Dark Blood Comes From the Feet: An Interview with Emma J. Gibbon

Emma J. Gibbon is a horror writer, speculative poet and librarian. Her stories have appeared in various anthologies including Wicked Weird, Wicked Haunted, and The Muse & the Flame and on the Toasted Cake podcast. She also has a story upcoming in Would but Time Await: An Anthology of New England Folk Horror from Haverhill Publishing. This year, she has been nominated twice for the Rhysling Award for her poems “Fune-RL” (Strange Horizons) and “Consumption” (Eye to the Telescope). Her poetry has also been published in LiminalityPedestal Magazine and is upcoming in Kaleidotrope. Emma is originally from Yorkshire and now lives in Maine in a spooky little house in the woods with her husband, Steve, and three exceptional animals: Odin, Mothra, and M. Bison (also known as Grim). She is a member of the New England Horror Writers, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association, the Angela Carter Society, and the Tuesday Mayhem Society. Her website is emmajgibbon.com.

I recently had the pleasure of reading Emma J. Gibbon’s anthology of short horror fiction, Dark Blood Comes From the Feet. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this collection of literary horror tales that put relatable characters under the microscope to show us the darker side of the human condition. Gibbon takes us to weirdly familiar settings that quickly turn macabre, like a strip club in Purgatory, a Lovecraftian orphanage, a day at the beach that would make Cronenberg proud, and a haunted house on a hill that I won’t forget any time soon.

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Emma. Congratulations on the release of your short story collection, Dark Blood Comes From the Feet, that comes out today! I really loved reading your stories, not just because they were well written, but also because I couldn’t help wondering where the stories came from. You write about a diverse group of characters from different backgrounds with different experiences and I kept wondering which of those characters were you. That might seem like a strange thing to wonder for some people, but because I write dark fiction as well about women of color, there is a part of me in each story. Some really terrible things happen to the people in your stories, but at the most basic level, they’re human. How much of yourself is in this collection? Where do the lines blur between you and your characters?

EJG: Thank you so much! I’m so glad you enjoyed it! That’s a really tough question to answer because in a way, they are all from me but are separate at the same time. I’ve had an interesting and varied time on this earth so far, so it does sometimes feel like I’ve lived a lot of lives. There is no doubt that I use elements of myself and my life when I create characters, some on a surface level and some on a deep emotional level. When I do the latter, it’s often not a conscious decision but something I realize later, sometimes years later. For example, on a surface level, the narrator of “Cellar Door,” Karen, resembles me in that some of her memories she mentions are my memories and she lives in my house. That house is my house! That basement is real! I’m not convinced it was the best idea, it’s like I haunted my own house.  But personality-wise, she’s not like me. Janine in “Janine” is a character I have enormous sympathy for. She is someone who had the cards stacked against her from the start, who made some bad choices and has really suffered for them, much more than she deserves. I have the sense that I could have easily been someone like Janine, but I was just luckier.

Ultimately, there is a lot of me in this collection, probably more than I like to admit. Dark Blood Comes from the Feet, is a line from “Cellar Door” and it’s a reference to having old trauma that you have trouble letting go of. I have a lot of stuff that I psychologically scratch at, over and over, old wounds. They’re in my stories but I skew it and dress it up in monsters and distinct voices and the supernatural so that I don’t even recognize it myself at times.

GMM: While reading the stories, I compared your work to other writers in the genre, including Poe, Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Cronenberg, and there’s even a reference to Donnie Darko (Tolkien), which brought a smile to my face. Which writers have had the most impact on your own writing style? Whose stories inspired you the most?

