Chiseled in Stone

Sunday! It’s raining and gray outside this morning; I’m not sure (because I haven’t looked) what that means for today’s parades (Femme Fatale, Carrollton, and King Arthur–which is over fifty floats and loaded down with gay men, most of whom I know so I always get buried with beads), but I will take a look later. This morning i need to get some work done, and I need to make it to the gym for the start of week three of my workouts–which means today is three sets rather than two of everything. However, I decided it only made sense to cut the treadmill/cardio part of my workouts during parade season; it only makes sense, you know–as I am doing a lot of standing and jumping and walking during the parades. We only went to the night parades yesterday–Sparta and Pygmalion–because Paul was sleeping during the day (it’s festival crunch time, and he stays up really late working) and yes, I could have gone by myself–but it’s not as much fun without him. If the parades are–heaven forbid–rained out, then I will have a lot of free time to get things done, rather than trying to get them done before and after the parades.

Instead of parades yesterday afternoon, I spent most of the day writing some and finishing rereading Mary Higgins Clark’s Where Are the Children? It really is a hard book to put down, which was, of course, Mrs. Clark’s biggest strength as a writer–that, and her ability to tap into women’s biggest fears. I’m writing a rather lengthy post about the book already–so I won’t discuss it too much here. And if the parades are cancelled, I’ll probably get that finished today.

So, I intend to spend this morning prepping for the gym and answering emails, then when I get home from the gym I’ll get cleaned up and write some before the parades get here–if they are, indeed, coming; they might just be delayed. There aren’t any evening parades today, so of course they can all have their scheduled departures pushed back; they may also abandon the marching bands and walking crews to roll in the rain. I don’t know if we have the physical stamina to stand in the rain for four hours–neither one of us can risk getting sick at this point–but then again, there are overhanging balconies at the corner, so who knows? I guess I’ll judge how bad the weather is when I am walking to the gym this morning.

I also now have to make the all-important decision on what to read next. I think I’m going to take a break from books that I have to read and read something just for the fun of it, and I think I’m going to choose a cozy by a writer I’ve not read before. When I said I wanted to diversify my reading–and started, last year, doing so by reading more authors of color–I didn’t just mean reading books by authors marginalized by race or sexuality; I also meant books outside of what I generally read. I don’t read a lot of cozies, and I’m not exactly sure why that is; I’ve read Donna Andrews, Elaine Viets, Leslie Budewitz and others, but I am now questioning whether or not those actually qualified as cozies? I generally get cozies in the gift bags given out at conferences, and I do buy them from time to time–I support women writers, and I do feel like cozies are treated as somewhat less than by the crime  genre in general–and I also feel like it’s time to change that perception, and give cozies their due. I have an interesting looking one on hand from Ali Brandon, Double Booked for Murder, and I think that’s what I am going to read next. My cozy reading is woefully less than what it should be, and I want to start making up for that lost time. After that, I’ll probably move on back to the books I need to read and one of my reading projects, whether it’s the Reread Project or the Diversity Project (I am thinking Mary Stewart’s The Moonspinners is way overdue for a reread), or even, perhaps, some Cornell Woolrich.

Woolrich is one of those pulpy writers from the mid-twentieth century who wrote a lot of books and short stories, but was also a miserable alcoholic and a gay man who lived with his mother most of his life. He wrote the story Hitchcock adapted as Rear Window, and wrote several other important noir-esque pulpy novels. I had started reading The Night Has a Thousand Eyes a few years ago, but got sidetracked by something else–probably reading for an award–and never got back to it, which is a shame; I greatly enjoyed it, and I find Woolrich to be an interesting character. I wish I had the time and the energy and the wherewithal to devote more to writing nonfiction; I think a biography of Woolrich would make for interesting reading (I also have always wanted to do one of John D. MacDonald, but again–would I ever have the time to read his–or Woolrich’s, for that matter–entire canon? Not entirely likely; maybe once I’ve retired from the day job and have days to fill with writing and reading and research); I am also curious because it seems most writers from that time period–including Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald–all had drinking problems; as did Woolrich. I’m not surprised a gay man living in those times lapsed into alcoholism–it’s a wonder more gay men of my generation don’t have lingering addiction problems.

I’m still dealing with my creative ADD problem, alas; being aware that it’s going on and happening doesn’t make it easier to control. I just realized yesterday–as I was writing notes in my journal about another short story idea (“Die a Little Death”) that I’d also completely forgotten about “Never Kiss a Stranger”; which is still yet another long story (novella?) I am in process with, along with “Festival of the Redeemer,” and still another I’ve not pulled out and worked on in over a year. It’s absolutely insane how many works I currently have in some kind of progress, which means ninety-five percent of them will most likely never be finished or see print. (Well over a hundred short stories or novellas; I have at least four novel manuscripts in some sort of progress; and fragments of at least five other novels–and none of this is counting essays in progress, either…yeah, it’s unlikely that I will ever finish all of this. And still I persist. Just like I will never read all the novels I want to read, I will never finish writing everything I want to write. Sigh.)

All right, I’m going to go read for a little while before I brave the rain to go to the gym. Have a lovely Sunday, everyone.

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Rose Garden

My paternal grandmother–the one who went undiagnosed for bipolar disorder until she was in her eighties; better late than never, I suppose–was also the first person in my life to encourage me to not only read but to become a writer. She also introduced me to old movies–including horror, suspense, mystery, and noir–and also was the person who introduced me to some of my favorite writers, including Ellery Queen, Victoria Holt, Erle Stanley Gardner, and the magnificent Mary Stewart. My grandmother gave me a copy of Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree in hardcover, saying, “This one has a huge surprise in it.”

She wasn’t wrong, either.

