Fiction Fragments: Denise N. Tapscott

Last week I talked with Jade Woodridge about the significance of why she writes about children in her dark speculative fiction, and she share an excerpt from her story, “The Sweeper Man.”

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes horror writer Denise N. Tapscott.

Denise N. Tapscott was born and raised in California. She left her heart in San Francisco, but somehow managed to leave her soul in New Orleans. When she’s not creating and cultivating her characters, she enjoys dining on spicy tuna rolls, sharing a bottle of red wine with friends and watching the latest flick (especially scary films). From time to time this radiant left-handed pirate will even challenge others to a fencing match or two. But, watch out. This Gemini is determined to win!

As a member of the HWA, one of her greatest joys is publishing her first novel Gypsy Kisses and Voodoo Wishes as well as the short story The Price of Salvation.  She’s currently working on a collection of short stories called The Friends and Foes of Grandmother Zenobia as well as a sequel novel, Enlightening of the Damned.

Website:  www.denisetapscott.com
Twitter:  @DeniseNTapscott
Instagram: @pyratesunny
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/TheDeniseNTapscott

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Denise. When did you first become interested in Voodoo? What about Voodoo makes you want to include it as a recurring theme in your fiction? What kind of research did you do for your novel, Gypsy Kisses and Voodoo Wishes?

DNT: Great questions! Voodoo first caught my attention when I watched the movie Angel Heart. It was awesome and freaked me out! Then a few years later I saw The Skeleton Key and all kinds of story ideas popped in my head. I eventually came up with an idea that it would be neat to read about Voodoo battling Romany magic. I traveled to New Orleans several times to research Voodoo and Marie LaVeau. The more information I came across I realized my perception of Voodoo was way wrong. I was mixing and matching Voodoo with Hoodoo. There’s a lot more to both of these African Traditional religions than dancing to drums and poking dolls. I came across an awesome Rootworker, The Broken Prophet in Atlanta who explained there are several kinds of Voodoo from Africa and Haiti, and New Orleans being the melting pot it is, also has it’s own Voodoo! Hoodoo is a whole different ball game as well. I hope Gypsy Kisses and Voodoo Wishes (as well as my future stories) honors some of the things I learned and show that it’s not the evil religion people think it might be.

GMM: My debut novel, Invisible Chains, is an historical horror novel set in Antebellum New Orleans, told form the POV of a young female slave. What drew you to set your novel and other stories in New Orleans? How does the setting shape the narrative of your novel and other stories? Do you treat the city like a backdrop, or like a character in the story itself?

DNT: There are cities that have a certain flavor, but something about New Orleans feels magical. Considering Louisiana’s dark and lively history, I think it’s the perfect setting for my novels and short stories. One of my main characters, Grandmother Zenobia, is also dark and lively so it’s the perfect place for her to exist. I created a fictional area in New Orleans and named it Carrefour Parish (Carrefour means crossroads in French). I treat it like a living backdrop, similar to the zombies in the earlier episodes of the tv show The Walking Dead. In some episodes, you know the zombies are there, but the characters have other life problems to deal with. I hope the reader is aware of how it feels to be in the south, with hints of magic and how the characters move around in its environment without overshadowing what they go through.

GMM: I grew up in Central Pennsylvania and spent sixteen years of my life living in Pittsburgh. I consider Pittsburgh more of a home than the town I grew up in, but like you, New Orleans is in my soul. Each time I visit, I see something new, learn something about its history, and always have a good time. Tell me your best New Orleans story, or your fondest memory of the Crescent City.

DNT: I love New Orleans so much that people think I’m from there! My favorite memory is visiting a small bar on Bourbon Street for my birthday a few years ago. I went to New Orleans by myself and wanted to listen to some live Jazz. Walking past a place called Maison Bourbon, I noticed they had a small band playing so I found a seat at the bar. The band leader asked if anyone was celebrating something special like an anniversary, wedding, or birthday. No one spoke up, which is odd because there’s always someone celebrating something in New Orleans. So I sheepishly raised my hand and said I was celebrating my birthday. They asked my name and I said Sunny, which is one of my favorite nicknames. The entire bar sang Happy Birthday to me and then played “When the Saints Go Marching In”. It was such a treat. The next night some of my girlfriends flew in and I told them my birthday story. We went back to Maison Bourbon and when I walked through the door, the band recognized me. They said, “Hey, Sunny’s back!” They played “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” for me. I will always cherish that moment, the feeling that I belong there and in New Orleans.

