Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Valjeanne Jeffers

Last week I had some very interesting conversations with Violette Meier and Aziza Sphinx. If you haven’t checked out their posts, or the previous posts in this Women in Horror Month/Black History Month series, please do so.

Today, Girl Meets Monster has the pleasure of welcoming Valjeanne Jeffers.

Valjeanne Jeffers is a speculative fiction writer, a Spelman College graduate, a member of the Horror Writers Association and the Carolina African America Writers’ Collective. She is the author of ten books, including her Immortal and her Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective series. Valjeanne has been published in numerous anthologies including: Steamfunk!; The Ringing Ear; Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. ButlerFitting In: Historical Accounts of Paranormal SubculturesSycorax’s Daughters; Black Magic Women, The Bright Empire, and, most recently, All the Songs We Sing, Bledrotica Volume I, and Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire.

Ten Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Valjeanne. What projects are you currently working on? Is horror your primary genre, or do you write in other genres? If you write in other genres, which do you feel most comfortable writing, and why?

VJ: Hi Michelle, thank you for having me. I’ve just released the 3rd novel of my Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective series: The Case of the Vanishing Child. It’s a horror/steamfunk novel based in an alternate world, and the main character, Mona, is both a sleuth and a sorceress. I’m also working on a screenplay of my novel, The Switch II: Clockwork.

Horror isn’t my primary genre, but it’s one of my favorites. I write under the broad umbrella of Speculative Fiction, so I also write science fiction/fantasy, which is also described as Afrofuturism. I feel comfortable writing in almost any genre, and I tend to mix them. The Switch II: Clockwork, for example, is a steamfunk novel, but it is also Afrofuturistic.

GMM: When did you first know that you were a horror writer? How did you develop an interest in the genre? What initially attracted you to horror stories? Which writers influenced you then? Which writers influence you now?

VJ: I actually didn’t think of myself as a horror writer until author Sumiko Saulson featured my writing in 100+ Black Women in Horror. Sumiko told me that my readers had approached her and asked that she include my Immortal series. I was both amazed and honored. That’s when I decided to add horror to my writing menu, and I went out of my way in my Mona Livelong series to scare my readers.

I’ve always enjoyed reading and watching horror. I can remember watching horror movies with my parents (for example, The Shining), and as a little girl, I was addicted to Dark Shadows. The first horror writer I fell in love with was Stephen King. Of course, when I first began reading horror there were no writers that looked like me. All of this changed in the 1990s. I discovered Octavia Butler, and later Nalo Hopkinson, Brandon Massey and Tananarive Due. These are writers, along with Richard Wright and James Baldwin, that I credit as my earliest influences. They continue to impact my writing, as well as Keith Gaston and N.K. Jemison.

GMM: The documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019), explores Black horror and the portrayal (and absence) of Black people in horror movies. As a definition of what Black horror means begins to take shape, Tananarive Due says “Black history is Black horror.” What do you think she meant by that? Can you give an example of how this idea shows up in your own work?

VJ: I’m sure she meant that African America history is one of trauma and violence: from our being kidnapped and dragged to American shores, through the Jim Crow and the Civil Rights era, our history is filled with tales of horror. Our stories are often those of pain and trauma.

Richard Wright, in Black Boy, says, “This was the culture from which I sprang, this was the terror from which I fled.” Yet our stories are also those of incredible victories because we refused to submit, to give up. Instead, we pushed on. We blossomed, and we continue to blossom like a garden of black roses.

As a black woman, I am grappling with issues of those that came before me, and those that we face in present times. This may find its way onto my pages. But I write with optimism and hope. And I always strive give my readers an exciting tale they can sink their teeth into.

GMM: As a WOC writing horror/dark speculative fiction, do you feel obligated to have a deeper message in your stories? Can writers of color write stories without broader messages about identity, class, and racism? Is it possible to divorce yourself from that ongoing narrative within our culture when you set out to write a story?

VJ: I don’t feel obligated to include a deeper message in my stories, and some of my favorite authors write without doing so. I’ve certainly never started one with this intent. Sometimes a story is just a story, meant to entertain and nothing more. But I do find myself writing about flawed heroines and heroes, men and women who are fighting to save themselves and their worlds. Often the demons they’re fighting are personal ones; life is always in session. There are no perfect people, and so my characters are imperfect as well. Who you are, and what you’re battling, will always find its way onto the page, and this is where I find myself writing, too, about larger issues of race, gender and class.

GMM: What are your top five favorite horror movies, and why? Top five horror novels? Which book or movie scared you the most?

VJ: My top five horror movies are: The Shining; Tales from the Hood; Get Out; Dr. Sleep, and When a Stranger Calls. I like horror movies with well-developed plots and characters, and layers of suspense that build to a nail biting crescendo. I also prefer horror flicks with a racially diverse cast of characters, which is a lot easier to come by nowadays.

My top favorite horror novels are: Wild Seed (Octavia Butler); Into the Dark (Brandon Massey); The Good House (Tananarive Due); It (Stephen King) and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (N.K. Jemison). I’d have to say Into the Dark scared me the most.

GMM: How do you feel about white-identifying writers who write stories about non-white characters? What problems have you encountered? What potential issues do you see with white-identifying writers telling BIPOC stories? What advice would you give those writers?

VJ: There are some white authors who are very skillful at creating “flesh and blood” non-white characters. One writer in particular, who is also one of my favorites, is Tad Williams; his Otherland series is brilliant. What I mean by “flesh and blood,” are well rounded characters, who black and brown folks can identify with. In contrast, there are other white authors I’ve encountered, whose non-white characters are cardboard cutouts, overlaid with stereotypes.   My advice to these authors is: if you don’t have black and brown friends, real friends mind you, perhaps it’s best if you don’t write about people of color. This might sound harsh, but one of the first pieces of writing advice that I received was: “Write what you know.” Every character I’ve created is a compilation of diverse men and women I’ve met, studied, or both, and myself.

