Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Kenesha Williams

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

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

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

Ten Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SERVED COLD by Kenesha Williams

“If you don’t hurry, we’ll be late.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once everyone stopped screaming and running.

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

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

Fiction Fragments: Michael Arnzen

Last week, Matt Betts stopped by to talk about the upside of writing fan fiction and how it can help novice writers find their voices and improve their craft. This week, horror writer Michael Arnzen joins Girl Meets Monster to talk about his writing process and why humor and horror are so closely related in our psyches.

ArnzenShades18Michael Arnzen holds four Bram Stoker Awards and an International Horror Guild Award for his disturbing (and often funny) fiction, poetry and literary experiments. He has been teaching as a Professor of English in the MFA program in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University since 1999. New stories are coming out soon in the anthologies Knee Deep in Little Devils and Collected Christmas Horror Shorts II, with more insanity soon to come. To discover his writing, seek out the books Proverbs for Monsters or 100 Jolts. To see what he’s up to now visit gorelets.com or follow him on twitter @MikeArnzen where he routinely posts news, oddities and random tidbits of terror.

Three Questions

GMM: What inspired this story, and how autobiographical is it? Are you like Reynolds? Do you dread talking about your writing when people put you on the spot?

MA: My process is very loose and I’m always on the lookout for story ideas by twisting things we take for granted, or paying attention to the peculiarities happening around us in everyday life. The idea for “Poe Bread” came to me last time I was visiting Baltimore, the land of Edgar Allan Poe and a place where you can get good Poor Boy sandwiches. I think I made some dumb pun about “Poe Boy” sandwiches at a restaurant, but after I stopped laughing at my own joke, I wondered whether there was a story there, and it mutated into the phrase “Poe Bread” in my mind. As I drove back to Pittsburgh, I mused over a plot that might unfold the meaning of the phrase and started writing the next day to see if the idea had any legs.

All my characters are always extreme or abstract versions of how I imagine I would act or react if I were that kind of person, but even when they might have the kinds of roles I might have — writers, teachers, pet owners, etc. — I don’t really identify with them much beyond that, because they are all always splinters of my personality on some level, even when they are completely unlike me. This is a tough question to answer, but a fitting one to talk about in your “fragments” series, actually… because characters are always fragments of a writer’s identity, while being embellishments, too, at the same time.

So Reynolds is a writer, and I kind of like his imaginary fiction series about dead rock stars (I love pop music and could totally get into writing that!), but I wanted him to be more of the kind of writer that the restaurant owner would fawn over, rather than the kind of writer I am. So he’s probably a lot stuffier and more reserved than I am. I don’t dread talking about my stories (well, not the finished ones), but I do kind of feel uncomfortable with people asking me to explain them. Though I do appreciate it when people read my work and tell me they enjoy it, I really don’t enjoy adulation, because I write to connect with people of a like mind, not to feel superior to them. I like it more when someone says “You’re a sick man, Arnzen!” with a knowing gleam in their eye than when they praise me fannishly.  But I can be a fan boy too, so I understand.  The waiter in the Metallica t-shirt is probably just as much like who I really am, too, if not more so — even though I’ve never waited tables or owned restaurants or baked bread.  It’s all fiction, exploration of the fragments trying to find a whole. And I ain’t done yet.

GMM: Academics have suggested that there is a connection between horror and humor. I think even many lay people would agree that there is a healthy amount of comic relief in horror films. Your work tends to employ humor even though you write about dark things. When did this connection occur to you and/or have you always written horror stories with a thread of humor? Is it just a personality quirk that comes out in your writing?

I think laughter bonds us, even though we’re all doomed.

