Fiction Fragments: Tony Tremblay

Last week I spoke with horror writer Denise N. Tapscott about her love of New Orleans and Voodoo.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes horror writer and former Cemetery Dance Magazine book reviewer Tony Tremblay.

Tony Tremblay is the author of the Bram Stoker nominated novel The Moore House from Haverhill House Publishing. In addition he has two short story collections The Seeds of Nightmares, and Blue Stars, both from Crossroad Press. He is one of the co-editors of the Eulogies series of horror anthologies, and is a co-editor on an upcoming untitled horror anthology about trains. He has worked as a reviewer for Horror World and Cemetery Dance Magazine. For three years he hosted a television show called The Taco Society Presents which focused on New England horror and genre writers. Along with John McIlveen and Scott Gousdward, Tony is one of the three organizers of NoCon, a horror convention held in New Hampshire. His latest novel, Do Not Weep For Me is currently at the publisher. Tony lives in New Hampshire.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Tony. Tell me a little bit about your forthcoming book from Haverhill House, Do Not Weep For Me, without giving away too many spoilers.

TT: First let me say thank you for having me Michelle. Do Not Weep For Me is my second novel with Haverhill House. I would not consider the new novel a sequel, but it does follow up with some of the characters in my first novel The Moore House. In Do Not Weep For Me, we encounter an old couple that has kidnapped children to use them in a demonic sacrifice. At the end of the ritual, only two of the children survive, but they’ve changed. While we follow the exploits of the children in the novel, the emphasis is more on their parents and other adults, including a certain pawnshop owner who assists them.

There are differences between my two novels. In the 70’s and 80’s, I spent way too much time devouring all those classic horror novels of that era. The Moore House was my homage to that time period with its action packed plotting and cliffhanger endings. Do Not Weep For Me is also action packed, but I gave the characters a bit more room to breathe, and many of the chapters are self contained. The other big difference in Do Not Weep For Me is that it contains a fair amount of sex that is intrinsic to the plot, where as I shied away from it in The Moore House.

GMM: What was The Taco Society Presents about? I mean, I assume tacos had something to do with it, but can you really talk about tacos for three years?

TT: I’m smiling as I’m typing this. The Taco Society Presents was an interview show shown on local television and YouTube. I was the host with two co-hosts, Sydney Leigh and Phil Perron. We interviewed authors, artists, and craftsmen mostly from New England that were involved in horror and related genres. Before the show was conceived, a mutual friend of all three of us brought us together one evening at a taco restaurant so we would get to know one another. We all clicked. Later, when the television station asked me to host the show, I asked the others if they would like to join me. They said yes, and we became The Taco Society Presents. After every show, the three of us, and our guests would drive down to that taco restaurant and spend the evening eating and drinking. The show lasted three years, and we had a great time doing it. And, as I mentioned earlier about my love of 70’s and 80’s horror, The Taco Society Presents is also a nod to one of my favorite books of the time. The Chowder Society is a feature in Ghost Story, a novel by Peter Straub.

GMM: Are you still reviewing books? How has that experience shaped your own writing? Do you think reading the work of other writers helped you become a better writer? Did it change your perceptions of what the writing process looks like?

TT: I don’t review professionally anymore. Nanci Kalanta gave me my start reviewing for her Horror World website which led to me to reviewing for Cemetery Dance Magazine and the occasional review elsewhere. I’ve been an avid horror reader since my early teens so I had a fair idea of what was good, what worked and what didn’t, so reviewing came easy for me. Joining a writers group enabled me to learn the mechanics of crafting a story, and that made a huge difference in the quality of my work. To this day, I lean on guidance from my writers group—they are the best beta-readers anyone could ask for. It was my desire to write my own fiction that put an end to my reviewing.

Excerpt from Do Not Weep For Me

As he did every morning before going to work, Paul Lane glanced at the thermometer on his front porch—74 degrees—and then with a cup of coffee in his hand, stood on the concrete stairs at the front of his house. He took note of the thick cloud cover. It delivered a gray hue, muting the sunshine, dulling the vibrant palette of the season. He dropped his gaze and frowned. The grass covering his yard looked different. The stiff, neatly trimmed blades rested limp on the topsoil. The deep shamrock green had faded a shade; the tips tinged with yellow. He thought it too tired-looking for mid-June.

The flowers on the Rose of Sharon hedge bordering the left side of his home, so proud yesterday, were now listless. Their parade of bright red blossoms absorbed the muted sunlight and reflected a color more akin to copper than candy apple.

Swinging his gaze to the street offered no respite from the gloom. The neighborhood had taken on a dingy appearance. It was as if the brick, aluminum or vinyl siding facades on the homes had bathed in a layer of dust. Not one of the new or more expensive cars parked in driveways or in front of the houses screamed, “look at me”. Their wax jobs lacked sparkle and their chrome trims did not gleam.

Something was off.

People in his neighborhood had pride. They did not neglect their property.

“Daddy?”

The call broke his concentration. “Yes, Cindy?”

“Can I play on the swing for a few minutes before you bring me to school?”

Paul didn’t answer. Instead, he took one more look around. There was heaviness to the area he couldn’t put his finger on, as if the atmosphere had weight. Not only was it oppressive, it was concerning in a way that defied an easy description.