EJG: I do love Donnie Darko! And thank you so much! That’s a very flattering and intimidating list! I definitely have a group of authors whose work has inspired me. I know I’ll forget a major influence but a very obvious one is Shirley Jackson, but also Angela Carter, Daphne du Maurier, Neil Gaiman, Mervyn Peake, M. Rickert, Kelly Link. I think Brooke Bolander is astonishing. I’m inspired by many people writing horror right now. More than that though, I think the key is I was an early and voracious reader who came from a family that weren’t huge readers. We didn’t go to the library. My parents bought me books, but there was no way they could have kept up with me. I read everything and did a lot of rereading (I’ve slowed down since then, I mean, the internet exists now.) I’d get books from car boot sales (the British equivalent of yard sales). Half the time I didn’t have to pay. I think people were a bit weirded out by this little girl carrying a stack of Stephen King and Alfred Hitchcock books, I especially liked the ones with the yellow edges, so they just gave them to me. Because my reading was very autodidactic and random, I have a personal canon that’s my own. I had no sense of high or low culture (which I still think is nonsense anyway,) or genre or nonfiction vs fiction, so I’d read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest then V. C. Andrews, an anthology of classic ghost stories and Salem’s Lot with a book of feminist stories. Much later, I’d carry on this habit even as I specialized in English—Macbeth with The Mammoth Book of Vampires Stories, a nonfiction book about the cultural effects of tuberculosis with The Name of the RoseWide Sargasso Sea with The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. So all of these stories are all in there and they come out in my stories in a completely unconscious way.

GMM: You have an incredible talent for showing us the horror and reality of the settings in each of your stories. I’m an avid reader, but I also have spent a lot of time watching and studying films in many genres, which I think has had an impact on how I tell stories. Would you say that the written word, or film images have inspired your work more? What films have influenced the way you craft a scene?

EJG: Thank you so much! That really means a lot to me because I have aphantasia. This means that I don’t imagine or think in visual images. It’s hard to describe but I have a strong internal dialogue and think in concepts (almost as if my mind can feel the edges of a 3D representation that I can’t see.) Some of my settings are based on places where I have lived or visited—as I said, the house in “Cellar Door” is mine, the tunnel in “Bobby Red-Eyes” really existed when I was a kid (and Bobby is an urban legend in my hometown), the Black Shuck Tavern is based on a famous Hollywood nightclub. Others were research, I’ve never been to any of the places in “Whitechapel,” for example.

I am very influenced by film too. I grew up in the peak-VHS 80s with very little screen supervision, so we watched a lot of horror films. My big ambition as a teen was to be a music video director. I was a double major in college in English and Art History but most of my art history classes were the history of film or film theory and honestly; it burnt me out a little. A lot of my favorite films are before then. So films like Heathers, The Lost Boys, Donnie Darko, Amadeus, The Faculty, Beetlejuice, The ‘Burbs, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nightbreed and May have had an enormous impact on me. Despite the aphantasia, it’s the colors of the scenes that I often remember and the way they affect mood.

That said, I’ve been influenced and inspired by all kinds of things—personal anecdotes, scenes from my own life, books and movies, music videos, songs, photographs and other pieces of art, TV shows and video games. It’s the story that I’m always most interested in, not necessarily the format.

GMM: I enjoyed reading all of the stories in your collection, but I have a few favorites, including “Devour,” “Cellar Door,” “Whitechapel,” and “St. Scholastica’s Home for Children of the Sea.” Which stories in the collection are your favorites, and why? Which were the most difficult to write?

EJG: As far as being hard to write, two stand out particularly. “Cellar Door” because it was the kind of story I have always wanted to write and fear of failure meant I couldn’t get out of my own way for the longest time. In the end, I made it a NaNoWriMo project and got a good chunk of it done by not looking back as I wrote. “This is Not the Glutton Club” was hard because I hand wrote it while bedridden with pneumonia! It was also the story that needed the most research, and my Facebook friends really saved the day on that one!

