Invisible Chains: My Debut Novel

Michelle-LaneFor those of you who missed the news, my debut novel, Invisible Chains, will be released into the world July 22, 2019 by Haverhill House Publishing. If you’re as excited about this news as I am, you can pre-order a copy on Amazon, and while you’re there, you can check out my fancy new Amazon Author Page. Even though I’ve had my short fiction published, having my first novel published makes me feel like a bonafide author. See, I even have an author photo.

That’s great, Michelle, but what is your book about?

I’m glad you asked.

Jacqueline is a young Creole slave in antebellum New Orleans.  An unusual stranger who has haunted her dreams since childhood comes to stay as a guest in her master’s house. Soon after his arrival, members of the household die mysteriously, and Jacqueline is suspected of murder.  Despite her fear of the stranger, Jacqueline befriends him and he helps her escape. While running from the slave catchers, they meet conjurers, a loup-garou, and a traveling circus of supernatural freaks.  She relies on ancestral magic to guide her and finds strength to conquer her fears on her journey.

Oh, and here is the beautiful cover art designed by the very talented Errick Nunnally.

InvisibleChains_v2c-cover - 2

As many of you know, writing can be a difficult and solitary pursuit. And, if your goal is to have your work published, the stages of writing, editing, rewriting, editing again, and submitting can feel like a never-ending climb up a hill while pushing a giant rock covered in your own entrails. Plus, if you submit and get nothing but rejections it sometimes seems like a good idea to just give up and find a different way to torture yourself.

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Can I tell you a secret? I’m glad I didn’t give up.

Believe me, I thought about giving up. I thought about giving up a lot. But this story lived inside me for a long time and it refused to be abandoned. This multi-genre slave narrative began its life as a short story back in the early 2000s and had a very different ending. That short story shared space on a thumb drive, untouched  with other abandoned writing projects, for several years. I mean, I would pull it out from time to time and read it but I never did anything with it until I applied to the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction (WPF) program at Seton Hill University (SHU).

Attending SHU was one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made. And, one of the scariest. At 40, I was completely dissatisfied with my life. I had a job I was on the verge of burning out on, I was unhappily married, and I was primarily responsible for raising my son who had begun to show signs of behavioral problems at daycare and school. I was the primary bread winner, I took care of the house, paid the bills, maintained social connections with friends and family, and one day I realized I was living my life for other people instead of living it for myself.

I began making a mental inventory of the things that brought me joy, and at the top of that list was writing. Writing was something I had done all my life. And, when I was writing I was happier. I started unearthing some of my unfinished short stories and realized they weren’t terrible. And then, I wondered what would happen if I took myself seriously as a writer. I made the decision to apply to SHU after asking a friend about the program. Jenda had nothing but good things to say about the program, and honestly, I think SHU should consider sending her a check each month for her excellent marketing skills.

My short story, “Freedom is in the Blood,” became Invisible Chains over the course of six years. Three years writing my thesis novel in the low residency MFA program, and three years of rewriting, editing, pitching, and submitting. In the process of writing the novel, my protagonist evolved into a stronger character who stands up to monsters to make a better life for herself.

In many ways, my protagonist evolved with me as I made changes in my own life. Deciding to write this book was the first step towards reshaping my life on my own terms. I’ve encountered my share of set backs, obstacles, and people who behave like monsters, but like Jacqueline, I keep moving forward.

In the process of moving forward, I’ve made new friends, reconnected with old friends, and built stronger relationships with the people who cheered me on through the highs and lows of writing this book. They’re good people. And I couldn’t have survived the process without their love and support.

I am very fortunate to be included in such diverse and supportive writing communities like the HWA and as an SHU alumna. And, of course, I wouldn’t be able to brag about getting my book published if I had never met the Editor-in-Chief of Haverhill House Publishing, John M. McIlveen.

I met John last year at StokerCon™ 2018 in Providence, RI. I pitched Invisible Chains to him, a book that took close to five years to write, in about ten minutes. And, much to my surprise, after babbling at him in what I believed to be incoherent nonsense, he said he’d be interested in reading it. That was the first spark of hope, and it has been one pleasant experience after the next working with John and Haverhill House Publishing.

Well, now the book is written and available for pre-order. The hardback edition will be available July 22, 2019. In the meantime, I have a stack of proofs that I would very much like to get into the hands of book reviewers and people who would be willing to blurb the book. If you or someone you know might be a good fit for a book like this, let me know and I’ll reach out to them.

What’s next, you may ask? I don’t know, but I suspect I might have to write another book.

Fiction Fragments: R. J. Joseph

Last week, Girl Meets Monster talked with Glenn Rolfe about the challenges of writing Splatterpunk. This week, R. J. Joseph is here to talk about what it means to be a woman of color writing horror.

Author Central PicR. J. Joseph is a Texas based writer and professor who must exorcise the demons of her imagination so they don’t haunt her being. A life-long horror fan and writer of many things, she has finally discovered the joys of writing creatively and academically about two important aspects of her life: horror and black femininity.

When R. J. isn’t writing, teaching, or reading voraciously, she can usually be found wrangling one or six of various sprouts and sproutlings from her blended family of 11…which also includes one husband and two furry babies.

R. J. can be found lurking (and occasionally even peeking out) on social media:
Twitter: @rjacksonjoseph
Facebook: facebook.com/rhonda.jacksonjoseph
Facebook official: fb.me/rhondajacksonjosephwriter
Instagram: @rjacksonjoseph
Blog: https://rjjoseph.wordpress.com/
Email: horrorblackademic@gmail.com
Amazon Author Page: amazon.com/author/rjjoseph

Three Questions

GMM: As a woman of color writing about black and queer characters, what obstacles have your faced when writing within the horror genre? When did you decide you were a horror writer? What influenced or inspired you to write horror stories about women of color?

RJJ: I’ve been a lifelong horror fan. I was a small child devouring horror comics, Twilight Zone, and Stephen King novels, well before I could understand any of the themes these stories presented. The horror genre appeals to my naturally dark nature, which was apparent and already well entrenched by the time I was 6 or 7 years old. I always questioned why the folks in the genre I loved so much didn’t look like me, from the writers to the actors to the characters in the books. I wanted to be the monster. I figured creating the monsters was the next best thing, so I had to write them. I started then, even though I didn’t always embrace that part of my writing persona. I couldn’t imagine not writing about the world I inhabited and navigated, a black female experiencing life through this lens. I wasn’t seeing these stories and I had to fill the void.

I wanted to be the monster.

I appreciate that you frame this question in a way that shows you know we have obstacles. They aren’t a figment of our imagination or a quest for race-baiting and creating issues. One of the biggest problems I have is in always wondering why stories are accepted or rejected. I know my writing isn’t perfect and I still have so much growth to experience within my craft, but sometimes I get rejections that just don’t offer any clarity, not even the blanket forms where the spaces between the words don’t reek of any additional interpretation. Sometimes, though, what isn’t said speaks volumes. I get that editors don’t have time to give personalized rejections all the time. But I always go back and read the publications I submit to so I can see which stories made the cut. Reading what was ultimately accepted can be excruciating. So many times, I wish the editors would have just said, “We don’t know what to do with you, blackity black woman, or your blackity black characters with their blackity black fears”. That would make me feel so much better.

I once had an editor explain to me at a book launch for an anthology one of my stories appeared in that he didn’t want me to feel as if my story was a token acceptance because I’m a black woman. He made it a point to let me know he had read some of my previous work and thought my story for the anthology was great. I had to be professional and put on my Appreciative Writerly face, but I really wanted to hug him and cry. That meant so much to me, especially coming from a white male professional in the field. Unless the project is strictly for writers of color, I’m always wondering if the acceptance was just a diversity checkmark or really based on my story.

GMM: I wrote a supernatural slave narrative as my thesis novel at Seton Hill University, and I struggled with figuring out where it fit within a genre. The novel is due to be released sometime next year and I still struggle with that idea of where it belongs. What makes it a horror novel? The violence of slavery? The fact that my narrator is a witch and that her companion is a vampire?

How do you define your chosen genre or genres when you begin with characters that may not typically appear in those genres? Is there an absence of women of color in horror?

RJJ: First, I gotta read your novel! I need to know when pre-orders open. I absolutely love historical horror. That it has people of color and witches? Super plus. My answer to what makes this horror really loops back to another obstacle I try to navigate and that is not knowing where our work fits; really, not knowing where we fit. I would say your novel is an all-around horror novel because it’s rooted in the abject terror of slavery and there is a vampire. I don’t think all witches are necessarily monsters, though, so that’s debatable. Even without the supernatural characters, slavery is horror. Yet, there’s a clear hesitance to categorize this experience in this way because that would require owning up to the facts that 1. Slavery really happened; 2. There was nothing good about it; and 3. The repercussions are still felt today. Stuffing these topics into other corners like literary fiction (the way Beloved was first categorized) or creating a whole new category like urban fiction takes some of that responsibility away. If it isn’t called horror, then the events cannot be deemed horrible. So then when serial killer novels fill the horror shelves, I’m left to wonder why lynchings or slavery aren’t considered serial killings, too…

Black women horror writers have always been around, but there hasn’t always been a willingness of the industry to see us. I think we’ve just had our writing either flat out ignored or placed in different genres because we’re women. I’ve seen industry leaders say publicly that readers only want a certain kind of horror, or that every story/book acceptance is based solely on merit. Both of these prevailing responses mean gatekeepers are fine with keeping certain stories and writers out of the genre. The only thing that might help increase visibility is more gatekeepers of color and black female writers continuing to kick the doors in and create anyway. It’s astounding that the first black female horror anthology wasn’t published until 2017. A second followed this year. How is it that both books managed to locate numerous black female horror writers and yet other anthologies/magazines/publishers can hardly ever find any? What is not genuinely sought will never be found.

GMM: When I write about monsters, I have a habit of turning the relationships between monsters and my main female characters into romantic interests even though I write about dark subjects. Is there a connection between horror and romance in your mind? Do your characters fall in love with monsters? Why, or why not?

