Delusions of Grandeur

So, we survived yet another manic quarantine Monday, did we not? And here we are, ready to get on with our week with another Tuesday. Huzzah! Or so I think. The jury may still be out on this week.

I am working an early shift today, which is why I am awake while there is still dark pressing against my windows. But I’m on my first cappuccino (of the two I allow myself,  only on days when I have to get up this early) and so soon my mind will be dusted free of cobwebs and I can face looking at my email inbox…ha ha ha, just kidding! The only thing that would prepare me for my inbox is a good belt of bourbon, methinks–and one might not even be enough.

Focus.

I need to focus, for I have too much to do for me not to.  What else is new, though, right?

We started watching a dreadful new Netflix show, Outer Banks, last night. We’d finished the concluding chapter of Tales of the City on Sunday night, and thus needed something new to watch. It’s not good, but it was entertaining enough for us to watch the first three episodes (it’s really hard to decide based on a first episode alone–we made that mistake with Schitt’s Creek initially, and yes, it was a complete mistake)–it’s essentially set up as a locals vs. rich people struggle, Pogues against Kooks, and of course, as always, the poor scrappy law-breaking Pogues are who we’re supposed to root for; and there’s also a treasure hunt and murders involved–a ship carrying four hundred million dollars in gold sank off the Outer Banks back in the 1800’s, our hero’s missing father was looking for the ship, and so on. I doubt we’ll continue–when it was time for bed and turning off the television, we both decided, meh, it’s good as a back-up when we’ve exhausted every other possibility. 

And given how much I love me a treasure hunt story…yeah.

I also started reading Katherine Anne Porter’s story of the Spanish influenza, “Pale Horse Pale Rider,” and am reminded again how much I really dislike Katherine Anne Porter’s writing style. Several pages into the story, I don’t really give a shit about her characters, Miranda and Adam, because I don’t really know anything about them. Porter writes in a strange style, that follows Miranda’s thought processes, yet at the same time gives us nothing to make us care about Miranda. She comes across as relatively cold; living in her boarding house, worrying about money, dating Adam, with the war as a background in the distance that kind of always is in the back of everyone’s mind. The Spanish influenze pandemic is occurring at the same time yet it doesn’t seem real to Miranda; one thing I will give Porter is she does manage to capture precisely how self-absorbed we all are, and how that self-absorption blinds us to what is really going on all around us, but we ignore it until it directly affects us (writing this note in my journal last night I realized this is something du Maurier also does in her stories–distracting her characters with their own little personal dramas so that they don’t pay attention to what is going on right under their noses, especially in “Don’t Look Now”–and that also was a theme in Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice”). I don’t know that I’ll go back and finish reading the Porter story; as I said, I am not a fan, and yes, am aware that she won awards and was highly acclaimed as a writer. But…just not feeling it, frankly, not on this read nor on previous ones.

It’s funny that I am reading famous fiction about plagues and epidemics during a global pandemic, and it only just now occurred to me that I’ve not read any writing about HIV or AIDS in years. My novella “Never Kiss a Stranger” is, actually, my first attempt at writing this kind of fiction myself–and I am no longer so familiar with current gay literature that I don’t know if that’s something that has passed out of fashion with gay writers. I don’t think the m/m writers ever address it much; I’ve certainly never written about it before–for a number of reasons. When I first came to discover queer lit, there was a lot of it; almost every book or story about gay men being published, or that had been published since the mid-1980’s, involved it on some level or another. When I first started writing, it was still a question being debated in queer lit circles: was it irresponsible not to mention it, even in passing, in queer lit? Was it irresponsible to write erotica without the use of condoms? And while at the time I started publishing the drug cocktail had been discovered and the breakthroughs to extend life and lessen the impact of the diagnosis, when it came. I’ve very deliberately set “Never Kiss a Stranger” in the New Orleans of 1994, when HIV/AIDS was essentially wiping out the gay community in New Orleans, and I’m trying to capture that feeling of impending doom that hung over all of us back then, the sense of inevitability when it came to getting infected and dying, and how that felt to live through and experience.

