A Walk on the Wild Side

When I was a kid, my grandmother got me started watching the 3:30 afternoon movies on WGN (I think); most of them were classic old Hollywood movies (where my affections for Stanwyck, Crawford, Davis and Hepburn began) but essentially, they were usually older films or ones that had already been shown once or twice in prime time before being relegated to afternoon and late night. They were also edited for content and for “appropriate” viewing for kids–since we were all home to watch–and housewives. I remember watching A Walk on the Wild Side with Barbara Stanwyck and Jane Fonda, but it didn’t make a lot of sense–primarily because it was a racy film and they’d shredded it to get it past television censors; every once in a while I think oh you should watch it again because you can probably get the unedited theatrical version through some service or another but never get around to it. A friend recently posted that he was going to watch it that evening, which led me down a rabbit hole which ended with me discovering that it was based on a novel (which I hadn’t known), and that the author was the same man who also wrote The Man with the Golden Arm, which was made into a rather good film with Frank Sinatra, Nelson Algren. Algren was one of those literary lions who was championed and respected by critics and literature professors–The Man with the Golden Arm won the very first National Book Award–but seems to be relatively forgotten today. My pompous and condescending Lit professors in college certainly never assigned us any Algren; so it made me rather curious. I had also forgotten that a significant part of the story is actually set in New Orleans–which was all it took for me to get a copy.

I finished reading it as my flight to New York was taxiing to the gate.

“He’s just a pore lonesome wife-left feller,” the more understanding said of Fitz Linkhorn, “losin’ his old lady is what crazied him.”

“That man in so contrary,” the less understanding said, “if you throwed him in the river he’d float upstream.

For what had embittered Fitz had no name. Yet he felt that every daybreak duped him into waking and every evening conned him into sleep. The feeling of having been cheated–of having been cheated–that was it. Nobody knew why nor by whom.

But only that all was lost. Lost long ago, in some colder country. Lost anew by the generations since. He kept trying to wind his fingers about this feeling, at times like an ancestral hunger; again like some secret wound. It was there, if a man could get it out into the light, as palpable as the blood in his veins. Someone just behind him kept turning him against himself till his very strength was a weakness. Weaker men, full of worldly follies, did better than Linkhorn in the world. He saw with every enviously slow-burning.

“I ain’t a-playin’ the whore to no man,” he would declare himself, though no one had so charged him.

Six-foot-one of slack-muscled shambler, he came of a shambling race. That gander-necked clan from which Calhoun and Jackson sprang. Jesse James’ and Jeff Davis’ people. Lincoln’s people. Forest solitaries spare and swart, left landless as ever in sandland and Hooverville now the time of the forests has passed.

Whites called them “white trash” and Negroes “po’buckra.” Since the first rock has risen about the moving waters there had been not a single prince in Fitzbrian’s branch of the Linkhorn clan.

Sigh, where to being with this?

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way–the book is very, very dated. There’s language and mentalities and attitudes–while probably common usage for the time it is set as well as the time it was written, we’ve progressed a lot since then–that do no hold up today and made me wince as I came across them–and not just about race, either; there’s a lot of misogyny and ableism pervading the manuscript. There’s also not really a story here, either; the book focuses on Ftiz Linkhorn’s son Dove, who becomes involved with a diner owner but then robs her and takes off riding freight trains to New Orleans. He encounters a young runaway–Kitty Pride–on the trains but they become separated, and he gets to New Orleans on his own and becomes one of the con artists who always seem to proliferate here, but the focus of the middle of the book turns away from Dove and to Dockery, who runs a bar and bordello on Perdido Street (where they moved after Storyville was shut down) and the story shifts to some of the hookers, the bordello owner, and Dove exists only on the periphery; Dove actually becomes a sex worker–it kind of glosses over that he gets paid to let people watch him deflower a virgin (who is actually another one of the bordello girls)–while he learns how to read and write, learning from one of the hookers with whom he is kind of involved with, which brings him into conflict with a former professional wrestler and circus worker who has lost his legs–and Dove gradually winds up going back to south Texas, back where he came from, no better off or worse than when he left.

