Fiction Fragments: Cindy O’Quinn

Last week, Girl Meets Monster talked with John M. McIlveen about his forthcoming collection of short stories, A Variable Darkness, and the fact that he is somehow able to function on only 4 hours a sleep each night.

This week, I am thrilled to welcome Bram Stoker Award nominated writer, nature lover, and extremely kind and supportive cheerleader of her fellow writers, Cindy O’Quinn.

Cindy O’Quinn is an Appalachian writer who grew up in the mountains of West Virginia and is now living, writing, and homesteading in northern Maine.

2019 HWA Bram Stoker Award Nominee in Short Fiction for “Lydia”, and multiple Rhysling nominated poet. “Lydia” was published in the anthology, THE TWISTED BOOK OF SHADOWS, edited by Christopher Golden and James A. Moore, which was nominated in the anthology category for the Bram Stoker Award, This is Horror Award, and it won the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Anthology.

Works published or forthcoming in Shotgun Honey Presents, Twisted Book of Shadows, HWA Poetry Showcase Vol. V, Star*Line, SFPA Halloween Reading, Sanitarium Magazine, Eerie Christmas Anthology, Space and Time Magazine, Speculative City, Chiral Mad 5, and others.

Social Media:
Facebook @CindyOQuinnWriter
Instagram cindy.oquinn
Twitter @COQuinnWrites

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Cindy. I loved your fragment and definitely want to read more. The fact that your protagonist is a writer reminded me of how Stephen King often writes about characters who are writers. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s a trope in his fiction. Are there certain tropes you rely on in your own fiction? Do you create characters who are similar to other characters you’ve written about, or are there distinct qualities about them that set them apart? Without too many spoilers, can you give a synopsis of “The Handshake”?

COQ: Michelle, thank you for having me on Girl Meets Monster. I’m glad you enjoyed my fiction fragment. Yes, my novelette is about a young writer. I enjoy Stephen King stories with writers, as well. I loved The Dark Half, and Misery. It isn’t a trope of mine. Most of my characters have been fairly different from one another, thus far.

A quick synopsis of “The Handshake,” which was first published in Sanitarium Magazine Fall 2016. The magazine has since changed hands, and the issue is no longer available. I’d love to see it accepted in the future as a reprint.

Torrence Eastlin is a young writer. He has the chance to meet his favorite author, Hudson Greenbrier. Something happens when the two shake hands, at least it feels that way to Torrence. His writing improves, and he begins getting one acceptance after the next. When Hudson requests a private meeting with the young writer, Torrence knows his feeling must be true. He fears whatever transferred with the handshake must be what Hudson Greenbrier wants back. To what lengths will someone go to keep their gift or to take another’s?

GMM: What defines you as an Appalachian writer? Is it simply the fact that you were raised in Appalachia, or are there specific elements within your writing that make you an Appalachian writer? Settings? Characters? Tone? Plots? How would we recognize the work of other Appalachian writers?

COQ: In the beginning, my bio would simply state I was a writer who lived in West Virginia or Virginia. That changed when I moved to northern Maine. I felt disconnected from myself. It no longer felt right to say I was a writer who lived in Maine. That became evident when I spoke. People made sure I knew I was “from away”. I dedicated my novel to my husband and sons, but also to the Appalachian Mountains that stood guard around me for so many decades. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, You can take the girl out of the mountains, but you can’t take the mountains out of the girl. It’s true in my case. The Appalachian mountains are a part of what makes me, the person I am. All of it, the way I talk, write, cook, parent, homestead, down to how I dress.

I’m not sure one would recognize another Appalachian writer unless it’s known. It’s known of writers like Ron Rash, Silas House, and David Joy. If I’m drawn to a writer’s work, I’ll check out their bio.

GMM: Aside from short stories and poetry, have you written any longer fiction or nonfiction? Have you written any novels? If not, why? What projects are you working on right now?

COQ: I self-published my first novel, Dark Cloud on Naked Creek in the fall of 2016. I went through a couple small runs with it. Return to Graveyard Dust was my first collection of poetry. I have a novella currently out for consideration, I’m working on my second poetry collection, and another novel.

Fragment from “The Handshake” by Cindy O’Quinn

I glanced back at the line of fans and realized I’d hogged far more time than I should have. I stood and reached out my hand to my favorite writer. His enormous hand clasped down around mine, causing it to all but disappear. That’s when, once again, I felt that magical haze that had been hovering close all day. I was back in that tunnel, just like before when the writer was speaking at the podium. This time, there was actually a white glow around the two of us. Our hands together produced an electrical heat that I could feel up my arm and into the base of my skull. It felt like it lasted an hour, when in all actuality it was probably only a matter of several seconds. When the tunnel and light melted away, the writer was handing me the novel he so graciously autographed for me, and saying, “Good luck with your writing.”

“Okay. Thank you,” I said. Before walking away, I saw something in Hudson Greenbrier’s eyes that hadn’t been there before. Fear.

The drive back to Charlottesville was nothing like the drive to Sweet Wine. My mind was in a fog, and I was unaware of my surroundings. The fall foliage could have turned black, and I wouldn’t have noticed. I wasn’t fully alert again until I pulled into the driveway at home. I looked down in the passenger seat and saw Hudson Greenbrier’s book. I picked it up and looked inside. I hadn’t even bothered to look at what the author wrote. It read:

Here’s to Torrence Eastlin, the next big deal. I know there will be many who love your words. Hudson Greenbrier

I read the words over and over. I couldn’t remember, for the life of me, having told him my name. I must have, though. In my star-struck state, I must have told him my name. How else would he have known? There was a peck on my window that caused me to slam the book shut like I was hiding a secret. It was my brother, and he was laughing at having caused me a fright. Dell asked, “Well, did you meet him?”

I answered as I got out of the car, “Hell, yes, I met him. Here’s the selfie to prove it.” I handed my cell over to my brother. “He signed his book for me, and we talked a while.” I went on to tell my brother how I’d made an ass out of myself outside the bookstore. He got a real kick out of that. I didn’t tell him about the tunnel, the light, or the fact that I didn’t recall having given Greenbrier my name.

Later that night in my room, when the day had finally started to calm down, I wrote a three-thousand-word short story. I thought it was the best I ever wrote, and I wasn’t the only one to think it was good. My parents and my brother all agreed that I should submit it to Word Burner Magazine, so I did. A day later, I received an email saying they wanted to publish my story in their next issue. I received three hundred dollars for that short story. I went on to write seven more short stories, and they all sold. With each story published, my paycheck grew. Every time I sat down and started writing, I could feel myself floating back into that tunnel I was in the day I met Hudson Greenbrier. Never once did I question it. I just chalked it up to having been inspired by my favorite writer. As I look back, deep down I knew it was much more than inspiration. It went on this way for three months, until I decided it was time to move on from short stories and on to writing my first novel. Within a month, I had written a three-hundred-page murder-mystery novel, and had gone back over it twice to weed out any mistakes, which were few. My contact at Word Burner Magazine referred me to the editor at Nelson County Books, a small publishing house in nearby Afton, Virginia.

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.

The Cuckoo Girls, An Interview with Patricia Lillie

Patricia Lillie grew up in a haunted house in a small town in Northeast Ohio. Since then, she has published picture books, short stories, fonts, two novels, and her latest, The Cuckoo Girls, a collection of short stories. As Patricia Lillie, she is the author of The Ceiling Man, a novel of quiet horror, and as Kay Charles, the author of Ghosts in Glass Houses, a cozy-ish mystery with ghosts. She is a graduate of Parsons School of Design and has a MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. She also knits and sometimes purls.

Follow her on Twitter @patricialillie.

Patricia Lillie’s collection of disturbingly beautiful short stories, The Cuckoo Girls, takes on a journey through the darkest parts of the fairy tale forest, into houses haunted by memories as well as ghosts, and reminds us that there is horror in everyday events if we’re willing to peek behind the curtain and allow the madness to seep in. If you haven’t picked up a copy of The Cuckoo Girls, I suggest you do.

GMM: Welcome back to Girl Meets Monster, Patricia. It’s been, what? Two years since your first visit for Fiction Fragments way back in July 2018. You were one of the first writers I featured in that series and since then, you’ve had quite a bit of success. What have you been up to? What are you currently working on? And, what can we look forward to from you?

PL: Wow! That was two years ago? It doesn’t seem like it, which is odd since January of this year feels like ten years ago. As for success—congratulations on Invisible Chains and your Stoker nomination! You should have seen me doing happy dances for you. I take that back. You’re lucky not to have seen me doing happy dances since I’m a klutz. But, do know dances were danced.

What I’ve been up too? A handful of the stories in The Cuckoo Girls were written after the Fiction Fragments piece. As I mentioned there, I had lots of fragments scattered all over my hard drive and I needed to organize them. I did. Which led to some of them turning into stories. Which made me happy—so thank you for setting me on that path.

Aside from that, I have the beginnings of two novels which both keep changing direction. It sometimes takes a while for things to gel with me. I’ve also refilled that fragments folder with more beginnings. I’m evidently good at getting down the first 500–800 words of a story, and sometimes I even know the end, but finding the story that goes in between often takes time. A lot of time. This year, like for many people, hasn’t exactly been conducive to writing, but I’m slowly finding my way back. At least, I hope I am.

GMM: I finished reading The Cuckoo Girls recently and I really enjoyed the collection. I’ve always been able to lose myself in your writing, but there were a few stories that really pulled me in. One of my favorites is “The Robber Bridegroom,” which is a delightfully dark fairy tale about a young woman who is spurned by her family and community because she isn’t as attractive as her younger sister. In fact, she has some sort of deformity that requires her to wear a veil in public. But, she has a secret lover that she meets at night in the forest, and each night he confirms his desire for her even though they know almost nothing about each other beyond their carnal interests. Despite the fact that she suspects that he is dangerous she continues to see him night after night, and even chooses to be his after she finds out the truth about him.

Fairy tales are obviously an influence on your work. Not just this story, but other stories in the collection like “Mother Sylvia.” What is it about fairy tales that draws us back to them again and again? What fairy tales inspired “The Robber Bridegroom”? Which fairy tale was your favorite as a kid? What’s your favorite now? Why?

PL: Thank you—I’m so happy you enjoyed the collection!

I do love fairy tales—or folk tales—but not the idea of “fairy tale” that springs to mind for a lot of people. I didn’t have a favorite fairy tale as a kid. I didn’t dislike them, but none of my favorite stories fell into that definition. I came to love them as an adult when I studied them in conjunction with children’s literature and discovered they weren’t all the happy-ever-after, prettied-up, suitable-for-children stories we’ve come to accept. Oral tradition stories change as they’re told and retold, but some of the greatest changes come when the stories are collected and published. Those changes are often designed to make the stories more palatable to readers.

In the original 1812 edition of the Grimm Brother’s collections, the stepmothers in “Snow White,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and others were biological mothers. The idea of a birth mother planning to slaughter and eat her seven-year-old daughter (Snow White) was culturally abhorrent to the sanctified ideal of motherhood. The bad-mothers were changed to step-mothers in later editions.

Rapunzel and the prince enjoy a “merry time together” resulting in pregnancy, which leads to discovery by the witch. Imagine that in a Disney movie.

