Franz Margitza on “Eulalia” and Writing in the Gothic Tradition

Franz Margitza is a Detroit native and director of research for a Cleveland TV station. Here he talks about his debut short story—”Eulalia,” from our current March/April 2019 issue—and about the appeal, attributes, and modern context of Gothic romance literature.

We were in a coffee shop when I mentioned that the issue would be released soon. She looked at me and warmly smiled, before raising her brow—baiting me to continue.

“What?” I asked.

“Go on—tell me what it’s about.”

“Ah, well, I supposed it’s a Gothic horror story.” I immediately saw the wheels in her head start turning. “Do you know what I mean by—Gothic?”

“Um, yeah—like The Cure,” she said.

“Not quite.”

I understood where she was coming from. To many, the word “gothic” can infer something very different. And soon, I began a very poor attempt at defining the tradition. Dark, decaying, brooding, ghosts, demons, passion, curses, and romance—these were some of the words I wanted to use, but nothing came out correctly. It was a jumbled mess.

And as I sat there, trying to explain the intense romanticism of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, or the sullen lament of the protagonist in “The Raven,” I found that I was not making much headway.

“These don’t sound like healthy relationships,” she said.

“They’re not.”

“So how are they romantic?”

It was the mystique that comes with the Gothic tradition that had inspired me to write my story featured in the March/April Issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, titled “Eulalia.” The inspiration began with the image of a chamber room, a bedroom in an antiquated abbey. In that room I imagined, was a large stained glass window, and directly below—the crypt of a lost love, entombed to be near the very bed she once shared with the narrator.

What kind of obsession would drive someone to bury their deceased love in the very room in which they slept? Is it a quality of love that would force someone to do so? Or maybe some sort of mental derangement? Then again, is there much of a difference? That can be debated. But I’ve always found the dark brooding Byronic hero to be a champion of romance.

“So what else is different about this kind of story?”

“The words,” I said. “The way it’s written. The style, more or less.”

There is a special quality in the diction used in Gothic literature that spoke to me. A musical quality, with an elaborate description of even the smallest details. The rhythm of the words, the lilting quality that remain with the reader, it’s all a part of the grand scheme. And to be quite honest, it almost felt as if I needed to overwrite—to over describe. To use words that, I must admit, I had to double-check in the dictionary just to be sure I had the correct definition in mind. And I thought back to my days in journalism school, when they took a red pen to every phrase, every word, and every letter that wasn’t essential to telling the most simplistic, concise story possible.

“Kill your babies,” my old professor would say. He was a tall, thin veteran newspaperman. And what he meant by kill your babies—or kill your darlings, as some refer to it—was to take out all the little things you love about your story, that don’t add to the overall message you’re trying to convey. Thereby, anything that is too descriptive, or flowery, must be omitted. As well as anything that sounds too cute, too creative, or too ornate. So, a sentence like “A fierce, turbulent squall brewed far off on the horizon, encroaching upon the barren landscape, like a violent tempest” essentially becomes: “It rained”—more or less, anyway.

Thus, my training was in vast opposition to the tradition of Gothic writing. And it was daunting to attempt to write in such a way. A way that I was taught not to write. However, the rhythm or the pulsing cadence is something I’ve always truly admired. And I tried my best to mimic that sound.

“So, is it really scary? Am I going to lose sleep at night?”

“No, I wouldn’t say so. It’s more creepy than scary. And mysterious.”

“Remind me again how it is romantic?”

“Well . . .”

But as I sat there sipping my coffee—I saw her point, and a question arose. Today, does Gothic romance still have its place? Can the Byronic hero still be viewed as heroic? Or is he simply an all-out villain? She followed up her question.

“What makes you think those characters you mentioned are in any way romantic?” she asked.

“The romance isn’t in the happy ending—no one goes off and lives happily ever after. For the most part, very few even actually live at the end of these stories, and some aren’t even alive when the story begins. But the heroes, well—they’ve found their soulmate, and they adhere to that as if it was their religion. The problem is—they’re addicted to love. And yes, as dangerous as that can be, there is also something vulnerable in that. They feel this insatiable need, and yet the universe decides not to comply with their wants. And so, they go on longing, for what could have been.” I let out a long breath, then added—“Y’know?”

There was silence. We both took a sip of our coffee. The sound of the rain was beating against the window of the coffee shop, and we both knew that soon we’d have to brave the nighttime storm that started on our way back to the car. A storm that might be describe as a fierce, turbulent squall . . . (and so on, and so on). Then, she spoke.

