Fiction Fragments: R. J. Joseph

Last week, Girl Meets Monster talked with Glenn Rolfe about the challenges of writing Splatterpunk. This week, R. J. Joseph is here to talk about what it means to be a woman of color writing horror.

Author Central PicR. J. Joseph is a Texas based writer and professor who must exorcise the demons of her imagination so they don’t haunt her being. A life-long horror fan and writer of many things, she has finally discovered the joys of writing creatively and academically about two important aspects of her life: horror and black femininity.

When R. J. isn’t writing, teaching, or reading voraciously, she can usually be found wrangling one or six of various sprouts and sproutlings from her blended family of 11…which also includes one husband and two furry babies.

R. J. can be found lurking (and occasionally even peeking out) on social media:
Twitter: @rjacksonjoseph
Facebook: facebook.com/rhonda.jacksonjoseph
Facebook official: fb.me/rhondajacksonjosephwriter
Instagram: @rjacksonjoseph
Blog: https://rjjoseph.wordpress.com/
Email: horrorblackademic@gmail.com
Amazon Author Page: amazon.com/author/rjjoseph

Three Questions

GMM: As a woman of color writing about black and queer characters, what obstacles have your faced when writing within the horror genre? When did you decide you were a horror writer? What influenced or inspired you to write horror stories about women of color?

RJJ: I’ve been a lifelong horror fan. I was a small child devouring horror comics, Twilight Zone, and Stephen King novels, well before I could understand any of the themes these stories presented. The horror genre appeals to my naturally dark nature, which was apparent and already well entrenched by the time I was 6 or 7 years old. I always questioned why the folks in the genre I loved so much didn’t look like me, from the writers to the actors to the characters in the books. I wanted to be the monster. I figured creating the monsters was the next best thing, so I had to write them. I started then, even though I didn’t always embrace that part of my writing persona. I couldn’t imagine not writing about the world I inhabited and navigated, a black female experiencing life through this lens. I wasn’t seeing these stories and I had to fill the void.

I wanted to be the monster.

I appreciate that you frame this question in a way that shows you know we have obstacles. They aren’t a figment of our imagination or a quest for race-baiting and creating issues. One of the biggest problems I have is in always wondering why stories are accepted or rejected. I know my writing isn’t perfect and I still have so much growth to experience within my craft, but sometimes I get rejections that just don’t offer any clarity, not even the blanket forms where the spaces between the words don’t reek of any additional interpretation. Sometimes, though, what isn’t said speaks volumes. I get that editors don’t have time to give personalized rejections all the time. But I always go back and read the publications I submit to so I can see which stories made the cut. Reading what was ultimately accepted can be excruciating. So many times, I wish the editors would have just said, “We don’t know what to do with you, blackity black woman, or your blackity black characters with their blackity black fears”. That would make me feel so much better.

I once had an editor explain to me at a book launch for an anthology one of my stories appeared in that he didn’t want me to feel as if my story was a token acceptance because I’m a black woman. He made it a point to let me know he had read some of my previous work and thought my story for the anthology was great. I had to be professional and put on my Appreciative Writerly face, but I really wanted to hug him and cry. That meant so much to me, especially coming from a white male professional in the field. Unless the project is strictly for writers of color, I’m always wondering if the acceptance was just a diversity checkmark or really based on my story.

GMM: I wrote a supernatural slave narrative as my thesis novel at Seton Hill University, and I struggled with figuring out where it fit within a genre. The novel is due to be released sometime next year and I still struggle with that idea of where it belongs. What makes it a horror novel? The violence of slavery? The fact that my narrator is a witch and that her companion is a vampire?

How do you define your chosen genre or genres when you begin with characters that may not typically appear in those genres? Is there an absence of women of color in horror?

