It’s One of Those Nights (Yes Love)

So, for today’s BSP about Bury Me in Shadows, I am going to talk about where the actual story that goes to the heart of the plot came from.

My grandmother was probably one of the biggest influences in my life, for both good and bad. I won’t talk about the bad—I was raised to believe you never bleed in public—and there was quite a bit of it; I didn’t speak to her the last thirteen or so years of her life. But the good was good, really. She loved old movies and passed that love of the glory days of Hollywood on to me; she always encouraged me to read and to be a writer; and she was the one who instilled in me my love for crime films and (to a lesser degree) horror ones—what she used to call “scary movies”; I watched The Haunting for the first time with her, and sometimes when I rewatch an old classic, like The Strange Love of Martha Ivers or The Letter, I remember watching it with her on the couch. She was also the one who introduced me to some authors I love, Victoria Holt (The Secret Woman) and Mary Stewart (The Ivy Tree), and she also encouraged my interest in history, which she also really enjoyed. She used to tell me stories about the past all the time when I was young—stories that at the time, and for most of my life, I remembered as being “family history” and was very surprised as an adult to find out they were fairly common legends and stories from all over the South, as well as from books and movies. In other words, none of the stories were true…but when I was thinking about this again the other day it occurred to me that it was entirely possible I was remembering it wrong—it was a long fucking time ago, after all, and my memory has been wrong before. It’s entirely possible she was just telling me stories, that I assumed were family histories…anyway, there were a lot of them, and when I was in college I started writing a lot of the ones I remembered down. They were often tales of blood and murder and crime; sometimes ghost stories.

The Lost Boys, the legend I used as the basis for the book’s background, is one of those stories.

And yes, bits and pieces of the story are apocryphal; sewn together by my grandmother into one story to entertain me.

Long story short: before the Civil War the county where my family comes from (again, not sure if this is true or not; the histories of the area I’ve read indicate that it’s not; so she either was weaving a story for me or I misunderstood the story or altered it in my memory as I got older) used to mostly belong entirely to one family—from which I am theoretically descended from (my grandmother also had a lot of delusions of grandeur)—and after the war, they lost nearly everything, except for a small tract of land that still remains in the family to this day. Anyway, the father and the oldest son went off to war, leaving his wife and two younger sons behind. The father was killed in the war. When the son came home after the war was over, the house had burned to the ground and there was no sign of wife or the two youngest sons anywhere; they’d vanished without a trace. No one ever knew what became of them; and the story, according to my grandmother, was that a deserting Union soldier burned the house and killed them (yes, the same story as appeared in Gone with the Wind, among others; my grandmother also told me another story about a Union deserter committing murder of a defenseless Southern woman—which I also turned into a short story that collects dust in my files), and that on or around the anniversary of their deaths, you could hear the younger boy calling for his mother in the woods near where the old house had been. Good stuff, right? I certainly thought so, and what a great basis for a story.

Of course, when I started researching the history of the county, none of this appeared to be true—the Union army never came any closer to the county than Tuscaloosa, for one, so the odds of a deserter making it all the way there on foot are pretty slim, and especially if no one else saw him—and of course, none of my ancestors owned most of the county. But it was a good story, even if not true, and I felt that writing about it could make for an interesting tale. My main character, Jake, is aware of the old family legend; he wrote a paper about it in high school, but doesn’t believe it’s anything more than a legend. I thought it would be cool to leave the ruins of the original house there, deep in the woods, far from the county road and the current domicile of the family, the crumbling house on the dirt road just off the county road. I also brought in a team of archaeologists from the University of Alabama, excavating the ruins—one of the few sites left that haven’t been excavated—and the professor leading the team, Dr. Brady (named after a historian friend), while intrigued and interested in the legend, isn’t trying to find proof one way or the other; he’s simply interested in what information about how the family lived can be unearthed.

