Holy Ground

I came across the coroner’s obituary last night.

As I typed it, I realized what a New Orleans-like thing it was to say; and it made me smile a little bit. The coroner in question wasn’t currently serving New Orleans; he had retired in 2014 after ten terms in office, and his name was Dr. Frank Minyard. He played the trumpet, and was actually a gynecologist rather than a pathologist. Was he good coroner or a bad one? A little of each, I would gather, based on the obituary by John Pope you can read by clicking here.

But he was, like so many New Orleanians used to be, quite a character. New Orleans has always been a city full of characters, which is why so many people write about New Orleans, and write about it well. Not only can you probably get away with writing anything crazy-seeming about New Orleans; chances are if you dig a little into our history here, you’ll inevitably find crazier shit than anything you could dream up on your own. I have to say I have really been enjoying reading up on our local history here.

Hurricane Sally came ashore earlier this morning, and it had continued turning enough to the east that we didn’t get much of anything here in New Orleans. The panhandles of Alabama and Florida (in particular Mobile and Pensacola) are an entirely different story; my heart sank down into my shoes (well, my slippers) on seeing footage and images from that section of the Gulf Coast. Hurricane season is so emotionally exhausting, really; all that stress and tension and worry, and then when it goes somewhere else the enormous guilt one feels about the relief that your area escaped unscathed while others are losing everything–including some lives–is horrible, just horrible. It’s oddly gray and hazy-seeming outside the windows this morning, with the crepe myrtles and the young live oaks in the yard on the other side of the fence doing their wavy dance thing they do when the wind blows; the sidewalk outside also looks wet so we must have gotten some rain as well overnight, but not enough for me to notice anything as I slept through it all. (That’s the other thing about hurricanes, particularly the ones that come ashore overnight; you go to bed wondering what you’ll wake up to find in the morning–or worse yet, disaster will rip you out of a deep sleep.)

So, yes, this morning I feel very emotionally drained; well rested, but exhausted emotionally.

And then, of course, once the danger has passed, you have to reset yourself and get back to normality–whatever the hell that is, or what passes for it, at any rate.

Yesterday’s entry in the Cynical 70’s Film Festival was The Omen, which was a huge hit back when it was released in 1976 and spawned two sequels, Omen II: Damien and The Final Conflict. I had never seen the sequels, and I think I originally rented the film–I don’t think it played at the Twin Theater in Emporia–but I did read the book (the book was written by David Seltzer, who apparently, according to the opening credits of the film, wrote the screenplay; which came first? I don’t care enough to look it up) and of course, was put in mind of it by paging through The Late Great Planet Earth, which laid the groundwork for the movie. Obviously, it’s about the anti-Christ, who is Damien Thorn; the movie opens with the Robert Thorn (played with an almost wooden-like quality by Gregory Peck) arriving at a hospital in Rome only to be told that the child his wife has given birth to has died; he worries about her mental stability and how she will handle the news–and so a priest offers a substitute baby whose mother died giving birth. (And this is the first place I called shenanigans on this rewatch; one, he is about to start a lifetime of lying to his wife and two–was there any need to tell Robert Thorn his child died? If the idea was to have the Thorns accept the anti-Christ into their home as their child, wouldn’t it simply make more sense to swap the babies, so neither of them knew? Because how could they have been so certain Thorn would accept this literal deal with the devil?) The movie is paced fairly well, and it moves right along–there’s not a lot of gore or blood and guts, but it does beggar credulity at more than one point–and perhaps I am looking at it with jaded eyes some forty years later, but both Peck and Lee Remick, who plays his wife, seem to just be phoning it in for the paycheck and there’s also the element of their age; they seem to be fairly old to just be trying to start having a child at the opening of the movie. (I think the book plays this up more, stating that Kathy Thorn has suffered innumerable miscarriages leading up to this birth and it has shaken her mental stability; kind of hard to do that on film but it certainly would have made his motivation in accepting this needless deception–again, they could have just as easily substituted the baby without having to go through this entire risky rigmarole.) After finishing, I looked for Omen II but it’s not streaming for free anywhere; I then watched The Final Conflict, which was simply terrible (outside of Sam Neill, who was terrific and charismatic as an adult Damien, saddled with an incredibly bad and far-fetched script).