The writing is very good–I marked some pages that had some insightful sentences that were beautifully constructed–but over all, this falls into the category of what I (snidely) refer to as “mid-twentieth century straight white man MFA style.” We don’t need a story with a beginning, middle and end; we don’t need to see character growth or development; Dove is precisely the same person he was when the book opened. There’s also no real depth to any of the characters; it’s written in an omniscient point of view, like someone is telling you the story but because it’s being narrated, we don’t really get to know any of the characters–who they are and what makes them tick and what makes them behave the way they do–and this is something I’ve always taken issue with when it comes to books about the poor and those who lived on the margins; Algren creates these fascinating characters but gives them no complexity or depth, because they are poor, we are led to believe, they are simple and stupid and incapable of growth and since those kinds of people aren’t really people–we don’t need to see any of their humanity, therefore we are unable to identify with any of the characters or even feel empathy for any of them; which we really should. Why write about these characters and this world and this life if we aren’t going to get any insight? For me, it felt like a peepshow; he’s holding back the curtain to give us a peek into the lives of desperate people but in more of a “point and moralize” way which I frankly didn’t like or enjoy. It felt like poverty porn to me (don’t even get me started on The Grapes of Wrath), and he didn’t even remark on the symbolism of these bordellos and bars being located on Perdido Street–perdido means lost in Spanish–and rather than feeling any sympathy or rooting for these characters, they just left me cold since we didn’t understand their motivations or who they were or had any insight into why they were doing the things they were doing.

I don’t regret reading the book–I never even thought about putting it aside and not finishing–so that’s something. I was just disappointed, I guess, by the lack of insight. I guess that’s why I enjoy genre fiction so much; characters are everything in genre fiction, and I want to know the characters I am reading about rather than just having the curtain pulled back and being a passive viewer at the window into their lives.

(And yes, Lou Reed did get the title for his classic song from the title of this book and film.)

Under the Boardwalk

My last work-at-home day for 2022, and technically my last day of work for the year at the day job. It still freaks me out a little, or doesn’t feel right, to write 2022 on my clinical testing forms; 2023 is going to be even stranger to write. Where the hell has this decade gone already? It’s almost 2023. I certainly didn’t think I’d make it this far, yet here I am.

It got up into the seventies again yesterday–we literally went from the mid-sixties to a hard freeze back to the seventies in about a week–which is why you can never write about New Orleans without writing about the weather. Our weather affects everything here, and can change everything happening and going on in a matter of hours. It also messes with your moods and how you feel–how can your sinuses adapt to such dramatic weather changes in such a short period of time? And that’s not even taking into consideration the humidity and rain. You always have to plan your day and your life around the weather here, and you ignore it at your own peril (he said, having been caught unawares in enough flash-flooding events to know whereof he speaks). With a great HVAC system I didn’t find myself minding the cold quite as much this past weekend, but don’t get me wrong–I’m not sorry to see it gone, and good riddance to it.

I also had a ridiculous amount of chores to do last night when I finished work. Two loads of dishes, two loads of laundry, and of course I had to do something about the refrigerator, and since I was already doing chores I decided to go ahead and launder the living room comfort blankets and do something about the floors (a chore I’ve been avoiding for far longer than I dare to admit publicly, given my reputation as a housekeeper). I decided not to try for my quota for the day, which of course increased today’s quota, but thought it best to go ahead and reread everything I’ve been doing and get a better sense of things so I can figure out how to get to the end of the book from where I’m at now. Sometimes it’s best to relax and let the muscles rest when you’ve been pushing them for a while; burn out is always a fear, and I suspected yesterday that I was reaching that point and should probably rest from it for at least the night, while planning what to do next. I do have a lovely three day weekend looming, and if I ignore college football bowl games–which shouldn’t be difficult to do–I should be able to leisurely get this done and sent off Monday.

Whew.

