Your Cheatin’ Heart

I love Harlan Ellison.

So, as you might remember, I recently read two wonderful Harlan Ellison short stories (to be fair, every Ellison short story is wonderful; his lesser efforts are better than most writer’s best), “On the Downhill Side” and the Edgar Award winning “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” both included in his collection Deathbird Stories. At one point I had a mass market paperback edition I’d picked up in a bookstore; I literally have no idea where that is–probably lost over the years during a move or something, or it may be on the bookshelves; at this point who knows? But I’ve gathered and collected Ellison collections over the years–recently getting, from eBay, the very same mass market paperback edition of Strange Wine, which was my gateway drug to reading Ellison–and even got the enormous collection The Essential Ellison, which still sits proudly in my bookcase.

The first time I heard of Ellison was when I read Stephen King’s brilliant introduction and evaluation of the horror/speculative fiction genre, Danse Macabre, which reminded me of many great films and books and TV shows I’d loved, and introduced me to still others. Shortly afterward, I was at a friend’s apartment drinking–this was my early twenties–and she had that copy of Strange Wine, and I thought, oh, Harlan Ellison! Stephen King praised him to the skies! I need to read this. I asked if I could borrow it and she gifted me with it (and in all honesty, I thought less of her for not wanting it back, particularly since she raved so much about how good it was), and then I took it home with me that night and the next morning I read the intro and the first story, “Croatoan,” and there was no looking back from that. I devoured the book, learned the term “speculative fiction” (which I much prefer to horror, science fiction, and fantasy; when I worked at Lambda I tried, unsuccessfully, to get that award category title changed to simply Best Speculative Fiction), and also became interested in writing it. This was during the time when I worshipped Stephen King so much that I wanted to become a writer like Stephen King, but wasn’t skilled or trained enough to really write really good speculative fiction–or fiction, really, of any kind. I still write it periodically, and some day when I have the time I’ll work on my short story collection Monsters of New Orleans more (hat tip to Lisa Morton; she suggested I do it years again at World Horror Con in New Orleans); in fact the story I started writing yesterday, “The Pestilence Maiden”, would be for Monsters of New Orleans. I looked for more of Ellison’s works every time I went to a bookstore for about a year after that, to no avail, and eventually Ellison got pushed to the back of my mind.

A few years later, one of the major networks (I want to say CBS) rebooted The Twilight Zone as, I think, maybe a summer replacement series (when that was a thing), and I noticed in the TV Guide one week that one of the two stories in that week’s episode was based on Stephen King’s truly creepy short story “Gramma,” and decided to tune itn. “Gramma’ was the first half hour, and it was totally creepy, just like the story; I stayed turned for the second half, which was called “Paladin of the Lost Hour” and starred Danny Kaye and Tim Reid of WKRP in Cincinnati fame. The story was powerful and beautiful and brilliant, and made me cry. As I watched the credits roll, I saw, to my joy and surprise, that it was based on a Harlan Ellison story and he may have even adapted it into a teleplay. It became a goal of mine to read that story, and so I began haunting used bookstores, looking for Ellison collections. I never, ever regretted reading an Ellison collection, and eventually I did finally find a collection that included “Paladin of the Lost Hour,” which remains to this day one of my favorite short stories.

I was reminded of Ellison recently because of a Twitter thread about short stories; I think perhaps Art Taylor may have started it, looking for short stories to teach in one of his classes (it may have been Facebook); and someone mentioned Ellison’s Edgar Award winning “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs.” (I, of course, suggested “Paladin of the Lost Hour,” which also led to a discussion of The Twilight Zone episode I mentioned earlier, which is actually now on Youtube; you can watch it here. I also didn’t know, until looking up the link, that it was Danny Kaye’s last screen appearance, and he deserved a goddamned Emmy for it; and I’m not even a fan.) I knew I’d recently downloaded, at some point, some Ellison collections to my Kindle app when they were cheap and/or free, so I decided to look to see if I had it. When I opened Deathbird Stories, it was open to “On the Downhill Side,” which turned out to be set in New Orleans; I read it, loved it, and then went to the table of contents, and sure enough, “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” was in it. (I must have read it before; I am certain I read my paperback copy of Deathbird Stories, but I didn’t remember either story.)

This is how “On the Downhill Side” begins:

I knew she was a virgin because she was able to ruffle the silken mane of my unicorn. Names Lizette, she was a Grecian temple in which no sacrifice had been made. Vestal virgin of New Orleans, found walking without shadow in the thankgod coolness of cockroach crawling Louisiana night. My unicorn whinnied, inclined his head, and she stroked the ivory spiral of his horn.

