Yes We Can Can

It’s Friday and we survived another week, Constant Reader!`

I switched my schedule today to work in the afternoon–we’re short-staffed–and thus was able to get a nice, relaxing night’s sleep (to make up for Wednesday night’s restless night) and hopefully allow my back to get some rest and heal up whatever the hell I did to it on Wednesday. I got a lovely night’s sleep last night, and so today I am going to get caught up on a lot of stuff that had slid while I was working on the massive volunteer project–my email inbox in particular, has raged out of control for quite some time now–and finish paying my bills before heading into the office this afternoon. I did get some work done on a short story last night, and managed to get to bed fairly early.

Royal Street Reveillon officially is released in about four more days, and yes, I am going to talk about the book pretty much every day until it is officially born into the world. The cover is completely fantastic; it might be my favorite Scotty cover ever, and I’ve pretty much loved them all.

When I first wrote about Scotty, obviously the first book was set during Southern Decadence. When I got a two book contract, essentially turning a stand alone novel into the nascent beginnings of a series, I thought well, the personal story can work through a trilogy; and I’ll set the three books during the gay holidays–Decadence, Halloween, and Mardi Gras. And when the series continued beyond the original trilogy, the next one, Vieux Carre Voodoo, opened with the Gay Easter Parade. Eventually, the holiday theme was discarded as the series continued–Who Dat Whodunnit was built around the Saints’ trip to the Super Bowl; Baton Rouge Bingo was built around Louisiana history and the legacy of Huey Long; and Garden District Gothic not only set up the new book, but was built around an unsolved crime in the past that was affecting the present day negatively. With Royal Street Reveillon, I decided to go back to the holiday thing; it’s set during the Christmas season, as the title implies, and the gorgeous cover reflects that (one of the things I love the most about the cover is that one of the lanterns at the entrance to Jackson Square isn’t lit; nothing is more New Orleans than only three of the four lanterns actually working).

It’s funny that it took me so long to write about New Orleans at Christmas time; I wrote and published a Christmas story over a decade ago, “The Snow Queen,” which was included in my anthology Upon a Midnight Clear, which has been out of print since around 2008, and will probably be included in my short story collection Monsters of new Orleans, should I ever get around to finishing writing the stories for that. I love New Orleans at Christmas time; the city always likes decorating for the holidays, and people go all for Christmas. The French Quarter almost becomes like a little Christmas village, with the fronts of houses decorated and bushes and trees and balconies festooned with decor. The massive live oaks that line our streets are often filled with lights; the enormous facades of the houses on St. Charles are also decorated with lights and the yards are filled with reindeer and Santas and snowmen. Celebration in the Oaks is something we try to go see every year–the trees in City Park along the drives are all decorated and holiday decor everywhere–and is simply breathtakingly beautiful.

As I’ve gotten older, I care less and less about Christmas; Paul and I have always been astonishingly not sentimental, and the older we get the less sentimental we are. I generally view Christmas as little more than a paid two days off from work (we also get Christmas Eve as a paid holiday). Scooter’s inability to resist attacking the decorations has resulted in us not decorating the Lost Apartment since he destroyed the Christmas tree that first year he spent the holiday with us; he also tries to chew the wires for lights, so we no longer string lights along the railing for the staircase (Skittle would knock a low-hanging ornament off the tree and then get bored). We still get each other gifts, of course, and I try to remember to send cards every year but don’t always succeed. I don’t watch Christmas movies anymore, or Christmas specials, and we certainly don’t play Christmas music in the apartment–it’s so incessant everywhere else in the world during the season that there’s no need–and other than going to Pat Brady’s annual Christmas party, we don’t really do much for Christmas anymore.

Sometimes I wonder if that’s sad, but then remember it doesn’t bother me in the least, and cease worrying about it.