RJJ: First, I gotta read your novel! I need to know when pre-orders open. I absolutely love historical horror. That it has people of color and witches? Super plus. My answer to what makes this horror really loops back to another obstacle I try to navigate and that is not knowing where our work fits; really, not knowing where we fit. I would say your novel is an all-around horror novel because it’s rooted in the abject terror of slavery and there is a vampire. I don’t think all witches are necessarily monsters, though, so that’s debatable. Even without the supernatural characters, slavery is horror. Yet, there’s a clear hesitance to categorize this experience in this way because that would require owning up to the facts that 1. Slavery really happened; 2. There was nothing good about it; and 3. The repercussions are still felt today. Stuffing these topics into other corners like literary fiction (the way Beloved was first categorized) or creating a whole new category like urban fiction takes some of that responsibility away. If it isn’t called horror, then the events cannot be deemed horrible. So then when serial killer novels fill the horror shelves, I’m left to wonder why lynchings or slavery aren’t considered serial killings, too…

Black women horror writers have always been around, but there hasn’t always been a willingness of the industry to see us. I think we’ve just had our writing either flat out ignored or placed in different genres because we’re women. I’ve seen industry leaders say publicly that readers only want a certain kind of horror, or that every story/book acceptance is based solely on merit. Both of these prevailing responses mean gatekeepers are fine with keeping certain stories and writers out of the genre. The only thing that might help increase visibility is more gatekeepers of color and black female writers continuing to kick the doors in and create anyway. It’s astounding that the first black female horror anthology wasn’t published until 2017. A second followed this year. How is it that both books managed to locate numerous black female horror writers and yet other anthologies/magazines/publishers can hardly ever find any? What is not genuinely sought will never be found.

GMM: When I write about monsters, I have a habit of turning the relationships between monsters and my main female characters into romantic interests even though I write about dark subjects. Is there a connection between horror and romance in your mind? Do your characters fall in love with monsters? Why, or why not?

RJJ: I envy that you can blend romance and horror so effectively! My thesis at Seton Hill was a romance novel, and while I write in both genres, I’ve not yet mastered blending the two. I do think romance and horror exist on the same continuum, in that both genres evoke such extreme feelings in readers. My favorite series ever is the Vampire Huntress series by L. A. Banks. She intertwined horror and romance so expertly that I’ve never seen anything else quite like it. I make attempts. But I tried to submit a romance short story to a major market once and the editor replied that the story was well written but it was too dark. The monsters in my stories tend to be those created through no act of their own, so they are sort of tragic creatures for whom at least one other character has an affection and some sympathy. Full on romance, though…I still aspire to that.

Left Hand Torment (excerpt), by R. J. Joseph

RJJ Book CoverI was on door duty that evening, although we found we did not really need a protector. Most passersby tended not to notice our nondescript entryway in the worn down building. Even those who did notice it were deterred by the dark cloak of misery in our eyes. Despite my queerness and my race, those doorways to my soul that broadcast unspeakable rot allowed me kinship with the men inside. Her eyes held the same blackness, despite their light gray color, and it announced her as kindred, served as her password into the club. I let her in and followed her up the stairs, as my shift was done.

There was more to her life story than her eyes, apparently. The foulness of whatever tortured her spirit bubbled just underneath the surface of her being. Her dusky colored skin shone with determination and…fury. She glided ahead of me up the stairway and into the parlor, removing long white gloves as we walked. Severe burns covered both hands, the puckered skin reflecting in the lantern lights.

Even Whitson, the resident playboy, did not set his flirtations upon her. He simply asked her what she was drinking, the same as he did the rest of us. He often told us that he did not seek companionship with fellow sufferers. He said their beds were already too full with them and their demons.

“Bourbon, please.” The rich tones slid from her throat and escaped into the quiet murmur of the fifteen of us. She accepted her glass gracefully and settled herself into a chair close to the fireplace.

Not forgetting our Texas manners, we quieted down and allowed the lady the floor. I watched her take a sip from her glass.

