Throwback to that time I wrote a book about vampires…or did I?

Time for vampires, witches, and all things spooky, no? It’s the season for reading Gothic, so gather round and let’s talk about THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST my only Gothic novel, and my love letter to Victoria Holt, Ann Radcliffe, and Mary Stewart.

There are lots of goodies with this one, and today’s post puts them all in one place. First, to get you in an appropriately Transylvanian mood, the Pinterest board. Next, a list of Transylvanian reading and a recipe for a traditional Carpathian dish. Then we have the back cover copy of THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST to give you an overview of the action. After that, a link to exclusive content from the digital version, and we’re ending with an excerpt in hopes that you will be enticed to wander the stone passages of Castle Dragulescu…

*Further reading and a Carpathian recipe:

*THE LAND BEYOND THE FOREST Emily Gerard. Once out of print but now mercifully reissued, this book was written by the first English-speaking woman to visit the Carpathians. It was the book Bram Stoker most heavily relied upon in conjuring his version of Transylvania, and it was the single most essential resource I had in writing THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST. Gerard’s tales of neighborhood gossip about a missing gentleman having “gone wolf” inspired my story of the Popa men.

*TRANSYLVANIA AND BEYOND Dervla Murphy

*TRANSYLVANIAN CUISINE Paul Kovi

*Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian trilogy

*VAMPIRE: THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO THE WORLD OF THE UNDEAD Manuela Dunn Mascetti

*VAMPIRES David J. Skal

*IN SEARCH OF DRACULA Radu Florescu

To drink while you read, it must be plum brandy. It goes by various names in Transylvania, depending upon whether you are of of Romanian, Hungarian, or German descent, but it is similar stuff–warmly fruity and entirely potent. And just to make sure it doesn’t all go straight to your head, a nice bowl of corn porridge, a staple of the Carpathian diet.

Mămăligă

This is a virtuous dish, being both exquisitely simple and endlessly varied. A cornmeal mash, it requires only three ingredients and is best prepared in an iron cauldron over an open fire. If you insist upon cooking it in a modern kitchen, you may.

Boil one quart of water in a pot. When it reaches a rapid boil, add one tablespoon salt and slowly pour in two cups of cornmeal, stirring constantly. Lower the heat and cook for approximately twenty minutes, continuing to stir to break up any lumps.

Mămăligă may be prepared with a little milk to make a softer dish to be eaten as porridge, or it may be sliced and served in place of bread or eaten out of hand with a salty ewe’s milk cheese and sour cream. It may be crumbled and served in a dish of hot milk to invalids, or sliced and fried in butter for heartier types.

*Back cover copy of THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST:

A husband, a family, a comfortable life: Theodora Lestrange lives in terror of it all

With a modest inheritance and the three gowns that comprise her entire wardrobe, Theodora leaves Edinburgh—and a disappointed suitor—far behind. She is bound for Rumania, where tales of vampires are still whispered, to visit an old friend and write the book that will bring her true independence.

She arrives at a magnificent, decaying castle in the Carpathians, replete with eccentric inhabitants: the ailing dowager; the troubled steward; her own fearful friend, Cosmina. But all are outstripped in dark glamour by the castle’s master, Count Andrei Dragulescu.

Bewildering and bewitching in equal measure, the brooding nobleman ignites Theodora’s imagination and awakens passions in her that she can neither deny nor conceal. His allure is superlative, his dominion over the superstitious town, absolute—Theodora may simply be one more person under his sway.

Before her sojourn is ended—or her novel completed—Theodora will have encountered things as strange and terrible as they are seductive. For obsession can prove fatal…and she is in danger of falling prey to more than desire.

 

*Excerpt

THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST
Theodora Lestrange leaves her comfortable home in Edinburgh to visit Transylvania at the invitation of her childhood friend, Cosmina, now the betrothed of a Roumanian nobleman. Theodora arrives at the Castle Dragulescu to find that nothing is as she expected…After a long while, the road swung upward into the high mountains, and we moved from the pretty foothills to the bold peaks of the Carpathians. Here the air grew suddenly sharp, and the snug villages disappeared, leaving only great swathes of green-black forests of fir and spruce, occasionally punctured by high shafts of grey stone where a ruined fortress or watch-tower still reached to the darkening sky, and it was in this wilderness that we stopped once more, high upon a mountain pass at a small inn. A coach stood waiting, this one a private affair clearly belonging to some person of means, for it was a costly vehicle and emblazoned with an intricate coat of arms. The driver alighted at once and after a moment’s brisk conversation with the driver of the hired coach, took up my boxes and secured them.

He gestured towards me, managing to be both respectful and impatient. I shivered in my thin cloak and hurried after him.

I paused at the front of the equipage, startled to find that the horses, great handsome beasts and beautifully kept, were nonetheless scarred, bearing the traces of some trauma about their noses.

Die Wölfe,” he said, and I realized in horror what he meant.

I replied in German, my schoolgirl grammar faltering only a little. “The wolves attack them?”

He shrugged. “There is not a horse in the Carpathians without scars. It is the way of it here.”

He said nothing more but opened the door to the coach and I climbed in.

Cosmina had mentioned wolves, and I knew they were a considerable danger in the mountains, but hearing such things amid the cosy comforts of a school dormitory was very different to hearing them on a windswept mountainside where they dwelt.

The coachman sprang to his seat whipping up the horses almost before I had settled myself, so eager was he to be off. The rest of the journey was difficult, for the road we took was not the main one that continued through the pass, but a lesser, rockier track, and I realised we were approaching the headwaters of the river where it sprang from the earth before debouching into the somnolent valley far below.

