Heavenly Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s One of Those Nights (Yes Love)

So, for today’s BSP about Bury Me in Shadows, I am going to talk about where the actual story that goes to the heart of the plot came from.

My grandmother was probably one of the biggest influences in my life, for both good and bad. I won’t talk about the bad—I was raised to believe you never bleed in public—and there was quite a bit of it; I didn’t speak to her the last thirteen or so years of her life. But the good was good, really. She loved old movies and passed that love of the glory days of Hollywood on to me; she always encouraged me to read and to be a writer; and she was the one who instilled in me my love for crime films and (to a lesser degree) horror ones—what she used to call “scary movies”; I watched The Haunting for the first time with her, and sometimes when I rewatch an old classic, like The Strange Love of Martha Ivers or The Letter, I remember watching it with her on the couch. She was also the one who introduced me to some authors I love, Victoria Holt (The Secret Woman) and Mary Stewart (The Ivy Tree), and she also encouraged my interest in history, which she also really enjoyed. She used to tell me stories about the past all the time when I was young—stories that at the time, and for most of my life, I remembered as being “family history” and was very surprised as an adult to find out they were fairly common legends and stories from all over the South, as well as from books and movies. In other words, none of the stories were true…but when I was thinking about this again the other day it occurred to me that it was entirely possible I was remembering it wrong—it was a long fucking time ago, after all, and my memory has been wrong before. It’s entirely possible she was just telling me stories, that I assumed were family histories…anyway, there were a lot of them, and when I was in college I started writing a lot of the ones I remembered down. They were often tales of blood and murder and crime; sometimes ghost stories.

The Lost Boys, the legend I used as the basis for the book’s background, is one of those stories.

And yes, bits and pieces of the story are apocryphal; sewn together by my grandmother into one story to entertain me.

Long story short: before the Civil War the county where my family comes from (again, not sure if this is true or not; the histories of the area I’ve read indicate that it’s not; so she either was weaving a story for me or I misunderstood the story or altered it in my memory as I got older) used to mostly belong entirely to one family—from which I am theoretically descended from (my grandmother also had a lot of delusions of grandeur)—and after the war, they lost nearly everything, except for a small tract of land that still remains in the family to this day. Anyway, the father and the oldest son went off to war, leaving his wife and two younger sons behind. The father was killed in the war. When the son came home after the war was over, the house had burned to the ground and there was no sign of wife or the two youngest sons anywhere; they’d vanished without a trace. No one ever knew what became of them; and the story, according to my grandmother, was that a deserting Union soldier burned the house and killed them (yes, the same story as appeared in Gone with the Wind, among others; my grandmother also told me another story about a Union deserter committing murder of a defenseless Southern woman—which I also turned into a short story that collects dust in my files), and that on or around the anniversary of their deaths, you could hear the younger boy calling for his mother in the woods near where the old house had been. Good stuff, right? I certainly thought so, and what a great basis for a story.

Of course, when I started researching the history of the county, none of this appeared to be true—the Union army never came any closer to the county than Tuscaloosa, for one, so the odds of a deserter making it all the way there on foot are pretty slim, and especially if no one else saw him—and of course, none of my ancestors owned most of the county. But it was a good story, even if not true, and I felt that writing about it could make for an interesting tale. My main character, Jake, is aware of the old family legend; he wrote a paper about it in high school, but doesn’t believe it’s anything more than a legend. I thought it would be cool to leave the ruins of the original house there, deep in the woods, far from the county road and the current domicile of the family, the crumbling house on the dirt road just off the county road. I also brought in a team of archaeologists from the University of Alabama, excavating the ruins—one of the few sites left that haven’t been excavated—and the professor leading the team, Dr. Brady (named after a historian friend), while intrigued and interested in the legend, isn’t trying to find proof one way or the other; he’s simply interested in what information about how the family lived can be unearthed.

The book is more than this, of course; but the Lost Boys legend was the starting point from which the rest of the book grew. I have a very complicated relationship with Alabama, to be honest; it’s my homeplace and I love the state. It’s stunningly beautiful. Even the poor rural county we came from is beautiful, with rolling hills and small mountains covered in pine forest, hollows filled with kudzu, muddy orange streams and rivers, riotously colored flowering bushes, and the air…oh, how wonderfully clean and fresh and pure the air smells. I love the orange dirt, and how round and smooth the gravel can be. The sky is a gorgeous cerulean, and of course, when it rains, it really rains. I can remember how still and heavy and damp the hot summer air was, the gnats and mosquitoes and dirt daubers and wasps and hornets and bees and horseflies. Whenever I stop as I drive through on my way somewhere else (usually Kentucky or Atlanta), I am always amazed at how lovely the young people are working in the small highway-side town’s fast food places. I remember screen doors with a coil so they’d always shut (or slam, if you just let go), and the big red Coca-Cola coolers with the bottle opener on the side in the general stores—and of course, the big old style Dr Pepper signs, that looked like a clock with only the numbers 10, 2 and 4—because that was the time for a Dr Pepper. (I also remember it was considered a cure-all when you were sick; just heat some Dr Pepper on the stove and add lemon; just like 7-Up was a cure for an upset stomach.)

