Wednesday and Pay the Bills Day has yet again rolled around. Huzzah?
Yesterday was a good day. I had a great day at work getting caught up on everything around the office and seeing clients; I came home in a good mood and not exhausted, so I worked and edited for a while before blowing the proverbial end of day whistle and repairing to my easy chair to relax for the evening. It was nice, really, having a lovely day again. It has been so long. I also slept pretty well last night, too–I woke up a few times throughout the night, so it wasn’t a straight sleep through, but I feel rested and good this morning; not groggy or like my body hasn’t woken up yet, either. But the coffee tastes great, I don’t want to go back to bed and sleep some more, and I am getting my shit together. Today feels like it might be a good day; I’ve learned that how I feel when I wake up isn’t always necessarily the best indicator of how the day will go because they’ve certainly gone south once they’ve gotten underway, LOL.
Ted Lasso is back, tonight I think? Won’t be watching until the festivals are over and Paul is home in the evenings (same with The Mandalorian, and the festivals are next weekend), and of course we also have Outer Banks on deck, too. I didn’t read when I finished working yesterday–I’d wanted to–but by the time I’d finished with my editing, I was burned out and tired and just mentally fatigued, so I went to the easy chair and watched some history documentaries to pass the evening until I got tired (documentaries on Claude of France; Anne of Brittany; and several other figures from French history) and went to bed. It was very cold yesterday (for New Orleans and compared to lately) and so I had to end up turning on the heat last night. I just turned it on downstairs, figuring some heat would rise and it’s better to sleep under a pile of blankets when it’s a bit on the chilly side in the bedroom. It was nice to come downstairs this morning and not start shivering, or hovering by the Keurig waiting for the coffee to brew so I could wrap my cold hands around the hot cup. I also have been paging through Stephen King’s Danse Macabre and Grady Hendrix’ Paperbacks from Hell, which is a marvelous reference guide (I was happy to read–I’d forgotten–that King agrees with my assessment of The Exorcist and William Peter Blatty’s writing; this is another instance where the movie is better than the book) and I am not entirely sure I’ve written a post about Paperbacks from Hell? I’ll have to look, but this is another example of my memory being shot; how do I not remember whether I’d written about something or not? Particularly when it’s something I’ve really enjoyed? I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to do another post (if there was an original) about the book because it really is delightful and fun.
I also paid my latest camera ticket on-line last night. I fucking hate camera tickets. I got this one driving home from getting up super-early and having blood drawn; I just brushed my teeth and washed my face, threw on some clothes and headed down there without having coffee first–coffee can affect your blood sugar levels, and as mine are getting higher with every blood draw, my doctor is monitoring that–and so of course I wasn’t really terribly awake as I drove home sans three test tubes of blood.
I fucking hate the cameras. I get at least two tickets per year, and always–always–in a school zone. (No, that doesn’t mean I see kids milling about on both sides of the street and speed up, hoping…I am not fond of children, to be sure, but I don’t want to eliminate any of them) I guess when I get to the speed limit/school zone signs I need to just slam on the brakes rather than gradually slow, which is what I usually do.
Ah, well. I hope the traffic camera tickets help pay to fix the streets or fill in a pothole or two. There’s a lot of road repair going on at the moment–Elysian Fields, Claiborne, and Martin Luther King; all main streets and all ones that are part of my daily drives around the city–which is a good thing, even if it’s a massive pain in the ass right now for me.
And tonight I have to make groceries and probably should swing by the post office and I have a prescription ready, too, so hello, Uptown New Orleans! I need to edit tonight, too. I am hoping this centered, peaceful place I’ve found myself in these last couple of days is lasting….
And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely Wednesday, Constant Reader, and I will check in with you again tomorrow.
