Fiction Fragments: R. B. Wood

Last week I spoke with Salvantonia Clemente about his writing and music and how these two art forms intersect for him.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes speculative fiction writer R. B. Wood.

R. B. Wood is a recent MFA graduate of Emerson College and a writer of speculative and dark thrillers. Mr. Wood recently has appeared in Crystal Lake Publishing’s Shallow Water’s anthology, as well as online via SickLit Magazine & HorrorAddicts.net, and in the award-winning anthology Offbeat: Nine Spins on Song from Wicked ink Books.  Along with his writing passion, R. B. is the host of The Word Count Podcast—a show of original flash fiction.

R. B. currently lives in Boston with his partner Tina, a multitude of cats, and various other critters that visit from time to time.

Around the web: Website | Twitter | Facebook | Amazon’s R.B. Wood page

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster. Let’s just dive right in and talk about your latest release, Bayou Whispers. Where did the idea for the book come from? Why did you choose New Orleans as the setting? And, why did you choose Voodoo as the primary magic system for the book?

RBW: Bayou Whispers was actually my genre thesis piece for my Emerson MFA. Believe it or not, it started out as a strict Southern Gothic horror story that took place in Georgia (with a different working title, of course)! But as I developed the characters, it became obvious to me that this story was going to be…needed to be… a fast-paced supernatural thriller with horror elements. But beyond genre, the story of my main character, Jeannine LaRue, is one of survival. We all have some sort of survival story to tell—especially after a year of Covid, so what better city to set the story in than a city that optimizes survival: Namely New Orleans? I spent a lot of time in NOLA in the 90’s and aughts…I love speaking with the locals, and then there is, of course, the music, the food and the history of the region. That’s when the voodoo and Haitian elements really came into play.

GMM: How much research went into the writing of the book for setting, characters, themes, etc.? Did you learn anything new while you were doing the research? Did anything surprise you while doing research?

RBW: Research is my Achilles Heel when it comes to “time sucking activities.” Before the pandemic, I traveled to New Orleans and spent a few weeks interviewing people (bars are great for conversations and I’ve been known to enjoy a cocktail or two now and then), researching locations, touring the actual Bayou in an airboat, and listening to some of the crazy stories that are still told about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. I also watched Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts which is a brutally honest look at what happened and how we, as a country failed the people of New Orleans.

This experience (both the MFA and writing this novel) is where I truly began to understand my privilege as a white male and how the social changes we are undergoing as a country need to happen to truly create the diverse yet equal country we dream of. The number of discussions I had about race alone in New Orleans was both educational and passionate and who I am has changed—hopefully for the better. At age 56, I’m still a work in progress!

GMM: Is Bayou Whispers the first book in a series or a stand-alone novel? If this novel is part of a series, what can readers expect next? In terms of writing process, how has writing this novel been different from other things you’ve written? If this isn’t part of a series, what are you currently working on, or what’s next?

RBW: While Jeannine’s story is standalone, there are subtle links to my first novel, The Prodigal’s Foole. The book I’m currently working on is tentatively titled The Illusionist & The Wizard and it takes place in 1880’s New York. The elevator pitch on this one is “To solve the unnatural murder of Manhattan elites including his Father, journalist Whitelaw Greeley engages with Harry Houdini and Nikola Tesla to uncover the truth.” I like to describe this upcoming work as a historical supernatural thriller. Think Caleb Carr’s Alienist meets Kolchak: The Night Stalker. There will also be some light connective tissue between this new book, Bayou Whispers and The Prodigal’s Foole. This may eventually lead to an “Avengers” like trilogy, but that’s dependent on sales and popularity.

BAYOU WHISPERS brief synopsis

Bayou Whispers is the story of no-nonsense New Orleans native, Jeannine LaRue, the sole survivor of her family after the devastation brought on by Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of the storm, she believed she’d been saved, but soon found herself held hostage and sexually exploited, rescued months later by sheriff’s deputy Curtis Jones.  Twelve years after Katrina, Jeannine is a new attorney who returns to New Orleans to save her old friend Curtis Jones—now a local thief and trafficker of stolen goods—after he is arrested for the murder of Jeannine’s captors, whose bodies have recently been found. But Jeannine discovers more than she bargained for when she uncovers a family history of dark voodoo magic and an unholy alliance with an ancient evil Haitian loa.

Bayou Whispers Prologue 

31 October 2005
Orleans Parish, Louisiana

On Halloween night that year, no little ghosts or goblins wandered the streets in search of candy. No laughter rang out in what was left of the Lower 9th Ward neighborhood. Two months after Katrina had ravaged this place, it still resembled a war zone, covered in debris and stagnant pools of foul-smelling water from the levee breach.

As midnight approached, a young teenager—naked, dirty, covered in mosquito bites, and with a nasty leg wound wrapped in crusted-over grey rags—stumbled from a copse of trees. She was thin, so very thin, weighing barely eighty pounds. 

The muddy and cracked streets before her sat dark and empty; human detritus littered the roads and yards, and the skeletons of ruined homes bore unintelligible spray paint that looked more like the desperate scratching of a fluorescent wild beast than symbols from a nameless insurance company or traumatized recovery workers. 

It was a city of the dead, a city of the damned. 

Right foot, left foot drag. One step at a time. The pain didn’t matter. It can’t matter.

Jeannine had been walking for what felt like forever, almost in a trance, placing one bloody foot in front of the other. Moving forward was the only thing that mattered. 

Keep moving. Those white guys might be following. Keep moving. 

Right foot, left foot drag.

She walked through glass and rusted nails, around junked appliances and damp, moldy couches. A dog barked once in the distance. 

A patrol car sat watch at the end of the street, engine idling. Jeannine approached, fear causing each step to hesitate. The light of a burning cigarette brightened as the occupant of the vehicle, still in shadow, took a long drag.

