Happiness is An Option

I’ve always enjoyed a good mystery with a supernatural edge to it; the line between crime fiction and horror is often blurred. Take, for example, The Silence of the Lambs. It’s often lauded as the first horror film to win an Oscar–but there’s no supernatural beings involved, no ghosts or vampires, or anything like that; the protagonist is an FBI agent trying to catch a serial killer…so is it really horror? Are slasher films/books actually horror or crime? (I think it depends on whether or not the slasher is actually something not human–like Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers, or just crazed human killers, like the Scream movies or even the first Friday the 13th, which is the only one I’ve actually seen.)

But then it’s really hard to define and delineate what work falls into what genre; and oft-times, there’s crossover between the various ones–there’s western horror, for example, just like romantic suspense bridges the line between romance and mystery. So where precisely on the spectrum of genre does the work of Barbara Michaels lay? There are often supernatural elements to her fiction; sometimes there aren’t. Ammie Come Home is my favorite ghost story of the many I’ve read–and I enjoy it just as much every time I reread it–but it’s also a mystery, and there’s also some romance in the book. The romance itself is rarely the focus of her books, but it is there and cannot be ignored; likewise, most stories that have supernatural elements (ones that are actually supernatural in origin or man-made frauds) inevitably have some mystery to them; what do the supernatural forces want–or in the case of fraud, what are those who are committing the fraud after? What do they want?

House of Many Shadows was the second Barbara Michaels novel I read, and remains one of my favorites to this day.

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The sounds bothered Meg most. Calling them auditory hallucinations helped a little–a phenomenon is less alarming when it has a proper technical name. Meg had always thought of hallucinations as something one saw. She had those, too, but for some illogical reason it was easier for her to accept visual illusions as nonreal than to ignore the hallucinatory sounds. When you were concentrating on typing a letter, and a voice says something in your ear, it was impossible not to be distracted.

The problem was hard to explain, and Meg wasn’t doing a good job of explaining. But then it had always been difficult to explain anything to Sylvia. Sylvia knew all the answers.

“The dictaphone was absolutely impossible. I couldn’t hear what Mr. Phillips had said. Voices kept mumbling, drowning out his voice. Once the whole Mormon Tabernacle Choir cut out the second paragraph of a very important memo.”

She smiled as she spoke. It sounded funny now, but at the time it had not been at all amusing.

Sylvia didn’t smile. “The Mormon Tabernacle Choir? Why them?”

Meg shrugged helplessly. “No reason. That’s the point; they are meaningless hallucinations. The doctor says they’ll go away eventually, but in the meantime…Mr. Phillips was very nice about it, he said he’d try to find an opening for me when I’m ready to work again, but I couldn’t expect him to keep me on. I had to listen to some of those tapes three times before I got the message clear, and there was always the chance I’d miss something important. And I’d already used up all my sick leave. Three weeks in the hospital…”

“You should be thankful you weren’t killed,” said Sylvia. “To think they never caught the man who was driving the car! New York is an absolute jungle. I don’t know how you can stand living here. May I have another cup of tea?”

Meg poured, biting back an irritated retort. She couldn’t afford to offend Sylvia, especially now, when she was about to ask a favor, but the cliches that were Sylvia’s sole means of communications had never annoyed her more. Why should she be thankful she hadn’t been killed? She might as well be thankful she didn’t have leprosy, or seven-year itch; or thank God because she had not been born with two heads. It was just as reasonable, and a lot more human, to feel vexation instead of gratitude. Why me, God? The old question, to which there was never any answer…Why did it have to be me in the path of that fool driver; why did I have to land on my head instead of some less vulnerable part of my anatomy; and why, oh, why, God, did Ihave to have these exotic symptoms instead of a nice simple concussion? Why do I have to be the poor relation, with no savings to fall back on, while Sylvia…

Sylvia’s close-set gray eyes were intent on the teapot. “Such a nice piece of silver,” she murmured.

I love Barbara Michaels’ work, and one of the happiest days of my reading life was the day I discovered she also wrote as Elizabeth Peters, which meant even more reading joy for me (and eventually, I came to prefer the Peters books to the Michaels; but make no mistake, I love all the books). The set-up for House of Many Shadows is right there in the beginning; poor Meg’s life has been upended by being hit by a driver who didn’t stop, and because of the hallucinations she suffers from as a result–with no idea of how long she will suffer through them–she is unable to work, and her distant relative Sylvia–whom she doesn’t seem to care much for–is her only hope. Sylvia–we all know people like Sylvia; without a sense of humor and whose response to any crisis is to come up with a plan and make it work–has a house in the Pennsylvania Dutch country, she’s not sure what she wants to do with it, but Meg can stay there rent-free, and Sylvia even comes up with a “make-work” solution so Meg won’t feel like she’s freeloading (it isn’t until much later she realizes that is what Sylvia was doing; at the time she kind of resents it); doing an inventory of the contents of the house and its attic, as Sylvia is thinking of donating the house to the local historical association. Sylvia’s stepson from the previous marriage that wound up with her owning the house is living on the property as a caretaker, in a cottage behind the main house–Meg remembers him from their childhood as a horrible tease she couldn’t much stand–and soon she is off to the wilds of the Pennsylvania country side.

