Dark Blood Comes From the Feet: An Interview with Emma J. Gibbon

Emma J. Gibbon is a horror writer, speculative poet and librarian. Her stories have appeared in various anthologies including Wicked Weird, Wicked Haunted, and The Muse & the Flame and on the Toasted Cake podcast. She also has a story upcoming in Would but Time Await: An Anthology of New England Folk Horror from Haverhill Publishing. This year, she has been nominated twice for the Rhysling Award for her poems “Fune-RL” (Strange Horizons) and “Consumption” (Eye to the Telescope). Her poetry has also been published in LiminalityPedestal Magazine and is upcoming in Kaleidotrope. Emma is originally from Yorkshire and now lives in Maine in a spooky little house in the woods with her husband, Steve, and three exceptional animals: Odin, Mothra, and M. Bison (also known as Grim). She is a member of the New England Horror Writers, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association, the Angela Carter Society, and the Tuesday Mayhem Society. Her website is emmajgibbon.com.

I recently had the pleasure of reading Emma J. Gibbon’s anthology of short horror fiction, Dark Blood Comes From the Feet. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this collection of literary horror tales that put relatable characters under the microscope to show us the darker side of the human condition. Gibbon takes us to weirdly familiar settings that quickly turn macabre, like a strip club in Purgatory, a Lovecraftian orphanage, a day at the beach that would make Cronenberg proud, and a haunted house on a hill that I won’t forget any time soon.

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Emma. Congratulations on the release of your short story collection, Dark Blood Comes From the Feet, that comes out today! I really loved reading your stories, not just because they were well written, but also because I couldn’t help wondering where the stories came from. You write about a diverse group of characters from different backgrounds with different experiences and I kept wondering which of those characters were you. That might seem like a strange thing to wonder for some people, but because I write dark fiction as well about women of color, there is a part of me in each story. Some really terrible things happen to the people in your stories, but at the most basic level, they’re human. How much of yourself is in this collection? Where do the lines blur between you and your characters?

EJG: Thank you so much! I’m so glad you enjoyed it! That’s a really tough question to answer because in a way, they are all from me but are separate at the same time. I’ve had an interesting and varied time on this earth so far, so it does sometimes feel like I’ve lived a lot of lives. There is no doubt that I use elements of myself and my life when I create characters, some on a surface level and some on a deep emotional level. When I do the latter, it’s often not a conscious decision but something I realize later, sometimes years later. For example, on a surface level, the narrator of “Cellar Door,” Karen, resembles me in that some of her memories she mentions are my memories and she lives in my house. That house is my house! That basement is real! I’m not convinced it was the best idea, it’s like I haunted my own house.  But personality-wise, she’s not like me. Janine in “Janine” is a character I have enormous sympathy for. She is someone who had the cards stacked against her from the start, who made some bad choices and has really suffered for them, much more than she deserves. I have the sense that I could have easily been someone like Janine, but I was just luckier.

Ultimately, there is a lot of me in this collection, probably more than I like to admit. Dark Blood Comes from the Feet, is a line from “Cellar Door” and it’s a reference to having old trauma that you have trouble letting go of. I have a lot of stuff that I psychologically scratch at, over and over, old wounds. They’re in my stories but I skew it and dress it up in monsters and distinct voices and the supernatural so that I don’t even recognize it myself at times.

GMM: While reading the stories, I compared your work to other writers in the genre, including Poe, Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Cronenberg, and there’s even a reference to Donnie Darko (Tolkien), which brought a smile to my face. Which writers have had the most impact on your own writing style? Whose stories inspired you the most?

EJG: I do love Donnie Darko! And thank you so much! That’s a very flattering and intimidating list! I definitely have a group of authors whose work has inspired me. I know I’ll forget a major influence but a very obvious one is Shirley Jackson, but also Angela Carter, Daphne du Maurier, Neil Gaiman, Mervyn Peake, M. Rickert, Kelly Link. I think Brooke Bolander is astonishing. I’m inspired by many people writing horror right now. More than that though, I think the key is I was an early and voracious reader who came from a family that weren’t huge readers. We didn’t go to the library. My parents bought me books, but there was no way they could have kept up with me. I read everything and did a lot of rereading (I’ve slowed down since then, I mean, the internet exists now.) I’d get books from car boot sales (the British equivalent of yard sales). Half the time I didn’t have to pay. I think people were a bit weirded out by this little girl carrying a stack of Stephen King and Alfred Hitchcock books, I especially liked the ones with the yellow edges, so they just gave them to me. Because my reading was very autodidactic and random, I have a personal canon that’s my own. I had no sense of high or low culture (which I still think is nonsense anyway,) or genre or nonfiction vs fiction, so I’d read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest then V. C. Andrews, an anthology of classic ghost stories and Salem’s Lot with a book of feminist stories. Much later, I’d carry on this habit even as I specialized in English—Macbeth with The Mammoth Book of Vampires Stories, a nonfiction book about the cultural effects of tuberculosis with The Name of the RoseWide Sargasso Sea with The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. So all of these stories are all in there and they come out in my stories in a completely unconscious way.

GMM: You have an incredible talent for showing us the horror and reality of the settings in each of your stories. I’m an avid reader, but I also have spent a lot of time watching and studying films in many genres, which I think has had an impact on how I tell stories. Would you say that the written word, or film images have inspired your work more? What films have influenced the way you craft a scene?

EJG: Thank you so much! That really means a lot to me because I have aphantasia. This means that I don’t imagine or think in visual images. It’s hard to describe but I have a strong internal dialogue and think in concepts (almost as if my mind can feel the edges of a 3D representation that I can’t see.) Some of my settings are based on places where I have lived or visited—as I said, the house in “Cellar Door” is mine, the tunnel in “Bobby Red-Eyes” really existed when I was a kid (and Bobby is an urban legend in my hometown), the Black Shuck Tavern is based on a famous Hollywood nightclub. Others were research, I’ve never been to any of the places in “Whitechapel,” for example.

I am very influenced by film too. I grew up in the peak-VHS 80s with very little screen supervision, so we watched a lot of horror films. My big ambition as a teen was to be a music video director. I was a double major in college in English and Art History but most of my art history classes were the history of film or film theory and honestly; it burnt me out a little. A lot of my favorite films are before then. So films like Heathers, The Lost Boys, Donnie Darko, Amadeus, The Faculty, Beetlejuice, The ‘Burbs, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nightbreed and May have had an enormous impact on me. Despite the aphantasia, it’s the colors of the scenes that I often remember and the way they affect mood.

That said, I’ve been influenced and inspired by all kinds of things—personal anecdotes, scenes from my own life, books and movies, music videos, songs, photographs and other pieces of art, TV shows and video games. It’s the story that I’m always most interested in, not necessarily the format.

GMM: I enjoyed reading all of the stories in your collection, but I have a few favorites, including “Devour,” “Cellar Door,” “Whitechapel,” and “St. Scholastica’s Home for Children of the Sea.” Which stories in the collection are your favorites, and why? Which were the most difficult to write?

EJG: As far as being hard to write, two stand out particularly. “Cellar Door” because it was the kind of story I have always wanted to write and fear of failure meant I couldn’t get out of my own way for the longest time. In the end, I made it a NaNoWriMo project and got a good chunk of it done by not looking back as I wrote. “This is Not the Glutton Club” was hard because I hand wrote it while bedridden with pneumonia! It was also the story that needed the most research, and my Facebook friends really saved the day on that one!

It’s really hard to have favorites, they’re like children (I’m guessing). What is nice is that I’ve got enough distance between them all that I like them all. I don’t regret putting any of them in there. I do really like “Sermon from New London.” It was a lot of fun to write. Should we get to the other side of the apocalypse, I think there are worse ways to survive than being part of a matriarchal cult based on punk music. It was first published on the Toasted Cake podcast performed by the editor, Tina Connolly, and there had to be a language warning because there is so much swearing in it. What really makes me laugh is that when I played it to my husband, he didn’t notice, which I think tells you about the level of discourse in our house!

GMM: While you write from the POV of both male and female characters, your strongest characters seem to be women and girls. And, even though terrible things happen to them, not all of them are victims. Many of your female characters make the most of the bad situations they find themselves in, and become survivors. Would you say that feminism has had an impact on how you create your female characters? Or, are you simply showing us the strength of the human spirit? Rarely, do your stories have what I would consider a happy ending, and I really appreciate that. How would you describe your writing style to someone who has never read your work?

EJG: Feminism definitely plays into it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind straight white guys, I even married one! But they have had their time being at the center of stories. They’ve had centuries of being the heroes and saving the day. I’ve made a conscious decision to give people who don’t traditionally get to be the protagonists take center stage or have the happy ending—women without children, women who are not straight, trans women, working-class women. Part of it is being a woman from a working-class background who has not conformed to social convention and having mainstream fiction just not resonate with me at all because of that. I still have a way to go. My writing is far too white, for example, and that is something I have to work on—my experience of the world is not a default and I think the more that I reflect the world as it is, the more powerful it is when I tilt it somewhat. Something that is at the core of who I am is that I will always root for the underdog, always. There is never a time when I’m on the side of the people with all the power so that’s going to come through.

I’ve had to pull myself up from the ashes a few times in my life, start again from nothing and reinvent myself. I’ve seen people, especially women, do that again and again and I like to reflect that in some of my stories. It makes you stronger, like tempering steel, but it has a cost, you can get brittle and break. Even the phoenix has to go through the fire.

Describing my writing style is difficult. It’s one of those things where I would be interested to know how other people describe it. A lot of it is instinctual. Once I get the voice of a story, it usually pulls me along. That said, I like to challenge myself to see if I can write in a wide a range as possible—can I write a nested story in the voice of a Victorian gentleman? What if I had an unreliable narrator talking to someone who wasn’t there? Can I write a speech in mostly misheard punk lyrics? What would Shirley Jackson do? I think that is what it comes down to mostly: What would Shirley Jackson do?

Fiction Fragments: Nelson W. Pyles

Happy Beltane! I’m sending you virtual hugs, kisses, and maybe an inappropriate grope or two. After this week, Fiction Fragments will be taking a short hiatus until July. But, look for other posts here at Girl Meets Monster in the meantime, and contact me if you’d like to be featured in Fiction Fragments.

Last week, I spoke with Bram Stoker Award winner, Sarah Read, about writing a first novel and productivity under quarantine. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Pittsburgh writer and voice actor, Nelson W. Pyles.

headshotNWPNelson is a writer and voice actor living in Pittsburgh PA. His latest novel, Spiders in the Daffodils, is available from Burning Bulb Publishing. His first novel, Demons Dolls and Milkshakes, was re-released in 2019, and the sequel is in progress. He is the creator and original host of the Wicked Library and has stayed on as an executive producer and voice of “The Librarian.” He has written and performed on The Wicked Library, The Lift, The Private Collector, and Wicked Fairy Tales podcasts. He is a member of the HWA.

For more information please go to www.facebook.com/nelson.pyles

Twitter – @nelsonwpyles
Instagram – @nelson.pyles

Three Questions

GMM: Hello, Nelson! Welcome to Girl Meets Monster.  We’ve only interacted in person once I believe, at an HWA Pittsburgh Chapter meeting, but I’ve slowly gotten to know you through social media. Tell me about The Wicked Library. How did it get started, and what was your role as The Librarian? Also, how did you get started as a voice actor for the multiple projects you’ve worked on? What advice would you give someone who is interested in pursuing projects like The Wicked Library?

NWP: Hello, Michelle! Yes, that was the first time we had met. You and Stephanie Wytovich had a live reading together which I absolutely regret missing. I’m hopeful to see both of you at the next meeting! And yes, we share a lot of the same interests like excellent 80’s new wave. It also prompted me to get your book Invisible Chains, which if you pardon the fanboy moment, is absolutely amazing.

The idea for The Wicked Library really came out of a desire to help independent authors promote their work with an audio version of their short stories. Having a background in theatre and performing I thought I could do a decent job with narration. I solicited everyone I had appeared with in an anthology and asked them for permission to read their work. In turn they could download the story and even sell it as I wasn’t making anything off of the work.

The Librarian began as an homage to the Crypt Keeper from the old DC comic books from the fifties. Eventually he got a life of his own (so to speak) and became his own character with a background story and several spin off shows. All my voice work really came as a result of narrating the show from the early days and then moving on to narrating a few books and voicework on other podcasts. It all just kind of happened out of necessity and then boom!

The advice I would give for anyone looking to start their own podcast of their own is to research as much as you can, find something that you bring to the table that no one else has and make sure it’s one hundred percent fun otherwise it gets old really fast.

