Change

I stretched yesterday.

I don’t mean that in a metaphorical sense, either; I mean, I literally cleared a space off on our cluttered floor and gave my ossified muscles a good, old-fashioned stretch, going through exercises memorized as a teenager from warm-ups for various sports, but enhanced and modified for my Gymnastics classes. I was always flexible, you see–and the one thing no one ever tells people about flexibility is that it isn’t something you have to be born with–you can actually work on it, gradually becoming more and more flexible and pliant the more you work on stretching those muscles. Sure, they will tighten up again after a while, but the next time you stretch you’ll be able to go a little bit further than you did the last time.

Yesterday’s stretching felt good; so good, in fact, that I will probably do so again today.

And now I will talk about stretching in the metaphorical sense.

I am signing two book contracts today; one for Bury Me in Shadows and the other for the Kansas book, whose title (for now) is #shedeservedit. Both are books that I have been working on for an eternity now it seems; the pandemic and it’s bizarre effect on time doesn’t help with that mentality, of course. Both books are stretches for me, in that neither is a series book (sorry, Scotty and Chanse fans) but rather stand alones. I don’t know how they will be marketed, but Bury Me in Shadows has a college student as the main character and #shedeservedit is about high school. Part of the reason I finally went ahead and pitched the books is because I can’t seem to discipline myself to get them finished; the pressure and stress of a deadline, which I’ve been trying to avoid for the last few years, apparently is needed in these troubled times in order for me to get the work done. Both have required me to stretch as a writer–taking me into themes and plots that ordinarily I would avoid, and forcing me to go further and deeper into the characters themselves in order for the stories to work. Whether I have managed to succeed with either book remains to be seen, I guess. Signing the contracts is scary, of course; I am a bundle of jangly nerves this morning as I sip my coffee and get ready to face what has already developed into a challenging day before I even got to the computer.

I watched Chinatown yesterday as part of the Cynical 70’s Film Festival, and it really is quite a marvelous film–the costumes! The sets! The cars! The cinematography! Also a very twisty and sometimes confusing plot; with strong performances all around from the cast, particularly Jack Nicholson in the lead; Faye Dunaway is also gorgeous, if a little mannered and stiff; and John Huston just oozes evil from every pore as Noah Cross. It was a great homage to the classic noir films of the 40’s and 50’s; I was also a little amused at the conceit of the private eye having an office with a secretary and two operatives–obviously, Jack Gittes was quite successful as a private eye chasing adulterers around Los Angeles. Chinatown, with its focus on the systemic corruption of money and power in Los Angeles at the time, with a focus on the war over water (and seriously, given its history, why is Los Angeles not considered as corrupt a city as New Orleans and Chicago?), I enjoyed the film immensely. Dark and lush and with great attention to detail, I can see why it was a hit and achieved such critical acclaim; however, given that it is a Roman Polanski film, there was always this edge of guilt as I watched it again. I first watched it about twenty years ago and didn’t really think too much about Polanski’s status as a convicted child rapist and fugitive from American justice; same with Rosemary’s Baby, which I think, despite being from the late 1960’s would also fit in this film festival. I like both films and enjoy them both; but in modern times it has become increasingly difficult to separate the art from the artist. I did make a decision years ago never to watch a Polanski film made after his conviction and escape from justice, somehow justifying that his earlier films should be exempt from a justified boycott.

Separating art from the artist is a difficult debate, with many nuances and points of view from both sides that I kind of agree with. The fact that Roman Polanski committed a crime and then fled the country to avoid punishment should have, by all rights, ended his career–yet somehow that didn’t happen. He has continued making films–even won an Oscar for Best Director, I think–and has enjoyed success and critical acclaim. Should his art be judged separately from his personal life? Am I hypocritical for refusing to read Orson Scott Card because of his vigorous anti-gay activity back in the day because it affected me directly, yet still watching pre-crime Polanski films? In all honesty, I doubt I will ever watch Chinatown again after this second viewing; I most likely won’t go back and rewatch Rosemary’s Baby either, despite its being based on a terrific Ira Levin novel and the brilliance of Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castevets, and the fact that it fits into this film festival–the cynical movies which flourished in the 1970’s actually started being made in the 1960’s, and Rosemary’s Baby is one of the best films about paranoia ever made, frankly.

