How You Get The Girl

Friday morning and all is right in my world–at least so far so good, one would think.

The weather has been truly spectacular here these past few weeks–despite dipping into the “almost too cold for Gregalicious” category after the sun goes down–and I’ve been really enjoying it. LSU is playing tomorrow–although I don’t have very high hopes for the game, since the program is now in turmoil, not only from having a surprisingly bad season but from allegations of sexual assault from players and ensuing cover-ups, which is despicable, frankly–and of course the Drew Brees injury has things looking rather bleak for the Saints as well. Ah, 2020 football season–so much worse than I’d ever thought it could be for fans in Louisiana. Heavy heaving sigh.

I reluctantly came to the conclusion yesterday that I am not going to try to get my story finished for that “monsters of Christmas” anthology. Much as it would be fun to be in the book if accepted, while the pay would certainly be lovely and welcomed, and I also loved the idea of trying to get a story written and publishable (maybe) in such a short period of time–despite all of those things, I really shouldn’t take time away from either the book or the other story already in progress that is developing nicely. It’s not the smartest thing in the world to do, and can I really spare the necessary time to get it done? Probably not, so while I am not crossing it off my to-do list entirely, I am not going to pressure or push myself to get it done.

My back is still sore this morning–but sitting in my easy chair with the heating pad while making condom packs certainly helped dramatically. I’m still not entirely sure what I did at the gym to cause this soreness, and the last time I went to the gym I didn’t feel it getting worse as I went through my workout, so who the hell knows? More heating pad today, and hopefully when I go to the gym later it’ll be okay.

Yesterday I watched two films while making condom packs, and while both fit squarely into the Cynical 70’s Film Festival, the other also crossed over, theoretically, into the Halloween Horror Film Festival–or would have, had it not been so incredibly terrible.

The first was Deliverance, which was an enormous hit on its first release, made Burt Reynolds a bonafide movie star, and has added so much to the common vernacular that people probably quote it without knowing the source material. While I knew the whole “squeal like a pig” thing came from Deliverance, I did NOT know “he’s sure got a pretty mouth” also came from the film. My parents took my sister and I to see it at the drive-in (and in retrospect, what in the name of God were they thinking? That movie is definitely inappropriate for junior high school students), and while I do not recall the other movie that played with it (which might have explained the choice better), I was pleasantly surprised in some ways by Deliverance. For one thing, it’s beautifully shot in the back woods/mountains of Georgia–breathtakingly beautiful. James Dickey wrote the screenplay based on his only novel–he was primarily known as a poet, and was also an alcoholic–and I’ve tried several times to read the book; I have a copy on my shelves somewhere right now. The film definitely fits in that paranoid 1970’s sub-genre of city people discovering how truly terrifying the country can be, despite the entire American mythology of the country and rural communities being the real America (which still rears its ugly head from time to time today). I could write an entire essay debunking that myth, frankly, as I am rather surprised no one has ever written (doesn’t mean someone hasn’t) an essay or a treatise about this entire sub-genre of film and fiction novels.

Deliverance is also an interesting exploration of 1970’s masculinity; the concept of masculinity, and what is traditionally masculine, was already starting to change and shift around the time the book was written and the film made; in its four characters we see the four masculine archetypes of the time, and how they compare/contrast with each other. The basic premise of the story–a river is being dammed to create a lake, and the dam will provide hydroelectric power for Atlanta, while the lake will flood towns and force communities to relocate away from land held in their families for generations, so these four men decide to canoe down the river one last time in a kind of “back to nature” type weekend thing that was becoming more and more popular with city-dwelling men whose city lives were beginning to make them think they were soft. Burt Reynolds, with his rubber zip up sleeveless vest, with the zipper strategically unzipped enough to show off the thick black pelt of hair on his chest, stood in for the masculine ideal; a strong man who, despite living in the city, only truly comes alive when pitting himself against nature in a game of survival; he is also the only member of the party who understands the dangers of the wilderness–the other three men in the party all think of it as a fun lark. He keeps referring to the Ned Beatty character as Chubby–he’s out of shape and not as fit; out of his element in the wilderness and often complaining and unable to meet the physical demands of the trip. Jon Voight, still at the height of his blonde youthful beauty, is prettily masculine–overshadowed by Reynolds’ machismo, but able to rise to the occasion and do what needs to be done. The fourth member of the trip–played by Ronny Cox–is yet another soft city type, definitely out of his element; while not seen as useless as the Ned Beatty type, also not as useful in a crisis as he could have been. The film’s bottom line is ultimately about survival, and who will survive when a fun weekend goes wrong. Deliverance also plays into a lot of the stereotypes about poor rural Southern white people–in fact, I would go so far as to say that Deliverance is responsible for cementing a lot of those stereotypes into the public consciousness. It’s a very good, if slightly bizarre, film; it certainly has to be one of the first films to depict male-on-male rape (and that’s one of the flaws in the film; why on earth did that happen? Why did the two rednecks attack them? Maybe it makes more sense in the book), and one of the reasons I always wanted to read the book was to see if there was more information, more explanation, to make the story work better. But I never have been able to get past the first chapter–Dickey was also one of those hard-drinking macho bullshit Hemingway-type writers, oozing with toxic masculinity, and that really comes through in the first chapter of the book, which is as far as I’ve ever gotten without putting it aside with a wince. But there’s an interesting essay to be written about masculinity and how it is portrayed in the film; reading the book and including it, with a comparison/contrast, could be enlightening.

