Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Zin E. Rocklyn

Wednesday, I spoke with Valjeanne Jeffers and she shared a fragment from the next book in her Mona Liveling series, Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective III: The Case of the Vanishing Child.

Today, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Zin E. Rocklyn.

Zin E. Rocklyn is a contributor to Bram Stoker-nominated and This is Horror Award-winning Nox PareidoliaKaijuRising II: Reign of MonstersBrigands: A Blackguards Anthology, and Forever Vacancy anthologies and Weird Luck TalesNo. 7 zine. Their story “Summer Skin” in the Bram Stoker-nominated anthology Sycorax’s Daughters received an honorable mention for Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, Volume Ten. Zin contributed the nonfiction essay “My Genre Makes a Monster ofMe” to Uncanny Magazine’s Hugo Award-winning Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction. Their short story “The Night Sun” and flash fiction “teatime” were published on Tor.com. Their debut novella will be published by Tor.com in Fall 2021. Zin is a 2017 VONA and 2018 Viable Paradise graduate as well as a 2022 Clarion West candidate. You can find them on Twitter @intelligentwat

Ten Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Zin. What projects are you currently working on? Is horror your primary genre, or do you write in other genres? If you write in other genres, which do you feel most comfortable writing, and why?

ZER: Thank you for having me! I write primarily horror but use it across genre. Combining horror with other aspects of Speculative Fiction is what makes it fun. The genre I like to write in most is the weird because of how much freedom there is in writing it.

GMM: When did you first know that you were a horror writer? How did you develop an interest in the genre? What initially attracted you to horror stories? Which writers influenced you then? Which writers influence you now?

ZER: I’ve been a horror writer from the very beginning. My brother, who is 8.5 years older than me, made it a point to scare me in any way he could so he started with A Nightmare on Elm Street. But it backfired! I fell in love with horror instead of being frightened. I saw a way to express what I felt like was a growing darkness within me and I almost immediately took to the page. I found the Fear Street series by RL Stine not long after at around the age of 7 and used that as a framework to learn how to write as well as how to scare folks. Clive Barker was my next great discovery. His prose and imagination appealed to everything I aimed for in my fiction. Books of Blood Vol I-III is still considered a Bible to me. Barker is still a huge influence, as well as NK Jemisin, Octavia Butler, and Toni Morrison.

GMM: The documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019), explores Black horror and the portrayal (and absence) of Black people in horror movies. As a definition of what Black horror means begins to take shape, Tananarive Due says “Black history is Black horror.” What do you think she meant by that? Can you give an example of how this idea shows up in your own work?

ZER: This is essay material, but I’ll keep it short: despite the efforts of revisionist history, Black people have never been treated like humans in, at the very least, this country. Our survival against these odds is our history, our present, and unfortunately, our immediate future. Writing is my way of fighting for the truth. My stories always feature a Black woman lead, no matter how hard history tries to erase us and our contributions. I speak to my experiences in my stories as a way to flush them out as well as show the world that we are here, we matter, we are worthy.

GMM: As a WOC writing horror/dark speculative fiction, do you feel obligated to have a deeper message in your stories? Can writers of color write stories without broader messages about identity, class, and racism? Is it possible to divorce yourself from that ongoing narrative within our culture when you set out to write a story?

ZER: I do feel that pressure to have a deeper message in my work, but I’m learning to let that go and simply tell the stories within me. By default, my presence within horror and writing horror is a message unto itself. Me showing up is message enough, so there’s no definitive way for me to divorce myself from that ongoing narrative. Our presence is our protest, so I encourage folks of colour to just simply write anything they want!

GMM: What are your top five favorite horror movies, and why? Top five horror novels? Which book or movie scared you the most?

ZER: Aw, man, my favourite horror movies: 28 Days Later, Silence of the Lambs, Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight, Shelley, and Attack the Block. I like meditative horror as well as action and humour.

Favourite horror novels: Dark Property by Brian Evenson, Blood Child by Octavia Butler, NeverLand by Douglas Clegg, Wounds by Nathan Ballingrud, and kindred by Octavia Butler. These novels shaped the writer I am today and continue to influence me. The book that scared me the most was actually a collection of short stories mentioned before: Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Vol. I-III. These stories still haunt me, and I sleep with the lights on anytime I reread them.

GMM: How do you feel about white-identifying writers who write stories about non-white characters? What problems have you encountered? What potential issues do you see with white-identifying writers telling BIPOC stories? What advice would you give those writers?

ZER: While I definitely feel people should be able to write what they want; I also caution intent versus impact. Our experiences are unique to what is in popular media about us and to live the experience is completely different to being on the sidelines observing. My advice would be to hire authenticity readers and more than just one. Our experiences are not monolithic so make sure you gain more than one perspective and not just one that agrees with you.

GMM: All writers have experienced some form of impostor syndrome. What has your experience with impostor syndrome been like? Did you ever have a particularly bad case of it? If so, what caused it and how did you manage it?

ZER: I’m going through it now! LOL! I think most writers go through this phase multiple times in their careers; it’s part of the deal when you have a talent that’s so subjective to its audience.

GMM: About a year ago, I bought a T-shirt you designed that says: “Support Black Women Who Write Weird Shit.” First, and foremost, what do you consider “weird shit”? And, second, where can people order their own T-shirt?

ZER: Weird shit, to me, is the uncanny, the thing in the periphery that makes your heart skip for a second. It’s the unsettling feeling you have when something is just a tad off. Once I launch my website, I’ll have t-shirts for sale!

GMM: Zin E. Rocklyn is a pseudonym. I won’t reveal your real name unless you are comfortable doing so. Why use a pseudonym? What are the benefits? Drawbacks? What dark secrets are you hiding?

ZER: LMAO!! I have no issue with my real name being out there. I chose a moniker to pay my respects to the source of my imagination: family.

GMM: If you could give advice to your younger self about writing, what would it be? How would your journey be different, or would you keep things the same?

ZER: You are good. Keep writing. And, yes, you can write that.

“In Full Bloom” by Zin E. Rocklyn

12:15

He’s slight in every sense of the word. Fine-boned, like a delicate bird. Pale and sickly. Shoulders rounded, back slumped. A heavy breath from paper-thin lungs could break him.

I want to cradle him.

I want to wrap my large, dark hands around his tiny torso and squeeze. I want to read the notches of his spine with my heavy fingertips, pluck and play his pronounced ribs with my thumbs. My fat tongue fights to taste his powdery flesh. My ears yearn for the crinkle of his reedy skin.

I need him.

Just as he needs me. He’s my baby, my child, a man born of my desire and aching. He is my manifestation.

He looks to me. For care. For comfort. For protection.

And all I want to do is hurt him.

He knows that look. Understands it. Me. More than I know myself.

My steps are careful, but I am clumsy. Big feet, stubby toes, long limbs. I am everything he is not.

I am his God.

He is my Goddess.

And we hate each other for it.

Long fingers curl into a ball tight enough to crack air. The strike is solid, satisfying.

The sight of red pleases me. He whimpers. I giggle.

The tear is angry, but not alone. More crowd his blind eyes until they fall together, storming down the misshapen hills and valleys of his face. They gather at the peak of his chin, clinging to one another, impregnating each other until there is nowhere to go but down.

Rain meets concrete and I am empty once again.

I turn away, but his claw-like fingers find a wisp of my shift. Clinging. Pulling.

I step forward, dragging him. One inch. One foot.

I stop to peer over my shoulder, to see if he’s still there. If he’s still devoted to me.

His flesh has betrayed him, streaking gore across the gritty floor, leaving him in strips and chunks.

It is my turn to whimper. To moan. To mourn the loss of such beautiful, delicious meat.

I kneel to him. Take his face in my grotesque hands. Press my plump mouth to his sealed lips. Drag my hot tongue along the bitter muscle that is his.

And I squeeze.

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.

Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Valjeanne Jeffers

Last week I had some very interesting conversations with Violette Meier and Aziza Sphinx. If you haven’t checked out their posts, or the previous posts in this Women in Horror Month/Black History Month series, please do so.

Today, Girl Meets Monster has the pleasure of welcoming Valjeanne Jeffers.

Valjeanne Jeffers is a speculative fiction writer, a Spelman College graduate, a member of the Horror Writers Association and the Carolina African America Writers’ Collective. She is the author of ten books, including her Immortal and her Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective series. Valjeanne has been published in numerous anthologies including: Steamfunk!; The Ringing Ear; Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. ButlerFitting In: Historical Accounts of Paranormal SubculturesSycorax’s Daughters; Black Magic Women, The Bright Empire, and, most recently, All the Songs We Sing, Bledrotica Volume I, and Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire.

Ten Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Valjeanne. What projects are you currently working on? Is horror your primary genre, or do you write in other genres? If you write in other genres, which do you feel most comfortable writing, and why?

VJ: Hi Michelle, thank you for having me. I’ve just released the 3rd novel of my Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective series: The Case of the Vanishing Child. It’s a horror/steamfunk novel based in an alternate world, and the main character, Mona, is both a sleuth and a sorceress. I’m also working on a screenplay of my novel, The Switch II: Clockwork.

Horror isn’t my primary genre, but it’s one of my favorites. I write under the broad umbrella of Speculative Fiction, so I also write science fiction/fantasy, which is also described as Afrofuturism. I feel comfortable writing in almost any genre, and I tend to mix them. The Switch II: Clockwork, for example, is a steamfunk novel, but it is also Afrofuturistic.

