Mighty Love

I love nothing more than a great ghost story (which is why, although I loved the book, I was enormously disappointed with Peter Straub’s Ghost Story; it’s an amazing novel and a horror classic and one of my favorite horror novels of all time, but it is emphatically not a ghost story). I’m not sure why I love them so much, but even as a kid, reading the mysteries for kids I always gravitated towards the ones with some kind of ghostly title: The Ghost of Blackwood Hall, The Haunted Fort, The Phantom of Pine Hill, The Ghost at Skeleton Rock, The Haunted Showboat, The Ghost in the Gallery, etc. The ghosts and hauntings in these books were never real–just like the ghosts and monsters on Scooby Doo Where Are You? weren’t–but I still was drawn to them.

There was an ABC Movie of the Week when I was really young that I absolutely loved: The House That Would Not Die. It starred Barbara Stanwyck as a woman who moved into a house she’d inherited from a relative, along with her niece, and of course, the house turned out to be haunted. The story was terrific and it scared me a lot–and you can never go wrong with Barbara Stanwyck; I may even have watched it with my grandmother, who was a big Stanwyck fan. A few years later, we were somewhere–some people my parents knew had invited us over for dinner, and before and after, as the adults, my sister and I were deposited in the den to watch television and entertain ourselves while behaving. They had books, which I gravitated towards, I pulled down a volume of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and found a ghost story inside. As I started reading, I was drawn into it and I realized it was the same plot, the same story, of the TV movie I’d liked, and kept reading. I read the entire thing that evening–it was condensed, after all–and thought, oh, I’d like to see that movie again.

Flash forward and I am in college, browsing in a second-hand bookstore when I find a worn paperback copy of the book. Pleased and delighted at the opportunity to not only read it again but read the entire version? For fifty cents? Absolutely.

It was Ammie, Come Home, which is one of my favorite ghost stories, and favorite novels, of all time. It was written by Barbara Michaels–for another dollar I picked up two more of her novels, Witch and House of Many Shadows. I loved all three books, but I’ve always preferred Ammie, considered it my favorite. Over the years Michaels–and her alter-ego, Elizabeth Peters-became one of my favorite writers of all time. I love her books, no matter what the name or brand or whatever you want to call it; they are all witty, with strong, likable female characters, there’s some little dash of romantic interest involved in all of them, and a very strong suspense component. The Peters novels were more mysteries; the Michaels sometimes involved the supernatural, and sometimes they didn’t.

But, oh, how I love Ammie, Come Home, and I recently, during my isolation, took it down and made it a part of this year Reread Project.

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By five o’clock it was almost dark, which was not surprising, since the month was November; but Ruth kept glancing uneasily toward the windows at the far end of the room. It was a warm, handsome room, furnished in the style of a past century, with furniture whose present value would have astonished the original owners.. Only the big overstuffed sodas, which face one another before the fireplace, were relatively modern. Their ivory brocade upholstery fitted the blue-and-white color scheme, which has been based upon the delicate Wedgwood plaques set in the mantel. A cheerful fire burned on the hearth, sending sparks dancing from the crystal glasses on the coffee table and turning the sherry in the cut-glass decanter the color of melted copper. Since her niece had come to stay with her, Ruth had set out glasses and wine every evening. It was a pleasant ritual, which they both enjoyed even when it was followed by nothing more elegant than hamburgers. But tonight Sara was late.

The darkening windows blossomed yellow as the streetlights went on; and Ruth rose to draw the curtains. She lingered at the window, one hand absently stroking the pale blue satin. Sara’s class had been over at three-thirty…

And, Ruth reminded herself sternly, Sara was twenty years old. When she agreed to board her niece while the girl attended the Foreign Service Institute at a local university, she had not guaranteed full-time baby-sitting. Sara, of course, considered herself an adult. However, to Ruth her niece still had the touching, terrifying illusion of personal invulnerability which is an unmistakable attribute of youth. And the streets of Washington–ven of this ultrafashionable section–were not completely safe after dark,

Even at the dying time of year, with a bleak dusk lowering, the view from Ruth’s window retained some of the famous charm of Georgetown, a charm based on formal architecture and the awareness of age. Nowadays that antique grace was rather self-conscious; after decades of neglect, the eighteenth century houses of the old town had become fashionable again, and now they had the sleek, smug look born of painstaking restoration and a lot of money.

