Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Sumiko Saulson

This past Friday, I chatted with Nicole Givens Kurtz, one of the first recipients of the Horror Writers Association’s Diversity Grants. Today, Girl Meets Monster welcomes another Diversity Grant recipient, Sumiko Saulson. Sumiko provided me with multiple versions of hir bio and there is so much interesting information in each one that I felt like using only one would somehow rob you of knowing all the cool shit ze has done and is doing. As a woman of color who writes speculative fiction that often crosses the lines of genre and gives my readers a glimpse into my various parts that make up the whole, I can completely respect and wish to honor all aspects and intersectionalities of a fellow woman of color who writes horror.

So…here are all the bios Sumiko sent me. Bask in the glory of hir muliplicities.

50 Words
Sumiko Saulson is a cartoonist; horror, sci-fi and dark fantasy writer/blogger; editor of Black Magic Women and 100 Black Women in Horror. Author of Solitude, Warmth, Moon Cried Blood, and Happiness and Other Diseases. Author/Illustrator of Mauskaveli, Dooky, Dreamworlds and Agrippa, writes for Search Magazine and the San Francisco Bayview Newspaper.

100 Words
Sumiko Saulson is a cartoonist, science-fiction, fantasy and horror writer, editor of Black Magic Women, Scry of Lust and 100 Black Women in Horror Fiction, author of Solitude, Warmth, The Moon Cried Blood, Happiness and Other Diseases, Somnalia, Insatiable, Ashes and Coffee, and Things That Go Bump In My Head.  She wrote and illustrated comics Mauskaveli, Dooky andgraphic novels Dreamworlds and Agrippa. She writes for the SEARCH Magazine and the San Francisco Bayview column Writing While Black.  The child of African American and Russian-Jewish parents, a native Californian and an Oakland resident who’s spent most of her adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is pansexual, polyamorous and genderqueer (nonbinary).

100 Words (but different)
Sumiko Saulson is an award-winning author of Afrosurrealist and multicultural sci-fi and horror. Ze is the editor of the anthologies and collections Black Magic WomenScry of LustBlack Celebration, and Wickedly Abled. Ze is the winner of the 2016 HWA StokerCon “Scholarship from Hell”, 2017 BCC Voice “Reframing the Other” contest, and 2018 AWW “Afrosurrealist Writer Award.”

Ze has an AA in English from Berkeley City College, and writes a column called “Writing While Black” for a national Black Newspaper, the San Francisco BayView. Ze is the host of the SOMA Leather and LGBT Cultural District’s “Erotic Storytelling Hour.”

150 Words
Sumiko Saulson is a science-fiction, fantasy and horror writer and graphic novelist. She was the 2016 recipient of the Horror Writer Association’s Scholarship from Hell, and 2018 winner of the Afrosurrealist Writers Workshop Short Story Award. Sumiko Saulson is a cartoonist, science-fiction, fantasy and horror writer, editor of Black Magic Women, Scry of Lust and 100 Black Women in Horror Fiction, author of Solitude, Warmth, The Moon Cried Blood, Happiness and Other Diseases, Somnalia, Insatiable, Ashes and Coffee, and Things That Go Bump In My Head.  She wrote and illustrated comics Mauskaveli, Dooky andgraphic novels Dreamworlds and Agrippa. She writes for the SEARCH Magazine and the San Francisco Bayview column Writing While Black.  The child of African American and Russian-Jewish parents, a native Californian and an Oakland resident who’s spent most of her adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is pansexual, polyamorous and genderqueer (nonbinary).

Ten Questions

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

SS: I have three works in progress. The one I am currently focused on is Akmani, which is the fourth book in my paranormal romance / horror erotica series Somnalia, which begins with Happiness and Other Diseases. I promised Mocha Memoirs Press, publisher of my anthology Black Magic Women (and another anthology I am in, SLAY: Tales of the Vampire Noire) the first option on it when it is completed. It’s about 85% there at this point. I also have a manuscript for Disillusionment, the sequel to my first novel, a sci-fi horror story called Solitude, about 75% complete, but that one is tabled for now. And finally, I have a file I put all of my poetry in (I write quite a lot of it, on my blog and social media) which is called “Emotional Side Chicks.”

Horror is definitively my primary genre, but I do a lot of crossover into other genres that are combined with horror. Sci-fi horror, monster porn, paranormal romance and horror erotica are some of those, and my Afrosurrealism and Afrofuturism tends to be dark and essentially horror. I have a significant amount of erotica in my short story portfolio now, and some of it isn’t horror, but is fantasy, or sci-fi erotica. Poetry is the only genre I work in which isn’t usually horror flavored, as I am a beat or spoken word poet. However, I do have a poem in the current Horror Writers Association Poetry Showcase.

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?

SS: I started out as a poet and a journalist, and hadn’t completed any short stories or novels. I was a published poet as a teenager, and showcased as an upcoming beat poet in the San Francisco Chronicle at the age of twenty. So, the first short story I submitted anywhere was to Phantasmagoria when I was eighteen. They sent it back and said we would love to see more work from you, but this is suspense, not horror. I had sent it to four magazines but only they wrote back. I was easily discouraged and didn’t try again for a long time. I had a half written sci-fi horror novel that I never finished when I was twenty-five called The Chain. I think I tried writing things that weren’t horror, and it just didn’t work.

On my first novel I just gave up on the idea of writing anything other than horror, or trying to not sound derivative because I had consumed so much Stephen King that his voice was ingrained in my mind. So I finished Solitude and was bummed out when Under the Dome (the book, not the television show) came out and I saw that the time bubbles in my book were similar sounding to his dome. They were written at the same time, so it was almost like I had gotten so influenced by him that I was mind reading. Well… after the first book I got really good at having a distinct voice, and you gotta start somewhere.

The more I felt that my voice as an African American was important, the more that I felt my voice as a disabled author was important, the more I had a distinctive voice.

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?

SS: I think that Victorian era horror, Gothic horror, which is at the root of modern horror, is filled with white voices othering people of color, and then expressing fear that the people they oppressed would come back to destroy them. Consequently, American Gothic horror was filled with slaves cursing white people, Native Americans cursing white people, etc. British Gothic horror was filled with curses by Egyptians, East Indians, and people from Romania who had been oppressed by the Empire or the Church. Black horror switches the focus to us, so instead of it being about how we want revenge for all of the horrible things done to us… it is about how horrible things done to us were. Even in Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” where the house is haunted by the child Sethe killed, the visceral horror of the institution of slavery is cloying, overwhelming, and more horrific than the ghost. Sethe’s terrible deed was done to save her child from slavery.

The institution of slavery itself was the stuff of nightmares, I believe, is what Tananarive Due is saying. The horror of our ancestors being stolen from Africa, the heinous deaths aboard the overcrowded slave ships where we were treated like chattel, and the abuse at the hands of the slave owners and slave hunters.  Then, the abuse continued during the Reconstruction, during segregation, through Jim Crow laws, and voter suppression, the birth to prison pipelines, racial profiling, and police brutality.

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?

SS: My horror stories almost universally have broader messages about identity, class, racism, disability, and/or queerness. I don’t think that I personally can easily divorce myself from that narrative when I set out to write a story, but I do think that, in general, writers of color have the ability to write outside of those parameters. I was in a horror writing contest that HorrorAddicts put on, called “The Next Great Horror Writer” contest back in 2017. The runner up, Naching T. Kassa, was able to turn in several excellent horror stories that HorrorAddicts loved. They do not like political horror. That’s a fact. I got sixth place, but the more political my horror has become, the more rejection letters they send me. They probably have more people applying, but the rejection letters express their distaste for political horror. However, some of the most powerful work by authors of color addresses these issues. Toni Morrison refused to stop writing for Black audiences, and frankly, so do I. I have had to find markets that want political horror. Let someone else write for the ones who don’t.

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

SS: Candyman is my favorite horror movie. I am so jazzed for the new Jordan Peele one. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Bones (yes, that Snoop Dog movie), Dawn of the Dead, and Queen of the Damned (even though I know Anne Rice hates it, so hopefully she won’t read this interview). Novels – gosh, so basic. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Steven King’s The Stand, again Anne Rice’s Queen of the Damned, Toni Morrison’s Sula, and Mark Helprin’s A Winter’s Tale. Please don’t tell me you don’t think all of those are horror novels, because I am not trying to hear that. The movie that scared me the most was a sci-fi movie, The Planet of the Apes, the original one. I had terrible nightmares about it as a child. Apocalyptic themes frighten me the most, so naturally, The Stand was the scariest of those books, although, The Bluest Eye was also terrifying.

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?

SS: I think that own-voices are really important, but I know that I am not the only Black horror fan who swooned the minute Akasha showed up in Anne Rice’s Queen of the Damned. My love affair with Akasha still has not ended. Even though I love Akasha, it was many years later before Black vampires who weren’t villains showed up in the Vampire Chronicles.  Also, it took years for her to write dark skinned characters who weren’t supernaturally faded by vampirism.

Stephen King’s treatment of African American characters in The Stand was horrific. He martyred two different major Black characters in a book about the near-end of humanity, and didn’t even bother to show any Black children being born. It creates a creepy inference that all of the Black folks have died off. After many letters from concerned fans, Stephen King started writing stories where the martyring of Black folks came to an end, but there were other issues. Don’t even get me started with Bag of Bones… the black characters in that book are totally objectified, go through horrendous things, and yet are vilified, othered, and made into a backdrop for a story about a four year old white Last Girl.

My advice to white writers telling BIPOC stories is to try to avoid tokenizing. If there is only one Black person, and only one Latina, then if one or both end up dead, or as a villain, then you have no heroic person or even neutral person in that role. A diversity of different kinds of characters of any given race makes it more likely that you will have at least one sympathetic character in that demographic.

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?

SS: Oh gosh, I am having it right now. I have been putting out tons of short stories, but haven’t managed to finish a new novel since 2015. The more political my short story writing has become, the more I worry about potentially problematic things in my novels, which are mostly multicultural and take place in urban settings. I just wrote when I first started, and didn’t second guess myself as much. Now I am like, “Oh wait, I am writing about people who are different than me – did I do it right?”

My experience with impostor syndrome is that the fastest way to get past it is to set aside perfectionism. Sometimes I pick up a book I was told is terrible that got published, and read it and tell myself that I suck less than that. Then I tell myself that all of an author’s books aren’t masterpieces, and it is okay to write a book that isn’t Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. In fact, if none of my books are ever as good as Toni Morrison, that will be okay. I am a horror writer. Then I pick up a really crappy Stephen King book like The Tommyknockers and remind myself of how many mediocre books he has put out. And yet, I am a fan.

GMM: Do you write about characters who share as many intersectionalities as you do? Did it take you a while to develop the confidence needed to tell their stories, or did you simply write the stories you needed to tell without worrying about what other people might think? Have you experienced any backlash for the stories you write?

SS: I am half Black and half Ashkenazi Jewish, am a non-binary femme who is woman-identified, am mentally ill and pansexual. Some of my characters have as many intersectionalities, but not all of them. The protagonist in “The Moon Cried Blood” is a thirteen year old biracial Black/Mexican girl, and the protagonist in “Happiness and Other Diseases” and “Somnalia” is a biracial Chinese/Hawaiian man. There are tons of queer characters in the Somnalia universe, which is based on Greco-Roman mythology. The Roman pantheon was queer as all get out.