Writing about Scotty during the Christmas season did raise an interesting question: how would Scotty and his immediate family celebrate the holiday, given his parents aren’t Christians, nor was he or his siblings raised that way? But Christmas, originally a Christian usurpation of a pagan holiday, has really lost its religious meaning here in the United States over crass commercialization (A Charlie Brown Christmas actually explored the true meaning of Christmas versus the growing commercialization of the holiday, seeing it as a huge problem, back in the early 1960’s, and the lesson was clearly lost on its audience as the commercialization has only gotten worse in the decades since, despite the show airing every year)m and it’s actually become a secular holiday; everyone gets the day off from work, pretty much, and much of the symbolism of the holiday as we know it today has no basis in faith. (This is why “merry Christmas” doesn’t bother me–I no longer consider myself to be a Christian, and haven’t for decades, but to me, saying “merry Christmas” is no different than “Happy New Year” or “enjoy your 4th of July” or “happy Thanksgiving”; but that could also be the unconscious privilege of being raised Christian, besides, saying “happy holidays” instead doesn’t hurt anyone other than those whose faith is so shallow it needs to be reinforced by others every time they turn around.)

But one of the great joys in writing Scotty, and why I still write about him, and enjoy almost every minute of it, is that Scotty finds such great joy in life, no matter what’s happening or how bad it may be; his eternal optimism and belief that the world is actually full of good people, and is actually a good place, and bad people are outliers makes writing about him one of the great pleasures of my life as a writer. As I wrote in Mardi Gras Mambo, Scotty loves Carnival and doesn’t understand people who don’t; even saying “You don’t get sick of Christmas, do you?” And there’s really the key; of course Scotty would love Christmas, would love decorating and buying presents and all the things that come with Christmas; he has an almost child-like love of the holiday, and another one of his appeals is that no matter what has happened to him–and bad things have–he never loses that child-like sense of love and wonder and awe for the world at large. Of course he would love Christmas.

Of course he would.

And despite all the crazy shit dropping in his lap this particular Christmas season, never once does Scotty ever think the holiday is ruined. Because of course it isn’t.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Suddenly

Yesterday I finished revisions on four stories, took a deep breath, and submitted them. Now, we wait. I’m not entirely certain the stories were right for the markets I sent them to, but you know what? Letting them just sit in my computer wasn’t getting them out there. Better to try and fail than not to ever try at all.

As I said yesterday, my confidence in my writing, which, despite all appearances to the contrary has never been strong, was dramatically shaken in the last year; I am only now starting to come out of it, and I am coming back out of it by working. I’ve written well over a hundred thousand words thus far in 2018; most of it short stories, some of it work on a new Scotty novel, still other the manuscript I intend to try to lure the ever elusive agent into my web with; and since sitting down and actually taking stock, I am realizing what I’ve accomplished, and am very proud of myself. The stories I worked on again this week, revising and editing and reading aloud, were quite strong; the two I am struggling with perhaps not as strong–although I do like their titles. Forcing myself to continue working on them is futile at this moment; much as I am loath to put them to the side, I am going to; there is nothing more self-defeating and depressing than trying to force yourself to write something that just isn’t coming. The stories are there, of course; I just haven’t yet worked out how to get them down onto paper yet. I think very often we, as writers, get so bogged down in our stubborn determination to finish something we are working on that we just keep fighting, pounding our head determinedly against an immovable wall–when the smart thing is to take a break from it and work on something else; then come back to the wall with fresh eyes and a rested forehead.

A vanity project that I have always had in the back of my mind was to put together a short story collection of my crime stories. I first had the idea several years ago, but didn’t have enough stories and was going to combine my horror and crime together: the folder and table of contents I created at the time was for Annunciation Shotgun and Other Stories. I’ve never forgotten this vanity project; and even now, when I should be preparing the manuscripts of Bourbon Street Blues and Jackson Square Jazz for their long overdue ebook editions, I go back to the vanity project again and again: well, I’ve published THESE stories since then, maybe I can just go ahead and remove these others that don’t fit as well–take these horror stories out, since my horror is clearly not as strong as my crime fiction. I made another table of contents, just the other day; only now I am calling it Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories. Whenever I’ve been stuck this past week or so, for want of anything else to do, I’ve started pulling the stories together into a single document to get a word count. The realization the other day of how many stories I’ve done so far this year already, and adding them casually to the table of contents–today it hit me: the manuscript is already publishable length, is over eighty thousand words, without an introduction  and without all of the stories I’ve done so far. I removed all the horror–goodbye, “Crazy in the Night” and “Rougarou” and “The Snow Queen” and “The Troll in the Basement”–and added some more of the newer material. It was astonishing to realize how much there actually was; that I cannot add much more because there simply isn’t room, and that I might have enough for a second volume in a couple of years.

Mind-blowing, really.

