Mary Mary

I have always loved strong female characters, having cut my reading teeth on Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, Vicki Barr, the Dana Girls, Judy Bolton, and Cherry Ames, just to name a few. As an adult reader of mysteries, two of my favorite series are Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series (simply the best) and Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow series (also a gem of a series); primarily because I love the characters of Amelia and Meg both so very much. They are both fiercely intelligent women with a very dry sense of humor, and are the kind of strong women that everyone around them comes to depend on for support–and droll wit. The death of Dr. Barbara Mertz (who wrote as Peters AND as Barbara Michaels) ended the Peabody series forever, much to my heartbreak; the Meg Langslow series is going strong still, so I am hopeful that I will have years and years of reading pleasure yet to come from Donna.

And then, last year I discovered Mary Russell.

The envelope slapped down onto the desk ten inches from my much-abused eyes, instantly obscuring the black lines of Hebrew letters that had begun to quiver an hour before. With the shock of the sudden change, my vision stuttered, attempted a valiant rally, then slid into complete rebellion and would not focus at all.

I leant back into my chair with an ill-stifled groan, peeled my wire-rimmed spectacles from my ears and dropped tjem onto the stack of notes, and sat for a long minute with the heels of both hands pressed into my eye sockets.

I was already a fan of Laurie R. King from her brilliant Kate Martinelli series, about a lesbian police detective. (If you’ve not read that series, you need to–it’s one of the best of the last thirty years.) I was reluctant to read the Mary Russell series, as Constant Reader may remember from my previous posts about earlier books in this series; for any number of reasons, but primarily not ever really getting into the Sherlock Holmes/Conan Doyle stories. This shifted and changed when I was asked to contribute a Sherlock story to Narrelle Harris’ The Only One in the World anthology; this required me to go back and do some reading of Doyle, and having worked with Laurie R. King on the MWA board, I decided to give her feminist take on Sherlock a go.

And I have not regretted that decision once.

Mary has stepped up to replace Amelia Peabody as one of my favorite on-going series; I love the character–a strong-minded, fiercely independent woman of no small intelligence who is more than capable of going toe-to-toe with Mr. Holmes. Theirs is, despite the age difference, a true partnership of equals; I love that Holmes, in King’s interpretation of him, isn’t quite so misogynistic or incapable of feeling–which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a male-written version. I like King’s Holmes; the strong female character who is his equal was the perfect solution to whatever misogynistic issues I may have had with other interpretations. I also love that Russell is also pursuing a life of the mind; her studies into theology at Oxford are not just asides to add color and flavor to the character but are just as important to whom she is as a character as the love interest/relationship with Holmes. As I also have an amateur’s curiosity into the history of Christianity and how the faith changed and developed throughout the centuries following the New Testament stories…how that was shaped and influenced by men with not the purest of motives…is something I’ve always been interested in.

I think the first book that challenged Christian orthodoxy in a fictional form that I read–the first time I became aware of the possibilities that the BIble wasn’t actually the pure word of God and had been edited and revised repeatedly in the centuries since Christ ostensibly lived, died and was resurrected–was, of all things, a book by Irving Wallace called The Word (Wallace isn’t really remembered much today, but he wrote enormous books of great length that were huge bestsellers, and the subject matter and style of the books was essentially that they were very bery long thrillers: The Prize was about the maneuvering to win a Nobel; The Plot was about an international conspiracy to kill JFK; The Second Lady was about a Soviet plan to kidnap the First Lady and replace her with a lookalike who was a Soviet agent; etc etc etc). The premise of The Word is simply that a new testament, a document hidden away for centuries in a monastery in Greece, claims that not only did Jesus not die on the cross but went on to live for many decades, preaching his own ministry and even visiting Rome. This, of course, is a cataclysmic document–it would change everything everyone had ever known and believed…if it is indeed authentic.

I’ve always loved a good thriller with a base in theology, ever since; and A Letter of Mary is just that, even if more of a mystery than a thriller. The role of Mary Magdalen has been questioned a lot in the last few decades–not the least reason of which is Holy Blood Holy Grail–an interesting concept if one that has been proven to based in a falsehood in the times since (or was THAT part of the Vatican’s plot?)–which inevitably led to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. I don’t find the idea that the Magdalen was a beloved disciple of Jesus–and that she may have been his favorite–a reach; likewise, there’s nothing I’ve ever seen in the actual New Testament that essentially says she was a prostitute, a “fallen woman.”

This book begins with Russell despairing over her research only to receive a letter that she and Holmes are going to be receiving a visitor–someone they met during their time in the Holy Land some time earlier–glossed over in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice but apparently explored more deeply in O Jerusalem! The visitor, an older heiress of no small means who is fascinated with archaeology and has been funding digs in the Holy Land, presents the pair with a gift as well as an ancient letter, unauthenticated, which is ostensibly a letter from Mary Magdalen some years after the death of Christ, written to a sister as the city of Jerusalem falls under seige by the Romans during the Jewish Wars, around 70 AD, that saw the sack of the city and the start of the diaspora; which makes it very clear that, if authentic, the Magdalen was one of the disciples and heavily involved in the ministry of the Christian church. Their guest returns to London, and is killed when she is stuck by a car the following day. Holmes and Russell sniff around the crime scene and find evidence that the old woman was murdered…but by whom? Why? Is this about the letter from Mary?

King always tells a great story–you never can go wrong with one of her books, really–and the characters are so well-defined, so real, that even if she didn’t tell a great story, you want to read about those characters more, get to know them better, and cheer them on to their successes and sympathize with their failures. Her writing style is also a joy to read; the Mary Russell voice is so different and so clearly distinct from Kate Martinelli that you can’t not marvel at her mastery.

The next book in the series is The Moor, and I am really looking forward to it.

Salvation Theme

Reading has always been my escape from the realities of the cruel, cold world. As long as I can remember, I found solace in books–I could always open a book and escape from realities I didn’t want to participate in, or when the world became too much, there was always the comfort of a story about other people and another world where I could go to get away from it all.