I don’t remember how old I was the first time I saw Robert Wise’s film The Haunting; all I do remember was it was late at night–in Chicago, one (maybe more) of the local affiliates always ran films after the news at 10:30; they also ran afternoon movies at 3:30 Monday thru Friday–which is where I got most of my education in classic Hollywood movies. But The Haunting was probably the most terrifying movie I’d ever seen; it wasn’t until a rewatch later in my life that I realized that perhaps the most terrifying and unsettling thing about the movie was you never saw whatever it was that was creating the happenings at Hill House–and they were never really explained, either. I had nightmares after watching it the first time, and those nightmares became recurring. To this day I am not comfortable climbing a metal spiral staircase…
One afternoon when we were at Zayre’s for whatever reason–we went there almost weekly, although I am not sure why–I found a copy of Hell House by Richard Matheson on the paperback racks. It sounded, from reading the back, similar to the movie that had scared me so when I was younger, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the movie was taken from the book? I bought it and read it–loved it, in fact–but while it was similar to the story of The Haunting, it was also different enough for me to be certain they weren’t the same. (Hell House was filmed actually as The Legend of Hell House, which was also a terrifying film–more on that later). It wasn’t until years later, when I was in a used bookstore in Emporia, that I stumbled across this:
It was only a quarter, and looking at the back I recognized the characters–Nell, Theo, Dr. Montague, Luke–and of course, the name of the haunted house–Hill House. I bought it and a couple of others, and I started reading at the first opportunity, and was completely mesmerized. It quickly became one of my favorite novels of all time–I already knew Jackson’s story “The Lottery”, because at some point in school I’d been shown the film (why was this appropriate school viewing? Imagine trying to show it to students today!) and in a Drama class we’d actually read the stage adaptation and even put it on for the school (I think I had one line in our production?). Reading Stephen King’s Danse Macabre also told me more about both Jackson’s writing and the Robert Wise directed film, which was my first exposure to Julie Harris; I also remembered that the opening of Jackson’s novel was used by King as an epigram in ‘salem’s Lot; he also dedicated a book to her “because she never had to raise her voice,” which is a very poetic way to describe the softly macabre writing style and voice she used in her works. I lost my original copy at some point during moves over the years, and I acquired another copy after we returned to New Orleans in 2001 from our brief, preferably forgotten interlude in Washington DC–and have made a point to reread it every year since.
And no matter how many times I reread it, I never tire of its haunting, terrifying beauty.
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
Dr. John Montague was a doctor of philosophy; he had taken his degree in anthropology, feeling obscurely that in this field he might come closest to his truest vocation, the analysis of supernatural manifestations. He was scrupulous about the use of his title because, his investigations being so utterly unscientific, he hoped to borrow an air of respectability, even scholarly authority, from his education. It had cost him a good deal, in money and pride, since he was not a begging man, to rent Hill House for three months, but he expected to be compensated for his pains by the sensation following upon the publication of his definitive work on the causes and effects of psychic disturbances in a house commonly known as “haunted.” He had been looking for an honestly haunted house all his life. When he heard of Hill House he had been at first doubtful, then hopeful, then indefatigable; he was not the man to let go of Hill House once he had found it.
Dr. Montague’s intentions with regard to Hill House derived from the methods of the intrepid nineteenth-century ghost hunters; he was going to go and live in Hill House and see what happened there. It was his intention, at first, to followthe example of the anonymous Lady who went to stay at Ballechin House and ran a summer-long house party for skeptics and believers, with croquet and ghost-watching as the outstanding attractions, but skeptics, believers, and good croquet players are harder to come by today; Dr. Montague was forced to engage assistants. Perhaps the leisurely ways of Victorian life lent themselves more agreeably to the devices of psychic investigation, or perhaps the painstaking documentation of phenomena had largely gone out as a means of determining actuality; at any rate, Dr. Montague had not only to engage assistants but to search for them.
That opening paragraph alone is a masterpiece.
I parodied it for the beginning of one of my Scotty books–it gave me great pleasure to write the words New Orleans, not sane, stood by itself within its levees–and of course, this book was a pretty heavy influence on Bury Me in Shadows. The book reads almost like a fever dream, with its rhythms and poetries of language, and the story itself is as mysterious as one could possibly hope. The genius of Jackson is knowing that the biggest fear of all is the unknown; so we never know what is actually going on at Hill House–is the house actually bad, or just unlucky? The house’s history is bad and tragic from the very beginning, as we are told in Jackson’s spellbinding voice; who precisely was Hugh Crain, who built the house for his wife and family but never knew any kind of peace within its walls? What went wrong? Jackson never lets us know anything other than that the house is bad. Her primary point of view character is perhaps the must untrustworthy and unreliable of narrators, Eleanor Vance, Nell. Dr. Montague invited Nell because of a strange occurrence that happened when she was a small child; stones rained down on their house out of clear blue sky; her mother darkly blamed it on the neighbors (this also happened to Carrie White’s house when she was a little girl in Stephen King’s Carrie–in the newspaper write-up included in the book Mrs. White also blamed it on “the neighbors”), but other than that, Nell is pretty ordinary and small. She’s wasted most of her adult life taking care of her invalid mother; she’s now in her early thirties and living with her sister’s family, sleeping on the couch. She’s meek but capable of anger–she has a lot of anger and rage buried deep inside of herself–anger at the world, at the injustice of her wasted life, at the lack of a viable future; she has no prospects, no job, no friends, no nothing. The invitation to Hill House awakens a joy in her that she’s never known–she’s wanted somewhere. Her sister and brother-in-law refuse to let her take their mutual car; she gets up early and rebelliously takes the car anyway and heads to Hill House. As she drives she daydreams and observes everything along the road, making up a lovely fantasy for herself about living in a house with stone lions at the foot of the driveway; she stops for lunch and observes a little girl who refuses to drink her milk because she doesn’t have her special cup with stars on the bottom she can she as she drinks. Mentally, Nell urges the little girl not to give in, to not surrender to the injustice of not having her proper cup–as it will be the first of many surrenders of herself she’ll end up making throughout her life until she, like Nell, becomes invisible.
