True Blue

Easter Sunday, which I keep forgetting about. Last year the day job changed holidays; we used to get Good Friday off (New Orleans is very Catholic) but they changed it to Juneteenth, which is better. That was how I always knew when Easter was because it was a three day weekend. Now that it’s isn’t, it’s just another religious holiday I don’t give two shits about. Even when I was a child, I wondered, how does the anniversary of the crucifixion and resurrection fall on different dates every year? It’s just another example of the falsity of the bedrock of Christianity, and really was just the Catholic Church absorbing and rebranding pagan spring celebrations and fertility rites–which is where the Easter Bunny and easter eggs come from.

Granted, these Christian fertility celebrations aren’t nearly as weird or frightening as say the ones in Thomas Tryon’s classic Harvest Home (which I need to reread), but still.

Now that I’m thinking about it, has there ever been a horror book or film written/made focused on how creepy Easter can be?

I’m feeling lazy today–not really a surprise, really, is it? I feel lazy every day, and always feel laziest on days when I have to do things I’d rather not do. I have to run out and make groceries at some point–probably this morning, while most everyone is celebrating Easter mass and so forth–and I also have to get to work on ordering my taxes for my accountant, which I keep forgetting to do. I slept really well last night–feel very rested and relaxed this morning–and I managed to get some things done yesterday. I got my desk area cleaned up somewhat; filing and putting things away and so forth. My electronic files are still a horrifying mess, and I don’t think that will change anytime soon because what I really need to do is go through everything, file by file, eliminating duplicates and so forth. Maybe when I have enough time accrued I can take a week long staycation and just work on things around the house like that and the storage attic.

I started reading Margot Douaihy’s debut Scorched Grace, and while I am only a couple of chapters in, I am already in awe of everything about the book. The writing, the characterization, the setting, the way the sentences and paragraphs are rhythmically drawn, like the best poetry–and the voice itself! Oh my God, Sister Holiday’s voice is so refreshingly different, vital, and new. The tone is very hard-boiled; imagine Chandler or Cain writing about a lesbian nun in New Orleans. I cannot wait to spend some more time with it today–even if it does make me feel like I am a rank amateur; truly great writers have that kind of power over me. It’s hypnotic and compulsively readable. The fact that the book opens with arson and a possible murder is even more genius; few things are feared more in New Orleans than fire. This book is a fine addition to the annals of New Orleans crime fiction, which is always exciting when you find a new such author.

We also watched Jordan Peele’s Nope last night, and it was really quite excellent. It was more suspenseful than scary, although that can sometimes be much worse and more intense. Who knew Peele would go from sketch comedy to being one of our best and more creative filmmakers with a strong focus on horror? I’m sure a film critic and/or academic can talk about Nope in a much more intellectual style than me; I don’t look for symbolic meanings in images and so forth. But I think what he was trying to do with Nope was not only to show how dangerous it can be to live isolated from the rest of the world (the vast emptiness was beautifully shot and displayed; the most terrifying thing about the entire movie was that feeling–which reminded me so much of Kansas). I’d like to watch A Knock at the Cabin tonight, or The Pale Blue Eye, or perhaps even both; I guess it depends on how much work I can get done during the day today. I honestly don’t want to do any, but that really isn’t an option.

Yesterday was kind of like that, too–I really didn’t want to do much, so I wasn’t motivated enough to get as much done as I would have liked or had hoped. Part of it was being on social media yesterday morning as I tried to wake-up and get my brain jump-started; people really are horrible on social media, aren’t they? The misogyny, the homophobia, the racism, and the transphobia can be a bit hard to take sometimes (most times, let’s be honest); it fills me with rage, which then triggers adrenaline, and when that passes, I’m tired and in no mood anymore to be productive. Social media is the enemy of all that is good and productive. I have always wondered why and how people have so much time to spend on social media. What isn’t getting done while you’re being a bitch on-line to people you don’t know, will never know, and will probably never interact with again? Who wins in that situation anyway? I know people say there are bot-farms and troll farms, where people in eastern Europe (Romania?) are paid to troll on-line? I can’t imagine that being a great job, although I would imagine any number of people would leap at the chance to be get paid to be an asshole on line; there certainly are plenty of people who’ll do it on a volunteer basis, for sure.

I posted the other day that, in wake of their state’s anti-queer legislation and since the racist conduct of said state legislature was on full display this past week, I had made the personal decision not to go to Nashville Bouchercon in 2024. I didn’t ask anyone to join me in not going; I didn’t proselytize or ask anyone to write to Bouchercon and ask for it to be moved; or anything else: I simply said I had decided that I personally cannot support any event in the state of Tennessee, nor would I feel safe if I did attend. That was it. Period. I don’t think that’s terribly controversial, really. I’ve always believed that it’s up to everyone to make their own personal choices, and the reasons for those choices are none of my fucking business (see how easy it is, evangelicals, to mind your own fucking business?). I also don’t judge people for those choices because I don’t know–or want to know, or need to know–the reasons they made them. Everyone is on their own path, and my path often veers away from the paths of others; I don’t want or need or owe anyone an explanation for my choices and decisions. If things change in Tennessee in the meantime I also have the ability to change my mind and attend. But I am not asking anyone to straight-splain to me why I should go, or try to change my mind. It’s kind of insulting and condescending, actually, for anyone straight to try to talk a gay man into attending a conference (or anything, really) when they have already stated they’ve thought about it and decided not to go because they may not feel safe. I am a sixty-one year old adult gay man. I think I have enough life experience to make my own decisions, and I don’t need anyone to tell me my thought and decision-making processes–thoroughly grounded in my life experience–are wrong.

Fuck. All. The. Way. Off.

I was also thinking a lot about my writing future yesterday, so the whole day wasn’t a total waste of not-writing. I’ve had an idea for a New Orleans crime novel for quite some time, but always thought it had to be told from the point of view of, well, Venus Casanova, and I didn’t think I had the right to write from the point of view of a Black female police detective. Well, maybe not the right, but the experience and emotional intelligence to tell it properly. But yesterday that story popped into my head again, and I realized I could tell it from Blaine’s point of view, her partner, who would and could have his own doubts about Venus and her personal stakes in the case. I even took it further and thought maybe Venus could bring the case to Blaine after she’s retired; because of her personal relationship with the victim’s family, and then my mind started spinning round and round and following the paths branching out from this re-centering of the point of view, which definitely seems workable. And I’ve always liked my character of Blaine, wanting to delve more deeply into who he is and his own history and path.

And on that note, I am going to read some more Scorched Grace in my chair until it’s time to go make groceries this morning. Have a lovely Easter if you celebrate, and if you don’t, have a lovely Sunday.

Promises in the Dark

I grew up loving both horror and crime stories–those wonderful old black and white Universal monster movies used to scare me to death, not to mention all the marvelous ghost stories and mysteries that got filmed back in the day. I also watched a lot of the 1950’s paranoia horror monster movies–Godzilla and its ilk–and those also used to give me horrible nightmares. I also liked how twisted horror comic books like The Witching Hour, House of Mystery and House of Secrets were. I’ve always wanted to write those kinds of stories, but if you think I have zero confidence in my abilities as a crime/mystery writer, there’s even less when it comes to my writing of horror. I never feel like I ever get it right, you know, and my stuff is macabre and peculiar and slightly twisted, but it’s not really scary. But like I did with the mystery novels and movies I watched as a child, I was always looking for myself in those tales and not finding myself. Oh, every once in a while there would be some homoeroticism in some horror I would be reading (Peter Straub’s If You Could See Me Now comes to mind), but for the most part, there wasn’t much. Thomas Tryon’s The Other resonated with me–it wasn’t until decades later that I learned Tryon was gay, and that sensibility infused all of his work, hence my connection with it–but usually when gays showed up in horror they inevitably were effeminate and soon to become victims. (Kill your gays has always been a thing, clearly.)

