That’s the Way (I Like It)

Friday and we have made it to the end of the week, Constant Reader!

I am most pleased, and am even more pleased that I woke up before my alarm this morning. This, as you can imagine, doesn’t happen as often as I would like, and I was not only awake but functional, so I went ahead and got up. The kitchen is a mess this morning, primarily because I made dinner last night after cleaning when I got home yesterday afternoon, so I should probably do something about that before I leave for my half-day this morning. I am hoping to run to Costco after work today, and then come home to my usual Friday chores–primarily washing the bed linens–and perhaps getting back on track with writing. I really need to get back into the habit of writing some fiction every day. I do have other errands to run this weekend–making groceries being the most important of those–and I absolutely have to clean the Lost Apartment. I’ve not done the floors in forever, and the kitchen windows are filthy, absolutely filthy.

I also would love to finish reading Jamie Mason’s quite marvelous The Hidden Things this weekend. This is Jamie’s third novel; her first, Three Graves Full, was quite a stunning and brilliant debut, but I’ve been holding on to her second until she’d published another so I would always have one of her books that I’ve not read on deck. It really is quite odd that I do this; but I never want to run out of authors I enjoy’s books. (I’m still holding back on some Mary Stewarts, Daphne du Mauriers, and Charlotte Armstrongs)

I’ve also had a strong breakthrough on my short story “And the Walls Came Down,” which I reread this week, and think I can fashion with another revision into something quite marvelous. So, that’s also on the agenda for the weekend–and I’ve decided that each week I am picking one of my short stories for a reread and a final revise. At one story per week, it’s going to probably take me the rest of the  year to get them all done–I had no idea precisely how many short stories I have that are in some sort of progress–but at some point I am also going to have to finish the ones I’ve started and never finished the initial draft for–I also need to go through my journals and start digging out the short story ideas I’ve jotted down over the last year, because there were quite a few of those as well.

Paul and I watched the first season–there were only seven episodes–of a Netflix show called Bonding–which was actually quite funny at times and rather clever. The premise of the show is two former close friends from high school run into each other as adults; she is now a dominatrix and he’s an aspiring stand-up comedian who has too much stage fright to ever actually get up and do his act. He winds up working as her assistant, and they begin to bond and learn from each other while negotiating their own hang-ups and possible new relationships. I’m not entirely certain this is an accurate depiction of the BDSM community, or even of what a dom is like; but it was clever and cute and funny; and up till the last episode, we greatly enjoyed it. (The last episode got kind of weird.)

I also got some new books in the mail yesterday: They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall; Miracle Creek by Angie Kim; A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab; and Upon a Burning Throne by Ashok Banker. I’ve bumped Rachel’s book to the “on-deck” position on my TBR pile; so I am hopeful I can get Jamie’s book finished this weekend so I can dig into Rachel’s.

I am also bound and determined to get caught up on the WIP this weekend, so I can start writing new chapters next week.

Or…I might just be a slug and lay around and not do a goddamned thing all weekend. It happens.

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

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R.O.C.K in the USA

Happy Sunday and a good morning to all y’all.

I didn’t get as much done yesterday as I would have liked; running my errands in the pre-rain humidity literally wore me out, and then when I got going again I started cleaning and doing laundry and well, once I start doing that–as well as going through and trying to organize the books–I am pretty much done for the day….especially after I discovered Burnt Offerings was available for streaming on Prime. Oliver Reed! Karen Black! Bette Davis (who was totally wasted in her role)! I’d seen the movie years ago, I think when it first aired on television after it’s theatrical run, and while it’s still has some moments, it overall doesn’t hold up as well as I would have hoped. I read the book for the first recently in the last few years, and it was wonderful. But watching Burnt Offerings put me in mind of an essay about horror in the 1970’s; the 1970’s was a time when the suburbs really developed because of ‘white flight’ from the cities and desegregation; this was this whole movement of back to the country from the urban centers, and at the same time, there was horror that specifically focused on this phenomenon (without the racism and white flight issues); namely this book, Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon, The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin, and even Stephen King lightly touched on this in ‘salem’s Lot; the dangers of the country to people from the city.

