my short stories, which have first-person narrators who are never identified, are told in what I imagine Jerry’s voice to be) In fact, Jerry’s biggest success is a book called Garden District Gothic (very meta of me), which is about the quirks and curiosities and eccentricities of New Orleans, viewed through the lens of a society murder in the Garden District. The Scotty novel that bears the same title is an investigation into that case twenty-five years later, in fact (again, very meta of me).

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Anyway,  I highly recommend The City of Falling Angels. I think I enjoyed it a lot more because I’d been to Venice, but it definitely made me want to go back. It’s very well-written, and a lot of fun to read.

And now back to the spice mines.

 

Rhinestone Cowboy

I do love witches. What would Halloween be without them? Of course, the caricature of witches that we see at Halloween–green skin, pointed hat, riding a broom, warts, huge crooked nose–was popularized into modern culture by The Wizard of Oz (if not, the Wicked Witch in that film was the personification of the popular culture’s conception of a witch); but, alas, my knowledge on the history of the perception of witches is not that terrific. I know that the concept of witchcraft has been around for a long time–witches are mentioned in the Bible–and have been around in the popular culture for quite some time; I watched Bewitched as a child; there’s Bell, Book, and Candle, and so much fiction about witches…and of course, I’ve read up on the Salem witch trials–and hasn’t everyone been forced to read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in high school? I am hoping that Lisa Morton, who has already co-authored a graphic novel with the late lamented Rocky Wood and illustrated by Greg Chapman called The Burning Times as well as definitive histories/non-fictions studies on both Halloween and ghosts, will also tackle witches.

But today, I am going to talk about Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour.

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The doctor woke up afraid. He had been dreaming of the old house in New Orleans again. He had seen the woman in the rocker. He’d seen the man with the brown eyes.

And even now in this quiet hotel room above New York City, he felt the old alarming disorientation. He’d been talking again with the brown-eyes man. Yes, help her.  No, this is just a dream. I want to get out of it.

The doctor sat up in bed. No sound but the faint roar of the air conditioner. Why was he thinking about it tonight in a hotel room in the Parker Meridien? For a moment he couldn’t shake the feeling of the old house. He saw the woman again–her bent head, her vacant stare. He could almost hear the hum of the insects against the screens of the old porch. And the brown-eyed man was speaking without moving his lips. A waxen dummy infused with life–

No, stop it.

He got out of bed and padded silently across the carpeted floor until he stood in front of the sheer white curtains, peering out at black sooty rooftops and dim neon signs flickering against brick walls. The early morning light showed behind the clouds above the dull concrete facade opposite. No debilitating heat here. No drowsing scent of roses, of gardenias.

Gradually, his head cleared.

I had read Interview with the Vampire when it first came out, back in the 1970’s, and honestly didn’t care for it. I had just read ‘salem’s Lot, and the concept of the vampire as hero didn’t appeal to me; it was just too foreign for me to wrap my head around (which is ironic, given my love for Dark Shadows, but I didn’t make the connection then between Louis and Barnabas). I picked it up again in the mid-1980’s, and felt the same way about it. I didn’t read anything else Mrs. Rice published, either, simply because I didn’t care for  Interview; then a friend who was a fan had me read The Mummy, which I greatly enjoyed. I had a hardcover copy of The Witching Hour–I don’t know why, to be honest–but after reading The Mummy I wanted to read something else by Mrs. Rice and remembered that I had a copy of this other one…

And could not put it down.

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The Witching Hour ostensibly tells the story of Rowan Mayfair and Michael Curry. Rowan is the latest in a long line of witches going back to the seventeenth century (but doesn’t know it), and she saves Michael from drowning, bringing him back to life. He comes back to life with a strange power–the ability to see things when he touches them; he starts wearing gloves. He also had a vision while he was dead that is somehow connected to Rowan–so he tracks her down and they begin a relationship that eventually leads them back to New Orleans and the Mayfair house, a decayed, ancient mansion in the Garden District when her mother, Dierdre, dies. Dierdre has been in a vegetative state for years; every day she was placed on a side porch of the mansion with the great Mayfair jewel around her neck that always belongs to The Mayfair; the woman who, in each generation, has the power. The brown-eyed man the doctor sees in the opening is Lasher, a spirit whose relationship to The Mayfair is sometimes in question; is he the source of their power, or is he playing some other type of game that The Mayfair is unaware of? The narrative flashes back and forth in time, telling the history of the Mayfair witches along with the romance of Michael and Rowan as they, with the help of the secret order of the Talamasca, try to determine what the truth about the Mayfair witches–and Lasher–is.

I loved this book so much; I always recommend it to people who want to read books about New Orleans, and always include it on lists of the best books set in New Orleans. It was this book that made me want to come back to New Orleans again; and you can imagine the thrill I got when a friend who lived here drove me to the corner of First and Chestnut and showed me the Mayfair house, which was actually where Mrs. Rice and her family lived. And it was exactly as she described it in the book; Dierdre’s porch was even there.

