Michaeline: Mexican Gothic is Gothic Romance Distilled

cover of Mexican Gothic a young woman in a dark red New Look dress; her eyes are cropped out, and so are her feet. She carries a bouquet of flowers. Green flocked wallpaper in the background

Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (via her blog)

Last week, I was in the mood for something dark and spooky for Halloween month, and Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia was everything I wanted and more!

The book, which came out June 30, 2020, reminded me of so many different kinds of Gothic romance. It’s a bit weird, but the first thing that came to mind was Stella Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm, written way back in 1932. CCF was apparently a parody of dark and gloomy “rural life” gothic romances that were popular at the time; a sophisticated young society woman gets involved with distant family who live on a dilapidated farm and have quite a few issues. In CCF, the heroine is no-nonsense, and whips everyone right into shape with Modern Ideas, and most (if not all) get a suitable happy ending.

Noemí Taboada is a dazzling, giddy yet intelligent socialite in 1950s Mexico City who is sent by her father to check up on an orphaned cousin who is having some problems in her marriage. Noemí reluctantly agrees, and while she brings modern ideas and solutions with her, she doesn’t (and can’t) implement them in the bossy, brusque way Flora Poste does to Cold Comfort farm. Her antagonists are stronger, more stubborn and weirder, and quite frankly, it makes for a better conflict.

Cousin Catalina has married Continue reading

Michaeline: The REAL* Ghostwriting (*for certain values of real)

Agnes Guppy-Volckman flying over London supported by angels and cupid flying on what looks like a beer bottle. She has a pen in her hand, and is dressed like Queen Victoria.

Oh, wave your magic wand, and let flights of fancy give you wing! (Agnes Guppy-Volckman flies over London with a pen in hand.) (Image Via Wikimedia)

When I was a pre-teen, I haunted the libraries of my school and town for books about the unknown and supernatural – Salem witch trials, Atlantis, pyramids . . . I loved them all, and it seemed somewhat surprising that they’d actually be publicly available in my small town. But they were – I guess stories of the odd and eldritch are popular everywhere.

I can’t remember which book talked about automatic writing – the idea that a spirit or your subconscious could work through your body to write meaningful sentence without conscious control of your hand.

Messages could be spelled out with a Ouija board, but some spiritualists used just a loosely-held pencil on a piece of paper. Wikipedia cites William Fletcher Barrett (1844-1925) as a source for this method. In the case of dowsing (searching for an object or resource with a hand-held rod), Barrett thought that the individual’s muscle twitches were responsible for the movement, but that the individual’s unconscious would pick up information through clairvoyance and guide the ideomotor responses. That’s pretty much the theory my half-remembered book put forth.

Some spirits writing messages to the living are often frivolous and write nothing to purpose; others write mysteries hidden in half-riddles. But, there are others who wrote whole books, or at least, so the writers claimed.

Pearl Curran, a housewife in St. Louis in the 1910s, channeled a spirit called Patience Worth, who wrote poetry and two novels through Pearl. This fascinating article from The Smithsonian online details Pearl’s short life and acquaintance with Patience, but as a minor celebrity, there are plenty of contemporary sources that describe her method.

Pearl used a Ouija board, and at first, spelled out each word with the planchette. Eventually, though, the tool proved unnecessary, and just touching the planchette would provoke contact and a recitation. Her husband often took down the words spoken.

There was quite a bit of controversy about Patience’s reality. She didn’t share details of her “life” readily, and she avoided predicting the future. (Ruth Montgomery was a journalist, and popular automatic writer, in the 1960s and 70s who predicted that Atlantis would rise in 1999 due to a polar shift . . . and had to write another book in 1999 pushing back the timeline. So, either her spirit guide was imaginary, or completely unreliable.) In this way, Pearl was able to avoid having Patience being definitively proven false. Many mundane reasons were produced to explain the Pearl/Patience connection, including a split personality.

The Smithsonian article posits that the real truth was in a short story written by Pearl Curran (not her spirit guide) about a young lady who pretends to have a spirit guide in order to get more fun out of life. Perhaps that’s all Pearl wanted, too. At any rate, the flights of fancy attracted the attention of the nation during a world war and an influenza epidemic, which is more than a lot of would-be authors can boast.

