Come Go with Me

I’ve always enjoyed horror as a genre, both in film and in novels. One of the greatest joys of the last decade or so has been the rise of horror television, with terrific shows like American Horror Story (despite its many flaws), The Exorcist, Castle Rock, and so many others. I suppose even The Walking Dead sort of counts as a horror program.

I do not consider myself to be anything more than a horror fan, frankly; I am not an expert, I’ve not read (or watched) everything, I’ve never done any comprehensive studying of the genre. I don’t know what are tropes or stereotypes or what-may-have-you, unless they are so obvious it’s like being hit in the head with a baseball bat. The Haunting of Hill House is one of my favorite novels; Stephen King is one of my favorite writers; I could watch all four Scream movies a million times without ever getting bored or not being entertained–I even enjoyed the MTV television series called Scream, which had nothing to do with the films.

I know so little about the genre that I’m not even sure of the sub-genres contained within; I could write pages about the sub-genres in crime fiction, but horror? I’d be hard-pressed to even name them.

I’ve written two vampire novellas (“The Nightwatchers” and “Blood on the Moon”) and an entire gay erotic vampire novel (Need), and a ghost story novel (Lake Thirteen) and a monster novel (Sara), and I suppose Sorceress would be considered gothic horror–I certainly followed the blueprint for Gothic novels with that one, which was kind of the point. And while there are any number of horror short stories in the files, as well as aborted novels, I’ve never really had much luck in publishing horror. Crime is the genre I know best, and you should always, as they say, write what you know; I always fear my horror attempts are ridiculously derivative of Stephen King–but then again, steal from the best.

I also don’t have a much time to read as I would like, and as such, I tend to primarily read within the crime genre, branching out into horror only occasionally–writers like Bracken MacLeod, Paul Tremblay, Christopher Golden, Michael Rowe, and some others spring to mind–and the pile of unread horror in the TBR stacks continues to grow, it seems, by leaps and bounds every year as I never seem to get around to reading any of them.

But this year, as I’ve noted, I’ve made a conscious effort to read more diverse writers, and the end result of that has been me finding any number of terrific writers I might not have read had I not made an effort, had I allowed myself to continue with the ease of white privilege and simply reading other white writers.

I only regret not making the effort sooner.

certain dark things

Collecting garbage sharpens the senses. It allows us to notice what others do not see. Where most people would spy a pile of junk, the rag-and-bone man sees treasure: empty bottles that might be dragged to the recycling center, computer innards that can be reused, furniture in decent shape. The garbage collector is alert. After all, this is a profession.

Domingo was always looking for garbage and he was always looking at people. It was his hobby. The people were, not the garbage. He would walk around Mexico City in his long, yellow plastic jacket with its dozen pockets, head bobbed down, peeking up to stare at a random passerby.

Domingo tossed a bottle into a plastic bag, then paused to observe the patrons eating at a restaurant. He gazed at the maids as they rose with the dawn and purchased bread at the bakery. He saw the people with the shiny cars zoom by and the people without any cash jump onto the back of the bus, hanging with their nails and their grit to the metallic shell of the moving vehicle.

I’m not sure where I first heard of Silvia Moreno-Garcia; I am friends with members of the horror writing community on social media, and we have friends in common; so I am sure I heard of this book first from one of our mutual friends on Facebook (I have also purchased her next novel, Gods of Jade and Shadow). I decided, as always, to read horror in celebration of Halloween; alas, illness and being overly busy has limited my reading lately, and as such, outside of my annual reread of The Haunting of Hill House, the only horror I was able to squeeze into October was Certain Dark Things, and this is not, by any means, to be seen as any kind of judgment of Ms. Moreno-Garcia’s consummate skill as a storyteller; this has everything to do with me being tired, ill, and unable to focus as a result. Those moments when I was able to focus was when I was able to read this book; and it is, quite frankly, a pleasure and a treasure.