When I was a kid, I was more interested in stories about women and girls than I was in stories about boys; I couldn’t really relate to boys as easily as I did to girls. This was, I think, a part of the strict gender divide in the society and culture I was born into; there were specific and clear differences between things for boys and things for girls. Girls played at housekeeping and mothering; boys were supposed to be outdoorsy and adventurous and active. I was not an outdoorsy, adventurous, active little boy; all I wanted to do was be left alone with a book–and the more my parents tried to get me interested in boy things the harder I stubbornly resisted. I never understood why it was so wrong that all I ever wanted to do was read.

I think that part of the reason I’ve always preferred books by and about women are because I can relate to them more, if that makes sense. As someone who never became vested in what society viewed as what masculine behavior is, those behaviors–not always necessarily toxic, but certainly steeped in it–inevitably make me lose interest in the character and their story.

Likewise, one of the reasons I preferred Mary Stewart to Victoria Holt and Phyllis A. Whitney (still love Holt and Whitney, though) is because her heroines weren’t passive; they didn’t sit still for being victimized or playing the victim but rather took charge of the situation and were just as capable as any man. This is why one of my favorite fictional series characters of all time were those created by the great Elizabeth Peters: Jacqueline Kirby and Vicky Bliss were also take-charge characters who didn’t suffer fools gladly, and of then there’s her creation who may be my favorite series character of all time: Amelia Peabody. God, how I love Amelia Peabody. Peters’ death was a blow for me; knowing there would be no more books with Peabody and Emerson and Ramses and Nofret and Walter and Evelyn and David….

But then I had the enormous good fortune to discover Mary Russell.

I sat back in y chair, jabbed the cap onto my pen, threw it into the drawer, and abandoned myself to the flood of satisfaction, relief, and anticipation that was let loose by that simple action. The satisfaction was for the essay whose last endnote I had just corrected, the distillation of several months’ hard work and my first effort as a mature scholar: It was a solid piece of work, ringing true and clear on the page. The relief I felt was not for the writing, but for the concomitant fact that, thanks to my preoccupation, I had survived the compulsory Christmas revels, a fete which ha reached a fever pitch in this, the last year of my aunts controls of what she saw as the family purse. The anticipation was for the week of freedom before me, one entire week with neither commitments nor responsibilities, leading up to y twenty-first birthday and all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto. A small but persistent niggle of trepidation tried to make itself known, but I forestalled it by standing up and going to the chest of drawers for clothing.

My aunt was, strictly speaking, Jewish, but she had long ago abandoned her heritage and claimed with all the enthusiasm of a convert the outward forms of cultural Anglicanism. As a result, her idea of Christmas tended heavily toward the Dickensian and Saxe-Gothan. Her final year as my so-called guardian was coincidentally the first year since the Great War ended to see quantities of unrationed sugar, butter, and meat, which meant the emotional excesses had been compounded by culinary ones. I had begged off most of the revelry, citing the demands of the paper, but with my typewriter fallen silent, I had no choice but crass and immediate flight. I did not have to think about y choice of goals–I should begin at the cottage of my friend and mentor, my tutor, sparring partner and comrade-in-arms, Sherlock Holmes. Hence my anticipation. Hence my trepidation.

I first encountered Mary Russell last year when I read the first of her adventures with Holmes, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, which took place over several years and was really a loosely connected series of different stories that showed the growing bond between the teenaged girl and the retired detective. Her wit, her style, her fierce intelligence–and her refusal to be a sidekick or passive made me fall madly in love with her–despite my long-held antipathy towards Sherlock Holmes. (I have since read more of Doyle, and find the antipathy I once felt fading; in no small part, I think, because last year I had to write my own spin on Holmes and Watson, which really changed everything I thought, felt, and believed about them.) I’m not sure what made me select the second Mary Russell to read recently; I do intend to read them all, of course, but there are sixteen or so (!) of them, and then there are King’s stand alones, and I’d also love to revisit her Kate Martinelli series, which is how I first came to read King in the first place. But I digress.

A Monstrous Regiment of Women is, of course, a terrific title; and I knew, of course, the source for it: the tedious Scot religious bigot John Knox’s 1550’s pamphlet primarily attacking Queen Mary I of England (aka Mary Tudor), “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women,” in which he blamed the sad state of Christendom at the time at the irreligious and unprecedented amount of women in power at that time in Europe–and, as I have said many times before, the sixteenth century had more powerful women running countries than any century before or since (and I’ve always wanted to write a history of that century, focusing on those women, and using that very same title King used here). So, going into the book, and knowing that Mary was studying theology at Oxford in the latter half of the first book, I assumed (correctly) that this book would have religion, and women, at its heart, so I sat down with the book rather eagerly.

It did not disappoint.

The book opens, as noted above, around Christmas time, just before Mary finally achieves her majority and comes into the inheritance her benighted aunt/guardian has been enjoying herself with since Mary’s family perished in an auto accident when she was fourteen. Rather the celebrate the holiday with her aunt and the aunt’s hangers-on, Mary escapes the house and goes in search of her old comrade, Holmes. This leads her to London and an encounter with a friend from earlier in her education at Oxford, which in turn leads her to the New Temple of God and its leader, Margery Childe–charismatic, suffragette, and also a religious mystic. (I was put in mind of Aimee Semple McPherson, who has always fascinated me and I’ve always kind of wanted to write about.) But there’s something unholy going on at the New Temple, and perspicacious Mary can’t quite put her finger on what’s wrong there–but it intrigues her and she gets deeper and deeper into what’s going on there.

There’s also a switch-up in the dynamic between her and Holmes in this book, but it is also to King’s credit that the groundwork for this was laid almost from the very beginning of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, and it neither seems out of place or untoward, either for the story or the characters–and despite the awkwardness this change-up creates between the two of them in their all-too-brief encounters in the story (for make no mistake about it; this is clearly Mary’s story, and Holmes no more than a supporting player on this stage), it makes sense and it also answers one of the questions the first book aroused in me; how can King keep writing about this opposite-sex pair through an entire series without the question of chaperoning and so forth not coming up, or them simply remaining good friends while the deep and growing affection between them is so plainly right there on the page?

