20 October 2020

Countdown to the Anthony Best Anthology Award


Anthony Award Nominees
Best Anthology or Collection
Bouchercon 2020

The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods, edited by Michael Bracken (Down & Out Books)

¡Pa’que Tu Lo Sepas!: Stories to Benefit the People of Puerto Rico, edited by Angel Luis Colón (Down & Out Books)

Crime Travel, edited by Barb Goffman (Wildside Press)

Malice Domestic 14: Mystery Most Edible, edited by Verena Rose, Rita Owen, and Shawn Reilly Simmons (Wildside Press)

Murder A-Go-Go’s: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Music of the Go-Go's, edited by Holly West (Down & Out Books)

Anthony Awards Ceremony
October 17, 2020

6:35 p.m. I’m sitting in my office in Texas and concurrently waiting in an online breakout room with Angel Luis Colón, Barb Goffman, Verena Rose, and Holly West, all of us editors of anthologies nominated for Best Anthology.

Michael Bracken
dressed for success.
We chit-chatted for a bit, but we’ve been asked to mute ourselves while we await announcement of the winner. The ceremony doesn’t begin until 7:00 Texas time, so we’re sitting in silence.

6:40. We just received word that there’s a glitch of some kind and they’ve been unable to get all the nominees into the breakout rooms for their specific categories, which explains why we’re still missing an editor.

6:43. Shawn Reilly Simmons arrived in our breakout room but does not have live video. I think all of us are here now.

6:45. We are kicked out of our breakout rooms.

6:46. We returned to our breakout rooms.

And silence has returned.

6:50. Barb’s camera is on, but she’s disappeared. Shawn still doesn’t have live video.

In the silence, I can hear my wife and our guests in the living room. Andrew Hearn (a contributor to The Eyes of Texas) and his wife Dawn joined us for dinner this evening, and they will soon gather around Temple’s computer on the far side of the house to watch the ceremony.

Waiting in the
Breakout Room
and writing this
SleuthSayers post.

Andrew and
Dawn Hearn.

The ceremony
has begun.

6:54. I took a few selfies and a few photos of my computer screen. Still quiet.

6:57. Slugging Mountain Dew as if I can actually control my bladder. My greatest fear: Being in the bathroom when our category is announced.

6:59. My wife and our guests have gone to the other side of the house.

7:00. Has the ceremony begun? I have no way to know.

7:01. We received a message that the ceremony is live!

7:04. I’m practicing my smile. I look like a serial killer.

7:05. I have my acceptance speech on my computer screen. I modified the text from my prerecorded acceptance speech. I’m wondering if I’ll get to read it.

7:07. Award presentations have begun. Barb has returned.

7:08. Now, I’m getting nervous. I can feel my heart rate increasing. Maybe it’s just the Mountain Dew. 

7:09. Our category is being announced. Shawn now has live video.

7:13. Malice Domestic 14: Mystery Most Edible wins.

Much Later. Even though The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods did not win, I still want to share my thanks. So, here’s the speech I planned to make:

Thanks to Eric Campbell and Lance Wright of Down & Out Books for publishing The Eyes of Texas, and for all they’ve done to support it. Thanks to all seventeen contributors, several of whom received awards or award nominations for their stories. Thanks also to all the Bouchercon attendees who voted for the Anthony Awards, regardless of which anthology they chose. Most importantly, thanks to my wife Temple for all she does. Without her support and encouragement, none of this would be possible. Thank you all.


Recent Presentations

On Saturday, October 10, 2020, I presented “Write It. Sell It.” via Zoom to Malice in Memphis. This presentation was geared toward beginning and early career writers of short mystery fiction. To watch a recording of the presentation and to download the PowerPoint presentation, visit https://www.maliceinmemphis.com/october-2020--zoom-malice-meeting.html.

