Wonderland

I see it’s time for all of the “end of the year” lists, from the best of’s to the worst of’s, and literally, I had to scroll back through my blog to find my “favorite” short story of the year to reply to a tweet in order to enter a giveaway–and it was such a confounding year that I just posted the first one I came to, whether it was the best or not–“The Day I Died” by Cornell Woolrich, and immediately after I hit send, I thought, “that wasn’t even my favorite Woolrich story I read last year; that was ‘It Had to Be Murder’ (filmed as Rear Window)”. But that’s indicative of the kind of year this 2020 has been, not just for me but for others: I can’t remember shit. I can’t remember what I read and when I read it; was the Diversity Project this year or last? When did I started the Reread Project? And the Short Story Project certainly didn’t het much traction here on the blog this past year. This year now blends with other years in my memory, and I am not sure when I read things or what I liked or what movies I watched or television shows I enjoyed–and there were a lot; but was this year the year we started watching foreign language shows like Elite and Dark? I know I watched a lot of films for the Cynical 70’s Film Festival–still have a lot to go on that, for that matter–but as for reading….I know I read some books this past year, and I know I started the Reread Project–not just to revisit books I’d enjoyed, but to get back into reading because the pandemic shutdown–and the basic state of the world in chaos–made it hard for me to focus.

Even more maddening, the lack of focus also hurt my writing schedule (which really needed no assistance–I can not write all by myself without assistance from outside influences, thank you very much), and I cannot keep track or remember what I wrote and what I sold and so forth. I know I wrote my first ever Sherlock Holmes pastiche this past year, and it will be out in the new year–“The Affair of the Purloined Rentboy” (and I am so glad to finally get that title used; although, in fairness, the title I had lying around forever was The Purloined Stripper; I was originally thinking to parody Poe titles with the Chanse series, hence Murder in the Rue Dauphine. But the publisher (Alyson Books) wanted to brand them with the Murder in the titles, and once I made Scotty a stripper and wrote about him, I revised the plot and made Chanse’s boyfriend a former gay-interest video wrestler and that book became Murder in the Rue St. Ann instead)–and I also sold some other stories, like “The Snow Globe” and “Night Follows Night”–but it also seems like I sold more stories than that? I think this was the year “The Silky Veils of Ardor” came out in Josh Pachter’s The Beat of Black Wings, and of course “The Carriage House” came out in Mystery Tribune this year. Was this also the year of “The Dreadful Scott Decision” and The Faking of the President? I think that may be the case.

I do know I spent most of the year trying to get Bury Me in Shadows finished and ready to go–it’s still not completely finished–and I also started researching Chlorine. I kind of am feeling a bit discombobulated lately–no idea what day it is; I really had to stop and think this morning before recognizing that it’s actually Sunday. Crazy, right? I went shopping yesterday to make groceries and get the mail and air up the car tires again–the ‘tires are out of balance’ light came on the other day, which means they are low in air–and then I came home. I spent some time trying to locate my copy of Otto Friedrich’s City of Nets, which I may have read already and donated; the library also didn’t have it, so rather than going through the storage space I ordered the ebook, which was only $7.99. I spent some time with it yesterday reading it–it’s a period that always fascinates me; my interest in Hollywood begins to die out in the 1980’s, and beyond 1990 my interest wanes considerably.

Last night we watched two movies: 1917 and Bombshell, neither of which proved to be very involving. Both movies were very well done, but…I really didn’t feel any emotional involvement with either. Bombshell was probably the more interesting of the two–primarily anchored by Charlize Theron’s terrifyingly spot-on performance as Megyn Kelly, which really dominated the film, and I’m glad there’s a film sort of documenting the crazy goings-on at Fox before the 2016 election; in all honesty I’d pretty much forgotten many of the pertinent details about Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly’s departures from Fox News, but once the movie had finished all I really thought–I’m a really terrible person, I admit it–was that while the working environment at Fox was indeed terrible for women….it also wasn’t a big surprise to me? Why would anyone think that a network that was so definitively anti-women would be a nurturing environment for women? But as we saw with the “#metoo” movement…men have been abusing their power and victimizing women over whom they have power–whether real or perceived–since the beginning of time, and that cuts across the political divide. And while there was some reckoning, there wasn’t nearly enough–and I am sure it is still going on in companies and businesses and corporations today.

But again, Charlize Theron was eerily perfect as Megyn Kelly; I’m sure Kelly didn’t care for it, and she has since proven that she’s still a garbage human being despite everything that happened and everything she experienced; she’s still anti-feminist, still homophobic, still racist—now she just spews her bile on Twitter instead of in front of a camera. Same with Gretchen Carlson–and I am willing to bet that both of them learned nothing from their own experience and still question women bringing charges against men.

I know that S. A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland was one of the best books I read last year, along with The Coyotes of Carthage. Elizabeth Little’s Pretty As a Picture was also a favorite. I think this year included my first-ever read of Mary Stewart’s Thunder on the Right (is there a more hard-boiled, noir setting than a convent in the Pyrenees?), and I also enjoyed Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapegoat (although I recently read a review which suggested the book would have been much more interesting as told by the other doppelganger’s point of view, which is a very interesting suggestion). I know I reread several of Stewart’s books, including Airs Above the Ground, The Moon-spinners, and This Rough Magic, and in the case of the latter two, I remembered so little of them from my original read it was like reading something new. I also read a lot of histories of New Orleans and Louisiana, which was a lot of fun as well–and of course, my Chlorine research led me to reading some gay Hollywood histories–as well as some basic Hollywood histories. I know I also greatly enjoyed Kelly J. Ford’s Cottonmouths.

Highlights of my television viewing have to include at the very top two of the best comedies ever done on television, Schitt’s Creek and Ted Lasso. Both shows were both funny and tender and heartwarming, and one of the great pleasures of 2020 has been watching other people discover how magic and wonderful both shows are. Paul and I also got into foreign language television at long last, thoroughly enjoying shows like Dark Desire, The Club, White Lines, and several others, but two of the best were Elite (from Spain) and Dark (from Germany), but Babylon Berlin was probably my favorite watch of the year. We also thoroughly enjoyed The Morning Show, Little Fires Everywhere (the book was also pretty spectacular), and of course, The Mandalorian. I also would be remiss without shout-outs to two of my favorite trashy binge-watches, Outer Banks and Tiny Pretty Things. Ozark continues to be terrific, as was the second season of Castle Rock and HBO’s The Outsider. We also saw Mr. Mercedes‘s first season on Peacock, and liked it a lot as well.

I still miss Game of Thrones, disappointing final season notwithstanding.

As for movies….I spent most of my time with my Cynical 70’s Film Festival, which included some rewatches (Cabaret, which I love more every time I see it) as well as first time watches of films like The Candidate, The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, The French Connection, and Chinatown; all of which served as an interesting re-education into the decade that was the 1970s, and probably one of the more formative decades of my life. There are still some 70’s films I need to see for this–I really want to rewatch The Last Picture Show, which I’ve not seen in years, as well as The Sting, What’s Up Doc, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, A Woman Under the Influence, Starting Over, An Unmarried Woman, Saturday Night Fever, and so many others. It was such an interesting decade for film…but of the rewatched films, the ones I have always loved–Don’t Look Now, Cabaret, Chinatown–I appreciated even more than I have on previous watches, if that makes any sense. Of the ones I hadn’t seen before, I think my favorite would have to be The Conversation, which was simply brilliant, and a perfect illustration of what the 1970’s were really about on many different levels.