Flash forward a few years, and a friend in high school convinced me to read a novel called The Crystal Cave. I started reading it and couldn’t stop reading it, and then immediately went out and bought my own copy of the sequel, The Hollow Hills. The friend–Felisha–told me I should also check out some of Mary Stewart’s other, non-Arthurian novels, so the next time I went to the library, I went to the S’s in fiction and there it was on the shelf: The Ivy Tree, even the same edition I read when I nine or ten. Of course I checked it out, and also checked out Airs Above the Ground, The Moonspinners, and This Rough Magic. Spoiler: I loved them all. I would eventually read the rest of the Arthur books, buying them in hardcover when they were released (The Last Enchantment and the Mordred story, This Wicked Day), and gradually went back and read the majority of her suspense novels…but there are some, to this day, that I have not read–primarily because I don’t ever want to run out of Mary Stewart novels to read.

And now that I think about it…truth be told, it’s been so long since I read so many of these novels that I could probably reread them now and they would seem new to me. But I have reread both The Ivy Tree and Airs Above the Ground many times; I always considered The Ivy Tree my favorite of her novels because it was the first I read–but in truth, Airs Above the Ground is definitely my favorite of them all. I am including Mary Stewart in the Reread Project, naturally; but I definitely need to make time to reread some of the ones I don’t remember.

Mary Stewart is often frequently mis-categorized as a Gothic writer, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth; perhaps some of her novels (Touch Not the Cat, The Gabriel Hounds) might skirt the edge of Gothic suspense, but that isn’t what she wrote. She is also often called romantic suspense, and again, while some of the book danced close to that (Madam Will You Talk? and Nine Coaches Waiting–which, come to think of it, might also fall into that Gothic category again), she basically wrote suspense novels about headstrong young women who took charge of their situations and rarely, if ever, needed rescuing.

.airs above the ground

Carmel Lacy was the silliest woman I know, which is saying a good deal. The only reason I was having tea with her in Harrods on that wet Thursday afternoon was that when she rang me up she had been so insistent that it had been impossible to get out of; and besides, I was so depressed anyway that even tea with Carmel Lacy was preferable to sitting alone at home in a room that still seemed to be echoing with that last quarrel with Lewis. That I had been entirely in the right, and that Lewis had been insufferably, immovably, furiously in the wrong was no particular satisfaction, since he was now in Stockholm, and I was still here in London, when by rights we should have been lying on a beach together in the Italian sunshine, enjoying the first summer holiday we had been able to plan together since our honeymoon two years ago. The fact that it had rained almost without ceasing ever since he had gone hadn’t done anything to mitigate his offence; and when, on looking up ‘Other People’s Weather’ in the Guardian each morning, I found Stockholm enjoying a permanent state of sunshine, and temperatures somewhere in the seventies, I was easily able to ignore the reports of a wet, thundery August in Southern Italy. and concentrate steadily on Lewis’s sins and my own grievances.

“What are you scowling about?” asked Carmel Lacy.

“Was I? I’m sorry. I suppose I’m just depressed with the weather and everything. I certainly didn’t mean to glower at you! Do go on. Did you decide to buy it in the end?”

God, how I love this character. Vanessa March was not your ordinary run-of-the-mill heroine; look at how much we learn, not only about her, but who she is and where she is at emotionally, in that opening paragraph! We learn she is married; has had a horrible fight with her husband about having to change their vacation plans; is completely and utterly convinced she was in the right; and would rather spend time with someone she clearly doesn’t like rather than stay in her lonely apartment with her memories of the argument–which she is still angry about. But this tea at Harrod’s with silly Carmel Lacy is what sets the story in motion: you see, Carmel is divorced; left by her husband who now lives in Vienna, and she needs someone to travel with her teenaged son who wants to go see his father. Why would Vanessa be interested in making such a trip? And that’s when we get an insight into Carmel’s personality; she slyly mentions having seen Lewis in a newsreel at the cinema; something about a fire involving a traveling carnival in Austria, and surely Vanessa is going there to meet him? Vanessa never lets Carmel see she doesn’t have the slightest idea why or how Lewis could be in Austria rather than Sweden. Instead, she goes to the same cinema, watches the newsreel, sees that it is, indeed, her husband in the newsreel–he’s obviously lied to her, and then she calls Carmel and tells her she’d be delighted to escort her son to Austria.

Vanessa has no idea what’s in store for her in Austria, and yet she has no qualms about taking off for there, with a teenaged boy who’s practically a stranger to her, in tow; this is one of the reasons I love Stewart’s heroines; they were definitely not shrinking Violets, and impetuously always set off for adventure to parts unknown. The second chapter, which details the flight from London to Vienna, is another gem of a chapter. Timothy Lacy, a young teenager, cannot hide his disdain, dislike, and disapproval of his traveling companion; like all teenagers, he doesn’t think he needs an escort or a glorified babysitter. After a while, he buys a carton of cigarettes from the flight attendant, much to Vanessa’s inward amusement, and finally she says:

“You know, I couldn’t really care less is you want to smoke all day and all night till you die of six sorts of cancer all at once. Go right ahead. And as a matter of fact, the sooner the better. You have the worst manners of any young man I ever met.”

The paperback dropped to his knees, and he looked at me full for the first time, eyes and mouth startled open. I said: “I know quite well that you’re perfectly capable of traveling alone, and that you’d prefer it. Well, so would I. I’ve got troubles enough of my own, without bothering about yours, but if I hadn’t said I’d go with you, you’d have never got away. I know you’re sitting there fulminating because you’ve had a kind of nursemaid tagged onto you, but for goodness’ sake aren’t you adult enough to know that there are two sides to everything? You know you’d get on fine on your own, but your mother doesn’t, and there’s no sense in making gestures to reassure oneself, if they’re only distressing other people. Surely all that matters now is that you have got your own way, so why not make the best of it? We’re stuck with each other till I get you–or you get me–safely into Vienna and you meet your father. Then we’re both free to go about our own affairs.”

