Fiction Fragments: James Matthew Byers

Last week, I got to chat with my favorite belligerant nerd, Patrick Freivald about his latest novel, Murmur and how sex and horror intersect in his fiction.

This weel, Girl Meets Monster welcomes the Darque Bard, James Matthew Byers.

James Matthew Byers, the Darque Bard, resides in Odenville, Alabama. He has been published in Weirdbook Magazine, Grievous Angel ezine, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, poetry journals and through Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, AL, where he received his Master’s in 2010. His epic poems, Beowulf: The Midgard Epic and The Bard Song Saga: Valkeryia are out now from Stitched Smile Publications, LLC. He has won or placed in numerous contests at the Alabama State Poetry Society. The Darque Bard continues to write prolifically, supporting anyone who wishes to place their hammering fingers to the keyboard anvil becoming a polished wordsmith in the process.

Find James Matthew Byers at:

Twitter: http://www.Twitter.com/TheDarqueBard
Facebook: https://m.facebook.com/TheDarqueBard/
WordPress: http://jamesmatthewbyers.wordpress.com

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, James (or would you prefer Matt, Matthew…). In the short time that we have gotten to know each, you mentioned that you’ve been working on The Bard Song Saga: Valkeryia for a long time. How long have you been working on this project? What were some of the roadblocks preventing you from finishing? How does it feel to finally publish this labor of love (or, possibly an albatross)?

JMB: It’s my absolute pleasure to be here! I’m still flipping out over your debut, Invisible Chains. This is soooooo mega awesome! You’re quite the storyteller and crafting a novel the way you did still has my mind reeling with excitement. Sorry- had to get the geek in me calm. (I LOVE your book!!!)

To answer your first question- most of my friends and family call me Matt. I use my whole name, James Matthew Byers, when writing. In college the professors called me James. A few folks use Matthew. I’ll answer to all of the above, but by all means, Matt to you.

Oh wow. The Bard Song Saga: Valkeryia is the culmination of 31 years of my life. The characters who soon will reach the public eye are much different than where they began. It’s definitely epic poetry sewn primarily as fantasy with some sci fi and horror tossed in.

When I was fifteen, I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Dracula. Devoured all DragonLance, Forgotten Realms, and Ravenloft books. Grew up on Star Wars and The Barsoom Series. Frankenstein comes to mind as well. Alien. These stories and films had an influence on me that was incurable. (There are honestly too many to list- but I will add the artists of TSR in the 80’s and 90’s and comic art influenced me greatly as well) By the time I got to high school, I had been creating my own stories, poems, and art designs a while. In 9th grade I came up with a book idea called The Legacy of Mythril. I wrote it and carved out my own fantasy world called Mythalonia. That tale had a dwarf as the lead. Mythril. My upcoming release is a reboot of my own story. It went through many reincarnations before arriving where we are today.

As far as roadblocks, I’d say a lot of it was just life. Job changes, marriage, divorce, children … Things that shaped my poetic voice. I write in a particular way, a unique style. It’s very difficult to sell what I do. Back when I was beginning this project, there was no internet. I had no way other than reading “how to submit” books to know what a publisher wanted. I would go into a bookstore with a notebook and copy addresses from companies like TOR, Baen, ROC, and any other fantasy imprint I could find. After some two hundred odd rejections, I still found myself clinging to the notion this thing would happen. By the time the age of the digital native arrived, it became much easier to locate presses and find what editors were looking for. I never gave up on Mythalonia. I just took the very long road to get here.

When I signed with Stitched Smile Publications in 2016 and sold my version of Beowulf, it was exhilarating. I had a rhyming book out- I always wanted to be an epic poet more than a novelist- and I was over the moon. But this … this is a feeling on a whole other level. I’d say this is the pinnacle of all I’ve dreamed of my whole life. Stitched Smile allows me so much freedom. I do my own art, have so much input on the projects I do with them, unequivocally this is the greatest experience ever. There were times where it’s been an albatross for sure; something hanging around my neck I couldn’t shake. But here at the doorstep of its release, the love and passion far outweigh the long term burdens that rose up until I arrived here. The protagonist’s name is Sindri. She’s a dworc- a half dwarf, half-orc. She’s got a lot to say and I’m eager for others to hear her. I’m hoping the world loves adventuring throughout Mythalonia as much as I do.

GMM: When did you begin writing poetry? Epic poetry seems to be an artform from a different age, but it seems to be what you do best. How did you become inspired to write book-length poems, and when did you become the Darque Bard?

JMB: I began writing poems around age 8. I had been drawing and illustrating stories since I was in kindergarten. I always wrote what I thought were oddly designed tales. Then, when we studied Robert Frost and Edgar Allan Poe in 6th grade, the realization I was a poet sort of slapped me in the face. By my senior year, I had written a Canterbury Tales style poem about getting into my first car wreck. From there I delved into rhyming patterns and poetry, fully immersed in all meter and forms I could find. Reading Beowulf was a game changer. That’s definitely one reason I chose to redo it in iambic tetrameter. I realized telling stories that would make great spoken spectacles could come from my rhymes and rhythms. I began to craft my characters into mini epics. After several attempts, the original rhyming version of The Legacy of Mythril was finished in 1997. (After a prose version and a comic book) From there I jumped deeper into formal poetry. There are strict rules when writing it. With free verse you can go all over the place. Rhyme requires discipline and patience. The challenge to do book length poems in itself motivates me.

I became the Darque Bard towards the end of 2017. I had been promoting Beowulf: The Midgard Epic. Through Stitched Smile, it sort of evolved. Lisa Vasquez, the CEO of the company, always told her authors to create a brand. My editor at the time, Donelle Pardee Whiting and Lisa both always called me the Darque Bard. I ran with it. I decided wearing a green robe would make me look like a wizard or a Druid, and performing my poems orally might give me an edge over others. It lent itself to the past and other worldly sensations. Thus the Darque Bard as I am now was born. I also dress up as one of my characters, Bengalla. He’s a tiger from the lands of Acmar. But I’ll save that for another time …

GMM: Tell me about your writing process. For me, I get snippets of dialogue or see full scenes unfold in my head before I begin writing a new story, or the next chapter of a longer piece. Where do your poems begin? Where do your characters come from? Do you draft your poetry from beginning to end in one sitting, or do some of your poems take longer to figure out? Why poetry as opposed to shorts stories or novels?

JMB: I am one of those poets and artists who wait for the Muse to light upon his shoulder, darken his doorstep, or whisper into his mind. When this happens, when she sings to me, I begin cranking out the poetry. I honestly don’t do notes or outlines. Characters are born in my soul, I write, and they appear in text. Most shorter poems are done in one sitting. The longer stuff, like Valkeryia, takes time. But it just seems like I tap into this poetic ether and it flows through me. I’m its conduit. As I mentioned earlier, I always wanted a gimmick; to be known as the rhyming storyteller. I write prose. Do some free verse poetry. But rhymes are my jam. I love telling stories this way. I feel closer to Homer and Poe than Tolkien or Burroughs. Though they all influenced me, I have always bucked the system. Did it take a long time to get published? Yes. Did it get there, my way, finally? Absolutely. Patience is the key to success.

And here’s where I randomly compose something for you during our interview–

The road is long, the journey slow
But if we face the mountain
Eventually, the thirst will grow;
We drink from in its fountain.
Success may not be what we thought,
However, never waver
And in the end the dream is caught;
Go taste it; feast and savor …

Sort of how the whole process works for me. The words just flow. And like the little poem above says- I really believe this- all good things come in time. I wrote a prose version of the story where Mythril was still the lead character. It’s 182k words. But it’s in a file in my computer. I just have to rhyme. I have to be me, James Matthew Byers, the Darque Bard …

Thank you so much for this amazing opportunity to share! I have enjoyed this immensely. I am more than excited for The Bard Song Saga: Valkeryia to release very soon. And I’ll probably revisit Invisible Chains soon. Such a stellar novel! Until next time … The Darque Bard bids thee adieu …

Cover art for The Bard Song Saga: Valkeryia

Fragment from The Bard Song Saga: Valkeryia

Prologue

Another time, another place,
Another set of lives
Reset and chosen to erase
Became as sharp as knives.
Unknown to those who lost the way,
Unknown by those removed,
Unraveled in the ebb and sway
Of things that were not proved,
A world besieged by something new,
Yet something that was known
Encumbered those who came in view
Or sat upon the throne.
And so, it was that such a thing
Began with just a chance
For nothing lasts where hope may cling
Undone by circumstance …

I

A hammer to an anvil rang
Announcing by decree
Creation as the embers sang
A fiery melody.
Upon a night beneath the moon
Corruption spilled chagrin-
Departing with the smithy’s tune,
The horde of orcs within
Destroyed the dwarven residents
As one by one, they fell
Fulfilling former precedents
Inviting death to dwell.
Below the Kilkaln Mountain range
Erupted pools of red
Embracing heroes greeting change,
Completely left for dead.
A magic wielder clothed in black
Bespoke a wordy play
Engaging in her bold attack
Before the light of day
Emitting sparks of reddish hue
Into the open air
Engulfing what remaining few
Ablaze in flesh and hair.
All regimen in Plover stalled,
The realm where havoc reigned,
Congealed as chaos came and called
For darkness it obtained.
On Mythalonia, the lands
Began to see the rise
Of mystic forces joining hands
Content in evil eyes.
Unsettled in her aftermath,
Destruction doomed the hall
Disgorging red along her path
That lingered wall to wall.
A manner born of synergy-
The Aura, it was named-
Infusing colored energy
And now about, it flamed …
The gods had willed it long ago
Within a magic spell
Invoking power from the flow
Within where legends dwell.
The Pantheon, as they were known,
Begat without remorse.
Of all who sat upon a throne,
But one defined the course
Allowing what they customized
To flourish and to grow.
She and the dragons greatly prized
The magic and its flow.
The Aura swirled in Dark and Light
As evil lurked abroad-
Benign were most, but soon a fight
Erupted with a god.
As with all things, corruption cried,
And with a word, they flew-
The maidens armed with wrath espied
And pushed the battle through.
Created by the one who bore
The cat and dragon’s make,
They swiftly eased the dawning war
And chose a place to stake.
The Valkyries had claimed a home
Le’Mae had bade them reign,
And so, it was that they would roam
One day on Plover’s plain.
The powers that they all possessed
United them as one,
Around them prophecy professed
Direction they would run.
As warriors of heaven’s flame,
Defined by shield and sword,
Le’Mae had offered them a name
Befitting their accord.
Of all the deities around,
The panther goddess gave
And offered gifts that were profound
To shine beyond the grave.
The many mortal races made
Had all been so designed
To harness certain gifts displayed
Until they were refined.
As such, the Aura came to be
A means of mystic force.
The colors spoke in harmony;
Forbidden to divorce.
The dwarves had shunned it from the start,
Preferring hand and steel.
The elves and humans found its heart;
Before it, they would kneel.
The orcs and trolls went either way
As Acmar reared its might.
A story for another day …
Returning to the fight,
Deprived of mettle, left and right,
Again, the dwarves inside
Began succumbing to the plight
With nowhere they could hide.
A finger pointed to a room
As through the bulky crowd
Appeared a beastly orc of doom-
Intolerant and proud.
The heaving thrust upon a door
Continued on and on
Until the wood lay on the floor
And all around it, stone.
The throne room of the king and queen,
Abandoned it would seem,
Illuminated wealthy sheen
Reflected in the beam
Before the slobber dripping awe-
Enraged and open wide,
The upper lip and lower jaw
Amazed by all espied
Replied with such a lusty moan,
Preparing to collect
The many treasures now on loan.
No, he did not object.
The rugged tusks protruding out
Exposed his fetid breath,
Enraged, he boasted in a shout
Prepared to summon death.
“You must be patient. Follow through.
Behind the curtain there,”
The Aura user pointed to
A bit of auburn hair.
The beastly orc looked there and back;
A boiling anger brewed.
The woman pointed his attack;
His actions were reviewed.
She hailed from Acmar; human land,
And orcs despised them all.
They did not trust in her command,
But feared her wrath would fall.
Retorting with a snort and growl,
The bulky beast arose.
A few more orcs arrived to prowl,
And then the leader froze.
Above them, something slimy dropped
Onto the rocks below.
All movement then abruptly stopped
For in the gleaming glow
Exuded from the gems around,
The orcs backed in and turned.
The sticky substance they had found
Ignited pain and burned.
Above them, salamanders clung-
A dwarf armed on each back-
Enormous size, the creatures hung,
Protruding crack to crack.
Attacking the invading blight,
Surprised and caught off guard,
The orcs drew forth a blazing light
Surrounding shard to shard.
The dwarves had axes swinging full
As salamanders dove.
Upon the reigns, the rider’s pull
Directed in the cove
An angle or a movement gained
As metal clanked with light.
The Aura had enhanced and stained
The orcs who came to fight.
Around each sword an eerie hum
Emitted as a shine,
Discoloration striking numb
The workers from the mine.
The hidden one behind the cloak
Protected her domain.
Her arcane art created smoke
And filled the room with pain.
The salamander skins dried out
In time for orcs to chop
The heads from off each dying scout;
The battle did not stop.

