Heavenly Action

I’ve always been—undoubtedly in part because I love history so much—an enormous fan of books where secrets from the past (even the far distant past) play an enormous part in the present lives of the characters in the story, and that solving those mysteries, learning the truth about the past, is necessary in the present for conflict resolution. As a history buff, the lack of a lengthy history as a nation is something I’ve always thought unfortunate; without ancient buildings and the way that history isn’t sort of always there in our faces the way it is in Italy or other older nations, it’s difficult for many Americans to either grasp, be interested in, or give a shit about our history—we have as a nation the attention span of a goldfish (thanks, Ted Lasso, for that reference).

To make a side by side historical comparison, for example, the Habsburg dynasty dominated central Europe for almost six hundred years, whereas the first European to actually arrive and establish a colony were under the aegis and flag of the Habsburg king of Spain—and that was in the early sixteenth century.

Secrets of the past casting a shadow over the lives of the living is often a theme in Gothics, my favorite style of novel/writing (noir is a close second). Rebecca is of course the master class in secrets of the past; the first Mrs. deWinter might not actually be haunting the halls of Manderley literally, but her ghost is definitely there. Victoria Holt’s romantic suspense novels inevitably were set in some enormous old mansion or castle, with potential ghosts a-plenty everywhere you turn. Phyllis A. Whitney’s one novel set in Britain—Hunter’s Green—also has a classic old British mansion with a potential ghost in it. Maybe it was the childhood interest in kids’ series, with the reliance on secret passages, hidden rooms, and proving that ghosts were frauds; every episode of Scooby Doo Where Are You? had the gang proving something supernatural was quite human in origin.

One of my favorite Nancy Drew books when I was a kid was The Ghost of Blackwood Hall; I don’t really remember much of the story now, other than a fraudulent haunting was involved and a woman—Mrs. Putney—was being swindled by a medium? (Reading the synopses on a Nancy Drew website, apparently part of the story involves Nancy and the gang coming to New Orleans, which I absolutely do not remember; my only Nancy Drew-New Orleans memory is The Haunted Showboat—involving yet another haunting. Interesting.) When I was writing the original short story (“Ruins”) I needed a name for the old burned-out plantation house; I decided to pay homage to Nancy Drew by naming it Blackwood Hall, and naming Jake’s maternal ancestor’s family Blackwood (his grandmother was a Blackwood, married a Donelson; Jake has his father’s last name, which is Chapman). I did think about changing this from time to time during the drafting of Bury Me in Shadows, but finally decided to leave it as it was. It might make Nancy Drew readers smile and wonder, and those who didn’t read Nancy Drew, obviously won’t catch it.

Hey, at least I didn’t call it Hill House.

But writing about ghosts inevitably makes one wonder about the afterlife and how it all works; if there is such a thing as ghosts, ergo it means that we all have souls and spirits that can remain behind or move on after we die. So what does writing about ghosts—or writing a ghost story—mean for the writer as far as their beliefs are concerned?

Religion primarily came into existence because ignorant humans needed an explanation for the world around them, combined with a terror about dying. It is impossible for a human mind to comprehend nothingness (whenever I try, I can’t get past “there has to be something in order for there to be nothing, you cannot have nothing unless you have something” and that just bounces around in my head until it starts to hurt); likewise, whenever I try to imagine even the Big Bang Theory, I can’t get past “but there had to be something to explode” and yeah, my head starts to hurt. Even as a kid in church, studying the Old Testament and Genesis, I could never get past “but where did God come from?” I don’t begrudge anyone anything that gives them comfort—unless it starts to impede on me. I’ve studied religions and myths on my own since I was a kid; the commonalities between them all speak to a common experience and need in humanity, regardless of where in the world those humans evolved; a fear of the unknown, and an attempt to explain those fears away by coming up with a mythology that explains how everything exists, why things happen, and what happens when you die. (I am hardly an expert, but theology is an amateur interest of mine, along with Biblical history, the history of the development of Christianity, and end-times beliefs.)

