Afterglow

And just like that, here we are at Friday again. It’s going to be a very strange fall weekend, since we have no LSU game, but they do occasionally have bye weeks, so I guess that’s how I should look at this particular weekend. The Saints have an early game on Sunday, though, so that should be relatively normal. The question is, should I wait to run my errands until Sunday during the Saints game? I mean, Sunday mornings are the best for making groceries already because everyone’s at church, so the one-two punch of church and the Saints playing should mean abandoned aisles and a quick, easy trip. Decisions, decisions.

We’ve been having a quite marvelous cold spell this week–cold for New Orleans, of course, which means June-type weather for most of you–and so I’ve been sleeping most marvelously, which has been lovely, and of course the three-day-per-week getting up early thing has been sending me to bed earlier than I usually go, and the getting up early hasn’t been quite as awful as it once was. Is this a permanent, lasting change to my body clock? We shall have to see how it goes from now on, but it’s not a bad thing. Maybe even on the days when I don’t have to get up that early I should go ahead and get up if I wake up organically at six; more time in the morning to get things done, really, and going to bed early isn’t a terrible thing.

Remember me talking about flexibility? Maybe it’s time to start getting up every morning at six, getting emails answered, and then move on to doing some writing. Adaptability–something I’ve stubbornly been resisting all the time–is never a bad thing, and maybe part of the issues I’ve been having this year have affected me, mentally, in ways I didn’t even think about. Usually I do exactly that; I adapt to my situation and figure out ways to get everything done and stay on top of things. I’ve really not been doing a very great job of that this year, and why have I been so resistant to adapting and changing my habits and routines? Sure, I’m fifty-nine, and it’s a lot easier when you’re younger to change your habits and routines, but you shouldn’t become so mired in them at any age that you can’t change.

Yesterday’s entries in this month’s horror film festival were a rewatch of Christine (adapted by John Carpenter from one of my favorite Stephen King novels) and a wonderful old British 1970’s horror film, The House That Dripped Blood.

Christine is one of those King novels that made me roll my eyes when I first heard about it; “really? A haunted car?” (For the record, after reading Christine, I vowed I would never roll my eyes at the concept of a King novel again–because not only did it work, it was fucking terrifying.) Christine is another King novel that could be classified and sold as a y/a; it’s about teenagers, and the special kind of hell life can be for some teenagers. The empathy with which he wrote Arnie Cunningham, and the obvious love his best friend Dennis had for him, was the primary force that drove the book, and I also owe Christine an enormous debt of gratitude (but that’s a story for another time) as a writer myself. I saw the film version in the theater when it was released, and to this day, the book remains one of my favorite Kings and the movie, which had to take some liberties with the novel, is one of my favorite King adaptations. It’s flawed, of course, and isn’t nearly as good as the book, but it also holds up after all this time as well. It was directed by John Carpenter, and while it’s not one of his better movies, it’s a good one. Keith Gordon plays Arnie, John Stockwell plays Dennis, and Alexandra Paul plays Leigh, the girl who both boys wind up interested in–all three are fresh-faced and appealing, and I never really understood why none of them had bigger film careers. (The only other film of Keith Gordon’s I recall is him playing Rodney Dangerfield’s son in Back to School, which undoubtedly hasn’t aged well.) The primary difference between film and novel is in the movie, it is the car, Christine, herself that is evil; there’s an opening as she is coming off the line in Detroit in 1957 and already has a taste for blood; in the book, it was never really clear whether the car itself was evil, or if Roland LeBay, the first owner, somehow infused the car with his rotted soul–in either case, the reader comes away from the book unsure of what the source of evil was, and I think that was better served; also, in the book we could see Arnie’s point of view, and Arnie himself, like Carrie in Carrie, was much more of a victim than it appeared in the film.

