19 February 2019

Baby You Can Drive My Car

By Michael Bracken

Until recently, Temple’s parents lived in Tyler, Texas, about a three-hour drive from our home near Waco. We visited her parents a handful of times each year, and during the long drive to and from we often discussed story ideas. This, inevitably, led to discussions of plots, characters, and settings, and by the time we returned home from each trip, we had generated and fleshed out one or more story ideas that I ultimately turned into finished manuscripts, including “Smoked,” which was reprinted in The Best American Mystery Stories 2018.

My mobile workstation.
Often, we started the discussion with me describing an invitation to submit that I had received, or a call for submissions that interested me, or, when I was writing confessions, a discussion of what holiday or other event might occur in the publication month I was targeting. (This would include, for example, generating Christmas stories for the December issues.)

There is something about being behind the wheel of a car on a long trip that liberates my mind to free associate in a way that I do not often do when sitting at a keyboard. Other than the attention I must pay to the traffic around me, there are no distractions. The cats aren’t walking on my keyboard. The dog doesn’t need to go out. Email doesn’t ding with incoming messages. I can’t get sucked into a rabbit hole of increasing internet research of decreasing value. And online word games don’t lure me from the task at hand.

It helps, of course, that Temple sits beside me with notepad and pen in hand. We bounce ideas back and forth, and she makes note of the best ones. The notes might include a rough plot outline or might be little more than a title or character name or inciting incident.

Upon arriving at her parents’ home, while Temple visited with her family, I would sometimes disappear into the sunroom to turn the notes into something more by thumb typing or dictating into my phone. Upon returning home, I would spend the next few days turning the more detailed notes, rough plots, and partially completed scenes into finished manuscripts.

That, unfortunately, is about to end. Temple’s mother passed away last September, and her father recently purchased a home half a dozen blocks from us. When he completes the move from Tyler, our long drives will be a thing of the past.

We are likely to visit her father more often, but there will barely be enough time during the drive (or the walk, in good weather) to his new home to discuss extremely short stories. The end result could be a rash of flash fiction.

Or it could mean we must find a new destination for our drives, someplace about three hours away that offers a good meal, great company, and sufficient incentive to break our daily routine, get in the car, and go.

There’s a disturbance in the force. I’ve had nothing published since my previous SleuthSayers post, so here’s a throwback to 2001: All White Girls, one of my first novels, was published and is still available in various formats from Wildside Press. With ten reviews, it ranks 4.5 stars at Amazon, and reviewers at the time of publication said:

“...violent surprises...fast-paced and very hard-boiled.” A 4-Star Review—Detroit Free Press

“All White Girls is a one-sitting, in-your-face, hard-boiled mystery; and it’s damn good.”—I Love A Mystery

“...a gritty novel where almost everyone has an interest in the dark side of human nature.”—Blue Iris Journal

“...a driving pace that keeps the reader engaged from cover to cover.”—Judas

Order from Amazon.

18 February 2019

Surviving the Byte of the Cobra, part 2

by Leigh Lundin

The exemPlum doesn’t fall far from the tree…

Yesterday, we discussed password problems. Today, we look at those subversively risky personal questions used to zero in on you and perhaps your wallet.

A fair lot of crap programming comes out of Bangalore, so it’s befitting software designers call this particular law of unintended consequences ‘the cobra effect’.
The Cobra Effect
During British Crown Rule of India, legend says administrators grew concerned about the numbers of vipers infesting Delhi. The colonial governor offered a bounty for every dead cobra brought in. However, the plan’s short-term success was undermined by enterprising locals breeding cobras to collect bounties. The British governor terminated the program. Disappointed cobra farmers subsequently released their breeding serpents into the wild, far worsening the problem… or so the parable goes.
Character Reference

Last week, I needed to register on-line with a county agency. (No, my readers, NOT the Department of Corrections as the snarky amongst you might suspect.)

The first hint of difficulty lay in the most restricted character set to date, merely letters and numbers, no punctuation whatsoever. This thoughtfully provides bad guys huge hints: “Psst. Save time, fellas. Don’t bother testing the lock with those difficult oddball characters.”

