Fiction Fragments: Steven Van Patten

Last week on Girl Meets Monster, I chatted with Jessica Guess about her horror novella, Cirque Berserk (2020) and how she created a space for herself in a genre where she felt absent.

This week, I welcome award-winning horror writer, publisher, screenwriter, and TV stage manager Steven Van Patten.

Brooklyn native Steven Van Patten is the author of the critically acclaimed Brookwater’s Curse trilogy, about an 1860s Georgia plantation slave who becomes law enforcement within the vampire community. In contrast, the titular character in his Killer Genius series is a modern day hyper-intelligent black woman who uses high-end technology as a socially conscious serial killer.

SVP’s short fiction includes contributions to nearly a dozen horror anthologies, including the Stoker Award nominated New York State of Fright. A collection of short horror and dark fiction stories entitled Hell At The Way Station, published by his company Laughing Black Vampire Productions and co-authored by acclaimed storyteller, Marc Abbott hit shelves in 2018.

Along with a plethora of other honors and accolades, SVP won three African-African-American Literary Awards in 2019, two for Hell At The Way Station (Best Anthology and Best In Science Fiction) and one for Best Independent Publisher. He’s written about everything from sleep demons to the Harlem Hellfighters of WWI for episodes of the YouTube series’ Extra Credit and Extra Mythology. He’s also a contributor for Viral Vignettes, a charity-driven YouTube comedy series benefitting The Actor’s Fund. He uses his full name on Facebook but goes by @svpthinks on Twitter and Instagram. When he’s not creating macabre literature, he can be found stage managing television shows primarily in New York City and occasionally on the West Coast. Along with being a member of the New York Chapter of The Horror Writer’s Association, he’s also a member of The Director’s Guild of America and professional arts fraternity Gamma Xi Phi. His website is www.laughingblackvampire.com.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Steven. I am almost ashamed to say that I haven’t read the Brookwater’s Curse trilogy, but it is on my TBR list. I’m interested in reading the trilogy because I love vampires, and I wrote a slave narrative featuring a vampire. Your story is about a male slave who becomes an important part of vampire society, and my story is about a young woman who escapes slavery but still has a lot of obstacles to maneauver while gaining a better understanding of her identity in the context of the antebellum South while traveling with a vampire. My first question is why vampires? And my second question is why slavery? What about these two subjects/characters called to you to tell a story? How does being part of vampire society help or hinder your protagonist? What inspired this trilogy?

SVP: Well, first of all, thank you for having me. I’m thrilled to be talking to a mavin such as yourself. I think I was drawn to vampires because as a kid, I didn’t always see them all as monsters. I mean, I saw Christopher Lee’s Dracula as a monster, but William Marshall’s Blacula was a different case. There were some shades of grey. He tried to end the slave-trade. He was in love. He was misunderstood and in many ways his own worst enemy. And it’s that line from Scream, Blacula, Scream that stuck with me forever. It’s from the scene where he is cornered by two rather stereotypical 1970s pimps after disregarding their hooker. After listening to their nonsense, Blacula said, “You’ve made a slave of your sister and you’re still slaves imitating your slave masters!” Then he proceeds to kill them. But for me, a few things happen there. First, as a kid, I get to see this super dignified brother handle some street mess, but I also get a glimpse of how social ills can get addressed within the horror genre. So the only thing left in my head was, since Blacula, aka Prince Mamuwalde was of direct African descent, I began to wonder what an African-American would experience, feel and say if put in that situation. By the way, in Brookwater’s Curse, I don’t spend a great deal of time on the plantation. In fact, I let him get taken by the supernatural and get himself isolated very quickly. And I let him struggle with a sort of survivor’s guilt, while never losing his soul as a black man. This gets him in trouble more than once, because anytime he develops a relationship with black and brown humans, he ends up going against his marching orders, which are to hunt werewolves and protect the secret society of monsters in general.

GMM: I am intrigued by the concept of a “socially conscious serial killer”. I immediately thought of Dexter Morgan who channeled his drive to murder into a public service by eliminating threats to his community. How is your character different from Dexter?

