Sister, Redacted: The Other True Story

10/23/1989

I’m 22 years old. I live in South Sacramento with a roommate. I left school a year ago and moved out of the family home because of my father’s violence. You, my little sister, helped me pack, and swore at Dad on my behalf, calling him an “asshole.” I like to write, to make roleplaying games, but being a writer isn’t even a dream. I have no dreams. Not anymore. I haven’t even graduated from college. I just returned to school full-time because my mother is secretly paying for my education. Life is looking up.

I call the family doctor this afternoon to get the results of my sinus x-rays. The receptionist is confused when she hears my voice. Haven’t you heard? she asks. Has no one told you?

No one has called. There are no messages on the machine. She says you, my little sister, have been in a life-threatening accident and are now in a coma. You’ve been flown from Marshall Hospital to U.C. Davis Medical Center.

The floor disappears beneath me. I plunge into a boiling void of grief.

The receptionist says I should get someone to drive me. I don’t know who to call, nor do I know how to ask for help. I don’t have friends nearby. I’m not even entirely sure what a friend is or does because Mom has always said that “friends are snakes.” And even if they’re not a snake, you can’t ask for help from someone you like because they might stop liking you. Or think you’re weak. My roommate is at work. My boyfriend lives two hours away. I don’t call anyone. In the same dangerous rains that slickened the asphalt under your boyfriend’s car, I drive myself. When I arrive at the hospital, I have no idea how I got there.

Our parents are in the ICU lobby. Mom prays with church people. Dad stands apart, hunched over, his dark face wrinkled with rage and despair. They don’t acknowledge me at first. Eventually Dad tells me tearfully what happened, his voice trailing off into a squeak. Your head took the brunt of the impact. You have a severe brain injury and the surgeons have been operating. When the ICU doors open, I brace myself for what will surely be a horrific sight. But the nurse says I can’t see you. Parents only. Despite my intense religious beliefs, I have never felt so helpless. So alone.

When they finally let me see you a week later, you are incredibly fragile, like a sparrow with the feathers plucked from its head. Thick bloody stitches criss-cross your shaved scalp, your scrawny naked wings tethered to massive machines. A thousand years of sleep encrust your eyelids. You are also like a princess in a fairy tale, but you kiss the plastic breathing tube instead of a prince. The neurosurgeon says that in a year, you’ll be more or less the same girl. This news infuses us with hope. Eventually, it will prove entirely, devastatingly wrong.

I can’t stop crying. Or praying.

Take me, not her.

I cancel my Halloween plans. Later, I hear that the people I was to see said I need to “get over” what’s happened and get back to my life. So this is what Mom meant. Their callousness drives a railroad spike in my already agonizing heart.

My boyfriend is kind. He tries to distract me with silly movies. When that doesn’t work, he prays with me. But the truth is I want to die. The pain thrashes inside me, chewing and clawing its way out. I’ve never felt anything like this in my life. Yet I refuse to let it debilitate me. I stay in school. I write stories, poetry. A respected professor in filmmaking reads my work and invites me to take her graduate-level screenwriting course. I’m starting to taste who I am.

For eight months, you’re in a coma. It’s not like it is in the movies, where you wake up suddenly. Day by day, you slowly regain consciousness. Opening your eyes but not seeing. Grasping my hand but not holding it. Agitation strikes without warning at times like a cymbal crash, sending you into hellish gyrations. The doctors move you to a hospital in Pacifica where you are in a room with another Greek girl. She’s a “vegetable” from her head injury. She doesn’t speak or acknowledge others. Her family visits once a month. The rest of the time she stares at the wall. No light in her eyes. Just darkness.

As you eventually awaken, a changeling emerges. A creature who looks like you but who has halting, garbled speech and twisted memories. Childlike. Unable to walk or relate to others. Wild temper tantrums strike you like earthquakes. Whoever this is, it’s not you.

The truth is this: you died. But no one says it. I alone know, but I’m not allowed to speak. Not allowed to feel. Your tragedy is so big that there’s no room for my feelings. Shame presses its foot on my throat. I’m okay. I don’t have a severe head injury. I’m not disabled. I don’t have problems or needs. It’s true, true. Not compared to you. I understand. That’s just how it is.

I assume that someday I will be responsible for you. I decide not to have children. Not that I have any desire for them now.

Nine months after your accident, I get married. The doctor said it would give you something to look forward to. To encourage you to wake up. I have not finished school. On my wedding day, Mom orders me to take care of you in your wheelchair while she sets up everything. Can’t Aunt Velda do it? I ask. I have to get dressed. Do my hair, makeup, eat. I’m getting married, I remind her.

I’m getting married. And I feel so alone.

After the wedding, I move to the Bay Area. I do not see you as often. I finish school. I graduate. I even start working as the Editor-in-Chief of a magazine at Intel. I start making new friends. Friends I can call if something happens. Say, if I need a ride to the hospital because my sister is dying. But I don’t need them for that, thank goodness. Mom and Dad never visit. They come to the Bay Area with you, but they never tell us when they are here.

I don’t talk about your accident. If I do, people ask how you are. I never know how to answer. When I say the truth, the only thing they know about me is your tragedy. They don’t see me anymore. The first thing they ask is if you can walk. I say yes, and then they exclaim, “Oh, that’s good!” As if walking meant you were okay. I want to explain that you died, but that I’m the ghost. They wouldn’t understand. Obviously, you are alive. Even if it isn’t you. And so am I, even if I have no feelings. Or needs.

