Fiction Fragments: Paul Tremblay

If you missed last week’s Fiction Fragments, you missed a great interview with Linda D. Addison. Linda has been an inspiration to me since I attended my first World Horror Convention back in 2013, but it was her acceptance speech for her Lifetime Achievement Award at StokerCon in 2018 that made me want to be just like her when I grow up. Do yourself a favor and check out last week’s Fiction Fragments with Linda.

This week, I am super excited to welcome award-winning horror writer Paul Tremblay to Girl Meets Monster. I’ve really enjoyed Paul’s work and look forward to reading more. And, hopefully, I’ll get over my social awkwardness enough to talk to him beyond saying “hello” the next time I see him at an event.

Paul Tremblay has won the Bram Stoker, British Fantasy, and Massachusetts Book awards and is the author of Survivor SongGrowing Things, The Cabin at the End of the World, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, A Head Full of Ghosts, and the crime novels The Little Sleep and No Sleep Till Wonderland. His essays and short fiction have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Weekly online, and numerous year’s-best anthologies. He has a master’s degree in mathematics and lives outside Boston with his family.

twitter and instagram: @paulgtremblay
website: www.paultremblay.net
author photo credit: Allan Amato

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Paul. You’ve had a lot of success with your writing, and that success is well-deserved. Back in March, I interviewed Bracken MacLeod, who has also had some success with his work, and I asked him to talk about the concept of impostor syndrome. For many writers, even after they’ve had their work published and had some success with their writing, they still experience feelings of doubt about their writing. As a writer who has won some prestigious awards, does that kind of recognition make it easier or more difficult to approach your craft? Personally, I suffer from a fear of success, because success often means there are greater expectations for your next effort, and that also means more work on your part. Has success in your writing been helpful or a hindrance?

PT: Thank you for having me here, Michelle.

I never feel like I know what the hell I’m doing in writing, or in life, frankly. The self-doubt, particularly while in the middle of a novel/story, doesn’t go away, and if anything, has intensified, which is more than kind of disheartening/disappointing. While having published books under my belt helps my confidence a little (proof that I have in fact, somehow, finished books before), it only helps a little. I’ve found a more regular writing schedule is more effective at keeping the self-doubts from becoming paralyzing; it’s easier to chalk up a bad day as simply a bad day if there are good or so-so days surrounding it.

Successes (however those might be described, from selling a story to a market or editor you really wanted to work with to signing a book deal) certainly can be a hurdle to the next or new project. For novels, I try to make each one feel different in some way (it could be something as simple as switching up the music I listen to when writing, a new notebook for notes, or even a tweak or change in process or approach) if nothing else to remind me this new book is not the prior one. It is its own thing, for good or bad. When I struggled during the writing of Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, my follow up to A Head Full of Ghosts, I emailed my friend/mentor Stewart O’Nan. In the email I whined that this new book wasn’t coming as easily (the lie of memory; all your completed stories or books were easier to write in your memory than in the moment) and while I felt confident about AHFoG, I feared that this new book wasn’t going to be as good, etc. Expecting a pep talk back from Stewart, he instead sent me exactly what I needed to hear. He wrote, “Eh, not everything you write is going to be great.” He was of course correct, and I laughed, released a lot of my self-imposed pressure with an exhale, and grinded out a book of which I’m very proud.

GMM: I enjoyed your fragment. I assume the title is a parody of Shirley Jackson’s novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Based on what you’ve shared, I get the feeling this story is set in a post-apocalyptic amusement park with a fairy tale theme. I’m not 100 percent sure what’s happening, but our narrator is interesting and seems well-informed about the world around him/her. Without giving away too many spoilers, what is the premise of the story and what can you tell us about the narrator?

PT: Yes, it’s definitely a riff on my favorite Shirley Jackson novel and I’m not 100% sure what’s happening either! Heh.

When my two kids were younger, we took them to a regionally famous amusement called Story Land. The park is really geared for kids younger than 10 years old with each ride and attraction based on a fairy tale. During one visit a thunderstorm cropped up and the four of us (along with some other families) holed up inside a giant pumpkin. Well, it was some form of plastic and mortar (maybe?) pumpkin. And as my mind tends to wander to horror/weird scenarios, I imagined what would happen if we had to live at the park, what would drive us to live at the park? Clearly Cinderella’s castle would be the prime real estate if people were going to divvy up the place. The ‘castle’ in my title references Cinderella’s at Story Land. The narrator of this story is more sinister than Merricat Blackwood, but I tried to make him playfully mischievous. There has been some sort of apocalypse and people are living/surviving at the various rides and attractions within the amusement park. An absurdist premise, but one I hoped would play on people’s post-apocalyptic fantasies: the idea that yes of course *you* would be one of the ones to survive. Maybe not on the Polar Coaster though? Our narrator covets and schemes to take over the best place to live in the park, the castle (because of its size and easily defendable location), though as the story progresses his mental state disintegrates.

GMM: Many writers have been affected by the pandemic and the political climate. Some positively. Some negatively. Have changes to expectations around your course delivery as a teacher had an impact on your time? Has your productivity changed? What projects have you been working on that keep you motivated to stay on track?

PT: It has been difficult to focus on writing/creating, difficult to tear myself away from news, particularly online news, and difficult to not perseverate on worries and real-world fears. I’ve been more forgiving of myself for not being as productive (in terms of words written) as I would like. But I do force myself to write at some point as I do have a novel contractually due in May of 2021. As the calendar turns to fall, I’m not sure how going back to school will impact my writing work, and to be honest, I’m not even sure what school is going to look like, even at this late date.

After having a difficult time doing so when stay-at-home began, I have been doing a lot of reading, which, for me, is as important as writing to my work as a writer. My two prior novels, The Cabin at the End of the World and Survivor Song purposefully reflect (I hope) the anxieties of living in Trumplandia. And with Survivor Song in particular, it has been strange releasing a virus/pandemic novel. So, I don’t have any interest in writing about *this* pandemic, at least not directly. The project I am currently working on is a novel, one (thankfully) I had the idea hit me in late fall of 2019, so when I am able to write and sink into the book, it has been a welcomed escape from reality. Though I have noticed our now sneaking in and in unexpected places (given the novel starts in 1988).

Fragment from “We Will Never Live in the Castle”

polar coaster

Mr. Matheson lives over in Heidi’s Hill, we confab every three days in the old mist tent between the World Pavilion and my Slipshod Safari Tour, but today he’s late for our date, he scurries and hurries into the tent, something’s up.

Mr. Matheson says, She took over the Polar Coaster, he says, I don’t know if Kurt just up and left or if she chased him off or killed him but he’s gone and now she’s there.

I thought we’d never be rid of that idiot kid, he used to eat grass and then puke it all up.

I say, Who is she, what’s she look like, does she have a crossbow?

He says, She’s your age of course, medium-size, bigger than my goat anyway, and quiet, I didn’t get a great look at her, but I know she’s there, she wears a black cap, she just won’t talk to me.

Why would she say anything to him, I only talk to him out of necessity, necessity is what rules my life, necessity is one of the secrets to survival, I’ll give other secrets later, maybe when we take the tour.

