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: Corey Niles

Last week I spoke with Douglas Gwilym about his adventures exploring the wilds of Pittsburgh and his thoughts on writing female characters when you don’t identify as female. This week Girl Meets Monster welcomes Corey Niles, and yes, he’s a Pittsburgh writer, too.

CN Author PhotoCorey Niles was born and raised in the rust belt, where he garnered his love of horror. His recent and forthcoming publications include “Our Celluloid Prince” in Five 2 One Magazine: #thesideshow, “The Body” in Blood Moon Rising Magazine, and “What Lurks in These Woods” in Pink Triangle Rhapsody: Volume 1. When he isn’t nursing his caffeine addiction or tending to his graveyard of houseplants, he enjoys jogging on creepy, isolated hiking trails.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Corey! Congratulations on finishing your thesis novel and becoming a member of the Horror Writers Association. How does it feel to have written a complete novel while earning an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction? Can you tell me a little bit about what that experience was like? What did you learn about yourself as a writer? What surprised you most about the writing process? Would you recommend Seton Hill’s MFA program? Why or why not?

CN: Thank you so much! Having the opportunity to learn about popular fiction while actually writing it under the mentorship of established writers was an amazing experience. I often think of the program as a pressure cooker that enables writers to grow exponentially in a relatively short amount of time if they can put in the work. I can hardly recognize the writer I was when I started the program compared to the one I am today.

Over the course of the program, I was able to learn what draws me to fiction, which is the characters and the journeys they take in these stories. In my thesis novel, Blood & Dirt, I wanted to explore marginalized characters who are often forgotten about after falling victim to the antagonist at the beginning of a crime or horror story. Consequently, the novel starts with a gay couple who are attacked by a white supremacy group while on a jog, but readers then stay with these characters throughout the story. Examining what it means for my protagonist, Vincent, to be different and victimized in a country where hate crimes are on the rise was really what drew me to this project.

The program enabled me to take this character study and ground it in genre fiction. There is no doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t have written the novel that I completed without all of the amazing guidance and feedback from mentors and classmates in the program. I not only wrote a novel, but I also cultivated writing skills that I can apply to future writing projects. I became comfortable omitting what wasn’t working and heavily revising when it was necessary. Writing is a process, and while I think most of us are better revisers than we are writers, the Writing Popular Fiction program helped me trust that process. I can’t recommend it enough to writers who want to finish a novel and, more importantly, who want to take themselves and their craft more seriously.

GMM: Identity often plays a major role in what we choose to write about and how we develop our characters in stories. How does your identity show up in your writing?

CN: As a gay man who grew up in a small town, reading was a huge escape for me, and I often found it difficult to identify with the straight characters who were the protagonists of the majority of books that I read at that time. Furthermore, in the few instances where I discovered a gay protagonist, I was often disheartened by how the character was vilified or victimized in the story. As a result, I usually focus my stories on the gay characters who I wish I could have read about when the only exposure I had to other gay men was through fiction.

In Blood & Dirt, I wanted to start the story at a place where we often find queer characters, which is, unfortunately, in danger. However, from that point, the story follows Vincent’s search for his own agency in a world that has already labeled him a victim. Hatred and violence are realities that many people face in our country, so I try to confront that in my writing.

That being said, as a white man, I certainly recognize my own privileges, and I hope that we can continue to support and celebrate more diverse writers of all races, classes, genders, and sexualities. Our world is full of diverse people, and our fiction should reflect that reality.

GMM: Why horror fiction? What is it about horror that you can relate to as a writer or reader? What aspects of the genre inspire your fiction the most?

CN: I have always gravitated toward the horror genre as both a reader and a writer. I was definitely that kid secretly reading Stephen King from a young age and subsequently creating my own strange tales. The horror genre has a history of holding a mirror up to society in a way that has always fascinated me. While horror is often dismissed as mere blood and gore, it is a genre that challenges readers to understand what it means to be human as well as what it takes to survive in this world. These broader, and often existential, questions that the genre is known to examine are what really inspire the stories that I write.

In recent years, there has also been a significant shift in the genre to embrace more diverse voices and stories. I have read so many amazing works of horror fiction and poetry from women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQIA community in the last few years. Furthermore, there have been a lot of great opportunities for diverse writers in the publishing industry. I’m really excited to be a part of a mixed-genre, gay anthology from Lycan Valley Press, entitled, “Pink Triangle Rhapsody: Volume 1,” that is scheduled to be released later this year. As a lifelong fan of the horror genre, I am excited to see how it continues to grow and develop in the coming years, especially as I embark on the query process for Blood & Dirt.

Fiction Fragment by Corey Niles

The warmth had dwindled when he woke up. He yawned and went to check the time, but the clock on the wall was obscured by the curtain around his bed. The light leaking under the bottom of the curtain was little help. The hall lights remained on day and night. He searched the gap between the curtain and floor for the warmth that he’d found there when he’d been pumped full of pain medicine.

What he found was a piece missing from the ring of light at the bottom of his bed. Something blocked out the light from the hall. He blinked away the fog of sleep and focused his eyes. There was a pair of boots caked in mud. The sight was so strange that he just stared at them for a moment before they moved, and their significance registered.

Someone was standing at the bottom of his bed.

Someone with muddy boots who wasn’t making himself known.

Oh god.

Their attackers.

One of them had found him. Tracked him down to finish the job that the group had started in Panther Hollow. The boots moved around the bed toward him. Flakes of dirt littered the white linoleum in their wake. The curtain moved, hands searching for an opening.

He had to run. Jump out the other side of the bed and run for help, his pain be damned. He went to sit up in bed, but the restraints pulled him back down. Fuck. His wrists were still cuffed to the guardrails on either side of his bed. He was trapped. At the mercy of someone who had already tried to kill him, and this time, he was alone and truly defenseless.

I’m dying to read your fragments. Send them my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

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

Fiction Fragments: Brandon Getz

Last week, Girl Meets Monster fan-girled a little while chatting with Errick Nunnally about his werewolf novel, Blood for the Sun. This week, I’ll be talking about werewolves and vampires with Brandon Getz. You can read my review of his debut novel, Lars Breaxface: Werewolf in Space, over at Speculative Chic.

77016745_631971787633000_7218389553990598656_nBrandon Getz earned an MFA in fiction writing from Eastern Washington University. His work has appeared in F(r)iction, Versal, Flapperhouse, and elsewhere. His debut novel, Lars Breaxface: Werewolf in Space — an irreverent sci-fi monster adventure — was released in October 2019 from Spaceboy Books. He lives in Pittsburgh, PA.

Three Questions

GMM: Hey, Brandon. It was great to meet you on my last trip to Pittsburgh. I am officially a Lars Breaxface fan. Werewolves are some of my favorite monsters, but I don’t ever recall reading about a werewolf in space. It’s funny. It’s main character is a werewolf. And, it’s a space opera to boot. Where does the inspiration for a book like this come from? Aside from the fragment you sent, can we expect more stories about Lars?

BG: Great to meet you too! Werewolves have always been one of my favorite monsters as well – when I was a kid, second grade, I drew comic books with a superhero team based on my friends, and my character was literally a just a werewolf called Wolfman. The inspiration for Lars Breaxface came from so many places – from all the sci-fi and horror movies I watched when I was a kid, cartoons, comic books, all of my favorite things. I thought up the title years ago as a spoof, along with the tagline “In space, there’s always a full moon.” When I was finally ready to sit down and write a novel, I decided to run with the most ridiculous idea I’d ever had, and to infuse it with as much fun as possible – and that turned into this ridiculous novel. You can definitely expect more Lars adventures in the future. In fact, one will be available next month as part of The Future Will Be Written by Robots, from Spaceboy Books, the publisher of Lars Breaxface: Werewolf in Space. Lars fights some zombies.

GMM: We talked a little bit about MFA programs when we spoke, and if I remember correctly, you mentioned that you have a traditional MFA in Writing. My MFA is a bit more specific than that, it’s an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. As an undergrad and grad student in English, my fiction was often criticized by my professors for mirroring genre fiction, which they didn’t consider “serious” fiction. Did you have a similar experience in your MFA program? What are your thoughts on the belief that genre fiction isn’t considered valid fiction within academia?

BG: Genre fiction was definitely a no-go in my MFA; it was explicitly stated, with the stale cliché that “genre focuses on plot, literary focuses on character.” Which is a way of dismissing whole universes of popular, imaginative fiction as silly raygun bullshit while also saying “In our stories, nothing has to happen and that’s totally cool.” It’s nonsense to think genre fiction doesn’t focus on characters – try reading N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy and believing Essun’s character isn’t at the heart of the story. Any good example of genre fiction – science fiction, horror, mystery, romance – has complex characters and good sentence and story craft, as well as plot. Genre stories just happen to be operating according to certain sets of established parameters; working within them as well as twisting them or directly contradicting them, in order to tell new and interesting tales. I do think that academia is moving past the “genre fiction isn’t literary” mindset – so many “literary” writers have dabbled in genre or gone full-hog, like Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon, Thomas Pynchon, Haruki Murakami, etc. Literary fiction is just another genre, with its own set of tropes. Here’s hoping more MFAs these days are judging stories by how well crafted they are, not by which sign they would be shelved under in a bookstore.