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: Violette Meier

Last week I had two amazing conversations with Sumiko Saulson and Tonia Ransom. If you missed either of those interviews and fragments, go check them out.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes the prolific speculative fiction writer, Violette Meier.

Violette Meier is a happily married mother, writer, folk artist, poet, and native of Atlanta, Georgia, who earned her B.A. in English at Clark Atlanta University and a Masters of Divinity at Interdenominational Theological Center. The great-granddaughter of a dream interpreter, Violette is a lover of all things supernatural and loves to write paranormal, fantasy, and horror. She is always working on something new. Her latest work in progress, called Oracles, should be released by winter 2021.Her published books include: The First Chronicle of Zayashariya: Out of Night, Angel Crush, Son of the Rock, Archfiend, Ruah the Immortal, Tales of a Numinous Nature: A Short Story Collection, Hags, Haints, and Hoodoo: A Supernatural Short Story Collection, Loving and Living Life, Violette Ardor: A Volume of Poetry, This Sickness We Call Love: Poems of Love, Lust, and Lamentation, and two children’s books: I Would Love You and Would You Love Me?

Ten Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Violette.  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?

VM: Thanks for having me! Right now, I’m not working on a novel called, Oracles. It’s a supernatural reflection of an old woman’s life on her 101st birthday. Horror is one of my genres. I also write paranormal thrillers, urban fantasy, and science fantasy. Maybe to some, it’s all horror. I’m not sure because nothing ever scares me. What may seem slightly eerie to me may be scary to someone else.

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?

VM: I knew I was a horror writer when I was a teen because I was so fascinated with ghost stories and all things of a numinous nature. Every time I wrote something, it always went to the left.

I grew up with a great grandmother who told so many ghost stories, that as a child I was always on the lookout for a haint. I was comfortable with fear and uncertainty. Honestly, I don’t know if I’m capable of writing something normal. Dean Koontz and Stephen King were my favorite horror writers when I was younger. Now I’m influenced by a host of independent black writers.

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?

VM: “Black history is horror” is based on the diabolical black experience through the institution of slavery, racism, Jim Crow, police brutality, red lining, separate and unequal education, the penal system, economic disparity, war on drugs, gang violence, church hurt, the destruction of the black family, self-hate and conformity, etc.

These things show up in my work sparingly. It’s there but it’s never the focus. I focus more on black excellence, love, intelligence, simply the normalcy of black life that the world doesn’t focus on. Black folks have enough trauma porn.

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?

VM: I do not feel obligated to do anything but write the story that’s in my head. Writers of color can write whatever we wish. There are no limitations to our talent and imagination. The only boxes that we have are the ones we create.

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

VM: That’s a hard question. I have so many. There are so many different kinds of horror. If I’m forced to choose, I would pick: Fright Night (the one from the 80s), Blacula, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Jeepers Creepers, and Tales from the Hood.

Honestly, I don’t read a lot of horror. I try not to read a lot of books in the genre in which I write. I don’t want to inadvertently absorb someone else’s ideas. But, when I was in college, I loved everything written by Anne Rice. The book that scared me the most was The Exorcist.

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?

VM: That’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, I believe in artistic freedom. On the other hand, knowing the history of white people being culture vultures, and the stories of BIPOC being suppressed or being told through a belittling lens, it’s important that BIPOC tell our own stories.

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?

VM: Like you said, all writers feel that they may not be great at their craft, especially when books aren’t selling as much as you think they should.

I manage it by telling myself that my stories are unique and that they are mine to tell. No one can tell my story but me. Some people will love what I do. Some will hate it. Both are okay.

GMM: Tell me a bit about your great grandmother, the dream interpreter. Did you know her when you were growing up? Did she pass on any of her knowledge? How important are dreams to you as a writer? How has that ancestral legacy had an impact on what you write?

VM: I grew up with my great grandmother until the age of nine. She was the greatest storyteller. Sitting at her feet listening to what she claimed as real-life supernatural stories, put a love of the paranormal in my heart. She’s my biggest influence as a writer. She’s the reason why I write. Dreams are important to me as a writer and as a person. Dreams can be warnings, revelations, fantasies, or just the purging of the subconscious. In my Angel Crush series, there are a lot of prophetic dreams.

GMM: How often do people you know, either people you have close relationships with, or strangers you encounter randomly, end up as characters or the inspiration for characters in your fiction? Are some of them easily recognizable? Are there characters you’ve written based on people you know that you wouldn’t want them to know you wrote about them? Have people ever accused you of misrepresenting them in a story?

VM: All the time. Real life always influences fiction. I am careful to mix characteristics of people I know personally so that no one can pinpoint themselves. Therefore, no one has ever accused me of misrepresenting them. Also, I write supernatural fiction. Most people don’t see themselves in the situations I create, but people love that I name my characters after them.

GMM: What is the most positive feedback you’ve ever received for something you’ve written? Would you consider that one of your proudest moments? What is some of the most negative feedback you’ve received? How did it push you to become a better writer?

VM: The most positive is when a reader told me that I was their favorite writer. It made me feel so good. Of course, that was one of my proudest moments. Nothing feels better than someone loving my stories as much as I love them. It makes me feel like they get me. Like they had a glimpse through intimate parts of my mind.

The most negative is when someone compared one of my books to the Left Behind series. I had no idea how they could have possibly come to that conclusion. It was like comparing Sula to Fifty Shades of Grey. I was lost on that feedback.  My push to become a better writer is a personal push. I always want a current story to be better than the last. Although I love effective criticism, I rarely allow the opinions of others to override my vision for my stories.

Excerpt from Oracles by Violette Meier

1

It’s February 12th again and I’ve made my one hundred and first circle around the sun. I was hoping when I opened my eyes this morning to be in the bosom of Abraham or trying to possess the body of a newborn baby, or at least sunbathing in a flowery field in another dimension; but I’m still here on earth celebrating another birthday. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful. I am able-bodied and in my right mind. I can still dance when I hear a song that takes me back to times when the winding of my hips could hypnotize any onlooker into a helpless trance. Now the winding of my hips sounds like a twentieth-century watch being wound. My lined face is but a shadow of the woman I used to be. The mirror lies; showing me crow’s feet and laugh lines as deep as canyons; muddy eyes and a turkey neck. When I close my eyes, I see taut skin, gypsy eyes, voluptuous lips, and a neck like a swan’s. I am still that woman inside.

My health is good. Well, most of the time anyway. My blood pressure gets a bit high when I eat too many potato chips or take a week off from walking. My knee gets a little stiff at times and occasional low energy levels force my bedtime to start with the evening news.

I could do the average old lady thing and offer a list of my ailments, but I won’t because for the most part, I’m healthy and happy.  I’m surrounded by my family, who loves me, in a cozy home that I share with my eldest granddaughter, Sage, and her family. Sage and her husband Kevin have been good to me.  Life is pleasant. Sadness creeps up on me from time to time because my heart still yearns for my husband. It has been ten years since Josiah transitioned. According to him, he’s probably in a new body trying to learn the lessons he missed his last lifetime. I never believed much in reincarnation, but he did, and I am sure that he lives on somewhere in the world. Josiah had a knack for being right or so he claimed. My luck, he’s right about reincarnation and I’ll have to come back to this godforsaken planet. Not that I do not love living, but I have been on this earth a long time and I am ready to be gathered to my people. The ancestors are calling me. Their beckoning plays in my ears like a song stuck on repeat, fluttering in the distance. I can hear them calling my name; a melodic whisper that never stops humming day or night.

“Ma Lily!” my ten-year-old great grandchild yells from the other side of the door.

Violet is a loud one. Her voice is deep and full sounding like a chorus harmonizing every note. It would be perfect for the voice of God in a movie.

“Ma Lily, can I come in?” she asks as she taps the door like her finger is vibrating. I see the shadow of her toes dancing underneath the door.

I tell her to come in and Violet pushes open the door like she is trying to test her strength; causing it to fly open like a tornado is spinning in the hallway. Every time I see her, which is every single day, it makes me laugh inside. She looks the most like me out of all of my great grandchildren. Light brown with freckles, a cloud of thick black hair sits on the top her head like a beach ball held in place by a giant purple ribbon tied into a perfect bow with its ends framing the sides of her face, and the most intoxicating smile on this side of the world. She is radical, nonconforming, fearless and ostentatious like a ten-year-old should be. 

“Whatcha doin’?” Violet asks plopping down in my rocking chair as I push myself up into a sitting position. I pull the covers off my legs and toss my legs off the side of the bed. I look down at my ashy feet as my toenails scrape the floor. My toenails look like talons. Maybe I was turning into a wild thing like a creature in one of Violet’s story books. I voice activate the lamp and instruct her to open the curtains. Sunlight changes the entire energy of the room. It instantly renews every cell in my body. All of a sudden, a new birthday didn’t seem so annoying.

“Just waking up,” I answer looking at the digital holographic clock hovering over my nightstand. It was 7:59 am. “Why are you up so early?” I ask her as she rocks back and forth swinging her legs like she is on a playground swing. The chair groans like an old man. “It’s Wednesday. Why aren’t you in school?”

“Because it’s your birthday!” Violet exclaims. “Mama says that turning one hundred and one is a big deal and we’re gonna party like it’s 1999,” she replies scratching her head confused about what that meant. That song is nearly a century old. I was surprised her mother knew the lyrics, but then again, Prince is and will always be my favorite musical artist of all time. My children grew up on his music and when my grandchildren and great grandchildren visited me, they too became familiar with Prince’s ear piercing falsetto and his sacrosanct sexuality. I love everything about that little musical mastermind. I love that man! If I had any musical ability, Prince is who I would channel. For a moment, I consider placing my music microchip into my ear and playing Prince’s greatest hits, but I’m sure Violet will not let me listen in peace. Per her request, I would have to blast it loud through the ceiling speakers and frankly, it was way too early for that kind of noise.

“What does your mama have planned?” I ask, a little anxious about Sage’s plans.

Sage always went over and beyond what was humanly necessary to do anything. She is a perfectionist in the worst way and habitually slunk away from gratification like it was the plague. Watching her frown and fret over every single detail was torture. Sage could make a person feel guilty about having a birthday because of all the trouble that celebrating it will cause her. I’m glad I won’t be around to see what she plans for my funeral.

