The Other Side of the Door

Friday and I am taking the day off from the day job. Yes, I know it was a short week already and I should probably save the vacation day for sometime later in the year when it would really come in handy, but this was a rough week for me and I feel entitled to take a mental healing day, so sue me, okay?

The Lost Apartment is, as always, a disheveled hovel that looks like two college-age males live here, and that always plays a part into my emotional stability. I am not sure why that is, but I simply cannot abide clutter and dust and dirty windows–being raised, no doubt, by a woman who made Joan Crawford look slovenly probably has something to do with it–and it always weighs on my mental stability, which is always tenuous at best. I had hoped to do something about that over Labor Day weekend, and while progress of a sort was definitely made, not enough to really make a difference; rather, it was more like a lick-and-a-promise; a mere surface touching that simply kept it from looking like a condemned property. But the heat has been so horrifically intense this year that doing anything in the kitchen/laundry room is misery, let alone going outside and climbing a ladder to clean the windows. But….if I get up early one morning, it should still be cool enough to be bearable.

Right?

One can dream, at any rate.

This morning is probably the morning I should have done the windows, ironically. It’s not terribly sunny this morning, and it doesn’t feel particularly hot here in the Lost Apartment, either. There are an insane amount of tropical systems being tracked by the Hurricane Center; I’ve seen reports ranging from four to seven; and there’s a low pressure system just off the coast here in the Gulf that apparently is going to bury us with rain even if it doesn’t develop into anything stronger. I also allowed myself to sleep in this morning–note to self: set alarm for tomorrow–and it felt terrific to get rest again. I’ve already started a load of the bed linens, and when I finish this I am going to start filing in an attempt to get the office under control. Today is my day to clean and start working through all the emails that have accumulated; and later this afternoon I will try to get some writing done. I’m also going to read a couple of short stories today, rather than diving into Babylon Berlin; I don’t want to risk getting sucked into it, which I suspect will happen. I’m also reading–and savoring–Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, which is another of his American Empire series; I’ve already read Century–and I’ve always enjoyed Vidal’s work whenever I can bring myself to read it. He has a very distinct writing style that I enjoy, but I also don’t think I would have particularly liked Vidal had we ever met; he seemed like a difficult person, and an intellectual snob–and there are few character traits I despise more than snobbery of any kind. But he was incredibly smart, and a talented writer; I know I’ve enjoyed everything of his that I’ve read–and would, and probably should, like to revisit both The City and the Pillar and Myra Breckinridge again. (I would imagine Myra Breckinridge would not fly today…) I also find some of my reading choices this year thus far, looking back, to be…interesting. I’ve read a lot of plague literature, obviously, and now I seem to be gravitating to Civil War narratives. Curious.

Yes, I just got a local “tropical advisory” alert, and it looks like we’re going to get hit with a lot of heavy rain Tuesday and Wednesday. Huzzah. Of course, I love rain–it’s the risk to my car from street flooding I don’t like very much. I mean, there’s nothing more comforting than sleeping, all warm and dry, inside when it’s pouring outside, is there? I’ve always loved that warm and dry feeling when it’s raining outside, even if I am simply inside a car driving through a storm. (It always reminds me of the Trixie Belden volume The Mystery of Cobbett’s Island, which opens with Trixie and the Bob-Whites being driven by Miss Trask through a storm to a ferry to the island, and I think Trixie says something about that safe, warm feeling during storms, and it’s always stuck in my head as the perfect way to sum up why I love thunderstorms and downpours. And yes, so many things in my life inevitably lead back to the mystery series for kids I read as a child.)

Wednesday is also a work at home day for me, so I can just stay home and watch and listen to the rain while making condom packs and continuing my Cynical 70s Film Festival, which I think may move onto Chinatown and Don’t Look Now. I’ve already seen both of those, but as a lot of the films I am including in this “film festival” could also be considered crime/neo-noir, it only makes sense to rewatch both with an eye to the cynicism of the 1970’s as well as to the neo-noir aspects of both (in all honesty, I’m not really sure what the definition of neo-noir actually is; just as there’s no definition for noir, there really isn’t one for neo-noir, either; I suspect it’s because the classic films noir were black and white films and later noirs were filmed in color. I could be wrong, but that’s my takeaway). Don’t Look Now, is, of course, one of my favorite short stories of all time; and the film is extraordinary.

I’m also rather curious to see this new Netflix adaptation of du Maurier’s Rebecca. Constant Reader knows how much I love me some Daphne du Maurier; and of course, Rebecca is right up there as one of my favorite novels (the original Hitchcock film version is also one of my favorite films of all time; it’s why I generally have avoided remakes and the dreadful sequels to the original novel). Armie Hammer wouldn’t have been my choice to play Maxim de Winter, but the female casting–particularly Kristen Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers–is rather intriguing to me. I’ve always seen Mrs. Danvers clearly in my head as Judith Anderson–her performance was so definitive–that it’s hard for me to see anyone else in the role. Hammer is no Olivier, really, and I honestly think that if I were to recast the film currently I would have gone for Kenneth Branagh as Maxim, Saoirse Ronan as his second wife, and probably either Emma Thompson or Maria Doyle Kennedy as Mrs. Danvers…I’ve also always wondered, whatever happened to Mr. Danvers?