Mr. Matheson and me have a nice symbiosis thing going, he gets to stay alive and enjoy a minimum base of human contact, he keeps an eye on my Slipshod Safari Tour’s rear flank, last year he saw these two bikers trying to ambush me via Ye Olde Mist Tent, Mr. Matheson gave me that goat’s call of his, he is convincing, I took care of the burly thunderdome bikers, they tried to sneak down the tracks and past the plastic giraffe, the one with a crick in its neck and the missing tail, typical stupid new hampshire rednecks, not that there’s a new hampshire anymore, live free or die bitches, their muscles and tattoos didn’t save them, little old me, all one-hundred-thirty-two pounds of me, me and necessity.

Mr. Matheson is clearly disappointed she won’t talk to him, whoever she is, he’s probably taken stupid risks to his own skin, and by proxy mine, trying to get her attention, it’s so lame and predictable, because of the fleeting sight of a mysterious girl the old man would jeopardize my entire operation here, Mr. Matheson is down to his last goat, the house on Heidi’s Hill is a small one room dollhouse with a mini bed mini table mini chair, no future there, it’s a good place for a geezer with a white beard going yellow, straw on his face, getting ready to die, no place for a girl, she needs space, the Polar Coaster is a decent spot, back when Fairy Tale Land was up and running the Polar Coaster was one of the most popular rides, I never got to work it, they kept me over on the Whirling Whales, a toddler ride.

At the Polar Coaster the fiberglass igloo and icebergs are holding up okay, they make good hidey holes, warmth and shelter in the winter, shade in the summer, some reliable food stores, wild blueberry bushes near the perimeter of its northern fence, birds nest in the tracks, free pickings of eggs and young, small duck pond in the middle of it all and with ample opportunity to trap smaller critters, the Polar Coaster might be the third best spot in the park behind my Slipshod Safari Tour and Cinderella’s Castle, of course, third because it’s a little too out in the open for my tastes, everyone who comes to Fairy Tale Land always goes to the Castle and then the Polar Coaster.

I ask, Do you know her name?

Mr. Matheson says, She won’t talk to me, remember.

Yeah, I remember, but sometimes it’s hard when every day is the same.

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

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

Fiction Fragments: P. D. Cacek

Last week, Girl Meets Monster celebrated it’s 50th Fiction Fragments post and had the pleasure of chatting with horror writer Hailey Piper. We talked about female monsters and the need for more queer voices in horror — writers, editors, characters, etc. If you missed it, go check it out.

This week, I am very pleased to welcome my friend and fellow horror writer, P. D. Cacek. I met her at my first NECON last summer, but got to know her better on a road trip to Haverhill, MA for the Merrimack Vally Halloween Book Festival this past October. Sadly, both events have been canceled this year, which is a shame, because I was looking forward to having more adventures with her. Oh well, next year.

The winner of both a Bram Stoker and World Fantasy Award, P.D. Cacek has written over a hundred short stories, seven plays, and six published novels. Her most recent novel, Second Lives, published by Flame Tree Press, is currently available from Amzon.com. The follow-up novel, Second Chances, will be released from Flame Tree Press, November 2020.

Cacek holds a Bachelor’s Degree in English/Creative Writing Option from the University of California at Long Beach and has been a guest lecturer at the Odyssey Writing Camp.

A native Westerner, Cacek now lives Phoenixville, PA. When not writing, she can often been found either with a group of costumed storytellers called THE PATIENT CREATURES, or haunting local cemeteries looking for inspiration.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster! I was really bummed out about not going to NECON this year, but hopefully we’ll be able to see each other next year. I saw that you will be one of the guests of honor for NECON 40, along with the likes of Tananarive Due, Joe R. Lansdale, Victor LaValle and Bracken MacLeod. I’m excited, so I know you must be excited. What is your history with NECON and how you’ve earned the status of Legend?

PDC: It honestly feels like I’ve been going to NECON from the very beginning, but the truth is that I’ve only been going since 1998…and that’s only 22 years. But I’d heard about it long before I’d walked onto the hollowed grounds of Roger Williams University’s dorm row. Other writers not only kept telling me about this wonderful little “family” convention that was more like a summer camp with panels, but told me I HAD to go. I thought it would be fun, but wondered what, if anything, I’d have in common with “real” writers (we all go through this stage). It took a couple more years but I finally got up the courage and went to my first NECON. Of course I still didn’t feel like a “real” writer (my first novel wasn’t coming out until later that year), so I thought I’d just stay in the background and keep out of sight since no one probably knew who I was. Wrong. Not only did people know me, but those who didn’t went out of their way to introduce themselves and make me feel like I belong.

(Although it would have been nice if I’d known the rules (????) of the Damned Game Show BEFORE I was asked to be part of it…Craig.)

As for becoming a NECON Legend…wow…seriously, it is an honor beyond words. As for how I earned it, let’s see, I’ve only missed two NECONs since becoming a “camper,” was Mistress of Ceremonies in 2002 (when I proved Chris Golden is indeed a NECON Whore and managed to keep Dallas Mayr’s [Jack Ketchum] roast under two hours), have been roasted, contributed to a few NECON Books, co-edited Necon’s charity anthology for the Jimmy Fund Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep and am currently the Volunteer Coordinator. I loved every minute of it and look forward to more minutes (and revenge) to come.

GMM: Second Chances is the sequel to Second Lives, which my mom loved, by the way. Can you talk about your process for writing a sequel? Did you already have a plan for what would happen in the second book? Did you use an outline, or are you more of a pantser? How did you keep track of your characters, events, etc. from the first novel? What difficulties did you encounter in the writing process? What advice would you give to someone who is working on a sequel or series?

PDC: Thank your mother for me.

Actually, Second Chances is not so much a sequel as it is a follow-up novel. I wrote Second Lives, the previous novel, with the intention of taking my characters’ storylines to a natural end point. Notice I didn’t say ending…the whole motivation for both novels comes from the fact that even as a child I always wondered what happened after “The End” in a story. “What comes next?” is the reason behind both books, however I decided against a sequel because I felt I would only be repeating myself.

But that didn’t mean there weren’t more stories that could be told using the same premise—the transmigration of a wandering soul into a new body (no, not zombies)—and that’s exactly what I did in Second Chances.
Although the novel opens in the same time frame as the first, the majority of Second Chances takes place a few years after the first “Travelers” arrive and deals with the aftermath. A bit darker in tone, the novel follows two families and shows what can happen when people become scared of something they don’t understand.

You asked how I kept track of my characters and I’m afraid my answer is rather old school—I took notes…on a pad of paper and Post’Em notes. Yes, I know I could do that on Notepad or whatever it’s called, but I’m a Luddite…and my desk, since each character had his or her own color sticky note, looked very festive.

The first piece of advice I’d give to anyone writing a sequel or follow up novel is to KEEP NOTES. They don’t have to be handwritten or on Post’Ems but you need to remember events and the outcome of those events. You also need to supply just enough history from your first book(s) to remind your reader of what happened while at the same time not falling into the dreaded “info dump.” After all this, it’s just a matter of taking your established characters on new adventures.

The second is to make an outline…if it works for you. I personally don’t do outlines, although I will jot down a scene or event I plan to write, but for the most part I won’t begin a novel or story until I have thought it out all the way through beginning to end. It might take a few days before I’m happy with the idea, but when I am, I sit down and write the ending—whether it’s one line, a paragraph or a full chapter. When that’s done, I block out the scene I plan to write in my head then sit down and start.

