I Want to Know What Love Is

It’s been raining pretty much most of the weekend, which is fine. I went to get groceries, pick up a prescription, and get the mail before getting home and starting to work on the mess that is my home; I also finished writing a chapter of one manuscript and started writing another–which was my writing goal for yesterday. Today’s is to do second drafts of two short stories to prepare them for submission. I also have to go to the gym and finish the cleaning of the apartment and organizing my office. I started reading the big y/a best seller One of Us Is Lying by Karen McManus yesterday; I can see why it’s a bestseller and I can also see why it’s being developed into a television series a la Thirteen Reasons Why; it’s a deceptively simple yet surprisingly complex story, and likewise–well, I’ll talk some more about it once I’ve finished.

I’m enjoying writing again for the first time in years, which is a good thing, and I am actually putting a lot of thought and planning into what I’m writing, which is a really good thing. What I’ve written over the last six or seven years has been a lot more organic, coming to me as I wrote it from a basic premise and perhaps knowing what the end was; without putting near as much thought into theme and what I am trying to say, what I am trying to explore with the story, than I used to–I mean, it worked, but it also made the work a lot harder than it needed to be. I think this is particularly true of short stories; I think that’s primarily what I’ve been doing wrong in writing them–my entire approach to short stories has been wrong, and I’ve been, as I said, making it a lot harder on myself than it necessarily needs to be.

Which is, sadly, what I always tend to do for myself: make things harder than they need to be.

Heavy heaving sigh.

In addition to cleaning and everything else I did yesterday, I also managed to start watching Season 2 of Black Sails, which continues to enthrall. I am still liking the idea of finally writing my pirate novel (Cutlass), but not as much as before; it remains one of those dreams that I hold on to for when I am making a living as a writer again and able to not have a day job any longer. (There are several of those; they also require not only making a living but making enough money to travel and do research.)

Some day. I never give up on the dream.

The Short Story Project also continues; yesterday I read a story by Ross MacDonald from The Archer Files and one by Karl Edward Wagner from the gorgeous two volume collection The Best Horror Stories of Karl Edward Wagner, produced by Centipede Press maybe seven or eight years ago.

MacDonald’s story, “The Bearded Lady,” was quite good, as everything written by MacDonald is.

The unlatched door swung inward when I knocked. I walked into the studio, which was high and dim as a hayloft. The big north window in the opposite wall was hung with monkscloth draperies that shut out the morning light. I found the switch beside the door and snapped it on. Several fluorescent tubes suspended from the naked rafters flickered and burned blue-white.

A strange woman faced me under the cruel light. She was only a  charcoal sketch on an easel, but she gave me a chill. Her nude body, posed casually on a chair, was slim and round and pleasant to look at. Her face wasn’t pleasant at all. Bushy black eyebrows almost hid her eyes. A walrus mustache bracketed her mouth, and a thick beard fanned down over her torso.

The door creaked behind me. The girl who appeared in the doorway wore a starched white uniform. Her face had a little starch in it, too, though not enough to spoil her good looks entirely. Her black hair was drawn back severely from her forehead.

Lew Archer, on his way from Los Angeles to San Francisco, decided to stop in the small town of San Marcos and look up an old army buddy, inadvertently stumbling into a murder case. The story is interesting, the writing whipcrack smart, with MacDonald’s trademark, cynical short paragraphs immediately getting to the essence of a character. Don’t we, as readers, already have a strong impression of who that young woman is as a person after those three sentences? I’ve often wondered how one solves a murder in a short story–or writes a detective short story. I’ve tried and failed often enough. But the great thing about the Short Story Project is I am starting to understand how to write them, how they work, and how to make them work; which is a lovely thing. I have several ideas for Chanse short stories that I’ve never written because I didn’t know how; now I rather do, or at least have an idea, thanks to The Archer Files and Kinsey and Me (Sue Grafton). Both books are great learning tools for people who want to write detective stories, and MacDonald’s influence on Grafton is clear. (Although I’d still love to see someone do an essay, or book of criticism, comparing and contrasting MacDonald’s work with that of his wife: The Murderous Millars would be a great title.) MacDonald’s stories usually have to do with damaged and dysfunctional families; “The Bearded Lady” is another one of those, and is very well done. I highly recommend it.

The Wagner story I read was from the second volume of he Best Horror Stories of Karl Edward Wagner, which was titled Walk on the Wild Side, and was titled “The Last Wolf.”

The last writer sat alone in his study.

There was a knock at his door.

But it was only his agent. A tired, weathered old man like himself. It seemed not long ago that he had thought the man quite young.

