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.

It’s Hard to Be the Hero When Everyone Treats You Like a Villain: Jake Ballard

Back in March, when we first went into quarantine and I wasn’t sleeping and my anxiety put me on an all junkfood diet, I allowed myself to be pulled into a very deep rabbit hole. By which I mean, I started watching Shonda Rhimes’ hit TV show, Scandal (2012-2018). I had just finished watching all five seasons of How to Get Away with Murder (HTGAWM) that were available on Netflix (you can now watch all six seasons), so I was excited to watch another Rhimes show with a woman of color protagonist in a position of power. I mean, there aren’t exactly a ton of those to choose from, so I decided to invest some downtime during quarantine to what I thought would be mind candy. To be fair, both shows provide equal measures of suspense, stimulating romantic intrigue, and lots of violence and murder. I was hooked after watching the first episode of HTGAWM, but I gotta be honest, even though I enjoyed watching the first few episodes of Scandal, it didn’t really get interesting for me until Jake Ballard showed up and became my new TV boyfriend. Buckle up, this is a long post.

Scandal-Season-4-Cast-Photo-Clip
President Fitzgerald Grant, Olivia Pope, and Jake Ballard

Warning: Spoilers, Sweetie

Jake shows up in S2: Ep. 14: “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” and meets Olivia Pope at a coffee shop in a seemingly random situation, in which both of them lie to each other about what they do for a living. His timing couldn’t be better, since Olivia has been on a relationship break from her main squeeze, President Fitzgerald Grant. There was a spark of hope for me that Jake would become enough of a love interest for Olivia that she would stop seeing Fitz, but let’s face it, you’d need a goddamned firehouse to separate those two. No matter how many times each of them say things are over between them, we all know better.

Things start to get interesting in the next episode when Olivia goes to the Pentagon to talk to Jake Ballard while investigating the murder of a young woman who slept with important men in DC to gain information that she sold to the press. Her friend, David Rosen, is being accused of killing her. Turns out, Captain Jake Ballard works in military intelligence. While Olivia questions him as if he is guilty of something, Jake turns on the charm and asks her out two times during her visit. They both have professions that prevent them from sharing certain details about what they know or don’t know. While he’s concerned about her questions, you also get the sense that he sees her as a much needed challenge.

2x14_-_jake_ballard_and_olivia_pope

While making plans for a date with Olivia over the phone, we learn that Captain Jake Ballard is full of secrets, because he has surveillance cameras in Olivia’s apartment and is watching her from the comfort of his living room on an enormous flat screen TV. This super shady behavior puts him in the villain category. However, his directness, take-charge attitude, flirtatiousness, and dark sense of humor make him very sexy. I mean, beyond his tall, dark and handsome appearance.

Their first date doesn’t go as well as Jake planned, because first, Olivia is late, second, he hates the restaurant she chose, and refers to it as “a place where dates go to die.” Third, Olivia refers to their date as a meeting, which he corrects her about, and fourth, she leaves before the end of the date when she gets a call from her team of super spooky problem solvers.

Jake’s next big secret is that he’s friends with Fitz. Old friends. They were in the navy together. In fact, Fitz hired Jake to watch/stalk Olivia, but I get the sense that Fitz doesn’t know that Jake is also spending time with her in person. And, Fitz hasn’t told Jake that his relationship with Olivia has essentially been business up front, party in the…well, you get the idea.

peoples-couch-scandal-poll

Jake continues to watch Olivia, and his interest quickly becomes more than the assignment Fitz gave him. To say that Jake becomes obsessed with Olivia would be an understatement. And, much like the handsome and charming stalker/serial killer, Joe Goldberg, in Netflix’s You, Jake’s inappropriate behavior started plucking at my heart strings. Don’t judge me. Stalker or not, Jake Ballard is a super sexy man with a high profile job in the government. Each detail we learn about him makes him more and more appealing. At least, up to a point.

There’s a scene in which he’s watching Olivia while she’s crying in her bedroom. While watching her, he’s concerned about her well being, and calls her to ask her out on a second date. Which she turns down, most likely due to her feelings for Fitz after their latest encounter. Olivia is in her bathrobe sitting on the edge of her bed. After she hangs up with Jake, she goes to her closet and starts getting dressed. Jake has the opportunity to watch her undress, but turns off his TV instead. Placing him in the not-so-sure category. I mean, he is watching her without her consent as a favor to her emotionally unstable lover, but he sets boundaries based on the feelings he’s developing for her.

SCOTT FOLEY

Is Jake a villain? It’s too soon to decide. Should Olivia has sex with him? Absolutely.

Olivia keeps making plans and then canceling on Jake. However, it is clear that his interest in her is strong enough that he is willing to be patient. Also, Fitz suspects that Olivia is seeing someone new, because he witnesses her laughing while on the phone with Jake. When Jake checks in with the President, Fitz demands to know who Olivia is dating, which puts Jake in an awkward position. Not only has Fitz essentially confessed to his relationships with Olivia, but Jake is the guy Olivia is technically dating. So, he lies to Fitz, and tells him she isn’t dating anyone. Which isn’t a complete lie, given the fact that Jake’s attempts to date Olivia keep failing.

Slowly, Jake earns Olivia’s trust, which is complicated by the fact that we still don’t know if we can trust Jake. But, he also allows himself to trust her. After they work together to bring American hostages home safely, their professional relationship begins, opening the door for their personal relationship as well. After Olivia stands him up for the third or fourth time, Jake shows up at her apartment and asks her to take a chance on him. She tells him she isn’t ready to date, because she can’t stop thinking about another man (Fitz). He tells her to close her eyes, and then kisses her. After kissing her, he leaves, which is brilliant because now, she’ll be thinking about him, too.

If you think things are complicated now, oh Honey, you haven’t seen anything yet. The next complication is that Jake is having secret meetings with a shadowy character who asked him to murder the Director of the CIA and make it look like a suicide. Then, when Jake realizes that Olivia is looking into the possible murder of the CIA director, the shadowy character tells Jake to “take care of Olivia Pope.” We can only assume that he wants Jake to kill her. Soon after, Jake and Olivia have sex for the first time. Confused? You should be.

That same night, while Jake is asleep, Olivia gets out of bed to get a glass of water. She looks around his place and picks up the remote control to his TV, which is when she discovers that he’s been spying on her. Obviously, she freaks out and tries to run. Jake tells her it isn’t what she thinks. They fight and he tackles her. She hits her head hard enough to get a concussion and Jake takes her to the hospital. Before she passes out, he explains that he is watching her to keep her safe, and about that time, a man in a black balaclava enters Olivia’s apartment, which they can see on Jake’s TV. So, I guess it’s a good thing he’s been spying on her, right? Maybe, but stalking is still a crime and is often a sign of more terrible things to come. It’s a red flag and not the ideal way to begin a relationship. Stalking is a trope in horror/paranormal romance for a reason. It is the behavior of monsters, or at the very least, dangerous men.

When she wakes up in the hospital, Jake is there and feeds her a story about being attacked at her apartment and that he saved her. He asks her to stick to that story if anyone asks. Moments later, the President shows up. That’s right, the President is so high on his white privilege that he sees nothing wrong with visiting his mistress in the hospital and putting a secret service detail outside her room to keep her safe.

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This is when Olivia learns that Jake not only knows him, but has been watching her at Fitz’s request. Talk about awkward. So, not one, but both men she is romantically involved with have been lying to her. Together. And…too each other. Yeah, like I said, it’s complicated. And now, uncomfortably weird, because Jake sees Fitz embracing Olivia while she’s in her hospital bed, and realizes that Fitz is the man Olivia is pining for. Fitz apologizes to Olivia for hurting her, but she refuses to accept his apology and tells him to leave her alone. He leaves, but tells Jake to keep watching her. And suddenly, Jake realizes he’s the other man.

Before Olivia leaves the hospital, Fitz tries to get Olivia back. Again. He “demands a second chance,” and in a moment of weakness, she kisses him. But, sticks to her guns and refuses to take him back. At this point, I got excited. Because I started to believe that Jake had a real chance with Olivia. The shadowy figure asks Jake to deal with Olivia again, and Jake asks to have someone else assigned, because he feels there’s a conflict of interest. When the shadowy character asks if he means because of his relationship with the President, Jake lies and says yes. But we know it’s because of his feelings for Olivia. But Jake is reminded that he doesn’t have any choice in the matter and we begin to understand that Jake isn’t just in military intelligence, he truly is a spy. And, as it turns out, he works for a secret agency within the government that the government doesn’t even know about.

