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Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Dead Letter Office (an excerpt from a work in progress)

I have begun work on another mystery, a sequel to Poison the Well (that one's not even released yet!  Look for it in May or June).  It will center around another murder case, and the same motley crew of psychic private detectives will be bringing their unusual skill set to bear on figuring out whodunnit.  Here's the first chapter, just as a teaser (and also because I don't have any more written of the story at the moment!).

********************************
 
            The woman sitting in the high-backed chair in Mr. Parsifal Snowe’s office seemed faded, like an item of clothing that had been through the washing machine a few too many times.  Her hair had probably once been sandy blonde, but now was streaked with a tired-looking gray.  Her skin was pale, with a few faint freckles straggling across the bridge of her nose.  Even her eyes were an indeterminate shade of blue, like wilted cornflowers.  The overall effect was not helped by a rather hapless attempt to apply makeup.  She could, Bethany Hale reflected, be any age between thirty and sixty.  There was no way to tell.
            “I know I don’t have any proof,” the woman said, nervously twisting the handle of her purse between her fingers.  “It’s just a feeling.  Something just doesn’t feel right.  I know it sounds stupid.”
            “Nonsense, Miss Skelly,” Mr. Snowe responded, his voice reassuring.  “There have been many cases that have been initiated on the basis of a feeling, and not an inconsiderable number that have been solved because of a chain of deductions that began with something ‘feeling wrong’ to someone.  I urge you not to doubt yourself.  What you have told me thus far is interesting.  Please do continue.”
            The corner of Donna Skelly’s mouth twitched a little, and she cleared her throat.  “The police thought that Miss Dyer was killed by a burglar.  And, I mean… that’s what it looked like.  I’m the one who found her, and it sure looked like someone had broken in.  Her study… it was all a mess, and Miss Dyer was someone who always wanted to keep things neat as a pin.  And she’d been hit on the back of the head.”  She swallowed.  “It was dreadful.  There was quite a lot of… blood.”
            “You needn’t dwell on that point, Miss Skelly,” Mr. Snowe said.
            She nodded.  “Well, the police said they found footprints outside, beneath the study window, and some broken branches.  The window was open – that was the first thing I noticed, because I remembered earlier Miss Skelly had shut it, because night was coming on.  It was when I brought her her evening coffee.  She was at her desk, working on some of her papers, she said she was cold, and I asked her if she wanted the window shut and she said, ‘No, I’ll get it, stop fussing.’  So she went and shut the window, and then told me that she didn’t need anything more, that she was working on her research and didn’t want anyone bothering her.  But when I came in later that evening, around nine o’clock I think it was – as soon as I was near the study door I felt the breeze from the window, and then when I went in, I saw the curtains fluttering.  Then I saw the papers on the floor and the drawers of the desk pulled out and dumped.  And I just sort of automatically went to start tidying up – you know, when you’re shocked by something, and you just sort of keep doing what you always do, like you’re on autopilot.  But then I saw her… her body, behind the desk.”  She paused.  “It was dreadful,” she said again.
            “Why had you gone back?” Bethany asked.
            “I went to check on her, to see if she needed anything else,” she said.  “She sometimes likes a glass of milk before she goes to bed, or for me to bring her a book to read.”
            “Did you hear anything?”
            Donna Skelly looked from Mr. Snowe’s face to Bethany’s.  “No,” she said, and she sounded afraid.  “I’d gone to my bedroom.  It’s upstairs, and on the other side of the house.  It’s a big house.  I didn’t know anything was wrong until… I found her.”
            “Was there anyone else in the house at the time?”
            “No,” Miss Skelly said.  “I’m the only other one who lives there.”
            “How long did you work for Miss Dyer?” Mr. Snowe asked.
            Miss Skelly looked down.  “I don’t…  I don’t exactly work for her.  I’m her cousin.  She took me in four years ago, when I lost my job.”
            “Ah,” Mr. Snowe said, and his voice lowered a little, as if he were embarrassed at having brought up such an indelicate topic.  “I beg your pardon, Miss Skelly.”
            “No, it’s okay,” she said, in a defeated voice.  “It was kind of her to take me in.  I had nowhere to go, and she didn’t have to.  Taking care of her was the least I could do.”
            “But you think her death wasn’t the act of a burglar,” Bethany said.