Thanks for letting me spend time on Girl Meets Monster.

Excerpt from “Price of Salvation”

I dragged myself through the open doorway and when I entered the humidity vanished.  Cool air caressed my face. I stood up straight and sighed.  When was the last time I took an honest deep breath, without coughing or puking? The aroma of freshly baked cinnamon rolls filled the air. My escape from the southern heat was glorious.

“Settle down,” I heard from the darkness.

“Close the door, and have a seat, Mrs. Jurel.”  

The voice of the Voodoo woman was clear and melodic, only slightly tainted with a New Orleans drawl.  

After blinking a few times, I saw a small metal folding chair. My eyes still hadn’t adjusted to the darkness so I fumbled around until I could sit obediently.  The chair was more comfortable than I expected.  Resting in the darkness was wonderful.  Once I regained my focus, I noticed I sat at a small table covered in soft black velvet. I wanted to brush my fingers across it, but my hands were dirty, accented with ragged nails, so I opted to fold my hands in my lap.

Sitting on a large purple and gold throne across from me was a pleasant-looking-dark skinned woman.  Her hair was covered with a purple turban, matching the royal purple on her front door.  She wore a black gauze tunic blouse.  Around her neck, a shiny copper Ankh glowed against her skin.  She didn’t wear any other jewelry, except a large black and gold fleur-de-lis ring that adorned well-manicured fingers.  Was she wearing a skirt or pants?  Why did I care about her outfit?  She was not the toothless, gray-haired woman I expected.  She looked like she was in her 40s?  My assistant Tasha joked “Black don’t crack”.  I could never say that, but she’s right.  This woman didn’t look old enough to be a grandmother.  She reminded me of that lady with the popular television talk show.  Everyone in her studio audience went home with expensive vacations and new cars.  

Three fresh, tapered candles, one black, one blue and one white, formed a triangle on the table on my right.  A thicker, taller, purple candle sat close to the Voodoo Woman. From my research, I knew the black one warded off negative energies and promoted healing. Royal blue was for seeking wisdom and truth. White was for protection, and purification.  Lastly, the purple one was for spiritual protection.  All the candles on this table represented protection but the purple one supposedly canceled negative effects of bad karma.  The Voodoo woman made interesting choices.

I lifted my head to take in my surroundings.  My neck was sore from my head being tossed back and forth every time I vomited.  There were shelves of books, crosses, various kinds of statues and other religious-looking artifacts.  If I was not mistaken, there was a shrunken head in the corner.  To my left, there was a jade dragon perched on a shiny black surface. Was that a human skull staring down at me?  Heavy red velvet curtains with gold trim covered windows, presumably protecting us from the sun.  In another corner there were large, dusty trunks. Simply being in this spooky room was worth my $500 dollars.

“Mrs. Jurel, you look like you could use some water.”

Grandmother Zenobia handed me a chilled, plastic bottle of water.  I was scared to drink it; when I vomited all over the luxurious black velvet table, I would be mortified.

“Go on, drink.”  

I swirled the cool water in my mouth a few times before swallowing. I braced for the burn.  Instead the liquid was sweet and went down smoothly.  It was an ordinary bottle of water, but it felt like I drank tears from heaven.  I paused, waiting for my stomach to betray me. It rumbled for a moment but then, silence.  Carelessly, I chugged the water as fast as I could.  Panicked, I look around for a trash can, for when my body-double crossed me and the water forced its way back out.  

There was no trash can.  There was no vomit.  There was peace, while sitting in a cool room.  I was so grateful that I cried.

