Dreams Do Come True

The past seven days have been amazing. Last weekend I attended an event, Necon 39, that quite literally changed my life. Not only did I get to meet and spend time with some of the kindest, most interesting, and hilarious people you could hope to meet, but I made my debut as a published writer. As some of you know, I have published short stories in anthologies, but this was the first time I got to sign copies of my novel, Invisible Chains.

Books

Photo credit: Michael Burke

Thanks to some very thoughtful reviews from readers who received advanced copies of the book, including A. E. Siraki, Ben Walker, and Mad Wilson, people actually came to the event with the intent of buying my book. Some people enjoyed reading the book so much, they promoted it every chance they got. I was overwhelmed with gratitude and awed by the level of support and kind words from people who had been strangers prior to the event.

Signing

Photo credit: John McIlveen

If you have the opportunity to attend Necon, do so. It is a welcoming environment where you can connect with other writers, have informal conversations with publishers, editors, artists, and avid readers.

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Photo credit: Lynne Hansen

And, I was welcomed into two new families: the Necon family, and the Haverhill House family.

Haverhill

Photo credit: Tony Tremblay

Although last weekend was technically a working weekend for me, it felt more like vacation and even though I was exhausted when I got home, I still felt recharged and ready to tackle whatever is coming next. I can’t wait to go back next year.

Heroes

Photo credit: Tony Tremblay

Invisible Chains was officially released on Monday, July 22 from Haverhill Housing Publishing. And, as friends received their shipping confirmations from Amazon, they contacted to let me know how excited they were to read the book. Folks who pre-ordered the hardcover and Kindle editions started receiving their copies this week and have shared pictures of the book, which is a truly humbling experience.

Earlier this week, I was interviewed for the Lawyers, Guns & Money podcast, where I got to talk about my book and one of my favorite subjects: vampires. I was also interviewed by fellow writer, Loren Rhoads for her blog, and wrote about My Favorite Things over at Speculative Chic. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that one of my favorite things is vampires. I talked and wrote about them a lot this week. Which, I have to say, is a dream come true.

So, what’s next? Aside from a few upcoming book reviews and guest blog posts, my first local book event is scheduled for Saturday, August 10 at 3 p.m., Why Do We Love Vampires and Narcissists. I’ll be reading passages from Invisible Chains and signing books, and local experts will share their knowledge about herbs, stones, symbolism, and narcissistic personalities. I’m really looking forward to this event and hope that some of you can attend.

Invite

I will be attending the The 5th Annual Merrimack Valley Halloween Book Festival on Saturday, October 12, and the following weekend, I’ll be in Atlanta for Multiverse 2019 – SciFi & Fantasy Convention, where I will again be talking about vampires.

Vampires

Later this year, I’ll have short stories in two upcoming anthologies, The Monstrous Feminine (Scary Dairy Press) and The Dystopian States of America (Haverhill House Publishing).

As I add events to my calendar, I will share that information here, so check back if you’re interested in attending one of those events. Thank you to everyone who has given their support, encouragement, and helped promote Invisible Chains. It has been a labor of love, and I couldn’t have done it without your kindness and friendship.

Invisible Chains: My Debut Novel

Michelle-LaneFor those of you who missed the news, my debut novel, Invisible Chains, will be released into the world July 22, 2019 by Haverhill House Publishing. If you’re as excited about this news as I am, you can pre-order a copy on Amazon, and while you’re there, you can check out my fancy new Amazon Author Page. Even though I’ve had my short fiction published, having my first novel published makes me feel like a bonafide author. See, I even have an author photo.

That’s great, Michelle, but what is your book about?

I’m glad you asked.

Jacqueline is a young Creole slave in antebellum New Orleans.  An unusual stranger who has haunted her dreams since childhood comes to stay as a guest in her master’s house. Soon after his arrival, members of the household die mysteriously, and Jacqueline is suspected of murder.  Despite her fear of the stranger, Jacqueline befriends him and he helps her escape. While running from the slave catchers, they meet conjurers, a loup-garou, and a traveling circus of supernatural freaks.  She relies on ancestral magic to guide her and finds strength to conquer her fears on her journey.

Oh, and here is the beautiful cover art designed by the very talented Errick Nunnally.

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As many of you know, writing can be a difficult and solitary pursuit. And, if your goal is to have your work published, the stages of writing, editing, rewriting, editing again, and submitting can feel like a never-ending climb up a hill while pushing a giant rock covered in your own entrails. Plus, if you submit and get nothing but rejections it sometimes seems like a good idea to just give up and find a different way to torture yourself.

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Can I tell you a secret? I’m glad I didn’t give up.

Believe me, I thought about giving up. I thought about giving up a lot. But this story lived inside me for a long time and it refused to be abandoned. This multi-genre slave narrative began its life as a short story back in the early 2000s and had a very different ending. That short story shared space on a thumb drive, untouched  with other abandoned writing projects, for several years. I mean, I would pull it out from time to time and read it but I never did anything with it until I applied to the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction (WPF) program at Seton Hill University (SHU).

Attending SHU was one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made. And, one of the scariest. At 40, I was completely dissatisfied with my life. I had a job I was on the verge of burning out on, I was unhappily married, and I was primarily responsible for raising my son who had begun to show signs of behavioral problems at daycare and school. I was the primary bread winner, I took care of the house, paid the bills, maintained social connections with friends and family, and one day I realized I was living my life for other people instead of living it for myself.

I began making a mental inventory of the things that brought me joy, and at the top of that list was writing. Writing was something I had done all my life. And, when I was writing I was happier. I started unearthing some of my unfinished short stories and realized they weren’t terrible. And then, I wondered what would happen if I took myself seriously as a writer. I made the decision to apply to SHU after asking a friend about the program. Jenda had nothing but good things to say about the program, and honestly, I think SHU should consider sending her a check each month for her excellent marketing skills.

My short story, “Freedom is in the Blood,” became Invisible Chains over the course of six years. Three years writing my thesis novel in the low residency MFA program, and three years of rewriting, editing, pitching, and submitting. In the process of writing the novel, my protagonist evolved into a stronger character who stands up to monsters to make a better life for herself.