I have a few trans and gender noncomforming characters, and X’ashia, the alien in Solitude and Disillusionment is a major one. He is composed of multiple subatomic creatures, and although he is biologically agender (because he procreates through cellular division), he shapeshifts a bunch and eventually acquires a gender identity, as male. There is a transman in“Insatiable but he is not a major character. Flynn Keahi, the main character in “Somnalia,” shapeshifts into a leopard who is female.  Angelo and Shiela are two people who share a body in a three-story arc in the “Scierogenous” anthology – both of them African American. They are a technologically created system. A chip was implanted in Shiela’s brain, which created a new person, Angelo, for a companion. Although they are sexually involved with each other, both are primarily attracted to men.

People in the African American community of writers and in the Horror community have both been very supportive, so not a lot of backlash there. Early in my career, I had a handful of cisgender white men I knew from my twenties get drunk and come at me for trying to write. Trust me they all think they are liberal. One of them drunkenly rage-posted about how women can’t write horror until I blocked him on Facebook. Another bought one of my early self-pubs and then drunkenly rage-posted about there being typos. I have also had to deal with micro aggressive behavior at conventions.

GMM: Tell me about the “Erotic Storytelling Hour.” What’s the backstory of how it began and how have you had a hand in making it a reality?

SS: The Erotic Storytelling Hour is run by the San Francisco Leather and LGBT Cultural District. Our Cultural District is in the South of Market neighborhood in San Francisco, California. We are the world’s first LEATHER & LGBTQ Cultural District. The Cultural District was created by a resolution unanimously passed by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on May 1, 2018 and signed by the Mayor on May 9, 2018. We will have a Cultural Center there in the future, so this is literally bigger than me.

I have been very active in the local leather community since 2015, but did not become involved with the SF Leather District organization until after the pandemic last year.  The original host, Bicoastal Beth, moved to the East Coast. I was a regular participant there, both as an attendee and as a reader. I had no idea they were considering me until they offered me the position. My boss, Cal Callaghan, actually took over Bicoastal Beth’s position as the District Manager. He said he wasn’t an entertainment type, and asked them to hire a separate person to host it. 

Now, Cal and a very active board member, David Hyman, co-host the Erotic Storytelling Hour (ESTH) with me. Cal and David are behind the scenes running technical aspects of the Zoom call, and David makes announcements for the SF Leather Cultural District. The purpose of the ESTH is to support the members of the Cultural District, so every week we have four community readers and one feature. The feature is usually a name in the Leather community, such as a Leather titleholder, someone who runs community spaces or meetups, or someone who runs safe spaces for marginalized groups within our community. Sometimes the feature is an erotica author. People who attend virtually are a part of our community, as well as people who live here, and people who visit the Cultural District when they are in town. The event also serves to broaden awareness of our historical Cultural District as a tourist destination for people in the Leather community worldwide.

Part of my role and responsibilities is to help ensure that we have a diversity of readers. Because San Francisco’s Leather Heritage District was initially established by predominately white cisgender gay men, this includes making sure that ethnically diverse kinksters, and other members of the LGBTQ Leather District community such as trans, nonbinary, lesbian, bisexual… pretty much any queer person who isn’t a white cisgender gay man… get to read. Straight kinky people are also a part of the leather community.

GMM: What advice would you give to new writers who occupy more than one identity and embody the intersectionalities of race, class, ethnicity, disability, gender, sexuality, etc.? If you could go back in time, would it be the same advice you would give yourself as a novice writer?

SS: If I could go back in time, I think that, as a novice writer, I would have done some things differently. I didn’t find out about Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward’s “Writing the Other” until after I was well into my novel writing career. I have since become more aware of the fact that a person, while being a minority at many intersectionalities, can still be writing the other. I had some inkling, because I talked to my cousin, Heather, who is a quarter Hawaiian (a really big deal, since Europeans brought diseases to Hawaii that wiped out a lot of the native population) about a lot of things that went into the Somnalia series. Especially Book Three, Insatiable, which takes place in Hawaii, where I lived for seven years. Flynn Keahi, the protagonist of the series, is Hawaiian and Chinese and was raised by a Hawaiian single mother. Asking people to give you perspective on the characters that are unlike you is a good idea, even if you have no one available to do a sensitivity read.

Things I did actually do as a new writer that I would suggest, include getting involved in writers’ groups. I was in school at Berkeley City College, where I got a lot of advice from teachers and critiques from student peers that were useful. I started a Black Women’s Writing Group with a fellow student, and joined another Women Writer’s Group that was not exclusively, but predominantly, Black. As a disabled author, I got a lot of support from the disabled student’s services, and I also joined WryCrips, a disabled women’s writing and theater group. I was not out as a nonbinary person at that time. I started a Writing Group for kinksters after I came out as nonbinary. There were a lot of transpeople and queer folks of every ilk in it. It is good to have both mainstream (such as educational) and community writing spaces, in my opinion. 

I am a firm believer in completing your first draft before getting perfectionist and hyper self-critical. It is a difficult lesson for a lot of first-time writers. You need to complete a first draft in a timely manner to avoid having a metric shit-ton of consistency and chronology errors. While you are sitting there, re-writing the same sentence fifty times, you are losing momentum on your plot points. Rewrites can occur during editing, and the flow is sometimes more critical than the perfect turn of phrase. 

Get other eyes on it after you finish your rough draft. Other eyes during the writing of the first draft, that I choose, are much less critical than the ones I choose to allow to help me after the first draft is done. Hypercritical people during the writing of the first draft give me pretender’s syndrome and writer’s block.

“The Calico Cat” by Sumiko Saulson

“Don’t bring that thing in the house!” his mother shouted, as Joe slipped in the door after three p.m., a raggedy patchwork shadow at his feet. The cat, which couldn’t have weighed more than five pounds, had been following him since he walked off his school playground four blocks back.

“Aw, mommy, why?” he cried. “I was hoping to keep her. Can I keep her?” The cat was too thin. Her patchy fur was infested with angry fleas that bit his ankles when she rubbed up against them, begging for a pet. She wasn’t very pretty, but she was so sweet. She… he knew it was a she because calicoes are almost always female… already acted like he was her human.

“Out, you damned flea-bitten mangy mongrel!” Mom screamed. Could the cat understand English? She hissed at his mother, orange eyes blazed like campfire blazing.

“Come on, Mom!” Joe begged, but to no avail. Mom came running for the door, straw broomstick in hand.  He jumped out of the way so she wouldn’t hit him with it on her way to the cat. She swatted madly at the calico, who responded by hissing, back arched like a Halloween decoration. Her claws dug into the pine stick, but to no avail. His mother struck the cat firmly in the hindquarters, and it skittered out into the yard.

“Mom’s right…” his older brother Stan whispered with a haunted look in his eyes. “We don’t want a cat in here, not that cat, anyhow.”

Joe wondered what was bothering Stan, but his older brother wouldn’t tell.

The next night, the calico showed up in his back window at dinnertime, meowing and begging to be let in or fed.

“Don’t feed it!” his father warned. The boy ignored him, and snuck table scraps to the calico at the back door. The calico licked her slender, black lips in anticipation as he offered her a strip of bacon. She must have been starving. She leapt up and nipped his wrist with her tiny fangs so hard that it bled. 

“Told you so!” his dad said, shaking his head. “Those things are dangerous.” The boy yelled at the cat, and she skittered over the back fence, disappearing.

 “Why are you afraid of cats?” Joe asked his father.

“Doesn’t she look familiar?” Dad asked him.

“She does,” Joe admitted. “But all cats kind of look alike, don’t they?”

“That’s one of your grandmother’s cats,” Dad told him. “She had about four of them, all but this one black. Last year, she died of a heart attack. We were shocked when we got home and found all four cats eating her corpse.”

“My goodness!” Joe shrieked. “Eating her?”

“Eating her face right off,” Dad nodded. “That one right there is named Amanda. She was eating your grandmother’s eyeball like she thought it was a mouse. And the smell… just awful.”

“Smell? How long was grandmother dead?” Joe asked. “Maybe they were just hungry.”

“Like hell!” Mom yelled. “Those cats are evil. Vile, plotting little things, they are, wicked! And she had the audacity to leave this house to them in her will.”

“She left everything to them,” Dad laughed. “Her lawyers probably think those cats still are living here and we’re giving them all the money. Fat chance of that!”

His brother Stan looked spooked. “Why don’t you tell Joe the truth?” Stan demanded. “Grandma was a witch. She left the house to those cats because they’re her familiars. That’s why they hate mom and dad. And they’ve been trying to get into the house ever since!”

“That’s crazy,” Joe said. But he wasn’t so sure. He’d been away at summer camp when Grandma died. When he came back, they’d moved into this nice house. They used to live in a trailer before that. No one explained where the house came from until now.

“The calico was their leader,” Stan insisted. “You’ll find out.”

Joe had terrible nightmares that night. Amanda had gotten into the house, along with three other cats, all of them black. She chased him to the bedroom, but he pushed her out and locked the door. He climbed into the bed, and hid under the sheets, but he couldn’t sleep. There were terrible screams coming out of the other rooms in the house.

The next morning, he got up and went down to breakfast, but no one was there.

“Mom?”  he called out. Joe walked through the house looking for her, but didn’t find her. When he went to his parent’s bedroom, and opened the door, they weren’t inside. Instead, there were two black cats, sleeping in their bed.

He walked down to his brother’s room, and opened the door. There was a black kitten sitting on his bed.

Thinking he missed them, he walked back down to the kitchen. There, he saw a strange woman. Her black, orange, and white hair was up in a bouffant hairdo. It reminded him of the cat’s fur.

“Hello, Joe…” she purred. “My name is Amanda. I’ve come to take back what is mine.”

“But you’re a cat,” Joe said, his jaw dropping as he took a seat so he wouldn’t fall down.

“I am a witch,” she informed him. “I am your grandmother’s sister. You know, all of our family members can turn into cats. Too bad your no-good parents didn’t know that before they tried to steal my inheritance.”

Joe looked down and saw a bowl of cereal sitting on the table in front of him. In a state of shock, he began to eat it without thinking. He tried not to imagine his grandmother’s sister eating her eyeball while he was doing it.

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 Friday!

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: Rena Mason

Last week, I had an interesting discussion with veteran horror writer Amy Grech on writing horror while female. If you missed it, go check out her post.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes two-time Bram Stoker Award winning writer Rena Mason to talk about her writing journey and her service to the horror writing community.

Rena Mason is the Bram Stoker Award® winning author of The Evolutionist and The Devil’s Throat, as well as a 2014 Stage 32 /The Blood List Search for New Blood Quarter-Finalist. She’s had nearly two dozen short stories, novelettes, and novellas published in various award-winning anthologies and magazines and writes a monthly column.

