Happiness is An Option

I’ve always enjoyed a good mystery with a supernatural edge to it; the line between crime fiction and horror is often blurred. Take, for example, The Silence of the Lambs. It’s often lauded as the first horror film to win an Oscar–but there’s no supernatural beings involved, no ghosts or vampires, or anything like that; the protagonist is an FBI agent trying to catch a serial killer…so is it really horror? Are slasher films/books actually horror or crime? (I think it depends on whether or not the slasher is actually something not human–like Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers, or just crazed human killers, like the Scream movies or even the first Friday the 13th, which is the only one I’ve actually seen.)

But then it’s really hard to define and delineate what work falls into what genre; and oft-times, there’s crossover between the various ones–there’s western horror, for example, just like romantic suspense bridges the line between romance and mystery. So where precisely on the spectrum of genre does the work of Barbara Michaels lay? There are often supernatural elements to her fiction; sometimes there aren’t. Ammie Come Home is my favorite ghost story of the many I’ve read–and I enjoy it just as much every time I reread it–but it’s also a mystery, and there’s also some romance in the book. The romance itself is rarely the focus of her books, but it is there and cannot be ignored; likewise, most stories that have supernatural elements (ones that are actually supernatural in origin or man-made frauds) inevitably have some mystery to them; what do the supernatural forces want–or in the case of fraud, what are those who are committing the fraud after? What do they want?

House of Many Shadows was the second Barbara Michaels novel I read, and remains one of my favorites to this day.

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The sounds bothered Meg most. Calling them auditory hallucinations helped a little–a phenomenon is less alarming when it has a proper technical name. Meg had always thought of hallucinations as something one saw. She had those, too, but for some illogical reason it was easier for her to accept visual illusions as nonreal than to ignore the hallucinatory sounds. When you were concentrating on typing a letter, and a voice says something in your ear, it was impossible not to be distracted.

The problem was hard to explain, and Meg wasn’t doing a good job of explaining. But then it had always been difficult to explain anything to Sylvia. Sylvia knew all the answers.

“The dictaphone was absolutely impossible. I couldn’t hear what Mr. Phillips had said. Voices kept mumbling, drowning out his voice. Once the whole Mormon Tabernacle Choir cut out the second paragraph of a very important memo.”

She smiled as she spoke. It sounded funny now, but at the time it had not been at all amusing.

Sylvia didn’t smile. “The Mormon Tabernacle Choir? Why them?”

Meg shrugged helplessly. “No reason. That’s the point; they are meaningless hallucinations. The doctor says they’ll go away eventually, but in the meantime…Mr. Phillips was very nice about it, he said he’d try to find an opening for me when I’m ready to work again, but I couldn’t expect him to keep me on. I had to listen to some of those tapes three times before I got the message clear, and there was always the chance I’d miss something important. And I’d already used up all my sick leave. Three weeks in the hospital…”

“You should be thankful you weren’t killed,” said Sylvia. “To think they never caught the man who was driving the car! New York is an absolute jungle. I don’t know how you can stand living here. May I have another cup of tea?”

Meg poured, biting back an irritated retort. She couldn’t afford to offend Sylvia, especially now, when she was about to ask a favor, but the cliches that were Sylvia’s sole means of communications had never annoyed her more. Why should she be thankful she hadn’t been killed? She might as well be thankful she didn’t have leprosy, or seven-year itch; or thank God because she had not been born with two heads. It was just as reasonable, and a lot more human, to feel vexation instead of gratitude. Why me, God? The old question, to which there was never any answer…Why did it have to be me in the path of that fool driver; why did I have to land on my head instead of some less vulnerable part of my anatomy; and why, oh, why, God, did Ihave to have these exotic symptoms instead of a nice simple concussion? Why do I have to be the poor relation, with no savings to fall back on, while Sylvia…

Sylvia’s close-set gray eyes were intent on the teapot. “Such a nice piece of silver,” she murmured.

