Face Up

Wednesday has rolled around again, as it always does, and last night was another restful sleep of the same sort I had on Monday; restful but awake or half-awake the majority of the time. I am beginning to wonder, quite frankly, if this is just another affect of getting older; the inability to sleep deeply every night. Yesterday I wasn’t as tired as I feared I would be, which actually was kind of nice, and I do think this will be the case this morning too. I intend to go to the gym this evening for a workout with weights after work–so being tired will not be helpful in the least. Maybe that will put me into a deep sleep tonight.

Maybe it won’t–which is more likely.

We watched two more episodes of The Capture last night on Peacock, which is incredibly good. I still have absolutely no clue what’s going on, but the suspense is so ratcheted up that I cannot wait to get home tonight so we can finish watching it. I want to start reading Laurie R. King’s A Monstrous Regiment of Women, the second in her Mary Russell series, but focus is so important when reading and what little focus I have these days really needs to be spend on the revision of Bury Me in Shadows, which needs to be finished by the end of the month–so time is running out on me, as always. I was thinking about how I reacted to rereading the manuscript with an eye to edits last weekend, and how I always am enormously dissatisfied with the final product when it is released. Don’t get me wrong, I am proud of every book I’ve written, as each represents surmounting a struggle of some sort in some way, and finishing and publishing a novel is always an accomplishment, regardless of how it turned out in the end. I was dissecting this in my head last night while I was making tacos for dinner (nachos for Paul); my strengths are premises, titles, and character–but inevitably whenever I start writing a book most of the time I don’t know how it’s going to end. I try to figure out how to end a book before I start writing it–but on the rare occasions when I have figured out the end beforehand, I question that as I write and inevitably change my mind at least once, if not twice, and as a result, I never am completely confident in my endings. Adding to the neuroses in my brain, the last few chapters of a book generally don’t get as much attention as earlier chapters, either, which makes my insecurity even worse.

I really do wish I could slap my first creative writing teacher across the face for doing such a number on me that it has lasted all these years. FUCKER.

Then again, he typed smugly, I’m about thirty-six novels, five novellas, and fifty short stories into my career; he’s still unpublished, forty years later. So, there’s that…and the fact I never forget a grudge.

I’ve also been toying with some 1970’s research in my spare moments–looking up things and trying to remember things from my tween years–like “sissy bars” (and no, it’s not a bar for effeminate gay men, though it is a great name for a gay bar). I remembered “sissy bars” as being the high bar on boys’ bicycles that girls’ bikes didn’t have back then; turns out it’s actually the back bar at the end of a bike that the passenger behind the driver/rider can lean back on for balance. (I still remember it the other way; and that other bar doesn’t seem to have a name, which is weird.) I’ve been wanting to write about the early 1970’s in the Chicago suburbs for quite some time–I have an idea based on a murder that happened in our suburb when I was a freshman in high school, You’re No Good, which could be a lot of fun to work on and write–and my main character from Lake Thirteen (Scotty?) was from that same fictional suburb…which leads me back into that weird Greg Universe where all of my books are somehow connected, between New Orleans, Alabama, Chicago and it’s suburbs, California, and Kansas–which I completely forgot that I was doing. (Aside: Bury Me in Shadows is set in Corinth County; which is where the main character in Dark Tide was also from; where I set the story “Smalltown Boy”; and where Frank and Scotty’s nephew Taylor is from, making his first appearance in Baton Rouge Bingo.) But the early 1970’s was an interesting and somewhat volatile time, between Vietnam, the economic crisis, and Watergate; where television gave us stuff like The Partridge Family and Love, American Style and horrible variety shows; when the post World War II economic boom in the United States was beginning to crumble and fade away; when Top 40 radio ruled the AM channels and everything was still on vinyl or eight-track tapes, before cable television and 24 hour news and no Internet or cell phones. But… as I mentioned earlier, while I have a great premise and a terrific title, I don’t know the story or how it ends…but that won’t stop me from obsessively researching the period.

And on that note, tis time to head back into the spice mines. Have a great day Constant Reader!

I Told You So

Finally, a good night’s sleep last night, and I feel rested finally–physically, emotionally, and intellectually–for the first time this week. I didn’t sleep through the night–I was awakened just before four this morning by a simply marvelous thunderstorm; lightning so close it was simply a white flash and then thunder claps that seemed to go on forever as the rain came down torrentially; the emergency notification alerts also came through on both of our phones at the same time. I didn’t get out of bed–I assumed it was a flash flood warning, given the strength of the downpour–but upon rising this morning you can imagine my shock to check my phone to see that it was a tornado warning “for this area”. However, in checking just now I don’t see any tornado reports for the area, but we were in a flash flood warning for four hours (it actually ends in about fifteen minutes–but it’s clear outside). The storms dropped three to five inches of rain a couple of hours–which means at some point I should go make sure the car didn’t get water inside.

But there really isn’t anything like being in bed, warm and comfortable under the blankets, while it’s pouring down rain outside.

I am working at home today, and I have to also get the apartment ready for the delivery of my new washing machine at some point tomorrow. I think I am going to have to take the saloon doors off the laundry room–that’s not going to be much fun–and I am also going to take the bottom shelf down from above where the washer and dryer sit for maneuverability purposes, as well as getting some other things out of the way to make it as easy as possible for the delivery guys. It’s going to be lovely, frankly, having a washing machine again–there’s a load of clothes that needs to be washed, and I also want to do the bed linens, since I couldn’t last week–and hopefully, that will do away with this weird, slightly off way I’ve been feeling since the washer broke last Wednesday night and flooded the laundry room and kitchen.

I think I’ve also been feeling more than a little off-center (off-kilter, off my game, whatever) because I was already not centered as I went into the big (and exhausting) push last weekend to get the book finished and turned in. Finishing a book is always an enormous relief, but that final push to get it done is always, inevitably, exhausting on every level–and then having to get up early for work (or to take Paul to Touro) just wore me down. Insomnia also bedeviled me almost every night this week (until last night, thank the Lord), so finally getting rested last night was most essential and very important. Paul got home late as well, so I sat in my easy chair for most of the evening going down Youtube video wormholes because I was really too tired to be able to focus on reading…although I am hoping to get back to The Russia House after I complete my work-at-home duties today as well as get everything moved around that needs to be moved around preparatory to tomorrow’s washer delivery.