GMM: When did you first know that you were a horror writer? How did you develop an interest in the genre? What initially attracted you to horror stories? Which writers influenced you then? Which writers influence you now?

VJ: I actually didn’t think of myself as a horror writer until author Sumiko Saulson featured my writing in 100+ Black Women in Horror. Sumiko told me that my readers had approached her and asked that she include my Immortal series. I was both amazed and honored. That’s when I decided to add horror to my writing menu, and I went out of my way in my Mona Livelong series to scare my readers.

I’ve always enjoyed reading and watching horror. I can remember watching horror movies with my parents (for example, The Shining), and as a little girl, I was addicted to Dark Shadows. The first horror writer I fell in love with was Stephen King. Of course, when I first began reading horror there were no writers that looked like me. All of this changed in the 1990s. I discovered Octavia Butler, and later Nalo Hopkinson, Brandon Massey and Tananarive Due. These are writers, along with Richard Wright and James Baldwin, that I credit as my earliest influences. They continue to impact my writing, as well as Keith Gaston and N.K. Jemison.

GMM: The documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019), explores Black horror and the portrayal (and absence) of Black people in horror movies. As a definition of what Black horror means begins to take shape, Tananarive Due says “Black history is Black horror.” What do you think she meant by that? Can you give an example of how this idea shows up in your own work?

VJ: I’m sure she meant that African America history is one of trauma and violence: from our being kidnapped and dragged to American shores, through the Jim Crow and the Civil Rights era, our history is filled with tales of horror. Our stories are often those of pain and trauma.

Richard Wright, in Black Boy, says, “This was the culture from which I sprang, this was the terror from which I fled.” Yet our stories are also those of incredible victories because we refused to submit, to give up. Instead, we pushed on. We blossomed, and we continue to blossom like a garden of black roses.

As a black woman, I am grappling with issues of those that came before me, and those that we face in present times. This may find its way onto my pages. But I write with optimism and hope. And I always strive give my readers an exciting tale they can sink their teeth into.

GMM: As a WOC writing horror/dark speculative fiction, do you feel obligated to have a deeper message in your stories? Can writers of color write stories without broader messages about identity, class, and racism? Is it possible to divorce yourself from that ongoing narrative within our culture when you set out to write a story?

VJ: I don’t feel obligated to include a deeper message in my stories, and some of my favorite authors write without doing so. I’ve certainly never started one with this intent. Sometimes a story is just a story, meant to entertain and nothing more. But I do find myself writing about flawed heroines and heroes, men and women who are fighting to save themselves and their worlds. Often the demons they’re fighting are personal ones; life is always in session. There are no perfect people, and so my characters are imperfect as well. Who you are, and what you’re battling, will always find its way onto the page, and this is where I find myself writing, too, about larger issues of race, gender and class.

GMM: What are your top five favorite horror movies, and why? Top five horror novels? Which book or movie scared you the most?

VJ: My top five horror movies are: The Shining; Tales from the Hood; Get Out; Dr. Sleep, and When a Stranger Calls. I like horror movies with well-developed plots and characters, and layers of suspense that build to a nail biting crescendo. I also prefer horror flicks with a racially diverse cast of characters, which is a lot easier to come by nowadays.

My top favorite horror novels are: Wild Seed (Octavia Butler); Into the Dark (Brandon Massey); The Good House (Tananarive Due); It (Stephen King) and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (N.K. Jemison). I’d have to say Into the Dark scared me the most.

GMM: How do you feel about white-identifying writers who write stories about non-white characters? What problems have you encountered? What potential issues do you see with white-identifying writers telling BIPOC stories? What advice would you give those writers?

VJ: There are some white authors who are very skillful at creating “flesh and blood” non-white characters. One writer in particular, who is also one of my favorites, is Tad Williams; his Otherland series is brilliant. What I mean by “flesh and blood,” are well rounded characters, who black and brown folks can identify with. In contrast, there are other white authors I’ve encountered, whose non-white characters are cardboard cutouts, overlaid with stereotypes.   My advice to these authors is: if you don’t have black and brown friends, real friends mind you, perhaps it’s best if you don’t write about people of color. This might sound harsh, but one of the first pieces of writing advice that I received was: “Write what you know.” Every character I’ve created is a compilation of diverse men and women I’ve met, studied, or both, and myself.

GMM: All writers have experienced some form of impostor syndrome. What has your experience with impostor syndrome been like? Did you ever have a particularly bad case of it? If so, what caused it and how did you manage it?

VJ: I have experienced feelings of self-doubt and feelings that I don’t “measure up” as a writer. But when I’m at my lowest, my readers, and other writers, often help me get through it. I’ve received uplifting emails from folks who love my latest project, and sometimes even a post on my Facebook page. I think I speak for most authors when I say: we write for ourselves and for our readers. I cherish every one of them.

GMM: Tell me about Mona Livelong. What or who inspired this character? Without too many spoilers, can you give some insight into her backstory, and why she became a detective? Why a paranormal detective as opposed to a detective who solves basic human problems?

VJ: Mona Livelong sprang from the same inspiration as Karla, the main character of my Immortal series. Both characters are based upon Carla, a young woman who babysat me when I was living in Los Angeles. Carla’s mother, as well as her youngest brother, died and she was raising her two surviving siblings while attending college. I remember her as an intelligent, compassionate young woman, who was determined to achieve her goals.

Mona is cut from this same cloth. She’s strong, but also vulnerable, and she’s known tragedy. She was born a sorceress and decided to use her gifts to help her community, solving cases regular detectives can’t solve. As to why she’s a paranormal detective, when I create a character, he or she will almost always be supernatural. I love Speculative Fiction just that much.

GMM: Some writers work best in silence, and others prefer to listen to music when they write. How has music influenced your work? What kinds of music do like to listen to when you’re writing? How does it help with your process?

VJ: I can write in silence, but I prefer listening to music when I write, especially if I’m working on character or plot development. If I’m doing either one, I usually listen to jazz or R&B (for example, WAR and Barry White). If I’m writing an action scene, I’m definitely listening to Hip Hop or Classic Rock. I’ve actually acted out action scenes while listening to music; it helps me visualize what’s happening to my characters, and if the scene will “work.”

GMM: If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your younger self? How would you have approached becoming a writer? Would you have done anything differently, or would you have followed the same path?

VJ: If I could give young Valjeanne any advice I would tell her, “Keep writing Speculative Fiction, sweetheart, and don’t stop. No matter what anyone says.” I began writing poetry and stories as a young girl. My only regret is that I took a hiatus and didn’t dive back in until years later. This is the only thing I would change.

Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective III: The Case of the Vanishing Child. (synopsis) The threads of a blood chilling mystery … A world torn in half. A young black man desperate to avenge his murdered brethren. A white supremacist with the terrifying power to alter reality. And a little girl trapped in the eye of the storm. Detective Mona Livelong takes on her most dangerous case yet, as she races to save the life of an innocent child, and countless others hanging in the balance. Cover art by Quinton Veal.

Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective III: The Case of The Vanishing Child (excerpt)

Breath brings word
Nappy Dusky Longing Song
Song like my own
—Maya’s Kwansaba

A solitary cafe au lait-colored man with freckles, his thick hair tied back with cords, walked to the lot behind the Constabulary Station. Keeping his head down, Richard Starks moved silently through the rows of steam-autos parked there. He walked past them, looking carefully at the numbers painted on the auto doors. When he found the one he sought, he crouched on the other side of the steam-auto and waited.

He didn’t have to wait long. Minutes later, a burly white Constable exited the station and walked through the lot. He hunkered down before the auto and started turning the crank.

Richard drew a dagger from the folds of his shirt. Moving swiftly, he crept from the side of the car. As the Constable rose from his haunches, the black man sprang— stabbing him over and over. The Constable fell to his knees and then toppled over, twitching and bleeding at Richard’s feet. Moments later, he was dead.

Shaking and crying, Richard stood over him. At length, he calmed himself and slipped the dagger back

inside his shirt. He wiped his face with his arm and stepped over the dead Constable to the side of the auto. He drew a symbol on the steam-auto door with his bloody fingers and spoke the mantra, “Kuja kwangu mpendwa wangu kwa maana ni kisasi mimi kutafuta … Come to me my beloved, for it is vengeance I seek.”

Diaphanous shades smudged into view. In the next instant three figures towered over him, their faces shifting in the darkness … from black to red … green to blue … female to male … It made him dizzy trying to hone in on their features. He realized that perhaps he was not meant to see their faces. Perhaps it would drive him insane. He fixed his vision on a point beyond their huge shoulders.

The one on his left spoke, “You summoned us, little one?”

“Yes,” Richard whispered.

“You know what it is you seek?” said the second one asked.

“We cannot harm the innocent,” the third entity intoned.

For the first time anger crept into the young man’s voice. “They ain’t innocent. They’re murderers.

The spirits spoke in one basso profundo voice, “So be it.”

Rivulets of blood ran down the Constabulary building. The dead officer sat up. His wounds healed, and

his eyes glazed over with a white film. Then they turned blue once more. The blood vanished. The Constable got to his knees, crouching before the auto, and finished turning the crank. The motor sputtered to life. He stood and walked to the driver’s side, got into the auto and drove from the lot.

Constable Burt Phillips, a thick-set white officer, pulled his steam-auto up to the curb beside his flat. Burt put his auto in park, got out and turned the crank on his steam-auto, shutting the engine off. He was feeling good this evening—better than he’d felt in weeks. For awhile, he’d thought that Eddie Plumb, the unarmed black man he’d killed months ago, was haunting him.

