Fiction Fragments: Jessica Guess

Last week, I spoke with Mexican American expat V. Castro about her erotic vampire fiction and I’m still thinking about that scene in the Irish pub, wondering what filthy delights await her vampire protagonist.

This week, I’m excited to welcome Jessica Guess to Girl Meets Monster. I recently picked up a copy of Jessica’s horror novella, Cirque Berserk (2020) and couldn’t put it down.

Jessica Guess is a writer and English teacher who hails from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She earned her Creative Writing MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato in 2018 and is the founder of the website Black Girl’s Guide to Horror where she examines horror movies in terms of quality and intersectionality.

Her creative work has been featured in Luna Station Quarterly and Mused BellaOnline Literary Review. Her debut novella, Cirque Berserk, is available for purchase on Amazon. You can get weekly content from Jessica by joining her Patreon at www.patreon.com/JessicaGuess

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Jessica. I loved Cirque Berserk, because it captured so many of the things I loved about watching slasher movies while I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. The major difference being that one of your main characters is a young Black girl, and her love interest is Latino…or possibly Native American. Most of the slasher movies I watched didn’t have Black people in them. The ones that did have Black characters usually killed them off right away, to the point that this is now considered a trope in horror films. How did this absence of Black characters affect you as a viewer and reader?

JG: I think that being a huge fan of horror while being constantly reminded of how much the genre disregards Black people created a resentment in me. Don’t get me wrong, I really do love horror. I love the mythologies, and the blood, and the monsters, but for a very long time it has felt like we’re a punchline in the genre. I think it’s like that for anyone who isn’t a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual person in horror. That makes me want to kind of right that wrong in my own writing. I want to see all the things I didn’t see growing up.

NOTE: Jessica told me Rocehelle’s love interest is Native American, but asked me not to reveal his name to avoid spoilers. So, go pick up a copy of Cirque Berserk and find out for yourself.

GMM: I recently watched American Horror Story: 1984, and during each episode I was calling out the names of the movies or characters they were referencing based on the way someone was murdered. What are some of the horror movies or scenes from movies that inspired your work? Are there murders in your book that mimic the tropes of slasher movies?

JG: Definitely Urban Legend. I think that movie has some of my favorite slasher kills ever. I wanted the kills in Cirque Berserk to be as memorable as those and have a type of irony that they did in Urban Legend. An example of that is the opening of when the girl in Urban Legend is driving with an ax murderer in her back seat and “Turn Around Bright Eyes” starts playing. That’s definitely an inspiration for a scene in Cirque Berserk. That scene in particular also takes some inspiration from The Strangers: Prey at Night. I just like the idea of upbeat music playing when something horrific is happening.

GMM: AHS: 1984 uses music not only to trigger nostalgia, but to put us in the setting and create a sense of atmosphere to remind us which time period we’re witnessing on screen. How did you use music in your novella to create nostalgia for the characters and your readers? What other details did you use to give us a sense of the time and setting? Did you rely on any specific horror tropes, or did you try to create something new?

JG: So, the song titles set up the sections of the novella, but they also give a hint to what the theme of that section is. For instance, in the “Rhythm of the Night” section, we finally figure out exactly what is happening, which is to say we’re figuring out the rhythm of this night. It helped me to frame the story while also relying on the nostalgia and atmosphere those songs create. As for tropes, I hoped to take some old tropes and re-invent them. I think that’s what we’re supposed to do as writers, take tropes that could be stale or overused, and find a way to make them new and fresh. I like to think I did that with Rochelle and Brian. I wanted the reader to start out thinking they knew exactly where the story was going and then realize they didn’t know at all.

Karlie, Karlie, Where Did You Go? (Excerpt)

Lisa

I watched Erica’s blue impala through my rearview mirror. I was parked with the back of my car to the back of her car. Why had she pulled in to an orange orchard? Did she spot me? Why wasn’t she getting out of her car? A cold sweat formed on my forehead. What if she told Aaron?

Just then, Erica got out of her car and walked up to the storefront that was shaped like a cottage. Maybe she wanted to pick oranges. Or maybe she was calling Aaron to warn him. My palms were suddenly slipping off the steering wheel from sweat. Should I follow her or just go home? I gripped the keys ready to start the ignition but stopped. I had to find out what happened to my cousin.

“Hello darlin’,” an old gray-haired white woman said from the cash register. “Care to try some orange and peach jam? I make it here myself.”

“No, thank you. I’m uh, just looking around,” I said.

“If you want to pick from our grove, you just come on up here and grab a basket and go on out back. You can take a guide with you. Sometimes people get lost back there you know.”

I smiled at her. “Did a girl just come in here? One with deep brown skin and frizzy brown hair and a red hoody? We’re supposed to meet up.”

The woman nodded. “Said she was pickin’ some orange for her mom.”

“I guess I’ll take a basket.”

“That’ll be a dollar fifty for the basket.”

I gave the woman the money and she offered me a wide wicker basket and pointed me towards the back of the cottage where the wide grove started.

Was Erica really doing something kind for her parent? Did I follow her for nothing? Maybe this was a distraction so that Aaron could hide evidence while I was off chasing Erica. Damn it! Did I fall for some trick?

I walked down a row of oranges and looked for a glimpse of Erica’s hoody. The sun was beating down hard but there was a breeze so the sweat forming on my forehead wasn’t as much as it had been for the past few days. The citrusy smell of oranges invaded my nostrils as I turned and looked for any glimpse of Erica. 

I moved further and further into the grove trying to keep the entrance in sight.

Sometimes people get lost back there, you know.

I moved passed orange tree after orange tree but still, there was so sign of Erica.

“Erica?” I called finally. It was a long shot but maybe she’d answer. “Erica, I just wanted to talk to you for a second. My name is Lisa Yen, I’m Karlie Yen’s cousin. The girl who died? I saw you with Aaron earlier. I just need to ask you some questions.”

Just then I saw a flash of the red to the right of me. I turned. Nothing there. Instead just more orange trees. I moved to where I saw the flash.

 “Erica?” I called, running further into the grove.

 A feeling of dreadful realization rose inside of me. No one knew where I was. I didn’t tell Travis where I was going. That woman in the cottage thought I was here with a friend. This grove went on for acres. I looked back to try to see the entrance but all I saw was more orange trees.