The evening drew on into night, with only the coach lamps and a waning sliver of pale moon to light the way. It seemed we travelled an eternity, rocking and jolting our way ever upward until at last, hours after we left the little inn on the mountain pass, the driver pulled the horses to a sharp halt. I looked out of the window to the left and saw nothing save long shafts of starlight illuminating the great drop below us to the river. To the right was sheer rock, stretching hundreds of feet to the vertical. I staggered from the coach, my legs stiff with cold. I breathed deeply of the crisp mountain air and smelled juniper.

Just beyond lay a coach house and stables and what looked to be a little lodge, perhaps where the coachman lived. He had already dismounted and was unhitching the horses whilst he shouted directions to a group of men standing nearby. They looked to be of peasant stock and had clearly been chosen for their strength, for they were diminutive, as Roumanians so often are, but built like oxen with thick necks and muscle-corded arms. An old-fashioned sedan chair stood next to them.

Before I could ask, the driver pointed to a spot on the mountainside high overhead. Torches had been lit and I could see that a castle had been carved out of the living rock itself, perched impossibly high, like an eagle’s aerie. “That is the home of the Dragulescus,” he told me proudly.

“It is most impressive,” I said. “But I do not understand. How am I to—”

He pointed again, this time towards a staircase cut into the rock. The steps were wide and shallow, switching back and forth as they rose over the face of the mountain.

“Impossible,” I breathed. “There must be a thousand steps.”

“One thousand, four hundred,” he corrected. “The Devil’s Staircase, it is called, for it is said that the Dragulescu who built this fortress could not imagine how to reach the summit of the mountain. So he promised his firstborn to the Devil if a way could be found. In the morning, his daughter was dead, and this staircase was just as you see it now.”

I stared at him in astonishment. There seemed no possible reply to such a wretched story, and yet I felt a thrill of horror. I had done right to come. This was a land of legend, and I knew I should find inspiration for a dozen novels here if I wished it.

He gestured towards the sedan chair. “It is too steep for horses. This is why we must use the old ways.”

I baulked at first, horrified at the idea that I must be carried up the mountain like so much chattel. But I looked again at the great height and my legs shook with fatigue. I followed him to the sedan chair and stepped inside. The door was snapped shut behind me, entombing me in the stuffy darkness. A leather curtain had been hung at the window—for privacy, or perhaps to protect the passenger from the elements. I tried to move it aside, but it had grown stiff and unwieldy from disuse.

Suddenly, I heard a few words spoken in the soft lilting Roumanian tongue, and the sedan chair rocked hard, first to one side, then the other as it was lifted from the ground. I tried to make myself as small as possible before I realised the stupidity of the idea. The journey was not a comfortable one, for I soon discovered it was necessary to steel myself against the jostling at each step as we climbed slowly towards the castle.

At length I felt the chair being set down and the door was opened for me. I crept out, blinking hard in the flaring light of the torches. I could see the castle better now, and my first thought was here was some last outpost of Byzantium, for the castle was something out of myth. It was a hodge-podge of strange little towers capped by witches’ hats, thick walls laced with parapets, and high, pointed windows. It had been fashioned of river stones and courses of bricks, and the whole of it had been whitewashed save the red tiles of the roofs. Here and there the white expanses of the walls were broken with massive great timbers, and the effect of the whole was some faerytale edifice, perched by the hand of a giant in a place no human could have conceived of it.

In the paved courtyard, all was quiet, quiet as a tomb, and I wondered madly if everyone was asleep, slumbering under a sorcerer’s spell, for the place seemed thick with enchantment. But just then the great doors swung back upon their hinges and the spell was broken. Silhouetted in the doorway was a slight figure I remembered well, and it was but a moment before she spied me and hurried forward.

“Theodora!” she cried, and her voice was high with emotion. “How good it is to see you at last.”

She embraced me, but carefully, as if I were made of spun glass.

“We are old friends,” I scolded. “And I can bear a sturdier affection than that.” I enfolded her and she seemed to rest a moment upon my shoulder.

“Dear Theodora, I am so glad you are come.” She drew back and took my hand, tucking it into her arm. The light from the torches fell upon her face then, and I saw that the pretty girl had matured into a comely woman. She had had a fondness for sweet pastries at school and had always run to plumpness, but now she was slimmer, the lost flesh revealing elegant bones that would serve her well into old age.

From the shadows behind her emerged a great dog, a wary and fearsome creature with a thick grey coat that stood nearly as tall as a calf in the field.

“Is he?” I asked, holding myself quite still as the beast sniffed at my skirts appraisingly.

“No.” She paused a moment, then continued on smoothly, “The dog is his.”

I knew at once that she referred to her betrothed, and I wondered why she had hesitated at the mention of his name. I darted a quick glance and discovered she was in the grip of some strong emotion, as if wrestling with herself.

She burst out suddenly, her voice pitched low and soft and for my ears alone. “Do not speak of the betrothal. I will explain later. Just say you are come for a visit.”

She squeezed my hand and I gave a short, sharp nod to show that I understood. It seemed to reassure her, for she fixed a gentle smile upon her lips and drew me into the great hall of the castle to make the proper introductions.

The hall itself was large, the stone walls draped with moth-eaten tapestries, the flagged floor laid here and there with faded Turkey carpets. There was little furniture, but the expanses of wall that had been spared the tapestries were bristling with weapons—swords and halberds, and some other awful things I could not identify, but which I could easily imagine dripping with gore after some fierce medieval battle.

