Ah, Tuesday, and so much to get done. Heavy heaving sigh.
What else is new? I am trying my hardest not to give in to that overwhelmed feeling I am currently experiencing this morning; I even woke up before the alarm, but while still a bit on the groggy side, I must confess I actually feel rested this morning. We’ll see how long that lasts, but I hope to be able to ride that feeling through the day and get a lot done; at the very least, check things off the list (which is really growing and more than a little out of control). I worked on my story a bit last night–Paul was out having dinner with a friend–and also managed to finish Eli Cranor’s Don’t Know Tough, which I have a lot of thoughts about; I just have to get them cleared up in my head and maybe digest them a bit more. I really enjoyed the book, if you’re wondering; it’s very well done and tightly, beautifully written, with more than a few hints of Megan Abbott, Daniel Woodrell, and some Kelly J. Ford tossed in for good measure. It’s definitely an excellent addition to the canon of Southern rural noir, that’s for sure.
I now have to decide what to read next, and that’s not going to be easy. There are some other amazing and well-reviewed and award-nominated debuts still in my TBR pile. (DAMN, I could have made that a project: The Debut Novel Extravaganza!)
I did some work, as I said, on the short story yesterday; it’s still nowhere near a complete first draft but that’s okay; it will get there eventually, and there’s always this weekend (I am going to be deeply panicked this weekend, pushing to get a lot of things finished before heading off to New York next Tuesday) but that’s okay; I don’t mind. I have to only work on Monday next week, and then have the rest of the week off to travel and do the Edgar banquet and everything else I have to do while I am in New York next week, but even just thinking about it makes me feel very tired. Heavy heaving sigh. But there’s naught to be done but to start tackling the list, is there? After all, ignoring the list only makes it grow exponentially larger…as I have often learned to my great dismay.
So, I feel good this morning. We’ll see how this day plays out as it goes forward, won’t we? I will try very hard to not allow myself to get sidetracked and distracted as I go through my day at the office; I will also need to swing past the mail on my way home from work today–I think more books are waiting for me there, to be completely honest–and when I get home I am going to try to keep my head down, make a protein shake, and spend a few more hours with my short story. I am also getting very excited about my trip to New York next week–although the infection numbers there are not a little unsettling, and the lifting of the mask mandate on airplanes by an unqualified judge isn’t very pleasing for me, either. But I can take rapid tests along with me so Paul and I can test each other every day, and of course, I will definitely have to take one before I return to the office the following Tuesday.
I am trying not to think about the potential irresponsibility of going on this trip, to be honest.
But overall, I think I’ve recovered from the trip to Left Coast at long last–it took longer than necessary–and hopefully I have this New York trip planned perfectly so that there will be recovery time before I have to return to the office.
And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely Tuesday, Constant Reader, and I will talk to you some more tomorrow.
I see it’s time for all of the “end of the year” lists, from the best of’s to the worst of’s, and literally, I had to scroll back through my blog to find my “favorite” short story of the year to reply to a tweet in order to enter a giveaway–and it was such a confounding year that I just posted the first one I came to, whether it was the best or not–“The Day I Died” by Cornell Woolrich, and immediately after I hit send, I thought, “that wasn’t even my favorite Woolrich story I read last year; that was ‘It Had to Be Murder’ (filmed as Rear Window)”. But that’s indicative of the kind of year this 2020 has been, not just for me but for others: I can’t remember shit. I can’t remember what I read and when I read it; was the Diversity Project this year or last? When did I started the Reread Project? And the Short Story Project certainly didn’t het much traction here on the blog this past year. This year now blends with other years in my memory, and I am not sure when I read things or what I liked or what movies I watched or television shows I enjoyed–and there were a lot; but was this year the year we started watching foreign language shows like Elite and Dark? I know I watched a lot of films for the Cynical 70’s Film Festival–still have a lot to go on that, for that matter–but as for reading….I know I read some books this past year, and I know I started the Reread Project–not just to revisit books I’d enjoyed, but to get back into reading because the pandemic shutdown–and the basic state of the world in chaos–made it hard for me to focus.
Even more maddening, the lack of focus also hurt my writing schedule (which really needed no assistance–I can not write all by myself without assistance from outside influences, thank you very much), and I cannot keep track or remember what I wrote and what I sold and so forth. I know I wrote my first ever Sherlock Holmes pastiche this past year, and it will be out in the new year–“The Affair of the Purloined Rentboy” (and I am so glad to finally get that title used; although, in fairness, the title I had lying around forever was The Purloined Stripper; I was originally thinking to parody Poe titles with the Chanse series, hence Murder in the Rue Dauphine. But the publisher (Alyson Books) wanted to brand them with the Murder in the titles, and once I made Scotty a stripper and wrote about him, I revised the plot and made Chanse’s boyfriend a former gay-interest video wrestler and that book became Murder in the Rue St. Ann instead)–and I also sold some other stories, like “The Snow Globe” and “Night Follows Night”–but it also seems like I sold more stories than that? I think this was the year “The Silky Veils of Ardor” came out in Josh Pachter’s The Beat of Black Wings, and of course “The Carriage House” came out in Mystery Tribune this year. Was this also the year of “The Dreadful Scott Decision” and The Faking of the President? I think that may be the case.
I do know I spent most of the year trying to get Bury Me in Shadows finished and ready to go–it’s still not completely finished–and I also started researching Chlorine. I kind of am feeling a bit discombobulated lately–no idea what day it is; I really had to stop and think this morning before recognizing that it’s actually Sunday. Crazy, right? I went shopping yesterday to make groceries and get the mail and air up the car tires again–the ‘tires are out of balance’ light came on the other day, which means they are low in air–and then I came home. I spent some time trying to locate my copy of Otto Friedrich’s City of Nets, which I may have read already and donated; the library also didn’t have it, so rather than going through the storage space I ordered the ebook, which was only $7.99. I spent some time with it yesterday reading it–it’s a period that always fascinates me; my interest in Hollywood begins to die out in the 1980’s, and beyond 1990 my interest wanes considerably.
