Lonesome Tonight

Lonesome is such a great word. It really doesn’t get used much nowadays, and may be bordering on archaic, but I think it summons up an entirely deeper (and possibly different) emotion than lonely. It was usually used in songs–“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” sounds more effective than “I’m So Lonely I Could Cry”, for example–and for some reason (maybe it was country music, I can’t be certain) I’ve always thought of it as a rural, Southern word. But, as I said, there’s something almost poetic to the word for me, and I really do want to write either a story or a book called Kansas Lonesome, because the prairie in rural Kansas, to me, is truly symbolic of the word; whenever I think about it, I think about a house out in the middle of nowhere and the winter winds howling around it.

It’s cold again this morning, and even now the sky is slowly starting to get lighter. It was pitch dark out there beyond the windows as I made my cappuccino this morning, and it should be a good morning/day. I slept very well last night–I did wake up at four briefly, but as able to fall back asleep for another two hours–and I even got some work done on my story yesterday. The first draft still isn’t finished–I was thinking last night, as I binge-watched news, that I’ve never really recovered from finishing the book, which is why I’ve been so lackadaisical and unable to truly focus; this happens a lot in the aftermath of finishing a book, because I actually need to recharge more than I ever did before–but I have every confidence that I will finish it today. Tomorrow I am taking a personal day, as I have medical appointments and so forth (just routine annual maintenance, nothing to be concerned about) and am hoping that around said appointments that I will be able to get some more work on the story finished. I also just realized the 15th, which is the due date, is actually Friday and not Thursday, so that’s definitely promising; a bit of a reprieve, if you will. This is also a three day weekend, so I can actually have a day of resting and cleaning and errands before diving headfirst into the revisions of #shedeservedit, which is going to require a thorough reread first, and then picking it apart from top to bottom (along with the character names) before stitching the whole thing back together again.

Paul’s been busy working the last two nights, so we’ve not been able to pick up on Bridgerton again, which is a shame as we are both thoroughly enjoying it. I really want to get back to reading; next up is Laurie R. King’s first Mary Russell Sherlockian tale, and just from looking at the opening I can tell already I am going to love it, because Mary’s voice reminds me of that of one of my all-time favorite fictional characters, the inimitable Amelia Peabody. And that reminder also served to remind me of one of the greatest influences on my writing career, one whom I never pay enough homage to and never properly credit: one Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels. Reading her works, under either name, is a master class in plot, character, setting and voice; the books are not only entertaining but incredibly smart, and she also had a penchant for some of the best opening lines in crime fiction. The Peters novels all have brilliant first sentences; the Michaels novels incredible opening paragraphs. I’d be hard pressed to select a favorite Peters novel–every Amelia Peabody novel is a joy; same with her stand-clones, Vicky Bliss, and Jacqueline Kirby series–but I can unequivocally state that my favorite Barbara Michaels novel is Ammie Come Home, and her Gothics heavily influenced mine. Bury Me in Shadows and Lake Thirteen are perhaps where the influence are most obvious; I even worried, numerous times, that Shadows was too derivative of Lake Thirteen. I have a New Orleans Gothic in the back of my mind–Voices in an Empty Room–that I may get to sometime over the next few years, but again, I worry that it’s derivative of the earlier ones.

Welcome to the world of the prolific, where you always fear you are recycling plots and characters!

Oh! I got a 12 hour Twitter ban yesterday, and I must say I was enormously disappointed that pundits and right-wingers didn’t immediately rush to defend my freedom of speech. I will admit that I deserved the ban; it’s what I get for being stupid. My standard rule of thumb is whenever I see an incredibly stupid and/or offensive tweet, I allow myself to type out a snarky response. Usually I never finish, thinking better of them before getting to the end and hitting send. Alas, I tried this on my phone yesterday. I’d started typing a truly angry response when I thought, “no, you can’t send that, not cool” and tried to delete the draft but instead accidentally sent it–resulting in an immediate ban. It wasn’t there long enough for someone to report it or for Twitter to actually review it (I am not kidding when I am saying it was immediate), so Twitter is clearly policing itself and what is being allowed on their site. I own it; it was a terrible thing to even think, let alone say in response to someone no matter the provocation, and thus I will not complain about it. I would even go so far as to thank them for reminding me that such angry tweets aren’t cool, and while I am allowed to be angry about the sack of the Capitol, I need to be a better person than I have been lately. So thanks, Twitter.

I’ll do better.

And while perhaps this should have started back in the days of birtherism, I am fine with having such algorithms in place now.

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely Impeachment Wednesday, everyone, and I will catch you tomorrow.

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.

Happiness is An Option

I’ve always enjoyed a good mystery with a supernatural edge to it; the line between crime fiction and horror is often blurred. Take, for example, The Silence of the Lambs. It’s often lauded as the first horror film to win an Oscar–but there’s no supernatural beings involved, no ghosts or vampires, or anything like that; the protagonist is an FBI agent trying to catch a serial killer…so is it really horror? Are slasher films/books actually horror or crime? (I think it depends on whether or not the slasher is actually something not human–like Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers, or just crazed human killers, like the Scream movies or even the first Friday the 13th, which is the only one I’ve actually seen.)

But then it’s really hard to define and delineate what work falls into what genre; and oft-times, there’s crossover between the various ones–there’s western horror, for example, just like romantic suspense bridges the line between romance and mystery. So where precisely on the spectrum of genre does the work of Barbara Michaels lay? There are often supernatural elements to her fiction; sometimes there aren’t. Ammie Come Home is my favorite ghost story of the many I’ve read–and I enjoy it just as much every time I reread it–but it’s also a mystery, and there’s also some romance in the book. The romance itself is rarely the focus of her books, but it is there and cannot be ignored; likewise, most stories that have supernatural elements (ones that are actually supernatural in origin or man-made frauds) inevitably have some mystery to them; what do the supernatural forces want–or in the case of fraud, what are those who are committing the fraud after? What do they want?

House of Many Shadows was the second Barbara Michaels novel I read, and remains one of my favorites to this day.

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The sounds bothered Meg most. Calling them auditory hallucinations helped a little–a phenomenon is less alarming when it has a proper technical name. Meg had always thought of hallucinations as something one saw. She had those, too, but for some illogical reason it was easier for her to accept visual illusions as nonreal than to ignore the hallucinatory sounds. When you were concentrating on typing a letter, and a voice says something in your ear, it was impossible not to be distracted.