Certain Dark Things is set in a Mexico City that teems with ugliness, darkness, poverty and corruption. As I read the descriptions of the city, I couldn’t help but think damn I bet she could write some brilliant noir set in this version of Mexico City–like I said, my mind always reverts to crime fiction–but this Mexico City, this world Moreno-Garcia has created, is steeped in reality and actual Mexican history–of which I know some, but not nearly enough (my interest in history is colored by, sadly, the white supremacy of American educational systems; focused primarily on the United States and Europe, with some Egyptian thrown in for good measure).

Moreno-Garcia also throws everything anyone who’s ever read about vampires into question from the absolute beginning of the book: perhaps because of Stoker’s Dracula, and every film/television adaptation of some form of it ever since, I have a tendency to always think of vampires as being eastern European/Transylvanian in origin; almost every vampire novel or story I’ve read has been almost entirely white. I myself, when writing my own little vampire stories, fell victim to these same tropes (although I did have Creole witches, which upon new reflection is also kind of problematic). So Certain Dark Things also opened my mind; why would supernatural/paranormal creatures always be white? Are there no supernatural/paranormal creatures or beings from other, non-white cultures?

There are two main characters in the novel: Atl, the female vampire, descended from a long line of vampires going back to Aztec days (and not your typical, Transylvanian vampire, either), and Domingo, a poor young man of the streets who sorts through garbage looking for things to sell to support himself. In this world, there is, like in Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels, an awareness that vampires and other creatures like them exist; so Domingo isn’t as terrified when he encounters Atl as he might be, were their reality still in question. Domingo is drawn to Atl, wants to help her and be with her, but it’s not in a romantic way, nor is it a product of being “glamoured” (as Harris called it in her work), either; it’s more along the lines of Atl being the first person to truly see Domingo, and appreciate him, and recognize his humanity despite being of the streets.

And that’s very powerful.

Atl herself is on the run. In this new world Moreno-Garcia has created, Mexico City is an independent city-state where vampires aren’t permitted; she has run there after the annihilation of her clan of vampires in north Mexico. She is on the run and needs to get out of Mexico completely; she has run to the city to hide and to try to find the means to get out of the country. There are many different kinds of vampires in this world; with different abilities and different powers.

There’s a third character, Ana Aguirre, a single mother who works as a police detective in the city, dealing with corruption and sexism every single day, not taken seriously by her superiors, and trying to do whatever she can to ensure a good future for her daughter. Ana is also a strong character, defined and complex; her inner struggle over her own integrity warring with what is the best thing to do for her daughter is masterfully described, and very relatable.

I’d read an entire series about Ana Aguirre in this world, frankly.

Moreno-Garcia doesn’t over-explain this world, either; but somehow, with sparsity of description and a minimal approach to the past few decades that changed the world as we now know it, she manages to create an entire world that is completely believable and easy to become immersed in. The story moves quickly, the characters growing more depth from each experience they have, and it’s all too soon over.

I would love to read more books about Atl and her world; I’d love to read more of Moreno-Garcia’s work.

This is a truly terrific work. I highly recommend it.

The Longest Time

I went to bed early on Monday night, around ten, because I was tired, and woke up yesterday around four. I stayed in bed, and managed to drift back to sleep again, but was wide awake around five-thirty, so I decided to get out of bed and get my day started, figuring at the very least I’d be so tired last night I’d have no choice but to go to bed early. It worked; I was in bed just before ten, and am awake, shivering, at my computer this morning. It is twenty degrees outside this morning, and was so cold and windy and wintry last night we left the heat running overnight, which we never do. (Mainly for the outdoor cats; the vents run under the house so we figured they could shelter from the storm under the house and if they huddled near the vents they’d be warm.) I am going to brave the cold for the gym this morning; I can’t get over how much better I feel for one day of weight-lifting, stretching and cardio.

I also wrote a short story yesterday; rather, finished one I started Monday: “Neighborhood Alert.” I’m going to let it sit for a few days before looking at it again; I have some other writing and editing to do, and I find that letting things sit for a while is enormously helpful. I rather like the story, if I do say so myself. I am going to work on another one today as well–the title is “The Trouble with Autofill” (changed from “Sorry Wrong Email”) and of course, I have a lot of other writing to do. Heavy sigh. I do prefer being busy, though.