I don’t think I’ve ever loved a character more than I loved Vanessa March at that moment. It’s an excellent icebreaker, and she and Timothy Lacy–Tim–become friends after that exchange. But Tim, like Vanessa, has secrets of his own–for one thing, his father has no idea he’s showing up; has a new, younger fiancee; and no place or welcome for Tim–so without any other option, Vanessa brings Tim along on her search for the carnival from the newsreel. Tim is absolutely fascinated with horses–and Vanessa, as it turns out, is, like her father, a certified veterinarian.

I cannot say more without giving away spoilers–and spoilers in a Stewart novel are quite distressing; as part of the joy of reading her novels for the first time are the surprises she pulls on her unsuspecting readers; surprises that, even on a reread when you know what’s to come, you still can’t spot the stitching in her seamless plots. One of my all time favorite reveals in crime fiction takes place in this book–the brilliantly composed scene in which the old horse begins to dance in the moonlight, and what all that scene means–every time I reread the book I still get chills…and that’s not the only surprise Stewart pulls on the reader in Airs Above the Ground. It’s quite an exceptional thriller, with Vanessa and Tim making an exceptionally fun and interesting and witty team of sleuths trying to get to the bottom of what is going on around the carnival–and one of the best climaxes to a suspense novel I’ve ever read; then again, it’s hard to go wrong with a speeding train.

Genius, absolute genius.

And of course, being a devotee of Airs Above the Ground (which was, in fact, an Edgar nominee for Best Novel) also enabled me to surprise people with a Jeopardy! answer–“The horses known for the airs above the ground”–to which I quickly replied, “What are the Royal Lipizzan stallions of the Spanish Riding School, Alex?”

If you’ve not read this–despite it being slightly dated, you really need to.

I’d Better Off (In a Pine Box)

I love Patricia Highsmith, and one of the great joys of the last twenty years or so in my reading life has been slowly working my way through her canon.

Is there anything more fun and exciting than discovering a new writer whose work you enjoy? I think not! And it’s always fun to start working your way through their canon. I’m not even remotely close to being finished reading Highsmith; I’ve been enjoying my occasional forays into her work, and if you’ve not read her short stories….well, you’re really missing out. Her short stories are just as quirky and dark and pessimistic as her novels; although I’m really not so certain that I should use the pessimistic label with Highsmith. From everything I’ve read about her, she was a terribly unpleasant person with a cynical world view and a not particularly high opinion of her fellow human beings; although I think I can honestly say right there with you, Patricia! most of the time. Highsmith’s dark, cynical view of the world and her fellow human beings is partly what makes her books so terrific, so amazing, so suspenseful and so entertaining. I think the first of hers that I read was Strangers on a Train, which was a Hitchcock film I’d always loved; imagine my surprise to discover that it was based on a novel (as so many old films were; not many people knew, for example, that Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was also a novel first, and it’s actually quite a good novel, at that). The book was amazing (and I should probably reread it as well), and I became aware of The Talented Mr. Ripley when the Anthony Minghella film version, starring Matt Damon, Jude Law, and Gwyneth Paltrow, was released. The same author as Strangers on a Train?

I was so in. I actually read the book before I saw the film–which I think we rented, or watched when it made its way to HBO–which I also really enjoyed; Matt Damon did a great job as Ripley. But as more time went by my memories of the novel became supplanted by memories of the film–and as I knew there were differences between the two, I always meant to get back to the book but never did. I also never read the other books in the so-called Ripleyad; I never saw any point. I thought the first novel stood perfectly well on its own with its self-contained story and I worried that reading the others might spoil the first. There are five novels about Tom Ripley in total; written over the course of twenty six years, from 1955 to 1991. (There’s a lovely but expensive boxed set of them available; I may treat myself to that for my birthday, but whether I do or not remains to be seen.)

Over the past few years (probably a decade, I literally have no concept of time anymore) I’ve read some other Highsmith novels; The Blunderer and The Cry of the Owl, neither of which are as well known as the Ripley books or Strangers on a Train, which is a pity; both are truly fantastic–I particularly love the way she flips the narrative in The Cry of the Owl and turns it into something completely different from what the reader is expecting at the beginning; it’s absolutely genius, and mandatory reading for anyone who wants to write suspense novels, frankly.

But I wanted to reread Ripley, and possibly even go on to the other four books in the Ripley series, primarily because I am now rereading some of these older works with an eye to how male sexuality is presented; Ripley  was published during the highly repressive 1950’s, which was a horrible decade in which to have an alternate sexuality as well as to write about them; often they were coded. (I also want to reread Strangers on a Train for that same reason) When the Minghella film was released, there was a lot of talk about Ripley’s sexuality and its possible repression; there’s probably a similarity there between it and A Separate Peace; books in which I recognized something when I read them about male relationships, friendship, and intimacy that resonated with me. And I also realized, as I said earlier, that my memories of the book had become blurred by my memories of the film–which I also want to watch again; I can never forget that image of Matt Damon’s so-pale-it-almost-glowed skin on the beach in his yellow bikini when he awkwardly meets the Jude Law/Gwyneth Paltrow portrayed characters, and I wanted to reread that scene again in particular, to see how Highsmith handled it.

the talented mr. ripley

Tom glanced behind him and saw the man coming out of the Green Cage, heading his way. Tom walked faster. There was no doubt the man was after him. Tom had noticed him five minutes ago, eying him carefully from a table, as if he weren’t quite sure, but almost. He had looked sure enough for Tom to down his drink in a hurry, pay and get out.

At the corner Tom leaned forward and trotted across Fifth Avenue. There was Raoul’s. Should he take a chance and go in for another drink? Tempt fate and all that? Or should he beat it over to Park Avenue and try losing him a few dark doorways? He went into Raoul’s.