And now I’ve got serial killers on the brain. A friend tipped me off to a series on HBO MAX, Very Scary People, which takes on serial rapists, mass murderers (yes, there’s two episodes about the Manson family) and serial killers. There’s a new book idea formulating in my head–when isn’t there, really?–and I’ve been making notes and so forth this past week, as well as looking up more information about Dean Corll on-line…plus I’ve been trying to remember the early 1970’s and life in suburban Chicago, which is where and when the book will be set. I know, I know, I’m going to write Chlorine next–when my creative batteries have completely recharged and reset–and I also have some submission calls I want to submit short stories to. I wanted to spend this week doing just that–writing/revising/editing short stories–but I just haven’t had the bandwidth to focus and look at the calls (and the in-progress stories I want to write for them) to figure out when things would be due and how much work would need to be done, etc. But I think it’s okay for me to take a week to let my brain recalibrate.

AH, so much to do and as always, the clock is ticking.

I’ve also started reading Barbara Tuchman’s The Zimmerman Telegram. Everything I’ve read of Tuchman’s has become a favorite (A Distant Mirror may be the best history I’ve ever read), and while I have yet to get through her entire canon (The Guns of August is still in my TBR pile), I thought it would be interesting to read this tale of the inflammatory telegram that was primarily responsible for the United States entering the first World War. (I’ve also become very interested–primarily through the writing of my Sherlock Holmes story–in the historical period from, say, 1910-1930, particularly in New Orleans. I would love to write more Holmes pastiches, but am not entirely sure there’s a market for them; I do have one on deck right now–one of the afore-mentioned short stories in progress; I am trying to decide if writing a Holmes pastiche for the submission call would be a smart thing to do, or whether I should just write the story and leave Holmes out of it entirely.) This creative ADHD thing really does suck sometimes…but I am going to actually not berate myself for my brain being all over the map this week because–well, damn it, I just wrote two books totally approximately 195,000 words in total over the course of about five months, give or take. My brain should be fried.

And on that note, I am going to head back into the spice mines. I need to get some things done before I start working for the day. Have a lovely Thursday, Constant Reader.

Spooky

I’ve decided to launch a new reading project for this year: one in which I tackle rereading middle-grade mysteries. I am not going to limit myself to merely the series books I loved (although they will play a big role in the project), but will also include other mysteries I have, either in one of my reading apps or an actual hard copy, that do not belong to the series. My childhood memories aren’t as clear as I would perhaps like; then again, that period of my life was around fifty years ago, so it would be more of a miracle if I did have stronger memories.

The first two series books I ever read were not from either the Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys series; they were from the Trixie Belden series (The Red Trailer Mystery) and The Three Investigators (The Mystery of the Moaning Cave). Both series wound up being favorites of mine once I eventually got back to them and remembered them; I remember buying five Trixie Belden books at a store at the Ford City mall in Chicago, and I got my first five Three Investigators books from a Toys R Us, I think in the Chicago suburb of Berwin? The two series weren’t as ubiquitous or available as Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys; which made finding more of them a kind of triumph for me. I’ve already blogged about The Secret of Terror Castle, which was the first Three Investigators book in the series, so I won’t cover that one again. But recently I sat down and reread the second book in the series, The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot, and remembered again why I love this series so much.

“Help!” The voice that called out was strangely shrill and muffled. “Help! Help!”

Each time a cry from within the mouldering old house pierced the silence, a new chill crawled down Pete Crenshaw’s spine. Then the cries for help ended in a strange, dying gurgle and that was even worse.

The tall, brown-haired boy knelt behind the thick trunk of a barrel palm and peered up the winding gravel path at the house. He and his partner, Jupiter Jones, had been approaching it when the first cry had sent them diving into the shrubbery for cover.

Across the path, Jupiter, stocky and sturdily built, crouched behind a bush, also peering toward the house. They waited for further sounds. But now the old, Spanish-style house, set back in the neglected garden that had grown up like a small tropical jungle, was silent.

“Jupe!” Pete whispered. “Was that a man or a woman?”

Jupiter shook his head. “I don’t know,” he whispered. “Maybe it was neither.

The Three Investigators cases often began this way; with two of them (sometimes all of them) landing smack dab in the middle of something mysterious; whether it was the sight of a weird ghost as they walk past an abandoned house being demolished (The Mystery of the Green Ghost) or biking past an enclosed estate (The Mystery of the Laughing Shadow) or simply riding in the gold=played Rolls Royce limousine and almost getting into an accident (The Mystery of the Silver Spider). Many of their other cases begin with them being hired to find a lost pet, which turns into something more complicated and complex: The Mystery of the Coughing Dragon and The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy fall into this category….while the majority of their cases come by way of referrals from Alfred Hitchcock himself (and why has no one ever done a book about the licensing of the Hitchcoc name, and all the products the great director attached his name to? It’s far overdue.). The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot combines all three: the boys were referred by Hitchcock to a friend whose recently purchased parrot has either been stolen or gotten free; they are on their way to visit Professor Fentriss to talk to him about the missing parrot–which stuttered–when they hear the cries for help coming from within the house. They are confronted outside by a man with a revolver (he is described here, and throughout the book, as a fat man–even by Jupiter, who hates being called fat), who claims to be Mr. Fentriss and that the bird has returned; he also claims that Hitchcock had called him to say the boys were on their way over. As they are leaving they realize that the house had no telephone wires (which used to actually be a thing, before cell phones), so they go back. Indeed, the man they met was an imposter and Mr. Fentriss is also tied up in his home. They rescue him, discover that he bought the missing parrot from a sickly Hispanic man selling the birds (there were others) out of his donkey cart, and that his friend Irma Waggoner sent the peddler to them. (Note: the man is described, and referred to, over and over as a Mexican; he actually is Mexican, so it’s not necessarily problematic–other than the fact that no one knew he was Mexican at first; referring to all Latinx/Hispanic people as Mexican when they may not actually be Mexican is problematic. In an update they would undoubtedly change it to Hispanic–as he did speak Spanish as a first language and his English isn’t good–which we see when the boys find him later in the book.) Miss Waggoner’s parrot has also disappeared; it also spoke, as did Mr. Fentriss’. (I kept thinking as I read it for the first time but parrots don’t stutter; he would have to be taught to do that. Very early on Jupiter also mentions this; I always feel inordinately proud of myself every time I read Jupiter saying this) Eventually, it turns out that the man who taught the birds special speeches had a masterpiece painting in his possession, and each parrot speaks a clue to the location of where he hid it when he realized he was dying–so the boys not only have to find all the parrots to get all the messages, they also have to decipher the clues and find the painting. Eventually they do–while also trying to avoid a flamboyant international art thief and his thugs–in a spooky, abandoned graveyard in the fog. A little bit of luck, and the boys solve the mystery–but despite that piece of luck, the entire case is actually solved by deductions based on the evidence presented thus far, with Jupiter revising his theories whenever new evidence is presented.

