Fiction Fragments: Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel

Last week, I spoke with Brandon Getz about werewolves in outer space, and this week Girl Meets Monster welcomes Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel.

SSGHeadSheri Sebastian-Gabriel’s short fiction has appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines over the past decade. Spirits, her first novel, is out now from Haverhill House Publishing. She lives in the Northeast with her fiance, the writer Matt Bechtel; her three children; and her two diametrically opposed dogs, Nya, a German shepherd mix, and Kai, a Chihuahua.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Sheri. Congratulations on publishing your debut novel, Spirits, last year. 2019 was one hell of a year. What are some of your greatest accomplishments from last year? What do you have planned for 2020, and what are you working on right now?

SSG: Thank you so much! It’s been a crazy year. Publishing Spirits and doing the promotional work associated with that pretty much tops my list of accomplishments for 2019. I’ve read in front of some amazing crowds. I particularly enjoyed my reading at Otto’s Shrunken Head, this adorable tiki bar in the East Village of Manhattan. The staff there is just delightful. You should go the next time you’re in New York. They make a mean Stormy Skull.

In 2020, I’ll probably still be promoting the living hell out of Spirits. Chris Golden once told me it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

I’m working on my second novel now. It follows an African vampire named Wekesa. Wekesa experienced the horrors of slavery as a young man. He roams the Deep South, feeding on racists. Sam Rayburn is a single mom who rents out a room to the mysterious Kes. The tiny town of Helms, Georgia, experiences a rash of grisly murders, and Sam suspects her new boarder may be responsible.

GMM: I’ve been a die-hard fan of horror fiction and films since I was a kid and could watch or read almost anything your put in front of me. After I became a mom, the concept of horror changed for me. The Exorcist was no longer scary because of demonic possession. It was scary because a woman with a sick child couldn’t find the help she needed to save her daughter. The Babadook felt like a documentary about being a single parent dealing with mental health issues and a child with behavioral problems. Has motherhood changed the way you view and write horror? What scares you these days?

SSG: I think you’re so right about motherhood shaping our worldviews and changing our fears. When I was young, I was afraid of monsters. I believed there were things out there that could hurt or kill me. But when I grew up, I realized monsters can be destroyed. As a parent, and a single parent at that, I understand that real terror comes from the things we can’t control. My number-one fear is something awful and beyond my control happening to my kids.

GMM: Speaking of the horror of motherhood, your fragment taps into one of the fears most parents share — bad things happening to our children when we aren’t there to protect them. I think we would agree that some parents have an even harder time keeping their kids safe because of financial difficulties and sociopolitical issues like racism and sexism. Your fragment features a woman of color raising two boys. What inspired the story, and does the current political climate have an impact on your writing?

SSG: The current political climate has absolutely impacted my writing! Subversive art is necessary. We both have stories in the forthcoming Dystopian States of America, an anthology benefiting the ACLU Foundation. It’s a cause near to my heart, because the damage done by the current administration is going to be felt for a really long time. There are children in cages, for fuck’s sake. Can we really just turn a blind eye to that?

From Blood for the Soil, by Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel

Sam tapped the pen against the kitchen table. If she skipped the cable bill for another month, she might be able to pay both the power bill and the car insurance, and she’d still have fifty dollars left to buy groceries for the next two weeks. The laptop glowed in her face as she punched in her debit card number and hit the Pay Now button.

Her stomach roiled. Harper’s hadn’t reopened after being shut down by the health inspector, so her services as a table jockey weren’t exactly in demand. The Beehive Café might be hiring, but Sam couldn’t bring herself to speak to Azilee McVey after the bitter old hag yelled at Nat for trying to sell basketball fundraiser candy outside her over-hyped establishment.

It was more than a little odd to her that Azilee gleefully hosted a carwash for the marching band a week later. She’d driven by to see a dozen or so white kids scrubbing cars and spraying each other, laughing in the carefree midday sunshine. Her boys would always face people like Azilee and cops who are scared of unarmed black boys whose only crime is existing. And her parents. Her blood ran cold.

Failing them wasn’t an option. She logged out of the power company’s website, typed in http://www.helmsherald.com, clicked on the classifieds section, and scanned the site for a way to place an ad. When she found the right form for apartments for rent, she filled in:

Room for rent in quaint farmhouse. $300 a month, utilities included. Smoke-free household. Must be neat. Call Sam at (706) 531-2243. 

She hit the submit button and clicked the X to close the browser.

