Posted in Writing

IWSG—October odds and sods

If you’re observing Yom Kippur, may you have an easy and meaningful fast!


It’s time again for The Insecure Writer’s Support Group, which meets the first Wednesday of every month to commiserate over worries, fears, doubts, and struggles.

This month’s question is:

What do you consider the best characteristics of your favorite genre?

I love the rich worldbuilding of historical fiction, and all the little details helping to bring a time and place alive (clothing, food, architecture, interior design, social mores, language, transportation, car models, schools, medicine, technology, music, you name it). Good historical writers spend a lot of time researching, and often enjoy the process at least as much as the actual  writing.

The trend towards hist-fic lite, or Gossip Girl in period clothes, annoys me so much. You need to give your head a shake if you truly believe insisting on historical accuracy is gatekeeping and censorship. More like a basic key feature of the genre!

As always, much of my October writing will consist of my blog posts about classic horror films with landmark anniversaries this year. Much to my great disappointment and annoyance, the Monster template I used every year since I believe 2012 was quietly retired in late 2021, and there’s no more way for WordPress users to access our own previously-used retired themes. Since I’m only a user, not a dot org user, I also can’t install a premium Halloween theme.

At least I still have my old October header, and perhaps WordPress will introduce a new Halloween template in future.

My original plans for NaNo were to finally finish Dream Deferred and write the new chapters and scenes. However, I came to feel the writing would be a lot slower because it’s out of order and combined with moving things around.

I believe my disappointing (but never failing) performance on some prior NaNos and Camp months was partly a result of working on a rewrite instead of starting fresh or adding to a first draft already in progress. That constrains my speed.

I thought about resuming my alternative history about Dante and Beatrice, which I’m very eager to get back to, but vetoed that as well. NaNo proved to be an inopportune time to work on such a research-heavy book. There’s nothing wrong with writing slower and more carefully, but that’s just not conducive to NaNo success.

Instead, I’ll be starting my radical rewrite of Almost As an Afterthought: The First Six Months of 1941 (which doesn’t have a new title yet). It’ll be almost a complete gut renovation, with very little original material retained from the 11,000-word first draft which I wrote in fifteen days in August 1997. With any luck, I’ll finally regain my normal daily wordcounts of several thousand.

It dawned on me a few months ago that I never shared the print cover for the book formerly known as The Very Next, now called Movements in the Symphony of 1939. Since I took such a long break from proofing the final version, it kind of slipped my mind. And now I’m leaning very strongly towards new editions of How Kätchen Became Sparky and Movements in the Symphony of 1939.

To my great embarrassment, I discovered the Dante quote featured several times in each is a 20th century fake. The short paragraph I included in the front matter for Movements no longer seems like enough. Why would Cinni’s father, who’s such a passionate Dantephile, be fooled by a fake quote that rather contradicts Dante’s own vision? It’s sticking in my craw more and more.

But before I do some tweaks for these new editions, I need to find a real quote with a comparable message.

Do you plan to do NaNo? Ever discovered there was an error in a book you had to correct in a new edition?

Posted in 1890s, 1900s, 1910s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

A sextuple dose of antique horror

Welcome to this year’s celebration of classic silent and early sound horror films with landmark anniversaries! Sadly, the Monster template is no longer available. I’m so disappointed and upset! Every year, I looked forward to changing my blogs into that theme for October.

We’re starting off with the 1897 British film The X-Rays (sometimes called The X-Ray Fiend), directed by George Albert Smith. Many of Mr. Smith’s films feature horror and/or supernatural themes. Some sources say he also directed a lost 1897 film called The Haunted Castle, but most film scholars believe this is a misattribution to either the 1897 Georges Méliès film of the same name, or the 1896 Méliès film The House of the Devil, released as The Haunted Castle in the U.S.

An aggressive would-be suitor tries to woo a woman who wants none of it, and an X-ray machine appears and turns them into skeletons. The woman’s parasol also transmogrifies into just its metal supports. The special effects via jump-cuts were state of the art by 1890s standards.

