Fiction Fragments: Andrew Robertson

Last week, I spoke with the Darque Bard, James Matthew Byers about his passion for epic poetry.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes horror writer Andrew Robertson.


Andrew Robertson is an award-winning queer horror writer and former journalist. In October 2021, his short story “Sick is the New Black” will appear in the gay-themed multi-genre anthology Pink Triangle Rhapsody: Volume 1 from Lycan Valley Press. He is currently working on a novelization of the same story, exploring themes of queerness, addiction, fame, anti-vaxxers and the toxic nature of post-pandemic life in a culture locked in the thrall of social media. He will also be introducing the Mythimals this month by launching his first monstrous children’s book, And Then The Fart Happened, on the Great Lakes Horror Company Kids imprint with illustrations by LizzDom and colour and layout by Dinis Freitas.

Also scheduled for 2021, his short story Sundowning in Klarissa Dreams Redux is headed to space! The charity anthology will be flying to the moon in July via the United Launch of a Vulcan Centaur rocket as part of Peregrine Mission One – Manifest 9: #WritersOnTheMoon. This book will be part of the largest single collection of contemporary artwork ever put on the Moon, and it will fly there on the first commercial lunar flight in history.

Andrew’s fiction has appeared in literary magazines and quarterlies such as Stitched Smile Publications Magazine, Deadman’s Tome, Undertow, and katalogue. He has also appeared in anthologies including Alice Unbound: Beyond Wonderland, A Tribute Anthology to Deadworld, Group Hex Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. He is the editor of Dark Rainbow: Queer Erotic Horror, which explores the darker urges we all face.

A lifelong fan of horror, he is the founder of The Great Lakes Horror Company podcast and indie press and a member of the Horror Writer’s Association.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Andrew. Back in August 2020, I interviewed horror writer Hailey Piper. Her Twitter profile encourages people to “Make horror gay AF.” What does that statement mean to you as writer? How has your identity shaped your writing over time? Has it evolved, and how? How do you define queer horror, and what sets it apart from other flavors of the genre?

AR: First, I wanted to say thanks for having me on GMM! I’ve been reading all the interviews and excerpts and they’ve been great.

For me, being queer has always meant feeling like an outsider, and when you feel that way, you have a choice of embracing your queerness or hiding it away. When people are othered, it comes from a place of fear in the dominant society, and with fear comes ignorance, and both lead to violence, in words and actions. For most of us, I think that feeling of otherness comes from societies fear of what queerness is, this great unknown, often characterized by over the top characterizations of masculinity and femininity along with a lot of really damaging stereotypes that come from those. Growing up in the 80s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and seeing how vilified queer people were as scapegoats for a disease that knew no sexualities, it was really difficult to come to terms with being queer when that seemed to be a death sentence one way or another. You internalize a duality that informs how you act in a given situation, and what you can or should do or say. It’s awful…horrific in fact.

The media did a great job of turning gay men in particular into total pariahs and then the gay community further segmented their own population by favouring the healthy muscular look as opposed to those who could look ‘sick’. You had to fit into the cookie cutter mold or you were stigmatized and rejected. You tend to internalize that feeling of ugliness, along with a lot of the hate that spreads in society, especially when you can be easily clocked as queer. I may have been closeted, but I still dyed my hair blue, wore pigtails and dog collars, and loved Tina Turner and Siouxsie Sioux more than you would expect from a straight man.

The way queerness comes into my writing is through a lot of the themes I write about, like the desire to be seen, to be accepted, or in my recent work in progress, to do things that you would never normally do just to break through to the mainstream and get those ‘likes’ at any cost. There are also themes of hidden identities, duality, self-destruction, transformation, anger, resentment, and revenge which can be pretty common in queer horror. It’s not always at the forefront, but it’s always there however it becomes refined over time.

GMM: When did you begin writing horror, and who were some of your favorite writers who influenced you? Has that list changed over time? Have your tastes in horror changed? What are your favorite subgenres in fiction and film?

