Fiction Fragments: Nelson W. Pyles

Happy Beltane! I’m sending you virtual hugs, kisses, and maybe an inappropriate grope or two. After this week, Fiction Fragments will be taking a short hiatus until July. But, look for other posts here at Girl Meets Monster in the meantime, and contact me if you’d like to be featured in Fiction Fragments.

Last week, I spoke with Bram Stoker Award winner, Sarah Read, about writing a first novel and productivity under quarantine. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Pittsburgh writer and voice actor, Nelson W. Pyles.

headshotNWPNelson is a writer and voice actor living in Pittsburgh PA. His latest novel, Spiders in the Daffodils, is available from Burning Bulb Publishing. His first novel, Demons Dolls and Milkshakes, was re-released in 2019, and the sequel is in progress. He is the creator and original host of the Wicked Library and has stayed on as an executive producer and voice of “The Librarian.” He has written and performed on The Wicked Library, The Lift, The Private Collector, and Wicked Fairy Tales podcasts. He is a member of the HWA.

For more information please go to www.facebook.com/nelson.pyles

Twitter – @nelsonwpyles
Instagram – @nelson.pyles

Three Questions

GMM: Hello, Nelson! Welcome to Girl Meets Monster.  We’ve only interacted in person once I believe, at an HWA Pittsburgh Chapter meeting, but I’ve slowly gotten to know you through social media. Tell me about The Wicked Library. How did it get started, and what was your role as The Librarian? Also, how did you get started as a voice actor for the multiple projects you’ve worked on? What advice would you give someone who is interested in pursuing projects like The Wicked Library?

NWP: Hello, Michelle! Yes, that was the first time we had met. You and Stephanie Wytovich had a live reading together which I absolutely regret missing. I’m hopeful to see both of you at the next meeting! And yes, we share a lot of the same interests like excellent 80’s new wave. It also prompted me to get your book Invisible Chains, which if you pardon the fanboy moment, is absolutely amazing.

The idea for The Wicked Library really came out of a desire to help independent authors promote their work with an audio version of their short stories. Having a background in theatre and performing I thought I could do a decent job with narration. I solicited everyone I had appeared with in an anthology and asked them for permission to read their work. In turn they could download the story and even sell it as I wasn’t making anything off of the work.

The Librarian began as an homage to the Crypt Keeper from the old DC comic books from the fifties. Eventually he got a life of his own (so to speak) and became his own character with a background story and several spin off shows. All my voice work really came as a result of narrating the show from the early days and then moving on to narrating a few books and voicework on other podcasts. It all just kind of happened out of necessity and then boom!

The advice I would give for anyone looking to start their own podcast of their own is to research as much as you can, find something that you bring to the table that no one else has and make sure it’s one hundred percent fun otherwise it gets old really fast.

GMM: I absolutely love the title, Demons, Dolls and Milkshakes. What inspired the title of your first novel, and without too many spoilers, can you give us a synopsis of the book? Is this the first novel you’ve written, or just the first novel you published? What motivated you to finish writing the novel and what was your experience with getting it published?

NWP: The title wound up being the very last piece of the puzzle as it really summed up everything in the story. A woman in the Shadyside section of Pittsburgh prepares to get snowed in by a blizzard, so she gets movies, snacks, and a huge milkshake before it starts. She gets home to find a creepy doll in her bag from the movie store. She thinks it’s a gift from her friend at the store, but it turns out to be a demon who is trapped in the doll looking for a new body. One of my beta readers suggested the title as a goof, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. The tone of the novel is very tongue in cheek although it does deliver on the spooky when it arises. It was the first full length novel I had written and the first one published as well.

The book took forever to write because it was also around the time I started having kids which as you know, tends to make what we do interesting if not challenging. I actually sat on the first twenty pages of it for about six years and they decided it was time to put up or shut up. I sent the book to a metric ton of publishers and agents all of whom shot it down. Finally a groovy small press which I’m sad to say isn’t around anymore published. What was great is that I was able to get my current publisher Burning Bulb Publishing to release a really nice second edition with bitching new art.

Getting published isn’t easy but it’s not impossible either. I think there is a certain amount of tenaciousness and thick skin needed. When I got it published it was because I had a good relationship with the publisher whom I had worked with on a few anthologies. Relationships aren’t a guarantee, but they do help in good ways especially for getting feedback.

GMM: Holy shit! I need to read the rest of “Muerte Con Sabor a Fresa” (Strawberry Flavored Death) STAT. I’m dying to know what happens. As a former resident of Pittsburgh, I love any story, especially horror stories, set there. It feels like coming home. Although I lived there for sixteen years, and love reading about fictional Pittsburgh, not a lot of my own fiction is set there. How do you decide on setting? Do most of your stories take place in and around Pittsburgh, or have you done some creative world-building and invented places? Who are some of your favorite Pittsburgh writers, past and present?

NWP: For “Muerte,” it seemed destined to be set somewhere in Pittsburgh and I drew a lot of inspiration from friends of mine. The doctor in the story is named directly for my friend Phoebe because, who doesn’t want to know an actual Phoebe? And the title came out of boredom; I thought it was funny in English, but it sounded ominous and in Spanish.

I am a Pittsburgh transplant by way of New Jersey. I’ve lived here for almost twenty years now and it’s really a great area. I love it a lot and certainly it does show up in my work quite a bit, but not always. My second novel Spiders in the Daffodils, is set in mostly East Texas and is apparently in a genre called “Splatter Punk Western”: which is kinda cool. I’ve really taken to my adopted city and I guess I’m a pseudo-yinzer. I created a couple of false Pittsburgh locations for an upcoming book set in the universe of Demons Dolls and Milkshakes — sort of Fox Chapel and Squirrel Hill-esque but I tried to keep the actual locations as real as possible.

I had read a few Pittsburgh penned works when I was in high school and college from John Irving and some plays from August Wilson. Also, I was very aware of the history of horror in Pittsburgh which made it much easier to move here to be honest. The current Pittsburgh writers I read actually includes you and the other amazing writers in our HWA chapter which really, is very much a who’s who in horror! Stephanie Wytovich, Sara Tantlinger, Gwendolyn Kiste, Mike Arnzen…seriously, it’s very much the coolest. I’m very fortunate to not only know all of you folks, but to also be fans of your works as well. In some cases I already knew some folks like Stephanie. But there’s something really enviable having access to such an amazing and talented pool of writers. It’s one of the few times that an introverted person like me can talk to other people where we all speak the same language if that makes sense. It’s been the least dysfunctional kinship I have ever had.

Thank you so much for having me on Girl Meets Monster! Hope to see you soon!

(This is an excerpt from the story “Muerte Con Sabor a Fresa” (Strawberry Flavored Death) in THE WICKED LIBRARY PRESENTS: 13 WICKED TALES from 9th Story Publishing 2019)

The most unusual part of the paramedic rescue call for Priyanka Choudhry wasn’t what the victim looked like, although that in and of itself would trigger future nightmares for the foreseeable future. It was just how much the victim weighed.

The general statistics about the victim, Daryl Madison, were that he was five feet six and roughly about a hundred pounds. However, it took three paramedics and two firemen a tremendous effort to get Madison onto the gurney, and even then, they had to roll him onto it. They never raised it up; they had to shuffle it out of the apartment requiring additional help to load him into the ambulance, which nearly buckled under the weight.

Rolling the man onto the gurney proved to be nearly impossible. Madison was nearly flat. Most of his bones were broken in the most unusual ways, as if he had been crushed under something. How he was still alive and breathing was nothing short of miraculous.

Pri had determined from the amount of excrement around the body that he had been on the floor of his bedroom for nearly a week. The woman who had called nine-one-one had said that Madison had been missing about eight days. By rights, due to the injuries and the excrement, Madison should have died from dehydration at the very least.

In looking around the apartment, for anything vaguely resembling a clue as to what could have happened to him was nonexistent. The woman, Ms. Turner, said that she hadn’t seen anything out of the ordinary at all. From her description, the apartment was dark, and she had heard Madison crying out softly from the bedroom.

It seemed to be the only thing that made sense.

Pri sat on the edge of her bed and shuddered. She closed her eyes and saw Madison’s tear-streaked face. His expression hadn’t changed; of course, how could it? The bones in his face had all been crushed, and he’d looked like a rubber Halloween mask without a head inside it. A deflated head that was still alive and suffering in a most unimaginable way.

She had left the hospital once they had managed to find a room (and a bed) that could hold him. There was another call she and her partner had gone to from there, but she knew that she wasn’t going to stop thinking about Daryl Madison for quite some time.

She crawled into bed and shut off her light. She waited a long time for sleep to come.

*

The research and development lab in Pentacorp’s own industrial park was tucked away in a large facility in Eastern Pittsburgh. It was a half hour from Monroeville and quite a lot of the employees lived there, game for the heavy commute. Truth be told, the job was challenging and difficult but, most would say, rewarding, especially financially.

Georgie opted to not live in Monroeville, however, and lived in a semi-quiet complex in Penn Hills. The town was full of “yinzers” who got good and liquored up on the weekends and most weeknights. But the rent was inexpensive, and there was a guard at the door to keep the riff-raff out…and some of it in, so to speak.

So, because of her proximity to the R&D facility, she had no trouble getting there before anyone in the department, and simply waited for whoever the first person was to arrive.

And unfortunately for Phoebe Armstrong, it happened to be her.

“Well, good morning, Dr. Armstrong.”

Phoebe gasped and dropped her coffee. It splashed onto her beige pants, and she yelped as the coffee poured onto the white tile floor. Her face went from shock to quick anger as she saw Georgie, feet propped up on the lab table. Next to her feet was a familiar-looking plastic container.

“Jesus H tap-dancing Christ, what are you doing here?”

“I’m here to ask you some questions, and you had better have some really good answers for me.” Georgie took a foot and kicked the plastic container off the table and onto the floor. “For question number one, why the fuck was this in one of our employees’ apartment?”