GMM: I absolutely love the title, Demons, Dolls and Milkshakes. What inspired the title of your first novel, and without too many spoilers, can you give us a synopsis of the book? Is this the first novel you’ve written, or just the first novel you published? What motivated you to finish writing the novel and what was your experience with getting it published?

NWP: The title wound up being the very last piece of the puzzle as it really summed up everything in the story. A woman in the Shadyside section of Pittsburgh prepares to get snowed in by a blizzard, so she gets movies, snacks, and a huge milkshake before it starts. She gets home to find a creepy doll in her bag from the movie store. She thinks it’s a gift from her friend at the store, but it turns out to be a demon who is trapped in the doll looking for a new body. One of my beta readers suggested the title as a goof, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. The tone of the novel is very tongue in cheek although it does deliver on the spooky when it arises. It was the first full length novel I had written and the first one published as well.

The book took forever to write because it was also around the time I started having kids which as you know, tends to make what we do interesting if not challenging. I actually sat on the first twenty pages of it for about six years and they decided it was time to put up or shut up. I sent the book to a metric ton of publishers and agents all of whom shot it down. Finally a groovy small press which I’m sad to say isn’t around anymore published. What was great is that I was able to get my current publisher Burning Bulb Publishing to release a really nice second edition with bitching new art.

Getting published isn’t easy but it’s not impossible either. I think there is a certain amount of tenaciousness and thick skin needed. When I got it published it was because I had a good relationship with the publisher whom I had worked with on a few anthologies. Relationships aren’t a guarantee, but they do help in good ways especially for getting feedback.

GMM: Holy shit! I need to read the rest of “Muerte Con Sabor a Fresa” (Strawberry Flavored Death) STAT. I’m dying to know what happens. As a former resident of Pittsburgh, I love any story, especially horror stories, set there. It feels like coming home. Although I lived there for sixteen years, and love reading about fictional Pittsburgh, not a lot of my own fiction is set there. How do you decide on setting? Do most of your stories take place in and around Pittsburgh, or have you done some creative world-building and invented places? Who are some of your favorite Pittsburgh writers, past and present?

NWP: For “Muerte,” it seemed destined to be set somewhere in Pittsburgh and I drew a lot of inspiration from friends of mine. The doctor in the story is named directly for my friend Phoebe because, who doesn’t want to know an actual Phoebe? And the title came out of boredom; I thought it was funny in English, but it sounded ominous and in Spanish.

I am a Pittsburgh transplant by way of New Jersey. I’ve lived here for almost twenty years now and it’s really a great area. I love it a lot and certainly it does show up in my work quite a bit, but not always. My second novel Spiders in the Daffodils, is set in mostly East Texas and is apparently in a genre called “Splatter Punk Western”: which is kinda cool. I’ve really taken to my adopted city and I guess I’m a pseudo-yinzer. I created a couple of false Pittsburgh locations for an upcoming book set in the universe of Demons Dolls and Milkshakes — sort of Fox Chapel and Squirrel Hill-esque but I tried to keep the actual locations as real as possible.

I had read a few Pittsburgh penned works when I was in high school and college from John Irving and some plays from August Wilson. Also, I was very aware of the history of horror in Pittsburgh which made it much easier to move here to be honest. The current Pittsburgh writers I read actually includes you and the other amazing writers in our HWA chapter which really, is very much a who’s who in horror! Stephanie Wytovich, Sara Tantlinger, Gwendolyn Kiste, Mike Arnzen…seriously, it’s very much the coolest. I’m very fortunate to not only know all of you folks, but to also be fans of your works as well. In some cases I already knew some folks like Stephanie. But there’s something really enviable having access to such an amazing and talented pool of writers. It’s one of the few times that an introverted person like me can talk to other people where we all speak the same language if that makes sense. It’s been the least dysfunctional kinship I have ever had.

Thank you so much for having me on Girl Meets Monster! Hope to see you soon!

(This is an excerpt from the story “Muerte Con Sabor a Fresa” (Strawberry Flavored Death) in THE WICKED LIBRARY PRESENTS: 13 WICKED TALES from 9th Story Publishing 2019)

The most unusual part of the paramedic rescue call for Priyanka Choudhry wasn’t what the victim looked like, although that in and of itself would trigger future nightmares for the foreseeable future. It was just how much the victim weighed.

The general statistics about the victim, Daryl Madison, were that he was five feet six and roughly about a hundred pounds. However, it took three paramedics and two firemen a tremendous effort to get Madison onto the gurney, and even then, they had to roll him onto it. They never raised it up; they had to shuffle it out of the apartment requiring additional help to load him into the ambulance, which nearly buckled under the weight.

Rolling the man onto the gurney proved to be nearly impossible. Madison was nearly flat. Most of his bones were broken in the most unusual ways, as if he had been crushed under something. How he was still alive and breathing was nothing short of miraculous.

Pri had determined from the amount of excrement around the body that he had been on the floor of his bedroom for nearly a week. The woman who had called nine-one-one had said that Madison had been missing about eight days. By rights, due to the injuries and the excrement, Madison should have died from dehydration at the very least.

In looking around the apartment, for anything vaguely resembling a clue as to what could have happened to him was nonexistent. The woman, Ms. Turner, said that she hadn’t seen anything out of the ordinary at all. From her description, the apartment was dark, and she had heard Madison crying out softly from the bedroom.

It seemed to be the only thing that made sense.

Pri sat on the edge of her bed and shuddered. She closed her eyes and saw Madison’s tear-streaked face. His expression hadn’t changed; of course, how could it? The bones in his face had all been crushed, and he’d looked like a rubber Halloween mask without a head inside it. A deflated head that was still alive and suffering in a most unimaginable way.

She had left the hospital once they had managed to find a room (and a bed) that could hold him. There was another call she and her partner had gone to from there, but she knew that she wasn’t going to stop thinking about Daryl Madison for quite some time.

She crawled into bed and shut off her light. She waited a long time for sleep to come.

*

The research and development lab in Pentacorp’s own industrial park was tucked away in a large facility in Eastern Pittsburgh. It was a half hour from Monroeville and quite a lot of the employees lived there, game for the heavy commute. Truth be told, the job was challenging and difficult but, most would say, rewarding, especially financially.

Georgie opted to not live in Monroeville, however, and lived in a semi-quiet complex in Penn Hills. The town was full of “yinzers” who got good and liquored up on the weekends and most weeknights. But the rent was inexpensive, and there was a guard at the door to keep the riff-raff out…and some of it in, so to speak.

So, because of her proximity to the R&D facility, she had no trouble getting there before anyone in the department, and simply waited for whoever the first person was to arrive.

And unfortunately for Phoebe Armstrong, it happened to be her.

“Well, good morning, Dr. Armstrong.”

Phoebe gasped and dropped her coffee. It splashed onto her beige pants, and she yelped as the coffee poured onto the white tile floor. Her face went from shock to quick anger as she saw Georgie, feet propped up on the lab table. Next to her feet was a familiar-looking plastic container.

“Jesus H tap-dancing Christ, what are you doing here?”

“I’m here to ask you some questions, and you had better have some really good answers for me.” Georgie took a foot and kicked the plastic container off the table and onto the floor. “For question number one, why the fuck was this in one of our employees’ apartment?”

Armstrong looked at the container and her eyes narrowed.

“Daryl,” she muttered through her teeth.

“Oh, don’t you mean ‘Big D?’”

Armstrong blinked and glared at Georgie. There had been a long-standing animosity between the two women, but it absolutely was about to get to worse.

“First of all, fuck you. That’s first. Just want to get that out of the way.” Phoebe folded her arms and leaned to one side. “Secondly, we were authorized to start human testing. You authorized human testing, so what do you think human testing means?”

“Human testing means finding volunteers or college students to sign waivers and giving them a few bucks here and there. You know, so if something bad happens they can’t sue us and aren’t attached to the corporation. Daryl was a fucking employee.”

“Daryl is still alive, apparently, and he’s also an adult who also happened to sign the aforementioned waivers. I’m not stupid, Georgie. All of the bases were covered.”

Georgie kicked her feet off the lab table and stood up. She walked slowly towards Phoebe. “Except, of course, for the base where the subject stays in the goddamn testing facility to be monitored and not massively overdose on the test drug because it’s a goddamn test drug.”

Phoebe sank slightly. “Well, okay. You got me there.”

“When I found Daryl, he looked like a deflated balloon.” Georgie pulled out her cell phone and showed Phoebe a picture.

“Oh, balls,” Armstrong said.

“Indeed. But it took several people to get him onto a gurney. He was unbelievably heavy.”

“Like, how heavy?”

“It took five men to get him into the ambulance. Why?” Georgie asked.

“That’s pretty heavy, yeah.” Phoebe said, and turned away. She whirled back around to Georgie. “We have a problem.”

“I would love to hit you right now,” Georgie said quietly.

Phoebe ignored it. “We need to get Daryl here to the lab ASAP.”

“Is this something you can fix?”

Phoebe looked at her and frowned.

“I’m just hoping it’s something that can be contained.”

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 chellane@gmail.com. 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.

Fiction Fragments: Sarah Read

Last week, Girl Meets Monster had a great conversation with horror writer, Todd Keisling, about religion in horror fiction and how COVID-19 has impacted his writing. This week, I have the pleasure of talking with Bram Stoker Award winner, Sarah Read.

Sarah ReadSarah Read is a dark fiction writer in the frozen north of Wisconsin. Her short stories can be found in various places, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year vols 10 and 12. A collection of her short fiction called OUT OF WATER is available now from Trepidatio Publishing, as is her debut novel THE BONE WEAVER’S ORCHARD, both nominated for the Bram Stoker Awards. When she’s not staring into the abyss, she knits. You can find her online on Instagram or Twitter @inkwellmonster or on her site at www.inkwellmonster.wordpress.com.

Three Questions

GMM: Hello Sarah. Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and congratulations on winning a Bram Stoker Award for your debut novel, The Bone Weaver’s Orchard. Tell me about how the book came about. What inspired the story, and what motivated you to finish your first novel?

SR: Thank you so much, Michelle! The book came about because I wanted to write a scary book that wedged between the gap of YA horror and adult horror. I had never been entirely satisfied with YA horror as a young reader–it wasn’t scary enough, or dark enough, it lacked honesty, and too often I could see the author pulling punches. I started reading adult horror when I was nine. I liked the scary side of it much better, but the stakes always seemed to hinge on grownup problems that I couldn’t relate to enough to fully sympathize with the characters. From there, I just took my love for Gothic lit and tossed in all my favorite ingredients. I wrote the novel for NaNoWriMo, I think back in 2014. My husband was working nights at the time, as a janitor in a hospital. Once I got our (then only) son in bed, I’d sit in my favorite chair with a notebook and pen and hit my word count for the day. I didn’t quite get that celebratory feeling when finishing it, because my inner editor had been keeping a tally of all the broken pieces I knew I was going to have to go in and fix. Writing “The End” was a moment of, “Oh shit, now the real work starts!” And it did, and lasted for several years.

GMM: Last week, I asked Todd Keisling to talk about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted his writing process. Many writers have shared on social media that they are struggling to focus on their work and haven’t been as productive as they normally would be. How has the pandemic affected your writing process? Has it inspired new stories? What advice would you give other writers who might be struggling to get words on the page?

SR: Oh gosh, my writing has been almost nonexistent for close to eight weeks now. I have two kids at home with me, stuck in the house. My eldest is 12 and has 4-6 hours of virtual classes a day, and my youngest is 5, and has no home schoolwork. My days are spent teaching 6th grade, playing with my youngest, troubleshooting eldest’s tech problems, fixing snacks every ten minutes, and I’m still also working as a librarian from home, doing virtual programs for our patrons. I’m also still freelancing (writing, editing), though I’ve had to cut back a bit on that. My husband is still at work full time. When he gets home and takes over with the kids is when my workday starts, and I’m usually not done until almost midnight. Honestly, though, even if my schedule wasn’t a shitshow, my anxiety would probably polish off any creative energy that might surface. I’ve had a few good writing sessions since this all started, but I’m definitely not anywhere close to my usual output. I’ve been at this level of anxiety once before, when I was pregnant with my second son and he kept trying to die in utero over and over and over. I was on bed rest for seven months. I thought I’d get so much done! But it was a terrifying time, and my creative energy was re-routed to self-preservation. Instead I burned through Netflix and played Age of Empires. Now it’s Animal Crossing, if I can catch a moment. I feel less guilty this time, and more comfortable focusing on taking care of myself and my family.

GMM: Your fragment has a definite fantasy feel to it, with a hint f Shakespearean drama with the death of the family patriarch and what is promising to be a dispute over who will take his place as Lord. Do you feel more at home writing fantasy or horror, or do you typically combine the two genres? Can you give a brief synopsis of The Atropine Tree?

