Holding Back the Years

Yesterday was rather dreary, weather-wise, and I feel fairly confident we are still under a flash-flood warning; but this morning all I see is blue sky and sunshine. Things still look a little damp out there, but over all, much better than one could have hoped. And in checking the project path for Alberto, the cone of uncertainty has narrowed to New Orleans in the west to Panama City in the east; much, much smaller cone; but we are on the outside of the western edge. As storms also tend to turn to the east–even Katrina did before landfall–I’ve breathed a slight sigh of relief this morning.

It is, I suspect, going to be a long hurricane season–particularly since it doesn’t officially start until June 1.

I slept deeply and well last night, and my back–which was aching–no longer hurts, which is a good thing. I wish I could figure out what the hell I am doing to it to make it hurt in the first place, so I can be more careful, but I am more than happy to take the pain being gone as a win this morning. Huzzah!

Yesterday I was scribbling away in my journal as I continued to read Philip Roth’s When She Was Good. The writing is very good, and the characterizations are also quite good; all that remains is the plot/story, and I am intrigued enough with it to continue reading it. Maybe I should dial it back for a while on the crime fiction and read outside my genre for a little while; not just for a break but to come up with better ideas for my own writing, which can never hurt.

I wrote all kinds of notes in my journal yesterday; notes for the WIP, notes for the short stories “Never Kiss a Stranger” and “A Holler Full of Kudzu” and “The Brady Kid” (I’ve not even thought about the latter for months now), so I am feeling all kinds of productive here in the Lost Apartment this morning. I am going to actually write today for a while; I also intend to do some reading–not just the Roth, but I am going to read everything I’ve written on the Scotty thus far and make notes. I also don’t know my characters in the Scotty book as much as I should, and I need to get the plot figured out so I can get the goddamned draft done. I also have a few other things I need to get done as well.

And there’s always cleaning, of course. I am currently working on washing the bed linens, and the living room of course needs to be vacuumed. I also need to clean out my car a bit; and Armor-all the inside of my car now that summer is looming. I also need to put the recycling out. But I have to say, this well-rested thing is actually working out quite beautifully. I could easily get very used to it, I must say. I must also say that I’m greatly enjoying this creative phase I am currently experiencing. I am thinking about character, and why I write the things I write, and how to broaden my reading audience. I’ve been thinking about moving forward with the agent search, how best to approach an agent, how to put my best foot forward, not only with industry professionals but also with the readers of my genre.

I’ve also come to realize that, over the last few days, as I’ve put my finger precisely on why I wasn’t getting anywhere with “A Holler Full of Kudzu” is because I was trying to not be subversive; the write from the gay male point of view without rubbing people’s faces in the sexuality. But WHY? Why would I do that? The point of the story, the theme, if you will, has everything to do with the point of view character’s sexuality; of beginning to understand what your sexuality is and that is partly why you feel different from everyone else, and also, learning how people feel about people who are like you, and how dangerous those feelings are, can push you deeper into the closet. I think the theme may be larger than the story itself, to be completely honest with you; which is why I am tending to think this story may actually be a novel a-borning in my mind rather than the lengthy short story I was thinking it would be. As I plug in some of the story pieces today that I brainstormed in my journal last night, I will come to a better understanding of the story and how long it is going to be.

Likewise, “Never Kiss a Stranger” is becoming much longer than I originally thought it would turn out to be; it’s going to come in far longer than the six or seven thousand words I originally had planned. That will make it harder to place, of course–not that it’s not already hard to place stories with gay characters and themes; it’s almost impossible–but I’ve also decided that I simply have to stop writing things that are specifically intended for markets. I have to write the story the best I can and then try to find a market for it. And I can always, always, always, simply do another collection of stories.

I also like that “The Brady Kid” is starting to shape in my mind; mainly, who the point-o-view character is. Part of the issue with some of my stories is that maybe I don’t define the characters enough; it’s hard to write a good story when you don’t know who your characters are.

