Fiction Fragments: R. B. Wood

Last week I spoke with Salvantonia Clemente about his writing and music and how these two art forms intersect for him.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes speculative fiction writer R. B. Wood.

R. B. Wood is a recent MFA graduate of Emerson College and a writer of speculative and dark thrillers. Mr. Wood recently has appeared in Crystal Lake Publishing’s Shallow Water’s anthology, as well as online via SickLit Magazine & HorrorAddicts.net, and in the award-winning anthology Offbeat: Nine Spins on Song from Wicked ink Books.  Along with his writing passion, R. B. is the host of The Word Count Podcast—a show of original flash fiction.

R. B. currently lives in Boston with his partner Tina, a multitude of cats, and various other critters that visit from time to time.

Around the web: Website | Twitter | Facebook | Amazon’s R.B. Wood page

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster. Let’s just dive right in and talk about your latest release, Bayou Whispers. Where did the idea for the book come from? Why did you choose New Orleans as the setting? And, why did you choose Voodoo as the primary magic system for the book?

RBW: Bayou Whispers was actually my genre thesis piece for my Emerson MFA. Believe it or not, it started out as a strict Southern Gothic horror story that took place in Georgia (with a different working title, of course)! But as I developed the characters, it became obvious to me that this story was going to be…needed to be… a fast-paced supernatural thriller with horror elements. But beyond genre, the story of my main character, Jeannine LaRue, is one of survival. We all have some sort of survival story to tell—especially after a year of Covid, so what better city to set the story in than a city that optimizes survival: Namely New Orleans? I spent a lot of time in NOLA in the 90’s and aughts…I love speaking with the locals, and then there is, of course, the music, the food and the history of the region. That’s when the voodoo and Haitian elements really came into play.

GMM: How much research went into the writing of the book for setting, characters, themes, etc.? Did you learn anything new while you were doing the research? Did anything surprise you while doing research?

RBW: Research is my Achilles Heel when it comes to “time sucking activities.” Before the pandemic, I traveled to New Orleans and spent a few weeks interviewing people (bars are great for conversations and I’ve been known to enjoy a cocktail or two now and then), researching locations, touring the actual Bayou in an airboat, and listening to some of the crazy stories that are still told about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. I also watched Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts which is a brutally honest look at what happened and how we, as a country failed the people of New Orleans.

This experience (both the MFA and writing this novel) is where I truly began to understand my privilege as a white male and how the social changes we are undergoing as a country need to happen to truly create the diverse yet equal country we dream of. The number of discussions I had about race alone in New Orleans was both educational and passionate and who I am has changed—hopefully for the better. At age 56, I’m still a work in progress!

GMM: Is Bayou Whispers the first book in a series or a stand-alone novel? If this novel is part of a series, what can readers expect next? In terms of writing process, how has writing this novel been different from other things you’ve written? If this isn’t part of a series, what are you currently working on, or what’s next?

RBW: While Jeannine’s story is standalone, there are subtle links to my first novel, The Prodigal’s Foole. The book I’m currently working on is tentatively titled The Illusionist & The Wizard and it takes place in 1880’s New York. The elevator pitch on this one is “To solve the unnatural murder of Manhattan elites including his Father, journalist Whitelaw Greeley engages with Harry Houdini and Nikola Tesla to uncover the truth.” I like to describe this upcoming work as a historical supernatural thriller. Think Caleb Carr’s Alienist meets Kolchak: The Night Stalker. There will also be some light connective tissue between this new book, Bayou Whispers and The Prodigal’s Foole. This may eventually lead to an “Avengers” like trilogy, but that’s dependent on sales and popularity.

BAYOU WHISPERS brief synopsis

Bayou Whispers is the story of no-nonsense New Orleans native, Jeannine LaRue, the sole survivor of her family after the devastation brought on by Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of the storm, she believed she’d been saved, but soon found herself held hostage and sexually exploited, rescued months later by sheriff’s deputy Curtis Jones.  Twelve years after Katrina, Jeannine is a new attorney who returns to New Orleans to save her old friend Curtis Jones—now a local thief and trafficker of stolen goods—after he is arrested for the murder of Jeannine’s captors, whose bodies have recently been found. But Jeannine discovers more than she bargained for when she uncovers a family history of dark voodoo magic and an unholy alliance with an ancient evil Haitian loa.

Bayou Whispers Prologue 

31 October 2005
Orleans Parish, Louisiana

On Halloween night that year, no little ghosts or goblins wandered the streets in search of candy. No laughter rang out in what was left of the Lower 9th Ward neighborhood. Two months after Katrina had ravaged this place, it still resembled a war zone, covered in debris and stagnant pools of foul-smelling water from the levee breach.

