All Down the Line

I did not want to get out of bed this morning. I didn’t sleep as deeply or restfully last night as I have been, but it was still a good night’s sleep–at least, one that wasn’t riddled with insomnia, so I’ll take it and be grateful. I mean, I don’t feel fatigued or anything. I’m still fighting this cold I caught in New York (the COVID tests have been consistently negative since my return, but I haven’t taken one this morning yet, either) which is miserable, and means I’ll probably continue masking at work. They lifted the masking requirement yesterday, which was kind of a surprise, but…making those kinds of decisions is way above my pay grade. I don’t know why people were so hateful and nasty about the masks, but I know I’ve kind of enjoyed not getting sick (other than COVID) over the last three years–which is why I hate this cold even more than I ordinarily would because I haven’t had one in three years.

Sigh.

I made more than quota yesterday, which was also nice–the deadline looms, which makes every word more important–and I hope to do so again tonight. I also managed to get some dishes done last night, some cleaning up around the kitchen, and even made dinner, which I rarely do on weeknights (mainly because Paul gets home so late, but yesterday was his work-at-home day, so he was here and it wasn’t an issue). I need to do some more dishes tonight and more clean-up/organizing around the kitchen. I have to do that signing event for two hours at ALA on Saturday at the Convention Center (which I keep forgetting about, like I keep forgetting about my doctor’s appointment tomorrow, which isn’t good or smart), so getting ahead of the game is better for me and I should take advantage of the writing being easy and write as much as I can when its flowing, right?

We also started watching Jack Ryan on Amazon Prime last night. I like John Kasinski, but have never been much of a fan of Tom Clancy’s. I did read The Hunt for Red October when it was the “it” book of the year, but didn’t much care for it and never went back to Clancy afterwards. It’s just not my thing. I preferred Alistair MacLean, to be honest–no one really talks about him anymore, but I read a lot of his canon; I think if there’s any one book he might be known for it’s either The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare. My personal favorite was the one whose name I cannot recall right now, but it was about a lifeboat full of people escaping Singapore in December 1941; their ship is torpedoed and sinks, and they are trying to make it to Australia. South by Java Head! I also enjoyed Circus and Bear Island. I’ve been meaning to revisit MacLean again now that I’m an older and more sophisticated (!) reader, just as I’ve been meaning to revisit Robert Ludlum (the actual Ludlum) in the last few years. I’ve also been meaning to revisit Helen MacInnes–her The Salzburg Connection is one of my favorite espionage thrillers (you can never go wrong with Nazis as your villains, seriously). I’ve also wanted to reread Ian Fleming for the first time since I was a teenager as well; I think I would appreciate the books more than I did then. Anyway, we weren’t terribly engrossed by Jack Ryan and I don’t think we’ll be continuing with it.

This morning’s COVID test is negative, as I had suspected and hoped, so I know this is just a cold. Is it annoying that I still have it? You bet your ass it is. I can’t believe I used to get colds and think nothing of it and just went about my day and business like it was nothing. Clearly, I am out of practice with being ill. I don’t think it’s just me, either; I finished off my DayQuil yesterday so it was on my list on the way home from work and they didn’t have much in stock–either DayQuil or NyQuil, and none of the extra strength kind I always use. Supply chain issues? One thing I’ve really been noticing over the last year or so is how empty the shelves in the grocery stores are, and things that I used to pick up regularly without concern sometimes aren’t there. I don’t know if this is a New Orleans issue–it really became noticeable after Hurricane Ida, and the stores here never have seemed to bounce back from having to toss all that food back then–or if it’s across the board, but it’s strange and one of those things that makes you wonder about how serious the decline of the American democracy actually must be. (It also goes to show how spoiled we are–do other countries even have supermarkets? They didn’t in the village in Italy we vacationed in all those years ago–and I never saw one in either Florence or Venice, but wasn’t looking either. Or is even thinking that part of American exceptionalism? It’s hard to know anymore.)

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely Tuesday, Constant Reader!

Alone Again, Naturally

Saturday! Tonight LSU takes on Ole Miss in yet another crucial game for the Tigers. Heavy sigh. I have a lot to do today–cleaning, errands–around football games, and I am going to start reading another book while editing some short stories and–hopefully–working on the revision of Bourbon Street Blues.