SR: I definitely frolic in dark fantasy, and tend to blend it with horror fairly often, sometimes crossing into the Weird territory altogether. I don’t know that I prefer one style over the others. Each story feels like home while I’m writing it. The Atropine Tree definitely dances along the Weird line. It’s unabashedly paranormal, where I usually tend to keep my ghosties more ambiguous. I’m having a blast working on it, though.

The synopsis:

Alrick’s uncle Tredan has his father’s last breath trapped in a blue bottle in his lab. Which is good, because they’ll need him to weigh in on a matter of succession and the location of the missing will.

Alrick’s father is dead, but the lords and ladies of House Aldane are restless spirits. When Alrick’s half-brother Aemon (bitter and cruel) and his sister Nelda (whose mouth is stained black from poison and who sways on the line between living and dead) show up with a lawyer and a dodgy will, Alrick and his alchemist uncle must turn to some dark arts to harness the voices of their household spirits. They must win witchy Nelda’s loyalty and turn her against the powerful demonic specter of her mother, and learn to swallow her poisons in the process.

Tredan’s army of young urchins rescued from the streets of London—the scratchlings, only half of whom survived his medical administrations—will aid them in their quest to secure the land and title for Alrick.

The Atropine Tree is a weird, Gothic Victorian ghost story about family loyalty and feuds that span generations, both living and dead. They all want a home of their own—and they all want House Aldane. It’s like Downton Abbey set in Hell House with the characters of Oliver Twist and a chaser of nightshade.

The Atropine Tree, Sarah Read

Chapter One

Alrick had arrived in time, but only just. The collar of his shirt strained against his throat, his cuffs pinched his wrists like ropes binding him to his father’s bedside.

Lord Drummond’s chest rose with a sound like chalk on slate, like plough on stone—each exhalation a surrender against the struggle to draw breath.

Alrick’s uncle Tredan leaned in and held a blue orb jar to the old Lord’s slack mouth. The fog of his breath that had clouded the glass only an hour ago now barely reached past the rim.

Tredan stood poised with the lid.

Alrick counted the breaths. Counted the beads of perspiration gathered in his uncle’s beard, counted the coarse ridges of his father’s knuckles that he held between his hands. The Lord’s cold, dry hands seemed to wick the moisture from Alrick’s hot palms. He spun the ring that hung loose on his father’s finger. Those hands had once been thick with callous, rough with half-healed tears, but now the skin draped from his fingerbones like half-drawn curtains. Like the end of an act. The end of everything.

Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen. He counted.

He wondered if his school had somehow been frozen in time. If in his six years there, a hundred years had passed at House Aldane.

“Thirteen. Twelve. Eleven.” His half-sister, Nelda, counted, too. Whispered, so that the fine veil across her face barely stirred.

“Three. Two.” Nelda’s voice faded.

His father wore at least a hundred years across his brow. The jar pressed into the greying skin, burrowed in thinning whiskers. Covered the lines Alrick had watched as a child, searching for that rare trace of humor. The lines that had faded, erased after his mother died.

The lid of the jar snapped into place—and that was how Alrick Aldane learned that his father, Lord Drummond Aldane, was dead.

Uncle Tredan held the jar up to the candlelight. The mist of Alrick’s father’s last breath stretched like a ghost down the side of the jar.

While Alrick watched the light play over the droplets condensing in Tredan’s bottle, the other eyes in the room watched Alrick.

He had come home to bid his father farewell, but he would not be returning to school.

The gold signet ring stuck at his father’s knuckle. He feared he’d tear the soft crepe skin if he twisted or pulled too hard. Alrick looked to Tredan.

“I’ll take care of it. I’ll have it back to you this evening.” He slid his blue bottle into the pocket of his long coat, and for a moment, Alrick thought the bulge it formed moved as if it were breathing.

Alrick nodded and laid the slack hand on the sheet.

“Best to wait.”

Alrick turned to the voice, to his half-brother Aemon who sat in the far corner beyond the reach of the candlelight, save for its shine off his eyes and teeth.

“And why is that?” asked Alrick. If a hundred years had passed at House Aldane, a thousand had passed since he’d seen his brother. Not since his mother sent Nelda and Aemon away, to live with their mother’s family. Just before she had died. Their return to House Aldane was a special exception. Alrick himself had granted it. Lord Drummond had been their father, too, and now the four of them—Alrick, Aemon, Nelda, and Tredan—were all that remained of the ancient Aldane family.

“Father’s will hasn’t been read, yet.” The shine of Aemon’s smile stretched wide.

“Let’s not speak of such things now,” Tredan said. He waved the housekeeper Merewyn over and she began to see to Lord Drummond, a half-hitch in her breath that stirred Alrick’s own grief.

The powder smell of her apron pulled at his heart like a chain yanking him back to his childhood, to her lap, the soft cushion from which he had learned his home—the whole world. His whole world.

He reached up and ran his fingers over the wood of the wide beam that spanned the low ceiling. It had seemed so high when he was young. How he had leapt, in this very spot, to reach these distant beams. Landed there on the bed where his father now lay.

Fallen. Already sinking through the linens into the straw, as if life itself had buoyancy, and now the Lord was leaden.

Merewyn rolled a bit of blanket under his chin to hold his mouth closed. A sliver of rheumy yellow flashed from beneath his eyelids, the stillness of those soft folds uncanny. It sent cold down the back of Alrick’s neck. No living eyes could ever be so still.

“He’s with Mother, now,” Nelda said.

“With Burgrune.” Aemon put his hand on his sister’s shoulder.

Tredan nodded. “Yes, and Eleanor. He loved them both.”

“I know,” Aemon said, “I saw.”

“So you did,” agreed Tredan. “We should go. Give Merewyn room.”

Three children entered the room. All wore undyed linen smocks, their heads shaved close. Their faces were scarred with the ravages of old pox that left their skin like masks. They were urchins from London—orphans that Tredan claimed and cured.

I’m an orphan. The thought came unbidden to Alrick’s mind.

No, I’m a young man. Not a child. A Lord.

The children set to helping Merewyn—cleaning the room and folding clothes. Alrick almost wished himself in one of those smocks. Something to do. A duty. A place in the world, instead of spinning uncertainty.

Tredan’s hand rested on his shoulder and steered him toward the door. Alrick stole a final glimpse back at his father. His eyelids had slid further back. His pale eyes stared out into the room, each rolling to the opposite side. Perhaps there was a wife at each bedside and he greeted them both. Perhaps one eye looked to the past and one to the future. Or perhaps he was roving, surrounded by devils.

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 chellane@gmail.com. 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.

Fiction Fragments: Todd Keisling

Last week I had a great chat about comics and writing inspiration with writer and illustrator, Cat Scully. This week, Girl Meets Monster is thrilled to welcome horror writer Todd Keisling.

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Todd Keisling is a writer and designer of the horrific and strange. He is an author of several books, including Devil’s Creek, The Final Reconciliation, and Ugly Little Things: Collected Horrors, among other shorter works.

A pair of his earlier works were recipients of the University of Kentucky’s Oswald Research & Creativity Prize for Creative Writing (2002 and 2005), and his second novel, The Liminal Man, was a finalist for the Indie Book Award in Horror & Suspense (2013).

He is a former editor for The Self-Publishing Review, hosted Crystal Lake Publishing’s Beneath the Lake interview series, and co-hosted the popular live YouTube series Awkward Conversations with Geeky Writers alongside Mercedes M. Yardley, Anthony J. Rapino, Nikki Nelson-Hicks, Eryk Pruitt, and Amelia Bennett.

He dabbles in graphic design under the moniker of Dullington Design Co., and his work has graced the covers of titles published by Silver Shamrock Publishing, Flame Tree Press, Third Crow Press, Crystal Lake Publishing, Precipice Books, and Nightscape Publishing.

His written work has been praised by Cemetery Dance, This Is Horror, Night Worms, The Eyes of Madness, Hellnotes, and Horror Novel Reviews.

A former Kentucky resident, Keisling now lives somewhere in the wilds of Pennsylvania with his family where he is at work on his next novel.

Share his dread:
Twitter: @todd_keisling
Instagram: @toddkeisling
www.toddkeisling.com

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Todd. I’m so excited to have this chance to ask you some questions and learn more about you. I’ve enjoyed reading your short fiction and you seem to be publishing quite a lot lately, both short fiction and novels. During this very strange time of social distancing and the fears associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, some writers, including myself, have been struggling to get words on the page. How are you staying motivated to keep writing? What obstacles have you experienced? What does your process look like at the moment?

TK: Thanks for inviting me! Honestly, I wish I had a good answer to this, but I’m afraid I don’t. Truth is, I’m in the same boat as you and all the other writers out there who are struggling to make the magic happen on the page. I was talking to a writer pal of mine earlier today, expressing my concerns about my complete lack of focus on…well, anything, really. My productivity has nearly dropped to zero, and what little writing I have done over the last several weeks has been in small bites. On a good day, I used to average anywhere between 500 to 1K words. Lately, I think I’ve written maybe 2K words in the last three weeks.

I’ve made it no secret that I deal with anxiety and depression on a daily basis, but with the threat of COVID, the monotony of quarantine, and how uncertain our futures are, everything’s been turned up to eleven. At times it feels like we’re living with a real-life version of Delillo’s “airborne toxic event,” with the concept of our mortality much more upfront and in focus than usual. Working on my next novel just seems kind of minuscule right now in the scheme of things, you know?

That said, in the times when I’ve managed to plant my ass in front of the manuscript, I’ve constantly reminded myself that what I’m writing isn’t permanent. It’s a first draft. It’s okay for it to be shit. And it’s okay not to write every day.

I know that’s all very basic Writer 101 stuff, but I’ve found that’s what works for me in times when my mental health isn’t at its best. And, really, I think that’s what might be best for all of us right now: take things a day at a time, remind yourself that it’s okay not to be perfect, and do what you can. We’re all in panic mode right now, whether we want to admit it or not, and I think it’s imperative we be kind to ourselves above all else.

GMM: Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were plenty of scary things happening in the world — politically, environmentally, economically, socially. How have current events shaped your writing? Is it easier to write horror during times characterized by fear and uncertainty? What scares you the most?

TK: I think those things are always in the back of my head one way or another, and they usually inform my characters or their motivations. Writing horror has always been an outlet for me, a way of exorcising my demons and dealing with those issues by way of writing them down. So, when it comes to facing the socio-economic uncertainty of our times, I tend to do so through my characters.

For example, I’ve been working on revising and expanding my first two novels while also writing the final novel in that trilogy. The main character and his wife are Millennials, he’s had to take on a crappy job in order to provide for her since she has health issues that prevent her from working, and the issue of money is a constant source of friction between them.

Over the course of the series, the protagonist’s job, life choices, and his inability to escape this box he’s built for himself serve as a subtext for the horror that unfolds. There’s a kind of unspoken economic anxiety that manifests in certain situations throughout the story—the idea of being sold an education that doesn’t live up to its promise, the debilitating cost of healthcare, the way we’re forced to compromise our goals in order to scrape by every day, and so on.

I’m a Millennial. I worked in a single income household for half a decade. I’ve experienced those hardships, lost sleep over hating my job, put off doctor visits because of the expense (even with insurance), felt completely lost and trapped, and had ridiculous arguments with my spouse over money. Losing my home, losing my family, losing myself—those things are what scare me, and all those situations, fears, and anxieties usually manifest in my fiction. Often in horrific ways. It’s the only way I know how to deal with them.

GMM: After reading your excerpt, I started thinking about the role religion often plays in horror fiction. You describe what I assume was a religious community with cult-like followers that ended in tragedy, as they are often wont to do. I sometimes joke about the fact that most of my knowledge of religion comes from horror fiction and movies. How much of an impact has religion had on your writing? Is it a recurring theme in your horror fiction?

TK: “I sometimes joke about the fact that most of my knowledge of religion comes from horror fiction and movies.”

It’s funny you said this, Michelle, because I’m the opposite. Almost everything I know about horror comes from a religious background.

I grew up in southeastern Kentucky, in a Southern Baptist household. When I was a kid, I was indoctrinated in that way of thinking, so everything I did was overshadowed with this impending doom of eternal damnation if I didn’t live the way I was told. I had a very clear picture of Hell from a young age, and now that I think about it, it probably had something to do with the anxiety issues I deal with now. There’s always this fear of not measuring up, of always falling short, and so on.

Anyway, when it comes to horror, religion is always going to be a place to find the darkest aspects of mankind. So much has been done in the name of a god, be it one with a capital G or otherwise, and all for the purpose of manipulating minds, curating division, or justifying bloodshed. I’m reminded of the song “Mist and Shadow” by The Sword: Why do people wonder if there is evil in the world? / If it’s lurking in the darkness until its plans can unfurl / When it’s standing before you in the clear light of day / In a finely tailored suit with a smile on its face.