For more information visit her website: www.RenaMason.Ink
or follow her at:
Facebook: rena.mason
Twitter: @RenaMason88
Stage 32: Rena Mason
Instagram: rena.mason

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Rena. I’ve been waiting to have you as a guest for a while and I’m glad we were able to get together. Before we jump into talking about your fragment and your writing in general, I wanted to ask you a little bit about your involvement in the Horror Writers Association. In 2019 you received the Richard Laymon President’s Award. Can you tell us about the different roles and responsibilities you’ve had or are currently performing in the HWA, and why this award is such an honor? Have you won any other awards for your service within the organization? When did you first become a member of the HWA and when did you decide to become a more active member of the community? What advice would you give others on how to become more active within the community?

RM: I’m honored to be among the authors you’ve had on Girl Meets Monster. Thank you for having me, Michelle. I’d finished my first novel, which wasn’t The Evolutionist, in 2009 and didn’t know where to go from there or what I needed to do in order to get it published, or even if it was publishable, so I started Googling and then attended writer events, the first being the Pacific Northwest Writers Association event. It was a strange experience, and even though I enjoyed it and learned a bit, I didn’t feel it was exactly right for me. Huge crowd, and not a very diverse one. There was well over a thousand people there. One lady sat next to me, looked at my badge that had Sci-Fi and Horror printed on it and then she got up and left. I glanced at her badge before she bolted—Romance. I know not all romance writers behave that way, but for a very new writer at her very first writing convention of any kind, I’ll admit that stung a bit and has stuck with me since. Long story short, I finally got to a horror writer event. KillerCon was my first in the genre and after that first one, I volunteered to work registration at the next few because I thought that would be the best way to meet people and remember their names. It worked for the most part, although I’m still terrible at remembering names. After deciding these were fellow genre lovers and friendlier folks, I started attending other horror events and was encouraged to join the HWA by people I’d met. I volunteered to work registration and more at their events as well, but after the events were over it was hard to stay in touch with my new writer friends and meet more new ones (I was very new to social media then and am still not very good at it), so I thought volunteering within the organization would help get me more comfortable in this whole new writing world I knew nothing about. I’ve made so many wonderful, lifelong friends in the horror community that they’ve become more like my family. It has meant a lot to me both personally and to my growth as a writer and I wanted to return that in some way, and that’s why I volunteered and have worked so hard over the years alongside so many others, and I’m proud of what we accomplished together. I think I became an HWA Supporting member around 2010 and volunteered to do data entry as the Compiler, and then became head of that department after a couple years, and then I was asked to become one of the awards chairs, finishing my 9+ years serving on the awards committee in 2019. The Richard Laymon Award is a volunteer service award given by the current President of the HWA for “exemplary service and dedication to the organization.” I also received the Silver Hammer Award in 2014, which is another service award given to volunteers who do a “massive amount of work, often behind the scenes.” The organization is always reaching out for volunteers. Whether you’re serving as a mentor or a juror, they’re great ways to meet other people in the community. Attending the events, and volunteering to work them, and volunteering to work in organizations, was and is a great way to network and best of all, make friends.

GMM: When you began your writing career, did you always envision yourself as a horror writer or did you have other goals in mind? What was the first horror story you wrote, and what inspired it? As a woman of color writing horror, have you encountered any obstacles along your journey of becoming an established writer? If so, how did you overcome them?

RM: Being such a big fan of horror and dark sci-fi and fantasy, I knew that whatever I wrote, it would be dark and have horror woven throughout. I started out writing what I enjoy, and that hasn’t changed. The first horror story I ever wrote was a dark fantasy. I was inspired to write it by something my mom had said after my younger sister died in a car accident. And no, I won’t say what it was, but it wasn’t anything bad. I’ll get back to finishing that story one of these days. It’s a very personal story and I wasn’t ready to write it before, but I’m getting there. If there were any obstacles in my becoming an established horror writer, I can’t list any specifically that are related to my being a woman of color that I’m aware of. Any obstacles I felt I overcame were because of my writing and where I was at in my writing career.

GMM: Your excerpt reminded me of some of the experiences the protagonist in Octavia Butler’s Kindred has when she finds herself in the past and has no idea how she’s gotten there. The idea of waking up to discover physical evidence on your body from something you thought was part of a nightmare really is terrifying. Without too many spoilers, can you tell us what’s happening to your protagonist? Did actual events inspire this story? Were you influenced by the work of any other writers?

RM: Kindred is such an amazing story. The way Butler moved Dana and Kevin through time and the way time itself was a changeable character in the story with so many deep and rich layers. I’m smiling ear to ear that you mention my excerpt reminded you of some of the experiences. In my story “Of Earth and Bone” the main character, Qieng, was sent to assay an abandoned and crumbling part of the Great Wall in the desert for a future tourist site possibility. In his gut Qieng knows it’s a punishment for having an affair with his commanding officer’s wife. In his gut Qieng knows he’ll likely die there. In the heat, with his water supply dwindling, he finds himself back in time to when they were building the Great Wall. He’s one of the workers, being treated the way those who built the wall were abused. When he returns to the present time, he records what he’s seen in his journal. What happens to him in the end is karmic in that he was not an innocent character. His journal, which has in essence become his spirit, is able to exact its revenge. A lot of Chinese stories and folktales end this way, everyone dies/no one wins, to keep balance, and I know that has a huge influence on my writing. I think everyone I’ve ever read from nonfiction to fiction has had an influence on me that I interpret in my own way on the page. This has been fun. Thanks again for having me.

Excerpt from “Of Earth and Bone” in the anthology The Forsaken: Stories of Abandoned Places published by Cemetery Dance in 2017.

“Get up, dog! No sleeping. Only work. Bring those rocks over there!”

Clouded in a sleep haze, I looked up at a man standing over me, yelling and pointing. The bright sun behind him shadowed his face.

“What?” I said.

The man raised his arm then brought it down. A hard, sharp sting struck my shoulder. I scrambled onto my feet.

“You heard me,” the man said. “Now get moving or I’ll have the other dogs put you between mud and stone!”

A crack, then another surge of pain through my arm as the man whipped me again. Worn and beaten men trudged past in lines behind the one with the whip. Hunched over they carried large stones and bramble. I hurried in the direction from where they came.

My tent had vanished. The wall section appeared crude and low. Men moved their loads to the north end.

“Hey you,” I said to one of the workers walking past. The man kept his head down and rushed on. Everyone else ignored me or turned away if I approached.

Sun seared the bleeding lashes on my arm and shoulder, slowly cauterizing them, cooking the split wounds open. My white uniform shirt had already browned from the previous day’s digging. The green trousers I wore had powdery tan dirt coating them. Everything worn and raggedy. But my boots and socks…where were they? Had I taken them off when I laid down to rest? I couldn’t remember.

Hot ground burned my bare feet from below and the sun’s rays heated everything above. Any sweat from exertion evaporated too quickly to cool my body. How could these men work in the high heat of day?

By the time I got to the front of the line, I’d had two dizzy spells. A haggard man handed me a large rock and a dried branch of saxaul. Blood in various stages of drying stained what remained of his shredded clothing.

“What’s your name?” the man said.

“I’m Major Qieng—”

“Shush. Speak no more.” The man looked around, lowering his voice to a whisper. “Don’t tell anyone else you’re a soldier. They’ll treat you worse. Believe me, I know. My village rose up against Emperor Wu, and now I’m the only one left. I’m Niu.”

“Emperor Wu? From the Han Dynasty?”

“He’s Han, yes. I’ve never heard of dynasty, though. Is that a new place?”

“What? No.” I thought for a moment on my history lessons.

“It was Wu’s armies that destroyed my village and brought anyone still alive here. Every day since I’ve watched my neighbors and family members die, their bodies used to build up the old wall.”

“Old wall?”

“You two!” The work master stood above them and shouted down.

Niu flinched and shoved the rock and tree branch into me. “Take these and follow the others. Look busy when Feng comes around. He’s heavy-handed with the crop.”

Thinking it lighter, I armed the wood using my injured side. It weighed me down nearly as much as the stone. The course bark of the sauxal and abrasive rock tore through my shirt and scraped my skin.

As I walked in line and kept pace with the others over hot ground, I raised my eyes. Barren desert wasteland dotted with greenery went on for miles in every direction; more than I remembered from when I’d set up camp to survey it. The surrounding hills lower, as well as the wavy sand dune layers that crept toward the wall.

Niu spoke in a crude dialect of old Mandarin, but I’d assumed him an uneducated laborer from a desert village. The more I thought on it, I wondered if I’d become dehydrated and delirious. Besides ruined clothing and slash marks across exposed areas of their skin, the people’s attire looked old, ancient even. I’d thought Niu might be deranged when he’d told me about Emperor Wu, but perhaps he was right and I wrong. Had I somehow traveled to the past? Maybe I’d gone mad.

The most profound evidence stood before me. A long ridge of packed earth that rose only three feet high, lower in some areas, stretching across the desert plain. Very different from the section where I’d staked my tent. These men were tasked to raise the dirt mound with rocks and whatever else nearby that might lend strength to it. Then I passed three wooden carts on my way to the end of the wall, unusual for their primitive wooden wheels. Niu would have more answers, so I rushed back.

“You there! Stop!” the work master said.

Everyone halted. A quick glance up revealed no one on the wall. I turned my head and heard a whoosh before a sharp pain raced across my shoulders. Then another came, slightly lower.

“First you don’t move and now you want to hurry?” said Feng. The task master continued thrashing until my entire back throbbed and I fell over.

I’ve no idea of the actual date or time.

I woke from a nap with wounds I received during a nightmare. Pain keeps me from getting up and working much, but I did manage to dig down another foot when I came across small bundles of old rope. I’ve placed them into the pack along with the broken bones.

My dreams have become increasingly realistic. I fear I may be suffering from dehydration. As fast as I’m going through the water supply, I’m beginning to doubt I will last until the end of the week. It seems I may have stumbled upon some type of wormhole and am able to travel back into the past. This desert section of the Great Wall is a gateway. On the other side is Hell.

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: Donna J. W. Munro

Happy New Year! Before Fiction Fragments took a short break to celebrate the holidays and regroup after a monumentally challenging year, I featured an excerpt from Deesha Philyaw‘s short story, “Peach Cobbler.”

Now, we’re back. It’s 2021 and Girl Meets Monster has some great writers lined up for the month of January, including this week’s guest, Donna J. W. Munro.

Donna J. W. Munro’s pieces are published in Dark Moon Digest # 34, Flash Fiction Magazine, Astounding Outpost, Nothing’s Sacred Magazine IV and V, Corvid Queen, Hazard Yet Forward (2012), Enter the Apocalypse (2017), Beautiful Lies, Painful Truths II (2018), Terror Politico (2019), It Calls from the Forest (2020), Borderlands 7 (2020), Gray Sisters Vol 1 (2020) and others. Her upcoming novel, Revelations: Poppet Cycle 1, will be published by Omnium Gatherum in 2021.

Order Donna’s novel, Revelations: Poppet Cycle 1, here:  Amazon

Contact her at:
https://www.donnajwmunro.com
Twitter: @DonnaJWMunro

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Donna and Happy New Year! Here we are at the beginning of 2021 and I’m sure we’re all hoping for a frest start and a less traumatic year than 2020. What exciting things do you have planned for the new year? What projects are you working on, and what writing goals are you setting for yourself?