In many ways, my protagonist evolved with me as I made changes in my own life. Deciding to write this book was the first step towards reshaping my life on my own terms. I’ve encountered my share of set backs, obstacles, and people who behave like monsters, but like Jacqueline, I keep moving forward.

In the process of moving forward, I’ve made new friends, reconnected with old friends, and built stronger relationships with the people who cheered me on through the highs and lows of writing this book. They’re good people. And I couldn’t have survived the process without their love and support.

I am very fortunate to be included in such diverse and supportive writing communities like the HWA and as an SHU alumna. And, of course, I wouldn’t be able to brag about getting my book published if I had never met the Editor-in-Chief of Haverhill House Publishing, John M. McIlveen.

I met John last year at StokerCon™ 2018 in Providence, RI. I pitched Invisible Chains to him, a book that took close to five years to write, in about ten minutes. And, much to my surprise, after babbling at him in what I believed to be incoherent nonsense, he said he’d be interested in reading it. That was the first spark of hope, and it has been one pleasant experience after the next working with John and Haverhill House Publishing.

Well, now the book is written and available for pre-order. The hardback edition will be available July 22, 2019. In the meantime, I have a stack of proofs that I would very much like to get into the hands of book reviewers and people who would be willing to blurb the book. If you or someone you know might be a good fit for a book like this, let me know and I’ll reach out to them.

What’s next, you may ask? I don’t know, but I suspect I might have to write another book.

Fiction Fragments: R. J. Joseph

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

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

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

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

Three Questions

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

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

I wanted to be the monster.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have a fragment of fiction you’re dying to share? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you soon!

Fiction Fragments: Kristin Dearborn

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

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

Three Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fragment, by Kristin Dearborn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll pay for a private tour.”

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

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

Fiction Fragments: Elsa M. Carruthers

45359013_343895623027443_6852185627127971840_nLast week, Ryan DeMoss stopped by and shared a story about what lurks in the woods. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Elsa M. Carruthers.

Elsa is a speculative fiction writer, academic, and poet. She lives in California with her family. In 2011, she earned her MFA in Creative Writing and English from Seton Hill University. Since graduating, Elsa’s work has been published in several anthologies, magazines, and e-zines.

Elsa is an active member of HWA, RWA, SFPA, IAFA, and the Poetry Foundation. She regularly attends writing conventions and loves meeting new people!

Three Questions

GMM: Your story has a near future feeling to it, which I like, because what’s happening in the story feels like something that could be happening today with some slight nuances that set your story in the future, like the hint at the fact that vegetation of any kind if rare and expensive to maintain. As a speculative fiction writer, are you more likely to write about the future or alternate pasts? Which do you prefer and why?

EMC: Thank you. I tend to write present and near future more than anything else. I have written stories and two novel manuscripts set in the past, and it was challenging for me to keep the momentum going because I tend to worry about getting facts down correctly and respecting the sensibilities of the time, etc.

GMM: With the subtle inclusion of plant life being a rare commodity on what I assume to be a future Earth, does you story have a message about global warming? As a female writer, do your stories usually have a deeper meaning or hidden agenda? Can you avoid writing about current events and future worries given the state of the world we live in?

EMCI don’t think I write with an agenda in mind, but I definitely think my anxieties and concerns bleed through; especially in my horror stories. I worry about a lot of things: global warming, over-building, species endangerment, clean water… and that is just the environmental stuff.

GMM: What was the inspiration for this piece? Do you intend to finish it? Without giving too much away, what happens next? Do the two engineers form a closer bond?

EMCOne day I was walking around a neighborhood park and I saw a sign on a massive empty lot across the street. There were several foxes and a hare, I am sure owls and snakes around there too, and lots of native shrubs… a tiny wilderness in the middle of a big city, and they scraped it all bare to put down yet another shopping center. It made me sad and angry. I wished that plants could somehow reclaim some land, you know fight back without going Swamp Thing.

I do intend to finish it, and I am a closet die-hard romantic. He will have to earn her respect and then… the lights dim.

“The De-bugging of Arias Home Systems,” by Elsa M. Carruthers

Aaron’s back and shoulders hurt, but he couldn’t take a break until he traced the source of the corrupted code. Somehow, several houses in the Arias II complex had their default settings switched on. Worse, the default setting was a moss and ivy- covered brick ruins. The angry messages and calls came at such a pace that he’d had to assign his best systems engineers to run interference with the angry homeowners all night.

Celia called up to him from her desk. It was situated behind his in an otherwise plain, empty room. “Aaron, the default setting looks like it is locked in. I have run through each bit of code, and there are no patches… this is somehow organic to the programming.”

“What? No, we didn’t even have this as a model. Rustic cabin yes. Fallen-down building, no. What the hell? Run it again.”

“I am telling you, this isn’t a patch or a virus.”

Aaron turned to look at her, it was rightfully his ass on the line. He cried seniority to HR, and pulled the job out from under her, even though everyone knew she was the best engineer in the company. Calls to HR are supposed to be confidential, but everyone knew about it within an hour.

“Did you do this?”

Celia dropped her headset and glared at him. Her dark eyes pulled tight in anger. “I have been working in this for eight motherfucking years, cabrón. Why would I fuck it up? I have my name practically written all over this. I’d never work again. Don’t get me wrong, as soon as I can, I am going after you. Believe that. But this? Na-ah. I am not that petty.”

Aaron shook his head. She was right. He knew she was. He was about to say so, and tell her how much he wished he could take it all back, because he really did, when Micah let himself in.

“Jen wants to see you.” Micah smirked at Aaron. “Now.”

Aaron sighed. He was fucked. Micah had already pulled the flat-paneled door of the Systems Room open and stepped into the maze of hallway. Aaron watch Micah head toward the elevators without even a glace over his shoulder to see if Aaron followed. Jen was probably ensconced in her Penthouse office; this was very bad.

They rode in silence, but Aaron could feel Micah’s amused gaze on him. He clenched his jaw. He’d love to punch Micah’s smug, shit-eating face. Someday, he told himself. Someday.

