Fiction Fragments: Eva Roslin

Last week I spoke with R. B. Wood about his latest novel, Bayou Whispers and what he learned about himself and the society he lives in while researching the book.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes writer and reviewer Eva Roslin.

Eva Roslin writes dark fantasy and horror fiction. She is a recipient of the Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Scholarship, awarded by the Horror Writers’ Association. She is a Supporting HWA member. Her work has appeared in such publications as Dark Heroes (Pill Hill Press), Murky DepthsGhostlight Magazine and others. Her reviews and articles have appeared in Cemetery Dance and Hellnotes to name a few.

Twitterhttps://twitter.com/EvaRoslin    
Goodreads:https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/3562237-eva 
Website/blog:https://roslineva.wordpress.com/

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Eva. This will be the final Fiction Fragments post before I take a brief hiatus. So, let’s jump right in and start with some serious questions about your writing. And, your experience as a reader, reviewer, and consumer of speculative fiction in general. I know that you read a lot, not just professionally but also for pleasure. What issues have you encountered with how disabled characters are represented in fiction, or disability in general? What do people get right or wrong? How can people who aren’t disabled write disabled characters authentically? Have you written about disability?

ER: Thank you for having me! The biggest issue I’ve encountered with how writers, particularly nondisabled writers, represent disabled characters is lack of research. If a writer has not done their homework, if they’re just guessing or making assumptions of what it “must” be like to live with a particular disability, and they don’t bother to speak to anyone in the disabled community they’re portraying, it leads to things like the ‘disability is a superpower’ trope. I’m a huge fan of Professor Xavier in the X-Men, for instance, but it bothers me that in some people’s minds, he matters and is “allowed” to be a central character only because he is a mutant who has superpowers that “compensate” for his disability. 

I have both physical and intellectual disabilities, and I use a mobility device to help me get around. One of the tropes I despise features a nondisabled character posing as disabled to trick the other characters and then suddenly using a walking aid as a substitute for a sword. There’s also the trope where a character gets up out of a wheelchair and proclaims “Fooled you!” I love many, many things about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but invoking this trope with Spike in Season 2 is not one of them. 

There’s a tendency to make disabled characters one-dimensional or to equate disabilities with being evil and villainous, which I also think is very offensive. 

Nondisabled writers who want to write disabled characters should start by looking into workshops like the fantastic Writing the Other series that Nisi Shawl and K Tempest Bradford operate. I think it’s also important to do as much research as possible. Many writers might assume that a few quick Google searches are adequate (spoiler alert: they’re not). As well, writers should pay attention to conversations within the disabled community online.  

When it comes to my own fiction, I’m still hesitant to write about characters with disabilities because there’s the fear that I will get it wrong, or that my experiences will not resonate with other disabled folks, or that some nondisabled people will comment that the character doesn’t seem disabled enough, or just plain trolling. I’m working on ways to try to overcome that hesitancy.

GMM: Tell me about your writing. When did you begin writing dark fantasy and horror? Who or what were your first influences, and how has writing within these genres pulled on your personal experiences or helped you grow as a person?

ER: I started writing when I was 14. I loved Halloween growing up, and enjoyed shows like Are You Afraid of the Dark, superhero cartoons, as well as reading many of the Goosebumps books and other young adult horror. As well, I started reading Anne Rice at what was probably too early an age and that solidified my interest in genre fiction and began a life-long obsession with vampires. I also loved mob movies and video games thanks to my older brothers, so when I started writing, it was dreadfully bad screenplays based on Goodfellas. Soon after, I bought a video game featuring vampires that I had no idea would become the flame that fueled my desire to write. I still remember watching the opening cinematic and thinking, “This is amazing. I want to write something that makes people feel the same sense of awe as I do now.” The game was Soul Reaver, which is one of the most epic, finely-plotted stories in video game history. 

Shortly after that, the first Underworld film came out, and that also fueled me to keep writing horror. I joined some online critique groups as well as a local in-person one that my mom had to accompany me to because I was still a minor. Although that group was mostly a bunch of old white dudes and a few women, it taught me important lessons on how to take feedback gracefully, how to provide it, and the fundamentals of good storytelling. I kept writing and most of my subject matter extended to fallen angels, demons, and went into a gritty urban fantasy direction. Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim and William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel were both huge influences. Then, somewhere along the way, my work and interests morphed into something more subtle. I began to write Southern Gothic stories, which I realize is ironic because I’m neither American nor am I from the South. Around the same time, I started researching Haitian vodou, learning about the West African roots of the religion, and discovered the history of these regions. It was important for me to see how all of that transformed into Louisiana voodoo and the pop culture derivations that followed. This inspired my obsession with New Orleans, a setting that features prominently in my work. 

When I was a teenager, I had that horrible phantom pressure inflicted on me to “hurry up because if you don’t publish a novel by the time you’re 25, you will lose your chance forever!” And then 25 became 30 until I worked harder on understanding that these are arbitrary benchmarks that other insecure people set up, and it’s part of the theatre of literary snobbery. My experiences working in the publishing industry doing marketing and PR showed me firsthand which books sell and why, which books don’t, all the work that goes into promotion and working with authors, and how dispiriting it was to get unsold copies back to the warehouse. When reviewers did not have favourable feedback on one of the titles we were pushing that season, that was always tough. It made me more cynical for a long time, but it also helped me see things from the business side, which was educational in many ways.

I don’t experience the same sense of catharsis that some horror writers describe, but I definitely bleed on the page. When I was writing urban fantasy, it was much more a wish fulfillment fantasy of including these kickass female protagonists who didn’t take any guff, but were incredibly self-centred and one-dimensional in many ways. For a long time, I avoided writing from the wounds and scars that have shaped me because I was worried about being dismissed with labels like “semi-autobiographical,” or “B-movie genre pulp.” I fixated on people’s reactions. Gradually, I am learning to break away from that and I’m writing from darker places. This has been more traumatizing in some cases, but I feel that I’m taking bolder strides and I’m less afraid as a writer in some ways.

GMM: You are currently writing a novel. Is this your first novel? What is it about? What has the process been like for you as you draft the manuscript? What have you learned about yourself as a writer, and what have you learned about writing in general?

ER: This is the eighth novel I’ve written. It’s a young adult dark fantasy novel about a group of young women in New Orleans in the 1850s. They learn witchcraft at an Academy that disguises itself as an Ursuline convent and school. A very dangerous witch that they thought they’d sealed away for good has found a way to return, and the main characters need to figure out a way to stop her before she unleashes even more havoc. There are vampires and werewolves who also get tangled into the fray. 

I’ve learned that it’s important to be true to what I want to write and to stop fixating so much on the negative energy some folks insist on spreading. As well, I’m also learning that no matter how much work I have done whether it’s research or incorporating feedback, that we don’t have any control over how readers will respond to our work. Still, it’s important to have a vision of what it is we’re trying to accomplish, and to continue persevering no matter how many times we get kicked down (which I know is easier said than done). 

Thanks so much for having me, Michelle!

(From an unpublished short story, “His Heart Beats in the Fire”)

“Miss Malveaux?”

Charlotte jolted as she realized her mind had drifted whilst talking to this handsome suitor.

Before she could respond, Father’s other daughter, Olivia, bumped into Charlotte.

“Pardon me, Lottie!” Olivia squealed with laughter. She looked like a pink cloud in her dress, her cheeks and lips stained with cerise rouge.

“There you are!” Father pulled Olivia into a hug, and kissed her forehead. He had never once come close to regarding Charlotte with anything resembling affection. In his mind, Olivia would forever be his one true daughter. “You are a stray dog. I adopted you because my first wife wished it,” he had said to Charlotte on more than one occasion.

Elijah stared at Olivia, transfixed. A crack formed in Charlotte’s heart at that moment, as if a knife had slashed her. She knew then that whatever chance she may have had with Private Kemper evaporated like dust.
           
“Olivia was just saying…” Father walked away with Olivia and Elijah, Charlotte forgotten. His words echoed in her mind. Simian blood. She approached the live oak in front of her and brushed her hands over the bark. Memories filled her mind of this spot where her grandmother, Betsy, had been hanged. She had been six at the time. She clutched her locket and breathed, trying to wrench her thoughts from that day. 
           
Images flashed in Charlotte’s mind. The noose that broke Betsy’s neck. The flames that sprang from Charlotte’s hands.

The family told tales that Betsy shed her skin at night, a witch who practiced dark magic. Father blamed the ailing slave woman for failing to cure his first wife of consumption. It would not be until many years later that Charlotte would learn of his deception, that he had Betsy hanged to teach the other slaves a lesson.

Something tapped her on the shoulder a moment later. When she whirled, a man with dark eyes and hair examined her, his cheeks angled and sharp. Beside him stood Ava.
           
“This is Corporal William Rawden, Lottie,” Ava said.
           
She held out her hand. While he brought it to his lips, bowing slightly, he regarded her as though he were reading a journal of the news of the day. He frowned.
           
“How do you do,” she said.
           
“I was just mentioning to the Corporal that we have an elder daughter, and he expressed to me that he wished to be introduced to you.”

Charlotte wanted to scoff, to tell him she was sorry to have disappointed him by not being Olivia. “Charmed.”
           
He smirked. “I hear you are quite a respectable young lady, apart from a certain, shall we say, indiscretion.”
           
“I beg your pardon?” she said.
           
He brought his face a bit closer to her. “Your true race.” His mouth reeked of tobacco and whisky. “Your father told me. Still, since your other sister seems to be preoccupied with other, blonder interests, I thought I would see if you might do just as fine, provided a little extra compensation.” He tapped his right pocket. Instead of telling him to get away from her and burn, she held her tongue and stretched her mouth into another saccharine smile, trying to imagine when the day might end.

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. Fiction Fragments will be on a short hiatus. Stay tuned, and see you soon!

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: Andrew Robertson

Last week, I spoke with the Darque Bard, James Matthew Byers about his passion for epic poetry.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes horror writer Andrew Robertson.


Andrew Robertson is an award-winning queer horror writer and former journalist. In October 2021, his short story “Sick is the New Black” will appear in the gay-themed multi-genre anthology Pink Triangle Rhapsody: Volume 1 from Lycan Valley Press. He is currently working on a novelization of the same story, exploring themes of queerness, addiction, fame, anti-vaxxers and the toxic nature of post-pandemic life in a culture locked in the thrall of social media. He will also be introducing the Mythimals this month by launching his first monstrous children’s book, And Then The Fart Happened, on the Great Lakes Horror Company Kids imprint with illustrations by LizzDom and colour and layout by Dinis Freitas.

Also scheduled for 2021, his short story Sundowning in Klarissa Dreams Redux is headed to space! The charity anthology will be flying to the moon in July via the United Launch of a Vulcan Centaur rocket as part of Peregrine Mission One – Manifest 9: #WritersOnTheMoon. This book will be part of the largest single collection of contemporary artwork ever put on the Moon, and it will fly there on the first commercial lunar flight in history.

Andrew’s fiction has appeared in literary magazines and quarterlies such as Stitched Smile Publications Magazine, Deadman’s Tome, Undertow, and katalogue. He has also appeared in anthologies including Alice Unbound: Beyond Wonderland, A Tribute Anthology to Deadworld, Group Hex Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. He is the editor of Dark Rainbow: Queer Erotic Horror, which explores the darker urges we all face.

A lifelong fan of horror, he is the founder of The Great Lakes Horror Company podcast and indie press and a member of the Horror Writer’s Association.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Andrew. Back in August 2020, I interviewed horror writer Hailey Piper. Her Twitter profile encourages people to “Make horror gay AF.” What does that statement mean to you as writer? How has your identity shaped your writing over time? Has it evolved, and how? How do you define queer horror, and what sets it apart from other flavors of the genre?

AR: First, I wanted to say thanks for having me on GMM! I’ve been reading all the interviews and excerpts and they’ve been great.

For me, being queer has always meant feeling like an outsider, and when you feel that way, you have a choice of embracing your queerness or hiding it away. When people are othered, it comes from a place of fear in the dominant society, and with fear comes ignorance, and both lead to violence, in words and actions. For most of us, I think that feeling of otherness comes from societies fear of what queerness is, this great unknown, often characterized by over the top characterizations of masculinity and femininity along with a lot of really damaging stereotypes that come from those. Growing up in the 80s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and seeing how vilified queer people were as scapegoats for a disease that knew no sexualities, it was really difficult to come to terms with being queer when that seemed to be a death sentence one way or another. You internalize a duality that informs how you act in a given situation, and what you can or should do or say. It’s awful…horrific in fact.

The media did a great job of turning gay men in particular into total pariahs and then the gay community further segmented their own population by favouring the healthy muscular look as opposed to those who could look ‘sick’. You had to fit into the cookie cutter mold or you were stigmatized and rejected. You tend to internalize that feeling of ugliness, along with a lot of the hate that spreads in society, especially when you can be easily clocked as queer. I may have been closeted, but I still dyed my hair blue, wore pigtails and dog collars, and loved Tina Turner and Siouxsie Sioux more than you would expect from a straight man.

The way queerness comes into my writing is through a lot of the themes I write about, like the desire to be seen, to be accepted, or in my recent work in progress, to do things that you would never normally do just to break through to the mainstream and get those ‘likes’ at any cost. There are also themes of hidden identities, duality, self-destruction, transformation, anger, resentment, and revenge which can be pretty common in queer horror. It’s not always at the forefront, but it’s always there however it becomes refined over time.

GMM: When did you begin writing horror, and who were some of your favorite writers who influenced you? Has that list changed over time? Have your tastes in horror changed? What are your favorite subgenres in fiction and film?

AR: I always enjoyed writing, and would scribble up short stories in high school that were pretty well informed by my goth interests, but in university I headed in the direction of journalism, telling other peoples stories instead of my own. That always preyed on my thoughts. It wasn’t until I met Sephera Giron a few years back that I got serious about it again, joined the HWA Ontario Chapter and got published. She’s a great cheerleader. Like the Demon Aunt I’ve always wanted.

For writers, one of my favourites has always been Anne Rice. She created a very queer universe for her characters in the Vampire Chronicles and beyond. Louis and Lestat are very clearly in a bromance turned romance, going as far as to create a small vampire family as poor Louis struggles with what and who he is. You can really relate to that as a gay man raised in the 80s. The Witching Hour made me want to create a universe, so that’s probably my turning point.

I think you can find horror in anything really, like the writing of Harry Crews. That’s a real trip, and I guess the genre is grit lit.

I also absolutely love the confrontational writing of Lydia Lunch, in particular, her classic Paradoxia: A Predator’s Diary. That would likely fall under non-fiction, it’s so very autobiographical, but entirely literary. She really controls her own narrative and I’ve been lucky enough to meet her a few times.

Clive Barker’s body of work is also incredible, The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks was an eye-opener, and I’ve loved recent work by Indigenous writers like Cherie Dimaline, and Waubgeshig Rice. As a genre hopping reader, right now I’m also enjoying the Diary of Anais Nin and a few works by Tama Janowitz.

For film, my go to is always, always horror, with a particular love for the Hellraiser franchise, classic monsters, 80s slashers, and found footage films.

GMM: I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that “Hamburger Lady” falls under the category of body horror. Tell me about the story and what about body horror appeals to you as a writer? As a reader?

AR: Haha, yes that story is definitely body horror. So much of my work is!

I think that it comes from my fascination with perceived or actual self-destruction, or the wilful destruction of another, and what we are willing to do to survive or succeed. Body horror has always been particularly triggering for me, however I’ve found that rather than pushing me away, it held me rapt. There are so many ways the body can betray us, and so many ways it can disgust us.

