Fiction Fragments: Gwendolyn Kiste

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel about motherhood and how it changes your view of horror, and this week Girl Meets Monster welcomes Pittsburgh horror writer Gwendolyn Kiste.

Gwendolyn Kiste HeadshotGwendolyn Kiste is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Rust Maidens, from Trepidatio Publishing; And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, from JournalStone; and the dark fantasy novella, Pretty Marys All in a Row, from Broken Eye Books. Her short fiction has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Black Static, Daily Science Fiction, Shimmer, Interzone, and LampLight, among others. Originally from Ohio, she now resides on an abandoned horse farm outside of Pittsburgh with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts. Find her online at gwendolynkiste.com

Three Questions

GMM: Hello Gwendolyn! Welcome to Girl Meets Monster. It’s February and that means it is Women in Horror Month. Why do you think it’s important to devote a month to female horror writers? What would you say to critics who claim that only men write good horror fiction?

GK: For me, Women in Horror Month is always a great opportunity to learn about new female horror creators. The industry is constantly evolving, and social media can be so loud and bustling, sometimes in the worst ways, so it can sadly be far too easy to miss a new female horror writer or podcaster or artist throughout the year. Women in Horror Month gives us all an opportunity to discover those voices.

As for what to say to anyone who doesn’t feel that women write good horror, I would remind them of Mary Shelley all the way back when and also of all the literally hundreds of women writing horror now. There’s no reason why readers can’t find a new female author who writes the type of horror they love; we’re all creating vastly different stories, from body horror and the weird to Gothic and grindhouse. There’s no single female writing style; if someone thinks that, it’s because they haven’t read enough horror, especially new horror. I would encourage them to look at the lists and lists of female horror books on the Ladies of Horror Fiction site; there’s something out there they’d enjoy, I have no doubt.

GMM: Where did your inspiration for your Stoker-award winning novel, The Rust Maidens, come from? I tend to put a lot of myself — emotions, experiences, past traumas — into my characters and stories, do you do the same, or do your ideas come from somewhere else? What motivated you to tell this story?

GK: Aspects of The Rust Maidens lived with me for a long time. I definitely draw a lot from my own experiences and emotions in my work. I went to undergrad in Cleveland, and it was something of a haunted time in my life, so that feeling stayed with me and definitely ended up in The Rust Maidens, which is set in Cleveland. Combining body horror and the economic and environmental troubles of The Rust Belt seemed really compelling and also very personal to me, having grown up in Ohio. I’d never seen anything quite like that combination of themes before, so I decided I wanted to make this my story to tell.

GMM: As a woman writing horror fiction, what challenges have you faced? What advice would you give other women and girls who want to tell their stories? And, most importantly, if you became the leader of a girl gang of horror writers, what would be your battle cry?

GK: I think many of my challenges are ones shared by other female writers. Dealing with harassment, from both men and women, for example. That’s always so hard, but fortunately, that’s been the exception rather than the rule. Trying to find homes for my female-centric stories was more difficult in the beginning, but fortunately, the industry is really coming around, so I think this might become less of a problem as we move forward, especially with so many more female editors out there.

As for advice, I would say to write what you believe in. There are a lot of naysayers in the world who can be incredibly discouraging, but do your best to ignore anyone who doesn’t support your work and your vision. There are readers out there who do want to hear stories from female perspectives, so don’t let anyone tell you differently.

Ah, a battle cry! I love that! Honestly, I think it would be something like “All together now!” We’re so much stronger when we work together, recognizing each other’s unique experience in the world and seeing that as a strength and an asset. Women in Horror Month really celebrates that togetherness. Horror, as the genre has been evolving over the years, is really celebrating that togetherness too. It’s a good time to be part of this industry with so many other amazing female authors out there doing incredible work. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for all of us.

Fiction Fragment, by Gwendolyn Kiste

My heart in my throat, I turn around and see someone there on the dirt road. It’s a man who doesn’t belong here, a face I’ve never seen before. Everything in me seizes up, and all I can think is it’s one of them. It’s a witchfinder come back to set the countryside alight again.

