Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Aziza Sphinx

Wednesday, I chatted with Violette Meier about her writing, what inspires her, and she shared a fragment of her soon to be released Oracles.

Today, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Aziza Sphinx. I met Aziza in a chat room during Multiverse this past year. We were the only ones in the room, which might have been awkward, but I ended up having a very interesting conversation. We shared our thoughts on the political climate, why we write horror and other dark speculative fiction, and what we were working on at the time. Connecting with other writers who look like you can really make a difference. Community is everything.

Aziza Sphinx sees the world through peaches and pecans and a canopy of weeping willows. Family matters, and not just blood, for those who care for us are the truest who stand and fall during the winding road. When the hills and valleys of the journey summon and the pen becomes mightier than the sword, this is the world Aziza Sphinx breathes for.

Ten Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Aziza.  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?

AS: I’ll preface my answers to these questions in the context of the idea that I am not always the writer of my stories. I am an empath and I channel my characters, so I walk the role of the scribe while not necessarily controlling the story content. I have quite a few projects in the works which span multiple genres. The Nai, a race of entities with energy manipulation responsibilities, have been speaking as of late so I’ve been a bit focused on that alien origins stories for the Of Lies and Nai series. My wraiths and reapers are still at odds and I believe The Burning Queen has said her due and is ready for the world to read her tale. For me, comfort comes from sanity. So long as I do as I’m told and write the stories of the voices in my head, I write in whichever genre they deem appropriate for their stories.

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?

AS: I’ve been writing dark stories since I was a child. Some of the love grew out of exposure from events in my life and others from my favorite books and shows. I grew up in the time of old school comics and television such as CreepshowTales from the Darkside, and Twilight Zone. These were staples in my household, and I find myself to this day still venturing back to watch them.

Though I was exposed to authors such as Amiri Baraka, Octavia Butler, and Maryse Conde at an early age due to my mother being an English teacher, truth be told, as far as influence is concerned, my writing is more influenced by mythos, mythology, history, legend, theoretical science, and transpersonal psychology than the writings of others both stylistically and in content.

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?

AS: I’m inclined to agree with the assessment that “Black history is Black horror.” As I look around at my experiences and listen to the stories of others in my community Black history both past and in its ever-evolving state, is a form of horror I would not wish on a friend nor an enemy. It shows up in my writings in the subtle manipulations of intentional omissions for the sake of those in power to control the narrative of the very entities they proclaim to be protecting. As one of my characters so eloquently reiterates, “selective omission is still a lie.”

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?

AS: Because I am but the conduit from which my stories are told, I am less inclined to feel obligated to structure my stories with a deeper message. However, with the nature of the transpersonal as an influence, I do find deeper meaning in the experiences of my characters. Whether from unconventional ideas and approaches to what could be black and white situations to the questioning of the actions of ancient civilizations within the context of their view of existence during their time and even being open to anything as a future possibility my characters reflect on these options as they stumble their way through their own revelations. Whether intentional or not I can see in my stories a replay of events in my life through both a fictional representation and a therapeutic lens affording me the courage to face and comprehend the trauma of present-day culture and society and continue to contribute in the ways that I can to help others like myself see themselves as important even when society tries to reiterate, we are not.

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

AS: Movies: Vampire Hunter D; Bloodlust because of its exploration of not just the idea of evil that has traditionally surrounded the role of vampires in storytelling, but because of the psychological motivation presented in the characters and what drives them in their quests. Blood, gore, and sheer terror are fulfilled with the Russian movie Nightwatch (2004) and The Host (Gwoemul, 2006) both of which focus on the fear of unknown creatures lurking in the darkness. Though cheesy by today’s standards I still love to lounge around with Tales from the Hood playing in the background. And for the movie that made me suspicious of every doll in existence even before Chucky’s reign Dolls (1987).

Books: I love a good vampire story from both the perspective of the hunter and the hunted, so I fell in love with Minion by L.A. Banks the first time I stumbled upon it in a bookstore. And because I have an affinity for cemeteries myself, Amana Stevens’ The Kingdom fills the need in her character Amelia Gray’s desire to discover why she is called The Graveyard Queen. The rhythmic cadence of The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe draws me in and soothes the poetic desire that sometimes gnaws at my psyche. Smoke and Shadows by Tanya Huff reminds me that ghost stories come in many forms and so do protagonists, while Kelley Armstrong’s Omens melds the modern world with mythology.

As for the movie or book that scares me the most, I will admit that Dolls is at the top of the list. Not just because of the creep factor, the beady little eyes of every toy stalking prey in the night; but also because of the cultural parallels as many believe dolls and other possessions contain a piece of the soul of their owners.

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?

AS: For me, the fact that we are still having the conversation about white-identifying writers writing stories about non-white characters continues to pour salt in a festering wound. The question itself is a constant reminder that those controlling the capitalist machine continue to value stories about non-white characters only when written through the eyes of white identified writers. That BIPOC writers are not worthy of access to the machine’s markets when telling their own stories with their own voices. For any white-identifying writer who deems it absolutely necessary for the core of their story to include a non-white character in a primary role, instead of sequestering a person providing you incite for the sake of authenticity to the role of a resource thanked into obscurity in the acknowledgement section, give the person the opportunity to share your platform as a co-writer and allow them to tell that part of the story in the most authentic way.