The next clue… You know those personal identifying questions in case you forget your password? Questions like naming your favorite cheese or your first juvenile parole officer? These questions mask some of the greatest risks in computerdom. Anyone who knows the least bit about you can guess the answers.

Worse, I’ve encountered sites that provide convenient drop-down menu answers, a selection of eight or so choices. One of the most popular questions with a handy menu is, “What’s your favorite color?”

Presumably this helps the spelling-challenged, but what a gift to bad guys. Immediately black-hat hackers rule out black and white, rarely anyone’s favorites. That leaves six or eight choices, hardly a burden for the least capable password cracker. They need not guess if they notice the blue shirts and blue cell phone cover ordered on Amazon and now appearing in your latest Facebook pose.

Moral: Never answer a question with a menu choice.

Orange County registration questions
Orange County Registration Questions
 Your Government at Work

At left, notice the personally identifiable questions from the aforementioned county agency. Anyone with the slightest knowledge about you can guess the answers. Anyone who doesn’t know you, can easily google your name, learning where you attended high school, your favorite team, your pets, and your mother’s maiden name.

What can you do about it?

Don’t play the game.

First, of course, avoid Q&A with drop-down menus. That’s a given.

If the web page doesn’t feature drop-down menus, you can answer your favorite color of yellow, orange, or red with “sweet cream banana pie yellow”, “fancy freckle-farm fulvous fantasy,” or “notorious red dye number 2”.

If you know French, Spanish, or Romanian, you might utilize that knowledge, perhaps in combination with the verbose suggestion above. Answer your favorite color as ‘rouge’, ‘rojo’, or ‘roșu’. If you don’t know a foreign language, try Pig Latin, e.g, ‘edray’ or ‘ellowyay’.

But I never could abide by the rules. There’s an easier way than such hard-to-remember replies.

You can boost security if you make your answers– every answer– a non sequitur, a nonsense phrase. Remembering will be easier if you use the same response, such as “None of your damn business.” For example:
© BBB
Favorite author?
None of your damn business.
Favorite color?
None of your damn business.
Favorite team?
None of your damn business.
Web sites like Apple’s recognize and object when an answer is repeated while populating a questionnaire. One solution is to exactly echo the question with leading or trailing words. For example, “Favorite author?” can be answered with, “My favorite author is none of your damn business,” or more simply, “Stuff my favorite author,” and “Stuff my favorite team,” etc.

Most importantly, choose a method that fits your style, then keep that information to yourself. Not playing by their dictates helps keep your data safer.

Don’t play the game.

Make up your own rules.

Password Security Question

Q. What’s your favorite security question?

A. ______________________________

17 February 2019

Surviving the Byte of the Cobra, part 1

by Leigh Lundin

Shibboleths and Shinola

As you may know, I spent years computer consulting for major corporations. I developed low regard for the so-called security found in many businesses, banks and brokerage houses, and lesser government agencies. Many so-called safety ‘features’ introduce unintended vulnerabilities.

Stick with me today and tomorrow. I’ll show you a method or so to help plug one or two security holes and help protect yourself.

Just Say No

Recently, I found myself unable to create an on-line account with my insurance company. The business published no  password restrictions, so I started with something like §103NádražníBeržųStraße – I’m not kidding – I take the security of my most critical sites seriously. The system didn’t accept that, a big clue that password and privacy isn’t a high priority with them. I whittled away diacriticals and then the leading special character §, but still nothing. After reduction to a plain vanilla password, and still no access I contacted customer service, asking how to solve the problem.

Naturally the customer service lady wouldn’t put me in direct touch with IT, the people who should know. She spent roughly 15 minutes piecing together the requirements: no more than ten characters from a measly set of the 62 alphanumeric characters plus underscore and hyphen.
“You’re kidding,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“Those are the weakest password requirements I’ve come across in a long time.”

“Oh no, sir. We’ve never been hacked, so we’re very pleased.”

“You mean you haven’t drawn the attention of hackers.” The more restrictions placed on passwords, the easier for miscreants to breach the walls.