The panel we did the other night for the Bold Strokes Book-a-thon was about writing during a pandemic; the interesting thing about that panel was two of us–J. M. Redmann and I–had both written during the previous HIV/AIDS epidemic; COVID-19 is our second time around. I think back to those days before I was a writer, when I was reading gay lit left and right, trying to familiarize myself with topics and themes; I think about the questions that we debated about our own work as we did panels and readings and so forth when my first book came out, and the other new writers doing the same. I remember that the big question then was whether or not we considered ourselves gay writers, or whether our books are gay (I distinctly remember Poppy Z. Brite replying to that question on a panel with “I don’t know, I’ve never asked my books if they were gay”); that all seems kind of silly now. (Frankly, it seemed silly then; it didn’t matter whether we considered ourselves gay authors or our books to be gay; that’s how they were going to be classified whether we liked it or not, and it was cute we thought we had come control over that–we had absolutely none.)

One of the things I am trying to do this week is determine how many things I have in some sort of progress–and I am not including the short stories that have lain unfinished in my files for years; I just want to get a handle on everything that’s in progress for now so I can get a better sense of where I stand on my next short story collection(s), and to see how many novellas there are that need completing–off the top of my under-caffeinated brain this morning, I can only think of three, but I think there are four in total–at least “Never Kiss a Stranger,” “Fireflies,” and “Festival of the Redeemer” are the ones I can remember–perhaps later on I can remember more of them; there should be at least one more, because I remember thinking I could publish them all together in one book so there has to be one more–maybe it was “A Holler Full of Kudzu”? I don’t remember.

And on that note–my lack of memory–I’m going to dive back into the spice mines. Have a lovely Tuesday, Constant Reader.

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People Everyday

Hulu is streaming a two-part true crime documentary about a string of unsolved murders of women in Jefferson Davis Parish, Murder in the Bayou. I have a copy of Ethan Brown’s book of the same title, released a few years ago, but haven’t read it yet (instead, it’s sits on a shelf in the mini-bookcase to the right of my desk, where I also keep other nonfiction–histories, true crime, cultural studies–about both New Orleans and Louisiana; books which I delve into periodically in order to come up with ideas for stories (novels and short stories and novellas, etc.), or background for the same. (One of the many reasons I laugh when people refer to me as ‘a New Orleans expert’ is because I am everything but an expert on the city; there are literally hundreds of volumes of reference books information about New Orleans I’ve not read and know nothing about)  Mr. Brown came to the Tennessee Williams Festival a few years ago, but I didn’t get to meet him or see any of his panels, but I did pick up his book that weekend.

So, you can imagine my surprise the other night when I opened the Hulu app on my television (ten years ago that sentence would have been as unintelligible to me as Latin) and I saw it listed as a show I might be interested in. “Huh,” I thought, clicking on it, “I wonder if this is the same story as the book I’ve not read?”

Sure enough, it was.

I finished watching the show yesterday afternoon, and then of course, got the book from the bookshelf and started reading it…and didn’t stop until I was finished. I hadn’t intended to do that; I actually started writing this post after I finished watching the documentary series and simply reached over to the bookcase and pulled it out–mainly to see if there were photographs in it–many true crime books do–and since it didn’t, I started reading…and then couldn’t stop. I’ll talk some more about both the documentary and the book in another entry; I want to think about it some more, and the issues that came to mind while watching/reading–but again, as I said earlier, it was yet another example of how little I know about not just New Orleans, but Louisiana in general. As I read more New Orleans history, and get to know my city better with each read, I find myself expanding my former-tunnel vision view focusing on New Orleans only to expand out into Louisiana as well. It’s a truly fascinating state, really–as someone said in the documentary, there are three Louisianas: New Orleans; north Louisiana; which is really part of the Protestant Bible Belt and could just as easily be part of Arkansas; and south Louisiana, which is overwhelmingly French and Catholic; heavily Cajun, in all honesty. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Atchafalaya basin, too; I sort of have an idea about writing about that area. Most of my Louisiana fiction has been confined to writing about New Orleans, or places on the I-10 corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and sometimes dabbling on the North Shore. I am sure every state has just as rich and diverse and colorful a history as Louisiana/New Orleans; but I also don’t live there, and Louisiana with its strange mix of Creoles, Cajuns, Spanish, and Americans, with the attendant cultures, brews up a strange and endlessly fascinating gumbo.

I realized also yesterday while going through my blog drafts that I have never published my blog entry about reading Gary Krist’s Empire of Sin, which was what sent me down the Louisiana/New Orleans history rabbit hole in the first place.

empire of sin

“The crime,” as detectives would later tell the newspapers, was “one of the most gruesome in the annals of the New Orleans police.”

