The Cuckoo Girls, An Interview with Patricia Lillie

Patricia Lillie grew up in a haunted house in a small town in Northeast Ohio. Since then, she has published picture books, short stories, fonts, two novels, and her latest, The Cuckoo Girls, a collection of short stories. As Patricia Lillie, she is the author of The Ceiling Man, a novel of quiet horror, and as Kay Charles, the author of Ghosts in Glass Houses, a cozy-ish mystery with ghosts. She is a graduate of Parsons School of Design and has a MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. She also knits and sometimes purls.

Follow her on Twitter @patricialillie.

Patricia Lillie’s collection of disturbingly beautiful short stories, The Cuckoo Girls, takes on a journey through the darkest parts of the fairy tale forest, into houses haunted by memories as well as ghosts, and reminds us that there is horror in everyday events if we’re willing to peek behind the curtain and allow the madness to seep in. If you haven’t picked up a copy of The Cuckoo Girls, I suggest you do.

GMM: Welcome back to Girl Meets Monster, Patricia. It’s been, what? Two years since your first visit for Fiction Fragments way back in July 2018. You were one of the first writers I featured in that series and since then, you’ve had quite a bit of success. What have you been up to? What are you currently working on? And, what can we look forward to from you?

PL: Wow! That was two years ago? It doesn’t seem like it, which is odd since January of this year feels like ten years ago. As for success—congratulations on Invisible Chains and your Stoker nomination! You should have seen me doing happy dances for you. I take that back. You’re lucky not to have seen me doing happy dances since I’m a klutz. But, do know dances were danced.

What I’ve been up too? A handful of the stories in The Cuckoo Girls were written after the Fiction Fragments piece. As I mentioned there, I had lots of fragments scattered all over my hard drive and I needed to organize them. I did. Which led to some of them turning into stories. Which made me happy—so thank you for setting me on that path.

Aside from that, I have the beginnings of two novels which both keep changing direction. It sometimes takes a while for things to gel with me. I’ve also refilled that fragments folder with more beginnings. I’m evidently good at getting down the first 500–800 words of a story, and sometimes I even know the end, but finding the story that goes in between often takes time. A lot of time. This year, like for many people, hasn’t exactly been conducive to writing, but I’m slowly finding my way back. At least, I hope I am.

GMM: I finished reading The Cuckoo Girls recently and I really enjoyed the collection. I’ve always been able to lose myself in your writing, but there were a few stories that really pulled me in. One of my favorites is “The Robber Bridegroom,” which is a delightfully dark fairy tale about a young woman who is spurned by her family and community because she isn’t as attractive as her younger sister. In fact, she has some sort of deformity that requires her to wear a veil in public. But, she has a secret lover that she meets at night in the forest, and each night he confirms his desire for her even though they know almost nothing about each other beyond their carnal interests. Despite the fact that she suspects that he is dangerous she continues to see him night after night, and even chooses to be his after she finds out the truth about him.

Fairy tales are obviously an influence on your work. Not just this story, but other stories in the collection like “Mother Sylvia.” What is it about fairy tales that draws us back to them again and again? What fairy tales inspired “The Robber Bridegroom”? Which fairy tale was your favorite as a kid? What’s your favorite now? Why?

PL: Thank you—I’m so happy you enjoyed the collection!

I do love fairy tales—or folk tales—but not the idea of “fairy tale” that springs to mind for a lot of people. I didn’t have a favorite fairy tale as a kid. I didn’t dislike them, but none of my favorite stories fell into that definition. I came to love them as an adult when I studied them in conjunction with children’s literature and discovered they weren’t all the happy-ever-after, prettied-up, suitable-for-children stories we’ve come to accept. Oral tradition stories change as they’re told and retold, but some of the greatest changes come when the stories are collected and published. Those changes are often designed to make the stories more palatable to readers.

In the original 1812 edition of the Grimm Brother’s collections, the stepmothers in “Snow White,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and others were biological mothers. The idea of a birth mother planning to slaughter and eat her seven-year-old daughter (Snow White) was culturally abhorrent to the sanctified ideal of motherhood. The bad-mothers were changed to step-mothers in later editions.

Rapunzel and the prince enjoy a “merry time together” resulting in pregnancy, which leads to discovery by the witch. Imagine that in a Disney movie.

At the same time, I discovered stories from cultures beyond the familiar (to me at the time) Western European tradition. As striking as the diversity of these stories is, there’s also a surprising commonality. There are over three-hundred cultural variants (from all over the world) of what we (in our Euro-centric outlook) think of as a Cinderella-story. I’m rambling, but what I’m getting at is the fairy tale tradition is both darker and richer than the “she meets her prince and he is her salvation” idea so many of us were sold. At the same time, many revolve around women. Sometimes they are a prize to be won. Sometimes they are the protagonist. But (at least in the Euro-centric tales) they are often robbed of their agency, either by other characters or by the roles they are expected to fill in family and society. The pressure to be a good girl and find that prince is immense.

“The Robber Bridegroom” uses the main theme from the Brothers Grimm tale of the same name along with elements from Norwegian, British, and other variants of the story. The original story differs from the “meets her prince” fairy tale trope. A young woman escapes from an arranged marriage to a rich man who is not what he appears to be. Which all sort of happens in my story, but as you noted, I took it in another direction. Both of the sisters in my version are expected to fill the role which provides the most value to the family. Because they are female, they’re commodities, and their value is determined by their appearance. Both rebel. It works out well for one of them—because she makes it work out.

GMM: Your stories are often about girls and women who have experienced some form of trauma, or have been given a responsibility that weighs heavily upon them. Where does your inspiration for these characters come from? Do you consider yourself a feminist writer? How much of yourself can be found in the pages of this collection?

PL: When I began to pull this collection together, I was more than a little surprised to discover, “Oh. Hey. There is a theme here.” Where did it come from? Hell if I know. My best guess is from my coming of age during the decades of Second Wave Feminism. It’s hard to imagine now, but I was in high school when women were given the legal right to get credit cards without a man co-signing for them. That’s hardly the only change, but I like to use it as an example because it’s so inconceivable today and it wasn’t that long ago.

Of course, young and optimistic me thought things would continue to get better. Of course, they didn’t. Women’s rights came to a standstill and then moved backwards—as has the fight for equality for POC, LGBTQ people, and anyone who doesn’t fit into the 1950’s standards of power and perfection. It was all supposed to be better by now and it’s not. Life for anyone who doesn’t fit those standards is often a trauma.

As a straight, white, cis woman, the trauma inflicted on women who don’t fit into predetermined roles—or choose not to fill them—is the situation I understand the best. It’s the one I know, and apparently it creeps into my writing. I am a feminist. Am I a feminist writer? I think that’s for others to decide. I always thought I just liked spooky shit.

GMM: The theme of motherhood can be found in many of your stories. Motherhood can be really challenging and sometimes traumatic for many women without the added terror of body horror and supernatural pregnancies. “The Cuckoo Girls”, the first story in this collection, speaks to the horrors associated with pregnancy and motherhood and is an extremely unsettling tale. Why do you think this story is scary? What about pregnancy and motherhood frightens you? Why do you think pregnancy is a trope within the subgenre of body horror?

PL: Pregnancy is terrifying. Another being, nestled and growing inside your body, feeding off you—and at the same time being dependent on you for their life—is bad enough, but add in the pain of giving birth—yeah. Body horror, indeed. My fear of pregnancy is so great, it’s the main reason I’ve never given birth to a child. I have been deeply involved in the raising of a few children, and as wonderful and rewarding as that is, it’s also terrifying. So much responsibility. So much love. So much to gain, but so much to lose if things go wrong. Honestly, parenting is the hardest job a human can take on. I made an active choice not to go through pregnancy and an active choice to be involved in the lives of the children of others. I think the unsettling aspect of “The Cuckoo Girls” is there is no choice. Because motherhood is still a default expectation for women, the lack of choice and lack of control is frightening.

To go back to your previous question, apparently there is a lot of me in these stories. Damn you for making me think so hard. <smiley face here>

GMM: “That’s What Friends Are For” is a great haunted house story with a surprising ending. Have you had any paranormal experiences in your life that inspired this story?

PL: Ha. That story takes place in the house I grew up in. (Seriously. I grew up in a haunted house on the corner of Erie and Elm streets. Explains a lot, doesn’t it?) The bedroom with the closet doors? Mine. The sleepwalking brother who peed in that closet? While not paranormal, also mine. The idea that the unseen residents of the house were simply part of our life and our friends? That’s how we viewed them. Not scary at all.