            Miss Skelly looked up.  “No.  I don’t.  It’s just a feeling, like I said.  There was something about it – about the room.  Stuff was dumped out of the drawers, and off the desk, and some books were on the floor.  But it really… it really just looked like, I don’t know, like a stage set.  Like someone had come in, killed her, and then flung things around to make it look like they were robbing her.”
            “Was anything missing?” Bethany asked.
            “Not much,” Miss Skelly said.  “She usually kept a little bit of money in a wooden box on her desk – maybe twenty dollars or so.  You know, in case she needed cash.  That was gone.  And her necklace and rings were taken.”
            “Were they valuable?”
            Miss Skelly shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Probably a little.  Her rings were worth something, I’d guess, they were gold and had some little jewels of some kind.  The necklace looked like…”  She hesitated a moment.  “Costume jewelry.  I shouldn’t criticize, it’s not like I have any nice jewelry myself.  But it looked like something you’d buy at a craft fair.”
            “That is important information,” Mr. Snowe said.  “You needn’t hesitate to tell us what you think.”
            “It’s just…just that there wasn’t anything much of value taken,” she said.  “All told, maybe two hundred dollars, I’d guess.”
            “People have been killed for far less than that,” Bethany observed.
            Miss Skelly nodded.  “I’m sure.  It’s just that something didn’t feel right about it.  I know I keep saying that, but I don’t know how else to put it.”
            “Where did she keep her actual valuables?” Mr. Snowe said.  “Did she have any expensive jewelry?  Other items that a burglar might have been looking for?”
            “She had some nice jewelry, I think – mostly she kept it in the safe in her bedroom, upstairs.  She seldom wore it, or even took it out.  She didn’t care about that kind of stuff.  She was only interested…”  Miss Skelly stopped and looked down again.
            “Only interested in what?” Mr. Snowe prompted gently.
            Miss Skelly seemed suddenly to come to a decision.  “She only cared about the past,” she said.  “I guess she’s dead now, there’s no harm in saying it.  She lived for the past.  She spent all of her spare time researching the family tree.  She could spend hours poring over old records – that was what she was doing the night she died.  There are binders full of charts, and dozens of binders containing letters, each one in its own plastic sleeve.  Some of the letters are really old.”  She shook her head.  “I never understood why she was so devoted to it all.  Those letters were written to be private, by people who died years ago, people who never intended their correspondence to be… collected and displayed, like dead butterflies in a case.  It isn’t right.  Marie – that’s Miss Dyer’s youngest niece – called her study the ‘Dead Letter Office.’  She always made fun.  It’s why Miss Dyer didn’t like her.”  She shrugged a little, and said, “But all they are is old worthless pieces of paper, with a bunch of words written by dead people about dead people.  That’s what she valued.  Not money, not belongings, not… people.  Real flesh and blood were less important to her than names on charts.”  She fidgeted again with her purse strap.  “She wasn’t really a very nice person.”
            “But even so,” Mr. Snowe said, “you felt strongly enough about her death that you came to us to ask if we’d investigate.”
            Miss Skelly nodded.  “Even if she wasn’t nice, no one… no one deserves to be killed.  No one should have their personal things flung about as if they… as if they didn’t matter.  It’s just sad to think that someone would hit her like that, and after she was dead, that they would take things she cared about, and treat them as if they were nothing.  Dump them on the floor and walk on them.  It’s horrid.”  Her voice cracked a little.  “After all, all of those papers and books and charts… they mattered to her.”
            “It is a terrible thing to do,” Mr. Snowe said.
            “The problem is,” Miss Skelly said, “I don’t have much money.  Miss Dyer left me a bit of money – most of the estate went to her nephew Robert, of course, including the house, but I did get enough to get by on for a while.  And Robert told me I could stay in the house as long as I liked, although I’m sure eventually he’ll sell it and I’ll have to clear out one way or the other.”  Her brows furrowed with worry.  “I probably won’t be able to afford your fees, but I’ll pay if I can.”
            Mr. Snowe tented his fingers together, and Bethany smiled a little; she’d seen this scene reenacted before.  “Now, Miss Skelly, you needn’t fret on that account,” he said.  “I am quite prepared to commit our team of agents to doing at least a preliminary investigation without your needing to pay.  Dependent on what we find out, we will reconvene and apprise you of our progress, and at that point we can discuss whether remuneration for further services would be necessary.”  He smiled.  “This case intrigues me.  I think we can proceed on that alone for at least a while.”