The woman is played by Mr. Smith’s wife, Laura Bayley, and the man is comedian Tom Green.

Sorry there’s no soundtrack, but it’s only 44 seconds long

My yearly horror film spotlight wouldn’t be complete without grand master Georges Méliès! The first of the films featured this year is The Treasures of Satan (Les Trésors de Satan) (1902), released in the U.K. as The Devil’s Money Bags.

In a castle, Satan and two assistants put six moneybags into a long chest. After they leave, a stranger (Méliès) creeps in with the intent to steal the moneybags. He breaks the lock, and the moneybags begin dancing in the air. Then he sits on the chest, but is forced off when the lid flies up.

Six ladies in devil outfits pop out, each holding a moneybag which transmogrifies into a spear. When the would-be robber jumps into the chest to take shelter from their torture, the chest changes position, and he’s left exposed. Then the ladies jump back into the chest, and the chest continues moving all around the room before turning into a demon. More torture follows.

Finally, Satan and the demon capture the robber and put him back into the chest. The ladies return and dance as the chest explodes in fire and smoke.

The moneybags are safe and sound after all that drama.

Satan in Prison (Satan en Prison) is a simple story of an imprisoned man (Méliès) who conjures up a fireplace, a table, chairs, a tablecloth, plates, silverware, a mirror, a woman, and various items of home décor. When the guards return, he makes all these objects disappear as magically as they appeared, and reveals himself as Satan. He then disappears with the aid of his cape.

The Red Spectre (Le Spectre Rouge) was directed by Segundo de Chomón (Segundo Víctor Aurelio Chomón y Ruiz). Señor de Chomón is widely considered the greatest Spanish silent film director, and often compared to Méliès because he used many of the same magical illusion tricks and camera work.

In 1901, he began distributing his films through the French company Pathé, and moved to Paris in 1905. He remained with Pathé even after returning to Barcelona in 1910.

In an underground grotto, a dancing coffin opens amid flames to reveal a demonic magician in a skeleton suit and with a magnificent cape. He conjures up five dancing ladies, flying flames, and decorative gold cauldrons which he lights. He then brings back two of the ladies, wraps them in a black tarpaulin, and makes them levitate and disappear. His next magic trick is making the ladies appear shrunken-down inside large bottles which he fills with liquid.

A Good Spirit does some back and forth tricks, including an easel projecting films and throwing objects at him from thin air. Finally, the Good Spirit reveals an area of the grotto with the other ladies, and she takes him downstage, pours something on him, and turns him into a lifeless skeleton.

Satan at Play (Satan S’Amuse) (1907), also directed by Señor de Chomón, is frequently confused with The Red Spectre at IMDB and on YouTube. They’re obviously two completely different films, which makes me wonder if people even bothered watching before mindlessly copying and pasting a synopsis. Sadly, I couldn’t find a single video of it anywhere, because everyone mislabeled The Red Spectre!

The Devil is bored. He goes back to Earth with a magic elevator. He surprises two sewer workers, disguises himself as a city man, and spreads improbable events: quarrel with a coachman, altercation with a city sergeant, the mystification of a barman, and quid pro quo with couples. He gets trapped in a cage with a young woman and goes down to Hell. It is revealed that the young woman is in fact Madame Devil, disguised by jealousy.

The sixth film adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was released 16 January 1912. James Cruze, a prolific actor of the silent era who also directed many films from 1919–1937, stars in the lead role, and Florence LaBadie (the Thanhouser Girl) plays his sweetheart. Mr. Cruze’s real-life first wife Marguerite Snow appears as an extra.

Who isn’t familiar with this story? A young doctor concocts a potion to transform himself into a grotesque creature, who commits evil acts and obeys his baser instincts. Before long, he no longer needs to drink the potion to transform, and his alter ego becomes more and more deranged, with tragic consequences.

Posted in 1930s, Historical fiction, holidays, Third Russian novel, Writing

WeWriWa—Changing into costumes


Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

Every October, I feature Halloween excerpts. I’m so disappointed and upset that WordPress quietly removed all retired themes in late 2021, my yearly October template Monster among them! It really set the mood for all my Halloween and horror film posts.