SVP: Dexter comes up every once in awhile, but the truth is, my Killer Genius series was inspired by Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lector more than anything else. It occurred to me that if someone were to write a story about a black woman killing a bunch of people, it’s usually over some man being an asshole. Like an elongated episode of ‘Snapped’. I never saw a socially conscious black woman, so I invented Kendra, a black woman who is able to keep ahead of law enforcement by being super smart like a Dexter Morgan or a Hannibal Lector. One of the biggest differences between her and Dexter is that she’s actually more versatile. She can kill up close in a disguise, or she can hack into a military satellite and blast you from space. I’m particularly proud of how I came up with her kill for this one misogynist rapper while he’s performing on a 106 & Park derivative. The other big difference is of course, her agenda. Dexter was like a king snake of serial killers and he in a way, was feeding this horrible disfunction born from childhood trauma. While my Kendra certainly has her own childhood and adolescent demons, she’s more focused. I want to say she has a clearer vision and is more of a zealot, or a crusader literally attacking ignorant white and black people as a way of motivating change in society over all.

GMM: I’ve always written about dark subjects and over the years people, especially people with a strong religious background, have asked me “why horror?” As I’m sure you’re aware, there is often a misconception about horror writers being maladjusted people. Have you encountered similar questions about your writing? Have you been accused of being a “bad” person because of what you write? Has your connection to a larger community of horror writers helped you feel more confident about being a horror writer, or have you always felt at ease writing about monsters?

SVP: Here is where I may piss some people off, but since I get pissed off when confronted by the kinds of statements you mentioned, I’m going to just say it. Truth is, I have studied just enough history to see most organized religion as a construct meant to hold certain people in place. I’m not knocking the fellowship, being grateful to the universe, Kirk Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, none of that. But, when our black ancestors were brought here, I can’t say for certain what they all were worshipping, but I’m pretty sure it was not a blonde, blue-eyed Jesus. Unfortunately, a lot of folks can’t get past that, because whatever we had was beaten out of us while something else was beaten into us. Follow that up with Hollywood bastardizing and misrepresenting hoodoo, voodoo, Santeria and Yoruba cultures for white folks to kick up their heels and scream ‘eek’ and now they have us rejecting something we might actually need if we bothered to understand it. At least, those are my thoughts on the subject.

No one has ever come out and called me a bad person, but it’s been insinuated that something is wrong with me. And yes, I have been confronted by the naysayers and I’ve received the shade, particularly if I picked the wrong event to be a part of. But the people looking down their nose at me are often the same people wouldn’t know a decent horror movie if it bit them in the ass AND won’t tell Jermaine that no one cares about his mixed-tape. Because of that, I don’t exactly lose a lot of sleep over those people or their opinions. 

Being a part of the larger community, finding people like yourself is a morale boost. It lets me know I’m not alone in my horror nerdom or my pursuit to write about things that go bump in the night. And it’s funny you should bring it up because growing up around certain kinds of dudes, I only let a handful of friends know I was into this sort of thing. But I’m older now, and not as worried about rejection as I used to be. And yes, I will be comfortable with monsters until the day I die.

Excerpt from “The Patron Saint”

“You’re my motherfucking lawyer! You’re supposed to make this kind of shit go away! As much money as I made the label last year! Y’all got me hiding in this hotel room like some kind of fugitive! This is some bullshit!”

Sitting at the edge of the super king-sized hotel room bed wearing only a bathing suit, Kimberly stared absently at the TV on the wall in front of her. This bore a stark contrast to fully clothed Manuel’s animated pacing back and forth across the room as he screamed into his cellphone. She thought about turning the TV on so she wouldn’t have to listen, but figured in his agitated state that she would only get yelled at or worse.

“Seriously! What the fuck am I paying you for?”

She couldn’t hear the lawyer’s side of the conversation, but could tell that the lawyer was asking uncomfortable questions.

“What? No, she’s fine! She loves me and she loves Vegas. You sound like that punk ass cop that left a message a few minutes ago.”

Another pause.

“What? Her father? I don’t care about him. Fuck him! If he was a real nigga, he’d call me himself. Going to the damn cops like a little bitch!”

No matter what you hear or see, do not turn around. Do not face me, child!

Kimberly’s breath stopped as her mind struggled to process where a disembodied voice could possibly be coming from.

“Sam? Sam! I know this motherfucker didn’t just hang up on me…”

If he hadn’t been in such an angry state, Manuel might have noticed the growing shadow moving behind him as the form of a curvaceous, statuesque woman with undulating hair drifted off the wall and into the room.

