Fiction Fragments: Eva Roslin

Last week I spoke with R. B. Wood about his latest novel, Bayou Whispers and what he learned about himself and the society he lives in while researching the book.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes writer and reviewer Eva Roslin.

Eva Roslin writes dark fantasy and horror fiction. She is a recipient of the Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Scholarship, awarded by the Horror Writers’ Association. She is a Supporting HWA member. Her work has appeared in such publications as Dark Heroes (Pill Hill Press), Murky DepthsGhostlight Magazine and others. Her reviews and articles have appeared in Cemetery Dance and Hellnotes to name a few.

Twitterhttps://twitter.com/EvaRoslin    
Goodreads:https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/3562237-eva 
Website/blog:https://roslineva.wordpress.com/

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Eva. This will be the final Fiction Fragments post before I take a brief hiatus. So, let’s jump right in and start with some serious questions about your writing. And, your experience as a reader, reviewer, and consumer of speculative fiction in general. I know that you read a lot, not just professionally but also for pleasure. What issues have you encountered with how disabled characters are represented in fiction, or disability in general? What do people get right or wrong? How can people who aren’t disabled write disabled characters authentically? Have you written about disability?

ER: Thank you for having me! The biggest issue I’ve encountered with how writers, particularly nondisabled writers, represent disabled characters is lack of research. If a writer has not done their homework, if they’re just guessing or making assumptions of what it “must” be like to live with a particular disability, and they don’t bother to speak to anyone in the disabled community they’re portraying, it leads to things like the ‘disability is a superpower’ trope. I’m a huge fan of Professor Xavier in the X-Men, for instance, but it bothers me that in some people’s minds, he matters and is “allowed” to be a central character only because he is a mutant who has superpowers that “compensate” for his disability. 

I have both physical and intellectual disabilities, and I use a mobility device to help me get around. One of the tropes I despise features a nondisabled character posing as disabled to trick the other characters and then suddenly using a walking aid as a substitute for a sword. There’s also the trope where a character gets up out of a wheelchair and proclaims “Fooled you!” I love many, many things about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but invoking this trope with Spike in Season 2 is not one of them. 

There’s a tendency to make disabled characters one-dimensional or to equate disabilities with being evil and villainous, which I also think is very offensive. 

Nondisabled writers who want to write disabled characters should start by looking into workshops like the fantastic Writing the Other series that Nisi Shawl and K Tempest Bradford operate. I think it’s also important to do as much research as possible. Many writers might assume that a few quick Google searches are adequate (spoiler alert: they’re not). As well, writers should pay attention to conversations within the disabled community online.  

When it comes to my own fiction, I’m still hesitant to write about characters with disabilities because there’s the fear that I will get it wrong, or that my experiences will not resonate with other disabled folks, or that some nondisabled people will comment that the character doesn’t seem disabled enough, or just plain trolling. I’m working on ways to try to overcome that hesitancy.

GMM: Tell me about your writing. When did you begin writing dark fantasy and horror? Who or what were your first influences, and how has writing within these genres pulled on your personal experiences or helped you grow as a person?

ER: I started writing when I was 14. I loved Halloween growing up, and enjoyed shows like Are You Afraid of the Dark, superhero cartoons, as well as reading many of the Goosebumps books and other young adult horror. As well, I started reading Anne Rice at what was probably too early an age and that solidified my interest in genre fiction and began a life-long obsession with vampires. I also loved mob movies and video games thanks to my older brothers, so when I started writing, it was dreadfully bad screenplays based on Goodfellas. Soon after, I bought a video game featuring vampires that I had no idea would become the flame that fueled my desire to write. I still remember watching the opening cinematic and thinking, “This is amazing. I want to write something that makes people feel the same sense of awe as I do now.” The game was Soul Reaver, which is one of the most epic, finely-plotted stories in video game history. 

Shortly after that, the first Underworld film came out, and that also fueled me to keep writing horror. I joined some online critique groups as well as a local in-person one that my mom had to accompany me to because I was still a minor. Although that group was mostly a bunch of old white dudes and a few women, it taught me important lessons on how to take feedback gracefully, how to provide it, and the fundamentals of good storytelling. I kept writing and most of my subject matter extended to fallen angels, demons, and went into a gritty urban fantasy direction. Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim and William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel were both huge influences. Then, somewhere along the way, my work and interests morphed into something more subtle. I began to write Southern Gothic stories, which I realize is ironic because I’m neither American nor am I from the South. Around the same time, I started researching Haitian vodou, learning about the West African roots of the religion, and discovered the history of these regions. It was important for me to see how all of that transformed into Louisiana voodoo and the pop culture derivations that followed. This inspired my obsession with New Orleans, a setting that features prominently in my work. 

When I was a teenager, I had that horrible phantom pressure inflicted on me to “hurry up because if you don’t publish a novel by the time you’re 25, you will lose your chance forever!” And then 25 became 30 until I worked harder on understanding that these are arbitrary benchmarks that other insecure people set up, and it’s part of the theatre of literary snobbery. My experiences working in the publishing industry doing marketing and PR showed me firsthand which books sell and why, which books don’t, all the work that goes into promotion and working with authors, and how dispiriting it was to get unsold copies back to the warehouse. When reviewers did not have favourable feedback on one of the titles we were pushing that season, that was always tough. It made me more cynical for a long time, but it also helped me see things from the business side, which was educational in many ways.

I don’t experience the same sense of catharsis that some horror writers describe, but I definitely bleed on the page. When I was writing urban fantasy, it was much more a wish fulfillment fantasy of including these kickass female protagonists who didn’t take any guff, but were incredibly self-centred and one-dimensional in many ways. For a long time, I avoided writing from the wounds and scars that have shaped me because I was worried about being dismissed with labels like “semi-autobiographical,” or “B-movie genre pulp.” I fixated on people’s reactions. Gradually, I am learning to break away from that and I’m writing from darker places. This has been more traumatizing in some cases, but I feel that I’m taking bolder strides and I’m less afraid as a writer in some ways.

GMM: You are currently writing a novel. Is this your first novel? What is it about? What has the process been like for you as you draft the manuscript? What have you learned about yourself as a writer, and what have you learned about writing in general?

ER: This is the eighth novel I’ve written. It’s a young adult dark fantasy novel about a group of young women in New Orleans in the 1850s. They learn witchcraft at an Academy that disguises itself as an Ursuline convent and school. A very dangerous witch that they thought they’d sealed away for good has found a way to return, and the main characters need to figure out a way to stop her before she unleashes even more havoc. There are vampires and werewolves who also get tangled into the fray. 

I’ve learned that it’s important to be true to what I want to write and to stop fixating so much on the negative energy some folks insist on spreading. As well, I’m also learning that no matter how much work I have done whether it’s research or incorporating feedback, that we don’t have any control over how readers will respond to our work. Still, it’s important to have a vision of what it is we’re trying to accomplish, and to continue persevering no matter how many times we get kicked down (which I know is easier said than done). 

Thanks so much for having me, Michelle!

(From an unpublished short story, “His Heart Beats in the Fire”)

“Miss Malveaux?”

Charlotte jolted as she realized her mind had drifted whilst talking to this handsome suitor.

Before she could respond, Father’s other daughter, Olivia, bumped into Charlotte.

“Pardon me, Lottie!” Olivia squealed with laughter. She looked like a pink cloud in her dress, her cheeks and lips stained with cerise rouge.

“There you are!” Father pulled Olivia into a hug, and kissed her forehead. He had never once come close to regarding Charlotte with anything resembling affection. In his mind, Olivia would forever be his one true daughter. “You are a stray dog. I adopted you because my first wife wished it,” he had said to Charlotte on more than one occasion.

Elijah stared at Olivia, transfixed. A crack formed in Charlotte’s heart at that moment, as if a knife had slashed her. She knew then that whatever chance she may have had with Private Kemper evaporated like dust.
           
“Olivia was just saying…” Father walked away with Olivia and Elijah, Charlotte forgotten. His words echoed in her mind. Simian blood. She approached the live oak in front of her and brushed her hands over the bark. Memories filled her mind of this spot where her grandmother, Betsy, had been hanged. She had been six at the time. She clutched her locket and breathed, trying to wrench her thoughts from that day. 
           
Images flashed in Charlotte’s mind. The noose that broke Betsy’s neck. The flames that sprang from Charlotte’s hands.

The family told tales that Betsy shed her skin at night, a witch who practiced dark magic. Father blamed the ailing slave woman for failing to cure his first wife of consumption. It would not be until many years later that Charlotte would learn of his deception, that he had Betsy hanged to teach the other slaves a lesson.

Something tapped her on the shoulder a moment later. When she whirled, a man with dark eyes and hair examined her, his cheeks angled and sharp. Beside him stood Ava.
           
“This is Corporal William Rawden, Lottie,” Ava said.
           
She held out her hand. While he brought it to his lips, bowing slightly, he regarded her as though he were reading a journal of the news of the day. He frowned.
           
“How do you do,” she said.
           
“I was just mentioning to the Corporal that we have an elder daughter, and he expressed to me that he wished to be introduced to you.”

Charlotte wanted to scoff, to tell him she was sorry to have disappointed him by not being Olivia. “Charmed.”
           
He smirked. “I hear you are quite a respectable young lady, apart from a certain, shall we say, indiscretion.”
           
“I beg your pardon?” she said.
           
He brought his face a bit closer to her. “Your true race.” His mouth reeked of tobacco and whisky. “Your father told me. Still, since your other sister seems to be preoccupied with other, blonder interests, I thought I would see if you might do just as fine, provided a little extra compensation.” He tapped his right pocket. Instead of telling him to get away from her and burn, she held her tongue and stretched her mouth into another saccharine smile, trying to imagine when the day might end.

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. Fiction Fragments will be on a short hiatus. Stay tuned, and see you soon!

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: R. B. Wood

Last week I spoke with Salvantonia Clemente about his writing and music and how these two art forms intersect for him.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes speculative fiction writer R. B. Wood.

R. B. Wood is a recent MFA graduate of Emerson College and a writer of speculative and dark thrillers. Mr. Wood recently has appeared in Crystal Lake Publishing’s Shallow Water’s anthology, as well as online via SickLit Magazine & HorrorAddicts.net, and in the award-winning anthology Offbeat: Nine Spins on Song from Wicked ink Books.  Along with his writing passion, R. B. is the host of The Word Count Podcast—a show of original flash fiction.

R. B. currently lives in Boston with his partner Tina, a multitude of cats, and various other critters that visit from time to time.

Around the web: Website | Twitter | Facebook | Amazon’s R.B. Wood page

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster. Let’s just dive right in and talk about your latest release, Bayou Whispers. Where did the idea for the book come from? Why did you choose New Orleans as the setting? And, why did you choose Voodoo as the primary magic system for the book?

RBW: Bayou Whispers was actually my genre thesis piece for my Emerson MFA. Believe it or not, it started out as a strict Southern Gothic horror story that took place in Georgia (with a different working title, of course)! But as I developed the characters, it became obvious to me that this story was going to be…needed to be… a fast-paced supernatural thriller with horror elements. But beyond genre, the story of my main character, Jeannine LaRue, is one of survival. We all have some sort of survival story to tell—especially after a year of Covid, so what better city to set the story in than a city that optimizes survival: Namely New Orleans? I spent a lot of time in NOLA in the 90’s and aughts…I love speaking with the locals, and then there is, of course, the music, the food and the history of the region. That’s when the voodoo and Haitian elements really came into play.

GMM: How much research went into the writing of the book for setting, characters, themes, etc.? Did you learn anything new while you were doing the research? Did anything surprise you while doing research?

RBW: Research is my Achilles Heel when it comes to “time sucking activities.” Before the pandemic, I traveled to New Orleans and spent a few weeks interviewing people (bars are great for conversations and I’ve been known to enjoy a cocktail or two now and then), researching locations, touring the actual Bayou in an airboat, and listening to some of the crazy stories that are still told about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. I also watched Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts which is a brutally honest look at what happened and how we, as a country failed the people of New Orleans.