I’m also finding that experimenting with voice and style and tone and place is much easier to do in a short story rather than in a novel. I think writing these stories is making me a much better writer, to be honest, which is ultimately going to be more helpful to me in the long run than I’d possibly thought. During my brainstorming last night I also figured out some of the problems I am having with the Scotty novel; not solutions, per se, but actually diagnosing the problems, which is key to figuring out how to solve those problems.

Which is fun, actually, and I have to say, it’s so awesome that writing is fun again.

I also read some short stories. Here’s one: “Crazy Margaret” by Jack Fredrickson, from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, September/October 2017 issue.

The gravestone had room for only the first name, but it was the largest he could carry up the hill. He set in on ground covered now, as then, with curled brown leaves.

He’d meant to slip into town quietly, place the stone, and slip out again. There was no one from his old life he wanted to see. But a voice had called his name when he was gassing up the rental, a guy he’d known in high school. They’d chatted for a moment before Dave, acting casual, asked about her.

The old classmate had scratched his head, surprised. Crazy Margaret, he said; that’s what the kids sneaking out there called her after she dropped out of school. But new kids came along, kids who didn’t know her, and soon enough, nobody gave her any mind at all. “Hell, it’s been at least twenty years,” he said. “She could be dead.”

I enjoyed this story; which is told from the perspective of someone coming home to their small town and remembering something that happened years earlier, something criminal; this is something I often do in my own stories–in fact, “This Thing of Darkness” is sort of one of these stories. The Margaret of the title is a beautiful young woman who sunbathes out at the lake where she lives in skimpy bikinis; luring young boys out there to watch her and possibly, just possibly, killing some of them. It’s sort of a retelling of the siren myth, from the Greeks: the beautiful woman who lures men to their deaths. Although…really, should the boys be out there spying on her in the first place? Isn’t that a form of harassment?

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the story; it’s very well done and how Margaret gets her own punishment for what she’s doing is very Tales from the Crypt or House of Mystery; crime is always punished in a macabre, ironic way and so it is for the Crazy Margaret of the title.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Dancing in the Sheets

The sun is shining, and the temperature has climbed to 49 degrees. The boil-water advisory ended finally last evening–it’s just not a crisis in New Orleans unless we have a boil-water advisory!–and here I sit this morning, ensconced at my desk with a cup of coffee, a load of laundry tumbling in the dryer, with great expectations of the day. I went to the gym last evening after work, and my muscles, while a bit tired, still feel stretched and worked and supple, if that makes sense. Probably the best thing about rededicating myself to physical exercise again is how much better I feel; I don’t ache or feel tired the way I did just last week, and the stretching and the treadmill are also making me feel ever so much better. Today, I am going to clean (if it’s Saturday I must be cleaning) but I am also going to write, edit and read today. Paul is going into the office to work (it’s that time of year again) and so I have the day to myself. I want to finish the first draft of “The Trouble with Autofill” and I want to edit “Cold Beer No Flies.”

Among many other things; my to-do list is ridiculous, quite frankly. But the only way to make progress is not to get overwhelmed by the enormity of the list but rather to keep plugging away at it.

I finished reading Miami by Joan Didion earlier this week, and it was quite good. Didion’s writing style is quite amazing, actually, and while the story of the book might seem, at first glance, to be rather dated; the truth is it is still very much appropriate to our modern times. Miami is a look at the Cuban exiles in the city, how they relate to each other, and how they impact south Florida politically; and to a lesser extent, the relationship between the US government with them as well as with Castro’s Cuba. During the Cold War Cuba was a much more terrifying apparition, close as it was to Florida, and it’s amazing how people do not realize the political clout, as a result of their sheer numbers, that the Cuban immigrants weld in that part of the state, and in the entire state as well. The importance of Florida as a swing state cannot be discounted; and therefore the Cuban-American community’s influence on national politics is something that has to always be considered. (A present day comparison would be the Puerto Ricans moving to Florida today in great numbers as a result of the hurricane destruction of their island; the difference being those Puerto Ricans are already American citizens who can register to vote and can impact 2018 already.) Didion’s look at Miami in the 1980’s, as a Caribbean city on the mainland, is also reminiscent of descriptions of New Orleans as the northernmost Caribbean city; the thing I love the most about Didion’s work is how she makes you think. Reading Miami made me want to write about Miami; I’ve been wanting to write about Florida for a long time, as Constant Reader already knows. Something to ponder.