There are a lot of books coming out in the new year that I am excited for; new novels from Alison Gaylin and Laura Lippman and Megan Abbott at the top of the list, of course, and so many others! There’s never enough time to read everything I want to read or watch everything I want to watch, let alone write everything I want to write….which sounds like an excellent place to wrap this up and head back into the spice mines.

Have a lovely day, Constant Reader!

Speak Now

I’ve always been fascinated by politics and history; the two go hand-in-hand, and you really cannot understand one without understanding the other. (Economics are also a lot more important than is ever given credit in most histories–wars and exploration and colonization was, inevitably, always about markets and trade and thus money) I’ve maintained for years that history should be taught as the advancement of individual rights–the ups and downs of individual freedoms, rather than dates and battles and Kings and Queens and Emperors–and that study of individual rights also needs to examine prejudices and bigotry and zealotry, and how those three factors have poisoned civilization and humanity throughout much of its history. I also feel that, while the study of wars are important for their impact, the fact that the impact these wars had on the citizens of the country (countries) being invaded was also important. Putting humanity in the study of human history would not only make it more interesting, but would also further the understanding that should come with the study.

I tend to avoid books about politics, or political thrillers–the news provides enough stranger than fiction moments every day–and as a general rule, fictional films about politics rarely interest me, either. Paul and I avoided The West Wing for years, thinking a fictional show about our government couldn’t be interesting enough for us to get vested in; we were clearly wrong (but I still refuse to watch The American President.) Fletcher Knebel, a long forgotten writer of the mid-twentieth century, wrote political thrillers, and while I was aware of him when I was young, I never read any of his books; why read about fictional politics when actual history is available to read and study? But a few years ago, I read an article about one of his books, recently brought back into print, and intrigued me enough to want to read it.

It’s premise: what if a sitting American President begins to slowly lose his mind and grip on reality?

And I am sure you can imagine why that premise was intriguing.

Jim MacVeagh’s burst of laughter came so unexpectedly, his hand jiggled the stem of the wineglass, and a splash of champagne spotted the linen tablecloth. Sidney Karper, the Secretary of Defense, sitting on his right, grinned in shared appreciation and shook his head.

“Unbeatable, isn’t he, Senator? He just won’t be topped.”

“Nobody can touch him when he’s determined,” agreed MacVeagh. He wiped at his eye with a corner of his napkin and turned back toward the center of the long head table, cluttered with late debris of ashes and crumpled menus amid the sparkle of glassware.

The speaker, President Mark Hollenbach, was mock-solemn again after flashing a responsive smile for the spray of laughter which greeted his first sally. His was the honor chore of the night–the brief reply to the toast to the President of the United States which signaled the closing of another annual Gridiron dinner. The news correspondents had lampooned the Hollenbach administration and its foes in a series of musical skits, some sharp as stilettos but one belabored in its buffoonery, while the Marine Band orchestra in shining scarlet coats. played for the 550 diners.

I finally read this book while I was on vacation over Thanksgiving week, and found myself enjoying it tremendously. It’s a thriller, of course, and the main character is junior Iowa senator Jim MacVeagh. Jim’s a good guy, without too much ambition, with a wife he loves and a tween daughter he adores; he also is having an affair with the chair of the DNC’s secretary–not really a smart thing to do, but we see this self-destructive behavior from politicians all the time (although the idea that adultery is disqualifying for higher office has long since been shown up as a lie). After the Gridiron Club dinner, Jim is invited by the president to join him for a talk at Camp David–and it is there the story kicks into gear. Enormously popular President Mark Hollenbach has decided to dump his vice-president for the upcoming campaign–he’s been tainted with a whiff of scandal regarding a building project a campaign donor was awarded–and the President is interested in having Jim join him on the campaign trail.

Naturally, this is very exciting for Jim, awakening ambitions he wasn’t aware he’d even had, and realizing that, if selected, this would make him the front runner for the top of the ticket in four years–which of course is very exciting for any politician, particularly a young one–but as the conversation continues, Jim begins to become concerned, as some of the things the President wants to do in his second term are not only unconstitutional but borderline insane–for one example, he wants to wire tap every American’s phone, so as better to track and prevent crime, espionage, and foreign agents–and he also displays paranoiac tendencies. As Jim gets closer to the President and one step closer to being on the ticket, more and more evidence of the president’s instability is revealed to him….and he has to. ask himself–party or country? Patriotism or partisanship?

This is a terrific read, and certainly one any American today could identify with and get caught up in the story.

I’m now curious to read other works of Knebel’s, and then of course, Allen Drury’s terrific series of novels about Washington, beginning with Advise and Consent.

I do remember reading an Arthur Hailey novel about politics–yes, government was one of the industries he turned his research and writing to–called In High Places. (I read this during my Arthur Hailey phase; I learned alot from his books. I read The Moneychangers when I worked at a bank; he was spot on about day to day operations on the floor. I reread Airport when I worked at an airport; again, pretty spot on, despite the decades of changes to the industry since he researched and wrote the book.) And The Coyotes of Carthage, which I read earlier this year, was one of the best books I’ve read about rural politics.

I think you might enjoy Night of Camp David. I certainly did.

King of My Heart

I went down a wormhole thought pattern of sorts this morning, triggered by reading a Crimereads essay about spy novels, and their genesis; it mentioned that Rudyard Kipling’s Kim was one of the first spy novels, and I also realized that only had I not read Kim, I’m not entirely sure I’ve ever read Kipling; however, a quick Internet search just not has reminded me that I have, indeed, read Kipling: Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, The Jungle Book, Captains Courageous, but I really don’t remember anything about them (let’s be honest, all my memories of The Jungle Book are naturally from the Disney animated film). I may have also even read Just So Stories, but am not entirely sure. I’m sure Kipling’s work does not stand the test of time–just the title of the poem “The White Man’s Burden” made my eyes almost pop out of my head when I came across it this morning–as they undoubtedly reflect the white supremacist view of Imperialism and the need for the British Empire.

On that same note, I feel relatively certain that the M. M. Kaye novels I once enjoyed (Shadow of the Moon and The Far Pavilions) probably wouldn’t hold up well, either.

I always read for pleasure and for enjoyment; to escape the world in which I found myself inhabiting and feeling like a changeling for the most part; I still do, for the most part. I haven’t been paid to write a book review in over a decade; I’ve always felt that as an author myself, there was a conflict of interest in accepting pay to read and critique another author’s work, and there was always, inevitably, the possibility that an honest view on something that didn’t work for me as a reader would be seen as a vindictive move on my part to torpedo another author, out of jealousy or spite or both. There are any number of these reviewers being employed, and paid quite handsomely, by major newspapers, and I don’t want to be one of them. I don’t like writing negative reviews, and if I am reading something I don’t care for, having to finish reading it because I am being paid to write about would inevitably make me resent the book and its author and would thus color the review.

I generally read things I think fall under my purview as a writer–mostly crime novels, some horror now and then, and maybe something every once in a great while, that would be considered literary. Often these are books by writers I already have discovered, or new ones recommended to me by others whose tastes I respect–The Coyotes of Carthage came to me in this way; Lisa Unger was recommended to me by numerous friends; and yes, Paul Tremblay came to me as a recommendation from a friend. I know I need to expand my horizons to improve as a writer, which is why I am not only committed to the Diversity Project (books by marginalized writers) but also to the Short Story Project. The Diversity Project has been a terrific learning experience, and the Short Story Project has helped me become a better short story writer. I’ve been trying to read New Orleans history lately–with a dash of Louisiana thrown in for flavor–in order to get a better sense of the city and state, so that I can write about them both more knowledgeably; plus there is so much inspiration in reading about the past of both city and state! It’s also incredibly humbling to know how little of that actual history I did know, and even though I knew how rich that history was, I had no idea just how much of a gold mine of inspiration and ideas it would prove to be.

