Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Mysterious Madame of the Manse

Well, I didn't get around to getting one of my ghost stories in good enough shape this year that I felt like sharing it with anyone (although, buoyed by reading a few ghost story collections, the best being the Dover edition of the Collected Stories of Oliver Onions, I've come up with about eight new ideas for stories, so maybe by next Halloween, I'll have something good to share with everyone. Meanwhile, if you love ghost stories, read Oliver Onions), but I do have a "real-life" ghost story to share today. Or, I should say, a "ghost story of sorts." Hope you enjoy it, and Happy Halloween.

The Mysterious Madame of the Manse

I have mentioned a couple of times since Bob and I moved into the manse that it is supposedly haunted. Of course, that means absolutely nothing. I'm convinced that if you happen to live in any house in America that is over 100 years old, you can guarantee people are going to tell you that it's haunted. This house most definitely is not haunted. We've lived here for two years, and it has never behaved like a haunted house.

You see, I've read enough (and even actually talked to people who've lived in purportedly haunted houses) to know that a truly haunted house repeats itself. Lights in the attic don't mysteriously turn themselves on once and then never do so again. No, the lights come on by themselves every night, or once a month, or on the anniversary of the night the poor maid hung herself from the rafters because the master of the house didn't love her. Doors that have been double-bolted and checked multiple times, do not come unlocked and leave themselves open once every fifty years. No, they do so with hair-raising frequency. Likewise rocking horses that rock all by themselves in lonely corners of the old nursery where the beloved 4-year-old child was murdered by a jealous older brother.

I'm not going to say that the previous residents of this house are lying when they claim it's haunted. Apparently, the wife and daughter both saw some figure, dressed in what looked like an old night shirt, ascend the stairs. They swear they were sober at the time. I've come to the conclusion that maybe, occasionally, a ghost will revisit some favorite or not-so-favorite spot from his or her life and accidentally allow one of us mortals to get a glimpse of an unfamiliar, gauzy figure, ascending stairs or reaching out for something or falling from a castle tower.

This thought conjures up for me a whole other parallel ghost world, in which ghost children sit around campfires telling "human stories." Here they recount the horror of being seen by a human child when they were creeping around the basement of their old house, looking to see if the old lucky horseshoe they buried in a hole in the wall 175 years ago is still there. (There goes my imagination, off digressing again. I’ve given it a snack-size packet of Skittles, so let’s hope it shuts up long enough for me to get through this tale.)

Since I don’t live in a haunted house, but I do live in one that has housed many different families over the past 100+ years, I have to console myself with the fact that perhaps a ghost will show up here one day and accidentally let me get a glimpse of it. I’ve explained in the past that I don’t want this to be some vengeful, headless or bloody sort of ghost, showing up with evil intent. After all, this is a manse. I’d like some kindly, wise, previous minister to show up and make me feel good. (I know, I know. Nineteenth-century ministers with their fire-and-brimstone attitudes were a very scary lot, but allow me to pretend.) If it can’t be a minister, perhaps it will be a minister’s wife, someone who looks at me with complete understanding, knowing how tough this job can sometimes be.

So, there I was about a week ago, sitting in my favorite over-stuffed chair in the library. I was reading Oliver Onions and was so engrossed that had a ghost floated by the doorway that leads out into the hall, or hovered in the pocket doorway that leads from the library into the living room, I probably wouldn’t have noticed. I did, however, notice an unfamiliar scent.

Even I couldn’t ignore this delicious-smelling perfume. But where was it coming from? I wasn’t wearing perfume. I hadn’t taken a bath. Bob had gone up to bed, and he is not the sort of man who douses himself with perfume before doing so. It had to be a ghost, didn’t it? It was my minister’s wife come to visit me, the old Madame of the Manse, perhaps here to impart some words of wisdom. Or maybe she'd come to calm me down for the upcoming, very stressful Advent and Christmas seasons, which are right around the corner. I looked up but saw nothing, no kindly woman dressed in 19th-century garb hovering near my chair or even sitting calmly on the living room couch. I didn’t hear anything, either. But I could still smell something that reminded me of the gardens we visited in Hawai’i.

I’m not one of those who tends to do too much investigative work when confronted with this sort of mystery. Half of me thinks it might be a ghost. The other half is worried that some human has managed to break into the house and is hiding out somewhere nearby (or that serial killer I mentioned in a blog post some time back is down in my basement with his latest victim, a prostitute who has a thing for strong perfume). Seeing no ghost, I decided the best place to be was upstairs with Bob, so I turned off the light and headed up.

The smell got stronger as I climbed the stairs and was quite overpowering by the time I reached the bedroom door, and then it finally dawned on me. Bob loves incense. He burns it almost every night before going to bed. Most of his incense has a very “incensy” sort of smell – undertones, even when it claims it’s “lilac” of musk or myrrh or sandalwood -- but this was some new incense he’d just got and it had none of that.

So, as usual, no ghost for me, but a funny story. (Bob thought it was quite funny.) Perhaps I need to start feeding my imagination some Skittles every evening before I settle down like that.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Halloween Meme II

It's October, which means it must be time for some sort of spooky meme. Last year, I did the horror meme, but one of my all-time favorite memes was the Halloween meme someone else created the first year I had this blog. That was three years ago. I say it's about time for a sequel, no? So where is it? Why hasn't someone created it yet? I guess that means the old Queen o' Memes is just going to have to make it herself (on a very small budget, so hang onto your popcorn and expect Blair Witch sort of camera antics). Here we go.


1. Answer the questions on your own blog.
2. Tag 13 others to answer the questions on their blogs and link to them.

1). Which urban legend ghost scared the bejeezus out of you when you were a kid?

Any of the many who showed up to get the girlfriend after the boyfriend's car ran out of gas somewhere out near Lover's Lane, and he, oh-so-gallantly, left her out there on that country road, all alone, while he hiked the ten miles and back to the gas station with his gas can.