“Help,” croaked Jeannine. Her voice strained, rough. Insects chirped. Frogs called to their mates. No one heard her.

Right foot, left foot drag.

The person in the car took another pull, a dot of orange light flaring, then fading.

“Help!” she called, louder this time. The insects and the frogs stopped. The patrol car’s dome light winked on as the door opened.

Jeannine screamed.

She screamed as the cop ran toward her. She screamed as the cop took off his own shirt to wrap around her. She screamed as the cop carried her to the car.

“Jesus H. Christ! Randy, call for an ambulance!” yelled the cop.        

The cop’s partner, still inside the car, got on the radio.

Jeannine continued to scream until her vocal cords tore. She tasted blood.

“You’re safe, honey,” said the cop for the seventh time. Jeannine finally heard him.

He stayed with her until the ambulance arrived and then rode with her to the hospital. He spoke to the doctors on her behalf. He sat with her in intensive care while Jeannine, clean for the first time in months, slept. He watched her tossing, turning, and moaning softly.

Randy, the cop’s partner, arrived at the hospital. He’d taken care of the paperwork and had brought a po’ boy and a coffee. The sandwich was left untouched.

For the next hour, the partners sat a silent vigil over Jeannine.

The first cop must have drifted off because he woke with a start when someone placed a hand on his shoulder.

“Officer Jones?” asked a man in scrubs. “I’m Doctor Broussard. Can we talk outside for a minute?”

The cop looked to his partner and he nodded back at him.

“Go,” said Randy. “I’ll be here.”

Jones followed the doctor into the hallway.

“Officer, we can’t find any of…” He glanced at a clipboard. “…Jeannine’s family. I wanted to let you know that in the morning, and assuming she’s still stable…” The doctor let his words drift off as he swallowed hard. 

Jones noticed the man’s youth, how inexperienced he must’ve been before Katrina hit. The doctor looked like some of the baby-faced soldiers Curtis had met during the war—young men, children, really, who grew up quickly in the face of tragedy and death. 

Jones put his hand on the doctor’s shoulder.

“Yes. Sorry,” said Dr. Broussard. “It’s been a long couple of months of giving out bad news.”

“I understand,” said Jones automatically. “Just hit me with it, Doc.”

“She…Jeannine…we are going to have to remove her leg. The infection is too severe and there is gangrene.”

“Do what you have to,” said Jones impassively.

“But without parental…”

“Will the surgery save her life?”

“Yes.”

“Take her leg, then.” Jones’s left eye twitched once.

Doctor Broussard nodded. “I’ll need you to sign.”

A moment later, Jones returned to Jeannine’s room.

“Well?” asked Randy.

Jones slumped into a chair. “They’re going to take it in the morning.”

Suddenly, Jeannine sat up, ice-blue eyes wide, unblinking.

It was those eyes that had thrown him. This young teen—he’d met her once before the storm. He didn’t recognize her at first, as she practically crawled from the bayou, filthy and emaciated. The last time Curtis had seen her—she’d been covered in blood.

She had brown eyes then. He remembered them—unblinking and staring into a nightmare of unimaginable horror.             

“Jane Doe” was Jeannine LaRue. Jones was sure being a child of mixed-race parents was hard enough to grow up with in this town, but this young woman had experienced far more and far worse than her fourteen years had prepared her for.

Jones knew who she was now; she had been returned unlike so many of those in the missing persons reports.

The details of so many lost souls broken down into height, weight, and hair color.

“You all right, Jeannine?” he asked.

She looked at Jones, eyes unfocused from the drugs the doctors had pumped into her.

“Papa Nightmare is here!” she said in a frantic whisper. “Papa Nightmare!”

“Shhh. It’s all right, honey. You are safe now. I’m here and I won’t leave you.”

Jeannine blankly looked at Jones. He gently helped her lie back down.

“Right foot, left foot,” she muttered as her eyes fluttered once before closing.

The drugs took a lasting hold, and Jeannine’s breathing slowed. She spoke occasionally, nonsense words mostly. Jones held her hand for the rest of that night. “You’re safe,” he whispered again. “I promise.”

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: James Matthew Byers

Last week, I got to chat with my favorite belligerant nerd, Patrick Freivald about his latest novel, Murmur and how sex and horror intersect in his fiction.

This weel, Girl Meets Monster welcomes the Darque Bard, James Matthew Byers.

James Matthew Byers, the Darque Bard, resides in Odenville, Alabama. He has been published in Weirdbook Magazine, Grievous Angel ezine, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, poetry journals and through Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, AL, where he received his Master’s in 2010. His epic poems, Beowulf: The Midgard Epic and The Bard Song Saga: Valkeryia are out now from Stitched Smile Publications, LLC. He has won or placed in numerous contests at the Alabama State Poetry Society. The Darque Bard continues to write prolifically, supporting anyone who wishes to place their hammering fingers to the keyboard anvil becoming a polished wordsmith in the process.

Find James Matthew Byers at:

Twitter: http://www.Twitter.com/TheDarqueBard
Facebook: https://m.facebook.com/TheDarqueBard/
WordPress: http://jamesmatthewbyers.wordpress.com

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, James (or would you prefer Matt, Matthew…). In the short time that we have gotten to know each, you mentioned that you’ve been working on The Bard Song Saga: Valkeryia for a long time. How long have you been working on this project? What were some of the roadblocks preventing you from finishing? How does it feel to finally publish this labor of love (or, possibly an albatross)?

JMB: It’s my absolute pleasure to be here! I’m still flipping out over your debut, Invisible Chains. This is soooooo mega awesome! You’re quite the storyteller and crafting a novel the way you did still has my mind reeling with excitement. Sorry- had to get the geek in me calm. (I LOVE your book!!!)