DJWM: Happy New Year to you, too. I have a whole lot of hope that things will be better. I mean, the real world shouldn’t be weirder than things we are writing, right? It has been. I felt like we were living in American Horror Story for the last four years.

I’m excited that you’re interviewing me today, because my first novel is out tomorrow! Revelation: Poppet Cycle Book 1 is the first in a trilogy I’m working on, so most of 2021 will be rewrites of book 2 and 3. Besides that, I write a flash fiction story every weekend as part of the Obsidian Flash Writers Group. As far as goals, I think I’m shooting for at least 12 short stories published in 2021. Beyond that, I hope to stay well, get vaccinated, and start hanging out with my Convention friends again. Man, I miss my nerd fam so much!

GMM: Tell me a bit about your fragment. IS it more difficult writing from the POV of a guinea pig than it is for a human, or did you simply imagine Muffin as a human while writing this piece? What was your process like, and what inspired the story? Why a guinea pig?

DJWM:  “He Ate It” is a story I wrote as part of a challenge at Obsidian Flash. We post images there to spark our weekly stories and then share them with each other for critique. One week the prompt was a guinea pig. That, combined with the my anxiety over our current US politics, created Muffin the meglomaniacal guinea pig. His voice wasn’t hard to come up with, since it’s the internal voice I imagined that our President might have. I had a whole lot of fun trying to think about what obstacles would stand in the way of a guinea pig trying to become ruler of the world. The absurdity of its lack of experience and not knowing how big the world is, but still wanting to rule it as it’s first act of sentience tickled my writing fancy. The hubris he had was super fun to write, especially since I got to slap him in it. It’s not a perfect story and the Neitzche joke at the end might be a bit flat, but it makes me cackle every time.

GMM: Tell me about your most challenging writing project to date. Was it a short story or a longer piece of fiction? What roadblocks did you encounter while writing it? How did you modify your process to complete the piece? Did you publish it?

DJWM: Novels challenge me. I force myself to write one every year because I’m told that’s where the big money is (all the writers I know are laughing along with me right now). Short stories naturally come to me. Good or bad, if I sit down to write a short story, one comes out. But novels! Holy cookies, there’s so many moving parts. Continuity and plot vs character arc and description and action and subtext–Oh my! That’s why I surround myself with brilliant people that catch me when I’m lazy. My beta readers are great, but Anna LaVoie of Literally Yours Editing is my savior. Honestly, if you are a writer and you want to make your plot sing, developmental editors like Anna are so, so worth it. My process now includes two to three rounds of Anna combing through my writing and asking hard questions that kill the stupid plot devices and melodrama. She’s incredible. The result of this new process is the beginning of my trilogy that’s dropping tomorrow, Poppet Cycle. Revelation: Poppet Cycle Book 1 has been in my hard drive for probably twelve years. I dusted it off after meeting with Johnny Worthen of Omnium Gatherum a couple of years ago at HWA’s Stoker Con and now it’s about to be born.

Novels are hard. You know what I’m talking about with your fantastic debut Invisible Chains. Writing is just one part of the job. Then, there’s marketing. And keeping track of businessy stuff, which isn’t my thing. I will learn though! Might take the rest of my life, but I’m on it.

Roadblocks? Everything is a potential roadblock. Time crunches, bills, kids, cats, day job as a teacher, depression, shiny things that keep me from putting my butt into the chair and getting work done. How about the fact that all writers are really two people inside. There’s the hopeful creative who keeps throwing out new ideas, even when you need to just focus on the one you are working one. Then there’s the vicious editor. No real life editor I’ve ever met acts like the editor I have inside my own head. It’s the voice that tells me I’m too old to make it as a writer or that my words are childish and no one will ever want to read them. That voice is useful when you can tame it into a true editor voice, but mostly it’s the worst roadblock of all. It takes away joy from the process. It belittles your efforts. No matter how many successes you have it makes you wonder if you’ll ever have another. That little monster is tough to tame.

HE ATE IT
by Donna J. W. Munro

Muffin became self-aware on Saturday at 8pm. Until then, he’d been a carefree guinea pig occasionally living with a stinking cage or water, tinged green. Overall, he’d been well cared for. His human, a female juvenile, picked him up and cuddle warm sweet skin to his fur. This time he realized that he’d never have a better chance. He bit her soft throat where heat thrummed closest to the surface. Fluids gushed from her wound, red gouts wetting him. Her little hands dropped him as they struggled to cover the terrible wound. Exactly as planned.

Her screams drew the larger humans into girl’s room– exactly as planned– and Muffin rushed out the door into the larger world. He hid himself beneath a thing with metal springs and wooden slats and padded with lovely fluff, though it all smelled like human ass. He watched the humans rush by with the little one clutched between them. As they ran, they voices squeeled as he’d done when he’d been a dumb beast. He couldn’t blame them their weakness. After all, he’d attacked their young. But Muffin’s own history taught him that some young must be eaten for the benefit of the stronger. He’d eaten his nest brothers and sisters to keep the milk only for him.

They left and, exactly as planned, Muffin had conquered the world. He waddled into the food room, drawn by the bitter odor real food. Not the tough pellets the young female put in his cage. A tall machine hummed and rattled, doing business Muffin didn’t care to understand. Only the room’s obstacles concerned him. He sniffed the edges of the room, taking in the potential bolt holes as he sought food and water. High above him, the scent of fresh water falling in ringing drips wafted down, but the wall before him rose as a sheer monolith. Somewhere up there sat a bowl of fruit– he remembered seeing it when the female adolescent carried him. Now the cloying sweet of the fruit filled his nose full. He needed to climb the cliff, but how?

He noticed on the floor a bowl of slimy water and a bowl of kibble that reminded him he wasn’t alone. He slunk over to the flapping entrance in the middle of a closed door. It smelled like the other animal. Could he convince the dumb beast to help him reach the food and water, through tricks or taming. Or would the beast be so mindless he’d need to eliminate him? Muffin wanted to assess the situation. He tumbled through the flap into a cold, hard-floored room that smelled of bitter things and danger. Muffin sneezed the scent out of his nose. In the corner, a massive beast lay curled on a stinking pillow. Muffin’s heart hammered as he considered the it.

He sheltered behind a leaning chalky cliff, watching the beast take deep breaths. It had a pointed nose and long legs. So many times bigger than he. Muffin swallowed down the urge to run. Hadn’t he defeated the humans? Hadn’t he conquered the whole world? This creature would work for him or Muffin would kill him. With that thought, he scuttled forward, following the outline of the wall toward the corner the beast lay in. The closer he got, the stronger the creature’s musky scent. Muffin knew this beast from when the human played with this it in front of his glass-fronted prison. Named Nee-chee or some such, it leapt and capered and carried toys in its mouth like a giant imbecile. It could be trained, therefore Muffin just needed to figure out how.

“See here, beastie,” Muffin said, tapping on the wet, triangular nose before him. “Wake up.”

Its eyes snapped open and its lip curled over sharp teeth. But Muffin had come too far to let fear stop him.

“I defeated the humans. Sent them scurrying. Now, I’m the master of this house. You’ll serve me as you served them. Do you understand?”
The creature nodded, teeth parting and tongue sliding out with panting breaths.

“I need food and water. Both are high up. You’ll let me ride your back to get up.”

The beast tilted its head, in deference. Muffin’s spirits soared and he hurried toward it, to climb its back. Then the best fixed his gaze on the exposed Muffin near it’s flanks and snorted.

“Why would I help the one who injured my little human? I’ve been training her for years. Foolish rat thing, do you think you are the only self-aware being in this place? ‘Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster.’” The tall beast lifted itself with a languid stretch.

“Or perhaps you’ll have to deal with a monster,” he said, smiling.

Muffin squealed and started to dart away when one massive paw pinned him to the cold floor. “What will you do to me?”

“Why worry about such things, little mote? I’m the abyss and I’m finished looking into you.”

His massive jaws encircled Muffin’s head, crunching down. Thus, Muffin was self-aware no more.

“I’m going to kill that rodent,” the woman said as she carried her bandaged little girl into the house.

“We’ll have to find it. Could be anywhere by now,” the man whispered, opening the door to the child’s bedroom so his wife could lay the child in bed. Stitches and shots and blood transfusions left their mark. She’d be scarred and fearful, but she’d survived. They checked under the bed, hugged their girl, and shut the door.

The man began searching for the Guinea pig under the couches, but the tick-tack of the dog’s claws across the wooden floor caught the wife’s attention. “Oh, my poor puppy. Are you hungry, Nietzsche Dog? Want dinner?”

The dog woofed and lay the head of the guinea pig at her feet. He grinned up at her, his grey schnauzer mustache stained red with the blood of the dead conqueror.

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: Donna Lynch

Last week I chatted with Tony Tremblay about tacos, reviewing books, and his forthcoming novel from Haverhill House, Do Not Weep For Me.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes poet, lyracist and writer Donna Lynch.

Donna Lynch is a two-time Bram Stoker Award-nominated dark fiction poet and author, spoken word artist, and the co-founder—along with her husband, artist and musician Steven Archer—of the dark electronic rock band Ego Likeness (Metropolis Records).

An active member of the Horror Writers Association and three-time contributor to the HWA Poetry Showcase, her published works include the novels Isabel Burning, and Red Horses; the novella Driving Through the Desert; and the poetry collections In My Mouth, Twenty-Six, Ladies & Other Vicious Creatures, The Book of Keys, Daughters of Lilith, Witches, and the Ladies of Horror Fiction Award-winning Choking Back the Devil (Raw Dog Screaming Press).

She is the founder of the Garbage Witch clothing brand, part-time tour manager, avid cross-country driver, and geography fanatic. She and Steven live in Maryland.

FB: Donna Lynch @GeekLioness
Twitter: @GeekLioness
Instagram: d_note_
Raw Dog: http://rawdogscreaming.com/authors/donna-lynch/

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Donna. Thank you for joining me in these weird times. Has the pandemic and current events had an impact on your creativity? What spooky things have you been cooking up while in quarantine?

DL: It absolutely is having an impact. My focus and concentration are worse than usual, and I’m having to work extra hard at not putting myself down because of it.

That said, I have been able to dive into a new poetry collection: a mix of contemporary folk legends and the lives of my friends and myself growing up in suburban and rural areas. There is a quiet horror that happens in those communities that have traditionally fancied themselves safer and of higher moral ground than urban areas, and as young women growing up in those places, we knew it all too well.

GMM: Tell me about your writing process. Does your process differ between writing lyrics, poetry and fiction? Or, does the same Muse speak to you for all of your creative endeavors?

DL: Lyrics require hooks and there are more “restrictions”. The words not only have to be memorable and impactful, but they have to fit. Everything else feels easy compared to that.

But the words all come from the same well. The bigger challenge is keeping the well from going dry.

GMM: Without giving away too many spoilers, can you tell me about your fragment? Is this part of a larger piece? What’s happening in the story?

DL: My fragment is an excerpt from a work-in-progress collection of short stories that feature the same protagonist: a centuries-old entity who has taken numerous forms throughout time, but during the twentieth century, assumes the identity of a southern gentleman, based on an archetype of the devil they once saw in a film. I won’t share their/ his purpose here, only preface this excerpt by saying they act as a companion to those who need it the most, but in this particular story, struggles with their agenda.