The Short Story Project continues apace. Last night, after an episode of Broadchurch, and before I went to bed, I read two stories, both from single-author collections from ChiZine Press (another bucket list item: be published in some form by ChiZine–they do wonderful stuff, and they publish my friend Michael Rowe), one by Christopher Golden, the other by Bracken MacLeod.

I read Bracken’s story first, from 13 Views of the Suicide Woods, “Still Day: An Ending”:

The morning breeze passed between the blanched, lifeless trees rising like fractured bones jutting from the forgotten marsh. The only sign of its passing, a light and silent ripple on the surface of the shallow water. The clear sky reflected brightly, blue above and blue below. The facets of the wind on water on water sparkled like diamonds in the light. A lone blue heron sailed from its nest, searching for something to eat, unconcerned with the line of traffic creeping by a hundred yards away. Drivers sat in their cars with the windows up and radios tuned to the recap of last night’s game at Fenway or NPR or empty morning talk, paying no attention to the wetlands beside them, staring ahead, squinting against the rising sun as they ate, shaved, checked e-mail, made calls, and put on make-up. All focused on the toad ahead, the day ahead, the growing anxiety of sitting still with so much to be done. Not a single one looked toward the trees or the water. They were blind to the calm and elegant wood that had once been living trees growing up over a hundred years. Before they were born, before the road was built, there was the fen and the trees and the water and sun above shining on it all.

The heron flew back to its nest unnoticed.

The woman lay in the water, unseen.

Nice, right? Bracken wrote one of my favorite novels of the last few years, Stranded, which was a Stoker Award finalist I believe and seriously, one of the might chilling and terrifying things I’ve read in years. I’m really looking forward to his next novel. I have a previous work of his somewhere in my TBR pile, Mountain Home, which I need to get to as well. ANyway, this story, which is incredibly short, and may not even be a thousand words, opens this collection and it’s beautiful and sad and a lovely contrast between the magic of nature and the artificial construct of human life; the rushing around like busy little bees in our hive and how we ignore what’s around us; also the startling contract between those who are alive in traffic and the peaceful, dead woman floating nearby, unnoticed, in the water. We don’t know anything about the woman, or how she wound up in the water like the Lady of Shallott, but is she any more dead than those stuck in traffic and not noticing the world around them, so focused as they are on what’s to come rather than what’s around them? An excellent start to this collection; I am looking forward to reading more of these stories.

I’ve also been enjoying Christopher Golden’s work; I greatly enjoyed Ararat and Dead Ringers, and Snowblind is in my TBR. I had read one of his stories, the first one, in this collection from ChiZine Tell My Sorrow To The Stones, “All Aboard,” during one of my past years’ Short Story Months, and greatly enjoyed it; last night I read “Under Cover of Night.”

Long past midnight, Carl Weston sat in a ditch in the Sonoran Desert with his finger on the trigger of his M16, waiting for something to happen. Growing up, he’d always played Army, dreamed about traveling around the world and taking on the bad guys–the black hats who ran dictatorships, invaded neighboring countries, or tried exterminating whole subsets of the human race. That was what soldiering was all about. Taking care of business. Carrying the big stick and dishing out justice.

The National Guard may not be the army, but he had a feeling the end result wasn’t much different. Turned out the world wasn’t made up of black hats and white hats, and the only way to tell who was on your side was looking at which way their guns were facing. Weston spent thirteen months in the desert in Iraq, and for the last three he’d been part of a unit deployed to the Mexican border to back up the Border Patrol.

One fucking desert to another. Some of the guys he knew had been stationed in places like El Paso and San Diego. Weston would’ve killed for a little civilization. Instead he got dirt and scrub, scorpions and snakes, land so ugly even the Texas Rangers had never spent that much time worrying about it.

