Fiction Fragments: Curtis M. Lawson

Last week I had a great conversation with Steven Van Patten about vampires and what it means to write horror while black.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Curtis M. Lawson.

Curtis M. Lawson is a writer of unapologetically weird dark fiction and poetry. His work includes DEVIL’S NIGHT, BLACK HEART BOYS’ CHOIR, and IT’S A BAD, BAD, BAD, BAD WORLD.

Curtis is a member of the Horror Writer’s Association, and the host of the Wyrd Transmissions podcast.

Social Media:
curtismlawson.com
@curtismlawson on Instagram 
@c_lawson on twitter  
facebook.com/curtismlawson

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Curtis. Since we timed this post just right for the release of your new book, Devil’s Night, tell me about the book. Why Devil’s Night instead of Halloween? Why Detroit? How do the short stories in this collection connect to each other?

CML: The book is a collection of loosely connected stories that take place over the course of Devil’s Night, 1987 in Detroit. They explore different urban legends, traditions, and draw upon the troubled history of the city.

Joe Morey at Weird House Press approached me with the idea of putting together a themed collection. One of his suggestions was a Halloween theme. I considered this, but there are a lot of Halloween books out there and I wanted to do something a little different. I’d always been intrigued with the concept of Devil’s Night, going back to the first time I saw The Crow, so I suggested we go with that, and pitched it with the additional hook of the stories intertwining to a degree, kind of like a Sin City vibe.

Detroit is the only place that ever took Devil’s Night or Mischief Night, or whatever you want to call it, to such an extreme. It also has a rich history
and is steeped in urban myth and folklore. There’s a gothic element to the city’s story that appeals to me too – the concept of a once great city that offered economic, technological, and artistic promise but fell into ruin.

As for how the stories connect, there is a mix of thematic and narrative links. Fire, crime, and poverty are fixtures in many of the stories. The myth of the Nain Rouge manifests in various interpretations. Characters in one story are referenced in another, sometimes in a subtle way, sometimes more direct.

And then there is the overall story that the smaller stories tell. Each of the pieces in the book help to form the tale of a single night, shared by many.
I actually chose the order of the stories so that there was a steady thematic shift, but I doubt anyone else will notice. I tend to do stuff like that a lot, more for my own satisfaction and amusement than anything else.

GMM: Which Motor City urban legends inspired you the most, and how much research went into recreating them in fiction? Which one scares you the most?

CML: The legend of the Nain Rouge definitely impacted Devil’s Night the most. Also called The Hobgoblin of Michigan, it is intrinsically tied to the land. The are stories of the Nain Rouge going back to the founder of Detroit and its history seems to be a hybridization of French and Native American myths that symbolize the history of the city very well.

One of the things I enjoy about myths and legends is that various accounts are often incomplete and contradictory. That makes them more mysterious and murky, which I find appealing. I tried to draw off that, using the Nain Rouge in different roles throughout the stories. Sometimes the monster is an omen of terrible things to come. Sometimes it is an active antagonist. Other times it is an unlikely benefactor.

I did a lot of research for this book, not just the folklore, but also the history and geography of Detroit. It was important to me to not only draw upon
the actual myth, culture, and history of the city, but also to approach it with honesty and respect. There are a lot of pitfalls that you can fall into when writing about a city with a history of racial division, poverty, crime, and violence. This goes double when you’re doing so as a middle-class white man who grew up in Boston of all places. I don’t believe in shying away from difficult topics, but I think it is imperative that they are approached in good faith and with as much accurate information as possible.

What myth scared me the most? Easily, the Hobo Pig Lady. Interestingly, I couldn’t find a single written source for this myth, even online. I had several Detroit natives tell me different versions of the urban legend, however, each of them terrifying.

GMM: The cover art for this collection is beautiful and spooky. Who designed the cover? How important is cover art? Can you really judge a book by its cover? What are some of the worst cover art designs you’ve seen on books you actually love?

CML: Luke Spooner of Carrion House did the artwork. I had worked with him on my novel Black Heart Boys’ Choir and I was wildly impressed with his work and his professionalism. When Joe asked who I wanted for this, Luke was the first and only name I mentioned.

Not only did Luke produce the incredible cover for Devil’s Night, he also drew nine full-page interior illustrations, which are all in full color in the limited edition hardcover.

Cover art is important to me. I wrote, colored, lettered, and published comics for ten years before shifting my focus to prose. As such, I place a high value on not just the technical quality of the art, but it’s ability to convey story, theme, and emotion.

You can’t always judge a book by its cover, but you can measure how much value the publisher/author puts on their own product. If I see an amatuer cover my first thought is “this person doesn’t care enough to put a decent package on their work, so why should I care about it?” Sure, sometimes they might lack artistic sense or self-awareness, but more often than not a terrible cover means amateur writing and poor editing.