All of that is my long-winded way of saying “Yes” to your question. Religion tends to be a recurring theme in my fiction, especially over the last few years. In relation to my forthcoming novel, Devil’s Creek, religion is a means of revealing the worst in people. If I had to sum up the book, it’s about how an infectious religion—and the resulting zealotry—can destroy a community.

DEVIL’S CREEK – Excerpt

Silver Shamrock Publishing – Release Date 6/16/20

His mind wandered into the dark, and his imagination had its way with him again. Being alone in this ghost town unsettled him, put him on edge like he’d never felt before. He felt like a trespasser in a graveyard. The folks who’d pulled up stakes, sold all their belongings, and given it to his father’s church for the sake of building a utopia in the forest all died here. Their spirits would roam here for the rest of eternity, walking hand in hand, replaying the final moments of their lives.

“Stop it,” he said, ignoring the chattering of his teeth. “You’re scaring yourself.”

Maybe it was the dark. Maybe it was the empty village of the dead. Maybe it was the fact his friend hadn’t come back.

Oh shit.

Zeke stood and crept to the edge of the doorway. He peered out. Moonlight filtered through the trees, illuminating a path through the remains of the holy compound.

“Waylon?” The forest rustled and breathed around him. He cleared his throat and spoke louder. “Waylon, stop fuckin’ around, man.”

The forest said nothing, and neither did his friend. Another chill swept over him, racking his body with shivers for a full minute until he got a grip on himself.

This is stupid, he thought. You’re freaking yourself out for nothing. That dipshit is out there laughing his ass off at you. He knew all along what this place meant to you, and he brought you here just to fuck with you.

“And it’s working,” he mumbled. The forest absorbed his voice, masking it with the primitive sounds of nature, of crickets and rodents in the brush and brambles, of rustling leaves in a wind far too cold for this time of year. He called out to Waylon again and waited, listening to his heart thud heavily in his chest.

One-one-thousand.

Two-one-thousand.

Three-one-thousand.

Four-one—

A guttural scream tore through the night, shredding any hope of this being a joke. Heart racing, his legs like jelly, Zeke scrambled out of the shack and into the fractured moonlight. He called to Waylon once more, but his friend was silent. The forest swallowed his cries as easily as it swallowed his mind, projecting phantoms through the undergrowth, shadow puppets in the dim glow of the moon. Everything moved around him, driven by the wind, and the constant hiss of rustling leaves filled his head with serpents.

Confused, his heart in the grip of an icy terror he’d not felt since he was a child, Zeke Billings pumped his legs and forced himself forward into the dark. He followed the dim outline of a trail through the center of the village, past a dozen overgrown structures, their slipshod windows filled with the faces of the dead. He saw them from the corner of his eye as he ran, and he told himself they weren’t there, they were tricks of moonlight, broken by the limbs and leaves and reassembled by his feral imagination.

His drive to find Waylon was fueled by a desire to leave this place, to leave its silent memory of servitude and damnation behind forever, cast back into the darkened halls of his nightmares.

So he ran. He ran until a phantom fist clenched at his ribs, tugging with each step he took. He ran until his heart pumped steam and his lungs burst with fire. Tears streamed down his face as he shot forward to the clearing ahead, each step more laborious than the last, and when his feet caught the rotted husk of a fallen log, he welcomed the sweet collapse. The hard, musty earth and soft grass of an open field met his face.

Zeke pushed himself from the ground and rose to his knees. He wiped his eyes, and when his vision finally cleared, his heart sank deep into his gut.

“No, no, no, not here, anywhere but here…”

Calvary Hill rose in the center of the clearing, the old stony pathway up its face overgrown with weeds. The church was long gone, of course, burned to cinders and ash decades before, but its ghost remained in the window of his imagination.

A full moon hung overhead, aligned perfectly over the hill like the unblinking eye of God. Susan’s words filled his head, a memory from earlier when the world still made some semblance of sense to him. It’s a full moon tonight.

Zeke stood on his knees, staring up at the silent monument of his childhood, watching incredulously as the earth breathed in the moonlit glow. He was so enraptured by the sight, he didn’t register movement from the corner of his eye.

There were sucking sounds coming from behind him. Slurping, cracking, crunching sounds. A spike of fear wedged itself into his belly, filling him with a numbing cold leeching his last ounce of resolve. Slowly, Zeke turned his head toward the sounds, his heart shooting back into high gear when he saw the hulking shadow leaning over the dead log.

The shadow moved, allowing the moonlight to wash over the log, and Zeke froze in horror.

Waylon lay sprawled on the grass, one leg twisted back at an impossible angle, his glassy eyes locked on the indifferent sky above, and a grotesque sneer of agony frozen to his face. His shirt was ripped open, his chest nothing more than a cavity of exposed meat and gore. A light tendril of steam rose from the warmth of his entrails.

The shadow reached into the hole of Waylon’s chest, snapped off one of his ribs, and began sucking on the marrow.

“Oh God,” Zeke mumbled, the words barely more than a rasp, and the shadow heard him. It raised its head and turned toward him, revealing a face coated in mud and blood. Worms writhed through the thing’s greasy hair, feeling their way along the curve of its forehead and around the dried “o” of an old gunshot wound. The shadow crunched down on Waylon’s broken rib and cast its gaze upon him. Its eyes glowed, two sapphire orbs floating in the dark.

Zeke Billings met the living face of his nightmare and began to scream.

Jacob Masters flashed a grim smile. “My little lamb,” he rasped.

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 chellane@gmail.com. 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.

Fiction Fragments: Cat Scully

Last week, I spoke with comic book aficionado and co-owner of the award-winning comic book shop, Comicazi, Michael Burke. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes writer, artist, and all-round delightful person, Cat Scully.

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Cat Scully is the writer and illustrator of YA horror comic-novel Jennifer Strange, releasing July 2020 from Haverhill House Publishing. Cat is best known for her world maps, which have been featured in Brooklyn Brujas trilogy by Zoraida Cordova, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, and Give the Dark My Love by Beth Revis. She works in video game development for the Deep End Games, designing user interfaces, maps, and concept art on their next title. She is represented by Miriam Kriss of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency.

She loves Earl Grey tea, video games, Evil Dead, Hellboy, watercolors, horror books, comic books, and anything involving outdoor sports.

For agent inquiries, please contact Miriam Kriss of Irene Goodman Literary: Miriam@IreneGoodman.com

Website: CatherineScully.com
Twitter@CatMScully
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InstagramCatMScully

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Cat. I’m so glad that you could join me. Last week, I spoke with Michael Burke, who is the co-owner of a comics store and says that he developed a love of reading through comics as a kid. He’s an advocate for childhood literacy and encourages kids to read comics to get started. What were some of the first comics you read, and how did they influence you as an artist and writer? What comics are you reading now? Who are your favorite comic artists?

CS: Thank you so much for having me here! I’m really excited to be on your blog! So as a kid I didn’t have a lot of access to comics, mostly because comics weren’t something my parents would you know put money down on. I did earn a lot of babysitting money being much older than my siblings, so what I had I spent on Manga. That was my first introduction to comics. I read Sailor Moon, Magic Knight Rayearth, and anything by Clamp. Honestly, for Jennifer Strange being in the horror camp, one of its biggest influences is actually Sailor Moon. The art style informed how I think about hair, how it flows, and consequently, I draw very epic sweeping hair to this day. I didn’t get into comics until college where I read my first ever comic from my school library – Watchmen by Alan Moore. I hardly ever cry at books, but I cried reading that one. I was determined to write something one day that was part comic, part novel, but instead of it being primarily comics with some prose, I wanted to achieve the opposite by writing a full book that was also told as a comic. Jennifer Strange ended up being a huge undertaking as a result because this book is part journal, where you follow along with what the sisters are reading as they try to solve it, so you get to solve the mystery too, but there are a ton of Easter eggs in those pages that are hints at books 2 and 3. From Watchmen, I dove into Batwoman, who is still my favorite comic book character to this day, and the only character I’ve ever cosplayed. All of the full spreads in Jennifer Strange are because of J. H. Williams drawing this impressive full, double-page spreads. I wanted to do the same with my book. But my favorite comic book? It’s HARROW COUNTY, hands down. You can’t get me to shut up about the writing of Cullen Bunn and the art of Tyler Crook pretty much ever. I’m obsessed with the deep southern voice of Cullen and the dreary, bloody watercolors of Tyler. I’ve watched so many of his process videos on loop. I can’t recommend that series enough.

GMM: Tell me about Jennifer Strange. Judging from your fragment, she deals with paranormal nasties and goes on some interesting and scary adventures. Without too many spoilers, can you give a synopsis of the story and what inspired the book and character?

CS: Here’s the jacket copy for Jennifer Strange, and it gives a pretty good idea of what you’re in for: Jennifer Strange is cursed with the ability to give ghosts and demons a corporeal body with just the touch of her hand. All she wants is to learn how to control her new gift. Instead, her father drops her in the care of her older sister Liz, leaving only his journal as an explanation. Jennifer and Liz haven’t spoken to each other since their mother died, but when the supernatural residents of Savannah, Georgia find Jennifer and her powerful gift, the sisters must learn to trust each other again and uncover the truth about their parents. If they can’t sort out their differences, they’ll not only destroy the veil between the living and the dead but fall into the hands of a rival family who wants to claim the Sparrow power for themselves. This book has got rival families with hatred spanning over decades, no clear cut villain or hero, monster boys, hate-to-love relationships, snarky sister banter, southern gothic flavor, brutal and gory battles, secret family histories, haunted antiques, custom symbology I made exclusively for the book, and terrifying artwork in the vein of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I wanted to write a female-driven Evil Dead, complete with my own Necronomicon, and full of just as much horror-comedy. I really hope people dig it because I’ve always wanted more girls fighting gross monsters books where they are also funny and fun.

GMM: When I’m writing, I see entire scenes in my mind either before or while I’m writing them. As someone who works in visual mediums, which comes first for you, the images or the words? Do you prefer telling stories with images, or simply writing prose? Where do your scariest ideas come from?

CS: I have such a weird process since I’m an artist too, and honestly, I’d consider myself an artist first. If I get stuck in a story, I draw the scene to figure it out. That’s how the ending of Jennifer Strange happened. I was so stuck on how to end it for so long and I ended up drawing the final scene which leads to overall what happened. I’m also a huge plotter. I have to sit down and bullet point out what I want to do before I do it otherwise my brain is all over the place with too many ideas. When I sit down to the computer, I sometimes veer off course though, because when I write it does end up going where the story feels is best. I originally wrote Jennifer Strange as a TV pilot as the thesis for my undergraduate screenwriting project, and so I always saw this book as a series of storyboards. That translated into comics when I decided I wanted to try publishing the thing as a book first. I could never not see this book as a visual, breathing entity. It needed to be art as much as it needed to be words. And not all my books are that way. My other books with my agent are all prose, but there was always something special about Jennifer, something that said it had to be art. And that’s why I’m so glad I went with Haverhill House Publishing! They really let me go for it the way I wanted the book to be, and I’ll forever be grateful to my editor John for taking me on and believing in my book as much as he has. He’s a true gem in the horror community. As far as what I prefer, I really love drawing chapter headings or single pieces of art, rather than doing an entire comic book. I love writing prose, and really diving into a character’s head in the first person. I’m not really much for third person. It’s just not immersive enough for me. I want to be that person when I write them, and 3rd person is too much distance. I do get a lot of my scariest ideas from movies and video games because I am SO visual. I get a lot of ideas from dreams too because my dreams tend to be pretty messed up. I don’t really get scared when I read books, but I do when it’s visual. I get SO SCARED during horror movies! I will totally cover my eyes and hide. It’s so funny that I get so scared because I love horror so much, but I guess I just love to be scared. It’s just so much fun to be scared, and I hope people have fun being scared when they read Jennifer Strange.

Excerpt from Jennifer Strange

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“SPARROW.”

I blinked awake. The room was dark. Too dark. My heart pounded inside my chest as I realized the lamp had stopped spinning. Normally, the stars would sweep around the room across posters of all the places I wanted to travel to when I graduated high school. Only, this wasn’t my bedroom and I wasn’t back home and the lamp sat there like a broken toy in the spare room of my sister’s apartment with its bare, white walls.

I reached out. My fingers cramped as if winter had just breathed across my skin. Impossible. It was almost summer. Maybe the air conditioning unit under the window was broken. I pushed off the sheets, making a leap for my robe hanging on the back of my door. The carpet was so cold it pricked my feet. I slipped on the robe, but it did absolutely nothing to warm me. I waved a hand over the air conditioning unit and it whirred pleasant hot air against my fingertips. Only one thing could make the room this cold, and it was in the apartment with me.

