Fiction Fragments: Donna Lynch

Last week I chatted with Tony Tremblay about tacos, reviewing books, and his forthcoming novel from Haverhill House, Do Not Weep For Me.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes poet, lyracist and writer Donna Lynch.

Donna Lynch is a two-time Bram Stoker Award-nominated dark fiction poet and author, spoken word artist, and the co-founder—along with her husband, artist and musician Steven Archer—of the dark electronic rock band Ego Likeness (Metropolis Records).

An active member of the Horror Writers Association and three-time contributor to the HWA Poetry Showcase, her published works include the novels Isabel Burning, and Red Horses; the novella Driving Through the Desert; and the poetry collections In My Mouth, Twenty-Six, Ladies & Other Vicious Creatures, The Book of Keys, Daughters of Lilith, Witches, and the Ladies of Horror Fiction Award-winning Choking Back the Devil (Raw Dog Screaming Press).

She is the founder of the Garbage Witch clothing brand, part-time tour manager, avid cross-country driver, and geography fanatic. She and Steven live in Maryland.

FB: Donna Lynch @GeekLioness
Twitter: @GeekLioness
Instagram: d_note_
Raw Dog: http://rawdogscreaming.com/authors/donna-lynch/

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Donna. Thank you for joining me in these weird times. Has the pandemic and current events had an impact on your creativity? What spooky things have you been cooking up while in quarantine?

DL: It absolutely is having an impact. My focus and concentration are worse than usual, and I’m having to work extra hard at not putting myself down because of it.

That said, I have been able to dive into a new poetry collection: a mix of contemporary folk legends and the lives of my friends and myself growing up in suburban and rural areas. There is a quiet horror that happens in those communities that have traditionally fancied themselves safer and of higher moral ground than urban areas, and as young women growing up in those places, we knew it all too well.

GMM: Tell me about your writing process. Does your process differ between writing lyrics, poetry and fiction? Or, does the same Muse speak to you for all of your creative endeavors?

DL: Lyrics require hooks and there are more “restrictions”. The words not only have to be memorable and impactful, but they have to fit. Everything else feels easy compared to that.

But the words all come from the same well. The bigger challenge is keeping the well from going dry.

GMM: Without giving away too many spoilers, can you tell me about your fragment? Is this part of a larger piece? What’s happening in the story?

DL: My fragment is an excerpt from a work-in-progress collection of short stories that feature the same protagonist: a centuries-old entity who has taken numerous forms throughout time, but during the twentieth century, assumes the identity of a southern gentleman, based on an archetype of the devil they once saw in a film. I won’t share their/ his purpose here, only preface this excerpt by saying they act as a companion to those who need it the most, but in this particular story, struggles with their agenda.

I started this collection many years ago, and I made two mistakes: I made it too big, and I made it too precious. But now, in 2020, enough has changed that I feel ready to carve it into manageable pieces, and I can make the adjustments necessary to feel good about its place in the world, to whatever degree that may be. Offering up this (unedited) fragment here is the first step in me letting it breathe and letting it go.

Miss Abyss

I said it before and it’s always true: some of them are just harder than others.

This one, I can’t say she’s a failure. I wouldn’t ever call her that, no way. But she ain’t made of the same stuff the others are. She’s of something stronger and stranger, and at the same time she’s nothing.

A very long time ago she bound me not to say her name, and I can’t even remember it now, which goes to show how powerful she really is. And pardon my metaphor, but if I’m the stitches, she’s the wound that’s just too wide and deep.

I can’t really save any of my girls, that’s not my job and I couldn’t if I tried, but I especially can’t save her. For her to be who she is, she can’t ever be spared from it. She’s a chasm, a void. But, by god, there’s something deep down in there that is so fragile, and compassionate, and alone, I don’t know how it survives. It’s so far down, I don’t know how it’s fed, but it is. Not much, but enough, I guess.         

Now—for a void— if there’s one thing she’s excellent at filling, it’s your time. Otherwise, she’s a taker. She takes your energy, your sanity, your common sense. But even then, that ain’t her fault. It’s her nature, and she only takes what you offer. It’s a pretty deep hole she’s aiming to fill, so it takes a lot, and there ain’t much point in fighting because once you open your mouth and start telling her your story and she starts listening in a way nobody ever listened before, you’ve already approached the event horizon.         

The problem with little Miss Abyss is that there ain’t no lesson for her. There’s no moral of her story. She’s not a saint, or a martyr, not a demi-god, or a spirit. She’s eternal, but that don’t mean much when you only exist for other people, because they will you to exist. She’s a distraction for anyone looking for an escape, though she doesn’t know it’s temporary. If everyone let her alone tomorrow, she’d just…not be.

She doesn’t know she isn’t real. But that ain’t ever gonna happen, because people ain’t ever gonna stop wanting someone to listen the way she listens. They ain’t ever gonna stop wanting something to fill their time and emptiness.         

It took me a hell of a long time to figure out why we came across each other, but then it hit me: someday, I’m might have to tell her. At least, I think I will. My job is to be merciful, to make the transitions easier, to not let them linger, hurting and desperate. I get mad at myself for letting her go on this long, getting used and thrown away time and time again. I lose track of time, but I’ll tell you, it’s been long enough to make me feel ashamed. Hard truth is, I’m fond of her, and I don’t want to set something into motion I can’t control. Like I said, that ain’t my job. But it also ain’t really fair to her.         

It seems harmless enough, just thinking it through. If she’s nothing, then why shouldn’t people bring her into existence if they need her? She’s summoned by the lonely, the trapped, the insecure. She’s called by people who need a distraction from their boring lives and ugly selves, and they’d rather face the better person they see reflected in her hopeful eyes. “Where’s the harm?” they think. They never remember asking for anything out loud. So when they’ve used her up, or offered more than they could afford to lose to, they always say “Hey, sweetheart, I never said you had to keep coming around,” or “We never said this was forever”, and they send her away, emptier than when she got there, if that’s even possible. It’s like looking at a hole torn in space. You can hardly even understand what you’re looking at. You just know it’s dark and cold.         

But here we are, over and over, and though I see she’s hurting, I can see she’s hoping—hoping to be real, hoping that this time, she’ll be enough—and I let it ride because it feels so good to have her with me. I don’t have to teach her a damn thing. I don’t have to carry her through a trauma or a gate, into her next form. I don’t have to hold her hand while she nestles into place in a folktale or ghost story. We just exist together and I tell her about all of it and she just listens and smiles and makes me forget all of the terrible things I see, and every time, just as I’m feeling so good, it hits me like a shotgun blast to the head—

I don’t set her free because she’s my distraction, too.