Like I said, I tend to read things I think I will enjoy, and if I am not enjoying the experience, I inevitably stop reading. I have started things and put them aside, only to go back to them again and greatly enjoy them; Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts being the best and most recent example of this I can remember; I started it, got several chapters in, and wasn’t feeling it. I went back to it months later and couldn’t put it down, and frankly, after The Cabin at the End of the World, Tremblay is becoming one of my current favorite authors.

So, I’ve been wrong about books before, and I’ve also been wrong about authors before. Hence the dilemma in being a book reviewer, and why I have chosen for many years now to seek extra income by reading for reviews. I enjoy writing about books I enjoyed on here, my blog; that’s part of its reason for existence, and I also curate what I read and write about here. No one chooses for me what I read or what I write about; and I will only review something negatively if the writer is, frankly, long dead; and even then, it’s simply an explanation of why the book didn’t work for me (an example of this latter type was Night Has a Thousand Eyes by Cornell Woolrich; I appreciated the book but there were things about it I didn’t like, that I felt didn’t “play”, but since he is long dead–over fifty years–I wasn’t overly concerned about hurting his feelings….and I have enjoyed other works of his).

I often talk about how my education in what the Academy considers to be classic American literature (British, too, for that matter) is sorely lacking. It’s something that I occasionally wonder about; should I go back and read these so-called classics as decided by a group of people whose opinion I generally don’t respect very much? It’s entirely possible, I know, that books I was forced to read as a teenager in high school and college were actually better than I thought at the time because I loathed being forced to read anything and I despised the way they were taught by pompous pseudo-intellectuals with tenure (I really enjoyed mocking that world in my story “Lightning Bugs in a Jar”, and will probably mine it again at some point as story fodder).

But I can honestly say I went back twice to reread The Great Gatsby only to discover that I loathed it even more than I remembered loathing it the first time; I also spent some time in my twenties trying to read other works by the writers I was forced to read and found that I did, in fact, enjoy some of them. I hated Sinclair Lewis when I was forced to read Main Street in college; I later went back and enjoyed both Elmer Gantry and It Can’t Happen Here very much. I disliked Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise very much, and I loathed the Hemingways I was forced to read (The Old Man and the Sea, A Farewell to Arms) so much that I just can’t bring myself to read anything else of his. I was very surprised, actually, to find myself enjoying Faulkner quite a bit, and I keep meaning to go back and reread both The Sound and the Fury and Sanctuary–but there are also a lot of other Faulkner novels I’ve not read, and probably should. I also despised Tom Sawyer and the other, celebrated Mark Twain short stories I was forced to read; but as an adult greatly enjoyed Puddinhead Wilson, The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and Life on the Mississippi.

But I am not someone who became a writer because I wanted to have a legacy, or be lionized; I became a writer because I wanted to tell stories, and I wanted to tell the stories that I wanted to tell. I never had any desire to have my work be taught in colleges, or for students to be forced to write papers about my work. I always say that sort of thing isn’t up to me to decide, and it’s never been my aim. If I’m forgotten after I die, well, I won’t be the first.

I justify to myself not reading a lot of literary fiction by saying there simply isn’t enough time for me to read everything that I actually want to read, let alone find the time things people think I should read. But I also have this sense in my mind that perhaps I am missing out on something; I know I’ve read books that have gotten critical acclaim that were more on the literary side and liked them very much and learned from reading them. Colson Whitehead, for example, is simply brilliant while also writing genre fiction–The Nickel Boys and Underground Railroad were stunningly brilliant; I really need to read more of his work–and thinking about Colson Whitehead led me to thinking about, of all people, Cormac McCarthy. I’ve not read McCarthy, but from what I have gathered from what I have heard about his work is it technically is also genre fiction; The Road is a post-apocalyptic dystopian novel, after all–a friend whose opinion I respect read and hated the book, so I’m probably not going to go there–so I started going through his canon on the web and I finally settled on one to add to my TBR pile at some point, Outer Dark, because it too sounds like genre fiction. We shall see how that goes, shan’t we?

Laura Lippman often says that genre fiction is literature, and by claiming literary classics as genre (the most common is, of course, Crime and Punishment) we are demeaning the great genre work, which stands on its own without the necessity of claiming Dostoevsky or Faulkner’s Sanctuary as crime fiction (although I do believe Sanctuary is pulpy noir of the best kind). I do agree with her to some degree; as I said, I do think Sanctuary is noir, and an argument could be made that An American Tragedy by Dreiser is as well. (I’ve also pointed out numerous times that The Great Gatsby is really a murder mystery told in reverse) But her point is spot on: genre fiction doesn’t need to claim classics from the Academy in order to be recognized as literature, and claiming those books does make it seem like trying to make fetch happen.

I also like to believe that my best work is still ahead of me.

Of course, that means I actually need to do it.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines.

End Game

I’m really becoming a huge fan of Paul Tremblay.

I’ve always enjoyed horror, ever since I was a kid; I used to love watching Creature Features on WGN in Chicago, and getting scared–sometimes having nightmares. But the supernatural has always interested me, as well as horror; in the 1980’s and even into the early 1990’s I saw myself as becoming a horror writer rather than a crime writer. And while I’ve written some “scary” stories and novels, I don’t know that I could classify them as horror– I think Sara and Sorceress are probably the closest I’ve ever come to writing horror; maybe even Lake Thirteen would count (it certainly bears my favorite cover of all my novels). But I see myself as more of a fan of horror than a writer of it; as I’ve said many times, I tend to write more about human monsters than supernatural ones. I had heard great things about Paul Tremblay before I started reading his actual work; my friend Megan in particular is a big fan of his, and based on her recommendation I started reading A Head Full of Ghosts, but it didn’t really strike my fancy that first time, and so I put it aside and moved onto something else. I did pick it up again later, and then, of course, I couldn’t put it down.

After finishing The Coyotes of Carthage, I was looking through the TBR piles, pulled out a book or two before putting them back, and then finally decided to read a second Tremblay, The Cabin at the End of the World.

It was a most excellent choice.

The girl with the dark hair walks down the wooden front stairs and lowers herself into the yellowing lagoon of ankle-high grass. A warm breeze ripples through the blades, leaves and crab-like petals of clover flowers. She studies the front yard, watching for the twitchy, mechanical motion and frantic jumps of grasshoppers. The glass jar cradled against her chest smells faintly of grape jelly and is sticky on the inside. She unscrews the aerated lid.

Wen promised Daddy Andrew she would release the grasshoppers before they got cooked inside the homemade terrarium. The grasshoppes will be okay because she’ll make sure to keep the jar out of direct sunlight. She worries, though,, that they could hurt themselves by jumping into the sharp edges of the lid’s punched-in holes. She’ll catch smaller grasshoppers, ones that don’t jump as high or as powerfully, and because of their compact size there will be more leg-stretching room inside the jar. She will talk to the grasshoppers in a low, soothing voice, and hopefully they will be less likely to panic and mash themselves against the dangerous metal stalactites. Satisfied with her updated plan, she pulls up a fistful of grass, roots and all, leaving a pockmark in the front yard’s sea of green and yellow. She carefully deposits and arranges the grass in the jar, then wipes her hans on her gray Wonder Woman T-shirt.