I’m still a little tired this morning, and it’s gray outside. Ah, yes, a quick glance at the weather (I seem obsessed this morning with the weather, I know) and it appears that we’ll be having thunderstorms for most of the day. I do have to go out into the outer world at some point today–the postal service is closed tomorrow through Monday–so I won’t be able to get the mail again until after work on Tuesday. I should also spend a little time figuring out what, if anything, I need from the grocery store so I don’t have to leave the house again until Tuesday morning. That’s really turning into my biggest contest–how long can I go without leaving the house? (Along with “how few showers can I take this weekend? ” and “How long can I go without cleaning the house?” These do not speak well of me, I am well aware.) I also am going back to reading Nelson Algren’s A Walk on the Wild Side, after my break from it to read Donna Andrews for Christmas; it’s slow going because it’s an old book written in twentieth century cis-white male literary style, which is something I don’t really care for as a general rule. But I do want to read the parts where the main character (whose backstory is currently being explored) gets to New Orleans and experiences the demimonde; I’d also like to see the film, which I haven’t ever viewed. (I know, right? Barbara Stanwyck and Jane Fonda and I’ve never seen it? Bad gay, bad gay.)

After getting the chores done–Paul didn’t come home until late again–I spent some time read Bad Gays: A Homosexual History by Huw Lemmey and Ben Miller, which takes a look at some gay men in history who weren’t exactly role models for gay men or behavior–some of whom I had heard of, others I had not– which is an interesting approach (usually writers and historians are always looking for positive role models, or take normal human beings and idealize them into heroes). I was a little disappointed to see that my favorite historical homo wasn’t included–Philippe d’Orleans, younger brother of Louis XIV and known as Monsieur (I’ve always wanted to write about Monsieur, he fascinates me to this day)–but the authors did include James I of England and Frederick the Great, so no complaints on royal representation in the book. (But if you’re looking for bad examples of gay men in history, choosing James I over Richard the Lion-Hearted or Edward II was an interesting decision.) I read the sections on Oscar Wilde and Bosie, Frederick the Great, and James I (primarily because the most ambitious book idea I’ve ever had involved James I’s successor as well as his last love, George Villiers Duke of Buckingham); and I enjoyed them. They weren’t very in depth, as they were only given a chapter, so they were at best slightly superficial, but it was interesting to read. I really do need to read a biography of Frederick the Great, who has fascinated me since I was a kid (again, interesting that even as a child I was fascinated by a king who turned out to be gay in the long run); I’ve read histories of Prussia and Europe and other monarchs of the period, but biographies of Frederick aren’t as easy to come by as say, biographies of any Tudor, the Wars of the Roses, or Louis XIV. (Try finding a biography of Louis XIII or said George Villiers, for that matter. There are quite a few of Cardinal Richelieu–but not as many as one would think. Americans seem to be more interested in British history than anything else, and not many of them at that.)

Lightning just flashed, and it’s getting grayer outside, never a good sign for the weather in New Orleans. Then again, spending a little time reading this morning during a thunderstorm while drinking my coffee before starting my work-at-home duties could be just the ticket for kick-starting this day into high gear, so on that note, I am heading into the spice mines.

It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Ah, yes, time for hot men in Christmas clothing. I usually wait and just do the twelve days of Christmas thematically here, but I have neither the time nor the inclination to figure that out. And why not do an extra couple of days of holiday cheer? We could always use more cheer and happiness and joy in this sometimes grim and grotesque world and life. Today is going to be dedicated to three things: more work on my book, picking up the groceries I ordered, and making potato-leek soup. I’m also going to spend some time this morning reading. I finished Wanda Morris’ marvelous Anywhere You Run yesterday, and started Nelson Ahlgren’s A Walk on the Wild Side. Someone on Facebook had posted they were going to watch the film (starring Barbara Stanwyck and Jane Fonda) and I, who have never seen it, vaguely remembered it was connected to New Orleans. I did some research and yes, sure enough, it was indeed a novel first; and since it’s about the demimonde here in the 1930’s, I figured it was a necessary read for my understanding of the past of the city and perhaps even a needed read for the canon of New Orleans fiction. No one ever talks about this book in connection with the city, maybe because Ahlgren wasn’t a native? One can never be completely sure, can one? So, I will probably read some of that for about an hour–I like the idea of dedicating one hour every day to reading; maybe that will help me get through the ever-growing TBR pile. I know I wanted to do some Christmas reading–I am saving Donna Andrews’ Dashing Through the Snowbirds for Christmas day as a gift to myself–and I have some Christmas crime short story collections on hand as well, so I could do a story a day–maybe that will be what I do for the Twelve Days? Not a bad idea.