I love this series, and the books still make for compelling reading today. Some of the story is dated of course–no cell phones, no computers for research (Bob does all their research at the library, where he works part time), the casual racism of the time–but many of the books still hold up. Hitchcock’s death obviously impacted the series, but I’ve never understood why The Three Investigators never became as popular as–if not more so–than Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys. The three boys have distinct personalities–you know Pete will never want to investigate anything complicated, but will inevitably prove how courageous he actually is; Bob is studious and not as easily excitable as Pete, and he’s the one who usually follows Jupiter’s train of thought while Pete always gets confused; and Jupiter himself is a young Sherlock Holmes. Robert Arthur, who wrote the original series up through number 11, The Mystery of the Talking Skull (someone else wrote number 10, The Mystery of the Moaning Cave, which also ironically is the first of the series I actually read). Arthur won two Edgars from Mystery Writers of America for his radio plays; he also ghost edited some of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents anthologies I remember from my childhood. The Three Investigators are no longer in print, because of legal disputes between the Arthur estate and Random House about who owns the characters and so forth; it’s a shame. The books are still in print in many different languages–and are especially popular in Germany–where two of the books were actually filmed.

Most of my series books are in storage, but there are some still in the Lost Apartment–and I think when I am too tired to read something new, I may just get down a series book as an homage to my childhood and revisit some of these kids’ series.

Mean

When I was a child and lived on the south side of Chicago, elementary school was dismissed every day at 3:15 pm. It took about ten minutes for my sister and I to walk the block home, meaning we usually could just catch the last minutes and closing credits of Dark Shadows every day. This was disappointing, of course, because we loved the show and tried to keep up with it; the older woman down the street with whom our mother left us every morning on her way to catch the bus for her shift spooling wire at an electronics factory in Cicero and fed us both breakfast and lunch also watched, and would tell us the following morning what was going on in Collinwood (she also got us to watch One Life to Live and General Hospital with her; but we weren’t as veste in Llanview and Port Charles as we were with the haunted Collins family).

But at three thirty every day one of the affiliate networks in Chicago showed reruns of old movies, and we generally watched the movie–we weren’t allowed outside unless our mother was home–and she usually got home around four. My grandmother had already given me a taste for old movies and mysteries, so watching the afternoon movie wasn’t a hardship for me, and it kept my sister and I quiet while Mom made dinner and did whatever housewifely and motherly chores she had to take care of before Dad came home.

It was watching those afternoon movies where I first encountered The Bad Seed.

Later that summer, when Mrs Penmark looked back and remembered, when she was caught up in despair so deep that she knew there was no way out, no solution whatever for the circumstances that encompassed her, it seemed to her that June seventh, the day of the Fern Grammar School picnic, was the day of her last happiness, for never since then had she known contentment or felt peace.

The picnic was an annual, traditional affair held on the beach, an among the oaks, of Benedict, the old Fern summer place at Pelican Bay. It was here that the impeccable Fern sisters had been born and had lived through their languid, eventless summers. They had refused to sell the old place, and had kept it up faithfully as a gesture of love even when necessity made them turn their town house into a school for the children of their friends. The picnic was always held on the first Saturday of June since the eldest of the three sisters, Miss Octavia, was convinced, despite the occasions on which it had rained that particular day, and the picnic had to be held inside, after all, that the first Saturday of June was invariably a fine one.

If The Bad Seed has lost its ability to shock and horrify, it’s because in the decades since it was published (and adapted into both a play and film) the notion of a child being a killer has gone from being shocking to the general public to one that is kind of accepted; children do kill, and despite all the societal push towards sentimentality toward children. Rhoda is a sociopath, if not a psychopath; her inability to feel remorse or empathy or any other kind of human emotion is chilling to read about–she’s a stone cold killer, and clearly, she thinks nothing of killing to get something she wants: whether it’s the penmanship medal from her school, or a nice trinket promised to her, and then to shut up the janitor who sees through her and threatens to expose her; there’s a progression there. First she kills on impulse to get something she wants, then she coldly and calculatedly kills to protect herself. Rhoda is maturing as a killer, which is very chilling for the reader. The book is told entirely from the point of view of Rhoda’s mother, Christine–who is very slowly coming to realize, time after time, that her child is a monster, despite the innocence of childhood and everything we are taught to think, sentimentally, about children.

Psychology was starting to come into its own in the United States during the 1950’s, and you can see how crime writers took to psychology in that decade: The Bad Seed asks the question of nature v. nurture (although its answer is that it’s nature, genetic, and cannot be helped–and there’s some truth to that. I’m not entirely sure that sociopathy or psychopathy is learned behavior; are these cold-blooded killers born that way or are they creations of their environment? The solution Mrs. Penmark comes up with and executes in the novel is dramatically different from the film–the film had to abide by the Production Code, whereas novels had no such restrictions on them–and I believe the book’s ending actually works better than the film’s.

One thing that the book does brilliantly is depict the emotional turmoil and distress of the mother, slowly beginning to suspect and find proof that her child, that she loves so dearly, is actually a monster.