miami

I also started reading Mark Harris’ Pictures at a Revolution, which is a look at the film industry through the lens of the five films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1967, and how they were made. Harris’ thesis is that was the year that bridged the gap between old and new Hollywood; and the five Best Picture nominees illustrated that perfectly: an expensive musical flop (Doctor Dolittle); two old style Hollywood pictures about race (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night), and two films that illustrated new Hollywood and its influence by European filmmakers like Truffaut and Fellini and Antonioni (Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate). I, of course, have always been fascinated by Hollywood history and have been ever since I read Garson Kanin’s Tracy and Hepburn and Bob Thomas’ Selznick as a kid; this book is right up my alley, and since it’s been awhile since I’ve read any Hollywood history, I am looking forward to reading this (and his Five Came Back–I’ve already watched the documentary based on it).

The Short Story Project also moves apace; I am frequently surprised as I look through my shelves for something to read how many single author collections and anthologies dot them. My Ipad also has quite a few loaded onto the Kindle app; I often buy them when they are either free or reduced in price, and so my Kindle app is filled with books I’ve not yet read, primarily because I don’t like to read on it (which I realize is nothing more than stubbornness; if I can watch movies or television programs on it, why resist reading books there?) Yesterday I found my battered old Dell paperback of Agatha Christie’s The Golden Ball and Other Stories, which I remember loving as a child. I was looking for my copy of Lawrence Block’s first anthology inspired by paintings–those of Edward Hopper– In Sunlight or in Shadow, which I would have sworn I’d purchased in hardcover; yet it wasn’t anywhere on the shelves or in any of the TBR piles, before remembering I’d bought it as an ebook when the Macavity nominations come out; Block’s story “Autumn at the Automat” was a finalist, along with mine (I still can’t believe it) and I wanted to read all the other nominated stories for an entry, so the immediacy of the need required buying the ebook. It is a handsome volume, though, so I’ll need to buy a hard copy to pair with the new one. (New bucket list item: write a story for one of these anthologies by Lawrence Block)

Once I’d located it on the iPad, I scoured the table of contents and landed on a Joyce Carol Oates story, “The Woman in the Window.” I have to confess I’ve not read much of Ms. Oates; I am not even remotely familiar with what she writes. But she, too, was a Macavity finalist last year, for her story “The Crawl Space” (which also won the Stoker Award), and that story creeped me the fuck out. I know she’s been a Stoker finalist before, but I also think she tends to write across genre a lot and therefore isn’t pigeon-holed in one way or the other.

Beneath the cushion of the plush blue chair she has hidden it.

Almost shyly her fingers grope for it, then recoil as if it were burning-hot.

No! None of this will happen, don’t be ridiculous!

It is eleven A.M. He has promised to meet her in this room in which it is always eleven A.M.

This story, frankly, isn’t as strong as “The Crawl Space,” but it’s an interesting exercise in how thin the line between lust and loathing is; the woman of the title is a secretary having an affair with a much wealthier man, and as she gets older and older she is feeling more and more trapped in the relationship; he is married and he often has to break plans with her for his wife. There is also a shift occasionally to his point of view, and he’s not so fond of her anymore, either. Passion has cooled but habit has set in; and the way those lines can get crossed is chilling–and how destructive such a relationship can be to both parties, emotionally and mentally, is explored in great detail yet sparse language by Ms. Oates. The story’s not as creepy, as I said, as the other; but the end–which she leaves kind of hanging–you do feel that something awful is going to happen; maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but eventually.