AR: I always enjoyed writing, and would scribble up short stories in high school that were pretty well informed by my goth interests, but in university I headed in the direction of journalism, telling other peoples stories instead of my own. That always preyed on my thoughts. It wasn’t until I met Sephera Giron a few years back that I got serious about it again, joined the HWA Ontario Chapter and got published. She’s a great cheerleader. Like the Demon Aunt I’ve always wanted.

For writers, one of my favourites has always been Anne Rice. She created a very queer universe for her characters in the Vampire Chronicles and beyond. Louis and Lestat are very clearly in a bromance turned romance, going as far as to create a small vampire family as poor Louis struggles with what and who he is. You can really relate to that as a gay man raised in the 80s. The Witching Hour made me want to create a universe, so that’s probably my turning point.

I think you can find horror in anything really, like the writing of Harry Crews. That’s a real trip, and I guess the genre is grit lit.

I also absolutely love the confrontational writing of Lydia Lunch, in particular, her classic Paradoxia: A Predator’s Diary. That would likely fall under non-fiction, it’s so very autobiographical, but entirely literary. She really controls her own narrative and I’ve been lucky enough to meet her a few times.

Clive Barker’s body of work is also incredible, The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks was an eye-opener, and I’ve loved recent work by Indigenous writers like Cherie Dimaline, and Waubgeshig Rice. As a genre hopping reader, right now I’m also enjoying the Diary of Anais Nin and a few works by Tama Janowitz.

For film, my go to is always, always horror, with a particular love for the Hellraiser franchise, classic monsters, 80s slashers, and found footage films.

GMM: I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that “Hamburger Lady” falls under the category of body horror. Tell me about the story and what about body horror appeals to you as a writer? As a reader?

AR: Haha, yes that story is definitely body horror. So much of my work is!

I think that it comes from my fascination with perceived or actual self-destruction, or the wilful destruction of another, and what we are willing to do to survive or succeed. Body horror has always been particularly triggering for me, however I’ve found that rather than pushing me away, it held me rapt. There are so many ways the body can betray us, and so many ways it can disgust us.

That fascination led me to writing in that genre. For example, The Fly was such a landmark film for me in many ways, as was Hellraiser. I love Pinhead! I watched them through my fingers the first time, but couldn’t stop, you know that feeling? We all do! That’s why we slow down near a car crash, to see what could have happened to us. Both films can be read as very queer, and both deal with pushing the limits of the human body and mortality.

There are also so many ways we can transform our bodies. I used to go on body modification sites to see what people were up to, with a sense of morbid fascination and respect for what an individual would do to live their truth. When I discovered what subtraction is I was gobsmacked! I also was obsessed with the artist Orlan and her work in plastic surgery using her own body as the canvas.

The title of my excerpt, Hamburger Lady, is a reference to the song by Throbbing Gristle. I recommend everyone listen to it. The lyrics are actually from a real letter penned by a doctor describing a woman who was a burn victim in a hospital ward, and it’s one of those things you never forget. You wonder at what point keeping someone alive is a punishment meant to exercise the might of science over mercy. My story deals with a future where a disease ravages the skin of those who contract it, leading to the market for skin dealers and donors. I’ll leave it at that for now, but if anyone wants to add the full text to their anthology, I’m game.

Excerpt from “Hamburger Lady”

“My client doesn’t want the whole cheek. She won’t need that much for what’s…well, I’ll say for what’s wrong with her. I mean, we’re friends here at this point, you know the drill. She just wants this part,” Dr. Sawney the Plastician says to Kate, indicating the area by running his damp index finger along what the industry calls the apple of the cheek.

The apple: where women like Kate are meant to put a simple highlight or blush before they go out with men who want to look at them adoringly and see absolutely no flaws at all. Even a light rash or pimple is a bonerkiller. Flaws mean the men aren’t flush enough to pay for the best, and their financial peacocking is what gets them hard. The men want to be envied by all the other bucks and stags at the chosen restaurant, bar or fast food joint, and then with all the chivalry absent from this new world, pay for everything before the two of them have what any of these men are sure is incredible sex fueled by their show of chauvinist financial superiority. It will be better for him. Every time. All these men benefitted for the fallout of the most recent of many pandemics. Women were shoved right back down to where they had been over a century earlier- the second choice for any good job, any decent benefits, any rights at all really. And if you weren’t perfect, you were invisible.