This experience (both the MFA and writing this novel) is where I truly began to understand my privilege as a white male and how the social changes we are undergoing as a country need to happen to truly create the diverse yet equal country we dream of. The number of discussions I had about race alone in New Orleans was both educational and passionate and who I am has changed—hopefully for the better. At age 56, I’m still a work in progress!

GMM: Is Bayou Whispers the first book in a series or a stand-alone novel? If this novel is part of a series, what can readers expect next? In terms of writing process, how has writing this novel been different from other things you’ve written? If this isn’t part of a series, what are you currently working on, or what’s next?

RBW: While Jeannine’s story is standalone, there are subtle links to my first novel, The Prodigal’s Foole. The book I’m currently working on is tentatively titled The Illusionist & The Wizard and it takes place in 1880’s New York. The elevator pitch on this one is “To solve the unnatural murder of Manhattan elites including his Father, journalist Whitelaw Greeley engages with Harry Houdini and Nikola Tesla to uncover the truth.” I like to describe this upcoming work as a historical supernatural thriller. Think Caleb Carr’s Alienist meets Kolchak: The Night Stalker. There will also be some light connective tissue between this new book, Bayou Whispers and The Prodigal’s Foole. This may eventually lead to an “Avengers” like trilogy, but that’s dependent on sales and popularity.

BAYOU WHISPERS brief synopsis

Bayou Whispers is the story of no-nonsense New Orleans native, Jeannine LaRue, the sole survivor of her family after the devastation brought on by Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of the storm, she believed she’d been saved, but soon found herself held hostage and sexually exploited, rescued months later by sheriff’s deputy Curtis Jones.  Twelve years after Katrina, Jeannine is a new attorney who returns to New Orleans to save her old friend Curtis Jones—now a local thief and trafficker of stolen goods—after he is arrested for the murder of Jeannine’s captors, whose bodies have recently been found. But Jeannine discovers more than she bargained for when she uncovers a family history of dark voodoo magic and an unholy alliance with an ancient evil Haitian loa.

Bayou Whispers Prologue 

31 October 2005
Orleans Parish, Louisiana

On Halloween night that year, no little ghosts or goblins wandered the streets in search of candy. No laughter rang out in what was left of the Lower 9th Ward neighborhood. Two months after Katrina had ravaged this place, it still resembled a war zone, covered in debris and stagnant pools of foul-smelling water from the levee breach.

As midnight approached, a young teenager—naked, dirty, covered in mosquito bites, and with a nasty leg wound wrapped in crusted-over grey rags—stumbled from a copse of trees. She was thin, so very thin, weighing barely eighty pounds. 

The muddy and cracked streets before her sat dark and empty; human detritus littered the roads and yards, and the skeletons of ruined homes bore unintelligible spray paint that looked more like the desperate scratching of a fluorescent wild beast than symbols from a nameless insurance company or traumatized recovery workers. 

It was a city of the dead, a city of the damned. 

Right foot, left foot drag. One step at a time. The pain didn’t matter. It can’t matter.

Jeannine had been walking for what felt like forever, almost in a trance, placing one bloody foot in front of the other. Moving forward was the only thing that mattered. 

Keep moving. Those white guys might be following. Keep moving. 

Right foot, left foot drag.

She walked through glass and rusted nails, around junked appliances and damp, moldy couches. A dog barked once in the distance. 

A patrol car sat watch at the end of the street, engine idling. Jeannine approached, fear causing each step to hesitate. The light of a burning cigarette brightened as the occupant of the vehicle, still in shadow, took a long drag.

“Help,” croaked Jeannine. Her voice strained, rough. Insects chirped. Frogs called to their mates. No one heard her.

Right foot, left foot drag.

The person in the car took another pull, a dot of orange light flaring, then fading.

“Help!” she called, louder this time. The insects and the frogs stopped. The patrol car’s dome light winked on as the door opened.

Jeannine screamed.

She screamed as the cop ran toward her. She screamed as the cop took off his own shirt to wrap around her. She screamed as the cop carried her to the car.

“Jesus H. Christ! Randy, call for an ambulance!” yelled the cop.        

The cop’s partner, still inside the car, got on the radio.

Jeannine continued to scream until her vocal cords tore. She tasted blood.

“You’re safe, honey,” said the cop for the seventh time. Jeannine finally heard him.

He stayed with her until the ambulance arrived and then rode with her to the hospital. He spoke to the doctors on her behalf. He sat with her in intensive care while Jeannine, clean for the first time in months, slept. He watched her tossing, turning, and moaning softly.

Randy, the cop’s partner, arrived at the hospital. He’d taken care of the paperwork and had brought a po’ boy and a coffee. The sandwich was left untouched.

For the next hour, the partners sat a silent vigil over Jeannine.

The first cop must have drifted off because he woke with a start when someone placed a hand on his shoulder.

“Officer Jones?” asked a man in scrubs. “I’m Doctor Broussard. Can we talk outside for a minute?”

The cop looked to his partner and he nodded back at him.

“Go,” said Randy. “I’ll be here.”

Jones followed the doctor into the hallway.

“Officer, we can’t find any of…” He glanced at a clipboard. “…Jeannine’s family. I wanted to let you know that in the morning, and assuming she’s still stable…” The doctor let his words drift off as he swallowed hard. 

Jones noticed the man’s youth, how inexperienced he must’ve been before Katrina hit. The doctor looked like some of the baby-faced soldiers Curtis had met during the war—young men, children, really, who grew up quickly in the face of tragedy and death. 

Jones put his hand on the doctor’s shoulder.

“Yes. Sorry,” said Dr. Broussard. “It’s been a long couple of months of giving out bad news.”

“I understand,” said Jones automatically. “Just hit me with it, Doc.”

“She…Jeannine…we are going to have to remove her leg. The infection is too severe and there is gangrene.”

“Do what you have to,” said Jones impassively.

“But without parental…”

“Will the surgery save her life?”

“Yes.”

“Take her leg, then.” Jones’s left eye twitched once.

Doctor Broussard nodded. “I’ll need you to sign.”

A moment later, Jones returned to Jeannine’s room.

“Well?” asked Randy.

Jones slumped into a chair. “They’re going to take it in the morning.”

Suddenly, Jeannine sat up, ice-blue eyes wide, unblinking.

It was those eyes that had thrown him. This young teen—he’d met her once before the storm. He didn’t recognize her at first, as she practically crawled from the bayou, filthy and emaciated. The last time Curtis had seen her—she’d been covered in blood.

She had brown eyes then. He remembered them—unblinking and staring into a nightmare of unimaginable horror.             

“Jane Doe” was Jeannine LaRue. Jones was sure being a child of mixed-race parents was hard enough to grow up with in this town, but this young woman had experienced far more and far worse than her fourteen years had prepared her for.

Jones knew who she was now; she had been returned unlike so many of those in the missing persons reports.

The details of so many lost souls broken down into height, weight, and hair color.

“You all right, Jeannine?” he asked.

She looked at Jones, eyes unfocused from the drugs the doctors had pumped into her.

“Papa Nightmare is here!” she said in a frantic whisper. “Papa Nightmare!”

“Shhh. It’s all right, honey. You are safe now. I’m here and I won’t leave you.”

Jeannine blankly looked at Jones. He gently helped her lie back down.

“Right foot, left foot,” she muttered as her eyes fluttered once before closing.

The drugs took a lasting hold, and Jeannine’s breathing slowed. She spoke occasionally, nonsense words mostly. Jones held her hand for the rest of that night. “You’re safe,” he whispered again. “I promise.”

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: Salvantonio Clemente

Last week I chatted with queer horror writer, Andrew Robertson about growing up in the 80s under the shadow of the AIDS epidemic and how writing horror has given him a space to explore aspects of identity.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes writer and musician Salvantonio Clemente.

Ah…here is where I introduce myself (awwwkward).

My name is Salvantonio Clemente, but that’s too many vowels so, call me Sal. Occasionally, my partner calls me “jerk”; I suspect others might do so as well.

I’m a life-long writer, producer, and performer of music. I’m an aspiring writer and voracious consumer of stories, and I write speculative fiction that leans heavily toward the possible. I’ve spent the last year writing a baker’s dozen short stories and banging out two novels, the second of which will be completed in June.

It is my sincere wish to spend the rest of my days creating worlds and playing in them. Of course, it was once my destiny to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, so…baby steps.

I am fortunate to have the unswerving support of my partner, Darcie Lynn Clemente. We live just outside Boston and have three grown daughters, Maria, Emma, and Lola, who are all far more talented than I am. Thank you, Michelle, for asking me to participate in Girl Meets Monster…I feel like I’ve arrived!

All about my band, The Ultrasonic Rock Orchestra:
www.urorocks.com
www.facebook.com/UROrocks

My author website is under construction but visit me soon at:
www.writescifi.com

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Sal. And, thank you again for inviting me to be part of your writing group, The Scrawling Commandos. It has been great getting to know you and the other members of our small writing community, sharing stories, asking honest questions about writing, and supporting each other during these strange times. Can you give a little bit of background about the writing group, and why you believe writing communities are important to writers — aspiring or established? What have you discovered about yourself as a writer and what have you learned from others in the group?

SC: The first thing I discovered? I am not as good as I imagined.

This hurt my soul but was super-useful!

Our writing group is the brainchild of our mutual friend and all-around great guy, Mike Burke. After a twenty-year adventure in a rock band, I desperately needed a place to hone my somewhat atrophied fiction writing skills. So, I stuck my foot in the door at Commandos HQ and refused to remove it until Mike allowed me inside.

I recommend a writing group to rookie or veteran, but only if they’re willing to lower their defenses. There’s a place for affirmation, but we all have folks who fill that need, a writing group needs to be more useful.Still, in our group it’s imperative to deliver our criticism with respect for the effort given; it shouldn’t ever feel like blunt-force trauma when a critique comes.

As artists, it’s vital to have a place we can step outside the strictures of what’s expected, to screw up or succeed as the case may be. Within the confines of the group, I can invest myself into any character, any culture, any point of view, and I’m going to get honest, direct, useful, feedback about the work. If the story needs correction, or jettisoning, or to be curbed, then my comrades give me specific ideas on what to do, which is invaluable because my goal is to sell stories.

It’s not easy; we have our ups and downs, but over the course of 3 years I still very much want to do this thing with these people. I feel tremendous pride in their successes; our camaraderie is genuine. It’s working so far, as my friends have yet to hit the eject button on my seat.

GMM: I’m really glad you decided to share an excerpt from “Arcana Major.” I really liked this story when I read it a few months back and I’m hoping that you either expand on the story, or get it ready for submission as is. I think I mentioned how real the characters seemed to me. I felt like I knew them because they reminded me of kids I grew up with, and the band’s performance brought back memories of seeing live music in dives and weird places like the Knights of Columbus. Where did the idea for the story come from, and are your characters based on people you know? Is this a fictionalized account of something that happened to you as a teenager?

SC: I am really glad you liked “Arcana Major.” It’s a good thing since the story wouldn’t have happened without the prompt which you provided for our writing group, which included the Tarot and a gender flip for the main protagonist.

I knew almost nothing about Tarot, other than bits I’ve consumed through films and TV, but once I dug in, I became obsessed with the artwork!

These cards are amazing! If I had seen them when I was a young musician, I would have insisted the band all take on a different card/character as a persona, and this led to the idea of having the story be about a band.

Jenn (with two n’s) is based on who I was as a naïve youngster trying to get my original band off the ground. The other members of Arcana Major are each based on real people. One of the guys was inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame this year! He and I were in a few bands back in Pennsylvania, before I moved to Boston and he went on to massive fame.

“Arcana Major” was a hoot to write, a fantasy, but one rooted in rust belt Pennsylvania and how things really were. A lot of the story is the truth; hopefully, enough to make it feel genuine.

GMM: Music is obviously an important part of your life, and I’ve noticed that music finds a way into several of your stories I’ve read so far. Music is really important to me, too, and I believe it has had a major impact on shaping me as a person and even as a writer. When did you really know you wanted to be a musician, and how has music influenced your writing, and/or vice versa? Is music an important part of your writing process? Have specific songs inspired stories? Have stories inspired your music?