“It all sounds depressing.”

“A little.”

“So . . . in other words, it’s just like The Cure.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I guess so.”

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“Writing with an Eye on the Supernatural” by Cheryl Skupa

Kansas-based author and English instructor Cheryl Skupa writes book reviews (Among Worlds) and poetry (Phoenix, Oklahoma Council of Teachers of English). Here she talks about writing with the supernatural in mind and about crafting her debut short story publication, “Ghost in the Nemaha County Courthouse” (from our current March/April 2019 issue).

I always perk up when I hear local folklore and superstitions, especially when told with relish by someone connected, however distantly (perhaps nebulously) to the people and places in the story. These little snippets of local history and tragedy have the deliciousness of gossip. Ghostly tales have the power to transform even the drabbest places on earth into something magical—and creepy!

“Ghost in the Nemaha County Courthouse” was born out of local stories and my penchant for driving out of my way, sometimes down gravel roads to visit small-town courthouses, little cemeteries, and old churches. The courthouse in my rural county and those in surrounding areas provided plenty of atmosphere—old clanking radiators, broom closets which were once jail rooms, fainting couches, shadows, dust, and the knowledge that many anguished people had passed through these halls over the years. Intensely personal tragedies and triumphs have been absorbed into the old ornate woodwork with the smell of the furniture polish.

The cleaning lady, Evelyn Eichman, was, of course, based on me. Who knew that all those hours working my way through college, pushing my cleaning cart down halls, sweeping, mopping, and dusting would somehow find its way into my writing? My least-favorite college job became the best writing fodder—but then, writers use everything; they are composters of experience! Thank you, fiction and AHMM, for sanctifying those lonely, boring experiences!

The only drawback of writing about ghosts was that humankind has been telling these stories since the beginning. For me as a writer to veer off into fresh territory, I needed to understand what was happening to my cleaning lady, Evelyn Eichman, as she experienced the visions of the white woman and her stained dress. That took some thought and time. I scoured the local small-town newspapers, especially the sections which recalled local events in history. I reread the account of my small town’s informal historian (a local school teacher.) I tried to recall old stories my grandma had told me, and cursed the gaps in my memory.

In the end, I did what writers do—told the story that I most loved to read. Ghost stories always remind us, not only of past sins, but also that death may not be the end, that insignificant people, places, and actions matter, and that tragedy, however devastating, may become immortal in the retelling!

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“Anatomy of a Short Story” by Mark Milstein

Mark Milstein is a Michigan author and restaurant owner. He is currently working on a historical whodunit, but here he tells us about writing his story “A Curious Transaction” from the current March/April 2019 issue of AHMM.”

Is there a story in that?

It’s a question I ask myself daily, as I suspect many writers do. You can wait for inspiration to strike, out of the blue, like the proverbial bolt of lightning. But I prefer to hunt it down aggressively, armed only with a mug of steaming coffee, a pair of earbuds, a mouse, and, increasingly, the tips of my thumbs. Two of my favorite silos of inspiration are NPR and The Drudge Report. Yeah, I know: strange bedfellows indeed.

I hit the Goebbels-esque clickbait on Drudge shamelessly, like a hungry smallmouth bass slamming a topwater plug. “Muslim Takeover of America,” it proclaimed. I was redirected to a story about Hamtramck, Michigan, where the tension between the growing population of Muslim immigrants and the Polish citizens who have long occupied the city was on the rise. The Poles were concerned, understandably, that their way of life was changing forever, disappearing. There was a lot of anger over a loudspeaker that called Muslims to prayer at a local mosque five times a day, justified by the largely symbolic argument that it was drowning out church bells from nearby, predominantly Catholic churches. There was even—gasp—a Muslim majority on the city council. I asked myself if this wasn’t appropriate for a representative democracy.

I also asked if there was a short story in all this. Turns out there was—it was the birth of “A Curious Transaction,” which appears in the March/April 2019 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. I knew right away I didn’t want the focus to be on the ethnic tension in the city. It is there, of course, lurking just behind the scenes. But I wanted to focus instead on how very different people, of all ethnicities and creeds, can work together, complement each other, and even thrive. And, oh yeah, since the story was intended for the illustrious AHMM, and wasn’t dark and twisty and sleep-depriving, it would need to be one heckuva mystery. Perhaps a new and original Pakistani sleuth who solves complex crimes by asking three simple questions? It was a tall order for a short story; I was pleased and a bit surprised to pull it off without straying into novella territory.