Armstrong looked at the container and her eyes narrowed.

“Daryl,” she muttered through her teeth.

“Oh, don’t you mean ‘Big D?’”

Armstrong blinked and glared at Georgie. There had been a long-standing animosity between the two women, but it absolutely was about to get to worse.

“First of all, fuck you. That’s first. Just want to get that out of the way.” Phoebe folded her arms and leaned to one side. “Secondly, we were authorized to start human testing. You authorized human testing, so what do you think human testing means?”

“Human testing means finding volunteers or college students to sign waivers and giving them a few bucks here and there. You know, so if something bad happens they can’t sue us and aren’t attached to the corporation. Daryl was a fucking employee.”

“Daryl is still alive, apparently, and he’s also an adult who also happened to sign the aforementioned waivers. I’m not stupid, Georgie. All of the bases were covered.”

Georgie kicked her feet off the lab table and stood up. She walked slowly towards Phoebe. “Except, of course, for the base where the subject stays in the goddamn testing facility to be monitored and not massively overdose on the test drug because it’s a goddamn test drug.”

Phoebe sank slightly. “Well, okay. You got me there.”

“When I found Daryl, he looked like a deflated balloon.” Georgie pulled out her cell phone and showed Phoebe a picture.

“Oh, balls,” Armstrong said.

“Indeed. But it took several people to get him onto a gurney. He was unbelievably heavy.”

“Like, how heavy?”

“It took five men to get him into the ambulance. Why?” Georgie asked.

“That’s pretty heavy, yeah.” Phoebe said, and turned away. She whirled back around to Georgie. “We have a problem.”

“I would love to hit you right now,” Georgie said quietly.

Phoebe ignored it. “We need to get Daryl here to the lab ASAP.”

“Is this something you can fix?”

Phoebe looked at her and frowned.

“I’m just hoping it’s something that can be contained.”

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: Sarah Read

Last week, Girl Meets Monster had a great conversation with horror writer, Todd Keisling, about religion in horror fiction and how COVID-19 has impacted his writing. This week, I have the pleasure of talking with Bram Stoker Award winner, Sarah Read.

Sarah ReadSarah Read is a dark fiction writer in the frozen north of Wisconsin. Her short stories can be found in various places, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year vols 10 and 12. A collection of her short fiction called OUT OF WATER is available now from Trepidatio Publishing, as is her debut novel THE BONE WEAVER’S ORCHARD, both nominated for the Bram Stoker Awards. When she’s not staring into the abyss, she knits. You can find her online on Instagram or Twitter @inkwellmonster or on her site at www.inkwellmonster.wordpress.com.

Three Questions

GMM: Hello Sarah. Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and congratulations on winning a Bram Stoker Award for your debut novel, The Bone Weaver’s Orchard. Tell me about how the book came about. What inspired the story, and what motivated you to finish your first novel?

SR: Thank you so much, Michelle! The book came about because I wanted to write a scary book that wedged between the gap of YA horror and adult horror. I had never been entirely satisfied with YA horror as a young reader–it wasn’t scary enough, or dark enough, it lacked honesty, and too often I could see the author pulling punches. I started reading adult horror when I was nine. I liked the scary side of it much better, but the stakes always seemed to hinge on grownup problems that I couldn’t relate to enough to fully sympathize with the characters. From there, I just took my love for Gothic lit and tossed in all my favorite ingredients. I wrote the novel for NaNoWriMo, I think back in 2014. My husband was working nights at the time, as a janitor in a hospital. Once I got our (then only) son in bed, I’d sit in my favorite chair with a notebook and pen and hit my word count for the day. I didn’t quite get that celebratory feeling when finishing it, because my inner editor had been keeping a tally of all the broken pieces I knew I was going to have to go in and fix. Writing “The End” was a moment of, “Oh shit, now the real work starts!” And it did, and lasted for several years.

GMM: Last week, I asked Todd Keisling to talk about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted his writing process. Many writers have shared on social media that they are struggling to focus on their work and haven’t been as productive as they normally would be. How has the pandemic affected your writing process? Has it inspired new stories? What advice would you give other writers who might be struggling to get words on the page?

SR: Oh gosh, my writing has been almost nonexistent for close to eight weeks now. I have two kids at home with me, stuck in the house. My eldest is 12 and has 4-6 hours of virtual classes a day, and my youngest is 5, and has no home schoolwork. My days are spent teaching 6th grade, playing with my youngest, troubleshooting eldest’s tech problems, fixing snacks every ten minutes, and I’m still also working as a librarian from home, doing virtual programs for our patrons. I’m also still freelancing (writing, editing), though I’ve had to cut back a bit on that. My husband is still at work full time. When he gets home and takes over with the kids is when my workday starts, and I’m usually not done until almost midnight. Honestly, though, even if my schedule wasn’t a shitshow, my anxiety would probably polish off any creative energy that might surface. I’ve had a few good writing sessions since this all started, but I’m definitely not anywhere close to my usual output. I’ve been at this level of anxiety once before, when I was pregnant with my second son and he kept trying to die in utero over and over and over. I was on bed rest for seven months. I thought I’d get so much done! But it was a terrifying time, and my creative energy was re-routed to self-preservation. Instead I burned through Netflix and played Age of Empires. Now it’s Animal Crossing, if I can catch a moment. I feel less guilty this time, and more comfortable focusing on taking care of myself and my family.

GMM: Your fragment has a definite fantasy feel to it, with a hint f Shakespearean drama with the death of the family patriarch and what is promising to be a dispute over who will take his place as Lord. Do you feel more at home writing fantasy or horror, or do you typically combine the two genres? Can you give a brief synopsis of The Atropine Tree?

SR: I definitely frolic in dark fantasy, and tend to blend it with horror fairly often, sometimes crossing into the Weird territory altogether. I don’t know that I prefer one style over the others. Each story feels like home while I’m writing it. The Atropine Tree definitely dances along the Weird line. It’s unabashedly paranormal, where I usually tend to keep my ghosties more ambiguous. I’m having a blast working on it, though.

The synopsis:

Alrick’s uncle Tredan has his father’s last breath trapped in a blue bottle in his lab. Which is good, because they’ll need him to weigh in on a matter of succession and the location of the missing will.

Alrick’s father is dead, but the lords and ladies of House Aldane are restless spirits. When Alrick’s half-brother Aemon (bitter and cruel) and his sister Nelda (whose mouth is stained black from poison and who sways on the line between living and dead) show up with a lawyer and a dodgy will, Alrick and his alchemist uncle must turn to some dark arts to harness the voices of their household spirits. They must win witchy Nelda’s loyalty and turn her against the powerful demonic specter of her mother, and learn to swallow her poisons in the process.

Tredan’s army of young urchins rescued from the streets of London—the scratchlings, only half of whom survived his medical administrations—will aid them in their quest to secure the land and title for Alrick.

The Atropine Tree is a weird, Gothic Victorian ghost story about family loyalty and feuds that span generations, both living and dead. They all want a home of their own—and they all want House Aldane. It’s like Downton Abbey set in Hell House with the characters of Oliver Twist and a chaser of nightshade.

The Atropine Tree, Sarah Read

Chapter One

Alrick had arrived in time, but only just. The collar of his shirt strained against his throat, his cuffs pinched his wrists like ropes binding him to his father’s bedside.

Lord Drummond’s chest rose with a sound like chalk on slate, like plough on stone—each exhalation a surrender against the struggle to draw breath.

Alrick’s uncle Tredan leaned in and held a blue orb jar to the old Lord’s slack mouth. The fog of his breath that had clouded the glass only an hour ago now barely reached past the rim.

Tredan stood poised with the lid.

Alrick counted the breaths. Counted the beads of perspiration gathered in his uncle’s beard, counted the coarse ridges of his father’s knuckles that he held between his hands. The Lord’s cold, dry hands seemed to wick the moisture from Alrick’s hot palms. He spun the ring that hung loose on his father’s finger. Those hands had once been thick with callous, rough with half-healed tears, but now the skin draped from his fingerbones like half-drawn curtains. Like the end of an act. The end of everything.

Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen. He counted.

He wondered if his school had somehow been frozen in time. If in his six years there, a hundred years had passed at House Aldane.

“Thirteen. Twelve. Eleven.” His half-sister, Nelda, counted, too. Whispered, so that the fine veil across her face barely stirred.

“Three. Two.” Nelda’s voice faded.

His father wore at least a hundred years across his brow. The jar pressed into the greying skin, burrowed in thinning whiskers. Covered the lines Alrick had watched as a child, searching for that rare trace of humor. The lines that had faded, erased after his mother died.

The lid of the jar snapped into place—and that was how Alrick Aldane learned that his father, Lord Drummond Aldane, was dead.

Uncle Tredan held the jar up to the candlelight. The mist of Alrick’s father’s last breath stretched like a ghost down the side of the jar.

While Alrick watched the light play over the droplets condensing in Tredan’s bottle, the other eyes in the room watched Alrick.

He had come home to bid his father farewell, but he would not be returning to school.

The gold signet ring stuck at his father’s knuckle. He feared he’d tear the soft crepe skin if he twisted or pulled too hard. Alrick looked to Tredan.

“I’ll take care of it. I’ll have it back to you this evening.” He slid his blue bottle into the pocket of his long coat, and for a moment, Alrick thought the bulge it formed moved as if it were breathing.

Alrick nodded and laid the slack hand on the sheet.

“Best to wait.”

Alrick turned to the voice, to his half-brother Aemon who sat in the far corner beyond the reach of the candlelight, save for its shine off his eyes and teeth.

“And why is that?” asked Alrick. If a hundred years had passed at House Aldane, a thousand had passed since he’d seen his brother. Not since his mother sent Nelda and Aemon away, to live with their mother’s family. Just before she had died. Their return to House Aldane was a special exception. Alrick himself had granted it. Lord Drummond had been their father, too, and now the four of them—Alrick, Aemon, Nelda, and Tredan—were all that remained of the ancient Aldane family.