I’ve had the greater challenge of being informed that my Black characters aren’t authentic in academia more than anywhere else. Specifically, I was taking a course and receiving feedback that my Black characters weren’t authentic and that I was portraying stereotypes and needed to change my stories. Because this was a course for academic credits, I signed up using my legal name so those providing feedback assumed I was not Black either because of my name or the choice of language presented in my writing. Their responses only reiterated the idea that my experience as a Black woman writing my story from my perspective could only be told from what they deemed to be an acceptable point of view. That my character’s actions and responses were only a stereotype and not authentically portraying what may have been a true to life experience from someone in the Black community.

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?

AS: Because my writing tends to be an amalgamation of genres imposter syndrome rears its head when faced with the challenge of classification for publishing purposes. Having to balance the need to categorize my works within the current market restraints while understanding the idea of reader expectation has led to the frustration of feeling as though my stories will be judged with the eye of one set of reader’s expectations while not being afforded with another classification option for the wider market. There is still the constant push to get the publishing industry to expand its classification structure allowing for new types of works that the big publishers may not deem as profitable to have their own classification. To manage, I try to align my works with the genres I feel would be most appropriate for each work while focusing more on key words when marketing and remaining aligned with who I’ve deemed to be my target market.

GMM: I recently picked up a copy of your novel, A Moment Before Midnight, which is near the top of my TBR pile. You mentioned that your vampires are different, which I think you meant as a warning. However, I’m always excited to see new approaches to how vampires show up in fiction. What should readers know about your vampires? What sets them apart?

AS: There is always the story behind the story and what shows up on the surface is just that; surface. My vampires usually don’t know the full extent of their power or purpose on their respective plane and part of their journeys is discovering their truths and greater role they are expected to play in the futures that lay before them. While this idea is present in the Naverro Vampire Tales series it comes to the forefront more in my novel A Licentious Storm where my vampires as the Doridian is specifically introduced.

GMM: I assume that as a horror writer who writes about vampires, you enjoy reading about them, too. And, most people experience vampires on film first before they pick up their first novel. Which vampire narratives and characters inspired you the most? What did you like about them? What did you feel was missing?

AS: In truth I drop in and out of the desire to read vampire stories. I don’t typically go searching for specific types of stories to read so I’m all over the place on the speculative fiction spectrum. My first exposer to vampire stories probably was in movies like NosfertuFright Night, Interview with a Vampire, and Life Force. If any of those inspired me, it would probably be Life Force. Just the idea of vampirism in terms of energy rather than the blood approach is a perspective that has stayed with me. Also, the sentience of vampires presented in Interview with a Vampire is present in my approach of my stories not just of my vampires but of other entities as well.

GMM: Tell me about Of Darkened Woods. Without giving away too many spoilers, what is it about? Do you retell a specific fairytale, or did you create your own new story? What is it about fairytales that makes them so easily adaptable to horror? Have you written other stories based on fairytales?

AS: Because I like to delve deeper into a story and seek out the origins and purpose of its creation from a historical perspective, Of Darkened Woods is one of my interpretations of the Hansel and Gretel story drawing more from the original German tale and spiritual interpretations while exercising creative license to add a twist on the potential true villain of the story.

Excerpt from Of Darkened Woods

My day begins with ravens. Big black broad-winged squawking harbingers of death omen ravens. They perch on the roof, their repetitive cacophony generating a pounding headache forcing me from bed long before sunrise. I’d seen them gathering at twilight, one by one, taking up residence along the roofline. But they’d been silent until now affording me a few hours of Sandman surrender before sounding off in a deafening chorus.

Luna! Luna! Luna! Witch.

The last squawk of my name stings. Though barely a whisper, it strikes as hard as a slap to the face.

“I hear you! I hear you! Now cease that infernal racket.”

The flapping of wings against the pottery roof reminds me of the pelting of rain, something long overdue. I toss back the lace curtains. Streaks of light slicing through darkened skies greet me. And so, the routine begins. Wash. Dry. Dress.

“Good morning, my beauty.” My fingers tiptoe over the walls, trailing down the hallway as my humble abode gently sighs. “Oh, how misunderstood you are.”

Me and this house in the woods came to an understanding many moons ago. The binding sentiment between us, the wish to be cared for and left in peace. Our harmonious symbiosis endures as I venture to the other world by day and return to nurture by night.

A dash of dusting. Wipe down the walls. Basket of fruit placed just so. My melodious voice soothes the temperament of my uneasy hearth. “There. There,” I mutter as I trace a newly formed crack in the doorjamb. “Fear not my lovely. I’ll fix that right up upon my return.”

The groan from the wooden floors offers assurance. One last gentle caress and I lock up shop to gather items to make the repair.

As I step from the stoop, feet sinking into moist dirt, the spell of the house falls away. The first frightening layers of reality smack me in the face. Heat bears down on my lungs. Thick and heavy, draining me of the need to pad over to what I see as a stone wall and entryway into a world no longer my own. No need for acclimation, for this place in-between where the glamour possesses less of a hold lasts merely ten paces, I scurry forward.

