All You Had to Do Was Stay

Ironically, yesterday when I was talking about vampires, I buried my own lede; I actually have done some vampire fiction myself. (Clearly, I am terrible at this self-promotion/marketing thing.)

When I first moved to New Orleans, the city was somehow synonymous in my mind with vampires, which was primarily due to Anne Rice’s novels. This doesn’t, on its face, make that much sense; the novels are, for the most part, set in various other places around the world more so than in New Orleans. Louis, the main character of Interview with the Vampire, is from Louisiana, and he encounters Lestat and is turned originally in New Orleans–and while there are passages in the book set here and in Louisiana, the story itself is being told to the reporter in San Francisco. The Vampire Chronicles themselves occasionally return to New Orleans; but for the most part the stories themselves rarely take place here. (It would actually make more sense for me to have had that association from Anne Rice’s work made between New Orleans and witches; as most of The Witching Hour takes place in New Orleans.) After moving here I also discovered local author Poppy Z. Brite; his novel Lost Souls might actually be the definitive New Orleans vampire story. Since that well–New Orleans vampires–had been drawn from so often, so well, and so memorably by other authors already, I never really thought about writing vampire stories set in New Orleans. How could I compete with either Rice (with her legions of adoring fans) or Brite (with his smaller but equally adoring fan base)?

I was writing the Scotty series for Kensington when my editor there suggested I write a vampire novella for a collection they were doing called Midnight Thirsts; they had already done one volume of gay-themed erotic vampire stories that did very well for them, and I was enormously flattered to be asked to write one. As is my wont, when I started writing “The Nightwatchers” I began to slowly create an entire universe of supernatural beings, with rules; it actually grew from an original story I had written several years earlier with a female main character that was set in a theater group; more talented than the woman who always got the lead roles, she and her other actors believed that the woman getting the leads was sleeping with the director; one night at rehearsal a mysterious man shows up in the back of the theater, later approaches the main character and somehow–I don’t remember this part–shows her that her suspicions are true, and promises her eternity; she accepts his gift and then uses her new power to kill the director and the lead actress. It wasn’t a very good story, frankly, and was poorly thought out and poorly written, but it contained a structure that I wanted to use for “The Nightwatchers.” Several thousand words into the rewrite/adaptation I realized it didn’t work, so I got rid of the theater company and turned my gay male lead into a hustler who lived in one of those wonderful old decaying buildings in the Quarter, where you used to be able to get cheap rent if you didn’t mind rotting and tilted floors, insects, poor insulation, cracks in the walls, gaps around the windows, and staircases on the verge of collapse. His best friend, Rachel, lived in the same building in the apartment across the landing from his; she worked at a coffee shop on Frenchmen Street in the Marigny. One night while Rachel is working–one of those wonderful foggy winter nights in the city–an older man with a foreign accent is in the shop and she’s waiting for him to leave so she can close. Philip, meantime, is off to a regular client in Uptown New Orleans. Philip is, unbeknownst to him, being stalked by a vampire; the old man is a “Nightwatcher,” who is aware the vampire is after Philip and is enlisting Rachel’s help to save him.

It’s actually not a bad story, really; (I was rereading it because I couldn’t remember many of the details, like character names and so forth) I had even considered writing an entire novel based on the premise, in which this would serve as the introduction..but I never got around to it. Life has a habit of interrupting my plans.

A few years later, when I was asked to write another novella, this time using the Todd Gregory name, for Midnight Hunger, I wrote “Blood on the Moon,” and used a lot of the same concepts I had originally used for “The Nightwatchers.” (I had originally planned on having Philip, who was turned in “The Nightwatchers,” be the vampire my main character encountered in the Quarter during Carnival; but since I was using a different name, didn’t see any point in trying to link them other than using that same universe.) And since I was writing the “fratboy” books as Todd Gregory, I made the guys down in New Orleans for Carnival fratboys from my fictional fraternity’s Ole Miss chapter. Cord Logan was the main character, and he falls in with a fraternity of vampires when he “gets separated” from his buddies and explores the gay end of Bourbon Street. He also winds up getting targeted by a male witch, having to be rescued, etc etc etc, and the story ended with Cord being completely turned, and joining his new brotherhood. I brought Cord and his best buddy from the actual fraternity back in the story, “Bloodletting,” which eventually became the first chapter of my one and only vampire novel, Need–which I’d hoped to be the first in a series of supernatural erotic gay novels; the next was going to be Desire, and I was going to get deeper into the mythology I had created with that one, as well as bring in the rest of the characters from “The Nightwatchers” (Rachel and the old man were a part of Need).