Just like I’ve always wanted to delve into the psyche of Veda Pierce.

I kind of want to reread Mildred Pierce and Rebecca now. Sigh.

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

That’s My Impression

Wednesday morning and we’ve somehow survived to the midpoint of yet another week; another hellaciously hot week in July, for those of us here in New Orleans.

I rewatched Mildred Pierce the other night for the first time in years (how much do I love the TCM app on HBO MAX? A LOT) and as I watched–Crawford really was terrific in the part, and the movie is so well done it actually is an enjoyable experience (although I really wish, at the end, as Bert and Mildred walk out of the police station, he would have said to her,”Let’s get stinko!” the way he did in the book; it would have made for a better ending) and it could have easily lapsed into melodrama; in the hands of a lesser writer and director, it undoubtedly would have. But it also struck me, as I watched the film, how markedly different it is from its source material, James M. Cain’s masterful novel, and that most people remember the film more so than the book. Also, it’s incredibly rare for the film version of a novel to veer so drastically from the source material, while both book and film are considered classics (perhaps the other, and best, example of this is Dorothy B. Hughes’ In a Lonely Place, and the marvelous film version directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame; again, enormous changes but both are excellent in and of themselves.)

The most interesting thing to me, at least in recent years, about Mildred Pierce is the character of Veda. Veda is fascinating; the daughter as noir femme fatale, which is a fascinating turn on noir. Ann Blythe does a great job playing her in the film, and it’s been a hot minute since I’ve read the book (in the To Be Reread pile), so I don’t know or remember if in the book there are any explanations as to why Veda was so awful; and I worry that in my mind I’m conflating the film with the book. When I do get around to rereading the book, I am going to pay more attention to Veda. In the movie Bert comments in the beginning, that Mildred puts the children ahead of him as well as complains that Veda is spoiled…the younger daughter, Kay–soon to die tragically from pneumonia–is “worth more than Veda will ever be.” As I have pondered about Veda, I’ve wondered if in the book Mildred favored Kay and Bert favored Veda–which would of course cause resentment in Veda, towards both Mildred and Kay.

I really need to reread that book.

I went to the doctor yesterday–actually, I saw a nurse practitioner, as the new doctor I was assigned to when my old doctor moved to Utah didn’t stay with the practice when it was recently sold (it’s very complicated; I supposedly was sent a letter alerting me to these changes, but I never received it) and when I finally called them last week to try to get the mess straightened out (one of my 2020 goals was to get all my medical stuff handled and under control and to continue, moving forward, staying on top of this and my health–ha ha ha ha, as the old saying goes; man plans and God laughs)–but I was able to see a nurse practitioner yesterday and can I just say, damn? It was the most thorough examination I’ve ever had, she was asked lots of questions, and we talked about a lot of things. Usually, they’d take my vitals, “how you doing” and then boom, out the door. The nurse practitioner actually discussed things–my lengthy illness that came and went, starting at Carnival and ending recently–she had X-rays of my lungs and chest done; got the process started for both my colonoscopy and a mammogram (I have a lump in both pecs; they’ve been there for a long time and have never grown at all–the doctors always just said, “it’s a fatty cyst” and left alone; she was the first to say “well, why don’t we make sure that’s all it is”); I had an EKG done to make sure my heart is operating properly: she felt everywhere for lumps–underarms, groin, throat; checked out ears and nose–I mean, I actually felt like I got my money’s worth out of an exam for once. But my blood pressure was good for once, which was lovely, and after the lengthy discussion about my lengthy illness, she added a different test to my regular bloodwork, to check for septicemia; as some of the symptoms I experienced could have been from an infection of some sort that could still be lurking around.

Hey, I’m all for it. Like I said, my main goal for this year it to take better care of myself and take my health more seriously.

Last night we lost the wifi with eight minutes left of the season two finale of Dark, which, as you can imagine, was enormously frustrating. I cannot rave about this show enough; but the primary problem with talking about it is that it is hard to explain how intricately clever it is without giving away spoilers–and believe me, going in blind and knowing very little about the story is WAY fun. The writing is pinpoint, and as I said, I cannot imagine how much work it is keeping the relationships, the characters, and the storylines all straight because it’s very hard as a viewer. The one thing I can say–without spoiling anything–is there’s a cycle of disappearances of children; every thirty-three years–and so while the show begins primarily set in the present, like Stephen King’s It, eventually it begins to also show what happened thirty-three years before….and you have to remember, everything is always connected. It’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant, and smart. We’re really enjoying it.