The type of man Kate meets hopes and probably believes he isn’t directly paying for this great sex with all his other nice efforts. He wants to be enough of an attraction all by his handsome self even if he leaves a few hundred on the nightstand afterward. And aside from this beau’s assumptions and assertions, no one wants to bring a bruised produce to his lips if there are better options.

She resists the urge to wipe the moisture off when the Plastician is done. And regardless of the circumstances, imaginary or otherwise, in this case, the apple is still quite attached to the tree.

She can’t believe she’s back at the Sawney clinic in Room Three. The minute she passed through the front door, she felt trapped by her own circumstance. The receptionist with the awful makeup sat there looking surprised as always that anyone would come into this terrible place to give away parts of themselves. The door between reception and the treatment rooms stood in its menacing steel frame, locked until the receptionist hit her button and the mechanism snapped the door open so she could begin what always felt like the longest walk ever to Room Three. They might as well name this Kate’s Room.

As his finger returns to again run across her apparently perfect apple, Kate can smell the onions he had with lunch on his fingers and breath even through his surgical mask. She doesn’t move. She knows her rank. A high-end skin-dealer as skilled as he is means that he can be a bit gross and never hear a complaint from a client or well-compensated vendor. Donors he calls them, like it’s a charity for the poor rich folks.

She can see the sauce from his lunch at the top of his mask, which he wears constantly to remind everyone that he is the surgeon and that it’s his name on the door. Unfortunately, the majority of his skill is used on the end consumer, not so much on ‘donors’ such as herself who make do with whatever they have left after they are harvested and paid. Either way, right now, she can’t even afford an onion or an apple, and can’t be picky about who is cutting off what. But she doesn’t want to give away anything above her neck if she doesn’t have to. Her own clients choose her because, unlike many of the other girls, she is mostly intact. She is, however, terrified of how broke she’s become, and what could happen if she stops paying for her mothers’ treatments at the community hospital.

When she left their apartment for this appointment, her mother looked up through eyelids covered in weeping sores and told Kate that her smile was enough to get her through any day, no matter how bad they became. She said Kate was born with a perfect smile, one that made the sun shine, and that it was her greatest achievement as a mother. Kate’s heart broke but it got her moving. One day they could leave this country and find somewhere to live out their days where things weren’t so bad. But right now, this man in a dirty mask reeking of onions wanted to cut off a piece of her face.

“How’s that going to look, man?” She asks incredulous, thinking of the quivering torso in a wheelchair she had noticed when she had entered the clinic. The torso had been rolling into the neighbouring chamber, Room Two, assisted by one of the Plastician’s assistants. It had been almost entirely covered in a tacky sheet. There was no way that…torso was a complete person, she thought. It had no legs for one thing. And where the sheet didn’t cover the face, it looked like a meatloaf had exploded, with one bulging left eye like a hyper grape darting around a fleshy socket. Its gaze had landed on Kate long enough to freak her out.

She didn’t know if it was a ‘donor’ or someone being treated, but things were so bad it could have very well been someone making the ultimate sacrifice to feed a family or stay out of the mines. The sheet looked sticky, and the torso seemed to be struggling to get one arm with stumpy fingers up to its’ awful face past what could have been the remains of a breast while the assistant kept slapping the hand away. It held something wet and bloody. What was it trying to look at? Was it chewing a hangnail?

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

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

Fiction Fragments: Gemma Files

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

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

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

Three Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

500+ WORDS OF SOMETHING NEW

Gemma Files

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

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

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

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

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

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

“KeVon, ma’am. And no.”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, ma’am, there sure is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Zin E. Rocklyn

Wednesday, I spoke with Valjeanne Jeffers and she shared a fragment from the next book in her Mona Liveling series, Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective III: The Case of the Vanishing Child.

Today, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Zin E. Rocklyn.

