Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Kenesha Williams

Monday, I kicked off this month-long series of posts for Women in Horror Month and Black History Month and had the chance to chat with serious horror fan, Dimi Horror. If you haven’t had a chance to read that post, check it out.

Today, Girl Meets Monster welcomes horror writer and soon-to-be filmmaker, Kenesha Williams.

Kenesha Williams is an author, screenwriter, speaker, and Founder/Editor-in-Chief of Black Girl Magic Lit Mag a speculative fiction literary magazine. As an, essayist she has written for, Time Magazine’s, Motto and Fireside Fiction. She is also a screenwriter currently in pre-production on a horror web series and a short film. You can catch up with her on her website www.keneshaisdope.com

Ten Questions

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

KW: Thanks for having me! I’m currently working on a proposal for a one-shot comic that’s a Zombie Western, it’s really exciting and a great opportunity to show how racially diverse the West actually was in the 1800s. I’m also writing a pilot script for a contemporary horror series that I like to think of as Insecure meets The Magicians. Horror is my primary genre, even when I try to write another genre, I usually throw in horror elements, LOL! I also write science fiction, urban fantasy, and mystery. Since I can’t help but throw some horror into most of what I write, I’d say that horror is the genre I feel most comfortable writing in.

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

KW: I think I knew I was a horror writer when I couldn’t write something without someone dying, LOL. My mother was a big horror fan, so I read from her stacks of books and got into the genre myself. She also took me to my first horror film, so she definitely influenced my love of horror. My initial influence was Stephen King because my mom was a big fan, so his were the first “adult” horror novels I read. I would also be remiss not to add in R. L. Stine with his Fear Street series and Christopher Pike’s YA horror novels as well.

When I was in my early twenties, I went looking for horror authors that looked like me and I found Dark Dreams: A Collection of Horror and Suspense by Black Writers. That collection introduced me to Brandon Massey and Tananarive Due. Then I started buying everything they put out and got put on to LR Giles (Lamar Giles) as well. Then that search lead me to Octavia Butler, who I had read, but her Patternist series, which was Science Fiction, because my mother had it in her library. But then I started to read her horror with Kindred and Fledgling. Finding all these new to me authors had me wondering, where had they been all my life and also like, hey we do write horror!

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

KW: I believe the phrase Black history is horror means that our history in this country (the United States) has been one that’s been marked by horrific acts like the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the years of enslavement for our people, and of course the legacy of Jim Crow that we’re still fighting against. We can mine any of those moments in history for horror stories. 

The work I’ve done so far deals with the legacy of Black history in America and how it manifests today, though it is not always the source of the horror. For example, the story you’re featuring today I wanted to explore the idea of the reconciliation of the horrific past Black Americans have endured with the present climate, i.e. replacing statues of white slave owners with more progressive figures.  My main character believes that the changes that are being made are just lip service, and I think that’s a feeling that a lot of Black people can identify with. President Obama was voted in with the slogan of Change, but then his successor was a harkening back to the bad old days. It showed that a good portion of the country didn’t want change, in fact they wanted to Make America Great Again by returning to a time when whites were in power and minorities knew their place.

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

KW: Often that is my biggest question, does everything I write have to have a deeper message? I don’t think I can write a story without infusing identity in it when I write Black characters, it’s not realistic to me to disregard identity. Black people are not a monolith, of course, but there are some experiences that I believe are universal. But I also want Black people to have genre literature that is fun without it having to be an issue book. So, I try to balance that. There are some of my stories that the horror ties back specifically to race, and then there are others where the horror is just horror with Black main characters. 

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

KW: OMG, this is so hard. Okay, first I’m going to go with the horror movies that shaped me growing up:

  • Pet Sematary—This was the first horror movie I saw, and my mom took me to it. I couldn’t have been more than 11 because we were still living in Germany. My mom loved horror and had a sick sense of humor, so she kept making the slashing the ankles motion to me, scaring the bejesus out of me.
  • The People Under the Stairs—I probably watched this around the same age. I think this movie stuck with me because it was the first movie I saw where people were being cruel to children and as a child; I was just like, wow could this really happen. Also, it was the first horror movie I saw with a Black protagonist. I heard that Jordan Peele is remaking this movie and I’m excited to see what he does with it.
  • Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween—These two were my introduction into slasher films, which I still love. I mean, they’re classics for a reason.
  • It Follows—I know people either love or hate this one, but I loved the atmosphere and the idea of an apparition spreading like an STD was innovative.  

