Last week I chatted with Sonora Taylor about the zen of drinking tea during an alien invasion. Go check it out if you haven’t already.
This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Renee S. DeCamillis. A few months ago I participated in an online coffee house where we both read some of our work. I really enjoyed listening to Renee’s reading from her novella, The Bone Cutters. I haven’t had a chance to read it, but it is on my TBR list.
Author of the psychological thriller/horror/supernatural novella The Bone Cutters, published through Eraserhead Press as part of their 2019 New Bizarro Authors Series, Renee is a member of the Horror Writers Association, the New England Horror Writers, and the Horror Writers of Maine.
She is also an Editorial Intern for the 5-time Bram Stoker award-winning speculative fiction and dark fiction publisher Crystal Lake Publishing, and a writer for Phi3 Comics. She has her BA in psychology from the University of Southern Maine, earned her MFA in Popular Fiction Writing from the Stonecoast Graduate Program, and attended Berklee College of Music as a music business major with guitar as her principle instrument. Her short fiction appears in Deadman’s Tome: The Conspiracy Issue, Siren’s Call eZine Issue 37 the 6th Annual Women In Horror Month Edition, The Other Stories Podcast. She has a story forthcoming in the 2020 anthology Wicked Women, a collection showcasing women writers of the NEHW. Also forthcoming is her first comic book, with a publication date TBD. Her poetry appears in The Horror Writers Association Poetry Showcase Volume IV. Renee is a former model, school rock band teacher, creative writing teacher, private guitar instructor, A&R rep for an indie record label, therapeutic mentor, psychological technician, and preschool teacher. She is also a former gravedigger; she can get rid of a body fast without leaving a trace, and she is not afraid of getting her hands dirty. Renee lives in the woods of Maine with her husband, their son, and a house full of ghosts.
GMM: Hello, Renee. Welcome to Girl Meets Monster. I’m so glad to have you here for a chat. After listening to your reading from The Bone Cutters back in July, I got very excited about reading your book. I’m slowly working on the sequel to Invisible Chains, and an asylum will be one of the main settings. My novel is set in the mid-nineteenth century, but your book opens in a more modern setting. A lot of mental health facilities closed in the 1980s and 1990s, what time period is The Bone Cutters taking place in? Is it an asylum or a hospital with a mental health ward? What kind of research did you do for the setting?
RSD: The time period for The Bone Cutters is now, today, and the setting is a psychiatric hospital, inspired by one that I used to work at as a psychological technician. That last part—the position I held while working there—is a bit of a funny because Dory, the main character of my book, really rips on psych techs because of her horrible previous experiences in mental health facilities with subpar staff who go unchecked by those in power. (Though I say it’s a bit of a funny, I do not mean that mistreatment of patients by staff is funny at all. I’ve witnessed neglect and mistreatment of patients by co-workers, and I reported all of it, which is part of what inspired me to write about horribly inept psych hospital staff.) I didn’t really need to do much research for this book because I have a degree in psychology, and I worked in the mental health field for quite a few years in various positions, providing various services. So, my research for the setting consisted of simply recalling memories from my experiences working in the mental health field, including my time as a psych tech in a psychiatric hospital.
GMM: The internal dialogue of your protagonist was fantastic and really conveyed the sense of confusion and discordant thoughts she’s experiencing while trying to come to terms with her new environment and her own mental illness…if she is really mentally ill. Without too many spoilers, can you give a little bit of background on your protagonist, what she’s experiencing, and what inspired this character?
RSD: Dory is quite a mixed bag of fucked up and beautiful. She is someone trying to stay safe while traveling through this crazy fucked up world that’s filled with predators and betrayers and manipulators. She’s a creative-minded loner who has suffered from multiple traumas and has no “real” family to speak of. She’s been betrayed and severely harmed by people who had claimed that they loved her, and she has developed serious trust issues from those experiences. This makes connecting with others and developing friendships exceedingly difficult for her because she feels like everyone is going to harm her eventually. She has also experienced multiple traumas while seeking mental health treatment in the past. The culmination of all her experiences has also created some festering anger issues within her that she tries hard to keep under control. Then when she gets blue papered, involuntarily committed, to this dysfunctional psychiatric hospital, they keep pumping her with all sorts of different psychotropics, which makes it difficult to tell who the real Dory is and what is just the medication taking over her mind and what are just rumors from those around her.
These days, where many teachers and doctors and social workers want to label “unusual” behavior as something other, we all pretty much can say we have a “psychological disorder” of some kind: anxiety, depression, ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, etc. That aspect of our society makes me feel like Dory is a relatable character for many people. Dory is an odd duck with some quirks others don’t understand, but people around her want to label every single “odd” action as some sort of mental disorder. Maybe she does have a disorder, maybe more than one, but does she really have all the disorders that she’s accused of having? Which disorders does she truly have, and which ones are misdiagnosed or simply assumed by people incapable of making such claims? This is all left up to the reader to figure out as they read the story and get to know Dory.