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

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

Fiction Fragments: Tony Tremblay

Last week I spoke with horror writer Denise N. Tapscott about her love of New Orleans and Voodoo.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes horror writer and former Cemetery Dance Magazine book reviewer Tony Tremblay.

Tony Tremblay is the author of the Bram Stoker nominated novel The Moore House from Haverhill House Publishing. In addition he has two short story collections The Seeds of Nightmares, and Blue Stars, both from Crossroad Press. He is one of the co-editors of the Eulogies series of horror anthologies, and is a co-editor on an upcoming untitled horror anthology about trains. He has worked as a reviewer for Horror World and Cemetery Dance Magazine. For three years he hosted a television show called The Taco Society Presents which focused on New England horror and genre writers. Along with John McIlveen and Scott Gousdward, Tony is one of the three organizers of NoCon, a horror convention held in New Hampshire. His latest novel, Do Not Weep For Me is currently at the publisher. Tony lives in New Hampshire.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Tony. Tell me a little bit about your forthcoming book from Haverhill House, Do Not Weep For Me, without giving away too many spoilers.

TT: First let me say thank you for having me Michelle. Do Not Weep For Me is my second novel with Haverhill House. I would not consider the new novel a sequel, but it does follow up with some of the characters in my first novel The Moore House. In Do Not Weep For Me, we encounter an old couple that has kidnapped children to use them in a demonic sacrifice. At the end of the ritual, only two of the children survive, but they’ve changed. While we follow the exploits of the children in the novel, the emphasis is more on their parents and other adults, including a certain pawnshop owner who assists them.

There are differences between my two novels. In the 70’s and 80’s, I spent way too much time devouring all those classic horror novels of that era. The Moore House was my homage to that time period with its action packed plotting and cliffhanger endings. Do Not Weep For Me is also action packed, but I gave the characters a bit more room to breathe, and many of the chapters are self contained. The other big difference in Do Not Weep For Me is that it contains a fair amount of sex that is intrinsic to the plot, where as I shied away from it in The Moore House.

GMM: What was The Taco Society Presents about? I mean, I assume tacos had something to do with it, but can you really talk about tacos for three years?

TT: I’m smiling as I’m typing this. The Taco Society Presents was an interview show shown on local television and YouTube. I was the host with two co-hosts, Sydney Leigh and Phil Perron. We interviewed authors, artists, and craftsmen mostly from New England that were involved in horror and related genres. Before the show was conceived, a mutual friend of all three of us brought us together one evening at a taco restaurant so we would get to know one another. We all clicked. Later, when the television station asked me to host the show, I asked the others if they would like to join me. They said yes, and we became The Taco Society Presents. After every show, the three of us, and our guests would drive down to that taco restaurant and spend the evening eating and drinking. The show lasted three years, and we had a great time doing it. And, as I mentioned earlier about my love of 70’s and 80’s horror, The Taco Society Presents is also a nod to one of my favorite books of the time. The Chowder Society is a feature in Ghost Story, a novel by Peter Straub.

GMM: Are you still reviewing books? How has that experience shaped your own writing? Do you think reading the work of other writers helped you become a better writer? Did it change your perceptions of what the writing process looks like?

TT: I don’t review professionally anymore. Nanci Kalanta gave me my start reviewing for her Horror World website which led to me to reviewing for Cemetery Dance Magazine and the occasional review elsewhere. I’ve been an avid horror reader since my early teens so I had a fair idea of what was good, what worked and what didn’t, so reviewing came easy for me. Joining a writers group enabled me to learn the mechanics of crafting a story, and that made a huge difference in the quality of my work. To this day, I lean on guidance from my writers group—they are the best beta-readers anyone could ask for. It was my desire to write my own fiction that put an end to my reviewing.

Excerpt from Do Not Weep For Me

As he did every morning before going to work, Paul Lane glanced at the thermometer on his front porch—74 degrees—and then with a cup of coffee in his hand, stood on the concrete stairs at the front of his house. He took note of the thick cloud cover. It delivered a gray hue, muting the sunshine, dulling the vibrant palette of the season. He dropped his gaze and frowned. The grass covering his yard looked different. The stiff, neatly trimmed blades rested limp on the topsoil. The deep shamrock green had faded a shade; the tips tinged with yellow. He thought it too tired-looking for mid-June.

The flowers on the Rose of Sharon hedge bordering the left side of his home, so proud yesterday, were now listless. Their parade of bright red blossoms absorbed the muted sunlight and reflected a color more akin to copper than candy apple.

Swinging his gaze to the street offered no respite from the gloom. The neighborhood had taken on a dingy appearance. It was as if the brick, aluminum or vinyl siding facades on the homes had bathed in a layer of dust. Not one of the new or more expensive cars parked in driveways or in front of the houses screamed, “look at me”. Their wax jobs lacked sparkle and their chrome trims did not gleam.

Something was off.

People in his neighborhood had pride. They did not neglect their property.

“Daddy?”

The call broke his concentration. “Yes, Cindy?”

“Can I play on the swing for a few minutes before you bring me to school?”

Paul didn’t answer. Instead, he took one more look around. There was heaviness to the area he couldn’t put his finger on, as if the atmosphere had weight. Not only was it oppressive, it was concerning in a way that defied an easy description.

He caught sight of Sheila White, the neighbor across the street, as she retrieved the daily newspaper from the box at the end of her driveway. The woman waved to him, and he returned the greeting. She was a fine looking woman, and the thing was, she knew it. He smiled when she stopped a few feet from her front door and wiggled her ass before she stepped back into the house. Paul’s wife had been dead for four years now, but that didn’t mean he was. Though Sheila often flirted with him, Paul rarely returned the favor. She was off-limits. Her husband, Tom, and he were good friends, and he would never betray that trust. Still, though, she did brighten Paul’s mood on occasion.

“Daddy, can I?”

“Huh?” He had forgotten about, Cindy. “Yeah, sure, honey. Stay in the back, I’ll come get you when it’s time to leave. You want to eat anything before you have breakfast at daycare?”

“No. I’m okay. Can you push me?”

He chuckled. “Sure. Give me a minute to bring my stuff to the car, I’ll be right out.”

“Thanks, Daddy!” She gave him a quick hug and ran back inside the house.