They rode up and up, until they indeed reached the Penthouse. Up here, it was like another universe. Real plants, including orchids, grew out of wall gardens and giant concrete planters. There were dwarf trees that seemed to sprout out of the roof-top floor and not for the first time did Aaron marvel at the undoubtfully huge expense it was to reinforce the truces below, not to mention the constant care these plants needed. He never saw a gardener, but knew there had to be someone.

They wove through the courtyard to Jen’s office door. Micah cleared his throat and put his hand up, signaling to Aaron that he had to wait outside until called. He walked through the massive doorway and shut the door behind him.

“Condescending putz,” Aaron said under his breath.

Micah’s voice blasted from a speaker somewhere over the door. “I can hear you,” he sang. “Also, Jen says to give her a minute.”

Ten minutes later, Micah screamed out of the speaker. “SHE SAYS SHE IS READY NOW!” The giant door opened.

“Thank you, asshole,” Aaron sang back in the same tune Micah did before.

Aaron smoothed down his shirt, straightened his tie before stepping into the reception area. Micah pointed to the open French doors to Jen’s office. “Go on in. She’s waiting for you.”

Jen sat behind a massive Teak desk, probably from the last supply of Teak in the world. Her stilettoed feet were propped up on the right-side corner of her desk and Aaron did his best not to look up her skirt. It unsettled him, as it was probably meant to.

“Sit down Aaron,” Jen said. He sat in one of the two black sling-backed chairs and balanced himself on the edge of the seat to keep from sinking back into it like a hammock.

She laughed. “I can see that you don’t often sit in this type of chair. If it is more comfortable, you may stand. This won’t take long.”

He cleared his throat and waited for her to continue.

“I have cleared out the residents of Arias II, by giving them all resort passes to Juniper. I have also given a press release and offered a non-specific, non-legally binding apology for this inconvenience. That is what I have done. What you are going to do is fix this goddamned mess!”

She smoothed the lavender-lilac colored fringe of bangs from her forehead and pushed her red reading glasses up the bridge of her nose.

“You will fix this and find out how it happened in the first place! Also, you better make sure that this malware—”

“It isn’t malware as far as we can tell,” Aaron interrupted.

Jen gave him a withering look that made him want to crawl away and never come back. “Well, I suppose that is some good news. I want all of your logs, forward them to me through the internal server.” She waved at him to go.

Aaron made to go. He hesitated, wondering if he should mention that the code was somehow overwritten.

“Is there something else? Should I get Celia as point on this?” She goaded him.

“Nope, I am working with her and we’re making good progress.” He left without looking at her or Micah.

Back in his office, Celia was deep in thought behind her multiple monitors. He could see the lines of code reflected off her anti-glare glasses and he again wanted to tell her how sorry he was, how he respected her, how working with her, even though she hated him, was the best thing that ever happened to him. Instead, he sat down and got to work.

He couldn’t see that anything was wrong. And then, by accident, he noticed the code rewriting itself in sections. It was so subtle, the changes seemed like nothing, a vine instead of a tree in the front. And he wouldn’t have caught it all if he hadn’t actually watched a bit of code rewrite itself.

“Celia, it looks like it might be malware after all. I just saw a—”

“Uh-huh,” she said in a dreamy out of it voice. “I saw it too, trying to trace the little hijo de la chingada, but he is slick.”

Of course, she saw it first. He smiled to himself.

“I am thinking,” she said in the same far away voice, “that it isn’t just malware, but some sort of ransomware. Whoever this is, is chevere as fuck!” she said with real admiration. “Anyway,” she said without looking up, “what’d Jen have to say?”

He told her how she got people out and that she threatened to put Celia on the job, hoping that Celia wouldn’t rub it in too much. She surprised him by holding his gaze for a few seconds. “Look, I am only pissed because you could’ve won fair and square. Not that weaselly shit you pulled.”

“I know. I can’t even tell you how sorry I am.”

“Sorry don’t fix shit. Now you’ve got to earn your title. Don’t be such a huevón, and you will be like top five level. I mean, you’ll never be as good as me, but, hey, nobody can be.”

He smiled. “I’m going to order some food. Looks like I will be here a while, but you don’t have to be. You probably have things you want to do, and this is my mess.” He couldn’t possibly ask her to pull another all-nighter to save him, though he really wanted to.

“Nah, it is all right. I want those mini panini thingies and I am dying for some fries. Get that and I am good to go for a few more hours at least.”

Aaron texted the order. They ate as they worked. Aaron came close to smashing his keyboard several times. “Fuck! Every time I am close to stopping the changes, they just go around me. Who the fuck is this?”

Celia muttered something to herself. She was trying to trace the source of the hack. “Slippery fool, whoever it is.”

Just as she said that, Aaron’s commands no longer worked. He tried to override, nothing. “I can’t,” he said.

“Me either. This is bad. Very bad.”

Aaron’s hands shook, and his shirt stuck to him where the sweat bled through his undershirt. “Was this a distraction so that the hacker could clone the drivers?”

Celia stepped away from her bank of monitors. She rubbed the crease between her eyes and pursed her lips. “The whole program is hijacked. I’m not even sure we can do a Systems Restore.” She squatted in front of her backpack and pulled out an external drive. “We can try to reroute; use this to—”

“You’re a genius!”

“I know,” she said and winked. Celia placed the external drive on her desk. Aaron touched her arm.

“You don’t have to stay. You’re in the clear for this, I will take the fall.”

Celia looked at him up and down. “Nope, I am taking this hijo or hija out!” She plugged it in and was immediately confronted with firewall after firewall. They weren’t failproof, just annoying and time-wasting.

“You see this? This is old school right here.”

Aaron saw it. The ransomware hid on the OS and then replicated itself in file after file. “You know your external drive is toast now too, right?”

“Ah mierda, I didn’t think of that.” She sighed. “I am so tired.”

“I hate to say it, but I think we’re done.” Aaron tried to do a System Restore, figuring that they could rebuild the destroyed coding, but he saw that even as he typed, the hacker had full control.

“I’m iced-out,” he said to Celia.

“Me too,” she said and threw her headset across the room. “Carajo!”

“It’s okay. I’ll figure something out.” But he wasn’t even fooling himself.

