Ride Like the Wind

Yesterday I felt fantastic. Yes, I overslept, not getting out of bed until a disgraceful almost ten am, had a couple of cups of coffee while checking social media and writing yesterday’s blog entry, and then buckled down to clean, organize and write. I got about 2400 words down on Chapter Ten of the WIP–which I originally thought was Chapter Nine but I had already written that chapter so this was ten, which means the first draft is over halfway done. How marvelous is that?

Pretty mother-fucking marvelous, if I do say so myself.

I slept well again last night, but set the alarm so I wouldn’t stay in bed as late. As it is, I set it for eight and hit snooze repeatedly, not to sleep more, but rather because I felt so relaxed and comfortable in the bed I didn’t want to get up. But I still have some laundry to do, a grocery store run to make (KING CAKE!), and I want to spend the day cleaning and editing a hard copy of the Scotty book. (Yes, I do my original edits on a paper copy. SUE ME.) I also want to finish rereading The Shining so I can move on to Pet Sematary. I am not reading as quickly as I used to, which is aggravating. Once I finish these two rereads, I am going to dive into reading for the Diversity Project, and I also want to get back into the Short Story Project. I also need to clean the apartment more thoroughly–I spent most of the day yesterday organizing and filing, as well as purging books. But I need to get the floors done today, and finish the laundry. This is my first full week of work since before Christmas, and I am hoping if I can focus on getting to bed at a decent hour on the nights before I have to get up early, I can get things done and not wear myself out too terribly along the way. I am not going to try the gym this week, as I need to get a handle on my work schedule and see how I can make that work, with plans to make it back to the gym this coming Friday or Saturday. There’s also no Saints game today, which makes today easier. One of the things that was amazing to me yesterday was how much time I had…it’s amazing how that works. No LSU or college football, and the day is suddenly wild and free. Go figure.

And yesterday was Twelfth Night, so it’s now officially Carnival. Hurray! The city will soon be festooned in purple, gold and green; the bleachers will be going up on Lee Circle and St. Charles Avenue on the downtown side of the circle; King cakes will have their own enormous display table at the grocery store; and that sense of anticipation of the coming madness can be felt in the air. It’s going to be weird not going to work on Parade Days, but it will also make life a little bit more interesting. I’m obviously hoping to get a lot done on those days, but we shall see how that all works out, shan’t we?

I also need to do some cooking today; trying to get food for the week ready and for our lunches. Which means making a mess in the kitchen and something else to do for the day; cleaning the mess. But I don’t like going into the week with a messy apartment; it gets messy enough during the work week when I don’t have the time or energy to keep up with it (or the filing, for that matter). So, there’s some touching up I need to do on my office space, and I can vacuum and so forth while I am editing.

Last night we started watching Homecoming on Prime. What an amazing cast–Julia Roberts, Bobby Canavale, Sissy Spacek, and Dermot Mulroney, just for starters. The plot is also interesting–we’re about half-way through. and will probably finish this evening. We may go see The Favourite  next weekend, which is kind of exciting. I can’t remember the last time we saw a non-popcorn movie in the theater. I’m sure the film is rife with historical inaccuracies–what historical films aren’t–but my knowledge of Queen Anne is fairly limited; I’ve not even read the Jean Plaidy historical fiction about her, so perhaps that won’t be too much of issue to keep me from enjoying it (I’ll watch the new Mary Queen of Scots movie when I can stream it for free; every film biography of Mary Stuart is rife with license and inaccuracy; but it’s always a great opportunity for two great actresses to chew the scenery. The 1971 version with Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson is probably, in my opinion, the best; I always picture Glenda Jackson whenever I think of Queen Elizabeth). I did know that Queen Anne had seventeen children that all died; she didn’t particularly want to be queen, and she had female ‘favorites’–it wasn’t common, but several English kings and queens had same-sex favorites, including Edward II, James I, and Queen Anne. Histories and biographies and encyclopedia entries would mention this, but gloss it over….it wasn’t until my late teens that I began putting together the coding and realized these monarchs were queer.

Yup, queers have been systematically erased from history, glossed over and forgotten, for centuries. Yay.

Part of the research/reading I am doing into New Orleans history is precisely to try to uncover the city’s queer past; trying to find the clues and coded language in books as we are glossed over and hidden from incurious minds. Every once in a while I’d find a glimmer of a hint in Gary Krist’s Empire of Sin, for example, that there were gay male prostitutes working in Storyville, and I kind of want to write about that. As I’ve said a million times before, New Orleans history is rife with terrific stories that would make for great fictions. One of the reasons I am so bitter about the Great Data Disaster of 2018 is not only because of the time spent reconstructing things but because it so completely broke my momentum and totally derailed me. I’m not sure how to get back on that streetcar (see what I did there?) but I’m going to have to relatively soon. But i’ve also been so focused on the Scotty and the new WIP that I’ve gotten away from it. I think diving back into The French Quarter by Herbert Asbury will help.

