Fiction Fragments: R. B. Wood

Last week I spoke with Salvantonia Clemente about his writing and music and how these two art forms intersect for him.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes speculative fiction writer R. B. Wood.

R. B. Wood is a recent MFA graduate of Emerson College and a writer of speculative and dark thrillers. Mr. Wood recently has appeared in Crystal Lake Publishing’s Shallow Water’s anthology, as well as online via SickLit Magazine & HorrorAddicts.net, and in the award-winning anthology Offbeat: Nine Spins on Song from Wicked ink Books.  Along with his writing passion, R. B. is the host of The Word Count Podcast—a show of original flash fiction.

R. B. currently lives in Boston with his partner Tina, a multitude of cats, and various other critters that visit from time to time.

Around the web: Website | Twitter | Facebook | Amazon’s R.B. Wood page

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster. Let’s just dive right in and talk about your latest release, Bayou Whispers. Where did the idea for the book come from? Why did you choose New Orleans as the setting? And, why did you choose Voodoo as the primary magic system for the book?

RBW: Bayou Whispers was actually my genre thesis piece for my Emerson MFA. Believe it or not, it started out as a strict Southern Gothic horror story that took place in Georgia (with a different working title, of course)! But as I developed the characters, it became obvious to me that this story was going to be…needed to be… a fast-paced supernatural thriller with horror elements. But beyond genre, the story of my main character, Jeannine LaRue, is one of survival. We all have some sort of survival story to tell—especially after a year of Covid, so what better city to set the story in than a city that optimizes survival: Namely New Orleans? I spent a lot of time in NOLA in the 90’s and aughts…I love speaking with the locals, and then there is, of course, the music, the food and the history of the region. That’s when the voodoo and Haitian elements really came into play.

GMM: How much research went into the writing of the book for setting, characters, themes, etc.? Did you learn anything new while you were doing the research? Did anything surprise you while doing research?

RBW: Research is my Achilles Heel when it comes to “time sucking activities.” Before the pandemic, I traveled to New Orleans and spent a few weeks interviewing people (bars are great for conversations and I’ve been known to enjoy a cocktail or two now and then), researching locations, touring the actual Bayou in an airboat, and listening to some of the crazy stories that are still told about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. I also watched Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts which is a brutally honest look at what happened and how we, as a country failed the people of New Orleans.

This experience (both the MFA and writing this novel) is where I truly began to understand my privilege as a white male and how the social changes we are undergoing as a country need to happen to truly create the diverse yet equal country we dream of. The number of discussions I had about race alone in New Orleans was both educational and passionate and who I am has changed—hopefully for the better. At age 56, I’m still a work in progress!

GMM: Is Bayou Whispers the first book in a series or a stand-alone novel? If this novel is part of a series, what can readers expect next? In terms of writing process, how has writing this novel been different from other things you’ve written? If this isn’t part of a series, what are you currently working on, or what’s next?

RBW: While Jeannine’s story is standalone, there are subtle links to my first novel, The Prodigal’s Foole. The book I’m currently working on is tentatively titled The Illusionist & The Wizard and it takes place in 1880’s New York. The elevator pitch on this one is “To solve the unnatural murder of Manhattan elites including his Father, journalist Whitelaw Greeley engages with Harry Houdini and Nikola Tesla to uncover the truth.” I like to describe this upcoming work as a historical supernatural thriller. Think Caleb Carr’s Alienist meets Kolchak: The Night Stalker. There will also be some light connective tissue between this new book, Bayou Whispers and The Prodigal’s Foole. This may eventually lead to an “Avengers” like trilogy, but that’s dependent on sales and popularity.

BAYOU WHISPERS brief synopsis

Bayou Whispers is the story of no-nonsense New Orleans native, Jeannine LaRue, the sole survivor of her family after the devastation brought on by Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of the storm, she believed she’d been saved, but soon found herself held hostage and sexually exploited, rescued months later by sheriff’s deputy Curtis Jones.  Twelve years after Katrina, Jeannine is a new attorney who returns to New Orleans to save her old friend Curtis Jones—now a local thief and trafficker of stolen goods—after he is arrested for the murder of Jeannine’s captors, whose bodies have recently been found. But Jeannine discovers more than she bargained for when she uncovers a family history of dark voodoo magic and an unholy alliance with an ancient evil Haitian loa.

Bayou Whispers Prologue 

31 October 2005
Orleans Parish, Louisiana

On Halloween night that year, no little ghosts or goblins wandered the streets in search of candy. No laughter rang out in what was left of the Lower 9th Ward neighborhood. Two months after Katrina had ravaged this place, it still resembled a war zone, covered in debris and stagnant pools of foul-smelling water from the levee breach.

As midnight approached, a young teenager—naked, dirty, covered in mosquito bites, and with a nasty leg wound wrapped in crusted-over grey rags—stumbled from a copse of trees. She was thin, so very thin, weighing barely eighty pounds. 

The muddy and cracked streets before her sat dark and empty; human detritus littered the roads and yards, and the skeletons of ruined homes bore unintelligible spray paint that looked more like the desperate scratching of a fluorescent wild beast than symbols from a nameless insurance company or traumatized recovery workers. 

It was a city of the dead, a city of the damned. 

Right foot, left foot drag. One step at a time. The pain didn’t matter. It can’t matter.

Jeannine had been walking for what felt like forever, almost in a trance, placing one bloody foot in front of the other. Moving forward was the only thing that mattered. 

Keep moving. Those white guys might be following. Keep moving. 

Right foot, left foot drag.

She walked through glass and rusted nails, around junked appliances and damp, moldy couches. A dog barked once in the distance. 

A patrol car sat watch at the end of the street, engine idling. Jeannine approached, fear causing each step to hesitate. The light of a burning cigarette brightened as the occupant of the vehicle, still in shadow, took a long drag.

“Help,” croaked Jeannine. Her voice strained, rough. Insects chirped. Frogs called to their mates. No one heard her.

Right foot, left foot drag.

The person in the car took another pull, a dot of orange light flaring, then fading.

“Help!” she called, louder this time. The insects and the frogs stopped. The patrol car’s dome light winked on as the door opened.

Jeannine screamed.

She screamed as the cop ran toward her. She screamed as the cop took off his own shirt to wrap around her. She screamed as the cop carried her to the car.

“Jesus H. Christ! Randy, call for an ambulance!” yelled the cop.        

The cop’s partner, still inside the car, got on the radio.

Jeannine continued to scream until her vocal cords tore. She tasted blood.

“You’re safe, honey,” said the cop for the seventh time. Jeannine finally heard him.

He stayed with her until the ambulance arrived and then rode with her to the hospital. He spoke to the doctors on her behalf. He sat with her in intensive care while Jeannine, clean for the first time in months, slept. He watched her tossing, turning, and moaning softly.

Randy, the cop’s partner, arrived at the hospital. He’d taken care of the paperwork and had brought a po’ boy and a coffee. The sandwich was left untouched.

For the next hour, the partners sat a silent vigil over Jeannine.

The first cop must have drifted off because he woke with a start when someone placed a hand on his shoulder.

“Officer Jones?” asked a man in scrubs. “I’m Doctor Broussard. Can we talk outside for a minute?”

The cop looked to his partner and he nodded back at him.

“Go,” said Randy. “I’ll be here.”

Jones followed the doctor into the hallway.

“Officer, we can’t find any of…” He glanced at a clipboard. “…Jeannine’s family. I wanted to let you know that in the morning, and assuming she’s still stable…” The doctor let his words drift off as he swallowed hard. 

Jones noticed the man’s youth, how inexperienced he must’ve been before Katrina hit. The doctor looked like some of the baby-faced soldiers Curtis had met during the war—young men, children, really, who grew up quickly in the face of tragedy and death. 

Jones put his hand on the doctor’s shoulder.

“Yes. Sorry,” said Dr. Broussard. “It’s been a long couple of months of giving out bad news.”

“I understand,” said Jones automatically. “Just hit me with it, Doc.”

“She…Jeannine…we are going to have to remove her leg. The infection is too severe and there is gangrene.”

“Do what you have to,” said Jones impassively.

“But without parental…”

“Will the surgery save her life?”

“Yes.”

“Take her leg, then.” Jones’s left eye twitched once.

Doctor Broussard nodded. “I’ll need you to sign.”

A moment later, Jones returned to Jeannine’s room.

“Well?” asked Randy.

Jones slumped into a chair. “They’re going to take it in the morning.”

Suddenly, Jeannine sat up, ice-blue eyes wide, unblinking.

It was those eyes that had thrown him. This young teen—he’d met her once before the storm. He didn’t recognize her at first, as she practically crawled from the bayou, filthy and emaciated. The last time Curtis had seen her—she’d been covered in blood.

She had brown eyes then. He remembered them—unblinking and staring into a nightmare of unimaginable horror.             

“Jane Doe” was Jeannine LaRue. Jones was sure being a child of mixed-race parents was hard enough to grow up with in this town, but this young woman had experienced far more and far worse than her fourteen years had prepared her for.

Jones knew who she was now; she had been returned unlike so many of those in the missing persons reports.

The details of so many lost souls broken down into height, weight, and hair color.

“You all right, Jeannine?” he asked.

She looked at Jones, eyes unfocused from the drugs the doctors had pumped into her.

“Papa Nightmare is here!” she said in a frantic whisper. “Papa Nightmare!”

“Shhh. It’s all right, honey. You are safe now. I’m here and I won’t leave you.”

Jeannine blankly looked at Jones. He gently helped her lie back down.

“Right foot, left foot,” she muttered as her eyes fluttered once before closing.

The drugs took a lasting hold, and Jeannine’s breathing slowed. She spoke occasionally, nonsense words mostly. Jones held her hand for the rest of that night. “You’re safe,” he whispered again. “I promise.”

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: Salvantonio Clemente

Last week I chatted with queer horror writer, Andrew Robertson about growing up in the 80s under the shadow of the AIDS epidemic and how writing horror has given him a space to explore aspects of identity.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes writer and musician Salvantonio Clemente.

Ah…here is where I introduce myself (awwwkward).

My name is Salvantonio Clemente, but that’s too many vowels so, call me Sal. Occasionally, my partner calls me “jerk”; I suspect others might do so as well.

I’m a life-long writer, producer, and performer of music. I’m an aspiring writer and voracious consumer of stories, and I write speculative fiction that leans heavily toward the possible. I’ve spent the last year writing a baker’s dozen short stories and banging out two novels, the second of which will be completed in June.

It is my sincere wish to spend the rest of my days creating worlds and playing in them. Of course, it was once my destiny to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, so…baby steps.

I am fortunate to have the unswerving support of my partner, Darcie Lynn Clemente. We live just outside Boston and have three grown daughters, Maria, Emma, and Lola, who are all far more talented than I am. Thank you, Michelle, for asking me to participate in Girl Meets Monster…I feel like I’ve arrived!

All about my band, The Ultrasonic Rock Orchestra:
www.urorocks.com
www.facebook.com/UROrocks

My author website is under construction but visit me soon at:
www.writescifi.com

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Sal. And, thank you again for inviting me to be part of your writing group, The Scrawling Commandos. It has been great getting to know you and the other members of our small writing community, sharing stories, asking honest questions about writing, and supporting each other during these strange times. Can you give a little bit of background about the writing group, and why you believe writing communities are important to writers — aspiring or established? What have you discovered about yourself as a writer and what have you learned from others in the group?

SC: The first thing I discovered? I am not as good as I imagined.

This hurt my soul but was super-useful!

Our writing group is the brainchild of our mutual friend and all-around great guy, Mike Burke. After a twenty-year adventure in a rock band, I desperately needed a place to hone my somewhat atrophied fiction writing skills. So, I stuck my foot in the door at Commandos HQ and refused to remove it until Mike allowed me inside.

I recommend a writing group to rookie or veteran, but only if they’re willing to lower their defenses. There’s a place for affirmation, but we all have folks who fill that need, a writing group needs to be more useful.Still, in our group it’s imperative to deliver our criticism with respect for the effort given; it shouldn’t ever feel like blunt-force trauma when a critique comes.

As artists, it’s vital to have a place we can step outside the strictures of what’s expected, to screw up or succeed as the case may be. Within the confines of the group, I can invest myself into any character, any culture, any point of view, and I’m going to get honest, direct, useful, feedback about the work. If the story needs correction, or jettisoning, or to be curbed, then my comrades give me specific ideas on what to do, which is invaluable because my goal is to sell stories.

It’s not easy; we have our ups and downs, but over the course of 3 years I still very much want to do this thing with these people. I feel tremendous pride in their successes; our camaraderie is genuine. It’s working so far, as my friends have yet to hit the eject button on my seat.

