So, I’m finally watching….

Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, about the mysterious death of Elisa Lam. This is very frustrating. I’ve started this post two or three times and deleted each draft because I don’t want to sound like a bastard toward people doing what I essentially launched my writing career doing: “websleuthing,” kinda.

This series troubles me because the ultimate truth of Elisa Lam’s death isn’t chilling, real world horror as if she’d found herself trapped in some real world version of The Overlook Hotel from Stephen King’s The Shining. Elisa Lam wrote openly about her struggles with mental health. Anyone who has ever witnessed another person in the throes of a psychotic state saw the infamous elevator video of Elisa at the Cecil and knew what they were seeing.

All the internet churn surrounding Elisa’s vanishing and death from amateur sleuth types was understandable — and ultimately pointless. People loaded up Youtube with hours upon hours of utterly pointless videos discussing this case, parsing every moment…and in the end it was a bipolar woman off her medication and actively psychotic.

Of course there are questions about Elisa’s death. There will always be. Many are legit, I don’t question asking them.

But as someone who has had a part in evolving online crime writing and websleuthing and as someone who has lost a sibling to mental illness, this particular series is really bothering me. I have no idea how it could’ve been made differently, but one thing that does occur to me is framing it as some kind of gritty true crime account is a disingenuous choice. It pulls the focus away from the person at the center of the story — this intelligent, creative, and sadly very troubled young woman — and onto the self-styled “sleuths,” especially.

But Steve, um, weren’t you kind of at the vanguard of this sort of thing? There were like, what, three crime blogs online when you started?

Yeah. I was. And I learned from every single thing I wrote about. One thing I learned is we begin immediately making up our own narratives about high-profile mysteries. And because most of us are not in law enforcement and privy to a huge load of actual, concrete evidence, we start reinforcing our theories. We put them online. People start coming up with counter-theories. Others question your interest, as if all humans aren’t immediately curious about the fates of others — because we are. That’s the root of so much interest from strangers in true crime cases, in real mysteries of any kind.

Elisa Lam’s death was a gruesome and incredibly sad mystery. The real story is about mental health, however. Crime Scene spends way too long framing its narrative like true crime before it finally digs into Elisa’s own writing about being bipolar.

It begins to feel, by the third installment, like this was a fascinating and complex 90-minute documentary shoved into multiple episodes. I say this as someone who has been in their position many times, too, but it relies far too much on the videos from “sleuths.” They feel by the end of the second episode like what they are: filler.

I’m watching Crime Scene to the end to give myself a chance to change my opinion because smart people I know who do genuinely good work with true crime are involved, and producer and director choices were not their call.

But maybe since I sat down today to record segments for a true crime show on an actual murder I wrote about 14 years ago when I ran crimeblog.us, I’m just thinking a lot about this whole true crime thing online and how it has evolved, especially since podcasting was revealed as perhaps the ideal web-centric format for it.

The subject is still a source of intense fascination for me. My best ideas for nonfiction books are true crime subjects. I am really finding out in the last couple of years, however, that my perspectives have changed. I don’t know if I just take it all much more seriously than I did or if this is a result of just aging and growing up, but there it is.

 

Something to push against

The author at the gym
Image: Huff
Person in the Image: Huff

Yeah that’s me and no I’m not doing Bane cosplay. It was just the best flu mask I could find before I headed to the gym.

After I had COVID earlier this year something went to work in my brain. Something that’s always been part of me. Best example: Sophomore year in college, late spring, and we were all dreading Music History. That was next up, all junior music majors required to take it. A band guy, brass player whose name I’ve forgotten but I still remember he looked like the Big Boy restaurant mascot but with serial killer glasses and a cheesy ‘stache, looked at me with a serious expression and said, “Don’t worry about Professor Olsen’s class”—the name of that year’s music history prof—“No one passes it the first time.”

The guy wasn’t being a jerk. He was sincere. Yet some alchemy just happened to take place in my brain right then, some combination of moment, mood, mindset. I said, “No one? Ever?”

”Far as I know.”

I took that as a personal challenge. Something to push back against.

Here is the silliest part: I was generally not a great academic student. I majored in music, vocal performance, and I lived for being onstage. I memorized my music early and diligently, always fulfilled my obligations as a singer to the hilt. But a lot of the academic side of music bored me. I was a low B student, basically.