Last night we watched two movies: 1917 and Bombshell, neither of which proved to be very involving. Both movies were very well done, but…I really didn’t feel any emotional involvement with either. Bombshell was probably the more interesting of the two–primarily anchored by Charlize Theron’s terrifyingly spot-on performance as Megyn Kelly, which really dominated the film, and I’m glad there’s a film sort of documenting the crazy goings-on at Fox before the 2016 election; in all honesty I’d pretty much forgotten many of the pertinent details about Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly’s departures from Fox News, but once the movie had finished all I really thought–I’m a really terrible person, I admit it–was that while the working environment at Fox was indeed terrible for women….it also wasn’t a big surprise to me? Why would anyone think that a network that was so definitively anti-women would be a nurturing environment for women? But as we saw with the “#metoo” movement…men have been abusing their power and victimizing women over whom they have power–whether real or perceived–since the beginning of time, and that cuts across the political divide. And while there was some reckoning, there wasn’t nearly enough–and I am sure it is still going on in companies and businesses and corporations today.
But again, Charlize Theron was eerily perfect as Megyn Kelly; I’m sure Kelly didn’t care for it, and she has since proven that she’s still a garbage human being despite everything that happened and everything she experienced; she’s still anti-feminist, still homophobic, still racist—now she just spews her bile on Twitter instead of in front of a camera. Same with Gretchen Carlson–and I am willing to bet that both of them learned nothing from their own experience and still question women bringing charges against men.
I know that S. A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland was one of the best books I read last year, along with The Coyotes of Carthage. Elizabeth Little’s Pretty As a Picture was also a favorite. I think this year included my first-ever read of Mary Stewart’s Thunder on the Right (is there a more hard-boiled, noir setting than a convent in the Pyrenees?), and I also enjoyed Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapegoat (although I recently read a review which suggested the book would have been much more interesting as told by the other doppelganger’s point of view, which is a very interesting suggestion). I know I reread several of Stewart’s books, including Airs Above the Ground, The Moon-spinners, and This Rough Magic, and in the case of the latter two, I remembered so little of them from my original read it was like reading something new. I also read a lot of histories of New Orleans and Louisiana, which was a lot of fun as well–and of course, my Chlorine research led me to reading some gay Hollywood histories–as well as some basic Hollywood histories. I know I also greatly enjoyed Kelly J. Ford’s Cottonmouths.
Highlights of my television viewing have to include at the very top two of the best comedies ever done on television, Schitt’s Creek and Ted Lasso. Both shows were both funny and tender and heartwarming, and one of the great pleasures of 2020 has been watching other people discover how magic and wonderful both shows are. Paul and I also got into foreign language television at long last, thoroughly enjoying shows like Dark Desire, The Club, White Lines, and several others, but two of the best were Elite (from Spain) and Dark (from Germany), but Babylon Berlin was probably my favorite watch of the year. We also thoroughly enjoyed The Morning Show, Little Fires Everywhere (the book was also pretty spectacular), and of course, The Mandalorian. I also would be remiss without shout-outs to two of my favorite trashy binge-watches, Outer Banks and Tiny Pretty Things. Ozark continues to be terrific, as was the second season of Castle Rock and HBO’s The Outsider. We also saw Mr. Mercedes‘s first season on Peacock, and liked it a lot as well.
I still miss Game of Thrones, disappointing final season notwithstanding.
As for movies….I spent most of my time with my Cynical 70’s Film Festival, which included some rewatches (Cabaret, which I love more every time I see it) as well as first time watches of films like The Candidate, The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, The French Connection, and Chinatown; all of which served as an interesting re-education into the decade that was the 1970s, and probably one of the more formative decades of my life. There are still some 70’s films I need to see for this–I really want to rewatch The Last Picture Show, which I’ve not seen in years, as well as The Sting, What’s Up Doc, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, A Woman Under the Influence, Starting Over, An Unmarried Woman, Saturday Night Fever, and so many others. It was such an interesting decade for film…but of the rewatched films, the ones I have always loved–Don’t Look Now, Cabaret, Chinatown–I appreciated even more than I have on previous watches, if that makes any sense. Of the ones I hadn’t seen before, I think my favorite would have to be The Conversation, which was simply brilliant, and a perfect illustration of what the 1970’s were really about on many different levels.
There are a lot of books coming out in the new year that I am excited for; new novels from Alison Gaylin and Laura Lippman and Megan Abbott at the top of the list, of course, and so many others! There’s never enough time to read everything I want to read or watch everything I want to watch, let alone write everything I want to write….which sounds like an excellent place to wrap this up and head back into the spice mines.
Well, Constant Reader, we certainly survived Monday, did we not? At any rate, I’m typing this for you to read later, so hopefully we survived Monday; I did, at any rate.
This has been such a weird shit-show of a year already that I’ve completely forgotten that my fifty-ninth birthday is creeping up on me. Yes sir, next week is the big 5-9 (I’ve been saying I was fifty-nine for the entire year so far already) and I don’t know if any celebration is called for; I don’t really make a to-do of my birthday, never have (they weren’t really made much of when I was a kid, and so I still to this day don’t think my birthday is a big deal) and am always kind of amazed when people actually DO make a big deal of theirs. But some years I do things on my Facebook page to indicate another year of my life has passed me by in the wink of an eye; one year I kept changing my profile picture to old pictures of me from my past. Another year I started posting my books covers to count it down. For this year, I think I am actually going to take a long weekend–my birthday falls on a Thursday, so I may take Thursday and Friday as vacation days, and take a lovely long weekend to indulge myself in reading and organizing and working on the book (yes, for me that always feels like an indulgence). I think I’m going to go ahead and start reading Lovecraft Country–I kind of feel the need to read something in the horror vein, after the stunning brilliance of Kelly J. Ford’s Cottonmouths and S. A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland–and perhaps once I’ve finished that, I’ll read Babylon Berlin.
I also need to get back into the Short Story Project.
I was very tired yesterday; I didn’t sleep well Sunday night for whatever reason there was for me to not sleep well–(whatever it was, it was annoying) so when I got home from work yesterday I was really too tired, mentally and physically, to do much of anything other than wait for Paul to come home so we could watch Babylon Berlin. There are only two episodes left, which is sad, but we’ve really been gulping them down very quickly. It’s really well done, the writing is astonishing, and there are so many characters and subplots, brilliantly interwoven within each other, that it’s quite masterful; and seriously hard to keep track of–the recaps at the beginning of each episode are enormously helpful. It’s also very dark; bad things seem to happen to all of the characters, and there never seems to be any way out of their predicaments. It’s also a remarkable depiction of Weimar Germany and the Berlin of that period; a period that really isn’t particularly well known. The world-wide economic crash is coming–the one that began in the United States with the collapse of the stock market–and so the times are about to get even darker. Season 4 is going to be quite intense, I suspect.