“Shit,” I whispered. I tried retracing my steps to find a way out. My heart was beating loud and fast in my chest and sweat poured down my neck.

 My bra was noticeably wet now and uncomfortable. I had only been in the grove for a few minutes, but I was lost and drenched and starting to get scared. I tried to take a deep breath but couldn’t.

 “Fuck,” I whispered as I frantically checked my pockets for my inhaler.

I must have left it in the car. I forgot how bad my asthma got in Everpeirce. Orlando was a little better even though the air was dryer there. The problem with Everpierce was that there were more swamplands, dust mites, and pollen from all the different citrus orchards in the air here. And here I was in the middle of a field of oranges, with no inhaler. Smart girl.

“Shit,” I whispered trying not to panic. I stopped walking and managed to slow my breathing a bit though knew I still needed my medicine. I walked in the direction that I thought I came from, but nothing. No entrance, just oranges.

Just then there was another flash of red just to the left of me.

“Erica? I just want to talk!”

“Is that why you were following me?”

I turned around and there she was. Her hoody was pulled over her head and her sleeves pulled all the way down to her wrists despite the overwhelming heat.

“Erica?” I said stupidly. I was out of breath again now. The heat, orange blossom pollen, and fear not doing my asthma any favors. Erica on the other hand looked fine, cool, and not scared in the least.

“Why are you following me?” She stared at me, her hands in her hoody pocket.

“I-I just wanted to ask you some questions,” I said, hands on my knees.  “Hey—do you—know the way—out?” I said between gasps. “I’m—lost”.

Erica stared at me silently, not moving. Her face was expressionless and unreadable, but it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention. Her dark brown eyes moved around, seeming to look if anyone else was in the orchard with us.

“It’s r-really hot out here,” I said gasping a little. She turned back to face me but remained silent. “Aren’t you hot?”

Her eyes narrowed in on me, her face still unreadable.

“E-Erica,” I said, starting to get dizzy. “Can’t breathe—please—help.”

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: Sonora Taylor

Last week, Paul Tremblay stopped by Girl Meets Monster and we talked about impostor syndrome and how he deals with it, and he shared an excellent fragment from his short story, “We Will Never Live in the Castle.”

This week, I have the pleasure of speaking with Sonora Taylor. I haven’t had an opportunity to meet her in person, but I’m hoping to change that soon.

Sonora Taylor is the author of Little Paranoias: Stories, Without Condition, The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales, Please Give, and Wither and Other Stories. Her short story, “Hearts are Just ‘Likes,’” was published in Camden Park Press’s Quoth the Raven, an anthology of stories and poems that put a contemporary twist on the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

Taylor’s short stories frequently appear in The Sirens Call. Her work has also appeared in Frozen Wavelets, Mercurial Stories, Tales to Terrify, and the Ladies of Horror fiction podcast. Her latest book, Seeing Things, is now available on Amazon. She lives in Arlington, Virginia, with her husband.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Sonora. I really enjoyed your fragment, because I love when horror/science fiction blends with humor in a story. There’s something about the humor that makes the horror a bit more unsettling while simultaneously more palatable. Like a cup of tea you drink while watching an alien invasion. Where did this story come from? What inspired it, and do you often include humor in your horror/science fiction?

ST: Thank you! I wrote this in 2016, which was when I’d gotten back into writing short stories and was seeing what forms, themes, and genres stuck with me. I’d been reading Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett around this time and was definitely influenced by their style of writing. I love absurdist and humorous horror, and I found myself thinking it’d be funny to write in the style of one of those self-care articles, but for how to relax during one of the least relaxing experiences I could think of. I originally considered writing a book of these sorts of essays called Consider This, but I didn’t have enough ideas. Then I started writing my first novel, Please Give; and all my attention went to that.

GMM: You mention the importance of self-care rather ironically in your fragment, but the idea of self-care has become a cultural phenomenon that has social, political and economic relevance, especially at this moment in our history. We obviously aren’t facing an alien invasion (not yet, but 2020 isn’t over), but we are facing a pandemic and an outcry for social change. How do you view self-care in this time of uncertainty, and what do you do to look after yourself on the darker days?

ST: I see self-care as a way to step back and focus your attention on taking care of you, especially in a time where we feel an even more pressing need to look out for each other and be caretakers–for loved ones, for marginalized people, for the greater good. Many of us, especially women, are taught to put ourselves last after we’ve taken care of the kids, the spouse, the world. But to me, this is all backwards because you can’t do those things if you haven’t been tending to yourself! I find I’m a better wife, daughter, dog mom, friend, writer, and activist when I’ve taken a breather and set aside time to reset myself.

I like to decompress with simple beauty rituals, which I can fortunately do at home since I still don’t feel comfortable going to a salon (though I do miss getting pedicures and massages). I love taking baths with nice bath bombs and music. I also like to use face masks and sheet masks to give myself a boost. Drinking tea is one of my self-care practices, but that’s more a daily habit than anything special. I also like to plan and prepare really nice meals. I made a pasta last week with chanterelles and I felt so good serving it and eating it.

GMM: What can we expect from you next? What are you currently working on? Have the events of 2020 had an impact on your writing, either your process or what you’re writing about?

ST: Right now I’m working on my next short story collection. It’s called Someone to Share My Nightmares and will focus on romantic/erotic horror. I’m also formulating my fourth novel, an apocalyptic nature novel called Errant Roots.

I do find that it’s harder to sit and write this year than in previous years. My mind is in a lot of places and it can feel exhausting to sit down and write a whole other reality. I’ve written, but it’s been slower than normal. When I finish a piece, though, it feels fantastic.

Tea Time by Sonora Taylor

You should always take the time to make yourself a cup of tea.

With the stress of the day-to-day, it can often be difficult to remember simple acts of self-care. Or we remember, but choose not to partake because they seem selfish, or mundane, or useless. This could not be farther from the truth. Any act of self-care is worthwhile, and this includes the pouring of hot water onto cold tea leaves.