“Merci.” She accented the appreciation with a brisk nod to the side. When she gazed back at us, the flames from the fire flickered around the shadows resting beneath the smoky orbs of her haunted eyes. She pulled her bonnet off and placed it on the table next to the chair. Kinky curly strands spilled down to her shoulders and the room gave a collective gasp as the flames caught the sandy tresses. This was the only acknowledgement we gave to her beauty that night.

Without preamble, she spoke, in accented tones. “My name is Dominique Aimee Beaulieu and I was born and reared in New Orleans. I had an ordinary childhood, if that as the daughter of a placee` on Rampart street could be called such. Papa and Maman loved me very much and I was a rather spoiled child. They loved each other, as well. I know Papa loved her more than he loved his wife. But he could not stay with us all the time. I once asked Maman why he had to leave and stay away so often and she explained to me that we could not be selfish and keep him all to ourselves. He had another family with whom he had to stay most of the time, but he was always thinking of us.

“Maman had a picture of a beautiful woman with blond hair and she often gazed wistfully at it when she thought Papa and I weren’t looking. I would ask her about the woman, whose features I saw staring back at me in the mirror, albeit through darker skin. Maman would evade the answer until I turned sixteen. When I finally got my answer, I also got the explanation for our way of life.

“‘This is my sister, your aunt. Papa’s other wife. He met me as he courted her and wanted me for his left hand wife. She knows about us but cannot acknowledge us publicly. But she must accept our existence. You are of courting age now. Papa will arrange for you to attend The Quadroon Ball next year, to find you a wealthy, white husband. Do not waste yourself frivolously on any colored man. Even if he has money, he can’t elevate your status or guarantee that your children will be free men.’

“She grabbed my hand. ‘Just take care to always respect your husband and do his bidding. Love and honor him despite the feelings of jealousy that will come when he takes another to wife. We are the wives they choose, when their other will be chosen for them through making familial alliances. These arrangements are our only way to freedom.’

“I didn’t understand why she beseeched me so dramatically on these points. Our system of placage was shocking enough to discover without her telling me I had to accept it, that I had few other choices. I knew nothing of love between a man and woman, but I could see the love between Maman and Papa. If it meant she had to share him with her sister, did that make it of any less value? Did that make me, the product of their left hand union, any less valuable? Of course, I would love my husband, legally bound or not, because of all the things I did not understand, there was one thing I knew and never wanted to change: my freedom.

She paused her story here, seeming to look at us for the first time. She turned her fierce gaze on each of us, one at a time, her fellow beasts of demonic burdens. She settled her gaze finally on me, the lone other woman in the group. I did not know how I understood that she knew my secret. My fellow club members knew and did not care. “You understand when I say fighting for one’s freedom is a frantic battle when losing means losing your personhood and often, your very life.”

I nodded in acquiescence. I did know what a constant fight for freedom to simply exist required. Dying was preferable to giving in to bondage of any kind, hence my membership there. These, my brothers in terror, did not make anything big over my masculine clothes and obviously feminine body. My haunted heart bore witness to more important things to them. The rest of the world did have problems with me, as soon as my “charade” was discovered. Explaining that this was who I am did nothing but result in a trail of bodies. Thus far, my own body did not increase those numbers.

Do you have a fragment of fiction you’re dying to share? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you soon!

Fiction Fragments: Glenn Rolfe

Ron Gavalik joined Girl Meets Monster for Fiction Fragments Friday on November 30. Things have been a little crazy for me, so the schedule is a little out of whack. Today is obviously not Friday, but I wanted you all to have a chance to read this writer’s submission, and schedules be damned. So, without further ado, please welcome Glenn Rolfe.

37623541_10217464806718996_9108904857699352576_nGlenn Rolfe is an author/singer/songwriter from the haunted woods of New England. He and his wife, Meghan, have three children, Ruby, Ramona, and Axl. He is grateful to be loved despite his weirdness.

He is a Splatterpunk Award nominee and the author of Becoming, Blood and Rain, The Haunted Halls, Chasing Ghosts, Abram’s Bridge, Things We Fear, and the collections, A Box Full of Monsters, Out of Range, Slush, and Land of Bones.