The movie does fit, however, with the Cynical 70’s Film Festival, because here we have yet another conspiracy, one in which some members of the Catholic Church have turned to Satan to try to bring about the end times as well as the birth of the Antichrist–because whereas in the 1950’s and the early 1960’s, it would have been unimaginable for such a film to be made, but also to be believable; who would have ever believed such a thing was possible? Of course, both book and film of Rosemary’s Baby set the stage for The Omen, but both were later 1960’s, when things were starting to change, times were getting more cynical, and so were people. Rosemary’s Baby changed almost everything, both in the world of novels and film, in showing that horror was both bankable and mainstream. The early 1970’s saw the publications, and enormous success, of books like Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, Thomas Tryon’s Gothic horror masterpiece The Other, and eventually, Stephen King’s out-of-nowhere bestseller Carrie. Soon Peter Straub would publish Ghost Story and Carrie would become a hit movie, triggering a horror revival that brought both the literature and the films into the mainstream. This revival didn’t lose steam until the 1990’s, and frankly, I think horror is on the verge of another revival.

I could be wrong, of course. I certainly have been before, but I am seeing some really terrific work as well as amazing new voices–over the past year alone I’ve read some astonishing work by new-to-me writers, and I only wish I had more time to read everything I really want to. Paul Tremblay is amazing, and so is Bracken MacLeod, Christopher Golden, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia, among others; I’m seeing a lot of new and interesting looking titles being announced or reviewed almost every time I turn around.

I guess today is Wednesday? I am really not sure, living in this weird world that comes with hurricane watches, where it is very easy to lose track of dates and times and what day of the week it actually is. But a quick glance at Weather.com assures me that all the other storms out in the Atlantic basin pose no threat to Louisiana, so I guess we can relax for a little while, at least.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines.

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.

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Also over the course of the weekend, as I was desperate to find an excuse to neither clean nor write, we watched a horror film on Prime called Don’t Hang Up.

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To be honest, I doubt that we would ever have watched this film had I not been scrolling through the listings of horror films on Prime. I actually had started House on Sorority Row because Eileen Davidson and Harley Jane Kozack were in it, but lost interest really quickly. When I saw this listing, and saw that it starred Gregg Sulkin and Garrett Clayton, my first thought was I’ve never heard of this and my second was well, they’re cute boys at the very least.

(Sulkin was the romantic lead on an MTV series I watched called Fakin’ It, and of course, Clayton played underage gay porn star Brent Corrigan in King Cobra.)

It was actually kind of good, although the premise–a group of four male high school friends prank call people, filming the entire thing for Youtube–seemed a little shaky to me; I was all do people still prank call people? Is that still a thing? But things take a turn for the dark side when they prank call the wrong person; a psycho who wants to get revenge on them, and then the movie becomes classic horror movie, a la Scream and Halloween, etc. As far as the genre goes, it’s actually well done, and the two boys do a credible job of acting. There are also some surprise twists, and the end was absolutely perfect. Well done, folks!

We also started watching AMC’s The Terror.

The Terror is based on a novel by Dan Simmons and in the episodes we’ve seen so far, it’s very well done, well acted, well written with high production values. I do have some questions–the show begins with the two ships trying to get through the Arctic Ocean to map the northwest passage; a northern route around North America to the Orient. The ships get frozen into the ‘block’ when the sea freezes over…and then it jumps ahead eight months.

The Terror is based on the true story of  the Franklin Expedition–which vanished; the wrecks of the ships were found recently. I have to say, as I often do, that I love fictional stories that are based in real history. Fiction can often, for me, provide a jumping off place to start reading history or about a region; Steve Hamilton’s Misery Bay got me fascinated in the history of the Great Lakes, and Lake Superior in particular; which led to me reading a lot about shipwrecks in that largest of the Great Lakes, and the Edmund Fitzgerald in particular. Watching The Terror will probably lead to me reading up about the search for the Northwest Passage more, and perhaps some Canadian history as well.

But I particularly want to compliment the cast of The Terror, which is quite excellent in their roles; Ciaran Hinds is always terrific, as is Jared Harris. There is also a quite extraordinary Inuk actress, Nive Nielsen, who is giving an Emmy worthy performance. Tobias Menzies is also delivering; and I have a bit of a crush on him, and have ever since he played Brutus in the long-lamented two-season only series Rome, which I loved. I’m not sure what it is about Mr. Menzies that I find so appealing; he’s not classically handsome, but there is just something about his unusual jawline that I think is interesting.

I am quite looking forward to watching a few more episodes. I am also looking forward to the BBC America series Killing Eve, which is also available on the AMC app.

