Happiness is An Option

I’ve always enjoyed a good mystery with a supernatural edge to it; the line between crime fiction and horror is often blurred. Take, for example, The Silence of the Lambs. It’s often lauded as the first horror film to win an Oscar–but there’s no supernatural beings involved, no ghosts or vampires, or anything like that; the protagonist is an FBI agent trying to catch a serial killer…so is it really horror? Are slasher films/books actually horror or crime? (I think it depends on whether or not the slasher is actually something not human–like Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers, or just crazed human killers, like the Scream movies or even the first Friday the 13th, which is the only one I’ve actually seen.)

But then it’s really hard to define and delineate what work falls into what genre; and oft-times, there’s crossover between the various ones–there’s western horror, for example, just like romantic suspense bridges the line between romance and mystery. So where precisely on the spectrum of genre does the work of Barbara Michaels lay? There are often supernatural elements to her fiction; sometimes there aren’t. Ammie Come Home is my favorite ghost story of the many I’ve read–and I enjoy it just as much every time I reread it–but it’s also a mystery, and there’s also some romance in the book. The romance itself is rarely the focus of her books, but it is there and cannot be ignored; likewise, most stories that have supernatural elements (ones that are actually supernatural in origin or man-made frauds) inevitably have some mystery to them; what do the supernatural forces want–or in the case of fraud, what are those who are committing the fraud after? What do they want?

House of Many Shadows was the second Barbara Michaels novel I read, and remains one of my favorites to this day.

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The sounds bothered Meg most. Calling them auditory hallucinations helped a little–a phenomenon is less alarming when it has a proper technical name. Meg had always thought of hallucinations as something one saw. She had those, too, but for some illogical reason it was easier for her to accept visual illusions as nonreal than to ignore the hallucinatory sounds. When you were concentrating on typing a letter, and a voice says something in your ear, it was impossible not to be distracted.

The problem was hard to explain, and Meg wasn’t doing a good job of explaining. But then it had always been difficult to explain anything to Sylvia. Sylvia knew all the answers.

“The dictaphone was absolutely impossible. I couldn’t hear what Mr. Phillips had said. Voices kept mumbling, drowning out his voice. Once the whole Mormon Tabernacle Choir cut out the second paragraph of a very important memo.”

She smiled as she spoke. It sounded funny now, but at the time it had not been at all amusing.

Sylvia didn’t smile. “The Mormon Tabernacle Choir? Why them?”

Meg shrugged helplessly. “No reason. That’s the point; they are meaningless hallucinations. The doctor says they’ll go away eventually, but in the meantime…Mr. Phillips was very nice about it, he said he’d try to find an opening for me when I’m ready to work again, but I couldn’t expect him to keep me on. I had to listen to some of those tapes three times before I got the message clear, and there was always the chance I’d miss something important. And I’d already used up all my sick leave. Three weeks in the hospital…”

“You should be thankful you weren’t killed,” said Sylvia. “To think they never caught the man who was driving the car! New York is an absolute jungle. I don’t know how you can stand living here. May I have another cup of tea?”

Meg poured, biting back an irritated retort. She couldn’t afford to offend Sylvia, especially now, when she was about to ask a favor, but the cliches that were Sylvia’s sole means of communications had never annoyed her more. Why should she be thankful she hadn’t been killed? She might as well be thankful she didn’t have leprosy, or seven-year itch; or thank God because she had not been born with two heads. It was just as reasonable, and a lot more human, to feel vexation instead of gratitude. Why me, God? The old question, to which there was never any answer…Why did it have to be me in the path of that fool driver; why did I have to land on my head instead of some less vulnerable part of my anatomy; and why, oh, why, God, did Ihave to have these exotic symptoms instead of a nice simple concussion? Why do I have to be the poor relation, with no savings to fall back on, while Sylvia…

Sylvia’s close-set gray eyes were intent on the teapot. “Such a nice piece of silver,” she murmured.