GMM: All writers have experienced some form of impostor syndrome. What has your experience with impostor syndrome been like? Did you ever have a particularly bad case of it? If so, what caused it and how did you manage it?

VJ: I have experienced feelings of self-doubt and feelings that I don’t “measure up” as a writer. But when I’m at my lowest, my readers, and other writers, often help me get through it. I’ve received uplifting emails from folks who love my latest project, and sometimes even a post on my Facebook page. I think I speak for most authors when I say: we write for ourselves and for our readers. I cherish every one of them.

GMM: Tell me about Mona Livelong. What or who inspired this character? Without too many spoilers, can you give some insight into her backstory, and why she became a detective? Why a paranormal detective as opposed to a detective who solves basic human problems?

VJ: Mona Livelong sprang from the same inspiration as Karla, the main character of my Immortal series. Both characters are based upon Carla, a young woman who babysat me when I was living in Los Angeles. Carla’s mother, as well as her youngest brother, died and she was raising her two surviving siblings while attending college. I remember her as an intelligent, compassionate young woman, who was determined to achieve her goals.

Mona is cut from this same cloth. She’s strong, but also vulnerable, and she’s known tragedy. She was born a sorceress and decided to use her gifts to help her community, solving cases regular detectives can’t solve. As to why she’s a paranormal detective, when I create a character, he or she will almost always be supernatural. I love Speculative Fiction just that much.

GMM: Some writers work best in silence, and others prefer to listen to music when they write. How has music influenced your work? What kinds of music do like to listen to when you’re writing? How does it help with your process?

VJ: I can write in silence, but I prefer listening to music when I write, especially if I’m working on character or plot development. If I’m doing either one, I usually listen to jazz or R&B (for example, WAR and Barry White). If I’m writing an action scene, I’m definitely listening to Hip Hop or Classic Rock. I’ve actually acted out action scenes while listening to music; it helps me visualize what’s happening to my characters, and if the scene will “work.”

GMM: If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your younger self? How would you have approached becoming a writer? Would you have done anything differently, or would you have followed the same path?

VJ: If I could give young Valjeanne any advice I would tell her, “Keep writing Speculative Fiction, sweetheart, and don’t stop. No matter what anyone says.” I began writing poetry and stories as a young girl. My only regret is that I took a hiatus and didn’t dive back in until years later. This is the only thing I would change.

Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective III: The Case of the Vanishing Child. (synopsis) The threads of a blood chilling mystery … A world torn in half. A young black man desperate to avenge his murdered brethren. A white supremacist with the terrifying power to alter reality. And a little girl trapped in the eye of the storm. Detective Mona Livelong takes on her most dangerous case yet, as she races to save the life of an innocent child, and countless others hanging in the balance. Cover art by Quinton Veal.

Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective III: The Case of The Vanishing Child (excerpt)

Breath brings word
Nappy Dusky Longing Song
Song like my own
—Maya’s Kwansaba

A solitary cafe au lait-colored man with freckles, his thick hair tied back with cords, walked to the lot behind the Constabulary Station. Keeping his head down, Richard Starks moved silently through the rows of steam-autos parked there. He walked past them, looking carefully at the numbers painted on the auto doors. When he found the one he sought, he crouched on the other side of the steam-auto and waited.

He didn’t have to wait long. Minutes later, a burly white Constable exited the station and walked through the lot. He hunkered down before the auto and started turning the crank.

Richard drew a dagger from the folds of his shirt. Moving swiftly, he crept from the side of the car. As the Constable rose from his haunches, the black man sprang— stabbing him over and over. The Constable fell to his knees and then toppled over, twitching and bleeding at Richard’s feet. Moments later, he was dead.

Shaking and crying, Richard stood over him. At length, he calmed himself and slipped the dagger back

inside his shirt. He wiped his face with his arm and stepped over the dead Constable to the side of the auto. He drew a symbol on the steam-auto door with his bloody fingers and spoke the mantra, “Kuja kwangu mpendwa wangu kwa maana ni kisasi mimi kutafuta … Come to me my beloved, for it is vengeance I seek.”

Diaphanous shades smudged into view. In the next instant three figures towered over him, their faces shifting in the darkness … from black to red … green to blue … female to male … It made him dizzy trying to hone in on their features. He realized that perhaps he was not meant to see their faces. Perhaps it would drive him insane. He fixed his vision on a point beyond their huge shoulders.

The one on his left spoke, “You summoned us, little one?”

“Yes,” Richard whispered.

“You know what it is you seek?” said the second one asked.

“We cannot harm the innocent,” the third entity intoned.

For the first time anger crept into the young man’s voice. “They ain’t innocent. They’re murderers.

The spirits spoke in one basso profundo voice, “So be it.”

Rivulets of blood ran down the Constabulary building. The dead officer sat up. His wounds healed, and

his eyes glazed over with a white film. Then they turned blue once more. The blood vanished. The Constable got to his knees, crouching before the auto, and finished turning the crank. The motor sputtered to life. He stood and walked to the driver’s side, got into the auto and drove from the lot.

Constable Burt Phillips, a thick-set white officer, pulled his steam-auto up to the curb beside his flat. Burt put his auto in park, got out and turned the crank on his steam-auto, shutting the engine off. He was feeling good this evening—better than he’d felt in weeks. For awhile, he’d thought that Eddie Plumb, the unarmed black man he’d killed months ago, was haunting him.

He’d been drinking the night he killed Plumb and in a foul mood. I just wanted respect. That darkie needed to be put in his place.

Plumb had walked pass Burt that night, his eyes insolent, his back straight and proud. Something had snapped inside Burt. He’d shouted at Plumb over and over to stop walking, but the young man ignored him. So Burt shot him in the back. When questioned by Internal Affairs, he’d told a different story: Eddie was a robbery suspect, who’d fled when he ordered him to stop.

The DA cleared me. That’s that.