That fascination led me to writing in that genre. For example, The Fly was such a landmark film for me in many ways, as was Hellraiser. I love Pinhead! I watched them through my fingers the first time, but couldn’t stop, you know that feeling? We all do! That’s why we slow down near a car crash, to see what could have happened to us. Both films can be read as very queer, and both deal with pushing the limits of the human body and mortality.

There are also so many ways we can transform our bodies. I used to go on body modification sites to see what people were up to, with a sense of morbid fascination and respect for what an individual would do to live their truth. When I discovered what subtraction is I was gobsmacked! I also was obsessed with the artist Orlan and her work in plastic surgery using her own body as the canvas.

The title of my excerpt, Hamburger Lady, is a reference to the song by Throbbing Gristle. I recommend everyone listen to it. The lyrics are actually from a real letter penned by a doctor describing a woman who was a burn victim in a hospital ward, and it’s one of those things you never forget. You wonder at what point keeping someone alive is a punishment meant to exercise the might of science over mercy. My story deals with a future where a disease ravages the skin of those who contract it, leading to the market for skin dealers and donors. I’ll leave it at that for now, but if anyone wants to add the full text to their anthology, I’m game.

Excerpt from “Hamburger Lady”

“My client doesn’t want the whole cheek. She won’t need that much for what’s…well, I’ll say for what’s wrong with her. I mean, we’re friends here at this point, you know the drill. She just wants this part,” Dr. Sawney the Plastician says to Kate, indicating the area by running his damp index finger along what the industry calls the apple of the cheek.

The apple: where women like Kate are meant to put a simple highlight or blush before they go out with men who want to look at them adoringly and see absolutely no flaws at all. Even a light rash or pimple is a bonerkiller. Flaws mean the men aren’t flush enough to pay for the best, and their financial peacocking is what gets them hard. The men want to be envied by all the other bucks and stags at the chosen restaurant, bar or fast food joint, and then with all the chivalry absent from this new world, pay for everything before the two of them have what any of these men are sure is incredible sex fueled by their show of chauvinist financial superiority. It will be better for him. Every time. All these men benefitted for the fallout of the most recent of many pandemics. Women were shoved right back down to where they had been over a century earlier- the second choice for any good job, any decent benefits, any rights at all really. And if you weren’t perfect, you were invisible.

The type of man Kate meets hopes and probably believes he isn’t directly paying for this great sex with all his other nice efforts. He wants to be enough of an attraction all by his handsome self even if he leaves a few hundred on the nightstand afterward. And aside from this beau’s assumptions and assertions, no one wants to bring a bruised produce to his lips if there are better options.

She resists the urge to wipe the moisture off when the Plastician is done. And regardless of the circumstances, imaginary or otherwise, in this case, the apple is still quite attached to the tree.

She can’t believe she’s back at the Sawney clinic in Room Three. The minute she passed through the front door, she felt trapped by her own circumstance. The receptionist with the awful makeup sat there looking surprised as always that anyone would come into this terrible place to give away parts of themselves. The door between reception and the treatment rooms stood in its menacing steel frame, locked until the receptionist hit her button and the mechanism snapped the door open so she could begin what always felt like the longest walk ever to Room Three. They might as well name this Kate’s Room.

As his finger returns to again run across her apparently perfect apple, Kate can smell the onions he had with lunch on his fingers and breath even through his surgical mask. She doesn’t move. She knows her rank. A high-end skin-dealer as skilled as he is means that he can be a bit gross and never hear a complaint from a client or well-compensated vendor. Donors he calls them, like it’s a charity for the poor rich folks.

She can see the sauce from his lunch at the top of his mask, which he wears constantly to remind everyone that he is the surgeon and that it’s his name on the door. Unfortunately, the majority of his skill is used on the end consumer, not so much on ‘donors’ such as herself who make do with whatever they have left after they are harvested and paid. Either way, right now, she can’t even afford an onion or an apple, and can’t be picky about who is cutting off what. But she doesn’t want to give away anything above her neck if she doesn’t have to. Her own clients choose her because, unlike many of the other girls, she is mostly intact. She is, however, terrified of how broke she’s become, and what could happen if she stops paying for her mothers’ treatments at the community hospital.

When she left their apartment for this appointment, her mother looked up through eyelids covered in weeping sores and told Kate that her smile was enough to get her through any day, no matter how bad they became. She said Kate was born with a perfect smile, one that made the sun shine, and that it was her greatest achievement as a mother. Kate’s heart broke but it got her moving. One day they could leave this country and find somewhere to live out their days where things weren’t so bad. But right now, this man in a dirty mask reeking of onions wanted to cut off a piece of her face.

“How’s that going to look, man?” She asks incredulous, thinking of the quivering torso in a wheelchair she had noticed when she had entered the clinic. The torso had been rolling into the neighbouring chamber, Room Two, assisted by one of the Plastician’s assistants. It had been almost entirely covered in a tacky sheet. There was no way that…torso was a complete person, she thought. It had no legs for one thing. And where the sheet didn’t cover the face, it looked like a meatloaf had exploded, with one bulging left eye like a hyper grape darting around a fleshy socket. Its gaze had landed on Kate long enough to freak her out.

She didn’t know if it was a ‘donor’ or someone being treated, but things were so bad it could have very well been someone making the ultimate sacrifice to feed a family or stay out of the mines. The sheet looked sticky, and the torso seemed to be struggling to get one arm with stumpy fingers up to its’ awful face past what could have been the remains of a breast while the assistant kept slapping the hand away. It held something wet and bloody. What was it trying to look at? Was it chewing a hangnail?

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: Patrick Freivald

Last week, I spoke with Carol Gyzander about how she’s adapted to the challenges of writing during the pandemic and she gave a little backstory about Writerpunk Press.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Patrick Freivald, who I affectionately refer to as a belligerent nerd. Patrick is a writer, teacher, gourmand, and bee keeper who makes honey that will burn your soul, among other things.

Patrick Freivald is a four-time Bram Stoker Award® nominated author, a high school teacher (physics, robotics, American Sign Language), and a beekeeper specializing in hot pepper infused honey. He lives in Western New York with his beautiful wife, parrots, dogs, cats, chickens, and several million stinging insects. A member of the Horror Writers Association and the International Thriller Writers, he’s always had a soft spot for slavering monsters of all kinds. He is the author of eight novels and dozens of short stories, from hyper-violent kickass thrillers and teen zombie melodramas to science fiction, horror and fantasy. Find him at Patrick.Freivald.com, on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and at www.FrogsPointHoney.com.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Patrick. Your Instagram account is one of the most interesting ones I follow because it gives a tangible snapshot of many of the different aspects of your life: bee keeping, honey making, cooking, teaching, your pets, your wife, and occasionally promotions for your writing. Has social media helped with the promotion of your books? Your honey business? Were you using social media as frequently as you do now before the pandemic? Do you view your social media accounts as an outlet for creativity?

PF: I handle my Instagram rather differently than my Facebook. Instagram is all about food, family, cute critters, maybe a little about teaching (though I try to keep my teaching and my social media very, very separate, ESPECIALLY given the level of vulgarity and cannibalism jokes I’ve actively cultivated on my Facebook page), while Facebook is a mind-dump of whatever’s bouncing around in my skull. Social media has definitely helped with marketing both books and Hot Honey, though by and large I think that’s because it’s been an effective way of marketing myself. I post about whatever I want–science and technology, writing, funny gifs/memes, articles about science or politics or gaming or religion or whatever strikes me as interesting. I sometimes get caught out by people thinking that just because I’ve shared something means that I believe it hook, line, and sinker, but that’s a “them” problem, not a “me” problem…usually my commentary is enough for a reasonably astute person to realize that it’s unlikely I’m fully onboard with whatever I’m sharing. And I’m rarely fully on-board with something someone else wrote.

Facebook has been awesome at promoting Frogs Point Honey (www.FrogsPointHoney.com) — a good number of people hate food posts, but lots of people love them, and I love them, so when I post delicious food things that feature Hot Honey or Rubbit or what-have-you, it draws new and existing customers often enough. The business has built up quite nicely over the past five years, and that’s with pretty much entirely word of mouth advertising, and almost all of that coming from Facebook.

I’m not using Facebook any less than before, and no more, either. I post way too often, to the extent that some people think it must be a managed page rather than just one dude with an obsessive streak and a smart phone, but I’ve been that way with online interactions since the bulletin boards of the early 1990s. When it comes to Facebook as a marketing tool, if all you do is post your own stuff then no matter how interesting you are you’re not going to get a lot of oomph out of your effort–you’ll share a bunch of stuff and get crickets in return. You have to like other people’s stuff, comment, share, etc.; and don’t do it just to game the algorithm, do it because you’ve surrounded yourself with interesting, cool people worth engaging with. It’s an opportunity to be social, to be creative, to share who you are and what you find interesting with the world.

GMM: Tell me about your latest release, Murmur. What is the premise of the book, and what inspired the story? Some of the words used to describe the book include “magical, disturbing, erotic…”. I tend to combine horror and erotica in my own fiction, and I’m always curious about writers who do the same. Why do you think horror and sex make a good pairing in fiction? Is it more difficult to write the sex scenes or the horror? Do you combine the two, or keep them separate in the narrative?

PF: Murmur is, fundamentally, about an affluent New York socialite being sexually stalked by a demon while trying to contend with the one bound to him, that he keeps in a prescription bottle. The inspiration is a combination of an old roleplaying game character and being really disappointed with a movie I’d just watched about demonic possession–it turned out to be very much the same-old same-old, extraordinarily Catholic-themed Exorcist riff, and there’s just so, so much of that out there. So I wrote a book about a kind of half-possessed guy who’d been that way for over a decade and was at a sort of détente with his “pocket demon”, Murmur.

Sex and horror make a good pairing because sex is often beautiful and wonderful and sometimes horrific and awful (at the time or later), we’ve all got our own experiences to bring to the table when we read or watch, and both lend themselves to a great deal of catharsis. I absolutely combine the two–I was somewhat inspired by David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (starring Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello, with amazing support from William Hurt and Ed Harris). There are two sex scenes in that movie, the first very playful and loving, and the second very raw and downright angry, and they’re between the same two people, who are husband and wife, after some rather serious revelations upend their relationship. I don’t know that I’ve seen sex used to portray the evolution of characters and their relationships done that well anywhere else, and after rewatching it on cable I started chewing on the idea of sex as a storytelling device. The book is kind of smutty, but oh yeah do the sex and horror merge as things progress. Davis is an unreliable narrator who sees Hell and the real world overlapped all the time, and that lends to a lot of opportunities for really trippy body horror and gore amid the naked wumpledance. I took those opportunities, with gusto.

GMM: You mentioned that the flash piece you submitted as your fragment was written during Borderlands Boot Camp. Can you tell me about your experience participating in that program? What initially drew you to enroll? What did you learn about your own writing? Did you come away with some new skills or tricks to improve your writing? Would you recommend the Borderlands Boot Camp to other writers, and why?

PF: Borderlands is awesome–it’s three days cooped up in a hotel with a bunch of other writers, with workshops specifically tailored toward making you a better writer, run by absolute giants of the genre. The year I went they had the three regulars of Tom Monteleone, F. Paul Wilson, and Doug Winter, and also the recently-retired editor Ginjer Buchanan and some guy you may have heard of named Peter Straub. They, and all of the attendees, each read your work and gave targeted, specific feedback–and then you had basically overnight to bang out a story using what you learned. It’s pretty grueling, but you make a lot of friends and learn a lot of things you didn’t realize you needed to learn.

I enrolled because almost all of my beta reading group are alums, they’re all fantastic writers, and they all said it was 100% worth the time and money. I learned that the only person who hates words more than I do is Doug Winter–I have a rather terse style, and he cut the bejeezus out of my manuscript, which was awesome. Ginjer had some really insightful points about the evolution of society between now and the future setting of my work, which threw my perspective on science fiction off-kilter a bit in all the right ways; in particular she asked, “Why would these people be married? I don’t believe that the institution of marriage would have survived, at least not in any form we’d really recognize”–and it was a fantastic question, and made me question a lot of assumptions I hadn’t thought to previously.

If you have the money and the time, Borderlands is absolutely worth it.

A Spiteful Man
By Patrick Freivald

“I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man.”

Anna muttered the words again and blinked away tears that obscured her daughter’s image through the scope. She took her finger off the trigger, then tossed the rifle, wig, and sunglasses in the trunk. Squeals of panic and laughter scattered across the field; a boy had plopped a toad onto Sally Walker’s lap.

“Stupid bitch. Stupid coward bitch.” Henry’s words spilled from Anna’s lips as she peeled off the latex gloves and stuffed them into her pocket. Real change took courage. Boldness. All those things Henry never let her be.

She got in the car.

4:28 pm.

Godfuckingdammit.

Twelve minutes home, twenty to clean up and get dinner on the table.

He trudged in on cue, scowled at the kitchen table.

Through sheer will her wince became a smile.

“How was work, Sweetie?”

His tools clanked against the floor, canvas bag toppling against the mound of yellowing newspapers she’d take to the dump some day.

“The fuck is this?”

“Dinner.” She patted his chair. “Stephanie’ll be down in a minute.”

He scowled, opened the fridge and popped a beer. With a grease-stained hand he scooped the fish sticks from his plate, then plucked up the rest from Steph’s.

“She doesn’t need ‘em.”

Anna grabbed his wrist. “Those’re for—”

Light shattered her equilibrium, white hot. Pain spread, red and warm across her jaw. Beer spattered the floor, the wood cool on her cheek. Henry’s boot dug into her back, steel toe a knife in her kidney.

“Your. Daughter. Don’t. Eat. Stop throwing good money after that stupid kid.”

With another beer he disappeared into the living room.

Spiteful man. Hated his wife, hated her daughter. The kind of man ain’t worthy to raise a child, ain’t worthy to walk free. Too stomach-sick to eat, she mopped up the mess and threw her dinner in the garbage before shuffling next to the TV, careful not to block the game.

“You need anything, Baby?”

Henry drained his beer and dropped the can on the floor. She took it and fetched another. And another and another. Drunk past sulking, he’d sleep, and they’d be safe.

#

“Jesus, Anna.”

She jerked away as Frank touched her cheek.

“I fell.”

“He can’t—”

“I said I fell. That badge make you deaf and stupid?”

He leaned against his patrol car, gave her the same cute scowl she’d loved in high school.

“Press charges. I’ll help.”

“I ain’t calling social. They kill families.”

“C’mon, Annie. You got to get out of there. He’s gonna hurt you. I mean, worse.”

“Oh, we’re getting out. I got a plan for me and Steph.”

Frank kicked dirt. “You can stay with me and Bev a while. We got a spare room, car you can borrow when I’m at work. Maybe get you a job down at Lucky’s?”

“I said I got a plan. Henry gon’ shit what’s comin’ his way.”

“Don’t get too clever, Babe.”

“I ain’t. And I ain’t your babe no more.”

“You fuck with him he could really hurt you.”

She met his gaze. “Oh, he ain’t never hurting us again. Bank on it.”

“What’re you—”

She wagged a finger. “A lady don’t kiss an’ tell.”

“Lady?” He ran his tongue over his teeth. “Tell me when you find one, would ya?”

#

“I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man.” The stupid wig slipped. A year’s worth of hair rubber banded to a shower cap, some of it had to end up on the ground.

The tick-tock of the swing brought the blond boy into sight at regular intervals. Anna’s bruise throbbed against the wood stock, every pulse a reminder of that sickness, that spite.