“Father’s will hasn’t been read, yet.” The shine of Aemon’s smile stretched wide.

“Let’s not speak of such things now,” Tredan said. He waved the housekeeper Merewyn over and she began to see to Lord Drummond, a half-hitch in her breath that stirred Alrick’s own grief.

The powder smell of her apron pulled at his heart like a chain yanking him back to his childhood, to her lap, the soft cushion from which he had learned his home—the whole world. His whole world.

He reached up and ran his fingers over the wood of the wide beam that spanned the low ceiling. It had seemed so high when he was young. How he had leapt, in this very spot, to reach these distant beams. Landed there on the bed where his father now lay.

Fallen. Already sinking through the linens into the straw, as if life itself had buoyancy, and now the Lord was leaden.

Merewyn rolled a bit of blanket under his chin to hold his mouth closed. A sliver of rheumy yellow flashed from beneath his eyelids, the stillness of those soft folds uncanny. It sent cold down the back of Alrick’s neck. No living eyes could ever be so still.

“He’s with Mother, now,” Nelda said.

“With Burgrune.” Aemon put his hand on his sister’s shoulder.

Tredan nodded. “Yes, and Eleanor. He loved them both.”

“I know,” Aemon said, “I saw.”

“So you did,” agreed Tredan. “We should go. Give Merewyn room.”

Three children entered the room. All wore undyed linen smocks, their heads shaved close. Their faces were scarred with the ravages of old pox that left their skin like masks. They were urchins from London—orphans that Tredan claimed and cured.

I’m an orphan. The thought came unbidden to Alrick’s mind.

No, I’m a young man. Not a child. A Lord.

The children set to helping Merewyn—cleaning the room and folding clothes. Alrick almost wished himself in one of those smocks. Something to do. A duty. A place in the world, instead of spinning uncertainty.

Tredan’s hand rested on his shoulder and steered him toward the door. Alrick stole a final glimpse back at his father. His eyelids had slid further back. His pale eyes stared out into the room, each rolling to the opposite side. Perhaps there was a wife at each bedside and he greeted them both. Perhaps one eye looked to the past and one to the future. Or perhaps he was roving, surrounded by devils.

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: Todd Keisling

Last week I had a great chat about comics and writing inspiration with writer and illustrator, Cat Scully. This week, Girl Meets Monster is thrilled to welcome horror writer Todd Keisling.

todd 1 bw KodaKrome

Todd Keisling is a writer and designer of the horrific and strange. He is an author of several books, including Devil’s Creek, The Final Reconciliation, and Ugly Little Things: Collected Horrors, among other shorter works.

A pair of his earlier works were recipients of the University of Kentucky’s Oswald Research & Creativity Prize for Creative Writing (2002 and 2005), and his second novel, The Liminal Man, was a finalist for the Indie Book Award in Horror & Suspense (2013).

He is a former editor for The Self-Publishing Review, hosted Crystal Lake Publishing’s Beneath the Lake interview series, and co-hosted the popular live YouTube series Awkward Conversations with Geeky Writers alongside Mercedes M. Yardley, Anthony J. Rapino, Nikki Nelson-Hicks, Eryk Pruitt, and Amelia Bennett.

He dabbles in graphic design under the moniker of Dullington Design Co., and his work has graced the covers of titles published by Silver Shamrock Publishing, Flame Tree Press, Third Crow Press, Crystal Lake Publishing, Precipice Books, and Nightscape Publishing.

His written work has been praised by Cemetery Dance, This Is Horror, Night Worms, The Eyes of Madness, Hellnotes, and Horror Novel Reviews.

A former Kentucky resident, Keisling now lives somewhere in the wilds of Pennsylvania with his family where he is at work on his next novel.

Share his dread:
Twitter: @todd_keisling
Instagram: @toddkeisling
www.toddkeisling.com

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Todd. I’m so excited to have this chance to ask you some questions and learn more about you. I’ve enjoyed reading your short fiction and you seem to be publishing quite a lot lately, both short fiction and novels. During this very strange time of social distancing and the fears associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, some writers, including myself, have been struggling to get words on the page. How are you staying motivated to keep writing? What obstacles have you experienced? What does your process look like at the moment?

TK: Thanks for inviting me! Honestly, I wish I had a good answer to this, but I’m afraid I don’t. Truth is, I’m in the same boat as you and all the other writers out there who are struggling to make the magic happen on the page. I was talking to a writer pal of mine earlier today, expressing my concerns about my complete lack of focus on…well, anything, really. My productivity has nearly dropped to zero, and what little writing I have done over the last several weeks has been in small bites. On a good day, I used to average anywhere between 500 to 1K words. Lately, I think I’ve written maybe 2K words in the last three weeks.

I’ve made it no secret that I deal with anxiety and depression on a daily basis, but with the threat of COVID, the monotony of quarantine, and how uncertain our futures are, everything’s been turned up to eleven. At times it feels like we’re living with a real-life version of Delillo’s “airborne toxic event,” with the concept of our mortality much more upfront and in focus than usual. Working on my next novel just seems kind of minuscule right now in the scheme of things, you know?

That said, in the times when I’ve managed to plant my ass in front of the manuscript, I’ve constantly reminded myself that what I’m writing isn’t permanent. It’s a first draft. It’s okay for it to be shit. And it’s okay not to write every day.

I know that’s all very basic Writer 101 stuff, but I’ve found that’s what works for me in times when my mental health isn’t at its best. And, really, I think that’s what might be best for all of us right now: take things a day at a time, remind yourself that it’s okay not to be perfect, and do what you can. We’re all in panic mode right now, whether we want to admit it or not, and I think it’s imperative we be kind to ourselves above all else.

GMM: Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were plenty of scary things happening in the world — politically, environmentally, economically, socially. How have current events shaped your writing? Is it easier to write horror during times characterized by fear and uncertainty? What scares you the most?

TK: I think those things are always in the back of my head one way or another, and they usually inform my characters or their motivations. Writing horror has always been an outlet for me, a way of exorcising my demons and dealing with those issues by way of writing them down. So, when it comes to facing the socio-economic uncertainty of our times, I tend to do so through my characters.

For example, I’ve been working on revising and expanding my first two novels while also writing the final novel in that trilogy. The main character and his wife are Millennials, he’s had to take on a crappy job in order to provide for her since she has health issues that prevent her from working, and the issue of money is a constant source of friction between them.

Over the course of the series, the protagonist’s job, life choices, and his inability to escape this box he’s built for himself serve as a subtext for the horror that unfolds. There’s a kind of unspoken economic anxiety that manifests in certain situations throughout the story—the idea of being sold an education that doesn’t live up to its promise, the debilitating cost of healthcare, the way we’re forced to compromise our goals in order to scrape by every day, and so on.

I’m a Millennial. I worked in a single income household for half a decade. I’ve experienced those hardships, lost sleep over hating my job, put off doctor visits because of the expense (even with insurance), felt completely lost and trapped, and had ridiculous arguments with my spouse over money. Losing my home, losing my family, losing myself—those things are what scare me, and all those situations, fears, and anxieties usually manifest in my fiction. Often in horrific ways. It’s the only way I know how to deal with them.

GMM: After reading your excerpt, I started thinking about the role religion often plays in horror fiction. You describe what I assume was a religious community with cult-like followers that ended in tragedy, as they are often wont to do. I sometimes joke about the fact that most of my knowledge of religion comes from horror fiction and movies. How much of an impact has religion had on your writing? Is it a recurring theme in your horror fiction?

TK: “I sometimes joke about the fact that most of my knowledge of religion comes from horror fiction and movies.”

It’s funny you said this, Michelle, because I’m the opposite. Almost everything I know about horror comes from a religious background.

I grew up in southeastern Kentucky, in a Southern Baptist household. When I was a kid, I was indoctrinated in that way of thinking, so everything I did was overshadowed with this impending doom of eternal damnation if I didn’t live the way I was told. I had a very clear picture of Hell from a young age, and now that I think about it, it probably had something to do with the anxiety issues I deal with now. There’s always this fear of not measuring up, of always falling short, and so on.

Anyway, when it comes to horror, religion is always going to be a place to find the darkest aspects of mankind. So much has been done in the name of a god, be it one with a capital G or otherwise, and all for the purpose of manipulating minds, curating division, or justifying bloodshed. I’m reminded of the song “Mist and Shadow” by The Sword: Why do people wonder if there is evil in the world? / If it’s lurking in the darkness until its plans can unfurl / When it’s standing before you in the clear light of day / In a finely tailored suit with a smile on its face.

All of that is my long-winded way of saying “Yes” to your question. Religion tends to be a recurring theme in my fiction, especially over the last few years. In relation to my forthcoming novel, Devil’s Creek, religion is a means of revealing the worst in people. If I had to sum up the book, it’s about how an infectious religion—and the resulting zealotry—can destroy a community.

DEVIL’S CREEK – Excerpt

Silver Shamrock Publishing – Release Date 6/16/20

His mind wandered into the dark, and his imagination had its way with him again. Being alone in this ghost town unsettled him, put him on edge like he’d never felt before. He felt like a trespasser in a graveyard. The folks who’d pulled up stakes, sold all their belongings, and given it to his father’s church for the sake of building a utopia in the forest all died here. Their spirits would roam here for the rest of eternity, walking hand in hand, replaying the final moments of their lives.

“Stop it,” he said, ignoring the chattering of his teeth. “You’re scaring yourself.”

Maybe it was the dark. Maybe it was the empty village of the dead. Maybe it was the fact his friend hadn’t come back.

Oh shit.

Zeke stood and crept to the edge of the doorway. He peered out. Moonlight filtered through the trees, illuminating a path through the remains of the holy compound.