I slept well last night, which was a lovely experience–Scooter cuddled and purred with my for most of the night, which helped me enormously; making us doze off is truly his super-power–and woke up at a decent hour this morning. I think I am going to be able to get a lot more work done on the book than I did yesterday. It’s finally taking shape and I know where I am going with it along the way now, so I have to revise and redo the first half of the book to get it in line with how the final act will play out. I got started on it yesterday, and the story makes a lot more sense now than it did (and that is not me being hard on myself, either; what I had already done wasn’t badly written, it was just disjointed and had a lot of info dumps that have to be put into the story in a more organic way). I pulled up Spotify yesterday and listened to music while I worked on the book–Paul wasn’t home–which was cool. I listened to the Liza Minnelli that was produced by the Pet Shop Boys (it is truly outstanding; give it a listen sometime) and then cycled through some Pet Shop Boys albums as that was clearly the musical theme of the day. Paul will be home today, so I’ll probably just put in my ear buds and listen that way–I’d forgotten what a difference having music on makes to my writing and productivity.

We watched another true crime documentary last night, The Lost Boys of Bucks County, which–similar to the ones we were watching about the Murtaugh family–shows again the difference in how the law treats the wealthy and powerful as opposed to people that are considered unimportant and disposable. “They were just trash to be thrown away,” someone said towards the end of this sad story, in which four young men were pointlessly murdered over the course of three days. I’ve been thinking about–toying with, teasing it around inside my brain for quite some time–writing a suburban serial killer in the 1970’s book, based on the suburb where I lived for five years and the life people lived there, and then grafting a serial killer based on Houston’s Candyman onto the story. I’d been calling it Where the Boys Die for quite some time now, which I don’t think is the right title for this story; Where the Boys Die is a spring-break revenge spree killing story, and I think this one should be The Summer of Lost Boys or something along those lines. I know, I know, I talk about books I want to write all the time and never seem to get around to…but I think 2023 is going to be the year of finishing things that aren’t finished and getting them out of the way. Groan, that’s going to be a lot of work…but the kind of work I love doing, so there’s also that–and yes, I am well aware that I always have to force myself to do things I love. What can I say? I love being lazy and doing nothing the most out of everything.

When I was at home for Thanksgiving, my recently retired brother-in-law asked me what my plans for Retirement were. I know what he was really asking–my family is nothing if not predictable (are you going to move up here to be close to us once you no longer have a job? because it does not compute to any of them on any level that it’s not my job that anchors me in New Orleans. I live here because I choose to live in New Orleans, and I love it here. They can’t imagine making any such decision that would keep them out of the bosom of the family deliberately.)–but I chose to respond with “Well, I can’t wait for it to come. Counting the days” and he replied, “Oh, you’re in for a big surprise–you might want to hold your horses a bit on that.” He meant well, and I know what he meant; he’s been bored since he retired and the adjustment to not having to be somewhere for a set amount of time Monday through Friday hasn’t been easy. It wasn’t easy for my father, either–still isn’t. They, and other men of their generations, were conditioned to work and to identify their selves with their job and the work. That isn’t me. I love my job, don’t get me wrong–it’s the perfect fit for me on every level, and even now the only thing I don’t like about it is we no longer have non-traditional hours. I miss not having to be at the office until eleven most of the week and having my mornings free to get things done before going into the office, and not having to be in bed by ten most nights. The only thing I truly dislike about my job is the forty hours I have to spend working at it–because I would much rather be utilizing that time to write. Will I be bored when I retire? Probably not. I am never bored and can always find something to do. There’s the TBR pile, for example, and I am always writing something anyway. There’s a shit ton of classic films for me to work my way through, and other films and television shows I would love to rewatch and revisit.