“Do you need a moment to collect yourself?”  She asked, while passing me a soft tissue.  Wiping my tears away, I noticed my eyes didn’t sting when I blinked.  I cried even more.  It would take centuries to stop sobbing and catch my breath.

Attempting to compose myself, I noticed that I sat taller. My fever faded away.

“Thank you, Zenobia.”  

“Feeling better?” she asked.

“Yes,” I can’t believe that I do feel better.  Thank you for seeing me.”

“I prefer to be called Grandmother Zenobia.”

The black candle, the one for healing, flared brighter than the others.  The voodoo woman mumbled to herself; the flame obeyed her muttered commands and returned to its regular state. I re-adjusted in my seat and for the first time in months, I was almost my old self.  I took in another deep breath and appreciated the smell of cinnamon again. Aware I was on the clock, I got down to business.

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: Steven Van Patten

Last week on Girl Meets Monster, I chatted with Jessica Guess about her horror novella, Cirque Berserk (2020) and how she created a space for herself in a genre where she felt absent.

This week, I welcome award-winning horror writer, publisher, screenwriter, and TV stage manager Steven Van Patten.

Brooklyn native Steven Van Patten is the author of the critically acclaimed Brookwater’s Curse trilogy, about an 1860s Georgia plantation slave who becomes law enforcement within the vampire community. In contrast, the titular character in his Killer Genius series is a modern day hyper-intelligent black woman who uses high-end technology as a socially conscious serial killer.

SVP’s short fiction includes contributions to nearly a dozen horror anthologies, including the Stoker Award nominated New York State of Fright. A collection of short horror and dark fiction stories entitled Hell At The Way Station, published by his company Laughing Black Vampire Productions and co-authored by acclaimed storyteller, Marc Abbott hit shelves in 2018.

Along with a plethora of other honors and accolades, SVP won three African-African-American Literary Awards in 2019, two for Hell At The Way Station (Best Anthology and Best In Science Fiction) and one for Best Independent Publisher. He’s written about everything from sleep demons to the Harlem Hellfighters of WWI for episodes of the YouTube series’ Extra Credit and Extra Mythology. He’s also a contributor for Viral Vignettes, a charity-driven YouTube comedy series benefitting The Actor’s Fund. He uses his full name on Facebook but goes by @svpthinks on Twitter and Instagram. When he’s not creating macabre literature, he can be found stage managing television shows primarily in New York City and occasionally on the West Coast. Along with being a member of the New York Chapter of The Horror Writer’s Association, he’s also a member of The Director’s Guild of America and professional arts fraternity Gamma Xi Phi. His website is www.laughingblackvampire.com.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Steven. I am almost ashamed to say that I haven’t read the Brookwater’s Curse trilogy, but it is on my TBR list. I’m interested in reading the trilogy because I love vampires, and I wrote a slave narrative featuring a vampire. Your story is about a male slave who becomes an important part of vampire society, and my story is about a young woman who escapes slavery but still has a lot of obstacles to maneauver while gaining a better understanding of her identity in the context of the antebellum South while traveling with a vampire. My first question is why vampires? And my second question is why slavery? What about these two subjects/characters called to you to tell a story? How does being part of vampire society help or hinder your protagonist? What inspired this trilogy?

SVP: Well, first of all, thank you for having me. I’m thrilled to be talking to a mavin such as yourself. I think I was drawn to vampires because as a kid, I didn’t always see them all as monsters. I mean, I saw Christopher Lee’s Dracula as a monster, but William Marshall’s Blacula was a different case. There were some shades of grey. He tried to end the slave-trade. He was in love. He was misunderstood and in many ways his own worst enemy. And it’s that line from Scream, Blacula, Scream that stuck with me forever. It’s from the scene where he is cornered by two rather stereotypical 1970s pimps after disregarding their hooker. After listening to their nonsense, Blacula said, “You’ve made a slave of your sister and you’re still slaves imitating your slave masters!” Then he proceeds to kill them. But for me, a few things happen there. First, as a kid, I get to see this super dignified brother handle some street mess, but I also get a glimpse of how social ills can get addressed within the horror genre. So the only thing left in my head was, since Blacula, aka Prince Mamuwalde was of direct African descent, I began to wonder what an African-American would experience, feel and say if put in that situation. By the way, in Brookwater’s Curse, I don’t spend a great deal of time on the plantation. In fact, I let him get taken by the supernatural and get himself isolated very quickly. And I let him struggle with a sort of survivor’s guilt, while never losing his soul as a black man. This gets him in trouble more than once, because anytime he develops a relationship with black and brown humans, he ends up going against his marching orders, which are to hunt werewolves and protect the secret society of monsters in general.