He followed her in and, after chugging his coffee, Paul draped his suit coat over his arm and grabbed his briefcase and backpack. There was a thud, and he mentally confirmed his daughter had gone through the back door to get to the swing set. The forecast had been for clear weather so his car remained in the driveway overnight. He walked to the vehicle with thoughts of the meeting this morning he had planned with the engineers of his company. He made a note to himself to review the cost analysis on the retrofit of the South Willow Street strip mall in Manchester. His thoughts lost on the price of granite and ceiling fixtures, he threw his suit coat and luggage into the rear seat of the Lexus. After shutting the door, he made the effort to clear his head and attend to his daughter. He walked past an area of tall pines and scrub that marked the property line on the right side of his house. When he was about to turn the corner to the back yard, he slowed.

This doesn’t feel right.

He should have heard squeaks from the chains attached to the joints at the top of the swing set. They were rusty. Needing oil. It was something he had meant to do but never got around to. The squeaks were loud, annoying, and you could hear them from twenty feet away. His back stiffened and he unconsciously hurried his pace.

She could be sitting and not swinging. Maybe she went back into the house. God, please, don’t let me have fucked up.

He rounded the corner.

The swing was empty. Cindy was nowhere in sight.

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

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

Fiction Fragments: Cindy O’Quinn

Last week, Girl Meets Monster talked with John M. McIlveen about his forthcoming collection of short stories, A Variable Darkness, and the fact that he is somehow able to function on only 4 hours a sleep each night.

This week, I am thrilled to welcome Bram Stoker Award nominated writer, nature lover, and extremely kind and supportive cheerleader of her fellow writers, Cindy O’Quinn.

Cindy O’Quinn is an Appalachian writer who grew up in the mountains of West Virginia and is now living, writing, and homesteading in northern Maine.

2019 HWA Bram Stoker Award Nominee in Short Fiction for “Lydia”, and multiple Rhysling nominated poet. “Lydia” was published in the anthology, THE TWISTED BOOK OF SHADOWS, edited by Christopher Golden and James A. Moore, which was nominated in the anthology category for the Bram Stoker Award, This is Horror Award, and it won the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Anthology.

Works published or forthcoming in Shotgun Honey Presents, Twisted Book of Shadows, HWA Poetry Showcase Vol. V, Star*Line, SFPA Halloween Reading, Sanitarium Magazine, Eerie Christmas Anthology, Space and Time Magazine, Speculative City, Chiral Mad 5, and others.

Social Media:
Facebook @CindyOQuinnWriter
Instagram cindy.oquinn
Twitter @COQuinnWrites

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Cindy. I loved your fragment and definitely want to read more. The fact that your protagonist is a writer reminded me of how Stephen King often writes about characters who are writers. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s a trope in his fiction. Are there certain tropes you rely on in your own fiction? Do you create characters who are similar to other characters you’ve written about, or are there distinct qualities about them that set them apart? Without too many spoilers, can you give a synopsis of “The Handshake”?

COQ: Michelle, thank you for having me on Girl Meets Monster. I’m glad you enjoyed my fiction fragment. Yes, my novelette is about a young writer. I enjoy Stephen King stories with writers, as well. I loved The Dark Half, and Misery. It isn’t a trope of mine. Most of my characters have been fairly different from one another, thus far.

A quick synopsis of “The Handshake,” which was first published in Sanitarium Magazine Fall 2016. The magazine has since changed hands, and the issue is no longer available. I’d love to see it accepted in the future as a reprint.

Torrence Eastlin is a young writer. He has the chance to meet his favorite author, Hudson Greenbrier. Something happens when the two shake hands, at least it feels that way to Torrence. His writing improves, and he begins getting one acceptance after the next. When Hudson requests a private meeting with the young writer, Torrence knows his feeling must be true. He fears whatever transferred with the handshake must be what Hudson Greenbrier wants back. To what lengths will someone go to keep their gift or to take another’s?

GMM: What defines you as an Appalachian writer? Is it simply the fact that you were raised in Appalachia, or are there specific elements within your writing that make you an Appalachian writer? Settings? Characters? Tone? Plots? How would we recognize the work of other Appalachian writers?

COQ: In the beginning, my bio would simply state I was a writer who lived in West Virginia or Virginia. That changed when I moved to northern Maine. I felt disconnected from myself. It no longer felt right to say I was a writer who lived in Maine. That became evident when I spoke. People made sure I knew I was “from away”. I dedicated my novel to my husband and sons, but also to the Appalachian Mountains that stood guard around me for so many decades. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, You can take the girl out of the mountains, but you can’t take the mountains out of the girl. It’s true in my case. The Appalachian mountains are a part of what makes me, the person I am. All of it, the way I talk, write, cook, parent, homestead, down to how I dress.

I’m not sure one would recognize another Appalachian writer unless it’s known. It’s known of writers like Ron Rash, Silas House, and David Joy. If I’m drawn to a writer’s work, I’ll check out their bio.

GMM: Aside from short stories and poetry, have you written any longer fiction or nonfiction? Have you written any novels? If not, why? What projects are you working on right now?

COQ: I self-published my first novel, Dark Cloud on Naked Creek in the fall of 2016. I went through a couple small runs with it. Return to Graveyard Dust was my first collection of poetry. I have a novella currently out for consideration, I’m working on my second poetry collection, and another novel.

Fragment from “The Handshake” by Cindy O’Quinn

I glanced back at the line of fans and realized I’d hogged far more time than I should have. I stood and reached out my hand to my favorite writer. His enormous hand clasped down around mine, causing it to all but disappear. That’s when, once again, I felt that magical haze that had been hovering close all day. I was back in that tunnel, just like before when the writer was speaking at the podium. This time, there was actually a white glow around the two of us. Our hands together produced an electrical heat that I could feel up my arm and into the base of my skull. It felt like it lasted an hour, when in all actuality it was probably only a matter of several seconds. When the tunnel and light melted away, the writer was handing me the novel he so graciously autographed for me, and saying, “Good luck with your writing.”

“Okay. Thank you,” I said. Before walking away, I saw something in Hudson Greenbrier’s eyes that hadn’t been there before. Fear.

The drive back to Charlottesville was nothing like the drive to Sweet Wine. My mind was in a fog, and I was unaware of my surroundings. The fall foliage could have turned black, and I wouldn’t have noticed. I wasn’t fully alert again until I pulled into the driveway at home. I looked down in the passenger seat and saw Hudson Greenbrier’s book. I picked it up and looked inside. I hadn’t even bothered to look at what the author wrote. It read:

Here’s to Torrence Eastlin, the next big deal. I know there will be many who love your words. Hudson Greenbrier

I read the words over and over. I couldn’t remember, for the life of me, having told him my name. I must have, though. In my star-struck state, I must have told him my name. How else would he have known? There was a peck on my window that caused me to slam the book shut like I was hiding a secret. It was my brother, and he was laughing at having caused me a fright. Dell asked, “Well, did you meet him?”