SC: I wanted to be an artist and the definition was broad for me; I’m sure this was due to my upbringing. My mom was a singer and dad was a writer who produced and directed theatre: a true renaissance man. I wrote, drew, painted, performed, directed. I did a lot of theater, and then discovered rock bands, and found a calling I couldn’t resist.

I focused all my efforts into learning to be a musician, writer, and performer, but the itch to write fiction never went away, and the advent of the pandemic opened up the time to give it proper attention.

As to what part music plays in my writing? It’s nearly all subconscious. There’s Bowie and Queen and The Beatles, but I grew up on comics, pulp fiction, sixties and seventies paperbacks, Dark Shadows, Dali, Shakespeare, Kubrick, Rod Serling, on and on, like all of us. With all of this bouncing around in my skull, my writing veers off in a lot of trippy directions.

Three of my short stories feature musicians as characters, but only “Arcana Major” directly touches on my own experience.

As for stories inspiring music that I’ve written, I had never thought about it until reading your question, but it is undoubtedly the case that I have written songs based on stories I’ve read.

When I’m writing, I often listen to instrumental music, but I need to tailor the music to the story. For instance, I’m listening to the score to The Knick, and The Queen’s Gambit, on an endless loop while I’m writing the novel I’m working on. This particular music helps to unlock my subconscious and allows me to get in a flow with the words. As dumb as it sounds…that’s how it works for me. Thanks, again, Michelle! This was too much dang fun! Back to the grind!

Excerpt from “Arcana Major” by Salvantonio Clemente

Minor Arcana: Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

Steam blasts from a radiator nozzle and I catch a snootful of patchouli oil. At Joe’s Cabinet of Curios and Curiosities, the only thing curious is that the cops let Joe get away with open displays of paraphernalia and Dead bootlegs. The rest of us can’t cross the street without showing our papers.

I’m Jenn with two n’s, and I’m here for the spinner racks jammed with books on the occult, zen stuff, and philosophy. Don’t ask me who in my rust-belt town this fine array is aimed at, but I am desperate for a band name and last week the town library shut down for good.

I’m wedging out a dusty brick of Kahlil Gibran poetry when I spot the corner of the Tarot deck’s slipcase peeking out from a stack of ratty back issues of Cream.

I snatch the cards from the pile, and the room gets weird.

The embossed case is cold, slippery, heavy.

I tip the deck into my hand, and the cards resonate like the first time I cranked my amp and hit a perfect power chord.

I shuffle through the deck as the afternoon sun slashes through strings of colored beads hanging in the smoke-hazed window. Fireworks go off on my retinas and trigger a memory of when I was six and dad slid his leather headphones over my ears; he held them in place while mom dropped the needle on Switched On Bach and little kid me saw stars being born inside billion year old nebulas.

Like back then, I have to remember to breathe.

Yeah.

It’s that kind of life-altering resonance.

I’m a musician. I feel the same sensation—okay, maybe not this intense—when Father Herron cuts loose on the big pipe organ after Sunday mass. Hell, the National Anthem gives me goosebumps, and I don’t buy a word of anything said by priests or politicians. But I don’t believe in mystical hoodoo, either. Whatever’s happening is physics and biology; some strange combination of factors hitting my system all at once, giving the deck its charge.

Still, when the universe shows you a sign it’s probably best to read it, right? I don’t know jack squat about the Tarot, but in my hand is the key to my band’s future. I know it.

I sweet-talk Joe down to five bucks and, with the deck still vibrating in my hip pocket, kick the door open and head out into the cold.

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: James Matthew Byers

Last week, I got to chat with my favorite belligerant nerd, Patrick Freivald about his latest novel, Murmur and how sex and horror intersect in his fiction.

This weel, Girl Meets Monster welcomes the Darque Bard, James Matthew Byers.

James Matthew Byers, the Darque Bard, resides in Odenville, Alabama. He has been published in Weirdbook Magazine, Grievous Angel ezine, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, poetry journals and through Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, AL, where he received his Master’s in 2010. His epic poems, Beowulf: The Midgard Epic and The Bard Song Saga: Valkeryia are out now from Stitched Smile Publications, LLC. He has won or placed in numerous contests at the Alabama State Poetry Society. The Darque Bard continues to write prolifically, supporting anyone who wishes to place their hammering fingers to the keyboard anvil becoming a polished wordsmith in the process.

Find James Matthew Byers at:

Twitter: http://www.Twitter.com/TheDarqueBard
Facebook: https://m.facebook.com/TheDarqueBard/
WordPress: http://jamesmatthewbyers.wordpress.com

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, James (or would you prefer Matt, Matthew…). In the short time that we have gotten to know each, you mentioned that you’ve been working on The Bard Song Saga: Valkeryia for a long time. How long have you been working on this project? What were some of the roadblocks preventing you from finishing? How does it feel to finally publish this labor of love (or, possibly an albatross)?

JMB: It’s my absolute pleasure to be here! I’m still flipping out over your debut, Invisible Chains. This is soooooo mega awesome! You’re quite the storyteller and crafting a novel the way you did still has my mind reeling with excitement. Sorry- had to get the geek in me calm. (I LOVE your book!!!)

To answer your first question- most of my friends and family call me Matt. I use my whole name, James Matthew Byers, when writing. In college the professors called me James. A few folks use Matthew. I’ll answer to all of the above, but by all means, Matt to you.

Oh wow. The Bard Song Saga: Valkeryia is the culmination of 31 years of my life. The characters who soon will reach the public eye are much different than where they began. It’s definitely epic poetry sewn primarily as fantasy with some sci fi and horror tossed in.

When I was fifteen, I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Dracula. Devoured all DragonLance, Forgotten Realms, and Ravenloft books. Grew up on Star Wars and The Barsoom Series. Frankenstein comes to mind as well. Alien. These stories and films had an influence on me that was incurable. (There are honestly too many to list- but I will add the artists of TSR in the 80’s and 90’s and comic art influenced me greatly as well) By the time I got to high school, I had been creating my own stories, poems, and art designs a while. In 9th grade I came up with a book idea called The Legacy of Mythril. I wrote it and carved out my own fantasy world called Mythalonia. That tale had a dwarf as the lead. Mythril. My upcoming release is a reboot of my own story. It went through many reincarnations before arriving where we are today.

As far as roadblocks, I’d say a lot of it was just life. Job changes, marriage, divorce, children … Things that shaped my poetic voice. I write in a particular way, a unique style. It’s very difficult to sell what I do. Back when I was beginning this project, there was no internet. I had no way other than reading “how to submit” books to know what a publisher wanted. I would go into a bookstore with a notebook and copy addresses from companies like TOR, Baen, ROC, and any other fantasy imprint I could find. After some two hundred odd rejections, I still found myself clinging to the notion this thing would happen. By the time the age of the digital native arrived, it became much easier to locate presses and find what editors were looking for. I never gave up on Mythalonia. I just took the very long road to get here.

When I signed with Stitched Smile Publications in 2016 and sold my version of Beowulf, it was exhilarating. I had a rhyming book out- I always wanted to be an epic poet more than a novelist- and I was over the moon. But this … this is a feeling on a whole other level. I’d say this is the pinnacle of all I’ve dreamed of my whole life. Stitched Smile allows me so much freedom. I do my own art, have so much input on the projects I do with them, unequivocally this is the greatest experience ever. There were times where it’s been an albatross for sure; something hanging around my neck I couldn’t shake. But here at the doorstep of its release, the love and passion far outweigh the long term burdens that rose up until I arrived here. The protagonist’s name is Sindri. She’s a dworc- a half dwarf, half-orc. She’s got a lot to say and I’m eager for others to hear her. I’m hoping the world loves adventuring throughout Mythalonia as much as I do.

GMM: When did you begin writing poetry? Epic poetry seems to be an artform from a different age, but it seems to be what you do best. How did you become inspired to write book-length poems, and when did you become the Darque Bard?

JMB: I began writing poems around age 8. I had been drawing and illustrating stories since I was in kindergarten. I always wrote what I thought were oddly designed tales. Then, when we studied Robert Frost and Edgar Allan Poe in 6th grade, the realization I was a poet sort of slapped me in the face. By my senior year, I had written a Canterbury Tales style poem about getting into my first car wreck. From there I delved into rhyming patterns and poetry, fully immersed in all meter and forms I could find. Reading Beowulf was a game changer. That’s definitely one reason I chose to redo it in iambic tetrameter. I realized telling stories that would make great spoken spectacles could come from my rhymes and rhythms. I began to craft my characters into mini epics. After several attempts, the original rhyming version of The Legacy of Mythril was finished in 1997. (After a prose version and a comic book) From there I jumped deeper into formal poetry. There are strict rules when writing it. With free verse you can go all over the place. Rhyme requires discipline and patience. The challenge to do book length poems in itself motivates me.

I became the Darque Bard towards the end of 2017. I had been promoting Beowulf: The Midgard Epic. Through Stitched Smile, it sort of evolved. Lisa Vasquez, the CEO of the company, always told her authors to create a brand. My editor at the time, Donelle Pardee Whiting and Lisa both always called me the Darque Bard. I ran with it. I decided wearing a green robe would make me look like a wizard or a Druid, and performing my poems orally might give me an edge over others. It lent itself to the past and other worldly sensations. Thus the Darque Bard as I am now was born. I also dress up as one of my characters, Bengalla. He’s a tiger from the lands of Acmar. But I’ll save that for another time …

GMM: Tell me about your writing process. For me, I get snippets of dialogue or see full scenes unfold in my head before I begin writing a new story, or the next chapter of a longer piece. Where do your poems begin? Where do your characters come from? Do you draft your poetry from beginning to end in one sitting, or do some of your poems take longer to figure out? Why poetry as opposed to shorts stories or novels?

JMB: I am one of those poets and artists who wait for the Muse to light upon his shoulder, darken his doorstep, or whisper into his mind. When this happens, when she sings to me, I begin cranking out the poetry. I honestly don’t do notes or outlines. Characters are born in my soul, I write, and they appear in text. Most shorter poems are done in one sitting. The longer stuff, like Valkeryia, takes time. But it just seems like I tap into this poetic ether and it flows through me. I’m its conduit. As I mentioned earlier, I always wanted a gimmick; to be known as the rhyming storyteller. I write prose. Do some free verse poetry. But rhymes are my jam. I love telling stories this way. I feel closer to Homer and Poe than Tolkien or Burroughs. Though they all influenced me, I have always bucked the system. Did it take a long time to get published? Yes. Did it get there, my way, finally? Absolutely. Patience is the key to success.