GMM: As I mentioned, werewolves are some of my favorite monsters. But, I really like vampires. Your take on the space vampires is interesting, especially giving them their own planet. Where do your vampires fit in within the evolution of vampires in fiction? Your female space vampire is a strong character with a serious backstory. Are there other fictional vampires you would compare her to, or is she in a class by herself?

BG: I’m going to admit something here: when I first introduced Jay in chapter 2, I didn’t know she was a vampire! I wrote the first draft of Lars Breaxface as a serial online, posting a chapter more or less each week. After I wrote chapter 2, I realized how vampire-ish the description of her was and decided to develop her as part of an alien-vampire race. I also presented myself with the challenge to include as many alien versions of classic monsters as possible (final tally: werewolf, vampire, gill-man, Frankenstein’s monster, witch, zombie, mummy, kraken, kaiju). I’d like to think Jay is in a class by herself – she’s from a night planet with a nega-sun and moon-drenched shores just like the planet of Transsexual; she’s got blood-magic powers, and she can walk around in UV just fine. As with much of Lars Breaxface, I tried to use tropes and expectations to my advantage but also to subvert them and weird them up as much as possible. My guess is Jay isn’t too far off from some of the imaginings of Guillermo Del Toro, but so far, her particular brand of vamp feels unique to me.

“Lars Breaxface and the Turd Supreme,” by Brandon Getz

By the time Lars stumbled back to Sheila, his trusty starcruiser, the first bottle of Kiraldi moonshine was long empty, a second one left open on the bar, and the slobbering bartender a few credits richer for his trouble. Dragon water was a wild ride. Orbs of light seemed to disco at the edges of his vision. His brain was pickled. He forgot what he’d been drinking to forget, whatever it was, all he could remember was the bartender’s big, scraggly mouth opening wide with a laugh, the moonshine glowing green on his thick tongue, throat looking like the tunnel to hell and suddenly turning a good time sour.

In the cargo hold of the cruiser, Lars kicked floor trash out of his way and staggered toward the head. His guts churned something wicked. His asshole puckered. A sharp pain zapped his belly, and the wolfman fell against a shipping crate. Holy hell, he thought, steadying himself. This was no joke. Maybe the worst poop pain he’d had, and he’d eaten gas station chimichangas from that dead-end spinner out by Terbius-IX. This was a singular intestinal malevolence, doing cartwheels toward his butthole. He cursed when he saw that the door to the head was shut. The threat in his digestive system was making him weak, but he managed to bang his fist a couple of times on the steel door.

“Fish!” he shouted. “Cut the beauty regimen. Emergency out here. I need to pinch a loaf. Shit, I gotta pinch the whole fucking bakery.”

The door slid open, and the amphibious former dildo salesman stood frowning. Since their interdimensional adventure to and from the vampire planet, Fishman had been bumming a ride on Sheila, hawking homemade lube in the spaceports they docked at, using Lars’s toothbrush, and generally taking up space on the ship. Most of the time it was fine. Right now, Lars wished he’d left the amphibian in the ruins of vamp city.

“Breaxface,” Fish said. “If you must know, I was voiding my bladder.”

“You don’t vacate the facilities in the next half second, I’ll void you and your bladder out the fucking airlock.”

Fish’s big eyes widened, and Lars shouldered past him, sending the fish-man stumbling into the corridor muttering obscenities. The wolfman slammed the door, yanked down his trousers, and slumped onto the cold rim of the shitter, letting loose a massive excremental explosion that splashed back up and still kept spraying. His stomach dropped, lurched, dropped again like some funhouse attraction. He doubled over, ass still spraying. The shit-torrent emptying from his bowels couldn’t be chalked up to regular beer squirts. Maybe this was what the barkeep had meant when he said “riding the dragon.” If so, the dragon was a poop demon, and the space werewolf was rendered prostrate in defecating prayer.

From the door came Fish’s voice, squeaking questions. “Lars? Are you all right? Lars?”

“F-forget it, Fishman,” Lars croaked. “Just dropping a deuce.”

He closed his eyes and pushed. Never again, man. No more weird rando glowing firewater from the armpit of the cosmos. Just beer. Regular-ass beer. Another splash in the bowl, and he opened his eyes to reach back for courtesy flush—only to see that the bowl itself was glowing beneath him, green light silhouetting his hanging meat and marbles. The same radioactive brightness he’d seen in the barkeep’s bottle of moonshine. He felt a tickle on his grundle and reached for some t.p. That fucking bartender. Probably his idea of a joke. Lars started to stand for a wipe—

And then he was wrenched up, tripping on the pants around his ankles, head slamming into the corner of the steel sink. Blood, wet and warm, fell over his eye as Lars reached for leverage to stand up. Fucking hell. Even as his wolf blood worked to heal the gash, he knew it’d leave a scar. He made a note to put some padding on the sink edge. Wasn’t the first time he’d tripped over dropped trousers. As he grabbed the blood-slick sink, the mirror came into view, and the wolfman almost shit himself—might’ve, if there’d been anything in him left to shit. Rising from the brown-spattered toilet bowl was a monster of a thousand worms, a conglomerate of writhing little bodies, all glowing toxic green and shifting in tandem to make one large, swaying worm of death, a vermicular god of the shitter.

“The fuck?” Lars muttered, trying to wrench up his military-surplus dungarees.

The worms making up the head of the monster formed themselves into a gaping mouth and spoke. “We are the dragon.”

Do you have a fiction fragment — with or without werewolves — that you’d like to share? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: Lucy A. Snyder

Last week, I talked with writer and film maker, Jeff Carroll, about Hip Hop horror and sci-fi fiction. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Lucy A. Snyder. I met Lucy while earning my MFA in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University. She was my second mentor in the program. Her guidance, support, and dark sense of humor helped me finish writing my thesis novel and I couldn’t be happier with the results.

Lucy4Lucy A. Snyder is the Shirley Jackson Award-nominated and five-time Bram Stoker Award-winning author of over 100 published short stories and 12 books. Her most recent titles are the collection Garden of Eldritch Delights and the forthcoming novel The Girl With the Star-Stained Soul. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Asimov’s Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, Nightmare Magazine, Pseudopod, Strange Horizons, and Best Horror of the Year. You can learn more about her at www.lucysnyder.com and you can follow her on Twitter at @LucyASnyder.

Three Questions

GMM: You mentioned that this fragment is from a novel that is being serialized at Eyedolon Magazine. Is the process of writing and submitting chapters of a novel as you complete them easier than submitting a completed novel? What is the writing process like? Are you typically a linear writer? What have you learned from this experience?

LAS: In some ways it’s harder, but in some ways it’s easier. One advantage to submitting a novel a chapter or two at a time is that I have to maintain good plot tension for every section I submit. It’s a built-in way of avoiding middle-of-the-book narrative sag! Another advantage is that I get regular editorial feedback, so if something seems to be going off the rails I get questions about that and I can address potential problems early before they’re entrenched.

A disadvantage is that I’m 75% a plotter, but 25% a discovery writer. One thing I discovered, ten chapters in, is that I needed another major character. Fortunately, I was able to introduce her in a way that would make sense to the readers who’d been following the serial, but I also went back and edited the existing novel to foreshadow her arrival so that she’s a presence from the very first chapter.

I am typically a linear writer; I think writing a serial would be much harder if I were not. Or anyway I’d probably need to finish much more of the novel ahead of time. Right now, Broken Eye Books is pretty much publishing sections as I complete them, although I’ll probably get further ahead in coming months because of the limitations of their publishing schedule.

GMM: What is a Lovecraftian space opera? Can you define the elements of this cross genre? Are there any tropes that readers of science fiction can easily identify? What makes a piece of fiction Lovecraftian?

LAS: It’s pretty much what it says on the tin: it’s a space opera with Lovecraftian themes.

Space opera, which has become more popular in recent years, is a science fictional narrative set in space (or on other planets) that focuses on adventure, epic battles, futuristic technology, etc. Star Wars is space opera, for instance. So it should be a fairly familiar subgenre to most readers!

Lovecraftian fiction refers to stories or novels that use elements from Lovecraft’s fiction, particularly aspects of the Cthulhu mythos he created. Look for references to Elder Gods, tentacled horrors, madness-inducing knowledge, cosmic terrors, cults, fish gods, and general doom for mankind. Lovecraft’s influences have worked their way into a whole lot of science fiction and horror. Stranger Things has some strong Lovecraftian themes in it, and The Shape of Water contains several nods to Lovecraft’s work.