Manuel threw the cellphone on the bed, just behind Kimberly. “I’m so fucking mad right now. I need to fuck you again just to calm my ass down. Take them damn clothes off, girl!”

He began to unbuckle his pants.

Kimberly neither moved or gave any indication that she heard him.

“Bitch, perhaps you didn’t hear Daddy! I said…”

Then he heard the hissing. He turned around.

“What the fu—”

The entity grabbed Manuel by the shoulders, accosting him as if he were a small child, with a strength that dwarfed his. The ten snakes in the apparition’s hair lunged forward, each of the mouths burying fangs into his flesh. His chocolate brown skin turned a marble-like grey as the poisons filled his body. He screamed for only a few seconds as the toxins quickly petrified his vocal chords.

Kimberly peripherally caught a split second of Manuel’s agonized last moments before she closed her eyes. The monster must have sensed that Kimberly had peeked because she heard the voice again.

DO NOT LOOK AT ME!

A moment later, Manuel’s lifeless body crashed down to the floor with a ‘thud’ in front of Kimberly. Her eyes drifted down. Whatever had been injected into him was toxic enough to literally melt him. Flesh and muscles bubbled into a jelly. Bones disintegrated to ash trapped inside the jelly. Hours from now, a large black stain on the carpet would be all that remained. She closed her eyes but couldn’t escape the image of the mess on the floor.

Go to your grandmother, that she might teach you the ways of your ancestors and not the way of the idolaters that brought your people here in bondage.

“My grandmother? Who are you?”

I am the one who was defiled by one of my gods, made an abomination by another, and rejected and vilified by my own kind. It was only in the underworld that I found the orishas and loa and ascended ones of Africa. Like me, they want actual justice meted out in this world and the next. I am Medusa, The Accursed One! Evil men feared me hundreds of years ago and they shall fear me again!

The shadow drifted back towards the wall from where it had entered and disappeared. Sensing that the gorgon had left, Kimberly opened her eyes and looked again at what was left of Manuel. Recoiled on the bed, she suppressed a scream and cried quietly for a few minutes.

It would take her some time, but she eventually found the strength to get dressed, grab her things, and leave the hotel.

~*~

“This bastard is gonna act all indignant, like he was parent of the decade! Fucking dream-slaying, hating-ass Negro!”

Cathy drove her white BMW M4 Coupé as fast as New York City’s FDR Drive would allow, which during rush hour on a Wednesday wasn’t nearly as fast as she preferred. Before her girlfriend Nicole called, Cathy had been cursing up a storm as she cut off more cautious drivers with signal-free lane changes and flipped them her middle finger whenever they dared honked their horns in protest.

“So he’s blaming you?” Nicole’s voice blared over the car’s speakers. Nicole, like Cathy, was a dedicated party girl, enabler, and equal opportunity narcissist. She was the shoulder to cry on, the friend who took Cathy’s side no matter how horrible she’d acted or how ridiculous her course of action. “Him and his damn cupcakes! Fuck him! Y’all are doing the right thing! Manuel is going to make your baby a star. He told me so!”

“That’s right. And so what if she lost her virginity to him? Shit, that’s Manuel Hightower! The motherfuckers we lost our virginity to wasn’t even close to that stature!”

“Child! I know that’s right!”

Betrayer of women! Betrayer of your own child! You gave your child’s innocence and honor away for nothing!

“Bitch! What you said?”

“I said, ‘child, I know that’s right’. What you thought I said?”

Cathy’s eyes caught a flash of the gorgon’s red gaze in her rearview mirror. The hair snakes’ fangs found Cathy’s ears, neck, and skull. The last thing Cathy saw was her milk chocolate complexion turning green-ish grey as the car swerved out of control, bounced off an Acura RDX, then slammed straight into a guardrail. Despite the damage to the car, Nicole’s voice could still be heard asking if her friend was okay.

Until the gas tank exploded.

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 Keisling

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

todd 1 bw KodaKrome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DEVIL’S CREEK – Excerpt

Silver Shamrock Publishing – Release Date 6/16/20

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

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

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

Oh shit.

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

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

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

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

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

One-one-thousand.

Two-one-thousand.

Three-one-thousand.

Four-one—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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