The ravens eye me suspiciously, though maybe my mind is anthropomorphizing. Might ravens actually consider the conduct of mere mortals? Not that I am a mere mortal. The conspiracy stalks my every move, heads rotating in unison as if by a puppeteer’s strings; their beady little eyes boring into my back as I reach for the latch on the iron gate. Once over this threshold, the glamour will fade in its entirety and the outside world will see me as they wish.

“Will you gawk at me all day?” I chide, lifting my cloak over her head. “Shoo now. Be on your merry way.”

The clank of the lock disengaging sends the conspiracy a-flight the sky falling black as the winged mass rises to the heavens before dissipating. Silence follows, not a chirp to be heard as I cross into the other realm and secure the doorway behind me.

An intoxicatingly sweet aroma of honeysuckle and cherry blossoms wraps around me as I turn to see what others see. Colorful arches revealed through wispy willow fingers hang heavy with candy apple fruit. Iridescent winged creatures flit about. Roof shingles reminiscent of icing cascade to trim toasted mouthwatering walls of gingerbread. Beds of not flowers, but gum drops and lollipops, line the windows and walkway of peppermint pavers. If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear the windows formed eyes for the house to watch me. The door, an ‘O’ of surprise.

Can it see the truth? Does it know why I venture out? Breaking eye contact, lest the house learn my secret, I gather my composure, lowering my hood. Oh, I see how the charm draws outsiders in. An oasis in the center of the thick of foreboding forest. The trees rally with me to discourage trespassers. Yet some still venture through the forbidden following the curious creatures in league with the house, their doom written to the ancients for daring to tread too close. Still, the façade actually works against the true nature of the spirit of the home. Instead of warding others off with the peculiarity of such beauty in this desolate land, it encourages curiosity seekers to explore further. And once trapped in its spell, the house disposes of threats as it sees fit.

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.

The Cuckoo Girls, An Interview with Patricia Lillie

Patricia Lillie grew up in a haunted house in a small town in Northeast Ohio. Since then, she has published picture books, short stories, fonts, two novels, and her latest, The Cuckoo Girls, a collection of short stories. As Patricia Lillie, she is the author of The Ceiling Man, a novel of quiet horror, and as Kay Charles, the author of Ghosts in Glass Houses, a cozy-ish mystery with ghosts. She is a graduate of Parsons School of Design and has a MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. She also knits and sometimes purls.

Follow her on Twitter @patricialillie.

Patricia Lillie’s collection of disturbingly beautiful short stories, The Cuckoo Girls, takes on a journey through the darkest parts of the fairy tale forest, into houses haunted by memories as well as ghosts, and reminds us that there is horror in everyday events if we’re willing to peek behind the curtain and allow the madness to seep in. If you haven’t picked up a copy of The Cuckoo Girls, I suggest you do.

GMM: Welcome back to Girl Meets Monster, Patricia. It’s been, what? Two years since your first visit for Fiction Fragments way back in July 2018. You were one of the first writers I featured in that series and since then, you’ve had quite a bit of success. What have you been up to? What are you currently working on? And, what can we look forward to from you?

PL: Wow! That was two years ago? It doesn’t seem like it, which is odd since January of this year feels like ten years ago. As for success—congratulations on Invisible Chains and your Stoker nomination! You should have seen me doing happy dances for you. I take that back. You’re lucky not to have seen me doing happy dances since I’m a klutz. But, do know dances were danced.

What I’ve been up too? A handful of the stories in The Cuckoo Girls were written after the Fiction Fragments piece. As I mentioned there, I had lots of fragments scattered all over my hard drive and I needed to organize them. I did. Which led to some of them turning into stories. Which made me happy—so thank you for setting me on that path.

Aside from that, I have the beginnings of two novels which both keep changing direction. It sometimes takes a while for things to gel with me. I’ve also refilled that fragments folder with more beginnings. I’m evidently good at getting down the first 500–800 words of a story, and sometimes I even know the end, but finding the story that goes in between often takes time. A lot of time. This year, like for many people, hasn’t exactly been conducive to writing, but I’m slowly finding my way back. At least, I hope I am.

GMM: I finished reading The Cuckoo Girls recently and I really enjoyed the collection. I’ve always been able to lose myself in your writing, but there were a few stories that really pulled me in. One of my favorites is “The Robber Bridegroom,” which is a delightfully dark fairy tale about a young woman who is spurned by her family and community because she isn’t as attractive as her younger sister. In fact, she has some sort of deformity that requires her to wear a veil in public. But, she has a secret lover that she meets at night in the forest, and each night he confirms his desire for her even though they know almost nothing about each other beyond their carnal interests. Despite the fact that she suspects that he is dangerous she continues to see him night after night, and even chooses to be his after she finds out the truth about him.

Fairy tales are obviously an influence on your work. Not just this story, but other stories in the collection like “Mother Sylvia.” What is it about fairy tales that draws us back to them again and again? What fairy tales inspired “The Robber Bridegroom”? Which fairy tale was your favorite as a kid? What’s your favorite now? Why?