GMM: I am intrigued by the concept of a “socially conscious serial killer”. I immediately thought of Dexter Morgan who channeled his drive to murder into a public service by eliminating threats to his community. How is your character different from Dexter?

SVP: Dexter comes up every once in awhile, but the truth is, my Killer Genius series was inspired by Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lector more than anything else. It occurred to me that if someone were to write a story about a black woman killing a bunch of people, it’s usually over some man being an asshole. Like an elongated episode of ‘Snapped’. I never saw a socially conscious black woman, so I invented Kendra, a black woman who is able to keep ahead of law enforcement by being super smart like a Dexter Morgan or a Hannibal Lector. One of the biggest differences between her and Dexter is that she’s actually more versatile. She can kill up close in a disguise, or she can hack into a military satellite and blast you from space. I’m particularly proud of how I came up with her kill for this one misogynist rapper while he’s performing on a 106 & Park derivative. The other big difference is of course, her agenda. Dexter was like a king snake of serial killers and he in a way, was feeding this horrible disfunction born from childhood trauma. While my Kendra certainly has her own childhood and adolescent demons, she’s more focused. I want to say she has a clearer vision and is more of a zealot, or a crusader literally attacking ignorant white and black people as a way of motivating change in society over all.

GMM: I’ve always written about dark subjects and over the years people, especially people with a strong religious background, have asked me “why horror?” As I’m sure you’re aware, there is often a misconception about horror writers being maladjusted people. Have you encountered similar questions about your writing? Have you been accused of being a “bad” person because of what you write? Has your connection to a larger community of horror writers helped you feel more confident about being a horror writer, or have you always felt at ease writing about monsters?

SVP: Here is where I may piss some people off, but since I get pissed off when confronted by the kinds of statements you mentioned, I’m going to just say it. Truth is, I have studied just enough history to see most organized religion as a construct meant to hold certain people in place. I’m not knocking the fellowship, being grateful to the universe, Kirk Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, none of that. But, when our black ancestors were brought here, I can’t say for certain what they all were worshipping, but I’m pretty sure it was not a blonde, blue-eyed Jesus. Unfortunately, a lot of folks can’t get past that, because whatever we had was beaten out of us while something else was beaten into us. Follow that up with Hollywood bastardizing and misrepresenting hoodoo, voodoo, Santeria and Yoruba cultures for white folks to kick up their heels and scream ‘eek’ and now they have us rejecting something we might actually need if we bothered to understand it. At least, those are my thoughts on the subject.

No one has ever come out and called me a bad person, but it’s been insinuated that something is wrong with me. And yes, I have been confronted by the naysayers and I’ve received the shade, particularly if I picked the wrong event to be a part of. But the people looking down their nose at me are often the same people wouldn’t know a decent horror movie if it bit them in the ass AND won’t tell Jermaine that no one cares about his mixed-tape. Because of that, I don’t exactly lose a lot of sleep over those people or their opinions. 

Being a part of the larger community, finding people like yourself is a morale boost. It lets me know I’m not alone in my horror nerdom or my pursuit to write about things that go bump in the night. And it’s funny you should bring it up because growing up around certain kinds of dudes, I only let a handful of friends know I was into this sort of thing. But I’m older now, and not as worried about rejection as I used to be. And yes, I will be comfortable with monsters until the day I die.

Excerpt from “The Patron Saint”

“You’re my motherfucking lawyer! You’re supposed to make this kind of shit go away! As much money as I made the label last year! Y’all got me hiding in this hotel room like some kind of fugitive! This is some bullshit!”

