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.

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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: Glenn Rolfe

Ron Gavalik joined Girl Meets Monster for Fiction Fragments Friday on November 30. Things have been a little crazy for me, so the schedule is a little out of whack. Today is obviously not Friday, but I wanted you all to have a chance to read this writer’s submission, and schedules be damned. So, without further ado, please welcome Glenn Rolfe.

37623541_10217464806718996_9108904857699352576_nGlenn Rolfe is an author/singer/songwriter from the haunted woods of New England. He and his wife, Meghan, have three children, Ruby, Ramona, and Axl. He is grateful to be loved despite his weirdness.

He is a Splatterpunk Award nominee and the author of Becoming, Blood and Rain, The Haunted Halls, Chasing Ghosts, Abram’s Bridge, Things We Fear, and the collections, A Box Full of Monsters, Out of Range, Slush, and Land of Bones.

Check out his latest novel, The Window.

He is hard at work on many more. Stay tuned! And, in the meantime, visit his website.

Three Questions

GMM: When I was a teenager many moons ago, I was hell-bent on reading every vampire novel I could get hands on. And, my introduction to Splatterpunk  was John Skipp and Craig Spector’s The Light at the End. What was your introduction to the genre? What do you believe defines a work as Splatterpunk? What do you enjoy most about the genre?

GRMy intro to Splatterpunk was Off Season by Jack Ketchum. My jaw dropped time and time again turning those pages. It was so brutal. But like with all great books in the genre, and any good book, he made you care about the characters first.

Splatterpunk is a story that pushes the writer and the reader. A story that is brutal and no holds barred. The best of the genre keep your eyes glued to the page, even though part of you wants to put it down and shove it away.

What I like is the freedom it gives you as a horror writer. It also pushes you as a writer. How brave are you? How far are you willing to go and how much are you willing to show? It’s a challenge to walk the line between outrageous and realistic, but when you get the balance right, the result is powerful.

GMM: I have a pretty high threshold for the creepy, weird, and gross, but I have to admit, your slug creatures grossed me out. Actually, to be fair, the slugs weren’t the problem. The act of Craig cleaning out the bottles and allowing his curiosity get the better of him while doing a disgusting chore at a minimum wage job. I’ve had my share of gross tasks, what inspired this opening scene from Becoming?

GRI worked at a movie theater a while back. Tuesday nights we did extra cleaning projects. It was the slowest night of the week. I was lucky enough to get bottle duty. It seemed like a perfectly harmless gig,right? But my manager told me I’d want to wear gloves while handling the bottles. I didn’t get it, but put them on anyway.

It was all great until I found the first of the spit bottles. People that used chewing tobacco would use them while watching movies. It was nasty. And when I opened one bottle to empty it, it let out a wild hiss and a spray. I almost puked. It was only after I’d done two of these gross things that my manager told me I could just throw away the ones with spit in them. When i got home, I started thinking of those bottles and imagining the nasty juice as a living thing. So, pretty much, that opening scene was mostly a true story.

GMM: I love the horror genre, but I often wonder if it is a prerequisite for characters to be a little dumb in order for certain plot development to happen. I mean, most horror movies wouldn’t work if the characters didn’t willingly do stupid things like go down in the basement or read Latin from a book bound in human flesh, but I wonder if making characters do dumb things is just expected within the genre. Is it possible to have a good horror story without people making terrible mistakes even though they should know better?

GRI think all the good to great horror stories have realistic characters acting and talking in realistic ways. That’s totally where a lot of books in the genre fail or make the ride less enjoyable. For me, it’s all about the characters. You’ve got to bring these people to life and you’ve got to give the reader a reason to care. You also have to make the characters’ motivations realistic.

I don’t write Splatterpunk all the time. Of my ten works, I think maybe a quarter of them could be counted as Splatterpunk. I enjoy the challenge and the craziness of the sub-genre. It’s not an easy type of horror to write well. Making real characters and then putting them through a hell most writers don’t dare to. Some stories demand characters to be ridiculous, but I prefer to write the ones like Off Season. Ones that, as horrible as they seem, leave you thinking this could actually happen. And that’s freaking scary.