            Miss Skelly slumped a little with relief.  “Thank you,” she said, and then added, “I hate always having to live off other people’s charity, though.  I would pay you if I could.”  There was a sudden edge of pride to her words that made Bethany frown a little; it was the first emotion she’d shown other than resignation.
            “I am certain that is the case,” Mr. Snowe said.  “We will speak no more of it.”
            “Did the police find anything else?” Bethany asked.  “Anything other than what you’ve told us?”
            She shrugged.  “Not really.  I overheard the detective in charge say something about it being a ‘clear-cut’ case.  Mr. Bradford – he was Miss Dyer’s personal assistant – had seen someone on the property one night the week before Miss Dyer was killed, and had gone outside to investigate, but he said the man ran off.  Miss Dyer’s house isn’t far from the high school, and we thought it might just be a teenage kid.  You know how they like to cause trouble.”
            Mr. Snowe nodded.
            “But the police told us afterwards that it might have been the burglar, you know, I forget what they call it…”
            “Casing the place,” Bethany said.
            “Yes.  Seeing if there was a way in.  And like I said, the night she was killed they found footprints outside the window, and one of the hedges had been stepped on and broken.  And the back gate was open.”
            “Where does the back gate lead?” Bethany asked.
            “There’s a loop of the driveway that goes behind the house.  Back in the day, there used to be a barn back there, but it was torn down, oh, years ago.  Now there’s just the garden shed, where the lawn mower and tools and all are kept.  Part of the back yard is fenced, because Miss Dyer used to have dogs.  And there’s a gate leading into the driveway.  It was open, like someone had run that way and not stopped to close it.”
            “I have one more question,” Mr. Snowe said.  “Please forgive me if it is… uncomfortable.  Did the police identify the murder weapon?”
            “Yes,” Miss Skelly said.  “It was a heavy brass vase.  It always sat on a stand in the corner of the room, near the window, the one the man came through.  He hit her in the back of the head with it, and…”  She stopped, swallowed, and then continued.  “They said he hit her twice more after she was already on the floor.  He wanted to make sure she was dead.”
            Mr. Snowe held up one immaculately manicured hand, and said, “No need to distress yourself further on that account, Miss Skelly, I understand completely.”
            “Would you be able to provide the names of some of the… other family members?”  Bethany only reminded herself at the last moment to use the word “other;” it was still far too easy to think of Donna Skelly as having been Miss Dyer’s servant.
            “Of course,” Miss Skelly said.  “Miss Dyer never married, of course, and her brother Robert and his wife died some years ago.  But there’s her brother’s children – Robert Jr., Katherine, and Marie.  All married now, and children of their own, except for Marie of course.  Katherine’s a Yates now, and Marie is Marie Mackenzie.  But they’re her nearest relatives.”
            Mr. Snowe nodded.  “You know them well, I would assume?”
            “Quite well, yes.”
            “Do you think any of them would have any objection to our asking them a few questions?   Just your impression, of course.”
            Miss Skelly shook her head.  “I don’t see why they would.”  A worried look crossed her face.  “They might wonder why you were investigating, since the police thought it was a burglary.”
            “You need have no worries on that regard,” Mr. Snowe said.  “There would be no necessity of telling anyone that you were the one who engaged us.”
            She looked relieved.
            “I wonder if I might ask,” Bethany said, “since you don’t think it was a burglar, do you suspect anyone else in particular of having committed the murder?”
            Donna Skelly froze, eyes wide, like a rabbit facing the talons of a hawk.  “N-no,” she finally stammered.  “Of course not.  I don’t have any idea at all.  How would I know?”  She shivered a little, and seemed to regain some of her composure.  “Just because I… I don’t think that what the police said, that it’s right… it doesn’t mean that I know what really happened.”
            “No, of course not,” Bethany said.  “I just wondered if you might have some ideas.”
            “None,” Miss Skelly said.  “None at all.”
            Mr. Snowe gave her a paternal smile.  “Now that you’ve put this into our hands,” he said, “you should relax.  You may rest assured that we will utilize all of the resources and skills at our disposal to determine if your suspicions are correct, and if they are, we will do everything in our power to bring the case to a just conclusion.”