GMM: I know you’ve spent time working and acting in community theatre productions. How has acting, building sets, and other aspects of stagecraft impacted your writing? Have you written plays as well as novels and short fiction? How is that process different?

PDC: If anything, working in community theater—building sets or acting—has helped me with my pacing. On stage, and unless it’s written in the script, a pause that goes on a bit too long is deadly.

And the same thing applies to writing.

If you have a scene that goes on and on and on, describing each and every detail of a world whose glory can only be identified in language so marvelous it practically drips purple because the people that populate this world are so….zzzzzzz.

In stage speak: Pick up the pace.
In writer speak: Edit, edit, edit.

Now, I’m not saying you need to cut your descriptions to the bare bones, but you need to keep your reader interested in what’s going on in the story so pay attention to the pace.

After being in theater for a few years, I thought it might be fun to try my hand at writing a play. I mean, how hard could it be, right? Well, the truth is that I found the process similar to eating potato chips: I couldn’t stop after just one.

It was FUN! I stopped writing fiction for two years and wrote seven plays, won an honorable mention from the Eugene O’Neill Playwriting Competition with my very first play, had two plays performed (not a bad record) but never gave serious thought to becoming a professional playwright. The world of writing plays is entirely different than the world of writing fiction.

First, there’s the format.

In fiction it’s an equal blend of description and dialog.

In playwriting it’s dialog, dialog, dialog, etc. (side bar description…maybe). The playwright can offer suggestions as to the setting and prop pieces, but it’s the director that has the final say.

The playwright has little if any say in the matter…sort of like a writer being shown the cover of their new novel.

Another difference is in how one becomes a “professional.”

Author: Write + publish + make money (agent optional) = professional.
Playwright: Write + theatrical agent + legitimate* theater company (* pays actors) + production + production + production + production + reviews + make money + publication = professional.

I may have exaggerated on the number of productions, but that’s basically the process and while I may still write a play or two when the mood or idea strikes me, I’ll stick with being a fiction writer for now.

Write on!

Fragment from Second Chances

Jessie groaned.

“Why did you kill yourself?”

Jessie leaned forward and stared into the man’s eyes. “Because I
watched my friend die and didn’t even try to kill the Traveler that took over her body. I should have done it even if my dad wouldn’t. I owed her that much.”

Grabbing the walker, Jessie pulled the body to its feet and glared down at the man who’d been there from the very beginning and could have stopped it.

“Maybe this is my punishment for not saving Carly’s body from—”

Music filled Jessie’s head.

“Jessie?” Ellison stood up. “What is it? What’s the matter?”

“Shh!”

“What? What do you hear?”

“Shh!”

A single piano began playing, the music soft and familiar. Jessie
recognized it and tears filled his eyes.

“Jessie, what’s wrong?”

The piano was joined by a single female voice. Ellison pushed Jessie back into the chair and moved the walker away.

“Jessie, you’re starting to scare me. What’s going on?”

“Shh. Listen. Isn’t it beautiful?”

“I don’t hear anything. What do you hear?”

Jessie took a deep breath. “Abbie singing. It’s ‘Bring Him Home’ from Les Miserables. Have you seen it?”

“Yes. I took my wife to see the movie. She wasn’t impressed.”

“The stage musical’s better.” Abbie’s voice rose pure and steady and when the song ended Jessie heard their father’s voice.

“The one who dwelled within this body is gone and has taken with her a soul that was hers and hers alone. We who are left behind ask that her soul be kept only unto this body and not return. As it was and always shall be, one body, one soul for now and all eternity. One body. One soul. Now and forever. Amen.”

“Jessie, what do you hear?”

“My funeral.”

**

Barney put the envelope back into his coat pocket as he watched the boy walk away, pointedly ignoring the giant dressed in nursing scrubs who hovered at his side.

It was a slow walk, small sliding steps between the wheeled guardrails of the walker. It was an old man’s walk, but that would change once the muscles in the legs regained their strength.

Barney heard Millie’s quick steps a full minute before she reached his side.

“Where’s Jessie headed? I brought a few books.” He turned to watch her pull three paperbacks out of her ever-present bag. “Not sure what Jessie likes, but I thought these might do.”

Barney took the books and smiled. They were all H.G. Wells reprints. Millie’s tastes ran to the classics.

“I think he will,” he said and handed them back and watched them disappear back into the bag.

“Well?”

“Well,” Barney repeated. “I think Jessie was having a hard enough time even before this happened. I’ll ask that a psychological evaluation be done.”

“You’re not going to do it?”

“No, I’d rather it be done by the hospital. He has a certain, shall we say, well-learned prejudice against me. If I tested him and felt there was sufficient evidence of schizophrenia similar to that of the donor, my diagnosis might come under suspicion.”

“You think there might be?”

Barney thought about what had just happened. There might be other answers to what he just saw besides schizophrenia, but none came immediately to mind.

“I don’t know and that’s why I want him evaluated. Schizophrenia is all about brain chemistry, Millie, and we have no idea whether the physical brain changes when a Traveler wakes or if it simply adapts and accommodates the new memories. But I saw him phase out and experience what might have been auditory hallucinations.”

“That poor, poor child.”

“I know, Millie, but let’s not jump the gun. First he has to be tested and then, even if he’s diagnosed, there are antipsychotics that can and will help. Besides, the donor’s parents have agreed to take Jessie in and they already know what to do.”

Millie didn’t look happy, but did look a bit more relieved. “Well, thank God for that. Did you tell him about Ms. Samuels?”

Barney pressed his hand against the front of his coat and shook his head. It was a copy of Georgina Samuels’ obituary, dated a few days after Jessie’s, and listed her death as the result of carbon monoxide poisoning. It wouldn’t do Jessie any good to see it.

Not now, not…

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

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

Fiction Fragments: Hailey Piper

Back in May I said I would be taking a hiatus until July. Technically, that’s true because I sent out invites to writers and began scheduling this new round of posts in July. This post begins a new cycle of the Fiction Fragments series, and happens to be my 50th post by the way.

Last time on Fiction Fragments, Nelson W. Pyles joined Girl Meets Monster. If you haven’t read Nelson’s fragment, you should. I had a great time chatting with him about his fiction and podcast, The Wicked Library. Today, I am excited to welcome horror writer Hailey Piper, whose Twitter bio challenges us to “Make horror gay AF.” Intrigued? You should be.

Hailey Piper is the author of The Possession of Natalie GlasgowAn Invitation to Darkness, and Benny Rose, the Cannibal King. She is a member of the HWA, and her short fiction appears in Daily Science Fiction, The Arcanist, Flash Fiction OnlineYear’s Best Hardcore Horror, and elsewhere. She lives with her wife in Maryland, where she haunts their apartment making spooky noises.

Links/handles:
Twitter: @HaileyPiperSays
Instagram: @haileypiperfights
Website: www.haileypiper.com
Amazon: www.amazon.com/author/haileypiper

Three Questions (+1)

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Hailey. Your fragment was the first piece of fiction of yours I’ve read, and now I not only want to know what’s happening in this story, but I’m looking forward to reading more of your work. Sunflower seems to be a strong character, and I’m guessing that she’s either in her teens or a young adult. Is The Storm YA Horror, or do you typically write for an older audience? Who are you hoping to attract to your fiction?