When I was going through my “I want to be the gay Stephen King” phase in the 1980’s, I didn’t put gay characters or themes in any of my stories–although rereading my attempts at horror from then now, I can see the sensibility was always there–but the horror novel I started writing in about 1986 or 1987, The Enchantress, had a gay point of view character, even though I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was always afraid, you see, to include gay characters in anything I hoped to get published because I was so busy keeping my two lives completely separated that I feared writing sympathetic gay characters would out me. (During my many writings about my high school students from Kansas, one of them was actually gay and was probably the most realistic and honest character in all of those writings) Trying to salvage those stories now, decades later, I sometimes will revise one and make the point of view character gay–which inevitably makes the story work better, incidentally–and they see publication eventually; “Crazy in the Night” was one of those stories, and another morphed into Bury Me in Shadows, actually. Just this morning I was thinking about some more of those old stories and how to make a couple of them work–partly because I spent the last two mornings reading Other Terrors: An Inclusive Anthology from the Horror Writers Association, edited by my friends Vince Liaguno and Rena Mason. The point of the anthology was to focus and highlight horror stories from marginalized writers–where they are marginalized by race or religion or sexual orientation or gender identity, and it includes stories from some of the top names in horror publishing today.

As with any anthology, some stories stick with the reader more than others; this isn’t a dis on any of the contributors to the anthology–every story was incredibly well-written–it’s just that everything is subjective and some stories stick with the reader longer than others. For me, the standouts were Jennifer McMahon (“Idiot Girls”); Alma Katsu (“Waste Note”); Gabino Iglesias (“There’s Always Something in the Woods”); Hailey Piper (“The Turning”); Larissa Glasser (“Kalkriese”), Michael Thomas Ford (“When The Lovelight Gleams”); M. E. Bronstein (“The Voices of Nightingales”); and S. A. Cosby (“What Blood Hath Wrought”). These were the ones that really resonated me, with the connections of strong writing, three dimensional characters, and completeness of the story. For many of the contributors, this is my first experience with their work, and I will definitely look out for more of their work. These were the ones that made me start thinking about ideas and stories and characters; stories that not only were enjoyable and immersive to read but also kick-started my own creativity and inspiration.

And what more can you ask from a reading experience, as a fellow writer?

Now I want to write more horror.

Definitely check the book out, Constant Reader, I think you’ll enjoy it.

If Anyone Falls

I absolutely loved the tag line for the marvelous television adaptation of Megan Abbott’s equally brilliant novel Dare Me: “There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenaged girls.” It’s also incredibly accurate; our teen years often impact and influence who we become and can color the rest of our lives. I loved Dare Me; it was lyrically, hauntingly written, and the story it told, while actually pretty simple, showed how the intricacies of relationships between young girls and authority figures who aren’t much older than they are, can become so complicated and complex; layers of love intermingling with hate and jealousy, the power dynamic shifting and changing as the characters themselves shift, change, and grow from their experiences.

I write, sometimes, books where the main characters are young–teenagers, either in high school or college or having just completed college–and those books are often labeled and marketed as “young adult” fiction, even though I generally just consider them novels about young people. I mean, technically novels about young people are young adult novels, and yet while I am resigned to this marketing label I am never certain if my books truly qualify or not. Perhaps that’s some kind of internalized arrogance and a sense of subconscious superiority to what I consider something lesser; it’s definitely something I should unpack at some point. But I think it is also an interesting starting point for one of my endless essay ideas, and perhaps someday–when I am less scattered, less all-over-the-place mentally and creatively–I’ll be able to sit down and write all those essays I want to write.

Which brings me to John Copenhaver’s second novel, The Savage Kind, which I just finished reading yesterday.

If I tell you the truth about Judy and Philippa, I’m going to lie. Not because I want to, but because to tell the story right, I have to. As girls, they were avid documentarians, each armed with journals and buckets of pens, convinced that future generations would pour over their words. Everything they did was a performance. Everything they wrote assumed an audience. After all, autobiographers are self-serving, aggrandizing. Memoirists embellish. It’s unavoidable. To write down your memories is an act of invention, to arrange them in the best, most compelling order, a bold gesture. Some of the diary entries that follow are verbatim, lifted directly from the source, but others are enhanced and reshaped. I reserve my right to shade in the empty spaces, to color between the lines, to lie.

You may balk, dear reader, but I don’t care. I need to get this right.

I could take different approaches. I could contrast the teenage girls: the black hat and the white, the harpy and the angel, the cunning vamp and the doe-eyed boob. Or I could draw them together, a single unit: Lucy and Ethel, Antony and Cleopatra, Gertrude and Alice, Holmes and Watson, or even, I dare say, Leopold and Loeb. But neither of those angles would work. The complicated facts are inescapable. These girls are both separate and together, but many times, they followed their own paths and even crossed one another. Things are never that simple, never that black and white, that good or evil, or that true or false. I’m not writing this to assign blame, or to ask forgiveness, or to tie it up in a bow for posterity. It’s not that kind of book.After all, an act of violence committed by one may have originated in the heart of the other. That’s to say, this is a story about sisters, and like many of those dusty and gruesome stories from ancient literature, here sisterhood is sealed in blood.

I should know. I was one of them.

Great opening, right?

John’s debut Dodging and Burning won the Macavity Award*, and was quite the impressive debut. II was completely blown away by the book myself–it showed a maturity and sophistication in theme, writing, and characters that one rarely sees in a debut novel. One of the things I thought was very interesting about the book was that while it did focus on a gay story, the main voices in the book were young straight women; I thought that was a risky thing to try to pull off, but he did a really excellent job.

As good as Dodging and Burning was, I wasn’t prepared for how good The Savage Kind would be.

The heart of the book is the friendship/relationship between two damaged young women in the post-war afterglow of the late 1940’s in Washington DC. (Both of John’s novels are set in the post-war period, when the world was trying to go ‘back to normal’ after the massive paradigm alteration of a global war that left most of Europe and significant parts of Asia in ruins; tens of millions dead, billions in property damage, and the world needed to rebuild from the rubble–and normal was also being redefined; the paradigm shift caused by the war made going back to “the way things used to be” practically impossible–which makes it a very interesting time to write about.) Philippa’s mother died giving birth to her and she has a slightly adversarial relationship with her stepmother, Bonnie. Judy was raised in an orphanage and adopted by a wealthy couple who had lost a daughter in a particularly brutal way–Judy was adopted to replaced their raped and murdered daughter, but her adoptive parents are still too scarred and damaged from the lost of their own child to raise and love another, and this history also colors Judy’s personality and who she is. The two girls find each other and become very close friends; so close that their love for each other might go even deeper than the Platonic ideal of friendship–their teenaged hormones raging out of control, are romantic/sexual feelings also developing between the two of them?

They are also playing girl detectives, trying to get to the bottom of a mystery that they don’t know has anything to do with them beyond the idle curiosity (and their dangerous boredom) but as they look further into the mystery revolving around a classmate, a favorite teacher, and that classmate’s family–as well as their own–they become more and more deeply enmeshed in danger and cling even tighter to each other.

As if that juggling act isn’t tough enough, Copenhaver makes all of these characters realized, fully developed and realistic in their emotions, their feelings, and their reactions. He also tells the story in alternating points of view between the two girls while they are experiencing the events, as well as a narrator voice from the future, telling the story in retrospect as well as talking directly to the reader. This is hard to pull off, particularly the omniscient future narrator–the last time I saw this used so effectvely and memorably was in Thomas Tryon’s The Other (at least, this is the book that popped into my head as I was reading, and it’s a favorite of mine).