GMM: I’m really glad you decided to share an excerpt from “Arcana Major.” I really liked this story when I read it a few months back and I’m hoping that you either expand on the story, or get it ready for submission as is. I think I mentioned how real the characters seemed to me. I felt like I knew them because they reminded me of kids I grew up with, and the band’s performance brought back memories of seeing live music in dives and weird places like the Knights of Columbus. Where did the idea for the story come from, and are your characters based on people you know? Is this a fictionalized account of something that happened to you as a teenager?

SC: I am really glad you liked “Arcana Major.” It’s a good thing since the story wouldn’t have happened without the prompt which you provided for our writing group, which included the Tarot and a gender flip for the main protagonist.

I knew almost nothing about Tarot, other than bits I’ve consumed through films and TV, but once I dug in, I became obsessed with the artwork!

These cards are amazing! If I had seen them when I was a young musician, I would have insisted the band all take on a different card/character as a persona, and this led to the idea of having the story be about a band.

Jenn (with two n’s) is based on who I was as a naïve youngster trying to get my original band off the ground. The other members of Arcana Major are each based on real people. One of the guys was inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame this year! He and I were in a few bands back in Pennsylvania, before I moved to Boston and he went on to massive fame.

“Arcana Major” was a hoot to write, a fantasy, but one rooted in rust belt Pennsylvania and how things really were. A lot of the story is the truth; hopefully, enough to make it feel genuine.

GMM: Music is obviously an important part of your life, and I’ve noticed that music finds a way into several of your stories I’ve read so far. Music is really important to me, too, and I believe it has had a major impact on shaping me as a person and even as a writer. When did you really know you wanted to be a musician, and how has music influenced your writing, and/or vice versa? Is music an important part of your writing process? Have specific songs inspired stories? Have stories inspired your music?

SC: I wanted to be an artist and the definition was broad for me; I’m sure this was due to my upbringing. My mom was a singer and dad was a writer who produced and directed theatre: a true renaissance man. I wrote, drew, painted, performed, directed. I did a lot of theater, and then discovered rock bands, and found a calling I couldn’t resist.

I focused all my efforts into learning to be a musician, writer, and performer, but the itch to write fiction never went away, and the advent of the pandemic opened up the time to give it proper attention.

As to what part music plays in my writing? It’s nearly all subconscious. There’s Bowie and Queen and The Beatles, but I grew up on comics, pulp fiction, sixties and seventies paperbacks, Dark Shadows, Dali, Shakespeare, Kubrick, Rod Serling, on and on, like all of us. With all of this bouncing around in my skull, my writing veers off in a lot of trippy directions.

Three of my short stories feature musicians as characters, but only “Arcana Major” directly touches on my own experience.

As for stories inspiring music that I’ve written, I had never thought about it until reading your question, but it is undoubtedly the case that I have written songs based on stories I’ve read.

When I’m writing, I often listen to instrumental music, but I need to tailor the music to the story. For instance, I’m listening to the score to The Knick, and The Queen’s Gambit, on an endless loop while I’m writing the novel I’m working on. This particular music helps to unlock my subconscious and allows me to get in a flow with the words. As dumb as it sounds…that’s how it works for me. Thanks, again, Michelle! This was too much dang fun! Back to the grind!

Excerpt from “Arcana Major” by Salvantonio Clemente

Minor Arcana: Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

Steam blasts from a radiator nozzle and I catch a snootful of patchouli oil. At Joe’s Cabinet of Curios and Curiosities, the only thing curious is that the cops let Joe get away with open displays of paraphernalia and Dead bootlegs. The rest of us can’t cross the street without showing our papers.

I’m Jenn with two n’s, and I’m here for the spinner racks jammed with books on the occult, zen stuff, and philosophy. Don’t ask me who in my rust-belt town this fine array is aimed at, but I am desperate for a band name and last week the town library shut down for good.

I’m wedging out a dusty brick of Kahlil Gibran poetry when I spot the corner of the Tarot deck’s slipcase peeking out from a stack of ratty back issues of Cream.

I snatch the cards from the pile, and the room gets weird.

The embossed case is cold, slippery, heavy.

I tip the deck into my hand, and the cards resonate like the first time I cranked my amp and hit a perfect power chord.

I shuffle through the deck as the afternoon sun slashes through strings of colored beads hanging in the smoke-hazed window. Fireworks go off on my retinas and trigger a memory of when I was six and dad slid his leather headphones over my ears; he held them in place while mom dropped the needle on Switched On Bach and little kid me saw stars being born inside billion year old nebulas.

Like back then, I have to remember to breathe.

Yeah.

It’s that kind of life-altering resonance.

I’m a musician. I feel the same sensation—okay, maybe not this intense—when Father Herron cuts loose on the big pipe organ after Sunday mass. Hell, the National Anthem gives me goosebumps, and I don’t buy a word of anything said by priests or politicians. But I don’t believe in mystical hoodoo, either. Whatever’s happening is physics and biology; some strange combination of factors hitting my system all at once, giving the deck its charge.

Still, when the universe shows you a sign it’s probably best to read it, right? I don’t know jack squat about the Tarot, but in my hand is the key to my band’s future. I know it.

I sweet-talk Joe down to five bucks and, with the deck still vibrating in my hip pocket, kick the door open and head out into the cold.

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: James Matthew Byers

Last week, I got to chat with my favorite belligerant nerd, Patrick Freivald about his latest novel, Murmur and how sex and horror intersect in his fiction.

This weel, Girl Meets Monster welcomes the Darque Bard, James Matthew Byers.

James Matthew Byers, the Darque Bard, resides in Odenville, Alabama. He has been published in Weirdbook Magazine, Grievous Angel ezine, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, poetry journals and through Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, AL, where he received his Master’s in 2010. His epic poems, Beowulf: The Midgard Epic and The Bard Song Saga: Valkeryia are out now from Stitched Smile Publications, LLC. He has won or placed in numerous contests at the Alabama State Poetry Society. The Darque Bard continues to write prolifically, supporting anyone who wishes to place their hammering fingers to the keyboard anvil becoming a polished wordsmith in the process.

Find James Matthew Byers at:

Twitter: http://www.Twitter.com/TheDarqueBard
Facebook: https://m.facebook.com/TheDarqueBard/
WordPress: http://jamesmatthewbyers.wordpress.com

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, James (or would you prefer Matt, Matthew…). In the short time that we have gotten to know each, you mentioned that you’ve been working on The Bard Song Saga: Valkeryia for a long time. How long have you been working on this project? What were some of the roadblocks preventing you from finishing? How does it feel to finally publish this labor of love (or, possibly an albatross)?

JMB: It’s my absolute pleasure to be here! I’m still flipping out over your debut, Invisible Chains. This is soooooo mega awesome! You’re quite the storyteller and crafting a novel the way you did still has my mind reeling with excitement. Sorry- had to get the geek in me calm. (I LOVE your book!!!)

To answer your first question- most of my friends and family call me Matt. I use my whole name, James Matthew Byers, when writing. In college the professors called me James. A few folks use Matthew. I’ll answer to all of the above, but by all means, Matt to you.

Oh wow. The Bard Song Saga: Valkeryia is the culmination of 31 years of my life. The characters who soon will reach the public eye are much different than where they began. It’s definitely epic poetry sewn primarily as fantasy with some sci fi and horror tossed in.

When I was fifteen, I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Dracula. Devoured all DragonLance, Forgotten Realms, and Ravenloft books. Grew up on Star Wars and The Barsoom Series. Frankenstein comes to mind as well. Alien. These stories and films had an influence on me that was incurable. (There are honestly too many to list- but I will add the artists of TSR in the 80’s and 90’s and comic art influenced me greatly as well) By the time I got to high school, I had been creating my own stories, poems, and art designs a while. In 9th grade I came up with a book idea called The Legacy of Mythril. I wrote it and carved out my own fantasy world called Mythalonia. That tale had a dwarf as the lead. Mythril. My upcoming release is a reboot of my own story. It went through many reincarnations before arriving where we are today.

As far as roadblocks, I’d say a lot of it was just life. Job changes, marriage, divorce, children … Things that shaped my poetic voice. I write in a particular way, a unique style. It’s very difficult to sell what I do. Back when I was beginning this project, there was no internet. I had no way other than reading “how to submit” books to know what a publisher wanted. I would go into a bookstore with a notebook and copy addresses from companies like TOR, Baen, ROC, and any other fantasy imprint I could find. After some two hundred odd rejections, I still found myself clinging to the notion this thing would happen. By the time the age of the digital native arrived, it became much easier to locate presses and find what editors were looking for. I never gave up on Mythalonia. I just took the very long road to get here.

When I signed with Stitched Smile Publications in 2016 and sold my version of Beowulf, it was exhilarating. I had a rhyming book out- I always wanted to be an epic poet more than a novelist- and I was over the moon. But this … this is a feeling on a whole other level. I’d say this is the pinnacle of all I’ve dreamed of my whole life. Stitched Smile allows me so much freedom. I do my own art, have so much input on the projects I do with them, unequivocally this is the greatest experience ever. There were times where it’s been an albatross for sure; something hanging around my neck I couldn’t shake. But here at the doorstep of its release, the love and passion far outweigh the long term burdens that rose up until I arrived here. The protagonist’s name is Sindri. She’s a dworc- a half dwarf, half-orc. She’s got a lot to say and I’m eager for others to hear her. I’m hoping the world loves adventuring throughout Mythalonia as much as I do.

GMM: When did you begin writing poetry? Epic poetry seems to be an artform from a different age, but it seems to be what you do best. How did you become inspired to write book-length poems, and when did you become the Darque Bard?

JMB: I began writing poems around age 8. I had been drawing and illustrating stories since I was in kindergarten. I always wrote what I thought were oddly designed tales. Then, when we studied Robert Frost and Edgar Allan Poe in 6th grade, the realization I was a poet sort of slapped me in the face. By my senior year, I had written a Canterbury Tales style poem about getting into my first car wreck. From there I delved into rhyming patterns and poetry, fully immersed in all meter and forms I could find. Reading Beowulf was a game changer. That’s definitely one reason I chose to redo it in iambic tetrameter. I realized telling stories that would make great spoken spectacles could come from my rhymes and rhythms. I began to craft my characters into mini epics. After several attempts, the original rhyming version of The Legacy of Mythril was finished in 1997. (After a prose version and a comic book) From there I jumped deeper into formal poetry. There are strict rules when writing it. With free verse you can go all over the place. Rhyme requires discipline and patience. The challenge to do book length poems in itself motivates me.

I became the Darque Bard towards the end of 2017. I had been promoting Beowulf: The Midgard Epic. Through Stitched Smile, it sort of evolved. Lisa Vasquez, the CEO of the company, always told her authors to create a brand. My editor at the time, Donelle Pardee Whiting and Lisa both always called me the Darque Bard. I ran with it. I decided wearing a green robe would make me look like a wizard or a Druid, and performing my poems orally might give me an edge over others. It lent itself to the past and other worldly sensations. Thus the Darque Bard as I am now was born. I also dress up as one of my characters, Bengalla. He’s a tiger from the lands of Acmar. But I’ll save that for another time …

GMM: Tell me about your writing process. For me, I get snippets of dialogue or see full scenes unfold in my head before I begin writing a new story, or the next chapter of a longer piece. Where do your poems begin? Where do your characters come from? Do you draft your poetry from beginning to end in one sitting, or do some of your poems take longer to figure out? Why poetry as opposed to shorts stories or novels?

JMB: I am one of those poets and artists who wait for the Muse to light upon his shoulder, darken his doorstep, or whisper into his mind. When this happens, when she sings to me, I begin cranking out the poetry. I honestly don’t do notes or outlines. Characters are born in my soul, I write, and they appear in text. Most shorter poems are done in one sitting. The longer stuff, like Valkeryia, takes time. But it just seems like I tap into this poetic ether and it flows through me. I’m its conduit. As I mentioned earlier, I always wanted a gimmick; to be known as the rhyming storyteller. I write prose. Do some free verse poetry. But rhymes are my jam. I love telling stories this way. I feel closer to Homer and Poe than Tolkien or Burroughs. Though they all influenced me, I have always bucked the system. Did it take a long time to get published? Yes. Did it get there, my way, finally? Absolutely. Patience is the key to success.

