Long Live

Good morning, Sunday!

I did the windows yesterday, and it is literally amazing how I can forget between window cleanings what a difference it makes. It had been so long since I’d done it I need to do them again–it’s never easy getting all that caked on dirt and dust and debris off the glass, even when you do it weekly, as I used to do–but it’s a start.

I woke up early and feeling rested yesterday, which was absolutely lovely–and it was an absolutely lovely day in New Orleans, if a bit warm for mid-November. Did I get as much done as I needed and/or wanted to? Of course not. I did some other cleaning and straightening around the Lost Apartment; made some notes on some projects I am working on, and reread “The Snow Globe” to get a better idea of what I am dealing with on the revision, which I am going to get done today before I go to the gym. I’m also making the week’s to-do list, doing some other chores around the house, and feeling a lot better about things. Yes, I am behind on everything, but a little bit of focus and a little bit of desperation never hurt me, or anything I’ve worked on.

Rereading the story was, actually, something i’d been dreading doing; I always hate to reread something I’ve written, as I always tend to be highly critical and negative, and this story was no exception. I do love the story a lot–it was written to be submitted to a war on Christmas anthology and wasn’t accepted (the anthology never happened, either; long ugly story)–but it definitely needs some work. I originally came up with the story for a Halloween anthology, to be completely honest; there was a call for submissions, I think maybe from the Horror Writers’ Association, for stories with a Halloween theme. I distinctly remember reading the call and then an image popped into my head–me standing on the balcony at the Pub, looking down on Bourbon Street and the front doors of Oz, as a man in a devil costume came out; and he was hot as fuck; perfect body, body paint to make his skin red, and a skimpy red bikini, and thought Satan has a great six-pack, which I then made the opening line of the story. I believe at the time the story was called “All Hallow’s Eve” or something along those lines; but the story never made it past the opening paragraph. When the chance to write a story for the Christmas anthology came along, I remembered that opening and I remembered the joke I made on the Facebook post and thread about Christmas horror stories–I wanted to write about a Satanic snow globe–and immediately saw how to turn my unfinished Halloween story into a Christmas horror story called “The Snow Globe” merely by changing a single letter in the opening line: Santa had a great six-pack.

Voila! And the story began to flow. As I said, it was rejected from the anthology I wrote it for–and in the notes I got from the editors, which was lovely (one rarely gets notes on a rejected story) they basically told me I should have made it more than it was–which I had also thought about doing, but was afraid to–and so naturally, with that confirmation that the initial instincts I’d ignored from lack of confidence were, in fact, correct, I went back to the drawing board and revised it. And clearly, it needed one more revision. I have editorial notes on this story already, which I completely agree with, and I don’t know why–other than utter and sheer laziness–that I have not gone ahead and worked on this story to get it finished and out of the way. That is my goal for this morning–get the damne thing finished and be done with it–and then I can move back on to the book that has been stalled for weeks now.

Last night we watched a few more episodes of Mr. Mercedes, which finally introduced the character of Holly Gibney, who quickly became one of my favorite King characters–which was why I was so delighted she showed up in The Outsider–and so far the character is being played as she was written in the book, which is quite lovely. I think the show has padded/built up some things that I don’t remember from the book–but since I don’t remember them from the book, I am not entirely sure there were changes made. I just know I am deeply enjoying the show–it’s really a shame it hasn’t gotten as much success as it should have. (Maybe it did, I don’t know; but I rarely, if ever, heard anything about the show and there are three seasons…so there wasn’t a lot of social media buzz about it.)

The Saints play this afternoon–I think the game starts around three-ish, if I am not mistaken–and then of course there will be a new episode of The Undoing tonight. That should give me more than enough time to get this story finished, some chores done, and a trip to the gym for a workout. This is my fourth week since we rejoined the gym, and I am eminently proud that I have gone three days a week ever since. I can’t get over how much better I feel physically–the stretching really helps, too–and that correlates with how much better I’ve been sleeping. Who knew that exhaustion would help one sleep? (Sarcasm, don’t @ me)

I also read a few more chapters of The Hot Rock yesterday, which I am enjoying. Westlake’s style in this book is very reminiscent of Rob Byrnes’ brilliant caper novels (Straight Lies, Holy Rollers, Strange Bedfellows)–although since Westlake is the influence here, I should probably say I can see his influence on that unappreciated trilogy; it still kind of amazing to me that I’ve not read more Westlake (or Lawrence Block, for that matter), which is something I am going to need to rectify. (I’ve also never read Ed McBain, but I read some of his Evan Hunter novels.)