            Miss Skelly looked at Mr. Snowe, her pale eyes still filled with a mixture of worry, doubt, and resignation, and then finally she gave a sigh and stood up.  “Very well, then,” she said.  “I guess I’ve done all I could.”
            “You have indeed,” Mr. Snowe said.  “We will contact you when we have more information, or if we have further questions for you.”
            “Thank you,” she said.  “And especially for being understanding about… about the money.”
            Mr. Snowe inclined his head.  “Let us consider that matter resolved.”
            “Thank you,” she said again, and then made her farewells and left.
            After the door had closed, Bethany regarded her boss with an expression of amused curiosity for a moment.
            “Another charity case, eh?”
            Mr. Snowe gave her a little shrug.  “Call it one of my failings.”
            “Hardly that,” Bethany said.  “What are your impressions?”
            “She’s fearful,” he said.  “And not just because, as I suspect, she has been forced into a subservient position in the family for years.  I will be very much surprised if this family is comprised of people who are paragons of compassion.”
            Bethany chuckled softly.  “I agree.  I’m a little surprised to hear you state it so directly, though.”
            “Uncharitable of me, I fear,” Mr. Snowe said, and turned both hands upward in a gesture of apology.
            “The old lady sounds like a hellion.  If a frightened churchmouse like Donna Skelly would say those things, and about someone who was dead no less, our dear departed Miss Dyer must have been a class-A bitch.”
            “I would not have phrased it that way,” Mr. Snowe said, “but I think your general inference is correct.”
            “I wonder what it was that gave Skelly the idea about the murder not being a burglary in the first place,” Bethany said.  “With her disposition, it’s a miracle she had the gumption to come to us.  Especially if it was just some sort of vague impression that something about the scene was wrong.”
            “Vague impressions can be amazingly powerful incentives to behavior,” Mr. Snowe said.  “But as for what was wrong, that was apparent to me almost from the outset.  Did you not see it, Ms. Hale?”
            Bethany frowned, and looked down for a moment, thinking.  “I can’t think of anything.  I mean, it does seem a little clichéd, the whole dump-out-the-desk-drawers thing – the classic ransacking the office to make it look like burglary was the motive.  But just because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean that it couldn’t have been a burglar.”  She looked up at Mr. Snowe.  “Right?”
            Mr. Snowe gave her a bland smile.  “It’s actually quite obvious, Ms. Hale.  Consider what Miss Skelly told us about the events on the evening of Annamae Dyer’s death.  She brought Miss Dyer her evening coffee – let us say, for the sake of argument, at seven o’clock in the evening.  Miss Skelly saw Miss Dyer shut the window at that time.  Miss Skelly then retired to her bedroom on the second floor of the house.  She went back at nine o’clock to see if Miss Dyer needed anything further before going to bed.  She found the window open and Miss Dyer dead on the floor.”  He stopped, and looked at Bethany expectantly.
            “Yes?” Bethany said.
            “Recall that she said that Miss Dyer had been absorbed in her genealogical research the night she died – a pursuit that Miss Skelly said that she could do for hours at a time.  It is very likely that Miss Dyer was in the room from the time that Miss Skelly brought her coffee until the time of her death.  She might have left for a few moments, perhaps to go to the bathroom, but otherwise it is a reasonable assumption that she was there the entire time.”
            Bethany opened her eyes wide.  “Oh,” she said.
            “You see?  Miss Skelly describes walking through an open door into the study, and finding her cousin dead on the floor.  If Miss Dyer was in the study the entire time, the presumed burglar would have seen her through the window – and almost certainly wouldn’t have entered.  Even supposing he was bold enough to come in anyway, Miss Dyer had ample time to escape from the study and call out for help while the burglar fumbled with opening the window from the outside, and then climbing through it.  In order to believe that it was a murder committed by a burglar, we have to suppose that either she left her study for a significant amount of time, leaving her precious research behind – or that she sat there patiently while a strange man came in through the window, neither saying anything nor attempting to flee.”
            “So the murderer is someone she knew,” Bethany said.
            Mr. Snowe nodded.  “It looks very much like it.”

