Scarlet Letters

The not-so-private thoughts and rants of Elizabeth Donald, journalist/author and founder of the Literary Underworld.

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Happy New Year!

"Dontcha just love New Year's? You get to start all over. Everybody gets a second chance."
-- Otherwise Twit-like Girl, FORREST GUMP

Best description of New Year's ever, in my humble opinion. And we all have our resolutions (or our resolve not to do resolutions). It's a time of reflection. At least until the champagne pours.

As always, I am grateful for my wonderful readers, for those in this group and the teeming hundreds elsewhere that do me the honor of paying me for my words. It's a miracle that never ceases to amaze me, and one that I hope will always leave me humbled.

Without you guys, I'd just be talking to myself.

I hope the very best for you all in the coming year. May you have health, happiness and the fellowship of your loved ones. And if any of these fall short... it can always be worse.

Just think, you could be a character in one of my books.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Richest Man in Town

I admit it: I cried like a little girl.

The end of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Seen so many times it’s like a cliché. It’s the hokey ending that solves all the problems in one beautiful bow, the sort of thing that never happens in real life. From his barstool on “Cheers,” Norm (George Wendt) even grouses that during the many times in his life he’s been in trouble, no one ever came to his door with a sackful of cash to bail him out.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is certainly dated, if that is a crime. It has its flaws of logic and characterization – for all Mary’s strength and self-assuredness in the original timeline, where is it in the alternate timeline? Are we to assume that her strength came only from her husband, when she certainly showed it long before she became Mrs. George Bailey? Is it logical that the good people of Bedford Falls would have become a seedy crowd of rabble-rousing drunkards without a Building and Loan? While loss and grief would certainly change a person, is it likely that every single person would become an angry, suspicious, hateful wretch?

I can live with these issues.

Still, my main problem has always been Potter. He gets away with $8,000, essentially framing George Bailey for his own accidental embezzlement. “Saturday Night Live” solved that one for us – five minutes after the movie ends, they say, Uncle Billy remembers where the money went and the whole crowd storms over to Potter’s mansion to beat the hell out of him. Catharsis.

The movie is more than the standard Frank Capra Vaseline-on-the-camera-lens glorification of small-town American life. The people of Bedford Falls are not perfect. Mr. Gower did, in fact, come close to killing a patient. The bank president and the Building and Loan trustees are responsible for kowtowing to Potter and essentially handing over the town to him. George’s brother Harry goes off to his perfect life and reneges on his promise to George. Mary plays a few games of her own to try to “catch” George. The friendly citizens were all too quick to turn on poor George Bailey when they thought their money might be in jeopardy. Sam Wainwright is obnoxious and full of himself. Uncle Billy… do I even need to say that Billy should never be in any kind of financial position of power or influence?

Even our hero George, when faced with the final adversity, takes it out on his family in harsh, hurtful words and a fit of temper. He's also a drunk driver, crashing his car into the tree in a sodden stupor, lucky not to kill himself or anyone else.

But it’s that very depth of character that makes it real. Small towns are never full of saints – there’s ugliness and cruelty and selfishness, the same as in large towns. Modern American cinema has made an entire genre out of displaying the two-faced darkness of suburbia, whether it’s for laughs (“The ‘Burbs”) or ennui (“American Beauty”) or outright horror (“Arlington Road,” “The Stepford Wives,” more that I could name). In my own work, I’m in the middle of creating my own fictional small town, and it’s been important to me to make it as nuanced and three-dimensional as possible. Somewhere between Bedford Falls and Castle Rock lies Jericho, Illinois.

Once upon a time, I could enjoy “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the beauty of Frank Capra’s vision, and the incredible performance of Jimmy Stewart. Playing a man from his youthful exuberance to the crestfallen young man to the exhausted father to the bitter man on the brink of suicide, and back again. We forget that the clichés begin with something truly memorable, so good that it is repeated and imitated and finally lampooned into meaninglessness.