And there’s always going to be books to read, errands to run, dishes to wash, clothes to launder, and so on. I’d also probably go to the gym with a higher degree of frequency as well.

So, no, I won’t be bored when I retire from my day job. I’ll probably wind up working even harder once I do retire.

And now I am going to read for an hour, and get back to work on the book. Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader, and I will check in with you again tomorrow.

Landslide

Friday and a three-day weekend looms. Huzzah? Huzzah! There’s football games to watch this weekend (GEAUX TIGERS!) as well as a lot of work I need to get done before I leave for Bouchercon next Wednesday. Which is fine, of course. I just have to buckle down and get my head back in the game, is all. I’ve been tired this week after work–part of that is getting up at six in the mornings, certainly–but it’s irksome to not be able to get as much writing (and good writing, not the horrible shit I’ve actually been writing) and reading in every night as I would like before I turn my brain to relax mode. Ideally, I will be able to get some things taken care of this weekend; writing and reading and cleaning and getting ready for the trip. We have a two o’clock flight out in the afternoon, and we have two hours (!) at Midway Airport–but there’s also a Home Run Inn pizza place at that airport (I noticed it when I had to change planes there last spring when I flew to Kentucky–a mistake I shall never made again) and so perhaps we could have some wonderful Chicago-style pizza for dinner on our way to Minneapolis. I think by the time we get to the hotel and check-in and all settled it might be too late in the evening to do much of anything other than unpack; I also have a very early panel on Thursday morning which means I will have to get up around seven.

I hope there’s lots and lots of coffee to be had in the hotel, else it won’t be pretty.

Yesterday was a tired day for sure. I didn’t sleep deeply Wednesday night–not restless per se, but I was in a shallow sleep for most of the evening, if that makes sense? Not that horrible if I open my eyes I will be awake but that half-sleep where you know you’re asleep but you’re also aware of everything? I hate that. So by lunchtime I was already running out of steam and trying to just hang on until I got off work. I was going to run errands on my way home but was too tired and just came straight home (I can stop by the mail and the Fresh Market tonight or go tomorrow). Once again I was too brain-dead to either read or write, but I did make progress on some chores before collapsing into my easy chair to be a Scooter pillow. I watched Venus and Serena play doubles–Paul was out having dinner with a friend–and then we watched Five Days at Memorial and Archer, and finally were able to watch last week’s episode of American Horror Stories–Hulu kept fucking up when we tried before; we’d get halfway into the episode than it would reboot back to the beginning; finally last night it worked–the weird Judith Light gets a facelift episode–and really, it wasn’t worth all that trouble. These stand-alone horror stories are really hit-and-miss, just as they were in the first season; sometimes they are interesting and clever, other times as satisfying as eating something with no flavor. And then it was bedtime.

I slept fairly decently last night and feel a bit of a sleep hangover this morning, which is fine–I’m assuming the coffee will wipe the dust off everything and remove the cobwebs from the corners of my brain–but today is a short day in the office, which is always nice before a three day weekend–and of course, I intend to run those errands tonight (so I don’t have to tomorrow) and I also need to start making a list of the things I need to pack. I know I am going to take Gabino’s book with me to read on the trip, along with the new Donna Andrews (Round Up The Usual Peacocks) and Laurie R. King (Back to the Garden) to read when I have time or at the airport and on the planes; I imagine I’ll finish Gabino on the way up and get started on the Andrews; which I’ll finish in Minneapolis in order to read the King on the flight home. I also have a copy of Nelson Algren’s A Walk on the Wild Side–a friend had posted on social media that they were going to watch the campy film adaptation with Jane Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck, and I thought wasn’t that a book first? It was, and since it’s a New Orleans novel–set in the French Quarter in the 1930’s–I thought perhaps I should read this? So I ordered a copy, and it’s rather well written–I’ve glanced through it a couple of times, always finding some sentence that makes me think wow this is either really amazing or incredibly overwrought and overwritten–which is a very fine line to walk. It’ll be interesting to see whether or not I think it’s amazing when I read it.