At the same time, I discovered stories from cultures beyond the familiar (to me at the time) Western European tradition. As striking as the diversity of these stories is, there’s also a surprising commonality. There are over three-hundred cultural variants (from all over the world) of what we (in our Euro-centric outlook) think of as a Cinderella-story. I’m rambling, but what I’m getting at is the fairy tale tradition is both darker and richer than the “she meets her prince and he is her salvation” idea so many of us were sold. At the same time, many revolve around women. Sometimes they are a prize to be won. Sometimes they are the protagonist. But (at least in the Euro-centric tales) they are often robbed of their agency, either by other characters or by the roles they are expected to fill in family and society. The pressure to be a good girl and find that prince is immense.

“The Robber Bridegroom” uses the main theme from the Brothers Grimm tale of the same name along with elements from Norwegian, British, and other variants of the story. The original story differs from the “meets her prince” fairy tale trope. A young woman escapes from an arranged marriage to a rich man who is not what he appears to be. Which all sort of happens in my story, but as you noted, I took it in another direction. Both of the sisters in my version are expected to fill the role which provides the most value to the family. Because they are female, they’re commodities, and their value is determined by their appearance. Both rebel. It works out well for one of them—because she makes it work out.

GMM: Your stories are often about girls and women who have experienced some form of trauma, or have been given a responsibility that weighs heavily upon them. Where does your inspiration for these characters come from? Do you consider yourself a feminist writer? How much of yourself can be found in the pages of this collection?

PL: When I began to pull this collection together, I was more than a little surprised to discover, “Oh. Hey. There is a theme here.” Where did it come from? Hell if I know. My best guess is from my coming of age during the decades of Second Wave Feminism. It’s hard to imagine now, but I was in high school when women were given the legal right to get credit cards without a man co-signing for them. That’s hardly the only change, but I like to use it as an example because it’s so inconceivable today and it wasn’t that long ago.

Of course, young and optimistic me thought things would continue to get better. Of course, they didn’t. Women’s rights came to a standstill and then moved backwards—as has the fight for equality for POC, LGBTQ people, and anyone who doesn’t fit into the 1950’s standards of power and perfection. It was all supposed to be better by now and it’s not. Life for anyone who doesn’t fit those standards is often a trauma.

As a straight, white, cis woman, the trauma inflicted on women who don’t fit into predetermined roles—or choose not to fill them—is the situation I understand the best. It’s the one I know, and apparently it creeps into my writing. I am a feminist. Am I a feminist writer? I think that’s for others to decide. I always thought I just liked spooky shit.

GMM: The theme of motherhood can be found in many of your stories. Motherhood can be really challenging and sometimes traumatic for many women without the added terror of body horror and supernatural pregnancies. “The Cuckoo Girls”, the first story in this collection, speaks to the horrors associated with pregnancy and motherhood and is an extremely unsettling tale. Why do you think this story is scary? What about pregnancy and motherhood frightens you? Why do you think pregnancy is a trope within the subgenre of body horror?

PL: Pregnancy is terrifying. Another being, nestled and growing inside your body, feeding off you—and at the same time being dependent on you for their life—is bad enough, but add in the pain of giving birth—yeah. Body horror, indeed. My fear of pregnancy is so great, it’s the main reason I’ve never given birth to a child. I have been deeply involved in the raising of a few children, and as wonderful and rewarding as that is, it’s also terrifying. So much responsibility. So much love. So much to gain, but so much to lose if things go wrong. Honestly, parenting is the hardest job a human can take on. I made an active choice not to go through pregnancy and an active choice to be involved in the lives of the children of others. I think the unsettling aspect of “The Cuckoo Girls” is there is no choice. Because motherhood is still a default expectation for women, the lack of choice and lack of control is frightening.

To go back to your previous question, apparently there is a lot of me in these stories. Damn you for making me think so hard. <smiley face here>

GMM: “That’s What Friends Are For” is a great haunted house story with a surprising ending. Have you had any paranormal experiences in your life that inspired this story?

PL: Ha. That story takes place in the house I grew up in. (Seriously. I grew up in a haunted house on the corner of Erie and Elm streets. Explains a lot, doesn’t it?) The bedroom with the closet doors? Mine. The sleepwalking brother who peed in that closet? While not paranormal, also mine. The idea that the unseen residents of the house were simply part of our life and our friends? That’s how we viewed them. Not scary at all.

Long after my parents sold the house, my sister met the then current residents. They were having the same experiences we had. However, they were terrified and convinced the presence was evil. Which made me wonder, what if ghosts are a reflection of how we see them?

GMM: What is your favorite story in this collection and why?

PL: I’m not sure which is my favorite, but I’m fond of “Alyce-with-a-Y” simply because of how it came about. You’ve probably noticed I have a habit of dropping references to Lewis Carroll’s Alice into my writing. I decided to embrace it and use Carroll’s world as the basis of a story. Frankly, I thought maybe doing so would break my Alice habit. I started the story with no real idea where it was going, and I didn’t care. I was writing for fun. I was writing to exorcise Alice. When Alyce showed up, I thought she was someone entirely different than she turned out to be, and she took me on a wild ride all the way to the end. It was a story that just happened. Is it the best story in the book? Probably not. But I had so much fun writing it! (It remains to be seen whether or not the exorcism was successful.)

Thank you so much for inviting me back to Girl Meets Monster! It’s been a blast.

Fiction Fragments: Sarah Read

Last week, Girl Meets Monster had a great conversation with horror writer, Todd Keisling, about religion in horror fiction and how COVID-19 has impacted his writing. This week, I have the pleasure of talking with Bram Stoker Award winner, Sarah Read.

Sarah ReadSarah Read is a dark fiction writer in the frozen north of Wisconsin. Her short stories can be found in various places, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year vols 10 and 12. A collection of her short fiction called OUT OF WATER is available now from Trepidatio Publishing, as is her debut novel THE BONE WEAVER’S ORCHARD, both nominated for the Bram Stoker Awards. When she’s not staring into the abyss, she knits. You can find her online on Instagram or Twitter @inkwellmonster or on her site at www.inkwellmonster.wordpress.com.

Three Questions

GMM: Hello Sarah. Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and congratulations on winning a Bram Stoker Award for your debut novel, The Bone Weaver’s Orchard. Tell me about how the book came about. What inspired the story, and what motivated you to finish your first novel?

SR: Thank you so much, Michelle! The book came about because I wanted to write a scary book that wedged between the gap of YA horror and adult horror. I had never been entirely satisfied with YA horror as a young reader–it wasn’t scary enough, or dark enough, it lacked honesty, and too often I could see the author pulling punches. I started reading adult horror when I was nine. I liked the scary side of it much better, but the stakes always seemed to hinge on grownup problems that I couldn’t relate to enough to fully sympathize with the characters. From there, I just took my love for Gothic lit and tossed in all my favorite ingredients. I wrote the novel for NaNoWriMo, I think back in 2014. My husband was working nights at the time, as a janitor in a hospital. Once I got our (then only) son in bed, I’d sit in my favorite chair with a notebook and pen and hit my word count for the day. I didn’t quite get that celebratory feeling when finishing it, because my inner editor had been keeping a tally of all the broken pieces I knew I was going to have to go in and fix. Writing “The End” was a moment of, “Oh shit, now the real work starts!” And it did, and lasted for several years.

GMM: Last week, I asked Todd Keisling to talk about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted his writing process. Many writers have shared on social media that they are struggling to focus on their work and haven’t been as productive as they normally would be. How has the pandemic affected your writing process? Has it inspired new stories? What advice would you give other writers who might be struggling to get words on the page?

SR: Oh gosh, my writing has been almost nonexistent for close to eight weeks now. I have two kids at home with me, stuck in the house. My eldest is 12 and has 4-6 hours of virtual classes a day, and my youngest is 5, and has no home schoolwork. My days are spent teaching 6th grade, playing with my youngest, troubleshooting eldest’s tech problems, fixing snacks every ten minutes, and I’m still also working as a librarian from home, doing virtual programs for our patrons. I’m also still freelancing (writing, editing), though I’ve had to cut back a bit on that. My husband is still at work full time. When he gets home and takes over with the kids is when my workday starts, and I’m usually not done until almost midnight. Honestly, though, even if my schedule wasn’t a shitshow, my anxiety would probably polish off any creative energy that might surface. I’ve had a few good writing sessions since this all started, but I’m definitely not anywhere close to my usual output. I’ve been at this level of anxiety once before, when I was pregnant with my second son and he kept trying to die in utero over and over and over. I was on bed rest for seven months. I thought I’d get so much done! But it was a terrifying time, and my creative energy was re-routed to self-preservation. Instead I burned through Netflix and played Age of Empires. Now it’s Animal Crossing, if I can catch a moment. I feel less guilty this time, and more comfortable focusing on taking care of myself and my family.

GMM: Your fragment has a definite fantasy feel to it, with a hint f Shakespearean drama with the death of the family patriarch and what is promising to be a dispute over who will take his place as Lord. Do you feel more at home writing fantasy or horror, or do you typically combine the two genres? Can you give a brief synopsis of The Atropine Tree?

SR: I definitely frolic in dark fantasy, and tend to blend it with horror fairly often, sometimes crossing into the Weird territory altogether. I don’t know that I prefer one style over the others. Each story feels like home while I’m writing it. The Atropine Tree definitely dances along the Weird line. It’s unabashedly paranormal, where I usually tend to keep my ghosties more ambiguous. I’m having a blast working on it, though.

The synopsis:

Alrick’s uncle Tredan has his father’s last breath trapped in a blue bottle in his lab. Which is good, because they’ll need him to weigh in on a matter of succession and the location of the missing will.

Alrick’s father is dead, but the lords and ladies of House Aldane are restless spirits. When Alrick’s half-brother Aemon (bitter and cruel) and his sister Nelda (whose mouth is stained black from poison and who sways on the line between living and dead) show up with a lawyer and a dodgy will, Alrick and his alchemist uncle must turn to some dark arts to harness the voices of their household spirits. They must win witchy Nelda’s loyalty and turn her against the powerful demonic specter of her mother, and learn to swallow her poisons in the process.

Tredan’s army of young urchins rescued from the streets of London—the scratchlings, only half of whom survived his medical administrations—will aid them in their quest to secure the land and title for Alrick.

The Atropine Tree is a weird, Gothic Victorian ghost story about family loyalty and feuds that span generations, both living and dead. They all want a home of their own—and they all want House Aldane. It’s like Downton Abbey set in Hell House with the characters of Oliver Twist and a chaser of nightshade.

The Atropine Tree, Sarah Read

Chapter One

Alrick had arrived in time, but only just. The collar of his shirt strained against his throat, his cuffs pinched his wrists like ropes binding him to his father’s bedside.

Lord Drummond’s chest rose with a sound like chalk on slate, like plough on stone—each exhalation a surrender against the struggle to draw breath.

Alrick’s uncle Tredan leaned in and held a blue orb jar to the old Lord’s slack mouth. The fog of his breath that had clouded the glass only an hour ago now barely reached past the rim.

Tredan stood poised with the lid.