And Adam Rippon is killing it on Dancing with the Stars.

And now, back to the spice mines. I almost am finished with Chapter 13, and need to get some headway on Chapter 14.

Rhiannon (Will You Ever Win?)

I first read Mary Leader’s novel Triad when I was either eleven or twelve. I was creepy, and I really enjoyed it; but I had trouble pronouncing one of the character names: Rhiannon. It was a Welsh name, of course, and I’d never heard it before, so I was pronouncing it RYE-uh-none. I actually thought it was an ugly name. Flash forward a few years, and I heard a song unlike any other I’d ever heard before on the radio–KCMO AM out of Kansas City, I think it was–and after it was finished playing, the deejay said it was “Ree-ANN-un” by Fleetwood Mac (a band I’d never heard of). The next time I was at a record store, I looked for it in the 45’s rack, and there it was: RHIANNON (Will You Ever Win” by Fleetwood Mac.

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Oh, THAT’S how you say it, I thought to myself, and bought it. I eventually bought the entire album–one of the first albums I’d ever owned that I could listen to from beginning to end–and have been a Fleetwood Mac fan ever since.

A few years ago, I either read an interview with her, or saw her talking about the song on television somewhere, and Stevie Nicks said she’d read a book where she came across the name, and the book actually inspired the song. It was one of those moments where you feel a connection with an artist you love (“Oh my God, I read that book too!”)

Recently, and I don’t remember where or how or why; it may have been my October blogging, but as I said, I don’t remember how, but I remembered the book again. I hadn’t read it in over forty years, and I remembered that the author had written another book I’d enjoyed–Salem’s Children–and so I went on-line and ordered copies of both.

And I reread Triad this past week.

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It didn’t start all of a sudden. As I think back now, there were so many little unexplained incidents that I shoved aside and forgot about until later. There began to be those gaps in my life, little ones at first, but then longer and longer as time went on. I would wonder if my memory was failing me and I worried about the headaches to which I’d become prone, but my doctor told me that it was probably shock due to the baby’s death.

That has been so unexpected. I put him to bed one night, all rosy and dimpled with health. He looked at me with those big bright eyes, as he lay fingering the handle of his rattle, then drowsiness drew down his lids and he flipped over on his stomach as he always did and went to sleep with his fist curled around the rattle. The next morning I awakened to the sound of children on their way to school and the disposal truck grinding garbage under our apartment window. Alan was away on one of his projects, so I must have slept right through breakfast. I started to stretch lazily in those moments of waking when one lies between forgetting and remembering, and then sat up with a jerk. Timmy has missed his four o’clock feeding! Had he called and I hadn’t heard him? That wasn’t possible. I always woke at the slightest sound he made. I hurried to the crib and there he was, just as I had left him, but his little body was cold.

“Unexplained crib death” was what the doctor wrote on the death certificate after the autopsy, which meant that Timmy went to sleep a normal child and just stopped breathing for no apparent reason.

Branwen is our young point of view heroine, and the sudden, unexpected death of her child has obviously had a terrible effect on her; I cannot even imagine what it must be like to lose a child, let alone a baby. In an effort to get her over the tragedy, she and her husband, Alan–a civil engineer who is thus away for work most of the time–leave their Chicago apartment behind and buy a beautiful old Victorian house in a small town north of the city on the lake shore.

And then the weird things start happening.

Branwen has guarded a secret most of her life, you see. When she was a little girl she had an older cousin, Rhiannon–their parents were two sets of identical twins–who was jealous and cruel to her, and as such, Branwen hated her. After Rhiannon killed a kitten of Branwen’s–and made it look like it was Branwen’s fault–during a game of hide-and-seek, Rhiannon was inside an old freezer, and Branwen closed the lid on her.

Unfortunately, the handle broke and she wasn’t able to get her out. She went for help, but by the time she was able to get help, Rhiannon was dead.

And now, in the big empty house, with its speaking tubes and old-fashioned stylings, she can hear Rhiannon whispering to her…and strange things start happening.

Has Rhiannon come back? Is the house haunted? Has the loss of her child driven her mad? Is she being possessed?

The atmosphere of the book is terrifying and creepy–those speaking tubes! One of the things I remembered before the reread, over forty years later, was the speaking tubes and the hollow voices coming out of them.

In tone and voice and atmosphere, it’s very similar to Thomas Tryon’s The Other as well as something Shirley Jackson might have written.