RJJ: I envy that you can blend romance and horror so effectively! My thesis at Seton Hill was a romance novel, and while I write in both genres, I’ve not yet mastered blending the two. I do think romance and horror exist on the same continuum, in that both genres evoke such extreme feelings in readers. My favorite series ever is the Vampire Huntress series by L. A. Banks. She intertwined horror and romance so expertly that I’ve never seen anything else quite like it. I make attempts. But I tried to submit a romance short story to a major market once and the editor replied that the story was well written but it was too dark. The monsters in my stories tend to be those created through no act of their own, so they are sort of tragic creatures for whom at least one other character has an affection and some sympathy. Full on romance, though…I still aspire to that.

Left Hand Torment (excerpt), by R. J. Joseph

RJJ Book CoverI was on door duty that evening, although we found we did not really need a protector. Most passersby tended not to notice our nondescript entryway in the worn down building. Even those who did notice it were deterred by the dark cloak of misery in our eyes. Despite my queerness and my race, those doorways to my soul that broadcast unspeakable rot allowed me kinship with the men inside. Her eyes held the same blackness, despite their light gray color, and it announced her as kindred, served as her password into the club. I let her in and followed her up the stairs, as my shift was done.

There was more to her life story than her eyes, apparently. The foulness of whatever tortured her spirit bubbled just underneath the surface of her being. Her dusky colored skin shone with determination and…fury. She glided ahead of me up the stairway and into the parlor, removing long white gloves as we walked. Severe burns covered both hands, the puckered skin reflecting in the lantern lights.

Even Whitson, the resident playboy, did not set his flirtations upon her. He simply asked her what she was drinking, the same as he did the rest of us. He often told us that he did not seek companionship with fellow sufferers. He said their beds were already too full with them and their demons.

“Bourbon, please.” The rich tones slid from her throat and escaped into the quiet murmur of the fifteen of us. She accepted her glass gracefully and settled herself into a chair close to the fireplace.

Not forgetting our Texas manners, we quieted down and allowed the lady the floor. I watched her take a sip from her glass.

“Merci.” She accented the appreciation with a brisk nod to the side. When she gazed back at us, the flames from the fire flickered around the shadows resting beneath the smoky orbs of her haunted eyes. She pulled her bonnet off and placed it on the table next to the chair. Kinky curly strands spilled down to her shoulders and the room gave a collective gasp as the flames caught the sandy tresses. This was the only acknowledgement we gave to her beauty that night.

Without preamble, she spoke, in accented tones. “My name is Dominique Aimee Beaulieu and I was born and reared in New Orleans. I had an ordinary childhood, if that as the daughter of a placee` on Rampart street could be called such. Papa and Maman loved me very much and I was a rather spoiled child. They loved each other, as well. I know Papa loved her more than he loved his wife. But he could not stay with us all the time. I once asked Maman why he had to leave and stay away so often and she explained to me that we could not be selfish and keep him all to ourselves. He had another family with whom he had to stay most of the time, but he was always thinking of us.

“Maman had a picture of a beautiful woman with blond hair and she often gazed wistfully at it when she thought Papa and I weren’t looking. I would ask her about the woman, whose features I saw staring back at me in the mirror, albeit through darker skin. Maman would evade the answer until I turned sixteen. When I finally got my answer, I also got the explanation for our way of life.

“‘This is my sister, your aunt. Papa’s other wife. He met me as he courted her and wanted me for his left hand wife. She knows about us but cannot acknowledge us publicly. But she must accept our existence. You are of courting age now. Papa will arrange for you to attend The Quadroon Ball next year, to find you a wealthy, white husband. Do not waste yourself frivolously on any colored man. Even if he has money, he can’t elevate your status or guarantee that your children will be free men.’

“She grabbed my hand. ‘Just take care to always respect your husband and do his bidding. Love and honor him despite the feelings of jealousy that will come when he takes another to wife. We are the wives they choose, when their other will be chosen for them through making familial alliances. These arrangements are our only way to freedom.’

“I didn’t understand why she beseeched me so dramatically on these points. Our system of placage was shocking enough to discover without her telling me I had to accept it, that I had few other choices. I knew nothing of love between a man and woman, but I could see the love between Maman and Papa. If it meant she had to share him with her sister, did that make it of any less value? Did that make me, the product of their left hand union, any less valuable? Of course, I would love my husband, legally bound or not, because of all the things I did not understand, there was one thing I knew and never wanted to change: my freedom.

She paused her story here, seeming to look at us for the first time. She turned her fierce gaze on each of us, one at a time, her fellow beasts of demonic burdens. She settled her gaze finally on me, the lone other woman in the group. I did not know how I understood that she knew my secret. My fellow club members knew and did not care. “You understand when I say fighting for one’s freedom is a frantic battle when losing means losing your personhood and often, your very life.”

I nodded in acquiescence. I did know what a constant fight for freedom to simply exist required. Dying was preferable to giving in to bondage of any kind, hence my membership there. These, my brothers in terror, did not make anything big over my masculine clothes and obviously feminine body. My haunted heart bore witness to more important things to them. The rest of the world did have problems with me, as soon as my “charade” was discovered. Explaining that this was who I am did nothing but result in a trail of bodies. Thus far, my own body did not increase those numbers.

Do you have a fragment of fiction you’re dying to share? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you soon!

Fiction Fragments: Glenn Rolfe

Ron Gavalik joined Girl Meets Monster for Fiction Fragments Friday on November 30. Things have been a little crazy for me, so the schedule is a little out of whack. Today is obviously not Friday, but I wanted you all to have a chance to read this writer’s submission, and schedules be damned. So, without further ado, please welcome Glenn Rolfe.

37623541_10217464806718996_9108904857699352576_nGlenn Rolfe is an author/singer/songwriter from the haunted woods of New England. He and his wife, Meghan, have three children, Ruby, Ramona, and Axl. He is grateful to be loved despite his weirdness.

He is a Splatterpunk Award nominee and the author of Becoming, Blood and Rain, The Haunted Halls, Chasing Ghosts, Abram’s Bridge, Things We Fear, and the collections, A Box Full of Monsters, Out of Range, Slush, and Land of Bones.

Check out his latest novel, The Window.

He is hard at work on many more. Stay tuned! And, in the meantime, visit his website.

Three Questions

GMM: When I was a teenager many moons ago, I was hell-bent on reading every vampire novel I could get hands on. And, my introduction to Splatterpunk  was John Skipp and Craig Spector’s The Light at the End. What was your introduction to the genre? What do you believe defines a work as Splatterpunk? What do you enjoy most about the genre?

GRMy intro to Splatterpunk was Off Season by Jack Ketchum. My jaw dropped time and time again turning those pages. It was so brutal. But like with all great books in the genre, and any good book, he made you care about the characters first.

Splatterpunk is a story that pushes the writer and the reader. A story that is brutal and no holds barred. The best of the genre keep your eyes glued to the page, even though part of you wants to put it down and shove it away.

What I like is the freedom it gives you as a horror writer. It also pushes you as a writer. How brave are you? How far are you willing to go and how much are you willing to show? It’s a challenge to walk the line between outrageous and realistic, but when you get the balance right, the result is powerful.

GMM: I have a pretty high threshold for the creepy, weird, and gross, but I have to admit, your slug creatures grossed me out. Actually, to be fair, the slugs weren’t the problem. The act of Craig cleaning out the bottles and allowing his curiosity get the better of him while doing a disgusting chore at a minimum wage job. I’ve had my share of gross tasks, what inspired this opening scene from Becoming?

GRI worked at a movie theater a while back. Tuesday nights we did extra cleaning projects. It was the slowest night of the week. I was lucky enough to get bottle duty. It seemed like a perfectly harmless gig,right? But my manager told me I’d want to wear gloves while handling the bottles. I didn’t get it, but put them on anyway.

It was all great until I found the first of the spit bottles. People that used chewing tobacco would use them while watching movies. It was nasty. And when I opened one bottle to empty it, it let out a wild hiss and a spray. I almost puked. It was only after I’d done two of these gross things that my manager told me I could just throw away the ones with spit in them. When i got home, I started thinking of those bottles and imagining the nasty juice as a living thing. So, pretty much, that opening scene was mostly a true story.

GMM: I love the horror genre, but I often wonder if it is a prerequisite for characters to be a little dumb in order for certain plot development to happen. I mean, most horror movies wouldn’t work if the characters didn’t willingly do stupid things like go down in the basement or read Latin from a book bound in human flesh, but I wonder if making characters do dumb things is just expected within the genre. Is it possible to have a good horror story without people making terrible mistakes even though they should know better?

GRI think all the good to great horror stories have realistic characters acting and talking in realistic ways. That’s totally where a lot of books in the genre fail or make the ride less enjoyable. For me, it’s all about the characters. You’ve got to bring these people to life and you’ve got to give the reader a reason to care. You also have to make the characters’ motivations realistic.

I don’t write Splatterpunk all the time. Of my ten works, I think maybe a quarter of them could be counted as Splatterpunk. I enjoy the challenge and the craziness of the sub-genre. It’s not an easy type of horror to write well. Making real characters and then putting them through a hell most writers don’t dare to. Some stories demand characters to be ridiculous, but I prefer to write the ones like Off Season. Ones that, as horrible as they seem, leave you thinking this could actually happen. And that’s freaking scary.

Fragment: Becoming (original version), by Glenn Rolfe

CHAPTER 1
“Where do you want me to do this?” Craig Hickey said, hauling a thirty gallon bag of empty bottles over his shoulder.

“Take ‘em in the sink. You’re gonna want to dump some of that stuff out, trust me,” Hunter said. Hunter Hanley was Craig’s boss at the Hollis Oaks Cineplex. The man was only in his late thirties and already had his own successful chain of theaters. Sure, they were all placed in Maine, but it was still an admirable accomplishment. Compared to a twenty eight year old high school dropout, shoveling popcorn next to a bunch of teenagers on a Friday night, Hunter Hanley looked like the CEO of GE.