To answer your first question- most of my friends and family call me Matt. I use my whole name, James Matthew Byers, when writing. In college the professors called me James. A few folks use Matthew. I’ll answer to all of the above, but by all means, Matt to you.

Oh wow. The Bard Song Saga: Valkeryia is the culmination of 31 years of my life. The characters who soon will reach the public eye are much different than where they began. It’s definitely epic poetry sewn primarily as fantasy with some sci fi and horror tossed in.

When I was fifteen, I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Dracula. Devoured all DragonLance, Forgotten Realms, and Ravenloft books. Grew up on Star Wars and The Barsoom Series. Frankenstein comes to mind as well. Alien. These stories and films had an influence on me that was incurable. (There are honestly too many to list- but I will add the artists of TSR in the 80’s and 90’s and comic art influenced me greatly as well) By the time I got to high school, I had been creating my own stories, poems, and art designs a while. In 9th grade I came up with a book idea called The Legacy of Mythril. I wrote it and carved out my own fantasy world called Mythalonia. That tale had a dwarf as the lead. Mythril. My upcoming release is a reboot of my own story. It went through many reincarnations before arriving where we are today.

As far as roadblocks, I’d say a lot of it was just life. Job changes, marriage, divorce, children … Things that shaped my poetic voice. I write in a particular way, a unique style. It’s very difficult to sell what I do. Back when I was beginning this project, there was no internet. I had no way other than reading “how to submit” books to know what a publisher wanted. I would go into a bookstore with a notebook and copy addresses from companies like TOR, Baen, ROC, and any other fantasy imprint I could find. After some two hundred odd rejections, I still found myself clinging to the notion this thing would happen. By the time the age of the digital native arrived, it became much easier to locate presses and find what editors were looking for. I never gave up on Mythalonia. I just took the very long road to get here.

When I signed with Stitched Smile Publications in 2016 and sold my version of Beowulf, it was exhilarating. I had a rhyming book out- I always wanted to be an epic poet more than a novelist- and I was over the moon. But this … this is a feeling on a whole other level. I’d say this is the pinnacle of all I’ve dreamed of my whole life. Stitched Smile allows me so much freedom. I do my own art, have so much input on the projects I do with them, unequivocally this is the greatest experience ever. There were times where it’s been an albatross for sure; something hanging around my neck I couldn’t shake. But here at the doorstep of its release, the love and passion far outweigh the long term burdens that rose up until I arrived here. The protagonist’s name is Sindri. She’s a dworc- a half dwarf, half-orc. She’s got a lot to say and I’m eager for others to hear her. I’m hoping the world loves adventuring throughout Mythalonia as much as I do.

GMM: When did you begin writing poetry? Epic poetry seems to be an artform from a different age, but it seems to be what you do best. How did you become inspired to write book-length poems, and when did you become the Darque Bard?

JMB: I began writing poems around age 8. I had been drawing and illustrating stories since I was in kindergarten. I always wrote what I thought were oddly designed tales. Then, when we studied Robert Frost and Edgar Allan Poe in 6th grade, the realization I was a poet sort of slapped me in the face. By my senior year, I had written a Canterbury Tales style poem about getting into my first car wreck. From there I delved into rhyming patterns and poetry, fully immersed in all meter and forms I could find. Reading Beowulf was a game changer. That’s definitely one reason I chose to redo it in iambic tetrameter. I realized telling stories that would make great spoken spectacles could come from my rhymes and rhythms. I began to craft my characters into mini epics. After several attempts, the original rhyming version of The Legacy of Mythril was finished in 1997. (After a prose version and a comic book) From there I jumped deeper into formal poetry. There are strict rules when writing it. With free verse you can go all over the place. Rhyme requires discipline and patience. The challenge to do book length poems in itself motivates me.

I became the Darque Bard towards the end of 2017. I had been promoting Beowulf: The Midgard Epic. Through Stitched Smile, it sort of evolved. Lisa Vasquez, the CEO of the company, always told her authors to create a brand. My editor at the time, Donelle Pardee Whiting and Lisa both always called me the Darque Bard. I ran with it. I decided wearing a green robe would make me look like a wizard or a Druid, and performing my poems orally might give me an edge over others. It lent itself to the past and other worldly sensations. Thus the Darque Bard as I am now was born. I also dress up as one of my characters, Bengalla. He’s a tiger from the lands of Acmar. But I’ll save that for another time …

GMM: Tell me about your writing process. For me, I get snippets of dialogue or see full scenes unfold in my head before I begin writing a new story, or the next chapter of a longer piece. Where do your poems begin? Where do your characters come from? Do you draft your poetry from beginning to end in one sitting, or do some of your poems take longer to figure out? Why poetry as opposed to shorts stories or novels?

JMB: I am one of those poets and artists who wait for the Muse to light upon his shoulder, darken his doorstep, or whisper into his mind. When this happens, when she sings to me, I begin cranking out the poetry. I honestly don’t do notes or outlines. Characters are born in my soul, I write, and they appear in text. Most shorter poems are done in one sitting. The longer stuff, like Valkeryia, takes time. But it just seems like I tap into this poetic ether and it flows through me. I’m its conduit. As I mentioned earlier, I always wanted a gimmick; to be known as the rhyming storyteller. I write prose. Do some free verse poetry. But rhymes are my jam. I love telling stories this way. I feel closer to Homer and Poe than Tolkien or Burroughs. Though they all influenced me, I have always bucked the system. Did it take a long time to get published? Yes. Did it get there, my way, finally? Absolutely. Patience is the key to success.

