Do They Know It’s Christmas

Christmas Eve, and all through the house–not a kitty is stirring, and we don’t have a mouse.

It’s a bright sunshiny morning here in New Orleans, and I slept very late because we stayed up watching a show on Acorn TV (a streaming subscription I’d forgotten I had) called Loch Ness, which was highly entertaining, fairly well written, beautifully shot, and well acted. I do recommend it–there were some definitely unanswered questions in the resolution, but it pretty much wrapped itself up for the most part, and as I said, we really enjoyed it. Loch Ness also looked incredibly beautiful; I always pictured it as cold and gray and foggy–assuming, of course, that it was shot on location.

I also woke up this morning–late–to see that Romance Writers of America is burning to the ground this morning, having had their board make a decision that being called a racist is much much worse than actually being a racist, or doing and saying racist things. I have my own issues with RWA, of course–a long-standing policy of passively encouraging homophobia and queer exclusion, which I thought they were getting better about, but active institutional support of racists and racism against authors of color has completely and irrevocably erased those thoughts once and for all; because quite naturally pointing out homophobia would mean being punished for doing so–because the only thing worse than homophobia is being accurately accused of it. Shame on you, RWA, shame on you.

Yeah, not going anywhere near that dumpster-fire of an organization.

So, what am I going to do today, with this gorgeous day? Am I going to try to get writing done? Am I going to try to do much of anything on this fine Christmas Eve here in the Lost Apartment? Or am I simply going to curl up in my easy chair with a book? Probably going to just curl up in my chair with my book. I am getting further into Laura Benedict’s The Stranger Inside, and greatly enjoying it the deeper I get into this interestingly twisted tale. I do have some cleaning and straightening up to do around here, but I can save that for later this evening. We are venturing out to see Rise of Skywalker tomorrow–thank you, everyone on my social media feeds for not posting spoilers–and of course, this weekend is the college football play-offs, with LSU facing Oklahoma in one semi-final.

But there’s plenty of time between now and Saturday for me to get stressed about that.

I’ve also been looking through Victoria Holt’s Kirkland Revels, which is one of my favorite romantic suspense novels of the mid-twentieth century (originally published in 1962!) primarily because it has a unique spin on the genre of the preyed-upon heroine: she’s pregnant with the heir to the family fortune and estate. A pregnant romantic suspense heroine? I think Kirkland Revels might even be the only romantic suspense novel with a pregnant heroine–I can’t think of many novels of any kind where the heroine was pregnant almost the entire course of the story, other than Rosemary’s Baby–which is actually an interesting observation. (I also believe that Rosemary’s Baby is perhaps one of the most brilliant studies in paranoia ever written; Levin did much the same with The Stepford Wives; no one wrote paranoia better than Levin, and he is also one of my favorite writers. His canon is well overdue for a revisit.)

I also may rewatch the premiere of Megan Abbott’s television series adaptation of Dare Me. It was really quite good, and a second viewing will possibly enable me to write a post about it that doesn’t simply say “OMG it’s so good you have to watch it.”

GAH. SO little time to do all the things I want to do!

And on that note, I should probably finish this and go do something, anything, else.

Have a merry Christmas eve, everyone.

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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.

The Second Time Around

Up early to start another week of work, and I feel pretty good. Obviously, I would have preferred to stay in bed for another hour or so, but that’s just not in the cards so here I am, drinking coffee and writing a blog entry while I wake up.

I only managed to get two more chapters finished yesterday; I still call that a win, and am very happy to be nearly halfway through the manuscript. If I keep up the pace of one chapter per day, with more on the weekends, I’ll be finished long before the end of the month–which was the original goal, and then I can get back to the WIP.