It’s really hard to have favorites, they’re like children (I’m guessing). What is nice is that I’ve got enough distance between them all that I like them all. I don’t regret putting any of them in there. I do really like “Sermon from New London.” It was a lot of fun to write. Should we get to the other side of the apocalypse, I think there are worse ways to survive than being part of a matriarchal cult based on punk music. It was first published on the Toasted Cake podcast performed by the editor, Tina Connolly, and there had to be a language warning because there is so much swearing in it. What really makes me laugh is that when I played it to my husband, he didn’t notice, which I think tells you about the level of discourse in our house!

GMM: While you write from the POV of both male and female characters, your strongest characters seem to be women and girls. And, even though terrible things happen to them, not all of them are victims. Many of your female characters make the most of the bad situations they find themselves in, and become survivors. Would you say that feminism has had an impact on how you create your female characters? Or, are you simply showing us the strength of the human spirit? Rarely, do your stories have what I would consider a happy ending, and I really appreciate that. How would you describe your writing style to someone who has never read your work?

EJG: Feminism definitely plays into it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind straight white guys, I even married one! But they have had their time being at the center of stories. They’ve had centuries of being the heroes and saving the day. I’ve made a conscious decision to give people who don’t traditionally get to be the protagonists take center stage or have the happy ending—women without children, women who are not straight, trans women, working-class women. Part of it is being a woman from a working-class background who has not conformed to social convention and having mainstream fiction just not resonate with me at all because of that. I still have a way to go. My writing is far too white, for example, and that is something I have to work on—my experience of the world is not a default and I think the more that I reflect the world as it is, the more powerful it is when I tilt it somewhat. Something that is at the core of who I am is that I will always root for the underdog, always. There is never a time when I’m on the side of the people with all the power so that’s going to come through.

I’ve had to pull myself up from the ashes a few times in my life, start again from nothing and reinvent myself. I’ve seen people, especially women, do that again and again and I like to reflect that in some of my stories. It makes you stronger, like tempering steel, but it has a cost, you can get brittle and break. Even the phoenix has to go through the fire.

Describing my writing style is difficult. It’s one of those things where I would be interested to know how other people describe it. A lot of it is instinctual. Once I get the voice of a story, it usually pulls me along. That said, I like to challenge myself to see if I can write in a wide a range as possible—can I write a nested story in the voice of a Victorian gentleman? What if I had an unreliable narrator talking to someone who wasn’t there? Can I write a speech in mostly misheard punk lyrics? What would Shirley Jackson do? I think that is what it comes down to mostly: What would Shirley Jackson do?

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.

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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: Cat Scully

Last week, I spoke with comic book aficionado and co-owner of the award-winning comic book shop, Comicazi, Michael Burke. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes writer, artist, and all-round delightful person, Cat Scully.

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Cat Scully is the writer and illustrator of YA horror comic-novel Jennifer Strange, releasing July 2020 from Haverhill House Publishing. Cat is best known for her world maps, which have been featured in Brooklyn Brujas trilogy by Zoraida Cordova, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, and Give the Dark My Love by Beth Revis. She works in video game development for the Deep End Games, designing user interfaces, maps, and concept art on their next title. She is represented by Miriam Kriss of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency.

She loves Earl Grey tea, video games, Evil Dead, Hellboy, watercolors, horror books, comic books, and anything involving outdoor sports.

For agent inquiries, please contact Miriam Kriss of Irene Goodman Literary: Miriam@IreneGoodman.com

Website: CatherineScully.com
Twitter@CatMScully
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InstagramCatMScully

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Cat. I’m so glad that you could join me. Last week, I spoke with Michael Burke, who is the co-owner of a comics store and says that he developed a love of reading through comics as a kid. He’s an advocate for childhood literacy and encourages kids to read comics to get started. What were some of the first comics you read, and how did they influence you as an artist and writer? What comics are you reading now? Who are your favorite comic artists?