At the end of the second chapter-the first after she arrives at the house–Meg experiences a hallucination in front of Andy, the stepson, and their relationship hasn’t changed much, apparently–which rattles Andy terribly; when it happens again a chapter or so later is when Andy confesses that he, too, has seen the same hallucinations she did–so are they hallucinations? Or are they seeing ghosts?

This set-up, of course, is absolutely brilliant: what better heroine for a supernatural story than a woman who’s had a brain injury that causes her to see hallucinations? The chilling touch that Andy has also seen the same hallucinations in the house that she has is terrifying; and as she slowly gets to work in the attic, she and Andy start discovering things about the history of the house, including the fact that the original property owners, back before the American Revolution, were brutally murdered in the original house that stood on the property; the current one was built over it. So, what happened 250 years earlier? Both Meg and Andy become a bit obsessed with the ancient murders, and as they continue to see things in the house, they slowly but surely start putting together the truth of what happened to the original property owners–while falling in love, of course.

One of the great things about the Michaels books is that she brooks no foolishness with her supernatural elements; it’s clear Dr. Mertz (her real name) was well read on the subject of the occult and other belief systems–they pop up, again and again, throughout the Michaels novels, and in many instances, I first heard of certain occult books and cults from reading them. I know I first read of The Golden Bough in a Michaels novel; Dr, Mertz knew her folklore and occult religions, and made very good use of that knowledge, not just in this book but in others–Prince of Darkness comes to mind–and of course, she was an excellent, excellent writer.

House of Many Shadows also holds up; despite the dated quality of the book–no Internet or computers or cell phones–it’s still a great story.

How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously?

Monday and here we are, getting ready to stare down yet another week.

We watched more of Little Fires Everywhere last night, and it really is extremely well done. It really is an interesting look at race and privilege and power; all while using tropes that were staples of soap operas. As the show amps up and starts racing along to its climax, the basis of the majority of the drama of the show is a custody struggle over an adopted baby–a storyline so stale for soap operas that I don’t know that the few left even use it anymore. But with strong writing, excellent production values, and an enormously talented cast, this stale trope not only works in this instance, but works very well. I am curious, though, as to why the book is set in 1997 rather than the present; the reason behind it isn’t apparent, and it feels incredibly current; although the music at school dances and so forth is rather jarring, and it takes a moment to remember that the story is set over twenty years ago. I don’t even notice the lack of smart phones and social media. I’m just sorry that I didn’t get a copy of the book to read along while I watch, which was such a terrific experience with Big Little Lies. 

And Reese Witherspoon certainly has a type of woman that she regularly plays, doesn’t she? Super Karen?

I finished a dreadful first draft of “Falling Bullets” last night, and it is dreadful. Fortunately there are other drafts to be done, and corrections and edits that can be made to it, but at this point I’m just happy I finished a draft–it’s been awhile since I’ve finished something I’ve started. At first I was rather nonplussed because about 1500 of the 2000 words I’d already written–mostly the stuff I’d written Friday evening–didn’t really work anymore; but I went back to the beginning and started tweaking things, and was even able to tweak enough of the 1500 problematic words to save most of them. So, while I am not pleased with the draft and its condition, I am pleased that it is finished, at around 4600 words.

I also finished reading Thunder on the Right yesterday, and had a lovely time with it. I do think it is one of the lesser Mary Stewart novels–but a lesser Mary Stewart is better than  a lesser writer’s best, so there’s also that.

I have decided to take today off from work; I am not feeling as great as I should, and literally cannot face another day of data entry and condom packing. Fortunately I have enough vacation time accrued for me to take yet another day off–although I really need to start letting the time build up again, for when this is all finally over and done with, so I can take an actual vacation, which is something I am going to be in seriously need of–and so am going to stay home, finish some odds and ends, and then get ready to face the rest of the week. I also have to work early tomorrow morning, so will have to get to bed early this evening; and I think we’re going to maybe start slowly opening the STI clinic next week. I am of two minds about this–I am certain we can do it safely, but at the same time I worry whether clients will be willing to come in to get their screenings done. I miss my old life, quite frankly, and like everyone else, long to get back to it. But unlike everyone else, I don’t see the old normal coming back. This situation has changed so much about our lives and how we do things, and in many cases, things that were considered “impossible” before have now been shown to be possible. I can’t imagine, for example, that the expensive old version of the book tour will return now that we have seen it can be done relatively inexpensively virtually. I easily can see publicists cutting expenses at publishers by arranging on-line interviews and readings and Q&A’s and book club meetings rather than spending money for an author to travel. And for authors who can’t foot the cost of their own tours, well–here’s an inexpensive alternative that may actually work.