He’d been drinking the night he killed Plumb and in a foul mood. I just wanted respect. That darkie needed to be put in his place.

Plumb had walked pass Burt that night, his eyes insolent, his back straight and proud. Something had snapped inside Burt. He’d shouted at Plumb over and over to stop walking, but the young man ignored him. So Burt shot him in the back. When questioned by Internal Affairs, he’d told a different story: Eddie was a robbery suspect, who’d fled when he ordered him to stop.

The DA cleared me. That’s that.

The week of his death, Eddie Plumb had appeared in Burt’s steam-auto and, for weeks afterwards, he’d rode beside Burt—mocking him, insulting him, calling him a murderer. Then just as suddenly he was gone. Burt had dismissed Eddie as a hallucination brought on by the stress of the hearing.

Certainly. he bore no guilt over killing Plumb. Darkies getting out of control. In my daddy’s time they knew their place. That’s one that won’t make trouble no more.

His daddy had been a hard man, and even harder to love. But love him Burt did, through all the beatings, through all the times he’d found his mother bloodied from his old man’s fists.

His father’s most essential rule, THE RULE, was that he should hate anyone who wasn’t white. “Keep ‘em under your boot son,” this was said with the utmost emphasis during the few times he’d shown Burt affection. “For a white man, ain’t nothing more important.” His daddy had hated black and brown folks, and Burt loved his daddy. So, he hated them too. He opened the door to his flat and stepped inside.

——

Richard sat in the darkness. The only illumination came from the moon and the streetlight outside his window. He shut his eyes.

When he opened them, his room had been transformed. Thick grass grew under his feet. He stared into a gold, orange and blue sunset, a half-smile of wonderment on his face. To his right, the walls and door of his flat remained. Straight ahead, camel thorn trees spouted in the brush. In the distance, he could hear the steady rhythm of drums and a faint whisper. Richard cocked his head to the right. Listening.

He nodded and shut his eyes once more. His spirit rose from the chair. He looked back at his body then walked out into the night. Those he passed on the street could not see him … But they felt him as a breeze.

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 Friday!

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

Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Aziza Sphinx

Wednesday, I chatted with Violette Meier about her writing, what inspires her, and she shared a fragment of her soon to be released Oracles.

Today, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Aziza Sphinx. I met Aziza in a chat room during Multiverse this past year. We were the only ones in the room, which might have been awkward, but I ended up having a very interesting conversation. We shared our thoughts on the political climate, why we write horror and other dark speculative fiction, and what we were working on at the time. Connecting with other writers who look like you can really make a difference. Community is everything.

Aziza Sphinx sees the world through peaches and pecans and a canopy of weeping willows. Family matters, and not just blood, for those who care for us are the truest who stand and fall during the winding road. When the hills and valleys of the journey summon and the pen becomes mightier than the sword, this is the world Aziza Sphinx breathes for.

Ten Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Aziza.  What projects are you currently working on? Is horror your primary genre, or do you write in other genres? If you write in other genres, which do you feel most comfortable writing, and why?

AS: I’ll preface my answers to these questions in the context of the idea that I am not always the writer of my stories. I am an empath and I channel my characters, so I walk the role of the scribe while not necessarily controlling the story content. I have quite a few projects in the works which span multiple genres. The Nai, a race of entities with energy manipulation responsibilities, have been speaking as of late so I’ve been a bit focused on that alien origins stories for the Of Lies and Nai series. My wraiths and reapers are still at odds and I believe The Burning Queen has said her due and is ready for the world to read her tale. For me, comfort comes from sanity. So long as I do as I’m told and write the stories of the voices in my head, I write in whichever genre they deem appropriate for their stories.

GMM: When did you first know that you were a horror writer? How did you develop an interest in the genre? What initially attracted you to horror stories? Which writers influenced you then? Which writers influence you now?

AS: I’ve been writing dark stories since I was a child. Some of the love grew out of exposure from events in my life and others from my favorite books and shows. I grew up in the time of old school comics and television such as CreepshowTales from the Darkside, and Twilight Zone. These were staples in my household, and I find myself to this day still venturing back to watch them.

Though I was exposed to authors such as Amiri Baraka, Octavia Butler, and Maryse Conde at an early age due to my mother being an English teacher, truth be told, as far as influence is concerned, my writing is more influenced by mythos, mythology, history, legend, theoretical science, and transpersonal psychology than the writings of others both stylistically and in content.

GMM: The documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019), explores Black horror and the portrayal (and absence) of Black people in horror movies. As a definition of what Black horror means begins to take shape, Tananarive Due says “Black history is Black horror.” What do you think she meant by that? Can you give an example of how this idea shows up in your own work?

AS: I’m inclined to agree with the assessment that “Black history is Black horror.” As I look around at my experiences and listen to the stories of others in my community Black history both past and in its ever-evolving state, is a form of horror I would not wish on a friend nor an enemy. It shows up in my writings in the subtle manipulations of intentional omissions for the sake of those in power to control the narrative of the very entities they proclaim to be protecting. As one of my characters so eloquently reiterates, “selective omission is still a lie.”

GMM: As a WOC writing horror/dark speculative fiction, do you feel obligated to have a deeper message in your stories? Can writers of color write stories without broader messages about identity, class, and racism? Is it possible to divorce yourself from that ongoing narrative within our culture when you set out to write a story?

AS: Because I am but the conduit from which my stories are told, I am less inclined to feel obligated to structure my stories with a deeper message. However, with the nature of the transpersonal as an influence, I do find deeper meaning in the experiences of my characters. Whether from unconventional ideas and approaches to what could be black and white situations to the questioning of the actions of ancient civilizations within the context of their view of existence during their time and even being open to anything as a future possibility my characters reflect on these options as they stumble their way through their own revelations. Whether intentional or not I can see in my stories a replay of events in my life through both a fictional representation and a therapeutic lens affording me the courage to face and comprehend the trauma of present-day culture and society and continue to contribute in the ways that I can to help others like myself see themselves as important even when society tries to reiterate, we are not.

GMM: What are your top five favorite horror movies, and why? Top five horror novels? Which book or movie scared you the most?

AS: Movies: Vampire Hunter D; Bloodlust because of its exploration of not just the idea of evil that has traditionally surrounded the role of vampires in storytelling, but because of the psychological motivation presented in the characters and what drives them in their quests. Blood, gore, and sheer terror are fulfilled with the Russian movie Nightwatch (2004) and The Host (Gwoemul, 2006) both of which focus on the fear of unknown creatures lurking in the darkness. Though cheesy by today’s standards I still love to lounge around with Tales from the Hood playing in the background. And for the movie that made me suspicious of every doll in existence even before Chucky’s reign Dolls (1987).

Books: I love a good vampire story from both the perspective of the hunter and the hunted, so I fell in love with Minion by L.A. Banks the first time I stumbled upon it in a bookstore. And because I have an affinity for cemeteries myself, Amana Stevens’ The Kingdom fills the need in her character Amelia Gray’s desire to discover why she is called The Graveyard Queen. The rhythmic cadence of The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe draws me in and soothes the poetic desire that sometimes gnaws at my psyche. Smoke and Shadows by Tanya Huff reminds me that ghost stories come in many forms and so do protagonists, while Kelley Armstrong’s Omens melds the modern world with mythology.

As for the movie or book that scares me the most, I will admit that Dolls is at the top of the list. Not just because of the creep factor, the beady little eyes of every toy stalking prey in the night; but also because of the cultural parallels as many believe dolls and other possessions contain a piece of the soul of their owners.

GMM: How do you feel about white-identifying writers who write stories about non-white characters? What problems have you encountered? What potential issues do you see with white-identifying writers telling BIPOC stories? What advice would you give those writers?

AS: For me, the fact that we are still having the conversation about white-identifying writers writing stories about non-white characters continues to pour salt in a festering wound. The question itself is a constant reminder that those controlling the capitalist machine continue to value stories about non-white characters only when written through the eyes of white identified writers. That BIPOC writers are not worthy of access to the machine’s markets when telling their own stories with their own voices. For any white-identifying writer who deems it absolutely necessary for the core of their story to include a non-white character in a primary role, instead of sequestering a person providing you incite for the sake of authenticity to the role of a resource thanked into obscurity in the acknowledgement section, give the person the opportunity to share your platform as a co-writer and allow them to tell that part of the story in the most authentic way.

I’ve had the greater challenge of being informed that my Black characters aren’t authentic in academia more than anywhere else. Specifically, I was taking a course and receiving feedback that my Black characters weren’t authentic and that I was portraying stereotypes and needed to change my stories. Because this was a course for academic credits, I signed up using my legal name so those providing feedback assumed I was not Black either because of my name or the choice of language presented in my writing. Their responses only reiterated the idea that my experience as a Black woman writing my story from my perspective could only be told from what they deemed to be an acceptable point of view. That my character’s actions and responses were only a stereotype and not authentically portraying what may have been a true to life experience from someone in the Black community.

GMM: All writers have experienced some form of impostor syndrome. What has your experience with impostor syndrome been like? Did you ever have a particularly bad case of it? If so, what caused it and how did you manage it?

AS: Because my writing tends to be an amalgamation of genres imposter syndrome rears its head when faced with the challenge of classification for publishing purposes. Having to balance the need to categorize my works within the current market restraints while understanding the idea of reader expectation has led to the frustration of feeling as though my stories will be judged with the eye of one set of reader’s expectations while not being afforded with another classification option for the wider market. There is still the constant push to get the publishing industry to expand its classification structure allowing for new types of works that the big publishers may not deem as profitable to have their own classification. To manage, I try to align my works with the genres I feel would be most appropriate for each work while focusing more on key words when marketing and remaining aligned with who I’ve deemed to be my target market.