I slept very well last night, so hopefully today I will have the energy to deal with things that need to be dealt with. I have to admit I have been in a bit of a funk the last week or so, partly due, no doubt, to medical appointments and things of that nature, and loss of sleep due to that incumbent stress, and hopefully today will be more of a normal Greg day. I like normal Greg days; in fact, I much prefer them, to be honest. I really dislike this entire switch, dependent on so many exterior factors, in what kind of day I am going to have; it’s truly unpleasant and awful. But, as I said, I feel more awake and rested this morning than I did yesterday, so here’s hoping today is a better day.
And on that note, ’tis time for me to get back into the spice mines.
Yesterday was another awful, low energy day. I got something lovely in the mail–thank you again, Penni Jones, that was so incredibly kind and thoughtful of you–and I got caught out running errands in a wonderful thunderstorm; I eventually had to make a mad dash through the pouring rain to the apartment with bags of groceries and the mail. After getting into the house I was very tired and cranky and out of sorts, and looking at Bury Me in Shadows just made my stomach clench and my nerves fray. I wasted some time writing an entry about writing about vampires, which I will post at some point this morning (if I haven’t already) and looked through some of that writing. I was also enormously pleased, despite the frayed nerves and the stomach clenched in knots, to see that the writing of said vampire fiction was actually quite good, which was nice; I have such a tendency to avoid looking at my old work (for any number of reasons, none of which speak well to my self-confidence) that it was kind of a pleasant surprise to read it and think, hey, this was from really early in my career and this isn’t bad at all, well done, earlier-in-his-career Greg!
So, tired and with low energy, I decided to retire to my recliner with Blacktop Wasteland, figuring that finishing that book was one of my goals for the weekend, and that was probably the easiest goal to reach.
Nor do I regret one second of the time I spent with the book.
Beauregard thought the night sky looked like a painting
Laughter filled the air only to be drowned out by a cacophony of revving engines as the moon slid from behind the clouds. The bass from the sound system in a nearby Chevelle was hitting him in his chest so hard, it felt like someone was performing CPR on him. There were about a dozen other late-model cars parked haphazardly in front of the old convenience store. In addition to the Chevelle, there was a Maverick, two Impalas, a few Camaros and five or six more examples of the heyday of American muscle. Yhe air was cool and filled with the scent of gas and oil. The rich, acrid smell of exhaust fumes and burnt rubber. A choir of crickets and whippoorwills tried in vain to be heard. Beauregard closed his eyes and strained his ears. He could hear them but just barely. They were screaming for love. He thought a lot of people spent a large part of their life doing the same thing.
The wind caught the sign hanging above his head from the arm of a pole that extended twenty feet into the air. It creaked as the breeze moved it back and forth.
Laura Lippman describes noir as “dreamers become schemers,” and that’s always the closest description of what noir actually is that I’ve ever heard. Like all definitions of noir, it’s not quite everything, but nothing else anyone has written or said about noir comes as close to it, in my mind, as that. For me, noir is like pornography; I maybe can’t tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it. I personally love noir; it’s probably one of my favorite things to read (or styles of film to watch). I try to bring a noir sensibility to almost everything I write, no matter what label it’s given as an important keyword on Amazon. (I still believe that Timothy is the most noir thing I’ve written to date; but I am looking forward to delving more deeply into it with future work.)
Blacktop Wasteland is called a ‘heist’ novel by people who know the genre probably better than I do; and they are not incorrect; it is a heist novel. But it’s also so much more that I feel calling it that is, in some ways, a disservice to it–and I don’t mean to imply by that statement that there is anything wrong with heist novels. I haven’t read many of them, and I haven’t seen many heist films. Rob Byrnes writes truly clever, intricately plotted ones with a wide variety of distinct and well-developed characters that are also witty and funny as well as smart. But Blacktop Wasteland is also noir of the purest sort, the kind that Cain and Thompson and the other greats wrote; about working class people who can’t quite catch the break they need to be upwardly mobile, who believe that in a society and culture where everything is stacked against them, the only answer is criminality–and knowing when to walk away from that life. It’s about wanting more for your kids and your family than you had; it’s about grabbing for the American Dream and the brass ring. It’s also about family, and the damage done by wrong decisions and believing mythology you’ve invented rather than facing harsh and painful truths.
The main character of Cosby’s novel, Beauregard Montage (more commonly known as Bug) has tried, throughout his adult life, to build a better life for his wife and kids, and the child he rarely sees he fathered when he was a young teenager with a white girl whose family keeps her away from him. He’s opened his own business–a garage doing car repair and oil changes, etc–but the opening of a franchise oil change place has eaten into his business and has put him in danger of losing it all. A complication with his mother’s Medicare has resulted in a vast amount of money due to the retirement home where she makes everyone’s life miserable. That oldest daughter needs money for college and is dating a guy who might not be good for her. The bills are all overdue and the mortgage on the garage is so overdue it could lead to foreclosure.
Is there anything more American or relatable in these troubled times than financial distress?
But what Bug is best at is driving; he was in the Life before he decided to walk away from it for the sake of a straight life for his wife and kids. His own father walked away from his family when Bug was a teenager–for their sake, since he couldn’t escape his own criminal past. And the carefully constructed life Bug has put together for his family is slowly coming apart at the seams; and he needs money, and fast. So when a driving job in the life comes available, he grits his teeth and agrees to it. But nothing is ever as easy as it seems, and this job leads to other bills that have to be paid–with blood and bone.
The story alone is riveting, but what makes this novel so strong and powerful is the voice and the development of Bug as a character. The struggle within him between the desire for a normal family life and to do right by his children versus the thrill he gets from being in the life; from getting to flex and use his driving skills to skirt the law and get away with it is what takes this book to another level–and then the realization, the coming to terms with his feelings for his own father and that abandonment, as well as coming to terms with his complicated relationship with his mother, as he tries to do the right thing by his own family was breathtaking in its complexity and how agonizingly real it all seemed.