“Waylon?” The forest rustled and breathed around him. He cleared his throat and spoke louder. “Waylon, stop fuckin’ around, man.”

The forest said nothing, and neither did his friend. Another chill swept over him, racking his body with shivers for a full minute until he got a grip on himself.

This is stupid, he thought. You’re freaking yourself out for nothing. That dipshit is out there laughing his ass off at you. He knew all along what this place meant to you, and he brought you here just to fuck with you.

“And it’s working,” he mumbled. The forest absorbed his voice, masking it with the primitive sounds of nature, of crickets and rodents in the brush and brambles, of rustling leaves in a wind far too cold for this time of year. He called out to Waylon again and waited, listening to his heart thud heavily in his chest.

One-one-thousand.

Two-one-thousand.

Three-one-thousand.

Four-one—

A guttural scream tore through the night, shredding any hope of this being a joke. Heart racing, his legs like jelly, Zeke scrambled out of the shack and into the fractured moonlight. He called to Waylon once more, but his friend was silent. The forest swallowed his cries as easily as it swallowed his mind, projecting phantoms through the undergrowth, shadow puppets in the dim glow of the moon. Everything moved around him, driven by the wind, and the constant hiss of rustling leaves filled his head with serpents.

Confused, his heart in the grip of an icy terror he’d not felt since he was a child, Zeke Billings pumped his legs and forced himself forward into the dark. He followed the dim outline of a trail through the center of the village, past a dozen overgrown structures, their slipshod windows filled with the faces of the dead. He saw them from the corner of his eye as he ran, and he told himself they weren’t there, they were tricks of moonlight, broken by the limbs and leaves and reassembled by his feral imagination.

His drive to find Waylon was fueled by a desire to leave this place, to leave its silent memory of servitude and damnation behind forever, cast back into the darkened halls of his nightmares.

So he ran. He ran until a phantom fist clenched at his ribs, tugging with each step he took. He ran until his heart pumped steam and his lungs burst with fire. Tears streamed down his face as he shot forward to the clearing ahead, each step more laborious than the last, and when his feet caught the rotted husk of a fallen log, he welcomed the sweet collapse. The hard, musty earth and soft grass of an open field met his face.

Zeke pushed himself from the ground and rose to his knees. He wiped his eyes, and when his vision finally cleared, his heart sank deep into his gut.

“No, no, no, not here, anywhere but here…”

Calvary Hill rose in the center of the clearing, the old stony pathway up its face overgrown with weeds. The church was long gone, of course, burned to cinders and ash decades before, but its ghost remained in the window of his imagination.

A full moon hung overhead, aligned perfectly over the hill like the unblinking eye of God. Susan’s words filled his head, a memory from earlier when the world still made some semblance of sense to him. It’s a full moon tonight.

Zeke stood on his knees, staring up at the silent monument of his childhood, watching incredulously as the earth breathed in the moonlit glow. He was so enraptured by the sight, he didn’t register movement from the corner of his eye.

There were sucking sounds coming from behind him. Slurping, cracking, crunching sounds. A spike of fear wedged itself into his belly, filling him with a numbing cold leeching his last ounce of resolve. Slowly, Zeke turned his head toward the sounds, his heart shooting back into high gear when he saw the hulking shadow leaning over the dead log.

The shadow moved, allowing the moonlight to wash over the log, and Zeke froze in horror.

Waylon lay sprawled on the grass, one leg twisted back at an impossible angle, his glassy eyes locked on the indifferent sky above, and a grotesque sneer of agony frozen to his face. His shirt was ripped open, his chest nothing more than a cavity of exposed meat and gore. A light tendril of steam rose from the warmth of his entrails.

The shadow reached into the hole of Waylon’s chest, snapped off one of his ribs, and began sucking on the marrow.

“Oh God,” Zeke mumbled, the words barely more than a rasp, and the shadow heard him. It raised its head and turned toward him, revealing a face coated in mud and blood. Worms writhed through the thing’s greasy hair, feeling their way along the curve of its forehead and around the dried “o” of an old gunshot wound. The shadow crunched down on Waylon’s broken rib and cast its gaze upon him. Its eyes glowed, two sapphire orbs floating in the dark.

Zeke Billings met the living face of his nightmare and began to scream.

Jacob Masters flashed a grim smile. “My little lamb,” he rasped.

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: Bracken MacLeod

Last week, I talked with Todd Sullivan about anime, writing YA fantasy, and cultural differences while living abroad. And this week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Bracken MacLeod. I think I first met Bracken at StokerCon in Providence, but I’ve had the pleasure of bumping into him at other events and hope to eventually have time to just sit and talk one of these days. In the meantime, enjoy his fragment and interview.

2020-02-12 14.43.17aBracken MacLeod is the Bram Stoker and Shirley Jackson Award nominated author of the novels, Mountain Home, Come to Dust, Stranded, and Closing Costs, coming in 2021 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He’s also published two collections of short fiction, 13 Views of the Suicide Woods and White Knight and Other Pawns. Before devoting himself to full time writing, he worked as a civil and criminal litigator, a university philosophy instructor, and a martial arts teacher. He lives outside of Boston with his wife and son, where he is at work on his next novel.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Bracken. I’m so glad you could join me today. Thank you for taking time to stop by and talk about your writing. I enjoyed your fragment. There’s a lot going on in Harlow’s world, internally and externally. And, a boring train ride through New York City becomes an opportunity for you to highlight several aspects of the human condition, including: feelings of loneliness and isolation even though we are usually surrounded by people, the way our communication has changed over time, and the very serious subject of suicide. Can you tell me a little bit about what inspired this story? Or at the very least, this scene?

BM: Thank you. I am so glad you liked it. This is a selection from the beginning of a new novel I’m working on we’ll call Moral Panic (not my real title, but I’m going to be a little protective here of a turn of phrase I think is pretty boss). I wanted to introduce the character of Harlow in a way that depicts someone trying to get back on their feet emotionally after a significant trauma. But reminders of that ordeal intrude in her life periodically, threatening to drag her back down. In the case of this piece, she’s feeling surprise at her own disappointment in not winning an award, and is heading home, when the world around her stops and points out in stark detail exactly how painful things can get. The details of the piece are drawn from my own experience in several different ways, but specifically, and most obviously, being on a train delayed by a person who’d jumped. It’s one thing to hear the driver tell you something’s happened, and quite another to ride by slowly, watching workers spreading sawdust on the tracks to soak up blood. Despite not being a first responder, I’ve seen considerably more than my share of public tragedy. A lot of Harlow’s interiority here is my own.

GMM: Many writers struggle with the concept of imposter syndrome even after they’ve had their work published and had some success with their writing. As a writer who has been nominated for some prestigious awards within your genre, does that kind of recognition make it easier or more difficult to approach your craft? Personally, I suffer from a fear of success, because success often means there are greater expectations for your next effort, and that also means more work on your part. Has success in your writing been helpful or a hindrance?

BM: Being nominated for awards is nice, and with few exceptions, I wouldn’t turn one down that was given to me, but there is an odd feeling of competition with yourself that creeps into the aftermath of being recognized like that. It’s less about not winning (PRO-TIP: you don’t LOSE awards, because how can you lose something you’ve never had?), than it is about what I think of the quality of my work. Why did this book get nominated and not that one? What was it about the story that resounded with people so much, and can I do it again? Imposter syndrome never goes away, but it does lessen. Still, while I was writing Closing Costs (coming in early 2021 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), I had considerable anxiety about the book and whether it lived up to what people might expect from a “Bracken MacLeod Novel” (whatever THAT is—how arrogant to think there even is such a thing). You have to sublimate those feelings and just go on. I know how to do what I do, and ideally, I’ve learned lessons about what lands right and what doesn’t from prior work. A little bit of anxiousness is good, though; it keeps you working hard.

In all honesty, I think I’d worry a little about someone who says they have no imposter syndrome. It sounds to me like admitting to Dunning-Krueger.

GMM: The overall feeling of your fragment is one of either despair or a sense of not feeling connected to the world around you. Disorientation. Genre wise, this feels like suspense or horror, but your use of language and detailed observation of what’s happening around Harlow gives your writing a literary feel as well. Where do you fall on the spectrum of the literary vs. genre fiction debate? How do you classify your own writing? Has your work ever been criticized for being too literary or too genre driven?

BM: I feel like my work firmly falls in the categories of horror and, more often, thriller, but I strive for literary style. My temptation is to say “literary quality” here, but I think there’s tremendous quality in stripped down, no frills prose as well as “literary.” I don’t like this rivalry we have with each other over genre v. Literary Fiction. Lit Fic is a genre with its own reader expectations and tropes, and there’s no reason why good genre fiction can’t also be literary. Read Paul Tremblay and Priya Sharma and John Langan and tell me those aren’t amazing literary writers working in genre. Colson Whitehead and Victor LaValle are two other examples of wonderful writers who I think of as literary first, but who clearly enjoy writing genre and are great at it. Anyway, I’d like to think of myself as a “slipstream” thriller writer falling somewhere in between traditional thriller/horror writing and Lit Fic.

I think I’ve had more pushback with crossing horror and thriller lines than literary. People have told me while they like this story of mine, it isn’t horror, as if there’s a bright line distinction with no overlap. But then, I tend to prefer what I call “secular horror” over supernatural most of the time. If given the choice between something like IT and McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, I’ll more often than not pick the more human monsters.

GMM: Secular horror. I like the sound of that. I think I know what you mean, but could you explain it a bit for a layperson?

BM: “Secular Horror” is a term I coined for my work. It’s kind of like the opposite of supernatural horror, PLUS. The plus is a matter of representation. While I try to do my best writing characters of all backgrounds and beliefs, my protagonists are always atheists and hard skeptics. Part of it is to make a point, perhaps, but a larger part is to give readers in that audience someone to identify with. So, when I say I write secular horror, it usually means that I’m writing non-supernatural work (though I have done supernatural in both novels and short stories) with a point of view coming from a position of skepticism and incredulity. Jack Ketchum, I’d say, wrote that also. Scooby Doo falls into the category as well, ALL the ghosts and spirits in those shows were normal people performing fraudulent supernaturalism! Scooby Doo is secular horror for children.