Four-fifty. Time enough for Henry to get here, not enough to get home.

 “Fuck him.”

She breathed out, held it, and pulled the trigger. The rifle jerked, impossibly loud. Ears ringing, she watched straw-yellow hair puff red before she cycled the chamber.

Red hair, blue shirt. Ben spun to the dirt as the round hit him high-right.

Timmy gaped at nothing until Anna sprayed his guts across the gravel next to the swing.

Running, now. Panic. Bridget’s mom dragged her behind the tractor tire sandbox. Anna took her knee with the fourth shot, rolled, and bolted for the car.

#

Flushed, breathless, she sat at the table, hands folded. Henry’s rifle lay in its case, bullets in their box. The gloves and wig and spent brass drowned at the bottom of Frog’s Point, weighed down with lead from Henry’s reloader in case the cops found them. Dinner sat on the table, three plates of all-day roast she’d have had to baby hours and hours if she hadn’t have cooked and frozen it three weeks earlier.

Henry kicked the shit out of her anyway, and she managed not to smile through it.

Upstairs, Steph slept. Safe.

#

“You okay?” Frank hugged her, maybe too tight for proper, them standing in his guest room with his wife at work.

“I’m good. Real good. First time in a long while, you know. You?”

He scowled. “I had—doesn’t matter. We nailed the bastard. That’s what counts. He…what kind of sick fuck does that?”

She shrugged, looked away. “Don’t know, you know? A monster, the real kind. I’m just…I’m just glad Stephanie weren’t there. We’re free. Finally free.”

Frank frowned. “Steph’s dead, Annie.”

“Dead? No, she’s right…” She scanned the empty room.

“Gone. She’s gone.” Frank squeezed, his embrace warm and welcome and full of poison. “I’m sorry, Sugar.”

“Nonononono. She ain’t dead. Not dead. She can’t, I only shot, it was just the boys. Ain’t no way she’s…She’s okay. Steph’s just fine. It was just boys.” Frank stiffened, stepped back. He plucked the picture from her bedside table, ran his finger down the image of her daughter’s soft cheek. “She’d have been beautiful, our girl. But it’s been nine years, Honey. We’ve both moved on. You got to let this go.”

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: Carol Gyzander

Last week, Jill Girardi joined me to talk about her book to film project, Hantu Macabre, and why Kandisha Press anthologies are a labor of love.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Carol Gyzander. I met Carol at NECON in 2019 when I released Invisible Chains, and I am looking forward to spending more face to face time with her when we are able.

Carol Gyzander read classic science fiction and Agatha Christie mysteries non-stop in her early days. Now that her kids have flown the coop, she writes and edits horror, suspense, dark fiction, and sci-fi stories from her couch—with her black cat firmly Velcroed to her side. 

Her stories are in over a dozen anthologies including Stories We Tell After Midnight fromCrone Girls Press; Across the Universe: Tales of Alternate Beatles from Fantastic Books (amidst stories by Cat Rambo, Spider Robinson and David Gerrold); Cat Ladies of the Apocalypse from Camden Park Press; and The Devil’s Due: Nothing is Ever as it Seems. She also has stories in Hell’s Highways: Terrifying Tales of Tormented Travels and Hell’s Mall: Sinister Shops, Cursed Items and Maddening Crowds from Lafcadia Press. 

As editor-in-chief and one of the founders of Writerpunk Press, she’s edited four anthologies of punk stories inspired by classic tales, including Merely This and Nothing More: Edgar Allan Poe Goes Punk and Hideous Progeny: Classic Horror Goes Punk. The latest, Taught by Time: Myth Goes Punk, comes out summer 2021. Carol works with James Chambers as Co-Coordinators of the Horror Writers Association New York Chapter and as co-hosts of the HWA-NY Galactic Terrors online reading series on the second Thursday of every month. She is also one of the overall Chapter Program Managers for HWA. 

Carol’s a member of Horror Writers Association, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Broad Universe, and Historical Novel Society. Find her at www.CarolGyzander.com or on Twitter @CarolGyzander

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Carol. It has been one year since many of us went into quarantine and had to rethink how we work as writers in terms of promoting our work, connecting with our communities, and just finding the motivation to keep writing. How has the pandemic changed the way you think about writing? What have you done to adapt to the needs of being in quarantine while continuing to promote your work and engaging with the writing communities you belong to? What do you miss about the before times? What do you like about the new ways of doing things within the writing community?

CG: Thank you, Michelle! I love what you’ve been doing with this project.

Can you believe this has been a year? I had a hard time buckling down to do any writing during those first few months but was lucky enough to have several editing projects that kept me busy—it was so much easier to just edit and look at one word after another than it was to create anything. With a freelance schedule and working from home, every day is Blursday.

I usually do a lot of in-person writing with various groups, and of course that went out the window. Pretty soon I was able to pivot to doing group writing events in person! We all sign onto the Zoom session and chat for the first bit, then mute ourselves and work away while the camera is on. Knowing the other people are there working and expecting me to do the same keeps me on track (it’s sometimes called body doubling). People can do this themselves with an inexpensive service at http://www.Focusmate.com .

The most exciting thing I’ve done to stay engaged came through our HWA NY Chapter. We used to do live readings every few months. When it became clear that wasn’t coming back anytime soon, Jim Chambers and I figured out how to host a monthly reading called Galactic Terrors on the StreamYard platform (every second Thursday at 8pm—see HWANY.org for details; replays available at our YouTube channel: https://tinyurl.com/y4gj654q ).

We’ve done seven shows so far with writers from our local chapter, and fabulous guests from all over including Lisa Morton, Linda Addison, Craig DiLouie, Jeff Strand, Lee Murray, Kaaron Warren, Nicole Givens Kurtz and Angela Yuriko Smith. I really miss hanging out and chatting with writers, so we tried to build that into the GT show by having people ask questions in the chat, then doing a Q&A with the writer after their reading. We bring everyone together at the end. One of the things that I do like about this strange new world is that I’ve been able to attend and participate in various online cons that I would not have been able to get to in person. My local sci-fi cons HELIOsphere and Philcon were cool. Getting to WorldCon, the SFWA Nebulas, and a lot more was awesome! I’ve also been able to do more readings with Broad Universe at cons; we’re actually starting an online series that will continue into the future.

GMM: Tell me about Writerpunk Press. How did you get involved, and where did the idea for the anthologies come from? What types of “punk” fiction are covered in your anthologies?

CG: We started from the Writerpunk facebook group of writers who like punk genres. One fellow suggested it would be fun to write punk stories inspired by Shakespeare and we were off! We did two anthologies of stories inspired by the bard, which was my first time being published. It’s a cooperative effort with volunteer writers, editors, artists, layout folks, and marketing people; profits are donated to PAWS Lynnwood, an animal shelter and wildlife rescue located in the Pacific Northwest.

I started out helping with editing and moved into the role of Editor-in-Chief/Managing Editor with our third volume of stories inspired by Poe because I wield a clipboard and spreadsheet well. I work with a crack team of editors and we help writers with content editing, as well as doing copy edits and proofreading the entire novel, of course. I have to say that reviewing the stories as well as the edit suggestions from the editorial team has been really educational and has helped improve my own writing! We followed the Poe volume with one inspired by classic tales you likely read in high school English class, and then classic horror.Taught by Time: Myth Goes Punk, our sixth charity anthology, will be released this summer! We’ve taken the myths, legends and lore that readers love and turned them upside down and inside out. With a wide range of punk genres represented—steampunk, cyberpunk, dreadpunk, nanopunk, biopunk and atompunk—there’s sure to be something for everyone in this volume. Details will be on my website.

GMM: You write in several genres, but I know you through the horror community. When did you begin writing horror? What subgenres of horror do you write? Do you cross genres, or stay true to the conventions and tropes of the genres by keeping them separate? Which genre(s) are your favorite to write in? What are you currently working on?

CG: It was actually Writerpunk that drew me into horror! I was writing cyberpunk tales for the anthologies, which is a pretty dark genre to begin with—one of the themes is that the common person tries to better their circumstances against the corporation but winds off worse than before they started. Then, rereading almost all of Poe and the classic horror stories really hooked me (I read the originals to ensure that some key component is represented in the new story).

I was also going through a pretty dark period five years ago, having taken both of my parents through Alzheimer’s. Writing horror really helps me explore some of the dark stuff and bring it into the light where it can be released. I think it’s one of the genres that truly allows us to do that well.

I do indeed like to blend genres. Most of my horror writing is quiet or soft horror; I aspire to do what the Twilight Zone tales did, where everything starts out normal and then starts going subtly … wrong. I blended this approach with the satanic bargain sub-genre in the “Face It” excerpt (which gives you a hit of where the story goes next!). I also love cosmic horror; one of my stories, “Stars the Color of Hope” is a cyberpunk tale inspired by Lovecraft’s “The Colour out of Space.” Currently, I’m writing short stories for various places (I love kraken stories) and working on a novel that links together two of the Shakespeare novellas I wrote—can’t beat cyberpunk Macbeth!

Call back to Women in Horror Month

CG: I did an online reading with Syosset Public Library and HWA NY Chapter for Women in Horror Month. Readers were Linda D Addison (an HWA Lifetime Achievement Award recipient), plus three writers from HWA-NY: Meghan Arcuri, April Grey and me. We each came up with five women horror writers we recommend people follow (hint: Michelle is on my list!) and I made a short video to showcase our selections.http://carolgyzanderauthor.com/2021/02/25/women-in-horror-month-our-recommendations/

“Face It” by Carol Gyzander, published in The Devil’s Due: Nothing is Ever as it Seems (2020)

Connor drove down the two-lane highway, heading to their country house after their latest visit to the hospital. Amy, his wife, sat dozing in the seat next to him. It was late at night and she was exhausted from the rounds of medical testing she had undergone. Again. None of it had shown any difference.

No good news.

He sighed and rubbed his face to try and wake up, his blue eyes bleary with fatigue. Wouldn’t do to run off the road. I’m just so tired—tired of it all.

His glance flickered over to his wife. The side of her face that was toward him was smooth and unlined, but he knew what the other side looked like. Had been staring at it over breakfast every day for the past two years. Creased and full of pus-filled blisters—and part of the cheekbone eaten away. Her eye was sunken down into her face.

It was just a matter of time until it spread to the side nearest him. Or her brain. For now, in this moment, he could almost pretend she was not affected by the terrible disease.

But deep down in his heart, he knew she was dying. Knew what the doctors told them every time—there was no cure, no way of arresting the progress of the flesh-eating disease. They even had a name for it—ETR—that made his fists clench and his stomach roil. He knew the letters stood for some technical terms but could never make himself remember the acronym. He couldn’t get past the idea that the damn disease was eating his wife alive and just called it EATER.

Her head lolled a little as she slept, turning toward him, and when he glanced over the next time he saw the ravage of the other side of her face, which extended down her neck and shoulder into her arm. Her hand was clenched and twisted in her lap.

EATER? Fuck me.

He replayed in his mind the reaction of the people at the hospital as he’d brought her in. The way even the medical professionals had pulled back from her. Not to mention the way ordinary people reacted to the two of them. It’d gotten difficult for them to go out in public anymore—people feared she was contagious, which she wasn’t, and countless times they had been refused service at a restaurant or asked to leave a cocktail lounge.

People wouldn’t even shake his hand.

Connor and Amy had been the “it” couple for years, with money, prestige, society connections. Then their busy social life, once so bright and vibrant, had slipped away as her EATER disease progressed. They spent most of the time home alone. Friends no longer stopped by to visit. What kind of life is this—for either of us?

She had pleaded with him to help her finish the struggle. “I just can’t do it myself,” she’d said. “But I can’t stand what this is doing to you. To us. But mostly to you. I know I’m going to die. Where’s the quality of life anymore?” Her one good eye had searched his bright blue ones, looking for some kind of a response.

He had refused, of course. How could he kill his wife? Even if she begged him, which she had. In a stunning display of the power that desperation and anxiety could have over a strong person, she had let her normally capable veneer slip to show her inner fear.

And he had turned her down. What does that make me?

Don’t I love her anymore? Or maybe I’m just afraid of going to jail.

Of course, he already felt like he was in jail. No friends, no life, just stay home and watch Netflix while he took care of his sick wife. She didn’t deserve it, but then again, he didn’t, either.

Only one part of his mind was on the driving, as they were the only car on the road at that late hour. He took a corner on the rural road a bit too fast and the car swerved along the shoulder. He gave himself a scare as he yanked the wheel to pull the car back into the lane.

Wow. Almost drove right off the road there. Would’ve hit the trees … and at this speed. Damn. Well, if it killed us at least she would’ve gotten her wish.

He mulled this thought as he drove along at a more sedate speed. She had not even woken when the car swerved. Had no idea of the danger they had just averted. The steady consumption of painkillers her condition required left her mostly absent from his world.

But if I do that, it kills us both. Is that what she wants? I don’t think so. She just wants to end her suffering and therefore end mine. She doesn’t want for me to die too.

Right?

He looked over at her again and then reached out to hold her hand where it lay on her lap. I love you, darling. But maybe you are right. This is no life for you.

Or for me.

He released her hand and slid his fingers down to the buckle of her seatbelt. Pushed in the button. Released the belt, controlling it to let it retract quietly into the door.

Okay. I’m not really going to do it. But if I do fall asleep on the road, she wouldn’t want to walk away from the accident.

Right? She wouldn’t.

Of course, I would be okay. Oodles of airbags in this car. I mean, with my seatbelt on and the airbags, I’m sure I’d be fine. What about her? He looked over at the dashboard on her side of the car. Saw the button for the passenger airbag. Idly reached up a hand and stroked the button. Pushed it in. It lit up.

Passenger airbag OFF.

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: Jill Girardi

Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with Gemma Files. She had a lot to say about her writing process, what inspires her, and why she writes horror. My favorite quote from last week’s interview is…

“…horror is the place where all the non-default people can meet, a place where becoming or realizing you’ve always been what most people see as “a monster” might not be such a bad thing.”

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes one of the kindest an most supportive women in indie publishing who is doing her damnedest to promote the work of female horror writers around the world, Jill Girardi.

Jill Girardi is the author of Hantu Macabre, the internationally best-selling novel featuring punk rock paranormal detective Suzanna Sim and Tokek the toyol. Suzanna and Tokek will also be taken to the big screen, as a full-length film based on the characters, set to start shooting in 2021, with former MMA Fighter Ann Osman starring as Suzanna. A special revised edition and movie-tie-in of the book will be published by Crimson Creek Press in the near future. Jill currently lives in New York where she is the editor of the Kandisha Press Women of Horror Anthology books. Please find her on Instagram/Twitter @jill_girardi or @kandishapress

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Jill. Tell me about Hantu Macabre. Was it your first novel? Where did the idea for a punk rock paranormal detective come from? What was the process of turning your novel into a film? What have you enjoyed so far about the process? What has been most difficult? What advice would you give writers who are interested in seeing their work on screen?

JG: Thank you so much. It’s an honor to be featured here! Yes, Hantu Macabre was my first novel, and actually was only my second published work. My first published work was a short story called “Don’t Eat the Rice” which featured the characters that would later be in the book. After having lived in Malaysia for many years, I became obsessed with Hantu – the Malay term for ghosts and creepy folklore. I particularly enjoyed the legend of the toyol. A toyol is a deceased child, resurrected by black magic, for the purposes of stealing money and other valuables for its master. He’s quite a comical figure in Malay folklore, as he’s not a very adept thief, is childlike and easily distracted from his mission by toys. I played with the idea of having an occult detective solving crimes with the help of a toyol for several years before actually sitting down to write the first story. It wasn’t until I was back in New York, miserable and missing Malaysia, that I really got going on it. The punk rock part came about as I was a music producer for many years. So I wanted to evoke that fun atmosphere in the book.