Worst cover designs from books I love? Well, I really dislike movie tie-in covers. I get the pragmatism of them, but I just don’t typically care for that
aesthetic. More specifically, there is an edition of The Shadow Over Innsmouth & Other Stories with a transparent fish-person in a suit, set against what looks like a desert town in the old west, with bright blue skies. It looks like they superimposed a Scooby-Doo villain over the cover to some forgotten western.

An Excerpt from THE WORK OF THE DEVIL

By Curtis M. Lawson

On Maya’s twelfth birthday she saw the Devil on her way home from school. He sat on the edge of a dumpster in the alley between Little Caesar’s and some bank whose name she couldn’t remember. He stared back at her, a cigarette hanging from his black lips. At first, she thought he was a kid in a mask, maybe a fourth or fifth grader judging by his height.

But when he turned to look at her, she could see that the monster’s face was not made of plastic or rubber. Those ebony lips curled into a smirk, pushing up crimson cheeks. Yellow teeth clenched around the burning cigarette. The bitter October wind rustled the Devil’s midnight locks and his long, patchy strands of beard. Gleaming black eyes, like polished marbles, glared at her with all the warmth of a Michigan winter. When he winked at her, she knew for sure: this was not some kid dressed up a day early for Halloween.

Maya ran from the alley as fast as she could. She sped the whole way home, lungs burning, and didn’t slow until she turned the corner onto Hoyt Avenue. She thought she’d feel safe once she could see her house, but she hadn’t been expecting the flashing lights and uniformed men. She hadn’t been expecting the firetruck and ambulance. She hadn’t been expecting the flames engulfing her home.

Her dad would try to hide it from her, but she’d learn that the fire wasn’t set by some Devil’s Night arsonist. It was the result of her mom passing out with a lit cigarette. That’s what was written in the official report, at least. But Maya knew the truth. The fire had been the work of the Devil.

In the year following her mother’s death, Maya learned all she could about devils and demons. She read the Bible from front to back, watched The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby on repeat, and scoured through the library for urban legends and local folklore. She came to believe that the Devil she had seen was a monster called the Nain Rouge—a terrible imp that brought tragedy upon anyone who caught a glimpse of it.

When her thirteenth birthday came around, Maya saw the Devil again. This time she was on her way to school, and the Devil sat drinking in the wreckage of a junked Charger outside of a rundown garage. Her mind was flooded with anger and fear at the sight of his scarlet flesh and charcoal hair. The instincts to fight and flee battled against each other, leaving her paralyzed.

The Devil drank Jim Beam, the same whiskey as her father. He tipped the bottle out through the car window and poured a swallow onto the ground. The whiskey seeped down through the loose gravel, into the packed, dry earth below.

Panic won out over anger. Maya turned tail and ran to her grandmother’s house, where she and her father had been living since their own home burned down. Horrible visions possessed her thoughts as she sped down sidewalks and cut through alleys. Broken traffic lights strobed red, like the flashers of an ambulance. Dead leaves in varying shades of orange and yellow shifted in the wind, like flickering flames. Passing cars exhaled gray exhaust, like the smoke from melting siding and burning wood.

When Maya turned the corner of the block she lived on, she almost couldn’t believe what she saw—or more accurately, what she was not seeing. There were no emergency vehicles. No rising flames or black smoke. Her grandmother’s house was intact.

Maya rushed inside, afraid that she would find her grandmother dead, but she didn’t. The old woman was just fine. Maya collapsed into her arms, crying her eyes out, babbling on about the devil that killed her mother.

Maya’s grandmother told her that there was no such thing as the Devil and that sometimes bad things happen for no good reason. She let her take the day off and made her a birthday cake—chocolate with buttercream frosting dotted witch chocolate chips along the outer edge. They pored over an old photo album, reminiscing about Maya’s mother. It helped dull the pain of that terrible day—the anniversary of her birth and of her mother’s death.

As the day progressed, Maya’s thoughts turned toward her father. She wondered how he was holding up. He was an old-fashioned kind of man, hardworking and quiet about his emotions, but she knew he was hurting. His pain was as clear in his eyes as it was in the empty whiskey bottles on his nightstand.

The encounter she had with the Devil, or the Nain Rouge, or whatever the hell it was, fell to the back of her mind. Maya was focused on doing something nice for her father when he got home, the same way her grandmother had tried to make the day better for her. Together they prepared her father’s favorite meal—a medium-rare steak with thick homemade fries.

Her father always got home by 6:30, so Maya had the table set and dinner ready by 6:15. By 7:00 p.m. the food was cold, and Maya’s father still wasn’t home. Sometime after 9:00, the police came to the house. Maya watched from the other room as the somber-faced officer told her sobbing grandmother about the car accident.