The second half of my double header was Damien: Omen II, which is now available on Amazon Prime–but wasn’t back when I rewatched The Omen and The Final Conflict, the third part of the trilogy. Damien is just a bad movie, from beginning to end; it opens shortly after the conclusion of the first film, and the archaeologist in the Holy Land, Bugenhagen, telling a friend that Damien Thorn is the anti-Christ, proving it by showing him a newly excavated wall where a medieval monk who was visited by the devil and went mad, painted the images the devil showed him; amongst those images are the anti-Christ at numerous stages of his life–and he looks like Damien Thorn. Bugenhagen also has the ritual daggers that must be used to kill Damien…which is interesting, since he gave them to the Gregory Peck character in the first film, who was trying to use them at the end when he was killed; how did the old man get the daggers back? Was there more than one set? The rest of the movie is about Damien slowly learning who he is, while people continue to die around him, including his cousin/best friend. Damien was taken in by his father’s brother and his second wife, played by William Holden and Lee Grant (and just like in the first film, they are way too old to have thirteen year old sons), and the movie makes no sense, isn’t scary in anyway, and just really comes across as a pale imitation of the first, which wasn’t very good to begin with.

I also read a short story last night, from The Darkling Halls of Ivy, and while I did enjoy reading the story, “Einstein’s Sabbath,” by David Levien, in which a Princeton student after the second world war, one who was on the ship that sent the planes with the atomic bombs to Japan, comes to Professor Einstein’s home to blame him for the use of the bombs, and their creation. It’s an interesting story, but like the Jane Hamilton, not really a crime story per se; which is the only real problem I had with it.

And on that note, I am heading back into the spice mines. Have a lovely Friday, Constant Reader.

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

Monday morning. I don’t feel tired this morning; we’ll see how long that lasts, won’t we? The Saints won a squeaker last night, 12-10, but they did end up winning the game despite scoring no touchdowns–when was the last time that happened?–and I went to bed shortly thereafter. We continued watching The Politician, and predictably, it’s plot has became more scattered the deeper into the season we get, like so many other shows from Ryan Murphy. We’ re still watching because it’s entertaining enough, and the acting is top-notch, and we only have a few more episodes to go before it’s finished.

I also am almost finished reading James Gill’s Lords of Misrule, which will probably be finished tomorrow. I haven’t decided what my next fiction read will be just yet–I started pulling James Dickey’s Deliverance down from the shelves last night, but couldn’t make myself start reading it. I was quite young when I saw the movie–we saw it at the drive-in, and I don’t remember what the earlier feature was, but I do remember I fell asleep while it was playing and only woke up near the end, not knowing what had happened. Deliverance was one of those movies whose plot became a part of the zeitgeist; people today may not completely know where the reference comes from, but any time someone mentions being somewhere so rural “you can almost hear the banjoes”–it’s a reference to Deliverance. It also may be James Dickey the poet’s only work of fiction; I don’t know how true that is or isn’t, but it certainly used to be true.

I also finished watching episode three of Murder in the Bayou yesterday, which has also given me some ideas (along with the thinking about Deliverance) for my own book, Bury Me in Shadows, which is what I actually think I’m going to work on for the month of October. The Kansas book is still messing with my head. I can’t figure out what to do with the plot and there are so many different ways I could revise that story that I think it might be best to leave that mess alone for now. I still want to get it finished and out of my hair, but if I can’t decide precisely how to move forward with it, well, that makes it a little more difficult to get it finished.