I really can’t even give any advice on the process of going into film as the whole movie deal kind of fell into my lap. The director and film company owner (Aaron Cowan and Jo Luping) picked up the book in a bookstore, and later got in touch with me about doing the film, which will be titled “Best Served Cold,” and is based on my original short story as well as the novel.

GMM: How did Kandisha Press get started? Why were you interested in creating a press? And what inspired you to devote three anthologies to the work of female horror writers? Do you have plans for more anthologies in this series? Do you know what themes you’ll use next?

JG: I honestly just wanted to do an anthology for fun, and never really thought things would take off the way they have. I’ve always been obsessed with books. They give me a high that nothing else in life has ever done (I’m sure anyone reading this understands this feeling very well!) The thought of being able to do my own book was so exciting, I just couldn’t resist giving it a shot. I had noticed that many of the anthologies I was reading or even being featured in had a very skewed ratio of men to women, so I felt it was only right to do an all-women book. I do have plans to continue the series, though it is a bit chaotic right now as things have been moving faster than I was prepared for. So I need to slow down a bit and get things organized. My lovely BFF (Best Frightening Fiend) Janine Pipe is really stepping in at this time, filling in the gaps and holding things down while we get things figured out. She is also working on her own soon to be announced project for Kandisha. I’ve long had an idea to do a Heavy Metal themed anthology, so that may be the next route we travel.

GMM: What are you working on right now? What does your dream project look like, and what steps would you need to take to make it happen?

JG: Right now I’m revising Hantu Macabre, rewriting it and fixing all my rookie mistakes. It will be reissued in a special edition by Crimson Creek Press. And then hopefully I can work on the second book in the series, and continue doing the Kandisha books. My dream project would be writing just about anything in peace and quiet. I dream of going to a hotel for a week, turning off my phone, and just finishing the damn book ala Paul Sheldon.

EXCERPT FROM “THE NIGHT WOULD BE OUR EYELIDS”
BY JILL GIRARDI
(First published in December 2020 in Know Your Enemy, an anthology by J. Ellington Ashton Press)

It’s 2019, and I’m back in New York for the first time in years. I’m thirty-three and divorced, trying to assimilate into a world I’ve never belonged in. A few nights ago, I downloaded Tinder on a whim, and now I’m out with a younger man who grew up in the same area as I did. On the way to dinner, he talks a lot about his vegan diet and religious doctrine. I imagine how his face would look if I told him I’ve dined on bloody-rare steak with unfathomable devils. I don’t think he’d ask me for a second date.

The route we take to the restaurant goes past the walled-in forest area on the outskirts of my hometown. Nestled inside are the ruins of the abandoned psychiatric hospital where I once fought for survival. We pass a pedestrian bridge built high over the railroad tracks. I’ve been running from that bridge half my life. Now my date is pointing it out to me.

“A girl died there when I was in junior high. Her best friend pushed her off the cage at the top.”

“She didn’t push her,” I mumble as I stare at the massive steel structure. It’s imposing, rigid, unchangeable even by the rust and dust of time. I clear my throat, forcing myself to speak up. “Can we change the subject?”

He won’t let it go. “I’m sure the other girl shoved her. Oh yeah—they also killed someone else—one of their stepfathers or something. It was in all the newspapers. They repeated the story on News 12 every hour.”

I fight to maintain my composure. “Look, this was a bad idea. You should take me home now.” He turns his head and looks at me as he drives down the dark road. In a split second, he figures it out. He gets a bit too excited over my teenage tragedy.

“Holy shit—it was you! I knew your name sounded familiar.” He pauses, stroking his hipster beard with one hand as he steers with the other. The fool is about to ask the dreaded question. I can feel it.

“So, what happened? Did you push her?”

“Keep your eyes on the goddamn road!” I snap at him as he drifts into the path of an oncoming car. He swerves while the other driver honks his horn and screams out his open window. Our car slams to a stop on the gravel in front of the bridge’s cement steps.
The other driver shouts again as he zips by. The obscenities he heaps on my date are nothing compared to the names I call him. His eyes widen as I let loose on him, revealing the dark side I keep hidden on my dating profile. I can tell he’s afraid of me. He has that look on his face—the same look everyone had after my discharge from Four Pines Mental Health Center.

My date stammers, trying to contain the situation before things get dangerous. He apologizes, but I’m already lost. I should have known I wouldn’t fit into his orderly, well-governed existence, where people rarely stray from their rote behavior. My world is a darker place, where monsters do exist, and they’re not under your bed, nor do they have horns and tails. They’re your everyday friends and neighbors, the ones who appear normal on the surface, yet their skins house indescribable evils. This evil has infected me too. I’ll never be free of it, no matter how hard I rail against it.

I slip into silence as I stare out the window. My mind is hurtling back to the days when I was seventeen, and I had the world at my fingertips, but I blew it.

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

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

Fiction Fragments: Gemma Files

Last week I wrapped up my month-long celebration of black women horror writers for Women in Horror Month/Black History Month with an interview with Zin E. Rocklyn, a.k.a. Teri Clarke. If you haven’t had a chance to read all of the interviews I did last month, take some time and and get caught up now. These women have a lot to say about writing horror while black and female and how their personal experiences and intersectionalities have an impact on what they write about.

This week, Girl Meets Monster is back to business as usual, with a fragment and an interview with Gemma Files.

Formerly a film critic, journalist, screenwriter and teacher, Gemma Files has been an award-winning horror author since 1999. She has published four collections of short work, three collections of speculative poetry, a Weird Western trilogy, a story-cycle and a stand-alone novel (Experimental Film, which won the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel and the 2016 Sunburst Award for Best Adult Novel). She has a new story collection just out from Grimscribe Press (In This Endlessness, Our End), and another upcoming.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Gemma. Thank you for taking time to chat with me a bit. Tell me about your newest collection of stories, In This Endlessness, Our End. Is there an overarching theme, or threads that connect the stories? Are all of the stories new, or are there some reprints? How do you decide which stories to include? Did you have a plan in mind when you started the collection?

GF: So, the funny thing is that as it turned out, all the stories in this collection were essentially written—finished, at any rate—within the time-period from about a year before Trump’s election to almost the end of his (hopefully only) term in office. The fact that they were originally intended to be published by my former home imprint, ChiZine Publications, which suddenly and acrimoniously collapsed in November of 2019, is also interesting, in hindsight; so is the fact that Jon Padgett at Grimscribe chose to pick the book up during a global pandemic. Which means that the overarching theme of all these stories is the sort of fear you feel when the world you think you know tilts on you in a way which only seems “sudden” at the moment it happens, as well as the guilt and grief which come when you realize you saw [this, whatever “this” is] coming from miles away, and simply chose to ignore those warning signs as they mounted because…well, because you wanted to. Because you liked your life, and the illusions it was rooted in. Because you hoped things had gotten better, and you forgot that every ten years, a generation comes of age who haven’t lived through the same things you have, so they have to have experiences which will prove the same basic facts about human nature over and over and over again. Etc.

It’s easy to say, of course, that the theme of every horror collection is fear. But I do find it oddly significant that the first story in the TOC—“This Is How It Goes”—happens to be set during the aftermath of a body horror plague that rips around the world like a creepypasta come true, moving from urban myth/internet rumour to immediate reality within forty-eight hours at the most. When I read it on The Outer Dark Podcast recently, I called it a “pre-pandemic post-pandemic tale.” So, these particular stories ring with a very current sort of fear, for me. Whether other people will see it that way as well is up to them, I guess.

The stories are all reprints, basically, though because I often get published in fairly obscure places, I expect that a lot of them will be new to most readers aside from those solicited by people like Ellen Datlow (“Cut Frame,” from her Hollywood Horror anthology Final Cuts; “The Puppet Motel,” from Echoes: The Saga Anthology of Ghost Stories). And no, I didn’t have this in mind when I put the book together, it just shook out that way. The one thing I have in common with the Joker is I’m not much of a planner.

GMM: So, you mention that you’ve written a story-cycle and a Weird Western series. What is the difference between a story-cycle and a series, and how does your process change from project to project–short stories versus stand-alone novels versus a series, etc.? Do you decide on what shape your stories will take before you write them, or do the stories evolve into the appropriate length to fit the story as you write them?

GF: The Weird Western series—my Hexslinger books—basically filled in a three-act, chapter-driven narrative over three separate novels. I’d made an outline at the very beginning for what I thought would be one book (A Book of Tongues), only to find that by the time I’d written 100,000 words I’d only gotten to what was fairly obviously the first break-point; I kept to that outline throughout, moving through it linearly, as if I was writing a trilogy of screenplays. The story-cycle, on the other hand—We Will All Go Down Together: Stories of the Five-Family Coven—was built around a base of stories reprinted and slightly polished from earlier in my career, ones which inhabited an urban paranormal universe I only slowly realized was anchored by the same cast of characters, all of whom were literally related to each other. I sprinkled them through in non-linear order, introducing those characters and the five families they belonged to as I went, while also writing/finishing four new novellas that made these connections clear and brought the overall story to a climax. I like to call it my Alice Munro book, except with evil angels, witches, monster-killing nuns and the Fae.

As for whether I made either of those decisions strategically…yeah, not really. Sometimes I think the only method I have for knowing if a story is finished is: “Does it feel ‘right?’ Okay, then.” I do know that with the Five-Family Coven stuff, I essentially wanted to prove to myself that polite, clean Toronto, Canada could be just as dark, weird and potentially awful as any other city written about from that angle by one of its citizens. It started out as what I called my Toronto Dark phase, then got more and more complicated, like a bunch of in-jokes which grew legs and started to walk on their own. And even now, I still continue to use that universe as the back-story of a lot of my more recent tales; a minor character from We Will All Go Down Together plays a main role in “Cut Frame,” for example, plus a minor role in “The Puppet Motel.” It’s there if you look for it. 

Otherwise, the shape of a story is usually dictated by the voice of the person who’s telling it, or the perspective of the person who’s living it. My plots are often a little more complicated than they need to be, but I don’t believe that plot and character can be completely separated. It’s not just “this happened,” it’s “this happened, because someone did something.” As Bill Duke says in Menace 2 Society, speaking for/to almost all my protagonists, “You know you fucked up, right?”

GMM: Why horror? What draws you to the genre? Have you written in other genres? What do you like most about horror as a writer? As a reader? After winning the Shirley Jackson Award, did you automatically feel like a bonafide horror writer, or do you still struggle with impostor syndrome? Has winning awards changed you as a writer?

GF: A deep and sparkling darkness has always been what draws me towards the things I love, at least in terms of art. I mean, I started out ostensibly liking science fiction, but soon figured out A) what I liked was actually space opera, because B) I’m really not that great with science, outside the purely biological. Also, my formative life was full of fear, so horror seemed like “home” to me…normal, natural, understandable.

Part of my journey after my son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder was coming to realize that if a diagnosis of Asperger’s had been something people were looking for (in girls, or at all) back when I was at my worst as a kid, I might well have gotten one. I’m 52 now, so I’ve worked very hard to pass as neurotypical, but most of my life has been spent second-guessing my own instincts and berating myself for being born somehow “wrong.” The fact that that alone doesn’t make me super-different from a lot of other similarly diverse people isn’t lost on me, either; I’ve gotten away with a lot over the years, on account of reading as a typical cishet white lady. But again, I think it still has a lot to do with me feeling as if horror is the place where all the non-default people can meet, a place where becoming or realizing you’ve always been what most people see as “a monster” might not be such a bad thing.

“…horror is the place where all the non-default people can meet, a place where becoming or realizing you’ve always been what most people see as “a monster” might not be such a bad thing.”

I spent my high school years reading Tanith Lee, Peter Straub and Clive Barker, my university years reading Caitlin R. Kiernan, Billy Martin (then Poppy Z. Brite) and Kathe Koja. My favourite movies were things like Nightbreed and Near Dark, stuff about found families bound together by hunger rather than affinity. And all of this stuff came together in my writing, which from the very beginning was dictated by the old adage that if you can’t find what you want in the world, you may well be forced to make some. One of the things I’ve become very proud of, over the years, is the idea that I’ve somehow indulged or inspired other people doing the same thing, giving way to their own ids/needs and letting the devil drive. Someone told me once that my story “Kissing Carrion” told her it was okay for women to do that, and I was like: “Oh, the story about a woman who makes a puppets out of a human corpse so she can fuck her necrophile boyfriend with it, while the ghost that used to be the corpse hovers nearby invisibly going WHAAAATTTT?!? Cool!” I’m down for monster pride in any and every form.

Winning the Shirley Jackson Award for Experimental Film was a huge surprise, but that was also absolutely the award I knew I’d be happiest winning, because I’ve never pretended to be anything but a horror writer. Even my fantasy is always “dark”; even my nonfiction is always Weird. As Yukio Mishima put it, my heart’s yearning has always been to night, and death, and blood. But yeah, imposter syndrome truly doesn’t go away. I fight it by writing to a deadline, writing like it’s a job, and never fooling myself into thinking that the stuff which comes out of me is somehow so pure and beautiful it doesn’t need to be cut, tweaked or otherwise rewritten. Things can always get better, and an outside eye is a gift.

500+ WORDS OF SOMETHING NEW

Gemma Files

One thing a job like mine teaches is that people will say all sorts of things when they’re dying. It’s like the process breaks something open inside them, some long-buried infectious reservoir, a quick-draining sick-pocket. They don’t even have to know what’s happening, let alone accept it; they might still be entirely convinced they’ll survive, but it doesn’t matter. A sort of punch-drunkenness takes over, an irrepressible urge to confess.

 “I put my hand under the pillow, and that’s where I found it,” Mrs Camp told me, one morning, as I stripped her mattress so I could check it for night-sweat and all sorts of other fluids. “Then it bit down, so I couldn’t get it out again.”

“Found what, ma’am?” I asked, only half-listening. Wet bedsheets I could deal with; did, almost every day, and hardly just with her. It was sponging down the rubber mattress covers that always took up the most time, because we had to move the clients while they dried; bleach on urine never is the best smell, and it does tend to stick around. Some of (the bulk of) the lazy fools I worked with would just stick whoever they’d cleaned up for back in bed immediately, ignoring the fact that bedsores don’t react any better when crossed with cleaning product than feeble lungs do when exposed to corrosive funk. But screw it—no matter how much I longed to get shed of this job, I was determined to at least be a little better at it than those assholes.

“A mouth, wide open, like I said already. With teeth.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound good,” I told her, to which she smiled, revealing her own teeth.They looked like a busted-up china doll’s.

“No, it does not. Are you married, Kevin?”

“KeVon, ma’am. And no.”

“Oh, that’s a shame, then—big, good-looking fellow like you. I bet you’ve made a fair deal of women cry, in your time.”

Probably, I thought, the faces of all those poor girls I’d “dated” in high school suddenly coming back to me in a weird sort of flip-book flash, fluttering across my inner eye before breaking apart against the hard bone bell of my skull, disappearing into darkness. But not ’cause I wanted to, no, ma’am. Only ’cause I wasn’t strong enough yet to know who I really was, let alone to say it. 

“I do try not to, ma’am,” I told her, angling her wheelchair next to the flower-pots where I knew she liked it best. Those gardenias, heads bent over and dripping, plumped up fulsome on the very edge of decay. You could just see her faded eyes light up at the sight of them.