Next up for the Reread Project is an old favorite of mine by Barbara Michaels, House of Many Shadows. Dr. Barbara Mertz wrote, of course, wonderful mysteries as Elizabeth Peters (if you’ve never read the Amelia Peabody series, you really, really  need to), and wrote suspense novels that may or may not have a supernatural bent to them–Ammie Come Home is, obviously, by far and away my favorite of these–as Barbara Michaels. I rediscovered the Michaels novels in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, and became just as addicted to them as I would to the Elizabeth Peters novels later that decade; House of Many Shadows is one of my favorites of the Michaels novels; The Crying Child is another. The rest are also good without question, but to my mind those three are head-and-shoulders above the others. The Michaels novels also have great, great titles: Wait for What Will Come, Be Buried in the Rain, The Dark on the Other Side, and Witch, to name only a few. And, if I am being complete honest, Bury Me in Shadows was inspired by the Michaels novels; as was Lake Thirteen.

And the humor in the Scotty books probably owes more than a little to the influence of the Elizabeth Peters novels.

I also gave up on rereading Katherine Anne Porter’s long short story about the Spanish flu, “Pale Horse Pale Rider.” I can certainly understand why critics and literary enthusiasts shit themselves over Porter’s writing, but it just doesn’t work for me. I don’t care about her characters or what happens to them, and Porter is definitely one of those authors who–to me–loves the sound of her own voice; what could be said in a sentence or two turns into rambling pages and pages in which she basically says the same thing, over and over again. And she never wastes any time on making the reader care about her characters, or even getting to know them well. I thought, when I first read her Collected Stories years ago and found them to be tedious and boring (as I was rereading “Pale Horse Pale Rider” I could actually hear a Lit professor enthusing about her works in my head), and I thought I’d give them another chance, thinking perhaps I had matured enough as a reader to enjoy them now; that it was my own immaturity as a reader and lover of the written word that kept me from enjoying them in the first place.

I am pleased to report I am wrong, and that I find Porter’s work as constipated and dull as I did the first time, and there’s nothing wrong with not liking her work. I still dislike The Great Gatsby, even after reading it three times, after all; let the literary snobs come for me. I don’t care. Scoff at me all you like, I will never like or admire Porter.

And on that note, I think I’ll go lay back down for a bit. Have a lovely Monday.

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Being Boring

And just like that, we made it to Friday.

Do days and dates mean anything anymore? It’s hard for me to keep track, that’s for certain. And from what I gather, it’s not just me–everyone is having difficulty keeping track. I missed making a credit card payment this month because I didn’t put it on my Google calendar with an alert–the calendar alerts have literally been saving my ass since this whole thing started–and thank God for them, you know? They pop up on my computer, phone and iPad, so it’s unlikely that I will miss them, but stuff has to literally be on the calendar for me to get an alert, so that’s on me. It’s about time for me to start loading all the bills into the May calendar–perhaps that will be a chore for this weekend.

After all the pleasure I’ve had rereading Mary Stewart and Elizabeth Peters, I am thinking that I should keep the Reread Project going and reread something else that I loved and haven’t read in a long time. What that might be, I don’t know–there are so many books loaded into my Kindle app it’s terribly frightening–but I am also curious as to whether I’ll enjoy reading something new on there. I have some classic crime novels loaded in there–Charlotte Armstrong, Ellery Queen, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Mary Roberts Rinehart–as well as Ethel Lina White’s novel (blanking on the name) which was filmed as The Spiral Staircase, which is a great classic suspense story starring Dorothy McGuire (I think) that doesn’t get near enough credit or recognition. Then again, I haven’t seen it since I was a child, so who knows? Perhaps it doesn’t hold up. I just remember that the main character, the heroine, was either deaf or mute or both. And yes, the more I think about it, the more I think that should be my next read.

On the other hand, Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin is just sitting there, begging for a reread. I was thinking more about the book again last night–about how truly clever it was, and possibly about how it could be considered, perhaps, a crime novel; which of course made me want to read it again all the more.

Yesterday I was very tired when i got home; I had to get up early and so screenings at our other campus, and then come back to the other for the rest of the day. I slept better last night than I have previous nights of the week–although I did wake up a few times–and I really do need to get back to stretching and exercising here at home every morning. It helps with being tired, and it certainly helps me sleep better at night. I’ve lost seven pounds since the quarantine started–apparently every one else has gained weight?–and so, for the first time since around 2010 or 2011, I weigh less than 210, which was a plateau I was beginning to think I was too old to break through. And now I have, which means that getting down to my goal weight of 200 is possible. I’m not sure, with the muscle weight that I have now, that going below 200 is realistic; but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. I never thought I was going to get below 210 ever again, and here I am.

We continue to watch Murder is My Life with Lucy Lawless on Acorn, and I highly recommend it. Lawless looks amazing–those eyes!–and of course, she’s always been an incredibly talented actress–more so than she’s ever been given credit for (she deserved an Emmy for Spartacus) and the structure of the story around her and her character is really quite good. When I get home from the office today, I’m going to finally sign into the CBS All Access app on Apple TV I’ve been paying for, so I can start watching not only Picard but Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone reboot.