In my novel, the narrative takes place after the spawn of Azathoth (a deep-space deity in the Cthulhu mythos) invade Earth and wreak a variety of horrors. My protagonists, Joe and Bea, were physically and psychologically transformed by their experiences with the spawn, and they’ve been sent into space as part of a special mission to hunt down the spawn’s hives on other planets and destroy them to eliminate any further threat to our planet.

GMM: Over the past several years, there has been quite a bit of controversy over whether or not we should be honoring the work of H. P. Lovecraft due to his racist beliefs. How do you approach a piece of fiction that mimics the work of Lovecraft and make it something wholly your own as someone who is very much against racism?

LAS: I’ve written a lot of stories and several novels that are inspired by and are in dialog with Lovecraft’s fiction. That’s a different thing than mimicking or honoring his fiction. I am often inspired by things that appall me or anger me.

Lovecraft’s fiction, like Lovecraft himself, is complicated. Yes, there is a whole lot of xenophobia and racism — so much, in fact, that I’ve heard some critics claim that you can’t separate xenophobia from Lovecraft’s work. My take on that is that it’s entirely possible to write a piece of Lovecraftian fiction that doesn’t contain a trace of xenophobia. Or, you could write a narrative that addresses his racism directly and critically, as Victor LaValle does in The Ballad of Black Tom, which is a razor-sharp response to Lovecraft’s most notoriously racist story (“The Horror at Red Hook”). But LaValle’s novella also employs plenty of the kind of mind-blowing cosmic horror that made Lovecraft’s work memorable in the first place.

Lovecraft himself openly borrowed a whole lot of ideas from other writers: Lord Dunsany, Ambrose Bierce, M.R. James, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Edgar Allan Poe, and Robert Chambers (Ramsey Campbell’s gonna argue with me about the influence Chambers had; regardless, Chambers’ King in Yellow mythos has been absorbed into the Cthulhu mythos). Lovecraft in turn encouraged his writer friends to work with his worlds and he collaborated with other authors. So Lovecraftian fiction is much more than what Lovecraft himself wrote, and it’s been that way from the beginning.

I think of Lovecraftian fiction as a microcosm of genre fiction as a whole. We can all point to classic horror or science fiction stories that are racist, ableist, misogynistic … or just plain horribly written. Those cringey parts are not a reason to abandon those genres. They’re a reason to read the classics critically, identify why they’re awful … but also why they captured people’s imaginations in the first place. And then it’s on us to take the good, engage critically with the bad, and use that as a jumping-off place to write even better stories and novels for our readers.

Excerpt from Blossoms Blackened Like Dead Stars, by Lucy A. Snyder

I rest my hand on the wrapped, dormant root ball as the autopiloted shuttle glides into the docking bay of the USS Flechette. The bay walls and deck are matte gray tarakium, same as all the other ships in the fleet. My dreams are turning this color. The shuttle lands with barely a bump, and after the clack of the pressure lock disengaging, the rear door slowly lowers with a hydraulic hiss. I unbuckle my flight harness and walk down the ramp, my booted steps light in the artificial gravity.

This is my first command. I feel a mix of pride and dread about being here, and I don’t even properly know where “here” is, at least not in relation to Earth. There’s only so much I can know about my own missions, just in case I’m compromised. Nobody tells me I can’t ever be fully trusted, but distrust is baked into every scenario I or any of the other “enhanced” personnel are involved with. And frankly, I don’t know if they can trust us, either.

It’s chilly on the flight deck, which is fine. Extreme temperatures don’t bother me nearly as much as they used to. The doctors tested me extensively after my transformation, and we discovered that I can handle temperatures of about 60°C without passing out and −10°C without suffering serious hypothermia or frostbite.

My spawn-hybridized cells produce a new polypeptide that acts as antifreeze in my blood and tissues. For one test, they entombed me in solid ice for over an hour. I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. Never lost consciousness thanks to my cells doing some dark-cycle chemosynthesis that produced enough oxygen to keep my brain working. If that sounds like a fun afternoon . . . it really, really wasn’t. Cold that doesn’t kill me still hurts plenty, and it turns out I’m more claustrophobic than I thought. But since there wasn’t enough air to breathe, there wasn’t enough air for me to start screaming, so I emerged from the frosty coffin with my dignity intact. I’ve gotten good at coping with whatever they do to me in the name of science or safety. I’ll certainly encounter worse out in space with the spawn; there is only so much evil that the human mind is capable of imagining.

There’s concern that the polypeptide might build up and damage my internal organs over time, but the only thing to do about it is wait and see. Nobody has any real idea of what condition my body will be in even a year from now. The unspoken worry, obviously, is that I’ll transform into a spawn and kill everyone around me. Betray everyone in the name of Azathoth.

Of course, my spore-laden breath means I’m likely to kill people purely by accident. But I’m far too useful to lock away in a research lab, and so far, I’ve passed all the psych evals. The brass decided to give me command of my own small ship, point me at the spawn, and hope for the best.

Eight android drones stand at attention on the flight deck, patiently waiting for me. They’re all the same drab, clay-white Boston Dynamics Xenophon model, clunky looking but dexterous. Each has a differently colored stripe around their torso so people can tell them apart when they’re turned around. Some have metallic colors, and I’m guessing that they hold mission-critical roles. Their human pilots’ faces are mapped onto the curved tarakium screens on their heads. The crewmembers are stationed light years away on warships or stations, linked to the drones by the new quantum paired network. They’re certain to lose their connections during hyperspace jumps, and I’ll probably never know where any of my crew actually are.

The irony of my command is that my crew will always know more about the brass’s plans than I do. One of them—I don’t know who—is authorized to take over the ship the moment I show signs of compromise. The situation would probably frustrate a lot of other commanders, but I never expected to be in charge of a ship. I had to take an alarmingly compressed command school curriculum in between the godawful medical tests. Honestly, I’m glad someone here is qualified to run things in case shit gets real. I’d have a raging case of impostor syndrome if I’d deliberately chosen any of this.

A human lieutenant commander stands behind the line of drones. My sole crewmate during jumps. I blink. At first glance, I thought he was wearing some kind of dark protective gear, but he isn’t. He towers a head above the androids, and his skin is crocodile rough, blackened as if he’s been charred by a fire. Is he even human? He’s wearing a short-sleeved uniform, and his arms, neck, and face look as if he’s been torn apart and put back together with steel staples.

As I stare, trying to make sense of what I’m seeing, recognition dawns. “Joe?”

His grisly face splits into a smile. “Yep, it’s me. Good to see you, Bea.”

“What happened?” I blurt before I can stop myself.

He gives a laugh like stones grinding together. “Long story. Let me introduce you to your Alpha crew.”

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

The Zen of Lawn Care

This past weekend, I decided to tackle a project I had been putting off for weeks. Saturday morning I got up early, made coffee, put on enough clothing to not be indecent, and went outside to make my backyard more presentable. If it were up to me, I might let the yard go completely wild and see what plants choose to make their home there. But, there’s a rule in my renter’s agreement that states I am responsible for cutting the grass.

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Contained wilderness.

To be fair, my lawn is not huge by any stretch of the imagination. And, my property management company provided me with a manual push mower when I moved in six years ago.

Mower

I sharpened the blades myself and still have all of my fingers.

I think I used this potentially hazardous contraption once or twice after I moved in. That same summer, while I was working on my MFA, writing my first novel, adjusting to life in my hometown after living in a city for 16 years, learning the ropes at a new job, figuring out how to get divorced, becoming a single parent, and dealing with the inevitability of my dad’s death, I got a call from my property management company because they thought my grass was too high. No, seriously. Someone who works for them literally drives around checking to see if people are cutting their grass. After cursing a blue streak about how fucking ridiculous it is to hold ADULTS accountable for cutting grass on some imaginary timeline, I came to my senses and accepted the fact that I couldn’t possibly do all of the things I was juggling AND care about lawn maintenance. The height of your grass shouldn’t be cause for anxiety. If it is, you may want to re-examine your life and look for another source of meaning.

For most of the time I have lived in this house, I have paid a man in my neighborhood $10 a week to cut my grass. Albert, and usually one of his sons, would show up bright and early on a Saturday or Sunday morning (depending on Albert’s full-time job schedule) and mow the lawn in about 10-15 minutes. They’d cut the grass, whack weeds along the fence, and occasionally make suggestions about what should or shouldn’t be allowed to grow in my yard.

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My backyard is essentially a plush carpet of weeds.

One of my favorite plants that grows wild in my yard each year, is morning glory. According to Wikipedia, the species growing in my backyard is the Ipomoea nil, or Japanese Morning Glory.

Morning_Glories

A staple of unintentional urban gardening.

I look forward to seeing the lush green leaves and dainty purple flowers each year. According to the website Useful Tropical Plants, “Japanese morning glory is a climbing, herbaceous annual or perennial plant producing stems that either twine into other plants for support or sprawl along the ground.”