I realize early on that Mom and Dad shouldn’t be taking care of you. The burden is overwhelming. Mom gets sick with breast cancer but doesn’t tell me until after treatment is over. They say they don’t need help, but in reality they distrust authority figures. Government services. Doctors. Nurses. Mom and Dad keep you isolated. And angry. They tell you things that aren’t true about the people who want to help you.

My grief stretches into years. Mom talks excitedly on the phone about your progress, but when I see you, the changes seem small. You are still dead. I visit your neuropsychologist. He says my feelings are normal. If I were living with you as our parents do, I would be able to accept your condition. But I can’t. I’m still in the Bay Area and now going through a divorce. My life — my God, my life — is in extreme turmoil, but not from the divorce. Not from you, or anyone in the family. My religious beliefs have joyfully, rapturously fled in the wake of real miracles. Someday the world will know the powerful tale of what happened.

But that story is for another time.

During my turmoil, Mom and Dad decide to marry you off to a sweet, disabled man who cannot speak because the plastic breathing tube atrophied his vocal chords. He uses sign language and writes little notes. And he’s very wealthy from his accident settlement. Mom tells me on the phone that he’s the answer to your problems. I ask to speak to you. My heart riots as you tell me you don’t love this man. Mom says you are confused. The wedding happens in the Greek Orthodox church. I refuse to look the priest in the eye.

A couple of months later, I am waiting for a scheduled phone call from Clive Barker — yes, that Clive Barker — when the phone rings. It’s the caregivers assigned to you and your new husband. They beg me to tell them where you are. I can’t. I have no idea what’s happened.

Mom and Dad have kidnapped you, I soon learn. Unable to get control of your husband’s money, Dad abducts you, lies to you about your husband, and forces you to divorce him. I imagine your husband howling mutely with anguish when he realizes you’re never coming home, and I’m enraged. I am not there, they tell me high-handedly. I don’t know what’s going on…

I have no right to speak.

Less than a year passes. I’m disabled myself, in chronic pain. I live in Los Angeles. Alone. And I’m scared for my life. My future looks bleak. Mom calls multiple times a week. Will you be your sister’s caregiver if something were to happen to us? she asks. We need to put it in the will. I’m disabled, I explain. I can’t even take care of myself right now. I promise her that I would make sure you have the best care. This angers her. She calls. And she calls. Over and over. The same question.

No one asks if I’m okay. If I need anything. I’m not a ghost, goddammit.

I stop answering.

10/23/2019

Thirty years have passed since that catastrophic day. Mom and Dad are both dead. Your life is far better than I could have ever hoped. Thanks to your disability benefits, you will never go hungry. You will always have care. The house, which is in a special needs trust, is well maintained. You see doctors on a regular basis. A very special woman cares for you 24/7 with a team of other special women. I didn’t stay away that whole time. I went into therapy to learn how I could deal with Mom and Dad so that I could stay as close to you as possible. Because you wouldn’t understand why I left. And you needed me, especially after Mom died.

When Dad died, I was disabled yet again, awaiting my surgery date. I came to stay with you that first chaotic week until the government agencies could step in. Dad had made no plans for you. He and Mom had lied on legal forms so that you would fall off the grid. He told you that you were not disabled. So, you lashed out whenever anyone mentioned those agencies. (You still do.) You were taught they’re evil, but they saved your life. The weight of Dad’s denial nearly crushed me that week. In three days, I was so exhausted I didn’t know what day it was. I awoke at night shivering, not from cold but from extreme stress.

I jokingly called the house “Indiana Jones and the Costco of Doom.” Dad and Mom were hoarding guns, food, and money. Lots of money. One day, I found $70,000 in cash. I could have tossed it into my car trunk in a burlap grocery bag. No one would have known. But I didn’t. Instead, I turned it over to your trustee. Legally, you can only spend the money you inherited that’s in the special needs trust on vacations and gifts. You rarely buy either.

I did the right thing, but I worry it was a mistake.

Dad wrote me out of the will because I was a “traitor.” I spoke to the authorities when another family member reported him for refusing to take you or Mom to the doctor. I wrote to the court when he abused and neglected you. I called the police when he took you out of state against court orders. (I later learned that, after Mom died, he was seen in public kissing you on the mouth. I’d suspected he was doing much worse in private. I wanted to dig him up and murder him a thousand times.) He wrote such terrible words about me in the will that, when my boyfriend found it in the mountain of dining room paperwork, he wouldn’t let me read that part. I already knew Dad had poisoned his side of the family against me for watching over you. Consequently, he wasn’t the only one to disinherit me.

The painful irony is that you’ll never understand my heartbreak. The significant damage to your cerebral cortex means you can’t feel compassion. It’s not your fault. That’s just the way it is. Yet I have found a way to build a relationship with the new you. It’s not nearly the relationship we could have had or even what we had, but it’s what we have now.

The truth is this: thirty years ago, I lost all three of you. I’ve stumbled along in a daze for decades, stitching my wounds with ink and binding them with silences. The therapy and self-help groups helped, but the healing truly grew as I gathered to my heart our family members on Mom’s side. They see me, love me, appreciate me, as I do them. They remind me of what family should be.

And I have friends. Real friends. The kind that find you when you’ve crawled off and drawn the drapes to hide the bleeding. That hold you when you’re splintering apart. That help when you can’t do something on your own. That call, listen, and make you laugh. I’m even lucky enough to have a loving husband now who is all of this and much more. His family is everything.

I’ve lost so much. The financial and emotional impact of what’s happened has been beyond devastating. My life isn’t perfect by far. But I do have love. And my art. Hopefully others who have suffered losses like mine will read this and realize that they aren’t ghosts, either, but people with feelings and problems and needs.