Alrick counted the breaths. Counted the beads of perspiration gathered in his uncle’s beard, counted the coarse ridges of his father’s knuckles that he held between his hands. The Lord’s cold, dry hands seemed to wick the moisture from Alrick’s hot palms. He spun the ring that hung loose on his father’s finger. Those hands had once been thick with callous, rough with half-healed tears, but now the skin draped from his fingerbones like half-drawn curtains. Like the end of an act. The end of everything.

Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen. He counted.

He wondered if his school had somehow been frozen in time. If in his six years there, a hundred years had passed at House Aldane.

“Thirteen. Twelve. Eleven.” His half-sister, Nelda, counted, too. Whispered, so that the fine veil across her face barely stirred.

“Three. Two.” Nelda’s voice faded.

His father wore at least a hundred years across his brow. The jar pressed into the greying skin, burrowed in thinning whiskers. Covered the lines Alrick had watched as a child, searching for that rare trace of humor. The lines that had faded, erased after his mother died.

The lid of the jar snapped into place—and that was how Alrick Aldane learned that his father, Lord Drummond Aldane, was dead.

Uncle Tredan held the jar up to the candlelight. The mist of Alrick’s father’s last breath stretched like a ghost down the side of the jar.

While Alrick watched the light play over the droplets condensing in Tredan’s bottle, the other eyes in the room watched Alrick.

He had come home to bid his father farewell, but he would not be returning to school.

The gold signet ring stuck at his father’s knuckle. He feared he’d tear the soft crepe skin if he twisted or pulled too hard. Alrick looked to Tredan.

“I’ll take care of it. I’ll have it back to you this evening.” He slid his blue bottle into the pocket of his long coat, and for a moment, Alrick thought the bulge it formed moved as if it were breathing.

Alrick nodded and laid the slack hand on the sheet.

“Best to wait.”

Alrick turned to the voice, to his half-brother Aemon who sat in the far corner beyond the reach of the candlelight, save for its shine off his eyes and teeth.

“And why is that?” asked Alrick. If a hundred years had passed at House Aldane, a thousand had passed since he’d seen his brother. Not since his mother sent Nelda and Aemon away, to live with their mother’s family. Just before she had died. Their return to House Aldane was a special exception. Alrick himself had granted it. Lord Drummond had been their father, too, and now the four of them—Alrick, Aemon, Nelda, and Tredan—were all that remained of the ancient Aldane family.

“Father’s will hasn’t been read, yet.” The shine of Aemon’s smile stretched wide.

“Let’s not speak of such things now,” Tredan said. He waved the housekeeper Merewyn over and she began to see to Lord Drummond, a half-hitch in her breath that stirred Alrick’s own grief.

The powder smell of her apron pulled at his heart like a chain yanking him back to his childhood, to her lap, the soft cushion from which he had learned his home—the whole world. His whole world.

He reached up and ran his fingers over the wood of the wide beam that spanned the low ceiling. It had seemed so high when he was young. How he had leapt, in this very spot, to reach these distant beams. Landed there on the bed where his father now lay.

Fallen. Already sinking through the linens into the straw, as if life itself had buoyancy, and now the Lord was leaden.

Merewyn rolled a bit of blanket under his chin to hold his mouth closed. A sliver of rheumy yellow flashed from beneath his eyelids, the stillness of those soft folds uncanny. It sent cold down the back of Alrick’s neck. No living eyes could ever be so still.

“He’s with Mother, now,” Nelda said.

“With Burgrune.” Aemon put his hand on his sister’s shoulder.

Tredan nodded. “Yes, and Eleanor. He loved them both.”

“I know,” Aemon said, “I saw.”

“So you did,” agreed Tredan. “We should go. Give Merewyn room.”

Three children entered the room. All wore undyed linen smocks, their heads shaved close. Their faces were scarred with the ravages of old pox that left their skin like masks. They were urchins from London—orphans that Tredan claimed and cured.

I’m an orphan. The thought came unbidden to Alrick’s mind.

No, I’m a young man. Not a child. A Lord.

The children set to helping Merewyn—cleaning the room and folding clothes. Alrick almost wished himself in one of those smocks. Something to do. A duty. A place in the world, instead of spinning uncertainty.

Tredan’s hand rested on his shoulder and steered him toward the door. Alrick stole a final glimpse back at his father. His eyelids had slid further back. His pale eyes stared out into the room, each rolling to the opposite side. Perhaps there was a wife at each bedside and he greeted them both. Perhaps one eye looked to the past and one to the future. Or perhaps he was roving, surrounded by devils.

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: Bracken MacLeod

Last week, I talked with Todd Sullivan about anime, writing YA fantasy, and cultural differences while living abroad. And this week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Bracken MacLeod. I think I first met Bracken at StokerCon in Providence, but I’ve had the pleasure of bumping into him at other events and hope to eventually have time to just sit and talk one of these days. In the meantime, enjoy his fragment and interview.

2020-02-12 14.43.17aBracken MacLeod is the Bram Stoker and Shirley Jackson Award nominated author of the novels, Mountain Home, Come to Dust, Stranded, and Closing Costs, coming in 2021 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He’s also published two collections of short fiction, 13 Views of the Suicide Woods and White Knight and Other Pawns. Before devoting himself to full time writing, he worked as a civil and criminal litigator, a university philosophy instructor, and a martial arts teacher. He lives outside of Boston with his wife and son, where he is at work on his next novel.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Bracken. I’m so glad you could join me today. Thank you for taking time to stop by and talk about your writing. I enjoyed your fragment. There’s a lot going on in Harlow’s world, internally and externally. And, a boring train ride through New York City becomes an opportunity for you to highlight several aspects of the human condition, including: feelings of loneliness and isolation even though we are usually surrounded by people, the way our communication has changed over time, and the very serious subject of suicide. Can you tell me a little bit about what inspired this story? Or at the very least, this scene?

BM: Thank you. I am so glad you liked it. This is a selection from the beginning of a new novel I’m working on we’ll call Moral Panic (not my real title, but I’m going to be a little protective here of a turn of phrase I think is pretty boss). I wanted to introduce the character of Harlow in a way that depicts someone trying to get back on their feet emotionally after a significant trauma. But reminders of that ordeal intrude in her life periodically, threatening to drag her back down. In the case of this piece, she’s feeling surprise at her own disappointment in not winning an award, and is heading home, when the world around her stops and points out in stark detail exactly how painful things can get. The details of the piece are drawn from my own experience in several different ways, but specifically, and most obviously, being on a train delayed by a person who’d jumped. It’s one thing to hear the driver tell you something’s happened, and quite another to ride by slowly, watching workers spreading sawdust on the tracks to soak up blood. Despite not being a first responder, I’ve seen considerably more than my share of public tragedy. A lot of Harlow’s interiority here is my own.

GMM: Many writers struggle with the concept of imposter syndrome even after they’ve had their work published and had some success with their writing. As a writer who has been nominated for some prestigious awards within your genre, does that kind of recognition make it easier or more difficult to approach your craft? Personally, I suffer from a fear of success, because success often means there are greater expectations for your next effort, and that also means more work on your part. Has success in your writing been helpful or a hindrance?

BM: Being nominated for awards is nice, and with few exceptions, I wouldn’t turn one down that was given to me, but there is an odd feeling of competition with yourself that creeps into the aftermath of being recognized like that. It’s less about not winning (PRO-TIP: you don’t LOSE awards, because how can you lose something you’ve never had?), than it is about what I think of the quality of my work. Why did this book get nominated and not that one? What was it about the story that resounded with people so much, and can I do it again? Imposter syndrome never goes away, but it does lessen. Still, while I was writing Closing Costs (coming in early 2021 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), I had considerable anxiety about the book and whether it lived up to what people might expect from a “Bracken MacLeod Novel” (whatever THAT is—how arrogant to think there even is such a thing). You have to sublimate those feelings and just go on. I know how to do what I do, and ideally, I’ve learned lessons about what lands right and what doesn’t from prior work. A little bit of anxiousness is good, though; it keeps you working hard.

In all honesty, I think I’d worry a little about someone who says they have no imposter syndrome. It sounds to me like admitting to Dunning-Krueger.

GMM: The overall feeling of your fragment is one of either despair or a sense of not feeling connected to the world around you. Disorientation. Genre wise, this feels like suspense or horror, but your use of language and detailed observation of what’s happening around Harlow gives your writing a literary feel as well. Where do you fall on the spectrum of the literary vs. genre fiction debate? How do you classify your own writing? Has your work ever been criticized for being too literary or too genre driven?

BM: I feel like my work firmly falls in the categories of horror and, more often, thriller, but I strive for literary style. My temptation is to say “literary quality” here, but I think there’s tremendous quality in stripped down, no frills prose as well as “literary.” I don’t like this rivalry we have with each other over genre v. Literary Fiction. Lit Fic is a genre with its own reader expectations and tropes, and there’s no reason why good genre fiction can’t also be literary. Read Paul Tremblay and Priya Sharma and John Langan and tell me those aren’t amazing literary writers working in genre. Colson Whitehead and Victor LaValle are two other examples of wonderful writers who I think of as literary first, but who clearly enjoy writing genre and are great at it. Anyway, I’d like to think of myself as a “slipstream” thriller writer falling somewhere in between traditional thriller/horror writing and Lit Fic.

I think I’ve had more pushback with crossing horror and thriller lines than literary. People have told me while they like this story of mine, it isn’t horror, as if there’s a bright line distinction with no overlap. But then, I tend to prefer what I call “secular horror” over supernatural most of the time. If given the choice between something like IT and McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, I’ll more often than not pick the more human monsters.

GMM: Secular horror. I like the sound of that. I think I know what you mean, but could you explain it a bit for a layperson?

BM: “Secular Horror” is a term I coined for my work. It’s kind of like the opposite of supernatural horror, PLUS. The plus is a matter of representation. While I try to do my best writing characters of all backgrounds and beliefs, my protagonists are always atheists and hard skeptics. Part of it is to make a point, perhaps, but a larger part is to give readers in that audience someone to identify with. So, when I say I write secular horror, it usually means that I’m writing non-supernatural work (though I have done supernatural in both novels and short stories) with a point of view coming from a position of skepticism and incredulity. Jack Ketchum, I’d say, wrote that also. Scooby Doo falls into the category as well, ALL the ghosts and spirits in those shows were normal people performing fraudulent supernaturalism! Scooby Doo is secular horror for children.

Fragment, by Bracken MacLeod

The operator’s crackling voice came on the public address speaker and said, “I’m sorry. We’re experiencing a delay.” The train operator sounded tired. It was late, but there seemed to be more weighing on her than the hour. “There’s a… a medical… a passenger just jumped in front of a train at the stop ahead of us. We’re been held here until cleared to resume. I’m very sorry.” The train car was silent. Those kinds of announcements used to be made by euphemism—there was a “police investigation” or “a passenger seeking medical attention.” These days, if you were on the affected train, they told you how it was. Matter of fact. In a sad kind of way, the passengers took it better. While any delay was frustrating, a kind of hushed patience came with the news of someone’s death on the tracks. People from elsewhere could believe all they wanted that New Yorkers were cold and aloof, but people in the city understood that tragedy outweighed inconvenience. They were the same kind of human beings as everyone else, whatever politicians had to say about “coastal elites.”

