When You Close Your Eyes

Well, Constant Reader, we made it to Wednesday, didn’t we? I’m going to do this blog and then run off to the gym for my second workout of this week; sorry if this is getting tedious, but I worry that if I don’t say anything that’s when I’ll start slipping and NOT doing my workouts; a slippery slope I am reluctant to set my foot on, if you will. It’s so lovely to be doing this again and being motivated to do it; it’s more than a little infuriating that I allowed myself such a long break from taking it seriously, and doing it so little. But there’s no sense in crying over spilled milk at this point, is there? I am just happy that I’m at where I am at with it.

I am also very stoked to be jazzed about writing again. It’s interesting, on every level, how gong back to the beginning (both with working out and writing) has turned out so well, isn’t it? I am really pleased with these short stories I’ve written over the last week or so, the chapter of the WIP I wrote Monday, and the rethinking of the Scotty book I’ve done. I am definitely going to keep moving positively forward; and I am going to keep seeking an agent once I get this first fifty pages of the WIP whipped into better shape. This weekend I plan on rewriting and editing the four short stories I’ve done, plus I need to start working on the Bouchercon anthology, which I am also excited about–how long has it been since I was excited to edit an anthology, well might you ask? It’s been a long frigging time would be the proper answer, I am afraid.

I also finished reading Sarah Weinman’s sublime anthology Troubled Daughters Twisted Wives, and am the better for it. If you’ve not read this collection, you really should; particularly if you’re a writer. These stories hold up incredibly well, with only the occasional dated reference–and none of them so jarring that they take you out of the story. I’ve also added several new-to-me authors to my TBR list; alas, I shall have to track down copies of their works via secondhand dealers and eBay, as so much has sadly fallen out of print. I am also disappointed in myself for waiting so long to read this collection; but now that I have, I am glad. I am also grateful to Weinman for her hard work in pulling this together and shining a light on these terrific writers of the past.

It also occurs to me that a similar volume could be done for gay and lesbian crime writers whom modern readers don’t recall or remember; I doubt, though, that there would be a market for such a thing. That’s the tricky thing, isn’t it? Finding a market?

Sigh.

troubled daughters twisted wives

First up was “Lost Generation” by Dorothy Salisbury Davis:

The school board has sustained the teacher. The vote was four to three, but the majority made it clear they were not voting for the man. They voted the way they had because otherwise the state would have stepped in and settled the appeal, ruling against the town…

Tom and Andy, coming from the west of town, waited for the others at the War Memorial. The October frost had silvered the cannon, and the moonlight was so clear you could the words FOR GOD AND COUNTRY on the monument. The slack in the flagpole allowed the metal clips to clank against the pole. That and the wind made the only sounds.

Then Andy said, “His wife’s all right. She came up to Mary when it was over and said she wished he’d teach like other teachers and leave politics alone.”

“Politics,” Tom said. “Is that what she calls it?”

This was my first experience reading Mystery Writers of America Dorothy Salisbury Davis; despite being aware of her for quite some time. Sara Paretsky wrote a brilliant tribute to her after she died a few years ago; she’d been on my radar before that, but again, this is my first time reading her. This story is dark and amazing. We never know what the teacher’s politics are, but given the time period it’s not too hard to imagine what they were, given the fact that the group of men who gather to take care of him also include police officers–which was an all-too true and horrible aspect of the anti-Civil Rights whites of the South; the men paid with tax dollars and charged with protecting everyone were racists who abused their privilege and power to abuse and kill people of color and civil rights workers. There’s an amazing twist in this story, and the denouement is eminently satisfying and dissatisfying at the same time–not an easy thing to do.

Some of Ms. Davis’ books are now back in print, so snap ’em up, peeps!

“The People Across the Canyon” by Margaret Millar

The first time the Bortons realized that someone had moved into the new house across the canyon was one night in May when they saw the rectangular light of a television set shining in the picture window. Marion Borton knew it had to happen eventually, but that didn’t make it any easier to accept the idea of neighbors in a part of the country she and Paul had come to consider exclusively their own.

They had discovered the sight, had bought six acres, and built the house over the objections of the bank, which didn’t like to lend money on unimproved property, and of their friend, who thought the Bortons were foolish to move so far out of town. Now other people were discovering the spot, and here and there through the eucalyptus trees and the live oajs, Marion could see half-finished houses.

But it was the house directly across the canyon that bothered her the most; she had been dreading this moment ever since the site had been bull-dozed the previous summer.

I’ve written about Millar before; I’ve become an enormous fan of her work, and have been slowly making my way through her canon over the past few years. I do have the wonderful reprinted set of her books Collected Millar; a quick glance over at Amazon shows that many of her books, including the Edgar Award winning Beast in View are available as ebooks at fairly reasonable prices.

This story, about a couple and their young daughter, whose increasing obsession with the new neighbors across the way makes the stay-at-home mother not only jealous but concerned about the intensity of the obsession, strikes several chords: the mother becoming aware that her child is growing away from her and lamenting the ways her own every day life has allowed time to slip away, regretting that she didn’t spend more time paying attention to her child; the growing realization that you can influence and affect your child’s personality, behavior and temperament unknowingly; and ultimately, the exquisite torture and pain of being a parent. Millar only had one child, a daughter; it’s not hard to imagine where the roots and inspiration for this story came from. Quite excellent.