Long after my parents sold the house, my sister met the then current residents. They were having the same experiences we had. However, they were terrified and convinced the presence was evil. Which made me wonder, what if ghosts are a reflection of how we see them?

GMM: What is your favorite story in this collection and why?

PL: I’m not sure which is my favorite, but I’m fond of “Alyce-with-a-Y” simply because of how it came about. You’ve probably noticed I have a habit of dropping references to Lewis Carroll’s Alice into my writing. I decided to embrace it and use Carroll’s world as the basis of a story. Frankly, I thought maybe doing so would break my Alice habit. I started the story with no real idea where it was going, and I didn’t care. I was writing for fun. I was writing to exorcise Alice. When Alyce showed up, I thought she was someone entirely different than she turned out to be, and she took me on a wild ride all the way to the end. It was a story that just happened. Is it the best story in the book? Probably not. But I had so much fun writing it! (It remains to be seen whether or not the exorcism was successful.)

Thank you so much for inviting me back to Girl Meets Monster! It’s been a blast.

Fiction Fragments: Hailey Piper

Back in May I said I would be taking a hiatus until July. Technically, that’s true because I sent out invites to writers and began scheduling this new round of posts in July. This post begins a new cycle of the Fiction Fragments series, and happens to be my 50th post by the way.

Last time on Fiction Fragments, Nelson W. Pyles joined Girl Meets Monster. If you haven’t read Nelson’s fragment, you should. I had a great time chatting with him about his fiction and podcast, The Wicked Library. Today, I am excited to welcome horror writer Hailey Piper, whose Twitter bio challenges us to “Make horror gay AF.” Intrigued? You should be.

Hailey Piper is the author of The Possession of Natalie GlasgowAn Invitation to Darkness, and Benny Rose, the Cannibal King. She is a member of the HWA, and her short fiction appears in Daily Science Fiction, The Arcanist, Flash Fiction OnlineYear’s Best Hardcore Horror, and elsewhere. She lives with her wife in Maryland, where she haunts their apartment making spooky noises.

Links/handles:
Twitter: @HaileyPiperSays
Instagram: @haileypiperfights
Website: www.haileypiper.com
Amazon: www.amazon.com/author/haileypiper

Three Questions (+1)

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Hailey. Your fragment was the first piece of fiction of yours I’ve read, and now I not only want to know what’s happening in this story, but I’m looking forward to reading more of your work. Sunflower seems to be a strong character, and I’m guessing that she’s either in her teens or a young adult. Is The Storm YA Horror, or do you typically write for an older audience? Who are you hoping to attract to your fiction?

HP: Thank you for having me, Michelle! You guess correctly; Sunflower is 19, though I wouldn’t say the book is YA. I haven’t really dipped into YA and tend to label my work as adult fiction. That said, I never really know where to find the line. I was reading adult books at age 8 and watching R-rated horror movies by 9, so my idea of what’s right for any age is skewed.

GMM: Monsters and body horror are two of my favorite elements in genre fiction. Your fragment has both. Without giving away too much about the story, what kind of monster is Unchol? Is Unchol a she? What kind of monster is Mother? Do you have a preference for female monsters? What makes them scary?

HP: I love monsters too! Unchol and Sunflower’s mother are both the kinds of monsters that have stepped out of Sunflower’s past, perhaps the worst kind of monster in that at one point she thought she’d escaped them. I’m not sure if I have a monster gender preference; I can think of so many fun and/or scary ones of all kinds. But we could always use more lady monsters since there aren’t as many!

GMM: I agree that there is a lack of lady monsters in speculative fiction. Who or what are some of your favorite female monsters in horror, either in movies or fiction?

HP: I’ve always loved Mothra. Mother Suspiriorum from the Suspiria remake is another. And I don’t know if she counts, but if so, the car Christine is a favorite too!

GMM: How much of an impact does your identity have on your writing? I mentioned in your intro that your Twitter profile challenges us to “Make horror gay AF.” What does that mean for you? More gay horror writers? More gay characters? How can the genre open up to include more gay voices in horror?

HP: My identity has a tremendous impact. Who I am influences what I write. I think that’s every writer to some degree, whether they know it or not. As for “make horror gay AF,” partly it’s a statement of intent. I write queer characters, and even those times I don’t, I often write queer themes. But as a matter of how to do that? Yes, more queer writers, editors, characters. Opening up means a lot of things, such as wrestling with a past that vilified queer characters, with not fearing scrutiny over being inclusive. As with any underrepresented group, we have different voices and stories to share. I’ve been fortunate to work with incredibly supportive editors and readers, and my hope is that other queer horror authors will find that kind of support too.

Fragment from The Storm (working title):

“You’re not real,” Sunflower said, trembling.

“I was real when we met,” Unchol said. “And I’m real now. You wanted me to be your nightmare, but that doesn’t make me one.” Her bulbous head loomed, and her bony fingers latched onto Sunflower’s arm. “Besides, you’re not that afraid of me. Not the angel, either. But your mother, she’s the one who told you angels can’t help—she broke that dream. Even I can’t eat dreams, but your mother can.”

Sunflower had known that for the longest time. She tried to flinch back, but Unchol wouldn’t let go. A memory surged from deep inside of a glassy glare in the dark. Mother was always watching.

Raindrops slid down the Unchol’s noseless face. Her white eye shined in the dark. “I told you she’d find you, remember? No matter where you go, she’ll come for you. She’ll watch.” Her teeth slid close to Sunflower’s face. “But you can be something she’ll refuse to watch. I can give that to you.”

Sunflower glanced through the rain, where the mound of false mothers dampened under the storm.

Unchol glanced back. “I was trying to help. You keep bringing her back, and I keep taking her away.” Her throat bulged, and she wretched to one side. A new corpse slithered down her gray tongue and onto the ground. Dark mud splattered its familiar white dress. She had no face. “But you keep making more. If you want to be rid of her forever, you’ll have to become like me.”

Someone shouted from far away, but Sunflower couldn’t hear that well through the rain. Was that Olivia, shouting for her to stop? No, she was gone.

Unchol’s toes gripped the mud. “Be like me. It’ll end, after all these years. Better to be the monster than the loser, right?”

Sunflower looked to the faceless corpse. She’d felt stronger and free those days when she’d run off the boys and raise hell across Chapel Hill. Yet every time she came home, Mother sucked the life out, same as any vampire. Sunflower had only been strong in that house for one night, wrong yet good, at least until the end.

She hadn’t felt strong since, no matter where she went.

And Unchol knew it. Her gray lips peeled back in a grin. “I want the gift. Give it to me, and I’ll make the monster.”

“You can take that away?” Sunflower asked. This burden had twisted inside her for too long, and while it might have helped Olivia, there had been too many other troubles to count. Angels, corpses, this whole hellish night. Sunflower had done terrible things, and not only when she didn’t mean to. She eyed the corpse pile again.

She could stop this if she had the will.

Olivia was still shouting in the distance, something about not listening to Unchol. But she wasn’t close, and she didn’t feel the same as Sunflower did when they looked at Mother’s bodies. The gift could erase them, but they’d never stop coming. Dead or alive.

Behind the bodies stood Mother herself. Could she be the last? Not if they kept coming.

Not if Sunflower kept the gift. “Stop looking at me!” she snapped. “Stop judging me!”

Unchol’s throat rumbled.

Sunflower turned to her. “I don’t want it anymore. I want to make her go away.”

Unchol flashed her teeth. She leaned toward Sunflower, mouth open wide enough to swallow her head, and covered her face in swampy blackness.

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: Michael Burke

Last week, I spoke with Gabriela Vargas about feminism, poetry, and why you should submit your work for publication. And this week, I am happy to welcome comic book aficionado and speculative fiction writer, Michael Burke.

authorphoto

Michael Burke was born and raised in Massachusetts. His love of books was sparked by finding his father’s stash of pulp hero novels at a young age. The lurid, frenetic art of Frank Frazetta captivated his imagination and he needed to know what was happening to the characters behind those covers.

A Spider-Man comic book purchased for him by his father was his steady companion as he taught himself to read. This effort was not only rewarded by finally discovering what happened to those pulp heroes but also with a lifelong love of the comic book medium.

He co-founded the comic book store, Comicazi in 2000. It has won several Best Of Boston awards and in 2017, won the prestigious Eisner Spirit Of Retail award. Michael is also a licensed pharmacy technician. He has had all manner of jobs in his life ranging from painter to photographer to bouncer to roadie to office work to construction. He still does not know what he wants to be when he grows up but he’s enjoying the ride. Through it all, he has written and told stories. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, the best story he’s ever been a part of.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Michael. Comic books have a reputation of being one of the first forms of fiction children become connected with as readers. Comics have obviously had a positive impact on your life, how have they influenced your writing? What titles would you recommend to kids who are reluctant to pick up a book?

