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Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Communion of Shadows -- excerpt from a work-in-progress

I decided that for my next novel, I was going to write a good old-fashioned ghost story.  It's called The Communion of Shadows, and is about four friends stuck inside on a stormy night who decide to tell each other about the times they've seen ghosts.  It's broken up into four sections, as each tells his tale -- one is terrifying, one funny, one tragic, and the final one a combination of all three -- and in between each is a bit of the frame story, with the friends sitting around drinking and talking as the little house gets rattled by the storm.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

The story is set in nineteenth-century southern Louisiana, an area of the country I know well because my mother grew up there.  Here's the first chunk of the frame story, which sets the tone for the rest of the book.  Enjoy!


August 1850

A desolate moan, and the wooden shutters rattled like there was something unholy trying to enter, but it was only the wind. 
Leandre Naquin jumped at the noise, then turned back toward his friends, the heat of embarrassment rising in his cheeks. Thunder rolled in the distance and the air coming in through the cracks smelled like rain.
“Scared of some noise?” J. P. Ayo’s characteristic grin flashed out in the dim lantern light. “Loup garou come out of the swamp to get you?”
Leandre gave a genial laugh, and the three other men joined in. “No, it just startled me. But it’s coming faster than we thought. Good thing we got the cane cut. Wind like this could blow it flat. Lose the whole field.”
J. P. gave a dismissive wave. “It’s not a hurricane, it’s just a summer thunderstorm. But you know what that means, T-Joe. You better stay the night here.”
Joseph Lirette, the youngest of the four, put on an expression so comically distraught that J. P. snorted laughter and slapped his knee. 
“Won’t hurt you none to miss a night with your pretty wife, T-Joe. You can just make sure and do it twice tomorrow night.”
T-Joe’s face turned scarlet. “That’s not it. I’m just… I hope she’ll be all right by herself. A storm, you know, she could get scared.”
Clovis Dantin snorted. “Better scared for a night than alone forever because you walked home in a storm and got struck by lightning.” He took a swig of the liquor J. P. had poured into tin cups from a heavy ceramic bottle, then leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms.
“I guess you’re right.” T-Joe didn’t look convinced. He took a sip from his own cup, and grimaced. “Damn, J. P., what did you make this from? Lye and horse piss?”
“You get used to it.”
“Not sure I want to.”
Another roll of thunder shook the house. Leandre dropped into a wicker-backed chair, stretching out his long legs and propping his feet on the table. “Refill my cup with some of that lye and horse piss, J. P.”
J. P. obliged with a smile.
“Must be nice, living alone.” Clovis’s habitual scowl deepened, and he took another sip. “My wife’d never let me put my feet on the table like that. You got nobody telling you what to do day in, day out.”
“Nobody to welcome you to bed, either,” T-Joe said earnestly.
“Huh.” Clovis shook his head. “Happens seldom enough in my house, I’d be better off able to put my feet on the table.” He glanced over at J. P., and his expression softened. “Say, sorry, J. P. I didn’t mean…”
J. P. gave him a dismissive wave of the hand. “Don’t worry about it. Marie-Elise died almost two years ago. I’m not over missing her—doubt I ever will be, honestly—but I’m over feeling like every mention of wives or being alone is a knife in my heart. Tiens, you can’t mourn forever.”
“You think you’ll remarry?” T-Joe asked.
J. P. shrugged. “I don’t have a pretty lady ready to take me off to the church, if that’s what you mean. Right now I’m content to go to the fais-do-do and dance with all of them, then come back to my own little house when it’s over.”
“That’s my thought,” Leandre said.
“How about you, though?” T-Joe turned his gaze toward Leandre. “You’re what, twenty-eight?”
“And never married?”
“Why not?”
Leandre smiled and shrugged. “Too much else to do.”
T-Joe shook his head, his expression baffled. “I don’t understand y’all.”
Lightning flashed, its blue-white radiance shining for an instant through the cracks in the shutters. The thunder followed almost immediately, a deep-throated rumble that made the liquor in Leandre’s cup vibrate. “Some times there are good reasons for not having a woman, you know.” 