Grouped by the immense fireplace was a selection of heavy oaken chairs, thick with examples of the carver’s art. One—a porter’s chair, I imagined, given its great wooden hood to protect the sitter from draughts—was occupied by a woman. Another woman and a young man stood next to it, and I presumed at once that this must be Cosmina’s erstwhile fiancé.

When we reached the little group, Cosmina presented me formally. “Aunt Eugenia, this is my friend, Theodora Lestrange. Theodora, my aunt, the Countess Dragulescu.”

I had no notion of how to render the proper courtesies to a countess, so I merely inclined my head, more deeply than I would have done otherwise, and hoped it would be sufficient.

To my surprise, the countess extended her hand and addressed me in lilting English. “Miss Lestrange, you are quite welcome.” Her voice was reedy and thin, and I noted she was well-wrapped against the evening chill. As I came near to take her hand, I saw the resemblance to Cosmina, for the bones of the face were very like. But whereas Cosmina was a woman whose beauty was in crescendo, the countess was fading. Her hair and skin lacked luster, and I recalled the many times Cosmina had confided her worries over her aunt’s health.

But her grey eyes were bright as she shook my hand firmly, then waved to the couple standing in attendance upon her.

“Miss Lestrange, you must meet my companion, Clara—Frau Amsel.” To my surprise, she followed this with, “And her son, Florian. He functions as steward here at the castle.” I supposed it was the countess’ delicate way of informing me that Frau Amsel and Florian were not to be mistaken for the privileged. The Amsels were obliged to earn their bread as I should have to earn mine. We ought to have been equals, but perhaps my friendship with Cosmina had elevated me above my natural place in the countess’ estimation. True, Cosmina was a poor relation, but the countess had seen to her education and encouraged Cosmina’s prospects as a future daughter-in-law to hear Cosmina tell the tale. On thinking of the betrothal, I wondered then where the new count was and if his absence was the reason for Cosmina’s distress.

Recalling myself, I turned to the Amsels. The lady was tall and upright in her posture, and wore a rather unbecoming shade of brown which gave her complexion a sallow cast. She was not precisely plump, but there was a solidity about her that put me instantly in mind of the sturdy village women who had cooked and cleaned at our school in Bavaria. Indeed, when Frau Amsel murmured some words of welcome, her English was thwarted by a thick German accent. I nodded cordially to her and she addressed her son. “Florian, Miss Lestrange is from Scotland. We must speak English to make her feel welcome. It will be good practise for you.”

He inclined his head to me. “Miss Lestrange. It is with a pleasure that we welcome you to Transylvania.”

His grammar was imperfect, and his accent nearly impenetrable, but I found him interesting. He was perhaps a year or two my elder—no more, I imagined. He had softly curling hair of middling brown and a broad, open brow. His would have been a pleasant countenance, if not for the expression of seriousness in his solemn brown eyes. I noticed his hands were beautifully shaped, with long, elegant fingers, and I wondered if he wrote tragic poetry.

“Thank you, Florian,” I returned, twisting my tongue around the syllables of his name and giving it the same inflection his mother had.

Just at that moment I became aware of a disturbance, not from the noise, for his approach had been utterly silent. But the dog pricked up his ears, swinging his head to the great archway that framed the grand staircase. A man was standing there, his face shrouded in darkness. He was of medium height, his shoulders wide and although I could not see him clearly, they seemed to be set with the resolve that only a man past thirty can achieve.

He moved forward slowly, graceful as an athlete, and as he came near the shadows of the torches and the fire played over his face, revealing and then concealing, offering him up in pieces that I could not quite resolve into a whole until he reached my side.

I was conscious that his eyes had been fixed upon me, and I realised with a flush of embarrassment that I had returned his stare, all thoughts of modesty or propriety fled.

The group had been a pleasant one, but at his appearance a crackling tension rose, passing from one to the other, until the atmosphere was thick with unspoken things.

He paused a few feet from me, his gaze still hard upon me. I could see him clearly now and almost wished I could not. He was handsome, not in the pretty way of shepherd boys in pastoral paintings, but in the way that horses or lions are handsome. His features bore traces of his mother’s ruined beauty, with a stern nose and a firmly-marked brow offset by lips any satyr might have envied. They seemed fashioned for murmuring sweet seductions, but it was the eyes I found truly mesmerising. I had never seen that colour before, either in nature or in art. They were silver-grey, but darkly so, and complimented by the black hair that fell in thick locks nearly to his shoulders. He was dressed quietly, but expensively, and wore a heavy silver ring upon his forefinger, intricately worked and elegant. Yet all of these excellent attributes were nothing to the expression of interest and approbation he wore. Without that, he would have been any other personable gentleman. With it, he was incomparable. I felt as if I could stare at him for a thousand years, so long as he looked at me with those fathomless eyes, and it was not until Cosmina spoke that I recalled myself.

“Andrei, this is my friend, Miss Theodora Lestrange from Edinburgh. Theodora, the Count Dragulescu.”

He did not take my hand or bow or offer me any of the courtesies I might have expected. Instead he merely held my gaze and said, “Welcome, Miss Lestrange. You must be tired from your journey. I will escort you to your room.”

If the pronouncement struck any of the assembled company as strange, they betrayed no sign of it. The countess inclined her head to me in dismissal as Frau Amsel and Florian stood quietly by. Cosmina reached a hand to squeeze mine. “Goodnight,” she murmured. “Rest well and we will speak in the morning,” she added meaningfully. She darted a glance at the count, and for the briefest of moments, I thought I saw fear in her eyes.

I nodded. “Of course. Goodnight, and thank you all for such a kind welcome.”