Not needs like some, true, true, but still incredibly, extraordinarily important.

French Horror: 3 Great TV Shows You’ve Got to Watch

I’ve been falling out of love with cinematic horror for some time, as I find most American horror uninspired, badly written, or too dependent on gore and jumpscares. (Often all of the above.) If being grossed out is your thing, more power to you. But for me, I need something a lot more sophisticated.

Fortunately, Netflix has been delivering some incredible horror TV from foreign markets, especially France. These three French shows are some of the best horror I’ve ever seen.

1. Les Revenants (The Returned)

That kid is the creepiest part of the series.

This show was originally released in 2012, but was new to me in 2014. It was even made into a completely inferior American version. While I wasn’t enchanted by Season 2, the first season of this utterly original “zombie” story was breathtaking.

People who have been dead for years — in some cases decades — start returning home, utterly unaware that they died in the first place. Most in fact died under violent circumstances. And that’s just before the story goes truly bonkers. The powerful emotions this show evokes deepen the dread of this paranormal tale in a way that one rarely ever finds in horror. For me, that’s what makes this show one of my all-time favorites.

2. Black Spot (Zone Blanche)

I’m completely wild about this show because hits three sweet spots for me:

  1. It’s a bloody police procedural with a new mystery in every episode and an overarching mystery each season.
  2. It’s unexpectedly hilarious at times with wonderful characters like the gay policeman named Teddy Bear and the hyperallergic, ultra-awkward detective Siriani.
  3. It’s pagan AF. Set in the mountainous, isolated Villefranche, which has an insanely high murder rate and a monster that resembles Cernunnos, the story blends France’s Celtic history with horror in a very satisfying way.

I also adore the main character, Major Laurène Weiss, chief of police. The women are all tough, complicated, and secretive — she more than anyone. While I was initially puzzled by her relationship with Bertrandt, the story behind their bond was eventually revealed. And, wow — c’est fou, y’all.

Season 3 is rumored to be headed to Netflix in June 2020. I can’t wait!

3. Marianne

With Marianne, writer and showrunner Samuel Bodin has created something as intoxicating and frightening as The Ring. This outstanding original horror series is about a famous female horror author, Emma Larsimon, who is lured back to her hometown to do battle with the evil spirit that has been terrorizing her dreams and that is now killing her loved ones. Every episode starts with a literary quote. You know shit’s about to get more than real when Lovecraft opens an episode.

Victoire Du Bois (Call Me By Your Name) plays the arrogant, alcoholic Emma to perfection, especially as Marianne’s bloodshed brings Emma to her knees. But as the layers are peeled back on the characters and the horror they face, it’s forgiveness and the strength of female friendship that entwine to become the twin heartbeats of this tale.

So, what are you waiting for? Dépêche-toi!

Ashes of Angels: Writing an Historical YA Fantasy Based on the Real La Maupin

La Maupin, L’Heroine
Cover page of the French magazine “Le Matin,” 1910s

Today, after three and a half years of research, writing and rewriting, I’ve finally typed “la fin” on my historical YA fantasy based on the real-life 17th-century French duelist (and later opera star) known as Julie d’Aubigny aka La Maupin. The story starts when she’s 16 years old in 1689, just when she’s about to discover that she’s both bisexual and badass as she becomes entangled in a necromantic plot to bring the world to its knees.

This has been the writing challenge of my life.

How the Love Affair Began

As many of you know, I’ve been studying swordplay of one form or another since 2001. I truly fell in love with the European smallsword when I was taking private smallsword lessons from sword master and stuntman TJ Rotolo. The European smallsword is the weapon that La Maupin and other duelists used in her day. I loved how it fit my hand, its small movements almost came instinctively to me.

French smallsword

But I didn’t fall in love with La Maupin — maiden name Julie d’Aubigny — until 2006 when I was living in France. I found a website dedicated to her that completely captured my imagination. I considered writing a book about her, but I wasn’t ready and wouldn’t be so for years. I couldn’t believe how much I related to her with my historical crossdressing, my love of swordplay, my singing, and passion for life.

Mademoiselle de Maupin, by Beardsley. Picture: Alamy Source:Alamy

A More Troubled Me

She seemed like a lost me from the past, albeit far more emotionally troubled: she was well known for her excessive promiscuity and threats of self-violence when her romantic affairs soured. Then again, she was a bisexual, gender-queer person living in an age when that was condemned. Her mental health was probably always at risk, as are youths today who are rejected by their families for being LGBTQ+.

As it turns out, there’s an even stronger reason for the promiscuity and threats of self-harm.

The Comte d’Armagnac

Louis de Lorraine, the Comte d’Armagnac

You see, one of the things I’ve wanted to reframe is the narrative around her childhood relationship to the Louis de Lorraine aka the Comte d’Armagnac, the Grand Écuyer or Master of the Horse. The patriarchal story around her has always been that at the age of 14 years, she became the Comte’s “mistress.” The Comte was more than 30 years her senior. He was also Monsieur d’Aubigny’s boss, who taught the king’s pages to fence; that fell squarely under the Master of the Horse’s purview. So, the Comte had total control over her father’s position and fortunes both at Versailles and beyond. Using a modern American lens, the Comte’s relationship with Julie would look a lot more like rape, wouldn’t it?

That’s because it was rape.