I’ve not read Joe Hill before, and there are several reasons for that; none of which would make any sense to anyone who is not me; I am nothing if not aware of my own eccentricities, which is why I generally don’t share them with people; I don’t need someone else to point out that something doesn’t make sense. But I do have a copy of his short story collection 20th Century Ghosts, which I spied on the shelves as I looked for my copy of the Block anthology. Aha, I thought, perfect. I can read a Joe Hill story for the Short Story Project. So, I curled up under a blanket in my easy chair, waited for Scooter to get settled in my lap, and started reading “Best New Horror.”

A month before his deadline, Eddie Carroll ripped open a manila envelope, and a magazine called The True North Literary Review slipped out into his hands. Carroll was used to getting magazines in the mail, although most of them had titles like Cemetery Dance and specialized in horror fiction. People sent him their books, too. Piles of them cluttered his Brookline townhouse, a heap on the couch in his office, a stack by the coffee maker. Books of horror stories, all of them.

No one had time to read them all, although once–when he was in his early thirties and just starting out as the editor of America’s Best New Horror–he had made a conscientious effort to try. Carroll had guided sixteen volumes of Best New Horror to press, had been working on the series for over a third of his life now. It added up to thousands of hours of reading and proofing and letter-writing, thousands of hours he could never have back.

He had come to hate the magazines especially. So many of them used the cheapest ink, and he had learned to loathe the way it came off on his fingers, the harsh stink of it.

I did not mention the elephant in the room; said elephant, of course, being that Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son. (The Kings are a very literary family; Mr. King’s wife Tabitha is a poet and a novelist; their other son Owen also writes, as does Owen’s wife, Kelly Braffet; I read a novel by Ms. Braffet sometime in the last couple of years–not aware of the King connection–and greatly enjoyed it.)

But simply based on a reading of “Best New Horror,” I have to say Joe Hill is also a terrific writer. And while it, like some of his father’s work, bears a strong resemblance to something I would have read in an Tales from the Crypt or House of Mystery comic book–that is not a criticism. I loved those comics, and the stories I read in them; they had a deep influence on me not only as a writer but as a reader. “Best New Horror”, as you can tell by the opening, tells the tale of Eddie Carroll, a writing teacher and a long-time editor of the Best New Horror series, a chore he has learned to loathe and, basically, phone in every year for the money. This resonated with me; as an anthology editor myself, one of the reasons I stepped away from editing them–or took a break from doing it–was because it was becoming rote; a chore rather than something I found joy in doing. Eddie is an example of why I stopped–I didn’t want to become like him; embittered by the experience and tired of not finding anything fresh or new (unlike Eddie, I was able to keep the experience fresh because each anthology I did was a new topic; if I had done twenty anthologies with the same theme I would have gone on a killing spree). But in the mail comes a story from a new writer that is simply brilliant; original and fresh and resonant and horrifying in its reality; the story reinvigorates Eddie and makes the editing job no longer a chore; he has to have this story, and will do whatever he has to in order to track the writer down…but as with any horror  tale of obsession, it’s not going to end well. But Hill brilliantly keeps stringing the reader along, and the ending is just absolutely brilliant and clever. I am really looking forward to reading more of these stories.

And now, I must get back to the spice mines. There are clothes to fold, dishes to wash, floors to clean, stories to write and edit; I am probably coming back here for another entry later as I am trying to get caught up on posting the stories I’ve read–but I make no promises. I have another story to write as a call for submissions crossed my computer screen on Thursday; I have an unfinished story that I can repurpose, but I also need to get a first draft done so I can work the story out.

Until later, Constant Reader.