PL: Thank you—I’m so happy you enjoyed the collection!

I do love fairy tales—or folk tales—but not the idea of “fairy tale” that springs to mind for a lot of people. I didn’t have a favorite fairy tale as a kid. I didn’t dislike them, but none of my favorite stories fell into that definition. I came to love them as an adult when I studied them in conjunction with children’s literature and discovered they weren’t all the happy-ever-after, prettied-up, suitable-for-children stories we’ve come to accept. Oral tradition stories change as they’re told and retold, but some of the greatest changes come when the stories are collected and published. Those changes are often designed to make the stories more palatable to readers.

In the original 1812 edition of the Grimm Brother’s collections, the stepmothers in “Snow White,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and others were biological mothers. The idea of a birth mother planning to slaughter and eat her seven-year-old daughter (Snow White) was culturally abhorrent to the sanctified ideal of motherhood. The bad-mothers were changed to step-mothers in later editions.

Rapunzel and the prince enjoy a “merry time together” resulting in pregnancy, which leads to discovery by the witch. Imagine that in a Disney movie.

At the same time, I discovered stories from cultures beyond the familiar (to me at the time) Western European tradition. As striking as the diversity of these stories is, there’s also a surprising commonality. There are over three-hundred cultural variants (from all over the world) of what we (in our Euro-centric outlook) think of as a Cinderella-story. I’m rambling, but what I’m getting at is the fairy tale tradition is both darker and richer than the “she meets her prince and he is her salvation” idea so many of us were sold. At the same time, many revolve around women. Sometimes they are a prize to be won. Sometimes they are the protagonist. But (at least in the Euro-centric tales) they are often robbed of their agency, either by other characters or by the roles they are expected to fill in family and society. The pressure to be a good girl and find that prince is immense.

“The Robber Bridegroom” uses the main theme from the Brothers Grimm tale of the same name along with elements from Norwegian, British, and other variants of the story. The original story differs from the “meets her prince” fairy tale trope. A young woman escapes from an arranged marriage to a rich man who is not what he appears to be. Which all sort of happens in my story, but as you noted, I took it in another direction. Both of the sisters in my version are expected to fill the role which provides the most value to the family. Because they are female, they’re commodities, and their value is determined by their appearance. Both rebel. It works out well for one of them—because she makes it work out.

GMM: Your stories are often about girls and women who have experienced some form of trauma, or have been given a responsibility that weighs heavily upon them. Where does your inspiration for these characters come from? Do you consider yourself a feminist writer? How much of yourself can be found in the pages of this collection?

PL: When I began to pull this collection together, I was more than a little surprised to discover, “Oh. Hey. There is a theme here.” Where did it come from? Hell if I know. My best guess is from my coming of age during the decades of Second Wave Feminism. It’s hard to imagine now, but I was in high school when women were given the legal right to get credit cards without a man co-signing for them. That’s hardly the only change, but I like to use it as an example because it’s so inconceivable today and it wasn’t that long ago.

Of course, young and optimistic me thought things would continue to get better. Of course, they didn’t. Women’s rights came to a standstill and then moved backwards—as has the fight for equality for POC, LGBTQ people, and anyone who doesn’t fit into the 1950’s standards of power and perfection. It was all supposed to be better by now and it’s not. Life for anyone who doesn’t fit those standards is often a trauma.

As a straight, white, cis woman, the trauma inflicted on women who don’t fit into predetermined roles—or choose not to fill them—is the situation I understand the best. It’s the one I know, and apparently it creeps into my writing. I am a feminist. Am I a feminist writer? I think that’s for others to decide. I always thought I just liked spooky shit.

GMM: The theme of motherhood can be found in many of your stories. Motherhood can be really challenging and sometimes traumatic for many women without the added terror of body horror and supernatural pregnancies. “The Cuckoo Girls”, the first story in this collection, speaks to the horrors associated with pregnancy and motherhood and is an extremely unsettling tale. Why do you think this story is scary? What about pregnancy and motherhood frightens you? Why do you think pregnancy is a trope within the subgenre of body horror?

PL: Pregnancy is terrifying. Another being, nestled and growing inside your body, feeding off you—and at the same time being dependent on you for their life—is bad enough, but add in the pain of giving birth—yeah. Body horror, indeed. My fear of pregnancy is so great, it’s the main reason I’ve never given birth to a child. I have been deeply involved in the raising of a few children, and as wonderful and rewarding as that is, it’s also terrifying. So much responsibility. So much love. So much to gain, but so much to lose if things go wrong. Honestly, parenting is the hardest job a human can take on. I made an active choice not to go through pregnancy and an active choice to be involved in the lives of the children of others. I think the unsettling aspect of “The Cuckoo Girls” is there is no choice. Because motherhood is still a default expectation for women, the lack of choice and lack of control is frightening.

To go back to your previous question, apparently there is a lot of me in these stories. Damn you for making me think so hard. <smiley face here>

GMM: “That’s What Friends Are For” is a great haunted house story with a surprising ending. Have you had any paranormal experiences in your life that inspired this story?