I had promised myself I wasn’t going to go down any Internet wormholes again for a while, the other day one of the New Orleans and/or Louisiana history pages posted about the murder of a Storyville madam (which I’ve always thought could be an interesting basis for a book) by her long-time live-in lover to whom she’s always been rather abusive, and it mentioned that her killer, although a common-law spouse, was only able to inherit a very small portion of her estate due to “Louisiana’s concubinage law” and well, how could I not go looking that up? Louisiana has some very bizarre laws, particularly when it comes to inheritance; but you also have to understand that up until the Civil War ended, Louisiana had some very bizarre customs. The “concubinage law” was actually passed to protect the dead person’s “legal” family as well as his “extra-legal” family from each other if there was no will, or even if the will cut out one family to the benefit of the other. It’s from plaçage, of course; that dreadful custom where a wealthy white man had a white wife and children, but also had a Black mistress and children with her.

The “concubinage law”, for the record, was on the books until it was repealed in 1987.

1987.

Jesus.

And on that note, I am going to head into the spice mines. Have a lovely Friday, Constant Reader, and I’ll check in with you again tomorrow.

It’s Not Right But It’s Okay

Sunday morning and it’s probably about time that I get back to work. I don’t want to–this birthday mini-vacation has been quite lovely–but I have things that need to be finished and turned in by the end of this month (hello, edits and revisions) and I have to stop putting that off. I only have to go to the office twice this week–tomorrow and Tuesday–before my Bouchercon vacation begins–but my plans for that time is to get things done and then take time to myself.

Well, I may take Wednesday as a day off. I need to drive around New Orleans and do some research; Wednesday should be perfect for doing that, methinks….so maybe taking a day off to begin with to get into the groove of getting everything done that needs to be done by the end of the month could wait until Thursday to get started…but then on the other hand, maybe it a sight-seeing research trip around the Irish Channel wouldn’t be a huge distraction from getting things done that day….alas, I was supposed to have dinner with great friends that night (fucking Delta variant anyway) but I am going to try, very hard, not to let these things disappoint or depress me. That’s a sure way to guarantee I’ll get nothing done.

I started reading Megan Abbott’s The Turnout yesterday and was, of course, immediately enthralled. She manages to somehow lure you in with the opening sentence, something cryptic, eerie, and yet compelling. Her books always have this same voice–I’d say mournful, but that’s not accurate either–always a variation that fits the story and the characters, but that lyrical, poetic, economic way of establishing mood and dramatic tension is almost ethereal and dream-like; even if the dream will, as always, eventually bare its teeth at the reader. God, how I wish I could write like that. I always wonder how writers as gifted as she write their books–do they write a sentence and then agonize over how to find the right words that create the right rhythm, or do they agonize over which word to add as they go? Me? I just vomit out three thousand or so words at a time and then go back and try to make it say what I wanted to say how I wanted to say it; nothing poetic, lyrical, or dream-like about my work. But I write the way I write–I used to want to be Faulkner when I was in college; I think it’s fairly safe to say that ship has sailed–and I cannot be terribly disappointed by anything I write anymore. I am pleased with the work I am doing–have been doing–and as long as I remain pleased by everything I write going forward, I am going to be just fine. I am intending to spend some more time with Megan Abbott this morning before diving into the edits/revisions before heading to the gym; and intend to do even more revisions/edits after my brief workout this afternoon.