The Savage Kind was nominated for a Lefty Award, and it very deservedly won the Lambda for Best Mystery recently. I highly recommend it!

*I may be wrong here, but I think he might be the first openly gay author of a book with gay characters and themes to win the Macavity Award; I know I was nominated once for a short story–but my characters and themes weren’t queer.

The 1

November 1st, or All Saints’ Day; which is the perfect day for a Saints game, don’t you think? LSU lost yesterday, badly, and while it was incredibly disappointing to watch, I felt worse for the players. We always forget, regardless of how talented they are, they’re really little more than kids. And since so many starters are either true freshman or sophomores…I think they’ll be really good next year…if they can survive what looks to be a season on par with the late 1990’s. Yeesh.

I am up ridiculously early because of Daylight Savings time; I’d be up early regardless, but I am wide awake and decided, since I have to get up early the next three mornings, that it made sense to go ahead and get up now–one advantage of the so-called “extra hour” (because if 2020 needs anything, it’s more time) is that by not using that hour to get extra sleep, I can recalibrate my body clock to my own advantage for the next few mornings. The sun isn’t up yet completely, but the cutting down of the crepe myrtles next door–many of them, but not all–means that my workspace and kitchen are going to be flooded with a lot more direct sunlight, which is going to make it unbearable in here once it gets hot again; which means I am going to need to do something about window coverings, whether it’s curtains or blinds. We’ll see how much time I have before that becomes a massive priority–hell, it might become one later this morning.

I was still very tired and physically exhausted yesterday. I ran my errands, and then working on cleaning up our side of the house–leaves, branches, debris–and so I watched the LSU game, doing some cleaning and organizing around here in the meantime, and then for Halloween watched House of Dark Shadows on Hulu. I originally saw this movie in the theater–my grandmother, who got me started watching the soap in the first place–took me, and it was a very different take on the Barnabas Collins story. For one thing, there was no redemption of the character; he remained an evil, cruel vampire till the end, when he was killed for his crimes, and he also kind of killed off the entire family, other than Elizabeth and David, by the end. It was straight up more horror than melodrama, and the movie did well enough to inspire a sequel (with none of the same characters or actors), but it really wasn’t as good a story as the redemption of the vampire arc the show did.

I also took the time to read four novellas of Cornell Woolrich, collected together in one volume with the name Four Novellas of Fear (which is really not the best title, as it gives the impression that the novellas are more horror than suspense/crime; which is what they really are). The novellas are all interesting takes, some of which are dated and wouldn’t work today, alas: “Eyes That Watch You”, the first, was my favorite, in which a woman who is completely paralyzed and cannot speak overhears her daughter-in-law and her lover plotting to kill the woman’s son. Unable to communicate and warn him, the crime takes place…and then she becomes determined, somehow, to expose the murderers to the cops and send them to the chair. Great concept, marvelously handled. The next, “The Day I Died,” is about a man who finds out his wife is planning to kill him for the insurance; he comes home early from work and surprises her with the man she has hired to kill him. The hired assassin winds up dead, and the hard-boiled heroine convinces her husband to go through with the plan–they have a ready made corpse whose face they can disfigure and claim it’s suicide. But as he leaves town he runs into a co-worker on the bus…and now he has to kill the co-worker somehow. It’s very noir, very well done–but again, wouldn’t work in a modern setting because of technology and the difficulty of disappearing in the modern world. The third story, “You Won’t See Me Again,” is about a young newly married couple who have an argument, and she walks out–storming home to mother. When she doesn’t return–as he suspects and expects her to, after a day or so–it becomes a missing persons case and of course, the husband is always the prime suspect in those cases. So now he has to find not only the wife he loves to make sure she’s safe, but also to clear her name. It’s yet another story that wouldn’t work in today’s world because of technology, but it’s a charming time capsule. Likewise, “Murder Always Gathers Momentum” is about the slow descent into crime of a person who is broke and desperate and owed money he was cheated out of; rather than confronting the man and asking for his money he decides instead to break into his house and steal it. He’s caught, commits murder, realizes how easy it is to become a criminal, and starts killing people to cover his initial crime….(this is very similar to Agatha Christie’s Murder Is Easy, in which Dame Agatha and Miss Marple also explored the idea that once you’ve killed, it becomes easier to keep killing) and there’s a terrific ironic twist at the end, worthy of The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Despite being dated, I enjoyed all four novellas–which were all very distinct and different, and cynical in their own ways. I certainly enjoyed them more than I enjoyed Night Has a Thousand Eyes, that’s for certain, and my own curiosity about Woolrich–who was a gay man, an alcoholic, and horribly unhappy in his personal life–deepened. (Just as watching The Other the other day, and thinking about the author of the book, Thomas Tryon–a closeted gay actor of the 1960’s who turned to writing novels in the 1970’s–reminded me that I had once thought him worthy of a biography, and I still kind of think that way; I just wish I had the time to devote to doing the research and traveling to Connecticut to examine his papers and so forth; he was also the long-time lover of the first gay porn star, Cal Culver, which is also an interesting footnote to his interesting life as well as of gay historical interest.)

I’m trying to decide what to read next, and have narrowed it down to four options (and may choose something else entirely): Owen Laukkanen’s Deception Cove; Shirley Jackson’s Life Among the Savages (which I may have already read, but I don’t remember finishing it); The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier; or The Hot Rock by Donald Westlake. I am leaning toward to du Maurier because I am thinking it may be time to finish her canon; but the others all look tremendously good, which inevitably always makes choosing difficult. I also want to start reading short stories again–I still have two volumes, for example, of Shirley Jackson stories to read–and I need to get back to my writing–if I can only remember where I was. I know I was rereading Bury Me in Shadows in order to get a grasp of the story–I also have been thinking about the tweaks it needs–and the deadline looms. I also need to revise my story “The Snow Globe,” there’s about a million emails to catch up on, and there’s also the bills to pay.

Heavy heaving sigh. I also want to make it to the gym this morning. One good thing that has happened in this past week is managing three workouts; my body feels wonderful, my muscles feel more stretched and better than they have since the pandemic closed my old gym (we belonged there for eighteen years) and that’s got to count for something, doesn’t it? I think so, and I like that I am developing better workout habits. I’ll worry about correcting my diet and going full on Mediterranean diet after a few more weeks.

I’m also going to write a story–or rather, try to finish one–for the next Mystery Writers of America anthology. Getting a short story into one of those is on my bucket list, and I have two potential in-progress stories for this one; three, really: “Condos for Sale or Rent,” “Please Die Soon,” and “A Dirge in the Dark”. I guess I’ll need to read what’s been done on all four stories and then see about finishing any or all of them…it’s not a bad idea to get all three stories written, pick one to submit to the MWA anthology, and then send the others to other markets.

So many stories in progress.

The sun is rising and the loss of the trees has also made a significant difference to my view–which isn’t nearly as pretty or scenic as it was before, and will take some getting used to. The great irony is my landlady has been trying to get the property owner next door to trim the trees back for years–and trying to get her to trim them regularly, as they are problematic for hurricanes/tropical storms. It took Zeta for her to take the risk presented by the crepe myrtles seriously, with the end result that some were not only trimmed back dramatically, but others were removed entirely. I may have to hang up a small blanket or something in the meantime as a stopgap until I have the time and financial means to get curtains or blinds.

And on that note, I must head into the spice mines and start working on getting caught up, a Sisyphean task at best. Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader, and enjoy your Feast of All Saints.

The Story of Us

Well, this has been an adventure. The power just now came back on.