Automatically, as he strolled to an empty space at the bar,  he looked around to see if there was anyone he knew. There was the big man with the red hair, whose name he always forgot, sitting at a table with a blonde girl. The red-haired man waved a hand, and Tom’s hand went up limply in response. He slid one leg over a stool and faced the door challengingly, yet with a flagrant casualness.

“Gin and tonic, please,” he said to the barman.

The book opens differently than the Minghella film; which immediately changes the dynamic of who Tom Ripley is. In the film, Dickie Greenleaf’s spots Tom performing at a high society party with a music combo; he’s wearing a jacket that identifies him as an Ivy League alum–so Mr. Greenleaf, seeing that he’s about the same age as his son, thinks Tom might know Dickie and be amenable to an expenses-paid trip to Italy to retrieve him; only later do we learn he’d borrowed the jacket and probably doesn’t know Dickie at all.

As you can see from the above, Highsmith opens with suspense. Someone is following Tom, and it’s making him nervous–why? And why would someone be following him? We soon find out that he’s nervous because he’s been pulling a tax scam; he’s been calling random people, pretending he’s from the IRS and telling them they need to send more money because they didn’t pay enough taxes; it’s just for fun, as the checks aren’t made it out to him and he can do nothing with them. This is our first anticipation, as readers, that Our Hero may not exactly be your traditional-style suspense hero. But it’s only Mr. Greenleaf, not a treasury agent, and Mr. Greenleaf explains his situation to Tom–wanting Dickie to come home, as his mother is dying of leukemia and Dickie needs to get it together, give up his Bohemian life as a painter in Italy and come back to the US to take up his rightful place in the family business.

Soon Tom is on his way to Italy, funded by the Greenleafs, and tasked with bringing the recalcitrant heir home. He does find Dickie on the beach in Mongibello, and has to somehow make his acquaintance–and he doesn’t have a swimsuit:

He hadn’t brought a bathing suit with him, and he’d certainly have to have one here. Tom went into one of the little shops near the post office that had shirts and bathing shorts in its tiny front window, and after trying on several pairs of shorts that did not fit him, or at least not adequately enough to serve as a bathing suit, he bought a black-and-yellow thing hardly bigger than a G-string.

ripley

In the film, the awkwardness of the scene–and Tom in the bathing suit (which, in this case, is a lot more than a G-string; but then again, Tom has buried a lot of shame deep inside himself, and not just about his sexuality) he is clearly uncomfortable wearing, as well as the pasty whiteness of his skin amongst all the tan bodies on the beach, instantly induces sympathy for him–and in the book, it’s much the same. Highsmith takes us into Tom’s mind, in a tight third person point of view, so that we know what he is thinking and what he is feeling–but Highsmith is such a master writer, so good at making we the reader identify with Tom…that we soon forget that she is also dropping little hints along the way about just who he is. He is often refreshingly honest–he is very quick to tell people that he is good at forgery (he is) and mimicking other people (again, he is) and freely admits to many not quite moral talents; the great irony is that Tom has learned that you can quite often tell the absolute truth to people and they won’t believe you. He’s charming in his way, because he has learned that to get what he wants out of life, he has to be. Soon he is quite obsessive about Dickie–and disliking Marge, to the point of hating her for never letting him be alone with Dickie.

And this exchange:

“Marge and I are fine,” Dickie snapped in a way that shut Tom out from them. “Another thing I want to say, but clearly,” he said, looking at Tom, “I’m not queer. I don’t know if you have the idea that I am or not.”

“Queer?” Tom smiled faintly. “I never thought you were queer.”

Dickie started to say something else, and didn’t. He straightened up, the rubs showing in his dark chest. “Well, Marge thinks you are.”

Ah, some self-loathing a teenaged Greg can certainly identify with. Deny, deny, deny.

I loved the book even more than I did on the first read, and perhaps there’s a much longer, more in-depth piece I could write about this book (I certainly tagged a lot of pages as I read), but I am now interested in reading the rest of the Ripleyad; to see how Tom comes out–he certainly wound up ahead of the game at the end of The Talented Mr. Ripley, having lied, forged, stolen, and killed his way to get there.

And I do want to watch the film again–it’s on Netflix. Maybe something to watch while on the treadmill at the gym? Perhaps.

Have I Told You Lately That I Love You

Wednesday, and Hump Day; whatever you prefer to call it. It’s the midway point of the week, at any rate, and it’s all downhill from here into the weekend.

I always regret the loss of Mondays and Tuesdays to twelve hour work days, to be completely honest; I generally can’t get anything done on either day rather than going into the office. I have to be in bed by ten on Sunday and Monday nights, and there’s also never a guarantee I’m going to sleep well, which is a terrifying prospect, particularly on Sunday nights as I head into the long stretch of the week. I slept extremely well last night–so much so that I didn’t want to get out of bed this morning; I could have easily slept another few hours or so, and as I drink my first cup of coffee, still feel a little bit on the foggy side. We’re also supposed to have terrible weather this morning–thunderstorms, etc; I got one of those damned bad weather notices on my phone last night–which is, of course, still possible. The ground is wet so it may have rained during the night, and it’s cloudy and grayish outside. Hopefully the rain will hold off until after I go to the gym later this morning

I decided yesterday that I didn’t care for the work I’d done on the Secret Project already–although it was an admirable attempt–so I decided to start over, at a different place, and change the opening completely. I wish I could explain in more detail, but then it wouldn’t be a secret, would it? But one thing that is frequently true about me–and my work, all too frequently–is that I am very stubborn about openings. I envision an opening for a story or a book, and that’s where I start…and even though it may soon become readily apparent that isn’t the right place to start the story, I stubbornly cling to it because that’s the idea I originally had…despite knowing that I often start the story in the wrong place and changing the opening would most likely make the writing flow better. If you will recall, I have had a lot of trouble with writing this lately–I was lucky to get five hundred words a day for the longest time, until finally I was able to get about 1200 down in a day to get the first chapter finished. But it still dissatisfied me, and I began to wonder if maybe the problem was writing it in the first person rather than the third; perhaps a tight third point-of-view was what was actually called for. So, I exhaled a heavy sigh and decided to give that a try. I started last night–despite my exhaustion–and as I thought about it in the third person, I realized that if I was doing it in the third person, I should start it somewhere else…and as I thought about the words, decided to try it in the first with the new starting place, and it clicked. Which is helpful, I think? We shall see. But I am rather pleased with this new starting place, and I can get some good progress made on this now, methinks.