He caught sight of Sheila White, the neighbor across the street, as she retrieved the daily newspaper from the box at the end of her driveway. The woman waved to him, and he returned the greeting. She was a fine looking woman, and the thing was, she knew it. He smiled when she stopped a few feet from her front door and wiggled her ass before she stepped back into the house. Paul’s wife had been dead for four years now, but that didn’t mean he was. Though Sheila often flirted with him, Paul rarely returned the favor. She was off-limits. Her husband, Tom, and he were good friends, and he would never betray that trust. Still, though, she did brighten Paul’s mood on occasion.

“Daddy, can I?”

“Huh?” He had forgotten about, Cindy. “Yeah, sure, honey. Stay in the back, I’ll come get you when it’s time to leave. You want to eat anything before you have breakfast at daycare?”

“No. I’m okay. Can you push me?”

He chuckled. “Sure. Give me a minute to bring my stuff to the car, I’ll be right out.”

“Thanks, Daddy!” She gave him a quick hug and ran back inside the house.

He followed her in and, after chugging his coffee, Paul draped his suit coat over his arm and grabbed his briefcase and backpack. There was a thud, and he mentally confirmed his daughter had gone through the back door to get to the swing set. The forecast had been for clear weather so his car remained in the driveway overnight. He walked to the vehicle with thoughts of the meeting this morning he had planned with the engineers of his company. He made a note to himself to review the cost analysis on the retrofit of the South Willow Street strip mall in Manchester. His thoughts lost on the price of granite and ceiling fixtures, he threw his suit coat and luggage into the rear seat of the Lexus. After shutting the door, he made the effort to clear his head and attend to his daughter. He walked past an area of tall pines and scrub that marked the property line on the right side of his house. When he was about to turn the corner to the back yard, he slowed.

This doesn’t feel right.

He should have heard squeaks from the chains attached to the joints at the top of the swing set. They were rusty. Needing oil. It was something he had meant to do but never got around to. The squeaks were loud, annoying, and you could hear them from twenty feet away. His back stiffened and he unconsciously hurried his pace.

She could be sitting and not swinging. Maybe she went back into the house. God, please, don’t let me have fucked up.

He rounded the corner.

The swing was empty. Cindy was nowhere in sight.

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: Jade Woodridge

Last week I chatted with Curtis M. Lawson about his new short story collection, Devil’s Night.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes fellow Seton Hill University alum, Jade Woodridge.

Jade T. Woodridge is a Washington D.C./Maryland native, currently living in Southwest Michigan. While her short fiction dabbles in various genres and styles, Science Fiction and Fantasy seems to be at the forefront. Her works can be described as emotionally driven, with the question of spirituality beneath its layers.

Jade has a BA in English Literature from Seton Hill University (2016) and a MA in Library and Information Sciences from the University of Maryland (2020). Her works have been featured in the Chiron Review, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, WitchWork, and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. [Untitled] is her first novel.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Jade. Tell me about the fragment you submitted. Something sinister seems to be happening, but maybe it’s just the imagination of little girls. Without giving away too many spoilers, can you tell us what’s happening to Marie and Louise?

JW: Marie and Louise are two little southern girls at the wrong place at the wrong time. Children are so innocent but very perceptive and I’ve always wondered about their response to tragedies like suicide. The girls don’t really know what’s going on, but they know that, whatever they are seeing, it feels wrong and scary. The comparison of Marie’s hair to a rope is the only thing little Louise — a black child living in the past — could think of to associate with death.

GMM: We share a table of contents in the recently released Midnight & Indigo anthology featuring 22 specualtive fiction stories by Black women. I just read your story, “Millenium,” and wondered if, like “The Sweeper Man,” if more of your stories feature children in really dark situations. Do you have a preference for writing younger characters, or is this simply a coincidence?

JW: Haha! Quite a bit of my shorts feature children. I have a piece of flash fiction in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature titled “Pigeons” about a little girl learning about acceptance and differences while feeding pigeons with her grandmother. It’s a fluffy piece compared to “Millenium” and “The Sweeper Man”. A longer work in progress of mine also features a little girl and, like Marie and Louise, she does go through a few things in her childhood that no child should have to go through. I was not very emotional as a child; though I was never put in situations like Marie, Louise, or my other young characters, it’s cathartic to write from the perspective and emotions of innocence. I’ve noticed that it is only in my short fiction that I have child characters, and perhaps that is the coincidence.

GMM: I’m writing these questions on election night, which is only three days from when this post goes live. I usually don’t wait to the last minute to get questions out to my guests, but I’ve really been struggling to stay focused with everything happening in the world. Are you having a similar experience? How have current events affected either your ability to write, or what you choose to write about?

JW: Current events haven’t affected the content of my writing. Writing has always been an escape for me. Sometimes I feel I need an escape at more times than others, though, and this has been one of those times! I told a writing friend recently that sometimes I just need to retreat into the worlds that I created where I am in control of what goes on. I can’t live in my own little world forever, though, and therein lies the problem.

Excerpt from “The Sweeper Man”

It was a hot day and Marie and Louise ran barefooted by the little lake looking for frogs and those slippery newts. Their toes dug into the cool dark muck and wiggled like worms. Marie’s toes stuck out like a sore thumb; the nails and little white toes wiggled like the long pale bellies of trout. Louise could barely distinguish her toes from under the mud they blended in so well.