I love Barbara Michaels’ work, and one of the happiest days of my reading life was the day I discovered she also wrote as Elizabeth Peters, which meant even more reading joy for me (and eventually, I came to prefer the Peters books to the Michaels; but make no mistake, I love all the books). The set-up for House of Many Shadows is right there in the beginning; poor Meg’s life has been upended by being hit by a driver who didn’t stop, and because of the hallucinations she suffers from as a result–with no idea of how long she will suffer through them–she is unable to work, and her distant relative Sylvia–whom she doesn’t seem to care much for–is her only hope. Sylvia–we all know people like Sylvia; without a sense of humor and whose response to any crisis is to come up with a plan and make it work–has a house in the Pennsylvania Dutch country, she’s not sure what she wants to do with it, but Meg can stay there rent-free, and Sylvia even comes up with a “make-work” solution so Meg won’t feel like she’s freeloading (it isn’t until much later she realizes that is what Sylvia was doing; at the time she kind of resents it); doing an inventory of the contents of the house and its attic, as Sylvia is thinking of donating the house to the local historical association. Sylvia’s stepson from the previous marriage that wound up with her owning the house is living on the property as a caretaker, in a cottage behind the main house–Meg remembers him from their childhood as a horrible tease she couldn’t much stand–and soon she is off to the wilds of the Pennsylvania country side.

At the end of the second chapter-the first after she arrives at the house–Meg experiences a hallucination in front of Andy, the stepson, and their relationship hasn’t changed much, apparently–which rattles Andy terribly; when it happens again a chapter or so later is when Andy confesses that he, too, has seen the same hallucinations she did–so are they hallucinations? Or are they seeing ghosts?

This set-up, of course, is absolutely brilliant: what better heroine for a supernatural story than a woman who’s had a brain injury that causes her to see hallucinations? The chilling touch that Andy has also seen the same hallucinations in the house that she has is terrifying; and as she slowly gets to work in the attic, she and Andy start discovering things about the history of the house, including the fact that the original property owners, back before the American Revolution, were brutally murdered in the original house that stood on the property; the current one was built over it. So, what happened 250 years earlier? Both Meg and Andy become a bit obsessed with the ancient murders, and as they continue to see things in the house, they slowly but surely start putting together the truth of what happened to the original property owners–while falling in love, of course.

One of the great things about the Michaels books is that she brooks no foolishness with her supernatural elements; it’s clear Dr. Mertz (her real name) was well read on the subject of the occult and other belief systems–they pop up, again and again, throughout the Michaels novels, and in many instances, I first heard of certain occult books and cults from reading them. I know I first read of The Golden Bough in a Michaels novel; Dr, Mertz knew her folklore and occult religions, and made very good use of that knowledge, not just in this book but in others–Prince of Darkness comes to mind–and of course, she was an excellent, excellent writer.

House of Many Shadows also holds up; despite the dated quality of the book–no Internet or computers or cell phones–it’s still a great story.

I’ve Been In Love Before

And just like that, it’s Friday again in New Orleans, with a weekend dawning full of promise and potential. How I choose to squander that promise and potential remains to be seen, quite frankly.

But I am sure I will earn another Olympic gold in procrastination and justification. I am getting rather good at it.

So last night we watched the season finale of American Horror Story: 1984. Sigh. Another season of  great potential, an interesting and diverse cast, and a terrific idea….yet the entire season left me feeling meh. Paul and I laughed our way through the finale, which, for a “horror story” is perhaps not the best intended reaction? I guess making an homage to slasher films from the 1980’s, including a summer camp, and then making it completely camp wasn’t what I was expecting, and frankly, when it comes to clever campy homages Scream set a bar so damned high that its sequels couldn’t even clear–but they came close. For a brief moment, as I watched, I did think oh, this is clever–he’s doing a pastiche of an entire series of slasher movies, like following the arc of the Friday the 13th’s first few films or so…but no, I wasn’t right. But that would be a much more clever idea than what we were given, frankly.

I’ve always said that the line between the horror and crime genres–be it film, novels, short stories, or television–is a very thin one that gets crossed rather frequently. The Silence of the Lambs is considered a horror film (I’ve not read the book; it’s in my TBR pile along with Red Dragon, and I will eventually get to them both), but it’s also very much a procedural: Clarice Starling, federal agent, is part of the team trying to catch a brutal serial killer, Buffalo Bill. Filming it as a horror film made it suspenseful and terrifying; much more so than had it been filmed as a straight-up procedural (which is why I am very curious about the novels). I’ve always wanted to do a straight-up novel about a mass, or spree, killing–which is what slasher movies really are at heart–that begins in the aftermath of a night like Halloween, when the police are called to the scene of a mass killing with brutalized, butchered bodies everywhere–or when the state police arrive at the camp at Crystal Lake; the first quarter/third of the book is the discovery of the bodies and the lead detective trying to place together the time-line of the murders. That’s as far as I’ve ever gotten with the idea, honestly; if I can ever figure out where to go from there, I’ll probably write it (although it occurs to me that what would be rather clever would be to alternate between the night before, when it’s happened, and the following morning as the detective puts the time line together….hmmmm *makes note*).

