Where Have You Been

Wednesday and Pay the Bills Day has yet again rolled around. Huzzah?

Yesterday was a good day. I had a great day at work getting caught up on everything around the office and seeing clients; I came home in a good mood and not exhausted, so I worked and edited for a while before blowing the proverbial end of day whistle and repairing to my easy chair to relax for the evening. It was nice, really, having a lovely day again. It has been so long. I also slept pretty well last night, too–I woke up a few times throughout the night, so it wasn’t a straight sleep through, but I feel rested and good this morning; not groggy or like my body hasn’t woken up yet, either. But the coffee tastes great, I don’t want to go back to bed and sleep some more, and I am getting my shit together. Today feels like it might be a good day; I’ve learned that how I feel when I wake up isn’t always necessarily the best indicator of how the day will go because they’ve certainly gone south once they’ve gotten underway, LOL.

Ted Lasso is back, tonight I think? Won’t be watching until the festivals are over and Paul is home in the evenings (same with The Mandalorian, and the festivals are next weekend), and of course we also have Outer Banks on deck, too. I didn’t read when I finished working yesterday–I’d wanted to–but by the time I’d finished with my editing, I was burned out and tired and just mentally fatigued, so I went to the easy chair and watched some history documentaries to pass the evening until I got tired (documentaries on Claude of France; Anne of Brittany; and several other figures from French history) and went to bed. It was very cold yesterday (for New Orleans and compared to lately) and so I had to end up turning on the heat last night. I just turned it on downstairs, figuring some heat would rise and it’s better to sleep under a pile of blankets when it’s a bit on the chilly side in the bedroom. It was nice to come downstairs this morning and not start shivering, or hovering by the Keurig waiting for the coffee to brew so I could wrap my cold hands around the hot cup. I also have been paging through Stephen King’s Danse Macabre and Grady Hendrix’ Paperbacks from Hell, which is a marvelous reference guide (I was happy to read–I’d forgotten–that King agrees with my assessment of The Exorcist and William Peter Blatty’s writing; this is another instance where the movie is better than the book) and I am not entirely sure I’ve written a post about Paperbacks from Hell? I’ll have to look, but this is another example of my memory being shot; how do I not remember whether I’d written about something or not? Particularly when it’s something I’ve really enjoyed? I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to do another post (if there was an original) about the book because it really is delightful and fun.

I also paid my latest camera ticket on-line last night. I fucking hate camera tickets. I got this one driving home from getting up super-early and having blood drawn; I just brushed my teeth and washed my face, threw on some clothes and headed down there without having coffee first–coffee can affect your blood sugar levels, and as mine are getting higher with every blood draw, my doctor is monitoring that–and so of course I wasn’t really terribly awake as I drove home sans three test tubes of blood.

I fucking hate the cameras. I get at least two tickets per year, and always–always–in a school zone. (No, that doesn’t mean I see kids milling about on both sides of the street and speed up, hoping…I am not fond of children, to be sure, but I don’t want to eliminate any of them) I guess when I get to the speed limit/school zone signs I need to just slam on the brakes rather than gradually slow, which is what I usually do.

Ah, well. I hope the traffic camera tickets help pay to fix the streets or fill in a pothole or two. There’s a lot of road repair going on at the moment–Elysian Fields, Claiborne, and Martin Luther King; all main streets and all ones that are part of my daily drives around the city–which is a good thing, even if it’s a massive pain in the ass right now for me.

And tonight I have to make groceries and probably should swing by the post office and I have a prescription ready, too, so hello, Uptown New Orleans! I need to edit tonight, too. I am hoping this centered, peaceful place I’ve found myself in these last couple of days is lasting….

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely Wednesday, Constant Reader, and I will check in with you again tomorrow.