“Your toes look like a trout when they go belly up.” Louise giggled.

Marie crouched down and frog-hopped her way to the grass, her long silky plat swinging. “Well your feet look like them bullheads wriggling in muddy water,” she said with each hop.

Louise giggled and frog-hopped after her. Her hair would never swing the way Marie’s did and Louise frowned some. Her long plat was like a tail. Seeing Marie crouched down in the grass with her long plat made Louise think of a wild cat. She wanted to be a cat too, just like Marie, so she crouched down real low in the grass too, crawling up to where Marie lay beneath the bushes, mesmerized by something. Her little feet sticking out plain as day made the perfect target, but Marie wasn’t playing anymore. “I got you frowg!” never escaped Louise’s smiling lips as she saw where Marie was looking: a girl was crying on the other side of the lake. She was a little older than Marie and Louise. They could tell by the way her breast buds jutted out from her stained shirt and the way her hips curved just a little as she waded through the water. She looked sick, Louise thought. Her eyes were red-rimmed and dark spots blotted her face, the type of spots you got when you get hit with the smooth lake stones when the school boys got to sneaking after you and tease you when no one was looking.

“Lou, she can’t go no farther, can she? Daddy said the lake’s too deep to go out too far.” Marie’s voice quivered just a little with uncertainty. Louise got this cold feeling all over her body as the girl went farther and farther out in the water until it was up to her shoulders. She had a far gone look in her eyes like she wasn’t seeing, and her white face seemed almost gray. She wasn’t in there, the girl with the water up to her neck now. She looked dead.

“No!” Marie screeched, jumping to her little feet. She darted across the grass to the muddy bank, “You come back here! Come back!” she cried, but it was too late: the water was up to her chin, then ears, as if she were using her last bit of strength to balance on the very tip of her big toe.

“Do something, Lou!” Marie screamed back to the bank under the bushes to where Louise lay frozen with dread. She knew what was going to happen. She had heard her grandmamma drown some pups before. She’d seen the life bubble from their lips with her own wet eyes. The girl was too far away, and Louise was too little; she didn’t have the powerful arms her daddy had to swim out and fetch her and back again.

Time seemed to go in slow motion just then. The girl in the water sputtered and coughed as if she had sudden begun seeing the error she had committed and her arms began to flail. She slipped. She went under. She bobbed up, lungs too clogged with water to scream. She went under. She bobbed up, closer to the center of the lake, arms flailing. She went under.

Silence.

Marie just stood there on the bank breathing hard. Her shoulders rose and fell with each breath and her little body shook. She didn’t quite understand what had happened. She was half expecting the girl in the lake to bob back up smiling and swim back to the bank, “I fooled ya real good, didn’t I?” she would say.

But nothing happened.

“I don’t wanna play anymore,” Marie’s voice went high at the end as if she were to start crying. She turned and walked away. Louise jumped up and followed after her, shaking uncontrollably. What just happened?

Marie’s plat swung with each hurried step she took and Louise watched it as it swung. It didn’t look like a tail anymore. It looked like a rope, a rope slowly tightening itself around her pale neck.

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: Sonora Taylor

Last week, Paul Tremblay stopped by Girl Meets Monster and we talked about impostor syndrome and how he deals with it, and he shared an excellent fragment from his short story, “We Will Never Live in the Castle.”

This week, I have the pleasure of speaking with Sonora Taylor. I haven’t had an opportunity to meet her in person, but I’m hoping to change that soon.

Sonora Taylor is the author of Little Paranoias: Stories, Without Condition, The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales, Please Give, and Wither and Other Stories. Her short story, “Hearts are Just ‘Likes,’” was published in Camden Park Press’s Quoth the Raven, an anthology of stories and poems that put a contemporary twist on the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

Taylor’s short stories frequently appear in The Sirens Call. Her work has also appeared in Frozen Wavelets, Mercurial Stories, Tales to Terrify, and the Ladies of Horror fiction podcast. Her latest book, Seeing Things, is now available on Amazon. She lives in Arlington, Virginia, with her husband.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Sonora. I really enjoyed your fragment, because I love when horror/science fiction blends with humor in a story. There’s something about the humor that makes the horror a bit more unsettling while simultaneously more palatable. Like a cup of tea you drink while watching an alien invasion. Where did this story come from? What inspired it, and do you often include humor in your horror/science fiction?

ST: Thank you! I wrote this in 2016, which was when I’d gotten back into writing short stories and was seeing what forms, themes, and genres stuck with me. I’d been reading Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett around this time and was definitely influenced by their style of writing. I love absurdist and humorous horror, and I found myself thinking it’d be funny to write in the style of one of those self-care articles, but for how to relax during one of the least relaxing experiences I could think of. I originally considered writing a book of these sorts of essays called Consider This, but I didn’t have enough ideas. Then I started writing my first novel, Please Give; and all my attention went to that.

GMM: You mention the importance of self-care rather ironically in your fragment, but the idea of self-care has become a cultural phenomenon that has social, political and economic relevance, especially at this moment in our history. We obviously aren’t facing an alien invasion (not yet, but 2020 isn’t over), but we are facing a pandemic and an outcry for social change. How do you view self-care in this time of uncertainty, and what do you do to look after yourself on the darker days?