I first read this book when I was a teenager; I’d already seen the movie when I discovered the book on the shelves at the library, and so I checked it out and read it. I enjoyed it tremendously at the time–and it also had me watching other teens and young children for signs of sociopathy for a few years–and so thought it might be worth a revisit. It was, most definitely; it’s a bit dated, and of course the notion of a killer child isn’t quite so shocking as it was back during the Eisenhower administration–we’ve seen too many real life examples of this, and of course the trope of the killer child has been used, over and over again, in crime fiction and in films, so it’s not the brace of cold water in the face that it once was (kind of like how Beast in View by Margaret Millar was groundbreaking in its time–its still a great read–but what Millar did in that novel has been copied and imitated so much that it’s almost a cliche; one has to read these books with those sort of things in mind). Agatha Christie also used the trope of the sociopathic child (although in a quick google search it turns out Christie’s sociopathic child killer predated The Bad Seed; honestly, Christie did everything first).

It was a very pleasant reread, and as always, it’s interesting to visit (or revisit) books that were considered shocking in their time, only to have them turn out to be fairly tame–I’m looking at you, both Peyton Place and Valley of the Dolls–as well as to see how far the crime fiction genre has progressed. (I still consider Peyton Place to have a place in crime fiction, even though most people don’t. And while the crimes in the book may not be the driving point of the story, those crimes do impact everyone in the town in some way….there’s another essay to be written, probably after I reread the book at some point. It’s been awhile since I’ve revisited both Peyton Place and Valley of the Dolls….perhaps that can be my Christmas present to myself.

New York City Boy

I really miss New York.

As I’ve gotten older and more set in my ways, I’ve grown to abhor travel for the most part. I have trouble sleeping in hotel beds, for one thing–and by the time I am finally used to the bed, it’s the last night of the trip and I inevitably will have to get up early the next morning, ensuring exhaustion when I arrive at Armstrong International here in New Orleans. I don’t like working on laptops anymore–my eyes have gotten so bad the small screen is a pain in the ass, and the difference in keyboard from my desktops (home and work) is too much of an adaptation, so getting writing done when I travel has become next to impossible as well; now when I travel I just try to keep up with deleting junk emails from my various inboxes to make catching up on those easier when I get back home.

New York always exhausts me when I visit; it seems like I catch the pace of the city and am constantly running from one meeting to another, grabbing lunch sometime and a coffee here and there. But I love it there, and every trip up to there always makes me feel kind of like a kid again. When I was a kid I used to dream about being an author and going to New York for authorial business; I always feel like an author when I am there–because I am always there primarily for writing or publishing business. Business trips to New York! That was the kind of glamour I dreamed about when I was a kid, both in the suburbs of Chicago and out in the small rural town in Kansas I grew up in, where the seeds of my writing dreams were planted and germinated. Part of the reason I agreed to become Executive Vice President of Mystery Writers of America was because that meant a minimum of two business trips up there per year–one in January for the annual board meeting, and another in late April/early May for all the Edgar Award festivities. The pandemic, of course, cancelled all those plans for this year and probably next; I wouldn’t be surprised if I am not able to get to New York again until January 2022.

There’s obviously no time frame on when this pandemic will end, or when i will become comfortable with traveling again. I generally don’t travel much, even though conferences and so forth are tax deductions for me; I generally make it to Bouchercon and that’s about it for my year. I was hoping to go to more events over the next few years–not the least of which would be related to trying to be more visible as an MWA executive, trying to meet as many members as possible and engaging with them about the organization. The position is a lot of work, and trying to keep as many plates spinning as possible at the same time, hoping against hope none of those plates will go crashing to the floor. My personality is this bizarre combination of Type A and laziness; probably has more to do with mood swings and possible manic phases than anything else, really. I never seem to be able to say no, for one thing, and so I always wind up with more plates spinning than need to be going at the same time. It’s also hard to prioritize plates–which ones matter more than others?–and inevitably, for some reason or another (subconscious self-destructive patterns, perhaps?) wind up prioritizing the ones that don’t matter as much and won’t make me any money.

But I miss New York so much. I have so many friends there that my short visits never allow me to see everyone that I would like to see–as much as I would love to cram as many people in as I can, of course, I barely have time to get everything done that needs to be done up there, and I am always tired from the hotel-induced insomnia as it is. I miss taking the subway. I miss Grand Central Station. I miss drinking dirty vodka martinis with extra olives with my friends; for some reason martinis always makes me feel posh and authorial; I think it’s because all the people in the 1950’s and 1960’s movies that firmly fixed the city in my imagination drank martinis. I marvel at the energy required to live there, the crowds of people on the streets and the subways, in the stores and the coffee shops, and the joys of going shopping–when I have the time. I had intended to visit the New York Public Library–just to look around–the next time I came up; I’ve always wanted to go inside and have a look around.

I already have resigned myself to the bitter reality that there will be no board meeting in New York in January, and probably no Edgar ceremony in May, either.

But someday, New York, someday.

So Hard

Monday has rolled around again, and for the most part, I’m okay with it, really. I had a lovely weekend away from the Internet, which was enormously relaxing, and was able to get two stories revised yesterday. Of course, later on last evening I realized there’s yet another deadline looming, but I think I can make it. It is Friday, and Friday is when the 4th of July holiday lands for me; yes, a three day weekend to look forward to, and a deadline for Friday. So, in the worst case scenario, the story I want to submit for Friday needs at most another read through and polish; should the week go to hell (as they’ve been known to do lately) I at least have Friday to do so.

I spent most of the afternoon and early evening trying to get my computer files organized so I could more easily find things I need to be working on, and that was certainly a time suck. But it was necessary and needed to be done, and I made significant progress, which is always a plus. I had intended to start reading Kelly Ford’s Cottonmouths–I opened to the first page and read the first few paragraphs, which are simply marvelous–but then got deep into the file organizing, so it will have to wait until this evening and the reading hour–I’ve decided to spend at least an hour every day devoted to reading, as it’s the only way I’ll ever get caught up on my reading (which is a Sisyphean task, as more books I want to read come out all the goddamned time).

I did manage to get the revisions on the two stories done yesterday, as I explained earlier, and today I am going to try to find the time to line edit them as well as read the other story that’s due on Friday. I have so much to do–my email situation is truly tragic–but hopefully I’ll have some time to get everything I need to do together into a comprehensive to-do list today. Obviously, the first thing on the to-do list is to make a comprehensive to-do list.

