Midnight Mass: Catholic representation and the importance of detail

I’ve been watching Midnight Mass over the past few days, and while I did have the whole story spoiled for me before, I still enjoyed the hell out of it. To be perfectly honest, it was the spoilers that got me interested in the first place, so this viewing was more “How does that play out?” than “What happens next?”

Part of the charm, at least for me, is representation: seeing My People on screen. And by “My People,” I mean Roman Catholics. And you must be thinking, why is that a big deal? We see Roman Catholics in the media all the time, from The Sound of Music to Sister Act. But you see, those tend to deal with very big, obvious, in-your-face aspects of Catholicism. Nuns and priests? Even within the Catholic community, they’re considered fairly extraordinary.

It is, I suppose, the difference between showing an ethnic minority in traditional garb, and showing that same minority living with the nuances that make them what they are.

The media has a bad habit of gesturing at Roman Catholics whenever a point needs to be made about Christianity or faith. And it occurs to me now that there might be something … culturally appropriative about that. As though Hollywood wants to throw on our cassocks and chasubles without understanding how they fit. The trouble is, there’s actually no shortage of Catholic representation in the media. There’s so much of it that we can’t separate the sincere from the appropriated, the wheat from the chaff. Not every story requires attention to those tiny details that tell the audience the author knows what he’s talking about, after all.

But in Midnight Mass, when the altar boys turn to the task of filling the cruets, when Bev speaks to Father Paul about wearing gold instead of the green mandated by “Ordinary Time”, when the Flynns bat around terms like “thurifer” and “acolyte”, I feel seen. I feel as though I’m being addressed by someone who really gets me. I look at the flood of Catholic representation elsewhere and I feel as though I’ve spent my life like an infant fed on corn starch: full, yet undernourished. Was this how Mexicans felt when Coco built its story around the Dia de los Muertos?

This, I think, is also what gives Midnight Mass its power. This story could have been told in broader strokes, skipping all of these smaller details. But it is this attention to detail that makes it feel both real and personal. Crockett Island matters to me because the spiritual lives of its Catholic residents feel real in an intimate way. Despite my rational mind telling me that this could never happen in real life, my instinct says, “This is far too close to home.”

Which is not to say that you can only enjoy Midnight Mass if you are a Catholic or intimately familiar with Catholic practices. We enjoy media touching on details outside of our experience all the time. You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy Fiddler on the Roof. It’s just that the the more detail there is, the more you’re assured, if you’re an outsider, that you’re being fed something authentic; and the more accurate those details are, the more an insider feels, as I felt, that this is real and that he or she belongs in the larger fabric of the world where such stories are told. Even if one has never had an issue with any sense of belonging before — it’s nice to be counted.

Midnight Mass is brilliant, and I don’t say it just because this one aspect of its cultural setting resonates with me. It is beautiful in a way that, I think, would appeal to anyone who loves Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood — its lyricism and the deft portraiture of village life. I’ve not read any Graham Greene, but, by all accounts, there should be a deep resonance there as well, a similarity of theme and approach. It’s just … probably not going to appeal so much to anyone just looking for the thrill of ordinary horror, without the literary trimmings. But for anyone with a taste for literary analysis, Midnight Mass is a show that has me making up lengthy essays in my head about everything from story structure to individual characterisation to our relationship with dogma.

Also, I’ve pretty much spent my morning rewatching the ending sequence over and over again. It hits, and it hits hard.

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Cocktails at six, murder at seven

Here’s a question from a few years ago, on another forum, that I still think about today:

At what point in the book should the murder happen?

Well, the simple answer, in my opinion, is that there are three places in the story where it would be most appropriate for the primary murder to occur: right at the beginning, within the first few pages; at roughly the 15-20% mark; or at roughly the 50% mark. And now you’re wondering, why those three places in particular? Why not anywhere else? For that, we’d have to go a little more in-depth. We’d have to ask the real question:

What is this story really about, and what is the function of the murder in it?