Long out of print, it’s a shame. The book is a gem of a read, and short–less than 200 pages–and it’s also a shame Leader only wrote two books.

And as you read it, you can see echoes of the Stevie Nicks song in its pages, and you can see how it inspired her to write the song.

It’s a haunting book–like I said, I’ve never forgotten it–and I’m glad I got the chance to reread it.

Me and You and a Dog Named Boo

As I continue to muddle my way through this manuscript–honestly, I don’t know sometimes why it’s like pulling teeth and other times it’s just comes right out–I am constantly amazed at how many other ideas I get when I am working on something; ideas that are infinitely more interesting and sound like more fun to write than whatever it is I am actually working on. AND IT HAPPENS EVERY SINGLE TIME. And once I am finished, the creativity and urge to work on something else goes right away.

Surely I can’t be the only writer who experiences this?

AUGH.

Madness.

But as I think about these short stories, I remember probably the two finest collections of short stories ever–Echoes from the Macabre by Daphne du Maurier and Night Shift by Stephen King. I recently bought another copy of Night Shift on ebay, as my copy is in a box somewhere. Both du Maurier and King were short story masters; in fact, when I was a kid I loathed short stories and loathed reading them; this was primarily because I had to read things like “The Minister’s Black Veil” ad nauseum in English classes. I wasn’t lucky enough to be exposed to the truly great stories, like Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and Jackson’s “The Lottery” until I got to college; but even by then the damage was done; that, along with the assigned short stories in writing courses (if I ever have to write an essay on Irwin Shaw’s “The Girls in the Their Summer Dresses” again I cannot be held responsible for what I do) had conspired to create a mentality that I loathed short stories. My experience writing short stories in writing courses in various colleges and universities had also taught me that I wasn’t a good short story writer; any good short stories I might write for a class were good purely by accident because I did not know what I was doing. That still stands true for today; I would rather write a novel than a short story.

But I am digressing, as is my wont.

Reading the du Maurier and King short story collections made me aware of what was possible for a truly gifted author to do with a short story; just as Jackson did with “The Lottery” and Faulkner with “A Rose for Emily.” My own difficulties with writing short stories comes from not, I realize now, having an actual system; I get an idea–usually both a title and a first line; maybe a character–and then I just kind of write with no idea of what’s to come, or what the story is about. This is the issue I had with “The Weeping Nun”; I wanted to write a story to submit to an anthology about Halloween stories, and I had this great title with an amorphous idea for a story, a point of view character, and an opening line: Satan had a great six pack. The problem, as I started writing the story, was realizing that as it came to me it had nothing to do with a weeping nun; but I was determined to somehow force that into the story so I could use the title.

On reflection, it seems perfectly insane and ludicrous now; but I am nothing if not obtuse and I am incredibly stubborn in stupid ways. I liked that title, and damn it, this story was going to fit that title if it fucking killed me.

The end result was the story was never finished, I missed the deadline for submission, and there was just frustration left in the wake of yet another short story failure.

And of course, this week as I struggled with writing the novel, it came to me in a flash: the story I was writing had nothing to do with the story of the weeping nun; I should have simply retitled the story and followed it to its logical conclusion and saved the story of the weeping nun for another time.

Idiocy, really. So simple, but I just couldn’t see it at the time.

And now I want to finish writing the damned story, which I now see as being about the gates of Guinee on Halloween night in the French Quarter.

Heavy heaving sigh.

And now, back to the spice mines.

Here’s a hunk to cheer you up, Constant Reader:

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The Night Chicago Died

One of the most enjoyable developments of the last ten years or so (maybe longer) has been the resurgence of horror television. I am not knowledgeable enough about the television history–I don’t really pay nearly as much attention to the entertainment industry as I used to; and I often find shows long after everyone else does. My memory, which used to be sharp as a razor, is quite a bit duller than it used to be. The embrace of horror themes and stories by television networks is something I endorse (crime has long been a mainstay of the networks); I am greatly enjoying The Exorcist, gave up on both Scream and Scream Queens during their first seasons, never finished watching Damien (which was cancelled after season one)…and then there’s American Horror Story.

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To be honest, I have a love/hate relationship with the show.