And maybe, just maybe, when I get these stories out of my hair I’ll be able to get back to work on the Secret Project this coming weekend and get it finished once and for all and out of my hair. And maybe then I can get back to Bury Me in Shadows, which I am going to change from a y/a into a book not for teens, which may not be as easy as I would like to think it is. For one thing I need to rewrite the entire beginning–which is predicated on our main character being a high school student; I’ve decided to age him to college graduate preparing for graduate school in New Orleans, but still be from Chicago–and it won’t be as easy to make changes later on, yet I think it’s for the best, to be honest. It’s very Gothic in subject matter, after all, and plus–the y/a publishing world, at least on-line, is a snake pit.

I’m also thinking about what the next Scotty should be. I’m still wrapping my mind around a quarantine mystery; as I’ve said before, I have the title already, but I think I would like to write something in the period between the end of Royal Street Reveillon (Christmas) and the quarantine; which gives me an approximate three month period with which to work. I really do want to write about Mardi Gras again, with Scotty older and perhaps not quite as into it still as he was in Mardi Gras Mambo–I kind of want to capture that weird feeling and horrible energy the city had during this past Mardi Gras. I had an idea for a Mardi Gras short story, featuring Venus Casanova, “A Little More Jazz for the Axeman,” but I’m not so certain I have the right to–or should–write about a Black female lead. I’ve been writing about Venus for almost twenty years now, as a supporting character in both the Scotty and the Chanse series, and have always wanted to explore the character in greater depth–I have another story written with her as the main character, “Falling Bullets,” and an idea for a novel, Another Random Shooting–but I don’t think I should be writing such books and stories now, if ever; now is the time to amplify actual “own voices” rather than taking publishing slots away from actual Black writers, who already have enough issues in trying to be heard and paid for their work equitably.

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

In My House

Well, here it is Monday again and we’ve made it through another weekend; the last of May. Perhaps June will be the month this annus horribilis will turn around, but somehow I rather doubt it.

I grew up in the 1960’s. I was born in 1961, so when the decade ended I was nine and my earliest memory is me, maybe two years old or so, and the air raid sirens were going off in Chicago–they went off as a test every week on a certain day at a certain time, to ensure they were working and if Chicago was suddenly attacked by air–missiles, I suppose, from the Soviet Union or Cuba or perhaps a Canadian Air Force attack–we could get proper warning. I remember that the basement of my elementary school was a nuclear fallout shelter–or perhaps there was one accessible through the basement; my memory on this is cloudy but I can remember seeing the symbols (the black circle with three yellow triangles) on the wall above the stairs when I’d go down there to use the bathroom. I remember the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam and the violence meted out against people who protested inequality or an unjust war. I remember riots, and cities on fire, and leaders being murdered, shot and killed in a time when it seemed like the very fabric of the nation was being torn apart.

As a society, we tend to look back at the wild and crazy Sixties as a bizarre decade that opened with malt shops and bobby sox and the sock hop, which gradually morphed into something darker, and vastly different. The darkness and disillusionment didn’t lead to change in society or more equity; if anything, the resistance to civil rights for people of color became even more entrenched as other marginalized groups began advocating for their own rights and freedoms and equalities: women and queers. But the problems and inequities protested in the Sixties never went away completely; more doors were opened, to be sure, but the progress was slow and incremental, but below the surface it continued to simmer, and here we are, in 2020, dealing with these same old problems still.

Why is this so fucking hard, people? It doesn’t have to be.

I remember when Dr. King was murdered. I remember when RFK was murdered. (And yes I know these were political murders, so they were technically assassinations, but I’m sorry–murder is murder and it doesn’t need a fancy name to dress it up nice and pretty for consumption. MURDERED. They were MURDERED.)

I also remember the busing riots in the 1970’s.

My elementary school was segregated–in Chicago. I don’t know if all public schools in northern cities were segregated back then, but I do know ours was. The story was our principal would regularly turn away Black families trying to enroll their children by telling them the school was full, but any white family who came in was permitted. We had a lot of Hispanic/Latinx students at my school though; so clearly the bigotry was targeted at Black families. It was very strange, and even stranger to think about now, looking back; my elementary school was (with the exception of no Black children) the proverbial melting pot of cultures and countries (as taught to us as children–no mention of non-whites in that melting pot, of course). Most of my neighborhood–and therefore my schoolmates–were immigrants, either first or second generation; the woman down the street who babysat my sister and me’s parents immigrated from Poland. We had Poles and Latvians and Lithuanians; Czechs and Slovaks and Serbs and Croatians; Greeks and Mexicans and Nicaraguans and Guatemalans and Cubans and Puerto Ricans. Ironically, I also had classmates who identified by their principality in what used to be the Holy Roman Empire before it became Germany: Bohemians and Bavarians and Hessians (they were made very uncomfortable when we studied the mythology of the American Revolution, since the Hessians were mercenaries hired by King George III).

My high school in the suburbs, despite its size, only had a handful of black students; Bolingbrook is much more integrated now than it was at its inception. And of course, my high school in Kansas was completely free of black children. I had one black teacher before graduating from high school; and that was the sixth grade. My first black teacher in college was in Women’s Studies–she was a great teacher, and during that semester was denied tenure. I often wonder what ever happened to her; I don’t even remember her name. But she was the first teacher I ever had that truly opened my eyes to what our society and culture was actually like, rather than viewed through the rose tinted lenses all white children were given back then; what it was like for women and minorities in this country. As I was also beginning to realize at the same time that I didn’t necessarily have to be closeted and miserable for the rest of my life, and maybe wasn’t, and didn’t have to be, a square peg, she had a profound influence on me and this was when I first began to challenge, and question, everything I had been led to believe was carved into stone as truth.

It disturbs me that I do not remember her name. It disturbs me now to realize had I not been gay and had I not taken her class…I might not have ever questioned and reevaluated everything I was raised and socialized to believe. Sometimes when I see this right-wing assholes bloviating and spewing their bullshit and lies and bigotry, I sometimes think that, but for an untenured Women’s Studies professor and my sexuality, could have been me.

And it sickens me.

I don’t have the answers to how to solve what’s wrong with our country. But I do know the answer of how not to–which is to continue not listening to the people, to not listen to people of color, to not listen to anyone who is a minority of any kind in this country; to not listen to anyone who is anything other than a cisgender white male.

