Fiction Fragments: Jessica Guess

Last week, I spoke with Mexican American expat V. Castro about her erotic vampire fiction and I’m still thinking about that scene in the Irish pub, wondering what filthy delights await her vampire protagonist.

This week, I’m excited to welcome Jessica Guess to Girl Meets Monster. I recently picked up a copy of Jessica’s horror novella, Cirque Berserk (2020) and couldn’t put it down.

Jessica Guess is a writer and English teacher who hails from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She earned her Creative Writing MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato in 2018 and is the founder of the website Black Girl’s Guide to Horror where she examines horror movies in terms of quality and intersectionality.

Her creative work has been featured in Luna Station Quarterly and Mused BellaOnline Literary Review. Her debut novella, Cirque Berserk, is available for purchase on Amazon. You can get weekly content from Jessica by joining her Patreon at www.patreon.com/JessicaGuess

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Jessica. I loved Cirque Berserk, because it captured so many of the things I loved about watching slasher movies while I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. The major difference being that one of your main characters is a young Black girl, and her love interest is Latino…or possibly Native American. Most of the slasher movies I watched didn’t have Black people in them. The ones that did have Black characters usually killed them off right away, to the point that this is now considered a trope in horror films. How did this absence of Black characters affect you as a viewer and reader?

JG: I think that being a huge fan of horror while being constantly reminded of how much the genre disregards Black people created a resentment in me. Don’t get me wrong, I really do love horror. I love the mythologies, and the blood, and the monsters, but for a very long time it has felt like we’re a punchline in the genre. I think it’s like that for anyone who isn’t a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual person in horror. That makes me want to kind of right that wrong in my own writing. I want to see all the things I didn’t see growing up.

NOTE: Jessica told me Rocehelle’s love interest is Native American, but asked me not to reveal his name to avoid spoilers. So, go pick up a copy of Cirque Berserk and find out for yourself.

GMM: I recently watched American Horror Story: 1984, and during each episode I was calling out the names of the movies or characters they were referencing based on the way someone was murdered. What are some of the horror movies or scenes from movies that inspired your work? Are there murders in your book that mimic the tropes of slasher movies?

JG: Definitely Urban Legend. I think that movie has some of my favorite slasher kills ever. I wanted the kills in Cirque Berserk to be as memorable as those and have a type of irony that they did in Urban Legend. An example of that is the opening of when the girl in Urban Legend is driving with an ax murderer in her back seat and “Turn Around Bright Eyes” starts playing. That’s definitely an inspiration for a scene in Cirque Berserk. That scene in particular also takes some inspiration from The Strangers: Prey at Night. I just like the idea of upbeat music playing when something horrific is happening.

GMM: AHS: 1984 uses music not only to trigger nostalgia, but to put us in the setting and create a sense of atmosphere to remind us which time period we’re witnessing on screen. How did you use music in your novella to create nostalgia for the characters and your readers? What other details did you use to give us a sense of the time and setting? Did you rely on any specific horror tropes, or did you try to create something new?

JG: So, the song titles set up the sections of the novella, but they also give a hint to what the theme of that section is. For instance, in the “Rhythm of the Night” section, we finally figure out exactly what is happening, which is to say we’re figuring out the rhythm of this night. It helped me to frame the story while also relying on the nostalgia and atmosphere those songs create. As for tropes, I hoped to take some old tropes and re-invent them. I think that’s what we’re supposed to do as writers, take tropes that could be stale or overused, and find a way to make them new and fresh. I like to think I did that with Rochelle and Brian. I wanted the reader to start out thinking they knew exactly where the story was going and then realize they didn’t know at all.

Karlie, Karlie, Where Did You Go? (Excerpt)

Lisa

I watched Erica’s blue impala through my rearview mirror. I was parked with the back of my car to the back of her car. Why had she pulled in to an orange orchard? Did she spot me? Why wasn’t she getting out of her car? A cold sweat formed on my forehead. What if she told Aaron?

Just then, Erica got out of her car and walked up to the storefront that was shaped like a cottage. Maybe she wanted to pick oranges. Or maybe she was calling Aaron to warn him. My palms were suddenly slipping off the steering wheel from sweat. Should I follow her or just go home? I gripped the keys ready to start the ignition but stopped. I had to find out what happened to my cousin.

“Hello darlin’,” an old gray-haired white woman said from the cash register. “Care to try some orange and peach jam? I make it here myself.”

“No, thank you. I’m uh, just looking around,” I said.

“If you want to pick from our grove, you just come on up here and grab a basket and go on out back. You can take a guide with you. Sometimes people get lost back there you know.”

I smiled at her. “Did a girl just come in here? One with deep brown skin and frizzy brown hair and a red hoody? We’re supposed to meet up.”

The woman nodded. “Said she was pickin’ some orange for her mom.”

“I guess I’ll take a basket.”

“That’ll be a dollar fifty for the basket.”

I gave the woman the money and she offered me a wide wicker basket and pointed me towards the back of the cottage where the wide grove started.

Was Erica really doing something kind for her parent? Did I follow her for nothing? Maybe this was a distraction so that Aaron could hide evidence while I was off chasing Erica. Damn it! Did I fall for some trick?

I walked down a row of oranges and looked for a glimpse of Erica’s hoody. The sun was beating down hard but there was a breeze so the sweat forming on my forehead wasn’t as much as it had been for the past few days. The citrusy smell of oranges invaded my nostrils as I turned and looked for any glimpse of Erica. 

I moved further and further into the grove trying to keep the entrance in sight.

Sometimes people get lost back there, you know.

I moved passed orange tree after orange tree but still, there was so sign of Erica.

“Erica?” I called finally. It was a long shot but maybe she’d answer. “Erica, I just wanted to talk to you for a second. My name is Lisa Yen, I’m Karlie Yen’s cousin. The girl who died? I saw you with Aaron earlier. I just need to ask you some questions.”

Just then I saw a flash of the red to the right of me. I turned. Nothing there. Instead just more orange trees. I moved to where I saw the flash.

 “Erica?” I called, running further into the grove.

 A feeling of dreadful realization rose inside of me. No one knew where I was. I didn’t tell Travis where I was going. That woman in the cottage thought I was here with a friend. This grove went on for acres. I looked back to try to see the entrance but all I saw was more orange trees.

“Shit,” I whispered. I tried retracing my steps to find a way out. My heart was beating loud and fast in my chest and sweat poured down my neck.

 My bra was noticeably wet now and uncomfortable. I had only been in the grove for a few minutes, but I was lost and drenched and starting to get scared. I tried to take a deep breath but couldn’t.

 “Fuck,” I whispered as I frantically checked my pockets for my inhaler.

I must have left it in the car. I forgot how bad my asthma got in Everpeirce. Orlando was a little better even though the air was dryer there. The problem with Everpierce was that there were more swamplands, dust mites, and pollen from all the different citrus orchards in the air here. And here I was in the middle of a field of oranges, with no inhaler. Smart girl.

“Shit,” I whispered trying not to panic. I stopped walking and managed to slow my breathing a bit though knew I still needed my medicine. I walked in the direction that I thought I came from, but nothing. No entrance, just oranges.

Just then there was another flash of red just to the left of me.

“Erica? I just want to talk!”

“Is that why you were following me?”

I turned around and there she was. Her hoody was pulled over her head and her sleeves pulled all the way down to her wrists despite the overwhelming heat.

“Erica?” I said stupidly. I was out of breath again now. The heat, orange blossom pollen, and fear not doing my asthma any favors. Erica on the other hand looked fine, cool, and not scared in the least.

“Why are you following me?” She stared at me, her hands in her hoody pocket.

“I-I just wanted to ask you some questions,” I said, hands on my knees.  “Hey—do you—know the way—out?” I said between gasps. “I’m—lost”.

Erica stared at me silently, not moving. Her face was expressionless and unreadable, but it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention. Her dark brown eyes moved around, seeming to look if anyone else was in the orchard with us.

“It’s r-really hot out here,” I said gasping a little. She turned back to face me but remained silent. “Aren’t you hot?”

Her eyes narrowed in on me, her face still unreadable.

“E-Erica,” I said, starting to get dizzy. “Can’t breathe—please—help.”

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: Linda D. Addison

If you didn’t catch last week’s Fiction Fragments, you missed my chat with Stoker Award nominated writer, Cindy O’Quinn.

This week, I am absolutely thrilled to welcome Linda D. Addison to Girl Meets Monster. Linda is a living legend, and if you don’t know who she is, or aren’t familiar with her work, you definitely need to get out more.

Linda D. Addison, the author of five award-winning collections, including The Place of Broken Things written with Alessandro Manzetti& How To Recognize A Demon Has Become Your Friend and recipient of the HWA Lifetime Achievement Award.

Site: www.lindaaddisonpoet.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/linda.d.addison
Twitter: https://twitter.com/nytebird45
Instagram: nytebird45

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Linda. Way back in 2018, before the world began to resemble a dystopian science fiction novel, I had the unexpected privilege of sitting at your table during the awards ceremony at StokerCon in Providence, Rhode Island. I say unexpected because I got separated from my friends and we had to find seats at different tables. I like to believe that everything happens for a reason. That night I got to hear your acceptance speech for your Lifetime Achievement Award, and it had a profound effect on me. I had pitched my novel, Invisible Chains, earlier that day, and felt good about the possibilities that were ahead of me. But after listening to your story of strength, dedication and success, I believed in myself a bit more.

You are and have been an inspiration to many writers, including myself. Who inspires you? Which writers, musicians, artists, or experiences shaped your view of the world and gave voice to your writing?