A hundred paces away, he’s so close now, which means it’s too late for me to run without being seen, so I grit my teeth instead, an incantation blossoming in my throat. Already, I envision cursing him, of speaking the words my mother taught me, a mere phrase or two that could send him wandering into a day that won’t ever end. After all, there’s always a fairy ring somewhere nearby, eager to gobble down a wayward traveler.

As he draws nearer, he spots me here at the side of the road, and though I make no effort to greet him, my hands clenched tight around my woven basket, he waves brightly anyway.

“Hello there,” he says, heading toward me, and my lips part, ready to direct him into a sweet oblivion.

Then my chest tightens, and I remember the promise I made to myself. No magic, especially not dark magic, especially not against a stranger. For all I know, he’s as lost and hopeless as I am. I can’t assume every man is a witchfinder, can I?

The incantation retreats within me, and I stand a little taller, pretending I’m not afraid. “May I help you?” I say, the words weak and inadequate compared to what I could have spoken.

He grins, dimples pockmarking his cheeks. “Could you please tell me which way to the nearest village?”

That would be our village. He wants to go to the place where I grew up, but I don’t know if I want him there. It’s not my home, not anymore, but somehow, it doesn’t feel right to send this stranger to them. If anyone is going to bother my village, it should be me, not a man who could be anyone at all.

His grin never fading, he inches closer to me now, closing the gulf between us, and my body rises up, nearly quivering off the ground, still desperate to escape. I strain through the whispering sound of the wind to hear other voices in these parts, but it’s just the two of us now. My breath twisted inside me, I could dart back into the woods, vanishing between the hemlock lace and the birch trees carved with symbols from the dead, but then he’ll know I have a reason to run. And he’ll have an excuse to pursue. So I steady myself instead, my hands knotted tighter around the basket, as I inspect him up and down like a laboratory specimen.

Worn brown leather boots, small satchel, thin coat. No horse in sight and no Bible to beat.

From the looks of it, he’s common enough, as plain as all the rest of us. This is a good sign. The witchfinders are fancier. They arrive with flair, armed with pomp and circumstance and enough iron and flint to ignite a whole village. In the past, they’ve always materialized on our streets, clumped together in groups, their black boots and black cloaks designed to put you on edge, as though they’re already mourning you before you’ve even died.

This man is nothing like them. Here he is, coming not from the North, the city that makes witchfinders the same way it makes sharp mead and wagon wheels, but from the West, the direction of the other villages where everyone is just as afraid as we are.

“Well?” he asks, flashing me that smile as warm as summer rot. “Can you help me?”

I back away a few steps, my guts churning. Even if he isn’t a witchfinder, that still doesn’t make him a friend. This is a cruel tale as old as time. Terrible things often start with a girl meeting a strange man in the forest. And after everything that’s happened here, I won’t fall prey to another terrible thing.

Would you like your own Fiction Fragments post? Send me your stuff at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: Ron Gavalik

So, a few weeks have passed since we heard from Kristin Dearborn. Life and a holiday got in the way of progress, but this week I’m back on track with a visit from gritty Pittsburgh poet, Ron Gavalik.

Ron GavalikThe eternal search for truth in the dark forest of false prophets has been my life’s pursuit. As an author, it’s my role to explore and reveal the unique perspectives that broaden our understanding of the world. The poetry and stories I forge from whiskey-soaked memories and fervent observations awakens passions among devoted readers and ignites debates. When we engage in critical, independent thought we are then free to live our truths.

Raised by hard-boiled Catholic trade unionists in the Rust Belt of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, my writing style is a smooth and uninhibited reflection of the once gritty region. In total freedom, I bleed untamed language onto each page to capture the powerful moments of life. My words paint portraits of the hidden beauty that’s often lost within the madness of our struggles. Now grasp my hand, and we will walk this treacherous path together.

Read Ron’s work. Get cool rewards: Patreon.com/RonGavalik

 Three Questions

GMM: When did you begin writing poetry, and why?

