I’m on Fire

Friday, and the day and the weekend stretch out before me like an unpainted canvas; blank and full of possibilities. I have a short day at work today, and I slept relatively well last night, so am feeling fairly good this morning. My left shoulder is mysteriously sore, tbough. Not sure what that’s about, but there you have it.

We finished watching Episodes last night, and it ended perfectly; very meta, and very funny. The entire show was kind of meta, really, and I have to give Matt Leblanc credit for not only playing himself, but playing himself as a complete egotistical self-absorbed asshole actor. Not sure what we’re going to watch now that we’ve finished both The Alienist and Episodes, but I have faith in us to find something–although we haven’t had much luck lately in finding something new; although The Alienist was absolutely a lucky find.

My kitchen is a mess this morning, which indicates that I need to get this mess cleaned up, and the sooner the better. Heavy heaving sigh. But….since I don’t have to go into the office until later, perhaps I could spend this morning cleaning the kitchen so I don’t have to do it tomorrow, which makes all the sense you can imagine, you know? I generally try to do some cleaning when I get home on my early day as well, so the weekend is freer to write or edit or do whatever it is that I want to. I need to write this weekend, as I’ve not been doing as much of that lately on the weekends as I need to. I’ve been asked to contribute to an anthology this week; which means I need to either find something I already have in a draft form, or write something entirely new. I don’t know how I feel about writing something entirely new, if I am going to be completely honest. I have the book to catch up on, some other stories that need to be finished so the collection is done, once and for all–primarily work on “My Brother’s Keeper” and “Don’t Look Down”–but there are an awful lot of stories that I have in various stages. I NEED TO REVISE THAT STORY BASED ON EDITORIAL NOTES AS WELL. WHY CAN’T I EVER REMEMBER I NEED TO DO THAT?

Heavy sigh.

Okay, I read a couple more stories for the Short Story Project, and first up was “Thinkers” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, from Lawrence Block’s Alive in Shape and Color:

1970

Leo’s blood, warm against her cold hands, steamed in the frosty night air. Like hot coffee in a paper cup.

Lisa tried not to giggle, because she knew the giggle would be hysterical. She ran a hand over Leo’s face. He was leaning against the marble edge of the empty pool surrounding the Fountain of the Waters, legs splayed, head pointed toward Wade Lagoon.

Irv was just staring at him, and Helen–God knew where Helen had gotten off to, because Lisa didn’t. Her ears still rang from the explosion, which had been louder than she had expected.

This is a good story, flipping back and forth through time. In 1970, it’s about a group of student revolutionaries, planning to blow up Rodin’s “The Thinker” statue as a blow against the ruling class. The bombing goes awry and one of them is killed, and the viewpoint character, seeing death and destruction in person for this first time, starts rethinking her own radicalism and the ‘revolution.’ In the present day, the viewpoint character is a docent/intern/volunteer, working at the museum to advance herself, and she witnesses eventually a confrontation between a museum volunteer and a museum donor, and it doesn’t make any sense to her…but for the reader, they can see that’s the two women from the group in 1970, and how they, themselves, have gone from counter-culture revolutionaries to the ruling class they once despised. It’s very The Big Chill in some ways, and these theme–youthful radicalism aging into conservatism–has been explored in crime novels/films/television shows, and it’s always interesting, at least for me.

Next was “Gaslight” by Jonathan Santlofer, also from Alive in Shape and Color:

It was true, she hadn’t been feeling well, hadn’t been herself, the headaches, the nausea, the slight vertigo. But she was fine. She’d always been predisposed to colds and flu, periods of time when she didn’t feel quite right, sensitive, her mother used to say, and that was true. It was a virus, that’s all, at least she’d thought so for the first few weeks. But now, after three months, she wasn’t so sure.

“Give it time, Paula, you know how these New York colds can linger, especially in winter,” Gregory, her husband of six months, always so sweet, always trying to reassure her.

But what sort of cold lasted three months?

I loved this story; about a young, wealthy woman married to a struggling artist, who soon begins to suspect her husband might have married her for her money and might just be poisoning her…and what is she going to do about it? This is a classic romantic suspense trope, from the title being borrowed from the film that won Ingrid Bergman an Oscar to the trope which was the plot of almost every Victora Holt novel and was also used by any number of romantic suspense writers back in the day–but Santlofer turns it on its head, and shows how the line between romantic suspense and noir is actually rather blurry. The twists in the story are fantastic and earned, and the way Santlofer builds the suspense is magnificently done. Bravo, sir!

