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.

sw-romeo-noelani-pantastico-lucien-postlewaite-balcony_1000

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.

 

When You Close Your Eyes

Well, Constant Reader, we made it to Wednesday, didn’t we? I’m going to do this blog and then run off to the gym for my second workout of this week; sorry if this is getting tedious, but I worry that if I don’t say anything that’s when I’ll start slipping and NOT doing my workouts; a slippery slope I am reluctant to set my foot on, if you will. It’s so lovely to be doing this again and being motivated to do it; it’s more than a little infuriating that I allowed myself such a long break from taking it seriously, and doing it so little. But there’s no sense in crying over spilled milk at this point, is there? I am just happy that I’m at where I am at with it.

I am also very stoked to be jazzed about writing again. It’s interesting, on every level, how gong back to the beginning (both with working out and writing) has turned out so well, isn’t it? I am really pleased with these short stories I’ve written over the last week or so, the chapter of the WIP I wrote Monday, and the rethinking of the Scotty book I’ve done. I am definitely going to keep moving positively forward; and I am going to keep seeking an agent once I get this first fifty pages of the WIP whipped into better shape. This weekend I plan on rewriting and editing the four short stories I’ve done, plus I need to start working on the Bouchercon anthology, which I am also excited about–how long has it been since I was excited to edit an anthology, well might you ask? It’s been a long frigging time would be the proper answer, I am afraid.

I also finished reading Sarah Weinman’s sublime anthology Troubled Daughters Twisted Wives, and am the better for it. If you’ve not read this collection, you really should; particularly if you’re a writer. These stories hold up incredibly well, with only the occasional dated reference–and none of them so jarring that they take you out of the story. I’ve also added several new-to-me authors to my TBR list; alas, I shall have to track down copies of their works via secondhand dealers and eBay, as so much has sadly fallen out of print. I am also disappointed in myself for waiting so long to read this collection; but now that I have, I am glad. I am also grateful to Weinman for her hard work in pulling this together and shining a light on these terrific writers of the past.

It also occurs to me that a similar volume could be done for gay and lesbian crime writers whom modern readers don’t recall or remember; I doubt, though, that there would be a market for such a thing. That’s the tricky thing, isn’t it? Finding a market?

Sigh.

troubled daughters twisted wives

First up was “Lost Generation” by Dorothy Salisbury Davis:

The school board has sustained the teacher. The vote was four to three, but the majority made it clear they were not voting for the man. They voted the way they had because otherwise the state would have stepped in and settled the appeal, ruling against the town…

Tom and Andy, coming from the west of town, waited for the others at the War Memorial. The October frost had silvered the cannon, and the moonlight was so clear you could the words FOR GOD AND COUNTRY on the monument. The slack in the flagpole allowed the metal clips to clank against the pole. That and the wind made the only sounds.

Then Andy said, “His wife’s all right. She came up to Mary when it was over and said she wished he’d teach like other teachers and leave politics alone.”

“Politics,” Tom said. “Is that what she calls it?”

This was my first experience reading Mystery Writers of America Dorothy Salisbury Davis; despite being aware of her for quite some time. Sara Paretsky wrote a brilliant tribute to her after she died a few years ago; she’d been on my radar before that, but again, this is my first time reading her. This story is dark and amazing. We never know what the teacher’s politics are, but given the time period it’s not too hard to imagine what they were, given the fact that the group of men who gather to take care of him also include police officers–which was an all-too true and horrible aspect of the anti-Civil Rights whites of the South; the men paid with tax dollars and charged with protecting everyone were racists who abused their privilege and power to abuse and kill people of color and civil rights workers. There’s an amazing twist in this story, and the denouement is eminently satisfying and dissatisfying at the same time–not an easy thing to do.

Some of Ms. Davis’ books are now back in print, so snap ’em up, peeps!

“The People Across the Canyon” by Margaret Millar

The first time the Bortons realized that someone had moved into the new house across the canyon was one night in May when they saw the rectangular light of a television set shining in the picture window. Marion Borton knew it had to happen eventually, but that didn’t make it any easier to accept the idea of neighbors in a part of the country she and Paul had come to consider exclusively their own.

They had discovered the sight, had bought six acres, and built the house over the objections of the bank, which didn’t like to lend money on unimproved property, and of their friend, who thought the Bortons were foolish to move so far out of town. Now other people were discovering the spot, and here and there through the eucalyptus trees and the live oajs, Marion could see half-finished houses.

But it was the house directly across the canyon that bothered her the most; she had been dreading this moment ever since the site had been bull-dozed the previous summer.

