Who’s Crying Now

I’m not going to tell the story of my college writing professor who read the short story I turned in for his class and told me I would never be a published writer–as tempting as it is (oops, looks like I told it again, didn’t I?) but every time I sell a short story I do think of him and the smug look on his face as he tried to obliterate my life-long dream. I think of it every time the anthology or magazine or wherever I’ve sold the story to comes out, when the reviews begin (even the ones that don’t mention my story or didn’t like it) coming out, every time I Iook at the pdf file to proof, and so forth.

And I definitely think about him when I cash the check.

As I hurtle towards sixty (less than three months away) I have been remembering a lot about my life, reflecting and looking back, memories long buried coming to the forefront of my fevered little brain. I really had horrible professors in college, without fail–one after the other at that godforsaken college; it’s little wonder I experience bouts of imposter syndrome.

Let it go, Elsa, let it go.

Zane parks his wobbling shopping cart next to the island divided in half. The side he parked beside contains cantaloupes, separated by a partition from round, green-striped watermelons beneath a sign reading Red Seedless Personal Watermelons, $3.99 The cantaloupes are cheaper, per the sign casting shadow on the stacks of melons below. He glances around. There’s an older woman, rooting through the baking potatoes like a pig hunting truffles. A younger woman is inspecting the rubber-banded clusters of green onions. Two men in uniforms are building salads at the salad bar, scooping things into Styrofoam boxes. Three people are waiting for their orders at the deli meat counter, their backs to him.

No one is paying him the slightest bit of mind.

He picks up one of the cantaloupes and does what he’s seen others do. He sniffs it where the vine had been attached, holds it up to his ear and thumps it with his thumb. He doesn’t know how it should smell or sound if it’s ripe or not, but he’s too self-conscious to not go through the same motions everyone else does when selecting a melon. He’s terrified someone will notice him not thumping and laugh at him, mock him for his stupidity, point out he doesn’t belong in this big modern supermarket with its aisles and aisles of bounty. He’s always afraid someone, anyone, will notice he doesn’t know how to do a simple task every other shopper seems to know how to do instinctively, something so incredibly simple his failure will be like an enormous neon sign announcing to the other shoppers in their yoga pants or tennis skirts that he doesn’t belong here.

One of these things is not like the others.

Stop thinking like that, he scolds himself as he puts the cantaloupe back with the others. You belong here just as much as anyone. Who knows what secrets these other shoppers might be hiding?

He closes his eyes for a moment, hears his heart thumping rapidly in his ears.  It’s too fast, but that isn’t anxiety or stress, it’s because he just taught back to back spin classes, it’s why his legs are tired and why he’s in the produce section of the Rouse’s Supermarket on Tchoupitoulas Street, listening to melons while wearing a black tank top drenched in sweat and tight bike shorts under looser-fitting cotton ones and shivering in the air-conditioned coldness.

I love dark fiction, and particularly love horror. I used to go back and forth between horror and crime; I couldn’t decide which I wanted to do more. The first books I wrote to completion (besides that silly, lengthy Peyton Place ripoff I wrote in my late teens and early twenties, from which I regularly pilfer characters and plots from)were horror, technically; Sara, Sorceress and Sleeping Angel–which eventually, with a lot of revision and updating, saw print; although Sleeping Angel in its final form was more of a mystery than anything else. I don’t write “jump-scare” horror, and eventually realized that I didn’t have the imagination to write horror; almost everything I tried–story, novel, whatever–inevitably was highly derivative of other books, authors, stories. Inspiration for crime stories were everywhere–the daily news, for example–and I also realized my bent was more along the lines of Gothic stories and/or psychological horror.

The inspiration for “Night Follows Night” came from one of my several-times-per-week visits to the grocery store; that mundane experience we all have, we all deal with; the necessary chore that can only be put off for so long. As a slightly obsessive-compulsive person, I always plan my trips to the grocery store for maximum efficiency; no wasted time, no wandering down aisles, no just looking around. I have a list every time I go grocery shopping, and the list is made completely predicated on where everything is located in the store–so I don’t have to waste any time. I go only to the aisles where the things I need are stocked; skipping the ones I don’t need anything from, and work my way from the right side of the store to the left before completing the circuit by checking out and heading back out through the same doors I entered, having parked near them. One afternoon I stopped at the Rouse’s on Tchoupitoulas, list in hand (always on a small legal pad) and pen in pocket, when I got a cart from the corral with a loud, wobbly squeaky wheel–again. I always get a cart with a wobbly, squeaky front wheel; it doesn’t matter where I shop, it happens every time. (Of course, I could always put it back and get another, but somehow that disturbs my sense of order.) As I pushed the cart into the store, the wheel wobbling and squeaking, and headed for the melons–a seedless watermelon was on my list, the very first thing–and I picked one up and thumped it…and as I placed it in my cart I wondered, what precise sound is the thump supposed to make? Am I just so lucky that I pick up a ripe one every single time? What does an unripe one sound like?