I also bought some cheap ebooks on sale yesterday, including Sophie’s Choice by Williamt Styron and Fear of Flying by Erica Jong. When I was checking the Kindle app on my iPad to make sure they downloaded properly, much to my horror I discovered that I have almost 400 books in that app–which doesn’t include the ones I have in iBooks or the Barnes & Noble app. YIKES. Clearly, I don’t need to take any books with me when I travel, because there are plenty in my iPad. I also have a ridiculous amount of anthologies and single author short story collections loaded in there…so yes, the Short Story Project will be continuing for quite some time, I suspect. There are also some terrific books in there I’d like to read, or reread, as the case may be…I have almost all of Mary Stewart’s novels on Kindle, for example, and a lot of Phyllis Whitney’s. I also have a Charlotte Armstrong I’ve not read, The Seventeen Widows of San Souci, and on and on and on….I really am a book hoarder, aren’t I?

Ah, well, life does go on.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me.

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Miss Me Blind

The last Friday of 2017. I am working a very abbreviated day at the office today; and have a three day weekend. I didn’t want to get out of bed this morning–nothing new there this week; I’ve felt that way every morning this week–and am really looking forward to being a lazy slug and staying in bed as long as I can the next three days. Huzzah for being a lazy slug! I am also starting to come out of this whatever it was that I had; its lovely to feel this close to normal–I was beginning to forget what close to normal felt like, to be honest.

I finished reading The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo last night, and I have to say, it was refreshing to read something about Anne Boleyn that tried to take a look at her in an objective way; who she was has been so defined over the years by so much misogynistic garbage, as well as the highly biased accounts of two men who hated her–the Spanish ambassador, Chapuys, and the Venetian ambassador–that it was lovely to read  a book about her that tried to take a look at who the real Anne was, and debunk the myths that have, over the years, come to be taken as facts.

Scan 5

The sixteenth century is one of my favorite periods of history, and always has been, as far back as I can remember; the Tudors in England and the Valois in France; the unification of the Hapsburg empire; the rise of Spain as a nation and its own colonial empire and systematic looting of the Americas; the corruption of the papacy and the Reformation; the Renaissance; and the rise of England as a world power. The sixteenth century is also remarkable in that it is the first century of European history where women rose to prominent positions of power, more so than any other: the list of powerful, influential women ranges everywhere from intellectual influences (Marguerite de Navarre) to regnant queens (Mary I and Elizabeth I in England, and even the unfortunate Lady Jane Grey; Mary Queen of Scots; Jeanne d’Albret, Isabella of Castile) to powers behind the throne (Diane de Poitiers, Catherine de Medici) to regents (Margaret of Austria, Maria of Hungary, Marie de Guise), among many other women who influenced the course of history. I’ve always wanted to do a Barbara Tuchman style study of the century and its powerful women, called The Monstrous Regiment of Women. 

The century was also terribly unique in that precedents were set by things that had never happened before: England executed three of her queens, and another in Mary Queen of Scots; France saw a non-royal crowned queen in Catherine de Medici; and of course, there were the marital shenanigans of Henry VIII. And while I am fascinated by many  of the century’s women and their place on the stage of history, perhaps the most fascinating, for me at least, has always been Anne Boleyn.

I’ve never understood the bad rap that Anne Boleyn has gotten over the years from historians; the very first biography of a Tudor woman that I read, Mary M. Luke’s Catherine the Queen, was obviously very anti-Anne Boleyn; she has been painted with the brush of misogyny throughout history as everything from the husband-stealing vixen to the great whore; and yet, the answer has to be more complex than that. Anne Boleyn was responsible for England’s break from the Catholic Church, and while her predecessor Catherine of Aragon is often depicted as the long-suffering victim, there was also no question, in any histories of the period or biographies, that Catherine of Aragon was, the entire period of her marriage to Henry VIII and after being discarded, very much a Spanish agent working against England’s interests in favor of those of her family; the ruling house of Spain. Her goal was to eventually see her daughter, Mary I, sit on the English throne and marry her cousin Charles, thus bringing England into the Imperial fold. She violently resisted any other possible marriage for her daughter; and it cannot be questioned that making England a basic vassal state of the Hapsburgs was hardly in England’s best interests going forward (as was seen when Mary did eventually become queen and married Charles’ son, Philip). Catherine, no matter how romantically people want to view her as the wronged wife and victim, allowed her own pride, and her own ambition, to cause England to be separated from the Catholic Church despite her own seeming piety; for her, her own pride was more important than the souls of the English people. So even the stories of her deep religious faith as a sign of her great character really don’t hold water. And at any time, she could have relieved, not only her own suffering, but that of the daughter she loved so much. I’ve always found these depictions of Catherine of Aragon to be more emotional rather than logical.