One could even argue that James Dickey’s Deliverance also belongs in this category, and it put me in mind of an essay that I may never write. I also thought up another yesterday while running my errands, after car after car after car violated traffic rules and almost caused me to be in in accident (three times, to be exact; which might be a new record): “Right of Way,” in which I would extrapolate the American contempt for traffic rules and laws for everyone’s safety can be directly correlated to contempt for law and order, the system, taxes, everything. I made some notes, and this is one I may actually write. Essays are fun and I do enjoy writing them but I don’t very often, unless one is requested of me for something, and perhaps that’s the wrong approach.

Today I am going to go to the gym and I am going to start rereading Royal Street Reveillon and make notes for the big revision that is coming. I’m also going to start reading Jackson Square Jazz out loud for copy editing purposes, and I’d also like to work on “A Whisper from the Graveyard” today. I should at some point also work on finished “Never Kiss a Stranger,” which means I should also make a to-do list for everything I want to get done in July.

Hmmm. Perhaps not a bad idea, at that.

I also remembered I have notes on a short story I need to read and decide what revisions I need to be make.

It never truly ends, does it? But I am looking forward to Sharp Objects tonight on HBO; I actually liked this book by Gillian Flynn better than Gone Girl, which of course made her hugely famous and hopefully hugely rich. I still haven’t read her Dark Places, but that’s because I still subscribe to the “if I don’t read all the canon then I still have something by her to read” mentality, which is partly why I still have not read the entire canon of either Daphne du Maurier or Shirley Jackson or Patricia Highsmith.

So, I have a lot to do today–only one more day after today before I return to the office, but at least it’s only a four day work week–and so I should probably get back to the spice mines.

The next story up in Promises in Every Star and Other Stories is “Bloodletting”:

The damp air was thick with the scent of blood.

It had been days since I had last fed, and the desire was gnawing at my insides. I stood up, and my eyes focused on a young man walking a bicycle in front of the cathedral. He was talking on a cell phone, his face animated and agitated. He was wearing a T-shirt that read Who Dat Say They Gonna Beat Dem Saints? and a pair of ratty old paint-spattered jeans cut off at the knees. There was a tattoo of Tweetybird on his right calf, and another indistinguishable one on his left forearm. His hair was dark, combed to a peak in the center of his head, and his face was flushed. He stopped walking, his voice getting louder and louder as his face got darker.

I could smell his blood. I could almost hear his beating heart.

I could see the pulsing vein in his neck, beckoning me forward.

The sun was setting, and the lights around Jackson Square were starting to come on. The tarot card readers were folding up their tables, ready to disappear into the night. The band playing in front of the cathedral was putting their instruments away. The artists who hung their work on the iron fence around the park were long gone, as were the living statues. The square, so teeming with life just a short hour earlier, was emptying of people, and the setting sun was taking the warmth with it as it slowly disappeared in the west. The cold breeze coming from the river ruffled my hair a bit as I watched the young man with the bicycle. He started wheeling the bicycle forward again, still talking on the phone. He reached the concrete ramp leading up to Chartres Street. He stopped just as he reached the street, and I focused my hearing as he became more agitated. What do you want me to say? You’re just being a bitch, and anything I say you’re just going to turn around on me.

I felt the burning inside.

Desire was turning into need.

I knew it was best to satisfy the desire before it became need. I could feel the knots of pain from deprivation forming behind each of my temples and knew it was almost too late. I shouldn’t have let it go this long, but I wanted to test my limits, see how long I could put off the hunger. I’d been taught to feed daily, which would keep the hunger under control and keep me out of danger.

Need was dangerous. Need led a vampire to take risks he wouldn’t take ordinarily. And risks could lead to exposure, to a painful death.

The first lesson I’d learned was to always satiate the hunger while it was still desire, to never ever let it become need.

I had waited too long.

“Bloodletting” is an unusual story for me in that it’s actually a short story that bridges the gap between my novella “Blood on the Moon” and the novel Need; I eventually used it as the book’s first chapter. I have always wanted to give vampire fiction a try; I created an entire world that I first wrote about in the novella “The Nightwatchers,” which I always intended to develop into a series. I still would like to develop that series, and when the opportunity came to write “Blood on the Moon” I realized I could simply still use the world I’d created for “The Nightwatchers” and move on to different characters. The second book in the series, the one that was to follow Need, Desire, was going to tie the two story-lines together but Need didn’t sell as well as the publisher would have liked and so Desire died in the water. I may still go back and write it, of course, but I have no publisher for it and I am not particularly interested in self-publishing that much. But…I never say never. I wrote “Bloodletting” for Blood Sacraments, and only had to change the original concept a little bit; in the original idea Cord, my vampire, was actually sitting on the roof of St. Louis Cathedral watching the crowd for his next victim. I still love that image, and may use it sometime, but I did eventually change it to how it reads now.