I also took Cottonmouths with me to read while I was waiting at the doctor’s–you inevitably always have to wait, and I prefer to read rather than play on my phone–and it really is quite a wonderfully written novel. Kelly. J. Ford is an excellent writer with a very strong sense of place; and place is always important to me as a reader.

And now back to the spice mines.

Jack the Lad

And now it’s Tuesday.

Yesterday was a strangely low-energy day for me; it was kind of overcast all day and I never really did seem to kick into a higher gear at all.

I did manage to rewatch Body Heat last night, one of my all-time favorite movies, and am delighted to report that it does, indeed, hold up after forty years. And what a film. I saw it originally in the theater; drawn in by a great review I read in the paper that compared it to Double Indemnity, or said that it was loosely based on it, or something like that. I went by myself–I trained myself to go to see movies alone in my late teens–and it was a matinee so there weren’t many people there. I remember that opening shot, of William Hurt’s bare, sweaty back as he watched a fire in the distance from his bedroom window while his hook-up dressed behind him, sitting on the edge of the bed. I remember thinking how sexy he was, and once the character of Kathleen Turner appeared on screen, I also remember thinking how gorgeous she was, as well. I knew who she was–I knew her from her role as Nola on The Doctors, and I also knew she’d been fired from the show for being overweight….which was incredibly hard to believe as I watched her slink across the screen, saying my favorite line ever from a movie: “You’re not very smart, are you? I like that in a man.” I also knew she’d been replaced by Kim Zimmer–I knew all of this because flipping through the channels one day I stopped on The Doctors because Kim Zimmer was on screen and I thought to myself, she’s really pretty and kind of reminds me of Jane Elliott–who’d played my favorite character on General Hospital, Tracy Quartermaine–and at first I did think it was Jane Elliott. I used to read Soap Opera Digest in those days, and shortly thereafter they did a piece on Kim Zimmer, which was when I learned about Kathleen Turner. (Interestingly enough, there was a strong physical resemblance between Zimmer and Turner as well; Zimmer appeared in the film in a supporting role as well)

Body Heat blew me away that first time I saw it; I watched it again when it debuted on HBO, and I try to watch it again periodically. It showed up when I was searching through HBO MAX, and last night I thought, as I waited for Paul to come home, why not? It was very tightly written as well; although last night I spotted a couple of holes in the plot–but the cast was fantastic an it moves so quickly and inevitably to its climax that you don’t really have time to catch those holes until you’ve watched it numerous times. You also have a pre-Cheers Ted Danson as the assistant prosecutor who is a friend of Ned Racine, the low-rent shitty lawyer played by William Hurt, and a very young and beautiful Mickey Rourke as Freddy, the arsonist client of his who holds several keys to the plot in his sexy hands, and of course, both Hurt and Turner at the peak of their youth and beauty.

As I watched Body Heat again last night, something else about the film struck me: it was the first time I can recall seeing a film where the camera sexualized a man in the same way it usually sexualized a woman. Hurt was shirtless or naked at least half of the time he appeared on screen, and his body–which was, for the time, quite spectacular–was shot lovingly by the camera. One of the sexiest sequences I’ve ever seen on film was one shot, where Hurt’s hook up for the night is getting dressed and he is lying in bed, naked, with a sheet draped over his groin but his left leg is uncovered, and you can actually see his naked hip, and the curve of his ass on the bed; it’s an incredibly sexy shot, and not the kind of thing that was standard for a male in a film of the time. He was meant to be seen as sexy and hot; and I don’t remember ever seeing that before in a movie; men were usually considered to be hot and sexy by dint of just being male in movies…I could, of course, be wrong, but at least that’s how I remember it. And as the 80’s progressed, what I call the “gay male gaze” began to be used to shoot beautiful actors more regularly–think about how Rob Lowe was sexualized in almost every movie he made, and it became more of a regular thing.

Body Heat inspired me to start writing noir, quite frankly. I had already read some James M. Cain (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce, Love’s Lovely Counterfeit), but as much as I loved his books it never occurred to me to start writing in that style. Body Heat, on the other hand, inspired a story I started writing called Sunburn (which was used by Laura Lippman as a title for her own noir homage to Cain a few years ago and is one of my favorite noirs), which eventually was retitled Spontaneous Combustion, and now sits in my files, waiting to be written. When I first moved to Tampa, and went for a drive along Bay Shore Boulevard, the big beautiful houses lining the road also inspired me; one in particular seemed the perfect locale for the story of the middle-aged wealthy widow who falls for a hot young man, which kicks off the story.

I’m reminded of that idea every time I watch Body Heat, and as I watched it last night, I thought about the noirs I want to write–a queer noir quintet–and as I write this I realize Spontaneous Combustion isn’t one of them.