Her grandmother would try to hide it from her, but she’d learn that the crash wasn’t some freak accident. Her father had been driving while under the influence. That’s what was written in the official report, at least. But Maya knew the truth. The crash had been the work of the Devil.

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: J. Edwin Buja

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking with Ed Kurtz. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes J. Edwin Buja. I met J. Edwin Buja at Necon 39, where we both released our debut novels for Haverhill House Publishing. If you haven’t read The King of the Wood, I highly recommend that you do.

IMG_5942J. Edwin Buja has spent his life surrounded by books and has written everything from children’s novels to software technical manuals. With an MA in history he discovered early on that researching and writing hold the key to happiness. Who else would think scanning through years of microfilm to index an old newspaper would be a dream job?
The King of the Wood is his first novel in the genre of magical realism, but it will not be his last. For more than thirty years, he has been married to the most wonderful woman on the planet. He lives in a small village somewhere in Ontario.

Three Questions

GMM: Since music is a major theme in your fragment, I thought about the fact that a lot of writers listen to certain styles of music or create playlists to match the mood of a piece they’re working on. Music has always been an important part of my life. Music is more than just background noise. Certain music has been more like a soundtrack for the phases of my life. Your story feels like it has a soundtrack and even without the inclusion of dates, most readers would recognize the time period based on the bands. How important is music to your other writing projects? What do you usually listen to while you’re writing? When you develop a story, do you have a specific soundtrack in mind like a film or TV show?

JEB: I don’t listen to music while I write for two reasons.

First, I prefer to immerse myself in the music so I listen wearing headphones, with my eyes closed, and the lights off. This started after my sister introduced me to Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Mott the Hoople, and Uriah Heep all in the same week. She was the music nut, I only read. I was hooked instantly. However, it was difficult to listen to records because the loudness disturbed my parents. As soon as I could afford it, I got a stereo system and headphones. From then on, whenever I listened to records, I would pretend I was one of the musicians at a concert. That has stayed with me for over forty years. I still rarely listen to a complete album. That’s the joy of an iPod: I can create playlists of “concerts” that I would like to hear.

Second, I tend to bang on the keyboard in time with the music which is noisy and causes the people around me to complain. This happened at my first tech writing job, and I never listened to music at work again.

Music does inspire a lot of my writing and sometimes I have a soundtrack in mind. This is usually to help with the mood and inner thoughts of a character. If a tune makes me happy, then it makes my character happy. I do have a group of what I call Suicide Songs. These invoke such strong memories (times, places, events) that I get the feeling that I should give up and not bother doing anything else. It’s not so much physical death as the death of new ideas, aspirations, inspiration, and of doing anything but reading or watching TV. These tunes have been very useful in setting the mood for several characters.

Sometimes, tunes give me the kick I need to start writing. There’s nothing specific, simply the urge to get back to the keyboard.

In my first novel, I have the main character listening to tunes while he walks. I removed the exact references (Free’s Highway, the remastered version) because my tastes are sometimes obscure and readers might get confused. Several of the streets in town are named after bands or musicians.

GMM: I’ve only ever seen one concert in Detroit. I had the pleasure of seeing Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at a Masonic temple with my friend Tracy. That was a memorable evening that might eventually end up in a story. How much of your fragment is based on real events? And, how often do you pull from your own experiences in your writing?

JEB: In the fragment, all the concerts listed are ones I attended. This is important because I am a fanatic for correct geography in a story. If a character is heading for some location, then his journey must be logical. For example, if a building is seen from someone’s back window, but they leave through the front and arrive there from the wrong direction, I am taken out of the story. I draw maps of towns and house plans to keep everyone in their right place. For the fragment, knowing the layout of the concert venues, what could be seen from a particular seat, how to get in and out, and what kind of movement was possible during a concert, is vital to the story.

As far as anything else from my experiences, I use them all the time. There may be specific events. The feelings and thoughts from those events are blended, mixed up, turned around, and used in whatever way helps the narrative. For example, seeing a girl repeatedly and not knowing anything about her. What to do? How do I find out who she is? What happens once I know about her? I was a history major at university, so I know how to do research, following several paths to reach a conclusion. There’s also the frustration from lack of sources or contradictions in facts.

Experiencing depression is an absolute gold mine. It’s not a pleasant gold mine, but one that is hard to ignore. Writing about this is also therapeutic.

By the way, I saw Rush, Nazareth, and Uriah Heep at the Masonic Auditorium.

GMM: Based solely on the fragment, I get the sense that a romance is blooming. However, since the narrator has mentioned his terrible luck in meeting women, I assume that getting to know the curly haired woman in the red jacket won’t be easy. I anticipate some heartache. Beyond the developing romance, what else is happening in the story? Can you give us a synopsis of what you think is going to happen without too many spoilers?