The Pledge of Allegiance ends “with liberty and justice for all.” It doesn’t say “with liberty and justice for white people.”

I’m not perfect. Every once in a while a thought will pop up in my mind that no longer fits my current worldview, something from the lizard part of my brain and the way I used to think, was conditioned to think, before my gradual enlightenment and reexamination of everything was I trained to think and believe, and it horrifies me. But I don’t pretend it doesn’t happen; I examine it, try to dissect and dismember it, to ensure it never pops into my brain again.

It’s work, but it’s work that needs to be done.

Black lives matter. No one should have to live in fear for their life every time they leave their goddamned house, or go into a nice neighborhood, or just go about their fucking day-to-day business.

This country and what it stands for was a terrific ideal that we, as flawed people and humans, have never actualized into reality or lived up to. It isn’t too late for us to start now. But we have to examine everything we’ve been taught, white people. We need to look at our art, our culture, our society, and our politics, with a skeptical, questioning eye, and we need to do the work. Our country will never heal without it…and if you care about this country as much as you claim you do–or you are, indeed, a true Christian–you will do this work so that everyone is equal in the eyes of the law and everyone has the same opportunities to succeed, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Because we who are minorities–whether racial, gender, class, sexuality, religion–are never going to shut up and we are never going to go away. You don’t have to like us; you can still think I’m a faggot if it makes you happy and you somehow think that’s what your invisible sky lord demands. But your business has to serve me, and you have to treat me the same way you treat everyone: with the respect and dignity every human being deserves.

I don’t really understand what is so controversial about that.

Go West

Good morning, Thursday; just today and tomorrow before we slide into another delightful three day weekend. Memorial Day! Huzzah! I am always about another day off from the day job–which I completely understand that it sounds like I don’t like my day job, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I just enjoy not having to go to work more than I enjoy going to work; I’m not sure how everyone else comes down on that category, but I’d be more than willing to bet that most people prefer their days off to their days on.

I could be wrong, but I rather doubt it.

Anyway, here I am at the crack of dawn swilling down coffee and trying to get more awake and alert. I am looking at a long day of screening at both buildings (Marine in the morning, Elysian Fields in the afternoon) and right now it seems like its about a million years staring into my face. But I will persevere, and deal with the heavy traffic on the way home just after five. Tomorrow is the Friday of a long weekend, which is absolutely lovely, and my ink cartridge was delivered yesterday so I can pick it up on my way into the office tomorrow and actually start printing shit I need to print again this weekend. Yesterday was a relatively good day, despite being tired–that tired lasted again, like the day before, pretty much all day–but I managed to get my errands accomplished after work and got some organizing and straightening done in the kitchen/office area; always a plus. Paul was a little late getting home last night, but we watched an episode of The Great and then I started streaming The Story of Soaps, an ABC show about the history of the soaps–just to see if it was any good–and it was quite enjoyable; I’ll look forward to watching the rest of it this evening. I watched soaps from the time I was a kid–our babysitter in the summer watched General Hospital, One Life to Live, and Dark Shadows, which is how I got started watching them, and over the years I remained pretty (fairly) loyal to General Hospital and One Life to Live. The summer we moved to Kansas, until we got cable we only got the CBS affiliate from Kansas City, so my mom and I ended up watching the CBS shows–from The Young and the Restless through Search for Tomorrow, As the World Turns, Guiding Light, and The Edge of Night. After cable, we watched General Hospital–it was the late 1970’s by then, and everyone was watching General Hospital by that point.

It’s interesting, in some ways, that our moves–my moves–gradually went west. The suburb we moved to when we left the south side of Chicago was west; from there to Kansas, and from there to California. I started heading more and more east from California, to Houston and then to Tampa, before going north to Minneapolis and coming back south to New Orleans. I never thought about it too much, really; but it’s interesting how I’ve moved around the country and the strange pattern to it. Of course, we’ve been in New Orleans since 1996 (barring that year in Washington), and since I’ve lived here longer than I have anywhere else, I tend to think of New Orleans as home more than I’ve ever thought of the places I’ve lived previously. Granted, had we never left Chicago, I probably would think of Chicago as home, but I’ve literally only been back to Chicago maybe twice, possibly three times, since departing the area in 1975. I’ve never been back to Kansas, and I’ve been to Houston many times since I moved to Tampa–but only twice to Tampa since leaving there (I’ve actually been to Orlando quite a bit; I’d say I’ve visited Orlando more than anywhere other than Houston over the last twenty-odd years).

I tend to not write about Florida, for the most part; while I’ve written about a fictional city in California based on Fresno in the Frat Boy books (the third was set in a different fictional California city, San Felice, based on Santa Barbara), and I’ve written about the panhandle of Florida, I’ve never really based anything on, or written about, the real Tampa or a city based on it (I do have ideas for some stories set in “Bay City”); I’ve not really written about Houston, either. My fiction has always primarily been set in New Orleans, with a few books scattered about other places (Alabama, Kansas, a mountain town in California called Woodbridge) but it’s almost inevitably New Orleans I write about; which makes sense. I live here, I love it here, and I will probably die in New Orleans.

And I’m fine with that, frankly.

“Go West” is also a song I associate with New Orleans, actually. I know it was originally a Village People recording–which I actually never heard before the Pet Shop Boys covered it–but I always associate it with 1994 and when I first started coming to New Orleans; it, along with Erasure’s “Always” were the big hits of the moment that were always being played in gay bars, and I heard them both for the first time on the dance floor at the Parade on my thirty-third birthday; which was also the first time I ever did Ecstasy. So, whenever I hear “Go West” by the Pet Shop Boys, I always think back to that birthday and that trip to New Orleans (“Always” has the same affect, but not as intensely; I’ve never been able to find the proper dance remix the Parade used to play–and in fact, a lyric of the song, “Hold On To The Night”, became a short story I’ve never published anywhere–and haven’t even tried to revise in almost thirty years. It wasn’t a crime story; I was writing gay short stories then, about gay life in New Orleans–and no, I never published the vast majority of them (with the sole exception of “Stigmata”, which was published in an anthology that came and went very quickly), although I did adapt some of them into erotica stories and some could easily be adapted into crime stories…I know a fragment of one, I think, morphed into “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me,” which was published in Jerry Wheeler’s The Dirty Diner anthology, and was probably reprinted in Promises in Every Star.