Consider the practice itself. You take a mug, you choose your tea, you warm the water, you pour the water, then await the allotted time for your tea to steep. The preparation itself is meditative. To make yourself a cup of tea is to close yourself off from the stress around you, be it an obnoxious co-worker or a troublesome spaceship landing outside of your building.

The relaxation does not end with preparation. The act of sipping tea is one of the most relaxing things you can do. Each sip delights the tongue with flavor, steam, and comfort. Picture yourself sipping tea. Notice how the noises around you, like phones ringing or people screaming, just seem to disappear as readily as the tea in your cup.

Once the cup is gone, the sense of ease remains with you, warming your hands like the sun or an errant laser. Tea transports us to worlds we never knew, worlds where we are alone and comfortable, not visited or invaded. To make yourself a cup of tea is to grant you an escape from everything.

Many have shared their wondrous experiences with tea. Consider Martha, an accountant who never missed her morning tea. Each morning after breakfast, no matter what she was doing or who was in her presence, she’d stop and make herself a cup of tea in the company kitchen. She found the ritual conducive to her work. One morning, Martha heard her phone ring and several emails ping in her inbox. But alas, it was 9 o’clock – tea time! She ignored the shouts from her office and went to the kitchen to make her tea. She was not gone for five minutes, yet when she returned with her mug, she found not her office, but a smoldering crater where her desk and wall had been. Had she not held to her morning ritual, she too would have been blown to smithereens! Thankfully her morning tea that day was soothing chamomile, otherwise the sight might have scared her dead.

Tea is much valued for its life-saving properties. Green tea is often seen as the healthiest, with its antioxidant power. But all teas have some sort of health benefit to them. Black tea improves your breath. Peppermint tea aids in digestion. Hibiscus tea seems to frighten off the invaders, seeing how they recoiled in fear from Mrs. Thompson’s hibiscus plants when stomping through her garden. All tea has something special to offer.

But perhaps what is most special about tea is what it can do for you. Even when you are most alone, a cup of tea is there for you, warming your hands as you stare out your window and watch your neighborhood, city, and state burn to ash. The skies have turned red and the ships have grown in number, but your reliable kettle burns on the stove and whistles to you, calling from the rabble and chaos, “Time for tea!”

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.

The Cuckoo Girls, An Interview with Patricia Lillie

Patricia Lillie grew up in a haunted house in a small town in Northeast Ohio. Since then, she has published picture books, short stories, fonts, two novels, and her latest, The Cuckoo Girls, a collection of short stories. As Patricia Lillie, she is the author of The Ceiling Man, a novel of quiet horror, and as Kay Charles, the author of Ghosts in Glass Houses, a cozy-ish mystery with ghosts. She is a graduate of Parsons School of Design and has a MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. She also knits and sometimes purls.

Follow her on Twitter @patricialillie.

Patricia Lillie’s collection of disturbingly beautiful short stories, The Cuckoo Girls, takes on a journey through the darkest parts of the fairy tale forest, into houses haunted by memories as well as ghosts, and reminds us that there is horror in everyday events if we’re willing to peek behind the curtain and allow the madness to seep in. If you haven’t picked up a copy of The Cuckoo Girls, I suggest you do.

GMM: Welcome back to Girl Meets Monster, Patricia. It’s been, what? Two years since your first visit for Fiction Fragments way back in July 2018. You were one of the first writers I featured in that series and since then, you’ve had quite a bit of success. What have you been up to? What are you currently working on? And, what can we look forward to from you?

PL: Wow! That was two years ago? It doesn’t seem like it, which is odd since January of this year feels like ten years ago. As for success—congratulations on Invisible Chains and your Stoker nomination! You should have seen me doing happy dances for you. I take that back. You’re lucky not to have seen me doing happy dances since I’m a klutz. But, do know dances were danced.

What I’ve been up too? A handful of the stories in The Cuckoo Girls were written after the Fiction Fragments piece. As I mentioned there, I had lots of fragments scattered all over my hard drive and I needed to organize them. I did. Which led to some of them turning into stories. Which made me happy—so thank you for setting me on that path.

Aside from that, I have the beginnings of two novels which both keep changing direction. It sometimes takes a while for things to gel with me. I’ve also refilled that fragments folder with more beginnings. I’m evidently good at getting down the first 500–800 words of a story, and sometimes I even know the end, but finding the story that goes in between often takes time. A lot of time. This year, like for many people, hasn’t exactly been conducive to writing, but I’m slowly finding my way back. At least, I hope I am.

GMM: I finished reading The Cuckoo Girls recently and I really enjoyed the collection. I’ve always been able to lose myself in your writing, but there were a few stories that really pulled me in. One of my favorites is “The Robber Bridegroom,” which is a delightfully dark fairy tale about a young woman who is spurned by her family and community because she isn’t as attractive as her younger sister. In fact, she has some sort of deformity that requires her to wear a veil in public. But, she has a secret lover that she meets at night in the forest, and each night he confirms his desire for her even though they know almost nothing about each other beyond their carnal interests. Despite the fact that she suspects that he is dangerous she continues to see him night after night, and even chooses to be his after she finds out the truth about him.

Fairy tales are obviously an influence on your work. Not just this story, but other stories in the collection like “Mother Sylvia.” What is it about fairy tales that draws us back to them again and again? What fairy tales inspired “The Robber Bridegroom”? Which fairy tale was your favorite as a kid? What’s your favorite now? Why?

PL: Thank you—I’m so happy you enjoyed the collection!

I do love fairy tales—or folk tales—but not the idea of “fairy tale” that springs to mind for a lot of people. I didn’t have a favorite fairy tale as a kid. I didn’t dislike them, but none of my favorite stories fell into that definition. I came to love them as an adult when I studied them in conjunction with children’s literature and discovered they weren’t all the happy-ever-after, prettied-up, suitable-for-children stories we’ve come to accept. Oral tradition stories change as they’re told and retold, but some of the greatest changes come when the stories are collected and published. Those changes are often designed to make the stories more palatable to readers.

In the original 1812 edition of the Grimm Brother’s collections, the stepmothers in “Snow White,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and others were biological mothers. The idea of a birth mother planning to slaughter and eat her seven-year-old daughter (Snow White) was culturally abhorrent to the sanctified ideal of motherhood. The bad-mothers were changed to step-mothers in later editions.