“Mortmain” by Miriam Allen Deford

“I’ll be back on Thursday, Miss Hendricks, and I’ll drop in here in the afternoon. It’s only three days, and I don’t anticipate any change. You know what to do. If anything happens, you can call Dr. Roberts; he knows all about the case. I wouldn’t go away, with Marsden like this, but–well, it’s my only daughter, and she’ll never be married again–at least, I hope not!–and she’ll be heartbroken if her old dad weren’t there to give her away.”

Dr. Staples turned to his patient.

“Good-bye, old man; I’m leaving you in Miss Hendricks’ charge till Thursday. You won’t be sorry to have three days free of me, eh?”

This gem of a creepy short story is straight out of what (thanks to Stephen King) I call the EC Comics playbook. The sad, dying patient has a load of cash in his safe; the nurse in whose care the doctor has left him for three days wants it to start a new life with the cad she’s in love with, and there we have the setup for a most clever game of cat-and-mouse in which each sentence builds the suspense and tension. If you want a great example of how to write suspense, this short little tale is all you need. In fact, if I ever teach writing again, this story is going to be one of the things I teach. It may even be one of those stories, like du Maurier’s “Don’t Look Now,” that I reread every now and again, to savor in its delightful brilliance.

And finally, “A Case of Maximum Need” by Celia Fremlin:

“No, no telephone, thank you. It’s too dangerous,” said Miss Emmeline Fosdyke decisively; and the young welfare worker, only recently qualified, and working for the first time in this Sheltered Housing Unit for the Elderly, blinked up from the form she was filling in.

“No telephone? But, Miss Fosdyke, in your–I mean, with your–well, your arthritis, and not being able to get about and everything…You’re on our House-Bound list, you know that, don’t you? As a House-Bound Pensioner, you’re entitled–well, I mean, it’s a necessity, isn’t it, your telephone? It’s your link with the outside world!”

This last sentence, a verbatim quote from her just-completed Geriatric Course, made Valerie Coombe feel a little bit more confident, She went on, “You must have a telephone, Miss Fosdyke! It’s your right! And if it’s the cost you’re worrying about, then do please set your mind at rest. Our Departmenet–anyone over sixty-five and in need–“

“I’m not in need,” asserted Miss Fosdyke woodenly, “Not of a telephone, anyway.”

The tale of Miss Fosdyke, and why she doesn’t want a phone, is the perfect ending to this wonderful collection of short stories. This story is chilling, surprising, and turns around so brilliantly at the end in a way that you do not see coming, and then everything makes sense. Superb, dark, macabre…you name it, it’s all there in this story…and I’ve added Celia Fremlin to my TBR list. Some of her books are currently in print, and if this story is indicative of the pleasures that await in her novels…well, I just can’t wait.

Well done, Ms. Weinman, well done.

And now, back to the spice mines.

Major Tom (Coming Home)

Tuesday morning.

I made an enormous decision regarding the point-of-view in the WIP; one that I should have made a long time ago: instead of third person point of view, I am going to revise and rewrite it in the first person. It makes more sense; I don’t know why I didn’t do it that way in the first place when I wrote the first draft; but that was so fucking long ago who knows why I did anything back then? I revised the first chapter yesterday, and it seems much more real, much more immediate, and much more involving than it did before. I think this was, indeed, a wise decision–at least until next week, when I am pounding my head against the wall again and wondering why the hell I decided to do it this way?

Why am I a writer again? Because I clearly hate myself.

Sunday Paul and I binge-watched It’s the End of the F**king World, a Netflix original series, and were quite taken with it. We wound up watching the entire season Sunday night–the episodes are only about twenty-one minutes long–and the two young kids who play the leads, Alyssa and James, are really quite appealing. James lives alone with his father and is a self-diagnosed psychopath; when Alyssa first crossed his path in the school cafeteria, he decides she’s interesting and he decides to kill her. He’s been killing animals for a while now, and has decided to move on to people, and she’s as good a victim as anyone. Alyssa lives with her mother and her perfectly awful stepfather, who have two kids of their own, and it’s obvious Alyssa isn’t wanted there, and her mother is too dominated by her new husband to stand up to him or for her. As a result, Alyssa has a bit of an anger issue. She also hasn’t seen her father since she was eight and he left her mother–but even though he doesn’t see her he sends her a birthday card every year. These two oddballs decide to steal James’ father’s car and run away together…but it continues its dark path. James and Alyssa are, if nothing else, oddly compelling and you can’t help but root for them to find some kind of a happy ending, although the events that keep happening to them make that virtually impossible; their crimes gradually get worse and worse, and I couldn’t help but think of them in terms of Bonnie and Clyde (no doubt because I am still reading Pictures at a Revolution) and Natural Born Killers; they didn’t mean to start committing crimes but once they did, they had no choice but to keep committing crimes. It’s all kind of noirish and charming; funny yet disturbing, and incredibly original. We also get to know the two–as they grow closer to each other and start to truly care about each other, they start sharing their childhood traumas and frankly, with all that scar tissue it’s no wonder they didn’t fit in anywhere.