As midnight approached, a young teenager—naked, dirty, covered in mosquito bites, and with a nasty leg wound wrapped in crusted-over grey rags—stumbled from a copse of trees. She was thin, so very thin, weighing barely eighty pounds. 

The muddy and cracked streets before her sat dark and empty; human detritus littered the roads and yards, and the skeletons of ruined homes bore unintelligible spray paint that looked more like the desperate scratching of a fluorescent wild beast than symbols from a nameless insurance company or traumatized recovery workers. 

It was a city of the dead, a city of the damned. 

Right foot, left foot drag. One step at a time. The pain didn’t matter. It can’t matter.

Jeannine had been walking for what felt like forever, almost in a trance, placing one bloody foot in front of the other. Moving forward was the only thing that mattered. 

Keep moving. Those white guys might be following. Keep moving. 

Right foot, left foot drag.

She walked through glass and rusted nails, around junked appliances and damp, moldy couches. A dog barked once in the distance. 

A patrol car sat watch at the end of the street, engine idling. Jeannine approached, fear causing each step to hesitate. The light of a burning cigarette brightened as the occupant of the vehicle, still in shadow, took a long drag.

“Help,” croaked Jeannine. Her voice strained, rough. Insects chirped. Frogs called to their mates. No one heard her.

Right foot, left foot drag.

The person in the car took another pull, a dot of orange light flaring, then fading.

“Help!” she called, louder this time. The insects and the frogs stopped. The patrol car’s dome light winked on as the door opened.

Jeannine screamed.

She screamed as the cop ran toward her. She screamed as the cop took off his own shirt to wrap around her. She screamed as the cop carried her to the car.

“Jesus H. Christ! Randy, call for an ambulance!” yelled the cop.        

The cop’s partner, still inside the car, got on the radio.

Jeannine continued to scream until her vocal cords tore. She tasted blood.

“You’re safe, honey,” said the cop for the seventh time. Jeannine finally heard him.

He stayed with her until the ambulance arrived and then rode with her to the hospital. He spoke to the doctors on her behalf. He sat with her in intensive care while Jeannine, clean for the first time in months, slept. He watched her tossing, turning, and moaning softly.

Randy, the cop’s partner, arrived at the hospital. He’d taken care of the paperwork and had brought a po’ boy and a coffee. The sandwich was left untouched.

For the next hour, the partners sat a silent vigil over Jeannine.

The first cop must have drifted off because he woke with a start when someone placed a hand on his shoulder.

“Officer Jones?” asked a man in scrubs. “I’m Doctor Broussard. Can we talk outside for a minute?”

The cop looked to his partner and he nodded back at him.

“Go,” said Randy. “I’ll be here.”

Jones followed the doctor into the hallway.

“Officer, we can’t find any of…” He glanced at a clipboard. “…Jeannine’s family. I wanted to let you know that in the morning, and assuming she’s still stable…” The doctor let his words drift off as he swallowed hard. 

Jones noticed the man’s youth, how inexperienced he must’ve been before Katrina hit. The doctor looked like some of the baby-faced soldiers Curtis had met during the war—young men, children, really, who grew up quickly in the face of tragedy and death. 

Jones put his hand on the doctor’s shoulder.

“Yes. Sorry,” said Dr. Broussard. “It’s been a long couple of months of giving out bad news.”

“I understand,” said Jones automatically. “Just hit me with it, Doc.”

“She…Jeannine…we are going to have to remove her leg. The infection is too severe and there is gangrene.”

“Do what you have to,” said Jones impassively.

“But without parental…”

“Will the surgery save her life?”

“Yes.”

“Take her leg, then.” Jones’s left eye twitched once.

Doctor Broussard nodded. “I’ll need you to sign.”

A moment later, Jones returned to Jeannine’s room.

“Well?” asked Randy.

Jones slumped into a chair. “They’re going to take it in the morning.”

Suddenly, Jeannine sat up, ice-blue eyes wide, unblinking.

It was those eyes that had thrown him. This young teen—he’d met her once before the storm. He didn’t recognize her at first, as she practically crawled from the bayou, filthy and emaciated. The last time Curtis had seen her—she’d been covered in blood.

She had brown eyes then. He remembered them—unblinking and staring into a nightmare of unimaginable horror.             

“Jane Doe” was Jeannine LaRue. Jones was sure being a child of mixed-race parents was hard enough to grow up with in this town, but this young woman had experienced far more and far worse than her fourteen years had prepared her for.