The week of his death, Eddie Plumb had appeared in Burt’s steam-auto and, for weeks afterwards, he’d rode beside Burt—mocking him, insulting him, calling him a murderer. Then just as suddenly he was gone. Burt had dismissed Eddie as a hallucination brought on by the stress of the hearing.

Certainly. he bore no guilt over killing Plumb. Darkies getting out of control. In my daddy’s time they knew their place. That’s one that won’t make trouble no more.

His daddy had been a hard man, and even harder to love. But love him Burt did, through all the beatings, through all the times he’d found his mother bloodied from his old man’s fists.

His father’s most essential rule, THE RULE, was that he should hate anyone who wasn’t white. “Keep ‘em under your boot son,” this was said with the utmost emphasis during the few times he’d shown Burt affection. “For a white man, ain’t nothing more important.” His daddy had hated black and brown folks, and Burt loved his daddy. So, he hated them too. He opened the door to his flat and stepped inside.

——

Richard sat in the darkness. The only illumination came from the moon and the streetlight outside his window. He shut his eyes.

When he opened them, his room had been transformed. Thick grass grew under his feet. He stared into a gold, orange and blue sunset, a half-smile of wonderment on his face. To his right, the walls and door of his flat remained. Straight ahead, camel thorn trees spouted in the brush. In the distance, he could hear the steady rhythm of drums and a faint whisper. Richard cocked his head to the right. Listening.

He nodded and shut his eyes once more. His spirit rose from the chair. He looked back at his body then walked out into the night. Those he passed on the street could not see him … But they felt him as a breeze.

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 Friday!

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

Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Nicole Givens Kurtz

Earlier this week, Girl Meets Monster kicked off Women in Horror Month with a post about horror fanatic Dimi Horror whose social media platform is Black Girls Love Horror Too. And, on Wednesday, I had the chance to chat with horror writer and soon-to-be filmmaker, Kenesha Williams. Today, Nicole Givens Kurtz shares a fragment of her fiction and talks about her writing process, current projects, her role as editor for Mocha Memoirs Press, and what it’s like to write horror while Black and female.

Nicole Givens Kurtz is an author, editor, and educator. She’s a member of Horror Writers Association, Sisters in Crime, and Science Fiction Writers of America. She’s the editor of the groundbreaking anthology, Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire. She’s written for White Wolf’s Vampire the Masquerade 20th Anniversary Anthology, Bram Stoker Finalist in Horror Anthology, Sycorax’s Daughters, and Serial Box’s The Vela: Salvation series. Nicole has over 40 short stories published as well as 11 novels and three active speculative mystery series. You can support her work via Patreon and find more about her at http://www.nicolegivenskurtz.net.

About A Theft Most Fowl: Sent to investigate the theft of a sacred artifact, can Hawk Tasifa unravel the threads of the conspiracy before it destroys the Order?

Following her success in Gould, Hawk Prentice Tasifa returns to her university to unravel a mystery. Someone has broken into the Museum of the Goddess and stolen its most sacred artifact, attacked two of the guards, and is trying to frame her mentor. Under pressure from The Order, Prentice is urged to find the culprits, but not all is as it seems.

Can Hawk Tasifa see through the echoes of her own past and find the dirty birds before they destroy everything she loves?

Ten Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Nicole. What projects are you currently working on? Is horror your primary genre, or do you write in other genres? If you write in other genres, which do you feel most comfortable writing, and why?

NGK: I am currently working on a science fiction mystery/futuristic noir series called Fawn & Briscoe. I write primarily in science fiction/fantasy mysteries, but horror is a close second. I feel most comfortable in mystery and horror genres, although I have written contemporary and paranormal romance.

GMM: When did you first know that you were a horror writer? How did you develop an interest in the genre? What initially attracted you to horror stories? Which writers influenced you then? Which writers influence you now?

NGK: I realized I was a horror author after I wrote my first scary story in 10th grade. It involved a Thanksgiving dinner gone horribly wrong. I fell in love with the horror genre when I was 4. Where the Wild Things Are was the first horror book I read, and it remains one of my favorites to this day. I graduated to King in elementary school along with Poe and then to others later in life like Shirley Jackson, L.A. Banks, and Tananarive Due.

GMM: Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019) explores Black horror and the portrayal (and absence) of Black people in horror movies. As a definition of what Black horror means begins to take shape, Tananarive Due says “Black history is Black horror.” What do you think she meant by that? Can you give an example of how this idea shows up in your own work?

NGK: So much of Black American history has been absolutely horrific from being enslaved to the Reconstructive Period to Jim Crow to the Civil Right Movement to the era of Black Lives Matter, living as an African-American in America is to be constantly enraged (Baldwin), but also a witness to the real monsters of the world–mankind. I draw much of my horror from those marginalized spaces that depict the true depravity of racism and the monstrous nature of white supremacy. For example, in many of my weird western stories, the protagonist is a Black woman in the west. The combination of freed slaves and disgraced Confederate soldiers in the southwest/west both seeking new identities and opportunities among scarce resources create a hotbed of horror stories…some very close to the truth.

GMM: As a WOC/Black woman writing horror/dark speculative fiction, do you feel obligated to have a deeper message in your stories? Can writers of color write stories without broader messages about identity, class, and racism? Is it possible to divorce yourself from that ongoing narrative within our culture when you set out to write a story?

NGK: I don’t start out writing stories to incorporate a deeper meaning or message; however, since most of my stories have Black women or POC women as protagonists, issues of identity, class, and racism appear because they are very much a part of our reality. It is difficult to divorce the effect those things have on me, as a person, a Black woman, a Black mom, etc. I can only speak for myself, but it is not something I can do with my storytelling. Because those items affect me, they affect my heroines.

GMM: What are your top five favorite horror movies, and why? Top five horror novels? Which book or movie scared you the most?