He watched Hunter walk over to handle a guest complaining about her movie being too loud. Craig lugged the giant bag of bottles into the little sink and storage area of the theater. He placed the bag down, singing a Taylor Swift song as he undid the knot at the top of the large black sack.

“Hey Craig?” It was Evan, the concessions manager.

“What’s up, Evan.” Craig said.

“You’re going to want to use those plastic gloves,” he pointed up to the little rack above the sink.

Craig spied the box of latex gloves to the far right, next to a bucket of scrub pads.
“Yeah, thanks, but I think I’ll be all right.” He had to laugh to himself- these guys sure are worried about these bottles.

“No, really, you are going to want to use them. I’ve done this job for the last five years, and have been stuck doing bottle duty more times than I care to remember, take my word for it.”

Craig acquiesced, reaching up and grabbing a pair of the little clear gloves and tugging them on. “Happy?”

“Have fun,” Evan smiled as he disappeared back to the front.

It was a Tuesday night at the theater, usually the slowest night of the week. Unfortunately, this meant that it was chore night. Last week Evan had Craig scrape this black stuff off from the old popcorn warmer. Craig thought it looked like some sort of devil mold, but Evan had said it was just burnt residue from years of running the warmers too hot, for too long. Tonight, he got the bottles. There were six of the huge recycling containers, one in front of each theater, and each one was overflowing with empties. Craig had figured it would take about an hour to get the job done.

The first bag had gone quick and easy. Craig managed to sing his way through half of the Speak Now album without so much as running into one of these horrors that everyone seemed so worked up about. It wasn’t until he reached the halfway point that he came up against his first gag-worthy container. There had been a couple of Coke bottles filled with spit from people using chewing tobacco in the theater, but as he got to the bottom of the fourth bag, his bare hand (he’d abandoned the latex gloves after the uneventful second bag) made contact with something wet and slimy. An overwhelming smell nearly knocked him on his ass. It was like a mix of vomit, soda, and putrefied flesh, not that he knew what the latter smelled like, but he’d seen enough movies to imagine the scent- and this was it. After three dry heaves, Craig’s esophagus opened up to deliver his stomach contents to the sink.

“You all right, man?” Evan had come rushing to the doorway to check on him. “Hey, where are your gloves?”

After another mouthful of upchuck, Craig wiped his lips and chin with the back of his hand, and felt something greasy on his lips. A taste that matched the overpowering scent from the bag, exploded in his mouth. He pulled his hand away and saw the disgusting brown slime he’d bumped into at the bottom of the bag. He spat into the sink, trying to rid his mouth of the contaminant. Contaminant? He wasn’t sure why he’d thought of it as such, but wasn’t taking any chances.

“Do we have any mouthwash around here?” he said, still hunched over, spitting in the sink.

Evan looked a few extra shades of white standing in the doorway. “Uh, maybe Kathy has some,” he said. “I’ll go ask her.”

Craig watched him scurry off and heard crinkling; the bag behind him was moving. He turned to see the bottom of the sack protrude and retract, like something was trying to find its way out. Washing his hands in the sink, he donned another pair of the latex gloves and opened the foul smelling sack; the movement ceased.

“Here, man,” Evan returned to his perch at the entrance holding the mini-bottle of Scope out to him as if he were afraid to enter the room.

“Evan, come check this out.”

“Don’t worry about the bottom ones, man. Just throw them away with the bag. That’s what we always do.”

Craig, as if not hearing Evan, reached into the large bag. He had to put his head inside to reach the bottom. “There’s something down here.”

“Craig, don’t-”

“Whoa!” Craig yanked his hand out as if it had been stung by a bee. “Evan, come look at this.”

Evan looked back out at the empty lobby, praying for a customer; the next movie didn’t start for another forty-five minutes. “Hunter wants me, I’ll be right back,” he lied. He had seen the strange slug things at the bottom of the bags before. He didn’t plan on messing with them again. Hell, he’d had nightmares about the fat little slimy things for months. He was glad to have a new guy at work to do the true dirty work. He decided to focus on Kathy’s great ass instead, leaving Craig to tend with the nastiness in the sink room alone.

Craig picked the bottle bag up out of the barrel and holding one corner, brought up the end to dump the mix of loose juices and old soda out into the sink, and with it, the slimy thing at the bottom. He watched the dark, chunk filled fluids pour out into the sink; bits of candies, popcorn and discarded chew pouches gathered around the drain. After he was certain that the bag was empty, he gave it a good shake and then fingered through the collection of crap clogging the drain. He couldn’t find slug thing anywhere. “Where did you go?” Craig said as he tried shaking the bag out again. After another few seconds of searching and coming up empty, he gave up. “Hmm.”

An hour and a half later, Craig managed to reach the final bottle of the last bag. He wrapped his latex gloved hand around the one liter bottle and brought it out from the dark and rancid smelling bag. At the sight of the murky brown slime inside the bottle, Craig’s stomach threatened to purge again, but this time, he kept it down. Holding the bottle up to the fluorescent light above the sink, he tried to get a better look at its contents. On first glance, it appeared to be another bottle of chew-spit, but as he tilted the plastic bottle, observing the way the brown sludge seemed to cling to the plastic container, he wasn’t sure what it could be. Not wanting to look at the nasty concoction any longer, he decided to drain it in the sink like he had the rest. The cap was tight, but after a few good yanks, he managed to get it to turn-

Swoosh

“Arrgh.” The unleashed carbonation exploded a sour mist all over him. As he inhaled the nasty particles, he dropped the bottle in the sink. He didn’t notice the brown sludge ooze free of its prison, and slip down into the drain.

Cough-cough-cough

“Uhhh…” Craig’s Cineplex work shirt was covered in the little bits of slime that sprayed out at him. The brown mess was also present on his exposed forearms, neck, and chin and even on his teeth. “Uhhh…” Craig stumbled past the sink and towards the lobby.

“Oh shit, Craig,” Kathy said, “What the hell’s all over you.” She plugged her nose, taking a step back.

Craig’s breath was coming in gravelly wheezes as he stumbled across the still empty lobby, and toward the restrooms. Holding his gloved hands out before him, he smashed through the men’s room door and rushed to the sink. As he vomited (his second round tonight) in the much smaller, much cleaner basin, getting nearly as much spew on the cool grey counter top as he was inside the white porcelain enclave, he missed the little brown specks that slipped their way into the corners of his eyes.

Fifteen minutes later, cleaned up, and sipping a bottle of water, Craig sat recovering from his little incident in the employee break room.

“Hey man, you feeling any better?” Evan took a seat across from him at the little square card table.

Craig forced a smile, “I’m hungry. Does that say anything?”

“Yeah- that you’re gross.” They both laughed as Evan stood back up. “Just call it a night. I already sent Kathy home. I thought for sure she was going to blow chucks after she heard you in the bathroom. Besides, it’s pretty dead out there. No one wants to see the new Kevin Hart movie. Go figure.”

“Yeah, I think I’ll take you up on that.” Craig rose up, grabbed his sweatshirt from the coat hanger behind him, and followed Evan back out to the front.

“Hope you feel better,” Heath called out as Craig reached the front doors.

Craig waved back to his boss and pushed out into the cool night. He placed a finger to his nose and blew a snot rocket to the sidewalk as he made his way to his car. He was starting to feel queasy again. His hunger had slipped away.

On the sidewalk behind him, the brown glob of mucus he’d launched began to wiggle, and breathe.

Next week, Rhonda Jackson Garcia joins Girl Meets Monster. Do you have a fragment you’d like to dust off and send my way? If so, send it to chellane@gmail.com. See you soon!

Fiction Fragments: Ron Gavalik

So, a few weeks have passed since we heard from Kristin Dearborn. Life and a holiday got in the way of progress, but this week I’m back on track with a visit from gritty Pittsburgh poet, Ron Gavalik.

Ron GavalikThe eternal search for truth in the dark forest of false prophets has been my life’s pursuit. As an author, it’s my role to explore and reveal the unique perspectives that broaden our understanding of the world. The poetry and stories I forge from whiskey-soaked memories and fervent observations awakens passions among devoted readers and ignites debates. When we engage in critical, independent thought we are then free to live our truths.

Raised by hard-boiled Catholic trade unionists in the Rust Belt of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, my writing style is a smooth and uninhibited reflection of the once gritty region. In total freedom, I bleed untamed language onto each page to capture the powerful moments of life. My words paint portraits of the hidden beauty that’s often lost within the madness of our struggles. Now grasp my hand, and we will walk this treacherous path together.

Read Ron’s work. Get cool rewards: Patreon.com/RonGavalik

 Three Questions

GMM: When did you begin writing poetry, and why?

RG: The first poem leaked out of my pen at the age of 20. The words were pure trash, some kind of whiny ode to love or some other horse shit. The ripping sound of that paper as I tore it from that overpriced journal was quite satisfying. I decided then and there life must be lived before writing truth. That’s what poetry is to me: the purest form of truth. If one is still grappling with their place in the world, their poetry is going to read like shit. When the poet knows something worth sharing, that’s music on the page. I told myself that if I were still alive at 40, I’d revisit free verse. I then spent my early adulthood years pursuing avant-garde journalism in the arts and politics. Reporting on the acts of others honed my writing skills and often threw me into the mix of often unique and sometimes dangerous situations. I also dabbled in blog essays, short fiction, and I wrote a novel that will never see the light of day. Twenty years later, I authored Hot Metal Tonic, my first poetry collection. It went #1 on Amazon in its first week. I’ve penned three more collections since, and last year The Pittsburgh City Paper named me the second best poet in Pittsburgh.

GMM: Your poetry has an edge and the tone often feels angry. Are you angry? Should I be angry? What angers you the most?