PL: Ha. That story takes place in the house I grew up in. (Seriously. I grew up in a haunted house on the corner of Erie and Elm streets. Explains a lot, doesn’t it?) The bedroom with the closet doors? Mine. The sleepwalking brother who peed in that closet? While not paranormal, also mine. The idea that the unseen residents of the house were simply part of our life and our friends? That’s how we viewed them. Not scary at all.

Long after my parents sold the house, my sister met the then current residents. They were having the same experiences we had. However, they were terrified and convinced the presence was evil. Which made me wonder, what if ghosts are a reflection of how we see them?

GMM: What is your favorite story in this collection and why?

PL: I’m not sure which is my favorite, but I’m fond of “Alyce-with-a-Y” simply because of how it came about. You’ve probably noticed I have a habit of dropping references to Lewis Carroll’s Alice into my writing. I decided to embrace it and use Carroll’s world as the basis of a story. Frankly, I thought maybe doing so would break my Alice habit. I started the story with no real idea where it was going, and I didn’t care. I was writing for fun. I was writing to exorcise Alice. When Alyce showed up, I thought she was someone entirely different than she turned out to be, and she took me on a wild ride all the way to the end. It was a story that just happened. Is it the best story in the book? Probably not. But I had so much fun writing it! (It remains to be seen whether or not the exorcism was successful.)

Thank you so much for inviting me back to Girl Meets Monster! It’s been a blast.

Fiction Fragments: VM Burns

Author PhotoLast week poet B. E. Burkhead dropped by for a visit, and this week V.M. Burns is here to share an unfinished mystery. I say unfinished rather than abandoned, because not only am I hoping to read the finished novel, but Valerie told me she fully intends to finish writing it when she has some time. Of course, she’s a little occupied right now with her three mystery series: The Mystery Bookshop Mystery Series, The RJ  Franklin Mystery Series, and The Dog Club Mystery Series.

I met Valerie in the MFA for Writing Popular Fiction Program at Seton Hill University a few years ago, and we became fast friends during late night conversations where we planned our futures. I learned about raising poodles and a great recipe for sweet potato pie, and Valerie learned WAY more than she ever wanted to about vampires and other spooky stuff. I’m looking forward to seeing Valerie this weekend at Seton Hill’s MFA Alumni weekend.

V.M. Burns was born in Northwestern Indiana. She is a lover of dogs, British historic cozies, and scones with clotted cream. She currently lives in Eastern Tennessee. Her debut novel, The Plot is Murder was nominated for a 2017 Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Readers can learn more by visiting her website at vmburns.com.

Three Questions

Girl Meets Monster: What made you decide to write a mystery inspired by fairytales?

VM Burns: After I completed my thesis novel and Mystery Bookshop series, I struggled to find a home for either series. I slowed down on sending queries and decided to write something fun. I loved watching Once Upon A Time on ABC and thought how fun to combine Fairy Tales with cozy mysteries.

Girl Meets Monster: Aside from time, what stopped you from finishing this project?

VM Burns: My agent isn’t excited about this project. She feels it may be too far out. So, when its done I will need to edit and market it myself which is going to take more time than I have.

Girl Meets Monster: Without giving us any spoilers, do you know how this story ends?

VM Burns: Not yet, but I’m a pantser so this isn’t unusual.

Once Upon A Murder, by VM Burns

Chapter 1

The day I discovered my archenemy dead with one of my brother’s arrows through her heart changed the course of my life forever, and turned my brother into a fugitive. My dreams of happily ever after were shattered and I became a huntress of truth and justice. But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. I’ll start at the beginning.

Once upon a time in the small sea side village of Andersonville, lived a beautiful princess named Boadicea, or ‘Bo’ for short. Well, she wasn’t really a princess, as in someone of royal birth. However, she definitely wore the mantle of privilege and superiority like a robe befitting a royal. Bo was tall and slender with long blonde hair which was thick and curly. Not curly like the thick red, wiry mane that tops my head and frizzes up into a birds nest when it’s humid. Nope. Bo’s hair never frizzes. In fact, the more humid the weather, the curlier her hair becomes. It was magical the way the weather had the exact opposite effect on her than it did on me, but then Bo’s life was charmed. Blue eyes like the sea in the early morning. Skin like butter milk without a zit in sight, she often boasted she’d never had a zit in her twenty-five years. Hard to believe? Truly, I’ve known her my entire life and I’ve never seen her with a blemish or imperfection of any kind. During our teenage years when most girls, myself included resorted to unique makeup diversions and fashion accessories like scarves, hats and veils to hide the red, puss-filled mounds that erupted at the worse possible moments; or the scars and craters that followed. Oh no. Not Bo. She, like Mary Poppins was practically perfect in every way. But, I’m not bitter. Well, maybe a little, but I’m working through it.

“Hey freak.”

Unfortunately, Bo’s obnoxious attitude wasn’t helping. I should be used to her after all these years. Freak, Red-headed Freak, and clown head were the pet names she’d used to address me since grade school. The fact that she had no compunction against shouting them across the village square during the middle of the day while the villagers chuckled and stared at me was another reason bitterness had become my constant companion.