No matter what, Anne Boleyn inspired great passion in both her adherents and her enemies. After her death Henry VIII destroyed all of her papers, so very few letters of hers exist and so there are no primary sources of information on her that aren’t tainted by the opinions of the person writing; the Spanish ambassador, so clearly an agent of Queen Catherine, can hardly be trusted to be unbiased. Likewise, the Venetian ambassador was no fan of Anne Boleyn. Yet I’ve never seen any letters from the French ambassador; or from the Scottish ambassador, or any that might actually have been anti-Spanish. All that exists is basically propaganda. And there are few women in history who’ve been more slandered than Anne Boleyn; and not only was she slandered for being the mother of the English Reformation, she was slandered for not being a typical woman of the time. She was intelligent, she was educated, and she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind during a time when women were primarily expected to be quiet and listen to the men.

It was not, of course, uncommon for women who didn’t fit the desired societal mold of their time to be trashed and slandered; it still happens today. Another woman of the century whom I find fascinating–Catherine de Medici–also has had a horrible reputation throughout the years…Jean Plaidy’s trilogy of historical novels about her bears some of the names she was called for titles: The Italian Woman, Queen Jezebel, Madame Serpent. Elizabeth I was also slandered; one can only imagine how the historical views of her would be different had the Spanish/Catholic view of her prevailed.

I am really piquing my own interest in this project again here.

Anyway, The Creation of Anne Boleyn is a fascinating read, and one that Tudorphiles definitely should look into. I highly recommend it.

I Won’t Hold You Back

Being from, not only the South but also from Alabama, I am very particular about Southern fiction, and fiction set in Alabama (there is more of it than you might think; there is certainly much more of it than To Kill a Mockingbird). Robert McCammon has written some exceptional Southern horror fiction set in Alabama; I absolutely loved Boy’s Life, while I have yet to read Gone South (which is in the TBR pile). He actually  set a book in the part of Alabama I am from; it was a good book, but it bore no more actual resemblance to that county than anything other book set in the rural South; it was as though he simply put up a map of Alabama and stuck in a pin in it, said “okay this is where it will be set” and worked from there. But it was a good book that I enjoyed; it had some interesting things to say about religion–particularly the rural Southern version of it. I myself want to write about Alabama more; I feel–I don’t know–connected somehow when I write about Alabama in a greater way than I do when I am writing about New Orleans, and that’s saying something. Mostly I’ve written short stories, the majority of which have never been published; only two have seen print, “Smalltown Boy” and “Son of a Preacher Man.”

I remember Michael McDowell from the 1980’s, when the horror boom was at its highest crest; I never read his work but I was aware of it. I remember reading the back covers of his Blackwater books and not being particularly interested in them; there was just something about them, and their Alabama setting, that somehow didn’t ring right to me; I don’t remember what or why, but I do remember picking them up several times in the bookstore, looking them over, and putting them back.

In recent years, McDowell has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts; he was a gay man who died from AIDS-related complications in 1999. I wasn’t aware that he was part of the writing team who published a gay mystery series under the name Nathan Aldyne until sometime in the last few years, and I’d been meaning to get around to finally read one of his horror novels, the reissue of The Elementals (which included an introduction by my friend, the novelist Michael Rowe–whose novels Enter, Night and Wild Fell are quite extraordinary)–which again is set in Alabama, only this time Mobile and the lower panhandle of Alabama that sits on either side of Mobile Bay (the same area, in fact, where I set my novel Dark Tide, only my novel was set on the other side of the bay). My friend Katrina Niidas Holm recently asked me to read the book so we could discuss it drunkenly over cocktails at Bouchercon in Toronto later this month; this morning I sat down and read it through. (It’s not very long; 218 pages in total.)

the elementals

In the middle of a desolate Wednesday afternoon in the last sweltering days of May, a handful of mourners were gathered in the church dedicated to St. Jude Thaddeus in Mobile, Alabama. The air conditioning in the small sanctuary sometimes covered the noise of traffic at the intersection outside, but it occasionally did not, and the strident honking of an automobile horn ould sound above the organ music like a mutilated stop. The space was dim, damply cool, and stank of refrigerated flowers. Two dozen enormous and very expensive arrangements had been set in converging lines behind the altar. A massive blanket of silver roses lay draped across the light-blue casket, and there were petals scattered over the white satin interior. In the coffin was the body of a woman no more than fifty-five. Her features were squarish and set; the lines that ran from the corners of her mouth to her jaw were deep-plowed. Marian Savage had not been overtaken happily.

In the pew to the left of the coffin sat Dauphin Savage, the corpse’s surviving son. He wore a dark blue suit that fit tightly over last season’s frame, and a black silk band was fastened to his arm rather in imitation of a tourniquet. On his right, in a black dress and a black veil. was his wife Leigh. Leigh lifted her chin to catch sight of her dead mother-in-law’s profile in the blue coffin. Dauphin and Leigh would inherit almost everything.