When I turned one hundred, she made a movie about my life consisting of old videos and photographs. It was a nice sentiment until she rented out a local theater to show it and invited everyone in town. I had to wait in line for thirty minutes to see my own movie and she stressed herself out over cold popcorn and incorrect digital tickets until she fainted and had to be fanned back to consciousness.

“I can’t tell you,” Violet says as she hops off the rocking chair onto my bed. The bounce nearly catapults me across the room. I grip the mattress to balance myself and exhale.

“Can I do your hair?” she asks as she twists my silver dreadlocks into loops and pin them to the top of my head. I lift myself so she can pull the ones free that I was sitting on, and I sit back on the bed.

“Looks like you’re already doing it,” I retort while yawning. I sit as still as I can as my great granddaughter styles my hair. My dreadlocks are floor length. It amazes me how she effortlessly gathers my big blue-gray ropes of hair and turns them into flower petals. She pulls the last bobby pin from her pocket and places it in my hair.

“Done!” she exclaims and bolts back over to the rocking chair.

I stand up and walk over to the cherry wood vanity that sits in the corner of my room, pull the emerald cushioned seat out and sit down. I look in the mirror and smile. Violet does exquisite hair just like her grandmother, my daughter, Chloe.

“Thank you, baby,” I reply as I put on a thin coat of pink lip gloss and give myself an air kiss in the mirror. I swear the lip gloss and hairstyle takes twenty years off my face. I don’t look a day over eighty.

“You’re welcome Ma Lily,” Violet replies as she rocks like a mad woman in the chair.

“Bring me my owls,” I instruct while admiring my hair in the mirror.

Violet hops off the chair and crosses the room and opens the top drawer of my jewelry armoire. She pulls out two sterling silver necklaces, both with large owls hanging from them, and a matching pair of earrings. After she hands them to me, I put on both necklaces, one owl hanging lower than the other and put on the dangling earrings.

I look at myself once again in the mirror and smile, extremely pleased with Violet’s handy work. I feel beautiful.

A shadow moves on the opposite side of the room, its dark reflection appearing like a man made of smoke. My chest constricts as I gasp aloud. I spin around.  Nothing is there.

The room falls silent. The screeching rocker squeals no more. Violet sits in the rocking chair as if time has stopped; her small face flushes red and her back is as stiff as a board.

“You okay baby?” I ask her as a shiny tear made its way down her cheek.

“Did you see it?” she whimpers.

“I saw it,” I confess. I want to deny it, but it is no use. Violet and I both were born with a veil; born with two crowns on our heads like the elders used to say. It was one of the things that helped us forge such an intimate relationship. Her mother cannot see, but her grandmother Chloe can and so can Violet’s older brother Uriah.

“It’s coming to get you Ma Lily. I saw it,” Violet whines. “I don’t want you to go.”

I stand up and walk over to my great grandchild. I instruct her to stand up so I can sit down. My knee is hurting a little. Rain must be coming. Violet sits on my good knee. She feels heavier than she did yesterday. “There is a season for everything under heaven,” I reply. “A time to laugh and a time to cry. A time to live and a time to die.”

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: Sumiko Saulson

This past Friday, I chatted with Nicole Givens Kurtz, one of the first recipients of the Horror Writers Association’s Diversity Grants. Today, Girl Meets Monster welcomes another Diversity Grant recipient, Sumiko Saulson. Sumiko provided me with multiple versions of hir bio and there is so much interesting information in each one that I felt like using only one would somehow rob you of knowing all the cool shit ze has done and is doing. As a woman of color who writes speculative fiction that often crosses the lines of genre and gives my readers a glimpse into my various parts that make up the whole, I can completely respect and wish to honor all aspects and intersectionalities of a fellow woman of color who writes horror.

So…here are all the bios Sumiko sent me. Bask in the glory of hir muliplicities.

50 Words
Sumiko Saulson is a cartoonist; horror, sci-fi and dark fantasy writer/blogger; editor of Black Magic Women and 100 Black Women in Horror. Author of Solitude, Warmth, Moon Cried Blood, and Happiness and Other Diseases. Author/Illustrator of Mauskaveli, Dooky, Dreamworlds and Agrippa, writes for Search Magazine and the San Francisco Bayview Newspaper.

100 Words
Sumiko Saulson is a cartoonist, science-fiction, fantasy and horror writer, editor of Black Magic Women, Scry of Lust and 100 Black Women in Horror Fiction, author of Solitude, Warmth, The Moon Cried Blood, Happiness and Other Diseases, Somnalia, Insatiable, Ashes and Coffee, and Things That Go Bump In My Head.  She wrote and illustrated comics Mauskaveli, Dooky andgraphic novels Dreamworlds and Agrippa. She writes for the SEARCH Magazine and the San Francisco Bayview column Writing While Black.  The child of African American and Russian-Jewish parents, a native Californian and an Oakland resident who’s spent most of her adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is pansexual, polyamorous and genderqueer (nonbinary).

100 Words (but different)
Sumiko Saulson is an award-winning author of Afrosurrealist and multicultural sci-fi and horror. Ze is the editor of the anthologies and collections Black Magic WomenScry of LustBlack Celebration, and Wickedly Abled. Ze is the winner of the 2016 HWA StokerCon “Scholarship from Hell”, 2017 BCC Voice “Reframing the Other” contest, and 2018 AWW “Afrosurrealist Writer Award.”

Ze has an AA in English from Berkeley City College, and writes a column called “Writing While Black” for a national Black Newspaper, the San Francisco BayView. Ze is the host of the SOMA Leather and LGBT Cultural District’s “Erotic Storytelling Hour.”

150 Words
Sumiko Saulson is a science-fiction, fantasy and horror writer and graphic novelist. She was the 2016 recipient of the Horror Writer Association’s Scholarship from Hell, and 2018 winner of the Afrosurrealist Writers Workshop Short Story Award. Sumiko Saulson is a cartoonist, science-fiction, fantasy and horror writer, editor of Black Magic Women, Scry of Lust and 100 Black Women in Horror Fiction, author of Solitude, Warmth, The Moon Cried Blood, Happiness and Other Diseases, Somnalia, Insatiable, Ashes and Coffee, and Things That Go Bump In My Head.  She wrote and illustrated comics Mauskaveli, Dooky andgraphic novels Dreamworlds and Agrippa. She writes for the SEARCH Magazine and the San Francisco Bayview column Writing While Black.  The child of African American and Russian-Jewish parents, a native Californian and an Oakland resident who’s spent most of her adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is pansexual, polyamorous and genderqueer (nonbinary).

Ten Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Sumiko.  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?

SS: I have three works in progress. The one I am currently focused on is Akmani, which is the fourth book in my paranormal romance / horror erotica series Somnalia, which begins with Happiness and Other Diseases. I promised Mocha Memoirs Press, publisher of my anthology Black Magic Women (and another anthology I am in, SLAY: Tales of the Vampire Noire) the first option on it when it is completed. It’s about 85% there at this point. I also have a manuscript for Disillusionment, the sequel to my first novel, a sci-fi horror story called Solitude, about 75% complete, but that one is tabled for now. And finally, I have a file I put all of my poetry in (I write quite a lot of it, on my blog and social media) which is called “Emotional Side Chicks.”

Horror is definitively my primary genre, but I do a lot of crossover into other genres that are combined with horror. Sci-fi horror, monster porn, paranormal romance and horror erotica are some of those, and my Afrosurrealism and Afrofuturism tends to be dark and essentially horror. I have a significant amount of erotica in my short story portfolio now, and some of it isn’t horror, but is fantasy, or sci-fi erotica. Poetry is the only genre I work in which isn’t usually horror flavored, as I am a beat or spoken word poet. However, I do have a poem in the current Horror Writers Association Poetry Showcase.

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?

SS: I started out as a poet and a journalist, and hadn’t completed any short stories or novels. I was a published poet as a teenager, and showcased as an upcoming beat poet in the San Francisco Chronicle at the age of twenty. So, the first short story I submitted anywhere was to Phantasmagoria when I was eighteen. They sent it back and said we would love to see more work from you, but this is suspense, not horror. I had sent it to four magazines but only they wrote back. I was easily discouraged and didn’t try again for a long time. I had a half written sci-fi horror novel that I never finished when I was twenty-five called The Chain. I think I tried writing things that weren’t horror, and it just didn’t work.

On my first novel I just gave up on the idea of writing anything other than horror, or trying to not sound derivative because I had consumed so much Stephen King that his voice was ingrained in my mind. So I finished Solitude and was bummed out when Under the Dome (the book, not the television show) came out and I saw that the time bubbles in my book were similar sounding to his dome. They were written at the same time, so it was almost like I had gotten so influenced by him that I was mind reading. Well… after the first book I got really good at having a distinct voice, and you gotta start somewhere.

The more I felt that my voice as an African American was important, the more that I felt my voice as a disabled author was important, the more I had a distinctive voice.

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?

SS: I think that Victorian era horror, Gothic horror, which is at the root of modern horror, is filled with white voices othering people of color, and then expressing fear that the people they oppressed would come back to destroy them. Consequently, American Gothic horror was filled with slaves cursing white people, Native Americans cursing white people, etc. British Gothic horror was filled with curses by Egyptians, East Indians, and people from Romania who had been oppressed by the Empire or the Church. Black horror switches the focus to us, so instead of it being about how we want revenge for all of the horrible things done to us… it is about how horrible things done to us were. Even in Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” where the house is haunted by the child Sethe killed, the visceral horror of the institution of slavery is cloying, overwhelming, and more horrific than the ghost. Sethe’s terrible deed was done to save her child from slavery.

The institution of slavery itself was the stuff of nightmares, I believe, is what Tananarive Due is saying. The horror of our ancestors being stolen from Africa, the heinous deaths aboard the overcrowded slave ships where we were treated like chattel, and the abuse at the hands of the slave owners and slave hunters.  Then, the abuse continued during the Reconstruction, during segregation, through Jim Crow laws, and voter suppression, the birth to prison pipelines, racial profiling, and police brutality.

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?

SS: My horror stories almost universally have broader messages about identity, class, racism, disability, and/or queerness. I don’t think that I personally can easily divorce myself from that narrative when I set out to write a story, but I do think that, in general, writers of color have the ability to write outside of those parameters. I was in a horror writing contest that HorrorAddicts put on, called “The Next Great Horror Writer” contest back in 2017. The runner up, Naching T. Kassa, was able to turn in several excellent horror stories that HorrorAddicts loved. They do not like political horror. That’s a fact. I got sixth place, but the more political my horror has become, the more rejection letters they send me. They probably have more people applying, but the rejection letters express their distaste for political horror. However, some of the most powerful work by authors of color addresses these issues. Toni Morrison refused to stop writing for Black audiences, and frankly, so do I. I have had to find markets that want political horror. Let someone else write for the ones who don’t.

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

SS: Candyman is my favorite horror movie. I am so jazzed for the new Jordan Peele one. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Bones (yes, that Snoop Dog movie), Dawn of the Dead, and Queen of the Damned (even though I know Anne Rice hates it, so hopefully she won’t read this interview). Novels – gosh, so basic. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Steven King’s The Stand, again Anne Rice’s Queen of the Damned, Toni Morrison’s Sula, and Mark Helprin’s A Winter’s Tale. Please don’t tell me you don’t think all of those are horror novels, because I am not trying to hear that. The movie that scared me the most was a sci-fi movie, The Planet of the Apes, the original one. I had terrible nightmares about it as a child. Apocalyptic themes frighten me the most, so naturally, The Stand was the scariest of those books, although, The Bluest Eye was also terrifying.

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?