As I have often said, my education in crime fiction is a little lacking when it comes to the classics; I’ve not read all of Ross MacDonald or Raymond Chandler, for example, and I’ve also never read a Dick Francis novel either, for that matter. I think I’ve read a Nero Wolfe or two, but not many–although I have thought about using the trope of that series for a book of my own–the brilliant investigative mind who never leaves his/her house so needs a legman, from whose point of view the story is told–and there are any number of other classic crime fiction writers I’ve not cracked a spine on. But with new books I want to read being released all the time and being unable to even keep up with the canon of current writers whose work I love–not to mention all the new-to-me writers I keep discovering–there’s just simply no way I can ever read everything I want to read.

I’ve been doing some more research on Chlorine, recently reading Confidential Confidential, about the scandal rag of the 1950’s, and Montgomery Clift Queer Star, an academic treatise of multiple essays about reading Clift performances and films as queer, which was very interesting. Reading these two books also reminded me of something else that was going on in the time period which I wish to cover–red-baiting and the House Un-American Committee hearings; another period of America not living up to her ideals. It’s probably hard to explain to people who didn’t grow up, or were old enough, to remember the existential threat of the Soviet Union that had Americans seeing Communist spies and Communist infiltration everywhere; without an understanding of the highly paranoid state created by politicians and news outlets, neither the Korean nor Vietnam Wars would have most likely happened. That fear of Communism was also used by conservatives to gin up racial hatred as well as systemic discrimination against people of color and queer people–the queers were considered a national security threat because if you were queer and worked for the government in any capacity, you were thus opened up to blackmail by Communist agents. This was an actual thing, and I all too often see that key element left out of writings about the time, both fiction and non-fiction.

It would thus be wrong to leave Red-baiting out of Chlorine, which will mean more research. Heavy heaving sigh.

And on that note, the dryer just clicked off, so I should fold the clothes and get ready to get back to to work on the story. Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader.

Breathless

Monday morning and up at the rise of the sun; back to another work week and trying to get caught up on everything.

I really do feel like Sisyphus pushing the rock uphill most days, you know?

But I woke up early yesterday and made progress, which is never a bad thing, and I also made it to the gym for my first workout of week two. I managed to accomplish all three workouts for week one, and so this week entailed an added set of 15 reps at the same weights I used last week. It was more difficult, but not painfully so or so bad that I couldn’t finish both sets–but on some exercises it was much harder than it was on others. That’s fine–I worked up a lovely sweat and my heart rate went up, which was the ultimate goal. I came home–it was really quite a beautiful fall day in New Orleans; sunny and crisp and cool–and had my protein shake before getting cleaned up and diving back into the emails and things I needed to get done.

I did decide what my next read would be: Donald Westlake’s The Hot Rock. My education in Westlake is sorely lacking (as is my education in Lawrence Block, for that matter) although I read one of his Hard Case Crime books, The Comedy is Finished, and I read the first of his Richard Stark novels…but other than that, I have failed miserably in reading Westlake. I remember when The Hot Rock was out in paperback originally; I also remember that it was filmed with Robert Redford (perhaps another film I can add–if I can find it–to the Cynical 70’s Film Festival), and I’ve had a copy of this forever. Rob Byrnes has always spoken highly of Westlake–his own comic caper novels, he claims, owe a huge debt to Westlake, and only three chapters into the book, I can totally see the influence–and I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get around to reading The Hot Rock, frankly. The edition I have also has an intro from Westlake himself, which sort of explains where the book came from, and I found this very interesting:

One day in 1967 I was wearing my Richard Stark hat, looking for a story to tell about my man Parker, and I thought, he reacts badly to frustration, what if he had to steal the same thing four or five times? I started to work it out, then realized the idea was only comic and Parker wouldn’t stand for it. But I still liked the notion, and even–once it was comic–saw how to make it six thefts of the same elusive item. So I’d do it that way.