And those actions scenes are masterfully crafted, and keep you on the edge of your seat the entire time. Even had I wanted to put the book down, to take my time with it and read it more slowly, to draw the pleasure out, I couldn’t have once the kicked into high gear.
The writing is also deceptively simple yet honed to a sharpness and beauty worthy of compare to the grand masters of crime writing.
And while it was an accident of my TBR pile, I am very glad I read Kelly J. Ford’s Cottonmouths and S. A Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland back to back, as both are surely writing some of the best contemporary rural noir of our time; they should be paired, really, and read back to back, much the same as how Megan Abbott’s Dare Me and Michael Koryta’s The Prophet should be paired together.
What a terrific time to be living in for a fan of crime fiction this is!
I am from the South, which is probably something Constant Reader is sick of hearing about–but I feel like I always need to make that clear. While I grew up in Chicago and Kansas, I have always identified as Southern, as being from Alabama. It’s where I was born, and it’s where, as we say down here, my people are from. I was raised and shaped by natives of Alabama, who were raised and shaped and became who they were in Alabama, because of Alabama, and who identify completely as Alabamians.
I’ve now lived in the south for twenty five years this coming August 1st; even though many Southerners don’t think of New Orleans as Southern. (I would not dispute that thought, either; New Orleans is of the South but is not the same as the rest of the South…but once you cross the Orleans Parish line you are definitely back in the South, but southern Louisiana, while still similar, isn’t the same because of Acadiana.)
My relationship with the South, and with being Southern, is a complicated one, and one that I am constantly evaluating and examining, over and over again. I have pride of region, which is definitely a Southern trait; woe be to those who might condemn or stereotype or insult the region to my face. I am aware of the faults, and the flaws, and the horrors; I don’t need anyone to tell me or lecture me about its history and how it came to be the way that it is now., or of it’s racist history or of the current racism which still seems to be the majority opinion here. I’ve heard all the inbreeding jokes, and jokes about toothless people and hillbillies and white trash and people of Wal-mart and so forth; so by all means, keep them to yourselves. I also have always understood the difference between heritage and hate; I may have been very young but I remember the Civil Rights Movement vividly.
I was never a fan of Confederate statues, for example; I never understood the insistence on venerating men I didn’t consider heroes but traitors, even when I was young. I remember always thinking, but they lost, and they hated the United States, why should we revere that? The cognitive dissonance of being “patriotic Americans” while venerating those who fired upon the flag and tried to start their own country disturbed me when I was a kid and it never made sense to me, and no matter how many times the mythology of the happy slave was spoon-fed to me, whether it was Gone with the Wind (both book and movie), or any of the many other examples from fiction, film and television. The Biblical example of Pharaoh and Egypt (beyond their reject of the one God), holding the Hebrews in bondage as slaves was always right there, too.
And if might equals right, hadn’t the complete and utter defeat of the Confederacy, in such an incredibly humiliating fashion, a complete defeat that left the rebellious slave states in smoking ruins and their economy wrecked (much as Germany was after World War II), further proof that slavery and secession were wrong?
And yet it is an incredibly beautiful part of the country, whether it’s the gorgeous Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina or the massive live oaks of New Orleans, the swamps of Louisiana andthe pine forests of Mississippi and Alabama, the lower Ozarks in Arkansas, the beaches of Alabama and Florida’s Gulf Coast. Savannah and Charleston and New Orleans are beautiful cities; the college campuses of the Southern states are breaktaking in their beauty.
Driving through Mississippi and Alabama, the countryside is so beautiful, the , with the pine tree forests and the red earth, the sloping hills and flowing rivers, that it always inspires my creative brain to think about stories and writing and books. I love the South, despite all the things that are wrong with it, because it’s also a part of me, of who I am. I love its contradictions–like how when you drive through the Smoky Mountains at night you will come across three enormous crosses rising out of the fog that announce the presence of a megachurch…and the same highway exit also plays host to Triple X Super Store.
It’s also interesting that I am returning to my first real manuscript about Alabama, set in a fictional recreation of the part of Alabama from which I came originally, while reading Kelly J. Ford’s debut novel, Cottonmouths–because even though Ford’s book is about Arkansas, the small country town and its surrounding rural area is very similar to my Alabama.
From behind, the woman standing with a guy next to the Love’s Truck Stop air pump looked like any other woman: long hair, too skinny, big purse, big sunglasses. But when the woman turned and smiled, Emily’s chest tightened and her insides tingled in a forgotten but familiar way. Rumors of Jody’s return had come as whispers around town, but until now Emily had lacked proof.
A warm breeze blew petroleum fumes and cigarette smoke into her face while she sought further confirmation of who she’d seen. Gas spilled onto her hand. Startled, she released the trigger on the pump and swiped her hand across her jeans. She sheltered her eyes from the sun to scan the parking lot. But the woman and the guy were gone.
Back on the highway, Emily tried to keep her mind as empty and barren as the farmland that rolled by. When that didn’t work, she turned up the radio and hit scan, unable to settle on the station offerings from the nearest town–country or Christian or the same four pop songs on repeat interspersed with commercials for pawn shops and car lots. Midway through the miles she punched the radio off and tried to tell herself that her new fast food job and her time at home were temporary, though she’d been back a month already.
Cottonmouths is many things, all wrapped up into a compelling story told with gorgeous language. Emily, the main character, has essentially flunked out of college and is wrestling, as so many Southern queers do, with the bipolarity of a deeply Christian small town/rural upbringing struggling against her deepest secret of desire for other women. She’s an outsider, which gives her the ability to see everyone and everything around her with brighter clarity than the insiders have the chance to see–she can see the hypocrisy in her deeply Christian town, and the abhorrence of difference, which makes her feel not only like an outsider but horribly, terribly lonely. It is this lesbian desire within her that ultimately led to her flunking out of college, an inability to come to terms with who she actually is despite being raised in a way that makes her loathe who she actually is. So she has returned to the dying little town of Drear’s Bluff, with its explosive boredom, feeling like a failure for flunking out of college and terrified to admit to people outside her parents that she has failed. She can only find a part time job working fast food in nearby Fort Smith–a job she is too ashamed to admit to her parents she has had to take.
