Fiction Fragments: Jessica Guess

Last week, I spoke with Mexican American expat V. Castro about her erotic vampire fiction and I’m still thinking about that scene in the Irish pub, wondering what filthy delights await her vampire protagonist.

This week, I’m excited to welcome Jessica Guess to Girl Meets Monster. I recently picked up a copy of Jessica’s horror novella, Cirque Berserk (2020) and couldn’t put it down.

Jessica Guess is a writer and English teacher who hails from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She earned her Creative Writing MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato in 2018 and is the founder of the website Black Girl’s Guide to Horror where she examines horror movies in terms of quality and intersectionality.

Her creative work has been featured in Luna Station Quarterly and Mused BellaOnline Literary Review. Her debut novella, Cirque Berserk, is available for purchase on Amazon. You can get weekly content from Jessica by joining her Patreon at www.patreon.com/JessicaGuess

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Jessica. I loved Cirque Berserk, because it captured so many of the things I loved about watching slasher movies while I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. The major difference being that one of your main characters is a young Black girl, and her love interest is Latino…or possibly Native American. Most of the slasher movies I watched didn’t have Black people in them. The ones that did have Black characters usually killed them off right away, to the point that this is now considered a trope in horror films. How did this absence of Black characters affect you as a viewer and reader?

JG: I think that being a huge fan of horror while being constantly reminded of how much the genre disregards Black people created a resentment in me. Don’t get me wrong, I really do love horror. I love the mythologies, and the blood, and the monsters, but for a very long time it has felt like we’re a punchline in the genre. I think it’s like that for anyone who isn’t a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual person in horror. That makes me want to kind of right that wrong in my own writing. I want to see all the things I didn’t see growing up.

NOTE: Jessica told me Rocehelle’s love interest is Native American, but asked me not to reveal his name to avoid spoilers. So, go pick up a copy of Cirque Berserk and find out for yourself.

GMM: I recently watched American Horror Story: 1984, and during each episode I was calling out the names of the movies or characters they were referencing based on the way someone was murdered. What are some of the horror movies or scenes from movies that inspired your work? Are there murders in your book that mimic the tropes of slasher movies?

JG: Definitely Urban Legend. I think that movie has some of my favorite slasher kills ever. I wanted the kills in Cirque Berserk to be as memorable as those and have a type of irony that they did in Urban Legend. An example of that is the opening of when the girl in Urban Legend is driving with an ax murderer in her back seat and “Turn Around Bright Eyes” starts playing. That’s definitely an inspiration for a scene in Cirque Berserk. That scene in particular also takes some inspiration from The Strangers: Prey at Night. I just like the idea of upbeat music playing when something horrific is happening.

GMM: AHS: 1984 uses music not only to trigger nostalgia, but to put us in the setting and create a sense of atmosphere to remind us which time period we’re witnessing on screen. How did you use music in your novella to create nostalgia for the characters and your readers? What other details did you use to give us a sense of the time and setting? Did you rely on any specific horror tropes, or did you try to create something new?

JG: So, the song titles set up the sections of the novella, but they also give a hint to what the theme of that section is. For instance, in the “Rhythm of the Night” section, we finally figure out exactly what is happening, which is to say we’re figuring out the rhythm of this night. It helped me to frame the story while also relying on the nostalgia and atmosphere those songs create. As for tropes, I hoped to take some old tropes and re-invent them. I think that’s what we’re supposed to do as writers, take tropes that could be stale or overused, and find a way to make them new and fresh. I like to think I did that with Rochelle and Brian. I wanted the reader to start out thinking they knew exactly where the story was going and then realize they didn’t know at all.

Karlie, Karlie, Where Did You Go? (Excerpt)

Lisa

I watched Erica’s blue impala through my rearview mirror. I was parked with the back of my car to the back of her car. Why had she pulled in to an orange orchard? Did she spot me? Why wasn’t she getting out of her car? A cold sweat formed on my forehead. What if she told Aaron?

Just then, Erica got out of her car and walked up to the storefront that was shaped like a cottage. Maybe she wanted to pick oranges. Or maybe she was calling Aaron to warn him. My palms were suddenly slipping off the steering wheel from sweat. Should I follow her or just go home? I gripped the keys ready to start the ignition but stopped. I had to find out what happened to my cousin.

“Hello darlin’,” an old gray-haired white woman said from the cash register. “Care to try some orange and peach jam? I make it here myself.”