Check out his latest novel, The Window.

He is hard at work on many more. Stay tuned! And, in the meantime, visit his website.

Three Questions

GMM: When I was a teenager many moons ago, I was hell-bent on reading every vampire novel I could get hands on. And, my introduction to Splatterpunk  was John Skipp and Craig Spector’s The Light at the End. What was your introduction to the genre? What do you believe defines a work as Splatterpunk? What do you enjoy most about the genre?

GRMy intro to Splatterpunk was Off Season by Jack Ketchum. My jaw dropped time and time again turning those pages. It was so brutal. But like with all great books in the genre, and any good book, he made you care about the characters first.

Splatterpunk is a story that pushes the writer and the reader. A story that is brutal and no holds barred. The best of the genre keep your eyes glued to the page, even though part of you wants to put it down and shove it away.

What I like is the freedom it gives you as a horror writer. It also pushes you as a writer. How brave are you? How far are you willing to go and how much are you willing to show? It’s a challenge to walk the line between outrageous and realistic, but when you get the balance right, the result is powerful.

GMM: I have a pretty high threshold for the creepy, weird, and gross, but I have to admit, your slug creatures grossed me out. Actually, to be fair, the slugs weren’t the problem. The act of Craig cleaning out the bottles and allowing his curiosity get the better of him while doing a disgusting chore at a minimum wage job. I’ve had my share of gross tasks, what inspired this opening scene from Becoming?

GRI worked at a movie theater a while back. Tuesday nights we did extra cleaning projects. It was the slowest night of the week. I was lucky enough to get bottle duty. It seemed like a perfectly harmless gig,right? But my manager told me I’d want to wear gloves while handling the bottles. I didn’t get it, but put them on anyway.

It was all great until I found the first of the spit bottles. People that used chewing tobacco would use them while watching movies. It was nasty. And when I opened one bottle to empty it, it let out a wild hiss and a spray. I almost puked. It was only after I’d done two of these gross things that my manager told me I could just throw away the ones with spit in them. When i got home, I started thinking of those bottles and imagining the nasty juice as a living thing. So, pretty much, that opening scene was mostly a true story.

GMM: I love the horror genre, but I often wonder if it is a prerequisite for characters to be a little dumb in order for certain plot development to happen. I mean, most horror movies wouldn’t work if the characters didn’t willingly do stupid things like go down in the basement or read Latin from a book bound in human flesh, but I wonder if making characters do dumb things is just expected within the genre. Is it possible to have a good horror story without people making terrible mistakes even though they should know better?

GRI think all the good to great horror stories have realistic characters acting and talking in realistic ways. That’s totally where a lot of books in the genre fail or make the ride less enjoyable. For me, it’s all about the characters. You’ve got to bring these people to life and you’ve got to give the reader a reason to care. You also have to make the characters’ motivations realistic.

I don’t write Splatterpunk all the time. Of my ten works, I think maybe a quarter of them could be counted as Splatterpunk. I enjoy the challenge and the craziness of the sub-genre. It’s not an easy type of horror to write well. Making real characters and then putting them through a hell most writers don’t dare to. Some stories demand characters to be ridiculous, but I prefer to write the ones like Off Season. Ones that, as horrible as they seem, leave you thinking this could actually happen. And that’s freaking scary.

Fragment: Becoming (original version), by Glenn Rolfe

CHAPTER 1
“Where do you want me to do this?” Craig Hickey said, hauling a thirty gallon bag of empty bottles over his shoulder.

“Take ‘em in the sink. You’re gonna want to dump some of that stuff out, trust me,” Hunter said. Hunter Hanley was Craig’s boss at the Hollis Oaks Cineplex. The man was only in his late thirties and already had his own successful chain of theaters. Sure, they were all placed in Maine, but it was still an admirable accomplishment. Compared to a twenty eight year old high school dropout, shoveling popcorn next to a bunch of teenagers on a Friday night, Hunter Hanley looked like the CEO of GE.