2). Which horror movie has the best premise?

Is there anything better than Psycho? Crazy man? Mother's skeleton in the attic? Woman attacked while naked and vulnerable in the shower? A close second would be Nightmare on Elm Street: your nightmares become real; you keep thinking you're awake when you're not; and the only way to stop a killer is to stay awake.

3). What is the most disappointing "treat" to receive in your bag on Halloween night?

Apples or mints or non-candy items like packages of crackers.

4). What's the best non-candy item to receive?

I don't know if it was true, but my father used to tell a story of someone he knew whose cat had 8 kittens right before Halloween. Apparently, the first 8 trick-or-treaters at his house that Halloween received a kitten in their bags. I wished fervently, all throughout my childhood, that I would get so lucky as to have a kitten dropped into my trick-or-treat bag.

5). Did a monster live in your closet when you were a child?

Yes, and under the bed, too. If your legs or arms stuck out from under the covers, the monster in the closet would come out and eat them. If a leg or arm hung over the side of the bed, a monster would grab it, pull you under the bed, and eat you. (Aren't older siblings who inform you of such things just grand?)

6). Which supernatural creature sent chills up your spine when you were ten and still does?

I hate to be so trendy, but vampires. In fact, I hate the fact that they've become so trendy. They're mine. I was loving Dracula when I was in third grade, people. That was long before many of you were born. I had to go to friends' houses to see him, because my parents wouldn't allow him in our house (a true Victorian romance).

7). Which supernatural creature makes you yawn?

Werewolves. Ho hum. You're human. Every so often you turn into a wolf? So what? Look at Dracula. He can do that wolf bit and that bat thing. And he's sexy. (Okay, if you are American and in London, I'll give you sexy, but still. You can't hold a candle to Dracula.)

8). What's your favorite Halloween decoration?

I like those little "ghosties" that people hang from their trees. I also like fake spider webs with spiders in them. Real spider webs would be better, but it's hard to get the spiders to cooperate.

9). If you could be anywhere on Halloween night, where would you be?

Transylvania. In a castle.

10). What's the scariest book you've read so far this year?

John Connolly's The Killing Kind. He certainly has a knack for creating some really scary bad guys.

11). Haunted houses or haunted hayrides?

Oh, haunted houses. Especially if the locked doors won't open and something is brushing the back of your neck.

12). Which Stephen King novel/movie would you least like to find yourself trapped in?

Christine. I don't like cars much to begin with, but a haunted one? And that radio was just so creepy, wasn't it?

13). Which are creepiest: evil dolls, evil pets, or evil children?

Evil dolls. Creepiest of all are evil children with evil dolls (oooo, that just might have to be turned into some sort of story).

I'm tagging the following thirteen (quick. Answer the questions, or the monster will come out of the closet and eat you):


Ms. Musings

Zoe's Mom










Ms. Misfit Salon

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Cringing Away the Pounds

So, now that every other woman on the planet has discovered Wii fit, I'm finally walking away the pounds with Leslie Sansone. My mother and sisters liked this video workout, and my nieces gave me the DVD for Christmas a couple of years ago, but I Jane Fonda-ed and Richard Simmons-ed myself out a number of years ago and have been somewhat wary of exercise videos ever since. (Note: this does not mean I haven't bought things I've found on sale at -- where else? -- super bookstores with the best of intent. Belly-dancing-that's-impossible-without-a-real-instructor, anyone? Yoga-that's-likewise, oh, and requires you to keep your eyes on a video while closing them in your various poses? Not to mention hosts who are extraordinarily annoying?)

All right, that last sentence should not be parenthetical. The problem with every single exercise video I've ever watched is annoying hosts (even Jane Fonda, whom I enjoy as an actor, was an extremely annoying exercise video host). Those that may not be so annoying in the beginning manage to become so after multiple viewings. That joke that really wasn't funny the first time, becomes (upon the 20th retelling of it), one that makes me want to hurl dumb bells at the TV screen, as it predictably pops up at exactly the same moment, in exactly the same voice, that chipper voice that is encouraging me to keep it up for a mere 1002 more agonizing repetitions, as it did last time. (At least when your Uncle Fred tells the same joke over and over again, the context changes, and his expression probably does, too.)

Walk Away the Pounds, so far, is tolerable. It will be something I can do if Lancaster County presents me with real winter weather this year, and I can't get out to walk and jog. I'm familiarizing myself with it. Maybe I will soon be at a point at which I can mute it (take that, you annoying jokes) and just do the moves while listening to my own music on our CD player, and I won't get sick of it.

Then again, maybe not. Is anyone else out there familiar with exercise videos? Could you please verify for me whether or not it's my imagination or if the "class members" are just recycled androids who've been used over and over since the 1980s (with updated hair and clothes, of course). First of all, there is the woman who looks like a female Adonis. We're supposed to believe that doing this little 45-minute workout with 1-lb weights has given her those biceps and that stomach. When questioned by our Happy Host, she earnestly tells us (while nodding her head in time to the music) how wonderful all these repetitions are for building muscle.

Speaking of earnest, there's Ms. Earnest. She nods knowingly and oh-so-seriously at everything Happy Host has to say while squatting and kicking and r-e-a-c-hing. She might volunteer the information that she can really feel her thighs burning. What she won't do is disagree with anything anyone says. Occasionally, she remembers this is supposed to be fun and shines us her pearly whites (amazing how they all have exactly the same pearly-white, perfectly straight smile, isn't it?).

Then there is Token Mother. She just gave birth two days ago, and look at her, keeping it up, keeping those muscles so firm. Can you believe she just gave birth? Let's give it up for her. And now we can all discuss our children and talk about how important it is to keep fit, so we can keep up with them (in fact, so important is it to keep fit that maybe we should ignore our kids in order to do so).