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So, not only is Jake’s life complicated by the fact that he’s falling in love with the woman he’s supposed to he stalking for his friend, and killing for his boss, but now that Olivia knows that Jake has been spying on her, she puts her walls back in place to protect her feelings again. Despite the fact that Olivia keeps pushing Jake away by venting her anger at him, he refuses to give up on her. Which is good, because when Olivia’s life is in danger, Jake repeatedly saves her at the risk of losing his on life.

The second time he saves her life, Olivia learns that 1) Jake is part of B613, the secret agency she knows about because one of her team members used to work for them, and 2) Jake explains that the reason someone is trying to kill her is because she is dating the President. At this point, Olivia’s perception of Jake changes because she knows he is risking his life to keep her safe.

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After saving her life this time, Jake comes clean with Olivia and tells her that sleeping with her was his mission (B613), and says goodbye to her. Before he leaves, she tells him to close his eyes, and kisses him the same way he did to her when she was trying to forget Fitz. By telling her the truth, he believes that his chances with her have ended, but in reality, he is now more appealing to Olivia because she knows he cares about her. Concerned about Olivia’s process of decision making? You should be.

Jake disobeyed a direct order from Command, killed another B613 agent, and now his life is in danger unless he figures out a way to make up for this huge mistake or run. Running really isn’t an option. Oh, and I almost forgot. While Jake was stalking Olivia, he had surveillance cameras in his own apartment and captured the two of them having sex in pretty much every room of his apartment. Unfortunately, someone else sees the video and uses it against Olivia. Well, tries to anyway, because Fitz has a worse secret and he forgives Olivia for sleeping with Jake. Fitz keeps up the fantasy of divorcing his wife and marrying Olivia to make her his First Lady. But, Olivia breaks things off with Fitz.

Meanwhile, Jake ends up in the hole — an extreme version of solitary confinement for B613 agents who misbehave. Simultaneously, someone leaked to the press that Olivia is the President’s mistress. And, we discover that the shadowy character who was commanding Jake to kill Olivia, is in fact, Olivia’s father. No shit. For real.

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Her father makes arrangements for her to board a plane and leave the country so that she can disappear. But after having a conversation with the Chief of Staff, she decides to stay. Which further enrages her father, who is disappointed in her for aspiring to only become a first lady, a role he believes to be beneath her. He wants more for her, and thinks she should want more for herself. He’s not 100% wrong.

As we learn more about Olivia’s father, Eli Pope/Rowan/Command, it becomes clear that he wields more power than most high-ranking officials in government. He’s also scary as hell. The most unsettling thing is that he is able to control Olivia by holding whether Jake lives or dies over her head. While Jake is gone, Olivia visits the morgue each time someone matching his description shows up, because she has no way of knowing what has really happened to him. Olivia finally gets her father to release Jake and he doesn’t look so good when he’s dropped off at Olivia’s apartment.

After Jake has a chance to heal for a few days, Olivia decides to kick him out of her apartment. She does so, because she doesn’t want to be caught up in whatever her father is involved in, and she still isn’t 100% sure that Jake hasn’t been sent to continue spying on her even though he emphatically says otherwise.

So, rather than staying under the radar, Jake decides to team up with another B613 spy, Olivia’s employee, Huck, to try to take down Olivia’s father. Which, is really dangerous for everyone involved. Did I mention that we’re only in season 3 at this point? Jake is doing his best to maintain distance, or at least respect Olivia’s boundaries, but it is clear he still has strong feelings for her. So, I got really excited (again) when Olivia invited him to be her date to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

So, at the very least, they’re friends at this point, right? Except that Jake isn’t stupid and understands Olivia only invited him so that she could see Fitz at the event. He makes it clear that his feelings are hurt and rather than the two of them going back to one of their apartments at the end of the night, Jake simply tells her the evening is over and that he’s upset about how she has treated him.

I’m not going to lie. Each time Jake shows up to save, protect, or comfort Olivia, I would say out loud, “Olivia, you need to forget about Fitz and make Jake your main squeeze.” Sadly, she didn’t listen. I mean, she continues to see both of them, which is admirable on her part, because they are both smoking hot in my opinion, but clearly, Jake is the better option. At least, he is until he gets pushed away too many times. But, we’re not there yet.

At this point in the narrative, Jake has discovered that when Fitz was in the Navy, he shot down a commercial flight that Olivia’s mother was on. It’s a complicated series of events that I won’t delve into too deeply, but essentially Olivia believes that her father is responsible for her mother’s death, and the man she loves shot down the plane. Again, she doesn’t know who to trust. Her heart is broken. But, because Jake is one of the few people trying to help her, I assumed that he would become the best option for Olivia.

One of my favorite lines in the series, is Olivia’s response to Fitz when he says he loves her after she finds out that he shot down the plane her mother died on. When he says, “I love you,” she says, “so what?” That is an excellent response to a man who has hurt you over and over and over. Especially when he tells you to stay away from his rival. Would you stay away from this man?

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Yeah, me neither.

But, things become increasingly complicated when Jake takes Olivia’s father’s position as the head of B613. He becomes Command with the help of Fitz. Before he takes the position, he goes to see Olivia. He kisses her, and tells her, “Whatever happens next, I wanna make sure you know that I loved you.” Why does he say goodbye? Because he knows that as Command, he will be expected to do terrible things that she might not forgive him for in the future. Although, telling someone you love them before saying goodbye is a smidge manipulative.

All right. It’s a bit more complex than that, but at this point in the series, Jake really is the best boyfriend option for Olivia. In fact, in order for Olivia to maintain the ruse that she is not Fitz’s mistress, she asks Jake to be her fake boyfriend. That’s right. This sexy hunk who could have any woman he wanted, chooses to be second best in Olivia’s life because he is in love with her. Does this handsome devil really agree to be Olivia’s “beard” (his word, by the way) to maintain the illusion that she isn’t the President’s mistress? Sure he does.

As terrible as it sounds, Jake’s role as Olivia’s beard allows him to be his wonderfully sarcastic self, while brushing up on his passive aggressive skills. To say that he’s frustrated is an understatement. I mean, he’s maintaining the pretense of being Olivia’s boyfriend, but without the benefits. After he leaves his super goddamned important job early because she needs to talk to him about something, he finally snaps and says:

“Stock. Your. Damn. Fridge. If I’m going to be your fake boyfriend all day, I’m going to come home at the end of it and drink a beer and eat real food. Wine is not beer and popcorn is not food.”

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After which, he begins undressing and Olivia asks him what he’s doing. He tells her he’s going to take a shower and go to bed after having pretend sex with her.

Of course, this is all happening while he is given the highest level clearance in the government with access to all the skeletons in everybody’s closets. Jake is on the path to becoming an extremely powerful man. The problem with that is, power corrupts. And, in his new role as Command, he’s finding it very hard to be all things to all people. Not only is he responsible for protecting the Republic, while being Olivia’s beard and maintaining enough distance from her at the same time so the President doesn’t get jealous, he also has to deal with the ridiculously inappropriate demands Olivia sets for him as she tries to take down her father.

The fact that Jake hasn’t gone batshit crazy yet is a miracle. But, he’s a tough guy and can take a lot of punishment. Which is good, because a lot more is coming his way. Did I mention that we’re still in season 3? As we learn more about Jake through his role in B613, we soon discover that he is one of the nicest serial killers you could ever hope for in a fake boyfriend.

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All of the terrible things Jake has to do in his secret serial killer role (I mean, I guess since he gets paid that makes himan assassin) begin weighing on him. Just because he does terrible things doesn’t necessarily make him a terrible person. Right? In fact, he keeps asking Olivia to save him.

At the end of S3, Olivia finally comes to her senses and runs away with Jake. And they stand in the sun together. I’m not ashamed to say that I cried like a baby because I was so happy that they were finally going to be together. She FINALLY chose Jake. They spend two months standing in the sun together. Apparently, standing in the sun means having sex on the beach with a smoking hot man who worships the ground you walk on.