And here’s where I randomly compose something for you during our interview–

The road is long, the journey slow
But if we face the mountain
Eventually, the thirst will grow;
We drink from in its fountain.
Success may not be what we thought,
However, never waver
And in the end the dream is caught;
Go taste it; feast and savor …

Sort of how the whole process works for me. The words just flow. And like the little poem above says- I really believe this- all good things come in time. I wrote a prose version of the story where Mythril was still the lead character. It’s 182k words. But it’s in a file in my computer. I just have to rhyme. I have to be me, James Matthew Byers, the Darque Bard …

Thank you so much for this amazing opportunity to share! I have enjoyed this immensely. I am more than excited for The Bard Song Saga: Valkeryia to release very soon. And I’ll probably revisit Invisible Chains soon. Such a stellar novel! Until next time … The Darque Bard bids thee adieu …

Cover art for The Bard Song Saga: Valkeryia

Fragment from The Bard Song Saga: Valkeryia

Prologue

Another time, another place,
Another set of lives
Reset and chosen to erase
Became as sharp as knives.
Unknown to those who lost the way,
Unknown by those removed,
Unraveled in the ebb and sway
Of things that were not proved,
A world besieged by something new,
Yet something that was known
Encumbered those who came in view
Or sat upon the throne.
And so, it was that such a thing
Began with just a chance
For nothing lasts where hope may cling
Undone by circumstance …

I

A hammer to an anvil rang
Announcing by decree
Creation as the embers sang
A fiery melody.
Upon a night beneath the moon
Corruption spilled chagrin-
Departing with the smithy’s tune,
The horde of orcs within
Destroyed the dwarven residents
As one by one, they fell
Fulfilling former precedents
Inviting death to dwell.
Below the Kilkaln Mountain range
Erupted pools of red
Embracing heroes greeting change,
Completely left for dead.
A magic wielder clothed in black
Bespoke a wordy play
Engaging in her bold attack
Before the light of day
Emitting sparks of reddish hue
Into the open air
Engulfing what remaining few
Ablaze in flesh and hair.
All regimen in Plover stalled,
The realm where havoc reigned,
Congealed as chaos came and called
For darkness it obtained.
On Mythalonia, the lands
Began to see the rise
Of mystic forces joining hands
Content in evil eyes.
Unsettled in her aftermath,
Destruction doomed the hall
Disgorging red along her path
That lingered wall to wall.
A manner born of synergy-
The Aura, it was named-
Infusing colored energy
And now about, it flamed …
The gods had willed it long ago
Within a magic spell
Invoking power from the flow
Within where legends dwell.
The Pantheon, as they were known,
Begat without remorse.
Of all who sat upon a throne,
But one defined the course
Allowing what they customized
To flourish and to grow.
She and the dragons greatly prized
The magic and its flow.
The Aura swirled in Dark and Light
As evil lurked abroad-
Benign were most, but soon a fight
Erupted with a god.
As with all things, corruption cried,
And with a word, they flew-
The maidens armed with wrath espied
And pushed the battle through.
Created by the one who bore
The cat and dragon’s make,
They swiftly eased the dawning war
And chose a place to stake.
The Valkyries had claimed a home
Le’Mae had bade them reign,
And so, it was that they would roam
One day on Plover’s plain.
The powers that they all possessed
United them as one,
Around them prophecy professed
Direction they would run.
As warriors of heaven’s flame,
Defined by shield and sword,
Le’Mae had offered them a name
Befitting their accord.
Of all the deities around,
The panther goddess gave
And offered gifts that were profound
To shine beyond the grave.
The many mortal races made
Had all been so designed
To harness certain gifts displayed
Until they were refined.
As such, the Aura came to be
A means of mystic force.
The colors spoke in harmony;
Forbidden to divorce.
The dwarves had shunned it from the start,
Preferring hand and steel.
The elves and humans found its heart;
Before it, they would kneel.
The orcs and trolls went either way
As Acmar reared its might.
A story for another day …
Returning to the fight,
Deprived of mettle, left and right,
Again, the dwarves inside
Began succumbing to the plight
With nowhere they could hide.
A finger pointed to a room
As through the bulky crowd
Appeared a beastly orc of doom-
Intolerant and proud.
The heaving thrust upon a door
Continued on and on
Until the wood lay on the floor
And all around it, stone.
The throne room of the king and queen,
Abandoned it would seem,
Illuminated wealthy sheen
Reflected in the beam
Before the slobber dripping awe-
Enraged and open wide,
The upper lip and lower jaw
Amazed by all espied
Replied with such a lusty moan,
Preparing to collect
The many treasures now on loan.
No, he did not object.
The rugged tusks protruding out
Exposed his fetid breath,
Enraged, he boasted in a shout
Prepared to summon death.
“You must be patient. Follow through.
Behind the curtain there,”
The Aura user pointed to
A bit of auburn hair.
The beastly orc looked there and back;
A boiling anger brewed.
The woman pointed his attack;
His actions were reviewed.
She hailed from Acmar; human land,
And orcs despised them all.
They did not trust in her command,
But feared her wrath would fall.
Retorting with a snort and growl,
The bulky beast arose.
A few more orcs arrived to prowl,
And then the leader froze.
Above them, something slimy dropped
Onto the rocks below.
All movement then abruptly stopped
For in the gleaming glow
Exuded from the gems around,
The orcs backed in and turned.
The sticky substance they had found
Ignited pain and burned.
Above them, salamanders clung-
A dwarf armed on each back-
Enormous size, the creatures hung,
Protruding crack to crack.
Attacking the invading blight,
Surprised and caught off guard,
The orcs drew forth a blazing light
Surrounding shard to shard.
The dwarves had axes swinging full
As salamanders dove.
Upon the reigns, the rider’s pull
Directed in the cove
An angle or a movement gained
As metal clanked with light.
The Aura had enhanced and stained
The orcs who came to fight.
Around each sword an eerie hum
Emitted as a shine,
Discoloration striking numb
The workers from the mine.
The hidden one behind the cloak
Protected her domain.
Her arcane art created smoke
And filled the room with pain.
The salamander skins dried out
In time for orcs to chop
The heads from off each dying scout;
The battle did not stop.