LDA: I totally believe everything happens for a reason. How delightful that we met as your wonderful novel was finding its way into the world. Thank you for sharing how you were inspired by me. There were so many who inspired me, the first that always comes to mind is my mother, who was a master storyteller, giving my imagination permission to grow. I never lost that connection, no matter how hard life is, I’ve learned to return, again and again, to my imagination, to creating…

Let me first say how inspired I am by reading the work of new authors, like yourself, that is the secret gift I get from mentoring. Every year I discover new writers, whose work excites me and makes me want to write. The list of writers, musicians, artists, and experiences that shaped me would fill a book. I was a very quiet child and watched everyone around me, internally trying to understand others’ behavior. I’ve studied philosophy, psychology, religion, science, everything to figure the world out, still studying, only not so shy anymore.

Many of my family members support and celebrate my writing growing up and now. I have core friends who hold me up when life wears me down. My writers’ group (since 1990) continue to make my writing better and are my good friends also.

Per influences: In elementary school I read all the fairy tales and fantasies I could. Junior high, high school and college I read a lot of genre and non-genre work; to name a few: Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Edgar Allan Poe, Baldwin, Kafka, Shakespeare, Langston Hughes, John Cheever, and Toni Morrison. Once I got out of college, I obsessed over authors like Alice Walker, Terry Bisson, Nancy Kress, Octavia Butler, Maya Angelou and others.

There’s a long list of established creative people who I admired that have become friends over the years and early supporters of my writing career (some who are no longer with us): Jack Ketchum (AKA Dallas Mayr), David Morrell, Stanley Wiater, Tananarive Due, Charles Grant, Jill Bauman, Rick Hautala, Ellen Datlow, Charlee Jacob, Tom Monteleone, Doug Clegg, Tom Piccirilli, Weston Ochse, Yvonne Navarro, Marge Simon, Elizabeth Massie, Michael Collings. I could go on. Some people, who I only talked to a few times but whose words of support are diamonds I carry forever inside: Octavia Butler, Ramsey Campbell, Toni Morrison, Joe Lansdale, etc. I love all kinds of music, but when I write I like music that is all instrumental: anything by Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett; Arizona musicians I’ve discovered since 2014 are Stu Jenks, Barry Smith and Beau Gerard.

GMM: Now that you’ve won a Lifetime Achievement Award, what’s next? What projects have you been working on? What dream projects have you been putting off? What creative work have you been doing aside from writing fiction and poetry? How are you channeling your experience and expertise into educating and mentoring other writers?

LDA: The first new thing is I’ve finished my first novel, science-fiction. Writing a novel was a whole new land to play in, since I’ve made my career with poetry and short fiction. It’s been something I’ve avoided for years because I was afraid I’d get lost in the novel and not find my way out. The fear started to dissipate at WHC2012 when Rick Hautala and Joe Lansdale both came up to me and wanted to know why I hadn’t written any novels. I told them I was afraid and they reminded me that I know how to write a story and should do novels as one chapter/story at a time. Somehow, that worked on me over time. Once it comes out, we’ll see what the world thinks.

Another dream come true: I attended (virtually) the release of a film (inspired by my poem of same name) “Mourning Meal” by award-winning producer/director Jamal Hodge and it was so beyond exciting. Jamal (and team) did an amazing job of creating a high-quality movie and story. I’m so proud to have this as my first visual project to be part of because I grew up watching scary movies with my mom and always dreamed of seeing my work as part of a film.

A dream project I’d like to do is design a Life Poems Meditation card deck, using some of the Life Poems I’ve posted.

There’s not a lot of time outside of writing, editing and mentoring to do other things but I do meditate and do tai chi each day. Occasionally, I like to create collages, and dream about doing collages with poetry involved. I also like playing the American Indian flute and sketching both are hobby level.

I enjoy sharing my experience with others. It’s completing a cycle of what is given to me, to pass on to others. Not to mention how much I learn in the process. There’s three ways I do this: (1) I teach workshops at conferences; (2) I am an official part of the HWA Mentor Program; (3) I take opportunities that cross my path, in person or on social media, to share suggestions with other writers, to connect people, and to celebrate others successes.

GMM: In the documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019), based on Robin R. Means Coleman’s book, Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present (2011), Tananarive Due says, in reference to the representation of blacks in films like D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), “Black history is black horror.” How has your identity as a woman of color living in the United States shaped your writing? Why were you drawn to the dark speculative and horror genres? Why do you think these genres are a good match for the stories marginalized people need to tell?

LDA: My imagination was always in the world of unreality. The first stories were told to me by my mother and there were magical creatures involved. I was drawn to genre books, movies, television shows growing up as a way of escapism from a life that was sometimes unsafe. Even though there were few Black images, I connected internally to the stories as a way to feel afraid, in the safety of movies. It’s clear to me my whole life, that being Black in America is riddled with real life horror. The monsters are human and the world on many levels, is waiting to make me feel less human, my life less valuable than others. As a girl, I learned the streets weren’t safe for me, whether in a Black neighborhood or outside my area.

The stories of marginalized people need to be told. Our voices need to be heard for so many reasons. Pain/anger is more than physical, it’s emotional, psychological, and passed generation to generation, wearing on the spirit. A society that suppresses part of its population loses part of itself. Like it or not, we are all in this together. We can’t heal the suppression that others create, but we can reflect our feelings in our stories, in any way we decide, with the possibility of some self-healing.

Fragment from The Nature of the Beast by Linda D. Addison

Sentinel Feu crouched in the cave’s entrance, scanning the outside area at 80% interface, as Bos-garth wiped the blood from his hands with the shaman’s robe. Other than indigenous animal life there was no humanoid life form nearby.

Bos-garth’s main ship, the Barstorm, waited in the outer orbit of Tah-Jaka. There wasn’t enough time for a cleanup crew. Feu would have to handle this herself. Although the Organization did business on Tah-Jaka there was little interaction with the native religious groups. A lone shaman this far from settlement wouldn’t be missed.

“To come this far for nothing.” Bos-garth kicked the dead Jakan’s small body. “For no answers.” He stomped the shaman’s fetishes into the stone floor.

Feu listened to Bos-garth’s heartbeat, waiting for it to slow, before saying anything. Not afraid, but too familiar with his needs, the rhythm of his drives. “We should go now.”

“Yes, you’re right.” He almost had to crawl to get out the small cave entrance.

She removed a pinch of grey clay from her waist bag and placed it on the center of the dirt floor.

Once they were back in the transport, Feu snapped her fingers sending an activation signal to the explosive. There was a muted rumble as the cave filled with a flash fire and collapsed inward.

She sat in the driver’s seat next to Bos-garth.

“I know you don’t approve of this quest of mine,” Bos-garth said.

“It’s not my place to approve or disapprove, but between this and the Ema project the Organization is concerned about your focus.”

“Let me worry about the Organization. I’ve brought enough gain to them and you to be allowed my hobbies, don’t you think?”

“This is more than a hobby, Bos-garth,” she said, looking into the reflective sun shades he wore.

He removed the shades, took her right hand and squeezed her thumb, invoking the Sentinel Override. “I don’t want to talk about this again. You’re not the one who has been told they are on their last life. I will find a way to continue. Now let’s get back to the ship. I have a new employee to interview.”

She nodded slightly, acknowledging acceptance of his override. He released her hand and Feu drove them to the spaceport.

Raven stepped out of the public transport, in front of the spaceport main building, into ankle high ash of Akan, her birth planet. This was the last time she would walk on Akan in a biosuit. She was leaving and never coming back. e-Raven, her ema was wrapped around her neck, looking at quick glance like a lizard-like necklace. It tasted the emotional distress in her blood and created a precursor to Serotonin to calm her.

It took going through three sections of decontamination before Raven could unlock her helmet. Few at the spaceport would have known she had won the ema lottery and was actually picked at the Joining by the ema baby. That would have been big news on other planets but here. Only people with interstellar feeds would know her story.

She faced the slated windows of the lobby, taking a last look at Akan, one of the planets designated for trash, after its natural resources had been depleted. Constant grey snow fell from the sky. Not real snow like she’d seen in vids, but ash from trash flashed into the upper atmosphere by teleporters. The final use of found alien technology, once hoped to make instantaneous travel from planet to planet a reality. The only problem is that whatever was transported, arrived dissembled. So planets used them to move their trash off planet, to places like Akan.

Raven checked the departure monitor to find the gate for Bos-garth’s ship. Everyone knew he was one of the richest people in the known universe, and probably one of the most corrupt. When his agent approached her, after the Joining about a job, she asked one question, was it off planet? He smiled softly and said yes, that she could pick any planet to work on. The possibilities were endless. Or she could decide she didn’t want to work for Bos-garth, after their first meeting. In return, Raven would get transportation to any place she wanted and enough credits to live extravagantly for five years.

It took Raven no time to agree. The smiling agent waited at the gate for Raven and bowed deeply.

“Do you have any luggage?” he asked.

Raven shook her head, unlocking the biosuit. He helped her step out of it. “Do you want to keep this?

“No.”

The agent passed it to a young woman behind him. “We are ready to go when you are, Ms Raven.”

“Are there others coming on board?” she asked, stroking e-Raven.

“No, we were waiting just for you.” He pointed with an open hand to the loading ramp.

Feu met Raven/e-Raven in the reception room on Barstorm. She looked at the thin girl with a hint of fur around her neck, hidden behind the rainbow spun tunic shirt and loose pants. The material slowly changed color at the pace of passing clouds, created onboard by spiders genetically designed for Bos-garth. This girl and her pharmaceutical creature was not the answer to his impossible search.

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: Nick Cato

Last week, I spoke with Corey Niles about how identity shapes our fiction. And this week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes horror film aficionado Nick Cato.

Nick CatoNick Cato is the author of Don of the Dead, The Apocalypse of Peter, The Last Porno Theater, The Atrocity Vendor, Uptown Death Squad, and Death Witch. His debut non fiction film book, Suburban Grindhouse, will be released in February 2020. He has edited the anthologies Dark Jesters (with co-editor LL Soares) and The Gruesome Tensome: A Short Story Tribute to the Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis. Nick has had fiction published in many anthologies and writes a film column for the recently revamped Deep Red magazine.