And here’s where I randomly compose something for you during our interview–

The road is long, the journey slow
But if we face the mountain
Eventually, the thirst will grow;
We drink from in its fountain.
Success may not be what we thought,
However, never waver
And in the end the dream is caught;
Go taste it; feast and savor …

Sort of how the whole process works for me. The words just flow. And like the little poem above says- I really believe this- all good things come in time. I wrote a prose version of the story where Mythril was still the lead character. It’s 182k words. But it’s in a file in my computer. I just have to rhyme. I have to be me, James Matthew Byers, the Darque Bard …

Thank you so much for this amazing opportunity to share! I have enjoyed this immensely. I am more than excited for The Bard Song Saga: Valkeryia to release very soon. And I’ll probably revisit Invisible Chains soon. Such a stellar novel! Until next time … The Darque Bard bids thee adieu …

Cover art for The Bard Song Saga: Valkeryia

Fragment from The Bard Song Saga: Valkeryia

Prologue

Another time, another place,
Another set of lives
Reset and chosen to erase
Became as sharp as knives.
Unknown to those who lost the way,
Unknown by those removed,
Unraveled in the ebb and sway
Of things that were not proved,
A world besieged by something new,
Yet something that was known
Encumbered those who came in view
Or sat upon the throne.
And so, it was that such a thing
Began with just a chance
For nothing lasts where hope may cling
Undone by circumstance …

I

A hammer to an anvil rang
Announcing by decree
Creation as the embers sang
A fiery melody.
Upon a night beneath the moon
Corruption spilled chagrin-
Departing with the smithy’s tune,
The horde of orcs within
Destroyed the dwarven residents
As one by one, they fell
Fulfilling former precedents
Inviting death to dwell.
Below the Kilkaln Mountain range
Erupted pools of red
Embracing heroes greeting change,
Completely left for dead.
A magic wielder clothed in black
Bespoke a wordy play
Engaging in her bold attack
Before the light of day
Emitting sparks of reddish hue
Into the open air
Engulfing what remaining few
Ablaze in flesh and hair.
All regimen in Plover stalled,
The realm where havoc reigned,
Congealed as chaos came and called
For darkness it obtained.
On Mythalonia, the lands
Began to see the rise
Of mystic forces joining hands
Content in evil eyes.
Unsettled in her aftermath,
Destruction doomed the hall
Disgorging red along her path
That lingered wall to wall.
A manner born of synergy-
The Aura, it was named-
Infusing colored energy
And now about, it flamed …
The gods had willed it long ago
Within a magic spell
Invoking power from the flow
Within where legends dwell.
The Pantheon, as they were known,
Begat without remorse.
Of all who sat upon a throne,
But one defined the course
Allowing what they customized
To flourish and to grow.
She and the dragons greatly prized
The magic and its flow.
The Aura swirled in Dark and Light
As evil lurked abroad-
Benign were most, but soon a fight
Erupted with a god.
As with all things, corruption cried,
And with a word, they flew-
The maidens armed with wrath espied
And pushed the battle through.
Created by the one who bore
The cat and dragon’s make,
They swiftly eased the dawning war
And chose a place to stake.
The Valkyries had claimed a home
Le’Mae had bade them reign,
And so, it was that they would roam
One day on Plover’s plain.
The powers that they all possessed
United them as one,
Around them prophecy professed
Direction they would run.
As warriors of heaven’s flame,
Defined by shield and sword,
Le’Mae had offered them a name
Befitting their accord.
Of all the deities around,
The panther goddess gave
And offered gifts that were profound
To shine beyond the grave.
The many mortal races made
Had all been so designed
To harness certain gifts displayed
Until they were refined.
As such, the Aura came to be
A means of mystic force.
The colors spoke in harmony;
Forbidden to divorce.
The dwarves had shunned it from the start,
Preferring hand and steel.
The elves and humans found its heart;
Before it, they would kneel.
The orcs and trolls went either way
As Acmar reared its might.
A story for another day …
Returning to the fight,
Deprived of mettle, left and right,
Again, the dwarves inside
Began succumbing to the plight
With nowhere they could hide.
A finger pointed to a room
As through the bulky crowd
Appeared a beastly orc of doom-
Intolerant and proud.
The heaving thrust upon a door
Continued on and on
Until the wood lay on the floor
And all around it, stone.
The throne room of the king and queen,
Abandoned it would seem,
Illuminated wealthy sheen
Reflected in the beam
Before the slobber dripping awe-
Enraged and open wide,
The upper lip and lower jaw
Amazed by all espied
Replied with such a lusty moan,
Preparing to collect
The many treasures now on loan.
No, he did not object.
The rugged tusks protruding out
Exposed his fetid breath,
Enraged, he boasted in a shout
Prepared to summon death.
“You must be patient. Follow through.
Behind the curtain there,”
The Aura user pointed to
A bit of auburn hair.
The beastly orc looked there and back;
A boiling anger brewed.
The woman pointed his attack;
His actions were reviewed.
She hailed from Acmar; human land,
And orcs despised them all.
They did not trust in her command,
But feared her wrath would fall.
Retorting with a snort and growl,
The bulky beast arose.
A few more orcs arrived to prowl,
And then the leader froze.
Above them, something slimy dropped
Onto the rocks below.
All movement then abruptly stopped
For in the gleaming glow
Exuded from the gems around,
The orcs backed in and turned.
The sticky substance they had found
Ignited pain and burned.
Above them, salamanders clung-
A dwarf armed on each back-
Enormous size, the creatures hung,
Protruding crack to crack.
Attacking the invading blight,
Surprised and caught off guard,
The orcs drew forth a blazing light
Surrounding shard to shard.
The dwarves had axes swinging full
As salamanders dove.
Upon the reigns, the rider’s pull
Directed in the cove
An angle or a movement gained
As metal clanked with light.
The Aura had enhanced and stained
The orcs who came to fight.
Around each sword an eerie hum
Emitted as a shine,
Discoloration striking numb
The workers from the mine.
The hidden one behind the cloak
Protected her domain.
Her arcane art created smoke
And filled the room with pain.
The salamander skins dried out
In time for orcs to chop
The heads from off each dying scout;
The battle did not stop.

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: Patrick Freivald

Last week, I spoke with Carol Gyzander about how she’s adapted to the challenges of writing during the pandemic and she gave a little backstory about Writerpunk Press.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Patrick Freivald, who I affectionately refer to as a belligerent nerd. Patrick is a writer, teacher, gourmand, and bee keeper who makes honey that will burn your soul, among other things.

Patrick Freivald is a four-time Bram Stoker Award® nominated author, a high school teacher (physics, robotics, American Sign Language), and a beekeeper specializing in hot pepper infused honey. He lives in Western New York with his beautiful wife, parrots, dogs, cats, chickens, and several million stinging insects. A member of the Horror Writers Association and the International Thriller Writers, he’s always had a soft spot for slavering monsters of all kinds. He is the author of eight novels and dozens of short stories, from hyper-violent kickass thrillers and teen zombie melodramas to science fiction, horror and fantasy. Find him at Patrick.Freivald.com, on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and at www.FrogsPointHoney.com.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Patrick. Your Instagram account is one of the most interesting ones I follow because it gives a tangible snapshot of many of the different aspects of your life: bee keeping, honey making, cooking, teaching, your pets, your wife, and occasionally promotions for your writing. Has social media helped with the promotion of your books? Your honey business? Were you using social media as frequently as you do now before the pandemic? Do you view your social media accounts as an outlet for creativity?

PF: I handle my Instagram rather differently than my Facebook. Instagram is all about food, family, cute critters, maybe a little about teaching (though I try to keep my teaching and my social media very, very separate, ESPECIALLY given the level of vulgarity and cannibalism jokes I’ve actively cultivated on my Facebook page), while Facebook is a mind-dump of whatever’s bouncing around in my skull. Social media has definitely helped with marketing both books and Hot Honey, though by and large I think that’s because it’s been an effective way of marketing myself. I post about whatever I want–science and technology, writing, funny gifs/memes, articles about science or politics or gaming or religion or whatever strikes me as interesting. I sometimes get caught out by people thinking that just because I’ve shared something means that I believe it hook, line, and sinker, but that’s a “them” problem, not a “me” problem…usually my commentary is enough for a reasonably astute person to realize that it’s unlikely I’m fully onboard with whatever I’m sharing. And I’m rarely fully on-board with something someone else wrote.

Facebook has been awesome at promoting Frogs Point Honey (www.FrogsPointHoney.com) — a good number of people hate food posts, but lots of people love them, and I love them, so when I post delicious food things that feature Hot Honey or Rubbit or what-have-you, it draws new and existing customers often enough. The business has built up quite nicely over the past five years, and that’s with pretty much entirely word of mouth advertising, and almost all of that coming from Facebook.

I’m not using Facebook any less than before, and no more, either. I post way too often, to the extent that some people think it must be a managed page rather than just one dude with an obsessive streak and a smart phone, but I’ve been that way with online interactions since the bulletin boards of the early 1990s. When it comes to Facebook as a marketing tool, if all you do is post your own stuff then no matter how interesting you are you’re not going to get a lot of oomph out of your effort–you’ll share a bunch of stuff and get crickets in return. You have to like other people’s stuff, comment, share, etc.; and don’t do it just to game the algorithm, do it because you’ve surrounded yourself with interesting, cool people worth engaging with. It’s an opportunity to be social, to be creative, to share who you are and what you find interesting with the world.

GMM: Tell me about your latest release, Murmur. What is the premise of the book, and what inspired the story? Some of the words used to describe the book include “magical, disturbing, erotic…”. I tend to combine horror and erotica in my own fiction, and I’m always curious about writers who do the same. Why do you think horror and sex make a good pairing in fiction? Is it more difficult to write the sex scenes or the horror? Do you combine the two, or keep them separate in the narrative?

PF: Murmur is, fundamentally, about an affluent New York socialite being sexually stalked by a demon while trying to contend with the one bound to him, that he keeps in a prescription bottle. The inspiration is a combination of an old roleplaying game character and being really disappointed with a movie I’d just watched about demonic possession–it turned out to be very much the same-old same-old, extraordinarily Catholic-themed Exorcist riff, and there’s just so, so much of that out there. So I wrote a book about a kind of half-possessed guy who’d been that way for over a decade and was at a sort of détente with his “pocket demon”, Murmur.

Sex and horror make a good pairing because sex is often beautiful and wonderful and sometimes horrific and awful (at the time or later), we’ve all got our own experiences to bring to the table when we read or watch, and both lend themselves to a great deal of catharsis. I absolutely combine the two–I was somewhat inspired by David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (starring Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello, with amazing support from William Hurt and Ed Harris). There are two sex scenes in that movie, the first very playful and loving, and the second very raw and downright angry, and they’re between the same two people, who are husband and wife, after some rather serious revelations upend their relationship. I don’t know that I’ve seen sex used to portray the evolution of characters and their relationships done that well anywhere else, and after rewatching it on cable I started chewing on the idea of sex as a storytelling device. The book is kind of smutty, but oh yeah do the sex and horror merge as things progress. Davis is an unreliable narrator who sees Hell and the real world overlapped all the time, and that lends to a lot of opportunities for really trippy body horror and gore amid the naked wumpledance. I took those opportunities, with gusto.

GMM: You mentioned that the flash piece you submitted as your fragment was written during Borderlands Boot Camp. Can you tell me about your experience participating in that program? What initially drew you to enroll? What did you learn about your own writing? Did you come away with some new skills or tricks to improve your writing? Would you recommend the Borderlands Boot Camp to other writers, and why?

PF: Borderlands is awesome–it’s three days cooped up in a hotel with a bunch of other writers, with workshops specifically tailored toward making you a better writer, run by absolute giants of the genre. The year I went they had the three regulars of Tom Monteleone, F. Paul Wilson, and Doug Winter, and also the recently-retired editor Ginjer Buchanan and some guy you may have heard of named Peter Straub. They, and all of the attendees, each read your work and gave targeted, specific feedback–and then you had basically overnight to bang out a story using what you learned. It’s pretty grueling, but you make a lot of friends and learn a lot of things you didn’t realize you needed to learn.

I enrolled because almost all of my beta reading group are alums, they’re all fantastic writers, and they all said it was 100% worth the time and money. I learned that the only person who hates words more than I do is Doug Winter–I have a rather terse style, and he cut the bejeezus out of my manuscript, which was awesome. Ginjer had some really insightful points about the evolution of society between now and the future setting of my work, which threw my perspective on science fiction off-kilter a bit in all the right ways; in particular she asked, “Why would these people be married? I don’t believe that the institution of marriage would have survived, at least not in any form we’d really recognize”–and it was a fantastic question, and made me question a lot of assumptions I hadn’t thought to previously.

If you have the money and the time, Borderlands is absolutely worth it.

A Spiteful Man
By Patrick Freivald

“I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man.”

Anna muttered the words again and blinked away tears that obscured her daughter’s image through the scope. She took her finger off the trigger, then tossed the rifle, wig, and sunglasses in the trunk. Squeals of panic and laughter scattered across the field; a boy had plopped a toad onto Sally Walker’s lap.

“Stupid bitch. Stupid coward bitch.” Henry’s words spilled from Anna’s lips as she peeled off the latex gloves and stuffed them into her pocket. Real change took courage. Boldness. All those things Henry never let her be.

She got in the car.

4:28 pm.

Godfuckingdammit.

Twelve minutes home, twenty to clean up and get dinner on the table.