Zin E. Rocklyn is a contributor to Bram Stoker-nominated and This is Horror Award-winning Nox PareidoliaKaijuRising II: Reign of MonstersBrigands: A Blackguards Anthology, and Forever Vacancy anthologies and Weird Luck TalesNo. 7 zine. Their story “Summer Skin” in the Bram Stoker-nominated anthology Sycorax’s Daughters received an honorable mention for Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, Volume Ten. Zin contributed the nonfiction essay “My Genre Makes a Monster ofMe” to Uncanny Magazine’s Hugo Award-winning Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction. Their short story “The Night Sun” and flash fiction “teatime” were published on Tor.com. Their debut novella will be published by Tor.com in Fall 2021. Zin is a 2017 VONA and 2018 Viable Paradise graduate as well as a 2022 Clarion West candidate. You can find them on Twitter @intelligentwat

Ten Questions

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

ZER: Thank you for having me! I write primarily horror but use it across genre. Combining horror with other aspects of Speculative Fiction is what makes it fun. The genre I like to write in most is the weird because of how much freedom there is in writing it.

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

ZER: I’ve been a horror writer from the very beginning. My brother, who is 8.5 years older than me, made it a point to scare me in any way he could so he started with A Nightmare on Elm Street. But it backfired! I fell in love with horror instead of being frightened. I saw a way to express what I felt like was a growing darkness within me and I almost immediately took to the page. I found the Fear Street series by RL Stine not long after at around the age of 7 and used that as a framework to learn how to write as well as how to scare folks. Clive Barker was my next great discovery. His prose and imagination appealed to everything I aimed for in my fiction. Books of Blood Vol I-III is still considered a Bible to me. Barker is still a huge influence, as well as NK Jemisin, Octavia Butler, and Toni Morrison.

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

ZER: This is essay material, but I’ll keep it short: despite the efforts of revisionist history, Black people have never been treated like humans in, at the very least, this country. Our survival against these odds is our history, our present, and unfortunately, our immediate future. Writing is my way of fighting for the truth. My stories always feature a Black woman lead, no matter how hard history tries to erase us and our contributions. I speak to my experiences in my stories as a way to flush them out as well as show the world that we are here, we matter, we are worthy.

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

ZER: I do feel that pressure to have a deeper message in my work, but I’m learning to let that go and simply tell the stories within me. By default, my presence within horror and writing horror is a message unto itself. Me showing up is message enough, so there’s no definitive way for me to divorce myself from that ongoing narrative. Our presence is our protest, so I encourage folks of colour to just simply write anything they want!

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

ZER: Aw, man, my favourite horror movies: 28 Days Later, Silence of the Lambs, Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight, Shelley, and Attack the Block. I like meditative horror as well as action and humour.

Favourite horror novels: Dark Property by Brian Evenson, Blood Child by Octavia Butler, NeverLand by Douglas Clegg, Wounds by Nathan Ballingrud, and kindred by Octavia Butler. These novels shaped the writer I am today and continue to influence me. The book that scared me the most was actually a collection of short stories mentioned before: Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Vol. I-III. These stories still haunt me, and I sleep with the lights on anytime I reread them.

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

ZER: While I definitely feel people should be able to write what they want; I also caution intent versus impact. Our experiences are unique to what is in popular media about us and to live the experience is completely different to being on the sidelines observing. My advice would be to hire authenticity readers and more than just one. Our experiences are not monolithic so make sure you gain more than one perspective and not just one that agrees with you.

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

ZER: I’m going through it now! LOL! I think most writers go through this phase multiple times in their careers; it’s part of the deal when you have a talent that’s so subjective to its audience.

GMM: About a year ago, I bought a T-shirt you designed that says: “Support Black Women Who Write Weird Shit.” First, and foremost, what do you consider “weird shit”? And, second, where can people order their own T-shirt?

ZER: Weird shit, to me, is the uncanny, the thing in the periphery that makes your heart skip for a second. It’s the unsettling feeling you have when something is just a tad off. Once I launch my website, I’ll have t-shirts for sale!

GMM: Zin E. Rocklyn is a pseudonym. I won’t reveal your real name unless you are comfortable doing so. Why use a pseudonym? What are the benefits? Drawbacks? What dark secrets are you hiding?