1, 2, 3, Red Light

Friday morning in the midst of an unusual cold spell for New Orleans. It’s the second weekend of Jazz Fest, and the high today–and yesterday– was merely seventy one degrees. It’s in the frigid low sixties right now; but it’s going to be sunny and clear and lovely all day; no rain in the forecast for the weekend. I have some appointments tomorrow, but am going to stop for groceries on my way home from work tonight so I don’t have to deal with that tomorrow. I’d like to make some further progress on the WIP tomorrow, as well; hope to do so today, too.

As I have said lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Alabama, primarily due to events I’ve done in that state this year (the first time I’ve ever done anything there). I have written short stories (full disclosure: only two have been published) set in Alabama, and only one book set there. Many years ago, I thought about doing a whole series of books set in Alabama, and all connected (what can I say? I was reading Faulkner) in one way or the other. I created a fictional town and county (thank you, Mr. Faulkner) and families and connections and the whole ball of wax, but never wrote any of them, of course. (I was always big on the ideas phase, not so much on the writing phase.) The town was Corinth, Alabama, and the county had the same name. Recently, as I’ve been doing research into Alabama history (when I’m between clients at work), those ideas have come back to me. Taylor, Frank’s nephew in the Scotty series, is from Corinth; Frank’s mother was from there and that’s the Sobieski connection to Alabama. My favorite short story of all the ones I’ve published, “Small Town Boy,” is also set there, and of course, when I started writing Dark Tide, my main character, Ricky Hackworth, was from Corinth–and somehow related to characters in the short story; we never know what the main character’s name is in the story, but the story focuses on his relationship with a Hackworth whose mother has just shot his father–“those trashy Hackworths.”

Dark Tide is one of my personal favorites of my books, and I think it’s partly because it was a return to Corinth. The book wasn’t set there–Ricky leaves Corinth for a summer job on the Gulf Coast of Alabama as a lifeguard–but Ricky was from there, and I was able to draw on the rich background I’d created for the town in my twenties as backstory for the book. I also tried to do something with the writing style that I’d never done before, which was mimic the pacing of swimming strokes with the pacing of the book. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I know some of the best work I’ve done is contained inside the pages of that book–there’s one particularly creepy scene where Ricky is swimming in the bay and he has this feeling that there are carnivorous mermen down in the depths of the bay beneath him as he swims, and then imagines it as he strokes through the calm morning waters. I also really liked the character of Ricky; he’s grown up relatively poor and motherless (the reader never knows what happened to his mother), and thinks back to how he is treated by the richer kids, how he is picked on for his suspected sexuality, how deeply closeted he is, and how he met, at a swimming camp his father could barely afford to send him to at the University of Alabama, he met and fell in love with someone who basically changed his life and helped him see that he wasn’t a freak. I loved the character of Ricky, and Dark Tide also is one of few novels I ever wrote that has a big twist that flips the story completely–there are hints, of course, I would never cheat–and I am very proud that I pulled it off.

The book was originally conceptualized and titled as Mermaid Inn. When I was a kid, I used to read comic books voraciously; I sometimes wonder how I found the money to buy as many comic books and kids’ series books as I did (I tend to suspect, now that I am in my fifties, that I was a great deal more spoiled as a child then I thought I was). DC Comics used to publish two comics that were more horror/mystery related than super hero oriented; House of Secrets and House of Mystery. EC Comics, which deeply influenced Stephen King, was no longer around by the time I was reading comics, so these two comics–with secret and mystery in their titles, which is what drew me in to them–were the first horror I read, and I loved how the stories always had a big twist at the end (and come to think of it, that’s the way I write horror, which is probably why I don’t sell any horror short stories). There was one issue that was completely devoted to a story called “Bloody Mermaids,” and I remember it to this day. It was an interesting tale; a scholar who was fascinated by the legend of the mermaid was determined to find one and thus prove they were real. He comes to an old inn along the seashore where mermaids have supposedly been sited over the years, only is horrified to discover that rather than beautiful and kind sea creatures, the ones who inhabit the sea at this place were monsters who feasted on human flesh and blood, and only come out at night; kind of like sea vampires. At the very end he finally finds one, he is horrified by the truth of what she is, and she knocks him out and is ready to drink his blood when the sun starts to rise and she has to flee back to the safety of the water. And the narrator–both comics had them–said something along the lines of ‘be careful what you wish for, the reality of what you seek may be something you don’t want to see.’ The story always fascinated me, and it inspired me to create a story of my own.