And as I worked my way through the list with my wobbling, squeaking cart that day, the story kept forming in my mind; someone doing the mundane task of making groceries (as we say here) in a brightly lit, sparsely crowded supermarket–the character taking shape in my mind, having a near breakdown and his tightly held grip on reality and sanity starting to slip–but why? What would trigger such a reaction, and who is this guy? He held my imagination, my mind idly wondering about him and coming up with reasons for this break in a public place–which, I figured, would also make it worse for him–and I started thinking about that sense of not belonging there; that he feels like he doesn’t belong still, in a normal everyday environment, and wondering why that was as I drove home, unloaded the car and putting the groceries away, and I sat down at my computer and started to write this story–which, through several title changes and various iterations, became, finally, “Night Follows Night.” It languished in my files for about a year until a friend–Felice Picano, to be exact–sent me the call for submissions for Unburied, and I thought to myself, “hmmm, that grocery store story might work for this” and I opened the file and polished it again before sending it in early last year. It was one of four stories I sent out in a day, and one of the two that were accepted within twenty-four hours, by editor Rebecca Rowland, and now the entire anthology is available.

Some of the reviews, and information about the other contributors and their stories as well as ordering information can be found here.

Shake it Up

Well, I wrote the timeline for Bury Me in Shadows last night–lame as it was; I am waiting for my editor to write me back and say, um, you could have made more of an effort on this. But it’s done, and I am well relieved to be out of those woods–for now, at any rate. I am kind of mentally fatigued; two books back to back like this will tend to do that to one–although I used to do it all the time; book after book after book. But I also didn’t used to have to get up at six three days a week, either, nor did I ever have the insomnia issues like I do these days. Last night was another of those nights where Morpheus chose to not visit my bed, but I feel relatively okay at the moment, as I swill my first cappuccino. I am sure I will hit a wall later today. Tonight is also supposed to be a gym night, but…we’ll see how that goes.

I’ve decided to put aside the Thomas Perry novel for now. It’s very well done, but I am not connecting with it, which is more my problem than Perry’s; I am just not in the mind space right now for a hired killer thriller. I’ll come back to it at some point, I am sure; so it goes back into the TBR pile rather than into the donation box. I’ve actually gone on a tear with buying ebooks on sale (or for free) lately, and I’ve also gotten some wonderful e-galleys stored in my iPad–including this year’s titles from Laura Lippman and Alison Gaylin, not to mention some sparkling debuts and some wonderful classics. Yesterday I finally figured out how to sort my ebooks (I am such a Luddite) in the iPad by title, so I could see how many duplicates there were–and there were quite a few, so I deleted all the duplicates to free up space as well as make it easier to find things in there. I think when I go visit my parents, I may just take my iPad instead of books with me to read–although I am taking the hard copy of From Here to Eternity with me–that way I can read through take-off and landing…although I suppose one could just put the device on airplane mode but I still think they make you power it down. It’s been so long since I’ve flown anywhere, it’s hard to remember. I just ordered some more books with points from credit cards that should be arriving this week–yes, yes, I know; I shouldn’t continue buying more books when I still have massive TBR piles–but I’ve cleaned out so many books over the past few months that I thought why not use the points and get some new titles, as well as the Laurie R. King backlist. I am still planning on reading something else before treating myself to A Letter of Mary–I just haven’t decided what just yet. I am torn between She Who Was No More by Pierre Boileau (which Les Diaboliques was based on) and The Cook by Harry Kressing, which was filmed as Something for Everyone with Michael York and Angela Lansbury–a classic and bizarre queer film from the early 1970’s–it’s on Youtube.

Or…maybe something else.