Fragment, by Bracken MacLeod

The operator’s crackling voice came on the public address speaker and said, “I’m sorry. We’re experiencing a delay.” The train operator sounded tired. It was late, but there seemed to be more weighing on her than the hour. “There’s a… a medical… a passenger just jumped in front of a train at the stop ahead of us. We’re been held here until cleared to resume. I’m very sorry.” The train car was silent. Those kinds of announcements used to be made by euphemism—there was a “police investigation” or “a passenger seeking medical attention.” These days, if you were on the affected train, they told you how it was. Matter of fact. In a sad kind of way, the passengers took it better. While any delay was frustrating, a kind of hushed patience came with the news of someone’s death on the tracks. People from elsewhere could believe all they wanted that New Yorkers were cold and aloof, but people in the city understood that tragedy outweighed inconvenience. They were the same kind of human beings as everyone else, whatever politicians had to say about “coastal elites.”

Harlow closed her eyes and visions of blood and chaos swirled in her alcohol-loosened thoughts. She realized she was better off with her eyes wide open. Perhaps all night. A couple at the other end of her car spoke to each other in hushed tones, leaning into one another. Other riders kept to themselves, typing on their phones or with wireless earbuds in their ears while they played Candy Crush. One woman quietly wiped tears from her eyes and stared straight ahead at her own reflection in the dark glass of the subway car window.

Harlow checked her phone. There were a couple of texts from people inviting her up to room parties, not realizing she’d left the con, and one from her mother asking whether she’d won. She closed her texts and opened Kindle instead. She tried to pick up her book where she’d left off, but the first paragraph seemed impervious to interpretation; she read it again and again, trying to discern meaning from the collection of words she knew had to make sense together but couldn’t force into clarity. She closed the app and instead opened Snapchat, using a filter to look at herself with cat ears and whiskers, then in grainy sepia, then as a biker complete with black five o’clock shadow and a skull-cap bandana. It was a stupid waste of time, and while she would’ve normally found it oddly narcissistic to stare at herself in digital costumes for a half an hour, it kept her from focusing on what had happened on the tracks ahead.

Sitting in a stationary subway car in a tunnel felt different than a delay at the station. Looking through the windows at people on the platform, moving from the gates to the exits, arriving and seeing a train waiting, was of a separate character than sitting in a car with black windows with only one’s own reflection looking back. A car one couldn’t easily exit and return to the world as it was. This felt like being lost. The tunnels weren’t made for lingering; they were intended to be sped through, viewed at a blur. This was a place of motion, not hesitation. And sitting still felt like being lost in time. Like being dead.

Like the person ahead of them on the tracks.

After nearly forty minutes, the train operator came back on the P.A. and told them they were clear to move; however, theirs would be an express train through the next stop. Buses would be waiting at the following station to shuttle riders back. A couple of people on the car softly groaned, but no one made more out of it than that exhaled utterance.

The car began to move again, and the riders slipped from their pocket of stilled time into the continuity of life in the city.

As they emerged from the tunnel and passed through the station, Harlow tried to keep her eyes fixed on her smart phone, but she’d been through all the filters in her app, checked her e-mail and texts. There was nothing unseen to draw her eyes from the bright hardhats of the workmen visible through the window across from her, and she looked up. Two of the them spread what looked like sawdust onto a darkened patch of track on the opposite side of the center divider, separating inbound and outbound trains, while a third looked on. He stood stoically, having already done his job, or waiting to take his turn, so no one would ever know death had come to that small space in their underground world. But he knew it had. His co-workers knew. And so did Harlow. He looked up, eyes meeting hers and in that moment she thought of Gentileschi’s Judith slaying Holofernes—figures standing in the dark, captured in a golden ratio of elemental violence too far complete to be stilled, yet frozen. She hovered in that instant unable to look away, confronted by the workman’s face, his impassivity, but seeing deeper in his eyes a sense that blood was not unfamiliar, and despondence infected him. Had changed him. She understood, and felt pass between them a kind of grieving kinship. Harlow blinked and when she opened her eyes the man had looked away and she couldn’t be certain he’d ever looked at her. The train continued to move and another wave of bleary drunkenness washed over her, bringing Harlow fully back into her body.

A teary woman across from her stifled a sob. Harlow turned her head and tried to catch her gaze, and convey solace to her. She tried to be the presence in between violence and death for this other human being who was about to be overtaken. The way she did. The woman gave her a weak half-smile and turned her eyes toward her hands in her lap.

Harlow leaned back in her seat and for the next two stops, stared at the advertisement next to the door. A size zero woman with a heavy-lidded expression stood stiffly in a yellow bikini next to the legend,

ARE YOU
BEACH BODY
READY?

The scars over Harlow’s ribs itched.

The operator announced her stop and she snapped out of her trance. Harlow didn’t recollect walking home, but waking up the next morning in her bed, had found her way.

Do you have a fragment you’d love to share here at Girl Meets Monster? If so, send it my way at: chellane@gmail.com.

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: Corey Niles

Last week I spoke with Douglas Gwilym about his adventures exploring the wilds of Pittsburgh and his thoughts on writing female characters when you don’t identify as female. This week Girl Meets Monster welcomes Corey Niles, and yes, he’s a Pittsburgh writer, too.

CN Author PhotoCorey Niles was born and raised in the rust belt, where he garnered his love of horror. His recent and forthcoming publications include “Our Celluloid Prince” in Five 2 One Magazine: #thesideshow, “The Body” in Blood Moon Rising Magazine, and “What Lurks in These Woods” in Pink Triangle Rhapsody: Volume 1. When he isn’t nursing his caffeine addiction or tending to his graveyard of houseplants, he enjoys jogging on creepy, isolated hiking trails.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Corey! Congratulations on finishing your thesis novel and becoming a member of the Horror Writers Association. How does it feel to have written a complete novel while earning an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction? Can you tell me a little bit about what that experience was like? What did you learn about yourself as a writer? What surprised you most about the writing process? Would you recommend Seton Hill’s MFA program? Why or why not?

CN: Thank you so much! Having the opportunity to learn about popular fiction while actually writing it under the mentorship of established writers was an amazing experience. I often think of the program as a pressure cooker that enables writers to grow exponentially in a relatively short amount of time if they can put in the work. I can hardly recognize the writer I was when I started the program compared to the one I am today.

Over the course of the program, I was able to learn what draws me to fiction, which is the characters and the journeys they take in these stories. In my thesis novel, Blood & Dirt, I wanted to explore marginalized characters who are often forgotten about after falling victim to the antagonist at the beginning of a crime or horror story. Consequently, the novel starts with a gay couple who are attacked by a white supremacy group while on a jog, but readers then stay with these characters throughout the story. Examining what it means for my protagonist, Vincent, to be different and victimized in a country where hate crimes are on the rise was really what drew me to this project.

The program enabled me to take this character study and ground it in genre fiction. There is no doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t have written the novel that I completed without all of the amazing guidance and feedback from mentors and classmates in the program. I not only wrote a novel, but I also cultivated writing skills that I can apply to future writing projects. I became comfortable omitting what wasn’t working and heavily revising when it was necessary. Writing is a process, and while I think most of us are better revisers than we are writers, the Writing Popular Fiction program helped me trust that process. I can’t recommend it enough to writers who want to finish a novel and, more importantly, who want to take themselves and their craft more seriously.

GMM: Identity often plays a major role in what we choose to write about and how we develop our characters in stories. How does your identity show up in your writing?

CN: As a gay man who grew up in a small town, reading was a huge escape for me, and I often found it difficult to identify with the straight characters who were the protagonists of the majority of books that I read at that time. Furthermore, in the few instances where I discovered a gay protagonist, I was often disheartened by how the character was vilified or victimized in the story. As a result, I usually focus my stories on the gay characters who I wish I could have read about when the only exposure I had to other gay men was through fiction.

In Blood & Dirt, I wanted to start the story at a place where we often find queer characters, which is, unfortunately, in danger. However, from that point, the story follows Vincent’s search for his own agency in a world that has already labeled him a victim. Hatred and violence are realities that many people face in our country, so I try to confront that in my writing.

That being said, as a white man, I certainly recognize my own privileges, and I hope that we can continue to support and celebrate more diverse writers of all races, classes, genders, and sexualities. Our world is full of diverse people, and our fiction should reflect that reality.

GMM: Why horror fiction? What is it about horror that you can relate to as a writer or reader? What aspects of the genre inspire your fiction the most?

CN: I have always gravitated toward the horror genre as both a reader and a writer. I was definitely that kid secretly reading Stephen King from a young age and subsequently creating my own strange tales. The horror genre has a history of holding a mirror up to society in a way that has always fascinated me. While horror is often dismissed as mere blood and gore, it is a genre that challenges readers to understand what it means to be human as well as what it takes to survive in this world. These broader, and often existential, questions that the genre is known to examine are what really inspire the stories that I write.

In recent years, there has also been a significant shift in the genre to embrace more diverse voices and stories. I have read so many amazing works of horror fiction and poetry from women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQIA community in the last few years. Furthermore, there have been a lot of great opportunities for diverse writers in the publishing industry. I’m really excited to be a part of a mixed-genre, gay anthology from Lycan Valley Press, entitled, “Pink Triangle Rhapsody: Volume 1,” that is scheduled to be released later this year. As a lifelong fan of the horror genre, I am excited to see how it continues to grow and develop in the coming years, especially as I embark on the query process for Blood & Dirt.

Fiction Fragment by Corey Niles

The warmth had dwindled when he woke up. He yawned and went to check the time, but the clock on the wall was obscured by the curtain around his bed. The light leaking under the bottom of the curtain was little help. The hall lights remained on day and night. He searched the gap between the curtain and floor for the warmth that he’d found there when he’d been pumped full of pain medicine.