The writing is masterful and intelligent, and the story–with its interesting twists and turns, along with some exciting ventures along some of the more disreputable sections of London–is so well paced and plotted that you simply cannot put the book down. I was, quite literally, only on chapter three when I picked the book up again yesterday morning; within moments I was a captive of King’s magic and completely incapable of putting the book down–to the point that I resented having to take breaks to get coffee or go to the restroom or feed the cat. I had decided, when I sat down with the book, that I had to stop reading at noon so I could get back to my own manuscript. Noon came and went, and still I kept reading. At one I flipped to the back to see how many more pages were left, and decided that it was ridiculous and incomprehensible to stop reading so close to the end, and I wouldn’t be able to completely focus on my own while I was so worried about how Mary was going to escape the peril in which King had placed her. So…rationalizing if I don’t finish my own editing today I can always finish tomorrow I plowed forward.

And–without spoilers–I will say King did an incredibly accurate and chilling depiction of how drug addiction takes hold of people.

She also explores the question of women’s role in the Christian religion beautifully, weaving these theological questions and issues seamlessly into the narrative. Each chapter begins with a quote about just that–either from the Bible or the great Christian philosophers, exposing the vicious misogyny that has poisoned that faith almost from the very beginning.*

I loved this book, loved loved loved it, and am really looking forward to the next, A Letter of Mary.

If you’ve not yet started this series, wait no more.

*I also made note of these quotes so I can shamelessly use them myself!

Drops of Jupiter

I got my flu shot yesterday, as well as the second and final vaccination for shingles, and just like the first shingles shot, my shoulder (flu went into the left, shingles to the right) is achy and sore again this morning. But I have absolutely no regrets–a few days of sore shoulder is certainly worth never having shingles. Ironically, one of my goals for this year was to be better about my health in general; who knew, of course, when setting my goals there would be a global pandemic and all of the resultant fallout? But while I still need to get that damned colonoscopy scheduled, I have managed to get the lumps in my chest X-rayed (fatty cysts, RUDE!) and my shingles vaccination. I was in a regular routine of going to the gym again before it closed (and I really really miss it), and need to get into at least a regular routine of stretching, push-ups. and abs every morning (which hasn’t happened yet). I think that will help with what I call malaise, but really is depression.

Malaise just somehow sounds better to me than depression–but that’s also due to stigma. I don’t know why I am so reluctant to admit that I have depression sometimes–it never gets truly bad, just bad enough that I fail to see the point in doing anything of any kind–but of course, when i had to go to the office every day and see clients that helped keep it under control; helping people every day and talking to them about their own problems and issues made me feel better about myself–hey at least you’re helping people and you can do that even during a bout of depression–so obviously, only working with clients two days a week now does not help as much with that. I also am not one who likes to admit to weakness of any kind–thank you, systemic toxic masculinity–and so talking publicly about it, let alone admitting to it, has always been an issue for me.

I did watch The Believers while making condom packs yesterday, and yes, I was right; it doesn’t hold up and it’s really terrible about what is essentially just as valid a religion as Christianity. At one point an expert in santeria does explain to the main character–played by a very handsome younger Martin Sheen–that there is a difference between santeria (white magic; the forces of good) and brujeria (dark magic; the forces of evil)–but throughout the film it’s only referred to as santeria, and the entire point of the film is to exoticize an ancient African religion, make it seem mysterious and evil. Ironically, even though the film was made in 1987 or so, it actually fits into my Cynical 70’s Film Festival because it, too, is about paranoia and conspiracy and not being able to truly trust anyone. There was also a fear of Satanism rampant in the 1980’s; devil cults and so forth–and a lot of it had to do with heavy metal music as well. I suppose this swing back in the 1980’s was to be expected, almost predictable; after the social upheavals of the 1960’s and the cynicism of the 1970’s, the 1980’s saw a swing back to older values of a sort. Evangelicalism–which began to uptick somewhat in the 1970’s, on the wings of end-times religious theory, like The Late Great Planet Earth and The Omen, began preaching about “family values” and trying to censor film, books, television, and music. The film, which I didn’t really remember much of, played down some of the paranoia and motivation of the novel (which was called The Religion, until the release of the film); in the book the religion followers were being warned by the Seven Powers that child sacrifice–three children, in total–was necessary to prevent the coming end of the world; and the stakes of the novel lie in the fact that the main character’s son was to be the third. This plot point was written out of the movie, which obviously turned them into crazy child sacrificers; at least their motivations in the book were sort of pure–an end justifies the means sort of thing, which was a very popular mentality in the 1980’s, as I recall. The book ends with the main character, his new second wife (love interest throughout the book) and the son, saved from sacrifice, living on a farm somewhere; their radio and television goes out, and the adults look at each other with worry as the sky outside also begins to change to an eerie color…the movie obviously ends differently, and not as satisfyingly; I liked that the book depicted that their unwillingness to allow their son to be sacrificed in order to save the world–selfishness, really–doomed the entire world. (The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay also does a most excellent job of portraying this same dilemma–seriously, Constant Reader, you need to read that book.)

Thinking about this book, and rewatching this movie, naturally has me thinking about the connections between santeria and brujeria to the type of voodoo that was practiced in New Orleans; something I’ve long been interested in but hesitant to write about, particularly, as I’ve said before, because the historical writings about New Orleans and voodoo culture is extremely, horrifyingly dated and racist. My story “The Snow Globe”–coming next year in the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime’s anthology Magic is Murder–touches on New Orleans voodoo, and I was absolutely terrified of getting it wrong. The primary issue I have with both fictional and historical depictions of voodoo under any name is that it’s always painted as devil-worship and evil, which is predicated on the notion that Christianity is the only good religion. (I’ve also, often, noted that horror fiction–film, television, novels–while always attacked by Christians, actually almost always portrays Christianity as good, and true, and real; a confirmation of its beliefs and value systems. Vampires inevitably recoil from the cross and holy water; same with demonic possession–and inevitably not just Christianity but Catholicism in particular. I’ve always thought that rather curious.)