But yesterday, I finally had the time to devote to Bracken MacLeod’s amazing Stranded.

stranded
The void churned and swelled, reaching up to pull them down into frigid darkness, clamoring to embrace them, every one. A cold womb inviting them to return to the lightless source of all life, and die, each man alone in its black silence.

The sea battered the ship, waves crashing against the hull as the ship’s master tried to quarter–turning the vessel into the waves to lessen their impact. While he struggled at the helm, the crew scrambled to get into their gear. The men grabbed sledgehammers and baseball bats, rushing to the aid of their fellow deckhands like a medieval army mustering to stand against the cavalry that would break them, line and bone. Noah wrestled with his waterproof gear, trying to pull on his pants and jacket, jamming hands into clumsy gloves that would combat frostbite for only so long. The ship pitched and Noah lurched in the passageway, trying not to lose his footing, trying not to be thrown to the deck before he was even out in the storm. He shoved his foot into a boot, staggering away from his locker as gravity and momentum conspired to bash his skull against the bulkhead. He careened into the wall, feeling a pop and a blossom of pain in his shoulder. He gritted his teeth and shoved himself away; he had to get on the cargo deck with the others. He couldn’t be defeated before he even got outside.

The key to writing excellent horror, to quote Stephen King yet again, is to write about what scares you. Conversely, I think the most effective horror fiction is written about what scares and unsettles the reader. The opening to this exceptionally fine novel is a perfect example of why I will never board a ship and have absolutely no desire to ever go on a cruise. Is there anything more unsettling than not having solid ground beneath you? Every earthquake I experienced in California was horrific for that reason–when you can’t trust the floor beneath your feet not to move….shudder.

I’m not necessarily as afraid of cold as I dislike it intensely. I grew up in Chicago, spent my teens in Kansas, and as an adult, one horrible winter in Minneapolis (I love Minneapolis; just can’t handle the winters; it didn’t help that the particular winter I spent there was one of the worst in years). The rest of my life has been spent for the most part in warm-weather climates; I’ve only visited the cold on trips. I don’t like being cold, really. So, of course, books set where it’s cold always affect me (Peter Straub’s Ghost Story is one example–I still shiver not only from the scares in that book but from the images of the snowbound town; there was one by I think a British writer set in a ski lodge that was also horrifying but I can’t remember the name of the writer–he was recommended by a friend; Christopher Golden’s Snowblind, which I haven’t gotten to yet; and so many others….)

So, Stranded takes place on a freighter, in the winter, in the Arctic Sea, bringing supplies to an oil rig. The main character, Noah Cabot, is kind of the scapegoat on the ship, the Arctic Promise; no one seems to like him very much and the ship’s heirarchy really hate him, yet at the same time he is enormously likable to the reader. There’s some deep pain inside of him, this son of a family of long-time Maine fisherman, who went away to college in Seattle, but MacLeod plays his cards about Noah’s backstory perfectly, like a card shark reeling his victim in, card by card. And before you know it, the ship is beset; frozen in by the ice, trapped, with all of its communications not working. There is a weird fog, and everyone on the ship seems to be coming down with some kind of ailment. Out in the distance they can see the shape of something…maybe it’s the oil rig… and Noah, as one of the only men on board not affected by the strange sickness, is selected to help lead a team of men across the ice to whatever that shape is out in the distance.

And then the real fun begins.

The premise of the story is really enough to keep the reader intrigued enough to keep turning the pages–these are some serious stakes here–but MacLeod is a master at pacing, and knowing when to drop in those precious moments of backstory so that the reader becomes even more vested in the characters he is reading about. I kept trying to guess what was going on–I did figure one thing out–but I was almost always wrong, which is gratifying as a reader. The atmosphere is gothic and spooky, and the way MacLeod uses the freezing weather to amp up the tension is spectacular; not to mention his way of making the individual characters unique enough to be distinctive–not an easy task when you have as many minor characters populating a short novel like this.

I had read and deeply enjoyed MacLeod’s Mountain Home after I had met him at World Horror Con here in New Orleans whenever that was; I am really looking forward to reading his other novel, White Knight. His transition from noir to horror was seamless and exceptional; a mark of a truly gifted writer.

BUY THIS BOOK.

And more, please.

And now, back to the spice mines.