Morning_Glories_2

Not only is this plant lovely, but it obscures the view of the neighbors I dislike.

The Japanese Morning Glory lives in harmony next to another weed that grows in my yard: Pokeweed. The dark purple, almost black berries complement the purple flowers and I enjoy watching the snaking tendrils entwine themselves with the pokeweed that grows 3 – 4 feet high next to my fence.

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These berries are poisonous. No matter how delicious they look, do not eat them

One year, Albert decided that I didn’t need these beautiful wild plants and used a weed killer to destroy most of the growth. I typically don’t plant anything in my yard, except in pots — flowers or herbs. So, after he sprayed the toxic plant killer, my yard looked barren. I got really pissed about it, because he didn’t ask me if I wanted him to do it. He assumed he knew better than me and made a decision about MY yard. It was the gardening equivalent of mansplaining. The following year, I told him to just cut the grass and trim the borders of the yard. He asked me three times if I was sure.

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This year, I decided not to make use of his services. Now, it’s up to me to cut the grass, weed, rake, and whatever else I need to do to avoid a phone call from my stupid property management company.

I spent nearly 4 hours in my backyard on Saturday. Using the manual push mower was extra work, and I began to think about the fact that there isn’t anyone else in my life to share the day-to-day labor. I feel the same way every time I have to shovel the sidewalk and dig out my car after a big snow. I often think that it would be nice to have someone to help me, or just do those things for me. But, as I worked my mind wandered. It wandered through the usual things I worry about. It wandered through fears I have about possible futures. And then, my mind wandered into the realm of questions and creativity. It occurred to me that I usually drown out my own thoughts with background noise like music, audio books, or the TV. Saturday, I chose not to listen to outside noise and listened to my own thoughts instead.

I tried to remember the dreams I’d had the night before. I thought about possible story arcs for my next book. I thought about how fortunate I am to be meeting so many new and interesting people, and why I believe some of them were sent to me so I can learn more about myself and grow. (Thank you, Universe.) I thought about why I’m not making more of an effort to take better care of myself. I thought about how the hell I was going to write all the things I’ve agreed to write over the past few weeks and months. And, I thought about the fact that there are so many opportunities ahead of me — personally, professionally, and creatively. I thought about adapting a series of paranormal romances I’ve been trying to finish into a graphic novel or comic series that an artist friend of mine would illustrate. I thought about how excited I am about attending my first Camp Necon in July. I thought about what I would talk about with my friend Megan if we started a podcast. I thought about making drapes. I thought about applying what I had learned from Marie Kondo in order to lighten my material object load. I thought about first kisses and the awkwardness of being naked with someone for the first time. I thought about how wonderful and terrifying the prospect of falling in love can be.

And, I thought about my grandfather. I thought about all the hours he spent taking care of his own lawn. I thought about how much time he must have spent alone with his own thoughts. I wondered if he used that time to solve problems, or gain a better understanding of the people he loved and the world around him. I wondered if all that time working with his hands, caring for his own yard, alone with his thoughts, was the reason he always seemed to have such amazing insight into human behavior. I thought about how much I miss him, and I wondered if he would be proud of my accomplishments. I shed a few tears, and then I got back to work.

When I was done, I treated myself to a beer like my grandfather used to do, and enjoyed the beauty of my freshly mowed and weeded lawn.

Beer

I think I inadvertently created a sacred space.

My lawn will never be immaculate enough to be featured in Better Homes and Gardens, but it’s a space where I can think and work with my hands until I am too tired to do anything else. Something I had been dreading and putting off became one of the best meditative experiences I’ve had in a long time. I made peace with my thoughts and feelings, and completed a task that left me with a real sense of accomplishment. I’m sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere about finishing writing projects.

Invisible Chains: My Debut Novel

Michelle-LaneFor those of you who missed the news, my debut novel, Invisible Chains, will be released into the world July 22, 2019 by Haverhill House Publishing. If you’re as excited about this news as I am, you can pre-order a copy on Amazon, and while you’re there, you can check out my fancy new Amazon Author Page. Even though I’ve had my short fiction published, having my first novel published makes me feel like a bonafide author. See, I even have an author photo.

That’s great, Michelle, but what is your book about?

I’m glad you asked.

Jacqueline is a young Creole slave in antebellum New Orleans.  An unusual stranger who has haunted her dreams since childhood comes to stay as a guest in her master’s house. Soon after his arrival, members of the household die mysteriously, and Jacqueline is suspected of murder.  Despite her fear of the stranger, Jacqueline befriends him and he helps her escape. While running from the slave catchers, they meet conjurers, a loup-garou, and a traveling circus of supernatural freaks.  She relies on ancestral magic to guide her and finds strength to conquer her fears on her journey.

Oh, and here is the beautiful cover art designed by the very talented Errick Nunnally.

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As many of you know, writing can be a difficult and solitary pursuit. And, if your goal is to have your work published, the stages of writing, editing, rewriting, editing again, and submitting can feel like a never-ending climb up a hill while pushing a giant rock covered in your own entrails. Plus, if you submit and get nothing but rejections it sometimes seems like a good idea to just give up and find a different way to torture yourself.

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Can I tell you a secret? I’m glad I didn’t give up.

Believe me, I thought about giving up. I thought about giving up a lot. But this story lived inside me for a long time and it refused to be abandoned. This multi-genre slave narrative began its life as a short story back in the early 2000s and had a very different ending. That short story shared space on a thumb drive, untouched  with other abandoned writing projects, for several years. I mean, I would pull it out from time to time and read it but I never did anything with it until I applied to the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction (WPF) program at Seton Hill University (SHU).

Attending SHU was one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made. And, one of the scariest. At 40, I was completely dissatisfied with my life. I had a job I was on the verge of burning out on, I was unhappily married, and I was primarily responsible for raising my son who had begun to show signs of behavioral problems at daycare and school. I was the primary bread winner, I took care of the house, paid the bills, maintained social connections with friends and family, and one day I realized I was living my life for other people instead of living it for myself.

I began making a mental inventory of the things that brought me joy, and at the top of that list was writing. Writing was something I had done all my life. And, when I was writing I was happier. I started unearthing some of my unfinished short stories and realized they weren’t terrible. And then, I wondered what would happen if I took myself seriously as a writer. I made the decision to apply to SHU after asking a friend about the program. Jenda had nothing but good things to say about the program, and honestly, I think SHU should consider sending her a check each month for her excellent marketing skills.

My short story, “Freedom is in the Blood,” became Invisible Chains over the course of six years. Three years writing my thesis novel in the low residency MFA program, and three years of rewriting, editing, pitching, and submitting. In the process of writing the novel, my protagonist evolved into a stronger character who stands up to monsters to make a better life for herself.

In many ways, my protagonist evolved with me as I made changes in my own life. Deciding to write this book was the first step towards reshaping my life on my own terms. I’ve encountered my share of set backs, obstacles, and people who behave like monsters, but like Jacqueline, I keep moving forward.

In the process of moving forward, I’ve made new friends, reconnected with old friends, and built stronger relationships with the people who cheered me on through the highs and lows of writing this book. They’re good people. And I couldn’t have survived the process without their love and support.

I am very fortunate to be included in such diverse and supportive writing communities like the HWA and as an SHU alumna. And, of course, I wouldn’t be able to brag about getting my book published if I had never met the Editor-in-Chief of Haverhill House Publishing, John M. McIlveen.

I met John last year at StokerCon™ 2018 in Providence, RI. I pitched Invisible Chains to him, a book that took close to five years to write, in about ten minutes. And, much to my surprise, after babbling at him in what I believed to be incoherent nonsense, he said he’d be interested in reading it. That was the first spark of hope, and it has been one pleasant experience after the next working with John and Haverhill House Publishing.

Well, now the book is written and available for pre-order. The hardback edition will be available July 22, 2019. In the meantime, I have a stack of proofs that I would very much like to get into the hands of book reviewers and people who would be willing to blurb the book. If you or someone you know might be a good fit for a book like this, let me know and I’ll reach out to them.

What’s next, you may ask? I don’t know, but I suspect I might have to write another book.

Fiction Fragments: R. J. Joseph

Last week, Girl Meets Monster talked with Glenn Rolfe about the challenges of writing Splatterpunk. This week, R. J. Joseph is here to talk about what it means to be a woman of color writing horror.

Author Central PicR. J. Joseph is a Texas based writer and professor who must exorcise the demons of her imagination so they don’t haunt her being. A life-long horror fan and writer of many things, she has finally discovered the joys of writing creatively and academically about two important aspects of her life: horror and black femininity.

When R. J. isn’t writing, teaching, or reading voraciously, she can usually be found wrangling one or six of various sprouts and sproutlings from her blended family of 11…which also includes one husband and two furry babies.