I could feel her bristle through the phone line. “Our staff understands our needs very well, I’m sure.”

Uh-huh. I thought dryly. They could withstand a concerted attack for, well, hundreds of seconds.
The only safe solution was not to use their on-line ‘service’ at all. In the future, what little information I might need will come by telephone and US mail.

It’s 1980, No Pasting Allowed

Ever encounter a web site that won’t allow you to paste in your password? Sure you have, and it’s frustrating as hell. Worse, it adds vulnerabilities rather than resolves them.

Years ago, some misguided ‘expert’ decided password paste prevention sounded pretty cool, and lo, he advised others about his really cool hypothesis. It turned out wrong, dead wrong.

Preventing pasting discourages visitors from using long, complex passwords, prevents utilizing password managers, and makes it easy for cracking hardware and software ‘keyloggers’– to monitor what you type in. Even the task group within NIST, the US National Institute of Standards and Technology, advises against disabling password pasting.

Clearly a number of corporations didn’t get the memo. What can a trapped user do? A few suggestions come to mind.

The web page may disable pasting keyboard shortcut but not disable the menu paste entry. This occurs often enough, it’s worth trying first.

A second possibility is to temporarily disable JavaScript. After doing it a couple of times, it doesn’t take long, certainly less time than blindly typing in a long string. Simply bring up the web page. When you reach the field that won’t let you paste, disable JavaScript by invoking Preferences, click Disable JavaScript in the Security or Privacy tabs, paste your password, and immediately re-engage JavaScript. (Note: This doesn’t work with Firefox, which won’t let users disable JavaScript.)

If that fails, try to resist using a short and simple password, one reason why this disagreeable ‘feature’ is so dangerous.

When It’s All About Length

I came across a bug in a popular web site. The registration web page happily accepted my lengthy password, but would not allow me to sign on.

I learned the site used an unadvertised maximum limit of 20 characters. Further investigation concluded it didn’t limit or validate the length of the password string. The registration page stored a function of the first 20 characters, no matter how many were entered. The sign-on page also didn’t check the limit of characters, but simply compared its value with the stored value, resulting in a mismatch.

In other words, I tried to register AbCdEfGhIjKlMnOpQrStUvWxYz, but the program stored AbCdEfGhIjKlMnOpQrSt. When I tried to sign on, the page compared the stored AbCdEfGhIjKlMnOpQrSt with the sign-on value of AbCdEfGhIjKlMnOpQrStUvWxYz and failed, a stupid programming error. (Engineers will note I’m grossly simplifying a hash encryption function.) Bad, bad program design.

© BBB
Mine’s Smaller Than Yours

A web site’s failure to validate the length of a password allowed me to pull off a silly little trick of questionable value. In the early days of the Web before it came under attack by Russian crackers and North Korean ransomware, I’d registered at a particular web site with a short password.

Years later, alarmed at attacks occurring worldwide, the site instituted stricter registration policies, including using lengthy password minimums double the length mine. They validated new password lengths at registration, but not during sign-on.

The site wasn’t critical for me, which led to an idiosyncratic decision to keep my old, deprecated password. A brute-force attacker would likely note  updated site rules that passwords must run at least twelve characters in length. If so, my dinky little password ought to sail under their radar. (And if not, I could live without the site.)

Tomorrow… Cobras and those pesky and perilous personal mystery questions.

16 February 2019

Pop the Clutch: Back to the Fifties


by John M. Floyd


Like many of you, I occasionally have a story published in an anthology. Sometimes I see a "call for submissions" and send off a story in the hope that an editor will like it, sometimes I'm invited to contribute a story, sometimes I'm fortunate enough to have one selected for a best-of-the-year anthology. However it happens, the story usually fits a "theme." Recent anthologies I've been involved with had themes that range all over the place: the military, food and drink, visions, Joni Mitchell songs, sanctuaries, Donald Trump, the full moon, Florida, New England, Texas, the South, horror, mystery, romance, and time travel.