What he found was a piece missing from the ring of light at the bottom of his bed. Something blocked out the light from the hall. He blinked away the fog of sleep and focused his eyes. There was a pair of boots caked in mud. The sight was so strange that he just stared at them for a moment before they moved, and their significance registered.

Someone was standing at the bottom of his bed.

Someone with muddy boots who wasn’t making himself known.

Oh god.

Their attackers.

One of them had found him. Tracked him down to finish the job that the group had started in Panther Hollow. The boots moved around the bed toward him. Flakes of dirt littered the white linoleum in their wake. The curtain moved, hands searching for an opening.

He had to run. Jump out the other side of the bed and run for help, his pain be damned. He went to sit up in bed, but the restraints pulled him back down. Fuck. His wrists were still cuffed to the guardrails on either side of his bed. He was trapped. At the mercy of someone who had already tried to kill him, and this time, he was alone and truly defenseless.

I’m dying to read your fragments. Send them my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

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

Fiction Fragments: Douglas Gwilym

Happy Valentine’s Day, and Happy Birthday to me! Last week, I spoke with Gwendolyn Kiste about why Women in Horror Month is important to the future of horror. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes another Pittsburgh writer, Douglas Gwilym, whose handlebar mustache game is strong.

douglas-gwilym-e1575312913925.jpg

Douglas Gwilym is a writer and editor who has also been known to compose a weird-fiction rock opera or two. If you aren’t lucky enough to have caught him performing his stories and music at venues around Pittsburgh, you can find him at douglasgwilym.bandcamp.com, follow his Amazon author page, or befriend him on facebook.

He’s an active member of the HWA and is the “Gwilym” half of the upcoming podcast Gwilym & Oreto’s Good Dark Fun. He edited four years of the themed annual Triangulation, now in its 16th year. He served on staff at Alpha Young Writers speculative fiction workshop, curates and narrates Douglas Gwilym Presents (a free short-story audio series), is a repeat guest on Alan & Jeremy vs. Science Fiction, and has explored Pittsburgh on foot from stem to stern, in search of good food and impossible truths.

He is a novelist looking for representation, his latest manuscript about an indie rock musician and programmer hiding out in the city from the monsters she made (literally) back in her hometown of Stonesthrow.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Douglas. Storytelling happens in a lot of different settings and mediums — writing, spoken word performances, song lyrics, and visual formats — what is your favorite method of storytelling? Which do you find most challenging? What is your earliest memory of having someone tell you a story?

DG: I might be the wrong person to answer the first part? I know that you’re supposed to settle in, be a one-trick pony. Get really good at one thing. But I have the heart of a stubborn child in my ribcage (not in a jar on my desk), and the moment I make promises like that, I also begin the dogged work of undermining it all. That heart doesn’t like to do what it’s told.

When I was small, I wrote puppet plays and wished I could write books. I got discouraged with the quality of my output (couldn’t close the plot hole in that danged mystery story in fourth grade), and leaned into songwriting for many years. Both of those things got deeply rooted in me, so much so that I have a hard time seeing the boundaries. There’s always music and music culture in my fiction, and storytelling and role-playing in my songs.

That word “role-playing” slipped in there. I guess I am a “method writer,” if that’s a thing. I really tend to lose myself, forget who I am, when I’m deep in any kind of story. When I can’t nail the vocal for a song, I have been known to dress up as the character. Right now I’m hip-deep in writing a novel, and I find that I am not always sure who I am, even when I’m done with the word count for the day. Yes, I can see how that could become… problematical, if unchecked.

I love when artists from supposedly disparate mediums come together to tell a story. When music and visuals and words come together into a crazy rock opera or (even better for the participatory element) a video game. I got to teach at Alpha Young Writers workshop on a year when the inimitable N.K. Jemisin was guest speaker, and was super impressed that a geek-out on the value and potential of gaming as a storytelling medium was a key part of her presentation. I could easily get sucked into that world, be a writer for video games.

There are many things you could say about my upbringing, but… I definitely come from story people. My granddad was a talker and a letter writer. He could apparently type away at 75 wpm on a letter to his brother (or me) and simultaneously hold a conversation with a live human. Hard to imagine that letter or the conversation being any good, but hey. His great uncle was a locally-famous South Wales bard, and (perhaps under that influence) he tended to tell the story “the way it should have happened.” 8-track tapes of him reading were great treasures of mine as a kid. My mother did her part, filling my early childhood with folklore and fairy tales, Madeleine L’Engle and Narnia and Lewis Carroll. But I wanted to be able to “grab people by the lapels” like Grandpa.

GMM: What is your favorite haunted place in Pittsburgh? Have you ever gone exploring in Pittsburgh and gotten lost? What is the most surprising or disturbing thing you found while wandering through the city and its surrounding areas?

DG: I get lost plenty, because I often walk to be in my own head, not in a particular place.

We’re a one-car household, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Walking is good for me of course (being I-had-an-8-track-player years old), and I love what my pal Jonathan Auxier calls “the walking cure,” that idea that whatever you need, you can find out there on your feet. I’ve dictated short stories and whole chapters of things into my phone on long walks. I’m a big fan of our imperfect-but-oh-so-charming little city, and I like to see what you can see when you’re not in the belly of a steel-and-rubber carbeast. (We get addled in those things, shout and gesture at each other in ways we wouldn’t anywhere else, you know?)

A few months ago, a friend and I decided to walk the twelve miles from an eastern border of the city to a western one in a single morning. (The next rung on that ladder will hopefully be to walk from the easternmost border, in East Hills, to the westernmost border, in Fairywood—an addition of four miles.) It was a great thing to do with a Sunday morning. You see it all, with your feet on the sidewalk. And yes, a lot of it is haunted.

We passed through the Southside flats. I used to live there, in a house that turns 205 this year. I love to wander in the ancient crumble of those backstreets, looking for the lines of the bones of the original places, but my favorite spot—for my money the most haunted place in a city of considerable haunts—is just below the railroad tracks that guard the river from the flats (or is it the flats from the river?). You know the relatively civilized “rail trail,” of course, office workers rolling along in Starbucks cups, but if you push your way through the dense bit of woods below, you can drop into another world.

It’s kind of a graveyard, and definitely a ruin. Monolithic and unknowable mountains of broken concrete and steel beams break the surface of both earth and water there. Impossible doors bolted shut for a century lead down into the embankment. The litter at your feet spells out hobo symbols. You can perch there on the dinosaur back of riverfront steel and glass, and look up across the cool water at the cityscape for hours if you want, lost in your thoughts. Sometimes you will stand up and discover that you were not alone. I recommend it.

GMM: February is Women in Horror Month, and although you don’t identify as female, you write about female characters. What inspired you to write a story with a female protagonist? What challenges have you experienced while writing female characters? Why do you think it is important to tell stories about women?

DG: It’s important to tell all of our stories, and not just the stories of a privileged few.

But the real reason for me personally to be writing female characters is that I’ve filled my world and my heart and my skull with a lot of people who happen to be women. It’s no surprise that my wife and daughter are at the center of everything, but my closest friends (childhood, grad school, beyond) have, maybe a-little-more-often-than-not, identified as female. It would just… never occur to me, not to be trying to tell stories of women fully activated and working in-and-on their worlds, when I have those stories to tell.

The operative word here is trying. The challenge is real. But it’s like any other fiction-writing experiment: if you’re trying to be someone who’s not you, or in one way or another not like yourself, you’re going to get it wrong sometimes. That’s when a writer most needs to be a good listener, and be willing to check work against the experience of others. But you can’t sweat that during the writing process unless you want to spend all of your time spinning your wheels. Do your best, don’t be a jerk, and be willing to be wrong. Cultivate humility when sharing the results. Fix it when you need to, but don’t stop trusting yourself.

The very best thing is when it works. I will never forget when I was just getting started writing short stories and I shared one with a good friend. It was a first-person cyberpunk lucid-dreaming thing with a collective unconscious secret service and an elephant grandmother. She dug it. She said something like, “I felt like it was me.” Of course, I saw a lot of myself in the character, but it was a fantastic compliment. The high water mark I have shot for ever since.

Excerpt from They Take Our Best, by Douglas Gwilym

They sped us up or slowed us down to do their dirty business. A rung in the ladder to pull the ultimate heist.

Maybe you don’t hear what I’m saying. They took our best.

Janine was sitting next to me and she saw it, the weird thing with the clock hands, too. Truth is, we hadn’t really hung out in a couple years. We’d been in girl scouts together (“make new friends and keep the old”), and I remember catching fireflies with her in the little lot by the school we called the fairy forest, but all I knew about her now was what my mom told me about her living with her aunt out in Forest Hills and bringing her in to school on the way to the law firm. That the parents had finally snapped and told her she wasn’t theirs, that she wasn’t their daughter. That if she was going to act like that, contrary to God’s principles, she belonged to the devil. I knew that, and that meant something to me. I’d been trying to talk to her again. I’d been trying to find the right moment.

Ms. DeAugustino was going on about Pythagoras or something, and her voice had turned into a hum so low it harmonized with the air conditioner, and we must have both been staring at the clock, because then we turned and looked at each other, and we saw the shock in each other’s eyes. We stood up and walked right out of that class and if Ms. D tried to stop us, I didn’t hear. Maybe Janine noticed. We’ve done a lot of walking, since.

The Slow Wave hit again four days later. We were hunkering down. You’d think it would come in threes, but you’d be wrong. Maybe the first was just a test run. Maybe threes only happen in fairy tales, or back in that fairy forest.

For one hour after that second wave, we all saw the newsfeeds. The world had turned a big corner, and THEY—whoever they were—had given us a gift, as a prelude to… taking everything away.

