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.

Am I a Real Horror Writer?

Last night, I finally sat down to watch Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019). If you’re a horror fan and haven’t watched this amazing documentary, I highly recommend it. Based on Robin R. Means Coleman’s book, Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present (2011), the film not only discusses the historical lack of representation of black characters in horror films, but also examines the misrepresentations of black people when they appeared in them. As you might expect, the filmmakers and actors discussing the films and their historically important contexts talk about their fears and experiences with racism while trying to create art within a genre that subconsciously depicts monsters as The Other in relation to white people and culture in place of ethnic minorities.

After watching the documentary, I was inspired to watch a film from the Blaxploitation era, Sugar Hill (1974), which is about a woman, Sugar Hill, who uses Voodoo to avenge the death of her fiance. The film opens with what appears to be a Voodoo ritual with black people in traditional Haitian Voodoo garb dancing to a serious drum beat. I couldn’t help thinking of Angel Heart (1987), and expected to see Epiphany Proudfoot show up with her chicken. As the opening credits end, so does the dance and we become aware of the fact that the people dancing aren’t in a secluded location away from prying eyes, they are actually performers at a place called Club Haiti. They are performing Voodoo for a predominantly white audience. They are literally performing an aspect of blackness that is a stereotypical representation of black people in horror films. This also made me think of a similar scene in Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988).

Sugar_Hill_Poster.jpg

Typically, in horror films, Voodoo is shown as something evil, something to be feared. Depicting Voodoo practitioners as women who use their magic to hurt others, or exact vengeance, is a trope that I worried about perpetuating while writing Invisible Chains. I didn’t want to stick to the common stereotypes associated with black women, especially mambos, in horror narratives.

While Sugar is a strong female lead in a horror film, the film is still riddled with tropes like dangerous black women using magic for revenge. Her fiance, Langston, owns Club Haiti. A white gangster wants to buy it, but Langston refuses. So, he sends his henchmen to kill him. They beat him to death and leave his body in the parking lot of the club for Sugar to find.

Sugar doesn’t just use magic, she calls upon Baron Samedi who raises an army of the undead made up of former slaves who died of disease while still on slave ships. Their bodies were dumped in the water and washed up on the shore near Sugar’s childhood home. So, this movie has a lot going for it in terms of supernatural horror that looks at racism in the United States (in the past and in the present of the 1970s).

Zombies

In exchange for Baron Samedi’s help, Sugar offers up her soul, but he’s more interested in her body. But, Sugar’s final revenge is taken when Baron Samedi takes the racist girlfriend of the gangster back to the Underworld with him in place of Sugar. In my opinion, that gave the film a happy ending.

Black women in roles like Sugar are viewed as frightening and dangerous because they wield power. My protagonist struggles to accept her strengths and often downplays or hides her abilities for fear of being punished for either her knowledge or power. Her strength is a secret and she doesn’t make use of her power until she’s pushed to the limit. She protects herself and others, rather than seeking vengeance.

I worried that by writing her in this way, people wouldn’t accept her as being “authentic,” and I struggled with my decision, which I think says a lot more about me as a writer and how I see myself than it does about my character.

I also struggled with the belief that because this narrative isn’t a traditional horror story — a slave narrative with a black female protagonist — people wouldn’t recognize it as a horror novel. In fact, people challenged the notion that I was writing horror while I was in my MFA program. But, as Tananarive Due puts so succinctly in Horror Noire, ”Black history is black horror.”

I already knew that what I had written is without doubt a horror novel, but having my beliefs confirmed by another writer I respect and admire made me feel a lot better about releasing this novel into the world. Black women have plenty of horror stories to tell, and perhaps, a female slave is the most qualified protagonist for an historical horror story set in America.

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Invisible Chains will be released in a week on July 22, so my anxiety is on the rise. But after watching Horror Noire and Sugar Hill, I feel more confident about how I chose to write my protagonist, Jacqueline, and I may actually be a horror writer.

Invisible Chains: My Debut Novel

Michelle-LaneFor those of you who missed the news, my debut novel, Invisible Chains, will be released into the world July 22, 2019 by Haverhill House Publishing. If you’re as excited about this news as I am, you can pre-order a copy on Amazon, and while you’re there, you can check out my fancy new Amazon Author Page. Even though I’ve had my short fiction published, having my first novel published makes me feel like a bonafide author. See, I even have an author photo.