The House That Dripped Blood was from Amicus Studios in the UK, rather than a Hammer Studios picture, and was written by the great Robert Bloch, best known for writing the novel Psycho. It’s an anthology film–I really miss the terrific old horror anthology films; Amicus and Bloch teamed up for another one of my favorites, Asylum; Stephen King and George Romero tried to revive the form in the 1980’s with their Creepshow collaborations–and includes both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in its cast. There are four stories included in the film–I don’t know if Bloch based them on his own short stories or not–about tenants in this particular large country house in England. The film opens with the arrival of an inspector from Scotland Yard, investigating the disappearance of a film star who’d been renting the house, and the rental agent for the house tells the inspector the stories. The first is about a novelist writing about a psychopathic killer named Dominick that he starts seeing everywhere; the second is about a man who becomes obsessed with a wax figure in a wax museum in the nearby town; the third is about a father and daughter who engage a governess, but are harboring a dark secret; and the final story is about the actor, who is major horror film star (and a bit of a diva) who buys a cloak for the vampire film he is making and becomes convinced that the cloak belonged to a vampire–and is also turning him into one. I had never seen this film before, and had always wanted to; I remember it being advertised in the paper when I was a kid, and it’s now free for streaming on Prime. It’s not bad–the production values were low (hilariously, the diva actor in the fourth segment complains about how low budget is on the film he is making, which is why he is going looking for a cloak in the first place), and the acting isn’t bad; you can really never go wrong with either Cushing or Lee, frankly. Asylum is definitely a better film, but I enjoyed The House That Dripped Blood but probably won’t watch it again.

As for the debt I owe Christine, that’s a little bit more complicated. I moved to Tampa in 1991 for two reasons: to restart my life and start living openly as a gay man, and to get away from my old life after a two-year transition in Houston and to start a new one, one that included me pursuing writing seriously for the first time. I had been writing all of my life at this point–I still have the first novel I completed, in long hand and never typed up, and had had bursts of short story writing throughout the 1980’s–but I wanted to start really taking it seriously, and trying to get better, and actually trying to get published. I bought an inexpensive word processor that summer–not a computer, it’s only functionality was as a word processor, and you could save your documents to a floppy disc as well as print them out on what was essentially a typewriter–and since I was at the time thinking about writing horror, I decided to take some of the framework of the handwritten book (and some of the characters, and the town) and write a horror novel about teenagers, from the perspective of an adult looking back at what happened in high school. The book opened with the main character getting an invitation to the ten year reunion, and we learn he left for college and never went back. He starts remembering high school–and the course of the novel is the story of what happened and why he’s never gone back (a concept I’ve returned to numerous times). And while the bulk of the story was going to be about high school and teenagers, I didn’t see it as a book for teens–and I was following the same book structure as Christine, right down to the framing device of the memory chapters bookending the beginning and the end. I was even going to write the first part in the first person, before switching to multiple third person points of view in the second half. I was about five or so chapters into the book when I discovered young adult horror fiction, notably Christopher Pike, and realized this book–and the two I was planning to write after–would work better if written for teens and removing the framing device. I did do the first part in first person, and switched halfway through to multiple third person POV; this was what later served as the first draft of Sara. I started remembering all of this as I rewatched Christine yesterday; as well as a lot of other things I had thought about and planned back in the early 1990’s when I wrote the first drafts of Sara, Sorceress, and Sleeping Angel.

It’s chilly in New Orleans this morning–we’re having that vaunted cold spell, which means it’s a frigid 68 degrees–and I am taking a vacation day today to try to get caught up on things, plus errands. Scooter has to go to the vet for a blood glucose level test, and I have to take Paul to Costco so he can order new glasses, and then I have prescriptions to pick up and on and on and on. I need to proof my story in Buried, I need to revise my story “The Snow Globe,” the Lost Apartment is a scandalous disaster area, and I need to get back to work on Bury Me in Shadows. There’s also about a gazillion emails I need to read and answer…it seriously never seems to end, does it?

But Scooter clearly feels better–he’s back to knocking over the trash cans and pushing things off surfaces to the floor, his eyes are brighter and more alert, and he seems more energetic; he’s running up and down the stairs rather than meandering, like he had been–and I am hopeful we will soon be able to take him off the insulin. But I’ve gotten so used to giving him the shot twice a day I don’t really notice it that much anymore, and it doesn’t phase either of us at all. He’s also a lot more cuddly than he has been, and more affectionate–which is also kind of hard to believe; I hadn’t really noticed that he wasn’t as affectionate as he had been.