But tonight, it’s Norm on his barstool who comes to mind, as I watch the money spill out on the table in George Bailey’s living room. Norm, who grouses into his beer that no one ever came to his rescue. And this year, I realize that someone came to my rescue. Several someones, as a matter of fact. I wasn’t facing jail and a public scandal, just another in a long line of financial crises that happened to come at a very difficult time for me personally.

And the town showed up, with a sackful of cash.

But it’s not the money that brings tears to our eyes, is it? It’s the whole town, gathered in one room, celebrating the importance one man had to their lives. It’s the sense of a community banding together around one of its own, not out of pity, but out of joy and friendship and charity in the true sense of the word. Together we are more than we are alone.

My one regret is that I could not gather my helpful angels into a room, playing carols on the piano and drinking wine. But rest assured, somewhere a bell rings for them. If Clarence is right, no man is a failure who has friends. That makes me the richest woman in town.

Monday, December 19, 2005

New Book!

Coming next month: SETTING SUNS, an anthology of twilight tales.

A nightmarish funhouse turned deadly. A couple trapped in a futile journey through time. A single baleful eye watching from the deep. An assassin waiting in a snow-covered tree. A pair of soldiers trapped between death and something worse.

These are the tales and terrors of Elizabeth Donald, award-winning author of the Nocturnal Urges vampire mystery series. These stories and more are contained in this volume of terrifying twilight tales.

In that space between evening and nightfall, between consciousness and sleep, the moment when the light fades and the shadows take over...

These are the lands of the Setting Suns.

"The stories in SETTING SUNS are imbued with a haunting lyricism, but frequently there are moments of pure terror that arrive like a devastating punch to the gut. Donald's is one of the strongest and freshest new genre voices out there."
--Bryan Smith, author of House of Blood and Deathbringer

If you ever heard me read "Sisyphus" and liked it, here's your chance to own it. Plus another fourteen stories, some of which have been published before, and others that were written for this volume. SETTING SUNS will be the second release from New Babel Books, and I am very excited about it! Please take a moment to check out both my web site (updated with SETTING SUNS info and the New Babel web site (www.newbabelbooks.com).

Beginning Christmas Day, New Babel will offer preorders of SETTING SUNS at a discount. Only $10.99 for preorder, three dollars off the regular cover price! SETTING SUNS will be released in late January. And yes, for those who have asked. this is a print paperback you can hold in your hands.

I also want to add that I've had the honor of assisting with the editing of New Babel's first release, SWAN SONG. It's coming out Dec. 25, and it's a hell of a book. If you like superheroes, comic books, action-adventure or just trust my judgment (heh), pick up this book. Plus you'll be helping to support the small press, which is always good for karma.

Spread the word, willya?

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Review: Crone's Moon (M.R. Sellars)

Sellars does it again.

If you haven't discovered the Rowan Gant mystery series, hie thee hence to your local bookstore and demand it. Get your hands on this series. You will have to read them in order, but you won't mind in the slightest. This series never fails to be a page-turning, heart-thumping read, and CRONE'S MOON delivers once again.

So who is M.R. Sellars? He wrote the first Rowan Gant mystery, HARM NONE, and tried to sell New York on the idea of a practicing Wiccan as the detective. New York was... New York. Thus the series went to the small press, and thank Goddess. :) (And if I have to put in my usual disclaimer that Wicca does not equal Satan-worshipping, I will thump you.)

Rowan Gant faces another serial killer in CRONE'S MOON, but more than any previous book, he's facing the killer on the mystical plane instead of the flesh-and-blood world of police forensics. Sellars always has the note of realism in his police procedurals, but with this book Gant is almost entirely away from the crime scenes, fighting to stay alive through psychic impressions of the victims' deaths. Only this time, wife Felicity is experiencing them as well.