Sitting at the edge of the super king-sized hotel room bed wearing only a bathing suit, Kimberly stared absently at the TV on the wall in front of her. This bore a stark contrast to fully clothed Manuel’s animated pacing back and forth across the room as he screamed into his cellphone. She thought about turning the TV on so she wouldn’t have to listen, but figured in his agitated state that she would only get yelled at or worse.

“Seriously! What the fuck am I paying you for?”

She couldn’t hear the lawyer’s side of the conversation, but could tell that the lawyer was asking uncomfortable questions.

“What? No, she’s fine! She loves me and she loves Vegas. You sound like that punk ass cop that left a message a few minutes ago.”

Another pause.

“What? Her father? I don’t care about him. Fuck him! If he was a real nigga, he’d call me himself. Going to the damn cops like a little bitch!”

No matter what you hear or see, do not turn around. Do not face me, child!

Kimberly’s breath stopped as her mind struggled to process where a disembodied voice could possibly be coming from.

“Sam? Sam! I know this motherfucker didn’t just hang up on me…”

If he hadn’t been in such an angry state, Manuel might have noticed the growing shadow moving behind him as the form of a curvaceous, statuesque woman with undulating hair drifted off the wall and into the room.

Manuel threw the cellphone on the bed, just behind Kimberly. “I’m so fucking mad right now. I need to fuck you again just to calm my ass down. Take them damn clothes off, girl!”

He began to unbuckle his pants.

Kimberly neither moved or gave any indication that she heard him.

“Bitch, perhaps you didn’t hear Daddy! I said…”

Then he heard the hissing. He turned around.

“What the fu—”

The entity grabbed Manuel by the shoulders, accosting him as if he were a small child, with a strength that dwarfed his. The ten snakes in the apparition’s hair lunged forward, each of the mouths burying fangs into his flesh. His chocolate brown skin turned a marble-like grey as the poisons filled his body. He screamed for only a few seconds as the toxins quickly petrified his vocal chords.

Kimberly peripherally caught a split second of Manuel’s agonized last moments before she closed her eyes. The monster must have sensed that Kimberly had peeked because she heard the voice again.

DO NOT LOOK AT ME!

A moment later, Manuel’s lifeless body crashed down to the floor with a ‘thud’ in front of Kimberly. Her eyes drifted down. Whatever had been injected into him was toxic enough to literally melt him. Flesh and muscles bubbled into a jelly. Bones disintegrated to ash trapped inside the jelly. Hours from now, a large black stain on the carpet would be all that remained. She closed her eyes but couldn’t escape the image of the mess on the floor.

Go to your grandmother, that she might teach you the ways of your ancestors and not the way of the idolaters that brought your people here in bondage.

“My grandmother? Who are you?”

I am the one who was defiled by one of my gods, made an abomination by another, and rejected and vilified by my own kind. It was only in the underworld that I found the orishas and loa and ascended ones of Africa. Like me, they want actual justice meted out in this world and the next. I am Medusa, The Accursed One! Evil men feared me hundreds of years ago and they shall fear me again!

The shadow drifted back towards the wall from where it had entered and disappeared. Sensing that the gorgon had left, Kimberly opened her eyes and looked again at what was left of Manuel. Recoiled on the bed, she suppressed a scream and cried quietly for a few minutes.

It would take her some time, but she eventually found the strength to get dressed, grab her things, and leave the hotel.

~*~

“This bastard is gonna act all indignant, like he was parent of the decade! Fucking dream-slaying, hating-ass Negro!”

Cathy drove her white BMW M4 Coupé as fast as New York City’s FDR Drive would allow, which during rush hour on a Wednesday wasn’t nearly as fast as she preferred. Before her girlfriend Nicole called, Cathy had been cursing up a storm as she cut off more cautious drivers with signal-free lane changes and flipped them her middle finger whenever they dared honked their horns in protest.