We started watching The White Lotus last night and I am on the fence. I really don’t care much for any of the characters–the acting is terrific, the writing is fine, but I can’t wrap my mind around a point, if there even is one, you know? I rewatched this week’s Ted Lasso, and one thing I’ve noticed–there are so many lovely little touches to this show–that is one of my favorite things is that Keeley always laughs at Ted’s jokes, no matter how corny, no matter how bad the pun–she always laughs, and she always did, from the absolute beginning. In fact, Keeley was the first character on the show to see and accept and like Ted; which made her even more likable.

I also managed to finally get my TCM app working on the Apple TV yesterday–you’ve always needed a television provider for access; once I let Cox go it wouldn’t allow me to use Hulu, but now it does–and I immediately cued up and watched The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, a terrific noir with Barbara Stanwyck as Martha…and as I watched, I realized how much that plot device–a murder committed and covered up by kids, only to have everything come home to roost when they’re adults–gets used a lot today. I saw this movie for the first time when I was a kid, with my grandmother; WGN used to show old movies after the 10:00 pm news in Chicago as well as every afternoon at 3:30 (which is where my educational grounding in classic old films started). I’d forgotten that the magnificent Judith Anderson played Stanwyck’s horrible old aunt that she winds up killing; Anderson was robbed of Oscars at so many turns in her film career–Rebecca, And Then There Were None, this–it really is a shame; but at least those great performances are preserved forever on film. I am very excited, to say the least, about having access to the full range of TCM again; I can now watch movies instead of getting sucked into watching old LSU games on Youtube or history videos (I’ve been watching a lot of biographies of the Bourbon royal family of France during the seventeenth century, and will ask again: why has no queer biographer/historian/novelist written about Louis XIV’s openly gay brother, Monsieur, Philippe duc d’Orleans?). Just glancing through the app yesterday, there were so many movies I wanted to either see for the first time, or rewatch for the first time since I was a child…and of course, watching old film noir (along with reading old noir novels) works as research for Chlorine.

That’s me, multi-tasking and always finding a way to justify wasting time/procrastination. I am quite good at it as well, in case you hadn’t noticed.

I also woke up earlier–well, I woke up around the time I usually do, just got out of bed earlier than usual. The last few days of not getting up before nine, while lovely and restful, also managed to somehow keep the lethargy going throughout the rest of the day. I am hopeful that will not be the case today. I am going to spend an hour or so immersed in Megan’s new book, and then I intend to straighten things up around the kitchen before digging into the edits/revisions of the Kansas book–which I have allowed to languish for far too long–and I also need to clean out some things (spoiled food) from the refrigerator as well as try to get my lunches prepared for the two days in the office this week.

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader, and I will talk to you on the morrow.

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.

Walk Like an Egyptian

Monday!

Hilariously, when I was writing my blog entry yesterday, I couldn’t remember what I’d watched on Saturday before moving on to Batman v. Superman, and I actually was thinking, I couldn’t have been streaming music videos all that time, could I? And then I remembered, last night while we were getting caught up on Animal Kingdom (which is awesome), that I’d discovered some of the old ABC Movies of the Week on Youtube, and watched two of them, back to back: The Cat Creature and Crowhaven Farm.

When I was a kid, I loved the ABC Movie of the Week. Some of them were good, some of them were awful, and it was interesting to see whether two of the ones I remembered so vividly held up; a while back, I’d discovered The House That Wouldn’t Die on Youtube; it starred Barbara Stanwyck and was based on my favorite ghost story of all time, Barbara Michaels’ Ammie Come Home. I saw the movie before I read the book–and I’ve reread the book any number of times over the years because I love it so much. I was very excited to watch the movie again..and it holds up pretty well (and BARBARA STANWYCK, for God’s sake), but it made significant changes from the book, obviously, and wasn’t quite as good. But it did hold up, and I am sure, were I not such a fan of the novel, I wouldn’t have had those issues with it.