I am not proposing that anyone try automatic writing – do your research if you are interested and decide for yourself. I think 2020 is a year full of anxiety and mental instability, anyway, and playing around with it could lead to unhappy confrontations with one’s psyche. I mean, a fly lands on a debater’s head, and the internet went crazy for it. OMG, omen! What would happen if your automatic writing was eerily on point? Never mind there’s at least a 20 percent chance of ANYTHING happening this year. I would be surprised but not shocked if Atlantis made a late appearance and apologized for keeping us waiting.

However, if you are writing ghost stories this month, automatic writing can be a fun driver of the plot, and a way to provide information your characters don’t consciously realize. Fiction is a safe way to play with weird stuff. Enjoy your writing time!

May 1, 1920. Saturday Evening Post A young woman stares rapt at the ceiling as her hands delicately touch the Ouija planchette. A young man stares raptly at her neck, while he also holds the planchette. His feet invade her space, and they are knee-to-knee. Both of their cheeks are glowing.
Ouija fun in the parlor. What kind of ghost do you think they contact? (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Michaeline: Spooky Fun Month!

Holy moly, have you seen the news cycle? I was offline for a few hours, and everything is different. James Hamblin, a doctor who writes for The Atlantic magazine, tweeted this: 

Text: Just to recap, in the past 24 hours we’ve learned: the president had a high-risk exposure; the president has tested positive; the president is symptomatic; the president has received an experimental treatment; the president will spend “several days” at Walter Reed hospital. – Oct 3, 7:01 a.m. (according to my Twitter feed, so I’m not sure if that’s Japan time or Hamblin time). Continue reading

Michaeline: One Mississippi is Full of Love

One Mississippi image from Amazon. Tig Notaro pours lemonade from a pitcher, but misses the mason jar full of ice.

Small town Southern comedy drama really hit my spot for sick-day viewing. (Image via Amazon.com)

Despite my best efforts (well, my tired, six-months-of-this-shit efforts), I caught a stomach bug. If a stomach bug can sneak past the defenses we’ve got against infectious disease, I’m a bit worried about COVID-19 sneaking past. But maybe it was just a bad batch of homemade kimchi.

Anyway, I was feeling very under the weather this week, and I decided to travel back to my childhood, when a sick day was about toast and applesauce and watching all the bad daytime TV until I drifted off to sleep. Although, with modern streaming services, I had a better choice for TV; after some thought (but not too much – one side effect of this stomach bug was not wanting to think too much), I decided to watch Tig Notaro in One Mississippi, an Amazon Prime Original.

I’d seen Tig give interviews, and thought she was kind and funny; what I didn’t expect to find was a comedy-drama overflowing with love and heart.

The comedy was laced with a deep, deep love of people and place; it felt a bit like the Lake Woebegone stories in that sense. The characters weren’t perfect, but there was a deep love for them, and their Louisiana small town setting.

The drama? Well, the drama is certainly there. Southern Gothic? A white family full of secrets, and the story during the six episodes of season one slowly reveal them, and brings about a certain kind of healing by the end of the season two. I would give trigger warnings for mother’s death and child molestation by a family member . . . but the triggers are not played for tears and tragedy alone. They are important drivers to the plot, and I found their treatment to be very wise and healing.

Based on events in Tig Notaro’s life, Tig is brought back to Louisiana in time to witness her mother’s death in a hospital after a head injury. She stays with her stepfather, Bill, a man who seems to deal with his grief by sticking to his strict schedule, and her brother, Remy, a high school athletic star who is now an overweight history teacher with no lovelife.

However, everyone finds love in 12 episodes, and they are satisfying romances, with trouble and stakes and everything.

Now, let me get into SPOILER territory (but not too far – look for the SPOILERS OVER in bold to resume reading if you are sensitive). My favorite romance was between Bill and Felicia. They lived parallel lives in their office building for years, when Bill collapsed in the elevator, and Felicia stayed to get him help. From the first exchange, we knew they were a nerd match made in heaven.

Bill’s actor, John Rothman, said in a 2017 interview with Awards Daily TV, “Bill is very compulsive and orderly. He wants all of his ducks in a row, and he’s up against a world that won’t cooperate.” We see a few characters like that on TV – Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon comes to mind, although Bill is even more rigid in his ways . . . however, unlike Sheldon, he’s able to express love to an extent from the beginning (and we know he can feel love deeply – the episode where his cat got out of the house was heartbreaking).

