Thursday, October 27, 2011

My Favorite Scary Novels

In celebration of upcoming All Hallow’s Eve, I want to share a few of my favorite scary novels. These are the books that freaked me out; that sent me running through the house turning on lights and locking doors, or left me paralyzed in bed, staring at the closet waiting for the bogeyman to jump out.

THE EXORCIST by William Peter Blatty
I discovered it in my adolescence, not a good time to read a novel about a child possessed by a demon. It scared me so bad that for months afterwards I felt my bed rocking. In fact, it scared me so much I wouldn’t see the movie until I was in my mid-twenties and guess what? It freaked me out all over again. Written in stark, often obscenity-laden prose, the premise provokes major writer envy. Blatty struck a raw universal nerve, and hit major pay-gold, with his masterful ability to make us believe in the unthinkable.

THE SHINING by Stephen King
I read it while on vacation at the seaside and I couldn’t use the hotel bathroom because I was afraid of the dead lady in the tub. King had already blazed an enviable path with his Carrie and Salem’s Lot, but in The Shining he surpasses himself. Again, the premise provokes envy: a recovering alcoholic author takes a caretaker job in a snow-bound, haunted hotel with his wife and psychic son and starts to unravel. What elevates the story to classicism is its scythe-like insight into the dark recesses of the mind: no writer has ever portrayed the haunting of another writer as King does, and no one has ever been able to scare so many people by putting us in an allegedly empty hotel room.

She’d already garnered super-star bestseller status with her Vampire Chronicles when Rice turned her velvet-and-blood attention to the world of the hereditary Mayfair witches and the vengeful spirit who haunts them. The series faltered but, oh, the first entry is perfection. From modern day San Francisco and New Orleans to the highlands of 16th century Scotland, Rice plunges us into a historically lush maelstrom of evil and redemption. The writing is drenched in allegory, feverish as only Rice at her best can be; and the moment when Lasher appears will make you shiver.

IMAJICA by Clive Barker
Known as a modern-day master of horror, the disturbed mind behind such film classic demons as Pinhead, Barker has written a number of frightening novels, but in this one, arguably his most ambitious, he delivers a vast, mythological tale of an alternate and often horrific world beyond our own, where assassins and gods and monsters engage in an elaborate chess-board game of power and destruction, offering us a breathtaking, unforgettable elegy for our times. It needs to be read twice.

FEVRE DREAM by George R.R. Martin
He’s world-famous for those fantasy door-stoppers but in this early novel about a mid-nineteenth century steamboat in New Orleans where a race of vampires clash is truly awesome. Martin takes the genre clichés and redefines them; he also makes us both long to be, and conversely dread ever encountering, the now overdone undead.

Happy Halloween, everyone! Read something scary.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Bad Review

I got a really bad review a few days ago. No, let me re-phrase that. Not merely bad. Rotten. Dreadful. As in, this reviewer said everything I imagine someone saying in my worst nightmares about my book. I wasn’t expecting it -writers rarely do - and at first I sat there, stunned. I couldn’t believe anyone could take such offense to what is, in the final say, fiction. A novel. Entertainment. It didn’t help that as I re-read the review, with that weird bewilderment which sets in as you realize someone out there really dislikes your work, I found the reviewer had put an enormous spoiler in the review and evidently thought nothing of it.

Bad reviews are, of course, part and parcel of being published; it comes with the territory and there’s no handbook to teach you how to deal with the emotional impact. Some authors cry. Others get drunk. Some call a friend to gripe. Most get mad. A few take it in stride, or at least pretend to. After all, it’s your book someone just skewered—the tangible fruit of years of labor. You’ve sacrificed valuable time with family and friends; forgone movies, restaurants, sex; you’ve walked the dog aimlessly in circles, muttering like an indigent to yourself; burned or forgotten meals; lost sleep; tussled and agonized over a single word, even screamed at your computer when no one was looking. The hard truth is writing is tough and writing a novel is the epitome of toughness. It takes perseverance, ego, and more than a touch of insanity. I mean, you spend all this time by yourself, locked in your head in a room staring at a screen or piece of paper, conjuring imaginary things, and hoping, praying, someone else will care enough to want to read it, let alone publish it. Then, insomniac, battered and badly in need of a shower, you turn the manuscript in and have to deal with everyone else’s opinion of it— your agent, your editor, the marketing team, the booksellers. In their own ways, they will each shape your work into something that can be packaged and sold to the public. Sentences you slaved over will be cut without mercy; scenes shifted here or re-crafted there; a character will be eliminated and another, to your astonishment, will attempt to hijack the plot. You’ll go back over the same lines time and time again, until you can recite them from memory and your spouse or significant other will look at you furtively as you sit hunched at your desk, crab-handed over those first-pass pages, and remark perhaps it’s time for us to start thinking of taking that oft-delayed vacation.

In the end, the idea that started as a seed in your febrile brain, was nurtured on imagination and the internal chug-a-lug of I-think-I-can, I-think-I-can will become a cooperative project, a team effort. A Book.