I started this collection many years ago, and I made two mistakes: I made it too big, and I made it too precious. But now, in 2020, enough has changed that I feel ready to carve it into manageable pieces, and I can make the adjustments necessary to feel good about its place in the world, to whatever degree that may be. Offering up this (unedited) fragment here is the first step in me letting it breathe and letting it go.

Miss Abyss

I said it before and it’s always true: some of them are just harder than others.

This one, I can’t say she’s a failure. I wouldn’t ever call her that, no way. But she ain’t made of the same stuff the others are. She’s of something stronger and stranger, and at the same time she’s nothing.

A very long time ago she bound me not to say her name, and I can’t even remember it now, which goes to show how powerful she really is. And pardon my metaphor, but if I’m the stitches, she’s the wound that’s just too wide and deep.

I can’t really save any of my girls, that’s not my job and I couldn’t if I tried, but I especially can’t save her. For her to be who she is, she can’t ever be spared from it. She’s a chasm, a void. But, by god, there’s something deep down in there that is so fragile, and compassionate, and alone, I don’t know how it survives. It’s so far down, I don’t know how it’s fed, but it is. Not much, but enough, I guess.         

Now—for a void— if there’s one thing she’s excellent at filling, it’s your time. Otherwise, she’s a taker. She takes your energy, your sanity, your common sense. But even then, that ain’t her fault. It’s her nature, and she only takes what you offer. It’s a pretty deep hole she’s aiming to fill, so it takes a lot, and there ain’t much point in fighting because once you open your mouth and start telling her your story and she starts listening in a way nobody ever listened before, you’ve already approached the event horizon.         

The problem with little Miss Abyss is that there ain’t no lesson for her. There’s no moral of her story. She’s not a saint, or a martyr, not a demi-god, or a spirit. She’s eternal, but that don’t mean much when you only exist for other people, because they will you to exist. She’s a distraction for anyone looking for an escape, though she doesn’t know it’s temporary. If everyone let her alone tomorrow, she’d just…not be.

She doesn’t know she isn’t real. But that ain’t ever gonna happen, because people ain’t ever gonna stop wanting someone to listen the way she listens. They ain’t ever gonna stop wanting something to fill their time and emptiness.         

It took me a hell of a long time to figure out why we came across each other, but then it hit me: someday, I’m might have to tell her. At least, I think I will. My job is to be merciful, to make the transitions easier, to not let them linger, hurting and desperate. I get mad at myself for letting her go on this long, getting used and thrown away time and time again. I lose track of time, but I’ll tell you, it’s been long enough to make me feel ashamed. Hard truth is, I’m fond of her, and I don’t want to set something into motion I can’t control. Like I said, that ain’t my job. But it also ain’t really fair to her.         

It seems harmless enough, just thinking it through. If she’s nothing, then why shouldn’t people bring her into existence if they need her? She’s summoned by the lonely, the trapped, the insecure. She’s called by people who need a distraction from their boring lives and ugly selves, and they’d rather face the better person they see reflected in her hopeful eyes. “Where’s the harm?” they think. They never remember asking for anything out loud. So when they’ve used her up, or offered more than they could afford to lose to, they always say “Hey, sweetheart, I never said you had to keep coming around,” or “We never said this was forever”, and they send her away, emptier than when she got there, if that’s even possible. It’s like looking at a hole torn in space. You can hardly even understand what you’re looking at. You just know it’s dark and cold.         

But here we are, over and over, and though I see she’s hurting, I can see she’s hoping—hoping to be real, hoping that this time, she’ll be enough—and I let it ride because it feels so good to have her with me. I don’t have to teach her a damn thing. I don’t have to carry her through a trauma or a gate, into her next form. I don’t have to hold her hand while she nestles into place in a folktale or ghost story. We just exist together and I tell her about all of it and she just listens and smiles and makes me forget all of the terrible things I see, and every time, just as I’m feeling so good, it hits me like a shotgun blast to the head—

I don’t set her free because she’s my distraction, too.

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: 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: Renee S. DeCamillis

Last week I chatted with Sonora Taylor about the zen of drinking tea during an alien invasion. Go check it out if you haven’t already.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Renee S. DeCamillis. A few months ago I participated in an online coffee house where we both read some of our work. I really enjoyed listening to Renee’s reading from her novella, The Bone Cutters. I haven’t had a chance to read it, but it is on my TBR list.

Author of the psychological thriller/horror/supernatural novella The Bone Cutters, published through Eraserhead Press as part of their 2019 New Bizarro Authors Series, Renee is a member of the Horror Writers Association, the New England Horror Writers, and the Horror Writers of Maine.

She is also an Editorial Intern for the 5-time Bram Stoker award-winning speculative fiction and dark fiction publisher Crystal Lake Publishing, and a writer for Phi3 Comics. She has her BA in psychology from the University of Southern Maine, earned her MFA in Popular Fiction Writing from the Stonecoast Graduate Program, and attended Berklee College of Music as a music business major with guitar as her principle instrument. Her short fiction appears in Deadman’s Tome: The Conspiracy Issue, Siren’s Call eZine Issue 37 the 6th Annual Women In Horror Month Edition, The Other Stories Podcast. She has a story forthcoming in the 2020 anthology Wicked Women, a collection showcasing women writers of the NEHW. Also forthcoming is her first comic book, with a publication date TBD. Her poetry appears in The Horror Writers Association Poetry Showcase Volume IV. Renee is a former model, school rock band teacher, creative writing teacher, private guitar instructor, A&R rep for an indie record label, therapeutic mentor, psychological technician, and preschool teacher. She is also a former gravedigger; she can get rid of a body fast without leaving a trace, and she is not afraid of getting her hands dirty. Renee lives in the woods of Maine with her husband, their son, and a house full of ghosts.

Website: reneesdecamillis.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/ReneeDeCamillis/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/renee_s._decamillis/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/ReneeDeCamillis

Three Questions

GMM: Hello, Renee. Welcome to Girl Meets Monster. I’m so glad to have you here for a chat. After listening to your reading from The Bone Cutters back in July, I got very excited about reading your book. I’m slowly working on the sequel to Invisible Chains, and an asylum will be one of the main settings. My novel is set in the mid-nineteenth century, but your book opens in a more modern setting. A lot of mental health facilities closed in the 1980s and 1990s, what time period is The Bone Cutters taking place in? Is it an asylum or a hospital with a mental health ward? What kind of research did you do for the setting?

RSD: The time period for The Bone Cutters is now, today, and the setting is a psychiatric hospital, inspired by one that I used to work at as a psychological technician. That last part—the position I held while working there—is a bit of a funny because Dory, the main character of my book, really rips on psych techs because of her horrible previous experiences in mental health facilities with subpar staff who go unchecked by those in power. (Though I say it’s a bit of a funny, I do not mean that mistreatment of patients by staff is funny at all. I’ve witnessed neglect and mistreatment of patients by co-workers, and I reported all of it, which is part of what inspired me to write about horribly inept psych hospital staff.) I didn’t really need to do much research for this book because I have a degree in psychology, and I worked in the mental health field for quite a few years in various positions, providing various services. So, my research for the setting consisted of simply recalling memories from my experiences working in the mental health field, including my time as a psych tech in a psychiatric hospital.

GMM: The internal dialogue of your protagonist was fantastic and really conveyed the sense of confusion and discordant thoughts she’s experiencing while trying to come to terms with her new environment and her own mental illness…if she is really mentally ill. Without too many spoilers, can you give a little bit of background on your protagonist, what she’s experiencing, and what inspired this character?

RSD: Dory is quite a mixed bag of fucked up and beautiful. She is someone trying to stay safe while traveling through this crazy fucked up world that’s filled with predators and betrayers and manipulators. She’s a creative-minded loner who has suffered from multiple traumas and has no “real” family to speak of. She’s been betrayed and severely harmed by people who had claimed that they loved her, and she has developed serious trust issues from those experiences. This makes connecting with others and developing friendships exceedingly difficult for her because she feels like everyone is going to harm her eventually. She has also experienced multiple traumas while seeking mental health treatment in the past. The culmination of all her experiences has also created some festering anger issues within her that she tries hard to keep under control. Then when she gets blue papered, involuntarily committed, to this dysfunctional psychiatric hospital, they keep pumping her with all sorts of different psychotropics, which makes it difficult to tell who the real Dory is and what is just the medication taking over her mind and what are just rumors from those around her.

These days, where many teachers and doctors and social workers want to label “unusual” behavior as something other, we all pretty much can say we have a “psychological disorder” of some kind: anxiety, depression, ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, etc. That aspect of our society makes me feel like Dory is a relatable character for many people. Dory is an odd duck with some quirks others don’t understand, but people around her want to label every single “odd” action as some sort of mental disorder. Maybe she does have a disorder, maybe more than one, but does she really have all the disorders that she’s accused of having? Which disorders does she truly have, and which ones are misdiagnosed or simply assumed by people incapable of making such claims? This is all left up to the reader to figure out as they read the story and get to know Dory.

GMM: Mental illness is a familiar trope in horror fiction, but the idea of harvesting bone dust to be used as a form of drug is not. The harvesting really is a horrifying process, but you execute the imagery in a way that makes it almost beautiful. Enticing. Which is why I suppose there are willing “Donors”. Where did this nightmarish idea come from?

RSD: Well, your word choice—”nightmarish”—hits the nail right on the head. The idea was inspired by a nightmare of mine. Isn’t that where it all begins anyways—in our nightmares? That crazy group counseling session from chapter one that you heard me read, that is where the story began, the part pulled out of my nightmare, though it didn’t happen exactly that way in my dream; I changed it to fit the story and the characters.

In my dream, I was at a First Friday Artwalk in Portland, Maine with a close friend of mine. She asked if I’d mind if we made a quick stop to see one of her friends. She had told him she’d swing by while we were in the city, and she promised me it would only take a few minutes. I agreed. When we stopped to see him, we walked into a large open room that had a big group of people all gathered and sitting around on the floor in a circle. There was no furniture in this room. I had no idea what was going on or who any of the people were. I noticed that one man, an extremely skinny guy with a gapped-tooth grin and a large grotesque scar around his collarbone (He is now my Slug Man in the book.), was addressing the whole group. My friend and I stood off to the side and remained quiet. While we stood there, I was trying to figure out why they were all gathered here and what they were doing. As I looked all around the circle of people, I noticed that every person there was grotesquely scarred, all in different locations on their bodies. I thought they might all be cutters, or maybe they had all attempted suicide and that this was a counseling group for people in those situations/mindsets. Trying to figure this all out, I focused in on what that man was saying. That’s when I realized that this was an NA group for people who harvested bone dust and used it as a drug, like heroin. They harvested from themselves, as well as from others. I was mortified. I was even more mortified when I realized that the man speaking was the “friend” my friend was there to see. She knew these people, was friends with these people. That’s when another realization hit me—this friend of mine, someone I’d been close friends with for many, many years, all of a sudden seemed like a complete stranger to me. I woke up after that and I immediately knew that scene needed to go into a story. I started writing The Bone Cutters (titled Chiseled High back then) that same day.