And then, in S4: Ep. 1, Olivia decides to return to Washington, D.C. after finding out that one of her team, Harrison, was found murdered, despite the fact that she and Jake were happy on the island. Alone. Together. When they get back to the city, Jake tells her that they will only be in town for a few days. She seems non-committal when she agrees. Jake’s fears are starting to come true. He knows that if Olivia becomes reconnected to the life she left behind, it will be impossible to get her to leave again. But more specifically, he knows that if she sees Fitz she will choose the President over him.

Olivia is in denial about the fact that being back in D.C. will jeopardize the happiness they shared on the island. An island located somewhere off the coast of Zanzibar, that doesn’t exist on any maps. You know, a deserted island away from all their troubles. An island where she gets to spend every day with a smoking hot sex machine. Fortunately, Jake is clear-headed enough to help her see the reality of their situation.

Olivia is back for less than a day and already has a new case. She slips right back into her routine like she never left. She plans Harrison’s funeral and intends to go back to the island, but…as it turns out, feeling important is more valuable to Olivia than running away with a man who could easily be the love of her life.

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So, instead of getting on a plane and heading back to the island with Jake, she decides to stay and pick up where she left off. And, as soon as she sees Fitz, you know it’s game on for them and their ridiculously dysfunctional relationship. Jake tells Olivia that he got a hotel suite close to her apartment for booty calls. When she questions his statement, he explains that since they are back in D.C. he also has business to take care of, and he doesn’t have time to live in her apartment and wait around to “service her.” She has the nerve to take offense. Again, Jake is the only one in touch with reality.

But, she hasn’t completely lost her mind. She still has enough sense to make a booty call to Jake’s hotel room. And bonus, she shows up wearing her coat, boots and nothing else.

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Maybe they aren’t standing in the sun anymore, but they still seem to be happy. At least for the moment. The longer they stay in the shadow of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, their chances of riding off into the sunset together get smaller and smaller. But it doesn’t look like Olivia is going to stop riding Jake any time soon.

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Despite the fact that Olivia and Jake are maintaining a sexual relationship, he keeps making the distinction that he is not her boyfriend. Not because he doesn’t want to be, but because she has never officially recognized him as her boyfriend even though they spent two months alone on a tropical island banging each other’s brains out.

I mean, I understand that it isn’t always necessary to define roles in a sexual relationship between consenting adults. However, the only reason Olivia refuses to define her relationship with Jake is because she’s hoping for something, or rather someone better. And, he knows that (and who she wants instead). So, he keeps making it clear that she is the one who defined those boundaries within their relationship and refuses to pretend to be her fake boyfriend anymore. He deserves better. Of course, he’s still interested in having sex with her on the regular though.

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I’d clear my whole schedule to find out what that thing might be. I mean, she knows what that thing is, obviously enjoys it, and yet they are sleeping in separate beds most evenings. If a man as fucking spectacular as Jake Ballard wanted my undivided attention, not only would I clear my schedule for him to do that thing nightly, but I’d find time first thing in the morning, plan a few nooners during the week, and I don’t know, the moment he walked in the door, whatever time that might be.

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Olivia doesn’t share my point of view and is more than happy to piss away really good sex with a smoking hot man who is willing to call her on her bullshit. Which is exactly what she needs. He genuinely loves her. Would do almost anything she asked. Except, be her pretend boyfriend. He needs her to acknowledge her feelings for him. He needs her to choose him first. But he also doesn’t ever expect her to choose him. And yet, he continues to protect her. Even though that means putting his own life at risk.

I know I’ve been painting a rosy picture of Jake, but the more we learn about him, the more that comes into question. I mean, he is a Black Ops spy. We know he’s killed people, but at this point, we have no idea how many people. Admittedly, if my fake boyfriend killed people for a living, I might have some misgivings about making him my real boyfriend.

Who am I kidding? He looks amazing when he’s killing people.

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I mean, he even looks good when he’s digging an unmarked grave to hide the bodies.

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At the beginning of S4, Jake keeps trying to get people to listen to him about what is happening around them now that Olivia’s father is Command again. He keeps trying to tell Olivia that her father has put a hit out on him, and he tries to tell Fitz that Rowan is responsible for assassinating his son. But no one has time to listen to Jake, and then all of a sudden Jake is accused of killing the President’s son. And, since Fitz is already jealous of Jake for running away with Olivia, he can’t wait to make Jake’s life a living hell.

And, when Olivia doesn’t hear from Jake, she assumes that he’s avoiding her. Which is crazy given the fact that he wants to spend all of his time with her if she would allow it. Oh, and it would be great if she publicly recognized him as her ACTUAL boyfriend. It takes her a while to figure out something is really wrong.

The good news is that Jake’s training has prepared him to deal with interrogation and extreme methods of torture. So Fitz’s efforts to get Jake to admit that he killed his son aren’t going well. In fact, Jake manages to push all of Fitz’s buttons instead.

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Fitz allows his jealousy to cloud his judgement and refuses to hear the truth about who really killed his son. Then Jake makes the mistake of saying the thing that no one else is able to say out loud–he tells Fitz that Olivia loves both of them. Which makes them both good guys, because she wouldn’t love them if they weren’t wearing white hats. Even though it’s obvious that Olivia loves both men, Jake is the only one who can say it out loud without having icky feelings about it.

Everyone is out to get Jake and Olivia’s father continues to lie to and manipulate her so that she believes that Jake actually killed the President’s son. So, not only does the President not believe him, but Olivia begins to question the facts. And, after Jake gives up on the notion of proving his innocence, he tries to comfort Olivia even though he knows he will never be her first choice.

Olivia figures out a way to prove that Jake didn’t kill Fitz’s son. But, instead of releasing Jake right away he is kept at the Pentagon so that Olivia can prove that her father was behind the assassination. Jake uses this opportunity to take additional digs at Fitz. He especially likes to remind Fitz that Olivia chose to run away with him and that they are still seeing each other.

Despite Jake’s posturing, he still doesn’t believe that Olivia cares about him as much as he cares about her, and after Fitz leaves the room, Jake tells her he knows that she’d rather be standing in the sun with Fitz. She gets upset that he keeps talking about himself as if she doesn’t care about him.

When Jake is finally released, things get more complicated as he attempts to find and potentially kill Olivia’s father. He’s a bit stressed, so when he arrives at Olivia’s, he’s surprised to see how happy and carefree she’s acting. She has food, beer for Jake, wine for her, and there is music playing. Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing” to be exact. And, she’s dancing. He tries to tell her about the danger they need to be concerned about, at least the one he’s aware of, and she refuses to talk about anything serious.

Just to keep things interesting, Olivia is kidnapped by mercenaries that same night, leaving Jake with the most terrifying case of blue balls in history. He’s about to get kinky with his sorta kinda girlfriend. He takes off his clothes, prepares to make her fantasy come true, and then she disappears. Because he’s a highly trained spy, he jumps into action and begins looking for her immediately. But the men who took her are professionals and no one can track her down.

She’s gone for weeks, put up for auction to the highest bidder on the Dark Web, and the President is forced to go to war by the Vice President in order to get Olivia back. Yeah, the Vice President had the President’s mistress kidnapped to make him go to war. This show is not boring. A little over-the-top at times, but never boring.

Neither Jake or Fitz are able to rescue Olivia. An old friend who has connections with the Russian mob through Interpol is able to make the highest bid and rescue her. When she finally gets back to D.C., and after she is interviewed by the FBI to determine if she let any government secrets leak to her kidnappers, Jake and her team take her home and make sure she’s okay. Jake offers to spend the night, but Olivia declines, confusing Jake. Then, Fitz arrives on Jake’s heels, and Olivia throws him out after telling him that he wasn’t the one who rescued her.

Olivia is clearly suffering from PTSD, but she isn’t seeking help. She jumps back into her work and pretends that everything is fine, but when she isn’t working, she’s hiding in her apartment with a gun. She avoids Jake and Fitz, but at least she takes Jake’s calls when he checks on her.

I guess because neither of them are currently sleeping with Olivia, Jake and Fitz slip back into business as usual, and Jake continues his part-time job of stalking Olivia so he can keep tabs on her for Fitz. Confused? Don’t be. Olivia has always been an assignment for Jake, whether he’s watching her for Fitz or her father, his job is to stalk her and report back to whomever is paying him to watch her. The problem is, Jake can’t separate his job duties from his attraction to Olivia. Even though doing the job you love is good advice, in this case, maybe not so much. If your job is to stalk someone, you should try not to fall in love with them. To be fair though, that is an obvious danger of voyeurism.

