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.

todd 1 bw KodaKrome

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: Stephanie M. Wytovich

Last week, K.W. Taylor shared her thoughts on time travel tropes. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes horror writer, Stephanie M. Wytovich. Stephanie is an amazing friend who enjoys laughing at the darkness just as much as I do, and despite the number of years that separate our birth dates, I often think of her as a kindred spirit who would most likely help me hide a body. She was kind enough to find some time in her busy schedule to drop by, share a fragment of her fiction, and answer a few questions about one of my favorite subjects: vampires.

39137823_1705610252821603_5328446997055668224_nStephanie M. Wytovich is an American poet, novelist, and essayist. Her work has been showcased in numerous anthologies such as Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Shadows Over Main Street: An Anthology of Small-Town Lovecraftian Terror, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror: Volume 2, The Best Horror of the Year: Volume 8, as well as many others.

Wytovich is the Poetry Editor for Raw Dog Screaming Press, an adjunct at Western Connecticut State University and Point Park University, and a mentor with Crystal Lake Publishing. She is a member of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, an active member of the Horror Writers Association, and a graduate of Seton Hill University’s MFA program for Writing Popular Fiction. Her Bram Stoker Award-winning poetry collection, Brothel, earned a home with Raw Dog Screaming Press alongside Hysteria: A Collection of Madness, Mourning Jewelry, An Exorcism of Angels, and Sheet Music to My Acoustic Nightmare. Her debut novel, The Eighth, is published with Dark Regions Press.

Follow Wytovich at http://stephaniewytovich.blogspot.com/ and on twitter @SWytovich​.

Three Questions

GMM: What inspired the fragment you shared with us today, and is this piece abandoned or simply “on hold” while you work on other projects? What would make you finish it?

SMW: Vampires have gotten to be a bit of a cliché, overwritten stereotype in the horror genre these days, so I wanted to challenge myself to write a story that turns the monster on its back (insert evil smirk here) and shows us insight into some of the problems that go on behind the scenes, you know, once all the blood and intestines are cleaned up.

Currently, this piece is unfinished, but it’s definitely something that I plan to get back into once a few other projects are off my desk. I’m in the middle of finishing my next poetry collection (The Apocalyptic Mannequin) and I have a novelette coming out the fall (The Dangers of Surviving a Slit Throat), so I’ll probably drag the undead out of their nest later this winter and snuggle up with them again once the world goes white.

GMM: We share a love of vampires, and we’ve talked about them extensively, but I don’t think I ever asked you where your love of vampires began? What story or character pushed you into the realm of loving monsters?

SMW: When I was little—like too little for this to probably be okay—I was downstairs in the basement watching Salem’s Lot with my mom while she ironed my dad’s clothes for work the next day. Seeing the little boy tapping on the kid’s window pretty much broke me—I had two windows next to my bed at the time—and I slept with the blankets up to my neck for weeks.

However, no matter how scared I was of what lurked outside my house at night, I became fascinated with vampires. I loved their look, their teeth, how intelligent and worldly they were. They weren’t afraid of their bodies or their appetite (sex or other), and I admired their confidence and their ability to be themselves. Plus, I’ve always had a thing for bad boys, and those pale dreamboats were—and still are—my jam.

I watched Interview with a Vampire and Bram Stoker’s Dracula not too long after that and picked up every vampire book I could find…the more emo, the better. I was an insufferable tragic goth child, and when I got to middle school, I wrote my first vampire story, which was a piece about a traveling vampire clan that slaughtered a young girl’s family. My teachers thought it was way too dark, and I got sent to the guidance counselor for a chat. After that, I wrote flirtatious paranormal romance stories with vamps and other monsters in them to keep me out of trouble.

That is, until I got to college.

Then it was back to blood and sex.

You know, the essentials.

GMM: While vampires were originally seen as something nightmarish, creatures we should fear, over time they have become the heroes of romantic fiction. Do you think this shift in how we view monsters like the vampire is potentially dangerous, or do you see it as a healthy kink? Or, like most things that create cognitive dissonance in our minds, do vampires simply ride the fence between erotic and deadly?