A noise came from the other side of my bedroom door. It clattered and slammed, clattered and slammed as if someone was opening and shutting the kitchen silverware drawer. No. It couldn’t be the Wraith. Bloody Mouth was dead. I glanced at Dad’s journal, which was still resting all crumpled and neglected on top of the hamper where I had thrown it before I fell asleep. I picked it up by the spine and flipped open the pages. There might be something in the pages that could help me.

I tried flicking the bedroom light switch on. Nothing. I reached for my dresser drawer and pulled out the flashlight Liz gave me for emergencies. Dad was the one who started calling her “Safety First Liz” or “Operation Preparation.” For the first time ever, I was grateful she was the most Girl Scout person on Earth. The light came on and illuminated the pages. I flipped to a section where I knew I saw some runes, towards the center of the book. One was listed as a ward against the supernatural, that it could be used to repel ghosts and lesser demons, but I needed a pen to draw it. My bookbag. Shit. It had all my pens and it was destroyed by the Wraith. The only other pens were out there, in the living room.

As I reached for the doorknob, the clanging stopped. Little currents of blue light snaked up the back of my fingers. Something was definitely out there. My power knew it, I knew it, but was it a ghost or a demon that had found me?

The brass handle turned all on its own. The flashlight flickered in my hand as I held the book out in front of me. The bedroom door swung open with a creaky whine. I listened. There was nothing but the sound of my own breathing. The living room stretched out like a massive black hole in front of me. I had to take care of this entity myself, but go out there? Alone? That option was a great big old pile of nope.

I pointed my flashlight into the gloom, but it was like trying to shine a light into a giant storm cloud.

“I know you’re out there,” I whispered. “I know what you want.”

Metal scraped across metal in the direction of the kitchen. Something brushed against my back. My bedroom door slammed shut behind me. I dropped the flashlight and the room went dark. I kneeled and felt around the carpet. Shit shit shit shit SHIT. Something collided into my calves and sent the journal flying from my hands as I face-planted into the floor.

It pressed down on my back. “Get off me!”

My arms flailed around my back to grab it, but my hands met only air. The pressure increased like someone had dropped a stack of weights on top of my back. I choked as my spine sank down against my rib cage and lungs. My legs and arms flailed. I clawed the carpet, struggling for air.

The pressure sank into my skin and I took one last, small gulp. My body flopped once and then went completely still. The weight on my back released. I could breathe, but the pressure was still there, crushing down inside of me instead of on top of my skin. There came a whoosh and my skin pricked all over as if I’d just been hit by a gust of snow. I instinctively raised my arms to block the wind from my face, but they didn’t respond. I tried and tried, but I couldn’t move my arms. My fingers, my toes, my legs—I tried anything, everything. Nothing moved when I told it to.

My right arm lifted. The sensation was distant from my mind, my control, but I felt it happening. My left arm lifted. I was on my knees, but I hadn’t put myself there. I screamed, but it was all inside. My body was a cage, and I was trapped inside.

My hands reached up and around behind me, flattened against the floor. My back arched as my body bent backward and lifted off the floor. Hair dangled in front of my face as I floated up to the ceiling. Tears itched the top of my eyelids as I urinated without warning. Warm liquid trickled down between my legs and little droplets hit the carpet below. Tears ran over my forehead and into my hair. I had to calm down, do something, but what? My body wasn’t mine anymore.

In the warm pit of my stomach, something wiggled around like a snake. It crawled out of the base of my spine, slithered up and out of my throat, and spoke using my mouth.

“Possessing you was too easy,” my voice said.

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 chellane@gmail.com. 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.

Fiction Fragments: Michael Burke

Last week, I spoke with Gabriela Vargas about feminism, poetry, and why you should submit your work for publication. And this week, I am happy to welcome comic book aficionado and speculative fiction writer, Michael Burke.

authorphoto

Michael Burke was born and raised in Massachusetts. His love of books was sparked by finding his father’s stash of pulp hero novels at a young age. The lurid, frenetic art of Frank Frazetta captivated his imagination and he needed to know what was happening to the characters behind those covers.

A Spider-Man comic book purchased for him by his father was his steady companion as he taught himself to read. This effort was not only rewarded by finally discovering what happened to those pulp heroes but also with a lifelong love of the comic book medium.

He co-founded the comic book store, Comicazi in 2000. It has won several Best Of Boston awards and in 2017, won the prestigious Eisner Spirit Of Retail award. Michael is also a licensed pharmacy technician. He has had all manner of jobs in his life ranging from painter to photographer to bouncer to roadie to office work to construction. He still does not know what he wants to be when he grows up but he’s enjoying the ride. Through it all, he has written and told stories. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, the best story he’s ever been a part of.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Michael. Comic books have a reputation of being one of the first forms of fiction children become connected with as readers. Comics have obviously had a positive impact on your life, how have they influenced your writing? What titles would you recommend to kids who are reluctant to pick up a book?

MB: Hi Michelle. Thank you for having me. Comic books have definitely impacted my life in a positive way. My dad saw my interest at a very young age. I had found a shoebox full of his paperbacks. Conan, Tarzan, Executioner, Doc Savage. In the late 60s, lots of those pulp-era characters had been reprinted by publishers. The covers captivated me. He fostered that interest and got me a Spider-Man comic book. He and my mom helped teach me to read when they could but I was ravenous and forged ahead on my own.

That early exposure to comics helped my reading comprehension at an early age and propelled my interest in seeking out all manner of reading material. My formative years were spent with my head buried in books and comics. I’ve loved the comic medium my whole life. I started writing my own stories in third grade; they were very much influenced by the comic characters I was reading. When I was ten-years-old I even created my own superhero complete with origin and costume design and mailed it off to Marvel Comics. I never made a copy of that, darn it! On some level, I feel that I’ve always written with that certain measure of bombast inherent in comics. Well, super-hero comics. As I got older and my tastes expanded, I saw that comics could tell even more stories.

One of the reasons comics are great is that they’re unique in that they have always both influenced and reflected popular culture. I daresay that I would not have read half as many of the books that I have if it weren’t for comics. And, of course, my passion for comics lead me to co-founding a comic book store. We focus our efforts on building and maintaining community and welcoming all with open arms. Some of my favorite recollections of time in the shop are of speaking with new fans of the medium and of talking with kids.

There are scores of comic titles to recommend to kids today. Far more choices than there were for me as a kid. Our shop has a large all-ages section we keep well-stocked. Lots of families come in and kids from pre-school to teenage come in. I’d recommend the Amulet series by Kazu Kabuishi; any of the books by Raina Telgemeier (Guts; Smile; Sisters; Drama; Ghosts); Nimona by Noelle Stevenson; Bone by Jeff Smith. There are plenty of Star Wars Adventures digests for younger readers because, let’s face it, most kids like Star Wars at some point. There’s always an audience for the standby titles like Disney characters and Archie and Classics Illustrated. There’s really no shortage of comic titles that a kid can get started reading.

GMM: Tell me about your fragment. Who is Ahanu, and where will his journey lead him? Can you share a synopsis of the story without giving away too many spoilers? What inspired this story?

MB: My excerpt is from a novella that I’m writing. It’s called A Parliament of Owls. It’s a sword-and-sorcery tale with horror elements and influenced by Native American folklore. I struck upon the idea last year and wrote it as a short story for my writing group. I got tons of constructive feedback and with that, plus the notes I took, I realized that this was a longer story. I’ve been sitting on it for a bit, letting it simmer in the back of my head, as I worked on other things. But it’s ready to come out now.

The inspiration for the story is very much from my love of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. My dad’s old paperbacks were definitely the fuel for this. Sword-and-sorcery is a subset of fantasy; it has elements of the supernatural present and the tales are often fast-paced, placing the protagonist in a personal struggle. They’re often set in a semi-mythic realm, although there can sometimes be some historical aspects present. The stories do not deal with earth-shattering problems and epic dangers like Lord of the Rings and other high fantasy sagas.

Ahanu Foxcloud is a young man, barely twenty, and an orphan. His mother was a powerful witch with a mysterious past. This fact put her at odds with the elders of her tribe. Ahanu wants to know more about his mother but feels stymied by the village council. He also feels like an outcast among his own people. There may be a reason for that and some of that may be his own insecurities. There’s a young girl in the village, Halyn, that he sees as a sister. She keeps him on an even keel. Ahanu often butts heads with authority and is frustrated by the traditions his people follow when he imagines a larger world beyond his own.

The world makes itself known as even larger than he could have imagined when Halyn and other children go missing. Ahanu scoffs at the explanation given to him for this and sets out on his own to discover what happened. That confrontation will expand his horizons and teach him a thing or two about growing up.

I plan on writing several short stories about Ahanu and his adventures. I’m starting to flesh out the world I want to have him populate and having fun doing so. Looking into more Native American mythology to help influence further adventures has been very interesting and I look forward to adding more of these components. As I move forward with Ahanu, I plan on teasing out facts of his mother’s past and how that ties in with the character that I want him to become.

GMM: You write speculative fiction, but what genre is your favorite to read? Write? Why do you feel drawn to that genre? Is there a genre you enjoy reading but haven’t written in, and why?

MB: Oh gosh, that’s tough. I’ve followed a general pattern through my life. It started with my dad’s Conan and Tarzan books. Those lead me to other books by those authors, of course, but after that, I read other fantasy and adventure books. From there, I moved into science fiction, then horror. Back to fantasy in the nineties when there was no end to those multi-book high fantasy series. Then it was urban fantasy and science fiction. Then mystery and horror. Those were the big beats and I tried other things that struck my fancy at the time. I’d have to say science fiction is probably my favorite to read. It’s a sprawling genre that hits many of my buttons. What I like about science fiction is that element of social commentary. When I was younger and reading works by Ursula K. LeGuin and watching Star Trek reruns and didn’t know the term “social commentary”. I liked thinking about the lesson it put forth.

My favorite genre to write is the first one I was exposed to. I’m having fun with Ahanu’s sword-and-sorcery tale. It just came a lot easier to me than other pieces I’ve written. Maybe because it’s been with me for so long. I love horror and science fiction, too, but I think I struggle a bit more with those genres.

I’ve read a lot of detective/mystery stuff. Parker’s Spenser; the Burke series from Andrew Vacchs; the classic authors of the genre: Chandler, Hammett. Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Poirot. I’m really digging Walter Mosley’s Leonid McGill character right now. I like a lot of it but I’ve never attempted to write a mystery. As I travel along my writing path, I’m beginning to find the value in outlining my stories. Typically, I imagine a scene/idea and just write. A friend of mine calls it “discovery writing”. I know there are writers who do it that way and there are writers who outline and there’s probably a number who fall somewhere in between. There’s no right or wrong way to write your tale. But I don’t think I’ve tried my hand at a mystery because I feel that it would require more of an outline style than my discovery method. Perhaps as I settle into a writing method that works best for me, I’ll give a mystery tale a shot one day.

Excerpt from PARLIAMENT OF OWLS

A gibbous moon filled the sky, its eerie half-light falling between the canopy of branches above Ahanu’s campsite. The air had only cast off some of the day’s humidity; the night was close and thick. Low sounds echoed throughout the forest as nocturnal creatures stalked. The campfire sputtered low. Ahanu sat with his back to a big stump and gazed into the dying flames, worry gnawing at his gut. The past day filled his mind. Anger and fear continued their hold on him as images of Moki and the elders sneered at him. His mother had always been at odds with Moki and he knew, just knew, that they had it in for him.

Dim remembrances of his long-gone mother replaced the angry visages of the tribal leaders. Feelings, more truly. A sense of comfort. He was so young when she was taken, it was all he could do to keep her face in his memory.

That melancholy flowed into the reason he was out here in the woods. He had to find Halyn. She had been gone too long. And she was little older than he was when he lost his mother. She was as a sister.

Grim thoughts stayed with him as his head lolled. His eyes drifted shut and the fire sparked its last.

An indeterminate time passed. The moon kept its counsel. All was tranquil.

A feminine trill whispered through the darkness. The night fell quiet. Ahanu breathed deeper but did not stir.

Again, that soft sound. Kijiru awoke and snorted, head and tail high.

“Easy, girl,” Ahanu opened his eyes. “What is it?” he clambered to his feet, grabbing his axe from the ground as he rose. He walked to the mare, all the while his amber eyes darted. He whispered reassuringly to the horse but she was uneasy.

