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.

Fiction Fragments: P. D. Cacek

Last week, Girl Meets Monster celebrated it’s 50th Fiction Fragments post and had the pleasure of chatting with horror writer Hailey Piper. We talked about female monsters and the need for more queer voices in horror — writers, editors, characters, etc. If you missed it, go check it out.

This week, I am very pleased to welcome my friend and fellow horror writer, P. D. Cacek. I met her at my first NECON last summer, but got to know her better on a road trip to Haverhill, MA for the Merrimack Vally Halloween Book Festival this past October. Sadly, both events have been canceled this year, which is a shame, because I was looking forward to having more adventures with her. Oh well, next year.

The winner of both a Bram Stoker and World Fantasy Award, P.D. Cacek has written over a hundred short stories, seven plays, and six published novels. Her most recent novel, Second Lives, published by Flame Tree Press, is currently available from Amzon.com. The follow-up novel, Second Chances, will be released from Flame Tree Press, November 2020.

Cacek holds a Bachelor’s Degree in English/Creative Writing Option from the University of California at Long Beach and has been a guest lecturer at the Odyssey Writing Camp.

A native Westerner, Cacek now lives Phoenixville, PA. When not writing, she can often been found either with a group of costumed storytellers called THE PATIENT CREATURES, or haunting local cemeteries looking for inspiration.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster! I was really bummed out about not going to NECON this year, but hopefully we’ll be able to see each other next year. I saw that you will be one of the guests of honor for NECON 40, along with the likes of Tananarive Due, Joe R. Lansdale, Victor LaValle and Bracken MacLeod. I’m excited, so I know you must be excited. What is your history with NECON and how you’ve earned the status of Legend?

PDC: It honestly feels like I’ve been going to NECON from the very beginning, but the truth is that I’ve only been going since 1998…and that’s only 22 years. But I’d heard about it long before I’d walked onto the hollowed grounds of Roger Williams University’s dorm row. Other writers not only kept telling me about this wonderful little “family” convention that was more like a summer camp with panels, but told me I HAD to go. I thought it would be fun, but wondered what, if anything, I’d have in common with “real” writers (we all go through this stage). It took a couple more years but I finally got up the courage and went to my first NECON. Of course I still didn’t feel like a “real” writer (my first novel wasn’t coming out until later that year), so I thought I’d just stay in the background and keep out of sight since no one probably knew who I was. Wrong. Not only did people know me, but those who didn’t went out of their way to introduce themselves and make me feel like I belong.

(Although it would have been nice if I’d known the rules (????) of the Damned Game Show BEFORE I was asked to be part of it…Craig.)

As for becoming a NECON Legend…wow…seriously, it is an honor beyond words. As for how I earned it, let’s see, I’ve only missed two NECONs since becoming a “camper,” was Mistress of Ceremonies in 2002 (when I proved Chris Golden is indeed a NECON Whore and managed to keep Dallas Mayr’s [Jack Ketchum] roast under two hours), have been roasted, contributed to a few NECON Books, co-edited Necon’s charity anthology for the Jimmy Fund Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep and am currently the Volunteer Coordinator. I loved every minute of it and look forward to more minutes (and revenge) to come.

GMM: Second Chances is the sequel to Second Lives, which my mom loved, by the way. Can you talk about your process for writing a sequel? Did you already have a plan for what would happen in the second book? Did you use an outline, or are you more of a pantser? How did you keep track of your characters, events, etc. from the first novel? What difficulties did you encounter in the writing process? What advice would you give to someone who is working on a sequel or series?

PDC: Thank your mother for me.

Actually, Second Chances is not so much a sequel as it is a follow-up novel. I wrote Second Lives, the previous novel, with the intention of taking my characters’ storylines to a natural end point. Notice I didn’t say ending…the whole motivation for both novels comes from the fact that even as a child I always wondered what happened after “The End” in a story. “What comes next?” is the reason behind both books, however I decided against a sequel because I felt I would only be repeating myself.

But that didn’t mean there weren’t more stories that could be told using the same premise—the transmigration of a wandering soul into a new body (no, not zombies)—and that’s exactly what I did in Second Chances.
Although the novel opens in the same time frame as the first, the majority of Second Chances takes place a few years after the first “Travelers” arrive and deals with the aftermath. A bit darker in tone, the novel follows two families and shows what can happen when people become scared of something they don’t understand.

You asked how I kept track of my characters and I’m afraid my answer is rather old school—I took notes…on a pad of paper and Post’Em notes. Yes, I know I could do that on Notepad or whatever it’s called, but I’m a Luddite…and my desk, since each character had his or her own color sticky note, looked very festive.

The first piece of advice I’d give to anyone writing a sequel or follow up novel is to KEEP NOTES. They don’t have to be handwritten or on Post’Ems but you need to remember events and the outcome of those events. You also need to supply just enough history from your first book(s) to remind your reader of what happened while at the same time not falling into the dreaded “info dump.” After all this, it’s just a matter of taking your established characters on new adventures.

The second is to make an outline…if it works for you. I personally don’t do outlines, although I will jot down a scene or event I plan to write, but for the most part I won’t begin a novel or story until I have thought it out all the way through beginning to end. It might take a few days before I’m happy with the idea, but when I am, I sit down and write the ending—whether it’s one line, a paragraph or a full chapter. When that’s done, I block out the scene I plan to write in my head then sit down and start.

GMM: I know you’ve spent time working and acting in community theatre productions. How has acting, building sets, and other aspects of stagecraft impacted your writing? Have you written plays as well as novels and short fiction? How is that process different?

PDC: If anything, working in community theater—building sets or acting—has helped me with my pacing. On stage, and unless it’s written in the script, a pause that goes on a bit too long is deadly.

And the same thing applies to writing.

If you have a scene that goes on and on and on, describing each and every detail of a world whose glory can only be identified in language so marvelous it practically drips purple because the people that populate this world are so….zzzzzzz.

In stage speak: Pick up the pace.
In writer speak: Edit, edit, edit.

Now, I’m not saying you need to cut your descriptions to the bare bones, but you need to keep your reader interested in what’s going on in the story so pay attention to the pace.

After being in theater for a few years, I thought it might be fun to try my hand at writing a play. I mean, how hard could it be, right? Well, the truth is that I found the process similar to eating potato chips: I couldn’t stop after just one.

It was FUN! I stopped writing fiction for two years and wrote seven plays, won an honorable mention from the Eugene O’Neill Playwriting Competition with my very first play, had two plays performed (not a bad record) but never gave serious thought to becoming a professional playwright. The world of writing plays is entirely different than the world of writing fiction.

First, there’s the format.

In fiction it’s an equal blend of description and dialog.

In playwriting it’s dialog, dialog, dialog, etc. (side bar description…maybe). The playwright can offer suggestions as to the setting and prop pieces, but it’s the director that has the final say.

The playwright has little if any say in the matter…sort of like a writer being shown the cover of their new novel.

Another difference is in how one becomes a “professional.”

Author: Write + publish + make money (agent optional) = professional.
Playwright: Write + theatrical agent + legitimate* theater company (* pays actors) + production + production + production + production + reviews + make money + publication = professional.

I may have exaggerated on the number of productions, but that’s basically the process and while I may still write a play or two when the mood or idea strikes me, I’ll stick with being a fiction writer for now.

Write on!

Fragment from Second Chances

Jessie groaned.

“Why did you kill yourself?”

Jessie leaned forward and stared into the man’s eyes. “Because I
watched my friend die and didn’t even try to kill the Traveler that took over her body. I should have done it even if my dad wouldn’t. I owed her that much.”

Grabbing the walker, Jessie pulled the body to its feet and glared down at the man who’d been there from the very beginning and could have stopped it.

“Maybe this is my punishment for not saving Carly’s body from—”

Music filled Jessie’s head.

“Jessie?” Ellison stood up. “What is it? What’s the matter?”

“Shh!”

“What? What do you hear?”

“Shh!”

A single piano began playing, the music soft and familiar. Jessie
recognized it and tears filled his eyes.

“Jessie, what’s wrong?”

The piano was joined by a single female voice. Ellison pushed Jessie back into the chair and moved the walker away.