“Beautiful,” she told me. “Oh, Kevin. There’s still a whole lot to love in this world, isn’t there? Even now. Even here.”

“Yes, ma’am, there sure is.”

She nodded, sunk in thought. Then whispered, almost to herself, as I was turning back to see what might or might not yet be on offer from the kitchen: “But then the sun goes down and the lights go out. Then I go out, and they come in.”

At that last part, my heart gave a strange little leap, tapping itself against my breastbone like it was knocking on some door hid inside my chest. “Who’s that, ma’am?” I asked her, standing there with my hip thrown out so awkward it hurt, but not quite able to go on to my next step ’til she replied.

(God only knew, the membrane between sleep and death certainly did seem to stretch thin enough to see things through, sometimes, in life’s very last stages. Things you shouldn’t be able to see, under more normal circumstances.)

Mrs Camp just kept on staring at those damn flowers, though, like she was waiting for them to speak instead. “Oh, nothing at all, I’m sure, Kevin,” was all she said, at last. “Must be I’m being silly—mixing stuff up. Old people do that, you know.”

“Yes ma’am,” I agreed. “And young people too, on occasion.”

She nodded and lowered what she had left for lashes, then threw me a glance I’d’ve surely called flirty if she weren’t terminal, and knew herself to be so.

“Mmm-hmm,” she said. “That’s surely true.”

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

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

Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Zin E. Rocklyn

Wednesday, I spoke with Valjeanne Jeffers and she shared a fragment from the next book in her Mona Liveling series, Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective III: The Case of the Vanishing Child.

Today, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Zin E. Rocklyn.

Zin E. Rocklyn is a contributor to Bram Stoker-nominated and This is Horror Award-winning Nox PareidoliaKaijuRising II: Reign of MonstersBrigands: A Blackguards Anthology, and Forever Vacancy anthologies and Weird Luck TalesNo. 7 zine. Their story “Summer Skin” in the Bram Stoker-nominated anthology Sycorax’s Daughters received an honorable mention for Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, Volume Ten. Zin contributed the nonfiction essay “My Genre Makes a Monster ofMe” to Uncanny Magazine’s Hugo Award-winning Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction. Their short story “The Night Sun” and flash fiction “teatime” were published on Tor.com. Their debut novella will be published by Tor.com in Fall 2021. Zin is a 2017 VONA and 2018 Viable Paradise graduate as well as a 2022 Clarion West candidate. You can find them on Twitter @intelligentwat

Ten Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Zin. What projects are you currently working on? Is horror your primary genre, or do you write in other genres? If you write in other genres, which do you feel most comfortable writing, and why?

ZER: Thank you for having me! I write primarily horror but use it across genre. Combining horror with other aspects of Speculative Fiction is what makes it fun. The genre I like to write in most is the weird because of how much freedom there is in writing it.

GMM: When did you first know that you were a horror writer? How did you develop an interest in the genre? What initially attracted you to horror stories? Which writers influenced you then? Which writers influence you now?

ZER: I’ve been a horror writer from the very beginning. My brother, who is 8.5 years older than me, made it a point to scare me in any way he could so he started with A Nightmare on Elm Street. But it backfired! I fell in love with horror instead of being frightened. I saw a way to express what I felt like was a growing darkness within me and I almost immediately took to the page. I found the Fear Street series by RL Stine not long after at around the age of 7 and used that as a framework to learn how to write as well as how to scare folks. Clive Barker was my next great discovery. His prose and imagination appealed to everything I aimed for in my fiction. Books of Blood Vol I-III is still considered a Bible to me. Barker is still a huge influence, as well as NK Jemisin, Octavia Butler, and Toni Morrison.

GMM: The documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019), explores Black horror and the portrayal (and absence) of Black people in horror movies. As a definition of what Black horror means begins to take shape, Tananarive Due says “Black history is Black horror.” What do you think she meant by that? Can you give an example of how this idea shows up in your own work?

ZER: This is essay material, but I’ll keep it short: despite the efforts of revisionist history, Black people have never been treated like humans in, at the very least, this country. Our survival against these odds is our history, our present, and unfortunately, our immediate future. Writing is my way of fighting for the truth. My stories always feature a Black woman lead, no matter how hard history tries to erase us and our contributions. I speak to my experiences in my stories as a way to flush them out as well as show the world that we are here, we matter, we are worthy.

GMM: As a WOC writing horror/dark speculative fiction, do you feel obligated to have a deeper message in your stories? Can writers of color write stories without broader messages about identity, class, and racism? Is it possible to divorce yourself from that ongoing narrative within our culture when you set out to write a story?

ZER: I do feel that pressure to have a deeper message in my work, but I’m learning to let that go and simply tell the stories within me. By default, my presence within horror and writing horror is a message unto itself. Me showing up is message enough, so there’s no definitive way for me to divorce myself from that ongoing narrative. Our presence is our protest, so I encourage folks of colour to just simply write anything they want!

GMM: What are your top five favorite horror movies, and why? Top five horror novels? Which book or movie scared you the most?

ZER: Aw, man, my favourite horror movies: 28 Days Later, Silence of the Lambs, Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight, Shelley, and Attack the Block. I like meditative horror as well as action and humour.

Favourite horror novels: Dark Property by Brian Evenson, Blood Child by Octavia Butler, NeverLand by Douglas Clegg, Wounds by Nathan Ballingrud, and kindred by Octavia Butler. These novels shaped the writer I am today and continue to influence me. The book that scared me the most was actually a collection of short stories mentioned before: Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Vol. I-III. These stories still haunt me, and I sleep with the lights on anytime I reread them.

GMM: How do you feel about white-identifying writers who write stories about non-white characters? What problems have you encountered? What potential issues do you see with white-identifying writers telling BIPOC stories? What advice would you give those writers?

ZER: While I definitely feel people should be able to write what they want; I also caution intent versus impact. Our experiences are unique to what is in popular media about us and to live the experience is completely different to being on the sidelines observing. My advice would be to hire authenticity readers and more than just one. Our experiences are not monolithic so make sure you gain more than one perspective and not just one that agrees with you.

GMM: All writers have experienced some form of impostor syndrome. What has your experience with impostor syndrome been like? Did you ever have a particularly bad case of it? If so, what caused it and how did you manage it?

ZER: I’m going through it now! LOL! I think most writers go through this phase multiple times in their careers; it’s part of the deal when you have a talent that’s so subjective to its audience.

GMM: About a year ago, I bought a T-shirt you designed that says: “Support Black Women Who Write Weird Shit.” First, and foremost, what do you consider “weird shit”? And, second, where can people order their own T-shirt?

ZER: Weird shit, to me, is the uncanny, the thing in the periphery that makes your heart skip for a second. It’s the unsettling feeling you have when something is just a tad off. Once I launch my website, I’ll have t-shirts for sale!

GMM: Zin E. Rocklyn is a pseudonym. I won’t reveal your real name unless you are comfortable doing so. Why use a pseudonym? What are the benefits? Drawbacks? What dark secrets are you hiding?

ZER: LMAO!! I have no issue with my real name being out there. I chose a moniker to pay my respects to the source of my imagination: family.

GMM: If you could give advice to your younger self about writing, what would it be? How would your journey be different, or would you keep things the same?

ZER: You are good. Keep writing. And, yes, you can write that.

“In Full Bloom” by Zin E. Rocklyn

12:15

He’s slight in every sense of the word. Fine-boned, like a delicate bird. Pale and sickly. Shoulders rounded, back slumped. A heavy breath from paper-thin lungs could break him.

I want to cradle him.

I want to wrap my large, dark hands around his tiny torso and squeeze. I want to read the notches of his spine with my heavy fingertips, pluck and play his pronounced ribs with my thumbs. My fat tongue fights to taste his powdery flesh. My ears yearn for the crinkle of his reedy skin.

I need him.

Just as he needs me. He’s my baby, my child, a man born of my desire and aching. He is my manifestation.

He looks to me. For care. For comfort. For protection.

And all I want to do is hurt him.

He knows that look. Understands it. Me. More than I know myself.

My steps are careful, but I am clumsy. Big feet, stubby toes, long limbs. I am everything he is not.

I am his God.

He is my Goddess.

And we hate each other for it.

Long fingers curl into a ball tight enough to crack air. The strike is solid, satisfying.

The sight of red pleases me. He whimpers. I giggle.

The tear is angry, but not alone. More crowd his blind eyes until they fall together, storming down the misshapen hills and valleys of his face. They gather at the peak of his chin, clinging to one another, impregnating each other until there is nowhere to go but down.

Rain meets concrete and I am empty once again.

I turn away, but his claw-like fingers find a wisp of my shift. Clinging. Pulling.

I step forward, dragging him. One inch. One foot.

I stop to peer over my shoulder, to see if he’s still there. If he’s still devoted to me.

His flesh has betrayed him, streaking gore across the gritty floor, leaving him in strips and chunks.

It is my turn to whimper. To moan. To mourn the loss of such beautiful, delicious meat.

I kneel to him. Take his face in my grotesque hands. Press my plump mouth to his sealed lips. Drag my hot tongue along the bitter muscle that is his.

And I squeeze.

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.

Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Valjeanne Jeffers

Last week I had some very interesting conversations with Violette Meier and Aziza Sphinx. If you haven’t checked out their posts, or the previous posts in this Women in Horror Month/Black History Month series, please do so.

Today, Girl Meets Monster has the pleasure of welcoming Valjeanne Jeffers.

Valjeanne Jeffers is a speculative fiction writer, a Spelman College graduate, a member of the Horror Writers Association and the Carolina African America Writers’ Collective. She is the author of ten books, including her Immortal and her Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective series. Valjeanne has been published in numerous anthologies including: Steamfunk!; The Ringing Ear; Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. ButlerFitting In: Historical Accounts of Paranormal SubculturesSycorax’s Daughters; Black Magic Women, The Bright Empire, and, most recently, All the Songs We Sing, Bledrotica Volume I, and Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire.

Ten Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Valjeanne. What projects are you currently working on? Is horror your primary genre, or do you write in other genres? If you write in other genres, which do you feel most comfortable writing, and why?

VJ: Hi Michelle, thank you for having me. I’ve just released the 3rd novel of my Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective series: The Case of the Vanishing Child. It’s a horror/steamfunk novel based in an alternate world, and the main character, Mona, is both a sleuth and a sorceress. I’m also working on a screenplay of my novel, The Switch II: Clockwork.

Horror isn’t my primary genre, but it’s one of my favorites. I write under the broad umbrella of Speculative Fiction, so I also write science fiction/fantasy, which is also described as Afrofuturism. I feel comfortable writing in almost any genre, and I tend to mix them. The Switch II: Clockwork, for example, is a steamfunk novel, but it is also Afrofuturistic.

GMM: When did you first know that you were a horror writer? How did you develop an interest in the genre? What initially attracted you to horror stories? Which writers influenced you then? Which writers influence you now?

VJ: I actually didn’t think of myself as a horror writer until author Sumiko Saulson featured my writing in 100+ Black Women in Horror. Sumiko told me that my readers had approached her and asked that she include my Immortal series. I was both amazed and honored. That’s when I decided to add horror to my writing menu, and I went out of my way in my Mona Livelong series to scare my readers.

I’ve always enjoyed reading and watching horror. I can remember watching horror movies with my parents (for example, The Shining), and as a little girl, I was addicted to Dark Shadows. The first horror writer I fell in love with was Stephen King. Of course, when I first began reading horror there were no writers that looked like me. All of this changed in the 1990s. I discovered Octavia Butler, and later Nalo Hopkinson, Brandon Massey and Tananarive Due. These are writers, along with Richard Wright and James Baldwin, that I credit as my earliest influences. They continue to impact my writing, as well as Keith Gaston and N.K. Jemison.

GMM: The documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019), explores Black horror and the portrayal (and absence) of Black people in horror movies. As a definition of what Black horror means begins to take shape, Tananarive Due says “Black history is Black horror.” What do you think she meant by that? Can you give an example of how this idea shows up in your own work?

VJ: I’m sure she meant that African America history is one of trauma and violence: from our being kidnapped and dragged to American shores, through the Jim Crow and the Civil Rights era, our history is filled with tales of horror. Our stories are often those of pain and trauma.

Richard Wright, in Black Boy, says, “This was the culture from which I sprang, this was the terror from which I fled.” Yet our stories are also those of incredible victories because we refused to submit, to give up. Instead, we pushed on. We blossomed, and we continue to blossom like a garden of black roses.

As a black woman, I am grappling with issues of those that came before me, and those that we face in present times. This may find its way onto my pages. But I write with optimism and hope. And I always strive give my readers an exciting tale they can sink their teeth into.

GMM: As a WOC writing horror/dark speculative fiction, do you feel obligated to have a deeper message in your stories? Can writers of color write stories without broader messages about identity, class, and racism? Is it possible to divorce yourself from that ongoing narrative within our culture when you set out to write a story?

VJ: I don’t feel obligated to include a deeper message in my stories, and some of my favorite authors write without doing so. I’ve certainly never started one with this intent. Sometimes a story is just a story, meant to entertain and nothing more. But I do find myself writing about flawed heroines and heroes, men and women who are fighting to save themselves and their worlds. Often the demons they’re fighting are personal ones; life is always in session. There are no perfect people, and so my characters are imperfect as well. Who you are, and what you’re battling, will always find its way onto the page, and this is where I find myself writing, too, about larger issues of race, gender and class.

GMM: What are your top five favorite horror movies, and why? Top five horror novels? Which book or movie scared you the most?

VJ: My top five horror movies are: The Shining; Tales from the Hood; Get Out; Dr. Sleep, and When a Stranger Calls. I like horror movies with well-developed plots and characters, and layers of suspense that build to a nail biting crescendo. I also prefer horror flicks with a racially diverse cast of characters, which is a lot easier to come by nowadays.

My top favorite horror novels are: Wild Seed (Octavia Butler); Into the Dark (Brandon Massey); The Good House (Tananarive Due); It (Stephen King) and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (N.K. Jemison). I’d have to say Into the Dark scared me the most.

GMM: How do you feel about white-identifying writers who write stories about non-white characters? What problems have you encountered? What potential issues do you see with white-identifying writers telling BIPOC stories? What advice would you give those writers?

VJ: There are some white authors who are very skillful at creating “flesh and blood” non-white characters. One writer in particular, who is also one of my favorites, is Tad Williams; his Otherland series is brilliant. What I mean by “flesh and blood,” are well rounded characters, who black and brown folks can identify with. In contrast, there are other white authors I’ve encountered, whose non-white characters are cardboard cutouts, overlaid with stereotypes.   My advice to these authors is: if you don’t have black and brown friends, real friends mind you, perhaps it’s best if you don’t write about people of color. This might sound harsh, but one of the first pieces of writing advice that I received was: “Write what you know.” Every character I’ve created is a compilation of diverse men and women I’ve met, studied, or both, and myself.

GMM: All writers have experienced some form of impostor syndrome. What has your experience with impostor syndrome been like? Did you ever have a particularly bad case of it? If so, what caused it and how did you manage it?

VJ: I have experienced feelings of self-doubt and feelings that I don’t “measure up” as a writer. But when I’m at my lowest, my readers, and other writers, often help me get through it. I’ve received uplifting emails from folks who love my latest project, and sometimes even a post on my Facebook page. I think I speak for most authors when I say: we write for ourselves and for our readers. I cherish every one of them.

GMM: Tell me about Mona Livelong. What or who inspired this character? Without too many spoilers, can you give some insight into her backstory, and why she became a detective? Why a paranormal detective as opposed to a detective who solves basic human problems?

