Fiction Fragments: Jessica Guess

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

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

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

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

Three Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lisa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I guess I’ll take a basket.”

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes people get lost back there, you know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Erica? I just want to talk!”

“Is that why you were following me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction Fragments: J. Edwin Buja

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking with Ed Kurtz. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes J. Edwin Buja. I met J. Edwin Buja at Necon 39, where we both released our debut novels for Haverhill House Publishing. If you haven’t read The King of the Wood, I highly recommend that you do.

IMG_5942J. Edwin Buja has spent his life surrounded by books and has written everything from children’s novels to software technical manuals. With an MA in history he discovered early on that researching and writing hold the key to happiness. Who else would think scanning through years of microfilm to index an old newspaper would be a dream job?
The King of the Wood is his first novel in the genre of magical realism, but it will not be his last. For more than thirty years, he has been married to the most wonderful woman on the planet. He lives in a small village somewhere in Ontario.

Three Questions

GMM: Since music is a major theme in your fragment, I thought about the fact that a lot of writers listen to certain styles of music or create playlists to match the mood of a piece they’re working on. Music has always been an important part of my life. Music is more than just background noise. Certain music has been more like a soundtrack for the phases of my life. Your story feels like it has a soundtrack and even without the inclusion of dates, most readers would recognize the time period based on the bands. How important is music to your other writing projects? What do you usually listen to while you’re writing? When you develop a story, do you have a specific soundtrack in mind like a film or TV show?

JEB: I don’t listen to music while I write for two reasons.

First, I prefer to immerse myself in the music so I listen wearing headphones, with my eyes closed, and the lights off. This started after my sister introduced me to Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Mott the Hoople, and Uriah Heep all in the same week. She was the music nut, I only read. I was hooked instantly. However, it was difficult to listen to records because the loudness disturbed my parents. As soon as I could afford it, I got a stereo system and headphones. From then on, whenever I listened to records, I would pretend I was one of the musicians at a concert. That has stayed with me for over forty years. I still rarely listen to a complete album. That’s the joy of an iPod: I can create playlists of “concerts” that I would like to hear.

Second, I tend to bang on the keyboard in time with the music which is noisy and causes the people around me to complain. This happened at my first tech writing job, and I never listened to music at work again.

Music does inspire a lot of my writing and sometimes I have a soundtrack in mind. This is usually to help with the mood and inner thoughts of a character. If a tune makes me happy, then it makes my character happy. I do have a group of what I call Suicide Songs. These invoke such strong memories (times, places, events) that I get the feeling that I should give up and not bother doing anything else. It’s not so much physical death as the death of new ideas, aspirations, inspiration, and of doing anything but reading or watching TV. These tunes have been very useful in setting the mood for several characters.

Sometimes, tunes give me the kick I need to start writing. There’s nothing specific, simply the urge to get back to the keyboard.

In my first novel, I have the main character listening to tunes while he walks. I removed the exact references (Free’s Highway, the remastered version) because my tastes are sometimes obscure and readers might get confused. Several of the streets in town are named after bands or musicians.

GMM: I’ve only ever seen one concert in Detroit. I had the pleasure of seeing Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at a Masonic temple with my friend Tracy. That was a memorable evening that might eventually end up in a story. How much of your fragment is based on real events? And, how often do you pull from your own experiences in your writing?

JEB: In the fragment, all the concerts listed are ones I attended. This is important because I am a fanatic for correct geography in a story. If a character is heading for some location, then his journey must be logical. For example, if a building is seen from someone’s back window, but they leave through the front and arrive there from the wrong direction, I am taken out of the story. I draw maps of towns and house plans to keep everyone in their right place. For the fragment, knowing the layout of the concert venues, what could be seen from a particular seat, how to get in and out, and what kind of movement was possible during a concert, is vital to the story.

As far as anything else from my experiences, I use them all the time. There may be specific events. The feelings and thoughts from those events are blended, mixed up, turned around, and used in whatever way helps the narrative. For example, seeing a girl repeatedly and not knowing anything about her. What to do? How do I find out who she is? What happens once I know about her? I was a history major at university, so I know how to do research, following several paths to reach a conclusion. There’s also the frustration from lack of sources or contradictions in facts.

Experiencing depression is an absolute gold mine. It’s not a pleasant gold mine, but one that is hard to ignore. Writing about this is also therapeutic.

By the way, I saw Rush, Nazareth, and Uriah Heep at the Masonic Auditorium.

GMM: Based solely on the fragment, I get the sense that a romance is blooming. However, since the narrator has mentioned his terrible luck in meeting women, I assume that getting to know the curly haired woman in the red jacket won’t be easy. I anticipate some heartache. Beyond the developing romance, what else is happening in the story? Can you give us a synopsis of what you think is going to happen without too many spoilers?