This weekend, I’ll need to run some errands–grocery store for a bit of odds and ends–and I am mostly going to spend the weekend relaxing, cleaning, organizing, and I need to polish a pair of short stories and finish the first draft of my Sherlock story, so I can revise and rewrite accordingly before turning it in at the end of the month. I’m also going to go back to the Secret Project, which I’d like to finish, along with these stories, by the end of the month. Then I can go spend May finishing the final draft of Bury Me in Shadows–I finally had the breakthrough on the story I was looking for–and then once that’s done, I can spend June and/or July doing a final of the Kansas book, and then–you guessed it–it’s time to tackle Chlorine.

Pretty cool, huh? I also want to start brainstorming on the next Scotty book, too. SO much writing to do, so little time….

And so I must return to the depths of the spice mines. Have a lovely Friday, Constant Reader.

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After the Event

I’ve loved, and been fascinated, by ancient Egypt ever since I was a kid. I don’t remember when, precisely, Egypt became so lodged into my brain; but for as long as I can remember, the ancient history of one of our oldest civilization has intrigued me, and held my interest. I’m hardly an expert–not even close–but I remember pestering my parents to subscribe to the Time-Life Great Ages of Man series; the very first volume of which was, naturally,  Ancient Egypt (for the record, I still have my entire set of those books). Cleopatra, of course, also interested me; I’m not sure if my Egyptian interest came before or after watching the Elizabeth Taylor version of Cleopatra on television. (I still am terribly interested in Cleopatra; the court intrigues and politics of the Ptolemy dynasty makes the Borgias and the Medici look like pikers. I always wanted to write a book about–of all things–Cleopatra’s older sister Berenice, who briefly overthrew their father and took the Egyptian crown. The Romans sent legions to support her father, so her reign was very brief. Her younger sister, Arsinoe, who fought Cleopatra for the throne–only to be defeated by Caesar, also interests me.) I’ve always been interested in Akhenaten (loved Allen Drury’s two books about the Amarna revolution, A God Against the Gods and Return to Thebes), Tutankhamun (of course), and Hatshepsut (I read a great Scholastic mystery set during her reign called The Mystery of the Pharaoh’s Treasure, and I think I bought a copy from eBay a while back; I may have the name wrong.)

But as much as I love Egypt, I didn’t love it enough to read Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings. I borrowed it from the library, and couldn’t get through the first chapter.

Sorry not sorry.

As a teenager who loved mysteries, I gravitated towards women authors once I’d fairly exhausted the canons of Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, and Erle Stanley Gardner primarily because I couldn’t relate or identify with the crime novels being written by men at the time. Grim and hard-boiled and toxic masculinity wasn’t a combination I was terribly interested in at the time; I did appreciate noir (discovering James M. Cain when I was about nineteen was wonderful), though–but that was because I associated it with all those great movies I used to watch with my grandmother. I eventually came around, and started enjoying John D. MacDonald and Hammett and Chandler as I got older.

But when I saw this book on the paperback rack at the grocery store in Emporia, I had to get it. It was a mystery; blurbed by one of my favorite writers, Phyllis A. Whitney, and of course, that was the Sphinx on the cover. I bought it, read it, loved it–and forgot about Elizabeth Peters for about a decade or so (I came back to Barbara Michaels in my mid-twenties, and when I discovered she was also Elizabeth Peters, it didn’t register with me.) Then one day I was in the Waldenbooks and More on Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa when I saw a book on the end cap that called to me: The Last Camel Died at Noon, plus an unmistakably Egyptian scene on the cover. The title and the cover alone sold me–and I also knew by then that Elizabeth Peters was the same writer as Barbara Michaels. I bought it and when I got home, I opened to the first page and started reading….about a page in I stopped. Wait, Emerson and Peabody? I turned back to the beginning of the book and there it was, on the BY THE SAME AUTHOR page: THE AMELIA PEABODY SERIES, and the first title was Crocodile on the Sandbank! 

You can only imagine my delight. I loved those characters, loved that first book, and to find out now there was a series? I read The Last Camel Died at Noon cover to cover in about twenty-four hours, and the next day I went back to Waldenbooks and More and bought the entire series, and settled in to get reacquainted with two of my favorite fictional characters of all time.

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When I first set eyes on Evelyn Barton-Forbes she was walking the streets of Rome–(I am informed, by the self-appointed critic who reads over my shoulder as I write, that I have already committed an error. If those seemingly simple English words do indeed imply that which I am told they imply to the vulgar, I must in justice to Evelyn find other phrasing.)

In justice to myself, however, I must insist that Evelyn was doing precisely what I have said she was doing, but with no ulterior purpose in mind. Indeed, the poor girl had no purpose and no means of carrying it out if she had. Our meeting was fortuitous, but fortunate. I had, as I always have, purpose enough for two.

