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September 24th, 2007

The secret history of L.A.

Two weeks ago I decided to attempt to write a complete 90K-word novel by the end of the year. My biological clock is ticking and telling me to produce more...books. I figure I came at this novel-writing business with a late start, so I've got lost years to make up for.

Two weeks ago I had only the vaguest idea of what this book should be about, and it wasn't until just three days ago that I realized what I wanted its subtext to be: A secret history of L.A.

I hope you're not one of those nose-in-the-air East Coast types who's now muttering, "But Los Angeles doesn't have a history, darling!" L.A. does indeed have a history, and I'm not talking the movie business anecdotes that often pass for our history. As fascinating as it can be to listen to an older friend describe once seeing W. C. Fields rowing his boat across Toluca Lake, or hearing about Errol Flynn hiding his vodka in a milk bottle, I'm talking 19th-century here. Secret tunnels beneath the old Chinatown. The Lake Elizabeth monster that supposedly ate cattle and scared off ranchers. And the curse on Griffith Park.

Yep, that's right: Griffith Park - or as it was known at the time, Rancho Los Feliz - was supposedly placed under an eternal curse in 1863, by a vengeful young woman who was defrauded out of inheriting the 8,000-acre property. The rancho went through a number of owners for the next forty years, all of whom seemed to succumb to the curse, until it was given away by the amazingly-named Griffith J. Griffith to the city of Los Angeles.

Even the teller of this and many other stories is a fabulous part of L.A.'s secret history: Major Horace Bell was a former ranger who wound up in L.A. in the late 19th-century and set up a newspaper called The Porcupine that was notorious for its exaggerations and satires (Bell himself is a minor character in my first novel). There's still debate among L.A. historians about how truthful Bell's account of the "Feliz curse" is; apparently Don Jose Antonio Feliz and his vengeful niece Petranilla were real, as was Don Antonio Coronel, who actually inherited the estate from Feliz. But beyond that...it's the stuff of pure legend. L.A. legend.

My novel will be a contemporary horror story, but one that's haunted by the past. The Los Angeles that existed long before silver nitrate, and that still fascinates 150 years later.