Big Barbara McCray–Leigh’s mother and the corpse’s best friend–sat in the pew directly behind and wept audibly. Her black silk dress whined against the polished oaken pew as she twisted in her grief. Beside her, rolling his eyes in exasperation at his mother’s carrying-on, was Luker McCray. Luker’s opinion of the dead woman was that he had never seen her to better advantage than in her coffin. Next to Luker was his daughter, India, a girl of thirteen who had not known the dead woman in life. India interested herself in the church’s ornamental hangings, with an eye toward reproducing them in a needlepoint border.

On the other side of the central aisle sat the corpse’s only daughter, a nun. Sister Mary-Scot did not weep, but now and then the others heard the faint clack of her rosary beads against the wooden pew. Several pews behind the nun sat Odessa Red, a thin, grim black woman who had been three decades in the dead woman’s employ. Odessa wore a tiny blue velvet hat with a single feather dyed in India ink.

Before the funeral began, Big Barbara McCray had poked her daughter, and demanded of her why there was no printed order of service. Leigh shrugged. “Dauphin said do it that way. Less trouble for everybody so I didn’t say anything.”

This is an auspicious beginning to a novel that straddles the line between Southern Gothic and horror; but in using the word horror I am thinking of the quiet kind of horror, the kind Shirley Jackson wrote; this isn’t the kind where blood splatters and body parts go flying or you can hear the knife slicing through flesh and bone. This is the kind of horror that creeps up on you slowly, building in intensity and suspense until you are flipping the pages anxiously to find out what happens next.

McDowell introduces all of his characters in those few short sentences; Dauphin and his wife, Leigh; her mother Big Barbara; her brother Luker and her niece, India. Odessa also has a part to play in this story, and the only other character who doesn’t appear in this opening is Big Barbara’s estranged husband, Lawton. Lawton, like Mary-Scot, only plays a very small part in this tale, and so the reader doesn’t need to meet him until later.

(I do want to talk about character names here; the Savage family all have names that have something to do with Mary Queen of Scots; the deceased is Marian, her long dead husband Bothwell; Mary-Scot is as plain a reference as can be, whereas her two brothers were Mary Stuart’s husbands: Dauphin–her first husband was Dauphin Francois, later King Francois I of France–and the deceased elder brother, Darnley; the romantic Queen’s second husband was Lord Darnley. Marian’s –of Mary–deceased husband Bothwell bore the name of the Scottish Queen’s third husband, the Earl of Bothwell. These Savage men died in reverse order of the Queen’s husband’s though; Bothwell first followed by Darnley,  and of course, as the only one living, Dauphin will die last. Also, there’s never any explanation for why Big Barbara is called Big Barbara; usually in Southern families the reason you would call someone “Big” is because there is a “Little;” there is no Little Barbara in this story, and I’m not sure where Luker came from as a name, either. I wondered if it was a colloquial pronunciation; names and words that end in an uh sound turn into ‘er’ in Alabama; Beulah being pronounced Beuler, for example, so I wondered if his name was Luka…)

The McCrays and the Savages are families bound by decades of friendship and now marriage; they have three identical houses on a southern spit of land in the lower, western side of the Alabama panhandle in a place called Beldame; Beldame is very remote, bounded by the Gulf on one side and a lagoon on the other; during high tide the gulf flows through a channel into the lagoon and turns Beldame into an island. There are no phones there nor power lines; electricity is provided by a generator and there is no air conditioning. Oh, how I remember those Alabama summers without air conditioning! One of the three houses is being lost to a drifting sand dune and is abandoned…and as the days pass, the reader begins to realize there’s something not right about that dune…or about that house.

The book reminded me some of Douglas Clegg’s brilliant Neverland; that sense of those sticky hot summers in the South, visiting a place you’re not familiar with and is kind of foreign (the primary POV once the story moves to Beldame is India, who has never been there before); those afternoons where the heat and humidity make even breathing exhausting, the white sugary sand and the glare from it, lying in a shaded hammock just hoping for a breeze–the sudden rains and drops in temperature, where eighty degrees seems cold after days of it being over a hundred…the sense of place is very strong in this book, and Beldame is, like Hill House, what Stephen King called in his brilliant treatise on the genre Danse Macabre, ‘the bad place.”

I really enjoyed this book. A lot. And it has made me think about writing about Alabama again; this entire year I’ve been thinking that, and now feel like it’s a sign that maybe I should.

And now back to the spice mines.

How Much More

Tuesday!

As I mentioned yesterday, on Sunday I reread one of my favorite Agatha Christie novels (although in mentioning favorites, I forgot So Many Steps to Death; her espionage novels were absolutely delightful), Endless Night. 

One of the things I loved the most about Christie is how she wasn’t afraid to try different types of crime fiction; she was probably best known for her two primary private eye series, one with Hercule Poirot and the other with Miss Marple, but she wrote over eighty novels, plays, and collections of short stories. She had a very keen eye for character (she is often criticized for the lack of character development; I never had that sense as a reader–she was able to sum up her characters very quickly and easily, able to use a few brief sentences and paint a vivid picture of who the person was; a skill I wish I had) and psychology; she was also a master of plotting. She knew how to create and manage suspense (the suspense is almost unbearable in And Then There Were None, for example); and she pretty much wrote everything from espionage thrillers to psychological suspense to murder mysteries to serial killers to…you name it; she wrote it.