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: Rena Mason

Last week, I had an interesting discussion with veteran horror writer Amy Grech on writing horror while female. If you missed it, go check out her post.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes two-time Bram Stoker Award winning writer Rena Mason to talk about her writing journey and her service to the horror writing community.

Rena Mason is the Bram Stoker Award® winning author of The Evolutionist and The Devil’s Throat, as well as a 2014 Stage 32 /The Blood List Search for New Blood Quarter-Finalist. She’s had nearly two dozen short stories, novelettes, and novellas published in various award-winning anthologies and magazines and writes a monthly column.

For more information visit her website: www.RenaMason.Ink
or follow her at:
Facebook: rena.mason
Twitter: @RenaMason88
Stage 32: Rena Mason
Instagram: rena.mason

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Rena. I’ve been waiting to have you as a guest for a while and I’m glad we were able to get together. Before we jump into talking about your fragment and your writing in general, I wanted to ask you a little bit about your involvement in the Horror Writers Association. In 2019 you received the Richard Laymon President’s Award. Can you tell us about the different roles and responsibilities you’ve had or are currently performing in the HWA, and why this award is such an honor? Have you won any other awards for your service within the organization? When did you first become a member of the HWA and when did you decide to become a more active member of the community? What advice would you give others on how to become more active within the community?

RM: I’m honored to be among the authors you’ve had on Girl Meets Monster. Thank you for having me, Michelle. I’d finished my first novel, which wasn’t The Evolutionist, in 2009 and didn’t know where to go from there or what I needed to do in order to get it published, or even if it was publishable, so I started Googling and then attended writer events, the first being the Pacific Northwest Writers Association event. It was a strange experience, and even though I enjoyed it and learned a bit, I didn’t feel it was exactly right for me. Huge crowd, and not a very diverse one. There was well over a thousand people there. One lady sat next to me, looked at my badge that had Sci-Fi and Horror printed on it and then she got up and left. I glanced at her badge before she bolted—Romance. I know not all romance writers behave that way, but for a very new writer at her very first writing convention of any kind, I’ll admit that stung a bit and has stuck with me since. Long story short, I finally got to a horror writer event. KillerCon was my first in the genre and after that first one, I volunteered to work registration at the next few because I thought that would be the best way to meet people and remember their names. It worked for the most part, although I’m still terrible at remembering names. After deciding these were fellow genre lovers and friendlier folks, I started attending other horror events and was encouraged to join the HWA by people I’d met. I volunteered to work registration and more at their events as well, but after the events were over it was hard to stay in touch with my new writer friends and meet more new ones (I was very new to social media then and am still not very good at it), so I thought volunteering within the organization would help get me more comfortable in this whole new writing world I knew nothing about. I’ve made so many wonderful, lifelong friends in the horror community that they’ve become more like my family. It has meant a lot to me both personally and to my growth as a writer and I wanted to return that in some way, and that’s why I volunteered and have worked so hard over the years alongside so many others, and I’m proud of what we accomplished together. I think I became an HWA Supporting member around 2010 and volunteered to do data entry as the Compiler, and then became head of that department after a couple years, and then I was asked to become one of the awards chairs, finishing my 9+ years serving on the awards committee in 2019. The Richard Laymon Award is a volunteer service award given by the current President of the HWA for “exemplary service and dedication to the organization.” I also received the Silver Hammer Award in 2014, which is another service award given to volunteers who do a “massive amount of work, often behind the scenes.” The organization is always reaching out for volunteers. Whether you’re serving as a mentor or a juror, they’re great ways to meet other people in the community. Attending the events, and volunteering to work them, and volunteering to work in organizations, was and is a great way to network and best of all, make friends.

GMM: When you began your writing career, did you always envision yourself as a horror writer or did you have other goals in mind? What was the first horror story you wrote, and what inspired it? As a woman of color writing horror, have you encountered any obstacles along your journey of becoming an established writer? If so, how did you overcome them?

RM: Being such a big fan of horror and dark sci-fi and fantasy, I knew that whatever I wrote, it would be dark and have horror woven throughout. I started out writing what I enjoy, and that hasn’t changed. The first horror story I ever wrote was a dark fantasy. I was inspired to write it by something my mom had said after my younger sister died in a car accident. And no, I won’t say what it was, but it wasn’t anything bad. I’ll get back to finishing that story one of these days. It’s a very personal story and I wasn’t ready to write it before, but I’m getting there. If there were any obstacles in my becoming an established horror writer, I can’t list any specifically that are related to my being a woman of color that I’m aware of. Any obstacles I felt I overcame were because of my writing and where I was at in my writing career.

GMM: Your excerpt reminded me of some of the experiences the protagonist in Octavia Butler’s Kindred has when she finds herself in the past and has no idea how she’s gotten there. The idea of waking up to discover physical evidence on your body from something you thought was part of a nightmare really is terrifying. Without too many spoilers, can you tell us what’s happening to your protagonist? Did actual events inspire this story? Were you influenced by the work of any other writers?