“Jessie, you’re starting to scare me. What’s going on?”

“Shh. Listen. Isn’t it beautiful?”

“I don’t hear anything. What do you hear?”

Jessie took a deep breath. “Abbie singing. It’s ‘Bring Him Home’ from Les Miserables. Have you seen it?”

“Yes. I took my wife to see the movie. She wasn’t impressed.”

“The stage musical’s better.” Abbie’s voice rose pure and steady and when the song ended Jessie heard their father’s voice.

“The one who dwelled within this body is gone and has taken with her a soul that was hers and hers alone. We who are left behind ask that her soul be kept only unto this body and not return. As it was and always shall be, one body, one soul for now and all eternity. One body. One soul. Now and forever. Amen.”

“Jessie, what do you hear?”

“My funeral.”

**

Barney put the envelope back into his coat pocket as he watched the boy walk away, pointedly ignoring the giant dressed in nursing scrubs who hovered at his side.

It was a slow walk, small sliding steps between the wheeled guardrails of the walker. It was an old man’s walk, but that would change once the muscles in the legs regained their strength.

Barney heard Millie’s quick steps a full minute before she reached his side.

“Where’s Jessie headed? I brought a few books.” He turned to watch her pull three paperbacks out of her ever-present bag. “Not sure what Jessie likes, but I thought these might do.”

Barney took the books and smiled. They were all H.G. Wells reprints. Millie’s tastes ran to the classics.

“I think he will,” he said and handed them back and watched them disappear back into the bag.

“Well?”

“Well,” Barney repeated. “I think Jessie was having a hard enough time even before this happened. I’ll ask that a psychological evaluation be done.”

“You’re not going to do it?”

“No, I’d rather it be done by the hospital. He has a certain, shall we say, well-learned prejudice against me. If I tested him and felt there was sufficient evidence of schizophrenia similar to that of the donor, my diagnosis might come under suspicion.”

“You think there might be?”

Barney thought about what had just happened. There might be other answers to what he just saw besides schizophrenia, but none came immediately to mind.

“I don’t know and that’s why I want him evaluated. Schizophrenia is all about brain chemistry, Millie, and we have no idea whether the physical brain changes when a Traveler wakes or if it simply adapts and accommodates the new memories. But I saw him phase out and experience what might have been auditory hallucinations.”

“That poor, poor child.”

“I know, Millie, but let’s not jump the gun. First he has to be tested and then, even if he’s diagnosed, there are antipsychotics that can and will help. Besides, the donor’s parents have agreed to take Jessie in and they already know what to do.”

Millie didn’t look happy, but did look a bit more relieved. “Well, thank God for that. Did you tell him about Ms. Samuels?”

Barney pressed his hand against the front of his coat and shook his head. It was a copy of Georgina Samuels’ obituary, dated a few days after Jessie’s, and listed her death as the result of carbon monoxide poisoning. It wouldn’t do Jessie any good to see it.

Not now, not…

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: Hailey Piper

Back in May I said I would be taking a hiatus until July. Technically, that’s true because I sent out invites to writers and began scheduling this new round of posts in July. This post begins a new cycle of the Fiction Fragments series, and happens to be my 50th post by the way.

Last time on Fiction Fragments, Nelson W. Pyles joined Girl Meets Monster. If you haven’t read Nelson’s fragment, you should. I had a great time chatting with him about his fiction and podcast, The Wicked Library. Today, I am excited to welcome horror writer Hailey Piper, whose Twitter bio challenges us to “Make horror gay AF.” Intrigued? You should be.

Hailey Piper is the author of The Possession of Natalie GlasgowAn Invitation to Darkness, and Benny Rose, the Cannibal King. She is a member of the HWA, and her short fiction appears in Daily Science Fiction, The Arcanist, Flash Fiction OnlineYear’s Best Hardcore Horror, and elsewhere. She lives with her wife in Maryland, where she haunts their apartment making spooky noises.

Links/handles:
Twitter: @HaileyPiperSays
Instagram: @haileypiperfights
Website: www.haileypiper.com
Amazon: www.amazon.com/author/haileypiper

Three Questions (+1)

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Hailey. Your fragment was the first piece of fiction of yours I’ve read, and now I not only want to know what’s happening in this story, but I’m looking forward to reading more of your work. Sunflower seems to be a strong character, and I’m guessing that she’s either in her teens or a young adult. Is The Storm YA Horror, or do you typically write for an older audience? Who are you hoping to attract to your fiction?

HP: Thank you for having me, Michelle! You guess correctly; Sunflower is 19, though I wouldn’t say the book is YA. I haven’t really dipped into YA and tend to label my work as adult fiction. That said, I never really know where to find the line. I was reading adult books at age 8 and watching R-rated horror movies by 9, so my idea of what’s right for any age is skewed.

GMM: Monsters and body horror are two of my favorite elements in genre fiction. Your fragment has both. Without giving away too much about the story, what kind of monster is Unchol? Is Unchol a she? What kind of monster is Mother? Do you have a preference for female monsters? What makes them scary?

HP: I love monsters too! Unchol and Sunflower’s mother are both the kinds of monsters that have stepped out of Sunflower’s past, perhaps the worst kind of monster in that at one point she thought she’d escaped them. I’m not sure if I have a monster gender preference; I can think of so many fun and/or scary ones of all kinds. But we could always use more lady monsters since there aren’t as many!

GMM: I agree that there is a lack of lady monsters in speculative fiction. Who or what are some of your favorite female monsters in horror, either in movies or fiction?

HP: I’ve always loved Mothra. Mother Suspiriorum from the Suspiria remake is another. And I don’t know if she counts, but if so, the car Christine is a favorite too!

GMM: How much of an impact does your identity have on your writing? I mentioned in your intro that your Twitter profile challenges us to “Make horror gay AF.” What does that mean for you? More gay horror writers? More gay characters? How can the genre open up to include more gay voices in horror?

HP: My identity has a tremendous impact. Who I am influences what I write. I think that’s every writer to some degree, whether they know it or not. As for “make horror gay AF,” partly it’s a statement of intent. I write queer characters, and even those times I don’t, I often write queer themes. But as a matter of how to do that? Yes, more queer writers, editors, characters. Opening up means a lot of things, such as wrestling with a past that vilified queer characters, with not fearing scrutiny over being inclusive. As with any underrepresented group, we have different voices and stories to share. I’ve been fortunate to work with incredibly supportive editors and readers, and my hope is that other queer horror authors will find that kind of support too.

Fragment from The Storm (working title):

“You’re not real,” Sunflower said, trembling.

“I was real when we met,” Unchol said. “And I’m real now. You wanted me to be your nightmare, but that doesn’t make me one.” Her bulbous head loomed, and her bony fingers latched onto Sunflower’s arm. “Besides, you’re not that afraid of me. Not the angel, either. But your mother, she’s the one who told you angels can’t help—she broke that dream. Even I can’t eat dreams, but your mother can.”

Sunflower had known that for the longest time. She tried to flinch back, but Unchol wouldn’t let go. A memory surged from deep inside of a glassy glare in the dark. Mother was always watching.

Raindrops slid down the Unchol’s noseless face. Her white eye shined in the dark. “I told you she’d find you, remember? No matter where you go, she’ll come for you. She’ll watch.” Her teeth slid close to Sunflower’s face. “But you can be something she’ll refuse to watch. I can give that to you.”

Sunflower glanced through the rain, where the mound of false mothers dampened under the storm.

Unchol glanced back. “I was trying to help. You keep bringing her back, and I keep taking her away.” Her throat bulged, and she wretched to one side. A new corpse slithered down her gray tongue and onto the ground. Dark mud splattered its familiar white dress. She had no face. “But you keep making more. If you want to be rid of her forever, you’ll have to become like me.”

Someone shouted from far away, but Sunflower couldn’t hear that well through the rain. Was that Olivia, shouting for her to stop? No, she was gone.

Unchol’s toes gripped the mud. “Be like me. It’ll end, after all these years. Better to be the monster than the loser, right?”