GMM: I recently picked up a copy of your novel, A Moment Before Midnight, which is near the top of my TBR pile. You mentioned that your vampires are different, which I think you meant as a warning. However, I’m always excited to see new approaches to how vampires show up in fiction. What should readers know about your vampires? What sets them apart?

AS: There is always the story behind the story and what shows up on the surface is just that; surface. My vampires usually don’t know the full extent of their power or purpose on their respective plane and part of their journeys is discovering their truths and greater role they are expected to play in the futures that lay before them. While this idea is present in the Naverro Vampire Tales series it comes to the forefront more in my novel A Licentious Storm where my vampires as the Doridian is specifically introduced.

GMM: I assume that as a horror writer who writes about vampires, you enjoy reading about them, too. And, most people experience vampires on film first before they pick up their first novel. Which vampire narratives and characters inspired you the most? What did you like about them? What did you feel was missing?

AS: In truth I drop in and out of the desire to read vampire stories. I don’t typically go searching for specific types of stories to read so I’m all over the place on the speculative fiction spectrum. My first exposer to vampire stories probably was in movies like NosfertuFright Night, Interview with a Vampire, and Life Force. If any of those inspired me, it would probably be Life Force. Just the idea of vampirism in terms of energy rather than the blood approach is a perspective that has stayed with me. Also, the sentience of vampires presented in Interview with a Vampire is present in my approach of my stories not just of my vampires but of other entities as well.

GMM: Tell me about Of Darkened Woods. Without giving away too many spoilers, what is it about? Do you retell a specific fairytale, or did you create your own new story? What is it about fairytales that makes them so easily adaptable to horror? Have you written other stories based on fairytales?

AS: Because I like to delve deeper into a story and seek out the origins and purpose of its creation from a historical perspective, Of Darkened Woods is one of my interpretations of the Hansel and Gretel story drawing more from the original German tale and spiritual interpretations while exercising creative license to add a twist on the potential true villain of the story.

Excerpt from Of Darkened Woods

My day begins with ravens. Big black broad-winged squawking harbingers of death omen ravens. They perch on the roof, their repetitive cacophony generating a pounding headache forcing me from bed long before sunrise. I’d seen them gathering at twilight, one by one, taking up residence along the roofline. But they’d been silent until now affording me a few hours of Sandman surrender before sounding off in a deafening chorus.

Luna! Luna! Luna! Witch.

The last squawk of my name stings. Though barely a whisper, it strikes as hard as a slap to the face.

“I hear you! I hear you! Now cease that infernal racket.”

The flapping of wings against the pottery roof reminds me of the pelting of rain, something long overdue. I toss back the lace curtains. Streaks of light slicing through darkened skies greet me. And so, the routine begins. Wash. Dry. Dress.

“Good morning, my beauty.” My fingers tiptoe over the walls, trailing down the hallway as my humble abode gently sighs. “Oh, how misunderstood you are.”

Me and this house in the woods came to an understanding many moons ago. The binding sentiment between us, the wish to be cared for and left in peace. Our harmonious symbiosis endures as I venture to the other world by day and return to nurture by night.

A dash of dusting. Wipe down the walls. Basket of fruit placed just so. My melodious voice soothes the temperament of my uneasy hearth. “There. There,” I mutter as I trace a newly formed crack in the doorjamb. “Fear not my lovely. I’ll fix that right up upon my return.”

The groan from the wooden floors offers assurance. One last gentle caress and I lock up shop to gather items to make the repair.

As I step from the stoop, feet sinking into moist dirt, the spell of the house falls away. The first frightening layers of reality smack me in the face. Heat bears down on my lungs. Thick and heavy, draining me of the need to pad over to what I see as a stone wall and entryway into a world no longer my own. No need for acclimation, for this place in-between where the glamour possesses less of a hold lasts merely ten paces, I scurry forward.

The ravens eye me suspiciously, though maybe my mind is anthropomorphizing. Might ravens actually consider the conduct of mere mortals? Not that I am a mere mortal. The conspiracy stalks my every move, heads rotating in unison as if by a puppeteer’s strings; their beady little eyes boring into my back as I reach for the latch on the iron gate. Once over this threshold, the glamour will fade in its entirety and the outside world will see me as they wish.

“Will you gawk at me all day?” I chide, lifting my cloak over her head. “Shoo now. Be on your merry way.”

The clank of the lock disengaging sends the conspiracy a-flight the sky falling black as the winged mass rises to the heavens before dissipating. Silence follows, not a chirp to be heard as I cross into the other realm and secure the doorway behind me.

An intoxicatingly sweet aroma of honeysuckle and cherry blossoms wraps around me as I turn to see what others see. Colorful arches revealed through wispy willow fingers hang heavy with candy apple fruit. Iridescent winged creatures flit about. Roof shingles reminiscent of icing cascade to trim toasted mouthwatering walls of gingerbread. Beds of not flowers, but gum drops and lollipops, line the windows and walkway of peppermint pavers. If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear the windows formed eyes for the house to watch me. The door, an ‘O’ of surprise.

Can it see the truth? Does it know why I venture out? Breaking eye contact, lest the house learn my secret, I gather my composure, lowering my hood. Oh, I see how the charm draws outsiders in. An oasis in the center of the thick of foreboding forest. The trees rally with me to discourage trespassers. Yet some still venture through the forbidden following the curious creatures in league with the house, their doom written to the ancients for daring to tread too close. Still, the façade actually works against the true nature of the spirit of the home. Instead of warding others off with the peculiarity of such beauty in this desolate land, it encourages curiosity seekers to explore further. And once trapped in its spell, the house disposes of threats as it sees fit.

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.

Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Tonia Ransom

Wednesday, I talked with the multifaceted Sumiko Saulson about writing and how identity shapes her life as a writer of speculative fiction.

Today, Girl Meets Monster welcomes writer and podcast creator, Tonia Ransom.

Tonia Ransom is the creator and executive producer of NIGHTLIGHT, a horror podcast featuring creepy tales written by Black writers. Tonia has been scaring people since the second grade, when she wrote her first story based on Michael Myers. She’s pretty sure her teacher was concerned, but she thinks she turned out fine(ish). Tonia tells horror stories regularly on Twitter @missdefying, and her debut novella Risen was released early December 2020. She lives in Austin, Texas.

Ten Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Tonia.  What projects are you currently working on? Is horror your primary genre, or do you write in other genres? If you write in other genres, which do you feel most comfortable writing, and why?

TR: Thanks for having me! Right now, I’m working mostly on my podcast, NIGHTLIGHT. We just began Season 4, and I’m excited about the stories we have in the queue for listeners. I’m also working on an audio drama that is a cross between Lovecraft Country and True Blood. It’s got hoodoo, monsters, and unnatural disasters and I’m anxious to see it out in the world. On top of that, I’m working on my second book, 13 Kills, about a vampire girl who must kill 13 times to grow up, and a feature film about the conflict between people who live above ground and those underground called The Dark People.

Horror is absolutely my primary genre, though I have written one piece of literary work based on the death of Tamir Rice. It felt wrong to write horror about that, but I needed to process my feelings about it as the mother of a Black son, so literary it was. But at the end of the day, I feel most comfortable writing horror.

GMM: When did you first know that you were a horror writer? How did you develop an interest in the genre? What initially attracted you to horror stories? Which writers influenced you then? Which writers influence you now?

TR: I wrote my first horror story in the second grade for a school assignment. It was Michael Myers fan fiction! My teacher called my mom, but I was always a good student whose teachers called my parents to praise me, so I thought she just loved the story. I’d scared her and I was hooked on the feeling and have never looked back, though I have doubted myself many, many times. I think my interest in the genre came from having a dad who enjoyed horror, and older brothers who also loved horror movies. I looked up to my brothers, of course, and didn’t want to seem scared when I watched movies with them, so I looked at all the cool things about them. So, my love of horror definitely came from film. It wasn’t until much later that I developed a love for horror writing, mostly because I grew up in an extremely conservative community and my library did not have many horror books at all. I did, however, enjoy The Twilight Zone very much as a child and came to love Richard Matheson’s episodes in particular. He’s still a huge influence on me, as are Shirley Jackson, Octavia Butler, and Tananarive Due.

GMM: The documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019), explores Black horror and the portrayal (and absence) of Black people in horror movies. As a definition of what Black horror means begins to take shape, Tananarive Due says “Black history is Black horror.” What do you think she meant by that? Can you give an example of how this idea shows up in your own work?

TR: I think the fact that so much of Black history in America (and honestly, worldwide, but particularly America) has been so horrific that Black history and Black horror are intrinsically linked. Black writers, like all writers, are shaped by their experiences, and unfortunately, African American writers have had to deal with a lot of racial horror in their lives. You cannot have Black horror without Black history because all stories are made from the seeds of history, whether personal or national. As for me, I tend not to write directly about the horrific history of what it’s meant to be Black in America. Writing more indirectly is more my style, and I often don’t know what it is that I’m really writing about until I reflect on the story after I’m done. But I am my experiences and growing up as a biracial girl in the South shaped me. I don’t know my white mother’s family because they do not believe in “racial mixing”. Being isolated from one side of my family definitely comes out in my work in the forms of abandonment and being alone, rejected, and forgotten, which all are hallmarks of horror stories.