We’re starting off with Chapter 44, “Martian Panic,” from Volume II of Journey Through a Dark Forest. It’s Halloween 1938, and Barnard students Valentina, Vladlena, Tatyana, and Dusya are changing into their costumes after classes. Valentina can’t bring herself to feel any happiness for this holiday after she and her boyfriend Rodya just broke up. Neither of them wanted to break up, but they jumped to the rash conclusion that they had to do this after “compromising” themselves by going all the way outside of marriage.

Valentina and Rodya were among the tiny minority of people genuinely terrified by the radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds (which was never a mass panic, contrary to urban legends), and they wanted to have that experience before their believed deaths.

Valentina spends Halloween in a daze, not paying much attention in her three classes, and crying in the library between classes and during lunch. When she runs into Tatyana and Dusya on campus grounds, she lies that she’s still rattled from the Martian scare. At the end of the day, when she changes into her boring, low-budget Gypsy costume in a powder room, she feels anything but Halloween joy and merriment. Rodya will be at the Halloween party at Vasya’s house, and she won’t be able to touch him or sit near him. At most, she expects an embarrassed apology.

“Was it really that scary?” Tatyana asks as she puts on a maid’s costume. “Kolya and I listened from the start and thought it was a wonderful drama. Very realistic. It’s important to come in at the beginning. If you tune in late, you’ll miss important information.”

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to finish the scene.

“Exactly,” Dusya says, adjusting the homemade blue fairy wings on her back. “We tuned in late too, but Vasya’s father called the police and was told there were no disturbances they knew of. We changed the dial a few times, and the other stations didn’t have any such breaking news broadcasts. If it were real, it would’ve been news on every station, not just the one.”

“We thought it was real,” Vladlena defends her. “How were we supposed to know radio programs would lie? It was surprising enough to discover our native country regularly lies in the media and doesn’t report things. We’re used to believing what authorities say.” She throws a cheap pink feather boa around her neck, a finishing touch to her generic glamour girl costume.

Posted in education, schools

My own educational experience, Part II (Junior year of high school onward)

I was really looking forward to my junior year of high school. After the disaster of sophomore year, I was determined to take much less challenging classes. I was also really excited because I’d be an upperclasswoman, which meant I could start taking electives instead of just required courses. Towards that end, I signed up for American history (not AP, as much as my boneheaded guidance counselor tried to persuade me!), Latin I, world literature, and either psychology or Africana studies (or both?), alongside Course III (trig) and Spanish III (my fifth year of Spanish). I don’t remember what I chose for science.

Sadly, my mother wouldn’t let me continue with art, despite my love for it. I’ve never pretended to be anywhere near the quality of a serious professional artist who draws and paints every single day, but that doesn’t mean I’m a talentless hack who can only draw stick figures or fling globs of paint at a canvas. My love of art and desire to create was badly hurt for many years on account of this. I’ve discovered my artistic calling and passion are for geometric and abstract art, and very colourful animals like tropical fish, tree frogs, and parrots.

Alas, my family made a disastrous mistake of a move back to Pennsylvania, a mistake which was obvious even before it happened. Those eleven months were among the darkest nights of my soul. I was enrolled in the same rural, smalltown high school my father attended, where I felt so profoundly unchallenged. Irina’s experience at her first high school in Dream Deferred is very strongly based on my year at that school, and her friend Rhonwen is based on one of the few people who was kind and welcoming to me.

I might as well have skipped eleventh grade or graduated early, since the academic standards were so far below what I was used to. Albany High wasn’t exactly Eton, but at least it had age-appropriate standards. I don’t think my new guidance counselor, or the school in general, knew what to do with me, since I came from such a radically different system.

Instead of reading classic world lit and Hamlet in English, I was forced into freaking research paper and public speaking classes (each running half the year). These kids were juniors and had never done research papers before! I’d been doing them since eighth grade! Why couldn’t they let me take an English class with seniors?