And then, hopeful and happy and excited, she arrives and gets her first look at Hill House:
The house was vile. She shivered and thought, the words coming freely into her mind, Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once.
Which then gives Jackson the opportunity, as the next chapter opens, to describe Hill House:
No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice. Almost any house, caught unexpectedly or at an odd angle, can turn a deeply humorous look on a watching person; even a mischievous little chimney, or a dormer like a dimple, can catch up a beholder with a sense of fellowship; but a house arrogant and hating, never off guard, can only be evil. This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity. It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until was destroyed.
Nell’s sanity, never the strongest, is affected deeply by the house–she both hates and loves it, separate parts of her nature begging her to flee while the other telling her she’s come home, to stay. The other three in the party–Dr. Montague, Theo the lesbian with some psychic ability, and Luke, due to inherit the house one day–become aware very quickly that the house is having an odd effect on her; they also hate and fear the house, but that welcoming feeling Nell experiences, that desire to never leave, is for her and her only. The rest of the book is quietly terrifying–the noises in the night, the realization that whatever is going on in the house has a sly intelligence of a sort–and the scene where Nell is terrified in the night and holds Theo’s hand…until Theo turns on the lights and Nell realizes she was across the room so whose hand was I holding? is one of the most horrifying moments in horror fiction. And then, the chilling, tragic end.
I also always see the house the way it was shown in the movie.
I also rewatched the movie while I was rereading the novel–not the execrable remake but the original–and it holds up just as terrifying and unsettling as it was the first time. Julie Harris is fantastic as Nell, fragile and frayed and slowly unraveling; in the movie isn’t not quite as left to the viewer as it is to the reader the notion that Nell herself is the one haunting Hill House; the house gains its power through her. (This was done beautifully in the Netflix adaptation, The Haunting of Hill House, which is loosely based on the book but updated and adapted and changed significantly; I thought the series was fucking fantastic and an excellent homage to both the book and the original film. You can’t improve on what came before, so why not reinterpret it? I know Jackson purists were outraged, but having seen the dreadful 1999 remake…yeah, this wasn’t that, for sure.)
Also, because of the movie, whenever I read the book I see it in my mind in black and white. The film wouldn’t work in color, either.
If you’ve not read the book, you really should. It’s a masterpiece on every level.
And now we found ourselves at the dawn of a Saturday, the first day of a new weekend, which are always, inevitably, far too short.
I have requested a book from the library which is the beginning of my research into Chlorine; and I will be picking that up today as I run a couple of errands in the heat of the day. My goals for the weekend are to finish reading Blacktop Wasteland and get Chapters 1-10 of Bury Me in Shadows completed; which of course is preparatory to getting the next ten chapters revised and redone and rewritten over the next week. It is a rather ambitious program, to be sure–and I am also certain at some point I’ll get tired and stop, then berate myself all week that I’m not further along with it than I am. You know, second verse, same as the first.
Yesterday–hell, this entire past week–was not a particularly pleasant one, and my usual go-to when I am not having a good week–being kind to people and trying to help them–also blew up in my face, which, while incredibly unpleasant, is actually fine. Usually, when there’s not a pandemic, I get to be kind and caring and helpful to my clients pretty much every day of the week, and that, inevitably, always makes me feel better about the world (and people) in general. I miss having that daily release of kindness and caring, of being sympathetic to people and listening to their concerns and helping them to feel better about things, but…I also need to recognize that outside of my job, in the real world other people don’t necessarily give a shit about my help, or need it, or particularly want it, and that the people I help at work are actually my clients, and they want help, they’re worried and need someone to be empathetic and kind and ease their fears. I also need to remember that people in my every-day-not-coming-in-for-an-appointment life might actually see my offers of help and caring as something else entirely, and not receive it well. I also need to remember that people I only know through pleasant enough internet interactions actually aren’t people I know, and I should save my empathy, caring, and kindness for people who actually are my friends–of whom there are, in fact, a lot.