GMM: As a WOC writing horror/dark speculative fiction, do you feel obligated to have a deeper message in your stories? Can writers of color write stories without broader messages about identity, class, and racism? Is it possible to divorce yourself from that ongoing narrative within our culture when you set out to write a story?

TR: I don’t feel obligated to have a deeper message in my stories, though there usually is one because writing is my way to process the more hidden emotions I have. Unfortunately, I think a lot of editors expect Black and other marginalized writers to have a deeper message in their work, and I think that’s unfortunate, particularly because they expect that deeper message to be a bit more overt. Editors seem to prefer stories about the struggle and pain of being part of a marginalized identity, and we are so much more than those struggles. For me, stories are first about entertainment. That’s why I read stories and watch movies—to be entertained, to escape. If there’s a deeper message, great. If that message is there, but you have to work to see it, that’s okay too. As long as I was entertained, I consider it successful. There is certainly a place for work with deeper meanings, but I do think that the entertainment of the story shouldn’t be sacrificed for that meaning; rather they should work together to create a cohesive whole. I certainly think it’s possible to divorce the two superficially, but again, we are our experiences, and there is always a deeper meaning, though it may be quite obscure, and that’s okay.

GMM: What are your top five favorite horror movies, and why? Top five horror novels? Which book or movie scared you the most?

TR: Movies: 12 Hour Shift (directed and written by Brea Grant) is a wild ride. It’s funny, gory, and one of my favorite movies of last year. I also love Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and The Girl With All the Gifts, primarily because of how race changes those stories to have a completely different meaning than what might have originally been intended. Les Diaboliques is also a favorite of mine—I love a good twist! And finally, I love Hush. I was so tense the entire time I was watching the movie and it’s very difficult to get under my skin. Mike Flanagan did an amazing job with that movie.

Books: The Family Plot by Cherie Priest. Haunted house stories are so hard to pull off, but Cherie did it beautifully. Through the Woods by Emily Carroll is such a macabre graphic novel. Between the stories and the creepy illustrations, it’s a delight to read again and again. Tananarive Due’s The Good House is another amazing haunted house novel. And Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle exceeds The Haunting of Hill House in my opinion. Finally, I loved Hoodoo by Ronald L. Smith, it is an excellent middle grade horror.

As for which book/movie scared me the most, I’d have to say Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House. Nothing so far has really scared me, but that show definitely creeped me out a few times.

GMM: How do you feel about white-identifying writers who write stories about non-white characters? What problems have you encountered? What potential issues do you see with white-identifying writers telling BIPOC stories? What advice would you give those writers?

TR: Whew, what a question. I’m actually going to be moderating a panel about Lovecraft Country at Boskone on February 12, and I have thoughts about a white writer taking on a story about the Black experience. To me, it feels like a colonization, particularly because Black writers writing about that very thing have been shut out for so long. I think if a book/story is almost entirely based on the Black experience, a non-Black writer should have a Black co-writer. For me, Lovecraft Country the novel just felt off. You could tell Matt Ruff definitely did his research and wanted to be respectful, but it still felt hollow because the deeper parts of the Black experience during that era just weren’t there. I couldn’t finish the novel because it just felt wrong to me in ways I couldn’t quite describe, even before I knew the author was white. There’s something intangible about marginalized experiences that you can’t get from research or interviewing someone from that background. It’s the type of stuff that comes out as you’re writing it. Marginalized folks sometimes don’t consciously realize precisely how they’re marginalized or how they feel about it until they’re writing that experience.

GMM: All writers have experienced some form of impostor syndrome. What has your experience with impostor syndrome been like? Did you ever have a particularly bad case of it? If so, what caused it and how did you manage it?

TR: OMG, impostor syndrome is a constant battle for me. I constantly feel as though I’m not a good enough writer, or producer, or editor, despite some very prominent people publicly saying they enjoy my work. I think a big part of that comes from my own ideas of what I want to be, and falling short of that ideal. We often have a vision in our head for something and the execution just doesn’t match that, and for me, that leads to imposter syndrome. I work very hard to let go of perfectionism and the resulting imposter syndrome by reading positive comments about my work when I feel as though I’m falling short of my own ideals.

GMM: Tell me about NIGHTLIGHT. How did the podcast get started? Who have you featured on the podcast? What were some obstacles you may have encountered when getting the podcast off the ground? Where can people find the podcast? How can writers submit their work?

TR: I started NIGHTLIGHT back in 2018 after a Fireside Fiction report came out detailing the demographics of published writers. Approximately 2.5% of published stories were by Black writers, and we discussed the report in my all-Black writers’ group. I learned that Black writers’ stories were being rejected for being “too Black” and “not Black enough” by non-Black editors. I’d wanted to start a podcast for years, even before podcasts were a thing. I loved old time radio and wanted to revive the medium, and when podcasts were created, I knew that dream was within my reach. I put it off for years, making excuses about lack of time and money, but once that report came out, I knew what kind of podcast I wanted to create. I wanted to uplift Black writers and give them a space to tell whatever story they wanted, rather than being tied to writing about the Black experience. I’ve had writers such as Linda Addison, Tananarive Due, Lamar Giles, Justina Ireland, Zin E Rocklyn, and Sumiko Saulson on the podcast, and can’t wait to see what the coming years bring.

Justina Ireland graciously donated a story based in the Dread Nation universe for our inaugural episode, and I raised almost $2000 for my first season with no platform whatsoever, so my path has been easier than most. It’s *a lot* of work, much more than I expected, which has been compounded by the fact that I have an old injury that limits my time at a keyboard and mouse, but I feel very certain this is my path because every time I’ve encountered an obstacle, something has happened to remove it. I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to produce NIGHTLIGHT. We’re found on just about every podcast platform out there, but you can visit our website at nightlightpod.com. We’re on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @nightlightpod, and our Patreon is at patreon.com/nightlightpod. We’re open for submissions February, April, June, August, and October every year, and instructions can be found on our website at nightlightpod.com/submissions.

GMM: Without giving away too many spoilers, what is your novella, Risen, about? And, where did the idea for the story come from?

TR: The idea from Risen actually came from a nightmare that I had shortly after my dad’s death about a woman being trapped in her body. My father’s death was long and painful, and he was trapped in his body due to seizures wreaking havoc on his brain, so I think the nightmare was my way of processing that. In short, Risen is about a staunch atheist who’s murdered only to learn that not only is there an afterlife, but magic exists too and now she’s trapped in her body by the conjure man who raised her from the dead. It’s about her struggle for freedom, and her reconciliation of her familial magic with her scientific mind. Not only must she escape the zombi magic that traps her, but she must fight Baron Samedi, a prominent figure in voodoo, for her soul. You can buy Risen on Amazon. The paperback will be out in a few weeks!

GMM: Do you prefer writing your own fiction, or featuring the work of other writers on your podcast? What other creative projects would you like to try in the future?

TR: This is a tough one! I love them both equally. I do wish I had more time for my own writing, though. Writing keeps me sane, featuring the work of other writers gives me purpose. Both are necessary and finding the balance has been difficult, but I’ll arrive there at some point! In the future, I’d love to have NIGHTLIGHT or the audio drama I mentioned earlier adapted into a TV series. I’d love to be able to uplift more Black-centered stories for TV/film because I truly believe showing those perspectives to a wider audience is our best way of combating bigotry and racism. Stories may be primarily for entertainment, but people learn from them too—both the good and the bad. I want to put more good out there in the world to foster more compassion amongst each other.

Fragment by Tonia Ransom

The bullet severed my spinal cord, so I can’t tell you if it hurts to die. What I can tell you is that being raised from the dead feels like being burned at the stake with no promise of death to bring you peace.

I haven’t been dead very long, if you can call me dead. I’m still not quite sure what I am. Two weeks ago I was standing at my stove, waiting for my watched pot to boil and reading the latest research on emerging infection diseases.

The house was silent, almost eerily so. Only the sound of me clicking around on the computer accompanied the sound of my breathing.

The door usually squeaked, but he managed to come in without it making a peep. Closed it behind him without the latch calling attention to his presence.

All I knew was something whacked me from behind, hard enough to knock me off the barstool and smack my chin on the edge of the counter on the way to the floor. A white flash of light behind my eyes receded and I tried to focus, but everything was blurry and doubled. I lay there, ears ringing and vision dimmed, my favorite scrub-blue shirt blooming into a deep red. I didn’t recognize it as blood at first and thought about how beautiful it was, how purple embraced the blue and gave way to red, like a drop of dye in water.

It took me even longer to figure out why I was bleeding. The only part of me that hurt was my chin, but when I reached up to inspect it, there was only tenderness. I lifted my shirt, where the red had first overtaken the blue, and found the hole, small, but defined. He didn’t use a hollow point.

I assumed that I’d been lucky, that the bullet caused some damage, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

I was wrong.

I willed my legs to move, to stand me up, but they refused to comply.

The bullet had pierced my spinal cord. Exited via my abdomen. I was losing a lot of blood, quickly––so quickly, I knew my abdominal aorta was severed.

I never knew when to give up, still don’t, so I didn’t stop trying to live, despite the fact that I knew more movement would cause me to lose blood faster. The alternative––lying there and waiting for death to take me––was something I couldn’t do.

I took a few breaths, steeling myself for the next push, watching the blood that was inside me moments ago form a crimson-colored reflection next to me, worming its way into the grout that separated my newly installed travertine tiles. In that macabre mirror, I saw him, gun in hand, wearing a maniacal smile.
Watching me smear my blood all over my floor. Blood that he had drawn, without a hint of sadness or remorse in his eyes.