And here’s where I randomly compose something for you during our interview–

The road is long, the journey slow
But if we face the mountain
Eventually, the thirst will grow;
We drink from in its fountain.
Success may not be what we thought,
However, never waver
And in the end the dream is caught;
Go taste it; feast and savor …

Sort of how the whole process works for me. The words just flow. And like the little poem above says- I really believe this- all good things come in time. I wrote a prose version of the story where Mythril was still the lead character. It’s 182k words. But it’s in a file in my computer. I just have to rhyme. I have to be me, James Matthew Byers, the Darque Bard …

Thank you so much for this amazing opportunity to share! I have enjoyed this immensely. I am more than excited for The Bard Song Saga: Valkeryia to release very soon. And I’ll probably revisit Invisible Chains soon. Such a stellar novel! Until next time … The Darque Bard bids thee adieu …

Cover art for The Bard Song Saga: Valkeryia

Fragment from The Bard Song Saga: Valkeryia

Prologue

Another time, another place,
Another set of lives
Reset and chosen to erase
Became as sharp as knives.
Unknown to those who lost the way,
Unknown by those removed,
Unraveled in the ebb and sway
Of things that were not proved,
A world besieged by something new,
Yet something that was known
Encumbered those who came in view
Or sat upon the throne.
And so, it was that such a thing
Began with just a chance
For nothing lasts where hope may cling
Undone by circumstance …

I

A hammer to an anvil rang
Announcing by decree
Creation as the embers sang
A fiery melody.
Upon a night beneath the moon
Corruption spilled chagrin-
Departing with the smithy’s tune,
The horde of orcs within
Destroyed the dwarven residents
As one by one, they fell
Fulfilling former precedents
Inviting death to dwell.
Below the Kilkaln Mountain range
Erupted pools of red
Embracing heroes greeting change,
Completely left for dead.
A magic wielder clothed in black
Bespoke a wordy play
Engaging in her bold attack
Before the light of day
Emitting sparks of reddish hue
Into the open air
Engulfing what remaining few
Ablaze in flesh and hair.
All regimen in Plover stalled,
The realm where havoc reigned,
Congealed as chaos came and called
For darkness it obtained.
On Mythalonia, the lands
Began to see the rise
Of mystic forces joining hands
Content in evil eyes.
Unsettled in her aftermath,
Destruction doomed the hall
Disgorging red along her path
That lingered wall to wall.
A manner born of synergy-
The Aura, it was named-
Infusing colored energy
And now about, it flamed …
The gods had willed it long ago
Within a magic spell
Invoking power from the flow
Within where legends dwell.
The Pantheon, as they were known,
Begat without remorse.
Of all who sat upon a throne,
But one defined the course
Allowing what they customized
To flourish and to grow.
She and the dragons greatly prized
The magic and its flow.
The Aura swirled in Dark and Light
As evil lurked abroad-
Benign were most, but soon a fight
Erupted with a god.
As with all things, corruption cried,
And with a word, they flew-
The maidens armed with wrath espied
And pushed the battle through.
Created by the one who bore
The cat and dragon’s make,
They swiftly eased the dawning war
And chose a place to stake.
The Valkyries had claimed a home
Le’Mae had bade them reign,
And so, it was that they would roam
One day on Plover’s plain.
The powers that they all possessed
United them as one,
Around them prophecy professed
Direction they would run.
As warriors of heaven’s flame,
Defined by shield and sword,
Le’Mae had offered them a name
Befitting their accord.
Of all the deities around,
The panther goddess gave
And offered gifts that were profound
To shine beyond the grave.
The many mortal races made
Had all been so designed
To harness certain gifts displayed
Until they were refined.
As such, the Aura came to be
A means of mystic force.
The colors spoke in harmony;
Forbidden to divorce.
The dwarves had shunned it from the start,
Preferring hand and steel.
The elves and humans found its heart;
Before it, they would kneel.
The orcs and trolls went either way
As Acmar reared its might.
A story for another day …
Returning to the fight,
Deprived of mettle, left and right,
Again, the dwarves inside
Began succumbing to the plight
With nowhere they could hide.
A finger pointed to a room
As through the bulky crowd
Appeared a beastly orc of doom-
Intolerant and proud.
The heaving thrust upon a door
Continued on and on
Until the wood lay on the floor
And all around it, stone.
The throne room of the king and queen,
Abandoned it would seem,
Illuminated wealthy sheen
Reflected in the beam
Before the slobber dripping awe-
Enraged and open wide,
The upper lip and lower jaw
Amazed by all espied
Replied with such a lusty moan,
Preparing to collect
The many treasures now on loan.
No, he did not object.
The rugged tusks protruding out
Exposed his fetid breath,
Enraged, he boasted in a shout
Prepared to summon death.
“You must be patient. Follow through.
Behind the curtain there,”
The Aura user pointed to
A bit of auburn hair.
The beastly orc looked there and back;
A boiling anger brewed.
The woman pointed his attack;
His actions were reviewed.
She hailed from Acmar; human land,
And orcs despised them all.
They did not trust in her command,
But feared her wrath would fall.
Retorting with a snort and growl,
The bulky beast arose.
A few more orcs arrived to prowl,
And then the leader froze.
Above them, something slimy dropped
Onto the rocks below.
All movement then abruptly stopped
For in the gleaming glow
Exuded from the gems around,
The orcs backed in and turned.
The sticky substance they had found
Ignited pain and burned.
Above them, salamanders clung-
A dwarf armed on each back-
Enormous size, the creatures hung,
Protruding crack to crack.
Attacking the invading blight,
Surprised and caught off guard,
The orcs drew forth a blazing light
Surrounding shard to shard.
The dwarves had axes swinging full
As salamanders dove.
Upon the reigns, the rider’s pull
Directed in the cove
An angle or a movement gained
As metal clanked with light.
The Aura had enhanced and stained
The orcs who came to fight.
Around each sword an eerie hum
Emitted as a shine,
Discoloration striking numb
The workers from the mine.
The hidden one behind the cloak
Protected her domain.
Her arcane art created smoke
And filled the room with pain.
The salamander skins dried out
In time for orcs to chop
The heads from off each dying scout;
The battle did not stop.

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: Carol Gyzander

Last week, Jill Girardi joined me to talk about her book to film project, Hantu Macabre, and why Kandisha Press anthologies are a labor of love.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Carol Gyzander. I met Carol at NECON in 2019 when I released Invisible Chains, and I am looking forward to spending more face to face time with her when we are able.

Carol Gyzander read classic science fiction and Agatha Christie mysteries non-stop in her early days. Now that her kids have flown the coop, she writes and edits horror, suspense, dark fiction, and sci-fi stories from her couch—with her black cat firmly Velcroed to her side. 

Her stories are in over a dozen anthologies including Stories We Tell After Midnight fromCrone Girls Press; Across the Universe: Tales of Alternate Beatles from Fantastic Books (amidst stories by Cat Rambo, Spider Robinson and David Gerrold); Cat Ladies of the Apocalypse from Camden Park Press; and The Devil’s Due: Nothing is Ever as it Seems. She also has stories in Hell’s Highways: Terrifying Tales of Tormented Travels and Hell’s Mall: Sinister Shops, Cursed Items and Maddening Crowds from Lafcadia Press. 

As editor-in-chief and one of the founders of Writerpunk Press, she’s edited four anthologies of punk stories inspired by classic tales, including Merely This and Nothing More: Edgar Allan Poe Goes Punk and Hideous Progeny: Classic Horror Goes Punk. The latest, Taught by Time: Myth Goes Punk, comes out summer 2021. Carol works with James Chambers as Co-Coordinators of the Horror Writers Association New York Chapter and as co-hosts of the HWA-NY Galactic Terrors online reading series on the second Thursday of every month. She is also one of the overall Chapter Program Managers for HWA. 

Carol’s a member of Horror Writers Association, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Broad Universe, and Historical Novel Society. Find her at www.CarolGyzander.com or on Twitter @CarolGyzander

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Carol. It has been one year since many of us went into quarantine and had to rethink how we work as writers in terms of promoting our work, connecting with our communities, and just finding the motivation to keep writing. How has the pandemic changed the way you think about writing? What have you done to adapt to the needs of being in quarantine while continuing to promote your work and engaging with the writing communities you belong to? What do you miss about the before times? What do you like about the new ways of doing things within the writing community?

CG: Thank you, Michelle! I love what you’ve been doing with this project.

Can you believe this has been a year? I had a hard time buckling down to do any writing during those first few months but was lucky enough to have several editing projects that kept me busy—it was so much easier to just edit and look at one word after another than it was to create anything. With a freelance schedule and working from home, every day is Blursday.

I usually do a lot of in-person writing with various groups, and of course that went out the window. Pretty soon I was able to pivot to doing group writing events in person! We all sign onto the Zoom session and chat for the first bit, then mute ourselves and work away while the camera is on. Knowing the other people are there working and expecting me to do the same keeps me on track (it’s sometimes called body doubling). People can do this themselves with an inexpensive service at http://www.Focusmate.com .

The most exciting thing I’ve done to stay engaged came through our HWA NY Chapter. We used to do live readings every few months. When it became clear that wasn’t coming back anytime soon, Jim Chambers and I figured out how to host a monthly reading called Galactic Terrors on the StreamYard platform (every second Thursday at 8pm—see HWANY.org for details; replays available at our YouTube channel: https://tinyurl.com/y4gj654q ).

We’ve done seven shows so far with writers from our local chapter, and fabulous guests from all over including Lisa Morton, Linda Addison, Craig DiLouie, Jeff Strand, Lee Murray, Kaaron Warren, Nicole Givens Kurtz and Angela Yuriko Smith. I really miss hanging out and chatting with writers, so we tried to build that into the GT show by having people ask questions in the chat, then doing a Q&A with the writer after their reading. We bring everyone together at the end. One of the things that I do like about this strange new world is that I’ve been able to attend and participate in various online cons that I would not have been able to get to in person. My local sci-fi cons HELIOsphere and Philcon were cool. Getting to WorldCon, the SFWA Nebulas, and a lot more was awesome! I’ve also been able to do more readings with Broad Universe at cons; we’re actually starting an online series that will continue into the future.

GMM: Tell me about Writerpunk Press. How did you get involved, and where did the idea for the anthologies come from? What types of “punk” fiction are covered in your anthologies?

CG: We started from the Writerpunk facebook group of writers who like punk genres. One fellow suggested it would be fun to write punk stories inspired by Shakespeare and we were off! We did two anthologies of stories inspired by the bard, which was my first time being published. It’s a cooperative effort with volunteer writers, editors, artists, layout folks, and marketing people; profits are donated to PAWS Lynnwood, an animal shelter and wildlife rescue located in the Pacific Northwest.

I started out helping with editing and moved into the role of Editor-in-Chief/Managing Editor with our third volume of stories inspired by Poe because I wield a clipboard and spreadsheet well. I work with a crack team of editors and we help writers with content editing, as well as doing copy edits and proofreading the entire novel, of course. I have to say that reviewing the stories as well as the edit suggestions from the editorial team has been really educational and has helped improve my own writing! We followed the Poe volume with one inspired by classic tales you likely read in high school English class, and then classic horror.Taught by Time: Myth Goes Punk, our sixth charity anthology, will be released this summer! We’ve taken the myths, legends and lore that readers love and turned them upside down and inside out. With a wide range of punk genres represented—steampunk, cyberpunk, dreadpunk, nanopunk, biopunk and atompunk—there’s sure to be something for everyone in this volume. Details will be on my website.

GMM: You write in several genres, but I know you through the horror community. When did you begin writing horror? What subgenres of horror do you write? Do you cross genres, or stay true to the conventions and tropes of the genres by keeping them separate? Which genre(s) are your favorite to write in? What are you currently working on?

CG: It was actually Writerpunk that drew me into horror! I was writing cyberpunk tales for the anthologies, which is a pretty dark genre to begin with—one of the themes is that the common person tries to better their circumstances against the corporation but winds off worse than before they started. Then, rereading almost all of Poe and the classic horror stories really hooked me (I read the originals to ensure that some key component is represented in the new story).

I was also going through a pretty dark period five years ago, having taken both of my parents through Alzheimer’s. Writing horror really helps me explore some of the dark stuff and bring it into the light where it can be released. I think it’s one of the genres that truly allows us to do that well.

I do indeed like to blend genres. Most of my horror writing is quiet or soft horror; I aspire to do what the Twilight Zone tales did, where everything starts out normal and then starts going subtly … wrong. I blended this approach with the satanic bargain sub-genre in the “Face It” excerpt (which gives you a hit of where the story goes next!). I also love cosmic horror; one of my stories, “Stars the Color of Hope” is a cyberpunk tale inspired by Lovecraft’s “The Colour out of Space.” Currently, I’m writing short stories for various places (I love kraken stories) and working on a novel that links together two of the Shakespeare novellas I wrote—can’t beat cyberpunk Macbeth!

Call back to Women in Horror Month

CG: I did an online reading with Syosset Public Library and HWA NY Chapter for Women in Horror Month. Readers were Linda D Addison (an HWA Lifetime Achievement Award recipient), plus three writers from HWA-NY: Meghan Arcuri, April Grey and me. We each came up with five women horror writers we recommend people follow (hint: Michelle is on my list!) and I made a short video to showcase our selections.http://carolgyzanderauthor.com/2021/02/25/women-in-horror-month-our-recommendations/

“Face It” by Carol Gyzander, published in The Devil’s Due: Nothing is Ever as it Seems (2020)

Connor drove down the two-lane highway, heading to their country house after their latest visit to the hospital. Amy, his wife, sat dozing in the seat next to him. It was late at night and she was exhausted from the rounds of medical testing she had undergone. Again. None of it had shown any difference.