It’s so lovely that it’s cold enough for me to wear sweatshirts again! I love sweatshirts, frankly; my favorite attire is sweats, and I hate when it’s too warm or humid for me to wear one. I am even thinking I might need to turn off the ceiling fans (!!!). Madness! I am really looking forward to getting home from these errands, getting into my sweats, and relaxing as I get things done all day–and I”m really looking forward to tonight’s sleep.

And now it’s off to the errands. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader.

The Calm Before the Storm

Alfred Hitchcock was a great film director, and was responsible for some of the best movies ever made, from Rebecca through Notorious through North by Northwest to Vertigo to Strangers on a Train to The Birds to Psycho; the list of great Hitchcock films goes on and on and on and has been studied by film academics and written about; you certainly cannot forget Truffaut/Hitchcock, either. Lost in the discussions of his abilities as a filmmaker (and how he was somewhat abusive to his leading ladies) is his contributions to the culture in other ways. Alfred Hitchcock Presents ran for years; an anthology show like The Outer Limits or The Twilight Zone, he presented bizarre stories (often based on short fiction; perhaps the most famous episode of all was based on a Roald Dahl short story in which a wife kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, which she then cooks and serves to the investigating police officers) on a weekly basis and the show ran for a long time. (It’s available to stream now, and I keep meaning to dive back into the show.

But Hitchcock also was a master, before it was a thing, of licensing his name out for use; his name meant something as a master director of film suspense, and in addition to the television series there were also anthologies, also published under the aegis of Alfred Hitchcock Presents–my grandmother used to buy and read them; so did my parents–and even today one of the best short story markets for crime is Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. There were anthologies for adults, anthologies for teens and anthologies for kids.

And there was also The Three Investigators.

3 investigators 1

Bob Andrews parked his bike outside his home in Rocky Beach and entered the house. As he closed the door, his mother called to him from the kitchen.

“Robert? Is that you?”

“Yes, Mom.” He went to the kitchen door. His mother, brown-haired and slender, was making doughnuts.

“How was the library?” she asked.

“It was okay,” Bob told her. After all, there was never any excitement at the library. He worked there part time, sorting returned books and helping with the filing and cataloguing.

“Your friend Jupiter called.” His mother went on rolling out the dough on the board. “He left a message for you.”

“A message?” Bob yelled with sudden excitement. “What was it?”

“I wrote it down. I’ll get it out of my pocket as soon as I finish with this dough.”

“Can’t you remember what he said? He may need me!”

“I could remember an ordinary message,” his other answered, “but Jupiter doesn’t leave ordinary messages. It was something fantastic.”

“Jupiter likes unusual words,” Bob said, controlling his impatience. “He’s read an awful lot of books and sometimes he’s a little hard to understand.”

“Not just sometimes!” his mother retorted. “He’s a very unusual boy. My goodness, how he found my engagement ring, I’ll never know.”

She was referring to the time the previous fall when she had lost her diamond ring. Jupiter Jones had come to the house and requested her to tell him every move she had made the day the ring was lost. Then he had gone out to the pantry, reached up, and picked the ring from behind a row of bottle tomato pickles. Bob’s mother had taken it off and put it there while she was sterilizing the jars.

“I can’t imagine,” Mrs. Andrews said, “how he guessed where that ring was!”

“He didn’t guess, he figured it out,” Bob explained. “That’s how his mind works…Mom, can’t you get the message now?”

“In one minute,” his mother said, giving the dough another flattening roll. “Incidentally, what on earth was that story on the front of yesterday’s paper about Jupiter’s winning the use of a Rolls-Royce sedan for thirty days?”

And that is how The Three Investigators series (technically, in the beginning  “ALFRED HITCHCOCK and the Three Investigators”) began. While it’s not as smooth, per se, as the opening of the Trixie Belden series in The Secret of the Mansion, this is also a dramatically different series, and will always have a place in my heart as one of the best series for kids–if not the best–ever published. It never reached the same heights of popularity as Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys; which was a shame, because it was a much better series than either of those. For one thing, the Three Investigators actually considered themselves to be professional detectives; Nancy and the Hardys, amongst with most of the others, were strictly amateurs (although in the Kathryn Kenny books, “the Belden-Wheeler Detective Agency” became kind of a running gag or thing; it was what Trixie and Honey decided they wanted to be when they grew up; and frankly, I’ve always kind of wanted to see a Trixie-as-an-adult hard-boiled series). And while this opening is a little longish about getting to the point, it eventually does; Bob is a highly excitable young man who works at the library, and this is also our first look at Jupiter Jones, and one of the best things about the series is Jupiter; he is the central character and there would be no Three Investigators without him–and he is one of the most remarkable, and original, characters in kids’ mystery series fiction.