Scott Heim’s wonderful story “Loam”–available here at Amazon–was very interesting (not just because he’s a terrific writer and it’s very good) to me because it was about the after-effects, years later, of one of those devil-worshipping/Satanic cult scares from that time period, in which child abuse and so forth were also alleged, and convictions gained, only to later discover the kids had “false memories” that were implanted by the questioning (similar to what happened to Greg Kelley in that documentary we recently watched, where he was falsely accused and convicted of molesting two children). I’ve always been curious about the after-effects of these kinds of traumas, not just on the children but the adults involved as well. How do you parent in that situation? I have a book idea that’s been lying around here for quite some time called I Know Who You Are, which is sort of based on that idea; someone escaping a deeply troubled past and starting a new life with a new name somewhere else, only to have someone from that past turn up, because you can never escape the past. It’s a great idea, and one that I was originally intending to use as a Paige novel in that aborted series, but I think it will also work as a stand-alone–I’ve considered using it as the spin-off from my true crime writer Jerry Channing, who has shown up in the Scotty series a couple of times.

But I must get through these other manuscripts before I can even consider writing anything else.

And on that note, tis off to the spice mines with me.

Everything Has Changed

So, our appointments for this afternoon have been canceled as Sally draws near; so I have to run down to the office for a few hours and then come home to batten down the hatches, or at least whatever needs battening. Hopefully, we won’t get hit too hard; I’m more concerned with the rain and losing power more than anything else. Services have been canceled for Tuesday, so I get an extra day and a half this week of working at home. Not ideal, as I enjoy working with our clients and it’s lovely to get out of the house, but what can you do?

It will be an interesting few days, that’s for sure.

The weather looks weird outside the windows this morning; not the usual gray of the sun coming up through the darkness but a much weirder, unsettling kind of gray. As I said, I have to go in for a few hours this morning; clients and data entry that is due, and if I can’t get it all done before I leave to come home, I can do it at home as long as we have power. Sally seems to have slowed down in her approach to the coastline over night; it looks like the big hit will come tomorrow now rather than later today, but you never can really tell with these things, and the information weather channels and meteorologists share never is really helpful. When di we start getting the outer bands? When will the heavy rains start? When can we expect the high winds?

Instead, it’s all about the eye and when the center of the storm will come ashore, which isn’t really, you know, very helpful.

Yesterday was an interesting day. I spent most of the day trying to get my emails drafted so they could be sent today, and by the time I was finished with all of that, it was time for the Saints game. They did win, 34-23, I think was the final score; but it’s odd. My relationship with my Saints fandom has shifted a bit; I will always be a fan, but I’m not quite as, I don’t know, as big a fan of Drew Brees as I used to be. The enormous disappointment of his collaboration with the horrifically homophobic Focus on the Family, and how angry he became when this was pointed out, rather than an “oops, my bad”, just didn’t really sit well with me, and it still doesn’t, to this day. He has course-corrected on anti-racism, after stepping in it and that was great; but yet…I don’t know. Hero worship inevitably leads to disappointment, because humans aren’t completely heroic; humans are often too human to be heroic.

The Lost Apartment is starting to look less like an abandoned crack den and more like a home, so that’s progress of a sort. The vacuum cleaner works better than it did, but it’s still not quite as good as it was when new; then again, we’re all getting older and not as good at doing things as we used to be, aren’t we? And if we don’t lose power, I can probably keep vacuuming until the floors look like they normally should.

We watched the new episodes of Lovecraft Country and The Vow last night; it’s hard to decide which was creepier and scarier. The Vow gets creepier and more disturbing with each and every episode, and it was strange seeing Catherine Oxenberg (who was the original Amanda on Dynasty) on last night’s episode, worried about how to get her daughter India out of the clutches of NXIVM. As Paul and I continue to watch, we marvel at how insidious it all actually is; and how attractive the things they say to draw people in were in actuality. One can never really go wrong with self-improvement. This week’s Lovecraft Country (spoiler) was really about passing for white, only in this case a very dark-skinned woman of color, Ruby (who is a great character) uses magic to turn herself into a white woman and get the job at Marshall Field’s that she has always coveted…which is an interesting look at the old trope of “passe blanc”, which is something I’ve also always wanted to write about. It was interesting to see how this was handled in the book and in the show; I have to say, the show is also diverging from the book in very interesting and smart ways.

We are also trying out a Netflix comedy series called The Duchess, but after two episodes we aren’t really sucked into it, so I don’t know if we’ll keep going. Raised by Wolves has also slowed down and we’re losing interest in it. Visually it’s amazing, still; the story is losing us.

I’ve also been reading about another great 1970’s conspiracy theory that still effects us today, and one that most Americans don’t particularly know about, but really should. A while back, I remembered there was a book published in either the late 1960’s or early 1970’s that had to do with the end times, and it was an enormous bestseller, so I thought hey you should order a copy and read it. It was written by someone named George Lindsey, and was titled The Late Great Planet Earth. I’ve been reading it, off and on (wow, is it ever racist) and it’s all about Biblical prophecy, and how all these Biblical prophecies are coming true. (The most hilarious thing about it is how dated it now is; Lindsey, for example, didn’t find the Camp David accords bringing peace to Israel and Egypt in his Bible, and JFC, is it ever racist, and right-wing; you can almost hear him sneer the word liberal.) But what’s even more interesting (other than how wrong he has proven to be about so many things over the last four decades) is that the book, despite having been proven demonstrably wrong (the chapters about the Soviet Union and communism are especially cringeworthy) is that it is still in print, and this is a mindset that a lot more evangelicals actually believe in to this very day. When you look at their behavior and voting patterns in the light of what Lindsey claims in this book…it makes a lot more sense, and it’s also fucking scary. What else is interesting about this book is that it’s almost a complete blueprint for the movie The Omen (I can’t speak to the sequels or anything else since the first movie, as the movie and its novelization by Brian Seltzer are the only ones i am familiar with); almost everything in that movie (and the novelization) is directly lifted from Lindsey’s book–to the point where Lindsey should have gotten a story credit on the film. (And now, of course, I am going to have to look up Seltzer.)