The clock on her laptop told her it was a quarter past seven, and her heart jumped. The boys should have been home by now. She leapt up and dashed to the door. The crickets had started their evening serenade. Lightning bugs blinked on and off. The sky was navy blue and a smattering of stars punctuated it. The grass tickled the bottoms of her feet as she walked into the yard.

“Nat! Kyle!”

Her voice echoed through the trees that ran the perimeter of the farm. Something metallic rattled in the distance. Sam ran, barely noticing the gravel of the driveway jabbing her feet. The gravel turned to asphalt as she reached the roadway. Two shadowy figures emerged from the diminishing daylight. One lurched. The other walked alongside a clanking bulk. Sam’s legs burned and her feet slapped the craggy ground as she ran toward the figures.

She met them at the edge of the forest. A moan rose up from the dark.

“Mom! Nat’s hurt! Someone hit him as we were turning into Cooper’s. I’ve got his bike. I had to leave mine at the store.”

Sam’s stomach fell. She scooped the younger boy up and carried him, draped across her forearms. He whimpered and tucked his head into her shoulder like a shy toddler. He was heavy, but she shuffled and redistributed his weight until they made it to the front porch. She set him down and knelt in front of him. Blackened blood streaked his shin. A gash on his knee crusted as the blood dried.

“What happened?” she asked.

“This old lady was turning into the grocery store parking lot as we were crossing the street, and she crashed right into Nat. He fell off, and her car crushed his bike. The wheel is so bent, I had to push it home. Is he gonna be okay?”

Sam examined the wound. It was dirty but seemed superficial.

“Let’s go inside and get you cleaned up. I think you’ll be okay. Thanks for taking such good care of him, Kyle. You’re a good brother. We can go back to Cooper’s tomorrow to pick up your bike. So, what did the old lady say about hitting you?”

Nat’s eyes flashed with anger.

“She took off,” he said. “Just left me there.”

Sam hefted him onto his feet. Blind rage warmed her face. Her body quaked as she suppressed the urge to launch into an expletive-filled rant, focusing instead on ushering them both back into the house. Kyle stayed behind in the living room as Sam led Nat to the bathroom.

He sat on the toilet. Sam pulled the first aid kit from under the sink and placed it at his feet.  She ran a washcloth under the tap. Nat’s eyes were trained on the white tile floor. Tears lined his bottom eyelashes, and his bottom lip quivered. She dabbed at the red wounds, careful not to rub or irritate the raw skin. Blood flaked up and left maroon streaks on the cloth.

“What if I died?” he whispered. Sam wasn’t sure she’d heard him right.

“What, sweetie?”

His soulful brown eyes met hers.

“What if I died? That woman. The old lady who hit me. She took off right after she hit me.”

Nat’s breath came in ragged bursts. A single tear streamed down his cheek.

“She didn’t know I was okay,” he said, his shaky voice growing in volume. “I could have died, and it wouldn’t have mattered to her.”

Sam lowered the cloth, placed her hands on either side of his face, and pulled his head to her chest. His warm tears soaked her shirt, and she stroked his hair.

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

Fiction Fragments: Ronald J. Murray

Last week, Girl Meets Monster had a delightful conversation about how music inspires the writing process with J. Edwin Buja. This week, I welcome fellow horror writer, Ronald J. Murray.

IMG_20190909_184650Ronald J. Murray lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His fiction has appeared in The Ladies and Gentlemen of Horror 2017 charity anthology, Bon Appetit: Stories and Recipes for Human Consumption cannibal-themed anthology and recipe book, and the forthcoming Lustcraftian Horrors: Erotic Stories Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft from Infernal Ink Books. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association. You can find him enjoying his umpteenth cup of coffee at some ungodly hour while a film he’s seen a million times before plays in the background.

Three Questions

GMM: Tell me a little bit about your fragment. You gave me just enough to be hooked. Is this a traditional ghost story, or can I expect to see something different than the expected horror tropes?

RJM: Without giving anything major away, I can tell you that this story contains a lot of psychological elements, as in psychological manifestations of memories, feelings, and the consequences of actions taken in the past by two protagonists. These characters will be put through a gauntlet of horrors specially designed for them as individuals with some elements that are objectively observable and experienced by both.

In short, yes, there will be ghosts, literally and figuratively. But would I feel comfortable calling this a traditional ghost story? Definitely not.

What I hope to accomplish with this first novel, From Out of the Black Fog, is an anthology series of novels with new characters experiencing something different in an alternate version of Monongahela, Pennsylvania.