Fragment: Becoming (original version), by Glenn Rolfe

CHAPTER 1
“Where do you want me to do this?” Craig Hickey said, hauling a thirty gallon bag of empty bottles over his shoulder.

“Take ‘em in the sink. You’re gonna want to dump some of that stuff out, trust me,” Hunter said. Hunter Hanley was Craig’s boss at the Hollis Oaks Cineplex. The man was only in his late thirties and already had his own successful chain of theaters. Sure, they were all placed in Maine, but it was still an admirable accomplishment. Compared to a twenty eight year old high school dropout, shoveling popcorn next to a bunch of teenagers on a Friday night, Hunter Hanley looked like the CEO of GE.

He watched Hunter walk over to handle a guest complaining about her movie being too loud. Craig lugged the giant bag of bottles into the little sink and storage area of the theater. He placed the bag down, singing a Taylor Swift song as he undid the knot at the top of the large black sack.

“Hey Craig?” It was Evan, the concessions manager.

“What’s up, Evan.” Craig said.

“You’re going to want to use those plastic gloves,” he pointed up to the little rack above the sink.

Craig spied the box of latex gloves to the far right, next to a bucket of scrub pads.
“Yeah, thanks, but I think I’ll be all right.” He had to laugh to himself- these guys sure are worried about these bottles.

“No, really, you are going to want to use them. I’ve done this job for the last five years, and have been stuck doing bottle duty more times than I care to remember, take my word for it.”

Craig acquiesced, reaching up and grabbing a pair of the little clear gloves and tugging them on. “Happy?”

“Have fun,” Evan smiled as he disappeared back to the front.

It was a Tuesday night at the theater, usually the slowest night of the week. Unfortunately, this meant that it was chore night. Last week Evan had Craig scrape this black stuff off from the old popcorn warmer. Craig thought it looked like some sort of devil mold, but Evan had said it was just burnt residue from years of running the warmers too hot, for too long. Tonight, he got the bottles. There were six of the huge recycling containers, one in front of each theater, and each one was overflowing with empties. Craig had figured it would take about an hour to get the job done.

The first bag had gone quick and easy. Craig managed to sing his way through half of the Speak Now album without so much as running into one of these horrors that everyone seemed so worked up about. It wasn’t until he reached the halfway point that he came up against his first gag-worthy container. There had been a couple of Coke bottles filled with spit from people using chewing tobacco in the theater, but as he got to the bottom of the fourth bag, his bare hand (he’d abandoned the latex gloves after the uneventful second bag) made contact with something wet and slimy. An overwhelming smell nearly knocked him on his ass. It was like a mix of vomit, soda, and putrefied flesh, not that he knew what the latter smelled like, but he’d seen enough movies to imagine the scent- and this was it. After three dry heaves, Craig’s esophagus opened up to deliver his stomach contents to the sink.

“You all right, man?” Evan had come rushing to the doorway to check on him. “Hey, where are your gloves?”

After another mouthful of upchuck, Craig wiped his lips and chin with the back of his hand, and felt something greasy on his lips. A taste that matched the overpowering scent from the bag, exploded in his mouth. He pulled his hand away and saw the disgusting brown slime he’d bumped into at the bottom of the bag. He spat into the sink, trying to rid his mouth of the contaminant. Contaminant? He wasn’t sure why he’d thought of it as such, but wasn’t taking any chances.

“Do we have any mouthwash around here?” he said, still hunched over, spitting in the sink.

Evan looked a few extra shades of white standing in the doorway. “Uh, maybe Kathy has some,” he said. “I’ll go ask her.”

Craig watched him scurry off and heard crinkling; the bag behind him was moving. He turned to see the bottom of the sack protrude and retract, like something was trying to find its way out. Washing his hands in the sink, he donned another pair of the latex gloves and opened the foul smelling sack; the movement ceased.

“Here, man,” Evan returned to his perch at the entrance holding the mini-bottle of Scope out to him as if he were afraid to enter the room.

“Evan, come check this out.”

“Don’t worry about the bottom ones, man. Just throw them away with the bag. That’s what we always do.”

Craig, as if not hearing Evan, reached into the large bag. He had to put his head inside to reach the bottom. “There’s something down here.”