We watched another episode of The Innocent last night; this show is so damned good and full of didn’t-see-that-coming plot twists! Of all the Harlan Coben shows on Netflix, this is my favorite so far–not really surprising, since Paul and I have fallen in love with Spanish-language crime shows (cannot WAIT for season 4 of Elite to drop)–we talked about this last night, and Paul said–and I agree–this particular show wouldn’t be as good in English, or if it was set in the US or England or France.

Of course, hot Spanish and/or Mexican actors might play a part in our thought process. Just sayin’.

I also have a story in yet another anthology that is dropping in June and can be preordered now: Unburied, edited by Rebecca Rowland, from Dark Ink Press. My story is “Night Follows Night”; which I wrote an original draft of years ago for an MWA anthology–I think–that didn’t get accepted. I revised and rewrote it a number of times, and when this call for submissions was forwarded to me by Felice Picano (thanks, Felice!) I thought, well, “Night Follows Night” loosely fits this call, and sent it off–and was very delighted to hear back from Rebecca that she loved it and wanted it. Yay! This was the same period last year where I sent off five stories in one day and sold three of them within 24 hours–which was exactly what I needed to have happen at the time, as I was going through one of my malaise periods…nothing like selling three stories in less than twenty-four hours to get you past that hump (the other two were rejected, but that was expected; they were long-shots to begin with).

And on that note, tis off to the spice mines with me. I hope I have enough energy to make it through this day–I was planning on going to the gym tonight, but the lack of sleep for two days running means that probably won’t happen….

The Best Day

And just like that, it’s Thursday again. Wow, where did this week go? It seems as though time is taking an eternity to pass–pre-pandemic times now seem as far back in the past as the Bronze Age–and yet here were are, at the Ides of October. Time keeps on slipping into the future…

I have to proof one of my stories this week; as Constant Reader may (or may not) remember, I sold “Night Follows Night” to an anthology of queer horror called Buried, being edited by Rebecca Rowland, and the galleys to proof dropped into my inbox this week. “Night Follows Night” is the story that begin its life as “This Thing of Darkness” and then was changed to “And The Walls Came Tumbling Down” before I finally settled on “Night Follows Night,” which may be the name of an old noir movie? Let me check the Google…hmmm, nothing coming up. I think I ran across it sometime when researching something–maybe it’s an old Cornell Woolrich title?–and thought, that actually fits my story better than “And The Walls Came Tumbling Down”, and so I changed it. (But “And The Walls Came Tumbling Down” is a great title, and I am going to use it for another story at some point, I am sure.) Anyway, I am quite pleased with how the story turned out, and I also like the cover art for the anthology quite a bit. I’ll share it when I can, and of course will be happy to provide purchase information and so forth when it’s available.

And the story is one of the best examples of how something completely mundane can inspire a story: this story was born when I went to make groceries in a particularly bad mood one morning and wound up with a shopping cart that wobbled because of a loose, squeaky front wheel. I tried a second; same thing. The third cart was also in the same condition, so I sighed and gave up, thinking as I pushed the cart into the store (Tchoupitoulas Rouse’s, in case you were wondering) and thought to myself, why do I always get the cart with the wobbling squeaky wheel as I went to the cantaloupes, picked one up, and thumped it…and then thought, do I really know what I am listening for when I thump a melon and then the story started forming in my head…and miracle of miracles, I still remembered it when I got home from the store, and scribbled down notes before putting away the groceries…and once the groceries were safely stored, I sat down at the computer and started writing. I think I submitted it somewhere it got rejected from; but nevertheless, I am very pleased that it’s finally found a home.

The LSU-Florida game this weekend has been postponed, possibly to December, because of a coronavirus outbreak on the Gators team. (Nick Saban and the athletic director at Alabama also both have tested positive this week; maybe having even a shortened season wasn’t the best idea?) Obviously, I am disappointed–even if they lose, I look forward to seeing LSU play every Saturday–but let’s face it; this football season is abnormal and weird and should have been skipped entirely. Whoever winds up winning the National Championship is going to have an asterisk next to their name, since it was a shortened, non-normal season to begin with, whether it’s college or pro; so while I understand the need to make bank for both…it really is amazing what a difference a lack of crowd noise makes when watching a game on television. Part of the fun of home games at LSU is the roars of the crowd in the background; listening to them spell out T-I-G-E-R-S after a touchdown, etc. etc. etc. The Saints games in the Dome with no crowd are equally strange and uninvolving. Who would have ever guessed?