Something I really need to put some more thought into, definitely.

I need to get cracking, too–I have an essay to edit, another one to write, a short story to edit and revise; and of course the manuscripts that need working on. I have bills to pay and emails to answer, and I also have to go into the office today to get some work done there, stopping at the grocery store on my way back home. We literally have no food at all in the house, sigh.

And so on that note, tis off to the spice mines with me. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader.

You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk

And just like that, it’s Friday again.

Not that the day of the week matters anymore, frankly; yesterday I thought it was Friday all day and even when corrected (I sent an email to the MWA Board of Directors and opened with HAPPY FRIDAY!) I still continued to think it was Friday.

I’m stubborn that way.

We finished watching We Are the Wave last night, after I did one of those on-line promo reading/discussion things for The Faking of the President. I recognize that these things have become a part of what is reality these days, but I’m still uncomfortable doing them. I hate the sound of my own voice, and being able to see myself staring back at me from the computer screen is far worse than any mirror I’ve ever looked into. But I suspect that even once the pandemic has come to its inevitable end–even bubonic plague eventually ran its original course–these things will become part and parcel of promotion for writers henceforth. For one thing, publishers would much rather you “tour” virtually than having to pay to send you, for one, and for the vast majority of writers, virtual touring is much more, obviously, affordable than an actual tour.

But last night I slept extremely well, which is lovely; I actually feel very rested this morning and not tired, mentally or physically, and it’s been a hot minute or two since I could say that. There are some errands I have to run today–most importantly, a prescription refill that needs to be picked up–but I am going to be spending a lot of the day doing my day job stuff here at the Lost Apartment, and yes, that includes more hours of condom packing, which means finding some movies on HBO MAX or Disney to watch. The TCM app on HBO MAX is quite marvelous, actually; there are a lot of wonderful films on there I’ve always wanted to watch, and since I spend several afternoons a week making condom packs, I can now watch them while my hands work. Alas, there are a lot of films I want to see that aren’t on there; there’s some great Hitchcock movies (I really enjoyed Foreign Correspondent, despite how dated it was) and there are some lesser known Hitchcocks which will be fun to watch as well (I could also go through Amazon Prime, but their app on Apple TV is not user friendly in the least). I was looking to rewatch Rebecca and Notorious the other day, but neither were on the TCM app, and neither was Suspicion, which was my next default. I think Shadow of a Doubt is on Prime–that’s the next one I’m looking for–and there might be some on there that aren’t on the TCM app.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about the films of the 1970’s a lot lately as well; watching Eyewitness made me think more about that decade, and we talked about it some on the virtual event last night–and there are some terrific films from the 1970’s I’d like to rewatch or see for the first time. I’d like to see Chinatown again, despite my aversion to Roman Polanski and his work–which is a whole other conversation, the old artist vs. the art thing–and there was a darker, grittier aspect to the films of the decade, despite it also being the decade that gave us Star Wars. I’d actually like to watch Cruising again, and numerous other Pacino/De Niro/Scorsese films of the decade.

I also am going to spend some time this weekend writing, and I am also going to spend some time with S. A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland. I also have some anthologies and short story collections I’d like to start dipping into; I hate that I’ve allowed myself to let the Short Story Project collapse by the wayside. I also want to spend some time this weekend trying to get organized; I have so much going on, between various writing projects and volunteerism and so forth that I am always playing catch-up, and I much prefer, as Constant Reader is very well aware, planning; the problem is that I am always juggling things as they come at me (bullets-and-bracelets from the old Wonder Woman comics is a very apt analogy) with the result that I always feel like I am getting dragged down into quicksand.

And don’t even get me started on emails. Jesus.

But it’s a good morning, I have energy and feel rested, and am hopeful this will help carry me through the rest of the day and I can get a lot done.

Have a terrific Friday, Constant Reader.

Wanted Dead or Alive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nope, sorry, done.

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

Which brings me to The Hunter.

the hunter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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