I had left my hotel that morning in considerable irritation of spirits. My plans had gone awry. I am not accustomed to having my plans go awry. Sensing my mood, my small Italian guide trailed behind me in silence. Piero was not silent when I first encountered him, in the lobby of the hotel, where, in common with others of his kind, he awaited the arrival of helpless foreign visitors in need of a translator and guide. I selected him from amid the throng because his appearance was a trifle less villainous than that of the others.

I was well aware of the propensity of these fellows to bully, cheat, and otherwise take advantage of the victims who employ them, but I had no intention of being victimized. It did not take me long to make this clear to Piero. My first act was to bargain ruthlessly with the shopkeeper to whom Piero took me to buy silk. The final price was so low that Piero’s commission was reduced to a negligible sum. He expressed his chagrin to his compatriot in his native tongue, and included in his tirade several personal comments on my appearance and manner. I let him go on for some time and then interrupted him with a comment on his manners. I speak Italian, and understand it, quite well. After that, Piero and I got on admirably. I had not employed him because I required an interpreter, but because I wanted someone to carry parcels and run errands.

My God, that incredible, incredible voice.

By the end of the second page, I was madly in love with Amelia Peabody; by the end of the third, I wanted to be Amelia Peabody. How could you not love her? She’s fiercely intelligent, even more fiercely independent, spoke her mind, got straight to the point, and had no desire whatsoever to deal with frivolities, sentimentality, and so forth. The youngest child and only daughter of a classics scholar, her six older brothers got married and left her home to take care of their father. She speaks four languages fluently, and frequently curses the accident of birth that left her a female. Her father died and left her everything–which her brothers thought was fair, until it turned out he was a lot richer than anyone thought and had left her half a million pounds, which was an insane amount of money in the late nineteenth century. Unmarried at thirty-two, she considers herself to be too plain, too old, and too sharp-tongued to ever marry, and has decided she is going to die a spinster. (I could never respect a man who would allow his wife to dominate him, but at the same time I could never allow any man to dominate me.) She decides to use her fortune to travel to visit the places she’s always dreamed of and read about in books–which is what brings her to Rome, along with her paid companion–whom she doesn’t care for, and just chance puts her in the forum at the same time as Evelyn, who faints and Peabody, of course, takes charge. She decides to help Evelyn–who was seduced away from her wealthy family and “ruined”, as well as cut off, and she’d come to Rome with the man she thought she loved only to be abandoned by him, with no clothes but what she is wearing and not a penny to her name. Peabody and Evelyn hit it off, she sends the paid companion back to England and engages Evelyn as her new companion, and they depart for Egypt.

So, now two of our players are now in place; it’s time to meet the other two. Once they are all checked in at Shepheard’s in Cairo, Peabody is quickly besotted with Egypt, and pyramids, in particular–and reading Peabody’s descriptions of the country, you cannot help but fall in love with it, too (not a problem for me; I was already there before I read the book). They go to the Antiquities Museum one afternoon–the director was a friend of Peabody’s father–and Peabody is put off by how disheveled and disorganized–and dusty–everything is. She picks up a dusty pot and begins to wipe the dust from it, only to have an enormous man explode with rage at her. They give each other what-for–they are suitably matched in that regard–and this is Emerson, archaeologist with a passion for discovery and knowledge and preserving the past. Emerson’s brother makes apologies, and a spark is lit between Walter and Evelyn. Soon, the Emersons are off to their dig at Amarna, and Peabody and Evelyn rent a sailboat–a dahabeeyah, to be exact–and begin their trip down the Nile.

Naturally, they stop at Amarna, and stumble into quite a bizarre mystery, which includes an animated mummy and several attempts on our troop’s lives. But the four are definitely up to the task–there are times when I laughed out loud–and hilariously, while both Peabody and Emerson become quite irritated with Walter and Evelyn, who can’t see that the other is madly in love with them; Peabody and Emerson are also falling in love, and refuse to see it, bickering and fighting and–oh, it’s just wonderful and charming, and I know I am failing to do the magnificent Ms. Peters’ work any kind of justice. Amanda is just so, so wonderfully fearless and courageous and pure, and doesn’t even worry about her own safety when those she loves are in danger. The book has a most satisfying resolution, and I remember putting it down that first (much as I do every time I reread it) with a happy smile on my face. The Peabody and Emerson books bring me a lot of joy.

I devoured the entire series, loving them all–the way Peters deftly ages her characters and deepens their relationships, and of course the children…one thing that will always make The Last Camel Died at Noon special for me was that was also the adventure that introduced our merry band of archaeologists to Nofret–and therein lies another tale, for yet another time.

I am so, so delighted I reread Crocodile on the Sandbank. If you’ve not read this series, you really should treat yourself to it, because it is just that: the most amazing gift you can give yourself.

Ring of Fire

One of the fun things about reading history is it gives me a lot of inspiration. Rereading the Black Death/bubonic plague chapter in Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror recently, I stumbled across this:

The apparent absence of earthly cause gave the plague a supernatural and sinister quality. Scandinavians believed that a Pest Maiden emerged from the mouth of the dead in the form of a blue flame and flew through the air to infect the next house. In Lithuania the Maiden was said to wave a red scarf through the door or window to let in the pest. One brave man, according to legend, deliberately waited at his open window with drawn sword and, at the fluttering of the scarf, chopped off the hand. He died of his deed, but his village was spared and the scarf long preserved as a relic in the local church.

