Fiction Fragments: Patricia Lillie

Lillie_hatLast week, horror writer Lynn Hortel stopped by to share her fragment and talk about the things that sometimes prevent us from finishing a writing project. This week, my friend and fellow Seton Hill alum, Patricia Lillie is here at Girl Meets Monster. Two weekends ago, I had the pleasure of catching up with Patricia at our MFA in Writing Popular Fiction alumni weekend. I hadn’t seen Patricia in a few years and our visit, however brief, was long overdue. You just don’t realize how much you miss someone until you see them and get a chance to remember why you love them so much. We stayed up WAY too late talking about financial troubles, our favorite beers, traveling abroad, life goals and how they change in middle-age, and, of course, writing. I hope I have a chance to catch up with Patricia again soon.

Patricia Lillie grew up in a haunted house in a small town in Northeast Ohio. Since then, she has published six picture books (not scary), a few short stories (scary), and dozens of fonts. A graduate of Parsons the New School for Design and Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program, she is a freelance writer and designer addicted to coffee, chocolate, and cake. She also knits and sometimes purls.

Her debut novel, The Ceiling Man, was released in 2017 and is available for Kindle and in paperback. Find her on the web at www.PatriciaLillie.com.

Her much nicer alter ego Kay Charles writes cozy-ish mysteries. Ghosts in Glass Houses, the first Marti Mickkleson Mystery, is available now. Visit Kay on the web at www.KayCharles.com.

Three Questions

Girl Meets Monster: In the words of Chuck the Prophet from Supernatural, “Writing is hard.” Do you have a lot of unfinished projects? What do you do with them?

Patricia: I have a veritable shit-tonne of fragments stashed in various folders all over my hard drive. (Someday, I should collect them all in one place.) Most are beginnings that went nowhere. Sometimes, I find them later, they strike some chord, and I turn them into stories. Sometimes, they get published.

Girl Meets Monster: Which of your fragments have you gone back to and eventually published?

Patricia: “The Cuckoo Girls” (in Nightscript, Vol. 1, edited by C.M. Muller) started as a fragment I didn’t know what to do with and stashed away. Sometimes, they aren’t what I thought they were. What I thought was the beginning of a short story of quiet horror turned into the beginning of my first cozy mystery. (Boy, did I have to some cleaning up there!) Most of the time, say 99.9% of the time, they go nowhere.

Girl Meets Monster: What was the inspiration for this fragment?

Patricia: This was written in response to a prompt, at a time when I was stuck and making no headway in what I was supposed to be working on. I believe the prompt had to do with a character who shares a name with a character from a favorite book, but don’t recall exactly what it was. I do recall some of the places I thought it might go at the time, and yeah—none are good. Which is why it’s one of those unfinished fragments. No title, because I have a hard enough time coming up with titles for finished projects.

Untitled Fragment, by Patricia Lillie

Merricat Williamson wanted to write a ghost story. For that, she blamed her parents, who never told her the origins of her name, and her Freshman Comp professor, who led her to find out.

In her first class on her first day of college, he called her name. She answered “Present” even though she wished she was anywhere else in the world, but mostly in her room at home, instead of over-dressed and crammed into a tiny desk in an un-air-conditioned room at XXXX Community College, and he said something about living in a castle. At first, she thought he was calling her a princess. Dr. Benjamin George was beautiful. Merricat felt a flush rise from somewhere near her big toe up her body until her cheeks stung with heat. She heard the snicker from the back of the room—it had to be Miss Perky Blond Prom Queen—and she knew she’d been insulted. Tongue-tied, she said nothing and squirmed in her seat. Dr. Gorgeous-Georgous finished calling roll. Merricat didn’t catch the last two names, but one of them belonged to the Prom Queen.

As soon as she had a chance, she Googled “Merricat” and “castle” and discovered her parents were even more twisted than she thought. She spent the next two classes hiding in the back of the room, but over weekend she read We Have Always Lived in the Castle followed by The Haunting of Hill House. Had she read them before her first week of college, she might have answered the castle comment with, “Just call me Nell,” but she’d never heard of or read Shirley Jackson. For that, she blamed her high school English teachers.

Merricat Williamson always had lots of blame to spread around.

On Monday, she took what had become her regular seat in the back corner. Miss Royally Perky bounced into the room, scurried past five empty seats, and plopped down beside her. The girl was short. Really short. About a lollipop over Munchkin-level short. Merricat nearly gagged at the cloying smell of cheap perfume, but kept her mouth clamped shut and her eyes glued to the front of the room. Georgeous-Georgous was late. He needed to get there and start class before the pocket-sized prom queen tried to talk to her.

“We should be friends,” Little Miss Perky said. “I have a literary name too.”

Merricat ignored her and hoped she’d take the hint.

“Dorrit.”

Merricat burst out laughing. Her high school English teacher lived and breathed Dickens. Although Merricat had never read Little Dorrit, the title alone was enough to cause the pint-sized perk-miester endless grief.

“Yeah. Trust me. I’ve heard it all my life. My parents are barely above midget status themselves. I totally blame them.”

Merricat wasn’t ready to get too carried away, but maybe she’d found a friend. She didn’t make friends easily.

Next week horror writer C. R. Langille joins me here at Girl Meets Monster. Would you like to be part of this kick-ass blog series? Comment below, or drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: Lynn Hortel

Lynn

Last week VM Burns stopped by to talk about writing and unfinished projects, and this week Lynn Hortel is here to share an abandoned horror story. I met Lynn at Seton Hill University while earning an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. Like me, Lynn is a single mom who writes dark fiction inspired by her dark past. When Lynn submitted her fragment, she wrote:

This started out as a BDSM erotica experiment. Then I decided it would definitely be a short horror story. Then it got tossed in the fragment pile never to be looked at again.

This is not a Romance.

Look for Lynn’s debut  horror novel coming out next year.

Lynn Hortel has lived in several cities throughout the southwest. She never felt settled until she moved to Joshua Tree where she fell in love with the surreal landscape. At Seton Hill University she earned an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction, and Throwback is her first complete novel—partly written out in the desert, scribbled on notebook paper while surrounded by cacti. When she’s not writing, she enjoys hiking, stargazing, and wildflower viewing. She lives with her son and an Australian Cattle Dog named Richard.

Three Questions

Girl Meets Monster: When did you begin writing and why?

Lynn:  I wrote stories as long as I can remember, but when I was fifteen I wrote a short story for school, and the teacher told me she’d shared it with others, including the principal, and they all cried. It felt powerful to cause emotion like that. That’s when I knew I should be a writer.

Girl Meets Monster: Your fiction deals with dark themes, where does your inspiration come from?

Lynn: My dark and traumatic childhood provides the biggest inspiration, but not just that. Even if my early life had been idyllic, I’d be obsessed with the need to understand bad things. Part of it is a silly, superstitious belief that if I keep my eye on evil, I can protect myself and my loved ones. Plus, dark things are delicious.

Girl Meets Monster: What stops you from finishing writing projects?

Lynn: Things that a lot of people struggle with — fear of success, fear of failure, resentment that I can’t pour myself into a project the way I want to because I have to work, so why bother. I think one of the biggest things that defines successful authors is their ability to write through any circumstance, so I’m working on it. At the end of the day it just boils down to putting down the words even though my tired, overworked self would rather read someone else’s.