On Tuesday, October 13, 2020, I presented “Two Sides. Same Coin.” via Zoom to MWA’s Mid-Atlantic Chapter. This was a more general discussion of writing and editing in which I addressed several questions presented in advance of the presentation, and then answered a variety of questions posed after the presentation. To watch a recording of the presentation—which will only be available until November 9—visit https://us02web.zoom.us/rec/share/v0Scazk7dd6644JZSxt-45jESOCGWlN_7MAENEPAAgYBuJF_9gvr41XtBdpF-Zzy.AckWigUVuSPdFlwe, with the passcode F&.x6J.+

19 October 2020

Body Shaming and Institutionalized Contempt for Legs and Ankles


These days I always download the free sample before investing in a book by an author new to me or one I don't know well. In this case, the author was the highly praised thriller writer Zoe Sharp, the book, Killer Instinct, the first in the Charlie Fox series. Charlie is an attractive woman with martial arts skills who teaches self-defense and fitness and works as a bouncer and bodyguard. She's ex-army, drives a motorcycle, and, I'd infer, has developed a unique style as a result of her experiences. You'd think I'd like it—unless I found the violence too graphic or had finally reached my limit for female protagonists named Charlie, Sam, Alex, and Max. But no, that's not why I deleted the sample and crossed Sharp's series off my list. It was this passage, in Charlie's first person voice, that made me want to puke:
Clare's a mate...more my own age. Tall, slender, she has endless legs and a metabolism that means she can binge peanut butter straight out of the jar without putting on an ounce....I envied Clare the ability not to gain weight more than I envied her her looks, which were stunning. She had long straight hair to go with the legs, golden blonde without bottled assistance, and a sense of style I guess you just have to be born with.

Marlene Dietrich's legs
Zoe, you're killing me! Zoe, how could you? It's bad enough when male novelists bore us with the long blonde hair and legs up to here for the umpteenth time. I expect no better from hard-boiled authors like Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins. Here's a variation from Mike Hammer - Masquerade for Murder:
The hostess, a stunning redhead in a green evening dress with matching emerald eyes, intercepted me. ...She was ten curvy pounds the right side of plump and had cherry-red lipsticked lips with a bruised Bardot look that made her smile seem knowing and sly without even trying.
When I was 14, I would have agonized over which side was the "right" side of plump and known in my heart that flat-chested wasn't even in the running. I was too sheltered to have known that equating "bruised" with seductive and "sly" is a meta-message that women who are abused are asking for it. You get bruises from being beaten, not from any experience a real woman would enjoy—or at the least from "rough sex," a phrase I associate with psychopathic killer Robert Chambers's defense in the murder of a teenage girl.
My legs

How do we get from long blonde hair and Bardot lips to rape and murder? All too easily. I found a June 2020 article in The Guardian that reported that in the UK:

More than 60 victims have been forced to go to court over the past decade to deny that they consented to strangulation, assaults or violence, according to the campaign to end reliance on the “rough sex” defence.
Once the authors introduce the "blonde" (or redhead) and the "endless legs," they don't even need to develop her character. Back in July, Craig Faustus Buck wrote a SleuthSayers post on "it is what it is," calling it a "thought-terminating cliché," "figuratively avoiding creative solutions (a writer's suicide)." These non-descriptions of women are the same, bypassing the necessity of making the women characters real people.

Illusion: acceptable legs
Stuart Woods, in his fifty-eight Stone Barrington books, is a master of this. I found a typical example in Book 16, when Barrington walks into a restaurant. "An attractive blonde greeted us."

The character's literally a walk-on, and the sentence could have been deleted. But Woods commits crime after literary crime against women. In the same book, "the lights of Santa Catalina Island twinkled like the eyes of a merry whore." Now, there's a male fantasy for you, and not a very nice male at that. Woods wrote two fine books many years ago, Palindrome and Chiefs. Now who's Santa Catalina Island?

It's a short step from describing women in objectifying or shaming clichés to not describing them at all. In Book 56, Woods opens with a woman, Dame Felicity Devonshire, who's introduced as the head of MI6. What she's doing is not her job, but brokering a house deal for Stone Barrington and acting as a featureless foil for his insatiable lust.

Chapter 2 ends: "Then they went upstairs and went to bed, something to which they had both been looking forward."

Chapter 3 ends: "He followed her up watching her ass all the way."

The woman's the head of MI6. Woods has a gift for reducing potentially interesting women to profoundly uninteresting objects of his middle-aged itch.

Let's go back to Charlie Fox's friend who binges on peanut butter and doesn't gain an ounce. Clare's a compulsive overeater, a shame-based illness that's no fun even if your metabolism saves you from obesity. She may also be a bulimic paying for her slim figure and public admiration with private agonies kneeling over the toilet puking her guts out. These are not the "achievements" for which women should praise their women friends. If they do, it's because the shaming of obesity is so thoroughly institutionalized in our society. Listen to female standup comics and see what percentage of their shtik is based on body shaming of themselves.

