Promises in the Dark

I grew up loving both horror and crime stories–those wonderful old black and white Universal monster movies used to scare me to death, not to mention all the marvelous ghost stories and mysteries that got filmed back in the day. I also watched a lot of the 1950’s paranoia horror monster movies–Godzilla and its ilk–and those also used to give me horrible nightmares. I also liked how twisted horror comic books like The Witching Hour, House of Mystery and House of Secrets were. I’ve always wanted to write those kinds of stories, but if you think I have zero confidence in my abilities as a crime/mystery writer, there’s even less when it comes to my writing of horror. I never feel like I ever get it right, you know, and my stuff is macabre and peculiar and slightly twisted, but it’s not really scary. But like I did with the mystery novels and movies I watched as a child, I was always looking for myself in those tales and not finding myself. Oh, every once in a while there would be some homoeroticism in some horror I would be reading (Peter Straub’s If You Could See Me Now comes to mind), but for the most part, there wasn’t much. Thomas Tryon’s The Other resonated with me–it wasn’t until decades later that I learned Tryon was gay, and that sensibility infused all of his work, hence my connection with it–but usually when gays showed up in horror they inevitably were effeminate and soon to become victims. (Kill your gays has always been a thing, clearly.)

When I was going through my “I want to be the gay Stephen King” phase in the 1980’s, I didn’t put gay characters or themes in any of my stories–although rereading my attempts at horror from then now, I can see the sensibility was always there–but the horror novel I started writing in about 1986 or 1987, The Enchantress, had a gay point of view character, even though I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was always afraid, you see, to include gay characters in anything I hoped to get published because I was so busy keeping my two lives completely separated that I feared writing sympathetic gay characters would out me. (During my many writings about my high school students from Kansas, one of them was actually gay and was probably the most realistic and honest character in all of those writings) Trying to salvage those stories now, decades later, I sometimes will revise one and make the point of view character gay–which inevitably makes the story work better, incidentally–and they see publication eventually; “Crazy in the Night” was one of those stories, and another morphed into Bury Me in Shadows, actually. Just this morning I was thinking about some more of those old stories and how to make a couple of them work–partly because I spent the last two mornings reading Other Terrors: An Inclusive Anthology from the Horror Writers Association, edited by my friends Vince Liaguno and Rena Mason. The point of the anthology was to focus and highlight horror stories from marginalized writers–where they are marginalized by race or religion or sexual orientation or gender identity, and it includes stories from some of the top names in horror publishing today.

As with any anthology, some stories stick with the reader more than others; this isn’t a dis on any of the contributors to the anthology–every story was incredibly well-written–it’s just that everything is subjective and some stories stick with the reader longer than others. For me, the standouts were Jennifer McMahon (“Idiot Girls”); Alma Katsu (“Waste Note”); Gabino Iglesias (“There’s Always Something in the Woods”); Hailey Piper (“The Turning”); Larissa Glasser (“Kalkriese”), Michael Thomas Ford (“When The Lovelight Gleams”); M. E. Bronstein (“The Voices of Nightingales”); and S. A. Cosby (“What Blood Hath Wrought”). These were the ones that really resonated me, with the connections of strong writing, three dimensional characters, and completeness of the story. For many of the contributors, this is my first experience with their work, and I will definitely look out for more of their work. These were the ones that made me start thinking about ideas and stories and characters; stories that not only were enjoyable and immersive to read but also kick-started my own creativity and inspiration.

And what more can you ask from a reading experience, as a fellow writer?

Now I want to write more horror.

Definitely check the book out, Constant Reader, I think you’ll enjoy it.

Everybody Loves You

Monday morning, and the shopping days left till my birthday are slowly but surely getting crossed off my calendar. Yesterday was a lovely relaxing day at home; I did some on-line shopping (ordered a new pair of glasses from Zenni; we’ll see how they work out once they arrive; I may order a few other pairs to be more color-conscious; and yes, I know how weird that is for me–I didn’t get the fashion gene that most gay men seem to be born with, and so I’ve never really cared much about clothes other than their function–especially glasses

) and then spent some time doing the fun part of writing: thinking about the book(s).

I love that part. I actually realized yesterday that I was flying without a navigator (as usual), which is probably a mistake. I hadn’t spent any time really thinking about the story of Mississippi River Mischief and how it would impact the characters and how they interact with each other, etc. I had some basics down; I knew how I was going to start the story and open the book, and what I was going to include in it–I also recognized that another subplot is too big a story to be included in this book, and so I had to put it to the side for now, for use at a later date in a different book. But beyond that I hadn’t really thought much about it, and that was problematic for me and would inevitably cause problems for me down the line as I struggled to write a strong first draft. I also realized that a lot of what I was writing was going to take place outside of New Orleans, and yes, I know it’s anal of me, but my fictional Louisiana was far too amorphous. My work has always centered New Orleans and I’ve always been a stickler about getting that correct–I know I’ve made mistakes, I got Orleans and St. Louis Streets reversed in one book, or example– but over the course of forty-odd books, inevitably parts of some of them had to take place outside New Orleans. (I had, oddly enough, no qualms about completely fictionalizing the entire state of Louisiana for the most part outside of the metro area.) And being anal, I realized I had no real “map” or idea of what fictional parish or city or plantation was where and what names I’d used where and so on and so forth. And yes, I know it probably doesn’t matter–no reader would ever take the time to go through all of my books and try to piece Greg’s fictional Louisiana together and point out contradictions and errors, but it would bother me knowing that it was a mess outside Orleans and Jefferson parishes.