B613 is in danger of being exposed by former agents and the District Attorney. Jake has warned them to stop because they are all in danger of being murdered. Jake bugs David’s office and finds out that he is planning to trap Jake into testifying, but Jake has other plans that involve killing off agents that are willing to testify against him.

Backed into a corner, we begin to see Jake’s true colors and his mercenary is showing. Olivia has abandoned him for Fitz. Well, actually, she’s been sleeping with another guy who just happens to be a B613 agent, too. Surprise! But we don’t know that yet.

Jake’s in danger or being exposed as a Black Ops spy who has killed a lot of people. No, really. A lot. He is finally pushed to what appears to be his limit, and takes up residence in the apartment across the hall from Olivia without her knowledge. Olivia’s team decides to kill Jake and when they come looking for him, he threatens to kill Olivia if they don’t leave him alone. Would he kill Olivia? Maybe. But it seems unlikely since he’s still in love with her.

Because they can’t guarantee Olivia’s safety, and honestly, because they are a little terrified of Jake, they back off and give up on exposing B613. Jake is now officially a villain. And, as we all know, any villain of note should have an interesting, and often heartbreaking backstory. Jake has that in spades.

Is he really a villain? Not yet. At best, he’s an intriguing antihero who is doing his damnedest to be the hero. And, if he’s really lucky, he’ll win the heart of the woman he loves. In fact, he agrees to testify and bring B613 down with Olivia and her team. Once again, Jake risks his own safety to wear a white hat and stand in the sun with Olivia.

And then, Olivia’s father reappears and begins threatening everyone Olivia cares about unless she puts a stop to exposing B613. Eli Pope is an actual villain, and he’s been grooming Olivia to become just like him some day. And, they both use Jake to do their dirty work. Jake is loyal to a fault. He has been a gun for hire, a convenient boyfriend, and a champion for the causes Olivia insists on upholding no matter how insanely dangerous. Even when he has seriously important work to do, he always seems to be on call whenever Olivia needs him. How long do you think someone can do that without receiving the love and respect they deserve? My guess is not long. Especially when you consistantly give the person you love opportunities to step up and treat you better.

Jake has several part-time jobs, and one of them is wooing a woman who should have chosen him already. As the date of the trial to expose B613 gets closer, Jake stops by Olivia’s office to remind her that he’s got her back, and if she’s scared or needs someone to talk to, his strong, broad shoulders are available for her to cry on. He doesn’t make any sexual innuendos. He doesn’t remind her of how badly she’s treated him. He simply tells her he’s there for her if she needs him. And she seems to be adamantly opposed to accepting his help.

This man is hopelessly in love.

And what does he get for his trouble? He gets mortally wounded by the guy who’s been banging Olivia and almost dies after being stabbed many, many times.

As you might imagine, I had a lot of feelings about this. When the character you care about the most is in danger of dying, and if you’re anything like me and live vicariously through fictional characters, it’s going to hit you pretty hard. When Olivia’s team find him the next morning barely hanging on to life, I was a mess. It takes a very long time to get Jake the medical attention he needs, and because there’s a price on his head, they can’t take him to the hospital. They have to rely on a back-alley Russian doctor who most likely makes a living attending to bullet and stab wounds for the criminal underworld.

So, not only is Jake in danger of dying because of his many, many stab wounds, but then the person who tried to kill him insinuates himself into the situation enabling him to try to kill Jake again. Let’s just say that it’s an exciting episode. Olivia obviously cares about Jake, because she’s terrified of him dying. But her feelings for him are still unclear. She loves him, but she isn’t in love with him. It takes him almost dying for her to admit that she never should have left the island. Well, no duh.

After figuring out that the guy she’s been banging is actually a B613 agent and working for her father, Olivia has her team torture him for information while Jake recuperates in her bed. He has wanted to be back in her bed for a while, but this isn’t what he had in mind.

But hey, he’s still alive.

Jake’s a smart guy. He figures out that Olivia has the B613 agent, Russell, in the apartment across the hall and explains to her that it doesn’t matter how much she tortures him, he won’t talk. Jake tells her he won’t talk because Russell is like him. She gets defensive and says that Jake is nothing like Russell. He says that they were both trained to get close to her, and that they both have a PhD in Olivia Pope, but there’s one difference between Russell and Jake.

He then goes on to say that Command would consider his feelings for her a defect. When he shares with her that essentially she is his greatest weakness, she opens up and finally talks to him about what happened to her when she was kidnapped. Something she hasn’t talked to anyone else about. Instead of using this connection as a way to get closer to Jake, she lets him know that she isn’t going to stop trying to get information out of Russell because she wants to get her father.

Jake’s curiosity gets the better of him and he goes across the hall to meet Russell, have a beer and compare stories about what it is like to be trained by Rowan, Olivia’s father. They bond over the fact that they are both unique among B613 agents. And, Jake explains to Russell Olivia’s role in Rowan’s weird game of control. Proving that Jake definitely has a PhD in Olivia. No one knows her better. Which would be more romantic if he wasn’t her stalker and a serial murderer. And yet, I still want him to have a happily ever after with Olivia.

Jake testifies before the grand jury about B613. And minutes later, all of the jurors are brutally murdered. Rowan/Eli Pope blackmailed the First Lady who is also a senator into giving him the list of names so that he can kill them. So, everyone who listened to Jake’s testimony is dead except Jake and the District Attorney.

Jake once again offers Olivia the option to run away and she turns him down because she’d rather keep trying to take her father down which makes everyone around her potential victims. So, when Olivia decides to involve the CIA, shit gets real. She and Jake are thrown into prison, because the head of the CIA is too afraid to arrest Rowan. How many times is Jake going to take a bullet for Olivia — literally and figuratively?

At the end of S4, Jake tells Olivia his mission is over. B613 no longer exists. He has delivered her home safely. Once again, he tells her that he is in love with her, but she’s in love with Fitz. He walks away and she is confused. She thinks of their time on the island. But instead of running after him and telling him that she loves him, too. She lets him walk away and goes to the White House to see Fitz that night.

To say the least, I was disappointed. I mean, I wouldn’t kick Fitz out of bed for eating crackers, but Jake Ballard is far more interesting. And WAY more murdery without being a vampire, werewolf, or the Devil himself. In fact, Jake Ballard is the first non-supernatural character I’ve been interested in to this degree in a long time. Come to think of it, the last human I obsessed over was also a murdery secret agent.

At the beginning of S5, Olivia is outed as the President’s mistress and decides to run instead of dealing with the fallout. She takes a case and dives into work rather than dealing with reality. Who comes to help her? Why, Jake Ballard, of course. Although he told her his mission was over, he can’t seem to stay away from Olivia. He wants to help her and always wants to come to her rescue in the hopes that she will see him as a hero and accept him as her main squeeze.

While Olivia is working a case/running away from her life, she is emotionally distraught over her relationship with Fitz, but asks Jake to spoon her on the filthy motel room bed they share. In fact, when Jake returns from his beer run, he climbs onto the bed next to Olivia as if it is the most normal thing in the world, and she doesn’t question it. They are lying together like a couple. A couple who has faced a lot of obstacles and trauma, but are still there for each other. Olivia got Jake out of prison. And Jake runs to Olivia’s side when she’s in trouble. Is it just me, or should they run off to Vegas and get hitched? I mean, Jake is Olivia’s lover and in many ways, her best friend. But she doesn’t treat him as well as she should. Without hesitation, Jake comforts her and they spend the night together with him holding her. He doesn’t think twice about doing it. Because, as he’s said to her time and again, he loves her.

With the case solved, Jake returns Olivia to her apartment in D.C. and asks if she’s going to be alright. She says yes and gets out of the car into a throng of reporters asking if she is the President’s mistress. She turns to the camera, and says yes. I wanted her to say no. I wanted her to get back in the car and go somewhere with Jake. But that didn’t happen.

Jake’s response to Olivia’s “truth” is to go to her office where her team is trying to put out the fire Olivia started and “help” her. He tells them that she doesn’t need help, because she finally did the thing she tells everyone else to do, “do not lie.” When the teams asks Jake what the plan is, he says, while opening a plain brown paper bag, “My plan is to sit here and drink the majority of this vodka. Get remarkably wasted, and watch the world end. Anyone care to join me?”