Holy Ground

I came across the coroner’s obituary last night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Mickey

My wonderful book about the classic horror novels of the 1970’s thru the 1990s, Paperbacks from Hell, attributed the boom in horror fiction to three bestselling novels that set the stage: Thomas Tryon’s The Other, Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. I read all three of these books when I was in junior high school; the Tryon and the Levin remain two of my favorite novels, and I reread them periodically. But after reading The Exorcist one time, I’ve never felt the need to have a copy on hand, nor have I ever felt the desire to go back and reread it. It did occur to me sometime within the past few years that I should give it another go; my primary memory of the book is, of course, the crucifix masturbation scene which everyone in the seventh grade discussed in breathless whispers whenever someone new had read the book. I may not have ever owned a copy; I may have borrowed it from someone. There were any number of paperback copies floating around my junior high school, the binding bent and broken and covers battered as they were passed around from kid to kid. It also occurred to me that many of my memories of The Exorcist were not from the book, but from the incredibly disturbing film; it was a huge hit and was nominated for ten or eleven Oscars (winning maybe one or two). Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells,” used extensively in the score, was also hugely popular. (All three of the books were made into films; The Other the only whose film version wasn’t a success–but it’s hard to see how it could have been filmed successfully; although it would be really cool if someone tried it again.) So, Labor Day morning, I took down the copy of The Exorcist that I bought recently and read it again.

the exorcist

The Exorcist is undoubtedly an important work in the horror genre; it helped create a boom and directly resulted in a lot of really talented writers getting some great books published over the next thirty years or so. I had noticed, though, that not many people who write horror ever include it on those “Best Horror” lists, or list it as an influence. I read a book in the last year or so that was undoubtedly influenced by The Exorcist; Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, which I really enjoyed and also put me in mind of a reread of Blatty’s blockbuster. The fact that Blatty is a homophobe made me a bit uncomfortable going back to the book–okay, he may not be a homophobe, but he certainly felt welcoming and admitting LGBT students at Georgetown University meant the school had betrayed its Jesuit heritage and should be stripped of its standing as a Jesuit university (you can read about that here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/04/education/edlife/how-georgetown-became-a-gay-friendly-campus.html?mcubz=1).

So making millions of dollars about a child masturbating with a crucifix is kosher–I guess because, literally, the devil made her do it–but treating LGBT college students as human beings is a crime against Catholicism. Got it.

And to be fair to Mr. Blatty, I only vaguely remembered the above incident; and wasn’t 100% sure I was correct, so that didn’t play into my reread of the book (I didn’t go looking into it until this morning, while actually writing this entry).

Part of the issue with The Exorcist is that once you are aware of it, it’s really not that shocking anymore. This book was a shocker when it was first released; it was denounced far and wide as demonic–including by the Catholic Church (which is even more perplexing on the reread, because the book is very very Catholic), and the scares involved how shocking it was. I seem to recall Blatty based the book on an actual case of an exorcism from the early 1960’s, or perhaps the 1950’s–I don’t recall exactly. So, after forty-odd years the shocks and scares are no longer shocking or scary; my memory of the first read of the book is vague so I cannot remember if it was more pruriently shocking or if it was, indeed, scary to the twelve year old who read it all those years ago. But knowing the story, and what is coming, and knowing that the shock value has completely worn off in the intervening years, I was able to read it and evaluate it simply as a novel.

And it doesn’t, sadly, hold up very well.

I was torn about blogging about The Exorcist, because I generally don’t like to criticize other writers and other books publicly; but it’s an old book, and the author has made a fortune off it. There’s also the suspicion that knowing how homophobic the author is might have played into my disappointment in the reread, but let me give you some sentences:

Looking down at the pain in those sensitive eyes, Chris surrendered; couldn’t tell her what she really believed. Which was nothing.

In fact, Chris had smelled nothing, but had made up her mind she would temporize, at least until the appointment with the doctor. She was also preoccupied with a number of other concerns.

She seemed to be thinking, and still in this posture, she stepped outside and joined her son, who was waiting on the stoop.

Her eyes still on her notes, Sharon probed at the silence in a strained, low voice.

