Promises in the Dark

I grew up loving both horror and crime stories–those wonderful old black and white Universal monster movies used to scare me to death, not to mention all the marvelous ghost stories and mysteries that got filmed back in the day. I also watched a lot of the 1950’s paranoia horror monster movies–Godzilla and its ilk–and those also used to give me horrible nightmares. I also liked how twisted horror comic books like The Witching Hour, House of Mystery and House of Secrets were. I’ve always wanted to write those kinds of stories, but if you think I have zero confidence in my abilities as a crime/mystery writer, there’s even less when it comes to my writing of horror. I never feel like I ever get it right, you know, and my stuff is macabre and peculiar and slightly twisted, but it’s not really scary. But like I did with the mystery novels and movies I watched as a child, I was always looking for myself in those tales and not finding myself. Oh, every once in a while there would be some homoeroticism in some horror I would be reading (Peter Straub’s If You Could See Me Now comes to mind), but for the most part, there wasn’t much. Thomas Tryon’s The Other resonated with me–it wasn’t until decades later that I learned Tryon was gay, and that sensibility infused all of his work, hence my connection with it–but usually when gays showed up in horror they inevitably were effeminate and soon to become victims. (Kill your gays has always been a thing, clearly.)

When I was going through my “I want to be the gay Stephen King” phase in the 1980’s, I didn’t put gay characters or themes in any of my stories–although rereading my attempts at horror from then now, I can see the sensibility was always there–but the horror novel I started writing in about 1986 or 1987, The Enchantress, had a gay point of view character, even though I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was always afraid, you see, to include gay characters in anything I hoped to get published because I was so busy keeping my two lives completely separated that I feared writing sympathetic gay characters would out me. (During my many writings about my high school students from Kansas, one of them was actually gay and was probably the most realistic and honest character in all of those writings) Trying to salvage those stories now, decades later, I sometimes will revise one and make the point of view character gay–which inevitably makes the story work better, incidentally–and they see publication eventually; “Crazy in the Night” was one of those stories, and another morphed into Bury Me in Shadows, actually. Just this morning I was thinking about some more of those old stories and how to make a couple of them work–partly because I spent the last two mornings reading Other Terrors: An Inclusive Anthology from the Horror Writers Association, edited by my friends Vince Liaguno and Rena Mason. The point of the anthology was to focus and highlight horror stories from marginalized writers–where they are marginalized by race or religion or sexual orientation or gender identity, and it includes stories from some of the top names in horror publishing today.

As with any anthology, some stories stick with the reader more than others; this isn’t a dis on any of the contributors to the anthology–every story was incredibly well-written–it’s just that everything is subjective and some stories stick with the reader longer than others. For me, the standouts were Jennifer McMahon (“Idiot Girls”); Alma Katsu (“Waste Note”); Gabino Iglesias (“There’s Always Something in the Woods”); Hailey Piper (“The Turning”); Larissa Glasser (“Kalkriese”), Michael Thomas Ford (“When The Lovelight Gleams”); M. E. Bronstein (“The Voices of Nightingales”); and S. A. Cosby (“What Blood Hath Wrought”). These were the ones that really resonated me, with the connections of strong writing, three dimensional characters, and completeness of the story. For many of the contributors, this is my first experience with their work, and I will definitely look out for more of their work. These were the ones that made me start thinking about ideas and stories and characters; stories that not only were enjoyable and immersive to read but also kick-started my own creativity and inspiration.

And what more can you ask from a reading experience, as a fellow writer?

Now I want to write more horror.

Definitely check the book out, Constant Reader, I think you’ll enjoy it.

Suddenly

Yesterday I finished revisions on four stories, took a deep breath, and submitted them. Now, we wait. I’m not entirely certain the stories were right for the markets I sent them to, but you know what? Letting them just sit in my computer wasn’t getting them out there. Better to try and fail than not to ever try at all.

