Fiction Fragments: Nick Cato

Last week, I spoke with Corey Niles about how identity shapes our fiction. And this week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes horror film aficionado Nick Cato.

Nick CatoNick Cato is the author of Don of the Dead, The Apocalypse of Peter, The Last Porno Theater, The Atrocity Vendor, Uptown Death Squad, and Death Witch. His debut non fiction film book, Suburban Grindhouse, will be released in February 2020. He has edited the anthologies Dark Jesters (with co-editor LL Soares) and The Gruesome Tensome: A Short Story Tribute to the Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis. Nick has had fiction published in many anthologies and writes a film column for the recently revamped Deep Red magazine.

Nick also oversees things at the long running fanzine/website The Horror Fiction Review and occasionally hosts the Suburban Grindhouse podcast.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Nick! I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t picked up a copy of Suburban Grindhouse yet, but I’m really looking forward to reading it. Can you give us a synopsis of the book and maybe tell us what inspired you to write it? This is your first non fiction film book, what challenges did you encounter while switching gears between fiction and non fiction? Do you have plans for any other non fiction books?

NC: Suburban Grindhouse is a collection of columns (along with a bunch of new bonus material) originally published on a film site called Cinema Knife Fight. The columns are part film review, part memoir, as I often explain what audiences were like at certain theaters both in my hometown of Staten Island, NY, as well as in Times Square and some NJ theaters. I always found some audiences could actually shape the way you ended up feeling about a film, and this idea eventually became my column. When I pitched it to one of my favorite film book publishers (the UK’s Headpress) I was thrilled their editor had been familiar with my column and eventually bought my manuscript and added it to their amazing catalog.

It wasn’t difficult to switch gears as writing about film is something I do to “take a breather” while I’m working on a novella or novel. I find it a great way to get my fiction muse back. I’ve written about film since 1981 in various horror and cult film fanzines, so I had somewhat of a background when I decided to try it more seriously.

My second film book is currently being considered at another press, and I’m in full swing on a third.

GMM: The titles of your books are humorous, but you’re writing horror. Would you consider your work  bizarro or weird fiction? Are they the same thing? What are the elements of your fiction that sets it apart from other horror stories?

NC: I originally wrote what would be considered “humorous horror,” but in time I think the majority of my fiction became weird or bizarro. I always try to bring in something unusual or try to turn a trope on it’s head. As subgenres, if you will, weird and bizarro are different, in that “weird fiction” was pretty much what Lovecraft and his like were considered, whereas “bizarro” usually follows more absurd/surreal and less fantasy-like ideas. Not always, but mostly. It’s surely a fine line. Lately lots of “Lovecraftian” or “cosmic” fiction is simply being labeled as weird fiction.

I think the main element that sets my stories apart is I bring in the bizarro element later on, be it during a short or longer story. Most of my tales are told in three sections (even my shorts), and I try to bring the strange in toward the end. Most of the stranger things I’ve come up with haven’t been “forced,” but rather came out naturally for me. In high school one of my friends used to say, “Nick doesn’t need drugs to be weird.” I always got a kick out of that. Weird ideas seem to continually pop up in my head, and the more witty ones I try to convert into fiction.

GMM: A few years ago I interviewed horror writer and academic, Michael Arnzen, and he talked about the connection between horror and humor. One of his quotes really spoke to me: “I think laughter bonds us, even though we’re all doomed.” I really like that statement as a worldview. What’s your philosophy on the connection between horror and humor?

NC: Mike would surely know. I loved his short story collection, 100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories. In fact it contains one of my all time favorite humorous horror stories, “Domestic Fowl.” Humor and horror have always gone hand in hand with me. Laughing…and I mean really cracking up, like the first time most people see a film like Blazing Saddles… is an experience that can make you feel naturally high. I’ve experienced that several times in my life through films and certain comedians. Same with horror. When I was 13, I saw the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the first time in a theatrical rerelease. I had never been as terrified by a film before, or since to be honest. The feelings of sheer terror and “cracking up” laughing bring some of us to a place we both love and dread. That’s powerful. Some films tried to combine the two genres, but only a few succeeded. I’ve tried to combine both to an extreme degree but have yet to come up with something I’d say strongly captures both emotions at the same time. A couple of writers I admire have come close. I continually have my eye out for that inevitable short story or novel that will scare the crap out of us while simultaneously making us laugh till we cry.