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Angel

Wednesday morning.The sun is shining outside, Scooter is on my desk staring outside at the outdoor kitties, and my kitchen is a disaster area. In other words, it’s a typical morning here at the Lost Apartment.

We continue to watch, and be enthralled by, The Alienist. There are only three episodes left, which is disheartening, but all good things must come to an end, and we shall simply have to find something else to watch.

I continue to work on “Don’t Look Down,” which is probably the longest short story I’ve ever written and will undoubtedly wind up either a novelette or a novella or however they determine what those things are. Which is fine; it’s just taking a lot longer to pull together than I thought it would, but I am also working on it piecemeal; a bit here, a bit there, and I am not worrying about language or sentence structure or so forth as I sort of map the story out. I’ve worked my way through the first half again, and now I have to work  my way through the back half, which needs to be strengthened and made more creepy. I also worked on “My Brother’s Keeper” a bit yesterday, filling in a couple of scenes that were missing–again, structural issues being repaired and filled in; I’ll go back over it and make it resonate stronger emotionally in a future draft. I also realized I never got around to doing the edits on a short story I got from the editor; I need to get that done, as well as some website writing I forgot about. My bad! Oops! Must get on that….

So here are some short stories. First up is “Trial by Combat,” by Shirley Jackson,  from The Lottery and Other Stories:

When Emily Johnson came home one evening to her furnished room and found three of her best handkerchiefs missing from the dresser drawer, she was sure who had taken them and what to do. She had lived in the furnished room for about six weeks and for the past two weeks she had been missing small things occasionally. There had been several handkerchiefs gone, and an initial pin which Emily rarely wore and which had come from the five-and-ten. And once she had missed a small bottle of perfume and one of a set of china dogs. Emily had known for some time who was taking the things, but it was only tonight that she had decided what to do. She had hesitated about complaining to the landlady because her losses were trivial and because she had felt certain that sooner or later she would know how to deal with the situation herself. It had seemed logical to her from the beginning that the one person in the rooming-house who was home all day was the most likely suspect, and then, one Sunday morning, coming downstairs from the roof, where she’d been sitting in the sun, Emily had seen someone come out of her room and go down the stairs, and had recognized the visitor. Tonight, she felt, she knew just what to do. She took off her coat and hat, put her packages down, and, while a can of tamales was heating on her electric plate, she went over what she intended to say.

Again, what Shirley Jackson is able to do so beautifully is also what, I think, Raymond Carver tried to do in his stories: the small details and foibles that make up human personalities. Emily’s struggle to get up the nerve to confront the person she thinks is stealing from her, how she goes over it again and again in her head before marching down the stairs–it’s just so utterly human, and real. I wish someone would do a movie like Short Cuts from Jackson’s short stories. She’s better than Carver.

“And Now to God The Father” by Daphne du Maurier, The Doll and The  Lost Short Stories

The Reverend James Holloway, Vicar of St. Swithin’s, Upper Chesham Street, was looking at his profile in the glass. The sight was pleasing to him, so much so that he lingered a considerable time before he laid the mirror back upon the dressing table.

He saw a man of about fifty-five years of age, who looked younger, with a high forehead and magnificent iron-grey hair, that was apt to curl slightly at the temples.

The nose was straight, the mouth narrow and sensitive, and he had been told that his deep-set eyes could be in turn humorous, dangerous, and inspired. He was tall and broad-shouldered; he carried his head a little to one side, and his powerful chin was tilted in the air.

This is another of du Maurier’s lost gems. It isn’t so much a story as a character study, of a particular kind of cleric; one who is more interested in his social position and the invitations he gets than actually doing anything to help unfortunate people, which is supposed to be his calling and his purpose. We see him flit through meetings and flirtations with wealthy and titled women…and then he actually causes harm and damage, trying to clean up a mess created by a profligate earl’s son. Of course he does the wrong thing, because he is the worst kind of cleric. Brilliant character study, absolutely brilliant, with that macabre du Maurier twist.

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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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Loverboy

The ballet last night was exquisite.