And more than anything, she feels trapped. She wants to escape this town, escape its suffocating claustrophobia, and be free–but she needs money to do that, and without money–as is all too true for most people, she cannot escape.
The return of her best friend from high school, Jody, whom she sees at the Love’s Truck Stop, is the trigger that starts the story in motion. Jody, whom the good people of Drear’s Bluff consider “white trash”, has a baby and is unmarried and living in the old trailer parked on her family’s land. Emily’s past with Jody is also fraught; her family took Jody in when she was a teenager when her mother took off, and one night Emily made a move on her–and the next day Jody was gone, back to her mother and out of her life. This guilt has always plagued Emily; wrapped up in the strict confines of the narrow-minded Christianity she was raised with, and with Jody back now, Emily isn’t so sure what she wants or needs–but those unresolved feelings of first love and desire have now bubbled back up to the surface again.
Cottonmouths is what I would call “rural Southern noir;” while crime and criminal activity is a driving force to the story, it’s also more than that–it’s a compelling portrait of a slice of American life so many Americans it doesn’t affect do not want to face: the death of the small town way of life, the loss of employment opportunity, the collapse of hope for something better. It’s about different kinds of yearnings, and how hope can be twisted into seeing criminality as the only way out. Like Daniel Woodrell and Tom Franklin, Flannery O’Connor and so many others, Ford shows us the reality of rural Southern life; how the deep religious belief can go hand in hand with smug superiority and class warfare–how those who theoretically follow Christ, who ministered to the poor and sick, can somehow hate the poor and look down on them.
There are so many little touches here that ring so true–Love’s Truck Stops, which are scattered throughout the south along its highways and byways; the prayer circles where they drink Virgin Bloody Mary mix; the judgment for not attending church twice on Sundays and for Bible study on Wednesdays; and the viciousness of gossip and the fear that everyone will talk about you, and judge you, and laugh at you–or rather, passive-aggressively shake their heads while murmuring Christian platitudes while the gleam of enjoyment shines in their eyes.
I enjoyed this, and I am really looking forward to what comes next from Kelly J. Ford.
So, who had “this revision won’t be as easy as Greg thought it would be” on their Gregalicious trials-and-travails bingo card?
Well, congratulations, you were correct. This reminds me of the time when I thought, oh I’ll just turn this Scotty manuscript into a Chanse, it’ll be easy and no, it really wasn’t. It was actually a nightmare, but eventually, after much anguish, stress, and aggravation, I did get it done and I was pretty pleased with the final outcome. I got up early yesterday morning and wrote an entirely new first chapter of Bury Me in Shadows, and one that was much better than any of the original attempts, so there’s that. Chapter Two was more of a slog, since I was trying to save more material so I wouldn’t have to write new material, but it’s going to need some going over again to make sure the transition from the old original story to the new is seamless. On the plus side–there’s always a plus side, even if I have to really dig deep down for it–the new material I am writing is good, and I like this iteration of the character much better than I did in the previous drafts; and his backstory is much better than it was originally. I also love the new opening. And making these changes actually eliminates a big hole in the story–something I could never really quite figure out–it was one of those things that had to happen for the story to happen, but it only made sense in THAT context, and that was driving me completely insane.
You can’t do that. It’s called “contrivance,” and there’s nothing that makes me more irritated or annoyed with a writer (or a movie or a TV show) where something happens only because it’s necessary for the story and only makes sense in that particular context. (I mean, obviously you can, and plenty of writers do, but it’s fucking lazy, and you shouldn’t, and if you do, and your editor doesn’t stop you…yeah, well.)
I also spent some time with Kelly J. Ford’s Cottonmouths, which I am really enjoying. I just wish I had more time to read, you know? I am so fucking far behind on my reading.
We also started watching HBO’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, which is very well done and very creepy. One of the things that terrifies me–which therefore also interests and fascinates me–is the concept of not being safe in your own home; that we all have this incredible illusion of security and safety in our homes–and neighborhoods, for that matter–and so we often are caught off-guard or by surprise by violence, or, as the theorists would say, the introduction of a Dionysian element into our safe, secure worlds. “The Carriage House” is that kind of story; so is “Neighborhood Alert” to a degree, as is the one I just sold, “Night Follows Night,” which is about not being safe in a supermarket because that was something I thought was interesting; you never think you aren’t safe in a bright public place full of employees and other shoppers until you actually aren’t. This is something Stephen King does very well; the introduction of something Dionysian into an ordinary, sedate, everyday kind of environment, and how normal everyday people react in those kinds of situations; some rise to the challenge, others do not.
Anyway, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is just that–a true crime documentary based on the book by the late Michelle McNamara about her investigation into the Golden State Killer, and how that all came about. When you listen to the stories of the victims, and remember what it was like in in the 1970’s for women who were raped (not that things have gotten much better since then, but at least as bad as it is now it’s not as bad as it was then–not a laurel we as a society should be resting on any time soon, frankly), but how the rapes and murders happened in these quiet middle class suburban type enclaves where no one ever expected anything bad to ever happen (I’ve always wanted to write a book based on a murder that happened in the suburb of Chicago I lived in during my early teens; the killer and one of the accomplices were students at my high school; I knew the accomplice’s two younger sisters quite well); and I also lived in Fresno during the later part of the Golden State Killer’s run–but he had moved on to Southern California by then. I was stuck by the old footage of these neighborhoods in Sacramento, and how like our neighborhood in Fresno (Clovis, actually; a suburb of Fresno) and how closed off the houses were from their neighbors and the street–with small front yards and an enormous garage in the very front of the houses, which were in U shapes. My bedroom was the other side of the U from the garage and there were bars on the windows so no one could ever come in. My curtains were always closed so I could never see out onto the street or no one could see in; every once in a while on nights when I couldn’t sleep I would scare myself by thinking if I opened the curtains someone would be there–because it was very easy to get to, even if the bars precluded anyone from getting inside. Sliding glass doors were also very popular in houses back then, if not the most secure thing to have in your house, really.