Last month I was lucky enough to have a story published in a book that's turned out to be one of the most interesting anthologies I've seen in a while. This was one of those "write it from scratch" stories that would never have been created if not for this specific project. The book's title will explain that--it's Pop the Clutch: Thrilling Tales of Rockabilly, Monsters, and Hot Rod Horror. And yes, all those elements appear regularly in the 18 stories included. The publisher is Dark Moon Books and the editor is L.A. author Eric Guignard, who won a Bram Stoker Award in 2013 for his anthology After Death. (I was in that one too, although I suspect that my story didn't singlehandedly earn the win.)

I also suspect that one reason I found the Pop the Clutch project fascinating was its unique theme. There's just something compelling about the 1950s, whether you lived in that time period or not: jukeboxes, roller skates, film noir, Elvis, motor courts, cigarettes, sock hops, TV westerns, sideburns, coonskin caps, Hula Hoops, croquet, wheelies, flat-tops, ducktails, and so on. And when you add a dose of fantasy and horror to that already magical era . . . how could a reader not enjoy that? It's Daddy-o and the Mummy, all at once. You can be on another planet without leaving Earth.

What made me especially grateful to be included in this book is the fact that three of my literary heroes--Joe Lansdale, Bill Pronzini, and Max Allan Collins--were also invited to participate. Anytime my name winds up beside the names of folks like that in a ToC, well, my head grows by a couple of hat sizes and I dream that maybe I'm finally making something of myself, Mom. And even though I wound up enjoying, as expected, the stories those three authors produced for the book, I liked the others also.

If I had to pick half a dozen favorites, they were probably "Dr. Morrismo's InsaniTERRORium Horror Show," by Lisa Morton; "Tremble," by Kasey Lansdale and Joe R. Lansdale; "I'm With the Band," by Steve Perry, "The Prom Tree," by Yvonne Navarro; "The She-Creature," by Amelia Beamer; and "Universal Monster," by Duane Swierczynski.

My own story in the book (he announced, modestly) is "The Starlite Drive-In," a mystery/horror tale set in present-day Mississippi that winds up tied to the 1950s in a weird and otherworldly way: real creatures from old movies like Mothra and The Blob and I Was a Teenage Werewolf start turning up (and gobbling up the citizens) in the rural area near an abandoned drive-in movie theater that once screened those masterpieces--and a worn-out sheriff and his female deputy find themselves in a life-or-death battle with this army of creepy and bloodsucking critters. (If you think I didn't have a great time writing this one, well, you weren't a teenage werewolf.)
Even if you aren't old enough to have experienced the Fifties firsthand, this book will make you feel like you're there. Worst case, you'll want to put on a poodle skirt or grease your hair (hopefully not at the same time)--and best case, so help me Godzilla, you'll be inspired to re-watch some of those deliciously stupid monster movies from that era.


I must include, here, a word of thanks. First to Eric Guignard: if you happen to read this post, Eric, I'm indebted to you for bringing me aboard for yet another of your anthologies. And thanks also to those of you who buy and read this wild bunch of stories. If you like 'em half as much as I did, your time and money will have been well spent.

Let me close with some questions for my fellow short-story writers: How do you feel about anthologies? Do you send stories to anthos as often as you do to magazines? When you do, do you prefer creating a story first and then looking for a market, or trying to write to a pre-determined theme? Are most of your antho stories mysteries, or have you tried other genres (or combined genres, as I did with this one)? Are they usually submitted as a result of an invitation, or as an audition? Are most of these publications paying gigs, or for-the-love-of-it projects?

Okay, back to the dragstrip. Start your engines and hit the gas.

Where'd I put that Brylcreem . . . ?




15 February 2019

The Manual of Mindfulness: Thinking Like Sherlock Holmes

by Lawrence Maddox

Sherlock Ommmms
The modern concept of mindfulness seems as far from Victorian England as Optimus Prime does from Robbie the Robot, yet maybe it's most ardent fictional practitioner shot out of that era like a bullet from a Webley Bulldog Revolver.  Roughly 2300 years before the Victorian Age's namesake took the throne (and about 2420 years before The Kinks sang her praises in "Victoria"), the seeds of what we now call  "mindfulness" started with Buddha himself, passing into the west largely through meditation, yoga, and for me as a kid, the TV show Kung Fu.