Rapunzel and the prince enjoy a “merry time together” resulting in pregnancy, which leads to discovery by the witch. Imagine that in a Disney movie.

At the same time, I discovered stories from cultures beyond the familiar (to me at the time) Western European tradition. As striking as the diversity of these stories is, there’s also a surprising commonality. There are over three-hundred cultural variants (from all over the world) of what we (in our Euro-centric outlook) think of as a Cinderella-story. I’m rambling, but what I’m getting at is the fairy tale tradition is both darker and richer than the “she meets her prince and he is her salvation” idea so many of us were sold. At the same time, many revolve around women. Sometimes they are a prize to be won. Sometimes they are the protagonist. But (at least in the Euro-centric tales) they are often robbed of their agency, either by other characters or by the roles they are expected to fill in family and society. The pressure to be a good girl and find that prince is immense.

“The Robber Bridegroom” uses the main theme from the Brothers Grimm tale of the same name along with elements from Norwegian, British, and other variants of the story. The original story differs from the “meets her prince” fairy tale trope. A young woman escapes from an arranged marriage to a rich man who is not what he appears to be. Which all sort of happens in my story, but as you noted, I took it in another direction. Both of the sisters in my version are expected to fill the role which provides the most value to the family. Because they are female, they’re commodities, and their value is determined by their appearance. Both rebel. It works out well for one of them—because she makes it work out.

GMM: Your stories are often about girls and women who have experienced some form of trauma, or have been given a responsibility that weighs heavily upon them. Where does your inspiration for these characters come from? Do you consider yourself a feminist writer? How much of yourself can be found in the pages of this collection?

PL: When I began to pull this collection together, I was more than a little surprised to discover, “Oh. Hey. There is a theme here.” Where did it come from? Hell if I know. My best guess is from my coming of age during the decades of Second Wave Feminism. It’s hard to imagine now, but I was in high school when women were given the legal right to get credit cards without a man co-signing for them. That’s hardly the only change, but I like to use it as an example because it’s so inconceivable today and it wasn’t that long ago.

Of course, young and optimistic me thought things would continue to get better. Of course, they didn’t. Women’s rights came to a standstill and then moved backwards—as has the fight for equality for POC, LGBTQ people, and anyone who doesn’t fit into the 1950’s standards of power and perfection. It was all supposed to be better by now and it’s not. Life for anyone who doesn’t fit those standards is often a trauma.

As a straight, white, cis woman, the trauma inflicted on women who don’t fit into predetermined roles—or choose not to fill them—is the situation I understand the best. It’s the one I know, and apparently it creeps into my writing. I am a feminist. Am I a feminist writer? I think that’s for others to decide. I always thought I just liked spooky shit.

GMM: The theme of motherhood can be found in many of your stories. Motherhood can be really challenging and sometimes traumatic for many women without the added terror of body horror and supernatural pregnancies. “The Cuckoo Girls”, the first story in this collection, speaks to the horrors associated with pregnancy and motherhood and is an extremely unsettling tale. Why do you think this story is scary? What about pregnancy and motherhood frightens you? Why do you think pregnancy is a trope within the subgenre of body horror?

PL: Pregnancy is terrifying. Another being, nestled and growing inside your body, feeding off you—and at the same time being dependent on you for their life—is bad enough, but add in the pain of giving birth—yeah. Body horror, indeed. My fear of pregnancy is so great, it’s the main reason I’ve never given birth to a child. I have been deeply involved in the raising of a few children, and as wonderful and rewarding as that is, it’s also terrifying. So much responsibility. So much love. So much to gain, but so much to lose if things go wrong. Honestly, parenting is the hardest job a human can take on. I made an active choice not to go through pregnancy and an active choice to be involved in the lives of the children of others. I think the unsettling aspect of “The Cuckoo Girls” is there is no choice. Because motherhood is still a default expectation for women, the lack of choice and lack of control is frightening.

To go back to your previous question, apparently there is a lot of me in these stories. Damn you for making me think so hard. <smiley face here>

GMM: “That’s What Friends Are For” is a great haunted house story with a surprising ending. Have you had any paranormal experiences in your life that inspired this story?

PL: Ha. That story takes place in the house I grew up in. (Seriously. I grew up in a haunted house on the corner of Erie and Elm streets. Explains a lot, doesn’t it?) The bedroom with the closet doors? Mine. The sleepwalking brother who peed in that closet? While not paranormal, also mine. The idea that the unseen residents of the house were simply part of our life and our friends? That’s how we viewed them. Not scary at all.

Long after my parents sold the house, my sister met the then current residents. They were having the same experiences we had. However, they were terrified and convinced the presence was evil. Which made me wonder, what if ghosts are a reflection of how we see them?

GMM: What is your favorite story in this collection and why?

PL: I’m not sure which is my favorite, but I’m fond of “Alyce-with-a-Y” simply because of how it came about. You’ve probably noticed I have a habit of dropping references to Lewis Carroll’s Alice into my writing. I decided to embrace it and use Carroll’s world as the basis of a story. Frankly, I thought maybe doing so would break my Alice habit. I started the story with no real idea where it was going, and I didn’t care. I was writing for fun. I was writing to exorcise Alice. When Alyce showed up, I thought she was someone entirely different than she turned out to be, and she took me on a wild ride all the way to the end. It was a story that just happened. Is it the best story in the book? Probably not. But I had so much fun writing it! (It remains to be seen whether or not the exorcism was successful.)

Thank you so much for inviting me back to Girl Meets Monster! It’s been a blast.

Fiction Fragments: Jessica McHugh

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

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

Three Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Died in the House Next Door, by Jessica McHugh

Chapter One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How late?”

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

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

“Is there anything else?”

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

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

I know you have a fiction fragment or two hiding in a drawer. You should totally send them my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

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

Fiction Fragments: Errick Nunnally

Last week I chatted with EV Knight about cats and her debut novel, The Fourth Whore. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Errick Nunnally. I met Errick in person at Necon 39, but was first introduced to him virtually as the cover artist for my debut novel, Invisible Chains. When I asked Errick to submit a fragment, he had this to say about his submission: “This is the second part in a series of stories I’ve been putting together about a Boston animal control officer, Nora Tuttle (mixed ethnicity), who has found herself dealing with animal…anomalies…each worse than the last. My hope is to collect them as a novella. Which is nigh impossible to sell, of course, but… I can’t overstate how much I love this character.”