RG: As I said, my work is my truth. That truth encompasses a broad spectrum of emotions. Rage, joy, sadness, eroticism, faith, love, betrayal, it’s all represented in my work. I wouldn’t characterize my poetry as angry, but I do find that perspective interesting. What you find angry, I probably penned as a representation of sorrow. The good news, Michelle, is that sadness that fuels anger reveals your righteous mind. Now, as for a broader viewpoint on anger in society, I am perplexed how any person can make it through life and not feel fucking rage at the murder of people and the murder of our souls. That shows me the power of apathy under empire.

GMM: As a poet, do you feel more of a responsibility to speak the truth than you might in another art form? Is it easier to convey the emotional realities found in your poetry than it is in your fiction? Do you prefer writing poetry?

RG: I love this question, and it deserves a 20 page response. The short answer is this: the best writing in any form reveals truth. Nonfiction and poetry are the most obvious arenas to really delve into facts that lead to conclusive truths. However, we cannot ignore the power of fiction. The works I’ve read by George Orwell or Cormac McCarthy have revealed to me some of our most powerful truths. I like to believe my voice represents our generation. Let’s be honest, we live under the rule of empire that most of us believe can no longer be controlled. Therefore, we gravitate toward identity politics as we watch greed destroy the social contracts that once held our heads above water through the 20th Century. If we ever wish to retake control of our lives, we must seek out our truths. Responsible authors were born to help us on that journey.

Selected Poems from Gothic Riot Dreams, by Ron Gavalik

Hard Labor Love
I came up in Pittsburgh,
the Rust Belt of hard labor
with a deep love of community.
As children, we collected railroad spikes
from the tracks and we cut our shins
on random iron shards in slag hills.
Some of us were union middle-class
while others breathed the gray air of poverty.
That hardly mattered.
As we stood atop foothills
that overlooked the city skyline,
soot embedded under our fingernails,
we lived as kings and queens
who oversaw the future.

Skinny Cigarettes
The old cashier at the car dealership,
she chain-smoked skinny, long cigarettes
all day, every day.
Her voice sounded like a bullfrog
that recently learned how to curse and laugh.
The crease lines around her mouth
and the folds in her neck
conveyed a relaxed style, confidence
earned from a hard life
and dangerous choices.

Sometimes there were no customers
in front of the cashier’s window
and no mechanics around to bust her chops.
That’s when she’d rest her elbows on the counter
and cradle a skinny cigarette
between two fingers near her cheek.
That woman’s eyes would gaze outside,
glossed over in what looked like daydreams
about all those lovers in their graves,
and their cliché widows
with their tiresome grandchildren
and their lovely lives.

Back in the day,
men in gray suits and skinny ties
never could resist her,
but then again,
few ever tried.

Pause and Look Down
The best sidewalks
are discolored
from the blood of youth
and the tears of victims.
Those sidewalks
tell stories, they provide lessons
of hard choices under
difficult circumstances.
Jagged cracks in the concrete
resemble the struggle
of so many souls
long gone.

Next week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Glenn Rolfe. Do you have a fragment you’d like to share? Send it to me at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: Kristin Dearborn

Last week, Elsa M. Carruthers stopped by Girl Meets Monster, and this week, Kristin Dearborn shares her thoughts on why she prefers horror fiction to reality.

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If it screams, squelches, or bleeds, Kristin Dearborn has probably written about it. She revels in comments like “But you look so normal…how do you come up with that stuff?” A life-long New Englander, she aspires to the footsteps of the local masters, Messrs. King and Lovecraft. When not writing or rotting her brain with cheesy horror flicks (preferably creature features!) she can be found scaling rock cliffs, zipping around Vermont on a motorcycle, or gallivanting around the globe. Learn more at www.kristindearborn.com!

Three Questions

GMM: For some reason, while I read your fragment, the old adage, “write what you know” came to mind. Hopefully, no one ever pointed a gun in your face, but this feels like it was inspired by a real-life event. How much of your fragment is based on something that happened to you, or someone you know? How often do you draw from your own experiences as a writer?

KD: Thankfully I’ve never had a gun pointed at me, but I have been on an airboat ride in Florida! I’ve also worked a lot of retail in my day. I used to be the assistant manager of a Gamestop (I know, I know, NERD ALERT) and some of my coworkers were robbed once. Whenever I was counting the drawer at the end of the night I imagined the worst. Bethany’s case takes it a step further. The man with the gun isn’t just there for the money—that would be easy. You tell yourself if you do what they ask, you’ll be fine. This guy wants more than that, he wants to get into the swamp in the dark.

GMM: Is it easier to find your voice and convey your thoughts and emotions by writing horror? If so, why? Aside from Lovecraft and King, what drew you to this genre and why do you continue writing in it?

KD: Horror had me in its talons from the moment I read James Howe’s Bunnicula. I didn’t see a lot of horror movies as a kid, but I read a lot of books: Crichton, Koontz, King, John Saul, Dan Simmons. Horror stories make more sense than reality: when something awful happens, characters band together and fight it. Usually they win…that the outcome is not guaranteed only makes it sweeter when good triumphs. Horror is a fun way to process the awfulness in the real world, to escape from the 24-hour news cycle, most of which is a horror show on its own. Great horror is never about the monsters, it’s always about people and relationships—authors and filmmakers who struggle with that and paint the walls with gratuitous gore aren’t going to stand the test of time. I think it’s a testament to King’s staying power: he writes memorable characters that we come to care about.

GMM: You mention in your bio that people don’t think you look like a horror writer. What do horror writers look like? Do you think it’s because you look “normal”, or is it because you, like your character, have breasts?

KD: I think the average human expects a horror writer to be a bald guy with a beard and a black skull t-shirt. Now, I know, love, and respect more than a handful of super talented bald, bearded, black skull wearing horror authors, but there’s so much more to us than that! When I show up for work I wear a blazer and high heels, nice long sleeves covering up all my artwork. If I’m feeling wild and crazy I’ll show off one small velociraptor tattoo on my ankle. My eyebrow piercing has been gone for over a decade (RIP eyebrow ring, 2000-2007) and I don’t color my hair at all, let alone fun colors never found in nature. Subverting expectations is part of the horror genre, and I want to do my part.

Fragment, by Kristin Dearborn

Bethany looked up from counting her drawer when she heard the crunch of tires on gravel. A black sedan, windows tinted. It tucked itself in next to one of the rental cars the tourists brought. She watched, waited. As she gave up and resumed re-counting for the third time, the door opened, and a man stepped out.

Something in her gut twisted. Spidey senses tingled. Nothing terribly offensive about his appearance at first glance. Black slacks, cheap black dress shoes. Tan jacket. He wore his dark hair slicked back, and a pair of expensive sunglasses perched on his head. His skin, like most residents here, was deeply tanned, and wrinkles creased his face though he didn’t look much older than forty something. He carried a messenger bag over one shoulder.

If you didn’t go to college in Florida (heck, if you didn’t finish high school) and sometimes if you did, you basically doomed yourself to a life in the service industry. Bethany liked people, especially liked the kind of people who came here, a little ways off the beaten path and wanted to see real Florida.

This guy set off alarm bells in Bethany’s head. The way he carried himself, the bulge in his jacket even though the sun hadn’t gone down yet and the air was still warm. Lots of people carried guns, but something about him…

“Help you, sir?” she tried to sound cheerful.

He gobbled her up with his gaze, lingering on her breasts before meeting her eyes. She wanted to puke. On him. Instead she gripped the edge of her table as hard as she could. They’d talked about putting a gun in here, Cap thought it was ridiculous they didn’t have one. “A girl’s got to defend herself.” Jack believed in trusting people.

“I need to get on your last airboat. Gators after dark?”

“I’m so sorry, you’re about twenty minutes too late.”

She couldn’t even hear the buzz of Rebel Yell’s fans anymore. The Eastern sky had taken on a deep purplish hue, and soon Cap and his charges would be starting to look for alligators.

“I’ll pay for a private tour.”

Bethany pasted a smile across her face. She injected a faux brightness into her voice. “Sorry sir! Thursday is the next night we run the Gators After Dark tour. It’s supposed to be a full moon and clear that night. It’s going to be a great tour—”

Do you have a fragment collecting dust that you’d like to share? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: David X. Wiggin

74962_812727281055_1850019726_nLast week, David Day visited Girl Meets Monster and talked about genre as a means of choosing what to read as opposed to what to write. This week, I’m joined by David X. Wiggin. David and I have never met face to face, but we belong to Facebook group of weirdos who enjoy dark humor and laughing at our own shortcomings. I’m thrilled to have David as my guest today.

David X. Wiggin barely escaped Brooklyn with his life, though he still occupies New York City. You can find his most recent fiction on Pseudopod and in Black Treacle Magazine.

Three Questions

GMM: Tell me about this “mechanical manbody”. It’s sounds intriguing and creepy. What is it and where did you come up with the idea?

DXD: So, to answer the question a little bit of background first: the idea for this story came from a photo-collage I once saw that depicted a furious dog in a military uniform (it was in an issue of the Paris Review iirc.) That image really stuck with me (as well as some dog-men that appeared in a hallucination scene in an early episode of the TV show “Millennium”) and I wanted to write a story about this furious dog-man (this is usually how a story starts for me, by the way: a particular image or song or mood germinates in me like a seed until it starts to grow branches.) As I worked on the story other ideas started sprouting about this world of anthropomorphic animals and out of that came ideas for two more races: one that was a species of humanoids that managed to be beautiful in unconventional ways (the “Ill-Mades”) and the other was birds (the “Avians.”) I’ve always been fascinated by birds in general and in trying to dream up visualizations of humanoid birds I hit on the idea of them being normal, but highly intelligent and articulate, birds that walked around using cleverly contrived puppet bodies that gave them hands, legs, etc. Think like giant robots with pilots, but clockwork and, well, human sized.