It was, all in all, a stressful week, an up and down rollercoaster of emotions and triggers and psychological distress. As I tell my clients at the office, it’s normal to feel stress and worry and fear about getting any kind of diagnostic medical test, even when you’re absolutely mostly certain there’s nothing to worry about–there’s always that gnawing fear that this will be the time the news is bad, and being who I am, I inevitably try to prepare myself for the news to be bad. This is no doubt the psychological residue of years of getting HIV tests and nervously waiting the two or more weeks to get the results back while people I knew were going into the hospital and not coming back out; of going in and having the blood drawn and going through the entire session of data gathering and demographics and behavioral risks that always –while not the intent of the counseling, of course–left me feeling like an irresponsible drunken whore who deserved to die. One of the reasons I went into this line of work was to make sure that everyone who comes in to get tested knows that the person testing them cares about them, doesn’t judge them, and is doing everything in their power to make them more comfortable and relaxed. I treat all my clients with dignity and respect and empathy, and I have found that actually works, for the most part, in the world outside of my testing office as well.
I really miss doing my job every day.
And yesterday, of course, I had to take Paul out to Metairie to get his eye cleaned, and while it’s been sixteen years, being reminded by something as innocuous as an eye cleaning appointment inevitably still weighs heavily on me emotionally. Some years I make it through the anniversary without thinking about it; most days it doesn’t cross my mind, and sometimes can go for great stretches of time without thinking about or being reminded of it; it’s now mostly a part of the distant past. Yet it still lives on in my memories, even if they are pushed to the back most of the time, they are still there, and when something like yesterday’s appointment rolls around those memories will crowd their way up to the front of my mind, and even though I try not to allow them to affect (for fuck’s sake, it’s been sixteen years) me emotionally, they still somehow weigh heavily on me and drag me down. All the way to Metairie yesterday I was snapping and cursing out other drivers–okay, I do that every time I drive because New Orleans seriously has the worst and stupidest and most careless drivers of anywhere I’ve ever lived–but yesterday I felt particularly angry with them all for putting our lives at risk with their carelessness and stupidity.
Which is why I never understand how people are amazed about the anti-vaxxers and the anti-maskers; all you ever have to do to see how little most people care about anyone else’s lives or safety is go for a drive. I saw a meme months ago about the “shopping cart test” being an excellent way of determining what kind of person someone is; do you leave the cart abandoned in the middle of the parking lot, blocking a parking space, or do you return it to the front of the store or to a cart corral which is a short walk, at most, from wherever you are parked? (It should come as no surprise to anyone that most people just abandon the carts where they are once they’ve finished using them–which means a low wage employee has to walk around the entire parking lot retrieving the carts, sometimes in the broiling sun. I always either put the cart in the corral or walk it back to the front of the store–but with the caveat being that in college I worked at Toys R Us and sometimes, in the broiling heat of 115 degree summer days, had to go on cart duty. I know firsthand how shitty of a job that is, and so I try to do my little part to make it easier for the unfortunate soul whose job it is. On the rare occasions when I eat fast food I always throw my trash away and leave the tray on the space provided in every fast food place for them, usually on top of the actual trash bin. I honestly don’t think it’s mean-spirited; I think it’s thoughtlessness for the most part–someone else will take care of this for me. And sure, it is someone’s job–but there’s no rule that says we can’t make things easier for someone doing their job by doing something as simple and easy as dumping your trash or returning a shopping cart to a corral–just like I don’t understand why people don’t drive with a concern for the safety of themselves, let alone others.
We finished the second season of Babylon Berlin last night with a massive binge of almost the entire season in one sitting, beginning at seven pm and finishing just after eleven–I hesitate to think we actually watched as many as seven episodes, but I really think we must have, because I seem to recall finishing Season One and watching the first episode of Season 2 on Thursday night. I cannot praise the show nearly enough–Paul and I are getting to the point where we have very little interest in watching American television programs anymore, because the foreign ones are so much better. There are about, on a quick check, three or four books in the series; I do have the first one on hand, and I may move on to it when I finished Blacktop Wasteland, hopefully this weekend.