ST: I see self-care as a way to step back and focus your attention on taking care of you, especially in a time where we feel an even more pressing need to look out for each other and be caretakers–for loved ones, for marginalized people, for the greater good. Many of us, especially women, are taught to put ourselves last after we’ve taken care of the kids, the spouse, the world. But to me, this is all backwards because you can’t do those things if you haven’t been tending to yourself! I find I’m a better wife, daughter, dog mom, friend, writer, and activist when I’ve taken a breather and set aside time to reset myself.

I like to decompress with simple beauty rituals, which I can fortunately do at home since I still don’t feel comfortable going to a salon (though I do miss getting pedicures and massages). I love taking baths with nice bath bombs and music. I also like to use face masks and sheet masks to give myself a boost. Drinking tea is one of my self-care practices, but that’s more a daily habit than anything special. I also like to plan and prepare really nice meals. I made a pasta last week with chanterelles and I felt so good serving it and eating it.

GMM: What can we expect from you next? What are you currently working on? Have the events of 2020 had an impact on your writing, either your process or what you’re writing about?

ST: Right now I’m working on my next short story collection. It’s called Someone to Share My Nightmares and will focus on romantic/erotic horror. I’m also formulating my fourth novel, an apocalyptic nature novel called Errant Roots.

I do find that it’s harder to sit and write this year than in previous years. My mind is in a lot of places and it can feel exhausting to sit down and write a whole other reality. I’ve written, but it’s been slower than normal. When I finish a piece, though, it feels fantastic.

Tea Time by Sonora Taylor

You should always take the time to make yourself a cup of tea.

With the stress of the day-to-day, it can often be difficult to remember simple acts of self-care. Or we remember, but choose not to partake because they seem selfish, or mundane, or useless. This could not be farther from the truth. Any act of self-care is worthwhile, and this includes the pouring of hot water onto cold tea leaves.

Consider the practice itself. You take a mug, you choose your tea, you warm the water, you pour the water, then await the allotted time for your tea to steep. The preparation itself is meditative. To make yourself a cup of tea is to close yourself off from the stress around you, be it an obnoxious co-worker or a troublesome spaceship landing outside of your building.

The relaxation does not end with preparation. The act of sipping tea is one of the most relaxing things you can do. Each sip delights the tongue with flavor, steam, and comfort. Picture yourself sipping tea. Notice how the noises around you, like phones ringing or people screaming, just seem to disappear as readily as the tea in your cup.

Once the cup is gone, the sense of ease remains with you, warming your hands like the sun or an errant laser. Tea transports us to worlds we never knew, worlds where we are alone and comfortable, not visited or invaded. To make yourself a cup of tea is to grant you an escape from everything.

Many have shared their wondrous experiences with tea. Consider Martha, an accountant who never missed her morning tea. Each morning after breakfast, no matter what she was doing or who was in her presence, she’d stop and make herself a cup of tea in the company kitchen. She found the ritual conducive to her work. One morning, Martha heard her phone ring and several emails ping in her inbox. But alas, it was 9 o’clock – tea time! She ignored the shouts from her office and went to the kitchen to make her tea. She was not gone for five minutes, yet when she returned with her mug, she found not her office, but a smoldering crater where her desk and wall had been. Had she not held to her morning ritual, she too would have been blown to smithereens! Thankfully her morning tea that day was soothing chamomile, otherwise the sight might have scared her dead.

Tea is much valued for its life-saving properties. Green tea is often seen as the healthiest, with its antioxidant power. But all teas have some sort of health benefit to them. Black tea improves your breath. Peppermint tea aids in digestion. Hibiscus tea seems to frighten off the invaders, seeing how they recoiled in fear from Mrs. Thompson’s hibiscus plants when stomping through her garden. All tea has something special to offer.

But perhaps what is most special about tea is what it can do for you. Even when you are most alone, a cup of tea is there for you, warming your hands as you stare out your window and watch your neighborhood, city, and state burn to ash. The skies have turned red and the ships have grown in number, but your reliable kettle burns on the stove and whistles to you, calling from the rabble and chaos, “Time for tea!”

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.

Dark Blood Comes From the Feet: An Interview with Emma J. Gibbon

Emma J. Gibbon is a horror writer, speculative poet and librarian. Her stories have appeared in various anthologies including Wicked Weird, Wicked Haunted, and The Muse & the Flame and on the Toasted Cake podcast. She also has a story upcoming in Would but Time Await: An Anthology of New England Folk Horror from Haverhill Publishing. This year, she has been nominated twice for the Rhysling Award for her poems “Fune-RL” (Strange Horizons) and “Consumption” (Eye to the Telescope). Her poetry has also been published in LiminalityPedestal Magazine and is upcoming in Kaleidotrope. Emma is originally from Yorkshire and now lives in Maine in a spooky little house in the woods with her husband, Steve, and three exceptional animals: Odin, Mothra, and M. Bison (also known as Grim). She is a member of the New England Horror Writers, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association, the Angela Carter Society, and the Tuesday Mayhem Society. Her website is emmajgibbon.com.