Once I sat to write the story, I decided to change the setting and circumstances, and, of course, I changed the character who discovers this group of addicts from me to Dory. (She is not me, though there are aspects of Dory’s character that I can relate to.) I’d been wanting to write a dysfunctional psychiatric hospital story for quite some time, and I had made other attempts before—some of which are still works-in-progress—so I went with that setting, finding it very fitting for this situation. Also, I have a love for the unreliable narrator, so I thought it would be great to cast the main character as someone of questionable mental faculties and often under the influence of “questionable substances”, which is how Dory was born.

Also, where the whole crazy, villainous drug addict type of character came from: throughout my life I have known many drug addicts, some former friends, former partners, some family members, some simply acquaintances. Some of them I had long, close relationships with. Because of those relationships and experiences I had with them, I had once tried to write a novel, my first novel, with a main character who falls into heroin addiction. I tried my best to make her a sympathetic character, as I was simultaneously trying to sympathize with and understand the loved ones in my life who were struggling with lifelong drug addictions. That character in my book started out extremely sympathetic, but where many beta readers lost that sympathy was halfway through the book when she started using heroin and fucking up her life even more than it already was. That book and that character, along with what began happening in my life with those close to me who were abusing drugs, made me realize I was not writing the right story or the right character for me. (I guess you could say that my beta readers lost their sympathy for my fictional drug addict character in my novel, just as I lost my sympathy for the real drug addicts in my life.)

The Bone Cutters goes much, much darker than my first novel, showing just how far certain addicts, like the ones I had once been close to in my real life, will go to get their fix. They hurt themselves. They hurt others. They’re sneaky. They’re manipulative. They lie about everything. And the depths to which they’ll stoop to get what they want or need is lower than low. No, not all addicts are the same, but I am a firm believer that there are many addicts who cannot be saved. No matter how much help they get, no matter how much support they have, they never stop using, they never stop their harmful and destructive behavior. I may get some hate mail for saying that, but it’s the truth; I know addicts like that. The ones that never change. To the people in their lives who aren’t users, it appears as though they enjoy the life of drug addiction, they enjoy all that goes along with the drug addict lifestyle. If they didn’t like it, wouldn’t they try to make changes? The Bone Cutters takes this idea and puts a dark spin on the why of this type of drug addict. Why can’t they stop using? Even when they have all the support and all the resources to help them get clean—why do they not stop? What makes them keep using? What makes them keep hurting themselves and others? What makes them keep destroying their life? What is their motivation? What is it pushing them to go that low with their behavior? This is where my horror-brain kicks in.

No, my book is not all about looking down on drug addicts and making them the bad guys, the villains, the monsters. It’s not like that at all, as readers will realize when they get to the ending (or maybe I should say the “non-ending”, since there’s a sequel coming). I do also know addicts who have recovered and moved on to do amazing and wonderful things with their lives, ones that move on to have success and happiness in their work and personal lives, and I do include characters like that in my book as well. There are many, many wonderful people out there who recover from drug addiction. So, my story wouldn’t be a truthful look at drug addicts if I made the users all bad guys and lost causes.

Excerpt from the sequel to The Bone Cutters (The title of the book is withheld for now.)

Chapter 1: The Carver, The Collector, and The Stitcher

A cloth is secured in his mouth, knotted behind his head, to keep him from screaming. A blindfold stretches across his eyes. The white-hot sting of the blade slicing through the skin of his shin makes him grit his teeth.

Only a whimper escapes.

Buck knife in hand, The Carver gets down to the bone quickly. Twin serpent-like scars run up the outside of both of The Carver’s forearms. They writhe and pulse as he reaches out and swaps the knife for a chisel and mallet. Like a modern-day Michelangelo, he begins whittling away at the victim’s tibia, the bigger of the two shin bones. Serpent scars slither around while he works.

Every hit of the mallet sends a shaking jolt through the restrained man. The chair legs rattle against the tiled floor with every jostle. His ankles are zip-tied to the wooden chair legs. His wrists are zip-tied to each side of the back of the chair. Tears soak the blindfold and leak down his cheeks from underneath. Snot bubbles at his nostrils. Strands of his shaggy brown hair stick to his sweaty temples.

Rather than creating a work of art, The Carver extracts bone shavings to crush into dust at a later time. With the help of The Collector, who is beside him, curls of shaved bone are caught onto a sheet of tinfoil.       

The foil is filled fast.

From behind The Carver, someone with gnarly scarred knuckles passes The Collector a second sheet of tin foil. The filled foil is switched with the empty.

The Carver reaches for a new tool. The chisel and mallet are swapped with a small utility knife.

Rapid shaving motions slide down the tibia over and over and over again.

More whimpering.

More chair rattling.

Sibling serpents shake and slither along with every movement of The Carver’s arms.

Bone dust is collected this time. The second batch is for immediate consumption.

Mixed with blood, the dust looks like sticky black tar heroin. Bone Cutters call it Dark Heaven or Red Sugar or simply Dust.

Deal done, The Stitcher steps out of the shadows, thread and needle held in grotesquely scarred hands, to seal the wound.

The victim is no longer whimpering.

The victim is no longer crying.

The victim is now passed out, head hung low, chin to chest. Whether from shock or blood loss is of no concern to The Carver or The Collector or The Stitcher.

All they’re here for is the Dust and the high that will come with it, as well as—

the money they’ll make off what they don’t smoke or inject themselves.

The Stitcher is thankful. Not just for the high-to-come and the money they’ll make—

It sure is easier to stitch the wound without all the shaking and blubbering that was going on a few moments ago.  The needle and thread zips back and forth through the flesh as smoothly as a whisper floating with the wind.  

Wound now sealed shut, it’s time to clear the scene. With two tips of the chair by The Collector and The Stitcher, The Carver carefully slides out the blood covered plastic tarp that is spread out underneath the victim and the chair. He rolls it up, preps it for disposal.

Then the zip-ties are snipped from the victim’s wrists and ankles and tucked securely into the tarp. Add in a few rocks from the park on the walk back to their den, and these Bone Cutters will send all remnants of this event down river.

All except the product and—

The buck knife.

The hilt of the knife is wiped clean. Then it’s placed in the victim’s hand, with his fingers wrapped around it, assuring only his prints are found.

The Carver, The Collector, and The Stitcher are good at covering their tracks. Maybe not the tracks in their skin or the scars that double as their own living entities (Those they wear with pride, like badges of honor.), but definitely the tracks of the assaults against all their unwilling victims.

Not all victims are unwilling.

Some enjoy the rush of the slice like a bite from a vampire.

The Donors.

Minions or Lackeys if you’re a non-dust-user.

Some might call them Renfields.

Many Bone Cutters (A.K.A. Dusters) also get a rush from the slice, but it does wear you down after a while. All that blood loss. All that pain. It’s much more satisfying and stimulating to inflict that pain on another. But when times get desperate—

they will again slice into themselves.

Scene all cleaned and sparkling, as though only the victim has been present, the three junkie-cutters vacate the premises. The tarp is rolled up tight and worn like a backpack by The Collector. After one last wipe of the outside doorknob, the three practically skip down the hallway and out onto the sidewalk, as giddy as children approaching an ice cream truck.    

While strolling away from the scene of the crime, as though nothing unusual has taken place, they hear the flutter of large wings overhead. The sound is moving towards the house they just left behind.     

They all look up, wondering if it’s what they think it is. A glimpse of huge, black wings zooming past the beam shining from the streetlight is confirmation.

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: Sonora Taylor

Last week, Paul Tremblay stopped by Girl Meets Monster and we talked about impostor syndrome and how he deals with it, and he shared an excellent fragment from his short story, “We Will Never Live in the Castle.”

This week, I have the pleasure of speaking with Sonora Taylor. I haven’t had an opportunity to meet her in person, but I’m hoping to change that soon.

Sonora Taylor is the author of Little Paranoias: Stories, Without Condition, The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales, Please Give, and Wither and Other Stories. Her short story, “Hearts are Just ‘Likes,’” was published in Camden Park Press’s Quoth the Raven, an anthology of stories and poems that put a contemporary twist on the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

Taylor’s short stories frequently appear in The Sirens Call. Her work has also appeared in Frozen Wavelets, Mercurial Stories, Tales to Terrify, and the Ladies of Horror fiction podcast. Her latest book, Seeing Things, is now available on Amazon. She lives in Arlington, Virginia, with her husband.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Sonora. I really enjoyed your fragment, because I love when horror/science fiction blends with humor in a story. There’s something about the humor that makes the horror a bit more unsettling while simultaneously more palatable. Like a cup of tea you drink while watching an alien invasion. Where did this story come from? What inspired it, and do you often include humor in your horror/science fiction?

ST: Thank you! I wrote this in 2016, which was when I’d gotten back into writing short stories and was seeing what forms, themes, and genres stuck with me. I’d been reading Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett around this time and was definitely influenced by their style of writing. I love absurdist and humorous horror, and I found myself thinking it’d be funny to write in the style of one of those self-care articles, but for how to relax during one of the least relaxing experiences I could think of. I originally considered writing a book of these sorts of essays called Consider This, but I didn’t have enough ideas. Then I started writing my first novel, Please Give; and all my attention went to that.

GMM: You mention the importance of self-care rather ironically in your fragment, but the idea of self-care has become a cultural phenomenon that has social, political and economic relevance, especially at this moment in our history. We obviously aren’t facing an alien invasion (not yet, but 2020 isn’t over), but we are facing a pandemic and an outcry for social change. How do you view self-care in this time of uncertainty, and what do you do to look after yourself on the darker days?

ST: I see self-care as a way to step back and focus your attention on taking care of you, especially in a time where we feel an even more pressing need to look out for each other and be caretakers–for loved ones, for marginalized people, for the greater good. Many of us, especially women, are taught to put ourselves last after we’ve taken care of the kids, the spouse, the world. But to me, this is all backwards because you can’t do those things if you haven’t been tending to yourself! I find I’m a better wife, daughter, dog mom, friend, writer, and activist when I’ve taken a breather and set aside time to reset myself.

I like to decompress with simple beauty rituals, which I can fortunately do at home since I still don’t feel comfortable going to a salon (though I do miss getting pedicures and massages). I love taking baths with nice bath bombs and music. I also like to use face masks and sheet masks to give myself a boost. Drinking tea is one of my self-care practices, but that’s more a daily habit than anything special. I also like to plan and prepare really nice meals. I made a pasta last week with chanterelles and I felt so good serving it and eating it.

GMM: What can we expect from you next? What are you currently working on? Have the events of 2020 had an impact on your writing, either your process or what you’re writing about?

ST: Right now I’m working on my next short story collection. It’s called Someone to Share My Nightmares and will focus on romantic/erotic horror. I’m also formulating my fourth novel, an apocalyptic nature novel called Errant Roots.

I do find that it’s harder to sit and write this year than in previous years. My mind is in a lot of places and it can feel exhausting to sit down and write a whole other reality. I’ve written, but it’s been slower than normal. When I finish a piece, though, it feels fantastic.

Tea Time by Sonora Taylor

You should always take the time to make yourself a cup of tea.