And instead of any history class, I had to take civics with sophomores. This teacher was an infamous nut, and apparently got even worse in the years afterwards. I kid you not, he had a unit on the political spectrum, and there was a test where we were supposed to assign one of the six classifications to people based on descriptions like “20-year-old waitress who smokes pot” and “Someone who says ‘You can’t trust a Russian as far as you can throw him.'”

I got to take Spanish IV with seniors, and another junior who started in a different school system. But it moved at a snail’s pace, and these kids were just learning things I’d already known since sophomore year. One time I politely asked the teacher if a verb tense shouldn’t be romparon (they broke), since it was in the preterite. She agreed, but said she didn’t want to confuse them with grammar they hadn’t learnt yet.

We never even read Don Quixote or any other classics of Spanish literature!

There was no Latin, so I had to take French I. At that time, I had a negative view of the French language on account of the Vichy French, and also considered it snobby and outdated. The only other languages they offered were German and Japanese, through distance learning by computer. Almost all of the other kids in my French class were ninth graders, and they didn’t exactly warm to this strange liberal Yankee in their midst.

The only classes that didn’t make me feel stupid, bored, and unchallenged were astronomy (taught by someone who got his Ph.D. at the end of the year) and psychology (which only ran for half the year). I was surrounded by hicks and hayseeds content to live in the same small rural town their entire lives, with only a few fellow cosmopolitan-minded nonconformists I knew of. They weren’t used to dealing with people from outside their little bubble, and that scared and threatened them.

Some of the boys in my “English” classes were particularly annoyed by how often I covered Russian history and culture, and even made audible noises of disgust and frustration when I started writing the Cyrillic alphabet on the blackboard. These same boys later gave a very homophobic, gay-bashing speech I’m shocked was permitted.

As much as I clashed with the school’s culture, I nevertheless decided to stay to finish the year after my parents and little brother moved to Massachusetts in April 1997. I figured I’d been screwed out of enough, and didn’t want the trauma of uprooting near the end of a school year. I even went through the motions of registering for senior year classes, including an integrated science seminar which consisted of lots of research papers.

My final high school was like night and day. I took AP English, Spanish V (which did include Don Quixote), Italian I (which I took to like lightning), physics, trig (the first math class I loved and excelled in since elementary school), U.S. history, and some kind of English-related elective that ran for the second half of the year.

I attended community college after graduating high school, and then transferred to UMass–Amherst. Though I wish I’d gone to UMass all four years, I had many excellent classes and professors in community college, and it saved a lot of money. No one should ever be made to feel ashamed of attending community college.

However, had I been set up for high academic achievement from a very young age like the A.T. kids and gradually transitioned into advanced courses instead of thrown in without a lifeboat, I think I would’ve applied myself a lot more rigourously and taken more than just two APs. Perhaps I could’ve attended a school like Smith, Vassar, Bryn Mawr, Barnard, or the University of Michigan. UMass was a default school which had a transfer compact with the community college.

After I make aliyah, I plan to attend graduate school at the University of Haifa’s International School (i.e., English-Language instruction), either Holocaust Studies or Jewish Studies, and damned if I don’t take it much more seriously than any of my previous academic experiences. Unlike the A.T. kids, I never had anything handed to me on a silver platter.

Posted in 1980s, 1990s, education, schools

My own educational experience, Part I (K-10)

Many depictions of my characters’ schools are strongly drawn from my own life—the layout of my elementary school, funny things that happened in class, the hot and cold cafeteria in my junior high, a sex-segregated hot cafeteria, specific teachers and classmates, the rude reception I got in the cafeteria my first day of junior year and how I ate lunch in the bathroom almost every day until the late spring, et al.

Though I had some fun times and more than a few great teachers, I knew deep down that I didn’t go to the best schools. Hence, I live vicariously through my characters by creating much better schools for them to attend, the kinds of schools and tracks I wish I could’ve had access to. This extends to higher education as well.