Ghosts, and spirits, have been used since humanity drew art on cave walls with charcoal to explain mysterious happenings that couldn’t be otherwise explained. I am not as interested in malevolent spirits—ghosts that do harm—as I am in those who, for whatever reason, are trapped on this plane and need to be freed. This was a common theme in Barbara Michaels’ ghost stories (see: Ammie Come Home, House of Many Shadows, Witch, Be Buried in the Rain, The Crying Child) in which the present-day characters must solve the mystery from the past; why is the ghost haunting this house and what happened to them that caused them to remain behind? I used this theme—spirits trapped by violent deaths in this plane whose truth must be uncovered in so they can be put to rest—in Lake Thirteen and returned to it with Bury Me in Shadows. I did, of course, worry that I was simply writing the same book over again; repeating myself is one of my biggest fears (how many car accidents has Scotty been in?), but the two books, I think, are different enough that it’s not the same story.

At least I can convince myself of that, at any rate.

There’s a few more ghost stories I want to write, actually; (it also just occurred to me that there was a ghost in Jackson Square Jazz, the second Scotty book) any number of which come from those legends my grandmother used to tell me as a child. I have this great idea for one I’ve been wanting to write set here in New Orleans for a very long time called “The Weeping Nun;” I have the entire ghost’s story written in my head, I just don’t have a modern story to wrap around it (same issue I have with my New Orleans ghost story book, Voices in an Empty Room) and of course there’s “The Scent of Lilacs in the Rain,” a short story about another Corinth County ghost I started writing and got to about five thousand words before the ghost even made an appearance. That great length is why I shelved the story—and now, of course, I realize I can do it as a novella, which is amazing news and life-changing, really. “Whim of the Wind,” the very first Corinth County story I ever wrote, is also kind of a ghost story, and maybe someday I’ll find the key to making it publishable (although I think I already did figure it out, thanks to the brilliance of an Art Taylor short story).

I’ve always believed part of the reason I was drawn so strongly to New Orleans is because the past is still very much a part of the present here—though not so much as we New Orleanians would like to believe, as several Facebook groups I belong to about the history of New Orleans often show how often and rapidly the cityscape has changed over the years—and you can sometimes even feel here, at times, under the right conditions (fog and/or mist are usually involved) like you’ve gone back in time, through a rip in the time/space continuum; which is something I’d actually like to write someday here—but that’s just an amorphous idea skittering through my brain.

And of course, I have an idea for a paranormal series set in a fictional parish here in Louisiana. I think about it every now and again, but am really not sure how I want to do it. I know doing a paranormal Louisiana town series will get me accused of ripping off Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels, but that’s fine. I don’t think I would be doing vampire kings or queens or any of the directions Ms. Harris went with her series. (Monsters of Louisiana and Monsters of New Orleans—paranormal/crime short story collections—may also still happen; one never knows, really.)

As hard as it was sometimes to write, I think Bury Me in Shadows turned out better than I could have hoped. I think it captured the mood and atmosphere I was going for; I think I made my narrator just unreliable enough to keep the reader unsure of what’s going on in the story; and I think I managed to tell a Civil War ghost story (it’s more than just that, but that’s how I’ve always thought of it and that’s a very hard, apparently, habit for me to break.

I hope people do read and like it. We shall see how it goes, shall we not?

Was It Worth It?