Felicia shares that love of orderliness, but as a Black woman who has made it up the corporate ladder, she can give Bill new perspectives and things to think about. Both of them come with disorderly families that they love dearly (although they find it easier to express annoyance with them). It is so charming to see these very, very reserved “nerds” who don’t like change make very big changes in order to be with each other.

SPOILERS OVER.

If you need a sweet September binge or rewatch, let me recommend One Mississippi. Great story telling with multiple happy endings, and at 12 episodes of about 25 minutes each, you can binge it in a long Saturday afternoon and still have time to read a book on Sunday.


Michaeline: Rain Meditation Number Two

It’s been another week in the time of Corona, and let me pay my brief respects to US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died September 18, 2020, of complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer, according to National Public Radio. She was an icon for many, and is known for working through three broken ribs, gallbladder treatment and cancer during the last two years. An amazing woman, an amazing fighter, and an American heroine and role-model.

I can feel the grief from over here. People on Twitter barely could speak of her death and the causes, and my timeline was littered with cryptic profanity and little anecdotes of short and supreme sweetness. The Americans often did not say her name; they assumed we all knew. Rest in power, rest in peace, RBG.

People elsewhere in the world are also having a rough week, so I’m going to show another Rain Meditation from our farm in Japan. This was taken Friday morning. One of the five stray cats shows up in the beginning. Don’t get invested – Tabby leaves around the 10-second mark. There’s nothing to do, nothing to think. Just take care of yourself and breathe for one short minute, then go out and be kind to one another. What are you grateful for this week? Please leave some gratitude in the comments.

Michaeline: Meditation on Japanese Rain with Cat

It’s been a rough and rocky week — not so much for me personally, but for the people around me, and in the news, and on social media. So, here’s a nice one-minute video of cool, soothing rain on a Japanese farm . . . with guest voice cameo by Greebo, the cat.

Rain on a Japanese farm — a meditation. With Greebo doing a voiceover at the 0:17 mark. Only one minute of peaceful rain — enough to calm your mind and let ideas float to the top. (E.M. Duskova) Flowers: Blue salvia, red salvia, dusty miller. Begonias near the greenhouse in the background. Bees keep flitting, even through the pouring rain.

short-haired chonky black cat stretched out under a yew tree. Grape leaves and scented phlox are in the foreground. He's glaring at the camera.

Greebo, during sunnier days. (E.M. Duskova)

Greebo is a Grumpy-cat mix. He’s mostly black with a few orange markings that look like battle scars from a former life. He isn’t afraid of people, but he has no use for them unless they come bearing saucers of milk. (I know this because Auntie gives him a dish of scalded milk every morning, and he’ll let her pet him. Everyone else, he hisses at, then stalks away. Not runs. Stalks, with great dignity and he’s so affronted that you dared to approach him without a tribute for the conqueror.)

They say there are only two stories in the world: someone leaves home, or a stranger comes to town. I wonder what would happen if Greebo, anthropomorphized, showed up in my fictional town . . . .

Michaeline: Ghosts on the Brain

Okiku, a ghost from a well, at night. She's got a sad expression on her face, and she's blowing out a stream of cold air.

Okiku, the ghost rising from a well. Note how her body is made of plates . . . and she’s SO over 2020 and all its nonsense. Phew! (Image via Wikimedia Commons. Hokusai)

People are moaning and groaning that Halloween is going to be cancelled in North America this year, and others are vaguely annoyed by this attitude – mind you, I’m seeing this on Twitter, and most people are not even taking 280 characters to express their feelings about this, so half of what I report here may be my own imagination.

In Japan, Halloween has become quite popular, but mostly among the kids who go to English classes, and among the candy manufacturers. There’s a whole display of special orange, black and purple snacks for Halloween. Not bite-size candies to pass out, per se. And not really anything particularly scary. Just the candy company mascot dressed up as a witch, a vampire or a Munch’s Scream Guy. So, I HAVE been to a couple of Halloween parties in Japan, but they are mostly mass events where kids parade their costumes (95 percent of which are witches, vampires or Scream Guys), and then say in English, “Trick or Treat” at a booth to receive a small piece of candy.

I’ve hosted a couple of Halloween parties when my kids were small, but let’s face it. I’m not influential enough to change Japanese Halloween culture.