And so, an idea for my own story, “The Pestilence Maiden,” was born. So far it consists of one sentence: “Death again walked the crumbling, hole ridden streets of New Orleans.”

Great opening, isn’t it? But it’s not really a crime story; since the Pestilence Maiden would be a supernatural, purely symbolic creature representing the plague come to New Orleans, yet again.  After all, New Orleans has a long history of epidemics–yellow fever, typhus, cholera; hell, we even had bubonic plague in 1916–so is it so far out of the question that we would have a Pestilence Maiden walking the streets of the city? No, not really.

I returned to work yesterday, and it was lovely to get out of the house for a while and be out in the fresh air. I am working at doing the screenings; basically, our facility is open for certain services (the food pantry, the pharmacy, some lab work by appointment) and so everyone who goes into the building needs to be screened for symptoms, given a sticker and a mask, and some hand sanitizer before they go inside. Anyone with symptoms gets sent across the parking lot for COVID-19 testing; we no longer require a fever or multiple symptoms–all you need is one. We are also offering optional HIV testing for anyone who gets a COVID-19 test; we also have oral swab kits for people who want to pick one up and test themselves at home–but their exposure has to have been more than three months out, rather than our usual anyone can get an HIV test at any time we are open for testing. I’m very glad and happy that we are back to providing some HIV testing; we may not be what we were but at least we are able to do something, you know? I also suspect that people are violating quarantine for sex hook-ups, which means there’s going to be a strong need for STI testing once “shelter-at-home” orders have been lifted.

I mean, yay for job security, I guess? Even if it ghoulish.

I would much rather the HIV pandemic come to an end, frankly, even if puts me out of a job.

I finished rereading Crocodile on the Sandbank last night, and, well, Dr. Mertz deserved to be named a Grand Master for that book alone. The voice of Amelia Peabody–everything about Amelia Peabody–is absolute genius. Rereading the book, I fell in love with Peabody and Emerson and Evelyn and Walter all over again. The brilliance of how she constructed this book, those characters–I mean, wow, the woman was an absolute master. I mourn every year since Dr. Mertz’ death that there is no new Amelia Peabody adventure to enjoy, to laugh out loud at the rapier-like wit of the dialogue, and the frank adoration of both couples, not only for their partners but for their beloved friends, who all shared this initial adventure together and literally all met during the course of this book…wow. Just wow. It will get its own blog post soon enough, but oh, how I love and miss Peabody and Emerson.

I really missing visiting them and their Egypt.

It’s also Pay-the-Bills day, which is never, no matter what anyone might think, much fun. But I whipped through them all, and am glad to  have that mess behind me. I am also wondering about when I can schedule a Costco trip. I’d rather not go on the weekend, for obvious reasons–if there was a line to get in Wal-mart, I can’t imagine Costco isn’t doing the same thing, you know–but there are things I need to get from there, and so might as well bite the bullet and figure out when I can go. (The case of Pellegrino alone…)

We started watching Murder is My Life, an Australian crime series starring Lucy Lawless, on Acorn streaming last night. One can, of course, never go wrong with anything if Lucy Lawless is in it, and it’s actually quite fun and well done. (I was watching while at the same time racing to finish Crocodile on the Sandbank.) It’s always fun to find a new show, and let’s face it, Acorn is one of the esssential streaming services if you like British and/or Australian crime television.

How is everyone doing out there these days? Difficult times, to be sure–and it’s okay to get overwhelmed sometimes. While I have never–who has?–been involved or experienced anything this epic and global before, I’ve actually been through a local natural/manmade disaster; and some deeply personal level stuff that required my acquisition of numerous coping skills and mechanisms. Those coping skills have come in handy, believe you me, since the curtain came down and the world shut done to deal with this global pandemic. And as it seems to stretch out in front of us endlessly, with no real end in sight–there’s no way of knowing, so we are still charting strange new waters–just always remember this, Constant Reader: when you are starting to get overwhelmed by the scope and enormity of the macro, find something micro to fixate on, and focus on that–something small you can handle, get taken care of, and can be in control of; whether that’s cleaning out old clothes from the closet or dresser you will never wear again, or doing your windows, and a deep clean of your floors, including baseboards–that focus will get you through. Every single time, it will get you through.

And on that note, I am going to head back into the spice mines. I am working from home today–the endless data entry–and need to get working on my emails.

Have a lovely Wednesday, Constant Reader, and stay safe.

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A Man Could Get Arrested

And today I am going back to work. I took a vacation day yesterday–one last gasp, as it were–and actually managed to get some writing done. I got another two thousand (almost three) words done on the Sherlock story; which was great because I was beginning to think I was never going to get back into a writing groove again. They may not be good words, but they are words, and I will take them gladly, thank you very much.