I’ve always been a reader; my earliest (and most of the happiest) memories of my early years is of reading books that I deeply loved. I think it was the 4th grade where I really began to read series books of mysteries for kids; I’m not sure which was the first one, but it was either The Three Investigators’ The Mystery of the Moaning Cave or Trixie Belden’s The Read Trailer Mystery. When I discovered Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and the rest, I decided I not only wanted to be a writer when I grew up but wanted to write a similar type series. I wrote my very first “book” in the fifth grade, called The Mystery of the Haunted Mansion, and of course it was really derivative and more of a pastiche; I don’t remember the name of my main character, but I had a friend type it up for me, and then I bound it inside cardboard and drew a cover for it (which I still remember; it was basically a rip off of the original cover for Nancy Drew’s The Ghost of Blackwood Hall). The concept of a mystery series for kids has never really left me, and always periodically came up again throughout my life…until I actually started writing seriously. About fourteen years ago I thought about it again; going so far as to actually come up with a series character…and it came up again in conversation with a friend who actually writes middle grade the other day (That Bitch Ford, to be exact) and the idea has continued to swirl in my head ever since. Yesterday morning, I went through my horribly disorganized file cabinet, looking for the file folder labeled KIDS’ SERIES and took it out of the file. Inside are yellowed pages of book synopses, lists of possible titles, characters, different series…and as I paged through it, I also found traces of things that eventually showed up in my work since I actually became a published writer: the name of a town, character names, etc.

But I moved the file from the cabinet and put it in my inbox; at some point, perhaps this weekend, I’ll start going through it and seeing what might actually be of use to me. It’s not something I’m going to work on now–heavens no, there’s still too much else I have to write that I am already behind on–but it’s something to think about for the future, for sure.

And as I glanced over some of the titles, some of them were clearly “inspired/influenced” by Scooby Doo Where Are You and Jonny Quest. One–The Mystery of the Galloping Ghost–may have even been used in the Ken Holt series; I’d have to check to be certain, but I definitely think so. (And yes, I know titles cannot be copyrighted; both Ken Holt and The Three Investigators uncovered The Secret of Skeleton Island, for example) And I literally just watched the Jonny Quest episode with the gargoyle last week (on my list of titles is The Mystery of the Stone Gargoyle), and there’s also one called The Mystery of the Lost Crusade–I have thought, for many years, about writing a Colin stand alone called The Lost Crusade–and now I see that I had come up with that very title at least fifteen years earlier, before it swam up to my consciousness again. And surely The Witch of the Swamp was inspired by a Scooby Doo Where Are You episode I rewatched lately, about a witch in a swamp. And there’s The Mystery of the Crying Nun–I currently have a short story in progress called “The Crying Nun” (it’s a New Orleans ghost story). And The Mystery of the Haunted Airport was definitely a rip-off of a Scooby gang adventure.

There’s even detailed character descriptions, and plot summaries for more than ten of the “books.”

Something worth exploring, since I have nothing else to do.

We watched another episode of Dark last night, and boy, you have to hand it to the Germans when it comes to atmosphere and creepiness. They are slowly but surely explaining what is actually going on in this little German town–we’re only two episodes in–and the lovely thing is it’s most likely, based on last night’s episode, nothing we were thinking it was going to be. I love shows that surprise you like this; Orphan Black was really good at this, and I love having no idea where the story is going or what could possibly happen next. Those shows inevitably end up being my favorites to watch.

I slept very well again last night, and am working from home today with a lot of things to get done for the day job as well as a lot of things to get done for various things this weekend–both writing wise and volunteer wise–and I also have to make groceries at some point this weekend as well. The summer weather has finally kicked into it’s usual high gear–I don’t know why it always blindsides me every year, but there you have it–and so going out into the heat to do anything is always an energy-suck and exhausting. I also want to get deeper into my reading of Kelly Ford’s wonderful Cottonmouths–I’m not sure why I am having so much trouble focusing on reading this summer, but there it is–and think next will be a reread of Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree. I’m also going to spend some time culling the books again this weekend, even though there’s no place for me to take them to donate because of the pandemic. I also need to take some bags of beads to the donation drop for those as well–which will also be a lot of fun in the heat, yay–but it’s just clutter, you know.

And the thing is I want to declutter, and it’s not like we’ll go the rest of our lives never getting more beads. Catching them is more fun than keeping them, anyway.

