Fiction Fragments: Douglas Gwilym

Happy Valentine’s Day, and Happy Birthday to me! Last week, I spoke with Gwendolyn Kiste about why Women in Horror Month is important to the future of horror. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes another Pittsburgh writer, Douglas Gwilym, whose handlebar mustache game is strong.

douglas-gwilym-e1575312913925.jpg

Douglas Gwilym is a writer and editor who has also been known to compose a weird-fiction rock opera or two. If you aren’t lucky enough to have caught him performing his stories and music at venues around Pittsburgh, you can find him at douglasgwilym.bandcamp.com, follow his Amazon author page, or befriend him on facebook.

He’s an active member of the HWA and is the “Gwilym” half of the upcoming podcast Gwilym & Oreto’s Good Dark Fun. He edited four years of the themed annual Triangulation, now in its 16th year. He served on staff at Alpha Young Writers speculative fiction workshop, curates and narrates Douglas Gwilym Presents (a free short-story audio series), is a repeat guest on Alan & Jeremy vs. Science Fiction, and has explored Pittsburgh on foot from stem to stern, in search of good food and impossible truths.

He is a novelist looking for representation, his latest manuscript about an indie rock musician and programmer hiding out in the city from the monsters she made (literally) back in her hometown of Stonesthrow.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Douglas. Storytelling happens in a lot of different settings and mediums — writing, spoken word performances, song lyrics, and visual formats — what is your favorite method of storytelling? Which do you find most challenging? What is your earliest memory of having someone tell you a story?

DG: I might be the wrong person to answer the first part? I know that you’re supposed to settle in, be a one-trick pony. Get really good at one thing. But I have the heart of a stubborn child in my ribcage (not in a jar on my desk), and the moment I make promises like that, I also begin the dogged work of undermining it all. That heart doesn’t like to do what it’s told.

When I was small, I wrote puppet plays and wished I could write books. I got discouraged with the quality of my output (couldn’t close the plot hole in that danged mystery story in fourth grade), and leaned into songwriting for many years. Both of those things got deeply rooted in me, so much so that I have a hard time seeing the boundaries. There’s always music and music culture in my fiction, and storytelling and role-playing in my songs.

That word “role-playing” slipped in there. I guess I am a “method writer,” if that’s a thing. I really tend to lose myself, forget who I am, when I’m deep in any kind of story. When I can’t nail the vocal for a song, I have been known to dress up as the character. Right now I’m hip-deep in writing a novel, and I find that I am not always sure who I am, even when I’m done with the word count for the day. Yes, I can see how that could become… problematical, if unchecked.

I love when artists from supposedly disparate mediums come together to tell a story. When music and visuals and words come together into a crazy rock opera or (even better for the participatory element) a video game. I got to teach at Alpha Young Writers workshop on a year when the inimitable N.K. Jemisin was guest speaker, and was super impressed that a geek-out on the value and potential of gaming as a storytelling medium was a key part of her presentation. I could easily get sucked into that world, be a writer for video games.

There are many things you could say about my upbringing, but… I definitely come from story people. My granddad was a talker and a letter writer. He could apparently type away at 75 wpm on a letter to his brother (or me) and simultaneously hold a conversation with a live human. Hard to imagine that letter or the conversation being any good, but hey. His great uncle was a locally-famous South Wales bard, and (perhaps under that influence) he tended to tell the story “the way it should have happened.” 8-track tapes of him reading were great treasures of mine as a kid. My mother did her part, filling my early childhood with folklore and fairy tales, Madeleine L’Engle and Narnia and Lewis Carroll. But I wanted to be able to “grab people by the lapels” like Grandpa.

GMM: What is your favorite haunted place in Pittsburgh? Have you ever gone exploring in Pittsburgh and gotten lost? What is the most surprising or disturbing thing you found while wandering through the city and its surrounding areas?

DG: I get lost plenty, because I often walk to be in my own head, not in a particular place.