Not A Romance, by Lynn Hortel

Katy walked down the musty apartment complex hallway and descended several flights of stairs to the first floor. Then she paused in the stairwell to check her phone. Maybe Mr. Bishop had left a voice mail. I want to do the right thing, Katy. I tore up the contract. See you at work on Monday.

No messages on her glossy, black android. Just a text from the driver. Bishop’s driver waiting out front.

She felt a sudden, strong urge to pee but didn’t want to climb back up all the stairs to use the bathroom. She might not come back down. Just nerves. It’ll go away. Maybe the bladder pressure would distract from the dread.

In the smooth, white landscape behind the glass entrance, a long, black limousine sat parked in front of her apartment complex. The first snow of winter fell and dusted the vehicle in lacy flakes.

She paused, took a deep breath, and pushed the lobby door open. Cold air stung her cheeks.

The biting cold combined with anxiety made her lungs seize. Katy put the flat of her hand against her chest, coughed, and forced a deep breath. This is what her poor daughter felt like—this and much worse. Katy could follow through if she focused on the real purpose- to help Annie.

A short, stocky man with brown skin and a black beanie cap exited the limo and opened the door to the backseat. He gave her a nod, huddled in his long black coat, and rubbed his mitten clad hands together while he waited for her to enter.

Did he know the deal she’d made? “Hi,” she said.

“Morning.” He smiled and gestured to the open door. It beckoned her inside like a hungry mouth.

Her heart hammered. Frozen, her limbs wouldn’t move. Was that pity in his eyes? He looked like someone who might live in her building rather than a bank employee. This comforted her a little. Still, she’d be consumed by the time she finished this, swallowed and digested, never the same. Was she doing the right thing? It didn’t matter. Too late to back out.

The poor man must be freezing while he waited out in the cold for her to get in the car. If for no other reason than to relieve his discomfort, she willed herself forward a few steps, so he could get back inside and warm up. Her black, leather boots crunched in the dirty, fallen snow.

Mr. Bishop’s assistant popped her head out and waved. “Hi Katy. Hop on in and let’s go. You’re letting all the heat out.” She wore deep red lipstick, and her glossy, brunette hair in a twisted, complicated up-do.

Katy paused in the silent stillness. She hadn’t known she’d have an escort. Another person who knew the truth about this arrangement, but not the whole truth. “Oh. Hi, Diane.”

Diane said, “That’s all right. You get in whenever you’re ready. I’m going to close the door, though. It’s cold out there.” She disappeared back inside the black monster limousine and shut the door. The driver followed suit and started the engine but just idled.

For a few seconds Katy’s mind spun in a million directions for a way out of  this—for a solution that didn’t end in a potentially fatal lack of medical care for Annie—or else the terrible, looming, irreversible tryst with Mr. Bishop. But there was nothing she could do except ride this dark wave towards the inevitable. All that mattered was Annie’s health.

Decision made, her pummeling heartbeat mellowed to a dull thud. In a daze she opened the door, sat down, and shut herself inside the black beast. “Good morning.” She tried to act normal, although, there was nothing normal about this situation.

Diane returned her good morning with a warm smile and the whitest teeth Katy had ever seen. Her coat was deep, rich, emerald green, the color of money.

Katy hadn’t thought it possible, but her stomach clenched even more when the limo pull away from the curb and drove down the street. Don’t let me be sick. Please don’t let  me be sick.

They picked up speed and drove in silence for a while. Diane had told her not to bring anything, no clothes or toiletries. Everything she needed would be provided. Like prison—they go in and leave with the same single set of clothes and their personal items in a paper bag. Through the car window, buildings and street signs moved along and got left behind along with her low income neighborhood. Butterflies flapped their wings harder and harder inside her belly. Screw butterflies. More like pterodactyls. She smiled. When she’d asked Annie if she wanted a giant painting of a butterfly on her bedroom wall for her birthday, Annie asked for a picture of a dinosaur instead, so she’d painted a cool prehistoric landscape mural with flying pterodactyls that covered an entire wall in her bedroom. Annie wasn’t fragile like a butterfly. She was tough. Toughness ran in the family.

They pulled into the valet lane in front of a huge hotel in a wealthy part of the city Katy had rarely driven through—even though she’d lived nearby for years. Huge glass doors displayed a giant lobby with black and gold décor and a ruby red carpet similar to the one in the upstairs hall of the bank.

She clenched her teeth until her jaw ached. Why couldn’t he just give her a pass on her stupid money mistake out of the kindness of his heart? Obviously, he could afford it and spare everyone involved a hell of a lot of pain and suffering. If only he’d accept her offer to pay the money back in payments, but no can do. Now this had to happen. Of course she’d do everything she could to spare him the consequences, but for the most part, it was out of her hands. Boy, would he be sorry.

“Well, here we are.” Diane said. Two young men in black bow ties and vests opened their doors in unison and then stepped back so they could exit the limo.

Katy willed her body to get up, but she remained glued to the seat.

Diane stuck her head back inside the car and smiled her perfect red-lipsticked smile. “Are you coming?”

Katy swallowed. “I’m just going to stay here.”

Diane offered her slender, pale hand. Long, polished nails matched her lipstick. “Come. It’ll be all right.”

No, it wouldn’t. But Katy sighed, took her hand, and exited the limo. The prescription bottle filled with sleeping medication rattled inside her backpack. For mercy’s sake, she hoped she’d brought enough. Mr. Bishop was built like a behemoth.

The driver drove the limo away and disappeared into the parking garage. They entered the hotel through the giant glass doors.

Dressed in a black and red uniform with gold embellishments and a ridiculous cap, the bell hop greeted them with a nod. “Hello, Ms. Diane.” He leered and winked at Katy with brown eyes that shone with a maroon glow. His jaw lengthened. He smiled with a mouth too wide and revealed broken, yellow teeth mottled with brown stains.

Katy looked down and away. It’s starting. No, his eyes must reflect the red carpeting somehow.

A portly man with a salt and pepper beard played a grand piano. Amongst red square pillars from floor to ceiling, men in suits talked to skinny, beautified young women at small, round tables with what looked like cocktails in front of them. Maybe they were virgin. It was early for alcohol, and the girls appeared too young.

Katy felt out of place in her thrift store jacket, Levi’s, and uncombed, wavy brown hair.

Diane introduced her to the satanic bellhop whose face had somehow returned to normal. “This is Katy. She works for Mr. Bishop.” He extended his respectful welcome.

All three of them entered the elevator. Katy did not look at the bellhop but listened to him banter with Diane in a mild, friendly tone of voice about the new, snowy weather. She must have imagined the red-eyed grin. Anticipation had her seeing things. He sounded nice enough. As long as she didn’t look at his face, it would be okay, but she knew, just knew if she looked at him again, his eyes would glow red.

The door created hundreds of years ago by ancestors she’d never met was already opening.

Red lit numbers rose all the way to the top floor. When they exited the elevator, instead of the usual endless row of doors that led to cookie cutter rooms like in motels. the hallway revealed only one set of huge, ornate double doors.

They walked down the long hallway towards the entrance all the way at the end. Katy’s heart pounded so loud and hard, she thought Diane and the bellhop must hear it. She smelled something—like burnt matches or sulfur, but she kept moving forward with cold, leaden limbs.