CS: Thank you so much for having me here! I’m really excited to be on your blog! So as a kid I didn’t have a lot of access to comics, mostly because comics weren’t something my parents would you know put money down on. I did earn a lot of babysitting money being much older than my siblings, so what I had I spent on Manga. That was my first introduction to comics. I read Sailor Moon, Magic Knight Rayearth, and anything by Clamp. Honestly, for Jennifer Strange being in the horror camp, one of its biggest influences is actually Sailor Moon. The art style informed how I think about hair, how it flows, and consequently, I draw very epic sweeping hair to this day. I didn’t get into comics until college where I read my first ever comic from my school library – Watchmen by Alan Moore. I hardly ever cry at books, but I cried reading that one. I was determined to write something one day that was part comic, part novel, but instead of it being primarily comics with some prose, I wanted to achieve the opposite by writing a full book that was also told as a comic. Jennifer Strange ended up being a huge undertaking as a result because this book is part journal, where you follow along with what the sisters are reading as they try to solve it, so you get to solve the mystery too, but there are a ton of Easter eggs in those pages that are hints at books 2 and 3. From Watchmen, I dove into Batwoman, who is still my favorite comic book character to this day, and the only character I’ve ever cosplayed. All of the full spreads in Jennifer Strange are because of J. H. Williams drawing this impressive full, double-page spreads. I wanted to do the same with my book. But my favorite comic book? It’s HARROW COUNTY, hands down. You can’t get me to shut up about the writing of Cullen Bunn and the art of Tyler Crook pretty much ever. I’m obsessed with the deep southern voice of Cullen and the dreary, bloody watercolors of Tyler. I’ve watched so many of his process videos on loop. I can’t recommend that series enough.

GMM: Tell me about Jennifer Strange. Judging from your fragment, she deals with paranormal nasties and goes on some interesting and scary adventures. Without too many spoilers, can you give a synopsis of the story and what inspired the book and character?

CS: Here’s the jacket copy for Jennifer Strange, and it gives a pretty good idea of what you’re in for: Jennifer Strange is cursed with the ability to give ghosts and demons a corporeal body with just the touch of her hand. All she wants is to learn how to control her new gift. Instead, her father drops her in the care of her older sister Liz, leaving only his journal as an explanation. Jennifer and Liz haven’t spoken to each other since their mother died, but when the supernatural residents of Savannah, Georgia find Jennifer and her powerful gift, the sisters must learn to trust each other again and uncover the truth about their parents. If they can’t sort out their differences, they’ll not only destroy the veil between the living and the dead but fall into the hands of a rival family who wants to claim the Sparrow power for themselves. This book has got rival families with hatred spanning over decades, no clear cut villain or hero, monster boys, hate-to-love relationships, snarky sister banter, southern gothic flavor, brutal and gory battles, secret family histories, haunted antiques, custom symbology I made exclusively for the book, and terrifying artwork in the vein of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I wanted to write a female-driven Evil Dead, complete with my own Necronomicon, and full of just as much horror-comedy. I really hope people dig it because I’ve always wanted more girls fighting gross monsters books where they are also funny and fun.

GMM: When I’m writing, I see entire scenes in my mind either before or while I’m writing them. As someone who works in visual mediums, which comes first for you, the images or the words? Do you prefer telling stories with images, or simply writing prose? Where do your scariest ideas come from?