I always thought of Rocky Beach as a sort of stand-on for Long Beach in this series; this is where the boys live, and it’s just south of Los Angeles and a drive to Hollywood. This is where the three boys who make up the titular team of the series live; the third investigator, whom we have yet to meet in this opening, is Pete Crenshaw. And that bit about the contest and the Rolls-Royce? It’s very important. Access to a vehicle, and someone to drive them around, is an integral part of the creation of this investigative agency; they can’t always count on getting rides or paying for cabs or only involving themselves in cases they can investigate on bikes; this is the impetus Jupiter has been looking for to open the agency. Jupiter’s message to Bob is impenetrable to his mother; but it makes perfect sense to Bob–and therein lies another one of the great charms of this series: Jupiter lives with his uncle Titus and aunt Mathilda; the couple own and operate the Jones Salvage Yard, a sprawling junkyard where they repurpose other’s people things, or fix them. Jupiter himself is quite adept at wiring and repairing things; just one, as we the readers will find out, of his many skills. Hidden deep within the salvage yard is the wreck of a mobile home, which the boys use as “headquarters”; over the years Jupiter has managed to hide the mobile home behind piles of junk. The yard is also surrounded by an enormous, tall wooden fence, and Uncle Titus has encouraged local artists to paint murals on the fence. With the help of Bob and Pete, Jupiter has created “secret entrances” into the salvage yard, with tunnels through the piled up junk; that way the boys can come and go as they please without having to use the main entrance. They also have a covered workshop in another area hidden from view; Jupiter’s message to Bob is simply Red gate rover, come over come over, the presses are rolling. Bob knows this means,  come to headquarters, use red gate Rover, and we’re printing our business cards. 

“Red Gate Rover” means use the entrance through the fence that is a mural of a team of firefighters fighting an enormous blaze; there’s a dog watching them, and the knothole in the dog’s eye will spring the hidden gate open. And sure enough, once he gets there, the printing press is rolling and Jupiter presents him with a card, that reads:

THE THREE INVESTIGATORS

We Investigate Anything

? ? ?

–and also has their names. Jupiter is, naturally, the first investigator with Pete as second; Bob is Records & Research, since he works in the library and is their best writer; it is his job to write up their cases. As such, and with an understanding that all cases also need to be introduced as well as get sufficient publicity for their agency to get clients, Jupiter has decided on two things: to ask Alfred Hitchcock to introduce their cases, and offer to help find him a truly haunted house, as he is looking for one for his next film. Using the Rolls-Royce, driven by a very proper British chauffeur named Worthington, Jupiter and Pete call on Mr. Hitchcock at the studio. (The Rolls-Royce, by the way, has every luxurious amenity available to a limousine in that time; and is gold-plated, which sticks out. It was originally commissioned by a Saudi oil millionaire.) They bluff their way in–partly because Jupiter pretends to be Hitchcock’s nephew, even arranging his face to imitate his expressions and voice and patterns of speech–but Hitchcock isn’t that interested in introducing their cases, but has no worries about them looking for a haunted house for him. (While they are calling on Hitchcock, Bob has gone to the library to research something–Jupiter writes the words Terror Castle on the back of one of their business cards and offered no explanation.) But when Jupiter does his impression of “Hitchcock as a 13 year old”, Hitchcock is offended and promises to introduce the first case as long as Jupiter will never do the impression again (and, it is to be noted, the introduction and afterward, as supposedly written by Hitchcock, is clearly done so grudgingly; this was a genius touch by author Robert Arthur–and over the course of the series Hitchcock not only grows fond of the boys but starts sending clients their way).