“Here we are,” Diane said. She knocked on the door and entered without waiting for an answer. “He’s expecting us.”

Katy had everything under control for so long. How had the world spun so far off its axis in just the last few weeks? She followed Diane inside.

Next week, Patricia Lillie and her alter ego, Kay Charles, joins Girl Meets Monster to talk about the benefits of recycling your abandoned fiction. Got some unfinished fiction you’d like to share? Comment below or send it to chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: VM Burns

Author PhotoLast week poet B. E. Burkhead dropped by for a visit, and this week V.M. Burns is here to share an unfinished mystery. I say unfinished rather than abandoned, because not only am I hoping to read the finished novel, but Valerie told me she fully intends to finish writing it when she has some time. Of course, she’s a little occupied right now with her three mystery series: The Mystery Bookshop Mystery Series, The RJ  Franklin Mystery Series, and The Dog Club Mystery Series.

I met Valerie in the MFA for Writing Popular Fiction Program at Seton Hill University a few years ago, and we became fast friends during late night conversations where we planned our futures. I learned about raising poodles and a great recipe for sweet potato pie, and Valerie learned WAY more than she ever wanted to about vampires and other spooky stuff. I’m looking forward to seeing Valerie this weekend at Seton Hill’s MFA Alumni weekend.

V.M. Burns was born in Northwestern Indiana. She is a lover of dogs, British historic cozies, and scones with clotted cream. She currently lives in Eastern Tennessee. Her debut novel, The Plot is Murder was nominated for a 2017 Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Readers can learn more by visiting her website at vmburns.com.

Three Questions

Girl Meets Monster: What made you decide to write a mystery inspired by fairytales?

VM Burns: After I completed my thesis novel and Mystery Bookshop series, I struggled to find a home for either series. I slowed down on sending queries and decided to write something fun. I loved watching Once Upon A Time on ABC and thought how fun to combine Fairy Tales with cozy mysteries.

Girl Meets Monster: Aside from time, what stopped you from finishing this project?

VM Burns: My agent isn’t excited about this project. She feels it may be too far out. So, when its done I will need to edit and market it myself which is going to take more time than I have.

Girl Meets Monster: Without giving us any spoilers, do you know how this story ends?

VM Burns: Not yet, but I’m a pantser so this isn’t unusual.

Once Upon A Murder, by VM Burns

Chapter 1

The day I discovered my archenemy dead with one of my brother’s arrows through her heart changed the course of my life forever, and turned my brother into a fugitive. My dreams of happily ever after were shattered and I became a huntress of truth and justice. But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. I’ll start at the beginning.

Once upon a time in the small sea side village of Andersonville, lived a beautiful princess named Boadicea, or ‘Bo’ for short. Well, she wasn’t really a princess, as in someone of royal birth. However, she definitely wore the mantle of privilege and superiority like a robe befitting a royal. Bo was tall and slender with long blonde hair which was thick and curly. Not curly like the thick red, wiry mane that tops my head and frizzes up into a birds nest when it’s humid. Nope. Bo’s hair never frizzes. In fact, the more humid the weather, the curlier her hair becomes. It was magical the way the weather had the exact opposite effect on her than it did on me, but then Bo’s life was charmed. Blue eyes like the sea in the early morning. Skin like butter milk without a zit in sight, she often boasted she’d never had a zit in her twenty-five years. Hard to believe? Truly, I’ve known her my entire life and I’ve never seen her with a blemish or imperfection of any kind. During our teenage years when most girls, myself included resorted to unique makeup diversions and fashion accessories like scarves, hats and veils to hide the red, puss-filled mounds that erupted at the worse possible moments; or the scars and craters that followed. Oh no. Not Bo. She, like Mary Poppins was practically perfect in every way. But, I’m not bitter. Well, maybe a little, but I’m working through it.

“Hey freak.”

Unfortunately, Bo’s obnoxious attitude wasn’t helping. I should be used to her after all these years. Freak, Red-headed Freak, and clown head were the pet names she’d used to address me since grade school. The fact that she had no compunction against shouting them across the village square during the middle of the day while the villagers chuckled and stared at me was another reason bitterness had become my constant companion.

Time taught me ignoring Bo would only make matters worse. Thankfully, the gods only saw fit to crown her with beauty rather than wit. Brains were the only weapon I possessed and in a battle of wits, Bo was ill-equipped for the fight. With a heavy sigh, I turned and faced my opponent.

I bowed low and mumbled, “You screeched your majesty.”

Bo and her entourage, which consisted of her two closest friends, Mary Lamb and Dee Locke (Goldy to her friends) stood in the middle of the market and stared at me as though I smelled of dung. Which might have been true since I had taken a short cut through a couple of fields to get to the market early enough to setup my booth. Darn, I would never be able to sell enough baked goods if I smelled of cow dung. I’d have to get someone to watch my stall and change clothes. Or at the very least, I’d change shoes. But then maybe the scowl on their faces was just their normal pained expression.

“What is that god awful stench?”

Seriously, I want to read the rest of this story.

Next week, Lynn Hortel joins Girl Meets Monster with an unfinished horror story and a few words on why it’s hard to finish projects sometimes. Would you like to be included in this blog series? Comment below, or send me your writing fragments to chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: Jennifer Loring

JennLoringLast week I introduced a new blog series, Fiction Fragments, in which I will share abandoned writing projects. Each week, a different writer will be featured. You’ll learn a little bit about their writing process, you’ll learn a little bit about them, and get a chance to read some of their unfinished work.

This week, I welcome my good friend and fellow writer, Jennifer Loring. I met Jenn during my first MFA in Writing Popular Fiction residency at Seton Hill University. She was one of my first critique partners and I always looked forward to reading the pages she sent me. Since then, we’ve visited a haunted penitentiary, attended horror writing conventions, and talked about our shared love of vampires over many beers.

Jennifer Loring’s short fiction has been published widely both online and in print, including the anthologies Tales from the Lake vol. 1 and vol. 4 and Nightscript vol. 4. Longer work includes the novel Those of My Kind, published by Omnium Gatherum, and the novella Conduits from Lycan Valley Press. Jenn is a member of the International Thriller Writers (ITW) and the Horror Writers Association (HWA). She holds an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University with a concentration in horror fiction and teaches online in SNHU’s College of Continuing Education. Jenn lives in Philadelphia, PA with her husband, where they are owned by a turtle and two basset hounds.

Three Questions

Girl Meets Monster: What inspired this fragment?

Jenn: It was a long time ago, but I believe it was inspired at least in part by a Velvet Acid Christ album cover. Music is always a huge inspiration for me. The general concept was, as you can probably tell from the title, a dying man’s dream. However, this particular man is about to be executed.

Girl Meets Monster: What kept you from continuing with the story?

Jenn: Mostly because I felt I couldn’t do justice to the idea in my head. Which is something we all deal with throughout our careers and something I’ve learned to work through, but I was still fairly young at this point—26 or so, I think—so I didn’t have the confidence in my writing that I’ve gradually built up since then.

Girl Meets Monster: Do you know how this story ends?

Jenn: Great question! I honestly have no idea. I’ve kept it for almost 15 years, so I guess I had the intention of finishing it at some point. His being executed would be too obvious, so maybe he would get a last-minute pardon?

