I Wish You Would

Hurricane Delta is moving ever closer by the moment to our shores. This is one of the worst parts–the inevitable waiting, the need to be completely flexible, and the need to be ready to pack up and get out of Dodge in a hurry if need be. In that regard we are luckier than most when it comes to natural disasters; we have warning so we can get out while there is still time. Tornadoes and earthquakes don’t give you those options; with tornadoes sometimes it’s merely a matter of minutes (those years in Kansas…); earthquakes give you no warning whatsoever. Hurricanes clearly trigger PTSD in me–and have, ever since Katrina–but I would still rather deal with them than tornadoes or earthquakes (been through those during my years in California).

Ugh, natural disasters. Earth’s way of reminding us how unimportant and insignificant we really are.

There was a thing going around Twitter the other day, reading something along the lines of : Fellow authors, creatives… do you think it’s wise to tweet your policital opinions using your author/creative twitter account, or should you keep politics out of your creative timeline? Do you think it might lose you followers, readers, even work, or hurt your cause?

It did make me think a little bit at first. I generally don’t talk about politics much about my social media, or here on my blog; but it’s not about worrying that I might offend and lose readers, for fuck’s sake. The funniest thing to me about that tweet was precisely how privileged it was, and how the person tweeting it didn’t even have the slightest clue about the place of privilege she was coming from.

Simply stated, any writers that are not cishet white heterosexuals has had their very existence politicized, over and over and over again. Two Supreme Court justices, just this very week, very nastily announced that they don’t think queer people are entitled to equality in the eyes of the law; no surprise it was dumpster fires Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. I would love to have the privilege of not having my existence, and my status as an American citizen, politicized and reviled and attacked by bigots and monsters masking their demonic tactics are “religious liberty”; and a little louder for those of you in the back: if your religion is teaching you to treat any other human being with anything less than empathy, understanding, and compassion, you are doing religion wrong.

Period.

Frankly, I don’t exactly see how I could possibly lose any readers who are homophobes or racists or transphobes or fire-breathing conservatives because they would never buy books by a gay man centering gay men and themes in the first place. These are the ones who don’t buy your books but will waste their lives away going on Amazon and looking for queer writers to one-star, with a sentence about “not wanting a political agenda shoved down (their) throat.”

Books by and about queer people are political by nature of their very existence–and this is something which we, like writers of color and any other underprivileged minority in this country do not get to have a choice. The personal is the political for us; it is very interesting to me to see how much privilege is on display in tweets like the one above; while assuredly the intentions of the tweeter were good and she was genuinely curious what other people thought on the subject–other straight white people, obviously. It is an interesting subject, after all; moral stances don’t pay the bills, obviously, and at what point does your survival outweigh your principles?

Some authors are big enough, and successful enough, to not have to worry about offending or losing readers–which is another kind of privilege; recently seen on display with J. K. Rowling, and previously seen with writers like Orson Scott Card, among others–while those writers who aren’t marginalized for something beyond their control and are barely scraping by, hoping their sales will warrant yet another book contract, trying to figure out how to get the word out about their books and sell more copies while balancing a day job and family and everything else, possibly cannot afford to alienate any portion of their reader base if they want to keep writing. I get that, I really do; part of the reason I am so productive (per other people) is a definite fear that at some point my writing career will end–although I have also come to realize that while my career as Greg Herren might end, I could always create a new name and start over again–but it would be really nice to have the kind of reality that makes asking that question even possible to consider. As a gay male writer who writes about gay men and their experiences navigating this country and this world, obviously my books make a political statement; just my existence makes such a statement.

I refuse to closet myself or my work for the convenience of making homophobes more comfortable.

Suck on that, bitches.

Honestly.

Anyway, a friend reminded me of a short story the other day, and it had been quite the hot minute since I’d read Ray Bradbury’s “The Whole Town’s Sleeping,” and so I thought, why not reread it for the Short Story Project?

So I did.

The courthouse clock chimed seven times. The echoes of the chines faded.

Warm summer twilight here in upper Illinois country in this little town deep and far away from everything, kept to itself by.a river and a forest and a meadow and a lake. The sidewalks still scorched. The stores closing and the streets shadowed. And there were two moons; the clock moon with four faces in four night directions above the solemn black courthouse, and the real moon rising in vanilla whiteness from the dark east.

In the drugstore fans whispered in the high ceilings. In the rococo shade of porches, a few invisible people sat. Cigars glowed pink, on occasion. Screen doors whined their springs and slammed. ON the purple bricks of the summer-night streets, Douglas Spaulding ran; dogs an boys followed after.

“Hi, Miss Lavinia!”

