When my friend Kate Maruyama, author of Harrowgate, showed me this book, I immediately bought a copy. It was then promptly lost in the TBR piles littering my home. When I found it again recently, I couldn’t read it fast enough.
At times surreal and at other times completely frightening, these tales are rooted in reality. That’s what makes them terrifying to this Becky. And so absolutely fucking awesome.
Using the backdrop of life on Heliotrope Drive and Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles, Sconiers brings home powerful truths about life as a woman of color by using horror. It’s one of the best uses of the genre, like Get Out. Several of the stories gutted me or creeped me out, but probably my favorite was “Here Come the Janes.” This story is about a black woman who catches her white work colleague sneaking into her home to steal her hair. As the Janes morph into dangerous, inhuman hair devourers, Sconiers unleashes the character’s humiliation and rage over the incessant invasion of her personal space and objectification. While I cannot begin to relate to being either the toucher or touchee, I felt the cathartic blow to the solar plexus in the telling. Same with tales such as “Happy Black Bitches Club” and “The Death of Common Women.”
Sconiers gives us many openings for empathy and connection in these sometimes terrifying tales. I deeply relate to her feelings of loneliness in Los Angeles expressed in a lot of the stories. I moved here myself after my divorce, and I was single for 8 years. I suspect a lot of single creative women can relate. Themes of invisibility, sexual addiction, and healing also thread through her universe. But this Becky (me) didn’t need to relate to appreciate the stories. This Becky wanted to dive into the world that Sconiers wanted me to experience and come out changed by the thunder, whispers, and fear rustling within the walls. I can’t promise the same for everyone, but I loved every minute of it.
I’m so happy that Sherry Knowlton gave me a chance to read her new book, Dead on the Delta, before its release on February 16, 2021! When I saw this gorgeous cover — a photo taken by her husband on safari — I couldn’t wait to read it. I’m a virgin when it comes to the her Alexa Williams series, so I knew it would be interesting to find out what kind of trouble her protagonist would get into out in the bush.
The short answer: a lot.
The story opens with the grisly discovery of a poaching kill that left an enormous number of elephants dead and mutilated. Alexa has joined her boyfriend, Reese, during a multi-month contract where he’s to, in part, help negotiate how villagers deal with the problems of random big cats on their land and threatening their livestock. They’re en route to their camp when their truck comes upon the tragedy.
The poachers are bold and seemingly uncatchable. Botswana has the most stringent anti-poaching laws on the continent — even the military gets involved when there’s a poaching crime. Who’s behind these attacks? There must be something more than usual.
This highly atmospheric novel is a beautiful introduction to the problems of poaching and conservation in Botswana. Alexa is a lawyer with a track record for wrangling thorny situations. And she certainly encounters several during her time in Botswana. Knowlton has been on many safaris and has done extensive research, therefore her intimate knowledge of the conservation industry and the country itself enriches the story in luscious detail. You feel like you’re right there with Alexa as she camps and interacts with the locals. I learned so much about the country that I fell in love with it a bit just reading the descriptive passages. I felt the relationships — especially the conflict eating at Alexa about Reese — were very real and understandable.
I don’t know if I would have classified the book as either a thriller or mystery, possibly not even suspense. Maybe more of a drama? Because a lot happens around and to Alexa, and not because of anything she does. She’s more of an observer, giving us a window to the world around her, as well as the details that fall into her path as she pursues tangential goals. However, she takes the relationship conflicts much more in hand, having difficult conversations and discovering that emotions are messy. The book ends in a whirlwind of danger where we get to see Alexa’s resourcefulness, which I really enjoyed.
So, if wildlife conservation, Botswana, safaris, big cats, or all of the above are your thing, you should definitely pick up this novel with haste!
Fourteen years ago, when I was in Paris, I decided to recreate The Symbel, a Norse ritual introduced to me years ago by my friends Kerry Noonan and Steve Wehmeyer when they were Ph.D. students in folklore at UCLA. Quoting the original blog post:
Everyone sat in a circle around the fire. It started with a round of dedication to the gods. When the horn of alcohol was passed to you, you declared your dedication to a god, and you sealed it with a drink before passing the horn to the next person. The next round was the bragging round. One bragged of their accomplishments during the year, drank to them, then passed on the horn. In the last round, one made oaths for the coming year. When the symbel ended, we poured the remaining alcohol on the ground as an offering to prove to the gods we weren’t greedy.