MB: Hi Michelle. Thank you for having me. Comic books have definitely impacted my life in a positive way. My dad saw my interest at a very young age. I had found a shoebox full of his paperbacks. Conan, Tarzan, Executioner, Doc Savage. In the late 60s, lots of those pulp-era characters had been reprinted by publishers. The covers captivated me. He fostered that interest and got me a Spider-Man comic book. He and my mom helped teach me to read when they could but I was ravenous and forged ahead on my own.

That early exposure to comics helped my reading comprehension at an early age and propelled my interest in seeking out all manner of reading material. My formative years were spent with my head buried in books and comics. I’ve loved the comic medium my whole life. I started writing my own stories in third grade; they were very much influenced by the comic characters I was reading. When I was ten-years-old I even created my own superhero complete with origin and costume design and mailed it off to Marvel Comics. I never made a copy of that, darn it! On some level, I feel that I’ve always written with that certain measure of bombast inherent in comics. Well, super-hero comics. As I got older and my tastes expanded, I saw that comics could tell even more stories.

One of the reasons comics are great is that they’re unique in that they have always both influenced and reflected popular culture. I daresay that I would not have read half as many of the books that I have if it weren’t for comics. And, of course, my passion for comics lead me to co-founding a comic book store. We focus our efforts on building and maintaining community and welcoming all with open arms. Some of my favorite recollections of time in the shop are of speaking with new fans of the medium and of talking with kids.

There are scores of comic titles to recommend to kids today. Far more choices than there were for me as a kid. Our shop has a large all-ages section we keep well-stocked. Lots of families come in and kids from pre-school to teenage come in. I’d recommend the Amulet series by Kazu Kabuishi; any of the books by Raina Telgemeier (Guts; Smile; Sisters; Drama; Ghosts); Nimona by Noelle Stevenson; Bone by Jeff Smith. There are plenty of Star Wars Adventures digests for younger readers because, let’s face it, most kids like Star Wars at some point. There’s always an audience for the standby titles like Disney characters and Archie and Classics Illustrated. There’s really no shortage of comic titles that a kid can get started reading.

GMM: Tell me about your fragment. Who is Ahanu, and where will his journey lead him? Can you share a synopsis of the story without giving away too many spoilers? What inspired this story?

MB: My excerpt is from a novella that I’m writing. It’s called A Parliament of Owls. It’s a sword-and-sorcery tale with horror elements and influenced by Native American folklore. I struck upon the idea last year and wrote it as a short story for my writing group. I got tons of constructive feedback and with that, plus the notes I took, I realized that this was a longer story. I’ve been sitting on it for a bit, letting it simmer in the back of my head, as I worked on other things. But it’s ready to come out now.

The inspiration for the story is very much from my love of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. My dad’s old paperbacks were definitely the fuel for this. Sword-and-sorcery is a subset of fantasy; it has elements of the supernatural present and the tales are often fast-paced, placing the protagonist in a personal struggle. They’re often set in a semi-mythic realm, although there can sometimes be some historical aspects present. The stories do not deal with earth-shattering problems and epic dangers like Lord of the Rings and other high fantasy sagas.

Ahanu Foxcloud is a young man, barely twenty, and an orphan. His mother was a powerful witch with a mysterious past. This fact put her at odds with the elders of her tribe. Ahanu wants to know more about his mother but feels stymied by the village council. He also feels like an outcast among his own people. There may be a reason for that and some of that may be his own insecurities. There’s a young girl in the village, Halyn, that he sees as a sister. She keeps him on an even keel. Ahanu often butts heads with authority and is frustrated by the traditions his people follow when he imagines a larger world beyond his own.

The world makes itself known as even larger than he could have imagined when Halyn and other children go missing. Ahanu scoffs at the explanation given to him for this and sets out on his own to discover what happened. That confrontation will expand his horizons and teach him a thing or two about growing up.

I plan on writing several short stories about Ahanu and his adventures. I’m starting to flesh out the world I want to have him populate and having fun doing so. Looking into more Native American mythology to help influence further adventures has been very interesting and I look forward to adding more of these components. As I move forward with Ahanu, I plan on teasing out facts of his mother’s past and how that ties in with the character that I want him to become.

GMM: You write speculative fiction, but what genre is your favorite to read? Write? Why do you feel drawn to that genre? Is there a genre you enjoy reading but haven’t written in, and why?

MB: Oh gosh, that’s tough. I’ve followed a general pattern through my life. It started with my dad’s Conan and Tarzan books. Those lead me to other books by those authors, of course, but after that, I read other fantasy and adventure books. From there, I moved into science fiction, then horror. Back to fantasy in the nineties when there was no end to those multi-book high fantasy series. Then it was urban fantasy and science fiction. Then mystery and horror. Those were the big beats and I tried other things that struck my fancy at the time. I’d have to say science fiction is probably my favorite to read. It’s a sprawling genre that hits many of my buttons. What I like about science fiction is that element of social commentary. When I was younger and reading works by Ursula K. LeGuin and watching Star Trek reruns and didn’t know the term “social commentary”. I liked thinking about the lesson it put forth.

My favorite genre to write is the first one I was exposed to. I’m having fun with Ahanu’s sword-and-sorcery tale. It just came a lot easier to me than other pieces I’ve written. Maybe because it’s been with me for so long. I love horror and science fiction, too, but I think I struggle a bit more with those genres.

I’ve read a lot of detective/mystery stuff. Parker’s Spenser; the Burke series from Andrew Vacchs; the classic authors of the genre: Chandler, Hammett. Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Poirot. I’m really digging Walter Mosley’s Leonid McGill character right now. I like a lot of it but I’ve never attempted to write a mystery. As I travel along my writing path, I’m beginning to find the value in outlining my stories. Typically, I imagine a scene/idea and just write. A friend of mine calls it “discovery writing”. I know there are writers who do it that way and there are writers who outline and there’s probably a number who fall somewhere in between. There’s no right or wrong way to write your tale. But I don’t think I’ve tried my hand at a mystery because I feel that it would require more of an outline style than my discovery method. Perhaps as I settle into a writing method that works best for me, I’ll give a mystery tale a shot one day.

Excerpt from PARLIAMENT OF OWLS

A gibbous moon filled the sky, its eerie half-light falling between the canopy of branches above Ahanu’s campsite. The air had only cast off some of the day’s humidity; the night was close and thick. Low sounds echoed throughout the forest as nocturnal creatures stalked. The campfire sputtered low. Ahanu sat with his back to a big stump and gazed into the dying flames, worry gnawing at his gut. The past day filled his mind. Anger and fear continued their hold on him as images of Moki and the elders sneered at him. His mother had always been at odds with Moki and he knew, just knew, that they had it in for him.

Dim remembrances of his long-gone mother replaced the angry visages of the tribal leaders. Feelings, more truly. A sense of comfort. He was so young when she was taken, it was all he could do to keep her face in his memory.

That melancholy flowed into the reason he was out here in the woods. He had to find Halyn. She had been gone too long. And she was little older than he was when he lost his mother. She was as a sister.

Grim thoughts stayed with him as his head lolled. His eyes drifted shut and the fire sparked its last.

An indeterminate time passed. The moon kept its counsel. All was tranquil.

A feminine trill whispered through the darkness. The night fell quiet. Ahanu breathed deeper but did not stir.

Again, that soft sound. Kijiru awoke and snorted, head and tail high.

“Easy, girl,” Ahanu opened his eyes. “What is it?” he clambered to his feet, grabbing his axe from the ground as he rose. He walked to the mare, all the while his amber eyes darted. He whispered reassuringly to the horse but she was uneasy.

The fire had died but the high moon cast more than enough light, albeit the effect through the trees made it appear some manner of spectral plane. The heavy, humid night air leant a certain lethargy to Ahanu’s movements. His head was still fogged with sleep. He stood beside Kijiru, slowly brushing his hand through her brown mane.

A long, low rasp sounded. It sounded very much like a sharp blade being dragged across a stone. Ahanu started, tightening his grip on the axe handle. Kijiru shuffled her feet. He moved from the horse, looking about. That sound worried at the edges of his memory but he could not recall the context. He moved about the site in a slow circle, eyes trained into the dark.

A short, vibratory song called next, almost as if a caged bird were nearby. Ahanu saw nothing. The fine hairs on his arm stood straight and he felt a cold tickle at the base of his neck.

“I bid thee greetings, O man” a soft voice came from the dark. It seemed to come from all directions at once.

Ahanu whipped his head about left and right, trying to ascertain the voice’s origin. “Who goes there?”