So, in Japan, anyway, it’s not going to be a big deal. They might have the mass events, with extra masks. It’ll be interesting to see if they tap into the horror of this year, and have more Zombie Nurses (2 percent of the costume parade) or COVID victims (obviously, this would be a debut costume), but I doubt it. Most people who celebrate will grab a bag of Scary Themed butter shoyu potato chips, and call it a season.

But anyway, I’ve got ghosts on the brain since July. August is when the ancestors are supposed to return home for a three-day holiday called Obon, and ghost stories are said to be a delightful cooling device when you don’t have an air conditioner – the chill down your spine during a session of evening stories is quite welcome.

For the first time, I’m thinking about Japanese ghosts. I have a modern story about Continue reading

Michaeline: Writer’s Fantasy #1: The Lockdown Inn

A 1920s stylish woman with a piece of paper on her desk mat, and the tip of a pen between her lipsticked lips.

An empty hotel room, a non-leaky pen, and thou, my precious manuscript! (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Writers and hotels just seem to go together, both fictionally and in real life. The dad in Stephen King’s The Shining just wanted to get away from everything for a winter and WRITE. (It turned out horribly.) Maya Angelou (in an interview with The Paris Review – blurbed by google but with a broken link) said she’d rent a hotel room for a few months, leave home at six, and then write in the room (which had amenities such as a bible, a bath, a thesaurus and a dictionary, according to a Daily Beast article).

It’s alleged that Agatha Christie (who Kay Keppler wrote about on Thursday) wrote Murder on the Orient Express in Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul. (Istanbul is the southern terminal of the railroad.) The hotel is also part museum, and has an Agatha Christie Room with antique furniture and Christie’s books AND the Agatha Restaurant, a smart-casual dining room.  

Scores of businesses offer writers the opportunities to retreat to a cabin in the woods, or on the beach, or in the middle of a city, to spend a weekend writing and talking with their fellow writers.

I thought Damon Knight (in his Creating Short Fiction) talked about a writer who would meditate on a story for three months then go to a hotel room and type for 30 hours straight . . . but it turned out I misremembered. I bought the book again, but this time the digital version so I could search it, and it seems it wasn’t a cheap motel, but a *specially designed cubicle, smaller than a telephone booth*. I suppose a modern hotel room would have too many distractions for that kind of writer (the bath, the Gideon bible, the cable TV and wifi).

Of course, in this Time of Corona, germophobes like me are not going to a hotel to write. I keep remembering articles that say coronaviruses survive on plastic surfaces for up to 72 hours, wood for four days, and glass for five days. Ugh.

But still, it’s fun to dream.

Heian Japanese lady peeking from under a curtain, with her manuscripts on the floor

Sei Shonagon was writing in Japan around the year 1000 — but didn’t have the luxury of an inn. She had to make do with the palace. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

My friend sent me a fun article about a Japanese inn that offers a writer’s service for real writers or for those who just want to cosplay. The staff calls themselves the Editing Department, you can book a service that holds the key to your hotel safe so you can lock your phone inside, or you can pay extra to have actors pretending to be your secret lover and your spouse run into each other – to get that olde-timey dramatic writer experience! (Debt collectors also available.)

The heroine of the article, ChieVampire, goes to get some real work done, and it’s entertaining to follow her evening and morning at the traditional hotel. The Homeikan in Tokyo has quite a few entertaining programs in their three historic buildings, and when a vaccine’s been discovered, I want to go and try out the Monster Event* or the Literary Retreat Plan. It does seem like a quite reasonable price, and I’ll be sure to pack my longest extension cord and pocket wi-fi.

On this longing note of nostalgia and yearning, have you been on a dream retreat, or do you have one that you’d like to go to some day? (-: I know Kay’s talked about creating her own writing retreat.


*I don’t know an easy way to get this link in English. If you cut and paste 鳳明館幽霊 (Homeikan ghosts) into Google, look for the “jibunmedia.publishers” link, and click on translate this page. 

Michaeline: Truth and “Truthiness”

Naked truth carries a large mirror or magnifying glass. Men cower at her feet and she tramples them. Verite est la massue qui chacun assomme et tue

The club of truth. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

OK, so I don’t know how much backstory is needed, nor can I figure out how to weave it in skillfully, so I’ll plop it right here in three paragraphs or less.

Someone was wrong on the Internet. Sylvia Woodham tweeted a critique at Adrianna Herrera’s announcement of an Afro-Latinx book set in 1880s Paris. She said she wasn’t aware of travel from Latin America to Europe in the 19th century, therefore, the book should be historical fantasy, not fiction. She accused Herrera of historical inaccuracy.