It went out on Wednesday sometime between four and four-thirty; and of course, it’s fall, so it also starts getting dark around four-thirty/five every day. It is pitch black inside the Lost Apartment, by the way, when we don’t have power and night falls. Even the candles don’t help. I am so tired of disruptions, you know? It seems like every time I get centered and get ready to pull it all together, there’s another fucking life disruption. Wasn’t it just the other day I was talking about trying to focus on positivity, and figuring out how to get my act together, and so forth? Then along comes a hurricane out of literally fucking nowhere and everything is fucked again. Sure, the house survived, Paul and Scooter and I made it through without harm, and not having power is a very small thing in the overall scheme of things–but I’m just so tired. No power of course means everything in my refrigerator has to be thrown away–yay! because I can certainly afford to replace it all!–and it means no computer, no lights for reading, no internet, no stove, no food, no hot showers, and most heinous of all: NO FUCKING COFFEE.

The storm was bad enough to live through–the winds were literally one mile per hour lower than a Category 3 hurricane, so it was classified as a 2–and it was scary. The rain was coming down so hard and so fast I was certain that the streets would flood–and the howling of the wind was bone-chilling. I kept worrying about the roof, about trees and branches, about the car…and then of course the power went out, leaving us in pitch blackness. I lit some candles but it was way too dark to read, and just started dozing off a bit in my easy chair, off and on. I finally just went to bed at nine-thirty, after moving my car back to the street from the high ground, and I just spent Thursday reading, and when the daylight faded and the candles weren’t enough, grabbed a flashlight so I could finish reading. And of coure, Friday we were still without power. The office was also without power, and even though it was a work-at-home day for me–and I did have the option to stay home and count it as work, I decided to go into the office; just to be in the light and have power and be able to charge my phone again and…also, for some reason, it takes my phone forever to charge in my car now. I don’t know what that is all about, but I spent over an hour in the car yesterday charging my phone.

An effective use of gasoline.

Before we lost power on Wednesday, I decided to stream The Other while making condom packs. I had never actually seen the film, written and produced in 1972 by Thomas Tryon from his novel of the same name; the book is one of my all-time favorites and I also consider it to be a big influence, not just on my writing but in my reading tastes as well. The novel is fantastic, absolutely chilling, and has two big plot twists that completely change the complexion of the story, and the reader’s perception of what is going on at the Perry house just outside Pequot Landing, Connecticut. I have always avoided the film, primarily because I love the book so much, and secondly because, as much as I do love the novel, I’ve never really seen a way to film it effectively. The film is okay–the big surprise, for me, was seeing early in their careers John Ritter and Victor French in supporting roles–but the concept of the book itself, while not particularly original (identical twins, with one being good and the other being evil; it’s been explored in films, novels and soap operas going back decades)–in this case, though, the twins are young–only eleven–which also throws the book into the “bad children” category, along with The Bad Seed, The Exorcist, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and We Need To Talk About Kevin–as opposed to adults, the way the good twin/bad twin story is generally presented. The movie is flawed, and doesn’t necessarily hold your interest the entire time–but it did make me want to read the book again. It’s time, methinks.

But watching The Other drew me to a Daphne du Maurier novel I’d not read before, The Scapegoat. Du Maurier takes the twin concept and gives it a bit of a twist; rather than having her twins be related by blood, hers are merely look-alikes; total strangers (one British, one French) who happen to look exactly alike (people always used to say that everyone has a twin somewhere in the world; I always wondered about that because whenever I would visit New Orleans–and for about a year or so after we moved here–I used to get mistaken for someone else in gay bars. It was quite weird.), and run into each other by chance at a train station in Le Mans; they have a few drinks together only for the Englishman to wake up the next morning in a sleazy hotel room, and all of his things–passport, ID, wallet, car, etc.–are gone and the other man’s things in their place. So John becomes Jean…because who, after all, would believe his story? If he went to the police, would they not think him completely insane? So he takes the du Maurier step of deciding, okay, I’ll be Jean and live his life, despite knowing very little about his double. And yet no one in his family–neither wife, mother, brother, sister-in-law, daughter, mistress one and mistress two–suspect for even a moment that he isn’t Jean, the Comte de Gue; which is kind of weird–but then again, they do notice he isn’t acting quite the same. And much as I love du Maurier, the entire set-up of the story is quite contrived, yet somehow she makes it work, which is part of why I admire her so much. Literally, what John is doing is quite mad; and yet, as he gets to know the family and his counterpart’s relationships with each of them–there’s also a brilliant subplot about a feud between Jean and his younger sister, going back to the Nazi occupation and resistance–he begins to care for them, and tries to do better by them than their actual blood relative did. It definitely held my attention, and I kept reading, wondering how on earth she was going to end it–and she ended it with the typical du Maurier cynicism and disdain for the “happily ever after” that holds true for all of her stories, or at least the ones I have read.

And now I must figure out how far behind I am now on everything; the mind reels, quite frankly. I was very definitely behind before the storm came; I am absolutely unnerved at how terrifying it will be to take a look at my inbox and what has been going on while I have been, quite literally, powerless. But there’s really no sense in allowing myself to get overwhelmed, is there? There’s so much work that needs to be done around the Lost Apartment–cleaning and straightening and so forth–and of course there are football games this weekend. But at least the power is back so I can watch the LSU game. GEAUX TIGERS!

Heavy heaving sigh.

Holy Ground

I came across the coroner’s obituary last night.

As I typed it, I realized what a New Orleans-like thing it was to say; and it made me smile a little bit. The coroner in question wasn’t currently serving New Orleans; he had retired in 2014 after ten terms in office, and his name was Dr. Frank Minyard. He played the trumpet, and was actually a gynecologist rather than a pathologist. Was he good coroner or a bad one? A little of each, I would gather, based on the obituary by John Pope you can read by clicking here.

But he was, like so many New Orleanians used to be, quite a character. New Orleans has always been a city full of characters, which is why so many people write about New Orleans, and write about it well. Not only can you probably get away with writing anything crazy-seeming about New Orleans; chances are if you dig a little into our history here, you’ll inevitably find crazier shit than anything you could dream up on your own. I have to say I have really been enjoying reading up on our local history here.

Hurricane Sally came ashore earlier this morning, and it had continued turning enough to the east that we didn’t get much of anything here in New Orleans. The panhandles of Alabama and Florida (in particular Mobile and Pensacola) are an entirely different story; my heart sank down into my shoes (well, my slippers) on seeing footage and images from that section of the Gulf Coast. Hurricane season is so emotionally exhausting, really; all that stress and tension and worry, and then when it goes somewhere else the enormous guilt one feels about the relief that your area escaped unscathed while others are losing everything–including some lives–is horrible, just horrible. It’s oddly gray and hazy-seeming outside the windows this morning, with the crepe myrtles and the young live oaks in the yard on the other side of the fence doing their wavy dance thing they do when the wind blows; the sidewalk outside also looks wet so we must have gotten some rain as well overnight, but not enough for me to notice anything as I slept through it all. (That’s the other thing about hurricanes, particularly the ones that come ashore overnight; you go to bed wondering what you’ll wake up to find in the morning–or worse yet, disaster will rip you out of a deep sleep.)

So, yes, this morning I feel very emotionally drained; well rested, but exhausted emotionally.

And then, of course, once the danger has passed, you have to reset yourself and get back to normality–whatever the hell that is, or what passes for it, at any rate.