All their monitors flashed, then went black. They stood in silence, each watching the dead monitors. Several seconds went by. Neither of them spoke though Aaron knew Celia must be feeling as helpless and frustrated as he did.

The screens turned back on. It looked like a manual reboot, but then Aaron and Celia’s faces were on the screens.

“That was like a few minutes ago.” Aaron’s throat went dry. The hacker customized the malware and had complete remote access control of the computers. But why show them the pictures? Why not leave the monitors off instead of teasing them?

Celia still stared at the screens as she spoke. “What are they trying to tell us?”

“I think it is a tease. We should go down to the server room and see if we can do something from there.” He made to pat her shoulder and stopped himself. She wasn’t some employee working overtime. She was the only person who could help. And he’d better put any romantic ideas he had away.

I haven’t confirmed a guest for next week, so next’s week is a mystery. Do you have a fragment you’re dying to share with the Interwebs? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: Ryan DeMoss

44177254_1912898445465481_749535689380462592_nLast week, David X. Wiggin joined Girl Meets Monster and shared a fragment about an alternate dimension where birds are our overlords. This week, my friend and fellow SHU alum, Ryan DeMoss joins me to talk about the trap of genre and what really scares him.

R.D. DeMoss has an MA in English and an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. He has won awards for his short fiction and is continually working on his long fiction. He also teaches college-level composition in Washington and lives with a wonderful dog.

Three Questions

GMM: The scene you shared is a little scary. Is this a horror story or fantasy? A little of both? Which genre do you prefer? Why?

RDDI usually get lumped into horror, but my favorite stories are usually not defined by a single genre. Those are the stories I want to write. I’ve also found that the scariest horror books often have more hope to them than we assume, and cheerful books often have more chills than we want to admit. In other words, I see this scene as part of a coming-of-age tale, but it has its share of darkness. Then again, doesn’t life?

GMM: I know that you like to spend time outdoors. Living in Washington State must give you plenty of opportunities to get out into Nature. What was the weirdest or scariest thing you ever saw while hiking in the woods?

RDDI am certainly no mountain man, and I don’t think I have any experiences people would consider scary in the typical sense of a horror story. However, in my experience, the real terror of the outdoors is how easily and quickly situations change. I once did a hike in Hawaii that had a stone with dozens of etchings—a counter of deaths the trail had seen. On that same hike, in a muddy area, my friend slipped and started over the edge of a cliff. We laughed and called it a close call, but that fine line between a close call and tragedy terrifies me.

GMM: What made you stop writing this story? Do you plan to finish it? Without revealing too much, what happens next?

RDDI do actually have an ending to this story. I’m not sure if it’s the right ending, but it’s an ending. As I mentioned, I see this as a coming-of-age story, and when Finch finishes his plan, Tyler learns that not everything in life can be explained. The fine line between rationality and chaos is thinner than kids are led to believe, and adults spend their whole lives trying to understand the events that blur the borders. In the ending I have, Tyler spends his whole life waiting for the next time the chaos will cross into his rational world.

Excerpt from “Tell Me a Lie”, by R.D. DeMoss

Finch’s house bordered a green space that stretched on for half a mile before breaking at the highway. We’d explored the area a few times before but always with full daylight, which must have been why the woods seemed different that evening. Orange rays of the setting sun trickled and fell over the tips of the evergreens. Under their branches, shadows stretched onto the lawn, and an unseasonably cool breeze swirled through the leaves and swept over me, chilling the bare skin of my arms and legs. Somewhere, in a distant subdivision, a lawnmower buzzed.

The sun’s light seemed to almost vanish as we stepped under the boughs of the trees. Finch’s figure became a lean silhouette as I hurried to keep up with him. Fallen branches scraped my ankles, and a few times, I almost fell face first into the muddy trail. Each time I gathered my balance, Finch’s shape blurred a little more until he vanished, leaving only the sharp dark arcs of brush behind.

“Finch?” I called, but received no answer. A bird cooed somewhere high above me. The ground seemed to exhale a frigid gust of damp earthy smells, and I shivered. “Finch?”

In the darkness, someone whispered.

I said, “Finch, it’s getting cold. We need to go back.”

Another whisper.

My voice hid in my chest, but as I stepped closer, I forced out faint words. “Is that you?”

Finch grabbed my arm and pulled me behind a tree. “It’s behind you.” He pushed his finger to his lips, telling me to be quiet.

Out of the brush stepped a figure my mind couldn’t process at first. Maybe it was just a trick of the dim lighting, but next to me stood Finch and searching the trail was also the unmistakably tall, thin profile of Finch. There were two of him.

“Tyler,” the figure on the path called.

“Don’t answer it. It’s poisonous,” the Finch beside me whispered.

Until then, it hadn’t occurred to me I was in any real danger. I was nervous, sure, but I hadn’t felt threatened.

The Finch next to me twisted something clear and round in his hands. The top popped off with a soft sucking sound.

The creature on the path straightened. Its eyes darted toward where we hid. I held my breath. I was sure it saw us, but then it turned. When it did, its frame folded into the shadows and exposed what might have been its true form. It was a fraction of a fraction of Finch’s size, the size of a bug, a lighting bug. Its light shimmered with streaks of blue and magenta. It hovered in the air, bobbing as if it considering what to do next.

Finch sprung out from hiding. He swung the object in his hand over the creature that had looked just like him. By the time I understood the object he held was a mason jar, he had already screwed the cap tight. “Ain’t getting out, now,” he said.

The contents of the jar pulsed harsh shades of crimson, the colors of anger and warning. It wanted to hurt us. But, after a few moments the luminescence dimmed to a gentle pink.

“What is it? How did it look like you? Why?” The questions poured out of me as we walked back.

“It’s a wisp. You know, a wil-o’-the-wisp.”

I didn’t really know, but nodded just the same. “Why was it out there? Why did you catch it?”

“I baited it. Last night, I put a few of my journals out there. Wisp’s are really nosy, can’t keep themselves from invading someone’s privacy.”