ErrickNunnallyErrick Nunnally was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, and served one tour in the Marine Corps before deciding art school was a safer pursuit. He enjoys art, comics, and genre novels. A designer by day, he earned a black belt in Krav Maga and Muay Thai kickboxing by night. His writing has appeared in several anthologies and is best described as “dark pulp.” His work can be found in Lamplight, Transcendent, Monarchies of Mau: Tales of Excellent Cats, The Final Summons, Protectors 2, Nightlight Podcast, and the novel, Lightning Wears a Red Cape. See more of his work online at erricknunnally.us

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome, Errick. I just finished reading Blood for the Sun, and I loved it. I love vampires and werewolves equally, but I always seem to root for the werewolves when they go to war. What made you decide to cast vampires as the villains in the novel? What was the inspiration for your wonderfully complex protagonist, Alexander Smith?

EN: Hello, and thank you for having me. I’m so glad you enjoyed the novel!

As for inspiration, I love monsters more than the other aspects of horror and I always rooted for the werewolves in movies–especially when they were subbed to vampires. Because they’re relegated to wild animal status, it wasn’t often, in popular movies and TV, that you got to see someone in control of themselves. The closest that I recall is the television series, Werewolf, where the main character had a modicum of control when transformed, but that control was eroding over time. I got a kick out of the Werewolf By Night comics and really liked the idea that Jack Russel finally makes peace with his beast, taking more control and revitalizing the series for a while. That is basically what drove my initial decision and fundamentally reimagining where these abilities come from–which is part of the trilogy’s overall arc. Smith himself was a long time in development, from that point. It all started in college, around ’95 or ’96. I painted a three-page comic of this loose idea that was jangling around in my head: a werewolf living on a frontier whose neighbors–Chinese immigrants–are murdered and their child stolen. He tears off after the culprit, recognizing that a wild vampire has taken the child. He saves the baby, but not before she’s bitten. He knows he should get rid of her, but he keeps her, instead, initially raising her out of guilt for crimes he’s already committed. And that’s basically the origin story of his adopted daughter, Ana. I loved the idea of Alexander growing up pre-industrial and Ana growing up post-industrial. It makes their personalities decidedly different. Over the years, I had other ideas for both his backstory and personality: he’s half-and-half African-American and First Nation. His dad escaped slavery in Louisiana, up the Mississippi River and married a Kainai woman, before settling in Saskatchewan and becoming a coal miner. Alexander is one of three kids, raised on a homestead. His sisters are married back into the tribe. His father dies of black lung, his mother dies of old age. The shapeshifter aspect is handed down bloodlines and Alexander is infected by a great-great grandfather. After a century or more the aspect starts eating memories, producing wild monsters that feed into myths. That memory stuff came from watching my grandmothers’ memories deteriorate and how disorienting and horrifying it was. Alexander’s skills were added with the idea that constant learning helps our brains stay sharp. The idea for sorting out missing children’s cases as a challenging puzzle as well as a parallel to his daughter’s existence. He fears the madness and roams from his homelands to avoid handing the lycanthropy down to someone else. I’ve always liked the irredeemable character, so I put things in Alexander’s past that he’ll never overcome. So much of his character stems from my counter-stance on pure heroism, popular vampires, and the unimaginable beauty associated with the supernatural in so many “urban fantasy” novels. On and on and on, over the years, until I got laid off around 2008. Being unemployed for a couple years put a lot of time in my lap and I came up with a bucket list. One of the items was to finally write that damn novel.

GMM: Judging by the fragment you submitted, Nora Tuttle is about to have her hands full. Nothing good comes out of mysterious egg sacs in my experience. You mentioned that you love this character, and that she is of mixed ethnicity. How important is it to you to write about characters who are people of color? Why are their stories important?

EN: That fragment is from a story I finished recently. It’s the second time I’ve used Tuttle. She debuted in a story about dog fighting and genetic tampering that I wrote shortly after Blood for the Sun was published. She is mixed and that experience comes with its unique problems here in America. I’m not the sort that writes about “race” in particular, but it factors in because that’s the lived experience I have among the people I grew up with. It’s important to me because as I grew up, I didn’t see much of myself, the people, or the world I knew reflected in fiction. And I love science fiction! Non-white adults of my vintage will recall the lack of reflection when it came to stories about the future, as if entire swaths of humanity wouldn’t make it, that “white” folks would live forever. It was frustrating. Even more, in hindsight, as I’ve gotten older and seen so much more successful representation in media. Nora Tuttle, in particular, came into existence because I didn’t want to write a male protagonist and I wanted someone who would have some relationship with law enforcement, but wasn’t a cop themselves. The better to entangle them in danger without the offensive capabilities or resources to deal with it. Enter an officer for Boston Animal Control! Add monstrous elements and I had someone in way over their head. I think it’s very, very important to write protagonists who are as fully-formed as possible. Because of my experiences and background, that’s always going to include various POC. Tuttle has all sorts of background that I mine in the second story, further complicating her life. Because I love her, she will be in a third and final story before I step away from, uh, complicating her life.

GMM: I haven’t had a chance to read your latest novel, Lightning Wears a Red Cape, but it is on my list of books to read in 2020. What are you working on right now? Do you have any projects coming out in the next year?

EN: Blood for the Sun is currently out-of-print, but a newer, re-edited version will be back in circulation this summer, from Haverhill House Publishing! Two sequels will follow shortly afterward. The second, All The Dead Men, is already written! I can’t wait to start reveals of the covers et al. I’m also working on a few short stories–one of which has a home if I can get it done right–and two novellas that I’d like to release into the wild. There are two novels in the pipe that I need to get crackin’ on. One is a thriller–no speculative elements–about an Afghani translator and the father of a fallen Marine that he has befriended. The translator has to go on the run with evidence of a conspiracy to escalate conflict in the region. Both he and the father are pursued by bad actors, of course. There’ll be international action, mercenaries, political intrigue, all the good/bad thriller stuff. Everyone I’ve explained the full premise and story to is intrigued by the idea and I think it’ll be a good challenge for me to write. The second novel’s content is TBD, but a couple of good friends are pushing for a slippery, magical idea that builds off of my life when I was much younger. We’ll just have to wait and see about that one, at this point!