Sunflower looked to the faceless corpse. She’d felt stronger and free those days when she’d run off the boys and raise hell across Chapel Hill. Yet every time she came home, Mother sucked the life out, same as any vampire. Sunflower had only been strong in that house for one night, wrong yet good, at least until the end.

She hadn’t felt strong since, no matter where she went.

And Unchol knew it. Her gray lips peeled back in a grin. “I want the gift. Give it to me, and I’ll make the monster.”

“You can take that away?” Sunflower asked. This burden had twisted inside her for too long, and while it might have helped Olivia, there had been too many other troubles to count. Angels, corpses, this whole hellish night. Sunflower had done terrible things, and not only when she didn’t mean to. She eyed the corpse pile again.

She could stop this if she had the will.

Olivia was still shouting in the distance, something about not listening to Unchol. But she wasn’t close, and she didn’t feel the same as Sunflower did when they looked at Mother’s bodies. The gift could erase them, but they’d never stop coming. Dead or alive.

Behind the bodies stood Mother herself. Could she be the last? Not if they kept coming.

Not if Sunflower kept the gift. “Stop looking at me!” she snapped. “Stop judging me!”

Unchol’s throat rumbled.

Sunflower turned to her. “I don’t want it anymore. I want to make her go away.”

Unchol flashed her teeth. She leaned toward Sunflower, mouth open wide enough to swallow her head, and covered her face in swampy blackness.

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.

Dark Blood Comes From the Feet: An Interview with Emma J. Gibbon

Emma J. Gibbon is a horror writer, speculative poet and librarian. Her stories have appeared in various anthologies including Wicked Weird, Wicked Haunted, and The Muse & the Flame and on the Toasted Cake podcast. She also has a story upcoming in Would but Time Await: An Anthology of New England Folk Horror from Haverhill Publishing. This year, she has been nominated twice for the Rhysling Award for her poems “Fune-RL” (Strange Horizons) and “Consumption” (Eye to the Telescope). Her poetry has also been published in LiminalityPedestal Magazine and is upcoming in Kaleidotrope. Emma is originally from Yorkshire and now lives in Maine in a spooky little house in the woods with her husband, Steve, and three exceptional animals: Odin, Mothra, and M. Bison (also known as Grim). She is a member of the New England Horror Writers, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association, the Angela Carter Society, and the Tuesday Mayhem Society. Her website is emmajgibbon.com.

I recently had the pleasure of reading Emma J. Gibbon’s anthology of short horror fiction, Dark Blood Comes From the Feet. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this collection of literary horror tales that put relatable characters under the microscope to show us the darker side of the human condition. Gibbon takes us to weirdly familiar settings that quickly turn macabre, like a strip club in Purgatory, a Lovecraftian orphanage, a day at the beach that would make Cronenberg proud, and a haunted house on a hill that I won’t forget any time soon.

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Emma. Congratulations on the release of your short story collection, Dark Blood Comes From the Feet, that comes out today! I really loved reading your stories, not just because they were well written, but also because I couldn’t help wondering where the stories came from. You write about a diverse group of characters from different backgrounds with different experiences and I kept wondering which of those characters were you. That might seem like a strange thing to wonder for some people, but because I write dark fiction as well about women of color, there is a part of me in each story. Some really terrible things happen to the people in your stories, but at the most basic level, they’re human. How much of yourself is in this collection? Where do the lines blur between you and your characters?

EJG: Thank you so much! I’m so glad you enjoyed it! That’s a really tough question to answer because in a way, they are all from me but are separate at the same time. I’ve had an interesting and varied time on this earth so far, so it does sometimes feel like I’ve lived a lot of lives. There is no doubt that I use elements of myself and my life when I create characters, some on a surface level and some on a deep emotional level. When I do the latter, it’s often not a conscious decision but something I realize later, sometimes years later. For example, on a surface level, the narrator of “Cellar Door,” Karen, resembles me in that some of her memories she mentions are my memories and she lives in my house. That house is my house! That basement is real! I’m not convinced it was the best idea, it’s like I haunted my own house.  But personality-wise, she’s not like me. Janine in “Janine” is a character I have enormous sympathy for. She is someone who had the cards stacked against her from the start, who made some bad choices and has really suffered for them, much more than she deserves. I have the sense that I could have easily been someone like Janine, but I was just luckier.

Ultimately, there is a lot of me in this collection, probably more than I like to admit. Dark Blood Comes from the Feet, is a line from “Cellar Door” and it’s a reference to having old trauma that you have trouble letting go of. I have a lot of stuff that I psychologically scratch at, over and over, old wounds. They’re in my stories but I skew it and dress it up in monsters and distinct voices and the supernatural so that I don’t even recognize it myself at times.

GMM: While reading the stories, I compared your work to other writers in the genre, including Poe, Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Cronenberg, and there’s even a reference to Donnie Darko (Tolkien), which brought a smile to my face. Which writers have had the most impact on your own writing style? Whose stories inspired you the most?

EJG: I do love Donnie Darko! And thank you so much! That’s a very flattering and intimidating list! I definitely have a group of authors whose work has inspired me. I know I’ll forget a major influence but a very obvious one is Shirley Jackson, but also Angela Carter, Daphne du Maurier, Neil Gaiman, Mervyn Peake, M. Rickert, Kelly Link. I think Brooke Bolander is astonishing. I’m inspired by many people writing horror right now. More than that though, I think the key is I was an early and voracious reader who came from a family that weren’t huge readers. We didn’t go to the library. My parents bought me books, but there was no way they could have kept up with me. I read everything and did a lot of rereading (I’ve slowed down since then, I mean, the internet exists now.) I’d get books from car boot sales (the British equivalent of yard sales). Half the time I didn’t have to pay. I think people were a bit weirded out by this little girl carrying a stack of Stephen King and Alfred Hitchcock books, I especially liked the ones with the yellow edges, so they just gave them to me. Because my reading was very autodidactic and random, I have a personal canon that’s my own. I had no sense of high or low culture (which I still think is nonsense anyway,) or genre or nonfiction vs fiction, so I’d read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest then V. C. Andrews, an anthology of classic ghost stories and Salem’s Lot with a book of feminist stories. Much later, I’d carry on this habit even as I specialized in English—Macbeth with The Mammoth Book of Vampires Stories, a nonfiction book about the cultural effects of tuberculosis with The Name of the RoseWide Sargasso Sea with The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. So all of these stories are all in there and they come out in my stories in a completely unconscious way.

GMM: You have an incredible talent for showing us the horror and reality of the settings in each of your stories. I’m an avid reader, but I also have spent a lot of time watching and studying films in many genres, which I think has had an impact on how I tell stories. Would you say that the written word, or film images have inspired your work more? What films have influenced the way you craft a scene?

EJG: Thank you so much! That really means a lot to me because I have aphantasia. This means that I don’t imagine or think in visual images. It’s hard to describe but I have a strong internal dialogue and think in concepts (almost as if my mind can feel the edges of a 3D representation that I can’t see.) Some of my settings are based on places where I have lived or visited—as I said, the house in “Cellar Door” is mine, the tunnel in “Bobby Red-Eyes” really existed when I was a kid (and Bobby is an urban legend in my hometown), the Black Shuck Tavern is based on a famous Hollywood nightclub. Others were research, I’ve never been to any of the places in “Whitechapel,” for example.

I am very influenced by film too. I grew up in the peak-VHS 80s with very little screen supervision, so we watched a lot of horror films. My big ambition as a teen was to be a music video director. I was a double major in college in English and Art History but most of my art history classes were the history of film or film theory and honestly; it burnt me out a little. A lot of my favorite films are before then. So films like Heathers, The Lost Boys, Donnie Darko, Amadeus, The Faculty, Beetlejuice, The ‘Burbs, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nightbreed and May have had an enormous impact on me. Despite the aphantasia, it’s the colors of the scenes that I often remember and the way they affect mood.

That said, I’ve been influenced and inspired by all kinds of things—personal anecdotes, scenes from my own life, books and movies, music videos, songs, photographs and other pieces of art, TV shows and video games. It’s the story that I’m always most interested in, not necessarily the format.