Cord was a special breed of vampire because he not only had become a vampire but had also drank the blood of the male witch–which to some of the other vampires made him an abomination; and he certainly was one to the witches, which meant the Council of Thirteen, which oversees all the supernatural creatures of the world, wanted him dead–as well as his fraternity brother, whom he’d had to turn. That was going to be the primary plot thread of Desire, which alas never came to be.

Here’s how “The Nightwatchers” opened:

Go home, old man, Rachel thought, tapping her black fingernails on the counter.

It was quarter till nine, fifteen minutes before she could lock the doors. Everything was clean, and the cash register was already counted down. All she really had left to do was dump the remains of the day’s coffee down the sink, lock the cash drawer in the safe, and turn everything off. She’d be gone by ten minutes after at the latest.

She glanced out the big windows fronting the coffee shop. The streetlight just outside cast a yellowish glow in the thick mist pressing against the glass. She shivered and looked back at the old man. He was sitting in one of the tables in the far corner, with the same cup of coffee he’d ordered when he came in around seven thirty. He hadn’t touched it. It was still as full as when she’d filled the cup, only no steam was coming off the black surface now. He didn’t seem to be watching for anyone, or waiting. He never glanced at his watch, which she’d spotted as a platinum Tag Heuer, nor did he ever look out the window. Every once in a while he would look up from his newspaper and catch her staring. He’d smile and nod, then go back to his reading.

Apparently, he was determined to read every word.

She stood up, bending backwards so her back cracked. The night had been really slow. The Jazz Café, even on weeknights, usually was good for at least thirty to forty dollars in tips. Tonight, when she’d counted out the tip jar, yielded less than seven dollars. Just enough to get her a pack of cigarettes and a twenty ounce diet Coke at Quartermaster Deli on her way back to her apartment. It wasn’t, she thought, wiping down the counter down yet again, even worth coming in for.

See what I mean? Not bad.

Although talking about this stuff has made me intrigued by it again; it really is amazing how many book ideas went nowhere for me. Maybe someday I will write Desire.

And now you see why I never get anything done. I call it creative ADHD.

And on that note..let me get back to work.

Vampires

And now we found ourselves at the dawn of a Saturday, the first day of a new weekend, which are always, inevitably, far too short.

I have requested a book from the library which is the beginning of my research into Chlorine; and I will be picking that up today as I run a couple of errands in the heat of the day. My goals for the weekend are to finish reading Blacktop Wasteland and get Chapters 1-10 of Bury Me in Shadows completed; which of course is preparatory to getting the next ten chapters revised and redone and rewritten over the next week. It is a rather ambitious program, to be sure–and I am also certain at some point I’ll get tired and stop, then berate myself all week that I’m not further along with it than I am. You know, second verse, same as the first.

Yesterday–hell, this entire past week–was not a particularly pleasant one, and my usual go-to when I am not having a good week–being kind to people and trying to help them–also blew up in my face, which, while incredibly unpleasant, is actually fine. Usually, when there’s not a pandemic, I get to be kind and caring and helpful to my clients pretty much every day of the week, and that, inevitably, always makes me feel better about the world (and people) in general. I miss having that daily release of kindness and caring, of being sympathetic to people and listening to their concerns and helping them to feel better about things, but…I also need to recognize that outside of my job, in the real world other people don’t necessarily give a shit about my help, or need it, or particularly want it, and that the people I help at work are actually my clients, and they want help, they’re worried and need someone to be empathetic and kind and ease their fears. I also need to remember that people in my every-day-not-coming-in-for-an-appointment life might actually see my offers of help and caring as something else entirely, and not receive it well. I also need to remember that people I only know through pleasant enough internet interactions actually aren’t people I know, and I should save my empathy, caring, and kindness for people who actually are my friends–of whom there are, in fact, a lot.