VJ: Mona Livelong sprang from the same inspiration as Karla, the main character of my Immortal series. Both characters are based upon Carla, a young woman who babysat me when I was living in Los Angeles. Carla’s mother, as well as her youngest brother, died and she was raising her two surviving siblings while attending college. I remember her as an intelligent, compassionate young woman, who was determined to achieve her goals.

Mona is cut from this same cloth. She’s strong, but also vulnerable, and she’s known tragedy. She was born a sorceress and decided to use her gifts to help her community, solving cases regular detectives can’t solve. As to why she’s a paranormal detective, when I create a character, he or she will almost always be supernatural. I love Speculative Fiction just that much.

GMM: Some writers work best in silence, and others prefer to listen to music when they write. How has music influenced your work? What kinds of music do like to listen to when you’re writing? How does it help with your process?

VJ: I can write in silence, but I prefer listening to music when I write, especially if I’m working on character or plot development. If I’m doing either one, I usually listen to jazz or R&B (for example, WAR and Barry White). If I’m writing an action scene, I’m definitely listening to Hip Hop or Classic Rock. I’ve actually acted out action scenes while listening to music; it helps me visualize what’s happening to my characters, and if the scene will “work.”

GMM: If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your younger self? How would you have approached becoming a writer? Would you have done anything differently, or would you have followed the same path?

VJ: If I could give young Valjeanne any advice I would tell her, “Keep writing Speculative Fiction, sweetheart, and don’t stop. No matter what anyone says.” I began writing poetry and stories as a young girl. My only regret is that I took a hiatus and didn’t dive back in until years later. This is the only thing I would change.

Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective III: The Case of the Vanishing Child. (synopsis) The threads of a blood chilling mystery … A world torn in half. A young black man desperate to avenge his murdered brethren. A white supremacist with the terrifying power to alter reality. And a little girl trapped in the eye of the storm. Detective Mona Livelong takes on her most dangerous case yet, as she races to save the life of an innocent child, and countless others hanging in the balance. Cover art by Quinton Veal.

Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective III: The Case of The Vanishing Child (excerpt)

Breath brings word
Nappy Dusky Longing Song
Song like my own
—Maya’s Kwansaba

A solitary cafe au lait-colored man with freckles, his thick hair tied back with cords, walked to the lot behind the Constabulary Station. Keeping his head down, Richard Starks moved silently through the rows of steam-autos parked there. He walked past them, looking carefully at the numbers painted on the auto doors. When he found the one he sought, he crouched on the other side of the steam-auto and waited.

He didn’t have to wait long. Minutes later, a burly white Constable exited the station and walked through the lot. He hunkered down before the auto and started turning the crank.

Richard drew a dagger from the folds of his shirt. Moving swiftly, he crept from the side of the car. As the Constable rose from his haunches, the black man sprang— stabbing him over and over. The Constable fell to his knees and then toppled over, twitching and bleeding at Richard’s feet. Moments later, he was dead.

Shaking and crying, Richard stood over him. At length, he calmed himself and slipped the dagger back

inside his shirt. He wiped his face with his arm and stepped over the dead Constable to the side of the auto. He drew a symbol on the steam-auto door with his bloody fingers and spoke the mantra, “Kuja kwangu mpendwa wangu kwa maana ni kisasi mimi kutafuta … Come to me my beloved, for it is vengeance I seek.”

Diaphanous shades smudged into view. In the next instant three figures towered over him, their faces shifting in the darkness … from black to red … green to blue … female to male … It made him dizzy trying to hone in on their features. He realized that perhaps he was not meant to see their faces. Perhaps it would drive him insane. He fixed his vision on a point beyond their huge shoulders.

The one on his left spoke, “You summoned us, little one?”

“Yes,” Richard whispered.

“You know what it is you seek?” said the second one asked.

“We cannot harm the innocent,” the third entity intoned.

For the first time anger crept into the young man’s voice. “They ain’t innocent. They’re murderers.

The spirits spoke in one basso profundo voice, “So be it.”

Rivulets of blood ran down the Constabulary building. The dead officer sat up. His wounds healed, and

his eyes glazed over with a white film. Then they turned blue once more. The blood vanished. The Constable got to his knees, crouching before the auto, and finished turning the crank. The motor sputtered to life. He stood and walked to the driver’s side, got into the auto and drove from the lot.

Constable Burt Phillips, a thick-set white officer, pulled his steam-auto up to the curb beside his flat. Burt put his auto in park, got out and turned the crank on his steam-auto, shutting the engine off. He was feeling good this evening—better than he’d felt in weeks. For awhile, he’d thought that Eddie Plumb, the unarmed black man he’d killed months ago, was haunting him.

He’d been drinking the night he killed Plumb and in a foul mood. I just wanted respect. That darkie needed to be put in his place.

Plumb had walked pass Burt that night, his eyes insolent, his back straight and proud. Something had snapped inside Burt. He’d shouted at Plumb over and over to stop walking, but the young man ignored him. So Burt shot him in the back. When questioned by Internal Affairs, he’d told a different story: Eddie was a robbery suspect, who’d fled when he ordered him to stop.

The DA cleared me. That’s that.

The week of his death, Eddie Plumb had appeared in Burt’s steam-auto and, for weeks afterwards, he’d rode beside Burt—mocking him, insulting him, calling him a murderer. Then just as suddenly he was gone. Burt had dismissed Eddie as a hallucination brought on by the stress of the hearing.

Certainly. he bore no guilt over killing Plumb. Darkies getting out of control. In my daddy’s time they knew their place. That’s one that won’t make trouble no more.

His daddy had been a hard man, and even harder to love. But love him Burt did, through all the beatings, through all the times he’d found his mother bloodied from his old man’s fists.

His father’s most essential rule, THE RULE, was that he should hate anyone who wasn’t white. “Keep ‘em under your boot son,” this was said with the utmost emphasis during the few times he’d shown Burt affection. “For a white man, ain’t nothing more important.” His daddy had hated black and brown folks, and Burt loved his daddy. So, he hated them too. He opened the door to his flat and stepped inside.

——

Richard sat in the darkness. The only illumination came from the moon and the streetlight outside his window. He shut his eyes.

When he opened them, his room had been transformed. Thick grass grew under his feet. He stared into a gold, orange and blue sunset, a half-smile of wonderment on his face. To his right, the walls and door of his flat remained. Straight ahead, camel thorn trees spouted in the brush. In the distance, he could hear the steady rhythm of drums and a faint whisper. Richard cocked his head to the right. Listening.

He nodded and shut his eyes once more. His spirit rose from the chair. He looked back at his body then walked out into the night. Those he passed on the street could not see him … But they felt him as a breeze.

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 Friday!

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

Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Sumiko Saulson

This past Friday, I chatted with Nicole Givens Kurtz, one of the first recipients of the Horror Writers Association’s Diversity Grants. Today, Girl Meets Monster welcomes another Diversity Grant recipient, Sumiko Saulson. Sumiko provided me with multiple versions of hir bio and there is so much interesting information in each one that I felt like using only one would somehow rob you of knowing all the cool shit ze has done and is doing. As a woman of color who writes speculative fiction that often crosses the lines of genre and gives my readers a glimpse into my various parts that make up the whole, I can completely respect and wish to honor all aspects and intersectionalities of a fellow woman of color who writes horror.

So…here are all the bios Sumiko sent me. Bask in the glory of hir muliplicities.

50 Words
Sumiko Saulson is a cartoonist; horror, sci-fi and dark fantasy writer/blogger; editor of Black Magic Women and 100 Black Women in Horror. Author of Solitude, Warmth, Moon Cried Blood, and Happiness and Other Diseases. Author/Illustrator of Mauskaveli, Dooky, Dreamworlds and Agrippa, writes for Search Magazine and the San Francisco Bayview Newspaper.

100 Words
Sumiko Saulson is a cartoonist, science-fiction, fantasy and horror writer, editor of Black Magic Women, Scry of Lust and 100 Black Women in Horror Fiction, author of Solitude, Warmth, The Moon Cried Blood, Happiness and Other Diseases, Somnalia, Insatiable, Ashes and Coffee, and Things That Go Bump In My Head.  She wrote and illustrated comics Mauskaveli, Dooky andgraphic novels Dreamworlds and Agrippa. She writes for the SEARCH Magazine and the San Francisco Bayview column Writing While Black.  The child of African American and Russian-Jewish parents, a native Californian and an Oakland resident who’s spent most of her adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is pansexual, polyamorous and genderqueer (nonbinary).

100 Words (but different)
Sumiko Saulson is an award-winning author of Afrosurrealist and multicultural sci-fi and horror. Ze is the editor of the anthologies and collections Black Magic WomenScry of LustBlack Celebration, and Wickedly Abled. Ze is the winner of the 2016 HWA StokerCon “Scholarship from Hell”, 2017 BCC Voice “Reframing the Other” contest, and 2018 AWW “Afrosurrealist Writer Award.”

Ze has an AA in English from Berkeley City College, and writes a column called “Writing While Black” for a national Black Newspaper, the San Francisco BayView. Ze is the host of the SOMA Leather and LGBT Cultural District’s “Erotic Storytelling Hour.”

150 Words
Sumiko Saulson is a science-fiction, fantasy and horror writer and graphic novelist. She was the 2016 recipient of the Horror Writer Association’s Scholarship from Hell, and 2018 winner of the Afrosurrealist Writers Workshop Short Story Award. Sumiko Saulson is a cartoonist, science-fiction, fantasy and horror writer, editor of Black Magic Women, Scry of Lust and 100 Black Women in Horror Fiction, author of Solitude, Warmth, The Moon Cried Blood, Happiness and Other Diseases, Somnalia, Insatiable, Ashes and Coffee, and Things That Go Bump In My Head.  She wrote and illustrated comics Mauskaveli, Dooky andgraphic novels Dreamworlds and Agrippa. She writes for the SEARCH Magazine and the San Francisco Bayview column Writing While Black.  The child of African American and Russian-Jewish parents, a native Californian and an Oakland resident who’s spent most of her adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is pansexual, polyamorous and genderqueer (nonbinary).

Ten Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Sumiko.  What projects are you currently working on? Is horror your primary genre, or do you write in other genres? If you write in other genres, which do you feel most comfortable writing, and why?

SS: I have three works in progress. The one I am currently focused on is Akmani, which is the fourth book in my paranormal romance / horror erotica series Somnalia, which begins with Happiness and Other Diseases. I promised Mocha Memoirs Press, publisher of my anthology Black Magic Women (and another anthology I am in, SLAY: Tales of the Vampire Noire) the first option on it when it is completed. It’s about 85% there at this point. I also have a manuscript for Disillusionment, the sequel to my first novel, a sci-fi horror story called Solitude, about 75% complete, but that one is tabled for now. And finally, I have a file I put all of my poetry in (I write quite a lot of it, on my blog and social media) which is called “Emotional Side Chicks.”

Horror is definitively my primary genre, but I do a lot of crossover into other genres that are combined with horror. Sci-fi horror, monster porn, paranormal romance and horror erotica are some of those, and my Afrosurrealism and Afrofuturism tends to be dark and essentially horror. I have a significant amount of erotica in my short story portfolio now, and some of it isn’t horror, but is fantasy, or sci-fi erotica. Poetry is the only genre I work in which isn’t usually horror flavored, as I am a beat or spoken word poet. However, I do have a poem in the current Horror Writers Association Poetry Showcase.

GMM: When did you first know that you were a horror writer? How did you develop an interest in the genre? What initially attracted you to horror stories? Which writers influenced you then? Which writers influence you now?

SS: I started out as a poet and a journalist, and hadn’t completed any short stories or novels. I was a published poet as a teenager, and showcased as an upcoming beat poet in the San Francisco Chronicle at the age of twenty. So, the first short story I submitted anywhere was to Phantasmagoria when I was eighteen. They sent it back and said we would love to see more work from you, but this is suspense, not horror. I had sent it to four magazines but only they wrote back. I was easily discouraged and didn’t try again for a long time. I had a half written sci-fi horror novel that I never finished when I was twenty-five called The Chain. I think I tried writing things that weren’t horror, and it just didn’t work.

On my first novel I just gave up on the idea of writing anything other than horror, or trying to not sound derivative because I had consumed so much Stephen King that his voice was ingrained in my mind. So I finished Solitude and was bummed out when Under the Dome (the book, not the television show) came out and I saw that the time bubbles in my book were similar sounding to his dome. They were written at the same time, so it was almost like I had gotten so influenced by him that I was mind reading. Well… after the first book I got really good at having a distinct voice, and you gotta start somewhere.

The more I felt that my voice as an African American was important, the more that I felt my voice as a disabled author was important, the more I had a distinctive voice.

GMM: The documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019), explores Black horror and the portrayal (and absence) of Black people in horror movies. As a definition of what Black horror means begins to take shape, Tananarive Due says “Black history is Black horror.” What do you think she meant by that? Can you give an example of how this idea shows up in your own work?

SS: I think that Victorian era horror, Gothic horror, which is at the root of modern horror, is filled with white voices othering people of color, and then expressing fear that the people they oppressed would come back to destroy them. Consequently, American Gothic horror was filled with slaves cursing white people, Native Americans cursing white people, etc. British Gothic horror was filled with curses by Egyptians, East Indians, and people from Romania who had been oppressed by the Empire or the Church. Black horror switches the focus to us, so instead of it being about how we want revenge for all of the horrible things done to us… it is about how horrible things done to us were. Even in Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” where the house is haunted by the child Sethe killed, the visceral horror of the institution of slavery is cloying, overwhelming, and more horrific than the ghost. Sethe’s terrible deed was done to save her child from slavery.

The institution of slavery itself was the stuff of nightmares, I believe, is what Tananarive Due is saying. The horror of our ancestors being stolen from Africa, the heinous deaths aboard the overcrowded slave ships where we were treated like chattel, and the abuse at the hands of the slave owners and slave hunters.  Then, the abuse continued during the Reconstruction, during segregation, through Jim Crow laws, and voter suppression, the birth to prison pipelines, racial profiling, and police brutality.

GMM: As a WOC writing horror/dark speculative fiction, do you feel obligated to have a deeper message in your stories? Can writers of color write stories without broader messages about identity, class, and racism? Is it possible to divorce yourself from that ongoing narrative within our culture when you set out to write a story?

SS: My horror stories almost universally have broader messages about identity, class, racism, disability, and/or queerness. I don’t think that I personally can easily divorce myself from that narrative when I set out to write a story, but I do think that, in general, writers of color have the ability to write outside of those parameters. I was in a horror writing contest that HorrorAddicts put on, called “The Next Great Horror Writer” contest back in 2017. The runner up, Naching T. Kassa, was able to turn in several excellent horror stories that HorrorAddicts loved. They do not like political horror. That’s a fact. I got sixth place, but the more political my horror has become, the more rejection letters they send me. They probably have more people applying, but the rejection letters express their distaste for political horror. However, some of the most powerful work by authors of color addresses these issues. Toni Morrison refused to stop writing for Black audiences, and frankly, so do I. I have had to find markets that want political horror. Let someone else write for the ones who don’t.

GMM: What are your top five favorite horror movies, and why? Top five horror novels? Which book or movie scared you the most?