Ironically, in my earlier paragraphs I talked about writing crime because I want my monsters to be human; ironically, the monsters in Paul Tremblay’s latest, sublime entry into the horror genre could easily be considered a crime thriller as well because his monsters are all too human, and this set-up is just as terrifying as any supernatural horror novel I’ve ever read. Being out in the country has never really appealed to me very much (ironically, my current work-in-progress is set out in the country) precisely because it’s no safer out in the country than it is in the city; at least in the city someone will hear your screams or cries for help. The very isolation of the country is part of its terror for me; in no less part because country people always smugly assert (and reassure themselves) that crime and murder are MUCH more likely to happen in the big, bad, dangerous city.

Sidebar: I still think there’s a terrific essay to be written about the proliferation of rural horror/crime novels in the 1970’s, directly tied to the inherent racism of white flight from integrated schools and neighborhoods to the suburbs and the country, and perhaps someday I will have the confidence to write the essay based on that abstract theme.

Tremblay has set his terrifying tale in a small cabin on a lake in upstate New Hampshire, close to the Canadian border, where our heroes–a married gay couple (Andrew and Eric) are spending a ‘back-to-nature’ vacation with their adopted child, Wen. The story is told in the present tense (always creepier in horror, seeing the action unfold as it happens rather than in the much safer past tense–it’s happening as opposed to it’s already happened) and the point of view shifts between the two dads and their young daughter. Wen is out on the lawn catching grasshoppers and naming them when a big man appears suddenly out of the woods, friendly and nice, he tries to win her over but ultimately fails, sending her running inside to warn her daddies that they are no longer alone in their rustic cabin–with no cell service and no wi-fi (which, ironically, was part of the cabin’s original appeal–to unplug; that appeal will righteously bite the in their ass now that a Dionysian influence has arrived in their idyllic world).

The big man, Leonard, isn’t alone; he has three friends with him, all wearing similar button-down shirts in different colors and jeans: Redmond, kind of an asshole every-straight-man; Sabrina, a nurse; and Adriane, who is older. As the three family members barricade themselves into the cabin, the four seemingly normal visitors let them know they are there to present them with a horrible, horrific choice: they have seen, in visions and dreams, that the apocalypse is nigh, but have been shown the cabin and the small family, and told that if one of them will voluntarily sacrifice himself, the end of the world will be stopped.

This is, of course, every parent’s worst nightmare: a threat to not only their family but to their child, and Tremblay does an amazing job of letting us, the readers, get to know all three of the family members, developing them into complicated, realistic characters with backstories and levels and layers; I also applaud him for writing about a same-sex family and making the characters absolutely real. (This is how you do it, people; read the book and take notes). Wen is completely believable as a little girl; the family bond and love is absolutely real; and that makes the horror even more horrible, more horrifying, more of a gut-punch…as we go through every step of the process with them, all over the course of less than twenty-four hours, as their lives are irrevocably altered and changed, as they refuse to believe the story of their visitors, but slowly but surely the wonder begins to creep in…what if this is absolutely real and they are indeed messengers from God?

I will leave it to the horror academics to discuss the symbols and symbolism threaded throughout the story–but I have to bring up the colors of the shirts the visitors are wearing, and the fact there are four of them: representing the four horsemen of the apocalypse along with their warnings of doom. The questions of faith, of existing as gay in a heterosexist society, of family and love–all of these are beautifully explored and written about, and the building of tension and suspense is unparalleled; it’s really hard to put the book down and walk away from the story without finding out how it all ends–will they make the sacrifice, or will the world end? Are the visitors right–and how will anyone ever know if they were, because the world not ending doesn’t prove anything if the sacrifice occurs.

Or are they just insane?

I highly recommend this book, and cannot wait to read more Tremblay.

Cold As You

Politics has rarely interested me when it comes to fiction; the reality all too often reads like unbelievable fiction, and it’s also there to read in all its horror in history. I stopped reading political non-fiction back in the day, probably some time around or after Katrina–and when I became involved with the National Stonewall Democrats, I was actually living in that world part time, and had no desire to read about it any longer. Paul and I avoided The West Wing for years for this very reason–only to become completely addicted to it when Bravo was running reruns, eventually renting the back seasons from Netflix and bingeing through its entire run, while watching the final seasons as they aired. It remains one of my favorite television programs of all time; sometimes I think it would be lovely to go back and rewatch it, but it was a balm for us during the Bush administration.

I used to, as I said, read political non-fiction from both sides of the aisle as well as from theoretically unbiased journalists; I used to read, believe it or not, Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh and Peggy Noonan, along with Al Franken and Matt Taibbi and others. I always felt it was important to read not only those who were in theory unbiased, but also to read the extremes of both sides–it’s always important, I thought, to know what both sides are saying and thinking to rev up their own extreme bases. While I always paid attention to politics I always considered myself more apolitical than anything else; my primary concerns were initially to stop people from dying from HIV and then to get some sort of legal recognition that my sexuality was not grounds for inequal treatment in the eyes of the law. The 2000 election debacle energized me; the country seemed to be veering off course and the results of that election changed the country and not for the better, which meant it was time to get to work.

I never read Allen Drury’s Washington novels; as I said, I was never all that interested in fiction based in politics. Robert Ludlum was the closest I ever came to reading political thrillers, and I was a huge fan of his throughout the late 1980’s and 1990’s. But political thrillers can be terrific reads; my question is are they crime novels? Thrillers are a subgenre of crime fiction, but do political thrillers actually count as crime novels? I suppose, in theory, they are; this is the question I’ve been grappling with since I finished reading The Coyotes of Carthage yesterday.

Andre marvels, watching a kid, a stranger of maybe sixteen, pinch another wallet. This lift makes the kid’s fifth, at least that Andre’s seen this morning–two on the train, two on the underground platform, and now this one on the jam-packed escalator that climbs toward the surface. The kid’s got skills, mad skills. He makes his lift and keeps on moving. There. Right there. The kid picks up another, his sixth, with the practiced grace of a ballerino, this time the mark, some corporate chump, probably a lobbyist, with slicked-back hair and a shit-eating grin. No one suspects a thing, and why should they? This kid blends in, looks like a prep-school student–and , who knows, perhaps he is–his aesthetic complete with a bookbag, khakis, and a dog-ered copy of de Tocqueville tucked beneath his arm. The kid reminds Andre of himself at that age–lean, hungry, steel eyes with smooth skin–but Andre concedes that he never possessed this kid’s talent.

Aboveground the kid disappears into the big-city bustle, and Andre thinks, Good for you, li’l man. Go in peace. For sure, the kid has plenty of places to hide. Northwest this morning is a mess: snowy, busy, noisy, the perfect urban jungle in which to flee. Andre works around the corner, and a lifetime ago, his family made a home inside a boarded-up rathole six blocks over. Andre has, in fact, loved in the District his entire life, thirty-five years save a stint across the river, two years in juvie for a grift gone bad on a nearby street. Seventeen years ago, when he left kiddie correctional, he never imagined he’d work on K Street, or that he’d own a walk-in closet full of three-piece suits, and the sudden realization, that he might lose it all, cuts like shards of glass crushed into the lining of his stomach.

Dre, our main character in this exceptionally fine debut novel by Steven Wright, isn’t necessarily likable, but he is understandable, and really, that’s the key with unlikable and unpleasant characters: as long as the reader can understand and empathize with an unlikable character, they will come along for the ride and may even root for that character. (As I like to say, the best note on character I was ever given by an editor when I was writing an unlikable character: even Hitler loved his dogs. ) The key is to find their humanity, and even when the character is doing unlikable things, you won’t lose the reader. It’s a skill set to be sure, but Steven Wright does this extremely well in a debut novel, and that’s really saying something.