Next week, Girl Meets Monster gets a visit from Elsa Carruthers. I’m so excited! Do you have a story to share? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: Frazer Lee

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

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

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

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

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

Official website
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Three Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction Fragment, by Frazer Lee

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

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

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

Fiction Fragments: Michael Arnzen

Last week, Matt Betts stopped by to talk about the upside of writing fan fiction and how it can help novice writers find their voices and improve their craft. This week, horror writer Michael Arnzen joins Girl Meets Monster to talk about his writing process and why humor and horror are so closely related in our psyches.

ArnzenShades18Michael Arnzen holds four Bram Stoker Awards and an International Horror Guild Award for his disturbing (and often funny) fiction, poetry and literary experiments. He has been teaching as a Professor of English in the MFA program in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University since 1999. New stories are coming out soon in the anthologies Knee Deep in Little Devils and Collected Christmas Horror Shorts II, with more insanity soon to come. To discover his writing, seek out the books Proverbs for Monsters or 100 Jolts. To see what he’s up to now visit gorelets.com or follow him on twitter @MikeArnzen where he routinely posts news, oddities and random tidbits of terror.

Three Questions

GMM: What inspired this story, and how autobiographical is it? Are you like Reynolds? Do you dread talking about your writing when people put you on the spot?

MA: My process is very loose and I’m always on the lookout for story ideas by twisting things we take for granted, or paying attention to the peculiarities happening around us in everyday life. The idea for “Poe Bread” came to me last time I was visiting Baltimore, the land of Edgar Allan Poe and a place where you can get good Poor Boy sandwiches. I think I made some dumb pun about “Poe Boy” sandwiches at a restaurant, but after I stopped laughing at my own joke, I wondered whether there was a story there, and it mutated into the phrase “Poe Bread” in my mind. As I drove back to Pittsburgh, I mused over a plot that might unfold the meaning of the phrase and started writing the next day to see if the idea had any legs.

All my characters are always extreme or abstract versions of how I imagine I would act or react if I were that kind of person, but even when they might have the kinds of roles I might have — writers, teachers, pet owners, etc. — I don’t really identify with them much beyond that, because they are all always splinters of my personality on some level, even when they are completely unlike me. This is a tough question to answer, but a fitting one to talk about in your “fragments” series, actually… because characters are always fragments of a writer’s identity, while being embellishments, too, at the same time.

So Reynolds is a writer, and I kind of like his imaginary fiction series about dead rock stars (I love pop music and could totally get into writing that!), but I wanted him to be more of the kind of writer that the restaurant owner would fawn over, rather than the kind of writer I am. So he’s probably a lot stuffier and more reserved than I am. I don’t dread talking about my stories (well, not the finished ones), but I do kind of feel uncomfortable with people asking me to explain them. Though I do appreciate it when people read my work and tell me they enjoy it, I really don’t enjoy adulation, because I write to connect with people of a like mind, not to feel superior to them. I like it more when someone says “You’re a sick man, Arnzen!” with a knowing gleam in their eye than when they praise me fannishly.  But I can be a fan boy too, so I understand.  The waiter in the Metallica t-shirt is probably just as much like who I really am, too, if not more so — even though I’ve never waited tables or owned restaurants or baked bread.  It’s all fiction, exploration of the fragments trying to find a whole. And I ain’t done yet.

GMM: Academics have suggested that there is a connection between horror and humor. I think even many lay people would agree that there is a healthy amount of comic relief in horror films. Your work tends to employ humor even though you write about dark things. When did this connection occur to you and/or have you always written horror stories with a thread of humor? Is it just a personality quirk that comes out in your writing?

I think laughter bonds us, even though we’re all doomed.

MA: It’s funny: even when I’ve tried to write comedy, people tell me that it’s very disturbing or dark or not funny at all.  Or when I’m at a fiction reading, delivering a really devious and dark line with seriousness someone in the audience will erupt with laughter. Sometimes it’s just me, laughing at myself, too.  Fantasy is ludicrous, and the “gross out” often has a humorous (albeit juvenile) appeal, but that absurdity leads to originality and truth in a way that other things don’t. Horror comedy is tricky to write well and I don’t think I’m good at it when I try too hard to be funny.  So I have given up trying to be funny or scary:  I just write in a way that lets myself go, and try to not to censor myself too much.  I think what I’m doing as a writer is just like letting myself dream or be mentally drunk on the page, and to feel that liberty that you don’t get in everyday life.

An interviewer once categorized me as a “dark jester” in a feature story once and I kind of liked that, a lot, because it reminds me of Poe’s “Imp of the Perverse.”  Another writer called my work “sardonic” across the board, and I like that a lot too.  The comedic stuff I’m producing is probably just related to my worldview and my penchant for the absurd and ironic. I grew up with MAD magazine and Saturday Night Live, and love comedies as much as horror movies.  I like to laugh in the face of death and such — it’s a kind of defiance, but also a quirky way of dealing with anxiety and tension. I think laughter bonds us, even though we’re all doomed.

GMM: What is Poe Bread? I’m dying to know what happens when Reynolds eats it.

MA: Well, it’s only a fragment right now because I haven’t >fully< plotted out what happens, and what I've written has barely gotten to the real story — I gave myself too much liberty to explore character and setting at the beginning, and that's all it really is right now, building up to the very question you asked.  I like to leave a lot of space for new plot directions and other ideas to occur as I write, so I often don't know what I'm doing till I'm doing it, to be honest. I like to think that transfers over to the reader too, where discoveries seem to happen logically and at natural points. But I do know the answer to your questions. Without giving away TOO much, let's just say that there is an old dough "starter" — that is, a baker's saved ball of old dough that gets put into the next batch, and then a ball is taken out of that batch for the next one, ad infinitum — which has been passed down since Poe's day through the bread baking process over the years at this restaurant, and "Poe Bread" contains it. This bread is somewhat magical (or contaminated?) in that it "inspires" Reynolds to write some twisted things… and he becomes both obsessed with the dough and the man who owns it. The two main characters reveal their suspicions about what the dough contains as the story progresses and they begin to do devious things. Does the bread have opiates in it?  Could the starter contain the DNA of Poe himself?  All is revealed in a twisted ending, which I hope echoes the plot of a famous Poe story.

