Fiction Fragments: John M. McIlveen

Last week, I talked to L. Marie Wood about her vampire fiction and how she finds balance between life and her many roles within the horror community. If you haven’t checked it out, I highly recommend it.

This week, I am very pleased to welcome writer, publisher and friend John M. McIlveen to Girl Meets Monster. If you haven’t had the privilege of meeting John, do yourself a favor and say hello to him the next time you see him at an event.

John M. McIlveen is the author of the paranormal suspense novel, HANNAHWHERE, winner of the 2015 Drunken Druid Award (Ireland) and nominated for the 2015 Bram Stoker Award (HWA), and two story collections, INFLICTIONS and JERKS. His forthcoming works include the story collection A VARIABLE DARKNESS, and the novel GIRL GONE NORTH, nominated for the 2019 Wilber and Niso Smith Foundation Award for “unpublished manuscript.”

He is a father to five daughters, Editor-In-Chief of Haverhill House Publishing, and works at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. He lives in Haverhill, MA with his wife Roberta Colasanti.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, John. Last week I asked L. Marie Wood how she balances all the hats she’s wearing on her head. Rumor has it that you only sleep 4-5 hours each night. Aside from catching fewer winks than the average human, how do you balance your work, family, writing and publishing responsibilities? Has the pandemic had an impact on changing some of your habits? How have you adjusted?

JMM: The rumor is true, I sleep about 4 hours a night, usually 12 a.m. – 4 a.m., no alarm clock. I’m at MIT between 5-5:30 and home by 3:00 p.m., work on the house/yard until dinner (about 6-6:30 pm). I typically settle down to write and/or publish (wherever the spirit leads) aroud 8:30 p.m. to midnight. Lunch hour at work is my window for reading. As for family, four of my five daughters are grown, out of college, and forging ahead with their own lives and families (which may be, in retrospect, why I started publishing). Just Roberta and me at home, now, for the most part.

The pandemic has changed few to none of my habits. My job at the lab is considered essential, so that schedule hasn’t changed. Now, the house fire we had on March 7 destroyed our house and most of its contents and backed Haverhill House up at least eight months to a year. A year will likely pass by the time our home is rebuilt, and though we have managed to still get sit titles out so far, and are in line to reach ten, which, although it’s half the original plat, isn’t all that bad, considering the amount of time we have to dedicate to getting things on track again. Still, we had to push ten or eleven titles down the road a year.

GMM: I loved your fragment and look forward to reading the complete story. Those last two lines of dialog really spoke to me:

“Why do you keep changing?”

“Is there a specific way a girl is supposed to be?” she asked.

Whoever this child is, she has some very progressive ideas about identity and its intersectionalities. And, I’m dying to know why she does keep changing. Traditionally, male writers haven’t always been particularly skilled at (or concerned about) writing believable female characters. They often exist in a story as window dressing, or to serve the needs of the male characters. Eve strikes me as a very complex character. What experiences in your life and as a writer have impacted your ability to create realistic female characters? What inspired this story?

JMM: Females have always been front and center in my family and my life. Five daughters, two step-daughters, sisters, nieces, a very strong-willed mother, and my wife, Roberta (we’ll leave the exes out). I have lived with an array of these beautiful, quirky creatures and have witnessed so many personalities, styles, emotions, shapes and sizes, cheered their succeses, dried their tears, the list is quite extensive. All said and done, each one of them have made me a better and wiser man, father, writer, husband, protector, etcetera. They spill over into my writing on every level, and as with my life, female characters tend to be front and center in most of my writing. In my novel Hannawhere, twin sisters Hannah, Anna, and social worker Debbie Gillan are my three main characters. In my second novel Girl Gone North, sisters Emma and Thalia Holden are my main characters. When I run into a situation with one of my female characters, I find I usually don’t have to reach far into my memories to find a daughter, sister, or other close to me who has been there. These characters are often based on the women in my life, and on some occasions, the merging of a few (Hannah and Anna Amiel had certain traits from all of my daughters). In my collection Inflictions, the story “Smokey” is a tale of a horribly neglected toddler named Cassie. The story was prompted by a picture of my then-toddler daughter Kayleigh. As I wrote, my character became Kayleigh and by the tragic end of the story it was about 3 a.m. and I was emotionally shattered. I had to lift my sleeping Kayleigh from her crib and sit holding her an hour or so until I calmed.

GMM: Aside from your collection, A Variable Darkness, what else are you working on right now? What projects are you most excited about? Are there any projects you’re looking forward to publishing at Haverhill by other writers?

JMM: I’m not writing nearly as much as I should be, but I am putting the final edits on my crime and suspense novel Corruption. My children’s book Owen and the Apprentice Troll is nearing completion but has taken on a life of its own. My YA novel, The Elephant in the Endzone, which deals with teen depression, is about half done. And my Horror novel Are You Experienced? is about 1/4 done, but is starting to come together.

Haverhill House…where do I start?

On the burner and coming soon:

  • A children’s book, Milk, the Cat by Meghan Arcuri-Moran and illustrated by Ogmios
  • Souless by Christopher Golden

I have to make a timeline for all the titles pushed out this year, foremost Cyclops Road by Jeff Strand and illustrated by Lynn Hansen.

Exciting look forward:

  • Tony Tremblay delivered his follow up novel Do Not Weep For Me
  • J. Edwin Buja delivered his sequel to King of the Wood, titled The Consort
  • And a certain lady asked to talk about the sequel to her Stoker nominated novel Invisible Chains

Plus, a staggering slush pile.

An excerpt from the short story “Eve” from the forthcoming collection A Variable Darkness by John McIlveen

Around him lay only forest, flat and dense with trees—endless oaks, birches, locusts, and maples in every direction, rising skyward on thick trunks… and one smashed up Escalade.