SS: I think that own-voices are really important, but I know that I am not the only Black horror fan who swooned the minute Akasha showed up in Anne Rice’s Queen of the Damned. My love affair with Akasha still has not ended. Even though I love Akasha, it was many years later before Black vampires who weren’t villains showed up in the Vampire Chronicles.  Also, it took years for her to write dark skinned characters who weren’t supernaturally faded by vampirism.

Stephen King’s treatment of African American characters in The Stand was horrific. He martyred two different major Black characters in a book about the near-end of humanity, and didn’t even bother to show any Black children being born. It creates a creepy inference that all of the Black folks have died off. After many letters from concerned fans, Stephen King started writing stories where the martyring of Black folks came to an end, but there were other issues. Don’t even get me started with Bag of Bones… the black characters in that book are totally objectified, go through horrendous things, and yet are vilified, othered, and made into a backdrop for a story about a four year old white Last Girl.

My advice to white writers telling BIPOC stories is to try to avoid tokenizing. If there is only one Black person, and only one Latina, then if one or both end up dead, or as a villain, then you have no heroic person or even neutral person in that role. A diversity of different kinds of characters of any given race makes it more likely that you will have at least one sympathetic character in that demographic.

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?

SS: Oh gosh, I am having it right now. I have been putting out tons of short stories, but haven’t managed to finish a new novel since 2015. The more political my short story writing has become, the more I worry about potentially problematic things in my novels, which are mostly multicultural and take place in urban settings. I just wrote when I first started, and didn’t second guess myself as much. Now I am like, “Oh wait, I am writing about people who are different than me – did I do it right?”

My experience with impostor syndrome is that the fastest way to get past it is to set aside perfectionism. Sometimes I pick up a book I was told is terrible that got published, and read it and tell myself that I suck less than that. Then I tell myself that all of an author’s books aren’t masterpieces, and it is okay to write a book that isn’t Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. In fact, if none of my books are ever as good as Toni Morrison, that will be okay. I am a horror writer. Then I pick up a really crappy Stephen King book like The Tommyknockers and remind myself of how many mediocre books he has put out. And yet, I am a fan.

GMM: Do you write about characters who share as many intersectionalities as you do? Did it take you a while to develop the confidence needed to tell their stories, or did you simply write the stories you needed to tell without worrying about what other people might think? Have you experienced any backlash for the stories you write?

SS: I am half Black and half Ashkenazi Jewish, am a non-binary femme who is woman-identified, am mentally ill and pansexual. Some of my characters have as many intersectionalities, but not all of them. The protagonist in “The Moon Cried Blood” is a thirteen year old biracial Black/Mexican girl, and the protagonist in “Happiness and Other Diseases” and “Somnalia” is a biracial Chinese/Hawaiian man. There are tons of queer characters in the Somnalia universe, which is based on Greco-Roman mythology. The Roman pantheon was queer as all get out.

I have a few trans and gender noncomforming characters, and X’ashia, the alien in Solitude and Disillusionment is a major one. He is composed of multiple subatomic creatures, and although he is biologically agender (because he procreates through cellular division), he shapeshifts a bunch and eventually acquires a gender identity, as male. There is a transman in“Insatiable but he is not a major character. Flynn Keahi, the main character in “Somnalia,” shapeshifts into a leopard who is female.  Angelo and Shiela are two people who share a body in a three-story arc in the “Scierogenous” anthology – both of them African American. They are a technologically created system. A chip was implanted in Shiela’s brain, which created a new person, Angelo, for a companion. Although they are sexually involved with each other, both are primarily attracted to men.

People in the African American community of writers and in the Horror community have both been very supportive, so not a lot of backlash there. Early in my career, I had a handful of cisgender white men I knew from my twenties get drunk and come at me for trying to write. Trust me they all think they are liberal. One of them drunkenly rage-posted about how women can’t write horror until I blocked him on Facebook. Another bought one of my early self-pubs and then drunkenly rage-posted about there being typos. I have also had to deal with micro aggressive behavior at conventions.

GMM: Tell me about the “Erotic Storytelling Hour.” What’s the backstory of how it began and how have you had a hand in making it a reality?

SS: The Erotic Storytelling Hour is run by the San Francisco Leather and LGBT Cultural District. Our Cultural District is in the South of Market neighborhood in San Francisco, California. We are the world’s first LEATHER & LGBTQ Cultural District. The Cultural District was created by a resolution unanimously passed by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on May 1, 2018 and signed by the Mayor on May 9, 2018. We will have a Cultural Center there in the future, so this is literally bigger than me.

I have been very active in the local leather community since 2015, but did not become involved with the SF Leather District organization until after the pandemic last year.  The original host, Bicoastal Beth, moved to the East Coast. I was a regular participant there, both as an attendee and as a reader. I had no idea they were considering me until they offered me the position. My boss, Cal Callaghan, actually took over Bicoastal Beth’s position as the District Manager. He said he wasn’t an entertainment type, and asked them to hire a separate person to host it. 

Now, Cal and a very active board member, David Hyman, co-host the Erotic Storytelling Hour (ESTH) with me. Cal and David are behind the scenes running technical aspects of the Zoom call, and David makes announcements for the SF Leather Cultural District. The purpose of the ESTH is to support the members of the Cultural District, so every week we have four community readers and one feature. The feature is usually a name in the Leather community, such as a Leather titleholder, someone who runs community spaces or meetups, or someone who runs safe spaces for marginalized groups within our community. Sometimes the feature is an erotica author. People who attend virtually are a part of our community, as well as people who live here, and people who visit the Cultural District when they are in town. The event also serves to broaden awareness of our historical Cultural District as a tourist destination for people in the Leather community worldwide.

Part of my role and responsibilities is to help ensure that we have a diversity of readers. Because San Francisco’s Leather Heritage District was initially established by predominately white cisgender gay men, this includes making sure that ethnically diverse kinksters, and other members of the LGBTQ Leather District community such as trans, nonbinary, lesbian, bisexual… pretty much any queer person who isn’t a white cisgender gay man… get to read. Straight kinky people are also a part of the leather community.

GMM: What advice would you give to new writers who occupy more than one identity and embody the intersectionalities of race, class, ethnicity, disability, gender, sexuality, etc.? If you could go back in time, would it be the same advice you would give yourself as a novice writer?

SS: If I could go back in time, I think that, as a novice writer, I would have done some things differently. I didn’t find out about Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward’s “Writing the Other” until after I was well into my novel writing career. I have since become more aware of the fact that a person, while being a minority at many intersectionalities, can still be writing the other. I had some inkling, because I talked to my cousin, Heather, who is a quarter Hawaiian (a really big deal, since Europeans brought diseases to Hawaii that wiped out a lot of the native population) about a lot of things that went into the Somnalia series. Especially Book Three, Insatiable, which takes place in Hawaii, where I lived for seven years. Flynn Keahi, the protagonist of the series, is Hawaiian and Chinese and was raised by a Hawaiian single mother. Asking people to give you perspective on the characters that are unlike you is a good idea, even if you have no one available to do a sensitivity read.

Things I did actually do as a new writer that I would suggest, include getting involved in writers’ groups. I was in school at Berkeley City College, where I got a lot of advice from teachers and critiques from student peers that were useful. I started a Black Women’s Writing Group with a fellow student, and joined another Women Writer’s Group that was not exclusively, but predominantly, Black. As a disabled author, I got a lot of support from the disabled student’s services, and I also joined WryCrips, a disabled women’s writing and theater group. I was not out as a nonbinary person at that time. I started a Writing Group for kinksters after I came out as nonbinary. There were a lot of transpeople and queer folks of every ilk in it. It is good to have both mainstream (such as educational) and community writing spaces, in my opinion. 

I am a firm believer in completing your first draft before getting perfectionist and hyper self-critical. It is a difficult lesson for a lot of first-time writers. You need to complete a first draft in a timely manner to avoid having a metric shit-ton of consistency and chronology errors. While you are sitting there, re-writing the same sentence fifty times, you are losing momentum on your plot points. Rewrites can occur during editing, and the flow is sometimes more critical than the perfect turn of phrase. 

Get other eyes on it after you finish your rough draft. Other eyes during the writing of the first draft, that I choose, are much less critical than the ones I choose to allow to help me after the first draft is done. Hypercritical people during the writing of the first draft give me pretender’s syndrome and writer’s block.

“The Calico Cat” by Sumiko Saulson

“Don’t bring that thing in the house!” his mother shouted, as Joe slipped in the door after three p.m., a raggedy patchwork shadow at his feet. The cat, which couldn’t have weighed more than five pounds, had been following him since he walked off his school playground four blocks back.

“Aw, mommy, why?” he cried. “I was hoping to keep her. Can I keep her?” The cat was too thin. Her patchy fur was infested with angry fleas that bit his ankles when she rubbed up against them, begging for a pet. She wasn’t very pretty, but she was so sweet. She… he knew it was a she because calicoes are almost always female… already acted like he was her human.

“Out, you damned flea-bitten mangy mongrel!” Mom screamed. Could the cat understand English? She hissed at his mother, orange eyes blazed like campfire blazing.

“Come on, Mom!” Joe begged, but to no avail. Mom came running for the door, straw broomstick in hand.  He jumped out of the way so she wouldn’t hit him with it on her way to the cat. She swatted madly at the calico, who responded by hissing, back arched like a Halloween decoration. Her claws dug into the pine stick, but to no avail. His mother struck the cat firmly in the hindquarters, and it skittered out into the yard.

“Mom’s right…” his older brother Stan whispered with a haunted look in his eyes. “We don’t want a cat in here, not that cat, anyhow.”

Joe wondered what was bothering Stan, but his older brother wouldn’t tell.

The next night, the calico showed up in his back window at dinnertime, meowing and begging to be let in or fed.

“Don’t feed it!” his father warned. The boy ignored him, and snuck table scraps to the calico at the back door. The calico licked her slender, black lips in anticipation as he offered her a strip of bacon. She must have been starving. She leapt up and nipped his wrist with her tiny fangs so hard that it bled. 

“Told you so!” his dad said, shaking his head. “Those things are dangerous.” The boy yelled at the cat, and she skittered over the back fence, disappearing.

 “Why are you afraid of cats?” Joe asked his father.

“Doesn’t she look familiar?” Dad asked him.

“She does,” Joe admitted. “But all cats kind of look alike, don’t they?”

“That’s one of your grandmother’s cats,” Dad told him. “She had about four of them, all but this one black. Last year, she died of a heart attack. We were shocked when we got home and found all four cats eating her corpse.”

“My goodness!” Joe shrieked. “Eating her?”

“Eating her face right off,” Dad nodded. “That one right there is named Amanda. She was eating your grandmother’s eyeball like she thought it was a mouse. And the smell… just awful.”

“Smell? How long was grandmother dead?” Joe asked. “Maybe they were just hungry.”

“Like hell!” Mom yelled. “Those cats are evil. Vile, plotting little things, they are, wicked! And she had the audacity to leave this house to them in her will.”

“She left everything to them,” Dad laughed. “Her lawyers probably think those cats still are living here and we’re giving them all the money. Fat chance of that!”

His brother Stan looked spooked. “Why don’t you tell Joe the truth?” Stan demanded. “Grandma was a witch. She left the house to those cats because they’re her familiars. That’s why they hate mom and dad. And they’ve been trying to get into the house ever since!”

“That’s crazy,” Joe said. But he wasn’t so sure. He’d been away at summer camp when Grandma died. When he came back, they’d moved into this nice house. They used to live in a trailer before that. No one explained where the house came from until now.

“The calico was their leader,” Stan insisted. “You’ll find out.”

Joe had terrible nightmares that night. Amanda had gotten into the house, along with three other cats, all of them black. She chased him to the bedroom, but he pushed her out and locked the door. He climbed into the bed, and hid under the sheets, but he couldn’t sleep. There were terrible screams coming out of the other rooms in the house.

The next morning, he got up and went down to breakfast, but no one was there.