I’ve read every Anne Rice novel since then, and she also became one of the authors I always buy in hardcover. She is one of those writers you either love or you hate; those who love her work can be very rabid. It was when I was reviewing one of her later Vampire Chronicles (Blood and Gold) that I realized–it’s different when you read for review than when you read for pleasure–that so many reviewers/critics actually got what she does in her books wrong. Mrs. Rice writes about supernatural creatures–vampires, witches, werewolves, etc.–but she isn’t writing horror; she is writing romances in the classic sense of the word. In modern literature romance has come to mean something greatly different than what it meant classically; a romance novel was not a love story, per se, but a big sweeping epic tackling huge themes like life and death, war, peace, humanity, faith, spirituality; what Mrs. Rice was doing was using supernatural characters to expand and explore those themes, and she was writing in the style of the great romance writers of the nineteenth century, like Dumas and Hugo.

I’ve always meant to go back and reread all of her work with this in mind–which is how I’ve read her novels since that realization–but again, time. I am actually several novels behind on her work now–I’ve not read The Wolves of Winter or Prince Lestat, and she has another coming out this year as well.

I will never catch up.

And now, back to the spice mines.

Run, Joey, Run

Egypt. Land of the pharaohs, the bounty of the Nile. I’ve always loved, and been fascinated, by Egypt; I’m not sure why, or when it actually began, or what triggered it. It’s just always been. Maybe it’s a past-life thing, like my apparent fascination with Russian history and culture may have been (I was told be a psychic once that I’d lived as a Russian nobleman in a past life, eventually joining an Orthodox monastery after a long and fruitful life), if you believe in that sort of thing–I’m not sure that I do, and it’s not like I’ll ever know one way or another for sure.

But one thing that is true is that I’ve always been fascinated by Egypt; its history, its art, and its culture.

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Egypt was a mighty civilization and empire when our European ancestors were living in caves and trying to figure out how to start fires. No one is really certain how they were able to build the pyramids; there are theories, of course–I’ve always loved the Erich von Daniken theory that it was aliens (Chariots of the Gods?), which was later used in the movie Stargate, which I loved–and to this day, despite advances in archaeology and Egyptology and discoveries, we still don’t know a lot of about the ancient Egyptians.

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The burning of the Great Library of Alexandria during an Egyptian civil war during the time of Cleopatra VII (she is rarely given the number in modern times; we know her simply as Cleopatra), which had gathered all the knowledge of the ancient world, remains to me one of the greatest tragedies of history.

I’ve always dreamed of going to Egypt, to see the wonders there for myself. As I get older, the trips I’ve always longed for probably will never happen, but one day I do hope to get to the British Museum at the very least, to see the Egyptian treasures and artifacts there.

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So, what does Egypt have to do with horror month? Obviously, The Mummy.

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I saw the original film version of The Mummy as an afternoon movie after school; naturally, as a young Egyptophile how was I not going to watch it once I saw it in the television listings? I don’t remember the movie scaring me that much; I thought it was a great movie–but I never watched the sequels. In this movie, of course, some Egyptologists had found the tomb of Imhotep, who had been buried alive for some sacrilege, but became reanimated–the Scroll of Thoth had given him immortality (again, a similar plot device was used in The Cat Creature) and was now looking for the reincarnation of his great love Ankhesenamun (which was also the name of Tutankamen’s wife and queen; the tomb had only been discovered a mere eleven years earlier than when the film was made). It was clever, I thought, and you couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry for him.

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The 1999 film The Mummy used a lot of the same concepts as the 1933–Imhotep being brought back to life (this time by the Book of the Dead) and looking for his lost love Ankhesenamun–but this Imhotep was definitely a villain. The movie was also done as a period piece, with my crush Brendan Fraser in the lead as a kind of Indiana Jones-style adventurer. Both it, and its sequel, The Mummy Returns, were fun movies that I greatly enjoyed.

Mummies, and Egyptian antiquities, are often used for popular fiction; maybe sometime I should do an extensive study on this. My favorite Robin Cook novel is Sphinx ; I love Allen Drury’s Amarna novels A God Against the Gods and Return to Thebes; there’s the AMAZING Amelia Peabody series by the late always lamented Elizabeth Peters; the Hardy Boys themselves even had some Egyptian-related cases; Agatha Christie set Death Comes as the End in ancient Egypt and Death on the Nile in contemporary Egypt; The Three Investigators solved The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy; and Anne Rice also wrote Ramses the Damned, or The Mummy.

Hell, even Scooby Doo Where Are You? had an episode about a mummy.

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Anne Rice’s The Mummy was a book I greatly enjoyed; I intend to reread it soon.

I’ve always wanted to do an Egyptian book; I’ve always wanted to do a mummy style book.

Maybe someday.