CS: I have such a weird process since I’m an artist too, and honestly, I’d consider myself an artist first. If I get stuck in a story, I draw the scene to figure it out. That’s how the ending of Jennifer Strange happened. I was so stuck on how to end it for so long and I ended up drawing the final scene which leads to overall what happened. I’m also a huge plotter. I have to sit down and bullet point out what I want to do before I do it otherwise my brain is all over the place with too many ideas. When I sit down to the computer, I sometimes veer off course though, because when I write it does end up going where the story feels is best. I originally wrote Jennifer Strange as a TV pilot as the thesis for my undergraduate screenwriting project, and so I always saw this book as a series of storyboards. That translated into comics when I decided I wanted to try publishing the thing as a book first. I could never not see this book as a visual, breathing entity. It needed to be art as much as it needed to be words. And not all my books are that way. My other books with my agent are all prose, but there was always something special about Jennifer, something that said it had to be art. And that’s why I’m so glad I went with Haverhill House Publishing! They really let me go for it the way I wanted the book to be, and I’ll forever be grateful to my editor John for taking me on and believing in my book as much as he has. He’s a true gem in the horror community. As far as what I prefer, I really love drawing chapter headings or single pieces of art, rather than doing an entire comic book. I love writing prose, and really diving into a character’s head in the first person. I’m not really much for third person. It’s just not immersive enough for me. I want to be that person when I write them, and 3rd person is too much distance. I do get a lot of my scariest ideas from movies and video games because I am SO visual. I get a lot of ideas from dreams too because my dreams tend to be pretty messed up. I don’t really get scared when I read books, but I do when it’s visual. I get SO SCARED during horror movies! I will totally cover my eyes and hide. It’s so funny that I get so scared because I love horror so much, but I guess I just love to be scared. It’s just so much fun to be scared, and I hope people have fun being scared when they read Jennifer Strange.

Excerpt from Jennifer Strange

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“SPARROW.”

I blinked awake. The room was dark. Too dark. My heart pounded inside my chest as I realized the lamp had stopped spinning. Normally, the stars would sweep around the room across posters of all the places I wanted to travel to when I graduated high school. Only, this wasn’t my bedroom and I wasn’t back home and the lamp sat there like a broken toy in the spare room of my sister’s apartment with its bare, white walls.

I reached out. My fingers cramped as if winter had just breathed across my skin. Impossible. It was almost summer. Maybe the air conditioning unit under the window was broken. I pushed off the sheets, making a leap for my robe hanging on the back of my door. The carpet was so cold it pricked my feet. I slipped on the robe, but it did absolutely nothing to warm me. I waved a hand over the air conditioning unit and it whirred pleasant hot air against my fingertips. Only one thing could make the room this cold, and it was in the apartment with me.

A noise came from the other side of my bedroom door. It clattered and slammed, clattered and slammed as if someone was opening and shutting the kitchen silverware drawer. No. It couldn’t be the Wraith. Bloody Mouth was dead. I glanced at Dad’s journal, which was still resting all crumpled and neglected on top of the hamper where I had thrown it before I fell asleep. I picked it up by the spine and flipped open the pages. There might be something in the pages that could help me.

I tried flicking the bedroom light switch on. Nothing. I reached for my dresser drawer and pulled out the flashlight Liz gave me for emergencies. Dad was the one who started calling her “Safety First Liz” or “Operation Preparation.” For the first time ever, I was grateful she was the most Girl Scout person on Earth. The light came on and illuminated the pages. I flipped to a section where I knew I saw some runes, towards the center of the book. One was listed as a ward against the supernatural, that it could be used to repel ghosts and lesser demons, but I needed a pen to draw it. My bookbag. Shit. It had all my pens and it was destroyed by the Wraith. The only other pens were out there, in the living room.

As I reached for the doorknob, the clanging stopped. Little currents of blue light snaked up the back of my fingers. Something was definitely out there. My power knew it, I knew it, but was it a ghost or a demon that had found me?

The brass handle turned all on its own. The flashlight flickered in my hand as I held the book out in front of me. The bedroom door swung open with a creaky whine. I listened. There was nothing but the sound of my own breathing. The living room stretched out like a massive black hole in front of me. I had to take care of this entity myself, but go out there? Alone? That option was a great big old pile of nope.

I pointed my flashlight into the gloom, but it was like trying to shine a light into a giant storm cloud.

“I know you’re out there,” I whispered. “I know what you want.”

Metal scraped across metal in the direction of the kitchen. Something brushed against my back. My bedroom door slammed shut behind me. I dropped the flashlight and the room went dark. I kneeled and felt around the carpet. Shit shit shit shit SHIT. Something collided into my calves and sent the journal flying from my hands as I face-planted into the floor.