GMM: I enjoyed reading all of the stories in your collection, but I have a few favorites, including “Devour,” “Cellar Door,” “Whitechapel,” and “St. Scholastica’s Home for Children of the Sea.” Which stories in the collection are your favorites, and why? Which were the most difficult to write?

EJG: As far as being hard to write, two stand out particularly. “Cellar Door” because it was the kind of story I have always wanted to write and fear of failure meant I couldn’t get out of my own way for the longest time. In the end, I made it a NaNoWriMo project and got a good chunk of it done by not looking back as I wrote. “This is Not the Glutton Club” was hard because I hand wrote it while bedridden with pneumonia! It was also the story that needed the most research, and my Facebook friends really saved the day on that one!

It’s really hard to have favorites, they’re like children (I’m guessing). What is nice is that I’ve got enough distance between them all that I like them all. I don’t regret putting any of them in there. I do really like “Sermon from New London.” It was a lot of fun to write. Should we get to the other side of the apocalypse, I think there are worse ways to survive than being part of a matriarchal cult based on punk music. It was first published on the Toasted Cake podcast performed by the editor, Tina Connolly, and there had to be a language warning because there is so much swearing in it. What really makes me laugh is that when I played it to my husband, he didn’t notice, which I think tells you about the level of discourse in our house!

GMM: While you write from the POV of both male and female characters, your strongest characters seem to be women and girls. And, even though terrible things happen to them, not all of them are victims. Many of your female characters make the most of the bad situations they find themselves in, and become survivors. Would you say that feminism has had an impact on how you create your female characters? Or, are you simply showing us the strength of the human spirit? Rarely, do your stories have what I would consider a happy ending, and I really appreciate that. How would you describe your writing style to someone who has never read your work?

EJG: Feminism definitely plays into it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind straight white guys, I even married one! But they have had their time being at the center of stories. They’ve had centuries of being the heroes and saving the day. I’ve made a conscious decision to give people who don’t traditionally get to be the protagonists take center stage or have the happy ending—women without children, women who are not straight, trans women, working-class women. Part of it is being a woman from a working-class background who has not conformed to social convention and having mainstream fiction just not resonate with me at all because of that. I still have a way to go. My writing is far too white, for example, and that is something I have to work on—my experience of the world is not a default and I think the more that I reflect the world as it is, the more powerful it is when I tilt it somewhat. Something that is at the core of who I am is that I will always root for the underdog, always. There is never a time when I’m on the side of the people with all the power so that’s going to come through.

I’ve had to pull myself up from the ashes a few times in my life, start again from nothing and reinvent myself. I’ve seen people, especially women, do that again and again and I like to reflect that in some of my stories. It makes you stronger, like tempering steel, but it has a cost, you can get brittle and break. Even the phoenix has to go through the fire.

Describing my writing style is difficult. It’s one of those things where I would be interested to know how other people describe it. A lot of it is instinctual. Once I get the voice of a story, it usually pulls me along. That said, I like to challenge myself to see if I can write in a wide a range as possible—can I write a nested story in the voice of a Victorian gentleman? What if I had an unreliable narrator talking to someone who wasn’t there? Can I write a speech in mostly misheard punk lyrics? What would Shirley Jackson do? I think that is what it comes down to mostly: What would Shirley Jackson do?

Fiction Fragments: Sarah Read

Last week, Girl Meets Monster had a great conversation with horror writer, Todd Keisling, about religion in horror fiction and how COVID-19 has impacted his writing. This week, I have the pleasure of talking with Bram Stoker Award winner, Sarah Read.

Sarah ReadSarah Read is a dark fiction writer in the frozen north of Wisconsin. Her short stories can be found in various places, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year vols 10 and 12. A collection of her short fiction called OUT OF WATER is available now from Trepidatio Publishing, as is her debut novel THE BONE WEAVER’S ORCHARD, both nominated for the Bram Stoker Awards. When she’s not staring into the abyss, she knits. You can find her online on Instagram or Twitter @inkwellmonster or on her site at www.inkwellmonster.wordpress.com.

Three Questions

GMM: Hello Sarah. Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and congratulations on winning a Bram Stoker Award for your debut novel, The Bone Weaver’s Orchard. Tell me about how the book came about. What inspired the story, and what motivated you to finish your first novel?

SR: Thank you so much, Michelle! The book came about because I wanted to write a scary book that wedged between the gap of YA horror and adult horror. I had never been entirely satisfied with YA horror as a young reader–it wasn’t scary enough, or dark enough, it lacked honesty, and too often I could see the author pulling punches. I started reading adult horror when I was nine. I liked the scary side of it much better, but the stakes always seemed to hinge on grownup problems that I couldn’t relate to enough to fully sympathize with the characters. From there, I just took my love for Gothic lit and tossed in all my favorite ingredients. I wrote the novel for NaNoWriMo, I think back in 2014. My husband was working nights at the time, as a janitor in a hospital. Once I got our (then only) son in bed, I’d sit in my favorite chair with a notebook and pen and hit my word count for the day. I didn’t quite get that celebratory feeling when finishing it, because my inner editor had been keeping a tally of all the broken pieces I knew I was going to have to go in and fix. Writing “The End” was a moment of, “Oh shit, now the real work starts!” And it did, and lasted for several years.

GMM: Last week, I asked Todd Keisling to talk about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted his writing process. Many writers have shared on social media that they are struggling to focus on their work and haven’t been as productive as they normally would be. How has the pandemic affected your writing process? Has it inspired new stories? What advice would you give other writers who might be struggling to get words on the page?

SR: Oh gosh, my writing has been almost nonexistent for close to eight weeks now. I have two kids at home with me, stuck in the house. My eldest is 12 and has 4-6 hours of virtual classes a day, and my youngest is 5, and has no home schoolwork. My days are spent teaching 6th grade, playing with my youngest, troubleshooting eldest’s tech problems, fixing snacks every ten minutes, and I’m still also working as a librarian from home, doing virtual programs for our patrons. I’m also still freelancing (writing, editing), though I’ve had to cut back a bit on that. My husband is still at work full time. When he gets home and takes over with the kids is when my workday starts, and I’m usually not done until almost midnight. Honestly, though, even if my schedule wasn’t a shitshow, my anxiety would probably polish off any creative energy that might surface. I’ve had a few good writing sessions since this all started, but I’m definitely not anywhere close to my usual output. I’ve been at this level of anxiety once before, when I was pregnant with my second son and he kept trying to die in utero over and over and over. I was on bed rest for seven months. I thought I’d get so much done! But it was a terrifying time, and my creative energy was re-routed to self-preservation. Instead I burned through Netflix and played Age of Empires. Now it’s Animal Crossing, if I can catch a moment. I feel less guilty this time, and more comfortable focusing on taking care of myself and my family.

GMM: Your fragment has a definite fantasy feel to it, with a hint f Shakespearean drama with the death of the family patriarch and what is promising to be a dispute over who will take his place as Lord. Do you feel more at home writing fantasy or horror, or do you typically combine the two genres? Can you give a brief synopsis of The Atropine Tree?

SR: I definitely frolic in dark fantasy, and tend to blend it with horror fairly often, sometimes crossing into the Weird territory altogether. I don’t know that I prefer one style over the others. Each story feels like home while I’m writing it. The Atropine Tree definitely dances along the Weird line. It’s unabashedly paranormal, where I usually tend to keep my ghosties more ambiguous. I’m having a blast working on it, though.

The synopsis:

Alrick’s uncle Tredan has his father’s last breath trapped in a blue bottle in his lab. Which is good, because they’ll need him to weigh in on a matter of succession and the location of the missing will.

Alrick’s father is dead, but the lords and ladies of House Aldane are restless spirits. When Alrick’s half-brother Aemon (bitter and cruel) and his sister Nelda (whose mouth is stained black from poison and who sways on the line between living and dead) show up with a lawyer and a dodgy will, Alrick and his alchemist uncle must turn to some dark arts to harness the voices of their household spirits. They must win witchy Nelda’s loyalty and turn her against the powerful demonic specter of her mother, and learn to swallow her poisons in the process.

Tredan’s army of young urchins rescued from the streets of London—the scratchlings, only half of whom survived his medical administrations—will aid them in their quest to secure the land and title for Alrick.