NGK:

Top 5 Horror Movies:

  • John Carpenter’s The Thing (original): The shapeshifting nature of The Thing and the paranoia amongst the crew are expertly done and continues to be peak awesomeness today.
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street (original): As someone who suffers from insomnia since I was a child, this movie scared me to death. Exhausted and yearning sleep, the fact that something in my dreams could hurt me in real life completely terrified me.
  • Midsomer: The beauty of Midsomer is that it lures you into a false sense of security with its brilliant sunlight, welcoming community members, and gorgeous grounds, until WHAM! It all goes topsy turvey in ways I could not have foreseen or predicted. Stunned. It bears multiple repeat viewings, too.
  • The Girl with All the Gifts: Zombie. Black Girl. Doesn’t give one iota about humanity. Straight. Up. Insane. Love it!
  • Event Horizon: I probably should’ve led with this one, because it is my favorite of the lot. Awesome if not over the top acting. Crazy blend of science fiction and horror. A real wild ride. Just good scary fun. I have to watch it every time I see it on TV. Sometimes I just watch it to relax or if I want to see a good horror film. I also liked how a Black man was in charge and not killed in the first 10 mintues.

Top 5 Horror Novels:

  • Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley: I have multiple copies of this book and I taught it to high school seniors for 8 years. I still​ love everything about it and I still find wonderful themes on narcissism, abandonment, hubris, beauty, wealth, misogyny… the list goes on. It is a treasure.
  • The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor Lavalle: This is a retelling of Lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook, his most racist story.  Lavalle takes the story and subverts it. It is simply astounding.
  • The Dark Tower by Stephen King: Most of my horror lands in the weird western subgenre, and this was the first one that not only captured my love for blended genres but presented a gunslinger unlike any I’d seen before. Roland and his ka-tet continues to be my favorite book series ever, but it also produces difficult and horrific situations. Terrible situations and consequences for everyone, Roland included.
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shriley Jackson: As a person who often sees herself as an outsider, this book of two sisters, ostracized from the town, and a tiny bit from each other, showed me that horror didn’t have to be bloody and messy. Human beings are monstrous enough, and the way Kat traps her sister and imprisons her scared me to death. It showed me the dangerous power of love.
  • Minion by LA. Banks: The Vampire Huntress Legend Series was the first time I saw an authentic black woman slayer and I absolutely loved every single minute of this series. It didn’t frighten me so much as entertained me, while also centering blackness, which I loved.

GMM: How do you feel about white-identifying writers who write stories about non-white characters? What problems have you encountered? What potential issues do you see with white-identifying writers telling BIPOC stories? What advice would you give those writers?

NGK: K. Tempest Bledsoe and Nisi Shawl have a fantastic workshop and courses on Writing the Other. If white authors want to diversify the characters in their stories, I encourage them to do so. The potential issues are with not centering the non-white character’s culture as being a part of them. For example, Black characters are not monolithic, there’s diversity with different experiences, rearing, and education. However, there are certain cultural touchstones that aren’t advertised or communicated. I would give writers who are seeking to write the other to do the following: 1) write the character and make them as round as you would your white character. 2) Get two or three sensitivity readers to read over your story (Pay them please. This is labor.). Listen to their feedback and incorporate those changes into your revised story. Non-white authors should note that basing a character on your one BIPOC friend, is still tokenism. Try to expand your social group to a variety of different people to avoid stereotypes, tokenism, and offensive behavior in the story.

GMM: All writers have experienced some form of impostor syndrome. What has your experience with impostor syndrome been like? Did you ever have a particularly bad case of it? If so, what caused it and how did you manage it?

NGK: My imposter syndrome should start paying part of the mortgage! I had a terrible case of it at Blacktasticon in 2018. I was selected to moderate a panel that included Sheree Renee Thomas, Linda Addision, Kenesha Williams, Susana Morris, and an overwhelming number of Black women authors. Linda is a legend. Sheree Renee Thomas is a legend. Susana Morris is an amazing academic professor and author. These are REAL writers.

What the hell did I know about questioning them or leading these leaders in a conversation?! I managed it by writing out the questions with the intention that if they didn’t like it, they would go their own course, and I would let them. LOL! There were 10 people on this panel, and if everyone had a chance to talk, I may not need all the questions. I was prepared to, but I didn’t need to worry. The panel went well.

GMM: Congratulations on being awarded a Diversity Grant from the Horror Writers Association. If you don’t mind me asking, how do you plan to use the grant? What goals do you have in mind?

NGK: Thank you! I plan to use my grant to attend StockerCon for networking possibilities as well as take a MasterClass with Neil Gaiman course to improve my craft.

GMM: How long have you been the editor of Mocha Memoirs Press? Do you prefer editing to writing, or vice versa? How did you get started as an editor? Do you perform and other roles at the press? How can interested writers find out about calls for submission?

NGK: I have been the editor and owner of Mocha Memoirs Press for 11 years. I prefer writing! I got started editing others when I taught English for 18 years in public school. I am the owner of the press so I have assisted in all areas of the business: slush reading, edits, proofreading, formatting, marketing, etc. Interested writers can find the call for submissions at https://mochamemoirspress.com/write-for-us/.

GMM: What about your writing makes it unique within the horror genre? Are there any subjects you’re afraid to write about, or stories you avoid telling?

NGK: My tagline is Strong Heroines. Fantasy Worlds. In the horror genre, I primarily writer weird westerns and as a Black Woman, that is very rare. There are subjects I don’t write stories about and those are slavery, rape, and incest. Those are topics that I don’t find tasteful, and so I don’t write about them. I am aware that horror has a tendency to push the envelope of those things we fear, but those topics fall outside the range of what I want my work to focus on.

Excerpt from A Theft Most Fowl: A Kingdom of Aves Mystery ©2020 Nicole L. Kurtz

The University of Sulidae was the oldest college in Aves. Originally, its location resided in the Audubon Nest, close to Lanham, home of The Order. Political infighting forced the intellectuals to put some distance between themself and those at court. Experience taught them that the closer one got to power, the harder it was to survive. In response, The Order opened an intelligence file on university members. Despite the history of hurt feelings and tensions on both sides, many of those within The Order’s rank traveled and studied at the university’s new location in Sulidae Egg, in Edmonds Nest. It sat on the banks of the Plume River at the apex of the Audubon and Edmonds nests. The campus was its own island in the egg; everything revolved around the university.