But the state’s history– enslaved people, what happened to the indigenous tribes, Jim Crow, Selma, the institutionalized racism–is also deeply problematic. How does one write about the problematic history of the state? How do you point out how wrong all of that is without becoming preachy? I’ve often taken issue with white-written narratives about the pre-Civil Rights era in the South, as well as those set during that era and after; I remember reading one book where the heroine was doing research about the history of an incredibly racist town where a race-related murder had occurred, driven by the Klan–but focusing on the good, non-racist, non-Klan members of the town–what I call the see? We aren’t all bad take. I definitely didn’t want to write one of those stories. A few years back, I found a copy of a book I read when I was fairly young–it belonged to my uncle, actually–about the Civil Rights era in Alabama, called The Klansman by William Bradford Huie, whom I believe was actually a journalism professor at the University of Alabama…and it was different than I remembered, yet still chilling. I’m not sure what Huie was trying to do with the book, to be honest; the Klan sympathizers really came across badly, and even those who weren’t out and out members of the Klan were still racists who saw the Klan as a necessary “evil”–the sheriff couldn’t get elected without the support of the Klan, and he spends the book trying to walk the line between pleasing the Klan and not doing anything illegal…but you lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas. (I read it the same summer as I read To Kill a Mockingbird, which also belonged to my uncle; the two books are forever linked in my mind.)

Bury Me in Shadows may be many things, but it’s not a Lost Cause narrative, nor is it a “look at the nice white saviors” novel, either.

And I think that’s enough about that for today.

Somebody Wants to Love You

I still feel a little bit disoriented, to be honest. I have to stop and think about what day it is–wait, it’s Friday, right?–and then have to check my phone (blessedly charged now, thank heavens) to see the day and date. I had posted something on my phone the other day about the misery of late August in New Orleans without power, and my friend Leslie commented, good thing it’s September now–which sent me into a tailspin of panic and fear (which was certainly not her intent) about paying the bills. I knew I was ahead on paying them, but couldn’t remember if I had paid everything and couldn’t check my Google calendar to be certain…which was one of the first things I did when we got all settled in last night. Apparently, I was even more efficient than I’d remembered–I’d paid almost everything except two credit cards (not due until next week) and in fact, other than those two, nothing is due again until I get paid again. Quite marvelous, to be honest; money has been such a stress factor for the last few years that I’d forgotten what it was like to be ahead on everything–which is always my preferred state.

And once I post this, I have about a gazillion emails to get through, try to figure out where I am with things, and then I can completely relax. This motel has a nice continental breakfast set up (only from 6-9 in the morning though) so I had to slink down there this morning to grab two cups of coffee before they closed down. It’s not the best coffee by any means, but it’s coffee–and I’ve not had any since this past Sunday. I didn’t sleep great–getting used to a bed that is not my own is always an issue whenever I travel–but I rested, which makes all the difference in the world. There’s an all-staff phone call at noon today that I obviously am going to try to get in on.

I checked with Entergy this morning as well, and there’s not even a rough estimate of when we’ll have power at the once again Lost Apartment. Heavy sigh. But that’s okay; I don’t know how long we’re going to be wandering this time but at least this time there’s definitely an end to it in sight; we were out of the Lost Apartment for 15 months (which, for those of you who are new here, is why I started calling it the Lost Apartment in the first place; we’d just moved into it like two months before Katrina from the much smaller carriage house before we lost the apartment for over a year); this time won’t be anything like that, thank God. Currently, our fluid plan is to drive back to New Orleans on Sunday, see what’s up, drop off the dirty clothes and repack with clean ones, and head back out again if we need to. We obviously don’t want to come all the way back up here to Greenville, but hopefully with Labor Day over we can possibly stay somewhere closer to home, like Biloxi or Gulfport. (And I can make those arrangements here before we check out Sunday morning, while I still have WiFi.) Ah, well. At least we have the privilege to do these things–other people don’t have credit cards or savings accounts or a working car or any of the myriad of little things you need to get out of town. And we can watch the LSU game Saturday, which is also terrific. GEAUX TIGERS!

I only brought two books with me–Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Six Days of the Condor by James Grady–but I do have the iPad–so I can always read the shit ton of books I’ve bought on sale for my Kindle over the years but never seem to get around to. I did get over my aversion to reading electronically during the early days of the pandemic, when I couldn’t focus on reading new things so I went back and reread some old Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt favorites; that cured me of not reading electronically (but it’s still not my preference, thank you very much). I also want to transcribe the short story I started writing in my journal that last Saturday night we had power (“Parlor Tricks”), and maybe work on Chlorine a bit. It will probably take me HOURS to get through all the emails that have accumulated, but that’s fine. Paul got up for breakfast, and he and Scooter went back to sleep shortly thereafter, so I have some definite down/quiet time here for a while. I had thought I had started blog entries already for the books I had read during the week, but had not–so am not sure when I will be able to get around to writing about those wonderful books; but you can be sure I will at some point–even though I don’t have the books with me for reference, and of course, my memory–already shot to pieces–is never very good after a catastrophe.

A lot of people have been recommending the Bates House of Turkey as a place to eat here; so we’ll be checking that out at some point. The only other options are fast food–blech–but we are going to need to eat and what choice do we have? I can always, once normality has been restored to New Orleans, hit the gym really hard. The wake of catastrophes are always good times for my body, really; as my body is something I can control (to a point, of course) I inevitably, when reminded that I don’t really have much control over my life and my destiny, tend to focus in on the things that I can control; my body being one of those things. Paul and I really do need to eat healthier–we ain’t getting any younger, hello sixty year old Gregalicious!–and the irony was the night I had dinner with Ellen Byron at Red Gravy (it seems like a million years ago, hello again, complete loss of any sense of time) was the first time I had worn a Polo style shirt since before the pandemic, and I was stunned at how the shirt fit–how big my chest, shoulders and arms looked; how much narrower my waist had become, just with the mostly half-assed workouts I had been doing. It felt nice, if you don’t mind my confessing to my own vanity–so if I actually started eating healthier….who knows?