Harlow closed her eyes and visions of blood and chaos swirled in her alcohol-loosened thoughts. She realized she was better off with her eyes wide open. Perhaps all night. A couple at the other end of her car spoke to each other in hushed tones, leaning into one another. Other riders kept to themselves, typing on their phones or with wireless earbuds in their ears while they played Candy Crush. One woman quietly wiped tears from her eyes and stared straight ahead at her own reflection in the dark glass of the subway car window.

Harlow checked her phone. There were a couple of texts from people inviting her up to room parties, not realizing she’d left the con, and one from her mother asking whether she’d won. She closed her texts and opened Kindle instead. She tried to pick up her book where she’d left off, but the first paragraph seemed impervious to interpretation; she read it again and again, trying to discern meaning from the collection of words she knew had to make sense together but couldn’t force into clarity. She closed the app and instead opened Snapchat, using a filter to look at herself with cat ears and whiskers, then in grainy sepia, then as a biker complete with black five o’clock shadow and a skull-cap bandana. It was a stupid waste of time, and while she would’ve normally found it oddly narcissistic to stare at herself in digital costumes for a half an hour, it kept her from focusing on what had happened on the tracks ahead.

Sitting in a stationary subway car in a tunnel felt different than a delay at the station. Looking through the windows at people on the platform, moving from the gates to the exits, arriving and seeing a train waiting, was of a separate character than sitting in a car with black windows with only one’s own reflection looking back. A car one couldn’t easily exit and return to the world as it was. This felt like being lost. The tunnels weren’t made for lingering; they were intended to be sped through, viewed at a blur. This was a place of motion, not hesitation. And sitting still felt like being lost in time. Like being dead.

Like the person ahead of them on the tracks.

After nearly forty minutes, the train operator came back on the P.A. and told them they were clear to move; however, theirs would be an express train through the next stop. Buses would be waiting at the following station to shuttle riders back. A couple of people on the car softly groaned, but no one made more out of it than that exhaled utterance.

The car began to move again, and the riders slipped from their pocket of stilled time into the continuity of life in the city.

As they emerged from the tunnel and passed through the station, Harlow tried to keep her eyes fixed on her smart phone, but she’d been through all the filters in her app, checked her e-mail and texts. There was nothing unseen to draw her eyes from the bright hardhats of the workmen visible through the window across from her, and she looked up. Two of the them spread what looked like sawdust onto a darkened patch of track on the opposite side of the center divider, separating inbound and outbound trains, while a third looked on. He stood stoically, having already done his job, or waiting to take his turn, so no one would ever know death had come to that small space in their underground world. But he knew it had. His co-workers knew. And so did Harlow. He looked up, eyes meeting hers and in that moment she thought of Gentileschi’s Judith slaying Holofernes—figures standing in the dark, captured in a golden ratio of elemental violence too far complete to be stilled, yet frozen. She hovered in that instant unable to look away, confronted by the workman’s face, his impassivity, but seeing deeper in his eyes a sense that blood was not unfamiliar, and despondence infected him. Had changed him. She understood, and felt pass between them a kind of grieving kinship. Harlow blinked and when she opened her eyes the man had looked away and she couldn’t be certain he’d ever looked at her. The train continued to move and another wave of bleary drunkenness washed over her, bringing Harlow fully back into her body.

A teary woman across from her stifled a sob. Harlow turned her head and tried to catch her gaze, and convey solace to her. She tried to be the presence in between violence and death for this other human being who was about to be overtaken. The way she did. The woman gave her a weak half-smile and turned her eyes toward her hands in her lap.

Harlow leaned back in her seat and for the next two stops, stared at the advertisement next to the door. A size zero woman with a heavy-lidded expression stood stiffly in a yellow bikini next to the legend,

ARE YOU
BEACH BODY
READY?

The scars over Harlow’s ribs itched.

The operator announced her stop and she snapped out of her trance. Harlow didn’t recollect walking home, but waking up the next morning in her bed, had found her way.

Do you have a fragment you’d love to share here at Girl Meets Monster? If so, send it my way at: chellane@gmail.com.

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

Fiction Fragments: Todd Sullivan

Last week, I had the pleasure of chatting with Jessica McHugh about YA fiction and how horror and humor come together in her stories. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Todd Sullivan.

image0 (2)Todd Sullivan teaches English as a Second Language, and English Literature & Writing in Asia. He has had numerous short stories, novelettes, and novellas published across several countries, including Thailand, the U.K., Australia, the U.S., and Canada. He is a practitioner of the sword-fighting martial arts, kumdo/kendo, and has trained in fencing (foil), Muay Thai, Capoeira, Wing Chun, and JKD. He graduated from Queens College with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, and received a Bachelor of Arts in English from Georgia State University. He attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the National Book Foundation Summer Writing Camps. He currently lives in Taipei, Taiwan, and looks forward to studying Mandarin.

Three Questions

GMM: Hi Todd, welcome to Girl Meets Monster. After reading your fragment, I wondered what inspired the story, as well as what specific genre it fits into. There are young characters, so I thought YA and since there’s magic, I placed it in fantasy. Do you normally write YA fantasy, or do you write within other genres and subgenres?

TS: I wrote this story while teaching at a Language School in Seoul. One of the students was fond of drawing, and he was also a poor student academically. He was under a lot of pressure to do better in his classes, and soon he was going to take entrance exams for a boarding school in China.

This real-life scenario became the genesis of Test Amongst the Shadows, wherein a teenager, who happens to be a mage in the world of humans, has to pass an exam that is important to him. The narrative follows the different methods he employs to cheat since he knows he cannot pass the test on his own.

Test Amongst the Shadows is YA urban fantasy fiction, and eventually I’ll develop the idea into a novella series.

I also write across genres, including horror and light science fiction.

GMM: The interaction between your characters also reminded me of Japanese manga and anime stories. Do you enjoy anime? How has it influenced your writing? What are some of your favorite anime series or characters?

TS: I love anime, and it has had a significant influence on my writing. I remember the first time I saw Akira, which is the first major Japanese anime film many people around my age saw. This was in the 90s before the popularity of the internet when it was hard to find anime on American television.

One of the big differences between anime narratives and western narratives is that there are usually no purely evil characters. Westerners base a lot of their worldview on scripture: Heaven and Hell, good and evil. There is God, and there is Satan. There is a hero, and there is a villain.

Anime characters tend to be more flux in their alignment. Usually, the characters simply have objectives. Sometimes this objective brings great harm to one, or many, and that person will be the bad guy. The character with an objective that happens to include stopping the great harm to the one, or many, will be the good guy.

In Akira, there is no villain. There is a teen boy full of angst who accidentally achieves great power he cannot control. And there is his friend who must stop him, in a way out of friendship, out of knowing that the boy is in torment even as his power wrecks havoc upon the city.

In Dragon Ball Z, one of my favorite animes, Vegeta starts off as a central villain to Earth. He does so because he wants to escape the tyranny of one of DBZs purely evil characters, Frieza, and on Earth he thinks the means to do exists. Vegeta changes throughout the series, going from villain to anti-hero to hero.

Then there is Goku, a character whose goal of protecting the Earth conflicts with his overwhelming desire to improve his fighting abilities. This obsession Goku has indirectly causes great harm and misery to others.

The characters I write are similar to these Japanese figures. With few exceptions, my characters are not purely good, and they are not purely evil. Sometimes one of them will have a goal that brings suffering to others; and sometimes, another of them will have a goal that brings them into direct conflict with the first, and thus the suffering of others can be alleviated.

GMM: How long have you lived in Asia, and what aside from teaching English and Writing made you decide to move there? What cultural barriers have you experienced as a person of color living abroad? How have these experiences shaped your writing?

TS: I’ve lived in Asia ten years. After a three-week winter semester class where I studied Japanese authors in Tokyo during my MFA at Queens College, I knew that I wanted to come back to this part of the world and learn more about the people and the cultures.

Many Asian societies are homogeneous, so the presence of foreigners acts as a bit of a shock to their system. I think that being a foreigner in a homogeneous society is a good case study of how humans might react to the presence of aliens from outer space. There is simply a difficulty in processing the reality of that which is standing in front of you.

Writing-wise, I think this difficulty is best expressed in my fantasy novella series, The Windshine Chronicles. This series centers around a dark-skinned foreigner living in a fantasy version of Korea called South Hanguk. The series’ narrative is multilayered, but one of the themes is how the people of the country interact with foreigners, and how the foreigners struggle to exist in a country that isn’t their native home.

In The Windshine Chornicles, the idea that the human race is “one whole” is constantly put to the test.

From Test Amongst the Shadows, by Todd Sullivan

The hardest working mage who ever lived glanced at the clock on the wall. Twenty minutes. Jin gazed down at his English exam. Only twenty minutes left to pass or fail the biggest test of his life. His scantron sheet was half empty. The clock’s ticking seconds in the silent classroom echoed in his mind, and made focusing on English vocabulary and grammar impossible. He had to do something if he intended to get in the top of his class.

Jin looked around at the other students, their heads low, their shoulders hunched as they picked off ovals in the long marching columns. Adjusting his glasses, he opened his senses in search for the right spell amidst the thin cracks that splinter reality. He released control of his hand and let it draw six stick-figure bandits on horses at the edges of the exam. Leaning close to the page, he whispered, “Thieving shadows, take shape and learn the secrets of my woes.”

The drawings shivered, and the bandits shook themselves awake. They clawed out of the exam, erupting off the page into the third dimension. The cloaked leader saluted, his face hidden in shades of gray. Jin pointed to the answer key tucked under a notebook on the teacher’s desk. The leader nodded, and motioned to the silent troupe behind him. The bandits yanked on their horses’ reins and leapt off the side of the table. Racing across the tiled floor, the horses skirted around chair legs and hopped over sneakers. Jin glanced at the exam answer key again. The sides of his mouth spread in a triumphant smile, but a purple boot suddenly crushed the horsemen right before they cleared the classroom’s tables. Jin inhaled in surprised. He followed the boot up to the leg, the skirt, the shirt, to finally meet the steady gaze of Sori, the top student in the school.

And his ex-girlfriend.

The two maintained eye contact for several moments, a silent challenge passing between them. Sori had broken up with him right before exams, informing him that she wasted too much time with him and wasn’t focusing enough on the upcoming finals. And now, here she sat, the only other mage in this room of humans, stopping him from reaching his goal.

So that’s how it was going to be.

Jin slowly took off his glasses in preparation for his next spell. Sori had managed to see his bandits. He didn’t know how, but he would need to take care of her sight before he tried for the test answers again.

Jin narrowed his eyes at the light reflected in the lenses of his glasses. He smiled. He held the glasses to his lips and misted the lenses by blowing on one, then the other. While he did this, he focused on the magic vibrating between the fissures of reality until he heard the words to the next spell.

“Site sighted, two to see, sea bog fog billowing…”

“John?”

Jin snapped his mouth shut at the teacher speaking his English name. He tried to still his heart now thumping fast in his chest, and met the teacher’s puzzled blue eyes.

“Are you speaking to someone?”

Now the other students’ heads lifted, and before he knew it, dozens of humans were all staring in his direction. With their attention focused on him, he couldn’t produce magic. No mage could. Human disbelief in magic narrowed the fissures running throughout reality, making the words necessary to bring spells to life impossible to hear. Jin had been told that no mage had been able to perform magic in front of a human in hundreds of years.