Rook Bjorn Renner’s entire life orbited around Sulidae University, most importantly the Museum of the Goddess. As curator, Rook Renner’s true passion to which his entire life was devoted was collecting goddess artifacts. As a renowned expert in all things goddess, he received a consistent stream of requests to verify and validate recently discovered treasures. Over time, his teachings gained more urgency around authenticity.  

Prentice found it strange that a devoted bird like Rook Renner would steal the Five-Feathered Crown. Why now? Why only that artifact? Why not something less obvious? He wouldn’t be able to get birdsong for the relic. No one would take the risk of being caught with it. No one would dare touch the crown for fear of death.

The theft didn’t add up.

Hawk Prentice Tasifa sat on the train speeding from Gould to Sulidae. She picked up Cardinal Wick’s letter and read it again.

Hawk Tasifa-

Your services have been requested in the Sulidae Egg. Arrive within two days and greet Dove Raz Haq. The situation as we know at this time:

1. Missing sacred goddess’s feathered crown.
2. Proposed magical use.
3. Possible suspects: Rook Bjorn Renner

The truth is light. Bring it forth as hawks see what is unseen.

Peace,
Cardinal Wick

She rolled the parchment up again.

Someone did break into the museum and they stole the Five-Feathered Crown. In the ensuing massive manhunt, the eagles who served as security for all eggs, searched but came up empty. Request for assistance from the public produced nothing, according to the reports. No doubt, Rook Renner was frantic with worry and he stood accused of stealing it himself.

Prentice sipped her tea as ideas formulated in her mind. Drinking Earl Grey became a simple pleasure among the stickiness of investigative work. The ancient cogwheel train raced across the rails, and it gently rocked as it chugged its way through the Edmonds Nest. She’d left the Bailey’s rolling hills and the Adams Mountains with their snow-capped tips. They grew smaller in the distance along with Bailey Egg’s red-roofed buildings.

Now, two days later, she meandered along the Adams River. She missed Gould, and if the circumstances changed, she’d return again, but not for work.

Ahead, Sulidae Egg appeared. Prentice had the sleeping car to herself, an ornately decorated car whose features included carved, wood paneling, pressed metal ceiling, frosted glass, lamp oils and a night seat which folded down for a bed. Over the last couple of days, the car had started to feel like home. She sat in the small, overstuffed chair and removed her notepad.

When not on an active investigation, Prentice wore casual clothing; her dark wings identified her as a hawk no matter what she wore. Today she had chosen a sapphire headdress which bore silver embroidered wings and matched her frock. A silver, satin scarf draped from her neck across her left shoulder. She put away the boots in exchange for flat, closed-toe sandals. Sulidae lay in the Edmonds Nest, just southwest of Lanham. The weather remained warm throughout the year due to the Avian Sea currents. She dressed accordingly, but only by chance. Unable to return home from her last assignment for a change of clothes, Prentice happened to have packed cooler clothing.

Her thoughts turned to Rook Renner. No doubt, the rook sowed the seeds of his own demise with his erratic behavior.

The train bumped over the railroad tracks as it slowed into Lizard Mountain Train Station, with the setting sun. A whistle announced their arrival and Prentice disembarked with her luggage and satchel. As soon as the heat hit her, she missed the cool mountains of Gould. Along the platform, coachmen carried signs advertising their services. She secured one and found herself quickly seated in a carriage, her luggage bags secured outside in the rear, her driver holding the reins in front. Two beautiful horses pulled them away from the train station and into the waiting night.

In what seemed like no time, she reached campus. Being early suppertime, the egg bustled with life. Students clutched heavy satchels and walked or bicycled through the streets. People clustered together in casual conversations at outdoor cafes, illuminated by votive candles. Pedestrians hiked alongside cyclists with ease in a practiced rhythm.

In the hushed carriage interior, Prentice embraced the nostalgia rushing over her. She hadn’t been here in years, not since graduation. Outside the carriage window, the Plume River glistened as it snaked its way through the egg. A clear sky put the constellations on display, and she warmed at the memory of nights spent in Rook Ioan’s astronomy class, charting and memorizing the heavens, gazing through telescopes, and listening to how they came to be. A hawk was never lost as long as they had the sky.

“We’re here.” The coachman wrenched open the door and disappeared around to the carriage’s rear. He clambered up the short ladder and threw down her luggage bags. They smacked the ground.

“By the goddess, be careful!” Prentice bellowed as she exited. Vultures!

The coachman came back around with said baggage stuffed under both arms. He glared at her as he placed the bags beside her. His tight, grayish skin bore thin scars. The bright scarlet birthmark across his sharp nose drew attention away from his dark beady eyes.

“Thank you.” Prentice took five birdsongs from her leather punch. She dropped the copper coin with the five emblazed on the tail and the goddess’s likeness on the front into the coachman’s gloved hand.

“Evening.” The man bowed, his face softened by the tip, before leaping up to the driver’s seat. His agility surprised her; his girth didn’t hinder his movements at all.

She turned her attention to the pristine cathedral that consumed the center entrance of the university campus. The air was heavy with the fragrance of frankincense and sage. A cobblestoned maze of dark corridors threaded through the grounds and connected the buildings. Dark hallways stretched out in a monolithic maze of nooks and crannies, making it impossible to take in the enormity of the university at a glance.

Ahead, a figure approached through the growing dark. Brightly colored lanterns illuminated the square and entranceway. She could make out the red turban atop a head. A sudden strong wind billowed his dark robes. Prentice didn’t need her hawk abilities to recognize Rook Renner. Her jaw tightened as he advanced.

Once the wizened old man reached her, he wasted no time embracing her.

“Hoot, Prentice.” Renner pulled her close.

His voice was stronger than Prentice expected.