It was, all in all, a stressful week, an up and down rollercoaster of emotions and triggers and psychological distress. As I tell my clients at the office, it’s normal to feel stress and worry and fear about getting any kind of diagnostic medical test, even when you’re absolutely mostly certain there’s nothing to worry about–there’s always that gnawing fear that this will be the time the news is bad, and being who I am, I inevitably try to prepare myself for the news to be bad. This is no doubt the psychological residue of years of getting HIV tests and nervously waiting the two or more weeks to get the results back while people I knew were going into the hospital and not coming back out; of going in and having the blood drawn and going through the entire session of data gathering and demographics and behavioral risks that always –while not the intent of the counseling, of course–left me feeling like an irresponsible drunken whore who deserved to die. One of the reasons I went into this line of work was to make sure that everyone who comes in to get tested knows that the person testing them cares about them, doesn’t judge them, and is doing everything in their power to make them more comfortable and relaxed. I treat all my clients with dignity and respect and empathy, and I have found that actually works, for the most part, in the world outside of my testing office as well.

I really miss doing my job every day.

And yesterday, of course, I had to take Paul out to Metairie to get his eye cleaned, and while it’s been sixteen years, being reminded by something as innocuous as an eye cleaning appointment inevitably still weighs heavily on me emotionally. Some years I make it through the anniversary without thinking about it; most days it doesn’t cross my mind, and sometimes can go for great stretches of time without thinking about or being reminded of it; it’s now mostly a part of the distant past. Yet it still lives on in my memories, even if they are pushed to the back most of the time, they are still there, and when something like yesterday’s appointment rolls around those memories will crowd their way up to the front of my mind, and even though I try not to allow them to affect (for fuck’s sake, it’s been sixteen years) me emotionally, they still somehow weigh heavily on me and drag me down. All the way to Metairie yesterday I was snapping and cursing out other drivers–okay, I do that every time I drive because New Orleans seriously has the worst and stupidest and most careless drivers of anywhere I’ve ever lived–but yesterday I felt particularly angry with them all for putting our lives at risk with their carelessness and stupidity.

Which is why I never understand how people are amazed about the anti-vaxxers and the anti-maskers; all you ever have to do to see how little most people care about anyone else’s lives or safety is go for a drive. I saw a meme months ago about the “shopping cart test” being an excellent way of determining what kind of person someone is; do you leave the cart abandoned in the middle of the parking lot, blocking a parking space, or do you return it to the front of the store or to a cart corral which is a short walk, at most, from wherever you are parked? (It should come as no surprise to anyone that most people just abandon the carts where they are once they’ve finished using them–which means a low wage employee has to walk around the entire parking lot retrieving the carts, sometimes in the broiling sun. I always either put the cart in the corral or walk it back to the front of the store–but with the caveat being that in college I worked at Toys R Us and sometimes, in the broiling heat of 115 degree summer days, had to go on cart duty. I know firsthand how shitty of a job that is, and so I try to do my little part to make it easier for the unfortunate soul whose job it is. On the rare occasions when I eat fast food I always throw my trash away and leave the tray on the space provided in every fast food place for them, usually on top of the actual trash bin. I honestly don’t think it’s mean-spirited; I think it’s thoughtlessness for the most part–someone else will take care of this for me. And sure, it is someone’s job–but there’s no rule that says we can’t make things easier for someone doing their job by doing something as simple and easy as dumping your trash or returning a shopping cart to a corral–just like I don’t understand why people don’t drive with a concern for the safety of themselves, let alone others.

We finished the second season of Babylon Berlin last night with a massive binge of almost the entire season in one sitting, beginning at seven pm and finishing just after eleven–I hesitate to think we actually watched as many as seven episodes, but I really think we must have, because I seem to recall finishing Season One and watching the first episode of Season 2 on Thursday night. I cannot praise the show nearly enough–Paul and I are getting to the point where we have very little interest in watching American television programs anymore, because the foreign ones are so much better. There are about, on a quick check, three or four books in the series; I do have the first one on hand, and I may move on to it when I finished Blacktop Wasteland, hopefully this weekend.