I've wanted to throw up myself the many times I've read about a male character falling in love with a woman because she can eat like a horse and not gain an ounce. Ladies, is that really the trait you most want the man of your dreams to value you for? Gentlemen, how shallow and insensitive can you get?

Then there's the universal contempt for thick ankles that I've been coming across in fiction since I started reading novels many decades ago. I have thick ankles. Unlike "style," slim, breakable-looking ankles like those of a thoroughbred horse are something you "have to be born with." Does that mean I don't deserve love?

 

Alas, we're fair game and can be skewered mercilessly. Even Jane Austen took a shot at us. From Northanger Abbey:
Maria's intelligence concluded with a tender effusion of pity for her sister Anne, whom she represented as insupportably cross, from being excluded the party. "She will never forgive me, I am sure; but, you know, how could I help it? John would have me go, for he vowed he would not drive her, because she had such thick ankles. I dare say she will not be in good humour again this month…"


Brainwashing...identification with the aggressor...Stockholm syndrome...If women with slender ankles don't join in jeering at their unfortunate sisters, they might be thrown out of the carriage. And by post-feminist times, it's become unconscious.

Men, of course, have never questioned their right to pass judgment on women's looks. I found this in a short story in Cosmopolitan Magazine, November 1907:
"Don't be a fool, John. You must marry either a German or an English princess."

John Peters shook his head. "Impossible," he declared. "I have acquired your wonderful taste as regards the sex. To save my throne, I couldn't marry a woman with thick ankles." (Anthony Partridge, "The Kingdom of Earth")
The Queen's ankles
Queen Elizabeth has thick ankles, and The temptation to joke about this is almost irresistible—because we have all been programmed not to take women with thick ankles seriously or treat them with the respect we give women we consider beautiful. We've all read novels and seen movies about princes forced into loveless marriages with women who don't meet their standard of beauty who seek love with inappropriate but beautiful women. In America, the "princes" have all the advantages of class and money, while the inappropriate women have Audrey Hepburn's ankles.

There's a double standard at work here, and it's not disappearing any time soon. But there are a few things you can do.

Audrey Hepburn's ankles: remembered

Remember how wretched shaming feels to the person shamed, although you may never know they feel it.

Praise women for their interesting and admirable accomplishments—not for the length of their legs, the radius of their ankles, the color, texture, or provenance of their hair, or the shape and size of their other body parts.

Do not value women inversely by the pound. Love them, or don't, for their character, not for their eating behaviors, which aren't under their control and may not be what you think they are.

18 October 2020

Ginger Snaps and Wolfbane


Ginger Snaps poster
The Premise

Teen girl angst, goth and drama… Sisters’ suicide pact, everything is soooo dramatic… Death scenes staged for a school play project… That day when first period doesn’t refer to school…

For Halloween, a teen girl horror flick, a bildungsromans, a coming-of-age tale.

The cleverly titled Ginger Snaps is a 2001 horror movie for those who don’t like horror movies. It released much too soon after Columbine, which caused distribution problems at home and abroad amid fears of teen violence. A number of theatres banned it outright. The scheduled five and ten year anniversary re-releases failed to materialize, but nevertheless it developed a fan base and ‘cult’ status. I’m convinced anything labeled ‘cult’ refers to creative works with more depth that hurts critics’ limited brain cells.

The Promise


Ginger and Brigitte Fitzgerald are sisters, 16 and 15, in the same grade at school. Unpopular and bullied, they develop a fascination with death, morbidly filming gruesome death scenes for their school project. If they can’t manage to flee their small town when Brigitte reaches 16, they promise to die together.

Their father, Henry Fitzgerald, dotes upon his daughters, but he’s utterly clueless in the estrogen cauldron of his household. Mother Pamela is marginally better, wavering between complicit and the sole disciplinarian. At one point, she tells her husband, “Go back into your own world; this one only confuses you.”

The Plot

Halloween and the night of a full moon approaches.