If, that is, I finish it. I might need more… inspiration.  And it's lunch time now, so I'll end there.  Bon Appetit!

Poe Bread, by Michael A. Arnzen

Jim Reynolds had long heard of Baltimore Batter but it wasn’t until he was actually sitting in the restaurant bakery, holding a Poor Boy sandwich in both of his hands, that he understood its popularity. The place had that comforting, beery odor of yeast that most good bakeries greeted its guests with — but here it had seeped into the yellowing stone walls and worn wooden tables for a hundred years, if its storefront sign was to be believed, saturating the place like smoke in a whiskey barrel. He loved it. The bakery’s ambience was so out-of-place compared to the other shops in downtown Baltimore that it had felt to Reynolds like stepping into a 19th century painting. And though time had certainly taken its toll on the decor, the disheveled look of the place only made the food taste better. The shrimp on his sandwich was so fresh it virtually wriggled on the bun and the special sauce in his mouth was as tangy as over-sweetened tea. But it was the bread that made him drool between bites. Eggy and warm in his hands, fresh out of the oven. He squeezed the crisping bun like a lover, and devoured.

The waiter — a thirty-something man with covered with both muscles and wrinkles — brought his check early, sliding it under the vertical roll of paper towels that served as a napkin dispenser. He wore a sweaty black Metallica concert t-shirt that had had faded so much it simply read “licca” above a hazy upside-down cross. He stood there, tossing razor-cut jet black bangs to one side like they were getting in his eyes as he diddled impatiently on his pad.

Reynolds slid him his Mastercard and returned to the precious last bite of his Poor Boy.

The waiter snapped up the card, turned, took one step, then pivoted back. “Wait,” he said to himself, then crouched down so that their eyes could meet. “You’re not the Jim Reynolds are you?”

A bit peeved, he swallowed. “Don’t know what you mean. There’s plenty of them in the phone book…”

“Yes,” the waiter grinned, scanning his face. “You’re him! I know you from your book jackets.”

Reynolds smiled. It wasn’t often that readers recognized him.

“Man, I love all your stuff. The Hendrix Appendix, The Joplin Goblin…shit, I’ve read them all. ”

He nodded, never quite knowing what to say when these things happened. “Thank you.”

“You’re a god to me, man. Damn, I wish I had a book you could sign.” The waiter padded his pockets, as though searching for one of them on his person.

“I’ll gladly sign the check,” Reynolds said.

“No way, dude. The sandwich is on the house.”

Reynolds started liking this guy. “In that case,” he said, reaching into his satchel, “I’ve got something else for you.” He pulled out an advanced review copy of his forthcoming rock-horror novel, scribbled something on the title page and passed it to the man.

“Ho-lee shit.” The waiter swiped his hands down his apron and held the book like it was the Shroud of Turin. He read the title aloud: “The Johnny Rotten Corpse. Man!” Then his eyebrows went squiggly. “Wait a minute…ain’t Johnny Rotten still alive?”

“Not in my book.”

The waiter laughed, read the inscription — “Hope the Poor Boy didn’t struggle! Yours, JR” — and shook Jim’s hand when he stood.

“Loved the food. The bread here is amazing.” He shouldered his bag.

“Tell you what,” the waiter said. “Any time you come here, the food’s on me.”

Reynolds’s eyebrows nearly jumped off his forehead. “I couldn’t…”

The waiter held up his hands in protest. “No, as the owner of this place, I set the rules. And I insist.”

“My friend,” Reynolds said, as his esteem for the man rose a notch and he held out a hand for another shake, “I will take you up on this. You can count on it.”

“Come as often as you like,” he said, shaking briskly. “But there’s just one stipulation.”

“What’s that?”

“That I get to sit with you and talk about your books.”

If there was one thing Reynolds hated about being a writer, it was being put on the spot about his work. He never took interview calls and he never attended conventions. He liked being a recluse — the chance to be left alone and be his own boss was what drew him to the profession in the first place. But the smell of bread in his nose and the tastes of yeast and fish still lingering on his tongue made this opportunity just too damned good to pass up. “You’ve got yourself a deal, my friend. Only I can’t promise I’ll be the best company.”

“Psht.” He waved his hand. “I’m sure I’ve seen worse.” A bell dinged from somewhere in the kitchen and the man frowned at the distraction. “For whom the bell tolls,” he muttered, and Reynolds wasn’t sure if he was being literal or referencing Faulkner or reciting Metallica. But it didn’t matter. He found his sneery reaction charming.

Reynolds began to gather up his bag.

“Okay, come back some… wait, don’t leave. I got something you’d appreciate in the back. Sit tight.”

Reynolds watched as he darted past customers and pushed into the “IN” door with his shoulder. He was back through the “OUT” door in what seemed like a heartbeat, carrying a paper bag, with a loaf of black bread nosing out of it.

“Take this, my gift to you.” The owner of Baltimore Batter handed him the bag, and Reynolds could feel lingering heat between his crackling fingers. “It’s the house specialty — a family recipe. It’s called Poe Bread. It inspires.”

Reynolds wanted to thank him, but the man was already back in the kitchen before he had the chance. He looked down at the Poe Bread, cradled in his arm and swaddled in crinkly brown paper like a newborn. “Inspires?”

Next week, Alicia Wright joins Girl Meets Monster. Do you have a fragment screaming to see the light of day? Show it to me at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: Stephanie M. Wytovich

Last week, K.W. Taylor shared her thoughts on time travel tropes. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes horror writer, Stephanie M. Wytovich. Stephanie is an amazing friend who enjoys laughing at the darkness just as much as I do, and despite the number of years that separate our birth dates, I often think of her as a kindred spirit who would most likely help me hide a body. She was kind enough to find some time in her busy schedule to drop by, share a fragment of her fiction, and answer a few questions about one of my favorite subjects: vampires.

39137823_1705610252821603_5328446997055668224_nStephanie M. Wytovich is an American poet, novelist, and essayist. Her work has been showcased in numerous anthologies such as Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Shadows Over Main Street: An Anthology of Small-Town Lovecraftian Terror, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror: Volume 2, The Best Horror of the Year: Volume 8, as well as many others.