I’ll be very curious to see how the second season turns out.

I also have two more short stories to discuss.

First up, I returned to Lawrence Block’s In Sunlight or in Shadow for Stephen King’s “The Music Room”:

The Enderbys were in their music room–so they called it, although it was really just the spare bedroom. Once they had thought it would be little James or Jill Enderby’s nursery, but after ten years of trying, it seemed increasingly unlikely that a Baby Dear would arrive out of the Nowhere and into the Here. They had made their peace with childlessness. AT least they had work, which was a blessing in a year when men were still standing in bread lines. There were fallow periods, it was true, but when the job was on, they could afford to think of nothing else, and they both liked it that way.

Mr. Enderby was reading The New York Journal-American,  a new daily not even halfway through its first year of publication. It was sort of a tabloid and sort of not. He usually began with the comics, but when they were on the job he turned to the city news first, scanning through the stories quickly, especially the police blotter.

This short story is one of the creepiest things I’ve read during this edition of the Short Story Project. King is always good for creepy stories, but the casual, calm matter of fact way the Enderbys go about their ‘business’ is what sets this story apart. The fact that they sit around and chat, quite normally, about the ‘business’ as though they were talking about nothing more important than the weather is very chilling; the kind of thing that would make a lovely episode of Twilight Zone. Very well done, very creepy.

Next I read “The Splintered Monday,” by Charlotte Armstrong, which Sarah Weinman included in her terrific anthology Troubled Daughters Twisted Wives. This story was originally publishing in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and was a nominee for the Best Short Story Edgar.

Mrs. Sarah Brady awakened in the guest room of her nephew Jeff’s house, and for a moment or two was simply glad for the clean page of a new day. Then she found her bookmark between the past and the future. Oh, yes. Her sister, Alice, had died on Monday, been buried on Wednesday. (Poor Alice.) This was Saturday. Mrs. Brady’s daughter, Del, was coming, late today, to drive her mother back home tomorrow.

Now that she knew where she was, Mrs. Brady cast a brief prayer into time and space, then put her lean old feet to the floor.

The house was very still. For days now it has seemed muffled, everyone moving in a quiet gloom, sweetened by mutually considerate behavior. Mrs. Brady had a feeling that her own departure would signal a lift of some kind in the atmosphere. And she did not particularly like the idea.

I first discovered Charlotte Armstrong when I was in junior high school; she was still alive and still being published, and was still rather popular. I got a Charlotte Armstrong Omnibus from the Mystery Guild; the novels included were The Witch’s House, Mischief, and The Dream Walker. I read and greatly enjoyed the first two–Mischief was made into a movie starring Marilyn Monroe, retitled Don’t Bother to Knock–and they weren’t like anything I’d ever read up to that point. I did read some more of her books back then, and I never forgot her. I was quite pleased when Sarah, along with Jeffrey Marks, began shining a light on Ms. Armstrong and bringing her back to her proper place in the history of the genre.

“The Splintered Monday” is a great example of Ms. Armstrong’s gifts as a writer. The premise, as seen above in the opening paragraphs that set the stage for the story, is quite simple. A woman, who was a hypochondriac but also ill–she was, as we learn as the story progresses, a narcissist as well who insisted on being at the center of everything, and everything was all about her–has died. Her sister was visiting and her sister is quite aware of what the deceased Alice was like. But something is off, something is wrong, and Mrs. Brady can’t quite put her finger on it…so she decides to find out for herself. At first, she doesn’t learn anything useful; and it’s more along the lines that everyone is coddling her, protecting her from the truth about her sister’s death for ‘her own good’ which annoys the crap out of her. But someone in the house has a very good reason for keeping things from Mrs. Brady…because if Mrs. Brady knows everything, she’ll put the truth together and will catch a very clever killer. Armstrong’s mastery is evident in every paragraph; there is a sweetness to her writing and a sweetness to her main characters, but there’s also a very strong sense of right and wrong, of common sense, and a heroic purpose to their investigations. This is why I love Armstrong so much…and was thrilled to read this story.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Undercover of the Night

I didn’t get as much done this afternoon as I would have liked, alas. I am getting laundry done, and have pretty much cleaned out my email inbox, and I did finish the first draft of “The Trouble with Autofill”–it’s not good, but it will be, and I am going to work on another short story for a bit while vacuuming and preparing dinner and finishing the laundry. Tomorrow I want to get a lot more done, and tomorrow is also a go to the gym day; and since it’s the fourth workout, that means moving up to two sets of everything rather than one. Next week will be three, and then after that it remains at three, with weight increases every week. I haven’t had any issues with going to the gym–I even went when it was so cold on Wednesday morning–so I think I’m getting back into the swing of things. Let’s hope I stay motivated; I think I will.

I am also learning a lot from the Short Story Project! Once I get this second short story finished, and revise the other, I am going back to the WIP and some other manuscripts that need my attention. It’s great because I am reading all these different styles and types of short stories and writers, and I am learning a lot about how to construct a short story, and suspense building, and so forth.