I need to revise my short story today, and then give it some polish tomorrow before turning it in. It’s kind of a mess right now, but I am confident once I reread it today and make some notes, it’ll all fall into place for me. The pieces are all there, but they aren’t in the right place as of yet, and that’ll have to result in some moving of shit around to make the story more cohesive. I also need to work on that other story; I think I need to change its ending in order to make it more powerful.

And now it’s off to the shower to get ready for my day. It’s a long one, alas; but I am confident I can make it through to the other side.

Like there’s a choice or something. 😉

Happy Monday, Constant Reader!

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Dueling Banjos

Writing about the rural Deep South is difficult.

I’m from the deep south, yes, but I didn’t grow up there. I spent a lot of time there, my parents were Southern, and so a lot of my values and mind-view for a number of years were patterned in the Southern mindset. I draw from my memories of summers in the rural backwoods of the mid-central-western part of the state, about seventy miles from the Mississippi state line or so, but there are also so many attitudes and mentalities and stereotypes and tropes about the rural Deep South that it is easy to become lazy and fall into those. I am trying very hard not to do that, but as I said, it’s hard. Stereotypes and tropes exist for a reason, after all–they weren’t created from nothing; there’s always a core kernel of truth in them, whatever they’ve become once the seeds were planted–but the key is to burrow into them to dig out the core kernel of truth to build upon, so you’re telling the truth. But I worry, as I continue to excavate into this book, that I am relying on negative tropes and stereotypes.

I think I was thirteen when Deliverance was released; we saw it at the drive-in, which was something my parents loved to do with us when we were kids. I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on in the movie–it was the kind of macho bullshit I loathed as a child, a loathing that has only somewhat lessened as an adult, so I stopped paying attention to it and I think I may have even dozed off. But I did see the scene early in the movie which has forever cemented into people’s minds a link between the backwoods South and redneck morons–“Dueling Banjos.” The open notes of the song are all that is needed to reference a joke about passing from civilization into the land of the uneducated, probably inbred, backwoods hillbillies; it has come to symbolize moonshine-makin’, overalls-wearin’, cousin-marryin’, dangerous rural Southern people. I’ve made the joke myself from time to time–driving through the Southern countryside at night, “You can almost hear the banjo notes, can’t you?”

Deliverance and “Dueling Banjos” are such a part of our zeitgeist and popular culture that the book and film have become kind of shorthand Southern references–even for people who don’t know the origins of the references. I’ve never read the book, but I bought a copy a few years ago because I heard one of the references in something–a talk show, a book, a film, a television show; I don’t remember which–but I thought it was time for me to read the book and possibly watch the film in its entirety; that there was a possibly an essay in both about masculinity, rape culture, and the American male. (For those of you who don’t know, many male-on-male rape jokes were born directly of Deliverance.) I never did get around to reading the book or watching the movie; to be honest, I’d completely forgotten about them and the essay idea until recently. I also never got around to reading the book because I’d heard bad things about James Dickey, who wrote the novel. Dickey was primarily a poet, and considered one of the better American ones of the second half of the twentieth century by the Academy, and Deliverance was his only novel. I knew people who knew Dickey, and the reports back on him were terribly unpleasant, if not surprisingly so. (American letters has produced some horrific examples of toxic masculinity with its iconic, deified authors.)

Southern people are masters at grievance; they’ve been aggrieved for quite some time now–probably as far back as when the rumblings in the northern states began against slavery.  Everything is always someone else’s fault; even that language from the 1960’s came back to haunt Alabama during the special election to replace Jeff Sessions in the Senate: “outside agitators.” That was always a favorite fallback of Southern white supremacy; people of color in the South were perfectly happy with the way things were set up, with not voting or having opportunities, and being segregated away from white people, until “outside agitators” stirred them up against their kind, genial white overlords. Outside agitation goes all the way back to slavery; Southern politicians and leaders railed against “Yankee agitation on the slavery issue.” It’s all there, in black and white, in the history books–if you know what to look for.