HP: Thank you for having me, Michelle! You guess correctly; Sunflower is 19, though I wouldn’t say the book is YA. I haven’t really dipped into YA and tend to label my work as adult fiction. That said, I never really know where to find the line. I was reading adult books at age 8 and watching R-rated horror movies by 9, so my idea of what’s right for any age is skewed.

GMM: Monsters and body horror are two of my favorite elements in genre fiction. Your fragment has both. Without giving away too much about the story, what kind of monster is Unchol? Is Unchol a she? What kind of monster is Mother? Do you have a preference for female monsters? What makes them scary?

HP: I love monsters too! Unchol and Sunflower’s mother are both the kinds of monsters that have stepped out of Sunflower’s past, perhaps the worst kind of monster in that at one point she thought she’d escaped them. I’m not sure if I have a monster gender preference; I can think of so many fun and/or scary ones of all kinds. But we could always use more lady monsters since there aren’t as many!

GMM: I agree that there is a lack of lady monsters in speculative fiction. Who or what are some of your favorite female monsters in horror, either in movies or fiction?

HP: I’ve always loved Mothra. Mother Suspiriorum from the Suspiria remake is another. And I don’t know if she counts, but if so, the car Christine is a favorite too!

GMM: How much of an impact does your identity have on your writing? I mentioned in your intro that your Twitter profile challenges us to “Make horror gay AF.” What does that mean for you? More gay horror writers? More gay characters? How can the genre open up to include more gay voices in horror?

HP: My identity has a tremendous impact. Who I am influences what I write. I think that’s every writer to some degree, whether they know it or not. As for “make horror gay AF,” partly it’s a statement of intent. I write queer characters, and even those times I don’t, I often write queer themes. But as a matter of how to do that? Yes, more queer writers, editors, characters. Opening up means a lot of things, such as wrestling with a past that vilified queer characters, with not fearing scrutiny over being inclusive. As with any underrepresented group, we have different voices and stories to share. I’ve been fortunate to work with incredibly supportive editors and readers, and my hope is that other queer horror authors will find that kind of support too.

Fragment from The Storm (working title):

“You’re not real,” Sunflower said, trembling.

“I was real when we met,” Unchol said. “And I’m real now. You wanted me to be your nightmare, but that doesn’t make me one.” Her bulbous head loomed, and her bony fingers latched onto Sunflower’s arm. “Besides, you’re not that afraid of me. Not the angel, either. But your mother, she’s the one who told you angels can’t help—she broke that dream. Even I can’t eat dreams, but your mother can.”

Sunflower had known that for the longest time. She tried to flinch back, but Unchol wouldn’t let go. A memory surged from deep inside of a glassy glare in the dark. Mother was always watching.

Raindrops slid down the Unchol’s noseless face. Her white eye shined in the dark. “I told you she’d find you, remember? No matter where you go, she’ll come for you. She’ll watch.” Her teeth slid close to Sunflower’s face. “But you can be something she’ll refuse to watch. I can give that to you.”

Sunflower glanced through the rain, where the mound of false mothers dampened under the storm.

Unchol glanced back. “I was trying to help. You keep bringing her back, and I keep taking her away.” Her throat bulged, and she wretched to one side. A new corpse slithered down her gray tongue and onto the ground. Dark mud splattered its familiar white dress. She had no face. “But you keep making more. If you want to be rid of her forever, you’ll have to become like me.”

Someone shouted from far away, but Sunflower couldn’t hear that well through the rain. Was that Olivia, shouting for her to stop? No, she was gone.

Unchol’s toes gripped the mud. “Be like me. It’ll end, after all these years. Better to be the monster than the loser, right?”

Sunflower looked to the faceless corpse. She’d felt stronger and free those days when she’d run off the boys and raise hell across Chapel Hill. Yet every time she came home, Mother sucked the life out, same as any vampire. Sunflower had only been strong in that house for one night, wrong yet good, at least until the end.

She hadn’t felt strong since, no matter where she went.

And Unchol knew it. Her gray lips peeled back in a grin. “I want the gift. Give it to me, and I’ll make the monster.”

“You can take that away?” Sunflower asked. This burden had twisted inside her for too long, and while it might have helped Olivia, there had been too many other troubles to count. Angels, corpses, this whole hellish night. Sunflower had done terrible things, and not only when she didn’t mean to. She eyed the corpse pile again.

She could stop this if she had the will.

Olivia was still shouting in the distance, something about not listening to Unchol. But she wasn’t close, and she didn’t feel the same as Sunflower did when they looked at Mother’s bodies. The gift could erase them, but they’d never stop coming. Dead or alive.

Behind the bodies stood Mother herself. Could she be the last? Not if they kept coming.

Not if Sunflower kept the gift. “Stop looking at me!” she snapped. “Stop judging me!”

Unchol’s throat rumbled.

Sunflower turned to her. “I don’t want it anymore. I want to make her go away.”

Unchol flashed her teeth. She leaned toward Sunflower, mouth open wide enough to swallow her head, and covered her face in swampy blackness.

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

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

Fiction Fragments: Sarah Read

Last week, Girl Meets Monster had a great conversation with horror writer, Todd Keisling, about religion in horror fiction and how COVID-19 has impacted his writing. This week, I have the pleasure of talking with Bram Stoker Award winner, Sarah Read.

Sarah ReadSarah Read is a dark fiction writer in the frozen north of Wisconsin. Her short stories can be found in various places, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year vols 10 and 12. A collection of her short fiction called OUT OF WATER is available now from Trepidatio Publishing, as is her debut novel THE BONE WEAVER’S ORCHARD, both nominated for the Bram Stoker Awards. When she’s not staring into the abyss, she knits. You can find her online on Instagram or Twitter @inkwellmonster or on her site at www.inkwellmonster.wordpress.com.

Three Questions

GMM: Hello Sarah. Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and congratulations on winning a Bram Stoker Award for your debut novel, The Bone Weaver’s Orchard. Tell me about how the book came about. What inspired the story, and what motivated you to finish your first novel?

SR: Thank you so much, Michelle! The book came about because I wanted to write a scary book that wedged between the gap of YA horror and adult horror. I had never been entirely satisfied with YA horror as a young reader–it wasn’t scary enough, or dark enough, it lacked honesty, and too often I could see the author pulling punches. I started reading adult horror when I was nine. I liked the scary side of it much better, but the stakes always seemed to hinge on grownup problems that I couldn’t relate to enough to fully sympathize with the characters. From there, I just took my love for Gothic lit and tossed in all my favorite ingredients. I wrote the novel for NaNoWriMo, I think back in 2014. My husband was working nights at the time, as a janitor in a hospital. Once I got our (then only) son in bed, I’d sit in my favorite chair with a notebook and pen and hit my word count for the day. I didn’t quite get that celebratory feeling when finishing it, because my inner editor had been keeping a tally of all the broken pieces I knew I was going to have to go in and fix. Writing “The End” was a moment of, “Oh shit, now the real work starts!” And it did, and lasted for several years.