The corners of J. P.’s mouth quirked upward. “Such as?”
Leandre’s eyes met his friend’s, and he didn’t answer for a moment. Then he grinned. “So I can put my feet on the table.” Rain began to slash against the roof, and another gust of wind made the shutters vibrate. Enough of it made its way through gaps that the flame in the oil lamp guttered and almost went out. “Hell of a night. The kind of nights when the ghosts walk.”
Clovis gave him a raised eyebrow. “Ghosts? What ghosts?”
Leandre shrugged. “Whatever ghosts are out there. There’ve got to be millions. How many people are alive now, and how many people have died since Adam and Eve left the Garden? The dead outnumber the living, no question about it.”
“That doesn’t mean they’re ghosts.”
“Not all of them, no. But tell me, Clovis, you’ve never seen a ghost? Or known someone who has?”
Clovis opened his mouth to answer, then closed it without saying anything.
“Thought so.” Leandre laughed. “I bet we all have.”
“I don’t know why they’d be out in the rain, though.” J. P.’s smile flashed out in the semi-darkness. “Night like this, I would stay in my nice dry coffin. If I was a ghost, only time you’d see me is on a sunny afternoon. And to hell with appearing in a graveyard, you know? I’d show up in the middle of Sunday Mass. I’d love to see the look on Father Rousseau’s face.” His smile faded. “But you’re right, Leandre. I have seen a ghost. It was a long time ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday.”
“Whose ghost was it?” T-Joe leaned forward in his chair. His eyes were wide, but whether with fear or interest was impossible to tell.
“Her name was Thérèse. Thérèse Clerot. A woman who I knew when I was a child. She lived nearby, by herself, but it wasn’t so she could put her feet on the table.” He flashed a quick grin at Leandre. “My mama said about her that she was no better than she had to be, you know? A lot of the young men in the parish showed up to her house in the evening, only stayed a half-hour or so. But she never wanted for money or food. Even at my age then—couldn’t’a been more than eleven or twelve at the time—I knew what was going on. And now, looking back, I realize why the young men sought her company. She was beautiful, no doubt about that. Long black hair, flashing blue eyes, skin like rich cream. No wonder she was never lonely.”
“Then she died?” T-Joe said.
“Well, yes. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Because Thérèse Clerot finally gave up entertaining every young man who crossed her palm with a coin, and actually fell in love. The different men every night changed to one man who came to her cabin over and over again. His name was Michel Dominique.” He frowned, remembering. “Nobody much would have thought about this, because after all, everyone approved of Thérèse settling down, maybe even getting married herself, rather than carrying on all evening with any men who happened along. There was only one problem.
“Michel Dominique was already married, to the daughter of one of the richest men in the parish, Clément Lagrange.”
T-Joe gaped at him. “So his wife was Jacques Lagrange’s sister?”
J. P. nodded.
“I’ve talked to Jacques a dozen times. He never mentioned he has a sister.”
“No, he wouldn’t. She’s dead and gone, too, along with her husband Michel and his lover Thérèse. And the Lagrange family—well, let’s say they were just as happy to forget Julienne Lagrange ever existed.” He looked from one face to the other, and a flicker of his earlier smile returned to his face. “But like I said, that’s getting things out of order. If I’m going to tell the story, I should tell it proper. So if you want to hear it…?”
T-Joe and Leandre both nodded, and Clovis gave a noncommittal shrug, which was about all the enthusiasm he usually expressed.
Leandre refilled his three friends’ cups with liquor. “Then let’s hear it, J. P.”
“All right. Then I have to begin with the day Thérèse Clerot died. And I can tell you about that because I was the one who found her body.”
T-Joe gave a little gasp. “R’gardez-donc,” he said, in a near whisper. “So you’re not joking, or telling us a tall tale because it’s a stormy night.”
This time the thunderclap was so close that they heard a noise like a whipcrack, almost at the same moment the bolt of lightning struck, followed by an earsplitting roll. “Oh, no. It’s no tall tale.” He took a swallow from his cup, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Now that I come to think of it, I wish it was. But I can’t leave it there. Since I’ve started, I might as well tell you the whole story.”