R. J. can be found lurking (and occasionally even peeking out) on social media:
Twitter: @rjacksonjoseph
Facebook: facebook.com/rhonda.jacksonjoseph
Facebook official: fb.me/rhondajacksonjosephwriter
Instagram: @rjacksonjoseph
Blog: https://rjjoseph.wordpress.com/
Email: horrorblackademic@gmail.com
Amazon Author Page: amazon.com/author/rjjoseph

Three Questions

GMM: As a woman of color writing about black and queer characters, what obstacles have your faced when writing within the horror genre? When did you decide you were a horror writer? What influenced or inspired you to write horror stories about women of color?

RJJ: I’ve been a lifelong horror fan. I was a small child devouring horror comics, Twilight Zone, and Stephen King novels, well before I could understand any of the themes these stories presented. The horror genre appeals to my naturally dark nature, which was apparent and already well entrenched by the time I was 6 or 7 years old. I always questioned why the folks in the genre I loved so much didn’t look like me, from the writers to the actors to the characters in the books. I wanted to be the monster. I figured creating the monsters was the next best thing, so I had to write them. I started then, even though I didn’t always embrace that part of my writing persona. I couldn’t imagine not writing about the world I inhabited and navigated, a black female experiencing life through this lens. I wasn’t seeing these stories and I had to fill the void.

I wanted to be the monster.

I appreciate that you frame this question in a way that shows you know we have obstacles. They aren’t a figment of our imagination or a quest for race-baiting and creating issues. One of the biggest problems I have is in always wondering why stories are accepted or rejected. I know my writing isn’t perfect and I still have so much growth to experience within my craft, but sometimes I get rejections that just don’t offer any clarity, not even the blanket forms where the spaces between the words don’t reek of any additional interpretation. Sometimes, though, what isn’t said speaks volumes. I get that editors don’t have time to give personalized rejections all the time. But I always go back and read the publications I submit to so I can see which stories made the cut. Reading what was ultimately accepted can be excruciating. So many times, I wish the editors would have just said, “We don’t know what to do with you, blackity black woman, or your blackity black characters with their blackity black fears”. That would make me feel so much better.

I once had an editor explain to me at a book launch for an anthology one of my stories appeared in that he didn’t want me to feel as if my story was a token acceptance because I’m a black woman. He made it a point to let me know he had read some of my previous work and thought my story for the anthology was great. I had to be professional and put on my Appreciative Writerly face, but I really wanted to hug him and cry. That meant so much to me, especially coming from a white male professional in the field. Unless the project is strictly for writers of color, I’m always wondering if the acceptance was just a diversity checkmark or really based on my story.

GMM: I wrote a supernatural slave narrative as my thesis novel at Seton Hill University, and I struggled with figuring out where it fit within a genre. The novel is due to be released sometime next year and I still struggle with that idea of where it belongs. What makes it a horror novel? The violence of slavery? The fact that my narrator is a witch and that her companion is a vampire?

How do you define your chosen genre or genres when you begin with characters that may not typically appear in those genres? Is there an absence of women of color in horror?

RJJ: First, I gotta read your novel! I need to know when pre-orders open. I absolutely love historical horror. That it has people of color and witches? Super plus. My answer to what makes this horror really loops back to another obstacle I try to navigate and that is not knowing where our work fits; really, not knowing where we fit. I would say your novel is an all-around horror novel because it’s rooted in the abject terror of slavery and there is a vampire. I don’t think all witches are necessarily monsters, though, so that’s debatable. Even without the supernatural characters, slavery is horror. Yet, there’s a clear hesitance to categorize this experience in this way because that would require owning up to the facts that 1. Slavery really happened; 2. There was nothing good about it; and 3. The repercussions are still felt today. Stuffing these topics into other corners like literary fiction (the way Beloved was first categorized) or creating a whole new category like urban fiction takes some of that responsibility away. If it isn’t called horror, then the events cannot be deemed horrible. So then when serial killer novels fill the horror shelves, I’m left to wonder why lynchings or slavery aren’t considered serial killings, too…

Black women horror writers have always been around, but there hasn’t always been a willingness of the industry to see us. I think we’ve just had our writing either flat out ignored or placed in different genres because we’re women. I’ve seen industry leaders say publicly that readers only want a certain kind of horror, or that every story/book acceptance is based solely on merit. Both of these prevailing responses mean gatekeepers are fine with keeping certain stories and writers out of the genre. The only thing that might help increase visibility is more gatekeepers of color and black female writers continuing to kick the doors in and create anyway. It’s astounding that the first black female horror anthology wasn’t published until 2017. A second followed this year. How is it that both books managed to locate numerous black female horror writers and yet other anthologies/magazines/publishers can hardly ever find any? What is not genuinely sought will never be found.

GMM: When I write about monsters, I have a habit of turning the relationships between monsters and my main female characters into romantic interests even though I write about dark subjects. Is there a connection between horror and romance in your mind? Do your characters fall in love with monsters? Why, or why not?

RJJ: I envy that you can blend romance and horror so effectively! My thesis at Seton Hill was a romance novel, and while I write in both genres, I’ve not yet mastered blending the two. I do think romance and horror exist on the same continuum, in that both genres evoke such extreme feelings in readers. My favorite series ever is the Vampire Huntress series by L. A. Banks. She intertwined horror and romance so expertly that I’ve never seen anything else quite like it. I make attempts. But I tried to submit a romance short story to a major market once and the editor replied that the story was well written but it was too dark. The monsters in my stories tend to be those created through no act of their own, so they are sort of tragic creatures for whom at least one other character has an affection and some sympathy. Full on romance, though…I still aspire to that.

Left Hand Torment (excerpt), by R. J. Joseph

RJJ Book CoverI was on door duty that evening, although we found we did not really need a protector. Most passersby tended not to notice our nondescript entryway in the worn down building. Even those who did notice it were deterred by the dark cloak of misery in our eyes. Despite my queerness and my race, those doorways to my soul that broadcast unspeakable rot allowed me kinship with the men inside. Her eyes held the same blackness, despite their light gray color, and it announced her as kindred, served as her password into the club. I let her in and followed her up the stairs, as my shift was done.

There was more to her life story than her eyes, apparently. The foulness of whatever tortured her spirit bubbled just underneath the surface of her being. Her dusky colored skin shone with determination and…fury. She glided ahead of me up the stairway and into the parlor, removing long white gloves as we walked. Severe burns covered both hands, the puckered skin reflecting in the lantern lights.

Even Whitson, the resident playboy, did not set his flirtations upon her. He simply asked her what she was drinking, the same as he did the rest of us. He often told us that he did not seek companionship with fellow sufferers. He said their beds were already too full with them and their demons.

“Bourbon, please.” The rich tones slid from her throat and escaped into the quiet murmur of the fifteen of us. She accepted her glass gracefully and settled herself into a chair close to the fireplace.

Not forgetting our Texas manners, we quieted down and allowed the lady the floor. I watched her take a sip from her glass.

“Merci.” She accented the appreciation with a brisk nod to the side. When she gazed back at us, the flames from the fire flickered around the shadows resting beneath the smoky orbs of her haunted eyes. She pulled her bonnet off and placed it on the table next to the chair. Kinky curly strands spilled down to her shoulders and the room gave a collective gasp as the flames caught the sandy tresses. This was the only acknowledgement we gave to her beauty that night.

Without preamble, she spoke, in accented tones. “My name is Dominique Aimee Beaulieu and I was born and reared in New Orleans. I had an ordinary childhood, if that as the daughter of a placee` on Rampart street could be called such. Papa and Maman loved me very much and I was a rather spoiled child. They loved each other, as well. I know Papa loved her more than he loved his wife. But he could not stay with us all the time. I once asked Maman why he had to leave and stay away so often and she explained to me that we could not be selfish and keep him all to ourselves. He had another family with whom he had to stay most of the time, but he was always thinking of us.

“Maman had a picture of a beautiful woman with blond hair and she often gazed wistfully at it when she thought Papa and I weren’t looking. I would ask her about the woman, whose features I saw staring back at me in the mirror, albeit through darker skin. Maman would evade the answer until I turned sixteen. When I finally got my answer, I also got the explanation for our way of life.

“‘This is my sister, your aunt. Papa’s other wife. He met me as he courted her and wanted me for his left hand wife. She knows about us but cannot acknowledge us publicly. But she must accept our existence. You are of courting age now. Papa will arrange for you to attend The Quadroon Ball next year, to find you a wealthy, white husband. Do not waste yourself frivolously on any colored man. Even if he has money, he can’t elevate your status or guarantee that your children will be free men.’

“She grabbed my hand. ‘Just take care to always respect your husband and do his bidding. Love and honor him despite the feelings of jealousy that will come when he takes another to wife. We are the wives they choose, when their other will be chosen for them through making familial alliances. These arrangements are our only way to freedom.’