Dre is a Black man who works for a political consulting firm in Washington, and one who is very good at what he does. He went overboard on his last assignment and almost blew a slam-dunk election, so his job is in jeopardy and if he weren’t being mentored by one of the founding partners of the firm, he would definitely be out already. Instead, he is given a punishment assignment: to get an initiative passed in a rural backwoods South Carolina county that really isn’t in the best interests of the local electorate but rather that of a large corporation who will poison everything in the county but will inevitably suck it dry of its resources and then leave behind nothing but wreckage. Dre comes from a broken home and has a brother who was also an addict; as teens they were small-scale dealers in order to survive and a deal gone horribly wrong put Dre into juvie. But he came out of juvie determined to go on the straight and narrow and build a life for himself…so politics seemed like a natural place for him to go.

But now in his mid-thirties, his life is crumbling around him: he has self-destructed his career; his fiancee has just dumped him for another man; his brother has ALS and he’s having to pay for his care as well as support his brother’s caregiver/girlfriend; and he’s questioning the decisions he’s made throughout his life to bring him to this place where he is now stuck in a backwoods redneck part of South Carolina running a campaign with no staff other than a rather sweet young intern–who turns out to be his mentor’s grandson. This election is a microcosm of everything that is currently wrong with our political system, and its deep cynicism; and Dre is having to face all of that, along with questioning what he is doing with his life for money, while his world continues to crumble around him.

All of the characters, while seen through Dre’s cynical eyes, are well-developed and well-rounded and completely believable; he sees very clearly their worth and their value and yet is incapable, because of who he has become through this cynical work, of connecting with any of them because of his own loss of humanity. This ballot initiative, so important for him to win if he wants to keep his job, is symbolic of his life; what do you do when you realize that not only have your sold your soul, but it may be too late to buy it back?

I greatly enjoyed this book from start to finish, and it’s a very powerful debut. It says a lot about humanity, the state of politics in this country, and the influence of dark money and how that has further corrupted an already corrupt system. But Dre’s search for his own humanity, his dark night of the soul, is what drives this strongly written story, and through Dre, requires the reader to do the same. The book offers no answers, of course; because those answers have to come from us.

What cost freedom?

Invisible String

Labor Day morning, and I feel rested. I’ve not felt this good in quite some time, frankly–I am sure ignoring my emails and staying away from social media over the course of the long weekend has something to do with that, indubitably–and now I am having my morning coffee and slowly coming alive. May as well enjoy it while I can, since tomorrow I have to get up unbearably early, but we only have one clinic day this week and it’s also a four-day work week, so maybe it won’t be so bad on my physically.

I worked on the book for a little while yesterday; not very much, not nearly as much writing as needed to be done over the long weekend–which is inevitably always the lament, is it not? But getting rest–both physical and mental–is also inevitably necessary and a necessity. I did manage to not only finish reading Little Fires Everywhere over the course of the weekend, but I also finished The Coyotes of Carthage (which will be getting its own entry eventually) and started reading Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World, which is not only extraordinary but nothing like I was expecting–and I was also going in blind, knowing nothing about the book other than I had read his earlier novel A Head Full of Ghosts and really enjoyed it. It features and centers, for example, a happily married gay couple and their adopted child; didn’t see or expect that coming. I’m about halfway through the book, and while I certainly don’t want to give anything away, I am already planning on spending some more time with it today. Reading is such an escape (always has been) and a pleasure for me my entire life; I never really understand what it’s like for people who don’t read, or who don’t like to read–its so outside of my own experience I’m not sure I could ever understand choosing not to read.

The work I did on the book yesterday, while not a lot, was also quite good work, and I am certain that the rising quality of this novel I am writing has everything to do with the high quality of what I am reading these days. I mean, between Matt Ruff, Celeste Ng, Steven Wright, and Paul Tremblay, one really cannot go wrong, can one? I’ve also come to understand that my deadlines–while arbitrarily set–are also set up to maximize time, and are also predicated on the idea that I can actually have the energy–both physical and creative–to do good work every day. I’m not sure that I can anymore–not sure that I ever could–but the mindset is the key, and I know after seeing clients for eight hours, I really don’t have the bandwidth to write anymore the way I used to; which inevitably, I am sure, has something to do with the malaise this current world in which we live has created. Malaise is probably not the right word; depression is probably closer to what I really mean–there’s this weird depressive thing going on in my subconscious that makes macro issues I would ordinarily blow off or ignore or brush off much more micro and much more draining on me.

So, what is a writer to do in these days? Self-care, as I have noted before, is more important than ever. I am going to use the massage roller this morning, and possibly do some stretching exercises as I get ready to face this day–I intend to write today; it’s been lovely dipping my toe into it most of the weekend but I really need to dive into the pool today–and I’d also like to get some more cleaning done at some point. There are electronic files to sort as well, and filing to be done; floors to be cleaned and laundry to fold; all the endless minutiae I always intend to keep up with as I go but inevitably push the back of the priority list and do nothing about until they reach a point like the one they are at now: a literal mess that requires more focused work than ordinarily they would. And while my energies are frequently scattered…I have found that the binge reading I’ve been doing has done a lot to create a sort of inner peace that I’ve been missing lately. I also think I’ve sort of been in mourning about the loss of football season–yes, I know they are going to try to have a season, but it’s not a real season and thus not the same thing; this will be the first year since 2010 that Paul and I have not gone to at least one game in Tiger Stadium–but at the same time, that has also freed up my weekends. My goal for this week is to read a short story a day, as well as a chapter or two per day of whatever book I am currently reading–I suspect I may finish the Tremblay today, it’s that good and that unputdownable–as well as to do some stretches every morning after I get up and before I take my shower. I think regimenting my days into a sort of routine–since I clearly love routines when I can manage to stick to them–is perhaps the smartest way to go.

We watched the new episode of The Vow last night, and it’s getting more and more chilling the deeper into the series we go; I’m glad it’s currently not binge-able, because watching one episode per week makes it more easily digestible. They are doing a most excellent job as well of showing how attractive NXIVM was; a lot of the things they talk about, when it comes to taking responsibility for yourself and changing your mentality and behavior to become more successful, sounds like practical advice you can apply to improve your life–but there’s certainly a dark side to the whole thing. Last night’s episode, which brought up the branding and master/slave “sorority” within the organization, was positively chilling.

We also started watching the new Ridley Scott series for HBO MAX, Raised by Wolves, which is extraordinary. We watched all three episodes that were made available immediately, and it’s quite an accomplishment; it looks very expensive, with no expense spared on production design and special effects. The story itself is also interesting, if a bit hard to understand to begin with; it’s set in 2145, and Earth has been ravaged to the point of becoming unlivable because of a religious war, between Mithraic religion (worship of the sun) and atheists. Since Earth was becoming uninhabitable, both sides launched space ships to another Earth-like planet to save humanity; and it gets a lot more complicated from there. It’s a very high-concept show, and I am curious to see how it all plays out going forward. If you’re a science fiction fan, I’d recommend it; I don’t know if people who generally don’t watch sci-fi would like it as much–I could be wrong. I would have never guessed, for example, that Game of Thrones would have become the cultural phenomenon that it was.

And I still haven’t decided what short stories to focus on writing, although I am leaning towards “After the Party”, “The Flagellants”, “Waking the Saints”, “Please Die Soon,” and “He Didn’t Kill Her.”