The Atropine Tree is a weird, Gothic Victorian ghost story about family loyalty and feuds that span generations, both living and dead. They all want a home of their own—and they all want House Aldane. It’s like Downton Abbey set in Hell House with the characters of Oliver Twist and a chaser of nightshade.

The Atropine Tree, Sarah Read

Chapter One

Alrick had arrived in time, but only just. The collar of his shirt strained against his throat, his cuffs pinched his wrists like ropes binding him to his father’s bedside.

Lord Drummond’s chest rose with a sound like chalk on slate, like plough on stone—each exhalation a surrender against the struggle to draw breath.

Alrick’s uncle Tredan leaned in and held a blue orb jar to the old Lord’s slack mouth. The fog of his breath that had clouded the glass only an hour ago now barely reached past the rim.

Tredan stood poised with the lid.

Alrick counted the breaths. Counted the beads of perspiration gathered in his uncle’s beard, counted the coarse ridges of his father’s knuckles that he held between his hands. The Lord’s cold, dry hands seemed to wick the moisture from Alrick’s hot palms. He spun the ring that hung loose on his father’s finger. Those hands had once been thick with callous, rough with half-healed tears, but now the skin draped from his fingerbones like half-drawn curtains. Like the end of an act. The end of everything.

Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen. He counted.

He wondered if his school had somehow been frozen in time. If in his six years there, a hundred years had passed at House Aldane.

“Thirteen. Twelve. Eleven.” His half-sister, Nelda, counted, too. Whispered, so that the fine veil across her face barely stirred.

“Three. Two.” Nelda’s voice faded.

His father wore at least a hundred years across his brow. The jar pressed into the greying skin, burrowed in thinning whiskers. Covered the lines Alrick had watched as a child, searching for that rare trace of humor. The lines that had faded, erased after his mother died.

The lid of the jar snapped into place—and that was how Alrick Aldane learned that his father, Lord Drummond Aldane, was dead.

Uncle Tredan held the jar up to the candlelight. The mist of Alrick’s father’s last breath stretched like a ghost down the side of the jar.

While Alrick watched the light play over the droplets condensing in Tredan’s bottle, the other eyes in the room watched Alrick.

He had come home to bid his father farewell, but he would not be returning to school.

The gold signet ring stuck at his father’s knuckle. He feared he’d tear the soft crepe skin if he twisted or pulled too hard. Alrick looked to Tredan.

“I’ll take care of it. I’ll have it back to you this evening.” He slid his blue bottle into the pocket of his long coat, and for a moment, Alrick thought the bulge it formed moved as if it were breathing.

Alrick nodded and laid the slack hand on the sheet.

“Best to wait.”

Alrick turned to the voice, to his half-brother Aemon who sat in the far corner beyond the reach of the candlelight, save for its shine off his eyes and teeth.

“And why is that?” asked Alrick. If a hundred years had passed at House Aldane, a thousand had passed since he’d seen his brother. Not since his mother sent Nelda and Aemon away, to live with their mother’s family. Just before she had died. Their return to House Aldane was a special exception. Alrick himself had granted it. Lord Drummond had been their father, too, and now the four of them—Alrick, Aemon, Nelda, and Tredan—were all that remained of the ancient Aldane family.

“Father’s will hasn’t been read, yet.” The shine of Aemon’s smile stretched wide.

“Let’s not speak of such things now,” Tredan said. He waved the housekeeper Merewyn over and she began to see to Lord Drummond, a half-hitch in her breath that stirred Alrick’s own grief.

The powder smell of her apron pulled at his heart like a chain yanking him back to his childhood, to her lap, the soft cushion from which he had learned his home—the whole world. His whole world.

He reached up and ran his fingers over the wood of the wide beam that spanned the low ceiling. It had seemed so high when he was young. How he had leapt, in this very spot, to reach these distant beams. Landed there on the bed where his father now lay.

Fallen. Already sinking through the linens into the straw, as if life itself had buoyancy, and now the Lord was leaden.

Merewyn rolled a bit of blanket under his chin to hold his mouth closed. A sliver of rheumy yellow flashed from beneath his eyelids, the stillness of those soft folds uncanny. It sent cold down the back of Alrick’s neck. No living eyes could ever be so still.

“He’s with Mother, now,” Nelda said.

“With Burgrune.” Aemon put his hand on his sister’s shoulder.

Tredan nodded. “Yes, and Eleanor. He loved them both.”

“I know,” Aemon said, “I saw.”

“So you did,” agreed Tredan. “We should go. Give Merewyn room.”

Three children entered the room. All wore undyed linen smocks, their heads shaved close. Their faces were scarred with the ravages of old pox that left their skin like masks. They were urchins from London—orphans that Tredan claimed and cured.

I’m an orphan. The thought came unbidden to Alrick’s mind.

No, I’m a young man. Not a child. A Lord.

The children set to helping Merewyn—cleaning the room and folding clothes. Alrick almost wished himself in one of those smocks. Something to do. A duty. A place in the world, instead of spinning uncertainty.

Tredan’s hand rested on his shoulder and steered him toward the door. Alrick stole a final glimpse back at his father. His eyelids had slid further back. His pale eyes stared out into the room, each rolling to the opposite side. Perhaps there was a wife at each bedside and he greeted them both. Perhaps one eye looked to the past and one to the future. Or perhaps he was roving, surrounded by devils.

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: Cat Scully

Last week, I spoke with comic book aficionado and co-owner of the award-winning comic book shop, Comicazi, Michael Burke. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes writer, artist, and all-round delightful person, Cat Scully.

Cat_art

Cat Scully is the writer and illustrator of YA horror comic-novel Jennifer Strange, releasing July 2020 from Haverhill House Publishing. Cat is best known for her world maps, which have been featured in Brooklyn Brujas trilogy by Zoraida Cordova, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, and Give the Dark My Love by Beth Revis. She works in video game development for the Deep End Games, designing user interfaces, maps, and concept art on their next title. She is represented by Miriam Kriss of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency.

She loves Earl Grey tea, video games, Evil Dead, Hellboy, watercolors, horror books, comic books, and anything involving outdoor sports.

For agent inquiries, please contact Miriam Kriss of Irene Goodman Literary: Miriam@IreneGoodman.com

Website: CatherineScully.com
Twitter@CatMScully
TumblrCatMScully
InstagramCatMScully

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Cat. I’m so glad that you could join me. Last week, I spoke with Michael Burke, who is the co-owner of a comics store and says that he developed a love of reading through comics as a kid. He’s an advocate for childhood literacy and encourages kids to read comics to get started. What were some of the first comics you read, and how did they influence you as an artist and writer? What comics are you reading now? Who are your favorite comic artists?

CS: Thank you so much for having me here! I’m really excited to be on your blog! So as a kid I didn’t have a lot of access to comics, mostly because comics weren’t something my parents would you know put money down on. I did earn a lot of babysitting money being much older than my siblings, so what I had I spent on Manga. That was my first introduction to comics. I read Sailor Moon, Magic Knight Rayearth, and anything by Clamp. Honestly, for Jennifer Strange being in the horror camp, one of its biggest influences is actually Sailor Moon. The art style informed how I think about hair, how it flows, and consequently, I draw very epic sweeping hair to this day. I didn’t get into comics until college where I read my first ever comic from my school library – Watchmen by Alan Moore. I hardly ever cry at books, but I cried reading that one. I was determined to write something one day that was part comic, part novel, but instead of it being primarily comics with some prose, I wanted to achieve the opposite by writing a full book that was also told as a comic. Jennifer Strange ended up being a huge undertaking as a result because this book is part journal, where you follow along with what the sisters are reading as they try to solve it, so you get to solve the mystery too, but there are a ton of Easter eggs in those pages that are hints at books 2 and 3. From Watchmen, I dove into Batwoman, who is still my favorite comic book character to this day, and the only character I’ve ever cosplayed. All of the full spreads in Jennifer Strange are because of J. H. Williams drawing this impressive full, double-page spreads. I wanted to do the same with my book. But my favorite comic book? It’s HARROW COUNTY, hands down. You can’t get me to shut up about the writing of Cullen Bunn and the art of Tyler Crook pretty much ever. I’m obsessed with the deep southern voice of Cullen and the dreary, bloody watercolors of Tyler. I’ve watched so many of his process videos on loop. I can’t recommend that series enough.