I answered as I got out of the car, “Hell, yes, I met him. Here’s the selfie to prove it.” I handed my cell over to my brother. “He signed his book for me, and we talked a while.” I went on to tell my brother how I’d made an ass out of myself outside the bookstore. He got a real kick out of that. I didn’t tell him about the tunnel, the light, or the fact that I didn’t recall having given Greenbrier my name.

Later that night in my room, when the day had finally started to calm down, I wrote a three-thousand-word short story. I thought it was the best I ever wrote, and I wasn’t the only one to think it was good. My parents and my brother all agreed that I should submit it to Word Burner Magazine, so I did. A day later, I received an email saying they wanted to publish my story in their next issue. I received three hundred dollars for that short story. I went on to write seven more short stories, and they all sold. With each story published, my paycheck grew. Every time I sat down and started writing, I could feel myself floating back into that tunnel I was in the day I met Hudson Greenbrier. Never once did I question it. I just chalked it up to having been inspired by my favorite writer. As I look back, deep down I knew it was much more than inspiration. It went on this way for three months, until I decided it was time to move on from short stories and on to writing my first novel. Within a month, I had written a three-hundred-page murder-mystery novel, and had gone back over it twice to weed out any mistakes, which were few. My contact at Word Burner Magazine referred me to the editor at Nelson County Books, a small publishing house in nearby Afton, Virginia.

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

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

Fiction Fragments: L. Marie Wood

Last week, I chatted with P. D. Cacek about what it means to be a NECON legend, and she gave some sound advice on writing a sequel. If you missed it, check it out.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes award-winning horror writer L. Marie Wood. I’ve had very limited face-to-face interaction with her. I’m hoping to change that fact in the coming year, because I have so many more questions for her that go beyond the scope of Fiction Fragments.

L. Marie Wood is an award-winning author and screenwriter.  She is the recipient of the Golden Stake Award and the Harold L. Brown Award for her fiction and screenplays.  Her short story, “The Ever After” is part of the Bram Stoker Award Finalist anthology Sycorax’s Daughters.  Wood was recognized in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Vol. 15 and as one of the 100+ Black Women in Horror Fiction.

Her first two novels, Crescendo and The Promise Keeper are available as audiobooks, which is fun!  The Promise Keeper‘s re-release is also scheduled for 2020.  She’s a member and mentor of the HWA, an officer in Diverse Writers and Artists of Speculative Fiction, and the programming director for the horror track at MultiverseCon.

Website:  www.lmariewood.com
Twitter:  @LMarieWood1
Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/LMarieWood/

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster! Your involvement in the horror community goes way beyond writing fiction, and I wanted to highlight some of your different roles that support the work of other writers and help to educate people about the horror genre. Can you tell me about your roles within DWASF and MultiverseCon? How has the pandemic made your roles more difficult? What experiences have helped you in your role as an HWA writing mentor? What other ways are you supporting the work of horror writers?

LMW: I’m so excited to be a part of Girl Meets Monster! Thank you so much for letting me talk about some of things I am most passionate about. I am the Director of Curricula and Outreach at Diverse Writers and Artists of Speculative Fiction (DWASF), which allows me to pair my love of teaching with the genre I hold dear. I created the soon-to-be-launched horror fiction curriculum at DWASF and continue to find new and interesting ways to bring industry knowledge to diverse communities. Alongside horror, we will have science fiction and fantasy modules available in the future and we look forward to diving into the intricacies of world building and character development from unique genre perspectives. At MultiverseCon, I serve as the Director of Horror Track programming. This allows me to create panels that speak to real considerations in the genre – topics like writing strong female characters, accessibility, and LGBTQ+ representation in horror fiction hold court alongside how to build a better monster and horror antagonists in folklore. The conversations that come are invigorating, to say the least.

The pandemic has presented challenges, for sure. Not being able to gather in person has been difficult to navigate and will continue to impact things like conventions and signings. But we are all adjusting. MultiverseCon will be virtual this year and while that will be different than our inaugural event, different is kind of what we do. I look forward to the ways that MultiverseCon shows what it’s made of as we navigate this pivot.

Being an HWA mentor was a natural next step for me. I am an English Professor and, at one point in my career, I created a taught an introduction to horror writing course. We explored the classic antagonists, the role that tone plays in the genre, the nuances of the many sub-genres. It was wonderful – I was absolutely in my element. At the same time, I write a lot. Stories, novels, novelettes, novellas, flash fiction, micro fiction. I did a stint as a freelance journalist. Did a little ghost writing. I used to write poetry and I still write screenplays. I’ve been writing psychological horror since I was a kid and doing so professionally for the better part of 20 years. I live and breathe this thing – I’ve learned a lot along the way and I still learn something new about what I do every day. So, when the opportunity to help an author get their footing presented itself, I jumped in with both feet and have not looked back.

What other ways am I supporting the work of horror writers? In short, I read. And then I talk with people about what I’ve read and encourage them to try it out too. As an author, I understand that to be the ultimate goal – to have someone read my work and enjoy it, be touched by it. So, I too am dedicated to that cause so that other authors – their dreams – can be realized. Sometimes I step outside my genre, serving as a sensitivity reader or as a line and/or developmental editor. Occasionally I host workshops for young writers. For all writers who are serious about their craft, I am a tireless cheerleader, a high-fiver, and a virtual hugger.

GMM: Tell me about winning the Golden Stake Award. What story won? Can you give a synopsis of the story? What do you think set your story apart from the other nominees? How cool was it winning an award for vampire fiction while attending The International Vampire Film and Arts Festival in London? Have you written other vampire fiction?

LMW: Winning the Golden Stake Award was nothing short of amazing. My novel, The Promise Keeper, won the award in 2019 – the 100th anniversary of Polidori’s “The Vampyre”… the vampire tale that is credited with starting it all. It is the first vampire tale to be written in English; it was a product of the night of storytelling he shared with Mary Shelley and her husband, poet Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron where Mary Shelley famously wrote Frankenstein as he wrote this groundbreaking work – so this anniversary was an important moment in the genre. I remember thinking that I was just excited to be a part of it – me, with my unconventional vampire story about a young African girl who is swept into the world of the undead before she even understood who she was or the woman she could become – a female vampire who travels continents over centuries of time to outrun her destiny… to keep her promise. Over the course of the festival I met people who were familiar with vampire lore that I had never heard of before and exchanged ideas with people I am happy to call friends now. When my name was called, I almost missed it. I could not believe they were talking about me. The moment was so surreal.  Here’s the back-cover copy for The Promise Keeper:

A young girl, on the cusp of maturity, in what is now known as Benin, West Africa, is seduced by a beautiful stranger, a man the likes of which she has never seen before. Their encounter changes her forever. She runs, her travels taking her to Europe and the Caribbean over centuries to escape him.  She finally settles in New York City, convinced that she has eluded him, until she falls in love. 