The western medical community began picking up on these stress-reducing practices as an alternative to the drugs, booze, and all the other fun stuff we westerners use to to chill out. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn was one of the first to do so and call it "mindfulness." "Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally," said Kabat-Zinn. "And then I sometimes add, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom."

Basil Rathbone being iconic
Jeremy Brett being brilliant
So who is this Victorian-era Buddha I mentioned earlier? His black shag tobacco is still sprinkled all over pop culture, one hundred and twenty-two years after he first appeared in print. We just can't seem to get enough Sherlock Holmes, be it in print, radio, theater, TV or movies. Holmes has been played by actors as varied as Basil Rathbone (my childhood favorite), Jeremy Brett (my all-time fav), Hammer Horror heroes Peter Cushing AND Christopher Lee, Robert Downey Jr, and Benedict Cumberbatch.  Mr. Spock and Dr. House certainly share much of the Holmes DNA, as does last year's animated hit Sherlock Gnomes. I bet if you looked long enough, you'd find Holmes porn floating around the internet. Please don't forward any links.

What is it about Holmes that still fascinates us? The knowledge, the reasoning, the braininess of Holmes is what most consider Holmes' primary traits. Fans of the detective know there's so much more. Holmes' imagination, his ability to be present and live utterly in the moment, his awareness of his own thought processes, his mindfulness, are perhaps his greatest and most impressive gifts.

If Doyle meant the Holmes stories to be idle entertainment only, he was wildly successful. What if Doyle was also showing us a better way to live? Maria Konnikova thinks that's exactly what Doyle was doing, and she teaches us how to think like Sherlock Holmes in her fascinating manual-of-mindfulness Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (2013)

Maria Konnikova first caught the Holmes bug when her father read Holmes stories to her when she was little. She eventually earned her Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia and has published extensively about science, yet she owns up to the role that reading fiction has played in her life:  "I think the best psychologists are actually fiction writers. Their understanding of the human mind is so far beyond where we've been able to get with psychology as a science."

Mastermind presents the two different ways in which people use their brains. There is the Watson system, which is our default system. The Watson system makes all the mental errors that Watson, Lestrade, and the rest of the bumblers make in the Holmes stories. The Watson system jumps to incorrect conclusions, is influenced by appearances, and isn't really paying attention, either to the outside world or to it's own mental workings.

The Holmes system will have none of that. By dent of effort, it takes the Watson system offline and installs a new operating system in our consciousness. "Checklists, formulas, structured procedures: those are your best bet," Mastermind explains.  Through practice, habit, and the pursuit of mindfulness, Mastermind claims that the Holmes system opens up a new world of thought: it forces us to be neutral in our observations; it cajoles us to be doubtful of first impressions and of our own minds; it commands us to be superior observers; it directs us to engage the world with all of our senses; it frees up our imaginations; it forbids multi-tasking and it demands focus on the job at hand.  Be present, it shouts, like a teacher to a student drifting off in class.

Mastermind backs up its precepts with science, and it can be a little dry. Having said that, I think Doyle (and Holmes) wouldn't have had it any other way. Konnikova digs into the science, but there is never any doubt that her inspiration for Mastermind is the fiction of Doyle. I really enjoyed Mastermind when it uses the Holmes stories to illustrate a point.

In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Watson and Holmes take turns deducing the biographical details of Dr. James Mortimer by examining the absent doctor's walking stick. Watson makes his usual mistakes, and Holmes "embarks on his own logical tour de force." Holmes goes on to deduce much about Dr. Mortimer's background, age, habits, ambitions, and pet ownership.

According to Mastermind, this scene "brings together all of the elements of the scientific approach to thought that we've spent this book exploring and serves as a near-ideal jumping-off point for discussing how to bring the thought process together as whole." Some of the thought-practices Konnikova garners from this episode are: being aware of our environment; the value of thoughtful observation; and allowing the imagination, maybe the most powerful tool in our mental arsenal, to tangle with life's problems.