I also have an idea about a novel set in a ghost town in the California mountains–I’ve had this idea for quite some time, going back to the 1980’s (almost all of my California ideas were born in the 1980’s, when I lived there), and my mind keeps coming back to it from time to time. I think the idea was born from reading Stephen King’s short story “The Raft”, and then seeing it on film in Creepshow 2 (Paul Satterfield in that skimpy yellow speedo made quite an impression on me; it even occurs to me now that may have subliminally had a connection to my short story “Man in a Speedo”); the basic concept was the same–five or six college students decide to spend a weekend camping in a ghost town, getting drunk and high and having sex–only to have it all go South in the most terrifying way. I also realize that the “group of young people come to a remote location and all get killed off gradually” is probably the more hoary of the horror tropes; in order to do something like that one has to not only do it exceptionally well,  but say something new. I wanted to call it Sunburst, because that would be the name of the remote ghost town; a town that sprung up around a gold mine that eventually petered out and the town died with it. I also wanted it to be set in the mountains because–well, because the mountains in California are so beautiful–I wanted to set it on a mountain top that had a lovely view across a valley or canyon to Yosemite National Park.

This is why I never get anything done, really–I have so many ideas, and get new ones all the time, and so things get pushed to the side and forgotten until something reminds me of the original idea. I also like to think that I will eventually come back around to the idea and write it…it has happened before, of course–Sara, Sorceress, Sleeping Angel, Dark Tide all come to mind–and so it’s not so hard to believe those ideas’ time will eventually come. Hell, even Bury Me in Shadows was originally conceived of in the 1980’s, as a short story I wrote called “Ruins”–and the idea was always there in the back of my mind; which is partly why I finally decided to write the damned thing.

Finishing it, on the other hand, seems to be an enormous problem thus far. I am hoping to break this lengthy non-writing streak–well, I’ve been writing a bit here and there, just not producing on a daily basis the amount I not only should be but can do as a general rule–this weekend. The LSU game is Saturday night, and while yes, Auburn-Georgia is in the afternoon, I’m not so sure I care that much about watching it. Background noise, maybe, and if it’s a Georgia rout I can always turn it off….and I’m not so sure when the Saints game is on Sunday. I am also falling into the trap of thinking oh I have a week off for Thanksgiving come up and I can finish it then. No, no, NO. I should finish it before then, so I can spend that week polishing it and making it pretty before sending it off on December 1.

I seriously don’t know what to do, to be perfectly honest. I just know I need to be writing more than I am–and if not the book, then a short story or something. AUGH.

And since I don’t have to go in until later, I might as well do some this morning.

Have a lovely Friday, Constant Reader.

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Masterpiece

Why, hello, Thursday, how are you?

Returning to work wasn’t bad, actually, if a little weird; I felt kind of disoriented most of the day, like I was dreaming that I was at work rather than actually at work, if that makes any sense to anyone? Probably not, since it doesn’t really make sense to me, either. I slept very well again last night–that’s two nights in a row!–even though I didn’t really want to get out of bed this morning. I would have quite happily stayed in bed for another few hours. But the weekend is just over the horizon, and next week will be the real reality; a full week of work climaxing with Southern Decadence and condom outreach on Friday before a three day weekend, which is lovely.

We finished season two of Mindhunter last night, which was good–no spoilers but the season finale felt like a bit of a letdown, but overall the show is so incredibly well-done and well-acted and the story so well told I suspect that’s why the finale felt a little let-downish. It was the right place to stop, I suppose, but the resolution of the Atlanta child-killings of the late 70’s/early 80’s didn’t really mark an end to the case as neatly as fiction/entertainment demands; that’s the problem of using real life in a fictional series, I suppose. It would have been dramatically unfair to the victims and their families to have resolved the case completely–but while Wayne Williams never confessed and was never officially tied to the killings of the children, it is curious that the killings stopped once he was taken into custody–although, as Paul pointed out, the killer also could have simply moved away or died around the same time Williams was charged.