MA: It’s funny: even when I’ve tried to write comedy, people tell me that it’s very disturbing or dark or not funny at all.  Or when I’m at a fiction reading, delivering a really devious and dark line with seriousness someone in the audience will erupt with laughter. Sometimes it’s just me, laughing at myself, too.  Fantasy is ludicrous, and the “gross out” often has a humorous (albeit juvenile) appeal, but that absurdity leads to originality and truth in a way that other things don’t. Horror comedy is tricky to write well and I don’t think I’m good at it when I try too hard to be funny.  So I have given up trying to be funny or scary:  I just write in a way that lets myself go, and try to not to censor myself too much.  I think what I’m doing as a writer is just like letting myself dream or be mentally drunk on the page, and to feel that liberty that you don’t get in everyday life.

An interviewer once categorized me as a “dark jester” in a feature story once and I kind of liked that, a lot, because it reminds me of Poe’s “Imp of the Perverse.”  Another writer called my work “sardonic” across the board, and I like that a lot too.  The comedic stuff I’m producing is probably just related to my worldview and my penchant for the absurd and ironic. I grew up with MAD magazine and Saturday Night Live, and love comedies as much as horror movies.  I like to laugh in the face of death and such — it’s a kind of defiance, but also a quirky way of dealing with anxiety and tension. I think laughter bonds us, even though we’re all doomed.

GMM: What is Poe Bread? I’m dying to know what happens when Reynolds eats it.

MA: Well, it’s only a fragment right now because I haven’t >fully< plotted out what happens, and what I've written has barely gotten to the real story — I gave myself too much liberty to explore character and setting at the beginning, and that's all it really is right now, building up to the very question you asked.  I like to leave a lot of space for new plot directions and other ideas to occur as I write, so I often don't know what I'm doing till I'm doing it, to be honest. I like to think that transfers over to the reader too, where discoveries seem to happen logically and at natural points. But I do know the answer to your questions. Without giving away TOO much, let's just say that there is an old dough "starter" — that is, a baker's saved ball of old dough that gets put into the next batch, and then a ball is taken out of that batch for the next one, ad infinitum — which has been passed down since Poe's day through the bread baking process over the years at this restaurant, and "Poe Bread" contains it. This bread is somewhat magical (or contaminated?) in that it "inspires" Reynolds to write some twisted things… and he becomes both obsessed with the dough and the man who owns it. The two main characters reveal their suspicions about what the dough contains as the story progresses and they begin to do devious things. Does the bread have opiates in it?  Could the starter contain the DNA of Poe himself?  All is revealed in a twisted ending, which I hope echoes the plot of a famous Poe story.

If, that is, I finish it. I might need more… inspiration.  And it's lunch time now, so I'll end there.  Bon Appetit!

Poe Bread, by Michael A. Arnzen

Jim Reynolds had long heard of Baltimore Batter but it wasn’t until he was actually sitting in the restaurant bakery, holding a Poor Boy sandwich in both of his hands, that he understood its popularity. The place had that comforting, beery odor of yeast that most good bakeries greeted its guests with — but here it had seeped into the yellowing stone walls and worn wooden tables for a hundred years, if its storefront sign was to be believed, saturating the place like smoke in a whiskey barrel. He loved it. The bakery’s ambience was so out-of-place compared to the other shops in downtown Baltimore that it had felt to Reynolds like stepping into a 19th century painting. And though time had certainly taken its toll on the decor, the disheveled look of the place only made the food taste better. The shrimp on his sandwich was so fresh it virtually wriggled on the bun and the special sauce in his mouth was as tangy as over-sweetened tea. But it was the bread that made him drool between bites. Eggy and warm in his hands, fresh out of the oven. He squeezed the crisping bun like a lover, and devoured.

The waiter — a thirty-something man with covered with both muscles and wrinkles — brought his check early, sliding it under the vertical roll of paper towels that served as a napkin dispenser. He wore a sweaty black Metallica concert t-shirt that had had faded so much it simply read “licca” above a hazy upside-down cross. He stood there, tossing razor-cut jet black bangs to one side like they were getting in his eyes as he diddled impatiently on his pad.

Reynolds slid him his Mastercard and returned to the precious last bite of his Poor Boy.