I’ve seen ballets–or parts of them–on television or Youtube; and I remember, as a child, being taken to see The Nutcracker (isn’t everyone dragged to that as a child?), which I hated (interestingly enough, many things that most children love are things that I didn’t; The Nutcracker is one; The Wizard of Oz another). But as lovely and awe-inspiring as seeing ballets on Youtube or on television can be, there is nothing like being in an auditorium and watching one being performed live on the stage in front of you. I liken it to the difference between watching figure skating on television and then watching it in person; it’s very different, and you never watch it on television in quite the same way again. Romeo and Juliet is, of course, an ubiquitous story; everyone knows it, to the point that it has become almost trite and hackneyed; it’s been adapted for everything imaginable–opera, ballet, film, and of course West Side Story–but, at its heart, it is still a beautiful and sad story.

The opening sequence of the ballet reminded me so much of the opening of West Side Story that I couldn’t help wonder how much the ballet influenced the musical’s choreography, or vice versa.

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I read Romeo and Juliet when I was a sophomore in high school. I’d taken a class called Dramatic Literature; a class in which we read plays. Romeo and Juliet was paired with West Side Story (it’s also the class where I first read Tennessee Williams; A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, to be exact); we even watched the films (the version of Romeo and Juliet was the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli production, with Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey with the gorgeous score by Michel Legrand). Shakespeare’s language was, to me at fourteen, a mysterious puzzle I couldn’t unlock; archaic references I didn’t understand written in verse, yet somehow beautiful in how the words were put together. At the time, I didn’t understand how two families could feud so bitterly and violently in an Italian city during the Renaissance; of course, now that I’ve read so many Italian histories (I am still greatly enjoying The Black Prince of Florence), I am more than a little surprised that the feud between Capulet and Montague was so bloodless (see the Pazzi-Medici feud, circa fifteen century).

Yet, despite the overwhelming familiarity with the story, it was impossible not to be drawn into last night’s version of it; despite there being no dialogue, no words. The entire story was, as is typical with the ballet, acted out without words and through dance. The choreographer’s choices in telling the story were quite interesting; the stage setting was incredibly minimalist, with emotions and passions being evoked through the movement of the two curved walls that served as set pieces; the long rising ramp that served as not a way to exit the stage but as Juliet’s fabled balcony; and the use of costume and lighting.

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The friar was used as a connective device throughout each scene; he was, if anything, the true star of the show, and its emotional heart. The dancer who played the role was magnificent. The ballet was a thing of beauty; I couldn’t stop marveling at how fantastic the dancers were, the exceptional shapes and lines they could form with their bodies, the almost super-human stretches and leaps and twirls and spins, the intimacy of their lifts and how they could mold their bodies around one another’s.

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It was also my first time inside the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts since Katrina; ironically, it was also the first time the Ballet des Monte-Carlo performed there since 2005. Both the outgoing and incoming mayor were there; the Honorary Consul for Monaco, and the ambassador from Monaco were all introduced and thanked from the stage.

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And yet, as a crime writer, and someone with a vested interest in group dynamics and politics, who has viewed documentaries about ballet companies, with a knowledge of human nature and interaction,I couldn’t help wondering, as the company took its well-deserved bows to a long standing ovation last night,  what turmoils and temperaments boiled beneath the surface of the linked hands and bowing bodies; what slights and grudges boiled behind the smiling faces; which members of the company were friends and which were enemies; who were lovers and friends and who were enemies and rivals, who was gay and who was straight.

I definitely want to write a ballet noir.

And here are two short stories, for the continuation of the Short Story Project.

First up is “Split Second” by Daphne du Maurier,  from the New York Review of Books collection of Don’t Look Now and Other Stories:

Mrs. Ellis was methodical and tidy. Unanswered letters, unpaid bills, the litter and rummage of a slovenly writing-desk were things she abhorred. Today, more than usual, she was in what her late husband used to call her “clearing” mood. She had wakened to this mood; it remained with her throughout the morning. Besides, it was the first of the month, and as she ripped off the page of her daily calendar and saw the bright clean 1 staring at her, it seemed to symbolize a new start tom her day.

The hours ahead of her must somehow seem untarnished like the date; she must let nothing slide.