This a well-crafted story about a combined National Guard/Border Patrol/DEA operation about stopping illegal aliens smuggling drugs into the country. Golden captures the voice of Weston perfectly; the grunt with no illusions about who he is or what his job entails, seeing no glory in shooting and killing people but it’s just a job to him. His relationship with the rookie he shares a ditch with at the start of the story, Brooksy, is perfectly rendered–can he trust the trigger happy fool with the crazy eyes who thinks gunfire is beautiful? And the raid begins, but something else even more horrifying is going on than the shootings and arrests and poor souls being forced by a drug cartel to mule cocaine or heroin across the border (they are doomed either way–the cartel herders will kill them or they’ll fall into the hands of the DEA)–there are screams crossing the desert night, and soon Weston becomes aware there is something else out there in the darkness with them, something infinitely more terrifying.

The suspense builds beautifully, and the denouement…well, it’s a lot more horrifying, and says so much that needs to be said, than I was expecting. Brilliantly done.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Breaking Us in Two

Sunday. It’s one degree warmer than yesterday morning–wow, right? But you will undoubtedly be thrilled to know that I get everything on my list done yesterday other than go to the gym; and after spending two hours in the storage unit moving boxes of books around, I was pretty damned exhausted physically, and then braved Costco on a Saturday afternoon (it wasn’t bad at all, other than stupid people, which is every day). I also came across some books in the storage that I thought hey, these need to be reread and so I took them out. One of them was Richard Matheson’s Hell House, which seemed, at least to me, to be the proper reread after The Haunting of Hill House, in that they’re very similar; one could even go so far as to say Matheson basically took Jackson’s story structure and turned the dial up a notch. I am enjoying the reread very much; although I’m not very far into it thus far. I also found my copy of Michael Rowe’s groundbreaking anthology Queer Fear, which I reviewed in the Lambda Book Report many years ago when I worked there, and was to be my first encounter with Mr. Rowe; I remember he came up to me at the Lambda Awards the next year, introduced himself, and thanked me for the lovely review. We’ve crossed paths a few times since, and have become friends over the years. I do remember loving Queer Fear, and look forward to delving into it and rereading its short stories again.

I also found my high school scrapbook and my diaries from the 1990’s. I used to buy blank books and carry them around with me everywhere, so I could jot down story and/or book ideas, or write diary entries whenever I wanted to. I am always hesitant to reread my old diaries; I often wince from my immaturity and my over-dramatization of events in my life. Yet at the same time, the diaries also served as a very vital source of self-reflection and self-examination; I suppose this blog has served that purpose since I started it on Livejournal back in 2004 (the idea that I have been consistently blogging for thirteen years rather staggers the mind, doesn’t it? But I’ve been writing in a diary of some sort, off and on, since I was a teenager; this seems to be a natural continuation of that process).

I also found the three ring binder where I kept everything from the Virginia situation of 2005 and 2006; including the ACLU letter to the school board. I’d always intended to write a non-fiction book about it all, called Gay Porn Writer, in which I examined what happened to me in the context, not only of the times but extrapolating it out further into what was going on in publishing and the culture. My memory lies to me now, of course, so I am not certain that I’ll ever write such a book–I don’t know that I would remember things correctly, and even then, what is colored by my perceptions of things. I’ve since moved on, of course–I mentioned the incident in passing on my panel at Bouchercon and had to explain it a little, which was kind of crazy. It was so long ago, and I used to get invited to speak about it all the time. The memories are now hazy and unclear, but I am definitely going to keep all this information.

You never know.

I think I am probably just going to scan everything in the scrapbook, in order to preserve it electronically, and then throw it away. I don’t really need to keep programs from my high school football games, or from choir concerts, and scanning them will better preserve them anyway.

I have one errand to run today, and I also want to go to the gym for a little bit, start dipping my feet back into the water of working out regularly, and despite the cold, I am going to give that a try.

And hopefully, I’ll get some writing done, or at least something done that will move all projects forward.

Here’s a Sunday hunk for you:

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Steppin’ Out

Home. Sunday night–early evening, really–and I am exhausted. Bouchercon just sucks the life right out of me every year, but I wouldn’t miss it for anything. I have the best time every year: reconnecting with friends I don’t see nearly enough; making new friends; drinking waaaaaaaaaaay too much; and laughing until my abdominal muscles hurt and hurt and hurt. Right now I think if I started laughing I’d also start weeping in agony–that’s how much I laughed this weekend. (And let’s not talk about the ten hours of non-stop drinking that was Friday evening. Oooooooohhhhhh.) I often have trouble sleeping when I’m home; this is exacerbated when I travel, so I’ve not had a good night’s sleep since I left on Wednesday. I am now very close to running out of steam, but am struggling to stay awake so I can hopefully get a good night’s sleep tonight.