The Keeper of Taswomet, by Errick A. Nunnally

The slow whine of a cicada cut through the warm air and mixed with the other chirps and clicks of insects. A light breeze came in from across the marsh, tickling the tall dry grass. The dense green could barely be seen through a narrow corridor in the trees surrounding the last home on the lane.

Joshua shot out of the back of his house, cutting across the lawn and into the trees before the screen door banged shut. He wore the summer-ready haircut of most twelve-year old boys: buzzed short on the sides, his brown hair lightened by the sun. The day was especially warm, so he wore his favorite, tank top: light blue with Mjölnir on the front. Partway down his skinny biceps, the skin went from its usual fish-belly pale to cinnamon-toasted, exposing what his mother referred to as a ‘farmer’s tan.’ The youngster was an anachronism, belonging instead to the days when scores of children roamed through nature, picking it apart, living in it and on it. These days, most of his friends were more interested in music or the latest dramas of the latest pop stars.

He rushed to check on the well-hidden, briny pool he’d found just before lunch, a gift born of the marsh that defined so much of his life. Joshua was fortunate, he enjoyed the area to a degree that other kids did not. Taswomet Marsh made summers the best time of year and it made school bearable. The natural wonder’s proximity bent the science program to its will. And Joshua loved it.

A trip to the hardware store and chores with his father had kept him from exploring the discovery further, earlier in the day, but the precious gift of extra daylight during the summer meant he had some time after dinner.

He wound through the oak and pine wood, rooted in a sandy surface, cutting through to the well-worn path that meandered along the greater portion of the marsh. Insect cries intensified in constant whirrs and clicks. He imagined the long shadows were the devastating ice clubs of frost giants and Joshua danced around them. He slowed when he reached the next path, exposed to the setting sun on.

Bright light and heat slammed his face and arms as he eased the pace, picking his way along the narrow path that cut through low brush too thick to pass otherwise. He’d promised to get back before sunset, so he didn’t dally when a plover snapped out of the tall grass, capturing his attention. It beat quickly into the sky, then broke into the tree line before he could determine whether it was a western or a white-rumped.

The backpack he wore added a layer of unneeded warmth to the small of his back. It contained his notebook, sample bags, a small shovel, and other knick-knacks for research and sample collection. He shrugged the bag off and carried it by the handle. Just ahead, there was a less worn path cutting towards the marsh proper. Softer soil gave beneath his feet as he wound his way through the flora to the pool, pushing tall grasses and thick underbrush aside. The stink of mosquito repellent stung his nose. It was necessary to wear in the marsh, but he always felt like his mom laid it on too thick. Still, he was fortunate to be part of a new generation allowed to roam, to drift away and explore only to return when hunger saw fit to remind him. As long as it happened before dark.

He crouched down at the edge of the hidden pool and peered into the dark water. Just below the surface, he could make out eight gelatinous sacks about the size of raviolis and trending in color from brown to translucent to gray. He couldn’t tell if there were more of them deeper in the water, but it didn’t matter. He only wanted one for his project. Being careful not to fall in, and using a heavy-duty zip-locking bag, he scooped up one of the sacs and as much of the brackish water as he could. He only wanted a sample, something to study. Of all the species he knew that reproduced in this manner—he presumed they were egg sacs—this one escaped him. It looked like the egg case of a catshark, but square and smaller. The marsh was a cornucopia of ecology accentuated by the sea.

Joshua held the bag up to the sunlight and peered through the odd mass. Inside the sac, a tiny creature lay curled into a tight ball. It twitched in the glare. Overhead, two Osprey observed the marsh in widening circles. Joshua was anxious to get his find settled into the glass habitat he’d constructed in his room. He’d dubbed the thing a “terraquarium” since it approximated, as best he could manage, the mixed environment of the marsh. He was going to have the best summer project on display when school started again.

Thoughts of the future danced in his mind as he hurried home, the kind of open-ended musings only a 12-year old could think of; a future of discovery and fortune.

Do you have a fragment that should probably see the light of day? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Can You Judge a Book by Its Cover? An Interview with Artist & Writer Dyer Wilk

Dyer Wilk author picGMM: Hi Dyer, welcome to Girl Meets Monster. Back in July, I had the pleasure of chatting with you at NECON 39. It feels like that happened a very long time ago, but I enjoyed talking with you about your artwork. Each piece had a story. Can you tell us about where your inspiration comes from, and how you got your start as a cover artist?

DW: Thanks, Michelle. It was a pleasure meeting you, too, and getting a chance to talk a little bit about the art I had on display. I think inspiration is one of those things that’s a mix of conscious and unconscious. It ends up coming from just about everywhere, whether I realize it or not. I spend a lot of time thinking about what a particular book cover needs to look like, and I give a great deal of consideration to other pieces of art that look or feel similar to what I’m hoping to achieve, but a lot of the time, after a piece is finished, I’ll look back at it and realize it reminds me of something I’d never thought about while working on it.

Of course, I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. Art has always been a big part of my life. So, having it come full circle in unexpected ways isn’t unwelcome. My start as a cover artist was a lot like that – unexpected. When I was a kid I always figured I’d become a visual artist in some kind of professional capacity, even though I had no idea how to go about that. In my early teens, I decided I wanted to make movies for a living and was stubborn enough to major in film in college only to realize about halfway through that succeeding in Hollywood is highly unlikely, no matter how passionate you are about what you see as an art. It started to become obvious that there was a certain amount of poisonous egotism and greed surrounding the film industry and many of the people who work within it. Narcissism and back-stabbing aren’t something I want to be around, so that meant I had to look for something else to pursue. That led me to the idea of writing books instead.

After I started to see some of my short fiction getting published, I got to know other writers, and made a few friends. Occasionally, I’d share some of my artwork online. Sometimes as nothing more than a joke. Sometimes to cheer up friends who were going through hard times. But mostly because I have issues with social anxiety and it can take me a while to open up to people and get comfortable. If a piece of art I created could get across an idea in a way that I didn’t feel able to with words, I felt like I’d succeeded. But it did come as a surprise to me when people started to ask if I took commissions and what my rates were.