Nick also oversees things at the long running fanzine/website The Horror Fiction Review and occasionally hosts the Suburban Grindhouse podcast.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Nick! I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t picked up a copy of Suburban Grindhouse yet, but I’m really looking forward to reading it. Can you give us a synopsis of the book and maybe tell us what inspired you to write it? This is your first non fiction film book, what challenges did you encounter while switching gears between fiction and non fiction? Do you have plans for any other non fiction books?

NC: Suburban Grindhouse is a collection of columns (along with a bunch of new bonus material) originally published on a film site called Cinema Knife Fight. The columns are part film review, part memoir, as I often explain what audiences were like at certain theaters both in my hometown of Staten Island, NY, as well as in Times Square and some NJ theaters. I always found some audiences could actually shape the way you ended up feeling about a film, and this idea eventually became my column. When I pitched it to one of my favorite film book publishers (the UK’s Headpress) I was thrilled their editor had been familiar with my column and eventually bought my manuscript and added it to their amazing catalog.

It wasn’t difficult to switch gears as writing about film is something I do to “take a breather” while I’m working on a novella or novel. I find it a great way to get my fiction muse back. I’ve written about film since 1981 in various horror and cult film fanzines, so I had somewhat of a background when I decided to try it more seriously.

My second film book is currently being considered at another press, and I’m in full swing on a third.

GMM: The titles of your books are humorous, but you’re writing horror. Would you consider your work  bizarro or weird fiction? Are they the same thing? What are the elements of your fiction that sets it apart from other horror stories?

NC: I originally wrote what would be considered “humorous horror,” but in time I think the majority of my fiction became weird or bizarro. I always try to bring in something unusual or try to turn a trope on it’s head. As subgenres, if you will, weird and bizarro are different, in that “weird fiction” was pretty much what Lovecraft and his like were considered, whereas “bizarro” usually follows more absurd/surreal and less fantasy-like ideas. Not always, but mostly. It’s surely a fine line. Lately lots of “Lovecraftian” or “cosmic” fiction is simply being labeled as weird fiction.

I think the main element that sets my stories apart is I bring in the bizarro element later on, be it during a short or longer story. Most of my tales are told in three sections (even my shorts), and I try to bring the strange in toward the end. Most of the stranger things I’ve come up with haven’t been “forced,” but rather came out naturally for me. In high school one of my friends used to say, “Nick doesn’t need drugs to be weird.” I always got a kick out of that. Weird ideas seem to continually pop up in my head, and the more witty ones I try to convert into fiction.

GMM: A few years ago I interviewed horror writer and academic, Michael Arnzen, and he talked about the connection between horror and humor. One of his quotes really spoke to me: “I think laughter bonds us, even though we’re all doomed.” I really like that statement as a worldview. What’s your philosophy on the connection between horror and humor?

NC: Mike would surely know. I loved his short story collection, 100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories. In fact it contains one of my all time favorite humorous horror stories, “Domestic Fowl.” Humor and horror have always gone hand in hand with me. Laughing…and I mean really cracking up, like the first time most people see a film like Blazing Saddles… is an experience that can make you feel naturally high. I’ve experienced that several times in my life through films and certain comedians. Same with horror. When I was 13, I saw the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the first time in a theatrical rerelease. I had never been as terrified by a film before, or since to be honest. The feelings of sheer terror and “cracking up” laughing bring some of us to a place we both love and dread. That’s powerful. Some films tried to combine the two genres, but only a few succeeded. I’ve tried to combine both to an extreme degree but have yet to come up with something I’d say strongly captures both emotions at the same time. A couple of writers I admire have come close. I continually have my eye out for that inevitable short story or novel that will scare the crap out of us while simultaneously making us laugh till we cry.

“The Bowl,” by Nick Cato, was featured in his latest collection “The Satanic Rites of Sasquatch and other Weird Stories,” published by Bizarro Pulp Press (Journalstone)

Harold Anderson stared out the bedroom window, restless thanks to his wife’s snoring. The occasional bat fluttered by the street light, casting distorted shadows on his ceiling.

“Come on, honey,” he said, pushing Helen onto her side.

She half-consciously rolled over and fell right back to sleep.

Although his plan worked, it was the silence that now kept him awake. He decided to watch a late re-run of the Tonight Show, but was still alert when it ended.

3:30 a.m.

He sat up, looking at the clothes he’d neatly laid out for tomorrow (today, actually). When he laid back down, his stomach gurgled loud enough to make Helen shift.

“Whoa,” he said, rubbing his belly. “I shouldn’t have had that second helping.”

He stepped into his #1 Dad slippers (a Christmas gift from Danny), slid on his bathrobe (a birthday gift from Nadine), then padded toward the bathroom. With each step, the need to expel last night’s dinner became more severe. Where had this come from? Four and a half hours of trying to fall asleep without so much as a fart, and now…

He reached into the darkness and felt for the switch. He dropped his robe as soon as the lime-colored bathroom was illuminated. The toilet—situated strategically between the sink and shower—seemed to beckon him. After pulling the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly from a magazine bin, Harold dropped his boxers and perched himself on the cool porcelain.

He read through the entire film review section before finishing his business. He broke the silence with two courtesy flushes along the way.

“That’s the last time I let her talk me into Mexican on a work night,” he said, washing his sweaty hands and face with lukewarm water. He put the robe back on, then gave the room a few cinnamon-scented blasts of Glade, making the place smell like a combo of Big Red Chewing Gum and ass.

He turned to walk back to bed. Someone said “thank you” in the blackened hallway.

Harold jumped. He flicked the bathroom lights back on, expecting to see Danny or Nadine up for a late-night pee. But on second thought, the voice was too deep for a five- or eight-year-old.

He checked his children’s bedrooms, happy to see them both asleep.

Man, do I need some shut-eye. Harold turned off the bathroom light and scratched the top of his auburn head.

He crawled under the blankets next to Helen, and within five minutes joined her in slumberland.

#

“You look bushed! Tough time last night?” Mr. Davis asked.

“I had a bit of trouble falling asleep. My stomach did backflips for a while.”

“Glad to see you’re here—you know we have that meeting with Tucker right after lunch today?”

“That’s why I’m here, even if I got less than three hours of sleep,” Harold said, taking a swig from his third cup of coffee.

“That’s the spirit!” Mr. Davis patted him on the back. “This is why you’re my number one man.”

At 11:43, Harold felt a sudden need to visit the restroom. He closed the file he was working on and headed to the lavatory.

He sat on the toilet, feeling disgusted by the prospect of doing this in a $600 suit. He experienced feelings of emptiness. Coldness. He couldn’t wait to finish. His heart began racing, as if he was having a panic attack.

He soon felt relieved to be rid of whatever was inside him, and to be off the office toilet; just knowing two dozen people shared it gave him the willies.

“Mr. Anderson? Call on line one.”

“Thank you, Margaret. I’ll take it in my office.”

“Please hold one moment,” she said, smiling as Harold passed by.

“Hello, Harold Anderson here.”

Silence.

“Hello, may I help you?”

Silence. Then, “Thank you.”

“Excuse me?”

Silence. A rusty click. “Thank you.”

Harold leaned forward in his plush leather chair. “I’m afraid I don’t understand. Who is this?”

“You know who this is, and I know what you just did.”

Harold slammed the phone down. “Freaking lunatic!”

Immediately, the phone rang in the lobby. He heard Margaret answer, then page him on the intercom. He accepted the call.

“Hello? Anderson here.”

“If you ever hang up on me again, I’ll destroy your wife and kids.”

“Okay—who is this? What’s your problem?”

Silence. Deafening, painful silence. Then the distinct sound of a toilet flushing. “Have a good day. We’ll discuss this later.”

“We’ll discuss what later?”

The phone went dead.

The voice was familiar, but Harold couldn’t match it to a face. He walked around his desk, anticipating another call.

It never came.

He left the office shortly after 5:00 p.m., still haunted by the menacing telephone conversation. Even the successful meeting with Tucker Industries couldn’t keep his mind off that voice. He spent the forty-minute drive home trying to figure out who would first thank him for something, then threaten to kill his family in the next breath.

Must be a prank. Harold tuned into a classic rock station as he hit the highway.

Do you have a fragment you’d like to share with the world? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

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

Am I a Real Horror Writer?

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

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

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

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

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

Zombies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction Fragments: Kristin Dearborn

Last week, Elsa M. Carruthers stopped by Girl Meets Monster, and this week, Kristin Dearborn shares her thoughts on why she prefers horror fiction to reality.

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If it screams, squelches, or bleeds, Kristin Dearborn has probably written about it. She revels in comments like “But you look so normal…how do you come up with that stuff?” A life-long New Englander, she aspires to the footsteps of the local masters, Messrs. King and Lovecraft. When not writing or rotting her brain with cheesy horror flicks (preferably creature features!) she can be found scaling rock cliffs, zipping around Vermont on a motorcycle, or gallivanting around the globe. Learn more at www.kristindearborn.com!

Three Questions

GMM: For some reason, while I read your fragment, the old adage, “write what you know” came to mind. Hopefully, no one ever pointed a gun in your face, but this feels like it was inspired by a real-life event. How much of your fragment is based on something that happened to you, or someone you know? How often do you draw from your own experiences as a writer?

KD: Thankfully I’ve never had a gun pointed at me, but I have been on an airboat ride in Florida! I’ve also worked a lot of retail in my day. I used to be the assistant manager of a Gamestop (I know, I know, NERD ALERT) and some of my coworkers were robbed once. Whenever I was counting the drawer at the end of the night I imagined the worst. Bethany’s case takes it a step further. The man with the gun isn’t just there for the money—that would be easy. You tell yourself if you do what they ask, you’ll be fine. This guy wants more than that, he wants to get into the swamp in the dark.

GMM: Is it easier to find your voice and convey your thoughts and emotions by writing horror? If so, why? Aside from Lovecraft and King, what drew you to this genre and why do you continue writing in it?