And I won the Anthony Award for Best Anthology; rather, Blood on the Bayou: New Orleans Bouchercon Anthology 2016 won. I just edited it. It’s kind of thrilling; it was an incredibly difficult category and I was seriously just honored to be in the company of the other nominees. Art Taylor deservedly won the Macavity Award for Best Short Story; again, I’m just so thrilled that I was even on the shortlist that I really didn’t care about winning, and Art’s story was simply phenomenal.

Okay, I am too tired to think clearly. I’ve been trying to write this for hours now, and I think I should just go to bed and finish in the morning.

Monday morning. I slept so good last night. I woke up several times during the night, and I did wake up much earlier than I thought I would, but I feel rested; it was good sleep, and that’s always a plus. It’s also weird because it’s not light in the mornings anymore; it’s fine, and I’m going to love the extra hour whenever we get it–but I always hate giving it back.

Wow, what a weekend. As I said before, I laughed so hard all weekend; it was almost non-stop. I can’t believe how much I drank…but every year Friday turns into an epic drinking marathon. (This year broke Raleigh’s record.) So many great friends, so many highlights…the only low light was the “not able to sleep in hotels so am always running on accessory” thing, and that’s my low-light of every year and every conference. I met some amazing new people and made some amazing new friends; I was on two glorious panels with fantastic people and fantastic moderators and fantastic audiences; my biggest regret is the same as it is every year–that I didn’t get to spend as much time as I would like with everyone I would like. Toronto was absolutely lovely, and so was the hotel. (The hotel bar was just okay, but the private lounge on the 43rd floor was fantastic.) I read two books on the trip–Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco and The Vines by Christopher Rice, and started reading Oh, Florida! by Craig Pittman on my way home–which is also fantastic. I got some new books that I’m looking forward to reading: The Blinds by Adam Sternburgh; Sunburn by Laura Lippman; and the new Ivy Pochoda, Wonder Valley. (I finally met Ivy this year, and she told Paul and I a story about visiting Louisiana with her mother that had us both sobbing with laughter.) I had some awesome meals–but I think my favorite was the noodles I had for lunch on Friday, with the fish and chips on Sunday night at Braddock (not sure if that was the place) a close second. I drank wine instead of martinis–the martinis in Toronto were somewhat less than what I would have hoped for–and I got to laugh with so many wonderful friends. Paul, of course, was with me for this entire trip, and he fit in like I knew he would–I swear I think some of my friends like him better than they do me (I’m looking at you, Wendy) and oh, how I could go on.

I even ran into the ChiZine crew–Michael Rowe, Brett Savory, Sandra Kasturi–on Saturday night as two of my writing worlds converged!

And that LSU game on Saturday! That and the books are getting their own posts.

But probably the best–and this is simply because it was bigger than just being a good time for me–part of the weekend was being on the Writing the Rainbow panel. Moderated by Kristopher Zgorski of BOLObooks.com, the other panelists were Owen Laukkanen/Owen Matthews (seriously, buy his books!), John Copenhaver (whose debut novel I can’t wait to get my hands on), Stephanie Gayle (read her books–and she looks like Laura Dern with dark hair), and Jessie Chandler (seriously, read her books). When I was assigned the panel, my first thought was great, three people will show up for this. 

I was wrong, The room was packed. Kristopher had great questions for us, and the answers were all fantastic and thought-provoking. We talked about great queer books and great queer writers, talked about our own experiences writing about queer characters, and the audience was so receptive and amazing. I almost got teary and emotional, honestly; it was the first time I’ve ever be on such a panel at a mainstream event to have such a  great audience and such a great crowd. We’ve come such a long way. I just wish some of the great writers who were publishing when I first was getting started were still publishing so they could have enjoyed this moment as well. It was an honor to talk about Michael Nava and John Morgan Wilson and R. D. Zimmerman and Mary Wings and Katherine V. Forrest and there were so many others we didn’t  get to mention…and there certainly wasn’t enough time to mention all the great people doing the work now–although we were definitely able to plug the two great lesbian writers, Ellen Hart and J. M. Redmann.