It isn’t necessarily the historical or “correct” way to perform a symbel. However, at the time I needed to focus on the positive things that had happened that year. (Although, come the fuck on. I was in France, writing, drinking, and living my best life. I must have been wallowing in some kind of weird self pity.)
But this year was different. Shit got real as hundreds of thousands of Americans died, and we turned into a nation of ghosts. The anxiety, the exhaustion, the isolation—burdens were never ending. The challenges wrung the positivity from my soul at every turn. I found myself working every healthy coping mechanism (and some not-so-healthy) I’d ever learned to keep from disasterbating as I always do.
As a result, the Symbel feels more phoenix rising from the ashes rather than standing on a pile of dead enemies after a war. I still feel the need to do it, though. It’s especially important now during a year that I largely spent cooped up at home, broke as dirt.
The Dedication Round
I dedicate the coming year to Cernunnos, the god of the forest. The Horned God. The Lord of the Wild Beasts. He is also associated with travel, treasure, and mediation between humanity and the forest. This year I became aware of how deep and broad my Celtic heritage is. Shortly after the revelation, he appeared in one of my meditations, and now I return to him every time I meditate. May I one day soon see him again in Paris, where his image resides on the Pillar of the Boatmen alongside Jupiter, and Castor and Pollux, in the Musée du Moyen Age. (Drink!)
The Bragging Round
I’ve made more money with my creative writing this year than I have in 20 years. (Drink!)
I signed a very special contract that I can’t discuss, but it brought me a lot of light this year. (Drink!)
I started writing stories for Shortz, and learned a new form of storytelling. (Drink!)
My first story for Shortz landed in the Top 3 Most Read Stories. (Drink!)
I had two short stories published, both in crime fiction anthologies, which is a first for me. (Drink!)
I had a story published in an anthology with one of my favorite authors, Joe Hill. (Drink!)
I had a story published in an anthology edited by another author I love, Heather Graham. (Drink!)
I began learning Scottish Gaelic, which is insanely hard. (Drink!)
I outlined my first cozy-caper novel. (Drink!)
I started a TikTok account and have a post with over 20,000 views. (Drink!)
I became certified as a UX Writer, with an “A” grade on my final project and a score of 98.5% on my final exam. (Drink!)
I wrote and designed a new UX-friendly resume using new-to-me software called Lunacy. (Drink!)
I didn’t go bankrupt. (Drink!)
I didn’t lose my house or my car. (Drink! Drink!)
Snowblind, the third book in the Bloodline of Yule Trilogy, came out! (Drink!)
A secret community project I spearheaded 3 years ago wound up having a HUGE win that ultimately benefitted the entire state of California. (DRIIIIIIIIINK!)
I helped get two beautiful Bengal kitties adopted. (Drink!)
I have fabulous pandemic hair. (Drink!)
I didn’t kill my noisy neighbors when they threw pandemic parties. (Drink!)
I grew closer to my handsome, sweet husband, and we had lots of fun. (Drink!)
Shot my first-ever footage for an award-winning film in the 48-Hour Film Project. (Drink!)
I baked six apple pies and (as of tonight) three trays of apple bread using apples from our tree. (Drink!)
I helped Robie go into remission from diabetes. (Drink!)
My freelance business started to pick up despite the pandemic. (Drink!)
I learned to reach out to my fellow writers for help when stuck. (Drink!)
I’ve at long last figure out how to write the memoir I’m meant to write, and I am 20,000 words in. (Drink!)
I started writing a collection of haiku based on Japanese blades. (Drink!)
David Gerrold said I was a great writer, and I didn’t even bribe him with chocolate! (Drink!)
The Oath Round
My first oath is to finish a draft of the new memoir by March 26, 2021, which is the 25th anniversary of the life-changing event that concludes the memoir.
My second oath is to write more poetry, in particular poems I can submit to the HWA poetry showcase, but also the haiku collection.