“Craig, don’t-”

“Whoa!” Craig yanked his hand out as if it had been stung by a bee. “Evan, come look at this.”

Evan looked back out at the empty lobby, praying for a customer; the next movie didn’t start for another forty-five minutes. “Hunter wants me, I’ll be right back,” he lied. He had seen the strange slug things at the bottom of the bags before. He didn’t plan on messing with them again. Hell, he’d had nightmares about the fat little slimy things for months. He was glad to have a new guy at work to do the true dirty work. He decided to focus on Kathy’s great ass instead, leaving Craig to tend with the nastiness in the sink room alone.

Craig picked the bottle bag up out of the barrel and holding one corner, brought up the end to dump the mix of loose juices and old soda out into the sink, and with it, the slimy thing at the bottom. He watched the dark, chunk filled fluids pour out into the sink; bits of candies, popcorn and discarded chew pouches gathered around the drain. After he was certain that the bag was empty, he gave it a good shake and then fingered through the collection of crap clogging the drain. He couldn’t find slug thing anywhere. “Where did you go?” Craig said as he tried shaking the bag out again. After another few seconds of searching and coming up empty, he gave up. “Hmm.”

An hour and a half later, Craig managed to reach the final bottle of the last bag. He wrapped his latex gloved hand around the one liter bottle and brought it out from the dark and rancid smelling bag. At the sight of the murky brown slime inside the bottle, Craig’s stomach threatened to purge again, but this time, he kept it down. Holding the bottle up to the fluorescent light above the sink, he tried to get a better look at its contents. On first glance, it appeared to be another bottle of chew-spit, but as he tilted the plastic bottle, observing the way the brown sludge seemed to cling to the plastic container, he wasn’t sure what it could be. Not wanting to look at the nasty concoction any longer, he decided to drain it in the sink like he had the rest. The cap was tight, but after a few good yanks, he managed to get it to turn-

Swoosh

“Arrgh.” The unleashed carbonation exploded a sour mist all over him. As he inhaled the nasty particles, he dropped the bottle in the sink. He didn’t notice the brown sludge ooze free of its prison, and slip down into the drain.

Cough-cough-cough

“Uhhh…” Craig’s Cineplex work shirt was covered in the little bits of slime that sprayed out at him. The brown mess was also present on his exposed forearms, neck, and chin and even on his teeth. “Uhhh…” Craig stumbled past the sink and towards the lobby.

“Oh shit, Craig,” Kathy said, “What the hell’s all over you.” She plugged her nose, taking a step back.

Craig’s breath was coming in gravelly wheezes as he stumbled across the still empty lobby, and toward the restrooms. Holding his gloved hands out before him, he smashed through the men’s room door and rushed to the sink. As he vomited (his second round tonight) in the much smaller, much cleaner basin, getting nearly as much spew on the cool grey counter top as he was inside the white porcelain enclave, he missed the little brown specks that slipped their way into the corners of his eyes.

Fifteen minutes later, cleaned up, and sipping a bottle of water, Craig sat recovering from his little incident in the employee break room.

“Hey man, you feeling any better?” Evan took a seat across from him at the little square card table.

Craig forced a smile, “I’m hungry. Does that say anything?”

“Yeah- that you’re gross.” They both laughed as Evan stood back up. “Just call it a night. I already sent Kathy home. I thought for sure she was going to blow chucks after she heard you in the bathroom. Besides, it’s pretty dead out there. No one wants to see the new Kevin Hart movie. Go figure.”

“Yeah, I think I’ll take you up on that.” Craig rose up, grabbed his sweatshirt from the coat hanger behind him, and followed Evan back out to the front.

“Hope you feel better,” Heath called out as Craig reached the front doors.

Craig waved back to his boss and pushed out into the cool night. He placed a finger to his nose and blew a snot rocket to the sidewalk as he made his way to his car. He was starting to feel queasy again. His hunger had slipped away.

On the sidewalk behind him, the brown glob of mucus he’d launched began to wiggle, and breathe.

Next week, Rhonda Jackson Garcia joins Girl Meets Monster. Do you have a fragment you’d like to dust off and send my way? If so, send it to chellane@gmail.com. See you soon!