The thing I loved perhaps the most about this series (outside of the wonderful titles for the books) was they actually were investigators. They actually solved the mysteries they were investigating–well, Jupiter did, mostly–through observation and interpretation of data. Jupiter was, in many ways, kind of a young Sherlock–and he often referred to Holmes. Another thing that was very clever about the series is that the stories were rarely, if ever, told from Jupiter’s point of view; Bob and Pete were always the point-of-view characters, representing the reader, who also couldn’t figure out what was going on. Since it mattered for suspense and storytelling to not know what Jupiter was thinking, Bob and Pete stood in for the reader, confused by the cryptic things Jupiter said–or casually observing Jupiter noticing something that didn’t make sense.

Another thing that, in my opinion, makes the series stronger than others is it is made, very plain, from the very beginning that fat-shaming is a bad thing. Jupiter is described as stocky or husky; he deeply resents being called fat, and whenever someone cruelly makes such an observation, both Pete and Bob always get angry and jump to his defense (Jupiter was also a child star, playing Baby Fatso in a Little Rascals type television show; his being a fat child made him the butt of the jokes in the show and he DESPISES being laughed at)–compare that to how Bess is frequently mocked for being hungry and chubby in the Nancy Drew books, or the depiction of the Hardy Boys’ supposed best friend Chet Morton as an always-hungry, overweight comic relief and foil they always laugh at–yeah, not cool, Stratemeyer Syndicate, not cool at all.

The first Three Investigators story I read was The Mystery of the Moaning Cave. We were in Alabama one summer, and staying with a cousin of my mother’s who had a son my age who also loved to read, and loved mysteries. He had a stack of library books, and I picked up my very first Hardy Boys read, The Mystery of Cabin Island, out of the stack. I was two chapters in when he finished reading his book (The Mystery of the Moaning Cave) and asked me to swap books with him. I was enjoying the Hardy Boys, but the cover of the Three Investigators book he was offering me was tantalizing, plus that title! How could a cave moan? I started reading, and was soon swept up in the story–which remains, to this day, one of my favorites in the series. It reminded me of another book I greatly loved as a child, The Mystery of the Haunted Mine, but the problem was my library didn’t have any of these books, and I could never find more of them anywhere. In junior high a friend of mine was a fan of the series, which led me to reread The Mystery of the Moaning Cave, which I loved all over again, and then its predecessor, The Mystery of the Screaming Clock, which was also amazing. I eventually discovered, on a birthday trip to Toys R Us, an entire shelf of the books; I got five–The Secret of Terror Castle, The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy, The Secret of Skeleton Island, The Mystery of the Laughing Shadow, and The Mystery of the  Coughing Dragon. 

I honestly don’t recall how I was able to collect the rest of the series, or where I got them or what order in which I read them, but I did eventually read the entire series. Later, the series moved on to other authors other than Robert Arthur and the quality became more hit-and-miss, but even the worst Three Investigators case was better than the best books in other series. I still love the Three Investigators, and occasionally will take one down to reread it, again marveling at how well constructed the books are; how tight the plots and how strong the characterizations. I also loved how something small and simple, like the search for an escaped parrot (The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot) would lead to a massively complicated and interesting case about a massive art theft, or the search for a missing cat with mismatched eyes turned into The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy, or a near car crash led them to a small European principality and international espionage in The Mystery of the Silver Spider. Their cases inevitably started small, but eventually grew into something major; like they grabbed onto a loose, seemingly unimportant thread that unraveled a much larger case.

One thing that always amused me was how adults rarely, if ever, took them seriously. Jupiter’s aunt and uncle, and the parents of Pete and Bob, always looked at their “firm” as a “little mystery-solving club”. Inevitably the adults who pooh-poohed their abilities had to eat their words. I also loved that Jupiter wasn’t athletic but was smart. I identified with that a lot more than I did with the Hardy Boys, who were literally good at everything they tried.

The death of Alfred Hitchcock was an enormous blow, and the publisher–Random House, I believe–introduced a mystery writer for a while to replace Hitchcock, but the quality was already starting to decline, and eventually even the fictitious mystery writer, Robert Sylvester, was replaced by another fictitious entity; but the book in which the switch was made didn’t avoid the truth of Hitchcock’s death, and they actually handled it very well.

