just the right amount of fear

I have an uneasy history with horror.

On the one hand it’s unbearable. I hate jumping at every damn thing just because of words on a page. At the same time elegantly creeping horror is impossible for me to put down.

I admire Stephen King – I know it’s cliché but he really is a master of subtle terror. Having said that, I’ve only ever read “Pet Sematary”. Even though it stole two weeks of sleep during my teenage years (with the help of the family cat), I remember renewing my library checkout for it anyway.

Whitley Strieber’s “Communion”, however, casts the longest shadow. Before the first page you’re treated to this:

Painting of gray alien with huge wrap-around eyes an an enigmatic smile from the cover art of
Makes me flinch but I can’t look away. Courtesy Tumblr.

Then the story starts, and though Strieber’s claim that it’s contentious to say the least it’s damn near perfect horror. I started to imagine I’d see one of these every time I turned around, and that they could and would get at me no matter how much security I had or how many friends I surrounded myself with.

That ability to compel someone to keep reading despite their fear is power, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want that power for myself. While I don’t necessarily want my readers to lose sleep I’d love it if I can make the hair on the back of their necks stand up when Edward Kelley first hears voices, or look over their shoulders the first time one of his “spirits” materializes.

I’m just afraid it’s over my pay grade, so to speak. And I’m too terrified to do the necessary homework (i.e. read King’s entire back catalog and brave “Communion” again) to learn by observation.

What about you? What books or genres do you find utterly impossible to put down though they make your skin crawl (in fear, disgust, or something else)?

biweekly links 9-13-2017

Sally Quinn’s Next Act: how have I never heard of this woman? Journalist, tv presenter, and fixture of DC “salon society”, she now reveals her belief in the occult in her new memoir. Sounds a bit sensationalistic, but I’m curious how one goes from atheism to casting hexes on enemies (yes, she claims she did that).

Have you got the nerve to take on this spooky tour through creepy cellars and centuries-old cloisters?: The house of William Cecil, Lord Burghley (Elizabeth I’s Lord High Treasurer) is open for “spooky” tours October 18 through 31. Fun fact: Burghley tried to lure Edward Kelley back to England from Prague to share his secret of gold transmutation. Kelley declined because Rudolf II gave him so many lands and titles that it wasn’t worth his time. He wound up in several of Rudolf’s prisons for failing to make gold when requested–though interestingly, he was never accused fraud.

JFK Conspiracy Theorists Are About to Receive the Motherlode: the remaining classified 20% go public on October 26. Though there are as many conspiracy theories about JFK’s assassination as there are conspiracy theorists I’m still curious to know what we’ve been missing for ~50 years.

Tweet from John F. Kennedy:
Too soon? Courtesy Tumblr.

The Museum of Witchcraft & Magic In London Opening: November 2, if you’re in the area. Put together by the Last Tuesday Society, a group that’s been in London since 2006 and is “dedicated to subverting life, the universe and everything bored of the life and world it sees around it seeks to create a new world filled with beauty, wonder and the imagination”. Could be a barrel of fun. Ah, to be in Merrie Olde…

technical issues

I’m typing this with my heart in my throat.

Captain Jack Sparrow, screaming
courtesy Giphy

Well, maybe not quite. Still, after six years my trusty laptop ain’t so trusty. It’s not failing completely, just lags for a stretch at unpredictable times. Right in the middle of a brainwave, no less.

So I spent most of this weekend troubleshooting the spinning beachball of death and it’s fixed–or as fixed as a six-year-old laptop can be. Even so, I look on every character I type with suspicion: will this be the last one before it freezes on me again?

Which is less than awesome as it’s my go-to tool for not only the book but pretty much everything else in my life. Additionally most of my research is on this chunk of plastic and metal; I seldom print anything out.

So how did this affect the Great Work? I didn’t get much writing time until yesterday. And I developed some contingency plans:

  • Save. As I work, hit ctl-S every ten minutes or so. Just in case.
  • Back up. Back up early and often. Think you’ve backed it up? Back it up again. Even when the screen was frozen my external drive worked. I’m making damn sure to do it more often than I have been!
  • Store offsite. Related to backup, my Zotero serves as a research holding area.
  • Speaking of research, remember that physical books exist And I do have some–not everything is a PDF of some academic article.
  • Write with pen and paper. Not optimal as my wrists don’t like it and I add to what’s in Scrivener but it’s better than nothing. At least I can spitball plot issues and get general notes down.

So how was your Labor Day weekend?

biweekly links 8-20-2017

I spent the eclipse with Asheville’s witches: I know Asheville mostly as the home of Biltmore House and former home of Moogfest, and while it seems an artsy, crunchy granola college town I didn’t know much about their pagan community. They seem fairly large but their interpretations of the eclipse are as varied as the pagan community itself. (Additional weird resource: Asheville Raven & Crone. No online shopping but a decent overview of their stock, plus event calendar).