An excellent example of building suspense is the first one up today, “The Stranger in the Car” by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, from Troubled Daughters Twisted Wives, the fabulous anthology of post-war stories by the terrific women writing suspense back then.

Carrol Charleroy leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes; a big, stout, handsome man, olive-skinned, with a black mustache; a flamboyant look about him, in spite of his correct and conservative clothes. Miss Ewing was playing the piano for him, and he tried to relax, to enjoy this music, but a peculiar restlessness filled him. He frowned, opened his eyes, and took out his cigar case.

He and his wife Helen never sat here in the drawing-room unless they had guests; then the room would be pleasantly lighted, there would be people moving about, the sound of voices. Now the only light came from the gold-shaded lamp beside the piano at the other side of the long room, and, in spite of Miss Ewing’s music, he was aware, as never before, of the sounds from the New York street outside, the rush of wind, a car streaking past, the frantic piping of a doorman’s whistle, a man’s voice, hoarse and furious. This made him feel vulnerable, not comfortably shut away from the world in his own home.

“I don’t like this sending Helen off to the hospital,” he thought. “The flu is a treacherous disease, I grant you that. But Helen and I, and the children, and the servants, too, have all had it, at one time or the other, right here in the house, and we did very well. Can’t say I care much for Dr. Marcher. Too quizzical…”

The Holding story is one of the longest I’ve tackled during the Short Story Project thus far; and it’s a slow burn, and it’s so worth it. The story opens with our point of view character, a successful businessman, being entertained by the piano playing of a family friend; concerned about his wife’s hospitalization for the flu; and later that evening, his daughter arrives home under mysterious circumstances; with a black eye and several strange stories being told to him from other people who saw her out that evening, and were concerned. Before long Mr. Charleroy is convinced something terrible has happened to his daughter…and that she may have taken the law into her own hands. The best part of this slow burn of a story is that Mr. Charleroy literally has no idea what’s going on around him, but only sees and hears enough to make him worried and suspicious; but all of the women in the story are taking care of everything around him, and finally, at the end, very kindly let him know what the truth was once it’s all wrapped up rather neatly, in a slightly macabre fashion, but wrapped up nonetheless. Holding is best known for her novel The Blank Wall, which Weinman included in the Library of America omnibus of post-war female suspense writers, and now I am positively looking forward to reading it.

The second story for this entry is an Edgar nominee for this year’s Best Short Story statue, from Montana Noir, capably edited by Keir Graff and James Brady, is Eric Heidle’s “Ace in the Hole.”

Civic-pride billboards and the drab county jail swept past the chilly Greyhound’s windows as it dropped down the hill into the night of Great Falls. Through frosted glass, Chance watched the town pull him in as the Missouri passed below, the bus thrumming over dark water and skiffs of ice. Beyond the bridge he saw the OK Tire sign was gone; it’s cinder-block building was now something new.

The bus pulled a lazy turn toward downtown, rolling through blocks of low brick warehouses before banking hard into the alley behind the depot. It settled with a hiss in the garage as the passengers roused and began filing off.

The snap of deep cold hit him at the door. The driver’s breath huffed with each suitcase he tossed from the coach’s gut. Chance had only his green duffel. He split off from the line shuffling into the warmly lit lobby. Ducking under the half-open bay door at the front of the garage, he stepped onto the street and walked toward Central Avenue.

This is a terrific story, and it’s easy to see why it’s an Edgar finalist. Chance went to jail for possession with intent to sell, managing to get rid of most of the bales of marijuana before the cops caught up to him–but one bale didn’t land in the river but rather on a bridge support; bad luck for Chance. Even worse luck for Chance is that the supplier he got the marijuana from is still around and still wants his money for the lost shipment of weed. There doesn’t seem to be any way out for Chance–but it turns out that he does, indeed, have one ace up his sleeve, after all, and decides to play it in one last stand.

This is a great example of a dark, noir story; although whether it fits the actual definition of noir as I personally have come to understand it is questionable. But the thing about noir is that it defies labels and definitions, and this story is the best example of I can’t say what it is but I know it when I see it. This story is totally noir; I can even see it as a film, with its bleak but beautiful Montana landscapes, the cold, the mermaids swimming behind glass in the bar, the brutality of the violence; this would be a great role for a mid-to-late twenties actor–maybe even a career-making role. All kinds of awesome, really.

montana noir

Wrapped Around Your Finger

The temperature took a dip here Thursday evening, and has kept falling, even further than was projected. That means the heat is on and my space heater is back at work here in the kitchen/office, as I try to get the kitchen cleaned and the bed linens laundered. I slept later than I’d intended this morning–not a big deal, just got me off to a later start on my day than I’d wanted–and am now in the process of getting the things done that were on my Saturday agenda. I remembered that the last cold snap, coupled with my illness, had knocked me off my daily abdominal workout plan, so I got that started again this afternoon after running my errands, and it really is amazing what a difference that makes. I have an errand to run on Monday, but tomorrow if I rise early enough to get the things done that I want to, I am going to venture out into the cold temperatures and head to the gym to lift weights, stretch, and get on the treadmill. (I have all those lovely films on Starz to watch; movies I want to rewatch and others–like Friday the 13th–that I’ve never seen. Yes, I’ve never seen any  of the Jason movies, can you believe that? Shame on me! Bad, bad Gregalicious!)