And on that note, it’s time to head back into the spice mines and try to get on top of the email situation. Will check in again with you soon, Constant Reader, and have a lovely Friday!

Salvation Theme

Reading has always been my escape from the realities of the cruel, cold world. As long as I can remember, I found solace in books–I could always open a book and escape from realities I didn’t want to participate in, or when the world became too much, there was always the comfort of a story about other people and another world where I could go to get away from it all.

When I was a kid, I was more interested in stories about women and girls than I was in stories about boys; I couldn’t really relate to boys as easily as I did to girls. This was, I think, a part of the strict gender divide in the society and culture I was born into; there were specific and clear differences between things for boys and things for girls. Girls played at housekeeping and mothering; boys were supposed to be outdoorsy and adventurous and active. I was not an outdoorsy, adventurous, active little boy; all I wanted to do was be left alone with a book–and the more my parents tried to get me interested in boy things the harder I stubbornly resisted. I never understood why it was so wrong that all I ever wanted to do was read.

I think that part of the reason I’ve always preferred books by and about women are because I can relate to them more, if that makes sense. As someone who never became vested in what society viewed as what masculine behavior is, those behaviors–not always necessarily toxic, but certainly steeped in it–inevitably make me lose interest in the character and their story.

Likewise, one of the reasons I preferred Mary Stewart to Victoria Holt and Phyllis A. Whitney (still love Holt and Whitney, though) is because her heroines weren’t passive; they didn’t sit still for being victimized or playing the victim but rather took charge of the situation and were just as capable as any man. This is why one of my favorite fictional series characters of all time were those created by the great Elizabeth Peters: Jacqueline Kirby and Vicky Bliss were also take-charge characters who didn’t suffer fools gladly, and of then there’s her creation who may be my favorite series character of all time: Amelia Peabody. God, how I love Amelia Peabody. Peters’ death was a blow for me; knowing there would be no more books with Peabody and Emerson and Ramses and Nofret and Walter and Evelyn and David….

But then I had the enormous good fortune to discover Mary Russell.

I sat back in y chair, jabbed the cap onto my pen, threw it into the drawer, and abandoned myself to the flood of satisfaction, relief, and anticipation that was let loose by that simple action. The satisfaction was for the essay whose last endnote I had just corrected, the distillation of several months’ hard work and my first effort as a mature scholar: It was a solid piece of work, ringing true and clear on the page. The relief I felt was not for the writing, but for the concomitant fact that, thanks to my preoccupation, I had survived the compulsory Christmas revels, a fete which ha reached a fever pitch in this, the last year of my aunts controls of what she saw as the family purse. The anticipation was for the week of freedom before me, one entire week with neither commitments nor responsibilities, leading up to y twenty-first birthday and all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto. A small but persistent niggle of trepidation tried to make itself known, but I forestalled it by standing up and going to the chest of drawers for clothing.

My aunt was, strictly speaking, Jewish, but she had long ago abandoned her heritage and claimed with all the enthusiasm of a convert the outward forms of cultural Anglicanism. As a result, her idea of Christmas tended heavily toward the Dickensian and Saxe-Gothan. Her final year as my so-called guardian was coincidentally the first year since the Great War ended to see quantities of unrationed sugar, butter, and meat, which meant the emotional excesses had been compounded by culinary ones. I had begged off most of the revelry, citing the demands of the paper, but with my typewriter fallen silent, I had no choice but crass and immediate flight. I did not have to think about y choice of goals–I should begin at the cottage of my friend and mentor, my tutor, sparring partner and comrade-in-arms, Sherlock Holmes. Hence my anticipation. Hence my trepidation.

I first encountered Mary Russell last year when I read the first of her adventures with Holmes, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, which took place over several years and was really a loosely connected series of different stories that showed the growing bond between the teenaged girl and the retired detective. Her wit, her style, her fierce intelligence–and her refusal to be a sidekick or passive made me fall madly in love with her–despite my long-held antipathy towards Sherlock Holmes. (I have since read more of Doyle, and find the antipathy I once felt fading; in no small part, I think, because last year I had to write my own spin on Holmes and Watson, which really changed everything I thought, felt, and believed about them.) I’m not sure what made me select the second Mary Russell to read recently; I do intend to read them all, of course, but there are sixteen or so (!) of them, and then there are King’s stand alones, and I’d also love to revisit her Kate Martinelli series, which is how I first came to read King in the first place. But I digress.

A Monstrous Regiment of Women is, of course, a terrific title; and I knew, of course, the source for it: the tedious Scot religious bigot John Knox’s 1550’s pamphlet primarily attacking Queen Mary I of England (aka Mary Tudor), “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women,” in which he blamed the sad state of Christendom at the time at the irreligious and unprecedented amount of women in power at that time in Europe–and, as I have said many times before, the sixteenth century had more powerful women running countries than any century before or since (and I’ve always wanted to write a history of that century, focusing on those women, and using that very same title King used here). So, going into the book, and knowing that Mary was studying theology at Oxford in the latter half of the first book, I assumed (correctly) that this book would have religion, and women, at its heart, so I sat down with the book rather eagerly.

It did not disappoint.