“Just a wanderer of the wood. I saw your fire and thought to avail myself of a fellow wayfarer’s kindness,” the voice crooned. It seemed to come from his left.

Ahanu’s thoughts felt sluggish. He stood a moment, determining if this were a dream. He shook cobwebs from his mind and glanced at the ashes of the campfire. It was dead.

“My fire, eh? When was that?”

“Do you not offer hospitality to another traveler, then?” The voice was now behind him.

Ahanu whirled, his knuckles white on his axe handle. “Step forward, woman, if woman, you be, and not some damned forest spirit!”

A slight glimmer of motion rippled in the corner of his eye. He turned to his right and took a step in that direction. Kijiru whinnied nervously. Ahanu’s eyes widened as a face materialized from the dark. Ice-white tresses cascaded in a silvery frame about a beautiful face. Eyes darker than arboreal shadows regarded him coldly. Ahanu stopped, awestruck.

He stared, enrapt, following the bodiless face as it moved about the campsite. He dimly noted that it was odd how the face would sometimes change in height as it moved. Almost as if it were a bird alighting on branches.

“No forest spirit am I, but a woman.” A note of anger sounded deep in her voice. “And you would do well to accord me respect.”

Ahanu retreated a step, superstitious fear driving him back. He considered his next words but held his tongue. The face had not moved. It hovered, ghostly, in the moonlight.

“Well? Boy.” The word dripped from cruel lips.

The tableau held for several moments until Kijiru let loose with a loud snort. Ahanu blinked hard and in a fluid motion, hurled his near-forgotten axe at the apparition.

A horrible hiss sounded and the lovely visage winked out like a blown candle flame. Ahanu heard heavy wings and could swear he glimpsed a dark form take flight. He shook his head in an effort to clear his dazzled vision.

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

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

Fiction Fragments: Todd Sullivan

Last week, I had the pleasure of chatting with Jessica McHugh about YA fiction and how horror and humor come together in her stories. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Todd Sullivan.

image0 (2)Todd Sullivan teaches English as a Second Language, and English Literature & Writing in Asia. He has had numerous short stories, novelettes, and novellas published across several countries, including Thailand, the U.K., Australia, the U.S., and Canada. He is a practitioner of the sword-fighting martial arts, kumdo/kendo, and has trained in fencing (foil), Muay Thai, Capoeira, Wing Chun, and JKD. He graduated from Queens College with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, and received a Bachelor of Arts in English from Georgia State University. He attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the National Book Foundation Summer Writing Camps. He currently lives in Taipei, Taiwan, and looks forward to studying Mandarin.

Three Questions

GMM: Hi Todd, welcome to Girl Meets Monster. After reading your fragment, I wondered what inspired the story, as well as what specific genre it fits into. There are young characters, so I thought YA and since there’s magic, I placed it in fantasy. Do you normally write YA fantasy, or do you write within other genres and subgenres?

TS: I wrote this story while teaching at a Language School in Seoul. One of the students was fond of drawing, and he was also a poor student academically. He was under a lot of pressure to do better in his classes, and soon he was going to take entrance exams for a boarding school in China.

This real-life scenario became the genesis of Test Amongst the Shadows, wherein a teenager, who happens to be a mage in the world of humans, has to pass an exam that is important to him. The narrative follows the different methods he employs to cheat since he knows he cannot pass the test on his own.

Test Amongst the Shadows is YA urban fantasy fiction, and eventually I’ll develop the idea into a novella series.

I also write across genres, including horror and light science fiction.

GMM: The interaction between your characters also reminded me of Japanese manga and anime stories. Do you enjoy anime? How has it influenced your writing? What are some of your favorite anime series or characters?

TS: I love anime, and it has had a significant influence on my writing. I remember the first time I saw Akira, which is the first major Japanese anime film many people around my age saw. This was in the 90s before the popularity of the internet when it was hard to find anime on American television.

One of the big differences between anime narratives and western narratives is that there are usually no purely evil characters. Westerners base a lot of their worldview on scripture: Heaven and Hell, good and evil. There is God, and there is Satan. There is a hero, and there is a villain.

Anime characters tend to be more flux in their alignment. Usually, the characters simply have objectives. Sometimes this objective brings great harm to one, or many, and that person will be the bad guy. The character with an objective that happens to include stopping the great harm to the one, or many, will be the good guy.

In Akira, there is no villain. There is a teen boy full of angst who accidentally achieves great power he cannot control. And there is his friend who must stop him, in a way out of friendship, out of knowing that the boy is in torment even as his power wrecks havoc upon the city.

In Dragon Ball Z, one of my favorite animes, Vegeta starts off as a central villain to Earth. He does so because he wants to escape the tyranny of one of DBZs purely evil characters, Frieza, and on Earth he thinks the means to do exists. Vegeta changes throughout the series, going from villain to anti-hero to hero.

Then there is Goku, a character whose goal of protecting the Earth conflicts with his overwhelming desire to improve his fighting abilities. This obsession Goku has indirectly causes great harm and misery to others.

The characters I write are similar to these Japanese figures. With few exceptions, my characters are not purely good, and they are not purely evil. Sometimes one of them will have a goal that brings suffering to others; and sometimes, another of them will have a goal that brings them into direct conflict with the first, and thus the suffering of others can be alleviated.

GMM: How long have you lived in Asia, and what aside from teaching English and Writing made you decide to move there? What cultural barriers have you experienced as a person of color living abroad? How have these experiences shaped your writing?

TS: I’ve lived in Asia ten years. After a three-week winter semester class where I studied Japanese authors in Tokyo during my MFA at Queens College, I knew that I wanted to come back to this part of the world and learn more about the people and the cultures.

Many Asian societies are homogeneous, so the presence of foreigners acts as a bit of a shock to their system. I think that being a foreigner in a homogeneous society is a good case study of how humans might react to the presence of aliens from outer space. There is simply a difficulty in processing the reality of that which is standing in front of you.

Writing-wise, I think this difficulty is best expressed in my fantasy novella series, The Windshine Chronicles. This series centers around a dark-skinned foreigner living in a fantasy version of Korea called South Hanguk. The series’ narrative is multilayered, but one of the themes is how the people of the country interact with foreigners, and how the foreigners struggle to exist in a country that isn’t their native home.

In The Windshine Chornicles, the idea that the human race is “one whole” is constantly put to the test.

From Test Amongst the Shadows, by Todd Sullivan

The hardest working mage who ever lived glanced at the clock on the wall. Twenty minutes. Jin gazed down at his English exam. Only twenty minutes left to pass or fail the biggest test of his life. His scantron sheet was half empty. The clock’s ticking seconds in the silent classroom echoed in his mind, and made focusing on English vocabulary and grammar impossible. He had to do something if he intended to get in the top of his class.

Jin looked around at the other students, their heads low, their shoulders hunched as they picked off ovals in the long marching columns. Adjusting his glasses, he opened his senses in search for the right spell amidst the thin cracks that splinter reality. He released control of his hand and let it draw six stick-figure bandits on horses at the edges of the exam. Leaning close to the page, he whispered, “Thieving shadows, take shape and learn the secrets of my woes.”

The drawings shivered, and the bandits shook themselves awake. They clawed out of the exam, erupting off the page into the third dimension. The cloaked leader saluted, his face hidden in shades of gray. Jin pointed to the answer key tucked under a notebook on the teacher’s desk. The leader nodded, and motioned to the silent troupe behind him. The bandits yanked on their horses’ reins and leapt off the side of the table. Racing across the tiled floor, the horses skirted around chair legs and hopped over sneakers. Jin glanced at the exam answer key again. The sides of his mouth spread in a triumphant smile, but a purple boot suddenly crushed the horsemen right before they cleared the classroom’s tables. Jin inhaled in surprised. He followed the boot up to the leg, the skirt, the shirt, to finally meet the steady gaze of Sori, the top student in the school.

And his ex-girlfriend.

The two maintained eye contact for several moments, a silent challenge passing between them. Sori had broken up with him right before exams, informing him that she wasted too much time with him and wasn’t focusing enough on the upcoming finals. And now, here she sat, the only other mage in this room of humans, stopping him from reaching his goal.

So that’s how it was going to be.

Jin slowly took off his glasses in preparation for his next spell. Sori had managed to see his bandits. He didn’t know how, but he would need to take care of her sight before he tried for the test answers again.

Jin narrowed his eyes at the light reflected in the lenses of his glasses. He smiled. He held the glasses to his lips and misted the lenses by blowing on one, then the other. While he did this, he focused on the magic vibrating between the fissures of reality until he heard the words to the next spell.

“Site sighted, two to see, sea bog fog billowing…”

“John?”

