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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I Fall to Pieces

And this morning I woke up to the good news that my COVID-19 test came back negative, which now begs the question: what was wrong with me? Was it some weird combination of sinuses, allergies, flu, stress and exhaustion? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely thrilled to not have this and for this whole thing to be over, but…I’m very glad to know that I wasn’t infectious and out in public for a while. So I am just going to take the win, tomorrow’s a paid holiday, and I’m going to take the weekend to sort things out and hope I feel better and continue to rest.

I did wake up this morning feeling good for the first time in a very long time, which is also terrific. Today was the first day where I woke up and felt like myself–I have some things to deal with this morning, as I do every morning, but this time I woke up and didn’t dread dealing with any of it-and since I feel good, that makes me wonder just how much of this has been stress related? Probably more than I want to admit to; and there was probably some PTSD there as well. I also need to remember that feeling fine is also a relative thing and that it comes and goes with the PTSD stuff-and there could even be something today that makes it worse–always remember your emotions can turn on a dime when you’re going through something like this–and there’s never any indication that your mood is going to swing, or how wild that swing is going to be. Fun stuff–and the mood swinging lasts for a while after the situation normalized, too. 2005-2009 was not the most emotionally stable period of my life, if I am going to be completely honest, and fortunately most of it is now hazy in my mind. But I know there was some bad behavior on my part to people who didn’t deserve it–and I hope that I apologized for it.

Yesterday I was fatigued–my energy failed me in the afternoon–and that’s concerning, as I said earlier, but there’s really nothing I can do about whatever was wrong with me other than accept that it wasn’t COVID-19 and go on with everything in my life-and be extremely cautious going forward to make sure that I don’t get it now. It’s funny–knocking on wood here–but somehow I made it through the the HIV/AIDS pandemic without getting infected (I’ve never had any STI–gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, trichomoniasis–other than HPV, and of course I had the bad kind, but without any re-occurrence) and so far I’ve not managed, despite Mardi Gras and a public contact job screening people for COVID-19, to not get that, either. At least so far–and I am going to be a lot more anal about going out in public and being around people from now on, too.

I read some more yesterday on Ammie, Come Home, and I marvel at how marvelously constructed this novel is. There’s never any point where it drags at all, and Barbara Michaels knows precisely how to build suspense and terror in such a… I want to say genteel way that makes it even more terrifying. The spectral encounters the characters have in the old house in Georgetown are absolutely heart-thumpingly terrifying and scary and creepy; it’s truly one of the most perfect ghost stories ever constructed…which is why it is one of my favorite novels of all time. Barbara Michaels was always considered a Gothic suspense writer, and some of her novels don’t have a supernatural touch to them, but the ones that do (House of Many Shadows, Witch, The Dark on the Other Side, Be Buried in the Rain, The Crying Child) are some of the best, quietest horror novels I’ve ever read; she built a quite large audience of readers who would most likely never read horror–but she certainly straddled the line between suspense and horror-which is why I think Gothic is such an interesting term.

Once I get this Sherlock story wrangled and under control, I am looking forward to going back to Bury Me in Shadows. It’s been on my mind a lot lately–and I’ve been having, as I previously mentioned, a lot of strange little creative bursts over the past week or so–and so today, once I get the business I need to get taken care of taken care of, I am going to get organized. I am going to whip this desk area into shape, organize all my notes and everything that is scattered all over the place, and be ready to hit the ground running once Easter has passed. I want to get this story finished–as well as several others that are in process–and then I am going to set a writing schedule to get Bury Me in Shadows whipped into submission shape so I can get it sent in to my publisher so I can then focus on doing the same for the Kansas book….and then I am going to start pulling together Chlorine. I probably won’t be this organized–I never am as organized as I plan to be, nor do I ever stick to the schedule I always try to stick to–but I like organizing and I like coming up with plans–that’s the sort of thing that makes me happy, and I am going to focus, as one always should in times of crisis, on doing things that make me happy.

And on that note, I am going to go take a shower, get cleaned up, and get moving again.

Have a lovely day, Constant Reader.

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I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby

I wrote twenty-three hundred and sixty-six words yesterday; a rather precise amount, I admit, but I am rather proud of them, as I’ve not written anything new in nearly two weeks, I think.

It was also new, nothing do with any of the many works in progress I am in the midst of; it was one of those things where the idea came to me, and I knew how to write the chapter, so I sat down and I did lest I forget it. I also wanted to see if I could get the voice right, the tone, and all of that. I think it kind of works, but I am going to let it sit for a moment or two (or weeks) and see what I think of it then.