With the stress of the day-to-day, it can often be difficult to remember simple acts of self-care. Or we remember, but choose not to partake because they seem selfish, or mundane, or useless. This could not be farther from the truth. Any act of self-care is worthwhile, and this includes the pouring of hot water onto cold tea leaves.

Consider the practice itself. You take a mug, you choose your tea, you warm the water, you pour the water, then await the allotted time for your tea to steep. The preparation itself is meditative. To make yourself a cup of tea is to close yourself off from the stress around you, be it an obnoxious co-worker or a troublesome spaceship landing outside of your building.

The relaxation does not end with preparation. The act of sipping tea is one of the most relaxing things you can do. Each sip delights the tongue with flavor, steam, and comfort. Picture yourself sipping tea. Notice how the noises around you, like phones ringing or people screaming, just seem to disappear as readily as the tea in your cup.

Once the cup is gone, the sense of ease remains with you, warming your hands like the sun or an errant laser. Tea transports us to worlds we never knew, worlds where we are alone and comfortable, not visited or invaded. To make yourself a cup of tea is to grant you an escape from everything.

Many have shared their wondrous experiences with tea. Consider Martha, an accountant who never missed her morning tea. Each morning after breakfast, no matter what she was doing or who was in her presence, she’d stop and make herself a cup of tea in the company kitchen. She found the ritual conducive to her work. One morning, Martha heard her phone ring and several emails ping in her inbox. But alas, it was 9 o’clock – tea time! She ignored the shouts from her office and went to the kitchen to make her tea. She was not gone for five minutes, yet when she returned with her mug, she found not her office, but a smoldering crater where her desk and wall had been. Had she not held to her morning ritual, she too would have been blown to smithereens! Thankfully her morning tea that day was soothing chamomile, otherwise the sight might have scared her dead.

Tea is much valued for its life-saving properties. Green tea is often seen as the healthiest, with its antioxidant power. But all teas have some sort of health benefit to them. Black tea improves your breath. Peppermint tea aids in digestion. Hibiscus tea seems to frighten off the invaders, seeing how they recoiled in fear from Mrs. Thompson’s hibiscus plants when stomping through her garden. All tea has something special to offer.

But perhaps what is most special about tea is what it can do for you. Even when you are most alone, a cup of tea is there for you, warming your hands as you stare out your window and watch your neighborhood, city, and state burn to ash. The skies have turned red and the ships have grown in number, but your reliable kettle burns on the stove and whistles to you, calling from the rabble and chaos, “Time for tea!”

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: Cindy O’Quinn

Last week, Girl Meets Monster talked with John M. McIlveen about his forthcoming collection of short stories, A Variable Darkness, and the fact that he is somehow able to function on only 4 hours a sleep each night.

This week, I am thrilled to welcome Bram Stoker Award nominated writer, nature lover, and extremely kind and supportive cheerleader of her fellow writers, Cindy O’Quinn.

Cindy O’Quinn is an Appalachian writer who grew up in the mountains of West Virginia and is now living, writing, and homesteading in northern Maine.

2019 HWA Bram Stoker Award Nominee in Short Fiction for “Lydia”, and multiple Rhysling nominated poet. “Lydia” was published in the anthology, THE TWISTED BOOK OF SHADOWS, edited by Christopher Golden and James A. Moore, which was nominated in the anthology category for the Bram Stoker Award, This is Horror Award, and it won the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Anthology.

Works published or forthcoming in Shotgun Honey Presents, Twisted Book of Shadows, HWA Poetry Showcase Vol. V, Star*Line, SFPA Halloween Reading, Sanitarium Magazine, Eerie Christmas Anthology, Space and Time Magazine, Speculative City, Chiral Mad 5, and others.

Social Media:
Facebook @CindyOQuinnWriter
Instagram cindy.oquinn
Twitter @COQuinnWrites

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Cindy. I loved your fragment and definitely want to read more. The fact that your protagonist is a writer reminded me of how Stephen King often writes about characters who are writers. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s a trope in his fiction. Are there certain tropes you rely on in your own fiction? Do you create characters who are similar to other characters you’ve written about, or are there distinct qualities about them that set them apart? Without too many spoilers, can you give a synopsis of “The Handshake”?

COQ: Michelle, thank you for having me on Girl Meets Monster. I’m glad you enjoyed my fiction fragment. Yes, my novelette is about a young writer. I enjoy Stephen King stories with writers, as well. I loved The Dark Half, and Misery. It isn’t a trope of mine. Most of my characters have been fairly different from one another, thus far.

A quick synopsis of “The Handshake,” which was first published in Sanitarium Magazine Fall 2016. The magazine has since changed hands, and the issue is no longer available. I’d love to see it accepted in the future as a reprint.

Torrence Eastlin is a young writer. He has the chance to meet his favorite author, Hudson Greenbrier. Something happens when the two shake hands, at least it feels that way to Torrence. His writing improves, and he begins getting one acceptance after the next. When Hudson requests a private meeting with the young writer, Torrence knows his feeling must be true. He fears whatever transferred with the handshake must be what Hudson Greenbrier wants back. To what lengths will someone go to keep their gift or to take another’s?

GMM: What defines you as an Appalachian writer? Is it simply the fact that you were raised in Appalachia, or are there specific elements within your writing that make you an Appalachian writer? Settings? Characters? Tone? Plots? How would we recognize the work of other Appalachian writers?

COQ: In the beginning, my bio would simply state I was a writer who lived in West Virginia or Virginia. That changed when I moved to northern Maine. I felt disconnected from myself. It no longer felt right to say I was a writer who lived in Maine. That became evident when I spoke. People made sure I knew I was “from away”. I dedicated my novel to my husband and sons, but also to the Appalachian Mountains that stood guard around me for so many decades. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, You can take the girl out of the mountains, but you can’t take the mountains out of the girl. It’s true in my case. The Appalachian mountains are a part of what makes me, the person I am. All of it, the way I talk, write, cook, parent, homestead, down to how I dress.

I’m not sure one would recognize another Appalachian writer unless it’s known. It’s known of writers like Ron Rash, Silas House, and David Joy. If I’m drawn to a writer’s work, I’ll check out their bio.

GMM: Aside from short stories and poetry, have you written any longer fiction or nonfiction? Have you written any novels? If not, why? What projects are you working on right now?

COQ: I self-published my first novel, Dark Cloud on Naked Creek in the fall of 2016. I went through a couple small runs with it. Return to Graveyard Dust was my first collection of poetry. I have a novella currently out for consideration, I’m working on my second poetry collection, and another novel.

Fragment from “The Handshake” by Cindy O’Quinn

I glanced back at the line of fans and realized I’d hogged far more time than I should have. I stood and reached out my hand to my favorite writer. His enormous hand clasped down around mine, causing it to all but disappear. That’s when, once again, I felt that magical haze that had been hovering close all day. I was back in that tunnel, just like before when the writer was speaking at the podium. This time, there was actually a white glow around the two of us. Our hands together produced an electrical heat that I could feel up my arm and into the base of my skull. It felt like it lasted an hour, when in all actuality it was probably only a matter of several seconds. When the tunnel and light melted away, the writer was handing me the novel he so graciously autographed for me, and saying, “Good luck with your writing.”

“Okay. Thank you,” I said. Before walking away, I saw something in Hudson Greenbrier’s eyes that hadn’t been there before. Fear.

The drive back to Charlottesville was nothing like the drive to Sweet Wine. My mind was in a fog, and I was unaware of my surroundings. The fall foliage could have turned black, and I wouldn’t have noticed. I wasn’t fully alert again until I pulled into the driveway at home. I looked down in the passenger seat and saw Hudson Greenbrier’s book. I picked it up and looked inside. I hadn’t even bothered to look at what the author wrote. It read:

Here’s to Torrence Eastlin, the next big deal. I know there will be many who love your words. Hudson Greenbrier

I read the words over and over. I couldn’t remember, for the life of me, having told him my name. I must have, though. In my star-struck state, I must have told him my name. How else would he have known? There was a peck on my window that caused me to slam the book shut like I was hiding a secret. It was my brother, and he was laughing at having caused me a fright. Dell asked, “Well, did you meet him?”

I answered as I got out of the car, “Hell, yes, I met him. Here’s the selfie to prove it.” I handed my cell over to my brother. “He signed his book for me, and we talked a while.” I went on to tell my brother how I’d made an ass out of myself outside the bookstore. He got a real kick out of that. I didn’t tell him about the tunnel, the light, or the fact that I didn’t recall having given Greenbrier my name.

Later that night in my room, when the day had finally started to calm down, I wrote a three-thousand-word short story. I thought it was the best I ever wrote, and I wasn’t the only one to think it was good. My parents and my brother all agreed that I should submit it to Word Burner Magazine, so I did. A day later, I received an email saying they wanted to publish my story in their next issue. I received three hundred dollars for that short story. I went on to write seven more short stories, and they all sold. With each story published, my paycheck grew. Every time I sat down and started writing, I could feel myself floating back into that tunnel I was in the day I met Hudson Greenbrier. Never once did I question it. I just chalked it up to having been inspired by my favorite writer. As I look back, deep down I knew it was much more than inspiration. It went on this way for three months, until I decided it was time to move on from short stories and on to writing my first novel. Within a month, I had written a three-hundred-page murder-mystery novel, and had gone back over it twice to weed out any mistakes, which were few. My contact at Word Burner Magazine referred me to the editor at Nelson County Books, a small publishing house in nearby Afton, Virginia.

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: L. Marie Wood

Last week, I chatted with P. D. Cacek about what it means to be a NECON legend, and she gave some sound advice on writing a sequel. If you missed it, check it out.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes award-winning horror writer L. Marie Wood. I’ve had very limited face-to-face interaction with her. I’m hoping to change that fact in the coming year, because I have so many more questions for her that go beyond the scope of Fiction Fragments.

L. Marie Wood is an award-winning author and screenwriter.  She is the recipient of the Golden Stake Award and the Harold L. Brown Award for her fiction and screenplays.  Her short story, “The Ever After” is part of the Bram Stoker Award Finalist anthology Sycorax’s Daughters.  Wood was recognized in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Vol. 15 and as one of the 100+ Black Women in Horror Fiction.

Her first two novels, Crescendo and The Promise Keeper are available as audiobooks, which is fun!  The Promise Keeper‘s re-release is also scheduled for 2020.  She’s a member and mentor of the HWA, an officer in Diverse Writers and Artists of Speculative Fiction, and the programming director for the horror track at MultiverseCon.

Website:  www.lmariewood.com
Twitter:  @LMarieWood1
Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/LMarieWood/

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster! Your involvement in the horror community goes way beyond writing fiction, and I wanted to highlight some of your different roles that support the work of other writers and help to educate people about the horror genre. Can you tell me about your roles within DWASF and MultiverseCon? How has the pandemic made your roles more difficult? What experiences have helped you in your role as an HWA writing mentor? What other ways are you supporting the work of horror writers?