My third oath is to continue studying Scottish Gaelic.
My fourth oath is to take care of myself as best I can, because while this Symbel and the year might be over, nothing else is…
In December 2001, a friend was visiting me in Los Angeles from Washington State. I showed him the usual sights, taking him to lunch at the Newsroom, a popular eatery then in Beverly Hills. It sat across a small courtyard from what was then one of the most wonderful children’s book stores of all time, Storyopolis. We went into Storyopolis after we ate. My friend could hardly believe he was seeing original artwork on the walls by Tim Burton and Dr. Theodor Seuss Geisel. It was a marvelous place.
There amongst the books and toys I found a delightful children’s backpack from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, which had been my favorite book as a child. It hadn’t just been my favorite book, though. It had been my favorite thing. My mother checked it out of the library several times before finally buying me my own copy, which I dragged everywhere.
So, when I saw this little guy, I fell hopelessly in love with him. I turned to my friend and announced, “This is my forever purse.”
And he still is.
It’s been a mad ride with him, riding quasi-shotgun with me. I have so many anecdotes about what it’s been like carrying him. For the most part, people love him. Everywhere I go, people compliment him, asking me where I got him. Occasionally I get the flirty comment, “I like your Wild Thing.” To which I reply, “Honey, they all like my Wild Thing.”
Trog didn’t have a name in the book, but he was modeled after Sendak’s Uncle Moishe. I named him Trog because my friend Abbie Bernstein pointed out that the song “Wild Thing” was written by the band, The Trogs.
The thing is, I wore out the first Trog pretty quickly. So, I bought several more. For the better part of the last 15 years, I’ve used the same two, swapping them back and forth, laundering them, stitching their little butts, and replacing the zippers. But I have several more if need be.
He’s been overseas. While I was living in France, I had the pleasure of explaining in French what exactly he was and where he came from because he’s not part of their culture. The security guard at the Louvre asked me if he was my “doudou,” which means a stuffed animal that children carry. I explained he was “mon sac,” which means my purse. Her eyes widened as I unzipped him and she smiled. Most Parisians were won over once they realized what he was.
He loves writers. The highlight of his career was when Clive Barker “honked” his nose. But when Maurice Sendak died, I tied a black ribbon to Trog’s arm for a month.
I’ve always liked posing him on the graves of famous authors.
Trog loves the great outdoors, especially the magical standing stones of Brittany.
He really didn’t think much of the Picasso Museum in the South of France. Not his thing.
While most people like Trog, he makes friends with cats quite easily. When I returned from living in France, I stayed with friends who had a cat named Miru. The two quickly fell in love.
It’s sort of a thing, actually.
France isn’t the only country Trog has been to. He’s visited Ireland, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and Canada.
He’s been all over the United States. He’s even been to Walt Disney World Resort in Florida (kind of its own country). The security guard broke his zipper the first time I entered the park, so Trog had to stay in my room for the rest of my stay at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. When the housekeeper found him lying on the bed, she did this.
Since I was on a work trip for Disney at the time and didn’t have to pay for the room, I was able to give her a ginormous tip for making me so happy.
I do think Trog tries to find his own kind. While he certainly fit in at the Guillermo del Toro exhibit when it was here in Los Angeles, he really grooved on Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Sometimes I think he’s just looking for his Dad.
As you can imagine, Trog is a wild thing and therefore a heathen. However, he keeps an open mind. He attended his first bat mitzvah earlier this year and really got into the spirit of it.
But Trog’s favorite place to hang other than on my shoulder is the library.
In October, people ask if this is my Halloween purse. I tell them, “This is my ALWAYS purse.”
Since I was a child, October has been my favorite month. The idea of becoming something or someone else has always been high on my list of fun. But October also promises something much greater: an encounter with the other side of the veil. That happened for me in the biggest way on Samhain 25 years ago. I’ll tell that story in due time. But I’ve always loved the chill of that promise and everything that comes with it.
While I love Halloween as much as the next horror fan, my taste in horror runs counter in many ways to that of the general populace. Also, I’m the person who didn’t find Blair Witch remotely scary. If you’re one of those people who thinks most horror is simply awful, but appreciates gems of writing and acting, this list might be for you.