Local dogs are found torn to pieces, presumably victims of the fanged Beast of Bailey Downs. The girls factor the legend into a plot against the school bully, but before they can act, Ginger is attacked by a creature and dragged into the woods…

Thus opens the story. A prim editor left the best potential tag line on the cutting room floor, but it made it into the movie’s mythos. In an unused clip, Brigitte tells her sister, “PMS is the least of your problems.”

Brigitte and Ginger Fitzgerald
Brigitte and Ginger Fitzgerald
The Practice

Conventional horror movies confuse time in the makeup chair with characterization. What makes Ginger Snaps special is the bond between the sisters. After months of fruitless auditions, the prospective leads happened to try out on the same day. When screenwriter Karen Walton saw the results, she said the young actresses were exactly who she was looking for. Coincidentally, the girls were born in the same hospital, attended the same schools, worked out of the same talent agency, and had appeared in separate episodes of Supernatural and The X-Files. Their chemistry was perfect.

Their parents are well-drawn and probably frighteningly close to how real teens view their folks. The school jock, Jason, makes another interesting character. He shows more moral fibre than we might expect. Rather than slut-shame the girl he just slept with, he merely tells his friends, “She rocked my world.”

When’s the last time you encountered an edgy teen drama that classy?

A mediocre sequel and a slightly more interesting direct-to-DVD prequel followed in 2004.

Thanks to Haboob for a list of where-to-view sources in time for Halloween. Enjoy the show.

Ginger Snaps (2001)
  • Crackle
  • Favesome
  • Filmrise
  • Plex
  • Roku
  • Tubi
  • Vudu
  • Wow Now
  • paywall…
  • Amazon
  • iTunes
  • Microsoft
  • Roku
  • YouTube
  Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed
  • Movie Sphere
  • Plex
  • Roku



Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning
  • Movie Sphere
  • Plex
  • Roku
  • Tubi

17 October 2020

And Now for Something Different …


I don't like all movies, any more than I like all novels or short stories–but I like all kinds and genres of movies. Adventure, mystery, romance, horror, western, war, sports, science fiction, fantasy, humor, drama, animated, musical, documentary, silent, foreign, pretty much anything. If it looks interesting to me, I'll watch it–or at least start it. I admit I've grown a little tired of superheroes and zombies, but I'll usually give anything a try.

I will also, occasionally, watch a movie just because I've heard it's off the beaten track. That of course doesn't always turn out well–sometimes you run screaming back to what's safe and familiar. But sometimes it does work.

Innovative, when used to describe movies, can mean a lot of things: a different subject, a different technology, a different approach–anything that might break new ground. Examples: Jurassic Park was the first movie to fully create life-like dinosaurs; Toy Story was the first feature-length computer-animated film; Superman was the first movie to use a computer-generated title sequence. In the not-entertaining-but-interesting department, Star Wars was the first movie to list the entire crew in the closing credits.


If you're into this kind of thing, here are some more "firsts":

The first movie to feature …

  • a GPS device – Goldfinger (1964)
  • a cell phone – Lethal Weapon (1987)
  • a car phone – Sabrina (1954)
  • a toilet being flushed – Psycho (1960)
  • a karate fight – The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
  • a rocket launch – A Trip to the Moon (1902)
  • on-screen texting – Sex Drive (2008)
  • an interracial kiss – Island in the Sun (1957)
  • a gay kiss – Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)
  • sound – The Jazz Singer (1927)
  • a dog in a starring role – Rescued by Rover (1905)
  • a TV set – Elstree Calling (1930)
  • a PG-13 rating – Red Dawn (1984)
  • an NC-17 rating – Henry and June (1990)
  • the Wilhelm Scream – Distant Drums (1951)
  • scenes shot entirely by natural candlelight – Barry Lyndon (1975)
  • a commercially-released soundtrack – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
  • a rock song° in the soundtrack – Blackboard Jungle (1955)
    • "Rock Around the Clock," Bill Haley and His Comets

While not necessarily "firsts," the following are a few movies I've either watched or re-watched over the past months that I can truly say are innovative:

1917 (2019) – The entire movie was filmed in one continuous, unbroken shot. This was done also in Russian Ark and, with a few subtle edits, Hitchcock's Rope. But 1917 takes the viewer on a long journey with many different locations, in one person's POV, from start to finish. I loved it.

All Is Lost (2013) – Filmed with no dialogue. Well, that's not quite right: There's one word, a familiar expletive spoken by the main character (Robert Redford) at a point when things get extra frustrating. To shoot a movie this way, involving only one man and his boat and the ocean, and still make it entertaining, is impressive.