Perhaps Token Mother is working out beside Token Everywoman. Token Everywoman is the only one in the video who doesn't look like she's anorexic (well, besides Ms. Female Adonis, who looks like she's on steroids). In other words, she looks like you and me. She's got normal-sized thighs. Her stomach is roomy enough that you wouldn't think she was pregnant were she to swallow a blueberry. She's a bit shorter than the others (perhaps jokes are cracked about her height). She's the one chosen to demonstrate modified versions of all the moves (you know, less taxing moves, because we normal women probably can't handle this vigorous workout). There's one way she differs from you and me, though. She's not cynical, nor is she sarcastic. She is chipper -- her head flaunting a bright headband or bandana or some such thing -- as she, taking a cue from Ms. Earnest and nodding her head, assures us that these modified versions of the exercises will still burn calories. (We other Everywomen might cynically question that claim, but then we might get a chipper little smack, so we keep quiet.)

I musn't forget Token Male. He's there, you know, somewhere, most likely in the back. Don't worry. He isn't an Adonis. He doesn't distract you as you step to the side for the 500th time, while wondering when that 1-mile marker, or 20-minute or whatever it happens to be, is going to flash across the bottom of the screen. No, he's there to put up happily with all the female cracks, maybe to make fun of his buddies who are sitting on couches working on their beer belllies while he works on his muscles. Perhaps he's in the back so he can keep an eye on Ms. Female Adonis's tight little butt.

Still, with this particular video, I'm managing to put up with all these people. I mean, live classes have annoying people in them, too, people I've wished had never seen me sweat. At least these people smiling and nodding at me can't see me when I lose my balance and go crashing into the couch. The exercises, for the most part, aren't too horrendous, and I can ignore the bits of the video that make me cringe, as they never last too long. I can probably keep doing it. I've been doing it twice a week for three weeks and have yet to give up on it.

Buoyed by the fact that I'm sort of sticking to this one, I decide to check out some of the other exercise videos I have in my buy-and-never-watch collection. Besides the aforementioned belly dancing and yoga, there's "Denise Austin's Shrink Your Female Fat Zones." I slip it into the DVD player and press "play."

Okay, you very well might disagree with me if you happen to know me (or happen to have been paying attention while reading this post), but I tend to think that I'm at least somewhat mellow when it comes to other people, accepting them as they are; that I have extremely high rates of tolerance and forgiveness; that my annoyance rate is somewere close to zero. Oh. My. God. Am I ever wrong about myself if this little exercise video is any indication. Quick. Someone create The Golden Annoying Awards and let me be a judge. Denise Austin would win hands down. Trust me. Anyone who could last through this entire video -- all that "target your tough spots" and "shrinking that fat for a beautiful body" in her breathy voice while she insists you engage in movements I'm positive our bodies were never made to attempt (at least, not over and over again like that), acting as though she is doing nothing more taxing than breathing -- deserves to win the Golden Mellow Award. I didn't last ten minutes.

Lesson learned? Not all exercise videos (despite employing the same androids) are created equal. The best a person can do is to find one that's not too obnoxious to help get her through the winter months. Someone, please tell me: will things improve if I ever take the time machine to the 21st-century and discover Wii fit?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Music Monday/Lyric Lundi

I love to listen to music while I cook. The two go so very nicely together, the way a delicious aged wine goes with a delicious aged cheese. Recently, I was busy cooking up a chicken and mushroom stir fry and decided Fred Astaire would go nicely with that -- some very light dance steps (in my imagination. I would never pretend to be able to mimic Astaire's light feet) to go with a nice light meal.

I know there are those who think Astaire couldn't sing (they've told me so, while surmising that I'm too enamored of him to be any sort of judge), but who are they kidding? They must not have ever paid attention to the way he is able to add such meaning to the words he sings (and they must never have seen the movie Daddy Long Legs). If you want a perfect example of that, just listen to the way he sings "A Fine Romance," one of my all-time favorites no matter who's singing it, but listen to him, with that wonderfully edgy and perfect mix between sarcasm and longing. I love it -- enough to press the "replay" button over, and over, and over again.

I'm giving you the lyrics, but really, you must hear him sing it. He'll make you long for the days, despite the fact that Cole Porter had come along and insisted "Anything Goes," when women were a little more mysterious and a little harder to get and gentlemen were a little more frustrated and a little more persistent (okay, maybe he won't. But he certainly makes me, the hopelessly incurable, old-fashioned romantic, do so). We will ignore the fact that those were also the days that when, once the man got the woman, she was, more likely than not, doomed to being tied to never-ending housework that bored her out of her mind and a bundle of kids with never-ending needs and an inability to communicate with her husband (not sure what the man was tied to in those days, except maybe 3-martini lunches, golf on the weekends, and extraordinarily unhappy wives who might have -- surprise, surprise -- taken it out on them. Gentlemen, care to enlighten me, if I'm wrong?)

Of course, Astaire doesn't get credit for the brilliant lyrics written by Dorothy Fields (yes, I had to look that up on Wikipedia. I had no idea who wrote this song). Her lines are priceless. I especially love the ones about the Ile de France and the seals in the Arctic Ocean who at least flap their fins. Still, he gets credit for brilliantly interpreting their meaning.

A Fine Romance
by Fred Astaire

A fine romance with no kisses
A fine romance, my friend this is
We should be like a couple of hot tomatoes
But you're as cold as yesterday's mashed

A fine romance, you won't nestle
A fine romance, you won't wrestle
You're just as hard to land as the Ile de France
I haven't got a chance, this is a fine romance.

A fine romance, my good woman
My strong, aged-in-the-wood woman
You're calmer than the seals in the Arctic Ocean
At least they flap their fins to express emotion.