With renewed strength tempered by anger, I inched toward him, but when I looked up again, he was gone. Deflated and weak, I rested on the cold floor. I told myself I had to formulate a new plan, but the floor felt so good, my eyes so heavy. The pool of blood crept forward and warmed my face, but the rest of me grew cold. Even so, I broke out into a sweat.

I was going into shock.

I knew the process of bleeding to death on a physiological level, and now I would know it intimately. There was nothing I could do nothing to stop it. Copper and iron, that familiar smell of the mortally wounded, was the last thing I smelled before I drifted into unconsciousness, oddly comforted by the odor I had become so accustomed to in my work as an emergency room doctor.

I don’t know how much time passed before I stood next to my dining table, looking at the body that was once mine. My skin had changed from a beautiful chestnut to a sickly gray, the dark jelly around my body making my skin look even more devoid of color than it was. My eyes were closed, but I didn’t look like I’d just fallen asleep. No freshly dead body ever does. The dead always look dead until a funeral home gets ahold of them.

I didn’t hear him close the door as he left. I just suddenly felt alone and turned around to see the blinds swish back and forth on the upper half of my back door. I never even considered following him. I was still processing what happened in what couldn’t have been more than five minutes.

He had gotten so lucky. His shot tore my abdominal aorta, basically the interstate highway of blood. An inevitable death.

I’d still be alive if I’d leaned my weight onto the other foot.

It all seemed horribly unfair, as if the whole world had conspired to murder me.

But this, this, was all wrong. Death meant lights out. No part of me should have been there. My body, dead and motionless, but my consciousness left to contemplate what had happened. I had never really believed there was a God, at least not one that paid any attention to us foolish little people on our tiny little rock around our run-of-the-mill sun. I’d never said there wasn’t a God really, I just didn’t believe his existence mattered one way or another. And I’d certainly never believed in Heaven or Hell, Nirvana or the Great Beyond.

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.

Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Kenesha Williams

Monday, I kicked off this month-long series of posts for Women in Horror Month and Black History Month and had the chance to chat with serious horror fan, Dimi Horror. If you haven’t had a chance to read that post, check it out.

Today, Girl Meets Monster welcomes horror writer and soon-to-be filmmaker, Kenesha Williams.

Kenesha Williams is an author, screenwriter, speaker, and Founder/Editor-in-Chief of Black Girl Magic Lit Mag a speculative fiction literary magazine. As an, essayist she has written for, Time Magazine’s, Motto and Fireside Fiction. She is also a screenwriter currently in pre-production on a horror web series and a short film. You can catch up with her on her website www.keneshaisdope.com

Ten Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Kenesha.  What projects are you currently working on? Is horror your primary genre, or do you write in other genres? If you write in other genres, which do you feel most comfortable writing, and why?

KW: Thanks for having me! I’m currently working on a proposal for a one-shot comic that’s a Zombie Western, it’s really exciting and a great opportunity to show how racially diverse the West actually was in the 1800s. I’m also writing a pilot script for a contemporary horror series that I like to think of as Insecure meets The Magicians. Horror is my primary genre, even when I try to write another genre, I usually throw in horror elements, LOL! I also write science fiction, urban fantasy, and mystery. Since I can’t help but throw some horror into most of what I write, I’d say that horror is the genre I feel most comfortable writing in.

GMM: When did you first know that you were a horror writer? How did you develop an interest in the genre? What initially attracted you to horror stories? Which writers influenced you then? Which writers influence you now?

KW: I think I knew I was a horror writer when I couldn’t write something without someone dying, LOL. My mother was a big horror fan, so I read from her stacks of books and got into the genre myself. She also took me to my first horror film, so she definitely influenced my love of horror. My initial influence was Stephen King because my mom was a big fan, so his were the first “adult” horror novels I read. I would also be remiss not to add in R. L. Stine with his Fear Street series and Christopher Pike’s YA horror novels as well.

When I was in my early twenties, I went looking for horror authors that looked like me and I found Dark Dreams: A Collection of Horror and Suspense by Black Writers. That collection introduced me to Brandon Massey and Tananarive Due. Then I started buying everything they put out and got put on to LR Giles (Lamar Giles) as well. Then that search lead me to Octavia Butler, who I had read, but her Patternist series, which was Science Fiction, because my mother had it in her library. But then I started to read her horror with Kindred and Fledgling. Finding all these new to me authors had me wondering, where had they been all my life and also like, hey we do write horror!

GMM: The documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019), explores Black horror and the portrayal (and absence) of Black people in horror movies. As a definition of what Black horror means begins to take shape, Tananarive Due says “Black history is Black horror.” What do you think she meant by that? Can you give an example of how this idea shows up in your own work?

KW: I believe the phrase Black history is horror means that our history in this country (the United States) has been one that’s been marked by horrific acts like the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the years of enslavement for our people, and of course the legacy of Jim Crow that we’re still fighting against. We can mine any of those moments in history for horror stories. 

The work I’ve done so far deals with the legacy of Black history in America and how it manifests today, though it is not always the source of the horror. For example, the story you’re featuring today I wanted to explore the idea of the reconciliation of the horrific past Black Americans have endured with the present climate, i.e. replacing statues of white slave owners with more progressive figures.  My main character believes that the changes that are being made are just lip service, and I think that’s a feeling that a lot of Black people can identify with. President Obama was voted in with the slogan of Change, but then his successor was a harkening back to the bad old days. It showed that a good portion of the country didn’t want change, in fact they wanted to Make America Great Again by returning to a time when whites were in power and minorities knew their place.

GMM: As a WOC writing horror/dark speculative fiction, do you feel obligated to have a deeper message in your stories? Can writers of color write stories without broader messages about identity, class, and racism? Is it possible to divorce yourself from that ongoing narrative within our culture when you set out to write a story?

KW: Often that is my biggest question, does everything I write have to have a deeper message? I don’t think I can write a story without infusing identity in it when I write Black characters, it’s not realistic to me to disregard identity. Black people are not a monolith, of course, but there are some experiences that I believe are universal. But I also want Black people to have genre literature that is fun without it having to be an issue book. So, I try to balance that. There are some of my stories that the horror ties back specifically to race, and then there are others where the horror is just horror with Black main characters. 

GMM: What are your top five favorite horror movies, and why? Top five horror novels? Which book or movie scared you the most?

KW: OMG, this is so hard. Okay, first I’m going to go with the horror movies that shaped me growing up:

  • Pet Sematary—This was the first horror movie I saw, and my mom took me to it. I couldn’t have been more than 11 because we were still living in Germany. My mom loved horror and had a sick sense of humor, so she kept making the slashing the ankles motion to me, scaring the bejesus out of me.
  • The People Under the Stairs—I probably watched this around the same age. I think this movie stuck with me because it was the first movie I saw where people were being cruel to children and as a child; I was just like, wow could this really happen. Also, it was the first horror movie I saw with a Black protagonist. I heard that Jordan Peele is remaking this movie and I’m excited to see what he does with it.
  • Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween—These two were my introduction into slasher films, which I still love. I mean, they’re classics for a reason.
  • It Follows—I know people either love or hate this one, but I loved the atmosphere and the idea of an apparition spreading like an STD was innovative.  

Top five horror novels in no particular order and exceptionally hard to narrow down:

  • Firestarter—I am a big Stephen King fan, and this was the first book of his that I read, borrowed from my mother at thirteen years old.
  • The Goode House by Tananarive Due—This was a “freezer” book for me, I had to put it on ice for a while so I wouldn’t freak myself out reading it. I’m a fan of the Haunted House subgenre of horror and I really loved this one. I am also a big Due fan and will read anything she puts out, so it was hard to narrow it down.
  • Thunderland by Brandon Massey—Another freezer book, this is a really atmospheric novel that made me look over my shoulder several times. 
  • Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix—This was hard because I’m a big Grady Hendrix fan and I really love all of his books for different reasons. The sad thing is I couldn’t say My Best Friend’s Exorcism because I didn’t finish it because it was scaring the heck out of me. So, I put it back in my TBR pile. I need to finish it. But Horrorstör was amazing because he took a setting that most people don’t see as scary and infused the everyday horror of working retail and doing repetitive, seemingly pointless tasks, with the supernatural underpinning of a haunted store. 
  • Night of the Mannequins by Stephen Graham Jones—This is a new favorite of mine. I don’t want to spoil anything because it has a nice twist, but let’s just say it’s weird in wonderful ways and if you like slasher-who’s next to die types of books, then you’ll enjoy this.

GMM: How do you feel about white-identifying writers who write stories about non-white characters? What problems have you encountered? What potential issues do you see with white-identifying writers telling BIPOC stories? What advice would you give those writers?

KW: I don’t have a problem with it if the white writer has done their research, doesn’t rely on stereotypes, and doesn’t act like their non-white character is just a white character with a tan. And I’ve seen it done well and I’ve seen it done marginally well, and I’ve seen it done poorly. A criticism I have that I see that happens a lot is that they’ll make the character disconnected from “Blackness” and I’m guessing that’s because they don’t really know what it’s like to be in community with Black people. We are never in isolation even if you live in a predominately white area, so if your character has no family to talk to or connect with or if they don’t have any friends of their same race, it makes me think you haven’t done your research. The advice I’d give is for the writer to ask themselves, why do you think your character should be non-white and why should you tell their story. Bonus question: Are there own voices writers telling this story, and would your time be better spent amplifying them? Nothing hurts more than a white identifying writer getting praise for writing something similar to something a POC has already written.