One would hope, anyway.

The fog in my own brain is beginning to clear a bit this morning, as I now have moved on to my second cup of coffee, and I am going to need to get started on activities that simply must be done; it’s Pay Day and thus Pay-the-Bills-Day, which is always a fun delight to see how little I have left to live on for the next two weeks or so. It can be depressing at times, or stressful at others, but what else can I do rather than try to figure out how to increase my income? Obviously, buying the car and taking on a car payment (and a tripling of the monthly car insurance bill) at the same time as taking a step back from my writing career to assess and think and decide what to do was probably poor timing; but I love having my car despite the enormous hole its blown in my budget, and if I could just get past all the various forms of whatever-it-is  that seem to preclude me from actually writing– this would cease to be a problem, you know?

Imposter Syndrome is probably the biggest contributor to this; and it’s very easy to get triggered into a downward spiral of it: a short story rejection, a one-star review, not being included in a list of gay writers, etc. etc. etc. This spiral generally comes to the fore with a message running through my brain: why do I bother, no one cares. (And for the record, I’m not bringing this up to get affirmation from people; I know all too well that affirmation doesn’t help much in these situations; you always think oh, I have such lovely and supportive friends rather than having some kind of self-worth renewal. It’s very, very true that belief in yourself has to start within you; and I’d love to know the reason why I am so self-defeating–which, for the record, is an entirely different thing from self-destructing.) It’s very easy to get into the mindset that the world is against you, that everyone is conspiring to bring or keep you down; when the real truth is the vast majority of people don’t think about you at all.

It’s kind of like that rampant insecurity I used to feel when I first started venturing into gay bars, hesitantly and nervous, absolutely certain that everyone was looking at me and judging me, not finding me attractive or interesting or worthy of even making eye contact with. It was all stuff and nonsense, of course. Nobody spends that much time looking at and judging total strangers, or laughing at them in gay bars; and if they do, they’re not worth knowing anyway. I finally reached the point where I neither cared what strangers thought–which was incredibly freeing–nor concerned myself with what other people do. I had no control over either, so why concern myself with it?

I saw the other day, for example, that someone had collected all the one and two star reviews from Amazon and Goodreads for Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, which was kind of serendipitous; I had just finished rereading and enjoying the book for the Reread Project, and Highsmith is one of my favorite authors. It was kind of an eye-opening moment about writing and publishing: for fuck’s sake, if people are giving HIGHSMITH and probably one of her best titles one and two star reviews…why the fuck do worry about bad reviews? We all get them, and really, it doesn’t ever mean why do you bother (no matter how vitriolic), it just means your books and your writing and your story and your voice didn’t connect with that person. That’s really all it means, and should be viewed as such.

It’s getting gloomier outside, which means the predicted rain is coming. Ah, well, I shall simply have to take an umbrella with me to the gym. I’m actually not dreading the gym this morning, and I don’t think I’m going to have to make myself go. I have felt so much better physically just from going on Sunday; I’ve realized that my muscles are tired from the work, which is actually a good feeling. My goal is to go again today and Friday, and then again on Sunday. It won’t be easy maintaining this schedule during Parade Season–Parade Season is what finished me off and knocked me out of my routine the last time I started trying to get back into the gym, and that was last year? The year before? I don’t recall, but it ultimately doesn’t matter; I stopped going and I need to learn from that mistake this year.

And on that note, I should start paying the bills and getting things done. Have a lovely Wednesday, Constant Reader!

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Blue

So, Saints & Sinners and the Tennessee Williams Festival were a Jeopardy clue on Friday night; how fricking cool is that? I didn’t see it myself–I was cleaning–but any number of people tagged me on Facebook or on Twitter, so I got to see it, which is cool. The Tennessee Williams Festival has been a clue before, but I think this is the first time Saints & Sinners was–and it’s a queer/LGBTQ festival, so even more cool. Way to go, Jeopardy! There’s a reason why you’ve always been my favorite game show!

Hold up your hand if you didn’t think I’d get everything done yesterday that I’d planned. But it was still a good day, and I wrote some new stuff for the first time in a while. I have these horrible stagnant times, when I don’t get any writing done–and as we’ve already established, I always have to force myself to do it (despite loving doing it) and then when I’ve got my writing for the day finished, I wonder why I have to make myself do something I love–and those stagnant times always make me worry that I’ve lost the spark, the desire, to do it; that this time is the time I won’t be able to get back into it and do it. I worked on the Secret Project for a while yesterday, basically completely rewrote everything I wrote to begin with, and moved onto from the first scene to the next scene, which was also quite lovely.

I did get some organizing done–there’s more to be done today; my iCloud drive is so ridiculously disorganized that it’s almost impossible to use, and I probably should back everything up yet again–and some of the filing; I should be able to get more done this morning before I dive back into the Secret Project. I am also planning on heading to the gym for the first time in a very long time (I prefer not to think about just how long that time has been, frankly), which is my first move in my attempt to live a healthier, better organized, better life. I already am thinking of excuses to get out of going, frankly–which is par for the course, as always–but as long as I don’t tie myself to any particular time table, I should be good. I guess the Super Bowl is also tonight, but I don’t really care about either team–the 49ers or the Chiefs–though I suppose if I had to pick one I’d pick the Chiefs, and that’s mainly because they haven’t won a Super Bowl in forever and I think Kansas City could use the boost. We’ll probably spend the evening getting caught up on shows we watch. We still haven’t finished watching Messiah, are way behind on Dare Me, haven’t started the last season of Schitt’s Creek, and so on.