GMM: Mental illness is a familiar trope in horror fiction, but the idea of harvesting bone dust to be used as a form of drug is not. The harvesting really is a horrifying process, but you execute the imagery in a way that makes it almost beautiful. Enticing. Which is why I suppose there are willing “Donors”. Where did this nightmarish idea come from?
RSD: Well, your word choice—”nightmarish”—hits the nail right on the head. The idea was inspired by a nightmare of mine. Isn’t that where it all begins anyways—in our nightmares? That crazy group counseling session from chapter one that you heard me read, that is where the story began, the part pulled out of my nightmare, though it didn’t happen exactly that way in my dream; I changed it to fit the story and the characters.
In my dream, I was at a First Friday Artwalk in Portland, Maine with a close friend of mine. She asked if I’d mind if we made a quick stop to see one of her friends. She had told him she’d swing by while we were in the city, and she promised me it would only take a few minutes. I agreed. When we stopped to see him, we walked into a large open room that had a big group of people all gathered and sitting around on the floor in a circle. There was no furniture in this room. I had no idea what was going on or who any of the people were. I noticed that one man, an extremely skinny guy with a gapped-tooth grin and a large grotesque scar around his collarbone (He is now my Slug Man in the book.), was addressing the whole group. My friend and I stood off to the side and remained quiet. While we stood there, I was trying to figure out why they were all gathered here and what they were doing. As I looked all around the circle of people, I noticed that every person there was grotesquely scarred, all in different locations on their bodies. I thought they might all be cutters, or maybe they had all attempted suicide and that this was a counseling group for people in those situations/mindsets. Trying to figure this all out, I focused in on what that man was saying. That’s when I realized that this was an NA group for people who harvested bone dust and used it as a drug, like heroin. They harvested from themselves, as well as from others. I was mortified. I was even more mortified when I realized that the man speaking was the “friend” my friend was there to see. She knew these people, was friends with these people. That’s when another realization hit me—this friend of mine, someone I’d been close friends with for many, many years, all of a sudden seemed like a complete stranger to me. I woke up after that and I immediately knew that scene needed to go into a story. I started writing The Bone Cutters (titled Chiseled High back then) that same day.
Once I sat to write the story, I decided to change the setting and circumstances, and, of course, I changed the character who discovers this group of addicts from me to Dory. (She is not me, though there are aspects of Dory’s character that I can relate to.) I’d been wanting to write a dysfunctional psychiatric hospital story for quite some time, and I had made other attempts before—some of which are still works-in-progress—so I went with that setting, finding it very fitting for this situation. Also, I have a love for the unreliable narrator, so I thought it would be great to cast the main character as someone of questionable mental faculties and often under the influence of “questionable substances”, which is how Dory was born.
Also, where the whole crazy, villainous drug addict type of character came from: throughout my life I have known many drug addicts, some former friends, former partners, some family members, some simply acquaintances. Some of them I had long, close relationships with. Because of those relationships and experiences I had with them, I had once tried to write a novel, my first novel, with a main character who falls into heroin addiction. I tried my best to make her a sympathetic character, as I was simultaneously trying to sympathize with and understand the loved ones in my life who were struggling with lifelong drug addictions. That character in my book started out extremely sympathetic, but where many beta readers lost that sympathy was halfway through the book when she started using heroin and fucking up her life even more than it already was. That book and that character, along with what began happening in my life with those close to me who were abusing drugs, made me realize I was not writing the right story or the right character for me. (I guess you could say that my beta readers lost their sympathy for my fictional drug addict character in my novel, just as I lost my sympathy for the real drug addicts in my life.)
The Bone Cutters goes much, much darker than my first novel, showing just how far certain addicts, like the ones I had once been close to in my real life, will go to get their fix. They hurt themselves. They hurt others. They’re sneaky. They’re manipulative. They lie about everything. And the depths to which they’ll stoop to get what they want or need is lower than low. No, not all addicts are the same, but I am a firm believer that there are many addicts who cannot be saved. No matter how much help they get, no matter how much support they have, they never stop using, they never stop their harmful and destructive behavior. I may get some hate mail for saying that, but it’s the truth; I know addicts like that. The ones that never change. To the people in their lives who aren’t users, it appears as though they enjoy the life of drug addiction, they enjoy all that goes along with the drug addict lifestyle. If they didn’t like it, wouldn’t they try to make changes? The Bone Cutters takes this idea and puts a dark spin on the why of this type of drug addict. Why can’t they stop using? Even when they have all the support and all the resources to help them get clean—why do they not stop? What makes them keep using? What makes them keep hurting themselves and others? What makes them keep destroying their life? What is their motivation? What is it pushing them to go that low with their behavior? This is where my horror-brain kicks in.