Freelancing wasn’t something I’d considered up until that point. I’d become so fixated on trying to get to a place where I could write full time that I hadn’t considering being able to make some kind of income by working on the other side of the writing business. Ironically, after a few years of creating book covers full time, I’ve learned a lot more about publishing than I ever did when I was focused on writing alone.

The Ranger coverGMM: What is the most rewarding part of creating the hauntingly beautiful pieces you had on display at NECON 39?

DW: Definitely getting a chance to display them at all and see the positive reactions that people had to them. A lot of the time I feel like book covers are an under-appreciated art form. We live in a world where most book covers are now stock photos that resemble thousands of other stock photos. They’re posted online where a reader will scroll through thousands of other book covers, and most likely stop for only a fraction of a second before moving on. That can make all the effort to make a book stand out by investing a lot of time and passion into the design feel a little futile. But it feels good to be in a place where that art is appreciated and seen as something more than just a product.

GMM: Are there any artists who have influenced or inspired your work? Classical, comic book, or other cover artists?

DW: There have a been a lot of influences over the years, but off the top of my head (and probably most influential on what I’ve been doing more recently), I’d say Dave McKean, Bill Sienkiewicz, Russell Mills, John Jude Palencar, and Drew Struzan. Going further back, Michael Whelan, Frank Frazetta, Edward Hopper, Wayne Barlowe, Vincent van Gogh, Arthur Szyk, Alphonse Mucha, Gustave Doré, Bernie Wrightson, and Edward Gorey all definitely made a big impression on me. There are dozens of others who created various book covers, album covers, and movie posters that I’ve fallen in love with over the years. Sadly, I haven’t been able to track down the names of every artist responsible, which is a shame, because there are certain images that have absolutely mesmerized me – such as a particular paperback cover for The Dark Half, the Night on Bald Mountain sequence in Fantasia, John Alvin’s poster art for The Lost Boys, Paul Whitehead’s album art for Foxtrot by Genesis, the VHS box art for a copy of Goldfinger that I bought in the mid-‘90s, etc.

GMM: You also write fiction. What are your preferred genres to write? How is the creative process different for you when you write as opposed to when you’re creating artwork? Do you prefer designing covers to writing fiction?

The Moore House coverDW: When it comes to writing, I prefer horror and science fiction, often with an emphasis on history. The writing process itself is very different from cover design. I tend to spend several weeks or months researching and outlining a book before spending a few more weeks or months writing it, whereas I typically spend only a few days working on the average book cover. For that reason, I feel like I get something out of writing that I don’t get out of cover design. I can live with a book for a long time and enjoy walking around inside that imaginary world, getting to know its characters. Book covers come and go very quickly, and when it’s a cover I feel especially attached to, it seems to pass far more quickly than I would like, to the point where I end up feeling up I must have missed something or could have done a better job if I’d had more time.

GMM: How has your artwork evolved over time? Where do you see it going in the future?

DW: When I was a kid, my art was less personal in a lot of ways. Creating art was definitely an outlet for whatever was going on in my life, but I didn’t really see myself in it until later. I was more concerned with emulating whatever movies or comics I was into at the time. But somewhere around my early teens that started to shift a bit.

I went though a lot of phases, like most people do, and the art reflected that. If it was a goth phase, the art was gothy. If it was a metal phase, the art was still gothy, but now I could say it was metal. And since my love of horror has been lifelong, any goth or metal-inspired art still manages to fit into that enough to where I don’t feel too embarrassed by some of the cheesier things I once designed. But what I did come to realize later is that all of that art is me. I can look at a handful of drawings I’ve created over the years and trace how I’ve changed as a person, from a kid who liked scary movies but didn’t know much about how truly frightening real life can be to an adult who has some difficult years behind him but still enjoys scary movies and creating horror-themed art because they’ve become cathartic in a way.

I’m not sure what the future will hold for my art, but I hope that I’ll continue to find some kind of fulfillment in it. That said, getting more commissions and having a little more artistic freedom on projects overall is definitely what I’d like to see happen.

Rigor Morbid LYB coverGMM: Are you making art that doesn’t end up on covers? What other visual mediums are you interested in pursuing?

DW: Freelancing sometimes has a negative side-effect of making me feel unconnected to the work. It’s rare, but there have occasionally been difficult projects with a lot of micromanaging, lofty demands for repeated changes, or hours of work being scrapped entirely. That side of things can be incredibly disheartening and leave me feeling like I’m only a set of hands that has to go through the motions and can’t contribute anything of myself to the art. But that also pushes me to explore art for myself whenever I can. I genuinely enjoy what I do most of the time, but when a difficult project comes along, I need to be able to sit down and put those same skills into something I care about, where there are no guidelines or expectations imposed on the work by anyone but myself.

A couple pieces like that ended up being displayed at Necon, but there are a lot more. The older I get, the more I realize that art (or at least the personal side of it) is a form of therapy for me. If I’m not sitting in front of the computer and painting digitally, then I’m working on something else that allows me to be creative. I’d very much like to shift back to working with real paint and ink. Waiting for something to dry isn’t always conducive to meeting tight deadlines, but there’s a certain look and feel real paint has that digital often lacks. Beyond that, I miss sculpting and working with Papier-mâché – both of which I haven’t done in nearly a decade now. I’d even like to pursue film on some level again, if the project is small enough, I could work with people I trust, and there’s an atmosphere during production that’s respectful and healthy for everyone involved.

TriggersGMM: What are you writing about at the moment?

DW: I’m currently working on a novel that I first started back in 2011. It’s been sitting in a drawer for a lot longer than I ever expected it to, but I don’t think I was really ready to write it during my first attempt. I was going through a very bad bout of depression at the time, and I couldn’t deal with writing about something along those lines until I was in a better place. It’s essentially a slasher movie in book form, but with a strong emphasis on the individual characters and the experiences that have led them to the terrifying situation they find themselves in. It’s definitely meant to skew more towards realism than cheesy B-movie fun though. I grew up watching a lot of schlocky gorefests on VHS, and I’m always going to have a soft spot for those, but I’m hoping to find a middle ground between the clichéd tropes and a believable reality in which people find themselves trapped and fighting for their lives, where the characters (including the antagonist) aren’t cardboard and we can actually empathize with them.