We haven’t even started HBO’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Outsider, which is getting rave reviews. Who would have ever guessed The Hogan Family’s Jason Bateman would become one of our finest actors/directors/writers for television? I really can’t wait for Ozark to come back.

I also finally finished and published my blog post about Victoria Holt’s Kirkland Revels, part of my Reread Project; I still need to do The Talented Mr. Ripley–it’s started, but I need to finish it.

I am resisting the urge to read Dorothy B. Hughes’ The So Blue Marble next; I need to start reading Tracy Clark’s canon so I can interview her for Sisters; but I also have to read Lori Rader-Day’s The Lucky One for the panel I’m moderating this year at the Jeopardy clue Tennessee Williams Festival late next month. Decisions, decisions. Probably the smart thing to do is read Tracy Clark’s first book next, then Lori’s, and then back to Tracy again for her second book.

I’ve also reached the final section of Richard Campanella’s Bourbon Street, which I am looking forward to finally finishing this month. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the book, which is interesting, well-written, and incredibly informative; it’s going to remain on my desk as an important reference guide for any future New Orleans writing I do–which reminds me, I’ve got to start that Sherlock Holmes story–and probably when I finish the Campanella I’ll probably move on to Jason Berry’s City of a Million Dreams: A History of New Orleans at Age 300. 

The plan is to get this work on the Secret Project finished this week, get started on the Sherlock story, and then get back to Bury Me in Shadows. I’d like to get Shadows turned in by the end of March, get back to the Kansas book–maybe with some serious focus I can get that finished and turned in by the end of May, and then I can get to work on Chlorine. I’d like to have the first draft of Chlorine finished by the end of summer.

Must stay organized, and must stay focused.

I also finished reading Dorothy B. Hughes’ Dread Journey yesterday.

dread journey

“I’m afraid.”

She had spoken aloud. She hadn’t meant to; she hadn’t wanted those words to come up from her throat to her lips. She hadn’t meant to think them, much less speak them. She didn’t want Gratia to have heard them.

But across the room the girl lifted her eyes from her book.

“What did you say?” she queried.

Dorothy B. Hughes is one of the more unjustly forgotten women writers of the mid to later twentieth century; fortunately Sarah Weinman worked–and has continued to work–tirelessly to bring this women back into the public eye. She wrote the introduction to Dread Journey, and in it she names Hughes as her favorite crime writer of all time. She’s not wrong, frankly; Sarah and my friend Margery are both huge fans of Hughes, and if not for them–and Megan Abbott–I may not have ever started reading Hughes, and for that I shall always be grateful to them. In a Lonely Place and The Expendable Man are both extraordinary; I think, frankly, The Expendable Man should be taught; it’s on my list for the Reread Project, for later in the year. Dread Journey is yet another masterwork by Hughes; I cannot wait to dig my teeth into more of her work.

Dread Journey takes place entirely on a train; the Chief, making its regular run from Los Angeles to Chicago–and you know, at some point, someone really needs to do a book or lengthy essay about crime novels and trains; not only did Hughes write one, but Christie wrote two (the very well known Murder on the Orient Express and the lesser known The Mystery of the Blue Train; as well as others that revolved around trains, like 4:50 from Paddington–called What Mrs. McGillicudy Saw! in the US) and of course, Graham Greene’s wonderful Orient Express comes to mind as well. Trains were part and parcel of the American experience. Trains made travel and connecting the massive distances across this continent much easier in the time before air travel became more commonplace and everyone wasn’t convinced they needed a car; there’s a certain nostalgic romantic element to train travel now, probably a result of these novels. I know that year we lived in Washington, we loved taking the train to Philadelphia and New York, even on to Boston; I’ve always, as I said the other day, wanted to write a book or a story called Murder on the Acela Express, and perhaps someday I will–even though the Acela is more of a commuter train without compartments. One of these days I want to take the City of New Orleans on its twenty-four hour ride to Chicago; it just seems like a lovely thing to do and the reading time! Oh, the reading time.

Anyway, the premise behind Dread Journey revolves around the dysfunctional and borderline abusive relationship between Viv Spender, a self-made Hollywood producer and studio head, and Kitten Agnew, a woman he discovered, became obsessed with, and groomed into a major star–America’s sweetheart, the girl next door. There is a huge difference between Kitten’s public image and who she is–a hard as nails fighter who won’t let go of her stardom in the face of Gratia Shawn, his new obsession, and whom he has decided will replace Kitten as the star of his dream project in the role of Clavdia Chauchat. But Kitten has a contract and isn’t giving up without a fight–and they, along with Viv’s longtime secretary Mike Dana, and several other characters–a journalist returning from the Far East, who drowns his memories of the atrocities and horrors he saw there in alcohol; a snippy, gossipy bandleader; a failed screenwriter returning to New York embittered by his failure; and of course, the car attendant, a man of color named James Cobbett–a decent working man who witnesses almost everything that happens on the car. Will Viv go so far as to kill Kitten to get out of the contract he has signed with her? She’s threatening to sue if she doesn’t play Clavdia; and the tension mounts as the cat-and-mouse game between the two of them slowly draws everyone else in the railroad car in.

It’s a very short read, and a good one. I highly recommend it, and of course, Sarah Weinman’s opening essay is worth the cover price alone.

And now, back to the spice mines.

Faded Love

I’ve always enjoyed romantic suspense, especially if it leaned really hard into the suspense aspect of the sub-genre. This sub-genre was enormously popular in the mid-to-late twentieth century; with authors like Dorothy Eden and Phyllis A. Whitney and Susan Howatch, among many others, scoring a number of successes with their books and even becoming international bestsellers. The sub-genre was so popular, in fact, that other female writers–who technically didn’t write romantic suspense–were often marketed as such, with the same styles of cover and fonts and cover design; often covers featuring a cover featuring a wind-swept beautiful young woman with long-flowing hair and a long gown, usually in the foreground with an enormous, spooky, brooding house/castle/mansion in the background with a solitary window lit up and the woman almost inevitably had a look of fear on her face. (I’ve always thought of them as girl running away from lighted window covers.)