She returned his hug but pulled back. “Hoot, Rook! How are you here? Shouldn’t you be in a cell?”

Rook Renner’s jovial face held bemusement. He didn’t seem distraught. “It would seem my rapidly eroding reputation has kept that action at bay.”

His rawboned features, decorated with broad red lines beneath each eye and a vertical one from his forehead down to his chin, disappeared beneath a bushy white beard.

“Come. I’m glad you’re here.” He clasped her hand in his bony one. The soft flesh palm spoke to the rook never doing physical labor in his life.

“Me too.” She meant it.

He motioned ahead. “I’ve had a small instructor apartment set up for you.”

Prentice took back her hand. “An apartment? Rook, you know I’m here to investigate you and the theft…”

She trailed off. A quiver filtered through her feathers.

Rook Renner raised his hand. The silver rings he wore caught the pale moonlight as he held his hand up to silence her.

“I’m aware. It’s a studio, nothing luxurious. The Order cannot say I attempted to bribe you. My status may not be what it once was at court, but I’m greatly injured at this intrusion. The sooner we get this resolved, the sooner I can get back to my work.”

“Rook…” Prentice’s cheeks warmed at his words.

But she didn’t travel here to rekindle their student-instructor relationship. She’d been assigned to this case and she had a job to do.

See the unseen.

She adjusted her satchel across her torso and then hoisted her luggage.

“Lead the way.” Rook Renner smiled. “Follow me.”

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: Donna J. W. Munro

Happy New Year! Before Fiction Fragments took a short break to celebrate the holidays and regroup after a monumentally challenging year, I featured an excerpt from Deesha Philyaw‘s short story, “Peach Cobbler.”

Now, we’re back. It’s 2021 and Girl Meets Monster has some great writers lined up for the month of January, including this week’s guest, Donna J. W. Munro.

Donna J. W. Munro’s pieces are published in Dark Moon Digest # 34, Flash Fiction Magazine, Astounding Outpost, Nothing’s Sacred Magazine IV and V, Corvid Queen, Hazard Yet Forward (2012), Enter the Apocalypse (2017), Beautiful Lies, Painful Truths II (2018), Terror Politico (2019), It Calls from the Forest (2020), Borderlands 7 (2020), Gray Sisters Vol 1 (2020) and others. Her upcoming novel, Revelations: Poppet Cycle 1, will be published by Omnium Gatherum in 2021.

Order Donna’s novel, Revelations: Poppet Cycle 1, here:  Amazon

Contact her at:
https://www.donnajwmunro.com
Twitter: @DonnaJWMunro

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Donna and Happy New Year! Here we are at the beginning of 2021 and I’m sure we’re all hoping for a frest start and a less traumatic year than 2020. What exciting things do you have planned for the new year? What projects are you working on, and what writing goals are you setting for yourself?

DJWM: Happy New Year to you, too. I have a whole lot of hope that things will be better. I mean, the real world shouldn’t be weirder than things we are writing, right? It has been. I felt like we were living in American Horror Story for the last four years.

I’m excited that you’re interviewing me today, because my first novel is out tomorrow! Revelation: Poppet Cycle Book 1 is the first in a trilogy I’m working on, so most of 2021 will be rewrites of book 2 and 3. Besides that, I write a flash fiction story every weekend as part of the Obsidian Flash Writers Group. As far as goals, I think I’m shooting for at least 12 short stories published in 2021. Beyond that, I hope to stay well, get vaccinated, and start hanging out with my Convention friends again. Man, I miss my nerd fam so much!

GMM: Tell me a bit about your fragment. IS it more difficult writing from the POV of a guinea pig than it is for a human, or did you simply imagine Muffin as a human while writing this piece? What was your process like, and what inspired the story? Why a guinea pig?

DJWM:  “He Ate It” is a story I wrote as part of a challenge at Obsidian Flash. We post images there to spark our weekly stories and then share them with each other for critique. One week the prompt was a guinea pig. That, combined with the my anxiety over our current US politics, created Muffin the meglomaniacal guinea pig. His voice wasn’t hard to come up with, since it’s the internal voice I imagined that our President might have. I had a whole lot of fun trying to think about what obstacles would stand in the way of a guinea pig trying to become ruler of the world. The absurdity of its lack of experience and not knowing how big the world is, but still wanting to rule it as it’s first act of sentience tickled my writing fancy. The hubris he had was super fun to write, especially since I got to slap him in it. It’s not a perfect story and the Neitzche joke at the end might be a bit flat, but it makes me cackle every time.

GMM: Tell me about your most challenging writing project to date. Was it a short story or a longer piece of fiction? What roadblocks did you encounter while writing it? How did you modify your process to complete the piece? Did you publish it?

DJWM: Novels challenge me. I force myself to write one every year because I’m told that’s where the big money is (all the writers I know are laughing along with me right now). Short stories naturally come to me. Good or bad, if I sit down to write a short story, one comes out. But novels! Holy cookies, there’s so many moving parts. Continuity and plot vs character arc and description and action and subtext–Oh my! That’s why I surround myself with brilliant people that catch me when I’m lazy. My beta readers are great, but Anna LaVoie of Literally Yours Editing is my savior. Honestly, if you are a writer and you want to make your plot sing, developmental editors like Anna are so, so worth it. My process now includes two to three rounds of Anna combing through my writing and asking hard questions that kill the stupid plot devices and melodrama. She’s incredible. The result of this new process is the beginning of my trilogy that’s dropping tomorrow, Poppet Cycle. Revelation: Poppet Cycle Book 1 has been in my hard drive for probably twelve years. I dusted it off after meeting with Johnny Worthen of Omnium Gatherum a couple of years ago at HWA’s Stoker Con and now it’s about to be born.

Novels are hard. You know what I’m talking about with your fantastic debut Invisible Chains. Writing is just one part of the job. Then, there’s marketing. And keeping track of businessy stuff, which isn’t my thing. I will learn though! Might take the rest of my life, but I’m on it.