Much of this took place in what is called the Irish Channel, a strip of street in old New Orleans where the lace curtain micks had settled decades before; now the Irish were gone and the Cubans had taken over the Channel. Now the Cubans were sleeping, recovering from the muggy today that held within its hours the deja vu of muggy yesterday, the deja reve of intolerable tomorrow. Now the crippled bricks of side streets off Magazine had given up their nightly ghosts, and one such phantom had some to me, calling my unicorn to her–thus, clearly, a virgin–and I stood waiting.

Had it been Sutton Place, had it been a Manhattan evening, and had we met, she would have kneeled to pet my dog. And I would have waited. Had it been Puerto Vallarta, had it been 20 36′ N, 105 13’W, and had we met, she would have crouched to run her fingertips over the oil-slick hide of my iguana. And I would have waited. Meeting in streets requires ritual. One must wait and not breathe too loud, if one is to enjoy the congress of the nightly ghosts.

She looked across the fine head of my unicorn and smiled at me. Her eyes were a shade of gray between onyx and miscalculation. “Is it a bit chilly for you?” I asked.

New Orleanians, of course, as I have noted before, are very protective and pedantic about fiction written about the city by people who don’t live here (always said with capital letters: People Not From Here)–this also stands for lazy journalistic features that always, inevitably, get everything incorrect–and in this beautifully written and incredibly poetic opening, there’s an error: the Irish Channel isn’t a strip of street, it’s an actual neighborhood, running alongside the Garden District from Jackson to Louisiana and from Magazine to the river. (I don’t know about the Cubans–I don’t know of any concentrated Cuban immigration to New Orleans, but I know enough not to question it because there’s so much about this magic place that I do not know, which is why I am reading New Orleans history) But the opening of this story is simply gorgeous, and the imagery Ellison uses is absolutely perfect; I particularly like the sentence Vestal virgin of New Orleans, found walking without shadow in the thankgod coolness of cockroach crawling Louisiana night–and wish I had written it.

As I read more of the story, it’s spectral beauty began casting a spell on me; Ellison didn’t try to write about New Orleans like a native or a local; his ghostly spirit with the unicorn, trapped like Lizette in the realm between worlds because of unfinished business, is also new to New Orleans, and sees it as a tourist would; and I realized how wise he was to make this storytelling choice; it makes errors not only acceptable but forgivable (I really can turn into a hellish banshee on this topic) and he also wrote some beautifully evocative lines about the city that I wish I had written:

I despise Bourbon Street. The strip joints, with the pasties over nipples, the smell of need, the dwarfed souls of men attuned only to flesh. The noise.

The Saint Louis Cemetery is ancient. It sighs with shadows and the comfortable bones and their afterimages of deaths that became great merely because those who died went to be interred in Saint Louis Cemetery. The water table lies just eighteen inches below New Orleans–there are no graves in the earth for that reason. Bodies are entombed aboveground in crypts, sepulchers, vaults, mausoleums. The gravestones are all different, no two alike, each one a testament to the stonecutter’s art. Only secondarily testaments to those who like beneath the markers.

It really is a gorgeous story, almost dream-like in its telling, and I absolutely loved it. I then moved on to the Edgar-winning “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”:

On the night after the day she had stained the louvered window shutters of her new apartment on East 52nd Street, Beth saw a woman slowly and hideously knifed to death in the courtyard of her building. She was one of twenty-six witnesses to the ghoulish scene, and, like them, she did nothing to stop it.

She saw it all, every moment of it, without break and with no impediment to her view. Quite madly, the thought crossed her mind as she watched in horrified fascination, that she had the sort of marvelous line of observation Napoleon had sought when he caused to have constructed at the Comedie-Francaise theaters, a curtained box at the reat, so he could watch the audience as well as the stage. The night was clear, the moon was full, she had just turned off the 11:30 movie on Channel 2 after the second commercial break, realizing she had already seen Robert Taylor in Westward the Women, and had disliked it the first time; and the apartment was quite dark.