And now, back to the spice mines.

30728171_10155109528711486_2604031885516472320_n

Angel

Wednesday morning.The sun is shining outside, Scooter is on my desk staring outside at the outdoor kitties, and my kitchen is a disaster area. In other words, it’s a typical morning here at the Lost Apartment.

We continue to watch, and be enthralled by, The Alienist. There are only three episodes left, which is disheartening, but all good things must come to an end, and we shall simply have to find something else to watch.

I continue to work on “Don’t Look Down,” which is probably the longest short story I’ve ever written and will undoubtedly wind up either a novelette or a novella or however they determine what those things are. Which is fine; it’s just taking a lot longer to pull together than I thought it would, but I am also working on it piecemeal; a bit here, a bit there, and I am not worrying about language or sentence structure or so forth as I sort of map the story out. I’ve worked my way through the first half again, and now I have to work  my way through the back half, which needs to be strengthened and made more creepy. I also worked on “My Brother’s Keeper” a bit yesterday, filling in a couple of scenes that were missing–again, structural issues being repaired and filled in; I’ll go back over it and make it resonate stronger emotionally in a future draft. I also realized I never got around to doing the edits on a short story I got from the editor; I need to get that done, as well as some website writing I forgot about. My bad! Oops! Must get on that….

So here are some short stories. First up is “Trial by Combat,” by Shirley Jackson,  from The Lottery and Other Stories:

When Emily Johnson came home one evening to her furnished room and found three of her best handkerchiefs missing from the dresser drawer, she was sure who had taken them and what to do. She had lived in the furnished room for about six weeks and for the past two weeks she had been missing small things occasionally. There had been several handkerchiefs gone, and an initial pin which Emily rarely wore and which had come from the five-and-ten. And once she had missed a small bottle of perfume and one of a set of china dogs. Emily had known for some time who was taking the things, but it was only tonight that she had decided what to do. She had hesitated about complaining to the landlady because her losses were trivial and because she had felt certain that sooner or later she would know how to deal with the situation herself. It had seemed logical to her from the beginning that the one person in the rooming-house who was home all day was the most likely suspect, and then, one Sunday morning, coming downstairs from the roof, where she’d been sitting in the sun, Emily had seen someone come out of her room and go down the stairs, and had recognized the visitor. Tonight, she felt, she knew just what to do. She took off her coat and hat, put her packages down, and, while a can of tamales was heating on her electric plate, she went over what she intended to say.

Again, what Shirley Jackson is able to do so beautifully is also what, I think, Raymond Carver tried to do in his stories: the small details and foibles that make up human personalities. Emily’s struggle to get up the nerve to confront the person she thinks is stealing from her, how she goes over it again and again in her head before marching down the stairs–it’s just so utterly human, and real. I wish someone would do a movie like Short Cuts from Jackson’s short stories. She’s better than Carver.

“And Now to God The Father” by Daphne du Maurier, The Doll and The  Lost Short Stories

The Reverend James Holloway, Vicar of St. Swithin’s, Upper Chesham Street, was looking at his profile in the glass. The sight was pleasing to him, so much so that he lingered a considerable time before he laid the mirror back upon the dressing table.

He saw a man of about fifty-five years of age, who looked younger, with a high forehead and magnificent iron-grey hair, that was apt to curl slightly at the temples.

The nose was straight, the mouth narrow and sensitive, and he had been told that his deep-set eyes could be in turn humorous, dangerous, and inspired. He was tall and broad-shouldered; he carried his head a little to one side, and his powerful chin was tilted in the air.

This is another of du Maurier’s lost gems. It isn’t so much a story as a character study, of a particular kind of cleric; one who is more interested in his social position and the invitations he gets than actually doing anything to help unfortunate people, which is supposed to be his calling and his purpose. We see him flit through meetings and flirtations with wealthy and titled women…and then he actually causes harm and damage, trying to clean up a mess created by a profligate earl’s son. Of course he does the wrong thing, because he is the worst kind of cleric. Brilliant character study, absolutely brilliant, with that macabre du Maurier twist.

IMG_1242

Valotte

Tuesday!

It’s supposed to get up to a high of eighty-one degrees today, which would be lovely, considering how cold it was when I woke this morning. Shiver.  Of course, it didn’t snow here and all things considered, I should be grateful that I live somewhere that snow is an anomaly rather than the norm.