I spent most of the day yesterday reading A. J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window, and I do have some thoughts on it. Was it a great work of art? No, it wasn’t even the best crime novel I read published in 2018. But it was good enough, you know, and it held my attention enough so I wanted to find out what was happening and what was really going on. But…it was also a very paint-by-numbers thriller; as though the author were simply ticking off boxes as he wrote the book. I’ll always wonder if my read of the book was influenced by the back story of the author–that piece in the New Yorker, in particular. It was very Hitchcockian in some ways, with nods to Rear Window and Shadow of a Doubt, among others, and nods to Gaslight and numerous other films…the great black-and-white noir thrillers of the mid-twentieth century. I’ve not read the other blockbuster novels of the last few years (The Girl on the Train and The Woman in Cabin 10) in whose footsteps this novel follows; I did read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl when it was first released (and before it became a national phenomenon) and greatly enjoyed it.

Here be spoilers.

Continue reading “The Second Time Around”

Mickey

My wonderful book about the classic horror novels of the 1970’s thru the 1990s, Paperbacks from Hell, attributed the boom in horror fiction to three bestselling novels that set the stage: Thomas Tryon’s The Other, Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. I read all three of these books when I was in junior high school; the Tryon and the Levin remain two of my favorite novels, and I reread them periodically. But after reading The Exorcist one time, I’ve never felt the need to have a copy on hand, nor have I ever felt the desire to go back and reread it. It did occur to me sometime within the past few years that I should give it another go; my primary memory of the book is, of course, the crucifix masturbation scene which everyone in the seventh grade discussed in breathless whispers whenever someone new had read the book. I may not have ever owned a copy; I may have borrowed it from someone. There were any number of paperback copies floating around my junior high school, the binding bent and broken and covers battered as they were passed around from kid to kid. It also occurred to me that many of my memories of The Exorcist were not from the book, but from the incredibly disturbing film; it was a huge hit and was nominated for ten or eleven Oscars (winning maybe one or two). Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells,” used extensively in the score, was also hugely popular. (All three of the books were made into films; The Other the only whose film version wasn’t a success–but it’s hard to see how it could have been filmed successfully; although it would be really cool if someone tried it again.) So, Labor Day morning, I took down the copy of The Exorcist that I bought recently and read it again.

the exorcist

The Exorcist is undoubtedly an important work in the horror genre; it helped create a boom and directly resulted in a lot of really talented writers getting some great books published over the next thirty years or so. I had noticed, though, that not many people who write horror ever include it on those “Best Horror” lists, or list it as an influence. I read a book in the last year or so that was undoubtedly influenced by The Exorcist; Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, which I really enjoyed and also put me in mind of a reread of Blatty’s blockbuster. The fact that Blatty is a homophobe made me a bit uncomfortable going back to the book–okay, he may not be a homophobe, but he certainly felt welcoming and admitting LGBT students at Georgetown University meant the school had betrayed its Jesuit heritage and should be stripped of its standing as a Jesuit university (you can read about that here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/04/education/edlife/how-georgetown-became-a-gay-friendly-campus.html?mcubz=1).

So making millions of dollars about a child masturbating with a crucifix is kosher–I guess because, literally, the devil made her do it–but treating LGBT college students as human beings is a crime against Catholicism. Got it.

And to be fair to Mr. Blatty, I only vaguely remembered the above incident; and wasn’t 100% sure I was correct, so that didn’t play into my reread of the book (I didn’t go looking into it until this morning, while actually writing this entry).

Part of the issue with The Exorcist is that once you are aware of it, it’s really not that shocking anymore. This book was a shocker when it was first released; it was denounced far and wide as demonic–including by the Catholic Church (which is even more perplexing on the reread, because the book is very very Catholic), and the scares involved how shocking it was. I seem to recall Blatty based the book on an actual case of an exorcism from the early 1960’s, or perhaps the 1950’s–I don’t recall exactly. So, after forty-odd years the shocks and scares are no longer shocking or scary; my memory of the first read of the book is vague so I cannot remember if it was more pruriently shocking or if it was, indeed, scary to the twelve year old who read it all those years ago. But knowing the story, and what is coming, and knowing that the shock value has completely worn off in the intervening years, I was able to read it and evaluate it simply as a novel.

And it doesn’t, sadly, hold up very well.