Isn’t that a lovely start? I have to confess, I’ve not read much Bradbury–I’m not even sure how I read this story in the first place, but I remembered it; there must have been a short-story collection I picked up somewhere and read that I don’t recall. I know that I read it sometime after I had read Night Shift by Stephen King; because when I originally read this story it made me think of his story, “Strawberry Spring,” both in its style, voice and content SPOILER: both are serial killer stories, and both are written in that same Norman Rockwell Americana type voice; look at this sweet, picturesque American community, isn’t it lovely and aspirational and oh, by the way, there’s a serial killer on the loose. Before rereading the story, all I could remember was that weird Rockwellian voice, the Americana of the depiction of the town, and the ending. I also remembered the suspense of the scene where Miss Lavinia, after walking her companions home after seeing the Chaplin movie, thinks someone is following her as she hurries home alone. I’d forgotten that she and one of her friends found the body of the latest victim on the way to the movie, and yet continue on; that was extremely weird, and I also remembered the wonderful twist of the final sentence of the story, once she has safely gotten home. The serial killer, The Lonely One, kills a woman every month–and yet, in this pristine little slice of Americana small town life, no one in the town seems to take the killer all that seriously, or worry all that much about becoming his next victim. The voice vs the content is a masterstroke of writing, frankly; and I must admit, I’m not really sure why I haven’t read more Bradbury. I remember reading Something Wicked This Way Comes–I also remember thinking recently that I should reread it–and Dandelion Wine, and there must have been a short story collection I read as well; but I never read any of the science fiction–my education in Heinlein and other science fiction greats is also sorely lacking (although I have read quite a bit of Azimov and of course, Dune). I think I’ve avoided the great science fiction writers of back in the day because the advances in technology in reality have made some of those stories probably obsolete–watching 2001 recently, along with Blade Runner, was interesting in seeing what major corporations of the time they were made are no longer around (Pan Am and Howard Johnson’s, for a few) that people of the time couldn’t possibly imagine wouldn’t be around in the future. Perhaps I’ll move Something Wicked This Way Comes closer to the top of the reread pile. I didn’t enjoy it all that much at the time–I was expecting something a little more Stephen King-ish–and with more of an adult, better read mentality, I might enjoy and appreciate it more. I am certainly intrigued by that voice, which is very similar to the one he used in the short story.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me. Have a lovely and safe Thursday, Constant Reader!

Wanted Dead or Alive

The past month been an interesting one, so much so that I’ve not really been able to get a whole lot of anything writing related finished. This is partly my own fault, of course; I should have repeatedly resisted the urge to continue to read and refresh pages and follow links and so forth; but like a train wreck, I wasn’t able to ever tear my eyes away from the carnage.

As I said to a friend at the height of the drama, “Every time I think the last car of the train has come off the rails and the wreck is finished, here comes another train on the same tracks and I am mesmerized all over again.” I’ve read blog posts and Facebook posts and Twitter threads, over and over again, my mouth wide open and there being literally no way to keep my jaw from its permanently dropped position other than using both hands to push it up and then hold it in place.

I mean, wow. What a month it has been for both the crime and horror fiction communities.

This is a roundabout way of getting to a question that has come up a lot in the last decade or so, and one I’ve thought about a lot, but have never really addressed very much…but with all these shenanigans going on recently, I started thinking about this again, and it also played into my thoughts about reading The Hunter by Richard Stark, and my recent read of I the Jury by Mickey Spillane; two enormously popular novels by well-regarded crime writers that might not hold up as well through the modern day lens as they perhaps did when they were originally released.

And that ever-present question of the artist versus the art.

Probably the first time I’ve ever thought about whether it’s possible to continue to enjoy art despite the artist was, of course, the film Chinatown. I never saw it in the theatrical release, but it’s widely regarded as one of the best crime films ever made; I remember it was nominated for like ten or eleven Oscars in the year it was released (which, if memory serves, was the same year as The Godfather Part II, which pretty much won everything imaginable), and the debate about the movie has raged ever since Polanski fled the country to avoid statutory rape consequences. I find that abhorrent; and any defense of Polanski’s indefensible behavior irrelevant to me. But I wanted to watch Chinatown, and Rosemary’s Baby is one of my favorite horror movies of all time; I revisit it every now and then. So, how can I justify watching and enjoying these two films directed by someone who did something heinous? When I was finally able to stream Chinatown a few years back, I justified it to myself by saying it was 1. before the statutory rape and 2. if I didn’t review or talk about or promote the film on social media or on my blog, streaming it through a service I already pay for isn’t contributing much, if any, money to Polanski’s bank account.

And yes, I am very well aware of how ludicrous and torturous those mental hoops I jumped through actually are.

There was also the Orson Scott Card debacle a few years back, and I didn’t jump through hoops on that one. I had read and enjoyed Ender’s Game, and had thought about reading more of Card’s work…until I discovered he was a horrific homophobe who actually worked, donated money to, and actively sought to block gay equality in the United States. 

Nope, sorry, done.

It’s one thing to have abhorrent opinions about a minority; it’s another to actively work–and use the money you’ve earned through your art–against the rights of that minority. Fuck all the way off, Mr. Card, and never come back.

Which brings me to The Hunter.

the hunter

When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to  hell. The guy said, “Screw you, buddy,” yanked his Chevy back into the stream of traffic, and roared on down to the tollbooths. Parker spat in the right-hand lane, lit his last cigarette, and walked across the George Washington Bridge.

The 8 a.m. traffic went mmmmmm, mmmmmm, all on this side, headed for the city. Over there, lanes and lanes of nobody going to Jersey. Underneath, the same thing.