This horror-thriller for television is possibly the scariest, creepiest, bloodiest things to hit the airwaves in the last decade. It’s a true mystery that leaves you wondering: is what’s happening supernatural or scientific? And look at that cast. Jesus! Stanley Tucci, Richard Dormer, Sofie Gråbøl, Michael Gambon, Christopher Eccleston…shitty lineup, right? OMG. Everything about this show is incredible. Just don’t eat a lot before watching.
I’ve written about this show before, but honestly this French TV show is fucking scary as shit and incredibly well written. The performances sell this wild tale that, in the hands of Americans, would have surely soured. But this is the nation that brought us Guy de Maupassant, father of “The Horla,” the story that inspired Lovecraft to write “Call of Cthulhu.” Recently they’ve upped their game in a major way when it comes to horror. Bros might not appreciate the female relationship issues that drive the plot, but I just fell deeper in love with the show because of them.
This mockumentary is at turns hilarious and terrifying, playing with the conceit of Blair Witch to far greater effect. Supposedly found footage was assembled from the abandoned film of a journalism student’s camera to create this tale of students convincing a real troll hunter to take them on to record what he does for a living. You will literally be holding your breath in certain scenes. It’s too bad you can’t see it on the big screen like I did because the trolls are unbelievably scary — especially when they smell Christian blood.
4. Let the Right One In
I know, I know — where are the American horror shows, Maria? Just sit the hell down and watch this movie if you haven’t already because it’s genius. Based on the book Let Me In by John Alvide Lindqvist, this beautiful vampire movie (and I do not like vampire movies) transports us back to when we were lonely kids and we just wanted a friend who looked out for us. And who, you know, drank blood. This subtle, gorgeous, and immensely fucked up story will frighten you and touch your heart.
5. The Wicker Man
THERE IS ONLY ONE VERSION OF THIS MOVIE. ONE. IF YOU COME UP TO ME AT A CONVENTION AND SAY, “But what about that remake…”, YOU ARE ASKING ME IS TO RE-ARRANGE YOUR GODDAMN FACE SO THAT THE BONES ARE ON THE OUTSIDE. OKAY? OKAY.
I feel a bit strongly about this film.
This gleefully wicked thriller-horror story about a devout yet hubristic Christian policeman coming to an island of pagans is truly brilliant. Because it worked its way into my psyche at an early age, this cross-genre fear-fest is the entire reason that I can’t write a “proper” horror story. It must have creepy stuff, a crime, a mystery, and a bellyful of social commentary to satisfy my storytelling taste buds.
Oh, and try to find the 101-minute version, not the 99-minute one if you can.
You guys, I am NOT a zombie movie fan. However, I found this Spanish film incredibly well written, acted, and shot. Yes, I know there was an American remake called Quarantine. I haven’t seen it because I’m told the protagonist screamed so much in it that you were begging the zombies to kill her off ASAP. In this original Spanish version, I was rooting for the protagonist in the biggest way because she was brave and intelligent. There are sequels, but I’ve never had the heart to watch them because I worry they won’t be as great as the first film.
Based on Clive Barker’s novella, “The Forbidden,” this tale of urban legends still gives me chills after countless viewings. It stars Virginia Madsen and Tony Todd, with Bernard Rose directing. I mean, come on. Bernard Fucking Rose! He also made Paperhouse, which is a deliciously creepy movie based on the book Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr. But this is a Clive Barker story at heart, so you can count on blood, mayhem, and insects. Mostly bees. Lots and lots and lots of bees. And to say it’s racially charged is an understatement. I’m really looking forward to Nia DaCosta’s and Jordan Peele’s remake.
8. Black Spot
Another foreign horror TV series I’ve boosted before, Black Spot (aka Zone Blanche) is a horror thriller crime series with heavy pagan influence from France and Belgium. It is also unexpectedly hilarious. There’s no shortage of gore or violence as this small French town in the mountains is plagued by a series of brutal murders. It’s also seriously packed with badass women. I’m personally dying for a third season.