KD: Horror had me in its talons from the moment I read James Howe’s Bunnicula. I didn’t see a lot of horror movies as a kid, but I read a lot of books: Crichton, Koontz, King, John Saul, Dan Simmons. Horror stories make more sense than reality: when something awful happens, characters band together and fight it. Usually they win…that the outcome is not guaranteed only makes it sweeter when good triumphs. Horror is a fun way to process the awfulness in the real world, to escape from the 24-hour news cycle, most of which is a horror show on its own. Great horror is never about the monsters, it’s always about people and relationships—authors and filmmakers who struggle with that and paint the walls with gratuitous gore aren’t going to stand the test of time. I think it’s a testament to King’s staying power: he writes memorable characters that we come to care about.

GMM: You mention in your bio that people don’t think you look like a horror writer. What do horror writers look like? Do you think it’s because you look “normal”, or is it because you, like your character, have breasts?

KD: I think the average human expects a horror writer to be a bald guy with a beard and a black skull t-shirt. Now, I know, love, and respect more than a handful of super talented bald, bearded, black skull wearing horror authors, but there’s so much more to us than that! When I show up for work I wear a blazer and high heels, nice long sleeves covering up all my artwork. If I’m feeling wild and crazy I’ll show off one small velociraptor tattoo on my ankle. My eyebrow piercing has been gone for over a decade (RIP eyebrow ring, 2000-2007) and I don’t color my hair at all, let alone fun colors never found in nature. Subverting expectations is part of the horror genre, and I want to do my part.

Fragment, by Kristin Dearborn

Bethany looked up from counting her drawer when she heard the crunch of tires on gravel. A black sedan, windows tinted. It tucked itself in next to one of the rental cars the tourists brought. She watched, waited. As she gave up and resumed re-counting for the third time, the door opened, and a man stepped out.

Something in her gut twisted. Spidey senses tingled. Nothing terribly offensive about his appearance at first glance. Black slacks, cheap black dress shoes. Tan jacket. He wore his dark hair slicked back, and a pair of expensive sunglasses perched on his head. His skin, like most residents here, was deeply tanned, and wrinkles creased his face though he didn’t look much older than forty something. He carried a messenger bag over one shoulder.

If you didn’t go to college in Florida (heck, if you didn’t finish high school) and sometimes if you did, you basically doomed yourself to a life in the service industry. Bethany liked people, especially liked the kind of people who came here, a little ways off the beaten path and wanted to see real Florida.

This guy set off alarm bells in Bethany’s head. The way he carried himself, the bulge in his jacket even though the sun hadn’t gone down yet and the air was still warm. Lots of people carried guns, but something about him…

“Help you, sir?” she tried to sound cheerful.

He gobbled her up with his gaze, lingering on her breasts before meeting her eyes. She wanted to puke. On him. Instead she gripped the edge of her table as hard as she could. They’d talked about putting a gun in here, Cap thought it was ridiculous they didn’t have one. “A girl’s got to defend herself.” Jack believed in trusting people.

“I need to get on your last airboat. Gators after dark?”

“I’m so sorry, you’re about twenty minutes too late.”

She couldn’t even hear the buzz of Rebel Yell’s fans anymore. The Eastern sky had taken on a deep purplish hue, and soon Cap and his charges would be starting to look for alligators.

“I’ll pay for a private tour.”

Bethany pasted a smile across her face. She injected a faux brightness into her voice. “Sorry sir! Thursday is the next night we run the Gators After Dark tour. It’s supposed to be a full moon and clear that night. It’s going to be a great tour—”

Do you have a fragment collecting dust that you’d like to share? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: David Day

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Before I even begin talking about my fellow Seton Hill University Alum, David Day, I’m going to brag about the fact that we both have stories in this political horror anthology due out later this month from Scary Dairy Press, so pick up a copy.

Last week, Kenya Wright stopped by and talked about the responsibility female writers of color have to include deeper issues like racism, classism, and sexism in their writing, even if they are writing about vampires with double penises. This week, David Day joins Girl Meets Monster to share his thoughts on genre and how it should be considered an analytical tool rather than a creative one. His thoughts on horror fiction and the connections he perceives between horror and romance raised some serious emotions for me. I’m not crying! You’re crying!

headshotDavid Day believes the future is a paradox, simultaneously representing beautiful hope and terrible possibility, and that we are on an ever-constant journey to resolve that paradox into the now. David received his MA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University in June 2011. He is the author of one novel, Tearstone, as well as several short stories. Find out more about him at his snazzy but woefully neglected website: http://www.davidlday.com.

Three Questions

GMM: Your fragment has a lot going on. Initially, I felt like I was reading a fairy tale, but then I got the sense that we’re in a post-apocalyptic world or, at the very least the story isn’t set in the here and now. There are clear references to a past (or recent present) that are familiar to contemporary culture, so maybe not too far in the future, but the habit of Cassiopeia to fade out of reality tells me this is an alternate reality at the least. How would you categorize this piece? What genre or genres do you typically write in? When you sit down to write, do you have a genre in mind, or do you simply set out to tell a story?

DD: I’d place this one as science fantasy. There are, of course, some dark elements to it, but nothing I’d qualify as horror specifically. It’s meant to have a fairy tale quality to it, and you’re right about the post-apocalyptic setting. The main characters are among the last surviving humans who are either being culled or killed, depending on a few key qualities of their personality that come out much later in the story.

I write among the subgenres of speculative fiction, typically horror, science fiction, supernatural fiction, and dystopian. My inclination is toward horror and the supernatural, and those elements usually surface in every piece, but I have been known to write a story or two that don’t have any horror in them.

Every new story is a unique endeavor for me, and I don’t try to pin it to a specific genre at the outset. My goal in writing a short story is to try and elicit some nugget of human experience. The inclination toward horror and darkness comes from a belief that we are often most human in the darkest of places. Sometimes that darkness draws out the good in us, sometimes the bad. And sometimes the story just falls flat and I move on to the next one. Novels, however, I do try to pin to a genre up front. I’m okay if it changes when working on the first draft, but novels are such an investment in time and energy, and selling them is such a market-oriented activity, that to write a novel without knowing the target readership ahead of time feels a bit backward.

GMM: I know that you write horror fiction, because your work has been published in horror anthologies, but how do you define horror? There was quite a bit of discussion in the writing program at Seton Hill about whether or not we should adhere to the strict, traditional definitions of specific genres, or simply write stories that contain elements of multiple genres, which often feels more natural. Which side of this debate do you fall on? Do you consider yourself a horror writer? Why or why not?

DD: Delineating genres is difficult, in my opinion. Horror can be especially tricky to pin down, due in part to the rash of slasher films in the 80s. Last weekend I sat on a panel on horror at the Imaginarium Convention in Louisville, KY, and one of the attendees asked if there were critical or essential elements that need to be present in a horror story. After a few seconds of silence as the panelists thought, a few spoke on how horror isn’t about this or that specific element, but about the characters. And then the conversation took off.

Horror is about emotions, not tangible things, and for those emotions to surface in writing, the story must be oriented toward the characters. Broadly speaking, horror is all the flavors of fear: helpless, frightened, overwhelmed, worried, inadequate, inferior, worthless, insignificant, excluded, persecuted, nervous, exposed, threatened, weak, rejected, insecure, anxious, etc., etc. Horror uses circumstances to bring these feelings out in the reader, and the best way to get a reader to feel something is through a character’s emotions. For me, horror is not only about those emotions, but the conquering of those emotions, and I believe the most satisfying horror stories are survival stories, where the characters involved are able to push through those emotions. Horror is about dwelling in the darkest of places and reemerging again transformed into something more resilient.

As for adhering strictly to genre, I call bullshit. When it comes to art, there are two kinds of tools: creative and analytical. Creative tools help the artist make something meaningful. Analytical tools help categorize and describe a work after it’s been created. Genre is an analytical tool that helps readers find works they may be interested in reading. Every story should be about some aspect of humanity, and to portray humanity properly requires showing a spectrum of emotions. Every story is a love story, a horror story, a mystery, a fantasy. Imagine going to a concert only to have the musician play a single note over and over. I’ll be generous – imagine them playing a single refrain repeatedly. How long before you get up and leave? I give you ten minutes, tops, unless you’re at a Phillip Glass concert, in which case maybe twenty. Stories that hammer on a single note tend to feel flat. Stories that show the complexity of human emotions necessarily draw from multiple genres. Genre labels help sell fiction, and can help a creator understand what the market potential is for their work, but genre is not very useful during the creative act.

Am I a horror writer? I grew up an avid reader of horror, science fiction, and poetry. I’m largely influenced by the works of Stephen King, Arthur C. Clark, H.P. Lovecraft, Kurt Vonnegut, Edgar Allen Poe, William Blake, Isaac Asimov, and e.e. cummings. If that makes me a horror writer, cool. But if my works appear on a shelf under Contemporary Fairy Tales or Dystopian Victorian Techno-Romance Spy Thrillers, and those labels help the readers who might like my stories find them, then extra cool.

GMM: There are hints at romance, or at least, unrequited love in your fragment. Do you often include romantic relationships in your stories? What inspired the relationship between the narrator and Cassiopeia?

DD: When I was at Seton Hill, I developed an appreciation for some similarities between romance and horror in terms of the focus on character and emotion. I’ve come to believe the opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is fear, and isolation as an intense precursor to or flavor of fear is a highly effective trope in horror as is demonstrated in this awesome montage of “No Signal” clips.

Notice how most of the movies cited are horror movies. I don’t necessarily try to include romantic relationships in stories, but I do try to use love relationships such as family bonds or even intensely tight friendships as a foil to isolation. As a writer, I believe having characters move across the love-fear spectrum gives a more complete view and increases the effect on the reader.

As for what inspired the relationship, I’m not sure I can point to any particular experience. Both the narrator and Cassiopeia suffered through a lot prior to their world going to hell. Sometimes we find strength when someone else’s well-being is at stake, and sometimes just having a hand to hold can make the most difficult of times more bearable and give one the will to persist.