And naturally, I started writing a short story in my head while I watched, about a bickering couple who come home early from a party because they got into a fight and are still fighting as they pull into their driveway and arguing still as they go into the house where they find their fifteen year old daughter bound and gagged in the living room with the sliding glass door to the backyard and pool area open, the curtains blowing in the night breeze. I don’t know the whole story, or how it ends, or even where it goes from there–which is why I have so many unfinished short stories in my files.
There’s a tornado watch in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes this morning, which probably means rain for most (or part) of the day here as well. It seems kind of gloomy and overcast out there, but brighter than it has been the last three mornings–when it rained a lot–so we’ll see how this day goes.
But it’s Monday, the start of a new week, and here’s hoping that I’ll be able to find time to not only read this week but time to work on the manuscript. Perchance to dream, I suppose.
I’ve always been a reader; my earliest (and most of the happiest) memories of my early years is of reading books that I deeply loved. I think it was the 4th grade where I really began to read series books of mysteries for kids; I’m not sure which was the first one, but it was either The Three Investigators’ The Mystery of the Moaning Cave or Trixie Belden’s The Read Trailer Mystery. When I discovered Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and the rest, I decided I not only wanted to be a writer when I grew up but wanted to write a similar type series. I wrote my very first “book” in the fifth grade, called The Mystery of the Haunted Mansion, and of course it was really derivative and more of a pastiche; I don’t remember the name of my main character, but I had a friend type it up for me, and then I bound it inside cardboard and drew a cover for it (which I still remember; it was basically a rip off of the original cover for Nancy Drew’s The Ghost of Blackwood Hall). The concept of a mystery series for kids has never really left me, and always periodically came up again throughout my life…until I actually started writing seriously. About fourteen years ago I thought about it again; going so far as to actually come up with a series character…and it came up again in conversation with a friend who actually writes middle grade the other day (That Bitch Ford, to be exact) and the idea has continued to swirl in my head ever since. Yesterday morning, I went through my horribly disorganized file cabinet, looking for the file folder labeled KIDS’ SERIES and took it out of the file. Inside are yellowed pages of book synopses, lists of possible titles, characters, different series…and as I paged through it, I also found traces of things that eventually showed up in my work since I actually became a published writer: the name of a town, character names, etc.
But I moved the file from the cabinet and put it in my inbox; at some point, perhaps this weekend, I’ll start going through it and seeing what might actually be of use to me. It’s not something I’m going to work on now–heavens no, there’s still too much else I have to write that I am already behind on–but it’s something to think about for the future, for sure.
And as I glanced over some of the titles, some of them were clearly “inspired/influenced” by Scooby Doo Where Are You and Jonny Quest. One–The Mystery of the Galloping Ghost–may have even been used in the Ken Holt series; I’d have to check to be certain, but I definitely think so. (And yes, I know titles cannot be copyrighted; both Ken Holt and The Three Investigators uncovered The Secret of Skeleton Island, for example) And I literally just watched the Jonny Quest episode with the gargoyle last week (on my list of titles is The Mystery of the Stone Gargoyle), and there’s also one called The Mystery of the Lost Crusade–I have thought, for many years, about writing a Colin stand alone called The Lost Crusade–and now I see that I had come up with that very title at least fifteen years earlier, before it swam up to my consciousness again. And surely The Witch of the Swamp was inspired by a Scooby Doo Where Are You episode I rewatched lately, about a witch in a swamp. And there’s The Mystery of the Crying Nun–I currently have a short story in progress called “The Crying Nun” (it’s a New Orleans ghost story). And The Mystery of the Haunted Airport was definitely a rip-off of a Scooby gang adventure.
There’s even detailed character descriptions, and plot summaries for more than ten of the “books.”
Something worth exploring, since I have nothing else to do.
We watched another episode of Dark last night, and boy, you have to hand it to the Germans when it comes to atmosphere and creepiness. They are slowly but surely explaining what is actually going on in this little German town–we’re only two episodes in–and the lovely thing is it’s most likely, based on last night’s episode, nothing we were thinking it was going to be. I love shows that surprise you like this; Orphan Black was really good at this, and I love having no idea where the story is going or what could possibly happen next. Those shows inevitably end up being my favorites to watch.
I slept very well again last night, and am working from home today with a lot of things to get done for the day job as well as a lot of things to get done for various things this weekend–both writing wise and volunteer wise–and I also have to make groceries at some point this weekend as well. The summer weather has finally kicked into it’s usual high gear–I don’t know why it always blindsides me every year, but there you have it–and so going out into the heat to do anything is always an energy-suck and exhausting. I also want to get deeper into my reading of Kelly Ford’s wonderful Cottonmouths–I’m not sure why I am having so much trouble focusing on reading this summer, but there it is–and think next will be a reread of Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree. I’m also going to spend some time culling the books again this weekend, even though there’s no place for me to take them to donate because of the pandemic. I also need to take some bags of beads to the donation drop for those as well–which will also be a lot of fun in the heat, yay–but it’s just clutter, you know.
And the thing is I want to declutter, and it’s not like we’ll go the rest of our lives never getting more beads. Catching them is more fun than keeping them, anyway.
Monday morning, and the weekend–well, I did manage to go over my edits on the Sherlock story (huzzah! And there were some absolutely lovely, ego-boosting comments in there from the editor as well) and so that was something, at any rate. I didn’t do much else of anything all weekend, other some volunteer work and a lot of nothing. But I am hopeful that this will be a productive week for one Gregalicious–hope always does spring eternal–and I do have some ideas for how to move forward on some things, so there is that.
I slept decently last night, and feel okay this morning–I suspect I’ll feel more tired later on, as it wasn’t a very deep sleep and I was awake before my seven o’clock alarm went off–and I am not groggy this morning, and let’s be honest–not groggy is always a plus around here.
I feel rested and ready to face the work week, which isn’t my usual Monday morning feeling, and I suppose that is an improvement over the usual Monday morning doldrums, frankly.