A fine romance with no clinches
A fine romance with no pinches
You never give the orchids I send a glance
No, you like cactus plants, this is a fine
Oh boy, what a romance

Friday, October 16, 2009

(Long-Winded) Coda to my Black Angel Post

Okay, so I thought I didn't like The Black Angel by Cornell Woolrich, and in case you missed it, I told everyone exactly why here. And I didn't. However, it's one of those books that proves the theory that there is a fine line between love and hate (that line being made up of the letters p-a-s-s-i-o-n, all in a row, saluting their sergeant). No, I didn't like it at all. However, unlike something about which I might have said, "Oh, I don't know. I kind of thought it was okay. Well, no, maybe I didn't like it too much..." this one has stuck with me, and I've been thinking about it a lot. Dammit! I wish I'd been at the live discussion and had been able to talk about it with others.

The closest thing I came to that was Ms. Musing's comments on my post and Dorr's post on it. And then there was the email from one of those friends of mine who does not comment on my blog but will email a response to me when I write about familiar books and authors. That email read as follows:

Too bad you didn't like the Woolrich. I've read a smattering of his books, and no one does anxiety like him. Of course, he knew nothing about women. Look up his bio: he lived a reclusive life with his mother in a hotel room, for God's sake. It's all in the style, sugar: you think Chandler's plots make any sense? The best way to read him is with a bottle of scotch and a headcold.

So, a million thoughts ran through my brain after reading this email, not the least of which was, "Maybe I ought to look up a little something about the author and the book before writing my posts." But no. I've told everyone before why I don't do that. I want to write about books the same way I want to read them: knowing absolutely nothing. When I decide to read a book, I try not to read too many reviews, and I will not read anything that warns that it contains spoilers. In fact, I get very annoyed if anyone (book reviewer, blogger, well-meaning friend...) tells me too much about a book I have decided to read. Call me independent, but I want to draw my own conclusions. When I write and talk about a book, I want what I write to be pure, simple, gut reaction. I do not want it to be influenced by knowing too much about the author or how the book was received by the public or by critics. I was not an English major. Literary analysis is not my thing. I just happen to be someone who loves to read and who responds to books on a visceral level.

Then again, I also happen to be someone whose parents ought to have named her Insecurity (a very pretty name, no?). That means I can easily be found splashing around in waves of doubt, wondering if my instincts and gut reactions are way off base. I mean, if Woolrich is someone who obviously knew nothing about women, then it stands to reason that he was not trying to write a real character here. He must have, as Ms. Musings mused, been digging at something much deeper. I gave this book far too superficial a reading. I should not have been expecting this character to be the least bit believable. That was not her purpose. Her purpose was to give us far bigger truths than I'd given her credit for understanding.

But then, naturally, the piece of me who is always off partying with movie stars and other well-known figures and never has much time to stop back in at home to remind the others hanging out in my brain that she is a member of the family, and who resents the fact that her bedroom is now a huge walk-in closet, in other words, Ms. Secure as Fort Knox, decides to come home. She takes one look at the thoughts strewn all over my brain and decides they need to be kicked around some. Suddenly, some new thoughts begin to emerge. One of these is the oh-so-obvious,

"If Woolrich knew nothing about women, then why on earth did he decide to make a woman the main protagonist of his tale and proceed to tell the whole thing from her point of view?"

I mean, good question, right? I am a writer. No matter what sort of point I am trying to make, there is no way on earth I would decide that I need to make it using the voice of a gay, sixteen-year-old Brazilian boy. I mean, I know absolutely nothing about being a gay, sixteen-year-old Brazilian boy. How could I possibly write such a work? My ego would have to be far larger than it is for me to do decide to do that.

I stick to my guns, then. I don't mind an absurd plot if it's being carried out by real characters, characters that not only do things that make sense, but characters with whom I could have a conversation without wondering if they are some sort of visitors from another planet pretending to be Earthlings. I do not, however, want an absurd plot that becomes insanely absurd because the characters are not the least bit believable. Dorr was correct to point out that I was probably wrong to state that women aren't likely to stand by their men in such a way. It's true; some do (I read Wally Lamb's edited collection of stories written by women in prison only to discover that almost all of them were in prison because they happened to be accomplices to crimes that were actually committed by lovers), so it's believable that Alberta seemed to be willing to do anything for her husband. It's believable that a woman might break the law in order to prove her husband's innocence. However, it is not believable that a woman would meet a very creepy doctor; decide to come back to his place at night, all alone with no protection (especially since she already suspected he could be a murderer before she met him); and follow him into his unlit house. Maybe young women on other planets do such things, but certainly not women living in New York City (in any era). Like the idiot girls in Michael and Jason Take Freddy's Nightmare, who hear an odd noise and decide to go down to the basement to see what it is, instead of leaving the house as fast as their beautiful long legs can carry them, she lost all credibility at that point. That means I lost my interest (which is okay when watching a slasher movie, because there will always be some scene to jolt the interest back -- like those unbelievable girls being stabbed to death by an unbelievable masked mad man everyone was sure was dead, while the one character who will survive has been smart enough to get out of the house and is busy trying to start the car with the engine that seems to have died -- but is not okay when reading a book).

If Woolrich wanted to encourage me to explore some deeper issues, he should have done so by giving me characters who made sense. That means, since he doesn't seem to have known anything about women, he should have given me a man who was trying to prove his wife's innocence. Now, that might have been both an interesting philosophical exploration and a believable book. And if he weren't trying to do that, if all he was trying to do was give me a fun, thrilling yarn, well, then, he failed miserably. However, I do still think that the story, if in the hands of the right writers, directors, and producers (a creepy doctor who follows her instead of her coming to his place, anyone?) could have been improved tremendously and made into a great movie. If I ever get around to watching the movie, I'll let you know.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Your Honest Opinion Greatly Appreciated

Okay, I am in one of those funks in which I am not happy with anything I write. This does not keep me from writing, but I write, and then I reread what I've written, and I find my thoughts are those that, were they numbers on a number line, would all occupy ticks on the left-hand side of zero. The worst go something like this,

"No real person would ever act that way. Who is going to believe this?"