Also, when I was talking about watching The Towering Inferno, I neglected to mention that the film was based on two books (I am a firm believer in mentioning the source material; so many people don’t know films were based on books, which is a shame). Two novels about fires in skyscrapers were released in the same year, so when the film was being prepared Irwin Allen bought the screen rights to both books to protect against another similar, competitive film being made. The two books were The Tower by Richard Martin Stern (which I did read) and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson (I didn’t see any need to read a second book about a fire in a skyscraper). Whew. I feel better having giving them credit now.

As you are probably aware, the Short Story Project is really proceeding apace. Last year I tried to read a short story a day for January; I am reading a lot more than two a day this year, particularly since I decided to expand the project to last the entire year. In fact, blogging only once a day (although I blogged twice yesterday) isn’t enough for me to devote an entire entry to simply one story; I am having to at the very least double them up per entry, and I am still getting behind on the blog entries! Madness!

But after these three stories, I am caught up through Saturday.

Whew! The pressure is so intense.

These next three stories, of course, are from Sarah Weinman’s anthology Troubled Daughters Twisted Wives. The first is Helen Nielsen’s “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.”

It was exactly ten minutes before three when Loren returned to  her apartment. The foyer was empty–a glistening, white and black tile emptiness of Grecian simplicity which left no convenient nooks or alcoves where a late party-goer could linger with her escort in a prolonged embrace, or where the manager–in the unlikely event that he was concerned–could spy out the nocturnal habits of his tenants. Loren moved swiftly across the foyer, punctuating its silence with the sharp tattoo of her heels on the tile and the soft rustling of her black taffeta evening coat. Black for darkness; black for stealth. She stepped into the automatic elevator and pressed the button for the seventeenth floor. The door closed and the elevator began its silent climb. Only then did she breathe a bit easier, reassuring herself that she was almost safe.

There was an apex of terror, a crisis at which everything and every place became a pulsing threat. Loren wore her terror well.

Loren, you see, is a second wife; thoroughly organized and ruthlessly efficient as a secretary, she first became the other woman when he was married to another woman. When that marriage inevitably ended in divorce, Loren not only got her man but she also got a big promotion. But Loren, you see, has a secret past she doesn’t want her husband to know about, lest he might go back to his former wife. And when the man who knows her secrets shows up–in the company of the first wife–she knows she has to do something about it. So, thoroughly organized and ruthlessly efficient, Loren comes up with a plan. But…even the best planner can get caught off-guard by a twist of fate they never foresaw, never considered. And as the suspense rises, as does Loren’s paranoia and fear…well, what a fantastic story.

The next story is by Dorothy B. Hughes, the master of suspense who crafted such brillaint novels as In a Lonely Place, The Blackbirder, and The Expendable Man, amongst others. I can attest to the particular brilliance of the first and third mentioned novels; the middle is in my TBR pile. Her other books are sadly out of print, and hard to find; but I am on a quest to read her entire canon, and I will not be denied.

Her contribution in this collection is a strange little story called “Everybody Needs a Mink.”

One was dusty rose brocade, tranquil as an arras in a forsaken castle. One was a waterfall of gold, shimmering from a secret jungle cache. And there was, of course, the stiletto of black, cut to here and here–the practical one, as it would go everywhere–and she had the black evening slippers from last year, like new for they only went to the New Year’s Eve and Mardi Gras dances at the club, and the annual office executive dinner at the Biltmore. With her pearls, single strand, good cultured, Christmas present two years ago from Tashi–black and pearls, always good.

She selected the gold. She’d dash down to Florida and pick up a copper tan before the Christmas party, or maybe Hawaii. Or a week in Arizona, quite chic. She could buy gold slippers and hunky gold jewelry. When you were selecting, you didn’t have to think practical, you could let yourself go.

This is an excellent character study of the interior life of women, or at least this woman, shopping the before school sales for her children at a department store in Manhattan, pretending that she’s a socialite with money to burn, trying on clothes she couldn’t possible afford and pretending for a moment, before she has to get back to reality, get the sale items for her kids and catch the train to her little suburb north of the city, Larksville-nearly-on-the-Hudson and her life as a middle-class wife and mother who must scrimp and save…but she tries on a mink, encouraged by an older man. an eleven thousand dollar coat, which he buys for her without her knowledge and then disappears. Terrific stuff.

The last story to catch me up on the Short Story Project is a deeply disturbing little tale called “The Purple Shroud” by Joyce Carrington. Originally published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, it won the Edgar for Best Short Story for 1972. Dark, told in a distant, observational voice, it’s the kind of dark little story with a twist that would have been perfect for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Mrs. Moon threw the shuttle back and forth and pumped the treadles of the big four-harness loom as if her life depended on it. When they asked her what she was weaving so furiously, she would laugh silently and say it was a shroud.

“No, really, what is it?”