And some of the earlier books are seriously dated now; The Secret of Terror Castle centered on the home of a silent film horror star whose career was derailed by his speaking voice when talkies came; obviously, that would have happened around ninety years ago now, so there wouldn’t be any contemporaries still alive. Likewise, The Mystery of the Screaming Clock centered on someone who was a sound effects expert for radio suspense shows–which would, at best, have been seventy years ago now.

I’ve never believed this series was as popular as it deserved to be, nor did it get the attention it truly deserved. The books have been out of print for awhile now–maybe you can get used copies, there may even be ebooks now, I don’t know–but they should still be available. I would love to write one of these, to be honest.

They were the shit, y’all.

Sweet Freedom

Ah, Monday, which this week is my short day. I didn’t (of course) get as much done this weekend as I would have liked; but the truth of the matter is I really need a day to run errands and do chores–which exhausts me–and then another day to just chill out and relax to get ready for the next week. But I am not beating myself up over not getting things done as planned any more; a to-do list is merely a list of things that have to be done at some point, without deadlines and/or pressure. (Well, actual deadlines do have to be followed, but you know what I mean.) I did spend the weekend getting caught up on things I watch (Animal Kingdom) and some movies I’ve always meant to watch (The Faculty, which was amazingly and gloriously ridiculous) and an absolutely brilliant documentary about Psycho (78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene) and how it changed everything and influenced everything that came after it. It also called to mind how Anthony Perkins deserved the Best Actor Oscar that year and wasn’t even nominated–one of the biggest crimes in Oscar history.

I also did some reading; I read some short stories, which was fun, and I also read more of  Lou Berney’s November Road, which I am trying to read slowly, so as to savor every word and every moment. It really is brilliant; I have to say this is a top notch year in the world of crime fiction, with terrific novels being released left and right–this year has also seen Laura Lippman’s Sunburn and Alison Gaylin’s If I Die Tonight, with Lori Roy’s exceptional The Disappearing and Megan Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand being released this week, and so many amazing others I haven’t gotten to yet. My reading isn’t as public or as frequent this year as I would like, simply because I am judging an award yet again so am trying to focus on reading for that–hence the Short Story Project–and I worry that the great books are going to continue to stack up in my TBR pile, and thus defeat me in the process of ever catching up.

I really need to stop agreeing to judge prizes.

One of the stories I read yesterday was “Almost Missed It By A Hair” by Lisa Respers France, from Baltimore Noir, edited by Laura Lippman:

Had it not been his body in the huge box of fake hair, I like to think that Miles Henry would have been amused.

At least, the man I once knew would have seen the humor in it: a male stylist who made his fame as one of the top hair weavers in Baltimore discovered in a burial mound of fake hair at the Hair Dynasty, the East Coast;s biggest hair-styling convention of the year. It had all the elements that guaranteed a front page in the Sunpapers, maybe even a blurb in the “Truly Odd News” sections of the nationals. Television reports swarmed the scene, desperate for a sound bite from anyone even remotely connected to Miles. Yes, it all would have been sweet nirvana to Miles, publicity hound that he was. If he had lived to see it.

I knew him pretty well. I knew him when he was Henry Miles, the only half-black half-Asian guy in Howard Park, our West Baltimore neighborhood. His exotic looks ensured that he never wanted for female attention, although they also made him a target for the wannabe thugs who didn’t much cotton to a biracial pretty boy spouting hiphop lyrics. He was a few years older than I was, so our paths crossed only rarely. Besides, he was the neighborhood hottie and I was a shy chubby teenager with acne. The different in our social statures, as well as the difference in our ages, limited us to the socially acceptable dance of unequals. Meaning, I stared at him and he didn’t know I was alive. It was only when we were grown and found ourselves cosmetology competitors that we began to talk to each other.

This is a great story, and yet again further proof of how important the voices of diverse writers are. A murder that takes place at a convention for African-American hair and nail technicians? And frankly, I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a short story as much as I enjoyed this one. I know nothing –or at least, very little– about African-American hair, although I know it’s a very fraught issue. But from the wonderful opening of the discovery of a dead man’s body in a box of fake hair all the way through the finish, the authorial voice is strong, and what makes it even stronger is how she deftly explains, in a non-info-dumpish way, about weaves and wigs and styles and hair sculpting and everything that goes into what women of color deal with when it comes to hair.

Brilliant, and brava.

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