“Mom?”  he called out. Joe walked through the house looking for her, but didn’t find her. When he went to his parent’s bedroom, and opened the door, they weren’t inside. Instead, there were two black cats, sleeping in their bed.

He walked down to his brother’s room, and opened the door. There was a black kitten sitting on his bed.

Thinking he missed them, he walked back down to the kitchen. There, he saw a strange woman. Her black, orange, and white hair was up in a bouffant hairdo. It reminded him of the cat’s fur.

“Hello, Joe…” she purred. “My name is Amanda. I’ve come to take back what is mine.”

“But you’re a cat,” Joe said, his jaw dropping as he took a seat so he wouldn’t fall down.

“I am a witch,” she informed him. “I am your grandmother’s sister. You know, all of our family members can turn into cats. Too bad your no-good parents didn’t know that before they tried to steal my inheritance.”

Joe looked down and saw a bowl of cereal sitting on the table in front of him. In a state of shock, he began to eat it without thinking. He tried not to imagine his grandmother’s sister eating her eyeball while he was doing it.

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: Donna Lynch

Last week I chatted with Tony Tremblay about tacos, reviewing books, and his forthcoming novel from Haverhill House, Do Not Weep For Me.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes poet, lyracist and writer Donna Lynch.

Donna Lynch is a two-time Bram Stoker Award-nominated dark fiction poet and author, spoken word artist, and the co-founder—along with her husband, artist and musician Steven Archer—of the dark electronic rock band Ego Likeness (Metropolis Records).

An active member of the Horror Writers Association and three-time contributor to the HWA Poetry Showcase, her published works include the novels Isabel Burning, and Red Horses; the novella Driving Through the Desert; and the poetry collections In My Mouth, Twenty-Six, Ladies & Other Vicious Creatures, The Book of Keys, Daughters of Lilith, Witches, and the Ladies of Horror Fiction Award-winning Choking Back the Devil (Raw Dog Screaming Press).

She is the founder of the Garbage Witch clothing brand, part-time tour manager, avid cross-country driver, and geography fanatic. She and Steven live in Maryland.

FB: Donna Lynch @GeekLioness
Twitter: @GeekLioness
Instagram: d_note_
Raw Dog: http://rawdogscreaming.com/authors/donna-lynch/

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Donna. Thank you for joining me in these weird times. Has the pandemic and current events had an impact on your creativity? What spooky things have you been cooking up while in quarantine?

DL: It absolutely is having an impact. My focus and concentration are worse than usual, and I’m having to work extra hard at not putting myself down because of it.

That said, I have been able to dive into a new poetry collection: a mix of contemporary folk legends and the lives of my friends and myself growing up in suburban and rural areas. There is a quiet horror that happens in those communities that have traditionally fancied themselves safer and of higher moral ground than urban areas, and as young women growing up in those places, we knew it all too well.

GMM: Tell me about your writing process. Does your process differ between writing lyrics, poetry and fiction? Or, does the same Muse speak to you for all of your creative endeavors?

DL: Lyrics require hooks and there are more “restrictions”. The words not only have to be memorable and impactful, but they have to fit. Everything else feels easy compared to that.

But the words all come from the same well. The bigger challenge is keeping the well from going dry.

GMM: Without giving away too many spoilers, can you tell me about your fragment? Is this part of a larger piece? What’s happening in the story?

DL: My fragment is an excerpt from a work-in-progress collection of short stories that feature the same protagonist: a centuries-old entity who has taken numerous forms throughout time, but during the twentieth century, assumes the identity of a southern gentleman, based on an archetype of the devil they once saw in a film. I won’t share their/ his purpose here, only preface this excerpt by saying they act as a companion to those who need it the most, but in this particular story, struggles with their agenda.

I started this collection many years ago, and I made two mistakes: I made it too big, and I made it too precious. But now, in 2020, enough has changed that I feel ready to carve it into manageable pieces, and I can make the adjustments necessary to feel good about its place in the world, to whatever degree that may be. Offering up this (unedited) fragment here is the first step in me letting it breathe and letting it go.

Miss Abyss

I said it before and it’s always true: some of them are just harder than others.

This one, I can’t say she’s a failure. I wouldn’t ever call her that, no way. But she ain’t made of the same stuff the others are. She’s of something stronger and stranger, and at the same time she’s nothing.

A very long time ago she bound me not to say her name, and I can’t even remember it now, which goes to show how powerful she really is. And pardon my metaphor, but if I’m the stitches, she’s the wound that’s just too wide and deep.

I can’t really save any of my girls, that’s not my job and I couldn’t if I tried, but I especially can’t save her. For her to be who she is, she can’t ever be spared from it. She’s a chasm, a void. But, by god, there’s something deep down in there that is so fragile, and compassionate, and alone, I don’t know how it survives. It’s so far down, I don’t know how it’s fed, but it is. Not much, but enough, I guess.         

Now—for a void— if there’s one thing she’s excellent at filling, it’s your time. Otherwise, she’s a taker. She takes your energy, your sanity, your common sense. But even then, that ain’t her fault. It’s her nature, and she only takes what you offer. It’s a pretty deep hole she’s aiming to fill, so it takes a lot, and there ain’t much point in fighting because once you open your mouth and start telling her your story and she starts listening in a way nobody ever listened before, you’ve already approached the event horizon.         

The problem with little Miss Abyss is that there ain’t no lesson for her. There’s no moral of her story. She’s not a saint, or a martyr, not a demi-god, or a spirit. She’s eternal, but that don’t mean much when you only exist for other people, because they will you to exist. She’s a distraction for anyone looking for an escape, though she doesn’t know it’s temporary. If everyone let her alone tomorrow, she’d just…not be.

She doesn’t know she isn’t real. But that ain’t ever gonna happen, because people ain’t ever gonna stop wanting someone to listen the way she listens. They ain’t ever gonna stop wanting something to fill their time and emptiness.         

It took me a hell of a long time to figure out why we came across each other, but then it hit me: someday, I’m might have to tell her. At least, I think I will. My job is to be merciful, to make the transitions easier, to not let them linger, hurting and desperate. I get mad at myself for letting her go on this long, getting used and thrown away time and time again. I lose track of time, but I’ll tell you, it’s been long enough to make me feel ashamed. Hard truth is, I’m fond of her, and I don’t want to set something into motion I can’t control. Like I said, that ain’t my job. But it also ain’t really fair to her.         

It seems harmless enough, just thinking it through. If she’s nothing, then why shouldn’t people bring her into existence if they need her? She’s summoned by the lonely, the trapped, the insecure. She’s called by people who need a distraction from their boring lives and ugly selves, and they’d rather face the better person they see reflected in her hopeful eyes. “Where’s the harm?” they think. They never remember asking for anything out loud. So when they’ve used her up, or offered more than they could afford to lose to, they always say “Hey, sweetheart, I never said you had to keep coming around,” or “We never said this was forever”, and they send her away, emptier than when she got there, if that’s even possible. It’s like looking at a hole torn in space. You can hardly even understand what you’re looking at. You just know it’s dark and cold.         

But here we are, over and over, and though I see she’s hurting, I can see she’s hoping—hoping to be real, hoping that this time, she’ll be enough—and I let it ride because it feels so good to have her with me. I don’t have to teach her a damn thing. I don’t have to carry her through a trauma or a gate, into her next form. I don’t have to hold her hand while she nestles into place in a folktale or ghost story. We just exist together and I tell her about all of it and she just listens and smiles and makes me forget all of the terrible things I see, and every time, just as I’m feeling so good, it hits me like a shotgun blast to the head—

I don’t set her free because she’s my distraction, too.

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

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

Fiction Fragments: Cindy O’Quinn

Last week, Girl Meets Monster talked with John M. McIlveen about his forthcoming collection of short stories, A Variable Darkness, and the fact that he is somehow able to function on only 4 hours a sleep each night.

This week, I am thrilled to welcome Bram Stoker Award nominated writer, nature lover, and extremely kind and supportive cheerleader of her fellow writers, Cindy O’Quinn.

Cindy O’Quinn is an Appalachian writer who grew up in the mountains of West Virginia and is now living, writing, and homesteading in northern Maine.

2019 HWA Bram Stoker Award Nominee in Short Fiction for “Lydia”, and multiple Rhysling nominated poet. “Lydia” was published in the anthology, THE TWISTED BOOK OF SHADOWS, edited by Christopher Golden and James A. Moore, which was nominated in the anthology category for the Bram Stoker Award, This is Horror Award, and it won the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Anthology.

Works published or forthcoming in Shotgun Honey Presents, Twisted Book of Shadows, HWA Poetry Showcase Vol. V, Star*Line, SFPA Halloween Reading, Sanitarium Magazine, Eerie Christmas Anthology, Space and Time Magazine, Speculative City, Chiral Mad 5, and others.

Social Media:
Facebook @CindyOQuinnWriter
Instagram cindy.oquinn
Twitter @COQuinnWrites

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Cindy. I loved your fragment and definitely want to read more. The fact that your protagonist is a writer reminded me of how Stephen King often writes about characters who are writers. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s a trope in his fiction. Are there certain tropes you rely on in your own fiction? Do you create characters who are similar to other characters you’ve written about, or are there distinct qualities about them that set them apart? Without too many spoilers, can you give a synopsis of “The Handshake”?

COQ: Michelle, thank you for having me on Girl Meets Monster. I’m glad you enjoyed my fiction fragment. Yes, my novelette is about a young writer. I enjoy Stephen King stories with writers, as well. I loved The Dark Half, and Misery. It isn’t a trope of mine. Most of my characters have been fairly different from one another, thus far.

A quick synopsis of “The Handshake,” which was first published in Sanitarium Magazine Fall 2016. The magazine has since changed hands, and the issue is no longer available. I’d love to see it accepted in the future as a reprint.

Torrence Eastlin is a young writer. He has the chance to meet his favorite author, Hudson Greenbrier. Something happens when the two shake hands, at least it feels that way to Torrence. His writing improves, and he begins getting one acceptance after the next. When Hudson requests a private meeting with the young writer, Torrence knows his feeling must be true. He fears whatever transferred with the handshake must be what Hudson Greenbrier wants back. To what lengths will someone go to keep their gift or to take another’s?

GMM: What defines you as an Appalachian writer? Is it simply the fact that you were raised in Appalachia, or are there specific elements within your writing that make you an Appalachian writer? Settings? Characters? Tone? Plots? How would we recognize the work of other Appalachian writers?

COQ: In the beginning, my bio would simply state I was a writer who lived in West Virginia or Virginia. That changed when I moved to northern Maine. I felt disconnected from myself. It no longer felt right to say I was a writer who lived in Maine. That became evident when I spoke. People made sure I knew I was “from away”. I dedicated my novel to my husband and sons, but also to the Appalachian Mountains that stood guard around me for so many decades. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, You can take the girl out of the mountains, but you can’t take the mountains out of the girl. It’s true in my case. The Appalachian mountains are a part of what makes me, the person I am. All of it, the way I talk, write, cook, parent, homestead, down to how I dress.

I’m not sure one would recognize another Appalachian writer unless it’s known. It’s known of writers like Ron Rash, Silas House, and David Joy. If I’m drawn to a writer’s work, I’ll check out their bio.

GMM: Aside from short stories and poetry, have you written any longer fiction or nonfiction? Have you written any novels? If not, why? What projects are you working on right now?

COQ: I self-published my first novel, Dark Cloud on Naked Creek in the fall of 2016. I went through a couple small runs with it. Return to Graveyard Dust was my first collection of poetry. I have a novella currently out for consideration, I’m working on my second poetry collection, and another novel.