But Endless Night is one of the most incredibly different things she wrote; and she wrote it very late in her career, publishing it in October of 1967.

endless night

The title comes from William Blake‘s Auguries of Innocence:

Every night and every morn,
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night,
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.

According to some quick Internet research, the book was one of Christie’s own favorites, and received a very warm critical reception.

It’s easy to see why.

This is how the book opens:

In my end is my beginning….that’s a quotation I’ve often heard people say. It sounds all right–but what does it really mean?

Is there ever any particular spot where one can put one’s finger and say: “It all began that day, at such a time and such a place, with such an incident?”

Did my story begin, perhaps, when I noticed the Sale Bill hanging on the wall of the George and Dragon, announcing Sale by Auction of that valuable property, “The Towers,” and giving particulars of the acreage, the miles and furlongs, and the highly idealized portrait of “The Towers” as it might have been perhaps in its prime, anything from eighty to a hundred years ago?

I was doing nothing particular, just strolling along the main street of Kingston Bishop, a place of no importance whatever, killing time. I noticed the Sale Bill. Why? Fate up to its dirty work? Or dealing out its golden handshake of good fortune? You can look at it either way.

Isn’t that a terrific beginning?

(And “in my end is my beginning” is also what Mary Queen of Scots took as her motto during her long captivity at the hands of her cousin, Elizabeth I.)

Endless Night is, for wont of a better descriptor, a Daphne du Maurier novel written by Agatha Christie.

The book is told from the first person point of view of Mike Rodgers, a young man about town who is just kind of drifting from job to job. He winds up at The Towers, on a plot of ground known as Gipsy’s Acre, which was apparently cursed by the gipsies forceably evicted from the plot of ground centuries earlier…and the place has known nothing but tragedy since. There’s also a sharp, blind turn in the road just before the place, where plenty of people have been killed in car accidents. But while looking at the place, Mike encounters a young woman named Ellie…and before long, he and Ellie have embarked on a romance, and have decided to buy the land and build a new house there to spend the rest of their lives on. Mike has no real friends, and a bad relationship with his mother. And as it turns out, Ellie is quite wealthy…and once he is introduced to  her affluent world, things start to go very badly. Should they have listened to the old woman who warned them to stay away from Gipsy’s Acre? Is Mike a reliable narrator?

There’s an enormous twist in the book as well, which completely turns the narrative on its head, and makes you question everything you’ve been led to believe; a twist well-worthy of du Maurier. As they were contemporaries, I wonder if the two women ever met?

I love this book, and think it should be paired with du Maurier’s brilliant My Cousin Rachel, which for some reason was recently filmed again (I may watch the remake when it’s available for free streaming; it’s hard to imagine that it’s better than the original, which starred Olivia de Havilland and a very young Richard Burton). Someone should really write a compare/contract essay/piece of literary criticism about the two books; I kept thinking of My Cousin Rachel during this reread; now I really want to reread My Cousin Rachel.

Last night, I also started reading the latest Rebecca Chance, Killer Affair, and was sucked into it almost immediately; it’s Chance at her absolute best, and can’t wait to read more. I also started the final, definitive line edit of the WIP yesterday; since I always feel like the second half of my books don’t get as much attention from me as the first, I am trying something incredibly new for me: I am starting the edit with the second half of the book.

I hate line editing.

And now, back to the spice mines.

 

Let Her In

I often talk about the sixteenth century, primarily in the context of how in that particular century women held major positions of power, or were in positions to not only have an impact on history but did. Constant Reader knows I love me some history–right now I am thoroughly enjoying Versailles and having a bit of a seventeenth century period–but during this past football season, during games, I was rereading a book I first read when I was ten years old: Antonia Fraser’s Mary Queen of Scots.

Ah, the tragic romantic heroine that is the Queen of Scots! I first discovered her, I think, when I was maybe eight years old when I read Genevieve Foster’s John Smith and His World; and there really wasn’t much about her, as Smith was only alive in the late Elizabethan period. I do remember reading the entry about her execution, and about how her spaniel was hidden inside her skirts as she went to her death–and how when the headsman held up her head, she was wearing a wig, her head fell to the ground, and the whimpering spaniel curled up around it.

How romantic! Almost sounds like the start of a ghost story, doesn’t it? “And ever after, at Fotheringhay Castle, the sound of a whimpering spaniel could be heard on the anniversary of her mistress’ death.”

Hmmmm….