When I did a reading the day before the awards ceremony, several people in the audience commented on the detail and description that I use in my writing and how it transplanted them from the space we shared together to the apartment where blood stained the bed. Perhaps the judges agreed – I don’t know… all I know is that the trophy is literally a golden stake replete with a blood-stained tip. So incredibly awesome.

Yes, I have written more vampire fiction. Apparently, this is the antagonist I go for when I want to write something outside of my sub-genre (who knew?). My short story, “The Dance”, about a chance encounter with a vampire at the club, will be part of Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire from Mocha Memoirs Press later in 2020. I wrote a story years ago about a vampire who had to choose between love and need called “Baie Rouge”. And the second book in my series, The Realm, may or may not have a vampire lurking in the shadows. The first book in the series comes out this year from Cedar Grove Publishing (exciting!), so part two is a little way off…. I guess that means I may need to write another vampire short story in the meantime.

GMM: How do you find balance with all of your roles as a writer, mentor, con organizer, and all of your other responsibilities? Do you have any advice for other writers, especially women of color, who are trying to write and publish, while attending school, and/or working a full-time job, and/or caring for a family? Do you find yourself saying yes to every project that comes your way, or have you learned to say no? Asking for a friend.

LMW: To be honest, I don’t think about it. Let me say it differently. We all know people who drive miles and miles to get gas because it is cheaper across state lines – either we know that person or we are that person. As ridiculous as it might seem to that person and many others, I don’t think about the price of gas or go hunting for cheaper. I need gas to drive. I need to drive to get where I want to go. So, I just buy it. Along those same lines, I need to write. I don’t plot out time to do it, devise a schedule, set a word count, etc. I just do it or something related to it, like research or character development, because I have to. Just like I need to breathe to live. 

Writers write. 

When I had such debilitating writer’s block that I couldn’t string together a full sentence if it was even remotely frightening, I wrote gardening articles and community feel-goods until the block lifted (and boy did it take a loonnggg time – several years). Because I had to write something.   Recognizing my drive helps me understand other people’s needs. Someone needs a second eye on a piece they are excited about; panels need to be pinned down; edits are needed to help move someone’s story forward – it sounds like a lot but all of these tasks are in the same family and they are associated with the thing that I greatly respect in others and recognize in myself as well – the burn. It’s what makes us do what we do – it’s what makes us push. I’ll never get in the way of that.

1 a.m. is a great time to be productive. 

My advice to writers who are trying to get it all done is to do exactly that. On the surface that doesn’t sound helpful but let me explain. I did that very thing – I was working full time, writing, going to school, and had familial responsibilities all at the same time. And the burn that I mentioned before – the desire to be present in my home life, to earn well, to ace the class, to finish the story… to scratch the itch – I let it propel me every day. Sure, I got tired sometimes. Sure, it was hard. But there’s nothing like coming out on the other side accomplished. There’s nothing like showing the children in your life that they can succeed with hard work and dedication – that pushing themselves is absolutely worth it. They see. They understand. And they admire. So, keep at it. Try and fail – it will make you stronger. Try and succeed, then assess what worked so that you can keep that strategy in your toolkit. Share both the triumphs and failures with those closest to you not only to unburden (which is important), but also so they can see you picking yourself up and trying again. Maybe it will inspire them to help you dust off and go again. Maybe, just maybe, it will encourage them to go after something they want too. I do not say yes to everything because spreading yourself too thin is real. I would rather do well with a few things than have a finger in a lot of things that I ruin because I am not giving them the attention they deserve. This can be difficult because sometimes you end up turning something away that sounds interesting. But stress never helps anyone, so sometimes ‘no’ is the answer.  At 1 a.m. I am pretty productive. Not so at 4 a.m.

Fragment from The Realm

It didn’t happen the way they said it would.

No angels came to greet him; no bright light funneled a path through the darkness. No relatives called to him from the beyond.

He didn’t feel warmth, acceptance, or love – he felt emptiness.

He saw nothing in the moments before death. Just an impenetrable darkness that crowded his vision like oil spreading in water, encroaching on the faces of his son and daughter-in-law, blackening them: obliterating them. He could hear them after his eyes dimmed, standing open and blind like black holes. His tear ducts dried up as his son cried over him.

The sound of Doug’s grief, the guttural moans roiling and meshing with his pleas—his barters with God to save his father—was more than Patrick could take. Trying but failing to lift his hand from his side and stroke his son’s head, Patrick silently prayed that his hearing would dissipate as quickly as his sight had.

Patrick could only imagine what Doug and Chris were seeing as his body broke down in front of him. Images of eyes ruined by broken capillaries filled with blood, his slacked mouth allowing a discolored tongue to peek through tortured his mind. He struggled for every breath now, death’s grip holding fast and firm. The thought of the kids seeing him fight for air, his face a twisted mass of pain and effort, upset him more than he thought it would. Death was not pretty.

Doug moaned and Chris cried while Patrick’s eyes grew drier and his skin grew paler. He thought it would never end, the display, the sick, cruel game death was playing. That he should witness it, that he should have to hear the calmness his son usually displayed crumble and fall away, was torture if ever there was a definition of the word. The devil, then. It was his work after all, he supposed. He was on his way to Hell and this was but a taste of what was to come.

And then there was silence.

Utter silence.

The sound of his son’s anguish was gone, mercifully. The hum of the respirator, the clicking of the rosary beads the man in the next bed held, the squeak of rubber soles on the sanitized tile floor as the nurses and doctors hurried to his side – all sound had disappeared. He wondered what would be next to go. His memory? He quizzed himself just to see if it was already gone. What’s my name? Patrick Richardson. How old am I? 59. Was is more like it, he corrected himself. After all, he was dead. Dead. Gone. Finished.

Patrick stood in the pitch-black silence confused and unbelievably sad. He was dead. He would never see the baby that Chris was carrying, his first grandchild. He wouldn’t ever watch another boxing match with his son and friends over beer and pizza. He wouldn’t get the chance to watch the waves break on the shore from a beach chair in the Caribbean. He wouldn’t do anything anymore—not eat, drink, or fuck—ever again. Because he was dead.