I took this book on vacation with me, and had it finished within a day. I couldn't stop. These books are not romances, but they are romantic in the most traditional sense, with the main arguments between Rowan and Felicity circling over who gets to risk his or her life for the other this time. Sellars makes us feel Rowan's torment, watching his wife suffer what he has suffered through four books now, unable to stop it and afraid it will take her from him.

The only place where CRONE'S MOON fails and the previous books have succeeded is in the force responsible for the deaths. Unlike previous books, the killer (and I'm trying hard not to give it away) is nearly background, a simple force impelling Rowan and Felicity on their dangerous path. But it hardly diminishes the experience.

If you're a fan of mysteries, police procedurals, supernatural thrillers or just plain good books, pick up CRONE'S MOON. Oh, after you pick up the first four books. You won't be disappointed.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

a brief fangirl pause: subtext in Stephen King books vs. movies

This originated with a discussion on the Stephen King bulletin board hosted by his publisher, examining why King's books have been hit-or-miss in the theaters, while J.K. Rowling's are nearly universally loved. It's a hard comparison because Rowling is writing one series, and King has written a great variety of works in several universes.

But that never stops me from shooting off my mouth.

I think King's movies have always been hit or miss because of the filmmaker's preconceptions. Unlike many horror authors, King's books are about one thing on top - usually a googly monster - and something far more serious underneath. Examples:

1. CUJO is about a rabid St. Bernard on top... and about the strains of failing marriages underneath.
2. IT is about a shape-shifting evil on top... and about the strength of childhood imagination and friendship underneath.
3. THE SHINING is about a haunted hotel on top... and about alcoholism as a personal demon underneath.
4. SALEM'S LOT is about vampires on top... and about the secrets and backyard politics that run a small town underneath, a theme he revisits in NEEDFUL THINGS and several other works.

I think the best movies come about when the filmmaker really gets what's underneath. The sucky movies come when they simply concentrate on the big bad and dismiss the rest as an "unassuming potboiler," which is what critics actually called CARRIE.

CHILDREN OF THE CORN, anyone? A terrifying short story about how religion can be perverted into violence, and look what we got? While the IT miniseries tried very hard to make that all work - and how tough is that, with a 1,000-page book to distill past TV censors - the reviewers still all talked about the evil clown. I would argue that it is nearly impossible to display the mental battle between Bill and It at the end of the novel - it takes place in some Otherspace and entirely on a metaphysical level. So instead, we got a giant spider. Many dismissed it as a terrible anticlimax.

Here's where I shade into heresy: Stanley Kubrick famously dissed the book of THE SHINING during production as a dumb haunted house story. I think his attitude shows in the movie. It couldn't help but be popular, because Kubrick was visually brilliant. But it lacks that other dimension, something to take it past being freaky and into something that actually touches our emotions. What makes a horror movie? Screaming people we don't care about running from an oogy monster? Or actual fear of something we can relate to, with real people up front that very well might succumb to it? Much of Kubrick's work has that distance to it, a remoteness that leaves me cold, as though I were watching this story from a dispassionate viewscreen instead of deeply involved in it.

That's why King hated the movie, and it was the first thing he wanted remade when they asked him. And you can see in the TV-movie version - while lacking Kubrick's visual brilliance - that there is something more going on than just a haunted house. In Kubrick's version, Jack Nicholson plays the same psycho he always plays, from Jack Torrance to the Joker. He starts off as a cold asshole and turns into a murderous asshole. No real change. Steven Weber starts off as a flawed but dedicated husband, a man with actual affection for his wife and child, and thus watching the hotel demolish him (in exactly the way booze demolishes an alcoholic) is a real loss for the viewer. When he goes after Rebecca DeMornay, it's more terrifying than Nicholson with the axe, because it's played and shot like real domestic violence, not "ooh, the hotel is coming to get her." (Plus DeMornay can act.)

When filmmakers dismiss the undercurrent in King's work, it shows in the movie, and that's how you get CHILDREN OF THE CORN 19: THIS TIME THEY'RE SERIOUS. In my humble opinion.