Ammie, Come Home is possibly one of the best constructed, if not the very best, ghost stories I’ve ever read. As you can see from the opening paragraphs, Michaels does an exceptional job of setting everything up, giving us insights into her main character, Ruth Bennett, and her relationship with her niece. We go on to find out that Ruth is probably in her mid to late forties, was widowed in World War II, never remarried, and for the most part, it’s implied that her husband’s death pretty much was the end of any romance in her life; something she isn’t terribly interested in. This is, of course, foreshadowing–but not the way the reader might think. Yes, in the opening scene of the book, which features her niece Sara getting a ride home from one of her professors, that ah, yes, Ruth and Dr. Pat MacDougal are going to fall in love-but there’s more to Ruth’s history than that, which of course is the mark of the truly terrific writer. We also glean that childless Ruth has grown deeply fond of her niece Sara–and disapproves of Sara’s boyfriend Bruce (mainly because of his youth, the way he dresses, and what she thinks of as his smug superiority).

(This last, by the way, is the only part of the book that feels dated. Written and originally published in the 1960’s, Sara and Bruce are both college students and Pat works at a college–he’s a cultural anthropologist with a specialty in superstitions and rituals–so, as anyone who knows anything about the 1960’s knows, it was a decade of youthful rebellion and anti-establishmentarianism. There are occasional asides from both Ruth and Pat about the generation gap–this was also the first time this phrase was used, during this period–where the kids want to make change. There are a few mild arguments over that, but it’s always very good natured and never gets very deep. But the very generation gap is part of the structure of the novel; when strange things start happening in Ruth’s home, particularly involving Sara–Ruth and Pat immediately think of mental illness; Bruce is the only one open-minded enough to see the truth; that the house is haunted by a malevolent spirit–and there may even be more than one.)

It’s also very clever of Michaels to use that generational divide to explore the notions of the supernatural and a spirit world–because Bruce is given a forty-eight hour deadline to convince the older two in their quartet that Sara isn’t mentally ill but is being haunted. So, as Bruce convinces them–helped by more apparitions and events in the house–the reader is also being convinced that what’s going on in the house is supernatural in origin. How she does it is a master class in suspense/horror writing; and there are some lines that just the reader to the bone: And what looked back at her through Sara’s eyes was not Sara.

The ghost hunters eventually get to the bottom of the haunting of the old house in Georgetown by finding out the deeply hidden truth about what happened there centuries earlier, and finally freeing the spirits trapped to the house.

And maybe the creepiest, yet saddest, thing is the disembodied voice they hear, over and over, in the back yard, calling Ammie….come home…..come home…..Ammie…. —which is described as “it sounded like what the wind would sound like if it had a voice.”

And despite the dated 1960’s references, the book still holds up, over forty years later.

I rediscovered Michaels in the mid to late 1980’s, which was when I also discovered that she also wrote the Elizabeth Peters novels, and that the absolutely delightful Crocodile on the Sandbank, which I’d loved, wasn’t merely a stand alone, but the first book in a long-running, and completely fantastic, series featuring heiress Amelia Peabody and her Egyptologist husband Emerson. There isn’t a single dud in the Amelia Peabody series–and there are smart, funny, clever, and intricately plotted–and over the years the Peabody-Emerson clan had children, raised them, and those children grew up to be involved in the adventures of their parents–and every book, save one, actually took place in Egypt at the turn of the twentieth century. I need to reread Crocodile on the Sandbank, and in fact, would love to revisit the entire series. She wrote two other series as Elizabeth Peters as well–the Vicky Bliss series and the Jacqueline Kirby–as well as stand alones; every Peters novel is a gem, as is every novel she wrote as Barbara Michaels.

And now back to the spice mines.

Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!

I despise snow.

Oh, sure, it’s pretty and all, but there’s nothing worse in my opinion than being wet and cold–and that’s a definite result of snow. Although some of my favorite horror novels/films/TV shows are set in the cold and snow (Ghost Story, Stranded, The Terror) and I do have that Christopher Golden novel about the cold and snow in my TBR pile (Snowblind, I think is its name?).

I woke up late this morning with a definite sore throat, as opposed to the tickle I’ve been fighting all week, which isn’t a good thing. I shall liberally dose myself with NyQuil this day as I write and edit and do things around the house. Yesterday I accomplished little to nothing, quite frankly. I did start inputting the edits in “Don’t Look Down,” but stopped after a couple of pages. It was terribly easy for me to get distracted yesterday, partly because I felt so tired all day. We went to a Christmas party last night, which was quite lovely, actually–I drank too much champagne (which has nothing to do with my sore throat, thank you very much) and we took Lyft there and back. It was a very fun evening, with lots of laughter–my sides and abs ache a bit this morning from laughing so hard last night–but today I simply must get things done. I have a stack of paper sitting on my desk to the right of me, and I absolutely must work my way through that entire stack of edits today, or else.