But Victoria Holt was different from the others. Her books were varied, and while there were certainly tropes she followed, she often toyed with them in ways that were always clever and smart and original. Sometimes she followed the Jane Eyre style; in which the first third of the book is the main character’s history and how she wound up “running away from the lighted window”; sometimes she just inserted you right into the midst of the story as it developed….and once the mystery/suspense kicked into gear, it was impossible to stop reading.

kirkland revels original pb

I met Gabriel and Friday on the same day, and strangely enough I lost them together; so that thereafter I was never able to think about one without the other. The fact that my life became a part of theirs is, in a way, an indication of my character, because they both began by arousing some protective instinct in me; all my life up to that time I had been protecting myself and I think I felt gratified to find others in need of protection. I had never before had a lover, never before had a dog; and, when these two appeared, it was natural enough that I should welcome them.

I remember the day perfectly. It was spring, and there was a fresh wind blowing over the moors. I had ridden away from Glen House after luncheon ad I could at this time leave the house without a feeling that I had escaped. This feeling had been with me since I returned home from my school in Dijon; perhaps it had always been there, but a young woman senses these emotions more readily than a child.

My home was a somber place. How could it be otherwise when it was dominated by someone who was no longer there. I decided during the first days of my return that I would never live in the past. No matter what happened to me, when it was over I should not look back. Early in life–I was nineteen at this time–I had learned an important lesson. I determined to live in the present–the past forgotten, the future left to unfold itself.

Kirkland Revels  was the second novel British writer Eleanor Hibbert wrote under the name Victoria Holt; she used, over the course of her incredibly prolific career (using a manual typewriter for most of it) many different pseudonyms, including Jean Plaidy (historical fiction focusing on royalty; fictionalizing the lives of kings and queens and the mistresses of kings) and Philippa Carr (historical romantic suspense novels, all linked by the concept that each novel featured the daughter of the main character in the preceding novel, beginning with The Miracle at St. Bruno’s). The first Holt novel, Mistress of Mellyn, launched the Victoria Holt name quite successfully; she wrote numerous bestsellers under that name for decades. The first Holt novel I read was The Secret Woman, a novel I still remember fondly because its plot was so complicated and the mystery essentially unsolvable–the twist at the end caught me completely by surprise. Holt often did this with the mystery/suspense side of her novels–tightly plotted, and just as many twists and turns as any other suspense novel. (Although one of my personal favorites, On the Night of the Seventh Moon, has about as original–and far-fetched–a plot as anyone could have ever dreamed up; I’m still surprised, all these years later, her agent and publisher went with it.)

Kirkland Revels was unique for its sub-genre in that the heroine, Catherine, spent the entire suspense part of the book pregnant. The first half of the book details Catherine’s background and sets up the suspense half of the novel; she’s come home from a boarding school in France, her home is empty and strange, haunted by the absence of a dead mother and an absent-minded, rarely present father when she meets Gabriel Rockwell on the moors and also finds a stray dog. She and Gabriel have a whirlwind romance, they wed, and he brings her home to meet his family in the brooding mansion, Kirkland Revels–which is located near the ruins of an old abbey, whose stones were used to build the mansion and is supposedly haunted by a monk. But her time in this strange house is limited when Gabriel falls from a balcony to his death and the dog also disappears; she returns to her home as a young widow…only to discover she is actually pregnant from her brief marriage, and returns to the Rockwell manse as her child, if a boy, will inherit everything.

And soon, things take a turn to the dark side:

One prospective master of the Revels had died violently; was something being plotted against another?

That was the beginning of my period of terror.

Catherine soon finds out that her mother isn’t actually dead, but completely insane and locked away in a mental hospital; her father tried to shield her from this knowledge, and Catherine herself isn’t so sure of her own sanity as weird things continue to happen to her at the Revels. Is she imagining things? Is she really seeing the ghostly monk or is her grip on sanity slipping, the same way her mother’s did? (It was widely believed in the past that madness, or insanity, was inherited; the prospect of inherited insanity drove the plots of several of Holt’s books set in the past.) Holt was really good at building suspense and tension; all of her books read quickly, despite the old-fashioned, formal style in which she wrote them.

Kirkland Revels was never one of my favorite Holt novels, and I rarely, if ever, reread it when I was younger–I used to reread favorites over and over again–but now, as an adult, I realize that the reason the book wasn’t a favorite was the notion of a pregnant heroine in danger, the danger growing as she grew closer to term, made me uncomfortable; much the way Pet Sematary by Stephen King disturbed me so much I never reread it until recently. I’m glad I gave Kirkland Revels a reread; it’s actually quite well done–and while later Holt heroines might have been mothers (hell, the heroine of The House of a Thousand Lanterns was not only a mother but was on her THIRD marriage in that book!), they were never again pregnant throughout the suspense portion of the book.

Definitely worth a look, Constant Reader.

You Don’t Love Me Anymore

Sunday morning, and with no Saints game today I have no excuse not to get a lot done today. It’s chilly this morning and gray outside; we still have rain in the forecast but it’s calm and quiet out there right now; perhaps the calm before the storm? Ugh, such a tired cliche–but it’s fine with me.

Yesterday I got a lot of chores done–very little writing, but the chores were necessary and of course, being the Master Procrastinator that I am; I have to have a clean apartment–or at least one that’s been straightened up some–in order to have a clear conscience enough to get work done. I now have no excuses to not get everything done that I need to get done today–but we’ll see how that goes; there’s always something.