The fictional setting, a quick-service restaurant named Burgie’s, was a no-brainer, as I happen to own an establishment in Northern Michigan just like it. What better way to inject authenticity without wasting precious time on research? Every one of my employees, even the high-schoolers who can’t see past their smartphones, would instantly recognize their workplace, which is an integral part of the plot. While the old writer’s adage “Write about what you know” isn’t set in stone, it’s a good highway to take when you can get away with it.

The protagonist, Saalim Sayyid, a devout Muslim immigrant from Pakistan, is the general manager at Burgie’s, working toward a college degree in criminal justice. He has convinced the Polish owner of the restaurant, Mr. Micolajczak—whose name was chosen, I guiltily confess, as the most likely entry in an online group of Polish surnames to frustrate a reader attempting to pronounce it—to begin serving Halal food, which has significantly increased the customer base, and hence the sales. Saalim is also a burgeoning detective, and this story chronicles his first case (hint: not his last), which he must solve in order to prevent his incarceration and deportation.

Whoa, how can the son of a Russian Jewish father and a Swedish Lutheran mother write about the immigration experience of a Pakistani Muslim? Is that even allowed? Well, of course it is. Great writers (no implication intended) have for centuries brought every conceivable character in the universe to life, no matter the ethnic, cultural and ideological chasm between author and character. This they accomplish by avoiding stereotypes at all costs, doing an appropriate amount of research, and, most importantly, making their characters believable and intrinsically human (even the Vulcan Mr. Spock is essentially human at his core). Saalim is brilliant, confident, calm, kind, responsible and eternally optimistic. He also, like most people in the world—Agatha Christie wasn’t translated into every conceivable language for nothing—relishes a good mystery, and has a particular affinity for Hercule Poirot, whom he is able to emulate at the conclusion of the story.

I don’t believe it is possible to be even an average writer without being a voracious reader. Sadly, I find that many young people I know today aren’t passionate readers. There are many reasons for this, but I am grateful that my parents encouraged me to read at a very young age. They didn’t define or limit the subject matter, instead encouraging me to read whatever brought me joy. This included the latest issue of AHMM on my father’s nightstand, right next to the Playboy, which I of course, as a discerning young lad of ten years, avoided like the plague.

I literally grew up with AHMM; we were both Eisenhower babies, born in 1955. The magazine, a lifelong friend, has brought me a lifetime of joy. My favorite author was Jack Ritchie. I would scan the table of contents and jump to his stories first; they never failed to bring me joy. He was a master of dialog, and spinning a tale implicitly, between the lines. He was incredibly witty, with a wonderful, macabre sense of humor. Attempting to emulate him, an impossible exercise, fostered in me a passion for writing. I wouldn’t be appearing as a guest author on this blog today without Jack Ritchie and AHMM. I am deeply honored, beyond mere words, to appear in AHMM and as a guest author on Trace Evidence. I wish to express my warmest appreciation to Linda Landrigan and Jackie Sherbow for helping to make my dreams come true, and I sincerely hope that all of you can someday know how that feels.

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“Up in the Air”—A Cautionary Tale by Amanda Witt

Amanda Witt is the author of The Red Series of dystopian novels. Her stories can be found in the Mystery Writers of American anthologies Odd Partners (April 2019), Life Is Short and Then You Die (September 2019), and A Hot and Sultry Night for Crime (by Ana Rainwater). Here she talks about her AHMM debut, “Up in the Air” from the current March/April 2019 issue.

Funny thing about this story: I got scolded.

“Up in the Air” began as many short stories do. I saw a call for submissions, wrote something that fit the criteria, and sent it off. In return I heard nothing. As all writers know, this happens.

Then I got the following email [identifying information has been removed]:

The deadline was January 31st at 11:59 p.m. The judges have already finished reading and the final decisions are being made in the next 2-3 weeks.

Sorry, but you’re just too late to be considered. You would have been too late on February 1st, let alone March 8th.

Ouch.

But I’m one of those oldest-child, authority-respecting types. Any latent rebellion comes out in alter-ego characters, and never, ever in the real world. I check the details. I follow instructions. I wear my seatbelt, pay bills on time, and clean up after my dog on walks in the park. So hadn’t I sent the story in well before the deadline?

I checked, and indeed I had. And—like a good detective—I found proof.

