Major Tom (Coming Home)

Tuesday morning.

I made an enormous decision regarding the point-of-view in the WIP; one that I should have made a long time ago: instead of third person point of view, I am going to revise and rewrite it in the first person. It makes more sense; I don’t know why I didn’t do it that way in the first place when I wrote the first draft; but that was so fucking long ago who knows why I did anything back then? I revised the first chapter yesterday, and it seems much more real, much more immediate, and much more involving than it did before. I think this was, indeed, a wise decision–at least until next week, when I am pounding my head against the wall again and wondering why the hell I decided to do it this way?

Why am I a writer again? Because I clearly hate myself.

Sunday Paul and I binge-watched It’s the End of the F**king World, a Netflix original series, and were quite taken with it. We wound up watching the entire season Sunday night–the episodes are only about twenty-one minutes long–and the two young kids who play the leads, Alyssa and James, are really quite appealing. James lives alone with his father and is a self-diagnosed psychopath; when Alyssa first crossed his path in the school cafeteria, he decides she’s interesting and he decides to kill her. He’s been killing animals for a while now, and has decided to move on to people, and she’s as good a victim as anyone. Alyssa lives with her mother and her perfectly awful stepfather, who have two kids of their own, and it’s obvious Alyssa isn’t wanted there, and her mother is too dominated by her new husband to stand up to him or for her. As a result, Alyssa has a bit of an anger issue. She also hasn’t seen her father since she was eight and he left her mother–but even though he doesn’t see her he sends her a birthday card every year. These two oddballs decide to steal James’ father’s car and run away together…but it continues its dark path. James and Alyssa are, if nothing else, oddly compelling and you can’t help but root for them to find some kind of a happy ending, although the events that keep happening to them make that virtually impossible; their crimes gradually get worse and worse, and I couldn’t help but think of them in terms of Bonnie and Clyde (no doubt because I am still reading Pictures at a Revolution) and Natural Born Killers; they didn’t mean to start committing crimes but once they did, they had no choice but to keep committing crimes. It’s all kind of noirish and charming; funny yet disturbing, and incredibly original. We also get to know the two–as they grow closer to each other and start to truly care about each other, they start sharing their childhood traumas and frankly, with all that scar tissue it’s no wonder they didn’t fit in anywhere.

I’ll be very curious to see how the second season turns out.

I also have two more short stories to discuss.

First up, I returned to Lawrence Block’s In Sunlight or in Shadow for Stephen King’s “The Music Room”:

The Enderbys were in their music room–so they called it, although it was really just the spare bedroom. Once they had thought it would be little James or Jill Enderby’s nursery, but after ten years of trying, it seemed increasingly unlikely that a Baby Dear would arrive out of the Nowhere and into the Here. They had made their peace with childlessness. AT least they had work, which was a blessing in a year when men were still standing in bread lines. There were fallow periods, it was true, but when the job was on, they could afford to think of nothing else, and they both liked it that way.

Mr. Enderby was reading The New York Journal-American,  a new daily not even halfway through its first year of publication. It was sort of a tabloid and sort of not. He usually began with the comics, but when they were on the job he turned to the city news first, scanning through the stories quickly, especially the police blotter.

This short story is one of the creepiest things I’ve read during this edition of the Short Story Project. King is always good for creepy stories, but the casual, calm matter of fact way the Enderbys go about their ‘business’ is what sets this story apart. The fact that they sit around and chat, quite normally, about the ‘business’ as though they were talking about nothing more important than the weather is very chilling; the kind of thing that would make a lovely episode of Twilight Zone. Very well done, very creepy.

Next I read “The Splintered Monday,” by Charlotte Armstrong, which Sarah Weinman included in her terrific anthology Troubled Daughters Twisted Wives. This story was originally publishing in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and was a nominee for the Best Short Story Edgar.

Mrs. Sarah Brady awakened in the guest room of her nephew Jeff’s house, and for a moment or two was simply glad for the clean page of a new day. Then she found her bookmark between the past and the future. Oh, yes. Her sister, Alice, had died on Monday, been buried on Wednesday. (Poor Alice.) This was Saturday. Mrs. Brady’s daughter, Del, was coming, late today, to drive her mother back home tomorrow.

Now that she knew where she was, Mrs. Brady cast a brief prayer into time and space, then put her lean old feet to the floor.

The house was very still. For days now it has seemed muffled, everyone moving in a quiet gloom, sweetened by mutually considerate behavior. Mrs. Brady had a feeling that her own departure would signal a lift of some kind in the atmosphere. And she did not particularly like the idea.

I first discovered Charlotte Armstrong when I was in junior high school; she was still alive and still being published, and was still rather popular. I got a Charlotte Armstrong Omnibus from the Mystery Guild; the novels included were The Witch’s House, Mischief, and The Dream Walker. I read and greatly enjoyed the first two–Mischief was made into a movie starring Marilyn Monroe, retitled Don’t Bother to Knock–and they weren’t like anything I’d ever read up to that point. I did read some more of her books back then, and I never forgot her. I was quite pleased when Sarah, along with Jeffrey Marks, began shining a light on Ms. Armstrong and bringing her back to her proper place in the history of the genre.