But if it wasn’t Parker, who was it? Who was this guy, dogged but doomed, and what was his name? Without a name, I couldn’t see him, and until I could see him I couldn’t write about him.

Wow. He then goes on to talk about how he came up with the name Dortmunder, but it was so weird to see a writer of Westlake’s stature having the same problem I have when writing, or coming up with a new idea: I can’t write about people if they don’t have names, because without names I can’t see them or know enough about them to write about them. I know there are writers who can do this; I am just not one of them, and I always thought it was one of my (many) peculiarities as a writer. Turns out, Westlake was like me, too. Mine goes even further–I can’t write a story without a title, and if the title is wrong, it impedes the story writing even further. I think some of the in-progress unfinished stories I have on hand suffer from this very problem–I know I think “A Dirge in the Dark” isn’t the right title for the story I am writing with that title–but I am hoping I can get it all worked out eventually.

I do hate daylight savings time, quite frankly, but this “gain an hour” nonsense was rejected by my body–which makes getting up earlier much easier than it usually is. I was awake before my alarm went off this morning, I am wide awake as I sip my first cappuccino of the morning, and I feel like it’s going to be, over all, a really great day–for a shitty, unsettling week. Heavy sigh. But I got everything ready last night so I don’t have to pick out clothes or anything this morning; my lunch is ready to go into the lunch box, and my office/kitchen is very neat and organized already–a very good start to the week. LSU has a bye week this coming weekend, and one good thing about LSU having a bad season–I’ve almost completely lost interest in both the conference and national championship races, which means I won’t be watching games other than LSU anymore, thereby freeing up my Saturdays almost completely. The Saints did eke out a win yesterday–although they did everything they possibly could to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. As Paul said, “this year sucks and we can’t even get solace from football season.”

I did read a Charlaine Harris short story yesterday as well, from the MWA anthology she edited a while back, Crimes by Moonlight, which was, in her own words from her introduction to the piece, “a collection of woo-woo stories.” Her story was set in the Sookie Stackhouse universe she created with her bestselling novels (later adapted into True Blood, one of my favorite television series), and was called “Dahlia Underground.” Dahlia is a nine hundred year old vampire who looks nineteen–sexy and beautiful, she also dresses like a sexy dominatrix (I kept picturing my favorite True Blood character, Pam) who wakes up after an anti-vampire terrorist strike on a hotel. Numerous vampires were killed during the attack, she has to be dug out of the wreckage by a firehouse company, and then the rest of the story is about not only vampiric revenge on the terrorists, but Dahlia essentially adopting the fire company that saved her life. It was well done and enormously satisfying; the next story up in the anthology is by Edgar winner William Kent Krueger, which should also be fun.

My back feels a little sore this morning–not sure what that’s from, but it’s not muscle soreness, so who the fuck knows–so I am going to use the self-massager in a moment to try to loosen whatever it is that is tight back there. I’m having dinner with a writer friend tonight who is in from out of town to visit her daughter, who is currently enrolled at Tulane University, which is lovely–I always tend to avoid such commitments, but when I do agree to them inevitably have a good time–and I just have to be wary of time, since I have to get up early again tomorrow.

We continue to watch The Undoing on HBO, and I am beginning to think I’ve already got this entire thing figured out. I could be wrong–I have been before–and perhaps what I am thinking is too obvious to be the case. If it does turn out to the case, it will be disappointing…but therein lies the rub of being a crime writer who reads a lot of crime novels (and has edited dozens).

I certainly am hoping to get a lot done this week. But I am rested, hopefully there will be no more major life disruptions (he types hopefully the day before a terrifying general election), and if I can remain focused, I can get everything finished that I need to get finished this week.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me. Have a lovely Monday before the election, Constant Reader, and if you haven’t already, VOTE TOMORROW.