I recently had the pleasure of reading Emma J. Gibbon’s anthology of short horror fiction, Dark Blood Comes From the Feet. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this collection of literary horror tales that put relatable characters under the microscope to show us the darker side of the human condition. Gibbon takes us to weirdly familiar settings that quickly turn macabre, like a strip club in Purgatory, a Lovecraftian orphanage, a day at the beach that would make Cronenberg proud, and a haunted house on a hill that I won’t forget any time soon.

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Emma. Congratulations on the release of your short story collection, Dark Blood Comes From the Feet, that comes out today! I really loved reading your stories, not just because they were well written, but also because I couldn’t help wondering where the stories came from. You write about a diverse group of characters from different backgrounds with different experiences and I kept wondering which of those characters were you. That might seem like a strange thing to wonder for some people, but because I write dark fiction as well about women of color, there is a part of me in each story. Some really terrible things happen to the people in your stories, but at the most basic level, they’re human. How much of yourself is in this collection? Where do the lines blur between you and your characters?

EJG: Thank you so much! I’m so glad you enjoyed it! That’s a really tough question to answer because in a way, they are all from me but are separate at the same time. I’ve had an interesting and varied time on this earth so far, so it does sometimes feel like I’ve lived a lot of lives. There is no doubt that I use elements of myself and my life when I create characters, some on a surface level and some on a deep emotional level. When I do the latter, it’s often not a conscious decision but something I realize later, sometimes years later. For example, on a surface level, the narrator of “Cellar Door,” Karen, resembles me in that some of her memories she mentions are my memories and she lives in my house. That house is my house! That basement is real! I’m not convinced it was the best idea, it’s like I haunted my own house.  But personality-wise, she’s not like me. Janine in “Janine” is a character I have enormous sympathy for. She is someone who had the cards stacked against her from the start, who made some bad choices and has really suffered for them, much more than she deserves. I have the sense that I could have easily been someone like Janine, but I was just luckier.

Ultimately, there is a lot of me in this collection, probably more than I like to admit. Dark Blood Comes from the Feet, is a line from “Cellar Door” and it’s a reference to having old trauma that you have trouble letting go of. I have a lot of stuff that I psychologically scratch at, over and over, old wounds. They’re in my stories but I skew it and dress it up in monsters and distinct voices and the supernatural so that I don’t even recognize it myself at times.

GMM: While reading the stories, I compared your work to other writers in the genre, including Poe, Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Cronenberg, and there’s even a reference to Donnie Darko (Tolkien), which brought a smile to my face. Which writers have had the most impact on your own writing style? Whose stories inspired you the most?

EJG: I do love Donnie Darko! And thank you so much! That’s a very flattering and intimidating list! I definitely have a group of authors whose work has inspired me. I know I’ll forget a major influence but a very obvious one is Shirley Jackson, but also Angela Carter, Daphne du Maurier, Neil Gaiman, Mervyn Peake, M. Rickert, Kelly Link. I think Brooke Bolander is astonishing. I’m inspired by many people writing horror right now. More than that though, I think the key is I was an early and voracious reader who came from a family that weren’t huge readers. We didn’t go to the library. My parents bought me books, but there was no way they could have kept up with me. I read everything and did a lot of rereading (I’ve slowed down since then, I mean, the internet exists now.) I’d get books from car boot sales (the British equivalent of yard sales). Half the time I didn’t have to pay. I think people were a bit weirded out by this little girl carrying a stack of Stephen King and Alfred Hitchcock books, I especially liked the ones with the yellow edges, so they just gave them to me. Because my reading was very autodidactic and random, I have a personal canon that’s my own. I had no sense of high or low culture (which I still think is nonsense anyway,) or genre or nonfiction vs fiction, so I’d read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest then V. C. Andrews, an anthology of classic ghost stories and Salem’s Lot with a book of feminist stories. Much later, I’d carry on this habit even as I specialized in English—Macbeth with The Mammoth Book of Vampires Stories, a nonfiction book about the cultural effects of tuberculosis with The Name of the RoseWide Sargasso Sea with The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. So all of these stories are all in there and they come out in my stories in a completely unconscious way.

GMM: You have an incredible talent for showing us the horror and reality of the settings in each of your stories. I’m an avid reader, but I also have spent a lot of time watching and studying films in many genres, which I think has had an impact on how I tell stories. Would you say that the written word, or film images have inspired your work more? What films have influenced the way you craft a scene?

EJG: Thank you so much! That really means a lot to me because I have aphantasia. This means that I don’t imagine or think in visual images. It’s hard to describe but I have a strong internal dialogue and think in concepts (almost as if my mind can feel the edges of a 3D representation that I can’t see.) Some of my settings are based on places where I have lived or visited—as I said, the house in “Cellar Door” is mine, the tunnel in “Bobby Red-Eyes” really existed when I was a kid (and Bobby is an urban legend in my hometown), the Black Shuck Tavern is based on a famous Hollywood nightclub. Others were research, I’ve never been to any of the places in “Whitechapel,” for example.

I am very influenced by film too. I grew up in the peak-VHS 80s with very little screen supervision, so we watched a lot of horror films. My big ambition as a teen was to be a music video director. I was a double major in college in English and Art History but most of my art history classes were the history of film or film theory and honestly; it burnt me out a little. A lot of my favorite films are before then. So films like Heathers, The Lost Boys, Donnie Darko, Amadeus, The Faculty, Beetlejuice, The ‘Burbs, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nightbreed and May have had an enormous impact on me. Despite the aphantasia, it’s the colors of the scenes that I often remember and the way they affect mood.

