Heavenly Action

I’ve always been—undoubtedly in part because I love history so much—an enormous fan of books where secrets from the past (even the far distant past) play an enormous part in the present lives of the characters in the story, and that solving those mysteries, learning the truth about the past, is necessary in the present for conflict resolution. As a history buff, the lack of a lengthy history as a nation is something I’ve always thought unfortunate; without ancient buildings and the way that history isn’t sort of always there in our faces the way it is in Italy or other older nations, it’s difficult for many Americans to either grasp, be interested in, or give a shit about our history—we have as a nation the attention span of a goldfish (thanks, Ted Lasso, for that reference).

To make a side by side historical comparison, for example, the Habsburg dynasty dominated central Europe for almost six hundred years, whereas the first European to actually arrive and establish a colony were under the aegis and flag of the Habsburg king of Spain—and that was in the early sixteenth century.

Secrets of the past casting a shadow over the lives of the living is often a theme in Gothics, my favorite style of novel/writing (noir is a close second). Rebecca is of course the master class in secrets of the past; the first Mrs. deWinter might not actually be haunting the halls of Manderley literally, but her ghost is definitely there. Victoria Holt’s romantic suspense novels inevitably were set in some enormous old mansion or castle, with potential ghosts a-plenty everywhere you turn. Phyllis A. Whitney’s one novel set in Britain—Hunter’s Green—also has a classic old British mansion with a potential ghost in it. Maybe it was the childhood interest in kids’ series, with the reliance on secret passages, hidden rooms, and proving that ghosts were frauds; every episode of Scooby Doo Where Are You? had the gang proving something supernatural was quite human in origin.

One of my favorite Nancy Drew books when I was a kid was The Ghost of Blackwood Hall; I don’t really remember much of the story now, other than a fraudulent haunting was involved and a woman—Mrs. Putney—was being swindled by a medium? (Reading the synopses on a Nancy Drew website, apparently part of the story involves Nancy and the gang coming to New Orleans, which I absolutely do not remember; my only Nancy Drew-New Orleans memory is The Haunted Showboat—involving yet another haunting. Interesting.) When I was writing the original short story (“Ruins”) I needed a name for the old burned-out plantation house; I decided to pay homage to Nancy Drew by naming it Blackwood Hall, and naming Jake’s maternal ancestor’s family Blackwood (his grandmother was a Blackwood, married a Donelson; Jake has his father’s last name, which is Chapman). I did think about changing this from time to time during the drafting of Bury Me in Shadows, but finally decided to leave it as it was. It might make Nancy Drew readers smile and wonder, and those who didn’t read Nancy Drew, obviously won’t catch it.

Hey, at least I didn’t call it Hill House.

But writing about ghosts inevitably makes one wonder about the afterlife and how it all works; if there is such a thing as ghosts, ergo it means that we all have souls and spirits that can remain behind or move on after we die. So what does writing about ghosts—or writing a ghost story—mean for the writer as far as their beliefs are concerned?

Religion primarily came into existence because ignorant humans needed an explanation for the world around them, combined with a terror about dying. It is impossible for a human mind to comprehend nothingness (whenever I try, I can’t get past “there has to be something in order for there to be nothing, you cannot have nothing unless you have something” and that just bounces around in my head until it starts to hurt); likewise, whenever I try to imagine even the Big Bang Theory, I can’t get past “but there had to be something to explode” and yeah, my head starts to hurt. Even as a kid in church, studying the Old Testament and Genesis, I could never get past “but where did God come from?” I don’t begrudge anyone anything that gives them comfort—unless it starts to impede on me. I’ve studied religions and myths on my own since I was a kid; the commonalities between them all speak to a common experience and need in humanity, regardless of where in the world those humans evolved; a fear of the unknown, and an attempt to explain those fears away by coming up with a mythology that explains how everything exists, why things happen, and what happens when you die. (I am hardly an expert, but theology is an amateur interest of mine, along with Biblical history, the history of the development of Christianity, and end-times beliefs.)

Ghosts, and spirits, have been used since humanity drew art on cave walls with charcoal to explain mysterious happenings that couldn’t be otherwise explained. I am not as interested in malevolent spirits—ghosts that do harm—as I am in those who, for whatever reason, are trapped on this plane and need to be freed. This was a common theme in Barbara Michaels’ ghost stories (see: Ammie Come Home, House of Many Shadows, Witch, Be Buried in the Rain, The Crying Child) in which the present-day characters must solve the mystery from the past; why is the ghost haunting this house and what happened to them that caused them to remain behind? I used this theme—spirits trapped by violent deaths in this plane whose truth must be uncovered in so they can be put to rest—in Lake Thirteen and returned to it with Bury Me in Shadows. I did, of course, worry that I was simply writing the same book over again; repeating myself is one of my biggest fears (how many car accidents has Scotty been in?), but the two books, I think, are different enough that it’s not the same story.