Last Dream of a Dead Man, by Jennifer Loring
The mattress damp with fluids not his own huffed as he sat up and peered at the dirt-encrusted floor beneath him. A dim light came from somewhere, perhaps the same place as the voices that crawled through the walls and into his ears like hissing cockroaches. Liquid puddled in the corners of the room. Too dark to tell if it was water or blood.

Wake up, the voices screamed inside his head. He pinched himself. Awake. He did not know where he was, though the cell looked vaguely familiar.

The girl rolled into his room in a wheelchair, sewing a new leg onto the stump of her left thigh. Both arms and her right leg bore stitch marks made of heavy dark thread. She was the same as that night when he’d taken her, with the pink headband in her long blond hair. “Are little girls made of sugar and spice and everything nice?” she asked him, the needle diving in and out of the leg she held with her other hand. He wondered whose limbs they were or if, being a child, she even cared that they didn’t belong to her. “Or are they made of flesh and blood like everyone else?”

He looked down and found his arms and legs lying in a red pool, the remaining stumps spurting an alarming amount of blood. The girl laughed maliciously and he remembered. He had told her that he wanted to see what little girls were made of. No one ever found her arms and legs, and he never told. “Where am I?” he asked.

“The Needleman is coming. No one will weep for you.” She smiled with a cruelty particular to children, tucked the needle and thread into the pocket of her dress, and wheeled herself into the corridor.

He told himself to move his limbs and they, attached to him again, obeyed. He walked to the door to follow her, but she had vanished into the darkness. Flies coated the bloodstained walls, a living and moving black paint, an ever-shifting shadow. Metallic clanks of doors slamming shut echoed through the hallway. The voices whispered but he did not understand, or didn’t want to.

He felt the stares of invisible eyes upon him and ran to the end of the hall; he pushed open a set of double doors and stared up at the sky. All the stars were gone, and the moon’s huge infected eye spilled bloody light onto the dead grass, staining his clothes and hands. He turned back to the doors. They had become a brick wall.

Ahead of him, the little girl wheeled herself out of the shadows. Beside her, walking on the insides of her feet because he had fractured her ankles, was his favorite. She was the first, and he’d told her to be very quiet. Now a rusted zipper stretched across her mouth so she could not scream, but he imagined the little girl would do the talking for her. In her television eyes flickered images of her grieving parents, her suicidal fiancé, her two younger sisters robbed of their idol. Then flashing video loops of a snuff film worse than any fantasized by even the sickest mind. Each murder, there in her eyes, each moment captured by the camera lens of her pupils.

“Tell us why you did it. That’s all they ever wanted to hear. And if they believed you, they might have kept the Needleman away. Maybe they still can. Go on, you can tell me.” The girl leaned forward, feigning profound interest.

He stepped back, startled. Was that all they really wanted? Was that what could save him? No, he didn’t believe it. She was tricking him. He had no reason to trust her.

“Go on, tell me. Maybe the nightmares will go away. Maybe they’ll save you, and the nightmares will never come again.”

“You’re lying. What’s in it for you if I tell you?”

“Peace. It’s what you want, it’s what we all want. Hurry! The Needleman doesn’t like to be kept waiting!”

“Leave me alone!” He ran into the dark, with the disembodied little-girl voice chasing him.

“We’ll never leave! Not in this life and not in the next! We’re all yours now―you wanted it that way, remember? All yours now.”

He stopped running when both girls blocked his path, wherever it might lead. The tall girl who was once beautiful unzipped her mouth, and a swarm of maggots squirmed out, dropping onto the grass at her feet.

Next Friday, B. E. Burkhead will share some of his poetry fragments here at Girl Meets Monster. Would you like to submit your unfinished writing and talk about what stops you from finishing certain projects? Comment below or submit your fragment to me at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Battling Our Demons: Fighting the Influence of Evil

The other day, while looking through some of my folders of old writing and abandoned projects, I stumbled across an essay I wrote back in May 2015 for my Readings in the Genre: Contemporary Mysteries course at Seton Hill University as part of my MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program. Of late, I’ve used this blog as a way of kick starting myself into writing on a more regular basis; something I struggle with on an almost pathological level. My friends will tell you that I’m writing all the time. This year, since February I have written a total of 27 blog posts about fictional characters I find sexually appealing, and since around May, I’ve written over 120 haiku poems. I’ve drafted chapters in a novel I’m writing, and I’ve written a few short pieces of fiction here and there. So yeah, I guess I have been writing. But, I don’t feel like I’m writing enough.

And, although I had a short story published in an anthology back in November 2014, I haven’t been able to sell my first novel, Invisible Chains, acquire an agent, or get any other bites on the poetry I’ve been submitting. I currently have poetry out to three publishers and I’ll be submitting three short stories within the next month to different publishers. I’m going to participate in NaNoWriMo 2016 in the hopes of completing that second novel I mentioned, A Marriage Made in Hell. I WILL finish the first draft of Marriage by November 30, come Hell of high water.

Anyway, if you’re interested in reading some of my writing that doesn’t involve lewd comments about my favorite fictions characters, read on…

demons

Battling Our Demons: Fighting the Influence of Evil in Charlaine Harris’s Dead Until Dark and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

In his famous study on human behavior, Beyond Good and Evil, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche warns us to take care to not be influenced by the intrinsic and often seductive nature of darkness when confronting our demons. He proposes, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you” (Section 146). Sage advice, but is it possible to confront Evil and not be somehow changed by it? Can you keep company with monsters without becoming like them? This is the dilemma faced by both Sookie Stackhouse in Charlaine Harris’s Dead Until Dark and Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Each character must face her demons. Tempted as they may be, each character still manages to avoid becoming Evil.

Evil can be a very subjective concept. Each of us defines it a little differently based on our own personal experiences, but we can usually agree on the difference between “right” and “wrong.” The mystery genre uses this dichotomy as one of its central themes or plot points, and while an amateur sleuth or police inspector may be driven to solve a crime in order to uphold the law, at the heart of most mysteries is the desire for Good to win out over Evil. “Crime fiction in general, and detective fiction in particular, is about confronting and taming the monstrous. It is a literature of containment, a narrative that ‘makes safe’” (Plain 3). The battle between Good and Evil has been fought in fiction since before written communication. In the oral tradition, people told tales of epic battles between men and monsters – Beowulf, The Epic of Gilgamesh. With the advent of writing, the popularity of monster tales never waned – The Odyssey, The Iliad, and The Inferno. Monsters have always been with us. They are creatures of myth and legend, and they often stand in as metaphors for the less palatable human behaviors and emotions. Judith Halberstam suggests in her book, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters that even though our desire for stories about monsters and villains never seems to fade, the appearance of those monsters evolves to meet cultural needs. She says, “The body that scares and appalls changes over time, as do the individual characteristics that add up to monstrosity, as do the preferred interpretations of monstrosity” (8). Monsters change as our society changes, and the monsters of our current fiction, which is especially true in the mystery genre, tend to be humans more so than the beasts of Homer and Dante’s creations.