Fragment from “The Handshake” by Cindy O’Quinn

I glanced back at the line of fans and realized I’d hogged far more time than I should have. I stood and reached out my hand to my favorite writer. His enormous hand clasped down around mine, causing it to all but disappear. That’s when, once again, I felt that magical haze that had been hovering close all day. I was back in that tunnel, just like before when the writer was speaking at the podium. This time, there was actually a white glow around the two of us. Our hands together produced an electrical heat that I could feel up my arm and into the base of my skull. It felt like it lasted an hour, when in all actuality it was probably only a matter of several seconds. When the tunnel and light melted away, the writer was handing me the novel he so graciously autographed for me, and saying, “Good luck with your writing.”

“Okay. Thank you,” I said. Before walking away, I saw something in Hudson Greenbrier’s eyes that hadn’t been there before. Fear.

The drive back to Charlottesville was nothing like the drive to Sweet Wine. My mind was in a fog, and I was unaware of my surroundings. The fall foliage could have turned black, and I wouldn’t have noticed. I wasn’t fully alert again until I pulled into the driveway at home. I looked down in the passenger seat and saw Hudson Greenbrier’s book. I picked it up and looked inside. I hadn’t even bothered to look at what the author wrote. It read:

Here’s to Torrence Eastlin, the next big deal. I know there will be many who love your words. Hudson Greenbrier

I read the words over and over. I couldn’t remember, for the life of me, having told him my name. I must have, though. In my star-struck state, I must have told him my name. How else would he have known? There was a peck on my window that caused me to slam the book shut like I was hiding a secret. It was my brother, and he was laughing at having caused me a fright. Dell asked, “Well, did you meet him?”

I answered as I got out of the car, “Hell, yes, I met him. Here’s the selfie to prove it.” I handed my cell over to my brother. “He signed his book for me, and we talked a while.” I went on to tell my brother how I’d made an ass out of myself outside the bookstore. He got a real kick out of that. I didn’t tell him about the tunnel, the light, or the fact that I didn’t recall having given Greenbrier my name.

Later that night in my room, when the day had finally started to calm down, I wrote a three-thousand-word short story. I thought it was the best I ever wrote, and I wasn’t the only one to think it was good. My parents and my brother all agreed that I should submit it to Word Burner Magazine, so I did. A day later, I received an email saying they wanted to publish my story in their next issue. I received three hundred dollars for that short story. I went on to write seven more short stories, and they all sold. With each story published, my paycheck grew. Every time I sat down and started writing, I could feel myself floating back into that tunnel I was in the day I met Hudson Greenbrier. Never once did I question it. I just chalked it up to having been inspired by my favorite writer. As I look back, deep down I knew it was much more than inspiration. It went on this way for three months, until I decided it was time to move on from short stories and on to writing my first novel. Within a month, I had written a three-hundred-page murder-mystery novel, and had gone back over it twice to weed out any mistakes, which were few. My contact at Word Burner Magazine referred me to the editor at Nelson County Books, a small publishing house in nearby Afton, Virginia.

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.

Dark Blood Comes From the Feet: An Interview with Emma J. Gibbon

Emma J. Gibbon is a horror writer, speculative poet and librarian. Her stories have appeared in various anthologies including Wicked Weird, Wicked Haunted, and The Muse & the Flame and on the Toasted Cake podcast. She also has a story upcoming in Would but Time Await: An Anthology of New England Folk Horror from Haverhill Publishing. This year, she has been nominated twice for the Rhysling Award for her poems “Fune-RL” (Strange Horizons) and “Consumption” (Eye to the Telescope). Her poetry has also been published in LiminalityPedestal Magazine and is upcoming in Kaleidotrope. Emma is originally from Yorkshire and now lives in Maine in a spooky little house in the woods with her husband, Steve, and three exceptional animals: Odin, Mothra, and M. Bison (also known as Grim). She is a member of the New England Horror Writers, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association, the Angela Carter Society, and the Tuesday Mayhem Society. Her website is emmajgibbon.com.

I recently had the pleasure of reading Emma J. Gibbon’s anthology of short horror fiction, Dark Blood Comes From the Feet. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this collection of literary horror tales that put relatable characters under the microscope to show us the darker side of the human condition. Gibbon takes us to weirdly familiar settings that quickly turn macabre, like a strip club in Purgatory, a Lovecraftian orphanage, a day at the beach that would make Cronenberg proud, and a haunted house on a hill that I won’t forget any time soon.

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Emma. Congratulations on the release of your short story collection, Dark Blood Comes From the Feet, that comes out today! I really loved reading your stories, not just because they were well written, but also because I couldn’t help wondering where the stories came from. You write about a diverse group of characters from different backgrounds with different experiences and I kept wondering which of those characters were you. That might seem like a strange thing to wonder for some people, but because I write dark fiction as well about women of color, there is a part of me in each story. Some really terrible things happen to the people in your stories, but at the most basic level, they’re human. How much of yourself is in this collection? Where do the lines blur between you and your characters?

EJG: Thank you so much! I’m so glad you enjoyed it! That’s a really tough question to answer because in a way, they are all from me but are separate at the same time. I’ve had an interesting and varied time on this earth so far, so it does sometimes feel like I’ve lived a lot of lives. There is no doubt that I use elements of myself and my life when I create characters, some on a surface level and some on a deep emotional level. When I do the latter, it’s often not a conscious decision but something I realize later, sometimes years later. For example, on a surface level, the narrator of “Cellar Door,” Karen, resembles me in that some of her memories she mentions are my memories and she lives in my house. That house is my house! That basement is real! I’m not convinced it was the best idea, it’s like I haunted my own house.  But personality-wise, she’s not like me. Janine in “Janine” is a character I have enormous sympathy for. She is someone who had the cards stacked against her from the start, who made some bad choices and has really suffered for them, much more than she deserves. I have the sense that I could have easily been someone like Janine, but I was just luckier.

Ultimately, there is a lot of me in this collection, probably more than I like to admit. Dark Blood Comes from the Feet, is a line from “Cellar Door” and it’s a reference to having old trauma that you have trouble letting go of. I have a lot of stuff that I psychologically scratch at, over and over, old wounds. They’re in my stories but I skew it and dress it up in monsters and distinct voices and the supernatural so that I don’t even recognize it myself at times.

GMM: While reading the stories, I compared your work to other writers in the genre, including Poe, Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Cronenberg, and there’s even a reference to Donnie Darko (Tolkien), which brought a smile to my face. Which writers have had the most impact on your own writing style? Whose stories inspired you the most?

EJG: I do love Donnie Darko! And thank you so much! That’s a very flattering and intimidating list! I definitely have a group of authors whose work has inspired me. I know I’ll forget a major influence but a very obvious one is Shirley Jackson, but also Angela Carter, Daphne du Maurier, Neil Gaiman, Mervyn Peake, M. Rickert, Kelly Link. I think Brooke Bolander is astonishing. I’m inspired by many people writing horror right now. More than that though, I think the key is I was an early and voracious reader who came from a family that weren’t huge readers. We didn’t go to the library. My parents bought me books, but there was no way they could have kept up with me. I read everything and did a lot of rereading (I’ve slowed down since then, I mean, the internet exists now.) I’d get books from car boot sales (the British equivalent of yard sales). Half the time I didn’t have to pay. I think people were a bit weirded out by this little girl carrying a stack of Stephen King and Alfred Hitchcock books, I especially liked the ones with the yellow edges, so they just gave them to me. Because my reading was very autodidactic and random, I have a personal canon that’s my own. I had no sense of high or low culture (which I still think is nonsense anyway,) or genre or nonfiction vs fiction, so I’d read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest then V. C. Andrews, an anthology of classic ghost stories and Salem’s Lot with a book of feminist stories. Much later, I’d carry on this habit even as I specialized in English—Macbeth with The Mammoth Book of Vampires Stories, a nonfiction book about the cultural effects of tuberculosis with The Name of the RoseWide Sargasso Sea with The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. So all of these stories are all in there and they come out in my stories in a completely unconscious way.

GMM: You have an incredible talent for showing us the horror and reality of the settings in each of your stories. I’m an avid reader, but I also have spent a lot of time watching and studying films in many genres, which I think has had an impact on how I tell stories. Would you say that the written word, or film images have inspired your work more? What films have influenced the way you craft a scene?

EJG: Thank you so much! That really means a lot to me because I have aphantasia. This means that I don’t imagine or think in visual images. It’s hard to describe but I have a strong internal dialogue and think in concepts (almost as if my mind can feel the edges of a 3D representation that I can’t see.) Some of my settings are based on places where I have lived or visited—as I said, the house in “Cellar Door” is mine, the tunnel in “Bobby Red-Eyes” really existed when I was a kid (and Bobby is an urban legend in my hometown), the Black Shuck Tavern is based on a famous Hollywood nightclub. Others were research, I’ve never been to any of the places in “Whitechapel,” for example.

I am very influenced by film too. I grew up in the peak-VHS 80s with very little screen supervision, so we watched a lot of horror films. My big ambition as a teen was to be a music video director. I was a double major in college in English and Art History but most of my art history classes were the history of film or film theory and honestly; it burnt me out a little. A lot of my favorite films are before then. So films like Heathers, The Lost Boys, Donnie Darko, Amadeus, The Faculty, Beetlejuice, The ‘Burbs, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nightbreed and May have had an enormous impact on me. Despite the aphantasia, it’s the colors of the scenes that I often remember and the way they affect mood.

That said, I’ve been influenced and inspired by all kinds of things—personal anecdotes, scenes from my own life, books and movies, music videos, songs, photographs and other pieces of art, TV shows and video games. It’s the story that I’m always most interested in, not necessarily the format.

GMM: I enjoyed reading all of the stories in your collection, but I have a few favorites, including “Devour,” “Cellar Door,” “Whitechapel,” and “St. Scholastica’s Home for Children of the Sea.” Which stories in the collection are your favorites, and why? Which were the most difficult to write?

EJG: As far as being hard to write, two stand out particularly. “Cellar Door” because it was the kind of story I have always wanted to write and fear of failure meant I couldn’t get out of my own way for the longest time. In the end, I made it a NaNoWriMo project and got a good chunk of it done by not looking back as I wrote. “This is Not the Glutton Club” was hard because I hand wrote it while bedridden with pneumonia! It was also the story that needed the most research, and my Facebook friends really saved the day on that one!

It’s really hard to have favorites, they’re like children (I’m guessing). What is nice is that I’ve got enough distance between them all that I like them all. I don’t regret putting any of them in there. I do really like “Sermon from New London.” It was a lot of fun to write. Should we get to the other side of the apocalypse, I think there are worse ways to survive than being part of a matriarchal cult based on punk music. It was first published on the Toasted Cake podcast performed by the editor, Tina Connolly, and there had to be a language warning because there is so much swearing in it. What really makes me laugh is that when I played it to my husband, he didn’t notice, which I think tells you about the level of discourse in our house!

GMM: While you write from the POV of both male and female characters, your strongest characters seem to be women and girls. And, even though terrible things happen to them, not all of them are victims. Many of your female characters make the most of the bad situations they find themselves in, and become survivors. Would you say that feminism has had an impact on how you create your female characters? Or, are you simply showing us the strength of the human spirit? Rarely, do your stories have what I would consider a happy ending, and I really appreciate that. How would you describe your writing style to someone who has never read your work?

EJG: Feminism definitely plays into it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind straight white guys, I even married one! But they have had their time being at the center of stories. They’ve had centuries of being the heroes and saving the day. I’ve made a conscious decision to give people who don’t traditionally get to be the protagonists take center stage or have the happy ending—women without children, women who are not straight, trans women, working-class women. Part of it is being a woman from a working-class background who has not conformed to social convention and having mainstream fiction just not resonate with me at all because of that. I still have a way to go. My writing is far too white, for example, and that is something I have to work on—my experience of the world is not a default and I think the more that I reflect the world as it is, the more powerful it is when I tilt it somewhat. Something that is at the core of who I am is that I will always root for the underdog, always. There is never a time when I’m on the side of the people with all the power so that’s going to come through.