As I said yesterday, my confidence in my writing, which, despite all appearances to the contrary has never been strong, was dramatically shaken in the last year; I am only now starting to come out of it, and I am coming back out of it by working. I’ve written well over a hundred thousand words thus far in 2018; most of it short stories, some of it work on a new Scotty novel, still other the manuscript I intend to try to lure the ever elusive agent into my web with; and since sitting down and actually taking stock, I am realizing what I’ve accomplished, and am very proud of myself. The stories I worked on again this week, revising and editing and reading aloud, were quite strong; the two I am struggling with perhaps not as strong–although I do like their titles. Forcing myself to continue working on them is futile at this moment; much as I am loath to put them to the side, I am going to; there is nothing more self-defeating and depressing than trying to force yourself to write something that just isn’t coming. The stories are there, of course; I just haven’t yet worked out how to get them down onto paper yet. I think very often we, as writers, get so bogged down in our stubborn determination to finish something we are working on that we just keep fighting, pounding our head determinedly against an immovable wall–when the smart thing is to take a break from it and work on something else; then come back to the wall with fresh eyes and a rested forehead.

A vanity project that I have always had in the back of my mind was to put together a short story collection of my crime stories. I first had the idea several years ago, but didn’t have enough stories and was going to combine my horror and crime together: the folder and table of contents I created at the time was for Annunciation Shotgun and Other Stories. I’ve never forgotten this vanity project; and even now, when I should be preparing the manuscripts of Bourbon Street Blues and Jackson Square Jazz for their long overdue ebook editions, I go back to the vanity project again and again: well, I’ve published THESE stories since then, maybe I can just go ahead and remove these others that don’t fit as well–take these horror stories out, since my horror is clearly not as strong as my crime fiction. I made another table of contents, just the other day; only now I am calling it Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories. Whenever I’ve been stuck this past week or so, for want of anything else to do, I’ve started pulling the stories together into a single document to get a word count. The realization the other day of how many stories I’ve done so far this year already, and adding them casually to the table of contents–today it hit me: the manuscript is already publishable length, is over eighty thousand words, without an introduction  and without all of the stories I’ve done so far. I removed all the horror–goodbye, “Crazy in the Night” and “Rougarou” and “The Snow Queen” and “The Troll in the Basement”–and added some more of the newer material. It was astonishing to realize how much there actually was; that I cannot add much more because there simply isn’t room, and that I might have enough for a second volume in a couple of years.

Mind-blowing, really.

Short story collections don’t sell as well as novels, of course; short stories are the bastard stepchildren of publishing, and crime stories even more shunned at the family holiday dinner table. I don’t know if my publisher will want this collection, and I may end up having to self-publish it. Whereas I would have shrank in horror from that possibility a few years ago, it doesn’t matter as much to me now as it did then to have a traditional publisher pull the book together; although I would like another pair of eyes on it, some copy editing, a cover design and packaging done for me. But I am very proud of all of these stories; each one of them means something to me in some way. And if my fears about crime stories with gay characters in them not being acceptable to mainstream short story publications, well, I can always get them seen this way. And I am proud of the new crime stories I’ve written with gay characters in them.

I didn’t write crime stories for the longest time because of that fear; the fear that no matter how high the quality of the story, gay characters would make them unpublishable. The two stories I published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, “Acts of Contrition” and “The Email Always Pings Twice,” were mainstream–not a gay character in either story. I did publish two stories in Novelists Inc. anthologies with gay characters, “A Streetcar Named Death” and “An Arrow for Sebastian.” My stories in New Orleans Noir and Sunshine Noir (“Annunciation Shotgun” and “Housecleaning”, respectively) were about gay characters. My story in Blood on the Bayou, nominated for the Macavity Award last year, “Survivor’s Guilt,” wasn’t gay in any way, nor was my story “Keeper of the Flame,” published in Mystery Week. Some of the new stories are gay, some are not. Two that went out today were about gay characters, two of them were not. I was originally not intending to write any crime stories with gay characters this year; it just sort of happened. I think the Chanse story I’ve written–which needs a new title–is pretty decent; but am I limiting my chances of getting the stories into print by writing about gay characters? It’s already a difficult haul finding markets that still take short stories, and the competition is obviously fierce.