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

What I'm reading (#43)

If you're a fan of offbeat humor, you should read Swedish author Jonas Jonasson's loopy, fun novel The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared.

The novel is about Allan Karlsson, the eponymous 100-year-old man, who is looking forward to the hundredth birthday party they're going to throw him in the nursing home so little that he climbs through the window of his bedroom, makes his way to the nearest bus station, and sits down to wait for a bus to... anywhere.  Any place that doesn't have Director Alice insisting that he be a good sport and have a good time and wear a sparkly party hat will be just fine with Allan, thank you very much.

But fate takes a turn when a disheveled young man asks Allan to guard his suitcase while he's in the restroom, and the bus arrives before he returns...

... so Allan takes the suitcase and absconds with it.


[Click the image above if you'd like to order the book from Amazon.]

What's in the suitcase, and what comes afterward, you'll just have to read about.  Along the way we find out about Allan's checkered past, wherein he traveled all over the world and met Harry Truman, Josef Stalin, Kim Il Sung, Chairman Mao (and Mao's illustrious fourth wife), and inadvertently joined the Manhattan Project when he was hired as the coffee boy and showed that he had an uncanny knack for figuring out how to blow things up.  The result is a little like a cross between Forrest Gump and John Cleese's movie Clockwise, where a seemingly small mistake -- in Clockwise, getting on a train going in the wrong direction -- starts a series of dominoes falling that results in complete and utter chaos for everyone involved.

In Allan Karlsson's case, the one act of boarding a bus with someone else's suitcase causes an increasingly hilarious series of close escapes, the entire time with Allan placidly sailing through the furor with serenity and a Panglossian certainty that everything will turn out all right in the end.  After all, that's worked for him for a hundred years, why should it stop working now?

Sunday, September 30, 2018

What I'm reading (#42)

When I was given a copy of Victor LaValle's The Changeling, I thought it sounded right down my alley.

The story's main character, Apollo Kagwa, is the son of a Ugandan immigrant mother and an American father.  He is obsessed with books from youth, and grows up to become a rare book seller.  But there are some disturbing things in his past -- his father had a major breakdown and abandoned the family when Apollo was little, and Apollo is haunted by dreams of being picked up by his dad and brought out into a dense, suffocating fog.

So far, so good.  LaValle sets up a creepy atmosphere and a sense of foreboding pretty much from page one.  But when Kagwa marries Emma Valentine, and they have a baby, named Brian after Apollo's father, things take a turn for the grotesque -- and the book starts to flounder.  Emma kills their child (not a spoiler, as this much is mentioned in the back cover blurb) and flees, after claiming that Brian "was not a baby."  This launches Apollo on a long quest to find her, and either get her to explain, or else exact revenge.

The story wanders around New York City, with Apollo meeting various odd characters in scenes that become more and more surreal.  The climax -- if you can call it that -- reveals not only where Emma is but why she did what she did, but the path there is so tortuous and gruesome that it wasn't worth the trip.  Also, the explanation is bizarre even by my standards, and left me turning the last page and simultaneously saying, "WTF?"

So unfortunately, LaValle's book did a bit of a face plant for me.  I stuck it out to the end, despite wanting to give it up more than once, but I'm not entirely sure why other than a hope that it would finally improve.  It turned out to be another example of a great concept, and execution that did not live up to its promise.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

What I'm reading (#41)

When I went public about four years ago on my other blog, Skeptophilia, about my ongoing struggles with depression and anxiety, it was not out of any desire to make myself the center of attention.  Hell, half of my anxiety revolves around people judging me, or even looking my way in social situations; baring my soul to the world, especially about something so deeply distressing to me, was a huge step.

The reason I did it is that I wanted to do what I could to help remove the stigma of mental illness.  I have a chemical imbalance in my brain; it is not my fault, nor is it something that I could fix by "thinking positive thoughts" or "going for a walk in the woods" or "looking at the wonderful things in life."  As far as the last one goes, for the last fifteen years especially, I've had a pretty great life.  I'm married to a wonderful woman, my kids are doing well, I've got a nice home in a place I love, a steady job that (despite its frustrations) is important and rewarding, and finally -- a dream of forty years' duration -- my fiction is being published (nine novels and counting!).

None of that affected the depression in the least.  The good things didn't lift me up; the depression pulled me down despite everything that was going right.  Worse, it made those things seem unimportant, worthless, or (worst of all) temporary.  Okay, things are pretty good now, my depression said.  Just wait.  It'll end soon.

My depression is now being managed by an antidepressant and has been ameliorated by therapy, but the truth is, I'm never going to be cured of it.  Accepting that has brought a kind of peace, and a determination that other people suffering the same way come to the same understanding -- and get help.