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Awake, awake

Hail October. This year’s annual Interactive Fiction competition has just opened up, and I’ve got the games downloaded and ready to play. I finally finished my reviews for the 2019 competition a couple of days ago; I do not think I will attempt to review the 2020 competition, and, with that gap in my record, I doubt I’ll attempt to review this year’s competition either.

In “Cat’s Paw” news, we went through another rewrite after my last entry — goodness, was it that long ago? — and it was an extraordinarily slow business. But that’s done now, and so are the copy edits. The manuscript has gone to pour, and next will come the proofreading. There’s a cover artist working on the cover right now, too, so it feels like things are waking up again after too long a hibernation. Apparently the book is slated to come out in February 2022, so that’s something to look forward to.

I think we’re going with “Unnatural Ends” as the title. I just don’t feel ready to make it official yet.

And I think we can all agree that 2020 should be declared “The Year That Didn’t Happen.”

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Feed the Birds, Tuppence a Bag

Day 11 of isolation. Actually, I’m counting this as “Day 11” only because I had to leave the house briefly on the 20th. Church has been suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic, initially until Palm Sunday, now indefinitely, so I haven’t been out in the two Sundays since. Otherwise, I’ve been living my life very much as normal.

It’s nowhere near as bad as the Spanish Flu of a hundred years back, but that’s largely because we don’t have half our able-bodied young men cramped into a few filthy trenches in Flanders this time round, and the media isn’t suppressing reports of the outbreak for the sake of morale in the face of war. Also, we’re taking things a lot more seriously now. If this never gets to be half as bad as the Spanish Flu, it will be because we “over-reacted”.

So let’s talk about something completely different: “Mary Poppins Returns”.

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Major Update

It’s been a while, and high time I made an update. Of late, I’ve kept thinking, “Oh. I should write something about this thing that happened — but I can’t do that until I’ve made a proper update of all these other things.” So here we go.

First things first, “Cat’s Paw” is now “in production” at Inkshares, along with the other books to make it through the Mystery & Thriller contest. It’s been written and rewritten, and the third draft is currently sitting in the queue. It looks like it’ll come out the end of the year or early next year, which I have to confess is quite a bit later than I was hoping. Still, it’s coming along. One hopes there won’t be too many further revisions after this.

One thing that must be done about it, though: both my publisher and I agree that it needs a better title, one that doesn’t summon up all manner of cat pictures when Googled. Also, the main reason I called it “Cat’s Paw” in the first place seems to have disappeared with the last revision.

It looks as though the TV option for “A Gentleman’s Murder” is still churning away in the background. I don’t pretend to know everything that’s happening there, and I’m still not quite sure I believe it’s real, but I’ve just spent the last month or so banging away at a manuscript for the pilot episode. My publisher is very keen on having me deeply embedded into the writing for it, though I’ll admit it frightens me a little. Books and IF are so much safer.

Part of the contract for the TV option apparently means that the three short IF works I made back when I was crowdfunding “A Gentleman’s Murder” have been called into question. The games have to be pretty completely divorced from the books, which entails more work than I felt they were worth. As such, I’ve simply taken them down.

I’m also no longer living in Montreal. The past year or so has been marked with a number of deaths in the family, and with the passing of my Aunt Mary, it seemed best to move back in with Mom so as to keep her company. That was last June. I’m getting to know the people at church, but, as I don’t generally have much cause to get out of the house, that’s really about it. Thank goodness for the internet, eh?

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Cat’s Paw

Once more, into the breach!

It’s time for a second novel, and I am once again crowdfunding on Inkshares. Well, “crowdvoting”, to use the term JF Dubeau prefers. There’s some philosophy behind the Inkshares system, but the bottom line is that, generally speaking, a book needs to gather pre-orders before it can be published. So here’s “Cat’s Paw” … not a sequel to “A Gentleman’s Murder”, as I was expecting, but a second book nonetheless.