This has also led me, in a roundabout way, back to the work of Elaine Pagels on early Christianity; I’ve been looking through her book The Gnostic Gospels, and like Dr. Pagels, I’ve always been interested in how Christianity was originally created as a religion rather than as a values system, and what was included from the New Testament and what wasn’t (it also interests me how evangelicals and other Christians literally believe what they read in their Bibles is the word of God, handed down over centuries yet never edited or wrongly translated from one language to another); this also ties into that Colin novel I’ve always wanted to write.

And on that note, tis off to the spice mines with me. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader, and stay safe in you’re in Sally’s path.

Friends in Low Places

I cleaned the staircase yesterday, wiping each step down and polishing the banister. It’s astonishing, really, how much dust can collect in New Orleans when you don’t have, or take, the time to keep after it. Add to that cat hair, and perhaps you can imagine the odious chore it actually turned out to be. It occurred to me, halfway down the steps, where they turn, that perhaps I should make the time once a week to do this, but I also had to recognize that I  was feeling particularly ambitious yesterday, and there was no guarantee that I would feel that ambitious every week at some point going forward. Yesterday was my first free day where I haven’t been either extremely tired or horribly ill or some combination of the two in quite some time, and I wasn’t really quite sure what to do with myself. Good Friday is one of our paid holidays from work, and I’m no longer sick, and this was the second of the two consecutive days without fever that I needed to get through in order to be cleared to go back to work.

On Monday.

So I took a look around, said to myself, “oh dear, no–this just won’t do” and got to work. I didn’t finish, but I will be able to make time over the next two days to get everything ship-shape and the way I like them.

Hell, I may even do the windows Sunday morning, with my coffee.

And now it’s Saturday, and the midst of what Christians–particularly Catholics–refer to as the Holy Weekend, commemorating the crucifixion and resurrection of their redeemer–although I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that, unlike Christmas, it isn’t a fixed date. It’s always struck me as odd, and while I am sure many critics have addressed the mystery of how such a deeply religious time for Catholics essentially began following the fertility rites of the the pagan calendar, it’s still worth remarking on, if not exploring.

Yesterday I chose to walk away from the Internet, my emails, and social media to focus on getting things organized and cleaned around the apartment, as well as doing some reading and writing around the cleaning schedule. It’s very difficult for me to write with a clear conscience and focus completely when my work space is in disarray; I can do it with a messy apartment but it still bothers me. One of the more interesting things to come out of this entire thing–something I’ve commented on to friends–is the discovery, in shaking up our normal routines and schedules and, frankly, ruts, of what’s necessary and what isn’t, and being forced to take a long, hard look, not only at our lives but at how we do things and what our priorities are, and what they should have been. When and if the quarantine has passed and the COVID-19 virus pandemic can be seen only in the rearview mirror, things are going to change going forward. For me, I am no longer doing to work double shifts on Mondays and Tuesdays any more; it wears me out too much and often renders me unable to get much, if anything, done for myself on those days of the week. And while yes, it is lovely to also have two half-days during the rest of the week, the first was always spent recovering from the exhaustion of the two lengthy days and the second, Friday–well, while i was able to get some personal things and business taken care of on Fridays, the truth is much of that could also be handled after work on that day; which is when I always stopped at the grocery store ON THE WAY HOME, and my time-off won’t change by going in earlier and putting in eight hours, either.

As you can see, I feel quite passionate about the subject.

It was lovely, yesterday, cleaning and organizing while taking the occasional break to dip back into my reread of Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic, which I thoroughly and completely enjoyed, from page one to the denouement. I am, frankly, stunned at why I did not consider this one of her best books before; it may not have the twists and surprise of The Ivy Tree or Airs Above the Ground, but it’s still quite a suspenseful and thrilling ride and her heroine, Lucy Waring, is far more of a bad-ass than Stewart’s character ever are given credit for being–but more on that subject when I blog about the reread.

It was quite a lovely day yesterday, frankly, and I am hoping that today will be an even better one. I feel quite relaxed and peaceful this morning–and am hopeful that today will be an accomplishment day; I hope to get some writing done, some more cleaning, and get myself back into the groove of–well, being Gregalicious again.

And on that note, it’s back to the spice mines.

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It Only Hurts for a Little While

Thursday morning and pay the bills day; I keep hearing about this booming economy I should be grateful for–but all I see is my paycheck staying the same and the cost of everything else going up, so yeah, I’m just not seeing it anywhere. Your mileage might vary, of course, but as for me? Yeah, not seeing it. At all.

If anything, based on my own personal finances, I’d say the economy isn’t really working for me.

Honestly, there’s nothing like paying the bills to send you spiraling down into an endless cycle of stress and anxiety and depression.

But I can’t let anything get me down and slow me in any way; there’s too much work I need to be doing and too many things to get done–and stress and anxiety aren’t going to make anything better or improve anything. I cannot allow myself to go down that path. I deal with enough stress, anxiety and depression as it is, you know?

Paul and I started watching Messiah on Netflix last night; the only reason I’d even heard of this show is because I saw somewhere on-line that it pissed off evangelicals, who wanted to boycott Netflix–so naturally I had to watch it. Apparently they are upset because the show depicts someone who might be Jesus come again to the earth, only he’s Palestinian…because everyone knows that if Jesus returned he’d be blond and blue-eyes and of course he would come to the United States. Honestly, the arrogance of American evangelicals really has no limits, does it? One of these days I’m going to write an essay about that very thing; I was raised that way myself, and it took a long time to deprogram myself–rarely a day goes by when I don’t catch myself automatically reverting to something I learned as an evangelical child and think, whoa, that needs to go. It’s kind of like how we are trained by culture and society and public education to make American exceptionalism our default…it’s insidious and it’s always there, inside our heads, lurking and ready to pounce out to our horror and shock.