The book opens, as noted above, around Christmas time, just before Mary finally achieves her majority and comes into the inheritance her benighted aunt/guardian has been enjoying herself with since Mary’s family perished in an auto accident when she was fourteen. Rather the celebrate the holiday with her aunt and the aunt’s hangers-on, Mary escapes the house and goes in search of her old comrade, Holmes. This leads her to London and an encounter with a friend from earlier in her education at Oxford, which in turn leads her to the New Temple of God and its leader, Margery Childe–charismatic, suffragette, and also a religious mystic. (I was put in mind of Aimee Semple McPherson, who has always fascinated me and I’ve always kind of wanted to write about.) But there’s something unholy going on at the New Temple, and perspicacious Mary can’t quite put her finger on what’s wrong there–but it intrigues her and she gets deeper and deeper into what’s going on there.

There’s also a switch-up in the dynamic between her and Holmes in this book, but it is also to King’s credit that the groundwork for this was laid almost from the very beginning of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, and it neither seems out of place or untoward, either for the story or the characters–and despite the awkwardness this change-up creates between the two of them in their all-too-brief encounters in the story (for make no mistake about it; this is clearly Mary’s story, and Holmes no more than a supporting player on this stage), it makes sense and it also answers one of the questions the first book aroused in me; how can King keep writing about this opposite-sex pair through an entire series without the question of chaperoning and so forth not coming up, or them simply remaining good friends while the deep and growing affection between them is so plainly right there on the page?

The writing is masterful and intelligent, and the story–with its interesting twists and turns, along with some exciting ventures along some of the more disreputable sections of London–is so well paced and plotted that you simply cannot put the book down. I was, quite literally, only on chapter three when I picked the book up again yesterday morning; within moments I was a captive of King’s magic and completely incapable of putting the book down–to the point that I resented having to take breaks to get coffee or go to the restroom or feed the cat. I had decided, when I sat down with the book, that I had to stop reading at noon so I could get back to my own manuscript. Noon came and went, and still I kept reading. At one I flipped to the back to see how many more pages were left, and decided that it was ridiculous and incomprehensible to stop reading so close to the end, and I wouldn’t be able to completely focus on my own while I was so worried about how Mary was going to escape the peril in which King had placed her. So…rationalizing if I don’t finish my own editing today I can always finish tomorrow I plowed forward.

And–without spoilers–I will say King did an incredibly accurate and chilling depiction of how drug addiction takes hold of people.

She also explores the question of women’s role in the Christian religion beautifully, weaving these theological questions and issues seamlessly into the narrative. Each chapter begins with a quote about just that–either from the Bible or the great Christian philosophers, exposing the vicious misogyny that has poisoned that faith almost from the very beginning.*

I loved this book, loved loved loved it, and am really looking forward to the next, A Letter of Mary.

If you’ve not yet started this series, wait no more.

*I also made note of these quotes so I can shamelessly use them myself!

All You Had to Do Was Stay

Well, we survived yet another week, Constant Reader, and here we are on Saturday morning. Huzzah! Congratulations–I do think even such small accomplishments definitely need to be rewarded in this year of Our Lord 2020.

It rained yesterday while I was making condom packs, and I just rewatched the LSU-Georgia game from last year–the SEC title game–because, well, frankly because after watching Fright Night on Thursday I was kind of not in the mood to watch any more horror, at least not yesterday; Fright Night was so disappointing I allowed that to carry over into another day (April Fool’s Day from last week was also disappointing).

This has been a very strange week; one of low energy, regularly occurring irritations and concerns and stressors, among other things. I finally got that damned essay revised and approved by the editor (thank you baby Jesus) and now today I intend to whip that short story into shape, work on a chapter of the book, and get some cleaning and organizing done around here. I’ve also found myself not on social media nearly as much as I used to be, and it’s really not a bad thing, after all. Sure, engaging with friends from across the country, commiserating about the slog of writing, etc. is often fun and satisfying, but emotionally there’s so much nastiness and negativity in the world that seems to take over so much of it that I don’t really miss being there nearly as much as I thought I might; I kind of miss the days when my feed mostly consisted of people taking pictures of their food or asking for recommendations for things to watch or read. I found a lot of terrific books and TV shows and films from my social media feeds; but now they are so emotionally and intellectually exhausting that I am not really terribly sure that I want to spend more time there than i have been lately.

The bloom is rather off that rose, as it were.

And yet another example of how and why we can’t have anything nice.

I slept marvelously last night; I even slept later than usual this morning, which was equally lovely. I do feel rested as I swill my coffee this morning, and I am currently working on backing up my back -up hard drive to the cloud, so that everything recent is kind of there. (I have done back-ups before, so I really don’t need to back-up anything past a certain date from the back-up hard drive, really; something i just realized, which means I don’t really need to spend as much time with it as I have been; I really only need to back up things from the last few months or so because it all should have already been backed up to the cloud already.) I’m still a bit foggy this morning as I type this, but the caffeine will eventually turn the trick and I’ll be ready to go tackle the revision of “The Snow Globe,” before preparing to take on the book again. LSU doesn’t play until six tonight, which gives me the entire day to write and read and clean and organize. Tomorrow morning will be my “try to answer all my emails” morning, before moving on to writing again. I want to read some more short stories this weekend–I may even move back into the Reread Project; I’ve had a hankering for a reread of Christine ever since I rewatched the film recently, and there are any number of Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney classics loaded into my iPad for me to reread quite easily; I actually queued up Sara the other night–why not reread one of my own, particularly my only previous Kansas book; particularly since I need to be certain I am not reusing character names from it in the new one–and I’ve also need to be certain that I am making time to write going forward.

Writing (and reading) really needs to become more of a priority in my life again.