It’s the first chapter of Chlorine, which is a start. Probably not what I needed to be writing or working on, but

I do want to get back to the WIP–and I’m not really sure why I keep calling it that. Why am I superstitious about sharing the title of this book? I like the title, and I believe I have even mentioned it before. I originally had the idea a million years ago, when I was a little boy. My grandmother–the not sane one–used to love to tell me stories about the past; she always swore on the Bible the stories were true, but I’ve long suspected that most of them were invented or stories she read somewhere–she did like to read, and encouraged both my sister and I to also read. I never wrote the stories she told me down, but I do remember bits and pieces of them, and one of those bits and pieces became a short story I wrote in college called “Ruins.” I wrote it as a ghost story, weaving what I remembered from my grandmother’s story into a modern-day story in a fictional county based on the one my family is from (I also planned to do a lot of writing about this fictional county when I was in college…I have published some work about the county; it’s where Scotty’s sorta-nephew Taylor is from and where Frank’s sister lives. It’s where my main character from Dark Tide  was from, and also where “Smalltown Boy” was set, along with various other short stories, like “Son of a Preacher Man”…so I’m using some of those old ideas today. There are also any number of short stories in some form of completion set there, and the current WIP is, of course, set there). I always thought “Ruins” (still unpublished) could be expanded into a pretty decent novel, and that’s what I am currently working on, have been for the last few months. I no longer call it “Ruins”–that title has already been used multiple times for a novel, and why invite comparison–but when I needed a new title, I wanted something more poetic. I started looking through poems (can you imagine? I know so little about poetry it’s staggering) and wanted something Barbara Michaels-ish. I decided to riff on her title Be Buried in the Rain, which is from a poem, and then a lyric from The Band Perry’s song “If I Die Young” stuck in my head, and I started using that as the title, Bury Me in Satin. But that didn’t really work or fit, and it evolved into Bury Me in Shadows, which had the right creepy, spooky, Gothic feel to it that I wanted, that I am trying to get in the book. It’s a ghost story of sorts, it’s set in the woods of rural central-western Alabama, and there’s a ruin of a plantation back in the woods, which an archaeological team from the University of Alabama has started excavating. There’s a legend about the “lost boys” around the ruins; two boys who disappeared during the Civil War. I’m also working rural drug addiction into it, as well as the Klan, and racism and homophobia. It’s a lot, and it has to been done correctly, in order to get the points across that I want to make in the book. This is why it’s been such a slog, really. I am trying to make points about important topics without sounding too preachy-teachy, while trying to weave in an interesting story, all told from the point of view of a rather intelligent gay teenager from Chicago, who has to spend the summer in Alabama being the point person for the family while his grandmother, who has had several strokes, dies in her own crumbling Victorian style home from the late nineteenth century, and then the archaeologists discover the skeleton of a young man. Is he one of the lost boys from the Civil War, or is there something more sinister going on back in the woods?

I’m trying to write about race sensitively, without giving offense. I am trying to be conscious of my own internalized prejudices and bigotries, which is sadly a life-long process of deprogramming. (But that’s a subject for another time.) But I am hopeful that my own keen editorial eye will catch things in the editing process, and there’s also going to be my editor’s eyes on it. So, hopefully it won’t turn out to be yet another sad white person’s attempt to deal with race that turns out to be problematic.

I am also writing it in a style different than what I usually use–first person present tense, and it’s obvious when I reread chapters I’ve written that it’s not my default; I slip into the past tense very easily and naturally and because I’m so used to writing that way it’s easy for me to miss things in the wrong tense.

I’m up early because today returns normality to my life; this is my first work week that won’t be disrupted this month. First it was a brief vacation, and of course last week was disrupted by Barry. I got very little accomplished over the last few days–storm disruptions make it very hard to focus or get anything done, frankly; as you wait for the storm you don’t want to start anything in case you lose power suddenly, plus there’s the weird tension of waiting for the unexpected. When I walked to Touro to get my car yesterday and run by the grocery store, it was strange; the city was still deserted and lifeless. There were a few cars out driving but not the usual amount of people out and about on a Sunday, even in the rain. I actually think we got more rain yesterday than we did from the storm on Saturday, frankly. I was soaked by the time I got to the car–$21 is a very low price to pay to keep your car safe, to be honest–and of course, everything at the grocery store was on sale because it was old and ripe; I got a great deal on two enormous smooth avocados, and there were still some Creole tomatoes out, but the grocery store was still depleted from people stocking up for the storm. I came home, we got caught up on Animal Kingdom, and last night we watched The Spy Who Dumped Me, a cute comedy starring Mila Kunis and Kate MacKinnon. I love both women, and they worked very well together, and the plot was clever and funny enough to hold my attention, but it could have been better–but it was mostly the charisma of the two women, and their chemistry together, that made the film enjoyable.