I’ve had to pull myself up from the ashes a few times in my life, start again from nothing and reinvent myself. I’ve seen people, especially women, do that again and again and I like to reflect that in some of my stories. It makes you stronger, like tempering steel, but it has a cost, you can get brittle and break. Even the phoenix has to go through the fire.

Describing my writing style is difficult. It’s one of those things where I would be interested to know how other people describe it. A lot of it is instinctual. Once I get the voice of a story, it usually pulls me along. That said, I like to challenge myself to see if I can write in a wide a range as possible—can I write a nested story in the voice of a Victorian gentleman? What if I had an unreliable narrator talking to someone who wasn’t there? Can I write a speech in mostly misheard punk lyrics? What would Shirley Jackson do? I think that is what it comes down to mostly: What would Shirley Jackson do?

Fiction Fragments: Gabriela Vargas

Last week, I had the pleasure of talking with Bracken MacLeod about secular horror and imposter syndrome. If you missed it, check it out. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes the vibrant young poet, Gariela Vargas, who I met back in October when we shared a table at the Merrimack Valley Halloween Book Festival, in Haverhill, MA. If you haven’t read of her poetry collection, THE RHYMES OF MY TIMES, you can pick up a copy from Haverhill House Publishing.

GV

Gabriela Vargas is a 16-year-old Dominican-American Junior at Haverhill High School in Haverhill, Massachusetts. She loves community service, dancing, and her family. She gets her writing skills and love for community service from her father, and from her mother and grandmothers, she gets ambition, strength, and hard work.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Gabriela. You had your first collection of poetry published last year. Can you tell me about your book and what that process was like for you? You and a friend collaborated on the project, what did she contribute and how did you decide what to include in the collection?

GV: The book is a concoction of love, pain, angst, racism, life changes, social justice, equality, and lessons learned, as seen through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old high school student in this trying twenty-first century. It’s very personal for me and this book is just things I have experienced my whole life up until the sophomore year of high school.

The process I guess was sort of weird and unusual, I started writing a while ago but then I stopped. Once I got into high school I tried to start again but I just had nothing. Then suddenly I was overflowing with poems, that just came out of me. I liked some of my poems and I showed some of my friends to make sure I wasn’t just liking them because I wrote them. My friends encouraged me to do a coffee house which is a low key show where people do poems, sing, comedy and whatever else anyone wanted to do at the school’s coffee house. So I went up and I said my poem and people were clapping and cheering and yelling “preach”. Then after the whole show ended people came up to me and were like “Wow your poems are so powerful!” and one even said it made her cry. So in my head, I was like what if I write a book? I kept that to myself until my brother said he wanted to write a book. My brother and I made a bet on who could get their book published first. As you can see I won. Then I sent all my work, what I had so far on my poems to my publisher John Mcllveen and he actually liked it! I was amazed and so scared, however, later I would cry on my vacation because of all of the edits and I wanted to hurt my editor but I did the edits. As we were editing I kept adding more poems and I didn’t really pick and choose them I just put them all in.

I did this book with Krystal Rampersaud a senior at Haverhill high at the time and an amazing artist! We didn’t know each other, I got her name from a teacher. I had her read my poems and she just understood them so well, she made my poems come alive with her drawings, she made this book 100 times better with her artwork. She is the best illustrator I could have asked for!

GMM: Your poetry has strong political and feminist messages. What inspired your work, and what do you hope your readers learn or think about when reading your words?

GV: My work has strong political and feminist messages because that’s how I was raised. I guess with discussions around the dinner table, we were always doing something in the community to help in some way. Now my feminist messages, that’s because I have been around A LOT of strong women in my life and just experiencing situations in life that just pissed me off quite frankly.

My work was inspired by situations I have experienced or witnessed in life, like right when they would happen I would pull out my phone or my trusted journal and start writing, so watch out I might write about you!

I hope my readers learn from this book what it’s like to be a fifteen, now a sixteen-year-old girl and I just want them to think and feel my poems in their own perspective and just relate to them because that’s all I can ask from them.

GMM: Having a collection of poetry at such a young age is quite an achievement. You should be proud of your accomplishment. What advice would you give other young writers and artists like yourself who might not believe their work is worth notice, or might be too afraid to submit their work for publication?

GV: Thank you. My message to young writers is JUST SEND IT, it can only get better from there. Even if you get rejected that just tells you, you have to work on it or find someone else. It brings you one step closer to publishing it and trust me you’re going to cry because of the edits. It’s scary because well at least for me I felt very vulnerable, I was putting my whole life experiences out there. Sometimes as writers, we try to find perfection and that can often lead to being too hard on ourselves which makes us think our work is not worth notice but everyone’s work is worth notice, everyone’s voice should be heard. So Just Send It!

Future v Young People
Fear of the future is what our country sings
Holding back change but not the chains
The chains are tighter and tighter as the young  ones sing
as the young ones bloom
yet society is doomed
Because of mixed generation thoughts
one wanting progress one not
The Young ones breaking these chains
the old ones tightening them
Everyone’s fear for the future is just the fear for the young that they can’t carry on the legacy but every generation has said that
Every person has said that
We still prove them wrong
So although we fear the future now
Just know that the future is here, the future is now and the legacy is going
it rowing young people are changing and creating and fighting
for
the
future.

I,———-, do solemnly swear to help myself
“I, ———-, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

Most come saying they want to serve but all they end up doing is serving themselves
We have created a culture in politics of scandal, corruption, blackmail.
Politics was made and was first what is the right thing to do
Now it’s what can I do to benefit myself?

The First and Last
You should know that you were the first to challenge me
You were the first to change my mind
You were the  first person I would base my decisions off of
You were  the first to understand
You were the first to make me laugh
You were the first to make me feel care yet didn’t have to give everything up
You were the first person I wanted to tell everything
You were the first man
however, you were the last to give me time
You were the last to say I’m right

Bang and Gone
Bang! Bang!
Another one is gone in our city,
Yet we don’t care or respond
Until someone close to us is gone.
We send our thoughts and prayers,
But that has already been done

Bang! Bang!
Yet another one is gone, and we don’t respond.
We complain about what has happened,
But we don’t stand together strong.
We’re all talk, we don’t walk, march, or run
Until we are the ones
Running away from the gun.

THE SOCIAL CONTRACT OF A HOE
I don’t get it.
These social norms be crazy.
You call me a hoe
Because of what I did with a guy.
But if it was one time that is fine,
But multiple!
Oh, that’s where we cross the line.
Welcome to Hoeville,
Where you get shamed all your life.
But if you’re a guy,
Welcome to your glory days,
Your time to ride or die,
Your time to be praised like a god.
But girls, it’s your time to think about suicide.
Some survive, others don’t…
Welcome to the social contract of a hoe.

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

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

Fiction Fragments: Ron Gavalik

So, a few weeks have passed since we heard from Kristin Dearborn. Life and a holiday got in the way of progress, but this week I’m back on track with a visit from gritty Pittsburgh poet, Ron Gavalik.

Ron GavalikThe eternal search for truth in the dark forest of false prophets has been my life’s pursuit. As an author, it’s my role to explore and reveal the unique perspectives that broaden our understanding of the world. The poetry and stories I forge from whiskey-soaked memories and fervent observations awakens passions among devoted readers and ignites debates. When we engage in critical, independent thought we are then free to live our truths.

Raised by hard-boiled Catholic trade unionists in the Rust Belt of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, my writing style is a smooth and uninhibited reflection of the once gritty region. In total freedom, I bleed untamed language onto each page to capture the powerful moments of life. My words paint portraits of the hidden beauty that’s often lost within the madness of our struggles. Now grasp my hand, and we will walk this treacherous path together.

Read Ron’s work. Get cool rewards: Patreon.com/RonGavalik

 Three Questions

GMM: When did you begin writing poetry, and why?

RG: The first poem leaked out of my pen at the age of 20. The words were pure trash, some kind of whiny ode to love or some other horse shit. The ripping sound of that paper as I tore it from that overpriced journal was quite satisfying. I decided then and there life must be lived before writing truth. That’s what poetry is to me: the purest form of truth. If one is still grappling with their place in the world, their poetry is going to read like shit. When the poet knows something worth sharing, that’s music on the page. I told myself that if I were still alive at 40, I’d revisit free verse. I then spent my early adulthood years pursuing avant-garde journalism in the arts and politics. Reporting on the acts of others honed my writing skills and often threw me into the mix of often unique and sometimes dangerous situations. I also dabbled in blog essays, short fiction, and I wrote a novel that will never see the light of day. Twenty years later, I authored Hot Metal Tonic, my first poetry collection. It went #1 on Amazon in its first week. I’ve penned three more collections since, and last year The Pittsburgh City Paper named me the second best poet in Pittsburgh.

GMM: Your poetry has an edge and the tone often feels angry. Are you angry? Should I be angry? What angers you the most?

RG: As I said, my work is my truth. That truth encompasses a broad spectrum of emotions. Rage, joy, sadness, eroticism, faith, love, betrayal, it’s all represented in my work. I wouldn’t characterize my poetry as angry, but I do find that perspective interesting. What you find angry, I probably penned as a representation of sorrow. The good news, Michelle, is that sadness that fuels anger reveals your righteous mind. Now, as for a broader viewpoint on anger in society, I am perplexed how any person can make it through life and not feel fucking rage at the murder of people and the murder of our souls. That shows me the power of apathy under empire.

GMM: As a poet, do you feel more of a responsibility to speak the truth than you might in another art form? Is it easier to convey the emotional realities found in your poetry than it is in your fiction? Do you prefer writing poetry?

RG: I love this question, and it deserves a 20 page response. The short answer is this: the best writing in any form reveals truth. Nonfiction and poetry are the most obvious arenas to really delve into facts that lead to conclusive truths. However, we cannot ignore the power of fiction. The works I’ve read by George Orwell or Cormac McCarthy have revealed to me some of our most powerful truths. I like to believe my voice represents our generation. Let’s be honest, we live under the rule of empire that most of us believe can no longer be controlled. Therefore, we gravitate toward identity politics as we watch greed destroy the social contracts that once held our heads above water through the 20th Century. If we ever wish to retake control of our lives, we must seek out our truths. Responsible authors were born to help us on that journey.

Selected Poems from Gothic Riot Dreams, by Ron Gavalik

Hard Labor Love
I came up in Pittsburgh,
the Rust Belt of hard labor
with a deep love of community.
As children, we collected railroad spikes
from the tracks and we cut our shins
on random iron shards in slag hills.
Some of us were union middle-class
while others breathed the gray air of poverty.
That hardly mattered.
As we stood atop foothills
that overlooked the city skyline,
soot embedded under our fingernails,
we lived as kings and queens
who oversaw the future.

Skinny Cigarettes
The old cashier at the car dealership,
she chain-smoked skinny, long cigarettes
all day, every day.
Her voice sounded like a bullfrog
that recently learned how to curse and laugh.
The crease lines around her mouth
and the folds in her neck
conveyed a relaxed style, confidence
earned from a hard life
and dangerous choices.

Sometimes there were no customers
in front of the cashier’s window
and no mechanics around to bust her chops.
That’s when she’d rest her elbows on the counter
and cradle a skinny cigarette
between two fingers near her cheek.
That woman’s eyes would gaze outside,
glossed over in what looked like daydreams
about all those lovers in their graves,
and their cliché widows
with their tiresome grandchildren
and their lovely lives.

Back in the day,
men in gray suits and skinny ties
never could resist her,
but then again,
few ever tried.