He glanced at Sori, who was smiling at him as he sweated under the spotlight of mankind. With a weak shrug, Jin said, “I was just,” and he paused as he scrambled for a good excuse, “reading a problem out loud to myself.” He tapped the exam. “Sometimes that helps.”

The English teacher nodded. “Everyone must remain silent so that the other students can concentrate. Sorry, John.”

“Won’t happen again,” Jin assured him. He caught Sori’s smug wink, and tore his eyes away from his ex-girlfriend’s pretty face.

These exams determined who would be allowed to apply for the International School in Hong Kong. Only the top two students would be recommended. Jin felt confident about math and science, but he worried over his English scores. One of his classmates had lived in San Francisco for years. Jin only managed to edge him out sometimes, while Sori beat them both in every subject every, single, time.

She was a studying machine.

Jin looked at the clock again. Ten minutes to finish the exam. He had to cast another spell, but when he raised his eyes, he noticed the teacher looking around the room. Whereas before he hadn’t been paying much attention, now the teacher was watching them closely, all because of Sori. Jin really wished he had been able to cast his spell and blind her. Not only because he would have been able to get the answers without her trying to counter him, but because it would have stopped her from taking the test, maybe even causing her to fail.

That would have been sweet.

Jin’s eyes narrowed as a new idea struck him. He looked at the dusty blackboard behind the teacher and slowly raised his hand.

“Yes, John?” The teacher said. “Is something wrong?”

“Can I ask you a question?” Jin assumed his most perplexed look, and mixed in a little pained exasperation to make himself seem even more pathetic.

The teacher sighed and waved him forward. Jin stood. Only briefly, a couple of students glanced up at the newest disturbance, but their focus quickly returned to their exams. All, that is, except Sori, who watched Jin with a penetrating gaze. He wanted to give her the finger, but since the teacher was staring at him, he refrained as he passed her…

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: Nick Cato

Last week, I spoke with Corey Niles about how identity shapes our fiction. And this week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes horror film aficionado Nick Cato.

Nick CatoNick Cato is the author of Don of the Dead, The Apocalypse of Peter, The Last Porno Theater, The Atrocity Vendor, Uptown Death Squad, and Death Witch. His debut non fiction film book, Suburban Grindhouse, will be released in February 2020. He has edited the anthologies Dark Jesters (with co-editor LL Soares) and The Gruesome Tensome: A Short Story Tribute to the Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis. Nick has had fiction published in many anthologies and writes a film column for the recently revamped Deep Red magazine.

Nick also oversees things at the long running fanzine/website The Horror Fiction Review and occasionally hosts the Suburban Grindhouse podcast.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Nick! I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t picked up a copy of Suburban Grindhouse yet, but I’m really looking forward to reading it. Can you give us a synopsis of the book and maybe tell us what inspired you to write it? This is your first non fiction film book, what challenges did you encounter while switching gears between fiction and non fiction? Do you have plans for any other non fiction books?

NC: Suburban Grindhouse is a collection of columns (along with a bunch of new bonus material) originally published on a film site called Cinema Knife Fight. The columns are part film review, part memoir, as I often explain what audiences were like at certain theaters both in my hometown of Staten Island, NY, as well as in Times Square and some NJ theaters. I always found some audiences could actually shape the way you ended up feeling about a film, and this idea eventually became my column. When I pitched it to one of my favorite film book publishers (the UK’s Headpress) I was thrilled their editor had been familiar with my column and eventually bought my manuscript and added it to their amazing catalog.

It wasn’t difficult to switch gears as writing about film is something I do to “take a breather” while I’m working on a novella or novel. I find it a great way to get my fiction muse back. I’ve written about film since 1981 in various horror and cult film fanzines, so I had somewhat of a background when I decided to try it more seriously.

My second film book is currently being considered at another press, and I’m in full swing on a third.

GMM: The titles of your books are humorous, but you’re writing horror. Would you consider your work  bizarro or weird fiction? Are they the same thing? What are the elements of your fiction that sets it apart from other horror stories?

NC: I originally wrote what would be considered “humorous horror,” but in time I think the majority of my fiction became weird or bizarro. I always try to bring in something unusual or try to turn a trope on it’s head. As subgenres, if you will, weird and bizarro are different, in that “weird fiction” was pretty much what Lovecraft and his like were considered, whereas “bizarro” usually follows more absurd/surreal and less fantasy-like ideas. Not always, but mostly. It’s surely a fine line. Lately lots of “Lovecraftian” or “cosmic” fiction is simply being labeled as weird fiction.

I think the main element that sets my stories apart is I bring in the bizarro element later on, be it during a short or longer story. Most of my tales are told in three sections (even my shorts), and I try to bring the strange in toward the end. Most of the stranger things I’ve come up with haven’t been “forced,” but rather came out naturally for me. In high school one of my friends used to say, “Nick doesn’t need drugs to be weird.” I always got a kick out of that. Weird ideas seem to continually pop up in my head, and the more witty ones I try to convert into fiction.

GMM: A few years ago I interviewed horror writer and academic, Michael Arnzen, and he talked about the connection between horror and humor. One of his quotes really spoke to me: “I think laughter bonds us, even though we’re all doomed.” I really like that statement as a worldview. What’s your philosophy on the connection between horror and humor?

NC: Mike would surely know. I loved his short story collection, 100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories. In fact it contains one of my all time favorite humorous horror stories, “Domestic Fowl.” Humor and horror have always gone hand in hand with me. Laughing…and I mean really cracking up, like the first time most people see a film like Blazing Saddles… is an experience that can make you feel naturally high. I’ve experienced that several times in my life through films and certain comedians. Same with horror. When I was 13, I saw the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the first time in a theatrical rerelease. I had never been as terrified by a film before, or since to be honest. The feelings of sheer terror and “cracking up” laughing bring some of us to a place we both love and dread. That’s powerful. Some films tried to combine the two genres, but only a few succeeded. I’ve tried to combine both to an extreme degree but have yet to come up with something I’d say strongly captures both emotions at the same time. A couple of writers I admire have come close. I continually have my eye out for that inevitable short story or novel that will scare the crap out of us while simultaneously making us laugh till we cry.

“The Bowl,” by Nick Cato, was featured in his latest collection “The Satanic Rites of Sasquatch and other Weird Stories,” published by Bizarro Pulp Press (Journalstone)

Harold Anderson stared out the bedroom window, restless thanks to his wife’s snoring. The occasional bat fluttered by the street light, casting distorted shadows on his ceiling.

“Come on, honey,” he said, pushing Helen onto her side.

She half-consciously rolled over and fell right back to sleep.

Although his plan worked, it was the silence that now kept him awake. He decided to watch a late re-run of the Tonight Show, but was still alert when it ended.

3:30 a.m.

He sat up, looking at the clothes he’d neatly laid out for tomorrow (today, actually). When he laid back down, his stomach gurgled loud enough to make Helen shift.

“Whoa,” he said, rubbing his belly. “I shouldn’t have had that second helping.”

He stepped into his #1 Dad slippers (a Christmas gift from Danny), slid on his bathrobe (a birthday gift from Nadine), then padded toward the bathroom. With each step, the need to expel last night’s dinner became more severe. Where had this come from? Four and a half hours of trying to fall asleep without so much as a fart, and now…

He reached into the darkness and felt for the switch. He dropped his robe as soon as the lime-colored bathroom was illuminated. The toilet—situated strategically between the sink and shower—seemed to beckon him. After pulling the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly from a magazine bin, Harold dropped his boxers and perched himself on the cool porcelain.

He read through the entire film review section before finishing his business. He broke the silence with two courtesy flushes along the way.

“That’s the last time I let her talk me into Mexican on a work night,” he said, washing his sweaty hands and face with lukewarm water. He put the robe back on, then gave the room a few cinnamon-scented blasts of Glade, making the place smell like a combo of Big Red Chewing Gum and ass.

He turned to walk back to bed. Someone said “thank you” in the blackened hallway.

Harold jumped. He flicked the bathroom lights back on, expecting to see Danny or Nadine up for a late-night pee. But on second thought, the voice was too deep for a five- or eight-year-old.

He checked his children’s bedrooms, happy to see them both asleep.

Man, do I need some shut-eye. Harold turned off the bathroom light and scratched the top of his auburn head.

He crawled under the blankets next to Helen, and within five minutes joined her in slumberland.

#

“You look bushed! Tough time last night?” Mr. Davis asked.

“I had a bit of trouble falling asleep. My stomach did backflips for a while.”

“Glad to see you’re here—you know we have that meeting with Tucker right after lunch today?”

“That’s why I’m here, even if I got less than three hours of sleep,” Harold said, taking a swig from his third cup of coffee.

“That’s the spirit!” Mr. Davis patted him on the back. “This is why you’re my number one man.”

At 11:43, Harold felt a sudden need to visit the restroom. He closed the file he was working on and headed to the lavatory.

He sat on the toilet, feeling disgusted by the prospect of doing this in a $600 suit. He experienced feelings of emptiness. Coldness. He couldn’t wait to finish. His heart began racing, as if he was having a panic attack.

He soon felt relieved to be rid of whatever was inside him, and to be off the office toilet; just knowing two dozen people shared it gave him the willies.

“Mr. Anderson? Call on line one.”

“Thank you, Margaret. I’ll take it in my office.”

“Please hold one moment,” she said, smiling as Harold passed by.

“Hello, Harold Anderson here.”

Silence.

“Hello, may I help you?”

Silence. Then, “Thank you.”

“Excuse me?”

Silence. A rusty click. “Thank you.”

Harold leaned forward in his plush leather chair. “I’m afraid I don’t understand. Who is this?”

“You know who this is, and I know what you just did.”

Harold slammed the phone down. “Freaking lunatic!”

Immediately, the phone rang in the lobby. He heard Margaret answer, then page him on the intercom. He accepted the call.

“Hello? Anderson here.”

“If you ever hang up on me again, I’ll destroy your wife and kids.”

“Okay—who is this? What’s your problem?”

Silence. Deafening, painful silence. Then the distinct sound of a toilet flushing. “Have a good day. We’ll discuss this later.”

“We’ll discuss what later?”

The phone went dead.

The voice was familiar, but Harold couldn’t match it to a face. He walked around his desk, anticipating another call.

It never came.

He left the office shortly after 5:00 p.m., still haunted by the menacing telephone conversation. Even the successful meeting with Tucker Industries couldn’t keep his mind off that voice. He spent the forty-minute drive home trying to figure out who would first thank him for something, then threaten to kill his family in the next breath.

Must be a prank. Harold tuned into a classic rock station as he hit the highway.

Do you have a fragment you’d like to share with the world? Send it my way 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: Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel

Last week, I spoke with Brandon Getz about werewolves in outer space, and this week Girl Meets Monster welcomes Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel.

SSGHeadSheri Sebastian-Gabriel’s short fiction has appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines over the past decade. Spirits, her first novel, is out now from Haverhill House Publishing. She lives in the Northeast with her fiance, the writer Matt Bechtel; her three children; and her two diametrically opposed dogs, Nya, a German shepherd mix, and Kai, a Chihuahua.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Sheri. Congratulations on publishing your debut novel, Spirits, last year. 2019 was one hell of a year. What are some of your greatest accomplishments from last year? What do you have planned for 2020, and what are you working on right now?