“The Bowl,” by Nick Cato, was featured in his latest collection “The Satanic Rites of Sasquatch and other Weird Stories,” published by Bizarro Pulp Press (Journalstone)

Harold Anderson stared out the bedroom window, restless thanks to his wife’s snoring. The occasional bat fluttered by the street light, casting distorted shadows on his ceiling.

“Come on, honey,” he said, pushing Helen onto her side.

She half-consciously rolled over and fell right back to sleep.

Although his plan worked, it was the silence that now kept him awake. He decided to watch a late re-run of the Tonight Show, but was still alert when it ended.

3:30 a.m.

He sat up, looking at the clothes he’d neatly laid out for tomorrow (today, actually). When he laid back down, his stomach gurgled loud enough to make Helen shift.

“Whoa,” he said, rubbing his belly. “I shouldn’t have had that second helping.”

He stepped into his #1 Dad slippers (a Christmas gift from Danny), slid on his bathrobe (a birthday gift from Nadine), then padded toward the bathroom. With each step, the need to expel last night’s dinner became more severe. Where had this come from? Four and a half hours of trying to fall asleep without so much as a fart, and now…

He reached into the darkness and felt for the switch. He dropped his robe as soon as the lime-colored bathroom was illuminated. The toilet—situated strategically between the sink and shower—seemed to beckon him. After pulling the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly from a magazine bin, Harold dropped his boxers and perched himself on the cool porcelain.

He read through the entire film review section before finishing his business. He broke the silence with two courtesy flushes along the way.

“That’s the last time I let her talk me into Mexican on a work night,” he said, washing his sweaty hands and face with lukewarm water. He put the robe back on, then gave the room a few cinnamon-scented blasts of Glade, making the place smell like a combo of Big Red Chewing Gum and ass.

He turned to walk back to bed. Someone said “thank you” in the blackened hallway.

Harold jumped. He flicked the bathroom lights back on, expecting to see Danny or Nadine up for a late-night pee. But on second thought, the voice was too deep for a five- or eight-year-old.

He checked his children’s bedrooms, happy to see them both asleep.

Man, do I need some shut-eye. Harold turned off the bathroom light and scratched the top of his auburn head.

He crawled under the blankets next to Helen, and within five minutes joined her in slumberland.

#

“You look bushed! Tough time last night?” Mr. Davis asked.

“I had a bit of trouble falling asleep. My stomach did backflips for a while.”

“Glad to see you’re here—you know we have that meeting with Tucker right after lunch today?”

“That’s why I’m here, even if I got less than three hours of sleep,” Harold said, taking a swig from his third cup of coffee.

“That’s the spirit!” Mr. Davis patted him on the back. “This is why you’re my number one man.”

At 11:43, Harold felt a sudden need to visit the restroom. He closed the file he was working on and headed to the lavatory.

He sat on the toilet, feeling disgusted by the prospect of doing this in a $600 suit. He experienced feelings of emptiness. Coldness. He couldn’t wait to finish. His heart began racing, as if he was having a panic attack.

He soon felt relieved to be rid of whatever was inside him, and to be off the office toilet; just knowing two dozen people shared it gave him the willies.

“Mr. Anderson? Call on line one.”

“Thank you, Margaret. I’ll take it in my office.”

“Please hold one moment,” she said, smiling as Harold passed by.

“Hello, Harold Anderson here.”

Silence.

“Hello, may I help you?”

Silence. Then, “Thank you.”

“Excuse me?”

Silence. A rusty click. “Thank you.”

Harold leaned forward in his plush leather chair. “I’m afraid I don’t understand. Who is this?”

“You know who this is, and I know what you just did.”

Harold slammed the phone down. “Freaking lunatic!”

Immediately, the phone rang in the lobby. He heard Margaret answer, then page him on the intercom. He accepted the call.

“Hello? Anderson here.”