ZER: LMAO!! I have no issue with my real name being out there. I chose a moniker to pay my respects to the source of my imagination: family.

GMM: If you could give advice to your younger self about writing, what would it be? How would your journey be different, or would you keep things the same?

ZER: You are good. Keep writing. And, yes, you can write that.

“In Full Bloom” by Zin E. Rocklyn

12:15

He’s slight in every sense of the word. Fine-boned, like a delicate bird. Pale and sickly. Shoulders rounded, back slumped. A heavy breath from paper-thin lungs could break him.

I want to cradle him.

I want to wrap my large, dark hands around his tiny torso and squeeze. I want to read the notches of his spine with my heavy fingertips, pluck and play his pronounced ribs with my thumbs. My fat tongue fights to taste his powdery flesh. My ears yearn for the crinkle of his reedy skin.

I need him.

Just as he needs me. He’s my baby, my child, a man born of my desire and aching. He is my manifestation.

He looks to me. For care. For comfort. For protection.

And all I want to do is hurt him.

He knows that look. Understands it. Me. More than I know myself.

My steps are careful, but I am clumsy. Big feet, stubby toes, long limbs. I am everything he is not.

I am his God.

He is my Goddess.

And we hate each other for it.

Long fingers curl into a ball tight enough to crack air. The strike is solid, satisfying.

The sight of red pleases me. He whimpers. I giggle.

The tear is angry, but not alone. More crowd his blind eyes until they fall together, storming down the misshapen hills and valleys of his face. They gather at the peak of his chin, clinging to one another, impregnating each other until there is nowhere to go but down.

Rain meets concrete and I am empty once again.

I turn away, but his claw-like fingers find a wisp of my shift. Clinging. Pulling.

I step forward, dragging him. One inch. One foot.

I stop to peer over my shoulder, to see if he’s still there. If he’s still devoted to me.

His flesh has betrayed him, streaking gore across the gritty floor, leaving him in strips and chunks.

It is my turn to whimper. To moan. To mourn the loss of such beautiful, delicious meat.

I kneel to him. Take his face in my grotesque hands. Press my plump mouth to his sealed lips. Drag my hot tongue along the bitter muscle that is his.

And I squeeze.

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.

Dark Blood Comes From the Feet: An Interview with Emma J. Gibbon

Emma J. Gibbon is a horror writer, speculative poet and librarian. Her stories have appeared in various anthologies including Wicked Weird, Wicked Haunted, and The Muse & the Flame and on the Toasted Cake podcast. She also has a story upcoming in Would but Time Await: An Anthology of New England Folk Horror from Haverhill Publishing. This year, she has been nominated twice for the Rhysling Award for her poems “Fune-RL” (Strange Horizons) and “Consumption” (Eye to the Telescope). Her poetry has also been published in LiminalityPedestal Magazine and is upcoming in Kaleidotrope. Emma is originally from Yorkshire and now lives in Maine in a spooky little house in the woods with her husband, Steve, and three exceptional animals: Odin, Mothra, and M. Bison (also known as Grim). She is a member of the New England Horror Writers, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association, the Angela Carter Society, and the Tuesday Mayhem Society. Her website is emmajgibbon.com.

I recently had the pleasure of reading Emma J. Gibbon’s anthology of short horror fiction, Dark Blood Comes From the Feet. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this collection of literary horror tales that put relatable characters under the microscope to show us the darker side of the human condition. Gibbon takes us to weirdly familiar settings that quickly turn macabre, like a strip club in Purgatory, a Lovecraftian orphanage, a day at the beach that would make Cronenberg proud, and a haunted house on a hill that I won’t forget any time soon.

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Emma. Congratulations on the release of your short story collection, Dark Blood Comes From the Feet, that comes out today! I really loved reading your stories, not just because they were well written, but also because I couldn’t help wondering where the stories came from. You write about a diverse group of characters from different backgrounds with different experiences and I kept wondering which of those characters were you. That might seem like a strange thing to wonder for some people, but because I write dark fiction as well about women of color, there is a part of me in each story. Some really terrible things happen to the people in your stories, but at the most basic level, they’re human. How much of yourself is in this collection? Where do the lines blur between you and your characters?