Time taught me ignoring Bo would only make matters worse. Thankfully, the gods only saw fit to crown her with beauty rather than wit. Brains were the only weapon I possessed and in a battle of wits, Bo was ill-equipped for the fight. With a heavy sigh, I turned and faced my opponent.

I bowed low and mumbled, “You screeched your majesty.”

Bo and her entourage, which consisted of her two closest friends, Mary Lamb and Dee Locke (Goldy to her friends) stood in the middle of the market and stared at me as though I smelled of dung. Which might have been true since I had taken a short cut through a couple of fields to get to the market early enough to setup my booth. Darn, I would never be able to sell enough baked goods if I smelled of cow dung. I’d have to get someone to watch my stall and change clothes. Or at the very least, I’d change shoes. But then maybe the scowl on their faces was just their normal pained expression.

“What is that god awful stench?”

Seriously, I want to read the rest of this story.

Next week, Lynn Hortel joins Girl Meets Monster with an unfinished horror story and a few words on why it’s hard to finish projects sometimes. Would you like to be included in this blog series? Comment below, or send me your writing fragments to chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Transformation: My First Tattoo

This weekend I got my first tattoo. This was no impulse body-modification trip to the tattoo shop after too many drinks. I made plans ahead of time with my friend, Dan, to go get tattoos together. Not only did we schedule our sessions a few weeks in advance, but we were both getting tattoos we had contemplated for nearly two decades.

Like myself, Dan is experiencing a time of growth and transition. I won’t go into the details of Dan’s journey, because it isn’t my place to do so. But I will say that his current path has allowed me to gain a treasured friend who is a constant source of strength and inspiration. He insists on showing me a good time when we’re together, and in many ways has gently nudged me to become an even better version of myself. This includes transforming my body through exercise, healthier eating, and now ink.

Dan lives in Pittsburgh, and had gotten his first tattoo from the same artist at Armature Tattoo Co.. First of all, it’s a beautiful shop with lots of interesting artwork on the walls (there’s a mixed media portrait of H. H. Holmes) and on the skin of the four tattoo artists – two men and two women. The shop is well lit, clean, and full of positive energy. I felt comfortable and welcome right away.

Originally, Dan was supposed to get tattooed on Friday night and I was supposed to get tattooed on Saturday night. But when we arrived, the tattoo artist, Jessi, talked to Dan about the fact that his tattoo would need a bit more time for layout and she wanted to suggest some changes to the original design. That meant I was going first. In hindsight, I’m glad things worked out that way, because I didn’t have time to build up any extra fears about getting tattooed. For years, people have been trying to explain what it feels like, but the only way you’re ever going to know is to get one yourself.

Did it hurt? Well, sure. But nothing like I anticipated. I’ve heard people compare getting tattooed to giving birth. Of course, these people have been men who have zero fucking clue what it feels like to have a period, much less the pain associated with labor. I don’t know what that feels like either, because I had a C-section when my son was born. However, I do know what an epidural feels like and the tattoo needle is nowhere near as large a gauge as an epidural needle that gets inserted into the base of your spine.

needle-gauge

To be honest, it was less painful than some of the dental work I’ve had done, and I chose a fleshy part of my body for my first tattoo. There’s quite a bit of blackwork, which was more painful than the line work, but in the hands of a skilled tattoo artist who also has a knack for interesting conversation, the experience was actually pleasant. What really surprised me was the fact that there were certain areas of my skin that felt pleasure in the midst of the pain. My emotional response wavered between joy and catharsis. And, even though the pain wasn’t overly taxing and my session only lasted about 45 minutes, I felt slightly fatigued. I wondered if it was a chemical reaction to continuous pain, regardless of how low-level it was. I mean, was adrenaline being released into my bloodstream in small doses? According to an article on tophealthnews.net, “This Is What Happens To Your Body When You Get A Tattoo!,” I was:

When needles penetrate your body, this is a form of trauma and your body responds in kind. Your Sympathetic Nervous System kicks your fight-or-flight response into gear in response to the pain. The result is a rush of adrenaline.

And, that weird emotional feeling I experienced was probably caused by the release of endorphins.

Endorphins, your body’s natural pain relievers, are also released. These chemicals come directly from the brain, flooding your body. When those endorphins are released, it’s a heady feeling that is sort of intense yet relaxing at the same time.

While fascinating, I wanted to talk less about the science of body chemistry in relation to getting tattooed, and more about why I decided to do it at this point in my life. And, why I chose the image that now decorates my skin.

Like I said, I am not Dan’s publicist, so if you want to know the story behind his tattoo(s), you’ll have to ask him. But, I can show you his before and after pictures from Saturday evening.

You’re probably thinking, “That’s a big fucking tattoo.” And, you’d be right. This first stage of Dan’s tattoo, an artistic spin on Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, took just over 3 hours, and two snacks from the coffee shop up the street, to complete. He has at least one more session to add details to this back piece, but possibly more sessions depending on how detailed he wants the final version to be.