Source: Parfaict’s Dictionnaire & Anecdotes

For starters, I don’t for a minute believe his interest in her started at 14. I think it was earlier. Without laboring through a long discussion of the oft misunderstood statistics of life expectancy and marriage practices throughout the UK and Europe — not to mention the obvious power dynamics at play — I think the proof of the nature of the relationship is in how Julie reacted. Soon after she became the Comte’s “mistress,” he married her off to a gentleman named Sieur de Maupin who was in turn shipped off to a position in the south of France. The Comte arranged all of this to cover and legitimize any pregnancies because the Comte kept Julie with himself in Versailles.

But not for long. Julie then immediately ran away with a hot young fencing master. “Ran away” being the operative phrase.

Had the Comte been a young man a lot closer to her age, the voluntary nature of the relationship suggested by male historians would have been a tad more believable. It’s my personal belief that she was sexually abused by this much older man of authority until she found an opportunity — and help — to get as far away as possible.

Anyway, Ashes of Angels has helped me reframe this story from a female perspective. And it’s powerful.

Research

Just a few of the books I read as research.
Many more are somewhere here at home, back in the library or on my Kindle.

I read a lot of books. On France. French history. Dueling. Magic. Swords. Fencing. Louis XIV. France in the 17th century. Teens discovering their sexuality. Teens coming out as bisexual. And much more. Fiction such as The Three Muskateers (which I loved) and Scaramouche (which was meh).

In the middle of writing the book, I started suffering severe insomnia. The sleep doctor told me I had to get out of bed at night if I woke and couldn’t go back to sleep. She recommended reading in another room in dim light. That’s how I read a few books, during stolen minutes and hours when my body refused to cooperate.

But that’s only half of the research. So much of it was scrutinizing old maps. Researching villages. Old prisons. Torture methods. Transportation. (My equestrian-TV writer friend Erin Maher got asked a lot of questions about horses.) Food. Cooking. Clothing. Theatre. Music. (Loads of music.) Scouring blogs of other historical fiction writers to learn tips and tricks. Merci bien to Susanna Calkins, especially.

And then I chose bits and pieces of everything as I weaved it all together.

The Diva’s Voice

“Mademoiselle Maupin de l’Opéra”.
Anonymous print, ca. 1700

While that was a lot to mentally coordinate, the absolute hardest part of all this was creating Julie’s voice. In fact, I shied away from it so much that when my husband read the first draft (he’s often my first reader, especially for my YA fiction), he gave me a big note that made me realize voice was a huge problem.

I’d obviously focused so much on everything else that I hadn’t addressed my fears about giving an authentic voice to this very real teenager. You’d think that, since she was someone I’d vibed with, it would be easy, but it was the opposite. I’d never done anything like this before. My characters are 100% fictional (except for in one story). I went back to the basics of character development. Experiences. Beliefs. Wants. Dreams. Needs.

And then I pulled the ripcord on a page-one rewrite. It was painful but worth it.

Magic in France? Mais Non!

As many people would agree, historical YA is a tough sell without magic. But here’s the thing: France is culturally very anti-magic. At the time that Julie was alive, magic was illegal. While some may argue, “Hey, it’s fiction! Do what you want!” I don’t want to violate both historical AND cultural fact, especially not about a country that took me in and embraced me for a year. We talk a good game about diversity and sensitivity, but we don’t even bother half the time. We should practice sensitivity in our writing with all foreign cultures.

(Incidentally, one of my readers is a good friend of mine in France who also used to be a competitive fencer for many years. Her feedback was amazing.)

Anyway, when I was living there in 2006-2007, I tried to meet fellow pagans. It was really difficult. I eventually earned the trust of a young woman working at a goth bar called L’Elfike, who in turn then reached out to a couple of pagans she knew. Only one was willing to speak to me. The occult and witchcraft are frowned upon so much even to this day that these young people were afraid of being outed and suffering the consequences. From an American perspective, even though the French are 30% atheist, they’re still culturally 100% Catholic.

The had fantastic cocktails.

What about the popularity of Harry Potter? The French love those books, right? The French are fine with Englishmen casting spells and doing other silly Anglo-Saxon things. For example, they believe Halloween (a pagan holiday) is strictly an Anglo-Saxon holiday celebrated in the UK. The French shun it in favor of All Souls Day, the Catholic holiday. I don’t know how French readers felt when they read about the Beauxbatons, but I suspect they didn’t care because HP isn’t set in France.

Welcome to the Real Beauxbatons

Ashes of Angels, however, is set in France. Completely and utterly. So, as a savvy YA author, how did I deal with this dilemma? Extra difficulty level: as a writer, I don’t do Judeo-Christian mythology.

I can’t give anything away, but I found a way to be true to French culture, even though I had to bend my own writing rules. Because that’s the thing about becoming bicultural: it’s not that you give up who you are. Instead, you develop an empathy for the other culture and let it open you up to other ways of thinking.

Please wish me and Julie luck as we move to the next phase.

The Reasons Might Surprise You: A Follow Up

Planetary Symbol for Saturn

A lot of people are reading an old post of mine called, “I’m Leaving Astrology. The Reasons Might Surprise You.” In that post, I talked about why I’d decided to stop using astrology for awhile, something that had always been a superpower for me. I’d noticed some challenging Saturn transits were coming, which were pumping me full of dread. I couldn’t think of or see anything but negative events passing or coming up. To my credit, I realized that, for my emotional well being, I had to stop looking at the future and start living in the present.

I’ve noticed that a number of people are finding that article via Google searches related to ways to convince other people not to believe in astrology. Honestly, like I said in the previous post, I could care less if people studied astrology or not. I’ve found it to be reliable and (mostly) reassuring for my own purposes.