It wouldn't be fair to boil Mastermind down to only one mental habit, but if forced to the edge of the Reichenbach Falls, I'd say it's the same exercise that's at the heart of mindfulness. "Holmes' mental journeying goes by many names, but most commonly it is called meditation," Konnikova writes. "Holmes is neither monk nor yoga practitioner," Konnikova adds, "but he understands what meditation, in its essence, actually is–– a simple mental exercise to clear your mind."

Konnikova argues that meditation trains our brains to be more Holmes-like. She discusses studies that show that meditation boosts concentration, learning,  memory, and even brain density. Meditation "can help you create the right frame of mind to attain the distance necessary for mindful, imaginative thought."

I expect some eye rolls at this connection of Holmes and meditation, mindfulness, and anything that smacks of New Age mysticism. First I'd say that meditation has been moved out of the realms of eastern tradition and into medical practice by western science. Don't be put off if your MD prescribes a shot of meditation for what ills you, with a tai chi chaser.

The biggest complaint about Mastermind could be that it's taking Sherlock Holmes too seriously. Doyle conjured the stories while his medical practice was slow, and surely he meant them only as idle entertainment. An argument could be made otherwise. Holmes is, after all, largely based on Dr. Joseph Bell, a professor at The University of Edinburgh Medical School who Doyle assisted. Bell was a doctor, a scientist, a teacher, and Doyle's mentor.

Like Holmes, Dr. Bell is purported to have had the skill of being able to tell a person's job just by looking at him. Bell once said "...we teachers find it useful to show the student how much a trained use of the observation can discover in ordinary matters such as the previous history, nationality and occupation of a patient." Perhaps Doyle is using Bell, a brilliant teacher, to create his own fictional teacher. After all, in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes did write a magazine article on his methods for the public edification. He even gave it the rather self-important title "The Book of Life."

Maria Konnikova calls your bluff

After Mastermind, Konnikova wrote The Confidence Game (2016). In it she discusses the history of con artists and the reasons why people can be so easily duped. It's a great resource for crime writers, and a kind of sequel to Mastermind and its mindfulness techniques. Though continuing to write, Konnikova is now a professional poker player. Considering her interests in Holmes, that should scare anyone with a handful of cards and secrets to hide.

Lawrence Maddox and Samuel Gailey
waiting to read at LA's Noir at the Bar
Thanks to everyone who not only blew off one of the lamest Super Bowls ever, but also braved a stormy night to hit LA's Noir at the Bar at Mandrake. It was a great evening with myself, Gray Basnight, Eric Beetner, Samuel Gailey, Nadine Nettman and Wendall Thomas taking turns at the mic, and Eric Beetner and Steve Lauden  hosting. Afterwards I somehow ended up clear across town at the Altadena Ale & Wine House discussing all things lit. See ya at the next one!

14 February 2019

Too Weird for Fiction?

by Eve Fisher

Last night I had a dream in which all my political wishes came true - but nature was calling and woke me up.  I did my usual autopilot to the bathroom and then to the kitchen where the oven clock is large enough to read without waking up too much:  4:44 AM.  Which was interesting in and of itself.  But here's where it gets weird.  For the last few weeks, whenever I get up and do the late night shuffle, it's been a row of numbers:  2:22 AM, 3:33 AM, 4:44 AM or 5:55 AM.

Needless to say, this can't be a coincidence.  Nor can it be that I just remember those times because they're easy to remember, and weird enough to stand out.  No.  There's got to be another reason.  So I did the classic Google search, and obviously occult forces are at work.  The most benign answer I got was at:  https://astrostyle.com/master-numbers/ 
There were others, less benign.  More foreboding.  Somewhere between astrology and numerology, this house may need a thorough sageing.  That or I may be close to Direct Contact, whether I want it or not.