And then, while Olivia is in the White House, after making out with the President in the Oval Office and pissing off everyone else around her, she calls Jake to tell him that she thinks she made a mistake and he says, “Just say the word, Liv, and I’m on my way.” She tells him she’s good, there’s some awkward silence on the phone, and then she tells him to have a drink for her. His response is, “Done.”

Unpopular opinion: Olivia Pope is a monster. There, I said it.

When Jake sees the news report that the Louvre is on fire, he goes to visit Eli Pope in prison. Jake asks Eli if he is responsible for the Louvre, which is part of a plan called Lazarus 1. Which seems to mean that Jake has never left B613 and that B613 isn’t really gone, just on temporary hiatus. Jake accuses Eli of trying to regain power and threatens to kill whomever Eli is working with on the outside.

While the media is pulling Olivia’s life apart and trying to make her look like a power-hungry harlot, and the writers use this as an opportunity to highlight the use of racially coded language or dog whistle politics in the media for the audience, Jake heads to Paris to follow the trail of clues leading to who is kicking off the plan Eli pretends to know nothing about. And, while in Paris, Jake runs into someone he never thought he’d see again: his wife.

Jake thought his wife, Elise, was dead. Surprise! They were supposed to meet at Grand Central Station and she was an hour late, and he assumed that she had been murdered. He tells her he grieved for her and that he loved being married to her. So, of course, I was hopeful that Jake might get a little happiness. He’s reunited with a woman he loved and they are obviously happy to see each other.

But, Jake Ballard isn’t allowed to have long-term happiness. First, Elise gets shot in Paris, and when Jake visits her in the hospital, she admits that she didn’t meet him at Grand Central Station because they are both spies. He asks her to come back to the States with him.

Olivia randomly drops by Jake’s for a visit and meets Elise, but he doesn’t tell her she’s his wife. Olivia goes to him for advice about her relationship with another man. When she is scared about what is going to happen next in her life, she goes to Jake. And, because he seems to know her better than anyone else, I mean he did stalk her for a long time, he always tells her what she should do and he’s almost always right.

Jake should be getting his happily ever after, right? Wrong. Elise is the person on the outside who has been helping Eli Pope regain power. When Jake finds out, he’s less than thrilled.

Olivia finds herself in a situation where she might have to marry the President, and who does she call? Jake. She asks him what she should do about whether or not to marry Fitz, and he points out how ridiculous that is, given their history. She says that she’s sorry and that he’s the person she talks to when she needs a friend, and then he hangs up on her after saying he’s hanging up.

Then she calls him again to tell him that she’s going to marry Fitz. She says that she wanted to tell him before he heard about it on TV, and his response is “whatever.” She starts to say that she needs him to feel a certain way, and he tells her that she’s not allowed to need him for anything, or ask him for anything, because that’s Fitz’s job now. And, he hangs up on her again.

He decides to leave with Elise, and they plan to meet the next day at the train station. But when he shows up, she’s already dead. Why? Because Olivia arranged for her father to be freed from prison. There is an amazing scene in which Olivia comes home to find Jake in her living room sitting in the dark drinking bad wine, which he complains about when she asks why he’s there. He tells her to sit down, she ignores him and then he shouts at her to sit down.

Typically, when Jake is with Olivia, he is there to keep her safe, but she has found herself on the wrong side of Jake Ballard and he can be quite scary. As always, he points out to her that he knows her better than anyone, including herself. He calls her a hypocrite because her story about wearing a “dumb white hat” is bullshit since she just left a mass murderer out of prison to serve her own agenda. He points out that the President isn’t impeached and she doesn’t have a wedding ring on, two things that she needed to make happen at any cost. Jake tells her that Elise is dead and Rowan killed her, then he corrects himself and says, that she killed her, because she let Rowan out of prison. Then he says this wonderful line, “The woman I love killed the woman I used to love, or the woman I used to love killed the woman I love. I can’t figure it out.” He yells at her some more, she tries to justify her bullshit and then he stands in front of her menacingly before kissing her and leaving.

scandal-recap
Jake Ballard is out of fucks to give.

The President asks Jake to hunt for Rowan, and Jake let’s her know that when he finds him he’s “going to look him in the eye and put a bullet in his head.” Apparently, Jake can hold a grudge and when people fuck him over, his solution is to start killing people.

Of course, Olivia doesn’t believe that Jake’s serious about hunting Rowan. And when her father comes to see her to tell her that someone is trying to kill him and that he’s a victim, she decides to call Jake. Actually, she summons him to the Oval Office. After Olivia tries to convince Jake that her father is in danger, he lets her know that he isn’t down for any more of her bullshit.

“What did you think? That I’d come here and spoon you? Give you a shoulder to cry on, listen to you talk about all the dark places Rowan built inside of you? That train has left the station and you do not get to ride this (he means himself) anymore. If you want someone to talk to, tell your boyfriend that you just let his son’s killer out of prison. See how that works out.”

Olivia gets vindictive and accuses Jake of being petty and jealous because she chose Fitz instead of him. But their argument, that I hoped would come to fisticuffs, was interrupted when Fitz comes into the office and they pretend they aren’t having a lover’s spat. Is it a lover’s spat when you fantasize about killing the other person?

Soon after, we discover that Olivia has a secret. While Fitz is waiting for her at a state dinner that she helped to plan, she is at Planned Parenthood getting an abortion that she won’t be able to tell anyone about. There is no one she can turn to for support because she has essentially burned her bridge with Jake and is a prisoner in the White House.

And, when Fitz asks her where she was? She can’t tell him the truth, so they have a fight about all the terrible things that are wrong with their relationship. They both air their feelings of resentment, and Olivia admits that she preferred Fitz when he was unavailable. Fitz tells her he hates that she’s always right and that they tried. But their current situation makes it impossible for Olivia to continue to be his girlfriend.

So, as a completely unexpected turn of events, Jake moves in with Olivia’s father because he finds out that he wasn’t Lazarus and honestly he has nowhere to go. Or does he? Six months after Olivia and Fitz break up we find out that Olivia has started having dinner with her father again. She tells him she doesn’t want to come by the house since Jake is there. Which is funny, because when she gets home, Jake is waiting outside her apartment and tells her she’s late. And then Olivia pretends that she wants him to leave and then they jump each other’s bones and have epic foreplay before heading to her bedroom. I guess Olivia is allowed to ride that train again. Ride, Olivia, ride.

The President asks Jake to investigate leaked information from the NSA. While they’re catching up, Fitz asks Jake if he talks to Olivia, to which Jake says no. But he has a smirk on his face. He isn’t exactly lying. He’s having sex with her, but they aren’t having a relationship. They are friends with benefits without the friendship. Like, she acts disgusted when Jake tries to show her actual affection. Not only are they not friends, but they are also working against each other on the same case.

Jake loves Olivia. Well, at the moment he loves to fuck her. But, he can’t just sit around waiting for Olivia to come to her senses and fall in love with him. He has aspirations and he’s worked hard to get to where he is in his career in the military and government. He needs a day job beyond secret agent, mercenary, and Olivia’s doormat. So, what does a super spy with lots of bloodstains on his resume do when he’s looking for a new job? He kills the competition. Literally. Jake essentially murders his way to the top. He’s not afraid of hard work or getting his hands dirty. And, by getting his hands dirty, I mean blood and soil from unmarked graves.

After the suspect Olivia is looking for turns up dead, and they figure out Jake killed him, Olivia gets a little upset. Especially when Fitz appoints Jake as the Head of the NSA. Which Jake knew about and didn’t tell Olivia. While he’s still living at her father’s house. Potentially shady? Yeah, totally. I guess Jake is accepting his role as a villain. And, he looks effing stunning doing it.

Olivia confronts Jake. And her father dresses her down, telling her to follow their example and get some real power, and refers to Jake as his son. Which always makes me a little uncomfortable given his relationship with Olivia, and that is going to get even weirder in the coming seasons. Like really weird. Like Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia weird.

As much as I would love to keep yammering at you about Jake Ballard and his insanely dysfunctional relationship with Olivia Pope, I think I’m going to leave it up to you to discover Jake’s fate. Will Olivia pull her head out of her ass long enough to realize that Jake Ballard, regardless of his many murdery flaws, is an ideal partner as she continues punching her way through glass ceilings? Or, will Jake continue to make terrible mistakes in the hopes of winning Olivia’s love only to be disappointed again? With the Winter holidays just around the corner, and since we’re all stuck in our houses anyway, why not devote roughly 5 days and 4 hours of your holiday break to binge watching Scandal. It is delightfully entertaining, with a cast of characters so frustrating that you’ll talk to your TV. So, find a warm blanket, make some popcorn, pour yourself a nice big glass of wine, and get ready to fall in love with Jake Ballard. Scandal originally aired on ABC and is currently streaming on Hulu.