That’s great, Michelle, but what is your book about?

I’m glad you asked.

Jacqueline is a young Creole slave in antebellum New Orleans.  An unusual stranger who has haunted her dreams since childhood comes to stay as a guest in her master’s house. Soon after his arrival, members of the household die mysteriously, and Jacqueline is suspected of murder.  Despite her fear of the stranger, Jacqueline befriends him and he helps her escape. While running from the slave catchers, they meet conjurers, a loup-garou, and a traveling circus of supernatural freaks.  She relies on ancestral magic to guide her and finds strength to conquer her fears on her journey.

Oh, and here is the beautiful cover art designed by the very talented Errick Nunnally.

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As many of you know, writing can be a difficult and solitary pursuit. And, if your goal is to have your work published, the stages of writing, editing, rewriting, editing again, and submitting can feel like a never-ending climb up a hill while pushing a giant rock covered in your own entrails. Plus, if you submit and get nothing but rejections it sometimes seems like a good idea to just give up and find a different way to torture yourself.

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Can I tell you a secret? I’m glad I didn’t give up.

Believe me, I thought about giving up. I thought about giving up a lot. But this story lived inside me for a long time and it refused to be abandoned. This multi-genre slave narrative began its life as a short story back in the early 2000s and had a very different ending. That short story shared space on a thumb drive, untouched  with other abandoned writing projects, for several years. I mean, I would pull it out from time to time and read it but I never did anything with it until I applied to the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction (WPF) program at Seton Hill University (SHU).

Attending SHU was one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made. And, one of the scariest. At 40, I was completely dissatisfied with my life. I had a job I was on the verge of burning out on, I was unhappily married, and I was primarily responsible for raising my son who had begun to show signs of behavioral problems at daycare and school. I was the primary bread winner, I took care of the house, paid the bills, maintained social connections with friends and family, and one day I realized I was living my life for other people instead of living it for myself.

I began making a mental inventory of the things that brought me joy, and at the top of that list was writing. Writing was something I had done all my life. And, when I was writing I was happier. I started unearthing some of my unfinished short stories and realized they weren’t terrible. And then, I wondered what would happen if I took myself seriously as a writer. I made the decision to apply to SHU after asking a friend about the program. Jenda had nothing but good things to say about the program, and honestly, I think SHU should consider sending her a check each month for her excellent marketing skills.

My short story, “Freedom is in the Blood,” became Invisible Chains over the course of six years. Three years writing my thesis novel in the low residency MFA program, and three years of rewriting, editing, pitching, and submitting. In the process of writing the novel, my protagonist evolved into a stronger character who stands up to monsters to make a better life for herself.

In many ways, my protagonist evolved with me as I made changes in my own life. Deciding to write this book was the first step towards reshaping my life on my own terms. I’ve encountered my share of set backs, obstacles, and people who behave like monsters, but like Jacqueline, I keep moving forward.

In the process of moving forward, I’ve made new friends, reconnected with old friends, and built stronger relationships with the people who cheered me on through the highs and lows of writing this book. They’re good people. And I couldn’t have survived the process without their love and support.

I am very fortunate to be included in such diverse and supportive writing communities like the HWA and as an SHU alumna. And, of course, I wouldn’t be able to brag about getting my book published if I had never met the Editor-in-Chief of Haverhill House Publishing, John M. McIlveen.

I met John last year at StokerCon™ 2018 in Providence, RI. I pitched Invisible Chains to him, a book that took close to five years to write, in about ten minutes. And, much to my surprise, after babbling at him in what I believed to be incoherent nonsense, he said he’d be interested in reading it. That was the first spark of hope, and it has been one pleasant experience after the next working with John and Haverhill House Publishing.

Well, now the book is written and available for pre-order. The hardback edition will be available July 22, 2019. In the meantime, I have a stack of proofs that I would very much like to get into the hands of book reviewers and people who would be willing to blurb the book. If you or someone you know might be a good fit for a book like this, let me know and I’ll reach out to them.

What’s next, you may ask? I don’t know, but I suspect I might have to write another book.