Memento (2000) – This one doesn't just have a nonlinear timeline; it's filmed backwards. Specifically, it's in two sections, the first part chronological and the second part backward. I never saw anything like it.

Vantage Point (2008) – The same story is told multiple times, one after the other, each time using a different character's POV. (Rashomon, if I remember correctly, did almost the same kind of thing.)

The Blair Witch Project (1999) – A "found footage" movie. It wasn't the first to be filmed this way, but it was the one that made the process famous. Troll Hunters, years later, was my favorite of these, and I liked Cloverfield also. (My college roommate and I saw Cloverfield together in the theater in 2008, and we had to leave early because the realistic, jerky camera movement made him sick.)

Psycho (1998) – A remake that was faithfully re-created shot-for-shot from Hitchcock's 1960 classic, just with a different cast, director, etc. It's worth watching if only to see the way it was done.

Boyhood (2014) – Shows actors as they grow in real life. It was filmed from 2001 to 2013 and follows the life of a boy in Texas from the age of six to eighteen. To my knowledge it's the first movie ever to try this.

Executive Action (1996)/Deep Blue Sea (1999)/Psycho (1960) – Each of these is unique in that one of its biggest and most recognizable stars is unexpectedly killed off very early in the story (Steven Seagal/Samuel L. Jackson/Janet Leigh). That's risky, but in these cases it seemed to work.

Adaptation (2002) – A multiple-award-winning film about–believe it or not–the writing of the movie you're watching. Robert Ebert said, "To watch the film is to be actively involved in the challenge of its creation." Weird but fascinating.

Flags of Our Fathers (2006)/Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) – Two separate Clint Eastwood-directed movies about the same event (the Battle of Iwo Jima), told from two different POVs–the first from the U.S., the second from Japan.

NOTE: One that I've not yet seen is Timecode (2000). It supposedly features four continuous storylines in real-time split screens. It is at this moment in my Netflix queue.


Other movies that are innovative in various ways: The Wild Bunch, Dick Tracy, The Artist, Sin City, Pleasantville, Buried, Idiocracy, Big Fish, Alien, Pulp Fiction, 2001, Open Water, Airplane!, Westworld, M*A*S*H, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Rustler's Rhapsody, The Matrix, Birdman, The Lobster, Being John Malkovich, Cloud Atlas, Flack Bay, Blazing Saddles, Run Lola Run, Dogville, A Fistful of Dollars, The Exorcist, Brazil, Amelie, Melancholia, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Avatar, Titanic, Thelma and Louise, Life of Pi, Dr. Strangelove, Galaxy Quest, Across the Universe, The Sixth Sense.

There are many, many more movies that try something new, with varying results. What are some that come to mind, for you?–and what innovative things about them made them appealing to you (or not)? Any that I should be on the lookout for? Any I should avoid?


Again, different isn't always good. But it's almost always interesting.


Next time, back to the subject of writing.

16 October 2020

The Macabre (True) Story of the Sunshine Lady, with an Appearance by Mr. Poe


It’s my unfortunate predilection to use my wife’s speaking gig and book tour absences as opportunities to eat and drink inappropriately. That alone can explain why and how I found myself a year or so ago in the darkened back bar at the Poe House in Hendersonville, North Carolina, a “quaint” town not far from where I live. The Poe House is an Edgar Allan Poe-themed tavern that is part wine bar, part music venue, part cocktail joint.

Poe and alcohol did not mix...well. Eight years before his death, Poe wrote a letter hoping to clear himself after W.E. Burton, a former employer whom Poe despised, circulated rumors of Poe’s drunkenness.

“I am temperate even to rigor,” [Poe wrote.] “At no period of my life was I ever what men call intemperate…. My sensitive temperament could not stand an excitement which was an everyday matter to my companions. In short, it sometimes happened that I was completely intoxicated. For some days after each excess I was invariably confined to bed. But it is now quite four years since I have abandoned every kind of alcoholic drink—four years, with the exception of a single deviation…when I was induced to resort to the occasional use of cider, with the hope of relieving a nervous attack.”

Whatever the truth, it has certainly not stopped barkeeps from using his lugubrious mug to decorate various drinking establishments. I’m getting good at ferreting out such places, and I’ll get to them all someday.