Roadblocks? Everything is a potential roadblock. Time crunches, bills, kids, cats, day job as a teacher, depression, shiny things that keep me from putting my butt into the chair and getting work done. How about the fact that all writers are really two people inside. There’s the hopeful creative who keeps throwing out new ideas, even when you need to just focus on the one you are working one. Then there’s the vicious editor. No real life editor I’ve ever met acts like the editor I have inside my own head. It’s the voice that tells me I’m too old to make it as a writer or that my words are childish and no one will ever want to read them. That voice is useful when you can tame it into a true editor voice, but mostly it’s the worst roadblock of all. It takes away joy from the process. It belittles your efforts. No matter how many successes you have it makes you wonder if you’ll ever have another. That little monster is tough to tame.

HE ATE IT
by Donna J. W. Munro

Muffin became self-aware on Saturday at 8pm. Until then, he’d been a carefree guinea pig occasionally living with a stinking cage or water, tinged green. Overall, he’d been well cared for. His human, a female juvenile, picked him up and cuddle warm sweet skin to his fur. This time he realized that he’d never have a better chance. He bit her soft throat where heat thrummed closest to the surface. Fluids gushed from her wound, red gouts wetting him. Her little hands dropped him as they struggled to cover the terrible wound. Exactly as planned.

Her screams drew the larger humans into girl’s room– exactly as planned– and Muffin rushed out the door into the larger world. He hid himself beneath a thing with metal springs and wooden slats and padded with lovely fluff, though it all smelled like human ass. He watched the humans rush by with the little one clutched between them. As they ran, they voices squeeled as he’d done when he’d been a dumb beast. He couldn’t blame them their weakness. After all, he’d attacked their young. But Muffin’s own history taught him that some young must be eaten for the benefit of the stronger. He’d eaten his nest brothers and sisters to keep the milk only for him.

They left and, exactly as planned, Muffin had conquered the world. He waddled into the food room, drawn by the bitter odor real food. Not the tough pellets the young female put in his cage. A tall machine hummed and rattled, doing business Muffin didn’t care to understand. Only the room’s obstacles concerned him. He sniffed the edges of the room, taking in the potential bolt holes as he sought food and water. High above him, the scent of fresh water falling in ringing drips wafted down, but the wall before him rose as a sheer monolith. Somewhere up there sat a bowl of fruit– he remembered seeing it when the female adolescent carried him. Now the cloying sweet of the fruit filled his nose full. He needed to climb the cliff, but how?

He noticed on the floor a bowl of slimy water and a bowl of kibble that reminded him he wasn’t alone. He slunk over to the flapping entrance in the middle of a closed door. It smelled like the other animal. Could he convince the dumb beast to help him reach the food and water, through tricks or taming. Or would the beast be so mindless he’d need to eliminate him? Muffin wanted to assess the situation. He tumbled through the flap into a cold, hard-floored room that smelled of bitter things and danger. Muffin sneezed the scent out of his nose. In the corner, a massive beast lay curled on a stinking pillow. Muffin’s heart hammered as he considered the it.

He sheltered behind a leaning chalky cliff, watching the beast take deep breaths. It had a pointed nose and long legs. So many times bigger than he. Muffin swallowed down the urge to run. Hadn’t he defeated the humans? Hadn’t he conquered the whole world? This creature would work for him or Muffin would kill him. With that thought, he scuttled forward, following the outline of the wall toward the corner the beast lay in. The closer he got, the stronger the creature’s musky scent. Muffin knew this beast from when the human played with this it in front of his glass-fronted prison. Named Nee-chee or some such, it leapt and capered and carried toys in its mouth like a giant imbecile. It could be trained, therefore Muffin just needed to figure out how.

“See here, beastie,” Muffin said, tapping on the wet, triangular nose before him. “Wake up.”

Its eyes snapped open and its lip curled over sharp teeth. But Muffin had come too far to let fear stop him.

“I defeated the humans. Sent them scurrying. Now, I’m the master of this house. You’ll serve me as you served them. Do you understand?”
The creature nodded, teeth parting and tongue sliding out with panting breaths.

“I need food and water. Both are high up. You’ll let me ride your back to get up.”

The beast tilted its head, in deference. Muffin’s spirits soared and he hurried toward it, to climb its back. Then the best fixed his gaze on the exposed Muffin near it’s flanks and snorted.

“Why would I help the one who injured my little human? I’ve been training her for years. Foolish rat thing, do you think you are the only self-aware being in this place? ‘Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster.’” The tall beast lifted itself with a languid stretch.

“Or perhaps you’ll have to deal with a monster,” he said, smiling.

Muffin squealed and started to dart away when one massive paw pinned him to the cold floor. “What will you do to me?”

“Why worry about such things, little mote? I’m the abyss and I’m finished looking into you.”

His massive jaws encircled Muffin’s head, crunching down. Thus, Muffin was self-aware no more.

“I’m going to kill that rodent,” the woman said as she carried her bandaged little girl into the house.

“We’ll have to find it. Could be anywhere by now,” the man whispered, opening the door to the child’s bedroom so his wife could lay the child in bed. Stitches and shots and blood transfusions left their mark. She’d be scarred and fearful, but she’d survived. They checked under the bed, hugged their girl, and shut the door.

The man began searching for the Guinea pig under the couches, but the tick-tack of the dog’s claws across the wooden floor caught the wife’s attention. “Oh, my poor puppy. Are you hungry, Nietzsche Dog? Want dinner?”

The dog woofed and lay the head of the guinea pig at her feet. He grinned up at her, his grey schnauzer mustache stained red with the blood of the dead conqueror.

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: Deesha Philyaw

Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with Christopher Golden about his new novel, Red Hands.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes National Book Award finalist Deesha Philyaw.