EJG: Thank you so much! I’m so glad you enjoyed it! That’s a really tough question to answer because in a way, they are all from me but are separate at the same time. I’ve had an interesting and varied time on this earth so far, so it does sometimes feel like I’ve lived a lot of lives. There is no doubt that I use elements of myself and my life when I create characters, some on a surface level and some on a deep emotional level. When I do the latter, it’s often not a conscious decision but something I realize later, sometimes years later. For example, on a surface level, the narrator of “Cellar Door,” Karen, resembles me in that some of her memories she mentions are my memories and she lives in my house. That house is my house! That basement is real! I’m not convinced it was the best idea, it’s like I haunted my own house.  But personality-wise, she’s not like me. Janine in “Janine” is a character I have enormous sympathy for. She is someone who had the cards stacked against her from the start, who made some bad choices and has really suffered for them, much more than she deserves. I have the sense that I could have easily been someone like Janine, but I was just luckier.

Ultimately, there is a lot of me in this collection, probably more than I like to admit. Dark Blood Comes from the Feet, is a line from “Cellar Door” and it’s a reference to having old trauma that you have trouble letting go of. I have a lot of stuff that I psychologically scratch at, over and over, old wounds. They’re in my stories but I skew it and dress it up in monsters and distinct voices and the supernatural so that I don’t even recognize it myself at times.

GMM: While reading the stories, I compared your work to other writers in the genre, including Poe, Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Cronenberg, and there’s even a reference to Donnie Darko (Tolkien), which brought a smile to my face. Which writers have had the most impact on your own writing style? Whose stories inspired you the most?

EJG: I do love Donnie Darko! And thank you so much! That’s a very flattering and intimidating list! I definitely have a group of authors whose work has inspired me. I know I’ll forget a major influence but a very obvious one is Shirley Jackson, but also Angela Carter, Daphne du Maurier, Neil Gaiman, Mervyn Peake, M. Rickert, Kelly Link. I think Brooke Bolander is astonishing. I’m inspired by many people writing horror right now. More than that though, I think the key is I was an early and voracious reader who came from a family that weren’t huge readers. We didn’t go to the library. My parents bought me books, but there was no way they could have kept up with me. I read everything and did a lot of rereading (I’ve slowed down since then, I mean, the internet exists now.) I’d get books from car boot sales (the British equivalent of yard sales). Half the time I didn’t have to pay. I think people were a bit weirded out by this little girl carrying a stack of Stephen King and Alfred Hitchcock books, I especially liked the ones with the yellow edges, so they just gave them to me. Because my reading was very autodidactic and random, I have a personal canon that’s my own. I had no sense of high or low culture (which I still think is nonsense anyway,) or genre or nonfiction vs fiction, so I’d read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest then V. C. Andrews, an anthology of classic ghost stories and Salem’s Lot with a book of feminist stories. Much later, I’d carry on this habit even as I specialized in English—Macbeth with The Mammoth Book of Vampires Stories, a nonfiction book about the cultural effects of tuberculosis with The Name of the RoseWide Sargasso Sea with The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. So all of these stories are all in there and they come out in my stories in a completely unconscious way.

GMM: You have an incredible talent for showing us the horror and reality of the settings in each of your stories. I’m an avid reader, but I also have spent a lot of time watching and studying films in many genres, which I think has had an impact on how I tell stories. Would you say that the written word, or film images have inspired your work more? What films have influenced the way you craft a scene?

EJG: Thank you so much! That really means a lot to me because I have aphantasia. This means that I don’t imagine or think in visual images. It’s hard to describe but I have a strong internal dialogue and think in concepts (almost as if my mind can feel the edges of a 3D representation that I can’t see.) Some of my settings are based on places where I have lived or visited—as I said, the house in “Cellar Door” is mine, the tunnel in “Bobby Red-Eyes” really existed when I was a kid (and Bobby is an urban legend in my hometown), the Black Shuck Tavern is based on a famous Hollywood nightclub. Others were research, I’ve never been to any of the places in “Whitechapel,” for example.