I read another Holmes story yesterday–“The Musgrave Ritual”–which I couldn’t remember the plot of, other than remembering that it was one of my favorite Holmes stories. Like “The Gloria Scott“, it’s a “let me tell you a story” story; I really don’t remember the Holmes stories being like this, of course, but it’s something to think about as I prepare to write my own pastiche. It’s a style of writing/story-telling I’m not so certain I want to try, but then again–the entire point of me writing a Holmes story is to push myself as a writer and get better overall, so perhaps…perhaps I should try it that way and see how it goes. Anyway, as I reread it, I remembered why I liked it so much; it’s a treasure hunt story, and I absolutely love treasure hunts. At least two Scotty books–Jackson Square Jazz and Vieux Carre Voodoo, are treasure hunts.

I also rewatched the original film version of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, 1963’s The Haunting, directed by multiple Oscar winner Robert Wise, and starring Julie Harris as Nell. I saw this movie long before I even knew there was a book, let alone read it; my grandmother loved old black and white movies, and she especially loved crime and horror–probably where I get it from, and she also introduced me to the novels of Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, Ellery Queen, and Erle Stanley Gardner. I was very young and the film absolutely terrified me–to this day, even remembering the scene with the door expanding and contracting unsettles me. I was, of course, quite delighted as a teenager to discover it was actually a novel (I had read Richard Matheson’s Hell House, with it’s similarities to The Haunting, year earlier and wondered if he’d gotten the idea for the book from the movie), and it quickly became one of my favorite novels of all time; in fact, I believe it was Stephen King who introduced me to the novel, because the opening paragraph was an epigram to ‘salem’s Lot. But I hadn’t watched the film in years; I’d watched the horrible 1999 remake, and of course the Netflix series loosely based on the book (I do recommend the series, it’s fantastic, once you get back the fact that it’s not a faithful adaptation but kind of fan-fiction; it didn’t even have to be Hill House for the story to work, but that’s a subject for a different blog. I do recommend it, though). Julie Harris is perfectly cast as Nell, and Claire Bloom does an excellent job as Theo. There are differences between the book and the film; why they changed Dr. Montague’s name to Dr. Markway is a mystery, and the later third of the film, after his wife arrives, is vastly different from the later third of the novel, and her character is completely changed; the young man who escorts her to Hill House is also excised from the movie. But the way the film is shot–the use of light and shadow, the up angles of the camera, and the ever-so creepy claustrophobia of the enclosed house–is absolutely terrifying, and you never see what is actually haunting the house. That was the singular brilliance of the book, and Wise kept that for his film (the execrable 1999 remake went completely over the top with CGI effects and so forth; ruining the necessary intimacy of the story). I still think of it as one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen, and on a rewatch–the way you hear Nell’s thoughts, whispered, while Julie Harris’ eyes dart around–adds to the intimacy. I think that interior intimacy is a large factor in why the book is so fantastic, and why both book and original film work so well. The Netflix series does show the ghosts of Hill House, but it’s also done in a very subtle, unsettling way, which is why I think I liked it so much.

I also was thinking about rewatching Anthony Minghella’s film adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, but decided to hold off until I finish the reread of the book–which I am still in the midst of–I want to finish it before my trip this week, because I want to take two different books with me to read.

I did finish my reread of Kirkland Revels by Victoria Holt, which was much better than I remembered, with it’s haunted monastery and ghostly monk haunting the big manor house. It’s also a terrific novel about paranoia and gaslighting; the ultimate evil scheme behind everything hinges on the heroine of the story being eventually committed to an insane asylum, and hopefully miscarrying her child, or it being born dead as a result of the confinement. Holt novels often hinged on the possibility of insanity being genetic–if the mother is insane, her child most likely will be as well–and this horror, which was probably very real in the nineteenth century, makes this book terribly unsettling. The main character, Catherine, is very strong-willed and intelligent, but she marries a man without meeting any of his family, moves into the family estate (Kirkland Revels), and then he dies in a fall from a balcony, and she returns to her father’s house; only to have to return to Kirkland Revels when she discovers she is pregnant. The combination of vulnerable and pregnant heroine being gaslit into believing she is insane was pretty unsettling to me when I originally read the novel; which is probably why it’s one of the few Holts I never took down from the shelf on a rainy afternoon and reread. Rereading it, thought, makes me appreciate the mastery apparent in Holt’s writing. She never again wrote another novel with a pregnant heroine–while some of her later novels did involve pregnancies and/or motherhood (On the Night of the Seventh Moon, The House of a Thousand Lanterns) the mystery, and the plot against the heroine, never occurred during the pregnancy. Romantic suspense, and its twin sister, domestic suspense, were a kind of “women’s noir,” in that the stories always focused on what were seen as the biggest fears for women–marrying the wrong man, danger to her child, not being able to trust your husband–were the recurring thread through all of them.

I also did manage to get some work done on the new project yesterday, which was lovely and my goal for the day. Not as much as I would like–I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t fail to achieve everything in a day that I wanted to–but enough to be satisfactory. I also came up with an idea for another Scotty, one that takes place down in the bayou–Cajun Country Cavaille–but whether I’ll write it or not remains to be seen. But I’d like to address the loss of the Louisiana wetlands at some point in print, and writing about a (probably fictional) version of Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes is probably the best way to do that; I just don’t have a murder mystery to hang the story on. My interest in the Scotty (and possible resurrection of the Chanse) series is expanding outward from New Orleans to the rest of Louisiana; I’ve come to realize that not only do I love New Orleans but I also love Louisiana, frustrating and irritating as that love can be sometimes. Louisiana is so beautiful…I also want to write about the Atchafalaya basin sometime, too, and of course let’s not forget the infamous Bayou Corne sinkhole no one talks about anymore…and of course there’s Cancer Alley along the river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, which is also begging to be written about.

And on that note, perhaps it’s time for me to head back into the spice mines. Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader.

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