“I didn’t understand why she beseeched me so dramatically on these points. Our system of placage was shocking enough to discover without her telling me I had to accept it, that I had few other choices. I knew nothing of love between a man and woman, but I could see the love between Maman and Papa. If it meant she had to share him with her sister, did that make it of any less value? Did that make me, the product of their left hand union, any less valuable? Of course, I would love my husband, legally bound or not, because of all the things I did not understand, there was one thing I knew and never wanted to change: my freedom.

She paused her story here, seeming to look at us for the first time. She turned her fierce gaze on each of us, one at a time, her fellow beasts of demonic burdens. She settled her gaze finally on me, the lone other woman in the group. I did not know how I understood that she knew my secret. My fellow club members knew and did not care. “You understand when I say fighting for one’s freedom is a frantic battle when losing means losing your personhood and often, your very life.”

I nodded in acquiescence. I did know what a constant fight for freedom to simply exist required. Dying was preferable to giving in to bondage of any kind, hence my membership there. These, my brothers in terror, did not make anything big over my masculine clothes and obviously feminine body. My haunted heart bore witness to more important things to them. The rest of the world did have problems with me, as soon as my “charade” was discovered. Explaining that this was who I am did nothing but result in a trail of bodies. Thus far, my own body did not increase those numbers.

Do you have a fragment of fiction you’re dying to share? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you soon!

Fiction Fragments: Elsa M. Carruthers

45359013_343895623027443_6852185627127971840_nLast week, Ryan DeMoss stopped by and shared a story about what lurks in the woods. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Elsa M. Carruthers.

Elsa is a speculative fiction writer, academic, and poet. She lives in California with her family. In 2011, she earned her MFA in Creative Writing and English from Seton Hill University. Since graduating, Elsa’s work has been published in several anthologies, magazines, and e-zines.

Elsa is an active member of HWA, RWA, SFPA, IAFA, and the Poetry Foundation. She regularly attends writing conventions and loves meeting new people!

Three Questions

GMM: Your story has a near future feeling to it, which I like, because what’s happening in the story feels like something that could be happening today with some slight nuances that set your story in the future, like the hint at the fact that vegetation of any kind if rare and expensive to maintain. As a speculative fiction writer, are you more likely to write about the future or alternate pasts? Which do you prefer and why?

EMC: Thank you. I tend to write present and near future more than anything else. I have written stories and two novel manuscripts set in the past, and it was challenging for me to keep the momentum going because I tend to worry about getting facts down correctly and respecting the sensibilities of the time, etc.

GMM: With the subtle inclusion of plant life being a rare commodity on what I assume to be a future Earth, does you story have a message about global warming? As a female writer, do your stories usually have a deeper meaning or hidden agenda? Can you avoid writing about current events and future worries given the state of the world we live in?

EMCI don’t think I write with an agenda in mind, but I definitely think my anxieties and concerns bleed through; especially in my horror stories. I worry about a lot of things: global warming, over-building, species endangerment, clean water… and that is just the environmental stuff.

GMM: What was the inspiration for this piece? Do you intend to finish it? Without giving too much away, what happens next? Do the two engineers form a closer bond?

EMCOne day I was walking around a neighborhood park and I saw a sign on a massive empty lot across the street. There were several foxes and a hare, I am sure owls and snakes around there too, and lots of native shrubs… a tiny wilderness in the middle of a big city, and they scraped it all bare to put down yet another shopping center. It made me sad and angry. I wished that plants could somehow reclaim some land, you know fight back without going Swamp Thing.

I do intend to finish it, and I am a closet die-hard romantic. He will have to earn her respect and then… the lights dim.

“The De-bugging of Arias Home Systems,” by Elsa M. Carruthers

Aaron’s back and shoulders hurt, but he couldn’t take a break until he traced the source of the corrupted code. Somehow, several houses in the Arias II complex had their default settings switched on. Worse, the default setting was a moss and ivy- covered brick ruins. The angry messages and calls came at such a pace that he’d had to assign his best systems engineers to run interference with the angry homeowners all night.

Celia called up to him from her desk. It was situated behind his in an otherwise plain, empty room. “Aaron, the default setting looks like it is locked in. I have run through each bit of code, and there are no patches… this is somehow organic to the programming.”

“What? No, we didn’t even have this as a model. Rustic cabin yes. Fallen-down building, no. What the hell? Run it again.”

“I am telling you, this isn’t a patch or a virus.”

Aaron turned to look at her, it was rightfully his ass on the line. He cried seniority to HR, and pulled the job out from under her, even though everyone knew she was the best engineer in the company. Calls to HR are supposed to be confidential, but everyone knew about it within an hour.

“Did you do this?”

Celia dropped her headset and glared at him. Her dark eyes pulled tight in anger. “I have been working in this for eight motherfucking years, cabrón. Why would I fuck it up? I have my name practically written all over this. I’d never work again. Don’t get me wrong, as soon as I can, I am going after you. Believe that. But this? Na-ah. I am not that petty.”

Aaron shook his head. She was right. He knew she was. He was about to say so, and tell her how much he wished he could take it all back, because he really did, when Micah let himself in.

“Jen wants to see you.” Micah smirked at Aaron. “Now.”

Aaron sighed. He was fucked. Micah had already pulled the flat-paneled door of the Systems Room open and stepped into the maze of hallway. Aaron watch Micah head toward the elevators without even a glace over his shoulder to see if Aaron followed. Jen was probably ensconced in her Penthouse office; this was very bad.

They rode in silence, but Aaron could feel Micah’s amused gaze on him. He clenched his jaw. He’d love to punch Micah’s smug, shit-eating face. Someday, he told himself. Someday.

They rode up and up, until they indeed reached the Penthouse. Up here, it was like another universe. Real plants, including orchids, grew out of wall gardens and giant concrete planters. There were dwarf trees that seemed to sprout out of the roof-top floor and not for the first time did Aaron marvel at the undoubtfully huge expense it was to reinforce the truces below, not to mention the constant care these plants needed. He never saw a gardener, but knew there had to be someone.

They wove through the courtyard to Jen’s office door. Micah cleared his throat and put his hand up, signaling to Aaron that he had to wait outside until called. He walked through the massive doorway and shut the door behind him.

“Condescending putz,” Aaron said under his breath.

Micah’s voice blasted from a speaker somewhere over the door. “I can hear you,” he sang. “Also, Jen says to give her a minute.”

Ten minutes later, Micah screamed out of the speaker. “SHE SAYS SHE IS READY NOW!” The giant door opened.

“Thank you, asshole,” Aaron sang back in the same tune Micah did before.

Aaron smoothed down his shirt, straightened his tie before stepping into the reception area. Micah pointed to the open French doors to Jen’s office. “Go on in. She’s waiting for you.”

Jen sat behind a massive Teak desk, probably from the last supply of Teak in the world. Her stilettoed feet were propped up on the right-side corner of her desk and Aaron did his best not to look up her skirt. It unsettled him, as it was probably meant to.

“Sit down Aaron,” Jen said. He sat in one of the two black sling-backed chairs and balanced himself on the edge of the seat to keep from sinking back into it like a hammock.

She laughed. “I can see that you don’t often sit in this type of chair. If it is more comfortable, you may stand. This won’t take long.”

He cleared his throat and waited for her to continue.

“I have cleared out the residents of Arias II, by giving them all resort passes to Juniper. I have also given a press release and offered a non-specific, non-legally binding apology for this inconvenience. That is what I have done. What you are going to do is fix this goddamned mess!”

She smoothed the lavender-lilac colored fringe of bangs from her forehead and pushed her red reading glasses up the bridge of her nose.

“You will fix this and find out how it happened in the first place! Also, you better make sure that this malware—”

“It isn’t malware as far as we can tell,” Aaron interrupted.

Jen gave him a withering look that made him want to crawl away and never come back. “Well, I suppose that is some good news. I want all of your logs, forward them to me through the internal server.” She waved at him to go.

Aaron made to go. He hesitated, wondering if he should mention that the code was somehow overwritten.

“Is there something else? Should I get Celia as point on this?” She goaded him.

“Nope, I am working with her and we’re making good progress.” He left without looking at her or Micah.

Back in his office, Celia was deep in thought behind her multiple monitors. He could see the lines of code reflected off her anti-glare glasses and he again wanted to tell her how sorry he was, how he respected her, how working with her, even though she hated him, was the best thing that ever happened to him. Instead, he sat down and got to work.

He couldn’t see that anything was wrong. And then, by accident, he noticed the code rewriting itself in sections. It was so subtle, the changes seemed like nothing, a vine instead of a tree in the front. And he wouldn’t have caught it all if he hadn’t actually watched a bit of code rewrite itself.

“Celia, it looks like it might be malware after all. I just saw a—”

“Uh-huh,” she said in a dreamy out of it voice. “I saw it too, trying to trace the little hijo de la chingada, but he is slick.”