Yesterday’s entry in the Cynical 70’s Film Festival was The Omen, which was a huge hit back when it was released in 1976 and spawned two sequels, Omen II: Damien and The Final Conflict. I had never seen the sequels, and I think I originally rented the film–I don’t think it played at the Twin Theater in Emporia–but I did read the book (the book was written by David Seltzer, who apparently, according to the opening credits of the film, wrote the screenplay; which came first? I don’t care enough to look it up) and of course, was put in mind of it by paging through The Late Great Planet Earth, which laid the groundwork for the movie. Obviously, it’s about the anti-Christ, who is Damien Thorn; the movie opens with the Robert Thorn (played with an almost wooden-like quality by Gregory Peck) arriving at a hospital in Rome only to be told that the child his wife has given birth to has died; he worries about her mental stability and how she will handle the news–and so a priest offers a substitute baby whose mother died giving birth. (And this is the first place I called shenanigans on this rewatch; one, he is about to start a lifetime of lying to his wife and two–was there any need to tell Robert Thorn his child died? If the idea was to have the Thorns accept the anti-Christ into their home as their child, wouldn’t it simply make more sense to swap the babies, so neither of them knew? Because how could they have been so certain Thorn would accept this literal deal with the devil?) The movie is paced fairly well, and it moves right along–there’s not a lot of gore or blood and guts, but it does beggar credulity at more than one point–and perhaps I am looking at it with jaded eyes some forty years later, but both Peck and Lee Remick, who plays his wife, seem to just be phoning it in for the paycheck and there’s also the element of their age; they seem to be fairly old to just be trying to start having a child at the opening of the movie. (I think the book plays this up more, stating that Kathy Thorn has suffered innumerable miscarriages leading up to this birth and it has shaken her mental stability; kind of hard to do that on film but it certainly would have made his motivation in accepting this needless deception–again, they could have just as easily substituted the baby without having to go through this entire risky rigmarole.) After finishing, I looked for Omen II but it’s not streaming for free anywhere; I then watched The Final Conflict, which was simply terrible (outside of Sam Neill, who was terrific and charismatic as an adult Damien, saddled with an incredibly bad and far-fetched script).

The movie does fit, however, with the Cynical 70’s Film Festival, because here we have yet another conspiracy, one in which some members of the Catholic Church have turned to Satan to try to bring about the end times as well as the birth of the Antichrist–because whereas in the 1950’s and the early 1960’s, it would have been unimaginable for such a film to be made, but also to be believable; who would have ever believed such a thing was possible? Of course, both book and film of Rosemary’s Baby set the stage for The Omen, but both were later 1960’s, when things were starting to change, times were getting more cynical, and so were people. Rosemary’s Baby changed almost everything, both in the world of novels and film, in showing that horror was both bankable and mainstream. The early 1970’s saw the publications, and enormous success, of books like Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, Thomas Tryon’s Gothic horror masterpiece The Other, and eventually, Stephen King’s out-of-nowhere bestseller Carrie. Soon Peter Straub would publish Ghost Story and Carrie would become a hit movie, triggering a horror revival that brought both the literature and the films into the mainstream. This revival didn’t lose steam until the 1990’s, and frankly, I think horror is on the verge of another revival.

I could be wrong, of course. I certainly have been before, but I am seeing some really terrific work as well as amazing new voices–over the past year alone I’ve read some astonishing work by new-to-me writers, and I only wish I had more time to read everything I really want to. Paul Tremblay is amazing, and so is Bracken MacLeod, Christopher Golden, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia, among others; I’m seeing a lot of new and interesting looking titles being announced or reviewed almost every time I turn around.

I guess today is Wednesday? I am really not sure, living in this weird world that comes with hurricane watches, where it is very easy to lose track of dates and times and what day of the week it actually is. But a quick glance at Weather.com assures me that all the other storms out in the Atlantic basin pose no threat to Louisiana, so I guess we can relax for a little while, at least.

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

Why Don’t We Live Together?

Saturday, I think, right?

God, it was miserably hot yesterday. I know, it’s New Orleans in July; the dog days of summer (I’ve never really quite understood what that meant, honestly; probably something about how a dog pants or something–so hot I was panting like a dog, or something along those lines anyway–it always makes my think about my grandmother’s mutt dog, Shag, lying down in the shade and panting) as it were, but it still does bear comment periodically about how motherfucking hot it is here sometimes in the summer.

I slept deeply last night, and didn’t really want to get out of bed this morning. I’ve been feeling tired again lately–not that horrible exhaustion I had for those months earlier this year, thank the heavens–and yesterday was one of those days again. It may be the heat, which is the most likely explanation, but I am not wanting to go back out into it today either–I am debating the wisdom of waiting to go to the grocery store until tomorrow or even seeing if it can be put off until next week sometime–which is probably self-defeating in some ways; but I also need to write this weekend (since I didn’t do much of that this past week) and I worry that going out into the heat and lugging bags of food into the house will defeat me for the rest of the day (which is always a possibility).

Decisions, decisions.

During our The Faking of the President on-line promotional appearance the other night we were talking about the 1970’s–if I considered myself a child of the that decade, and I actually do; I do remember bits and pieces of the 1960’s, but I turned nine in 1970 and that decade more shaped who I am rather than the 1960′–and as I mentioned yesterday, I’ve kind of started looking into the films of that decade a bit more. I kind of wanted to watch more Hitchcock movies yesterday–I was going to go for some of his 1970’s work, Frenzy and Family Plot, to be exact–but they are no longer on Amazon Prime for free (they were for quite a while) and that interface has also changed again and become even more user unfriendly; I cannot understand why Amazon cannot get its shit together on their streaming service, but came across the original film version of The Stepford Wives, either on Prime or the TCM app on HBO MAX, and settled in to watch that again. It’s a film (and novel) that is firmly anchored in the paranoid zeitgeist of the 1970’s, and fits very well into a reexamination of what was going on in that decade.

As I mentioned on the live stream the other night, the 1970’s were still a decade where wives were still defined as people in terms of their husbands; it was still very difficult for women to get credit on their own (this was actually how the subject came up–student loans and student credit cards), and I mentioned that my mom’s first credit wasn’t actually in her name, but as Mrs. (Dad) Herren. She had been working as long as I can remember, but her financial identity was still as the spouse of my father. The Women’s Liberation Movement began in the late 1960’s–espousing the radical concept that women were actual human beings in their own right and didn’t solely exist in terms of the man in their lives–and the 1970’s was when the stigma of divorce began to lessen; women no longer stayed in bad marriages or with abusive husbands. Rape was still basically a misdemeanor; spousal abuse was accepted and almost expected, and women were very much second class citizens, primarily defined as wives and mothers (this has changed somewhat, but really, not enough). Ira Levin wrote The Stepford Wives as a sort of social satire, but it was no less terrifying as a result; the revenge of men against women’s liberation. (You never hear the terms Women’s Lib or ‘libbers’ anymore) The Stepford Wives basically took the concept of how dehumanized women were to the nth degree; men really only want beautiful women who don’t think for themselves, think they’re wonderful lovers, live for their men and children, and should primarily focus on making sure their homes are spotless and perfect so their men don’t have to worry about anything but their jobs. The film leaned into this fully; I think the best part of the book was the fact that it never really explained what was going on in Stepford; it was alluded to, of course, but the truth was so terrible that the women–main character Joanna and her friend Bobbie–couldn’t possibly imagine what it was.

But seeing the actual Stepford wives, played by actresses, up on screen, truly epitomized not only how horrible what was happening in Stepford was, but how strange it was for Joanna and Bobbie to deal with, strangers who had only recently moved into town. Paula Prentiss played Bobbie–and why she was never a bigger star was something I never fully understood–and of course, stunningly beautiful Katherine Ross played Joanna–which made it all the more terrifying; she was so perfectly stunning and beautiful, how could you possibly improve on Joanna? The film of course couldn’t leave the truth ambiguous and merely hinted at; which was part of the power of the book…you never were completely sure if Joanna was simply going crazy because the truth of Stepford was presented so casually and normally. (Don’t bother with the remake; despite a stellar cast, it’s truly a terrible movie.)