Pause and Look Down
The best sidewalks
are discolored
from the blood of youth
and the tears of victims.
Those sidewalks
tell stories, they provide lessons
of hard choices under
difficult circumstances.
Jagged cracks in the concrete
resemble the struggle
of so many souls
long gone.

Next week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Glenn Rolfe. Do you have a fragment you’d like to share? Send it to me at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: Elsa M. Carruthers

45359013_343895623027443_6852185627127971840_nLast week, Ryan DeMoss stopped by and shared a story about what lurks in the woods. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Elsa M. Carruthers.

Elsa is a speculative fiction writer, academic, and poet. She lives in California with her family. In 2011, she earned her MFA in Creative Writing and English from Seton Hill University. Since graduating, Elsa’s work has been published in several anthologies, magazines, and e-zines.

Elsa is an active member of HWA, RWA, SFPA, IAFA, and the Poetry Foundation. She regularly attends writing conventions and loves meeting new people!

Three Questions

GMM: Your story has a near future feeling to it, which I like, because what’s happening in the story feels like something that could be happening today with some slight nuances that set your story in the future, like the hint at the fact that vegetation of any kind if rare and expensive to maintain. As a speculative fiction writer, are you more likely to write about the future or alternate pasts? Which do you prefer and why?

EMC: Thank you. I tend to write present and near future more than anything else. I have written stories and two novel manuscripts set in the past, and it was challenging for me to keep the momentum going because I tend to worry about getting facts down correctly and respecting the sensibilities of the time, etc.

GMM: With the subtle inclusion of plant life being a rare commodity on what I assume to be a future Earth, does you story have a message about global warming? As a female writer, do your stories usually have a deeper meaning or hidden agenda? Can you avoid writing about current events and future worries given the state of the world we live in?

EMCI don’t think I write with an agenda in mind, but I definitely think my anxieties and concerns bleed through; especially in my horror stories. I worry about a lot of things: global warming, over-building, species endangerment, clean water… and that is just the environmental stuff.

GMM: What was the inspiration for this piece? Do you intend to finish it? Without giving too much away, what happens next? Do the two engineers form a closer bond?

EMCOne day I was walking around a neighborhood park and I saw a sign on a massive empty lot across the street. There were several foxes and a hare, I am sure owls and snakes around there too, and lots of native shrubs… a tiny wilderness in the middle of a big city, and they scraped it all bare to put down yet another shopping center. It made me sad and angry. I wished that plants could somehow reclaim some land, you know fight back without going Swamp Thing.

I do intend to finish it, and I am a closet die-hard romantic. He will have to earn her respect and then… the lights dim.

“The De-bugging of Arias Home Systems,” by Elsa M. Carruthers

Aaron’s back and shoulders hurt, but he couldn’t take a break until he traced the source of the corrupted code. Somehow, several houses in the Arias II complex had their default settings switched on. Worse, the default setting was a moss and ivy- covered brick ruins. The angry messages and calls came at such a pace that he’d had to assign his best systems engineers to run interference with the angry homeowners all night.

Celia called up to him from her desk. It was situated behind his in an otherwise plain, empty room. “Aaron, the default setting looks like it is locked in. I have run through each bit of code, and there are no patches… this is somehow organic to the programming.”

“What? No, we didn’t even have this as a model. Rustic cabin yes. Fallen-down building, no. What the hell? Run it again.”

“I am telling you, this isn’t a patch or a virus.”

Aaron turned to look at her, it was rightfully his ass on the line. He cried seniority to HR, and pulled the job out from under her, even though everyone knew she was the best engineer in the company. Calls to HR are supposed to be confidential, but everyone knew about it within an hour.

“Did you do this?”

Celia dropped her headset and glared at him. Her dark eyes pulled tight in anger. “I have been working in this for eight motherfucking years, cabrón. Why would I fuck it up? I have my name practically written all over this. I’d never work again. Don’t get me wrong, as soon as I can, I am going after you. Believe that. But this? Na-ah. I am not that petty.”

Aaron shook his head. She was right. He knew she was. He was about to say so, and tell her how much he wished he could take it all back, because he really did, when Micah let himself in.

“Jen wants to see you.” Micah smirked at Aaron. “Now.”

Aaron sighed. He was fucked. Micah had already pulled the flat-paneled door of the Systems Room open and stepped into the maze of hallway. Aaron watch Micah head toward the elevators without even a glace over his shoulder to see if Aaron followed. Jen was probably ensconced in her Penthouse office; this was very bad.

They rode in silence, but Aaron could feel Micah’s amused gaze on him. He clenched his jaw. He’d love to punch Micah’s smug, shit-eating face. Someday, he told himself. Someday.

They rode up and up, until they indeed reached the Penthouse. Up here, it was like another universe. Real plants, including orchids, grew out of wall gardens and giant concrete planters. There were dwarf trees that seemed to sprout out of the roof-top floor and not for the first time did Aaron marvel at the undoubtfully huge expense it was to reinforce the truces below, not to mention the constant care these plants needed. He never saw a gardener, but knew there had to be someone.

They wove through the courtyard to Jen’s office door. Micah cleared his throat and put his hand up, signaling to Aaron that he had to wait outside until called. He walked through the massive doorway and shut the door behind him.

“Condescending putz,” Aaron said under his breath.

Micah’s voice blasted from a speaker somewhere over the door. “I can hear you,” he sang. “Also, Jen says to give her a minute.”

Ten minutes later, Micah screamed out of the speaker. “SHE SAYS SHE IS READY NOW!” The giant door opened.

“Thank you, asshole,” Aaron sang back in the same tune Micah did before.

Aaron smoothed down his shirt, straightened his tie before stepping into the reception area. Micah pointed to the open French doors to Jen’s office. “Go on in. She’s waiting for you.”

Jen sat behind a massive Teak desk, probably from the last supply of Teak in the world. Her stilettoed feet were propped up on the right-side corner of her desk and Aaron did his best not to look up her skirt. It unsettled him, as it was probably meant to.

“Sit down Aaron,” Jen said. He sat in one of the two black sling-backed chairs and balanced himself on the edge of the seat to keep from sinking back into it like a hammock.

She laughed. “I can see that you don’t often sit in this type of chair. If it is more comfortable, you may stand. This won’t take long.”

He cleared his throat and waited for her to continue.

“I have cleared out the residents of Arias II, by giving them all resort passes to Juniper. I have also given a press release and offered a non-specific, non-legally binding apology for this inconvenience. That is what I have done. What you are going to do is fix this goddamned mess!”

She smoothed the lavender-lilac colored fringe of bangs from her forehead and pushed her red reading glasses up the bridge of her nose.

“You will fix this and find out how it happened in the first place! Also, you better make sure that this malware—”

“It isn’t malware as far as we can tell,” Aaron interrupted.

Jen gave him a withering look that made him want to crawl away and never come back. “Well, I suppose that is some good news. I want all of your logs, forward them to me through the internal server.” She waved at him to go.

Aaron made to go. He hesitated, wondering if he should mention that the code was somehow overwritten.

“Is there something else? Should I get Celia as point on this?” She goaded him.

“Nope, I am working with her and we’re making good progress.” He left without looking at her or Micah.

Back in his office, Celia was deep in thought behind her multiple monitors. He could see the lines of code reflected off her anti-glare glasses and he again wanted to tell her how sorry he was, how he respected her, how working with her, even though she hated him, was the best thing that ever happened to him. Instead, he sat down and got to work.

He couldn’t see that anything was wrong. And then, by accident, he noticed the code rewriting itself in sections. It was so subtle, the changes seemed like nothing, a vine instead of a tree in the front. And he wouldn’t have caught it all if he hadn’t actually watched a bit of code rewrite itself.

“Celia, it looks like it might be malware after all. I just saw a—”

“Uh-huh,” she said in a dreamy out of it voice. “I saw it too, trying to trace the little hijo de la chingada, but he is slick.”

Of course, she saw it first. He smiled to himself.

“I am thinking,” she said in the same far away voice, “that it isn’t just malware, but some sort of ransomware. Whoever this is, is chevere as fuck!” she said with real admiration. “Anyway,” she said without looking up, “what’d Jen have to say?”

He told her how she got people out and that she threatened to put Celia on the job, hoping that Celia wouldn’t rub it in too much. She surprised him by holding his gaze for a few seconds. “Look, I am only pissed because you could’ve won fair and square. Not that weaselly shit you pulled.”

“I know. I can’t even tell you how sorry I am.”

“Sorry don’t fix shit. Now you’ve got to earn your title. Don’t be such a huevón, and you will be like top five level. I mean, you’ll never be as good as me, but, hey, nobody can be.”

He smiled. “I’m going to order some food. Looks like I will be here a while, but you don’t have to be. You probably have things you want to do, and this is my mess.” He couldn’t possibly ask her to pull another all-nighter to save him, though he really wanted to.

“Nah, it is all right. I want those mini panini thingies and I am dying for some fries. Get that and I am good to go for a few more hours at least.”

Aaron texted the order. They ate as they worked. Aaron came close to smashing his keyboard several times. “Fuck! Every time I am close to stopping the changes, they just go around me. Who the fuck is this?”

Celia muttered something to herself. She was trying to trace the source of the hack. “Slippery fool, whoever it is.”

Just as she said that, Aaron’s commands no longer worked. He tried to override, nothing. “I can’t,” he said.

“Me either. This is bad. Very bad.”

Aaron’s hands shook, and his shirt stuck to him where the sweat bled through his undershirt. “Was this a distraction so that the hacker could clone the drivers?”

Celia stepped away from her bank of monitors. She rubbed the crease between her eyes and pursed her lips. “The whole program is hijacked. I’m not even sure we can do a Systems Restore.” She squatted in front of her backpack and pulled out an external drive. “We can try to reroute; use this to—”

“You’re a genius!”

“I know,” she said and winked. Celia placed the external drive on her desk. Aaron touched her arm.

“You don’t have to stay. You’re in the clear for this, I will take the fall.”

Celia looked at him up and down. “Nope, I am taking this hijo or hija out!” She plugged it in and was immediately confronted with firewall after firewall. They weren’t failproof, just annoying and time-wasting.

“You see this? This is old school right here.”

Aaron saw it. The ransomware hid on the OS and then replicated itself in file after file. “You know your external drive is toast now too, right?”

“Ah mierda, I didn’t think of that.” She sighed. “I am so tired.”

“I hate to say it, but I think we’re done.” Aaron tried to do a System Restore, figuring that they could rebuild the destroyed coding, but he saw that even as he typed, the hacker had full control.

“I’m iced-out,” he said to Celia.

“Me too,” she said and threw her headset across the room. “Carajo!”

“It’s okay. I’ll figure something out.” But he wasn’t even fooling himself.

All their monitors flashed, then went black. They stood in silence, each watching the dead monitors. Several seconds went by. Neither of them spoke though Aaron knew Celia must be feeling as helpless and frustrated as he did.

The screens turned back on. It looked like a manual reboot, but then Aaron and Celia’s faces were on the screens.

“That was like a few minutes ago.” Aaron’s throat went dry. The hacker customized the malware and had complete remote access control of the computers. But why show them the pictures? Why not leave the monitors off instead of teasing them?

Celia still stared at the screens as she spoke. “What are they trying to tell us?”

“I think it is a tease. We should go down to the server room and see if we can do something from there.” He made to pat her shoulder and stopped himself. She wasn’t some employee working overtime. She was the only person who could help. And he’d better put any romantic ideas he had away.

I haven’t confirmed a guest for next week, so next’s week is a mystery. Do you have a fragment you’re dying to share with the Interwebs? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: Michael Arnzen

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

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

Three Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poe Bread, by Michael A. Arnzen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not in my book.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?”

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

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

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

Reynolds began to gather up his bag.

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

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

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

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

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