GMM: Last week, I asked Todd Keisling to talk about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted his writing process. Many writers have shared on social media that they are struggling to focus on their work and haven’t been as productive as they normally would be. How has the pandemic affected your writing process? Has it inspired new stories? What advice would you give other writers who might be struggling to get words on the page?

SR: Oh gosh, my writing has been almost nonexistent for close to eight weeks now. I have two kids at home with me, stuck in the house. My eldest is 12 and has 4-6 hours of virtual classes a day, and my youngest is 5, and has no home schoolwork. My days are spent teaching 6th grade, playing with my youngest, troubleshooting eldest’s tech problems, fixing snacks every ten minutes, and I’m still also working as a librarian from home, doing virtual programs for our patrons. I’m also still freelancing (writing, editing), though I’ve had to cut back a bit on that. My husband is still at work full time. When he gets home and takes over with the kids is when my workday starts, and I’m usually not done until almost midnight. Honestly, though, even if my schedule wasn’t a shitshow, my anxiety would probably polish off any creative energy that might surface. I’ve had a few good writing sessions since this all started, but I’m definitely not anywhere close to my usual output. I’ve been at this level of anxiety once before, when I was pregnant with my second son and he kept trying to die in utero over and over and over. I was on bed rest for seven months. I thought I’d get so much done! But it was a terrifying time, and my creative energy was re-routed to self-preservation. Instead I burned through Netflix and played Age of Empires. Now it’s Animal Crossing, if I can catch a moment. I feel less guilty this time, and more comfortable focusing on taking care of myself and my family.

GMM: Your fragment has a definite fantasy feel to it, with a hint f Shakespearean drama with the death of the family patriarch and what is promising to be a dispute over who will take his place as Lord. Do you feel more at home writing fantasy or horror, or do you typically combine the two genres? Can you give a brief synopsis of The Atropine Tree?

SR: I definitely frolic in dark fantasy, and tend to blend it with horror fairly often, sometimes crossing into the Weird territory altogether. I don’t know that I prefer one style over the others. Each story feels like home while I’m writing it. The Atropine Tree definitely dances along the Weird line. It’s unabashedly paranormal, where I usually tend to keep my ghosties more ambiguous. I’m having a blast working on it, though.

The synopsis:

Alrick’s uncle Tredan has his father’s last breath trapped in a blue bottle in his lab. Which is good, because they’ll need him to weigh in on a matter of succession and the location of the missing will.

Alrick’s father is dead, but the lords and ladies of House Aldane are restless spirits. When Alrick’s half-brother Aemon (bitter and cruel) and his sister Nelda (whose mouth is stained black from poison and who sways on the line between living and dead) show up with a lawyer and a dodgy will, Alrick and his alchemist uncle must turn to some dark arts to harness the voices of their household spirits. They must win witchy Nelda’s loyalty and turn her against the powerful demonic specter of her mother, and learn to swallow her poisons in the process.

Tredan’s army of young urchins rescued from the streets of London—the scratchlings, only half of whom survived his medical administrations—will aid them in their quest to secure the land and title for Alrick.

The Atropine Tree is a weird, Gothic Victorian ghost story about family loyalty and feuds that span generations, both living and dead. They all want a home of their own—and they all want House Aldane. It’s like Downton Abbey set in Hell House with the characters of Oliver Twist and a chaser of nightshade.

The Atropine Tree, Sarah Read

Chapter One

Alrick had arrived in time, but only just. The collar of his shirt strained against his throat, his cuffs pinched his wrists like ropes binding him to his father’s bedside.

Lord Drummond’s chest rose with a sound like chalk on slate, like plough on stone—each exhalation a surrender against the struggle to draw breath.

Alrick’s uncle Tredan leaned in and held a blue orb jar to the old Lord’s slack mouth. The fog of his breath that had clouded the glass only an hour ago now barely reached past the rim.

Tredan stood poised with the lid.

Alrick counted the breaths. Counted the beads of perspiration gathered in his uncle’s beard, counted the coarse ridges of his father’s knuckles that he held between his hands. The Lord’s cold, dry hands seemed to wick the moisture from Alrick’s hot palms. He spun the ring that hung loose on his father’s finger. Those hands had once been thick with callous, rough with half-healed tears, but now the skin draped from his fingerbones like half-drawn curtains. Like the end of an act. The end of everything.

Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen. He counted.

He wondered if his school had somehow been frozen in time. If in his six years there, a hundred years had passed at House Aldane.

“Thirteen. Twelve. Eleven.” His half-sister, Nelda, counted, too. Whispered, so that the fine veil across her face barely stirred.

“Three. Two.” Nelda’s voice faded.

His father wore at least a hundred years across his brow. The jar pressed into the greying skin, burrowed in thinning whiskers. Covered the lines Alrick had watched as a child, searching for that rare trace of humor. The lines that had faded, erased after his mother died.

The lid of the jar snapped into place—and that was how Alrick Aldane learned that his father, Lord Drummond Aldane, was dead.

Uncle Tredan held the jar up to the candlelight. The mist of Alrick’s father’s last breath stretched like a ghost down the side of the jar.

While Alrick watched the light play over the droplets condensing in Tredan’s bottle, the other eyes in the room watched Alrick.

He had come home to bid his father farewell, but he would not be returning to school.

The gold signet ring stuck at his father’s knuckle. He feared he’d tear the soft crepe skin if he twisted or pulled too hard. Alrick looked to Tredan.

“I’ll take care of it. I’ll have it back to you this evening.” He slid his blue bottle into the pocket of his long coat, and for a moment, Alrick thought the bulge it formed moved as if it were breathing.

Alrick nodded and laid the slack hand on the sheet.

“Best to wait.”

Alrick turned to the voice, to his half-brother Aemon who sat in the far corner beyond the reach of the candlelight, save for its shine off his eyes and teeth.

“And why is that?” asked Alrick. If a hundred years had passed at House Aldane, a thousand had passed since he’d seen his brother. Not since his mother sent Nelda and Aemon away, to live with their mother’s family. Just before she had died. Their return to House Aldane was a special exception. Alrick himself had granted it. Lord Drummond had been their father, too, and now the four of them—Alrick, Aemon, Nelda, and Tredan—were all that remained of the ancient Aldane family.

“Father’s will hasn’t been read, yet.” The shine of Aemon’s smile stretched wide.

“Let’s not speak of such things now,” Tredan said. He waved the housekeeper Merewyn over and she began to see to Lord Drummond, a half-hitch in her breath that stirred Alrick’s own grief.

The powder smell of her apron pulled at his heart like a chain yanking him back to his childhood, to her lap, the soft cushion from which he had learned his home—the whole world. His whole world.

He reached up and ran his fingers over the wood of the wide beam that spanned the low ceiling. It had seemed so high when he was young. How he had leapt, in this very spot, to reach these distant beams. Landed there on the bed where his father now lay.

Fallen. Already sinking through the linens into the straw, as if life itself had buoyancy, and now the Lord was leaden.

Merewyn rolled a bit of blanket under his chin to hold his mouth closed. A sliver of rheumy yellow flashed from beneath his eyelids, the stillness of those soft folds uncanny. It sent cold down the back of Alrick’s neck. No living eyes could ever be so still.

“He’s with Mother, now,” Nelda said.

“With Burgrune.” Aemon put his hand on his sister’s shoulder.