Red Death. In a glass.

On this occasion, as I sipped my Mask of the Red Death*—a beverage containing Tito’s, pomegranate juice, grilled lemon, rosemary simple syrup, with a rosemary sprig—I continued to peruse the Poe House cocktail menu**, which featured drinks with names like Amelia, Absinthe Drip, Virginia Clemm, Poe-a-Tree, Tales of Mystery, That Girl, Insanity, and Brewed Nevermore (your basic coffee and bourbon concoction).

“You don’t have a Sunshine Lady cocktail?” I asked the bartender. 

“Is that a Poe story?”

“No,” I said. “It’s a Hendersonville story.”

If you spend time poking around the Oakdale Cemetery just off Hendersonville’s main drag, you will eventually encounter the most boring tomb imaginable. A rectangular, above-ground sarcophagus covered on all six sides with concrete. This is the final resting place of one Lelia Davidson Hansell***, who endures in local legend as the Sunshine Lady.

Charlotte Oberver, 1926.

She was born in 1861, and hailed from a wealthy family whose name graces a nearby college. She and her husband, Judge Charles P. Hansell, lived in Thomasville, Georgia, but resided in our mountainous region 18 months before the end of her life. Judging from Mrs. Hansell’s death certificate, I suspect that her relocation was in order to avail herself of the region’s “breathing porches.”  This is where one came to sit, and to breathe mountain air, theoretically extinguishing toxins lodged in one’s lungs. In this case both air and porches proved insalubrious. In December 1915, Mrs. Hansell expired at the age of 54 from pulmonary tuberculosis.

Then things got seriously weird. Edgar Allan Poe weird.

The story goes that Mrs. Hansell abhorred the notion of being confined to a tomb for eternity. She  extracted from her husband a promise to bury her in such a way that the sun would always shine upon her face. Acceding to her request, he entombed her in a sarcophagus topped with blocks of prism glass. This is the glass you find embedded in sidewalks of great American cities. “Vault lights” allowed daylight to illuminate the basements of major buildings in the age before electric light. Prism glass was clear when installed but turned purple as its manganese content aged.

I lived in Hendersonville—aka Hendo, aka Hooterville—for a year when we first moved to the South. The Sunshine Lady became one of my brief obsessions. I’d poke around the web whenever I had a spare moment, looking for specific details, and wrote a short story inspired by the tomb.****

I learned that for decades the Sunshine Lady became Hendersonville’s most morbid attraction. I found mentions of the grave in 1930s-era WPA Guides to North Carolina. I read accounts of children selling cups of water outside the cemetery gates, instructing tourists to rub a few drops with their fingers on the scuffed glass blocks in order to better peer at the tomb’s occupant. And I’ve found articles in which longtime residents swore that when they were children themselves they’d still been able to gaze upon the corpse’s skeletal countenance, framed by a beautiful mass of auburn hair.

I have no idea if that’s true or even possible, though Mrs. Hansell’s obituary praised “her character of unusual beauty.” The examples of prism glass I’ve seen are very opaque, but admittedly I’ve only seen aged specimens.

Eventually, the town fathers got tired of this hideous spectacle. A local historian writes, “Many people expectorated on the glass and for sanitary reasons the top will be covered.”

Guess they got tired of buying water from the local kids.


The San Francisco Examiner, 1927.

But I’m sure there were other reasons they altered the tomb. If I may be permitted to speculate, wise Appalachian soothsayers probably foresaw that one day this sleepy Southern town would be a mecca for people seeking microbrews, homegrown apples, quilted handbags, homemade country pickles and preserves, antiques, and cute carvings of black bears. Hooterville could no longer be known as the place where people came to gaze upon the grinning face of death.

In 1937, the tomb was refurbished. It looks to me like a couple of thick skim coats of concrete did the trick, but it’s entirely possible they replaced the glass blocks with cinderblock. Who knows.

I do know that it’s the creepiest thing we’ve got around here, and I could not sleep the night I first heard the story in a local coffee shop. How much of the tale is true? How much embellished? I suppose at this point it does not matter. What does matter is that an enterprising bartender simply must dream up a suitable drink to honor the city’s most morbid resident—and fast. My nerves are so shot I might be forced to guzzle cider.