Untitled Fragment, by David Day

Cassiopeia stumbled on a red pine’s thick root, her pink locks fluttering across my face like a kaleidoscope of butterflies. I tried to catch her, but she slipped from my grimy, sweaty hand and fell to the forest floor in a boneless heap. She lay still and silent, as if sleeping, her breath shallow and faint.

Her fugues grew worse with each day.

Something large shuffled through the woods, too far away for me to get a good fix on it, yet too close for our safety. I stretched out on the ground, spooned up against Cassiopeia, and placed a hand over her mouth to guard against any sudden outburst. Sweat covered her bone-cold skin, the faint smell of old heroine oozing from her like thick, cloying perfume.

“I think I hear one,” I whispered, more for my sanity than for her benefit. “Keep quiet.”
She moved her head slightly, the semblance of a nod, no doubt a tremor, but I wanted to believe otherwise. I stared up through the trees at a sky darkened for months to a confusion of shadow and light, never night or day, but always somewhere between, as if the earth had become stuck between dreaming and waking. Smudges of light riddled the fabric of the sky, stars barely discernible from the slightly darker background of space. I gave up on trying to see them, closed my eyes, and listened.

The steps echoed regular and heavy, the clip-clop of a trotting horse, their staccato rhythm heading our way.

Cassiopeia struggled a little, probably frightened even in her current state. She squirmed against me, groggy and weak, hopefully coming back around, but if we moved, if it found us…

I clamped down a little harder, enough to quiet her without hurting her.

I shifted and by some ill turn of fate caught a glimpse of the juggernaut through the trees as it paused, a great pillar of mahogany skin stretched over thick muscles, massive rubbery wings folded against its back, a thin barbed tail curled in a smooth s-shape, knees on the wrong side of its legs. It bent slightly backward and pressed its thick, clawed hands into the small of its back.

I managed a breath, then the creature took off again, galloping with surprising speed and agility. I waited, frozen, gulping thick breaths, then, listening as the last of the hoof-beats faded from earshot, slipped my hand from Cassiopeia’s mouth.

She rolled over to face me, awareness in her eyes for the first time in hours, pink strands of damp hair plastered to her forehead.

“I want to go with them.”

I brushed the threads aside, heart thumping a little harder as I fought the urge to draw her closer, envelop her entirely. Instead, I laid a palm across her cheek then rose and pulled a bottle of water from my tattered pack. I offered her a hand, which she accepted with a blatant scowl that sunk my heart further. I sipped from the bottle to mask my hurt, savored the lukewarm liquid before swallowing, and passed the water to her.

“Welcome back.”

She accepted the bottle, shrugged, and as she sipped she flickered like some grainy art-house film. The bottle fell through her hand and landed on a bed of decaying white oak leaves, water spilling like blood. She solidified, whimpered, then retrieved the bottle before it could bleed out.

I could relate to her spells of delirium, having floundered through withdrawal myself, but this flickering of hers, the slipping out of reality like some half-forgotten dream, unnerved me almost as much as the devil in the woods.

She handed the bottle back, nearly empty. “This the last one?”

I nodded, rubbed her shoulder, reassuring her of our safety, reassuring myself of her existence.

“We’ll find more soon. I can smell the saltwater on the air. We’ll head north when we hit the ocean, and we should come across a town before long. Felt like we passed through one every ten minutes driving to my grandmother’s cabin as a kid.”

I told a half-truth, unsure if I smelled the ocean, but Cassiopeia looked comforted. We walked in silence until our bodies could take no more, hours it seemed, and while the smell of the Atlantic was stronger with each step, we did not reach it.

Even if she didn’t talk to me, I was thankful Cassiopeia stayed with me. Though her episodes were more frequent, she appeared more sentient than she had in days. Maybe her system was finally expelling the last remnant of her backslide from before.

We stopped at a small pond to bathe and, once clean, we settled down to sleep, each of us bone-weary and spent. We curled up between two worn comforters stolen from a child’s abandoned bedroom in Skowhegan, back-to-back. I listened to the slow, steady rhythm of her light snoring, wishing for more intimacy, knowing she would never feel the same, hanging on each beat of her breath like a totem of sanity.

It took more than an hour for sleep to find me.

Next week, David X. Wiggin joins Girl Meets Monster. Do you have a piece of fiction hidden under your mattress that might benefit from a second look? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com.

Fiction Fragments: Frazer Lee

Last week, Atlanta lawyer and speculative fiction writer, Alicia Wright, joined us and talked about why she loves writing science fiction and fantasy for a YA audience. This week, creative writing professor, novelist and horror filmmaker, Frazer Lee, was kind enough to share a fragment and talk to Girl Meets Monster about what really scares him.

Frazer-Lee-stokerawdsFrazer Lee’s first novel, The Lamplighters, was a Bram Stoker Award® Finalist for “superior achievement in a first novel”.

One of Frazer’s early short stories received a Geoffrey Ashe Prize from the Library of Avalon, Glastonbury. His short fiction has since appeared in numerous anthologies including the acclaimed Read By Dawn series.

Also a screenwriter and filmmaker, Frazer’s movie credits include the award-winning short horror films On Edge, Red Lines, Simone, The Stay, and the critically acclaimed horror/thriller feature (and movie novelization) Panic Button.

Frazer is Head of Creative Writing at Brunel University London and resides with his family in leafy Buckinghamshire, England, just across the cemetery from the real-life Hammer House of Horror.

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Three Questions

GMM: At first glance, Emily Vane seems like a typical rich girl with behavioral problems until we reach the last line of your fragment and we realize there is definitely something odd about Emily. What inspired this fragment? Is this a horror story? What do Emily’s pills do?

FL: Emily popped into my head one day and quickly became the lead character in a horror story about a mysterious institution for wayward girls. I hate this first draft opening because it’s so expository and clunky. It zooms in and out too much, one sentence we’re learning about how bored her parents are, and a few sentences later we’re inside her veins. Your question identifies the main problem here, I think: The question of what her pills do is the most interesting aspect at play. It took me a couple of years to answer that question fully, and by the time I did, this story had become what it really wanted to be all along—a horror screenplay. I had to get to the heart of the character and what her deal was, before I could allow the story to flow from her. Now I think it does, and I hope to see that movie someday. If it goes into production, I’ll also finish writing the book for sure!

GMM: What initially drew you to horror? Who did you read or watch that made you decide to become a horror writer and filmmaker?

FL: Late nights alone at my father’s place on weekends left me unattended with a TV set. Very dangerous. I quickly gravitated towards horror because that was all that was on offer. Lucky me! I devoured every Hammer Horror and Universal Monsters double bill going, and actors like Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Boris Karloff, Hazel Court, Ingrid Pitt, Vincent Price… they became like surrogate family to me. Playmates I loved staying up with. Even though horror movies sometimes frightened me, they were also like a cosy blanket to curl up with on Friday and Saturday nights. From there, I found writers like Dennis Wheatley, EA Poe, HP Lovecraft, Nigel Kneale, and a bit later on they in turn led me to Angela Carter, Anne Rice, Clive Barker and Poppy Z. Brite. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the Queen of them all. Directors like Carpenter and Cronenberg were huge influences, as were Bava and Argento. I just had to try and express myself in this genre, there was no point fighting it—nor did I ever want to.

GMM: What scares you? Do you suffer from any phobias?

FL: People scare me. Take for example the man who says he’s not going to cut the trees down, then chops them down when you’re not looking. Him. That one. They are bloody everywhere, men like him. My stories often develop from a phobia of people. But I love people too, so sometimes there’s a happy ending.

Fiction Fragment, by Frazer Lee

Emily Vane sat on the back seat listening to the juggernaut rhythm of her favourite machine-like music. It pumped through her ear buds at a volume that would give her parents cause to worry about her hearing. Not that her parents were in the car, of course – they had seen fit to have her ditched at the latest in a long line of correctional institutions by Bob, their driver.

Bob wasn’t a bad sort; he didn’t look at her in the same lecherous way that his predecessor had, for one thing. Add to that his frivolous nature with cigarettes and Emily had him pinned as an ally. She had badgered him to let her smoke in the car for almost the entire first leg of their long drive from the ornate gates of her parental home but, fearing that her parents would smell the smoke in the car, Bob had pulled over and allowed her to take a smoke break at the service station. She had been tempted to cut and run while Bob took a piss break, but had given up on the idea. Partly out of duty to her driver, who would lose his job if his quarry upped and disappeared, and partly because she had lost count the number of times she’d ran now – it was, in short, beginning to bore her as much as it bored her dear old Mother and Father. So, she sat in the back of the car, ear-shredding music pounding out a tattoo as she watched the countryside pass by in a blur of greens and browns. She felt herself drifting into the whirl of colours, the music pumping in time with the surge of blood through her veins – tributaries that kept her tethered to her body. She felt her veins go numb and she slipped free of them, drifting out of her body and away, over the fields and hills. The sensation trod the fine line between pleasure trip and abject nausea. Emily snapped back into her body and reached into her backpack for her pills.

I don’t know if you noticed, but I like a little romance with my horror. So, next week, romance writer Kenya Wright joins Girl Meets Monster and things will get steamy around here. Stay tuned, and send me your fragments at chellane@gmail.com.

10 Things That Made Me Happy While Taking the #100HappyDays Challenge

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Back on January 23 I started a #100HappyDays Challenge. The homepage of the site asks you, “Can you be happy for 100 days in a row?” I believe most rational people would probably say no. And, if like me, you suffer from chronic depression you’d be even more skeptical.

The second question the site asks you is, “You don’t have time for this, right?” Again, most of us would agree that we don’t have time to make an effort to be happy every single day for 100 days. But is that true? Why don’t we have time? Is it because we don’t believe we’re worth the effort? Or is it because we don’t believe that you can find happiness that easily? Or maybe, and I know this sounds a little crazy, we don’t really understand a) what makes us happy, b) what happiness really looks and feels like, or c) how to begin to find happiness in our everyday lives.