I also have some laundry to do–two loads I started yet didn’t finish yesterday–and the kitchen is still a mess (I told you, I didn’t do much of anything yesterday), and I’d also like to get some reading done today. I am making shrimp and grits for dinner (first time in a very long time I’ve done this) and I also am going to try to make some food for the week, to make things easier on me (broiling chicken breasts, for example). This is, of course, the last full work week I have before the holidays, which reminded me that I actually need to put in a full eight hour day this Friday, as well as next Thursday and Friday. (Note to self: remember that or you’re going to get screwed with your hours)

I also need to make sure I am on track with everything I need to be on track with; which means administrative work–which as I am sure you can imagine how much I love doing that. It’s a heavy plate for a Sunday, but what can I do? It all has to be done, and I need to get this all done before the holiday weekends. I kind of just want to get some writing on Bury Me in Satin done, as well as these edits, then start tackling the Royal Street Reveillon problems over the two four-day weekends.

And then, of course, Carnival begins. Heavy heaving sigh. It’s just non-stop around here.

And now tis back to the spice mines.

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Blowing Kisses in the Wind

Rereading ‘salem’s Lot again, after many years, has proven to be quite a treat: there was clearly a reason why I loved this book so much and why I’ve reread it about a gazillion times. It has always been my favorite vampire novel, and certainly one of my favorite horror novels. It scared the shit out of me when I first read it back when I was a teenager, and it has always entertained me, every single I’ve read it, even though I know what’s going on in the town, what’s going to happen, who lives, who dies. I remember there’s been talk over the years–I think even Stephen King may have aided and abetted this at times–that there might be a sequel; I’ve long since given up on that hope–despite always wanting to know whatever became of Ben Mears and Mark Petrie…and did they ever return to that awful town in Maine?

In the 1980’s, I decided that I wanted to be a writer like Stephen King. I started writing horror short stories, and even came up with an idea for a full-length horror novel called The Enchantress; I still have those four chapters I wrote in my files before I finally put it away for good. The book itself, while influenced most strongly by King, was also influenced by Peter Straub’s Floating Dragon, which I had also recently read–I’d loved Ghost Story and If You Could See Me Now–and wanted to write about, the way King did so often, a small town where something supernatural–and terrifying–happens. I blatantly copied the narrative structure of Floating Dragon (oh look! Four different point of view characters! One an old man, one a child, one a man in his early thirties, and the other a woman with psychic abilities that have basically cursed her life!) but I was also trying to weave some other elements into the story that might not have ultimately worked; it was set in the panhandle of Florida, for one thing, and it had to do with the curse of a witch on four different families (a la Floating Dragon, only he didn’t have a witch), and I don’t think that would have ultimately worked. The idea was also built around a concept I had, an idea, about evil, killer mermaids. I eventually used some of the story and the concepts for Dark Tide, whose original working title was Mermaid Inn.

It’s funny that rereading ‘salem’s Lot brings back such weird memories, isn’t it? I may get around to writing The Enchantress someday–it just can’t be set in Florida, because it needs cliffs–so maybe I’ll move it to a fictional town on the California coast.

Like King–another thing I stole from him–almost all of my books are connected to each other in some way. For years, the connection between the Chanse and Scotty series were my cops–Venus Casanova and Blaine Tujague–appeared in both series; why have different homicide cops in the same city? I had originally intended to connect everything; Woodbridge in California, from Sleeping Angel and Sorceress are connected to the small town in Kansas from Sara; I don’t recall off the top of my head how Lake Thirteen plays into my world-building; but I think the Chicago suburb where the main character in that book is from was the same suburb that the kid from Sara was from, and so on. I always wanted to go back and write some more about Woodbridge; I kind of saw my teen/young adult fiction as being similar in type and style as the Fear Street series by R. L. Stine; which were all in the same town and often minor characters in one book was the main character in another. (Woodbridge was loosely based on Sonora, where some of my college friends were from; I visited them several times up there in the mountains and it was stunningly beautiful up there. One of the few great things about spending the 1980’s in Fresno was accessibility to Yosemite, Sierra National Forest, and Kings Canyon.)