Short story collections don’t sell as well as novels, of course; short stories are the bastard stepchildren of publishing, and crime stories even more shunned at the family holiday dinner table. I don’t know if my publisher will want this collection, and I may end up having to self-publish it. Whereas I would have shrank in horror from that possibility a few years ago, it doesn’t matter as much to me now as it did then to have a traditional publisher pull the book together; although I would like another pair of eyes on it, some copy editing, a cover design and packaging done for me. But I am very proud of all of these stories; each one of them means something to me in some way. And if my fears about crime stories with gay characters in them not being acceptable to mainstream short story publications, well, I can always get them seen this way. And I am proud of the new crime stories I’ve written with gay characters in them.

I didn’t write crime stories for the longest time because of that fear; the fear that no matter how high the quality of the story, gay characters would make them unpublishable. The two stories I published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, “Acts of Contrition” and “The Email Always Pings Twice,” were mainstream–not a gay character in either story. I did publish two stories in Novelists Inc. anthologies with gay characters, “A Streetcar Named Death” and “An Arrow for Sebastian.” My stories in New Orleans Noir and Sunshine Noir (“Annunciation Shotgun” and “Housecleaning”, respectively) were about gay characters. My story in Blood on the Bayou, nominated for the Macavity Award last year, “Survivor’s Guilt,” wasn’t gay in any way, nor was my story “Keeper of the Flame,” published in Mystery Week. Some of the new stories are gay, some are not. Two that went out today were about gay characters, two of them were not. I was originally not intending to write any crime stories with gay characters this year; it just sort of happened. I think the Chanse story I’ve written–which needs a new title–is pretty decent; but am I limiting my chances of getting the stories into print by writing about gay characters? It’s already a difficult haul finding markets that still take short stories, and the competition is obviously fierce.

And again, as I said yesterday, you never can be certain your story was rejected because you wrote honestly about gay characters. It’s all part and parcel of the insanity of being a gay writer, or a writer who is gay, or whatever the hell label fits on my sash as I walk across the stage at the beauty pageant of publishing.

But I’ve got more than enough stories for a collection now, and I am going to keep playing with the manuscript; what is the proper mix of previously published stories versus new material? Should it all be new material, or should it all be previously published material?

Decisions, decisions.

Therein, indeed, lies the path to madness.

I also read some short stories. First was “Still Life with Teapots and Students”, by Shirley Jackson, from the  Let Me Tell You collection.

Come off it, kids, come off it, Louise Harlowe told herself just under her breath. SHe smiled graciously at her husband, Lionel’s, two best students, noticing with an edge of viciousness that they both held their teacups exactly right, and said lightly, “You’re going to have a pleasant summer, then?”

Joan shrugged perfectly, and Debbi smiled back, as graciously as Louise had smiled, but with more conviction. “It will be about the same as the others, I guess, ” Debbi said. “Sort of dull.”

They’re both too well bred to tell me what they’ll be doing, Louise thought, and asked deliberately, “You’ll be together, of course?”

Jackson is one of my favorites, and while she is mostly known for “The Lottery” and The Haunting of Hill House and macabre, Gothic work, she wrote a lot more than people think and not everything she wrote was macabre. This nasty little tale, in which a professor’s wife has two of his students over for tea–during the course of which she lets the rich little bitches she knows about their affair with her husband, and what’s more, doesn’t care because they are nothing more than something of the moment, is quite rich and layered and textured. From a modern day perspective the wonder is why she doesn’t leave him, as it becomes clear this happens regularly; they politely discuss another faculty wife who wasn’t quite as calm in confronting the student her husband was messing around with, and it’s all very polite and reserved…yet, in this modern era of #metoo and power differentials, the agency both Jackson and the wife in the story give the students–and the contempt and hatred for them the wife feels, but never reveals–makes me wonder. I’m still unpacking this story, several days after reading it; which is how amazing it–and Jackson–are.

And then it was time for “The Doll” by Daphne du Maurier, The Doll: The Lost Short Stories.

I want to know if men realize when they are insane. Sometimes I think my brain cannot hold together, it is filled with too much horror–too great a despair. And there is no one; I  have never been so unutterably alone. Why should it help me to write this?…Vomit forth the poison in my brain.

For I am poisoned, I cannot sleep, I cannot close my eyes without seeing his damned face..