Of course, she saw it first. He smiled to himself.

“I am thinking,” she said in the same far away voice, “that it isn’t just malware, but some sort of ransomware. Whoever this is, is chevere as fuck!” she said with real admiration. “Anyway,” she said without looking up, “what’d Jen have to say?”

He told her how she got people out and that she threatened to put Celia on the job, hoping that Celia wouldn’t rub it in too much. She surprised him by holding his gaze for a few seconds. “Look, I am only pissed because you could’ve won fair and square. Not that weaselly shit you pulled.”

“I know. I can’t even tell you how sorry I am.”

“Sorry don’t fix shit. Now you’ve got to earn your title. Don’t be such a huevón, and you will be like top five level. I mean, you’ll never be as good as me, but, hey, nobody can be.”

He smiled. “I’m going to order some food. Looks like I will be here a while, but you don’t have to be. You probably have things you want to do, and this is my mess.” He couldn’t possibly ask her to pull another all-nighter to save him, though he really wanted to.

“Nah, it is all right. I want those mini panini thingies and I am dying for some fries. Get that and I am good to go for a few more hours at least.”

Aaron texted the order. They ate as they worked. Aaron came close to smashing his keyboard several times. “Fuck! Every time I am close to stopping the changes, they just go around me. Who the fuck is this?”

Celia muttered something to herself. She was trying to trace the source of the hack. “Slippery fool, whoever it is.”

Just as she said that, Aaron’s commands no longer worked. He tried to override, nothing. “I can’t,” he said.

“Me either. This is bad. Very bad.”

Aaron’s hands shook, and his shirt stuck to him where the sweat bled through his undershirt. “Was this a distraction so that the hacker could clone the drivers?”

Celia stepped away from her bank of monitors. She rubbed the crease between her eyes and pursed her lips. “The whole program is hijacked. I’m not even sure we can do a Systems Restore.” She squatted in front of her backpack and pulled out an external drive. “We can try to reroute; use this to—”

“You’re a genius!”

“I know,” she said and winked. Celia placed the external drive on her desk. Aaron touched her arm.

“You don’t have to stay. You’re in the clear for this, I will take the fall.”

Celia looked at him up and down. “Nope, I am taking this hijo or hija out!” She plugged it in and was immediately confronted with firewall after firewall. They weren’t failproof, just annoying and time-wasting.

“You see this? This is old school right here.”

Aaron saw it. The ransomware hid on the OS and then replicated itself in file after file. “You know your external drive is toast now too, right?”

“Ah mierda, I didn’t think of that.” She sighed. “I am so tired.”

“I hate to say it, but I think we’re done.” Aaron tried to do a System Restore, figuring that they could rebuild the destroyed coding, but he saw that even as he typed, the hacker had full control.

“I’m iced-out,” he said to Celia.

“Me too,” she said and threw her headset across the room. “Carajo!”

“It’s okay. I’ll figure something out.” But he wasn’t even fooling himself.

All their monitors flashed, then went black. They stood in silence, each watching the dead monitors. Several seconds went by. Neither of them spoke though Aaron knew Celia must be feeling as helpless and frustrated as he did.

The screens turned back on. It looked like a manual reboot, but then Aaron and Celia’s faces were on the screens.

“That was like a few minutes ago.” Aaron’s throat went dry. The hacker customized the malware and had complete remote access control of the computers. But why show them the pictures? Why not leave the monitors off instead of teasing them?

Celia still stared at the screens as she spoke. “What are they trying to tell us?”

“I think it is a tease. We should go down to the server room and see if we can do something from there.” He made to pat her shoulder and stopped himself. She wasn’t some employee working overtime. She was the only person who could help. And he’d better put any romantic ideas he had away.

I haven’t confirmed a guest for next week, so next’s week is a mystery. Do you have a fragment you’re dying to share with the Interwebs? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: Ryan DeMoss

44177254_1912898445465481_749535689380462592_nLast week, David X. Wiggin joined Girl Meets Monster and shared a fragment about an alternate dimension where birds are our overlords. This week, my friend and fellow SHU alum, Ryan DeMoss joins me to talk about the trap of genre and what really scares him.

R.D. DeMoss has an MA in English and an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. He has won awards for his short fiction and is continually working on his long fiction. He also teaches college-level composition in Washington and lives with a wonderful dog.

Three Questions

GMM: The scene you shared is a little scary. Is this a horror story or fantasy? A little of both? Which genre do you prefer? Why?

RDDI usually get lumped into horror, but my favorite stories are usually not defined by a single genre. Those are the stories I want to write. I’ve also found that the scariest horror books often have more hope to them than we assume, and cheerful books often have more chills than we want to admit. In other words, I see this scene as part of a coming-of-age tale, but it has its share of darkness. Then again, doesn’t life?

GMM: I know that you like to spend time outdoors. Living in Washington State must give you plenty of opportunities to get out into Nature. What was the weirdest or scariest thing you ever saw while hiking in the woods?

RDDI am certainly no mountain man, and I don’t think I have any experiences people would consider scary in the typical sense of a horror story. However, in my experience, the real terror of the outdoors is how easily and quickly situations change. I once did a hike in Hawaii that had a stone with dozens of etchings—a counter of deaths the trail had seen. On that same hike, in a muddy area, my friend slipped and started over the edge of a cliff. We laughed and called it a close call, but that fine line between a close call and tragedy terrifies me.

GMM: What made you stop writing this story? Do you plan to finish it? Without revealing too much, what happens next?

RDDI do actually have an ending to this story. I’m not sure if it’s the right ending, but it’s an ending. As I mentioned, I see this as a coming-of-age story, and when Finch finishes his plan, Tyler learns that not everything in life can be explained. The fine line between rationality and chaos is thinner than kids are led to believe, and adults spend their whole lives trying to understand the events that blur the borders. In the ending I have, Tyler spends his whole life waiting for the next time the chaos will cross into his rational world.

Excerpt from “Tell Me a Lie”, by R.D. DeMoss

Finch’s house bordered a green space that stretched on for half a mile before breaking at the highway. We’d explored the area a few times before but always with full daylight, which must have been why the woods seemed different that evening. Orange rays of the setting sun trickled and fell over the tips of the evergreens. Under their branches, shadows stretched onto the lawn, and an unseasonably cool breeze swirled through the leaves and swept over me, chilling the bare skin of my arms and legs. Somewhere, in a distant subdivision, a lawnmower buzzed.

The sun’s light seemed to almost vanish as we stepped under the boughs of the trees. Finch’s figure became a lean silhouette as I hurried to keep up with him. Fallen branches scraped my ankles, and a few times, I almost fell face first into the muddy trail. Each time I gathered my balance, Finch’s shape blurred a little more until he vanished, leaving only the sharp dark arcs of brush behind.

“Finch?” I called, but received no answer. A bird cooed somewhere high above me. The ground seemed to exhale a frigid gust of damp earthy smells, and I shivered. “Finch?”

In the darkness, someone whispered.

I said, “Finch, it’s getting cold. We need to go back.”

Another whisper.

My voice hid in my chest, but as I stepped closer, I forced out faint words. “Is that you?”

Finch grabbed my arm and pulled me behind a tree. “It’s behind you.” He pushed his finger to his lips, telling me to be quiet.

Out of the brush stepped a figure my mind couldn’t process at first. Maybe it was just a trick of the dim lighting, but next to me stood Finch and searching the trail was also the unmistakably tall, thin profile of Finch. There were two of him.

“Tyler,” the figure on the path called.

“Don’t answer it. It’s poisonous,” the Finch beside me whispered.

Until then, it hadn’t occurred to me I was in any real danger. I was nervous, sure, but I hadn’t felt threatened.

The Finch next to me twisted something clear and round in his hands. The top popped off with a soft sucking sound.

The creature on the path straightened. Its eyes darted toward where we hid. I held my breath. I was sure it saw us, but then it turned. When it did, its frame folded into the shadows and exposed what might have been its true form. It was a fraction of a fraction of Finch’s size, the size of a bug, a lighting bug. Its light shimmered with streaks of blue and magenta. It hovered in the air, bobbing as if it considering what to do next.

Finch sprung out from hiding. He swung the object in his hand over the creature that had looked just like him. By the time I understood the object he held was a mason jar, he had already screwed the cap tight. “Ain’t getting out, now,” he said.

The contents of the jar pulsed harsh shades of crimson, the colors of anger and warning. It wanted to hurt us. But, after a few moments the luminescence dimmed to a gentle pink.

“What is it? How did it look like you? Why?” The questions poured out of me as we walked back.

“It’s a wisp. You know, a wil-o’-the-wisp.”

I didn’t really know, but nodded just the same. “Why was it out there? Why did you catch it?”

“I baited it. Last night, I put a few of my journals out there. Wisp’s are really nosy, can’t keep themselves from invading someone’s privacy.”