The count did not wait for me to conclude my farewells, forcing me to take up my skirts in my hands and hurry after him. At the foot of the stairs a maid darted forward with a pitcher of hot water and he gestured for her to follow. She said nothing, but gave me a curious glance. The count took up a lit candle from a sideboard and walked on, never looking back.

We walked for some distance, up staircases and down long corridors, until at length we came to what I surmised must have been one of the high towers of the castle. The door to the ground-floor room was shut. We passed it, mounting a narrow set of stairs that spiralled to the next floor where we paused at a heavy oaken door. The count opened it, standing aside for me to enter. The room was dark and cold and the maid placed the pitcher next to a pretty basin upon the washstand. The count gave her a series of instructions in rapid Roumanian and she hurried to comply, building up a fire upon the hearth. It was soon burning brightly, but it did little to dispel the chill that had settled into the stone walls, and it seemed surprising to me that the room had not been better prepared as I had been expected. I began to wonder if the count had altered the arrangements, although I could not imagine why.

The room was circular and furnished in an old-fashioned style, doubtless because the furniture was old—carved wooden stuff with great clawed feet. The bed was hung with thick scarlet curtains, heavily embroidered in tarnished gold thread, and spread across it was a moulting covering of some sort of animal fur. I was afraid to ask what variety.

But even as I took inventory of my room, I was deeply conscious of him standing near the bed, observing me in perfect silence.

At length I could bear the silence no longer. “It was kind of you to show me the way.” I put out my hand for the candle but he stepped around me. He went to the washstand and fixed the candle in place on an iron prick. The little maid scurried out the door, and to my astonishment, closed it firmly behind her.

“Remove your gloves,” he instructed.

I hesitated, certain I had misheard him. But even as I told myself it could not be, he removed his coat and unpinned his cuffs, turning back his sleeves to reveal strong brown forearms, heavy with muscle. Still, I hesitated, and he reached for my hands…

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Because I like to be scared but not really

A repost of my first viewing of Crimson Peak and some other spooky faves.

*CRIMSON PEAK:

So last weekend I went to see Crimson Peak and it was everything I hoped it would be. Oh, first the caveat--if you don’t want to read spoilers, stop reading now and come back on Tuesday. I’m serious; I’m going to spoil this like nobody’s business.

I should start by saying that I’m old-fashioned. I believe in judging something by what it was intended to be, not what you wanted it to be. Crimson Peak was clearly not supposed to be a straight-up horror film, so if you’re into heaps of gore, it’s going to disappoint. There are a few cringe-worthy moments. I peeped through my fingers twice, but let’s be clear–there’s nothing in this film to TOUCH an average episode of Game of Thrones.

It also doesn’t try to make you leap out of your own skin. While it does begin with a decent hit on the creep-meter, the movie spends a fair bit of time setting up an atmosphere of seeming benignity before taking a macabre turn. But, as one of my Twitter pals pointed out, the scares are always well telegraphed, so if you’re a scaredy-cat (like me!), you’ll have a good idea of when to turn away. It’s beautifully designed, and even though the history isn’t perfect–the waltz was not new to Americans in the 1890s–the lush details more than make up for it.

If you grew up, as I did, reading Gothic novels, this is like watching one of your favorite novels come to life. This is Gothic in the most traditional sense of the word–Ann Radcliffe and Monk Lewis as opposed to Victoria Holt or Mary Stewart–and it’s lavish in its unabashed love of the genre. There is a touch of classic Hammer in this one, and I say that as someone who ADORES Hammer films.

So, here are a few of my favorite things about Crimson Peak:

*I’ve already mentioned the look of it, but in particular Allerdale Hall, the decaying mansion at the heart of the film is spectacular. It’s a desolate pile, as all good Gothic settings should be, but it’s a heartbreakingly beautiful desolate pile. There is not an inch of the house that hasn’t been crafted with obvious care and devotion, and the sight of snow falling softly into the grand hall through the broken roof is majestic and poignant. (If you’ve ever read Lisa St. Aubyn de Teran’s accounts of her houses, you’ll remember when she invokes the Marchesa Casati who lived in stylish decrepitude, preferring a roofless palazzo to a snug modern flat. She would have felt right at home in Allerdale Hall.) From the butterflies to the heavy keys, the sumptuous costumes to the delicate tea set, it’s a beautiful film.

*It’s not too beautiful. Just when it’s about to tip into overly-luxurious, something truly nasty happens–like moist red soil seeping up through the snow to look like spongy blood. Also, the ghosts? NOT PRETTY. They’re shown in advanced stages of decay, mostly skeletal, and dripping with gore. They aren’t shown in detailed close-up, mercifully, but the sight of them manages to make everything just a bit less pretty.

*There’s no gratuitous female nudity. Too many times, directors will default to showing the heroine in a state of undress to highlight her vulnerability and her role as victim. Crimson Peak doesn’t go there, even when the heroine takes a bath. The only nudity comes from Tom Hiddleston’s rear end–and I’m given to understand that he asked for it on the grounds that actresses are always being made to get naked and he felt it was fair. (If that’s true, we love him even more.)

*The cast. Jessica Chastain was utterly splendid, while Tom Hiddleston was exactly what you wanted him to be–by turns charming and enigmatic. The weak link in these stories is often the heroine who is usually so young and unnervingly naive you’re rooting for her to be pushed down the stairs. Not this time. Mia Wasikowska was the perfect choice. Her character IS young and naive, but she is also inquisitive and tenacious, daring to stand up for herself as she gains confidence.

*The fact that I want to see it again. I have no doubt I missed things–LOTS of things. I’m sure there are all kinds of delicious tidbits tucked away in each scene for me to discover on rewatching. This is going to become a regular on my Halloween rotation for decades, right up there with the silent classic Vampyr: Der Traum des Allan Grey, Hammer’s The Gorgon, and Universal’s Bride of Frankenstein.