On the Road Again

Yesterday was another awful, low energy day. I got something lovely in the mail–thank you again, Penni Jones, that was so incredibly kind and thoughtful of you–and I got caught out running errands in a wonderful thunderstorm; I eventually had to make a mad dash through the pouring rain to the apartment with bags of groceries and the mail. After getting into the house I was very tired and cranky and out of sorts, and looking at Bury Me in Shadows just made my stomach clench and my nerves fray. I wasted some time writing an entry about writing about vampires, which I will post at some point this morning (if I haven’t already) and looked through some of that writing. I was also enormously pleased, despite the frayed nerves and the stomach clenched in knots, to see that the writing of said vampire fiction was actually quite good, which was nice; I have such a tendency to avoid looking at my old work (for any number of reasons, none of which speak well to my self-confidence) that it was kind of a pleasant surprise to read it and think, hey, this was from really early in my career and this isn’t bad at all, well done, earlier-in-his-career Greg!

So, tired and with low energy, I decided to retire to my recliner with Blacktop Wasteland, figuring that finishing that book was one of my goals for the weekend, and that was probably the easiest goal to reach.

Nor do I regret one second of the time I spent with the book.

Beauregard thought the night sky looked like a painting

Laughter filled the air only to be drowned out by a cacophony of revving engines as the moon slid from behind the clouds. The bass from the sound system in a nearby Chevelle was hitting him in his chest so hard, it felt like someone was performing CPR on him. There were about a dozen other late-model cars parked haphazardly in front of the old convenience store. In addition to the Chevelle, there was a Maverick, two Impalas, a few Camaros and five or six more examples of the heyday of American muscle. Yhe air was cool and filled with the scent of gas and oil. The rich, acrid smell of exhaust fumes and burnt rubber. A choir of crickets and whippoorwills tried in vain to be heard. Beauregard closed his eyes and strained his ears. He could hear them but just barely. They were screaming for love. He thought a lot of people spent a large part of their life doing the same thing.

The wind caught the sign hanging above his head from the arm of a pole that extended twenty feet into the air. It creaked as the breeze moved it back and forth.

Laura Lippman describes noir as “dreamers become schemers,” and that’s always the closest description of what noir actually is that I’ve ever heard. Like all definitions of noir, it’s not quite everything, but nothing else anyone has written or said about noir comes as close to it, in my mind, as that. For me, noir is like pornography; I maybe can’t tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it. I personally love noir; it’s probably one of my favorite things to read (or styles of film to watch). I try to bring a noir sensibility to almost everything I write, no matter what label it’s given as an important keyword on Amazon. (I still believe that Timothy is the most noir thing I’ve written to date; but I am looking forward to delving more deeply into it with future work.)

Blacktop Wasteland is called a ‘heist’ novel by people who know the genre probably better than I do; and they are not incorrect; it is a heist novel. But it’s also so much more that I feel calling it that is, in some ways, a disservice to it–and I don’t mean to imply by that statement that there is anything wrong with heist novels. I haven’t read many of them, and I haven’t seen many heist films. Rob Byrnes writes truly clever, intricately plotted ones with a wide variety of distinct and well-developed characters that are also witty and funny as well as smart. But Blacktop Wasteland is also noir of the purest sort, the kind that Cain and Thompson and the other greats wrote; about working class people who can’t quite catch the break they need to be upwardly mobile, who believe that in a society and culture where everything is stacked against them, the only answer is criminality–and knowing when to walk away from that life. It’s about wanting more for your kids and your family than you had; it’s about grabbing for the American Dream and the brass ring. It’s also about family, and the damage done by wrong decisions and believing mythology you’ve invented rather than facing harsh and painful truths.

The main character of Cosby’s novel, Beauregard Montage (more commonly known as Bug) has tried, throughout his adult life, to build a better life for his wife and kids, and the child he rarely sees he fathered when he was a young teenager with a white girl whose family keeps her away from him. He’s opened his own business–a garage doing car repair and oil changes, etc–but the opening of a franchise oil change place has eaten into his business and has put him in danger of losing it all. A complication with his mother’s Medicare has resulted in a vast amount of money due to the retirement home where she makes everyone’s life miserable. That oldest daughter needs money for college and is dating a guy who might not be good for her. The bills are all overdue and the mortgage on the garage is so overdue it could lead to foreclosure.