“So he’s blaming you?” Nicole’s voice blared over the car’s speakers. Nicole, like Cathy, was a dedicated party girl, enabler, and equal opportunity narcissist. She was the shoulder to cry on, the friend who took Cathy’s side no matter how horrible she’d acted or how ridiculous her course of action. “Him and his damn cupcakes! Fuck him! Y’all are doing the right thing! Manuel is going to make your baby a star. He told me so!”

“That’s right. And so what if she lost her virginity to him? Shit, that’s Manuel Hightower! The motherfuckers we lost our virginity to wasn’t even close to that stature!”

“Child! I know that’s right!”

Betrayer of women! Betrayer of your own child! You gave your child’s innocence and honor away for nothing!

“Bitch! What you said?”

“I said, ‘child, I know that’s right’. What you thought I said?”

Cathy’s eyes caught a flash of the gorgon’s red gaze in her rearview mirror. The hair snakes’ fangs found Cathy’s ears, neck, and skull. The last thing Cathy saw was her milk chocolate complexion turning green-ish grey as the car swerved out of control, bounced off an Acura RDX, then slammed straight into a guardrail. Despite the damage to the car, Nicole’s voice could still be heard asking if her friend was okay.

Until the gas tank exploded.

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: R. J. Joseph

Last week, Girl Meets Monster talked with Glenn Rolfe about the challenges of writing Splatterpunk. This week, R. J. Joseph is here to talk about what it means to be a woman of color writing horror.

Author Central PicR. J. Joseph is a Texas based writer and professor who must exorcise the demons of her imagination so they don’t haunt her being. A life-long horror fan and writer of many things, she has finally discovered the joys of writing creatively and academically about two important aspects of her life: horror and black femininity.

When R. J. isn’t writing, teaching, or reading voraciously, she can usually be found wrangling one or six of various sprouts and sproutlings from her blended family of 11…which also includes one husband and two furry babies.

R. J. can be found lurking (and occasionally even peeking out) on social media:
Twitter: @rjacksonjoseph
Facebook: facebook.com/rhonda.jacksonjoseph
Facebook official: fb.me/rhondajacksonjosephwriter
Instagram: @rjacksonjoseph
Blog: https://rjjoseph.wordpress.com/
Email: horrorblackademic@gmail.com
Amazon Author Page: amazon.com/author/rjjoseph

Three Questions

GMM: As a woman of color writing about black and queer characters, what obstacles have your faced when writing within the horror genre? When did you decide you were a horror writer? What influenced or inspired you to write horror stories about women of color?

RJJ: I’ve been a lifelong horror fan. I was a small child devouring horror comics, Twilight Zone, and Stephen King novels, well before I could understand any of the themes these stories presented. The horror genre appeals to my naturally dark nature, which was apparent and already well entrenched by the time I was 6 or 7 years old. I always questioned why the folks in the genre I loved so much didn’t look like me, from the writers to the actors to the characters in the books. I wanted to be the monster. I figured creating the monsters was the next best thing, so I had to write them. I started then, even though I didn’t always embrace that part of my writing persona. I couldn’t imagine not writing about the world I inhabited and navigated, a black female experiencing life through this lens. I wasn’t seeing these stories and I had to fill the void.

I wanted to be the monster.

I appreciate that you frame this question in a way that shows you know we have obstacles. They aren’t a figment of our imagination or a quest for race-baiting and creating issues. One of the biggest problems I have is in always wondering why stories are accepted or rejected. I know my writing isn’t perfect and I still have so much growth to experience within my craft, but sometimes I get rejections that just don’t offer any clarity, not even the blanket forms where the spaces between the words don’t reek of any additional interpretation. Sometimes, though, what isn’t said speaks volumes. I get that editors don’t have time to give personalized rejections all the time. But I always go back and read the publications I submit to so I can see which stories made the cut. Reading what was ultimately accepted can be excruciating. So many times, I wish the editors would have just said, “We don’t know what to do with you, blackity black woman, or your blackity black characters with their blackity black fears”. That would make me feel so much better.