Top five horror novels in no particular order and exceptionally hard to narrow down:

  • Firestarter—I am a big Stephen King fan, and this was the first book of his that I read, borrowed from my mother at thirteen years old.
  • The Goode House by Tananarive Due—This was a “freezer” book for me, I had to put it on ice for a while so I wouldn’t freak myself out reading it. I’m a fan of the Haunted House subgenre of horror and I really loved this one. I am also a big Due fan and will read anything she puts out, so it was hard to narrow it down.
  • Thunderland by Brandon Massey—Another freezer book, this is a really atmospheric novel that made me look over my shoulder several times. 
  • Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix—This was hard because I’m a big Grady Hendrix fan and I really love all of his books for different reasons. The sad thing is I couldn’t say My Best Friend’s Exorcism because I didn’t finish it because it was scaring the heck out of me. So, I put it back in my TBR pile. I need to finish it. But Horrorstör was amazing because he took a setting that most people don’t see as scary and infused the everyday horror of working retail and doing repetitive, seemingly pointless tasks, with the supernatural underpinning of a haunted store. 
  • Night of the Mannequins by Stephen Graham Jones—This is a new favorite of mine. I don’t want to spoil anything because it has a nice twist, but let’s just say it’s weird in wonderful ways and if you like slasher-who’s next to die types of books, then you’ll enjoy this.

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

KW: I don’t have a problem with it if the white writer has done their research, doesn’t rely on stereotypes, and doesn’t act like their non-white character is just a white character with a tan. And I’ve seen it done well and I’ve seen it done marginally well, and I’ve seen it done poorly. A criticism I have that I see that happens a lot is that they’ll make the character disconnected from “Blackness” and I’m guessing that’s because they don’t really know what it’s like to be in community with Black people. We are never in isolation even if you live in a predominately white area, so if your character has no family to talk to or connect with or if they don’t have any friends of their same race, it makes me think you haven’t done your research. The advice I’d give is for the writer to ask themselves, why do you think your character should be non-white and why should you tell their story. Bonus question: Are there own voices writers telling this story, and would your time be better spent amplifying them? Nothing hurts more than a white identifying writer getting praise for writing something similar to something a POC has already written.

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

KW: OMG, yes. Every time I sit down to write. So, my bad cases have been at conventions. I am a big fan of both Grady Hendrix and Paul Tremblay, and I got to be on panels with both of them. I was like OMG what am I doing here, does anyone want to hear what I have to say, etc. etc. I had to call my husband, and he was like, Babe they asked you there for a reason you’ll do great. And he was right, I got asked for a reason and I ended up having a great time on both panels and both Grady and Paul are just really amazingly nice people, so that was even better. They say, never meet your heroes, but I can say that everyone I’ve met in the horror community has been just great, so I’m lucky.

GMM: Aside from writing, what other contributions are you now or have you made to the horror community, or to other speculative fiction communities?

KW: Aside from my own writing, when I created Black Girl Magic Lit Mag in 2016, I created a platform to amplify other WOC’s writing in the speculative fiction genre. It’s one of my proudest accomplishments. Currently, I am part of several FB groups for diversity in speculative fiction and I use those to amplify other voices and encourage other WOC to join the community.

GMM: Has social media helped in getting you noticed as a writer? What has worked for to date? What hasn’t worked? What advice would you give new writers who are trying to build a social media following?

KW: Yes, social media has definitely helped with getting noticed. I feel like it’s a necessary evil because sometimes I don’t want to be “on” and also, it’s a distraction. I can spend so much time on social media and not realize that all these incremental check ins add up to HOURS. 

What hasn’t worked for me is Twitter, in terms of selling anything. I think people don’t go to Twitter to buy; they go to talk, and so it’s not a good promotional tool in terms of direct selling. I think Twitter is good for showing your personality if you want people to be interested in YOU, not necessarily your work.