I was torn about blogging about The Exorcist, because I generally don’t like to criticize other writers and other books publicly; but it’s an old book, and the author has made a fortune off it. There’s also the suspicion that knowing how homophobic the author is might have played into my disappointment in the reread, but let me give you some sentences:

Looking down at the pain in those sensitive eyes, Chris surrendered; couldn’t tell her what she really believed. Which was nothing.

In fact, Chris had smelled nothing, but had made up her mind she would temporize, at least until the appointment with the doctor. She was also preoccupied with a number of other concerns.

She seemed to be thinking, and still in this posture, she stepped outside and joined her son, who was waiting on the stoop.

Her eyes still on her notes, Sharon probed at the silence in a strained, low voice.

Chris looked at him appraisingly, with gratitude and even with hope.

There are lots more examples; weird analogies, and strange character behavior. It’s also really hard to tell who is the main character. Chris MacNeil, the mother, is a divorced atheist actress; her marriage failed, according to the book, because her husband couldn’t bear being Mr. Chris MacNeil; his wife’s success and fame was too much for his ego to handle, and Chris not only understands but doesn’t blame him. He is a neglectful father to Regan, which also doesn’t bother her too much. She is renting the house in Georgetown because she’s appearing in a movie being filmed there, a musical remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington which has an added subplot about campus unrest and protests (which sounds absolutely terrible) shoe-horned in; her main home is in LA. Yet once her role in the movie is finished, she stays in Georgetown inexplicably; Regan is being home-schooled by Chris’ secretary, who does double duty as Regan’s teacher–so there’s no reason for them to stay other than the fact that it’s necessary to the plot for her to remain in close proximity to Georgetown University’s campus. The filming is over before the possession truly gets going; so…

There are also some bizarre behaviors exhibited by Chris as well–she will have an encounter with her strangely acting daughter, be terribly upset, and then go downstairs and have a pleasant conversation with her housekeepers about the film they went to see. It becomes very difficult to have sympathy for her, because she isn’t really fleshed out as a character. The book is also told from an omniscient point of view, so the reader has a very hard time engaging with the characters or feeling deep sympathy for them; certainly it’s hard to identify with any of them. Sharon, the secretary, is a complete cipher; as are the Swiss couple who work as housekeepers. Burke Demmings, the director of the film and a friend of Chris’, is a vicious and cruel drunk who openly mocks her servants; which she just dismisses as “oh, that’s just Burke.”

Because her housekeepers aren’t people who should at least be treated with a modicum of respect as human beings?

The police detective who becomes involved in the case–Burke ends up dead at the foot of the steep staircase down to M Street behind the house–is incredibly annoying; he never gets to the point and dances around the subject and is one of the most unbelievable cops I’ve ever encountered in fiction; he seems a bit like Columbo, but at least the viewer knew that Columbo was actually incredibly smart and that was his method. You never get that sense with Detective Wilderman; he’s just annoying.

Father Karras is by far the most likable and interesting character in the book; and I suppose the reason it’s called The Exorcist. Damien Karras (it’s funny; at the time the book was published the name was unusual but interesting; of course The Omen has forever altered the perception of that name) is having a crisis of faith; his own homosexuality is hinted at but subtextually; his ‘friendship’ with Father Dyer is hinted at, they have a lightly teasing homoerotic kind of friendship but it’s never really gotten into; although one of the insults the demon throws at Karras is an accusation of homosexuality, which rattles him. There’s also a scene where Father Dyer mentions that ‘the gays are leaving the priesthood in droves.’

But the underlying premise, and theme that drives the book, is that Catholicism is real, the one true Faith; even though the demon is apparently an old Babylonian god named Puzuzu–who predates Catholicism and Jesus–the power and faith can defeat him. The ultimate sacrifice of Father Karras in taking in the demon and then killing himself–what happened to the demon? What happened to his soul? Does he redeem himself with this act?