I am very influenced by film too. I grew up in the peak-VHS 80s with very little screen supervision, so we watched a lot of horror films. My big ambition as a teen was to be a music video director. I was a double major in college in English and Art History but most of my art history classes were the history of film or film theory and honestly; it burnt me out a little. A lot of my favorite films are before then. So films like Heathers, The Lost Boys, Donnie Darko, Amadeus, The Faculty, Beetlejuice, The ‘Burbs, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nightbreed and May have had an enormous impact on me. Despite the aphantasia, it’s the colors of the scenes that I often remember and the way they affect mood.

That said, I’ve been influenced and inspired by all kinds of things—personal anecdotes, scenes from my own life, books and movies, music videos, songs, photographs and other pieces of art, TV shows and video games. It’s the story that I’m always most interested in, not necessarily the format.

GMM: I enjoyed reading all of the stories in your collection, but I have a few favorites, including “Devour,” “Cellar Door,” “Whitechapel,” and “St. Scholastica’s Home for Children of the Sea.” Which stories in the collection are your favorites, and why? Which were the most difficult to write?

EJG: As far as being hard to write, two stand out particularly. “Cellar Door” because it was the kind of story I have always wanted to write and fear of failure meant I couldn’t get out of my own way for the longest time. In the end, I made it a NaNoWriMo project and got a good chunk of it done by not looking back as I wrote. “This is Not the Glutton Club” was hard because I hand wrote it while bedridden with pneumonia! It was also the story that needed the most research, and my Facebook friends really saved the day on that one!

It’s really hard to have favorites, they’re like children (I’m guessing). What is nice is that I’ve got enough distance between them all that I like them all. I don’t regret putting any of them in there. I do really like “Sermon from New London.” It was a lot of fun to write. Should we get to the other side of the apocalypse, I think there are worse ways to survive than being part of a matriarchal cult based on punk music. It was first published on the Toasted Cake podcast performed by the editor, Tina Connolly, and there had to be a language warning because there is so much swearing in it. What really makes me laugh is that when I played it to my husband, he didn’t notice, which I think tells you about the level of discourse in our house!

GMM: While you write from the POV of both male and female characters, your strongest characters seem to be women and girls. And, even though terrible things happen to them, not all of them are victims. Many of your female characters make the most of the bad situations they find themselves in, and become survivors. Would you say that feminism has had an impact on how you create your female characters? Or, are you simply showing us the strength of the human spirit? Rarely, do your stories have what I would consider a happy ending, and I really appreciate that. How would you describe your writing style to someone who has never read your work?

EJG: Feminism definitely plays into it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind straight white guys, I even married one! But they have had their time being at the center of stories. They’ve had centuries of being the heroes and saving the day. I’ve made a conscious decision to give people who don’t traditionally get to be the protagonists take center stage or have the happy ending—women without children, women who are not straight, trans women, working-class women. Part of it is being a woman from a working-class background who has not conformed to social convention and having mainstream fiction just not resonate with me at all because of that. I still have a way to go. My writing is far too white, for example, and that is something I have to work on—my experience of the world is not a default and I think the more that I reflect the world as it is, the more powerful it is when I tilt it somewhat. Something that is at the core of who I am is that I will always root for the underdog, always. There is never a time when I’m on the side of the people with all the power so that’s going to come through.

I’ve had to pull myself up from the ashes a few times in my life, start again from nothing and reinvent myself. I’ve seen people, especially women, do that again and again and I like to reflect that in some of my stories. It makes you stronger, like tempering steel, but it has a cost, you can get brittle and break. Even the phoenix has to go through the fire.

Describing my writing style is difficult. It’s one of those things where I would be interested to know how other people describe it. A lot of it is instinctual. Once I get the voice of a story, it usually pulls me along. That said, I like to challenge myself to see if I can write in a wide a range as possible—can I write a nested story in the voice of a Victorian gentleman? What if I had an unreliable narrator talking to someone who wasn’t there? Can I write a speech in mostly misheard punk lyrics? What would Shirley Jackson do? I think that is what it comes down to mostly: What would Shirley Jackson do?

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.