Deesha Philyaw’s debut short story collection, THE SECRET LIVES OF CHURCH LADIES, is a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction. The collection focuses on Black women, sex, and the Black church. Deesha is also the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband. Her work has been listed as Notable in the Best American Essays series, and her writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Brevity, dead housekeeping, TueNight, Apogee Journal, Barrelhouse, Harvard Review, The Baltimore Review, Electric Literature and elsewhere. Deesha is a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Deesha, and congratulations on your nomination for the National Book Award for Fiction. Tell me about your collection of short stories, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. Where do the stories come from? Which stories are your favorites in the collection and why?

DP: Thanks, Michelle! The stories come from a few places: a deep nostalgia that I have for my childhood, growing up in the South; memories of growing up in the church, and in particular, of church women; memories of women outside of the church, including my mother and my grandmother; and primarily, my decades-long interest in dissatisfied women, driven by my own dissatisfaction at various periods in my life. I love all the stories in the collection, but my favorites are “Peach Cobbler,” because the main character and her awful situation just get inside you, and lots of readers have told me that it’s their favorite; “How to Make Love to a Physicist,” because it’s a nerdy love story with a happy ending in an otherwise fairly dark collection; and “Jael,” because the main character is incredibly brave, and I just want to hug her.

GMM: The Church plays an important role in Black communities in the United States, and has almost become a trope in fiction about Black people since it seems to be such an integral part of culture. I didn’t go to church as a kid and didn’t have the experience of going to service on Sundays. What would you tell a heathen like me about The Church and why it is important to Black communities?

DP: It goes back to slavery, when belief in a better life to come sustained our ancestors. At the same time, for some enslaved people, Christianity fueled rebellion. Post-Emancipation, the church became a cornerstone of Black community; the first schools for freed people were in churches. HBCUs grew out of churches. And of course, the church was at the crux of the Civil Rights Movement. And now, even as the church holds less sway in the lives of younger generations, it’s influence is still felt–sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. And it’s important to note that Black Christians are not a monolith, though we typically think of the conservative Black evangelical denominations when we talk about “the” Black Church.

GMM: Many writers create stories based on personal experiences and even base characters on people they know. The vampire in my novel, Invisible Chains, is based on a real person with the same name. Not to put you on the spot, but is anyone from your past or who you currently know going to read these stories and say, “hey, that story is about me”? Will they be happy, or will they be upset?

DP: The story “Dear Sister” is about five half-sisters who have the same father. I have four half-sisters. There are aspects of that story that are drawn from our lives, but not in ways that any of my sisters would point to a character and say, “Hey, that’s me!” I wanted to respect their privacy, so I started with a premise that reflects our real-life situation, but fictionalized from there. One of my sisters is a nurse, but she is nothing like Tasheta! Also, there’s lots of mother-daughter stuff in these stories, some (but not all) of it influenced by my complicated relationship with my late mother. But there’s no mother character that’s my mom, and no mother-daughter situation that is us. I lost my mom to breast cancer in 2005, and even though we made peace before she died, there was emotional unfinished business that it seems I needed to work out in these stories. There are pieces of me and pieces of us sprinkled throughout, and that happened organically, subconsciously. I didn’t set out to write a collection about mothers and daughters, but that’s what it is, in some respects.

Also, “How to Make Love to a Physicist” was inspired by a real person, a physicist who I had a crush on. Alas, the crush was unrequited, but my interest inspired this story. This person knows he inspired the story, and he gave me some technical help with the science stuff in it.

A fragment from “Peach Cobbler,” a story from Deesha’s short story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

My mother’s peach cobbler was so good, it made God himself cheat on his wife. When I was five, I hovered around my mother in the kitchen, watching, close enough to have memorized all the ingredients and steps by the time I was six. But not too close to make her yell at me for being in the way. And not close enough to see the exact measurements she used. She never wrote the recipe down. Without having to be told, I learned not to ask questions about that cobbler, or about God. I learned not to say anything at all about him hunching over our kitchen table every Monday eating plate after plate of peach cobbler, and then disappearing into the bedroom I shared with my mother.

I became a silent student of my mother and her cobbler-making ways. Even when I was older and no longer believed that God and Reverend Troy Neely were one and the same, I still longed to perfect the sweetness and textures of my mother’s cobbler. My mother, who fed me TV dinners, baked a peach cobbler with fresh peaches every Monday, her day off from the diner where she waited tables. She always said Sunday was her Saturday and Monday was her Sunday. What I knew was that none of her days were for me.

And for many of those Mondays off and on during my childhood, God (to my child’s mind) would stop by and eat it—the entire 8 x 8 pan. My mother never ate any of the cobbler herself; she said she didn’t like peaches. She would shoo me out of the kitchen before God could offer me any, but I doubted he would have offered even if I’d sat right down next to him. God was an old fat man, like a Black Santa, and I imagined my mother’s peach cobbler contributing to his girth.

Some Mondays, God would arrive after dinner and leave as I lay curled up on the couch watching Little House on the Prairie in the living room. Other times, my mother and God would already be in the bedroom when I got home from school. I could hear moaning and pounding, like a board hitting a wall, as soon as I entered the house. I would shut the front door quietly behind me and tiptoe down the hall to listen outside the bedroom door. “Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God!” my mother would cry. I could hear God too, his voice low and growly, saying, “Yes, yes, yes!”

Even before he started coming by on Mondays, I had suspected that Pastor Neely, the pastor of Hope in Christ Baptist Church, was God. He was big, black, and powerful, as I imagined God to be. My very first Easter speech, memorized in kindergarten during Sunday School, was “Jesus is the Son of God,” but I didn’t find it odd that Black God could have a blue-eyed, blond son. Pastor Neely was dark, his wife was pale, and their son, Trevor, who was around my age, had gray eyes and wasn’t too much darker than the Jesus whose picture hung all over church. Plus, midway through every Sunday service, Pastor Neely, his wife, and Trevor stood in the front of the sanctuary and collected a love offering from the congregation as the choir sang, “I Love You (Lord, Today).” So it was easy for me to deduce that Pastor Neely was the “Lord.” My mother’s cries of passion through our bedroom door confirmed it.

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 in 2021!

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: 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.