“Split Second” is an exceptional exercise in character. Du Maurier thoroughly examines and exposes Mrs. Ellis’ character from beginning to end, and while she doesn’t go into a great amount of detail, it isn’t hard to figure out exactly whom she is from what we are told as readers. She’s a widow and her entire world revolves around her daughter, who is off at school; she decides, after a thorough cleaning of her home to go for a walk and is almost run down by the laundry truck as she walks back home. But when she gets back to her house, things are different. It is her house, but it’s no longer the house she left behind; other people are living there, her neighbors are gone–the entire world has changed and shifted as she walked home. It’s a horrifying story, even as the reader begins to glean what has actually happened long before Mrs. Ellis does; not that she ever does, even by the end of the story, and that is part of what makes it so sad, so effective, so powerful; no one has ever quite captured that elegant, melancholy sadness the way du Maurier does.

I then moved on to “The Picture of the Lonely Diner” by Lee Child,  from the Mystery Writers of America anthology, Manhattan Mayhem:

Jack Reacher got out of the R train at Twenty-Third Street and found the nearest stairwell blocked off with plastic police tape. It was striped blue and white, tied between one handrail and the other, and it was moving in the subway wind. It said: POLICE DO NOT ENTER. Which, technically, Reacher didn’t want to do anyway. He wanted to exit. Although to exit, he would need to enter the stairwell. Which was a linguistic complexity. In which context, he sympathized with the cops. They didn’t have different kinds of tape for different situations. POLICE DO NOT ENTER IN ORDER TO EXIT was not in their inventory.

Lee Child is one of the most successful writers in our genre today; everything he publishes is a New York Times best seller, and his character, Jack Reacher, is one of those ubiquitous characters that will go down in the history of the genre, like Poirot, James Bond, and Kinsey Millhone. I am years behind on Lee’s novels; but if you’ve not read Lee Child, you simply must read The Killing Floor, the first Reacher novel. It is quite superb. This story isn’t Child at his best, but Reacher the character is at his best at novel-length, with the labyrinthian plots Child somehow concocts and manages to keep track of (one of my favorite fanboy moments was having lunch with him and Alafair Burke at the Green Goddess here in New Orleans several years ago; while I just sat there wide-eyed and listened to the two of them talk about writing and publishing, praying that I didn’t have sauce running down my chin), but this story does evoke the melancholy that Child evokes in his novels; the inevitability of fate and the powerlessness of humans to counteract it once the gears are moving. I do recommend the story; there is some amazing imagery in it as well.

And on that note, I am back to the spice mines. There are bed linens to launder, and short stories to edit, and a chapter to write; it is rainy and gloomy outside my windows this morning but I am well-rested and ready to work.

Or maybe it’s just the caffeine kicking in. Who knows?

You Belong to the City

Saturday morning and I have sooooo much to do it’s terrifying. Tonight we have tickets to the ballet; Les Ballet de Monte-Carlo, to be precise. They are performing Romeo and Juliette. I have, as I have said before countless times, never seen ballet performed live. I am very excited, obviously. I have an idea for a ballet noir–I have so many ideas, really–and I love that I merely mentioned this one night while watching the superb ballet documentary Bolshoi Babylon, and that he remembered, with the end result we have the tickets for tonight.

He really is quite a dear.

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I am writing so many things right now, and working on so much, that it can overwhelm me a bit when I stop to think about it; therefore it’s best not to think about it. The Scotty novel is going to be the most complex plot I’ve written since Mardi Gras Mambo, which means I have to really be careful and pay attention in order to prevent enormous mistakes and errors as I go along. The short stories I am writing…it’s interesting, but in some cases it’s so much easier to just have an idea and then write to figure it out; sometimes when I finish the first draft and get to the end I know what has to be fixed, added, and changed; in other cases, I literally have no idea. My writing process is so bizarre and different than anyone else’s, and I cannot say I honestly recommend the way I do things to any beginning writer.