I should probably pull those stories out again and see if there’s anything I can do with them,

And on that note, I am heading back into the spice mines.

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It’s Alright

Monday morning, and we have thus far made it through another weekend, and have another week to stare down. I’ve not heard or seen any reports about how the gradual reopening of New Orleans went this weekend–I stayed my ass at home; I didn’t go outside at all other than to take out the trash–and today’s a work-at-home day. The gym has reopened, and I am debating whether I should go workout after work tonight. I’ve been itching to get back to the gym since everything closed–if you will recall, I’d started working out again before the shutdown, even managing to make it through Carnival, and had developed a really good routine before the world closed down on me.

I got some writing done on the Secret Project yesterday, almost two thousand words, which was pretty thrilling for me. I’d hoped to get more done–as I always do–but I really had to force those words out, and I was pretty glad to have been that productive when the words weren’t coming, so I called it a day when the well went dry and retired to my easy chair. I watched a great documentary on Galaxy Quest (one of my favorite movies) on Prime called Never Surrender–if you’re a fan of the movie, I highly recommend the documentary. Last evening Paul and I continued watching The Great, which is becoming more and more fun as I no longer think of them as actual historical figures, since the show bears so little resemblance to the actual history.

I also tried reading  a classic novel by a master of our genre, but couldn’t get very far into it. I admire what the author was doing with his style, voice and use of language–I’ve heard him speak and he’s all about the rhythm of the words, which is very important, and something I tell beginning writers all the time to watch for, and why it’s always important to read your work out loud to make sure the rhythm you’re using is consistent–but he also was guilty of one of my pet peeves: the use of colons and semi-colons in fiction prose. Anyway, between that and the toxic masculinity and racism–I don’t care if it was accurate for the period, it’s hard for me to see toxic racist men as heroic–and when I got to the extensive use of the n*word–again, probably accurate and correct for the period–I was done. I put it in the donation pile and was done with it. I’ve read his work before and I don’t remember it being quite as bad as this particular book; but I intend to reread that book again at some point (it was also homophobic, which jumped off the page at me, and that’s why I want to reread it–to see if it still rings that way) and then I can gladly call it quits on that author.

I’m also still rereading Phyllis A. Whitney’s The Red Carnelian, which is more of a straight-up mystery than any of her other novels for adults. As I mentioned before, it was originally titled Red is for Murder; most of her novels for adults had a color in the title somehow–The Turquoise Mask, Silverhill, Hunter’s Green, Black Amber, Sea Jade–but when her work became more romantic suspense, it was reissued and retitled as The Red Carnelian, to fit her other titles more. Set in a sprawling department store on State Street in Chicago (like Marshall Field’s or Carson Pirie Scott, back in the day–I wonder which store she used as a research; Mrs. Whitney was a librarian, and always exhaustively researched her novels) named Cunningham’s, the book also offers an interesting, behind-the-scenes look at how department stores are run, and the various jobs (window dresser, poster and sign copy, marketing and sales, backdrop painting, mannequin arranging) that are necessary for the day-to-day operation of a large department store. Thinking about which store she used to research her novel sent me into an Internet wormhole, where I looked up Marshall Field’s, Carson Pirie Scott, Goldblatt’s, and Zayre’s, among the many department stores I remember visiting as a child in Chicago. (The bargain basement at Zayre’s was where I first discovered the children’s mystery series featuring Rick Brant, Ken Holt, and Biff Brewster.)

I kind of miss department stores.

I am hoping to get a lot accomplished this week–and I am really looking forward to our three day weekend that’s coming up. Huzzah!

Have a lovely day, Constant Reader.

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Always

Kansas.

We moved to Kansas the summer I turned fifteen. It was a bit of culture shock; we’d been living a middle-to-upper middle class suburb of Chicago for about four years then, after spending eight or nine years in a working-class, very blue-collar neighborhood in Chicago, populated primarily with eastern European immigrants, or second, maybe third, generation Americans from central to eastern Europe. All I really knew about Kansas, before moving there, was that it had been a part of the Dust Bowl during the depression; I’d read about “bleeding Kansas” in history books; and of course, tornadoes and The Wizard of Oz (which is a movie I’ve never cared for; I watched it once as a kid and never again). Neither Nancy Drew nor the Hardy Boys ever had an adventure there; nor had any of the other kids’ series or Scholastic Book Club mysteries I’d read. But it was in Kansas that I actually started writing seriously, and began to think about being a writer when I grew up. (It was also in Kansas that I had the bad creative writing professor, and other bad history professors; I actually cannot think of a single decent teacher I had at the university level in Kansas–but then again, I was incredibly miserable when I lived in Kansas and it’s entirely possible that misery bled over into every other aspect of my life.)

I also don’t want to make it seem as though the five or so years I spent there were completely miserable. I did have fun–I was always desperately trying to have fun to distract me from the terror that arose from my sexuality, which was a secret that must be guarded from everyone at all times; it’s laughable to think about it now, but that terror was very real to me then.

It was in Kansas I started writing about teenagers, and while none of that stuff I’d written was publishable–I still have the handwritten novel I started writing there somewhere; the thought of rereading it turns my stomach as I can only imagine how incredibly bad, trite, and cliched it all was–but those characters have lived on and appeared in my actual published work as an adult; primarily I kept the character names and the basis of who they were, fleshing them out and (hopefully) making them three dimensional. Sara is, to date, the only book I’ve published that is set in Kansas; Laura, the main character in Sorceress, is also from Kansas–but the book is set in California. And of course I’ve been playing with the Kansas book now for something like fifteen years–hopefully, that will be finished and done this year.

I love to read about Kansas, and two of my favorite crime writers–Lori Roy and Sara Paretsky–are also from Kansas; Lori’s first novel, Bent Road (it’s brilliant, as is everything she writes) is set in Kansas; Sara, of course, primarily writes about Chicago but wrote a stand alone several years ago called Bleeding Kansas I’ve always wanted to get around to. Nancy Pickard also wrote two stunningly brilliant novels set in Kansas–The Virgin of Small Plains and The Scent of Rain and Lightning; I cannot recommend them enough. One cannot talk about Kansas books, either, without mentioning Truman Capote’s “true crime novel” In Cold Blood, which I like to reread every now and then.