This post is for those who are curious about what ensued after the blog post of August 15, 2013, as life took a tragic turn two days after I stopped looking at my chart. I want to share with people an idea of how I dealt with those events.

First, Saturn Kinda Sucks

Let’s first talk a little more about Saturn itself. Most people would say that Saturn transits really pretty much suck Donkey Kong. Let’s look at what Saturn transits can mean:

  • Limitations
  • Cutting back (“winnowing”)
  • Delays
  • Death (and other endings)
  • Discipline
  • Responsibility/commitments
  • Depression
  • Fear
  • Maturity
  • Solitude

You can see why this is the Debbie Downer planet, and why I’d be afraid of what it could do. In fact, it had twice accompanied devastating injuries. I figured it could happen again.

“Physical Dangers”

So, what about the “physical danger” transits I saw? Turns out, I had a scheduled surgery that September, but soon learned that another surgery I needed had been denied. It would be another year before I’d finally receive that approval. Everything eventually worked out, but at the time, it was tremendously frustrating. The two surgeries were connected. Delaying the second one played havoc with my life.

But there was little I could do about it at the time except take care of my health as best I could. I actually lost about 15 pounds working with a nutritionist, as well as beginning an exercise regime. Saturn’s hard work, discipline and “cutting back” all helped me improve my health while I was waiting for Surgery #2.

Deaths

Two days after I published that blog post, my father died. I wrote about it on September 1, 2013.

Gustave Doré’s illustration of Ludovico Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso”
The King of Shadows is dead.

Up until then, my dad had been sorta-kinda caring for Danielle, my severely disabled sister. My dad actually hadn’t been able to properly care for her since my mother died, and both of them had lied to keep her off the grid, as it were. Thanks to my dad’s epic lack of planning, we all suffered a lot of stress over the next few months until she’d been set up with the proper agencies.

As it turned out, my father’s death was a blessing to my sister. Before he died, she was virtually a shut-in except for when my dad would take her to the Senior Citizen Center. (She’s not a senior citizen, by the way.) She’s now living the life of Reilly, going to the movies, on excursions, to concerts, and more with her head caregiver. And at last she’s been getting proper medical attention (hallelujah). Also, with him gone, I was finally able to write about her injury and life. The piece that was a huge benefit to family, friends and others because many people were in the dark about what had happened to her after her injury.

Losing a parent like my dad was very difficult to process. The fallout of his death had many implications for me that unfolded over the next few months. His death has been echoing in my writing, in both short stories and books. But it definitely hit me hardest during those transits I’d seen.

In December 2013, during the time of the worst transits, my friend Christa Faust lost her father, George, who was my Dad #2. I felt George’s passing more keenly than my own father’s in many ways. A good man left this world when he died. I’ll never forget him and his great big heart. I still miss him, although not nearly as much as Christa does, for sure.

The “Disappearing” Goodness

Remember the “good” transits that I could no longer see? They were there, all right, with events that corresponded appropriately.

Winner of the 2014 Bram Stoker Award® for Superior Achievement in a First Novel

To start, I sold my debut novel, Mr. Wicker, to Raw Dog Screaming Press that fall. That book was my entrance into the realm of being a professional novelist, and it would be a beautiful entrance at that.

And then during Thanksgiving Weekend, my blog post “Why I Hate (Most) Photos and Drawings of Women with Swords” went viral. I even got a mention on The Mary Sue. It was a super crazy, exhilarating period. I was stressed out about my sister’s well being, but I was able to draw upon the good things happening for strength.

I look back on the “uplifting” transits at that time, and they’re super obvious. Why didn’t I see them coming? And why wasn’t I seeing anything positive happening when they did?

Depression, The Old Devil

So, yeah. I’d struggled with depression for awhile before 2013 without even realizing it. My view of everything was dimming fast. The bully in my head had a bullhorn. And the fatigue I felt was epic. It wasn’t until I started to get a handle on it in the last few years that I could identify what had been happening back then.

And here’s the thing about living with both depression and anxiety: focusing on the future — via astrology or any other means — makes both conditions worse. It’s too easy to start disasterbating. So, when disasterbating starts, it’s best to step back and focus on the moment.

Looking Inward Instead of Upward

9 of Wands

I’m in another phase of my life where I’m not paying as much attention to my transits because I feel information overload. Twitter, Facebook, sometimes even email…all of these platforms are a constant mudslide of anger about how we’re living in The Upside Down. These are far darker times than 2013 without even considering life’s usual slings and arrows. The onslaught of political horrors from the Idiocracy and unchecked corruption is no joke. (Well, maybe sometimes.) And I want to focus on parts of my life that need attention.

So, I don’t really need to look to the stars right now for hope. I need to look inside, to reckon with my personal demons, to enjoy the people in my life, to maintain my health, and to continue my calling as a writer and storyteller. This is the only way I’ll have the strength to be a good ally, responsible citizen, and resilient fighter for what’s right.

That, and snuggling. And I’ll end this post with a visual lesson.

My mantra: Snuggle often.

My LA Times Festival of Books Schedule

It’s that time of year again! Here’s where I’ll be tomorrow and Sunday.

Saturday

10:00am to 12:00pm
Horror Writers Association
Booth 826

1:00pm to 2:00pm
Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI)
Booth 821

2:00pm to 4:00pm
Horror Writers Association
Booth 826

4:00pm to 5:00pm
Mystery Writers of America
376

Sunday

10:00am to 12:00pm
Horror Writers Association
Booth 826

On both days I’ll have copies of my latest from Cemetery Dance Publications — 12 Tales Lie | 1 Tells True, as well as the first two books of my award-winning YA Bloodline of Yule trilogy, Snowed and Snowbound. I’ll have copies of my award-winning Mr. Wicker on Sunday.