"Did a third-grader with A.D.D. write that?"

"You meant that to be funny? It isn't. Not in the least."

"Good thing you don't communicate often with the blind. Given your pathetic ability to describe a scene, you'd never be able to help them picture anything."

In the old days, I would have begun burning or tearing up pages. These days, I've decided, I don't have the luxury of doing that if I plan to write a series of books in my lifetime. What I think I need to do is to stop listening to me, because I am the least objective person I know when it comes to my writing. So, I am going to put the burden on you (nice of me, I know). I've suddenly realized that this is the wonderful thing about living in the age of blogs. I can share stuff with a varied group of readers and get opinions before I'm even done with a first draft.

Below is the Prologue to my novel. I'd like to know what you think. Am I right to be stuck on the left-hand side of the number line, or do I need to make a move to the other side of zero, ignore all my insecurities, and just get the thing done? If you picked up this book at your local library, would you continue reading? Please be honest. There is nothing you can say that I have not already thought, and I am looking for real feedback, not a pat on the back and encouragement to keep writing crap, if that's what it is.

"Welcome to Laurel Ridge"

In the summertime, when the oppressiveness of day after day of swamplike heat and humidity gets to be too much for all the New York and New Jersey transplants, they decide to leave Richmond to spend the weekend in the mountains. They've heard that Laurel Ridge is such a quaint little town, with its ancient church steeples, old colonial homes, and Virginia's oldest college. They'll leave work early, pile the kids and dog into the S.U.V., crank the air conditioning as they leave town, thinking soon enough they won't be needing it. They imagine instead that they'll be needing the windbreakers and blue jeans they've packed, that maybe in the evenings they'll light campfires in the pit outside their cabin, like the one depicted burning so brightly in the pictures on the web site.

Too bad when they were reserving their cabin online they didn't bother to head over to the weather site. They would have realized that Virginia is not California. One doesn't escape the heat by heading to the mountains. They will arrive at their destination to discover an even more oppressive heat and humidity (although, yes, about five degrees cooler than Richmond), if only because they so haven't expected it. They'll ask the "natives" at the general store as they're busy buying up the stock of tank tops, circa 1987, emblazoned with, "London...Paris...Laurel Ridge, VA," if this is normal weather for July. Without missing a beat, the natives will tell them that, well, it's been a number of years since it last snowed in July (216 to be exact).

They'll spend the next few days either on the beach at Lake William or inside, the window units blasting cold air at full throttle. The screened-in front porch where they'd planned to sit around playing cards will be all-but-neglected, as will the sweatshirts packed for such activities and the ingredients for S'Mores, because lighting a match, much less a campfire, would be like arriving in hell and requesting to curl up by the fireplace with a blanket. No one wants to drive the fifteen miles into the center of town to walk the hot sidewalks and tour Old Morgan Manor or the oldest, still operational, four-room jailhouse in Virginia. Nor do they want to head five miles south of town center to tour Morris and Dunne College.

July gives way to August and September, and along with the return of the over packed vans carrying tearful mothers and fearful freshmen, come the Floridians. They've packed fleece-lined coats, walking sticks, and binoculars to get them through a week of hiking trails and leaf-peeking. They're surprised to find that their coats never make it out of the cabin closets and that they are more likely to come down off the trails with sunburned arms and faces than with frostbitten toes. They do sit out on the screened-in porches in the evening, playing cards.

"I just don't get it," Evelyn says to Betty. "I thought the leaves were supposed to be so pretty here."

"I know. Last year, when we were in Vermont at this time, they were spec-tac-u-lar," Betty concurs.

"I'm giving that trip planner a piece of my mind when we get back," Betty's husband Don says.

"You should hear Don when he gets going. Last time he gave that trip planner a piece of his mind, we got a free one-night's stay in Orlando. I took little Rich and Jamie. Of course, that was before The Divorce. Now we never get to see little Rich and Jamie."

"Well, at least there is a reason. Both kids still married, but do I ever get to see any of my grandchildren? Never. And Jennifer only lives two hours away. You'd think she could make time for her old mom and dad."

Two weeks after Betty and Evelyn have boarded their flight home, the leaves don their fall colors: deep reds, sometimes with a hint of purple; bright yellows; and fiery oranges. The new students who've never witnessed the area's display race around with their cameras, excitedly emailing pictures to their families to show them how beautiful the quad is in the fall. While they're at it, those who thought they were going to school in the South and wouldn't need such things ask that their fleece-lined coats be sent. They had no idea it would be so cold and damp when they were our carousing around at 1:00 a.m.

The old-timers talk of ice skating up and down the creek in Decembers and Januaries of yore. Mr. Dixon, who likes to sit on the park bench in front of the Bank of America downtown (but who calls it the "LRSB" -- Laurel Ridge Savings Bank, a name it hasn't seen above its doors since 1976) will tell you about the blizzard of '51 when he and his wife got stuck down here at the bank, and he would've walked the six miles home, but he wasn't about to make his new bride do that, what with all the wind and whirling snow. Mr. Radcliffe, the bank manager at the time, took pity on the young couple and invited them to stay with his family for the night. Well, they were snowed in for three days with the Radcliffes, and Mrs. Radcliffe had the strangest way of preparing her eggs you ever saw (not that they would have complained, the Radcliffes being so generous. Not like young couples today who are all on fancy diets and won't eat anything put in front of them). And young Tommy Radcliffe was addicted to that new television set they'd been the first in Laurel Ridge to own. But, you know, Tommy was the life-saver in the blizzard of '63, the way he went around town diggin' out cars. People don't do that sort of stuff these days, you know. Back then, people cared about each other, and they knew their neighbors. These days, we're all strangers in this town.