That said, I’ve been influenced and inspired by all kinds of things—personal anecdotes, scenes from my own life, books and movies, music videos, songs, photographs and other pieces of art, TV shows and video games. It’s the story that I’m always most interested in, not necessarily the format.

GMM: I enjoyed reading all of the stories in your collection, but I have a few favorites, including “Devour,” “Cellar Door,” “Whitechapel,” and “St. Scholastica’s Home for Children of the Sea.” Which stories in the collection are your favorites, and why? Which were the most difficult to write?

EJG: As far as being hard to write, two stand out particularly. “Cellar Door” because it was the kind of story I have always wanted to write and fear of failure meant I couldn’t get out of my own way for the longest time. In the end, I made it a NaNoWriMo project and got a good chunk of it done by not looking back as I wrote. “This is Not the Glutton Club” was hard because I hand wrote it while bedridden with pneumonia! It was also the story that needed the most research, and my Facebook friends really saved the day on that one!

It’s really hard to have favorites, they’re like children (I’m guessing). What is nice is that I’ve got enough distance between them all that I like them all. I don’t regret putting any of them in there. I do really like “Sermon from New London.” It was a lot of fun to write. Should we get to the other side of the apocalypse, I think there are worse ways to survive than being part of a matriarchal cult based on punk music. It was first published on the Toasted Cake podcast performed by the editor, Tina Connolly, and there had to be a language warning because there is so much swearing in it. What really makes me laugh is that when I played it to my husband, he didn’t notice, which I think tells you about the level of discourse in our house!

GMM: While you write from the POV of both male and female characters, your strongest characters seem to be women and girls. And, even though terrible things happen to them, not all of them are victims. Many of your female characters make the most of the bad situations they find themselves in, and become survivors. Would you say that feminism has had an impact on how you create your female characters? Or, are you simply showing us the strength of the human spirit? Rarely, do your stories have what I would consider a happy ending, and I really appreciate that. How would you describe your writing style to someone who has never read your work?

EJG: Feminism definitely plays into it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind straight white guys, I even married one! But they have had their time being at the center of stories. They’ve had centuries of being the heroes and saving the day. I’ve made a conscious decision to give people who don’t traditionally get to be the protagonists take center stage or have the happy ending—women without children, women who are not straight, trans women, working-class women. Part of it is being a woman from a working-class background who has not conformed to social convention and having mainstream fiction just not resonate with me at all because of that. I still have a way to go. My writing is far too white, for example, and that is something I have to work on—my experience of the world is not a default and I think the more that I reflect the world as it is, the more powerful it is when I tilt it somewhat. Something that is at the core of who I am is that I will always root for the underdog, always. There is never a time when I’m on the side of the people with all the power so that’s going to come through.

I’ve had to pull myself up from the ashes a few times in my life, start again from nothing and reinvent myself. I’ve seen people, especially women, do that again and again and I like to reflect that in some of my stories. It makes you stronger, like tempering steel, but it has a cost, you can get brittle and break. Even the phoenix has to go through the fire.

Describing my writing style is difficult. It’s one of those things where I would be interested to know how other people describe it. A lot of it is instinctual. Once I get the voice of a story, it usually pulls me along. That said, I like to challenge myself to see if I can write in a wide a range as possible—can I write a nested story in the voice of a Victorian gentleman? What if I had an unreliable narrator talking to someone who wasn’t there? Can I write a speech in mostly misheard punk lyrics? What would Shirley Jackson do? I think that is what it comes down to mostly: What would Shirley Jackson do?

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: Todd Keisling

Last week I had a great chat about comics and writing inspiration with writer and illustrator, Cat Scully. This week, Girl Meets Monster is thrilled to welcome horror writer Todd Keisling.

todd 1 bw KodaKrome

Todd Keisling is a writer and designer of the horrific and strange. He is an author of several books, including Devil’s Creek, The Final Reconciliation, and Ugly Little Things: Collected Horrors, among other shorter works.

A pair of his earlier works were recipients of the University of Kentucky’s Oswald Research & Creativity Prize for Creative Writing (2002 and 2005), and his second novel, The Liminal Man, was a finalist for the Indie Book Award in Horror & Suspense (2013).

He is a former editor for The Self-Publishing Review, hosted Crystal Lake Publishing’s Beneath the Lake interview series, and co-hosted the popular live YouTube series Awkward Conversations with Geeky Writers alongside Mercedes M. Yardley, Anthony J. Rapino, Nikki Nelson-Hicks, Eryk Pruitt, and Amelia Bennett.

He dabbles in graphic design under the moniker of Dullington Design Co., and his work has graced the covers of titles published by Silver Shamrock Publishing, Flame Tree Press, Third Crow Press, Crystal Lake Publishing, Precipice Books, and Nightscape Publishing.

His written work has been praised by Cemetery Dance, This Is Horror, Night Worms, The Eyes of Madness, Hellnotes, and Horror Novel Reviews.