I may get back to this at some point; Bury Me in Satin is connected in that it returns to the part of Alabama where the main character in Dark Tide is from, and more connections might develop as I write the book. I’ve pretty much decided to try to get the first draft of Bury Me in Satin written for Nanowrimo, which is something I’ve never done before; but why not? I am not going to officially participate, but why not use it as a goal to get the first draft of the story done?

I am on chapter nineteen of the revision of Royal Street Reveillon; one big strong last push is all it will take for me to get that finished by the end of the month, and I am enormously pleased at the prospect. It’s shaping up nicely; I think there are still a few holes in the story I am going to have to figure out how to plug later, but that’s perfectly fine.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Truly

Tuesday! I made it through Monday. I also managed to get a big hunk of edits input into the manuscript, which means I am on the downward slope to getting that finished. I am most likely going to put aside working on Scotty until the edits are finished, now that I’m in a groove, and am very pleased, I must say. I would love to have this done by the weekend, so I can let it sit for another week while I work on Scotty; but I don’t know; that’s going to depend on two things: motivation and energy.

We’ll see how that turns out, won’t we?

Heavy sigh.

I am debating on whether I want to reread It. I bought it the day it was released, back in 1986 (as I have done with everything Stephen King has published since Different Seasons,  and I read it over the course of two days. (I binge-read King’s novels back then; each as they came out, on the day they were released; a habit I have sadly fallen out of.) I also used to reread King novels many times; I can’t count how many times I’ve reread, for example, The Stand, The Dead Zone, ‘salem’s Lot, etc. I still will reread one of those earlier novels on occasion; but I’ve never reread It, though, and I’m not sure why. I think I got out of the habit of rereading King sometime in the mid-1990’s; and what I wouldn’t give for the time to sit down and reread them all, beginning with Carrie and working my way through the most recent. But now that a new film version of It is out, and breaking records, and getting much critical acclaim; it may be time to reread the Big Novel. I loved It the first time, cherishing the characters more so than the story, which did terrify me; but I vaguely remember not liking the ending; which was a first for me with King.

I do love Stephen King, both as a person and as a writer; granted, what I know of him as a person is confined to news reports of things he does, and his Twitter account; plus, I did get to meet him at the Edgars several years ago, which was one of the biggest thrills of my life. It’s hard to describe what King’s work has meant to me; how it’s inspired me as a writer, and pushed me to not only find my own voice as a writer but made me want to figure out how to create characters that, no matter how bad they might be or how awful the things they do, the reader can find some sympathy for. His On Writing is the book I always recommend to beginning writers as a place to start learning to write, and ‘salem’s Lot (with Needful Things running right behind it) is one of the best novels about a small town, and small town life, I’ve ever read. “The Body” is one of my favorite novellas, if not the favorite; and of course the film version, Stand by Me, is one of my favorite films. His uncanny eye for human behavior, his insights into character that are so honest and real and true, are what make the books so damned brilliant for me.

We watched the first episode of American Horror Story: Cult last night as well; it was an excellent start to the season. But that doesn’t mean the show won’t go off the rails as it continues to unfold; it seems like it almost always does. And without the anchor of Jessica Lange giving a balls-out performance at the center, the post-Jessica seasons tend to lose my interest along the way. We never finished watching Hotel, but we did finish the mess that was Roanoke. As Halloween approaches–it’s certainly has felt more like fall around here since Labor Day, with temperatures in the low seventies and no humidity–my mind is turning more and more to reading horror; it’s almost time for my annual Halloween reread of The Haunting of Hill House, and I do have some other horror in my TBR pile I’d like to get through. I promised Katrina Holm I’d read Michael MacDowell’s The Elementals before Bouchercon so we could drink martinis and discuss it; I’ve got some unread Nick Cutter on my shelves, as well as some other things from ChiZine Press (which never disappoints), and there are some Stephen King novels in my collection I’ve yet to read. I also want to reread Peter Straub’s Ghost Story and Floating Dragon; as I said the other day, a horror novel I’ve been thinking about for about thirty years has been percolating in my frontal lobes the last week or so–I finally realized where I could set it, where it would make sense, as opposed to where I’d stubbornly been wanting to set it, where it wouldn’t work so I’ve never been able to write it–and I may start sketching some ideas for it.

And on that note, these edits aren’t going to input themselves.

