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.

house_of_mystery_v-1_66

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.