Is there anything more American or relatable in these troubled times than financial distress?

But what Bug is best at is driving; he was in the Life before he decided to walk away from it for the sake of a straight life for his wife and kids. His own father walked away from his family when Bug was a teenager–for their sake, since he couldn’t escape his own criminal past. And the carefully constructed life Bug has put together for his family is slowly coming apart at the seams; and he needs money, and fast. So when a driving job in the life comes available, he grits his teeth and agrees to it. But nothing is ever as easy as it seems, and this job leads to other bills that have to be paid–with blood and bone.

The story alone is riveting, but what makes this novel so strong and powerful is the voice and the development of Bug as a character. The struggle within him between the desire for a normal family life and to do right by his children versus the thrill he gets from being in the life; from getting to flex and use his driving skills to skirt the law and get away with it is what takes this book to another level–and then the realization, the coming to terms with his feelings for his own father and that abandonment, as well as coming to terms with his complicated relationship with his mother, as he tries to do the right thing by his own family was breathtaking in its complexity and how agonizingly real it all seemed.

And those actions scenes are masterfully crafted, and keep you on the edge of your seat the entire time. Even had I wanted to put the book down, to take my time with it and read it more slowly, to draw the pleasure out, I couldn’t have once the kicked into high gear.

The writing is also deceptively simple yet honed to a sharpness and beauty worthy of compare to the grand masters of crime writing.

And while it was an accident of my TBR pile, I am very glad I read Kelly J. Ford’s Cottonmouths and S. A Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland back to back, as both are surely writing some of the best contemporary rural noir of our time; they should be paired, really, and read back to back, much the same as how Megan Abbott’s Dare Me and Michael Koryta’s The Prophet should be paired together.

What a terrific time to be living in for a fan of crime fiction this is!

I Just Called To Say I Love You

How was your Thanksgiving? Ours was rather lovely; we had our deep dish pizza and a lovely visit with our friend Lisa; then Paul and I watched three movies on Netflix: Fourth Man Out, Closet Monster, and Handsome Devil. We also watched another episode of a Hulu original series, Future Man; which we had given one more episode to get better. And the fourth episode definitely delivered. We laughed a lot all the way through it; and it finally started delivering on its premise.

The three movies were all gay films, which we generally don’t watch very often. I know I should be supportive of gay films, but so often they’re aren’t very good–or at least that used to be the case. When a major studio makes one (Philadelphia, In and Out, To Wong Foo, etc.) they’re awful; indies always mean well but don’t have the budget to really do them well or cast good actors, so we stopped watching them a long time ago. Every so often, a film like Beautiful Thing or Latter Days will come along, but still, fairly rare. My incredibly cynical self is very pleased to say that the three films we watched yesterday were enjoyable in varying degrees, which also makes me tend to think that perhaps we should watch more gay cinema. And really, isn’t mainstream film always a crapshoot, too?

Fourth Man Out was the first movie we watched; its about a group of four guys who’ve been best friends since they were kids and then one of them comes out to the others. It was a comedy, so the coming out was handled in a comedic fashion; the friends were a little taken aback, and then there was some awkwardness about what you can or can’t say around your gay friend which was sweet and kind of cute. The gay character was a mechanic, so there was a sense to me of ‘see, a gay guy can be just a regular guy’ about the movie which was well-intentioned but…the really charming part of the movie was watching the friends try to help him navigate the gay dating world, and there was a really charming scene where they take him to his first gay bar. And the ‘meeting someone from on-line’ trope was treated as comedy (and who hasn’t met someone whose picture wasn’t them?) and there were some moments that I thought might have been in questionable taste–but overall the film was charming. The lead, gay Adam, was played by Evan Todd, who’s very good-looking:

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His best friend, Chris–and their relationship/chemistry was quite charming, was played by the impossibly good-looking Parker Young:

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Another one of the guys was played by Glee’s Chord Overstreet, almost recognizable in a heavy beard. But the movie’s true charm was the relationship between Adam and Chris; how they learn from each other and grow and finally find their perfect matches because of their friendship.

Closet Monster starred Connor Jessup from American Crime, who is an appealing and talented young actor I would pretty much watch in anything.