During his 3-hour session, we made jokes about Francis Dolarhyde, the fictional serial killer from Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, since the character has an enormous back piece taken from William Blake’s The Great Red Dragon Paintings. We debated about watching Red Dragon, but settled for the first few episodes of season 1 of “Hannibal”.

So, now that you’re super impressed, and potentially creeped out about Dan’s tattoo, let’s talk about mine.

first-tattoo

I first saw the image in a book of essays that deconstruct the various versions of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale, aptly titled The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood, edited by Jack Zipes. The book is dedicated to the late Angela Carter, one of my writing heroes who happened to write one of my favorite stories about werewolves, “The Company of Wolves.” If you haven’t read it, I strongly suggest that you do. She is famous for her versions of fairy tales, rewritten with an adult audience in mind. If you’re looking for something new to read, and think you might enjoy some erotic literary fairy tales, I’d suggest stopping by your local library and picking up a copy of her collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories.

I found Zipes’ book in the library at Hull University. I was studying abroad through an exchange program during my junior year of college, and lived in Hull, England for a year. While I was there, I started becoming more interested in myths, legends, fairy tales and folktales. About the same time I found Zipes book, I also was introduced to The Morphology of the Folktale, by V. Propp. The next thing I knew I was writing all these papers about rape narratives, and cannibalism, and other sexual taboos in fairy tales. That was nearly 25 years ago.

In that time, the meaning of the image has changed for me. When I first saw the drawing in Zipes’ book, I simply saw a woman being held by a werewolf. Sexy, right? I mean, vampires have their sex appeal, but there’s something deliciously primal about werewolves. Not only is the woman being embraced, rather than ravished in the image, but she appears to be happy about it. In fact, it looked as if she had found peace in his arms.

The original artwork was done by Catherine Orenstein (1990), who later wrote Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale. If you’ve ever read any of my other blog posts, you know that I have a special place in my heart for monsters. In fact, monsters can be extremely sexy. Werewolves embody the aspect of the psyche where our signals sometimes get crossed — fighting, fucking and eating all seem to serve the same purpose in the mind of the werewolf — pleasure-seeking at any cost. And the cost may be your life. But in Orenstein’s image, there’s something different happening. The woman isn’t just being held by the werewolf, she’s accepting it in all of its monstrous glory. If she is in fact accepting the werewolf, that also looks a lot like a shadow or darkness itself, brings to mind the idea of making peace with the darker parts of ourselves. Making peace with our demons.

This isn’t my first attempt at transformation in my life. I’ve been trying to reshape myself since I was 12 years old. Weight gain, loss, and regain has been a constant pattern in my life. A few years ago after I gave birth to my son, I lost 70 pounds on Weight Watchers. During one of my meetings I described myself as having a beast that lives inside me that wants to eat all the time. And, sometimes it gets out and loses control. Not unlike a werewolf. It was at this point that I searched for Orenstein’s drawing, because it had a new meaning. I considered getting it tattooed on my body then, but for some reason never went through with it. That was almost ten years ago.

me-tattoo

Back in April I rejoined WW, and since then I have lost 30 pounds. I’m proud of myself for doing that. And, I have made a commitment to myself to continue my journey. I am learning to accept myself — fat, wrinkles, white hair, and all. And, I am relearning what my body is capable of doing. I started running using the C25K app on my phone. I forgive myself when the scale goes in the opposite direction and shows a gain rather than a loss. I am not perfect. I never will be. And, I’m beginning to understand why that’s so fucking amazing. I love my demons. I embrace them. Make peace with them. And by doing so, I am learning to love myself. Now, when I look at the drawing, I see a woman accepting herself. And now is a perfect time for my skin, the skin I am becoming more comfortable in each day, to tell that story. This tattoo is a reminder of my strength. The progress I’ve made. And the journey yet to come. Of course, there will be days when I still do battle with my darkness, but now I’m going to own it and show it some love.

Fuckable Fictional Characters: The Goblin King

In 1986 I was 14 years old. I was dating a boy who was obsessed with David Bowie. I loved Bowie’s music and I must admit that I found him rather attractive in an androgynous and theatrical way. I always thought of him as a fictional character, which in many ways I think was his goal. When you continually reinvent yourself and write songs that talk about space and magic and love that consumes you like a fire, you’re bound to attract a following with an interest in speculative fiction. So, this boy and I were both into Bowie for similar reasons and when we discovered that he would be playing a villain in Jim Henson’s film about magic and unrequited love, Labyrinth, we were thrilled shitless.

I saw the film 3 times in the theater. Once with the boy, and two more times by myself. I have no idea how many times I watched it once it became available on cable, but let’s just say that I watched it enough times to freak out my 9-year-old by reciting almost all of the lines by heart when I showed it to him around the holidays.

If you’ve never seen this film, um…where the hell have you been? If it’s been a long time since you’ve watched it, schedule a family movie night right now. This flick has something for everyone and appeals to people of all ages. I mean what’s not to love? David Bowie AND Muppets. You can’t lose.