I love Barbara Michaels’ work, and one of the happiest days of my reading life was the day I discovered she also wrote as Elizabeth Peters, which meant even more reading joy for me (and eventually, I came to prefer the Peters books to the Michaels; but make no mistake, I love all the books). The set-up for House of Many Shadows is right there in the beginning; poor Meg’s life has been upended by being hit by a driver who didn’t stop, and because of the hallucinations she suffers from as a result–with no idea of how long she will suffer through them–she is unable to work, and her distant relative Sylvia–whom she doesn’t seem to care much for–is her only hope. Sylvia–we all know people like Sylvia; without a sense of humor and whose response to any crisis is to come up with a plan and make it work–has a house in the Pennsylvania Dutch country, she’s not sure what she wants to do with it, but Meg can stay there rent-free, and Sylvia even comes up with a “make-work” solution so Meg won’t feel like she’s freeloading (it isn’t until much later she realizes that is what Sylvia was doing; at the time she kind of resents it); doing an inventory of the contents of the house and its attic, as Sylvia is thinking of donating the house to the local historical association. Sylvia’s stepson from the previous marriage that wound up with her owning the house is living on the property as a caretaker, in a cottage behind the main house–Meg remembers him from their childhood as a horrible tease she couldn’t much stand–and soon she is off to the wilds of the Pennsylvania country side.

At the end of the second chapter-the first after she arrives at the house–Meg experiences a hallucination in front of Andy, the stepson, and their relationship hasn’t changed much, apparently–which rattles Andy terribly; when it happens again a chapter or so later is when Andy confesses that he, too, has seen the same hallucinations she did–so are they hallucinations? Or are they seeing ghosts?

This set-up, of course, is absolutely brilliant: what better heroine for a supernatural story than a woman who’s had a brain injury that causes her to see hallucinations? The chilling touch that Andy has also seen the same hallucinations in the house that she has is terrifying; and as she slowly gets to work in the attic, she and Andy start discovering things about the history of the house, including the fact that the original property owners, back before the American Revolution, were brutally murdered in the original house that stood on the property; the current one was built over it. So, what happened 250 years earlier? Both Meg and Andy become a bit obsessed with the ancient murders, and as they continue to see things in the house, they slowly but surely start putting together the truth of what happened to the original property owners–while falling in love, of course.

One of the great things about the Michaels books is that she brooks no foolishness with her supernatural elements; it’s clear Dr. Mertz (her real name) was well read on the subject of the occult and other belief systems–they pop up, again and again, throughout the Michaels novels, and in many instances, I first heard of certain occult books and cults from reading them. I know I first read of The Golden Bough in a Michaels novel; Dr, Mertz knew her folklore and occult religions, and made very good use of that knowledge, not just in this book but in others–Prince of Darkness comes to mind–and of course, she was an excellent, excellent writer.

House of Many Shadows also holds up; despite the dated quality of the book–no Internet or computers or cell phones–it’s still a great story.

Baby Face

Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, and I am feeling well rested and lively and energetic and all of that. I always forget how important it is for me to take these mini-breaks, to keep my sanity and recharge my batteries. I woke up just before eight this morning–I stayed up later than I’d planned, but the latest version of Halloween was available to stream on HBO and we didn’t discover it until after nine last night, so my plans of going to bed regularly between ten-thirty and eleven were all for naught. There’s condensation on my windows this morning, which means it’s humid as fuck outside; I’d planned on lugging the ladder outside and cleaning the windows this morning–which I still may do, mind you, I haven’t ruled it out–in addition to some other cleaning.

Yesterday was quite lovely, and I realized, yet again, how my ideal life would be that of a stay-at-home writer; it’s lovely to get up, check emails, bounce around social media a bit, then clean and organize around writing. I finished the laundry room yesterday, with the baseboards and everything in there, and progressed into the kitchen/office area. I did the lower windows on the inside, moved the file cabinet to clean behind it, and reorganized things around my desk. There’s still some debris piled up on the counter that needs to be sorted and filed away properly; that’s a chore for this morning with my coffee, methinks, along with the dirty dishes in the sink. I’m also taking the pictures down and wiping the dust off them; New Orleans is the dustiest place I’ve ever lived, and it’s a constant battle. I was going to be a feather-duster yesterday but they didn’t have any at Rouse’s, which was, as you can imagine, a horrible disappointment to me. I also couldn’t believe I didn’t have one to begin with; I searched high and low for it yesterday morning, certain there was one somewhere….and then I remembered…you have a cat. Skittle destroyed your feather duster years ago, and you saw no point in buying another as long as you still have a cat.