Tredan nodded. “Yes, and Eleanor. He loved them both.”

“I know,” Aemon said, “I saw.”

“So you did,” agreed Tredan. “We should go. Give Merewyn room.”

Three children entered the room. All wore undyed linen smocks, their heads shaved close. Their faces were scarred with the ravages of old pox that left their skin like masks. They were urchins from London—orphans that Tredan claimed and cured.

I’m an orphan. The thought came unbidden to Alrick’s mind.

No, I’m a young man. Not a child. A Lord.

The children set to helping Merewyn—cleaning the room and folding clothes. Alrick almost wished himself in one of those smocks. Something to do. A duty. A place in the world, instead of spinning uncertainty.

Tredan’s hand rested on his shoulder and steered him toward the door. Alrick stole a final glimpse back at his father. His eyelids had slid further back. His pale eyes stared out into the room, each rolling to the opposite side. Perhaps there was a wife at each bedside and he greeted them both. Perhaps one eye looked to the past and one to the future. Or perhaps he was roving, surrounded by devils.

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

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

Fiction Fragments: Michael Burke

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

authorphoto

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

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

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

Three Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excerpt from PARLIAMENT OF OWLS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My fire, eh? When was that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction Fragments: Bracken MacLeod

Last week, I talked with Todd Sullivan about anime, writing YA fantasy, and cultural differences while living abroad. And this week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Bracken MacLeod. I think I first met Bracken at StokerCon in Providence, but I’ve had the pleasure of bumping into him at other events and hope to eventually have time to just sit and talk one of these days. In the meantime, enjoy his fragment and interview.

2020-02-12 14.43.17aBracken MacLeod is the Bram Stoker and Shirley Jackson Award nominated author of the novels, Mountain Home, Come to Dust, Stranded, and Closing Costs, coming in 2021 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He’s also published two collections of short fiction, 13 Views of the Suicide Woods and White Knight and Other Pawns. Before devoting himself to full time writing, he worked as a civil and criminal litigator, a university philosophy instructor, and a martial arts teacher. He lives outside of Boston with his wife and son, where he is at work on his next novel.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Bracken. I’m so glad you could join me today. Thank you for taking time to stop by and talk about your writing. I enjoyed your fragment. There’s a lot going on in Harlow’s world, internally and externally. And, a boring train ride through New York City becomes an opportunity for you to highlight several aspects of the human condition, including: feelings of loneliness and isolation even though we are usually surrounded by people, the way our communication has changed over time, and the very serious subject of suicide. Can you tell me a little bit about what inspired this story? Or at the very least, this scene?

BM: Thank you. I am so glad you liked it. This is a selection from the beginning of a new novel I’m working on we’ll call Moral Panic (not my real title, but I’m going to be a little protective here of a turn of phrase I think is pretty boss). I wanted to introduce the character of Harlow in a way that depicts someone trying to get back on their feet emotionally after a significant trauma. But reminders of that ordeal intrude in her life periodically, threatening to drag her back down. In the case of this piece, she’s feeling surprise at her own disappointment in not winning an award, and is heading home, when the world around her stops and points out in stark detail exactly how painful things can get. The details of the piece are drawn from my own experience in several different ways, but specifically, and most obviously, being on a train delayed by a person who’d jumped. It’s one thing to hear the driver tell you something’s happened, and quite another to ride by slowly, watching workers spreading sawdust on the tracks to soak up blood. Despite not being a first responder, I’ve seen considerably more than my share of public tragedy. A lot of Harlow’s interiority here is my own.

GMM: Many writers struggle with the concept of imposter syndrome even after they’ve had their work published and had some success with their writing. As a writer who has been nominated for some prestigious awards within your genre, does that kind of recognition make it easier or more difficult to approach your craft? Personally, I suffer from a fear of success, because success often means there are greater expectations for your next effort, and that also means more work on your part. Has success in your writing been helpful or a hindrance?

BM: Being nominated for awards is nice, and with few exceptions, I wouldn’t turn one down that was given to me, but there is an odd feeling of competition with yourself that creeps into the aftermath of being recognized like that. It’s less about not winning (PRO-TIP: you don’t LOSE awards, because how can you lose something you’ve never had?), than it is about what I think of the quality of my work. Why did this book get nominated and not that one? What was it about the story that resounded with people so much, and can I do it again? Imposter syndrome never goes away, but it does lessen. Still, while I was writing Closing Costs (coming in early 2021 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), I had considerable anxiety about the book and whether it lived up to what people might expect from a “Bracken MacLeod Novel” (whatever THAT is—how arrogant to think there even is such a thing). You have to sublimate those feelings and just go on. I know how to do what I do, and ideally, I’ve learned lessons about what lands right and what doesn’t from prior work. A little bit of anxiousness is good, though; it keeps you working hard.

In all honesty, I think I’d worry a little about someone who says they have no imposter syndrome. It sounds to me like admitting to Dunning-Krueger.

GMM: The overall feeling of your fragment is one of either despair or a sense of not feeling connected to the world around you. Disorientation. Genre wise, this feels like suspense or horror, but your use of language and detailed observation of what’s happening around Harlow gives your writing a literary feel as well. Where do you fall on the spectrum of the literary vs. genre fiction debate? How do you classify your own writing? Has your work ever been criticized for being too literary or too genre driven?

BM: I feel like my work firmly falls in the categories of horror and, more often, thriller, but I strive for literary style. My temptation is to say “literary quality” here, but I think there’s tremendous quality in stripped down, no frills prose as well as “literary.” I don’t like this rivalry we have with each other over genre v. Literary Fiction. Lit Fic is a genre with its own reader expectations and tropes, and there’s no reason why good genre fiction can’t also be literary. Read Paul Tremblay and Priya Sharma and John Langan and tell me those aren’t amazing literary writers working in genre. Colson Whitehead and Victor LaValle are two other examples of wonderful writers who I think of as literary first, but who clearly enjoy writing genre and are great at it. Anyway, I’d like to think of myself as a “slipstream” thriller writer falling somewhere in between traditional thriller/horror writing and Lit Fic.

I think I’ve had more pushback with crossing horror and thriller lines than literary. People have told me while they like this story of mine, it isn’t horror, as if there’s a bright line distinction with no overlap. But then, I tend to prefer what I call “secular horror” over supernatural most of the time. If given the choice between something like IT and McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, I’ll more often than not pick the more human monsters.

GMM: Secular horror. I like the sound of that. I think I know what you mean, but could you explain it a bit for a layperson?

BM: “Secular Horror” is a term I coined for my work. It’s kind of like the opposite of supernatural horror, PLUS. The plus is a matter of representation. While I try to do my best writing characters of all backgrounds and beliefs, my protagonists are always atheists and hard skeptics. Part of it is to make a point, perhaps, but a larger part is to give readers in that audience someone to identify with. So, when I say I write secular horror, it usually means that I’m writing non-supernatural work (though I have done supernatural in both novels and short stories) with a point of view coming from a position of skepticism and incredulity. Jack Ketchum, I’d say, wrote that also. Scooby Doo falls into the category as well, ALL the ghosts and spirits in those shows were normal people performing fraudulent supernaturalism! Scooby Doo is secular horror for children.