I’ve written about Millar before; I’ve become an enormous fan of her work, and have been slowly making my way through her canon over the past few years. I do have the wonderful reprinted set of her books Collected Millar; a quick glance over at Amazon shows that many of her books, including the Edgar Award winning Beast in View are available as ebooks at fairly reasonable prices.

This story, about a couple and their young daughter, whose increasing obsession with the new neighbors across the way makes the stay-at-home mother not only jealous but concerned about the intensity of the obsession, strikes several chords: the mother becoming aware that her child is growing away from her and lamenting the ways her own every day life has allowed time to slip away, regretting that she didn’t spend more time paying attention to her child; the growing realization that you can influence and affect your child’s personality, behavior and temperament unknowingly; and ultimately, the exquisite torture and pain of being a parent. Millar only had one child, a daughter; it’s not hard to imagine where the roots and inspiration for this story came from. Quite excellent.

“Mortmain” by Miriam Allen Deford

“I’ll be back on Thursday, Miss Hendricks, and I’ll drop in here in the afternoon. It’s only three days, and I don’t anticipate any change. You know what to do. If anything happens, you can call Dr. Roberts; he knows all about the case. I wouldn’t go away, with Marsden like this, but–well, it’s my only daughter, and she’ll never be married again–at least, I hope not!–and she’ll be heartbroken if her old dad weren’t there to give her away.”

Dr. Staples turned to his patient.

“Good-bye, old man; I’m leaving you in Miss Hendricks’ charge till Thursday. You won’t be sorry to have three days free of me, eh?”

This gem of a creepy short story is straight out of what (thanks to Stephen King) I call the EC Comics playbook. The sad, dying patient has a load of cash in his safe; the nurse in whose care the doctor has left him for three days wants it to start a new life with the cad she’s in love with, and there we have the setup for a most clever game of cat-and-mouse in which each sentence builds the suspense and tension. If you want a great example of how to write suspense, this short little tale is all you need. In fact, if I ever teach writing again, this story is going to be one of the things I teach. It may even be one of those stories, like du Maurier’s “Don’t Look Now,” that I reread every now and again, to savor in its delightful brilliance.

And finally, “A Case of Maximum Need” by Celia Fremlin:

“No, no telephone, thank you. It’s too dangerous,” said Miss Emmeline Fosdyke decisively; and the young welfare worker, only recently qualified, and working for the first time in this Sheltered Housing Unit for the Elderly, blinked up from the form she was filling in.

“No telephone? But, Miss Fosdyke, in your–I mean, with your–well, your arthritis, and not being able to get about and everything…You’re on our House-Bound list, you know that, don’t you? As a House-Bound Pensioner, you’re entitled–well, I mean, it’s a necessity, isn’t it, your telephone? It’s your link with the outside world!”

This last sentence, a verbatim quote from her just-completed Geriatric Course, made Valerie Coombe feel a little bit more confident, She went on, “You must have a telephone, Miss Fosdyke! It’s your right! And if it’s the cost you’re worrying about, then do please set your mind at rest. Our Departmenet–anyone over sixty-five and in need–“

“I’m not in need,” asserted Miss Fosdyke woodenly, “Not of a telephone, anyway.”

The tale of Miss Fosdyke, and why she doesn’t want a phone, is the perfect ending to this wonderful collection of short stories. This story is chilling, surprising, and turns around so brilliantly at the end in a way that you do not see coming, and then everything makes sense. Superb, dark, macabre…you name it, it’s all there in this story…and I’ve added Celia Fremlin to my TBR list. Some of her books are currently in print, and if this story is indicative of the pleasures that await in her novels…well, I just can’t wait.

Well done, Ms. Weinman, well done.

And now, back to the spice mines.

Rock a Little (Go Ahead Lily)

Happy Twelfth Night!

It rained all night, the temperature (as threatened by meteorologists) dropped, and it looks grim and dreary outside today. I got another good night’s sleep last night, and feel rested this morning. I am about to get my second cup of coffee, and cut into our first King Cake of the season. Woo-hoo! I do love me some king cake! Tomorrow I am on a panel about villains at New Orleans Comic Con, which should be a lot of fun; and yesterday I finished editing, and turned in, the next J. M. Redmann Micky Knight novel, The Girl on the Edge of Summer. Now, I have some more things to get done this weekend, and then I am sort of free from the constraints of deadlines; I have to write a piece for the Sisters in Crime newsletter, and I have an essay due by the end of the month for another book. I am also heading to Kentucky at the end of the month. Yikes! Oh, January.