He trudged in on cue, scowled at the kitchen table.

Through sheer will her wince became a smile.

“How was work, Sweetie?”

His tools clanked against the floor, canvas bag toppling against the mound of yellowing newspapers she’d take to the dump some day.

“The fuck is this?”

“Dinner.” She patted his chair. “Stephanie’ll be down in a minute.”

He scowled, opened the fridge and popped a beer. With a grease-stained hand he scooped the fish sticks from his plate, then plucked up the rest from Steph’s.

“She doesn’t need ‘em.”

Anna grabbed his wrist. “Those’re for—”

Light shattered her equilibrium, white hot. Pain spread, red and warm across her jaw. Beer spattered the floor, the wood cool on her cheek. Henry’s boot dug into her back, steel toe a knife in her kidney.

“Your. Daughter. Don’t. Eat. Stop throwing good money after that stupid kid.”

With another beer he disappeared into the living room.

Spiteful man. Hated his wife, hated her daughter. The kind of man ain’t worthy to raise a child, ain’t worthy to walk free. Too stomach-sick to eat, she mopped up the mess and threw her dinner in the garbage before shuffling next to the TV, careful not to block the game.

“You need anything, Baby?”

Henry drained his beer and dropped the can on the floor. She took it and fetched another. And another and another. Drunk past sulking, he’d sleep, and they’d be safe.

#

“Jesus, Anna.”

She jerked away as Frank touched her cheek.

“I fell.”

“He can’t—”

“I said I fell. That badge make you deaf and stupid?”

He leaned against his patrol car, gave her the same cute scowl she’d loved in high school.

“Press charges. I’ll help.”

“I ain’t calling social. They kill families.”

“C’mon, Annie. You got to get out of there. He’s gonna hurt you. I mean, worse.”

“Oh, we’re getting out. I got a plan for me and Steph.”

Frank kicked dirt. “You can stay with me and Bev a while. We got a spare room, car you can borrow when I’m at work. Maybe get you a job down at Lucky’s?”

“I said I got a plan. Henry gon’ shit what’s comin’ his way.”

“Don’t get too clever, Babe.”

“I ain’t. And I ain’t your babe no more.”

“You fuck with him he could really hurt you.”

She met his gaze. “Oh, he ain’t never hurting us again. Bank on it.”

“What’re you—”

She wagged a finger. “A lady don’t kiss an’ tell.”

“Lady?” He ran his tongue over his teeth. “Tell me when you find one, would ya?”

#

“I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man.” The stupid wig slipped. A year’s worth of hair rubber banded to a shower cap, some of it had to end up on the ground.

The tick-tock of the swing brought the blond boy into sight at regular intervals. Anna’s bruise throbbed against the wood stock, every pulse a reminder of that sickness, that spite.

Four-fifty. Time enough for Henry to get here, not enough to get home.

 “Fuck him.”

She breathed out, held it, and pulled the trigger. The rifle jerked, impossibly loud. Ears ringing, she watched straw-yellow hair puff red before she cycled the chamber.

Red hair, blue shirt. Ben spun to the dirt as the round hit him high-right.

Timmy gaped at nothing until Anna sprayed his guts across the gravel next to the swing.

Running, now. Panic. Bridget’s mom dragged her behind the tractor tire sandbox. Anna took her knee with the fourth shot, rolled, and bolted for the car.

#

Flushed, breathless, she sat at the table, hands folded. Henry’s rifle lay in its case, bullets in their box. The gloves and wig and spent brass drowned at the bottom of Frog’s Point, weighed down with lead from Henry’s reloader in case the cops found them. Dinner sat on the table, three plates of all-day roast she’d have had to baby hours and hours if she hadn’t have cooked and frozen it three weeks earlier.

Henry kicked the shit out of her anyway, and she managed not to smile through it.

Upstairs, Steph slept. Safe.

#

“You okay?” Frank hugged her, maybe too tight for proper, them standing in his guest room with his wife at work.

“I’m good. Real good. First time in a long while, you know. You?”

He scowled. “I had—doesn’t matter. We nailed the bastard. That’s what counts. He…what kind of sick fuck does that?”

She shrugged, looked away. “Don’t know, you know? A monster, the real kind. I’m just…I’m just glad Stephanie weren’t there. We’re free. Finally free.”

Frank frowned. “Steph’s dead, Annie.”

“Dead? No, she’s right…” She scanned the empty room.

“Gone. She’s gone.” Frank squeezed, his embrace warm and welcome and full of poison. “I’m sorry, Sugar.”

“Nonononono. She ain’t dead. Not dead. She can’t, I only shot, it was just the boys. Ain’t no way she’s…She’s okay. Steph’s just fine. It was just boys.” Frank stiffened, stepped back. He plucked the picture from her bedside table, ran his finger down the image of her daughter’s soft cheek. “She’d have been beautiful, our girl. But it’s been nine years, Honey. We’ve both moved on. You got to let this go.”

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: Carol Gyzander

Last week, Jill Girardi joined me to talk about her book to film project, Hantu Macabre, and why Kandisha Press anthologies are a labor of love.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Carol Gyzander. I met Carol at NECON in 2019 when I released Invisible Chains, and I am looking forward to spending more face to face time with her when we are able.

Carol Gyzander read classic science fiction and Agatha Christie mysteries non-stop in her early days. Now that her kids have flown the coop, she writes and edits horror, suspense, dark fiction, and sci-fi stories from her couch—with her black cat firmly Velcroed to her side. 

Her stories are in over a dozen anthologies including Stories We Tell After Midnight fromCrone Girls Press; Across the Universe: Tales of Alternate Beatles from Fantastic Books (amidst stories by Cat Rambo, Spider Robinson and David Gerrold); Cat Ladies of the Apocalypse from Camden Park Press; and The Devil’s Due: Nothing is Ever as it Seems. She also has stories in Hell’s Highways: Terrifying Tales of Tormented Travels and Hell’s Mall: Sinister Shops, Cursed Items and Maddening Crowds from Lafcadia Press. 

As editor-in-chief and one of the founders of Writerpunk Press, she’s edited four anthologies of punk stories inspired by classic tales, including Merely This and Nothing More: Edgar Allan Poe Goes Punk and Hideous Progeny: Classic Horror Goes Punk. The latest, Taught by Time: Myth Goes Punk, comes out summer 2021. Carol works with James Chambers as Co-Coordinators of the Horror Writers Association New York Chapter and as co-hosts of the HWA-NY Galactic Terrors online reading series on the second Thursday of every month. She is also one of the overall Chapter Program Managers for HWA. 

Carol’s a member of Horror Writers Association, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Broad Universe, and Historical Novel Society. Find her at www.CarolGyzander.com or on Twitter @CarolGyzander

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Carol. It has been one year since many of us went into quarantine and had to rethink how we work as writers in terms of promoting our work, connecting with our communities, and just finding the motivation to keep writing. How has the pandemic changed the way you think about writing? What have you done to adapt to the needs of being in quarantine while continuing to promote your work and engaging with the writing communities you belong to? What do you miss about the before times? What do you like about the new ways of doing things within the writing community?

CG: Thank you, Michelle! I love what you’ve been doing with this project.

Can you believe this has been a year? I had a hard time buckling down to do any writing during those first few months but was lucky enough to have several editing projects that kept me busy—it was so much easier to just edit and look at one word after another than it was to create anything. With a freelance schedule and working from home, every day is Blursday.

I usually do a lot of in-person writing with various groups, and of course that went out the window. Pretty soon I was able to pivot to doing group writing events in person! We all sign onto the Zoom session and chat for the first bit, then mute ourselves and work away while the camera is on. Knowing the other people are there working and expecting me to do the same keeps me on track (it’s sometimes called body doubling). People can do this themselves with an inexpensive service at http://www.Focusmate.com .

The most exciting thing I’ve done to stay engaged came through our HWA NY Chapter. We used to do live readings every few months. When it became clear that wasn’t coming back anytime soon, Jim Chambers and I figured out how to host a monthly reading called Galactic Terrors on the StreamYard platform (every second Thursday at 8pm—see HWANY.org for details; replays available at our YouTube channel: https://tinyurl.com/y4gj654q ).

We’ve done seven shows so far with writers from our local chapter, and fabulous guests from all over including Lisa Morton, Linda Addison, Craig DiLouie, Jeff Strand, Lee Murray, Kaaron Warren, Nicole Givens Kurtz and Angela Yuriko Smith. I really miss hanging out and chatting with writers, so we tried to build that into the GT show by having people ask questions in the chat, then doing a Q&A with the writer after their reading. We bring everyone together at the end. One of the things that I do like about this strange new world is that I’ve been able to attend and participate in various online cons that I would not have been able to get to in person. My local sci-fi cons HELIOsphere and Philcon were cool. Getting to WorldCon, the SFWA Nebulas, and a lot more was awesome! I’ve also been able to do more readings with Broad Universe at cons; we’re actually starting an online series that will continue into the future.

GMM: Tell me about Writerpunk Press. How did you get involved, and where did the idea for the anthologies come from? What types of “punk” fiction are covered in your anthologies?

CG: We started from the Writerpunk facebook group of writers who like punk genres. One fellow suggested it would be fun to write punk stories inspired by Shakespeare and we were off! We did two anthologies of stories inspired by the bard, which was my first time being published. It’s a cooperative effort with volunteer writers, editors, artists, layout folks, and marketing people; profits are donated to PAWS Lynnwood, an animal shelter and wildlife rescue located in the Pacific Northwest.

I started out helping with editing and moved into the role of Editor-in-Chief/Managing Editor with our third volume of stories inspired by Poe because I wield a clipboard and spreadsheet well. I work with a crack team of editors and we help writers with content editing, as well as doing copy edits and proofreading the entire novel, of course. I have to say that reviewing the stories as well as the edit suggestions from the editorial team has been really educational and has helped improve my own writing! We followed the Poe volume with one inspired by classic tales you likely read in high school English class, and then classic horror.Taught by Time: Myth Goes Punk, our sixth charity anthology, will be released this summer! We’ve taken the myths, legends and lore that readers love and turned them upside down and inside out. With a wide range of punk genres represented—steampunk, cyberpunk, dreadpunk, nanopunk, biopunk and atompunk—there’s sure to be something for everyone in this volume. Details will be on my website.

GMM: You write in several genres, but I know you through the horror community. When did you begin writing horror? What subgenres of horror do you write? Do you cross genres, or stay true to the conventions and tropes of the genres by keeping them separate? Which genre(s) are your favorite to write in? What are you currently working on?

CG: It was actually Writerpunk that drew me into horror! I was writing cyberpunk tales for the anthologies, which is a pretty dark genre to begin with—one of the themes is that the common person tries to better their circumstances against the corporation but winds off worse than before they started. Then, rereading almost all of Poe and the classic horror stories really hooked me (I read the originals to ensure that some key component is represented in the new story).

I was also going through a pretty dark period five years ago, having taken both of my parents through Alzheimer’s. Writing horror really helps me explore some of the dark stuff and bring it into the light where it can be released. I think it’s one of the genres that truly allows us to do that well.

I do indeed like to blend genres. Most of my horror writing is quiet or soft horror; I aspire to do what the Twilight Zone tales did, where everything starts out normal and then starts going subtly … wrong. I blended this approach with the satanic bargain sub-genre in the “Face It” excerpt (which gives you a hit of where the story goes next!). I also love cosmic horror; one of my stories, “Stars the Color of Hope” is a cyberpunk tale inspired by Lovecraft’s “The Colour out of Space.” Currently, I’m writing short stories for various places (I love kraken stories) and working on a novel that links together two of the Shakespeare novellas I wrote—can’t beat cyberpunk Macbeth!

Call back to Women in Horror Month

CG: I did an online reading with Syosset Public Library and HWA NY Chapter for Women in Horror Month. Readers were Linda D Addison (an HWA Lifetime Achievement Award recipient), plus three writers from HWA-NY: Meghan Arcuri, April Grey and me. We each came up with five women horror writers we recommend people follow (hint: Michelle is on my list!) and I made a short video to showcase our selections.http://carolgyzanderauthor.com/2021/02/25/women-in-horror-month-our-recommendations/

“Face It” by Carol Gyzander, published in The Devil’s Due: Nothing is Ever as it Seems (2020)

Connor drove down the two-lane highway, heading to their country house after their latest visit to the hospital. Amy, his wife, sat dozing in the seat next to him. It was late at night and she was exhausted from the rounds of medical testing she had undergone. Again. None of it had shown any difference.

No good news.

He sighed and rubbed his face to try and wake up, his blue eyes bleary with fatigue. Wouldn’t do to run off the road. I’m just so tired—tired of it all.

His glance flickered over to his wife. The side of her face that was toward him was smooth and unlined, but he knew what the other side looked like. Had been staring at it over breakfast every day for the past two years. Creased and full of pus-filled blisters—and part of the cheekbone eaten away. Her eye was sunken down into her face.