Out in the middle, the bridge trembled and swayed in the wind. It does it all the time, but he’d never noticed it. He’d never walked it before. He felt it shivering under his feet, and he got mad. He threw the used-up butt at the river, spat on a passing hubcab, and strode on.

Richard Stark is one of the pseudonyms of crime writer extraordinaire Donald Westlake. I will be the first to admit, repeatedly, that my education in not only literature but crime fiction is sorely lacking; there are many authors whose works I should have read and haven’t; Westlake is one. I read my first Westlake a few years ago, a Hard Case Crime edition of The Comedy is Finished and it was amazingly good. I ordered a copy of The Hot Rock shortly thereafter; alas, it is still in the TBR pile., and I do intend to get to it at some point.

Westlake also happens to be an inspiration to one of my favorite queer writers, Rob Byrnes, who writes witty, Westlake-like queer caper novels (if you’ve not already read him, you must do so immediately).

I first discovered that Westlake was also Richard Stark when these Parker novels he wrote under that name were brought back into print recently by the University of Chicago Press, and a crime writer I admire deeply, Chris Holm, announced he’d written an introduction for one of the books. Chris has never steered me wrong in his recommendations (for that matter, neither has his amazing wife, Katrina Niidas Holm, who was the one who steered me to Michael McDowell’s The Elementals, for which I will always be grateful), and so I thought, as is my wont, to start with the first book in the series, The Hunter.

And once I started reading it, as you can see by the opening above, I was caught up in the story and the voice.

But, as I said earlier, The Hunter was very much a novel of its time: 1960.

Parker was considered an anti-hero when the books first started coming into print–although today I suppose he would be considered a sociopath. He does live by a code, even if he is a sociopathic criminal; and one has to admire the dedication to that code, and how he never deviates from it. He doesn’t have an issue with breaking the law–in fact, he makes his living breaking the law–nor does he have a problem with meting out vengeance on those who do him wrong. In The Hunter, he is betrayed–and almost killed–by his partners in a high-stakes robbery; amongst those who wronged and cheated him are his wife–and he kills her without a second thought, and then goes after the rest of those involved in the scam, even though some of them are very well connected with the New York mob. (The mob is referred to as a ‘syndicate’ in the book; an old term I haven’t heard in a very long time, and it was a lovely piece of nostalgia. Organized crime was often referred to as a ‘syndicate’ back in the day.)

It’s tautly written, suspenseful (will Parker get his revenge, or will he be betrayed yet again?) and I kept turning the pages. I really enjoyed the book tremendously, and will go back and continue to read the Parker novels–I am curious to see how Stark developed the character and the continuing story of his life and career in crime, as well as to see how Westlake continued to develop as a writer under the name Richard Stark.

However–the casual homophobia of the time slapped me in the face a couple of times while I was reading the book:

Page Three: On the way, he panhandled a dime from a latent fag with big hips and stopped in a grimy diner for coffee.

p. 38: “She’s dead. So is your fat pansy. You can be dead, too, if you want.”

Yeah, I did kind of recoil, and in both instances I debated finishing the book. But…it was written in 1960, and the attitude towards homosexuality exhibited in those lines (including the slur pansy, which I haven’t heard in a while) was common. We can’t deny that it existed–we cannot deny homophobia exists today any more than we can that it did in 1960–and it was a sign of the times. Does that mean the book shouldn’t be read? Should it come with a trigger warning? A deep-seated contempt for homosexuality was part and parcel of the alpha male/tough guy persona of the times, and including that language in the book was an easy way to convey the no-nonsense masculinity of the character (it was also there in I the Jury–much more so in the Spillane than the Stark).

The attitudes towards women isn’t much better; but again, a sign of the times:

p. 135 He used one cord to tie her hands behind her, the other to tie her ankles. He found scissors in a desk drawer next to an inhaler, snipped off part of her slip and used it for a gag. She had good legs–But not now. After it was over, after Mal was dead, he’d want somebody then.

Ew, because killing someone is a turn-on? Although it fits with the character Stark has created; this is a man who killed his wife without a second thought.

But…I enjoyed reading the book. I suspect my enjoyment would have been greater in the past–I probably would have loved this series had I discovered it in my late teens and early twenties, but the world was a different place then, too. I am definitely going to continue reading the series; as I said earlier, I am curious to see how the character develops and changes and grows–or if he doesn’t, how bad he becomes. I am intrigued by the character, and of course, the writing is absolutely stellar.

I don’t think, for the record, books from earlier times should be held to the same standards as we would hold something newly published; times and attitudes vary and change over time. It’s hard to read an older book without the modern lenses, however; probably as little as ten years ago I would have dismissed the “pansy” remarks or the misogyny apparent in the character without feeling the need to point it out. I don’t think these books should be cancelled or not read; primarily because it’s incredibly important to have these conversations–as well as these works serve as a time capsule, a window into another time where things hadn’t yet changed but needed to, certainly.

I do recommend it; as I said, I will continue reading the Parker series and I am looking forward to reading more of the Westlake novels as well.