Anyway, the first book I read about Mary Queen of Scots was one I found in the school library (her title always bothered me–shouldn’t it have been Queen of THE Scots?), and it was sanitized for children, and again, highly romantic: Mary was a romantic heroine, doomed by her gender to be treated as a pawn by the men of her court and, of course, her cousin Queen Elizabeth I was the villain of the piece. The 1971 film, with Vanessa Redgrave as Mary and Glenda Jackson (who was AMAZING) as Elizabeth pretty much told the same story; Mary was a romantic heroine and Elizabeth the villain.

It makes for a lovely narrative, and it’s one that is incredibly popular in fiction; the young beautiful Scottish queen who falls in love with and marries her cousin Lord Darnley only to realize it’s a colossal mistake, but then throws everything away because of her deep love for the Earl of Bothwell, winds up imprisoned by her wretched cousin Elizabeth who eventually has her executed. It does make for a lovely story.

Fraser, in her bestselling biography, tried to get to the truth of who Mary was, rather than paying lip-service to the romantic narrative. It is her thesis that Mary was actually much smarter than anyone at the time or since has given her credit for; and that her decisions weren’t emotional but made coolly as political moves in the game of thrones she was playing–and the end goal, of course, was to ascend the throne of England, uniting the entire island into one realm; an ambition her son James finally achieved.

Mary’s life, once she started getting into her marriage entanglements, was the stuff of high drama. She inherited her throne when her father died from wounds inflicted in the Battle of Solway Moss against the English; she was only six days old. She was the third child of King James V and his second, French wife, Marie de Guise; her two older brothers died of fevers while her mother was carrying her. (Inheriting the Scottish throne as children was a sad Stewart family tradition; James V was less than a year old when his own father was killed in battle–again against the English–in the Battle of Flodden Field; Mary herself abdicated in favor of her own son when he was less than a year old; James I was only twelve when he became king; James II was only seven; James III was nine, and James IV fifteen. These minority reigns helped empower the Scottish nobility and prevent the throne from becoming strong, as it did in say England, France and Spain.)

Her royal family was Stewart; her marriage to her cousin Henry Stuart changed the dynasty to the English spelling, which is why the royal family of England was known as the Stuarts, not Stewarts.

Her grandmother was Margaret Tudor, eldest surviving child of Henry VII of England and elder sister of Henry VIII, which is where her claim to the English throne came from. Until the birth of Edward VI to Henry VIII’s third wife in 1537, James was the only male heir to England. The marriage of Edward VI to young Mary was probably the wisest move, uniting the two crowns and ending centuries of strife between the two kingdoms, but Marie de Guise, Mary’s mother, was French and instead sent her infant daughter to the French court, where she was engaged to the Dauphin. The Tudor direct line ended with Henry VIII’s children, who were all childless; the death of Edward VI in 1553 brought the Catholic Mary to the throne. Once Mary died in 1558, Elizabeth became queen; but Catholics didn’t recognize Elizabeth’s legitimacy–Henry’s marriage to her mother Anne Boleyn was bigamous in the eyes of the Catholic Church and so therefore Elizabeth was a bastard. The nearest legitimate heir, in their eyes, was the young Queen of Scots–who was married to the heir to the French throne and a Catholic.

Obviously, the thought of those three crowns being united was a threat to both Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, so they recognized Elizabeth. A year later Mary and her husband were King and Queen of France–a year later Mary was a childless widow returning to Scotland. Elizabeth never forgave her for claiming herself to be queen of England; and the game of thrones was on.

Four years after her return, Mary married her first cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. This is where it gets complicated. Margaret Tudor, Mary’s grandmother, only had one child with James IV; after he died she married again and had a daughter, Margaret Douglas–who had no claim to the Scottish throne but a claim to England as a Tudor. She in turn married Matthew Stuart, Earl of Lennox–who was a descendant of James I and thus also was an heir to the Scottish throne. Their son Henry thus had claims to both thrones; he married Mary, and their son James would obviously be King of Scotland thru his mother; had a claim through his paternal grandfather, and a claim to the English throne from both his mother AND his father, both of whom were great-grandchildren of Henry VII.

Madness.

Lord Darnley, her husband, and other lords of the court were jealous of her closeness to her Italian secretary, and they murdered him in front of her when she was about six months pregnant. Somehow, later that night, as a prisoner of her husband and lords, Mary convinced her husband to come back to her side and they escaped together, rose an army, and with her loyal lords defeated the conspirators–who included her illegitimate brother. Mary had a son, and then, a few months later, her husband was murdered–the house he was recuperating from an illness in was blown up, but his strangled body was found in the gardens. Mary then married the Earl of Bothwell, who was commander of her armies–it was an incredibly volatile time, the Queen was Catholic and most of her subjects were not–and so it was very easy for public opinion to turn against her; particularly since most people believed Bothwell had murdered her husband so he could marry her.

Was she complicit? The marriage made it appear so–and soon enough her army was defeated, she was a prisoner, and forced to abdicate. She escaped to England, where Elizabeth promptly placed her under house arrest.

George R. R. Martin has nothing on the Queen of Scots.