SMW: I think vampires have always been this erotic, deadly creature in my eyes because the threat of violence, of death, becomes an adrenaline high for the reader/viewer. Vampires look at humans as these fragile, beautiful things because their lives are so short, and that energy, that delicacy is what makes a mortal erotic to them. I think it’s similar for us: we see them as these wise, confident, well-traveled and explored immortal beings, and the dance between their monstrous nature and what’s left—if anything—of their human nature, is a turn on. Everyone wants to be the one person that a vampire protects, loves, and refuses to kill.

However, I will say that while there is an absolute erotic slant to my writing when I’m playing with these creatures, I like to work the angle that these monsters are hunters, and no matter how beautiful they are, they are deadly and they should be feared. For me, paranormal romance is fun, and I like to live in that world on my personal time on occasion, but when it comes to my stories, vampires are about one thing and one thing only: blood.

Untitled, by Stephanie M. Wytovich

No one was happy to see him dead but me, but truth be told, I wasn’t all that happy. He had a beautiful throat, such a gorgeous neck. It was a shame to treat the human body like this, but with a pulse like his, his blood was art, and like the rest of his body, I needed it—wanted it—in my mouth. No matter the cost, no matter the price, the sanguine taste of sudden death always tasted better with a little panic etched into it.

“Julia,” Daven said, her hands shaking my shoulders. “Snap out of it. We have to go. They’re coming.”

“Let them come. I’m not finished yet,” I said. My vision was spotty and the inside of my mouth tasted like smoke and shame. The vibrations of death still rang in my teeth.

“Not finished?” Daven said. The vein in the middle of her forehead pulsed an ugly purple-red. “You’ve slaughtered half the people in this bar, and you’re telling me you’re not finished?”

I stood up and adjusted my shirt, hiked up my jeans.

The bathroom spun on a tilt, the lights growing brighter by the minute.

“That’s what I’m telling you,” I said. Josh’s ashen body lay propped against the toilet, his neck still offered to me under the fluorescent lights.

The room tinted red, pulsed like a bleeding vein.

My head lolled back and I felt a mute relaxation as my eyes glazed over and the corpse started to hum.

“Fuck’s sake,” Daven said. “You’re high. You killed him before you drank didn’t you?”

Daven and I had been staying in a flat in Lawrenceville—the two of us boozing, fucking, kidnapping the night. Pittsburgh become our own personal playground, but when I met Joshua two years back, he excited me, touched me in a way that Daven couldn’t, wouldn’t. Where she was a soft chamomile, a warm cup of tea, Joshua was hard, rough like calloused hands with a musk that was more sex than sweat.

He was new, something different, a wild stallion with a gentle heart, and I admired his stamina. He liked to be bit, and he was a generous donor, which worked well for me because Daven always complained about the bruising.

Joshua, however, wore them like medals.

I traced his jawline with my eyes, thought about the first time I drank from him.

He was beautiful a man, but dare I say it, an even more attractive corpse, and my tastes for the exotic ran deep, even if it was forbidden, even if I found myself in love, even if, but most especially when, I found myself betrayed.

“He was dead to me the moment he set eyes on her, Daven,” I said. Leah’s disfigured face seeped into the forefront of my mind. “But let’s not quibble over the specifics. The only thing left between us now is blood, and I intend to take what was promised.”

Daven paced.

“The Order won’t tolerate this,” she said. “You’ve broken the agreement. They’ll—they’ll kill you, Julia. It’s against our nature. And Leah–”

Red. So much red.

“You mean it’s against your nature,” I said. “You with your rules and your bonds. I’m not vampire, Daven. The Order doesn’t own me.”

“That’s the problem, Julia,” Daven said. “No one does.”

Next week, Speculative Fiction writer K. Ceres Wright joins Girl Meets Monster. Do you have some premium work collecting dust in a drawer? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!