These days, not only are there a lot of strangers in town, but no one in his or her right mind would let a child strap on ice skates to skate anywhere other than the rink next to the mall. Although occasionally, Mother Nature still comes along and dumps a ten-inch snowfall, the last blizzard to hit Laurel Ridge was in 1979. Even the college closed when that one hit. Still, this isn't Key West, which is what those from Illinois and Michigan are expecting when they descend on the town at Christmas to visit their parents who just retired here. They sit around gas-powered fireplaces in brand new condos at the retirement community, closing the blinds to the ice-covered bushes and sidewalks.

"I just don't get it," Jason says. "This place was so beautiful and warm when we came through last February. That's why you guys decided to retire here."

Ahh, yes, February! The "cruelest month" comes early to these parts, usually right after Valentine's Day. Temperature will soar near seventy for a few days. After months of bone-chilling damp and cold, everyone begins to dream of spring. They take off their sweaters, remove flannel sheets from the beds, and open their storm windows. By mid-March, a wet, heavy, five-inch snowfall has immobilized the town. The snow has come just in time to greet visitors from the Southwest who've made the trip east to see the cherry blossoms in our nation's Capital and to drive up and down the Blue Ridge Parkway. They are bitterly disappointed that the Parkway is closed in places and that there are not daffodils in sight.

The long-time residents of Laurel Ridge, however, know not to take her tricks too seriously. They know that, although -- like any true Virginian -- flattered by the attention, she's just not extraordinarily fond of the tourists and the transplants. She loves her native sons and daughters, though. She knows they are all patient enough to wait until she decides it's time to give them fairytale-white dogwoods blooming on warm spring days; peaches that only her children know are the best and not to praise too highly, because then people will flock here to get them instead of Georgia, leaving fewer for them; pippins whose sweet and sour crunch are the taste of fall; and the occasional white Christmas that settles on the magnificent evergreens, turning the mountains into white-topped old men, and giving them a story to tell for years about that time it snowed and Daddy skidded the car into the garage.

The young people these days, of course, can't wait to get out and get away from her. They're going to D.C. or N.Y. or San Francisco and never looking back. They go off to Ivy League schools up north, spend a summer backpacking in Guatemala or Costa Rica, and settle down in The Big City. But then they come back. They take over their fathers' businesses. They open microbreweries or bakeries. They take teaching positions at their Alma maters. And they moan to anyone who will listen to them about those "damn students from up North who come here to go to school and then never leave."

So what does Laurel Ridge do? She welcomes them back with open arms. She helps them renovate the houses their grandfathers and great-grandfathers built. She smiles down on them, pats them on the head, and then sits back in her rocker to watch history repeat itself.

Friday, October 09, 2009

The Honest Scrap Award

Courtney honored me with this award. It's another one that requires me to tell you ten things about myself you may not know. This blog has been on-going for 3+ years. Is there really anything, at this point, you don't know about me (I mean, that I'm willing to share with others)? Oh, I suppose there is. Let's give it a shot. Here are the rules:

1. “The Honest Scrap” award must be shared.
2. The recipient has to tell 10 true things about themselves that no one else knows.
3. The recipient has to pass along the award to 10 more bloggers.
4. Those 10 bloggers all have to be notified they have been given this award.
5. Those 10 bloggers should link back to the blog that awarded them.

I'm having trouble with #2, as I always do. Things no one else knows? That means things that involve no one but me and that I've never told a soul, right? That's pretty impossible. Thus, I'm sticking with the standard, "Things that my 15 or so blog visitors per day may not yet know about me."

1. Courtney told me I could steal this one, so I am: I miss my old friends (all of them. Facebook isn't the same as getting together, is it?). I especially miss that gang in CT each month when they get together for the mystery book discussion group. I also miss friends from my old company. I miss Bob's and my friends from his seminary days. And I miss the friends I hung out with when I first moved to CT, and I miss my college friends. However, want to know something else? If I were to move away from here tomorrow, I'd miss the friends I've got now. I'm just like that, which is why, when asked in Facebook memes, "Missing someone?" my answer, inevitably, is "Always."

2. I don't think of myself as being stubborn, but I guess I am. The other day, one of my series editors made the mistake of saying to me, when I suggested an author for a particular book in our series, "Lots of luck getting her. I tried. She's always working on 'her own stuff.'" The minute I heard that, the thought bubble above my head read, "We'll see about that. I'm sure I can get her," which has been, I realize, my reaction every. single. time. someone has said to me "lotsa luck" when it comes to securing an author I want. Fifteen years in the profession, and I can only think of five authors I did not manage to get when told I couldn't (one of them died after expressing sincere interest and sending me a proposal, so he doesn't really count, does

3. I am a Mac person. I hate PCs. I will be expanding on this point in a blog post soon (stay tuned!) now that I am forced, yet again, to use a PC for work.

4. I will always and forever be amazed by the way others view me as compared to how I view myself. I often marvel at how I've managed to "fool" people (apparently, consistently and for years at a time). Who the hell is this person that others describe as energetic, hard-working, organized, charming, enthusiastic, intimidating, and smart? It can't possibly be this up-tight, shy, lazy, tongue-tied, belligerent, insecure, and frantic idiot I happen to know.

5. Speaking of idiots, I am my family's idiot. Really. I sit around with them, when they're all talking, and I might as well have drool dribbling down onto my chin. I keep quiet and hope they don't notice that, half the time, I have no idea what they're all going on about. (Of course, now they're all going to read this and start testing me or something.)

6. If I could have one truly amazing talent, it would be to be an excellent figure skater. I have loved figure skating all my life. Unfortunately, instead of being a Michelle-Kwan-sort, I'm the sort who puts on a pair of ice skates, decides to skate as fast as she can, falls and breaks her wrist, and has to have surgery, along with months of physical therapy.

7. Everyone knows I hate to talk on the phone, but, for some reason, I keep accepting jobs that require me to talk on the phone A LOT! And yet, for some mysterious reason, I really like these jobs, and I absolutely love meeting authors for the first time by phone. I tend to end up wanting to meet each and every one in person after that first phone conversation.