And death was dark. Impenetrably so.

How did this happen? he asked aloud using a mouth he could no longer feel. He thought back to that morning, when he was taking out the garbage. He could remember walking to the back of his house and getting the garbage can. The damned cat had gotten into it again; the little stray he left food and water for had knocked the top of the can off, torn through the garbage bag, and gotten to the trash inside. The little monster made a hell of mess too, strewing soggy newspaper, chicken bones, and juice cartons all over the brick patio. Patrick remembered cursing out loud and casting his eyes around the backyard, looking for the cat. He remembered turning back to the bowl he’d left out the night before and finding it full of food. ‘That’s what you were supposed to eat, damn it!’ he’d said as he bent down to clean up the mess.

On his way back into the house to get another garbage bag, a piece of the dream he had the night before came back to him. It hung in front of his eyes like a transparency over real life, framing everything with the hazy film of familiarity, all soft edges and anticipation.

Déjà vu.

As usual after those dreams, the dark ones that made him wonder if he was there, really there, walking, talking, living within them, he wondered if he was the character whose face the audience never sees.

The memory was faint, as it always was the morning after, but he knew what happened next. This time the scene was identical to his dream. There was usually something askew, some crucial piece off center, but this time nothing was out of place. He knew he would turn away from the door instead of going inside to get the garbage bag. He knew he would squint from the sun when he did, and that he would place his hands above his eyes, shading them like a visor. He knew it just as well as he knew his name, for as easily as that knowledge came, it dragged heavy fear and worry in its wake.

He obliged. It wasn’t like he had a choice.

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

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

Fiction Fragments: Nelson W. Pyles

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

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

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

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

Twitter – @nelsonwpyles
Instagram – @nelson.pyles

Three Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It seemed to be the only thing that made sense.

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

“Well, good morning, Dr. Armstrong.”

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

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

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

Armstrong looked at the container and her eyes narrowed.

“Daryl,” she muttered through her teeth.

“Oh, don’t you mean ‘Big D?’”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, balls,” Armstrong said.

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

“Like, how heavy?”

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

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

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

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

“Is this something you can fix?”

Phoebe looked at her and frowned.

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

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

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

Fiction Fragments: Sarah Read

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

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

Three Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

The synopsis:

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

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

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

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

The Atropine Tree, Sarah Read

Chapter One

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

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

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

Tredan stood poised with the lid.

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

Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen. He counted.

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

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

“Three. Two.” Nelda’s voice faded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alrick nodded and laid the slack hand on the sheet.

“Best to wait.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s with Mother, now,” Nelda said.

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

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

“I know,” Aemon said, “I saw.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

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

Fiction Fragments: Bracken MacLeod

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

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

Three Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fragment, by Bracken MacLeod

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

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

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

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

Like the person ahead of them on the tracks.

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

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

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

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

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

ARE YOU
BEACH BODY
READY?

The scars over Harlow’s ribs itched.

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

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

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

Fiction Fragments: Gwendolyn Kiste

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel about motherhood and how it changes your view of horror, and this week Girl Meets Monster welcomes Pittsburgh horror writer Gwendolyn Kiste.

Gwendolyn Kiste HeadshotGwendolyn Kiste is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Rust Maidens, from Trepidatio Publishing; And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, from JournalStone; and the dark fantasy novella, Pretty Marys All in a Row, from Broken Eye Books. Her short fiction has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Black Static, Daily Science Fiction, Shimmer, Interzone, and LampLight, among others. Originally from Ohio, she now resides on an abandoned horse farm outside of Pittsburgh with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts. Find her online at gwendolynkiste.com

Three Questions

GMM: Hello Gwendolyn! Welcome to Girl Meets Monster. It’s February and that means it is Women in Horror Month. Why do you think it’s important to devote a month to female horror writers? What would you say to critics who claim that only men write good horror fiction?

GK: For me, Women in Horror Month is always a great opportunity to learn about new female horror creators. The industry is constantly evolving, and social media can be so loud and bustling, sometimes in the worst ways, so it can sadly be far too easy to miss a new female horror writer or podcaster or artist throughout the year. Women in Horror Month gives us all an opportunity to discover those voices.

As for what to say to anyone who doesn’t feel that women write good horror, I would remind them of Mary Shelley all the way back when and also of all the literally hundreds of women writing horror now. There’s no reason why readers can’t find a new female author who writes the type of horror they love; we’re all creating vastly different stories, from body horror and the weird to Gothic and grindhouse. There’s no single female writing style; if someone thinks that, it’s because they haven’t read enough horror, especially new horror. I would encourage them to look at the lists and lists of female horror books on the Ladies of Horror Fiction site; there’s something out there they’d enjoy, I have no doubt.

GMM: Where did your inspiration for your Stoker-award winning novel, The Rust Maidens, come from? I tend to put a lot of myself — emotions, experiences, past traumas — into my characters and stories, do you do the same, or do your ideas come from somewhere else? What motivated you to tell this story?

GK: Aspects of The Rust Maidens lived with me for a long time. I definitely draw a lot from my own experiences and emotions in my work. I went to undergrad in Cleveland, and it was something of a haunted time in my life, so that feeling stayed with me and definitely ended up in The Rust Maidens, which is set in Cleveland. Combining body horror and the economic and environmental troubles of The Rust Belt seemed really compelling and also very personal to me, having grown up in Ohio. I’d never seen anything quite like that combination of themes before, so I decided I wanted to make this my story to tell.

GMM: As a woman writing horror fiction, what challenges have you faced? What advice would you give other women and girls who want to tell their stories? And, most importantly, if you became the leader of a girl gang of horror writers, what would be your battle cry?

GK: I think many of my challenges are ones shared by other female writers. Dealing with harassment, from both men and women, for example. That’s always so hard, but fortunately, that’s been the exception rather than the rule. Trying to find homes for my female-centric stories was more difficult in the beginning, but fortunately, the industry is really coming around, so I think this might become less of a problem as we move forward, especially with so many more female editors out there.

As for advice, I would say to write what you believe in. There are a lot of naysayers in the world who can be incredibly discouraging, but do your best to ignore anyone who doesn’t support your work and your vision. There are readers out there who do want to hear stories from female perspectives, so don’t let anyone tell you differently.

Ah, a battle cry! I love that! Honestly, I think it would be something like “All together now!” We’re so much stronger when we work together, recognizing each other’s unique experience in the world and seeing that as a strength and an asset. Women in Horror Month really celebrates that togetherness. Horror, as the genre has been evolving over the years, is really celebrating that togetherness too. It’s a good time to be part of this industry with so many other amazing female authors out there doing incredible work. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for all of us.