Keeping secrets in sixteenth-century Istanbul: Holy Roman vs Ottoman Empires with ciphers and invisible ink! Of interest to me because Rudolf II managed his war with the Ottoman Empire so poorly that the rest of his family switched their support to his brother Matthias, thus beginning the end of Rudolfine Prague’s moment as art/occult capital of Europe.

Make America Ghostly Again: The Demon Cat of Washington D.C.: one of my favorite ghost stories ever! Said to have predicted both Lincoln’s and Kennedy’s assassinations, the cat also evidently enjoys scaring people to death (which, let’s face it, all cats would do if they could).

Orange cat sitting in cardboard box
Spice, the demon cat of my household, is bigger and scarier than her DC counterpart. She is very certain of this. Author’s own.

Witches Allegedly Stole Penises and Kept Them as Pets in the Middle Ages: but did they get along with the witches’ cats? Seriously though, this myth says more about the witch-hunters than the witches. Link includes possibly NSFW medieval penis-tree imagery, so don’t say you haven’t been warned.

a sliver of optimism

It’s been a rough couple of weeks.

Like almost everyone else I’m disgusted and sadly, surprised by the outrages in Charlottesville. I say “sadly” because it’s not surprising that Trump’s pandering to racists throughout his campaign emboldened them. The violence in Charlottesville was all but inevitable. And now we all know that we have a Commander-in-Chief who won’t outright condemn white supremacy.

I don’t know about you, but I used to live in a country where every thinking person–liberal and conservative–could agree that Nazis and the Klan were bad. Realizing I don’t anymore has been a shock to the system.

And then I got a ray of light.

orange sliver of the sun obscured by the shadow of the moon.
I tried smartphone + eclipse glasses, but ultimately NASA takes the good photos.

No, I don’t think the eclipse was some sort of astrological “good portent”, but the way it changed mood and focus was a delight. People of all sorts were excited. Joyful. Curious. Delighted to share their glasses and pinhole cameras, gathering in parks and fields and parking lots to point and smile. The constant CNN feed in my office turned away from the national shitshow to focus on this simple, if rare, natural marvel.

It’s over now. While I enjoyed it, I can’t stare at the sky forever–with everything going on in this country I can’t afford to. But the excitement generated by the eclipse, the wonder, the interest in science and astronomy, however briefly, by those who don’t usually consider such things (like me–I’m hardly a star-gazer) was a reminder that the world will keep spinning long after we’re gone.

Did you see the eclipse? What did you think?

biweekly links 8-16-2017

Major archaeological finds at Greenwich uncover lost Royal palace: archaeologists have found part of Greenwich Palace, where Elizabeth I, her sister “Bloody” Mary I and her dad Henry VIII were born. All they found were the kitchens, but in its time Greenwich was comparable to Hampton Court Palace in size and splendor.

August 7, 1620 in crime history: Katharina Kepler Arrested for Witchcraft in Germany: not a typo, that is astronomer Johannes Kepler’s mom. He defended her himself and did get her released, but this is a stark example of the way superstition persisted in the early years of what we think of as modern science.

Two Massive ‘Sea Serpent’ Oarfish Wash Up on Beaches: if you’re squeamish about the sight of filleted raw fish don’t look, but… take a look at these things! Huge and silver and serpent-like, I find it entirely believable that oarfish are mistaken for sea serpents from time to time.

old fashioned engraving of a sea serpent reared up and blowing water out its mouth like a fountain
The Great Sea Serpent (according to Hans Egede. Courtesy the New York Public Library.

How America Lost Its Mind: from The Atlantic, no less. Much to unpack here: did unfettered intellectual freedom lead to the current climate of subjective feelings trumping measurable fact? And is this relativism run amok a peculiarly American thing?

every girl remembers her first space probe

Forty years ago this month, the first of the two Voyager spacecraft launched. And one of my first memories is a book of the first images sent back.

I was about five, but it wasn’t a kid’s book. No, it was my dad’s beautiful coffee table book high-resolution color photos. I’d look at Rainbow-hued Saturn and Jupiter and its moons, the tiny black and white image of Death Star-inspiration Mimas, and Io’s volcanoes for hours on end. For the life of me I can’t remember the name of the book, but I do remember those photos. Over the years I developed an appreciation for the sheer technological achievement of Voyager 1 and 2. I still marvel that I live in a time when such things are possible.

And then there was the Golden Record, which became even more interesting as I became a record-collecting teenager. Though I didn’t like half the music (hell, I doubt I knew the tracklist), it still struck me as The Ultimate Artifact: the first sounds any alien will hear of earth, assuming there are any to hear.

Picture of man and woman and diagram of the solar system as depicted on Voyager 1. Commentary: maybe aliens don't talk to us because we're creepy. i mean we send them weird mix tapes and we keep trying to find out where they live. Additional commentary: And we sent them some unsolicited nudes with directions to our house
Mind, the aliens might find the sleeve art off-putting. Courtesy MeMe

Imagine my thrill to discover the Voyager Golden Record project (full disclosure: I participated in the Kickstarter). Now on the 40th anniversary there’s this beautiful boxed set of the remastered disc (vinyl or CD) with a new book of even more gorgeous photos.