GMM: Tell me about Jennifer Strange. Judging from your fragment, she deals with paranormal nasties and goes on some interesting and scary adventures. Without too many spoilers, can you give a synopsis of the story and what inspired the book and character?

CS: Here’s the jacket copy for Jennifer Strange, and it gives a pretty good idea of what you’re in for: Jennifer Strange is cursed with the ability to give ghosts and demons a corporeal body with just the touch of her hand. All she wants is to learn how to control her new gift. Instead, her father drops her in the care of her older sister Liz, leaving only his journal as an explanation. Jennifer and Liz haven’t spoken to each other since their mother died, but when the supernatural residents of Savannah, Georgia find Jennifer and her powerful gift, the sisters must learn to trust each other again and uncover the truth about their parents. If they can’t sort out their differences, they’ll not only destroy the veil between the living and the dead but fall into the hands of a rival family who wants to claim the Sparrow power for themselves. This book has got rival families with hatred spanning over decades, no clear cut villain or hero, monster boys, hate-to-love relationships, snarky sister banter, southern gothic flavor, brutal and gory battles, secret family histories, haunted antiques, custom symbology I made exclusively for the book, and terrifying artwork in the vein of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I wanted to write a female-driven Evil Dead, complete with my own Necronomicon, and full of just as much horror-comedy. I really hope people dig it because I’ve always wanted more girls fighting gross monsters books where they are also funny and fun.

GMM: When I’m writing, I see entire scenes in my mind either before or while I’m writing them. As someone who works in visual mediums, which comes first for you, the images or the words? Do you prefer telling stories with images, or simply writing prose? Where do your scariest ideas come from?

CS: I have such a weird process since I’m an artist too, and honestly, I’d consider myself an artist first. If I get stuck in a story, I draw the scene to figure it out. That’s how the ending of Jennifer Strange happened. I was so stuck on how to end it for so long and I ended up drawing the final scene which leads to overall what happened. I’m also a huge plotter. I have to sit down and bullet point out what I want to do before I do it otherwise my brain is all over the place with too many ideas. When I sit down to the computer, I sometimes veer off course though, because when I write it does end up going where the story feels is best. I originally wrote Jennifer Strange as a TV pilot as the thesis for my undergraduate screenwriting project, and so I always saw this book as a series of storyboards. That translated into comics when I decided I wanted to try publishing the thing as a book first. I could never not see this book as a visual, breathing entity. It needed to be art as much as it needed to be words. And not all my books are that way. My other books with my agent are all prose, but there was always something special about Jennifer, something that said it had to be art. And that’s why I’m so glad I went with Haverhill House Publishing! They really let me go for it the way I wanted the book to be, and I’ll forever be grateful to my editor John for taking me on and believing in my book as much as he has. He’s a true gem in the horror community. As far as what I prefer, I really love drawing chapter headings or single pieces of art, rather than doing an entire comic book. I love writing prose, and really diving into a character’s head in the first person. I’m not really much for third person. It’s just not immersive enough for me. I want to be that person when I write them, and 3rd person is too much distance. I do get a lot of my scariest ideas from movies and video games because I am SO visual. I get a lot of ideas from dreams too because my dreams tend to be pretty messed up. I don’t really get scared when I read books, but I do when it’s visual. I get SO SCARED during horror movies! I will totally cover my eyes and hide. It’s so funny that I get so scared because I love horror so much, but I guess I just love to be scared. It’s just so much fun to be scared, and I hope people have fun being scared when they read Jennifer Strange.

Excerpt from Jennifer Strange

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“SPARROW.”

I blinked awake. The room was dark. Too dark. My heart pounded inside my chest as I realized the lamp had stopped spinning. Normally, the stars would sweep around the room across posters of all the places I wanted to travel to when I graduated high school. Only, this wasn’t my bedroom and I wasn’t back home and the lamp sat there like a broken toy in the spare room of my sister’s apartment with its bare, white walls.

I reached out. My fingers cramped as if winter had just breathed across my skin. Impossible. It was almost summer. Maybe the air conditioning unit under the window was broken. I pushed off the sheets, making a leap for my robe hanging on the back of my door. The carpet was so cold it pricked my feet. I slipped on the robe, but it did absolutely nothing to warm me. I waved a hand over the air conditioning unit and it whirred pleasant hot air against my fingertips. Only one thing could make the room this cold, and it was in the apartment with me.

A noise came from the other side of my bedroom door. It clattered and slammed, clattered and slammed as if someone was opening and shutting the kitchen silverware drawer. No. It couldn’t be the Wraith. Bloody Mouth was dead. I glanced at Dad’s journal, which was still resting all crumpled and neglected on top of the hamper where I had thrown it before I fell asleep. I picked it up by the spine and flipped open the pages. There might be something in the pages that could help me.

I tried flicking the bedroom light switch on. Nothing. I reached for my dresser drawer and pulled out the flashlight Liz gave me for emergencies. Dad was the one who started calling her “Safety First Liz” or “Operation Preparation.” For the first time ever, I was grateful she was the most Girl Scout person on Earth. The light came on and illuminated the pages. I flipped to a section where I knew I saw some runes, towards the center of the book. One was listed as a ward against the supernatural, that it could be used to repel ghosts and lesser demons, but I needed a pen to draw it. My bookbag. Shit. It had all my pens and it was destroyed by the Wraith. The only other pens were out there, in the living room.

As I reached for the doorknob, the clanging stopped. Little currents of blue light snaked up the back of my fingers. Something was definitely out there. My power knew it, I knew it, but was it a ghost or a demon that had found me?

The brass handle turned all on its own. The flashlight flickered in my hand as I held the book out in front of me. The bedroom door swung open with a creaky whine. I listened. There was nothing but the sound of my own breathing. The living room stretched out like a massive black hole in front of me. I had to take care of this entity myself, but go out there? Alone? That option was a great big old pile of nope.

I pointed my flashlight into the gloom, but it was like trying to shine a light into a giant storm cloud.

“I know you’re out there,” I whispered. “I know what you want.”

Metal scraped across metal in the direction of the kitchen. Something brushed against my back. My bedroom door slammed shut behind me. I dropped the flashlight and the room went dark. I kneeled and felt around the carpet. Shit shit shit shit SHIT. Something collided into my calves and sent the journal flying from my hands as I face-planted into the floor.

It pressed down on my back. “Get off me!”

My arms flailed around my back to grab it, but my hands met only air. The pressure increased like someone had dropped a stack of weights on top of my back. I choked as my spine sank down against my rib cage and lungs. My legs and arms flailed. I clawed the carpet, struggling for air.

The pressure sank into my skin and I took one last, small gulp. My body flopped once and then went completely still. The weight on my back released. I could breathe, but the pressure was still there, crushing down inside of me instead of on top of my skin. There came a whoosh and my skin pricked all over as if I’d just been hit by a gust of snow. I instinctively raised my arms to block the wind from my face, but they didn’t respond. I tried and tried, but I couldn’t move my arms. My fingers, my toes, my legs—I tried anything, everything. Nothing moved when I told it to.

My right arm lifted. The sensation was distant from my mind, my control, but I felt it happening. My left arm lifted. I was on my knees, but I hadn’t put myself there. I screamed, but it was all inside. My body was a cage, and I was trapped inside.

My hands reached up and around behind me, flattened against the floor. My back arched as my body bent backward and lifted off the floor. Hair dangled in front of my face as I floated up to the ceiling. Tears itched the top of my eyelids as I urinated without warning. Warm liquid trickled down between my legs and little droplets hit the carpet below. Tears ran over my forehead and into my hair. I had to calm down, do something, but what? My body wasn’t mine anymore.

In the warm pit of my stomach, something wiggled around like a snake. It crawled out of the base of my spine, slithered up and out of my throat, and spoke using my mouth.

“Possessing you was too easy,” my voice said.