It was just a matter of time until it spread to the side nearest him. Or her brain. For now, in this moment, he could almost pretend she was not affected by the terrible disease.

But deep down in his heart, he knew she was dying. Knew what the doctors told them every time—there was no cure, no way of arresting the progress of the flesh-eating disease. They even had a name for it—ETR—that made his fists clench and his stomach roil. He knew the letters stood for some technical terms but could never make himself remember the acronym. He couldn’t get past the idea that the damn disease was eating his wife alive and just called it EATER.

Her head lolled a little as she slept, turning toward him, and when he glanced over the next time he saw the ravage of the other side of her face, which extended down her neck and shoulder into her arm. Her hand was clenched and twisted in her lap.

EATER? Fuck me.

He replayed in his mind the reaction of the people at the hospital as he’d brought her in. The way even the medical professionals had pulled back from her. Not to mention the way ordinary people reacted to the two of them. It’d gotten difficult for them to go out in public anymore—people feared she was contagious, which she wasn’t, and countless times they had been refused service at a restaurant or asked to leave a cocktail lounge.

People wouldn’t even shake his hand.

Connor and Amy had been the “it” couple for years, with money, prestige, society connections. Then their busy social life, once so bright and vibrant, had slipped away as her EATER disease progressed. They spent most of the time home alone. Friends no longer stopped by to visit. What kind of life is this—for either of us?

She had pleaded with him to help her finish the struggle. “I just can’t do it myself,” she’d said. “But I can’t stand what this is doing to you. To us. But mostly to you. I know I’m going to die. Where’s the quality of life anymore?” Her one good eye had searched his bright blue ones, looking for some kind of a response.

He had refused, of course. How could he kill his wife? Even if she begged him, which she had. In a stunning display of the power that desperation and anxiety could have over a strong person, she had let her normally capable veneer slip to show her inner fear.

And he had turned her down. What does that make me?

Don’t I love her anymore? Or maybe I’m just afraid of going to jail.

Of course, he already felt like he was in jail. No friends, no life, just stay home and watch Netflix while he took care of his sick wife. She didn’t deserve it, but then again, he didn’t, either.

Only one part of his mind was on the driving, as they were the only car on the road at that late hour. He took a corner on the rural road a bit too fast and the car swerved along the shoulder. He gave himself a scare as he yanked the wheel to pull the car back into the lane.

Wow. Almost drove right off the road there. Would’ve hit the trees … and at this speed. Damn. Well, if it killed us at least she would’ve gotten her wish.

He mulled this thought as he drove along at a more sedate speed. She had not even woken when the car swerved. Had no idea of the danger they had just averted. The steady consumption of painkillers her condition required left her mostly absent from his world.

But if I do that, it kills us both. Is that what she wants? I don’t think so. She just wants to end her suffering and therefore end mine. She doesn’t want for me to die too.

Right?

He looked over at her again and then reached out to hold her hand where it lay on her lap. I love you, darling. But maybe you are right. This is no life for you.

Or for me.

He released her hand and slid his fingers down to the buckle of her seatbelt. Pushed in the button. Released the belt, controlling it to let it retract quietly into the door.

Okay. I’m not really going to do it. But if I do fall asleep on the road, she wouldn’t want to walk away from the accident.

Right? She wouldn’t.

Of course, I would be okay. Oodles of airbags in this car. I mean, with my seatbelt on and the airbags, I’m sure I’d be fine. What about her? He looked over at the dashboard on her side of the car. Saw the button for the passenger airbag. Idly reached up a hand and stroked the button. Pushed it in. It lit up.

Passenger airbag OFF.

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: Jill Girardi

Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with Gemma Files. She had a lot to say about her writing process, what inspires her, and why she writes horror. My favorite quote from last week’s interview is…

“…horror is the place where all the non-default people can meet, a place where becoming or realizing you’ve always been what most people see as “a monster” might not be such a bad thing.”

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes one of the kindest an most supportive women in indie publishing who is doing her damnedest to promote the work of female horror writers around the world, Jill Girardi.

Jill Girardi is the author of Hantu Macabre, the internationally best-selling novel featuring punk rock paranormal detective Suzanna Sim and Tokek the toyol. Suzanna and Tokek will also be taken to the big screen, as a full-length film based on the characters, set to start shooting in 2021, with former MMA Fighter Ann Osman starring as Suzanna. A special revised edition and movie-tie-in of the book will be published by Crimson Creek Press in the near future. Jill currently lives in New York where she is the editor of the Kandisha Press Women of Horror Anthology books. Please find her on Instagram/Twitter @jill_girardi or @kandishapress

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Jill. Tell me about Hantu Macabre. Was it your first novel? Where did the idea for a punk rock paranormal detective come from? What was the process of turning your novel into a film? What have you enjoyed so far about the process? What has been most difficult? What advice would you give writers who are interested in seeing their work on screen?

JG: Thank you so much. It’s an honor to be featured here! Yes, Hantu Macabre was my first novel, and actually was only my second published work. My first published work was a short story called “Don’t Eat the Rice” which featured the characters that would later be in the book. After having lived in Malaysia for many years, I became obsessed with Hantu – the Malay term for ghosts and creepy folklore. I particularly enjoyed the legend of the toyol. A toyol is a deceased child, resurrected by black magic, for the purposes of stealing money and other valuables for its master. He’s quite a comical figure in Malay folklore, as he’s not a very adept thief, is childlike and easily distracted from his mission by toys. I played with the idea of having an occult detective solving crimes with the help of a toyol for several years before actually sitting down to write the first story. It wasn’t until I was back in New York, miserable and missing Malaysia, that I really got going on it. The punk rock part came about as I was a music producer for many years. So I wanted to evoke that fun atmosphere in the book.

I really can’t even give any advice on the process of going into film as the whole movie deal kind of fell into my lap. The director and film company owner (Aaron Cowan and Jo Luping) picked up the book in a bookstore, and later got in touch with me about doing the film, which will be titled “Best Served Cold,” and is based on my original short story as well as the novel.

GMM: How did Kandisha Press get started? Why were you interested in creating a press? And what inspired you to devote three anthologies to the work of female horror writers? Do you have plans for more anthologies in this series? Do you know what themes you’ll use next?

JG: I honestly just wanted to do an anthology for fun, and never really thought things would take off the way they have. I’ve always been obsessed with books. They give me a high that nothing else in life has ever done (I’m sure anyone reading this understands this feeling very well!) The thought of being able to do my own book was so exciting, I just couldn’t resist giving it a shot. I had noticed that many of the anthologies I was reading or even being featured in had a very skewed ratio of men to women, so I felt it was only right to do an all-women book. I do have plans to continue the series, though it is a bit chaotic right now as things have been moving faster than I was prepared for. So I need to slow down a bit and get things organized. My lovely BFF (Best Frightening Fiend) Janine Pipe is really stepping in at this time, filling in the gaps and holding things down while we get things figured out. She is also working on her own soon to be announced project for Kandisha. I’ve long had an idea to do a Heavy Metal themed anthology, so that may be the next route we travel.

GMM: What are you working on right now? What does your dream project look like, and what steps would you need to take to make it happen?

JG: Right now I’m revising Hantu Macabre, rewriting it and fixing all my rookie mistakes. It will be reissued in a special edition by Crimson Creek Press. And then hopefully I can work on the second book in the series, and continue doing the Kandisha books. My dream project would be writing just about anything in peace and quiet. I dream of going to a hotel for a week, turning off my phone, and just finishing the damn book ala Paul Sheldon.

EXCERPT FROM “THE NIGHT WOULD BE OUR EYELIDS”
BY JILL GIRARDI
(First published in December 2020 in Know Your Enemy, an anthology by J. Ellington Ashton Press)

It’s 2019, and I’m back in New York for the first time in years. I’m thirty-three and divorced, trying to assimilate into a world I’ve never belonged in. A few nights ago, I downloaded Tinder on a whim, and now I’m out with a younger man who grew up in the same area as I did. On the way to dinner, he talks a lot about his vegan diet and religious doctrine. I imagine how his face would look if I told him I’ve dined on bloody-rare steak with unfathomable devils. I don’t think he’d ask me for a second date.

The route we take to the restaurant goes past the walled-in forest area on the outskirts of my hometown. Nestled inside are the ruins of the abandoned psychiatric hospital where I once fought for survival. We pass a pedestrian bridge built high over the railroad tracks. I’ve been running from that bridge half my life. Now my date is pointing it out to me.

“A girl died there when I was in junior high. Her best friend pushed her off the cage at the top.”

“She didn’t push her,” I mumble as I stare at the massive steel structure. It’s imposing, rigid, unchangeable even by the rust and dust of time. I clear my throat, forcing myself to speak up. “Can we change the subject?”

He won’t let it go. “I’m sure the other girl shoved her. Oh yeah—they also killed someone else—one of their stepfathers or something. It was in all the newspapers. They repeated the story on News 12 every hour.”

I fight to maintain my composure. “Look, this was a bad idea. You should take me home now.” He turns his head and looks at me as he drives down the dark road. In a split second, he figures it out. He gets a bit too excited over my teenage tragedy.

“Holy shit—it was you! I knew your name sounded familiar.” He pauses, stroking his hipster beard with one hand as he steers with the other. The fool is about to ask the dreaded question. I can feel it.

“So, what happened? Did you push her?”

“Keep your eyes on the goddamn road!” I snap at him as he drifts into the path of an oncoming car. He swerves while the other driver honks his horn and screams out his open window. Our car slams to a stop on the gravel in front of the bridge’s cement steps.
The other driver shouts again as he zips by. The obscenities he heaps on my date are nothing compared to the names I call him. His eyes widen as I let loose on him, revealing the dark side I keep hidden on my dating profile. I can tell he’s afraid of me. He has that look on his face—the same look everyone had after my discharge from Four Pines Mental Health Center.

My date stammers, trying to contain the situation before things get dangerous. He apologizes, but I’m already lost. I should have known I wouldn’t fit into his orderly, well-governed existence, where people rarely stray from their rote behavior. My world is a darker place, where monsters do exist, and they’re not under your bed, nor do they have horns and tails. They’re your everyday friends and neighbors, the ones who appear normal on the surface, yet their skins house indescribable evils. This evil has infected me too. I’ll never be free of it, no matter how hard I rail against it.

I slip into silence as I stare out the window. My mind is hurtling back to the days when I was seventeen, and I had the world at my fingertips, but I blew it.

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you 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: Gemma Files

Last week I wrapped up my month-long celebration of black women horror writers for Women in Horror Month/Black History Month with an interview with Zin E. Rocklyn, a.k.a. Teri Clarke. If you haven’t had a chance to read all of the interviews I did last month, take some time and and get caught up now. These women have a lot to say about writing horror while black and female and how their personal experiences and intersectionalities have an impact on what they write about.

This week, Girl Meets Monster is back to business as usual, with a fragment and an interview with Gemma Files.

Formerly a film critic, journalist, screenwriter and teacher, Gemma Files has been an award-winning horror author since 1999. She has published four collections of short work, three collections of speculative poetry, a Weird Western trilogy, a story-cycle and a stand-alone novel (Experimental Film, which won the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel and the 2016 Sunburst Award for Best Adult Novel). She has a new story collection just out from Grimscribe Press (In This Endlessness, Our End), and another upcoming.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Gemma. Thank you for taking time to chat with me a bit. Tell me about your newest collection of stories, In This Endlessness, Our End. Is there an overarching theme, or threads that connect the stories? Are all of the stories new, or are there some reprints? How do you decide which stories to include? Did you have a plan in mind when you started the collection?

GF: So, the funny thing is that as it turned out, all the stories in this collection were essentially written—finished, at any rate—within the time-period from about a year before Trump’s election to almost the end of his (hopefully only) term in office. The fact that they were originally intended to be published by my former home imprint, ChiZine Publications, which suddenly and acrimoniously collapsed in November of 2019, is also interesting, in hindsight; so is the fact that Jon Padgett at Grimscribe chose to pick the book up during a global pandemic. Which means that the overarching theme of all these stories is the sort of fear you feel when the world you think you know tilts on you in a way which only seems “sudden” at the moment it happens, as well as the guilt and grief which come when you realize you saw [this, whatever “this” is] coming from miles away, and simply chose to ignore those warning signs as they mounted because…well, because you wanted to. Because you liked your life, and the illusions it was rooted in. Because you hoped things had gotten better, and you forgot that every ten years, a generation comes of age who haven’t lived through the same things you have, so they have to have experiences which will prove the same basic facts about human nature over and over and over again. Etc.