*In the end, the heroine saves herself. We could quibble a bit about this one since the heroine’s old friend and former suitor comes to take her away. But Crimson Peak redeems itself because ultimately the heroine has to save them both. It’s a truly powerful moment for a type of character who usually lies around waiting to be rescued. To give the heroine actual agency is refreshing and unexpected. And if you’re a true fan of the Gothic genre, there’s not much about this that will surprise you otherwise. The beauty of Crimson Peak is not that it’s innovative, but that it’s an homage to a genre so many of us truly love and that seldom gets this kind of attention. It’s the type of film no one makes any more, and I’m so tremendously delighted that someone did. Bouquets of kudos to Guillermo del Toro for this love letter to the Gothic.

*Other creepy faves:

I am Fraidy MacFraidycat, Mayoress of Fraidyville. I don’t do gore or serious horror, and slasher films leave me cold. Having said that, I ADORE Halloween. It’s seriously my favorite holiday of the year. (I’m a big fan of any holiday that lets you watch movies, gorge on candy, and let your inner demons off the leash without requiring you to shop or exchange presents.) Over the years, I’ve compiled a list of absolute favorites. I don’t get to see all of them every Halloween season, but it’s never REALLY autumn until I’ve viewed at least three or four. Here are my faves.

(Last week in my post about Crimson Peak I mentioned The Gorgon, Vampyr: Der Traum des Allan Grey, and Bride of Frankenstein, so take those as a given.)

*Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride. Ghoulishly sweet with a beautiful score and Joanna Lumley. ‘Nuff said.

*Sleepy Hollow (1999.) I know I said I don’t do gore, and this one is pushing it for me. But I am a sucker for things that are unapologetically over-the-top and this one is. It’s gruesome and creepy, and there’s just enough comic relief from Johnny Depp’s reluctant Ichabod Crane to make it all worthwhile. (I will never understand why people insist upon making Ichabod the hero of the story. If you read the book, he’s a jerk. I’m Team Brom.)

*The Hound of the Baskervilles. I haven’t specified a version because I’m not certain it matters. I love the Hammer version with Christopher Lee and the more recent one with Richard E. Grant. (The Basil Rathbone entry is a given.) There’s just something deliciously atmospheric about a deserted moor and the footprints”…OF A GIGANTIC HOUND!”

*Halloween. I know, I know. It’s exactly what I said I didn’t watch–a slasher film, THE slasher film, one of the pioneers of the genre. But I finally caved and watched it a few years ago and immediately understood why it’s a classic. For being such a giant of the genre, it’s remarkably tame–no pools of blood or spurting viscera. There’s just an atmosphere of mounting menace. Caveat: I won’t watch it alone.

*Practical Magic. Because WITCHES.

*Maleficent. Not really anything to do with Halloween, but she is the ultimate Disney villain, so it counts in my book.

*Book of Life. This one didn’t get the love it deserved. It’s a beautifully-animated story about el Dia de Los Muertos, a continuation of the observances begun with Halloween in South Texas. Even though I’m not from a Hispanic family, this particular tradition is one we observed, particularly after my grandmother died. The film is funny and sweet, and if you’re trying to figure out how to discuss death with your kids, you could do a lot worse than using this as a jumping off point.

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Happy October!

In case you’ve missed this post on my favorite seasonal reads, I’m popping it up here again. Happy reading!

I don’t like to be scared–not really. A little suspense is fine, but no outright horror, please. Here are a few of my seasonal favorites:

*Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman. WITCHES. That’s all you need.

*The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. It’s not a popular view, but I really, really dislike Ichabod Crane. I always root for the Horseman…and I’m very glad Katrina ends up with Brom. (That’s not a spoiler since the book has been out for almost 200 years.)

*The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. The ultimate ghost story–a classic for all the right reasons.

*Poems: Haunted and Bewitched (Everyman) I adore the Everyman editions of poetry, and this one is full of delectable things.

*House of Spirits and Whispers by Annie Wilder. This one is a memoir which is utterly terrifying if you think about it too much. Wilder purchased a large, sprawling mansion in disrepair–you know where this is going, right? HAUNTED. I started rereading it last year and had to put it away again. I might manage another chapter this year…

*The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Honestly, you could just as easily sub in We Have Always Lived At The Castle. There’s no bad Shirley Jackson. I included Hill House because it is legitimately SPOOKY. In addition to being a beautifully crafted piece of fiction, it creeps the bejeesus out of me. What more can you ask?

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Upcoming event!

In the greater DC area? Come to the Fall for the Book Festival at George Mason University! On Saturday, October 13, I’m going to be sharing a panel with Greer Macallister on historical female detectives. We’ll be signing books after, so come see us! Details here.

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Hitting the road!

So next week I’m packing up and heading to St. Petersburg for Bouchercon, a chance to see my favorite mystery folks, speak on a panel, and sign some books. If you’re in the greater Tampa/St. Petersburg area, you will not want to miss this! I’ve been following the reports of red tide with trepidation, but I am stupidly optimistic sometimes, so I’m still packing a bathing suit and beach bag.

I’m also heading back to work after a largely relaxing summer. The proposal for the fifth Veronica Speedwell novel was just given the green light! (Book four, A DANGEROUS COLLABORATION is out in March, 2019.) That means I have to hit the ground running as soon as I return because I have to start the new book at the same time I’m getting the copy edits of book four in my hot little hands.

I’d also love to be able to write a little treat to offer readers who pre-order, so this is a good time to throw a suggestion out! Hit me up on Twitter to tell me what you’d like to read and just maybe I’ll be able to make it happen. Hope to see you at B’con next week!