I did manage to get the edits on my Sherlock story finished and sent back last night–and to my delight, woke up to a lovely email from the editor this morning. Quick turnarounds from editors are not the norm, believe you me (typed the former editor apologetically), and it’s delightful to know that I can review the manuscript today over my lunch hour. And maybe–just maybe–I can get some writing and reading done every night when I get home from the office, or when I go off duty on the days I am working from home. I am starting to adjust to this reality–which means, of course, that undoubtedly it’s going to change and/or shift again at some point in the future. From what I am seeing on the news–which I try to avoid as much as possible; there’s only so much terrible news I can stand at a time–it appears that infections are rising and spreading rapidly again; and even in states whose governors were in denial for so long about the realities of a pandemic (pesky science anyway) are starting to wake up to the reality that they were wrong and are even admitting they were wrong; will wonders never cease?
I’m kind of disturbed at the interruption of my reading schedule, more so than anything else. I did go on a nice reread streak with the Kindle app on my iPad a month or so ago (time literally has no meaning anymore to me; it still is staggering that we are only going on month four of the pandemic) or whenever that was; I am having more trouble reading new-to-me fiction than I am rereading novels I’ve completely forgotten everything about (it was lovely rereading those Mary Stewart novels as though for the first time). Kelly J. Ford’s Cottonmouths is actually quite marvelous, and the slowness of my reading of it has more to do with my inability to focus than any authorial fault of hers. The sense of place is very strong and real, and I am definitely already vested in her main character, and her unrequited love for her former best friend from high school. It’s a very timeless and real story–and I am really curious to see where it goes from these early chapters I’ve managed to focus on enough to read.
We’re still watching the lengthy first season of the Mexican show The Club, and are very close to the end–the first season has 23 or 24 episodes, and we finished episode 17 last night. These later episodes are also shorter–clocking in closer to half an hour than three quarters of an hour, as the earlier ones did.
And on that note, I am going to head back into the spice mines and send off some emails and delete some others before it’s time to hop in the shower.
It’s also July now, as one can tell by the tropical weather experience New Orleans is currently enjoying; heat index averaging high nineties over a hundred everyday, your occasional heat advisory (“stay indoors if at all possible”), thunderstorms and flash flood warnings out of nowhere and some Sahara sand storm dust thrown in for shits and giggles.
I finished watching the only season of the original Jonny Quest yesterday while making condom packs, and I have to say, the original writers of this show had some serious issues with Asians, and most especially the Chinese. It’s unusual that in a decade and time period when the Cold War was particularly chilly–it originally aired only a few years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and in prime time that single season–the Russians were never the villains. Dr. Quest’s arch enemy was the evil Chinese scientist Dr. Sun; and in several episodes the villains were Chinese. They also had a remarkable number of adventures in Asia–China, Taiwan, India, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Nepal; and the natives were always either evil or horrible stereotypes (as were any jungle natives they encountered in either South America or Africa). Hadji, a series regular, was a particularly stereotypical magical Indian youth–who managed to charm snakes, levitate others, and numerous other magic tricks while chanting “Heem, heem, salabeem” or some such nonsensical thing. He was always in a turban and Nehru jacket, and even in beach scenes, when the others wore swim trunks, he wore a Gandhi loincloth. Why?
I also watched a couple of episodes of Scooby Doo Where Are You, and despite the simplistic, casual racism of Jonny Quest, it’s still the superior show. I’ve not watched any of the later reboots of Jonny Quest–the one from 1986 shows up on HBO MAX as the second season, and in the mid-nineties The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest launched, with the boys aged to teenagers from eleven year olds, and Race’s daughter added to the mix (I guess to deflect the deep queerness of the original); the animation in this version is perhaps the best of all three versions–with Race finally achieving his full muscle-god bodyguard perfection–but whenever I’ve tried to watch, the “it’s not really Jonny Quest” disappointment always sets in and I stop watching.
We also got deeper into Season 2 of Titans, and it gets better and better with every episode, frankly. The Jericho story is particularly heartbreaking; and I love that they are using the second season (with some continuity errors) to explore how the team came to break apart in the first place (the show begins with the Titans already broken up, and them coming back together to confront the big bad of Season One) and how, essentially, all the action of Season One really was set into motion. It’s very exceptional story-telling, frankly, and the plotting and pacing is, for the most part, superb. Also superb is the addition of several new cast members: Rose Slade, Conner Kent, and Deathstroke as the big bad, with Aqualad appearing briefly as set up for the original conflict between the Titans and Deathstroke. We only have two episodes left, and I was glad to see the show was renewed for a third season already…although, given the pandemic, who knows when it will ever be filmed or when it will actually air.
Today, as I already mentioned earlier this week, is the day I am taking off. I have some emails to respond to, and some other things I need to get done this morning, but as soon as I get all of that done I am going on sabbatical for the rest of the weekend. I want to get a lot of writing done this weekend–the Secret Project must be finished, and there’s a couple more short stories in progress I want to work on and develop, but today for the most part I’m planning on mostly cleaning and reading and chilling out, so I can just let my brain relax and recuperate and my body to rest, so that the rest of the weekend I can get the writing I need to get done finished. I am looking forward to getting back into Kelly J. Ford’s Cottonmouths–the first chapter was blistering–and getting through all the emails in my inbox. I also have my edits for the Sherlock story, which I’ll also have to get through this weekend–perhaps today–I am giving myself until one to deal with the Internet and emails and so forth before shutting down for the holiday weekend.
It’s very strange outside this morning, neither light nor dark but sort of grim-looking and hazy. The trees aren’t moving so there’s no wind of any kind out there. I’m not sure what the weather is supposed to be like today–there’s usually not much point in checking the forecast as it’s inevitably always the same–hot humid chance of rain–and usually, after June, we surrender to it and don’t bother with daily updates and just start paying attention to tropical formations and depressions coming across the Atlantic or forming deep in the Gulf. It isn’t hot in the kitchen/office this morning yet–the absence of the blindingly brilliant morning sun has helped, and I haven’t had to turn on the portable Arctic Air coolers yet (but I know it’s inevitable), but it actually feels pleasantly cool down here this morning thus far, which is rather nice, quite frankly.