I think the best advice I’d give to new writers is to use social media to get people to your mailing list because that’s something YOU OWN. Social media platforms owns the audiences on their respective platform and if for any reason you’re kicked off the platform or you just want to be a bit of a recluse you can’t take that audience with you, even if you garnered a million fans, if you don’t own that list it can all be taken away. Instead of traditional social media I think the best way to gain an audience is through websites like Prolific Works or Book Funnel, that unlike social media, aren’t free, but give you ways to build your audience through group promotions with other authors in your genre.

GMM: What are you reading right now? What else is at the top of your TBR pile? What classic horror novel have you secretly never read that you think everyone else has?

KW: Right now, I’m reading Death by Dumpling: A Noodle Shop Mystery by Vivien Chen and The Writing Life: Reflections, Recollections, and a Lot of Cursing by Jeff Strand. Also on my TBR is:

  • Dying With Her Cheer Pants On: Stories of the Fighting Pumpkins by Seanan McGuire
  • The Lodestone Puzzle by Lynn Emery, I preordered it and it arrives on my Kindle on Feb. 16th
  • The Bluesman: Lady of the Grave – it’s a comic based on the horror-adventure novels THE BLUESMAN by Stuart Jaffe, Illustrated by Garrett Gainey, with character design and production by John Jennings

I’m also reading a lot of screenplays because I’m writing a couple right now.

OMG, someone’s going to take away my Women in Horror badge because I’ve never read any of Shirley Jackson’s work. I’ve seen most of the film/tv adaptions of her work, but I haven’t read the books. I’m going to put The Lottery at the top of my TBR.

SERVED COLD by Kenesha Williams

“If you don’t hurry, we’ll be late.”

This didn’t push Trisha any harder to finish getting ready. Only one of them was excited about going to the naming ceremony, and that was only because Ella wanted to see Brent. Trisha didn’t care what they renamed her high school as long as it wasn’t another dead racist. The whole thing seemed like a farce, anyway. They didn’t change the name because they thought it was wrong. They changed it because of public pressure and then finally because someone had in the middle of the night toppled the slaveholder’s statue in front of the school.

Ella walked out of the bathroom to find Trisha lounging on her bed in the same position she’d been in when she left the room, “If you don’t want to come, just say so.”

Ella and Trisha were Irish Twins only eighteen months apart and with Trisha held back–red-shirted–a year because of her emotional immaturity they were in the same graduating class. No one ever mistook them for real twins, however, because Ella was white and Trisha was Black. Or biracial, if you were being technical.

Both of their dads were really involved, and they each called the other’s biological father, Dad, as well as their own. They couldn’t be happier if they lived on a commune, but instead of a commune they lived in a charming house at the end of a cul-de-sac with their Aunt Ginny, who had no children, save them.

“I’m coming. I just don’t see the big deal.”

“It’s history! Who would have thought they’d change the name? EVER. And I bet they choose a person of color or at least a woman.”

Ella was the eternal optimist, but it was easier for her to be. She wasn’t the one who had been stricken with anxiety and a panic disorder since she was eight. The doctor said it was a reaction to their mother’s sudden death, a kind of PTSD. Whatever it was a reaction to, it was hell on Trisha.

Trisha and Ella made their way to the crowd and found a group of their friends. All the kids had pushed to the front, while most of the parents and other adults hung back. There was a new statue in front of the school, and a drop cloth covered it. The signage for the school hadn’t been adhered yet to not give away the surprise, but they had a man in overalls standing in a scissor lift waiting for the signal to begin screwing in the metal letters.

“I wonder who it will be?” Gemma, their shared best friend, stage whispered to them while they stood elbow to elbow. Gemma was wearing something impractical as usual, a crinoline skirt with gym shorts underneath, rubber boots, and a tank top that had a picture of Garfield on it. It was darling. On some people it would be an insane look, but Gemma could make anything work.

“Probably another dead guy that no one remembers.” Trisha replied.

Ella rolled her eyes and then stood on her tippytoes, surveying the crowd. “Have you guys seen Brent?”

Trisha and Gemma traded a look. Sometimes it was like they had ESP. They knew things about the other, even when they were nowhere near each other. Trisha never said it out loud, but she felt closer to Gemma than she did her own sister.