The fire had died but the high moon cast more than enough light, albeit the effect through the trees made it appear some manner of spectral plane. The heavy, humid night air leant a certain lethargy to Ahanu’s movements. His head was still fogged with sleep. He stood beside Kijiru, slowly brushing his hand through her brown mane.

A long, low rasp sounded. It sounded very much like a sharp blade being dragged across a stone. Ahanu started, tightening his grip on the axe handle. Kijiru shuffled her feet. He moved from the horse, looking about. That sound worried at the edges of his memory but he could not recall the context. He moved about the site in a slow circle, eyes trained into the dark.

A short, vibratory song called next, almost as if a caged bird were nearby. Ahanu saw nothing. The fine hairs on his arm stood straight and he felt a cold tickle at the base of his neck.

“I bid thee greetings, O man” a soft voice came from the dark. It seemed to come from all directions at once.

Ahanu whipped his head about left and right, trying to ascertain the voice’s origin. “Who goes there?”

“Just a wanderer of the wood. I saw your fire and thought to avail myself of a fellow wayfarer’s kindness,” the voice crooned. It seemed to come from his left.

Ahanu’s thoughts felt sluggish. He stood a moment, determining if this were a dream. He shook cobwebs from his mind and glanced at the ashes of the campfire. It was dead.

“My fire, eh? When was that?”

“Do you not offer hospitality to another traveler, then?” The voice was now behind him.

Ahanu whirled, his knuckles white on his axe handle. “Step forward, woman, if woman, you be, and not some damned forest spirit!”

A slight glimmer of motion rippled in the corner of his eye. He turned to his right and took a step in that direction. Kijiru whinnied nervously. Ahanu’s eyes widened as a face materialized from the dark. Ice-white tresses cascaded in a silvery frame about a beautiful face. Eyes darker than arboreal shadows regarded him coldly. Ahanu stopped, awestruck.

He stared, enrapt, following the bodiless face as it moved about the campsite. He dimly noted that it was odd how the face would sometimes change in height as it moved. Almost as if it were a bird alighting on branches.

“No forest spirit am I, but a woman.” A note of anger sounded deep in her voice. “And you would do well to accord me respect.”

Ahanu retreated a step, superstitious fear driving him back. He considered his next words but held his tongue. The face had not moved. It hovered, ghostly, in the moonlight.

“Well? Boy.” The word dripped from cruel lips.

The tableau held for several moments until Kijiru let loose with a loud snort. Ahanu blinked hard and in a fluid motion, hurled his near-forgotten axe at the apparition.

A horrible hiss sounded and the lovely visage winked out like a blown candle flame. Ahanu heard heavy wings and could swear he glimpsed a dark form take flight. He shook his head in an effort to clear his dazzled vision.

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 chellane@gmail.com. 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.

Fiction Fragments: Gabriela Vargas

Last week, I had the pleasure of talking with Bracken MacLeod about secular horror and imposter syndrome. If you missed it, check it out. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes the vibrant young poet, Gariela Vargas, who I met back in October when we shared a table at the Merrimack Valley Halloween Book Festival, in Haverhill, MA. If you haven’t read of her poetry collection, THE RHYMES OF MY TIMES, you can pick up a copy from Haverhill House Publishing.

GV

Gabriela Vargas is a 16-year-old Dominican-American Junior at Haverhill High School in Haverhill, Massachusetts. She loves community service, dancing, and her family. She gets her writing skills and love for community service from her father, and from her mother and grandmothers, she gets ambition, strength, and hard work.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Gabriela. You had your first collection of poetry published last year. Can you tell me about your book and what that process was like for you? You and a friend collaborated on the project, what did she contribute and how did you decide what to include in the collection?

GV: The book is a concoction of love, pain, angst, racism, life changes, social justice, equality, and lessons learned, as seen through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old high school student in this trying twenty-first century. It’s very personal for me and this book is just things I have experienced my whole life up until the sophomore year of high school.

The process I guess was sort of weird and unusual, I started writing a while ago but then I stopped. Once I got into high school I tried to start again but I just had nothing. Then suddenly I was overflowing with poems, that just came out of me. I liked some of my poems and I showed some of my friends to make sure I wasn’t just liking them because I wrote them. My friends encouraged me to do a coffee house which is a low key show where people do poems, sing, comedy and whatever else anyone wanted to do at the school’s coffee house. So I went up and I said my poem and people were clapping and cheering and yelling “preach”. Then after the whole show ended people came up to me and were like “Wow your poems are so powerful!” and one even said it made her cry. So in my head, I was like what if I write a book? I kept that to myself until my brother said he wanted to write a book. My brother and I made a bet on who could get their book published first. As you can see I won. Then I sent all my work, what I had so far on my poems to my publisher John Mcllveen and he actually liked it! I was amazed and so scared, however, later I would cry on my vacation because of all of the edits and I wanted to hurt my editor but I did the edits. As we were editing I kept adding more poems and I didn’t really pick and choose them I just put them all in.

I did this book with Krystal Rampersaud a senior at Haverhill high at the time and an amazing artist! We didn’t know each other, I got her name from a teacher. I had her read my poems and she just understood them so well, she made my poems come alive with her drawings, she made this book 100 times better with her artwork. She is the best illustrator I could have asked for!

GMM: Your poetry has strong political and feminist messages. What inspired your work, and what do you hope your readers learn or think about when reading your words?

GV: My work has strong political and feminist messages because that’s how I was raised. I guess with discussions around the dinner table, we were always doing something in the community to help in some way. Now my feminist messages, that’s because I have been around A LOT of strong women in my life and just experiencing situations in life that just pissed me off quite frankly.

My work was inspired by situations I have experienced or witnessed in life, like right when they would happen I would pull out my phone or my trusted journal and start writing, so watch out I might write about you!

I hope my readers learn from this book what it’s like to be a fifteen, now a sixteen-year-old girl and I just want them to think and feel my poems in their own perspective and just relate to them because that’s all I can ask from them.

GMM: Having a collection of poetry at such a young age is quite an achievement. You should be proud of your accomplishment. What advice would you give other young writers and artists like yourself who might not believe their work is worth notice, or might be too afraid to submit their work for publication?

GV: Thank you. My message to young writers is JUST SEND IT, it can only get better from there. Even if you get rejected that just tells you, you have to work on it or find someone else. It brings you one step closer to publishing it and trust me you’re going to cry because of the edits. It’s scary because well at least for me I felt very vulnerable, I was putting my whole life experiences out there. Sometimes as writers, we try to find perfection and that can often lead to being too hard on ourselves which makes us think our work is not worth notice but everyone’s work is worth notice, everyone’s voice should be heard. So Just Send It!

Future v Young People
Fear of the future is what our country sings
Holding back change but not the chains
The chains are tighter and tighter as the young  ones sing
as the young ones bloom
yet society is doomed
Because of mixed generation thoughts
one wanting progress one not
The Young ones breaking these chains
the old ones tightening them
Everyone’s fear for the future is just the fear for the young that they can’t carry on the legacy but every generation has said that
Every person has said that
We still prove them wrong
So although we fear the future now
Just know that the future is here, the future is now and the legacy is going
it rowing young people are changing and creating and fighting
for
the
future.

I,———-, do solemnly swear to help myself
“I, ———-, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

Most come saying they want to serve but all they end up doing is serving themselves
We have created a culture in politics of scandal, corruption, blackmail.
Politics was made and was first what is the right thing to do
Now it’s what can I do to benefit myself?

The First and Last
You should know that you were the first to challenge me
You were the first to change my mind
You were the  first person I would base my decisions off of
You were  the first to understand
You were the first to make me laugh
You were the first to make me feel care yet didn’t have to give everything up
You were the first person I wanted to tell everything
You were the first man
however, you were the last to give me time
You were the last to say I’m right

Bang and Gone
Bang! Bang!
Another one is gone in our city,
Yet we don’t care or respond
Until someone close to us is gone.
We send our thoughts and prayers,
But that has already been done

Bang! Bang!
Yet another one is gone, and we don’t respond.
We complain about what has happened,
But we don’t stand together strong.
We’re all talk, we don’t walk, march, or run
Until we are the ones
Running away from the gun.

THE SOCIAL CONTRACT OF A HOE
I don’t get it.
These social norms be crazy.
You call me a hoe
Because of what I did with a guy.
But if it was one time that is fine,
But multiple!
Oh, that’s where we cross the line.
Welcome to Hoeville,
Where you get shamed all your life.
But if you’re a guy,
Welcome to your glory days,
Your time to ride or die,
Your time to be praised like a god.
But girls, it’s your time to think about suicide.
Some survive, others don’t…
Welcome to the social contract of a hoe.

Do you have a fragment you’d love to share here at Girl Meets Monster? If so, send it my way at: chellane@gmail.com.

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Fiction Fragments: Bracken MacLeod

Last week, I talked with Todd Sullivan about anime, writing YA fantasy, and cultural differences while living abroad. And this week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Bracken MacLeod. I think I first met Bracken at StokerCon in Providence, but I’ve had the pleasure of bumping into him at other events and hope to eventually have time to just sit and talk one of these days. In the meantime, enjoy his fragment and interview.

2020-02-12 14.43.17aBracken MacLeod is the Bram Stoker and Shirley Jackson Award nominated author of the novels, Mountain Home, Come to Dust, Stranded, and Closing Costs, coming in 2021 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He’s also published two collections of short fiction, 13 Views of the Suicide Woods and White Knight and Other Pawns. Before devoting himself to full time writing, he worked as a civil and criminal litigator, a university philosophy instructor, and a martial arts teacher. He lives outside of Boston with his wife and son, where he is at work on his next novel.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Bracken. I’m so glad you could join me today. Thank you for taking time to stop by and talk about your writing. I enjoyed your fragment. There’s a lot going on in Harlow’s world, internally and externally. And, a boring train ride through New York City becomes an opportunity for you to highlight several aspects of the human condition, including: feelings of loneliness and isolation even though we are usually surrounded by people, the way our communication has changed over time, and the very serious subject of suicide. Can you tell me a little bit about what inspired this story? Or at the very least, this scene?

BM: Thank you. I am so glad you liked it. This is a selection from the beginning of a new novel I’m working on we’ll call Moral Panic (not my real title, but I’m going to be a little protective here of a turn of phrase I think is pretty boss). I wanted to introduce the character of Harlow in a way that depicts someone trying to get back on their feet emotionally after a significant trauma. But reminders of that ordeal intrude in her life periodically, threatening to drag her back down. In the case of this piece, she’s feeling surprise at her own disappointment in not winning an award, and is heading home, when the world around her stops and points out in stark detail exactly how painful things can get. The details of the piece are drawn from my own experience in several different ways, but specifically, and most obviously, being on a train delayed by a person who’d jumped. It’s one thing to hear the driver tell you something’s happened, and quite another to ride by slowly, watching workers spreading sawdust on the tracks to soak up blood. Despite not being a first responder, I’ve seen considerably more than my share of public tragedy. A lot of Harlow’s interiority here is my own.

GMM: Many writers struggle with the concept of imposter syndrome even after they’ve had their work published and had some success with their writing. As a writer who has been nominated for some prestigious awards within your genre, does that kind of recognition make it easier or more difficult to approach your craft? Personally, I suffer from a fear of success, because success often means there are greater expectations for your next effort, and that also means more work on your part. Has success in your writing been helpful or a hindrance?

BM: Being nominated for awards is nice, and with few exceptions, I wouldn’t turn one down that was given to me, but there is an odd feeling of competition with yourself that creeps into the aftermath of being recognized like that. It’s less about not winning (PRO-TIP: you don’t LOSE awards, because how can you lose something you’ve never had?), than it is about what I think of the quality of my work. Why did this book get nominated and not that one? What was it about the story that resounded with people so much, and can I do it again? Imposter syndrome never goes away, but it does lessen. Still, while I was writing Closing Costs (coming in early 2021 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), I had considerable anxiety about the book and whether it lived up to what people might expect from a “Bracken MacLeod Novel” (whatever THAT is—how arrogant to think there even is such a thing). You have to sublimate those feelings and just go on. I know how to do what I do, and ideally, I’ve learned lessons about what lands right and what doesn’t from prior work. A little bit of anxiousness is good, though; it keeps you working hard.

In all honesty, I think I’d worry a little about someone who says they have no imposter syndrome. It sounds to me like admitting to Dunning-Krueger.

GMM: The overall feeling of your fragment is one of either despair or a sense of not feeling connected to the world around you. Disorientation. Genre wise, this feels like suspense or horror, but your use of language and detailed observation of what’s happening around Harlow gives your writing a literary feel as well. Where do you fall on the spectrum of the literary vs. genre fiction debate? How do you classify your own writing? Has your work ever been criticized for being too literary or too genre driven?

BM: I feel like my work firmly falls in the categories of horror and, more often, thriller, but I strive for literary style. My temptation is to say “literary quality” here, but I think there’s tremendous quality in stripped down, no frills prose as well as “literary.” I don’t like this rivalry we have with each other over genre v. Literary Fiction. Lit Fic is a genre with its own reader expectations and tropes, and there’s no reason why good genre fiction can’t also be literary. Read Paul Tremblay and Priya Sharma and John Langan and tell me those aren’t amazing literary writers working in genre. Colson Whitehead and Victor LaValle are two other examples of wonderful writers who I think of as literary first, but who clearly enjoy writing genre and are great at it. Anyway, I’d like to think of myself as a “slipstream” thriller writer falling somewhere in between traditional thriller/horror writing and Lit Fic.

I think I’ve had more pushback with crossing horror and thriller lines than literary. People have told me while they like this story of mine, it isn’t horror, as if there’s a bright line distinction with no overlap. But then, I tend to prefer what I call “secular horror” over supernatural most of the time. If given the choice between something like IT and McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, I’ll more often than not pick the more human monsters.

GMM: Secular horror. I like the sound of that. I think I know what you mean, but could you explain it a bit for a layperson?

BM: “Secular Horror” is a term I coined for my work. It’s kind of like the opposite of supernatural horror, PLUS. The plus is a matter of representation. While I try to do my best writing characters of all backgrounds and beliefs, my protagonists are always atheists and hard skeptics. Part of it is to make a point, perhaps, but a larger part is to give readers in that audience someone to identify with. So, when I say I write secular horror, it usually means that I’m writing non-supernatural work (though I have done supernatural in both novels and short stories) with a point of view coming from a position of skepticism and incredulity. Jack Ketchum, I’d say, wrote that also. Scooby Doo falls into the category as well, ALL the ghosts and spirits in those shows were normal people performing fraudulent supernaturalism! Scooby Doo is secular horror for children.

Fragment, by Bracken MacLeod

The operator’s crackling voice came on the public address speaker and said, “I’m sorry. We’re experiencing a delay.” The train operator sounded tired. It was late, but there seemed to be more weighing on her than the hour. “There’s a… a medical… a passenger just jumped in front of a train at the stop ahead of us. We’re been held here until cleared to resume. I’m very sorry.” The train car was silent. Those kinds of announcements used to be made by euphemism—there was a “police investigation” or “a passenger seeking medical attention.” These days, if you were on the affected train, they told you how it was. Matter of fact. In a sad kind of way, the passengers took it better. While any delay was frustrating, a kind of hushed patience came with the news of someone’s death on the tracks. People from elsewhere could believe all they wanted that New Yorkers were cold and aloof, but people in the city understood that tragedy outweighed inconvenience. They were the same kind of human beings as everyone else, whatever politicians had to say about “coastal elites.”

Harlow closed her eyes and visions of blood and chaos swirled in her alcohol-loosened thoughts. She realized she was better off with her eyes wide open. Perhaps all night. A couple at the other end of her car spoke to each other in hushed tones, leaning into one another. Other riders kept to themselves, typing on their phones or with wireless earbuds in their ears while they played Candy Crush. One woman quietly wiped tears from her eyes and stared straight ahead at her own reflection in the dark glass of the subway car window.

Harlow checked her phone. There were a couple of texts from people inviting her up to room parties, not realizing she’d left the con, and one from her mother asking whether she’d won. She closed her texts and opened Kindle instead. She tried to pick up her book where she’d left off, but the first paragraph seemed impervious to interpretation; she read it again and again, trying to discern meaning from the collection of words she knew had to make sense together but couldn’t force into clarity. She closed the app and instead opened Snapchat, using a filter to look at herself with cat ears and whiskers, then in grainy sepia, then as a biker complete with black five o’clock shadow and a skull-cap bandana. It was a stupid waste of time, and while she would’ve normally found it oddly narcissistic to stare at herself in digital costumes for a half an hour, it kept her from focusing on what had happened on the tracks ahead.

Sitting in a stationary subway car in a tunnel felt different than a delay at the station. Looking through the windows at people on the platform, moving from the gates to the exits, arriving and seeing a train waiting, was of a separate character than sitting in a car with black windows with only one’s own reflection looking back. A car one couldn’t easily exit and return to the world as it was. This felt like being lost. The tunnels weren’t made for lingering; they were intended to be sped through, viewed at a blur. This was a place of motion, not hesitation. And sitting still felt like being lost in time. Like being dead.

Like the person ahead of them on the tracks.

After nearly forty minutes, the train operator came back on the P.A. and told them they were clear to move; however, theirs would be an express train through the next stop. Buses would be waiting at the following station to shuttle riders back. A couple of people on the car softly groaned, but no one made more out of it than that exhaled utterance.

The car began to move again, and the riders slipped from their pocket of stilled time into the continuity of life in the city.

As they emerged from the tunnel and passed through the station, Harlow tried to keep her eyes fixed on her smart phone, but she’d been through all the filters in her app, checked her e-mail and texts. There was nothing unseen to draw her eyes from the bright hardhats of the workmen visible through the window across from her, and she looked up. Two of the them spread what looked like sawdust onto a darkened patch of track on the opposite side of the center divider, separating inbound and outbound trains, while a third looked on. He stood stoically, having already done his job, or waiting to take his turn, so no one would ever know death had come to that small space in their underground world. But he knew it had. His co-workers knew. And so did Harlow. He looked up, eyes meeting hers and in that moment she thought of Gentileschi’s Judith slaying Holofernes—figures standing in the dark, captured in a golden ratio of elemental violence too far complete to be stilled, yet frozen. She hovered in that instant unable to look away, confronted by the workman’s face, his impassivity, but seeing deeper in his eyes a sense that blood was not unfamiliar, and despondence infected him. Had changed him. She understood, and felt pass between them a kind of grieving kinship. Harlow blinked and when she opened her eyes the man had looked away and she couldn’t be certain he’d ever looked at her. The train continued to move and another wave of bleary drunkenness washed over her, bringing Harlow fully back into her body.

A teary woman across from her stifled a sob. Harlow turned her head and tried to catch her gaze, and convey solace to her. She tried to be the presence in between violence and death for this other human being who was about to be overtaken. The way she did. The woman gave her a weak half-smile and turned her eyes toward her hands in her lap.

Harlow leaned back in her seat and for the next two stops, stared at the advertisement next to the door. A size zero woman with a heavy-lidded expression stood stiffly in a yellow bikini next to the legend,

ARE YOU
BEACH BODY
READY?

The scars over Harlow’s ribs itched.

The operator announced her stop and she snapped out of her trance. Harlow didn’t recollect walking home, but waking up the next morning in her bed, had found her way.

Do you have a fragment you’d love to share here at Girl Meets Monster? If so, send it my way at: chellane@gmail.com.

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Fiction Fragments: Todd Sullivan

Last week, I had the pleasure of chatting with Jessica McHugh about YA fiction and how horror and humor come together in her stories. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Todd Sullivan.

image0 (2)Todd Sullivan teaches English as a Second Language, and English Literature & Writing in Asia. He has had numerous short stories, novelettes, and novellas published across several countries, including Thailand, the U.K., Australia, the U.S., and Canada. He is a practitioner of the sword-fighting martial arts, kumdo/kendo, and has trained in fencing (foil), Muay Thai, Capoeira, Wing Chun, and JKD. He graduated from Queens College with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, and received a Bachelor of Arts in English from Georgia State University. He attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the National Book Foundation Summer Writing Camps. He currently lives in Taipei, Taiwan, and looks forward to studying Mandarin.

Three Questions

GMM: Hi Todd, welcome to Girl Meets Monster. After reading your fragment, I wondered what inspired the story, as well as what specific genre it fits into. There are young characters, so I thought YA and since there’s magic, I placed it in fantasy. Do you normally write YA fantasy, or do you write within other genres and subgenres?

TS: I wrote this story while teaching at a Language School in Seoul. One of the students was fond of drawing, and he was also a poor student academically. He was under a lot of pressure to do better in his classes, and soon he was going to take entrance exams for a boarding school in China.

This real-life scenario became the genesis of Test Amongst the Shadows, wherein a teenager, who happens to be a mage in the world of humans, has to pass an exam that is important to him. The narrative follows the different methods he employs to cheat since he knows he cannot pass the test on his own.

Test Amongst the Shadows is YA urban fantasy fiction, and eventually I’ll develop the idea into a novella series.

I also write across genres, including horror and light science fiction.

GMM: The interaction between your characters also reminded me of Japanese manga and anime stories. Do you enjoy anime? How has it influenced your writing? What are some of your favorite anime series or characters?

TS: I love anime, and it has had a significant influence on my writing. I remember the first time I saw Akira, which is the first major Japanese anime film many people around my age saw. This was in the 90s before the popularity of the internet when it was hard to find anime on American television.

One of the big differences between anime narratives and western narratives is that there are usually no purely evil characters. Westerners base a lot of their worldview on scripture: Heaven and Hell, good and evil. There is God, and there is Satan. There is a hero, and there is a villain.

Anime characters tend to be more flux in their alignment. Usually, the characters simply have objectives. Sometimes this objective brings great harm to one, or many, and that person will be the bad guy. The character with an objective that happens to include stopping the great harm to the one, or many, will be the good guy.

In Akira, there is no villain. There is a teen boy full of angst who accidentally achieves great power he cannot control. And there is his friend who must stop him, in a way out of friendship, out of knowing that the boy is in torment even as his power wrecks havoc upon the city.

In Dragon Ball Z, one of my favorite animes, Vegeta starts off as a central villain to Earth. He does so because he wants to escape the tyranny of one of DBZs purely evil characters, Frieza, and on Earth he thinks the means to do exists. Vegeta changes throughout the series, going from villain to anti-hero to hero.

Then there is Goku, a character whose goal of protecting the Earth conflicts with his overwhelming desire to improve his fighting abilities. This obsession Goku has indirectly causes great harm and misery to others.

The characters I write are similar to these Japanese figures. With few exceptions, my characters are not purely good, and they are not purely evil. Sometimes one of them will have a goal that brings suffering to others; and sometimes, another of them will have a goal that brings them into direct conflict with the first, and thus the suffering of others can be alleviated.

GMM: How long have you lived in Asia, and what aside from teaching English and Writing made you decide to move there? What cultural barriers have you experienced as a person of color living abroad? How have these experiences shaped your writing?

TS: I’ve lived in Asia ten years. After a three-week winter semester class where I studied Japanese authors in Tokyo during my MFA at Queens College, I knew that I wanted to come back to this part of the world and learn more about the people and the cultures.

Many Asian societies are homogeneous, so the presence of foreigners acts as a bit of a shock to their system. I think that being a foreigner in a homogeneous society is a good case study of how humans might react to the presence of aliens from outer space. There is simply a difficulty in processing the reality of that which is standing in front of you.

Writing-wise, I think this difficulty is best expressed in my fantasy novella series, The Windshine Chronicles. This series centers around a dark-skinned foreigner living in a fantasy version of Korea called South Hanguk. The series’ narrative is multilayered, but one of the themes is how the people of the country interact with foreigners, and how the foreigners struggle to exist in a country that isn’t their native home.

In The Windshine Chornicles, the idea that the human race is “one whole” is constantly put to the test.

From Test Amongst the Shadows, by Todd Sullivan

The hardest working mage who ever lived glanced at the clock on the wall. Twenty minutes. Jin gazed down at his English exam. Only twenty minutes left to pass or fail the biggest test of his life. His scantron sheet was half empty. The clock’s ticking seconds in the silent classroom echoed in his mind, and made focusing on English vocabulary and grammar impossible. He had to do something if he intended to get in the top of his class.

Jin looked around at the other students, their heads low, their shoulders hunched as they picked off ovals in the long marching columns. Adjusting his glasses, he opened his senses in search for the right spell amidst the thin cracks that splinter reality. He released control of his hand and let it draw six stick-figure bandits on horses at the edges of the exam. Leaning close to the page, he whispered, “Thieving shadows, take shape and learn the secrets of my woes.”

The drawings shivered, and the bandits shook themselves awake. They clawed out of the exam, erupting off the page into the third dimension. The cloaked leader saluted, his face hidden in shades of gray. Jin pointed to the answer key tucked under a notebook on the teacher’s desk. The leader nodded, and motioned to the silent troupe behind him. The bandits yanked on their horses’ reins and leapt off the side of the table. Racing across the tiled floor, the horses skirted around chair legs and hopped over sneakers. Jin glanced at the exam answer key again. The sides of his mouth spread in a triumphant smile, but a purple boot suddenly crushed the horsemen right before they cleared the classroom’s tables. Jin inhaled in surprised. He followed the boot up to the leg, the skirt, the shirt, to finally meet the steady gaze of Sori, the top student in the school.

And his ex-girlfriend.

The two maintained eye contact for several moments, a silent challenge passing between them. Sori had broken up with him right before exams, informing him that she wasted too much time with him and wasn’t focusing enough on the upcoming finals. And now, here she sat, the only other mage in this room of humans, stopping him from reaching his goal.

So that’s how it was going to be.

Jin slowly took off his glasses in preparation for his next spell. Sori had managed to see his bandits. He didn’t know how, but he would need to take care of her sight before he tried for the test answers again.

Jin narrowed his eyes at the light reflected in the lenses of his glasses. He smiled. He held the glasses to his lips and misted the lenses by blowing on one, then the other. While he did this, he focused on the magic vibrating between the fissures of reality until he heard the words to the next spell.

“Site sighted, two to see, sea bog fog billowing…”

“John?”

Jin snapped his mouth shut at the teacher speaking his English name. He tried to still his heart now thumping fast in his chest, and met the teacher’s puzzled blue eyes.

“Are you speaking to someone?”

Now the other students’ heads lifted, and before he knew it, dozens of humans were all staring in his direction. With their attention focused on him, he couldn’t produce magic. No mage could. Human disbelief in magic narrowed the fissures running throughout reality, making the words necessary to bring spells to life impossible to hear. Jin had been told that no mage had been able to perform magic in front of a human in hundreds of years.

He glanced at Sori, who was smiling at him as he sweated under the spotlight of mankind. With a weak shrug, Jin said, “I was just,” and he paused as he scrambled for a good excuse, “reading a problem out loud to myself.” He tapped the exam. “Sometimes that helps.”

The English teacher nodded. “Everyone must remain silent so that the other students can concentrate. Sorry, John.”

“Won’t happen again,” Jin assured him. He caught Sori’s smug wink, and tore his eyes away from his ex-girlfriend’s pretty face.

These exams determined who would be allowed to apply for the International School in Hong Kong. Only the top two students would be recommended. Jin felt confident about math and science, but he worried over his English scores. One of his classmates had lived in San Francisco for years. Jin only managed to edge him out sometimes, while Sori beat them both in every subject every, single, time.

She was a studying machine.

Jin looked at the clock again. Ten minutes to finish the exam. He had to cast another spell, but when he raised his eyes, he noticed the teacher looking around the room. Whereas before he hadn’t been paying much attention, now the teacher was watching them closely, all because of Sori. Jin really wished he had been able to cast his spell and blind her. Not only because he would have been able to get the answers without her trying to counter him, but because it would have stopped her from taking the test, maybe even causing her to fail.

That would have been sweet.

Jin’s eyes narrowed as a new idea struck him. He looked at the dusty blackboard behind the teacher and slowly raised his hand.

“Yes, John?” The teacher said. “Is something wrong?”

“Can I ask you a question?” Jin assumed his most perplexed look, and mixed in a little pained exasperation to make himself seem even more pathetic.

The teacher sighed and waved him forward. Jin stood. Only briefly, a couple of students glanced up at the newest disturbance, but their focus quickly returned to their exams. All, that is, except Sori, who watched Jin with a penetrating gaze. He wanted to give her the finger, but since the teacher was staring at him, he refrained as he passed her…

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 chellane@gmail.com. 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.

Fiction Fragments: Jessica McHugh

Last week, Girl Meets Monster spoke with Nick Cato about the relationship between horror and humor. And this week, I am pleased to welcome the delightful Jessica McHugh.

authorpicJessica McHugh is a novelist and internationally produced playwright running amok in the fields of horror, sci-fi, young adult, and wherever else her peculiar mind leads. She’s had twenty-three books published in eleven years, including her bizarro romp, “The Green Kangaroos,” her Post Mortem Press bestseller, “Rabbits in the Garden,” and her YA series, “The Darla Decker Diaries.” More information on her published and forthcoming fiction can be found at JessicaMcHughBooks.com.

Three Questions

GMM: Hi, Jessica. Welcome to Girl Meets Monster. I’m dying to know what happens next for Duncan Dwyer; I wanted to keep reading when your fragment ended. Can you give a brief synopsis of this story? What inspired the story and where on Earth is Dickety Downs? Is it based on a real place?

JM: This story was originally inspired by a publisher’s plan to release a series of RL Stine Fear Street-eque books. It didn’t happen, but I ended up with several chapters of this WIP story and some characters that I’d grown to love. Nuts and bolts synopsis: it’s about loss coming to terms with how loss changes us, but it’s also about reinvention and not always with a positive spin. Dickety Downs, and the town of Alton where it’s nestled, is pretty much a dead space to the rest of the world. And to a lesser extent, so is Hampstead, the town where I grew up in the 80s and 90s. I was shocked a few years back when I realized my once idyllic suburban neighborhood enveloped by lush and tangled woodland where I pretended to be an explorer and soldier and unicorn and spent countless hours making joyful noise with my friends had become a silent stretch of empty houses hastily vacated. All around my childhood home where my father and brother still live are trash-filled shells of suburban dreams. A few years ago, my high school even closed down, and the police department moved into its still-warm corpse.

Hampstead definitely inspired the town of Alton where Duncan Dwyer and her father move at the novel’s start, but as much as I hope my old hometown is able to reinvent itself, I hope it doesn’t go down the same dark path as the one laid out in this story.

GMM: When did you start writing YA fiction? As an adult, is it easy to get into the headspace of children and teens, or do you struggle to find their voices? How much of yourself is in your young female characters? Do you prefer writing YA fiction or fiction for a more adult audience?

JM: I’ve been writing YA for a while, though I didn’t always write with a YA audience in mind. Because of the protagonists’ ages, Rabbits in the Garden and Danny Marble & the Application for Non-Scary Things were marketed to a younger audience that…ahem…might not have appreciated the gore level. However, even though my 5-book series, the Darla Decker Diaries, was written for middle grade and up, I still pushed the boundaries a bit. (And by now, you’ve figured out that I *really* like alliteration, right?) I don’t feel like I struggle to channel a younger voice, but I’ve also spent a lot of time around kids and teens teaching creative writing, and living and working in downtown Frederick provides a lot of inspirado and research opportunities.

I feel like there’s a sliver of me in every character I write but certainly more than others, at least in the beginning. Darla Decker was directly inspired by my childhood diaries, so she started out very much like me. But she grew as a person over five books and made lots of decisions I never would. Duncan Dwyer, on the other hand, feels already grown. She’s gone through a lot more than Darla—death, abandonment, depression and anxiety—and just when she’s starting to heal, she’s thrown into this dilapidated town teetering on the success of an experimental private school. I started writing this story a year or so after my cat died when I was having severe depression and panic attacks so bad I couldn’t hold a pen. I was on medication for the first time in my life, and in the first few chapters Duncan discusses her meds and visits her new therapist.

As for what I prefer…I just don’t know. But based on my published works, this work-in-progress, and the two middle-grade horror books I’m writing currently, it sure seems like I unconsciously prefer YA.

GMM: Your story has a light-hearted humorous feel to it, but I suspect Duncan is about to experience something strange or even traumatic. Is there usually an element of horror in your work even though you write in several genres? Last week, Nick Cato talked about how humor and horror work together in his fiction. How would you describe the relationship between humor and horror in your own work and in other fiction you’ve enjoyed reading?

JM: Oh, absolutely, there are always horrific elements in my work. Maybe it’s because real life seems to overflow with all varieties and intensities of horror, it just comes out naturally. I truly can’t help it, nor would I want to.

While I’m not sure I’m as adept as Nick Cato at incorporating humor into horror, there’s no doubt I love using it. It’s a great way to manage the intensity of the reader’s fear. While humor can diffuse a tense situation, it can also prolong the reader’s comfort so terror can creep up slow—or methodically unravel in the background while the characters are having a nice laugh. Again, I believe real life follows similar patterns, so I’m just keeping it real creating this delicious genre goulash.

Who Died in the House Next Door, by Jessica McHugh

Chapter One

The squirrel on the porch was dead before Duncan dropped her suitcase on its head. That’s what her dad said anyway. While he scrubbed blood out of her luggage, he repeated frantic assurances like, “This isn’t a bad sign, honeybee,” and “It could happen to anyone.”

Of course it could happen to anyone, but it happened to her, Duncan Dwyer, less than two minutes after arriving at her new home. So maybe it wasn’t a bad sign, but it sure as hell wasn’t a good sign.

Her dad blamed himself, and she wanted to blame him too. It was because of him that she had to uproot her life in Joliet and move to a neighborhood too empty and boring to be called something as crazy as “Dickety Downs.”

She sighed. Duncan Dwyer of Dickety Downs. That should go over well at the new school.

Her father’s bushy black eyebrows formed a somber “w” between his eyes, and Duncan launched into assurances of her own. That’s what they did—what they had to do to protect each other. So, yes, even though he was the reason they left Joliet, he’d done it for the greater good, in pursuit of a better life for them both. Besides, no sane person could’ve refused the generous offer from the principal of the newly constructed Alton Academy. A free house and double her father’s previous teaching salary was more than they could’ve asked for. Add in the privilege of attending the trial run of Alton Academy’s so-called Experimental Learning Facility, and Duncan’s dad was packing up their possessions before Duncan could even think of objecting.

Not that she would have. After more than a year of homeschooling with Dad, she wasn’t eager about returning to a typical school setting, but he obviously was. He missed the madness of high school halls and unpredictability of being a teacher who actually cared about underachievers and outcasts. Besides, if her dad was telling the truth about Alton Academy, it wasn’t exactly a “typical” school.

“We needed our own doormat anyway,” Duncan said as her dad dropped the faded straw thing into the trash bag with the squirrel. The word “Welcome” permeated the white haze like a mocking grin, but she refused to let it venture beyond the rim of her vision. “What do you think? Something nice and flowery, or maybe something a little more realistic? ‘Buzz off’ comes to mind…”

His eyebrows relaxed, and his mouth stretched to a grin. “No shock there, honeybee.” He dropped the bag and wrapped his arms around her, but for all the ways his embrace filled the fractured places, it was as temporary as chewing gum. It lost its flavor quickly, and she swallowed it dry as he lugged the dead squirrel and tainted rug down their new driveway to their new curb in their new, severely weathered, neighborhood.

Anxiety curled her veins like frayed ribbon as she scanned Dickety Downs. They’d entered the town of Alton in the teasing pink of evening, before the trees scraped off their makeup and hunkered down in their truth, gnarled and hideous in the dull light of faulty streetlamps. Most had shed their summer skin and stood as cracked and bare as the numerous driveways leading to dark, empty houses.  Not only were the Dwyers the only ones rustling in the falling evening, they appeared to be the only ones who actually lived in Dickety Downs.

Duncan backed inside and turned on the foyer light, followed by the living room, kitchen, and the long slate throat to the basement. Her dad closed the front door, and she scuttled back to the hall to see his pointer finger fall on the lock like Midas before the rude awakening. From the lock, his fingers leaped to the delicate curvy trim bisecting the foyer walls. He didn’t look up, but he knew she was watching, otherwise he wouldn’t have kicked up his index finger and made a dancer of his hand. He dashed and tapped his fingertips over the trim with his usual flair, but he soon ran out of dance floor. There were no picture frames for leaps or rond de jambe, no chachkis for him to bounce between. There were only the walls and Duncan, and she didn’t feel like being danced on tonight.

Cumbersome boxes surrounded her, wearing labels like “basement,” “kitchen,” and the name “Gail,” which had been angrily x-ed out. None were labeled with Duncan’s name, much to her disappointment.

“When’s the rest of our stuff getting here?” she asked.

Dad’s dancer didn’t land; it simply ceased to be as he strolled past Duncan to wash his hands.

“Some are going to be late, but the furniture should be here soon. The mattress and couches at least.”

“How late?”

He dried his hands and tossed the towel on the sink. “It might be a few days, Dunc. I messed up some of the forms and—“Exhaling, he grabbed the towel again and whirled it as he opened the refrigerator and said, “Ta-da!” A raspberry drizzled cheesecake stood alone on the center shelf, with “Welcome Home” written in shining scarlet glaze.

Dad carved a large slice of cake and flopped it onto a paper plate. “Water, Milady?”

“Is there anything else?”

He started to give an answer she knew wouldn’t please her, so she added a quick “Never mind” and “Yes, please.”

They sat cross-legged on the cold blue tile, which clashed like peanut better and kale with the orange planks of wood paneling clumped along the kitchen walls.

I know you have a fiction fragment or two hiding in a drawer. You should totally send them my way at chellane@gmail.com. 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.