I have been thinking about writing–whether in short or long form, I have yet to decide–about the yellow fever epidemics in New Orleans. The worst one was in 1853, when one in fifteen died; but the last was in 1905. (Bubonic plague paid a visit less than ten years later, something I noted in my Sherlock story “The Affair of the Purloined Rentboy”) I particularly like the note that people actually believed that yellow fever was spread by miasma, pollution in the air, or foul odors (they hadn’t discovered that mosquitoes spread it yet) and so they used to occasionally fire a cannon during fever season in an attempt to clear/clean the air. As always, the epidemics primarily targeted the poor, the enslaved, and the immigrant populations of the city; the wealthy used to abandon the city for their country estates or visiting relatives when it was fever season (little known fact: the reputation of Marie Laveau was primarily earned because she worked as a volunteer nurse during epidemics and never became ill herself; people began to believe this was further proof of her supernatural powers). It’s also really interesting to me that where the campus of the University of New Orleans sits now used to be a lake resort area called Milneburg; people used to catch the train at Elysian Fields and Esplanade to ride out there to catch the gentle breezes and experience the cooler air on the lakefront, renting little cabins out there as a vacation of sorts. I am very interested in New Orleans in the period between the Spanish-American War and the first world war; I also recognize that the period is one that most historians love and history fans love to read about, as it was the heyday of Storyville. But in fairness, all of the twentieth century in New Orleans is interesting to me, much more so than the previous centuries. I do have an idea for another Sherlock story or novella having to do with Storyville, based on an actual true story; “The Mother of Harlots” about the murder of a Storyville madam whom I have running a bordello called Babylon–my fictional Mrs. Fournier was the kind of women who embraced the sin of what she was doing and made sure everyone knew it, yet at the same time she had a very secret–and respectable–life with a daughter she was trying to pass off to society (there actually was a madam who did this very thing!), which, on its face, is the perfect set up for a murder, don’t you think?

I also want to set one in Milneburg, but I don’t have anything other than the Sherlockian title of “A Scandal in Milneburg”, which doesn’t really thrill me. I don’t see the need for me to parody Holmes canon titles, really; I can certainly mimic the style of the titles, as I did with the one I already wrote and sold. It’s interesting how writing that story has fired up my imagination as far as Holmes and Watson is concerned–I’ve written before about not being a huge fan of the stories–but actually writing about them has whetted my appetite to keep giving my own spin on the two characters, and I genuinely liked Watson as I wrote through his point of view.

Who would have ever thought I would come to the fandom by actually writing about them? Interesting, isn’t it?

And on that note I am heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader!

To Step Aside

AH, hello, Thursday, how are you doing?

Yesterday was a good day, despite paying the bills. I worked from home, made a lot of condom packs, and had some lovely, lovely phone calls. I also remembered why I stopped talking on the phone–I can talk for hours, and now that I used the headphones and can actually hear, yes, well, pity the poor fools I called to talk to yesterday. I talked endlessly.

The telephone–cell phone, whatever–is really a marvelous invention, truly.

See? Even a tired old Luddite like me can adapt and change and learn some new tricks.

We started watching a German series, Dark, last night on Netflix. It’s really quite good, even if we’re really not sure after one episode what it’s about. I suspected Germans would be particularly good with dark suspense shows, and the German language, as I said to Paul last night, is perfect for that creepiness because it’s such a guttural language. My German is so rusty as to be non-existent anymore, despite the years spent studying and learning it, but I was able to pick up a word every now and then. I was reading an article the other day that said the easiest way to learn another language was to watch a show in that language with English subtitles–that way you learn pronunciations and the rhythm of the language, and then watch shows in English with subtitles in that language–so you read the words in German while hearing them in English. It’s an interesting idea, and I’ve always regretted losing my German, so maybe I’ll give it a try. I tried learning Italian last year with Duolingo, and was doing their short lessons one per day, but then got behind during Carnival and never caught up. I’d love to be able to at least understand some Italian or German, in case we ever go to Europe ever again, but laziness and a lack of time will undoubtedly hold me back.

I’ve also slept well every night this week, which is lovely and undoubtedly a product of the lower levels of caffeine in my system every day. (I’ve probably jinxed it and that bitch Insomnia will probably return this evening.) But it’s lovely, and feeling actually rested this many days in a row has been wonderful. The Lost Apartment is also looking better, as I am trying to get the clutter decluttered and the house better organized. I’ve also decided to slowly begin to cull the books; it’s not easy and frequently, far too frequently, I will pull a book off the shelves, put it back, take it down, and so on and so forth for much longer than it needs to go on. But it’s also silly to keep hard copies of books I have electronically, no matter how much I may cherish the actual physical copy (it’s so much easier to take a book down off the shelf and page through it, find a scene I enjoy, and reread it; but I am also not doing that nearly as much as I used to and really, these books can find better, more deserving homes).