“No, thank you. I’m uh, just looking around,” I said.

“If you want to pick from our grove, you just come on up here and grab a basket and go on out back. You can take a guide with you. Sometimes people get lost back there you know.”

I smiled at her. “Did a girl just come in here? One with deep brown skin and frizzy brown hair and a red hoody? We’re supposed to meet up.”

The woman nodded. “Said she was pickin’ some orange for her mom.”

“I guess I’ll take a basket.”

“That’ll be a dollar fifty for the basket.”

I gave the woman the money and she offered me a wide wicker basket and pointed me towards the back of the cottage where the wide grove started.

Was Erica really doing something kind for her parent? Did I follow her for nothing? Maybe this was a distraction so that Aaron could hide evidence while I was off chasing Erica. Damn it! Did I fall for some trick?

I walked down a row of oranges and looked for a glimpse of Erica’s hoody. The sun was beating down hard but there was a breeze so the sweat forming on my forehead wasn’t as much as it had been for the past few days. The citrusy smell of oranges invaded my nostrils as I turned and looked for any glimpse of Erica. 

I moved further and further into the grove trying to keep the entrance in sight.

Sometimes people get lost back there, you know.

I moved passed orange tree after orange tree but still, there was so sign of Erica.

“Erica?” I called finally. It was a long shot but maybe she’d answer. “Erica, I just wanted to talk to you for a second. My name is Lisa Yen, I’m Karlie Yen’s cousin. The girl who died? I saw you with Aaron earlier. I just need to ask you some questions.”

Just then I saw a flash of the red to the right of me. I turned. Nothing there. Instead just more orange trees. I moved to where I saw the flash.

 “Erica?” I called, running further into the grove.

 A feeling of dreadful realization rose inside of me. No one knew where I was. I didn’t tell Travis where I was going. That woman in the cottage thought I was here with a friend. This grove went on for acres. I looked back to try to see the entrance but all I saw was more orange trees.

“Shit,” I whispered. I tried retracing my steps to find a way out. My heart was beating loud and fast in my chest and sweat poured down my neck.

 My bra was noticeably wet now and uncomfortable. I had only been in the grove for a few minutes, but I was lost and drenched and starting to get scared. I tried to take a deep breath but couldn’t.

 “Fuck,” I whispered as I frantically checked my pockets for my inhaler.

I must have left it in the car. I forgot how bad my asthma got in Everpeirce. Orlando was a little better even though the air was dryer there. The problem with Everpierce was that there were more swamplands, dust mites, and pollen from all the different citrus orchards in the air here. And here I was in the middle of a field of oranges, with no inhaler. Smart girl.

“Shit,” I whispered trying not to panic. I stopped walking and managed to slow my breathing a bit though knew I still needed my medicine. I walked in the direction that I thought I came from, but nothing. No entrance, just oranges.

Just then there was another flash of red just to the left of me.

“Erica? I just want to talk!”

“Is that why you were following me?”

I turned around and there she was. Her hoody was pulled over her head and her sleeves pulled all the way down to her wrists despite the overwhelming heat.

“Erica?” I said stupidly. I was out of breath again now. The heat, orange blossom pollen, and fear not doing my asthma any favors. Erica on the other hand looked fine, cool, and not scared in the least.

“Why are you following me?” She stared at me, her hands in her hoody pocket.

“I-I just wanted to ask you some questions,” I said, hands on my knees.  “Hey—do you—know the way—out?” I said between gasps. “I’m—lost”.

Erica stared at me silently, not moving. Her face was expressionless and unreadable, but it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention. Her dark brown eyes moved around, seeming to look if anyone else was in the orchard with us.

“It’s r-really hot out here,” I said gasping a little. She turned back to face me but remained silent. “Aren’t you hot?”

Her eyes narrowed in on me, her face still unreadable.

“E-Erica,” I said, starting to get dizzy. “Can’t breathe—please—help.”

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: Todd Sullivan

Last week, I had the pleasure of chatting with Jessica McHugh about YA fiction and how horror and humor come together in her stories. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Todd Sullivan.

image0 (2)Todd Sullivan teaches English as a Second Language, and English Literature & Writing in Asia. He has had numerous short stories, novelettes, and novellas published across several countries, including Thailand, the U.K., Australia, the U.S., and Canada. He is a practitioner of the sword-fighting martial arts, kumdo/kendo, and has trained in fencing (foil), Muay Thai, Capoeira, Wing Chun, and JKD. He graduated from Queens College with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, and received a Bachelor of Arts in English from Georgia State University. He attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the National Book Foundation Summer Writing Camps. He currently lives in Taipei, Taiwan, and looks forward to studying Mandarin.