The problem was hard to explain, and Meg wasn’t doing a good job of explaining. But then it had always been difficult to explain anything to Sylvia. Sylvia knew all the answers.

“The dictaphone was absolutely impossible. I couldn’t hear what Mr. Phillips had said. Voices kept mumbling, drowning out his voice. Once the whole Mormon Tabernacle Choir cut out the second paragraph of a very important memo.”

She smiled as she spoke. It sounded funny now, but at the time it had not been at all amusing.

Sylvia didn’t smile. “The Mormon Tabernacle Choir? Why them?”

Meg shrugged helplessly. “No reason. That’s the point; they are meaningless hallucinations. The doctor says they’ll go away eventually, but in the meantime…Mr. Phillips was very nice about it, he said he’d try to find an opening for me when I’m ready to work again, but I couldn’t expect him to keep me on. I had to listen to some of those tapes three times before I got the message clear, and there was always the chance I’d miss something important. And I’d already used up all my sick leave. Three weeks in the hospital…”

“You should be thankful you weren’t killed,” said Sylvia. “To think they never caught the man who was driving the car! New York is an absolute jungle. I don’t know how you can stand living here. May I have another cup of tea?”

Meg poured, biting back an irritated retort. She couldn’t afford to offend Sylvia, especially now, when she was about to ask a favor, but the cliches that were Sylvia’s sole means of communications had never annoyed her more. Why should she be thankful she hadn’t been killed? She might as well be thankful she didn’t have leprosy, or seven-year itch; or thank God because she had not been born with two heads. It was just as reasonable, and a lot more human, to feel vexation instead of gratitude. Why me, God? The old question, to which there was never any answer…Why did it have to be me in the path of that fool driver; why did I have to land on my head instead of some less vulnerable part of my anatomy; and why, oh, why, God, did Ihave to have these exotic symptoms instead of a nice simple concussion? Why do I have to be the poor relation, with no savings to fall back on, while Sylvia…

Sylvia’s close-set gray eyes were intent on the teapot. “Such a nice piece of silver,” she murmured.

I love Barbara Michaels’ work, and one of the happiest days of my reading life was the day I discovered she also wrote as Elizabeth Peters, which meant even more reading joy for me (and eventually, I came to prefer the Peters books to the Michaels; but make no mistake, I love all the books). The set-up for House of Many Shadows is right there in the beginning; poor Meg’s life has been upended by being hit by a driver who didn’t stop, and because of the hallucinations she suffers from as a result–with no idea of how long she will suffer through them–she is unable to work, and her distant relative Sylvia–whom she doesn’t seem to care much for–is her only hope. Sylvia–we all know people like Sylvia; without a sense of humor and whose response to any crisis is to come up with a plan and make it work–has a house in the Pennsylvania Dutch country, she’s not sure what she wants to do with it, but Meg can stay there rent-free, and Sylvia even comes up with a “make-work” solution so Meg won’t feel like she’s freeloading (it isn’t until much later she realizes that is what Sylvia was doing; at the time she kind of resents it); doing an inventory of the contents of the house and its attic, as Sylvia is thinking of donating the house to the local historical association. Sylvia’s stepson from the previous marriage that wound up with her owning the house is living on the property as a caretaker, in a cottage behind the main house–Meg remembers him from their childhood as a horrible tease she couldn’t much stand–and soon she is off to the wilds of the Pennsylvania country side.

At the end of the second chapter-the first after she arrives at the house–Meg experiences a hallucination in front of Andy, the stepson, and their relationship hasn’t changed much, apparently–which rattles Andy terribly; when it happens again a chapter or so later is when Andy confesses that he, too, has seen the same hallucinations she did–so are they hallucinations? Or are they seeing ghosts?

This set-up, of course, is absolutely brilliant: what better heroine for a supernatural story than a woman who’s had a brain injury that causes her to see hallucinations? The chilling touch that Andy has also seen the same hallucinations in the house that she has is terrifying; and as she slowly gets to work in the attic, she and Andy start discovering things about the history of the house, including the fact that the original property owners, back before the American Revolution, were brutally murdered in the original house that stood on the property; the current one was built over it. So, what happened 250 years earlier? Both Meg and Andy become a bit obsessed with the ancient murders, and as they continue to see things in the house, they slowly but surely start putting together the truth of what happened to the original property owners–while falling in love, of course.

One of the great things about the Michaels books is that she brooks no foolishness with her supernatural elements; it’s clear Dr. Mertz (her real name) was well read on the subject of the occult and other belief systems–they pop up, again and again, throughout the Michaels novels, and in many instances, I first heard of certain occult books and cults from reading them. I know I first read of The Golden Bough in a Michaels novel; Dr, Mertz knew her folklore and occult religions, and made very good use of that knowledge, not just in this book but in others–Prince of Darkness comes to mind–and of course, she was an excellent, excellent writer.

House of Many Shadows also holds up; despite the dated quality of the book–no Internet or computers or cell phones–it’s still a great story.

Home and Dry

And here we are at Friday once again. Lovely, isn’t it?

Yesterday I had a massive breakthrough on the Secret Project; I found the character’s voice and precisely how to write the opening. I also immediately realized that the plot I was planning on recycling here doesn’t necessarily work as easily as I might like, and then I realized precisely what the story was. I even wrote a few paragraphs, and as I wrote them the characters began taking form in my head; I could hear her voice and I knew exactly who she was.

It was such an enormous relief; I am always terrified that the “Eureka!” moment will stop coming to me and the well will, finally, once and for all, run dry. I don’t know if other authors worry about things like that–but it happens whenever the work isn’t coming well for me, and it affects my moods and everything else, every other aspect of my life–and not in a positive way. You’d think by now I’d recognize all the symptoms of the work not going well, and the subconscious worry involved; the restless sleep, the exhaustion, the grouchiness and deepening of my auto-pilot snarkiness, and the lackadaisical approach to everything else in my life. It always means the work isn’t going well and I am starting to get worried about it deep inside the inner recesses of my psyche–and it’s always such an enormous relief when the breakthrough comes and the sun begins to shine again after the dark night of the soul.

We had a horrific thunderstorm last night before I went to bed–long lasting rolls of thunder that seemed to never end. I could feel the pressure change, and I also knew that the combination of thunderstorm at bedtime and writing breakthrough meant I would also sleep deeply and well and restfully. Apparently, the surrounding parishes flooded and still have standing water this morning. Yikes! But it also meant that I slept well, which was good for me if horrible for the poor people impacted by the downpour.