Like Sookie and Lisbeth, we sometimes find ourselves in less than ideal situations and come face to face with monsters. For some of us, the monsters we must face are people we thought we could trust who later betray us, or worse, cause physical as well as psychological damage in the form of abuse, rape, and ultimately murder. In her essay, “Vivid Villains,” Sandra Scoppettone tells us that “the nature of the villain, and how absorbing a character he or she is, will affect the flavor of the whole rest of the story” (86). The nature of the villain should definitely determine the nature of the protagonist. Whether we’re talking about a serial killer, someone seeking revenge, or jilted lover who commits a crime of passion, as we gain a better understanding of human psychology, we also understand that we are the monsters represented in the fiction we read. Darkness lurks within all of us, but for most people, it will continue to lie dormant until some violent act or traumatic experience awakens the beast within. The real challenge then for any protagonist facing such a worthy opponent, as Nietzsche warns, is to avoid becoming a monster. Sookie and Lisbeth are sexualized others who both fall victim to violence at the hands of human monsters.

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“Forty-six percent of women in Sweden have been subjected to violence by a man” (Larsson 139). In his novel The Girl with Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson wishes to make it very clear to his reader that violence against women is a cultural reality in Sweden, and to most Swedish women, much like his protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, the threat of violence, sexual or otherwise, is an expectation if not an inevitability. Lisbeth is a ward of the state and becomes the victim of rape at the hands of a man assigned to her case. She is an adult, but due to her designation based on a history of aberrant behavior as a youth, she is treated like a child, mentally deficient, and then taken advantage of due to her abuser’s belief that she is somehow stupid. While Lisbeth has experienced quite a bit of emotional and psychological trauma, some of which is not revealed to us, she is far from stupid, and definitely not mentally ill. In fact, she is uncannily smart and more than capable of looking out for herself, except at the hands of the sadistic monster Advokat Nils Bjurman. Over the course of several meetings, Bjurman makes it very clear to Salander that she is at his mercy if she would like access to her bank accounts. Each encounter with Bjurman becomes more and more inappropriate until he forces Salander to perform oral sex on him in his office. Larsson reinforces his point about the violent nature of Swedish society by making Salander another statistic. “In her world, this was the natural order of things. As a girl she was legal prey, especially if she was dressed in a worn black leather jacket and had pierced eyebrows, tattoos, and zero social status” (249). Later, when Salander seeks revenge for this assault, Bjurman restrains and rapes her at his apartment. It is this second act of violence that pushes her to her limits and flips a switch that begins her own transformation. She falls prey to the desire to do monstrous things herself. “Bjurman felt cold terror piercing his chest and lost his composure. He tugged at his handcuffs…He could do nothing to resist when Salander bent over and placed the anal plug between his buttocks” (282). Salander reverses the tables on Bjurman. She assaults and humiliates him much like he did to her. She attempts to restore balance through an act of revenge, pushing her closer to the edge of the abyss. Lisbeth unleashes her darkness to reclaim her power and walks a fine line that could easily transform her into a monster worse than Bjurman. She threatens Bjurman with blackmail and bodily harm to prevent him from hurting her again—an act of self-preservation. By marking him, she hopes to save other women from becoming his victims. Justice is served.

On the surface, Sookie Stackhouse and Lisbeth Salander couldn’t be more different as protagonists go, but when you take a closer look at these two strong female characters, you’ll begin to notice some commonalities. First, they are both amateur sleuths with unique abilities that allow them to have access to information others aren’t privy to in the narrative. Salander’s abilities are half-heartedly explained through the eyes of Salander’s lover, Mikael Blomkvist, who assumes that the young hacker has a form of Asperger’s. Since Sookie’s world has paranormal elements, she has the benefit of being able to hear other people’s thoughts. Calling this ability a benefit is debatable, as Sookie herself sees it as a handicap.

Second, both women often find themselves at the mercy of men who threaten them with violence. Or, at the very least, objectify them sexually. Although they come from very different cultural backgrounds, they both have “zero social status” (249) in the economy of sexuality and gender equality. In Dead Until Dark, a serial killer targets young women who seek out vampires as sexual partners. Sookie not only shares this in common with the victims, but she also fits the profile with her high school education and minimum wage job.

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Monsters exist in Sookie’s world – vampires, weres, and shifters – all of which can be quite dangerous. In fact, her boyfriend is a vampire. Despite the fact that there is trend in fiction romanticizing relationships between vampires and humans, vampires are still monsters. Even if they don’t kill you outright, there is always the chance that things might get out of hand, and a moment of passion may end with the human’s funeral. Even if the vampire poses no direct threat to his partner, the secret lives of vampires seem to be violent by nature – ancient enemies, unresolved love affairs, power struggles with other supernatural beings. All of this adds up to danger for any human who meddles in the affairs of monsters, much less falls in love with them.

Sookie could literally become a monster if she continues to drink vampire blood. Bill Compton gives Sookie his blood several times to speed up the healing process. But when Sookie is recovering in the hospital after her encounter with the serial killer, she refuses to accept Bill’s blood for fear of losing her human qualities. “‘I’ll heal you,’ he offered. ‘Let me give you some blood.’ I remembered the way my hair had lightened, remembered that I was almost twice as strong as I’d ever been. I shook my head” (Harris 310). Sookie resists the urge to become monstrous by refusing to act like one. Sookie reclaims her power by maintaining her humanness.

Sookie and Lisbeth are victims of violent crimes. Both women fight back to protect themselves. They are survivors and each play an important role in vanquishing the monster, or at the very least, identifying the villain. They both realize there are too many villains in the world to fight. Even though they have temporarily restored the balance in their worlds, they know the fight between Good and Evil will continue. Not only externally, but internally as well. Each time you gaze into the abyss, the abyss changes you. So, to answer my earlier question, is it possible to associate with monsters and not become Evil? Yes, but only if you remain vigilant to protect your humanity, and in Salander’s case, the humanity of others.

Works Cited

Halberstam, Judith. Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995. Print.

Harris, Charlaine. Dead Until Dark. New York: Ace Books, 2009. Print

Larsson, Stieg. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2009. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good & Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. New York: Vintage Books Edition, 1989. Print.

Plain, Gill. Twentieth Century Crime Fiction: Gender, Sexuality and the Body. New York: Routledge, 2014. Kindle.

Scoppetone, Sandra. “Vivid Villains.” Writing Mysteries: A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America. Ed. Sue Grafton. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2002. 86-90. Print.

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Fuckable Fictional Characters: Tate Langdon

Back in November of 2012 my life was forever changed as I binge-watched the first season of American Horror Story on Netflix. I had begun my MFA in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University earlier that year in June, and as my second residency was rapidly approaching, I had assignments and manuscript deadlines looming over me, I was working a soul-sucking job at the University of Pittsburgh, and juggling parenthood. Let’s just say I was burdened by adult life and needed an escape. Netflix rarely disappoints in that department, and I can usually count on finding a film or series that will transport me into the realm of escapism.

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It was a Friday night. Everyone was asleep. I was up late reading, writing, doing laundry and making a grocery list. It felt good to be writing again, but also a little overwhelming when I considered all of the other responsibility I had. I turned on Netflix and saw that American Horror Story: Murder House was available. A few friends who had watched it in real time insisted that I watch it as soon as humanly possible. They said it was right up my alley. They were not wrong.

