The Nightwatchers

I never really thought much about writing vampire fiction.

I’ve been a Stephen King fan since I read a battered paperback copy of Carrie when I was fourteen, and ‘salem’s Lot continues to be a top 5 King novel for me, if not my favorite (it’s always a toss-up between this and The Stand, frankly) and despite my attempts to turn myself into a King clone in the 1980’s, I’ve never been very good at writing horror. I love to read it–there are some truly terrific horror writers publishing now (if you’ve not read Paul Tremblay, you really need to start), and they are, if you’ll pardon the incredibly cheap pun, killing it. I can do creepy. I can do Gothic. I can do atmosphere and all those marvelous things I love in horror fiction. But I cannot, for the life of me, scare people. I don’t know why I can’t write anything that gets under your skin and into your nervous system; the kind of thing that makes you leave a light burning after you go to bed. I wish I could write like that. I’ve certainly tried a few times…I still have an idea for a horror novel sitting in the back of my brain that I am really going to have to try to get around to writing at some point, because I really should give it a real try sometime.

I have always enjoyed reading vampire stories. “salem’s Lot has always been one of my top five Stephen King novels; I loved Dracula (oh to write an epistolary novel!) and numerous other such tales. It took me awhile to come around on Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles (a tale for another time), but I did eventually. Twilight never struck any chords with me. But the one thing I never thought I would do was write about vampires, despite loving them the way I do–going all the way back to my childhood and Dark Shadows. I don’t think I ever would have written about vampires, but my editor at Kensington thought I could; thought I would do a good job at it, and encouraged it, beginning with an offer to write an erotic vampire novella for a collection to be called Midnight Thirsts.

Go home, old man, Rachel thought, tapping her black fingernails on the counter.

It was a quarter till nine, fifteen minutes before she could lock the doors. Everything was clean and the cash register was already counted down. All she had really left to do was dump the remains of the day’s coffee down the sink, lock the cash drawer in the safe, and turn everything o. She’d be gone by ten minutes after at the latest.

She glanced out the big windows fronting the coffee shop. The streetlight just outside cast a yellowish glow in the thick mist pressing against the glass. She shivered and looked back at the old man. He was sitting at one of the tables in the far corner, with the same cup of coffee he’d ordered when he came in around seven thirty. He hadn’t touched it. It was still as full as when she’d filled the cup, only no steam was coming off the black surface now. He didn’t seem to be watching for anyone, or waiting. He never glanced at this watch, which she’d spotted as a platinum Tag Heuer, nor did he ever look out the window. Every once in a while. he would look up from his newspaper and catch her staring. He’d smile and nod, then go back to his reading.

Apparently, he was determined to read every word.

She stood up, bending backward so her back cracked. The night had been really slow. The Jazz Café, even on weeknights, usually was good for at least thirty to forty dollars in tips. Tonight, when she counted out the tip jar, it yielded less than seven dollars. Just enough to get her a pack a cigarettes and a twenty-ounce Diet Coke at Quartermaster Deli on her way back to her apartment. It wasn’t, she thought, wiping down the counter yet again, even worth coming in for.

Usually, on this kind of night, cold and damp and wet, Rachel was kept busy with orders for triple lattés. The tables would be full of people who would coming in shivering, bundled against the cold wetness in the air, which seemed to penetrate even the thickest coat. They’d hold their steaming cups of coffee with both reddened hands, talking and laughing. SOme would be doing their homework on laptops.

She liked busy nights, when the orders kept coming and the tip jar filled. Then, the time seemed to fly by, her closing shift passing in the blink of an eye. She hated the slow nights, when every passing minute seemed to take an eternity. She glanced back at the clock on the wall, then back at the old man. If you would just leave, she thought, I could go ahead and close early.

He’s kind of good-looking, she thought as she sipped her tepid cup of green tea, for an older guy.

At that moment he look up, and their eyes met. His were blue, a deep blue with some green in it. Once again, he nodded his head to her and smiled, but this time he didn’t go back to his newspaper. He held her eyes.

Not to worry, my child, I’ll be gone soon enough.