It pressed down on my back. “Get off me!”

My arms flailed around my back to grab it, but my hands met only air. The pressure increased like someone had dropped a stack of weights on top of my back. I choked as my spine sank down against my rib cage and lungs. My legs and arms flailed. I clawed the carpet, struggling for air.

The pressure sank into my skin and I took one last, small gulp. My body flopped once and then went completely still. The weight on my back released. I could breathe, but the pressure was still there, crushing down inside of me instead of on top of my skin. There came a whoosh and my skin pricked all over as if I’d just been hit by a gust of snow. I instinctively raised my arms to block the wind from my face, but they didn’t respond. I tried and tried, but I couldn’t move my arms. My fingers, my toes, my legs—I tried anything, everything. Nothing moved when I told it to.

My right arm lifted. The sensation was distant from my mind, my control, but I felt it happening. My left arm lifted. I was on my knees, but I hadn’t put myself there. I screamed, but it was all inside. My body was a cage, and I was trapped inside.

My hands reached up and around behind me, flattened against the floor. My back arched as my body bent backward and lifted off the floor. Hair dangled in front of my face as I floated up to the ceiling. Tears itched the top of my eyelids as I urinated without warning. Warm liquid trickled down between my legs and little droplets hit the carpet below. Tears ran over my forehead and into my hair. I had to calm down, do something, but what? My body wasn’t mine anymore.

In the warm pit of my stomach, something wiggled around like a snake. It crawled out of the base of my spine, slithered up and out of my throat, and spoke using my mouth.

“Possessing you was too easy,” my voice said.

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: Jessica McHugh

Last week, Girl Meets Monster spoke with Nick Cato about the relationship between horror and humor. And this week, I am pleased to welcome the delightful Jessica McHugh.

authorpicJessica McHugh is a novelist and internationally produced playwright running amok in the fields of horror, sci-fi, young adult, and wherever else her peculiar mind leads. She’s had twenty-three books published in eleven years, including her bizarro romp, “The Green Kangaroos,” her Post Mortem Press bestseller, “Rabbits in the Garden,” and her YA series, “The Darla Decker Diaries.” More information on her published and forthcoming fiction can be found at JessicaMcHughBooks.com.

Three Questions

GMM: Hi, Jessica. Welcome to Girl Meets Monster. I’m dying to know what happens next for Duncan Dwyer; I wanted to keep reading when your fragment ended. Can you give a brief synopsis of this story? What inspired the story and where on Earth is Dickety Downs? Is it based on a real place?

JM: This story was originally inspired by a publisher’s plan to release a series of RL Stine Fear Street-eque books. It didn’t happen, but I ended up with several chapters of this WIP story and some characters that I’d grown to love. Nuts and bolts synopsis: it’s about loss coming to terms with how loss changes us, but it’s also about reinvention and not always with a positive spin. Dickety Downs, and the town of Alton where it’s nestled, is pretty much a dead space to the rest of the world. And to a lesser extent, so is Hampstead, the town where I grew up in the 80s and 90s. I was shocked a few years back when I realized my once idyllic suburban neighborhood enveloped by lush and tangled woodland where I pretended to be an explorer and soldier and unicorn and spent countless hours making joyful noise with my friends had become a silent stretch of empty houses hastily vacated. All around my childhood home where my father and brother still live are trash-filled shells of suburban dreams. A few years ago, my high school even closed down, and the police department moved into its still-warm corpse.

Hampstead definitely inspired the town of Alton where Duncan Dwyer and her father move at the novel’s start, but as much as I hope my old hometown is able to reinvent itself, I hope it doesn’t go down the same dark path as the one laid out in this story.

GMM: When did you start writing YA fiction? As an adult, is it easy to get into the headspace of children and teens, or do you struggle to find their voices? How much of yourself is in your young female characters? Do you prefer writing YA fiction or fiction for a more adult audience?