I know what’s on my Christmas list – for myself and as gifts for others.

a fistful of linkage

Because I’m utterly stumped for a topic this week:

England’s new psychedelic renaissance: not a third Summer of Love (yes, there was a second [YouTube]), but less with the (pure) hedonism and more with the science.

Everyday Life and Fatal Hazard in Sixteenth-Century England is exactly what it sounds like: a painstaking examination of extant coroners’ reports reveal many, many dangers of everyday Elizabethan life. Maybe I’m morbid but I look forward to checking out their podcasts and bibliography.

The Racism Behind Alien Mummy Hoaxes: the whole “ancient aliens” thing doesn’t sit well for me and this article explains why better than I ever could. Insisting that aliens must have made [insert marvel of the world here] grossly discounts the tenacity and ingenuity of ancient and/or indigenous peoples. The possibility that hoaxers alter real mummies also runs into issues of desecration of indigenous burials and corruption of archaeological finds.

Photo of incredulous Agent Scully. Text: I'm not saying it was aliens...because it wasn't.
Courtesy Imgflip

biweekly links 7-26-2017

Notorious look at 16th century: check this out! An amateur (!) builder spent 10 years (!) researching and building a replica of a Portuguese caravel. This is the kind of insanely dedicated experiential archaeology I lurve. To my eternal regret I can’t find a website or blog chronicling the building process, but the ship’s Wikipedia page has some information. To find out where it docks next check out its Twitter and Facebook page.

Photo of ship Susan Constant at sunset
Reproduction of the “Susan Constant” at the Jamestown Settlement, no less impressive though it wasn’t made by a single man in his backyard. Author’s own.

A $70 ‘Worry Stone’ and Other Bizarre Spiritual Products You Can Buy Online: I used to have a worry stone – can’t imagine where it got off to but it’s nice to know I can replace it from the comfort of my keyboard. For serious high rollers you can get an “orgon [sic] accumulator” starting at $2000.

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Dunkirk: One of many articles about the movie, but I think covers history vs. fiction the best. As a former stickler for historical accuracy at all costs, writing The Book has humbled me to the real difficulties of hammering historical events into a compelling narrative. Nolan’s aim was to “put you on that beach” and I think he did so admirably, while sticking astonishingly close to the facts. Not included: why Germany stopped their attack or the fate of those left behind.

Will: 5 ways ‘The Two Gentlemen’ twists history: from painstaking historical accuracy we go to flamboyant liberty with the facts, or at least the image. I’ve not seen “Will” (yet?) but I can’t hammer it’s “punk rock Elizabethan” aesthetic too hard – I love artful anachronisms – but opinions differ.

unread

Full disclosure: though I’m writing fiction I’ve been more of a non-fiction reader most of my life. It’s only in the past ten years or so that the balance has shifted. As someone who tends to go narrow and deep, I’m surprised and embarrassed to realize my fiction exposure has been wide and shallow:

Much as I loved “Rebecca” I’ve not made time to read the rest of du Maurier’s work.

I’ve only read one each of the “Outlander” and “Lymond Chronicles” series. I enjoyed them but didn’t LURVE LURVE LURVE them enough to continue.

Ditto Margaret George and Philippa Gregory, two other histfic heavyweights. I can’t even tell you which ones I’ve read.

My track record in other genres is no better:

I’ve never read “The Hobbit” or “Lord of the Rings”. I tried the former in both high school and college and found the language too dense to get into. As such I figured LOTR was above my pay grade. I enjoyed the movies though (yes, I am a prole). Maybe I should take another run at these.

Many of the classics of science fiction have slipped under my radar: I’ve never read Heinlein or Asimov, save “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” because I wanted to know what inspired “Blade Runner”.

None of McCaffrey’s “Dragonriders of Pern” series. I couldn’t finish the first because I found it cliché; friends in the know said it’s better if you encounter it at age twelve rather than thirty-two.

No Agatha Christie or Conan Doyle, for no good reason at all.

No Jane Austen. I know, revoke my girl card.

Very little Stephen King because “Pet Sematary” kept me awake for two weeks as a kid. According to one and all he’s a master of suspense, I want thrills, not terror so intense I can’t turn out the lights.

Stack of books; Bagwell's The Darling Strumpet, Sharratt's Daughters of the Witching Hill, Dwyer's Ghost Hunter's Guide to Portland and the Oregon Coast, Smiten's Ghost Stories of Oregon, Hieber's The Eterna Files, Gortner's Marlene, and Higganbotham's Hanging Mary
Top of my fiction “to read” pile (with some non-fic mixed in, natch). Note they are all recent releases: no classics.

I try to catch up with the old but the new is so tempting!

What haven’t you read that you feel like you ought? What classics did you finally get around to only to find they didn’t live up to the hype?