It felt really nice to be writing again, and writing something that I should be writing, instead of all these story fragments and openings that I’ve been working on lately; something I need to be getting finished rather than letting my creative brain ping all over the place uncontrollably, like a pinball. It’s also kind of nice to be going back to work this morning; I am very much a boundary person, and because i am so jealous of my free time, there are definitely boundaries I’ve set up around my job–primarily if you aren’t getting paid don’t spend time on it.

It can be tricky sometimes.

But I’ve been out for over a week now, and as you can imagine, isolating myself entirely from my day job for that amount of time has left me without a clue as to what is going on at the office, and I do have to swing by there today, if not to stay and work (I’m not sure what will be needed or required from me now) or if I have to come back home and do data entry (but there’s something at the office I need in order to continue doing that), so who knows what the day holds for me?

Heavy sigh. These are, after all, strange times in which to be living.

The weather here has cooled off–the cold front that resulted in those dreadful storms across the south on Sunday has lingered; yesterday was actually kind of a lovely day, all things considered–sunny and cool in the low seventies, a beautiful and rare spring day–but alas, my trip to the uptown Rouse’s yesterday did not yield what I needed it to, and am going to have stop at the one in the CBD on the way home from the office to get the other things I need.

Oh! I am also guesting over at Art Taylor’s The First Two Pages today, talking about my story “The Silky Veils of Ardor” in Josh Pachter’s anthology The Beat of Black Wings.

One of the more interesting things about this entire quarantine/shelter-at-home experience with COVID-19 is the behavioral changes I’ve made. I’ve already mentioned that I’ve become a bit addicted to my Kindle app on my iPad, after years of vowing not to read electronically; I’ve actually been using my phone as a phone as well, which is terrifying to consider. I’ve successfully avoided and staved off phone calls for years, other than calling in to board meetings. Who knows, I may even start listening to podcasts. The world has turned upside down.

But I also started a wondrous reread last night: Elizabeth Peters’ Crocodile on the Sandback, which is the first in one of my favorite series of all time, and introduces us to Amelia Peabody, the headstrong spinster heiress who decides to visit Egypt–her father was a classics scholar, while her older brothers married and moved away, she stayed with her father to take care of him and inherited his enormous fortune when he died, and decided to see all the places her father studied–and her wit and charm! Obviously, I loved the Amelia Peabody series, and the characters, but I had forgotten how much. My God, Amelia can make me laugh out loud, and revisiting the book, I remembered how much I loved her–and this book, where she meets the three people (Emerson, Walter, and Evelyn) who are destined to be her created family (along with Abdullah) and when she finally reaches Egypt and falls in love with the country…and that take charge and take no prisoners attitude….well, before I knew it, I was zipping along in the book and was close to being finished with it. Trust me, when I am finished there will definitely be a blog appreciation of Amelia Peabody.

And I should get to work now. Have a lovely day, all, and I’ll see you on the other side of the spice mines.

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He Stopped Loving Her Today

I put off making a grocery run from Saturday to Sunday, like a fool, only to discover the Baronne Street Rouse’s closed for Easter this year; I decided not to go to the one in Uptown because I didn’t feel like driving all the way down there only to find out the drive had been in vain. I did stop at the gas station–filled it up for slightly more than fifteen dollars, something that’s never happened since I bought the thing–and then at Walgreens to get a few things I could get there. It was weird navigating the empty streets of New Orleans; I was reminded very much of that time post-Katrina when I came back and most of the city was empty. I itched to turn stop lights into stop signs–and at one point did stop at a stop sign and wait for it to change. It was weird, very weird–the vast emptiness of streets that are usually filled with cars and seeing more people than the beggars at the intersections. Had the stop lights not have been working, the similarities would have been even eerier.

And of course, people were going through red lights and ignoring all rules of traffic, because they clearly were the only people our driving. #cantfixtrash

I managed to eke out another thousand words on the Sherlock story,  and I was enormously pleased to make some sort of progress.  It’s very weird because I am trying out the Doyle voice and style–which I am neither familiar with nor used to–which makes the going perhaps slower than it ordinarily would be. At least I hope that’s the case, at any rate; it’s been so long since I’ve actually written anything or worked on anything and gotten anywhere with it, I sometimes fear that I’ve fallen out of the habit and practice of writing. (I always worry the ability to write–the ability to create–is going to go away and leave me, particularly in time of crisis; my reaction to the Time of Troubles, sadly, wasn’t to retreat into my writing but rather to stop almost entirely.)

Yesterday was rather delightful; the entire weekend was lovely. It’s always nice to get rest, to sleep well, to be able to read and occasionally do some writing. I am very deep into Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting and, while I do distinctly remember enjoying the book when I read it, I am loving it more than I would have thought (as I have with the other recent Stewart rereads); perhaps as a writer myself and an older person, it resonates more? I can appreciate the artistry more? I don’t know, but I am really glad I decided to revisit Stewart novels I’ve not read in decades again. I just can’t get over how she brilliantly she undercuts the governess/Jane Eyre trope, and how easily she does it. Truly remarkable. I also finished it before bed, and it’s marvelous, simply marvelous–and will be the subject of another blog post.