And the older I get, the far less likely it is that I will ever write the exploratory essays or non-fiction books to study a particular style of book/subgenre/writing. I’ve always wanted to do an in-depth look at the style and themes frequently explored in Gothics/romantic suspense novels; beginning with the Bronte sisters, Victoria Holt and Phyllis A. Whitney. But the truth is there isn’t a market for that, really, and while it may be interesting to me, I don’t know that it would be interesting to readers. I’m also not an academic writer in any way shape or form; a bunch of literary writers did a live watch of the Anthony Minghella film of The Talented Mr. Ripley and while following it was interesting, a lot of the commentary was about things I never noticed in my many viewings of the film; themes and symbolism and so forth. Which, of course, is why I don’t write criticism; I always rolled my eyes in Lit classes when we studied these things and the professor would so condescendingly ‘explain’ the work to us; I’ve always rebelled against the academy and its mindset and how it tried to teach us how to re-learn how to read. Sure, I could play the game once I intuited what the professor was looking for in our essays and get good grades–I am, after all, a writer at heart and always have been–but as an adult and one who no longer needs to suck up to a professor and toe the line they’ve set for a grade, I have no desire to revisit that methodology and ruin the reading experience for myself–I don’t need to write lengthy articles delving into the themes and symbolism and so forth in fiction to publish for free in academic journals in order to get tenure; so why on earth would I waste my time doing so?

I write enough for free as it is, and every year I make the determination that I will stop–but inevitably, it always seems to happen anyway.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines for me. Have a lovely Thursday, Constant Reader, be safe and may all your dreams come true.

All Over the World

One of the most popular tropes in, for want of a better word, women’s fiction from the mid-twentieth century through the 1980’s was the tale of the governess, ripped off and/or inspired from the mother of all governess novels, Jane Eyre. Victoria Holt returned to this well repeatedly, from her first novel Mistress of Mellyn through many others, including The King of the Castle. I even believe her heroine in On the Night of the Seventh Moon returned to the little German principality where she experienced whatever it was she experienced as a teenager as a governess to a young heir of the royal house; but it’s been years since I read the book so could easily be mistaken. Even the classic camp/horror soap Dark Shadows featured a governess as its young romantic lead, Victoria Winters. (Honey in the Trixie Belden series also has a governess, Miss Trask.) I don’t think there is such a job as governess anymore, or really, paid companions; I suspect everything like that, including private secretary, now falls under the title “personal assistant”, while the young women who were previously governesses are now “nannies.”

I could be wrong. It’s not like I know a lot of people who can afford either.

But for the genre known as “romantic suspense” (and I grudgingly include Mary Stewart in this genre; I think she was a terrific suspense writer more than anything else; and while her books did include some bits of romance they were never the driving force of the story–as I’ve said before, they sometimes seemed to be tacked on, to please publishers and readers and reviewers) the governess was an extremely popular trope, and very much Jane Eyre pastiches; inevitably she was young, orphaned and had nowhere to call home, making the job of the utmost importance. Inevitably the master of the house, who was borderline abusive to  her (definitely was in Jane Eyre) eventually was won over by her quiet beauty, charm and devotion to his child, fell in love with and/or married her, which inevitably put her life in some kind of danger–and she had to mistrust and fear that her husband, for some reason, wanted to kill her.

Mary Stewart took that trope and blew it to smithereens in Nine Coaches Waiting.

nine coaches waiting copy

I was thankful that nobody was there to meet me at the airport.

We reached Paris just as the light was fading. It had been a soft, gray March day, with the smell of spring in the air. The wet tarmac glistened underfootl over the airfield the sky looked very high, rinsed by the afternoon’s rain to a pale clear blue. Little trails of soft cloud drifted in the wet wind, and a late sunbeam touched them with a fleeting underglow. And beyond the airport buildings the telegraph wires swooped gleaming above the road where passing vehicles showed lights already.

Some of the baggage was out on the tarmac. I could see my own shabby case wedged between a brand new Revrobe and something huge and extravagant in cream-colored hide. Mine had been a good case once, good solid leather stamped deeply with Daddy’s initials, now half hidden under the new label smeared by London’s rain. Miss L. Martin, Paris. Symbolic, I thought, with an amusement that twisted a bit awry somewhere inside me. Miss L. Martin, Paris, trudging along the tarmac between a stour man in impeccable city clothes and a beautiful American girl with a blond mink coat slung carelessly over a suit that announced discreetly that she had been to Paris before, and recently. I myself must have just that drab, seen-better-days shabbiness that Daddy’s old case had, dumped there among the sleek cabin-class luggage.

But I was here, home after nine years. Nine years. More than a third of my lifetime.

And so we meet Melinda Martin, called Linda by everyone. Her father was English and her mother French; she was born and raised in Paris and after her parents were unfortunately killed when she was in her early teens she was sent to an English orphanage. She is fluent in both English and French, and after aging out of the orphanage, one of the women who took a charitable interest in the place helped her get a job she hated at a boys’ boarding school–but when Madame de Valmy was looking for an English girl to be her nephew’s governess, the woman remembered Linda and recommended her. During the interview it became clear to Linda that the Valmys were looking for an English girl who would only speak in English to the nephew, a nine year old who’d inherited the ancestral estate as well as the title of Comte de Valmy; desperate for the job and desperate to get back to Paris, Linda allows Madame Heloise to mistakenly believe she doesn’t speak French–and is worried she’ll slip and betray herself, and get fired. She arrives at the imposing Chateau Valmy, and also as governess finds herself in that weird in-between where she is not a member of the family but isn’t considered one of the regular servants, either. The young comte, Philippe, who usually lives with a different uncle who has been called away for a lecture series in Greece as well as to work on a dig there (Hippolyte is an archaeologist) is very subdued, clearly afraid of his disabled uncle Leon (Leon is a dynamic personality Linda comes to think of as Lucifer after the fall–later in the book she calls him the King of Demons), handsome and strong and confined to a wheelchair after a car accident. Heloise is his wife, and he has one son from a previous marriage, Raoul, who runs Bellevigne, a chateau with a vineyard and winery, for his father. There are three family estates, each of which was left to one of the three brothers; young Philippe is the only child of the eldest brother and so the title and the vast ancestral estate belongs to him; Leon merely serves as his trustee.