Fiction Fragments: Todd Keisling

Last week I had a great chat about comics and writing inspiration with writer and illustrator, Cat Scully. This week, Girl Meets Monster is thrilled to welcome horror writer Todd Keisling.

todd 1 bw KodaKrome

Todd Keisling is a writer and designer of the horrific and strange. He is an author of several books, including Devil’s Creek, The Final Reconciliation, and Ugly Little Things: Collected Horrors, among other shorter works.

A pair of his earlier works were recipients of the University of Kentucky’s Oswald Research & Creativity Prize for Creative Writing (2002 and 2005), and his second novel, The Liminal Man, was a finalist for the Indie Book Award in Horror & Suspense (2013).

He is a former editor for The Self-Publishing Review, hosted Crystal Lake Publishing’s Beneath the Lake interview series, and co-hosted the popular live YouTube series Awkward Conversations with Geeky Writers alongside Mercedes M. Yardley, Anthony J. Rapino, Nikki Nelson-Hicks, Eryk Pruitt, and Amelia Bennett.

He dabbles in graphic design under the moniker of Dullington Design Co., and his work has graced the covers of titles published by Silver Shamrock Publishing, Flame Tree Press, Third Crow Press, Crystal Lake Publishing, Precipice Books, and Nightscape Publishing.

His written work has been praised by Cemetery Dance, This Is Horror, Night Worms, The Eyes of Madness, Hellnotes, and Horror Novel Reviews.

A former Kentucky resident, Keisling now lives somewhere in the wilds of Pennsylvania with his family where he is at work on his next novel.

Share his dread:
Twitter: @todd_keisling
Instagram: @toddkeisling
www.toddkeisling.com

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Todd. I’m so excited to have this chance to ask you some questions and learn more about you. I’ve enjoyed reading your short fiction and you seem to be publishing quite a lot lately, both short fiction and novels. During this very strange time of social distancing and the fears associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, some writers, including myself, have been struggling to get words on the page. How are you staying motivated to keep writing? What obstacles have you experienced? What does your process look like at the moment?

TK: Thanks for inviting me! Honestly, I wish I had a good answer to this, but I’m afraid I don’t. Truth is, I’m in the same boat as you and all the other writers out there who are struggling to make the magic happen on the page. I was talking to a writer pal of mine earlier today, expressing my concerns about my complete lack of focus on…well, anything, really. My productivity has nearly dropped to zero, and what little writing I have done over the last several weeks has been in small bites. On a good day, I used to average anywhere between 500 to 1K words. Lately, I think I’ve written maybe 2K words in the last three weeks.

I’ve made it no secret that I deal with anxiety and depression on a daily basis, but with the threat of COVID, the monotony of quarantine, and how uncertain our futures are, everything’s been turned up to eleven. At times it feels like we’re living with a real-life version of Delillo’s “airborne toxic event,” with the concept of our mortality much more upfront and in focus than usual. Working on my next novel just seems kind of minuscule right now in the scheme of things, you know?

That said, in the times when I’ve managed to plant my ass in front of the manuscript, I’ve constantly reminded myself that what I’m writing isn’t permanent. It’s a first draft. It’s okay for it to be shit. And it’s okay not to write every day.

I know that’s all very basic Writer 101 stuff, but I’ve found that’s what works for me in times when my mental health isn’t at its best. And, really, I think that’s what might be best for all of us right now: take things a day at a time, remind yourself that it’s okay not to be perfect, and do what you can. We’re all in panic mode right now, whether we want to admit it or not, and I think it’s imperative we be kind to ourselves above all else.

GMM: Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were plenty of scary things happening in the world — politically, environmentally, economically, socially. How have current events shaped your writing? Is it easier to write horror during times characterized by fear and uncertainty? What scares you the most?

TK: I think those things are always in the back of my head one way or another, and they usually inform my characters or their motivations. Writing horror has always been an outlet for me, a way of exorcising my demons and dealing with those issues by way of writing them down. So, when it comes to facing the socio-economic uncertainty of our times, I tend to do so through my characters.

For example, I’ve been working on revising and expanding my first two novels while also writing the final novel in that trilogy. The main character and his wife are Millennials, he’s had to take on a crappy job in order to provide for her since she has health issues that prevent her from working, and the issue of money is a constant source of friction between them.

Over the course of the series, the protagonist’s job, life choices, and his inability to escape this box he’s built for himself serve as a subtext for the horror that unfolds. There’s a kind of unspoken economic anxiety that manifests in certain situations throughout the story—the idea of being sold an education that doesn’t live up to its promise, the debilitating cost of healthcare, the way we’re forced to compromise our goals in order to scrape by every day, and so on.

I’m a Millennial. I worked in a single income household for half a decade. I’ve experienced those hardships, lost sleep over hating my job, put off doctor visits because of the expense (even with insurance), felt completely lost and trapped, and had ridiculous arguments with my spouse over money. Losing my home, losing my family, losing myself—those things are what scare me, and all those situations, fears, and anxieties usually manifest in my fiction. Often in horrific ways. It’s the only way I know how to deal with them.

GMM: After reading your excerpt, I started thinking about the role religion often plays in horror fiction. You describe what I assume was a religious community with cult-like followers that ended in tragedy, as they are often wont to do. I sometimes joke about the fact that most of my knowledge of religion comes from horror fiction and movies. How much of an impact has religion had on your writing? Is it a recurring theme in your horror fiction?

TK: “I sometimes joke about the fact that most of my knowledge of religion comes from horror fiction and movies.”

It’s funny you said this, Michelle, because I’m the opposite. Almost everything I know about horror comes from a religious background.

I grew up in southeastern Kentucky, in a Southern Baptist household. When I was a kid, I was indoctrinated in that way of thinking, so everything I did was overshadowed with this impending doom of eternal damnation if I didn’t live the way I was told. I had a very clear picture of Hell from a young age, and now that I think about it, it probably had something to do with the anxiety issues I deal with now. There’s always this fear of not measuring up, of always falling short, and so on.

Anyway, when it comes to horror, religion is always going to be a place to find the darkest aspects of mankind. So much has been done in the name of a god, be it one with a capital G or otherwise, and all for the purpose of manipulating minds, curating division, or justifying bloodshed. I’m reminded of the song “Mist and Shadow” by The Sword: Why do people wonder if there is evil in the world? / If it’s lurking in the darkness until its plans can unfurl / When it’s standing before you in the clear light of day / In a finely tailored suit with a smile on its face.

All of that is my long-winded way of saying “Yes” to your question. Religion tends to be a recurring theme in my fiction, especially over the last few years. In relation to my forthcoming novel, Devil’s Creek, religion is a means of revealing the worst in people. If I had to sum up the book, it’s about how an infectious religion—and the resulting zealotry—can destroy a community.

DEVIL’S CREEK – Excerpt

Silver Shamrock Publishing – Release Date 6/16/20

His mind wandered into the dark, and his imagination had its way with him again. Being alone in this ghost town unsettled him, put him on edge like he’d never felt before. He felt like a trespasser in a graveyard. The folks who’d pulled up stakes, sold all their belongings, and given it to his father’s church for the sake of building a utopia in the forest all died here. Their spirits would roam here for the rest of eternity, walking hand in hand, replaying the final moments of their lives.

“Stop it,” he said, ignoring the chattering of his teeth. “You’re scaring yourself.”

Maybe it was the dark. Maybe it was the empty village of the dead. Maybe it was the fact his friend hadn’t come back.

Oh shit.

Zeke stood and crept to the edge of the doorway. He peered out. Moonlight filtered through the trees, illuminating a path through the remains of the holy compound.

“Waylon?” The forest rustled and breathed around him. He cleared his throat and spoke louder. “Waylon, stop fuckin’ around, man.”

The forest said nothing, and neither did his friend. Another chill swept over him, racking his body with shivers for a full minute until he got a grip on himself.

This is stupid, he thought. You’re freaking yourself out for nothing. That dipshit is out there laughing his ass off at you. He knew all along what this place meant to you, and he brought you here just to fuck with you.