No good news.

He sighed and rubbed his face to try and wake up, his blue eyes bleary with fatigue. Wouldn’t do to run off the road. I’m just so tired—tired of it all.

His glance flickered over to his wife. The side of her face that was toward him was smooth and unlined, but he knew what the other side looked like. Had been staring at it over breakfast every day for the past two years. Creased and full of pus-filled blisters—and part of the cheekbone eaten away. Her eye was sunken down into her face.

It was just a matter of time until it spread to the side nearest him. Or her brain. For now, in this moment, he could almost pretend she was not affected by the terrible disease.

But deep down in his heart, he knew she was dying. Knew what the doctors told them every time—there was no cure, no way of arresting the progress of the flesh-eating disease. They even had a name for it—ETR—that made his fists clench and his stomach roil. He knew the letters stood for some technical terms but could never make himself remember the acronym. He couldn’t get past the idea that the damn disease was eating his wife alive and just called it EATER.

Her head lolled a little as she slept, turning toward him, and when he glanced over the next time he saw the ravage of the other side of her face, which extended down her neck and shoulder into her arm. Her hand was clenched and twisted in her lap.

EATER? Fuck me.

He replayed in his mind the reaction of the people at the hospital as he’d brought her in. The way even the medical professionals had pulled back from her. Not to mention the way ordinary people reacted to the two of them. It’d gotten difficult for them to go out in public anymore—people feared she was contagious, which she wasn’t, and countless times they had been refused service at a restaurant or asked to leave a cocktail lounge.

People wouldn’t even shake his hand.

Connor and Amy had been the “it” couple for years, with money, prestige, society connections. Then their busy social life, once so bright and vibrant, had slipped away as her EATER disease progressed. They spent most of the time home alone. Friends no longer stopped by to visit. What kind of life is this—for either of us?

She had pleaded with him to help her finish the struggle. “I just can’t do it myself,” she’d said. “But I can’t stand what this is doing to you. To us. But mostly to you. I know I’m going to die. Where’s the quality of life anymore?” Her one good eye had searched his bright blue ones, looking for some kind of a response.

He had refused, of course. How could he kill his wife? Even if she begged him, which she had. In a stunning display of the power that desperation and anxiety could have over a strong person, she had let her normally capable veneer slip to show her inner fear.

And he had turned her down. What does that make me?

Don’t I love her anymore? Or maybe I’m just afraid of going to jail.

Of course, he already felt like he was in jail. No friends, no life, just stay home and watch Netflix while he took care of his sick wife. She didn’t deserve it, but then again, he didn’t, either.

Only one part of his mind was on the driving, as they were the only car on the road at that late hour. He took a corner on the rural road a bit too fast and the car swerved along the shoulder. He gave himself a scare as he yanked the wheel to pull the car back into the lane.

Wow. Almost drove right off the road there. Would’ve hit the trees … and at this speed. Damn. Well, if it killed us at least she would’ve gotten her wish.

He mulled this thought as he drove along at a more sedate speed. She had not even woken when the car swerved. Had no idea of the danger they had just averted. The steady consumption of painkillers her condition required left her mostly absent from his world.

But if I do that, it kills us both. Is that what she wants? I don’t think so. She just wants to end her suffering and therefore end mine. She doesn’t want for me to die too.

Right?

He looked over at her again and then reached out to hold her hand where it lay on her lap. I love you, darling. But maybe you are right. This is no life for you.

Or for me.

He released her hand and slid his fingers down to the buckle of her seatbelt. Pushed in the button. Released the belt, controlling it to let it retract quietly into the door.

Okay. I’m not really going to do it. But if I do fall asleep on the road, she wouldn’t want to walk away from the accident.

Right? She wouldn’t.

Of course, I would be okay. Oodles of airbags in this car. I mean, with my seatbelt on and the airbags, I’m sure I’d be fine. What about her? He looked over at the dashboard on her side of the car. Saw the button for the passenger airbag. Idly reached up a hand and stroked the button. Pushed it in. It lit up.

Passenger airbag OFF.

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: Jill Girardi

Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with Gemma Files. She had a lot to say about her writing process, what inspires her, and why she writes horror. My favorite quote from last week’s interview is…

“…horror is the place where all the non-default people can meet, a place where becoming or realizing you’ve always been what most people see as “a monster” might not be such a bad thing.”

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes one of the kindest an most supportive women in indie publishing who is doing her damnedest to promote the work of female horror writers around the world, Jill Girardi.

Jill Girardi is the author of Hantu Macabre, the internationally best-selling novel featuring punk rock paranormal detective Suzanna Sim and Tokek the toyol. Suzanna and Tokek will also be taken to the big screen, as a full-length film based on the characters, set to start shooting in 2021, with former MMA Fighter Ann Osman starring as Suzanna. A special revised edition and movie-tie-in of the book will be published by Crimson Creek Press in the near future. Jill currently lives in New York where she is the editor of the Kandisha Press Women of Horror Anthology books. Please find her on Instagram/Twitter @jill_girardi or @kandishapress

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Jill. Tell me about Hantu Macabre. Was it your first novel? Where did the idea for a punk rock paranormal detective come from? What was the process of turning your novel into a film? What have you enjoyed so far about the process? What has been most difficult? What advice would you give writers who are interested in seeing their work on screen?

JG: Thank you so much. It’s an honor to be featured here! Yes, Hantu Macabre was my first novel, and actually was only my second published work. My first published work was a short story called “Don’t Eat the Rice” which featured the characters that would later be in the book. After having lived in Malaysia for many years, I became obsessed with Hantu – the Malay term for ghosts and creepy folklore. I particularly enjoyed the legend of the toyol. A toyol is a deceased child, resurrected by black magic, for the purposes of stealing money and other valuables for its master. He’s quite a comical figure in Malay folklore, as he’s not a very adept thief, is childlike and easily distracted from his mission by toys. I played with the idea of having an occult detective solving crimes with the help of a toyol for several years before actually sitting down to write the first story. It wasn’t until I was back in New York, miserable and missing Malaysia, that I really got going on it. The punk rock part came about as I was a music producer for many years. So I wanted to evoke that fun atmosphere in the book.

I really can’t even give any advice on the process of going into film as the whole movie deal kind of fell into my lap. The director and film company owner (Aaron Cowan and Jo Luping) picked up the book in a bookstore, and later got in touch with me about doing the film, which will be titled “Best Served Cold,” and is based on my original short story as well as the novel.

GMM: How did Kandisha Press get started? Why were you interested in creating a press? And what inspired you to devote three anthologies to the work of female horror writers? Do you have plans for more anthologies in this series? Do you know what themes you’ll use next?

JG: I honestly just wanted to do an anthology for fun, and never really thought things would take off the way they have. I’ve always been obsessed with books. They give me a high that nothing else in life has ever done (I’m sure anyone reading this understands this feeling very well!) The thought of being able to do my own book was so exciting, I just couldn’t resist giving it a shot. I had noticed that many of the anthologies I was reading or even being featured in had a very skewed ratio of men to women, so I felt it was only right to do an all-women book. I do have plans to continue the series, though it is a bit chaotic right now as things have been moving faster than I was prepared for. So I need to slow down a bit and get things organized. My lovely BFF (Best Frightening Fiend) Janine Pipe is really stepping in at this time, filling in the gaps and holding things down while we get things figured out. She is also working on her own soon to be announced project for Kandisha. I’ve long had an idea to do a Heavy Metal themed anthology, so that may be the next route we travel.

GMM: What are you working on right now? What does your dream project look like, and what steps would you need to take to make it happen?

JG: Right now I’m revising Hantu Macabre, rewriting it and fixing all my rookie mistakes. It will be reissued in a special edition by Crimson Creek Press. And then hopefully I can work on the second book in the series, and continue doing the Kandisha books. My dream project would be writing just about anything in peace and quiet. I dream of going to a hotel for a week, turning off my phone, and just finishing the damn book ala Paul Sheldon.

EXCERPT FROM “THE NIGHT WOULD BE OUR EYELIDS”
BY JILL GIRARDI
(First published in December 2020 in Know Your Enemy, an anthology by J. Ellington Ashton Press)

It’s 2019, and I’m back in New York for the first time in years. I’m thirty-three and divorced, trying to assimilate into a world I’ve never belonged in. A few nights ago, I downloaded Tinder on a whim, and now I’m out with a younger man who grew up in the same area as I did. On the way to dinner, he talks a lot about his vegan diet and religious doctrine. I imagine how his face would look if I told him I’ve dined on bloody-rare steak with unfathomable devils. I don’t think he’d ask me for a second date.

The route we take to the restaurant goes past the walled-in forest area on the outskirts of my hometown. Nestled inside are the ruins of the abandoned psychiatric hospital where I once fought for survival. We pass a pedestrian bridge built high over the railroad tracks. I’ve been running from that bridge half my life. Now my date is pointing it out to me.

“A girl died there when I was in junior high. Her best friend pushed her off the cage at the top.”

“She didn’t push her,” I mumble as I stare at the massive steel structure. It’s imposing, rigid, unchangeable even by the rust and dust of time. I clear my throat, forcing myself to speak up. “Can we change the subject?”

He won’t let it go. “I’m sure the other girl shoved her. Oh yeah—they also killed someone else—one of their stepfathers or something. It was in all the newspapers. They repeated the story on News 12 every hour.”

I fight to maintain my composure. “Look, this was a bad idea. You should take me home now.” He turns his head and looks at me as he drives down the dark road. In a split second, he figures it out. He gets a bit too excited over my teenage tragedy.

“Holy shit—it was you! I knew your name sounded familiar.” He pauses, stroking his hipster beard with one hand as he steers with the other. The fool is about to ask the dreaded question. I can feel it.

“So, what happened? Did you push her?”

“Keep your eyes on the goddamn road!” I snap at him as he drifts into the path of an oncoming car. He swerves while the other driver honks his horn and screams out his open window. Our car slams to a stop on the gravel in front of the bridge’s cement steps.
The other driver shouts again as he zips by. The obscenities he heaps on my date are nothing compared to the names I call him. His eyes widen as I let loose on him, revealing the dark side I keep hidden on my dating profile. I can tell he’s afraid of me. He has that look on his face—the same look everyone had after my discharge from Four Pines Mental Health Center.

My date stammers, trying to contain the situation before things get dangerous. He apologizes, but I’m already lost. I should have known I wouldn’t fit into his orderly, well-governed existence, where people rarely stray from their rote behavior. My world is a darker place, where monsters do exist, and they’re not under your bed, nor do they have horns and tails. They’re your everyday friends and neighbors, the ones who appear normal on the surface, yet their skins house indescribable evils. This evil has infected me too. I’ll never be free of it, no matter how hard I rail against it.

I slip into silence as I stare out the window. My mind is hurtling back to the days when I was seventeen, and I had the world at my fingertips, but I blew 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 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: Gemma Files

Last week I wrapped up my month-long celebration of black women horror writers for Women in Horror Month/Black History Month with an interview with Zin E. Rocklyn, a.k.a. Teri Clarke. If you haven’t had a chance to read all of the interviews I did last month, take some time and and get caught up now. These women have a lot to say about writing horror while black and female and how their personal experiences and intersectionalities have an impact on what they write about.

This week, Girl Meets Monster is back to business as usual, with a fragment and an interview with Gemma Files.

Formerly a film critic, journalist, screenwriter and teacher, Gemma Files has been an award-winning horror author since 1999. She has published four collections of short work, three collections of speculative poetry, a Weird Western trilogy, a story-cycle and a stand-alone novel (Experimental Film, which won the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel and the 2016 Sunburst Award for Best Adult Novel). She has a new story collection just out from Grimscribe Press (In This Endlessness, Our End), and another upcoming.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Gemma. Thank you for taking time to chat with me a bit. Tell me about your newest collection of stories, In This Endlessness, Our End. Is there an overarching theme, or threads that connect the stories? Are all of the stories new, or are there some reprints? How do you decide which stories to include? Did you have a plan in mind when you started the collection?