Gemma didn’t have anxiety like Trisha, but she’d been in therapy for a couple of years dealing with her own issues. She’d had an eating disorder in middle school and her parents put her in in-patient treatment for an entire semester. When she came back, she was a healthier weight, but some of the light had gone out of her eyes. Trisha knew what that felt like.

The principal and the mayor made their way out of the school and stood in front of the crowd. They had erected a small podium for the occasion, and the mayor looked at it hungrily. Mayor Collins had opposed renaming the school, but when he realized that all of his constituents weren’t as backward as he was, he changed his tune.

Trisha wondered what meaningless platitudes he’d espouse once he stepped up to the mic.

A gush of wind picked up and teased the bottom of the drop cloth, threatening to unveil the surprise before the mayor. Trisha wished they could get on with it and just announce the damn thing. What were they waiting for? 

The wind played with the drop cloth again, and it looked as if the statue underneath were moving. The cloth undulated in ways that seemed to defy natural physics. It was like someone was trying to free themselves from the shroud of the cloth. Trisha rubbed her eyes, wondering if her meds were playing tricks on her.

Of course, she’d had to pop a few to get through this debacle. Any event with more than a handful of people could trigger an anxiety attack that would sideline her for the rest of the day. These weren’t new meds and she shouldn’t have been seeing things, but she swore someone or something alive was under the cloth and not a statue of brass or concrete.

She looked at Gemma to see if she noticed anything strange, but Gemma was busy snapping pics for her social media. Trisha looked around to see if maybe Ella saw, but Ella had slipped away, probably to stand near Brent. It was the whole reason they were out here, anyway.

This time when Trisha looked at the statue, she clearly saw a foot step forward. So she wasn’t surprised when she heard the first scream from the crowd as the statue jumped down from its perch, cloth still over its head, and rushed over to the mayor.

As the statue ran, the cloth slipped away, revealing that it was a rendering of Nat Turner, of the infamous slave rebellion. It was probably a mistake to have made his likeness holding a sword because the now animate object used it to thrust straight into Mayor Collins’ rotund belly.

The screams got louder as the crowd realized what was happening. Trisha watched the blood drip from the sword and thought to herself that she was so glad she hadn’t missed the naming ceremony. She was going to have to find and thank her sister for bugging her to come.

Once everyone stopped screaming and running.

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

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

Fiction Fragments: Gabriela Vargas

Last week, I had the pleasure of talking with Bracken MacLeod about secular horror and imposter syndrome. If you missed it, check it out. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes the vibrant young poet, Gariela Vargas, who I met back in October when we shared a table at the Merrimack Valley Halloween Book Festival, in Haverhill, MA. If you haven’t read of her poetry collection, THE RHYMES OF MY TIMES, you can pick up a copy from Haverhill House Publishing.

GV

Gabriela Vargas is a 16-year-old Dominican-American Junior at Haverhill High School in Haverhill, Massachusetts. She loves community service, dancing, and her family. She gets her writing skills and love for community service from her father, and from her mother and grandmothers, she gets ambition, strength, and hard work.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Gabriela. You had your first collection of poetry published last year. Can you tell me about your book and what that process was like for you? You and a friend collaborated on the project, what did she contribute and how did you decide what to include in the collection?

GV: The book is a concoction of love, pain, angst, racism, life changes, social justice, equality, and lessons learned, as seen through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old high school student in this trying twenty-first century. It’s very personal for me and this book is just things I have experienced my whole life up until the sophomore year of high school.

The process I guess was sort of weird and unusual, I started writing a while ago but then I stopped. Once I got into high school I tried to start again but I just had nothing. Then suddenly I was overflowing with poems, that just came out of me. I liked some of my poems and I showed some of my friends to make sure I wasn’t just liking them because I wrote them. My friends encouraged me to do a coffee house which is a low key show where people do poems, sing, comedy and whatever else anyone wanted to do at the school’s coffee house. So I went up and I said my poem and people were clapping and cheering and yelling “preach”. Then after the whole show ended people came up to me and were like “Wow your poems are so powerful!” and one even said it made her cry. So in my head, I was like what if I write a book? I kept that to myself until my brother said he wanted to write a book. My brother and I made a bet on who could get their book published first. As you can see I won. Then I sent all my work, what I had so far on my poems to my publisher John Mcllveen and he actually liked it! I was amazed and so scared, however, later I would cry on my vacation because of all of the edits and I wanted to hurt my editor but I did the edits. As we were editing I kept adding more poems and I didn’t really pick and choose them I just put them all in.