She was eventually implicated in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth–after being a prisoner for almost twenty years–was tried and found guilty and sentenced to death.

So, was she a wanton adulteress and murderess? Was she a silly woman who allowed her emotions to lead her down the wrong path, or was she a calculating player who wound up being outplayed? Despite her high station, she had a pampered and spoiled childhood, and wasn’t raised or educated to be a regnant Queen; it was always assumed her husband the King of France would rule for her. So the odds were stacked against her from the beginning; and she learned her lessons the hard way; unlike her contemporary, Elizabeth, who spent her childhood and early twenties with the shadow of the executioner across her neck.

Fraser does a great job of defending her thesis; I’ve read many other books about both the royal cousins and the game they played with each other, and I think Fraser probably paints the most accurate picture of the Queen of Scots: a smart woman who played the game against overwhelming odds and lost.

Is there anything so romantic as a lost cause?

One of the biggest disappointments of the CW show Reign was, in order to try to draw in the younger audience, they told the story when she was a young girl in France–probably the most boring part of her life. Her life in Scotland was MUCH more interesting, and would have made for greater television. The best part of Reign was Megan Follows as Queen Catherine de Medici of France–one of the most fascinating women in history. Apparently, the struggle between the cousin queens became a part of the story in the third season…but Paul and I had bored of the show long before then.

And now back to the spice mines.

I Can Help

All Soul’s Day; November. Two months left in 2016, and before you know it, it’s 2017. Heavy heaving sigh. The time change is coming this weekend, which means it will be dark before five. This always feels oppressive to me; I truly despise Daylight Savings Time (although I always enjoy the extra hour in the fall; hurray for consistency!). But, if I am being honest, I am more productive in the winter. I read more and I certainly write more. And God knows, I have a lot of writing to do in the next few months.

Madness.

I had a mini-breakthrough the other day while feeling sorry for myself that Wicked Frat Boy Ways was turning out to be such a bitch to write. It was such a “d’oh” moment–and it not only applied to the work in progress, but also as to why I have so much trouble writing short stories that I literally wanted to pound my head on my desk until it was soft as an overripe melon.

Seriously, I do not understand how I have a career of any sort in writing. The end result, however, was a great insight on not only how to make this book ever so much better, but how I can make my short stories better. So now all I want to do is write, rewrite, revise, lather, rinse, repeat. True madness.

I’ve been reading The Bird’s Nest by Shirley Jackson. It’s about what was called at the time she wrote it “multiple personality disorder;” the term now is dissociative identity disorder. The book was originally published in 1954, was filmed as Lizzie with Eleanor Parker in the lead role, and prefaced the more famous book/film The Three Faces of Eve by three years; although Eve was a true story and not fiction (and won Joanne Woodward an Oscar). I’ve always been interested in DID; when I was a kid, of course, I saw it handled on the soap One Life to Live, and of course, in my teens was when Sybil became a huge bestseller (and TV movie starring Sally Field, who won an Emmy and was the turning point in her career when she started being taken seriously as an actress). That story was later debunked, I believe; but DID is something I’ve always wanted to write about, but at the same time not in an exploitative way. Maybe at some point…it would require a lot of research to do it properly.

Anyway, I digress. I’m enjoying The Bird’s Nest, but it is slow and harder going than Jackson’s short stories and her two exquisite novels The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, or her delightful memoir Life Among the Savages. Jackson’s style is definitely present there, but it’s different. I am also very curious to read the recent bio of her, to see where the ideas for The Bird’s Nest came from.

As I was so busy sticking to my horror theme for October, I wasn’t able to talk about many other things–my reread of Antonia Fraser’s Mary Queen of Scots; the new gay-themed crime show Eyewitness; how much I’m enjoying the show Versailles; and so many other things–but I do look forward to talking about them now that I am no longer shackled to a theme here. (Hilarious, isn’t it? I can’t tell you how many mornings I’ve stared at the ‘post an entry’ page blankly, with no idea of what to write about…and then when I tie myself to a theme for a month the blog ideas burst forth from my head like Athena springing fully formed from Zeus’ forehead.

Oy.

I am also rereading Barbara Michaels’ sublime Be Buried in the Rain, and I do want to talk about Michaels some more at some point, as well.

And now, back to the spice mines.

Here’s today’s hunk:

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Cat’s in the Cradle

The death of Agnes Nixon this past week saddened me, and spurred me to write two blog posts about her greatest, and most famous, creations; All My Children and One Life to Live. I watched both shows, along with General Hospital, off and on for over thirty years; I only stopped watching soaps when I needed the time I spent watching them to write–a decision I’ve never really regretted all that much. But I watched, over the years, many different soaps at one time or another: The Edge of Night, Dark Shadows, Love of Life, Search for Tomorrow, As the World Turns, Guiding Light, The Young and the Restless, Another World, Days of Our Lives, The Bold and the Beautiful, Capitol, Love is a Many Splendored Thing–it’s really quite staggering. And at night, I remember watching Peyton Place with my mom as a kid–although I don’t really remember much of it–and later, I was a huge Dynasty fan. I did watch Dallas, Knots Landing, and Falcon Crest during the 80’s night time soap heyday; I also watched others that didn’t last very long, like Emerald Point NAS, Flamingo Road, Paper Dolls, and Bare Essence.