* * *

* “Mask” was used in the title when Poe’s tubercular nightmare first appeared in Graham’s Magazine in 1842, a month after he quit his post as the magazine’s editor. It’s been “Masque” since 1845 on.

** Alas, no Amontillado on the menu.

*** I’ve seen her forename spelled as Lela, Lelia, and Leila. The obit says Lelia, but the death certificate says Leila. I hate history.

**** My short story treats the whole legend as a ghost story. Download it free 'til the end of the month right here. And Happy Halloween!


See you in three weeks!


15 October 2020

Why I Don't Read or Write True Crime, Part Three


This is Part Three of a three-part series. For Part One, click here. For Part Two, click here

I have a jack-in-the-box in my desk, at work (for those of you who don't remember, I teach middle school history). It's not a traditional jack-in-the-box. It's an Iron Maiden (the British metal band, not the torture implement) jack-in-the-box, and it's got Eddie, Iron Maiden's ghoulish mascot, as the jack-in-the-box. It's still in the box.

This particular jack-in-the-box was a gift from a former student. And the kid who gave it to me was one-of-a-kind. As a seventh-grader he'd gotten himself into a remarkable amount of trouble, and by the time I got him as an eighth-grader his parents had tossed out all of his black clothes, his guy-liner, every piece of studded black leather, all of the things that he had worn or used to drive them crazy before the final time he'd gotten himself kicked out of school. When I met him, he dressed like a preppy, because his parents picked out his clothes and insisted he shut the door on the black leather and the emo music.

So when I mentioned that I had first seen Iron Maiden in concert as a high school senior in 1982, he decided I was alright. One thing I've learned in all of my years of teaching is that people can connect over the smallest of things. British metal band Iron Maiden was my point of connection with this young man.

His family moved out of state at the end of the year, and right before he left, he gave me the aforementioned jack-in-the-box. I was really touched by the gesture, and by how happy his family was with how much better this very intelligent young man was doing in school. So when his parents sent me a Facebook friend request before they left so we could stay in touch, I was happy to agree to it.

Three years later he killed himself. Over a girl.

I had another student once who robbed a guy in a parking lot drug deal after the guy (who was his dealer) showed him the big bag of money he had made from selling pot. So my former pulled a pistol, took the money, and jumped into a waiting car (driven by another former student of mine). The robbed dealer gave chase on foot. The robber used his gun and shot out the window as they drove off. He killed the the guy.

Both he and the driver are still in jail.


Just a few years ago I had a student who had been diagnosed with O.D.D ("Oppositional Defiant Disorder"). He spent his days at my school acting out, cussing out teachers, and doing no work. Once again I got lucky. I knew who Tupac Shakur was, and had seen him in concert when he was just starting out (how that came about is a long story in itself.). This kid loved Tupac.

So we got along. 

But I wasn't very successful at convincing him to cut other people (students, staff, you know, everyone) any slack. So he was always in trouble. It was shame too, because he was a big, funny, goofy kid. A talented athlete, too. He played basketball on a really good AAU team. He just had no common sense and a get-out-of-consequences-free (for the moment) card.

He went off to high school and I wondered whether he was going to be able to stay out of jail. 

He wasn't. 

He's been busted several times in the intervening years for a string of burglaries, and recently tried to rob a convenience store late one night. The clerk he tried to rob was armed and the two exchanged gunfire. Both were hit. And my former student ran off. He has since turned himself in to police.

These are real stories. This is literally "True Crime." I find it in no way entertaining. There's a human cost here that is painful to recall. And for me there's no escaping it.

And that's why I neither read nor write True Crime.

14 October 2020

The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968)


I saw Tony Richardson’s Charge of the Light Brigade in London, the year it came out, and was enormously impressed.  (Apparently the U.S. release was cut by some six minutes, and the DVD is missing that footage.)  Watching the picture again – has it really been fifty years? – I recognize its strengths and weaknesses, but I think I gave it more credit than it was due, at the time.

 

For example, what is Vanessa Redgrave doing in the movie?  She was big box office, after Blow-Up and Camelot, but her character in Light Brigade is a superfluous distraction.  She sleeps with her husband’s best friend, but other than demonstrating the impenetrable superficiality of the ruling classes, it has no dramatic purpose.  For another, they don’t manage to make it entirely clear why Cardigan leads the Light up the wrong valley, and charges directly into the Russian cannon, instead of flanking them – which leaves a pretty big hole in its pretense to historical accuracy.