And now, I have some things to get done around here while my other blog posts take form in my head, so I will leave you with a picture of me and my partner in crime for the weekend, the always amazing and hilarious Wendy Corsi Staub:

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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.

Joy to the World

It is highly ironic that, on National Coming Out Day, I was reminded of the existence of someone whom I hadn’t thought about in years; someone who, back in the days before my first novel came out was editor of a gay fiction publication (whose name is, in fact, lost in the mists of time). I remembered emailing him, when I was working for Lambda Book Report, to see if we could do a piece on the magazine, what he was looking for in terms of submissions and so forth–my vision of Lambda Book Report, was to make the magazine not only about reviewing books but also to provide resources and support for aspiring LGBTQ writers and publications (the way I described my vision was “an LGBTQ hybrid of Publishers Weekly and The Writer“). He emailed me back, having totally misread my email and its intent with the simple sentence, I’ve had to reject much better writers than you.

I didn’t bother responding; I never had trouble finding material or pieces to fill the magazine to waste my time explaining myself to such a rude piece of shit. And yes, I admit it, I was small enough of a person to enjoy the moment when I heard his publication folded, and when his own first book disappeared without a trace. I’d forgotten he even existed until this morning.

I suppose it’s small of me to even mention this today; but it’s also nice to be reminded, every once in a while, that my voyage to becoming a published writer wasn’t always as smooth as I remember. But I digress; it’s still October, it’s still my month to write about horror, rather than the horrors of being a writer–and I have decided, in honor of National Coming Out Day, to write about two books that showed me that there was the possibility of such a thing as gay horror: Steam by Jay B. Laws, and Queer Fear, an anthology edited by Michael Rowe.

queer-fear

Queer Fear (and its sequel, aptly titled Queer Fear II) was a revelation to me. The stories (by authors like Douglas Clegg, Michael Thomas Ford, William J. Mann, Gemma Files, Caitlin R. Kiernan, and Nancy Kilpatrick, among many others) were extraordinary; great horror, terrific writing, and inspirational for me as a horror fan. I reviewed both editions for Lambda Book Report, and I still have my copies of both somewhere; I kind of want to dig them out and reread them again. Both were nominated for Lambda Literary Awards; the second won. It was when I found out there wouldn’t be a third (which I still think is criminal) that I decided to put together one of my own,Shadows of the Night.

steam

It’s been years since I read Steam, and I don’t know where my copy is; I know I still have it. Jay B. Laws only wrote two books before dying far too young from HIV/AIDS in the early 1990’s; he was an extraordinary writer. (I have a copy of the second, The Unfinished, but haven’t read it.) When I was senior editor at Harrington Park Press I wanted to reprint both books, but I was never able to uncover who owned the rights to them; Alyson had originally published them but they were long out of print, and of course, Laws was deceased.

jay-b-laws>

Steam was not only a great horror novel–terrifying, really–but it was also a powerful allegory about HIV/AIDS itself. In the story, there is a demonic presence in one of the bath houses in San Francisco, that is spreading and getting more powerful as it kills; and in order to save the men they love, some gay men have to go into the possessed bath house to kill the demon and close the portal to hell. It was an amazing, amazing read. I think I read it over the course of one day; I’ve always regretted the loss of Laws and the books he could have written.

In the LGBTQ ghetto of publishing; there have always been a lot of romance and mystery novels; but speculative fiction has never really been as represented as well as romance and mystery (the point can be made that romance and mystery are both much larger genres in the mainstream; and therefore the smaller percentage of queer speculative fiction novels corresponds to that as well), and I’ve always felt that there should be a lot more of them. Lethe Press is, as far as I know, the only press currently primarily focusing on LGBTQ speculative fiction; they are doing a great job, but I would love to see more.

And now, back to the spice mines.