Jin snapped his mouth shut at the teacher speaking his English name. He tried to still his heart now thumping fast in his chest, and met the teacher’s puzzled blue eyes.

“Are you speaking to someone?”

Now the other students’ heads lifted, and before he knew it, dozens of humans were all staring in his direction. With their attention focused on him, he couldn’t produce magic. No mage could. Human disbelief in magic narrowed the fissures running throughout reality, making the words necessary to bring spells to life impossible to hear. Jin had been told that no mage had been able to perform magic in front of a human in hundreds of years.

He glanced at Sori, who was smiling at him as he sweated under the spotlight of mankind. With a weak shrug, Jin said, “I was just,” and he paused as he scrambled for a good excuse, “reading a problem out loud to myself.” He tapped the exam. “Sometimes that helps.”

The English teacher nodded. “Everyone must remain silent so that the other students can concentrate. Sorry, John.”

“Won’t happen again,” Jin assured him. He caught Sori’s smug wink, and tore his eyes away from his ex-girlfriend’s pretty face.

These exams determined who would be allowed to apply for the International School in Hong Kong. Only the top two students would be recommended. Jin felt confident about math and science, but he worried over his English scores. One of his classmates had lived in San Francisco for years. Jin only managed to edge him out sometimes, while Sori beat them both in every subject every, single, time.

She was a studying machine.

Jin looked at the clock again. Ten minutes to finish the exam. He had to cast another spell, but when he raised his eyes, he noticed the teacher looking around the room. Whereas before he hadn’t been paying much attention, now the teacher was watching them closely, all because of Sori. Jin really wished he had been able to cast his spell and blind her. Not only because he would have been able to get the answers without her trying to counter him, but because it would have stopped her from taking the test, maybe even causing her to fail.

That would have been sweet.

Jin’s eyes narrowed as a new idea struck him. He looked at the dusty blackboard behind the teacher and slowly raised his hand.

“Yes, John?” The teacher said. “Is something wrong?”

“Can I ask you a question?” Jin assumed his most perplexed look, and mixed in a little pained exasperation to make himself seem even more pathetic.

The teacher sighed and waved him forward. Jin stood. Only briefly, a couple of students glanced up at the newest disturbance, but their focus quickly returned to their exams. All, that is, except Sori, who watched Jin with a penetrating gaze. He wanted to give her the finger, but since the teacher was staring at him, he refrained as he passed her…

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: Nick Cato

Last week, I spoke with Corey Niles about how identity shapes our fiction. And this week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes horror film aficionado Nick Cato.

Nick CatoNick Cato is the author of Don of the Dead, The Apocalypse of Peter, The Last Porno Theater, The Atrocity Vendor, Uptown Death Squad, and Death Witch. His debut non fiction film book, Suburban Grindhouse, will be released in February 2020. He has edited the anthologies Dark Jesters (with co-editor LL Soares) and The Gruesome Tensome: A Short Story Tribute to the Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis. Nick has had fiction published in many anthologies and writes a film column for the recently revamped Deep Red magazine.

Nick also oversees things at the long running fanzine/website The Horror Fiction Review and occasionally hosts the Suburban Grindhouse podcast.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Nick! I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t picked up a copy of Suburban Grindhouse yet, but I’m really looking forward to reading it. Can you give us a synopsis of the book and maybe tell us what inspired you to write it? This is your first non fiction film book, what challenges did you encounter while switching gears between fiction and non fiction? Do you have plans for any other non fiction books?

NC: Suburban Grindhouse is a collection of columns (along with a bunch of new bonus material) originally published on a film site called Cinema Knife Fight. The columns are part film review, part memoir, as I often explain what audiences were like at certain theaters both in my hometown of Staten Island, NY, as well as in Times Square and some NJ theaters. I always found some audiences could actually shape the way you ended up feeling about a film, and this idea eventually became my column. When I pitched it to one of my favorite film book publishers (the UK’s Headpress) I was thrilled their editor had been familiar with my column and eventually bought my manuscript and added it to their amazing catalog.

It wasn’t difficult to switch gears as writing about film is something I do to “take a breather” while I’m working on a novella or novel. I find it a great way to get my fiction muse back. I’ve written about film since 1981 in various horror and cult film fanzines, so I had somewhat of a background when I decided to try it more seriously.

My second film book is currently being considered at another press, and I’m in full swing on a third.

GMM: The titles of your books are humorous, but you’re writing horror. Would you consider your work  bizarro or weird fiction? Are they the same thing? What are the elements of your fiction that sets it apart from other horror stories?

NC: I originally wrote what would be considered “humorous horror,” but in time I think the majority of my fiction became weird or bizarro. I always try to bring in something unusual or try to turn a trope on it’s head. As subgenres, if you will, weird and bizarro are different, in that “weird fiction” was pretty much what Lovecraft and his like were considered, whereas “bizarro” usually follows more absurd/surreal and less fantasy-like ideas. Not always, but mostly. It’s surely a fine line. Lately lots of “Lovecraftian” or “cosmic” fiction is simply being labeled as weird fiction.

I think the main element that sets my stories apart is I bring in the bizarro element later on, be it during a short or longer story. Most of my tales are told in three sections (even my shorts), and I try to bring the strange in toward the end. Most of the stranger things I’ve come up with haven’t been “forced,” but rather came out naturally for me. In high school one of my friends used to say, “Nick doesn’t need drugs to be weird.” I always got a kick out of that. Weird ideas seem to continually pop up in my head, and the more witty ones I try to convert into fiction.

GMM: A few years ago I interviewed horror writer and academic, Michael Arnzen, and he talked about the connection between horror and humor. One of his quotes really spoke to me: “I think laughter bonds us, even though we’re all doomed.” I really like that statement as a worldview. What’s your philosophy on the connection between horror and humor?

NC: Mike would surely know. I loved his short story collection, 100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories. In fact it contains one of my all time favorite humorous horror stories, “Domestic Fowl.” Humor and horror have always gone hand in hand with me. Laughing…and I mean really cracking up, like the first time most people see a film like Blazing Saddles… is an experience that can make you feel naturally high. I’ve experienced that several times in my life through films and certain comedians. Same with horror. When I was 13, I saw the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the first time in a theatrical rerelease. I had never been as terrified by a film before, or since to be honest. The feelings of sheer terror and “cracking up” laughing bring some of us to a place we both love and dread. That’s powerful. Some films tried to combine the two genres, but only a few succeeded. I’ve tried to combine both to an extreme degree but have yet to come up with something I’d say strongly captures both emotions at the same time. A couple of writers I admire have come close. I continually have my eye out for that inevitable short story or novel that will scare the crap out of us while simultaneously making us laugh till we cry.

“The Bowl,” by Nick Cato, was featured in his latest collection “The Satanic Rites of Sasquatch and other Weird Stories,” published by Bizarro Pulp Press (Journalstone)

Harold Anderson stared out the bedroom window, restless thanks to his wife’s snoring. The occasional bat fluttered by the street light, casting distorted shadows on his ceiling.

“Come on, honey,” he said, pushing Helen onto her side.

She half-consciously rolled over and fell right back to sleep.

Although his plan worked, it was the silence that now kept him awake. He decided to watch a late re-run of the Tonight Show, but was still alert when it ended.

3:30 a.m.

He sat up, looking at the clothes he’d neatly laid out for tomorrow (today, actually). When he laid back down, his stomach gurgled loud enough to make Helen shift.

“Whoa,” he said, rubbing his belly. “I shouldn’t have had that second helping.”

He stepped into his #1 Dad slippers (a Christmas gift from Danny), slid on his bathrobe (a birthday gift from Nadine), then padded toward the bathroom. With each step, the need to expel last night’s dinner became more severe. Where had this come from? Four and a half hours of trying to fall asleep without so much as a fart, and now…

He reached into the darkness and felt for the switch. He dropped his robe as soon as the lime-colored bathroom was illuminated. The toilet—situated strategically between the sink and shower—seemed to beckon him. After pulling the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly from a magazine bin, Harold dropped his boxers and perched himself on the cool porcelain.

He read through the entire film review section before finishing his business. He broke the silence with two courtesy flushes along the way.

“That’s the last time I let her talk me into Mexican on a work night,” he said, washing his sweaty hands and face with lukewarm water. He put the robe back on, then gave the room a few cinnamon-scented blasts of Glade, making the place smell like a combo of Big Red Chewing Gum and ass.

He turned to walk back to bed. Someone said “thank you” in the blackened hallway.

Harold jumped. He flicked the bathroom lights back on, expecting to see Danny or Nadine up for a late-night pee. But on second thought, the voice was too deep for a five- or eight-year-old.