SSG: Thank you so much! It’s been a crazy year. Publishing Spirits and doing the promotional work associated with that pretty much tops my list of accomplishments for 2019. I’ve read in front of some amazing crowds. I particularly enjoyed my reading at Otto’s Shrunken Head, this adorable tiki bar in the East Village of Manhattan. The staff there is just delightful. You should go the next time you’re in New York. They make a mean Stormy Skull.

In 2020, I’ll probably still be promoting the living hell out of Spirits. Chris Golden once told me it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

I’m working on my second novel now. It follows an African vampire named Wekesa. Wekesa experienced the horrors of slavery as a young man. He roams the Deep South, feeding on racists. Sam Rayburn is a single mom who rents out a room to the mysterious Kes. The tiny town of Helms, Georgia, experiences a rash of grisly murders, and Sam suspects her new boarder may be responsible.

GMM: I’ve been a die-hard fan of horror fiction and films since I was a kid and could watch or read almost anything your put in front of me. After I became a mom, the concept of horror changed for me. The Exorcist was no longer scary because of demonic possession. It was scary because a woman with a sick child couldn’t find the help she needed to save her daughter. The Babadook felt like a documentary about being a single parent dealing with mental health issues and a child with behavioral problems. Has motherhood changed the way you view and write horror? What scares you these days?

SSG: I think you’re so right about motherhood shaping our worldviews and changing our fears. When I was young, I was afraid of monsters. I believed there were things out there that could hurt or kill me. But when I grew up, I realized monsters can be destroyed. As a parent, and a single parent at that, I understand that real terror comes from the things we can’t control. My number-one fear is something awful and beyond my control happening to my kids.

GMM: Speaking of the horror of motherhood, your fragment taps into one of the fears most parents share — bad things happening to our children when we aren’t there to protect them. I think we would agree that some parents have an even harder time keeping their kids safe because of financial difficulties and sociopolitical issues like racism and sexism. Your fragment features a woman of color raising two boys. What inspired the story, and does the current political climate have an impact on your writing?

SSG: The current political climate has absolutely impacted my writing! Subversive art is necessary. We both have stories in the forthcoming Dystopian States of America, an anthology benefiting the ACLU Foundation. It’s a cause near to my heart, because the damage done by the current administration is going to be felt for a really long time. There are children in cages, for fuck’s sake. Can we really just turn a blind eye to that?

From Blood for the Soil, by Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel

Sam tapped the pen against the kitchen table. If she skipped the cable bill for another month, she might be able to pay both the power bill and the car insurance, and she’d still have fifty dollars left to buy groceries for the next two weeks. The laptop glowed in her face as she punched in her debit card number and hit the Pay Now button.

Her stomach roiled. Harper’s hadn’t reopened after being shut down by the health inspector, so her services as a table jockey weren’t exactly in demand. The Beehive Café might be hiring, but Sam couldn’t bring herself to speak to Azilee McVey after the bitter old hag yelled at Nat for trying to sell basketball fundraiser candy outside her over-hyped establishment.

It was more than a little odd to her that Azilee gleefully hosted a carwash for the marching band a week later. She’d driven by to see a dozen or so white kids scrubbing cars and spraying each other, laughing in the carefree midday sunshine. Her boys would always face people like Azilee and cops who are scared of unarmed black boys whose only crime is existing. And her parents. Her blood ran cold.

Failing them wasn’t an option. She logged out of the power company’s website, typed in http://www.helmsherald.com, clicked on the classifieds section, and scanned the site for a way to place an ad. When she found the right form for apartments for rent, she filled in:

Room for rent in quaint farmhouse. $300 a month, utilities included. Smoke-free household. Must be neat. Call Sam at (706) 531-2243. 

She hit the submit button and clicked the X to close the browser.

The clock on her laptop told her it was a quarter past seven, and her heart jumped. The boys should have been home by now. She leapt up and dashed to the door. The crickets had started their evening serenade. Lightning bugs blinked on and off. The sky was navy blue and a smattering of stars punctuated it. The grass tickled the bottoms of her feet as she walked into the yard.

“Nat! Kyle!”

Her voice echoed through the trees that ran the perimeter of the farm. Something metallic rattled in the distance. Sam ran, barely noticing the gravel of the driveway jabbing her feet. The gravel turned to asphalt as she reached the roadway. Two shadowy figures emerged from the diminishing daylight. One lurched. The other walked alongside a clanking bulk. Sam’s legs burned and her feet slapped the craggy ground as she ran toward the figures.

She met them at the edge of the forest. A moan rose up from the dark.

“Mom! Nat’s hurt! Someone hit him as we were turning into Cooper’s. I’ve got his bike. I had to leave mine at the store.”

Sam’s stomach fell. She scooped the younger boy up and carried him, draped across her forearms. He whimpered and tucked his head into her shoulder like a shy toddler. He was heavy, but she shuffled and redistributed his weight until they made it to the front porch. She set him down and knelt in front of him. Blackened blood streaked his shin. A gash on his knee crusted as the blood dried.

“What happened?” she asked.

“This old lady was turning into the grocery store parking lot as we were crossing the street, and she crashed right into Nat. He fell off, and her car crushed his bike. The wheel is so bent, I had to push it home. Is he gonna be okay?”

Sam examined the wound. It was dirty but seemed superficial.

“Let’s go inside and get you cleaned up. I think you’ll be okay. Thanks for taking such good care of him, Kyle. You’re a good brother. We can go back to Cooper’s tomorrow to pick up your bike. So, what did the old lady say about hitting you?”

Nat’s eyes flashed with anger.

“She took off,” he said. “Just left me there.”

Sam hefted him onto his feet. Blind rage warmed her face. Her body quaked as she suppressed the urge to launch into an expletive-filled rant, focusing instead on ushering them both back into the house. Kyle stayed behind in the living room as Sam led Nat to the bathroom.

He sat on the toilet. Sam pulled the first aid kit from under the sink and placed it at his feet.  She ran a washcloth under the tap. Nat’s eyes were trained on the white tile floor. Tears lined his bottom eyelashes, and his bottom lip quivered. She dabbed at the red wounds, careful not to rub or irritate the raw skin. Blood flaked up and left maroon streaks on the cloth.

“What if I died?” he whispered. Sam wasn’t sure she’d heard him right.

“What, sweetie?”

His soulful brown eyes met hers.

“What if I died? That woman. The old lady who hit me. She took off right after she hit me.”

Nat’s breath came in ragged bursts. A single tear streamed down his cheek.

“She didn’t know I was okay,” he said, his shaky voice growing in volume. “I could have died, and it wouldn’t have mattered to her.”

Sam lowered the cloth, placed her hands on either side of his face, and pulled his head to her chest. His warm tears soaked her shirt, and she stroked his hair.

Do you have a fragment you’d like to share with Girl Meets Monster? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: Errick Nunnally

Last week I chatted with EV Knight about cats and her debut novel, The Fourth Whore. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Errick Nunnally. I met Errick in person at Necon 39, but was first introduced to him virtually as the cover artist for my debut novel, Invisible Chains. When I asked Errick to submit a fragment, he had this to say about his submission: “This is the second part in a series of stories I’ve been putting together about a Boston animal control officer, Nora Tuttle (mixed ethnicity), who has found herself dealing with animal…anomalies…each worse than the last. My hope is to collect them as a novella. Which is nigh impossible to sell, of course, but… I can’t overstate how much I love this character.”

ErrickNunnallyErrick Nunnally was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, and served one tour in the Marine Corps before deciding art school was a safer pursuit. He enjoys art, comics, and genre novels. A designer by day, he earned a black belt in Krav Maga and Muay Thai kickboxing by night. His writing has appeared in several anthologies and is best described as “dark pulp.” His work can be found in Lamplight, Transcendent, Monarchies of Mau: Tales of Excellent Cats, The Final Summons, Protectors 2, Nightlight Podcast, and the novel, Lightning Wears a Red Cape. See more of his work online at erricknunnally.us

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome, Errick. I just finished reading Blood for the Sun, and I loved it. I love vampires and werewolves equally, but I always seem to root for the werewolves when they go to war. What made you decide to cast vampires as the villains in the novel? What was the inspiration for your wonderfully complex protagonist, Alexander Smith?

EN: Hello, and thank you for having me. I’m so glad you enjoyed the novel!

As for inspiration, I love monsters more than the other aspects of horror and I always rooted for the werewolves in movies–especially when they were subbed to vampires. Because they’re relegated to wild animal status, it wasn’t often, in popular movies and TV, that you got to see someone in control of themselves. The closest that I recall is the television series, Werewolf, where the main character had a modicum of control when transformed, but that control was eroding over time. I got a kick out of the Werewolf By Night comics and really liked the idea that Jack Russel finally makes peace with his beast, taking more control and revitalizing the series for a while. That is basically what drove my initial decision and fundamentally reimagining where these abilities come from–which is part of the trilogy’s overall arc. Smith himself was a long time in development, from that point. It all started in college, around ’95 or ’96. I painted a three-page comic of this loose idea that was jangling around in my head: a werewolf living on a frontier whose neighbors–Chinese immigrants–are murdered and their child stolen. He tears off after the culprit, recognizing that a wild vampire has taken the child. He saves the baby, but not before she’s bitten. He knows he should get rid of her, but he keeps her, instead, initially raising her out of guilt for crimes he’s already committed. And that’s basically the origin story of his adopted daughter, Ana. I loved the idea of Alexander growing up pre-industrial and Ana growing up post-industrial. It makes their personalities decidedly different. Over the years, I had other ideas for both his backstory and personality: he’s half-and-half African-American and First Nation. His dad escaped slavery in Louisiana, up the Mississippi River and married a Kainai woman, before settling in Saskatchewan and becoming a coal miner. Alexander is one of three kids, raised on a homestead. His sisters are married back into the tribe. His father dies of black lung, his mother dies of old age. The shapeshifter aspect is handed down bloodlines and Alexander is infected by a great-great grandfather. After a century or more the aspect starts eating memories, producing wild monsters that feed into myths. That memory stuff came from watching my grandmothers’ memories deteriorate and how disorienting and horrifying it was. Alexander’s skills were added with the idea that constant learning helps our brains stay sharp. The idea for sorting out missing children’s cases as a challenging puzzle as well as a parallel to his daughter’s existence. He fears the madness and roams from his homelands to avoid handing the lycanthropy down to someone else. I’ve always liked the irredeemable character, so I put things in Alexander’s past that he’ll never overcome. So much of his character stems from my counter-stance on pure heroism, popular vampires, and the unimaginable beauty associated with the supernatural in so many “urban fantasy” novels. On and on and on, over the years, until I got laid off around 2008. Being unemployed for a couple years put a lot of time in my lap and I came up with a bucket list. One of the items was to finally write that damn novel.

GMM: Judging by the fragment you submitted, Nora Tuttle is about to have her hands full. Nothing good comes out of mysterious egg sacs in my experience. You mentioned that you love this character, and that she is of mixed ethnicity. How important is it to you to write about characters who are people of color? Why are their stories important?