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“It’s not me, it’s you.”

This is what we’re saying to our cable provider today. After years of eye-wateringly high bills, we’re loading up the DVRs to return and cutting the cable. I suppose this is a result of the decluttering that’s been happening around here, but it’s also born of the increasing frustration with a service that is just worth what it costs. More times than not, I will skim the guide through 300 channels and not find a single thing I want to watch. Meanwhile, Netflix has been our solid go-to choice for entertainment, rarely letting us down and often luring us into watching things we’d never have chosen on our own. (That algorithm is sneaky, man.)

Add to this the outrageous cost of the cable services–with 3 DVRs in the household it gets just annoying to see charges to rent the equipment AND to provide service to it. If I’m renting the equipment, don’t I obviously want service? Why is that even a separate charge? I also get seriously peeved with the loyalty discounts that you have to call annually to secure. If you forget one January? WHAM. 20% right back onto your bill.

So, we explored the options–it took about four minutes of googling–and figured out that the best choice was grabbing a couple of Rokus and adding Hulu to the lineup. The Rokus were $90 each but we own them while the DVRs were rented to us at $10/month. (Did I mention our cable company was no longer offering new replacements when the equipment turned faulty? Nope, you had to upgrade to a much more expensive version that carried with it a hefty increase in the service fee.)

And the Hulu package is absolutely worth it considering the fact that we have every single program we wanted with the exception of NBA and we can always grab a season pass for that. (This is something we had to do last year because our cable company didn’t offer the games my husband wanted to watch. Apparently they’re not big Spurs fans.)

So, how much is all this fancy new streaming costing us? Well, we’re ditching our dinosaur landline that we almost never used at the same time and increasing the internet to the fastest to accommodate the heavier streaming load. Altogether, the entertainment/connection costs are going down about a hundred bucks. PER MONTH.

As a side benefit there’s much less clutter hanging around without the big DVRs and the landline phones. No cables to mess with, just a wee Roku box and a tiny little remote that looks like something Playskool might have made in the 197os. I LOVE it. It’s the simplest thing you’ve ever seen in your life. Our DVR remote required a PhD to decipher. This has giant purple nav buttons so you can’t really make a mistake. And when the Roku screen gets tired of waiting for you? It cycles through to an aquarium so you can watch the fish swimming around. It’s charming.

Another weird little benefit I hadn’t anticipated is how liberating it feels to get on board with newer tech. It was freeing to ditch the alarm clock and the landline and instead figure out the Do Not Disturb settings on my cell. (It’s also much nicer to wake up to a Bach cello concerto than the local traffic report.) And cutting commercial intrusion down to a bare minimum in your life is BLISS. One of the things that has always struck me in looking at Victorian photographs of big cities is how advertising had begun to inundate the streets; there are signs EVERYWHERE, demanding attention, contributing visual noise to already crowded conditions.

We’ve lived with those intrusions for so long, we don’t even hardly register them. I moved to a town where billboards are forbidden and other signage is tightly controlled. I don’t even realize how much that contributes to my relaxation until I travel and am blasted with ads for everything. Limiting the advertising in my home by switching to streaming is having a similar effect, as is ditching the landline which had become infested with spam callers. Now if I could just figure out a way to block ringless voicemail, I’d be all set…

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The good medicine of a closet capsule…

I’ve been streamlining and purging and decluttering and simplifying EVERYTHING. It’s glorious. I didn’t start out with a plan; it all happened quite organically. I think it began in Greece. At home, if I wear an outfit for twenty minutes, I pitch it into the hamper when I take it off. On a beach vacation, you reach for the nearest thing which usually smells of sunscreen and salt and hopefully isn’t TOO wrinkled. And it somehow looks fabulous because you’re tan and tousled and it’s all effortless.

When I came home, I realized how easy it had all been. I’ve been reading about capsule wardrobes for years but always thought they seemed restrictive and punitive. Until I tried it. What I packed for Greece was a travel capsule–all white denim and navy and white stripes with some red and pale blue thrown in. Everything worked together and there was zero to think about. When I unpacked at home, I put all the things I’d taken to Greece on one half of my closet, added a few other pieces, and sorted the rest.

Things I didn’t want got donated or thrown out depending on condition. Everything else–mostly fall/winter items–got shoved to the other side of the closet and draped with a dustsheet. Even winter boots were moved aside. I pulled four workout outfits and have kept those in rotation. Since I do a smallish load of laundry every day, I’m never without something to wear, and I never have a massive pile-up of dirty clothes to navigate. (The unexpected benefit of this is there’s never a weekend laundry day; it’s DONE.)

Another unexpected benefit is the EASE. I never think more than twenty seconds about what to wear because there just aren’t that many choices. What I thought would be restrictive has turned out to be liberating.

So, what have I been living in?

Dresses: Black maxi. Pink maxi. Blue and white strapless maxi. Blue and white striped short caftan dress. Black short caftan dress. Blue and white striped hooded t-shirt dress.

Shorts: Two pair white denim cut-offs, two pair blue denim cut-offs, different lengths and washes.

Skirt: One denim skirt. I’m still on the fence about this. If I don’t wear it more within the next month, it’s going to the thrift store.

Tops: Button-downs in navy, pale blue, white. Red and white striped t-shirt. Blue and white striped caftan-style top. Red peasant blouse. Short-sleeved white shirt with buttons. Off-white silk tab-sleeve shirt. Blue and white striped sleeveless top. Red and navy and white plaid short-sleeve top with waist tie. Red and white striped tunic.