At five a.m. on the sultry morning of May 23, 1918, the bodies of Joseph and Catherine Maggio, Italian immigrants who ran a small grocery store in a remote section of the city, were found sprawled across the disordered bedroom of the living quarters behind their store. Both had been savagely attacked, apparently while they slept. Joseph Maggio lay face-up on the blood-sodden bed, his skull split by a deep, jagged gash several inches long; Catherine Maggio, her own skull nearly hewn in two, was stretched out on the floor beneath him. Each victim’s throat had been slashed with a sharp instrument.

A blood-smeared ax and shaving razor–obviously the murder weapons–had been found on the floor nearby.

The book opens with an examination of the strange case of New Orleans’ most famous serial killer: the Axeman. Julie Smith wrote an entire novel  based in the story called The Axeman’s Jazz; it might be the second or third Skip Langdon novel. Poppy Z. Brite wrote a short story with the same name, and of course, American Horror Story: Coven also included the Axeman in its litany of past New Orleans horrors–in the Ryan Murphy version, he stumbled into the Robicheaux School for Girls (read: witches) and they killed him; his ghost haunting the house ever since. The mystery of the Axeman’s identity, of course, has never been solved–as well as the why.

Empire of Sin, however, isn’t about the Axeman entirely; it’s really a history of the Storyville district (again, another notorious part of New Orleans history, probably best known for its appearance in the Louis Malle film Pretty Baby, which probably, with its creepy pedophilia, wouldn’t hold up too well today), and really focuses on the man known as the mayor of Storyville, Tom Anderson, who rose to great wealth, notoriety, and political power through his successful bordellos there–even going so far as to providing the district with its own police force. It’s a story of immorality, the struggle between reformers trying to turn New Orleans into a city free from sin (they won small victories but New Orleans remains New Orleans to this day) and Anderson’s struggle against those “virtuous reforms.” He eventually failed, and Storyville was shut down, but Krist tells a fascinating story, extrapolating his tale of Storyville’s struggle to stay open and functioning (the money being made there brought with it the ability to, of course, buy off the police and politicians), along with the stories of corruption, murder, prostitution, violence and racism extant in the city at the time. It’s also a story of how Storyville also, surprisingly enough, gave birth to jazz music, and provided a way for musicians of color to make a successful living playing music. Storyville was the incubator that provided sustenance to the musicians playing this new form of popular music, enabling them to make a living while developing a wholly American form of music.

Reading Empire of Sin is what sent me down the road to reading history, as I said before, and as I love history, it also made me aware of just how little about New Orleans I actually do know. Discovering little throwaway bits in the book–that there were male prostitutes who serviced men with “more exotic tastes”–reminded me of how frequently, and almost completely, queer history has been successfully erased, and that made me start thinking about, well, doing something more about it. Reading this book inspired two short stories I’ve not finished–“The Blues before Dawn” and “A Little More Jazz for the Axeman”–and also inspired a potential series set during the time. It’s also what gave me the idea for my collection of noir/crime/horror stories that I want to write, Monsters of New Orleans.

I cannot recommend Empire of Sin highly enough.

Allentown

I was so tired last night when I got home from work–and I worked a short day! After work yesterday, a friend and I went to lunch to a place on the corner of Tulane and Carrollton called Namese, and I had an enormous  bowl of beef pho, which was absolutely delicious. I was in the mood for noodles, and having never actually had pho before, was quite thrilled to try it, and it was amazing. I’ve been wanting to try pho since seeing a show on our local PBS channel, WYES, about the big Vietnamese community in New Orleans, and one of the things they talked about on the documentary was pho. I’d been wanting to try it ever since, and got my chance.

DAMN THAT WAS GOOD.

I’d known we have a big Vietnamese community in New Orleans for quite some time–most of them live in New Orleans East, and were devastated by the flooding after the levees failed back in 2005. Poppy Z. Brite wrote about that community in his brilliant (and deeply disturbing) Exquisite Corpse, doing it so well I never had the nerve to try to write about it myself. (Our first, and only,  Congressman from Orleans Parish was a Vietnamese; Joseph Cao, who defeated “Dollar Bill” Jefferson in the post-Katrina scandal created by the fifty thousand dollars in cash he had stored in his home freezer. Cao was born in Ho Chi Minh City (then called Saigon), and only served one term in Congress–but I liked Congressman Cao; he put New Orleans ahead of party, and I was sorry to see him go.

I have an idea for a noir involving the Vietnamese communities of the Gulf Coast that I hope to write some day. I’ve also been toying with an old idea for a horror novel that’s been dancing in my head for the last thirty years or so–I can tell that I am writing another book; my creativity always spikes when I am writing a book.

Honestly. One would think I could get that under control.