Linda manages to navigate her confusing place in the chateau with the remarkable aplomb all Stewart heroines are blessed with; these are strong young women more than capable of taking care of themselves in a man’s world, and these women are courageous and smart. When Linda realizes her young charge is in danger–someone is trying to kill him because of the complexities of the Valmy inheritance–she has no problem whatsoever in taking the child out of the house in the middle of the night and venturing out into the woods in a desperate attempt to keep him safe until his uncle Hippolyte returns–the next day, which leads the plot against the boy to amp up. The journey to safety–and not knowing who she can and cannot trust–cranks the suspense way up, until the denouement when all is revealed and the truth comes out, with the young boy safe and Linda in the arms of the man she has fallen in love with–but couldn’t be certain whether or not was involved in the plot to kill the child. Stewart manages to make it all seem absolutely real, and once Linda and Philippe were in the woods it was hard to look away.

This book is peak Stewart at the top of her game–and that is truly saying something. I am looking forward to rereading her other novels even more so now than i was before.

He Stopped Loving Her Today

I put off making a grocery run from Saturday to Sunday, like a fool, only to discover the Baronne Street Rouse’s closed for Easter this year; I decided not to go to the one in Uptown because I didn’t feel like driving all the way down there only to find out the drive had been in vain. I did stop at the gas station–filled it up for slightly more than fifteen dollars, something that’s never happened since I bought the thing–and then at Walgreens to get a few things I could get there. It was weird navigating the empty streets of New Orleans; I was reminded very much of that time post-Katrina when I came back and most of the city was empty. I itched to turn stop lights into stop signs–and at one point did stop at a stop sign and wait for it to change. It was weird, very weird–the vast emptiness of streets that are usually filled with cars and seeing more people than the beggars at the intersections. Had the stop lights not have been working, the similarities would have been even eerier.

And of course, people were going through red lights and ignoring all rules of traffic, because they clearly were the only people our driving. #cantfixtrash

I managed to eke out another thousand words on the Sherlock story,  and I was enormously pleased to make some sort of progress.  It’s very weird because I am trying out the Doyle voice and style–which I am neither familiar with nor used to–which makes the going perhaps slower than it ordinarily would be. At least I hope that’s the case, at any rate; it’s been so long since I’ve actually written anything or worked on anything and gotten anywhere with it, I sometimes fear that I’ve fallen out of the habit and practice of writing. (I always worry the ability to write–the ability to create–is going to go away and leave me, particularly in time of crisis; my reaction to the Time of Troubles, sadly, wasn’t to retreat into my writing but rather to stop almost entirely.)

Yesterday was rather delightful; the entire weekend was lovely. It’s always nice to get rest, to sleep well, to be able to read and occasionally do some writing. I am very deep into Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting and, while I do distinctly remember enjoying the book when I read it, I am loving it more than I would have thought (as I have with the other recent Stewart rereads); perhaps as a writer myself and an older person, it resonates more? I can appreciate the artistry more? I don’t know, but I am really glad I decided to revisit Stewart novels I’ve not read in decades again. I just can’t get over how she brilliantly she undercuts the governess/Jane Eyre trope, and how easily she does it. Truly remarkable. I also finished it before bed, and it’s marvelous, simply marvelous–and will be the subject of another blog post.

We started watching Devs on Hulu last night, which people have been raving about, and while I give it a lot of props for production values…it moved so slowly I kept checking my social media on my iPad. It was vaguely interesting, sort of, but we just couldn’t get vested in it–there was a bit of a show-offy nature to it; like they were going overboard in saying see how good we are? We’re an important show and we’re going to win all the Emmys. I doubt we’ll go back to it, especially since Killing Eve is back, and Dead to Me is coming back for its second season; something else we watch was also returning relatively soon, too–and of course, I just remembered I pay for CBS All Access; not sure why, but there are some shows on there I’d like to watch, like the new Star Trek shows and Jordan Peele’s reboot of The Twilight Zone. (But you see what I’m saying about paying too much for too many streaming services? I really need to pay more attention to that, and one of these days I’m going to need to sit down, figure out what we need and what we don’t need, and cut some of these services off once and for all.

I think my next reread for the Reread Project is going to be the first in Elizabeth Peters’ amazing Amelia Peabody series, Crocodile on the Sandbank. There’s an Amelia Peabody fan account on Twitter (@teamramses) that I follow; they usually post quotes from the books and occasionally run polls, and they also reminded me of how I discovered the series. I originally found it on the wire rack (when I replied to the tweet, I got it wrong; I said I found it on the paperback rack at Walgreens; wrong drug store chain) of paperbacks at a Long’s drugstore in Fresno. I was still deep in the thrall of Victoria Holt, Phyllis A. Whitney, and Mary Stewart at the time, and here was another romantic suspense novel SET IN EGYPT, by an author I didn’t know. I absolutely loved the book, and looked for more books by Elizabeth Peters the next time I went to Waldenbooks at the mall–but they didn’t have any, and eventually I forgot about her. Flash forward many years, and a title of a new paperback on the new releases rack at Waldenbooks and More jumped out at me: The Last Camel Died at Noon. What a great title! I had to buy it, took it home, and started reading it….and you can imagine my delight, and joy, to discover that Crocodile on the Sandbank was not, in fact, a stand alone, but rather the first in a series I was bound to love. I went back and started the series over from the beginning, collecting them all, and I also started buying them as new releases in hardcover because I couldn’t wait for the paperback. It might not actually be a bad idea to revisit the entire series…I also think The Last Camel Died at Noon (it’s still one of my favorite titles of all time) was when I discovered Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels were both the pseudonyms of archaeologist Dr. Barbara Mertz, and I went on a delightful period of reading all of their backlists as well.