Yet I decided then and there to be one of the best scholars Professor Olsen ever lectured, with his permanent handkerchief held to one side of his permanently leaky left nostril. I did it in anger. I was mad that anyone would dare lump me in with the masses of students in previous years and in years to come.

Junior year rolled around. I was in the class with two of the smartest people I knew, the woman to whom I was engaged at the time and the woman I would break up with her for and end up married to for 8 years. (I get horny for brainy people but refuse to ever use a term like “sapiosexual,” it just sounds…pathological.)

Both young women (52 and 54 today) were dedicated students in general and both were superb writers with razor-sharp, incisive minds. Both had already helped me limp through previous courses we took together. I feel bad about that today but at the same time, it would be 10 more years before I was diagnosed with ADHD.

I did not feel competitive, exactly, with either, but I did decide I would make better grades in this famously writing-heavy music history course than they did. On one hand, I look back today and that’s totally manic. An observer who knew all three of us might have laughed if I’d said that out loud.

I proceeded to do exactly that. At the end of junior year, Professor Olsen told me I was “the most incisive historical mind” he’d taught there, one of the finest writers, and cut out to practice law (he was, oddly, also an attorney). He had no idea what a shitty student I’d been and would be again in the future. And he might have been right about the law, I wondered myself. But just opening the LSAT study book made my eyes cross, so maybe not.

Anyway, I’m indulging myself here, but there is a point—I have frequently shocked myself by accepting a challenge no one even issued just to prove I can conquer it if I want. I remember every one, but the story of music history is the one that I often reflect on.

Sometimes I think catching COVID hit me a bit like that brass player’s laconic challenge. I came out of it saying to myself that I would respect the fact I survived the virus by completing a mission I began in earnest at 44: Making my aging body as ironclad as possible against whatever aging and life throws my way. I don’t have the natural energy to try and get superhuman with it, but now I feel like I did heading into that first history lecture junior year: weirdly assured I can accomplish the vaguely ridiculous goal I have in mind.

I don’t reject aging, that’s not it at all. In fact, since I turned 40 aging has been kind of, well, fun sometimes. I joke about it, but the truth is, I’m strangely proud of already making it this far.

That is, making my body “ironclad” isn’t about reversing the clock of my skin, fading spots or filling wrinkles. It is about making the man the age I am now as strong as he can be.

Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, I may get there.

Dithering

Here goes nothin’

It is a running joke in my marriage: How restlessly I shift from site to site looking for a place to land the words I put out when no one is paying me to write them. The web is littered with my digital detritus. I have an excuse to some degree—I have zero shame when it comes to squatting on a property (a subdomain, like my Medium address, for example) just to own my name, but what I struggle with is the actual tool itself. This thing I’m writing in now.

I’ve had Blogspot blogs—I sometimes post to this one still as a way to say “yep, haven’t forgotten”—and other WordPress sites. I’ve grabbed countless social media accounts. In the end I always find a way to get restless and look for something new.

This morning, however, I thought, “Man, fuck Medium and Substack and whatever the hell else needs to be fucked, I still have WordPress.”

And WordPress is a good tool. I’ll likely be using it for paid work again in the next year or so.

Also, I have friends on here who write and if this prompts them to get back at it, all the better.

I’m sticking with one tool…for now. I have to give myself that out. I reserve the right, that is, to change my mind.

For once, I’m not sure I will change my mind. I no longer want to use brain space thinking about stuff like whether I could make money on a Patreon or with a Substack. I’m using the tool I know best, the one that works.

The dithering is done.

Hi there.

In the years since I first began a blog in 2000 (my wife, then fiancee, inspired me to start one for reasons not worth going into now), I became a professional writer and editor. Blogging, which I initially enjoyed enough to daydream of doing it for a living, is what I do for a living. That plus writing the occasional book means it’s not a bad living, either.

What happened over time was the more I wrote for money, the less I wanted to give it away for free. That makes sense, right?

I would have a twinge of nostalgia sometimes over the last 11 years–I last kept a regular blog of my own in 2009 or so–and start something new, only to give it up again. There was an embarrassment factor in that as well. I have ADHD — not diagnosed until I was 33 — and have found I’m kinda sensitive about the way it affects my behavior. I can be disorganized and forgetful, easily overwhelmed. The word “flighty” comes to mind. To me it is an intensely negative, dismissive word, yet it certainly fits me where some subjects are concerned, at least on the surface.