The murder of Kitty Genovese, based on my limited knowledge of Harlan Ellison and his work, seemed to weigh pretty heavily on his mind; he wrote this story, clearly influenced by the Genovese murder and the stories that arose around it; I also distinctly remember reading an essay he’d written in which he talked about it–I believe it may have been the introduction to Alone Against Tomorrow, or in one of the mini-essays he wrote about each story collected within its covers; I cannot remember which. But I remember how clearly appalled and horrified he was, not just by the murder, but the way the witnesses did nothing, tried nothing, said nothing, to either stop the murder or to help the hapless victim. As his spirits in “On the Downhill Side” are waiting for their green light to ascend to the spirit plane from this mortal realm, “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” delves, not into the inhumanity involved in every aspect of the Kitty Genovese murder, but what created that very inhumanity, as Beth, new to New York, begins to see the dark, malevolent spirit that drives New York and sometimes, occasionally, demands blood sacrifice; and as she begins to harden her own shell in order to survive. It’s an extraordinary story, well worthy of the Edgar; although I am surprised it was so honored, as it blurs the boundaries between different genres–and back in the day, Edgar judges tended to be very strict about what was and wasn’t a crime story.

And yes, I will be delving back into Ellison’s short fiction–as a crossover between The Short Story Project and The ReRead Project.

febAnton Antipov4

Crazy

And just like that, it’s Good Friday.

What’s so good about it? Well, if you live in a deeply Catholic state like Louisiana, that means it’s a paid holiday, which is certainly always welcomed in these parts. I never say no to a paid holiday–anything else would simply be madness.

Today I woke up after about ten hours of solid, uninterrupted sleep–I will usually wake up at least once or twice during the night–and my body feels almost completely back to normal now. Whatever that was that I had (and I am not convinced that my test result wasn’t a false negative, frankly–how bizarre that a usually healthy person came down with something–not once, but TWICE–that completely mirrored the majority of symptoms of COVID-19; regardless, I lived through it and it’s over now, thank you Baby Jesus on a Good Friday) seems to be gone now; I feel terrific, haven’t coughed in days, and the only reason I felt warm yesterday was because it was hot outside and it was daytime in New Orleans; air conditioning can only do so much in an old house in this climate–although rather than suffering through that down here this afternoon, maybe I’ll just go read in bed, and take the laptop with me just in case; for some reason it’s much cooler upstairs this year than downstairs, which makes absolutely no sense.

I finished reading Ammie, Come Home yesterday and you can read that entry here, if you missed it. I then moved on to Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic, and remembered just how magical Mary Stewart was as a story-teller. I read most of Mary Stewart’s works when I was a teenager, with The Ivy Tree and Airs Above the Ground as my two particular favorites; the ones I would always grab from the shelf when I wanted to reread one of her books. The others I don’t remember quite as much; primarily because I didn’t reread them as frequently, if at all, as the other two. I hadn’t much liked The Moon-spinners the first time; I loved it all the more on the reread. Likewise, my memory of This Rough Magic was similar; I enjoyed it but never went back to it. (In fact, my mind I’d mixed up plot elements of the two books; I thought all the stuff with the dolphin was in The Moon-spinners; it’s actually in This Rough Magic.) I also only have a copy of the ebook–which I never read, really, other than for short story collections or anthologies–but there I was yesterday afternoon, reading the ebook of a novel on my iPad for the first time with a purring kitty in my lap and music playing through my speakers in the kitchen. It was quite lovely, and quite relaxing. A breakthrough? Only the future will tell.

I also read Harlan Ellison’s Edgar Award winning short story “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” yesterday; it was a part of his collection Deathbird Stories, which I had in hard copy but purchased the ebook on sale recently. I need to write a blog entry about it, and the other story from the same collection I’d read, “On the Downhill Side”, which was quite lovely and quite magical, particularly in the way he wrote about New Orleans, where the story was set; he did something that was absolutely genius–which is what everyone who writes about New Orleans but has never lived here should probably do when they decide to write about New Orleans. (There’s a snobbery all New Orleanians, and New Orleans writers, all have about people who aren’t from here but choose to set their fiction here; like everything, there’s good and bad elements to that snobbery. But even journalists doing features on New Orleans fuck it up, and fuck it up badly, so we’re always suspicious of outsiders writing about our beloved city.)

I need to get back to writing, now that I no longer have empty head from whatever it was I had these past two weeks; I have some things that are close to being due, I need to get that Sherlock story focused on and written, and I’ve also agreed to do an essay about my story “The Silky Veils of Ardor” for The First Two Pages blog. In order to get back on track with writing and everything that needs to be done around the Lost Apartment before I return to work (once I am cleared; I am certain I’ll be cleared to return on Monday) so I have a strong grasp on everything. I also need to prioritize things and not allow things to detract from my writing time and my writing career. I realized recently that I will not have a book out this year, which isn’t good, and if I’m not careful I won’t have a book out next year, either. So I need to get this other stuff finished and out of the way so I can get Bury Me in Shadows finished and turned in, then do the same with the Kansas book. I also have to get back to the Secret Project; so the goals for this month are to get all these loose odds and ends finished so I can focus on getting the books done. And if I focus, and don’t allow myself to get distracted, there’s absolutely no reason why I can’t get all that taken care of so I can focus on the novels this summer.