So, my plan is to shake off yet another shitty week and get my head cleared and back on straight and dive back into my work. I am treating myself to making cappuccinos this morning rather than having my usual coffee; grinding beans and frothing milk and making espresso–it’s really not a lot of trouble, honestly; it’s more about the mess it makes more than the process–a lot of moving parts that need to be cleaned afterwards more than anything else. (I love the smell of beans being ground!) The kitchen/office is, as always on a Saturday morning, messy and in need of being put in order; the ongoing battle to get organized rages on.
Yesterday, after making my phone calls and while making my daily quota of condom packs, I discovered that the old ABC Movie of the Week The Night Stalker was available on Youtube –a lot of those old made for television movies from the early 1970’s/late 1960’s are on Youtube–. but not particularly good copies; whenever I try to watch one I am inevitably disappointed by the poor quality of the film. It seems like someone used their VCR to record them as a general rule, and then uploaded them–with all the usual glitches and scratchiness and poor reproduction one would expect from an old VCR tape (this was the case with some I have watched, like Go Ask Alice and The House That Would Not Die, which was based on Barbara Michaels’ brilliant novel Ammie Come Home); I was delighted to see that this was not the case with The Night Stalker–it was almost like the film had been digitized before uploading. The picture was very clear, the colors bright, and absolutely no fuzziness. The sound quality was also very high. The Night Stalker, and its sequel, The Night Slasher, were two of the more popular ABC Movies of the Week, and wound being the basis for a series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which was kind of a mid-to-late 1970’s version of The X Files. The series didn’t do very well, was pretty roundly mocked for cheesiness and poor quality, and didn’t last more than a season, but surprisingly enough, The Night Stalker holds up pretty well, despite being obviously dated and produced on a shoestring budget (the producer was Dan Curtis, of Dark Shadows fame); but the heart of the movie is Darren McGavin’s brilliant portrayal of Carl Kolchak, a world-weary, down on his luck investigative journalist who has been fired from many major newspapers in his career and had wound up working at a paper in Las Vegas, which at the time was kind of a backwater casino town (its still a casino town, but a much bigger city now; I don’t know if one would consider it a backwater or a comedown from Boston or Chicago or Washington anymore; maybe). The premise of the film is young women are being murdered, and their bodies drained of most of their blood; the second body is found in a dried out gulley with no footprints around it; which means it must have been thrown quite a distance to get where it was. Kolchak begins to slowly believe that there’s a vampire in Vegas (Vampire in Vegas is actually a great title), despite resistance from both the higher-ups at the paper and the police, and he begins to gather the evidence. He tracks down the vampire finally, and kills it by driving a stake through it’s heart just as the police arrive–and of course, his story is spiked and he is threatened with prosecution for murder if he doesn’t leave town. The girl he is seeing, who works in a casino, is played by Carol Lynley; she is also forced to leave town without even getting a chance to say goodbye to him. The story holds up pretty well–and it is interesting seeing Las Vegas as it was in the early 1970’s, which is vastly different than it is now; and watching it made me a little sad–the death of print journalism for the most part over the last twenty years has forced that kind of character, once so integral to the crime genre–the crusading, world-weary journalist–into retirement. Journalists and journalism was also a popular genre of television and film, too–remember Lou Grant? I had always wanted to write a book about a newspaper and how it operates, a kind of Arthur Hailey type thing, with characters at every level, from the publisher down to the copy clerks. Maybe it could still be done today; I don’t know. It’s an interesting idea, but one that has languished in my files for decades and will probably continue to do so.
I also think a study of the evolution of the vampire story would be an interesting read, going back to pre-Dracula writings and then tracing its evolution through modern times; how Dark Shadows and Chelsea Yarbro Quinn changed the face of the vampire tale and made Anne Rice’s novels possible; and all the other vampire stories, like ‘salem’s Lot and Poppy Z. Brite’s Lost Souls. Maybe someone already has? I know Stephen King covered some of this material in Danse Macabre, but that is nearly forty years (!) out of date, and I doubt he will be doing an updated version anytime soon.
And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me. Have a lovely Saturday, Constant Reader.