9. Frankenstein, National Theatre Live
Danny Boyle, who directed Trainspotting and Slum Dog Millionaire, directs two versions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. One stars Benedict Cumberbatch as The Creature and Johnny Lee Miller as Dr. Frankenstein, and the other has the two actors swap roles. Both versions are utterly genius, but I prefer Cumberbatch as the creature because it’s a more surprising role for him. The ending is somewhat different from the book, but no less wrenching.
10. The Devil’s Backbone
I love almost everything that Guillermo del Toro does, but this movie has stuck with me — yes, even more than Tom Hiddleston’s handjob in Crimson Peak. Set during the Spanish Civil War, this ghost story is about 10-year-old Carlos whose father has been killed and now he’s left in a desert orphanage where he uncovers its haunting secrets. But it’s a combination of the acting and writing in this film that elevates it above the usual ghostly fair.
Lest anyone think I’m not a fan, I most definitely am. It’s just that movies I love like Ringu, Dark Water, Tale of Two Sisters, and Audition (shudder) are already fairly well known. But if you’re looking to wet your feet, the movies I just mentioned in addition to this Ranker list are a good place to start.
That’s it! Let’s grab some snacks and bring new meaning to Netflix and chill.
It all started in the mid-1970s, when my mother read Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth, which prophesied that the world was coming to an end in 1988. The reason for this abrupt end to Ronald Reagan, leg warmers, and Roseanne was the Apocalypse, a series of global catastrophes that heralded the return of Jesus Christ. However, none of this would happen until after someone referred to as the Antichrist brought upon the world a period of time called the Tribulation.
Just so we’re clear, here was the supposed order of things that would happen according to my mother:
End of leg warmers
Also to be clear, not all Christians that believe in this business think Jesus will show up at the end. Some believe he’ll “rapture” those who are “saved” before the Antichrist comes on the scene. Personally, my mother preferred the order in which we suffered the most before the Jesus bus arrived, at which time he’d get out and force everyone to bow down and declare He is Lord before sending the non-believers to hell. (That was apparently a second bus that would arrive later.)
That Beastly Barcode
My mother would go on at length about the Antichrist and how he’d start the Tribulation. According to her, the Antichrist would be “a dark-skinned man from the Middle East. Probably Saddam Hussein or that Gaddafi.” (Wow. Not racist AT ALL, Mom.) As soon as he was in power, the Antichrist would first destroy Israel. Next, he would unite the world under one government, and then make us all take the Mark of the Beast or else cut off our heads. We wouldn’t be able to buy or sell without The Mark. Lindsey’s book featured crude drawings of “the Mark” that looked like a barcode would be tattooed on our foreheads. This outlandish imagery persists 50 years later.
My mother enjoyed adding that, “If you take The Mark, Jesus won’t take you to heaven when he comes back.” That might have been a bit of improvising on her part, or it might have even been in the Bible, but to baby Maria, it sounded scarier than the best monster movie she’d ever watched on Saturday’s Million Dollar Movie. Baby Maria was ALL IN.
So that they wouldn’t have to take said Mark to get food, my folks started hoarding dried canned goods, stuffing the giant boxes of cans in our closets and under our beds. As a kid, it sucked because the boxes fought with our clothes, games, and hiding places for space. And I couldn’t have anyone over because then they might see the food boxes. “Someday, your friends will kill you for this food,” my mother would warn. This didn’t seem very likely to me, as my Bluebird troop was a bit pacifist, but whatever. I decided to inflict my own bit of hell raising on my friends about the whole Antichrist business with mixed results.
My mother continued over the years to rail that we needed to be ready for the day that we were called to stand up for our faith and die rather than take The Mark. In my teens, our Pentecostal church showed my youth group a movie dramatizing the Antichrist beheading people who refused to take The Mark. It was the worst version of “Cake or Death” you can imagine, but I took it to heart. As a devout teen, I swore I’d brave the axe rather than renounce my faith.
No Jesus, Know Peace
Of course, I eventually did renounce my faith. The religious terrors of my childhood melted away one day, gifting me with the far more peaceful life of a nonbeliever. The Antichrist is what I named a particularly evil Hyundai that I owned, and the Tribulation is how I refer to my time working at FOX Studios.