EN: That fragment is from a story I finished recently. It’s the second time I’ve used Tuttle. She debuted in a story about dog fighting and genetic tampering that I wrote shortly after Blood for the Sun was published. She is mixed and that experience comes with its unique problems here in America. I’m not the sort that writes about “race” in particular, but it factors in because that’s the lived experience I have among the people I grew up with. It’s important to me because as I grew up, I didn’t see much of myself, the people, or the world I knew reflected in fiction. And I love science fiction! Non-white adults of my vintage will recall the lack of reflection when it came to stories about the future, as if entire swaths of humanity wouldn’t make it, that “white” folks would live forever. It was frustrating. Even more, in hindsight, as I’ve gotten older and seen so much more successful representation in media. Nora Tuttle, in particular, came into existence because I didn’t want to write a male protagonist and I wanted someone who would have some relationship with law enforcement, but wasn’t a cop themselves. The better to entangle them in danger without the offensive capabilities or resources to deal with it. Enter an officer for Boston Animal Control! Add monstrous elements and I had someone in way over their head. I think it’s very, very important to write protagonists who are as fully-formed as possible. Because of my experiences and background, that’s always going to include various POC. Tuttle has all sorts of background that I mine in the second story, further complicating her life. Because I love her, she will be in a third and final story before I step away from, uh, complicating her life.

GMM: I haven’t had a chance to read your latest novel, Lightning Wears a Red Cape, but it is on my list of books to read in 2020. What are you working on right now? Do you have any projects coming out in the next year?

EN: Blood for the Sun is currently out-of-print, but a newer, re-edited version will be back in circulation this summer, from Haverhill House Publishing! Two sequels will follow shortly afterward. The second, All The Dead Men, is already written! I can’t wait to start reveals of the covers et al. I’m also working on a few short stories–one of which has a home if I can get it done right–and two novellas that I’d like to release into the wild. There are two novels in the pipe that I need to get crackin’ on. One is a thriller–no speculative elements–about an Afghani translator and the father of a fallen Marine that he has befriended. The translator has to go on the run with evidence of a conspiracy to escalate conflict in the region. Both he and the father are pursued by bad actors, of course. There’ll be international action, mercenaries, political intrigue, all the good/bad thriller stuff. Everyone I’ve explained the full premise and story to is intrigued by the idea and I think it’ll be a good challenge for me to write. The second novel’s content is TBD, but a couple of good friends are pushing for a slippery, magical idea that builds off of my life when I was much younger. We’ll just have to wait and see about that one, at this point!

The Keeper of Taswomet, by Errick A. Nunnally

The slow whine of a cicada cut through the warm air and mixed with the other chirps and clicks of insects. A light breeze came in from across the marsh, tickling the tall dry grass. The dense green could barely be seen through a narrow corridor in the trees surrounding the last home on the lane.

Joshua shot out of the back of his house, cutting across the lawn and into the trees before the screen door banged shut. He wore the summer-ready haircut of most twelve-year old boys: buzzed short on the sides, his brown hair lightened by the sun. The day was especially warm, so he wore his favorite, tank top: light blue with Mjölnir on the front. Partway down his skinny biceps, the skin went from its usual fish-belly pale to cinnamon-toasted, exposing what his mother referred to as a ‘farmer’s tan.’ The youngster was an anachronism, belonging instead to the days when scores of children roamed through nature, picking it apart, living in it and on it. These days, most of his friends were more interested in music or the latest dramas of the latest pop stars.

He rushed to check on the well-hidden, briny pool he’d found just before lunch, a gift born of the marsh that defined so much of his life. Joshua was fortunate, he enjoyed the area to a degree that other kids did not. Taswomet Marsh made summers the best time of year and it made school bearable. The natural wonder’s proximity bent the science program to its will. And Joshua loved it.

A trip to the hardware store and chores with his father had kept him from exploring the discovery further, earlier in the day, but the precious gift of extra daylight during the summer meant he had some time after dinner.

He wound through the oak and pine wood, rooted in a sandy surface, cutting through to the well-worn path that meandered along the greater portion of the marsh. Insect cries intensified in constant whirrs and clicks. He imagined the long shadows were the devastating ice clubs of frost giants and Joshua danced around them. He slowed when he reached the next path, exposed to the setting sun on.

Bright light and heat slammed his face and arms as he eased the pace, picking his way along the narrow path that cut through low brush too thick to pass otherwise. He’d promised to get back before sunset, so he didn’t dally when a plover snapped out of the tall grass, capturing his attention. It beat quickly into the sky, then broke into the tree line before he could determine whether it was a western or a white-rumped.

The backpack he wore added a layer of unneeded warmth to the small of his back. It contained his notebook, sample bags, a small shovel, and other knick-knacks for research and sample collection. He shrugged the bag off and carried it by the handle. Just ahead, there was a less worn path cutting towards the marsh proper. Softer soil gave beneath his feet as he wound his way through the flora to the pool, pushing tall grasses and thick underbrush aside. The stink of mosquito repellent stung his nose. It was necessary to wear in the marsh, but he always felt like his mom laid it on too thick. Still, he was fortunate to be part of a new generation allowed to roam, to drift away and explore only to return when hunger saw fit to remind him. As long as it happened before dark.

He crouched down at the edge of the hidden pool and peered into the dark water. Just below the surface, he could make out eight gelatinous sacks about the size of raviolis and trending in color from brown to translucent to gray. He couldn’t tell if there were more of them deeper in the water, but it didn’t matter. He only wanted one for his project. Being careful not to fall in, and using a heavy-duty zip-locking bag, he scooped up one of the sacs and as much of the brackish water as he could. He only wanted a sample, something to study. Of all the species he knew that reproduced in this manner—he presumed they were egg sacs—this one escaped him. It looked like the egg case of a catshark, but square and smaller. The marsh was a cornucopia of ecology accentuated by the sea.

Joshua held the bag up to the sunlight and peered through the odd mass. Inside the sac, a tiny creature lay curled into a tight ball. It twitched in the glare. Overhead, two Osprey observed the marsh in widening circles. Joshua was anxious to get his find settled into the glass habitat he’d constructed in his room. He’d dubbed the thing a “terraquarium” since it approximated, as best he could manage, the mixed environment of the marsh. He was going to have the best summer project on display when school started again.

Thoughts of the future danced in his mind as he hurried home, the kind of open-ended musings only a 12-year old could think of; a future of discovery and fortune.

Do you have a fragment that should probably see the light of day? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: EV Knight

Last week, I talked with Ronald J. Murray about cannibals and erotic horror. I know! If you haven’t read last week’s post, you should totally check it out. This week, I have the pleasure of welcoming EV Knight. I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy of her soon to be released debut novel, and I can’t say enough good things about it. And, I’m proud to be sharing a table of contents with her in The Monstrous Feminine: Dark Tales of Dangerous Women.

EV ColorEV Knight writes horror and dark fiction. Her debut novel, The Fourth Whore, will be published in 2020 by Raw Dog Screaming Press. EV’s short stories can be found in The Toilet Zone Anthology by Hellbound Books and Siren’s Call magazine and the anthology Monstrous Feminine from Scary Dairy Press. She is also cohost of the podcast Brain Squalls with Knight and Daigh. She enjoys all things macabre; whether they be film, TV, podcast, novel, short story, or poetry. She lives in the cold northern woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with her family and two hairless cats.

Three Questions

GMM: Congratulations on The Fourth Whore. Without giving away too many spoilers, can you tell us about your debut novel? And, maybe share some of what your experienced in the process of getting your first novel published. Do you have any advice for other writers?

EVK: The Fourth Whore is what I like to refer to as feminist horror. My protagonist is Kenzi, a street hardened survivor and my antagonist is Lilith, first wife of Adam/demoness come back for revenge. Lilith is furious with men: God, Sariel (the angel of death who trapped her in a talisman), Demons of Hell who tortured her for many years, and humans whose myths characterized her as a demonic child-killing whore. All she ever wanted was equality with her husband. When Kenzi accidentally releases Lilith from the talisman, Lilith plans an apocalypse neither the world nor Heaven could even imagine. Rather than gathering the four horsemen of the apocalypse, she gathers her four “whores”—women who have suffered similar abuses/biases as she. She leaves a trail of blood and horrors in her wake while assembling her wrecking crew. Kenzi must decide to join Lilith as her fourth and final whore or try to save a world that never cared about her pain.

I think every writer’s publishing process is unique to their experiences. I knew when I started writing the novel that my dream publisher was Raw Dog Screaming Press. I became a member of the Horror Writer’s Association and attended StokerCon. I met so many amazing people and many representatives of small presses. I was so impressed with the personal touch and the down to earth approach they took with their authors; I knew I wanted to be a part of the Raw Dog family. When I sent my manuscript to them, I wasn’t sure they (or anyone for that matter) would accept it. It has some hardcore gore, a political bent, some liberties were taken in rewriting some biblical stories, and as I said, this novel is strongly feminist (but I need to stress, it is not man-hating). Basically, as a debut novel, it comes out swinging. But they took a chance on me and agreed to publish.

As for advice for writers, get out there in your genre community. Get to know writers, publishers, agents, etc. Go to Cons and offer to buy someone a drink in exchange for a friendly chat. Writer’s, I have found, are some of the most caring and nurturing people. They want to help you succeed and they will introduce you to their friends. When people get to know your name and/or face, it may just move you up in the slush pile. And sometimes, you even get an invitation to send your manuscript just from having a drink together and telling them about your work.

GMM: I haven’t had a chance to listen to your podcast, Brain Squalls with Knight and Daigh. When did you begin working on the podcast? How would you describe the content? What is your favorite episode? Where can we listen?

EVK: Brain Squalls was born from a game my husband and I play on road trips all the time. We both enjoy making up stories and often times, stories start with the most mundane observation or prompt. I got my start writing by working my way through Mike Arnzen’s book Instigation: Creative Prompts on the Dark Side.

Matt and I had been throwing ideas around about a podcast since we met. On our way home from last year’s StokerCon (where we attended a couple panels on podcasting), the idea came to us.

At the beginning of each episode, we use a prompt to get us started on a story and throughout the next hour, we literally work out a story from start to finish. We flesh out characters, we discuss plot and backstories. We discuss what we as the writer would know and what we would let our reader know. It’s a “live” walkthrough of creation in process and we ask listeners to send us comments on how they might have told the story differently. Its been a lot of fun. And completed our first season with a special Christmas episode. Our very first episode titled “Warm Vanilla Sugar” and our last Christmas episode are my favorites but I was really happy with all our stories. Next season, which begins in January, we’ll be bringing on guests to tell stories with us. We’re inviting writers and other creatives to come play. It’s going to be a lot of fun. Maybe you’ll join us, Michelle?

You can find Brain Squalls on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Castbox, Stitcher, and Youtube.

GMM:  I loved your fragment. It gave me the creeps. Telling a horror story from the POV of a cat is interesting. And, I’m dying to see what that tentacle belongs to. Have you written other stories from the POV of animals? How does it differ from writing from the POV of people? Or monsters for that matter?

EVK: I have in fact. I wrote one very near and dear to my heart which I haven’t sent out for publication yet because I am waiting for the perfect submission request. It’s from the POV of a research chimpanzee. I have several more written from the POV of a cat or a group of cats. I think, for me, an animal is the ultimate reliable narrator. We as humans put personalities to animals and certainly, they are individuals, but a lot of what they do is instinctual. Their feelings are tied to that. For instance, Milo is a pet but he is an outdoor cat. He loves his family and he knows they love him but he can’t help that he feels called to be outside. He is not bad, just feels that call of nature and it gets him in trouble. I love trying to think in that free way. No ulterior motivations, no blocked emotions, you know? It’s fun to write and just allow a character to be and to feel in the moment.