So when I picked up Jenny Lawson's book Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, I knew I was going to relate to it.  Lawson is a fellow sufferer from depression and anxiety, and the similarity of her experience to mine was apparent from the second page of the foreword:
[A] few years ago... I fell into a severe bout of depression so terrific I couldn't see any way out of it.  The depression wasn't anything new.  I've struggled with many forms of mental illness since I was a kid, but clinical depression is a semiregular visitor and anxiety disorder is my long-term abusive boyfriend.  Sometimes the depression is solid enough that I mistake it for the flu or mono, but this instance was one of the extreme cases.  One where I didn't necessarily want my life to end, I just wanted it to stop being such a bastard.  I reminded myself that depression lies, because it does.  I told myself that things would get better.  I did all of the normal things that sometimes help, but I still felt hopeless and suddenly I found myself really angry.  Angry that life can through such curveballs at you.  Angry at the seeming unfairness of how tragedy is handed out.  Angry because I had no other emotions left to give.
So Lawson went to her blog, The Bloggess, and started writing about what she was going through.

The result was an outpouring of support and "me toos" from her readers.  Ultimately, that experience led to her writing Furiously Happy -- a poignant, brilliant, and often hysterically funny account of one woman's life of dealing with mental illness.  (If you doubt the last bit, I can tell you that I was sitting in bed reading, and kept guffawing so much my wife finally said, "What on earth are you reading?"  I told her -- and when I was done, gave it to her to read.  The result was many muffled snorts of laughter when she thought I wasn't listening.)

[Click the image above if you'd like to purchase the book from Amazon]

Let me put this bluntly: you need to read this book.  Even if you do not have depression or anxiety yourself, someone you know does.  Current statistics are that 7% of Americans have experienced one or more bouts of serious depression in a given year.

Lawson's decision to write this book was a major act of courage -- and a gift to the rest of us.  There are episodes in it that will have you howling with laughter (the footnotes alone were enough for me to have that reaction more than once), and chances are, there'll be a couple of scenes that will have you reaching for the kleenex.

As for me: I said "amen" more than once while reading this book.  Its description of what people with depression and anxiety go through is spot-on.  It's time we remove the stigma from mental illness -- and Jenny Lawson has taken a huge step toward realizing that goal.

Friday, August 3, 2018

What I'm reading (#40)

A few weeks ago I borrowed the book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper -- Case Closed by Patricia Cornwell from a friend.

l've had a morbid fascination for Jack the Ripper ever since I first heard about him when I was a teenager.  The idea that someone could kill between five and seventeen victims -- how many were Jack's doing, and how many either copycats or simply the result of the horrific violence that was commonplace among the poor in London in the 1880s and 1890s -- is still a matter of conjecture.  The "five canonical murders" -- Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Catherine Eddowes, Elizabeth Stride, and Mary Jane Kelly -- were all of poor women working as prostitutes in the Whitechapel area of London.  The killings started out horrid and ended up nothing short of appalling -- the last two were mutilated nearly beyond recognition.

Despite the efforts of the police, Jack's identity was never determined.  This, of course, has led to a plethora of theories -- guesses would be a better term -- about who he was, ranging from known murderers like Seweryn Kłosowski and Thomas Neill Cream to Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence -- the son of King Edward VII.  All of them have points for and against, and some are clearly more preposterous than others.  None, unfortunately, fits with everything that is known about the Ripper murders.

But Cornwell says there's one that's different.  In Portrait of a Killer, she makes a case that all of the canonical murders, plus that of Martha Tabram (which occurred before that of Mary Ann Nichols) and several afterwards, were the work of artist Walter Sickert.

Sickert was, apparently, a strange man, and had a fascination himself for the Ripper murders.  He deliberately stayed in an apartment that had allegedly been home base for Jack at some point (how he could have known that when no one knew who Jack was, I have no idea).  He drew and painted several scenes related to the murders, and many of his other paintings have macabre, grotesque, and violent themes.

[click the image above if you'd like to purchase the book from Amazon]

Cornwell lays out the evidence carefully, making a thorough case for Sickert being Jack.  However, it must be said in the interest of honesty that her conclusions have been called into serious question -- historian and Ripper scholar Stephen P. Ryder has taken Cornwell's argument apart piece by piece, with the strongest evidence against being that there are multiple witnesses who claimed to see Sickert in France when several of the murders took place.

The bottom line is, we probably will never know for certain who Jack the Ripper was.  In fact, I always bring him up in my Critical Thinking classes when we discuss the concept of "sufficient evidence" -- and that, as frustrating as it is, there are times we have to say "We don't know, and probably never will know."  That notwithstanding, Cornwell's book is fascinating reading; even if she's wrong about her central premise, she provides a unique and lucid window into the sordid life of Whitechapel in the 1880s and 1890s.  And her descriptions of the victims themselves are poignant and sympathetic.  It's worth a read just for that alone -- whether or not her favorite theory about the Ripper's identity is correct.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

What I'm reading (#39)

I first ran into the work of Eudora Welty when I was in college, and I read the short story "Why I Live at the Post Office," and laughed so hard my stomach hurt.  It's hard to say why her stories are funny; they're not at all slapstick, and it's far from what I'd call a situation comedy.  But her characters are brilliant and eccentric and absolutely hilarious -- and even more so because I've known people like the ones she describes so well.