“And it’s working,” he mumbled. The forest absorbed his voice, masking it with the primitive sounds of nature, of crickets and rodents in the brush and brambles, of rustling leaves in a wind far too cold for this time of year. He called out to Waylon again and waited, listening to his heart thud heavily in his chest.

One-one-thousand.

Two-one-thousand.

Three-one-thousand.

Four-one—

A guttural scream tore through the night, shredding any hope of this being a joke. Heart racing, his legs like jelly, Zeke scrambled out of the shack and into the fractured moonlight. He called to Waylon once more, but his friend was silent. The forest swallowed his cries as easily as it swallowed his mind, projecting phantoms through the undergrowth, shadow puppets in the dim glow of the moon. Everything moved around him, driven by the wind, and the constant hiss of rustling leaves filled his head with serpents.

Confused, his heart in the grip of an icy terror he’d not felt since he was a child, Zeke Billings pumped his legs and forced himself forward into the dark. He followed the dim outline of a trail through the center of the village, past a dozen overgrown structures, their slipshod windows filled with the faces of the dead. He saw them from the corner of his eye as he ran, and he told himself they weren’t there, they were tricks of moonlight, broken by the limbs and leaves and reassembled by his feral imagination.

His drive to find Waylon was fueled by a desire to leave this place, to leave its silent memory of servitude and damnation behind forever, cast back into the darkened halls of his nightmares.

So he ran. He ran until a phantom fist clenched at his ribs, tugging with each step he took. He ran until his heart pumped steam and his lungs burst with fire. Tears streamed down his face as he shot forward to the clearing ahead, each step more laborious than the last, and when his feet caught the rotted husk of a fallen log, he welcomed the sweet collapse. The hard, musty earth and soft grass of an open field met his face.

Zeke pushed himself from the ground and rose to his knees. He wiped his eyes, and when his vision finally cleared, his heart sank deep into his gut.

“No, no, no, not here, anywhere but here…”

Calvary Hill rose in the center of the clearing, the old stony pathway up its face overgrown with weeds. The church was long gone, of course, burned to cinders and ash decades before, but its ghost remained in the window of his imagination.

A full moon hung overhead, aligned perfectly over the hill like the unblinking eye of God. Susan’s words filled his head, a memory from earlier when the world still made some semblance of sense to him. It’s a full moon tonight.

Zeke stood on his knees, staring up at the silent monument of his childhood, watching incredulously as the earth breathed in the moonlit glow. He was so enraptured by the sight, he didn’t register movement from the corner of his eye.

There were sucking sounds coming from behind him. Slurping, cracking, crunching sounds. A spike of fear wedged itself into his belly, filling him with a numbing cold leeching his last ounce of resolve. Slowly, Zeke turned his head toward the sounds, his heart shooting back into high gear when he saw the hulking shadow leaning over the dead log.

The shadow moved, allowing the moonlight to wash over the log, and Zeke froze in horror.

Waylon lay sprawled on the grass, one leg twisted back at an impossible angle, his glassy eyes locked on the indifferent sky above, and a grotesque sneer of agony frozen to his face. His shirt was ripped open, his chest nothing more than a cavity of exposed meat and gore. A light tendril of steam rose from the warmth of his entrails.

The shadow reached into the hole of Waylon’s chest, snapped off one of his ribs, and began sucking on the marrow.

“Oh God,” Zeke mumbled, the words barely more than a rasp, and the shadow heard him. It raised its head and turned toward him, revealing a face coated in mud and blood. Worms writhed through the thing’s greasy hair, feeling their way along the curve of its forehead and around the dried “o” of an old gunshot wound. The shadow crunched down on Waylon’s broken rib and cast its gaze upon him. Its eyes glowed, two sapphire orbs floating in the dark.

Zeke Billings met the living face of his nightmare and began to scream.

Jacob Masters flashed a grim smile. “My little lamb,” he rasped.

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: 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: Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel

Last week, I spoke with Brandon Getz about werewolves in outer space, and this week Girl Meets Monster welcomes Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel.

SSGHeadSheri Sebastian-Gabriel’s short fiction has appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines over the past decade. Spirits, her first novel, is out now from Haverhill House Publishing. She lives in the Northeast with her fiance, the writer Matt Bechtel; her three children; and her two diametrically opposed dogs, Nya, a German shepherd mix, and Kai, a Chihuahua.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Sheri. Congratulations on publishing your debut novel, Spirits, last year. 2019 was one hell of a year. What are some of your greatest accomplishments from last year? What do you have planned for 2020, and what are you working on right now?

SSG: Thank you so much! It’s been a crazy year. Publishing Spirits and doing the promotional work associated with that pretty much tops my list of accomplishments for 2019. I’ve read in front of some amazing crowds. I particularly enjoyed my reading at Otto’s Shrunken Head, this adorable tiki bar in the East Village of Manhattan. The staff there is just delightful. You should go the next time you’re in New York. They make a mean Stormy Skull.

In 2020, I’ll probably still be promoting the living hell out of Spirits. Chris Golden once told me it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

I’m working on my second novel now. It follows an African vampire named Wekesa. Wekesa experienced the horrors of slavery as a young man. He roams the Deep South, feeding on racists. Sam Rayburn is a single mom who rents out a room to the mysterious Kes. The tiny town of Helms, Georgia, experiences a rash of grisly murders, and Sam suspects her new boarder may be responsible.

GMM: I’ve been a die-hard fan of horror fiction and films since I was a kid and could watch or read almost anything your put in front of me. After I became a mom, the concept of horror changed for me. The Exorcist was no longer scary because of demonic possession. It was scary because a woman with a sick child couldn’t find the help she needed to save her daughter. The Babadook felt like a documentary about being a single parent dealing with mental health issues and a child with behavioral problems. Has motherhood changed the way you view and write horror? What scares you these days?

SSG: I think you’re so right about motherhood shaping our worldviews and changing our fears. When I was young, I was afraid of monsters. I believed there were things out there that could hurt or kill me. But when I grew up, I realized monsters can be destroyed. As a parent, and a single parent at that, I understand that real terror comes from the things we can’t control. My number-one fear is something awful and beyond my control happening to my kids.

GMM: Speaking of the horror of motherhood, your fragment taps into one of the fears most parents share — bad things happening to our children when we aren’t there to protect them. I think we would agree that some parents have an even harder time keeping their kids safe because of financial difficulties and sociopolitical issues like racism and sexism. Your fragment features a woman of color raising two boys. What inspired the story, and does the current political climate have an impact on your writing?

SSG: The current political climate has absolutely impacted my writing! Subversive art is necessary. We both have stories in the forthcoming Dystopian States of America, an anthology benefiting the ACLU Foundation. It’s a cause near to my heart, because the damage done by the current administration is going to be felt for a really long time. There are children in cages, for fuck’s sake. Can we really just turn a blind eye to that?

From Blood for the Soil, by Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel

Sam tapped the pen against the kitchen table. If she skipped the cable bill for another month, she might be able to pay both the power bill and the car insurance, and she’d still have fifty dollars left to buy groceries for the next two weeks. The laptop glowed in her face as she punched in her debit card number and hit the Pay Now button.

Her stomach roiled. Harper’s hadn’t reopened after being shut down by the health inspector, so her services as a table jockey weren’t exactly in demand. The Beehive Café might be hiring, but Sam couldn’t bring herself to speak to Azilee McVey after the bitter old hag yelled at Nat for trying to sell basketball fundraiser candy outside her over-hyped establishment.

It was more than a little odd to her that Azilee gleefully hosted a carwash for the marching band a week later. She’d driven by to see a dozen or so white kids scrubbing cars and spraying each other, laughing in the carefree midday sunshine. Her boys would always face people like Azilee and cops who are scared of unarmed black boys whose only crime is existing. And her parents. Her blood ran cold.

Failing them wasn’t an option. She logged out of the power company’s website, typed in http://www.helmsherald.com, clicked on the classifieds section, and scanned the site for a way to place an ad. When she found the right form for apartments for rent, she filled in:

Room for rent in quaint farmhouse. $300 a month, utilities included. Smoke-free household. Must be neat. Call Sam at (706) 531-2243. 

She hit the submit button and clicked the X to close the browser.

The clock on her laptop told her it was a quarter past seven, and her heart jumped. The boys should have been home by now. She leapt up and dashed to the door. The crickets had started their evening serenade. Lightning bugs blinked on and off. The sky was navy blue and a smattering of stars punctuated it. The grass tickled the bottoms of her feet as she walked into the yard.