Take, for example, a story I wrote and submitted to the MWA Anthology Ice Cold numerous years ago. The anthology was for stories set during the Cold War, and I decided to risk writing a story with a gay theme, even if that theme was buried deep inside the story until about the middle. I also started with an image; a man in the depths of winter, standing on a stone bridge over Rock Creek in Rock Creek Park in Washington DC, dropping a gun into the cold, gray water. Stubbornly,  I held onto that image as the opening of the story through numerous revisions and rewrites. The story was rejected; and I’ve tried revising it again and again. It was recently rejected by another market, with a lovely note: You’re too good of a writer to get a standard rejection letter. This story moved too slow, but do send us more of your work. (And it is a sad indication of this ego-destroying business that said email made my day: they like me! They like my work!) And yet the best part of that rejection email was this minor, five word piece of feedback: this story moved too slow. As soon as I read that I realized that the structure of the story was its ultimate failing: the dropping of the gun into the creek wasn’t where the story began, so I am going to revise the story another time, reordering the events of the story. Maybe it doesn’t even begin where I’m thinking it does now; but I won’t know until I start working on it again.

Likewise, another story I am in the midst of writing right now opens with the sentence The ID’s were fake but no one seemed to care. It’s a great opening line, and it was the first thing to come to mind when I started writing the story, and it just evolved from that opening line; I wasn’t really sure what the story was, but I wanted to use that as an opening line, and so I started writing there. Am I tied to that as the opening line? I tend to be a bit stubborn about these things…which is definitely a fault of my own. I was so determined, for example, that the WIP must begin at a certain place that I was trying to make it work–but soon realized that its Chapter One was really Chapter Three, and a lot of the things I was doing were trite and cliche; so I moved the timing of the story back a few weeks. Sometimes, being stubborn is not a plus for a writer.

I am also going to, in today’s edition of the Short Story Project, talk about two Daphne du Maurier short stories that I read for the first time this week, from the New York Review of Books collection Don’t Look Now and Other Stories. As I have said before, I’ve not read all of du Maurier’s work; I hold back because I don’t ever want to run out of things of hers to read. I have several of her short story collections on hand (my favorite, of course, being Echoes from the Macabre, which I read first when I was a teenager, shortly after I read Rebecca for the first time–which also reminds me, I am terribly overdue for a reread of Rebecca), but unfortunately the problem with du Maurier collections is they often overlap; stories tend to appear in more than one collection: “Don’t Look Now,” for example, not only is in Echoes from the Macabre but headlines this particular volume; “The Birds”, which I talked about the other day, also appears in both.

Today’s stories, though, are of a type: “Indiscretion” and “Ls Sainte-Vierge” are both relatively short, and, like several of her other stories, wait until the very end to twist and shove the knife into your throat. This is not easy to do, and I’ve tried it with stories with little to no success; I think my best successes with these style have been “Keeper of the Flame” and “Annunciation Shotgun.”

“La Sainte-Vierge” doesn’t even seem all that dark, through most of it:

It was hot and sultry, that oppressive kind of heat where there is no air, no life. The trees were motionless and dull, their drooping leaves colorless with summer dust. The ditches smelt of dead ferns and long-dried mud, and the grasses of the fields were blistered and brown. The village seemed asleep. No one stirred among the few scattered cottages on the hill-side; strange, uneven cottages, huddled together for fear of loneliness, with white walls and no windows, and small gardens massed with orange flowers.

A greater silence still filled the fields, where the pale corn lay heaped in awkward stacks, left behind by some neglectful laborer. Not even a breeze stirred the heather on the hills, lonely treeless hills, whose only dwellers were a host of bees and a few lizards. Below them the wide sea stretched like a sheet of ice into eternity, a chart of silver crinkled by the sun.

It’s set in a small fishing village on the coast of Brittany; the point-of-view character is Marie, a fisherman’s wife who is very young and desperately in love with her husband. He is about to go out on another fishing voyage, and she has these terrible premonitions that something terrible is going to happen. He brushes aside her concerns repeatedly, telling her she’s completely foolish and superstitious (never a good sign in any story, let alone a duMaurier), so after he leaves in the evening to get the boat ready, she creeps out of the house to a local church to pray to a statue of the Virgin. Du Maurier’s description of the poor village’s cheap and tattered statue and the church is which it resides is morbid, sad and a bit tragic; yet as Marie prays the moonlight comes into the church and transforms the statue before her believing eyes, and she is shown a vision in her religious ecstasy. Happy and content, she returns to her home…but that something terrible the story has foreshadowed all along does occur, just not what she, or the reader, could have possibly seen coming.

The other story, “Indiscretion,” is equally marvelous in the same way but different; this story, in structure and ending, reminded me a lot of de Maupassant’s “The Necklace.”