Loath to argue, but wishing to retain a reputation for professionalism in even such a minor matter as this, I sent a brief reply:

I sent this in on January 27 (as you can see in the email beneath your own).

There was no disputing it, thanks to the “include the original email in your reply” function.

A flurry of explanations, excuses, blame, and apologies (of a sort) followed:

I don’t know what to tell you. It just arrived today. We posted on the website the day after we closed that all submissions had been acknowledged, and if you didn’t receive an acknowledgment, to contact us.

I have NO idea how this mail snafu happened. I received a lot of entries, and this one literally just popped up this morning. Totally bizarre.

After a bit of cordial back-and-forth, we parted ways amicably, and I sent “Up in the Air” somewhere else—namely to AHMM, whose editors have been (and surely always will be!) unfailingly gracious.

So “Up in the Air,” a cautionary tale about marriage (or about cell phones, police officers, small children, or prescription drugs—take your pick!) brings with it a couple of cautions for writers of stories and writers of emails.

Writers of stories: Check back on the submission website after the deadline passes. And, whether a statement about acknowledgment is posted or not, if you submit a story and you don’t get a “story received” message, consider pinging the editor. “Lost in cyberspace” actually does happen.

Writers of emails: Even if someone clearly appears to be in the wrong, be kind. The world will be a better place for it. And besides, life can be confusing. You might turn out to be the one who is mistaken—for real-life stories, like fictional ones, have a habit of taking unexpected twists.

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“‘Shiva’s Eye’ and Other Doctor Watson Adventures” by James Tipton

California writer James Tipton is the author of Annette Vallon: A Novel of the French Revolution (HarperCollins, 2008) and the upcoming collection Adventures Without Sherlock. You can find his short stories and poetry in Nostos and Blue Unicorn. His first tale in AHMM to feature Dr. Watson was “The Vampire of Edinburgh” (September/October 2017), and here he talks about that character, the series, and his story in the current issue, “Shiva’s Eye”—just in time for belated celebrations of Sherlock Holmes’s birthday. (Editor’s note: The phrase “twenty-five hundred strong” at the top of page 86 of the current issue of AHMM, the fifth page of “Shiva’s Eye,” was misprinted as “twenty-five thousand strong.” We regret the error.)

Doctor John H. Watson is one of the great overshadowed characters of literature (for others, see Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Nausikaa in The Odyssey; there are many). Sherlock Holmes is not being ironic when, in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” he says, “I’m lost without my Boswell.” He would not only have been lost to current recognition and to posterity, but in his own self-absorption and ego. In this blog, however, I’m not writing about Holmes, but about his companion, who, in the story “Shiva’s Eye,” encounters mysteries long before he ever encountered his famous friend. Moreover, we must admit it’s because of Doctor Watson’s writing that his friend became famous.

“Shiva’s Eye” can be read as a prequel to the Sherlock Holmes canon. Watson tells us in the beginning of his narration of the first Holmes novella, A Study in Scarlet, that the Afghan campaign in which he participated brought him “nothing but misfortune and disaster . . . I served at the fatal battle of Maiwand. There I was struck on the shoulder [in later stories we also find he was wounded in the leg] by a Jezail bullet, which shattered the bone and grazed the subclavian artery.” After he had “rallied” at the base hospital at Peshawar, he “was struck down by enteric fever [typhoid], that curse of our Indian possessions.” The battle of Maiwand was a major and unexpected defeat for the British in the second Anglo-Afghan war. Watson tells us that his “nerves are shaken,” and when he meets Holmes, the detective’s first words to him are, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.” “Shiva’s Eye” sees this campaign, its disastrous outcome, and its seeming supernatural mysteries unfold through Watson’s eyes.

I am grateful to the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine for giving a chance for these Doctor Watson adventures to come out to the world. AHMM published “The Vampire of Edinburgh” in September/October of 2017, and now is set to publish two more of them after “Shiva’s Eye.”