So, wish me well on my first full week of work this month. It’s gray and drizzly outside my windows this fair morning; I’m hoping my shoes have dried out from yesterday as well. (note to self: order new shoes, you’re due.)

And now back to the spice mines. Have a lovely Monday, Constant Reader.

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Da Doo Ron Ron

There’s really nothing like a good night’s sleep, is there?

Well, that first cup of coffee after a good night’s sleep is pretty close.

Tonight is my late night; bar testing in the Quarter, and as such I have the morning and early afternoon free. I intend to get some cleaning done as well as some writing (that’s always the intent, but it never seems to happen quite the way I have planned; primarily, methinks, because I have a tendency to over-plan what I can get done as well as the ever-popular easy distractions).

Last night, while I alternated between American Horror Story (ugh) and the final game of the World Series–nicely done, Cubs–I finished rereading Be Buried in the Rain by Barbara Michaels.

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The old pickup hit a pothole with a bump that shook a few more flakes of faded blue paints from the rusted body. Joe Danner swore, but not aloud. He hadn’t used bad language for six years, not since he found his Lord Jesus in the mesmeric eyes of a traveling evangelist. He hadn’t used hard liquor nor tobacco either, not laid a hand on his wife in anger–only when she talked back or questioned his Scripture-ordained authority as head of the family.

It would never have occurred to Joe Danner that his wife preferred their old life-style. Back then, an occasional beating was the natural order of things, and it was a small price to pay for the Saturday nights at the local tavern, both of them getting a little drunk together, talking and joking with old friends, going home to couple unimaginatively but pleasurably in the old bed Joe’s daddy had made with his own hands.

Since Joe found Jesus, there were no more Saturday nights at the tavern. No more kids, either. Joe Junior had left home the year before; he was up north someplace, wallowing in the sins he’d been brought up to hate…only somehow the teaching hadn’t taken hold. Not with Lynne Anne, either. Married at sixteen, just in time to spare her baby the label of bastard–but not soon enough to wipe out the sin of fornication. She lived in Pikesburg, only forty miles away, but she never came home anymore. Joe had thrown her out the night she told them she was pregnant, and Lynne Anne had spat in his face face before she set out on a four-mile walk in the traditional snowstorm, to collapse on the doorstep of her future in-laws. They had raised a real ruckus about it, too. Methodists. What else could a person expect from Methodists?

I loved Barbara Michaels, which was one of the two pseudonyms used by Dr. Barbara Mertz (the other was, of course, Elizabeth Peters). She was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in the 1980’s, and her books were consistently excellent. Be Buried in the Rain was one of my favorites she published as Barbara Michaels; not quite as favorite as Ammie Come Home, House of Many Shadows, The Crying Child, or Witch, but definitely right up there with them.

The opening, which I’ve quoted above, gives you a slight picture of just how good she actually was. In those brief three paragraphs she sketches out a very clear picture of Joe Danner and who he is; without any physical description, I can see him perfectly in my head. This is shortly before he comes across a surprise in the country road; in a place called Deadman’s Hollow, where the county road cuts through the overgrown, gone to seed estate called Maidenwood–the skeletons of a woman and a baby. That discovery is the key to the story of Be Buried in the Rain, and it’s a terrific story. Julie, our first person p.o.v character (I resisted the urge to call her Our Heroine) is in medical school; her mother and family pressure her into spending the summer between classes at Maidenwood, helping care for her eighty-five year old malevolent grandmother, Martha. Martha is truly monstrous, and Julie spent four years as a child in Martha’s care at Maidenwood while her mother worked her way through college. After being retrieved by her mother, Julie has never returned to Maidenwood, and for the most part has blocked the memories of those four awful years out of her mind…but her return to Maidenwood starts bringing the horrible memories back.

At the heart of the story is the mystery of the identity of the skeletons, and where they came from. Local legend has always held that Maidenwood was the site of a British colonial settlement called Maydon’s Hundred that was wiped out in an Indian massacre; Julie has a love interest in an archaeologist named Alan whom she was involved with before, who was always interested in finding the remains of Maydon’s Hundred. Martha grimly put a stop to that, and her nastiness to both Alan and Julie also ended their relationship. Now both are back at Maidenwood…a crumbling, dirty old manse with an overgrown, almost oppressive vegetation surrounding it, as there hasn’t been money for decades to keep the place up.