RG: The first poem leaked out of my pen at the age of 20. The words were pure trash, some kind of whiny ode to love or some other horse shit. The ripping sound of that paper as I tore it from that overpriced journal was quite satisfying. I decided then and there life must be lived before writing truth. That’s what poetry is to me: the purest form of truth. If one is still grappling with their place in the world, their poetry is going to read like shit. When the poet knows something worth sharing, that’s music on the page. I told myself that if I were still alive at 40, I’d revisit free verse. I then spent my early adulthood years pursuing avant-garde journalism in the arts and politics. Reporting on the acts of others honed my writing skills and often threw me into the mix of often unique and sometimes dangerous situations. I also dabbled in blog essays, short fiction, and I wrote a novel that will never see the light of day. Twenty years later, I authored Hot Metal Tonic, my first poetry collection. It went #1 on Amazon in its first week. I’ve penned three more collections since, and last year The Pittsburgh City Paper named me the second best poet in Pittsburgh.

GMM: Your poetry has an edge and the tone often feels angry. Are you angry? Should I be angry? What angers you the most?

RG: As I said, my work is my truth. That truth encompasses a broad spectrum of emotions. Rage, joy, sadness, eroticism, faith, love, betrayal, it’s all represented in my work. I wouldn’t characterize my poetry as angry, but I do find that perspective interesting. What you find angry, I probably penned as a representation of sorrow. The good news, Michelle, is that sadness that fuels anger reveals your righteous mind. Now, as for a broader viewpoint on anger in society, I am perplexed how any person can make it through life and not feel fucking rage at the murder of people and the murder of our souls. That shows me the power of apathy under empire.

GMM: As a poet, do you feel more of a responsibility to speak the truth than you might in another art form? Is it easier to convey the emotional realities found in your poetry than it is in your fiction? Do you prefer writing poetry?

RG: I love this question, and it deserves a 20 page response. The short answer is this: the best writing in any form reveals truth. Nonfiction and poetry are the most obvious arenas to really delve into facts that lead to conclusive truths. However, we cannot ignore the power of fiction. The works I’ve read by George Orwell or Cormac McCarthy have revealed to me some of our most powerful truths. I like to believe my voice represents our generation. Let’s be honest, we live under the rule of empire that most of us believe can no longer be controlled. Therefore, we gravitate toward identity politics as we watch greed destroy the social contracts that once held our heads above water through the 20th Century. If we ever wish to retake control of our lives, we must seek out our truths. Responsible authors were born to help us on that journey.

Selected Poems from Gothic Riot Dreams, by Ron Gavalik

Hard Labor Love
I came up in Pittsburgh,
the Rust Belt of hard labor
with a deep love of community.
As children, we collected railroad spikes
from the tracks and we cut our shins
on random iron shards in slag hills.
Some of us were union middle-class
while others breathed the gray air of poverty.
That hardly mattered.
As we stood atop foothills
that overlooked the city skyline,
soot embedded under our fingernails,
we lived as kings and queens
who oversaw the future.

Skinny Cigarettes
The old cashier at the car dealership,
she chain-smoked skinny, long cigarettes
all day, every day.
Her voice sounded like a bullfrog
that recently learned how to curse and laugh.
The crease lines around her mouth
and the folds in her neck
conveyed a relaxed style, confidence
earned from a hard life
and dangerous choices.

Sometimes there were no customers
in front of the cashier’s window
and no mechanics around to bust her chops.
That’s when she’d rest her elbows on the counter
and cradle a skinny cigarette
between two fingers near her cheek.
That woman’s eyes would gaze outside,
glossed over in what looked like daydreams
about all those lovers in their graves,
and their cliché widows
with their tiresome grandchildren
and their lovely lives.

Back in the day,
men in gray suits and skinny ties
never could resist her,
but then again,
few ever tried.

Pause and Look Down
The best sidewalks
are discolored
from the blood of youth
and the tears of victims.
Those sidewalks
tell stories, they provide lessons
of hard choices under
difficult circumstances.
Jagged cracks in the concrete
resemble the struggle
of so many souls
long gone.

Next week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Glenn Rolfe. Do you have a fragment you’d like to share? Send it to me at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!