No, my book is not all about looking down on drug addicts and making them the bad guys, the villains, the monsters. It’s not like that at all, as readers will realize when they get to the ending (or maybe I should say the “non-ending”, since there’s a sequel coming). I do also know addicts who have recovered and moved on to do amazing and wonderful things with their lives, ones that move on to have success and happiness in their work and personal lives, and I do include characters like that in my book as well. There are many, many wonderful people out there who recover from drug addiction. So, my story wouldn’t be a truthful look at drug addicts if I made the users all bad guys and lost causes.
Excerpt from the sequel to The Bone Cutters (The title of the book is withheld for now.)
Chapter 1: The Carver, The Collector, and The Stitcher
A cloth is secured in his mouth, knotted behind his head, to keep him from screaming. A blindfold stretches across his eyes. The white-hot sting of the blade slicing through the skin of his shin makes him grit his teeth.
Only a whimper escapes.
Buck knife in hand, The Carver gets down to the bone quickly. Twin serpent-like scars run up the outside of both of The Carver’s forearms. They writhe and pulse as he reaches out and swaps the knife for a chisel and mallet. Like a modern-day Michelangelo, he begins whittling away at the victim’s tibia, the bigger of the two shin bones. Serpent scars slither around while he works.
Every hit of the mallet sends a shaking jolt through the restrained man. The chair legs rattle against the tiled floor with every jostle. His ankles are zip-tied to the wooden chair legs. His wrists are zip-tied to each side of the back of the chair. Tears soak the blindfold and leak down his cheeks from underneath. Snot bubbles at his nostrils. Strands of his shaggy brown hair stick to his sweaty temples.
Rather than creating a work of art, The Carver extracts bone shavings to crush into dust at a later time. With the help of The Collector, who is beside him, curls of shaved bone are caught onto a sheet of tinfoil.
The foil is filled fast.
From behind The Carver, someone with gnarly scarred knuckles passes The Collector a second sheet of tin foil. The filled foil is switched with the empty.
The Carver reaches for a new tool. The chisel and mallet are swapped with a small utility knife.
Rapid shaving motions slide down the tibia over and over and over again.
More chair rattling.
Sibling serpents shake and slither along with every movement of The Carver’s arms.
Bone dust is collected this time. The second batch is for immediate consumption.
Mixed with blood, the dust looks like sticky black tar heroin. Bone Cutters call it Dark Heaven or Red Sugar or simply Dust.
Deal done, The Stitcher steps out of the shadows, thread and needle held in grotesquely scarred hands, to seal the wound.
The victim is no longer whimpering.
The victim is no longer crying.
The victim is now passed out, head hung low, chin to chest. Whether from shock or blood loss is of no concern to The Carver or The Collector or The Stitcher.
All they’re here for is the Dust and the high that will come with it, as well as—
the money they’ll make off what they don’t smoke or inject themselves.
The Stitcher is thankful. Not just for the high-to-come and the money they’ll make—
It sure is easier to stitch the wound without all the shaking and blubbering that was going on a few moments ago. The needle and thread zips back and forth through the flesh as smoothly as a whisper floating with the wind.
Wound now sealed shut, it’s time to clear the scene. With two tips of the chair by The Collector and The Stitcher, The Carver carefully slides out the blood covered plastic tarp that is spread out underneath the victim and the chair. He rolls it up, preps it for disposal.
Then the zip-ties are snipped from the victim’s wrists and ankles and tucked securely into the tarp. Add in a few rocks from the park on the walk back to their den, and these Bone Cutters will send all remnants of this event down river.
All except the product and—
The buck knife.
The hilt of the knife is wiped clean. Then it’s placed in the victim’s hand, with his fingers wrapped around it, assuring only his prints are found.
The Carver, The Collector, and The Stitcher are good at covering their tracks. Maybe not the tracks in their skin or the scars that double as their own living entities (Those they wear with pride, like badges of honor.), but definitely the tracks of the assaults against all their unwilling victims.
Not all victims are unwilling.
Some enjoy the rush of the slice like a bite from a vampire.
Minions or Lackeys if you’re a non-dust-user.
Some might call them Renfields.
Many Bone Cutters (A.K.A. Dusters) also get a rush from the slice, but it does wear you down after a while. All that blood loss. All that pain. It’s much more satisfying and stimulating to inflict that pain on another. But when times get desperate—
they will again slice into themselves.
Scene all cleaned and sparkling, as though only the victim has been present, the three junkie-cutters vacate the premises. The tarp is rolled up tight and worn like a backpack by The Collector. After one last wipe of the outside doorknob, the three practically skip down the hallway and out onto the sidewalk, as giddy as children approaching an ice cream truck.
While strolling away from the scene of the crime, as though nothing unusual has taken place, they hear the flutter of large wings overhead. The sound is moving towards the house they just left behind.
They all look up, wondering if it’s what they think it is. A glimpse of huge, black wings zooming past the beam shining from the streetlight is confirmation.
Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. See you next week!
Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.