So, my plan is to shake off yet another shitty week and get my head cleared and back on straight and dive back into my work. I am treating myself to making cappuccinos this morning rather than having my usual coffee; grinding beans and frothing milk and making espresso–it’s really not a lot of trouble, honestly; it’s more about the mess it makes more than the process–a lot of moving parts that need to be cleaned afterwards more than anything else. (I love the smell of beans being ground!) The kitchen/office is, as always on a Saturday morning, messy and in need of being put in order; the ongoing battle to get organized rages on.

Yesterday, after making my phone calls and while making my daily quota of condom packs, I discovered that the old ABC Movie of the Week The Night Stalker was available on Youtube –a lot of those old made for television movies from the early 1970’s/late 1960’s are on Youtube–. but not particularly good copies; whenever I try to watch one I am inevitably disappointed by the poor quality of the film. It seems like someone used their VCR to record them as a general rule, and then uploaded them–with all the usual glitches and scratchiness and poor reproduction one would expect from an old VCR tape (this was the case with some I have watched, like Go Ask Alice and The House That Would Not Die, which was based on Barbara Michaels’ brilliant novel Ammie Come Home); I was delighted to see that this was not the case with The Night Stalker–it was almost like the film had been digitized before uploading. The picture was very clear, the colors bright, and absolutely no fuzziness. The sound quality was also very high. The Night Stalker, and its sequel, The Night Slasher, were two of the more popular ABC Movies of the Week, and wound being the basis for a series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which was kind of a mid-to-late 1970’s version of The X Files. The series didn’t do very well, was pretty roundly mocked for cheesiness and poor quality, and didn’t last more than a season, but surprisingly enough, The Night Stalker holds up pretty well, despite being obviously dated and produced on a shoestring budget (the producer was Dan Curtis, of Dark Shadows fame); but the heart of the movie is Darren McGavin’s brilliant portrayal of Carl Kolchak, a world-weary, down on his luck investigative journalist who has been fired from many major newspapers in his career and had wound up working at a paper in Las Vegas, which at the time was kind of a backwater casino town (its still a casino town, but a much bigger city now; I don’t know if one would consider it a backwater or a comedown from Boston or Chicago or Washington anymore; maybe). The premise of the film is young women are being murdered, and their bodies drained of most of their blood; the second body is found in a dried out gulley with no footprints around it; which means it must have been thrown quite a distance to get where it was. Kolchak begins to slowly believe that there’s a vampire in Vegas (Vampire in Vegas is actually a great title), despite resistance from both the higher-ups at the paper and the police, and he begins to gather the evidence. He tracks down the vampire finally, and kills it by driving a stake through it’s heart just as the police arrive–and of course, his story is spiked and he is threatened with prosecution for murder if he doesn’t leave town. The girl he is seeing, who works in a casino, is played by Carol Lynley; she is also forced to leave town without even getting a chance to say goodbye to him. The story holds up pretty well–and it is interesting seeing Las Vegas as it was in the early 1970’s, which is vastly different than it is now; and watching it made me a little sad–the death of print journalism for the most part over the last twenty years has forced that kind of character, once so integral to the crime genre–the crusading, world-weary journalist–into retirement. Journalists and journalism was also a popular genre of television and film, too–remember Lou Grant? I had always wanted to write a book about a newspaper and how it operates, a kind of Arthur Hailey type thing, with characters at every level, from the publisher down to the copy clerks. Maybe it could still be done today; I don’t know. It’s an interesting idea, but one that has languished in my files for decades and will probably continue to do so.

I also think a study of the evolution of the vampire story would be an interesting read, going back to pre-Dracula writings and then tracing its evolution through modern times; how Dark Shadows and Chelsea Yarbro Quinn changed the face of the vampire tale and made Anne Rice’s novels possible; and all the other vampire stories, like ‘salem’s Lot and Poppy Z. Brite’s Lost Souls. Maybe someone already has? I know Stephen King covered some of this material in Danse Macabre, but that is nearly forty years (!) out of date, and I doubt he will be doing an updated version anytime soon.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me. Have a lovely Saturday, Constant Reader.