GF: So, the funny thing is that as it turned out, all the stories in this collection were essentially written—finished, at any rate—within the time-period from about a year before Trump’s election to almost the end of his (hopefully only) term in office. The fact that they were originally intended to be published by my former home imprint, ChiZine Publications, which suddenly and acrimoniously collapsed in November of 2019, is also interesting, in hindsight; so is the fact that Jon Padgett at Grimscribe chose to pick the book up during a global pandemic. Which means that the overarching theme of all these stories is the sort of fear you feel when the world you think you know tilts on you in a way which only seems “sudden” at the moment it happens, as well as the guilt and grief which come when you realize you saw [this, whatever “this” is] coming from miles away, and simply chose to ignore those warning signs as they mounted because…well, because you wanted to. Because you liked your life, and the illusions it was rooted in. Because you hoped things had gotten better, and you forgot that every ten years, a generation comes of age who haven’t lived through the same things you have, so they have to have experiences which will prove the same basic facts about human nature over and over and over again. Etc.

It’s easy to say, of course, that the theme of every horror collection is fear. But I do find it oddly significant that the first story in the TOC—“This Is How It Goes”—happens to be set during the aftermath of a body horror plague that rips around the world like a creepypasta come true, moving from urban myth/internet rumour to immediate reality within forty-eight hours at the most. When I read it on The Outer Dark Podcast recently, I called it a “pre-pandemic post-pandemic tale.” So, these particular stories ring with a very current sort of fear, for me. Whether other people will see it that way as well is up to them, I guess.

The stories are all reprints, basically, though because I often get published in fairly obscure places, I expect that a lot of them will be new to most readers aside from those solicited by people like Ellen Datlow (“Cut Frame,” from her Hollywood Horror anthology Final Cuts; “The Puppet Motel,” from Echoes: The Saga Anthology of Ghost Stories). And no, I didn’t have this in mind when I put the book together, it just shook out that way. The one thing I have in common with the Joker is I’m not much of a planner.

GMM: So, you mention that you’ve written a story-cycle and a Weird Western series. What is the difference between a story-cycle and a series, and how does your process change from project to project–short stories versus stand-alone novels versus a series, etc.? Do you decide on what shape your stories will take before you write them, or do the stories evolve into the appropriate length to fit the story as you write them?

GF: The Weird Western series—my Hexslinger books—basically filled in a three-act, chapter-driven narrative over three separate novels. I’d made an outline at the very beginning for what I thought would be one book (A Book of Tongues), only to find that by the time I’d written 100,000 words I’d only gotten to what was fairly obviously the first break-point; I kept to that outline throughout, moving through it linearly, as if I was writing a trilogy of screenplays. The story-cycle, on the other hand—We Will All Go Down Together: Stories of the Five-Family Coven—was built around a base of stories reprinted and slightly polished from earlier in my career, ones which inhabited an urban paranormal universe I only slowly realized was anchored by the same cast of characters, all of whom were literally related to each other. I sprinkled them through in non-linear order, introducing those characters and the five families they belonged to as I went, while also writing/finishing four new novellas that made these connections clear and brought the overall story to a climax. I like to call it my Alice Munro book, except with evil angels, witches, monster-killing nuns and the Fae.

As for whether I made either of those decisions strategically…yeah, not really. Sometimes I think the only method I have for knowing if a story is finished is: “Does it feel ‘right?’ Okay, then.” I do know that with the Five-Family Coven stuff, I essentially wanted to prove to myself that polite, clean Toronto, Canada could be just as dark, weird and potentially awful as any other city written about from that angle by one of its citizens. It started out as what I called my Toronto Dark phase, then got more and more complicated, like a bunch of in-jokes which grew legs and started to walk on their own. And even now, I still continue to use that universe as the back-story of a lot of my more recent tales; a minor character from We Will All Go Down Together plays a main role in “Cut Frame,” for example, plus a minor role in “The Puppet Motel.” It’s there if you look for it. 

Otherwise, the shape of a story is usually dictated by the voice of the person who’s telling it, or the perspective of the person who’s living it. My plots are often a little more complicated than they need to be, but I don’t believe that plot and character can be completely separated. It’s not just “this happened,” it’s “this happened, because someone did something.” As Bill Duke says in Menace 2 Society, speaking for/to almost all my protagonists, “You know you fucked up, right?”

GMM: Why horror? What draws you to the genre? Have you written in other genres? What do you like most about horror as a writer? As a reader? After winning the Shirley Jackson Award, did you automatically feel like a bonafide horror writer, or do you still struggle with impostor syndrome? Has winning awards changed you as a writer?

GF: A deep and sparkling darkness has always been what draws me towards the things I love, at least in terms of art. I mean, I started out ostensibly liking science fiction, but soon figured out A) what I liked was actually space opera, because B) I’m really not that great with science, outside the purely biological. Also, my formative life was full of fear, so horror seemed like “home” to me…normal, natural, understandable.

Part of my journey after my son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder was coming to realize that if a diagnosis of Asperger’s had been something people were looking for (in girls, or at all) back when I was at my worst as a kid, I might well have gotten one. I’m 52 now, so I’ve worked very hard to pass as neurotypical, but most of my life has been spent second-guessing my own instincts and berating myself for being born somehow “wrong.” The fact that that alone doesn’t make me super-different from a lot of other similarly diverse people isn’t lost on me, either; I’ve gotten away with a lot over the years, on account of reading as a typical cishet white lady. But again, I think it still has a lot to do with me feeling as if horror is the place where all the non-default people can meet, a place where becoming or realizing you’ve always been what most people see as “a monster” might not be such a bad thing.

“…horror is the place where all the non-default people can meet, a place where becoming or realizing you’ve always been what most people see as “a monster” might not be such a bad thing.”

I spent my high school years reading Tanith Lee, Peter Straub and Clive Barker, my university years reading Caitlin R. Kiernan, Billy Martin (then Poppy Z. Brite) and Kathe Koja. My favourite movies were things like Nightbreed and Near Dark, stuff about found families bound together by hunger rather than affinity. And all of this stuff came together in my writing, which from the very beginning was dictated by the old adage that if you can’t find what you want in the world, you may well be forced to make some. One of the things I’ve become very proud of, over the years, is the idea that I’ve somehow indulged or inspired other people doing the same thing, giving way to their own ids/needs and letting the devil drive. Someone told me once that my story “Kissing Carrion” told her it was okay for women to do that, and I was like: “Oh, the story about a woman who makes a puppets out of a human corpse so she can fuck her necrophile boyfriend with it, while the ghost that used to be the corpse hovers nearby invisibly going WHAAAATTTT?!? Cool!” I’m down for monster pride in any and every form.

Winning the Shirley Jackson Award for Experimental Film was a huge surprise, but that was also absolutely the award I knew I’d be happiest winning, because I’ve never pretended to be anything but a horror writer. Even my fantasy is always “dark”; even my nonfiction is always Weird. As Yukio Mishima put it, my heart’s yearning has always been to night, and death, and blood. But yeah, imposter syndrome truly doesn’t go away. I fight it by writing to a deadline, writing like it’s a job, and never fooling myself into thinking that the stuff which comes out of me is somehow so pure and beautiful it doesn’t need to be cut, tweaked or otherwise rewritten. Things can always get better, and an outside eye is a gift.

500+ WORDS OF SOMETHING NEW

Gemma Files

One thing a job like mine teaches is that people will say all sorts of things when they’re dying. It’s like the process breaks something open inside them, some long-buried infectious reservoir, a quick-draining sick-pocket. They don’t even have to know what’s happening, let alone accept it; they might still be entirely convinced they’ll survive, but it doesn’t matter. A sort of punch-drunkenness takes over, an irrepressible urge to confess.

 “I put my hand under the pillow, and that’s where I found it,” Mrs Camp told me, one morning, as I stripped her mattress so I could check it for night-sweat and all sorts of other fluids. “Then it bit down, so I couldn’t get it out again.”

“Found what, ma’am?” I asked, only half-listening. Wet bedsheets I could deal with; did, almost every day, and hardly just with her. It was sponging down the rubber mattress covers that always took up the most time, because we had to move the clients while they dried; bleach on urine never is the best smell, and it does tend to stick around. Some of (the bulk of) the lazy fools I worked with would just stick whoever they’d cleaned up for back in bed immediately, ignoring the fact that bedsores don’t react any better when crossed with cleaning product than feeble lungs do when exposed to corrosive funk. But screw it—no matter how much I longed to get shed of this job, I was determined to at least be a little better at it than those assholes.

“A mouth, wide open, like I said already. With teeth.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound good,” I told her, to which she smiled, revealing her own teeth.They looked like a busted-up china doll’s.

“No, it does not. Are you married, Kevin?”

“KeVon, ma’am. And no.”

“Oh, that’s a shame, then—big, good-looking fellow like you. I bet you’ve made a fair deal of women cry, in your time.”

Probably, I thought, the faces of all those poor girls I’d “dated” in high school suddenly coming back to me in a weird sort of flip-book flash, fluttering across my inner eye before breaking apart against the hard bone bell of my skull, disappearing into darkness. But not ’cause I wanted to, no, ma’am. Only ’cause I wasn’t strong enough yet to know who I really was, let alone to say it. 

“I do try not to, ma’am,” I told her, angling her wheelchair next to the flower-pots where I knew she liked it best. Those gardenias, heads bent over and dripping, plumped up fulsome on the very edge of decay. You could just see her faded eyes light up at the sight of them.

“Beautiful,” she told me. “Oh, Kevin. There’s still a whole lot to love in this world, isn’t there? Even now. Even here.”

“Yes, ma’am, there sure is.”

She nodded, sunk in thought. Then whispered, almost to herself, as I was turning back to see what might or might not yet be on offer from the kitchen: “But then the sun goes down and the lights go out. Then I go out, and they come in.”

At that last part, my heart gave a strange little leap, tapping itself against my breastbone like it was knocking on some door hid inside my chest. “Who’s that, ma’am?” I asked her, standing there with my hip thrown out so awkward it hurt, but not quite able to go on to my next step ’til she replied.

(God only knew, the membrane between sleep and death certainly did seem to stretch thin enough to see things through, sometimes, in life’s very last stages. Things you shouldn’t be able to see, under more normal circumstances.)

Mrs Camp just kept on staring at those damn flowers, though, like she was waiting for them to speak instead. “Oh, nothing at all, I’m sure, Kevin,” was all she said, at last. “Must be I’m being silly—mixing stuff up. Old people do that, you know.”

“Yes ma’am,” I agreed. “And young people too, on occasion.”

She nodded and lowered what she had left for lashes, then threw me a glance I’d’ve surely called flirty if she weren’t terminal, and knew herself to be so.

“Mmm-hmm,” she said. “That’s surely true.”

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.

Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Valjeanne Jeffers

Last week I had some very interesting conversations with Violette Meier and Aziza Sphinx. If you haven’t checked out their posts, or the previous posts in this Women in Horror Month/Black History Month series, please do so.

Today, Girl Meets Monster has the pleasure of welcoming Valjeanne Jeffers.

Valjeanne Jeffers is a speculative fiction writer, a Spelman College graduate, a member of the Horror Writers Association and the Carolina African America Writers’ Collective. She is the author of ten books, including her Immortal and her Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective series. Valjeanne has been published in numerous anthologies including: Steamfunk!; The Ringing Ear; Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. ButlerFitting In: Historical Accounts of Paranormal SubculturesSycorax’s Daughters; Black Magic Women, The Bright Empire, and, most recently, All the Songs We Sing, Bledrotica Volume I, and Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire.

Ten Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Valjeanne. 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?

VJ: Hi Michelle, thank you for having me. I’ve just released the 3rd novel of my Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective series: The Case of the Vanishing Child. It’s a horror/steamfunk novel based in an alternate world, and the main character, Mona, is both a sleuth and a sorceress. I’m also working on a screenplay of my novel, The Switch II: Clockwork.