Friday, December 02, 2005

a man of the cloth

John Sentamu is now the first black archbishop in the Church of England.

(Brief organizational pause: The Church of England is the British part of the Anglican Communion. The Episcopal Church is the American part. So Sentamu is part of the greater communion, second only to the Archbishop of Canterbury, but not a direct superior to us Yanks. Got it? Good. I have a chart with colored pushpins if you need it.)

At first I was nervous, because Sentamu is from Uganda. Why such a reaction? It's the African bishops who have raised the most hell - pardon the expression - about we pesky Americans ordaining a gay bishop.

But Sentamu seems to be one of the good guys, as much as you can tell from newspaper accounts. Born the sixth of 13 children, he survived childhood illness and a famine to become a Ugandan barrister and judge. In the 1970s, he publicly criticized the Amin regime and was forced to flee Uganda for the U.K.

He studied theology at Cambridge, and intended to return to Uganda until the Ugandan archbishop, a friend of his, was murdered. Sentamu pursued ordination to take up his friend's work. And surpassed it, it seems, as he led the push for minority concerns in Anglicanism and for social justice, assisting in police inquiries into two high-profile racially-motivated murders. One of those inquiries exposed rampant racism in the police department.

During six years as a bishop, he was stopped and searched by police eight times. Once four young white men spat at him and one of them shouted, "Nigger, go home."

"You have wasted your saliva," he replied.

He has championed blue-collar workers' causes and against lengthening prison sentences to deter crime. He opposed the Iraq war and called on Bush to apologize for torturing prisoners. He has attacked the Church of England itself on occasion for bouts of "institutional racism," for becoming "a cumbersome organization that repels, and whose people are dull, complacent, judgmental and moralizing."

And they still ordained him Archbishop of York, stepping-stone to the top job. Sometimes I love my denomination - open minds and accepting of others' opinions. He was ordained in a bright blue and yellow cope and mitre (garments), by the way, adorned with traditional Ugandan cymbols, and the ceremony included an African drum and dance performance. I would have loved to see that. Apparently, Sentamu plays a mean drum himself.

I was surprised to read that the Church of England still doesn't ordain women bishops. We've been doing that for a long time here across the pond. But Sentamu said he would do so, and hoped they would pass the legislation in July allowing it to happen. His only concern, he said, was that those who disagreed with the majority opinion should still feel welcome in the church. Of course, the consecration of the first female bishop in the Episcopal Church threatened a division in 1989, as did the first female priests in 1974.

As with all archbishops, Sentamu says he obeys the law of Lambeth in regards to gay ordination. So say they all, but I would be interested to know how he voted. He said that all people should be welcomed in the church regardless of orientation, and should be judged on their being in Christ, nothing else. He called for the discussion over sexuality to be an actual discussion, not "standing on either side of the river shouting at one another."

Get this, from his ordination sermon:

"As followers of the Prince of Peace, the friend of the poor, the marginalized, and the vulnerable, I bid you all by the mercies of God to go and find friends among them ... and all those in society who are demonized and dehumanized; and stand shoulder to shoulder with them. Christians, go and find friends among Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, agnostics, atheists, not for the purpose of converting them to your beliefs, but for friendship, understanding, listening, hearing."

Sing it, Father.

In case you're wondering, I got all my information from various European and African news sources. CNN doesn't give a damn. They ran the "face transplant" lady instead.

I can't tell you how many times I have heard from those who oppose Dominionist Christianity and are vigilant keepers of the separation of church and state how much they wish moderate Christians would speak up. Where are the sane Christians, the ones who don't predict fire and damnation for a town that kicks out its bullheaded creationist school board? The ones who don't call for the assassination of foreign leaders? The ones who espouse tolerance and understanding and diversity over hellfire and brimstone?

WE'RE RIGHT HERE.