We’re still enjoying The Alienist, and I am now rather curious about the book. I’m not going to have time to read it anytime soon, of course, and it’s not like my TBR pile isn’t higher than Mount Everest, but I am curious about it. I know it was extremely popular, and as I said, we are greatly enjoying the show.

I also watched Southern Charm New Orleans last night. I watch reality television; always have, beginning with The Real World back in the early 1990’s. It was…interesting. I will say this; New Orleans looked absolutely beautiful on the show, but…I will probably continue to watch; and I will say this for it: it’s not as bad as the execrable show The Big Easy was. If you have Amazon Prime and want to watch a truly awful show about New Orleans, The Big Easy is just sitting there, free, on Prime.

Yesterday I managed to work on both “Burning Crosses” and “My Brother’s Keeper”; the latter is getting very close to being finished. I also worked a little bit on “Don’t Look Down,” but I think I am going to focus on working on Chapter Eleven of the Scotty next. I am terribly unhappy with it, and while there’s a big part of me urging me to keep moving forward on the book, I am so eminently dissatisfied with this chapter that I don’t know that I’ll be able to. So, I may just give it a light going over before moving on to Chapter Twelve. Plus, the light going over might help me with Chapter Twelve.

Ah, rationalization.

First up today in the Short Story Project is “The Great Wave” by S. J. Rozan, from Lawrence Block’s Alive in Shape and Color:

The water’s cool silk slipped past her shoulders, her breasts, her hips. Terence permitted her to swim whenever and for however long she wanted, in the tiled pool in the basement just outside her suite. He required her to swim nude, as she had done at the beginning, when she was here by choice and the smooth sluicing delight of her swims always brought her out joyful, aroused, and aching for him. Arousal, ache, certainly joy, were no more, but she was she grateful for the sensation, however temporary, of fluid, enveloping protection.

She drew breath and dove. Powerful kicks and strong strokes propelled her through this underground underwater world, and though she still, always, felt a stab of despair when her fingers found the slick hard wall where the water ended, once she kicked off and turned she was again alone and almost free. Terence couldn’t swim. Her life, her body, the place she now lived, he had and would continue to invade; but in the water she could be without him. She knew he was sitting forward in his rattan chair, watching her, and so when she resurfaced to swim laps she alternated the side of her breathing as she changed direction. The whole time she was in the pool she never saw him.

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: S. J. Rozan is one of my favorite crime writers–writers in general, really. This is a terrific story; like the Oates from yesterday, it’s about a woman who is being held prisoner by a man, but while it explores the same themes as the Oates story from yesterday, it tackles them in a completely different way, and the story ends perfectly. Two definite thumbs up here, but I have to say I am getting a little weary of “women being held captive” stories–nothing to do with this story, it just seems like I’ve read a lot of them lately. Or perhaps because the Oates and Rozan stories resonated so strongly, I don’t see how another writer could possibly do a better job? The bar definitely has been set pretty high for this theme.

And then there’s “Like Mother Used to Make” by Shirley Jackson, from The Lottery and Other Stories:

David Turner, who did everything in small quick movements, hurried from the bus stop down the avenue to his street. He reached the grocery on the corner and hesitated; there had been something. Butter, he remembered with relief; this morning, all the way up the avenue to his bus stop, he had been telling himself butter, don’t forget butter coming home tonight, when you pass the grocery remember butter. He went into the grocery and waited his turn, examining the cans on the shelves. Canned pork sausage was back, and corned-beef hash. A tray full of rolls caught his eye, and then the woman ahead of him went out ans the clerk turned to him.

“How much is butter?” David asked cautiously.

No one mastered the small short story quite like Shirley Jackson; and what I mean by small is the poignant sadness of a quiet life. David Turner is one of those Milquetoast-y people, but at the same time he is incredibly happy with the quiet, peaceful little life he has made for himself. He is overly fond of a female neighbor, thinks there’s more to the relationship than there really is–and as it turns out, she is actually quite awful–but David is one of those people whose interaction with other people is so limited, so timid, so shy, that he doesn’t even recognize how horrible she really is; and maybe the fact that she treats him so contemptuously when we are seeing everything from his point of view makes her seem much more monstrous. It’s a sad, melancholy little tale, and I couldn’t stop thinking about for quite a while after I finished reading it; wondering about David and where this was going to go from here. Jackson was such a genius.

And now, back to the spice mines.