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 McHugh

Last week, Girl Meets Monster spoke with Nick Cato about the relationship between horror and humor. And this week, I am pleased to welcome the delightful Jessica McHugh.

authorpicJessica McHugh is a novelist and internationally produced playwright running amok in the fields of horror, sci-fi, young adult, and wherever else her peculiar mind leads. She’s had twenty-three books published in eleven years, including her bizarro romp, “The Green Kangaroos,” her Post Mortem Press bestseller, “Rabbits in the Garden,” and her YA series, “The Darla Decker Diaries.” More information on her published and forthcoming fiction can be found at JessicaMcHughBooks.com.

Three Questions

GMM: Hi, Jessica. Welcome to Girl Meets Monster. I’m dying to know what happens next for Duncan Dwyer; I wanted to keep reading when your fragment ended. Can you give a brief synopsis of this story? What inspired the story and where on Earth is Dickety Downs? Is it based on a real place?

JM: This story was originally inspired by a publisher’s plan to release a series of RL Stine Fear Street-eque books. It didn’t happen, but I ended up with several chapters of this WIP story and some characters that I’d grown to love. Nuts and bolts synopsis: it’s about loss coming to terms with how loss changes us, but it’s also about reinvention and not always with a positive spin. Dickety Downs, and the town of Alton where it’s nestled, is pretty much a dead space to the rest of the world. And to a lesser extent, so is Hampstead, the town where I grew up in the 80s and 90s. I was shocked a few years back when I realized my once idyllic suburban neighborhood enveloped by lush and tangled woodland where I pretended to be an explorer and soldier and unicorn and spent countless hours making joyful noise with my friends had become a silent stretch of empty houses hastily vacated. All around my childhood home where my father and brother still live are trash-filled shells of suburban dreams. A few years ago, my high school even closed down, and the police department moved into its still-warm corpse.

Hampstead definitely inspired the town of Alton where Duncan Dwyer and her father move at the novel’s start, but as much as I hope my old hometown is able to reinvent itself, I hope it doesn’t go down the same dark path as the one laid out in this story.

GMM: When did you start writing YA fiction? As an adult, is it easy to get into the headspace of children and teens, or do you struggle to find their voices? How much of yourself is in your young female characters? Do you prefer writing YA fiction or fiction for a more adult audience?

JM: I’ve been writing YA for a while, though I didn’t always write with a YA audience in mind. Because of the protagonists’ ages, Rabbits in the Garden and Danny Marble & the Application for Non-Scary Things were marketed to a younger audience that…ahem…might not have appreciated the gore level. However, even though my 5-book series, the Darla Decker Diaries, was written for middle grade and up, I still pushed the boundaries a bit. (And by now, you’ve figured out that I *really* like alliteration, right?) I don’t feel like I struggle to channel a younger voice, but I’ve also spent a lot of time around kids and teens teaching creative writing, and living and working in downtown Frederick provides a lot of inspirado and research opportunities.

I feel like there’s a sliver of me in every character I write but certainly more than others, at least in the beginning. Darla Decker was directly inspired by my childhood diaries, so she started out very much like me. But she grew as a person over five books and made lots of decisions I never would. Duncan Dwyer, on the other hand, feels already grown. She’s gone through a lot more than Darla—death, abandonment, depression and anxiety—and just when she’s starting to heal, she’s thrown into this dilapidated town teetering on the success of an experimental private school. I started writing this story a year or so after my cat died when I was having severe depression and panic attacks so bad I couldn’t hold a pen. I was on medication for the first time in my life, and in the first few chapters Duncan discusses her meds and visits her new therapist.

As for what I prefer…I just don’t know. But based on my published works, this work-in-progress, and the two middle-grade horror books I’m writing currently, it sure seems like I unconsciously prefer YA.

GMM: Your story has a light-hearted humorous feel to it, but I suspect Duncan is about to experience something strange or even traumatic. Is there usually an element of horror in your work even though you write in several genres? Last week, Nick Cato talked about how humor and horror work together in his fiction. How would you describe the relationship between humor and horror in your own work and in other fiction you’ve enjoyed reading?

JM: Oh, absolutely, there are always horrific elements in my work. Maybe it’s because real life seems to overflow with all varieties and intensities of horror, it just comes out naturally. I truly can’t help it, nor would I want to.

While I’m not sure I’m as adept as Nick Cato at incorporating humor into horror, there’s no doubt I love using it. It’s a great way to manage the intensity of the reader’s fear. While humor can diffuse a tense situation, it can also prolong the reader’s comfort so terror can creep up slow—or methodically unravel in the background while the characters are having a nice laugh. Again, I believe real life follows similar patterns, so I’m just keeping it real creating this delicious genre goulash.

Who Died in the House Next Door, by Jessica McHugh

Chapter One

The squirrel on the porch was dead before Duncan dropped her suitcase on its head. That’s what her dad said anyway. While he scrubbed blood out of her luggage, he repeated frantic assurances like, “This isn’t a bad sign, honeybee,” and “It could happen to anyone.”

Of course it could happen to anyone, but it happened to her, Duncan Dwyer, less than two minutes after arriving at her new home. So maybe it wasn’t a bad sign, but it sure as hell wasn’t a good sign.

Her dad blamed himself, and she wanted to blame him too. It was because of him that she had to uproot her life in Joliet and move to a neighborhood too empty and boring to be called something as crazy as “Dickety Downs.”

She sighed. Duncan Dwyer of Dickety Downs. That should go over well at the new school.

Her father’s bushy black eyebrows formed a somber “w” between his eyes, and Duncan launched into assurances of her own. That’s what they did—what they had to do to protect each other. So, yes, even though he was the reason they left Joliet, he’d done it for the greater good, in pursuit of a better life for them both. Besides, no sane person could’ve refused the generous offer from the principal of the newly constructed Alton Academy. A free house and double her father’s previous teaching salary was more than they could’ve asked for. Add in the privilege of attending the trial run of Alton Academy’s so-called Experimental Learning Facility, and Duncan’s dad was packing up their possessions before Duncan could even think of objecting.

Not that she would have. After more than a year of homeschooling with Dad, she wasn’t eager about returning to a typical school setting, but he obviously was. He missed the madness of high school halls and unpredictability of being a teacher who actually cared about underachievers and outcasts. Besides, if her dad was telling the truth about Alton Academy, it wasn’t exactly a “typical” school.

“We needed our own doormat anyway,” Duncan said as her dad dropped the faded straw thing into the trash bag with the squirrel. The word “Welcome” permeated the white haze like a mocking grin, but she refused to let it venture beyond the rim of her vision. “What do you think? Something nice and flowery, or maybe something a little more realistic? ‘Buzz off’ comes to mind…”

His eyebrows relaxed, and his mouth stretched to a grin. “No shock there, honeybee.” He dropped the bag and wrapped his arms around her, but for all the ways his embrace filled the fractured places, it was as temporary as chewing gum. It lost its flavor quickly, and she swallowed it dry as he lugged the dead squirrel and tainted rug down their new driveway to their new curb in their new, severely weathered, neighborhood.

Anxiety curled her veins like frayed ribbon as she scanned Dickety Downs. They’d entered the town of Alton in the teasing pink of evening, before the trees scraped off their makeup and hunkered down in their truth, gnarled and hideous in the dull light of faulty streetlamps. Most had shed their summer skin and stood as cracked and bare as the numerous driveways leading to dark, empty houses.  Not only were the Dwyers the only ones rustling in the falling evening, they appeared to be the only ones who actually lived in Dickety Downs.

Duncan backed inside and turned on the foyer light, followed by the living room, kitchen, and the long slate throat to the basement. Her dad closed the front door, and she scuttled back to the hall to see his pointer finger fall on the lock like Midas before the rude awakening. From the lock, his fingers leaped to the delicate curvy trim bisecting the foyer walls. He didn’t look up, but he knew she was watching, otherwise he wouldn’t have kicked up his index finger and made a dancer of his hand. He dashed and tapped his fingertips over the trim with his usual flair, but he soon ran out of dance floor. There were no picture frames for leaps or rond de jambe, no chachkis for him to bounce between. There were only the walls and Duncan, and she didn’t feel like being danced on tonight.

Cumbersome boxes surrounded her, wearing labels like “basement,” “kitchen,” and the name “Gail,” which had been angrily x-ed out. None were labeled with Duncan’s name, much to her disappointment.

“When’s the rest of our stuff getting here?” she asked.

Dad’s dancer didn’t land; it simply ceased to be as he strolled past Duncan to wash his hands.

“Some are going to be late, but the furniture should be here soon. The mattress and couches at least.”

“How late?”

He dried his hands and tossed the towel on the sink. “It might be a few days, Dunc. I messed up some of the forms and—“Exhaling, he grabbed the towel again and whirled it as he opened the refrigerator and said, “Ta-da!” A raspberry drizzled cheesecake stood alone on the center shelf, with “Welcome Home” written in shining scarlet glaze.

Dad carved a large slice of cake and flopped it onto a paper plate. “Water, Milady?”

“Is there anything else?”

He started to give an answer she knew wouldn’t please her, so she added a quick “Never mind” and “Yes, please.”

They sat cross-legged on the cold blue tile, which clashed like peanut better and kale with the orange planks of wood paneling clumped along the kitchen walls.

I know you have a fiction fragment or two hiding in a drawer. You should totally send them my way 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: Gwendolyn Kiste

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel about motherhood and how it changes your view of horror, and this week Girl Meets Monster welcomes Pittsburgh horror writer Gwendolyn Kiste.

Gwendolyn Kiste HeadshotGwendolyn Kiste is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Rust Maidens, from Trepidatio Publishing; And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, from JournalStone; and the dark fantasy novella, Pretty Marys All in a Row, from Broken Eye Books. Her short fiction has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Black Static, Daily Science Fiction, Shimmer, Interzone, and LampLight, among others. Originally from Ohio, she now resides on an abandoned horse farm outside of Pittsburgh with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts. Find her online at gwendolynkiste.com

Three Questions

GMM: Hello Gwendolyn! Welcome to Girl Meets Monster. It’s February and that means it is Women in Horror Month. Why do you think it’s important to devote a month to female horror writers? What would you say to critics who claim that only men write good horror fiction?

GK: For me, Women in Horror Month is always a great opportunity to learn about new female horror creators. The industry is constantly evolving, and social media can be so loud and bustling, sometimes in the worst ways, so it can sadly be far too easy to miss a new female horror writer or podcaster or artist throughout the year. Women in Horror Month gives us all an opportunity to discover those voices.

As for what to say to anyone who doesn’t feel that women write good horror, I would remind them of Mary Shelley all the way back when and also of all the literally hundreds of women writing horror now. There’s no reason why readers can’t find a new female author who writes the type of horror they love; we’re all creating vastly different stories, from body horror and the weird to Gothic and grindhouse. There’s no single female writing style; if someone thinks that, it’s because they haven’t read enough horror, especially new horror. I would encourage them to look at the lists and lists of female horror books on the Ladies of Horror Fiction site; there’s something out there they’d enjoy, I have no doubt.

GMM: Where did your inspiration for your Stoker-award winning novel, The Rust Maidens, come from? I tend to put a lot of myself — emotions, experiences, past traumas — into my characters and stories, do you do the same, or do your ideas come from somewhere else? What motivated you to tell this story?

GK: Aspects of The Rust Maidens lived with me for a long time. I definitely draw a lot from my own experiences and emotions in my work. I went to undergrad in Cleveland, and it was something of a haunted time in my life, so that feeling stayed with me and definitely ended up in The Rust Maidens, which is set in Cleveland. Combining body horror and the economic and environmental troubles of The Rust Belt seemed really compelling and also very personal to me, having grown up in Ohio. I’d never seen anything quite like that combination of themes before, so I decided I wanted to make this my story to tell.

GMM: As a woman writing horror fiction, what challenges have you faced? What advice would you give other women and girls who want to tell their stories? And, most importantly, if you became the leader of a girl gang of horror writers, what would be your battle cry?

GK: I think many of my challenges are ones shared by other female writers. Dealing with harassment, from both men and women, for example. That’s always so hard, but fortunately, that’s been the exception rather than the rule. Trying to find homes for my female-centric stories was more difficult in the beginning, but fortunately, the industry is really coming around, so I think this might become less of a problem as we move forward, especially with so many more female editors out there.

As for advice, I would say to write what you believe in. There are a lot of naysayers in the world who can be incredibly discouraging, but do your best to ignore anyone who doesn’t support your work and your vision. There are readers out there who do want to hear stories from female perspectives, so don’t let anyone tell you differently.

Ah, a battle cry! I love that! Honestly, I think it would be something like “All together now!” We’re so much stronger when we work together, recognizing each other’s unique experience in the world and seeing that as a strength and an asset. Women in Horror Month really celebrates that togetherness. Horror, as the genre has been evolving over the years, is really celebrating that togetherness too. It’s a good time to be part of this industry with so many other amazing female authors out there doing incredible work. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for all of us.

Fiction Fragment, by Gwendolyn Kiste

My heart in my throat, I turn around and see someone there on the dirt road. It’s a man who doesn’t belong here, a face I’ve never seen before. Everything in me seizes up, and all I can think is it’s one of them. It’s a witchfinder come back to set the countryside alight again.

A hundred paces away, he’s so close now, which means it’s too late for me to run without being seen, so I grit my teeth instead, an incantation blossoming in my throat. Already, I envision cursing him, of speaking the words my mother taught me, a mere phrase or two that could send him wandering into a day that won’t ever end. After all, there’s always a fairy ring somewhere nearby, eager to gobble down a wayward traveler.

As he draws nearer, he spots me here at the side of the road, and though I make no effort to greet him, my hands clenched tight around my woven basket, he waves brightly anyway.

“Hello there,” he says, heading toward me, and my lips part, ready to direct him into a sweet oblivion.

Then my chest tightens, and I remember the promise I made to myself. No magic, especially not dark magic, especially not against a stranger. For all I know, he’s as lost and hopeless as I am. I can’t assume every man is a witchfinder, can I?

The incantation retreats within me, and I stand a little taller, pretending I’m not afraid. “May I help you?” I say, the words weak and inadequate compared to what I could have spoken.

He grins, dimples pockmarking his cheeks. “Could you please tell me which way to the nearest village?”

That would be our village. He wants to go to the place where I grew up, but I don’t know if I want him there. It’s not my home, not anymore, but somehow, it doesn’t feel right to send this stranger to them. If anyone is going to bother my village, it should be me, not a man who could be anyone at all.

His grin never fading, he inches closer to me now, closing the gulf between us, and my body rises up, nearly quivering off the ground, still desperate to escape. I strain through the whispering sound of the wind to hear other voices in these parts, but it’s just the two of us now. My breath twisted inside me, I could dart back into the woods, vanishing between the hemlock lace and the birch trees carved with symbols from the dead, but then he’ll know I have a reason to run. And he’ll have an excuse to pursue. So I steady myself instead, my hands knotted tighter around the basket, as I inspect him up and down like a laboratory specimen.

Worn brown leather boots, small satchel, thin coat. No horse in sight and no Bible to beat.

From the looks of it, he’s common enough, as plain as all the rest of us. This is a good sign. The witchfinders are fancier. They arrive with flair, armed with pomp and circumstance and enough iron and flint to ignite a whole village. In the past, they’ve always materialized on our streets, clumped together in groups, their black boots and black cloaks designed to put you on edge, as though they’re already mourning you before you’ve even died.

This man is nothing like them. Here he is, coming not from the North, the city that makes witchfinders the same way it makes sharp mead and wagon wheels, but from the West, the direction of the other villages where everyone is just as afraid as we are.

“Well?” he asks, flashing me that smile as warm as summer rot. “Can you help me?”

I back away a few steps, my guts churning. Even if he isn’t a witchfinder, that still doesn’t make him a friend. This is a cruel tale as old as time. Terrible things often start with a girl meeting a strange man in the forest. And after everything that’s happened here, I won’t fall prey to another terrible thing.

Would you like your own Fiction Fragments post? Send me your stuff at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!