I once had an editor explain to me at a book launch for an anthology one of my stories appeared in that he didn’t want me to feel as if my story was a token acceptance because I’m a black woman. He made it a point to let me know he had read some of my previous work and thought my story for the anthology was great. I had to be professional and put on my Appreciative Writerly face, but I really wanted to hug him and cry. That meant so much to me, especially coming from a white male professional in the field. Unless the project is strictly for writers of color, I’m always wondering if the acceptance was just a diversity checkmark or really based on my story.

GMM: I wrote a supernatural slave narrative as my thesis novel at Seton Hill University, and I struggled with figuring out where it fit within a genre. The novel is due to be released sometime next year and I still struggle with that idea of where it belongs. What makes it a horror novel? The violence of slavery? The fact that my narrator is a witch and that her companion is a vampire?

How do you define your chosen genre or genres when you begin with characters that may not typically appear in those genres? Is there an absence of women of color in horror?

RJJ: First, I gotta read your novel! I need to know when pre-orders open. I absolutely love historical horror. That it has people of color and witches? Super plus. My answer to what makes this horror really loops back to another obstacle I try to navigate and that is not knowing where our work fits; really, not knowing where we fit. I would say your novel is an all-around horror novel because it’s rooted in the abject terror of slavery and there is a vampire. I don’t think all witches are necessarily monsters, though, so that’s debatable. Even without the supernatural characters, slavery is horror. Yet, there’s a clear hesitance to categorize this experience in this way because that would require owning up to the facts that 1. Slavery really happened; 2. There was nothing good about it; and 3. The repercussions are still felt today. Stuffing these topics into other corners like literary fiction (the way Beloved was first categorized) or creating a whole new category like urban fiction takes some of that responsibility away. If it isn’t called horror, then the events cannot be deemed horrible. So then when serial killer novels fill the horror shelves, I’m left to wonder why lynchings or slavery aren’t considered serial killings, too…

Black women horror writers have always been around, but there hasn’t always been a willingness of the industry to see us. I think we’ve just had our writing either flat out ignored or placed in different genres because we’re women. I’ve seen industry leaders say publicly that readers only want a certain kind of horror, or that every story/book acceptance is based solely on merit. Both of these prevailing responses mean gatekeepers are fine with keeping certain stories and writers out of the genre. The only thing that might help increase visibility is more gatekeepers of color and black female writers continuing to kick the doors in and create anyway. It’s astounding that the first black female horror anthology wasn’t published until 2017. A second followed this year. How is it that both books managed to locate numerous black female horror writers and yet other anthologies/magazines/publishers can hardly ever find any? What is not genuinely sought will never be found.

GMM: When I write about monsters, I have a habit of turning the relationships between monsters and my main female characters into romantic interests even though I write about dark subjects. Is there a connection between horror and romance in your mind? Do your characters fall in love with monsters? Why, or why not?

RJJ: I envy that you can blend romance and horror so effectively! My thesis at Seton Hill was a romance novel, and while I write in both genres, I’ve not yet mastered blending the two. I do think romance and horror exist on the same continuum, in that both genres evoke such extreme feelings in readers. My favorite series ever is the Vampire Huntress series by L. A. Banks. She intertwined horror and romance so expertly that I’ve never seen anything else quite like it. I make attempts. But I tried to submit a romance short story to a major market once and the editor replied that the story was well written but it was too dark. The monsters in my stories tend to be those created through no act of their own, so they are sort of tragic creatures for whom at least one other character has an affection and some sympathy. Full on romance, though…I still aspire to that.

Left Hand Torment (excerpt), by R. J. Joseph

RJJ Book CoverI was on door duty that evening, although we found we did not really need a protector. Most passersby tended not to notice our nondescript entryway in the worn down building. Even those who did notice it were deterred by the dark cloak of misery in our eyes. Despite my queerness and my race, those doorways to my soul that broadcast unspeakable rot allowed me kinship with the men inside. Her eyes held the same blackness, despite their light gray color, and it announced her as kindred, served as her password into the club. I let her in and followed her up the stairs, as my shift was done.