The Lies — and Truth — are Loose!

12 Tales Lie | 1 Tells True is out and generating some rave reviews!

“Maria is a highly recommended top writer. Do yourself a big favor,  snag this collection and every other piece of her writing you can find.”
—Gene O’Neill, The White Plague Chronicles

“…a 6 out of 5-star review; this collection seriously rocks!”
—A.E. Siraki, librarian and book reviewer

“…wildly glorious.”
—Goodreads review

“…visceral and heartfelt.”
—Eric Guinard, That Which Grows Wild

“A great collection of dark stories with bite.”
—Yvonne Navarro, Afterage

Get your copy today!

COMING SOON: Cemetery Dance to Publish 12 Tales Lie | 1 Tells True

Coming out March 5, 2019
from Cemetery Dance Publications

WARNING: This is not your typical short story collection.

While twelve of the tales are fictitious, one is a creepy true story sure to amuse and alarm even die-hard horror fans. Guessing which one is half the skin-crawling fun. Is it the man who resurrects his abusive father for revenge that goes awry? The woman who brings home a birthday balloon inflated with hellion instead of helium? Or the couple that accidentally buys a home sitting at The Crossroads, where the “H” in “HOA” has a whole new meaning…? 

Read and decide for yourself!

Pre-Order Now


Bandersnatched: How Charlie Brooker Got the Last Laugh

If you’re one of the many people who were glued to Netflix this last week exploring the tentacled storytelling of “Bandersnatch,” you were probably either deeply disappointed or riveted by the bizarre way this “choose your own adventure” controlled your options.

(WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD)

I was feeling under the weather after Christmas, which meant I had some serious couch time to devote to this show and to scanning Twitter for reactions. As someone who was a pioneer in interactive experiences back in the 1990s, I had some guesses about the show that proved correct. I was able to fairly quickly find the best possible ending, although I also messed around to see numerous iterations. Of course, the “best” ending wasn’t a “happy” one. In fact, I found it hilarious that folk on Twitter were lamenting they couldn’t get a “happy” ending. Do they know this is Black Mirror? A happy ending in this series is like when the guy in “I Have No Mouth Yet I Must Scream” gets his mouth back so he can scream.

Kill Dad

But just as interesting were the many people who complained bitterly about the lack of choice, that eventually the experience forced you to “Kill Dad.” (As you can see in this Visio flowchart someone on Reddit* created, your choices converge to killing dad if you want to survive.) It sounded like some viewers might have been too deep in the decision-making process, unaware of the bigger, more brilliant idea behind this show and the way it’s constructed.

The Bigger, More Brilliant Idea

And the idea is this: WE are the Program and Control Study. Brooker is controlling us, the people making choices in “Bandersnatch.” He’s PAX/P.A.C.S./the Thief of Destiny. (Incidentally, PAX is one of the biggest video gaming festivals of the year.) The “mirrors” Colin refers to that allow you to go back in time and change your decisions are “Black Mirror.” And every “ending” leads you to an all-too-familiar conclusion: that even if we were able to go back and make different choices in life, we don’t really have that many choices to start with. “It’s not a happy game. It’s a fucking nightmare world,” Colin says. A perfect Black Mirror message.

Humorist and horror lover, Charlie Brooker, got the last laugh. And I love him for it.

Five out of five stars.

Footnote

*Notice how whoever created this damned flowchart went to great pains to record every pathway, but couldn’t be fucking arsed to actually name the female game programmer, Pearl Ritman? As Stefan says when we make him chop up his father, “Seriously?”

Why Europe’s Christmas Monsters are Now Haunting America

Krampusmaske_KC3A4rnten

Naturpuur from Wikimedia Commons

Recently, Quartz published an article that purported to explain why European Christmas still featured a number of interesting “monsters” of folklore while American Christmas didn’t. The article did a great job of listing out all the European variations of the monsters that punish bad children at Christmas time. However, it completely failed to explain why America didn’t embrace these monsters. In fact, it misidentified the Austrian characters in the parades as “Krampuses” when they’re actually “perchten,” the companions of Perchta. (To be fair, even Salzburg tourism has given up trying to explain to Americans that there’s a difference.)

First, if you’re a fan of my books — especially Snowed — you know the main reason why America embraced the jolly old elf from Moore’s poem over any of his European versions. But if you’ve not read Snowed, read this excerpt from Chapter 9.

Chapter 9 Excerpt from Snowed

Mr. Reilly’s class rolls around. Without their leader, Darren’s followers fail to find a voice. Mr. Reilly appears more serious than usual, which is quite a feat.

“I’ve set aside the curriculum I’d planned for today in favor of something a little lighter.” He approaches the chalkboard and picks up a piece of chalk. “I realize it’s a cardinal sin to talk about Christmas before Thanksgiving, but since we have entered the Industrial Age in our reading, let’s talk about modern American cultural values and ideas that stem from that time period. A little history-lite, if you will. But I assure you it ties into what we’ve been studying.”

Snowed_2ndEd_Cover

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He writes: A Visit from Saint Nicholas

Oh, great. Another one of Mr. Reilly’s tangents. I’m pretty sure no one else talks about this stuff in their American history classes.

“The American poet Clement Clarke Moore published this poem anonymously in eighteen twenty-three. What else was happening that year? Anyone?”

No answer. He writes on the board: The Monroe Doctrine.