Humans can’t be trusted in that way. We all have secrets, we all have motivations that affect our behavior. A monster by typical definition is usually a creature with harmful or malicious intent. Even the scariest of animals, aren’t evil, they may be predators but its all instinct, primitive brain and I love digging deep into mine.

*Excerpt from a short piece titled Milo about an indoor/outdoor cat who likes to bring his people spoils from his outdoor adventures. Only this adventure may just be his last.

The best way to deal with this usurper of his dinner was to tear it apart. He bit into one of the snake husks and pulled. He felt a tear and pulled harder. Thick, aloe-like ooze squeezed out of the bite marks and dripped down Milo’s chin. This ooze was black and it smelled like decay. He wrinkled his nose but he refused to let go of the thing. He pulled, and the whole creature rolled itself around him.  The tiny worms bit at his chest and belly. Its beak was snapping feverishly, so close to Milo’s nose that he could smell the chipmunk’s blood. The piece of tentacle in his mouth loosened. There was no choice but to swallow it quickly and grab another purchase of the slimy thing. This time, he unleashed the wildness inside him and tore at the thing with his front claws, all the while pulling back with his head. It came loose. The beak let out a high-pitched squawk. The thing, which was definitely not a fungus, somersaulted completely over, lifted itself up on the husks it had left, and limped away, leaving a stinking, steaming trail of thick, black muck behind it.

Milo, satisfied with his heroic revenge, dragged the spoils of war back to his home. It seeped and dripped the black sap onto the ground and Milo’s tongue. It had a sort of numbing sensation that Milo did not like much. He wanted to get rid of the thing. He was going to give it to his people, and he might even spend the night in the house. All of a sudden, he didn’t feel like being an outside cat anymore. At the front door, he dropped his find on the stoop and scratched and yowled until they answered.

“My God, Milo, what have you brought this time?” the female said. He pushed it toward her. She crinkled her nose. “Ugh. Sick! Bad Kitty! Where did you find a tentacle out in the woods?”

Milo meowed. He wanted her to pick it up and examine it. This was not your common gift, plus it had made him feel quite sick. He rubbed his face against the bristly mat in front of the door.

“Oh, you stinky cat! That thing is positively disgusting. I didn’t know Octopus had black blood.” She leaned down and poked it with a finger. “Or maybe that’s ink. Ooh, and I didn’t know they stunk so much. Milo, that is just gross.” She kicked it. It squished under her shoe and puffs of yellow stuff came out of the little bumps all over it. Milo sniffed at it again. It didn’t smell so gamey anymore. Now it just smelled sickeningly sweet. He followed her into the house.

“If you’re coming in here, you’re getting a bath,” his person said.

Maybe you have a fiction fragment hiding in a drawer that you’d like to dust off and share. If so, send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Can You Judge a Book by Its Cover? An Interview with Artist & Writer Dyer Wilk

Dyer Wilk author picGMM: Hi Dyer, welcome to Girl Meets Monster. Back in July, I had the pleasure of chatting with you at NECON 39. It feels like that happened a very long time ago, but I enjoyed talking with you about your artwork. Each piece had a story. Can you tell us about where your inspiration comes from, and how you got your start as a cover artist?

DW: Thanks, Michelle. It was a pleasure meeting you, too, and getting a chance to talk a little bit about the art I had on display. I think inspiration is one of those things that’s a mix of conscious and unconscious. It ends up coming from just about everywhere, whether I realize it or not. I spend a lot of time thinking about what a particular book cover needs to look like, and I give a great deal of consideration to other pieces of art that look or feel similar to what I’m hoping to achieve, but a lot of the time, after a piece is finished, I’ll look back at it and realize it reminds me of something I’d never thought about while working on it.

Of course, I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. Art has always been a big part of my life. So, having it come full circle in unexpected ways isn’t unwelcome. My start as a cover artist was a lot like that – unexpected. When I was a kid I always figured I’d become a visual artist in some kind of professional capacity, even though I had no idea how to go about that. In my early teens, I decided I wanted to make movies for a living and was stubborn enough to major in film in college only to realize about halfway through that succeeding in Hollywood is highly unlikely, no matter how passionate you are about what you see as an art. It started to become obvious that there was a certain amount of poisonous egotism and greed surrounding the film industry and many of the people who work within it. Narcissism and back-stabbing aren’t something I want to be around, so that meant I had to look for something else to pursue. That led me to the idea of writing books instead.

After I started to see some of my short fiction getting published, I got to know other writers, and made a few friends. Occasionally, I’d share some of my artwork online. Sometimes as nothing more than a joke. Sometimes to cheer up friends who were going through hard times. But mostly because I have issues with social anxiety and it can take me a while to open up to people and get comfortable. If a piece of art I created could get across an idea in a way that I didn’t feel able to with words, I felt like I’d succeeded. But it did come as a surprise to me when people started to ask if I took commissions and what my rates were.

Freelancing wasn’t something I’d considered up until that point. I’d become so fixated on trying to get to a place where I could write full time that I hadn’t considering being able to make some kind of income by working on the other side of the writing business. Ironically, after a few years of creating book covers full time, I’ve learned a lot more about publishing than I ever did when I was focused on writing alone.

The Ranger coverGMM: What is the most rewarding part of creating the hauntingly beautiful pieces you had on display at NECON 39?

DW: Definitely getting a chance to display them at all and see the positive reactions that people had to them. A lot of the time I feel like book covers are an under-appreciated art form. We live in a world where most book covers are now stock photos that resemble thousands of other stock photos. They’re posted online where a reader will scroll through thousands of other book covers, and most likely stop for only a fraction of a second before moving on. That can make all the effort to make a book stand out by investing a lot of time and passion into the design feel a little futile. But it feels good to be in a place where that art is appreciated and seen as something more than just a product.

GMM: Are there any artists who have influenced or inspired your work? Classical, comic book, or other cover artists?

DW: There have a been a lot of influences over the years, but off the top of my head (and probably most influential on what I’ve been doing more recently), I’d say Dave McKean, Bill Sienkiewicz, Russell Mills, John Jude Palencar, and Drew Struzan. Going further back, Michael Whelan, Frank Frazetta, Edward Hopper, Wayne Barlowe, Vincent van Gogh, Arthur Szyk, Alphonse Mucha, Gustave Doré, Bernie Wrightson, and Edward Gorey all definitely made a big impression on me. There are dozens of others who created various book covers, album covers, and movie posters that I’ve fallen in love with over the years. Sadly, I haven’t been able to track down the names of every artist responsible, which is a shame, because there are certain images that have absolutely mesmerized me – such as a particular paperback cover for The Dark Half, the Night on Bald Mountain sequence in Fantasia, John Alvin’s poster art for The Lost Boys, Paul Whitehead’s album art for Foxtrot by Genesis, the VHS box art for a copy of Goldfinger that I bought in the mid-‘90s, etc.

GMM: You also write fiction. What are your preferred genres to write? How is the creative process different for you when you write as opposed to when you’re creating artwork? Do you prefer designing covers to writing fiction?

The Moore House coverDW: When it comes to writing, I prefer horror and science fiction, often with an emphasis on history. The writing process itself is very different from cover design. I tend to spend several weeks or months researching and outlining a book before spending a few more weeks or months writing it, whereas I typically spend only a few days working on the average book cover. For that reason, I feel like I get something out of writing that I don’t get out of cover design. I can live with a book for a long time and enjoy walking around inside that imaginary world, getting to know its characters. Book covers come and go very quickly, and when it’s a cover I feel especially attached to, it seems to pass far more quickly than I would like, to the point where I end up feeling up I must have missed something or could have done a better job if I’d had more time.

GMM: How has your artwork evolved over time? Where do you see it going in the future?

DW: When I was a kid, my art was less personal in a lot of ways. Creating art was definitely an outlet for whatever was going on in my life, but I didn’t really see myself in it until later. I was more concerned with emulating whatever movies or comics I was into at the time. But somewhere around my early teens that started to shift a bit.

I went though a lot of phases, like most people do, and the art reflected that. If it was a goth phase, the art was gothy. If it was a metal phase, the art was still gothy, but now I could say it was metal. And since my love of horror has been lifelong, any goth or metal-inspired art still manages to fit into that enough to where I don’t feel too embarrassed by some of the cheesier things I once designed. But what I did come to realize later is that all of that art is me. I can look at a handful of drawings I’ve created over the years and trace how I’ve changed as a person, from a kid who liked scary movies but didn’t know much about how truly frightening real life can be to an adult who has some difficult years behind him but still enjoys scary movies and creating horror-themed art because they’ve become cathartic in a way.

I’m not sure what the future will hold for my art, but I hope that I’ll continue to find some kind of fulfillment in it. That said, getting more commissions and having a little more artistic freedom on projects overall is definitely what I’d like to see happen.

Rigor Morbid LYB coverGMM: Are you making art that doesn’t end up on covers? What other visual mediums are you interested in pursuing?

DW: Freelancing sometimes has a negative side-effect of making me feel unconnected to the work. It’s rare, but there have occasionally been difficult projects with a lot of micromanaging, lofty demands for repeated changes, or hours of work being scrapped entirely. That side of things can be incredibly disheartening and leave me feeling like I’m only a set of hands that has to go through the motions and can’t contribute anything of myself to the art. But that also pushes me to explore art for myself whenever I can. I genuinely enjoy what I do most of the time, but when a difficult project comes along, I need to be able to sit down and put those same skills into something I care about, where there are no guidelines or expectations imposed on the work by anyone but myself.

A couple pieces like that ended up being displayed at Necon, but there are a lot more. The older I get, the more I realize that art (or at least the personal side of it) is a form of therapy for me. If I’m not sitting in front of the computer and painting digitally, then I’m working on something else that allows me to be creative. I’d very much like to shift back to working with real paint and ink. Waiting for something to dry isn’t always conducive to meeting tight deadlines, but there’s a certain look and feel real paint has that digital often lacks. Beyond that, I miss sculpting and working with Papier-mâché – both of which I haven’t done in nearly a decade now. I’d even like to pursue film on some level again, if the project is small enough, I could work with people I trust, and there’s an atmosphere during production that’s respectful and healthy for everyone involved.

TriggersGMM: What are you writing about at the moment?

DW: I’m currently working on a novel that I first started back in 2011. It’s been sitting in a drawer for a lot longer than I ever expected it to, but I don’t think I was really ready to write it during my first attempt. I was going through a very bad bout of depression at the time, and I couldn’t deal with writing about something along those lines until I was in a better place. It’s essentially a slasher movie in book form, but with a strong emphasis on the individual characters and the experiences that have led them to the terrifying situation they find themselves in. It’s definitely meant to skew more towards realism than cheesy B-movie fun though. I grew up watching a lot of schlocky gorefests on VHS, and I’m always going to have a soft spot for those, but I’m hoping to find a middle ground between the clichéd tropes and a believable reality in which people find themselves trapped and fighting for their lives, where the characters (including the antagonist) aren’t cardboard and we can actually empathize with them.