The waiter snapped up the card, turned, took one step, then pivoted back. “Wait,” he said to himself, then crouched down so that their eyes could meet. “You’re not the Jim Reynolds are you?”

A bit peeved, he swallowed. “Don’t know what you mean. There’s plenty of them in the phone book…”

“Yes,” the waiter grinned, scanning his face. “You’re him! I know you from your book jackets.”

Reynolds smiled. It wasn’t often that readers recognized him.

“Man, I love all your stuff. The Hendrix Appendix, The Joplin Goblin…shit, I’ve read them all. ”

He nodded, never quite knowing what to say when these things happened. “Thank you.”

“You’re a god to me, man. Damn, I wish I had a book you could sign.” The waiter padded his pockets, as though searching for one of them on his person.

“I’ll gladly sign the check,” Reynolds said.

“No way, dude. The sandwich is on the house.”

Reynolds started liking this guy. “In that case,” he said, reaching into his satchel, “I’ve got something else for you.” He pulled out an advanced review copy of his forthcoming rock-horror novel, scribbled something on the title page and passed it to the man.

“Ho-lee shit.” The waiter swiped his hands down his apron and held the book like it was the Shroud of Turin. He read the title aloud: “The Johnny Rotten Corpse. Man!” Then his eyebrows went squiggly. “Wait a minute…ain’t Johnny Rotten still alive?”

“Not in my book.”

The waiter laughed, read the inscription — “Hope the Poor Boy didn’t struggle! Yours, JR” — and shook Jim’s hand when he stood.

“Loved the food. The bread here is amazing.” He shouldered his bag.

“Tell you what,” the waiter said. “Any time you come here, the food’s on me.”

Reynolds’s eyebrows nearly jumped off his forehead. “I couldn’t…”

The waiter held up his hands in protest. “No, as the owner of this place, I set the rules. And I insist.”

“My friend,” Reynolds said, as his esteem for the man rose a notch and he held out a hand for another shake, “I will take you up on this. You can count on it.”

“Come as often as you like,” he said, shaking briskly. “But there’s just one stipulation.”

“What’s that?”

“That I get to sit with you and talk about your books.”

If there was one thing Reynolds hated about being a writer, it was being put on the spot about his work. He never took interview calls and he never attended conventions. He liked being a recluse — the chance to be left alone and be his own boss was what drew him to the profession in the first place. But the smell of bread in his nose and the tastes of yeast and fish still lingering on his tongue made this opportunity just too damned good to pass up. “You’ve got yourself a deal, my friend. Only I can’t promise I’ll be the best company.”

“Psht.” He waved his hand. “I’m sure I’ve seen worse.” A bell dinged from somewhere in the kitchen and the man frowned at the distraction. “For whom the bell tolls,” he muttered, and Reynolds wasn’t sure if he was being literal or referencing Faulkner or reciting Metallica. But it didn’t matter. He found his sneery reaction charming.

Reynolds began to gather up his bag.

“Okay, come back some… wait, don’t leave. I got something you’d appreciate in the back. Sit tight.”

Reynolds watched as he darted past customers and pushed into the “IN” door with his shoulder. He was back through the “OUT” door in what seemed like a heartbeat, carrying a paper bag, with a loaf of black bread nosing out of it.

“Take this, my gift to you.” The owner of Baltimore Batter handed him the bag, and Reynolds could feel lingering heat between his crackling fingers. “It’s the house specialty — a family recipe. It’s called Poe Bread. It inspires.”

Reynolds wanted to thank him, but the man was already back in the kitchen before he had the chance. He looked down at the Poe Bread, cradled in his arm and swaddled in crinkly brown paper like a newborn. “Inspires?”

Next week, Alicia Wright joins Girl Meets Monster. Do you have a fragment screaming to see the light of day? Show it to me at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fuck, Kill, Eat: Werewolves and the Death of Love

I’ve been thinking about werewolves a lot lately.