I did this book with Krystal Rampersaud a senior at Haverhill high at the time and an amazing artist! We didn’t know each other, I got her name from a teacher. I had her read my poems and she just understood them so well, she made my poems come alive with her drawings, she made this book 100 times better with her artwork. She is the best illustrator I could have asked for!

GMM: Your poetry has strong political and feminist messages. What inspired your work, and what do you hope your readers learn or think about when reading your words?

GV: My work has strong political and feminist messages because that’s how I was raised. I guess with discussions around the dinner table, we were always doing something in the community to help in some way. Now my feminist messages, that’s because I have been around A LOT of strong women in my life and just experiencing situations in life that just pissed me off quite frankly.

My work was inspired by situations I have experienced or witnessed in life, like right when they would happen I would pull out my phone or my trusted journal and start writing, so watch out I might write about you!

I hope my readers learn from this book what it’s like to be a fifteen, now a sixteen-year-old girl and I just want them to think and feel my poems in their own perspective and just relate to them because that’s all I can ask from them.

GMM: Having a collection of poetry at such a young age is quite an achievement. You should be proud of your accomplishment. What advice would you give other young writers and artists like yourself who might not believe their work is worth notice, or might be too afraid to submit their work for publication?

GV: Thank you. My message to young writers is JUST SEND IT, it can only get better from there. Even if you get rejected that just tells you, you have to work on it or find someone else. It brings you one step closer to publishing it and trust me you’re going to cry because of the edits. It’s scary because well at least for me I felt very vulnerable, I was putting my whole life experiences out there. Sometimes as writers, we try to find perfection and that can often lead to being too hard on ourselves which makes us think our work is not worth notice but everyone’s work is worth notice, everyone’s voice should be heard. So Just Send It!

Future v Young People
Fear of the future is what our country sings
Holding back change but not the chains
The chains are tighter and tighter as the young  ones sing
as the young ones bloom
yet society is doomed
Because of mixed generation thoughts
one wanting progress one not
The Young ones breaking these chains
the old ones tightening them
Everyone’s fear for the future is just the fear for the young that they can’t carry on the legacy but every generation has said that
Every person has said that
We still prove them wrong
So although we fear the future now
Just know that the future is here, the future is now and the legacy is going
it rowing young people are changing and creating and fighting
for
the
future.

I,———-, do solemnly swear to help myself
“I, ———-, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

Most come saying they want to serve but all they end up doing is serving themselves
We have created a culture in politics of scandal, corruption, blackmail.
Politics was made and was first what is the right thing to do
Now it’s what can I do to benefit myself?

The First and Last
You should know that you were the first to challenge me
You were the first to change my mind
You were the  first person I would base my decisions off of
You were  the first to understand
You were the first to make me laugh
You were the first to make me feel care yet didn’t have to give everything up
You were the first person I wanted to tell everything
You were the first man
however, you were the last to give me time
You were the last to say I’m right

Bang and Gone
Bang! Bang!
Another one is gone in our city,
Yet we don’t care or respond
Until someone close to us is gone.
We send our thoughts and prayers,
But that has already been done

Bang! Bang!
Yet another one is gone, and we don’t respond.
We complain about what has happened,
But we don’t stand together strong.
We’re all talk, we don’t walk, march, or run
Until we are the ones
Running away from the gun.

THE SOCIAL CONTRACT OF A HOE
I don’t get it.
These social norms be crazy.
You call me a hoe
Because of what I did with a guy.
But if it was one time that is fine,
But multiple!
Oh, that’s where we cross the line.
Welcome to Hoeville,
Where you get shamed all your life.
But if you’re a guy,
Welcome to your glory days,
Your time to ride or die,
Your time to be praised like a god.
But girls, it’s your time to think about suicide.
Some survive, others don’t…
Welcome to the social contract of a hoe.

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: 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.