So, for today, I am going to work on my Sherlock story and my Venice story while trying to get everything around here cleaned and organized–cleaning and organizing may seem like me trying to procrastinate, but really, I can’t work when my office area is messy–and I will try to get as much done around here as I can until around four or five, when I’ll allow myself a few hours to read more of This Rough Magic. The books need work, too–it’s time to do another cull–and it’s been weeks since I’ve had the energy to take on the floors. Maybe even this weekend I’ll drag the ladder outside and do the windows around my desk–they are filthy, after all–so clearly I am starting to feel better because not only am I noticing these things, I’m paying attention to them, and they bother me; so I am definitely myself again.

And on that note, tis time to get back into the spice mines. It’s been awhile, and it’s going to feel pretty good, methinks.

Happy Good Friday, everyone.

febTomas Skoloudik3

Amarillo by Morning

So, this morning when I woke up, as my first cup of coffee brewed, I dialed the COVID-19 testing hot-line for staff at the day job and made an appointment to get tested. They scheduled me for 9:20 am; I was called at around eight thirty, which left me with about fifty minutes to wake up, drink some coffee, and pull myself together. Our clinic’s COVID testing set-up is in the parking garage which is the ground floor of our building; staff simply drives into the garage and pulls up to the area where the tents and check-in desk are set up, and the doctor comes out and swabs your nose. Needless to say, as I swilled down coffee and brewed another quick cup to take with me in the car, my nerves were definitely feeling a bit frayed. Saturday was a better day than Friday; yesterday was better than Saturday. So far this morning I seem to feel okay other than fatigue–going up stairs to put on a T-shirt and shorts to drive over to the office made my legs and hips ache a bit; it also triggered a small coughing fit (note: the only time my lungs feel tight is when I cough; other than that I breathe fine and they don’t phase me at all. But when I cough, I feel a tightness in the center of my chest that is pretty severe–but as I said, once the coughing spasm passed, I feel fine) but I got dressed and drove over to the office. It didn’t take long as the streets are pretty empty–there’s some traffic, to be sure, and a pandemic and over-burdened hospitals doesn’t seem to be stopping people from driving like thoughtless assholes–and then I pulled into the garage, got checked in, signed my consent to be tested form, and Dr. Halperin came out and swabbed both nostrils.

And while I can see why the vice-president thought it was invasive–I imagine anything put it any of his orifices would be invasive to him–it really wasn’t that bad. It’s certainly not the worst thing I’ve ever had done to me; I’d certainly rather get my nostrils swabbed like that on a regular basis than have an abscessed tooth ever again, and the worst part of it wasn’t the invasiveness at all. The worst part is the chemical on the swab–it doesn’t quite burn per se, but the closest experience I can think of to it is when you accidentally and deeply inhale mothballs; my eyes watered and it burned a little bit, but not painfully.

In a best case scenario, the test results will be back within 2-4 days–it may be longer, who knows? But I have to go into a strict quarantine until the results do come back, which means not leaving the house or running any errands or doing much of anything. Of course I have gloves and masks, so I can theoretically do some things and leave the house if necessary, but I shouldn’t really take the risk of infecting someone else by going out in public until I know for a certain whether I currently have it, or did have it, or don’t have it at all. I was also a little confused because I’d assumed there would be a blood draw to go with the swab test, but I am also conditioned to thinking about testing for different viruses (HIV, syphilis, and Hep C) so I assumed the testing would also have to involve blood. But then I realized, afterwards as I was driving home, that mucous doesn’t carry the HIV, syphilis or Hep C viruses (virii?); but the COVID-19 virus can be airborne transmitted–which means it must be in the mucous membranes along with the antibodies.

At least that makes testing for it that much easier, so that’s kind of a plus?

I also noticed, this morning, a little bit of PTSD kicking in from the good old HIV/AIDS pandemic days–“oh, look, I need to get tested for a potentially fatal virus and have to wait days to get the results back”–but I quickly tamped that down, shoved the lid closed and firmly padlocked it. I suppose it’s a bit of a surprise that particular version of all the PTSD’s I have locked behind various doors in my brain took so long to try to worm it’s way out, but it did finally show up and I was able to beat it down rather easily.

Thank you, coping mechanisms, developed over several decades of seemingly endless trauma.