Being from, not only the South but also from Alabama, I am very particular about Southern fiction, and fiction set in Alabama (there is more of it than you might think; there is certainly much more of it than To Kill a Mockingbird). Robert McCammon has written some exceptional Southern horror fiction set in Alabama; I absolutely loved Boy’s Life, while I have yet to read Gone South (which is in the TBR pile). He actually set a book in the part of Alabama I am from; it was a good book, but it bore no more actual resemblance to that county than anything other book set in the rural South; it was as though he simply put up a map of Alabama and stuck in a pin in it, said “okay this is where it will be set” and worked from there. But it was a good book that I enjoyed; it had some interesting things to say about religion–particularly the rural Southern version of it. I myself want to write about Alabama more; I feel–I don’t know–connected somehow when I write about Alabama in a greater way than I do when I am writing about New Orleans, and that’s saying something. Mostly I’ve written short stories, the majority of which have never been published; only two have seen print, “Smalltown Boy” and “Son of a Preacher Man.”
I remember Michael McDowell from the 1980’s, when the horror boom was at its highest crest; I never read his work but I was aware of it. I remember reading the back covers of his Blackwater books and not being particularly interested in them; there was just something about them, and their Alabama setting, that somehow didn’t ring right to me; I don’t remember what or why, but I do remember picking them up several times in the bookstore, looking them over, and putting them back.
In recent years, McDowell has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts; he was a gay man who died from AIDS-related complications in 1999. I wasn’t aware that he was part of the writing team who published a gay mystery series under the name Nathan Aldyne until sometime in the last few years, and I’d been meaning to get around to finally read one of his horror novels, the reissue of The Elementals (which included an introduction by my friend, the novelist Michael Rowe–whose novels Enter, Night and Wild Fell are quite extraordinary)–which again is set in Alabama, only this time Mobile and the lower panhandle of Alabama that sits on either side of Mobile Bay (the same area, in fact, where I set my novel Dark Tide, only my novel was set on the other side of the bay). My friend Katrina Niidas Holm recently asked me to read the book so we could discuss it drunkenly over cocktails at Bouchercon in Toronto later this month; this morning I sat down and read it through. (It’s not very long; 218 pages in total.)
In the middle of a desolate Wednesday afternoon in the last sweltering days of May, a handful of mourners were gathered in the church dedicated to St. Jude Thaddeus in Mobile, Alabama. The air conditioning in the small sanctuary sometimes covered the noise of traffic at the intersection outside, but it occasionally did not, and the strident honking of an automobile horn ould sound above the organ music like a mutilated stop. The space was dim, damply cool, and stank of refrigerated flowers. Two dozen enormous and very expensive arrangements had been set in converging lines behind the altar. A massive blanket of silver roses lay draped across the light-blue casket, and there were petals scattered over the white satin interior. In the coffin was the body of a woman no more than fifty-five. Her features were squarish and set; the lines that ran from the corners of her mouth to her jaw were deep-plowed. Marian Savage had not been overtaken happily.
In the pew to the left of the coffin sat Dauphin Savage, the corpse’s surviving son. He wore a dark blue suit that fit tightly over last season’s frame, and a black silk band was fastened to his arm rather in imitation of a tourniquet. On his right, in a black dress and a black veil. was his wife Leigh. Leigh lifted her chin to catch sight of her dead mother-in-law’s profile in the blue coffin. Dauphin and Leigh would inherit almost everything.
Big Barbara McCray–Leigh’s mother and the corpse’s best friend–sat in the pew directly behind and wept audibly. Her black silk dress whined against the polished oaken pew as she twisted in her grief. Beside her, rolling his eyes in exasperation at his mother’s carrying-on, was Luker McCray. Luker’s opinion of the dead woman was that he had never seen her to better advantage than in her coffin. Next to Luker was his daughter, India, a girl of thirteen who had not known the dead woman in life. India interested herself in the church’s ornamental hangings, with an eye toward reproducing them in a needlepoint border.
On the other side of the central aisle sat the corpse’s only daughter, a nun. Sister Mary-Scot did not weep, but now and then the others heard the faint clack of her rosary beads against the wooden pew. Several pews behind the nun sat Odessa Red, a thin, grim black woman who had been three decades in the dead woman’s employ. Odessa wore a tiny blue velvet hat with a single feather dyed in India ink.
Before the funeral began, Big Barbara McCray had poked her daughter, and demanded of her why there was no printed order of service. Leigh shrugged. “Dauphin said do it that way. Less trouble for everybody so I didn’t say anything.”