Wide Open Spaces

Well, here we are in the midst of the new normal–a term I’ve always hated, absolutely hated–and the adjustment has been…problematic, but not anything I can neither handle nor deal with. I am up at the break of dawn today because today, tomorrow and Friday I get to start my work-day at 7:30 am at the screening stations. As we all know, Gregalicious absolutely is not a morning person, so this is going to be…interesting, to say the least.

I cannot be held responsible, quite frankly.

I started reading Daphne du Maurier’s story “Ganymede” last night, and no, I still haven’t finished reading “Death in Venice”; I opened the Kindle app on my iPad to see if the ebook was there–it was–and then I opened it and clicked on the table of contents for “Ganymede” so it would be ready when I was and I started reading and…three pages later I tore my eyes away and stopped. I can see, yet again, this is du Maurier in top form; I can’t wait to finish reading it so I can discuss it, along with “Death in Venice” and “Don’t Look Now”, altogether; particularly as there are some thematic similarities between the three tales. As I am working on my own Venetian story (“Festival of the Redeemer”), I think it’s interesting and fun to read other classic stories set in Venice. (Don’t come for me, I know “Ganymede” is more influenced directly by “Death in Venice’:, but I can see, and would argue, that “Don’t Look Now” also shows some of the Mann influence–perhaps not as much as “Ganymede,” but it’s definitely there.)

I was also thinking last night about Anne Rice’s Cry to Heaven, which is also set in Venice. It’s one of my favorite Rice novels (along with The Witching Hour and The Tale of the Body Thief) but it’s also been quite a while since I read it, and I think I only read the book the once, to be perfectly and completely honest. It’s set in the Venetian world of opera and power politics within the Venetian government; and of course John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels is also about the burning of the primary opera house in Venice and the political fallout that followed within the city. Venice and New Orleans, at least in my mind, are very similar; both cities are dominated by their proximity to water, after all, and their relationship to that water affected the way the cities developed and also the kind of cities they are. I hope to one day be in Venice for Carnival–but that would also require me to be filthy rich, but like all Americans I still cling to that dream that someday I’ll become a one-percenter, even though it becomes more and more unlikely every passing year.

We are still watching the highly addictive and thoroughly entertaining Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and as it gets progressively darker and darker and more and more appealing, as I did the other day, I can’t help but think how much better Riverdale would have turned out under the more loose standards of Netflix, as opposed to the CW.

This version of Sabrina is ever so much more entertaining than the old Melissa Joan Hart version, that’s for fucking sure. But I also tend to prefer the dark side.

The light is coming up outside. It feels like it’s been about a million years since I got up this early; but then again–the old pre-pandemic quarantine world seems like a different time and place, as though it belonged to someone else; which is kind of how the pre-Katrina world has seemed to me since the evacuation. Some of my co-workers brought up the imminence of the upcoming hurricane season–which begs the question: how and when and where would New Orleanians evacuate to during a quarantine, when the vast majority of hotels and motels everywhere have been closed and shuttered?

Then again, in these days and times, it’s probably best not to think about that until it becomes absolutely necessary. That’s the key to surviving these times, or at least how I survived the Katrina aftermath: don’t look ahead, don’t think about tomorrow; just think about today and what you can do to get through it because every passing day is a victory, one to go into the win column, and yet another step forward to that unknowable future.

I didn’t write anything last night when I got home from the office;  I was very tired–both physically and emotionally–and so I just kind of wanted to relax and rest. I did the dishes and retired to my easy chair for the rest of the evening, knowing I’d have to go to bed fairly early, and so I did. Tomorrow and Friday both I have to get up at this ungodly hour; although I am hopeful it is only for this one particular week. And who knows what tomorrow, or next week, will hold at the day job?

Hang in there, Constant Reader–these are tough and strange times.

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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.