And then, it gets sent out. To anonymous people and places you’ve never seen. Newspapers (though these are less and less); trade magazines; online sites; bloggers—hundreds of eyes will peruse your painstakingly crafted prose and, within a few lines, maybe a few chapters, if you’re lucky, pass judgment. To review or not review; to like or not like. After all, this person who will now review your book has no stake in your well-being, particularly. They don’t know if you’re a nice person or a mean one; if you talk on your cell phone when you should be driving; if you donate to an animal shelter or spend too much money on shoes. All they care about is that visceral, subjective moment which you have no control over, when they read your words for the very first time and had a reaction. Or didn’t. So, those words you hoped and prayed were worthy of attention will now, finally, garner words of their own, for better or worse.

In some cases, as in bad reviews, you’ll almost wish they hadn’t. Almost, but not quite. Because in the end, even a bad review is still a review. It means someone cared enough to take the time to say: Hey, this sucks. Don’t bother. Buy a DVD instead. Check out the latest Ikea catalog. Collect stamps. Browse online for new underwear. Do anything but purchase this lousy book.

Yes, someone cared. And isn’t that what every writer dreams of? I know I do. So, how did I deal with the bad review? How else? I cried. I got mad. I pretended not to care. I poured myself a stiff drink and called a friend to complain.

And so it goes.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Guest post from Stephanie Dray, author of THE SONG OF THE NILE

I'm delighted to welcome Stephanie Dray, author of Lily of the Nile and its recently published sequel, SONG OF THE NILE (Berkeley Trade paperback, October 2011) charting the middle part of the fascinating, dramatic, and always intrigue-laden story of Cleopatra's surviving daughter, Cleopatra-Selene. Filled with vivid details of the ancient world, as well as its depravity and mysticism, in SONG OF THE NILE, Selene has survived her perilous childhood only to be forced to marry a man chosen for her by the emperor; with the magic of Isis, she rules her realm and wins the love of her new subjects, beguiling her way to the very precipice of power. She has never forgotten her birthright but will the price of her mother’s throne be more than she’s willing to pay?

Please join me in welcoming Stephanie Dray!

Livia: Wicked or Wonderful? by Stephanie Dray

I’m delighted to be here because I’m a C.W. Gortner fan and I share his love of history’s bad girls. In my case, I love the bad girls of the ancient world. Let’s face it. Powerful women got a bad rap. This was especially the case for Rome’s first empress, Livia Drusilla, the wife of Augustus Caesar. She comes down to us as a sort of wicked step-monster of the Julio-Claudian family-one who murders, manipulates and maligns everyone who gets in her way. The ancient writers didn’t much like her. Modern writers don’t like her either.

Played to perfection by Siân Phillips in the mini-series of Robert Graves’ famous I, Claudius, Livia emerges as a delicious villainess. She makes Cruella de Vil rather civilized for merely wanting to turn spotted puppies into fur coats. Personally, I found the lure of such extravagant evil too hard to resist. When writing about my heroine, the orphaned daughter of Cleopatra, who was taken as a prisoner of war at the age of nine and marched through the streets in chains, there were plenty of villains for me to choose from. But my novels aren’t about the the tragedies this real life princess lived through; my novels are ultimately about Cleopatra Selene’s triumphs. So I wanted an antagonist who could show the darker sides of my heroine’s ambitions.

Livia fit the bill.

It’s true that in my novels, Cleopatra Selene plays a dangerous and twisted game with the ruthless Emperor Augustus, who was obsessed with her mother and is now obsessed with her, too. But I wanted to show the other side of the coin--a woman who was nothing whatsoever like Cleopatra of Egypt, but almost as powerful. That’s where Livia came in.

Unlike the seductive Queen of the Nile, Livia was known for chaste and modest public behavior. (At least, after she married Augustus.) She always dressed in voluminous garments that practically covered her from neck to ankle, and of course, her husband would brag that she spun the wool and wove the cloth to make those baggy clothes as well. She was a veritable goddess of domesticity, our Livia. And one who supposedly eschewed expensive jewelry, claiming that her children were the only jewels she needed. In spite of all this puritanical posturing, Livia was, nonetheless, associated with sexual scandal. Suetonius reports that she was rumored to procure young virgin girls for her husband’s bed. That made me wonder if such girls came from within the emperor’s own household and included vulnerable orphans like Cleopatra Selene.

Livia was also rumored to be a poisoner. She’s known to have concocted tonics and elixirs that she said accounted for her extraordinarily good health and long life, but if you were supping at the imperial palace, you might be better off not drinking the wine. At various points, she’s been accused of murdering Marcellus, Drusus, Germanicus, Postumus and even Augustus himself. In my novel, she offers Cleopatra Selene a poisoned cup.

But was Livia really such a she-devil?