Anyway, there was something kind of decadent about that idea and birds are almost always floating above the rest of the world so I thought it made sense to make them the rulers of this world. It’s also a nice metaphor for how they’re manipulating everyone else and making others do all the work for them

GMM: Based on the strangeness of the characters, my assumption is that your story is either set somewhere in outer space on another planet. But, I don’t know what the time period is in relation to our own past. present, or future. When is this story set? Do you prefer writing about invented times and places, or do you also write about alternative Earths?

DXD: It’s another dimension, more specifically, like Narnia or any number of fantasy worlds. I was messing around with an idea that it’s a world specifically hidden within our language, but unfortunately that idea was both too complicated and pretentious for me to pull off in the end… part of the reason this remains a fragment. As for when it’s set… well one character’s name is a pretty clumsy distortion of a historical figure from our world so I’ll leave it at that.

I’m a huge fantasy nerd so I love world building, but I’m not necessarily married to stories set in made up worlds. I published an alternative earth story a while back called “The Apollo Mission” about the ancient Romans developing space travel, but I haven’t done much with alternative earths otherwise. Maybe worth considering though!

GMM: There’s clearly a political or caste structure in your story. Is it primarily between species, or is it a bit more complicated than that? The dog-like creature is a decorated military man, so I assume that there is a hierarchy within that system, and I assume that there have been wars. Do you draw any parallels between what’s happening in this SFF story and what’s currently happening in our own time on Earth?

DXD: The hierarchy is pretty basic: the Avians have tricked the rest of the world through the power of their eloquence into letting them run it. The Bestials –which the dog-like creature belongs to, and all more or less look like humanoid versions of earth animals- are the “middle class” of the world (which is called Lexis.) They do all the dirty work for the Avians. Finally, at the bottom of society are the “Ill-Mades” who are unclassifiable but come in any sort of shape and size. The Ill-Mades are the serfs and the slaves and are considered to be no more than beasts. None of this hierarchy is legitimate or based on reality, mind you. It’s all a great big trick the Avians have pulled, pitting races against each other and making them think they’re inferior. Thilter, the dog-creature, is the only one to see through this big lie and, being a power-hungry megalomaniac uses this knowledge to lead a revolt of Ill-Mades against the Avians. Which, as we can see from the opening paragraph of the story, has obviously failed.

Does this story have any parallels with what’s currently happening on our own Earth? Well, I started this story a long time ago (maybe 10 years?) so obviously it’s not based on anything specific happening right now, but yeah I’d say there are a lot of echoes with a lot of hierarchy-heavy societies throughout history — where some people are given greater power and influence than others for basically arbitrary reasons. Some people live in mansions and eat caviar for breakfast because they can move numbers on a screen around while others starve and suffer because they can’t. Or even worse some people are better off than the color of their skin. That seems no crazier to me than a world where birds are in charge because they’re birds! So yeah, obviously this story reflects a lot of my feelings about the world, but it’s not in reference to anything specific. “The world is just awful, usually for stupid reasons” is about the gist of it — whether it be our world or a world run by birds and beasts.

Lexis, by David X. Wiggin

He wanted her to kill him.

Galatea understood what he was asking –demanding-, though they’d bound his muzzle shut with thin bands of steel fused together in a flawless web of metal.  That hadn’t stopped him from trying to reason with, beg from, and curse her every one of the countless miles they had traversed.  He struggled, but despite his seven feet of height and the hundreds of jangling medals on his chest that proclaimed his martial prowess, with his arms and legs manacled and chained he was no match for her.  His furred face was a froth of frozen snot, spit, blood, and mud and his yellow eyes burned with a heat that had in the past had typically preceded the death of thousands.  He frightened her, broken and bound as he was, as he had always frightened her.  Still, she would not surrender to his will as she had in the past.  For his crimes, he didn’t deserve death.  He deserved far worse.  They both did.

On the icy slopes of Mount Tattaghata, twenty thousand feet above the earth, whipped and nipped by the spirits of cold and wind, the two figures struggled against the elements and against each other.  One was a Bestial –a giant dog-man dressed in the rags of what had once been a beautifully tailored military uniform and fifty pounds of thick chain- the other an Ill-Formed-Woman.  Though most of them were hidden beneath her heavy coat, thousands of arms of every size grew from her back and her neck like the tendrils of an anemone.  Under her spider-fur hat, a head of thin hair-arms squirmed.  Had there been anyone to see them in this desolate corner of Lexis they would have been flabbergasted by the sight of a low caste Ill-Formed treating a decorated Bestial general like a prisoner.  No doubt it would have looked like a sick joke.  And there was no question, Galatea reflected, that was precisely what it was intended to be.  Prince Owlbert was known for his cruel ironies.

It had been her first time to see the inside of the Court (she’d been in the Castle of the Moon where the Avians held their winter sessions, but that had been after Thiltre’s Phoenix Brigade had purified it with flames) and after years of black jungles and scorched earth, the jade fountains, gilded floors, and occidental perfumes drifting through the air were almost unbearable.  Though Thiltre had had to be forced to his knees, Galatea had prostrated herself with an instinctual ease that terrified her.

They had conditioned her well.  She had experienced for herself the cruelty with which the Avians had repressed other races, stripping away their freedoms of mind and body to make pliant servants.  They had built their empire upon the bloodied backs of her people.  She knew all about their petty natures and pathetic hypocrisies.  She had seen first-hand just how mortal they were.  And yet… she had entered the court shaking, not from fear of the punishment that awaited her, but of being in the presence of her masters.  They had taken so many things from her.  Things she had never had to begin with.

Prince Owlbert had leaned down from his perch atop the neck of his mechanical manbody and studied them with blinking black eyes.  Followed by the faint whistle of spinning gears and winding strings the manbody raised a jeweled hand in an elegant gesture of greeting.

“Salutations.  Be welcome to the Court of the Sun, General Thiltre,” the prince murmured sleepily.  He spoke so quietly everyone in the hall had to lean in to hear.  “It is a glory to be presented with such a stimulating novelty in our paradigmatically dull chamber.  It has been unrelenting eons since we have had a suitable divertissement.  Is that not unequivocal?”  He looked to his courtiers: cardinals, parrots, ravens, peacocks, chickens, and blue jays; a brilliant mosaic of colored heads bobbing eagerly.  Then he turned back to the prisoners.

“You have given us sufficient of provocation over the past few turnings of the sun, General,” he mused.  “Karxxango, Dell-Where, and Tompiq conquered in a fortnight.  Approaching half a million Bestials and Ill-Mades aggregated from every corner of Lexis to stand beneath your tangerine banners.  You collected victory after victory over our Silver Legions.  Those squadrons of child soldiers- Nursery Killers, I think they were called-, were they of your own inspiration?  Delightful.  Your resolution to depart the court to lead this rebellion was a veritable disappointment. You could have ascended higher than your father.  He hung himself from shame when he heard that it was you leading the rebellion you know.”

Thitlre had snickered from behind his muzzle.  His cunning yellow eyes scanned the court.  Even then he had still considered himself undefeated, imagining that his devoted followers would come rescue him, and was taking catalogue of what precious things here he would claim for himself and who he would keep alive to torture on dull afternoons.  To his credit, he had returned from worse defeats.  This time, however, he had not counted on the extent of his second-in-command’s betrayal.

Next week, writer and climbing enthusiast, Ryan DeMoss, joins Girl Meets Monster. Do you have a story you’re dying to share with the world (or at least the few people who read my blog)? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com.

Fiction Fragments: David Day

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Before I even begin talking about my fellow Seton Hill University Alum, David Day, I’m going to brag about the fact that we both have stories in this political horror anthology due out later this month from Scary Dairy Press, so pick up a copy.

Last week, Kenya Wright stopped by and talked about the responsibility female writers of color have to include deeper issues like racism, classism, and sexism in their writing, even if they are writing about vampires with double penises. This week, David Day joins Girl Meets Monster to share his thoughts on genre and how it should be considered an analytical tool rather than a creative one. His thoughts on horror fiction and the connections he perceives between horror and romance raised some serious emotions for me. I’m not crying! You’re crying!

headshotDavid Day believes the future is a paradox, simultaneously representing beautiful hope and terrible possibility, and that we are on an ever-constant journey to resolve that paradox into the now. David received his MA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University in June 2011. He is the author of one novel, Tearstone, as well as several short stories. Find out more about him at his snazzy but woefully neglected website: http://www.davidlday.com.

Three Questions

GMM: Your fragment has a lot going on. Initially, I felt like I was reading a fairy tale, but then I got the sense that we’re in a post-apocalyptic world or, at the very least the story isn’t set in the here and now. There are clear references to a past (or recent present) that are familiar to contemporary culture, so maybe not too far in the future, but the habit of Cassiopeia to fade out of reality tells me this is an alternate reality at the least. How would you categorize this piece? What genre or genres do you typically write in? When you sit down to write, do you have a genre in mind, or do you simply set out to tell a story?

DD: I’d place this one as science fantasy. There are, of course, some dark elements to it, but nothing I’d qualify as horror specifically. It’s meant to have a fairy tale quality to it, and you’re right about the post-apocalyptic setting. The main characters are among the last surviving humans who are either being culled or killed, depending on a few key qualities of their personality that come out much later in the story.

I write among the subgenres of speculative fiction, typically horror, science fiction, supernatural fiction, and dystopian. My inclination is toward horror and the supernatural, and those elements usually surface in every piece, but I have been known to write a story or two that don’t have any horror in them.

Every new story is a unique endeavor for me, and I don’t try to pin it to a specific genre at the outset. My goal in writing a short story is to try and elicit some nugget of human experience. The inclination toward horror and darkness comes from a belief that we are often most human in the darkest of places. Sometimes that darkness draws out the good in us, sometimes the bad. And sometimes the story just falls flat and I move on to the next one. Novels, however, I do try to pin to a genre up front. I’m okay if it changes when working on the first draft, but novels are such an investment in time and energy, and selling them is such a market-oriented activity, that to write a novel without knowing the target readership ahead of time feels a bit backward.