“Cat’s Paw” was originally conceived as an idea for a horror story, albeit one with a whodunnit plot because I’m the local whodunnit guy. A lot of horror tends to rely on supernatural elements, though, and I knew that was something I wanted to avoid because one of the core elements of the sort of whodunnits I like is that the rules of the world are known to the reader from the get-go. Such is not the case with supernatural elements. And while it’s true that there’s a respectable body of horror fiction that does not rely on supernatural elements to pull off — Stephen King’s “Misery” comes to mind, as does Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” — I am neither Stephen King nor Edgar Allen Poe.

So “Cat’s Paw” is a mystery, albeit one with roots in a very dark place.

There’s some overlap between the genres, I think. Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is often cited as the first modern detective story, but I have no doubt that Poe thought of it as another entry in his line of horror stories. And Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” might be the original slasher flick — that staple of horror films.

Inkshares kicked off a mystery-themed contest a week ago, and a friend advised me to enter “Cat’s Paw” into it. So I did. I mean, it was too good a chance to pass up.

The real challenge now, though, is to get people involved a second time. I can’t help but feel that it takes a lot of cheek to ask for people’s help on the same sort of thing again, but some people have been wonderfully generous. And of course, the timing overlaps IFcomp almost perfectly. The next couple of months are going to be interesting, to say the least.

Oh yes, before I forget … here is the link to the “Cat’s Paw” project page: https://www.inkshares.com/books/cat-s-paw . Go, check it out, tell your friends. Your support is what keeps me writing.

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Audiobook!

Audible released the audiobook version of A Gentleman’s Murder the day the book itself was released, taking me a bit by surprise. I didn’t realise they were already done with putting it together. The narrator is Raphael Corkhill, who has a really attractive baritone voice that I could listen to for hours. We’d spoken a few weeks earlier about a couple of pronunciation questions (yes, I do want “Magdalen” to be pronounced “Maudlin”) and he seems like a really smart fellow, too.

The ratings so far are largely positive, but rather annoyingly, the only specifically audiobook review right now is a bit on the negative side. I hope it will be balanced out very soon by other reviews. I can only assume that people were too bowled over by Corkhill’s performance to properly express their enthusiasm.

As part of the audiobook deal, I now have a handful of promotional codes for free audiobook downloads of my book. I’d really like to put them to good use, and I thought it would be a great thing to give them all to libraries for the blind. The problem is … I have no idea where these libraries are, how to find them, or which would get the best use out of a promo code. I’ve been told that libraries will have their own system for lending out purely digital content, and that’s the best assurance I have that a library might even be able to use the promo code at all.

It’s been four weeks, and I’m still hesitating on which libraries or schools for the blind I should try to contact. If anyone has any ideas, I’d love to hear them.

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CrimeFest 2018

I met Martin Edwards at BoucherCon last year, in Toronto, and he convinced me that attending CrimeFest in Bristol this year was The Thing To Do. Mr. Edwards is considered something of an authority on the Golden Age of detective fiction, the sort of thing I’m trying to emulate, so I guess I’m more inclined to listen when he tells me what would be good for my career. It didn’t hurt that my visit to the UK earlier last year only inflamed my latent anglophilia. Cornish pasties ahoy!

Well, I can tell you that CrimeFest is somewhat more intimate than BoucherCon. There’s really a sense of the crime fiction community being like a village where everyone knows everyone else. I was a little worried because I was going into this with no one to depend on for moral support. I knew Mr. Edwards and Cathy Ace to talk to, thanks to BoucherCon, but we’d only just met and hadn’t yet moved any bodies together, as it were. (I was very lucky at BoucherCon to run into Jim Napier on the first day; I knew Mr. Napier from an earlier Crime Writers of Canada event for the Arthur Ellis Awards shortlist, and he was kind enough to take me under his wing.) I suspect I may have come across as something of a creepy spook hanging about the periphery of everybody’s conversations–always wanting to talk but never having anything to say. Maybe once I’ve got my own address in this crime fiction village, and the self assurance that comes with it….