Meanwhile, as I was pursuing my career and reclaiming my brain, my parents continued to gear up for the global disaster of biblical proportions they’d been hoping for. We became estranged at some point — not over religion or anything like that, but over some other painful family stuff — so I wasn’t privy to the Lindsey-esque shenanigans they were pursuing to ensure their survival during the inevitable End Times. While the world didn’t end in 1988 as Lindsey had predicted, my folks were sure it would happen in their lifetimes.
Decades later, I entered the house after my dad’s death to discover my childhood home had turned into Indiana Jones and the Costco of Doom. There were closets packed with canned goods; giant plastic storage bins full of pasta; a two-story garage with toilet paper stacked to the rafters; poorly maintained guns with boxes of ammo stashed in the living room end tables; and huge amounts of hidden cash. They might have thought they were preparing for the Tribulation, but they were definitely ready in some ways for the current crisis…
This Ain’t Yo’ Mama’s Apocalypse
I write this as I sit at home during the COVID-19 Pandemic, which is the closest we’ve ever come to either the Tribulation or Apocalypse, and I think about my parents. I suspect my mother would have been disappointed with the lack of beheadings, as well as the fact that she’d still be able to buy and sell stuff without any embarrassing, soul-endangering forehead tattoos — just a face mask that she could take off whenever. She might have derived some satisfaction from the persecution she’d feel when told she couldn’t go to church for a few months, but any conservative news-induced persecution would have paled next to the imagined adrenaline rush of kneeling before a guillotine to defend her faith.
She might have written this global tragedy into the grand drama of the Book of Revelation, casting it in the role of the Horseman of the Apocalypse called Plague. She would probably quote the death numbers to support her point, but would have ignored anything a real scientist had to say about the matter. With all that toilet paper, she’d be ready to ride it out until Judgement Day. But anyone who said the world would recover from this pandemic would basically be saying we could reschedule Jesus’ arrival, and that would be unthinkable.
My parents were never logical. They were paranoid, wildly contradictory eaters of myth that relished cocktails of terror and persecution sweetened with the promise of life everlasting. This COVID-19 apocalyptic cocktail would definitely be missing something for them. Maybe it would have a half-ounce too much cooperation mixed with that jigger of science and uncertainty. That’s not to say there isn’t any terror to be had these days — there are god awful amounts of it everywhere. The world is racked with grief in the wake of so many deaths, not to mention our current economic disaster. But with the threat virtually invisible and everyone confined to their homes, I doubt my parents would have savored the terror in quite the same way.
There is some explanation for all this. My parents were children during The Great Depression, and my mother was an incest survivor. Her father eventually went to prison for the crimes he committed against his daughters. It’s fair to say that trauma was hardwired into their thinking from these cataclysmic childhood events. I think it’s also fair to say that people like Hal Lindsey preyed upon and profited from the splinters festering in the psyches of people who suffered such trauma. He and anyone doing so today deserve a long, agonizing ride on that hell bus more than any non-believer.
Shut The Fuck Up, Hal
In his book, The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon, Lindsey predicted that “the decade of the 1980s could very well be the last decade of history as we know it.” He was, once again, completely wrong. The 2010s were the last decade of history — of life — as we know it. And it’s in 2020 that life veers onto a strange highway with twists and turns that are leaving us lonely, depressed, anxious, hungry, broke, and profoundly annoying to our cats.
I still get choked up whenever I’m in a grocery store. The reality of what’s happening is always a knuckle punch to the gut. But I hear a small voice that says we’ll get through this. It isn’t the end of the world as my parents would have hoped. It’s the beginning of a new, weird world with no buses up or down, just forward, together, with stops along the way to mourn.
This illustration by Anna Podedworna made my heart sing! A warrior woman shedding blood, rather than doing something “sexy” or otherwise dangerous to herself. Anna is also the artist for The Witcher Card Game. Click the link on her name to feast your eyes on her extraordinary work.