“Nat! Kyle!”

Her voice echoed through the trees that ran the perimeter of the farm. Something metallic rattled in the distance. Sam ran, barely noticing the gravel of the driveway jabbing her feet. The gravel turned to asphalt as she reached the roadway. Two shadowy figures emerged from the diminishing daylight. One lurched. The other walked alongside a clanking bulk. Sam’s legs burned and her feet slapped the craggy ground as she ran toward the figures.

She met them at the edge of the forest. A moan rose up from the dark.

“Mom! Nat’s hurt! Someone hit him as we were turning into Cooper’s. I’ve got his bike. I had to leave mine at the store.”

Sam’s stomach fell. She scooped the younger boy up and carried him, draped across her forearms. He whimpered and tucked his head into her shoulder like a shy toddler. He was heavy, but she shuffled and redistributed his weight until they made it to the front porch. She set him down and knelt in front of him. Blackened blood streaked his shin. A gash on his knee crusted as the blood dried.

“What happened?” she asked.

“This old lady was turning into the grocery store parking lot as we were crossing the street, and she crashed right into Nat. He fell off, and her car crushed his bike. The wheel is so bent, I had to push it home. Is he gonna be okay?”

Sam examined the wound. It was dirty but seemed superficial.

“Let’s go inside and get you cleaned up. I think you’ll be okay. Thanks for taking such good care of him, Kyle. You’re a good brother. We can go back to Cooper’s tomorrow to pick up your bike. So, what did the old lady say about hitting you?”

Nat’s eyes flashed with anger.

“She took off,” he said. “Just left me there.”

Sam hefted him onto his feet. Blind rage warmed her face. Her body quaked as she suppressed the urge to launch into an expletive-filled rant, focusing instead on ushering them both back into the house. Kyle stayed behind in the living room as Sam led Nat to the bathroom.

He sat on the toilet. Sam pulled the first aid kit from under the sink and placed it at his feet.  She ran a washcloth under the tap. Nat’s eyes were trained on the white tile floor. Tears lined his bottom eyelashes, and his bottom lip quivered. She dabbed at the red wounds, careful not to rub or irritate the raw skin. Blood flaked up and left maroon streaks on the cloth.

“What if I died?” he whispered. Sam wasn’t sure she’d heard him right.

“What, sweetie?”

His soulful brown eyes met hers.

“What if I died? That woman. The old lady who hit me. She took off right after she hit me.”

Nat’s breath came in ragged bursts. A single tear streamed down his cheek.

“She didn’t know I was okay,” he said, his shaky voice growing in volume. “I could have died, and it wouldn’t have mattered to her.”

Sam lowered the cloth, placed her hands on either side of his face, and pulled his head to her chest. His warm tears soaked her shirt, and she stroked his hair.

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

Do the Writers of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow Think We’re Stupid?

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Last night I watched an episode from season one of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow that defied all logic. I’m not talking about the fact that the main story arc focuses on a band of lesser-known “heroes” on a mission to defeat an immortal villain with the help of a spaceship that functions as a time machine. No. I’m talking about the fact that the writers of episode 8, “Night of the Hawk,” expected us to suspend our disbelief enough to accept that the characters were completely uninformed about the history of gender, racial, and sexual orientation politics, and therefore, woefully unprepared for the sexism, racism and homophobia lurking in 1958 small town America.

Really DC?

Here’s Netflix’s synopsis of the episode:

In 1950s Oregon, Professor Stein and Sara go undercover at a hospital where Savage is working, suspecting that he’s behind a recent string of murders.

As you might guess, the synopsis does little to prepare anyone for what ACTUALLY happens in the episode. So, here’s my synopsis. And, um, as usual, spoilers, Sweetie.

Michelle’s more realistic synopsis of the episode:

True, Professor Stein and Sara do go undercover at a hospital to track down Vandal Savage. What the synopsis fails to mention is that Sara is shocked and openly annoyed by the fact that a doctor in 1950s Oregon makes sexual advances toward her while dressed as a nurse. Has she never seen an episode of Mad Men?

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Later, Sara flirts with another nurse who magically turns out to be a closeted lesbian. Sara tries to convince her to come out of the closet and again is shocked that the other woman has reservations about being out.

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Do you expect us to believe that a young, attractive white woman, regardless of the fact that she’s a former member of Ra’s al Ghul’s League of Assassins, has never had unwanted sexual advances from men? She’s never been discriminated against for being a lesbian? She has no knowledge of the Stonewall Riots that are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year? She’s never encountered a discussion of Queer Politics, gender identity, or the history of the LGBTQ+ movement?

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While Sara is attempting to seduce Nurse Betty, Professor Stein, who was in college in the 1970s, somehow fails to realize that bringing Firestorm along to investigate the disappearances/murders of locals in the small mainly white town in Oregon might cause some problems.

But, what really confused me was the fact that Firestorm takes it upon himself to sit at the counter of a white-owned restaurant and begin a conversation with a white girl he’s never met before. Equally confusing, is her almost immediate acceptance of the situation as if strange young Negroes talk to her every day.

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Do you really expect us to believe that a young black man living in 2016 America has never encountered racism? Never? And, that as a person of color living in the United States, he’s never heard of the history of oppression and racism that stems from slavery, Jim Crow Laws, and the deaths of people seeking freedom during the Civil Rights Movement? He’s never heard or seen people’s disapproval of black men talking to white women in social situations? Horseshit. It is dangerous to be a person of color in America and not be tuned in to your history. I find it highly improbable that his mother, a widowed single parent, never had The Talk with him.

While we’re on the subject of segregation (which was omitted from the episode), let’s take a look at the burgeoning romance between Atom and Hawkgirl. In 2016 interracial relationships are common. But, in 1958 they were illegal. So, when this gorgeous couple shows up to purchase a house together as husband and wife, you can imagine the realtor’s confusion. At least, you should understand it if you have a clue about America’s history of segregation and Jim Crow Laws.

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Not only was interracial marriage banned in all 50 states (Anti-Miscegenation Laws), but people of color were not encouraged (that’s an understatement by the way) to move into white neighborhoods. Oddly enough, this didn’t occur to either character. Now, to be fair, this may be Atom’s first interracial relationship. Still, he’s supposed to be an incredibly smart dude. He’s never read a book or seen a film about 1950s America with black characters? I mean, it’s possible, but unlikely.

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And, while we’re one the subject, DC also wants us to believe that a woman of color who I assume has dated, or at the very least found herself attracted to other white males, has never experienced racism because of her choice in lovers. DC also wants us to believe she isn’t aware of the fact that interracial marriage was illegal until 1967 when the Supreme Court struck down all state laws banning interracial marriage as violations of the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment in the landmark case Loving v. Virginia.

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Seriously?

While this episode drove me nearly insane, I’m going to keep watching this ridiculous series. Why would I continue to watch a series that negates the realities of people living (and dead) in the United States who deal with racism, sexism, and homophobia? That’s a great question. And here’s my ridiculous answer.

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I absolutely adore John Constantine, and was heartbroken when NBC canceled the series starring Matt Ryan. So, when I discovered that one of my favorite DC Comic heroes (portrayed by an actor who is perfect for the role) returned to TV as a recurring character in this series, I signed on to watch.

Is it irresponsible of me to continue watching this absurd series given the unbridled whitewashing and heteronormalizing of the characters? Most likely. Am I going to stop watching the show because it is personally offensive and insults my intelligence? Probably not.

Honestly, if I stopped watching shows for those reasons, I’d have to stop watching A LOT of TV shows. I am almost ashamed to say that I will continue to watch this train wreck simply because John Constantine is back. Will I continue to examine the narratives and be completely aware of how flawed they are in recognizing the struggles of people of color, women, and members of the LGBTQ+ communities? Well, of course I will.

As a woman of color who has had a life-long love affair with speculative fiction, this isn’t the first time I’ve been offended by the absence or misrepresentation of specific identities, including my own. And to be perfectly honest, I doubt that experience will end anytime soon. Occupying certain identities while loving a particular genre can be complicated at times. Writers like the ones creating the narrative of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow aren’t the only voices telling tales about superheroes and other speculative fiction characters. Even if you continue to enjoy the stories that don’t include your lived experience, you can also seek out stories that do.

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!