 



That being said, the movie has wonderful virtues.  The production design, which conjures up the dense ecosystems of David Lean’s postwar Dickens adaptions, and the cinematography by David Watkin, he of Robin and Marian, Chariots of Fire, and Night Falls on Manhattan.  But chiefly, the inspired casting.  Some of the actors weren’t even Richardson’s original choices – amazingly, Trevor Howard as Lord Cardigan, a part Richardson offered to Rex Harrison.  No disrespect to Rex, but seriously?  In a career that includes Brief Encounter, The Third Man, The Roots of Heaven, and Sons and Lovers, watching Howard chew on his mustaches in this performance is nothing short of heart-stopping.  His glaring matches with Harry Andrews as Lord Lucan (in life they were brothers-in-law and cordially disliked one another) are sulphurous.

 


Howard and Harry Andrews aside, there’s the gloriously nasal John Gielgud as Raglan; the inimitable Peter Bowles (later of Rumpole) at his most fatuous, and Jill Bennett as his lion-hunter of a wife; tragically memorable, Norman Rossington, Albert Finney’s best mate in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the Beatles’ manager in Hard Day’s Night, as the Sergeant Major compromised by his commanding officer, Cardigan, and broken to the ranks – one of the more brutal and graphic flogging scenes in any movie.  David Hemmings, though, is disappointing in the pivotal role of Nolan, too languid and too pretty.  (And reportedly insufferable during filming.)

 


The other point to make is of course the context.  Like many pictures from the late 1960’s and early 70’s, Charge of the Light Brigade falls under the shadow of Viet Nam.  In this case, not so much metaphorically, because the Crimean War was itself a huge folly.  The mismanagement of the war, and the management of public opinion, were two sides of a coin.  Cardigan was a hero in Great Britain after Balaclava; Lucan was in disgrace.  It was years before Cardigan’s reputation began to suffer, and even after he was exposed as an incompetent, there were people who refused to believe it.  (Cardigan’s bravery wasn’t doubted, but his leadership was a joke.)  The very real benefit that came out of the Crimea’s “confusion of purpose” was the reform of the British Army that did away with the purchase of commissions and brought in a policy of promotion by merit.  Not perfect, but a start.

 


Viet Nam was often seen at right angles, or in reflection, not in our direct gaze.  Lost Command, Mark Robson’s version of Larteguy’s The Centurions, came out in 1967, and The Green Berets in ‘68.  They weren’t box-office bombs, but opinion was divided on their merits.  The more common approach was peripheral.  M*A*S*H supposedly took place during KoreaNicholas and Alexandra is a lot more about the year of its release, 1971, than it is about the fall of the Romanovs: it’s Nixon, Cambodia, and Kent State.

 


Charge of the Light Brigade came out in 1968, after the Tet Offensive.  The timing is coincidental, but the movie’s antiwar sentiments were sharpened considerably by what was widely viewed as an American military and political embarrassment.  (Historically, it was a defeat for the NVA and Viet Cong, but the public perception in the U.S. and Europe was quite different.)  Light Brigade, then, becomes a provocation, and a warning against foreign adventurism.  It’s not about a war a century old, but a war very much in the here and now.  And the generals bickering over who gets the blame for the slaughter remind us uncomfortably of the tone-deaf Westmoreland, with his talk of a light at the end of the tunnel.  No accident. 

 

We imagine we made peace with Viet Nam.  Not with Viet Nam per se, a country that makes us sweatshop sneakers, but with Viet Nam as an American failure, which is complete nonsense.  Missing in Action is psychological denial, Chuck Norris fighting the war over again, but winning this time.

 

Charge of the Light Brigade is a moment frozen in time.  Not the Crimea, but 1968.  It betrays its own period.  I don’t think it’s a bad picture, far from it, but I think it shows its age.  You look at a movie like The Thin Man, and admire or indulge its representation of its own time and place, but still think it has a universal charm, whether or not it’s dated.  You give it the benefit of the doubt.  Light Brigade is too much the product of its own particular period; it can’t breathe.  It’s trapped in its immediate context.  That immediacy, which made it seem so genuine and alive back then, makes it an artifact now.  It’s a fossil.