“The Splintered Monday” is a great example of Ms. Armstrong’s gifts as a writer. The premise, as seen above in the opening paragraphs that set the stage for the story, is quite simple. A woman, who was a hypochondriac but also ill–she was, as we learn as the story progresses, a narcissist as well who insisted on being at the center of everything, and everything was all about her–has died. Her sister was visiting and her sister is quite aware of what the deceased Alice was like. But something is off, something is wrong, and Mrs. Brady can’t quite put her finger on it…so she decides to find out for herself. At first, she doesn’t learn anything useful; and it’s more along the lines that everyone is coddling her, protecting her from the truth about her sister’s death for ‘her own good’ which annoys the crap out of her. But someone in the house has a very good reason for keeping things from Mrs. Brady…because if Mrs. Brady knows everything, she’ll put the truth together and will catch a very clever killer. Armstrong’s mastery is evident in every paragraph; there is a sweetness to her writing and a sweetness to her main characters, but there’s also a very strong sense of right and wrong, of common sense, and a heroic purpose to their investigations. This is why I love Armstrong so much…and was thrilled to read this story.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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I Still Can’t Get Over Loving You

Wednesday, and Day 4 of Facebook Jail. You know something? I wonder if they’ve heard of unintended consequences over at the Facebook Community Standards department. I usually spend far too much time scrolling through my Facebook feed and interacting with friends. So far this week, instead of doing that, I’ve revised a short story, worked on an outline, read a book (a wonderful history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted), read several short stories, and gotten some other things done. As this thirty day sentence continues, I will probably visit Facebook less and less–it’s kind of frustrating being able to see things and not respond to them–and by the end of the sentence, probably will be completely broken of the need to go there, and hopefully my attention span will have snapped back to what it was in the days before social media. I’m also liking Tumblr, INstagram and Twitter–you don’t wind up spending nearly as much time there, at least don’t, at any rate. Once I get used to not being on Facebook and having all this free time…look out.

I also read Lois Duncan’s young adult novel Ransom. Originally published in 1967 as Five Were Missing, it’s clear to see why Duncan was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America shortly before her death. I’ve not read all of Duncan’s work–I’m working my way through them all–but her novels were startlingly original and fresh, particularly when you consider when they were originally published. Ransom, inspired by a true crime in northern California where a school bus was hijacked and the students kidnapped, reads very quickly. The five students on the bus all are fully developed and fleshed out beautifully; and Duncan uses the kidnapping as a way of getting inside the heads of the characters and exposing them for what they are; the golden boy with dark secrets and feet of lead; the spoiled cheerleader who dislikes and resents her stepfather, only to learn that the father she idolizes is unworthy of her love; the military brat, deeply intelligent, who is the first to realize the truth of their situation and finds depths of bravery she never knew she had; the younger brother of the golden boy who realizes his own identity, and finds he has levels of potential strength his brother can only aspire to; and the orphan, being raised by his bachelor uncle with scars of his own to hide who finds out that self-pity only keeps him from enjoying his life. The dialogue is a little stilted and old-fashioned, but as I said, it reads very quickly.

Duncan was definitely a master.

Speaking of masters, I read a short story by Patricia Highsmith yesterday as well, “The Heroine,” which is the lead off story in Sarah Weinman’s Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives; a brilliant anthology of stories written by women crime writers from the 1940’s thru the 1950’s, a time when women dominated the industry and many of these wonderful writers are sadly, overlooked and forgotten.

troubled daughters twisted wives

The girl was so sure she would get the job, she had unabashedly come out to Westchester with her suitcase. She sat in a comfortable chair in the living room of the Christiansens’ house, looking in her navy blue coat and beret even younger than 21, and replied earnestly to their questions.

“Have you worked as a governess before?” Mr. Christianen asked. He sat beside his wife on the sofa, his elbows on the knees of his gray flannel slacks and his hands clasped. “Any references, I mean?”

“I was a maid at Mrs. Dwight Howell’s home in New York for the last seven months.” Lucille looked at him with suddenly wide gray eyes. “I could get a reference from there if you like…But when I saw your advertisement this morning I didn’t want to wait. I’ve always wanted a place where there were children.”

I love Patricia Highsmith, and I have an enormous volume that contains all of her short stories. It’s really criminal that I, like so many other people, don’t read more short stories (hence my short story project, which I might make a year-long thing rather than just a few months), and it deeply shames me that I’ve had Troubled Daughters Twisted Wives sitting on my shelf collecting dust all this time without taking it down and reading it. This Highsmith story, “The Heroine,” is genius, absolute genius, in the cold, slightly detached way that Highsmith uses as her point of view, which makes her stories and novels so much more chilling. It’s very clear, almost from the start–ah, that foreshadowing–that the Christiansens are probably making a terrible mistake in not checking on Lucille’s references. And how the story develops is so much more chilling than you think it is when you get that uh oh feeling in your stomach when Mrs. Christiansen charmingly says she won’t check Lucille’s references. Highsmith’s authorial voice is so distant, so cold and matter-of-fact, and her word choice is always simple and spare…but she always gets that feeling of suspense, of oh my god what is going to happen that you feel amping up as you finish reading each sentence…and her denouements never disappoint.

Weinman has done an excellent job curating this collection; she also did a two-volume collection of novels by these writers called Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940’s and 1950s: A Library of America Boxed Set. Some of the novels included in that gorgeous set I’ve already read–Charlotte Armstrong’s Mischief, Margaret Millar’s Beast in View, Vera Caspary’s Laura–but I am definitely going to have to get that set down from the shelf and read the others as well. Weinman is also pretty expert on the crime genre in general; very well read, fiercely intelligent and deeply perceptive, her newsletter The Crime Lady is amazing, and I read it every week for her thoughts on true crimes, the books she’s read and recommends…you can sign up for it here. You can thank for me for it later. She’s also writing a true crime of her own right now that I can’t wait to read.

And now, back to the spice mines.