JM: I’ve been writing YA for a while, though I didn’t always write with a YA audience in mind. Because of the protagonists’ ages, Rabbits in the Garden and Danny Marble & the Application for Non-Scary Things were marketed to a younger audience that…ahem…might not have appreciated the gore level. However, even though my 5-book series, the Darla Decker Diaries, was written for middle grade and up, I still pushed the boundaries a bit. (And by now, you’ve figured out that I *really* like alliteration, right?) I don’t feel like I struggle to channel a younger voice, but I’ve also spent a lot of time around kids and teens teaching creative writing, and living and working in downtown Frederick provides a lot of inspirado and research opportunities.

I feel like there’s a sliver of me in every character I write but certainly more than others, at least in the beginning. Darla Decker was directly inspired by my childhood diaries, so she started out very much like me. But she grew as a person over five books and made lots of decisions I never would. Duncan Dwyer, on the other hand, feels already grown. She’s gone through a lot more than Darla—death, abandonment, depression and anxiety—and just when she’s starting to heal, she’s thrown into this dilapidated town teetering on the success of an experimental private school. I started writing this story a year or so after my cat died when I was having severe depression and panic attacks so bad I couldn’t hold a pen. I was on medication for the first time in my life, and in the first few chapters Duncan discusses her meds and visits her new therapist.

As for what I prefer…I just don’t know. But based on my published works, this work-in-progress, and the two middle-grade horror books I’m writing currently, it sure seems like I unconsciously prefer YA.

GMM: Your story has a light-hearted humorous feel to it, but I suspect Duncan is about to experience something strange or even traumatic. Is there usually an element of horror in your work even though you write in several genres? Last week, Nick Cato talked about how humor and horror work together in his fiction. How would you describe the relationship between humor and horror in your own work and in other fiction you’ve enjoyed reading?

JM: Oh, absolutely, there are always horrific elements in my work. Maybe it’s because real life seems to overflow with all varieties and intensities of horror, it just comes out naturally. I truly can’t help it, nor would I want to.

While I’m not sure I’m as adept as Nick Cato at incorporating humor into horror, there’s no doubt I love using it. It’s a great way to manage the intensity of the reader’s fear. While humor can diffuse a tense situation, it can also prolong the reader’s comfort so terror can creep up slow—or methodically unravel in the background while the characters are having a nice laugh. Again, I believe real life follows similar patterns, so I’m just keeping it real creating this delicious genre goulash.

Who Died in the House Next Door, by Jessica McHugh

Chapter One

The squirrel on the porch was dead before Duncan dropped her suitcase on its head. That’s what her dad said anyway. While he scrubbed blood out of her luggage, he repeated frantic assurances like, “This isn’t a bad sign, honeybee,” and “It could happen to anyone.”

Of course it could happen to anyone, but it happened to her, Duncan Dwyer, less than two minutes after arriving at her new home. So maybe it wasn’t a bad sign, but it sure as hell wasn’t a good sign.

Her dad blamed himself, and she wanted to blame him too. It was because of him that she had to uproot her life in Joliet and move to a neighborhood too empty and boring to be called something as crazy as “Dickety Downs.”

She sighed. Duncan Dwyer of Dickety Downs. That should go over well at the new school.

Her father’s bushy black eyebrows formed a somber “w” between his eyes, and Duncan launched into assurances of her own. That’s what they did—what they had to do to protect each other. So, yes, even though he was the reason they left Joliet, he’d done it for the greater good, in pursuit of a better life for them both. Besides, no sane person could’ve refused the generous offer from the principal of the newly constructed Alton Academy. A free house and double her father’s previous teaching salary was more than they could’ve asked for. Add in the privilege of attending the trial run of Alton Academy’s so-called Experimental Learning Facility, and Duncan’s dad was packing up their possessions before Duncan could even think of objecting.