GMM: All writers have experienced some form of impostor syndrome. What has your experience with impostor syndrome been like? Did you ever have a particularly bad case of it? If so, what caused it and how did you manage it?

KW: OMG, yes. Every time I sit down to write. So, my bad cases have been at conventions. I am a big fan of both Grady Hendrix and Paul Tremblay, and I got to be on panels with both of them. I was like OMG what am I doing here, does anyone want to hear what I have to say, etc. etc. I had to call my husband, and he was like, Babe they asked you there for a reason you’ll do great. And he was right, I got asked for a reason and I ended up having a great time on both panels and both Grady and Paul are just really amazingly nice people, so that was even better. They say, never meet your heroes, but I can say that everyone I’ve met in the horror community has been just great, so I’m lucky.

GMM: Aside from writing, what other contributions are you now or have you made to the horror community, or to other speculative fiction communities?

KW: Aside from my own writing, when I created Black Girl Magic Lit Mag in 2016, I created a platform to amplify other WOC’s writing in the speculative fiction genre. It’s one of my proudest accomplishments. Currently, I am part of several FB groups for diversity in speculative fiction and I use those to amplify other voices and encourage other WOC to join the community.

GMM: Has social media helped in getting you noticed as a writer? What has worked for to date? What hasn’t worked? What advice would you give new writers who are trying to build a social media following?

KW: Yes, social media has definitely helped with getting noticed. I feel like it’s a necessary evil because sometimes I don’t want to be “on” and also, it’s a distraction. I can spend so much time on social media and not realize that all these incremental check ins add up to HOURS. 

What hasn’t worked for me is Twitter, in terms of selling anything. I think people don’t go to Twitter to buy; they go to talk, and so it’s not a good promotional tool in terms of direct selling. I think Twitter is good for showing your personality if you want people to be interested in YOU, not necessarily your work.

I think the best advice I’d give to new writers is to use social media to get people to your mailing list because that’s something YOU OWN. Social media platforms owns the audiences on their respective platform and if for any reason you’re kicked off the platform or you just want to be a bit of a recluse you can’t take that audience with you, even if you garnered a million fans, if you don’t own that list it can all be taken away. Instead of traditional social media I think the best way to gain an audience is through websites like Prolific Works or Book Funnel, that unlike social media, aren’t free, but give you ways to build your audience through group promotions with other authors in your genre.

GMM: What are you reading right now? What else is at the top of your TBR pile? What classic horror novel have you secretly never read that you think everyone else has?

KW: Right now, I’m reading Death by Dumpling: A Noodle Shop Mystery by Vivien Chen and The Writing Life: Reflections, Recollections, and a Lot of Cursing by Jeff Strand. Also on my TBR is:

  • Dying With Her Cheer Pants On: Stories of the Fighting Pumpkins by Seanan McGuire
  • The Lodestone Puzzle by Lynn Emery, I preordered it and it arrives on my Kindle on Feb. 16th
  • The Bluesman: Lady of the Grave – it’s a comic based on the horror-adventure novels THE BLUESMAN by Stuart Jaffe, Illustrated by Garrett Gainey, with character design and production by John Jennings

I’m also reading a lot of screenplays because I’m writing a couple right now.

OMG, someone’s going to take away my Women in Horror badge because I’ve never read any of Shirley Jackson’s work. I’ve seen most of the film/tv adaptions of her work, but I haven’t read the books. I’m going to put The Lottery at the top of my TBR.

SERVED COLD by Kenesha Williams

“If you don’t hurry, we’ll be late.”

This didn’t push Trisha any harder to finish getting ready. Only one of them was excited about going to the naming ceremony, and that was only because Ella wanted to see Brent. Trisha didn’t care what they renamed her high school as long as it wasn’t another dead racist. The whole thing seemed like a farce, anyway. They didn’t change the name because they thought it was wrong. They changed it because of public pressure and then finally because someone had in the middle of the night toppled the slaveholder’s statue in front of the school.

Ella walked out of the bathroom to find Trisha lounging on her bed in the same position she’d been in when she left the room, “If you don’t want to come, just say so.”

Ella and Trisha were Irish Twins only eighteen months apart and with Trisha held back–red-shirted–a year because of her emotional immaturity they were in the same graduating class. No one ever mistook them for real twins, however, because Ella was white and Trisha was Black. Or biracial, if you were being technical.

Both of their dads were really involved, and they each called the other’s biological father, Dad, as well as their own. They couldn’t be happier if they lived on a commune, but instead of a commune they lived in a charming house at the end of a cul-de-sac with their Aunt Ginny, who had no children, save them.

“I’m coming. I just don’t see the big deal.”

“It’s history! Who would have thought they’d change the name? EVER. And I bet they choose a person of color or at least a woman.”

Ella was the eternal optimist, but it was easier for her to be. She wasn’t the one who had been stricken with anxiety and a panic disorder since she was eight. The doctor said it was a reaction to their mother’s sudden death, a kind of PTSD. Whatever it was a reaction to, it was hell on Trisha.

Trisha and Ella made their way to the crowd and found a group of their friends. All the kids had pushed to the front, while most of the parents and other adults hung back. There was a new statue in front of the school, and a drop cloth covered it. The signage for the school hadn’t been adhered yet to not give away the surprise, but they had a man in overalls standing in a scissor lift waiting for the signal to begin screwing in the metal letters.

“I wonder who it will be?” Gemma, their shared best friend, stage whispered to them while they stood elbow to elbow. Gemma was wearing something impractical as usual, a crinoline skirt with gym shorts underneath, rubber boots, and a tank top that had a picture of Garfield on it. It was darling. On some people it would be an insane look, but Gemma could make anything work.

“Probably another dead guy that no one remembers.” Trisha replied.

Ella rolled her eyes and then stood on her tippytoes, surveying the crowd. “Have you guys seen Brent?”

Trisha and Gemma traded a look. Sometimes it was like they had ESP. They knew things about the other, even when they were nowhere near each other. Trisha never said it out loud, but she felt closer to Gemma than she did her own sister.

Gemma didn’t have anxiety like Trisha, but she’d been in therapy for a couple of years dealing with her own issues. She’d had an eating disorder in middle school and her parents put her in in-patient treatment for an entire semester. When she came back, she was a healthier weight, but some of the light had gone out of her eyes. Trisha knew what that felt like.

The principal and the mayor made their way out of the school and stood in front of the crowd. They had erected a small podium for the occasion, and the mayor looked at it hungrily. Mayor Collins had opposed renaming the school, but when he realized that all of his constituents weren’t as backward as he was, he changed his tune.

Trisha wondered what meaningless platitudes he’d espouse once he stepped up to the mic.

A gush of wind picked up and teased the bottom of the drop cloth, threatening to unveil the surprise before the mayor. Trisha wished they could get on with it and just announce the damn thing. What were they waiting for? 

The wind played with the drop cloth again, and it looked as if the statue underneath were moving. The cloth undulated in ways that seemed to defy natural physics. It was like someone was trying to free themselves from the shroud of the cloth. Trisha rubbed her eyes, wondering if her meds were playing tricks on her.

Of course, she’d had to pop a few to get through this debacle. Any event with more than a handful of people could trigger an anxiety attack that would sideline her for the rest of the day. These weren’t new meds and she shouldn’t have been seeing things, but she swore someone or something alive was under the cloth and not a statue of brass or concrete.

She looked at Gemma to see if she noticed anything strange, but Gemma was busy snapping pics for her social media. Trisha looked around to see if maybe Ella saw, but Ella had slipped away, probably to stand near Brent. It was the whole reason they were out here, anyway.

This time when Trisha looked at the statue, she clearly saw a foot step forward. So she wasn’t surprised when she heard the first scream from the crowd as the statue jumped down from its perch, cloth still over its head, and rushed over to the mayor.

As the statue ran, the cloth slipped away, revealing that it was a rendering of Nat Turner, of the infamous slave rebellion. It was probably a mistake to have made his likeness holding a sword because the now animate object used it to thrust straight into Mayor Collins’ rotund belly.

The screams got louder as the crowd realized what was happening. Trisha watched the blood drip from the sword and thought to herself that she was so glad she hadn’t missed the naming ceremony. She was going to have to find and thank her sister for bugging her to come.

Once everyone stopped screaming and running.

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 Friday!

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: Rena Mason

Last week, I had an interesting discussion with veteran horror writer Amy Grech on writing horror while female. If you missed it, go check out her post.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes two-time Bram Stoker Award winning writer Rena Mason to talk about her writing journey and her service to the horror writing community.

Rena Mason is the Bram Stoker Award® winning author of The Evolutionist and The Devil’s Throat, as well as a 2014 Stage 32 /The Blood List Search for New Blood Quarter-Finalist. She’s had nearly two dozen short stories, novelettes, and novellas published in various award-winning anthologies and magazines and writes a monthly column.

For more information visit her website: www.RenaMason.Ink
or follow her at:
Facebook: rena.mason
Twitter: @RenaMason88
Stage 32: Rena Mason
Instagram: rena.mason

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Rena. I’ve been waiting to have you as a guest for a while and I’m glad we were able to get together. Before we jump into talking about your fragment and your writing in general, I wanted to ask you a little bit about your involvement in the Horror Writers Association. In 2019 you received the Richard Laymon President’s Award. Can you tell us about the different roles and responsibilities you’ve had or are currently performing in the HWA, and why this award is such an honor? Have you won any other awards for your service within the organization? When did you first become a member of the HWA and when did you decide to become a more active member of the community? What advice would you give others on how to become more active within the community?