I didn’t have to take a nap yesterday, but after we finished watching Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, a lovely stand-alone film follow-up to the wonderful Miss Fisher series from Australia (it was kind of an Indiana Jones-lite adventure, set in Palestine in 1928 and quite fun), I got down my copy of Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror and opened it up to the chapter about the Black Death. Yes, I recognize that my recent fascination with plagues and epidemics and pandemics is probably morbid, given the current state of affairs in the world, yet my curiosity had always had a bit of morbidity to it and it’s really not surprising that it would take this kind of turn. (And I’m actually kind of glad; I was glad to finally read “Death in Venice” even if it left me a little cold; and it also led me down the path to rereading “The Masque of the Red Death”, and back into my Daphne du Maurier short stories) Realistically, while everyone talks about the Spanish influenza pandemic of a hundred years ago, primarily because it was the most recent pandemic (note to self: reread Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse Pale Rider”), the worst pandemic in history was clearly the bubonic plague, the Black Death, or, as it was known more simply during the fourteenth century, “the pestilence.”

Here’s how the chapter opens:

In October 1347, two months after the fall of Calais, Genoese trading ships put into the harbor of Messina in Sicily with dead and dying men at the oars. The ships had come from the Black Sea port of Caffa (now Feodosiya) in the Crimea, where the Genoese maintained a trading post. The diseased sailors showed strange black swellings about the size of an egg or an apple in the armpits and groin. The swellings oozed blood and pus and were followed by spreading boils and black blotches on the skin from internal bleeding. The sick suffered severe pain and died quickly within five days of the first symptoms. As the disease spread, other symptoms of continuous fever and spitting of blood appeared instead of the swelling or buboes. The victims coughed and sweated heavily and died even more quickly, within three days or less, sometimes in 24 hours. In both types everything that issued from the body–breath, sweat, blood from the buboes and lungs, bloody urine, and blackened excrement–smelled foul. Depression and despair accompanied the physical symptoms, and before the end “death is seen seared on the face.”

The disease was bubonic plague, present in two forms: one that infected the bloodstream, causing the buboes and internal bleeding, and was spread by contact; and a second, more virulent pneumonic type that infected the lungs and was spread by respiratory infection. The presence of both at once caused the high mortality and speed of contagion. So lethal was the disease that cases were known of persons going to bed well and dying before they woke, of doctors catching the illness at a bedside and dying before the patient. So rapidly did it spread from one to another that to a French physician, Simon de Covino, it seemed as if one sick person “could infect the whole world.” The malignity of the pestilence appeared more terrible because its victims knew no prevention and no remedy.

The chapter is pretty horrific, and it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to live through in the fourteenth century. It’s impossible to know how many people died because they died so quickly that graveyards overflowed and burial pits had to be dug; people simply dragged the bodies of their dead loved ones to the pits and dumped them there. Estimates were obviously guesses and sometimes exaggerated; one monk’s reported death toll for one particular city, in fact, was more than what its recorded population showed. But it’s not inaccurate to guess that one third of the European population died during the pestilence; towns disappeared, families completely died out. Farms went untended because the farmers and their families died; there were also undoubtedly consequential deaths, not from the plague but because of it; young children whose parents had died starved to death, etc. Naturally they thought it was the end of the world, a punishment from God for sin; and the fourteenth century, which Ms. Tuchman describes as “calamitous”, was certainly ripe for that kind of belief.

One of the interesting things to me about this current pandemic is–and this may entirely be because I am not paying attention and my social media is sort of a bubble; but I cannot believe someone would be saying this about the pandemic and no one i know would notice it and be outraged enough to post about it–where are the evangelicals? Where are all those “end times” preachers and ministers and con artists to prey on the fears of their congregation? Why isn’t anyone pointing out that this could actually be the “rapture” where God is calling his own to him? I have seen that some trashbag minister called this God’s punishment for the gays–but it didn’t gain any traction.

Maybe one of the outcomes of this pandemic will be the ending of that nonsense. I rather doubt it, but you know, hope springs eternal.

I did read for a while yesterday–I got further into Ammie Come Home and I read a short story by Harlan Ellison, “On the Downhill Side”, from his collection Deathbird Stories, which I’d originally read years ago, before I moved to New Orleans, and this story is set in New Orleans. Oddly enough, when I opened the ebook in my Kindle app on the iPad (I was actually looking to see if the collection included his Edgar winning “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”–it does) it was already opened to that story, so I read it, and as always with Ellison, loved it–and while it certainly is brilliantly written, it was written by someone who didn’t live here. I did love the story; like all of Ellison’s stories, the humanity in it was overwhelming and identifiable and relatable. I’ll probably give it, at some point, its own entry here.

And now I am feeling a bit tired, so I am going to go rest for a bit.

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