A former Kentucky resident, Keisling now lives somewhere in the wilds of Pennsylvania with his family where he is at work on his next novel.

Share his dread:
Twitter: @todd_keisling
Instagram: @toddkeisling
www.toddkeisling.com

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Todd. I’m so excited to have this chance to ask you some questions and learn more about you. I’ve enjoyed reading your short fiction and you seem to be publishing quite a lot lately, both short fiction and novels. During this very strange time of social distancing and the fears associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, some writers, including myself, have been struggling to get words on the page. How are you staying motivated to keep writing? What obstacles have you experienced? What does your process look like at the moment?

TK: Thanks for inviting me! Honestly, I wish I had a good answer to this, but I’m afraid I don’t. Truth is, I’m in the same boat as you and all the other writers out there who are struggling to make the magic happen on the page. I was talking to a writer pal of mine earlier today, expressing my concerns about my complete lack of focus on…well, anything, really. My productivity has nearly dropped to zero, and what little writing I have done over the last several weeks has been in small bites. On a good day, I used to average anywhere between 500 to 1K words. Lately, I think I’ve written maybe 2K words in the last three weeks.

I’ve made it no secret that I deal with anxiety and depression on a daily basis, but with the threat of COVID, the monotony of quarantine, and how uncertain our futures are, everything’s been turned up to eleven. At times it feels like we’re living with a real-life version of Delillo’s “airborne toxic event,” with the concept of our mortality much more upfront and in focus than usual. Working on my next novel just seems kind of minuscule right now in the scheme of things, you know?

That said, in the times when I’ve managed to plant my ass in front of the manuscript, I’ve constantly reminded myself that what I’m writing isn’t permanent. It’s a first draft. It’s okay for it to be shit. And it’s okay not to write every day.

I know that’s all very basic Writer 101 stuff, but I’ve found that’s what works for me in times when my mental health isn’t at its best. And, really, I think that’s what might be best for all of us right now: take things a day at a time, remind yourself that it’s okay not to be perfect, and do what you can. We’re all in panic mode right now, whether we want to admit it or not, and I think it’s imperative we be kind to ourselves above all else.

GMM: Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were plenty of scary things happening in the world — politically, environmentally, economically, socially. How have current events shaped your writing? Is it easier to write horror during times characterized by fear and uncertainty? What scares you the most?

TK: I think those things are always in the back of my head one way or another, and they usually inform my characters or their motivations. Writing horror has always been an outlet for me, a way of exorcising my demons and dealing with those issues by way of writing them down. So, when it comes to facing the socio-economic uncertainty of our times, I tend to do so through my characters.

For example, I’ve been working on revising and expanding my first two novels while also writing the final novel in that trilogy. The main character and his wife are Millennials, he’s had to take on a crappy job in order to provide for her since she has health issues that prevent her from working, and the issue of money is a constant source of friction between them.

Over the course of the series, the protagonist’s job, life choices, and his inability to escape this box he’s built for himself serve as a subtext for the horror that unfolds. There’s a kind of unspoken economic anxiety that manifests in certain situations throughout the story—the idea of being sold an education that doesn’t live up to its promise, the debilitating cost of healthcare, the way we’re forced to compromise our goals in order to scrape by every day, and so on.

I’m a Millennial. I worked in a single income household for half a decade. I’ve experienced those hardships, lost sleep over hating my job, put off doctor visits because of the expense (even with insurance), felt completely lost and trapped, and had ridiculous arguments with my spouse over money. Losing my home, losing my family, losing myself—those things are what scare me, and all those situations, fears, and anxieties usually manifest in my fiction. Often in horrific ways. It’s the only way I know how to deal with them.

GMM: After reading your excerpt, I started thinking about the role religion often plays in horror fiction. You describe what I assume was a religious community with cult-like followers that ended in tragedy, as they are often wont to do. I sometimes joke about the fact that most of my knowledge of religion comes from horror fiction and movies. How much of an impact has religion had on your writing? Is it a recurring theme in your horror fiction?

TK: “I sometimes joke about the fact that most of my knowledge of religion comes from horror fiction and movies.”

It’s funny you said this, Michelle, because I’m the opposite. Almost everything I know about horror comes from a religious background.

I grew up in southeastern Kentucky, in a Southern Baptist household. When I was a kid, I was indoctrinated in that way of thinking, so everything I did was overshadowed with this impending doom of eternal damnation if I didn’t live the way I was told. I had a very clear picture of Hell from a young age, and now that I think about it, it probably had something to do with the anxiety issues I deal with now. There’s always this fear of not measuring up, of always falling short, and so on.

Anyway, when it comes to horror, religion is always going to be a place to find the darkest aspects of mankind. So much has been done in the name of a god, be it one with a capital G or otherwise, and all for the purpose of manipulating minds, curating division, or justifying bloodshed. I’m reminded of the song “Mist and Shadow” by The Sword: Why do people wonder if there is evil in the world? / If it’s lurking in the darkness until its plans can unfurl / When it’s standing before you in the clear light of day / In a finely tailored suit with a smile on its face.

All of that is my long-winded way of saying “Yes” to your question. Religion tends to be a recurring theme in my fiction, especially over the last few years. In relation to my forthcoming novel, Devil’s Creek, religion is a means of revealing the worst in people. If I had to sum up the book, it’s about how an infectious religion—and the resulting zealotry—can destroy a community.