We’re a one-car household, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Walking is good for me of course (being I-had-an-8-track-player years old), and I love what my pal Jonathan Auxier calls “the walking cure,” that idea that whatever you need, you can find out there on your feet. I’ve dictated short stories and whole chapters of things into my phone on long walks. I’m a big fan of our imperfect-but-oh-so-charming little city, and I like to see what you can see when you’re not in the belly of a steal-and-rubber carbeast. (We get addled in those things, shout and gesture at each other in ways we wouldn’t anywhere else, you know?)

A few months ago, a friend and I decided to walk the twelve miles from an eastern border of the city to a western one in a single morning. (The next rung on that ladder will hopefully be to walk from the easternmost border, in East Hills, to the westernmost border, in Fairywood—an addition of four miles.) It was a great thing to do with a Sunday morning. You see it all, with your feet on the sidewalk. And yes, a lot of it is haunted.

We passed through the Southside flats. I used to live there, in a house that turns 205 this year. I love to wander in the ancient crumble of those backstreets, looking for the lines of the bones of the original places, but my favorite spot—for my money the most haunted place in a city of considerable haunts—is just below the railroad tracks that guard the river from the flats (or is it the flats from the river?). You know the relatively civilized “rail trail,” of course, office workers rolling along in Starbucks cups, but if you push your way through the dense bit of woods below, you can drop into another world.

It’s kind of a graveyard, and definitely a ruin. Monolithic and unknowable mountains of broken concrete and steel beams break the surface of both earth and water there. Impossible doors bolted shut for a century lead down into the embankment. The litter at your feet spells out hobo symbols. You can perch there on the dinosaur back of riverfront steel and glass, and look up across the cool water at the cityscape for hours if you want, lost in your thoughts. Sometimes you will stand up and discover that you were not alone. I recommend it.

GMM: February is Women in Horror Month, and although you don’t identify as female, you write about female characters. What inspired you to write a story with a female protagonist? What challenges have you experienced while writing female characters? Why do you think it is important to tell stories about women?

DG: It’s important to tell all of our stories, and not just the stories of a privileged few.

But the real reason for me personally to be writing female characters is that I’ve filled my world and my heart and my skull with a lot of people who happen to be women. It’s no surprise that my wife and daughter are at the center of everything, but my closest friends (childhood, grad school, beyond) have, maybe a-little-more-often-than-not, identified as female. It would just… never occur to me, not to be trying to tell stories of women fully activated and working in-and-on their worlds, when I have those stories to tell.

The operative word here is trying. The challenge is real. But it’s like any other fiction-writing experiment: if you’re trying to be someone who’s not you, or in one way or another not like yourself, you’re going to get it wrong sometimes. That’s when a writer most needs to be a good listener, and be willing to check work against the experience of others. But you can’t sweat that during the writing process unless you want to spend all of your time spinning your wheels. Do your best, don’t be a jerk, and be willing to be wrong. Cultivate humility when sharing the results. Fix it when you need to, but don’t stop trusting yourself.

The very best thing is when it works. I will never forget when I was just getting started writing short stories and I shared one with a good friend. It was a first-person cyberpunk lucid-dreaming thing with a collective unconscious secret service and an elephant grandmother. She dug it. She said something like, “I felt like it was me.” Of course, I saw a lot of myself in the character, but it was a fantastic compliment. The high water mark I have shot for ever since.

Excerpt from They Take Our Best, by Douglas Gwilym

They sped us up or slowed us down to do their dirty business. A rung in the ladder to pull the ultimate heist.

Maybe you don’t hear what I’m saying. They took our best.

Janine was sitting next to me and she saw it, the weird thing with the clock hands, too. Truth is, we hadn’t really hung out in a couple years. We’d been in girl scouts together (“make new friends and keep the old”), and I remember catching fireflies with her in the little lot by the school we called the fairy forest, but all I knew about her now was what my mom told me about her living with her aunt out in Forest Hills and bringing her in to school on the way to the law firm. That the parents had finally snapped and told her she wasn’t theirs, that she wasn’t their daughter. That if she was going to act like that, contrary to God’s principles, she belonged to the devil. I knew that, and that meant something to me. I’d been trying to talk to her again. I’d been trying to find the right moment.