I still have three stories out for submission (“The Snow Globe”, “Moves in the Field,” and “This Thing of Darkness”), but I do want to spend the summer trying to get more out there. One of the biggest disappointments I’ve found as a writer is the continual drying up of short story markets that actually pay, and while others have sprung up in their place they either don’t pay, or pay so little as to just be a token (and might as well be unpaid, for that matter). I’ve always been concerned about the decline of the short story market, because I do think the form is important to literature, and to crime fiction in particular. I personally love the short form–despite my constant struggle with it–and I also know I am just as guilty as anyone in its decline, because I don’t read them as much as I should. I do buy anthologies and short story collections–Sara Paretsky’s is winging its way to me even as I type this, along with the new one edited by Lawrence Block–and I am probably going to be putting together another one of my own at some point over the next year or so (provided the world doesn’t burn to the ground in the meantime). I was calling it Once a Tiger and Other Stories, but I have to completely rethink the title story, “Once a Tiger,” and so I may need to rename it. I would also like to include some of these stories I’ve recently sold–which will delay the collection more, as the original publications have to occur first, but I was thinking perhaps The Carriage House and Other Stories, or Night Follows Night and Other Stories. I also would love to collect all my love story/romance short stories into an edition–I’ve published three or four, but have a lot more just sitting in files needing to be revised or rewritten or finished.
And on that note, I am going to head back down into the spice mines. Have a lovely day, everyone.
So I went ahead and sent out three stories on submission yesterday; “This Thing of Darkness,” “Night Follows Night”, and the Sherlock story. Will any of them actually be accepted? Who knows, but that’s all part and parcel of the joy of being a writer who likes to write short stories despite being rarely asked to write them. I have like 86 short stories in some form of progress now, but it felt really good to write finis on these and sent them out. If they are rejected, oh well; I’ll just save them for my next short story collection.
See how that works? Staying positive is always a plus, you know?
And last night before I went to bed I checked the Pandora’s Box known more commonly as my email inbox to discover a delightful email from the editor of the Sherlock anthology that she loves the new edition of the story and is sending me a contract! How absolutely delightful. I am glad “The Affair of the Purloined Rentboy” will see print, and as always, it’s lovely to get that kind of affirmation. It’s also a period piece, which was just as daunting as writing a Holmes story set in New Orleans–the only rule for the anthology was that it couldn’t be set in London, and Holmes and Watson couldn’t be English. So I made Holmes a Louisianan–and we never are quite sure where Watson is from. But it was great fun, challenging, and very, as I said, daunting. While I’ve read the Holmes stories–and the Nicholas Meyer novels, and other stories written by modern day Sherlockians (notably, Lyndsay Faye and Laurie King), I don’t think of myself as an avid Sherlockian. Even now, I cannot think of the plot of either A Scandal in Bohemia or The Red-headed League.
So, I wasn’t a hundred percent certain I could write such a story that would be worthy of publication, but it was a challenge–and I do enjoy challenges. I like pushing myself as a writer, trying something different, seeing if I can continue to grow as a writer. (But just between you and me, the only reason I even thought I could possibly do this was because it was specified not to be canon–no London, not the late nineteenth century, no need for continuity. No, this was a way I could write a Sherlock story and make it entirely my own as well. And of course, setting it in 1916 was also a bit of a challenge for me as well; I’ve never done much period/historical writing, and since I knew, once the title came to me, that Storyville had to be involved (how else could one write “The Affair of the Purloined Rentboy” and not involve Storyville?), which presented a host of other issues. Fortunately, I’ve been reading lots of New Orleans history lately, and one of the books was about Storyville: Gary Krist’s Empire of Sin (highly recommended, by the way), and in a short story I wouldn’t have to have the ongoing detail a novel would require, so I thought, fuck it, let’s give it a shot.
I was also able to use one of the locations I often use in Scotty books, the Hotel Aquitaine, which made it even more fun for me.
So, apparently, the thinking positive thing might actually work. How lovely!
Also, yesterday I (the ever-present resident Luddite) managed to figure out how to go back and read the chat from the Queer Noir at the Bar reading on Friday night–I kept accidentally closing it, and when I was reading I never looked at it–and wow. Everyone was so gracious and kind about my reading! I’m glad, though, that I wasn’t reading the chat while I was reading because it would have freaked me out. Thank you all for being so kind.
I also started reading Kelly J. Ford’s Cottonmouths, and as I read, I began to remember why I hesitated to read it. Being from the South, and from a particularly poor part of the South, I sometimes have trouble reading about that world; because of the memories it brings back, and while Ford’s prose is magnificently beautiful, she also brought me right into a world I know so well–a world I’ve been trying to shake off my entire life. There’s probably something to be said, or perhaps written, about my struggle with where I am from; the deep pride instilled in me my entire childhood about being Southern and the defensiveness that automatically arises whenever someone else is critical of (what I still think of) as home; and how that pride also runs concurrent with a river of shame–two rivers, running parallel, a kind of Tigris and Euphrates within my soul, my psyche, my being. I’ve started and never finished any number of stories and novels set in Alabama; my files run over with them. Bury Me in Shadows is the first manuscript set in Alabama I’ve ever finished a full draft of (there are a couple of short stories I’ve finished; Dark Tide is also set in Alabama but down in a little town on Mobile Bay–which isn’t quite the same thing), and I have yet to complete it enough to turn it into my publisher. Reading Kelly’s book takes me to the same places Daniel Woodrell’s work takes me, or Ace Atkins’ The Ranger series…that inner conflict, that inability to decide, that pride of place and where I come from coupled with shame. I could see it all so clearly in my head as I read that first chapter…she may have been writing about rural Arkansas but it could have been rural Alabama. It’s real, it’s vivid, and it’s beautiful.
The rural south is savage in its beauty.
My whole life has really been about dualities; being Southern but not growing up there; closeted self v. authentic self; being a writer but also always having some other job for whatever reason. My identity has always been sort of splintered; it’s probably why I am so constantly down on myself because I never really feel whole, or like I fit in somewhere–because I’ve been outside my entire life.
And, I have found few things trigger me to dark emotion–anger or depression–than being reminded that I am an outsider.
We started watching Perry Mason, and we’re enjoying it–but it’s really not Perry Mason. It’s something entirely else, with the characters given the same names as the ones Erle Stanley Gardner used. The cast is fantastic, and it’s a terrific noir series (if a bit reminiscent of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels–which we stopped watching, for reasons that are not pertinent here), so we will keep watching–but, it’s not really the same show or characters.
And it makes me want to reread one of the originals again.
And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me.