“My house needs new draperies,” Mrs. Moon would smile and the shuttle would fly and the beater would thump the newly woven threads tightly into place. The muffled, steady sounds of her craft could be heard from early morning until very late at night, until the sounds became an accepted and expected background noise and were only noticed in their absence.

Then they would say, “I wonder what Mrs. Moon is doing now.”

You see, every summer Mr. and Mrs. Moon come to an art colony at a remote lake in the woods, and Mrs. Moon weaves while her husband George instructs others in art, because he is the best instructor the art colony has ever had. But George has a bad habit of having affairs with young girl students at the colony every summer, ending them when it’s time to go home again, of course, and everyone knows and kind of feels sorry for Mrs. Moon, but this summer…this summer it’s different.

And now back to the spice mines.

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Nobody Told Me

Friday, and a Holiday Weekend Eve. Huzzah! I am going to get so much done this weekend, Constant Reader, you have no idea. Huzzah! Huzzah!

One thing I did notice this week–and this is really funny–is that when I was posting my book covers and book blurbs on Tumblr this week ((you can follow me here) I saw that in one of my former y/a’s, I’d used a name that I am again using in my WIP; obviously, that’s going to have to change! I also realized I was going to need to reread that book (Sara, in case you were wondering) to make sure I’m not pillaging other names from it, either. This happens, you see, because of manuscripts I wrote in my twenties and early thirties, and names I used in those books that I have re-used in rewrites of them or in new books. I also always would come up with character names for short story or book ideas; and so those names are already lodged in my head and when I need a new character name they boil up in my subconscious. So, now I have to rename this girl…and hopefully, I won’t have to rename anyone else.

(This hilariously happened another time, with two male names: Chris Moore and Eric Matthews. I originally came up with those names in the 1980’s when I was making notes on a fraternity murder mystery–great idea I should revisit–and then, when I was writing Every Frat Boy Wants It, I used those character names. In another irony, they were both from a small town in the California mountains, Woodbridge. When I was revising and rewriting and finishing Sleeping Angel, set in a small town in the California mountains named Woodbridge, I used those character names again and didn’t realize what I had done….which sort of makes Every Frat Boy Wants It kind of a sequel to Sleeping Angel. My work always somehow winds up connected in some way…)

I’ve been reading a lot of short stories lately; in fact, I’ve read about six over the last two days! How cool is that? I discovered that I had a collection of all Ross McDonald’s Lew Archer stories, The Archer Files, and dug into that last night while I was waiting for Paul to come home. I also can’t stop reading Troubled Daughters Twisted Wives by Sarah Weinman, and also read another couple of Laura Lippman’s stories in her collection Hardly Knew Her. There was a discussion recently on social media about short stories, and how the market has been slowly imploding over the last twenty years or so…it was interesting, and it also made me curious. I generally don’t read a lot of short stories–hence the Short Story Project–and yet, whenever I do read short stories I enjoy the hell out of them. You should always read the kind of things you like to write, and perhaps the reason I have so much trouble writing short stories is because I don’t read them very often (yes, yes, I edit anthologies, but that’s an entirely different thing–but maybe because I’ve done so many anthologies is part of the reason why I don’t read short stories in my free time? Hmmmm, something to ponder there), and frankly, reading these amazing short stories since the Short Story Project started has been kind of inspirational for me. So, the Short Story Project is working. Huzzah!

One of the last two stories I read in the Weinman anthology were “Lavender Lady” by Barbara Callahan; the story was originally published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in September 1976 and was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Short Story:

It was always the same request wherever I played. College audiences, park audiences, concert-hall audiences–they listened and waited. Would I play it in the beginning of a set? Would I wait till the end of a performance? When would I play Lavender Lady?

Once I tried to trick them into forgetting that song. I sang four new songs, good songs with intricate chords and compelling lyrics. They listened politely as if each work were merely the flip side of the song they really wanted to hear.

That night I left the stage without playing it. I went straight to my dressing room and put my guitar in the closet. I heard them chanting “Lavender Lady, Lavender Lady.” The chant began as a joyful summons which I hoped would drift into silence like a nursery rhyme a child tires of repeating. It didn’t. The chant became an ugly command accompanied by stamping feet. I fled to safety.

Mick Jagger famously said he’d rather be dead than singing “Satisfaction” when he was forty-five; that comment came back to bite him in the ass as he was singing it when he was in his sixties. I often wonder about that; how tired musicians must become of playing songs that are trademarks; the monotony of singing the same songs day after day, year after year. Imagine how many times Judy Garland sang “Over the Rainbow,” or Cher has sung “Gypsies Tramps and Thieves,” Madonna “Like a Virgin,” and so forth. How do you manage to do it without it becoming rote, routine, dull and boring?

But what makes this story so strong is that our main character’s signature tune, “Lavender Lady,” has a dark history. The song is beautiful and beloved, but the story behind it, the story that inspired the heroine to write it, is twisted and nasty. She was born into a wealthy family, neglected by everyone, and was kidnapped by her nanny…who was the Lavender Lady. That is the story behind the song, and so you can imagine how anguishing it is for her to sing it, over and over again, to have it be the signature tune that audiences expect for you to perform, come to hear; reliving that awful memory every time you play the first chord and sing the first note.