At least I can convince myself of that, at any rate.

There’s a few more ghost stories I want to write, actually; (it also just occurred to me that there was a ghost in Jackson Square Jazz, the second Scotty book) any number of which come from those legends my grandmother used to tell me as a child. I have this great idea for one I’ve been wanting to write set here in New Orleans for a very long time called “The Weeping Nun;” I have the entire ghost’s story written in my head, I just don’t have a modern story to wrap around it (same issue I have with my New Orleans ghost story book, Voices in an Empty Room) and of course there’s “The Scent of Lilacs in the Rain,” a short story about another Corinth County ghost I started writing and got to about five thousand words before the ghost even made an appearance. That great length is why I shelved the story—and now, of course, I realize I can do it as a novella, which is amazing news and life-changing, really. “Whim of the Wind,” the very first Corinth County story I ever wrote, is also kind of a ghost story, and maybe someday I’ll find the key to making it publishable (although I think I already did figure it out, thanks to the brilliance of an Art Taylor short story).

I’ve always believed part of the reason I was drawn so strongly to New Orleans is because the past is still very much a part of the present here—though not so much as we New Orleanians would like to believe, as several Facebook groups I belong to about the history of New Orleans often show how often and rapidly the cityscape has changed over the years—and you can sometimes even feel here, at times, under the right conditions (fog and/or mist are usually involved) like you’ve gone back in time, through a rip in the time/space continuum; which is something I’d actually like to write someday here—but that’s just an amorphous idea skittering through my brain.

And of course, I have an idea for a paranormal series set in a fictional parish here in Louisiana. I think about it every now and again, but am really not sure how I want to do it. I know doing a paranormal Louisiana town series will get me accused of ripping off Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels, but that’s fine. I don’t think I would be doing vampire kings or queens or any of the directions Ms. Harris went with her series. (Monsters of Louisiana and Monsters of New Orleans—paranormal/crime short story collections—may also still happen; one never knows, really.)

As hard as it was sometimes to write, I think Bury Me in Shadows turned out better than I could have hoped. I think it captured the mood and atmosphere I was going for; I think I made my narrator just unreliable enough to keep the reader unsure of what’s going on in the story; and I think I managed to tell a Civil War ghost story (it’s more than just that, but that’s how I’ve always thought of it and that’s a very hard, apparently, habit for me to break.

I hope people do read and like it. We shall see how it goes, shall we not?

Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go

I overslept this morning, which is really fine; I feel very rested, which means I needed the sleep and my muscles, which have felt tired all week, don’t this morning; so there you have it. I have some errands to run in the early afternoon, and I also have some writing to do today; I need to finish a chapter in the WIP and finish one in the Scotty. I should probably do so organizing and of course, the Lost Apartment is a mess. I also need to revise two short stories, whose due dates are rapidly approaching. Next weekend I will be in Alabama for the Murder in the Magic City/Murder on the Menu events, and the next weekend is the final parade weekend of Carnival (yes I am missing the first weekend for the first time in years). I do hate missing the King Arthur parade; I have lots of friends and acquaintances in that one, so I generally get buried in beads. I can’t believe I agreed to miss that weekend, but I also was so busy making sure it wasn’t the final weekend of Carnival that I didn’t notice.

Stupid, stupid, stupid Gregalicious.

Heavy sigh. I finished watching the first season of Black Sails last night, both at the gym and then when I got home after; I am, as I have said, really enjoying the show. I can’t quite figure out why I didn’t like this show when I tried to watch it several years ago, but I am really enjoying it now and glad I gave it another chance. I suspect I didn’t pay enough attention to it as I watched, and you kind of need to pay attention. There’s a lot going on, there are a lot of cross-plots, and lots of scheming. I don’t think I much cared for the way the women were treated in the first episode or two, either; it appeared that the women were all whores or mistreated terribly by men. But that’s not the case; the women are stronger and smarter than the men, and Eleanor Guthrie, who runs Nassau, is developing into quite the cold-blooded manipulative she-devil, which I am also rather loving. And of course, you can never go wrong with a hot, sweaty men in tight leather pants. My favorite, of course, is Tom Hopper, but Zach MacGowan, who plays Captain Charles Vane (and also played Roan on The 100; I thought he looked familiar) isn’t a slouch either.

Zach-Mcgowan-main

I also read two short stories last night, both horror, to keep the Short Story Project going.