Horror isn’t my primary genre, but it’s one of my favorites. I write under the broad umbrella of Speculative Fiction, so I also write science fiction/fantasy, which is also described as Afrofuturism. I feel comfortable writing in almost any genre, and I tend to mix them. The Switch II: Clockwork, for example, is a steamfunk novel, but it is also Afrofuturistic.

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?

VJ: I actually didn’t think of myself as a horror writer until author Sumiko Saulson featured my writing in 100+ Black Women in Horror. Sumiko told me that my readers had approached her and asked that she include my Immortal series. I was both amazed and honored. That’s when I decided to add horror to my writing menu, and I went out of my way in my Mona Livelong series to scare my readers.

I’ve always enjoyed reading and watching horror. I can remember watching horror movies with my parents (for example, The Shining), and as a little girl, I was addicted to Dark Shadows. The first horror writer I fell in love with was Stephen King. Of course, when I first began reading horror there were no writers that looked like me. All of this changed in the 1990s. I discovered Octavia Butler, and later Nalo Hopkinson, Brandon Massey and Tananarive Due. These are writers, along with Richard Wright and James Baldwin, that I credit as my earliest influences. They continue to impact my writing, as well as Keith Gaston and N.K. Jemison.

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?

VJ: I’m sure she meant that African America history is one of trauma and violence: from our being kidnapped and dragged to American shores, through the Jim Crow and the Civil Rights era, our history is filled with tales of horror. Our stories are often those of pain and trauma.

Richard Wright, in Black Boy, says, “This was the culture from which I sprang, this was the terror from which I fled.” Yet our stories are also those of incredible victories because we refused to submit, to give up. Instead, we pushed on. We blossomed, and we continue to blossom like a garden of black roses.

As a black woman, I am grappling with issues of those that came before me, and those that we face in present times. This may find its way onto my pages. But I write with optimism and hope. And I always strive give my readers an exciting tale they can sink their teeth into.

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?

VJ: I don’t feel obligated to include a deeper message in my stories, and some of my favorite authors write without doing so. I’ve certainly never started one with this intent. Sometimes a story is just a story, meant to entertain and nothing more. But I do find myself writing about flawed heroines and heroes, men and women who are fighting to save themselves and their worlds. Often the demons they’re fighting are personal ones; life is always in session. There are no perfect people, and so my characters are imperfect as well. Who you are, and what you’re battling, will always find its way onto the page, and this is where I find myself writing, too, about larger issues of race, gender and class.

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

VJ: My top five horror movies are: The Shining; Tales from the Hood; Get Out; Dr. Sleep, and When a Stranger Calls. I like horror movies with well-developed plots and characters, and layers of suspense that build to a nail biting crescendo. I also prefer horror flicks with a racially diverse cast of characters, which is a lot easier to come by nowadays.

My top favorite horror novels are: Wild Seed (Octavia Butler); Into the Dark (Brandon Massey); The Good House (Tananarive Due); It (Stephen King) and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (N.K. Jemison). I’d have to say Into the Dark scared me the most.

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?

VJ: There are some white authors who are very skillful at creating “flesh and blood” non-white characters. One writer in particular, who is also one of my favorites, is Tad Williams; his Otherland series is brilliant. What I mean by “flesh and blood,” are well rounded characters, who black and brown folks can identify with. In contrast, there are other white authors I’ve encountered, whose non-white characters are cardboard cutouts, overlaid with stereotypes.   My advice to these authors is: if you don’t have black and brown friends, real friends mind you, perhaps it’s best if you don’t write about people of color. This might sound harsh, but one of the first pieces of writing advice that I received was: “Write what you know.” Every character I’ve created is a compilation of diverse men and women I’ve met, studied, or both, and myself.

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?

VJ: I have experienced feelings of self-doubt and feelings that I don’t “measure up” as a writer. But when I’m at my lowest, my readers, and other writers, often help me get through it. I’ve received uplifting emails from folks who love my latest project, and sometimes even a post on my Facebook page. I think I speak for most authors when I say: we write for ourselves and for our readers. I cherish every one of them.

GMM: Tell me about Mona Livelong. What or who inspired this character? Without too many spoilers, can you give some insight into her backstory, and why she became a detective? Why a paranormal detective as opposed to a detective who solves basic human problems?

VJ: Mona Livelong sprang from the same inspiration as Karla, the main character of my Immortal series. Both characters are based upon Carla, a young woman who babysat me when I was living in Los Angeles. Carla’s mother, as well as her youngest brother, died and she was raising her two surviving siblings while attending college. I remember her as an intelligent, compassionate young woman, who was determined to achieve her goals.

Mona is cut from this same cloth. She’s strong, but also vulnerable, and she’s known tragedy. She was born a sorceress and decided to use her gifts to help her community, solving cases regular detectives can’t solve. As to why she’s a paranormal detective, when I create a character, he or she will almost always be supernatural. I love Speculative Fiction just that much.

GMM: Some writers work best in silence, and others prefer to listen to music when they write. How has music influenced your work? What kinds of music do like to listen to when you’re writing? How does it help with your process?

VJ: I can write in silence, but I prefer listening to music when I write, especially if I’m working on character or plot development. If I’m doing either one, I usually listen to jazz or R&B (for example, WAR and Barry White). If I’m writing an action scene, I’m definitely listening to Hip Hop or Classic Rock. I’ve actually acted out action scenes while listening to music; it helps me visualize what’s happening to my characters, and if the scene will “work.”

GMM: If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your younger self? How would you have approached becoming a writer? Would you have done anything differently, or would you have followed the same path?

VJ: If I could give young Valjeanne any advice I would tell her, “Keep writing Speculative Fiction, sweetheart, and don’t stop. No matter what anyone says.” I began writing poetry and stories as a young girl. My only regret is that I took a hiatus and didn’t dive back in until years later. This is the only thing I would change.

Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective III: The Case of the Vanishing Child. (synopsis) The threads of a blood chilling mystery … A world torn in half. A young black man desperate to avenge his murdered brethren. A white supremacist with the terrifying power to alter reality. And a little girl trapped in the eye of the storm. Detective Mona Livelong takes on her most dangerous case yet, as she races to save the life of an innocent child, and countless others hanging in the balance. Cover art by Quinton Veal.

Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective III: The Case of The Vanishing Child (excerpt)

Breath brings word
Nappy Dusky Longing Song
Song like my own
—Maya’s Kwansaba

A solitary cafe au lait-colored man with freckles, his thick hair tied back with cords, walked to the lot behind the Constabulary Station. Keeping his head down, Richard Starks moved silently through the rows of steam-autos parked there. He walked past them, looking carefully at the numbers painted on the auto doors. When he found the one he sought, he crouched on the other side of the steam-auto and waited.

He didn’t have to wait long. Minutes later, a burly white Constable exited the station and walked through the lot. He hunkered down before the auto and started turning the crank.

Richard drew a dagger from the folds of his shirt. Moving swiftly, he crept from the side of the car. As the Constable rose from his haunches, the black man sprang— stabbing him over and over. The Constable fell to his knees and then toppled over, twitching and bleeding at Richard’s feet. Moments later, he was dead.

Shaking and crying, Richard stood over him. At length, he calmed himself and slipped the dagger back

inside his shirt. He wiped his face with his arm and stepped over the dead Constable to the side of the auto. He drew a symbol on the steam-auto door with his bloody fingers and spoke the mantra, “Kuja kwangu mpendwa wangu kwa maana ni kisasi mimi kutafuta … Come to me my beloved, for it is vengeance I seek.”

Diaphanous shades smudged into view. In the next instant three figures towered over him, their faces shifting in the darkness … from black to red … green to blue … female to male … It made him dizzy trying to hone in on their features. He realized that perhaps he was not meant to see their faces. Perhaps it would drive him insane. He fixed his vision on a point beyond their huge shoulders.

The one on his left spoke, “You summoned us, little one?”

“Yes,” Richard whispered.

“You know what it is you seek?” said the second one asked.

“We cannot harm the innocent,” the third entity intoned.

For the first time anger crept into the young man’s voice. “They ain’t innocent. They’re murderers.

The spirits spoke in one basso profundo voice, “So be it.”

Rivulets of blood ran down the Constabulary building. The dead officer sat up. His wounds healed, and

his eyes glazed over with a white film. Then they turned blue once more. The blood vanished. The Constable got to his knees, crouching before the auto, and finished turning the crank. The motor sputtered to life. He stood and walked to the driver’s side, got into the auto and drove from the lot.

Constable Burt Phillips, a thick-set white officer, pulled his steam-auto up to the curb beside his flat. Burt put his auto in park, got out and turned the crank on his steam-auto, shutting the engine off. He was feeling good this evening—better than he’d felt in weeks. For awhile, he’d thought that Eddie Plumb, the unarmed black man he’d killed months ago, was haunting him.

He’d been drinking the night he killed Plumb and in a foul mood. I just wanted respect. That darkie needed to be put in his place.

Plumb had walked pass Burt that night, his eyes insolent, his back straight and proud. Something had snapped inside Burt. He’d shouted at Plumb over and over to stop walking, but the young man ignored him. So Burt shot him in the back. When questioned by Internal Affairs, he’d told a different story: Eddie was a robbery suspect, who’d fled when he ordered him to stop.

The DA cleared me. That’s that.

The week of his death, Eddie Plumb had appeared in Burt’s steam-auto and, for weeks afterwards, he’d rode beside Burt—mocking him, insulting him, calling him a murderer. Then just as suddenly he was gone. Burt had dismissed Eddie as a hallucination brought on by the stress of the hearing.

Certainly. he bore no guilt over killing Plumb. Darkies getting out of control. In my daddy’s time they knew their place. That’s one that won’t make trouble no more.

His daddy had been a hard man, and even harder to love. But love him Burt did, through all the beatings, through all the times he’d found his mother bloodied from his old man’s fists.

His father’s most essential rule, THE RULE, was that he should hate anyone who wasn’t white. “Keep ‘em under your boot son,” this was said with the utmost emphasis during the few times he’d shown Burt affection. “For a white man, ain’t nothing more important.” His daddy had hated black and brown folks, and Burt loved his daddy. So, he hated them too. He opened the door to his flat and stepped inside.

——

Richard sat in the darkness. The only illumination came from the moon and the streetlight outside his window. He shut his eyes.

When he opened them, his room had been transformed. Thick grass grew under his feet. He stared into a gold, orange and blue sunset, a half-smile of wonderment on his face. To his right, the walls and door of his flat remained. Straight ahead, camel thorn trees spouted in the brush. In the distance, he could hear the steady rhythm of drums and a faint whisper. Richard cocked his head to the right. Listening.

He nodded and shut his eyes once more. His spirit rose from the chair. He looked back at his body then walked out into the night. Those he passed on the street could not see him … But they felt him as a breeze.

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 Friday!

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

Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Violette Meier

Last week I had two amazing conversations with Sumiko Saulson and Tonia Ransom. If you missed either of those interviews and fragments, go check them out.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes the prolific speculative fiction writer, Violette Meier.

Violette Meier is a happily married mother, writer, folk artist, poet, and native of Atlanta, Georgia, who earned her B.A. in English at Clark Atlanta University and a Masters of Divinity at Interdenominational Theological Center. The great-granddaughter of a dream interpreter, Violette is a lover of all things supernatural and loves to write paranormal, fantasy, and horror. She is always working on something new. Her latest work in progress, called Oracles, should be released by winter 2021.Her published books include: The First Chronicle of Zayashariya: Out of Night, Angel Crush, Son of the Rock, Archfiend, Ruah the Immortal, Tales of a Numinous Nature: A Short Story Collection, Hags, Haints, and Hoodoo: A Supernatural Short Story Collection, Loving and Living Life, Violette Ardor: A Volume of Poetry, This Sickness We Call Love: Poems of Love, Lust, and Lamentation, and two children’s books: I Would Love You and Would You Love Me?

Ten Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Violette.  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?