She turned away, shaking her head, the hair on the back of her neck standing up…

As is frequently the case with my work, The Nightwatchers began as a short story. Within a year of moving here, Paul had struck up a friendship with the director of the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival (which is where he now works), and as such he volunteered us both to help out with the 1997 Festival. I worked at the sign-in desk, where people picked up their badges and so forth, and it was in the lobby of Le Petite Theatre de Vieux Carre, a marvelous old theater on the corner of Chartres and St. Peter, right across the street from the Cabildo, and kitty-corner to Jackson Square. It was very old, and the main stage was named for Helen Hayes, who’d actually played there before. It was haunted, too–every building in New Orleans is–and I heard some of the stories. Being a volunteer, I had access to back stage, upstairs to the balcony, the prop attic; everywhere. (I eventually used some of this knowledge in Jackson Square Jazz.) At some point during the weekend I had an idea for a story–a horror story–about a theater company rehearsing in an old haunted theater in the French Quarter, where the person always cast in the lead female roles is also sleeping with the director. The young actress who deserved the part doesn’t listen to company gossip, but she does eventually find out that the rumors are true, and at some point made a deal with a devil who appeared to her in her dressing room, on and on and on. I called the story The Nightwatchers, because to me, that was what the devils/demons were called–they watch at night for souls to prey on. When I was asked to write this novella, I dug out the story and reread it, deciding it was perfect to adapt into something new.

I played with it a while, and couldn’t quite get it right in my head until I decided to abandon the theater idea; I’d tried turning the girl into a gay guy but it didn’t really work. I also couldn’t seem to get the atmosphere right, either, and I was convinced–still am, in fact–that the atmosphere had to be just right or the story wouldn’t work. Then one night I was walking through the lower Quarter in December–meeting Paul somewhere, I think–and it was one of those evenings when the fog is so insanely thick that you literally can’t see more than a foot or so in front of you at any time. As I walked along the sidewalk, with the old buildings pushing up against the sidewalk, when I heard the sound of hooves on the street–and realized, bemusedly, that in the fog and the only light from a gaslight–that I could have traveled back in time. Only in New Orleans can you feel like you’ve traveled back in time when it’s foggy, I thought, and wrote an entire scene around that feeling when I got back home. It was the perfect mood/atmosphere for the story, and it worked very well.

And as I wrote the novella, I got more and more into the characters and started imagining my own supernatural world, with vampires and witches and werewolves and everything else, including a ruling council over the paranormal world, the Council of Thirteen, and the old man Rachel sees in the coffee shop is a representative of the Council, in New Orleans to hunt a rogue vampire…a vampire who believes her young friend Philip Rutledge (now the center of the story) is the reincarnation of someone he loved hundreds of years earlier when he was human (shades of Dark Shadows!) and so wants to turn Philip into his eternal companion, and it’s up to Nigel and Rachel to rescue Philip.

It was a lot of fun to write, and I left the ending a bit open so I could write more about the characters if I ever chose to do so; I actually slotted a continuation novel into my writing schedule; it was supposed to be what I wrote next after finishing Mardi Gras Mambo…needless to say, life conspired to keep me from ever getting around to this book. I am still a bit disappointed I never carried on with the story; I used this same mythology when I returned to writing about vampires again several years later with Blood on the Moon.

So, that’s how The Nightwatchers came to be a story. Writing this now I see the parallels between what I wrote and some things I read and enjoyed (or watched, a la Dark Shadows); and is my “Nightwatcher” group that different from Anne Rice’s Talamasca? Probably not.

I did read and enjoy the other novellas back in the day; I’ve been meaning to revisit Michael Thomas Ford’s because it was particularly memorable.

All You Had to Do Was Stay

Ironically, yesterday when I was talking about vampires, I buried my own lede; I actually have done some vampire fiction myself. (Clearly, I am terrible at this self-promotion/marketing thing.)