“If you ever hang up on me again, I’ll destroy your wife and kids.”

“Okay—who is this? What’s your problem?”

Silence. Deafening, painful silence. Then the distinct sound of a toilet flushing. “Have a good day. We’ll discuss this later.”

“We’ll discuss what later?”

The phone went dead.

The voice was familiar, but Harold couldn’t match it to a face. He walked around his desk, anticipating another call.

It never came.

He left the office shortly after 5:00 p.m., still haunted by the menacing telephone conversation. Even the successful meeting with Tucker Industries couldn’t keep his mind off that voice. He spent the forty-minute drive home trying to figure out who would first thank him for something, then threaten to kill his family in the next breath.

Must be a prank. Harold tuned into a classic rock station as he hit the highway.

Do you have a fragment you’d like to share with the world? Send it 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: EV Knight

Last week, I talked with Ronald J. Murray about cannibals and erotic horror. I know! If you haven’t read last week’s post, you should totally check it out. This week, I have the pleasure of welcoming EV Knight. I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy of her soon to be released debut novel, and I can’t say enough good things about it. And, I’m proud to be sharing a table of contents with her in The Monstrous Feminine: Dark Tales of Dangerous Women.

EV ColorEV Knight writes horror and dark fiction. Her debut novel, The Fourth Whore, will be published in 2020 by Raw Dog Screaming Press. EV’s short stories can be found in The Toilet Zone Anthology by Hellbound Books and Siren’s Call magazine and the anthology Monstrous Feminine from Scary Dairy Press. She is also cohost of the podcast Brain Squalls with Knight and Daigh. She enjoys all things macabre; whether they be film, TV, podcast, novel, short story, or poetry. She lives in the cold northern woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with her family and two hairless cats.

Three Questions

GMM: Congratulations on The Fourth Whore. Without giving away too many spoilers, can you tell us about your debut novel? And, maybe share some of what your experienced in the process of getting your first novel published. Do you have any advice for other writers?

EVK: The Fourth Whore is what I like to refer to as feminist horror. My protagonist is Kenzi, a street hardened survivor and my antagonist is Lilith, first wife of Adam/demoness come back for revenge. Lilith is furious with men: God, Sariel (the angel of death who trapped her in a talisman), Demons of Hell who tortured her for many years, and humans whose myths characterized her as a demonic child-killing whore. All she ever wanted was equality with her husband. When Kenzi accidentally releases Lilith from the talisman, Lilith plans an apocalypse neither the world nor Heaven could even imagine. Rather than gathering the four horsemen of the apocalypse, she gathers her four “whores”—women who have suffered similar abuses/biases as she. She leaves a trail of blood and horrors in her wake while assembling her wrecking crew. Kenzi must decide to join Lilith as her fourth and final whore or try to save a world that never cared about her pain.

I think every writer’s publishing process is unique to their experiences. I knew when I started writing the novel that my dream publisher was Raw Dog Screaming Press. I became a member of the Horror Writer’s Association and attended StokerCon. I met so many amazing people and many representatives of small presses. I was so impressed with the personal touch and the down to earth approach they took with their authors; I knew I wanted to be a part of the Raw Dog family. When I sent my manuscript to them, I wasn’t sure they (or anyone for that matter) would accept it. It has some hardcore gore, a political bent, some liberties were taken in rewriting some biblical stories, and as I said, this novel is strongly feminist (but I need to stress, it is not man-hating). Basically, as a debut novel, it comes out swinging. But they took a chance on me and agreed to publish.

As for advice for writers, get out there in your genre community. Get to know writers, publishers, agents, etc. Go to Cons and offer to buy someone a drink in exchange for a friendly chat. Writer’s, I have found, are some of the most caring and nurturing people. They want to help you succeed and they will introduce you to their friends. When people get to know your name and/or face, it may just move you up in the slush pile. And sometimes, you even get an invitation to send your manuscript just from having a drink together and telling them about your work.

GMM: I haven’t had a chance to listen to your podcast, Brain Squalls with Knight and Daigh. When did you begin working on the podcast? How would you describe the content? What is your favorite episode? Where can we listen?

