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.