Jeans: One pair each in white and medium-wash blue denim.

Bags: Natural leather crossbody, French straw market bag, small oilcloth patterned tote.

Shoes: Natural espadrilles with navy laces, natural Greek leather sandals with leg wrap ties, pink ballet flats, multi-colored sandals with leg wrap ties. Navy duck boot flats.

It’s SUPER casual; the only jackets I kept out were denim–one white and one blue. And the denim pieces are all distressed, so there’s nothing in here suitable for a formal event. But my summer isn’t about formality. My business travel is done for a few months, and my town is very casual. If I want to glam up a bit, any of the dresses work with sandals that wrap up the leg. We’ve had masses of rain, so the duck boot flats are getting more use than expected, but that’s fine.

As soon as the weather turns and it’s no longer hotter than the hammered-down hinges of hell, I’ll have to steal some pieces from behind the dustsheet. I also have business travel in the fall that will dictate a change from navy to black as my base color. Navy and black both mix with my secondary colors of white and red and both work with denim, so changing out the base color is a good strategy for me. The hot pink that I occasionally like with the navy and white will get changed out for grey with the black and red.

I also want to ditch a few things in this capsule for next year–the black maxi is just too hot with the long sleeves–and replace my blue and red striped tunics with Breton striped tees. (Yes, I may need a stripe intervention.) I’ll also add a canvas tote with red trim for running errands. The beauty of this is that I have a shopping list now and no reason to deviate from it.

All of this has changed my shopping drastically. Without impulse-buying a dozen pieces I don’t really need, I’m free to focus on one more expensive item. I bought $100 handmade espadrilles from Spain in precisely the colorway I wanted after researching them online. (They have an insole like a sneaker so they are HELLA comfortable, not easy to find in an espadrille.) Because I’ve that, I’ve breezed right past all the displays of summer sandals that might have beckoned in the past. It’s also made me FUSSY. I’m becoming exacting about necklines and sleeves and cut, knowing that if I am only going to purchase ONE of something, it needs to be exactly right. I’ll be gradually replacing items as they wear out with pieces of better quality–things I really love instead of makeshift quickies picked up on impulse. I also want to shop more from sustainable clothing labels, so if you have favorites to recommend, hit me up on Twitter!

 

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Self-care, part deux!

So last time I talked about what I’ve given up or limited this month–Twitter, alcohol, sugar, etc. That is half the equation. The other half is what I’ve added. These are things I’m doing regularly and in most cases every day. I’ve been doing this for the last three weeks or so and the peace of mind is incredible. (Two other things I forgot to mention I’ve given up: the news and multitasking. I haven’t missed anything significant by keeping off the news, and I’m still getting everything done and I have even MORE time without doing several things at once. It also helps immeasurably with a sense of calm not to have eleven things on the go simultaneously.)

*Flow Magazine’s 19 Days of Mindfulness special issue. I had this one sitting in my TBR stack since I bought it a few months ago and this was the perfect time to whip it out and give it a go. Each morning I read that day’s essay and try to apply what I’ve read to help increase my mindfulness. This issue includes a small journal with numbered pages to encourage a daily practice of jotting down thoughts, so I clear my head in the morning by doing this when I read the daily essay.)

*Italian lesson. Grazie, Duolingo! If I ever need to walk up to a person in Rome and tell them they’re eating an apple, I’m all set. It’s fun; it’s practical because we want to go back to Italy, and working on another language is one of the best things you can do to keep your cognitive function sharp.

*Morning walk. I tend to do this anyway, but I’ve been extra committed, going even when it was so humid and hot it felt like walking in a terrarium. I’ve set the alarm for 7am because that’s when traffic is light, the weather is coolest, and the neighborhood rabbits are out snacking. (I count them as a way of practicing mindfulness on my walk. The record is 14!)

*Workout. After my walk comes a protein shake and a workout–25 minutes of weights, Swiss ball, and kettlebells. One morning my routine got shifted and my first thought was, “Well, I guess I’ll have to skip today.” AND I WAS SAD. Color me shocked. I’ve always hated sports and considered myself totally unathletic, but I finally realized THOSE were my problems. First, I’m not unathletic–I was just out of shape in spite of being slim most of my life. Second, sports is not the same as fitness. I LOVE being fit and strong; I just hate being around other people when I do it. No gym, no classes for me. When my daughter graduated from college, I claimed her generous attic room for my own and set it up as a very calm space to practice yoga and lift weights. (Hand weights; let’s not get crazy.) This is where all the yoga mats and kettlebells and free weights live, and it works perfectly for me–anyone taller would brain themselves on the slanted ceiling.

*Yoga. After I write, I have been heading back up to my workout space to do yoga, half an hour with the Down Dog app which I HIGHLY recommend. I left myself on the Beginner level for far too long, thinking I wasn’t ready to level up. When I was strong enough to flip from upward facing dog to down dog without putting my knees to the mat, I knew I was ready. This practice unravels all the knots I tend to acquire when I write.

*Meditation. After yoga, I pop down on my meditation cushion and give it ten minutes on the timer in the Calm app. (You’ll notice my smartphone is a big ally in my self-care these days.) Ten minutes is not a long time–anybody can do it–but I find it’s really making a difference. The other day I was in a potentially VERY stressful situation, but I kept scanning my body for tension, breathing into the tight spots, noticing when I was holding my breath, and pretty soon it was over and I was markedly calmer than I would have been otherwise. Progress!

*Mocktails. I don’t miss alcohol, but I do miss the ritual of prepping a special drink to enjoy at the end of the day with my husband. Enter the mocktail. I’ve been experimenting, and my favorite so far is a generous tablespoon of elderflower cordial over ice, finished with sparkling water and a slice of lemon.