If only it had been a dream, something to laugh over, a festered imagination

It’s easy enough to laugh, who wouldn’t crack their sides and split their tongues with laughing. Let’s laugh till the blood runs from our eyes–there’s fun, if you like. No, it’s the emptiness that hurts, the breaking up of everything inside me.

DuMaurier’s story often have a polite, observational distance and formality to them; much like her novels, even in the first person. This story, of obsession and lust and desire, all of which are thwarted, is not only reminiscent of My Cousin Rachel, but also, as I was reading, made me wonder. We never learn the name of the first person narrator, but the object of his obsession is a woman named Rebecca–you see where my mind was going with that, don’t you? And in some ways, it works as an almost prequel for the novel; the deep obsession and need; the mysterious woman who plays out her cards slowly. What of course doesn’t fit is the doll itself; the woman owns a male doll she has a strange attachment to, a doll our narrator despises, hates, is jealous of; it’s a terrific story of darkness and deep passion and obsession and perhaps, madness….a great example of why I love du Maurier so much.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Hello

When I was cleaning out/working in my storage unit a few weeks ago, I uncovered the only surviving copies of two anthologies I edited pre-Katrina: Shadows of the Night (horror) and Upon a Midnight Clear (gay Christmas tales). I picked them up Saturday night during the Alabama-LSU game and paged through them, and laughed as I realized I’d published a story of my own in each anthology, but being afraid of being accused of ‘self-publishing’, I used a pseudonym. The pseudonym was one I was going to use for writing horror, and the name I chose makes me laugh really hard: Quentin Harrington. Quentin came from the old show Dark Shadows, and “Harrington” was a variation of my last name that, sometimes but not very often, people used to actually think was my name (along with Harris, Herron, Heron, Huron, Aaron, etc.).

The stories, which I’d completely forgotten about, were “The Troll in the Basement” and “The Snow Queen.”

The books have been out of print for about ten years now, and Shadows was actually a Lambda Literary Award finalist (the first time I was nominated twice in the same year; I was also nominated in the Men’s Mystery category that year for Jackson Square Jazz, and was also the first time for me to lose twice in the same year). Shadows was inspired by two thoughts: one, how much I enjoyed Michael Rowe’s two Queer Fear anthologies, and by knowing how many writer friends I had who enjoyed horror but didn’t write it. I thought it would be interesting to get a group of writers who didn’t write horror, and see what they could come up with. I can’t believe I’d forgotten about my own story; which isn’t bad, but isn’t great, either. It had one of those 1950’s EC Comics endings–something I still tend to do, even with crime stories, and is something I need to get away from.

Upon a Midnight Clear was an anthology I’d been wanting to do for a very long time before it came to fruition. I’d always wanted to do an anthology reclaiming Christmas for LGBTQ people; there is so much out there–TV shows, movies, specials, books, etc.–for Christmas but none of it exploring it from the queer outsider’s point of view. I’d gotten a story submitted for another anthology that was Christmas-themed, and didn’t really fit that particular anthology; but it also triggered the why not do a queer Christmas anthology? It could be a perennial seller at Christmas time. And that’s how the anthology was born. I got some terrific stories (of particular note: Jim Grimsley’s “Comfort and Joy,”  David McConnell’s “Christmas 1989,” and “Our Family’s Things” by Jay Quinn–but they were all lovely stories in one way or another) and the book sold a fair amount of copies. My own story was a twist on Han Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen,” not an exact rewrite or retelling, but something I took and twisted and made my own. I liked the story a lot, but had completely forgotten I’d written it.

Alas, I only have one author copy of each anthology; someone on Twitter was looking for queer Christmas stories and ‘Nathan Burgoine recommended Midnight Clear,  and if I had even one spare copy I would have sent it to the person looking. But I don’t, and so I can’t part with my copy.

I also was invited to write a story for an anthology yesterday, which was thrilling (it’s always nice to be asked) and the story itself is going to be a challenge to write, which is also thrilling. I do love me a challenge.

I spent most of yesterday cleaning and finishing reading Laura Lippman’s astonishing Sunburn, and started reading Alafair Burke’s The Wife last night. I have a lot of thoughts about the Lippman, just as I do about the Alison Gaylin I finished Saturday night, but will review them and talk more in depth about both books closer to their release dates. I am enjoying Alafair’s book, too, by the way.

And now, back to the spice mines.