the cat creature

The Cat Creature holds up fairly well, for a television movie made in the 1970’s. For one thing, the story was developed by Robert Bloch (if you don’t know who Bloch was, shame on you–but he wrote the novel Psycho, which became the film, and was one of the great horror writers of the 50’s-80’s) and he also wrote the screenplay. I think part of the reason I loved this movie so much was because it was based in Egyptian mythology (I suspect the ‘history’ was invented for the purpose of the film; you’ll see why as I move along). The movie opens with an appraiser arriving at the estate of a now dead, wealthy collector, and he has been brought in to appraise the ‘secret collection’ of the collector–which includes a lot of Egyptian antiquities (which, obviously, must have been purchased on the black market). There’s a mummy case, which he opens, and the mummy is wearing a strange amulet around its neck, a cat’s head with heiroglyphs on the back. A burglar breaks in, takes the amulet, and then the appraiser is murdered off-camera–but you hear a lot of screaming and animalistic growling, and of course, the shadow of a cat on the wall. The long and short of it is, the cult of the Egyptian goddess Bast, based in the city of Bubastis in Egypt, was supposedly suppressed and all of its priests killed–the mummy is one of them–and there are legends and stories that Bast’s followers could turn themselves into cats that drank human blood for eternal life; kind of like shapeshifting cat vampires (I am certain this is all fiction without having to look it up). Eventually the ‘cat creature’ is captured, the amulet put back around its neck, and the strange murders all solved. Meredith Baxter (before she added, then subtracted, Birney from her professional name, and before she was a lesbian) starred; it also featured Gale Sondergaard, who won the very first Oscar for best supporting actress, as a shady magic shop owner. It was kind of cheesy on a rewatch as an adult, but it could be remade easily enough and could be quite chilling.

cat shadow

The sad thing about rewatching, though, was realizing that an idea I have for a book was liberally borrowed from this story. Heavy sigh; guess it’s a good thing I never wrote that book.

movie of the week

Crowhaven Farm also holds up for the most part. The movie terrified me when I was a kid, and I watched it whenever it re-aired. It’s also a supernatural story, about reincarnation, ghosts, and revenge from beyond the grave. It starred Hope Lange, who inherits Crowhaven Farm when a distant cousin dies, and the original inheritor is killed in a fiery car crash caused by a mysterious young girl. Lange and her husband, an artist, move to the farm, and on her very first day there she remembers things she couldn’t possible know; how to open secret doors to hidden rooms, where the old well is, etc. She continues getting flashes from a previous life, and begins to fear that not only is she the reincarnation of Margaret Carey, who lived there in the seventeenth century, but was someone who was accused of  witchcraft but turned in a coven of witches, who were either hanged or pressed to death. After she finally has the baby she had been longing for, the past and the present collide and she is confronted by the reincarnations of the coven she betrayed, who want her soul for Satan and vengeance. Instead, she turns over her husband to save herself–much as she betrayed the coven in a previous life–and runs away from Crowhaven Farm with her baby. In the final scene, she is in Central Park with her baby when a mounted cop stops to check on her and the baby, and then he reties a baby ribbon in the strange way her now dead husband used to tie bows. She remarks on it, and he just smiles at her and says, “Well, I’ll be keeping an eye on you now” and rides off…and terrified, Maggie quickly pushes her baby carriage down the path, looking back over her shoulder as the credits roll.

crowhaven farm

Not as scary as it was when I was a kid, but still, not bad; and it, too, could use a reboot.

I started rereading The Great Gatsby again yesterday, and am starting to remember why I didn’t care for it so much; none of the characters in it are particularly appealing. Tom Buchanan is kind of a dick, Daisy’s not much better, and Jordan is kind of a snob…and Nick himself isn’t particularly interesting. The writing is good enough, though–but I rolled my eyes when I got to the end of the first chapter, when Nick sees the green light on the dock on the other side of the bay and witnesses Gatsby standing in his yard, his arms outstretched in the direction of the light, and remembered how my American Lit teacher went on and on and on about the symbolism of the green light.

Christ.

It’s also kind  of weird to be reading a book about rich white people in the 1920’s so soon after reading about poor white people in the present day in Tomato Red.

And now, back to the spice mines.