I finished reading House of Many Shadows yesterday. I had a doctor’s appointment that was a bit of a clusterfuck (I won’t go into the details here, but I’ll leave it at I didn’t see the doctor today), and afterwards I ran a few errands. Once I was home–it did sprinkle on me during the errands, but I was able to get everything out of the car and into the house without being rained upon; I don’t think it ever did much more than sprinkle, but once the groceries were put away, I relaxed in my easy chair and finished reading my book. I was much closer to the end than I thought I was, and immediately after I started another reread, The Red Carnelian by Phyllis A. Whitney; the book originally published as Red is for Murder. It was Mrs. Whitney’s first novel for adults, and was more of a straight-up mystery than the novels that took her to the top of the New York Times list and to the pinnacle of success. I thought of it because of an odd thing; someone–Scott Heim, perhaps?–had posted a link on social media to an article about a cafe or restaurant that was seating mannequins in the dining room to help with social distancing as well as make it seem less empty; it reminded me of a truly terrifying scene in this book (as I remember it) that takes place in a darkened room filled with unused mannequins; the heroine is alone in the room with the killer. I’ve never quite been able to not see mannequins as something terrifying ever since. The book is set in a large department store in Chicago; which I also thought was an interesting setting for a mystery novel. (I came up with an idea for a soap built around a department store dynasty, back in the days when I wanted to be a soap writer; it was probably born of reading this book. Now that I think about it more, my “soap” was also set in Chicago. Hmmm. Well, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best.)

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

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I Don’t Know What You Want But I Can’t Give It Anymore

And so it is now Wednesday, and we’re already about halfway finished with this week. Isn’t that lovely? Of course, I always hear my mother’s voice in the back of my head whenever I say things like that–you know you’re just wishing your life away when you do that–ah, my mother. Someday I’ll stop hearing her voice in my head.

Although I still do and am staring down fifty-nine this year, so chances are that voice is never going to get out of my head.

We finished watching Little Fires Everywhere, and I have to say, Reese Witherspoon makes a terrific villainess. It’s extremely well done–the writing and acting are top notch–and it really is amazing what you can do with a soap-opera style plot with strong writing and an excellent cast and good directing. As I watched, I couldn’t help thinking what a great Abby Reese Witherspoon would make in a reboot of Knots Landing. But I do encourage everyone to watch. It’s a terrific show, Kerry Washington is also fantastic, as are all the young actors playing the teenagers, and while it reminded me some of Big Little Lies, it’s a completely different plot and a completely different story–although the character Witherspoon plays is remarkably similar in both (although in Big Little Lies she never went completely to the dark side the way she did in this). It also handles class and race and gender issues over the course of the story, showing that it can be done–and done well–with the right creative team in place, particularly if they are committed to properly handling the issues.

Now I think tonight we’ll go back to Gold Digger–I think the next two episodes dropped Monday–and see if it continues to hold our interest as well.

I slept deeply and well last night. I woke up at seven this morning, and was actually awake, but chose to lightly nap in bed for another hour because the bed felt so relaxing and comfortable–plus, I wasn’t really feeling the day, you know? The longer I stayed in bed relaxing the longer I could put off dealing with anything this morning. Not that there is anything I don’t want to deal with– as I am particularly fortunate in that nothing I have to deal with is terrible; I just get lazy periodically–which is why being described as hard working or prolific amuses me endlessly. Granted, I hold myself to a much higher standard than perhaps I should; on the other hand, sometimes I think I wouldn’t get nearly as much done if I were easier, and kinder, on myself.

I also started rereading House of Many Shadows by Barbara Michaels this week, and I am now getting to the meat of the story; all the characters are in place, in the enormous house in the Pennsylvania countryside; it’s established that Meg, the heroine, has been in a car accident that caused some sort of brain damage which causes her to have either visual or audial hallucinations; the caretaker of the place is the owner’s stepson, whom she knew when they were children and didn’t like each other; and the previous tenants were evicted and not happy about it. It’s interesting–I’ve been very careful with Bury Me in Shadows to not mimic Barbara Michaels, and yet…in rereading this one I realize how incredibly similar the set-up of my work-in-progress is to this particular Michaels novel. Not that I’m plagiarizing her by any means, and there are only so many story situations and set-ups one can come up with; but similar enough for me to be a teeny bit concerned.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously?

Monday and here we are, getting ready to stare down yet another week.

We watched more of Little Fires Everywhere last night, and it really is extremely well done. It really is an interesting look at race and privilege and power; all while using tropes that were staples of soap operas. As the show amps up and starts racing along to its climax, the basis of the majority of the drama of the show is a custody struggle over an adopted baby–a storyline so stale for soap operas that I don’t know that the few left even use it anymore. But with strong writing, excellent production values, and an enormously talented cast, this stale trope not only works in this instance, but works very well. I am curious, though, as to why the book is set in 1997 rather than the present; the reason behind it isn’t apparent, and it feels incredibly current; although the music at school dances and so forth is rather jarring, and it takes a moment to remember that the story is set over twenty years ago. I don’t even notice the lack of smart phones and social media. I’m just sorry that I didn’t get a copy of the book to read along while I watch, which was such a terrific experience with Big Little Lies. 

And Reese Witherspoon certainly has a type of woman that she regularly plays, doesn’t she? Super Karen?

I finished a dreadful first draft of “Falling Bullets” last night, and it is dreadful. Fortunately there are other drafts to be done, and corrections and edits that can be made to it, but at this point I’m just happy I finished a draft–it’s been awhile since I’ve finished something I’ve started. At first I was rather nonplussed because about 1500 of the 2000 words I’d already written–mostly the stuff I’d written Friday evening–didn’t really work anymore; but I went back to the beginning and started tweaking things, and was even able to tweak enough of the 1500 problematic words to save most of them. So, while I am not pleased with the draft and its condition, I am pleased that it is finished, at around 4600 words.

I also finished reading Thunder on the Right yesterday, and had a lovely time with it. I do think it is one of the lesser Mary Stewart novels–but a lesser Mary Stewart is better than  a lesser writer’s best, so there’s also that.