But life is like that. Strange things happen, and they are too weird for fiction. Granted, I run with a strange crowd, but just about everyone I know has experienced deja vu, heard footsteps in the kitchen when no one's at home, thought of someone they haven't thought of in years only to have them call later that day (or run into them in person, and sometimes in person in prison), seen glimpses of prior residents in the corner, or woken up to a series of numbers on the clock. 

Speaking weird, how many of you have experienced sleep paralysis?  (especially as a child):  this is where you wake up, but you can't move your body.  And you're not sure you're really in your body.  But you can't move, but you're wide awake, and it ranked among the 5 top frightening things of my childhood that I didn't tell anyone about.

But there are reasons for it.  The scientific reason is that it happens when you wake up before you're fully out of REM sleep mode.  Okay.  Meanwhile, in almost every culture "such sleep paralysis was widely considered the work of demons, and more specifically incubi, which were thought to sit on the chests of sleepers. In Old English the name for these beings was mare or mære (from a proto-Germanic *marōn, cf. Old Norse mara), hence comes the mare part in nightmare. The word might be etymologically cognate to Greek Marōn (in the Odyssey) and Sanskrit Māra." (Read more at The Sleep Paralysis World)

John Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare.JPG
John Fuselli's creepily, extremely romanticized, "The Nightmare" - Wikipedia
That sounds more like it...

But that's just deep night mode.  What about broad daylight?  Well, there's daily life.  Which is often stranger than anything you can dream up.

Many years ago, I had a dear friend - I'll call her Rose - who had polio when she was only 2 years old.  Her family lived back up in the mountains in Tennessee, and were very poor.  They thought it was just another fever, so they didn't take her to the doctor.  The result was that Rose was totally, permanently crippled - she never walked a day in her life.  In fact, the next 10 years were spent in bed, because her family couldn't afford a wheelchair, and (in America) they don't give those things away.  But she got an education, she eventually got a wheelchair, and one day she met a man from the area who fell in love with her and married her.

For about 20 years, Rose and Paul were happy.  But then something happened.  Paul got involved with another woman at work, who got him on drugs, who got him crazy, which caused him to leave Rose and take up with the Other Woman, and Rose was like to have died of misery.  Then Paul and the Other Woman headed up West Virginia way, where they continued drugging, and apparently began fighting so hard it would frighten dogs and cats.  One night, in the middle of the night, while Paul slept, the Other Woman got her stuff together, and crept out, but not before she shot Paul in the neck while he slept.

Even though it was 2 days before anyone found him, Paul lived through it.  But when he woke up he was paralyzed from the neck down, and stayed that way, in a nursing home, for the rest of his life.  I told Allan that Paul should be the poster boy for what happens when karma catches up with you.

Rose and Paul are the reason why I absolutely believe that everything James M. Cain ever wrote is based on absolute truth.

Of course there was an insurance agent who was seduced by the young wife of an older man into killing her husband and running off with her while falling in love with the victim's daughter, and each betrays the other and they shoot it out and die.

Of course there was a drifter who fell for a gorgeous dame who married this older slob, and they decide to kill him, and they do it with a car accident, but then they get testy with each other and he screws around on her, and she may or may not have screwed around on him, and then they get past that, and it's going to be great, so they go on a trip and there's another car crash and she dies and he ends up on death row for murder.

Of course there was a woman who got fed up with her useless husband after the Depression hit and all he could do is fart around the house and screw around with another woman, so she dumps him, and starts working as a waitress and then starts up her own restaurant, while falling for a trust fund baby heel but the real love of her life is her gorgeous daughter who's cruel and selfish and treats her like dirt, absolute dirt, but she loves it, because the daughter's so special, an opera singer, and even after her daughter steals her trust fund hubby and the woman tries to kill her, the woman is broken hearted and tries to win her daughter back by marrying schlub number one and she still gets screwed by the little bitch.

It's all possible.  It's all real.  You can't make this stuff up.  Love hurts.  Love twists.  Love gets very, very strange.

And that's why Hallmark runs romance movies with a sugar content sufficient to make the entire nation diabetic.  It's a way of whistling past the graveyard.

Why we check our horoscopes.  Maybe we can ward it off this time.