Terrific story!

The other was written by the amazing Vera Caspary, who also wrote the classic novel Laura, which of course was made into an even more well-known classic film. This story, called “Sugar and Spice,” which is the story of a very twisted relationship between two cousins.

I have never known a murderer, a murder victim, not anyone involved in a murder case. I admit that I am a snob, but to my mind crime is sordid and inevitably associated with gangsters, frustrated choir singers in dusty suburban towns, and starving old ladies supposed to have hidden vast fortunes in the bedsprings. I once remarked to a friend that people of our set were not in the homicide set, and three weeks later heard that her brother-in-law had been arrested as a suspect in the shooting of his rich uncle. It was proved, however, that this was a hunting accident and the brother-in-law exonerated. But it gave me quite a jolt.

Jolt number two came when Mike Jordan, sitting on my patio on a Sunday afternoon, told me a story which proved that well-bred, middle-class girls can commit a murder as calmly as I can knit a sock, and with fewer lumps in the finished product. Mike had arrived that morning for an eleven o’clock breakfast, and after the briefest greeting had sat silent until the bells of San Miguel started tolling twelve.

As I mentioned, “Sugar and Spice” tells the story of two cousins; Nancy and Phyllis. Nancy’s father was the richest man in their small town, and so therefore Nancy was rather spoiled and had a privileged upbringing, was used to getting her own way. Phyllis’ father walked out on her and her mother, and so her mother was forced to give piano lessons to support them. Everyone in town felt sorry for them; as they were quite poor. Nancy was overweight, ungainly and unattractive; Phyllis was kind of effortlessly beautiful, and their grandmother preferred Phyllis, constantly insulting Nancy and putting the two girls at odds with each. Mike Jordan, as mentioned above, is telling the story of the two cousins, and the murder of actor  Gilbert Jones, to his hostess, Lissa. As he gets to know both girls and they get older, the twisted relationship between the two girls becomes even more entangled and bitter and twisted, as they tend to keep falling in love with the same man. The story is fantastic, absolutely fantastic, and a master class in how to build suspense in a short story. Wow. Amazing.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Breakin’ (Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us)

I slept extremely well last night; my sleep has been better lately. It also rained last night, which didn’t hurt. Our bipolar weather is humid and in the sixties this week, heavy sigh, but it’s going to get cold again this weekend, of course. I have a three day holiday this weekend, so I am hoping to get a lot accomplished. Saturday is errands and cleaning and reading and some editing; Sunday and Monday will be primarily devoted to writing. I am sooooo behind, Constant Reader, sooooo behind–but I am not allowing it to cause me the stress it usually does. Instead, I am going to not worry about it, make to-do lists, and go from there, which only makes sense. If I focus on getting things done and ticking them off on the list, they’ll get done, right? And then I will feel accomplished.

Huzzah! Always try to find a positive way to look at things; that way you won’t get overwhelmed.

The Short Story Project continues, with yet another story from Troubled Daughters Twisted Wives, edited by Sarah Weinman. Next up in the book–which I can’t seem to either put down or step away from–is “Louisa, Please Come Home” by Shirley Jackson.

“Louisa,” my mothers voice came over the radio; it frightened me badly for a minute. “Louisa,” she said, “please come home. It’s been three long years since we saw you last; Louisa, I promise you that everything will be all right. We all miss you so. We want you back again. Louisa, please come home.”

Once a year. On the anniversary of the day I ran away. Each time I heard it I was frightened again, because between one year and the next I would forget what my mother’s voice sounded like, so soft and yet so strange with that pleading note. I listened every year. I read the stories in the newspapers–“Louisa Tether vanished one year ago”–or two years ago, or three; I used to wait for the twentieth of June as though it were my birthday. I kept all the clippings at first, but secretly; with my picture on all the front pages I would have looked kind of  strange if anyone had seen me cutting it out. Chandler, where I was hiding, was close enough to my old home so that the papers made a big fuss about all of it, but of course the reason I picked Chandler in the first place was because it was a big enough city for me to hide in.

Shirley Jackson is one of my favorite writers, as Constant Reader is undoubtedly–or should–be aware of by now. This story, which I’ve not read before, is strange, as all her stories are strange; interesting and unusual and unlike anything I’ve ever read before. Louisa tells the story of how she ran away; how she planned it carefully, and how she actually accomplished it, and did it all on the day before her sister’s wedding. Jackson lets us know what Louisa is like by showing us; that Louisa is painstaking and careful, and she also leaves parts of Louisa mysterious. We never know why Louisa decided to run away from her family and disappear; only that she did and how she did it, and how she very carefully created an entirely new life for herself in another city. She doesn’t miss her family, has no desire to go back, has no interest in how her disappearance may have impacted them. She is a method actress, in a way; the most interesting thing about Louisa is that when decides on a part to play, as she does every step of the way as she disappears, she becomes an entirely different person, to the point where her appearance even changes slightly. Someone from her old life eventually catches up to her, and this is where the Jackson macabre touch with a twist comes into play; the ending of this story is so real yet so bizarre and unforeseen that it stands as yet another example of Jackson’s genius.

