Heartbreaker

Adjusting to normality after the madness of Carnival is never an easy thing to do.

Fortunately, it always involves a short work week–three days–and before I know it the weekend will be here and Monday will be when things really get back to normal around here.

In other exciting news, my own Mardi Gras Mambo was included in a round-up of crime novels set during Carnival, along with noted writers whom I admire, such as Bill Loefhelm, James Sallis, James Lee Burke and Barbara Hambly, among others. (You can check out the entire list here.)

Isn’t that lovely? It’s always nice–and a bit of a surprise–when I find myself on lists like this, whether it’s “gay crime writers” or “books about New Orleans” or “New Orleans crime writers” or pretty much anything, really. I must confess, whenever I see a list where I could be included and am not, it always stings a little bit; I suppose that’s something I will never get used to…and I always wonder, is it because I’m gay? Do queer writers not count? Of course when it’s a list of queer writers it can be a bit maddening, but if you let things like that derail you or hurt your feelings…you’re in the wrong business.

You have to not let the exclusions bother you and celebrate the inclusions…which isn’t easy.

Yesterday was a day of utter discombobulation as I tried (and failed, really) to adapt back to my work schedule, which means I did go to work but the rest of my life floundered around the edges. I didn’t even get around to answering emails yesterday, which was a priority, or paying the bills. But this morning I paid the bills (which is always a crushing blow on pay day) and have another hour or so before I have to get ready for work–so the goal is to tear through my emails and get as many answered as possible.

Fingers crossed, at any rate.

I also started rereading Bury Me in Shadows last night; and yes, the first chapter is, as I feared, a total mess–but it’s fixable, and I am going to continue rereading those first ten chapters this week and work on fixing them before moving on to the rest of the book. I just need to get past this weird feeling leftover from Carnival, where I don’t feel like I am actually a part of my life but am kind of drifting alongside it, observing but not participating in it, if that makes any weird kind of sense.

But I am hoping today will sort that out. The kitchen is a mess–I did the dishes when I got home last night, but there still is a mess everywhere in here and the floor needs to be done–and get some more things sorted and organized. I slept really well last night and didn’t want to get out of bed this morning; tomorrow is a get up at the crack of dawn morning but it’s also only half-a-day, so I am going to try to get all my errands done tomorrow afternoon on the way home from work so as to be able to, once again, not leave the house this weekend.

I find that I really do enjoy those weekends when I don’t leave the house.

I also managed to read another short story last night, from Norah Lofts’ Hauntings: Is There Anybody There?, titled “The Bird Bath”:

Opening her door for the first time to Mr. Mitson, Mrs. Pryor felt a sense of recoil. He looked like a tramp of the kind not often seen nowadays. He had a very red face, sharp red-rimmed little eyes, and a week’s growth of beard. He wore a dirty old army greatcoat, made for a bigger man, and a hat which had long ago lost its original color and shape. He smelled strongly of beer.

Nearby, however, actually in her tiny drive, stood a reassuring sight, a white pony, plump and shiny and with the placid look of a well-treated animal. Attached to the pony was a small cart, bearing in white paint the words–J. Mitson, Dealer. This morning J. Mitson was dealing in firewood.

Over the next few days, as the widowed Mrs. Pryor settles into her new home–having returned to England after years abroad with her husband–in East Anglia, Mr. Mitson keeps coming back and selling her things…with the final thing he sells her being a strange bird bath; a plinth with a wide open space at the top.

And that’s when things get interesting.

Another enjoyable, Gothic style, softly whispering ghost story. I love that Lofts isn’t into outright horror or jump scares, but like The Turn of the Screw and The Haunting of Hill House, her whispered stories make the hair stand on end and the skin crawl.

SO glad I got this book!

And now back to the spice mines.

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Cool Change

Saturday morning and I slept late, which felt positively marvelous. I feel rested and ready to kick some ass and take some names–at least for now, at any rate. Paul is going to be out of the house most of the day–appointments and going to the office–and therefore I have the Lost Apartment to myself for most of the day and no excuse not to get a lot of things done. I am still planning on walking over to the AT&T store to replace my phone–who knows how that is going to go?–but other than that, my day is pretty much set for cleaning, revising, and reading.

Last night, we started watching the new Netflix show The Umbrella Academy, based on the Dark Horse comic series–and while I didn’t madly love it, I am curious enough to continue watching. For one thing, it has both Ellen Page and Tom Hopper (who I’ve been crushing madly on since his days as Billy Bones on Black Sails), and it has an interesting premise. We will be continuing with it tonight, I think. I had just started reading Lori Roy’s Gone Too Long when Paul got home last night, and then was distracted by getting caught up on How to Get Away with Murder and then The Umbrella Academy.