I have decided to take today off from work; I am not feeling as great as I should, and literally cannot face another day of data entry and condom packing. Fortunately I have enough vacation time accrued for me to take yet another day off–although I really need to start letting the time build up again, for when this is all finally over and done with, so I can take an actual vacation, which is something I am going to be in seriously need of–and so am going to stay home, finish some odds and ends, and then get ready to face the rest of the week. I also have to work early tomorrow morning, so will have to get to bed early this evening; and I think we’re going to maybe start slowly opening the STI clinic next week. I am of two minds about this–I am certain we can do it safely, but at the same time I worry whether clients will be willing to come in to get their screenings done. I miss my old life, quite frankly, and like everyone else, long to get back to it. But unlike everyone else, I don’t see the old normal coming back. This situation has changed so much about our lives and how we do things, and in many cases, things that were considered “impossible” before have now been shown to be possible. I can’t imagine, for example, that the expensive old version of the book tour will return now that we have seen it can be done relatively inexpensively virtually. I easily can see publicists cutting expenses at publishers by arranging on-line interviews and readings and Q&A’s and book club meetings rather than spending money for an author to travel. And for authors who can’t foot the cost of their own tours, well–here’s an inexpensive alternative that may actually work.

Next up for the Reread Project is an old favorite of mine by Barbara Michaels, House of Many Shadows. Dr. Barbara Mertz wrote, of course, wonderful mysteries as Elizabeth Peters (if you’ve never read the Amelia Peabody series, you really, really  need to), and wrote suspense novels that may or may not have a supernatural bent to them–Ammie Come Home is, obviously, by far and away my favorite of these–as Barbara Michaels. I rediscovered the Michaels novels in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, and became just as addicted to them as I would to the Elizabeth Peters novels later that decade; House of Many Shadows is one of my favorites of the Michaels novels; The Crying Child is another. The rest are also good without question, but to my mind those three are head-and-shoulders above the others. The Michaels novels also have great, great titles: Wait for What Will Come, Be Buried in the Rain, The Dark on the Other Side, and Witch, to name only a few. And, if I am being complete honest, Bury Me in Shadows was inspired by the Michaels novels; as was Lake Thirteen.

And the humor in the Scotty books probably owes more than a little to the influence of the Elizabeth Peters novels.

I also gave up on rereading Katherine Anne Porter’s long short story about the Spanish flu, “Pale Horse Pale Rider.” I can certainly understand why critics and literary enthusiasts shit themselves over Porter’s writing, but it just doesn’t work for me. I don’t care about her characters or what happens to them, and Porter is definitely one of those authors who–to me–loves the sound of her own voice; what could be said in a sentence or two turns into rambling pages and pages in which she basically says the same thing, over and over again. And she never wastes any time on making the reader care about her characters, or even getting to know them well. I thought, when I first read her Collected Stories years ago and found them to be tedious and boring (as I was rereading “Pale Horse Pale Rider” I could actually hear a Lit professor enthusing about her works in my head), and I thought I’d give them another chance, thinking perhaps I had matured enough as a reader to enjoy them now; that it was my own immaturity as a reader and lover of the written word that kept me from enjoying them in the first place.

I am pleased to report I am wrong, and that I find Porter’s work as constipated and dull as I did the first time, and there’s nothing wrong with not liking her work. I still dislike The Great Gatsby, even after reading it three times, after all; let the literary snobs come for me. I don’t care. Scoff at me all you like, I will never like or admire Porter.

And on that note, I think I’ll go lay back down for a bit. Have a lovely Monday.

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After the Event

I’ve loved, and been fascinated, by ancient Egypt ever since I was a kid. I don’t remember when, precisely, Egypt became so lodged into my brain; but for as long as I can remember, the ancient history of one of our oldest civilization has intrigued me, and held my interest. I’m hardly an expert–not even close–but I remember pestering my parents to subscribe to the Time-Life Great Ages of Man series; the very first volume of which was, naturally,  Ancient Egypt (for the record, I still have my entire set of those books). Cleopatra, of course, also interested me; I’m not sure if my Egyptian interest came before or after watching the Elizabeth Taylor version of Cleopatra on television. (I still am terribly interested in Cleopatra; the court intrigues and politics of the Ptolemy dynasty makes the Borgias and the Medici look like pikers. I always wanted to write a book about–of all things–Cleopatra’s older sister Berenice, who briefly overthrew their father and took the Egyptian crown. The Romans sent legions to support her father, so her reign was very brief. Her younger sister, Arsinoe, who fought Cleopatra for the throne–only to be defeated by Caesar, also interests me.) I’ve always been interested in Akhenaten (loved Allen Drury’s two books about the Amarna revolution, A God Against the Gods and Return to Thebes), Tutankhamun (of course), and Hatshepsut (I read a great Scholastic mystery set during her reign called The Mystery of the Pharaoh’s Treasure, and I think I bought a copy from eBay a while back; I may have the name wrong.)

But as much as I love Egypt, I didn’t love it enough to read Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings. I borrowed it from the library, and couldn’t get through the first chapter.

Sorry not sorry.

As a teenager who loved mysteries, I gravitated towards women authors once I’d fairly exhausted the canons of Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, and Erle Stanley Gardner primarily because I couldn’t relate or identify with the crime novels being written by men at the time. Grim and hard-boiled and toxic masculinity wasn’t a combination I was terribly interested in at the time; I did appreciate noir (discovering James M. Cain when I was about nineteen was wonderful), though–but that was because I associated it with all those great movies I used to watch with my grandmother. I eventually came around, and started enjoying John D. MacDonald and Hammett and Chandler as I got older.

But when I saw this book on the paperback rack at the grocery store in Emporia, I had to get it. It was a mystery; blurbed by one of my favorite writers, Phyllis A. Whitney, and of course, that was the Sphinx on the cover. I bought it, read it, loved it–and forgot about Elizabeth Peters for about a decade or so (I came back to Barbara Michaels in my mid-twenties, and when I discovered she was also Elizabeth Peters, it didn’t register with me.) Then one day I was in the Waldenbooks and More on Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa when I saw a book on the end cap that called to me: The Last Camel Died at Noon, plus an unmistakably Egyptian scene on the cover. The title and the cover alone sold me–and I also knew by then that Elizabeth Peters was the same writer as Barbara Michaels. I bought it and when I got home, I opened to the first page and started reading….about a page in I stopped. Wait, Emerson and Peabody? I turned back to the beginning of the book and there it was, on the BY THE SAME AUTHOR page: THE AMELIA PEABODY SERIES, and the first title was Crocodile on the Sandbank! 