Interesting. And on that note, I am off to the spice mines.

When I Call Your Name

One of the great pleasures I have in life is reading; I’ve always loved to read, always been able to escape whatever ailed me at the time–loneliness, depression, heartbreak, self-loathing–by escaping into the pages of a book; imagining myself to be a part of the story, getting lost in the words and the sentences and paragraphs of an engaging author; finding sanctuary from a far too frequently cold and cruel world. I’ve always found my solace in books–whether it was Hercule Poirot using his little gray cells to outwit a killer or Perry Mason casting a spell in a courtroom or a Gothic heroine fearing she was married to someone who wanted to kill her in a palatial mansion or castle somewhere–books were my safe place. It’s why I’ve always treasured them, why I hoard them, why I am reluctant to part with them once I’ve experienced the world contained between its covers.

I’ve heard great things about Carol Goodman and her novels over the years; I had the great pleasure of meeting her in person at the HarperCollins party at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg when I was a little the worse for wine but she was gracious and friendly and kind to me. She had recently won the Mary Higgins Clark Award for The Widow’s House, and more recently a friend (whose taste is impeccable and I trust implicitly) told me that Goodman was a modern-day Daphne du Maurier.

And for me, there is no higher praise.

So last weekend, when another friend had sent me the ARC for Goodman’s latest, The Sea of Lost Girls, I decided it would be the first of hers that I would read. Last Saturday as I sat in my easy chair, shifting around the stack of books on the end table I picked it up, thinking first ugh another “girl” title and flipped it open to the first page, just to get a taste.

The next thing I knew I was one hundred pages in and reluctantly had to put it aside to do something else. I carried it with me all week, waiting for an opportunity to delve into it again, but such a moment never happened…until this morning, as I tore through the book with my morning coffee.

And may I just say, wow?

Scan

The phone wakes me as if it were sounding an alarm inside my chest. What now, it rings, what now what now what now.

I know it’s Rudy. The phone is set to ring for only two people–Harmon and Rudy (at least I made the short list, Harmon had once joked)–and Harmon is next to me in bed. Besides, what has Harmon ever brought me but comfort and safety? But Rudy…

The phone has stopped ringing by the time I grab it but there is a text on the screen.

Mom?

I’m here, I text back. My thumb hovers over the keypad. If he were here maybe I could slip in baby, like I used to call him when he woke up from nightmares, but you can’t text that to your seventeen-year-old son. What’s up? I thumb instead. Casual. As if it isn’t–I check the number on the top of the screen–2:50 in the freaking morning.

I defy anyone to stop reading after those opening paragraphs.

The Sea of Lost Girls isn’t another one of those “girl” books that have become so prevalent since Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl became a viral sensation; the only commonality is the use of the word “girl” in the title, but Goodman’s tale is as dark and rich and layered and complex as Flynn’s. It’s also incredibly literate, but one supposes that is to be expected, given the setting is an elite boarding school on the Maine coast near Portland (the Maine coast has always held a fascination for me, thanks to Dark Shadows). The main character, a teacher married to another teacher, is a big fan of The Scarlet Letter; her troubled teenaged son is currently playing the lead in a school production of The Crucible. Both of those works have a lot of bearing and similarities to the plot of this incredible novel, but saying any more than that would be a spoiler.

The book’s set-up is that Tess’ troubled son has finally found a girlfriend–an intelligent student who is directing The Crucible–and on this night in question Tess goes to pick up her son at their “safe place”, which has to do with a rock causeway leading out to Maiden Island; legend holds that the stones are Indian maidens who drowned and were turned into rocks. Her son is soaking wet and his sweatshirt has blood on the sleeve; a nervous Tess takes him home, launders the shirt and gives her son her husband’s sweatshirt–exactly the same, drying on a radiator–to wear instead. That simple act has enormous ramifications, particularly when Rudy’s girlfriend Lila’s body is found near the rocks on the causeway.

Does Tess cover for her son? She does…but her husband, because he wore the sweatshirt jogging, now becomes a prime suspect. Husband or son?

If that was the lynchpin of the story it would be another adequate, enjoyable thriller; but there is so much more to the story of what happened to Lila–as well as the secrets Tess has kept hidden about her own past. The school used to be a Home for Wayward Girls, and the school’s own dark history, which Tess is also a part of,  has an important part to play in this riveting story of a wife and mother torn between the husband and son she loves, both suspects in a murder–which maybe her own secrets have something to do with as well.

This exploration of motherhood rates up there, in my opinion, with Laura Lippman’s And When She Was Good and Hush Hush and James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce as a classic.

And, as always when I read something extraordinary, it inspired me and gave me ideas for my own work.

It also made me want to reread both The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter.

It is being released this month. Get it now. You won’t be sorry.