I was more than smart enough to have started kindergarten in 1984 instead of 1985, and my birthday was a few weeks before New York State’s cutoff of 31 December. However, because of my then-mystery issues, I was kept out. When I did begin kindergarten, I was kicked out of multiple schools in quick succession. My parents finally found a school willing to take me, but as I discovered while snooping through their file cabinets at nineteen, they had to write a letter every year to get renewed permission for me to attend a school out of our neighborhood.

The woman who was principal when I began didn’t think I’d graduate elementary school because of how serious my issues were. She passed away the next year, little suspecting I’d go all the way to university. Needless to say, I’m very proud of the fact that I learnt to pass for neurotypical, albeit a bit quirky and introverted.

It wasn’t easy being “that weird kid,” esp. in an era before my condition had a name, for all intents and purposes. My fourth grade teacher was the first who didn’t wash her hands of me. My entire life long, I’ll be beyond-words grateful to her for her tough love that forced me to get over the worst of my issues. She recognized how intelligent I am and that I have a gift for writing, and nurtured that.

My elementary school had a track called A.T. (Advanced and Talented) for grades 4–6. I was more than smart enough to qualify, but because of my then-unexplained issues, the school wouldn’t allow me into it, and lied about not doing well on the spelling portion of the qualifying test. They would never get away with that today, nor with separating students into two tracks and feeding a superiority complex among the A.T. students. It was no secret that many A.T. kids were only there because their parents were PTA bigwigs or had other clout.

My fourth grade teacher had taught A.T. the year before, and made a point of telling us she was doing everything exactly the same. But once we hit junior high, it was obvious the A.T. kids had been set up for advanced studies and academic success.

For all its many faults, at least my junior high let me skip right into English 8H in seventh grade. My classmates in English were at the same grade level, just learning material a year ahead of us.

Then came eighth grade, and I was initially put in earth science, a high school level course. Almost from the jump, I performed terribly, failing a class for the first time in my life. I’d struggled with algebra in seventh grade math, but at least I never failed. Within a month or so, I was switched to physical science.

Many of the A.T. kids meanwhile were taking Course I, the New York State equivalent of ninth grade algebra. Needless to say, my seventh grade math grades hadn’t qualified me for that class!

In sixth grade, my best friend and I toured Academy of the Holy Names. Though neither of us are Catholic or from class privilege, our parents were keen to avoid sending us to the public junior highs. The worst of my issues had also resolved by this point, so there was no worry I’d be seen as “that weird kid” at a new school. Alas, the tuition was too high for my parents to justify, and to this day, my mother regrets not doing more to make it work. Had I gone to Holy Names like my best friend, I would’ve been spared all the trauma I went through at Hackett, and the academic environment would’ve been so much more nurturing.

I suffered through two years at the marginally better of Albany’s two junior highs and continued on to Albany High, which had an awful reputation even before they installed metal detectors.

My most challenging freshwoman courses were Course I and biology, but I managed to pass both. Then came sophomore year, and everything fell apart, thanks to the orchestrations of a boneheaded guidance counselor who was all about the freaking Regents diploma and taking as many APs as possible. He signed me up for AP European History and Regents chemistry and Course II (geometry).

Because I had no prior experience with such advanced coursework (college-level!) or taking three challenging classes at once, I began failing all three almost immediately. It might seem shocking that I’d fail a class in my favourite and strongest subject, history, but it was so far above my academic capabilities at that age, and it was combined with two classes in my weakest subjects. My joke of a guidance counselor refused to allow me to switch to grade-level or school-level classes in math and science or a regular Regents class in history.

I was thrown into freezing, choppy water without a lifeboat and forced to watch the former A.T. kids breezing through the same rigourous coursework. They were gradually transitioned into this level of academia from a young age instead of going from regular classes to challenging material overnight.

I passed Course II by the skin of my teeth, with an 84 on the Regents and an overall class average of 65. My final grade in chemistry was an F, with a 64 on the Regents. I had to repeat it in summer school, where I got an 84 on the Regents. Miraculously, I managed to pull up quite a bit in history, though I only got a 3 on the AP and had to repeat World Civ as a history major at uni.

To be continued.