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No, really, like a lot.

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I recently listened to the audiobook of Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf, which is probably one of my favorite books of all time. I own a print copy and have read it twice, but decided to listen to it in my car on my way to work over the course of two weeks. I have a 40-minute drive to and from work Monday – Friday, and when I don’t feel like listening to music I listen to audiobooks that I download for free through an online service provided by my local library.

Over the past several months I listened to two Joe Hill novels, Heart-Shaped Box and NOS4A2, and the first two novels in the Vampire Diaries series by L. J. Smith. I had to stop listening to the Vampire Diaries novels, because I was getting pissed off at the fact that there are no people of color in the stories, and Elena Gilbert is a spoiled rich white girl who doesn’t deserve the love and attention of either Salvatore brother. I prefer the TV series to the novels mainly because of the diversity of characters and well…Damon Salvatore is a beautiful monster.

I would happily listen to more Joe Hill novels in my car, but I’ve either read or listened to all of them and last summer I even listened to Doctor Sleep and got my Charlie Manx fix through the world(s) shared between Joe Hill and Stephen King. I got very excited while listening to NOS4A2 when Charlie Manx talks about the different “inscapes” and the people he’s met that use them — Pennywise’s Circus (IT), the True Knot (Doctor Sleep), Christmasland (NOS4A2), the Treehouse of the Mind (Horns), the Night Road and Craddock McDermott (Heart-Shaped Box). Seriously, NOS4A2 is an Easter egg treasure-trove for readers of King and Hill. Treat yourself!

Reality has been kicking my ass, so my goal when choosing entertainment of any kind is to get as far from reality as possible. I often jokingly tell people that if a TV show, movie, or book doesn’t have vampires, werewolves, demons, witches, ghosts, or other paranormal characters, I’m not interested. But, it’s not really a joke.

I have been feeding my brain a steady diet of paranormal romance and dark speculative fiction. I binge-watched seasons 12 and 13 of Supernatural recently and now I’m suffering from Winchester withdrawal. Fox decided to cancel Lucifer, so I watched the last two bonus episodes and now that’s over and done. I started rewatching season 2 of Preacher to psyche myself up for season 3, but I’m not 100% sure of the date of its return to AMC. Then, on a whim, I decided to finally watch Lost Girl on Netflix. It has a Buffy vibe that I really enjoy and it is loaded with sexy, interesting, and often hilarious supernatural creatures. I like the dynamics between the Dark and Light Fae, I like the slow unfolding of the long cultural and political histories of this dual society, and I like the relationships that form between the characters. But, I’m not going to lie, the main reason why I’m watching right now is because of a certain werewolf.

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In the first season of Lost Girl, Dyson and the main character, Bo Dennis, become lovers. Because he is a werewolf chock full of Id and raging sexual energy, he is the first lover she’s ever had that didn’t die after having sex with her. Which, you know, is kind of a big deal when you’re a succubus.

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I mean, imagine if you had spent most of your adult life making love to people you’re attracted to or have strong feelings for, and each time you follow through on your sexual attraction, they end up dead. Sex with you is literally deadly. You are the embodiment of the death of love. Then, one day, you not only discover what you are and why your partners are dying, but you also find a mate who can provide you with what you need — companionship, acceptance, answers to your questions, finger-licking mega-boost sexual energy, and death-free sex. Death-free sex that is totally mind-blowing for both of you. You’d be tempted to think that love might still be in the cards for you.

I mean, love is still in the cards unless the person you love loves you so much that they inadvertently sacrifice their passion for you in an effort to save your life. Hence, the death of love. I mean, what’s more tragic than loving someone so much that you sacrifice everything for them with the consequence of never being able to love them again?

I’ve been on a werewolf kick for a while. Like I said, before I started watching Lost Girl on Netflix roughly a week ago, I listened to Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf, read by the late Robin Sachs, who lent his uber-sexy deep British accent to the first-person narrator, Jake Marlowe. Jake is a 200-year-old British werewolf who is facing the certainty of extinction of his species.