Something clearly had to be done.

So, I spent yesterday afternoon doing Scotty research–namely, checking every book I’ve ever written with scenes that take place outside of the metro area and try to assemble all of those places into a coherent and cogent “world” of Louisiana, strictly of my own making. I did allow myself to get sidetracked a few times with research into other projects, current or upcoming (the Great Hurricane of 1915, and the legend of Julia White were Internet wormholes I happily went down yesterday; I think a story I am going to write for an anthology call will be based in these two events), which is always a delight; Louisiana and New Orleans history are literal treasure troves for thoughts and ideas and so forth (another wormhole: the German Coast of the Mississippi River) and also humbling at the same time, because these wormholes always remind me how little I actually do know and understand about New Orleans and Louisiana.

Revisiting old books–especially Scotty ones–inevitably bring back memories of the time period in which the book was written, where the idea for it came from, what I was trying to do with it, and so on and so forth…not to mention how the character himself has changed and grown along with my writing styles and skills. It also reminds me of other things, too–plans I used to write the books, ideas and thought processes for the characters and their futures, and so on; things I had forgotten over the passage of time. I also sent the pdf of Jackson Square Jazz to my iPad; so I can slowly start copy-editing it so I can put up the ebook on Kindle at long last–there was also a part of that novel, part of Scotty’s long-forgotten past that only appears in this particular book that I want to circle around back to for this one. There are, I suspect, any number of sub-plots and character arcs that have been left hanging within the series over the years, and I don’t think it’s such a bad idea to reread the entire series again from start to finish since I am writing another book in the series. Obviously, I love Scotty and he is a part of me, and I don’t have a hard time slipping into his voice again (one of the things, I think, that makes writing a series a bit easier than writing a stand-alone–or starting a new series–is that ease of finding the character’s voice again. I’ve written eight Scotty books now, it should be easy to find his voice again), but there are a lot of other things I need to revisit and remember from the previous books in the series, so as to avoid continuity issues and things like that which plague me constantly.

For the record, the books I had to consult to map out my fictional Louisiana included not only Scotty books, but Murder in the Arts District (Chanse), The Orion Mask, a pseudonymous book or two, and some short stories. If A Streetcar Named Murder indeed becomes the launch of a new series for me, I’ll need that fictional map of Louisiana for that series as well–I’d already brought up one of my fictional parishes in the text of Streetcar, so…

I also reread the first four chapters of something else that is currently in progress to also kind of sort of make sense of it as well (and a good thing, too–I had two completely different sleazy gay dive hustler bars in the same neighborhood in two different chapters; easy enough to fix of course, and another continuity issue). This is going to sound weird–what else is new with one Gregalicious–but I am writing another book at the same time as this Scotty; I am sending a chapter a week to a friend, kind of like a serial novel, but I had not gone back and reread what I had already written on it (hence the two sleazy gay hustler bars in the same area of the fictional city) and so it went off the rails slightly (I suspected it was doing so and even remarked on it when I sent the email with the most recent chapter attached), and I am going to have to go back and clean that all up before proceeding–because it’s too big of a mistake to leave in the draft for correcting in another, later draft (plus, it will bother me to no end knowing those big mistakes are there), so I think I am going to have to make those fixes before I write Chapter 5–which is a good thing, because I am not really sure how to write chapter 5 or what to do in it; revisiting and fixing the first four chapters is always a good idea in these situations.

The problem with not outlining is because sometimes you get stuck.

We also binged a lot of The Sandman last night. What an extraordinary show–the visuals are absolutely stunning (I keep thinking how visually breathtaking it would be on the big screen), and the costumes, the art and set design, everything is just stunningly perfect, and the stories themselves (as well as the over-arcing storyline) are depicted and acted and written beautifully. This is the adaptation of the series I always wanted to see but never dared dream we would get; Paul and I are both just completely blown away by its brilliance (I also loved that Cain and Abel, from the old comics House of Mystery and House of Secrets, are a part of this universe; I loved those comics back when I was a kid–note to DC: make an anthology series of both of those comics, please.) We only have three episodes left, but by the time we finish this show–probably Wednesday, given how our weekday evenings seem to go–there should be some other amazing shows dropped for us to watch–I am particularly looking forward to The Serpent Queen; I’ve been asking for a Catherine de Medici series for years and now we are getting one that seems to embrace and encompass her manipulation and dedication to the acquisition of power, and of course House of the Dragon looks like it could be very fun, and other shows will be returning soon as well with new episodes.

So, overall it was a great weekend; I cannot complain. It was productive–perhaps not as productive as I would have liked, but I do feel like some seriously good work was done this weekend, and that’s all that matters. I have some work-at-home duties today–trying to decide whether to run errands today or on the way home from work tomorrow (on the way home is currently winning the debate in my head), and about the only real disappointment in the weekend was not being able to make time to read.

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely Monday, Constant Reader, and I’ll check in with you again later or tomorrow; depends on when I finish writing these other blog posts that are more essay-driven than the norm.

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.

house_of_secrets_v-1_106

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.