And on that note, tis back into the spice mines with me.

Starlight

And so now it’s Sunday.

I won’t lie; I’ve lost my sense of time and date and day already this weekend and I’m perfectly fine with it. I hope everyone who has the good fortune to have the weekend off–I know there are many who do not–are in the same state of what day is this that I found myself in most of yesterday and when i woke up this morning–I overslept again, which was amazingly lovely, but i really need to stop indulging myself this way–and am now awake, on my first cup of coffee, and ready to get shit done today. I did get shit done yesterday–I cleaned and organized quite a bit (not enough, it’s never enough) and while I do have some little bit of cleaning and a lot of organizing left to get done, at least I made a start on it yesterday. My desk, for example, this morning is clean and clear; which will make writing later much easier.

I finished Little Fires Everywhere yesterday–I blogged about it already, so I won’t repeat anything other than that it’s a fantastic book I encourage you all to read–and started reading The Coyotes of Carthage, which was originally recommended to me by my friend Laura, who was lucky enough to receive an advance copy. It, too, is fantastic and unlike anything I’ve ever read before, and I am really looking forward to getting more into it–I will undoubtedly take a reading break or two at some point today. It seems to be a political thriller about dark money and political consultants in a very rural county in South Carolina, with a Black male protagonist, so I am sure it’s going to be quite interesting to read.

But I really also need to write today; I’ve not looked at the manuscript since last weekend, and this “only writing on the weekends for one day” simply cannot continue to stand, really. I have too much to write, and I need to stop giving into the laziness or the tiredness or self-destructive patterns or whatever the hell it is that keeps me from finishing this damned book. Heavy sigh. I also have any number of short stories I need to wade through to pick out some to work on for submission calls.

Again, I think there’s something to that I am so overwhelmed believing I’ll never get everything done so why bother doing any of it thing.

Repeat after me: SELF-DEFEATING.

While I waited for Paul to finish working on a grant last night I watched, or rather, rewatched (although I didn’t really remember watching it before, and I figured, meh, if I’ve already seen it I can do stuff on my iPad while it’s on in the background) a documentary called Master of Dark Shadows, about Dan Curtis and how the show came about, and its legacy (I’m sure most people don’t remember Curtis also produced and directed the mini-series based on Herman Wouk’s novels The Winds of War and War and Remembrance). I was one of those kids who watched Dark Shadows only in the summertime, because my elementary school didn’t get out until 3:15; even though we lived only a block away from the school I couldn’t ever get home fast enough to watch even the end. I did love Dark Shadows–our sitter/caregiver, Mrs. Harris, also watched One Life to Live and General Hospital, which were my first exposures to soaps–and it always stuck in my mind; I always give it credit for my interest in horror and the supernatural. I enjoyed watching the documentary (and for the record, I loved the NBC reboot of the series in prime time in the early 1990’s, and was crushed when it was canceled; I rewatched it with Paul and he too was disappointed it ended on its cliff-hanger) and then we started watching a documentary about a double murder in India called Behind Closed Doors, in which the investigation was so incredibly fucked up–I mean, if the primary take-away from all the other true crime documentaries we’ve been watching has been man is our system seriously fucked up, the takeaway from this one is yeah, but ours is clearly better than others.

Which is kind of scary, really.

While I was also bored yesterday waiting for Paul–and only really sort of watching Master of Dark Shadows–I was right, I’d seen it before–I started looking things up on-line; which was an absolutely lovely example of how one can fall into a wormhole on the Internet. As you know, I’ve been having this Cynical 70’s Film Festival, and thinking about the rise, and proliferation of, conspiracy theories in that suspicious, paranoid decade, and one that I hadn’t remembered until yesterday sprang up into my min, completely unbidden, while I was reading about the Bermuda Triangle: Chariots of the Gods? by Erich von Daniken. Does anyone else remember von Daniken and his theories, which were based in nothing scientific or archaeological? Von Daniken believed that ancient texts–the Bible, the Code of Hammurabi, etc.–all contained evidence that in Ancient Times the Earth was visited by space aliens–Alien Astronauts, as he called them–who brought knowledge and information with them to the primitive creatures of our planet at the time, and also assisted them in the massive building projects that modern man cannot conceive of them building back then–the pyramids, for one thing, and the lines on the plains of Nazca (which I first read about in the Nancy Drew volume The Clue in the Crossword Cipher)–and those aliens with their vastly superior technology, were seen as gods by the primitives and those visits have come down to us in the form of mythology. It’s an interesting idea for sure–but it was all conjecture, with no proof. I read all of von Daniken’s books back in the day; others included The Gold of the Gods, and were simply further conjectures, but he developed quite a following, and set the stage for what is called the pseudo-science of Graham Hancock, his modern day successor. (I’ve also read some of Hancock’s work; his theory that the Sphinx is far older than we suspect based on water wear on its base is interesting, as is his other theory that the Ark of the Covenant’s final resting place is in Ethiopia; before reading that book I had no idea that Christianity was so firmly entrenched there) So, I spent some time looking up von Daniken’s theories yesterday, as well as some other conspiracy theories of the time–I also did a deep dive into the entire Holy Grail Holy Blood thing which provided the basis for The Da Vinci Code and Dan Brown’s entire career; and of course we certainly cannot forget the apocryphal writings of Hal Lindsay and The Late Great Planet Earth–which, really, is where The Omen came from; we forget how “end times” theory truly began flourishing in the 1970’s.

I’ve always been interested in stories about lost books of the Bible, or lost Biblical theory, along with the end-times prophecies Lindsay wrote about; Irving Wallace’s The Word, which was built around the rediscovery of a lost testament of Jesus which would revolutionize and make-over the Christian theology was one of the first novels of this type I read; it was also made into a mini-series, which made me aware of it in the first place (Irving Wallace isn’t really remembered much today, but he was a huge bestseller back in the day, and he wrote incredibly thick novels, mostly about international conspiracies or legal issues–The Seven Minutes, for example, was about censorship and “blue laws”; The Second Lady was about a Soviet conspiracy to replace the First Lady with a lookalike imposter who was a Soviet spy; The Prize was about the machinations around how the Nobel Prize was given out; etc etc etc). The Da Vinci Code fits clearly into this category, as does The Gemini Contenders by Robert Ludlum and The Fourth Secret by Steve Berry (which is about the fourth secret Our Lady of Lourdes–or was it Fatima?–revealed to either Bernadette or the peasant children; Irving Wallace also covered this in The Miracle); Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade also kind of fit here, as both films are about the search for Biblical relics. I’ve always, always, wanted to write one of these. Years ago I had the idea for one, in which there was a secret document or testament hidden in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople for years, and that part of the reason the 4th Crusade sacked the city was the Pope’s desire to get his hands on those documents, which were thus smuggled out of the city by the Patriarch and lost forever…this is the idea I always come around to for a Colin stand-alone (I also realize I could do Colin stand-alones set at various times throughout the last twenty years or so of Scotty books, as he is gone a lot of the time on missions), and the working title for it always is Star of Irene, because the Byzantine Empress Irene–contemporary of Charlemagne–has always fascinated me.

But I will never write a Colin stand-alone, or series, unless I get this fucking book finished, so I suppose it’s time for me to head back into the spice mines.

Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader.

Teardrops on My Guitar

Saturday, and the first blog entry of the three day Labor Day weekend.

Labor Day.

September.

Sep-fucking-tember.