Three Questions

GMM: Hi Todd, welcome to Girl Meets Monster. After reading your fragment, I wondered what inspired the story, as well as what specific genre it fits into. There are young characters, so I thought YA and since there’s magic, I placed it in fantasy. Do you normally write YA fantasy, or do you write within other genres and subgenres?

TS: I wrote this story while teaching at a Language School in Seoul. One of the students was fond of drawing, and he was also a poor student academically. He was under a lot of pressure to do better in his classes, and soon he was going to take entrance exams for a boarding school in China.

This real-life scenario became the genesis of Test Amongst the Shadows, wherein a teenager, who happens to be a mage in the world of humans, has to pass an exam that is important to him. The narrative follows the different methods he employs to cheat since he knows he cannot pass the test on his own.

Test Amongst the Shadows is YA urban fantasy fiction, and eventually I’ll develop the idea into a novella series.

I also write across genres, including horror and light science fiction.

GMM: The interaction between your characters also reminded me of Japanese manga and anime stories. Do you enjoy anime? How has it influenced your writing? What are some of your favorite anime series or characters?

TS: I love anime, and it has had a significant influence on my writing. I remember the first time I saw Akira, which is the first major Japanese anime film many people around my age saw. This was in the 90s before the popularity of the internet when it was hard to find anime on American television.

One of the big differences between anime narratives and western narratives is that there are usually no purely evil characters. Westerners base a lot of their worldview on scripture: Heaven and Hell, good and evil. There is God, and there is Satan. There is a hero, and there is a villain.

Anime characters tend to be more flux in their alignment. Usually, the characters simply have objectives. Sometimes this objective brings great harm to one, or many, and that person will be the bad guy. The character with an objective that happens to include stopping the great harm to the one, or many, will be the good guy.

In Akira, there is no villain. There is a teen boy full of angst who accidentally achieves great power he cannot control. And there is his friend who must stop him, in a way out of friendship, out of knowing that the boy is in torment even as his power wrecks havoc upon the city.

In Dragon Ball Z, one of my favorite animes, Vegeta starts off as a central villain to Earth. He does so because he wants to escape the tyranny of one of DBZs purely evil characters, Frieza, and on Earth he thinks the means to do exists. Vegeta changes throughout the series, going from villain to anti-hero to hero.

Then there is Goku, a character whose goal of protecting the Earth conflicts with his overwhelming desire to improve his fighting abilities. This obsession Goku has indirectly causes great harm and misery to others.

The characters I write are similar to these Japanese figures. With few exceptions, my characters are not purely good, and they are not purely evil. Sometimes one of them will have a goal that brings suffering to others; and sometimes, another of them will have a goal that brings them into direct conflict with the first, and thus the suffering of others can be alleviated.

GMM: How long have you lived in Asia, and what aside from teaching English and Writing made you decide to move there? What cultural barriers have you experienced as a person of color living abroad? How have these experiences shaped your writing?

TS: I’ve lived in Asia ten years. After a three-week winter semester class where I studied Japanese authors in Tokyo during my MFA at Queens College, I knew that I wanted to come back to this part of the world and learn more about the people and the cultures.

Many Asian societies are homogeneous, so the presence of foreigners acts as a bit of a shock to their system. I think that being a foreigner in a homogeneous society is a good case study of how humans might react to the presence of aliens from outer space. There is simply a difficulty in processing the reality of that which is standing in front of you.

Writing-wise, I think this difficulty is best expressed in my fantasy novella series, The Windshine Chronicles. This series centers around a dark-skinned foreigner living in a fantasy version of Korea called South Hanguk. The series’ narrative is multilayered, but one of the themes is how the people of the country interact with foreigners, and how the foreigners struggle to exist in a country that isn’t their native home.

In The Windshine Chornicles, the idea that the human race is “one whole” is constantly put to the test.

From Test Amongst the Shadows, by Todd Sullivan

The hardest working mage who ever lived glanced at the clock on the wall. Twenty minutes. Jin gazed down at his English exam. Only twenty minutes left to pass or fail the biggest test of his life. His scantron sheet was half empty. The clock’s ticking seconds in the silent classroom echoed in his mind, and made focusing on English vocabulary and grammar impossible. He had to do something if he intended to get in the top of his class.