SS: Candyman is my favorite horror movie. I am so jazzed for the new Jordan Peele one. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Bones (yes, that Snoop Dog movie), Dawn of the Dead, and Queen of the Damned (even though I know Anne Rice hates it, so hopefully she won’t read this interview). Novels – gosh, so basic. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Steven King’s The Stand, again Anne Rice’s Queen of the Damned, Toni Morrison’s Sula, and Mark Helprin’s A Winter’s Tale. Please don’t tell me you don’t think all of those are horror novels, because I am not trying to hear that. The movie that scared me the most was a sci-fi movie, The Planet of the Apes, the original one. I had terrible nightmares about it as a child. Apocalyptic themes frighten me the most, so naturally, The Stand was the scariest of those books, although, The Bluest Eye was also terrifying.

GMM: How do you feel about white-identifying writers who write stories about non-white characters? What problems have you encountered? What potential issues do you see with white-identifying writers telling BIPOC stories? What advice would you give those writers?

SS: I think that own-voices are really important, but I know that I am not the only Black horror fan who swooned the minute Akasha showed up in Anne Rice’s Queen of the Damned. My love affair with Akasha still has not ended. Even though I love Akasha, it was many years later before Black vampires who weren’t villains showed up in the Vampire Chronicles.  Also, it took years for her to write dark skinned characters who weren’t supernaturally faded by vampirism.

Stephen King’s treatment of African American characters in The Stand was horrific. He martyred two different major Black characters in a book about the near-end of humanity, and didn’t even bother to show any Black children being born. It creates a creepy inference that all of the Black folks have died off. After many letters from concerned fans, Stephen King started writing stories where the martyring of Black folks came to an end, but there were other issues. Don’t even get me started with Bag of Bones… the black characters in that book are totally objectified, go through horrendous things, and yet are vilified, othered, and made into a backdrop for a story about a four year old white Last Girl.

My advice to white writers telling BIPOC stories is to try to avoid tokenizing. If there is only one Black person, and only one Latina, then if one or both end up dead, or as a villain, then you have no heroic person or even neutral person in that role. A diversity of different kinds of characters of any given race makes it more likely that you will have at least one sympathetic character in that demographic.

GMM: All writers have experienced some form of impostor syndrome. What has your experience with impostor syndrome been like? Did you ever have a particularly bad case of it? If so, what caused it and how did you manage it?

SS: Oh gosh, I am having it right now. I have been putting out tons of short stories, but haven’t managed to finish a new novel since 2015. The more political my short story writing has become, the more I worry about potentially problematic things in my novels, which are mostly multicultural and take place in urban settings. I just wrote when I first started, and didn’t second guess myself as much. Now I am like, “Oh wait, I am writing about people who are different than me – did I do it right?”

My experience with impostor syndrome is that the fastest way to get past it is to set aside perfectionism. Sometimes I pick up a book I was told is terrible that got published, and read it and tell myself that I suck less than that. Then I tell myself that all of an author’s books aren’t masterpieces, and it is okay to write a book that isn’t Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. In fact, if none of my books are ever as good as Toni Morrison, that will be okay. I am a horror writer. Then I pick up a really crappy Stephen King book like The Tommyknockers and remind myself of how many mediocre books he has put out. And yet, I am a fan.

GMM: Do you write about characters who share as many intersectionalities as you do? Did it take you a while to develop the confidence needed to tell their stories, or did you simply write the stories you needed to tell without worrying about what other people might think? Have you experienced any backlash for the stories you write?

SS: I am half Black and half Ashkenazi Jewish, am a non-binary femme who is woman-identified, am mentally ill and pansexual. Some of my characters have as many intersectionalities, but not all of them. The protagonist in “The Moon Cried Blood” is a thirteen year old biracial Black/Mexican girl, and the protagonist in “Happiness and Other Diseases” and “Somnalia” is a biracial Chinese/Hawaiian man. There are tons of queer characters in the Somnalia universe, which is based on Greco-Roman mythology. The Roman pantheon was queer as all get out.

I have a few trans and gender noncomforming characters, and X’ashia, the alien in Solitude and Disillusionment is a major one. He is composed of multiple subatomic creatures, and although he is biologically agender (because he procreates through cellular division), he shapeshifts a bunch and eventually acquires a gender identity, as male. There is a transman in“Insatiable but he is not a major character. Flynn Keahi, the main character in “Somnalia,” shapeshifts into a leopard who is female.  Angelo and Shiela are two people who share a body in a three-story arc in the “Scierogenous” anthology – both of them African American. They are a technologically created system. A chip was implanted in Shiela’s brain, which created a new person, Angelo, for a companion. Although they are sexually involved with each other, both are primarily attracted to men.

People in the African American community of writers and in the Horror community have both been very supportive, so not a lot of backlash there. Early in my career, I had a handful of cisgender white men I knew from my twenties get drunk and come at me for trying to write. Trust me they all think they are liberal. One of them drunkenly rage-posted about how women can’t write horror until I blocked him on Facebook. Another bought one of my early self-pubs and then drunkenly rage-posted about there being typos. I have also had to deal with micro aggressive behavior at conventions.

GMM: Tell me about the “Erotic Storytelling Hour.” What’s the backstory of how it began and how have you had a hand in making it a reality?

SS: The Erotic Storytelling Hour is run by the San Francisco Leather and LGBT Cultural District. Our Cultural District is in the South of Market neighborhood in San Francisco, California. We are the world’s first LEATHER & LGBTQ Cultural District. The Cultural District was created by a resolution unanimously passed by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on May 1, 2018 and signed by the Mayor on May 9, 2018. We will have a Cultural Center there in the future, so this is literally bigger than me.

I have been very active in the local leather community since 2015, but did not become involved with the SF Leather District organization until after the pandemic last year.  The original host, Bicoastal Beth, moved to the East Coast. I was a regular participant there, both as an attendee and as a reader. I had no idea they were considering me until they offered me the position. My boss, Cal Callaghan, actually took over Bicoastal Beth’s position as the District Manager. He said he wasn’t an entertainment type, and asked them to hire a separate person to host it. 

Now, Cal and a very active board member, David Hyman, co-host the Erotic Storytelling Hour (ESTH) with me. Cal and David are behind the scenes running technical aspects of the Zoom call, and David makes announcements for the SF Leather Cultural District. The purpose of the ESTH is to support the members of the Cultural District, so every week we have four community readers and one feature. The feature is usually a name in the Leather community, such as a Leather titleholder, someone who runs community spaces or meetups, or someone who runs safe spaces for marginalized groups within our community. Sometimes the feature is an erotica author. People who attend virtually are a part of our community, as well as people who live here, and people who visit the Cultural District when they are in town. The event also serves to broaden awareness of our historical Cultural District as a tourist destination for people in the Leather community worldwide.

Part of my role and responsibilities is to help ensure that we have a diversity of readers. Because San Francisco’s Leather Heritage District was initially established by predominately white cisgender gay men, this includes making sure that ethnically diverse kinksters, and other members of the LGBTQ Leather District community such as trans, nonbinary, lesbian, bisexual… pretty much any queer person who isn’t a white cisgender gay man… get to read. Straight kinky people are also a part of the leather community.

GMM: What advice would you give to new writers who occupy more than one identity and embody the intersectionalities of race, class, ethnicity, disability, gender, sexuality, etc.? If you could go back in time, would it be the same advice you would give yourself as a novice writer?

SS: If I could go back in time, I think that, as a novice writer, I would have done some things differently. I didn’t find out about Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward’s “Writing the Other” until after I was well into my novel writing career. I have since become more aware of the fact that a person, while being a minority at many intersectionalities, can still be writing the other. I had some inkling, because I talked to my cousin, Heather, who is a quarter Hawaiian (a really big deal, since Europeans brought diseases to Hawaii that wiped out a lot of the native population) about a lot of things that went into the Somnalia series. Especially Book Three, Insatiable, which takes place in Hawaii, where I lived for seven years. Flynn Keahi, the protagonist of the series, is Hawaiian and Chinese and was raised by a Hawaiian single mother. Asking people to give you perspective on the characters that are unlike you is a good idea, even if you have no one available to do a sensitivity read.

Things I did actually do as a new writer that I would suggest, include getting involved in writers’ groups. I was in school at Berkeley City College, where I got a lot of advice from teachers and critiques from student peers that were useful. I started a Black Women’s Writing Group with a fellow student, and joined another Women Writer’s Group that was not exclusively, but predominantly, Black. As a disabled author, I got a lot of support from the disabled student’s services, and I also joined WryCrips, a disabled women’s writing and theater group. I was not out as a nonbinary person at that time. I started a Writing Group for kinksters after I came out as nonbinary. There were a lot of transpeople and queer folks of every ilk in it. It is good to have both mainstream (such as educational) and community writing spaces, in my opinion. 

I am a firm believer in completing your first draft before getting perfectionist and hyper self-critical. It is a difficult lesson for a lot of first-time writers. You need to complete a first draft in a timely manner to avoid having a metric shit-ton of consistency and chronology errors. While you are sitting there, re-writing the same sentence fifty times, you are losing momentum on your plot points. Rewrites can occur during editing, and the flow is sometimes more critical than the perfect turn of phrase. 

Get other eyes on it after you finish your rough draft. Other eyes during the writing of the first draft, that I choose, are much less critical than the ones I choose to allow to help me after the first draft is done. Hypercritical people during the writing of the first draft give me pretender’s syndrome and writer’s block.

“The Calico Cat” by Sumiko Saulson

“Don’t bring that thing in the house!” his mother shouted, as Joe slipped in the door after three p.m., a raggedy patchwork shadow at his feet. The cat, which couldn’t have weighed more than five pounds, had been following him since he walked off his school playground four blocks back.

“Aw, mommy, why?” he cried. “I was hoping to keep her. Can I keep her?” The cat was too thin. Her patchy fur was infested with angry fleas that bit his ankles when she rubbed up against them, begging for a pet. She wasn’t very pretty, but she was so sweet. She… he knew it was a she because calicoes are almost always female… already acted like he was her human.

“Out, you damned flea-bitten mangy mongrel!” Mom screamed. Could the cat understand English? She hissed at his mother, orange eyes blazed like campfire blazing.

“Come on, Mom!” Joe begged, but to no avail. Mom came running for the door, straw broomstick in hand.  He jumped out of the way so she wouldn’t hit him with it on her way to the cat. She swatted madly at the calico, who responded by hissing, back arched like a Halloween decoration. Her claws dug into the pine stick, but to no avail. His mother struck the cat firmly in the hindquarters, and it skittered out into the yard.

“Mom’s right…” his older brother Stan whispered with a haunted look in his eyes. “We don’t want a cat in here, not that cat, anyhow.”

Joe wondered what was bothering Stan, but his older brother wouldn’t tell.

The next night, the calico showed up in his back window at dinnertime, meowing and begging to be let in or fed.

“Don’t feed it!” his father warned. The boy ignored him, and snuck table scraps to the calico at the back door. The calico licked her slender, black lips in anticipation as he offered her a strip of bacon. She must have been starving. She leapt up and nipped his wrist with her tiny fangs so hard that it bled. 

“Told you so!” his dad said, shaking his head. “Those things are dangerous.” The boy yelled at the cat, and she skittered over the back fence, disappearing.

 “Why are you afraid of cats?” Joe asked his father.

“Doesn’t she look familiar?” Dad asked him.

“She does,” Joe admitted. “But all cats kind of look alike, don’t they?”

“That’s one of your grandmother’s cats,” Dad told him. “She had about four of them, all but this one black. Last year, she died of a heart attack. We were shocked when we got home and found all four cats eating her corpse.”

“My goodness!” Joe shrieked. “Eating her?”

“Eating her face right off,” Dad nodded. “That one right there is named Amanda. She was eating your grandmother’s eyeball like she thought it was a mouse. And the smell… just awful.”

“Smell? How long was grandmother dead?” Joe asked. “Maybe they were just hungry.”

“Like hell!” Mom yelled. “Those cats are evil. Vile, plotting little things, they are, wicked! And she had the audacity to leave this house to them in her will.”

“She left everything to them,” Dad laughed. “Her lawyers probably think those cats still are living here and we’re giving them all the money. Fat chance of that!”

His brother Stan looked spooked. “Why don’t you tell Joe the truth?” Stan demanded. “Grandma was a witch. She left the house to those cats because they’re her familiars. That’s why they hate mom and dad. And they’ve been trying to get into the house ever since!”

“That’s crazy,” Joe said. But he wasn’t so sure. He’d been away at summer camp when Grandma died. When he came back, they’d moved into this nice house. They used to live in a trailer before that. No one explained where the house came from until now.

“The calico was their leader,” Stan insisted. “You’ll find out.”

Joe had terrible nightmares that night. Amanda had gotten into the house, along with three other cats, all of them black. She chased him to the bedroom, but he pushed her out and locked the door. He climbed into the bed, and hid under the sheets, but he couldn’t sleep. There were terrible screams coming out of the other rooms in the house.

The next morning, he got up and went down to breakfast, but no one was there.

“Mom?”  he called out. Joe walked through the house looking for her, but didn’t find her. When he went to his parent’s bedroom, and opened the door, they weren’t inside. Instead, there were two black cats, sleeping in their bed.

He walked down to his brother’s room, and opened the door. There was a black kitten sitting on his bed.

Thinking he missed them, he walked back down to the kitchen. There, he saw a strange woman. Her black, orange, and white hair was up in a bouffant hairdo. It reminded him of the cat’s fur.

“Hello, Joe…” she purred. “My name is Amanda. I’ve come to take back what is mine.”

“But you’re a cat,” Joe said, his jaw dropping as he took a seat so he wouldn’t fall down.

“I am a witch,” she informed him. “I am your grandmother’s sister. You know, all of our family members can turn into cats. Too bad your no-good parents didn’t know that before they tried to steal my inheritance.”

Joe looked down and saw a bowl of cereal sitting on the table in front of him. In a state of shock, he began to eat it without thinking. He tried not to imagine his grandmother’s sister eating her eyeball while he was doing it.

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you Friday!

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

Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Nicole Givens Kurtz

Earlier this week, Girl Meets Monster kicked off Women in Horror Month with a post about horror fanatic Dimi Horror whose social media platform is Black Girls Love Horror Too. And, on Wednesday, I had the chance to chat with horror writer and soon-to-be filmmaker, Kenesha Williams. Today, Nicole Givens Kurtz shares a fragment of her fiction and talks about her writing process, current projects, her role as editor for Mocha Memoirs Press, and what it’s like to write horror while Black and female.

Nicole Givens Kurtz is an author, editor, and educator. She’s a member of Horror Writers Association, Sisters in Crime, and Science Fiction Writers of America. She’s the editor of the groundbreaking anthology, Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire. She’s written for White Wolf’s Vampire the Masquerade 20th Anniversary Anthology, Bram Stoker Finalist in Horror Anthology, Sycorax’s Daughters, and Serial Box’s The Vela: Salvation series. Nicole has over 40 short stories published as well as 11 novels and three active speculative mystery series. You can support her work via Patreon and find more about her at http://www.nicolegivenskurtz.net.

About A Theft Most Fowl: Sent to investigate the theft of a sacred artifact, can Hawk Tasifa unravel the threads of the conspiracy before it destroys the Order?

Following her success in Gould, Hawk Prentice Tasifa returns to her university to unravel a mystery. Someone has broken into the Museum of the Goddess and stolen its most sacred artifact, attacked two of the guards, and is trying to frame her mentor. Under pressure from The Order, Prentice is urged to find the culprits, but not all is as it seems.

Can Hawk Tasifa see through the echoes of her own past and find the dirty birds before they destroy everything she loves?

Ten Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Nicole. What projects are you currently working on? Is horror your primary genre, or do you write in other genres? If you write in other genres, which do you feel most comfortable writing, and why?