Kai Carpenter, Artist
I found this stunning painting in the latest Llewellyn’s 2020 Astrological Calendar: 87th Edition of the World’s Best Known, Most Trusted Astrology Calendar. Artist Kai Carpenter of Seattle created all of the stunning paintings for this calendar. In addition to Llewellyn, his other clients include DC Comics, Vertigo, Riot Games, and many, many others. Notice how his female warrior safely holds the bastard sword with it partially drawn — just enough to show us there’s a dangerous blade within? That, and he’s avoided the entire issue of boob armor with this fantastic armor design. You’re amazing, Kai. Thanks for this!
My sleuthing hasn’t turned up the artist of this oft-stolen painting. I hope that will change because this painting of Julie D’aubigny aka La Maupin — even though they’re both using the wrong sword for the time period — is brilliant because it shows her as she was: a deadly duelist.
(ETA: My husband found it! His name is Mike, and he’s been on DeviantArt forever. Well done, Mike! Thank you!)
As everyone knows, I’m completely obsessed with La Maupin, and I’ve written a YA novel about her. I’ve had agents and editors requesting the manuscript. Fingers crossed!
Beforeigners and Alfhildr
I love this fucking show from HBO Nordic. Unfortunately, this isn’t the photo I wanted to show you. The photo I really, really wanted to show you is a snippet that we get in the first episode of the character Alfhildr Enginsdottir played by Krista Kosonen. In that snippet, we’re flashing back to a Viking battle where Alfhildr is soaked in blood as she fights with shield and one-handed sword. She’s screaming. More like this, although this cropped photo sadly leaves out the carnage at her feet:
And she’s terrifying. (Not to say anything of Urd, who is delightfully lionhearted in this show.)
That’s how you do it. Big thanks to Anne Bjørnstad and Eilif Skodvin, the show’s creators, for these absolutely believably badass women.
Lagertha on Vikings
And who could forget Lagertha? Virtually any scene where she’s holding a sword and shield is brilliant.
Played by the award-winning actress Katheryn Winnick and based on the historical character, Lagertha always manages to look beautiful and dangerous at the same time without the show having her resort to chainmail bikini shenanigans.
I have to wonder if people specifically visualize Viking shieldmaidens differently than any other kind of woman with a sword because I see fewer faux pas for this kind of artwork and photography than for any other female sword fighter imagery.
More to Come
It’s hard to come by great depictions of female sword fighters where they look more like they’ll hurt someone besides themselves, but I’ll keep at it. Meanwhile, if you’re just seeing this for the first time, here’s the full list of blog posts in this series:
I can’t wait for you guys to read this last book in the trilogy. Here’s the blurb:
In this final chapter of roller coaster suspense, Charity and her friends must help Aidan defend the fortress against a militia led by Aidan’s “disenfranchised” half-human half-siblings who want only one thing: the power of the Klaas. Everything is on the line as Charity must venture into a terrifying world called The Withering to find Perchta, their last hope for help. But will Charity survive the strange creatures and even more shocking truth that awaits her?
I’m also incredibly sad to leave this series. Charity Jones is unlike any character I’ve ever created, and the thought of no longer writing about her is difficult. This whole series has been about doing the right thing even when it hurts, and that includes ending a story when one should. And in this last book, Charity has to look at herself in a whole new way despite the pain of her circumstances to make that choice. Sometimes doing the wrong thing is safer and seems like it’ll be less painful, when it’s not.
Don’t worry! It’s not a sad ending, but we’ve been coming up on the consequences of Charity’s relationship with Aidan for awhile. There’s always a reckoning between reason and faith.
I plan on writing the prequel about Aidan’s parents. I feel the need for that more keenly than ever. And by popular demand — because I listen to my fans! — part of this last book is from the POV of Michael Allured. I hope you guys enjoy it. And given what happens to Michael in this last book, maybe the adventures don’t have to end. Maybe they’re just beginning…
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)
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:
It’s a bloody police procedural with a new mystery in every episode and an overarching mystery each season.
It’s unexpectedly hilarious at times with wonderful characters like the gay policeman named Teddy Bear and the hyperallergic, ultra-awkward detective Siriani.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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. Mercibien to Susanna Calkins, especially.
And then I chose bits and pieces of everything as I weaved it all together.
The Diva’s Voice
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.
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.