Fragment, by Bracken MacLeod

The operator’s crackling voice came on the public address speaker and said, “I’m sorry. We’re experiencing a delay.” The train operator sounded tired. It was late, but there seemed to be more weighing on her than the hour. “There’s a… a medical… a passenger just jumped in front of a train at the stop ahead of us. We’re been held here until cleared to resume. I’m very sorry.” The train car was silent. Those kinds of announcements used to be made by euphemism—there was a “police investigation” or “a passenger seeking medical attention.” These days, if you were on the affected train, they told you how it was. Matter of fact. In a sad kind of way, the passengers took it better. While any delay was frustrating, a kind of hushed patience came with the news of someone’s death on the tracks. People from elsewhere could believe all they wanted that New Yorkers were cold and aloof, but people in the city understood that tragedy outweighed inconvenience. They were the same kind of human beings as everyone else, whatever politicians had to say about “coastal elites.”

Harlow closed her eyes and visions of blood and chaos swirled in her alcohol-loosened thoughts. She realized she was better off with her eyes wide open. Perhaps all night. A couple at the other end of her car spoke to each other in hushed tones, leaning into one another. Other riders kept to themselves, typing on their phones or with wireless earbuds in their ears while they played Candy Crush. One woman quietly wiped tears from her eyes and stared straight ahead at her own reflection in the dark glass of the subway car window.

Harlow checked her phone. There were a couple of texts from people inviting her up to room parties, not realizing she’d left the con, and one from her mother asking whether she’d won. She closed her texts and opened Kindle instead. She tried to pick up her book where she’d left off, but the first paragraph seemed impervious to interpretation; she read it again and again, trying to discern meaning from the collection of words she knew had to make sense together but couldn’t force into clarity. She closed the app and instead opened Snapchat, using a filter to look at herself with cat ears and whiskers, then in grainy sepia, then as a biker complete with black five o’clock shadow and a skull-cap bandana. It was a stupid waste of time, and while she would’ve normally found it oddly narcissistic to stare at herself in digital costumes for a half an hour, it kept her from focusing on what had happened on the tracks ahead.

Sitting in a stationary subway car in a tunnel felt different than a delay at the station. Looking through the windows at people on the platform, moving from the gates to the exits, arriving and seeing a train waiting, was of a separate character than sitting in a car with black windows with only one’s own reflection looking back. A car one couldn’t easily exit and return to the world as it was. This felt like being lost. The tunnels weren’t made for lingering; they were intended to be sped through, viewed at a blur. This was a place of motion, not hesitation. And sitting still felt like being lost in time. Like being dead.

Like the person ahead of them on the tracks.

After nearly forty minutes, the train operator came back on the P.A. and told them they were clear to move; however, theirs would be an express train through the next stop. Buses would be waiting at the following station to shuttle riders back. A couple of people on the car softly groaned, but no one made more out of it than that exhaled utterance.

The car began to move again, and the riders slipped from their pocket of stilled time into the continuity of life in the city.

As they emerged from the tunnel and passed through the station, Harlow tried to keep her eyes fixed on her smart phone, but she’d been through all the filters in her app, checked her e-mail and texts. There was nothing unseen to draw her eyes from the bright hardhats of the workmen visible through the window across from her, and she looked up. Two of the them spread what looked like sawdust onto a darkened patch of track on the opposite side of the center divider, separating inbound and outbound trains, while a third looked on. He stood stoically, having already done his job, or waiting to take his turn, so no one would ever know death had come to that small space in their underground world. But he knew it had. His co-workers knew. And so did Harlow. He looked up, eyes meeting hers and in that moment she thought of Gentileschi’s Judith slaying Holofernes—figures standing in the dark, captured in a golden ratio of elemental violence too far complete to be stilled, yet frozen. She hovered in that instant unable to look away, confronted by the workman’s face, his impassivity, but seeing deeper in his eyes a sense that blood was not unfamiliar, and despondence infected him. Had changed him. She understood, and felt pass between them a kind of grieving kinship. Harlow blinked and when she opened her eyes the man had looked away and she couldn’t be certain he’d ever looked at her. The train continued to move and another wave of bleary drunkenness washed over her, bringing Harlow fully back into her body.

A teary woman across from her stifled a sob. Harlow turned her head and tried to catch her gaze, and convey solace to her. She tried to be the presence in between violence and death for this other human being who was about to be overtaken. The way she did. The woman gave her a weak half-smile and turned her eyes toward her hands in her lap.

Harlow leaned back in her seat and for the next two stops, stared at the advertisement next to the door. A size zero woman with a heavy-lidded expression stood stiffly in a yellow bikini next to the legend,

ARE YOU
BEACH BODY
READY?

The scars over Harlow’s ribs itched.

The operator announced her stop and she snapped out of her trance. Harlow didn’t recollect walking home, but waking up the next morning in her bed, had found her way.

Do you have a fragment you’d love to share here at Girl Meets Monster? If so, send it my way at: chellane@gmail.com.

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

Fiction Fragments: Todd Sullivan

Last week, I had the pleasure of chatting with Jessica McHugh about YA fiction and how horror and humor come together in her stories. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Todd Sullivan.

image0 (2)Todd Sullivan teaches English as a Second Language, and English Literature & Writing in Asia. He has had numerous short stories, novelettes, and novellas published across several countries, including Thailand, the U.K., Australia, the U.S., and Canada. He is a practitioner of the sword-fighting martial arts, kumdo/kendo, and has trained in fencing (foil), Muay Thai, Capoeira, Wing Chun, and JKD. He graduated from Queens College with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, and received a Bachelor of Arts in English from Georgia State University. He attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the National Book Foundation Summer Writing Camps. He currently lives in Taipei, Taiwan, and looks forward to studying Mandarin.

Three Questions

GMM: Hi Todd, welcome to Girl Meets Monster. After reading your fragment, I wondered what inspired the story, as well as what specific genre it fits into. There are young characters, so I thought YA and since there’s magic, I placed it in fantasy. Do you normally write YA fantasy, or do you write within other genres and subgenres?

TS: I wrote this story while teaching at a Language School in Seoul. One of the students was fond of drawing, and he was also a poor student academically. He was under a lot of pressure to do better in his classes, and soon he was going to take entrance exams for a boarding school in China.

This real-life scenario became the genesis of Test Amongst the Shadows, wherein a teenager, who happens to be a mage in the world of humans, has to pass an exam that is important to him. The narrative follows the different methods he employs to cheat since he knows he cannot pass the test on his own.

Test Amongst the Shadows is YA urban fantasy fiction, and eventually I’ll develop the idea into a novella series.

I also write across genres, including horror and light science fiction.

GMM: The interaction between your characters also reminded me of Japanese manga and anime stories. Do you enjoy anime? How has it influenced your writing? What are some of your favorite anime series or characters?

TS: I love anime, and it has had a significant influence on my writing. I remember the first time I saw Akira, which is the first major Japanese anime film many people around my age saw. This was in the 90s before the popularity of the internet when it was hard to find anime on American television.

One of the big differences between anime narratives and western narratives is that there are usually no purely evil characters. Westerners base a lot of their worldview on scripture: Heaven and Hell, good and evil. There is God, and there is Satan. There is a hero, and there is a villain.