“I phoned you I was coming,” explained his agent, as if to apologize for the writer’s surprised greeting.

Of course…he had forgotten. He concealed the vague annoyance he felt at being interrupted at his work.

Nervously the agent entered his study. He gripped his attache case firmly before him, thrusting it into the room as if it were a shield against the perilously stacked shelves and shelves of musty books. Clearing a drift of worn volumes from the cracked leather couch, he seated himself amidst a puff of dust from the ancient cushions.

I received both volumes of Wagner when I was judging the Bram Stoker Award for Best Single Author Collection, or whatever it is called; it was so long ago that I don’t even recall who the finalists were or who actually won. My memory is perforated like Swiss cheese nowadays, with holes and gaps; it also works like a sieve as new knowledge, and new books I’ve read, tend to pass through it without catching hold (I used to be able to name every book I’ve read, the plot, the main characters–and even some of the minor; over the years that ability has been sadly lost to time). I don’t, for example, remember the titles or the contents of the Wagner stories I read; but the books are beautiful volumes and I remember being impressed by his writing, so I kept them on my shelves. It was only a week or so ago that I realized, that I remembered, them; and that they might make a good addition to my year-long study of short fiction.

I’ve often said that writing about writers, about the business of writing and publishing, sometimes (often) feels masturbatory to me; only other writers would be interested in such a story. And yet writers pop up in my work all the time; Paige is a journalist and wannabe novelist in the Chanse series (and now that I’ve retired that series she’s migrated, apparently, over to the Scotty); another writer character I’ve created has appeared in several novels of mine–one Scotty, The Orion Mask, and one pseudonymous; he also appears to be the voice I used in several first-person short stories, including “An Arrow for Sebastian.” I have another such short story in process; I’ve not quite worked out how to make the story work, but there you have it. I was tempted to write an entire series about a writer, but as I started to develop my gay male writer character more I soon realized I had turned him into a hybrid of Scotty and Chanse; there was nothing new or original about him other than he was a writer and not a private eye. (I really do want to reread Azimov’s Murder at the ABA, though, and Elizabeth Peter’s brilliant Die for Love and Naked Once More.)

“The Last Wolf” is also about a writer, a writer who firmly believes in himself and his work, and that his work is art, and art should never be compromised for commerce. The world in which he lives is one where he is the last (apparently) person attempting to still write fiction; novels have fallen by the wayside and short stories are no longer published; the world has completely changed and his agent wants him to try to write for television shows–which, as described, sound horrifically awful. The writer refuses, the agent leaves, and he goes back to his typewriter. This story could easily be seen as angry, or even whiny; in the hands of a lesser author, the story would be precisely that. But Wagner paints a picture with his words, and maybe it resonated with me more because I am an author myself, but the sympathy rests entirely with the author. (Although I am one of those whose eyes roll so hard that  they almost unscrew when I hear another author speak of their ‘art’; but that’s a topic for another day.) I am looking forward to digging back into Wagner’s work again this year.

And now, I need to file and organize, perhaps vacuum, before I head to the gum. I want to get some things written today, and I need to revise those stories.

Hello, spice mines.

Sigh.

26196451_321860411641954_3040436925599999815_n

Brown Eyes

It has rained all night, and in the dawn’s early light outside my windows everything looks wet and soggy. It was still raining this morning when my alarm went off, but as I sip my cappuccino and prepare my lunch before sitting back down to my computer, the rain has ceased, or at least there’s now a temporary respite. These are the days when I would rather curl up under a blanket and read a book, but alas–that is not to be.

I started reading Nick Mamatas’ I Am Providence last night and am enjoying it so far, although I’m only a few chapters in. I’ve not read him before, and this is a crime novel set at the Summer Tentacular, a conference/festival in Rhode Island celebrating Lovecraft. (I’ve also not read Lovecraft, which is another reason, one would suppose, why I am terrible at writing horror; Lovecraft apparently is de rigeur for writing horror or fantasy. I tried reading him when I was a teenager and didn’t get very far; I would try again but my TBR has basically already taken over my living room.) I love books about writers, and I love books about writing conferences–two of my absolute favorite books are Isaac Azimov’s Murder at the ABA (long overdue for a reread), which is set at what was once called the ABA (American Booksellers Association) and now called BEA (Book Expo America), and Elizabeth Peters’ hilarious Die for Love, set at a romance fan festival in New York (also long overdue for a reread).