But Messiah is a very good show; interesting, I suppose, to those of us who find religion and its impact on culture, history and society fascinating. One of my favorite plots for books always has to do with Biblical history–you know, things the church hid from the world and so forth; dating back to Irving Wallace’s The Word and Robert Ludlum’s The Gemini Contenders and Raiders of the Lost Ark/Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade all the way through Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, I’ve always enjoyed those kinds of stories–and let’s face it, outside of Nazis, who makes better villains than the Catholic Church and the Vatican? The concept that the Church hid things that might have altered the course of history or church development in order to maintain and strengthen their own power is something I’ve always believed to be true, and something I’ve always wanted to explore in my own writing. The Colin book I’ve always wanted to write, for example, would be one of these. I’ve always, as Constant Reader is aware, have wanted to write a Colin stand-alone book, or to even develop a series around his adventures when he isn’t in New Orleans with Scotty and Frank. I’ve had this idea in the back of my mind now for over thirty years–having to do with the 4th Crusade, the sack of Constantinople, and something that had been kept secret and hidden in the cathedral of Hagia Sophia that the Pope wanted to get his hands on, which led to the sack of Constantinople as cover for what the Pope wanted. What that artifact might actually be I was never able to brainstorm out, and as such, the story never truly developed the way I would have wanted to in order for me to actually plan it and start writing.

But it’s always there in the back of my mind.

Anyway, the plot of Messiah goes something like this: it opens in Damascus, with a young Syrian or Palestinian boy (they never really make the distinction) talking to his mother about seeing his father being shot down in the streets–Syria has of course been wracked by a civil war for years now–and then flashes forward to him, slightly older, burying his mother after another attack on the city. The city is about to fall to ISIL, and there’s a man preaching in an open area as the final assault on the city is about to begin. The preacher claims that God will save them all from ISIL–and as people jeer and rockets start hitting the area, an enormous sandstorm blows in from the desert. The storm lasts weeks, ultimately burying the ISIL forces and forcing them into retreat–the storm basically wipes them out and ends the war. The preacher than leads 2000 Palestinians into the desert and to the Israeli border; but he also has caught the attention of a CIA operative i DC who starts monitoring the situation, which becomes fraught when the refugees actually reach the border and Israeli forces take the preacher into custody. We then meet an Israeli intelligence agent, whose marriage has ended badly and he and his ex do not agree on anything. The preacher knows things about this tough man and his past that he cannot possibly know; which is obviously unsettling to the agent. The  episode ends with the preacher having vanished from inside his cell…and we chose to not continue until tonight. The hour sped past, which is a good sign for a show always, and I am intrigued enough to continue.

And on that note, I have emails to answer before I get ready to go to work. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader.

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Victory

And wasn’t yesterday’s entry boring as fuck? I should think at this point that it’s pretty clear, Constant Reader, that I don’t utilize this blog the way one is supposed to when one is a writer: as a conduit to convince readers to buy my books. I think I’ve done an excellent job over the years of proving that I, without question, have no idea how to sell books or how to make my work sound appealing enough for people to want to read, let alone buy.

I really suck at promoting myself. But to give myself credit, I never once believed “social media” would sell books, and from everything I’ve been reading lately, I was right. But it can make loyal readers aware you have something new coming out, and since the gay and lesbian bookstores are long gone…yeah, I’ve literally got nothing when it comes to reaching out and finding new readers, or reconnecting with old ones. I tried the newsletter thing way back in the days of my first website, but was always a little shocked whenever I’d send one out and people would ask to be removed…I was always a little, Why did you sign up in the first place? I never simply added people to my newsletter; you literally had to fill out a form to get on the list…and after a little while it was kind of depressing, so I gave up on the newsletter thing. It’s not like I’m that fascinating, anyway.

I do applaud those who do one, though.

It’s Christmas season already–according to some merchants, it has been since September–and of course, I’m a bit of a sucker for the Christmas season. I’m not a sucker for Christmas displays in September, or endless playing of Christmas carols over and over again on the radio or in public spaces; and while I also understand the importance of Christmas to our (retail) economy, I tire very quickly of Christmas commercials on television–my personal favorite the ones where people gift each other CARS for Christmas, because really? I’m not a Christian anymore; I’ve been in recovery for nearly thirty years, but the “reason for the season” has been forgotten by almost everyone else in the clamor for dollars and status and spend spend spend mentality of the holidays. The basic presumption behind Christmas–peace on earth and good will to all men–is a lovely one that I can certainly get behind; but Christmas has not only been commercialized it has also been politicized…because nothing says put the Christ back in Christmas like commercializing and politicizing the holiday that ostensibly celebrates the birth of Jesus. As always, I tire very quickly and easily of hypocrisy; and I tire of all the nonsense Christmas seems to trigger annually.

But I do like Christmas and the mentality behind it. I like the idea of a season to celebrate peace and love amongst all of humanity. I always wanted to write about Christmas; which is incredibly hard to do without giving into what I call ‘cheap sentimentality.’ I wrote a story a long time ago, my own attempt at writing a gay Christmas story because, frankly, there weren’t any that I was aware of, and it of course was terrible, absolutely terrible. It’s very difficult to come up with anything original about Christmas; but there’s also the possibility that the comfort of familiarity is what many enjoy about it. They enjoy watching the same films and television specials, listening to the same music recorded by the same artists, and follow the old traditions that transport them back to when they were children and the world seemed so much less complicated than it does as adults, and they want to give their kids that same comforting holiday experience they remember. I was quite mercenary as a child, and for me, for the longest time, Christmas was about the gifts I was going to get. As I got older, it gradually became more about the gifts I was giving as I began to understand the message more–and the message does seem to get lost all too frequently.

I also greatly appreciate the extra days off from work as well.

But I wanted to write about Christmas, as I said earlier. Early in my career I realized there weren’t many, if any, gay Christmas stories, so I decided to do an anthology of them, Upon a Midnight Clear, which was, I think, released in 2004. (My story, of course, turned out to be a horror tale, “The Snow Queen,” and I used a pseudonym.) I greatly enjoyed doing that anthology, and am still rather proud of it today. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting to get when I asked writer friends to write a story for me; but all of the stories were inventive and new takes on Christmas, from a gay perspective.

Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow series (which Constant Reader knows is one of my favorites) releases a Christmas mystery every year, and the way Andrews manages to turn out a highly original mystery every year centered on Christmas in Caerphilly is absolute genius. She never descends into cheap sentimentality, and yet manages to infuse the books with a healthy dose of the Christmas spirit each time. Caerphilly is one of my happy places; there’s no greater joy than spending some time there every year. I have already mentioned that Andrews kind of inspired me to write a Scotty book set during the Christmas season, and I am probably going to have to do another; the plot for this one was pretty much already set when I decided to have it take place in December, and so it kind of became a Christmas book by default….I will undoubtedly do another one at some point, one that is more centered on Christmas itself rather than just the season. I’d love to play with Christmas tropes and traditions a bit more–especially since Scotty and his parents are pagans.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me. Have a lovely day, all.

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You’re So Vain

You probably think this blog post is about you.

Vanity, thy name is Gregalicious.

Vanity is one of the seven deadly sins (which are not mentioned in the Bible, I might add; they are a part of Christian dogma and tradition, but never specifically named as such in their holy book) and I was raised to be humble, not vain; pride is also one of the deadly sins, and pride goes hand in hand with vanity.  The satisfaction of achieving or accomplishing something was theoretically enough of a reward, in and of itself, without getting praised for it; it’s wrong to bask in the glow of people’s compliments. As I have mentioned before, this has made promoting myself as a writer difficult; every time I make a post crowing about succeeding at something or winning something or being nominated for an award I can hear my mother’s voice, in her soft Alabama drawl, saying, “highs are always followed by lows, remember that, life likes to take the air out of people for having too much pride.”

It’s something I still struggle with. I was also told most of my life that self-absorption is also problematic, but a certain degree of self-absorption is necessary if you’re going to succeed at writing. (I think that like with all things, it’s a matter of degrees; some self-absorption is necessary, but anything taken to extremes is never a good thing for anyone.) Most writers have full time jobs and families, so the time they spend actually working on their writing is precious and should be sacrosanct; we give up our free time to write, and many of us get a very small return for that time. I’ve been accused of being self-absorbed by people I know most of my life, and it always used to sting a little bit, because the implication was that being self-absorbed is a bad thing. But as long as it isn’t taken to extremes it’s necessary, and when I began to notice that my “self-absorption” accusations usually came about because I was choosing to be jealous of my spare time and not do something someone else wanted me to do–I stopped caring so much about it and started embracing self-absorption.

“Sorry, I can’t do that, that’s my writing time.”

Having that statement met with anger and accusations of being selfish and self-absorbed, I realized, said more about the person saying it than me, to be honest. I am a writer, and am always in the middle of writing something, or have a manuscript or many short stories in some form of the process. I should, quite literally, always be writing and working, and I also finally realized that if a friend cannot respect my writing time, and gets angry and belligerent and nasty and insulting about me not wanting to give that time up….that person isn’t actually a friend, after all, and is everything they are accusing me of–but because of many experiences and lessons learned in my life (that I am still struggling to unlearn) my automatic default is to feel guilty and blame myself for being a bad person.

I’m learning. I am still learning, and unlearning, my conditioning. I’ll probably go to my grave still wrestling with these kinds of things, but I am getting better about this sort of thing.

My friend Laura suggested the other day that another good thing people should do is write a press release about themselves; channel their inner publicist and write a press release highlighting your achievements and accomplishments in glowing terms, without embarrassment and without shame. I’ve been thinking about that for a few days now, and looking back over my life, there have been quite a few highlights in my writing/publishing career…and I should be proud of myself. I’ve managed to publish over thirty novels and twenty anthologies and an absurd amount of short stories and essays and book reviews and author interviews and fitness columns/articles over the years. I wrote a writing column for the Erotica Writers Association for several years. I am currently writing a column called “The Conversation Continues” for the Sisters in Crime Quarterly, and have been for several years. I’ve been nominated for a Lambda Literary Award fourteen or so times, winning twice. I’ve been nominated for the Anthony Award twice, won it the first time, and will find out in Dallas how I did the second time. I have been nominated for a Macavity Award and a Shirley Jackson Award. I won two Moonbeam Children’s Book Award medals, one gold and one silver. I won a Lesbian Fiction Readers Choice Award for Anthology/Short Story Collection for Women of the Mean Streets: Lesbian Noir, which I co-edited with J. M. Redmann. My first horror anthology, Shadows of the Night, won a queer horror award, and Midnight Thirsts won a Gaylactic Spectrum Award. I won several Best of the Year awards from the Insightout Book Club, which used to be a wonderful queer version of the Book of the Month Club. I’ve published two short stories in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and have been published in both Mystery Weekly and Mystery Tribune. I had a short story in New Orleans Noir. I’ve written for the Mystery Writers of America newsletter and for the Edgar Annual (twice), and even edited and put together the Edgar Annual once.

Wow, right? I do think it’s important, as Laura says, to take stock of everything you’ve achieved periodically, so you can get a better handle not only on your career but as to how other people see you.

You may not like me, you may not like my work, but you cannot deny me my accomplishments. And when I put them down, when I write it all down and look at it and reread it over, it is kind of staggering in some ways…particularly when you consider I’ve worked full-time outside the home since 2008, and if you take into consideration how much editing I’ve done since around 2002/2003…yeah. I’ve done quite a bit.

And seriously, no wonder I am tired all the time.

Today Paul is heading into the office and then is spending the evening with friends; leaving me here all alone by myself in the Lost Apartment for the majority of the day. I have a lot of work to get done here this weekend–not just cleaning and so forth, the usual, but I also have a lot of emails to get through, some writing to do, and some revising/editing to do. I need to get the mail and I’d also like to get some groceries at some point today; I’m not precisely sure how that’s going to play out, frankly, but it’ll get taken care of. I started rereading Bury Me in Shadows while sort-of watching the fifth episode of The Last Czars (“Revolution”), and then after Paul got home we started watching the CNN series The 2000’s on Netflix–the episodes on technology and the first one on television in the twenty-first century, which is, as always, fascinating. (We’ve really enjoyed all of CNN’s decade-documentary series, from The 1960’s on.)

