Fiction Fragments: Todd Keisling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DEVIL’S CREEK – Excerpt

Silver Shamrock Publishing – Release Date 6/16/20

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

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

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

Oh shit.

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

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

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

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

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

One-one-thousand.

Two-one-thousand.

Three-one-thousand.

Four-one—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction Fragments: Cat Scully

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

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

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

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

Website: CatherineScully.com
Twitter@CatMScully
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InstagramCatMScully

Three Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excerpt from Jennifer Strange

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“SPARROW.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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