EVK: Brain Squalls was born from a game my husband and I play on road trips all the time. We both enjoy making up stories and often times, stories start with the most mundane observation or prompt. I got my start writing by working my way through Mike Arnzen’s book Instigation: Creative Prompts on the Dark Side.

Matt and I had been throwing ideas around about a podcast since we met. On our way home from last year’s StokerCon (where we attended a couple panels on podcasting), the idea came to us.

At the beginning of each episode, we use a prompt to get us started on a story and throughout the next hour, we literally work out a story from start to finish. We flesh out characters, we discuss plot and backstories. We discuss what we as the writer would know and what we would let our reader know. It’s a “live” walkthrough of creation in process and we ask listeners to send us comments on how they might have told the story differently. Its been a lot of fun. And completed our first season with a special Christmas episode. Our very first episode titled “Warm Vanilla Sugar” and our last Christmas episode are my favorites but I was really happy with all our stories. Next season, which begins in January, we’ll be bringing on guests to tell stories with us. We’re inviting writers and other creatives to come play. It’s going to be a lot of fun. Maybe you’ll join us, Michelle?

You can find Brain Squalls on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Castbox, Stitcher, and Youtube.

GMM:  I loved your fragment. It gave me the creeps. Telling a horror story from the POV of a cat is interesting. And, I’m dying to see what that tentacle belongs to. Have you written other stories from the POV of animals? How does it differ from writing from the POV of people? Or monsters for that matter?

EVK: I have in fact. I wrote one very near and dear to my heart which I haven’t sent out for publication yet because I am waiting for the perfect submission request. It’s from the POV of a research chimpanzee. I have several more written from the POV of a cat or a group of cats. I think, for me, an animal is the ultimate reliable narrator. We as humans put personalities to animals and certainly, they are individuals, but a lot of what they do is instinctual. Their feelings are tied to that. For instance, Milo is a pet but he is an outdoor cat. He loves his family and he knows they love him but he can’t help that he feels called to be outside. He is not bad, just feels that call of nature and it gets him in trouble. I love trying to think in that free way. No ulterior motivations, no blocked emotions, you know? It’s fun to write and just allow a character to be and to feel in the moment.

Humans can’t be trusted in that way. We all have secrets, we all have motivations that affect our behavior. A monster by typical definition is usually a creature with harmful or malicious intent. Even the scariest of animals, aren’t evil, they may be predators but its all instinct, primitive brain and I love digging deep into mine.

*Excerpt from a short piece titled Milo about an indoor/outdoor cat who likes to bring his people spoils from his outdoor adventures. Only this adventure may just be his last.

The best way to deal with this usurper of his dinner was to tear it apart. He bit into one of the snake husks and pulled. He felt a tear and pulled harder. Thick, aloe-like ooze squeezed out of the bite marks and dripped down Milo’s chin. This ooze was black and it smelled like decay. He wrinkled his nose but he refused to let go of the thing. He pulled, and the whole creature rolled itself around him.  The tiny worms bit at his chest and belly. Its beak was snapping feverishly, so close to Milo’s nose that he could smell the chipmunk’s blood. The piece of tentacle in his mouth loosened. There was no choice but to swallow it quickly and grab another purchase of the slimy thing. This time, he unleashed the wildness inside him and tore at the thing with his front claws, all the while pulling back with his head. It came loose. The beak let out a high-pitched squawk. The thing, which was definitely not a fungus, somersaulted completely over, lifted itself up on the husks it had left, and limped away, leaving a stinking, steaming trail of thick, black muck behind it.

Milo, satisfied with his heroic revenge, dragged the spoils of war back to his home. It seeped and dripped the black sap onto the ground and Milo’s tongue. It had a sort of numbing sensation that Milo did not like much. He wanted to get rid of the thing. He was going to give it to his people, and he might even spend the night in the house. All of a sudden, he didn’t feel like being an outside cat anymore. At the front door, he dropped his find on the stoop and scratched and yowled until they answered.

“My God, Milo, what have you brought this time?” the female said. He pushed it toward her. She crinkled her nose. “Ugh. Sick! Bad Kitty! Where did you find a tentacle out in the woods?”