The atmosphere is fantastic; Michaels is at her best at describing the oppressive heat and humidity, the overgrowth, the darkness inside the house that is not only literal but symbolic. It brought to mind memories of my own childhood summers in Alabama at my own grandmother’s–but my grandmother wasn’t a monster like Martha. It also reminded me of an idea I had for a book about Alabama…

I really do need to write about Alabama.

And now, back to the spice mines.

Spiders and Snakes

The key to writing good horror is, of course, to write about what scares you. Usually, what scares you will scare other people, as many of us have fears in common. I, for example, have many fears: the dark, situation claustrophobia (crowded elevators, tight spaces), heights, spiders, snakes, the puncturing of skin with sharp objects. (Reading Gillian Flynn’s brilliant Sharp Objects was incredibly difficult for me. In the hands of a lesser writer I probably would have stopped long before the end.) There are also things that make me uncomfortable–the woods, the open sea (again, situational; but even though I will get in the ocean, I am never really comfortable; but I am more comfortable in the ocean than I am in lakes and rivers), flying–when listing my fears, I do realize how neurotic I sound.

Barbara Michaels, aka Elizabeth Peters, aka Dr. Barbara Mertz, wrote wonderfully creepy Gothic horror novels; her ability to set that creepy mood where weird things could happen and seem absolutely realistic was extraordinary. I always say that Ammie Come Home is one of my all time favorite ghost stories, but she wrote many others that were also most excellent.

Take, for example, The Crying Child.

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From the air, the island doesn’t look big enough to land a plane on. It’s a pretty sight, from above, calling to mind all sorts of poetic images–an agate, shining brown and green, flung down in folds of sea-blue satin; a blob of variegated Play-Doh, left in a basin of water by a forgetful child; an oval braided rug on a green glass floor.

Or a hand, in a brown-and-green mitten. The hand is clenched into a fist, with a thumblike promontory jutting out on one side. Across the broad end there is a range of hills that might be knuckles; at the other end, the land narrows down into a wrist-shaped peninsula. There are beaches there, like fur trim on the cuff of the mitten; the rest of the island is thick with foliage, somber green pines and fir trees for the most part. The house is surprisingly distinct from above. The lighter green of the lawns and the gray outline of roofs and chimneys stand out amid the darkness of the pines. The only other distinctive landmark is the cluster of buildings that make up the village, along the thumb promontory, and its harbor, which is formed by the junction of thumb and hand.

And that’s where the figure of speech fails. You could compare the house to an oddly shaped ring, up on the knuckles of the hand, but the village doesn’t suggest any analogy. A diseased imagination might think of sores or warts; but there was never anything festering about St. Ives. It was just a charming Maine town, and not even the events of that spring could make it anything else. There was no lurking horror in the village. It was in the house.

I certainly wasn’t aware of horrors that morning in May. I had worries, plenty of them, but they were comparatively simple ones. I didn’t know, then, how simple.

The story is quite simple. Joanne, our heroine, was raised by her older sister Mary after their parents died. Mary managed to land herself a millionaire husband, who tried to fill a father figure role for Joanne–which she didn’t appreciate or like. Long story short, the sisters became estranged when Joanne finished college and moved far away, refusing any further assistance from her wealthy brother-in-law and sister.*

*This is something I’ve never understood as a plot point; why would you refuse help from a wealthy, connected relative? This is often a plot device in melodramas/romances/soap operas, when someone marries into wealth. “I need to be my own man.” “I need to be my own woman.” I always roll my eyes; I understand it, but why make life harder on yourself than necessary?

Mary has always wanted a child of her own, and recently has suffered a miscarriage. Mary and her husband Ran are spending the summer on King’s Island, at his ancestral family home. He has wired Joanne that Mary needs her, and so of course, full of misgivings about her brother-in-law but worried about her sister, she gets on a plane and heads to Maine. After she lands, Ran–and the island doctor–tell her that Mary is having a breakdown; she keeps leaving the house at night because she claims she hears a baby crying and has to find it. The reason Ran finally sent for Joanne was because that night she almost went over a cliff.

Mary seems normal, but shortly after Joanne’s arrival, she sees a strange ghost in the family cemetery and stumbles over a grave just outside the consecrated ground…and then she, too, starts to hear the crying child.

This book is absolutely chilling, with constant twists and turns that keeps the reader on the edge of his/her seat, and that sense of unease, that Gothic atmosphere, keeps up through the entire book.

I loved the work of Barbara Michaels; still do, in fact. I also love her work as Elizabeth Peters. I’d love to revisit her novels–The Dark on the Other Side and Be Buried in the Rain in particular; I do reread Ammie Come Home fairly regularly.

And now, back to the spice mines.