GMM: Speaking of tropes, I see that you have a short story in a collection called Lustcraftian Horrors: Erotic Stories Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft. What is the title of your story in this collection? Lovecraftian Horror is familiar to most people who read horror fiction, but the concept of Lovecraft meets erotica is intriguing. Have you written other horror erotica? What challenges did you face working within that subgenre?

RJM: The title of this short story is In the Labyrinth, about a sex-addict seeking extra-marital thrills that ends up wrapped up with a cult that worships the perverse fertility goddess Shub-Niggurath. I imagine that Lovecraft is rolling over in his grave at the creation of this anthology, considering his suspected aversion to sex and women.

I have had other horror erotica published, one of which was Cornelia in Bon Appetit. The biggest challenge I’ve faced working within the subgenre is weaving a sex plot in with a horror plot. I’ve reconciled the issue with the perspective that sex is one of the most intimate and vulnerable places a person can put themselves in. If something horrifying happens as a result, that subverts something that’s safe and pleasurable under normal circumstances. It’s a real Junji Ito solution!

GMM: Cannibalism is a taboo subject that makes a lot of people uncomfortable, which is probably why it is a recurring theme in horror fiction. One of my favorite fictional cannibals is Hannibal Lecter, because he is a complex character that blurs the line between the horror of murder and our fascination with the macabre. Which cannibals, real or fictional, inspired your short story in Bon Appetit: Stories and Recipes for Human Consumption?

RJM: I can’t say that I was inspired by a real or fictional cannibal to write this story. My inspiration for the cannibalistic antagonist in this story stemmed from the horrors of war. Doyle was a Vietnam War veteran who’d been separated from his unit during battle. He developed the taste for human flesh while surviving in the dense jungles of Vietnam until he was eventually rescued.

From Out of the Black Fog, A Novel by Ronald J. Murray

Lorne kept his eyes forward and high enough that he wouldn’t walk face-first into anything. He watched the glow and fade of streetlights illuminate the sidewalk, and he listened to the occasional whish of cars that rolled along Main Street beside him. He didn’t want to shift his vision elsewhere. He didn’t want to look up again and into any window that he’d passed. He just wanted to keep going forward, keep walking to his car, which he’d parked at the lot at the Aquatorium.

He looked up. His skin crawled. It’s like when your head knows there’s something you shouldn’t look at for too long or it’ll really screw you up, you just keep staring. You can’t help it.

He shut his eyes and turned his head. The snap motion was almost dizzying. He didn’t care. Then, he looked again. He swallowed hard. His eyes locked to it this time. He’d heard of people seeing their dead loved ones in their peripheral vision or in the faces of others while they grieved. It started like that, earlier in the day, but it devolved to this disturbing level.

In every window that he passed, he saw Amber’s face. Drained of color and cold, expressionless. Her empty eyes looked at him, unblinkingly. She followed him, seemingly crossed the alleyways he’d passed unseen, and appeared again in the dark windows of the next building. Over and over. When the window was large enough, he saw more than her face. He saw her hunched walk that kept pace with him. He saw her head kept turned nearly ninety-degrees to watch him.

No. He shut his eyes tight. He shook his head. No. He was cracking. That was it. That had to be it. He was having a psychotic break or something. You don’t see shit like this if you’re a normal person with a quiet normal life who loses a loved one just like everyone else in the world.

He turned his head. He opened his eyes. He began walking again. Someone passed him from behind, and he shoved his hands deeper into his jacket pockets. He drew his arms tighter against his body. The person went into Jim’s Bar just ahead. The scent of fried food and cigarette smoke poured onto the street for a second.

Something thudded loudly beside him. Lorne jumped. A hand smacked glass beside him. Amber’s face stared through the square window of a thick wooden door that led to the apartments above a shop. Her hand was still pressed against the pane. The doorknob began to rattle.

Adrenaline found his limbs. He jogged away. People, he thought. I need to get around other people. He tore the door to Jim’s Bar open. A few patrons glared at him through a cloud of smoke illuminated by television screens. He took a few steps further inside and shot his eyes back and forth. He sucked a breath deep into his chest, and he hoped he wouldn’t encounter anything to extraordinary here.

Next week, I’ll be talking to EV Knight, so get excited. Do you have a fiction fragment to share? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

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).

Sugar_Hill_Poster.jpg

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.

InvisibleChains_v2c-cover - 2

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.