Jones knew who she was now; she had been returned unlike so many of those in the missing persons reports.

The details of so many lost souls broken down into height, weight, and hair color.

“You all right, Jeannine?” he asked.

She looked at Jones, eyes unfocused from the drugs the doctors had pumped into her.

“Papa Nightmare is here!” she said in a frantic whisper. “Papa Nightmare!”

“Shhh. It’s all right, honey. You are safe now. I’m here and I won’t leave you.”

Jeannine blankly looked at Jones. He gently helped her lie back down.

“Right foot, left foot,” she muttered as her eyes fluttered once before closing.

The drugs took a lasting hold, and Jeannine’s breathing slowed. She spoke occasionally, nonsense words mostly. Jones held her hand for the rest of that night. “You’re safe,” he whispered again. “I promise.”

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: Salvantonio Clemente

Last week I chatted with queer horror writer, Andrew Robertson about growing up in the 80s under the shadow of the AIDS epidemic and how writing horror has given him a space to explore aspects of identity.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes writer and musician Salvantonio Clemente.

Ah…here is where I introduce myself (awwwkward).

My name is Salvantonio Clemente, but that’s too many vowels so, call me Sal. Occasionally, my partner calls me “jerk”; I suspect others might do so as well.

I’m a life-long writer, producer, and performer of music. I’m an aspiring writer and voracious consumer of stories, and I write speculative fiction that leans heavily toward the possible. I’ve spent the last year writing a baker’s dozen short stories and banging out two novels, the second of which will be completed in June.

It is my sincere wish to spend the rest of my days creating worlds and playing in them. Of course, it was once my destiny to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, so…baby steps.

I am fortunate to have the unswerving support of my partner, Darcie Lynn Clemente. We live just outside Boston and have three grown daughters, Maria, Emma, and Lola, who are all far more talented than I am. Thank you, Michelle, for asking me to participate in Girl Meets Monster…I feel like I’ve arrived!

All about my band, The Ultrasonic Rock Orchestra:
www.urorocks.com
www.facebook.com/UROrocks

My author website is under construction but visit me soon at:
www.writescifi.com

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Sal. And, thank you again for inviting me to be part of your writing group, The Scrawling Commandos. It has been great getting to know you and the other members of our small writing community, sharing stories, asking honest questions about writing, and supporting each other during these strange times. Can you give a little bit of background about the writing group, and why you believe writing communities are important to writers — aspiring or established? What have you discovered about yourself as a writer and what have you learned from others in the group?

SC: The first thing I discovered? I am not as good as I imagined.

This hurt my soul but was super-useful!

Our writing group is the brainchild of our mutual friend and all-around great guy, Mike Burke. After a twenty-year adventure in a rock band, I desperately needed a place to hone my somewhat atrophied fiction writing skills. So, I stuck my foot in the door at Commandos HQ and refused to remove it until Mike allowed me inside.

I recommend a writing group to rookie or veteran, but only if they’re willing to lower their defenses. There’s a place for affirmation, but we all have folks who fill that need, a writing group needs to be more useful.Still, in our group it’s imperative to deliver our criticism with respect for the effort given; it shouldn’t ever feel like blunt-force trauma when a critique comes.

As artists, it’s vital to have a place we can step outside the strictures of what’s expected, to screw up or succeed as the case may be. Within the confines of the group, I can invest myself into any character, any culture, any point of view, and I’m going to get honest, direct, useful, feedback about the work. If the story needs correction, or jettisoning, or to be curbed, then my comrades give me specific ideas on what to do, which is invaluable because my goal is to sell stories.

It’s not easy; we have our ups and downs, but over the course of 3 years I still very much want to do this thing with these people. I feel tremendous pride in their successes; our camaraderie is genuine. It’s working so far, as my friends have yet to hit the eject button on my seat.

GMM: I’m really glad you decided to share an excerpt from “Arcana Major.” I really liked this story when I read it a few months back and I’m hoping that you either expand on the story, or get it ready for submission as is. I think I mentioned how real the characters seemed to me. I felt like I knew them because they reminded me of kids I grew up with, and the band’s performance brought back memories of seeing live music in dives and weird places like the Knights of Columbus. Where did the idea for the story come from, and are your characters based on people you know? Is this a fictionalized account of something that happened to you as a teenager?

SC: I am really glad you liked “Arcana Major.” It’s a good thing since the story wouldn’t have happened without the prompt which you provided for our writing group, which included the Tarot and a gender flip for the main protagonist.

I knew almost nothing about Tarot, other than bits I’ve consumed through films and TV, but once I dug in, I became obsessed with the artwork!