It’s easy to say, of course, that the theme of every horror collection is fear. But I do find it oddly significant that the first story in the TOC—“This Is How It Goes”—happens to be set during the aftermath of a body horror plague that rips around the world like a creepypasta come true, moving from urban myth/internet rumour to immediate reality within forty-eight hours at the most. When I read it on The Outer Dark Podcast recently, I called it a “pre-pandemic post-pandemic tale.” So, these particular stories ring with a very current sort of fear, for me. Whether other people will see it that way as well is up to them, I guess.

The stories are all reprints, basically, though because I often get published in fairly obscure places, I expect that a lot of them will be new to most readers aside from those solicited by people like Ellen Datlow (“Cut Frame,” from her Hollywood Horror anthology Final Cuts; “The Puppet Motel,” from Echoes: The Saga Anthology of Ghost Stories). And no, I didn’t have this in mind when I put the book together, it just shook out that way. The one thing I have in common with the Joker is I’m not much of a planner.

GMM: So, you mention that you’ve written a story-cycle and a Weird Western series. What is the difference between a story-cycle and a series, and how does your process change from project to project–short stories versus stand-alone novels versus a series, etc.? Do you decide on what shape your stories will take before you write them, or do the stories evolve into the appropriate length to fit the story as you write them?

GF: The Weird Western series—my Hexslinger books—basically filled in a three-act, chapter-driven narrative over three separate novels. I’d made an outline at the very beginning for what I thought would be one book (A Book of Tongues), only to find that by the time I’d written 100,000 words I’d only gotten to what was fairly obviously the first break-point; I kept to that outline throughout, moving through it linearly, as if I was writing a trilogy of screenplays. The story-cycle, on the other hand—We Will All Go Down Together: Stories of the Five-Family Coven—was built around a base of stories reprinted and slightly polished from earlier in my career, ones which inhabited an urban paranormal universe I only slowly realized was anchored by the same cast of characters, all of whom were literally related to each other. I sprinkled them through in non-linear order, introducing those characters and the five families they belonged to as I went, while also writing/finishing four new novellas that made these connections clear and brought the overall story to a climax. I like to call it my Alice Munro book, except with evil angels, witches, monster-killing nuns and the Fae.

As for whether I made either of those decisions strategically…yeah, not really. Sometimes I think the only method I have for knowing if a story is finished is: “Does it feel ‘right?’ Okay, then.” I do know that with the Five-Family Coven stuff, I essentially wanted to prove to myself that polite, clean Toronto, Canada could be just as dark, weird and potentially awful as any other city written about from that angle by one of its citizens. It started out as what I called my Toronto Dark phase, then got more and more complicated, like a bunch of in-jokes which grew legs and started to walk on their own. And even now, I still continue to use that universe as the back-story of a lot of my more recent tales; a minor character from We Will All Go Down Together plays a main role in “Cut Frame,” for example, plus a minor role in “The Puppet Motel.” It’s there if you look for it. 

Otherwise, the shape of a story is usually dictated by the voice of the person who’s telling it, or the perspective of the person who’s living it. My plots are often a little more complicated than they need to be, but I don’t believe that plot and character can be completely separated. It’s not just “this happened,” it’s “this happened, because someone did something.” As Bill Duke says in Menace 2 Society, speaking for/to almost all my protagonists, “You know you fucked up, right?”

GMM: Why horror? What draws you to the genre? Have you written in other genres? What do you like most about horror as a writer? As a reader? After winning the Shirley Jackson Award, did you automatically feel like a bonafide horror writer, or do you still struggle with impostor syndrome? Has winning awards changed you as a writer?

GF: A deep and sparkling darkness has always been what draws me towards the things I love, at least in terms of art. I mean, I started out ostensibly liking science fiction, but soon figured out A) what I liked was actually space opera, because B) I’m really not that great with science, outside the purely biological. Also, my formative life was full of fear, so horror seemed like “home” to me…normal, natural, understandable.

Part of my journey after my son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder was coming to realize that if a diagnosis of Asperger’s had been something people were looking for (in girls, or at all) back when I was at my worst as a kid, I might well have gotten one. I’m 52 now, so I’ve worked very hard to pass as neurotypical, but most of my life has been spent second-guessing my own instincts and berating myself for being born somehow “wrong.” The fact that that alone doesn’t make me super-different from a lot of other similarly diverse people isn’t lost on me, either; I’ve gotten away with a lot over the years, on account of reading as a typical cishet white lady. But again, I think it still has a lot to do with me feeling as if horror is the place where all the non-default people can meet, a place where becoming or realizing you’ve always been what most people see as “a monster” might not be such a bad thing.

“…horror is the place where all the non-default people can meet, a place where becoming or realizing you’ve always been what most people see as “a monster” might not be such a bad thing.”

I spent my high school years reading Tanith Lee, Peter Straub and Clive Barker, my university years reading Caitlin R. Kiernan, Billy Martin (then Poppy Z. Brite) and Kathe Koja. My favourite movies were things like Nightbreed and Near Dark, stuff about found families bound together by hunger rather than affinity. And all of this stuff came together in my writing, which from the very beginning was dictated by the old adage that if you can’t find what you want in the world, you may well be forced to make some. One of the things I’ve become very proud of, over the years, is the idea that I’ve somehow indulged or inspired other people doing the same thing, giving way to their own ids/needs and letting the devil drive. Someone told me once that my story “Kissing Carrion” told her it was okay for women to do that, and I was like: “Oh, the story about a woman who makes a puppets out of a human corpse so she can fuck her necrophile boyfriend with it, while the ghost that used to be the corpse hovers nearby invisibly going WHAAAATTTT?!? Cool!” I’m down for monster pride in any and every form.

Winning the Shirley Jackson Award for Experimental Film was a huge surprise, but that was also absolutely the award I knew I’d be happiest winning, because I’ve never pretended to be anything but a horror writer. Even my fantasy is always “dark”; even my nonfiction is always Weird. As Yukio Mishima put it, my heart’s yearning has always been to night, and death, and blood. But yeah, imposter syndrome truly doesn’t go away. I fight it by writing to a deadline, writing like it’s a job, and never fooling myself into thinking that the stuff which comes out of me is somehow so pure and beautiful it doesn’t need to be cut, tweaked or otherwise rewritten. Things can always get better, and an outside eye is a gift.

500+ WORDS OF SOMETHING NEW

Gemma Files

One thing a job like mine teaches is that people will say all sorts of things when they’re dying. It’s like the process breaks something open inside them, some long-buried infectious reservoir, a quick-draining sick-pocket. They don’t even have to know what’s happening, let alone accept it; they might still be entirely convinced they’ll survive, but it doesn’t matter. A sort of punch-drunkenness takes over, an irrepressible urge to confess.

 “I put my hand under the pillow, and that’s where I found it,” Mrs Camp told me, one morning, as I stripped her mattress so I could check it for night-sweat and all sorts of other fluids. “Then it bit down, so I couldn’t get it out again.”

“Found what, ma’am?” I asked, only half-listening. Wet bedsheets I could deal with; did, almost every day, and hardly just with her. It was sponging down the rubber mattress covers that always took up the most time, because we had to move the clients while they dried; bleach on urine never is the best smell, and it does tend to stick around. Some of (the bulk of) the lazy fools I worked with would just stick whoever they’d cleaned up for back in bed immediately, ignoring the fact that bedsores don’t react any better when crossed with cleaning product than feeble lungs do when exposed to corrosive funk. But screw it—no matter how much I longed to get shed of this job, I was determined to at least be a little better at it than those assholes.

“A mouth, wide open, like I said already. With teeth.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound good,” I told her, to which she smiled, revealing her own teeth.They looked like a busted-up china doll’s.

“No, it does not. Are you married, Kevin?”

“KeVon, ma’am. And no.”

“Oh, that’s a shame, then—big, good-looking fellow like you. I bet you’ve made a fair deal of women cry, in your time.”

Probably, I thought, the faces of all those poor girls I’d “dated” in high school suddenly coming back to me in a weird sort of flip-book flash, fluttering across my inner eye before breaking apart against the hard bone bell of my skull, disappearing into darkness. But not ’cause I wanted to, no, ma’am. Only ’cause I wasn’t strong enough yet to know who I really was, let alone to say it. 

“I do try not to, ma’am,” I told her, angling her wheelchair next to the flower-pots where I knew she liked it best. Those gardenias, heads bent over and dripping, plumped up fulsome on the very edge of decay. You could just see her faded eyes light up at the sight of them.

“Beautiful,” she told me. “Oh, Kevin. There’s still a whole lot to love in this world, isn’t there? Even now. Even here.”

“Yes, ma’am, there sure is.”

She nodded, sunk in thought. Then whispered, almost to herself, as I was turning back to see what might or might not yet be on offer from the kitchen: “But then the sun goes down and the lights go out. Then I go out, and they come in.”

At that last part, my heart gave a strange little leap, tapping itself against my breastbone like it was knocking on some door hid inside my chest. “Who’s that, ma’am?” I asked her, standing there with my hip thrown out so awkward it hurt, but not quite able to go on to my next step ’til she replied.

(God only knew, the membrane between sleep and death certainly did seem to stretch thin enough to see things through, sometimes, in life’s very last stages. Things you shouldn’t be able to see, under more normal circumstances.)

Mrs Camp just kept on staring at those damn flowers, though, like she was waiting for them to speak instead. “Oh, nothing at all, I’m sure, Kevin,” was all she said, at last. “Must be I’m being silly—mixing stuff up. Old people do that, you know.”

“Yes ma’am,” I agreed. “And young people too, on occasion.”

She nodded and lowered what she had left for lashes, then threw me a glance I’d’ve surely called flirty if she weren’t terminal, and knew herself to be so.

“Mmm-hmm,” she said. “That’s surely true.”

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.

Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Valjeanne Jeffers

Last week I had some very interesting conversations with Violette Meier and Aziza Sphinx. If you haven’t checked out their posts, or the previous posts in this Women in Horror Month/Black History Month series, please do so.

Today, Girl Meets Monster has the pleasure of welcoming Valjeanne Jeffers.

Valjeanne Jeffers is a speculative fiction writer, a Spelman College graduate, a member of the Horror Writers Association and the Carolina African America Writers’ Collective. She is the author of ten books, including her Immortal and her Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective series. Valjeanne has been published in numerous anthologies including: Steamfunk!; The Ringing Ear; Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. ButlerFitting In: Historical Accounts of Paranormal SubculturesSycorax’s Daughters; Black Magic Women, The Bright Empire, and, most recently, All the Songs We Sing, Bledrotica Volume I, and Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire.

Ten Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Valjeanne. What projects are you currently working on? Is horror your primary genre, or do you write in other genres? If you write in other genres, which do you feel most comfortable writing, and why?

VJ: Hi Michelle, thank you for having me. I’ve just released the 3rd novel of my Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective series: The Case of the Vanishing Child. It’s a horror/steamfunk novel based in an alternate world, and the main character, Mona, is both a sleuth and a sorceress. I’m also working on a screenplay of my novel, The Switch II: Clockwork.

Horror isn’t my primary genre, but it’s one of my favorites. I write under the broad umbrella of Speculative Fiction, so I also write science fiction/fantasy, which is also described as Afrofuturism. I feel comfortable writing in almost any genre, and I tend to mix them. The Switch II: Clockwork, for example, is a steamfunk novel, but it is also Afrofuturistic.

GMM: When did you first know that you were a horror writer? How did you develop an interest in the genre? What initially attracted you to horror stories? Which writers influenced you then? Which writers influence you now?

VJ: I actually didn’t think of myself as a horror writer until author Sumiko Saulson featured my writing in 100+ Black Women in Horror. Sumiko told me that my readers had approached her and asked that she include my Immortal series. I was both amazed and honored. That’s when I decided to add horror to my writing menu, and I went out of my way in my Mona Livelong series to scare my readers.

I’ve always enjoyed reading and watching horror. I can remember watching horror movies with my parents (for example, The Shining), and as a little girl, I was addicted to Dark Shadows. The first horror writer I fell in love with was Stephen King. Of course, when I first began reading horror there were no writers that looked like me. All of this changed in the 1990s. I discovered Octavia Butler, and later Nalo Hopkinson, Brandon Massey and Tananarive Due. These are writers, along with Richard Wright and James Baldwin, that I credit as my earliest influences. They continue to impact my writing, as well as Keith Gaston and N.K. Jemison.

GMM: The documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019), explores Black horror and the portrayal (and absence) of Black people in horror movies. As a definition of what Black horror means begins to take shape, Tananarive Due says “Black history is Black horror.” What do you think she meant by that? Can you give an example of how this idea shows up in your own work?

VJ: I’m sure she meant that African America history is one of trauma and violence: from our being kidnapped and dragged to American shores, through the Jim Crow and the Civil Rights era, our history is filled with tales of horror. Our stories are often those of pain and trauma.