Rereading Bury Me in Shadows also was a bit of a struggle, you see, because while I have talked endlessly about the troubles I am having writing this book, some of them are due to stubbornness and some of them are due to technical challenges for my writing. The stubbornness comes from the refusal to let go of the opening sentence, which I love (The summer before my senior year my mother ruined my life.), but the reread showed me it really doesn’t work and doesn’t fit with the story or the style of writing I am using. The style of writing–remote first person present tense–is a departure from the way I usually write a book and something new and difficult I am trying, and after decades of  tight first or third person past tense, I have to actually pay attention because if I am not I will, by default, slip into the past tense. The first chapter is going to need to be completely redone, almost completely reworded, from start to finish. I’d like to finish reading it and making notes this weekend; I’d also like to finish writing Chapter 18, and also would like to revise some other short stories and other chapters of books in some sort of progress–I want to reread that first Chanse chapter I wrote, for example, and look at the first chapter of Chlorine again–and I should probably start working on some promised short stories I have to write.

It’s daunting, but I need to make a list, keep it handy, and just mark things off as I go.

It’s always worked in the past, so I should stop resisting, do it, and be done with it all.

And on that note, Constant Reader, I am heading back into the spice mines. Have a lovely Saturday, however you choose to spend it.

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1999

So, I had to go to the DMV this morning to renew my driver’s license, which had expired on my birthday and I hadn’t realized it, like an idiot. The DMV is never a great experience, and yesterday was no exception to that rule. But I was able to finish reading Christopher Golden’s Ararat while I was there, which made the time pass much faster (I was there slightly less than two hours) and I did end up taking what had to be the worst driver’s license photo in history–at least my personal history of driver’s license photos. Insult to injury? My last one looked terrific. Heavy heaving sigh.

Even more insult to injury? It looks like me.

Ah, well.

You have to hate that. Anyway, I managed to finish reading Ararat, which was enjoyable, and this evening I started reading Margaret Millar’s Do Evil in Return, which is quite marvelous.

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Just past eight o’clock on the last morning of November, the mountain began to shake.

Feyiz froze, breath catching in his throat as he put his hands out to steady himself, waiting for the tremor to end. Instead it worsened. His clients shouted at him in German, a language he did not speak. One of the men panicked and began to scream at the others as if the devil himself were burrowing up through the heart of the mountain to reach them. They stood on the summit, vivid blue sky rolling out forever before them, the frigid air crisp and pure. An idyllic morning on Mount Ararat, if the world had not begun to tear itself apart.

“Down!” Feyiz shouted. “Get down!”

He dropped his trekking poles and sank to his knees on the icy snowpack. Grabbing the pick that hung at his hip, he sank it into the ice and wondered if the six men and three women in this group could even hear him over the throaty roar of the rumbling mountain.

The Germans mimicked his actions.

I read an essay recently which discussed how, out of all the types of genres and subgenres in literature, that horror is the most faith-based of them all. It sounded absurd at first, but as I read the essay and thought about it more–and have, obviously, continued to think about it–that premise is pretty spot-on. Not all horror is faith-based, of course; there’s nothing about faith in films like Halloween or any number of horror novels I could think of (The Other, for example); but so many of them actually are that it’s kind of fascinating; especially when you take into consideration the way religious groups generally condemn horror books and films. The Exorcist is deeply rooted in Catholicism; and to name two, neither The Omen nor Rosemary’s Baby could have been written without knowledge of the Christian Bible. Ghost stories are predicated on the idea that there is life after death; that the soul continues to live on and needs to move on to another plane–whether that be heaven or hell, those books rarely make the distinction. The existence of the supernatural in a lot of horror proves that faith, and religion, are real and true; and after all, isn’t religion itself supernatural? I have made the offensive (to Christians) joke about Easter being a celebration of a zombie; and if you can get past the faith and look at any religion and its rituals, you can see what I mean.

I blaspheme, of course. I am an apostate heretic who would have burned not so long ago in our history.

I’ve read Christopher Golden before; I greatly enjoyed his Dead Ringers, and have Snowblind in my TBR pile. This week I took his Ararat out of the pile to read, and it again put me in mind of how so much horror fiction is dependent on religion for its existence. The opening scene quoted above, of an earthquake shaking Mount Ararat in Turkey, ends with a tremendous landslide, one which greatly changes the geography and the face of the mountain itself, long purported to be the final resting place of Noah’s Ark. The existence of the Ark, of course, would prove that the Bible is, at least in this instance, literally true (although Christianity is not the only belief system from the Middle East that tells of an ancient flood); there have been reports in the past that it has been found; but the likelihood of wood thousands of years old surviving is not great. But this landslide opens a new cave on the side of the mountain, high up; and soon the race is on to be the first to scale the mountain and see what’s inside the cave. The first section of the book has to do with one particular team racing to beat several other’s to the cave; risking their lives in the process. But the team–lead by adventurous couple David and Meryam, who explore and write books and make documentaries about their exploits–that arrives first soon discovers that the cave isn’t really a cave but the Ark itself…and there’s something else there that should have never been discovered.

To tell anymore would, of course, risk spoiling the story; there are so many twists and turns and scares and shocks that to give away anything more than is contained in the cover jacket blurb would be a disservice to future readers and to author Golden. But I couldn’t stop reading; resented having to put the book down, and was very satisfied when it was finished. Golden also includes diversity of characters in all of his books and does it casually; I also appreciate the fact that he chooses not to describe non-white characters in terms of food or drink–I could go the rest of my life without reading about “cinnamon” or “chocolate” or “cafe-au-lait” skin.

But just think about it for a moment–if the story of Noah is actually true, the flood changed the world and refreshed it; a reboot by God, as it were, and there are some verses in Genesis that show how different the original world was before it was cleansed–the one that readily comes to mind is There were giants in those days.

I look forward to reading more of Mr. Golden’s work.