These stories come from a collection of fourteen that I’m working on to be called Adventures Without Sherlock. There have been countless spin-offs of Sherlock Holmes in print and in film, but none that I know of which only features Dr. Watson, without the help of his illustrious friend. I’ve endeavored to stay true to the narrative voice of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories, but mine develop the doctor’s character much further, covering the range of Watson’s adult life: from a failed romance in the Highlands that resurfaces in the gold country of California (the latter refers to an unpublished play by Doyle in which Watson ventures to the Wild West); to his participation in the Afghan campaign; to his years with Holmes when he was on his own—either on holiday or shortly after his first wife’s death, and then Holmes’s presumed death; to his later years when he visits Ireland on the verge of Civil War; or a trip to Berlin in 1933, when, in his eighties, while being honored by his German publisher, he encounters the beginning of the Nazi terror. We also see Doctor Watson giving a nod to his friend, or perhaps in silent competition with him; for instance, in an early story we find that Watson hunted a demon cat on the craggy fells of the Lake District long before Holmes stalked a hell-hound on the misty moors of Devonshire. A post-World War I story even features Conan Doyle, who, as Watson’s editor and friend, asks the doctor to join him on a search for fairies.

So in these stories Watson finally gets his due. Through his presentational immediacy and objective but deeply personal involvement, we feel the presence of a brave, compassionate, and highly moral man. Traditionally, these qualities have been applied to his protagonist, but we must remember that Sherlock Holmes is filtered through the perspective and the values of Doctor Watson. Once we are familiar with Watson as a narrator, we cannot help but think of him, unlike Holmes, as a very human and most likable human being—as that rare thing among writers: a genial personality.

Doctor Watson is well overdue to be the hero of his own series. As readers of the Holmes stories, we are aware of the doctor’s keen sense of observation, his fine ear for dialogue, and his pacing to give a sense of suspense and adventure (the last being a quality for which Holmes chided him). We are also aware of Watson’s self-effacing habit of always putting himself in the background; the stories are not about him. In my stories, although Watson is still loath to talk too much about his personal life, we can’t help but see his character more: his self-reflections, doubts, epiphanies, his dedicated persistence in arriving at truth—and we see him growing in his abilities as a detective. In “Shiva’s Eye” we also see him go where the cold reason of Holmes would never venture: into the possibility that there is more to life than the rational mind can understand.

With any and all readers keeping in mind that they are following the adventures of Doctor Watson, not of Sherlock Holmes, and therefore may be exposed not to singular analytical reasoning from effects to causes but to a dogged, quotidian effort to get at the truth (or in “Shiva’s Eye” assistance from an unexpected source), I offer these stories to whomever may have a few quiet minutes to spend with the good doctor.

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Happy New Year from AHMM!

As 2018 draws to a close, we reflect on a year of mystery and mayhem and offer our most heartfelt thanks to our readers, authors, and friends. Here’s to 2019!

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Wrap Up a Mystery (January/February 2019)

It’s that time of the year, a season observed by many with an exchange of gifts. We hope you’ll consider this issue a neatly wrapped package of criminous cadeaux. Variety is always welcome in a bestowal of presents, and so this issue offers a range of delights from the humorous to the spooky; from the past to the present; from the poignant to the puzzling.

Among them: the seasonally-appropriate “Blue Christmas,” in which Melissa Yi’s doctor/sleuth Hope Sze is sitting down to a festive holiday dinner with coworkers when two people suddenly become deathly ill. “The Case of the Truculent Avocado” by Mark Thielman, in which a P.I. supplements his sporadic income with a part-time job dressing up as a potato. Shelly Dickson Carr’s clever tale “The Beacon Hill Suicide,” showcasing historic Boston. What to do about a slobbering dog is the question for a “cleaner” in Zandra Renwick’s “Dead Man’s Dog.” And “A Six-Pipe Problem” by proceduralist master John H. Dirckx.

Several tales pack a powerful emotional punch. A grieving widower in our cover story, Pamela Blackwood’s “Justice,” hears voices and barking late at night, only later learning the significance of those noises. A new tenant in a Queens apartment house unlocks troubling memories for a lonely neighbor in Devon Shepherd’s “The Woman in Apartment 615.” Another newcomer, in “The Man Across the Hall” by Janice Law, has a destabilizing effect on a young married couple in Miami. And Chicago P.I. Kubiak steps into a family drama when an old colleague from the police force asks him to follow his wife in Steve Lindley’s “A Matter of Trust and Surveillance.”

The uncanny and inexplicable also add zest to our holiday package. A pre-Sherlock Dr. J. H. Watson recounts an episode from his time in Afghanistan, revealing what really happened at the Battle of Kandahar in James Tipton’s “Shiva’s Eye.” And our mystery classic features that master of the ghost story, E. F. Benson, with “The Confession of Charles Linkworth.”

And so, best wishes for the season. Whether you’ve been naughty or nice, maybe you’ll find a little murder tucked into your stocking for your guilty pleasure.

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