*Feel-good entertainment. I’ve put a moratorium on anything too challenging right now. I love Wimbledon and the Tour de France, so most of my TV watching is taken up with those. I’ve also started on the Netflix reboot of QUEER EYE FOR THE STRAIGHT GUY which is so uplifting I almost can’t stand it.

*Daily Instagram post. One pic a day to document the mindfulness practice. Nothing aspirational or fussy, just a simple photo to mark the day and make sure I’ve been paying attention to what I’m doing.

You’d think with all these new/refined practices that my day would be jam-packed and I’d be rushing from work to yoga mat to mocktail bar. On the contrary, peeps. Without all the extra noise from Twitter, news, TV, etc. I’ve got AGES to get everything done. I’m spending more time connecting with the people I care about; I’ve read several books, and I’m perfectly on track to finish revisions next week. The house is tidy, and best of all, I have a level of relaxation I usually only find when I’m on a beach somewhere. It’s an absolute joy to realize I can DO THIS AT HOME. And to do it while I’m revising? A revelation.

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It is July 4

and I haven’t blogged in a bit because I am quietly and productively content. Contentment isn’t exciting; it isn’t eventful and it doesn’t demand that you sit up and pay attention. It just curls up calmly next to you and IS.

The last few months–okay, the last MANY months–have been consumed with writing and travel and social media,  yada yada, and it was time to reset. I had a manuscript that needed final revisions and nothing on the calendar. It was a perfect opportunity to regroup. So I have embarked upon a month of extreme self-care rooted in methodical work. Interesting to realize that work can be a component of self-care, isn’t it? That kind of surprised me too. But I LOVE my work, especially when I hit that sweet spot of a deadline with precisely the right amount of time to finish without burning myself out. Three weeks of twenty-page-a-day revisions is just enough to be exacting but not enough to make me frantic. (It’s the fourth Veronica book, due July 20, pubbing in March.)

In addition to work, I’m taking a Twitter hiatus. (If you’re on FB, you will see this as an automatically-loaded post, but I do not have a personal presence on FB at all anymore. The page is maintained by my assistant and I don’t see comments or direct messages.) I adore Twitter, but I am calmer and happier without it–and I have so much TIME. I will of course return when my month is up, but in a more measured way.

I’m also practicing Dry July which is exactly what it sounds like–no alcohol for the month, only I started on June 24 so it will be at least five weeks and probably more. I’m cutting drastically back on wheat and no sugar apart from fruit and a square of dark chocolate each day, not from any desire to be punitive to myself but because I feel SO MUCH better when I observe those guidelines.

So that’s what I’ve eliminated for the month. In my next post, I’ll talk about what I’ve added!

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If you aren’t signed up for my monthly newsletters…

here’s what you’re missing! This was June’s newsletter. The notes go out on the 5th of every month and your information is never shared. If you’d like to subscribe, please fill out the wee form just on the right-hand sidebar.

Dear Readers,

Happy June! I hardly know where to start. You know the beginning of A TALE OF TWO CITIES? “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”? Yeah, that was May for me. It began with the trip to Greece which I almost can’t even describe for you. I was absolutely overwhelmed with the sheer beauty of the place. We spent a week on Mykonos where I passed hours just staring at the sea, feeling every single care slip away. I have never been anywhere I felt so instantly at home as Greece, and I have never been so sad to leave a destination. The only way I got on the plane was to keep telling myself that I would come back.

A week later, my daughter was in a head-on collision with a concrete construction barrier. She totaled her car but walked away with minor injuries, and I haven’t stopped heaving with gratitude since. We arrived on the scene before the state troopers even got there, and something about sitting in an emergency room with your child’s blood on your clothes snaps everything into perspective. (I threw that shirt away. I couldn’t stand the idea of wearing it again.) She stayed with us for almost a week after the accident, and I had a lot of time to think about how times of great bliss and great trauma are equally good at stripping away everything that doesn’t matter. On the island, we lived in bare feet, our days pared down to sunshine and sea and fruit. After the accident, we didn’t care about anything other than making sure our child was okay. In both situations, everything else became wholly insignificant.

And those are lessons I want to hang onto moving forward. We can work and pay bills and take care of responsibilities, but that doesn’t mean that we need to get hung up on every little stressor. Is it as elemental as the sea? Is it as traumatic as life and death? Then maybe it isn’t something we need to spend time worrying about. Maybe it’s something we need to attend to without letting it disturb our equilibrium. Maybe we can handle it and move on without losing our peace of mind.

This month, I turn fifty. All my life I’ve been trying to become the woman I want to be. Because of May’s sharp lessons, I’m closer to her than I was before. I’m going to leave you with a picture of me, swimming in the Aegean, on one of the best days of my life. For a long time, I kept my arms and legs moving, thinking I needed to tread water to keep from drowning. I’ve never been able to float on my back, but I had been swimming for a while and was getting tired. I hated the idea of coming in; the water was just too beautiful to leave. So I held my breath and rested my arms and legs, prepared to sink under the water for a minute before I had to start swimming again. And then something unexpected happened: I bobbed right back up. As it happens, the Aegean is salty—so much so that it will buoy you up. I only needed to lie back and rest. I turned my face to the sun and listened to the sound of the sea and my own heartbeat in the shells of my ears. Nothing but peace. I’m keeping this picture because it reminds me of so much: the joy of that day, the smell of the herbs growing on the hillsides, the taste of the sea. But also because that was the day I learned that sometimes bringing yourself to rest and trust that you will be held up is the most valuable thing you can do.

Happy June, y’all!

Deanna

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