Jin looked around at the other students, their heads low, their shoulders hunched as they picked off ovals in the long marching columns. Adjusting his glasses, he opened his senses in search for the right spell amidst the thin cracks that splinter reality. He released control of his hand and let it draw six stick-figure bandits on horses at the edges of the exam. Leaning close to the page, he whispered, “Thieving shadows, take shape and learn the secrets of my woes.”

The drawings shivered, and the bandits shook themselves awake. They clawed out of the exam, erupting off the page into the third dimension. The cloaked leader saluted, his face hidden in shades of gray. Jin pointed to the answer key tucked under a notebook on the teacher’s desk. The leader nodded, and motioned to the silent troupe behind him. The bandits yanked on their horses’ reins and leapt off the side of the table. Racing across the tiled floor, the horses skirted around chair legs and hopped over sneakers. Jin glanced at the exam answer key again. The sides of his mouth spread in a triumphant smile, but a purple boot suddenly crushed the horsemen right before they cleared the classroom’s tables. Jin inhaled in surprised. He followed the boot up to the leg, the skirt, the shirt, to finally meet the steady gaze of Sori, the top student in the school.

And his ex-girlfriend.

The two maintained eye contact for several moments, a silent challenge passing between them. Sori had broken up with him right before exams, informing him that she wasted too much time with him and wasn’t focusing enough on the upcoming finals. And now, here she sat, the only other mage in this room of humans, stopping him from reaching his goal.

So that’s how it was going to be.

Jin slowly took off his glasses in preparation for his next spell. Sori had managed to see his bandits. He didn’t know how, but he would need to take care of her sight before he tried for the test answers again.

Jin narrowed his eyes at the light reflected in the lenses of his glasses. He smiled. He held the glasses to his lips and misted the lenses by blowing on one, then the other. While he did this, he focused on the magic vibrating between the fissures of reality until he heard the words to the next spell.

“Site sighted, two to see, sea bog fog billowing…”

“John?”

Jin snapped his mouth shut at the teacher speaking his English name. He tried to still his heart now thumping fast in his chest, and met the teacher’s puzzled blue eyes.

“Are you speaking to someone?”

Now the other students’ heads lifted, and before he knew it, dozens of humans were all staring in his direction. With their attention focused on him, he couldn’t produce magic. No mage could. Human disbelief in magic narrowed the fissures running throughout reality, making the words necessary to bring spells to life impossible to hear. Jin had been told that no mage had been able to perform magic in front of a human in hundreds of years.

He glanced at Sori, who was smiling at him as he sweated under the spotlight of mankind. With a weak shrug, Jin said, “I was just,” and he paused as he scrambled for a good excuse, “reading a problem out loud to myself.” He tapped the exam. “Sometimes that helps.”

The English teacher nodded. “Everyone must remain silent so that the other students can concentrate. Sorry, John.”

“Won’t happen again,” Jin assured him. He caught Sori’s smug wink, and tore his eyes away from his ex-girlfriend’s pretty face.

These exams determined who would be allowed to apply for the International School in Hong Kong. Only the top two students would be recommended. Jin felt confident about math and science, but he worried over his English scores. One of his classmates had lived in San Francisco for years. Jin only managed to edge him out sometimes, while Sori beat them both in every subject every, single, time.

She was a studying machine.

Jin looked at the clock again. Ten minutes to finish the exam. He had to cast another spell, but when he raised his eyes, he noticed the teacher looking around the room. Whereas before he hadn’t been paying much attention, now the teacher was watching them closely, all because of Sori. Jin really wished he had been able to cast his spell and blind her. Not only because he would have been able to get the answers without her trying to counter him, but because it would have stopped her from taking the test, maybe even causing her to fail.

That would have been sweet.

Jin’s eyes narrowed as a new idea struck him. He looked at the dusty blackboard behind the teacher and slowly raised his hand.

“Yes, John?” The teacher said. “Is something wrong?”

“Can I ask you a question?” Jin assumed his most perplexed look, and mixed in a little pained exasperation to make himself seem even more pathetic.

The teacher sighed and waved him forward. Jin stood. Only briefly, a couple of students glanced up at the newest disturbance, but their focus quickly returned to their exams. All, that is, except Sori, who watched Jin with a penetrating gaze. He wanted to give her the finger, but since the teacher was staring at him, he refrained as he passed her…

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.