I think the kindest thing anyone can say about this year is that it hasn’t been a pleasant experience for most people, and putting it that way is perhaps a bit of a stretch. I do feel bad for people who are actually having good things happen to them in this year of utter misery and repeated horror; as I said recently, this is why we  need to get our joy where we can find it. Adaptability is one strength (supposedly) of our species, and I do see people adapting left and right; on the other hand, I also see others desperately clinging to the past and resisting adaptation most stubbornly. This has been quite a year on every level–and it has been interesting seeing how people have adapted, and how people are handling it all so differently.

This is why it surprises me when I see authors talking about how they are going to handle the pandemic in their work–or rather, how they are not going to address the pandemic in their work. It’s so global and so intense and it’s affected everyone, changing how we do things and how we live our lives, from the most mundane things like picking up prescriptions to grocery shopping to going out to eat, to the big things like jobs and house payments and school attendance and daycare. It has affected every part of our lives, so how can we ignore it or pretend like it never happened? It’s very similar to the Katrina situation New Orleans writers found ourselves in afterwards; we couldn’t pretend like the city hadn’t been destroyed or that we’d all been through a horrible trauma. But when I, for example, started writing my post-Katrina work, we were over a year into the recovery and so I could write about what it had been like, rather then trying to figure out what it was going to be like. Pandemic writing, of course, will inevitably date your work, just like Katrina divided my career into before and after. I’m still, frankly, trying to decide how to deal with it in my own work–or if I even want to continue writing the series or not.

And let’s be honest: my first and thus far only attempt to write pandemic fiction, started in the first weeks of the quarantine/shutdown, quickly became dated; I am very glad I didn’t finish it because a lot of the work would have been wasted. I do want to finish the story, though, see if anyone wants to publish it.

Today is going to be my catch-up day; I am going to try to get a chapter revised today, but my primary concern is getting things caught up; I want to finish reading Little Fires Everywhere (I really got sucked into it for a few hours last night) and get started on The Coyotes of Carthage, and I also think I might spend some time today with some short story reading–that Sara Paretsky collection keeps giving me side-eye whenever I sit down in my easy chair–and of course, there’s always electronic files to sort and clean up as well as physical ones. The house really needs some serious cleaning, frankly, and I know I’ll feel much better once that chore is actually accomplished.

Then again, who knows? This could easily turn into another lazy day.

Yesterday during condom-packing time, I watched the season finale of Real Housewives of New York (Dorinda’s recently firing makes a lot more sense now) and moved on to the next on my Cynical 70’s Film Festival, All the President’s Men. To digress for a moment, can I just say how fucking ridiculously good-looking Robert Redford was? I know, I know, commenting on the almost insane beauty of Redford isn’t like anything new, but good lord. Dustin Hoffman was also never considered to be particularly good-looking, but he looks pretty good in this movie and isn’t completely overshadowed by Redford, which would have been expected. It’s a very good film, from top to bottom; everyone in the cast is superb (it was also interesting to see so many people in bit roles that would later become stars on television–Polly Holiday, Stephen Collins, Meredith Baxter Birney), and it also made me miss the heyday of the thriller featuring the intrepid, dogged, never say die investigative journalist. This is something we’ve lost with the rise of the Internet, 24 hours news channels, and the death of print: with magazines and newspapers either shuttering or cutting back staff, it’s really no longer realistic to have the crusading journalist as the heroic center of your book or movie; as I watched the show I kept thinking about the old Ed Asner series Lou Grant, and whether it was streaming anywhere.

All the President’s Men, of course, is the film version of the book Carl Bernstein and Robert Woodward wrote about their investigation into the Watergate break-in in 1972, which was the tiny thread that was pulled and eventually brought down the Nixon presidency and almost destroyed the Republican party in the process. I read the book initially when I was in college–it was required reading for my Intro to Journalism class (I was torn between majoring in journalism or English; being unaware that I could have gone to college somewhere and majored in Creative Writing–but actually, I am very glad I never did that)–and it was my first real experience with understanding, for the first time, what Watergate was all about. It happened in real time during the course of my life, but I was also between the ages of 11 and 13 from the first reports of the break-in and the resignation of a president, and so I didn’t really understand what was going on and only had a vague idea as it infiltrated every aspect of the culture beyond the news. It certainly gave rise to the concept of conspiracy theories and the belief that the government couldn’t be trusted–which gave rise to Reaganism in the 1980’s–but reading the book was my first baby-step forward to shaking off the ideology with which I had been raised. I had never seen the film, and so it really seemed to be perfect for my Cynical 70’s Film Festival…although it was difficult for me to get up the desire to actually queue it up and click play, frankly; the utter failure of the 4th Estate to do its job properly in this century plays no small part in why we are where we are today. But it’s a good film, and it also depicts the back-room aspect of journalism–the battle for column inches, the struggle for the front page, the competition with other newspapers and television–which is really kind of a lost world now. (I had always wanted to write about a newspaper–which is partly why I made Paige a journalist, morphing her gradually into a magazine editor.) I will say watching this movie now made me think about writing about a modern-day journalist; the struggle between the print and on-line copy, etc. If I only had more time.

It’s also very sad to know that if Watergate was happening now, the story would be killed by an editor, and we’d never know the truth.

We also finished watching Outcry last night, which was terrific, and the latest episode of Lovecraft Country (it dropped early because of the holiday weekend), and its continued brilliance is really something. We also saw the preview for Raised by Wolves, the new Ridley Scott series for HBO MAX, and it also looks terrific. A new season of The Boys also just dropped on Prime; so there’s a wealth of things for us to watch, and I rediscovered (oops) my Showtime watch list last night, which also has a cornucopia of delights on it.

And on that note, tis time for me to head into ye olde spice mines for the day. May you all have a lovely, lovely day today.

IMG_4205

Picture to Burn

Thursday, Thursday, is today’s child full of woe? I used to know that rhyme when I was younger–one of those things that would pop out of my mouth and brain every now and then when I wasn’t expecting it to–and now I cannot seem to summon it from the depths of my memories. I think it was Tuesday’s child, anyway; was Thursday’s child full of grace or something like that? Possible, I suppose.

Another good night’s sleep was had yesterday evening, which is lovely. I have to go into the office today and run errands on the way in.  I’m just glad to be feeling more rested, to be honest, and then tomorrow is a work-at-home day, and then I slide into the three day weekend, which is kind of nice. I hope to finish reading  Little Fires Everywhere this weekend, start reading The Coyotes of Carthage, and perhaps dip my eyes back into the Short Story Project–I have Sara Paretsky’s short story collection glaring at me from the end table as well as the new Lawrence Block anthology, and so many others I’ve not finished reading–and of course, I want to get a lot of writing done. I want to spend some time on Bury Me in Shadows, as well as maybe get some short story writing done, which would be lovely.

One can certainly hope, can’t one?

But I’ve also learned my lesson about over-planning for the weekend; I know I need to just make a list of things to do that need to be done and not overly pressure myself to get it all done over the course of the long weekend, while recognizing that I also need to recharge my batteries and I also need to do some cleaning; perhaps even work on that damned file cabinet which I never finished working on.