RM: I’m honored to be among the authors you’ve had on Girl Meets Monster. Thank you for having me, Michelle. I’d finished my first novel, which wasn’t The Evolutionist, in 2009 and didn’t know where to go from there or what I needed to do in order to get it published, or even if it was publishable, so I started Googling and then attended writer events, the first being the Pacific Northwest Writers Association event. It was a strange experience, and even though I enjoyed it and learned a bit, I didn’t feel it was exactly right for me. Huge crowd, and not a very diverse one. There was well over a thousand people there. One lady sat next to me, looked at my badge that had Sci-Fi and Horror printed on it and then she got up and left. I glanced at her badge before she bolted—Romance. I know not all romance writers behave that way, but for a very new writer at her very first writing convention of any kind, I’ll admit that stung a bit and has stuck with me since. Long story short, I finally got to a horror writer event. KillerCon was my first in the genre and after that first one, I volunteered to work registration at the next few because I thought that would be the best way to meet people and remember their names. It worked for the most part, although I’m still terrible at remembering names. After deciding these were fellow genre lovers and friendlier folks, I started attending other horror events and was encouraged to join the HWA by people I’d met. I volunteered to work registration and more at their events as well, but after the events were over it was hard to stay in touch with my new writer friends and meet more new ones (I was very new to social media then and am still not very good at it), so I thought volunteering within the organization would help get me more comfortable in this whole new writing world I knew nothing about. I’ve made so many wonderful, lifelong friends in the horror community that they’ve become more like my family. It has meant a lot to me both personally and to my growth as a writer and I wanted to return that in some way, and that’s why I volunteered and have worked so hard over the years alongside so many others, and I’m proud of what we accomplished together. I think I became an HWA Supporting member around 2010 and volunteered to do data entry as the Compiler, and then became head of that department after a couple years, and then I was asked to become one of the awards chairs, finishing my 9+ years serving on the awards committee in 2019. The Richard Laymon Award is a volunteer service award given by the current President of the HWA for “exemplary service and dedication to the organization.” I also received the Silver Hammer Award in 2014, which is another service award given to volunteers who do a “massive amount of work, often behind the scenes.” The organization is always reaching out for volunteers. Whether you’re serving as a mentor or a juror, they’re great ways to meet other people in the community. Attending the events, and volunteering to work them, and volunteering to work in organizations, was and is a great way to network and best of all, make friends.

GMM: When you began your writing career, did you always envision yourself as a horror writer or did you have other goals in mind? What was the first horror story you wrote, and what inspired it? As a woman of color writing horror, have you encountered any obstacles along your journey of becoming an established writer? If so, how did you overcome them?

RM: Being such a big fan of horror and dark sci-fi and fantasy, I knew that whatever I wrote, it would be dark and have horror woven throughout. I started out writing what I enjoy, and that hasn’t changed. The first horror story I ever wrote was a dark fantasy. I was inspired to write it by something my mom had said after my younger sister died in a car accident. And no, I won’t say what it was, but it wasn’t anything bad. I’ll get back to finishing that story one of these days. It’s a very personal story and I wasn’t ready to write it before, but I’m getting there. If there were any obstacles in my becoming an established horror writer, I can’t list any specifically that are related to my being a woman of color that I’m aware of. Any obstacles I felt I overcame were because of my writing and where I was at in my writing career.

GMM: Your excerpt reminded me of some of the experiences the protagonist in Octavia Butler’s Kindred has when she finds herself in the past and has no idea how she’s gotten there. The idea of waking up to discover physical evidence on your body from something you thought was part of a nightmare really is terrifying. Without too many spoilers, can you tell us what’s happening to your protagonist? Did actual events inspire this story? Were you influenced by the work of any other writers?

RM: Kindred is such an amazing story. The way Butler moved Dana and Kevin through time and the way time itself was a changeable character in the story with so many deep and rich layers. I’m smiling ear to ear that you mention my excerpt reminded you of some of the experiences. In my story “Of Earth and Bone” the main character, Qieng, was sent to assay an abandoned and crumbling part of the Great Wall in the desert for a future tourist site possibility. In his gut Qieng knows it’s a punishment for having an affair with his commanding officer’s wife. In his gut Qieng knows he’ll likely die there. In the heat, with his water supply dwindling, he finds himself back in time to when they were building the Great Wall. He’s one of the workers, being treated the way those who built the wall were abused. When he returns to the present time, he records what he’s seen in his journal. What happens to him in the end is karmic in that he was not an innocent character. His journal, which has in essence become his spirit, is able to exact its revenge. A lot of Chinese stories and folktales end this way, everyone dies/no one wins, to keep balance, and I know that has a huge influence on my writing. I think everyone I’ve ever read from nonfiction to fiction has had an influence on me that I interpret in my own way on the page. This has been fun. Thanks again for having me.

Excerpt from “Of Earth and Bone” in the anthology The Forsaken: Stories of Abandoned Places published by Cemetery Dance in 2017.

“Get up, dog! No sleeping. Only work. Bring those rocks over there!”

Clouded in a sleep haze, I looked up at a man standing over me, yelling and pointing. The bright sun behind him shadowed his face.

“What?” I said.

The man raised his arm then brought it down. A hard, sharp sting struck my shoulder. I scrambled onto my feet.

“You heard me,” the man said. “Now get moving or I’ll have the other dogs put you between mud and stone!”

A crack, then another surge of pain through my arm as the man whipped me again. Worn and beaten men trudged past in lines behind the one with the whip. Hunched over they carried large stones and bramble. I hurried in the direction from where they came.

My tent had vanished. The wall section appeared crude and low. Men moved their loads to the north end.

“Hey you,” I said to one of the workers walking past. The man kept his head down and rushed on. Everyone else ignored me or turned away if I approached.

Sun seared the bleeding lashes on my arm and shoulder, slowly cauterizing them, cooking the split wounds open. My white uniform shirt had already browned from the previous day’s digging. The green trousers I wore had powdery tan dirt coating them. Everything worn and raggedy. But my boots and socks…where were they? Had I taken them off when I laid down to rest? I couldn’t remember.

Hot ground burned my bare feet from below and the sun’s rays heated everything above. Any sweat from exertion evaporated too quickly to cool my body. How could these men work in the high heat of day?

By the time I got to the front of the line, I’d had two dizzy spells. A haggard man handed me a large rock and a dried branch of saxaul. Blood in various stages of drying stained what remained of his shredded clothing.

“What’s your name?” the man said.

“I’m Major Qieng—”

“Shush. Speak no more.” The man looked around, lowering his voice to a whisper. “Don’t tell anyone else you’re a soldier. They’ll treat you worse. Believe me, I know. My village rose up against Emperor Wu, and now I’m the only one left. I’m Niu.”

“Emperor Wu? From the Han Dynasty?”

“He’s Han, yes. I’ve never heard of dynasty, though. Is that a new place?”

“What? No.” I thought for a moment on my history lessons.

“It was Wu’s armies that destroyed my village and brought anyone still alive here. Every day since I’ve watched my neighbors and family members die, their bodies used to build up the old wall.”

“Old wall?”

“You two!” The work master stood above them and shouted down.

Niu flinched and shoved the rock and tree branch into me. “Take these and follow the others. Look busy when Feng comes around. He’s heavy-handed with the crop.”

Thinking it lighter, I armed the wood using my injured side. It weighed me down nearly as much as the stone. The course bark of the sauxal and abrasive rock tore through my shirt and scraped my skin.

As I walked in line and kept pace with the others over hot ground, I raised my eyes. Barren desert wasteland dotted with greenery went on for miles in every direction; more than I remembered from when I’d set up camp to survey it. The surrounding hills lower, as well as the wavy sand dune layers that crept toward the wall.

Niu spoke in a crude dialect of old Mandarin, but I’d assumed him an uneducated laborer from a desert village. The more I thought on it, I wondered if I’d become dehydrated and delirious. Besides ruined clothing and slash marks across exposed areas of their skin, the people’s attire looked old, ancient even. I’d thought Niu might be deranged when he’d told me about Emperor Wu, but perhaps he was right and I wrong. Had I somehow traveled to the past? Maybe I’d gone mad.

The most profound evidence stood before me. A long ridge of packed earth that rose only three feet high, lower in some areas, stretching across the desert plain. Very different from the section where I’d staked my tent. These men were tasked to raise the dirt mound with rocks and whatever else nearby that might lend strength to it. Then I passed three wooden carts on my way to the end of the wall, unusual for their primitive wooden wheels. Niu would have more answers, so I rushed back.

“You there! Stop!” the work master said.

Everyone halted. A quick glance up revealed no one on the wall. I turned my head and heard a whoosh before a sharp pain raced across my shoulders. Then another came, slightly lower.

“First you don’t move and now you want to hurry?” said Feng. The task master continued thrashing until my entire back throbbed and I fell over.

I’ve no idea of the actual date or time.

I woke from a nap with wounds I received during a nightmare. Pain keeps me from getting up and working much, but I did manage to dig down another foot when I came across small bundles of old rope. I’ve placed them into the pack along with the broken bones.

My dreams have become increasingly realistic. I fear I may be suffering from dehydration. As fast as I’m going through the water supply, I’m beginning to doubt I will last until the end of the week. It seems I may have stumbled upon some type of wormhole and am able to travel back into the past. This desert section of the Great Wall is a gateway. On the other side is Hell.

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.