I sat alone in my living room with only the glow of TV for light, wrapped myself up in a blanket, cracked open a beer, and settled in. As I watched the first episode and was slowly introduced to the characters, including the house, I got excited about the fact that a TV show was focusing on a haunted house and showing the history of why it was haunted and how it affected the people living in it over time. Brilliant. What I didn’t expect was how gloriously violent and gratuitously sexual the show was. I was given glimpses of some of the most private and intimate moments of a person’s life, including their deaths. I was instantly hooked. I stayed up past 3:00 a.m. and managed to watch four episodes before I had to crash.

They next day I woke up with a physical urge to watch more. The show was like a horror movie on crack that only adults are allowed to watch. This show had captured the concept of spectacle in all its glory. I spent several hours watching more of the show on Saturday and Sunday. And I’ve been a fan ever since.

February 10: Tate Langdon

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If you’ve never watched the first season of American Horror Story, shame on you. And, you probably shouldn’t read any further, because this post is riddled with SPOILER ALERTS.

Tate Langdon is a 17-year-old boy with a history of mental illness that his abusive alcoholic mother, Constance, is in denial about. She brushes off his violent outbursts and rage by saying that he’s overly sensitive. One day, in 1994, he showed up at his high school armed to the teeth, and single-handedly killed 15 people. In one respect his mother is right. He is a sensitive boy. He is extremely protective of the people he loves. If he thinks they’re going to be harmed, he resorts to violence. But that doesn’t exactly explain his choice to commit mass murder at his high school. Tate is misunderstood by most people, confused about his own thoughts and feelings, and homicidal.

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Every day is Halloween.

The police track Tate to his house after the shooting, and a SWAT team kills him in his bedroom. But death doesn’t get Tate down. He simply continues to exist as a ghost in the house. Unlike some ghosts we’ve encountered in fiction, or perhaps real life, Tate is a tangible ghost. He appears to be alive and is able to interact with the living as if he never died.

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In death, Tate is no less violent. In fact, his emotional imbalances are heightened by the other ghosts haunting the house who encourage him to commit unspeakable acts. The house has a long history of violence at the hands of several deeply disturbed individuals. The house is essentially a receptacle for sin. The evil that saturates the house from attic to basement demands to be fed more souls. The house uses Tate to get what it wants, but he struggles against his darkness. Tate may feel guilt for doing the terrible things he does, but he sure is good at being a homicidal maniac.

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This is why we can’t have nice things.

When a psychiatrist and his family move in, the house awakens and the ghosts come out to play. Tate becomes one of the doctor’s regular patients as he masquerades as a neighbor boy with depression. After one of his sessions, he meets the psychiatrist’s teenaged daughter, Violet Harmon. Tate catches Violet attempting to slit her wrist over a bathroom sink. Helpful boy that he is, he explains that she’s doing it wrong. If she really wants to kill herself, she needs to cut vertically, not horizontally, because “they can’t stitch it up.”

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They’re totally fucked.

Tate and Violet bond over their teen angst and morbid interests. And it doesn’t take long for them to become more than friends. Can you blame her? Look at that boy. He’s dark, brooding, dangerous, and absolutely fucking adorable.

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Cutest psycho on the block.

They spend a lot of time together, but have to keep the nature of their relationship a secret from her dad. The boy develops an unhealthy obsession with her that manifests as love in his mind. Violet’s dad knows that Tate is disturbed, and doesn’t want him near his daughter. And he especially doesn’t want Tate having sex with her. Against her dad’s wishes, Violet continues to see Tate. They meet secretly in the basement or he appears in her room at night.

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A match made in Hell.

Violet is a positive influence on Tate. He can be sweet and charming when given the chance. It’s hard not to feel sorry for him at times, because he seems to genuinely love Violet even if he is a psychopath.

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Violet is having a hard time fitting in at her new school and is going through a period of depression, which is why she’s been cutting herself. One particular girl is bullying Violet and upsetting her so badly that she starts missing school. Tate wants to help, so he tells Violet to kill the girl. Violet invites the girl over and Tate not only scares the bully, but Violet too. Violet is so disturbed by the weird and terrifying shit she sees in the basement that she tells Tate she doesn’t want to see him anymore.

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Creepy is the new sexy.

He’s crushed, but his rage manifests when she rejects him. He yells at her, “I thought you weren’t afraid of anything!” They spend some time apart. Violet continues to struggle with depression, and Tate has some projects to work on around the house.

They can’t stay away from each other, and their relationship begins to deepen. Tate tells Violet more about himself – not everything – but he begins opening up to her. They still meet in the basement, but Tate takes Violet on a real date and she has such a good time that she decides she’d like to have sex with him.

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99 problems and the size of his penis isn’t one.

As their physical relationship blossoms, so does their emotional attachment. Tate is already unstable. It probably isn’t a good idea to have a sexual relationship with someone as fucked up as he is, no matter how big his dick is. Okay, maybe just once. Or twice. But the consequences could be pretty bad. Especially if you find out that your crazy ass boyfriend murdered 15 people, got shot, and died, but is still taking you on dates.

Sickness

Just in case you were looking for a word to describe your feelings about Tate.

The closer Violet gets to Tate, the more she learns about who he really is. When she discovers that he not only killed a bunch of people, but is in fact dead, she takes it pretty badly and commits suicide.

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Nothing says love like dragging her unconscious body down a hallway while trying to save her from a drug overdose.

Despite Tate’s efforts, Violet dies. But, she doesn’t know that she’s dead. And neither does her family. Tate knows the truth but doesn’t tell her right away. Instead, he tells her that he loves her, asks her to kill herself, and be with him forever. When she refuses he tells her the truth.

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Things a serial killer would say.

Now that Violet’s dead, they make a great couple, right? Well, once Violet dies and has insight into what’s happening in the house, she learns about Tate’s violence, and is absolutely revolted and heartbroken when she finds out he raped her mother. And, is the father of her new baby brother.

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I fell in love with a dead boy.

Seriously. Fucked up stuff like that happens all the time on the show. Why aren’t you watching it right now?

Self Love Is Not Selfish: A Letter to My Future Self

Sacred-HeartGrief is very personal. No two people experience it exactly the same way. How our emotions manifest as we go through the process of grieving isn’t always within our control. Many people believe that we only experience grief after the death of a loved one, but grief is the natural response to loss. Loss and grief come in many flavors, colors, and sizes.

The past few years of my life have been . . . challenging. My struggles may not have been as difficult to overcome as the struggles some of you have faced, but I’m not here to compare my experiences or grief with yours or anyone else’s.

In June of 2012 I attended my first residency in Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction (WPF). After years of putting writing at the bottom of my to do list, even though it was one of the most important activities in my life, I decided to go back to school and earn a second master’s degree. My BA and MA in English didn’t propel me into a career as a college professor or a professional writer like I hoped, but in many ways these degrees prepared me for critical thinking, problem solving and communicating in creative ways in several university positions. Enrolling in SHU’s MFA in WPF gave me the courage and support I needed to not only follow my dreams of becoming a professional writer, but also made me realize there were a lot of other things I needed to change in my life.