He checked his children’s bedrooms, happy to see them both asleep.

Man, do I need some shut-eye. Harold turned off the bathroom light and scratched the top of his auburn head.

He crawled under the blankets next to Helen, and within five minutes joined her in slumberland.

#

“You look bushed! Tough time last night?” Mr. Davis asked.

“I had a bit of trouble falling asleep. My stomach did backflips for a while.”

“Glad to see you’re here—you know we have that meeting with Tucker right after lunch today?”

“That’s why I’m here, even if I got less than three hours of sleep,” Harold said, taking a swig from his third cup of coffee.

“That’s the spirit!” Mr. Davis patted him on the back. “This is why you’re my number one man.”

At 11:43, Harold felt a sudden need to visit the restroom. He closed the file he was working on and headed to the lavatory.

He sat on the toilet, feeling disgusted by the prospect of doing this in a $600 suit. He experienced feelings of emptiness. Coldness. He couldn’t wait to finish. His heart began racing, as if he was having a panic attack.

He soon felt relieved to be rid of whatever was inside him, and to be off the office toilet; just knowing two dozen people shared it gave him the willies.

“Mr. Anderson? Call on line one.”

“Thank you, Margaret. I’ll take it in my office.”

“Please hold one moment,” she said, smiling as Harold passed by.

“Hello, Harold Anderson here.”

Silence.

“Hello, may I help you?”

Silence. Then, “Thank you.”

“Excuse me?”

Silence. A rusty click. “Thank you.”

Harold leaned forward in his plush leather chair. “I’m afraid I don’t understand. Who is this?”

“You know who this is, and I know what you just did.”

Harold slammed the phone down. “Freaking lunatic!”

Immediately, the phone rang in the lobby. He heard Margaret answer, then page him on the intercom. He accepted the call.

“Hello? Anderson here.”

“If you ever hang up on me again, I’ll destroy your wife and kids.”

“Okay—who is this? What’s your problem?”

Silence. Deafening, painful silence. Then the distinct sound of a toilet flushing. “Have a good day. We’ll discuss this later.”

“We’ll discuss what later?”

The phone went dead.

The voice was familiar, but Harold couldn’t match it to a face. He walked around his desk, anticipating another call.

It never came.

He left the office shortly after 5:00 p.m., still haunted by the menacing telephone conversation. Even the successful meeting with Tucker Industries couldn’t keep his mind off that voice. He spent the forty-minute drive home trying to figure out who would first thank him for something, then threaten to kill his family in the next breath.

Must be a prank. Harold tuned into a classic rock station as he hit the highway.

Do you have a fragment you’d like to share with the world? Send it my way 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: Brandon Getz

Last week, Girl Meets Monster fan-girled a little while chatting with Errick Nunnally about his werewolf novel, Blood for the Sun. This week, I’ll be talking about werewolves and vampires with Brandon Getz. You can read my review of his debut novel, Lars Breaxface: Werewolf in Space, over at Speculative Chic.

77016745_631971787633000_7218389553990598656_nBrandon Getz earned an MFA in fiction writing from Eastern Washington University. His work has appeared in F(r)iction, Versal, Flapperhouse, and elsewhere. His debut novel, Lars Breaxface: Werewolf in Space — an irreverent sci-fi monster adventure — was released in October 2019 from Spaceboy Books. He lives in Pittsburgh, PA.

Three Questions

GMM: Hey, Brandon. It was great to meet you on my last trip to Pittsburgh. I am officially a Lars Breaxface fan. Werewolves are some of my favorite monsters, but I don’t ever recall reading about a werewolf in space. It’s funny. It’s main character is a werewolf. And, it’s a space opera to boot. Where does the inspiration for a book like this come from? Aside from the fragment you sent, can we expect more stories about Lars?

BG: Great to meet you too! Werewolves have always been one of my favorite monsters as well – when I was a kid, second grade, I drew comic books with a superhero team based on my friends, and my character was literally a just a werewolf called Wolfman. The inspiration for Lars Breaxface came from so many places – from all the sci-fi and horror movies I watched when I was a kid, cartoons, comic books, all of my favorite things. I thought up the title years ago as a spoof, along with the tagline “In space, there’s always a full moon.” When I was finally ready to sit down and write a novel, I decided to run with the most ridiculous idea I’d ever had, and to infuse it with as much fun as possible – and that turned into this ridiculous novel. You can definitely expect more Lars adventures in the future. In fact, one will be available next month as part of The Future Will Be Written by Robots, from Spaceboy Books, the publisher of Lars Breaxface: Werewolf in Space. Lars fights some zombies.

GMM: We talked a little bit about MFA programs when we spoke, and if I remember correctly, you mentioned that you have a traditional MFA in Writing. My MFA is a bit more specific than that, it’s an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. As an undergrad and grad student in English, my fiction was often criticized by my professors for mirroring genre fiction, which they didn’t consider “serious” fiction. Did you have a similar experience in your MFA program? What are your thoughts on the belief that genre fiction isn’t considered valid fiction within academia?

BG: Genre fiction was definitely a no-go in my MFA; it was explicitly stated, with the stale cliché that “genre focuses on plot, literary focuses on character.” Which is a way of dismissing whole universes of popular, imaginative fiction as silly raygun bullshit while also saying “In our stories, nothing has to happen and that’s totally cool.” It’s nonsense to think genre fiction doesn’t focus on characters – try reading N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy and believing Essun’s character isn’t at the heart of the story. Any good example of genre fiction – science fiction, horror, mystery, romance – has complex characters and good sentence and story craft, as well as plot. Genre stories just happen to be operating according to certain sets of established parameters; working within them as well as twisting them or directly contradicting them, in order to tell new and interesting tales. I do think that academia is moving past the “genre fiction isn’t literary” mindset – so many “literary” writers have dabbled in genre or gone full-hog, like Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon, Thomas Pynchon, Haruki Murakami, etc. Literary fiction is just another genre, with its own set of tropes. Here’s hoping more MFAs these days are judging stories by how well crafted they are, not by which sign they would be shelved under in a bookstore.

GMM: As I mentioned, werewolves are some of my favorite monsters. But, I really like vampires. Your take on the space vampires is interesting, especially giving them their own planet. Where do your vampires fit in within the evolution of vampires in fiction? Your female space vampire is a strong character with a serious backstory. Are there other fictional vampires you would compare her to, or is she in a class by herself?

BG: I’m going to admit something here: when I first introduced Jay in chapter 2, I didn’t know she was a vampire! I wrote the first draft of Lars Breaxface as a serial online, posting a chapter more or less each week. After I wrote chapter 2, I realized how vampire-ish the description of her was and decided to develop her as part of an alien-vampire race. I also presented myself with the challenge to include as many alien versions of classic monsters as possible (final tally: werewolf, vampire, gill-man, Frankenstein’s monster, witch, zombie, mummy, kraken, kaiju). I’d like to think Jay is in a class by herself – she’s from a night planet with a nega-sun and moon-drenched shores just like the planet of Transsexual; she’s got blood-magic powers, and she can walk around in UV just fine. As with much of Lars Breaxface, I tried to use tropes and expectations to my advantage but also to subvert them and weird them up as much as possible. My guess is Jay isn’t too far off from some of the imaginings of Guillermo Del Toro, but so far, her particular brand of vamp feels unique to me.

“Lars Breaxface and the Turd Supreme,” by Brandon Getz

By the time Lars stumbled back to Sheila, his trusty starcruiser, the first bottle of Kiraldi moonshine was long empty, a second one left open on the bar, and the slobbering bartender a few credits richer for his trouble. Dragon water was a wild ride. Orbs of light seemed to disco at the edges of his vision. His brain was pickled. He forgot what he’d been drinking to forget, whatever it was, all he could remember was the bartender’s big, scraggly mouth opening wide with a laugh, the moonshine glowing green on his thick tongue, throat looking like the tunnel to hell and suddenly turning a good time sour.

In the cargo hold of the cruiser, Lars kicked floor trash out of his way and staggered toward the head. His guts churned something wicked. His asshole puckered. A sharp pain zapped his belly, and the wolfman fell against a shipping crate. Holy hell, he thought, steadying himself. This was no joke. Maybe the worst poop pain he’d had, and he’d eaten gas station chimichangas from that dead-end spinner out by Terbius-IX. This was a singular intestinal malevolence, doing cartwheels toward his butthole. He cursed when he saw that the door to the head was shut. The threat in his digestive system was making him weak, but he managed to bang his fist a couple of times on the steel door.

“Fish!” he shouted. “Cut the beauty regimen. Emergency out here. I need to pinch a loaf. Shit, I gotta pinch the whole fucking bakery.”