Paul and I are both huge fans of Jessica Lange, so we were tempted to watch for that reason; we both enjoy horror (Paul was the one who got me to watch not only the Halloween movies but the Scream ones as well). But we rarely watch television when it airs; our schedules don’t permit us to watch things regularly week by week. For years we simply waited for them to come on to Netflix and then would binge-watch; it was before Season 2, Asylum, began airing that I got a DVR so we could record the shows–back in the days of VCR’s we used to record shows all the time. So, as Asylum aired, we were also watching Murder House from Netflix on disc at the same time.

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The acting was fantastic; Jessica Lange was, as always, amazing. But my biggest fear about the show–Ryan Murphy as show-runner–too often proved to be true. It has been my experience that Murphy is a great ideas guy, but those ideas don’t often pan out into a long-term running show; Glee being the classic example. But I thought the anthology nature of this show–each season being a self-contained story, and using an ensemble cast–might work. Murder House was terrific, and of all the seasons, the most cohesive in terms of story-telling. Asylum was all over the place; after an amazing beginning in which Adam Levine died in a most horrible fashion, the show seemed more concerned with cramming in as many horror tropes as possible within the season: Aliens! Serial killers! Nazis! Biological experiments creating bizarre things! Demonic possession! And on and on and on. Paul and I soon lost track of the story and were just watching for the acting. We never did watch the season finale. But it did give us the wonder that was Jessica Lange singing “The Name Game”; Lily Rabe’s brilliance as the possessed nun; and Sarah Paulsen, after playing a small part in season one, getting a chance to truly exercise her acting ability as Lana, the reporter who winds up involuntarily committed.

My favorite season, though, is Coven.

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It was set in New Orleans, for one thing, and beautifully shot; it was almost a New Orleans travelogue. Kathy Bates was added to the cast, as was Angela Bassett; it was about witchcraft and a school for witches…and one of the girls was obsessed with Stevie Nicks, who even made two guest appearances on the show, but her music threaded through the entire season.

AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN The Magical Delights of Stevie Nicks - Episode 310 (Airs Wednesday, January 8, 10:00 PM e/p) --Pictured: (L-R) Lily Rabe as Misty Day, Stevie Nicks as herself -- CR. Michele K. Short/FX

Miss Robicheaux’ School for Girls was even in my neighborhood.

But again, the writing was incredibly uneven and often times the story didn’t make any sense. The acting was terrific, though, and the visuals absolutely stunning. I even wrote a piece about how watching Coven for the Criminal Element website about how the show reminded me of why I fell in love with this crazy city in the first place.

The <i>Freak Show</i> season was again unevenly written, and this time the acting–the way the characters were written and so forth, wasn’t strong enough to really carry the show. It was also filmed here, with New Orleans standing in for Jupiter, Florida; the Mott mansion, for example, was Longue Vue. And Hotel was such a mess that we didn’t ever watch the season finale, like Asylum. We are watching the new season, Roanoke, and were very close to stopping watching until the big twist in episode 6–Murphy had hinted in interviews the show would flip, and so we decided to stick it out until then. But after the big flip–which was incredibly clever–it seems like the writing is going off the tracks again.

There have been amazing moments on the show, though.

I am curious to see where this season goes.

And now back to the spice mines.

Get Dancin’

The book is proceeding apace, but I do think this may be my last venture into writing any kind of erotica. I love the story I am writing, and I love the characters, but I am so tired of writing sex scenes. I don’t even want to think about how many sex scenes I’ve written. I never say never, of course–I may write another fratboy book; who knows? But right now I am enjoying writing the story but am having to force myself to put the sex scenes in. I wrote a really nasty poolside one today–it’s not that I can’t write them; like I said, the one I wrote today is hot and nasty; I just don’t find them as much fun to write as I used to.

Speaking of sex scenes and nudity (see what I did there?), a few entries back I mentioned how I described the HBO show True Blood as “Dark Shadows with sex, nudity and a lot more blood.” I stand by that description; the show was a serial, just like Dark Shadows, there were a lot of supernatural elements, just like Dark Shadows, and the primary story was a romance between a male vampire and a human woman, and the vampire was originally from the same area where the story was set. Like Maggie Evans, the object of Barnabas Collins’ dark desires, Sookie Stackhouse, our plucky heroine, was also a waitress at a local bar and grill.