At the highest point of elevation, in each of the fifty states, a tower appeared. Was it built? Maybe in some expanded moment, in the microscopic tide of seconds, while we were all too shocked to react?

Every state, every province, has one tower now, placed at the highest available spot above sea level. They are smooth, featureless, seamless. Made of ordinary steel, from what anyone can tell. At the base, they are about as wide and long as a football field. If you look hard, you can detect a gentle taper, but they’re so tall the tops are out of sight even from a distance.

That hour was an hour of panic, confusion, fascination. The scientists and diplomats and salesmen of the world put on their boots and gloves and were about to get out there for the time of their lives. They hesitated, maybe. There was just one more form to fill out. It didn’t pay to rush into the unknown unprepared.

Before anyone could get their business together, the Big Bad hit.

There was a whole lotta destruction. Everything you would expect to see if you watch too many disaster movies. The most consistent thing is people went through a lot of good old garden-variety shock. Setbacks, you’re used to. You go into your phone and change things on your calendar or at worst fill out another form. But passenger jets screaming across the sky and disappearing, and then the heat and the sound of an impact that’s obscured in light and soot and smoke and other people screaming? There’s not an app for that.

Things got so jumbled and bunched and dark and words like “looting” lost meaning because suddenly there were more important things than stuff. You saved yourself. You tried to save your loved ones, if enough was left of them to save.

There wasn’t, for Mom or Dad. And that’s all I know to say about that right now.

Dad, he always talked about the “walking cure”. He was a writer. Nothing exciting—like, psychology stuff. But he always said there was nothing you couldn’t figure out if you had a good pair of shoes and could walk far enough.

“Jody, come see this!” Janine shouts from a clearing ahead. It’s later in the afternoon than I’d imagined for our approach to the tower that sits atop Mt. Davis, thirty-two hundred feet above sea level. It’s brisk enough that me sweating isn’t taking the edge off, and I’ve been thinking about suggesting we stop for the night. I’m trying to get the burs off my jeans, and I look up to find her leaning over a weird broad spot, where the grass and some vining morning glories (still blooming) are mashed down. They’re not springing back up like they always would before. Flattened like under glass.

My hand passes inches above the depression, and doesn’t come into contact with anything. Open air. It’s a moment I’ll think about later. It’s when we really stopped asking questions because we’re tired. Tired of not finding any answers.

“You have any explanation for that?” she asks me.

“No,” I say. “I can’t remember having an explanation for anything.”

And then we twin again, like we did back in math class. We look up together, our attention completely shifted.

At the end of the clearing, like a gatekeeper back into the forest, is what looks like a tremendous yew tree—that’s the word that sticks in my mind for it, but I’m not good with trees. Its arms twist outward and upward and toward us, and in the heightened darkness of its shade, the first fireflies of the night appear. One. Five. A dozen on and then off. A dozen more to take their place.

She takes my hand, for the first time, and we stand there, barely breathe.

We’re close now. But here there’s this pocket of safety, of realness. This place that says things are still alright somewhere. Things can be right again.

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

Fiction Fragments: Gwendolyn Kiste

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel about motherhood and how it changes your view of horror, and this week Girl Meets Monster welcomes Pittsburgh horror writer Gwendolyn Kiste.

Gwendolyn Kiste HeadshotGwendolyn Kiste is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Rust Maidens, from Trepidatio Publishing; And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, from JournalStone; and the dark fantasy novella, Pretty Marys All in a Row, from Broken Eye Books. Her short fiction has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Black Static, Daily Science Fiction, Shimmer, Interzone, and LampLight, among others. Originally from Ohio, she now resides on an abandoned horse farm outside of Pittsburgh with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts. Find her online at gwendolynkiste.com

Three Questions

GMM: Hello Gwendolyn! Welcome to Girl Meets Monster. It’s February and that means it is Women in Horror Month. Why do you think it’s important to devote a month to female horror writers? What would you say to critics who claim that only men write good horror fiction?

GK: For me, Women in Horror Month is always a great opportunity to learn about new female horror creators. The industry is constantly evolving, and social media can be so loud and bustling, sometimes in the worst ways, so it can sadly be far too easy to miss a new female horror writer or podcaster or artist throughout the year. Women in Horror Month gives us all an opportunity to discover those voices.

As for what to say to anyone who doesn’t feel that women write good horror, I would remind them of Mary Shelley all the way back when and also of all the literally hundreds of women writing horror now. There’s no reason why readers can’t find a new female author who writes the type of horror they love; we’re all creating vastly different stories, from body horror and the weird to Gothic and grindhouse. There’s no single female writing style; if someone thinks that, it’s because they haven’t read enough horror, especially new horror. I would encourage them to look at the lists and lists of female horror books on the Ladies of Horror Fiction site; there’s something out there they’d enjoy, I have no doubt.

GMM: Where did your inspiration for your Stoker-award winning novel, The Rust Maidens, come from? I tend to put a lot of myself — emotions, experiences, past traumas — into my characters and stories, do you do the same, or do your ideas come from somewhere else? What motivated you to tell this story?

GK: Aspects of The Rust Maidens lived with me for a long time. I definitely draw a lot from my own experiences and emotions in my work. I went to undergrad in Cleveland, and it was something of a haunted time in my life, so that feeling stayed with me and definitely ended up in The Rust Maidens, which is set in Cleveland. Combining body horror and the economic and environmental troubles of The Rust Belt seemed really compelling and also very personal to me, having grown up in Ohio. I’d never seen anything quite like that combination of themes before, so I decided I wanted to make this my story to tell.

GMM: As a woman writing horror fiction, what challenges have you faced? What advice would you give other women and girls who want to tell their stories? And, most importantly, if you became the leader of a girl gang of horror writers, what would be your battle cry?

GK: I think many of my challenges are ones shared by other female writers. Dealing with harassment, from both men and women, for example. That’s always so hard, but fortunately, that’s been the exception rather than the rule. Trying to find homes for my female-centric stories was more difficult in the beginning, but fortunately, the industry is really coming around, so I think this might become less of a problem as we move forward, especially with so many more female editors out there.

As for advice, I would say to write what you believe in. There are a lot of naysayers in the world who can be incredibly discouraging, but do your best to ignore anyone who doesn’t support your work and your vision. There are readers out there who do want to hear stories from female perspectives, so don’t let anyone tell you differently.

Ah, a battle cry! I love that! Honestly, I think it would be something like “All together now!” We’re so much stronger when we work together, recognizing each other’s unique experience in the world and seeing that as a strength and an asset. Women in Horror Month really celebrates that togetherness. Horror, as the genre has been evolving over the years, is really celebrating that togetherness too. It’s a good time to be part of this industry with so many other amazing female authors out there doing incredible work. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for all of us.

Fiction Fragment, by Gwendolyn Kiste

My heart in my throat, I turn around and see someone there on the dirt road. It’s a man who doesn’t belong here, a face I’ve never seen before. Everything in me seizes up, and all I can think is it’s one of them. It’s a witchfinder come back to set the countryside alight again.

A hundred paces away, he’s so close now, which means it’s too late for me to run without being seen, so I grit my teeth instead, an incantation blossoming in my throat. Already, I envision cursing him, of speaking the words my mother taught me, a mere phrase or two that could send him wandering into a day that won’t ever end. After all, there’s always a fairy ring somewhere nearby, eager to gobble down a wayward traveler.

As he draws nearer, he spots me here at the side of the road, and though I make no effort to greet him, my hands clenched tight around my woven basket, he waves brightly anyway.

“Hello there,” he says, heading toward me, and my lips part, ready to direct him into a sweet oblivion.

Then my chest tightens, and I remember the promise I made to myself. No magic, especially not dark magic, especially not against a stranger. For all I know, he’s as lost and hopeless as I am. I can’t assume every man is a witchfinder, can I?

The incantation retreats within me, and I stand a little taller, pretending I’m not afraid. “May I help you?” I say, the words weak and inadequate compared to what I could have spoken.

He grins, dimples pockmarking his cheeks. “Could you please tell me which way to the nearest village?”

That would be our village. He wants to go to the place where I grew up, but I don’t know if I want him there. It’s not my home, not anymore, but somehow, it doesn’t feel right to send this stranger to them. If anyone is going to bother my village, it should be me, not a man who could be anyone at all.

His grin never fading, he inches closer to me now, closing the gulf between us, and my body rises up, nearly quivering off the ground, still desperate to escape. I strain through the whispering sound of the wind to hear other voices in these parts, but it’s just the two of us now. My breath twisted inside me, I could dart back into the woods, vanishing between the hemlock lace and the birch trees carved with symbols from the dead, but then he’ll know I have a reason to run. And he’ll have an excuse to pursue. So I steady myself instead, my hands knotted tighter around the basket, as I inspect him up and down like a laboratory specimen.

Worn brown leather boots, small satchel, thin coat. No horse in sight and no Bible to beat.

From the looks of it, he’s common enough, as plain as all the rest of us. This is a good sign. The witchfinders are fancier. They arrive with flair, armed with pomp and circumstance and enough iron and flint to ignite a whole village. In the past, they’ve always materialized on our streets, clumped together in groups, their black boots and black cloaks designed to put you on edge, as though they’re already mourning you before you’ve even died.

This man is nothing like them. Here he is, coming not from the North, the city that makes witchfinders the same way it makes sharp mead and wagon wheels, but from the West, the direction of the other villages where everyone is just as afraid as we are.

“Well?” he asks, flashing me that smile as warm as summer rot. “Can you help me?”

I back away a few steps, my guts churning. Even if he isn’t a witchfinder, that still doesn’t make him a friend. This is a cruel tale as old as time. Terrible things often start with a girl meeting a strange man in the forest. And after everything that’s happened here, I won’t fall prey to another terrible thing.

Would you like your own Fiction Fragments post? Send me your stuff at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel

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

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

Three Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Blood for the Soil, by Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nat! Kyle!”

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

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

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

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

“What happened?” she asked.