These cards are amazing! If I had seen them when I was a young musician, I would have insisted the band all take on a different card/character as a persona, and this led to the idea of having the story be about a band.

Jenn (with two n’s) is based on who I was as a naïve youngster trying to get my original band off the ground. The other members of Arcana Major are each based on real people. One of the guys was inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame this year! He and I were in a few bands back in Pennsylvania, before I moved to Boston and he went on to massive fame.

“Arcana Major” was a hoot to write, a fantasy, but one rooted in rust belt Pennsylvania and how things really were. A lot of the story is the truth; hopefully, enough to make it feel genuine.

GMM: Music is obviously an important part of your life, and I’ve noticed that music finds a way into several of your stories I’ve read so far. Music is really important to me, too, and I believe it has had a major impact on shaping me as a person and even as a writer. When did you really know you wanted to be a musician, and how has music influenced your writing, and/or vice versa? Is music an important part of your writing process? Have specific songs inspired stories? Have stories inspired your music?

SC: I wanted to be an artist and the definition was broad for me; I’m sure this was due to my upbringing. My mom was a singer and dad was a writer who produced and directed theatre: a true renaissance man. I wrote, drew, painted, performed, directed. I did a lot of theater, and then discovered rock bands, and found a calling I couldn’t resist.

I focused all my efforts into learning to be a musician, writer, and performer, but the itch to write fiction never went away, and the advent of the pandemic opened up the time to give it proper attention.

As to what part music plays in my writing? It’s nearly all subconscious. There’s Bowie and Queen and The Beatles, but I grew up on comics, pulp fiction, sixties and seventies paperbacks, Dark Shadows, Dali, Shakespeare, Kubrick, Rod Serling, on and on, like all of us. With all of this bouncing around in my skull, my writing veers off in a lot of trippy directions.

Three of my short stories feature musicians as characters, but only “Arcana Major” directly touches on my own experience.

As for stories inspiring music that I’ve written, I had never thought about it until reading your question, but it is undoubtedly the case that I have written songs based on stories I’ve read.

When I’m writing, I often listen to instrumental music, but I need to tailor the music to the story. For instance, I’m listening to the score to The Knick, and The Queen’s Gambit, on an endless loop while I’m writing the novel I’m working on. This particular music helps to unlock my subconscious and allows me to get in a flow with the words. As dumb as it sounds…that’s how it works for me. Thanks, again, Michelle! This was too much dang fun! Back to the grind!

Excerpt from “Arcana Major” by Salvantonio Clemente

Minor Arcana: Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

Steam blasts from a radiator nozzle and I catch a snootful of patchouli oil. At Joe’s Cabinet of Curios and Curiosities, the only thing curious is that the cops let Joe get away with open displays of paraphernalia and Dead bootlegs. The rest of us can’t cross the street without showing our papers.

I’m Jenn with two n’s, and I’m here for the spinner racks jammed with books on the occult, zen stuff, and philosophy. Don’t ask me who in my rust-belt town this fine array is aimed at, but I am desperate for a band name and last week the town library shut down for good.

I’m wedging out a dusty brick of Kahlil Gibran poetry when I spot the corner of the Tarot deck’s slipcase peeking out from a stack of ratty back issues of Cream.

I snatch the cards from the pile, and the room gets weird.

The embossed case is cold, slippery, heavy.

I tip the deck into my hand, and the cards resonate like the first time I cranked my amp and hit a perfect power chord.

I shuffle through the deck as the afternoon sun slashes through strings of colored beads hanging in the smoke-hazed window. Fireworks go off on my retinas and trigger a memory of when I was six and dad slid his leather headphones over my ears; he held them in place while mom dropped the needle on Switched On Bach and little kid me saw stars being born inside billion year old nebulas.

Like back then, I have to remember to breathe.

Yeah.

It’s that kind of life-altering resonance.

I’m a musician. I feel the same sensation—okay, maybe not this intense—when Father Herron cuts loose on the big pipe organ after Sunday mass. Hell, the National Anthem gives me goosebumps, and I don’t buy a word of anything said by priests or politicians. But I don’t believe in mystical hoodoo, either. Whatever’s happening is physics and biology; some strange combination of factors hitting my system all at once, giving the deck its charge.

Still, when the universe shows you a sign it’s probably best to read it, right? I don’t know jack squat about the Tarot, but in my hand is the key to my band’s future. I know it.

I sweet-talk Joe down to five bucks and, with the deck still vibrating in my hip pocket, kick the door open and head out into the cold.

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.