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Whether True Blood was horror or not, I cannot say. As I said when I embarked on talking about my favorite horror this month, I pointed out that I am not well-read enough in the genre, or know enough about it’s history, to discuss actual aspects of the genre and what qualifies as horror or not. I think, like with ‘mystery,’ ‘horror’ has become a generic umbrella term for vast swatches of work that sometimes have as little in common as a tomato with a watermelon. Is a ghost story like Ammie Come Home horror? The book scared the crap out of me, but it was marketed, really, as romantic suspense with a touch of the paranormal. Are all paranormal novels horror? I am really not qualified to answer that question.

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I guess the best description of the show would be to call it a ‘paranormal soap.’ It had moments of suspense and terror, of course–and gore, and humor, and nudity, and sex. The story was interesting every season (the season about the maenad, not so much; Paul and I both got kind of bored with that season) to me. People often, on social media, talked about not liking the show or liking the show; but I’m not ashamed to say that I pretty much enjoyed it during its entire run. The problem, of course, was that they had to keep upping the stakes (no pun intended).

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It also had a diverse cast. Many of the characters, in fact, I found a lot more interesting that Sookie the mixed blood fairy and Bill the vampire; and there were some wonderful comedy moments as well–one of my favorites being when Tara is in a moody funk after her boyfriend Eggs turned out to be a serial killer and was killed himself, and Arlene, played brilliantly by Carrie Preston, snaps in exasperation, “So you fell in love with a serial killer? Who here hasn’t?”

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If there was any problem with the show’s writing, it seemed like they couldn’t make up their minds what Sookie was; sometimes she was this whiny, passive heroine things happened to; other times she was a badass with a smart mouth who took no shit from anyone.

And of course, my absolute favorite, Pam, never got enough story or scene.

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Even the annoying characters at the beginning eventually were developed into likable characters over the course of the show. Jason Stackhouse went from a self-absorbed young stud who loved and left every women he met, who was estranged from his sister, into a pretty decent guy who tried to do the right thing but just made bad choices. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Ryan Kwanten, who played him, was gorgeous.

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The first moment I saw him on screen I thought, “That’s who should play Scotty if that series ever is filmed.”

I’ve not read the enormously popular novels the show was based on–not from any sense that I wouldn’t like them; but again, one of those I just don’t have time to read them things. I’ve gone back and forth on that–Charlaine Harris is a terrific writer, and an absolutely lovely person–but maybe if I take another trip to a beach, like the Acapulco trip or Hawaii, I’ll take them with me to go and binge read.

The show was also filmed beautifully; it was filmed in Louisiana, and sometimes they were here in New Orleans filming, and Bon Temps was, like Collinsport in Dark Shadows, a kind of magnet for paranormal creatures and activity. I myself have always wanted to do this type of a series–I came up with an idea a million years ago–and even named my town, Bayou Shadows. My short story “Rougarou” actually took place in Bayou Shadows, Louisiana, and I’d intended for Need to eventually tie into that at some point.

Ah, well.

There was also a lot of homoeroticism in the show, and gay/lesbian/bisexual characters. I loved Lafayette, the gender bending short order cook/drug dealer/hustler who was also a medium.

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The show was also exceptionally clever, as I am sure the books were as well, about dipping into social issues.

And now back to the spice mines.

Have You Never Been Mellow?

My parents were from the country, and as a kid, despite living in Chicago and its suburbs until I was fourteen, I spent a lot of time in rural regions in the summer. We moved to rural Kansas the summer I turned fifteen, to a small town with a population of less than a thousand, a post office and no home mail delivery, and a blinking red light at the cross roads in the center of town. There has always been a sense in this country that the simpler life, i.e. living in the country, is somehow more pure, more American, than living in the cities; I’ve never really understood this, frankly. I’m not disparaging rural life, or people who chose that lifestyle; it’s simply not my preference.

But there’s nothing like the countryside for setting a horror novel, is there? Isn’t it interesting how some of my absolute favorite horror is set either in the countryside or in a small town? Hmmmm…I wonder what to make of that.

 

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My favorite novel from former actor turned author Thomas Tryon is The Other; which is certainly Gothic and creepy, but I am not including it in my list of Halloween horror novels because I don’t really think of it as a horror novel; maybe other people think so–but other people aren’t making this list, now are they?

I awakened that morning to birdsong. It was only the little yellow bird who lives in the locust tree outside our bedroom window, but I could have wrung his neck, for it was not yet six and I had a hangover. That was in late summer, before Harvest Home, before the bird left its nest for the winter. Now it is spring again, alas, and as predicted the yellow bird has returned. The Eternal Return, as they call it here. Thinking back from this day to that one nine monthe ago, I now imagine the bird to have been sounding a warning. But that is nonsense, of course, for who could have thought it was a bird of ill omen, that little creature?