Thursday, March 22, 2012

... and some favorite non-fiction

As has been noted, my first list was all fiction. I don't want to give short shrift to the many wonderful non-fiction books out there, so here is My Book List, Volume Two -- the non-fiction selections.

1) John McPhee, The Control of Nature.  John McPhee is one of my two favorite essayists (the other will make an appearance below). I swear, this man can make any topic interesting; he wrote a fascinating book on orange growers, for crying out loud.  The Control of Nature is one of my favorites by McPhee, and there's some stiff competition (having a geological bent, I also really enjoyed his foursome on the geology of the American West -- Basin and Range, Rising from the Plains, In Suspect Terrain, and Assembling California).  In any case, The Control of Nature is about human attempts to change, control, or subdue nature, with decidedly mixed results.  The three sections are about the attempt by Icelanders to stop a lava flow using cold seawater, the efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers to keep the Mississippi River in its channel using levees, and the double threat of mudslides and wildfires in California.  Brilliant writing.

2) Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos.  An updated, and even more mindblowing, sequel to his book The Elegant Universe.  In these books he provides the most lucid explanation of the bizarre world of quantum and relativistic physics I've ever encountered; beats Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time (even the illustrated version) by a mile. Read it if you want to find out how peculiar the universe actually is.

3) Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker.  Another pinnacle of lucidity, this time about a subject near and dear to me, evolutionary biology.  Dawkins isn't everyone's cup of tea -- besides his penchant for picking fights with the religious, he comes across as arrogant sometimes (and may well be in actuality).  But man, he is one excellent writer, and this is, in my opinion, his best book.  Again, there's some stiff competition, but if you only want to read one Dawkins, this should be it.

4) Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World.  A brilliant exposition of how science has been in the vanguard of humankind's ongoing battle against goofy thinking, superstition, and gullibility.  Should be required reading in every high school science curriculum.

5) Sarah Vowell, Take the Cannoli.  I'd recommend anything by Sarah Vowell, who is my other favorite essayist -- Vowell is best known for her pieces on NPR, and for lending her distinctive voice to the character of Violet on The Incredibles.  Here, she presents essays from the funny to the heartbreaking, on topics such as her inability to learn how to drive, her fascination with The Godfather, and the Trail of Tears. Brilliant from beginning to end.

6) Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape.  A classic -- a look at human behavior through the eyes of a behavioral scientist who is treating humans as if they were just another animal species worthy of study. You'll pull up sharp more than once, and say, "Good lord, I do that!"

7) Tobias Schneebaum, Keep the River on Your Right.  In 1955, a cultural anthropologist studying tribes in the Peruvian Amazon disappeared. He reappeared a year later, stark naked, covered in body paint, and having in virtually every way "gone native."  This book is his account of what happened in that missing year.  You won't be able to put it down.

8) Jamie Whyte, Crimes Against Logic.  The world would be a lot saner place if everyone read and understood what Whyte is saying.  In this thin, quickly-read little book he rails against the illogic that permeates our lives -- in the media, in politics, in every-day "common sense."

9) Evelyn Fox Keller, A Feeling for the Organism.  The biography of the groundbreaking geneticist Barbara McClintock.  Even if you're not a genetics nerd this is one of the most interesting biographies you'll ever read -- McClintock was a fascinating, eccentric, brilliant individual.

10) Thomas L. Friedman, The World is Flat.  Whether or not you agree with Friedman's attitude toward globalization, this book will be an eye-opener.  One man's approach to how we can survive in the 21st century economic markets.

11) K. David Harrison, The Last Speakers.  A linguist's journey to try to understand and record the languages spoken by only a handful of people in the world, and his impassioned argument regarding why we should preserve them.

12) Bill Bryson, Notes From a Small Island.  An American's view of Britain -- endearing, wry, and hilarious.  The best Bryson, in my opinion.

So, those are my dozen top picks. What are yours?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Gordon's favorite novels

After a recent post about scary stories, I was discussing the topic with a writer friend and she asked me if I only read paranormal fiction (which is pretty much all I write).  I was somewhat surprised by the question; I've never understood people who limit themselves to reading only a single genre.  I love good writing -- vivid, powerful language, strong characterization, engaging plot.  I'll read damn near any book that has those characteristics, regardless of the genre.

So then the topic turned to favorite books, and I started considering what novels were nearest and dearest to my heart -- and from there, we began to consider non-fiction.  So in this post and the next, I'm going to pass along some of my book recommendations, and (once again) maybe get a few in return.  See what you think of my list -- next time, I'll look at non-fiction.

Two notes: these are in no particular order, just as I thought of them.  A few of these are paranormal fiction -- but as you'll see, my tastes in reading are a good bit broader than my preferred writing genre.  Also, if you are concerned with such things, there are no real spoilers here -- nothing that you don't find out by reading the back of the jacket.

1) Ursula LeGuin, The Lathe of Heaven.  This is a phenomenal book, in my opinion the best of LeGuin's many stories, but far from her best known.  A young man finds out that when he dreams, his dream changes reality. When he wakes up, everything's different -- and no one realizes it but him.

2) Amy Tan, The Hundred Secret Senses.  This has the same basic setting and character types as several of Tan's books, the western US and immigrant families caught between China and America, but it adds in a unique feature -- a character, Kwan, who believes she has "yin eyes" that allow her to see, and speak with, ghosts.  The interaction between Kwan and her arrogant sister Olivia is sweet, mysterious, frustrating, and ultimately changes both of them.

3) Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes.  My favorite Bradbury.  Any book that features a haunted carnival called "Cooger and Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show" is a winner in my estimation right from the get-go.  Has some seriously scary scenes.  I have had nightmares about the Dust Witch.

4) Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum.  Often the first one that comes to mind when someone asks, "What's your favorite book of all time?"  Some people get impatient with Eco's lengthy, complex, somewhat didactic style, but I revel in it.  Three skeptical publishers of books on the supernatural decide to skip the middlemen (the authors), and take it upon themselves to write the be-all-and-end-all book on the Mystical Secrets of the Hidden Cults.  It's made up out of whole cloth from beginning to end, but when they publish it, people believe it's true.  And the more they deny it, the more their denial makes them look like they're covering up actual knowledge of Ancient and Powerful Secrets.  And they don't realize -- yet -- how far some of their readers will go to find out what they're covering up.  It's an absurdist masterpiece.

5) Stephen King, The Stand.  In my opinion, he's never written another book that reached that plane, and this is coming from someone who really likes most of King's work.  The Stand is an epic story about the survivors of a plague that kills 99.5% of the people on earth, and how they rebuild society and try to combat the followers of the demonic entity Randall Flagg.  Has some of the most striking, well-delineated characters of any book I've ever read.

6) Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.  This book changed my life when I first read it, at the age of 15.  A Spanish priest in 18th century Peru tries to figure out if God had any plan in mind when six strangers were brought together on a rope bridge at the same moment, just in time to die when the bridge snapped and dropped them to their deaths in a canyon.  What made those people, of all the thousands of people who had crossed the bridge, be there when the cable broke?  Is there a Grand Plan?  Or do things just happen because they happen?

7) Dave Barry, Big Trouble.  Quite possibly the funniest novel ever written.  I first read this when my kids were 6 and 9, and I woke them up in the middle of the night laughing while reading this book.  I wouldn't even know how to begin to summarize this plot, so you'll just have to read it.

8) Richard Adams, Watership Down.  When I tell people that this is a novel about rabbits, they usually look at me like I've lost my mind.  But this is the most riveting adventure novel I can think of, and has the single most satisfying end of any story I've read.  It still makes me cry every time I read it, but that's probably just me.

9) C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces.  Almost no one except the most diehard Lewis fans knows about this one, which is a retelling of the Greek myth of Psyche from the point of view of one of her evil sisters.  Long before Gregory Maguire came up with the switch-around-the-viewpoint idea for Wicked, Lewis did it, and did it much better.  Amazing story.

10) Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried.  The most heartwrenching take on the Vietnam War I've ever read. I got to hear O'Brien speak about his book, which was based upon his own experiences as a soldier in Vietnam, and his taking his teenage daughter to visit Vietnam twenty-five years later, and there wasn't a dry eye in the audience.

11) Christopher Moore, A Dirty Job.  A bookstore owner finds out he's been appointed to be Death.  That is only the beginning of his problems.  This book is by turns hilarious, exciting, and sad, and is classic absurd Moore.  My favorite of all of his books... and I like everything I've read by him.

12) Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett, Good Omens.  Two of my favorite authors team up to write a brilliant book about the Antichrist, a demon and an angel who team up to stop the end of the world, and a hell-hound named.... Dog.  It is brilliant from beginning to end.

So, those are my choices... a nice round dozen of amazing books.  What are yours?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Seven lines from page 77

I just got tagged with a blog meme by my author buddy Stacey Turner of The Author Spot, and I thought it sounded like fun.  The rules are:

1) Go to page 77 of your current manuscript, work-in-progress, or most recent story.
2) Go to line 7.
3) Copy the next 7 lines, sentences, or paragraphs (your choice) as they're written.  No cheating!
4) Tag 7 authors.
5) Let them know.

So, here 'tis.  My current work-in-progress is a murder mystery, Poison the Well, and features a psychic detective agency -- each of the detectives has been hired because (s)he has a different psychic ability.  This particular conversation is between the psychometer, Seth Augustine, and the telepath, Callista Lee, and takes place as they're driving away after questioning a witness.