Interview: Tim Waggoner, The Way of All Flesh

Tim-WaggonerAccording to Tim Waggoner’s online bio, he “wrote his first story at the age of five, when he created a comic book version of King Kong vs. Godzilla on a stenographer’s pad. It took him a few more years until he began selling professionally, though.”

Tim has published more than thirty novels for adults and young readers, including two tie-in novels with the Supernatural franchise and three short story collections. His articles on writing have appeared in Writer’s Digest and Writers’ Journal, and he teaches creative writing at Sinclair Community College and Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program.

His future plans are to “continue writing and teaching until he keels over dead, after which he wants to be stuffed and mounted, and then placed in front of his computer terminal.”

Last week I reviewed Tim’s 2014 surreal existential horror novel, THE WAY OF ALL FLESH, which takes a very philosophical approach to the zombie genre. If you haven’t read it, you should. This week, I talk with him about the book and explore the idea that horror fiction is the fiction of social change.

ML: I couldn’t help noticing while I read the novel that there were lots of references to Jesus’s experiences before and after resurrection. Was I imagining that, or was that intentional? If it was intentional, why a zombie messiah?

TW: I honestly don’t remember putting in specific references to Jesus, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t. The idea of a zombie messiah was definitely a conscious one on my part, so perhaps allusions to Jesus crept in as I was writing, whether I was aware of them or not. (I should say that OF COURSE the Jesus stuff was deliberate; that way I’d sound smarter!) The zombie messiah seemed like such a natural idea to me, and it was out there in popular culture before I wrote my novel. I remember watching a bit from the comedian Sam Kinison on TV years ago. Kinison was talking about how normal people would view Christ’s resurrection, and he acted out a witness’ screaming reaction to seeing Christ leaving his tomb: “The dead walk! The dead walk!” And one of the characters on Futurama, Professor Farnsworth, once exclaimed “Sweet Zombie Jesus!” The idea of transcending death is of course appealing to mortal beings such as ourselves, but it’s also a terrifying notion, a deeply profound violation of the natural order.

ML: The book deals with a lot of uncomfortable social issues that most people don’t want to talk about. You address racism, sexism, homophobia, and gun control with an ease that makes me wonder if horror fiction might be a good vehicle for opening up discussion about these topics. Have you found this to be the case in other horror novels? Is horror fiction the fiction of social change?

TW: I think it can be. Horror fiction allows us to look at some of the darkest elements of life safely, the same way we look at an eclipse indirectly in order to view it without damaging our eyes. The nightmarish distortion of horror creates a buffer that allows readers to comfortably confront all sorts of unpleasant and even repellent ideas. This includes the darker aspects of human nature and society. And since horror fiction is also entertaining, people don’t feel like they’re being lectured at when social issues are part of the story. “The Night They Missed the Horror Show” by Joe Lansdale is a prime example of how effectively horror can deal with social issues.

ML: I loved the relationship that develops between Kate and Marie. Why did you choose to include a same-sex relationship in the novel? An interracial one at that. Were you hoping to appeal to a wider audience, or simply include characters that typically don’t appear in popular fiction?

TW: I don’t worry about appealing to a wider audience. If I did, I’d write something other than surreal existential horror! When I write, I try to reflect the world I live in. Women make up slightly over half the human race, so I tend to alternate the gender of my main characters from one project to the next. I’m 51, and I’ve witnessed decades of increasing diversity in America, and I want to reflect that richness as well.

ML: Horror fiction has a long history of being most closely related to literary fiction among all the genres, and seems to be going through a phase in which more thought-provoking works of fiction are being written by horror writers. When you sat down to write THE WAY OF ALL FLESH, what message did you have in mind?

TW: My first goal was simply to have fun riffing on the zombie apocalypse trope. I usually don’t have a message or theme in mind when I start writing, although eventually themes do start to emerge. I often write about duality, and zombies lend themselves to that nicely. The Dead vs. the Living, the world before and after the apocalypse, etc. I decided the defining characteristic of the modern-day zombie isn’t the fact that it’s dead. The “zombies” in 28 Days Later and its sequel aren’t dead; they’re living humans infected by an artificial virus that turns them into homicidal maniacs. The defining characteristic of zombies and zombie-like beings is hunger for human flesh, so I decided to use hunger – and desire – as a central metaphor for the story. In Buddhism, desire is the root of all evil, right? As for a specific message, I’d rather leave that for readers to find on their own. Explaining art is like explaining a joke. If you have to explain it, it didn’t work.

ML: I don’t want to give the ending away, because I’d really like for people to pick up a copy of the novel and read it. So, no spoilers, but I was pleasantly reminded of Gary Braunbeck’s short story, WE NOW PAUSE FOR STATION IDENTIFICATION. Has Braunbeck’s work influenced you? Which authors have inspired your fiction the most? Where else do you draw inspiration for your stories?

TW: Gary’s been a good friend of mine for years, and as much as his fiction has influenced me, he’s influenced me so much more as a human being. There are so many writers who’ve influenced my work: Shirley Jackson, Dennis Etchison, Ramsey Campbell, Charles L. Grant, Caitlyn R. Kiernan, Lawrence Block, Stephen King, Piers Anthony, Steve Gerber, Marv Wolfman, Chris Claremont, Kafka, Poe, Lovecraft . . . I could go on and on. I draw inspiration from being an imaginative person living in the real world. Anything I see, hear, or read can spark an idea in me that could become a story or novel. For example, a while ago I saw – within the space of several days – two different men walking backwards. One was walking backwards up a hill, and the other was walking backwards around a parking lot. I have no idea what these men were doing. Maybe it was some kind of exercise I’m not aware of. But those two backward-walking men struck me as so strange that I quickly jotted down the experience, and I’ll probably use it in my fiction someday. Writers – especially horror writers – need to develop their own special “weirdness filter” and view the world through it. That way, they’ll write the stories that only they can tell.