The politics of race in the South have always been problematic, but nothing is more irritating to me than white apologia fiction set in the South; in which the white people aren’t racists; those nasty lower class white trash people are the real racists, not the educated whites. I’ve seen this in any number of books and it never ceases to irritate me when I come across it; this historical revision that relieves the guilt of Southern white people is kind of like, as my friend Victoria says, how after the Second World War  no Germans had really been Nazis and everyone in France was a resistance fighter.

Bitch, please.

I guess all those southern white civil rights activists were working undercover, because they sure weren’t public in their opposition. (And yes, I know–not all Southern white people; but I sure don’t see any white faces in any of the footage from the civil rights marches and school integrations that weren’t in military uniform…or certainly not as many as novels and fictions would have us believe.) To Kill a Mockingbird is problematic to me in that I don’t believe for a minute that the sheriff and the cops in Maycomb, Alabama, were worried about the rednecks from the county lynching Tom Robinson and gathering up some of the good white people from town to defend the jail; history shows that the police were often Klansmen, or at least more sympathetic to the cause of white supremacy than they were to civil rights. That scene, while powerful, doesn’t ring true to me–it again divides Southern whites into the educated professionals and the uneducated racist rednecks, and I am not certain of the accuracy. The publication of Go Set a Watchman upset a lot of fans of the original work with its depiction of Atticus as a segregationist; they felt betrayed that the heroic white champion of racial tolerance and justice from Mockingbird was turned into a segregationist…but it was honest and real and rang true to me.

And seriously, I highly recommend anyone interested in looking at how Southern white people viewed civil rights during the 1960’s dig up The Klansman by William Bradford Huie.

This is, of course, part of the problem I am having with writing this first draft of a book set in the rural South that deals, in part, with issues of race in the modern rural South. I don’t want to be heavy-handed, nor do I want this to be another oh look another white person discovers how terrible racism is book, nor do I want it to be another “white savior” book; there are plenty of those already. But I also want to be honest; and how does one do that? There are always going to be those who criticize such a book for failing, or trying too hard, or some such. Southern racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and misogyny do exist, and having an openly gay teenager with roots in Alabama spend the summer there helping take care of his dying grandmother, while dealing with some other issues that arise during his visit, seems like a good lens to view all of these things through.

Or at least, seems to be one, at any rate.

I think this is one of the reasons I am having so much trouble writing this book and getting this draft done; I am so worried about being offensive or crossing some line as well as wanting to do it well and do it right that I am overthinking everything, and it’s like I have this incredible overwhelming sense of confidence about my abilities as a writer. But I am going to press on, all the while worrying…but I must needs remember: I can always fix everything in future drafts.

Part of my goals for the weekend are to finish writing a promised essay, to get three chapters of the book written, and to finish reading Steph Cha’s amazing Your House Will Pay. I also need to reread everything I’ve written for Bury Me in Shadows, and make notes as I go.

Heavy thoughts for a Friday morning, Constant Reader.

And now back to the spice mines.

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R.O.C.K in the USA

Happy Sunday and a good morning to all y’all.

I didn’t get as much done yesterday as I would have liked; running my errands in the pre-rain humidity literally wore me out, and then when I got going again I started cleaning and doing laundry and well, once I start doing that–as well as going through and trying to organize the books–I am pretty much done for the day….especially after I discovered Burnt Offerings was available for streaming on Prime. Oliver Reed! Karen Black! Bette Davis (who was totally wasted in her role)! I’d seen the movie years ago, I think when it first aired on television after it’s theatrical run, and while it’s still has some moments, it overall doesn’t hold up as well as I would have hoped. I read the book for the first recently in the last few years, and it was wonderful. But watching Burnt Offerings put me in mind of an essay about horror in the 1970’s; the 1970’s was a time when the suburbs really developed because of ‘white flight’ from the cities and desegregation; this was this whole movement of back to the country from the urban centers, and at the same time, there was horror that specifically focused on this phenomenon (without the racism and white flight issues); namely this book, Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon, The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin, and even Stephen King lightly touched on this in ‘salem’s Lot; the dangers of the country to people from the city.

One could even argue that James Dickey’s Deliverance also belongs in this category, and it put me in mind of an essay that I may never write. I also thought up another yesterday while running my errands, after car after car after car violated traffic rules and almost caused me to be in in accident (three times, to be exact; which might be a new record): “Right of Way,” in which I would extrapolate the American contempt for traffic rules and laws for everyone’s safety can be directly correlated to contempt for law and order, the system, taxes, everything. I made some notes, and this is one I may actually write. Essays are fun and I do enjoy writing them but I don’t very often, unless one is requested of me for something, and perhaps that’s the wrong approach.