…But what I’m saying is of course I worry that I’ll do it again. Write this post about how I want to do this more then not write anything personal and casual for the hell of it for a year or more. It’s like a running joke.

And I might, I don’t know.

But here are the facts as I sit here at 9:23 pm in Central Massachusetts on a warm August night: I have this blog, to which I’ve imported various blog posts written randomly over the last six-seven years, and I have this: truecrimepost.com.

At the moment the true crime blog contains crime blog posts I (again) imported from other destinations, just to flesh it out. They are missing images and links might be broken, but hey, there’s something there. I also frankly think it’s a good URL, which was important back in the early days o’ blogging, but who knows, now. So it might fire up too.

I have a Medium account at Huffwire.com. The only wishy-washy-ness I feel right now is deciding on which blog CMS to use — stick with WordPress or make myself Medium only. Medium is a lovely content management system and there’s a built-in audience… but it kind of pisses me off on a regular basis too. The writer’s program doesn’t work as well as Medium intended, I think, and for every intriguing Medium post that is well-written and worth reading there are 20 badly-written, semi-plagiarized piles of automated content farm level bullshit.

But I ramble, something I haven’t given myself permission to do in a while.

The thing about doing my own blogging again is it hit me recently that the things I do don’t really have a home online. I’ve kind of been coasting. I need to present more than just my whack-ass Twitter account to the world.

I’m a singer and a writer of more than men’s lifestyle stuff for Maxim or any other sites.

Also, I’ve believed for years now that the deprecating of longform personal blogging for “micro-blogging” was in some ways a mistake. It has led to a soundbite culture. That has its place but sometimes you don’t want to click the “thread” link on Twitter. You want to read the full thing written out and in editable form, should the writer make a mistake that needs correction.

I can’t bring that back and I can’t bring back crime blogging, make it supplant true crime podcasts, most of which I find either tone-deaf or severely lacking in bringing anything new to the table. I won’t even look at this as trying.

I just know it’d be nice to return to a more personal space. One where I don’t feel pressed to worry about SEO or whether I’ve got a goddamn image embedded every two paragraphs or so.

It’s worth a shot.

I feel silly doing this here, too…

But I am trying to save some folks trouble: Put simply, if you are seeking “Huff Paranormal” Steve Huff, you are in the wrong place. I am not that man. To my knowledge we are not blood related and I have had only the most limited interactions with him.

We are both easy to find via Google and we both are connected to heavy subjects—me to true crime and him to contacting the spirit world.

About that I will only say I’m a skeptic but I try to avoid judging others’ beliefs. And I’m not 100% skeptical, either. But enough.

Anyway, to clarify: If you are curious about the Steve Huff who says he is contacting deceased Indian actor Sushant Singh Rajput via his spirit box, this is not his blog.

You’re welcome to stick around, though. I’ve transferred years of posts to this site, many of them my crime writing, and I may even update it more often, like I’ve said I’d do for like 10 years and not really done.

Email to Customers About the Coronavirus From That Weird Junk Shop Run By the Guy Your Dad Knows From High School (Plague Diary, 2)

 

abandoned-strip-mall (1).jpg

Folks,

Here at Jim’s Funky Junkatorium, our customers and associates are like family. Or at least people we see every now and then and may have followed home one drunken night last Christmas. Anyway, in the last few weeks, we’ve been laser-focused on the health and safety of our friends and loved ones.

We want JFJ customers to know that we’re following federal, state, and local agency guidance regarding the Coronavirus (COVID-19). It’s an evolving situation and we are on top of it!

Steps that JFJ is taking to protect our customers and staff:

In-store

  • Cleaning common areas as well as the freight elevator where our cashier Brad spanks the spigot every day at 1:30. (Yes Brad, you funky-handed scamp, we know.)
  • We’re disinfecting our cash register and credit card terminals; we’ll also no longer accept cash pulled from between boobs or buttcracks.
  • We sanitize the restrooms whenever Pasty Pablo or Stinky Lucy aren’t in there providing “carnal concierge services.”
  • We’re periodically wiping down display items, baskets, dollies, carts, and Brad. Mostly Brad.