He watched Hunter walk over to handle a guest complaining about her movie being too loud. Craig lugged the giant bag of bottles into the little sink and storage area of the theater. He placed the bag down, singing a Taylor Swift song as he undid the knot at the top of the large black sack.

“Hey Craig?” It was Evan, the concessions manager.

“What’s up, Evan.” Craig said.

“You’re going to want to use those plastic gloves,” he pointed up to the little rack above the sink.

Craig spied the box of latex gloves to the far right, next to a bucket of scrub pads.
“Yeah, thanks, but I think I’ll be all right.” He had to laugh to himself- these guys sure are worried about these bottles.

“No, really, you are going to want to use them. I’ve done this job for the last five years, and have been stuck doing bottle duty more times than I care to remember, take my word for it.”

Craig acquiesced, reaching up and grabbing a pair of the little clear gloves and tugging them on. “Happy?”

“Have fun,” Evan smiled as he disappeared back to the front.

It was a Tuesday night at the theater, usually the slowest night of the week. Unfortunately, this meant that it was chore night. Last week Evan had Craig scrape this black stuff off from the old popcorn warmer. Craig thought it looked like some sort of devil mold, but Evan had said it was just burnt residue from years of running the warmers too hot, for too long. Tonight, he got the bottles. There were six of the huge recycling containers, one in front of each theater, and each one was overflowing with empties. Craig had figured it would take about an hour to get the job done.

The first bag had gone quick and easy. Craig managed to sing his way through half of the Speak Now album without so much as running into one of these horrors that everyone seemed so worked up about. It wasn’t until he reached the halfway point that he came up against his first gag-worthy container. There had been a couple of Coke bottles filled with spit from people using chewing tobacco in the theater, but as he got to the bottom of the fourth bag, his bare hand (he’d abandoned the latex gloves after the uneventful second bag) made contact with something wet and slimy. An overwhelming smell nearly knocked him on his ass. It was like a mix of vomit, soda, and putrefied flesh, not that he knew what the latter smelled like, but he’d seen enough movies to imagine the scent- and this was it. After three dry heaves, Craig’s esophagus opened up to deliver his stomach contents to the sink.

“You all right, man?” Evan had come rushing to the doorway to check on him. “Hey, where are your gloves?”

After another mouthful of upchuck, Craig wiped his lips and chin with the back of his hand, and felt something greasy on his lips. A taste that matched the overpowering scent from the bag, exploded in his mouth. He pulled his hand away and saw the disgusting brown slime he’d bumped into at the bottom of the bag. He spat into the sink, trying to rid his mouth of the contaminant. Contaminant? He wasn’t sure why he’d thought of it as such, but wasn’t taking any chances.

“Do we have any mouthwash around here?” he said, still hunched over, spitting in the sink.

Evan looked a few extra shades of white standing in the doorway. “Uh, maybe Kathy has some,” he said. “I’ll go ask her.”

Craig watched him scurry off and heard crinkling; the bag behind him was moving. He turned to see the bottom of the sack protrude and retract, like something was trying to find its way out. Washing his hands in the sink, he donned another pair of the latex gloves and opened the foul smelling sack; the movement ceased.

“Here, man,” Evan returned to his perch at the entrance holding the mini-bottle of Scope out to him as if he were afraid to enter the room.

“Evan, come check this out.”

“Don’t worry about the bottom ones, man. Just throw them away with the bag. That’s what we always do.”

Craig, as if not hearing Evan, reached into the large bag. He had to put his head inside to reach the bottom. “There’s something down here.”

“Craig, don’t-”

“Whoa!” Craig yanked his hand out as if it had been stung by a bee. “Evan, come look at this.”