Why we keep waiting for Godot.  Or St. George.  Or the Fisher King, King Arthur, the Mahdi, or anyone else who's supposed to be coming back and rescuing us, dammit.

Why we hang dreamcatchers, or charms, or wind chimes, all of which work against evil spirits:

      

And why it's very nice to have someone to snuggle up with on a cold, snowy night, with the wind howling and the two of you (plus pets) to keep the warmth alive, and the dark at bay.

Happy Valentine's Day from a very cold, snowy, blustery South Dakota winter!




13 February 2019

The Unredeemed Captive

David Edgerley Gates

I picked up a used book at a second-hand store not long ago. Boys of the Border, written by Mary P. Wells Smith, a 1954 reprint of a story originally published in 1907. It caught my eye because of the dust jacket art (see illustration below, no explanation needed), and because the inside cover had a hand-drawn map of the Mohawk Trail, in western Massachusetts, during the French-and-Indian War, when these frontier settlements were no more than scattered farmsteads, with the occasional fortified log palisade. Mary Prudence Wells Smith was well-respected in her lifetime, the author of several successful YA series, Boys of the Border the third in her Old Deerfield story cycle. I'm embarrassed to say I'd never heard of her, despite having a common curiosity about the history of that neck of the woods.



Drums Along the Mohawk it ain't, but it's pretty rousing all the same, and in both the Deerfield series and the companion Young Puritans historicals, she gives a convincing picture of daily hardships, forbidding piety, and an abiding mistrust of the Other, dark-hearted and pagan, stealers of children and sleep, the marauding Indian who came out of the deepest wilderness to prey on the luckless and unwary. This hidden terror was in fact the great unmapped continent of North America itself, too enormous to be contained or even imagined. An undiscovered country, whence no traveler returns.

It was a Leap Year. February 29th, 1704. In the early morning, a raiding party of French, Abenaki, and Iroquois attacked the small town of Deerfield, on the Connecticut River. They burned and looted houses, killed forty-seven people, and took 109 captives. They marched them 300 miles north to Quebec.

89 of the captives survived, and over the next two years, 60 of them were ransomed back. Others chose to stay in Canada, most famously the Rev. John Williams' daughter Eunice, who married a Mohawk. Rev. Williams wrote a hugely successful book, The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion, framing the story as instructive of God's providence. In a larger context, it becomes the primal American fiction.


(John Demos published The Unredeemed Captive in 1994, the title a play on Rev. Williams' own. Demos explains the captivity narrative as a racial and cultural paradigm, and not least as gender politics. It could be the Red Man, it could be the Yellow Peril, it could be Mandingo. The story turns on rescue from defilement. It's also clearly, and unapologetically, about the triumph of an enlightened tribe or race over a primitive and degraded one.)

Leaving aside Mark Twain's hysterically irreverent essay about him, it has to be admitted that James Fenimore Cooper is the first American novelist, in that he tells American stories, liberated from a European sensibility. Twain himself is a legatee and beneficiary of Cooper's. Huck Finn is completely American, but his literary forebear is Natty Bumppo. Cooper's romances have all of the generic conventions of the period, nor does he have much fluency or stagecraft, and yet he's engaging. What he brings to the table is conviction. He's got authority. Cooper knows the architectural foundation of his books is Manifest Destiny.

The captive narrative many of us are most familiar with is John Ford's 1956 movie The Searchers - and the novel by Alan Le May. The story is said to be based on the actual kidnapping of Cynthia Ann Parker by the Comanche. Nine when she was taken, she grew up Comanche, married, and had a family. Her eldest son, Quanah, became one of the last great war chiefs of the Comanche nation. She was recaptured by U.S. cavalry and Texas Rangers in a raid 24 years later, but never reintegrated into white culture. In truth, she wasn't in need of rescue.

The Searchers, for all its savagery, is about reconciliation, something both Eunice Williams and Cynthia Ann Parker stubbornly resisted. America, too, seems unreconciled, our vast interior a dark unknown, our captive imagination unredeemed, an unreliable narrative.