And now, back to the spice mines. Here’s a hunk for you:

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Holiday

Tuesday night I tweeted my first creative writing professor in college told me I’d never get published. Over thirty novels later I’m still waiting for his first…

I tell this story a lot when I teach, or when I’m on panels. Over the last ten years or so, I’ve forgotten my professor’s name; when required I’ve called him Dr. Dixon, but I know that wasn’t his name. I did send him a copy of my first book, signed When you were my professor you told me I’d never get published. Looking forward to your first. Snarky and petty, yes, but I got a lot of satisfaction out of that. I don’t know if he remembered me (probably not) or if he even read the book (probably not), but it’s very important to remember that I was seventeen years old when Dr. Enema Nozzle said this to me. His exact words were, If you’re dream is to become an author, I’m afraid you’re going to have to find another dream because you’re never going to be published. What kind of DICK says that to a student? I mean, seriously. I had always done well with writing, all through school; classmates read my stories and loved them, as a sixteen year old taking Freshman Comp in college, on the first day we had to write one of those stupid essays about the three things you’d take with you if you were going to be stranded on a desert island, and why. That essay got me moved up from Basic Comp to Honors English, and here was a creative writing professor telling me that not only could I not write, but I would never be a writer. My writing was so bad there was nothing he could teach me to improve my craft; any time spent with me working on my writing was clearly a waste of his time. 

He also told me not to bother turning in another story that semester;

What a fucking asshole.

I didn’t stop writing; I was working on a novel at the time, but it did derail me for a long time. You see, like a fool I believed him. Why wouldn’t I? He was my teacher, an authority figure who, with his Ph.D, was supposed to know what he was talking about. I still wanted to be a writer, I still wanted to write–but from that moment on, I no longer believed that I could do it; that I could get published, or that my writing would ever be anything more than a hobby. I eventually dropped out of college, and took several years off. When I returned to school, I took another creative writing class, and this time the teacher was not only encouraging, he insisted that I send some of the stories I wrote for his class (I took it for two consecutive semesters) out to magazines for publication. I did try, but the stories were rejected. But I was starting to believe again. I tried again in the late 1980’s–always rejected, but I got good feedback from the editors. Those editors also encouraged me to keep writing and submitting, but I foolishly and naively believed they were just being nice…and I gave up trying again shortly thereafter.

Obviously, I eventually became a published author, but sometimes I wonder about the long-lasting effects on my psyche that professor caused. I often doubt my work and my abilities; whenever I get rejected it triggers a downward spiral of depression, and it’s part of the reason why I have always been so hesitant to try to get an agent. I am not secure enough, or emotionally healthy enough, or confident enough, to handle that  kind of rejection. I even wonder, now, as I think about revising that manuscript yet again, if I really need to revise it  again or if it’s just another way to delay, put off, sending it out to agents again.

Sigh.

I read another story in Sarah Weinman’s brilliant anthology Tortured Daughters, Twisted Wives, “A Nice Place to Stay” by Nedra Tyre.

All my life I’ve wanted a nice play to stay. I don’t mean anything grand. just a small room with the walls freshly painted and a few neat pieces of furniture and a window to catch the sun so that two or three pot plants could grow. That’s what I’ve always dreamed of. I didn’t yearn for love or money or nice clothes, though I was a pretty enough girl and pretty clothes would have made me prettier–not that I mean to brag.

Things fell on my shoulders when I was fifteen. That was when Mama took sick, and keeping house and looking after Papa and my two older brothers–and of course nursing Mama–became my responsibility. Not long after that Papa lost the farm and we moved to town. I don’t like to think of the house we lived in near the C & R railroad tracks, though I guess we were lucky to have a roof over our heads–it was the worst days of the Depression and a lot of people didn’t even have a roof, even one that leaked, plink, plonk; in a heavy rain there weren’t enough pots and pans and vegetable bowls to set around to catch all the water.

Sarah Weinman recommended Nedra Tyre to me several years ago; I found a copy of her Death of an Intruder on ebay and really enjoyed it. This short story is also exceptional; the main character is very plainspoken, and has a very matter-of-fact voice that makes the true horror of her actual story even more awful. While it is a crime story, it’s also about how awful life for women could be if they had no education or family and came from a poor background; this poor woman becomes basically homeless after her parents die, since her sisters-in-law won’t allow her to come live with them and the house is gone; she gradually takes jobs as caretakers for seriously ill people, because it will give her a place to live. Her matter-of-fact stories about what it’s like to be poor, homeless and hungry; how this drives her to dumpster dive for food or steal from grocery stores–always cherries or tomatoes that are overriped and no one would buy; wilted leaves off heads of lettuce and cabbage–is incredibly powerful. When a woman she is hired to care for dies after giving her a valuable heirloom, she is accused of theft and then is involved in the accidental death of a cop. She is convicted and send to jail…and even more awful, the jail is a nice play to stay. But then her conviction is overturned, and what is she going to do now?

What a great, chilling story–and what an incredible achievement in character! I think it’s terrible that Nedra Tyre is out of print, and her books are so rare and hard to find. She also published a lot of short stories;it would be great if someone would collect them all into an anthology.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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