Here’s a hunk for you, Constant Reader, Eddie Cibrian, in his underwear:

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Alone Again, Naturally

Saturday! Tonight LSU takes on Ole Miss in yet another crucial game for the Tigers. Heavy sigh. I have a lot to do today–cleaning, errands–around football games, and I am going to start reading another book while editing some short stories and–hopefully–working on the revision of Bourbon Street Blues.

But yesterday, I finally had the time to devote to Bracken MacLeod’s amazing Stranded.

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The void churned and swelled, reaching up to pull them down into frigid darkness, clamoring to embrace them, every one. A cold womb inviting them to return to the lightless source of all life, and die, each man alone in its black silence.

The sea battered the ship, waves crashing against the hull as the ship’s master tried to quarter–turning the vessel into the waves to lessen their impact. While he struggled at the helm, the crew scrambled to get into their gear. The men grabbed sledgehammers and baseball bats, rushing to the aid of their fellow deckhands like a medieval army mustering to stand against the cavalry that would break them, line and bone. Noah wrestled with his waterproof gear, trying to pull on his pants and jacket, jamming hands into clumsy gloves that would combat frostbite for only so long. The ship pitched and Noah lurched in the passageway, trying not to lose his footing, trying not to be thrown to the deck before he was even out in the storm. He shoved his foot into a boot, staggering away from his locker as gravity and momentum conspired to bash his skull against the bulkhead. He careened into the wall, feeling a pop and a blossom of pain in his shoulder. He gritted his teeth and shoved himself away; he had to get on the cargo deck with the others. He couldn’t be defeated before he even got outside.

The key to writing excellent horror, to quote Stephen King yet again, is to write about what scares you. Conversely, I think the most effective horror fiction is written about what scares and unsettles the reader. The opening to this exceptionally fine novel is a perfect example of why I will never board a ship and have absolutely no desire to ever go on a cruise. Is there anything more unsettling than not having solid ground beneath you? Every earthquake I experienced in California was horrific for that reason–when you can’t trust the floor beneath your feet not to move….shudder.

I’m not necessarily as afraid of cold as I dislike it intensely. I grew up in Chicago, spent my teens in Kansas, and as an adult, one horrible winter in Minneapolis (I love Minneapolis; just can’t handle the winters; it didn’t help that the particular winter I spent there was one of the worst in years). The rest of my life has been spent for the most part in warm-weather climates; I’ve only visited the cold on trips. I don’t like being cold, really. So, of course, books set where it’s cold always affect me (Peter Straub’s Ghost Story is one example–I still shiver not only from the scares in that book but from the images of the snowbound town; there was one by I think a British writer set in a ski lodge that was also horrifying but I can’t remember the name of the writer–he was recommended by a friend; Christopher Golden’s Snowblind, which I haven’t gotten to yet; and so many others….)

So, Stranded takes place on a freighter, in the winter, in the Arctic Sea, bringing supplies to an oil rig. The main character, Noah Cabot, is kind of the scapegoat on the ship, the Arctic Promise; no one seems to like him very much and the ship’s heirarchy really hate him, yet at the same time he is enormously likable to the reader. There’s some deep pain inside of him, this son of a family of long-time Maine fisherman, who went away to college in Seattle, but MacLeod plays his cards about Noah’s backstory perfectly, like a card shark reeling his victim in, card by card. And before you know it, the ship is beset; frozen in by the ice, trapped, with all of its communications not working. There is a weird fog, and everyone on the ship seems to be coming down with some kind of ailment. Out in the distance they can see the shape of something…maybe it’s the oil rig… and Noah, as one of the only men on board not affected by the strange sickness, is selected to help lead a team of men across the ice to whatever that shape is out in the distance.

And then the real fun begins.

The premise of the story is really enough to keep the reader intrigued enough to keep turning the pages–these are some serious stakes here–but MacLeod is a master at pacing, and knowing when to drop in those precious moments of backstory so that the reader becomes even more vested in the characters he is reading about. I kept trying to guess what was going on–I did figure one thing out–but I was almost always wrong, which is gratifying as a reader. The atmosphere is gothic and spooky, and the way MacLeod uses the freezing weather to amp up the tension is spectacular; not to mention his way of making the individual characters unique enough to be distinctive–not an easy task when you have as many minor characters populating a short novel like this.

I had read and deeply enjoyed MacLeod’s Mountain Home after I had met him at World Horror Con here in New Orleans whenever that was; I am really looking forward to reading his other novel, White Knight. His transition from noir to horror was seamless and exceptional; a mark of a truly gifted writer.

BUY THIS BOOK.

And more, please.

And now, back to the spice mines.