We started watching Devs on Hulu last night, which people have been raving about, and while I give it a lot of props for production values…it moved so slowly I kept checking my social media on my iPad. It was vaguely interesting, sort of, but we just couldn’t get vested in it–there was a bit of a show-offy nature to it; like they were going overboard in saying see how good we are? We’re an important show and we’re going to win all the Emmys. I doubt we’ll go back to it, especially since Killing Eve is back, and Dead to Me is coming back for its second season; something else we watch was also returning relatively soon, too–and of course, I just remembered I pay for CBS All Access; not sure why, but there are some shows on there I’d like to watch, like the new Star Trek shows and Jordan Peele’s reboot of The Twilight Zone. (But you see what I’m saying about paying too much for too many streaming services? I really need to pay more attention to that, and one of these days I’m going to need to sit down, figure out what we need and what we don’t need, and cut some of these services off once and for all.

I think my next reread for the Reread Project is going to be the first in Elizabeth Peters’ amazing Amelia Peabody series, Crocodile on the Sandbank. There’s an Amelia Peabody fan account on Twitter (@teamramses) that I follow; they usually post quotes from the books and occasionally run polls, and they also reminded me of how I discovered the series. I originally found it on the wire rack (when I replied to the tweet, I got it wrong; I said I found it on the paperback rack at Walgreens; wrong drug store chain) of paperbacks at a Long’s drugstore in Fresno. I was still deep in the thrall of Victoria Holt, Phyllis A. Whitney, and Mary Stewart at the time, and here was another romantic suspense novel SET IN EGYPT, by an author I didn’t know. I absolutely loved the book, and looked for more books by Elizabeth Peters the next time I went to Waldenbooks at the mall–but they didn’t have any, and eventually I forgot about her. Flash forward many years, and a title of a new paperback on the new releases rack at Waldenbooks and More jumped out at me: The Last Camel Died at Noon. What a great title! I had to buy it, took it home, and started reading it….and you can imagine my delight, and joy, to discover that Crocodile on the Sandbank was not, in fact, a stand alone, but rather the first in a series I was bound to love. I went back and started the series over from the beginning, collecting them all, and I also started buying them as new releases in hardcover because I couldn’t wait for the paperback. It might not actually be a bad idea to revisit the entire series…I also think The Last Camel Died at Noon (it’s still one of my favorite titles of all time) was when I discovered Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels were both the pseudonyms of archaeologist Dr. Barbara Mertz, and I went on a delightful period of reading all of their backlists as well.

One of my biggest regrets of my writing career–in which I’ve met so many of my writing heroes–is that I was never able to meet Dr. Mertz before she died. She was going to be the guest of honor at the first Malice Domestic I attended, but she was too ill and she died shortly thereafter. But one thing I learned, from reading all of her books–but especially the Peters novels–was that humor can work in a suspense/mystery novel, and can make a reader engage even more with it. Dr. Mertz was also a master of the great opening line. In one of the Vicky Bliss novels, for example–I think Silhouette in Scarlet–opens with this treasure: “I swear, this time it was not my fault.”

And while I have been cleared to return to work today, my failure in deciding to wait until Easter to go to the grocery store, as well as forgetting an integral and necessary part to my working at home today at the office over a week ago means that I decided to use today as a vacation day, and try to get all the remaining loose odds and ends (mail, groceries) taken care of today, and return to the actual office tomorrow. (I am going to do the windows today if it kills me.) Yesterday we were supposed to have bad thunderstorms, and while the air got thick and heavy, it never actually rained here–although the rest of Louisiana was blasted with these same storms that somehow chose to avoid New Orleans–there were even tornadoes in Monroe.

The weirdest thing to come out of this whole experience has been my sudden, new addiction to my Kindle app on my iPad, which has me thinking that I can do a massive purge/cull  of my books now, keeping only the ones I can’t replace, if needed, as ebooks. I’ve avoided reading electronically for so long, but I find with my Kindle app I can just put the iPad to the side for a little while and pick it up again when I have a moment or so to read. I tore through all the Mary Stewart novels I’ve reread recently on the Kindle app, and that’s where my copy of Crocodile on the Sandbank is. I doubt that I’m going to get rid of all my books any time soon–there are still some I want to keep, obviously, and it’s not like I can afford right now to go to the Amazon website or the iBooks one and replace everything right now anyway…but then again, I think, you’d only need replace them when you’re ready to read them, right?

I am literally torn here.

And on that note, I am going to head into the spice mines. I made some great progress on the Sherlock story–it now clocks in at over two thousand words, and I’d like to get a working first draft finished, if not today, then before the weekend so I can edit it and the other story that’s due by the end of the month as well over the course of the weekend. April is beginning to slip through my fingers, and while I am still not completely certain of what day it is every day, I’m getting better about figuring it all out.

Have a lovely Monday, Constant Reader.

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