26904063_2066803340016325_8735152679423967153_n

Solid

It still feels chilly this morning, after a weekend of lowered temperatures. But the sun is shining, and all feels well with the world. I wrote yesterday; a lot, in fact, well over three thousand words; which is a lot for me to do on a weekend day. I even did it all by two pm, so I had the rest of the day to putz around. I finished a very weak first draft of “Burning Crosses,” worked on “Don’t Look Down” some more, and finished a very weak Scotty Chapter 11. But i know how to fix “Burning Crosses,” so that’s not a problem, and I know what I need to do with “Don’t Look Down,” which I just can’t seem to focus on. I also recognize that my feelings about the Scotty manuscript are the usual loss of faith I always have somewhere mid-manuscript; and I just need to ignore it and soldier on, with the mantra I can always fix this later! I can always fix this later!

Which I seem to be using a lot lately. I’m not quite sure what that says about the quality of what I’ve been writing.

I’m in this weird place right now with my writing; trying to feel more confident in it and my ability, while at the same time my insecurity is undermining me while I am actually writing. I need to ignore the things that pop up in my head as I work on the Scotty book, the slings and arrows hurled at me over the years that I can’t seem to get out of my mind and try to remember all the positive things that have been said about me and my work; which I don’t tend to take as seriously as the negative.

Honestly.

We started watching Lost in Space and Troy: The Fall of a City; we stopped because Paul didn’t like them–I was, so it gives me something to watch when I’m on the treadmill at the gym. We also gave Siren on Freeform a try; neither one of us was terribly sold on it, although I’d be willing to give it another episode or two before giving up on it entirely. Then we moved on to The Alienist, and yes, we are both committed to it. I never read the novel when it came out, but I do remember it made quite a stir when it did, and that the queer publishing community stood up and took note of it as well. I never could grasp why, but now that I am watching the show, I see why; there is a serial killer praying on boy prostitutes in 1890’s New York, and the ‘alienist’, Dr. Kreuzler, is rare in that time that he doesn’t see homosexuality or trans issues as either sinful or mental illness; it’s very queer positive, if you can get past the slaughter of the boy-prostitutes, which are particularly gruesome. But it’s very well done and interesting; we’ll keep going.

I also read some short stories. First up is  “Les Beaux Jours” by Joyce Carol Oates, from Lawrence Block’s Alive in Shape and Color:

Daddy please come bring me home. Daddy I am so sorry.

Daddy it is your fault. Daddy I hate you.

Daddy, no! I love you Daddy whatever you have done.

Daddy I am under a spell here. I am not myself  here.

The place in which I am a captive–it is in the Alps, I think. It is a great, old house like a castle made of ancient rock. Through high windows you can see moors stretching to the mountainous horizon. All is scrubby gray-green as if undersea. The light is perpetual twilight.

Dusk is when the Master comes. I am in love with the Master.

Daddy no! I do not love the Master at all, I am terrified of the Master.

I’d not read Joyce Carol Oates before a few years ago; I read her short story that was a Macavity finalist the same year I was, and was blown away by it. I always thought Oates was more of a literary writer, but she writes crime and horror and dark stories, and she does it incredibly well. This story is Oates at her best; disturbing and creepy and horrifying. She manages to get the voice of the trapped girl perfectly; that strange mix of Stockholm syndrome and desperation to get away; the fear that she might die there. Very disturbing.

“Truth Comes out of Her Well to Shame Mankind,” by Thomas Pluck,  also from Alive in Shape and Color:

The cracking of the skulls was performed by a practiced hand. The bowl separated from the eye sockets and teeth. These were no virgin cannibals like the lost colonists of Roanoke, with their hesitation marks. Whatever people had done this had been done before, and had perhaps been doing it for a very long time.

Devin cupped the skull in his palm, reminded of how Danes toasted before a drink.

Thomas Pluck is one of the better writers we have in the crime fiction world right now, and I hope this appearance in the Block anthology is a sign that he’s beginning to get his due. He wrote a story for Blood on the Bayou that was superb; I have his novel Bad Boy Boogie, in my TBR pile. This story, about an arrogant ass of a man who visits an archaeological site, being led by a woman he didn’t get along with in college, is not only chilling but timely; men all so frequently are unaware of the damage they leave in their wake, aren’t they, and this story is about that very thing; carelessness, just as The Great Gatsby was about the carelessness of the Buchanans. Very well done.

And now, back to the spice mines.

30595147_10156310071713256_742405299911118398_n