Yesterday’s Cynical 70’s Film Festival choice wound up being nothing I was considering. Instead, I choose to rewatch The Exorcist, which I’ve never seen other than the “edited for television” version. The Exorcist was a phenomenon at the time, and most people still, to this day, consider it the scariest film they’ve ever seen and it regularly pops up on lists of best horror films ever made. I read the book at the height of its popularity, when I was in junior high school, and while it didn’t precisely scare me, it was lurid–we all read it for the lurid parts, like the crucifix masturbation scene and so forth; there was something sacrilegious about reading it, like actually reading it was an act of subversion. The film broke all box office records of the time and was nominated for a lot of Oscars, and the soundtrack–Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells”–always brings up mental associations with the film. It was the first outright horror film to get that many Oscar nominations, or to be nominated for any, really, other than Rosemary’s Baby, which wasn’t nominated for a lot; William Friedkin, fresh off his Oscar winning outing with The French Connection–which is also on my list–directed it. A more traditional entertainment, The Sting, wound up sweeping the Oscars that year. A few years ago, I reread the book to see how well it held up, and as an adult who is also now a writer and has been a reviewer, and has read thousands of other books in the interim, I can say it doesn’t hold up well at all–it really isn’t all that scary, either; it was a product of its time and it might not even get published were it written today. The characters were very cardboard and one-dimensional and behaved in ways that made no sense whatsoever; the focus was on the sacrilege, really, and the shock. I wondered if that would be true of the movie, as well, in its unedited version.

The acting was fine, really; Ellen Burstyn is never bad in anything, and Linda Blair was also fine; but the truth is the direction of the film doesn’t really develop the characters enough to make the viewer empathize with them, or identify with them. The scares weren’t as scary as they were; it’s hard to be scared when you know something is coming and you’ve already seen it, after all; part of the thrill of a horror film is not knowing when the scares are coming, so rewatches never have quite the same effect. I watched this time in a more analytic way, rather than as a viewer–but while others I’d seen before–Aliens comes to mind–really hold up incredibly well, The Exorcist doesn’t; I don’t feel like I got to know enough about Chris MacNeil or Father Karras enough to care about either one of them; and I found that I had more questions about them and who they were than I did when I viewed it as simply an entertainment. I think had the film been filmed more intimately, rather than from a cold distance, it would have held up a lot more; I don’t know, I am neither a filmmaker or a critic. But it didn’t trigger much of a reaction in me, and that’s rather telling. I think the problem, from a story-telling point of view, is that it couldn’t make up its mind whether it was about the MacNeils or Father Karras; although the title would tend to make you think the focus was on Father Karras; it should have been titled The Exorcism, really, and that, I think, was the end problem result for me: the book and film were really about Father Karras and his struggle with his faith, but only touched on that issue glancingly; because it also wanted to focus on how dismissive we are of spiritual issues in our modern scientific world, and wanted to show how an atheist, irreligious woman would try to get her child scientific treatment and slowly come around to the idea that in the modern world, something rooted in past superstition was the issue. Both are great stories, but for me, it failed in trying to tell both and wound up just skittering across the surface like a needle on a warped vinyl record.

Ultimately, though, The Exorcist–both book and film–are important works in both disciplines; along with Rosemary’s Baby, ushered in the 1970’s revival and rejuvenation of horror, in both film and literature, and that influence cannot be denied. Without either of those books, would Carrie have been published, or Peter Straub’s first horror novel? It was The Exorcist, after all, that first really introduced me to horror.

And I absolutely loved the television series inspired by it.

And on that note, tis time for me to return to ye old mines of spice. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader, and I’ll catch you again tomorrow.

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Radiophonic

And somehow, another week is finished and here it is, Friday morning again.

This was a good book week–Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng; Lot by Bryan Washington (Lammy winner); The Chill by Scott Carson; The Zimmerman Telegram By Barbara Tuchman; The Coyotes of Carthage by Steven Wright; and If It Bleeds by Stephen King all are now in my hot little hands, and while I really didn’t need more books (as I will never finish all the ones I have on hand) I had points that were expiring and the only place they were valid where I had any use for them was the Evil Empire, much as I hate to give them anything–but they also didn’t cost me anything, so there’s that–thank you, credit card points. I’ve been wanting to read the Ng for awhile, and having greatly enjoyed the television adaptation, I am really looking forward to the book. It’s been awhile since I’ve read a Lammy winner for Best Novel, Scott Carson is the name Michael Koryta is using now to write horror, and of course, one can never go wrong with Stephen King and Barbara Tuchman. The Steven Wright is a debut, and my friend Laura highly recommended it to me; now I need to finish the Woolrich so I can move on to some of these.

It’s truly unbearable how far behind I am on reading, and there’s nothing worse than being too tired (or exhausted) to read.

Perhaps this weekend, I shall have the time to get everything–oh, who am I trying to fool? I’ll get done this weekend what I have the energy to get done. I need to finish revising my Sherlock story, which I haven’t looked at this week, and of course the Secret Project glares at me from its file folder balefully every time I sit at my desk. I’m hopeful that since I’ve been relatively healthy all week–still drinking the electrolytes and the water every day carefully–that this weekend will be restful enough to give me the ability to power through everything, and head into next week fresh, happy and rested, while feeling powerful from getting everything done. It’s also a short week leading into a three-day weekend, which is even more lovely.

I cannot really decide what to read tonight for Queer Noir at the Bar. I don’t really get the opportunity to read from my work; and while on the one hand it’s lovely to do so, on the other it’s always quite stressful for me; and doing it on-line means that I can literally see myself doing it. I generally prefer not to spend much time looking at myself, and of course, on-line means it’s usually recorded and I loathe the sound of my voice. It’s strange, and I do think that once someone hears me speak the lightbulb goes on and, without me having to explicitly state it, most people tend to know I’m gay. That’s not why I don’t like my voice–I am gay, after all, and why not make it easy for others, after all; personally, I think my voice sounds strange. It’s deep, in a lower register, yet somehow high-pitched at the same time–like it cannot make up its mind which tone it wants to be, which probably doesn’t make sense because I don’t have a strong grasp of vocal terminology and cannot explain it more clearly. I also am always terrified I am going to make a poor showing of it; that people in the (virtual) audience will be clearing their throats, shifting in their seats, taking a drink or doing anything to help make the time pass so this hellish experience will end.

I feel like I slept well last night, and hopefully that rested feeling I am experiencing right now will last throughout the day and through the reading tonight. I also am a bit groggy this morning–I could have stayed in bed easily for another few hours at the very least, but I was also awake and Scooter was hungry and thirsty so I went ahead and got up. It’s weird looking outside again this morning–I guess the Saharan Dust Storm is here; I got an emergency alert about it yesterday, which explains the weird conditions out there and why I feel like I am smelling dust this morning.

Last night we started watching season one of Titans, on DC Universe. I had already watched it about a year or go or whenever it was originally current; Paul hadn’t, and since I didn’t really remember a whole lot about what happened and the story, I figured we needed something to watch and I wanted to watch the second season, so I may as well go ahead and watch it again. I like it; I think it’s very well done, fairly decently acted, and the production values are quite good. It’s also an excellent “origin” story for the Titans team; they were my favorite when I was a kid reading comic books back when they were the Teen Titans, which was kind of a junior version of Justice League only for the sidekicks. Robin, Speedy, Kid Flash, Wonder Girl, and Aqualad were key members–eventually they started adding members who weren’t actually sidekicks for main heroes, and eventually they evolved into simply the Titans. Robin/Nightwing is probably one of my favorite heroes, and the young man they’ve cast to play him in the show is perfect for the part. He’s now ex-Robin on the show, and hasn’t evolved into Nightwing yet; I’m really looking forward to seeing Nightwings’s costume debut. Jason Todd, who replaced Dick Grayson as Robin, is also a character on the show–not a part of the regular cast, but someone who shows up now and again, and he’s just as big a dick on the show as he was in the comics back in the day.

And now, back to the spice mines. Have a lovely Friday, everyone.