You can only imagine my delight. I loved those characters, loved that first book, and to find out now there was a series? I read The Last Camel Died at Noon cover to cover in about twenty-four hours, and the next day I went back to Waldenbooks and More and bought the entire series, and settled in to get reacquainted with two of my favorite fictional characters of all time.

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When I first set eyes on Evelyn Barton-Forbes she was walking the streets of Rome–(I am informed, by the self-appointed critic who reads over my shoulder as I write, that I have already committed an error. If those seemingly simple English words do indeed imply that which I am told they imply to the vulgar, I must in justice to Evelyn find other phrasing.)

In justice to myself, however, I must insist that Evelyn was doing precisely what I have said she was doing, but with no ulterior purpose in mind. Indeed, the poor girl had no purpose and no means of carrying it out if she had. Our meeting was fortuitous, but fortunate. I had, as I always have, purpose enough for two.

I had left my hotel that morning in considerable irritation of spirits. My plans had gone awry. I am not accustomed to having my plans go awry. Sensing my mood, my small Italian guide trailed behind me in silence. Piero was not silent when I first encountered him, in the lobby of the hotel, where, in common with others of his kind, he awaited the arrival of helpless foreign visitors in need of a translator and guide. I selected him from amid the throng because his appearance was a trifle less villainous than that of the others.

I was well aware of the propensity of these fellows to bully, cheat, and otherwise take advantage of the victims who employ them, but I had no intention of being victimized. It did not take me long to make this clear to Piero. My first act was to bargain ruthlessly with the shopkeeper to whom Piero took me to buy silk. The final price was so low that Piero’s commission was reduced to a negligible sum. He expressed his chagrin to his compatriot in his native tongue, and included in his tirade several personal comments on my appearance and manner. I let him go on for some time and then interrupted him with a comment on his manners. I speak Italian, and understand it, quite well. After that, Piero and I got on admirably. I had not employed him because I required an interpreter, but because I wanted someone to carry parcels and run errands.

My God, that incredible, incredible voice.

By the end of the second page, I was madly in love with Amelia Peabody; by the end of the third, I wanted to be Amelia Peabody. How could you not love her? She’s fiercely intelligent, even more fiercely independent, spoke her mind, got straight to the point, and had no desire whatsoever to deal with frivolities, sentimentality, and so forth. The youngest child and only daughter of a classics scholar, her six older brothers got married and left her home to take care of their father. She speaks four languages fluently, and frequently curses the accident of birth that left her a female. Her father died and left her everything–which her brothers thought was fair, until it turned out he was a lot richer than anyone thought and had left her half a million pounds, which was an insane amount of money in the late nineteenth century. Unmarried at thirty-two, she considers herself to be too plain, too old, and too sharp-tongued to ever marry, and has decided she is going to die a spinster. (I could never respect a man who would allow his wife to dominate him, but at the same time I could never allow any man to dominate me.) She decides to use her fortune to travel to visit the places she’s always dreamed of and read about in books–which is what brings her to Rome, along with her paid companion–whom she doesn’t care for, and just chance puts her in the forum at the same time as Evelyn, who faints and Peabody, of course, takes charge. She decides to help Evelyn–who was seduced away from her wealthy family and “ruined”, as well as cut off, and she’d come to Rome with the man she thought she loved only to be abandoned by him, with no clothes but what she is wearing and not a penny to her name. Peabody and Evelyn hit it off, she sends the paid companion back to England and engages Evelyn as her new companion, and they depart for Egypt.

So, now two of our players are now in place; it’s time to meet the other two. Once they are all checked in at Shepheard’s in Cairo, Peabody is quickly besotted with Egypt, and pyramids, in particular–and reading Peabody’s descriptions of the country, you cannot help but fall in love with it, too (not a problem for me; I was already there before I read the book). They go to the Antiquities Museum one afternoon–the director was a friend of Peabody’s father–and Peabody is put off by how disheveled and disorganized–and dusty–everything is. She picks up a dusty pot and begins to wipe the dust from it, only to have an enormous man explode with rage at her. They give each other what-for–they are suitably matched in that regard–and this is Emerson, archaeologist with a passion for discovery and knowledge and preserving the past. Emerson’s brother makes apologies, and a spark is lit between Walter and Evelyn. Soon, the Emersons are off to their dig at Amarna, and Peabody and Evelyn rent a sailboat–a dahabeeyah, to be exact–and begin their trip down the Nile.

Naturally, they stop at Amarna, and stumble into quite a bizarre mystery, which includes an animated mummy and several attempts on our troop’s lives. But the four are definitely up to the task–there are times when I laughed out loud–and hilariously, while both Peabody and Emerson become quite irritated with Walter and Evelyn, who can’t see that the other is madly in love with them; Peabody and Emerson are also falling in love, and refuse to see it, bickering and fighting and–oh, it’s just wonderful and charming, and I know I am failing to do the magnificent Ms. Peters’ work any kind of justice. Amanda is just so, so wonderfully fearless and courageous and pure, and doesn’t even worry about her own safety when those she loves are in danger. The book has a most satisfying resolution, and I remember putting it down that first (much as I do every time I reread it) with a happy smile on my face. The Peabody and Emerson books bring me a lot of joy.

I devoured the entire series, loving them all–the way Peters deftly ages her characters and deepens their relationships, and of course the children…one thing that will always make The Last Camel Died at Noon special for me was that was also the adventure that introduced our merry band of archaeologists to Nofret–and therein lies another tale, for yet another time.

I am so, so delighted I reread Crocodile on the Sandbank. If you’ve not read this series, you really should treat yourself to it, because it is just that: the most amazing gift you can give yourself.

He Stopped Loving Her Today

I put off making a grocery run from Saturday to Sunday, like a fool, only to discover the Baronne Street Rouse’s closed for Easter this year; I decided not to go to the one in Uptown because I didn’t feel like driving all the way down there only to find out the drive had been in vain. I did stop at the gas station–filled it up for slightly more than fifteen dollars, something that’s never happened since I bought the thing–and then at Walgreens to get a few things I could get there. It was weird navigating the empty streets of New Orleans; I was reminded very much of that time post-Katrina when I came back and most of the city was empty. I itched to turn stop lights into stop signs–and at one point did stop at a stop sign and wait for it to change. It was weird, very weird–the vast emptiness of streets that are usually filled with cars and seeing more people than the beggars at the intersections. Had the stop lights not have been working, the similarities would have been even eerier.

