Heavenly Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing but a Fool

Ah, it is Thursday and we have a new president. It was kind of nice to wake up without that sense of existential dread and worrying about what new horrors the day would bring–or what I may have missed while I was sleeping. I also slept deeply and well, and I am enjoying my first cup of coffee thus far this morning. I don’t have a full day of working at home, as I worked longer hours in the office so can shave some off my day today, which is lovely. I can spend the morning with my emails and blog and drinking coffee and waking up gradually–which is my actual preference–I suppose no one likes waking up to an alarm. It’s more along the lines of how used to it you can get. I personally hate the alarm, but there’s simply no way I would ever get up at six in the morning without one. I don’t think my body will ever adapt to that–it never has before, and I can’t imagine that changing as I rapidly approach the big 6-0 later this year.

And Twitter, wonder of wonders, has stopped–for the moment, at least–being the bleak horrific portal to hell it has been for such a long, long time. This, coming so soon after the horrific redesign of Facebook that seems designed and intended to drive all of its users away, has resulted in me spending more time there than I have been on Facebook lately, and frankly, this actually hasn’t been a bad thing. I have freed up a lot more time–Twitter has been fun, but ultimately I am not overly fond of it–and so I find myself taking the time I used to spend endlessly scrolling and commenting and sharing and liking things to do other things, like read or brainstorm or clean.

And is this really a bad thing? I don’t think so. The first and hopefully last social media presidency has shown us all the dangers inherent in unmoderated social media; how quickly it can be harnessed to undermine civility and societal norms and our democracy. The steadfast refusal of social media for years to not try to control the dangerous lies being spread and amplified on their platforms is something that will be studied for generations–and I suspect people like Mark Zuckerberg and their sociopathic desire for blood profits will not come off well in those histories.

Good.

So now I must buckle down and stop watching history unfold and get all the things done that I need to get done. There are some deadlines for short story submissions coming up, my deadline for the Kansas book also is hanging over my head in the near future, and there are any number of other things I need to get a handle on. I have yet to decide on what the next book I will read will be–it’s a toss-up between too many excellent titles, to be sure–and may cowardly delay the decision by delving back into short stories. It’s been a hot minute since I read any short stories, and I also got two wonderful single author collections of ghost stories–those of Edith Wharton and E. F. Benson. (The Benson volume is much thicker than the Wharton.) I have never read Edith Wharton–as I have often confessed, my education in the classics has been sadly lacking–and I am fond of ghost stories, particularly those from that period in literature. I love the formality of the writing with the touch of Gothic to them; I have a ghost story in progress called “The Weeping Nun” I would also like to write in that same kind of style, and perhaps even change it from a modern setting to the past, with the sound of horses’ hooves on the cobblestones and flickering gaslight through the fog in the French Quarter.

Ironically, I had started writing that story on my iPad in Pages; recently I discovered the trove of things written in that app I had completely forgotten about, and so I uploaded them all to the Cloud and converted them to Word documents; hilariously, the opening of “The Weeping Nun” is the scene–or at the very least inspired–the opening to “The Snow Globe.” I had started writing “The Weeping Nun” for an HWA anthology built around the theme of Halloween; and it opens with Satan not only had a six-pack but he also had one of the finest asses I’d seen in a while. The main character is up on the balcony at the Parade watching the street when a muscle boy in a Satan costume comes out of Oz, and that is the point where the story began. I never got more than a thousand words done on the story–I don’t recall why I was too busy or tied up or whatever to finish the story, but when I started “The Snow Globe” for the original anthology I sent it in to, I remembered that opening and changed it from Satan to Santa–and away I went with the story.

I’m still prepping for the final push on the Kansas book as well, the final draft. There will have to be some new scenes and chapters written; more than I’d prefer will have to come out of it; and so much cleaning up to do–the mind positively reels in horror from the amount of work this manuscript needs–which is really why I’ve been avoiding getting back into it, if I am going to be completely honest with myself. But it’s not going to revise or edit or rewrite itself, obviously, and the only way it’s going to get finished is if I stop procrastinating and fearing doing the work (which I inevitably end up enjoying doing anyway, which makes it all the more irritating and annoying that I have to make myself do it) but I’ve also decided that the thing to do is reward myself for getting work on it done; seems silly, but it works. So, for every three chapters I refine, revise and polish I am going to spend some time developing Chlorine, which is what I really want to be writing anyway. I have a lot of ideas and a loose sense of the plot/story floating around inside my head, and I probably need to start writing it all down and piecing it all together, as well as start building the characters and fleshing them out more. I like my amoral, do-whatever-it-takes-to-make-it himbo movie “star”; I think I can make his cynicism and hard-edged morality understandable and likable. I’m kind of excited to start working on it.

And on that note, it is time for me to answer some emails and then start today’s condom packing duties. Have a lovely Thursday, Constant Reader!

Don’t Give Up On Us Baby

So, with Halloween, All Hallows Eve, October and Horror Month comes to a close. It feels weird that the time didn’t change over the weekend; as annoying as Daylight Savings Time is (and I do think it should be done away with at this point), it’s even more annoying that they’ve started changing when it goes into effect, or when it stops. ENOUGH ALREADY.

I’ve enjoyed talking about horror this month, and didn’t even get to write about all the things I wanted to. I didn’t talk about R. L. Stine and the Fear Street books, or the Scream movies, or the Halloween ones. I didn’t talk about Peter Straub, or vampires. I only talked about one Stephen King novel, didn’t even get into Daphne du Maurier, or any number of truly scary movies and books I’ve enjoyed over the years. I did manage to not talk about Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which is a mainstay, and I was going to write about Peter Straub’s Floating Dragon, until I realized that I talked about it already last year. (I did repeat Rosemary’s Baby, alas, but turned it into an entry more about Ira Levin.)

Halloween puts me in mind, again, of my unfinished story “The Weeping Nun,” and I’ve promised myself if I can get some good work on the book done today I can work on the story some more. I started thinking about Halloween this morning–duh, it is Halloween, after all–and I started thinking some more about what Halloween means, traditionally, and as I made my lunch this morning and washed dishes and put the turkey in the crock pot (I am making pulled turkey for dinner and for lunch sandwiches all week) I was remembering being a little kid in Chicago. My sister and I were only allowed to trick-or-treat on our block and the one across the street–that was as far as we were permitted to go. I don’t remember my costumes when I was a kid, and I don’t really remember much about going around and collecting candy on Halloween; I do remember being warned about unpackaged things, and the urban legends about razor blades in apples and poison injected into oranges were pretty much already well in place in the 1960’s. My parents–particularly my mother–was always afraid we were going to be taken; I never really thought about it much until this morning.

Of course she was afraid; she was from rural Alabama and moved to the Big Bad City with two small children when she was twenty. She was afraid of us being taken, she was afraid of us being run down by cars, she was afraid of us wandering off and getting lost and not being able to find our way home. I have very early memories of memorizing our phone number and our address; I can still recite them without even having to stop to think some fifty years later.

Fear.

That’s what horror is really about, bottom line. Fear.

I’ve realized that is the problem I have with writing horror short stories; I don’t tap into fear enough. This was why I was having so many problems with writing “The Weeping Nun,” frankly; that, and another realization I had over the course of the weekend; that part of the problem with so much of the horror I try to write comes from not really knowing what the story really is, because I am so busy trying to create an atmosphere of creepy dread that I don’t focus on the characters and don’t figure out what the story is….and even after I write the story, I still don’t know what the story is.

Duh. And d’oh.

Sometimes I wonder how I have a career.

Anyway, here’s a hottie in his Halloween costume as I go back to the spice mines.
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