For Employees

  • We encourage all JFJ associates to be vigilant about their health. No one is allowed to play snot-rocket bingo in the breakroom anymore.
  • Associates should follow the CDC’s suggested hygiene practices to the letter
  • Asking associates to stay home if they, or a family member get sick. They may also choose to set themselves on fire.

For Customers

  • We ask our customers to follow the CDC’s suggested hygiene practices to diminish viral spread
  • Just a reminder – stay out of the freight elevator.
  • Questions about inventory are welcome! Call our hotline.
  • When shopping, avoid eye contact with Brad.

These are terribly uncertain times. The world has grown wicked creepy scary. But we’ll stay open providing you premium pre-loved goods that have definitely not been stolen or—in the case of personal items—looted from funeral homes. Promise!

We’re open every day, 8 am till midnight or whenever we’re sure Brad has gone home and isn’t watching.

Your JFJ family

Plague Diary, 1.

And I, Agnolo di Tura, called the Fat, buried my five children with my own hands. And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city. There was no one who wept for any death, for all awaited death. And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world. This situation continued [from May] until September. ~ Agnolo di Tura, Siena, 1348 

Plague_doctors'_beak_shaped_mask
A medieval Plague Doctor (Wikimedia)

I’ve been thinking a lot about Agnolo di Tura, called The Fat.

I don’t mean to be melodramatic. In fact, I very strongly doubt the world in the grip of the Coronavirus Pandemicwill be anything like the graveyard that was Europe in the wake of the Black Death. Most things will go forward. There may even be opinion pieces written later about how it was all overblown.

One hopes, anyway.

I began with the passage above because this sentence is like a prose earworm in my brain, some days: “And I, Agnolo di Tura, called the Fat, buried my five children with my own hands.” If you read all of Agnolo’s narrative, you’ll see this is how it begins:

The mortality in Siena began in May. It was a cruel and horrible thing. . . . It seemed that almost everyone became stupefied seeing the pain. It is impossible for the human tongue to recount the awful truth. Indeed, one who did not see such horribleness can be called blessed. The victims died almost immediately. They would swell beneath the armpits and in the groin, and fall over while talking. Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another; for this illness seemed to strike through breath and sight. And so they died. None could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship…

You can read the entire piece here.

There are other readings as well, but the image of Agnolo, a fat man struggling in the heat to bury his children under a merciless sun, has never quite left me. The simplicity of his narrative has always struck me as sorrowful in a timeless way. The kind of devastation that has no point in history because whatever the year on the calendar, it would be the same for anyone in similar circumstances. The words of a man writing nearly 700 years ago, and it’s almost as if you can still hear him sigh.

I’m mostly just following the brush with this post, which is being written on the kind of day that has always given me the creeps, because it is so like bad dreams I had as a child.

It is windy and a little chilly outside. Clouds are rushing by, white and gray, and the sun isn’t really out but I can see blue sky as well. The evergreens that rise behind the houses across the street are restless in the wind, which doesn’t moan so much as it murmurs.

I had a lot of wind-filled nightmares when I was a child.

One that I never forgot came shortly after watching the 1964 film version of Richard Matheson’s I Am LegendThe Last Man On Earth, starring Vincent Price. In that nightmare, I woke to a murmuring and constant wind pushing its way through my childhood home, which was in ruins. One of my sisters was just a mummy in a creaking swing on the back porch. I found myself outside then, and I stepped over two mounds in the driveway that I realized were my parents’ graves.

The wind never stopped, and I know I thought that whatever happened to everyone had come with the wind.

The dream ended at my elementary school, with me standing outside my kindergarten classroom, which was in shambles. I heard the distinctive ringing bounce of a red gym ball on the cement behind me, as if someone had just dropped one, and I turned to see a ball bouncing away, but there was no one there who could have dropped it.

And so I come back to this wind outside today, and all the coronavirus news skittering across my Twitter feeds, on my big-screen TV, and the Agnolo di Tura in my mind, hunched and sweating over the dead.

No one wants to know that kind of sorrow. No one wants to know how alone the man must have felt.

So I guess even the worst-case scenario imaginings in my mind regarding coronavirus are enough to shake me a bit, to rattle my cage.

There are probably many lessons to learn from Agnolo di Tura. The one that will not leave my thoughts today is something that first occurred to me after my brother committed suicide 20 years ago. Then again after my sister died from septic shock in 2016.

Sometimes it is a curse to survive.