And I’ve been dealing with yet another Apple upgrade issue that has fucked with my desktop, laptop, phone and iPad since last night. Now the cloud drive is missing from both my desktop and my laptop (I managed to resolve the handheld device issues last night) and so am trying to get that resolved this morning. Seriously, Apple–when you update/upgrade your systems, is it absolutely necessary to fuck up everything for your customers? 

Seriously, Apple. Do better.

So I am trying to resolve all this before scheduling a call from Apple Support…which I also don’t understand; you used to be able to do this in an on-line chat, but now of course they make you take a phone call. Why, precisely? And how able-ist is this? What about those of us who are hard of hearing, or those who are deaf? Seriously, fuck you in the ass without lubrication, Apple. HARD.

Thank you for allowing me to vent about these issues, Constant Reader. It’s helping me reduce the future body count.

This week I got a copy of Kyle Onstott’s bestselling Mandingo from the 1950’s. As Constant Reader is aware, I’ve been trying to diversify not only my fiction reading but to learn more about the horrible history of race in North America. Part of this has taking an amorphous shape in my head around a lengthy essay, tracing revisionism of slavery and the Old South and civil rights from such novels as The Clansman (which was filmed as Birth of a Nation) to Gone with the Wind to To Kill a Mockingbird and The Klansman, which I recently reread. As I was scrolling through Amazon Prime looking for something to watch the other night, I came across the late 1970’s film Mandingo, and remembered that it was also a novel. I bought a copy from eBay which arrived this week (I wasn’t able to get far in the movie because it was just incredibly bad; not even campy bad, like Showgirls, just bad.) The book arrived this week and….just looking at the note from the publisher in the beginning was horrifying. Yet Mandingo might just be the only novel about slavery and the Old South that actually tears the veneer of respectability and gentility away and exposes the true horror of what the “peculiar institution” was actually like. (Even John Jakes’ dreadful North and South series never delved deeply into the actual horrors; Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad was one of the first novels to truly explore this that I’ve read.) Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series, set in New Orleans before the Civil War, also does a terrific job of exploring how deeply entrenched and horrible racism/slavery were.

This essay I am thinking about would probably wind up, should I ever have the time to read the books and write it (it would, for example, require a reread of Gone with the Wind and it’s over eleven hundred pages, as well as some in depth reading of actual history) would probably be a part of Gay Porn Writer: The Fictions of My Life…which is a project I really do want to work on someday.  Mandingo takes on an aspect of slavery and the South that is rarely, if ever, touched on in fictions: the sexual abuse of the female slaves by their masters (come on, like it never happened. Really?) as well as the breeding of actual slaves for better, more valuable stock, as well as raising them for fighting–kind of a human version of cock-fighting or dog-fighting. Is it more likely that never happened, or that it did? Slavery, as Harriet Beecher Stowe repeatedly explained in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, debases both slave and master; are we really supposed to believe that slave-owners didn’t abuse their ‘property’?

Given how people of color–theoretically free and equal in the eyes of the law in the twenty-first century–are treated in the present day, I’m not buying the notion of the kind, gracious slave owner.

Take, for example, this passage from the Publisher’s Note to the movie tie-in paperback edition which I just received in the mail:

From today’s vantage point,, almost a hundred years after the cataclysm, the developing situation may be viewed objectively. Actually, the finger of blame should be pointed at no one geographical group of people. Although the factions that promoted the abolition of slavery were ethically in the right (emphasis: mine), Southern planters in general are shown to have been victims of circumstance rather than diabolical tyrants as they have sometimes been painted. (again, emphasis mine.)

Doesn’t get more apologetic than that, does it? Those poor planters. (massive eye roll)

And is it any wonder that we still have so many societal problems of racial injustice today?

And on that note, 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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Remember the Time

Friday morning! I get to go into work late because I am, as always, passing out condom packs tonight in the Quarter for Southern Decadence; when we finish, I am officially on vacation all I ever wanted until I return to the office on September 11 (gulp). Huzzah! Huzzah! Part of that time will be, of course, spent in St. Petersburg at Bouchercon. (huzzah! huzzah!) I am still trying to get my Bouchercon homework finished; I am nearly finished with James Ziskin’s delightful Cast the First Stone, and hopefully will be able to finish Thomas Pluck’s Bad Boy Boogie before our panel next Friday. (If I can’t, I really need to turn in my book nerd card.) I am also hoping to take Madeline Miller’s Circe with me on the trip to read.