Herrera explained the historical premise to her book. People piled on Woodham. Piper J. Drake wrote a good thread on why some people got so mean about an “little” mistake on Woodham’s part. (Scare quotes – little in some people’s eyes, part of a huge pattern of erasure and historical inaccuracy and simple ignorance in others.)

This led to a big discussion on truth in historical fiction. And as you know, on the internet a discussion

The links to these tweets are at the bottom of the post. Summary: Herrera's Afro-Latinx book, Las Leonas, announced. Woodham says, "Historical fiction should have historical accuracy? I am not aware of historical record that there was much travel from Latin America to Europe in the 19th century. Happy to be proven wrong. Otherwise it would be historical fantasy? For the sake of accuracy." Herrera provides screenshot of original tweet and link her to history lesson on the accuracy of her book.

Tweets from @LaQuette Writes (night mode) and @ladrianaherrera documenting the beginning of the Twitter discussion I’m referencing very tangentially. Links are at the bottom of the page. Via Twitter.

tends to spread out in all directions with tentacles and tangents. Emma Barry tweeted, “I wrote an unmarried, super hot astronaut in 1962. No one has ever called me out for that even though it’s not historically accurate. That’s a form of white privilege.” August 21, 2020. She’s talking about Star Dust, the first book in her Fly Me to the Moon series. It was set in Houston, 1962, and published on October 14, 2015.

And that, my friends, is what sparked my blog for today. But I see we’re almost out of time, so . . . .

Nah, just kidding. True facts are not believed. Untrue facts are. What is this weird phenomenon?

Link to Tweet at bottom of page. Text: Emma Barry @AuthorEmmaBarry I wrote an unmarried, super hot astronaut in 1962. No one has ever called me out for that even though it's not historically accurate. That's a form of white privilege. August 21, 2020

Emma Barry’s tangent shocked me for a second. None of the 1960s astronauts were single? What about Captain Tony Nelson? Oh, yeah . . . he wasn’t real. Then he grew up to be a Texas oil tycoon with big dreams (whole-season dreams, IIRC). LOL. Image from Twitter.

You see, there’s no historical basis for unmarried 60s astronauts, Barry says. But the trope was well-accepted. Look at I Dream of Jeannie.

When I was a kid, my afternoons were homework with Gilligan’s Island, Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie in syndicated re-runs. Extremely Continue reading

Michaeline: Obon and Japanese Ghosts

balloon flower, phlox, China asters, yellow lilies in two celadon vases

Here are the offerings for our home altar, all from our family’s gardens. (E.M. Duskova)

I’m writing a ghost story today in honor of Obon. Obon holidays usually take place in our area in the middle of August during the hottest part of the year. It’s believed that ancestors come home for a visit on Day 1, stay on Day 2, and return to the other realms on Day 3. People clean the graves in preparation, and get offerings of flowers, snacks and drinks ready for the home altars.

Usually, it’s a great time to catch up with families. Even though people are supposed to stay home during this time of Corona, we’ve had family over – opened the windows, disinfected the table and hoped for the best.

A small family altar with offerings of fruit jelly, Bireley's soda, water, and snacks. Candles, singing bowl.

This is the small altar for our family at the local temple. We brought offerings of flowers, fruit jelly, water, Bireley’s Orange Soda, and some cookies. The temple provides the candles and the incense. (E.M. Duskova)

Traditionally, ghost stories have been a popular part of the Obon season – it seems natural with the ghosts of the relatives coming home, but also the delicious chill you get down your back when someone tells a really spooky story is said to be a good way to beat the heat.

My husband has absolutely no use for ghost stories, and even dislikes dolls that look like they could rise up in the middle of the night and strangle an unwitting homeowner. So, we don’t tell ghost stories to each other. But still, ghost stories abound.

Here are some thrilling Japanese ghost stories as told by foreigners on the Gaijin Pot blog. https://blog.gaijinpot.com/true-japan-ghost-stories-from-gaijinpot-readers/ The story of the baseball boys (almost all boys in baseball club in Japan get a buzz cut) was very touching, but the last story from Nana about her hotel in Minami Senju was perfect – a fun ghost story that sent those refreshing chills down my spine, but didn’t creep me out. Which story was your favorite?

And for more about Obon, Continue reading