It’s pretty safe to say I am a fan of the serial/continuing story format. When I was in college, I managed to get into a graduate level English course despite being an undergraduate because I was able to write a paper that was good enough to get me in; it was on Popular Culture in the 20th Century, and attendance wasn’t required–always a plus for me–and there were no tests; you only had to write a lengthy paper on some aspect of popular culture in the 20th century for your grade. I chose to write about soaps; the paper, which would wind up being 120 or so typewritten pages long, was title “How Changes in Daytime Drama Storylines Have Reflected Changes in American Culture and Society Since the 1950’s.”

God, how I wish I still had a copy of that paper.

I really wanted to work for the soaps in the 1980’s; my ambition switched from being a mystery and/or horror writer to being a soap writer. I still think it would be a lot of fun, even if there are very few soaps left to work for. But writing that paper required me to do a lot of research into the soaps and their histories; I’ve never minded doing research if it was a subject I was interested in. So, I kind of became a mini-expert in the soaps, and their histories, and there were a lot of interesting trends. It was interesting how moralistic the soaps were–something that hadn’t changed from their early days; back when there was a Motion Picture Code and a Comic Books Code, and censors for television (do they still have censors?); in which someone who did something bad always had to be found out and punished. (An interesting aside: one of the bad things that characters could do, and be forgiven/rehabilitated for and not necessarily punished for, was rape. But that’s a subject for another time–but I want to go on record to say that characters who had long runs on soaps, and in fact became very popular, at one time were rapists: Luke on General Hospital, Mickey on Days of Our Lives, John on As the World Turns, Roger on Guiding Light, Todd on One Life to Live; far too many for it to be a one-off, and enough to make it a trend. Even in prime time, on Dynasty Adam raped Kirby and was never prosecuted; she later agreed to marry her rapist.)

I even wrote, as a joke, a soap parody when I was in college, with my friends as characters. I called it The Young and the Pointless, and it was primarily for my amusement, and that of my friends. Basically, I looked at my friends and asked myself the question, if you were a character on a soap, what kind of character would you be?  I came up with the storylines myself; borrowing liberally from the storylines I’d learned so much about writing the paper, and ironically, my friends couldn’t get enough of it. They really became invested in the story; one even told me “My character wouldn’t say this.” Every day they would ask “have you written any new episodes?” It finally became over-bloated, because people who weren’t in it originally wanted to be, and I tried to be accomodating, and I cancelled it at long last midway through the third “season”. But it was a valuable learning experience for me, in that I learned that 1. I could write stories that interested people and made them want to keep reading; 2. I learned valuable lessons in creating characters and writing dialogue; and 3. I learned how to plot out a story. It was more like the classic parody SOAP than a real soap opera, but it was so much fun to write. I still have the originals somewhere–I’d always intended to type it up and make copies for the friends who were characters in it. Alas, some of them have died in the years since–a rather sobering thought–but The Young and the Pointless lives on in my files.

Yesterday LSU won, beating Missouri 42-7 at Tiger Stadium; their first win under interim head coach Ed Orgeron. LSU looked terrific; the defense played incredibly well, and the offense misfired a couple of times, but over all looked terrific. Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell if that was because they’ve come together as a team and are playing up to their potential, or if Missouri just isn’t particularly good; but LSU looked much sharper against Missouri than they did a few weeks ago against Jacksonville State. Their schedule now turns into Murderer’s Row, with games against Florida, Arkansas, Alabama, Ole Miss, and Texas A&M, so we shall see.

I wound up not being as productive yesterday as I’d intended; I did a lot of laundry and did some cleaning, but not all the cleaning I’d wanted to do. I also didn’t do any writing; I wound up getting sucked into watching some games on television (the last five minutes of the Georgia-Tennessee game was amazing; it reminded me of the last three minutes of the 2009 Georgia-LSU game, where LSU went ahead 12-7, only to fall behind with forty seconds left 13-12, but scored with less than twenty seconds left to pull off the win 20-14). Amazing.

I also spent some time opening Antonia Fraser’s Mary Queen of Scots and reading random sections yesterday; I originally read the book when I was eleven. The Queen of Scots has always interested me, and also, she was one of that ‘monstrous regiment of women’ who held power in the sixteenth century–when, as I’ve mentioned before, more women were in positions of power throughout Europe than any time prior or since. I also read some of Barbara Tuchman’s essays in Practicing History, and again, thought about how much I would love to write a book about the sixteenth century.

God, how I love history.

And now, I need to make up for the work I didn’t get done yesterday, so it’s off to the spice mines I go.

Here’s a hunk for you to enjoy:

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