8. I am having a very hard time trying to come up with 3 more things.

9. Oh, here's something: I think Mariano Rivera is one of the most beautiful men on the planet. Those eyelashes! And those eyes! And the way he holds that gorgeous mouth of his. Oh, and then there is the beauty of the way he pitches a baseball (secondary stuff, of course). And if you think Bob doesn't know this, you are dead wrong. (One of the things that makes that "no one knows" stipulation so difficult is that it would be impossible to come up with ten things Bob doesn't know.)

10. And that one reminded me of another baseball thing (I guess it's playoff season or something): Jorge Sosa (when he was playing for the Tampa Bay Blue Devils) once threw a baseball to me (note: I did not say, "...threw a baseball." I said, "...threw a baseball to me." There is a difference), and I actually caught it. I've been meaning for ages to write a blog post about this (I've even got a picture to go with the blog post, somewhere, I think). Anyone want to hear the full story?

11. And wouldn't you know it? Now I've thought of an 11th (and it's really good). I once edited a book written by a guy in prison. I never spoke to him, just to his lawyer, his mother, and the two co-authors on his book. I had no idea why he was in prison and never asked. He kept trying to get my home phone number, telling me he could only call collect from prison, and our company would not accept collect calls, but I wasn't about to give a guy in prison my home phone number. Eventually, he was released from prison. Now able to make direct calls, he called me to thank me for what I'd done for him, and I never heard from him again. About a year or so later, he killed the woman he was living with (a librarian, no less), raped her 14-year-old daughter, and was a "Wanted Man," on the run, for about 48 hours or so before the police caught up with him. Need I say I was terrified until they caught him?

Well, I made it to ten + 1, but it wasn't easy. Can you? If so, let's hear them. (I'm not going to bother with that whole tagging ten people thing -- I mean, linking and notifying? That's just way too much work -- but you are to know that if I read your blog, I'm giving you this award and dying for you to take it and run with it.)

Tuesday, October 06, 2009


I truly intended to write a Monday Music post yesterday. I want to add a coda to my post on The Black Angel. I've got a post about endnotes that's dying to have eyes other than mine on it. I've done quite a bit of thinking about faith issues lately and have at least 1 1/2 posts niggling at me. Courtney tagged me for the Honest Scrap meme, and well, I'm sure everyone wants to know 10 more things about me not already exposed on this blog.

However, my life has been put on hold. Damn Hobs, who handed me Tana French's In the Woods when we were in Sherman's Bookstore back in August and said, "Here, buy this, now." I did (well, not then and there, but I went back and bought it). I've started reading it. Every spare moment I have from now on will be dedicated to this book until I am done. Sorry. Blog posts will just have to wait. Meanwhile, Hobs is busy writing noir over on his blog. Go get hooked on him while you wait for me to come back.

Friday, October 02, 2009

The Black Angel by Cornell Woolrich

Woolrich, Cornell. The Black Angel. New York: Pegasus Books. 2008.
(The book was originally published in 1948)

Warning: spoilers. (However, I am hoping no one will be all that inclined to read this one because, well, you know, "So many books, so little time." Why waste that time on such fare? That means spoilers shouldn't matter too much.)

May I start by saying I wanted to like this one, which was this month's choice for the Connecticut mystery book discussion group? I like noir. This one was described as "classic noir." Woolrich wrote The Rear Window, a book I've never read but a movie I love. Okay, permission granted or not, I guess I did start by saying that. Now I will tell you what my reaction was: meh. And if this one hadn't had a plot that kept me going, it would have been "double meh." Mind you, I'm not talking here about the sort of plot that acts as a magnetic field, that has me falling hopelessly into a book before I know what has happened to me, one in which I become one of the characters and -- heart pounding -- wonder how the hell we're going to get out of this one alive. No, I'm talking here about the kind of plot that keeps me reading because I am so amazed by everything this completely unrealistic woman is doing and can't wait to find out what absurd thing she is going to do next.

Alberta Murray has three months (that seem more like three years to me, what with all her affairs and career changes and all) to find a killer. She is a young woman so green that

I reached blindly all along the upper-case cupboards until I'd located and toppled down that bottle of ceremonial gin of his. I didn't know very much -- yet -- about the procedure of using it. That was his province, not mine. He was very good at fixing it with things like mint and lemon, but I didn't want cordiality now; I wanted courage. I let out a little into the jigger glass and gulped it down. I thought some plaster had fallen off the ceiling and hit me on the chest for a minute. (p. 7)

We're not talking Nancy Drew here. We're talking Heidi. Yet, if I tell you that by the end of the book, she has done such things as gone to a strange, repulsive doctor's house by herself, at night, when she knew he was going to be alone; has helped distribute illegal substances (or, at least distributed legal substances illegally. It's not quite clear); has been a dancer in a sleazy nightclub; and has been given a rock of an engagement ring, although already married, would you believe me? I don't blame you. I don't believe me, and I read the book.

Normally, I'm the sort who thinks any empathetic person -- male or female -- can write any character. Thus when asked, "Can a man write a believable female character?" my answer is usually "yes." (All right, a qualified "yes" -- you know me too well -- but still.) Anyway, just because some men can write believable female characters does not mean all can. Judging by this book, Woolrich was one of those who could not.

I know. I know. There are those of you out there who are going to say to me, "This is a mystery. This is noir. Why are you expecting realism?" But that's my point. A good mystery has me believing the completely unbelievable. I'm not distracted by the fact that a character is completely inconsistent and unpredictable. A well-written book will have me believing that humans can fly or that anyone who wants to can happen upon a specific tree trunk that is the doorway to another world.