Ms. DeAugustino was going on about Pythagoras or something, and her voice had turned into a hum so low it harmonized with the air conditioner, and we must have both been staring at the clock, because then we turned and looked at each other, and we saw the shock in each other’s eyes. We stood up and walked right out of that class and if Ms. D tried to stop us, I didn’t hear. Maybe Janine noticed. We’ve done a lot of walking, since.

The Slow Wave hit again four days later. We were hunkering down. You’d think it would come in threes, but you’d be wrong. Maybe the first was just a test run. Maybe threes only happen in fairy tales, or back in that fairy forest.

For one hour after that second wave, we all saw the newsfeeds. The world had turned a big corner, and THEY—whoever they were—had given us a gift, as a prelude to… taking everything away.

At the highest point of elevation, in each of the fifty states, a tower appeared. Was it built? Maybe in some expanded moment, in the microscopic tide of seconds, while we were all too shocked to react?

Every state, every province, has one tower now, placed at the highest available spot above sea level. They are smooth, featureless, seamless. Made of ordinary steel, from what anyone can tell. At the base, they are about as wide and long as a football field. If you look hard, you can detect a gentle taper, but they’re so tall the tops are out of sight even from a distance.

That hour was an hour of panic, confusion, fascination. The scientists and diplomats and salesmen of the world put on their boots and gloves and were about to get out there for the time of their lives. They hesitated, maybe. There was just one more form to fill out. It didn’t pay to rush into the unknown unprepared.

Before anyone could get their business together, the Big Bad hit.

There was a whole lotta destruction. Everything you would expect to see if you watch too many disaster movies. The most consistent thing is people went through a lot of good old garden-variety shock. Setbacks, you’re used to. You go into your phone and change things on your calendar or at worst fill out another form. But passenger jets screaming across the sky and disappearing, and then the heat and the sound of an impact that’s obscured in light and soot and smoke and other people screaming? There’s not an app for that.

Things got so jumbled and bunched and dark and words like “looting” lost meaning because suddenly there were more important things than stuff. You saved yourself. You tried to save your loved ones, if enough was left of them to save.

There wasn’t, for Mom or Dad. And that’s all I know to say about that right now.

Dad, he always talked about the “walking cure”. He was a writer. Nothing exciting—like, psychology stuff. But he always said there was nothing you couldn’t figure out if you had a good pair of shoes and could walk far enough.

“Jody, come see this!” Janine shouts from a clearing ahead. It’s later in the afternoon than I’d imagined for our approach to the tower that sits atop Mt. Davis, thirty-two hundred feet above sea level. It’s brisk enough that me sweating isn’t taking the edge off, and I’ve been thinking about suggesting we stop for the night. I’m trying to get the burs off my jeans, and I look up to find her leaning over a weird broad spot, where the grass and some vining morning glories (still blooming) are mashed down. They’re not springing back up like they always would before. Flattened like under glass.

My hand passes inches above the depression, and doesn’t come into contact with anything. Open air. It’s a moment I’ll think about later. It’s when we really stopped asking questions because we’re tired. Tired of not finding any answers.

“You have any explanation for that?” she asks me.

“No,” I say. “I can’t remember having an explanation for anything.”

And then we twin again, like we did back in math class. We look up together, our attention completely shifted.

At the end of the clearing, like a gatekeeper back into the forest, is what looks like a tremendous yew tree—that’s the word that sticks in my mind for it, but I’m not good with trees. Its arms twist outward and upward and toward us, and in the heightened darkness of its shade, the first fireflies of the night appear. One. Five. A dozen on and then off. A dozen more to take their place.

She takes my hand, for the first time, and we stand there, barely breathe.

We’re close now. But here there’s this pocket of safety, of realness. This place that says things are still alright somewhere. Things can be right again.

Do you have a story hiding in a drawer you’d like to share with Girl Meets Monster? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: Gwendolyn Kiste

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

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

Three Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction Fragment, by Gwendolyn Kiste

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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