Fiction Fragment, by Gwendolyn Kiste

My heart in my throat, I turn around and see someone there on the dirt road. It’s a man who doesn’t belong here, a face I’ve never seen before. Everything in me seizes up, and all I can think is it’s one of them. It’s a witchfinder come back to set the countryside alight again.

A hundred paces away, he’s so close now, which means it’s too late for me to run without being seen, so I grit my teeth instead, an incantation blossoming in my throat. Already, I envision cursing him, of speaking the words my mother taught me, a mere phrase or two that could send him wandering into a day that won’t ever end. After all, there’s always a fairy ring somewhere nearby, eager to gobble down a wayward traveler.

As he draws nearer, he spots me here at the side of the road, and though I make no effort to greet him, my hands clenched tight around my woven basket, he waves brightly anyway.

“Hello there,” he says, heading toward me, and my lips part, ready to direct him into a sweet oblivion.

Then my chest tightens, and I remember the promise I made to myself. No magic, especially not dark magic, especially not against a stranger. For all I know, he’s as lost and hopeless as I am. I can’t assume every man is a witchfinder, can I?

The incantation retreats within me, and I stand a little taller, pretending I’m not afraid. “May I help you?” I say, the words weak and inadequate compared to what I could have spoken.

He grins, dimples pockmarking his cheeks. “Could you please tell me which way to the nearest village?”

That would be our village. He wants to go to the place where I grew up, but I don’t know if I want him there. It’s not my home, not anymore, but somehow, it doesn’t feel right to send this stranger to them. If anyone is going to bother my village, it should be me, not a man who could be anyone at all.

His grin never fading, he inches closer to me now, closing the gulf between us, and my body rises up, nearly quivering off the ground, still desperate to escape. I strain through the whispering sound of the wind to hear other voices in these parts, but it’s just the two of us now. My breath twisted inside me, I could dart back into the woods, vanishing between the hemlock lace and the birch trees carved with symbols from the dead, but then he’ll know I have a reason to run. And he’ll have an excuse to pursue. So I steady myself instead, my hands knotted tighter around the basket, as I inspect him up and down like a laboratory specimen.

Worn brown leather boots, small satchel, thin coat. No horse in sight and no Bible to beat.

From the looks of it, he’s common enough, as plain as all the rest of us. This is a good sign. The witchfinders are fancier. They arrive with flair, armed with pomp and circumstance and enough iron and flint to ignite a whole village. In the past, they’ve always materialized on our streets, clumped together in groups, their black boots and black cloaks designed to put you on edge, as though they’re already mourning you before you’ve even died.

This man is nothing like them. Here he is, coming not from the North, the city that makes witchfinders the same way it makes sharp mead and wagon wheels, but from the West, the direction of the other villages where everyone is just as afraid as we are.

“Well?” he asks, flashing me that smile as warm as summer rot. “Can you help me?”

I back away a few steps, my guts churning. Even if he isn’t a witchfinder, that still doesn’t make him a friend. This is a cruel tale as old as time. Terrible things often start with a girl meeting a strange man in the forest. And after everything that’s happened here, I won’t fall prey to another terrible thing.

Would you like your own Fiction Fragments post? Send me your stuff at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: Lucy A. Snyder

Last week, I talked with writer and film maker, Jeff Carroll, about Hip Hop horror and sci-fi fiction. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Lucy A. Snyder. I met Lucy while earning my MFA in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University. She was my second mentor in the program. Her guidance, support, and dark sense of humor helped me finish writing my thesis novel and I couldn’t be happier with the results.

Lucy4Lucy A. Snyder is the Shirley Jackson Award-nominated and five-time Bram Stoker Award-winning author of over 100 published short stories and 12 books. Her most recent titles are the collection Garden of Eldritch Delights and the forthcoming novel The Girl With the Star-Stained Soul. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Asimov’s Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, Nightmare Magazine, Pseudopod, Strange Horizons, and Best Horror of the Year. You can learn more about her at www.lucysnyder.com and you can follow her on Twitter at @LucyASnyder.

Three Questions

GMM: You mentioned that this fragment is from a novel that is being serialized at Eyedolon Magazine. Is the process of writing and submitting chapters of a novel as you complete them easier than submitting a completed novel? What is the writing process like? Are you typically a linear writer? What have you learned from this experience?

LAS: In some ways it’s harder, but in some ways it’s easier. One advantage to submitting a novel a chapter or two at a time is that I have to maintain good plot tension for every section I submit. It’s a built-in way of avoiding middle-of-the-book narrative sag! Another advantage is that I get regular editorial feedback, so if something seems to be going off the rails I get questions about that and I can address potential problems early before they’re entrenched.

A disadvantage is that I’m 75% a plotter, but 25% a discovery writer. One thing I discovered, ten chapters in, is that I needed another major character. Fortunately, I was able to introduce her in a way that would make sense to the readers who’d been following the serial, but I also went back and edited the existing novel to foreshadow her arrival so that she’s a presence from the very first chapter.

I am typically a linear writer; I think writing a serial would be much harder if I were not. Or anyway I’d probably need to finish much more of the novel ahead of time. Right now, Broken Eye Books is pretty much publishing sections as I complete them, although I’ll probably get further ahead in coming months because of the limitations of their publishing schedule.

GMM: What is a Lovecraftian space opera? Can you define the elements of this cross genre? Are there any tropes that readers of science fiction can easily identify? What makes a piece of fiction Lovecraftian?

LAS: It’s pretty much what it says on the tin: it’s a space opera with Lovecraftian themes.

Space opera, which has become more popular in recent years, is a science fictional narrative set in space (or on other planets) that focuses on adventure, epic battles, futuristic technology, etc. Star Wars is space opera, for instance. So it should be a fairly familiar subgenre to most readers!

Lovecraftian fiction refers to stories or novels that use elements from Lovecraft’s fiction, particularly aspects of the Cthulhu mythos he created. Look for references to Elder Gods, tentacled horrors, madness-inducing knowledge, cosmic terrors, cults, fish gods, and general doom for mankind. Lovecraft’s influences have worked their way into a whole lot of science fiction and horror. Stranger Things has some strong Lovecraftian themes in it, and The Shape of Water contains several nods to Lovecraft’s work.

In my novel, the narrative takes place after the spawn of Azathoth (a deep-space deity in the Cthulhu mythos) invade Earth and wreak a variety of horrors. My protagonists, Joe and Bea, were physically and psychologically transformed by their experiences with the spawn, and they’ve been sent into space as part of a special mission to hunt down the spawn’s hives on other planets and destroy them to eliminate any further threat to our planet.