RM: Kindred is such an amazing story. The way Butler moved Dana and Kevin through time and the way time itself was a changeable character in the story with so many deep and rich layers. I’m smiling ear to ear that you mention my excerpt reminded you of some of the experiences. In my story “Of Earth and Bone” the main character, Qieng, was sent to assay an abandoned and crumbling part of the Great Wall in the desert for a future tourist site possibility. In his gut Qieng knows it’s a punishment for having an affair with his commanding officer’s wife. In his gut Qieng knows he’ll likely die there. In the heat, with his water supply dwindling, he finds himself back in time to when they were building the Great Wall. He’s one of the workers, being treated the way those who built the wall were abused. When he returns to the present time, he records what he’s seen in his journal. What happens to him in the end is karmic in that he was not an innocent character. His journal, which has in essence become his spirit, is able to exact its revenge. A lot of Chinese stories and folktales end this way, everyone dies/no one wins, to keep balance, and I know that has a huge influence on my writing. I think everyone I’ve ever read from nonfiction to fiction has had an influence on me that I interpret in my own way on the page. This has been fun. Thanks again for having me.

Excerpt from “Of Earth and Bone” in the anthology The Forsaken: Stories of Abandoned Places published by Cemetery Dance in 2017.

“Get up, dog! No sleeping. Only work. Bring those rocks over there!”

Clouded in a sleep haze, I looked up at a man standing over me, yelling and pointing. The bright sun behind him shadowed his face.

“What?” I said.

The man raised his arm then brought it down. A hard, sharp sting struck my shoulder. I scrambled onto my feet.

“You heard me,” the man said. “Now get moving or I’ll have the other dogs put you between mud and stone!”

A crack, then another surge of pain through my arm as the man whipped me again. Worn and beaten men trudged past in lines behind the one with the whip. Hunched over they carried large stones and bramble. I hurried in the direction from where they came.

My tent had vanished. The wall section appeared crude and low. Men moved their loads to the north end.

“Hey you,” I said to one of the workers walking past. The man kept his head down and rushed on. Everyone else ignored me or turned away if I approached.

Sun seared the bleeding lashes on my arm and shoulder, slowly cauterizing them, cooking the split wounds open. My white uniform shirt had already browned from the previous day’s digging. The green trousers I wore had powdery tan dirt coating them. Everything worn and raggedy. But my boots and socks…where were they? Had I taken them off when I laid down to rest? I couldn’t remember.

Hot ground burned my bare feet from below and the sun’s rays heated everything above. Any sweat from exertion evaporated too quickly to cool my body. How could these men work in the high heat of day?

By the time I got to the front of the line, I’d had two dizzy spells. A haggard man handed me a large rock and a dried branch of saxaul. Blood in various stages of drying stained what remained of his shredded clothing.

“What’s your name?” the man said.

“I’m Major Qieng—”

“Shush. Speak no more.” The man looked around, lowering his voice to a whisper. “Don’t tell anyone else you’re a soldier. They’ll treat you worse. Believe me, I know. My village rose up against Emperor Wu, and now I’m the only one left. I’m Niu.”

“Emperor Wu? From the Han Dynasty?”

“He’s Han, yes. I’ve never heard of dynasty, though. Is that a new place?”

“What? No.” I thought for a moment on my history lessons.

“It was Wu’s armies that destroyed my village and brought anyone still alive here. Every day since I’ve watched my neighbors and family members die, their bodies used to build up the old wall.”

“Old wall?”

“You two!” The work master stood above them and shouted down.

Niu flinched and shoved the rock and tree branch into me. “Take these and follow the others. Look busy when Feng comes around. He’s heavy-handed with the crop.”

Thinking it lighter, I armed the wood using my injured side. It weighed me down nearly as much as the stone. The course bark of the sauxal and abrasive rock tore through my shirt and scraped my skin.

As I walked in line and kept pace with the others over hot ground, I raised my eyes. Barren desert wasteland dotted with greenery went on for miles in every direction; more than I remembered from when I’d set up camp to survey it. The surrounding hills lower, as well as the wavy sand dune layers that crept toward the wall.

Niu spoke in a crude dialect of old Mandarin, but I’d assumed him an uneducated laborer from a desert village. The more I thought on it, I wondered if I’d become dehydrated and delirious. Besides ruined clothing and slash marks across exposed areas of their skin, the people’s attire looked old, ancient even. I’d thought Niu might be deranged when he’d told me about Emperor Wu, but perhaps he was right and I wrong. Had I somehow traveled to the past? Maybe I’d gone mad.

The most profound evidence stood before me. A long ridge of packed earth that rose only three feet high, lower in some areas, stretching across the desert plain. Very different from the section where I’d staked my tent. These men were tasked to raise the dirt mound with rocks and whatever else nearby that might lend strength to it. Then I passed three wooden carts on my way to the end of the wall, unusual for their primitive wooden wheels. Niu would have more answers, so I rushed back.

“You there! Stop!” the work master said.

Everyone halted. A quick glance up revealed no one on the wall. I turned my head and heard a whoosh before a sharp pain raced across my shoulders. Then another came, slightly lower.

“First you don’t move and now you want to hurry?” said Feng. The task master continued thrashing until my entire back throbbed and I fell over.

I’ve no idea of the actual date or time.

I woke from a nap with wounds I received during a nightmare. Pain keeps me from getting up and working much, but I did manage to dig down another foot when I came across small bundles of old rope. I’ve placed them into the pack along with the broken bones.

My dreams have become increasingly realistic. I fear I may be suffering from dehydration. As fast as I’m going through the water supply, I’m beginning to doubt I will last until the end of the week. It seems I may have stumbled upon some type of wormhole and am able to travel back into the past. This desert section of the Great Wall is a gateway. On the other side is Hell.

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.

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.

todd 1 bw KodaKrome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DEVIL’S CREEK – Excerpt

Silver Shamrock Publishing – Release Date 6/16/20

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

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

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

Oh shit.

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

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

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

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

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

One-one-thousand.

Two-one-thousand.

Three-one-thousand.

Four-one—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction Fragments: 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: Michael Burke

Last week, I spoke with Gabriela Vargas about feminism, poetry, and why you should submit your work for publication. And this week, I am happy to welcome comic book aficionado and speculative fiction writer, Michael Burke.