Anyway, I also finished reading Margaret Millar’s Do Evil in Return last night. It wasn’t the below edition I read, but rather one of the volumes of The Collected Millar; this volume also contains Fire Will Freeze, Experiment in Springtime, The Cannibal Heart, and Rose’s Last Summer. But I rather like that Gothic-style cover.

millar-do-evil-in-return-lancer

The afternoon was still hot but the wind carried a threat of fog to come in the night. It slid in through the open window and with curious, insinuating fingers it pried into the corners of the reception room and lifted the skirt of Miss Schiller’s white uniform and explored the dark hair of the girl sitting by the door. The girl held a magazine in her lap but she wasn’t reading it; she was pleating the corners of the pages one by one.

“I don’t know if Dr. Keating will be able to see you,” Miss Schiller said. “It’s quite late.”

The girl coughed nervously. “I couldn’t get here any sooner. I–couldn’t find the office.”

“Oh. You’re a stranger in town?”

“Yes.”

“Were you referred to Dr. Keating by anyone?”

“Referred?”

“Did anyone send you?”

Margaret Millar is a treasure, and her work, despite now being dated because of societal and social changes, are worthy of not only being read by modern audiences but also deserving of study. She, along with Dorothy B. Hughes and Charlotte Armstrong, formed a triumvirate of strong women writing suspense novels featuring women protagonists that were the equal of anything written by male contemporaries; there were numerous other women doing the same, but these three had longer careers and are now being rediscovered, in part thanks to the diligent work of Sarah Weinman and Jeffrey Marks. Library of America has released a two-volume collection of works by great women writers of the time; Soho Crime is releasing thick volumes collecting all of Millar’s work, which I am happily acquiring. I read Armstrong when I was young, and loved her; I am in the process of working my way through the canons of both Millar and Hughes, as well as two other great women writers of the same period, the incomparable Patricia Highsmith and my personal hero, Daphne du Maurier.

Do Evil in Return, originally published in 1950, is ultimately a novel about how society and its hypocritical misogynistic treatment of women can destroy them. The main character of the novel, Dr. Charlotte Keating, is a strong, independent woman with a successful practice in a small California coastal town. She is both single and hard-working; owns her own car and her own home–no small feat for a woman in 1950–and the book opens with a young woman coming to her for help. The woman, Violet O’Gorman, is only twenty and married, but finds herself with a particular problem; estranged from her husband, she had a one-night stand with a married man which has left her pregnant, and she is desperate for an abortion, which of course was illegal in 1950. Dr. Keating–Charley to her friends–refuses to break the law and perform this service, but her heart goes out to her patient and wants to help her, but while distracted by a phone call doesn’t notice the girl slipping out of her office. With a local address her only clue as to how to find Violet, she goes looking for her…and soon finds herself wrapped up in a terrible string of events beyond control, a noose tightening around her own neck. For, like her patient, Charley herself is involved in a love affair with a married man–a platonic one, to be sure, for she refuses to become intimate with him as he is married–and the similarities she sees between herself and young Violet is part of what drives her. The following morning, Violet’s body washes ashore, an apparent suicide, according to the police but Charley herself isn’t so sure.

And of course, she is right.

Millar’s particular genius lies in how casually she lays out her cards; she never tells her reader straight out what’s going on, but allows it to unfurl naturally, leaving it to her reader to figure it out. When we meet Charley’s platonic lover, there is no mention of his being married–Millar simply talks about the stifling existence he has at home with Gwen. As the story continues the reader slowly realizes that Gwen is actually his wife, and she is also one of Charley’s patients. Charley has tried to foist Gwen off on other doctors, but hypochondriac Gwen refuses to see anyone else–and is incredibly needy, ringing Charley for help at all hours of the day or night. Charley’s own feelings for Gwen’s husband also aren’t that simple; and in 1950 divorces weren’t as easy to obtain as they are today.

Perhaps the strongest part of the book is how Millar clearly depicts how claustrophobic a woman’s world was in 1950, and the delicate balance a single, independent professional woman had to maintain. Exposure of the relationship would ruin Charley, both personally and professionally; just as Violet’s unexpected pregnancy has ruined her. Society’s expectations of women, and their sexuality, are the true villains, the true evil in this novel; and the realization that this world Millar so brilliantly depicts was only sixty-seven years ago is truly chilling.

I think this book would be excellent reading for a Women’s Studies course; to let young women know how truly awful and misogynistic society was not so long ago, as a reminder to everyone today how far women have come in a short period of time, and how hard they fought to get to where they are today.