I attended my second residency at SHU in January, where I had an amazing heart-to-heart with my good friend and fellow writer, Valerie Burns. She asked me what would make me happy. Based on the answers I came up with, she suggested I make a plan. The following week I applied for a job that would pay more and have fewer duties that was close to my hometown. I wasn’t thrilled about moving back home, but I knew I would have the support of friends and family. A few days after I got the job offer I told my husband I was leaving. About a week or so later, my brother-in-law died suddenly. In March I moved my son and myself into my childhood home and by April 1 I started the new job. We lived with my mom for a few months and then we found our own place in August. In many ways these were positive changes, but there was a lot going on in my life. Lots of plates were spinning dangerously above my head. Separation from my husband after a 10-year relationship, moving, starting a new job, graduate school, and dealing with behavioral issues my son was exhibiting as a single parent.

During this time I was writing my first novel. Despite all the hardships and upheaval, I kept writing.

My father passed away in October last year after a very long battle with complicated illnesses that led to early onset dementia. He lost his health, mind, and eventually his life at the hands of sicknesses that robbed him of his life-long dream of becoming a published author. For years, he researched, plotted, and sketched out ideas for a historical fiction novel about African Americans overcoming oppression to find a space of self-determinism where they could live their lives without the threat of violence. He never wrote that book. I found the title scribbled in one of his many notebooks while cleaning up the house for my mom. The title of his book is now the title of my first book. It’s not the same book he would have written, but I think he would have been very proud of me for finishing my novel.

I’m not going to lie. Life has felt really hard to manage some days. I’ve suffered with depression. Don’t even get me started on the crippling loneliness. Uncertainty. Fear. Anxiety. Anger. Sadness. Emotionally, I’m all over the map. And still, I write. Little bits here and there. A poem (26 last summer). Short stories that seem more like the beginnings of novels. And chapters for a novel I’m hoping to complete a first draft for during Camp NaNoWriMo in July. (Oh shit! That’s today!)

Despite all the upheaval, disappointment, and bullshit I’ve had to deal with in the past few years, I’m still writing. I’m a writer. That’s what I do.

I keep a journal to get through some of the rougher days. Journaling for me is like having a conversation with myself where I work out some of the issues I’m struggling with and try to release the pain clouding my thoughts. A few weeks ago I wrote a letter to my future self. It was very therapeutic. I can’t recommend this exercise enough. It was an act of self love and care that no one else could have provided for me. Not my friends, not my family, no one but me.

I debated whether or not to share this letter publicly. It’s personal. It’s private. However, I think some of you could benefit from the things I told my future self. It helped me rethink what I was going through at the time and helped me come up with a few solutions to problems that were more distractions than useful or supportive aspects of my life.

Takes deep breath…

Dear Future Self,

I love you. You are doing so well and I am proud of you. Keep doing all the amazing things you’ve set your mind and energy on. I’m looking forward to reading all the stories you’ve written and published.

I knew that you would overcome the self-doubt and those feelings of not being good enough to accomplish the goals you set for yourself. Here’s a reminder of the things we were working toward:

  1. Make Healthier Choices: Better food, more exercise, avoiding toxic relationships, making choices that have a positive effect on you and the people you love.
  2. Find an Appropriate Partner: Someone who respects you and believes that you are enough, not his whole world, but somewhere at the top of his list. A priority, not an option. Someone willing to build a life with that you can both be proud of at the end of the day.
  3. Build Stronger Friendships: Spend more time with people who truly value you. You know who they are and who they aren’t. You have a gift for sensing who really has your best interests in mind and who simply wants to bask in or steal your light.
  4. Be True to Yourself: Know your limits and respect them. It’s okay to say “no” when you feel overwhelmed or underappreciated. Take time to sit quietly, alone or with people you love, and listen to what you need to do to recharge. Your body and spirit will tell you. Don’t ignore the voices inside you.
  5. Don’t Be Afraid to Walk Away from Bad Situations: I know it sounds ridiculous now, but remember how we used to cling to things and people who made us unhappy? Why did we do that? Did we think our kindness and patience and urging would magically transform them into the people we needed them to be? People will disappoint you. This I promise. You don’t have to stick around to let it keep happening. If someone really loves you, you’ll know the signs. Don’t ignore them.
  6. You Are Enough: You don’t have to prove your worth to anyone. If you feel like you need to constantly prove your worth to someone, stop for a minute and figure out if that need is internal or external. If it’s internal, find a therapist or spiritual healer and figure that out. If it is external and someone keeps expecting you to be more or do more to please them and they aren’t doing the same for you in return, walk away. Don’t second-guess yourself. Don’t look back. They’ll try to tell you they miss you. Let them.
  7. Never Stop Learning: People, places, things, and the voices inside our own heads can teach us a lot about ourselves and the world around us. Pay attention. Take notes. Share your knowledge with others.
  8. Don’t Be Afraid to Fuck Up: Everybody makes mistakes. Own yours and learn from them. That’s how we grow. People who choose to ignore these lessons are not worth your time and energy. You are here to grow and learn. People who refuse to join you on your journey will only hold you back. Mistakes are like bruises, not permanent scars. They do not define us unless we allow them to. Keep moving forward; don’t let fear of making mistakes keep you from reaching your goals.
  9. Forgive Yourself and Others: You’re not perfect and you don’t have to be. Everybody fucks up sometimes (see above). Don’t dwell on that for too long. Make amends, apologize if necessary, forgive yourself and forgive others when they do stupid things that are hurtful. Carrying around anger only does damage to the vessel in which it is contained. Be angry. Cry. Emote. Then let that shit go. Put it in your art, not your heart.

Stay strong. You’re doing great things.

Love, Me

Interview: Tim Waggoner, The Way of All Flesh

Tim-WaggonerAccording to Tim Waggoner’s online bio, he “wrote his first story at the age of five, when he created a comic book version of King Kong vs. Godzilla on a stenographer’s pad. It took him a few more years until he began selling professionally, though.”

Tim has published more than thirty novels for adults and young readers, including two tie-in novels with the Supernatural franchise and three short story collections. His articles on writing have appeared in Writer’s Digest and Writers’ Journal, and he teaches creative writing at Sinclair Community College and Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program.

His future plans are to “continue writing and teaching until he keels over dead, after which he wants to be stuffed and mounted, and then placed in front of his computer terminal.”

Last week I reviewed Tim’s 2014 surreal existential horror novel, THE WAY OF ALL FLESH, which takes a very philosophical approach to the zombie genre. If you haven’t read it, you should. This week, I talk with him about the book and explore the idea that horror fiction is the fiction of social change.

ML: I couldn’t help noticing while I read the novel that there were lots of references to Jesus’s experiences before and after resurrection. Was I imagining that, or was that intentional? If it was intentional, why a zombie messiah?

TW: I honestly don’t remember putting in specific references to Jesus, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t. The idea of a zombie messiah was definitely a conscious one on my part, so perhaps allusions to Jesus crept in as I was writing, whether I was aware of them or not. (I should say that OF COURSE the Jesus stuff was deliberate; that way I’d sound smarter!) The zombie messiah seemed like such a natural idea to me, and it was out there in popular culture before I wrote my novel. I remember watching a bit from the comedian Sam Kinison on TV years ago. Kinison was talking about how normal people would view Christ’s resurrection, and he acted out a witness’ screaming reaction to seeing Christ leaving his tomb: “The dead walk! The dead walk!” And one of the characters on Futurama, Professor Farnsworth, once exclaimed “Sweet Zombie Jesus!” The idea of transcending death is of course appealing to mortal beings such as ourselves, but it’s also a terrifying notion, a deeply profound violation of the natural order.