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Michael Burke was born and raised in Massachusetts. His love of books was sparked by finding his father’s stash of pulp hero novels at a young age. The lurid, frenetic art of Frank Frazetta captivated his imagination and he needed to know what was happening to the characters behind those covers.

A Spider-Man comic book purchased for him by his father was his steady companion as he taught himself to read. This effort was not only rewarded by finally discovering what happened to those pulp heroes but also with a lifelong love of the comic book medium.

He co-founded the comic book store, Comicazi in 2000. It has won several Best Of Boston awards and in 2017, won the prestigious Eisner Spirit Of Retail award. Michael is also a licensed pharmacy technician. He has had all manner of jobs in his life ranging from painter to photographer to bouncer to roadie to office work to construction. He still does not know what he wants to be when he grows up but he’s enjoying the ride. Through it all, he has written and told stories. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, the best story he’s ever been a part of.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Michael. Comic books have a reputation of being one of the first forms of fiction children become connected with as readers. Comics have obviously had a positive impact on your life, how have they influenced your writing? What titles would you recommend to kids who are reluctant to pick up a book?

MB: Hi Michelle. Thank you for having me. Comic books have definitely impacted my life in a positive way. My dad saw my interest at a very young age. I had found a shoebox full of his paperbacks. Conan, Tarzan, Executioner, Doc Savage. In the late 60s, lots of those pulp-era characters had been reprinted by publishers. The covers captivated me. He fostered that interest and got me a Spider-Man comic book. He and my mom helped teach me to read when they could but I was ravenous and forged ahead on my own.

That early exposure to comics helped my reading comprehension at an early age and propelled my interest in seeking out all manner of reading material. My formative years were spent with my head buried in books and comics. I’ve loved the comic medium my whole life. I started writing my own stories in third grade; they were very much influenced by the comic characters I was reading. When I was ten-years-old I even created my own superhero complete with origin and costume design and mailed it off to Marvel Comics. I never made a copy of that, darn it! On some level, I feel that I’ve always written with that certain measure of bombast inherent in comics. Well, super-hero comics. As I got older and my tastes expanded, I saw that comics could tell even more stories.

One of the reasons comics are great is that they’re unique in that they have always both influenced and reflected popular culture. I daresay that I would not have read half as many of the books that I have if it weren’t for comics. And, of course, my passion for comics lead me to co-founding a comic book store. We focus our efforts on building and maintaining community and welcoming all with open arms. Some of my favorite recollections of time in the shop are of speaking with new fans of the medium and of talking with kids.

There are scores of comic titles to recommend to kids today. Far more choices than there were for me as a kid. Our shop has a large all-ages section we keep well-stocked. Lots of families come in and kids from pre-school to teenage come in. I’d recommend the Amulet series by Kazu Kabuishi; any of the books by Raina Telgemeier (Guts; Smile; Sisters; Drama; Ghosts); Nimona by Noelle Stevenson; Bone by Jeff Smith. There are plenty of Star Wars Adventures digests for younger readers because, let’s face it, most kids like Star Wars at some point. There’s always an audience for the standby titles like Disney characters and Archie and Classics Illustrated. There’s really no shortage of comic titles that a kid can get started reading.

GMM: Tell me about your fragment. Who is Ahanu, and where will his journey lead him? Can you share a synopsis of the story without giving away too many spoilers? What inspired this story?

MB: My excerpt is from a novella that I’m writing. It’s called A Parliament of Owls. It’s a sword-and-sorcery tale with horror elements and influenced by Native American folklore. I struck upon the idea last year and wrote it as a short story for my writing group. I got tons of constructive feedback and with that, plus the notes I took, I realized that this was a longer story. I’ve been sitting on it for a bit, letting it simmer in the back of my head, as I worked on other things. But it’s ready to come out now.

The inspiration for the story is very much from my love of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. My dad’s old paperbacks were definitely the fuel for this. Sword-and-sorcery is a subset of fantasy; it has elements of the supernatural present and the tales are often fast-paced, placing the protagonist in a personal struggle. They’re often set in a semi-mythic realm, although there can sometimes be some historical aspects present. The stories do not deal with earth-shattering problems and epic dangers like Lord of the Rings and other high fantasy sagas.

Ahanu Foxcloud is a young man, barely twenty, and an orphan. His mother was a powerful witch with a mysterious past. This fact put her at odds with the elders of her tribe. Ahanu wants to know more about his mother but feels stymied by the village council. He also feels like an outcast among his own people. There may be a reason for that and some of that may be his own insecurities. There’s a young girl in the village, Halyn, that he sees as a sister. She keeps him on an even keel. Ahanu often butts heads with authority and is frustrated by the traditions his people follow when he imagines a larger world beyond his own.

The world makes itself known as even larger than he could have imagined when Halyn and other children go missing. Ahanu scoffs at the explanation given to him for this and sets out on his own to discover what happened. That confrontation will expand his horizons and teach him a thing or two about growing up.

I plan on writing several short stories about Ahanu and his adventures. I’m starting to flesh out the world I want to have him populate and having fun doing so. Looking into more Native American mythology to help influence further adventures has been very interesting and I look forward to adding more of these components. As I move forward with Ahanu, I plan on teasing out facts of his mother’s past and how that ties in with the character that I want him to become.

GMM: You write speculative fiction, but what genre is your favorite to read? Write? Why do you feel drawn to that genre? Is there a genre you enjoy reading but haven’t written in, and why?