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

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

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

Nat’s eyes flashed with anger.

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

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

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

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

“What, sweetie?”

His soulful brown eyes met hers.

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction Fragments: Ronald J. Murray

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

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

Three Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction Fragments: Lucy A. Snyder

Last week, I talked with writer and film maker, Jeff Carroll, about Hip Hop horror and sci-fi fiction. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Lucy A. Snyder. I met Lucy while earning my MFA in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University. She was my second mentor in the program. Her guidance, support, and dark sense of humor helped me finish writing my thesis novel and I couldn’t be happier with the results.

Lucy4Lucy A. Snyder is the Shirley Jackson Award-nominated and five-time Bram Stoker Award-winning author of over 100 published short stories and 12 books. Her most recent titles are the collection Garden of Eldritch Delights and the forthcoming novel The Girl With the Star-Stained Soul. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Asimov’s Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, Nightmare Magazine, Pseudopod, Strange Horizons, and Best Horror of the Year. You can learn more about her at www.lucysnyder.com and you can follow her on Twitter at @LucyASnyder.

Three Questions

GMM: You mentioned that this fragment is from a novel that is being serialized at Eyedolon Magazine. Is the process of writing and submitting chapters of a novel as you complete them easier than submitting a completed novel? What is the writing process like? Are you typically a linear writer? What have you learned from this experience?

LAS: In some ways it’s harder, but in some ways it’s easier. One advantage to submitting a novel a chapter or two at a time is that I have to maintain good plot tension for every section I submit. It’s a built-in way of avoiding middle-of-the-book narrative sag! Another advantage is that I get regular editorial feedback, so if something seems to be going off the rails I get questions about that and I can address potential problems early before they’re entrenched.

A disadvantage is that I’m 75% a plotter, but 25% a discovery writer. One thing I discovered, ten chapters in, is that I needed another major character. Fortunately, I was able to introduce her in a way that would make sense to the readers who’d been following the serial, but I also went back and edited the existing novel to foreshadow her arrival so that she’s a presence from the very first chapter.

I am typically a linear writer; I think writing a serial would be much harder if I were not. Or anyway I’d probably need to finish much more of the novel ahead of time. Right now, Broken Eye Books is pretty much publishing sections as I complete them, although I’ll probably get further ahead in coming months because of the limitations of their publishing schedule.

GMM: What is a Lovecraftian space opera? Can you define the elements of this cross genre? Are there any tropes that readers of science fiction can easily identify? What makes a piece of fiction Lovecraftian?

LAS: It’s pretty much what it says on the tin: it’s a space opera with Lovecraftian themes.

Space opera, which has become more popular in recent years, is a science fictional narrative set in space (or on other planets) that focuses on adventure, epic battles, futuristic technology, etc. Star Wars is space opera, for instance. So it should be a fairly familiar subgenre to most readers!

Lovecraftian fiction refers to stories or novels that use elements from Lovecraft’s fiction, particularly aspects of the Cthulhu mythos he created. Look for references to Elder Gods, tentacled horrors, madness-inducing knowledge, cosmic terrors, cults, fish gods, and general doom for mankind. Lovecraft’s influences have worked their way into a whole lot of science fiction and horror. Stranger Things has some strong Lovecraftian themes in it, and The Shape of Water contains several nods to Lovecraft’s work.

In my novel, the narrative takes place after the spawn of Azathoth (a deep-space deity in the Cthulhu mythos) invade Earth and wreak a variety of horrors. My protagonists, Joe and Bea, were physically and psychologically transformed by their experiences with the spawn, and they’ve been sent into space as part of a special mission to hunt down the spawn’s hives on other planets and destroy them to eliminate any further threat to our planet.

GMM: Over the past several years, there has been quite a bit of controversy over whether or not we should be honoring the work of H. P. Lovecraft due to his racist beliefs. How do you approach a piece of fiction that mimics the work of Lovecraft and make it something wholly your own as someone who is very much against racism?

LAS: I’ve written a lot of stories and several novels that are inspired by and are in dialog with Lovecraft’s fiction. That’s a different thing than mimicking or honoring his fiction. I am often inspired by things that appall me or anger me.

Lovecraft’s fiction, like Lovecraft himself, is complicated. Yes, there is a whole lot of xenophobia and racism — so much, in fact, that I’ve heard some critics claim that you can’t separate xenophobia from Lovecraft’s work. My take on that is that it’s entirely possible to write a piece of Lovecraftian fiction that doesn’t contain a trace of xenophobia. Or, you could write a narrative that addresses his racism directly and critically, as Victor LaValle does in The Ballad of Black Tom, which is a razor-sharp response to Lovecraft’s most notoriously racist story (“The Horror at Red Hook”). But LaValle’s novella also employs plenty of the kind of mind-blowing cosmic horror that made Lovecraft’s work memorable in the first place.

Lovecraft himself openly borrowed a whole lot of ideas from other writers: Lord Dunsany, Ambrose Bierce, M.R. James, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Edgar Allan Poe, and Robert Chambers (Ramsey Campbell’s gonna argue with me about the influence Chambers had; regardless, Chambers’ King in Yellow mythos has been absorbed into the Cthulhu mythos). Lovecraft in turn encouraged his writer friends to work with his worlds and he collaborated with other authors. So Lovecraftian fiction is much more than what Lovecraft himself wrote, and it’s been that way from the beginning.

I think of Lovecraftian fiction as a microcosm of genre fiction as a whole. We can all point to classic horror or science fiction stories that are racist, ableist, misogynistic … or just plain horribly written. Those cringey parts are not a reason to abandon those genres. They’re a reason to read the classics critically, identify why they’re awful … but also why they captured people’s imaginations in the first place. And then it’s on us to take the good, engage critically with the bad, and use that as a jumping-off place to write even better stories and novels for our readers.

Excerpt from Blossoms Blackened Like Dead Stars, by Lucy A. Snyder

I rest my hand on the wrapped, dormant root ball as the autopiloted shuttle glides into the docking bay of the USS Flechette. The bay walls and deck are matte gray tarakium, same as all the other ships in the fleet. My dreams are turning this color. The shuttle lands with barely a bump, and after the clack of the pressure lock disengaging, the rear door slowly lowers with a hydraulic hiss. I unbuckle my flight harness and walk down the ramp, my booted steps light in the artificial gravity.

This is my first command. I feel a mix of pride and dread about being here, and I don’t even properly know where “here” is, at least not in relation to Earth. There’s only so much I can know about my own missions, just in case I’m compromised. Nobody tells me I can’t ever be fully trusted, but distrust is baked into every scenario I or any of the other “enhanced” personnel are involved with. And frankly, I don’t know if they can trust us, either.

It’s chilly on the flight deck, which is fine. Extreme temperatures don’t bother me nearly as much as they used to. The doctors tested me extensively after my transformation, and we discovered that I can handle temperatures of about 60°C without passing out and −10°C without suffering serious hypothermia or frostbite.

My spawn-hybridized cells produce a new polypeptide that acts as antifreeze in my blood and tissues. For one test, they entombed me in solid ice for over an hour. I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. Never lost consciousness thanks to my cells doing some dark-cycle chemosynthesis that produced enough oxygen to keep my brain working. If that sounds like a fun afternoon . . . it really, really wasn’t. Cold that doesn’t kill me still hurts plenty, and it turns out I’m more claustrophobic than I thought. But since there wasn’t enough air to breathe, there wasn’t enough air for me to start screaming, so I emerged from the frosty coffin with my dignity intact. I’ve gotten good at coping with whatever they do to me in the name of science or safety. I’ll certainly encounter worse out in space with the spawn; there is only so much evil that the human mind is capable of imagining.

There’s concern that the polypeptide might build up and damage my internal organs over time, but the only thing to do about it is wait and see. Nobody has any real idea of what condition my body will be in even a year from now. The unspoken worry, obviously, is that I’ll transform into a spawn and kill everyone around me. Betray everyone in the name of Azathoth.

Of course, my spore-laden breath means I’m likely to kill people purely by accident. But I’m far too useful to lock away in a research lab, and so far, I’ve passed all the psych evals. The brass decided to give me command of my own small ship, point me at the spawn, and hope for the best.

Eight android drones stand at attention on the flight deck, patiently waiting for me. They’re all the same drab, clay-white Boston Dynamics Xenophon model, clunky looking but dexterous. Each has a differently colored stripe around their torso so people can tell them apart when they’re turned around. Some have metallic colors, and I’m guessing that they hold mission-critical roles. Their human pilots’ faces are mapped onto the curved tarakium screens on their heads. The crewmembers are stationed light years away on warships or stations, linked to the drones by the new quantum paired network. They’re certain to lose their connections during hyperspace jumps, and I’ll probably never know where any of my crew actually are.

The irony of my command is that my crew will always know more about the brass’s plans than I do. One of them—I don’t know who—is authorized to take over the ship the moment I show signs of compromise. The situation would probably frustrate a lot of other commanders, but I never expected to be in charge of a ship. I had to take an alarmingly compressed command school curriculum in between the godawful medical tests. Honestly, I’m glad someone here is qualified to run things in case shit gets real. I’d have a raging case of impostor syndrome if I’d deliberately chosen any of this.

A human lieutenant commander stands behind the line of drones. My sole crewmate during jumps. I blink. At first glance, I thought he was wearing some kind of dark protective gear, but he isn’t. He towers a head above the androids, and his skin is crocodile rough, blackened as if he’s been charred by a fire. Is he even human? He’s wearing a short-sleeved uniform, and his arms, neck, and face look as if he’s been torn apart and put back together with steel staples.

As I stare, trying to make sense of what I’m seeing, recognition dawns. “Joe?”

His grisly face splits into a smile. “Yep, it’s me. Good to see you, Bea.”

“What happened?” I blurt before I can stop myself.

He gives a laugh like stones grinding together. “Long story. Let me introduce you to your Alpha crew.”

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