This is an auspicious beginning to a novel that straddles the line between Southern Gothic and horror; but in using the word horror I am thinking of the quiet kind of horror, the kind Shirley Jackson wrote; this isn’t the kind where blood splatters and body parts go flying or you can hear the knife slicing through flesh and bone. This is the kind of horror that creeps up on you slowly, building in intensity and suspense until you are flipping the pages anxiously to find out what happens next.
McDowell introduces all of his characters in those few short sentences; Dauphin and his wife, Leigh; her mother Big Barbara; her brother Luker and her niece, India. Odessa also has a part to play in this story, and the only other character who doesn’t appear in this opening is Big Barbara’s estranged husband, Lawton. Lawton, like Mary-Scot, only plays a very small part in this tale, and so the reader doesn’t need to meet him until later.
(I do want to talk about character names here; the Savage family all have names that have something to do with Mary Queen of Scots; the deceased is Marian, her long dead husband Bothwell; Mary-Scot is as plain a reference as can be, whereas her two brothers were Mary Stuart’s husbands: Dauphin–her first husband was Dauphin Francois, later King Francois I of France–and the deceased elder brother, Darnley; the romantic Queen’s second husband was Lord Darnley. Marian’s –of Mary–deceased husband Bothwell bore the name of the Scottish Queen’s third husband, the Earl of Bothwell. These Savage men died in reverse order of the Queen’s husband’s though; Bothwell first followed by Darnley, and of course, as the only one living, Dauphin will die last. Also, there’s never any explanation for why Big Barbara is called Big Barbara; usually in Southern families the reason you would call someone “Big” is because there is a “Little;” there is no Little Barbara in this story, and I’m not sure where Luker came from as a name, either. I wondered if it was a colloquial pronunciation; names and words that end in an uh sound turn into ‘er’ in Alabama; Beulah being pronounced Beuler, for example, so I wondered if his name was Luka…)
The McCrays and the Savages are families bound by decades of friendship and now marriage; they have three identical houses on a southern spit of land in the lower, western side of the Alabama panhandle in a place called Beldame; Beldame is very remote, bounded by the Gulf on one side and a lagoon on the other; during high tide the gulf flows through a channel into the lagoon and turns Beldame into an island. There are no phones there nor power lines; electricity is provided by a generator and there is no air conditioning. Oh, how I remember those Alabama summers without air conditioning! One of the three houses is being lost to a drifting sand dune and is abandoned…and as the days pass, the reader begins to realize there’s something not right about that dune…or about that house.
The book reminded me some of Douglas Clegg’s brilliant Neverland; that sense of those sticky hot summers in the South, visiting a place you’re not familiar with and is kind of foreign (the primary POV once the story moves to Beldame is India, who has never been there before); those afternoons where the heat and humidity make even breathing exhausting, the white sugary sand and the glare from it, lying in a shaded hammock just hoping for a breeze–the sudden rains and drops in temperature, where eighty degrees seems cold after days of it being over a hundred…the sense of place is very strong in this book, and Beldame is, like Hill House, what Stephen King called in his brilliant treatise on the genre Danse Macabre, ‘the bad place.”
I really enjoyed this book. A lot. And it has made me think about writing about Alabama again; this entire year I’ve been thinking that, and now feel like it’s a sign that maybe I should.
One of the more interesting things in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre was his dissection of the common core at the root of all horror stories; the conflict between between the Apollonian and the Dionysian worlds; in that all horror stories begin in an Apollonian (or seemingly Apollonian) world where everything makes sense, everyone is just going about their business, and into that world something Dionysian is introduced, and the conflict, the point of the story, is to vanquish the Dionysian and return everything to the Apollonian; he further used Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson as an illustrative example of the two sides; in which Dr. Jekyll is a man of the intellect, of reason, while Mr. Hyde is all pure emotion, sensuality, and chaotic action.
I’m probably explaining it badly (I am no King, after all), but it really does work thematically as you look at most horror (it doesn’t fit all horror stories, of course; nothing can possibly and simply explain an entire genre). It also kind of explains why I am not such a good horror writer; I am not well enough versed in the genre–fiction and non-fiction–to write it credibly. I mean, isn’t that why I devote so much of my reading time to crime fiction? To make me a better crime fiction writer?
Sigh. Yes, I do have a rather strong grasp of the obvious.
Yet, my own Sara certainly fits that description. Everyone at the school is going along, living their lives, and then Sara shows up; bad things happen, and then the problem is solved and they can go back to living their lives, if a little shell shocked.
Rereading Danse Macabre, I also realized that many of my horror stories–most of them, if not all of them, actually–subscribe to the ethos of what King called “the EC Comics mindset.” EC Comics were long gone by the time I was a kid, but I did read the DC comic versions, House of Mystery and House of Secrets.