And of course, people were going through red lights and ignoring all rules of traffic, because they clearly were the only people our driving. #cantfixtrash

I managed to eke out another thousand words on the Sherlock story,  and I was enormously pleased to make some sort of progress.  It’s very weird because I am trying out the Doyle voice and style–which I am neither familiar with nor used to–which makes the going perhaps slower than it ordinarily would be. At least I hope that’s the case, at any rate; it’s been so long since I’ve actually written anything or worked on anything and gotten anywhere with it, I sometimes fear that I’ve fallen out of the habit and practice of writing. (I always worry the ability to write–the ability to create–is going to go away and leave me, particularly in time of crisis; my reaction to the Time of Troubles, sadly, wasn’t to retreat into my writing but rather to stop almost entirely.)

Yesterday was rather delightful; the entire weekend was lovely. It’s always nice to get rest, to sleep well, to be able to read and occasionally do some writing. I am very deep into Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting and, while I do distinctly remember enjoying the book when I read it, I am loving it more than I would have thought (as I have with the other recent Stewart rereads); perhaps as a writer myself and an older person, it resonates more? I can appreciate the artistry more? I don’t know, but I am really glad I decided to revisit Stewart novels I’ve not read in decades again. I just can’t get over how she brilliantly she undercuts the governess/Jane Eyre trope, and how easily she does it. Truly remarkable. I also finished it before bed, and it’s marvelous, simply marvelous–and will be the subject of another blog post.

We started watching Devs on Hulu last night, which people have been raving about, and while I give it a lot of props for production values…it moved so slowly I kept checking my social media on my iPad. It was vaguely interesting, sort of, but we just couldn’t get vested in it–there was a bit of a show-offy nature to it; like they were going overboard in saying see how good we are? We’re an important show and we’re going to win all the Emmys. I doubt we’ll go back to it, especially since Killing Eve is back, and Dead to Me is coming back for its second season; something else we watch was also returning relatively soon, too–and of course, I just remembered I pay for CBS All Access; not sure why, but there are some shows on there I’d like to watch, like the new Star Trek shows and Jordan Peele’s reboot of The Twilight Zone. (But you see what I’m saying about paying too much for too many streaming services? I really need to pay more attention to that, and one of these days I’m going to need to sit down, figure out what we need and what we don’t need, and cut some of these services off once and for all.

I think my next reread for the Reread Project is going to be the first in Elizabeth Peters’ amazing Amelia Peabody series, Crocodile on the Sandbank. There’s an Amelia Peabody fan account on Twitter (@teamramses) that I follow; they usually post quotes from the books and occasionally run polls, and they also reminded me of how I discovered the series. I originally found it on the wire rack (when I replied to the tweet, I got it wrong; I said I found it on the paperback rack at Walgreens; wrong drug store chain) of paperbacks at a Long’s drugstore in Fresno. I was still deep in the thrall of Victoria Holt, Phyllis A. Whitney, and Mary Stewart at the time, and here was another romantic suspense novel SET IN EGYPT, by an author I didn’t know. I absolutely loved the book, and looked for more books by Elizabeth Peters the next time I went to Waldenbooks at the mall–but they didn’t have any, and eventually I forgot about her. Flash forward many years, and a title of a new paperback on the new releases rack at Waldenbooks and More jumped out at me: The Last Camel Died at Noon. What a great title! I had to buy it, took it home, and started reading it….and you can imagine my delight, and joy, to discover that Crocodile on the Sandbank was not, in fact, a stand alone, but rather the first in a series I was bound to love. I went back and started the series over from the beginning, collecting them all, and I also started buying them as new releases in hardcover because I couldn’t wait for the paperback. It might not actually be a bad idea to revisit the entire series…I also think The Last Camel Died at Noon (it’s still one of my favorite titles of all time) was when I discovered Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels were both the pseudonyms of archaeologist Dr. Barbara Mertz, and I went on a delightful period of reading all of their backlists as well.

One of my biggest regrets of my writing career–in which I’ve met so many of my writing heroes–is that I was never able to meet Dr. Mertz before she died. She was going to be the guest of honor at the first Malice Domestic I attended, but she was too ill and she died shortly thereafter. But one thing I learned, from reading all of her books–but especially the Peters novels–was that humor can work in a suspense/mystery novel, and can make a reader engage even more with it. Dr. Mertz was also a master of the great opening line. In one of the Vicky Bliss novels, for example–I think Silhouette in Scarlet–opens with this treasure: “I swear, this time it was not my fault.”

And while I have been cleared to return to work today, my failure in deciding to wait until Easter to go to the grocery store, as well as forgetting an integral and necessary part to my working at home today at the office over a week ago means that I decided to use today as a vacation day, and try to get all the remaining loose odds and ends (mail, groceries) taken care of today, and return to the actual office tomorrow. (I am going to do the windows today if it kills me.) Yesterday we were supposed to have bad thunderstorms, and while the air got thick and heavy, it never actually rained here–although the rest of Louisiana was blasted with these same storms that somehow chose to avoid New Orleans–there were even tornadoes in Monroe.

The weirdest thing to come out of this whole experience has been my sudden, new addiction to my Kindle app on my iPad, which has me thinking that I can do a massive purge/cull  of my books now, keeping only the ones I can’t replace, if needed, as ebooks. I’ve avoided reading electronically for so long, but I find with my Kindle app I can just put the iPad to the side for a little while and pick it up again when I have a moment or so to read. I tore through all the Mary Stewart novels I’ve reread recently on the Kindle app, and that’s where my copy of Crocodile on the Sandbank is. I doubt that I’m going to get rid of all my books any time soon–there are still some I want to keep, obviously, and it’s not like I can afford right now to go to the Amazon website or the iBooks one and replace everything right now anyway…but then again, I think, you’d only need replace them when you’re ready to read them, right?

I am literally torn here.

And on that note, I am going to head into the spice mines. I made some great progress on the Sherlock story–it now clocks in at over two thousand words, and I’d like to get a working first draft finished, if not today, then before the weekend so I can edit it and the other story that’s due by the end of the month as well over the course of the weekend. April is beginning to slip through my fingers, and while I am still not completely certain of what day it is every day, I’m getting better about figuring it all out.

Have a lovely Monday, Constant Reader.

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Crazy

And just like that, it’s Good Friday.