GMM: I know that you write horror fiction, because your work has been published in horror anthologies, but how do you define horror? There was quite a bit of discussion in the writing program at Seton Hill about whether or not we should adhere to the strict, traditional definitions of specific genres, or simply write stories that contain elements of multiple genres, which often feels more natural. Which side of this debate do you fall on? Do you consider yourself a horror writer? Why or why not?

DD: Delineating genres is difficult, in my opinion. Horror can be especially tricky to pin down, due in part to the rash of slasher films in the 80s. Last weekend I sat on a panel on horror at the Imaginarium Convention in Louisville, KY, and one of the attendees asked if there were critical or essential elements that need to be present in a horror story. After a few seconds of silence as the panelists thought, a few spoke on how horror isn’t about this or that specific element, but about the characters. And then the conversation took off.

Horror is about emotions, not tangible things, and for those emotions to surface in writing, the story must be oriented toward the characters. Broadly speaking, horror is all the flavors of fear: helpless, frightened, overwhelmed, worried, inadequate, inferior, worthless, insignificant, excluded, persecuted, nervous, exposed, threatened, weak, rejected, insecure, anxious, etc., etc. Horror uses circumstances to bring these feelings out in the reader, and the best way to get a reader to feel something is through a character’s emotions. For me, horror is not only about those emotions, but the conquering of those emotions, and I believe the most satisfying horror stories are survival stories, where the characters involved are able to push through those emotions. Horror is about dwelling in the darkest of places and reemerging again transformed into something more resilient.

As for adhering strictly to genre, I call bullshit. When it comes to art, there are two kinds of tools: creative and analytical. Creative tools help the artist make something meaningful. Analytical tools help categorize and describe a work after it’s been created. Genre is an analytical tool that helps readers find works they may be interested in reading. Every story should be about some aspect of humanity, and to portray humanity properly requires showing a spectrum of emotions. Every story is a love story, a horror story, a mystery, a fantasy. Imagine going to a concert only to have the musician play a single note over and over. I’ll be generous – imagine them playing a single refrain repeatedly. How long before you get up and leave? I give you ten minutes, tops, unless you’re at a Phillip Glass concert, in which case maybe twenty. Stories that hammer on a single note tend to feel flat. Stories that show the complexity of human emotions necessarily draw from multiple genres. Genre labels help sell fiction, and can help a creator understand what the market potential is for their work, but genre is not very useful during the creative act.

Am I a horror writer? I grew up an avid reader of horror, science fiction, and poetry. I’m largely influenced by the works of Stephen King, Arthur C. Clark, H.P. Lovecraft, Kurt Vonnegut, Edgar Allen Poe, William Blake, Isaac Asimov, and e.e. cummings. If that makes me a horror writer, cool. But if my works appear on a shelf under Contemporary Fairy Tales or Dystopian Victorian Techno-Romance Spy Thrillers, and those labels help the readers who might like my stories find them, then extra cool.

GMM: There are hints at romance, or at least, unrequited love in your fragment. Do you often include romantic relationships in your stories? What inspired the relationship between the narrator and Cassiopeia?

DD: When I was at Seton Hill, I developed an appreciation for some similarities between romance and horror in terms of the focus on character and emotion. I’ve come to believe the opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is fear, and isolation as an intense precursor to or flavor of fear is a highly effective trope in horror as is demonstrated in this awesome montage of “No Signal” clips.

Notice how most of the movies cited are horror movies. I don’t necessarily try to include romantic relationships in stories, but I do try to use love relationships such as family bonds or even intensely tight friendships as a foil to isolation. As a writer, I believe having characters move across the love-fear spectrum gives a more complete view and increases the effect on the reader.

As for what inspired the relationship, I’m not sure I can point to any particular experience. Both the narrator and Cassiopeia suffered through a lot prior to their world going to hell. Sometimes we find strength when someone else’s well-being is at stake, and sometimes just having a hand to hold can make the most difficult of times more bearable and give one the will to persist.

Untitled Fragment, by David Day

Cassiopeia stumbled on a red pine’s thick root, her pink locks fluttering across my face like a kaleidoscope of butterflies. I tried to catch her, but she slipped from my grimy, sweaty hand and fell to the forest floor in a boneless heap. She lay still and silent, as if sleeping, her breath shallow and faint.

Her fugues grew worse with each day.

Something large shuffled through the woods, too far away for me to get a good fix on it, yet too close for our safety. I stretched out on the ground, spooned up against Cassiopeia, and placed a hand over her mouth to guard against any sudden outburst. Sweat covered her bone-cold skin, the faint smell of old heroine oozing from her like thick, cloying perfume.

“I think I hear one,” I whispered, more for my sanity than for her benefit. “Keep quiet.”
She moved her head slightly, the semblance of a nod, no doubt a tremor, but I wanted to believe otherwise. I stared up through the trees at a sky darkened for months to a confusion of shadow and light, never night or day, but always somewhere between, as if the earth had become stuck between dreaming and waking. Smudges of light riddled the fabric of the sky, stars barely discernible from the slightly darker background of space. I gave up on trying to see them, closed my eyes, and listened.

The steps echoed regular and heavy, the clip-clop of a trotting horse, their staccato rhythm heading our way.

Cassiopeia struggled a little, probably frightened even in her current state. She squirmed against me, groggy and weak, hopefully coming back around, but if we moved, if it found us…

I clamped down a little harder, enough to quiet her without hurting her.

I shifted and by some ill turn of fate caught a glimpse of the juggernaut through the trees as it paused, a great pillar of mahogany skin stretched over thick muscles, massive rubbery wings folded against its back, a thin barbed tail curled in a smooth s-shape, knees on the wrong side of its legs. It bent slightly backward and pressed its thick, clawed hands into the small of its back.

I managed a breath, then the creature took off again, galloping with surprising speed and agility. I waited, frozen, gulping thick breaths, then, listening as the last of the hoof-beats faded from earshot, slipped my hand from Cassiopeia’s mouth.

She rolled over to face me, awareness in her eyes for the first time in hours, pink strands of damp hair plastered to her forehead.

“I want to go with them.”

I brushed the threads aside, heart thumping a little harder as I fought the urge to draw her closer, envelop her entirely. Instead, I laid a palm across her cheek then rose and pulled a bottle of water from my tattered pack. I offered her a hand, which she accepted with a blatant scowl that sunk my heart further. I sipped from the bottle to mask my hurt, savored the lukewarm liquid before swallowing, and passed the water to her.

“Welcome back.”

She accepted the bottle, shrugged, and as she sipped she flickered like some grainy art-house film. The bottle fell through her hand and landed on a bed of decaying white oak leaves, water spilling like blood. She solidified, whimpered, then retrieved the bottle before it could bleed out.

I could relate to her spells of delirium, having floundered through withdrawal myself, but this flickering of hers, the slipping out of reality like some half-forgotten dream, unnerved me almost as much as the devil in the woods.

She handed the bottle back, nearly empty. “This the last one?”

I nodded, rubbed her shoulder, reassuring her of our safety, reassuring myself of her existence.

“We’ll find more soon. I can smell the saltwater on the air. We’ll head north when we hit the ocean, and we should come across a town before long. Felt like we passed through one every ten minutes driving to my grandmother’s cabin as a kid.”

I told a half-truth, unsure if I smelled the ocean, but Cassiopeia looked comforted. We walked in silence until our bodies could take no more, hours it seemed, and while the smell of the Atlantic was stronger with each step, we did not reach it.

Even if she didn’t talk to me, I was thankful Cassiopeia stayed with me. Though her episodes were more frequent, she appeared more sentient than she had in days. Maybe her system was finally expelling the last remnant of her backslide from before.

We stopped at a small pond to bathe and, once clean, we settled down to sleep, each of us bone-weary and spent. We curled up between two worn comforters stolen from a child’s abandoned bedroom in Skowhegan, back-to-back. I listened to the slow, steady rhythm of her light snoring, wishing for more intimacy, knowing she would never feel the same, hanging on each beat of her breath like a totem of sanity.

It took more than an hour for sleep to find me.

Next week, David X. Wiggin joins Girl Meets Monster. Do you have a piece of fiction hidden under your mattress that might benefit from a second look? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com.

Fiction Fragments: Kenya Wright

Last week, Girl Meets Monster had a visitor from across the pond, Frazer Lee. This week, Kenya Wright stopped by to talk about whether or not women of color have a responsibility to include deeper messages about racism, sexism and other social justice issues in their fiction even when they are writing romances about vampires with double penises. That’s right, I said vampires with double penises.

author picKenya Wright wrote her first novel during her third year at UM Law school. She dropped out a month after the release and never looked back.

Words are power, and Kenya wants to be the greatest wizard that ever lived.

It’s an audacity to inspire and teach the healing of love through arousal.

It’s this crazy idea that love can not only help a reader escape, but the story can also teach the person about being human, while making them laugh, cry, and hot for more sex.

Three Questions

GMM: The opening of your story feels like a thriller with a promise of some horrific scenes, but is this story a romance? Is it part of a series? Without giving too much away, which characters form the main love interest? Is there a triangle, or does it get more complicated like one of Laurell K. Hamilton’s novels with too many lovers to keep track off throughout the series?

KW: This is a second chance romance, but on a softer note than what I usually write. A large focus is the mystery. However, there’s tons of steamy sex sprinkled in. There’s several twists, but i would say Shadow and Lyric have a strong possibility of a fun romance.

There is a love triangle forming. I’m writing the second book in the series. For the Masque of Red Death, I’m doing revisions. So, I do see a love triangle happening, although I do try to avoid those. I can never figure out who the heroine should be with in the end.

I love LKH, but there is a harem quality to her story, and I’m not really into harem romances. I should check a few out though. I wouldn’t mind an actual harem in real life.