The door slid open, and the amphibious former dildo salesman stood frowning. Since their interdimensional adventure to and from the vampire planet, Fishman had been bumming a ride on Sheila, hawking homemade lube in the spaceports they docked at, using Lars’s toothbrush, and generally taking up space on the ship. Most of the time it was fine. Right now, Lars wished he’d left the amphibian in the ruins of vamp city.

“Breaxface,” Fish said. “If you must know, I was voiding my bladder.”

“You don’t vacate the facilities in the next half second, I’ll void you and your bladder out the fucking airlock.”

Fish’s big eyes widened, and Lars shouldered past him, sending the fish-man stumbling into the corridor muttering obscenities. The wolfman slammed the door, yanked down his trousers, and slumped onto the cold rim of the shitter, letting loose a massive excremental explosion that splashed back up and still kept spraying. His stomach dropped, lurched, dropped again like some funhouse attraction. He doubled over, ass still spraying. The shit-torrent emptying from his bowels couldn’t be chalked up to regular beer squirts. Maybe this was what the barkeep had meant when he said “riding the dragon.” If so, the dragon was a poop demon, and the space werewolf was rendered prostrate in defecating prayer.

From the door came Fish’s voice, squeaking questions. “Lars? Are you all right? Lars?”

“F-forget it, Fishman,” Lars croaked. “Just dropping a deuce.”

He closed his eyes and pushed. Never again, man. No more weird rando glowing firewater from the armpit of the cosmos. Just beer. Regular-ass beer. Another splash in the bowl, and he opened his eyes to reach back for courtesy flush—only to see that the bowl itself was glowing beneath him, green light silhouetting his hanging meat and marbles. The same radioactive brightness he’d seen in the barkeep’s bottle of moonshine. He felt a tickle on his grundle and reached for some t.p. That fucking bartender. Probably his idea of a joke. Lars started to stand for a wipe—

And then he was wrenched up, tripping on the pants around his ankles, head slamming into the corner of the steel sink. Blood, wet and warm, fell over his eye as Lars reached for leverage to stand up. Fucking hell. Even as his wolf blood worked to heal the gash, he knew it’d leave a scar. He made a note to put some padding on the sink edge. Wasn’t the first time he’d tripped over dropped trousers. As he grabbed the blood-slick sink, the mirror came into view, and the wolfman almost shit himself—might’ve, if there’d been anything in him left to shit. Rising from the brown-spattered toilet bowl was a monster of a thousand worms, a conglomerate of writhing little bodies, all glowing toxic green and shifting in tandem to make one large, swaying worm of death, a vermicular god of the shitter.

“The fuck?” Lars muttered, trying to wrench up his military-surplus dungarees.

The worms making up the head of the monster formed themselves into a gaping mouth and spoke. “We are the dragon.”

Do you have a fiction fragment — with or without werewolves — that you’d like to share? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: Ed Kurtz

Last week, I talked with Lucy A. Snyder about her Lovecraftian space opera, Blossoms Blackened Like Dead Stars. This week, Girl Meets Monster has the pleasure of welcoming Ed Kurtz.

edkurtzEd Kurtz is the author of over a dozen novels and novellas, including Sawbones, Nausea, Angel of the Abyss, and the forthcoming Boon. Ed’s short fiction has been collected in Nothing You Can Do: Stories and Blood They Brought and Other Stories. A Wind of Knives, a reissue of Ed’s queer Western novella, is out December 9. Ed lives in Connecticut with author doungjai gam.

Three Questions

GMM: When I finished reading your fragment, my first thought was, holy shit, I want to read more of this story. And my second thought was, is this story part of a larger subgenre? Are queer westerns a thing? So, I did a quick Google search and was reminded that yes, there is a history of queer and/or LGBTQ+ narratives (fictional and non-fictional) dealing with the American West. When you wrote A Wind of Knives, did you research the history of the queer West(ern), or did something else inspire your novella?

EK: There is definitely a small but vocal movement in academia and elsewhere to recover the lost and buried histories of marginalized peoples in the story of the American Frontier, which I should hope would pick up some steam as it goes along. One book in particular I cannot recommend highly enough is Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past by Peter Boag (University of California Press). Chris Packard’s Queer Cowboys (Palgrave MacMillan) is also pretty indispensable. Now of course, these are both academic, non-fiction works. The only Western fiction dealing in queer themes that I’ve ever come across falls more under the umbrella of romance/erotica rather than traditional Western literature. That makes something like A Wind of Knives fairly rare and unusual, though I’d rather it wasn’t! It is my most sincere hope that younger folks will discover or re-discover the Western through this lens of the diverse stories yet to be properly told and ignite a new passion for such a rich genre with such a troubled and exclusive past. When I was writing the novella, then, no, there wasn’t much more to inspire it than my own desire to see someone like me in the kinds of stories I love to read.

GMM: Speaking of genres and subgenres, you’ve written under more than one fiction umbrella. What are your favorite genres to read? Do you prefer writing in one genre more than others? When you set out to write a piece, do you already have a genre in mind, or does the story evolve before someone else labels it as fitting within a specific box?

EK: It’s easier for me to say what I don’t do than what I do, but even then it tends to not be exactly true. For example, I can tell you I don’t write romance, and yet the vast preponderance of everything I’ve written, dark as it may be, tends to be love stories. I like to write about down-and-out people, folks who have been knocked around by life some in ways that maybe others haven’t so that it gives them a different perspective and maybe an edge. That kind of character is all over my work, whether it’s horror, crime, or Western. People you won’t find on the Hallmark Channel (though I find those people the most deviant of all). Most novels I’ve written started as more than one small idea over time that I eventually realized go together to form a bigger picture, so I wouldn’t say I start thinking about genre so much as who these people are and what kinds of problems they’re going to be facing. A Wind of Knives was originally going to be a sci-fi story, if you can believe it!

GMM: Something else occurred to me after reading your fragment. This reissue of your novella might be the last thing I see of yours in print. And, the more I thought about it, the angrier I got. I’m not going to go into too much detail about the terrible treatment you and others were subjected to by ChiZine Publications. If people are interested in learning more about the ChiZine controversy, they can read about it at their leisure.

Many writers, including myself, suffer from impostor syndrome and it often prevents us from moving forward with projects, or at the very least creates space for long periods of procrastination. ChiZine’s unethical treatment of you has led you to make a decision to quit writing altogether. I’m sure I am not alone in feeling cheated and saddened by that fact given that what happened to you hasn’t stolen your ability to craft good stories or diminished your past successes.

I know you can’t predict how long it will take for you to heal from this experience, but do you think there’s a story inside you that would change your mind about continuing your journey as a writer? What would it take for you to start writing again?

EK: There is at least one more thing you can expect to see from me later in 2020, which is my first full-length Western novel, Boon. The genesis of that one, which I wrote over the winter of 2018-2019 (and haven’t written anything since) is kind of fun. I had been tearing through dozens of traditional Western novels, all of them featuring these beautifully painted covers of white men astride horses against stunning vistas in the background, determined and hard, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how it would look if that rider was my Asian-American female fiancée instead? (So not very different from A Wind of Knives in that I’m still playing in the traditional Western sandbox, just without the white, straight, cisgender male exclusivity.) Eventually I sat down and just started writing the story of a Thai (then, Siamese) woman in 1874 on a nationwide mission of bloody, familial revenge. I like it a lot and hope others do, too. But really, I just wrote it for her.

Boon is the only novel I’ve written since 2015 other than a movie tie-in I did based on The Ranger. I hadn’t really planned on doing it, either, but the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. In that sense, it is entirely possible that particular brand of lightning might strike again, but I honestly don’t know. My experiences in the world of the small press over the last few years has been so overwhelmingly traumatic in terms of the way people are treated and cheated that I’m not sure high school can measure up to the pettiness and ugliness of the whole thing. To date, I have published with well over a dozen small press publishers and can name only one that has ever consistently paid me on time. On the other hand, I can name five or six that never paid me at all and ran for the hills with my money. Meanwhile, I’ve watched at conventions and other writers’ gatherings how writers often step on anyone they can to get ahead, often with a smile on their face, just to see their name on the cover of a book. It’s silly and gross and just plain exhausting to deal with all of it when all I ever wanted to do was tell some stories I hoped others would find something valuable about. Most of this really came to the surface by way of the whole ChiZine debacle, of course, but as outlandishly awful as that situation is, it’s not entirely unusual, either. It’s a pretty ugly business, deep down, and too often the ugliest actors are rewarded for their bullshit.