Last night, before watching another episode of the oddly compelling Ray Donovan, I read a Daphne du Maurier short story I hadn’t read before; “Escort,”, from the Don’t Look Now and Other Stories collection. I recently got a copy when I realized that this collection had several stories in it I hadn’t read; her collection Echoes from the Macabre is my usual go-to for her short fiction. The problem has always been, for me–and I could be wrong–but her short story collections seem to all be named for stories that were also in Echoes from the Macabre, and in fact, several of the stories in this collection are also in that one. But there are some stories I’ve not read–which is why I decided to go ahead and get this one.

There is nothing remarkable about the Ravenswing, I can promise you that. She is between six and seven thousand tons, was built in 1926, and belongs to the Condor Line, port of register Hull. You can look her up in Lloyd’s, if you have a mind. There is little to distinguish her from hundreds of other tramp steamers of her particular tonnage. She had sailed that same route and traveled these same waters for the three years I had served in her, and she was on the job some time before that. No doubt she will continue to do so for many years more, and will eventually end her days peacefully on the mud as her predecessor, the old Gullswing, did before her; unless the U-boats get her first.

She has escaped them once, but next time we may not have our escort. Perhaps I had better make it clear, too, that I am myself not a fanciful man. My name is William Blunt, and I have the reputation of living up to it. I never have stood for nonsense of any sort, and have no time for superstition. My father was a Non-conformist minister, and maybe that had something to do with it. I tell you this to prove my reliability, but, for that matter, you can ask anyone in Hull. And now, having introduced myself and my ship, I can get on with my story.

We were homeward bound from a Scandinavian port in the early part of the autumn.

I’ve talked before about how, when I was a kid, I not only was an avid reader of mysteries for kids and novels and history but comic books as well. The EC Comics that Stephen King read and was influenced by when he was a kid were no longer around, but I read DC’s House of Secrets and House of Mystery, and Gold Key comics used to produce Mystery Comics Digest bimonthly; collections of stories from three different comic books they used to produce, and the digests rotated between the three titles–and they also included new stories, too. The three titles were The Twilight Zone, Ripley’s Believe It or Not (which I loved to read in the daily paper, too), and Boris Karloff’s Tales of Mystery. These stories were creepy and had elements of horror in them; there were almost always big surprise twists at the end. I loved these, and read them over and over and over again.

“Escort” reminded me very much of those digests. I also love du Maurier–she’s one of my favorites, as Constant Reader is already aware–and she also specialized in twists in her grim and dark short fiction. This story is set in the early days of World War II, and the captain of the ship falls ill–probably appendicitis–and Blunt has to take over control of the ship. A German u-boat shows up, and they play cat-and-mouse for a while…until a freezing cold fog drops down over the sea, and an escort ship shows up–and that’s when things get strange.

The story is very well done; du Maurier is quite the master at the slow build and the sudden burn, but this isn’t one of her better stories. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good story–it’s just that stories like “Don’t Look Now” and “The Blue Lenses” and “The Birds” and “Kiss Me Again, Stranger” have set the bar so high that it would be impossible for any writer to consistently match the brilliance of those stories. It is definitely worth the read, and there are other stories in this collection I’ve not yet read, either….which is really lovely.

Huzzah!

And in honor of the story, here’s a sailor:

The Edge of Heaven

The end of the year is nigh.

I have a lot to do (of course, as always) over the next few days. I am already tired, just thinking about it, of course, but hey–such is life. I have to work late tonight again, and really should have made a grocery run this morning but I overslept, so there’s that. There is, of course, still time, if I get my act together and get moving, but right now that doesn’t sound particularly appealing. Heavy sigh.

But–probably better to get it done today than to try over the weekend. Nothing will be open on Sunday because of the holiday, and I can’t imagine that Saturday morning before out lunch at Commander’s Palace would be any better. Possible to do, but still most likely a madhouse.

Although Monday is a paid holiday for me, and apparently Costco will be open. Hmmmm. If I can do the grocery store this morning, and Costco on Monday…

Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men.

Anyway, I feel confident I can get the errands run I need to this weekend around writing and football games….although to be honest, I don’t really care about the bowl games other than LSU’s this year; I may watch some to kill some time or while reading, but other than that–meh.

I am going to read George Pelaconos’ The Way Home next, and then I am going to start trying to get caught up on series I have fallen behind on–I’m looking at you, Ranger series by Ace Atkins, in particular–and of course, January’s goal is to read and write about a short story every day, so I am gathering my short story collections and anthologies close. I don’t want to write about a story I’ve already read and written about (alas, “Don’t Look Now” by Daphne du Maurier will have to be excluded from this as I’ve talked about it ad nauseum; but a reread of “A Rose for Emily” is definitely in order), so the idea is to read stories that are new to me, and then write about them.

And now, I need to get ready for work and mine some spice.

Here’s today’s hunk: