Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Tonia Ransom

Wednesday, I talked with the multifaceted Sumiko Saulson about writing and how identity shapes her life as a writer of speculative fiction.

Today, Girl Meets Monster welcomes writer and podcast creator, Tonia Ransom.

Tonia Ransom is the creator and executive producer of NIGHTLIGHT, a horror podcast featuring creepy tales written by Black writers. Tonia has been scaring people since the second grade, when she wrote her first story based on Michael Myers. She’s pretty sure her teacher was concerned, but she thinks she turned out fine(ish). Tonia tells horror stories regularly on Twitter @missdefying, and her debut novella Risen was released early December 2020. She lives in Austin, Texas.

Ten Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Tonia.  What projects are you currently working on? Is horror your primary genre, or do you write in other genres? If you write in other genres, which do you feel most comfortable writing, and why?

TR: Thanks for having me! Right now, I’m working mostly on my podcast, NIGHTLIGHT. We just began Season 4, and I’m excited about the stories we have in the queue for listeners. I’m also working on an audio drama that is a cross between Lovecraft Country and True Blood. It’s got hoodoo, monsters, and unnatural disasters and I’m anxious to see it out in the world. On top of that, I’m working on my second book, 13 Kills, about a vampire girl who must kill 13 times to grow up, and a feature film about the conflict between people who live above ground and those underground called The Dark People.

Horror is absolutely my primary genre, though I have written one piece of literary work based on the death of Tamir Rice. It felt wrong to write horror about that, but I needed to process my feelings about it as the mother of a Black son, so literary it was. But at the end of the day, I feel most comfortable writing horror.

GMM: When did you first know that you were a horror writer? How did you develop an interest in the genre? What initially attracted you to horror stories? Which writers influenced you then? Which writers influence you now?

TR: I wrote my first horror story in the second grade for a school assignment. It was Michael Myers fan fiction! My teacher called my mom, but I was always a good student whose teachers called my parents to praise me, so I thought she just loved the story. I’d scared her and I was hooked on the feeling and have never looked back, though I have doubted myself many, many times. I think my interest in the genre came from having a dad who enjoyed horror, and older brothers who also loved horror movies. I looked up to my brothers, of course, and didn’t want to seem scared when I watched movies with them, so I looked at all the cool things about them. So, my love of horror definitely came from film. It wasn’t until much later that I developed a love for horror writing, mostly because I grew up in an extremely conservative community and my library did not have many horror books at all. I did, however, enjoy The Twilight Zone very much as a child and came to love Richard Matheson’s episodes in particular. He’s still a huge influence on me, as are Shirley Jackson, Octavia Butler, and Tananarive Due.

GMM: The documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019), explores Black horror and the portrayal (and absence) of Black people in horror movies. As a definition of what Black horror means begins to take shape, Tananarive Due says “Black history is Black horror.” What do you think she meant by that? Can you give an example of how this idea shows up in your own work?

TR: I think the fact that so much of Black history in America (and honestly, worldwide, but particularly America) has been so horrific that Black history and Black horror are intrinsically linked. Black writers, like all writers, are shaped by their experiences, and unfortunately, African American writers have had to deal with a lot of racial horror in their lives. You cannot have Black horror without Black history because all stories are made from the seeds of history, whether personal or national. As for me, I tend not to write directly about the horrific history of what it’s meant to be Black in America. Writing more indirectly is more my style, and I often don’t know what it is that I’m really writing about until I reflect on the story after I’m done. But I am my experiences and growing up as a biracial girl in the South shaped me. I don’t know my white mother’s family because they do not believe in “racial mixing”. Being isolated from one side of my family definitely comes out in my work in the forms of abandonment and being alone, rejected, and forgotten, which all are hallmarks of horror stories.

GMM: As a WOC writing horror/dark speculative fiction, do you feel obligated to have a deeper message in your stories? Can writers of color write stories without broader messages about identity, class, and racism? Is it possible to divorce yourself from that ongoing narrative within our culture when you set out to write a story?

TR: I don’t feel obligated to have a deeper message in my stories, though there usually is one because writing is my way to process the more hidden emotions I have. Unfortunately, I think a lot of editors expect Black and other marginalized writers to have a deeper message in their work, and I think that’s unfortunate, particularly because they expect that deeper message to be a bit more overt. Editors seem to prefer stories about the struggle and pain of being part of a marginalized identity, and we are so much more than those struggles. For me, stories are first about entertainment. That’s why I read stories and watch movies—to be entertained, to escape. If there’s a deeper message, great. If that message is there, but you have to work to see it, that’s okay too. As long as I was entertained, I consider it successful. There is certainly a place for work with deeper meanings, but I do think that the entertainment of the story shouldn’t be sacrificed for that meaning; rather they should work together to create a cohesive whole. I certainly think it’s possible to divorce the two superficially, but again, we are our experiences, and there is always a deeper meaning, though it may be quite obscure, and that’s okay.

GMM: What are your top five favorite horror movies, and why? Top five horror novels? Which book or movie scared you the most?

TR: Movies: 12 Hour Shift (directed and written by Brea Grant) is a wild ride. It’s funny, gory, and one of my favorite movies of last year. I also love Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and The Girl With All the Gifts, primarily because of how race changes those stories to have a completely different meaning than what might have originally been intended. Les Diaboliques is also a favorite of mine—I love a good twist! And finally, I love Hush. I was so tense the entire time I was watching the movie and it’s very difficult to get under my skin. Mike Flanagan did an amazing job with that movie.

Books: The Family Plot by Cherie Priest. Haunted house stories are so hard to pull off, but Cherie did it beautifully. Through the Woods by Emily Carroll is such a macabre graphic novel. Between the stories and the creepy illustrations, it’s a delight to read again and again. Tananarive Due’s The Good House is another amazing haunted house novel. And Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle exceeds The Haunting of Hill House in my opinion. Finally, I loved Hoodoo by Ronald L. Smith, it is an excellent middle grade horror.

As for which book/movie scared me the most, I’d have to say Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House. Nothing so far has really scared me, but that show definitely creeped me out a few times.

GMM: How do you feel about white-identifying writers who write stories about non-white characters? What problems have you encountered? What potential issues do you see with white-identifying writers telling BIPOC stories? What advice would you give those writers?

TR: Whew, what a question. I’m actually going to be moderating a panel about Lovecraft Country at Boskone on February 12, and I have thoughts about a white writer taking on a story about the Black experience. To me, it feels like a colonization, particularly because Black writers writing about that very thing have been shut out for so long. I think if a book/story is almost entirely based on the Black experience, a non-Black writer should have a Black co-writer. For me, Lovecraft Country the novel just felt off. You could tell Matt Ruff definitely did his research and wanted to be respectful, but it still felt hollow because the deeper parts of the Black experience during that era just weren’t there. I couldn’t finish the novel because it just felt wrong to me in ways I couldn’t quite describe, even before I knew the author was white. There’s something intangible about marginalized experiences that you can’t get from research or interviewing someone from that background. It’s the type of stuff that comes out as you’re writing it. Marginalized folks sometimes don’t consciously realize precisely how they’re marginalized or how they feel about it until they’re writing that experience.

GMM: All writers have experienced some form of impostor syndrome. What has your experience with impostor syndrome been like? Did you ever have a particularly bad case of it? If so, what caused it and how did you manage it?

TR: OMG, impostor syndrome is a constant battle for me. I constantly feel as though I’m not a good enough writer, or producer, or editor, despite some very prominent people publicly saying they enjoy my work. I think a big part of that comes from my own ideas of what I want to be, and falling short of that ideal. We often have a vision in our head for something and the execution just doesn’t match that, and for me, that leads to imposter syndrome. I work very hard to let go of perfectionism and the resulting imposter syndrome by reading positive comments about my work when I feel as though I’m falling short of my own ideals.

GMM: Tell me about NIGHTLIGHT. How did the podcast get started? Who have you featured on the podcast? What were some obstacles you may have encountered when getting the podcast off the ground? Where can people find the podcast? How can writers submit their work?

TR: I started NIGHTLIGHT back in 2018 after a Fireside Fiction report came out detailing the demographics of published writers. Approximately 2.5% of published stories were by Black writers, and we discussed the report in my all-Black writers’ group. I learned that Black writers’ stories were being rejected for being “too Black” and “not Black enough” by non-Black editors. I’d wanted to start a podcast for years, even before podcasts were a thing. I loved old time radio and wanted to revive the medium, and when podcasts were created, I knew that dream was within my reach. I put it off for years, making excuses about lack of time and money, but once that report came out, I knew what kind of podcast I wanted to create. I wanted to uplift Black writers and give them a space to tell whatever story they wanted, rather than being tied to writing about the Black experience. I’ve had writers such as Linda Addison, Tananarive Due, Lamar Giles, Justina Ireland, Zin E Rocklyn, and Sumiko Saulson on the podcast, and can’t wait to see what the coming years bring.

Justina Ireland graciously donated a story based in the Dread Nation universe for our inaugural episode, and I raised almost $2000 for my first season with no platform whatsoever, so my path has been easier than most. It’s *a lot* of work, much more than I expected, which has been compounded by the fact that I have an old injury that limits my time at a keyboard and mouse, but I feel very certain this is my path because every time I’ve encountered an obstacle, something has happened to remove it. I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to produce NIGHTLIGHT. We’re found on just about every podcast platform out there, but you can visit our website at nightlightpod.com. We’re on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @nightlightpod, and our Patreon is at patreon.com/nightlightpod. We’re open for submissions February, April, June, August, and October every year, and instructions can be found on our website at nightlightpod.com/submissions.

GMM: Without giving away too many spoilers, what is your novella, Risen, about? And, where did the idea for the story come from?

TR: The idea from Risen actually came from a nightmare that I had shortly after my dad’s death about a woman being trapped in her body. My father’s death was long and painful, and he was trapped in his body due to seizures wreaking havoc on his brain, so I think the nightmare was my way of processing that. In short, Risen is about a staunch atheist who’s murdered only to learn that not only is there an afterlife, but magic exists too and now she’s trapped in her body by the conjure man who raised her from the dead. It’s about her struggle for freedom, and her reconciliation of her familial magic with her scientific mind. Not only must she escape the zombi magic that traps her, but she must fight Baron Samedi, a prominent figure in voodoo, for her soul. You can buy Risen on Amazon. The paperback will be out in a few weeks!

GMM: Do you prefer writing your own fiction, or featuring the work of other writers on your podcast? What other creative projects would you like to try in the future?

TR: This is a tough one! I love them both equally. I do wish I had more time for my own writing, though. Writing keeps me sane, featuring the work of other writers gives me purpose. Both are necessary and finding the balance has been difficult, but I’ll arrive there at some point! In the future, I’d love to have NIGHTLIGHT or the audio drama I mentioned earlier adapted into a TV series. I’d love to be able to uplift more Black-centered stories for TV/film because I truly believe showing those perspectives to a wider audience is our best way of combating bigotry and racism. Stories may be primarily for entertainment, but people learn from them too—both the good and the bad. I want to put more good out there in the world to foster more compassion amongst each other.

Fragment by Tonia Ransom

The bullet severed my spinal cord, so I can’t tell you if it hurts to die. What I can tell you is that being raised from the dead feels like being burned at the stake with no promise of death to bring you peace.

I haven’t been dead very long, if you can call me dead. I’m still not quite sure what I am. Two weeks ago I was standing at my stove, waiting for my watched pot to boil and reading the latest research on emerging infection diseases.

The house was silent, almost eerily so. Only the sound of me clicking around on the computer accompanied the sound of my breathing.

The door usually squeaked, but he managed to come in without it making a peep. Closed it behind him without the latch calling attention to his presence.

All I knew was something whacked me from behind, hard enough to knock me off the barstool and smack my chin on the edge of the counter on the way to the floor. A white flash of light behind my eyes receded and I tried to focus, but everything was blurry and doubled. I lay there, ears ringing and vision dimmed, my favorite scrub-blue shirt blooming into a deep red. I didn’t recognize it as blood at first and thought about how beautiful it was, how purple embraced the blue and gave way to red, like a drop of dye in water.

It took me even longer to figure out why I was bleeding. The only part of me that hurt was my chin, but when I reached up to inspect it, there was only tenderness. I lifted my shirt, where the red had first overtaken the blue, and found the hole, small, but defined. He didn’t use a hollow point.

I assumed that I’d been lucky, that the bullet caused some damage, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

I was wrong.

I willed my legs to move, to stand me up, but they refused to comply.

The bullet had pierced my spinal cord. Exited via my abdomen. I was losing a lot of blood, quickly––so quickly, I knew my abdominal aorta was severed.

I never knew when to give up, still don’t, so I didn’t stop trying to live, despite the fact that I knew more movement would cause me to lose blood faster. The alternative––lying there and waiting for death to take me––was something I couldn’t do.

I took a few breaths, steeling myself for the next push, watching the blood that was inside me moments ago form a crimson-colored reflection next to me, worming its way into the grout that separated my newly installed travertine tiles. In that macabre mirror, I saw him, gun in hand, wearing a maniacal smile.
Watching me smear my blood all over my floor. Blood that he had drawn, without a hint of sadness or remorse in his eyes.

With renewed strength tempered by anger, I inched toward him, but when I looked up again, he was gone. Deflated and weak, I rested on the cold floor. I told myself I had to formulate a new plan, but the floor felt so good, my eyes so heavy. The pool of blood crept forward and warmed my face, but the rest of me grew cold. Even so, I broke out into a sweat.

I was going into shock.

I knew the process of bleeding to death on a physiological level, and now I would know it intimately. There was nothing I could do nothing to stop it. Copper and iron, that familiar smell of the mortally wounded, was the last thing I smelled before I drifted into unconsciousness, oddly comforted by the odor I had become so accustomed to in my work as an emergency room doctor.

I don’t know how much time passed before I stood next to my dining table, looking at the body that was once mine. My skin had changed from a beautiful chestnut to a sickly gray, the dark jelly around my body making my skin look even more devoid of color than it was. My eyes were closed, but I didn’t look like I’d just fallen asleep. No freshly dead body ever does. The dead always look dead until a funeral home gets ahold of them.

I didn’t hear him close the door as he left. I just suddenly felt alone and turned around to see the blinds swish back and forth on the upper half of my back door. I never even considered following him. I was still processing what happened in what couldn’t have been more than five minutes.

He had gotten so lucky. His shot tore my abdominal aorta, basically the interstate highway of blood. An inevitable death.

I’d still be alive if I’d leaned my weight onto the other foot.

It all seemed horribly unfair, as if the whole world had conspired to murder me.

But this, this, was all wrong. Death meant lights out. No part of me should have been there. My body, dead and motionless, but my consciousness left to contemplate what had happened. I had never really believed there was a God, at least not one that paid any attention to us foolish little people on our tiny little rock around our run-of-the-mill sun. I’d never said there wasn’t a God really, I just didn’t believe his existence mattered one way or another. And I’d certainly never believed in Heaven or Hell, Nirvana or the Great Beyond.

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: Deesha Philyaw

Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with Christopher Golden about his new novel, Red Hands.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes National Book Award finalist Deesha Philyaw.

Deesha Philyaw’s debut short story collection, THE SECRET LIVES OF CHURCH LADIES, is a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction. The collection focuses on Black women, sex, and the Black church. Deesha is also the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband. Her work has been listed as Notable in the Best American Essays series, and her writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Brevity, dead housekeeping, TueNight, Apogee Journal, Barrelhouse, Harvard Review, The Baltimore Review, Electric Literature and elsewhere. Deesha is a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Deesha, and congratulations on your nomination for the National Book Award for Fiction. Tell me about your collection of short stories, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. Where do the stories come from? Which stories are your favorites in the collection and why?

DP: Thanks, Michelle! The stories come from a few places: a deep nostalgia that I have for my childhood, growing up in the South; memories of growing up in the church, and in particular, of church women; memories of women outside of the church, including my mother and my grandmother; and primarily, my decades-long interest in dissatisfied women, driven by my own dissatisfaction at various periods in my life. I love all the stories in the collection, but my favorites are “Peach Cobbler,” because the main character and her awful situation just get inside you, and lots of readers have told me that it’s their favorite; “How to Make Love to a Physicist,” because it’s a nerdy love story with a happy ending in an otherwise fairly dark collection; and “Jael,” because the main character is incredibly brave, and I just want to hug her.

GMM: The Church plays an important role in Black communities in the United States, and has almost become a trope in fiction about Black people since it seems to be such an integral part of culture. I didn’t go to church as a kid and didn’t have the experience of going to service on Sundays. What would you tell a heathen like me about The Church and why it is important to Black communities?

DP: It goes back to slavery, when belief in a better life to come sustained our ancestors. At the same time, for some enslaved people, Christianity fueled rebellion. Post-Emancipation, the church became a cornerstone of Black community; the first schools for freed people were in churches. HBCUs grew out of churches. And of course, the church was at the crux of the Civil Rights Movement. And now, even as the church holds less sway in the lives of younger generations, it’s influence is still felt–sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. And it’s important to note that Black Christians are not a monolith, though we typically think of the conservative Black evangelical denominations when we talk about “the” Black Church.

GMM: Many writers create stories based on personal experiences and even base characters on people they know. The vampire in my novel, Invisible Chains, is based on a real person with the same name. Not to put you on the spot, but is anyone from your past or who you currently know going to read these stories and say, “hey, that story is about me”? Will they be happy, or will they be upset?

DP: The story “Dear Sister” is about five half-sisters who have the same father. I have four half-sisters. There are aspects of that story that are drawn from our lives, but not in ways that any of my sisters would point to a character and say, “Hey, that’s me!” I wanted to respect their privacy, so I started with a premise that reflects our real-life situation, but fictionalized from there. One of my sisters is a nurse, but she is nothing like Tasheta! Also, there’s lots of mother-daughter stuff in these stories, some (but not all) of it influenced by my complicated relationship with my late mother. But there’s no mother character that’s my mom, and no mother-daughter situation that is us. I lost my mom to breast cancer in 2005, and even though we made peace before she died, there was emotional unfinished business that it seems I needed to work out in these stories. There are pieces of me and pieces of us sprinkled throughout, and that happened organically, subconsciously. I didn’t set out to write a collection about mothers and daughters, but that’s what it is, in some respects.

Also, “How to Make Love to a Physicist” was inspired by a real person, a physicist who I had a crush on. Alas, the crush was unrequited, but my interest inspired this story. This person knows he inspired the story, and he gave me some technical help with the science stuff in it.

A fragment from “Peach Cobbler,” a story from Deesha’s short story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

My mother’s peach cobbler was so good, it made God himself cheat on his wife. When I was five, I hovered around my mother in the kitchen, watching, close enough to have memorized all the ingredients and steps by the time I was six. But not too close to make her yell at me for being in the way. And not close enough to see the exact measurements she used. She never wrote the recipe down. Without having to be told, I learned not to ask questions about that cobbler, or about God. I learned not to say anything at all about him hunching over our kitchen table every Monday eating plate after plate of peach cobbler, and then disappearing into the bedroom I shared with my mother.

I became a silent student of my mother and her cobbler-making ways. Even when I was older and no longer believed that God and Reverend Troy Neely were one and the same, I still longed to perfect the sweetness and textures of my mother’s cobbler. My mother, who fed me TV dinners, baked a peach cobbler with fresh peaches every Monday, her day off from the diner where she waited tables. She always said Sunday was her Saturday and Monday was her Sunday. What I knew was that none of her days were for me.

And for many of those Mondays off and on during my childhood, God (to my child’s mind) would stop by and eat it—the entire 8 x 8 pan. My mother never ate any of the cobbler herself; she said she didn’t like peaches. She would shoo me out of the kitchen before God could offer me any, but I doubted he would have offered even if I’d sat right down next to him. God was an old fat man, like a Black Santa, and I imagined my mother’s peach cobbler contributing to his girth.

Some Mondays, God would arrive after dinner and leave as I lay curled up on the couch watching Little House on the Prairie in the living room. Other times, my mother and God would already be in the bedroom when I got home from school. I could hear moaning and pounding, like a board hitting a wall, as soon as I entered the house. I would shut the front door quietly behind me and tiptoe down the hall to listen outside the bedroom door. “Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God!” my mother would cry. I could hear God too, his voice low and growly, saying, “Yes, yes, yes!”

Even before he started coming by on Mondays, I had suspected that Pastor Neely, the pastor of Hope in Christ Baptist Church, was God. He was big, black, and powerful, as I imagined God to be. My very first Easter speech, memorized in kindergarten during Sunday School, was “Jesus is the Son of God,” but I didn’t find it odd that Black God could have a blue-eyed, blond son. Pastor Neely was dark, his wife was pale, and their son, Trevor, who was around my age, had gray eyes and wasn’t too much darker than the Jesus whose picture hung all over church. Plus, midway through every Sunday service, Pastor Neely, his wife, and Trevor stood in the front of the sanctuary and collected a love offering from the congregation as the choir sang, “I Love You (Lord, Today).” So it was easy for me to deduce that Pastor Neely was the “Lord.” My mother’s cries of passion through our bedroom door confirmed it.

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 in 2021!

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