Next week, Girl Meets Monster gets a visit from Elsa Carruthers. I’m so excited! Do you have a story to share? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: Alicia Wright

Last week, Girl Meets Monster had the pleasure of talking with Michael Arnzen. This week, Alicia Wright joins us to talk about space operas and when she loves writing science fiction and fantasy for YA audiences.

AliciaWrightI decided to write books about ten minutes before graduating law school. I’m now an Atlanta attorney, but I moonlight as author, electronics junkie, and secret superhero. With degrees in computer science and a healthy diet of fiction, I love all things high-tech and unreal. I write fantasy and science fiction for young adults. Currently, you can find my work under the name Alicia Wright Brewster, but additional books are coming soon under Alicia Ellis. Visit Alicia’s website and follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/writeralicia

Three Questions

GMM: I enjoyed reading your fragment. What was the inspiration for this piece, and why do you think slavery is a recurring theme in Science Fiction and Fantasy? Do you think it’s important to continue to write about slavery despite the fact that many people think it is no longer relevant to discuss it?

AW: I can’t be sure what inspired this piece. I’ve always wanted to write a space opera, and I think one day, I decided it would be cool to write about space pirates. And then this story grew in my imagination.

Is it important to write about slavery? Yes, history is important. I wasn’t consciously thinking of history or trying to make a point when I wrote this. But to a significant degree, the plans I had for this story deal with colonialism, and there’s a historical link between colonialism and slavery. So when I needed a way to return Jax to Ren’s life and simultaneously make the Company look awful, slavery seemed like a good way to go.

GMM: What attracted you to the SFF genres? What was the first book, movie or TV show that caught your attention? Why?

AW: I love science fiction and fantasy because it’s simultaneously real and unreal. It’s different from the everyday, and thus it provides an escape. At the same time, SFF explores real-world joys and problems. I had no choice really; my father raised me on Star Trek and Star Wars, and I loved every minute of it.

My very first favorite book was science fiction, although at the time, I didn’t know what “science fiction” was. My copy of The Girl with the Silver Eyes, by Willo Davis Roberts, was thoroughly battered after traveling with me during at least two (probably three) household moves. It remains my most-reread book, although it’s been decades since I’ve last read it. Perhaps it’s time for reread!

GMM: Is it easier to write for a young adult audience? What are some of the challenges? Do you struggle with subject matter in terms of what’s appropriate for young adults? Do you worry about how you audience will deal with difficult or uncomfortable situations in your fiction?

AW: I wouldn’t say it’s either easier or harder to write for young adults; I’d say it’s different than writing for adults. I love writing YA because the protagonists move me. They are passionate and reckless, and for them, everything is life changing. I can get a young protagonist into a lot more trouble than I can with an adult protagonist, because teenagers are allowed a wider range of mistakes. They mess up and they learn, and as readers, we allow them to do so without questioning their sanity. And when big moments occur, teenage protagonists are filled with excitement or devastation because they are experiencing things for the first time. And that’s why I write YA.

A challenge is that, obviously, I am no longer a teenager. I remember what I was like as a teen and what my friends were like, and that goes into my writing. But it’s important to stay in touch with teenage life to some degree, so that I don’t have teenagers in 2018 behaving as if they are in 1998. Clothes have changed. Schools have changed. Hangout spots have changed. Politics have changed. I need to know what’s happening now for teenagers, and sometimes that’s tough. It actually helps that I write SFF because, often, I make the world so I make the rules. But still, SFF needs to be grounded in reality.

Do I struggle with subject matter in terms of what’s appropriate for teens? Honestly, not much. YA can get pretty real and dark these days, so there’s little that I want to write about that’s out of bounds. I’m sure there are topics I wouldn’t touch, but I have yet to come across any in my own story ideas. Sometimes, I worry about cursing too much in my writing, but that’s largely about being acceptable to adults who choose books for teens. With that in mind, I tend to limit, but not eliminate, cursing. Basically, I save it for emphasis rather than sprinkling it everywhere.

End of Life, by Alicia Wright

CHAPTER 1

I hadn’t shot him in a vital organ. It didn’t call for all that screaming.

“Shut him up.” I gestured with my gun at one of his shipmates, a tall woman with a dark ponytail.

“You didn’t have to do that.” She pressed her hands against the hole in his leg and whispered in his ear, her tone soothing.

“Yes, I did.”

When a sixteen-year-old girl asks a crew to hand over its cargo, they rarely agree—even when she and her team have already ripped open the side of that crew’s spaceship. So I solved that problem. When I shot someone with a fifty-pound gun, they got obedient fast.

It made things easier.

The man’s howls quieted to whimpers.

Weaponless, my shipmate Kye examined the screen on his comm. “Batteries,” he told me, his tone flat.

“Could you put a little energy into it?” I whispered.

He and I stood at the edge of a dining hall. A long metal table sat in the middle of the room, surrounded by sixteen plastic chairs. Four members of the crew had occupied those chairs when we peeled their ship like a tin can. They’d jumped to their feet, and two others had joined them from elsewhere on the ship, thanks to the commotion.

Behind us, a hole gaped in the wall. It led to a retractable tunnel attached to our ship. Before we left and took our tunnel with us, we’d advise them to seal the hole so they didn’t get blown out into space. We weren’t monsters, after all.

Louder, I said, “Where are the batteries?”

The four remaining crew members—other than the man I’d shot and the woman calming him—had clustered on the far side of the table. The largest of them stepped forward and pushed two of the others behind him.

“What batteries?” When I didn’t shoot him right away, he raised his voice. “We don’t have any batteries.” Brave.

Kye read from his screen. “One hundred fifty polynium-nitride batteries of various sizes. Estimated value of sixteen thousand universal credits.”

It would have made my job easier if he at least pretended to be mean. Kye was the nicest boy a knew—Granted, most people I knew were pirates. But between his six-foot-plus frame and shoulders twice as wide as mine, it would have taken little more than the occasional sneer to wrap up these jobs more quickly.

I pointed my gun at the brave man’s face. “You heard him.”

His mouth moved, but no sound came out. Useless.

“Somebody here knows where the batteries are. Or maybe they’re not on the ship—in which case, we might as well make an exit.” I turned my weapon toward the wall and flicked the ammunition switch from bullets to explosives. “This way, perhaps?”

The drug my crew took to survive hyperspace had some pleasant side effects—strength, speed, agility. Even as a Traveler, though, I couldn’t survive in outer space for more than five minutes, but these people didn’t know that.

The woman who’d been soothing the injured man shot to her feet. “There are no batteries. Our orders changed.”

“What are you carrying?”

Her face reddened. “Slaves.”

I glanced behind me at Kye for confirmation.

He offered an almost imperceptible shrug.

“Show me.” To the rest of them, I added, “No one leaves this room until I get back.”

Kye leaned against the wall and stared down at his comm. “I’ve got this under control.”

Even without a weapon, he could take them all down—probably. It worked in our favor that no one outside the Travelers knew the limits of the drug. These people wouldn’t risk their lives by confronting Kye—not for cargo they’d have to turn over to the Company anyway.

I followed the dark-ponytailed woman down a narrow, spiral staircase. My combat boots clanked against the metal steps. We stepped off it onto the dusty floor of the cargo bay. The space held a single item, a cage, barely large enough for the four people inside.

I turned to head back up the stairs. I’d confirmed her story, but we didn’t trade in slaves. There was nothing for us here.

“Ren?” a familiar voice called.

I spun back around.

While the other three slaves slumped on the ground in the tight space, a teenage boy leaned against the front bars, his arms propped against a horizontal rung. His dark hair hung over his forehead. Dirt streaked his face and clothing, but when he smiled, his teeth shone as white and perfect as ever.

“Jax.” I cursed silently at the flipping in my stomach. Why did he still affect me?

“You’re going to leave me here?”

I ignored him and started up the stairs. If anyone deserved slavery, it was Jax.

“I know what happened to your sister,” he shouted when I’d made it halfway up.

I ran back down, shoving the woman aside at the bottom step. I stopped in front of the cage, three feet away from him. The only way he’d know about my sister was if he’d been there. The information wasn’t out there—not in the gossip, not in the official record, not on the black market. “You’re a liar.”

“That’s true. But not about this. You want justice, right?”

I wanted justice more than I wanted those batteries, more than I wanted out of my Travelers contract, more than I wanted my next breath. But the last time I’d seen Jax, I was watching his feet walk away from me as I bled out on the floor. “You’re going to get it for me?”

“Let’s say I’m lying,” he said. “You take me with you, question me, and when you get nothing, I go back to the Company. What’s the loss?”

He had a point. I hated it when he had a point.

“Get him out,” I said to the woman still waiting for me on the staircase.

Next week, Girl Meets Monster gets a visit from across the pond. Stay tuned, and send your fragments to me at chellane@gmail.com.