MB: Oh gosh, that’s tough. I’ve followed a general pattern through my life. It started with my dad’s Conan and Tarzan books. Those lead me to other books by those authors, of course, but after that, I read other fantasy and adventure books. From there, I moved into science fiction, then horror. Back to fantasy in the nineties when there was no end to those multi-book high fantasy series. Then it was urban fantasy and science fiction. Then mystery and horror. Those were the big beats and I tried other things that struck my fancy at the time. I’d have to say science fiction is probably my favorite to read. It’s a sprawling genre that hits many of my buttons. What I like about science fiction is that element of social commentary. When I was younger and reading works by Ursula K. LeGuin and watching Star Trek reruns and didn’t know the term “social commentary”. I liked thinking about the lesson it put forth.

My favorite genre to write is the first one I was exposed to. I’m having fun with Ahanu’s sword-and-sorcery tale. It just came a lot easier to me than other pieces I’ve written. Maybe because it’s been with me for so long. I love horror and science fiction, too, but I think I struggle a bit more with those genres.

I’ve read a lot of detective/mystery stuff. Parker’s Spenser; the Burke series from Andrew Vacchs; the classic authors of the genre: Chandler, Hammett. Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Poirot. I’m really digging Walter Mosley’s Leonid McGill character right now. I like a lot of it but I’ve never attempted to write a mystery. As I travel along my writing path, I’m beginning to find the value in outlining my stories. Typically, I imagine a scene/idea and just write. A friend of mine calls it “discovery writing”. I know there are writers who do it that way and there are writers who outline and there’s probably a number who fall somewhere in between. There’s no right or wrong way to write your tale. But I don’t think I’ve tried my hand at a mystery because I feel that it would require more of an outline style than my discovery method. Perhaps as I settle into a writing method that works best for me, I’ll give a mystery tale a shot one day.

Excerpt from PARLIAMENT OF OWLS

A gibbous moon filled the sky, its eerie half-light falling between the canopy of branches above Ahanu’s campsite. The air had only cast off some of the day’s humidity; the night was close and thick. Low sounds echoed throughout the forest as nocturnal creatures stalked. The campfire sputtered low. Ahanu sat with his back to a big stump and gazed into the dying flames, worry gnawing at his gut. The past day filled his mind. Anger and fear continued their hold on him as images of Moki and the elders sneered at him. His mother had always been at odds with Moki and he knew, just knew, that they had it in for him.

Dim remembrances of his long-gone mother replaced the angry visages of the tribal leaders. Feelings, more truly. A sense of comfort. He was so young when she was taken, it was all he could do to keep her face in his memory.

That melancholy flowed into the reason he was out here in the woods. He had to find Halyn. She had been gone too long. And she was little older than he was when he lost his mother. She was as a sister.

Grim thoughts stayed with him as his head lolled. His eyes drifted shut and the fire sparked its last.

An indeterminate time passed. The moon kept its counsel. All was tranquil.

A feminine trill whispered through the darkness. The night fell quiet. Ahanu breathed deeper but did not stir.

Again, that soft sound. Kijiru awoke and snorted, head and tail high.

“Easy, girl,” Ahanu opened his eyes. “What is it?” he clambered to his feet, grabbing his axe from the ground as he rose. He walked to the mare, all the while his amber eyes darted. He whispered reassuringly to the horse but she was uneasy.

The fire had died but the high moon cast more than enough light, albeit the effect through the trees made it appear some manner of spectral plane. The heavy, humid night air leant a certain lethargy to Ahanu’s movements. His head was still fogged with sleep. He stood beside Kijiru, slowly brushing his hand through her brown mane.

A long, low rasp sounded. It sounded very much like a sharp blade being dragged across a stone. Ahanu started, tightening his grip on the axe handle. Kijiru shuffled her feet. He moved from the horse, looking about. That sound worried at the edges of his memory but he could not recall the context. He moved about the site in a slow circle, eyes trained into the dark.

A short, vibratory song called next, almost as if a caged bird were nearby. Ahanu saw nothing. The fine hairs on his arm stood straight and he felt a cold tickle at the base of his neck.

“I bid thee greetings, O man” a soft voice came from the dark. It seemed to come from all directions at once.

Ahanu whipped his head about left and right, trying to ascertain the voice’s origin. “Who goes there?”

“Just a wanderer of the wood. I saw your fire and thought to avail myself of a fellow wayfarer’s kindness,” the voice crooned. It seemed to come from his left.

Ahanu’s thoughts felt sluggish. He stood a moment, determining if this were a dream. He shook cobwebs from his mind and glanced at the ashes of the campfire. It was dead.

“My fire, eh? When was that?”

“Do you not offer hospitality to another traveler, then?” The voice was now behind him.

Ahanu whirled, his knuckles white on his axe handle. “Step forward, woman, if woman, you be, and not some damned forest spirit!”

A slight glimmer of motion rippled in the corner of his eye. He turned to his right and took a step in that direction. Kijiru whinnied nervously. Ahanu’s eyes widened as a face materialized from the dark. Ice-white tresses cascaded in a silvery frame about a beautiful face. Eyes darker than arboreal shadows regarded him coldly. Ahanu stopped, awestruck.

He stared, enrapt, following the bodiless face as it moved about the campsite. He dimly noted that it was odd how the face would sometimes change in height as it moved. Almost as if it were a bird alighting on branches.

“No forest spirit am I, but a woman.” A note of anger sounded deep in her voice. “And you would do well to accord me respect.”

Ahanu retreated a step, superstitious fear driving him back. He considered his next words but held his tongue. The face had not moved. It hovered, ghostly, in the moonlight.

“Well? Boy.” The word dripped from cruel lips.

The tableau held for several moments until Kijiru let loose with a loud snort. Ahanu blinked hard and in a fluid motion, hurled his near-forgotten axe at the apparition.

A horrible hiss sounded and the lovely visage winked out like a blown candle flame. Ahanu heard heavy wings and could swear he glimpsed a dark form take flight. He shook his head in an effort to clear his dazzled vision.

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: 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.

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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.