The book is more than this, of course; but the Lost Boys legend was the starting point from which the rest of the book grew. I have a very complicated relationship with Alabama, to be honest; it’s my homeplace and I love the state. It’s stunningly beautiful. Even the poor rural county we came from is beautiful, with rolling hills and small mountains covered in pine forest, hollows filled with kudzu, muddy orange streams and rivers, riotously colored flowering bushes, and the air…oh, how wonderfully clean and fresh and pure the air smells. I love the orange dirt, and how round and smooth the gravel can be. The sky is a gorgeous cerulean, and of course, when it rains, it really rains. I can remember how still and heavy and damp the hot summer air was, the gnats and mosquitoes and dirt daubers and wasps and hornets and bees and horseflies. Whenever I stop as I drive through on my way somewhere else (usually Kentucky or Atlanta), I am always amazed at how lovely the young people are working in the small highway-side town’s fast food places. I remember screen doors with a coil so they’d always shut (or slam, if you just let go), and the big red Coca-Cola coolers with the bottle opener on the side in the general stores—and of course, the big old style Dr Pepper signs, that looked like a clock with only the numbers 10, 2 and 4—because that was the time for a Dr Pepper. (I also remember it was considered a cure-all when you were sick; just heat some Dr Pepper on the stove and add lemon; just like 7-Up was a cure for an upset stomach.)

But the state’s history– enslaved people, what happened to the indigenous tribes, Jim Crow, Selma, the institutionalized racism–is also deeply problematic. How does one write about the problematic history of the state? How do you point out how wrong all of that is without becoming preachy? I’ve often taken issue with white-written narratives about the pre-Civil Rights era in the South, as well as those set during that era and after; I remember reading one book where the heroine was doing research about the history of an incredibly racist town where a race-related murder had occurred, driven by the Klan–but focusing on the good, non-racist, non-Klan members of the town–what I call the see? We aren’t all bad take. I definitely didn’t want to write one of those stories. A few years back, I found a copy of a book I read when I was fairly young–it belonged to my uncle, actually–about the Civil Rights era in Alabama, called The Klansman by William Bradford Huie, whom I believe was actually a journalism professor at the University of Alabama…and it was different than I remembered, yet still chilling. I’m not sure what Huie was trying to do with the book, to be honest; the Klan sympathizers really came across badly, and even those who weren’t out and out members of the Klan were still racists who saw the Klan as a necessary “evil”–the sheriff couldn’t get elected without the support of the Klan, and he spends the book trying to walk the line between pleasing the Klan and not doing anything illegal…but you lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas. (I read it the same summer as I read To Kill a Mockingbird, which also belonged to my uncle; the two books are forever linked in my mind.)

Bury Me in Shadows may be many things, but it’s not a Lost Cause narrative, nor is it a “look at the nice white saviors” novel, either.

And I think that’s enough about that for today.

Red

I was tagged awhile back in one of those post seven covers of books you love with no explanation things on Facebook, so I obliged, and even tweeted the covers.

I love nothing more than sharing information or titles or covers of books I love; the problem is, as always, narrowing the list down to just seven. I’ve read (and loved) thousands of books over the course of my life (I kind of wish I’d actually kept track or logged them somehow, because the completist in me wants to know the actual number), and for this round I decided to go with suspense novels written by women that I read when I was in high school or younger; women authors who might not be as well remembered as they perhaps should be (although, in fairness, Sarah Weinman and Jeffrey Marks have both done an excellent job of preserving some of these women writers; I went with the ones considered domestic suspense first, then switched and finished with romantic suspense).

The books I chose are: Mischief by Charlotte Armstrong; The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes; The Fiend by Margaret Millar; The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart; The Secret Woman by Victoria Holt; Listen for the Whisperer by Phyllis A. Whitney; and An Afternoon Walk by Dorothy Eden.

Holt, Eden, and Whitney are generally forgotten today when female crime writers of the past are discussed; only recently have the names of the amazing triad of  Millar, Armstrong, and Hughes gone through a sort of renaissance. (Stewart isn’t as forgotten as Holt, Eden and Whitney; nor is she enjoying the same sort of renaissance as Millar, Armstrong and Hughes. More’s the pity in all four cases, frankly; the books might seem dated today, but they are excellent time capsules for the era in which they were written, and all seven women deserve better.) All seven women were fantastic writers, and the books I recommended are simply a starting place. Case in point: Victoria Holt’s The Secret Woman was the first of hers I’d read, so it always holds place of honor for me; but if pressed to name a favorite I would go with On the Night of the Seventh Moon, simply because it’s plot was almost completely insane–and she pulled it off. As I have said in previous entries, I also revisited Kirkland Revels lately, one of the few earlier works of hers I’ve not read multiple times–and frankly, it was kind of a revelation in how well it’s done.