JEB: What is the story all about? A teen sees a girl at almost every concert he attends. Despite attempts to get closer to her, she disappears every time. None of his friends know her. He falls instantly in love with her. After several years, he stops going to concerts. Nothing is done about the girl because he is unable to act on his desires due to shyness, lack of knowledge, and a sense of ‘what’s the point, anyway?’ Fifteen years later, he goes to a concert and sees her. She hasn’t changed in the slightest. She’s even wearing the same clothes from that last concert. They finally connect, but not in the way he had hoped. She disappears before his eyes. And so, his quest begins. Who is she? What happened to her after his last sighting? Why is she back? The gatefold of the Kiss Alive album (not the CD) plays a vital role in his quest. (I have never seen Kiss in concert.)

A fragment from J. Edwin Buja’s novel, Rock ‘n’ Roll Never Forgets

Part One – Music and sightings

The last time I saw her was December 27, 1977. The J. Geils band was doing an encore and she was in her usual spot down by the right of the stage.

It took fifteen years for me to find her, and when I did it broke my heart beyond repair.

Uriah Heep/Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, 25th of July, 1974 Cobo Arena Tier A Section A2 Row G Seat 9

Things started when I was attending a Uriah Heep concert at Cobo Hall in Detroit. This was back in the day when you could just send your money to the venue, ask for specific seats, and you’d get your tickets about a week later. But that doesn’t matter right now.

This happened to be my very first concert. I was twenty and a late starter when it came to music.

Like I said, I was in Tier A at Cobo getting in to Mick Box as he went nuts doing one of his solos. The audience had slowly crept closer to the stage but the security guys were keeping everyone well away from the stage. My buddies and I had tried to get down to the main floor but security had been much more alert than usual, according to Terry, the guy who got the tickets and convinced me to go in the first place. Apparently, Terry was able to get down to the main floor at most concerts because he knew one of the security guys and always slipped him a doob when passing.

His friendly guard wasn’t on duty this night. It was probably because I was there.

I had a pair of binoculars because I had never been to Cobo and had no clue how big it was inside or how close we’d be to the band. As it turned out our seats weren’t too bad and I didn’t need any help seeing though they came in handy when I wanted a close-up of Mick Box wailing on his guitar.

It was during a bit of talk from Ken Hensley the keyboard player when I happened to look into the crowd in front of the stage.

Most of the time, my eyes were glued to the stage but once in a while I’d scan the audience looking for cute girls. I may have been twenty but my hormones were in high gear so I was always on the lookout for a girl. Not that I would ever have had the nerve to talk to a girl. I was deadly shy at the time and my luck with girls had been poor to say the least. I was pretty much reconciled to never meeting the girl of my dreams.

Still am for the most part.

Something flashed and caught my attention. One of the spotlights from the rig above the band had moved and lit up the section of the crowd below Hensley. Standing about three people back from the barrier between the stage and the audience was a girl who brushed her long curly blonde hair out of her eyes. She was listening intently as Hensley spoke. I couldn’t be sure, but it looked like she was taking notes though why anyone would do that during a concert remained a mystery to me at the time.

There was something magical about her. I couldn’t really see any details, like the colour or her eyes, but I saw enough to make me pay more attention to her than the band. And she was wearing a bright red jacket.

My eyes kept flitting back to her as Heep finished their set then came back out for an encore.

The band finished their last tune, left the stage, and the house lights came up. I immediately focused my attention on the spot where the girl was standing but she was already gone. Feeling a little disappointed, I scanned the crowd to try and spot her. That jacket would be hard to miss. As always, I had no luck.

For me, it had been business as usual. Attend some thing, be it movie, concert, party, see a girl that catches my eye, then do nothing about it because I had no balls and never see her again.

I didn’t give the girl at the concert any more thought.

J. Geils Band/Mountain/Golden Earring, 3rd of November 1974 Cobo Arena Tier A Section A17 Row B Seat 3

She was there again. I couldn’t miss that bright red jacket and the curly blonde hair. This time I was on the other side of the arena so I didn’t see her right away. When Corky Laing set his drums on fire, she was there in the glow of the flames.

Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band/Rex, 5th of September, 1977 Cobo Arena Tier A Section A6 Row E Seat 6

So, I’m at the Seger concert, getting in to the sax, and I spot something in the corner of my eye. Something yellow. I turned and it was hair. Long curly blond hair. The girl who owned the hair was perhaps three feet from the barrier where the security guts were patrolling. There was something about her that got me interested. Maybe it was the hair. I have a weakness for long curly hair. Maybe it was the tune.

I decided to get a better look at her. I inched my way through the crowd and got to within ten feet of her when for some reason, she turned around. My heart almost stopped. She had to be the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. It may have been my imagination but I could have sworn she saw me and smiled. Wishful thinking, maybe?

Do you have a fragment you’d like to share? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!