The Stepford Wives, book and movie, both also fit perfectly into the paranoia of the decade; the 1970’s was a time where conspiracy theories abounded; there was a lot of interest in UFO’s and the Bermuda Triangle and Revelations/the end of the world, not to mention after Vietnam and Watergate mistrust of the government and elected officials were higher than ever before. But I also see The Stepford Wives as part of another literary trend/trope of the decade; the 1970’s was also a time when, as I mentioned on-air the other night, that white flight from the cities to the suburbs and rural eras began in earnest (although it was never, in the books, attributed to its real root cause: integrated public school systems and neighborhoods). There are at least three novels I know of that take the white flight to the rural areas (better schools! clean air! zero crime!) and turn them into horror novels–Burnt Offerings, The Stepford Wives, Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home– where the urbanites discover far greater horrors out in the country than they ever encountered in the city; there are probably more (I am not certain The Amityville Horror fits into this category), but those three would make a great starting point for a thesis/essay. (Interesting enough, both book and movie of The Stepford Wives ends with a throwaway bit about the first black family moving into Stepford; I would absolutely LOVE to see a reimagining of the film by Jordan Peele from the perspective of the black family moving in, because the paranoia of the wife beginning to suspect that all is not right with all these white women who are devoted to housework and their families could also be played with from a racial as well as gender perspective.)

And as I watched the film again yesterday, I realized that my mother, with her obsessions with cleanliness and order, kind of was/is a Stepford wife.

I plan on spending the rest of this morning getting my kitchen/office–horribly out of control yet again–into some semblance of order before diving back into Bury Me in Shadows. I’d like to get the changes necessary done to the next three to four chapters today, and perhaps another four to five tomorrow, which would get me almost to the halfway point. I also need to compile a comprehensive to-do list for the coming week. I also want to spend some time with Blacktop Wasteland today as well.

We started watching a new series last night–Curon, which is an Italian show set in the Tyrol, in a region that changed hands between the Austrians and the Italians numerous times. The town is built on the shores of a lake, where the original town was submerged when the river was dammed; all that remains of the old town is the church’s bell tower, jutting up out of the water. There’s a story that if you hear the bells ringing, you’re going to die–and some seriously weird shit is going on in this town. The show opens with a flashback to the past, when a seventeen year old Anna is hearing the bells ringing and her father orders her out of the massive luxury hotel they live in; she’s not sure but she thinks she sees herself shooting her mother–a nightmare that haunts her the rest of her life. Flash forward to the present, and Anna is coming back to Curon, after leaving an abusive (it’s hinted at) husband with her twin children, now seventeen–Mauro and Daria–from Milan. Her father makes it clear they aren’t welcome there–but when Anna disappears the next day the twins are there to stay. It’s filmed very well, and there are apparently tensions still in the village from the olden days of the war between Austrians and Italians; Mauro is also hard of hearing and wears a hearing aid; Daria is boisterous, outgoing, and kind of a badass; and the teenagers they encounter, both outside of school and in it, are also kind of weird. There’s all kinds of history there, slowly being revealed to the viewer, while the tension continually builds. What is the dark secret of the town of Curon?

I also, while typing that last sentence, realized Curon also fits in with the trope of the urbanites coming from the big city to the country, and discovering far greater horrors there than they left behind in the city.

Interesting.

Stand by Your Man

Sunday morning and I’m feeling fine. Yesterday was kind of lovely; I am enjoying this healthy feeling I’m experiencing, and it’s been a while since I’ve not been feeling like shit, so this recovery has been absolutely lovely. Yesterday I managed to be productive yet again–I finished the floors and some odds and ends; there are a few odds and ends that I need to get done today as well–and I got some wonderful reading done; I also managed to get some writing done.

What’s that, you say? Actual writing? Yes, indeed. I wrote about a thousand words on the Sherlock story, give or take; I started writing two new short stories (don’t @ me, I am well aware, but I wanted to get both “Officer Friendly” and “The Pestilence Maiden” started, else I’d forget what they were about or the ideas), and I also did some thinking about all the books and projects that I have in some stage of completion, which was also lovely. It’s nice to slowly be working my way back into my writing again–I was beginning to think I’d never get there, frankly–and yes, it felt really good to be writing again. Today I have to make a run out to get some groceries–my first time leaving the house other than taking out the trash or using the grill–since I got sent home from work over a week ago. I have a mask and gloves, and portable hand sanitizer attached to my key ring. My goal for the morning is to finish this blog, do some other puttering around the house that I need to do before leaving, and then head to the store. When I get back home, I am going to sit down and bang out some more writing, and then at some point I’ll retire to my easy chair to do some more reading.

Now that I’ve actually started to read ebooks, I have to eat a lot of crow. I’ve been resisting reading ebooks for years–I’ve done it, when required, for book award judging, but never really like it and resented having to do it–primarily because I don’t like change, for one thing, and for another, I already spend far too much time looking at screens; the last thing I need to do is read something electronically to relax after staring at a computer screen for a minimum of eight hours a day. My eyes continue to get worse–and it’s a combination of age and blue screen effect, I am fairly certain–and reading electronically was probably not going to help that. But now that I’ve gotten started, I can’t seem to stop. I finished reading This Rough Magic yesterday morning–or was it Friday night? I don’t remember–and yesterday I read a Scott Heim story, “Loam”, and then moved onto another Mary Stewart, Nine Coaches Waiting, which is also fantastic. We watched Zombieland Tap Twice (it was something like that) which was much funnier than I thought it would be, and then the Octavia Spencer horror thriller, Ma–which could have been better, but was perfectly adequate. I do love Ms. Spencer, and wish she would get some better material to showcase her talents more.

I think we’re scheduled to  have shitty weather today, too–rain and so forth–and it looks kind of hazy and sepia-toned out there this morning, and windy–so I should probably get my act together faster this morning and get to the store  so I can not only get it over with, but get back home before the weather turns ugly. Good thing I just looked up the weather–that isn’t going to happen until this afternoon, and I should be able to get there and back before that occurs. It’s also fun to sit at my desk and write during crappy weather, I don’t know why that is, but I like having that tiny barrier of glass between me and the nastiness outside. I’m not sure why that is….but the only thing I like about driving in rain is the coziness of being warm and dry inside my car while only a thin sheet of glass and metal protects me completely from the elements. It’s weird, I know, but everything about me is actually pretty weird; always has been (and for the record, I never became truly happy until I stopped fighting and accepted the weirdness).

I greatly enjoyed Scott Heim’s “Loam”; he’s always been one of the finest writers that our community has produced over the last (gulp) thirty years, and his lack of production has always been a pity and a shame. I read and loved Mysterious Skin years ago, and have always intended to reread it; reading “Loam” got me to find my old copy and place it on the Reread Project pile, which now consists of it, two more Mary Stewart novels (Madam, Will You Talk? and Thunder on the Right), Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home, Moonraker by Ian Fleming, Sing Me a Death Song by Jay Bennett, Shotgun Opera by Victor Gischler, A Queer Kind of Death by George Baxt, and Harlan Ellison’s collection Strange Wine (I also have Elizabeth Peters’ Crocodile on the Sandbank on deck in my Kindle app).