I don’t want to give the impression that Cast the First Stone isn’t as good as it is by taking so long to read it; I’ve been in a late summer/dog days of August malaise that has had me having a lot of trouble getting anything done; the house is a mess (worse than usual) and I’ve gotten nowhere on the Scotty book and I’ve done very little writing of consequence at all this month. I’m trying very hard not to beat myself up over this; it is what it is, and it’s not a reflection on anything I do or my career. August, particularly late August, is always hideous when it comes to trying to get anything done; the heat and humidity this particular year has been particularly hideous, and it really sucks the life and energy right out of you. I am taking the manuscript for the Scotty with me to St. Pete; and I am hoping I’ll be able to carve out time to reread and make notes and so forth over the course of the weekend.

I’m also trying to figure out the rest of the story for “The Blues before Dawn.” I am also wondering whether or not this is more of a novel rather than a short story. I can’t make up my mind about my main character, or a time period to set the story in. I fucking hate when that happens. But it also means I need to think about the story some more, which is also not such a bad thing; as it’s a historical I’ll need to do some more research–I’ve been realizing lately how skimpy my knowledge of New Orleans and Louisiana history (with a few exceptions) actually is.

Another mental challenge for this is my decision, made over the course of the summer, to think about creating a new series. The Chanse series is pretty much over; after I decided to stop with Murder in the Arts District I wasn’t sure I was, in fact, finished with the character and series, but as more time passes the less I am interested in writing another novel about him. That might change, but I am now more convinced than ever that ending the series was the right thing to do. I have, however, written a Chanse short story and started another (I’ve still not finished “Once a Tiger”), and feel relatively certain Chanse will live on in short stories from time to time. The endless struggle and utter lack of motivation I have in finishing this Scotty book is also kind of a tell that maybe it’s time to wind this series down as well–a much harder decision, as I love Scotty much more than I ever cared about Chanse. But in the meantime, I’ve been thinking about writing yet another series. I had thought about spinning Jerry Channing, the writer, who first appeared in The Orion Mask and then again in Garden District Gothic his own series; as a true crime writer who often follows and writes about true crime for magazines, and is always looking for a subject for his next book, he seemed perfect as the center of another series. But the character’s back story was problematic, and I realized his background, in some ways, might be far too similar (and thus derivative) to Scotty’s. Then again, so what if Scotty and Jerry are both formerly personal trainers? if that and being gay is all they have in common…I do have an idea for a Jerry novel that might work; maybe I should write that and see if a series might work.

But “The Blues Before Dawn” also has grown in my mind as a possible start for a series, and maybe it should be a novel rather than a story (this, by the way, happens to me all the time). I think writing a historical crime series set in New Orleans might be an interesting idea; there are only two in existence that I am aware of–Barbara Hambly’s brilliant Benjamin January series (which is antebellum and opens with A Free Man of Color), and David Fulmer’s Valentin St. Cyr Storyville series, which opens with Chasing the Devil’s Tail. (Don’t @ me; I am sure there are others I can’t think of, even now I am thinking James Sallis’ Lew Griffin series, the first of which is called The Long-Legged Fly, is historical.) But the other day I came across an interesting article about Algernon Badger, who was chief of police in New Orleans from about 1870-1876, as well as Jean Baptiste Jourdain, who was the highest ranking mixed race police detective in 1870, and in charge of the Mollie Digby kidnapping investigation.  There is so much rich history in New Orleans that I don’t know, have barely scratched the surface of; one of the many reasons I roll my eyes when people refer to me as “a New Orleans expert.” The concept of a high ranking police detective after the Civil War and during Reconstruction in New Orleans fascinates me; and I kind of like the idea of writing about the Prohibition era here as well.

I think I need to have a long chat with my friend, historian Pat Brady.

I also got a rejection yesterday for a short story; and was enormously pleased that it didn’t spend me into the usual downward spiral of depression. Obviously, I am disappointed my story won’t be used, but it was just so lovely to actually get a notification that they aren’t using my story that it just rolled off my back. (It was also a lovely note, which included some thoughts on the story; ironically, what they thought would have made the story better was something that I had personally thought when reviewing and revising; but I didn’t trust my judgment and didn’t make those crucial changes. You’d think after all this time I would have learned to trust my judgment!)

And now, I am going to go curl up in my easy chair and try to finish James Ziskin’s delightful Cast the First Stone.

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