Not that she would have. After more than a year of homeschooling with Dad, she wasn’t eager about returning to a typical school setting, but he obviously was. He missed the madness of high school halls and unpredictability of being a teacher who actually cared about underachievers and outcasts. Besides, if her dad was telling the truth about Alton Academy, it wasn’t exactly a “typical” school.

“We needed our own doormat anyway,” Duncan said as her dad dropped the faded straw thing into the trash bag with the squirrel. The word “Welcome” permeated the white haze like a mocking grin, but she refused to let it venture beyond the rim of her vision. “What do you think? Something nice and flowery, or maybe something a little more realistic? ‘Buzz off’ comes to mind…”

His eyebrows relaxed, and his mouth stretched to a grin. “No shock there, honeybee.” He dropped the bag and wrapped his arms around her, but for all the ways his embrace filled the fractured places, it was as temporary as chewing gum. It lost its flavor quickly, and she swallowed it dry as he lugged the dead squirrel and tainted rug down their new driveway to their new curb in their new, severely weathered, neighborhood.

Anxiety curled her veins like frayed ribbon as she scanned Dickety Downs. They’d entered the town of Alton in the teasing pink of evening, before the trees scraped off their makeup and hunkered down in their truth, gnarled and hideous in the dull light of faulty streetlamps. Most had shed their summer skin and stood as cracked and bare as the numerous driveways leading to dark, empty houses.  Not only were the Dwyers the only ones rustling in the falling evening, they appeared to be the only ones who actually lived in Dickety Downs.

Duncan backed inside and turned on the foyer light, followed by the living room, kitchen, and the long slate throat to the basement. Her dad closed the front door, and she scuttled back to the hall to see his pointer finger fall on the lock like Midas before the rude awakening. From the lock, his fingers leaped to the delicate curvy trim bisecting the foyer walls. He didn’t look up, but he knew she was watching, otherwise he wouldn’t have kicked up his index finger and made a dancer of his hand. He dashed and tapped his fingertips over the trim with his usual flair, but he soon ran out of dance floor. There were no picture frames for leaps or rond de jambe, no chachkis for him to bounce between. There were only the walls and Duncan, and she didn’t feel like being danced on tonight.

Cumbersome boxes surrounded her, wearing labels like “basement,” “kitchen,” and the name “Gail,” which had been angrily x-ed out. None were labeled with Duncan’s name, much to her disappointment.

“When’s the rest of our stuff getting here?” she asked.

Dad’s dancer didn’t land; it simply ceased to be as he strolled past Duncan to wash his hands.

“Some are going to be late, but the furniture should be here soon. The mattress and couches at least.”

“How late?”

He dried his hands and tossed the towel on the sink. “It might be a few days, Dunc. I messed up some of the forms and—“Exhaling, he grabbed the towel again and whirled it as he opened the refrigerator and said, “Ta-da!” A raspberry drizzled cheesecake stood alone on the center shelf, with “Welcome Home” written in shining scarlet glaze.

Dad carved a large slice of cake and flopped it onto a paper plate. “Water, Milady?”

“Is there anything else?”

He started to give an answer she knew wouldn’t please her, so she added a quick “Never mind” and “Yes, please.”

They sat cross-legged on the cold blue tile, which clashed like peanut better and kale with the orange planks of wood paneling clumped along the kitchen walls.

I know you have a fiction fragment or two hiding in a drawer. You should totally 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: Nick Cato

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

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

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

Three Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3:30 a.m.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mr. Anderson? Call on line one.”

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

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

“Hello, Harold Anderson here.”

Silence.

“Hello, may I help you?”

Silence. Then, “Thank you.”

“Excuse me?”

Silence. A rusty click. “Thank you.”

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

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

Harold slammed the phone down. “Freaking lunatic!”

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

“Hello? Anderson here.”

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

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

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

“We’ll discuss what later?”

The phone went dead.

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

It never came.

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

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

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

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

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!