When I first moved to New Orleans, the city was somehow synonymous in my mind with vampires, which was primarily due to Anne Rice’s novels. This doesn’t, on its face, make that much sense; the novels are, for the most part, set in various other places around the world more so than in New Orleans. Louis, the main character of Interview with the Vampire, is from Louisiana, and he encounters Lestat and is turned originally in New Orleans–and while there are passages in the book set here and in Louisiana, the story itself is being told to the reporter in San Francisco. The Vampire Chronicles themselves occasionally return to New Orleans; but for the most part the stories themselves rarely take place here. (It would actually make more sense for me to have had that association from Anne Rice’s work made between New Orleans and witches; as most of The Witching Hour takes place in New Orleans.) After moving here I also discovered local author Poppy Z. Brite; his novel Lost Souls might actually be the definitive New Orleans vampire story. Since that well–New Orleans vampires–had been drawn from so often, so well, and so memorably by other authors already, I never really thought about writing vampire stories set in New Orleans. How could I compete with either Rice (with her legions of adoring fans) or Brite (with his smaller but equally adoring fan base)?

I was writing the Scotty series for Kensington when my editor there suggested I write a vampire novella for a collection they were doing called Midnight Thirsts; they had already done one volume of gay-themed erotic vampire stories that did very well for them, and I was enormously flattered to be asked to write one. As is my wont, when I started writing “The Nightwatchers” I began to slowly create an entire universe of supernatural beings, with rules; it actually grew from an original story I had written several years earlier with a female main character that was set in a theater group; more talented than the woman who always got the lead roles, she and her other actors believed that the woman getting the leads was sleeping with the director; one night at rehearsal a mysterious man shows up in the back of the theater, later approaches the main character and somehow–I don’t remember this part–shows her that her suspicions are true, and promises her eternity; she accepts his gift and then uses her new power to kill the director and the lead actress. It wasn’t a very good story, frankly, and was poorly thought out and poorly written, but it contained a structure that I wanted to use for “The Nightwatchers.” Several thousand words into the rewrite/adaptation I realized it didn’t work, so I got rid of the theater company and turned my gay male lead into a hustler who lived in one of those wonderful old decaying buildings in the Quarter, where you used to be able to get cheap rent if you didn’t mind rotting and tilted floors, insects, poor insulation, cracks in the walls, gaps around the windows, and staircases on the verge of collapse. His best friend, Rachel, lived in the same building in the apartment across the landing from his; she worked at a coffee shop on Frenchmen Street in the Marigny. One night while Rachel is working–one of those wonderful foggy winter nights in the city–an older man with a foreign accent is in the shop and she’s waiting for him to leave so she can close. Philip, meantime, is off to a regular client in Uptown New Orleans. Philip is, unbeknownst to him, being stalked by a vampire; the old man is a “Nightwatcher,” who is aware the vampire is after Philip and is enlisting Rachel’s help to save him.

It’s actually not a bad story, really; (I was rereading it because I couldn’t remember many of the details, like character names and so forth) I had even considered writing an entire novel based on the premise, in which this would serve as the introduction..but I never got around to it. Life has a habit of interrupting my plans.

A few years later, when I was asked to write another novella, this time using the Todd Gregory name, for Midnight Hunger, I wrote “Blood on the Moon,” and used a lot of the same concepts I had originally used for “The Nightwatchers.” (I had originally planned on having Philip, who was turned in “The Nightwatchers,” be the vampire my main character encountered in the Quarter during Carnival; but since I was using a different name, didn’t see any point in trying to link them other than using that same universe.) And since I was writing the “fratboy” books as Todd Gregory, I made the guys down in New Orleans for Carnival fratboys from my fictional fraternity’s Ole Miss chapter. Cord Logan was the main character, and he falls in with a fraternity of vampires when he “gets separated” from his buddies and explores the gay end of Bourbon Street. He also winds up getting targeted by a male witch, having to be rescued, etc etc etc, and the story ended with Cord being completely turned, and joining his new brotherhood. I brought Cord and his best buddy from the actual fraternity back in the story, “Bloodletting,” which eventually became the first chapter of my one and only vampire novel, Need–which I’d hoped to be the first in a series of supernatural erotic gay novels; the next was going to be Desire, and I was going to get deeper into the mythology I had created with that one, as well as bring in the rest of the characters from “The Nightwatchers” (Rachel and the old man were a part of Need).

Cord was a special breed of vampire because he not only had become a vampire but had also drank the blood of the male witch–which to some of the other vampires made him an abomination; and he certainly was one to the witches, which meant the Council of Thirteen, which oversees all the supernatural creatures of the world, wanted him dead–as well as his fraternity brother, whom he’d had to turn. That was going to be the primary plot thread of Desire, which alas never came to be.