I’ve also been revisiting Armstrong lately–well, over the last five or six years or so; undoubtedly since Sarah Weinman reminded me of her existence, and her importance to my developing crime fan mind as a kid–and I’ve focused primarily on reading the works of hers I hadn’t already read. Her Edgar-winning A Dram of Poison is actually one of the more charming suspense novels I’ve ever read; it was dark, of course, but had such a warm, optimistic heart that you couldn’t help but smile as a ragtag group of people tried to track down a lost olive oil bottle filled with poison.

I do want to reread Millar’s The Fiend (it’s my personal favorite of her novels) and Eden’s An Afternoon Walk (another favorite, but it’s been at least thirty years or so since I read it, if not more)–which is a very underrated and unjustly forgotten tale of domestic suspense that rivals the masters of the form.

And on that note, back to the spice mines.

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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.

Frosty the Snowman

And just like that, we are now at Tuesday; a week before Christmas Eve.

Recently, I was tagged in one of those “post seven books you love with no explanation” things on social media–I posted the book covers on both Facebook and Twitter–and while I understand the motivation behind these things (someone might see one of the posts and think, Oh I want to read that) but for me, it’s always difficult to boil things down to a finite number; only seven books that I love? I don’t have favorites, really; the books I love can be quantified any number of ways: ones I’ve reread the most, etc. And I’ve literally read thousands and thousands of books over the course of my life; picking seven absolute favorites is always an odious chore, particularly as I inevitably forget one or more books. This last time, I decided to go with women crime writers I enjoyed reading when I was young, and excluding Agatha Christie. The seven books I chose were all written by women between the years 1956 (the oldest) and 1972 (the most recent); and they were all books that had appeared in print at least once with the inevitable women’s suspense book cover: woman in long dress running away from, or standing some distance in front of, a haunted-looking house, and the woman also always has long hair, usually blowing in a sharp breeze of some sort, and her face has a look of either apprehension or terror, or both, on it.

Those covers were almost inevitably always slapped on any book with any sort of suspense in it, if it was written by a woman and the main character was a woman. Thus, Mary Stewart often got categorized as romantic suspense–and while there might have been some romance in her novels, the mystery/suspense was the primary aspect of the books…I’ve always thought her novels were just straight up mysteries with female protagonists–in Airs Above the Ground she’s married, for Christ’s sake–but Charlotte Armstrong often got the same kind of covers, and she was far from romantic suspense.

But when I posted the cover of The Secret Woman by Victoria Holt, a friend commented, asking if “the secret woman” was a mistress. And I realized how deeply clever the novel actually was, as I started to reply.

There were several “secret women” in the book. One was a ship, the Secret Woman; the wealthy family in the book, the Creditons, were a shipping family with a fleet of merchant vessels. The main character in the book was a young orphaned girl who goes to live with her aunt Charlotte, who lives in the Queen’s House (supposedly because Queen Elizabeth I once slept there) and is an antiques dealer. Young Anna Brett is trained by her aunt her entire life to take over the antiques business, and nearby is the home of the Crediton family; and Anna’s life becomes eventually entwined with theirs, when she is hired as a governess for the son of an illegitimate Crediton–old man Crediton had an affair with a young woman named Valerie Stretton, who was also the “secret woman” the ship was named for. Anna needs to get out of England because she was tried for murdering her aunt when she died; she became friends with the nurse who took care of her aunt, and she takes the job so she and her friend can go take care of the young boy’s mentally deranged mother on a tropical island in the Indian Ocean. She of course falls in love with the boy’s father…but all kinds of strange things go on, until we finally find out who has actually been going around killing people, and why. Anna herself is a ‘secret woman’; because she is in love with a married man and he with her. Holt was a pseudonym of British writer Eleanor Hibbert; who also wrote as Philippa Carr and Jean Plaidy. I went on to read most of her work under all her names, and enjoyed most of them. The Holt novels began to seem repetitive in the 1980’s, and so I stopped reading her at long last then.

I may revisit some of her work–Kirkland Revels is the one I’ve been thinking about; it;s the only romantic suspense novel I can recall whose heroine spent most of the novel pregnant.

I also finished reading  Watchmen last night, and it’s extraordinary. I will undoubtedly discuss it further, once I’ve digested it a bit more. It really is exceptional.

Insomnia also paid me a visit last night–which sucks, as today is a long day, but on the other hand I can’t complain because it really has been a long time since I lay in bed all night half-asleep/half-awake, only having to open my eyes to be awake. Hopefully that means I’ll be tired this evening and able to get right to sleep.

We shall see, at any rate.

I also got some writing done last night, so the malaise has, for now, gone away.

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

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