Wytovich is the Poetry Editor for Raw Dog Screaming Press, an adjunct at Western Connecticut State University and Point Park University, and a mentor with Crystal Lake Publishing. She is a member of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, an active member of the Horror Writers Association, and a graduate of Seton Hill University’s MFA program for Writing Popular Fiction. Her Bram Stoker Award-winning poetry collection, Brothel, earned a home with Raw Dog Screaming Press alongside Hysteria: A Collection of Madness, Mourning Jewelry, An Exorcism of Angels, and Sheet Music to My Acoustic Nightmare. Her debut novel, The Eighth, is published with Dark Regions Press.

Follow Wytovich at http://stephaniewytovich.blogspot.com/ and on twitter @SWytovich​.

Three Questions

GMM: What inspired the fragment you shared with us today, and is this piece abandoned or simply “on hold” while you work on other projects? What would make you finish it?

SMW: Vampires have gotten to be a bit of a cliché, overwritten stereotype in the horror genre these days, so I wanted to challenge myself to write a story that turns the monster on its back (insert evil smirk here) and shows us insight into some of the problems that go on behind the scenes, you know, once all the blood and intestines are cleaned up.

Currently, this piece is unfinished, but it’s definitely something that I plan to get back into once a few other projects are off my desk. I’m in the middle of finishing my next poetry collection (The Apocalyptic Mannequin) and I have a novelette coming out the fall (The Dangers of Surviving a Slit Throat), so I’ll probably drag the undead out of their nest later this winter and snuggle up with them again once the world goes white.

GMM: We share a love of vampires, and we’ve talked about them extensively, but I don’t think I ever asked you where your love of vampires began? What story or character pushed you into the realm of loving monsters?

SMW: When I was little—like too little for this to probably be okay—I was downstairs in the basement watching Salem’s Lot with my mom while she ironed my dad’s clothes for work the next day. Seeing the little boy tapping on the kid’s window pretty much broke me—I had two windows next to my bed at the time—and I slept with the blankets up to my neck for weeks.

However, no matter how scared I was of what lurked outside my house at night, I became fascinated with vampires. I loved their look, their teeth, how intelligent and worldly they were. They weren’t afraid of their bodies or their appetite (sex or other), and I admired their confidence and their ability to be themselves. Plus, I’ve always had a thing for bad boys, and those pale dreamboats were—and still are—my jam.

I watched Interview with a Vampire and Bram Stoker’s Dracula not too long after that and picked up every vampire book I could find…the more emo, the better. I was an insufferable tragic goth child, and when I got to middle school, I wrote my first vampire story, which was a piece about a traveling vampire clan that slaughtered a young girl’s family. My teachers thought it was way too dark, and I got sent to the guidance counselor for a chat. After that, I wrote flirtatious paranormal romance stories with vamps and other monsters in them to keep me out of trouble.

That is, until I got to college.

Then it was back to blood and sex.

You know, the essentials.

GMM: While vampires were originally seen as something nightmarish, creatures we should fear, over time they have become the heroes of romantic fiction. Do you think this shift in how we view monsters like the vampire is potentially dangerous, or do you see it as a healthy kink? Or, like most things that create cognitive dissonance in our minds, do vampires simply ride the fence between erotic and deadly?

SMW: I think vampires have always been this erotic, deadly creature in my eyes because the threat of violence, of death, becomes an adrenaline high for the reader/viewer. Vampires look at humans as these fragile, beautiful things because their lives are so short, and that energy, that delicacy is what makes a mortal erotic to them. I think it’s similar for us: we see them as these wise, confident, well-traveled and explored immortal beings, and the dance between their monstrous nature and what’s left—if anything—of their human nature, is a turn on. Everyone wants to be the one person that a vampire protects, loves, and refuses to kill.

However, I will say that while there is an absolute erotic slant to my writing when I’m playing with these creatures, I like to work the angle that these monsters are hunters, and no matter how beautiful they are, they are deadly and they should be feared. For me, paranormal romance is fun, and I like to live in that world on my personal time on occasion, but when it comes to my stories, vampires are about one thing and one thing only: blood.

Untitled, by Stephanie M. Wytovich

No one was happy to see him dead but me, but truth be told, I wasn’t all that happy. He had a beautiful throat, such a gorgeous neck. It was a shame to treat the human body like this, but with a pulse like his, his blood was art, and like the rest of his body, I needed it—wanted it—in my mouth. No matter the cost, no matter the price, the sanguine taste of sudden death always tasted better with a little panic etched into it.

“Julia,” Daven said, her hands shaking my shoulders. “Snap out of it. We have to go. They’re coming.”

“Let them come. I’m not finished yet,” I said. My vision was spotty and the inside of my mouth tasted like smoke and shame. The vibrations of death still rang in my teeth.

“Not finished?” Daven said. The vein in the middle of her forehead pulsed an ugly purple-red. “You’ve slaughtered half the people in this bar, and you’re telling me you’re not finished?”

I stood up and adjusted my shirt, hiked up my jeans.

The bathroom spun on a tilt, the lights growing brighter by the minute.

“That’s what I’m telling you,” I said. Josh’s ashen body lay propped against the toilet, his neck still offered to me under the fluorescent lights.

The room tinted red, pulsed like a bleeding vein.

My head lolled back and I felt a mute relaxation as my eyes glazed over and the corpse started to hum.

“Fuck’s sake,” Daven said. “You’re high. You killed him before you drank didn’t you?”

Daven and I had been staying in a flat in Lawrenceville—the two of us boozing, fucking, kidnapping the night. Pittsburgh become our own personal playground, but when I met Joshua two years back, he excited me, touched me in a way that Daven couldn’t, wouldn’t. Where she was a soft chamomile, a warm cup of tea, Joshua was hard, rough like calloused hands with a musk that was more sex than sweat.

He was new, something different, a wild stallion with a gentle heart, and I admired his stamina. He liked to be bit, and he was a generous donor, which worked well for me because Daven always complained about the bruising.

Joshua, however, wore them like medals.

I traced his jawline with my eyes, thought about the first time I drank from him.