“Loam” is a long short story about three triplets from the small town of Collingwood, Kansas (is this a nod to Collinwood from Dark Shadows? Perhaps), who are returning for the first time in years, to arrange and attend their father’s funeral. The story begins with the three of them dealing with the rental car arrangements at whatever airport they flew into–I assume Kansas City, which is where I’d fly into if going to visit my part of Kansas–and then slowly, as they make the drive, Heim begins to peel back a trauma the triplets–and the other kids in their first grade class–possibly survived when they were very young; a Satanism scare, in which the teacher and her mentally handicapped son were accused of using (and abusing) the children. This begins to resurface when they stop at a second hand store and find a stack of pictures of their classmates and themselves at that age, possible evidence from the case, which was eventually dismissed as a hoax and a scare–similar to the Satanic scare that happened somewhere else, where the cops basically convinced the children they were abused and to accuse the day care operators of Satanism and abuse–and so we’re never really sure, as are the kids themselves–whether or not it actually happened. It’s very gruesome, and very Gothic, and extremely well written. I recommend it highly; and I wish Scott would write more. I’d never gotten around to his other two novels, In Awe and We Disappear; I’m going to make the time this year, methinks. “Loam” is a Kindle single, part of a group of six stories called “Disorder collection,” whatever that is, and you can get it here for 99 cents. You won’t regret it.

And then I started rereading Nine Coaches Waiting. Again, this is a Mary Stewart novel that I read once, long ago, as I was making my way through the Stewart canon as a teenager; I remember enjoying it, but it didn’t make a strong impression on teenaged me. But as I begin rereading it again yesterday, I could not help but marvel at Stewart’s skill. Nine Coaches Waiting consists of the perfect Gothic romantic suspense set-up; a young orphan girl comes to a huge mansion near the French/Swiss border (she has to fly to Geneva to get there) to be governess to an orphaned young French comte; his estate, Chateau Valmy, is being managed for him by his aunt and uncle; he usually lives with another uncle in Paris, but that uncle, an archaeologist, has been called away for six months to a dig in Greece, and so he has returned to his ancestral home to live with his other uncle. Linda, our twenty-one year old heroine, is half-French and fluent in both languages, but it’s made fairly clear to her during the hiring process that they prefer someone who only speaks English, so that the young Phillippe’s English also will become fluent–as she can only speak to  him in English. Under the cover of that lie Linda comes to Chateau Valmy, and becomes attached to her young charge…while not entirely trusting Phillippe’s aunt and uncle, her employers. What Stewart is doing with this novel is completely subverting the meek governess trope of romantic suspense, that began with Jane Eyre; her employer even mockingly calls her “Miss Jane Eyre” at one point. Victoria Holt went back to the governess well over and over in her novels, from Mistress of Mellyn to The King of the Castle, sticking to, and mirroring, the original trope; I love what Stewart is doing with it, and this is yet another example of what a master writer Mary Stewart actually was.

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

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Mama He’s Crazy

Believe it or not, back before the Internet and social media, it was possible for a book to go viral; to become so popular and so talked about it would sell a gazillion copies and establish the author–usually–as a long-time bestseller. To this day, I don’t know how I became aware of the viral books of the 1970’s (titles like Coma by Robin Cook; Jonathon Livingston Seagull by Richard Back; Jaws by Peter Benchley; The Other by Thomas Tryon; The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty; and The Godfather by Mario Puzo, among others), yet I did become very aware of them, and read most of them (true confession: I never read Jonathon Livingston Seagull, despite being a number one fiction bestseller for two consecutive years).

Mary Higgins Clark’s Where Are The Children? was a viral sensation when it was first published in 1975; I read it in paperback, and distinctly remember plucking it off the wire rack in the Emporia Safeway. I started reading it in the car as my mom drove us back home to Americus–the little town seven miles or so northwest of Emporia, where we lived; population less than a thousand, and the only time I’ve ever lived in such a small town–and couldn’t stop reading. I helped her bring the groceries in, went to my bedroom, and piled the pillows up and went back to reading.

where are the children

He could feel the chill coming through the cracks around the windowpanes. Clumsily he got up and lumbered over to the window. Reaching for one of the thick towels he kept handy, he stuffed it around the rotting frame.

The incoming draft made a soft, hissing sound in the towel, a sound that vaguely pleased him. He looked out at the mist-filled sky and studied the whitecaps churning in the water. From this side of the house it was often possible to see Provincetown, on the opposite side of Cape Cod Bay.

He hated the Cape. He hated the bleakness of it on a November day like this; the stark grayness of the water; the stolid people who didn’t say much but studied you with their eyes. He had hated it the one summer he’d been here–waves of tourists sprawling on the beaches; climbing up the steep embankment to this house; gawking in the downstairs windows, cupping their hands over their eyes to peer inside.

He hated the large FOR SALE sign that Ray Eldredge has posted on the front and back of the big house and the fact that now Ray and the woman who worked for him had begun bringing people in to see the house. Last month it has been only a matter of luck that he’d come along as they’d started through; only lyck that hed gotten to the top floor before they had and been able to put away the telescope.

Time was running out. Somebody would buy this house and he wouldn’t be able to rent it again. That was why he’d sent the article to the paper. He wanted to still be here to enjoy seeing her exposed for what she was in front of these people…now, when she must have started to feel safe.

I bought another copy of Where Are The Children? in 2014; my original copy lost years ago to one of many moves, intending to go back and rereading it at some point. The importance of Mary Higgins Clark, not just to women crime writers but to the genre in general, cannot ever be overstated. Clark was the bridge between the domestic suspense masters of the past–Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong, Dorothy B. Hughes, among many others–and the next generation of women crime writers that dawned in the 1980’s, as well as to the modern domestic suspense writers–women like Alison Gaylin, Lori Rader-Day,  Catriona McPherson, and Wendy Corsi Staub, among many others–and her example–of grace, generosity, kindness, and assistance–is one other writers should emulate.

We could all use more Mary Higgins Clarks in the world.

Anyway, because of this importance, I thought I should reread her first as an homage to her importance; I’d recently met her, in passing, and was shocked when I ran into her again a year later that she remembered my name and the short conversation we’d had as I’d helped her onto the escalator at the Grand Hyatt in New York; I, of course, remembered every word and that glowing smile she’d given me. There was little doubt in my mind she wouldn’t remember me; how many thousands of people had passed briefly through her life? But she was sharp as a tack, and remembered me. “Greg! I was hoping you’d be here if I needed help with the escalator again,” she said, holding our her hand to me with that thousand-watt smile of hers. Then she winked, “I’ll be looking for you later. How did that book you were writing turn out?” When I told her I’d worked out the problem (yes, as I helped her onto the escalator and chatted briefly, I somehow managed to tell her that one of the many reasons I admired her was her dedication to working hard, and asked if she ever got stuck–because I was stuck on my WIP. She laughed and said, “Work through it. That’s the only way.” She was right.) and the book was coming out that very month, she replied, “I look forward to reading it.”

I seriously doubt that she did, frankly–but it was an incredibly kind and generous thing to say to someone many many rungs on the ladder beneath her, if we can even be said to be on the same ladder.

Her recent death obviously saddened many, me amongst them. So I decided to memorialize her by rereading her first and most famous bestseller, Where Are The Children? 

And really, it was past time, wasn’t it?

Upon finishing my reread, I would say that Clark was most like Charlotte Armstrong, of the women who came before her; she wrote about, like Armstrong, normal every day women who were simply minding their own business when something evil came across their path, and they had to dig deep inside and discover their own strength to overcome it.