DEVIL’S CREEK – Excerpt

Silver Shamrock Publishing – Release Date 6/16/20

His mind wandered into the dark, and his imagination had its way with him again. Being alone in this ghost town unsettled him, put him on edge like he’d never felt before. He felt like a trespasser in a graveyard. The folks who’d pulled up stakes, sold all their belongings, and given it to his father’s church for the sake of building a utopia in the forest all died here. Their spirits would roam here for the rest of eternity, walking hand in hand, replaying the final moments of their lives.

“Stop it,” he said, ignoring the chattering of his teeth. “You’re scaring yourself.”

Maybe it was the dark. Maybe it was the empty village of the dead. Maybe it was the fact his friend hadn’t come back.

Oh shit.

Zeke stood and crept to the edge of the doorway. He peered out. Moonlight filtered through the trees, illuminating a path through the remains of the holy compound.

“Waylon?” The forest rustled and breathed around him. He cleared his throat and spoke louder. “Waylon, stop fuckin’ around, man.”

The forest said nothing, and neither did his friend. Another chill swept over him, racking his body with shivers for a full minute until he got a grip on himself.

This is stupid, he thought. You’re freaking yourself out for nothing. That dipshit is out there laughing his ass off at you. He knew all along what this place meant to you, and he brought you here just to fuck with you.

“And it’s working,” he mumbled. The forest absorbed his voice, masking it with the primitive sounds of nature, of crickets and rodents in the brush and brambles, of rustling leaves in a wind far too cold for this time of year. He called out to Waylon again and waited, listening to his heart thud heavily in his chest.

One-one-thousand.

Two-one-thousand.

Three-one-thousand.

Four-one—

A guttural scream tore through the night, shredding any hope of this being a joke. Heart racing, his legs like jelly, Zeke scrambled out of the shack and into the fractured moonlight. He called to Waylon once more, but his friend was silent. The forest swallowed his cries as easily as it swallowed his mind, projecting phantoms through the undergrowth, shadow puppets in the dim glow of the moon. Everything moved around him, driven by the wind, and the constant hiss of rustling leaves filled his head with serpents.

Confused, his heart in the grip of an icy terror he’d not felt since he was a child, Zeke Billings pumped his legs and forced himself forward into the dark. He followed the dim outline of a trail through the center of the village, past a dozen overgrown structures, their slipshod windows filled with the faces of the dead. He saw them from the corner of his eye as he ran, and he told himself they weren’t there, they were tricks of moonlight, broken by the limbs and leaves and reassembled by his feral imagination.

His drive to find Waylon was fueled by a desire to leave this place, to leave its silent memory of servitude and damnation behind forever, cast back into the darkened halls of his nightmares.

So he ran. He ran until a phantom fist clenched at his ribs, tugging with each step he took. He ran until his heart pumped steam and his lungs burst with fire. Tears streamed down his face as he shot forward to the clearing ahead, each step more laborious than the last, and when his feet caught the rotted husk of a fallen log, he welcomed the sweet collapse. The hard, musty earth and soft grass of an open field met his face.

Zeke pushed himself from the ground and rose to his knees. He wiped his eyes, and when his vision finally cleared, his heart sank deep into his gut.

“No, no, no, not here, anywhere but here…”

Calvary Hill rose in the center of the clearing, the old stony pathway up its face overgrown with weeds. The church was long gone, of course, burned to cinders and ash decades before, but its ghost remained in the window of his imagination.

A full moon hung overhead, aligned perfectly over the hill like the unblinking eye of God. Susan’s words filled his head, a memory from earlier when the world still made some semblance of sense to him. It’s a full moon tonight.

Zeke stood on his knees, staring up at the silent monument of his childhood, watching incredulously as the earth breathed in the moonlit glow. He was so enraptured by the sight, he didn’t register movement from the corner of his eye.

There were sucking sounds coming from behind him. Slurping, cracking, crunching sounds. A spike of fear wedged itself into his belly, filling him with a numbing cold leeching his last ounce of resolve. Slowly, Zeke turned his head toward the sounds, his heart shooting back into high gear when he saw the hulking shadow leaning over the dead log.

The shadow moved, allowing the moonlight to wash over the log, and Zeke froze in horror.

Waylon lay sprawled on the grass, one leg twisted back at an impossible angle, his glassy eyes locked on the indifferent sky above, and a grotesque sneer of agony frozen to his face. His shirt was ripped open, his chest nothing more than a cavity of exposed meat and gore. A light tendril of steam rose from the warmth of his entrails.

The shadow reached into the hole of Waylon’s chest, snapped off one of his ribs, and began sucking on the marrow.

“Oh God,” Zeke mumbled, the words barely more than a rasp, and the shadow heard him. It raised its head and turned toward him, revealing a face coated in mud and blood. Worms writhed through the thing’s greasy hair, feeling their way along the curve of its forehead and around the dried “o” of an old gunshot wound. The shadow crunched down on Waylon’s broken rib and cast its gaze upon him. Its eyes glowed, two sapphire orbs floating in the dark.

Zeke Billings met the living face of his nightmare and began to scream.

Jacob Masters flashed a grim smile. “My little lamb,” he rasped.

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.