They complain that the moderate Christians don't speak up. They have to speak against the waves of conservative intolerance and fundamentalism if they wish to counteract the growing backlash against Christianity. Thank you, Pat Robertson, for making it so difficult for us to admit we're Christians in public without the "oh no, run for your life" look in their eyes.

IT IS NOT TRUE THAT MODERATE CHRISTIANS DON'T SPEAK UP. It's that no American news outlets will run it when they do. We can stand on the hill and scream at the top of our lungs, but everyone insists we are mute. And that infuriates me.

When creationism/intelligent design vs. evolution rears its stupid head for the nine hundredth time, we see reams of newsprint parroting Robertson and Dobson as the sole spokesmen for the Christians of America. But when the Presiding Bishop of the United States says that "the freedom given to creation to evolve does not diminish the role of the Creator".... well, I guess that's just a little too highbrow for the American public. Cut it from the story. Where is the story repeating Sentamu's call for unity? If he had stood at the pulpit and denounced homosexuals and feminists and evolution and peace activists and fluffy little bunnies, we'd have seen it blasted on every newspaper in the country, British or not.

Sentamu has always spoken up, against the Amin regime, against police racism, against his own church. He stands up and speaks. We don't listen, but he speaks anyway. Yet when I am in a roomful of people my own age, who share my interests, I find it more expedient to hide my cross. Their eyes will change. They will think the lesser of me for my faith. That is something I'm trying to stop. I speak, when and where I can. If only there were ears to hear.

I wish I had his courage.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

INFERNII

I've started a new book.

It's the third book in the NOCTURNAL URGES series, and so far I'm more excited about it than anything in years. It's the book that will transition the series out of erotic thrillers into straight horror. And we're starting with a bang. Literally.

It occurs to me that I really should be recording my thoughts as I work on this book. Here's what I've done to date:

MONDAY, NOV. 28
1,460 words

Got through the prologue. Don't like it. Will fix later.

Got into the Christmas party. Loved it. Everyone's dancing. Everyone's happy. Hail hail the gang's all here. It helps to have smart family - I needed Ryan to reference some kind of music popular at the end of the nineteenth century, but not fussy parlor music that he (as a member of the vampire underclass) would not have heard much. So I called my mother, classical music professor as she is, and within an hour she had half a dozen suggestions. Thanks Mom.

For the record, when Ryan dips Isabel before the fireplace, the Rolling Stones are singing the third verse to "Paint It Black": No more will my green sea turn a deeper blue... I could not foresee this thing happening to you...

Muahahaha.

TUESDAY, NOV. 29 (lunch)
3,166 words

I spent my lunch break working on INFERNII. I'm really having fun with the Christmas party. These guys write themselves. And Ryan surprised me. I didn't expect what he was going to give Isabel as a Christmas present, but it's really in character.

And it's soooooo sweet. Those two are adorable. So are Danny and Samantha. Parker and Chapman. And poor Freitas is dateless. *snicker* She and Fradella are still on the outs. Still, everyone's so happy, and when I get back to it tonight, they'll hoist a glass of egg nog.

Too bad the party's almost over.

Wow, I'm having fun again. I forgot what this was like. The jumpy, excited wow-this-is-fun feeling between stomach and heart.

(nighttime) 3,971 words

Boom.

WEDNESDAY, NOV. 30
(lunch) 5,176 words

I've covered too many fires. That came too easily. I really love these working lunch breaks - god, only 40 minutes. It's so much nicer to write when I'm, y'know, awake.

Poor Freitas. I owe her an apologia.

And Fradella is a good guy.

(nighttime) 6,221 words

Ryan just keeps surprising me. What he asked of Samantha... ouch. I hadn't even thought of that. I had thought of this primarily as Samantha and Freitas' book, but it's turning into Ryan's book, at least at first. His friendship with Samantha is something rather tricky. And Danny's going to have issues now.

I don't know if anyone's going to enjoy this or I'm just amusing myself, but damn.

Now I'm going to sleep. I promised myself I will not work past 1 a.m. while working on this book. I still have a day job to survive.