He was beautiful a man, but dare I say it, an even more attractive corpse, and my tastes for the exotic ran deep, even if it was forbidden, even if I found myself in love, even if, but most especially when, I found myself betrayed.

“He was dead to me the moment he set eyes on her, Daven,” I said. Leah’s disfigured face seeped into the forefront of my mind. “But let’s not quibble over the specifics. The only thing left between us now is blood, and I intend to take what was promised.”

Daven paced.

“The Order won’t tolerate this,” she said. “You’ve broken the agreement. They’ll—they’ll kill you, Julia. It’s against our nature. And Leah–”

Red. So much red.

“You mean it’s against your nature,” I said. “You with your rules and your bonds. I’m not vampire, Daven. The Order doesn’t own me.”

“That’s the problem, Julia,” Daven said. “No one does.”

Next week, Speculative Fiction writer K. Ceres Wright joins Girl Meets Monster. Do you have some premium work collecting dust in a drawer? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: Sara Tantlinger

Last week we had a visit from horror writer Cody Langille, and this week horror writer Sara Tantlinger joins Girl Meets Monster to share a fiction fragment and answer a few questions about why projects become abandoned sometimes and what inspires her fiction.

TantlingerSara Tantlinger resides outside of Pittsburgh on a hill in the woods. She is the author of the dark poetry collection Love For Slaughter, and her next collection, The Devil’s Dreamland: Poetry inspired by H.H. Holmes will be out later in 2018 with Strangehouse Books. She is a contributing poetry editor for Oddville Press, a graduate of Seton Hill’s MFA program, a member of the SFPA, and an active member of the HWA. She embraces all things strange and can be found lurking in graveyards or on Twitter @SaraJane524 and at saratantlinger.wordpress.com

Three Questions

Girl Meets Monster: When did you start writing horror poetry and why poetry instead of short fiction or novels?

Sara: I first started writing poetry in middle school after my dad suddenly passed away. It was my go-to coping mechanism and really helped me get through a lot. Right around that time we started reading Poe’s “The Raven” in an English class, and from there I wanted to read everything Poe had written. There was something about poetry, about having to say a lot with a little, that really drew me into it before I ever wrote short stories or a novel.

My poetry had always been dark, but it wasn’t until my undergraduate years when I started studying creative writing that I realized I could hone my horror poetry into something publishable. I took an independent study in horror poetry with Dr. Mike Arnzen at Seton Hill my senior year and haven’t stopped writing it since! Studying all horror poems for a whole semester and how to submit them to journals and magazines was incredibly inspiring and I learned so much. I’ve been writing more short stories lately, but I’m glad I started with poetry because I have no doubt that it has greatly contributed to sharpening my prose over the years.

Girl Meets Monster: You have a collection inspired by H. H. Holmes coming out this year, what other dark historical figures inspire your fiction?

Sara: Yes! I’m so excited about the Holmes collection. It’s titled The Devil’s Dreamlandand I really enjoyed doing all the research for it. Holmes was definitely the first historical figure I invested that much time in. Otherwise, I love reading about twisted women from history like Elizabeth Bathory and Mary Tudor. I’ve also been reading a lot about Ranavalona I, who is sometimes referred to as the most murderous woman in history. She has a fascinating story and is often viewed as having an unspeakably cruel reign, but like with H.H. Holmes, it’s hard to discern what was really true or what was fabricated. Either way, I’m saving the inspiration from the supposed ways she executed people for a short story (or something longer) someday soon.

Girl Meets Monster: Do you have more unfinished poems or more unfinished short stories? What stops you from finishing a writing project?

Sara: I have so many unfinished projects! Not so much with poetry, but when it comes to short stories or longer prose projects, I am an expert at starting them and leaving them abandoned. Usually what stops me is that I have a particular ending in mind that I like, but I get tripped up around the middle and can’t quite make things happen or I feel like the story is getting boring and you never want that to happen. I’ve been getting a lot better with outlining projects and that has helped me get more short stories out this year, but I absolutely have fiction fragments all over the place and probably always will.

Fiction Fragment, by Sara Tantlinger

Sometimes they’re gentle, a sweet clinking of glass sounds that echo through the woods and entice me like a siren’s song. Tonight, as my clock ticks into the hour of demons, the distant and haunting wind chimes are not gentle.

There is rage in that melody of dancing shards, rage that echoes from the fierce shaking of the trees as a late summer storm rips through the rustling leaves. The gusts conduct and command the angriest symphony from the wind chimes that I have ever heard. And I have heard them all.

I think I hear Luna screaming for me in between those violent breezes, but Dr. Fawning calls this some fancy word I can never remember, but it basically means I am projecting my feelings into a manifestation of noise. That it is all imaginary, in my head – “It’s not real, Andi,” my psychiatrist repeats, she always wears tan suits, sometimes white. She reminds me of a Key deer, something small and rare, found only in one area, something endangered…

“You could even make the noises go away, Andi. You’re a smart girl with your whole life ahead of you, but you have to stop this obsession.”

Obsession, means Luna. And “You’re a smart girl” means You’re off your dang rocker, Andi. She says my name too much and doesn’t act the way I think a shrink would. I am not the hysterical woman Dr. Fawning wants me to be, even though she’s biased against her own sex. But I keep going back to see her.

I don’t have a choice. Just like when the wind chimes call from that place of night howls and clues buried in the dark, that place in the woods I can’t quite find, I don’t have a choice but to listen.

There’s something there, connected between the violent songs of glass and with Luna’s disappearance. And it’s not a projection or a manifestation. Fuck that damned doctor, what does she know. I just can’t quite remember what happened. My memories after the accident don’t always feel like my own thoughts and recollections. They’re weighed down, like drowning a puzzle with water. My corners and edges are mush, not quite fitting as I desperately try to jam the pieces back together.

Luna, my moonlight girl, keep screaming inside those wind chimes. I will find you.

Next week, fellow comic book enthusiast and Seton Hill alum Jessica Barlow will join us with a fiction fragment about a superhero. Do you have an unfinished story to tell? Drop me a line in the comments below or send your fragment to chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!