I recently realized I’ve been writing stories about writers a lot lately–a couple of unpublished short stories, and of course, Jerry Channing appeared in both The Orion Mask and Garden District Gothic; I’m even thinking about an entire book with Jerry as the main character–and it’s always been something I’ve resisted–writing about writers, even though it’s something I know intimately and always enjoy reading. I even said this to one of my co-workers at the office lately, a quote that’s always in the back of my head: there is nothing more narcissistic and masturbatory than writing fiction about writers. That thought has always been in the back of my mind, and whenever I start creating a character who is a writer or have an idea for a story about one, I always pull back, remembering that. Saying it to my co-worker recently got me thinking about it–where did I read it? Who told me that? Stephen King has, for example, always written about writers–both ‘salem’s Lot (Ben Mears, moderately successful novelist) and The Shining (failed novelist Jack Torrance) have writers as main characters; and I can think of any number of other authors who’ve also done it, quite successfully. Elizabeth Peters’ series character Jacqueline Kirby starts out as a librarian, and eventually becomes an international bestselling romance novelist, for another example.

And then, last night as I revised a short story about a writer, and then curled up with the Mamatas novel, I heard the words clearly in my head again, and knew exactly where they came from.

That wretched writing professor who told me in 1979 I would never get anything published.

I might have known.

So, tonight as I continue to revise that story and work on the new book, I am giving you once again, Asshole Writing Professor, the finger.

And now back to the spice mines.

Here’s a hunk for today:

Da Doo Ron Ron

There’s really nothing like a good night’s sleep, is there?

Well, that first cup of coffee after a good night’s sleep is pretty close.

Tonight is my late night; bar testing in the Quarter, and as such I have the morning and early afternoon free. I intend to get some cleaning done as well as some writing (that’s always the intent, but it never seems to happen quite the way I have planned; primarily, methinks, because I have a tendency to over-plan what I can get done as well as the ever-popular easy distractions).

Last night, while I alternated between American Horror Story (ugh) and the final game of the World Series–nicely done, Cubs–I finished rereading Be Buried in the Rain by Barbara Michaels.

be-buried-in-the-rain

The old pickup hit a pothole with a bump that shook a few more flakes of faded blue paints from the rusted body. Joe Danner swore, but not aloud. He hadn’t used bad language for six years, not since he found his Lord Jesus in the mesmeric eyes of a traveling evangelist. He hadn’t used hard liquor nor tobacco either, not laid a hand on his wife in anger–only when she talked back or questioned his Scripture-ordained authority as head of the family.

It would never have occurred to Joe Danner that his wife preferred their old life-style. Back then, an occasional beating was the natural order of things, and it was a small price to pay for the Saturday nights at the local tavern, both of them getting a little drunk together, talking and joking with old friends, going home to couple unimaginatively but pleasurably in the old bed Joe’s daddy had made with his own hands.

Since Joe found Jesus, there were no more Saturday nights at the tavern. No more kids, either. Joe Junior had left home the year before; he was up north someplace, wallowing in the sins he’d been brought up to hate…only somehow the teaching hadn’t taken hold. Not with Lynne Anne, either. Married at sixteen, just in time to spare her baby the label of bastard–but not soon enough to wipe out the sin of fornication. She lived in Pikesburg, only forty miles away, but she never came home anymore. Joe had thrown her out the night she told them she was pregnant, and Lynne Anne had spat in his face face before she set out on a four-mile walk in the traditional snowstorm, to collapse on the doorstep of her future in-laws. They had raised a real ruckus about it, too. Methodists. What else could a person expect from Methodists?

I loved Barbara Michaels, which was one of the two pseudonyms used by Dr. Barbara Mertz (the other was, of course, Elizabeth Peters). She was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in the 1980’s, and her books were consistently excellent. Be Buried in the Rain was one of my favorites she published as Barbara Michaels; not quite as favorite as Ammie Come Home, House of Many Shadows, The Crying Child, or Witch, but definitely right up there with them.

The opening, which I’ve quoted above, gives you a slight picture of just how good she actually was. In those brief three paragraphs she sketches out a very clear picture of Joe Danner and who he is; without any physical description, I can see him perfectly in my head. This is shortly before he comes across a surprise in the country road; in a place called Deadman’s Hollow, where the county road cuts through the overgrown, gone to seed estate called Maidenwood–the skeletons of a woman and a baby. That discovery is the key to the story of Be Buried in the Rain, and it’s a terrific story. Julie, our first person p.o.v character (I resisted the urge to call her Our Heroine) is in medical school; her mother and family pressure her into spending the summer between classes at Maidenwood, helping care for her eighty-five year old malevolent grandmother, Martha. Martha is truly monstrous, and Julie spent four years as a child in Martha’s care at Maidenwood while her mother worked her way through college. After being retrieved by her mother, Julie has never returned to Maidenwood, and for the most part has blocked the memories of those four awful years out of her mind…but her return to Maidenwood starts bringing the horrible memories back.