In Where Are The Children?, Clark came up with a devilishly clever plot about one of the worst things that could ever happen to a woman: the loss of her children. Nancy Harmon, now Nancy Eldredge, married one of her college professors and had two children by him, only to have them snatched away and murdered. Their bodies were found washed ashore, their heads taped inside plastic bags; dead before they went into the water. Nancy was tried for their murders, convicted–and then released on appeal due to a technicality. The disappearance of the prime witness against her made retrying her impractical; so she changed her hair and disappeared from San Francisco to Cape Cod, where she found and married a realtor and had two more children–where no one knows who she is. (This would, of course, be impossible–or incredibly difficult–today; with the Internet and 24 hour news, everyone in the country would recognize her, different hair color or no.) Nancy is still haunted by her past, most of which she has buried in her subconscious–but little does she realize her idyllic new life is about to upended: on the same day the local paper runs an article exposing her past, her two children, Michael and Missy, disappear yet again; and of course, it looks like she has killed yet another set of her children.

But what Clark does is let the reader know immediately that Nancy is not only innocent of killing this set of children, but the first set as well. The book opens, as seen above, with a chapter in the point of view of the villain of the story; she does this consistently throughout the book–we see the events from other points of views, other than just Nancy’s and the villain’s, which also helps the suspense build and keeps the reader turning the page.

Also, it should be noted that the entire timeline of the book is less than one day, and probably not even ten hours; the children disappear around ten in the morning and the climax of the book happens after nightfall. Also, the book takes place during a particularly nasty thunderstorm, which includes hail.

Another excellent way she builds suspense is bringing in minor characters on the periphery of the story, puts a scene in their point of view, and of course it turns out that each one of these minor characters holds another, crucial piece of the puzzle.

Where Are The Children? is a subversive novel in many ways, and it’s easy to see how it became a phenomenon, and why Clark won the hearts of millions of readers. She plays with the tropes of what it means to be a mother; how quickly we blame mothers for anything that happens to their children or how they behave; and how quickly the admiration for motherhood can turn to contempt and scorn–and how easy that turn is made.

It can also be seen as a sequel, of sorts, to those Gothic novels where a child is endangered and the heroine has to act to save the child; this was a well Phyllis A. Whitney and Victoria Holt drew from, many many times. Instead of trying to save the child, in this case this is the aftermath of what happened should the mother (or young governess, whomever the heroine was) not have succeeded the first time in saving the children–but has a chance at redemption by finding and saving the second set of children.

It reminded me somewhat of Charlotte Armstrong’s Mischief, which is also long overdue for a revisit.

And now, back to the spice mines.

He’ll Have to Go

Saturday morning, and I slept in until nearly eight thirty! Living large here, I have to say.

Yesterday was one of those days; the temperature dropped, as you may recall, and once again when turning on the heat Thursday night, it didn’t really come on–it did, but it never truly got warm in the Lost Apartment, either upstairs or down. So, I wound up having to stay home from work to wait for the HVAC guys, who actually arrived dutifully when they said they would (this is so rare as to merit mention), and worked on it for a while. They did eventually leave, and I went to the gym and ran my errands.  I don’t know if the heat is actually fixed or not; we didn’t need it last night anywhere other than the kitchen, and I have a space heater for in there (it never warms up in the kitchen, ever) but I did manage to get a lot of cleaning and organizing done. I also managed to start watching the film of The Talented Mr. Ripley on the iPad yesterday at the gym (the Anthony Minghella version) and it veers away from the book’s narrative much more than I ever had supposed; the character of Meredith (played by Cate Blanchett) doesn’t exist in the book, nor does the entire subplot about Dickie’s affair with the village girl in Mongibello. But the one thing I will say about this film–and the thirty or so minutes of it I watched–Matt Damon is exceptionally great in the role of Tom; far more so than Jude Law as Dickie (he was nominated for an Oscar; the film made him a star), and this just might be one of Damon’s best performances.

Paul, I believe, is off to the office later today, and has plans with friends to go watch Krewe de Vieux tonight; I intend to stay home and work on the Secret Project, get my taxes together and sent off to the accountant, and emails to answer. There’s also organizing and filing to do, and I need to do the floors; I always leave the floors for Saturday vacuuming. Paul’s absence also gives me no excuse for not reading and writing for most of the day; around the cleaning, at any rate–and I am actually looking forward to getting a lot of both done today.

I’m still reading Tracy Clark’s Broken Places, which is really good, and in fact, once I finish writing this I am most likely going to  head over to the easy chair and spend a few hours with it this morning before moving on to the Secret Project. I am also really enjoying Jason Berry’s City of a Million Dreams, which I am not very far into, but I feel confident in recommending just based on the introduction and part of the first chapter. I’ve not read Berry before–he’s local, and has written quite a few books, including taking the Archdiocese to task for covering up the sexual abuse of children–but I am impressed enough to start adding his canon to my TBR list. We started watching Avenue 5, which was much funnier than I thought it would be–and Hugh Laurie is terrific as the captain; the entire cast is actually quite good. We’re probably going to also start watching The Outsider on HBO, which presents a conundrum for me; I generally like to read the book while I am watching the TV series based on it (I did this with Big Little Lies, and found it to be incredibly enjoyable; I’ve not read the King yet, but once I am done with the Clark, I am definitely going to pull The Outsider down from the shelf and give it a go)., but I guess pulling down The Outsider and moving it up to the top of the TBR list won’t hurt anyone or anything.

Parades also start this coming Friday on the St. Charles Avenue route; the challenge is going to be continuing to write and go to the gym around my job and the parades; parade watching is always a blast–it will probably never get old for me–but it’s also exhausting and keeps me up later at night than I probably need to be awake, given how early I will have to get up the following mornings.

It’s also lovely to wake up and sit at my desk and glance around and see clean, clear counters and a sink that is primarily empty of dirty dishes. There’s a load in the dishwasher that needs to be put away, and a load of laundry in the dryer that also neede to be fluffed and folded, but like I said, other than that and the floors (and these stacks of file folders and scribbled notes scattered around my desk), there’s no cleaning to be done this morning. My muscles are tired this morning from the gym yesterday, but I’m not sore, and I feel more stretched than I usually do, which also actually feels good–I may just stretch out a bit a little later; I’d forgotten how good it feels to have stretched muscles as opposed to tight ones.

So, that’s the plan for today, at any rate. I’m going to go pour yet another cup of coffee, take my book and repair to the easy chair; after that, it’s back to the desk to do some writing and answer some emails (I never actually send them until Monday morning; emails beget emails, and I’d rather not wake up Monday morning at the crack of dawn with an insane amount of emails to answer; it’s too, too daunting to deal with on a twelve hour day).

I was also thinking the other day–thanks to a post by someone on Facebook–about books that should be paired together, like a good wine and some good cheese; how reading the two back-to-back can enhance the reading pleasure of both. Michael Koryta’s The Prophet (which is one of my favorite books), for example, pairs beautifully with Megan Abbott’s Dare Me (and you need to be watching the television adaptation of Dare Me); Alafair Burke recommends pairing Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and there was one more I can’t quite remember, but it was also quite brilliant. (I also think pairing Stephen King’s Carrie and Christine together enhances the pleasure of reading each even more.)

I was also thinking about “event” books; Gone Girl was probably the most recent “event” book–a book that sold a gazillion copies and everyone was talking about. There have always been “event books”, which in the pre-Internet, pre-social media days was harder to have happen, and yet it did, all the time. Two such books from the 70’s include Thomas Tryon’s The Other and Peter Benchley’s Jaws; the fame of Jaws was spread even further by an event film based on it that has almost entirely eclipsed the book. Robin Cook’s Coma was another one of these; I intend to include The Other in my Reread Project this year, but rather than Jaws I am going to reread Benchley’s second novel, The Deep, and Cook’s second novel, Sphinx–which was Cook’s only non-medical thriller thriller.

And on that note, I am going to repair to the easy chair with my coffee and Tracy Clark. Have a lovely Saturday, Constant Reader; I certainly intend to.

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