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

Mighty Love

I love nothing more than a great ghost story (which is why, although I loved the book, I was enormously disappointed with Peter Straub’s Ghost Story; it’s an amazing novel and a horror classic and one of my favorite horror novels of all time, but it is emphatically not a ghost story). I’m not sure why I love them so much, but even as a kid, reading the mysteries for kids I always gravitated towards the ones with some kind of ghostly title: The Ghost of Blackwood Hall, The Haunted Fort, The Phantom of Pine Hill, The Ghost at Skeleton Rock, The Haunted Showboat, The Ghost in the Gallery, etc. The ghosts and hauntings in these books were never real–just like the ghosts and monsters on Scooby Doo Where Are You? weren’t–but I still was drawn to them.

There was an ABC Movie of the Week when I was really young that I absolutely loved: The House That Would Not Die. It starred Barbara Stanwyck as a woman who moved into a house she’d inherited from a relative, along with her niece, and of course, the house turned out to be haunted. The story was terrific and it scared me a lot–and you can never go wrong with Barbara Stanwyck; I may even have watched it with my grandmother, who was a big Stanwyck fan. A few years later, we were somewhere–some people my parents knew had invited us over for dinner, and before and after, as the adults, my sister and I were deposited in the den to watch television and entertain ourselves while behaving. They had books, which I gravitated towards, I pulled down a volume of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and found a ghost story inside. As I started reading, I was drawn into it and I realized it was the same plot, the same story, of the TV movie I’d liked, and kept reading. I read the entire thing that evening–it was condensed, after all–and thought, oh, I’d like to see that movie again.

Flash forward and I am in college, browsing in a second-hand bookstore when I find a worn paperback copy of the book. Pleased and delighted at the opportunity to not only read it again but read the entire version? For fifty cents? Absolutely.

It was Ammie, Come Home, which is one of my favorite ghost stories, and favorite novels, of all time. It was written by Barbara Michaels–for another dollar I picked up two more of her novels, Witch and House of Many Shadows. I loved all three books, but I’ve always preferred Ammie, considered it my favorite. Over the years Michaels–and her alter-ego, Elizabeth Peters-became one of my favorite writers of all time. I love her books, no matter what the name or brand or whatever you want to call it; they are all witty, with strong, likable female characters, there’s some little dash of romantic interest involved in all of them, and a very strong suspense component. The Peters novels were more mysteries; the Michaels sometimes involved the supernatural, and sometimes they didn’t.

But, oh, how I love Ammie, Come Home, and I recently, during my isolation, took it down and made it a part of this year Reread Project.

Ammie Come Home Barbara Michaels Fawcett Crest 1968 harry bennet cover art

By five o’clock it was almost dark, which was not surprising, since the month was November; but Ruth kept glancing uneasily toward the windows at the far end of the room. It was a warm, handsome room, furnished in the style of a past century, with furniture whose present value would have astonished the original owners.. Only the big overstuffed sodas, which face one another before the fireplace, were relatively modern. Their ivory brocade upholstery fitted the blue-and-white color scheme, which has been based upon the delicate Wedgwood plaques set in the mantel. A cheerful fire burned on the hearth, sending sparks dancing from the crystal glasses on the coffee table and turning the sherry in the cut-glass decanter the color of melted copper. Since her niece had come to stay with her, Ruth had set out glasses and wine every evening. It was a pleasant ritual, which they both enjoyed even when it was followed by nothing more elegant than hamburgers. But tonight Sara was late.

The darkening windows blossomed yellow as the streetlights went on; and Ruth rose to draw the curtains. She lingered at the window, one hand absently stroking the pale blue satin. Sara’s class had been over at three-thirty…

And, Ruth reminded herself sternly, Sara was twenty years old. When she agreed to board her niece while the girl attended the Foreign Service Institute at a local university, she had not guaranteed full-time baby-sitting. Sara, of course, considered herself an adult. However, to Ruth her niece still had the touching, terrifying illusion of personal invulnerability which is an unmistakable attribute of youth. And the streets of Washington–ven of this ultrafashionable section–were not completely safe after dark,

Even at the dying time of year, with a bleak dusk lowering, the view from Ruth’s window retained some of the famous charm of Georgetown, a charm based on formal architecture and the awareness of age. Nowadays that antique grace was rather self-conscious; after decades of neglect, the eighteenth century houses of the old town had become fashionable again, and now they had the sleek, smug look born of painstaking restoration and a lot of money.