Her biographer, Anthony Barrett, paints a picture of a much maligned mother of the empire. She had a documented record of altruism against which her detractors could only conjure up rumor and innuendo. She went to the emperor on behalf of the citizens of the Isle of Samos to return them to independence. She is known to have intervened on behalf of one woman accused of witchcraft; she also saved the life of a man who accidentally appeared naked before her, saying that to chaste women, to look at a naked man was like looking at a statue. Known to advise her husband on political matters, Livia enjoyed a marriage with him of more than fifty years. Especially tricky, considering that she never gave him a child and he rather desperately needed an heir.

I can’t point to a single documented event in which Livia did an evil deed. Her worst crime, it seems, was to have lived for so long and exerted such power over the empire as the wife or ancestress of every Julio-Claudian emperor, that the only way to explain her political success was to make her a monster. In the end, Livia was deified, and worshiped, as a goddess, so maybe she’ll have the last laugh. Certainly, the one regret about my own novels is that I so enjoyed exploiting her bad reputation.

Expect lots of wickedness and depravity in Song of the Nile, but in the third and final book of the trilogy, I hope to redeem myself by giving Livia a little bit of empathy. So, what about you? Are there women in history that you love to hate?

Thank you, Stephanie! We wish you much success and I, for one, am really looking forward to the third part of this amazing story! To find out more about Stephanie and her work, please visit her at her website.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


Marie Antoinette is without a doubt one of the most famous women in history— the allegedly vapid queen of France, she of the powdery towering coiffure, so ridiculously overdressed and out of touch that when told that her people were starving because of lack of bread, she supposedly replied, “Let them eat cake.” Of course, as we all know, history rarely tells us the truth and in the last decade or so, there has been a concerted effort by historical novelists— myself included – to restore the reputations and lives of these long-dead and maligned women to a semblance of reality via the art of historical fiction.

BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE by Juliet Grey is a prime example of how well this art can both replenish our opinion of a famous personage while at the same time, reinforce the factual record. In this first installment of a trilogy, we meet a young and impetuous Maria Antonia – her given Hapsburg name – one of the brood which Empress Maria Teresa produced with tireless regularity during her astonishing 40-year reign. Unlike the coveted princess-brides of the Renaissance, however, these mid-eighteenth century Hapsburg daughters are woefully under-educated, pretty to look at, yes, but designed to be strictly ornamental, rather than functional, royal wives. Maria Antonia in particular dislikes studying and reading, and prefers to fritter away her time with her sisters chasing butterflies in the garden, though she’s designated to become the wife of none other than King Louis XV’s grandson, the Dauphin Louis Auguste.

One of the delights of reading this novel is meeting our vapid, bubble-headed legend head-on in her preteen years. She starts out in true cup-cake fashion; though not blond (Marie Antoinette was actually closer to strawberry-blonde, as the book points out) she is nevertheless almost everything we’d imagine she would be: undeniably charming and effervescent, quick to point out the frills of her latest gown and how she looks in it; and utterly clueless to the realities of the world around her. Raised in a crème-macaroon world of protective Imperial ostentation, our little Maria Antonia has no idea of the fate awaiting her; and it’s the literary equivalent of watching a slow-motion train wreck as we read of her excruciating Eliza Doolittle-makeover, reinforced by her steel-hearted mother and the ambassadors, all of whom work in concert to turn Hapsburg straw into Bourbon gold. Poor Mari Antonia suffers both physical and emotional humiliations before she’s shipped off to France to be plunged into the corrupt cauldron of stultifying protocol and vicious intrigue of the court of Versailles.

And it’s precisely here, when we least expect it, where the legend ends. Our Maria Antonia is now Marie Antoinette, dauphine of France, and all her giddy optimism and adolescent fears are put abruptly to the test by the jaded splendors of Louis XV’s waning reign. Her husband refuses to consummate their marriage, though physically, he seems able; her father-in-law’s mistress is a jealous and competitive rival; her aunts-by-marriage are a trio of Macbethian spinsters, eager to exploit her; and the advice she receives from her advisers is contradictory, to say the least. Marie Antoinette finds herself the prey of a host of lavishly dressed predators and we cringe as we anticipate them making her their next meal. How she prevails; how she, in fact, ‘becomes Marie Antoinette’, constitutes the best part of this novel.

Ms Grey is a marvelous wordsmith and she doesn’t spare us the realities of life in Versailles, from the urine-drenched corners to the beggars sleeping in the hallways to the lavish excess of dinner parties and salons. A subtle air of rot emanates from just under the sheen of velvet; and we know, as we watch Marie Antoinette steer her way to fame, that she cannot escape it, no matter how valiantly she tries. Yet as she herself tells us her story in her breathy, witty, and often keenly observant voice, we find ourselves captivated by this young girl, unwittingly thrust into a role she must embody if she is to survive. Though very few of us are unaware of the terrors that await her, it is testament to Ms Grey’s skill that we actually forget as we root for Marie Antoinette’s success and finish the novel in eager anticipation of its impending sequel.