So, yes, it remains within the realm of possibility that I’ll write again. I can’t say for sure either way. I only know I’m not doing it now, and I have absolutely no drive to do so at all.

The mere idea of it makes me feel nervous and nauseous, like I’d be walking back into an abusive relationship I’d already gotten away from. But for now, there’s A Wind of Knives, and Boon is coming. Also, there’s still a fair amount of stuff in my files that hasn’t found the right home yet, or that needs a re-release, so I expect there’s more Ed Kurtz on the horizon, even if I’m not writing it at this moment. After that, who knows?

Exerpt from A Wind of Knives by Ed Kurtz

The dusk gathered purple on the hills a few miles distant from Daniel Hays’ fence, the sun having vanished behind them. Clouds hung low to the earth, thin; nothing above them but gray-blue sky and the first emerging stars. Daniel narrowed his eyes and took it all in, a familiar view, common enough, though he had not yet grown tired of it. Most evenings he watched the sun set and the black night take control of his modest farm, those he did not spend away from home or sick abed. But it was never the same, not to one with an eye for the subtleties of Texas at sundown. This one in particular held its own, remarkable in the way the wispy clouds soaked up the color of the setting sun against the northern hills, the thrushes hurrying to the treetops before pitch fell. It was a time Daniel typically spent with Steven, his long-time hand, often on the porch Steven himself built three summers previous. Neither of them was on the porch tonight. Tonight, Daniel stood by the fence, grasping the sanded elm for support and keeping his gaze trained on the hills. Behind him, halfway between the fence and the main house, Steven hanged silent and still from the high branch of a juniper tree.

It was a beautiful evening, but a bad one. And bad beget bad. He spent a few more minutes with the sunset, and when it went from purple to a deep, dark blue, Daniel turned back to Steven and pushed a sigh out of his lungs. The corpse was stripped naked; red, raw stripes checked its back, its ass, and the backs of its legs. Blood had crusted black where the stripes opened, attracting flies. Steven’s face was a swollen, bruised and broken catastrophe, his lips split and curled to reveal broken and missing teeth. His feet were dark with the blood settling in the lower extremities. His groin was reduced to a yawning, red-black pit—they had sliced the man’s genitals off with a knife, though whether this was done before or after they hanged him Daniel did not know.

As good a man as any Daniel ever knew, Steven was the last to deserve such an outrage, though his simmering anger did nothing to heal the wounds, replace his severed manhood, or resurrect a purpling corpse from the dead. Daniel had yet to cry out, or scream, or rage at the gathering night, and in all likelihood he never would. Instead, he tramped back of the main house, to the shed, to collect a ladder and an ax.

He climbed the uneasy rungs and brought down the whole branch. Later, when all was said and done, he chopped the tree down and salted the soil. For now, he removed the rope from Steven’s red, ripped throat and carried the body in his arms to the bunkhouse at the south end of the property. Once the bunk served as sleeping quarters for half a dozen hands, hard working Texans who toiled on foreign dirt, Mexican dirt, for Daniel’s late boss. When the War Between the States broke out, those who were left lit out; either gone to war on conscription or run off further west, to keep from raising arms against the Union they still viewed as their own country. Only Steven remained behind. Three largely quiet years on the frontier, two men and the farm they worked. Now there was no one.

Daniel laid the corpse on the cot and arranged the legs and arms so that it almost looked at rest. Steven’s left eye stared glassily; Daniel pushed the eyelid down with his thumb, but it popped back open. He felt his throat constrict and averted his gaze to the shadows filling the corners of the musty room. Daniel struck a match and touched its flame to the wick of the lantern on the floor. The lantern offered little light, but enough to see that which he would have rather not seen at all. Yet none-the-less, he looked. He looked at what was left of Steven Houpe, a good man. It occurred to him then that was what he would carve on the marker when the time came: a good man. He could not think of anything better.

“I am sorry,” Daniel whispered, touching his fingertips to the cool palm of Steven’s hand. It was not enough.

Do you have a fragment that has yet to see the light of day? Blow off the dust and 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.

Invisible Chains: My Debut Novel

Michelle-LaneFor those of you who missed the news, my debut novel, Invisible Chains, will be released into the world July 22, 2019 by Haverhill House Publishing. If you’re as excited about this news as I am, you can pre-order a copy on Amazon, and while you’re there, you can check out my fancy new Amazon Author Page. Even though I’ve had my short fiction published, having my first novel published makes me feel like a bonafide author. See, I even have an author photo.

That’s great, Michelle, but what is your book about?

I’m glad you asked.

Jacqueline is a young Creole slave in antebellum New Orleans.  An unusual stranger who has haunted her dreams since childhood comes to stay as a guest in her master’s house. Soon after his arrival, members of the household die mysteriously, and Jacqueline is suspected of murder.  Despite her fear of the stranger, Jacqueline befriends him and he helps her escape. While running from the slave catchers, they meet conjurers, a loup-garou, and a traveling circus of supernatural freaks.  She relies on ancestral magic to guide her and finds strength to conquer her fears on her journey.

Oh, and here is the beautiful cover art designed by the very talented Errick Nunnally.

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As many of you know, writing can be a difficult and solitary pursuit. And, if your goal is to have your work published, the stages of writing, editing, rewriting, editing again, and submitting can feel like a never-ending climb up a hill while pushing a giant rock covered in your own entrails. Plus, if you submit and get nothing but rejections it sometimes seems like a good idea to just give up and find a different way to torture yourself.

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Can I tell you a secret? I’m glad I didn’t give up.

Believe me, I thought about giving up. I thought about giving up a lot. But this story lived inside me for a long time and it refused to be abandoned. This multi-genre slave narrative began its life as a short story back in the early 2000s and had a very different ending. That short story shared space on a thumb drive, untouched  with other abandoned writing projects, for several years. I mean, I would pull it out from time to time and read it but I never did anything with it until I applied to the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction (WPF) program at Seton Hill University (SHU).

Attending SHU was one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made. And, one of the scariest. At 40, I was completely dissatisfied with my life. I had a job I was on the verge of burning out on, I was unhappily married, and I was primarily responsible for raising my son who had begun to show signs of behavioral problems at daycare and school. I was the primary bread winner, I took care of the house, paid the bills, maintained social connections with friends and family, and one day I realized I was living my life for other people instead of living it for myself.

I began making a mental inventory of the things that brought me joy, and at the top of that list was writing. Writing was something I had done all my life. And, when I was writing I was happier. I started unearthing some of my unfinished short stories and realized they weren’t terrible. And then, I wondered what would happen if I took myself seriously as a writer. I made the decision to apply to SHU after asking a friend about the program. Jenda had nothing but good things to say about the program, and honestly, I think SHU should consider sending her a check each month for her excellent marketing skills.

My short story, “Freedom is in the Blood,” became Invisible Chains over the course of six years. Three years writing my thesis novel in the low residency MFA program, and three years of rewriting, editing, pitching, and submitting. In the process of writing the novel, my protagonist evolved into a stronger character who stands up to monsters to make a better life for herself.

In many ways, my protagonist evolved with me as I made changes in my own life. Deciding to write this book was the first step towards reshaping my life on my own terms. I’ve encountered my share of set backs, obstacles, and people who behave like monsters, but like Jacqueline, I keep moving forward.

In the process of moving forward, I’ve made new friends, reconnected with old friends, and built stronger relationships with the people who cheered me on through the highs and lows of writing this book. They’re good people. And I couldn’t have survived the process without their love and support.

I am very fortunate to be included in such diverse and supportive writing communities like the HWA and as an SHU alumna. And, of course, I wouldn’t be able to brag about getting my book published if I had never met the Editor-in-Chief of Haverhill House Publishing, John M. McIlveen.

I met John last year at StokerCon™ 2018 in Providence, RI. I pitched Invisible Chains to him, a book that took close to five years to write, in about ten minutes. And, much to my surprise, after babbling at him in what I believed to be incoherent nonsense, he said he’d be interested in reading it. That was the first spark of hope, and it has been one pleasant experience after the next working with John and Haverhill House Publishing.

Well, now the book is written and available for pre-order. The hardback edition will be available July 22, 2019. In the meantime, I have a stack of proofs that I would very much like to get into the hands of book reviewers and people who would be willing to blurb the book. If you or someone you know might be a good fit for a book like this, let me know and I’ll reach out to them.

What’s next, you may ask? I don’t know, but I suspect I might have to write another book.

Fiction Fragments: Elsa M. Carruthers

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

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

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

Three Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you do this?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Condescending putz,” Aaron said under his breath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He cleared his throat and waited for her to continue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me either. This is bad. Very bad.”

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

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

“You’re a genius!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m iced-out,” he said to Celia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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