Richard Wright, in Black Boy, says, “This was the culture from which I sprang, this was the terror from which I fled.” Yet our stories are also those of incredible victories because we refused to submit, to give up. Instead, we pushed on. We blossomed, and we continue to blossom like a garden of black roses.

As a black woman, I am grappling with issues of those that came before me, and those that we face in present times. This may find its way onto my pages. But I write with optimism and hope. And I always strive give my readers an exciting tale they can sink their teeth into.

GMM: As a WOC writing horror/dark speculative fiction, do you feel obligated to have a deeper message in your stories? Can writers of color write stories without broader messages about identity, class, and racism? Is it possible to divorce yourself from that ongoing narrative within our culture when you set out to write a story?

VJ: I don’t feel obligated to include a deeper message in my stories, and some of my favorite authors write without doing so. I’ve certainly never started one with this intent. Sometimes a story is just a story, meant to entertain and nothing more. But I do find myself writing about flawed heroines and heroes, men and women who are fighting to save themselves and their worlds. Often the demons they’re fighting are personal ones; life is always in session. There are no perfect people, and so my characters are imperfect as well. Who you are, and what you’re battling, will always find its way onto the page, and this is where I find myself writing, too, about larger issues of race, gender and class.

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

VJ: My top five horror movies are: The Shining; Tales from the Hood; Get Out; Dr. Sleep, and When a Stranger Calls. I like horror movies with well-developed plots and characters, and layers of suspense that build to a nail biting crescendo. I also prefer horror flicks with a racially diverse cast of characters, which is a lot easier to come by nowadays.

My top favorite horror novels are: Wild Seed (Octavia Butler); Into the Dark (Brandon Massey); The Good House (Tananarive Due); It (Stephen King) and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (N.K. Jemison). I’d have to say Into the Dark scared me the most.

GMM: How do you feel about white-identifying writers who write stories about non-white characters? What problems have you encountered? What potential issues do you see with white-identifying writers telling BIPOC stories? What advice would you give those writers?

VJ: There are some white authors who are very skillful at creating “flesh and blood” non-white characters. One writer in particular, who is also one of my favorites, is Tad Williams; his Otherland series is brilliant. What I mean by “flesh and blood,” are well rounded characters, who black and brown folks can identify with. In contrast, there are other white authors I’ve encountered, whose non-white characters are cardboard cutouts, overlaid with stereotypes.   My advice to these authors is: if you don’t have black and brown friends, real friends mind you, perhaps it’s best if you don’t write about people of color. This might sound harsh, but one of the first pieces of writing advice that I received was: “Write what you know.” Every character I’ve created is a compilation of diverse men and women I’ve met, studied, or both, and myself.

GMM: All writers have experienced some form of impostor syndrome. What has your experience with impostor syndrome been like? Did you ever have a particularly bad case of it? If so, what caused it and how did you manage it?

VJ: I have experienced feelings of self-doubt and feelings that I don’t “measure up” as a writer. But when I’m at my lowest, my readers, and other writers, often help me get through it. I’ve received uplifting emails from folks who love my latest project, and sometimes even a post on my Facebook page. I think I speak for most authors when I say: we write for ourselves and for our readers. I cherish every one of them.

GMM: Tell me about Mona Livelong. What or who inspired this character? Without too many spoilers, can you give some insight into her backstory, and why she became a detective? Why a paranormal detective as opposed to a detective who solves basic human problems?

VJ: Mona Livelong sprang from the same inspiration as Karla, the main character of my Immortal series. Both characters are based upon Carla, a young woman who babysat me when I was living in Los Angeles. Carla’s mother, as well as her youngest brother, died and she was raising her two surviving siblings while attending college. I remember her as an intelligent, compassionate young woman, who was determined to achieve her goals.

Mona is cut from this same cloth. She’s strong, but also vulnerable, and she’s known tragedy. She was born a sorceress and decided to use her gifts to help her community, solving cases regular detectives can’t solve. As to why she’s a paranormal detective, when I create a character, he or she will almost always be supernatural. I love Speculative Fiction just that much.

GMM: Some writers work best in silence, and others prefer to listen to music when they write. How has music influenced your work? What kinds of music do like to listen to when you’re writing? How does it help with your process?

VJ: I can write in silence, but I prefer listening to music when I write, especially if I’m working on character or plot development. If I’m doing either one, I usually listen to jazz or R&B (for example, WAR and Barry White). If I’m writing an action scene, I’m definitely listening to Hip Hop or Classic Rock. I’ve actually acted out action scenes while listening to music; it helps me visualize what’s happening to my characters, and if the scene will “work.”

GMM: If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your younger self? How would you have approached becoming a writer? Would you have done anything differently, or would you have followed the same path?

VJ: If I could give young Valjeanne any advice I would tell her, “Keep writing Speculative Fiction, sweetheart, and don’t stop. No matter what anyone says.” I began writing poetry and stories as a young girl. My only regret is that I took a hiatus and didn’t dive back in until years later. This is the only thing I would change.

Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective III: The Case of the Vanishing Child. (synopsis) The threads of a blood chilling mystery … A world torn in half. A young black man desperate to avenge his murdered brethren. A white supremacist with the terrifying power to alter reality. And a little girl trapped in the eye of the storm. Detective Mona Livelong takes on her most dangerous case yet, as she races to save the life of an innocent child, and countless others hanging in the balance. Cover art by Quinton Veal.

Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective III: The Case of The Vanishing Child (excerpt)

Breath brings word
Nappy Dusky Longing Song
Song like my own
—Maya’s Kwansaba

A solitary cafe au lait-colored man with freckles, his thick hair tied back with cords, walked to the lot behind the Constabulary Station. Keeping his head down, Richard Starks moved silently through the rows of steam-autos parked there. He walked past them, looking carefully at the numbers painted on the auto doors. When he found the one he sought, he crouched on the other side of the steam-auto and waited.

He didn’t have to wait long. Minutes later, a burly white Constable exited the station and walked through the lot. He hunkered down before the auto and started turning the crank.

Richard drew a dagger from the folds of his shirt. Moving swiftly, he crept from the side of the car. As the Constable rose from his haunches, the black man sprang— stabbing him over and over. The Constable fell to his knees and then toppled over, twitching and bleeding at Richard’s feet. Moments later, he was dead.

Shaking and crying, Richard stood over him. At length, he calmed himself and slipped the dagger back

inside his shirt. He wiped his face with his arm and stepped over the dead Constable to the side of the auto. He drew a symbol on the steam-auto door with his bloody fingers and spoke the mantra, “Kuja kwangu mpendwa wangu kwa maana ni kisasi mimi kutafuta … Come to me my beloved, for it is vengeance I seek.”

Diaphanous shades smudged into view. In the next instant three figures towered over him, their faces shifting in the darkness … from black to red … green to blue … female to male … It made him dizzy trying to hone in on their features. He realized that perhaps he was not meant to see their faces. Perhaps it would drive him insane. He fixed his vision on a point beyond their huge shoulders.

The one on his left spoke, “You summoned us, little one?”

“Yes,” Richard whispered.

“You know what it is you seek?” said the second one asked.

“We cannot harm the innocent,” the third entity intoned.

For the first time anger crept into the young man’s voice. “They ain’t innocent. They’re murderers.

The spirits spoke in one basso profundo voice, “So be it.”

Rivulets of blood ran down the Constabulary building. The dead officer sat up. His wounds healed, and

his eyes glazed over with a white film. Then they turned blue once more. The blood vanished. The Constable got to his knees, crouching before the auto, and finished turning the crank. The motor sputtered to life. He stood and walked to the driver’s side, got into the auto and drove from the lot.

Constable Burt Phillips, a thick-set white officer, pulled his steam-auto up to the curb beside his flat. Burt put his auto in park, got out and turned the crank on his steam-auto, shutting the engine off. He was feeling good this evening—better than he’d felt in weeks. For awhile, he’d thought that Eddie Plumb, the unarmed black man he’d killed months ago, was haunting him.

He’d been drinking the night he killed Plumb and in a foul mood. I just wanted respect. That darkie needed to be put in his place.

Plumb had walked pass Burt that night, his eyes insolent, his back straight and proud. Something had snapped inside Burt. He’d shouted at Plumb over and over to stop walking, but the young man ignored him. So Burt shot him in the back. When questioned by Internal Affairs, he’d told a different story: Eddie was a robbery suspect, who’d fled when he ordered him to stop.

The DA cleared me. That’s that.

The week of his death, Eddie Plumb had appeared in Burt’s steam-auto and, for weeks afterwards, he’d rode beside Burt—mocking him, insulting him, calling him a murderer. Then just as suddenly he was gone. Burt had dismissed Eddie as a hallucination brought on by the stress of the hearing.

Certainly. he bore no guilt over killing Plumb. Darkies getting out of control. In my daddy’s time they knew their place. That’s one that won’t make trouble no more.

His daddy had been a hard man, and even harder to love. But love him Burt did, through all the beatings, through all the times he’d found his mother bloodied from his old man’s fists.

His father’s most essential rule, THE RULE, was that he should hate anyone who wasn’t white. “Keep ‘em under your boot son,” this was said with the utmost emphasis during the few times he’d shown Burt affection. “For a white man, ain’t nothing more important.” His daddy had hated black and brown folks, and Burt loved his daddy. So, he hated them too. He opened the door to his flat and stepped inside.

——

Richard sat in the darkness. The only illumination came from the moon and the streetlight outside his window. He shut his eyes.

When he opened them, his room had been transformed. Thick grass grew under his feet. He stared into a gold, orange and blue sunset, a half-smile of wonderment on his face. To his right, the walls and door of his flat remained. Straight ahead, camel thorn trees spouted in the brush. In the distance, he could hear the steady rhythm of drums and a faint whisper. Richard cocked his head to the right. Listening.

He nodded and shut his eyes once more. His spirit rose from the chair. He looked back at his body then walked out into the night. Those he passed on the street could not see him … But they felt him as a breeze.

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you Friday!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Aziza Sphinx

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

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

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

Ten Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Aziza.  What projects are you currently working on? Is horror your primary genre, or do you write in other genres? If you write in other genres, which do you feel most comfortable writing, and why?

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

GMM: When did you first know that you were a horror writer? How did you develop an interest in the genre? What initially attracted you to horror stories? Which writers influenced you then? Which writers influence you now?

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

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

GMM: The documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019), explores Black horror and the portrayal (and absence) of Black people in horror movies. As a definition of what Black horror means begins to take shape, Tananarive Due says “Black history is Black horror.” What do you think she meant by that? Can you give an example of how this idea shows up in your own work?

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

GMM: As a WOC writing horror/dark speculative fiction, do you feel obligated to have a deeper message in your stories? Can writers of color write stories without broader messages about identity, class, and racism? Is it possible to divorce yourself from that ongoing narrative within our culture when you set out to write a story?

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

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

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

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

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

GMM: How do you feel about white-identifying writers who write stories about non-white characters? What problems have you encountered? What potential issues do you see with white-identifying writers telling BIPOC stories? What advice would you give those writers?

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

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

GMM: All writers have experienced some form of impostor syndrome. What has your experience with impostor syndrome been like? Did you ever have a particularly bad case of it? If so, what caused it and how did you manage it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excerpt from Of Darkened Woods

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

Luna! Luna! Luna! Witch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Violette Meier

Last week I had two amazing conversations with Sumiko Saulson and Tonia Ransom. If you missed either of those interviews and fragments, go check them out.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes the prolific speculative fiction writer, Violette Meier.

Violette Meier is a happily married mother, writer, folk artist, poet, and native of Atlanta, Georgia, who earned her B.A. in English at Clark Atlanta University and a Masters of Divinity at Interdenominational Theological Center. The great-granddaughter of a dream interpreter, Violette is a lover of all things supernatural and loves to write paranormal, fantasy, and horror. She is always working on something new. Her latest work in progress, called Oracles, should be released by winter 2021.Her published books include: The First Chronicle of Zayashariya: Out of Night, Angel Crush, Son of the Rock, Archfiend, Ruah the Immortal, Tales of a Numinous Nature: A Short Story Collection, Hags, Haints, and Hoodoo: A Supernatural Short Story Collection, Loving and Living Life, Violette Ardor: A Volume of Poetry, This Sickness We Call Love: Poems of Love, Lust, and Lamentation, and two children’s books: I Would Love You and Would You Love Me?

Ten Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Violette.  What projects are you currently working on? Is horror your primary genre, or do you write in other genres? If you write in other genres, which do you feel most comfortable writing, and why?

VM: Thanks for having me! Right now, I’m not working on a novel called, Oracles. It’s a supernatural reflection of an old woman’s life on her 101st birthday. Horror is one of my genres. I also write paranormal thrillers, urban fantasy, and science fantasy. Maybe to some, it’s all horror. I’m not sure because nothing ever scares me. What may seem slightly eerie to me may be scary to someone else.