NGK: I am currently working on a science fiction mystery/futuristic noir series called Fawn & Briscoe. I write primarily in science fiction/fantasy mysteries, but horror is a close second. I feel most comfortable in mystery and horror genres, although I have written contemporary and paranormal romance.

GMM: When did you first know that you were a horror writer? How did you develop an interest in the genre? What initially attracted you to horror stories? Which writers influenced you then? Which writers influence you now?

NGK: I realized I was a horror author after I wrote my first scary story in 10th grade. It involved a Thanksgiving dinner gone horribly wrong. I fell in love with the horror genre when I was 4. Where the Wild Things Are was the first horror book I read, and it remains one of my favorites to this day. I graduated to King in elementary school along with Poe and then to others later in life like Shirley Jackson, L.A. Banks, and Tananarive Due.

GMM: Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019) explores Black horror and the portrayal (and absence) of Black people in horror movies. As a definition of what Black horror means begins to take shape, Tananarive Due says “Black history is Black horror.” What do you think she meant by that? Can you give an example of how this idea shows up in your own work?

NGK: So much of Black American history has been absolutely horrific from being enslaved to the Reconstructive Period to Jim Crow to the Civil Right Movement to the era of Black Lives Matter, living as an African-American in America is to be constantly enraged (Baldwin), but also a witness to the real monsters of the world–mankind. I draw much of my horror from those marginalized spaces that depict the true depravity of racism and the monstrous nature of white supremacy. For example, in many of my weird western stories, the protagonist is a Black woman in the west. The combination of freed slaves and disgraced Confederate soldiers in the southwest/west both seeking new identities and opportunities among scarce resources create a hotbed of horror stories…some very close to the truth.

GMM: As a WOC/Black woman writing horror/dark speculative fiction, do you feel obligated to have a deeper message in your stories? Can writers of color write stories without broader messages about identity, class, and racism? Is it possible to divorce yourself from that ongoing narrative within our culture when you set out to write a story?

NGK: I don’t start out writing stories to incorporate a deeper meaning or message; however, since most of my stories have Black women or POC women as protagonists, issues of identity, class, and racism appear because they are very much a part of our reality. It is difficult to divorce the effect those things have on me, as a person, a Black woman, a Black mom, etc. I can only speak for myself, but it is not something I can do with my storytelling. Because those items affect me, they affect my heroines.

GMM: What are your top five favorite horror movies, and why? Top five horror novels? Which book or movie scared you the most?

NGK:

Top 5 Horror Movies:

  • John Carpenter’s The Thing (original): The shapeshifting nature of The Thing and the paranoia amongst the crew are expertly done and continues to be peak awesomeness today.
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street (original): As someone who suffers from insomnia since I was a child, this movie scared me to death. Exhausted and yearning sleep, the fact that something in my dreams could hurt me in real life completely terrified me.
  • Midsomer: The beauty of Midsomer is that it lures you into a false sense of security with its brilliant sunlight, welcoming community members, and gorgeous grounds, until WHAM! It all goes topsy turvey in ways I could not have foreseen or predicted. Stunned. It bears multiple repeat viewings, too.
  • The Girl with All the Gifts: Zombie. Black Girl. Doesn’t give one iota about humanity. Straight. Up. Insane. Love it!
  • Event Horizon: I probably should’ve led with this one, because it is my favorite of the lot. Awesome if not over the top acting. Crazy blend of science fiction and horror. A real wild ride. Just good scary fun. I have to watch it every time I see it on TV. Sometimes I just watch it to relax or if I want to see a good horror film. I also liked how a Black man was in charge and not killed in the first 10 mintues.

Top 5 Horror Novels:

  • Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley: I have multiple copies of this book and I taught it to high school seniors for 8 years. I still​ love everything about it and I still find wonderful themes on narcissism, abandonment, hubris, beauty, wealth, misogyny… the list goes on. It is a treasure.
  • The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor Lavalle: This is a retelling of Lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook, his most racist story.  Lavalle takes the story and subverts it. It is simply astounding.
  • The Dark Tower by Stephen King: Most of my horror lands in the weird western subgenre, and this was the first one that not only captured my love for blended genres but presented a gunslinger unlike any I’d seen before. Roland and his ka-tet continues to be my favorite book series ever, but it also produces difficult and horrific situations. Terrible situations and consequences for everyone, Roland included.
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shriley Jackson: As a person who often sees herself as an outsider, this book of two sisters, ostracized from the town, and a tiny bit from each other, showed me that horror didn’t have to be bloody and messy. Human beings are monstrous enough, and the way Kat traps her sister and imprisons her scared me to death. It showed me the dangerous power of love.
  • Minion by LA. Banks: The Vampire Huntress Legend Series was the first time I saw an authentic black woman slayer and I absolutely loved every single minute of this series. It didn’t frighten me so much as entertained me, while also centering blackness, which I loved.

GMM: How do you feel about white-identifying writers who write stories about non-white characters? What problems have you encountered? What potential issues do you see with white-identifying writers telling BIPOC stories? What advice would you give those writers?

NGK: K. Tempest Bledsoe and Nisi Shawl have a fantastic workshop and courses on Writing the Other. If white authors want to diversify the characters in their stories, I encourage them to do so. The potential issues are with not centering the non-white character’s culture as being a part of them. For example, Black characters are not monolithic, there’s diversity with different experiences, rearing, and education. However, there are certain cultural touchstones that aren’t advertised or communicated. I would give writers who are seeking to write the other to do the following: 1) write the character and make them as round as you would your white character. 2) Get two or three sensitivity readers to read over your story (Pay them please. This is labor.). Listen to their feedback and incorporate those changes into your revised story. Non-white authors should note that basing a character on your one BIPOC friend, is still tokenism. Try to expand your social group to a variety of different people to avoid stereotypes, tokenism, and offensive behavior in the story.

GMM: All writers have experienced some form of impostor syndrome. What has your experience with impostor syndrome been like? Did you ever have a particularly bad case of it? If so, what caused it and how did you manage it?

NGK: My imposter syndrome should start paying part of the mortgage! I had a terrible case of it at Blacktasticon in 2018. I was selected to moderate a panel that included Sheree Renee Thomas, Linda Addision, Kenesha Williams, Susana Morris, and an overwhelming number of Black women authors. Linda is a legend. Sheree Renee Thomas is a legend. Susana Morris is an amazing academic professor and author. These are REAL writers.

What the hell did I know about questioning them or leading these leaders in a conversation?! I managed it by writing out the questions with the intention that if they didn’t like it, they would go their own course, and I would let them. LOL! There were 10 people on this panel, and if everyone had a chance to talk, I may not need all the questions. I was prepared to, but I didn’t need to worry. The panel went well.

GMM: Congratulations on being awarded a Diversity Grant from the Horror Writers Association. If you don’t mind me asking, how do you plan to use the grant? What goals do you have in mind?

NGK: Thank you! I plan to use my grant to attend StockerCon for networking possibilities as well as take a MasterClass with Neil Gaiman course to improve my craft.

GMM: How long have you been the editor of Mocha Memoirs Press? Do you prefer editing to writing, or vice versa? How did you get started as an editor? Do you perform and other roles at the press? How can interested writers find out about calls for submission?

NGK: I have been the editor and owner of Mocha Memoirs Press for 11 years. I prefer writing! I got started editing others when I taught English for 18 years in public school. I am the owner of the press so I have assisted in all areas of the business: slush reading, edits, proofreading, formatting, marketing, etc. Interested writers can find the call for submissions at https://mochamemoirspress.com/write-for-us/.

GMM: What about your writing makes it unique within the horror genre? Are there any subjects you’re afraid to write about, or stories you avoid telling?

NGK: My tagline is Strong Heroines. Fantasy Worlds. In the horror genre, I primarily writer weird westerns and as a Black Woman, that is very rare. There are subjects I don’t write stories about and those are slavery, rape, and incest. Those are topics that I don’t find tasteful, and so I don’t write about them. I am aware that horror has a tendency to push the envelope of those things we fear, but those topics fall outside the range of what I want my work to focus on.

Excerpt from A Theft Most Fowl: A Kingdom of Aves Mystery ©2020 Nicole L. Kurtz

The University of Sulidae was the oldest college in Aves. Originally, its location resided in the Audubon Nest, close to Lanham, home of The Order. Political infighting forced the intellectuals to put some distance between themself and those at court. Experience taught them that the closer one got to power, the harder it was to survive. In response, The Order opened an intelligence file on university members. Despite the history of hurt feelings and tensions on both sides, many of those within The Order’s rank traveled and studied at the university’s new location in Sulidae Egg, in Edmonds Nest. It sat on the banks of the Plume River at the apex of the Audubon and Edmonds nests. The campus was its own island in the egg; everything revolved around the university.

Rook Bjorn Renner’s entire life orbited around Sulidae University, most importantly the Museum of the Goddess. As curator, Rook Renner’s true passion to which his entire life was devoted was collecting goddess artifacts. As a renowned expert in all things goddess, he received a consistent stream of requests to verify and validate recently discovered treasures. Over time, his teachings gained more urgency around authenticity.  

Prentice found it strange that a devoted bird like Rook Renner would steal the Five-Feathered Crown. Why now? Why only that artifact? Why not something less obvious? He wouldn’t be able to get birdsong for the relic. No one would take the risk of being caught with it. No one would dare touch the crown for fear of death.

The theft didn’t add up.

Hawk Prentice Tasifa sat on the train speeding from Gould to Sulidae. She picked up Cardinal Wick’s letter and read it again.

Hawk Tasifa-

Your services have been requested in the Sulidae Egg. Arrive within two days and greet Dove Raz Haq. The situation as we know at this time:

1. Missing sacred goddess’s feathered crown.
2. Proposed magical use.
3. Possible suspects: Rook Bjorn Renner

The truth is light. Bring it forth as hawks see what is unseen.

Peace,
Cardinal Wick

She rolled the parchment up again.

Someone did break into the museum and they stole the Five-Feathered Crown. In the ensuing massive manhunt, the eagles who served as security for all eggs, searched but came up empty. Request for assistance from the public produced nothing, according to the reports. No doubt, Rook Renner was frantic with worry and he stood accused of stealing it himself.

Prentice sipped her tea as ideas formulated in her mind. Drinking Earl Grey became a simple pleasure among the stickiness of investigative work. The ancient cogwheel train raced across the rails, and it gently rocked as it chugged its way through the Edmonds Nest. She’d left the Bailey’s rolling hills and the Adams Mountains with their snow-capped tips. They grew smaller in the distance along with Bailey Egg’s red-roofed buildings.

Now, two days later, she meandered along the Adams River. She missed Gould, and if the circumstances changed, she’d return again, but not for work.

Ahead, Sulidae Egg appeared. Prentice had the sleeping car to herself, an ornately decorated car whose features included carved, wood paneling, pressed metal ceiling, frosted glass, lamp oils and a night seat which folded down for a bed. Over the last couple of days, the car had started to feel like home. She sat in the small, overstuffed chair and removed her notepad.

When not on an active investigation, Prentice wore casual clothing; her dark wings identified her as a hawk no matter what she wore. Today she had chosen a sapphire headdress which bore silver embroidered wings and matched her frock. A silver, satin scarf draped from her neck across her left shoulder. She put away the boots in exchange for flat, closed-toe sandals. Sulidae lay in the Edmonds Nest, just southwest of Lanham. The weather remained warm throughout the year due to the Avian Sea currents. She dressed accordingly, but only by chance. Unable to return home from her last assignment for a change of clothes, Prentice happened to have packed cooler clothing.

Her thoughts turned to Rook Renner. No doubt, the rook sowed the seeds of his own demise with his erratic behavior.

The train bumped over the railroad tracks as it slowed into Lizard Mountain Train Station, with the setting sun. A whistle announced their arrival and Prentice disembarked with her luggage and satchel. As soon as the heat hit her, she missed the cool mountains of Gould. Along the platform, coachmen carried signs advertising their services. She secured one and found herself quickly seated in a carriage, her luggage bags secured outside in the rear, her driver holding the reins in front. Two beautiful horses pulled them away from the train station and into the waiting night.

In what seemed like no time, she reached campus. Being early suppertime, the egg bustled with life. Students clutched heavy satchels and walked or bicycled through the streets. People clustered together in casual conversations at outdoor cafes, illuminated by votive candles. Pedestrians hiked alongside cyclists with ease in a practiced rhythm.

In the hushed carriage interior, Prentice embraced the nostalgia rushing over her. She hadn’t been here in years, not since graduation. Outside the carriage window, the Plume River glistened as it snaked its way through the egg. A clear sky put the constellations on display, and she warmed at the memory of nights spent in Rook Ioan’s astronomy class, charting and memorizing the heavens, gazing through telescopes, and listening to how they came to be. A hawk was never lost as long as they had the sky.

“We’re here.” The coachman wrenched open the door and disappeared around to the carriage’s rear. He clambered up the short ladder and threw down her luggage bags. They smacked the ground.

“By the goddess, be careful!” Prentice bellowed as she exited. Vultures!

The coachman came back around with said baggage stuffed under both arms. He glared at her as he placed the bags beside her. His tight, grayish skin bore thin scars. The bright scarlet birthmark across his sharp nose drew attention away from his dark beady eyes.

“Thank you.” Prentice took five birdsongs from her leather punch. She dropped the copper coin with the five emblazed on the tail and the goddess’s likeness on the front into the coachman’s gloved hand.

“Evening.” The man bowed, his face softened by the tip, before leaping up to the driver’s seat. His agility surprised her; his girth didn’t hinder his movements at all.

She turned her attention to the pristine cathedral that consumed the center entrance of the university campus. The air was heavy with the fragrance of frankincense and sage. A cobblestoned maze of dark corridors threaded through the grounds and connected the buildings. Dark hallways stretched out in a monolithic maze of nooks and crannies, making it impossible to take in the enormity of the university at a glance.

Ahead, a figure approached through the growing dark. Brightly colored lanterns illuminated the square and entranceway. She could make out the red turban atop a head. A sudden strong wind billowed his dark robes. Prentice didn’t need her hawk abilities to recognize Rook Renner. Her jaw tightened as he advanced.

Once the wizened old man reached her, he wasted no time embracing her.

“Hoot, Prentice.” Renner pulled her close.

His voice was stronger than Prentice expected.

She returned his hug but pulled back. “Hoot, Rook! How are you here? Shouldn’t you be in a cell?”

Rook Renner’s jovial face held bemusement. He didn’t seem distraught. “It would seem my rapidly eroding reputation has kept that action at bay.”

His rawboned features, decorated with broad red lines beneath each eye and a vertical one from his forehead down to his chin, disappeared beneath a bushy white beard.

“Come. I’m glad you’re here.” He clasped her hand in his bony one. The soft flesh palm spoke to the rook never doing physical labor in his life.

“Me too.” She meant it.

He motioned ahead. “I’ve had a small instructor apartment set up for you.”

Prentice took back her hand. “An apartment? Rook, you know I’m here to investigate you and the theft…”

She trailed off. A quiver filtered through her feathers.

Rook Renner raised his hand. The silver rings he wore caught the pale moonlight as he held his hand up to silence her.

“I’m aware. It’s a studio, nothing luxurious. The Order cannot say I attempted to bribe you. My status may not be what it once was at court, but I’m greatly injured at this intrusion. The sooner we get this resolved, the sooner I can get back to my work.”

“Rook…” Prentice’s cheeks warmed at his words.

But she didn’t travel here to rekindle their student-instructor relationship. She’d been assigned to this case and she had a job to do.

See the unseen.

She adjusted her satchel across her torso and then hoisted her luggage.

“Lead the way.” Rook Renner smiled. “Follow me.”

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.