GMM: As a woman of color writing erotica and speculative fiction with steamy romance, do you feel obligated to have a deeper message in your stories? You mention that race and police brutality are elements of this story, but do you ever simply write a romance or speculative fiction story that examines the relationships between people without a broader message? Can writers of color write books without broader messages about race and class and racism? Is it possible to divorce yourself from that ongoing narrative within our culture when you set out to write a story?

I’m hoping to change someone, when they read my stories. I’m trying to get a person to think of something differently as they’re aroused and scared at the same time.

 

KW: I definitely feel obligated to have a deeper message in my stories, but then that’s how I am in life. So, even when I’m trying to write a straight romance, somehow themes of gentrification, colorism, and rape culture seep into the story. I also think my readers expect stronger messages from me with each novel as well as show of growth. I make it a point to learn something new with each story–whether a new mechanism with storytelling or different pov.

I honestly can’t think of an erotica or romance of mine where I didn’t share some message. Even my first erotica trilogy of vampire romances explored the idea of slavery and dictatorship. Being that there were a whole lot of vampire kings in the story with double penises, no one seemed to mind the speculation on enslavement.

Basically, I always like a story with a deep exploration of humanity, sprinkled in between some hot orgasms and colorful dark characters. I think with broken heroes and mind-battered heroines, it’s hard to not dissect what is wrong with that character as I’m writing the story. It’s hard to not further wonder. . .how society might have been the cause for this character’s background. And then this message begins to spill onto the pages.

Writers of colors can totally create stories without broader messages of race and class. I think every creator has a special reason for why they are on this planet. Even if this particular black guy likes to write books on hats–just hats and nothing more. Who knows what that can spark in the person’s mind that reads it?

Books are awesome because they can inspire. They have this ability to ripple. Poe is a great example of this.

I can divorce myself from certain narratives, but it’s pretty difficult. I prefer to be an artist that has something to say, whether anybody wants to hear it or not. I think that the most important thing in this world is how the internet creates a marketplace for ideas. If you can shift one’s thoughts, you could change their life. I’m hoping to change someone, when they read my stories. I’m trying to get a person to think of something differently as they’re aroused and scared at the same time.

GMM: In some of our conversations, we discussed my love of monsters and touched on the idea of the eroticism of evil. What, in your opinion, makes monsters sexy? Why write about them in the romance/erotica genres? Are any of your romantic leads monsters? Why did you choose them?

KW: A monster is an element of horror. And, horror is very therapeutic. When a person reads a story about a woman getting tortured and killed, they finish the story with a new sense of relief that they’re not that woman. They have a brighter pep in their step. They look at the world a little bit better. But then there is some fear that comes to them too. And fear is good too. It protects. It teaches. It makes you choose your behavior differently, so that you don’t become that poor woman that was tortured in the book.

So, here we have monsters. And they’re these dangerous promises of death. And we’re so scared by them, but then. . .if it’s my story. . .we’re also aroused by them. Because even though that monster is killing everyone else in the book, for some reason the monster loves this heroine. And the reader is the heroine. So she or he is loved by a monster. And for some sick ass reason, that shit feels great! It’s a high. Addicting. Like a flame to a crack pipe. You want more monsters to love you! You want more to kill and protect for you.

So, the majority of my heroes are contemporary monsters in many ways. I love Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie films. Most of my heroes are on the bad side of the law. The majority of my heroines have been broken in some way, but are strong survivors. I’ve found that this combination of man and woman is addictive for me to write. Thank God, people like to buy these books too, because I don’t believe I could stop writing dark horror romance.

The Masque of Red Death, by Kenya Wright is a second chance romance that unites the exploration of race and police brutality from THE HATE U GIVE with the twisted Poe-inspired serial killer plot line of THE FOLLOWING.

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Chapter 1: Lyric

5:00 p.m.

I sat on the ledge of Eureka’s justice building and watched the city burn below my feet.

That Saturday evening, the riots had continued. The sun was setting, yet everyone on the street was just beginning their day.

When will it stop?

Black smoke rose in the air. Even high up, it was hard to breathe. Glass shattered. Tires screeched. Mothers cried. The police stormed the streets, threatening to tear gas citizens, but their words drowned in the screams and the drops of blood being splattered on concrete.

Tears streamed down my face.

I almost didn’t notice Shadow’s signature scent as it filled the air.

“How can you sit up here and watch all the rioting?” Shadow asked.

“How can you not? This is your city as much as it’s mine.” Wiping away my tears, I looked at him. Designer from head to toe, he wore a purple blazer over a white buttoned shirt and charcoal gray slacks. Not many could pull the look off, but he did.

I glanced over my shoulder and past him. Four of his goons stood by the roof’s entrance. Shadow liked them colorfully uniformed as if he was a character out of a comic book—black suits, white hats, and red ties. He thought he was a hero.

He’s the villain in the story. Never forget that.

Shadow stepped closer to the ledge. “I need your help, Lyric.”

“You always do, but I’m done helping heartless people.”

“I’m many things, Lyric, but I do have a heart.”

“Shadows don’t have hearts. They’re just cold, shapeless, dark things that black out all the light.”

People called him Shadow because he moved like one—sneaking around unnoticed and blending in and out of the darkness. They should’ve called him killer or thief, but his money and looks kept him out of trouble. He towered over most, wielded power like the devil, and held the city in his hands.

The real danger lay in his words. They flowed smooth like a saxophone, trapping the average soul and squeezing until the essence bled out. He had a knack for getting people to do fucked up things, especially me.

With no sign of fear, Shadow stepped closer to the ledge. “Someone sent me a box. Two things were inside. A mask made out of human skin and a letter written in blood. ”

“Sounds like Wednesday.” I closed my eyes and returned to humming, but I could no longer catch the melody. Shadow had seeped into my pores and disturbed my peace.

He continued, “The person signed the message with three big bloody letters. He called himself Poe.”

“Interesting.”

“This isn’t a joke. I need your help.”

“I don’t care.”

“I’m not playing about the box. It was all black with a red velvet bow and a tiny clock dangling from the center. Whoever sent it is a sick motherfucker.” Shadow frowned. “The letter talked about a game that I had to play or more people would die. And the whole thing was written in blood. This person is threatening to kill me.”

Next week, David Day stops by to talk about writing short horror fiction and to share a fragment. Do you have a fragment collecting dust that needs to see the light of day? Send it my way to chellane@gmail.com.

Fiction Fragments: Frazer Lee

Last week, Atlanta lawyer and speculative fiction writer, Alicia Wright, joined us and talked about why she loves writing science fiction and fantasy for a YA audience. This week, creative writing professor, novelist and horror filmmaker, Frazer Lee, was kind enough to share a fragment and talk to Girl Meets Monster about what really scares him.

Frazer-Lee-stokerawdsFrazer Lee’s first novel, The Lamplighters, was a Bram Stoker Award® Finalist for “superior achievement in a first novel”.

One of Frazer’s early short stories received a Geoffrey Ashe Prize from the Library of Avalon, Glastonbury. His short fiction has since appeared in numerous anthologies including the acclaimed Read By Dawn series.

Also a screenwriter and filmmaker, Frazer’s movie credits include the award-winning short horror films On Edge, Red Lines, Simone, The Stay, and the critically acclaimed horror/thriller feature (and movie novelization) Panic Button.

Frazer is Head of Creative Writing at Brunel University London and resides with his family in leafy Buckinghamshire, England, just across the cemetery from the real-life Hammer House of Horror.

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Three Questions

GMM: At first glance, Emily Vane seems like a typical rich girl with behavioral problems until we reach the last line of your fragment and we realize there is definitely something odd about Emily. What inspired this fragment? Is this a horror story? What do Emily’s pills do?

FL: Emily popped into my head one day and quickly became the lead character in a horror story about a mysterious institution for wayward girls. I hate this first draft opening because it’s so expository and clunky. It zooms in and out too much, one sentence we’re learning about how bored her parents are, and a few sentences later we’re inside her veins. Your question identifies the main problem here, I think: The question of what her pills do is the most interesting aspect at play. It took me a couple of years to answer that question fully, and by the time I did, this story had become what it really wanted to be all along—a horror screenplay. I had to get to the heart of the character and what her deal was, before I could allow the story to flow from her. Now I think it does, and I hope to see that movie someday. If it goes into production, I’ll also finish writing the book for sure!

GMM: What initially drew you to horror? Who did you read or watch that made you decide to become a horror writer and filmmaker?

FL: Late nights alone at my father’s place on weekends left me unattended with a TV set. Very dangerous. I quickly gravitated towards horror because that was all that was on offer. Lucky me! I devoured every Hammer Horror and Universal Monsters double bill going, and actors like Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Boris Karloff, Hazel Court, Ingrid Pitt, Vincent Price… they became like surrogate family to me. Playmates I loved staying up with. Even though horror movies sometimes frightened me, they were also like a cosy blanket to curl up with on Friday and Saturday nights. From there, I found writers like Dennis Wheatley, EA Poe, HP Lovecraft, Nigel Kneale, and a bit later on they in turn led me to Angela Carter, Anne Rice, Clive Barker and Poppy Z. Brite. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the Queen of them all. Directors like Carpenter and Cronenberg were huge influences, as were Bava and Argento. I just had to try and express myself in this genre, there was no point fighting it—nor did I ever want to.

GMM: What scares you? Do you suffer from any phobias?

FL: People scare me. Take for example the man who says he’s not going to cut the trees down, then chops them down when you’re not looking. Him. That one. They are bloody everywhere, men like him. My stories often develop from a phobia of people. But I love people too, so sometimes there’s a happy ending.

Fiction Fragment, by Frazer Lee

Emily Vane sat on the back seat listening to the juggernaut rhythm of her favourite machine-like music. It pumped through her ear buds at a volume that would give her parents cause to worry about her hearing. Not that her parents were in the car, of course – they had seen fit to have her ditched at the latest in a long line of correctional institutions by Bob, their driver.