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For most of the novel, he accepts the fact that death is coming for him. In fact, he welcomes it. After 200 years, 147 of which he’s spent as a monster killing and eating humans, he’s done. He believes he’s seen it all and there are no new mysteries awaiting him. And then, the Universe has a few more laughs at his expense.

I suppose that most werewolf stories are really about love and it’s loss when you examine them closely enough. Lycanthropy is typically viewed as a curse that ruins the lives of the people who contract it. In most cases, lycanthropy is passed from werewolf to human through a bite. Unless lycanthropy is inherited through a family bloodline, or achieved through magical means, like wearing a belt made from a wolf’s pelt with a little black magic for good measure, werewolves are usually the survivors of violent attacks. And, once their physical wounds heal, the psychological ones are usually just beginning. If the werewolf has a conscience, they will most likely experience the early stages of a mental collapse after the first full moon when they turn into a homicidal maniac in wolf form.

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Jake Marlowe became a werewolf because he was bitten by one and during his first transformation he killed his wife. After killing and eating her, he read her journal and discovered that she was pregnant. His first act as a werewolf was to literally kill and eat love. For 147 years, he spent his life observing the sacred rites of werewolves: Fuck, Kill, Eat. He never found love again. At least, not until he realizes he’s about to be extinct. The Universe likes to laugh at us, but it seems to be especially jovial where monsters are concerned. At least romantic monsters who cling to their humanity in the midst of an extreme identity crisis. Jake assumes he’s the last living werewolf on Earth until he meets his female counterpart, Tallula Demetriou. So, not only is Jake no longer the last werewolf on Earth, but now he has a reason to live: Love.

So, what’s the deal with werewolves and romance? Well, who doesn’t want a passionate lover driven by their Id with superhuman strength, stamina, and a biological need to mate for life? A werewolf mate will literally kill people to keep you safe…or as an insane response to their unbridled jealousy.

At the heart of all werewolves is murderous rage and rapacious sexual energy. Left unchecked, they commit atrocities like Jake Marlowe killing his wife and unborn child, and while in human form they are often slaves to their libido. Without love, werewolves are basically fucking, killing, and eating machines.

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Typically, werewolves are portrayed as strong, handsome men suffering from some sort of identity crisis, or extreme guilt over becoming a murder once a month, and possibly an unbearable, soul-crushing melancholy brought on by unrequited love.

What I like most about Glen Duncan’s Last Werewolf Trilogy is the fact that we see the lives of werewolves from two perspectives, both male and female. Jake Marlowe’s acceptance of his true werewolf self — the good, the bad, the ugly, and the murderous — makes him an oddly likeable character. He has sex with prostitutes and somehow manages to not be a misogynist. He kills and eats humans once a month and somehow manages to be endearing in his descriptions of his own psychology. He’s a conundrum of horror, repulsion, intellect, cynicism, and raw sex appeal. Werewolves are mythological bad boys and they make excellent romantic characters when making terrible choices is your raison d’etre. I probably mentioned this before, but falling in love with monsters is usually a bad idea, regardless of what popular paranormal romance tells us. Whether you join Team Jacob or Team Edward, you’re essentially signing up for assisted suicide.

But, what if the werewolf is female?

If the 2000 cult horror film Ginger Snaps teaches us nothing else, it teaches us that female werewolves are dangerous monsters (and super-fucking cool). Their danger lies not only in the physical power that comes with their transformations each month, but in the empowerment that comes from shedding all the bullshit societal expectations of femininity. Female werewolves embrace their sexuality and engage in the mental gymnastics required to deal with the implied duality of being vessels for the creation of life and choosing to murder to satisfy the bone-rattling hunger for human flesh.