One of my biggest regrets of my writing career–in which I’ve met so many of my writing heroes–is that I was never able to meet Dr. Mertz before she died. She was going to be the guest of honor at the first Malice Domestic I attended, but she was too ill and she died shortly thereafter. But one thing I learned, from reading all of her books–but especially the Peters novels–was that humor can work in a suspense/mystery novel, and can make a reader engage even more with it. Dr. Mertz was also a master of the great opening line. In one of the Vicky Bliss novels, for example–I think Silhouette in Scarlet–opens with this treasure: “I swear, this time it was not my fault.”

And while I have been cleared to return to work today, my failure in deciding to wait until Easter to go to the grocery store, as well as forgetting an integral and necessary part to my working at home today at the office over a week ago means that I decided to use today as a vacation day, and try to get all the remaining loose odds and ends (mail, groceries) taken care of today, and return to the actual office tomorrow. (I am going to do the windows today if it kills me.) Yesterday we were supposed to have bad thunderstorms, and while the air got thick and heavy, it never actually rained here–although the rest of Louisiana was blasted with these same storms that somehow chose to avoid New Orleans–there were even tornadoes in Monroe.

The weirdest thing to come out of this whole experience has been my sudden, new addiction to my Kindle app on my iPad, which has me thinking that I can do a massive purge/cull  of my books now, keeping only the ones I can’t replace, if needed, as ebooks. I’ve avoided reading electronically for so long, but I find with my Kindle app I can just put the iPad to the side for a little while and pick it up again when I have a moment or so to read. I tore through all the Mary Stewart novels I’ve reread recently on the Kindle app, and that’s where my copy of Crocodile on the Sandbank is. I doubt that I’m going to get rid of all my books any time soon–there are still some I want to keep, obviously, and it’s not like I can afford right now to go to the Amazon website or the iBooks one and replace everything right now anyway…but then again, I think, you’d only need replace them when you’re ready to read them, right?

I am literally torn here.

And on that note, I am going to head into the spice mines. I made some great progress on the Sherlock story–it now clocks in at over two thousand words, and I’d like to get a working first draft finished, if not today, then before the weekend so I can edit it and the other story that’s due by the end of the month as well over the course of the weekend. April is beginning to slip through my fingers, and while I am still not completely certain of what day it is every day, I’m getting better about figuring it all out.

Have a lovely Monday, Constant Reader.

gabe2kepler

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.

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I was tagged awhile back in one of those post seven covers of books you love with no explanation things on Facebook, so I obliged, and even tweeted the covers.

I love nothing more than sharing information or titles or covers of books I love; the problem is, as always, narrowing the list down to just seven. I’ve read (and loved) thousands of books over the course of my life (I kind of wish I’d actually kept track or logged them somehow, because the completist in me wants to know the actual number), and for this round I decided to go with suspense novels written by women that I read when I was in high school or younger; women authors who might not be as well remembered as they perhaps should be (although, in fairness, Sarah Weinman and Jeffrey Marks have both done an excellent job of preserving some of these women writers; I went with the ones considered domestic suspense first, then switched and finished with romantic suspense).

The books I chose are: Mischief by Charlotte Armstrong; The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes; The Fiend by Margaret Millar; The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart; The Secret Woman by Victoria Holt; Listen for the Whisperer by Phyllis A. Whitney; and An Afternoon Walk by Dorothy Eden.

Holt, Eden, and Whitney are generally forgotten today when female crime writers of the past are discussed; only recently have the names of the amazing triad of  Millar, Armstrong, and Hughes gone through a sort of renaissance. (Stewart isn’t as forgotten as Holt, Eden and Whitney; nor is she enjoying the same sort of renaissance as Millar, Armstrong and Hughes. More’s the pity in all four cases, frankly; the books might seem dated today, but they are excellent time capsules for the era in which they were written, and all seven women deserve better.) All seven women were fantastic writers, and the books I recommended are simply a starting place. Case in point: Victoria Holt’s The Secret Woman was the first of hers I’d read, so it always holds place of honor for me; but if pressed to name a favorite I would go with On the Night of the Seventh Moon, simply because it’s plot was almost completely insane–and she pulled it off. As I have said in previous entries, I also revisited Kirkland Revels lately, one of the few earlier works of hers I’ve not read multiple times–and frankly, it was kind of a revelation in how well it’s done.

I’ve also been revisiting Armstrong lately–well, over the last five or six years or so; undoubtedly since Sarah Weinman reminded me of her existence, and her importance to my developing crime fan mind as a kid–and I’ve focused primarily on reading the works of hers I hadn’t already read. Her Edgar-winning A Dram of Poison is actually one of the more charming suspense novels I’ve ever read; it was dark, of course, but had such a warm, optimistic heart that you couldn’t help but smile as a ragtag group of people tried to track down a lost olive oil bottle filled with poison.

I do want to reread Millar’s The Fiend (it’s my personal favorite of her novels) and Eden’s An Afternoon Walk (another favorite, but it’s been at least thirty years or so since I read it, if not more)–which is a very underrated and unjustly forgotten tale of domestic suspense that rivals the masters of the form.

And on that note, back to the spice mines.

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