A few weeks ago I picked up a copy of her short novel The Ponder Heart at a used book sale, and had the same reaction to it as I did to her short story so many years ago.  It's a quick and delightful read, centering around the misadventures of Uncle Daniel Ponder as seen through the eyes of his niece, Edna Earle Ponder.  Uncle Daniel is a strange man, an eternally cheerful hale-fellow-well-met around his home in Clay County, Mississippi, who if he runs into you might well give you his hat or his coat -- or his car.

Uncle Daniel is beloved by all and sundry -- some because they genuinely like him, and some because of his aforementioned propensity for giving stuff away -- but is singularly unlucky in love.  His first wife, whose name is (I'm not making this up) Teacake Magee, only stays with him for two months before deciding that she's fed up with his oddities.  Then he proposes to young, beautiful, vapid Bonnie Dee Peacock, and all seems to be well -- until Bonnie Dee dies under mysterious circumstances, and Uncle Daniel is arrested for murder.

The trial, and its outcome, are some of the best humor writing I've ever read.  Welty has an absolute mastery of making oddball characters seem completely real.  It occurs to me, however, that part of her charm in my eyes is that I was born and raised in the Deep South, so Deep that (as my dad put it) any Deeper and we'd be floating.  I have to wonder how Welty's stories would play to a Yankee, if perhaps someone who had never experienced that part of the United States might simply find her cast of characters too strange to be believable.

But all I can say is, I've known people like almost every single person in The Ponder Heart, from the steadfast, pragmatic Edna Earle to the supercilious lawyer for the prosecution, Dorris Gladney.  It's a fun read, and a tragicomic lens into the Deep South of the 1950s.  As far as what happens to Uncle Daniel in the end -- you'll just have to read it to find out.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Research and rabbit holes

I've suspected for a while that the FBI is keeping a file on me based upon my Google search history.

This, I suspect, is something that plagues a lot of writers, but it's really hit home apropos of my murder mystery series, The Snowe Agency Mysteries, the second of which (The Dead Letter Office) just released last week.  I've got a line of them ready for release, and the research for them has resulted in some searches that would look seriously sketchy to anyone who didn't know I'm a writer.  These have included:
  • What anesthetic available to a veterinarian would kill a human the most quickly?
  • How fast does a bubble of air injected into an artery kill someone?
  • Would the remains of a person poisoned to death twenty years ago still show traces of the poison?
  • The behavior of psychopathic individuals
  • The physiology of drowning
  • How hard does a person need to be hit in the back of the head to knock them unconscious?
To anyone who is still concerned: allow me to assure you that I have never killed, nor am I planning on killing, anyone.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Writing takes you down some interesting rabbit holes, and I'm not just talking about writing mysteries.  One of the reasons I love writing fiction is that I learn so much in the process -- it gives me a chance to stretch my own brain a little.  Here are a few things I had to research for books I've written:
  • Living conditions in 14th century Norway (Lock & Key)
  • Communications and surveillance technology (Kill Switch)
  • Ancient Greek timekeeping devices (Gears)
  • Medieval Jewish mystical traditions (Sephirot)
  • Creatures from Japanese mythology (The Fifth Day)
  • The effects of untreated type-1 diabetes (Whistling in the Dark)
  • Viking ship design (Kári the Lucky)
  • The rate of spread of the Black Death in England (We All Fall Down)
  • The structure of Baroque contrapuntal music (The Harmonic Labyrinth)
And that's just scratching the surface.

I was chatting with my publisher a couple of days ago, and commented that fiction should open up new worlds, that if my readers are the same when they close the book as they were when they opened it, I've failed as a writer.  However, writing also opens up new worlds for the writer, lets us explore topics we'd otherwise never look into.  (It's all too easy to get lost in research -- to intend to sit down and write, and suddenly three hours have gone by, and all you've done is jump from one abstruse website to another, as my friend and writing partner Cly Boehs would be happy to tell you.)

There are two things about learning: (1) it's fun.  And (2) you're never done.  And when it comes to writing, there are always new areas to investigate, new worlds to create.

So many stories to tell, so little time.