At the heart of the story is the mystery of the identity of the skeletons, and where they came from. Local legend has always held that Maidenwood was the site of a British colonial settlement called Maydon’s Hundred that was wiped out in an Indian massacre; Julie has a love interest in an archaeologist named Alan whom she was involved with before, who was always interested in finding the remains of Maydon’s Hundred. Martha grimly put a stop to that, and her nastiness to both Alan and Julie also ended their relationship. Now both are back at Maidenwood…a crumbling, dirty old manse with an overgrown, almost oppressive vegetation surrounding it, as there hasn’t been money for decades to keep the place up.

The atmosphere is fantastic; Michaels is at her best at describing the oppressive heat and humidity, the overgrowth, the darkness inside the house that is not only literal but symbolic. It brought to mind memories of my own childhood summers in Alabama at my own grandmother’s–but my grandmother wasn’t a monster like Martha. It also reminded me of an idea I had for a book about Alabama…

I really do need to write about Alabama.

And now, back to the spice mines.

Spiders and Snakes

The key to writing good horror is, of course, to write about what scares you. Usually, what scares you will scare other people, as many of us have fears in common. I, for example, have many fears: the dark, situation claustrophobia (crowded elevators, tight spaces), heights, spiders, snakes, the puncturing of skin with sharp objects. (Reading Gillian Flynn’s brilliant Sharp Objects was incredibly difficult for me. In the hands of a lesser writer I probably would have stopped long before the end.) There are also things that make me uncomfortable–the woods, the open sea (again, situational; but even though I will get in the ocean, I am never really comfortable; but I am more comfortable in the ocean than I am in lakes and rivers), flying–when listing my fears, I do realize how neurotic I sound.

Barbara Michaels, aka Elizabeth Peters, aka Dr. Barbara Mertz, wrote wonderfully creepy Gothic horror novels; her ability to set that creepy mood where weird things could happen and seem absolutely realistic was extraordinary. I always say that Ammie Come Home is one of my all time favorite ghost stories, but she wrote many others that were also most excellent.

Take, for example, The Crying Child.

be7cff00027e10699a3205da9607d820-2

From the air, the island doesn’t look big enough to land a plane on. It’s a pretty sight, from above, calling to mind all sorts of poetic images–an agate, shining brown and green, flung down in folds of sea-blue satin; a blob of variegated Play-Doh, left in a basin of water by a forgetful child; an oval braided rug on a green glass floor.

Or a hand, in a brown-and-green mitten. The hand is clenched into a fist, with a thumblike promontory jutting out on one side. Across the broad end there is a range of hills that might be knuckles; at the other end, the land narrows down into a wrist-shaped peninsula. There are beaches there, like fur trim on the cuff of the mitten; the rest of the island is thick with foliage, somber green pines and fir trees for the most part. The house is surprisingly distinct from above. The lighter green of the lawns and the gray outline of roofs and chimneys stand out amid the darkness of the pines. The only other distinctive landmark is the cluster of buildings that make up the village, along the thumb promontory, and its harbor, which is formed by the junction of thumb and hand.

And that’s where the figure of speech fails. You could compare the house to an oddly shaped ring, up on the knuckles of the hand, but the village doesn’t suggest any analogy. A diseased imagination might think of sores or warts; but there was never anything festering about St. Ives. It was just a charming Maine town, and not even the events of that spring could make it anything else. There was no lurking horror in the village. It was in the house.

I certainly wasn’t aware of horrors that morning in May. I had worries, plenty of them, but they were comparatively simple ones. I didn’t know, then, how simple.

The story is quite simple. Joanne, our heroine, was raised by her older sister Mary after their parents died. Mary managed to land herself a millionaire husband, who tried to fill a father figure role for Joanne–which she didn’t appreciate or like. Long story short, the sisters became estranged when Joanne finished college and moved far away, refusing any further assistance from her wealthy brother-in-law and sister.*

*This is something I’ve never understood as a plot point; why would you refuse help from a wealthy, connected relative? This is often a plot device in melodramas/romances/soap operas, when someone marries into wealth. “I need to be my own man.” “I need to be my own woman.” I always roll my eyes; I understand it, but why make life harder on yourself than necessary?

Mary has always wanted a child of her own, and recently has suffered a miscarriage. Mary and her husband Ran are spending the summer on King’s Island, at his ancestral family home. He has wired Joanne that Mary needs her, and so of course, full of misgivings about her brother-in-law but worried about her sister, she gets on a plane and heads to Maine. After she lands, Ran–and the island doctor–tell her that Mary is having a breakdown; she keeps leaving the house at night because she claims she hears a baby crying and has to find it. The reason Ran finally sent for Joanne was because that night she almost went over a cliff.