What’s so good about it? Well, if you live in a deeply Catholic state like Louisiana, that means it’s a paid holiday, which is certainly always welcomed in these parts. I never say no to a paid holiday–anything else would simply be madness.

Today I woke up after about ten hours of solid, uninterrupted sleep–I will usually wake up at least once or twice during the night–and my body feels almost completely back to normal now. Whatever that was that I had (and I am not convinced that my test result wasn’t a false negative, frankly–how bizarre that a usually healthy person came down with something–not once, but TWICE–that completely mirrored the majority of symptoms of COVID-19; regardless, I lived through it and it’s over now, thank you Baby Jesus on a Good Friday) seems to be gone now; I feel terrific, haven’t coughed in days, and the only reason I felt warm yesterday was because it was hot outside and it was daytime in New Orleans; air conditioning can only do so much in an old house in this climate–although rather than suffering through that down here this afternoon, maybe I’ll just go read in bed, and take the laptop with me just in case; for some reason it’s much cooler upstairs this year than downstairs, which makes absolutely no sense.

I finished reading Ammie, Come Home yesterday and you can read that entry here, if you missed it. I then moved on to Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic, and remembered just how magical Mary Stewart was as a story-teller. I read most of Mary Stewart’s works when I was a teenager, with The Ivy Tree and Airs Above the Ground as my two particular favorites; the ones I would always grab from the shelf when I wanted to reread one of her books. The others I don’t remember quite as much; primarily because I didn’t reread them as frequently, if at all, as the other two. I hadn’t much liked The Moon-spinners the first time; I loved it all the more on the reread. Likewise, my memory of This Rough Magic was similar; I enjoyed it but never went back to it. (In fact, my mind I’d mixed up plot elements of the two books; I thought all the stuff with the dolphin was in The Moon-spinners; it’s actually in This Rough Magic.) I also only have a copy of the ebook–which I never read, really, other than for short story collections or anthologies–but there I was yesterday afternoon, reading the ebook of a novel on my iPad for the first time with a purring kitty in my lap and music playing through my speakers in the kitchen. It was quite lovely, and quite relaxing. A breakthrough? Only the future will tell.

I also read Harlan Ellison’s Edgar Award winning short story “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” yesterday; it was a part of his collection Deathbird Stories, which I had in hard copy but purchased the ebook on sale recently. I need to write a blog entry about it, and the other story from the same collection I’d read, “On the Downhill Side”, which was quite lovely and quite magical, particularly in the way he wrote about New Orleans, where the story was set; he did something that was absolutely genius–which is what everyone who writes about New Orleans but has never lived here should probably do when they decide to write about New Orleans. (There’s a snobbery all New Orleanians, and New Orleans writers, all have about people who aren’t from here but choose to set their fiction here; like everything, there’s good and bad elements to that snobbery. But even journalists doing features on New Orleans fuck it up, and fuck it up badly, so we’re always suspicious of outsiders writing about our beloved city.)

I need to get back to writing, now that I no longer have empty head from whatever it was I had these past two weeks; I have some things that are close to being due, I need to get that Sherlock story focused on and written, and I’ve also agreed to do an essay about my story “The Silky Veils of Ardor” for The First Two Pages blog. In order to get back on track with writing and everything that needs to be done around the Lost Apartment before I return to work (once I am cleared; I am certain I’ll be cleared to return on Monday) so I have a strong grasp on everything. I also need to prioritize things and not allow things to detract from my writing time and my writing career. I realized recently that I will not have a book out this year, which isn’t good, and if I’m not careful I won’t have a book out next year, either. So I need to get this other stuff finished and out of the way so I can get Bury Me in Shadows finished and turned in, then do the same with the Kansas book. I also have to get back to the Secret Project; so the goals for this month are to get all these loose odds and ends finished so I can focus on getting the books done. And if I focus, and don’t allow myself to get distracted, there’s absolutely no reason why I can’t get all that taken care of so I can focus on the novels this summer.

So, for today, I am going to work on my Sherlock story and my Venice story while trying to get everything around here cleaned and organized–cleaning and organizing may seem like me trying to procrastinate, but really, I can’t work when my office area is messy–and I will try to get as much done around here as I can until around four or five, when I’ll allow myself a few hours to read more of This Rough Magic. The books need work, too–it’s time to do another cull–and it’s been weeks since I’ve had the energy to take on the floors. Maybe even this weekend I’ll drag the ladder outside and do the windows around my desk–they are filthy, after all–so clearly I am starting to feel better because not only am I noticing these things, I’m paying attention to them, and they bother me; so I am definitely myself again.

And on that note, tis time to get back into the spice mines. It’s been awhile, and it’s going to feel pretty good, methinks.

Happy Good Friday, everyone.

febTomas Skoloudik3

Mighty Love

I love nothing more than a great ghost story (which is why, although I loved the book, I was enormously disappointed with Peter Straub’s Ghost Story; it’s an amazing novel and a horror classic and one of my favorite horror novels of all time, but it is emphatically not a ghost story). I’m not sure why I love them so much, but even as a kid, reading the mysteries for kids I always gravitated towards the ones with some kind of ghostly title: The Ghost of Blackwood Hall, The Haunted Fort, The Phantom of Pine Hill, The Ghost at Skeleton Rock, The Haunted Showboat, The Ghost in the Gallery, etc. The ghosts and hauntings in these books were never real–just like the ghosts and monsters on Scooby Doo Where Are You? weren’t–but I still was drawn to them.

There was an ABC Movie of the Week when I was really young that I absolutely loved: The House That Would Not Die. It starred Barbara Stanwyck as a woman who moved into a house she’d inherited from a relative, along with her niece, and of course, the house turned out to be haunted. The story was terrific and it scared me a lot–and you can never go wrong with Barbara Stanwyck; I may even have watched it with my grandmother, who was a big Stanwyck fan. A few years later, we were somewhere–some people my parents knew had invited us over for dinner, and before and after, as the adults, my sister and I were deposited in the den to watch television and entertain ourselves while behaving. They had books, which I gravitated towards, I pulled down a volume of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and found a ghost story inside. As I started reading, I was drawn into it and I realized it was the same plot, the same story, of the TV movie I’d liked, and kept reading. I read the entire thing that evening–it was condensed, after all–and thought, oh, I’d like to see that movie again.

Flash forward and I am in college, browsing in a second-hand bookstore when I find a worn paperback copy of the book. Pleased and delighted at the opportunity to not only read it again but read the entire version? For fifty cents? Absolutely.