VM: Thanks for having me! Right now, I’m not working on a novel called, Oracles. It’s a supernatural reflection of an old woman’s life on her 101st birthday. Horror is one of my genres. I also write paranormal thrillers, urban fantasy, and science fantasy. Maybe to some, it’s all horror. I’m not sure because nothing ever scares me. What may seem slightly eerie to me may be scary to someone else.

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?

VM: I knew I was a horror writer when I was a teen because I was so fascinated with ghost stories and all things of a numinous nature. Every time I wrote something, it always went to the left.

I grew up with a great grandmother who told so many ghost stories, that as a child I was always on the lookout for a haint. I was comfortable with fear and uncertainty. Honestly, I don’t know if I’m capable of writing something normal. Dean Koontz and Stephen King were my favorite horror writers when I was younger. Now I’m influenced by a host of independent black writers.

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?

VM: “Black history is horror” is based on the diabolical black experience through the institution of slavery, racism, Jim Crow, police brutality, red lining, separate and unequal education, the penal system, economic disparity, war on drugs, gang violence, church hurt, the destruction of the black family, self-hate and conformity, etc.

These things show up in my work sparingly. It’s there but it’s never the focus. I focus more on black excellence, love, intelligence, simply the normalcy of black life that the world doesn’t focus on. Black folks have enough trauma porn.

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?

VM: I do not feel obligated to do anything but write the story that’s in my head. Writers of color can write whatever we wish. There are no limitations to our talent and imagination. The only boxes that we have are the ones we create.

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

VM: That’s a hard question. I have so many. There are so many different kinds of horror. If I’m forced to choose, I would pick: Fright Night (the one from the 80s), Blacula, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Jeepers Creepers, and Tales from the Hood.

Honestly, I don’t read a lot of horror. I try not to read a lot of books in the genre in which I write. I don’t want to inadvertently absorb someone else’s ideas. But, when I was in college, I loved everything written by Anne Rice. The book that scared me the most was The Exorcist.

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?

VM: That’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, I believe in artistic freedom. On the other hand, knowing the history of white people being culture vultures, and the stories of BIPOC being suppressed or being told through a belittling lens, it’s important that BIPOC tell our own stories.

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?

VM: Like you said, all writers feel that they may not be great at their craft, especially when books aren’t selling as much as you think they should.

I manage it by telling myself that my stories are unique and that they are mine to tell. No one can tell my story but me. Some people will love what I do. Some will hate it. Both are okay.

GMM: Tell me a bit about your great grandmother, the dream interpreter. Did you know her when you were growing up? Did she pass on any of her knowledge? How important are dreams to you as a writer? How has that ancestral legacy had an impact on what you write?

VM: I grew up with my great grandmother until the age of nine. She was the greatest storyteller. Sitting at her feet listening to what she claimed as real-life supernatural stories, put a love of the paranormal in my heart. She’s my biggest influence as a writer. She’s the reason why I write. Dreams are important to me as a writer and as a person. Dreams can be warnings, revelations, fantasies, or just the purging of the subconscious. In my Angel Crush series, there are a lot of prophetic dreams.

GMM: How often do people you know, either people you have close relationships with, or strangers you encounter randomly, end up as characters or the inspiration for characters in your fiction? Are some of them easily recognizable? Are there characters you’ve written based on people you know that you wouldn’t want them to know you wrote about them? Have people ever accused you of misrepresenting them in a story?

VM: All the time. Real life always influences fiction. I am careful to mix characteristics of people I know personally so that no one can pinpoint themselves. Therefore, no one has ever accused me of misrepresenting them. Also, I write supernatural fiction. Most people don’t see themselves in the situations I create, but people love that I name my characters after them.

GMM: What is the most positive feedback you’ve ever received for something you’ve written? Would you consider that one of your proudest moments? What is some of the most negative feedback you’ve received? How did it push you to become a better writer?

VM: The most positive is when a reader told me that I was their favorite writer. It made me feel so good. Of course, that was one of my proudest moments. Nothing feels better than someone loving my stories as much as I love them. It makes me feel like they get me. Like they had a glimpse through intimate parts of my mind.

The most negative is when someone compared one of my books to the Left Behind series. I had no idea how they could have possibly come to that conclusion. It was like comparing Sula to Fifty Shades of Grey. I was lost on that feedback.  My push to become a better writer is a personal push. I always want a current story to be better than the last. Although I love effective criticism, I rarely allow the opinions of others to override my vision for my stories.

Excerpt from Oracles by Violette Meier

1

It’s February 12th again and I’ve made my one hundred and first circle around the sun. I was hoping when I opened my eyes this morning to be in the bosom of Abraham or trying to possess the body of a newborn baby, or at least sunbathing in a flowery field in another dimension; but I’m still here on earth celebrating another birthday. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful. I am able-bodied and in my right mind. I can still dance when I hear a song that takes me back to times when the winding of my hips could hypnotize any onlooker into a helpless trance. Now the winding of my hips sounds like a twentieth-century watch being wound. My lined face is but a shadow of the woman I used to be. The mirror lies; showing me crow’s feet and laugh lines as deep as canyons; muddy eyes and a turkey neck. When I close my eyes, I see taut skin, gypsy eyes, voluptuous lips, and a neck like a swan’s. I am still that woman inside.

My health is good. Well, most of the time anyway. My blood pressure gets a bit high when I eat too many potato chips or take a week off from walking. My knee gets a little stiff at times and occasional low energy levels force my bedtime to start with the evening news.

I could do the average old lady thing and offer a list of my ailments, but I won’t because for the most part, I’m healthy and happy.  I’m surrounded by my family, who loves me, in a cozy home that I share with my eldest granddaughter, Sage, and her family. Sage and her husband Kevin have been good to me.  Life is pleasant. Sadness creeps up on me from time to time because my heart still yearns for my husband. It has been ten years since Josiah transitioned. According to him, he’s probably in a new body trying to learn the lessons he missed his last lifetime. I never believed much in reincarnation, but he did, and I am sure that he lives on somewhere in the world. Josiah had a knack for being right or so he claimed. My luck, he’s right about reincarnation and I’ll have to come back to this godforsaken planet. Not that I do not love living, but I have been on this earth a long time and I am ready to be gathered to my people. The ancestors are calling me. Their beckoning plays in my ears like a song stuck on repeat, fluttering in the distance. I can hear them calling my name; a melodic whisper that never stops humming day or night.

“Ma Lily!” my ten-year-old great grandchild yells from the other side of the door.

Violet is a loud one. Her voice is deep and full sounding like a chorus harmonizing every note. It would be perfect for the voice of God in a movie.

“Ma Lily, can I come in?” she asks as she taps the door like her finger is vibrating. I see the shadow of her toes dancing underneath the door.

I tell her to come in and Violet pushes open the door like she is trying to test her strength; causing it to fly open like a tornado is spinning in the hallway. Every time I see her, which is every single day, it makes me laugh inside. She looks the most like me out of all of my great grandchildren. Light brown with freckles, a cloud of thick black hair sits on the top her head like a beach ball held in place by a giant purple ribbon tied into a perfect bow with its ends framing the sides of her face, and the most intoxicating smile on this side of the world. She is radical, nonconforming, fearless and ostentatious like a ten-year-old should be. 

“Whatcha doin’?” Violet asks plopping down in my rocking chair as I push myself up into a sitting position. I pull the covers off my legs and toss my legs off the side of the bed. I look down at my ashy feet as my toenails scrape the floor. My toenails look like talons. Maybe I was turning into a wild thing like a creature in one of Violet’s story books. I voice activate the lamp and instruct her to open the curtains. Sunlight changes the entire energy of the room. It instantly renews every cell in my body. All of a sudden, a new birthday didn’t seem so annoying.

“Just waking up,” I answer looking at the digital holographic clock hovering over my nightstand. It was 7:59 am. “Why are you up so early?” I ask her as she rocks back and forth swinging her legs like she is on a playground swing. The chair groans like an old man. “It’s Wednesday. Why aren’t you in school?”

“Because it’s your birthday!” Violet exclaims. “Mama says that turning one hundred and one is a big deal and we’re gonna party like it’s 1999,” she replies scratching her head confused about what that meant. That song is nearly a century old. I was surprised her mother knew the lyrics, but then again, Prince is and will always be my favorite musical artist of all time. My children grew up on his music and when my grandchildren and great grandchildren visited me, they too became familiar with Prince’s ear piercing falsetto and his sacrosanct sexuality. I love everything about that little musical mastermind. I love that man! If I had any musical ability, Prince is who I would channel. For a moment, I consider placing my music microchip into my ear and playing Prince’s greatest hits, but I’m sure Violet will not let me listen in peace. Per her request, I would have to blast it loud through the ceiling speakers and frankly, it was way too early for that kind of noise.

“What does your mama have planned?” I ask, a little anxious about Sage’s plans.

Sage always went over and beyond what was humanly necessary to do anything. She is a perfectionist in the worst way and habitually slunk away from gratification like it was the plague. Watching her frown and fret over every single detail was torture. Sage could make a person feel guilty about having a birthday because of all the trouble that celebrating it will cause her. I’m glad I won’t be around to see what she plans for my funeral.

When I turned one hundred, she made a movie about my life consisting of old videos and photographs. It was a nice sentiment until she rented out a local theater to show it and invited everyone in town. I had to wait in line for thirty minutes to see my own movie and she stressed herself out over cold popcorn and incorrect digital tickets until she fainted and had to be fanned back to consciousness.

“I can’t tell you,” Violet says as she hops off the rocking chair onto my bed. The bounce nearly catapults me across the room. I grip the mattress to balance myself and exhale.

“Can I do your hair?” she asks as she twists my silver dreadlocks into loops and pin them to the top of my head. I lift myself so she can pull the ones free that I was sitting on, and I sit back on the bed.

“Looks like you’re already doing it,” I retort while yawning. I sit as still as I can as my great granddaughter styles my hair. My dreadlocks are floor length. It amazes me how she effortlessly gathers my big blue-gray ropes of hair and turns them into flower petals. She pulls the last bobby pin from her pocket and places it in my hair.

“Done!” she exclaims and bolts back over to the rocking chair.

I stand up and walk over to the cherry wood vanity that sits in the corner of my room, pull the emerald cushioned seat out and sit down. I look in the mirror and smile. Violet does exquisite hair just like her grandmother, my daughter, Chloe.

“Thank you, baby,” I reply as I put on a thin coat of pink lip gloss and give myself an air kiss in the mirror. I swear the lip gloss and hairstyle takes twenty years off my face. I don’t look a day over eighty.

“You’re welcome Ma Lily,” Violet replies as she rocks like a mad woman in the chair.

“Bring me my owls,” I instruct while admiring my hair in the mirror.

Violet hops off the chair and crosses the room and opens the top drawer of my jewelry armoire. She pulls out two sterling silver necklaces, both with large owls hanging from them, and a matching pair of earrings. After she hands them to me, I put on both necklaces, one owl hanging lower than the other and put on the dangling earrings.

I look at myself once again in the mirror and smile, extremely pleased with Violet’s handy work. I feel beautiful.

A shadow moves on the opposite side of the room, its dark reflection appearing like a man made of smoke. My chest constricts as I gasp aloud. I spin around.  Nothing is there.

The room falls silent. The screeching rocker squeals no more. Violet sits in the rocking chair as if time has stopped; her small face flushes red and her back is as stiff as a board.

“You okay baby?” I ask her as a shiny tear made its way down her cheek.

“Did you see it?” she whimpers.

“I saw it,” I confess. I want to deny it, but it is no use. Violet and I both were born with a veil; born with two crowns on our heads like the elders used to say. It was one of the things that helped us forge such an intimate relationship. Her mother cannot see, but her grandmother Chloe can and so can Violet’s older brother Uriah.

“It’s coming to get you Ma Lily. I saw it,” Violet whines. “I don’t want you to go.”

I stand up and walk over to my great grandchild. I instruct her to stand up so I can sit down. My knee is hurting a little. Rain must be coming. Violet sits on my good knee. She feels heavier than she did yesterday. “There is a season for everything under heaven,” I reply. “A time to laugh and a time to cry. A time to live and a time to die.”

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 Friday!

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

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.