There’s just something noir about Kansas; I don’t know how to describe it, or why it feels that way to me; but there’s just something about the wide open spaces and the wind, that Peyton Place-like feel to the small cities…Emporia (the county seat; we lived about eight miles out of town in an even smaller town called Americus) even had its own full blown scandal where a minister and the church secretary had an affair and murdered their spouses; it was even made into a two-part mini-series filmed on location in Emporia starring Jobeth Williams as the femme fatale. Those small towns, scattered all over the northern part of Lyon County, once thriving and bustling but now barely hand on when I lived there…the abandoned schools, still standing (they’d all been consolidated into one high school in the 1950’s) in the emptying little towns…our consolidated high school, out in the middle of the country with the football field backing up to a pasture; and the explosive boredom for teenagers. I always turn back to Kansas somehow, whenever I am thinking creatively or wanting to write a new short story–so much material, really. Emporia even had a cult; the old Presbyterian College of Emporia had gone bankrupt sometime in the early 1970’s and The Way International had bought the campus, turning it into The Way College of Emporia and I have to tell you, those kids from The Way College were terrifying–and there were lots of stories and urban legends about what went on there on that campus; how much was true I’ll probably never know, but I do know they used to have armed security guards patrolling the edge of campus, and every teenager knew not to ever get cornered anywhere with no possible escape by two or more of those kids….they always traveled in groups, never less than two and rarely more than six, but always in multiples of two. They always looked very clean cut, but you knew them by the nametags they were required to wear, their empty glassy eyes, and the big smiles on their faces.

There’s also the story of the bloody Benders, serial killers who operated an inn and murdered their guests in the nineteenth century before disappearing; I’m sure every nook and cranny of Kansas has some kind of horrible tale of murder hidden away.

And about three or four miles from our high school–you had to turn right when you reached the state road from Americus to get there; if you turned left towards Council Grove you’d pass this place: an abandoned nuclear missile base, that is still there. We used to go there sometimes for kicks–opening the door and listening to the strange sounds from deep inside and water dripping. I had plenty of nightmares about that missile base.

But the only other gay novelist I know from Kansas is Scott Heim (or at least the only one I know of who sometimes writes about Kansas). I read his debut novel Mysterious Skin sometime in the mid to late 1990’s, and was blown away by it (the film is also quite good). Mysterious Skin is set in Kansas, of course, and while it is a literary novel, and a quite good one, for me there were some elements of noir to the story; I have moved it to the The Reread Project pile and hope to get to it again relatively soon, so i can discuss it with more credibility and authority. I’ve not had the opportunity to read his other two novels, In Awe and We Disappear, but I’m adding them to the “need to get a copy” list.

Over this past weekend I read a short story Scott wrote for Amazon; part of something called The Disorder Collection, along with stories from several other authors. You can buy “Loam” here; it’s well worth the ninety-nine cents.

We agreed to share the driving. The early-morning flights had left us feeling run-down, but my sisters said my eyes looked the least bleary, so I should drive first. The clouds had gone gray; it had started to rain. But we could take our time. The afternoon we’d been dreading lay before us in hot, wet highways flanked by sorghum and corn and glistening shocks of wheat. It was late summer, already harvest season, and the fields shuddered in the wind, the grains full and heavy as though fed with blood.

At the rental counter, a cheery, silver-haired clerk had offered us a white sedan, but Louise had disapproved. “A simple compact is fine,” she said, “and no extra options. Just make sure it’s as black as possible. Is ‘funeral black’ a color?” She’d glanced across the desk to Miriam and me, urging us to smile. No one had smiled since we’d met in the arrival lobby with hesitant hugs.

The clerk didn’t seem to grasp Louise’s reference, but when she collected our licenses, she was attentive enough to catch our dates of birth. She turned and yelled, “Girls, come look–triplets!”

It had been years since we’d been subjected to this kind of foolishness. We watched as her pair of coworkers stood from their desks and approached the counter. I could guess what was coming next: we didn’t look anything alike; we had varying shades of brown and blond hair; even our bodies and the ways we dressed, so different. Louise stopped their small talk before it could start, outstretching her hand to silence the room. “Look, our father just died, okay? Let’s sign what we need to sign and get this over with.”

One of the things I love about Heim’s work–and having only read one novel over twenty years ago and now this short story–is that he often writes about the aftereffects, and the aftermath, of traumas and how the victims deal and cope. This is something that interests me; I often think and wonder about how people who’ve dealt with something–my husband is a serial sex offender; my father murdered my mother, my grandfather was a serial killer–they had no control over cope and go on with their lives; I’m actually writing a story dealing with that sort of thing right now (one of the many stories I have in some sort of progress right now; it’s called “He Didn’t Kill Her”), and also those who were directly victimized–how do they deal? How do they cope? How do they go on with their lives after something so traumatic happens to them?

This is why this century’s reboots and sequels to Halloween interest me, because they show how Laurie Strode, years later, was psychologically damaged and who she became; one of the things I loved about the Scream films is they showed how everything that has happened to her has turned Sydney into a different person from who she imagined she’d be before the murders started.

Heim doesn’t write about the peripherally damaged; he writes about those who actually were damaged first-hand. In “Loam”, his triplets are clearly damaged by something that happened to them when they were children; they are returning to bury their father and clearly have not been back to Kansas in years. It isn’t clear what happened to them–it may have just been bad parenting in the beginning–and it isn’t until they stop at a second-hand store (what we used to call “junk shops” when I was a kid) and find some strange and mysterious pictures of their first grade classmates on a table that the memories of the past–and what they went through–begin to come to the fore.

I do wish Scott Heim would write more. This story, sad and dark and mysterious, is everything I love to read.

This: The afternoon we’d been dreading lay before us in hot, wet highways flanked by sorghum and corn and glistening shocks of wheat. It was late summer, already harvest season, and the fields shuddered in the wind, the grains full and heavy as though fed with blood–I wish I’d written that.

Buy it or borrow it if you have Amazon Prime. It’s very well worth the time.

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