And again, as I said yesterday, you never can be certain your story was rejected because you wrote honestly about gay characters. It’s all part and parcel of the insanity of being a gay writer, or a writer who is gay, or whatever the hell label fits on my sash as I walk across the stage at the beauty pageant of publishing.

But I’ve got more than enough stories for a collection now, and I am going to keep playing with the manuscript; what is the proper mix of previously published stories versus new material? Should it all be new material, or should it all be previously published material?

Decisions, decisions.

Therein, indeed, lies the path to madness.

I also read some short stories. First was “Still Life with Teapots and Students”, by Shirley Jackson, from the  Let Me Tell You collection.

Come off it, kids, come off it, Louise Harlowe told herself just under her breath. SHe smiled graciously at her husband, Lionel’s, two best students, noticing with an edge of viciousness that they both held their teacups exactly right, and said lightly, “You’re going to have a pleasant summer, then?”

Joan shrugged perfectly, and Debbi smiled back, as graciously as Louise had smiled, but with more conviction. “It will be about the same as the others, I guess, ” Debbi said. “Sort of dull.”

They’re both too well bred to tell me what they’ll be doing, Louise thought, and asked deliberately, “You’ll be together, of course?”

Jackson is one of my favorites, and while she is mostly known for “The Lottery” and The Haunting of Hill House and macabre, Gothic work, she wrote a lot more than people think and not everything she wrote was macabre. This nasty little tale, in which a professor’s wife has two of his students over for tea–during the course of which she lets the rich little bitches she knows about their affair with her husband, and what’s more, doesn’t care because they are nothing more than something of the moment, is quite rich and layered and textured. From a modern day perspective the wonder is why she doesn’t leave him, as it becomes clear this happens regularly; they politely discuss another faculty wife who wasn’t quite as calm in confronting the student her husband was messing around with, and it’s all very polite and reserved…yet, in this modern era of #metoo and power differentials, the agency both Jackson and the wife in the story give the students–and the contempt and hatred for them the wife feels, but never reveals–makes me wonder. I’m still unpacking this story, several days after reading it; which is how amazing it–and Jackson–are.

And then it was time for “The Doll” by Daphne du Maurier, The Doll: The Lost Short Stories.

I want to know if men realize when they are insane. Sometimes I think my brain cannot hold together, it is filled with too much horror–too great a despair. And there is no one; I  have never been so unutterably alone. Why should it help me to write this?…Vomit forth the poison in my brain.

For I am poisoned, I cannot sleep, I cannot close my eyes without seeing his damned face..

If only it had been a dream, something to laugh over, a festered imagination

It’s easy enough to laugh, who wouldn’t crack their sides and split their tongues with laughing. Let’s laugh till the blood runs from our eyes–there’s fun, if you like. No, it’s the emptiness that hurts, the breaking up of everything inside me.

DuMaurier’s story often have a polite, observational distance and formality to them; much like her novels, even in the first person. This story, of obsession and lust and desire, all of which are thwarted, is not only reminiscent of My Cousin Rachel, but also, as I was reading, made me wonder. We never learn the name of the first person narrator, but the object of his obsession is a woman named Rebecca–you see where my mind was going with that, don’t you? And in some ways, it works as an almost prequel for the novel; the deep obsession and need; the mysterious woman who plays out her cards slowly. What of course doesn’t fit is the doll itself; the woman owns a male doll she has a strange attachment to, a doll our narrator despises, hates, is jealous of; it’s a terrific story of darkness and deep passion and obsession and perhaps, madness….a great example of why I love du Maurier so much.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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