dark tide

 

The engine of my pickup truck made a weird coughing noise just as I came around a cruve in the highway on the Alabama Gulf Coast and I saw Mermaid Inn for the first time.

My heart sank.

That’s not good, I thought, gritting my teeth. I looked down at the control panel. None of the dummy lights had come on. I still had about a half tank of gas. I switched off the air conditioning and the stereo. I turned into the long sloping parking lot of the Inn, pulling into the first parking spot. I listened to the engine. Nothing odd. It was now running smooth like it had the entire drive down. I shut the car off and kept listening. There was nothing but the tick of the engine as it started cooling.

Maybe I just imagined it.

Hope springs eternal.

I took a deep breath while sitting there, listening closely to make sure.

The last thing I needed was to spend money on getting the stupid old truck fixed. Maybe it just needed a tune-up. I couldn’t remember the last time it had one.

Once Ricky arrives at the Inn and gets settled, he finds out the lifeguard from the summer before disappeared, and the longer he stays, the more he realizes that things in Mermaid Inn–and the nearby town of Latona–are not what they seem.

And now, back to the spice mines.

Muskrat Love

One of the more interesting things in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre was his dissection of the common core at the root of all horror stories; the conflict between between the Apollonian and the Dionysian worlds; in that all horror stories begin in an Apollonian (or seemingly Apollonian) world where everything makes sense, everyone is just going about their business, and into that world something Dionysian is introduced, and the conflict, the point of the story, is to vanquish the Dionysian and return everything to the Apollonian; he further used Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson as an illustrative example of the two sides; in which Dr. Jekyll is a man of the intellect, of reason, while Mr. Hyde is all pure emotion, sensuality, and chaotic action.

I’m probably explaining it badly (I am no King, after all), but it really does work thematically as you look at most horror (it doesn’t fit all horror stories, of course; nothing can possibly and simply explain an entire genre). It also kind of explains why I am not such a good horror writer; I am not well enough versed in the genre–fiction and non-fiction–to write it credibly. I mean, isn’t that why I devote so much of my reading time to crime fiction? To make me a better crime fiction writer?

Sigh. Yes, I do have a rather strong grasp of the obvious.

Yet, my own Sara certainly fits that description. Everyone at the school is going along, living their lives, and then Sara shows up; bad things happen, and then the problem is solved and they can go back to living their lives, if a little shell shocked.

Rereading Danse Macabre, I also realized that many of my horror stories–most of them, if not all of them, actually–subscribe to the ethos of what King called “the EC Comics mindset.” EC Comics were long gone by the time I was a kid, but I did read the DC comic versions, House of Mystery and House of Secrets.

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There were usually two or three stories in each issue, and like the old EC Comics–the Tales from the Crypt style–there was a narrator of sorts, a curator of the House of Secrets or the House of Mystery–who would introduce each tale. It was either a horror/supernatural story, or some kind of noirish story where the main character was going to do something criminal or bad, and got their just desserts in the end.

As King says, the “heh heh” ending.

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King himself does this in a lot of his own short stories, but being a better writer and more creative, he can make it work.

The short story that I finally finished last night is sort of like that, only it’s noir, not horror. I need to revise it–i will do that today, and spend the weekend revising some other stories I want to submit–but it’s interesting that I always try to go for the twist ending in my short stories.

Hey, at least I don’t do the “oh, it was all a dream” thing….anymore.

And now, back to the spice mines.