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But hey, don’t most women deal with similar dualities in every day life? Women are expected to be attractive to appease the ever-present male gaze, but only if they maintain the illusion of virginity. Women who ignore the male gaze and express their unique brand of sexuality or lack of interest in sex all together are accused of being sluts or hags. Let’s face it, there’s nothing more monstrous than sex-positive women who take full ownership of their bodies and decide who can and can’t have access to them.

Female werewolves choose their own paths. They embrace their sexuality. They choose multiple partners or mate for life. They become mothers or remain childless. They give the middle finger to societal expectations and rip out the patriarchy’s jugular.

As it turns out, Jake Marlowe is not the last werewolf. Tallula, his lover, his mate, his salvation, the love of his life (no pressure), makes the inevitability of extinction less likely. In fact, he gains strength in knowing that she is a better werewolf than he could ever hope to be. Tallula struggles with internal chorus of right and wrong that developed from her American upbringing and the expectations that women can only occupy certain roles — maiden, mother, and crone. And possibly, harlot. Tallula likes sex and engages in murder with the same ardor. She and Jake kill together and then have sex over the corpse in werewolf form, which ironically brings them closer together as a couple in their human guises. Essentially, their a serial-killing couple. Murder mates. Even monsters need love, right?

So, if female werewolves are more powerful and scarier than male werewolves, that might help explain how male werewolves have become sexually-charged eye candy in a lot of paranormal romantic fiction. I’m just stating that as a fact. It’s not a criticism in the least, because that would make me a hypocrite. There’s nothing I enjoy more than objectifying sexy werewolves…and examining the potentially dangerous ramifications of sexualizing monsters.

Peter Rumancek of Hemlock Grove, the Netflix original series based on Brian McGreevy’s 2012 novel by the same name, is an interesting monster. While he is physically appealing, his real attraction comes from his delightful irreverence and cynicism, and while his Romany upbringing predisposes him to criminal activity, his internal struggles are more geared toward keeping the people he loves safe rather than his guilt over killing and eating people.

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Then we have Alcide Herveaux, who could possibly be the sexiest werewolf ever in paranormal fiction. Charlaine Harris has kindly given us countless fuckable fictional characters, but Alcide is in a class all by himself.

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In Alan Ball’s adaptation of Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels for the HBO series True Blood, Alcide gets a much broader story arc than he does in the novels and his flirtations with Sookie Stackhouse got much further. He’s an interesting character who embodies strength and loyalty to a fault. And jealousy. Let’s not forget jealousy, which is essentially Alcide’s kryptonite.

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I have a soft spot in my heart for Alcide because he makes worse relationship decisions than I do. I mean, this guy has TERRIBLE luck with romance and his choice of partners, including Sookie Stackhouse, are pretty much all bad ideas. Plus, there’s the added bonus of him being naked a lot of the time.

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So, in the process of writing this blog post I realized that I have a lot more to say about werewolves and this post might be the jumping off point for a short series of posts. I definitely feel like I have more to say about female werewolves vs. male werewolves, and I’d like to talk more about Glen Duncan’s trilogy. But, I need to think about the subject a little more deeply.

Which reminds me, while I was listening to the second audiobook in the trilogy, Tallula Rising, I was able to solve or at least recognize the solution to an issue in my own writing. Tallula talks about her feelings in relation to motherhood and the acceptance of the terrible things she does and that are done to her. It was a moment of clarity that confirms the idea that in order to become a better writer, you need to read more books. I’m not going to talk about that moment of clarity in this post. I’ll save it for a future post. But, I will say that the irony of finding clarity about my own identity, my own writing, and the world I live in through stories about monsters is not lost on me. My own otherness has made me feel connected to monsters since childhood and I have always felt empathy toward characters who have no control of who or what they are. I suppose, I feel a kinship to monsters and the older I get, the more I take pride in that fact.

I’m going to keep up the ongoing process of self-discovery through writing in the hopes of becoming not only a better writer, but hopefully, my best self. And, I’m going to keep thinking about werewolves.

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I mean seriously, can you blame me?