People do seem to agree that the crime fiction community is Really Nice and Friendly. I am pleased to say that, personal creep factor notwithstanding, I have Met People and Made Contacts and all that community integration goodness.

Also, on the second day, I got a twitter notification for a tweet about ME: a picture of my business card, and “Doesn’t hurt that the author (@misericordius) is strolling around #crimefest18 looking terribly dapper in a three-piece suit.”

My twitter handle isn’t on my card, but I guess it figures that crime fiction enthusiasts like to do a bit of detective work on the side. More important is the realisation, that I can never appear at these things dressed in anything else, ever again.

Well, author branding is a thing, and I guess I’ve found my brand. I wonder if I can claim the cost of a new waistcoat in my taxes.

So, what else have I garnered from CrimeFest? I have a stack of books–anyone attending CrimeFest or BoucherCon would be wise to travel light–and I owe Mik Brown a beer. I’ve learnt that apparently I was totally entitled to being on a panel, despite my book not being out quite yet–important thing was that it be in production with an officially scheduled release. Next year, perhaps.

I think I’d like to end with a mention of “Guess Who?” by Chris McGeorge, coming out this September. It strikes me as being a distilled version of exactly the sort of puzzlebox-whodunnit I like, a suspicion bolstered by the fact the guy has a hamster named Agatha Christie.

EDIT: It turns out that “Guess Who?” actually came out on 03 May, and the September thing is (I guess) a second edition. It seems Amazon defaults to the September edition, hence my confusion.

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In glorious spring

As I write this, I am looking at the third or fourth solid day of glorious spring weather: blue skies and cool breezes, and bright sunlight streaming over my terrace. Such a day makes it almost a sin to remain indoors, and it’s just warm enough–more May than April–that I can afford to leave my spring outerwear at home.

One week ago, it was unseasonably cold, practically winter still. I had to put on my winter coat to go out.

Winter was spent deep in intensive edits and rewrites. The final document was “poured” last week, and now it’s being shipped around to various influential people and places for blurbs and reviews. In other words, it is out of my hands, and the weather is almost a reflection of my sudden, new-found freedom.

I’ve attended to the housekeeping, sweeping out three months’ worth of accumulated dust; and I’ve actually cleared out the terrace, which I normally never get around to doing. I might even get around to planting stuff in the pots of dirt I have out there.

But what next? What lies ahead, and where do we go from here?

I think the publication date of 31 July 2018 is pretty certain, now that the vagaries of writing and editing are done. I have a book signing set up at the downtown Indigo for 04 August, and I should arrange more stuff around that time. Some things will be managed on Inkshares’s side, but I still have to uphold my end.

CrimeFest in Bristol is next month. I’m looking forward to Cornish pasties and Bovril.

BoucherCon is in Florida in September. I need to make arrangements.

New business cards will have to be ordered, with the book’s new title, “A Gentleman’s Murder”, and more details about myself. I noticed as I was sorting through all the cards I picked up at the last BoucherCon that I was more inclined to keep the ones with contact information on them; the ones that were clearly only about a book went straight into the trash.

I need to start thinking about a sequel. Ideally, I want a book out every year or so, and I think Inkshares agrees. It’s…very strange and offputting to be starting from scratch now, though. I’ve worked so closely with the world and characters of “A Gentleman’s Murder” that anything else feels unsettlingly unfamiliar, as though I haven’t the foggiest idea what’s what anymore.

In other news, there’s just two weeks left to Spring Thing 2018. I really ought to do some reviews.

And in the meantime, there is light and there is life, and I would be a fool to waste it.

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Story structure: The Merchant of Venice

Sudden epiphany: “The Merchant of Venice” is NOT about Antonio and Shylock and the “pound of flesh” debt, but about the romance between Bassanio and Portia. THAT is the main story; the thing with Antonio and Shylock is, in fact, only a subplot to the main story.

I’m sure someone else somewhere must have come to the same conclusion. If so, I haven’t seen or heard it.

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