Today I am going to go to the gym and I am going to start rereading Royal Street Reveillon and make notes for the big revision that is coming. I’m also going to start reading Jackson Square Jazz out loud for copy editing purposes, and I’d also like to work on “A Whisper from the Graveyard” today. I should at some point also work on finished “Never Kiss a Stranger,” which means I should also make a to-do list for everything I want to get done in July.

Hmmm. Perhaps not a bad idea, at that.

I also remembered I have notes on a short story I need to read and decide what revisions I need to be make.

It never truly ends, does it? But I am looking forward to Sharp Objects tonight on HBO; I actually liked this book by Gillian Flynn better than Gone Girl, which of course made her hugely famous and hopefully hugely rich. I still haven’t read her Dark Places, but that’s because I still subscribe to the “if I don’t read all the canon then I still have something by her to read” mentality, which is partly why I still have not read the entire canon of either Daphne du Maurier or Shirley Jackson or Patricia Highsmith.

So, I have a lot to do today–only one more day after today before I return to the office, but at least it’s only a four day work week–and so I should probably get back to the spice mines.

The next story up in Promises in Every Star and Other Stories is “Bloodletting”:

The damp air was thick with the scent of blood.

It had been days since I had last fed, and the desire was gnawing at my insides. I stood up, and my eyes focused on a young man walking a bicycle in front of the cathedral. He was talking on a cell phone, his face animated and agitated. He was wearing a T-shirt that read Who Dat Say They Gonna Beat Dem Saints? and a pair of ratty old paint-spattered jeans cut off at the knees. There was a tattoo of Tweetybird on his right calf, and another indistinguishable one on his left forearm. His hair was dark, combed to a peak in the center of his head, and his face was flushed. He stopped walking, his voice getting louder and louder as his face got darker.

I could smell his blood. I could almost hear his beating heart.

I could see the pulsing vein in his neck, beckoning me forward.

The sun was setting, and the lights around Jackson Square were starting to come on. The tarot card readers were folding up their tables, ready to disappear into the night. The band playing in front of the cathedral was putting their instruments away. The artists who hung their work on the iron fence around the park were long gone, as were the living statues. The square, so teeming with life just a short hour earlier, was emptying of people, and the setting sun was taking the warmth with it as it slowly disappeared in the west. The cold breeze coming from the river ruffled my hair a bit as I watched the young man with the bicycle. He started wheeling the bicycle forward again, still talking on the phone. He reached the concrete ramp leading up to Chartres Street. He stopped just as he reached the street, and I focused my hearing as he became more agitated. What do you want me to say? You’re just being a bitch, and anything I say you’re just going to turn around on me.

I felt the burning inside.

Desire was turning into need.

I knew it was best to satisfy the desire before it became need. I could feel the knots of pain from deprivation forming behind each of my temples and knew it was almost too late. I shouldn’t have let it go this long, but I wanted to test my limits, see how long I could put off the hunger. I’d been taught to feed daily, which would keep the hunger under control and keep me out of danger.

Need was dangerous. Need led a vampire to take risks he wouldn’t take ordinarily. And risks could lead to exposure, to a painful death.

The first lesson I’d learned was to always satiate the hunger while it was still desire, to never ever let it become need.

I had waited too long.

“Bloodletting” is an unusual story for me in that it’s actually a short story that bridges the gap between my novella “Blood on the Moon” and the novel Need; I eventually used it as the book’s first chapter. I have always wanted to give vampire fiction a try; I created an entire world that I first wrote about in the novella “The Nightwatchers,” which I always intended to develop into a series. I still would like to develop that series, and when the opportunity came to write “Blood on the Moon” I realized I could simply still use the world I’d created for “The Nightwatchers” and move on to different characters. The second book in the series, the one that was to follow Need, Desire, was going to tie the two story-lines together but Need didn’t sell as well as the publisher would have liked and so Desire died in the water. I may still go back and write it, of course, but I have no publisher for it and I am not particularly interested in self-publishing that much. But…I never say never. I wrote “Bloodletting” for Blood Sacraments, and only had to change the original concept a little bit; in the original idea Cord, my vampire, was actually sitting on the roof of St. Louis Cathedral watching the crowd for his next victim. I still love that image, and may use it sometime, but I did eventually change it to how it reads now.

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