LMW: I’m so excited to be a part of Girl Meets Monster! Thank you so much for letting me talk about some of things I am most passionate about. I am the Director of Curricula and Outreach at Diverse Writers and Artists of Speculative Fiction (DWASF), which allows me to pair my love of teaching with the genre I hold dear. I created the soon-to-be-launched horror fiction curriculum at DWASF and continue to find new and interesting ways to bring industry knowledge to diverse communities. Alongside horror, we will have science fiction and fantasy modules available in the future and we look forward to diving into the intricacies of world building and character development from unique genre perspectives. At MultiverseCon, I serve as the Director of Horror Track programming. This allows me to create panels that speak to real considerations in the genre – topics like writing strong female characters, accessibility, and LGBTQ+ representation in horror fiction hold court alongside how to build a better monster and horror antagonists in folklore. The conversations that come are invigorating, to say the least.

The pandemic has presented challenges, for sure. Not being able to gather in person has been difficult to navigate and will continue to impact things like conventions and signings. But we are all adjusting. MultiverseCon will be virtual this year and while that will be different than our inaugural event, different is kind of what we do. I look forward to the ways that MultiverseCon shows what it’s made of as we navigate this pivot.

Being an HWA mentor was a natural next step for me. I am an English Professor and, at one point in my career, I created a taught an introduction to horror writing course. We explored the classic antagonists, the role that tone plays in the genre, the nuances of the many sub-genres. It was wonderful – I was absolutely in my element. At the same time, I write a lot. Stories, novels, novelettes, novellas, flash fiction, micro fiction. I did a stint as a freelance journalist. Did a little ghost writing. I used to write poetry and I still write screenplays. I’ve been writing psychological horror since I was a kid and doing so professionally for the better part of 20 years. I live and breathe this thing – I’ve learned a lot along the way and I still learn something new about what I do every day. So, when the opportunity to help an author get their footing presented itself, I jumped in with both feet and have not looked back.

What other ways am I supporting the work of horror writers? In short, I read. And then I talk with people about what I’ve read and encourage them to try it out too. As an author, I understand that to be the ultimate goal – to have someone read my work and enjoy it, be touched by it. So, I too am dedicated to that cause so that other authors – their dreams – can be realized. Sometimes I step outside my genre, serving as a sensitivity reader or as a line and/or developmental editor. Occasionally I host workshops for young writers. For all writers who are serious about their craft, I am a tireless cheerleader, a high-fiver, and a virtual hugger.

GMM: Tell me about winning the Golden Stake Award. What story won? Can you give a synopsis of the story? What do you think set your story apart from the other nominees? How cool was it winning an award for vampire fiction while attending The International Vampire Film and Arts Festival in London? Have you written other vampire fiction?

LMW: Winning the Golden Stake Award was nothing short of amazing. My novel, The Promise Keeper, won the award in 2019 – the 100th anniversary of Polidori’s “The Vampyre”… the vampire tale that is credited with starting it all. It is the first vampire tale to be written in English; it was a product of the night of storytelling he shared with Mary Shelley and her husband, poet Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron where Mary Shelley famously wrote Frankenstein as he wrote this groundbreaking work – so this anniversary was an important moment in the genre. I remember thinking that I was just excited to be a part of it – me, with my unconventional vampire story about a young African girl who is swept into the world of the undead before she even understood who she was or the woman she could become – a female vampire who travels continents over centuries of time to outrun her destiny… to keep her promise. Over the course of the festival I met people who were familiar with vampire lore that I had never heard of before and exchanged ideas with people I am happy to call friends now. When my name was called, I almost missed it. I could not believe they were talking about me. The moment was so surreal.  Here’s the back-cover copy for The Promise Keeper:

A young girl, on the cusp of maturity, in what is now known as Benin, West Africa, is seduced by a beautiful stranger, a man the likes of which she has never seen before. Their encounter changes her forever. She runs, her travels taking her to Europe and the Caribbean over centuries to escape him.  She finally settles in New York City, convinced that she has eluded him, until she falls in love. 

When I did a reading the day before the awards ceremony, several people in the audience commented on the detail and description that I use in my writing and how it transplanted them from the space we shared together to the apartment where blood stained the bed. Perhaps the judges agreed – I don’t know… all I know is that the trophy is literally a golden stake replete with a blood-stained tip. So incredibly awesome.

Yes, I have written more vampire fiction. Apparently, this is the antagonist I go for when I want to write something outside of my sub-genre (who knew?). My short story, “The Dance”, about a chance encounter with a vampire at the club, will be part of Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire from Mocha Memoirs Press later in 2020. I wrote a story years ago about a vampire who had to choose between love and need called “Baie Rouge”. And the second book in my series, The Realm, may or may not have a vampire lurking in the shadows. The first book in the series comes out this year from Cedar Grove Publishing (exciting!), so part two is a little way off…. I guess that means I may need to write another vampire short story in the meantime.

GMM: How do you find balance with all of your roles as a writer, mentor, con organizer, and all of your other responsibilities? Do you have any advice for other writers, especially women of color, who are trying to write and publish, while attending school, and/or working a full-time job, and/or caring for a family? Do you find yourself saying yes to every project that comes your way, or have you learned to say no? Asking for a friend.

LMW: To be honest, I don’t think about it. Let me say it differently. We all know people who drive miles and miles to get gas because it is cheaper across state lines – either we know that person or we are that person. As ridiculous as it might seem to that person and many others, I don’t think about the price of gas or go hunting for cheaper. I need gas to drive. I need to drive to get where I want to go. So, I just buy it. Along those same lines, I need to write. I don’t plot out time to do it, devise a schedule, set a word count, etc. I just do it or something related to it, like research or character development, because I have to. Just like I need to breathe to live. 

Writers write. 

When I had such debilitating writer’s block that I couldn’t string together a full sentence if it was even remotely frightening, I wrote gardening articles and community feel-goods until the block lifted (and boy did it take a loonnggg time – several years). Because I had to write something.   Recognizing my drive helps me understand other people’s needs. Someone needs a second eye on a piece they are excited about; panels need to be pinned down; edits are needed to help move someone’s story forward – it sounds like a lot but all of these tasks are in the same family and they are associated with the thing that I greatly respect in others and recognize in myself as well – the burn. It’s what makes us do what we do – it’s what makes us push. I’ll never get in the way of that.

1 a.m. is a great time to be productive. 

My advice to writers who are trying to get it all done is to do exactly that. On the surface that doesn’t sound helpful but let me explain. I did that very thing – I was working full time, writing, going to school, and had familial responsibilities all at the same time. And the burn that I mentioned before – the desire to be present in my home life, to earn well, to ace the class, to finish the story… to scratch the itch – I let it propel me every day. Sure, I got tired sometimes. Sure, it was hard. But there’s nothing like coming out on the other side accomplished. There’s nothing like showing the children in your life that they can succeed with hard work and dedication – that pushing themselves is absolutely worth it. They see. They understand. And they admire. So, keep at it. Try and fail – it will make you stronger. Try and succeed, then assess what worked so that you can keep that strategy in your toolkit. Share both the triumphs and failures with those closest to you not only to unburden (which is important), but also so they can see you picking yourself up and trying again. Maybe it will inspire them to help you dust off and go again. Maybe, just maybe, it will encourage them to go after something they want too. I do not say yes to everything because spreading yourself too thin is real. I would rather do well with a few things than have a finger in a lot of things that I ruin because I am not giving them the attention they deserve. This can be difficult because sometimes you end up turning something away that sounds interesting. But stress never helps anyone, so sometimes ‘no’ is the answer.  At 1 a.m. I am pretty productive. Not so at 4 a.m.

Fragment from The Realm

It didn’t happen the way they said it would.

No angels came to greet him; no bright light funneled a path through the darkness. No relatives called to him from the beyond.

He didn’t feel warmth, acceptance, or love – he felt emptiness.

He saw nothing in the moments before death. Just an impenetrable darkness that crowded his vision like oil spreading in water, encroaching on the faces of his son and daughter-in-law, blackening them: obliterating them. He could hear them after his eyes dimmed, standing open and blind like black holes. His tear ducts dried up as his son cried over him.

The sound of Doug’s grief, the guttural moans roiling and meshing with his pleas—his barters with God to save his father—was more than Patrick could take. Trying but failing to lift his hand from his side and stroke his son’s head, Patrick silently prayed that his hearing would dissipate as quickly as his sight had.

Patrick could only imagine what Doug and Chris were seeing as his body broke down in front of him. Images of eyes ruined by broken capillaries filled with blood, his slacked mouth allowing a discolored tongue to peek through tortured his mind. He struggled for every breath now, death’s grip holding fast and firm. The thought of the kids seeing him fight for air, his face a twisted mass of pain and effort, upset him more than he thought it would. Death was not pretty.

Doug moaned and Chris cried while Patrick’s eyes grew drier and his skin grew paler. He thought it would never end, the display, the sick, cruel game death was playing. That he should witness it, that he should have to hear the calmness his son usually displayed crumble and fall away, was torture if ever there was a definition of the word. The devil, then. It was his work after all, he supposed. He was on his way to Hell and this was but a taste of what was to come.

And then there was silence.

Utter silence.

The sound of his son’s anguish was gone, mercifully. The hum of the respirator, the clicking of the rosary beads the man in the next bed held, the squeak of rubber soles on the sanitized tile floor as the nurses and doctors hurried to his side – all sound had disappeared. He wondered what would be next to go. His memory? He quizzed himself just to see if it was already gone. What’s my name? Patrick Richardson. How old am I? 59. Was is more like it, he corrected himself. After all, he was dead. Dead. Gone. Finished.

Patrick stood in the pitch-black silence confused and unbelievably sad. He was dead. He would never see the baby that Chris was carrying, his first grandchild. He wouldn’t ever watch another boxing match with his son and friends over beer and pizza. He wouldn’t get the chance to watch the waves break on the shore from a beach chair in the Caribbean. He wouldn’t do anything anymore—not eat, drink, or fuck—ever again. Because he was dead.

And death was dark. Impenetrably so.

How did this happen? he asked aloud using a mouth he could no longer feel. He thought back to that morning, when he was taking out the garbage. He could remember walking to the back of his house and getting the garbage can. The damned cat had gotten into it again; the little stray he left food and water for had knocked the top of the can off, torn through the garbage bag, and gotten to the trash inside. The little monster made a hell of mess too, strewing soggy newspaper, chicken bones, and juice cartons all over the brick patio. Patrick remembered cursing out loud and casting his eyes around the backyard, looking for the cat. He remembered turning back to the bowl he’d left out the night before and finding it full of food. ‘That’s what you were supposed to eat, damn it!’ he’d said as he bent down to clean up the mess.

On his way back into the house to get another garbage bag, a piece of the dream he had the night before came back to him. It hung in front of his eyes like a transparency over real life, framing everything with the hazy film of familiarity, all soft edges and anticipation.

Déjà vu.

As usual after those dreams, the dark ones that made him wonder if he was there, really there, walking, talking, living within them, he wondered if he was the character whose face the audience never sees.

The memory was faint, as it always was the morning after, but he knew what happened next. This time the scene was identical to his dream. There was usually something askew, some crucial piece off center, but this time nothing was out of place. He knew he would turn away from the door instead of going inside to get the garbage bag. He knew he would squint from the sun when he did, and that he would place his hands above his eyes, shading them like a visor. He knew it just as well as he knew his name, for as easily as that knowledge came, it dragged heavy fear and worry in its wake.

He obliged. It wasn’t like he had a choice.

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.