Ammie, Come Home is possibly one of the best constructed, if not the very best, ghost stories I’ve ever read. As you can see from the opening paragraphs, Michaels does an exceptional job of setting everything up, giving us insights into her main character, Ruth Bennett, and her relationship with her niece. We go on to find out that Ruth is probably in her mid to late forties, was widowed in World War II, never remarried, and for the most part, it’s implied that her husband’s death pretty much was the end of any romance in her life; something she isn’t terribly interested in. This is, of course, foreshadowing–but not the way the reader might think. Yes, in the opening scene of the book, which features her niece Sara getting a ride home from one of her professors, that ah, yes, Ruth and Dr. Pat MacDougal are going to fall in love-but there’s more to Ruth’s history than that, which of course is the mark of the truly terrific writer. We also glean that childless Ruth has grown deeply fond of her niece Sara–and disapproves of Sara’s boyfriend Bruce (mainly because of his youth, the way he dresses, and what she thinks of as his smug superiority).

(This last, by the way, is the only part of the book that feels dated. Written and originally published in the 1960’s, Sara and Bruce are both college students and Pat works at a college–he’s a cultural anthropologist with a specialty in superstitions and rituals–so, as anyone who knows anything about the 1960’s knows, it was a decade of youthful rebellion and anti-establishmentarianism. There are occasional asides from both Ruth and Pat about the generation gap–this was also the first time this phrase was used, during this period–where the kids want to make change. There are a few mild arguments over that, but it’s always very good natured and never gets very deep. But the very generation gap is part of the structure of the novel; when strange things start happening in Ruth’s home, particularly involving Sara–Ruth and Pat immediately think of mental illness; Bruce is the only one open-minded enough to see the truth; that the house is haunted by a malevolent spirit–and there may even be more than one.)

It’s also very clever of Michaels to use that generational divide to explore the notions of the supernatural and a spirit world–because Bruce is given a forty-eight hour deadline to convince the older two in their quartet that Sara isn’t mentally ill but is being haunted. So, as Bruce convinces them–helped by more apparitions and events in the house–the reader is also being convinced that what’s going on in the house is supernatural in origin. How she does it is a master class in suspense/horror writing; and there are some lines that just the reader to the bone: And what looked back at her through Sara’s eyes was not Sara.

The ghost hunters eventually get to the bottom of the haunting of the old house in Georgetown by finding out the deeply hidden truth about what happened there centuries earlier, and finally freeing the spirits trapped to the house.

And maybe the creepiest, yet saddest, thing is the disembodied voice they hear, over and over, in the back yard, calling Ammie….come home…..come home…..Ammie…. —which is described as “it sounded like what the wind would sound like if it had a voice.”

And despite the dated 1960’s references, the book still holds up, over forty years later.

I rediscovered Michaels in the mid to late 1980’s, which was when I also discovered that she also wrote the Elizabeth Peters novels, and that the absolutely delightful Crocodile on the Sandbank, which I’d loved, wasn’t merely a stand alone, but the first book in a long-running, and completely fantastic, series featuring heiress Amelia Peabody and her Egyptologist husband Emerson. There isn’t a single dud in the Amelia Peabody series–and there are smart, funny, clever, and intricately plotted–and over the years the Peabody-Emerson clan had children, raised them, and those children grew up to be involved in the adventures of their parents–and every book, save one, actually took place in Egypt at the turn of the twentieth century. I need to reread Crocodile on the Sandbank, and in fact, would love to revisit the entire series. She wrote two other series as Elizabeth Peters as well–the Vicky Bliss series and the Jacqueline Kirby–as well as stand alones; every Peters novel is a gem, as is every novel she wrote as Barbara Michaels.

And now back to the spice mines.