Fortunately, Scooter is not nearly as vicious a hunter/destroyer of worlds the way Satan’s Kitty was, so I think I might be able to get away with having one again.

It’s the little things, you know, that truly make me happy.

I also worked yesterday, shocking as it may seem; little as I wanted to, of course, I still managed to sit down and work. I read the rest of “The Snow Globe” all the way through, and realized I needed to add another scene to it–it ends too abruptly for the new end I have in mind, and so I have to reread the entire thing from beginning to end. I always aim for my short stories to come in around five thousand words as an ideal length (which I also realize is quite silly; it comes from editing anthologies and thinking “twenty stories of five thousand words each is a hundred thousand words and voila, anthology is finished!) and it’s subconscious. The story is now at about just over 4800 words, and there’s no way to add this sequence in only 200 or so words and so I pulled back from the story. This morning, in the cold harsh bright light of a new day, I realized so fucking what if it winds up over five thousand? You can actually make it SIX thousand if you fucking want to. So, I’ll probably be revisiting that as well.

I took a look at Chapter Eleven of the WIP as well; realizing that starting it one week and finishing it the next without rereading what was already done resulted in some repetition of things; yesterday I chose not to deal with it, and instead did some background work. I pulled up the outline, that only went through Chapter Five, and added the next six chapters to the outline, intending to outline the next five as well so as to have something to fall back on without having to create it out of thin air. But I sincerely (not lazily) couldn’t figure out what to do in the next five chapters and so I put it aside as well and worked on something else–something else that I’ve been asked to do and has been hovering in the back of my subconscious creative brain while I struggle to finish this first draft. I am not ready to talk about it completely and openly just yet–still far too nascent for any public commentary/discussion–but I started doing the background work necessary, and realized what I’d been thinking of doing was probably the wrong place to start, and I actually thought of the proper place to start, so I was busily making notes and writing things down and actually creating, which is always kind of fun. I’m probably–we’ll see–going to try to get Chapter Eleven straightened out today, and will work on this new thing for a bit, and I’d also like to work on another story I’ve got hanging around unfinished. If I can get all this writing–and cleaning–done today, tomorrow I may reward myself just a little bit by allowing myself some down time to read–in fact, this morning, I am going to read for a little while before tackling the dishes; I find reading is also a lovely way to wake up the mind, and I really do want to get deeper into Rachel Howzell Hall’s They All Fall Down, which is quite superbly written.

We did watch the newest Halloween last night, and it was quite enjoyable. I love the concept that Carpenter basically threw away everything already filmed as canonical sequels to the original, and simply pretended none of those films had ever happened; instead making a straight-up sequel/reboot of the series; I’m not really sure what you would call this film in terms of the rest of the Michael Myers canon. But it was clear Halloween H20 or whatever it was called never happened; in this world Laurie had a daughter, not a son, and we find Laurie Strode in straight-up Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 mode; someone who has spent her entire life preparing herself for when he comes back to  kill her–and there’s no doubt in her mind that he’s going to, eventually. The trauma of the murders when she was a teenager has damaged her, certainly, and has definitely affected the relationship with her daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter, and she lives in a secure fortress (think Sydney in Scream 3), which also makes sense. I couldn’t help but think as I watched how much better this all would work as a novel; as we could actually get inside the heads of certain point-of-view characters, and how Laurie’s residual trauma has affected/damaged them–wouldn’t that novel, from the point of view of all three women, each a different generation with a different outlook and experience with the trauma, be absolutely fascinating?

I’ve become a lot more interested, I think, as a reader and as a writer, in the aftermath of trauma–how precisely does one deal with that kind of trauma, and what does it do to you as a person, how does it affect the rest of your life and your relationships, etc.  As a writer, I’m becoming less interested in the solving of a crime rather than the actual aftershocks created by the crime; as well as the motivations behind the crime–what drives the criminal to commit the crime in the first place? I think the reason Murder in the Rue Chartres is often considered my best work is because it deals with trauma; the trauma of a  damaged and destroyed city after a major natural disaster, as well as the trauma of getting past the murder of someone you loved.

So, that’s the plan for today, at any rate. Tomorrow I hope to spend the day doing a deep clean of the living room and the staircase, done around the writing and reading I need to get done, and then hopefully we’ll start getting caught up on Killing Eve.

And now back to the spice mines. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader.

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