Here’s how “The Nightwatchers” opened:

Go home, old man, Rachel thought, tapping her black fingernails on the counter.

It was quarter till nine, fifteen minutes before she could lock the doors. Everything was clean, and the cash register was already counted down. All she really had left to do was dump the remains of the day’s coffee down the sink, lock the cash drawer in the safe, and turn everything off. She’d be gone by ten minutes after at the latest.

She glanced out the big windows fronting the coffee shop. The streetlight just outside cast a yellowish glow in the thick mist pressing against the glass. She shivered and looked back at the old man. He was sitting in one of the tables in the far corner, with the same cup of coffee he’d ordered when he came in around seven thirty. He hadn’t touched it. It was still as full as when she’d filled the cup, only no steam was coming off the black surface now. He didn’t seem to be watching for anyone, or waiting. He never glanced at his watch, which she’d spotted as a platinum Tag Heuer, nor did he ever look out the window. Every once in a while he would look up from his newspaper and catch her staring. He’d smile and nod, then go back to his reading.

Apparently, he was determined to read every word.

She stood up, bending backwards so her back cracked. The night had been really slow. The Jazz Café, even on weeknights, usually was good for at least thirty to forty dollars in tips. Tonight, when she’d counted out the tip jar, yielded less than seven dollars. Just enough to get her a pack of cigarettes and a twenty ounce diet Coke at Quartermaster Deli on her way back to her apartment. It wasn’t, she thought, wiping down the counter down yet again, even worth coming in for.

See what I mean? Not bad.

Although talking about this stuff has made me intrigued by it again; it really is amazing how many book ideas went nowhere for me. Maybe someday I will write Desire.

And now you see why I never get anything done. I call it creative ADHD.

And on that note..let me get back to work.

You’re So Vain

You probably think this blog post is about you.

Vanity, thy name is Gregalicious.

Vanity is one of the seven deadly sins (which are not mentioned in the Bible, I might add; they are a part of Christian dogma and tradition, but never specifically named as such in their holy book) and I was raised to be humble, not vain; pride is also one of the deadly sins, and pride goes hand in hand with vanity.  The satisfaction of achieving or accomplishing something was theoretically enough of a reward, in and of itself, without getting praised for it; it’s wrong to bask in the glow of people’s compliments. As I have mentioned before, this has made promoting myself as a writer difficult; every time I make a post crowing about succeeding at something or winning something or being nominated for an award I can hear my mother’s voice, in her soft Alabama drawl, saying, “highs are always followed by lows, remember that, life likes to take the air out of people for having too much pride.”

It’s something I still struggle with. I was also told most of my life that self-absorption is also problematic, but a certain degree of self-absorption is necessary if you’re going to succeed at writing. (I think that like with all things, it’s a matter of degrees; some self-absorption is necessary, but anything taken to extremes is never a good thing for anyone.) Most writers have full time jobs and families, so the time they spend actually working on their writing is precious and should be sacrosanct; we give up our free time to write, and many of us get a very small return for that time. I’ve been accused of being self-absorbed by people I know most of my life, and it always used to sting a little bit, because the implication was that being self-absorbed is a bad thing. But as long as it isn’t taken to extremes it’s necessary, and when I began to notice that my “self-absorption” accusations usually came about because I was choosing to be jealous of my spare time and not do something someone else wanted me to do–I stopped caring so much about it and started embracing self-absorption.

“Sorry, I can’t do that, that’s my writing time.”

Having that statement met with anger and accusations of being selfish and self-absorbed, I realized, said more about the person saying it than me, to be honest. I am a writer, and am always in the middle of writing something, or have a manuscript or many short stories in some form of the process. I should, quite literally, always be writing and working, and I also finally realized that if a friend cannot respect my writing time, and gets angry and belligerent and nasty and insulting about me not wanting to give that time up….that person isn’t actually a friend, after all, and is everything they are accusing me of–but because of many experiences and lessons learned in my life (that I am still struggling to unlearn) my automatic default is to feel guilty and blame myself for being a bad person.

I’m learning. I am still learning, and unlearning, my conditioning. I’ll probably go to my grave still wrestling with these kinds of things, but I am getting better about this sort of thing.