In fairness to the book, I have to admit that it did grab me in the beginning. I fell into it for the first eighty pages or so. But then I kept reading, and as I kept reading, I began to doubt everything I read, so that I found myself wondering how I could ever have believed the main premise of the story. I mean, call me a 21st-century woman, but really. If I'd discovered my husband was cheating on me, had spent a day realizing he was all packed and ready to run off with the other woman, and then the cops showed up at my door with him, accusing him of murder (and why did they do that? Why did they bring him home before taking him to the station? They could easily have come alone to search for his packed suitcase), I'd be saying,

"Lock him up and throw away the key," and be thanking my lucky stars, because he'd be somewhere I couldn't get to him, the lying, cheating bastard, to wind up on death row myself.

But no. She's overwhelmed by joy to see him. He sobs to her, once he's been sentenced to death, that he made a mistake. He didn't mean it. He wasn't going to go through with it.

All right, he's been neglecting her forever, and now he's reformed. She's completely convinced -- he's "come back to her." And instead of "lock him up and throw away the key," it's "I love you so much, honey, I'll do anything to prove your innocence," including, you know, illegally delivering drugs (and didn't she oh-so-conveniently not only not get murdered when that went wrong, but also so easily got the charges against her dropped?) and dancing in nightclubs. Oh, and did I mention, seducing another man and courting him for weeks (despite only having three months before her husband would be strapped to the electric chair)?

Only a man who doesn't know women would write such a character. He's a man who assumes that all any woman would want would be to have her man back, no matter what kind of bastard he was. His fantasy female would forgive a man anything, put her life on the line for him. I hate to burst Woolrich's bubble, but I (a real life female) would be out lifting martini glasses with my girlfriends (by the way, knowing exactly how to mix a martini should I invite my friends back to my place afterwards) saying, "Screw the asshole and everyone like him."

Thus, I was nothing but annoyed with Alberta. I was annoyed with the book. I began to get incredibly annoyed with Woolrich's writing style. When I came across this passage,

"Yes mum, what'll ye be liking?" the depressing-looking figure at my elbow asked with a brogue you could cut with a knife. (p. 197)

I found myself thinking, "You did not need to add that bit about the brogue. Either use the dialect or tell us about it. Both is over-kill." I was so annoyed, I didn't even really care how it ended (and no surprises there. I kept hoping that maybe the husband would prove to be the killer after all, which would have made it at least a little more interesting, but no).

I will say one positive thing (well, besides the fact that the book grabbed me in the beginning). This book was made into a movie that is apparently considered a noir classic. Everyone knows I am movie ignorant, so I haven't seen it. However, I bet the movie works. I can imagine the dark scenes. I can imagine an Alberta who is not portrayed as being so innocent in the beginning. I can imagine the sexy scenes. I can even imagine the terror. I'm convinced it's one of those rare, rare phenomena: a book that made a better movie than the book. I need to see the movie. I'm pretty sure I'd love it. As for the book? Well, in the language of library review media: not recommended. (Uh-oh, I am afraid I've been influenced by Woolrich's overkill.)

Thursday, October 01, 2009


All right, so this is a really bizarre thing to make someone like me feel disappointment. I am not a clothes shopper. I am not someone who has a clue about fashion. According to what people tell me, I missed my calling as an academic when it comes to style. However, I hate to tell you this, but I have always secretly loved fall fashions and the fall issues of fashion and women's magazines.

When I was a teenager, it was that fabulous, extra-thick August issue of Seventeen that had me salivating. Remember all those plaids and wools (this was the early 1980s, for you poor souls who don't)? Preppy-dom, as well as trying to look as British as possible, was "in." I was so much more sophisticated than my clueless peers, because I'd just come back from living in England. I "introduced" what we Americans call "knickers," which would have had my English classmates in stitches had I told them, "I wore my knickers and a Fair Isle sweater to school today."

I was also into Glamour, which pulled out all the stops for fall. I was always thinking about how to combine what was in Seventeen with a few ideas from Glamour, so that I could, well, you know, pull off a truly glamorous look. Not exactly easy to do when working with a babysitter's budget. Still, I was judicious and didn't mind putting things on lay-away at stores at the mall in July so that I could be wearing them come October. (After all, in North Carolina, one could never really wear fall clothing much before then.)

I subscribed to both Seventeen and Glamor from about ages fourteen on. In the fall, however, I would make the big purchase of Vogue as well (absolutely, completely beyond any imaginable budget I might have as far as the fashions depicted, but I still had an imagination and this horrible little disastrous thing that has gotten me into trouble all my life known as "hope"). I would spend hours poring over the models in their exquisite fall outfits, wondering if I could ever look like that.

Okay, let's forget all the damage such magazines do to the teenage girl out there, most of whom think they need to look like those models and wear those clothes that nobody in the real world can afford. Let's think about comfort and nostalgia instead. Let's all pretend we are 45-year-old women wandering around in Border's, looking for a little comfort after a hard day. Let's pretend we haven't looked at any of those magazines in years. Let's browse through some sale displays and find nothing that grabs us; let's look for some authors who are not on the shelves; let's be annoyed with ourselves for forgetting that book so-and-so told us we must read. Let's suddenly remember it's late August, and the fall fashion magazines must all be on the stands. Let's wander over to the magazine section that we typically ignore.

Let's not. You know that beautiful, thick, enticing issue of Seventeen you remember oh-so-fondly? It no longer exists. Ditto Glamour. Vogue is still somewhat promising, but when you begin to flip through it, you find yourself wondering if you have accidentally picked up the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated. Elle, another favorite from your twenty-something years, seems to have shrunk to the size of a comic book. What's happened? Disillusioned, you decide, "Oh well, at least there's O," only to discover that you can't find it anywhere. Frantically looking for some sort of comfort, you decide to buy "as a nice surprise for your husband" an issue of Rolling Stone, only to be reminded that it is now the size and shape of a glossy-covered People. You end up leaving the store empty-handed. "Disappointment" does not even come close to describing how you feel.

Tell me: I'm getting so old to feel so disappointed, right? Then again, e-magazines can't come quickly enough for the likes of me.