February 18: Jareth, the Goblin King

david-bowie-in-labyrinth

IMDb’s synopsis of Labyrinth is short and to the point: “A selfish 16-year old girl is given 13 hours to solve a labyrinth and rescue her baby brother when her wish for him to be taken away is granted by the Goblin King.” Okay, I realize that is what most people see as the plot of this story. Especially children who are showing up for Muppets. But there’s much more going on in this film.

labyrinth-jareth-clock

Now imagine him traveling through space in a blue police box.

Jareth, the Goblin King does steal Sarah’s (she’s the selfish 16-year-old) baby brother in order to turn him into a goblin. We can only guess that this is where all of the goblins who live in his castle in Goblin City came from, which if you think about it, makes him a kind of dad to these creatures. And a kidnapper. I did say he was a villain. But aside from stealing babies and tormenting teen girls with palpable sexual tension, he really isn’t a bad guy. Actually, he’s just lonely and kind of weird.

bowie-baby

Is there room on that lap for me?

Sarah is a spoiled little bitch who hates to babysit her infant brother. All outward appearances tell us she comes from a nice home, has access to a good education, is obsessed with fairy tales, well one book in particular, and like most teen girls, she thinks her problems are bigger than anyone else’s. We also get the feeling that there’s no special fella in her life. She’s really into this fantasy world she’s created for herself, and even though she’s 16, she doesn’t appear to be thinking about boys much. Well, that is until she meet’s Jareth.

Entrance

When a wizard dressed like this flirts with you in your bedroom, you ask him to spend the night.

She recognizes him almost immediately and is a bit star-struck, but comes back to her senses when she realizes that this stunningly gorgeous wizard-looking dude has stolen the baby she’s supposed to be looking after.

She accepts his challenge to complete his labyrinth and save her brother, but what she doesn’t hear is the subtext. The entire time she’s trying to complete this task, he will attempt to distract her and possibly woo her into staying in Goblin City with him. I mean he has all those goblin children, now all he needs is a bride. A teen bride who is at least half his age if he were mortal, but who the hell knows how old Jareth really is. For me, this is when the story got really interesting, because I learned something about my 14-year-old self. I learned that older men who want to establish romantic relationships with teen girls aren’t just a bit scary, but super hot. What can I say? I like perverts.

Older-Men

Honestly, most of his distractions seem like foreplay and confessions of devotion. Using one of his magical crystal balls (yes, he has magical balls) and a poisoned piece of fruit (he isn’t above using roofies) he transports Sarah to a dream world where he holds a masquerade ball. I’m sorry, but if Jareth held a masquerade ball in my honor, the only reason I’d be thinking about the labyrinth would be to figure out where we could screw.

Speaking of magical balls, his crotch is practically a character in the film. Go ahead, Google David Bowie + Labyrinth + crotch. You’ll be busy for at least 30 minutes. Seriously, David Bowie’s crotch in Labyrinth has its own pop culture following.

See, I wasn’t making that shit up.

Want

Hell yeah!

I’m sorry. What was I saying? Oh yeah. Jareth, the Goblin King is Hellbent on getting Sarah to forget about her baby brother and become his queen instead. You know, for someone who seems pretty smart and reads a lot, she doesn’t seem to be catching the drift of what Jareth is proposing. And if she is, but has no interest in returning his affection, then she’s just plain stupid.

Slice

I’d like to take a big bite.

But here’s the thing. He makes it pretty clear that he wants her. And he tries to be patient waiting for her to catch up, but all she does is run away and complain about her predicament.

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Show some gratitude!

She doesn’t seem to appreciate all the trouble he’s gone to in order to create this adventure through the labyrinth that he’s hoping will lead to his bed. Or dungeon.

Riding-Crop

Holy shit, that’s a riding crop!

All she wants to do is bitch about how unfair her life is and the fact that he isn’t playing fair. Hello! Villain!

Fair

Seriously, Sarah. Open your eyes. He isn’t asking for much.

fear-me-love-me

OMFG, where do I find this man?!

Yes, some of his methods are a bit deceptive and he’s quite a bit older than her. But, he does try to warn her not to follow him at the beginning of the tale.

Turn-Back

Sorry. Couldn’t hear you over the sound of my ovaries exploding.

What teen-aged girl in her right mind who is waking up to the reality of her sexual nature would walk away from this man?

Stars

See, she’s hurt his feelings.

He’s a king. With a castle. Who knows magic. And wants to bonk your brains out. So what if he lives at the center of a labyrinth that seems vaguely similar to where the Cenobites hang out? I’m sure Jareth has some pretty amazing sights to show you, too.

Eventually, he gets fed up with her saying no.

Exhausted

He’s a reasonable Goblin King. He wants a child bride to shower with affection as long as she does what she’s told. And, if she’s naughty, he might give her a spanking. We can only hope. But despite his efforts, she chooses rescuing her brother and returning to her normal boring-ass life. I can remember sitting in the theater and thinking that she was out of her mind.

Bitch-Please

But what the hell I did I know? I’ll tell you what I knew then and know now. Magic like he’s offering only comes along once in a lifetime if ever. So, I’ll say it again. If a wizard shows up in your bedroom and flirts with you, invite him to stay for the night. Go on, have a little happily ever after.

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Good fairy tales are about inappropriate sex with strangers.