Certainly not me–the guy who hates laugh tracks on comedy shows.

I started writing something new this week–yes, not something I am supposed to be revising, or finishing, or anything like that, you know, like I am supposed to be doing and I don’t know if I am going to be able to finish a first draft. It’s called “Parlor Tricks,” and it’s a short story that opens at a tedious dinner party in the Garden District–a trope I’ve used before, most notably in “An Arrow for Sebastian”–and one of the guests is a celebrity medium (Easter egg alert: the same woman who told Scotty’s parents he had the gift when he was a child) who, after dinner, conducts a seance, and it’s from the point of view of a non-believing young woman. I’m not really sure where the story is going to go–having her become convinced the medium has powers would be too cliched and has been done many times–but there’s a small kernel of an idea germinating there that I can’t quite force out into the open somehow; this, you see, is precisely why I have so many unfinished stories in the files.

Scooter continues to be much better, now that he’s getting insulin twice a day; but I still continue to be concerned that he isn’t eating enough. He is permitted to have a can and a quarter of this special diet wet food, but he won’t eat it if it’s been sitting out for a while, and he also wants a fresh spoonful whenever he gets hungry. He’s always been weird about eating–he’ll eat whatever is in the center of the bowl and then act like it’s empty once he can see the bottom, despite their being a ring of food around the empty space–and this is carrying over to the wet food, with the end result that we are wasting about a half-can of it every day. He’s going back to the vet for a follow-up visit this weekend; I am hoping we can dispense with the insulin shots, frankly.

I am working from home today and tomorrow; this was my first week of three days in clinic, and I wasn’t nearly as tired last night as I thought I might be, but I was definitely getting sleepy around ten–which is when I’ve been going to bed. I woke up at six again this morning, but stayed in bed for another hour or so, but feel very well rested this morning as I drink my coffee and keep adding another spoonful of wet food in Scooter’s bowl once he can see the bottom again. We started watching The Haunting of Bly House last night, but Paul didn’t really care much for it (he didn’t like The Haunting of Hill House either; I wound up watching it on my own) so that’s probably what I’ll watch this week while making condom packs, and we’ll have to find something else to watch in the evenings. There’s only a few films left in the Cynical 70’s Film Festival any way; and this month is supposed to be my month to watch (or rewatch) horror films anyway–and since their true American heyday began in the 1970’s…they are kind of an off-shoot of the Cynical 70’s Film Festival anyway.

I also remembered that usually every October is when I reread The Haunting of Hill House, and I got down my worn and much-read copy last night after I got home from work. Christ, that opening is such genius! I also think it’s smart to read a haunted house story again while I am writing a ghost story, and perhaps maybe rereading some of my favorite Barbara Michaels ghost stories might be in order. It is the season, after all, and it couldn’t hurt to read some more of Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters: Stories, either. (I’ve not done my annual reread of Rebecca in quite some time, either. I guess I can’t call it the ‘annual reread’ if I am not rereading it annually, can I?)

One thing I was doing between clients yesterday was looking fora classic book opening to parody for the next two Scotty books–yes, I have two in mind; French Quarter Flambeaux and Quarter Quarantine Quadrille–and as you may know if you’ve read the series and paid attention, each book opens with a parody of a famous novel’s famous opening (amongst those I’ve parodied thus far include Rebecca, The Haunting of Hill House, A Tale of Two Cities, and Anna Karenina) and I’ve picked out An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser for the former and I think I found one for the latter; but right now I cannot remember what it was. For you Scotty fans, the story for French Quarter Flambeaux is already starting to take form in my mind; it has to do with a closeted Jefferson Parish elected official, the collapse of a hotel on Canal Street, Carnival, and of course the conclusion to the spy intrigue began in Royal Street Reveillon; the second book will be the recycling of a Scotty plot that was originally planned to be the fourth book in the series–and yes, there’s possibly even a third brewing in my mind. I’m not entirely certain I should keep writing the Scotty books, to be honest; I love the characters and I greatly enjoy writing them, but at the same time writing a Scotty book always seems like a safe choice for me; so I need to, if I keep writing them, make them complicated and take chances with them and push myself creatively. 2020 has been a rough year for everyone, and it’s definitely, I feel, taken a toll on my creativity. I guess we shall see, shall we not?

And on that note, tis time for me to head back into the spice mines. Have a lovely Thursday, Constant Reader.