The challenge itself is simple. Each day, for 100 days, you simply take a picture of something or someone who made you happy and then follow the steps on the site.

So first you register in the challenge >here<, then choose your favorite platform for submitting pictures. Here you can decide yourself on the privacy of your participation & happy moments:

  • Share your picture via Facebook, twitter or Instagram with a public hashtag #100happydays;
  • Come up with your own hashtag to share your pictures with to limit publicity. (Don’t forget to tell us how to find your pictures though)
  • Simply send your pictures to myhappyday (at) 100happydays.com to avoid any publicity.

The 100happydays.com site claims that “71% of people tried to complete this challenge, but failed quoting lack of time as the main reason.” Studies have shown that most people are not just busy, but overwhelmed with responsibility – work, housework, school, family, and other social obligations – that keep them running nonstop and afford little time for anything else. People typically don’t make time to take care of themselves, or just check in to see how happy they are with the life they are living.

Believe me, I get it. I’m a divorced single parent who works full-time. I’m a part-time writer trying to become a full-time writer, which means I write fiction in the hopes of being published and farm myself out for freelance projects because my day job doesn’t pay enough. I’m not currently dating, but I have a fairly active social life. I rent, so I don’t have a lot of home repairs to tend to, but there’s still housework, errands, cooking, and child rearing. To be honest, housework doesn’t get done very often, but we always have clean laundry and dishes, and my son never misses a meal. My son is involved in activities outside the house, and he has behavioral/emotional issues that we manage through therapy and other strategies. I’m not going to win any awards for my parenting skills. However, I make a point of showing up and being present when my energy and own mental health issues are balanced. I’m actively seeking employment, because I’m not sure if I’ll be able to stay in my current job after June. So, yeah, I’m busy. Like mind-numbingly, soul-crushingly busy some days. Depression has been an ongoing issue for me since I was a kid. I was diagnosed in my teens and have sought the support of therapists and medication on and off throughout my adult life. I’m not just busy. Some days are harder than others. Some days I have #zerofuckstogive. Some days I consider it a win if I get out of bed, get dressed, and make it to work.

Despite all the challenges I face day-to-day, I managed to find something to be relatively happy about for almost every single day of the 100-day challenge. I chose to post my pictures, thoughts and reflections on social media – Facebook and Instagram. Each day, beginning on January 23 and ending on May 2, I posted a photo, a meme, or simply an observation about that day and what brought me joy.

100happydays.com also asks the question, “Why would I do that?” Good question. I’m sure lots of people would ask that question. Well, here are some answers.

People successfully completing the challenge claimed to:

  • Start noticing what makes them happy every day;
  • Be in a better mood every day;
  • Start receiving more compliments from other people;
  • Realize how lucky they are to have the life they have;
  • Become more optimistic;
  • Fall in love during the challenge.

Need help figuring out what makes you happy? Here are the top 10 things that brought me happiness during my #100happydays challenge (in no particular order). Perhaps, you’ll recognize some of the things that make you smile too.

  1. Booze. Let’s face it, adult beverages are delicious and when they are drunk responsibly, they can have amazingly curative properties. When I was younger, I was hell-bent on self-medicating. I drank too much and too often. I also was careless about mixing drugs with alcohol, and usually in questionable company. That’s a story for another day. At this point in my life, I don’t drink very often. I keep some booze at home, typically bourbon, which is my favorite liquor. Occasionally, I’ll drink rum. Booze appeared in my social media feeds on Day 1 of the challenge. It was a rough day. And, booze played a role in bringing me happiness 4 out the 100 days, 5 if you count the codeine cough syrup I drank when I was sick. Fun fact: Because of my love of bourbon and booze in general, I gained roughly 20 new followers on Instagram who are either bars with specialty cocktails, bourbon aficionados, and distillers of small-batch spirits. So, I guess you could say that booze has the ability to make me popular and interesting.
  1. Coffee & Tea. I don’t know about you, but caffeine is 90% responsible for keeping me conscious most days. It’s no secret how much I love coffee, but I also enjoy drinking tea. Coffee and tea have been staples in my life since childhood. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania in the 70s and 80s, and my grandmother didn’t see a problem with putting iced tea in my bottle when I was a baby. I drank my first cup of coffee when I was five. But don’t worry, she cut the bitterness by adding a tooth-decaying amount of sugar to it. Essentially, my grandmother was my first drug dealer. She hated alcohol. Most likely because her father and one of her brothers were alcoholics. People who drank alcohol pissed her off, but she was the poster child for coffee, sugar, and cigarettes. When I was a poor college student and couldn’t afford to maintain my cigarette habit (I smoked between the ages of 14 and 35), my grandmother would either give me money or buy my cigarettes for me. By the carton. In fact, when I was a junior, studying abroad in England for a year, her biggest concern, aside from my safety, was that cigarettes were so much more expensive there. She sent me care packages on a regular basis, and I could always count on finding at least one carton of Camel Lights in the box of goodies. In a related story, after my first week of living in England, I discovered that I was getting headaches almost every day and was feeling lethargic even though I was drinking between 6 – 10 cups of tea a day. Eventually, I realized that I was suffering from dehydration. Basically, I lived on tea, beer and cider, scones with clotted cream, packets of cheese and onion crisps, and Camel Lights. Once I figured out what was wrong with me, I kept a plastic cup near my sink and I would drink 2 – 3 cups of water before going to bed and upon waking. By the way, I had purchased the cup with Camel Cash, and the cup featured an image of Joe the Camel wearing a leather biker jacket, circa early 90s.
  1. Food. I love food. I love to cook it. I love to eat. I see food as something beyond a means of nourishing my body. Food conjures memories of childhood. Food comforts me. Sharing a meal with family and friends is one of my favorite ways to interact and be social. Learning a new recipe is akin to learning a new spell. Food is a perfect marriage between magic and science. Cooking allows me to express myself, get creative, and heal myself through healthy foods. During the #100happydays challenge, food appeared in my social media feeds 34 days out of 100. Foods that appeared the most were fruit salad and tacos. A lot of the foods were healthy and involved my crockpot and meal prep that allowed me to cook once and eat for several days in a row. Some of my most popular posts dealt with food and the recipes I featured, and these posts got some of the most comments, including requests for recipes. Food is the glue of cultural and social interaction. The healthier I eat, the happier I am.
  1. Friends & Family. I have a small family. For the most part it’s just my mom, my son and me. I also have aunts, uncles, and cousins. For the most part, I am close with my cousins. We’re all around the same age, grew up in the same generation with access to the same elements of popular culture. I saw my cousins during the summer at family picnics most of the time when I was a kid, and now I make time to see them when I can. I spend a lot of time with my cousin Tara. I think of her as a best friend and sister, not just a cousin. She’s 1 of 4 kids and I’m an only child. Her sister and I are the same age and get along well too, but we don’t hang out as often as I’d like. Tara and I have similar tastes in music, movies, television shows, art, food, and enjoy mean jokes at the expense of others. She’s a talented artist, a supportive and loving person, and she can always make me laugh or think more clearly about something happening in my life. I will happily tell you that I am blessed with an amazingly diverse and interesting collection of friends and acquaintances. One of my best friends, Pat, has been my friend since we were 14 or 15 years old. He has an uncanny ability to zero-in on what is at the source of the negative feelings I might be feeling about any given situation. Sometimes it’s spooky how well he knows me, but I don’t know what I would do without his friendship. His ability to make me laugh never ceases to amaze me and he is always brutally honest with me when I find myself in crappy situations. He’s usually the first to tell me that I can a) overcome the problem, and b) if I look at a situation a little differently and take full responsibility for my own actions, 9 times out of 10, things will be just fine. I have other amazing friends, like Sarah and Isabelle who have been in my life as long as Pat has, and I have newer friends, like Stephanie who I feel like I’ve known just as long. And, I can’t forget my friend Danielle. She always has a way of making sure I’m taken care of, even if it’s just getting together to talk over dinner. Friends and social occasions really make a difference in my life. Typically, I prefer one-on-one interactions or small gatherings, but every now and then I attend larger events. I have a touch of social anxiety, so that’s where my good friend Booze comes in to play again. Out of 100 days, 31 of my posts were about friends and family.
  1. Film & Television. I’m obsessed with popular culture and have long-loved the escapism of watching movies and TV shows. My preferences for genre tend to be Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, Black Comedies, Historical Dramas, Mysteries, and Romance, but usually the Paranormal variety. I love vampires, werewolves, demons, ghosts, and other things that go bump in the night. And, I love superheroes. Marvel’s film franchise has provided me with hours and hours of happiness. And, I’ve been known to fall in love with fictional characters. Here’s a short list: Loki, Magneto, Wolverine, Captain America, John Constantine, Elijah Mikaelson, Hannibal Lecter, Francis Dolarhyde, Damon Salvatore, Simon Bellamy, Lucifer, Preacher, Lawrence Talbot, Rupert Giles, Spock, John Mitchell, Captain Ross Poldark, Spike, Doctor Who…well, you get the idea. In fact, if you’ve read my blog before, you’re familiar with my obsessions and may even share some of them. 12 of 100 posts referred to films or TV.
  1. Books. Reading is important to me. I don’t remember a time in my life when books were not available to me. Bookshelves filled with books, trips to the library and used books stores, talking about new books that a favorite writer had written – these were all common occurrences in my childhood. Before I could read, family members and teachers read to me. Once I could read on my own, I read as many books as I could get my hands on. Stories bring a certain richness to my life that I often can’t find anywhere else. My love of stories, books and words led me to become an English major in college. Why? Because I love to read and write (I’ll get to that shortly). I’ll read just about anything, but like my preferences in film and television, my taste in genre and to a certain extent literary fiction, are the speculative genres – Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction. I also enjoy nonfiction. Over the past few months, I have been consuming Roxane Gay’s books, An Untamed State, Difficult Women, and Bad Feminist. Her writing speaks to me in so many unexpected ways. Not only does she show me the different parts of myself that would normally seem disconnected, but she also shows me how they relate to each other to make me a whole and complicated person. And, more importantly, she makes me want to be a better writer. Books appeared in at least 12 of my posts.
  1. Writing. Writing has been a part of my life almost as long as reading. Narratives have always been an important part of my life. Whether I was watching a Hitchcock film or favorite Western with my grandfather, an epic Romance or Soap Opera with my grandmother, “Creature Double Feature” or “Dark Shadows” with my mother, “King Fu Theater” or “The Prisoner” with my father, or enjoying the ridiculous premises you’d find in 80s music videos, and later an obsession with foreign language films, I consumed a lot of narratives in and out of books growing up. Stephen King’s books lined the bookshelves in almost every house in my immediate family. A year or so ago, my aunt bequeathed her Stephen King collection to me. I hadn’t read a lot of his books, but I had seen film adaptations of them. In the last few years, I took the time to read Carrie, The Shining, The Gunslinger, Misery, Salem’s Lot, and I just finished listening to Doctor Sleep as an audio book in my car. I tried reading IT at one point, but I couldn’t get past the clown. It’s weird. I can watch the film starring Tim Curry and I can’t wait to see the remake with Bill Skarsgård, but the book scares the shit out of me. One day, I will read that book cover to cover. Today is not that day. As much as I love Stephen King’s fiction, my favorite Stephen King book is On Writing. It is the only craft book that ever brought me to tears. I have two copies. A copy I bought to read while earning my MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University, and the copy I found on my dad’s bookshelves after he died. My dad was a writer. He wrote a lot, but never finished writing his novel. I finished writing my first novel after his death in 2015. I’ve since started writing 2 more novels, and I’ve been writing poetry and short fiction since I was 12. I’ve only had one short story published, but I will have more of my work published, damn it. I owe that much to my dad. And, I can’t talk about writing without talking about Anne Rice. She is probably one of the biggest influences on my writing, and I must give her at least partial credit for why I write about vampires. Her novels gave vocabulary to some of the things I thought and felt as a teenager, and her vampires made me feel more alive than any characters I’d find in the fiction geared toward teenagers at the time. Thanks for all the good books, Anne. Your work gave me the courage to write about taboo subjects in a way that allowed me to talk about the beauty I found in them.
  1. Self-Care. Technically, participating in the #100happydays challenge is an act of self-care itself. Taking the time to pay attention and make note of the things that make you happy really is an enlightening exercise. In doing so, I found myself seeking out more ways to care for myself. I ate healthier foods. I spent more time in the company of people I love. I tried to develop better habits, like exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and scheduling downtime so that I could do the things that recharge me and fill my brain with creative ideas. Don’t want to take my word for it? Try the #100happydays challenge for yourself and see what I mean. Self-care and self-love are not selfish acts. Doing nice things for yourself, taking care of yourself, enables us to care for the other people in our lives without killing ourselves to do so.
  1. Art. I’ve talked about several art forms/crafts in this post, namely writing and visual media. I’d also include culinary arts in that list. However, I also like to go to museums and galleries to check out the work of mixed media artists – painters, sculptors, ceramicists, collage makers, and several other mediums. During my 100-day challenge, I visited two galleries, CALC in Carlisle, PA, where my son had a drawing in one of the local student art shows, and Metropolis Collective in Mechanicsburg, PA, as well as The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. In each art space, I got to see some wonderfully beautiful, disturbing, and thought-provoking art. I need to go to more museums, and I need to create more of my own art. Perhaps there are projects I can work on with my son this summer to get us both creating and spending more quality time together.
  1. Michael Fassbender. Laugh if you must, but Michael Fassbender’s work as an actor brings me happiness on a regular basis. I had enjoyed his work in films prior to last summer when I went to see X-men: Apocalypse, but for some reason, his portrayal of Magneto in that film struck a chord with me that caused me to not only revisit X-men: First Class and X-men: Days of Future Past, but I also rewatched Inglourious Bastards, and then began making my way through his entire body of work. I’m particularly fond of Shame, 12 Years a Slave, A Dangerous Method, Jane Eyre, Jonah Hex, Macbeth, Prometheus, Slow West, and I loved him in the TV show “Hex”. His characters make me laugh, cry, think, feel shame, and I’m not going to lie, ignite my desire. He is a beautiful and talented man. Eventually, I will see all his film and television performances. His Magneto breaks my heart, and makes me question right and wrong. After watching 12 Years a Slave, I went through a period of deep meditation and self-reflection based on my confused feelings of repulsion and attraction for his character, Edwin Epps. His Carl Jung left me feeling sexually frustrated, and his Rochester made me realize how many toxic relationships I have been in and examine why I keep returning to those doomed relationships. He is a master of his craft, not just a handsome face.