Mary seems normal, but shortly after Joanne’s arrival, she sees a strange ghost in the family cemetery and stumbles over a grave just outside the consecrated ground…and then she, too, starts to hear the crying child.

This book is absolutely chilling, with constant twists and turns that keeps the reader on the edge of his/her seat, and that sense of unease, that Gothic atmosphere, keeps up through the entire book.

I loved the work of Barbara Michaels; still do, in fact. I also love her work as Elizabeth Peters. I’d love to revisit her novels–The Dark on the Other Side and Be Buried in the Rain in particular; I do reread Ammie Come Home fairly regularly.

And now, back to the spice mines.

Run, Joey, Run

Egypt. Land of the pharaohs, the bounty of the Nile. I’ve always loved, and been fascinated, by Egypt; I’m not sure why, or when it actually began, or what triggered it. It’s just always been. Maybe it’s a past-life thing, like my apparent fascination with Russian history and culture may have been (I was told be a psychic once that I’d lived as a Russian nobleman in a past life, eventually joining an Orthodox monastery after a long and fruitful life), if you believe in that sort of thing–I’m not sure that I do, and it’s not like I’ll ever know one way or another for sure.

But one thing that is true is that I’ve always been fascinated by Egypt; its history, its art, and its culture.

277252920780133877_lbj4rlul_c

Egypt was a mighty civilization and empire when our European ancestors were living in caves and trying to figure out how to start fires. No one is really certain how they were able to build the pyramids; there are theories, of course–I’ve always loved the Erich von Daniken theory that it was aliens (Chariots of the Gods?), which was later used in the movie Stargate, which I loved–and to this day, despite advances in archaeology and Egyptology and discoveries, we still don’t know a lot of about the ancient Egyptians.

abu-simbel

The burning of the Great Library of Alexandria during an Egyptian civil war during the time of Cleopatra VII (she is rarely given the number in modern times; we know her simply as Cleopatra), which had gathered all the knowledge of the ancient world, remains to me one of the greatest tragedies of history.

I’ve always dreamed of going to Egypt, to see the wonders there for myself. As I get older, the trips I’ve always longed for probably will never happen, but one day I do hope to get to the British Museum at the very least, to see the Egyptian treasures and artifacts there.

the-nile-aswan-2

So, what does Egypt have to do with horror month? Obviously, The Mummy.

imgres-2

I saw the original film version of The Mummy as an afternoon movie after school; naturally, as a young Egyptophile how was I not going to watch it once I saw it in the television listings? I don’t remember the movie scaring me that much; I thought it was a great movie–but I never watched the sequels. In this movie, of course, some Egyptologists had found the tomb of Imhotep, who had been buried alive for some sacrilege, but became reanimated–the Scroll of Thoth had given him immortality (again, a similar plot device was used in The Cat Creature) and was now looking for the reincarnation of his great love Ankhesenamun (which was also the name of Tutankamen’s wife and queen; the tomb had only been discovered a mere eleven years earlier than when the film was made). It was clever, I thought, and you couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry for him.

mummy1999

The 1999 film The Mummy used a lot of the same concepts as the 1933–Imhotep being brought back to life (this time by the Book of the Dead) and looking for his lost love Ankhesenamun–but this Imhotep was definitely a villain. The movie was also done as a period piece, with my crush Brendan Fraser in the lead as a kind of Indiana Jones-style adventurer. Both it, and its sequel, The Mummy Returns, were fun movies that I greatly enjoyed.

Mummies, and Egyptian antiquities, are often used for popular fiction; maybe sometime I should do an extensive study on this. My favorite Robin Cook novel is Sphinx ; I love Allen Drury’s Amarna novels A God Against the Gods and Return to Thebes; there’s the AMAZING Amelia Peabody series by the late always lamented Elizabeth Peters; the Hardy Boys themselves even had some Egyptian-related cases; Agatha Christie set Death Comes as the End in ancient Egypt and Death on the Nile in contemporary Egypt; The Three Investigators solved The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy; and Anne Rice also wrote Ramses the Damned, or The Mummy.

Hell, even Scooby Doo Where Are You? had an episode about a mummy.

mystery-of-the-whispering-mummy

Anne Rice’s The Mummy was a book I greatly enjoyed; I intend to reread it soon.

I’ve always wanted to do an Egyptian book; I’ve always wanted to do a mummy style book.

Maybe someday.