GMM: When did you first know that you were a horror writer? How did you develop an interest in the genre? What initially attracted you to horror stories? Which writers influenced you then? Which writers influence you now?

VM: I knew I was a horror writer when I was a teen because I was so fascinated with ghost stories and all things of a numinous nature. Every time I wrote something, it always went to the left.

I grew up with a great grandmother who told so many ghost stories, that as a child I was always on the lookout for a haint. I was comfortable with fear and uncertainty. Honestly, I don’t know if I’m capable of writing something normal. Dean Koontz and Stephen King were my favorite horror writers when I was younger. Now I’m influenced by a host of independent black writers.

GMM: The documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019), explores Black horror and the portrayal (and absence) of Black people in horror movies. As a definition of what Black horror means begins to take shape, Tananarive Due says “Black history is Black horror.” What do you think she meant by that? Can you give an example of how this idea shows up in your own work?

VM: “Black history is horror” is based on the diabolical black experience through the institution of slavery, racism, Jim Crow, police brutality, red lining, separate and unequal education, the penal system, economic disparity, war on drugs, gang violence, church hurt, the destruction of the black family, self-hate and conformity, etc.

These things show up in my work sparingly. It’s there but it’s never the focus. I focus more on black excellence, love, intelligence, simply the normalcy of black life that the world doesn’t focus on. Black folks have enough trauma porn.

GMM: As a WOC writing horror/dark speculative fiction, do you feel obligated to have a deeper message in your stories? Can writers of color write stories without broader messages about identity, class, and racism? Is it possible to divorce yourself from that ongoing narrative within our culture when you set out to write a story?

VM: I do not feel obligated to do anything but write the story that’s in my head. Writers of color can write whatever we wish. There are no limitations to our talent and imagination. The only boxes that we have are the ones we create.

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

VM: That’s a hard question. I have so many. There are so many different kinds of horror. If I’m forced to choose, I would pick: Fright Night (the one from the 80s), Blacula, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Jeepers Creepers, and Tales from the Hood.

Honestly, I don’t read a lot of horror. I try not to read a lot of books in the genre in which I write. I don’t want to inadvertently absorb someone else’s ideas. But, when I was in college, I loved everything written by Anne Rice. The book that scared me the most was The Exorcist.

GMM: How do you feel about white-identifying writers who write stories about non-white characters? What problems have you encountered? What potential issues do you see with white-identifying writers telling BIPOC stories? What advice would you give those writers?

VM: That’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, I believe in artistic freedom. On the other hand, knowing the history of white people being culture vultures, and the stories of BIPOC being suppressed or being told through a belittling lens, it’s important that BIPOC tell our own stories.

GMM: All writers have experienced some form of impostor syndrome. What has your experience with impostor syndrome been like? Did you ever have a particularly bad case of it? If so, what caused it and how did you manage it?

VM: Like you said, all writers feel that they may not be great at their craft, especially when books aren’t selling as much as you think they should.

I manage it by telling myself that my stories are unique and that they are mine to tell. No one can tell my story but me. Some people will love what I do. Some will hate it. Both are okay.

GMM: Tell me a bit about your great grandmother, the dream interpreter. Did you know her when you were growing up? Did she pass on any of her knowledge? How important are dreams to you as a writer? How has that ancestral legacy had an impact on what you write?

VM: I grew up with my great grandmother until the age of nine. She was the greatest storyteller. Sitting at her feet listening to what she claimed as real-life supernatural stories, put a love of the paranormal in my heart. She’s my biggest influence as a writer. She’s the reason why I write. Dreams are important to me as a writer and as a person. Dreams can be warnings, revelations, fantasies, or just the purging of the subconscious. In my Angel Crush series, there are a lot of prophetic dreams.

GMM: How often do people you know, either people you have close relationships with, or strangers you encounter randomly, end up as characters or the inspiration for characters in your fiction? Are some of them easily recognizable? Are there characters you’ve written based on people you know that you wouldn’t want them to know you wrote about them? Have people ever accused you of misrepresenting them in a story?

VM: All the time. Real life always influences fiction. I am careful to mix characteristics of people I know personally so that no one can pinpoint themselves. Therefore, no one has ever accused me of misrepresenting them. Also, I write supernatural fiction. Most people don’t see themselves in the situations I create, but people love that I name my characters after them.

GMM: What is the most positive feedback you’ve ever received for something you’ve written? Would you consider that one of your proudest moments? What is some of the most negative feedback you’ve received? How did it push you to become a better writer?

VM: The most positive is when a reader told me that I was their favorite writer. It made me feel so good. Of course, that was one of my proudest moments. Nothing feels better than someone loving my stories as much as I love them. It makes me feel like they get me. Like they had a glimpse through intimate parts of my mind.

The most negative is when someone compared one of my books to the Left Behind series. I had no idea how they could have possibly come to that conclusion. It was like comparing Sula to Fifty Shades of Grey. I was lost on that feedback.  My push to become a better writer is a personal push. I always want a current story to be better than the last. Although I love effective criticism, I rarely allow the opinions of others to override my vision for my stories.

Excerpt from Oracles by Violette Meier

1

It’s February 12th again and I’ve made my one hundred and first circle around the sun. I was hoping when I opened my eyes this morning to be in the bosom of Abraham or trying to possess the body of a newborn baby, or at least sunbathing in a flowery field in another dimension; but I’m still here on earth celebrating another birthday. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful. I am able-bodied and in my right mind. I can still dance when I hear a song that takes me back to times when the winding of my hips could hypnotize any onlooker into a helpless trance. Now the winding of my hips sounds like a twentieth-century watch being wound. My lined face is but a shadow of the woman I used to be. The mirror lies; showing me crow’s feet and laugh lines as deep as canyons; muddy eyes and a turkey neck. When I close my eyes, I see taut skin, gypsy eyes, voluptuous lips, and a neck like a swan’s. I am still that woman inside.

My health is good. Well, most of the time anyway. My blood pressure gets a bit high when I eat too many potato chips or take a week off from walking. My knee gets a little stiff at times and occasional low energy levels force my bedtime to start with the evening news.

I could do the average old lady thing and offer a list of my ailments, but I won’t because for the most part, I’m healthy and happy.  I’m surrounded by my family, who loves me, in a cozy home that I share with my eldest granddaughter, Sage, and her family. Sage and her husband Kevin have been good to me.  Life is pleasant. Sadness creeps up on me from time to time because my heart still yearns for my husband. It has been ten years since Josiah transitioned. According to him, he’s probably in a new body trying to learn the lessons he missed his last lifetime. I never believed much in reincarnation, but he did, and I am sure that he lives on somewhere in the world. Josiah had a knack for being right or so he claimed. My luck, he’s right about reincarnation and I’ll have to come back to this godforsaken planet. Not that I do not love living, but I have been on this earth a long time and I am ready to be gathered to my people. The ancestors are calling me. Their beckoning plays in my ears like a song stuck on repeat, fluttering in the distance. I can hear them calling my name; a melodic whisper that never stops humming day or night.

“Ma Lily!” my ten-year-old great grandchild yells from the other side of the door.

Violet is a loud one. Her voice is deep and full sounding like a chorus harmonizing every note. It would be perfect for the voice of God in a movie.

“Ma Lily, can I come in?” she asks as she taps the door like her finger is vibrating. I see the shadow of her toes dancing underneath the door.

I tell her to come in and Violet pushes open the door like she is trying to test her strength; causing it to fly open like a tornado is spinning in the hallway. Every time I see her, which is every single day, it makes me laugh inside. She looks the most like me out of all of my great grandchildren. Light brown with freckles, a cloud of thick black hair sits on the top her head like a beach ball held in place by a giant purple ribbon tied into a perfect bow with its ends framing the sides of her face, and the most intoxicating smile on this side of the world. She is radical, nonconforming, fearless and ostentatious like a ten-year-old should be. 

“Whatcha doin’?” Violet asks plopping down in my rocking chair as I push myself up into a sitting position. I pull the covers off my legs and toss my legs off the side of the bed. I look down at my ashy feet as my toenails scrape the floor. My toenails look like talons. Maybe I was turning into a wild thing like a creature in one of Violet’s story books. I voice activate the lamp and instruct her to open the curtains. Sunlight changes the entire energy of the room. It instantly renews every cell in my body. All of a sudden, a new birthday didn’t seem so annoying.

“Just waking up,” I answer looking at the digital holographic clock hovering over my nightstand. It was 7:59 am. “Why are you up so early?” I ask her as she rocks back and forth swinging her legs like she is on a playground swing. The chair groans like an old man. “It’s Wednesday. Why aren’t you in school?”

“Because it’s your birthday!” Violet exclaims. “Mama says that turning one hundred and one is a big deal and we’re gonna party like it’s 1999,” she replies scratching her head confused about what that meant. That song is nearly a century old. I was surprised her mother knew the lyrics, but then again, Prince is and will always be my favorite musical artist of all time. My children grew up on his music and when my grandchildren and great grandchildren visited me, they too became familiar with Prince’s ear piercing falsetto and his sacrosanct sexuality. I love everything about that little musical mastermind. I love that man! If I had any musical ability, Prince is who I would channel. For a moment, I consider placing my music microchip into my ear and playing Prince’s greatest hits, but I’m sure Violet will not let me listen in peace. Per her request, I would have to blast it loud through the ceiling speakers and frankly, it was way too early for that kind of noise.

“What does your mama have planned?” I ask, a little anxious about Sage’s plans.

Sage always went over and beyond what was humanly necessary to do anything. She is a perfectionist in the worst way and habitually slunk away from gratification like it was the plague. Watching her frown and fret over every single detail was torture. Sage could make a person feel guilty about having a birthday because of all the trouble that celebrating it will cause her. I’m glad I won’t be around to see what she plans for my funeral.

When I turned one hundred, she made a movie about my life consisting of old videos and photographs. It was a nice sentiment until she rented out a local theater to show it and invited everyone in town. I had to wait in line for thirty minutes to see my own movie and she stressed herself out over cold popcorn and incorrect digital tickets until she fainted and had to be fanned back to consciousness.

“I can’t tell you,” Violet says as she hops off the rocking chair onto my bed. The bounce nearly catapults me across the room. I grip the mattress to balance myself and exhale.

“Can I do your hair?” she asks as she twists my silver dreadlocks into loops and pin them to the top of my head. I lift myself so she can pull the ones free that I was sitting on, and I sit back on the bed.

“Looks like you’re already doing it,” I retort while yawning. I sit as still as I can as my great granddaughter styles my hair. My dreadlocks are floor length. It amazes me how she effortlessly gathers my big blue-gray ropes of hair and turns them into flower petals. She pulls the last bobby pin from her pocket and places it in my hair.

“Done!” she exclaims and bolts back over to the rocking chair.

I stand up and walk over to the cherry wood vanity that sits in the corner of my room, pull the emerald cushioned seat out and sit down. I look in the mirror and smile. Violet does exquisite hair just like her grandmother, my daughter, Chloe.

“Thank you, baby,” I reply as I put on a thin coat of pink lip gloss and give myself an air kiss in the mirror. I swear the lip gloss and hairstyle takes twenty years off my face. I don’t look a day over eighty.

“You’re welcome Ma Lily,” Violet replies as she rocks like a mad woman in the chair.

“Bring me my owls,” I instruct while admiring my hair in the mirror.

Violet hops off the chair and crosses the room and opens the top drawer of my jewelry armoire. She pulls out two sterling silver necklaces, both with large owls hanging from them, and a matching pair of earrings. After she hands them to me, I put on both necklaces, one owl hanging lower than the other and put on the dangling earrings.

I look at myself once again in the mirror and smile, extremely pleased with Violet’s handy work. I feel beautiful.

A shadow moves on the opposite side of the room, its dark reflection appearing like a man made of smoke. My chest constricts as I gasp aloud. I spin around.  Nothing is there.

The room falls silent. The screeching rocker squeals no more. Violet sits in the rocking chair as if time has stopped; her small face flushes red and her back is as stiff as a board.

“You okay baby?” I ask her as a shiny tear made its way down her cheek.

“Did you see it?” she whimpers.

“I saw it,” I confess. I want to deny it, but it is no use. Violet and I both were born with a veil; born with two crowns on our heads like the elders used to say. It was one of the things that helped us forge such an intimate relationship. Her mother cannot see, but her grandmother Chloe can and so can Violet’s older brother Uriah.

“It’s coming to get you Ma Lily. I saw it,” Violet whines. “I don’t want you to go.”

I stand up and walk over to my great grandchild. I instruct her to stand up so I can sit down. My knee is hurting a little. Rain must be coming. Violet sits on my good knee. She feels heavier than she did yesterday. “There is a season for everything under heaven,” I reply. “A time to laugh and a time to cry. A time to live and a time to die.”

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you Friday!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.