This was not my first #100happydays challenge rodeo, so I can attest to the fact that most of the claims made by the folks at 100happydays.com are true. Are they true every single day of the challenge? No. I don’t think anyone is happy every single day of their life. However, I will say that by taking the time to notice the things that do make me happy, I have a better understanding of my own happiness (or lack of happiness). I understand that happiness is a choice, and we are responsible for creating it for ourselves. And, like me, you might be surprised to find that happiness is all around us. All we need to do is take inventory and remind ourselves that happiness is not completely out of reach. In fact, it may be closer than you think.

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Top 10 Haunted Holiday Movies

There is a time-honored tradition in Britain of gathering around the fireplace at Christmas to tell ghost stories. In fact, one of the most famous ghost stories of all time is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. A few years ago, BBC Radio 4 featured a series of 20th century vampire stories read by David Tennant. In my opinion, there’s no better Christmas treat than listening to Doctor Who read vampire stories.

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Vampire hunters: sexier than vampires? Discuss.

As a long-time fan of ghost stories and horror fiction in general, and a writer of dark speculative fiction, December is one of my favorite times of year (aside from Halloween) to watch scary movies. Let’s face it, any time of year is a good time to watch horror movies, but there’s something about this time of year that brings out the desire to contemplate the supernatural. Maybe it’s because winter is the metaphorical death of the year, or maybe it has something to do with the veil between worlds being thinnest on the Solstice, or maybe the long dark nights cause our imaginations to run wild with inherited fears of hungry wolves lurking at the edge of the woods.

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Whatever the reason, it has become a tradition in my house to watch horror-themed (or at the very least black comedy) movies this time of year. I mean, sure, we watch the classics too – Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, and The Year Without a Santa Claus – which, if I’m not mistaken all have some form of monster or element of dark magic. That’s right, dark magic. No one is going to convince me that the black top hat that brings Frosty to life doesn’t contain black magic.

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So, rather than trotting out a tired old list of holiday classics, I thought I’d share my top 10 picks for holiday films that make you laugh uncomfortably, raise the spirits, and possibly the hairs at the back of your neck. Whether you prefer suicide humor, serial killers, demonic possession, mental illness, or just a good old-fashioned ghost story, my list has something for everyone.

  1. Black Christmas (1974): If you hate sorority girls and love serial killers, then this is the holiday film for you.

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  1. Gremlins (1984): A traveling salesman buys his son the worst Christmas present EVER.

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  1. Scrooged (1988): A modern retelling of A Christmas Carol starring Bill Murray. What more do you need to know?

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  1. Better Off Dead (1985): One of the funniest movies about teen suicide you’ll ever see. Happy holidays!

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  1. The Conjuring 2 (2016): Just in case you weren’t sure, The Conjuring 2 is totally a Christmas movie.

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  1. Krampus (2015): Want the kids to stop acting like sugar-fueled psychos before the holidays? Skip “Elf on the Shelf,” and show them this movie.

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  1. 12 Monkeys (1995): A time traveler is sent to the past to prevent the release of a deadly virus and gets a stay at a mental institution for his troubles. Holly jolly!

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  1. Edward Scissorhands (1990): A Frankenstein-like man with scissors for hands has his heart broken after leaving the safety of his home to mingle with monstrous suburbanites.

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  1. The Polar Express (2004): Children are stolen from their homes and taken on a terrifying train ride to the North Pole.

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  1. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993): A heart-warming tale about cultural appropriation gone wrong.

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Now It’s Dark: Lynchian Images in The Babadook

babadookPOPUPBOOOK This weekend I watched Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent’s amazingly beautiful and haunting film, The Babadook (2014). It was my second viewing of the film in about a month. My intent was to kick start my brain into generating a blog post; or rather a series of blog posts about horror films that focus on the darker side of motherhood— “The Horror of Motherhood”. And, I was going to begin posting the series in time for Mother’s Day. I’m still going to write the series of posts, and I will do my absolute damnedest to get the first one posted in time for Mother’s Day, even though I will be attending World Horror 2015 in Atlanta next weekend. According to most successful writers, and several of my well-meaning friends, I simply cannot allow life to get in the way of writing the stories I need to tell. Even if they are just musings about the art and literature I wrap myself up in to hide away from the realities of life. I keep tripping over those realities each time I think I’m going to sit down to finish that poem, story, or book. MUST. KEEP. WRITING.

My intent, while settling in for another viewing of what I consider to be one of the scariest films I’ve seen in a long time, was to inspire myself to write about a series of horror films I feel deeply connected to. Horror films about mothers and their children. This connection stems not only from my awareness as a mother who appreciates how rewarding it can be to raise a child, but also how dark and terrifying it can be to realize that your life is no longer your own. Motherhood is fraught with a host of responsibilities, expectations, and societal pressures that go beyond the basics of keeping the children you bare alive. You must adhere to a very strict level of high standards that seem to fall under constant scrutiny, or you will be deemed a monster. As much as I love monsters, I don’t wish to be accused of being one. Notice that I didn’t say I don’t wish to become a monster. If becoming a monster means protecting the safety of my child, then there will most certainly be a gnashing of sharp teeth.