GMM: Over the past several years, there has been quite a bit of controversy over whether or not we should be honoring the work of H. P. Lovecraft due to his racist beliefs. How do you approach a piece of fiction that mimics the work of Lovecraft and make it something wholly your own as someone who is very much against racism?

LAS: I’ve written a lot of stories and several novels that are inspired by and are in dialog with Lovecraft’s fiction. That’s a different thing than mimicking or honoring his fiction. I am often inspired by things that appall me or anger me.

Lovecraft’s fiction, like Lovecraft himself, is complicated. Yes, there is a whole lot of xenophobia and racism — so much, in fact, that I’ve heard some critics claim that you can’t separate xenophobia from Lovecraft’s work. My take on that is that it’s entirely possible to write a piece of Lovecraftian fiction that doesn’t contain a trace of xenophobia. Or, you could write a narrative that addresses his racism directly and critically, as Victor LaValle does in The Ballad of Black Tom, which is a razor-sharp response to Lovecraft’s most notoriously racist story (“The Horror at Red Hook”). But LaValle’s novella also employs plenty of the kind of mind-blowing cosmic horror that made Lovecraft’s work memorable in the first place.

Lovecraft himself openly borrowed a whole lot of ideas from other writers: Lord Dunsany, Ambrose Bierce, M.R. James, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Edgar Allan Poe, and Robert Chambers (Ramsey Campbell’s gonna argue with me about the influence Chambers had; regardless, Chambers’ King in Yellow mythos has been absorbed into the Cthulhu mythos). Lovecraft in turn encouraged his writer friends to work with his worlds and he collaborated with other authors. So Lovecraftian fiction is much more than what Lovecraft himself wrote, and it’s been that way from the beginning.

I think of Lovecraftian fiction as a microcosm of genre fiction as a whole. We can all point to classic horror or science fiction stories that are racist, ableist, misogynistic … or just plain horribly written. Those cringey parts are not a reason to abandon those genres. They’re a reason to read the classics critically, identify why they’re awful … but also why they captured people’s imaginations in the first place. And then it’s on us to take the good, engage critically with the bad, and use that as a jumping-off place to write even better stories and novels for our readers.

Excerpt from Blossoms Blackened Like Dead Stars, by Lucy A. Snyder

I rest my hand on the wrapped, dormant root ball as the autopiloted shuttle glides into the docking bay of the USS Flechette. The bay walls and deck are matte gray tarakium, same as all the other ships in the fleet. My dreams are turning this color. The shuttle lands with barely a bump, and after the clack of the pressure lock disengaging, the rear door slowly lowers with a hydraulic hiss. I unbuckle my flight harness and walk down the ramp, my booted steps light in the artificial gravity.

This is my first command. I feel a mix of pride and dread about being here, and I don’t even properly know where “here” is, at least not in relation to Earth. There’s only so much I can know about my own missions, just in case I’m compromised. Nobody tells me I can’t ever be fully trusted, but distrust is baked into every scenario I or any of the other “enhanced” personnel are involved with. And frankly, I don’t know if they can trust us, either.

It’s chilly on the flight deck, which is fine. Extreme temperatures don’t bother me nearly as much as they used to. The doctors tested me extensively after my transformation, and we discovered that I can handle temperatures of about 60°C without passing out and −10°C without suffering serious hypothermia or frostbite.

My spawn-hybridized cells produce a new polypeptide that acts as antifreeze in my blood and tissues. For one test, they entombed me in solid ice for over an hour. I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. Never lost consciousness thanks to my cells doing some dark-cycle chemosynthesis that produced enough oxygen to keep my brain working. If that sounds like a fun afternoon . . . it really, really wasn’t. Cold that doesn’t kill me still hurts plenty, and it turns out I’m more claustrophobic than I thought. But since there wasn’t enough air to breathe, there wasn’t enough air for me to start screaming, so I emerged from the frosty coffin with my dignity intact. I’ve gotten good at coping with whatever they do to me in the name of science or safety. I’ll certainly encounter worse out in space with the spawn; there is only so much evil that the human mind is capable of imagining.

There’s concern that the polypeptide might build up and damage my internal organs over time, but the only thing to do about it is wait and see. Nobody has any real idea of what condition my body will be in even a year from now. The unspoken worry, obviously, is that I’ll transform into a spawn and kill everyone around me. Betray everyone in the name of Azathoth.

Of course, my spore-laden breath means I’m likely to kill people purely by accident. But I’m far too useful to lock away in a research lab, and so far, I’ve passed all the psych evals. The brass decided to give me command of my own small ship, point me at the spawn, and hope for the best.

Eight android drones stand at attention on the flight deck, patiently waiting for me. They’re all the same drab, clay-white Boston Dynamics Xenophon model, clunky looking but dexterous. Each has a differently colored stripe around their torso so people can tell them apart when they’re turned around. Some have metallic colors, and I’m guessing that they hold mission-critical roles. Their human pilots’ faces are mapped onto the curved tarakium screens on their heads. The crewmembers are stationed light years away on warships or stations, linked to the drones by the new quantum paired network. They’re certain to lose their connections during hyperspace jumps, and I’ll probably never know where any of my crew actually are.

The irony of my command is that my crew will always know more about the brass’s plans than I do. One of them—I don’t know who—is authorized to take over the ship the moment I show signs of compromise. The situation would probably frustrate a lot of other commanders, but I never expected to be in charge of a ship. I had to take an alarmingly compressed command school curriculum in between the godawful medical tests. Honestly, I’m glad someone here is qualified to run things in case shit gets real. I’d have a raging case of impostor syndrome if I’d deliberately chosen any of this.

A human lieutenant commander stands behind the line of drones. My sole crewmate during jumps. I blink. At first glance, I thought he was wearing some kind of dark protective gear, but he isn’t. He towers a head above the androids, and his skin is crocodile rough, blackened as if he’s been charred by a fire. Is he even human? He’s wearing a short-sleeved uniform, and his arms, neck, and face look as if he’s been torn apart and put back together with steel staples.

As I stare, trying to make sense of what I’m seeing, recognition dawns. “Joe?”

His grisly face splits into a smile. “Yep, it’s me. Good to see you, Bea.”

“What happened?” I blurt before I can stop myself.

He gives a laugh like stones grinding together. “Long story. Let me introduce you to your Alpha crew.”

Do you have a fragment you’re dying to share with the world? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

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.