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This movie was apparently very popular on the indie art film festival circuit and won lots of awards; for me, it was the weakest of the three and were it not for Connor Jessup, we would have probably stopped watching. As a little boy, around the time his parents broke up in a very nasty and volatile break-up, young Oscar witnessed a violent hate crime against a gay teenager–and that, plus the divorce, have been deeply internalized and traumatized him as he comes of age as a gay teenager with an interest in horror movies and a desire to become a make-up artist for horror films. He’s applied to the best school for this in New York, and cannot wait to get away from this awful town he lives in. He’s desperately unhappy–who can’t relate to that–with big dreams, and is developing a crush on another boy he works with at a Home Depot type store. Wilder, played by Aliocha Schneider, is coolly confident in himself and tries to draw Oscar out of his own shell, with some success.

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The point of the movie is ultimately that Oscar needs to stop spinning his wheels and move in a positive direction in his life; and it does eventually get there after a bizarre costume party where he has his first sexual experience with a stranger and comes to terms with his feelings for his mother; his relationship with his father remains unresolved. But it was an arty film; Oscar’s hamster speaks to him in Isabella Rossellini’s voice–he got the hamster originally the day his mother left his father so it symbolizes the last time he was happy; and there’s a lot of moments where the director slaps the viewer in the face with his symbolism and hidden depths. There are some gorgeous shots, particularly at the end, but there are also some serious plot holes. But as I said, Connor Jessup is a very talented and appealing young actor, and he carries the entire movie.

The last film we watched, Handsome Devil, was by far and away the best of the three. Set in an Irish boarding school obsessed with its rugby team, it’s from the point of view of young Ned, who is bullied by his schoolmates in no small part because he doesn’t care about rugby and doesn’t fit in; he is played charmingly by Fionn O’Shea. He comes back to school against his will–his father and stepmother live in Dubai and for some reason he can’t live with them there; it’s kind of implied that he’s an inconvenience for them. He’s delighted when he gets to school to find out he’s got a single room and won’t be sharing. There’s also a really funny sequence where he talks about his English teacher; he simply turns in the lyrics to old songs for papers and get’s A’s; the song that is handed back to him with an A written on it to illustrate this voice over is Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Walk Side,” which is hilarious if you know the words.

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But he winds up with a roommate after all, Connor. Connor can’t go back to his old school–he was kicked out for ‘fighting’–AND it turns out Connor is a great rugby player; the long-missing piece for the school’s team which will make them champions. Ned reacts by moving all of their furniture to the center of the room, kind of forming a Berlin wall. They also have a new English teacher this term, Mr. Sherry, who is played by Sherlock’s Andrew Scott. Mr. Sherry, and his class, reminded me of Dead Poets’ Society, and I don’t think that was accidental. But Ned and Connor slowly become friends–Connor is Ned’s first friend, really–and of course there’s the requisite homophobia (they all treat Ned like he’s gay, but we never really know for sure) and obstacles for the boys to face before the film’s end. This movie is really charming, and is about friendship, and has some absolutely lovely moments. O’Shea is fantastic as Ned, and you can’t help but root for him as he learns who he is and what being a friend really means; Nicholas Galitzine plays Connor and does a fine job with a less complex part; but the chemistry between the two boys is terrific. I highly recommend this movie.

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It was also highly educational to watch these films, and it also made me realize that I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to gay-themed films; I should probably watch more of them in the future–and I think I’m going to. Watching these movies reminded me of the kinds of novels Kensington used to publish after the turn of the century; particularly the novels of Timothy James Beck. I miss those novels, and Kensington did a great job of finding and publishing fun gay-themed novels in those days. I was one of Kensington’s authors; Kensington was where the first three Scotty books were published, and pulling together the Scotty Bible has also put me in mind of those days again. Kensington first published Rob Byrnes,  and also those wonderful novels by Michael Thomas Ford. Kensington was also home to William J. Mann’s fiction, from The Biograph Girl to The Men from the Boys, All-American Boy, and several others; Kensington also published Andrew Beierle’s The Winter of Our Discotheque, which remains to this day one of my favorite gay novels.

Sigh.

And now back to the spice mines.