 
           “You must get a lot of insight into the human condition, hearing people’s thoughts all the time,” Seth said.
            Callista was silent for a moment, and then said, “More than I want.”
            He shifted into first, and eased the little car up the driveway.  “Is it true that all guys think about sex once every thirty seconds?”
            Callista looked over at him, and a smile – a real, honest smile – crossed her face.
            Wow, she should do that more often, Seth thought, marveling at how it softened the angular lines of her face.
            “I think,” she said, “that in your case, it’s more like every fifteen seconds.”
            Seth burst into laughter, and said, “Well, I’ve always liked to consider myself above average.”


Poison the Well should, lord willin' an' the creek don't rise, be released on Amazon and Barnes & Noble and available for purchase by June 2012.

So, here are my tags (and you should all check out their blogs & buy their books, too, because these are some amazing writers I'm talkin' about, here):

Tracey Hansen at Tracey's Tavern
Thea Atkinson at Gonzolink
Jesse James Freeman at Billy Purgatory
Kendall Grey at Life is But a Dream
Al Boudreau at Al Boudreau

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Scary story recommendations

My post on Lovecraft a few days ago sparked a couple of interesting discussions about the topic of scary stories in general, and I thought I'd write a few recommendations for some of my favorite Tales of the Supernatural.  I'll be curious to see what my readers think -- and to hear what their favorites are.  Always looking for new stories to read...

I have fairly definite opinions about reading material (okay, to be truthful, I have fairly definite opinions about most things).  To me, a good horror story is one that is evocative, in which there is a subtle touch – the imagination, I find, is far more powerful than the written word in creating frightening imagery.  It's as scary, often, to leave the door closed and let the reader spend the rest of his life speculating about what was behind it than it is to actually open the door and reveal the monster.

This is why gruesome stories really don't do much for me.  A story about a murderer with a chainsaw might disgust me, it might incite me to check to see if my doors are securely locked, but it doesn't give me that thrill of fear up the backbone that is what I'm looking for in a good spooky story, what the Scots call "the cauld grue."  Sheer human perversity doesn't fill the bill; there has to be some sort of supernatural element, to me, for a story to really cross the line into the terrifying.  Reading about homicidal maniacs simply is neither very appealing nor very scary (however scary actually meeting one would be).

All this is rather funny, because (as I've described before), I don't actually believe in the supernatural, and I obviously do believe in the existence of homicidal maniacs.  The fact that something that doesn't exist can scare me far worse than something dangerous that does exist is probably just evidence that I'm not as highly evolved in the logic department as I often claim to be.

In any case, if you're curious, here are my top ten choices for the scariest stories of all time. Let's  hear what you think -- if you agree, disagree, or if you were prompted to find and read any of these.  Could make for an interesting discussion!

These are in no particular order, and there are no spoilers -- just a brief idea of what the plot is.

"What Was It?" by FitzJames O'Brien.  A house is haunted by a real, corporeal creature that also happens to be invisible.  And insane.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson.  What would you do if you were the last human alive on earth -- because everyone else had become a vampire?  Don't watch the movie -- read the book!

"The Mirror" by Haruki Murakami.  If I had to vote for the single best-crafted short story I've ever read, this would be a strong contender.  A group of friends gets together for an evening of drinking and chatting, and someone notices that the host's apartment has no mirrors, and asks why.  Reluctantly, he explains.  You'll see why he was reluctant...

The Shining by Stephen King. Once again, skip the movie and read the book. You'll never look at a bathtub, or an old-fashioned elevator, or a long hotel hallway the same way again.

"Oh, Whistle and I'll Come To You, My Lad" by M. R. James. A regrettably little-known story which is one of the eeriest things I've ever read.  A British tourist finds an antique whistle half-buried in the sand on the beach, and blows it.  He shouldn't have.

"The Monkey's Paw" by W. W. Jacobs.  The classic example of not opening the door.

"Afterward" by Edith Wharton.  If this story doesn't scare the absolute shit out of you, you're made of stone.  A story about... a retroactive haunting?

"The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson.  Not a supernatural thriller, as per my original description (so sue me).  But still a classic of horror fiction.

"August Heat" by William Fryer Harvey.  What if you happened upon a stranger, a maker of marble monuments, and he was making a headstone -- with your name, and today's date, on it?

"Ligeia" by Edgar Allan Poe.  One of the earliest stories of possession.

So, those are my top ten.  Agree?  Disagree?  Any additional that you would recommend?  What stories have chilled your blood, that would be appropriate to sit in front of the fire with, late at night, when no one is awake in the house but you?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Cthulhu fhtagn, baby!