JEB: What is the story all about? A teen sees a girl at almost every concert he attends. Despite attempts to get closer to her, she disappears every time. None of his friends know her. He falls instantly in love with her. After several years, he stops going to concerts. Nothing is done about the girl because he is unable to act on his desires due to shyness, lack of knowledge, and a sense of ‘what’s the point, anyway?’ Fifteen years later, he goes to a concert and sees her. She hasn’t changed in the slightest. She’s even wearing the same clothes from that last concert. They finally connect, but not in the way he had hoped. She disappears before his eyes. And so, his quest begins. Who is she? What happened to her after his last sighting? Why is she back? The gatefold of the Kiss Alive album (not the CD) plays a vital role in his quest. (I have never seen Kiss in concert.)

A fragment from J. Edwin Buja’s novel, Rock ‘n’ Roll Never Forgets

Part One – Music and sightings

The last time I saw her was December 27, 1977. The J. Geils band was doing an encore and she was in her usual spot down by the right of the stage.

It took fifteen years for me to find her, and when I did it broke my heart beyond repair.

Uriah Heep/Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, 25th of July, 1974 Cobo Arena Tier A Section A2 Row G Seat 9

Things started when I was attending a Uriah Heep concert at Cobo Hall in Detroit. This was back in the day when you could just send your money to the venue, ask for specific seats, and you’d get your tickets about a week later. But that doesn’t matter right now.

This happened to be my very first concert. I was twenty and a late starter when it came to music.

Like I said, I was in Tier A at Cobo getting in to Mick Box as he went nuts doing one of his solos. The audience had slowly crept closer to the stage but the security guys were keeping everyone well away from the stage. My buddies and I had tried to get down to the main floor but security had been much more alert than usual, according to Terry, the guy who got the tickets and convinced me to go in the first place. Apparently, Terry was able to get down to the main floor at most concerts because he knew one of the security guys and always slipped him a doob when passing.

His friendly guard wasn’t on duty this night. It was probably because I was there.

I had a pair of binoculars because I had never been to Cobo and had no clue how big it was inside or how close we’d be to the band. As it turned out our seats weren’t too bad and I didn’t need any help seeing though they came in handy when I wanted a close-up of Mick Box wailing on his guitar.

It was during a bit of talk from Ken Hensley the keyboard player when I happened to look into the crowd in front of the stage.

Most of the time, my eyes were glued to the stage but once in a while I’d scan the audience looking for cute girls. I may have been twenty but my hormones were in high gear so I was always on the lookout for a girl. Not that I would ever have had the nerve to talk to a girl. I was deadly shy at the time and my luck with girls had been poor to say the least. I was pretty much reconciled to never meeting the girl of my dreams.

Still am for the most part.

Something flashed and caught my attention. One of the spotlights from the rig above the band had moved and lit up the section of the crowd below Hensley. Standing about three people back from the barrier between the stage and the audience was a girl who brushed her long curly blonde hair out of her eyes. She was listening intently as Hensley spoke. I couldn’t be sure, but it looked like she was taking notes though why anyone would do that during a concert remained a mystery to me at the time.

There was something magical about her. I couldn’t really see any details, like the colour or her eyes, but I saw enough to make me pay more attention to her than the band. And she was wearing a bright red jacket.

My eyes kept flitting back to her as Heep finished their set then came back out for an encore.

The band finished their last tune, left the stage, and the house lights came up. I immediately focused my attention on the spot where the girl was standing but she was already gone. Feeling a little disappointed, I scanned the crowd to try and spot her. That jacket would be hard to miss. As always, I had no luck.

For me, it had been business as usual. Attend some thing, be it movie, concert, party, see a girl that catches my eye, then do nothing about it because I had no balls and never see her again.

I didn’t give the girl at the concert any more thought.

J. Geils Band/Mountain/Golden Earring, 3rd of November 1974 Cobo Arena Tier A Section A17 Row B Seat 3

She was there again. I couldn’t miss that bright red jacket and the curly blonde hair. This time I was on the other side of the arena so I didn’t see her right away. When Corky Laing set his drums on fire, she was there in the glow of the flames.

Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band/Rex, 5th of September, 1977 Cobo Arena Tier A Section A6 Row E Seat 6

So, I’m at the Seger concert, getting in to the sax, and I spot something in the corner of my eye. Something yellow. I turned and it was hair. Long curly blond hair. The girl who owned the hair was perhaps three feet from the barrier where the security guts were patrolling. There was something about her that got me interested. Maybe it was the hair. I have a weakness for long curly hair. Maybe it was the tune.

I decided to get a better look at her. I inched my way through the crowd and got to within ten feet of her when for some reason, she turned around. My heart almost stopped. She had to be the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. It may have been my imagination but I could have sworn she saw me and smiled. Wishful thinking, maybe?

Do you have a fragment you’d like to share? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!