“In early December of that year, President James Monroe declares America’s neutrality in European conflicts. Step-by-step, America continues to distance itself from the UK and Europe, further establishing its independence. Meanwhile, this poem single-handedly established Christmas culture in America, distinguishing it from British and European customs and traditions. To this day, this depiction of Saint Nicholas remains the dominant iconography for the American celebration of the holiday.”

So, America was already trying to distance itself from both the UK and Europe. The tides of separation were hastened by both the Monroe Doctrine and American sentiment. While Moore’s poem captured that sentiment in a powerful way, it was by no means the catalyst of it. Since the war of independence, Americans had been forging their own identity, much of which is still founded on an idealism that has no room for whipping fathers and child kidnappers.

No More Epiphanies

Also, America is largely a Protestant country. We don’t celebrate Epiphany the way much of Europe does. And since much of the folklore around Perchta and other Christmas creatures focuses on Epiphany, we’ve shaken off that entire line of folklore. Which also means that we probably wouldn’t know the difference between Krampus and the perchten. The perchten proceeded Perchta on her rounds to drive out evil spirits. (The whole perchten thing is very pagan, as is Perchta herself. The Catholic church simply gave up trying to stamp out the pagan festivities in the Alps because they were too strong.)

The UK’s Separation from Europe

Despite Germany’s influence on English Christmas, you won’t see Krampus shaking his chains in the halls of Buckingham Palace, either. That’s because the UK never really embraced those characters in the first place. European ideas were foreign ideas, and that was that. Believe me, the rest of Europe does the same to the UK. For example, you won’t see many Frenchmen celebrating Halloween; they’re more than happy to explain it’s an “Anglo-Saxon” holiday.

America’s New Romance with an Old Devil

Perchtenlauf Gh Pröllhofer

 A perchtenlauf from katsch1969 via Wikimedia Commons

So, why is America now reaching for those same whippers and kidnappers?

Globalization has opened up access to other cultural traditions in ways we’ve never seen before, allowing outside influences to infiltrate our collective conscious in the U.S. But that’s just one part of the whole picture. The U.S. has been opening up more to European ideas — single-payer healthcare, gun control, and free education top the more progressive political tickets.

The Death of American Idealism

Meanwhile, American idealism is merely a ghost. Almost daily mass shootings by murderers slaughtering schoolchildren; the killing of unarmed black Americans at the hands of the police who are supposed to protect them; the death of Americans who can’t afford healthcare; rampant, baldface racism and sexism; tax cuts for the corporations at the expense of the poor; and our severely partisan, dysfunctional government — to say people are jaded is an understatement. We see more taken from us than given, our “freedoms” destroying us.

That’s why Krampus is supplanting St. Nicholas, because we feel the monster’s lash more heavily each day. Santa Claus is too saccharine; we yearn for something more authentic to our experiences.

Changing Climate

Climate change also plays a role. Recall that these “Christmas monsters” are primarily from the much colder Alpine regions and the Netherlands — places where winter is especially deadly. It’s no wonder as America’s weather turns more severe thanks to climate change that we feel the teeth of winter more keenly. Therefore, Alpine lore feels right to our frostbitten bodies.

Gruß von Krampus

So now you know why your Facebook feed is filling up with a devilish character wearing a wicker basket full of screaming children. Be good to one another or else you might find him dragging you from bed on the night of December 5th, to take you somewhere hotter than Los Angeles…

Christmas is coming…or is it Krampus? Find out today!

 

Book Blast: Carol Potenza’s New Thriller HEARTS OF THE MISSING

Hearts of the Missing is the mesmerizing debut from 2017 Tony Hillerman Prize recipient Carol Potenza. In a Starred Review, Library Journal says, “This action-packed mystery, which vividly evokes the beauty of the New Mexico landscape and its indigenous peoples, will attract fans of the Hillermans, leaving readers eagerly awaiting the next installment.”

Summary

Hearts of the MissingWhen a young woman linked to a list of missing Fire-Sky tribal members commits suicide, Pueblo Police Sergeant Nicky Matthews is assigned to the case. As the  investigation unfolds, she uncovers a threat that strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a Fire-Sky Native: victims chosen and murdered because of their genetic makeup. But these deaths are not just about a life taken. In a vengeful twist, the killer ensures the spirits of those targeted will wander forever, lost to their family, their People, and their ancestors. When those closest to Nicky are put in jeopardy, she must be willing to sacrifice everything—her career, her life, even her soul—to save the people she is sworn to protect.

About the AuthorCarol Potenza_credit Leah Grace Englehart

POTENZA is an Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at New Mexico State University. She and her husband, Jose, live in Las Cruces, New Mexico. HEARTS OF THE MISSING, her debut novel, is the winner of the 2017 Tony Hillerman Prize.

Find the Author Online

Buy It Now!

Chapter One Excerpt

Tsiba’ashi D’yini Indian Reservation New Mexico, USA

The harsh scrape, out of place in the quiet of predawn, penetrated the low buzz of the refrigeration motors. Like fingernails on a chalkboard, the sound made the hair on her neck and arms stand on end.

She wasn’t alone anymore.

Her eyes narrowed as she peered through the open door of the office and into the cavernous space on the other side. Other than a few emergency lights pooling eerily on the floor, the room was dark, its bulky shelves and racks rising out of the linoleum like misshapen boulders.

Sergeant Nicky Matthews was careful to make no sound as she placed her fingerprint brush on the metal shelf in front of her. She stripped off her latex gloves with quiet efficiency as she rose, dropping them on the floor by her feet. Head cocked to the side, she strained to hear any other sound that would indicate who—or how many—might be just outside the broken plate-glass window of the mini-mart.