Guy knew this wasn’t possible, but denial dampened his reaction. Hills don’t simply disappear. There had to be a logical explanation, like shock, or maybe delusions from hitting his head. That had to be it, because he thought he could also see a young girl moving among the trees, about a hundred yards deeper into the woods. He refocused, and sure enough, there she was, dressed in light blue overall shorts, long strawberry-blond hair falling halfway down her back. She appeared to be writing or scraping something onto the trunk of the tree, but it was difficult to tell from such a distance. He took a few hesitant steps toward the child and stopped.

“Hey, little girl!” He called. “Hey!”

She looked over at him with indifference and dutifully returned her attention to whatever it was she was doing. He started to walk towards the girl and when he had cut the distance in half, she moved to a tall elm about a dozen trees away from him. She deftly climbed the tree and propped herself at the crux of a branch some sixty feet overhead. There was nothing natural in it, the way she had ascended with the dexterity of a squirrel; Guy had never seen anything quite like it from a human. He watched her for a few moments, wondering if she were avoiding him, but she just as deftly climbed back down and headed in another direction.

“Wait a minute!” Guy said.

The little girl stopped and watched him expectantly. She looked about nine years old, thin-limbed, and fawn-like, with vibrant blue eyes. Under closer observation, he realized her hair was dark brown, not strawberry-blond as he had first thought, and attributed it to the play of sun through the trees.

“I got in an accident,” he told her. “I can’t find my way out of the woods.

“I know,” the girl responded, her tone neutral. She resumed walking.

Guy followed, equally concerned for his and hers. He asked himself why such a young child would be alone in the deep woods. “Are you lost?” he asked.

“You’re lost,” she said, in the same impartial manner. She looked at him, her alert brown eyes reflecting him and the surroundings, and walked over to another tree.

Brown eyes?

Guy felt prickles of unease run through him. There was no question that her eyes had been a striking blue before she’d climbed the tree. He looked back at his Escalade, trying to get his bearings so he could get the hell out of there, but the SUV was no longer in sight. He ran a few steps in the direction he thought he had come from, but stopped, uncomfortable with the idea of letting the girl out of sight. Everything else he had looked away from had disappeared.

He returned to where the girl stood. She now had rich ebony skin, but the same light blue overall shorts, which he found more disconcerting.

Isn’t it the clothes that are changed, not the child inside them?

She seemed unconcerned, giving him the impression that she wasn’t lost, which meant she was faring better than he was. Again, she scribed something onto the tree.

He stepped beside her, feeling as if he’d fallen into the rabbit hole. “Something’s going on here that I don’t understand.”

“Something’s always going on,” she replied, matter-of-factly.

He couldn’t tell if she was being disparaging, or just answering him the way most children her age would, but she was making him feel dense. Frustrated, he asked, “Can’t you give me a direct answer?”

“I can,” she said, pinning him with glimmering green eyes. She skittered up the tree, spent five minutes up above, moving from branch to branch, and climbed down.

He followed her thirty yards to a huge, majestic oak. “What are you doing?”

The girl, now with shiny, waist-length coal-black hair, started writing on the tree with what looked like a simple wooden stick, but as she moved it, the name Joey Wilkerson appeared as if engraved. “Writing,” she said.

“Writing what?”

“Names.”

“Who is Joey Wilkerson?” Guy asked, understanding that his questions would have to be precise if he wanted precise answers.

“A broken heart,” she said, but offered no explanation.

She climbed the tree again and moved from branch to branch. Meanwhile, he inspected a number of trees and saw that most of them had names engraved: Dedrick Aaldenberg, Luis Rosios, Peter Craig, Hirohito Ishushima, Glenn Levesque—and hundreds, maybe thousands more. She descended, now wearing a mane of tight auburn ringlets.

“Are these all broken hearts?”

“Yup,” she said, the simplistic word making her, for the first time, sound her age.

“Why are they all men?” he asked, as he followed her to another tree.

“Boys, too… mostly boys,” she said. “There aren’t enough trees for girls and women, their names are on the leaves.”

Guy thought about this for a while and asked, “Why so many females?”

She looked at him and smiled sadly. “Thirty-one years,” she said.

“How do you know how old I am?”

“That’s how long your eyes have been closed.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“I know. You will when you have to,” she said, rubbing an almond-shaped eye with the back of her hand.

“Who are you, Confucius?” he blurted with frustration. “What little girl talks in circles like this?”

“Me,” she answered. “You are angry with the wrong person.” She engraved the name Abubakar Kwabena.

“You’ve already written his name,” Guy said, noticing the name was already on the trunk once, and again. “Twice.”

“A heart can break more than once. His has broken three times.” She looked around and held out a pale arm. “Girls, women, they grow another leaf. Some trees have many names; some names have her own branch.”

He followed her gesture and looked back at the pale-skinned girl with Afro hair and Asian eyes. “Speaking of names, what is yours?”

“I was never named,” she said. “What would you have named me?” She seemed so sincere that he seriously considered it.

“Eve,” he said.

“Then, for you, I am Eve.”

“Okay Eve, why are you writing the names of all the broken hearts?”

“Broken hearts deserve recognition.”

He chuckled and said, “My name should be written here somewhere a dozen or two times.”

“You are here…once,” said Eve.

“Once! How is my name here only once? I’ve been trashed by more women than…” Guy quieted when he noticed the way she looked at him. Her smile was much too knowing for the Samoan child’s face that wore it.

“A wounded pride is not a broken heart.”

Guy’s indignation was defused when Eve took his hand. She led him a long way into the woods, during which her features changed numerous times.

“Why do you keep changing?”

“Is there a specific way a girl is supposed to be?” she asked.

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: 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!