The first, “Minuke,” by Nigel Keale, is from a very thick book edited by Marvin Kaye called Ghosts:

The estate agent kept an uncomfortable silence until we reached his car. “Frankly, I wish you hadn’t gotten wind of that,” he said. “Don’t know how you did: I thought I had the whole thing carefully disposed of. Oh, please get in.”

He pulled his car forward and frowned. “It puts me in a rather awkward spot. I suppose I;d better tell you all I know about the case, or you’d be suspecting me of heaven-knows-what kinds of chicanery in your own.”

As we set off to see the property I was interested in, he shifted the cigarette to the side of his mouth,

“It’s quite a distance, so I can tell you on the way there,” he said. “We’ll pass the very spot, as a matter of fact, and you can see it for yourself. Such as there is to see.”

This is a ghost story, or more properly, the story of a haunting;  it was originally written and published in 1950–which makes the story sixty-eight! It’s also told in a classic horror trope that is hardly used anymore, because it’s become cliche–someone is telling the story of what happened to someone else, a disinterested party. Stephen King has used this method a time or two; most notably in his novella “The Breathing Method” from Different Seasons, and sometimes in short stories. It’s a very classic trope–Dracula is an epistolary novel, after all, told in diary entries and letters. But at the time “Minuke” was originally published, horror wasn’t considered a form of literature and as such tropes hadn’t evolved into cliches quite yet, and it’s a well-told tale. The house of the title is merely a bungalow, built in the housing boom of the post-war era, and therefore its tenants are the first to live there; it is too young of a house to have a haunting, and yet it does. It turns out, you see, when the foundations were being dug, they came across some ancient Norse grave markers…(of course, at the time the story was written Poltergeist was many years away in the future, and the ‘never build on an Indian burial ground’ theme hadn’t become deeply engrained in the culture).

(Aside: the collection Ghosts is a gorgeous, leather bound edition with gold inlay and a ribbon page marker that I purchased for a few bucks off a sale table at Borders many years ago; I don’t know why I’ve never dipped into it before, but it’s going to definitely play a role in this year’s Short Story Project.)

The second story I read was “Fallen Boys” by Mark Morris, from Best Horror of the Year Volume Three, compiled and selected by Ellen Datlow, and originally published in Jonathon Oliver anthology The End of the Line:

When the child screamed, Tess Morton felt guilty for having to repress the urge to snap at it. She was aware that it wasn’t Matthew Bellings who should be punished, but his tormentors, and yet the boy’s cry of pain or distress was so whiny that it grated on her nerves.

The reason she felt little compassion for the child was because she knew it took almost nothing to provoke a wail of complaint from him. Matthew would cry out whenever someone barged into him in the school corridor; whenever a football was kicked towards him in the playground; whenever a classmate flicked a paper pellet at him, or snatched a text book out of his hand, or pushed in front of him in the lunch queue. Indeed, the merest slight would cause Matthew’s red-cheeked, strangely wizened face to crumple, his mouth to twist open and that familiar, toe-curling bleat to emerge.

This story, about a class field trip to an abandoned tin mine (now open as a tourist attraction and advertised as an education experience for children), is predicated on a horrific truth about bullying that we don’t like to acknowledge or understand; one that Stephen King exposed and explored powerfully in his own debut novel, Carrie. 

When we read accounts about bullying, and how teachers and other adults look the other way, we are horrified by it; when we read short stories and novels about bullying  our hearts naturally go out to the victims and we loathe the bullies and their enablers; long for their comeuppance, and are infinitely satisfied when it does come. But that bears no resemblance to the reality. That comes from the emotional distance, and the pleasant lies we so often tell ourselves, the lies about who we are as people, and how we would behave in certain circumstances–we identify with heroes and see ourselves as heroes; part of the brilliance of Stephen King’s work is he so often lays bare that horrific truth that we aren’t all heroes.

Take Tess Morton, the teacher taking her kids on this field trip. The story is completely told from her point of view. She knows that kids are bullying Matthew, and she also knows that as the voice of authority she has to try to put a stop to it. She does try, but it’s not taking because Matthew himself irritates her and sometimes she herself wants nothing more than to give him a good slap. This is the same way Miss Desjardin, the gym teacher who stops the shower assault on Carrie White in the opening scene of Carrie, feels about the victim; she has to punish the girls who did it, but Carrie irritates her, she wants to smack her a good one, and she understands why Carrie is bullied.

This is also why school–the hallways, the playground, the cafeteria, the gym–is so scarring for so many people, because they are so evocative of Lord of the Flies or The Hunger Games.

This is a great story; Morris builds his suspense beautifully, and the denouement is rather sudden when it happens–more than a little reminiscent of EC Comics, but it’s also rather satisfying.

And now. back to the spice mines.