She hadn’t heard a car pass by since she’d been here, and she’d sent the manager home after he’d let her inside.

Her police unit was parked in plain sight by the gas pumps, illuminated by the fluorescent lights in the metal canopy above it. Those lights formed a harsh bubble of white in the nighttime blackness that surrounded the building. The village store sat alone on a two-lane road, the only place to purchase food and gas for twenty miles in every direction. Porch lights from widely scattered trailers and small houses dotted the landscape, but she’d seen no one when she’d arrived. She’d been inside, processing the scene, for over an hour. If the perps had come back, they must know she was here.

Another stealthy rasp, outside and to the left of the window.

She stiffened, focus shifting, tightening. Her hand slipped to her holster, palm scraping the butt of her Glock 23. Whoever was out there was on the other side of the wall where she stood. She’d trained her phone’s camera on that area earlier. The perps had used a bat or crowbar to bash in the large windows, and glass was strewn over the front sidewalk. At least one of them had cut themselves when they climbed inside. There were drops and smears of blood throughout the interior. She’d already gathered some samples for DNA testing, but the bloody smears turned into distinct prints in the office. One of the burglars spent quite a bit of time here, and that was where she’d been concentrating her efforts. But no longer.

Whoever was skulking outside had her full attention.

Nicky stepped forward, avoiding the half dozen sunglasses knocked to the floor during the break-in. She turned her back to the wall, body coiled, and scanned the interior of the store for a change in the vague fluorescent light filtering into the room. Someone peering through the window would throw a shadow.

Her scalp prickled and a flash of heat swept over her skin. She swore she could feel a presence out there.

Waiting for her.

She drew in a slow breath, pulled her weapon, and pointed it down along her leg. Her finger rested across the trigger guard. She sidled closer to the window. Shards of glass littered the floor. The rubber soles of her boots muffled the crunch, but the sound was loud enough to make her wince. She paused, listening.

Seconds ticked by.

Nothing. No sound except the ever-present hum of the glass-doored coolers lining the back wall of the store.

She stayed in the shadows, her sharp gaze sweeping the gravel expanse of the parking lot. Tall, scraggly grass stood unmoving at the edge of the light. There was no wind, no scuttling leaves to explain away the noise.

Another minute passed. The feeling of a presence was fading. Nicky exhaled slowly. Her shoulders relaxed the tiniest bit, even as her expression twisted in faint confusion.

Had she been mistaken?

A movement caught her eye between the gas pumps, and she snapped her head to the right. Her body tensed. At a flash of color, Nicky stepped out of the shadows, not worried about the sound of scattering glass as she tracked the motion of . . .

A skinny brown rez dog wandered around the side of her unit, nose to the ground. Lifting its head, it sniffed the air. It trotted toward an overflowing trash can and rose up on its hind feet, one front paw positioned delicately against the side. Nicky’s lips pressed tight. You could count the ribs on that poor animal. Most likely it was a stray, but you never knew. It might belong to anyone in the village.

Relieved she had an answer to the sounds, Nicky holstered her pistol. Suddenly tired, she stretched, arching her back. Outside, the sky was beginning to gray. She checked the clock on the wall above the door. The sun would be up in a few minutes, and it would still take another hour to process the crime scene. Then she was going to canvass the nearest homes, to see if anyone had heard or seen anything. She probably wouldn’t be done until hours after her shift was officially over.

Her gaze focused closer, and she stared at the pale oval of her reflection in what was left of the glass window in front of her. Dark brown eyes stared back as she ran her hand over the top of her head and slid her fingers through the smooth, straight black hair of her ponytail. She was mistaken for Native all the time. Not by Indians—but by the non- Indians she encountered on the reservation and at the casino.

She sighed deeply, glanced at the dog one more time, and froze. A wave of unease washed over her, this time prickling up her back. The animal stared at the front of the store, fixated not on the place where she stood, but to the left of the window’s edge.

At the place where she’d first heard the noise.

Her hand dropped to her sidearm and Nicky jerked her head around.

An old Native woman stared at her through the glass.

No. Not through the glass. In the glass. The old woman’s face was in the glass.

Their eyes met, and every nerve in Nicky’s body stretched taut. The woman’s pupils glowed black, glittering and alive, sharp points embed- ded within a deeply wrinkled face. An ancient, disembodied face.

Nicky knew she was supposed to look away—had been told in no uncertain terms by her traditional friends on the rez—but she couldn’t move. She was transfixed.

The sun flashed over the horizon, blinding her.

But not before the woman smiled and turned away. Her long white hair whipped in the light—and she was gone.

Nicky yanked out her gun, hit the front door of the mini-mart hard, and ran outside into the brightness of dawn, skidding on the broken glass. The same scraping sound that had alerted her only a few minutes before grated along her skin.

A flash of white raced away and her arms swung up, the muzzle of her sidearm tracking a rabbit as it zigged and zagged out of the parking lot, across the road, and into the grass next to a trampled dirt path. She caught another movement out of the corner of her eye and her head swiveled to the dog. It cringed and shivered as it stared after the rabbit, before it backed up and loped away through the brush, tail tight between its legs.

Nicky’s flesh crawled with goose bumps. Heart thudding, she pointed her weapon to the ground, clutching its diamond-patterned grip so tightly it cut deep into the skin of her palm.

Dammit, dammit, dammit!

Scowling, she slammed her weapon back into its holster. The old woman was back.

That meant life was about to get complicated—and a lot more dangerous.