Bob wasn’t a bad sort; he didn’t look at her in the same lecherous way that his predecessor had, for one thing. Add to that his frivolous nature with cigarettes and Emily had him pinned as an ally. She had badgered him to let her smoke in the car for almost the entire first leg of their long drive from the ornate gates of her parental home but, fearing that her parents would smell the smoke in the car, Bob had pulled over and allowed her to take a smoke break at the service station. She had been tempted to cut and run while Bob took a piss break, but had given up on the idea. Partly out of duty to her driver, who would lose his job if his quarry upped and disappeared, and partly because she had lost count the number of times she’d ran now – it was, in short, beginning to bore her as much as it bored her dear old Mother and Father. So, she sat in the back of the car, ear-shredding music pounding out a tattoo as she watched the countryside pass by in a blur of greens and browns. She felt herself drifting into the whirl of colours, the music pumping in time with the surge of blood through her veins – tributaries that kept her tethered to her body. She felt her veins go numb and she slipped free of them, drifting out of her body and away, over the fields and hills. The sensation trod the fine line between pleasure trip and abject nausea. Emily snapped back into her body and reached into her backpack for her pills.

I don’t know if you noticed, but I like a little romance with my horror. So, next week, romance writer Kenya Wright joins Girl Meets Monster and things will get steamy around here. Stay tuned, and send me your fragments at chellane@gmail.com.

Fiction Fragments: Alicia Wright

Last week, Girl Meets Monster had the pleasure of talking with Michael Arnzen. This week, Alicia Wright joins us to talk about space operas and when she loves writing science fiction and fantasy for YA audiences.

AliciaWrightI decided to write books about ten minutes before graduating law school. I’m now an Atlanta attorney, but I moonlight as author, electronics junkie, and secret superhero. With degrees in computer science and a healthy diet of fiction, I love all things high-tech and unreal. I write fantasy and science fiction for young adults. Currently, you can find my work under the name Alicia Wright Brewster, but additional books are coming soon under Alicia Ellis. Visit Alicia’s website and follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/writeralicia

Three Questions

GMM: I enjoyed reading your fragment. What was the inspiration for this piece, and why do you think slavery is a recurring theme in Science Fiction and Fantasy? Do you think it’s important to continue to write about slavery despite the fact that many people think it is no longer relevant to discuss it?

AW: I can’t be sure what inspired this piece. I’ve always wanted to write a space opera, and I think one day, I decided it would be cool to write about space pirates. And then this story grew in my imagination.

Is it important to write about slavery? Yes, history is important. I wasn’t consciously thinking of history or trying to make a point when I wrote this. But to a significant degree, the plans I had for this story deal with colonialism, and there’s a historical link between colonialism and slavery. So when I needed a way to return Jax to Ren’s life and simultaneously make the Company look awful, slavery seemed like a good way to go.

GMM: What attracted you to the SFF genres? What was the first book, movie or TV show that caught your attention? Why?

AW: I love science fiction and fantasy because it’s simultaneously real and unreal. It’s different from the everyday, and thus it provides an escape. At the same time, SFF explores real-world joys and problems. I had no choice really; my father raised me on Star Trek and Star Wars, and I loved every minute of it.

My very first favorite book was science fiction, although at the time, I didn’t know what “science fiction” was. My copy of The Girl with the Silver Eyes, by Willo Davis Roberts, was thoroughly battered after traveling with me during at least two (probably three) household moves. It remains my most-reread book, although it’s been decades since I’ve last read it. Perhaps it’s time for reread!

GMM: Is it easier to write for a young adult audience? What are some of the challenges? Do you struggle with subject matter in terms of what’s appropriate for young adults? Do you worry about how you audience will deal with difficult or uncomfortable situations in your fiction?

AW: I wouldn’t say it’s either easier or harder to write for young adults; I’d say it’s different than writing for adults. I love writing YA because the protagonists move me. They are passionate and reckless, and for them, everything is life changing. I can get a young protagonist into a lot more trouble than I can with an adult protagonist, because teenagers are allowed a wider range of mistakes. They mess up and they learn, and as readers, we allow them to do so without questioning their sanity. And when big moments occur, teenage protagonists are filled with excitement or devastation because they are experiencing things for the first time. And that’s why I write YA.

A challenge is that, obviously, I am no longer a teenager. I remember what I was like as a teen and what my friends were like, and that goes into my writing. But it’s important to stay in touch with teenage life to some degree, so that I don’t have teenagers in 2018 behaving as if they are in 1998. Clothes have changed. Schools have changed. Hangout spots have changed. Politics have changed. I need to know what’s happening now for teenagers, and sometimes that’s tough. It actually helps that I write SFF because, often, I make the world so I make the rules. But still, SFF needs to be grounded in reality.

Do I struggle with subject matter in terms of what’s appropriate for teens? Honestly, not much. YA can get pretty real and dark these days, so there’s little that I want to write about that’s out of bounds. I’m sure there are topics I wouldn’t touch, but I have yet to come across any in my own story ideas. Sometimes, I worry about cursing too much in my writing, but that’s largely about being acceptable to adults who choose books for teens. With that in mind, I tend to limit, but not eliminate, cursing. Basically, I save it for emphasis rather than sprinkling it everywhere.

End of Life, by Alicia Wright

CHAPTER 1

I hadn’t shot him in a vital organ. It didn’t call for all that screaming.

“Shut him up.” I gestured with my gun at one of his shipmates, a tall woman with a dark ponytail.

“You didn’t have to do that.” She pressed her hands against the hole in his leg and whispered in his ear, her tone soothing.

“Yes, I did.”

When a sixteen-year-old girl asks a crew to hand over its cargo, they rarely agree—even when she and her team have already ripped open the side of that crew’s spaceship. So I solved that problem. When I shot someone with a fifty-pound gun, they got obedient fast.

It made things easier.

The man’s howls quieted to whimpers.

Weaponless, my shipmate Kye examined the screen on his comm. “Batteries,” he told me, his tone flat.

“Could you put a little energy into it?” I whispered.

He and I stood at the edge of a dining hall. A long metal table sat in the middle of the room, surrounded by sixteen plastic chairs. Four members of the crew had occupied those chairs when we peeled their ship like a tin can. They’d jumped to their feet, and two others had joined them from elsewhere on the ship, thanks to the commotion.

Behind us, a hole gaped in the wall. It led to a retractable tunnel attached to our ship. Before we left and took our tunnel with us, we’d advise them to seal the hole so they didn’t get blown out into space. We weren’t monsters, after all.

Louder, I said, “Where are the batteries?”

The four remaining crew members—other than the man I’d shot and the woman calming him—had clustered on the far side of the table. The largest of them stepped forward and pushed two of the others behind him.

“What batteries?” When I didn’t shoot him right away, he raised his voice. “We don’t have any batteries.” Brave.

Kye read from his screen. “One hundred fifty polynium-nitride batteries of various sizes. Estimated value of sixteen thousand universal credits.”

It would have made my job easier if he at least pretended to be mean. Kye was the nicest boy a knew—Granted, most people I knew were pirates. But between his six-foot-plus frame and shoulders twice as wide as mine, it would have taken little more than the occasional sneer to wrap up these jobs more quickly.

I pointed my gun at the brave man’s face. “You heard him.”

His mouth moved, but no sound came out. Useless.

“Somebody here knows where the batteries are. Or maybe they’re not on the ship—in which case, we might as well make an exit.” I turned my weapon toward the wall and flicked the ammunition switch from bullets to explosives. “This way, perhaps?”

The drug my crew took to survive hyperspace had some pleasant side effects—strength, speed, agility. Even as a Traveler, though, I couldn’t survive in outer space for more than five minutes, but these people didn’t know that.

The woman who’d been soothing the injured man shot to her feet. “There are no batteries. Our orders changed.”

“What are you carrying?”

Her face reddened. “Slaves.”

I glanced behind me at Kye for confirmation.

He offered an almost imperceptible shrug.

“Show me.” To the rest of them, I added, “No one leaves this room until I get back.”

Kye leaned against the wall and stared down at his comm. “I’ve got this under control.”

Even without a weapon, he could take them all down—probably. It worked in our favor that no one outside the Travelers knew the limits of the drug. These people wouldn’t risk their lives by confronting Kye—not for cargo they’d have to turn over to the Company anyway.

I followed the dark-ponytailed woman down a narrow, spiral staircase. My combat boots clanked against the metal steps. We stepped off it onto the dusty floor of the cargo bay. The space held a single item, a cage, barely large enough for the four people inside.

I turned to head back up the stairs. I’d confirmed her story, but we didn’t trade in slaves. There was nothing for us here.

“Ren?” a familiar voice called.

I spun back around.

While the other three slaves slumped on the ground in the tight space, a teenage boy leaned against the front bars, his arms propped against a horizontal rung. His dark hair hung over his forehead. Dirt streaked his face and clothing, but when he smiled, his teeth shone as white and perfect as ever.

“Jax.” I cursed silently at the flipping in my stomach. Why did he still affect me?

“You’re going to leave me here?”

I ignored him and started up the stairs. If anyone deserved slavery, it was Jax.

“I know what happened to your sister,” he shouted when I’d made it halfway up.

I ran back down, shoving the woman aside at the bottom step. I stopped in front of the cage, three feet away from him. The only way he’d know about my sister was if he’d been there. The information wasn’t out there—not in the gossip, not in the official record, not on the black market. “You’re a liar.”

“That’s true. But not about this. You want justice, right?”

I wanted justice more than I wanted those batteries, more than I wanted out of my Travelers contract, more than I wanted my next breath. But the last time I’d seen Jax, I was watching his feet walk away from me as I bled out on the floor. “You’re going to get it for me?”

“Let’s say I’m lying,” he said. “You take me with you, question me, and when you get nothing, I go back to the Company. What’s the loss?”

He had a point. I hated it when he had a point.

“Get him out,” I said to the woman still waiting for me on the staircase.

Next week, Girl Meets Monster gets a visit from across the pond. Stay tuned, and send your fragments to me at chellane@gmail.com.