I wonder how many people’s lives are ruined by a momentary indiscretion? The wrong word at the wrong time–and then finish to all their dreams. They have to go on living with their tongues bitten a second too late. No use calling back the spoken word. What’s said is said.

I know of three people who have been made to suffer because of a chance sentence flung into the air. One of them was myself; I lost my job through it. The other fellow lost his illusions. And the woman…well, I guess she did not have much left to lose, anyway. Maybe she lost her one chance of security. I have not seen either of them since. The curt, typewritten letter came from him a week later. I packed up then and came away from London, leaving the shreds of my career in the waste-paper basket. In less than three months I read in a weekly rag he was claiming a divorce. The whole thing was so needless, too. A word from me–a word from her. And all through the sordid little street that runs between Shaftesbury Avenue and Leicester Square.

This story basically is about fate and coincidence conspiring to wreck the lives of three people who, again, never saw it coming; and how happiness can be destroyed in just a matter of seconds. It’s bitter and sad and melancholy, like most of du Maurier’s work; but it also works beautifully, and her gorgeous writing style contributes to its terrible beauty.

And now, back to the spice mines.

 

Saving All My Love For You

Saturday morning. I have an eye appointment in Metairie this afternoon, but I definitely need new glasses. I also have to get groceries this morning (ugh), and I should probably figure out some time to go get the mail as well. Heavy sigh; the house is also a mess and this kitchen needs a-cleanin’. Paul’s going into the office today, so I’ll be alone; I am hoping, after I get home, to spend some time writing. I was very tired and didn’t feel good yesterday; my throat’s kind of sore this morning as well; I woke up a lot last night, but I did sleep. Tomorrow I am going back to the gym to get my workouts going again, so hopefully that will help in the sleep department. I’ve noticed that I’m not sleeping as well since Carnival started and I stopped having time for working out.

I can’t not sleep. I have too much to do and I can’t be tired. Yesterday was my short day at the office and after I got home, I didn’t feel well and was too tired to do anything besides sit in my easy chair and watch Adam Rippon videos on Youtube. (I told you I was stanning.) Then it was time to watch the Olympic figure skating, which was terrific. Very proud of our US skaters! Nathan Chen had six quads in his program, and made Olympic history, and young Vincent Zhou skated magnificently as well. All three of our skaters wound up in the Top Ten, which was terrific, and Nathan came close to medaling. If only he’d turned that second quad in his short program into a combination jump and gotten points for it, he would have. He had the highest score in the long program. Had they both skated clean short programs, they both would have medaled. So, there’s a lot of hope there for the future. Part of the fun of the Olympics is also seeing the future of the sport out on the ice as well–the silver medalist, Shoma Uno, is very young as well, and there was a young Russian who is very artistic. Worlds this year will be very fun to watch.

Oh, Adam. What would it have meant to fifteen year old me, deeply closeted and terrified someone might find out who I really was, to see you skate at the Innsbruck Olympics in 1976? Watching you this past week brought tears to my eyes every time; my heart was in my throat every time you went into a jump. You made me laugh in your interviews, you made me cry with your oh-so-beautiful skating. I can’t remember the last time I was so emotionally invested in seeing a skater do well? Michelle Kwan, whom I loved and still miss? Rudy Galindo in 1996? And how happy and proud to see all the love for you, to the point where even the trash tweeting shit about you could just make me smile and think he has a bronze medal, and you have your phone and bitterness. I feel SORRY for you that you can’t find joy in this, what a sad, bitter, pathetic life you must lead. Especially the gay Republicans, so desperate for the love and acceptance they’ll never get from their abusive relationship with a party that hates them. Adam is a star; will be a star, and he’ll always, always, have these Olympics, three gorgeous performances, and a bronze medal. No one can ever take that away from him with petty nastiness.

Watching Adam and his great joy in his sport and doing his best also made me realize something; it’s about doing something you love, and doing your best. I had already realized that I had lost my joy in writing sometime ago; I’m not sure when it went from being something I loved doing to an odious chore. But this year I’ve rediscovered how much I love it, how much I’ve missed it; how I love creating characters and telling stories and expressing myself on the page. I was already getting there on my own, but watching Adam, seeing him, took me to that final place. It’s not about medals, it’s not about awards, it’s not even about money; it’s about joy in doing something you love.

Thanks, Adam, for that–and for making me realize how I’ve been neglecting my eyebrows.