This concept of the horror of motherhood first occurred to me when I was pregnant with my son. I took a film class to fill the void of boredom, or stave off the fear that I would never have a life again after my son was born. True story. Each week we sat in a dark classroom on the University of Pittsburgh campus for several hours watching films and then discussing them. I was a non-traditional student. By non-traditional I mean an unwed thirtysomething pregnant woman of color with a full-time job at the University, and a master’s degree in English literature in a classroom full of mostly white twentysomething undergraduate students oddly misinformed about cinema. If my alma mater had offered a film minor I would have earned one while pursuing my undergraduate degree…but, I digress (and I will keep doing that, because I am in stream-of-consciousness mode lately and there’s not much I can do about it right now if I want to keep writing. Like it or lump it).

motherdaughterSo, horror of motherhood…film class…right…what was the point I was trying to make…? Oh yeah! One week we watched The Exorcist in class. I saw the movie for the first time when I was maybe ten-years-old. It scared the living shit out of me. I had nightmares for weeks, and I refused to sleep with the lights off for a long time afterwards. To me, that’s a sign of a good horror flick. But, is that enough? When I was kid? Absolutely. I still watch horror movies just for the thrill of being scared, but now I tend to evaluate them with a different set of standards in mind. And, I honestly think I began to think about horror films in this way during my viewing of The Exorcist as a pregnant woman. As a kid, the film was terrifying because, let’s be honest, some really unsettling things happen to Regan and her mother once the demon manifests and takes control of the young girl’s body. We’re talking body horror at it’s finest, demon possession, a parasitic invasion of the mind and body in which the host is totally helpless to defend herself from the invading entity. The connection between demon possession and pregnancy was not lost on me as I sat in the darkened classroom. The film suddenly took on a very personal tone, and my original fears quickly evaporated as I began to perceive a new set of fears the film stirred up in me. I was about to become a mom, so the fears were two-fold. Like Regan, I had a being growing inside me that I had little or no control over. My body had been invaded, and unlike many women who look forward to the miracle of birth, I was terrified, because I didn’t completely have faith in my own body to do what it needed to do to bring forth life. And, I also saw the film from the perspective of Regan’s mother, who has a very sick child that no one in the medical field can seem to correctly diagnose, and as her behavior becomes more bizarre and she is subjected to test after test, it became very clear to me that the horror in this film is very real. The horror(s) of motherhood – fear that you won’t be able to help your child if she becomes sick, fear that people will accuse you of being a bad parent, that somehow your child is ill because of something you’ve failed to do right. Yeah, that’s scary stuff. And, because I had to think about those very real fears while rewatching The Exorcist as a mother-to-be, the film gained a new depth of meaning for me, placing it higher on my horror film hierarchy list.

I’ve studied film unofficially for many years, and have a love of the art form that goes beyond catching the latest blockbusters Hollywood has to offer. In fact, I would consider myself a bit of a film snob. I enjoy certain large production films, like the whole Marvel superhero franchise that has enlisted the talent of some of my favorite actors, screenwriters, and directors, but I prefer indie, foreign, and classic films – silent, noir, Murnau, Welles, Hitchcock, Bergman, Polanski, Herzog, Universal, Hammer, American International – and my taste runs toward the dark, the uncanny, and the bizarre. However, a film has to be more than just weird or unsettling for me to really engage with it. There needs to be some sort of artistic or intellectual exploration happening to maintain my attention for an hour or two. My senses need to be tingled, my emotions need to be swayed (unhinged if possible), and what I’m watching on screen should be jangling loose memories and connections between other films and narrative forms I have encountered before. My enjoyment as a reader, writer, and lover of film comes from the connections I am able to make between these different mediums.

I love films, especially horror films that delve into our dark psychological past in the form of reimagined fairy tales and myths. I am particularly thrilled when I see a newer filmmaker paying homage to another filmmaker whose work I enjoy. The Babadook accomplishes both. Kent’s dark fairytale that features a fictional children’s pop-up book, Mister Babadook, introduces us to a new retelling of a particular type of fairytale that delves into the madness that can result from unresolved emotional trauma and the isolation that often comes along with it. I have a lot to say about this deeply disturbing, and yet somehow familiar tale of motherhood, in which a woman fights against a malevolent spirit to halt her transformation into a monster. She refuses to heed the entities demands to harm her own child. She fights madness and ignores what the voices are telling her to do. But, I’m not going to talk about that here. Not now. Think of this as merely a teaser if you will. I have more thinking to do on the subject, but I will share my thoughts soon.

As the title of this post suggests, while I watched The Babadook this weekend, it became very clear to me that Kent has a very serious love of David Lynch. So do I. I became even more excited about this film, which I didn’t think was possible. I love surprises.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, I want to give you a very brief synopsis of the film, but I don’t wish to reveal too much, because I really hope that if you haven’t seen the film yet, you will. So, I’m going to steal the two sentence synopsis from Kent’s website (parentheses are mine): “The film tells of a single mother (Amelia), plagued by the violent death of her husband, who battles with her son’s (Samuel) night time fear of a shadowy monster (The Babadook). But soon, she discovers a sinister presence is lurking in the house.”

repulsion-2Kent’s film has been compared to Roman Polanski’s films, and there were many instances when I was reminded of Repulsion (1965). Especially while watching the scenes in which Amelia is wandering around the house alone at night through shadowy hallways in her nightgown. I couldn’t help but think of Catherine Deneuve sleepwalking through her nightmarish descent into madness.

Jennifer Kent admits that David Lynch is her favorite film director, so it is no wonder that his influence can be seen in this terrifying masterpiece about the darkness that lives inside all of us. After noticing the second reference to his imagery, I picked up a notebook and started jotting down notes in an ecstatic rush of joy. Not only is this film well written, carefully crafted, and very scary, but also the filmmaker is asking me to engage in the narrative she has created on a very intellectual level through images that evoke memories of other narratives. Specifically, Lynch’s films and his television series, Twin Peaks.

If you have seen more than one Lynch film, you’ve probably noticed several recurring images and themes. He communicates his narratives through a very surrealistic system of dream-like images, causing the viewer to experience the story in a state of disorientation they share with many of the characters on-screen. Dreams and hallucinations play a major role in his narratives, and so do darkness and the dangers that hide there. Kent employs several of Lynch’s lighting techniques to create a similar feeling for her viewers. She uses light and shadow to define space within a scene, and creates a sense of isolation, claustrophobia, and even makes her viewer squint to get a closer look at what is hiding in the darkness. We begin to suspect that things are lurking in the dark corners of Amelia’s house long before the monster is ever introduced. She goes so far as to use one of Lynch’s trademark images, flickering electricity and burned out light bulbs, which I initially read as a common trope of horror films indicating a supernatural presence. I think Lynch uses this recurring image similarly to convey an element of the supernatural set against the backdrop of ordinary life.

The-Black-Lodge-twin-peaksFilms often provide us with an escape from this ordinary life, and while we wish to become immersed in the narrative unfolding before us, both filmmakers have a desire to remind us that we are in fact watching a film they have created, and delve into the realm of metafiction. Lynch does this by creating a proscenium arch in nearly every one of his films, and he even goes so far as to include curtains. Usually very heavy red curtains, which most people will remember from Agent Cooper’s black lodge dream sequences in Twin Peaks. He not only suggests that there is a stage where his characters are performing, but he creates one within a scene. Behind that arch, which sometimes has curtains, and sometimes is just a wall of darkness, there usually lurks something his characters don’t wish to face. The truth. Danger. The darkness within us. Kent uses a wall of darkness to create one of Lynch’s proscenium arches during a very emotionally charged and terrifying scene, in which the Babadook is threatening Amelia’s safety and the safety of her son. She screams at the monster hidden behind the arch and refuses to back down. Refuses to show weakness. She protects her son from the darkness and what it hides. And, much like one of Lynch’s films, eventually something emerges from the darkness. In this case, the true cause of Amelia’s grief and depression is revealed. And then, we are rewarded with yet another Lynchian image, a gaping head wound. I’m pretty sure I squealed with delight during that scene. One reason Lost Highway is one of my favorite Lynch films is because it has two head wounds.

Lost-HighwayAnother example of Lynchian themes Kent uses in The Babadook that really confirmed her love of his work is the concept of split consciousness. In several of his films, Lynch features female leads with dual roles: Patricia Arquette in Lost Highway, Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive, and Laura Dern in Inland Empire, as well as Sheryl Lee in Twin Peaks. These split identities often highlight the darker side of human behavior and puts the two characters at odds with each other. While Essie Davis plays only one character in Kent’s film, Amelia goes through a psychological transformation rather than a physical one, teetering on the edge of madness. She doesn’t become two people like in Lynch’s work, but her grief over the loss of her husband and her unwillingness to fully accept her role as Samuel’s mother creates a similar fractured female identity. She struggles with depression and feels guilty for wishing she could still have her husband even if it meant giving up her son. She is in danger of not only being a bad mother, but of becoming a monster herself.

GarmonboziaFinally, the icing on the cake for me came near the end of the film when Amelia goes through a terrible night in which the Babadook enters her body. There is a kind of possession that takes place, further supporting this idea of fractured identity. She is becoming a monster. She poses a threat to her own son. But, Amelia is strong, and she is able to force the darkness out. She exorcises her own demons. In the process of casting out the monster, she expels what I like to call emotional ectoplasm. She literally throws up an inky black substance that made me shout: GARMONBOZIA! She expels her pain and sorrow, which is what the demons in the black lodge eat. Bob expels a similar black substance from his hands in Fire Walk With Me when The Man from Another Place demands, “Bob, I want all my Garmonbozia.” Oddly enough, that inky substance, which I equate with a literal emotional discharge, a physical manifestation of pain, isn’t actually garmonbozia. Lynch depicts garmonbozia as something completely ordinary and mundane. Creamed corn. In my opinion, that’s the true stuff of nightmares.