During the first long summer, its cheerful notes seemed to stand both as a mark of fulfillment and as a promise of profound happiness, signifying the achievement of our heart’s desire. Happiness, fulfillment–if promised, they came only in the strangest measure.

The house, though new to us when we purchased it in the spring, was almost three hundred years old, an uninhabited wreck we had chanced upon, bought, and spent the summer restoring. In late August, with the greater part of the work behind us, I was enjoying the satisfaction of realizing one’s fondest wish. A house in the country. The great back-to-the-land movement. City mouse into country mouse. Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Constantine and daughter, landed gentry, late of New York City, permanently residing at 11 Penrose Lane, in the ancient New England village of Cornwall Coombe. We had lived there less than four months.

Despite some things that wouldn’t play today–there’s a rape scene, for example, which isn’t really dealt with or intended to lose sympathy in the reader for the rapist, for one, and Mrs. Theodore Constantine, really? Yet those were signs of the times–Harvest Home still holds up for the most part today. It’s hard to imagine, though, in this day and age, a rural hamlet that would be so remote and a community so insular and wrapped up in itself that its secrets would never escape; the Internet and smart phones have pretty much connected everywhere (or so I think, in my smug urban-dweller experience). But it’s a chilling book, really, even if there are no supernatural influences going on in the book. Ned and Beth, with their asthmatic daughter Kate, move to the country so Ned can work on his dream of being a serious painter rather than an advertising executive. (For those who were not around in the late 1960’s/1970’s, there was a big movement, or desire/fantasy, for city dwellers to give up the rat race and chase their dreams by moving back to the simpler, country lifestyle, and interestingly enough–here’s a dissertation topic for someone: there was also a literature of the time in which this desire/fantasy, upon achievement, turned into a hideous nightmare; just asThe Stepford Wives showed that moving to a suburb to escape the horrors of city life was into the fire from the frying pan–and there’s the title! From the Frying Pain. I expect to be in the acknowledgements, whoever does this.)

Harvest Home is more of a mystery novel, I suppose, than a horror novel; Tryon’s novels really defied description or categorization, blending elements of different genres together into a dark whole. The book really kicks off when Ned discovers the grave of Gracie Everdeen outside the hallowed ground of the town cemetery, and starts looking into her story and why she was buried out there. Pulling one thread unravels and unspools many others,and the town’s secrets–and strange rituals–slowly come to be revealed to Ned, and to his horror…his discoveries not only put himself at risk but his wife and daughter as well.

And at the center of everything is the aged Widow Fortune–is she a force for good, or a force for evil? In either case, she is one of the most compelling and interesting characters in the novel. (The book was made into a Made-for-TV movie, with Bette Davis in the role.)

It’s a very creepy novel, and the tension/suspense builds and builds. The ending is satisfying–if not the ending the reader may be hoping for, of course.

I always have entertained the notion of writing a biography of Thomas Tryon. He was gay, he was a movie star, and he was rather a good writer, who has sadly been mostly forgotten (although The Other has been brought back into print by New York Review of Books Classics). He also had a long term relationship with Casey Donovan, one of the more famous gay porn stars of the 1970’s.

Because of course I have so much time.

And now back to the spice mines.

 

Rhinestone Cowboy

I do love witches. What would Halloween be without them? Of course, the caricature of witches that we see at Halloween–green skin, pointed hat, riding a broom, warts, huge crooked nose–was popularized into modern culture by The Wizard of Oz (if not, the Wicked Witch in that film was the personification of the popular culture’s conception of a witch); but, alas, my knowledge on the history of the perception of witches is not that terrific. I know that the concept of witchcraft has been around for a long time–witches are mentioned in the Bible–and have been around in the popular culture for quite some time; I watched Bewitched as a child; there’s Bell, Book, and Candle, and so much fiction about witches…and of course, I’ve read up on the Salem witch trials–and hasn’t everyone been forced to read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in high school? I am hoping that Lisa Morton, who has already co-authored a graphic novel with the late lamented Rocky Wood and illustrated by Greg Chapman called The Burning Times as well as definitive histories/non-fictions studies on both Halloween and ghosts, will also tackle witches.

But today, I am going to talk about Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour.

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The doctor woke up afraid. He had been dreaming of the old house in New Orleans again. He had seen the woman in the rocker. He’d seen the man with the brown eyes.