ML: The book deals with a lot of uncomfortable social issues that most people don’t want to talk about. You address racism, sexism, homophobia, and gun control with an ease that makes me wonder if horror fiction might be a good vehicle for opening up discussion about these topics. Have you found this to be the case in other horror novels? Is horror fiction the fiction of social change?

TW: I think it can be. Horror fiction allows us to look at some of the darkest elements of life safely, the same way we look at an eclipse indirectly in order to view it without damaging our eyes. The nightmarish distortion of horror creates a buffer that allows readers to comfortably confront all sorts of unpleasant and even repellent ideas. This includes the darker aspects of human nature and society. And since horror fiction is also entertaining, people don’t feel like they’re being lectured at when social issues are part of the story. “The Night They Missed the Horror Show” by Joe Lansdale is a prime example of how effectively horror can deal with social issues.

ML: I loved the relationship that develops between Kate and Marie. Why did you choose to include a same-sex relationship in the novel? An interracial one at that. Were you hoping to appeal to a wider audience, or simply include characters that typically don’t appear in popular fiction?

TW: I don’t worry about appealing to a wider audience. If I did, I’d write something other than surreal existential horror! When I write, I try to reflect the world I live in. Women make up slightly over half the human race, so I tend to alternate the gender of my main characters from one project to the next. I’m 51, and I’ve witnessed decades of increasing diversity in America, and I want to reflect that richness as well.

ML: Horror fiction has a long history of being most closely related to literary fiction among all the genres, and seems to be going through a phase in which more thought-provoking works of fiction are being written by horror writers. When you sat down to write THE WAY OF ALL FLESH, what message did you have in mind?

TW: My first goal was simply to have fun riffing on the zombie apocalypse trope. I usually don’t have a message or theme in mind when I start writing, although eventually themes do start to emerge. I often write about duality, and zombies lend themselves to that nicely. The Dead vs. the Living, the world before and after the apocalypse, etc. I decided the defining characteristic of the modern-day zombie isn’t the fact that it’s dead. The “zombies” in 28 Days Later and its sequel aren’t dead; they’re living humans infected by an artificial virus that turns them into homicidal maniacs. The defining characteristic of zombies and zombie-like beings is hunger for human flesh, so I decided to use hunger – and desire – as a central metaphor for the story. In Buddhism, desire is the root of all evil, right? As for a specific message, I’d rather leave that for readers to find on their own. Explaining art is like explaining a joke. If you have to explain it, it didn’t work.

ML: I don’t want to give the ending away, because I’d really like for people to pick up a copy of the novel and read it. So, no spoilers, but I was pleasantly reminded of Gary Braunbeck’s short story, WE NOW PAUSE FOR STATION IDENTIFICATION. Has Braunbeck’s work influenced you? Which authors have inspired your fiction the most? Where else do you draw inspiration for your stories?

TW: Gary’s been a good friend of mine for years, and as much as his fiction has influenced me, he’s influenced me so much more as a human being. There are so many writers who’ve influenced my work: Shirley Jackson, Dennis Etchison, Ramsey Campbell, Charles L. Grant, Caitlyn R. Kiernan, Lawrence Block, Stephen King, Piers Anthony, Steve Gerber, Marv Wolfman, Chris Claremont, Kafka, Poe, Lovecraft . . . I could go on and on. I draw inspiration from being an imaginative person living in the real world. Anything I see, hear, or read can spark an idea in me that could become a story or novel. For example, a while ago I saw – within the space of several days – two different men walking backwards. One was walking backwards up a hill, and the other was walking backwards around a parking lot. I have no idea what these men were doing. Maybe it was some kind of exercise I’m not aware of. But those two backward-walking men struck me as so strange that I quickly jotted down the experience, and I’ll probably use it in my fiction someday. Writers – especially horror writers – need to develop their own special “weirdness filter” and view the world through it. That way, they’ll write the stories that only they can tell.

25 Years of Fear: World Horror 2015

WHC2015LOGOThis past weekend I attended the 25th Annual World Horror Convention and HWA Bram Stoker Awards Banquet in Atlanta (May 7 – 10, 2015). I’ve been a member of HWA for three years now and this was my third World Horror Convention. I shared a room with two people who are very special to me: two-time Stoker-nominated poet, Stephanie Wytovich and fellow Seton Hill University alum, Ryan DeMoss. We had a blast, but it just wasn’t the same without Joe Borelli. Hope to see you soon, Joe. There were quite a few of us in attendance representing Seton Hill’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction Program, including my amazing mentor, Lucy A. Snyder who won two Stoker Awards this weekend for her fiction collection, Soft Apocalypses and her non-fiction book on writing, Shooting Yourself in the Head For Fun and Profit: A Writer’s Survival Guide, as well as Michael Arnzen, Tim Waggoner, Jennifer Loring and John Dixon, who also won a Stoker for his novel Phoenix Island.

Jennifer Barnes and John Edward Lawson of Raw Dog Screaming Press hosted a fun gathering Friday evening in their hotel room where many of us got to experience some of the common fears horror writers try to capture in their fiction: claustrophobia, social anxiety, ophthalmophobia (fear of being stared at), ochlophobia (fear of crowds or crowded places) and bibliophobia (fear of books). Michael Arnzen broke out his Fridge of the Damned magnets for us to play with, and added performance anxiety to the list of fears.

As always, I attended some amazing panels and presentations, with the following being some of my favorites:

  • From Voodoo to Rattlesnake Revival: Southern Folklore in Horror Literature
  • Selling Your Scares to Screen: Ins and Outs of Options in Today’s Film Market
  • Different Visions: African- American Spec-Lit From Afro-Futurism to Beloved (moderated by Chronicles of Harriet creator, Balogun Ojetade)
  • Midmorning Madness: Making Insane Characters Believable
  • Bram Stoker/Dracula Travel Guide New Discoveries 118 Years Later (presented by Dacre Stoker)
  • Pushing the Diaspora Darkly: Horror from Multicultural Perspectives

I never get to attend all of the panels and readings I want to, because there are simply too many to choose from each year.

However, there is so much more to WHC than attending panels. Catching up with talented friends like Michael Knost, Craig DiLouie, and Rio Youers were some of the high points of the weekend. What’s even better than telling stories, drinking, and laughing at inappropriate humor with old friends? Making new friends! This year I met some really talented, insightful, and darkly humorous people including the amazing science fiction poet Linda Addison, the thought-provoking speculative fiction writer Crystal Connor, the adorably weird horror writer and filmmaker Frazer Lee, the nicest bizarro fiction writer you’ll ever meet, William Pauley III, and a filmmaker and writer who also aspires to become a Time Lord, Aaron Dries. It was also my great pleasure to meet DragonCon’s ConSuite Master, Joseph Campbell, who showed WHC2015 attendees southern hospitality while wearing a Utilikilt and spinning Bryan Ferry. Be still my heart!

And, if all that wasn’t cool enough, William F. Nolan and Charlaine Harris signed books for me.

All in all, a wonderful weekend in which I was reminded not to fear success, conversed with intelligent, insightful, and caring people, learned some new things about madness, laughed at inappropriate humor, and exhausted myself to the point of insanity. Can’t wait to see you all again soon.