Evan looked back out at the empty lobby, praying for a customer; the next movie didn’t start for another forty-five minutes. “Hunter wants me, I’ll be right back,” he lied. He had seen the strange slug things at the bottom of the bags before. He didn’t plan on messing with them again. Hell, he’d had nightmares about the fat little slimy things for months. He was glad to have a new guy at work to do the true dirty work. He decided to focus on Kathy’s great ass instead, leaving Craig to tend with the nastiness in the sink room alone.

Craig picked the bottle bag up out of the barrel and holding one corner, brought up the end to dump the mix of loose juices and old soda out into the sink, and with it, the slimy thing at the bottom. He watched the dark, chunk filled fluids pour out into the sink; bits of candies, popcorn and discarded chew pouches gathered around the drain. After he was certain that the bag was empty, he gave it a good shake and then fingered through the collection of crap clogging the drain. He couldn’t find slug thing anywhere. “Where did you go?” Craig said as he tried shaking the bag out again. After another few seconds of searching and coming up empty, he gave up. “Hmm.”

An hour and a half later, Craig managed to reach the final bottle of the last bag. He wrapped his latex gloved hand around the one liter bottle and brought it out from the dark and rancid smelling bag. At the sight of the murky brown slime inside the bottle, Craig’s stomach threatened to purge again, but this time, he kept it down. Holding the bottle up to the fluorescent light above the sink, he tried to get a better look at its contents. On first glance, it appeared to be another bottle of chew-spit, but as he tilted the plastic bottle, observing the way the brown sludge seemed to cling to the plastic container, he wasn’t sure what it could be. Not wanting to look at the nasty concoction any longer, he decided to drain it in the sink like he had the rest. The cap was tight, but after a few good yanks, he managed to get it to turn-

Swoosh

“Arrgh.” The unleashed carbonation exploded a sour mist all over him. As he inhaled the nasty particles, he dropped the bottle in the sink. He didn’t notice the brown sludge ooze free of its prison, and slip down into the drain.

Cough-cough-cough

“Uhhh…” Craig’s Cineplex work shirt was covered in the little bits of slime that sprayed out at him. The brown mess was also present on his exposed forearms, neck, and chin and even on his teeth. “Uhhh…” Craig stumbled past the sink and towards the lobby.

“Oh shit, Craig,” Kathy said, “What the hell’s all over you.” She plugged her nose, taking a step back.

Craig’s breath was coming in gravelly wheezes as he stumbled across the still empty lobby, and toward the restrooms. Holding his gloved hands out before him, he smashed through the men’s room door and rushed to the sink. As he vomited (his second round tonight) in the much smaller, much cleaner basin, getting nearly as much spew on the cool grey counter top as he was inside the white porcelain enclave, he missed the little brown specks that slipped their way into the corners of his eyes.

Fifteen minutes later, cleaned up, and sipping a bottle of water, Craig sat recovering from his little incident in the employee break room.

“Hey man, you feeling any better?” Evan took a seat across from him at the little square card table.

Craig forced a smile, “I’m hungry. Does that say anything?”

“Yeah- that you’re gross.” They both laughed as Evan stood back up. “Just call it a night. I already sent Kathy home. I thought for sure she was going to blow chucks after she heard you in the bathroom. Besides, it’s pretty dead out there. No one wants to see the new Kevin Hart movie. Go figure.”

“Yeah, I think I’ll take you up on that.” Craig rose up, grabbed his sweatshirt from the coat hanger behind him, and followed Evan back out to the front.

“Hope you feel better,” Heath called out as Craig reached the front doors.

Craig waved back to his boss and pushed out into the cool night. He placed a finger to his nose and blew a snot rocket to the sidewalk as he made his way to his car. He was starting to feel queasy again. His hunger had slipped away.

On the sidewalk behind him, the brown glob of mucus he’d launched began to wiggle, and breathe.

Next week, Rhonda Jackson Garcia joins Girl Meets Monster. Do you have a fragment you’d like to dust off and send my way? If so, send it to chellane@gmail.com. See you soon!