There were usually two or three stories in each issue, and like the old EC Comics–the Tales from the Crypt style–there was a narrator of sorts, a curator of the House of Secrets or the House of Mystery–who would introduce each tale. It was either a horror/supernatural story, or some kind of noirish story where the main character was going to do something criminal or bad, and got their just desserts in the end.
As King says, the “heh heh” ending.
King himself does this in a lot of his own short stories, but being a better writer and more creative, he can make it work.
The short story that I finally finished last night is sort of like that, only it’s noir, not horror. I need to revise it–i will do that today, and spend the weekend revising some other stories I want to submit–but it’s interesting that I always try to go for the twist ending in my short stories.
Hey, at least I don’t do the “oh, it was all a dream” thing….anymore.
Yesterday, since there wasn’t an LSU game to stress over, I simply did chores and idly watched (had the television on while I read or did chores) some games–Texas A&M vs. Tennessee; Alabama vs Arkansas, Florida State vs Miami–until we started watching some of our shows. I have to say, given what has been going on in the country over the last few years, and particularly since Friday; Friday night’s episode of The Exorcist was especially powerful. What I really enjoyed about it was it showed how seductive evil can be…and the scene on the el, when Casey was basically being groped and assaulted by the drunk bro in front of everyone who watched and did nothing? Absolutely horrifying, and yes, while not wanting to provide spoilers, I had no sympathy for the dude bro.
Kind of how like in Carrie, I didn’t have much sympathy when the bullies started getting theirs.
But while I was watching football games yesterday, I was also rereading Danse Macabre by Stephen King. It’s really quite exceptional, even better than I remembered; it’s an examination of the horror genre from a personal perspective, but it’s incredibly smart. It could, quite seriously, be a text for a Genre Fiction class. It’s written in, as I mentioned, an incredibly accessible style, yet it also delves into serious scholarship and examination of the primary themes in the genre. It really, really is quite brilliant.
I overslept this morning, of course, as I am wont to do on Sundays, but the great thing about it is that I feel completely rested for the first time in days. I’ve already done the dishes, intend to clean up around here, and then I am going to write for a while. Then in the later afternoon, I am going to take my camera out into the neighborhood and take some pictures. There are some interesting changes going on down on Magazine Street.
Oh, yes, horror; I am supposed to be talking about horror, aren’t I?
When I was a kid, ABC used to made-for-TV movies and aired them on Tuesdays as the ABC Movie of the Week. Some of them were ‘important dramas’; like Go Ask Alice; some were bad comedies, some were mysteries, and some were horror. Many of them were quite terrible, but some of them were memorable; they often used film stars past their prime, and while I admit I’ve not seen any of them in years, the first one I remember–one that terrified the crap out of me–was Crowhaven Farm; which is on Youtube, and I have it on my watchlist, but haven’t gotten to it yet–partly because I fear it won’t hold up, and what scared a ten year old might seem silly to an adult.
I don’t remember the entire plot, but it had to do with a city couple either inheriting or buying Crowhaven Farm, and moving out to the country because their marriage was struggling; partly because they hadn’t been able to conceive a child. Once they reach the farm, though, the wife–Wikipedia tells me her name was Maggie–starts remembering things about the farm that she couldn’t possibly know; she walks over to a wall and touches a secret latch that opens a panel to a secret room, for example. She starts having flashes of a past in Colonial times; and there are ghosts walking around Crowhaven Farm–that apparently have it in for her. They take in a foster child but then Maggie learns she is pregnant…and some of the memories have to do with her being ‘pressed’–a punishment where suspected witches were placed beneath a wooden panel and stones piled on it until she is crushed to death (it always seemed like an unpleasant way to die to me). Back in Colonial times, the area had it’s own Salem-like witch issues, and it turns out that Maggie, back then, escaped death by pressing by ratting out some other witches who now want to get even with her in THIS life.
The ending was especially scary to me.
I used to watch the movie every time it aired, because I enjoyed it so much…and I’ve never forgotten about it, either. It popped back into my memory when I remembered that Barbara Michaels’ superb ghost story Ammie Come Home had been made into a Movie of the Week called The House That Would Not Die, starring Barbara Stanwyck, and went looking for it. I found it on Youtube…which suggested Crowhaven Farm to me.
I also hope to start reading Bracken MacLeod’s Stranded tonight.