Father Karras was interesting to me (he is constantly described, not just in the text but by characters, as ‘looking like a boxer’–whatever that means: “they told me you looked like a boxer”.) as a character, and I would have loved to have seen the entire story through his eyes; the loss of faith, his struggle with choosing the church over his mother; the relationship with Father Dyer; his doubt that Regan is actually possessed and the slow dawning that demons, and therefore, his faith, are real; and why he would make that ultimate, final sacrifice.

I’m glad I reread the book, even though it was kind of disappointing. I greatly enjoyed the television series, which was recently renewed for a second season (yay!), and it is an important book in the genre; no matter what quibbles I have with it, its importance cannot be denied, and I think horror aficionados should read it.

Half Breed

Ira Levin was one of my favorite writers. He only wrote seven novels during his lifetime (he died in 2007), and I’ve read all of them but one; they were each extraordinary. Like James M. Cain, his most famous novels were very short; but each one that I read was exceptional. His books were so ubiquitous that they’ve entered the vernacular; the references may be lost on younger people, but most people will know what you mean when you reference a Stepford wife or a boy from Brazil.

And everyone knows Rosemary’s Baby.

rosmarys-baby-apr-1968-ira-levin-publ-dell-7509-0-95-218pp-pb

Levin was an amazing writer, truly amazing. Take the opening to Rosemary’s Baby:

Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse had signed a lease on a five-room apartment in a geometric white house on First Avenue when they received word, from a woman named Mrs. Cortez, that a four-room apartment in the Bramford had become available. The Bramford, old, black, and elephantine, is a warren of high-ceilinged apartments prized for their fireplaces and Victorian detail. Rosemary and Guy had been on its waiting list since their marriage but had finally given up.

The opening paragraph of The Stepford Wives:

The Welcome Wagon lady, sixty if she was a day but working at youth and vivacity (ginger hair, red lips, a sunshine-yellow dress), twinkled her eyes and teeth at Joanna and said, “You’re really going to like it here! it’s a nice town with nice people! You couldn’t have made a better choice!” Her brown leather shoulderbag was enormous, old and scuffed; from it she dealt Joanna packets of powdered breakfast drink and soup mix, a toy-size box of non-polluting detergent, a booklet of discount slips good at twenty-two local shops, two cakes of soap, a folder of deoderant pads–

Both start so innocently; a young couple getting the apartment of their dreams, a wife newly moved to the suburbs being greeted by the Welcome-Wagon Lady (do people still do that, I wonder?). Sunshine, light, and innocence, right? Both books begin with new beginnings; a fresh start in a new home. And yet–both wives, Rosemary and Joanna, wind up in terrifying situations, and even worse, no one believes them, least of all their husbands–particularly since it was their husbands who sold them out in the first place; Guy Woodhouse selling Rosemary out to a cult of Satanists in exchange for career success, Joanna’s husband selling his feminist wife out for a realistic, animatronic robot version with a sexier figure who is programmed to be an obedient wife/slave to her husband. The Stepford Wives was the first Levin novel I read, and I read it shortly after it came out in paperback, plucking it off the wire paperback racks at the Zayre’s in Bolingbrook shortly after we’d moved to that suburb. And it’s really a frightening book to read when you’ve just moved to the suburbs.

But I can’t help but wonder why Levin’s work in these two instances isn’t considered domestic suspense? Both books are from the point of view of women; about their issues and their place in their marriages; and borrow the most important theme from romantic suspense novelists like Phyllis Whitney and Victoria Holt: his heroines cannot fully trust their husbands. Of course, both books veer into the supernatural…are they horror novels?

My favorite work of Levin’s is his first novel, which also won the Edgar for Best First, A Kiss Before Dying. It’s been filmed twice–neither film is worth watching, frankly–and it literally is genius. If you haven’t read it, you really need to–it’s one of the best suspense novels I’ve ever read. The problem, of course, with A Kiss Before Dying is you can’t really discuss it without spoiling it–and while you can still enjoy the book knowing the big twist, not having it spoiled really makes you appreciate how genius Levin really was.

And now, back to the spice mines.