It was Ammie, Come Home, which is one of my favorite ghost stories, and favorite novels, of all time. It was written by Barbara Michaels–for another dollar I picked up two more of her novels, Witch and House of Many Shadows. I loved all three books, but I’ve always preferred Ammie, considered it my favorite. Over the years Michaels–and her alter-ego, Elizabeth Peters-became one of my favorite writers of all time. I love her books, no matter what the name or brand or whatever you want to call it; they are all witty, with strong, likable female characters, there’s some little dash of romantic interest involved in all of them, and a very strong suspense component. The Peters novels were more mysteries; the Michaels sometimes involved the supernatural, and sometimes they didn’t.

But, oh, how I love Ammie, Come Home, and I recently, during my isolation, took it down and made it a part of this year Reread Project.

Ammie Come Home Barbara Michaels Fawcett Crest 1968 harry bennet cover art

By five o’clock it was almost dark, which was not surprising, since the month was November; but Ruth kept glancing uneasily toward the windows at the far end of the room. It was a warm, handsome room, furnished in the style of a past century, with furniture whose present value would have astonished the original owners.. Only the big overstuffed sodas, which face one another before the fireplace, were relatively modern. Their ivory brocade upholstery fitted the blue-and-white color scheme, which has been based upon the delicate Wedgwood plaques set in the mantel. A cheerful fire burned on the hearth, sending sparks dancing from the crystal glasses on the coffee table and turning the sherry in the cut-glass decanter the color of melted copper. Since her niece had come to stay with her, Ruth had set out glasses and wine every evening. It was a pleasant ritual, which they both enjoyed even when it was followed by nothing more elegant than hamburgers. But tonight Sara was late.

The darkening windows blossomed yellow as the streetlights went on; and Ruth rose to draw the curtains. She lingered at the window, one hand absently stroking the pale blue satin. Sara’s class had been over at three-thirty…

And, Ruth reminded herself sternly, Sara was twenty years old. When she agreed to board her niece while the girl attended the Foreign Service Institute at a local university, she had not guaranteed full-time baby-sitting. Sara, of course, considered herself an adult. However, to Ruth her niece still had the touching, terrifying illusion of personal invulnerability which is an unmistakable attribute of youth. And the streets of Washington–ven of this ultrafashionable section–were not completely safe after dark,

Even at the dying time of year, with a bleak dusk lowering, the view from Ruth’s window retained some of the famous charm of Georgetown, a charm based on formal architecture and the awareness of age. Nowadays that antique grace was rather self-conscious; after decades of neglect, the eighteenth century houses of the old town had become fashionable again, and now they had the sleek, smug look born of painstaking restoration and a lot of money.

Ammie, Come Home is possibly one of the best constructed, if not the very best, ghost stories I’ve ever read. As you can see from the opening paragraphs, Michaels does an exceptional job of setting everything up, giving us insights into her main character, Ruth Bennett, and her relationship with her niece. We go on to find out that Ruth is probably in her mid to late forties, was widowed in World War II, never remarried, and for the most part, it’s implied that her husband’s death pretty much was the end of any romance in her life; something she isn’t terribly interested in. This is, of course, foreshadowing–but not the way the reader might think. Yes, in the opening scene of the book, which features her niece Sara getting a ride home from one of her professors, that ah, yes, Ruth and Dr. Pat MacDougal are going to fall in love-but there’s more to Ruth’s history than that, which of course is the mark of the truly terrific writer. We also glean that childless Ruth has grown deeply fond of her niece Sara–and disapproves of Sara’s boyfriend Bruce (mainly because of his youth, the way he dresses, and what she thinks of as his smug superiority).

(This last, by the way, is the only part of the book that feels dated. Written and originally published in the 1960’s, Sara and Bruce are both college students and Pat works at a college–he’s a cultural anthropologist with a specialty in superstitions and rituals–so, as anyone who knows anything about the 1960’s knows, it was a decade of youthful rebellion and anti-establishmentarianism. There are occasional asides from both Ruth and Pat about the generation gap–this was also the first time this phrase was used, during this period–where the kids want to make change. There are a few mild arguments over that, but it’s always very good natured and never gets very deep. But the very generation gap is part of the structure of the novel; when strange things start happening in Ruth’s home, particularly involving Sara–Ruth and Pat immediately think of mental illness; Bruce is the only one open-minded enough to see the truth; that the house is haunted by a malevolent spirit–and there may even be more than one.)

It’s also very clever of Michaels to use that generational divide to explore the notions of the supernatural and a spirit world–because Bruce is given a forty-eight hour deadline to convince the older two in their quartet that Sara isn’t mentally ill but is being haunted. So, as Bruce convinces them–helped by more apparitions and events in the house–the reader is also being convinced that what’s going on in the house is supernatural in origin. How she does it is a master class in suspense/horror writing; and there are some lines that just the reader to the bone: And what looked back at her through Sara’s eyes was not Sara.

The ghost hunters eventually get to the bottom of the haunting of the old house in Georgetown by finding out the deeply hidden truth about what happened there centuries earlier, and finally freeing the spirits trapped to the house.

And maybe the creepiest, yet saddest, thing is the disembodied voice they hear, over and over, in the back yard, calling Ammie….come home…..come home…..Ammie…. —which is described as “it sounded like what the wind would sound like if it had a voice.”

And despite the dated 1960’s references, the book still holds up, over forty years later.

I rediscovered Michaels in the mid to late 1980’s, which was when I also discovered that she also wrote the Elizabeth Peters novels, and that the absolutely delightful Crocodile on the Sandbank, which I’d loved, wasn’t merely a stand alone, but the first book in a long-running, and completely fantastic, series featuring heiress Amelia Peabody and her Egyptologist husband Emerson. There isn’t a single dud in the Amelia Peabody series–and there are smart, funny, clever, and intricately plotted–and over the years the Peabody-Emerson clan had children, raised them, and those children grew up to be involved in the adventures of their parents–and every book, save one, actually took place in Egypt at the turn of the twentieth century. I need to reread Crocodile on the Sandbank, and in fact, would love to revisit the entire series. She wrote two other series as Elizabeth Peters as well–the Vicky Bliss series and the Jacqueline Kirby–as well as stand alones; every Peters novel is a gem, as is every novel she wrote as Barbara Michaels.

And now back to the spice mines.