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I also read some more short stories.

To be fair, I had already read Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds”; her Echoes from the Macabre: Selected Stories is one of my favorite single-author collections of all time. But it had been awhile since I’d read this story; I knew it was vastly different from the Hitchcock film based on it, so I read it again.

On December the third the wind changed overnight and it was winter. Until then the autumn had been mellow, soft. The leaves had lingered on the trees, golden red, and the hedgerows were still green. The earth was rich where the plough had turned it.

Nat Hocken, because of a wartime disability, had a pension and did not work full-time at the farm. He worked three days a week, and they gave him the lighter jobs: hedging, thatching, repairs to the farm buildings.

Although he was married, with children, his was a solitary disposition; he liked best to work alone. It pleased him when he was given a bank to build up, or a gate to mend at the far end of the peninsula, where the sea surrounded the farm land on either side. Then, at midday, he would pause and eat the pasty that his wife had baked for him, and sitting on the cliff’s edge would watch the birds. Autumn was the best for this, better than spring. In spring the birds flew inland, purposeful, intent; they knew where they were bound, the rhythm and ritual of their life brooked no delay. In autumn those who had not migrated overseas but remained to pass the winter were caught up in the same driving urge, but because migration was denied to them followed a pattern of their own. Great flocks of them came to the peninsula, restless, uneasy, spending themselves in motion; now wheeling, circling in the sky, now settling to feed on the rich, new-turned soil, but even when they fed it was as though they did so without hunger, without desire. Restlessness drove them to the skies again.

One of the best parts of the film is that there’s no explanation why the birds have turned on humans; they just have, and there’s no way of knowing if they’ll ever go back to normal. The end of the movie is kind of left hanging; when I saw it the first time when I was a kid I was deeply dissatisfied with how the film ended. But there wasn’t really any way to end the film, and du Maurier herself gave no clues to what was going to happen at the end of her story. The story ends much the same as the movie; no end to the menace in sight, and even more chilling–I don’t remember if this was in the movie–but the BBC had stopped broadcasting; the horrifying part of this story is the incredible sense of isolation the family feels–are they the only people left alive in the world? On that level, the story is even more disturbing than the film; in the movie there are other people all around in the town. The story is set out in the country…and du Maurier never lets the reader know. The way the horror builds is almost unbearable; her mastery is truly amazing.

I also went back to the Laura Lippman well for “Easy As A-B-C’, from her collection Hardly Knew Her.

Another house collapsed today. It happens more and more, especially with all the wetback crews out there. Don’t get me wrong. I  used guys from Mexico and Central America, too, and they’re great workers, especially when it comes to landscaping. But some contractors aren’t as particular as I am. They hire the cheapest labor they can get and the cheapest comes pretty high, especially when you’re excavating a basement, which has become one of the hot fixes around here. It’s not enough, I guess, to get the three-story rowhouse with four bedrooms, gut it from top to bottom, creating open, airy kitchens where grandmothers once smoked the wallpaper with bacon grease and sour beef, or carve master bath suites in the tiny middle rooms that the youngest kids always got stuck with. No, these people have to have the full family room, too, which means digging down into the old dirt basements, putting in new floors and walls. But if you miscalculate–boom. Nothing to do but bring that fucker down and start carting away the bricks.

The premise of this story; a guy who owns a construction company is hired to renovate his grandparents’ old house for a young woman he finds attractive, despite his many years of marriage–is pretty clever. It also has a lot to say, in a very sly way, about gentrification and how old neighborhoods and their character are ruined by it; this is something going on to a very large extent in New Orleans, and has been for quite some time, and there’s a strong sense for us locals that with these changes, some of what made New Orleans so special, unique and different, is also being lost. Lippman inhabits the voice of this middle-age blue-collar man perfectly; she never once slips and makes an error that jars the reader out of the voice. And as the story builds to its own inevitable dark climax, you really can’t stop reading because you really aren’t sure how she is going to finish playing her cards. That’s the great joy of Lippman, and what makes her special and unique as a writer; you’re never really sure how this is all going to play out, but she never deliberately misleads you, ever–she doesn’t cheat, and once you get there, you think, yes, that’s the only way this could end.

Seriously, her new novel dropping this week, Sunburn, is definitely one of her best; check it out, if you haven’t already.

And now, I’ve got a jam to get Scotty and the boys out of.