Chris looked at him appraisingly, with gratitude and even with hope.

There are lots more examples; weird analogies, and strange character behavior. It’s also really hard to tell who is the main character. Chris MacNeil, the mother, is a divorced atheist actress; her marriage failed, according to the book, because her husband couldn’t bear being Mr. Chris MacNeil; his wife’s success and fame was too much for his ego to handle, and Chris not only understands but doesn’t blame him. He is a neglectful father to Regan, which also doesn’t bother her too much. She is renting the house in Georgetown because she’s appearing in a movie being filmed there, a musical remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington which has an added subplot about campus unrest and protests (which sounds absolutely terrible) shoe-horned in; her main home is in LA. Yet once her role in the movie is finished, she stays in Georgetown inexplicably; Regan is being home-schooled by Chris’ secretary, who does double duty as Regan’s teacher–so there’s no reason for them to stay other than the fact that it’s necessary to the plot for her to remain in close proximity to Georgetown University’s campus. The filming is over before the possession truly gets going; so…

There are also some bizarre behaviors exhibited by Chris as well–she will have an encounter with her strangely acting daughter, be terribly upset, and then go downstairs and have a pleasant conversation with her housekeepers about the film they went to see. It becomes very difficult to have sympathy for her, because she isn’t really fleshed out as a character. The book is also told from an omniscient point of view, so the reader has a very hard time engaging with the characters or feeling deep sympathy for them; certainly it’s hard to identify with any of them. Sharon, the secretary, is a complete cipher; as are the Swiss couple who work as housekeepers. Burke Demmings, the director of the film and a friend of Chris’, is a vicious and cruel drunk who openly mocks her servants; which she just dismisses as “oh, that’s just Burke.”

Because her housekeepers aren’t people who should at least be treated with a modicum of respect as human beings?

The police detective who becomes involved in the case–Burke ends up dead at the foot of the steep staircase down to M Street behind the house–is incredibly annoying; he never gets to the point and dances around the subject and is one of the most unbelievable cops I’ve ever encountered in fiction; he seems a bit like Columbo, but at least the viewer knew that Columbo was actually incredibly smart and that was his method. You never get that sense with Detective Wilderman; he’s just annoying.

Father Karras is by far the most likable and interesting character in the book; and I suppose the reason it’s called The Exorcist. Damien Karras (it’s funny; at the time the book was published the name was unusual but interesting; of course The Omen has forever altered the perception of that name) is having a crisis of faith; his own homosexuality is hinted at but subtextually; his ‘friendship’ with Father Dyer is hinted at, they have a lightly teasing homoerotic kind of friendship but it’s never really gotten into; although one of the insults the demon throws at Karras is an accusation of homosexuality, which rattles him. There’s also a scene where Father Dyer mentions that ‘the gays are leaving the priesthood in droves.’

But the underlying premise, and theme that drives the book, is that Catholicism is real, the one true Faith; even though the demon is apparently an old Babylonian god named Puzuzu–who predates Catholicism and Jesus–the power and faith can defeat him. The ultimate sacrifice of Father Karras in taking in the demon and then killing himself–what happened to the demon? What happened to his soul? Does he redeem himself with this act?

Father Karras was interesting to me (he is constantly described, not just in the text but by characters, as ‘looking like a boxer’–whatever that means: “they told me you looked like a boxer”.) as a character, and I would have loved to have seen the entire story through his eyes; the loss of faith, his struggle with choosing the church over his mother; the relationship with Father Dyer; his doubt that Regan is actually possessed and the slow dawning that demons, and therefore, his faith, are real; and why he would make that ultimate, final sacrifice.

I’m glad I reread the book, even though it was kind of disappointing. I greatly enjoyed the television series, which was recently renewed for a second season (yay!), and it is an important book in the genre; no matter what quibbles I have with it, its importance cannot be denied, and I think horror aficionados should read it.