And even now in this quiet hotel room above New York City, he felt the old alarming disorientation. He’d been talking again with the brown-eyes man. Yes, help her.  No, this is just a dream. I want to get out of it.

The doctor sat up in bed. No sound but the faint roar of the air conditioner. Why was he thinking about it tonight in a hotel room in the Parker Meridien? For a moment he couldn’t shake the feeling of the old house. He saw the woman again–her bent head, her vacant stare. He could almost hear the hum of the insects against the screens of the old porch. And the brown-eyed man was speaking without moving his lips. A waxen dummy infused with life–

No, stop it.

He got out of bed and padded silently across the carpeted floor until he stood in front of the sheer white curtains, peering out at black sooty rooftops and dim neon signs flickering against brick walls. The early morning light showed behind the clouds above the dull concrete facade opposite. No debilitating heat here. No drowsing scent of roses, of gardenias.

Gradually, his head cleared.

I had read Interview with the Vampire when it first came out, back in the 1970’s, and honestly didn’t care for it. I had just read ‘salem’s Lot, and the concept of the vampire as hero didn’t appeal to me; it was just too foreign for me to wrap my head around (which is ironic, given my love for Dark Shadows, but I didn’t make the connection then between Louis and Barnabas). I picked it up again in the mid-1980’s, and felt the same way about it. I didn’t read anything else Mrs. Rice published, either, simply because I didn’t care for  Interview; then a friend who was a fan had me read The Mummy, which I greatly enjoyed. I had a hardcover copy of The Witching Hour–I don’t know why, to be honest–but after reading The Mummy I wanted to read something else by Mrs. Rice and remembered that I had a copy of this other one…

And could not put it down.

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The Witching Hour ostensibly tells the story of Rowan Mayfair and Michael Curry. Rowan is the latest in a long line of witches going back to the seventeenth century (but doesn’t know it), and she saves Michael from drowning, bringing him back to life. He comes back to life with a strange power–the ability to see things when he touches them; he starts wearing gloves. He also had a vision while he was dead that is somehow connected to Rowan–so he tracks her down and they begin a relationship that eventually leads them back to New Orleans and the Mayfair house, a decayed, ancient mansion in the Garden District when her mother, Dierdre, dies. Dierdre has been in a vegetative state for years; every day she was placed on a side porch of the mansion with the great Mayfair jewel around her neck that always belongs to The Mayfair; the woman who, in each generation, has the power. The brown-eyed man the doctor sees in the opening is Lasher, a spirit whose relationship to The Mayfair is sometimes in question; is he the source of their power, or is he playing some other type of game that The Mayfair is unaware of? The narrative flashes back and forth in time, telling the history of the Mayfair witches along with the romance of Michael and Rowan as they, with the help of the secret order of the Talamasca, try to determine what the truth about the Mayfair witches–and Lasher–is.

I loved this book so much; I always recommend it to people who want to read books about New Orleans, and always include it on lists of the best books set in New Orleans. It was this book that made me want to come back to New Orleans again; and you can imagine the thrill I got when a friend who lived here drove me to the corner of First and Chestnut and showed me the Mayfair house, which was actually where Mrs. Rice and her family lived. And it was exactly as she described it in the book; Dierdre’s porch was even there.

I’ve read every Anne Rice novel since then, and she also became one of the authors I always buy in hardcover. She is one of those writers you either love or you hate; those who love her work can be very rabid. It was when I was reviewing one of her later Vampire Chronicles (Blood and Gold) that I realized–it’s different when you read for review than when you read for pleasure–that so many reviewers/critics actually got what she does in her books wrong. Mrs. Rice writes about supernatural creatures–vampires, witches, werewolves, etc.–but she isn’t writing horror; she is writing romances in the classic sense of the word. In modern literature romance has come to mean something greatly different than what it meant classically; a romance novel was not a love story, per se, but a big sweeping epic tackling huge themes like life and death, war, peace, humanity, faith, spirituality; what Mrs. Rice was doing was using supernatural characters to expand and explore those themes, and she was writing in the style of the great romance writers of the nineteenth century, like Dumas and Hugo.

I’ve always meant to go back and reread all of her work with this in mind–which is how I’ve read her novels since that realization–but again, time. I am actually several novels behind on her work now–I’ve not read The Wolves of Winter or Prince Lestat, and she has another coming out this year as well.

I will never catch up.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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.