There was more to her life story than her eyes, apparently. The foulness of whatever tortured her spirit bubbled just underneath the surface of her being. Her dusky colored skin shone with determination and…fury. She glided ahead of me up the stairway and into the parlor, removing long white gloves as we walked. Severe burns covered both hands, the puckered skin reflecting in the lantern lights.

Even Whitson, the resident playboy, did not set his flirtations upon her. He simply asked her what she was drinking, the same as he did the rest of us. He often told us that he did not seek companionship with fellow sufferers. He said their beds were already too full with them and their demons.

“Bourbon, please.” The rich tones slid from her throat and escaped into the quiet murmur of the fifteen of us. She accepted her glass gracefully and settled herself into a chair close to the fireplace.

Not forgetting our Texas manners, we quieted down and allowed the lady the floor. I watched her take a sip from her glass.

“Merci.” She accented the appreciation with a brisk nod to the side. When she gazed back at us, the flames from the fire flickered around the shadows resting beneath the smoky orbs of her haunted eyes. She pulled her bonnet off and placed it on the table next to the chair. Kinky curly strands spilled down to her shoulders and the room gave a collective gasp as the flames caught the sandy tresses. This was the only acknowledgement we gave to her beauty that night.

Without preamble, she spoke, in accented tones. “My name is Dominique Aimee Beaulieu and I was born and reared in New Orleans. I had an ordinary childhood, if that as the daughter of a placee` on Rampart street could be called such. Papa and Maman loved me very much and I was a rather spoiled child. They loved each other, as well. I know Papa loved her more than he loved his wife. But he could not stay with us all the time. I once asked Maman why he had to leave and stay away so often and she explained to me that we could not be selfish and keep him all to ourselves. He had another family with whom he had to stay most of the time, but he was always thinking of us.

“Maman had a picture of a beautiful woman with blond hair and she often gazed wistfully at it when she thought Papa and I weren’t looking. I would ask her about the woman, whose features I saw staring back at me in the mirror, albeit through darker skin. Maman would evade the answer until I turned sixteen. When I finally got my answer, I also got the explanation for our way of life.

“‘This is my sister, your aunt. Papa’s other wife. He met me as he courted her and wanted me for his left hand wife. She knows about us but cannot acknowledge us publicly. But she must accept our existence. You are of courting age now. Papa will arrange for you to attend The Quadroon Ball next year, to find you a wealthy, white husband. Do not waste yourself frivolously on any colored man. Even if he has money, he can’t elevate your status or guarantee that your children will be free men.’

“She grabbed my hand. ‘Just take care to always respect your husband and do his bidding. Love and honor him despite the feelings of jealousy that will come when he takes another to wife. We are the wives they choose, when their other will be chosen for them through making familial alliances. These arrangements are our only way to freedom.’

“I didn’t understand why she beseeched me so dramatically on these points. Our system of placage was shocking enough to discover without her telling me I had to accept it, that I had few other choices. I knew nothing of love between a man and woman, but I could see the love between Maman and Papa. If it meant she had to share him with her sister, did that make it of any less value? Did that make me, the product of their left hand union, any less valuable? Of course, I would love my husband, legally bound or not, because of all the things I did not understand, there was one thing I knew and never wanted to change: my freedom.

She paused her story here, seeming to look at us for the first time. She turned her fierce gaze on each of us, one at a time, her fellow beasts of demonic burdens. She settled her gaze finally on me, the lone other woman in the group. I did not know how I understood that she knew my secret. My fellow club members knew and did not care. “You understand when I say fighting for one’s freedom is a frantic battle when losing means losing your personhood and often, your very life.”

I nodded in acquiescence. I did know what a constant fight for freedom to simply exist required. Dying was preferable to giving in to bondage of any kind, hence my membership there. These, my brothers in terror, did not make anything big over my masculine clothes and obviously feminine body. My haunted heart bore witness to more important things to them. The rest of the world did have problems with me, as soon as my “charade” was discovered. Explaining that this was who I am did nothing but result in a trail of bodies. Thus far, my own body did not increase those numbers.

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