The finale of the show did send me off into the ozone layer thinking about serial killers, and our fascination with them. I’ve never read a lot about serial killers or mass murders (Paul, on the other hand, is literally a walking encyclopedia on serial killers–he doesn’t read about them as much as he used to, but when we merged our book collections, I remember being a bit concerned about his interest in serial killers), besides the obvious Helter Skelter (who didn’t read that in the 1970’s? Manson was, for want of a better term, the rock star of serial killings/mass murderers), and a few others–I read The Boston Strangler by Gerold Frank (I think that was his name) and some books on Jack the Ripper, but I never have been overly interested in them. I remember hearing about the Houston killings when I first moved there; so I did some reading up on Dean Corll, and I read The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule, too. I half-paid attention to the Jeffrey Dahmer case as it unfolded, and so on and so forth. And yes, watching Mindhunter has given me an idea for a particularly dark and nasty book–not sure that I’ll ever write it, but I do think it’s a remarkably good idea.

I’ve had ideas for books about serial killers before–years ago I wanted to write a Venus Casanova novel about a serial killer in New Orleans; even now I have a partial short story centering Venus that is a serial killer story (that would be “A Little More Jazz for the Axeman,” which is a great title but I cannot figure out how to make it work as a short story; it may wind up as a novella but this is, I repeat, this is not the serial killer book idea I had for Venus.) I have another idea for a Venus novel I want to write, but then again, that brings up questions about authenticity and does a gay white man have the right to write a novel centering an African-American woman in New Orleans? I like the idea of doing the research necessary to write authentically about Venus, in all honesty; even if I never write the book the research would be interesting to do–and I was also reminded, in reading Laura Lippman’s Lady in the Lake, which has a chapter from the point of view of a real woman, the first African American female cop in the history of Baltimore, that it’s possible to do it if you’re willing to put the work into it.

And I think studying the complicated politics and history of race in New Orleans would be an interesting education. I’ve yet to read Lords of Misrule, which is about that in terms of Carnival and the integration of the krewes in the early 1990’s; perhaps I should move it up on my list, but then again, there’s no way I could write anything from Venus’ perspective, novel-wise, until 2021 at the earliest.

Anyway, I digress. We were talking about serial killers, weren’t we? I still think Val McDermid’s The Mermaids Singing is the best serial killer novel I’ve read, but I’ve never read Thomas Harris. I’ve seen The Silence of the Lambs, of course, and we watched the series Hannibal, but I’ve never really quite understood the American obsession with Hannibal Lector as a pop star–which I’ve always believed had more to do with Anthony Hopkins’ performance in the films than it did with the books–but perhaps I should read the first two books (I’ve heard too many bad things about the more recent ones, beginning with Hannibal.)

The funny thing is that the one thing that always bothered me the most about serial killers–whether in novels, movies, or television–was the presence of the profiler, who is always so smug and certain about their profiles, knowledge and expertise–that I remember thinking while watching something (probably an iteration of Law and Order, but which one I don’t remember) and thinking to myself if I ever write a serial killer novel it’s going to have an FBI profiler who is wrong about everything. From that germ I created an entire character; and then thought, an annoying, always wrong profiler would be the perfect foil for Venus–who would think he’s full of shit and be irritated that theories are given priority over evidence and facts. There was a serial killer operating in Baton Rouge around that same time; there had been a serial killer operating in Houston–I think, without checking, known as the I-45 Killer–and remember thinking, maybe it should be rethought of us the I-10 Killer; Houston and Baton Rouge are connected by I-10…and then of course started spinning out this tale in my head of a serial killer operating east and west along I-10 (which also runs through New Orleans) and so on. I’ve also thought about someone killing priests (another Venus idea) in a serial fashion…but I’ve always backed away from writing about serial killers because I don’t know enough about them and learning enough about them to write from an expert point of view seemed like a lot of work–time-consuming work, at that.

And one thing I know for sure, I don’t have much time, do I?

Heavy heaving sigh.

This is, as you can probably guess, yet another example of my creative ADD, and you can see how all over the place my mind will jump. Hopefully tonight when I get off work I’ll get back to work on Bury Me in Shadows, which is so close to having the first draft done…which I wanted to do before the end of the month, which is nigh–and seriously, I need to focus. Part of the problem I’ve been having this month is too many things, too many different things, that I’ve agreed to do hanging over my head, and one thing I need to remember going forward is to stop agreeing to do things; this is how I get in trouble. Even now, sitting here, thinking about finishing this book by the end of the month, I am realizing all the things I’ve got to get done in September that I’ve agreed to do–and then there’s of course October, when I’ve agreed to work on yet another project that will most likely be taking up most of my time.

Sigh. No rest for the wicked, or for the weary.

And that’s my cue to head back into the spice mines. Have a lovely Thursday, Constant Reader.

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