Milo meowed. He wanted her to pick it up and examine it. This was not your common gift, plus it had made him feel quite sick. He rubbed his face against the bristly mat in front of the door.

“Oh, you stinky cat! That thing is positively disgusting. I didn’t know Octopus had black blood.” She leaned down and poked it with a finger. “Or maybe that’s ink. Ooh, and I didn’t know they stunk so much. Milo, that is just gross.” She kicked it. It squished under her shoe and puffs of yellow stuff came out of the little bumps all over it. Milo sniffed at it again. It didn’t smell so gamey anymore. Now it just smelled sickeningly sweet. He followed her into the house.

“If you’re coming in here, you’re getting a bath,” his person said.

Maybe you have a fiction fragment hiding in a drawer that you’d like to dust off and share. If so, 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.

Fiction Fragments: Michael Arnzen

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

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

Three Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poe Bread, by Michael A. Arnzen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not in my book.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?”

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

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

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

Reynolds began to gather up his bag.

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction Fragments: J. L. Gribble

Last week, Girl Meets Monster talked to Jessica Barlow about LGBT superheroes, and this week I welcome speculative fiction author J. L. Gribble to talk about cats and time machines.

Gribble photo colorBy day, J. L. Gribble is a professional medical editor. By night, she does freelance fiction editing in all genres, along with reading, playing video games, and occasionally even writing. Her current work focuses on the urban fantasy/alternate history Steel Empires series, in which her debut novel, STEEL VICTORY, was her thesis novel for Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate program in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. Previously, she was one of the co-editors for FAR WORLDS, a speculative fiction anthology. She lives in Ellicott City, Maryland, with her husband and three vocal Siamese cats. Find her online (www.jlgribble.com), on Facebook (www.facebook.com/jlgribblewriter), and on Twitter and Instagram (@hannaedits). When not blogging for SpeculativeChic.com, she is currently working on more tales set in the world of Limani.

Three Questions

Girl Meets Monster: What inspires your work, and more specifically, what was the inspiration for your fragment?

JLG: For the past five years, and for at least two more into the foreseeable future, my writing life has revolved around my urban fantasy/alternate history series. Even while doing short writing exercises or attending writing workshops, all drabbles tend to involve that series, whether it’s the characters, the world, plot ideas, etc.

But sometimes that is literally impossible. Such as when your publisher hosts a writing retreat and horror author and writing professor Michael Arnzen is put in charge of the writing exercises…

Girl Meets Monster: That’s one hell of a start, why did you abandon this writing project?

JLG: It’s ridiculous. It’s overwrought. It has too much description and not enough plot. But it’s also a time machine/cat, so I’m not inclined to quibble.

Girl Meets Monster: Time machines seem like a natural theme/plot device for speculative fiction, but why cats? Why a cat that is a time machine?

JLG: Easy. During the time of this writing exercise, I was working on a time travel plot in the current Steel Empires novel. Pretty much EVERYTHING was a time machine at that point. Also, I was out of town and missed my cats.

Fiction Fragment, by J. L. Gribble

She fled up the gangway, snatching frantically at the handrails as it snapped and whipped in the frenzied storm. It screamed closed behind her, tumbling her to the deck. As the ship rumbled around her, she spit hair out of her mouth and crawled into the elevator. The small space curled around her, claustrophobic and comforting as it carried her into the bowels of the ship. Once she crashed into the engine room, the rumble smoothed as the diesel engines roared to life, marching the caking scent of ammonia to the back of her throat and causing her to retch and gag. Dueling alarms howled to life around her, shrieking through the ship on every wavelength. Horrible whiskers stretched from the engine room walls and then the protective barrier collapsed as the ship inverted in time and carried her into uncertainty.
SteelVictoryARC_cov.inddFor significantly fewer cats, but nearly as much ridiculousness, check out J.L. Gribble’s Steel Empires series, beginning with Steel Victory.

Next week, Lana Ayers will join Girl Meets Monster to talk about her new novel, Time Flash: Another Me, and share a fiction fragment. See you next week!