I am a major fan of H. P. Lovecraft. Yes, I know he’s way too fond of turgid phrases like “eldritch, soul-searing, oozing chaos from the freezing vacuum of space,” but man, that guy could come up with a scary story when he set his mind to it.

In my opinion, “The Dunwich Horror” is one of the most perfect horror stories ever written, and I still remember hitting the sucker-punch last line when I first read it (at about age 13) and being absolutely blown away.  Okay, maybe I wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I was completely caught off guard.  (And if you haven’t had the experience of reading this story, I won’t spoil it for you; and you can comfort yourself with the knowledge that you’ll undoubtedly figure out the twist long before I did.)

Likewise “The Shadow over Innsmouth” – another story with a great ending, and possibly one of the best chase scenes ever written.  I knew that it was fiction even when I first read it, but the places are so well-described, and mixed in with real place names, that it is a sore temptation to believe that it’s real.  Apparently the tourist bureaus and libraries and so on in Newburyport and Ipswich are constantly being asked “which way to Arkham” – funny, but it must get old after a while.  Lovecraft himself was a complete disbeliever in all things supernatural, and made no sly attempts to claim that his writings were subtly camouflaged non-fiction.  He stated outright that The Necronomicon doesn’t exist, that Abdul Al-Hazred wasn’t a real person, there is no Miskatonic River (nor a university of the same name), and so forth.  However, this didn’t stop me, on a driving trip through eastern Massachusetts, from taking the road along the coast south of Newburyport, and looking offshore for Devil’s Reef.  (I knew I wouldn’t see signs for Innsmouth – after all, the locals like to deny it actually exists.)  When I passed a sign for Rowley, I felt like I was in real danger of being abducted by half-human, half-alien worshipers of Dagon and Cthulhu.

I’m not entirely certain what’s so appealing about his mythos stories – it’s a pretty bleak view of the universe, and after a while, they all kind of sound the same – you just know that the protagonist is either going to bump into some Elder-God-worshiping cult members and be in a heap o’ bad stuff, or will turn out to be secretly part of the cult himself.  (I say “himself” because Lovecraft seldom wrote anything about female characters – he was apparently painfully shy in real life, and even in his writings, he hardly knew how to handle women.  The few women who make appearances usually don’t fare well – look what happened to poor Lavinia Whately.)  But his best writing includes visual images that are so powerful that, once read, you are unlikely to forget them.  The visions through the spectral window in The Lurker at the Threshold left me so thoroughly creeped out that it was a struggle to make myself look through a stained-glass window for some time afterwards.  The following passage from “The Dunwich Horror” still strikes me as terrifying as much for what it doesn’t say as for what it does:
Thursday night began much like the others, but it ended less happily. The whippoorwills in the glen had screamed with such unusual persistence that many could not sleep, and about 3 A.M. all the party telephones rang tremulously. Those who took down their receivers heard a fright-mad voice shriek out, 'Help, oh, my Gawd! ...' and some thought a crashing sound followed the breaking off of the exclamation. There was nothing more. No one dared do anything, and no one knew till morning whence the call came. Then those who had heard it called everyone on the line, and found that only the Fryes did not reply. The truth appeared an hour later, when a hastily assembled group of armed men trudged out to the Frye place at the head of the glen. It was horrible, yet hardly a surprise. There were more swaths and monstrous prints, but there was no longer any house. It had caved in like an egg-shell, and amongst the ruins nothing living or dead could be discovered – only a stench and a tarry stickiness. The Elmer Fryes had been erased from Dunwich.

It’s the ones which have a different take on things that are the best.  You get the feeling that he was just kind of babbling in stories like “Celephais” and “The Strange High House in the Mist,” but “At the Mountains of Madness” is wonderful – what other writer in the 1920s would have thought of setting a story in Antarctica? And there’s “The Temple,” set on a German U-boat during World War I; "The Colour Out of Space," about a meteorite that carries a most strange life form; and most strikingly, “In the Walls of Eryx,” set on (of all places) Venus.   (This was before scientists knew how hot Venus was, so you gotta cut him some slack; it’s an amazing story, and probably the most different piece he ever wrote.)

Anyhow, if you’ve read Lovecraft, you undoubtedly know what I’m talking about; if you’ve read my writings, you’ll recognize one of my major influences (although I hope my voice is my own, and not simply derivative of Lovecraft’s).  If you haven’t read anything by him, do yourself a favor and read “The Dunwich Horror.”  You’ll never again look at stone outcroppings on hilltops the same way.