Anime characters tend to be more flux in their alignment. Usually, the characters simply have objectives. Sometimes this objective brings great harm to one, or many, and that person will be the bad guy. The character with an objective that happens to include stopping the great harm to the one, or many, will be the good guy.

In Akira, there is no villain. There is a teen boy full of angst who accidentally achieves great power he cannot control. And there is his friend who must stop him, in a way out of friendship, out of knowing that the boy is in torment even as his power wrecks havoc upon the city.

In Dragon Ball Z, one of my favorite animes, Vegeta starts off as a central villain to Earth. He does so because he wants to escape the tyranny of one of DBZs purely evil characters, Frieza, and on Earth he thinks the means to do exists. Vegeta changes throughout the series, going from villain to anti-hero to hero.

Then there is Goku, a character whose goal of protecting the Earth conflicts with his overwhelming desire to improve his fighting abilities. This obsession Goku has indirectly causes great harm and misery to others.

The characters I write are similar to these Japanese figures. With few exceptions, my characters are not purely good, and they are not purely evil. Sometimes one of them will have a goal that brings suffering to others; and sometimes, another of them will have a goal that brings them into direct conflict with the first, and thus the suffering of others can be alleviated.

GMM: How long have you lived in Asia, and what aside from teaching English and Writing made you decide to move there? What cultural barriers have you experienced as a person of color living abroad? How have these experiences shaped your writing?

TS: I’ve lived in Asia ten years. After a three-week winter semester class where I studied Japanese authors in Tokyo during my MFA at Queens College, I knew that I wanted to come back to this part of the world and learn more about the people and the cultures.

Many Asian societies are homogeneous, so the presence of foreigners acts as a bit of a shock to their system. I think that being a foreigner in a homogeneous society is a good case study of how humans might react to the presence of aliens from outer space. There is simply a difficulty in processing the reality of that which is standing in front of you.

Writing-wise, I think this difficulty is best expressed in my fantasy novella series, The Windshine Chronicles. This series centers around a dark-skinned foreigner living in a fantasy version of Korea called South Hanguk. The series’ narrative is multilayered, but one of the themes is how the people of the country interact with foreigners, and how the foreigners struggle to exist in a country that isn’t their native home.

In The Windshine Chornicles, the idea that the human race is “one whole” is constantly put to the test.

From Test Amongst the Shadows, by Todd Sullivan

The hardest working mage who ever lived glanced at the clock on the wall. Twenty minutes. Jin gazed down at his English exam. Only twenty minutes left to pass or fail the biggest test of his life. His scantron sheet was half empty. The clock’s ticking seconds in the silent classroom echoed in his mind, and made focusing on English vocabulary and grammar impossible. He had to do something if he intended to get in the top of his class.

Jin looked around at the other students, their heads low, their shoulders hunched as they picked off ovals in the long marching columns. Adjusting his glasses, he opened his senses in search for the right spell amidst the thin cracks that splinter reality. He released control of his hand and let it draw six stick-figure bandits on horses at the edges of the exam. Leaning close to the page, he whispered, “Thieving shadows, take shape and learn the secrets of my woes.”

The drawings shivered, and the bandits shook themselves awake. They clawed out of the exam, erupting off the page into the third dimension. The cloaked leader saluted, his face hidden in shades of gray. Jin pointed to the answer key tucked under a notebook on the teacher’s desk. The leader nodded, and motioned to the silent troupe behind him. The bandits yanked on their horses’ reins and leapt off the side of the table. Racing across the tiled floor, the horses skirted around chair legs and hopped over sneakers. Jin glanced at the exam answer key again. The sides of his mouth spread in a triumphant smile, but a purple boot suddenly crushed the horsemen right before they cleared the classroom’s tables. Jin inhaled in surprised. He followed the boot up to the leg, the skirt, the shirt, to finally meet the steady gaze of Sori, the top student in the school.

And his ex-girlfriend.

The two maintained eye contact for several moments, a silent challenge passing between them. Sori had broken up with him right before exams, informing him that she wasted too much time with him and wasn’t focusing enough on the upcoming finals. And now, here she sat, the only other mage in this room of humans, stopping him from reaching his goal.

So that’s how it was going to be.

Jin slowly took off his glasses in preparation for his next spell. Sori had managed to see his bandits. He didn’t know how, but he would need to take care of her sight before he tried for the test answers again.

Jin narrowed his eyes at the light reflected in the lenses of his glasses. He smiled. He held the glasses to his lips and misted the lenses by blowing on one, then the other. While he did this, he focused on the magic vibrating between the fissures of reality until he heard the words to the next spell.

“Site sighted, two to see, sea bog fog billowing…”

“John?”

Jin snapped his mouth shut at the teacher speaking his English name. He tried to still his heart now thumping fast in his chest, and met the teacher’s puzzled blue eyes.

“Are you speaking to someone?”

Now the other students’ heads lifted, and before he knew it, dozens of humans were all staring in his direction. With their attention focused on him, he couldn’t produce magic. No mage could. Human disbelief in magic narrowed the fissures running throughout reality, making the words necessary to bring spells to life impossible to hear. Jin had been told that no mage had been able to perform magic in front of a human in hundreds of years.

He glanced at Sori, who was smiling at him as he sweated under the spotlight of mankind. With a weak shrug, Jin said, “I was just,” and he paused as he scrambled for a good excuse, “reading a problem out loud to myself.” He tapped the exam. “Sometimes that helps.”

The English teacher nodded. “Everyone must remain silent so that the other students can concentrate. Sorry, John.”

“Won’t happen again,” Jin assured him. He caught Sori’s smug wink, and tore his eyes away from his ex-girlfriend’s pretty face.

These exams determined who would be allowed to apply for the International School in Hong Kong. Only the top two students would be recommended. Jin felt confident about math and science, but he worried over his English scores. One of his classmates had lived in San Francisco for years. Jin only managed to edge him out sometimes, while Sori beat them both in every subject every, single, time.

She was a studying machine.

Jin looked at the clock again. Ten minutes to finish the exam. He had to cast another spell, but when he raised his eyes, he noticed the teacher looking around the room. Whereas before he hadn’t been paying much attention, now the teacher was watching them closely, all because of Sori. Jin really wished he had been able to cast his spell and blind her. Not only because he would have been able to get the answers without her trying to counter him, but because it would have stopped her from taking the test, maybe even causing her to fail.

That would have been sweet.

Jin’s eyes narrowed as a new idea struck him. He looked at the dusty blackboard behind the teacher and slowly raised his hand.

“Yes, John?” The teacher said. “Is something wrong?”

“Can I ask you a question?” Jin assumed his most perplexed look, and mixed in a little pained exasperation to make himself seem even more pathetic.

The teacher sighed and waved him forward. Jin stood. Only briefly, a couple of students glanced up at the newest disturbance, but their focus quickly returned to their exams. All, that is, except Sori, who watched Jin with a penetrating gaze. He wanted to give her the finger, but since the teacher was staring at him, he refrained as he passed her…

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

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

Fiction Fragments: Jessica McHugh

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

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

Three Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Died in the House Next Door, by Jessica McHugh

Chapter One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How late?”

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

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

“Is there anything else?”

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

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

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

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

Fiction Fragments: 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: Errick Nunnally

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

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

Three Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Keeper of Taswomet, by Errick A. Nunnally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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