My friend Laura suggested the other day that another good thing people should do is write a press release about themselves; channel their inner publicist and write a press release highlighting your achievements and accomplishments in glowing terms, without embarrassment and without shame. I’ve been thinking about that for a few days now, and looking back over my life, there have been quite a few highlights in my writing/publishing career…and I should be proud of myself. I’ve managed to publish over thirty novels and twenty anthologies and an absurd amount of short stories and essays and book reviews and author interviews and fitness columns/articles over the years. I wrote a writing column for the Erotica Writers Association for several years. I am currently writing a column called “The Conversation Continues” for the Sisters in Crime Quarterly, and have been for several years. I’ve been nominated for a Lambda Literary Award fourteen or so times, winning twice. I’ve been nominated for the Anthony Award twice, won it the first time, and will find out in Dallas how I did the second time. I have been nominated for a Macavity Award and a Shirley Jackson Award. I won two Moonbeam Children’s Book Award medals, one gold and one silver. I won a Lesbian Fiction Readers Choice Award for Anthology/Short Story Collection for Women of the Mean Streets: Lesbian Noir, which I co-edited with J. M. Redmann. My first horror anthology, Shadows of the Night, won a queer horror award, and Midnight Thirsts won a Gaylactic Spectrum Award. I won several Best of the Year awards from the Insightout Book Club, which used to be a wonderful queer version of the Book of the Month Club. I’ve published two short stories in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and have been published in both Mystery Weekly and Mystery Tribune. I had a short story in New Orleans Noir. I’ve written for the Mystery Writers of America newsletter and for the Edgar Annual (twice), and even edited and put together the Edgar Annual once.

Wow, right? I do think it’s important, as Laura says, to take stock of everything you’ve achieved periodically, so you can get a better handle not only on your career but as to how other people see you.

You may not like me, you may not like my work, but you cannot deny me my accomplishments. And when I put them down, when I write it all down and look at it and reread it over, it is kind of staggering in some ways…particularly when you consider I’ve worked full-time outside the home since 2008, and if you take into consideration how much editing I’ve done since around 2002/2003…yeah. I’ve done quite a bit.

And seriously, no wonder I am tired all the time.

Today Paul is heading into the office and then is spending the evening with friends; leaving me here all alone by myself in the Lost Apartment for the majority of the day. I have a lot of work to get done here this weekend–not just cleaning and so forth, the usual, but I also have a lot of emails to get through, some writing to do, and some revising/editing to do. I need to get the mail and I’d also like to get some groceries at some point today; I’m not precisely sure how that’s going to play out, frankly, but it’ll get taken care of. I started rereading Bury Me in Shadows while sort-of watching the fifth episode of The Last Czars (“Revolution”), and then after Paul got home we started watching the CNN series The 2000’s on Netflix–the episodes on technology and the first one on television in the twenty-first century, which is, as always, fascinating. (We’ve really enjoyed all of CNN’s decade-documentary series, from The 1960’s on.)

Rereading Bury Me in Shadows also was a bit of a struggle, you see, because while I have talked endlessly about the troubles I am having writing this book, some of them are due to stubbornness and some of them are due to technical challenges for my writing. The stubbornness comes from the refusal to let go of the opening sentence, which I love (The summer before my senior year my mother ruined my life.), but the reread showed me it really doesn’t work and doesn’t fit with the story or the style of writing I am using. The style of writing–remote first person present tense–is a departure from the way I usually write a book and something new and difficult I am trying, and after decades of  tight first or third person past tense, I have to actually pay attention because if I am not I will, by default, slip into the past tense. The first chapter is going to need to be completely redone, almost completely reworded, from start to finish. I’d like to finish reading it and making notes this weekend; I’d also like to finish writing Chapter 18, and also would like to revise some other short stories and other chapters of books in some sort of progress–I want to reread that first Chanse chapter I wrote, for example, and look at the first chapter of Chlorine again–and I should probably start working on some promised short stories I have to write.

It’s daunting, but I need to make a list, keep it handy, and just mark things off as I go.

It’s always worked in the past, so I should stop resisting, do it, and be done with it all.

And on that note, Constant Reader, I am heading back into the spice mines. Have a lovely Saturday, however you choose to spend it.

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