Fiction Fragments: Gemma Files

Last week I wrapped up my month-long celebration of black women horror writers for Women in Horror Month/Black History Month with an interview with Zin E. Rocklyn, a.k.a. Teri Clarke. If you haven’t had a chance to read all of the interviews I did last month, take some time and and get caught up now. These women have a lot to say about writing horror while black and female and how their personal experiences and intersectionalities have an impact on what they write about.

This week, Girl Meets Monster is back to business as usual, with a fragment and an interview with Gemma Files.

Formerly a film critic, journalist, screenwriter and teacher, Gemma Files has been an award-winning horror author since 1999. She has published four collections of short work, three collections of speculative poetry, a Weird Western trilogy, a story-cycle and a stand-alone novel (Experimental Film, which won the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel and the 2016 Sunburst Award for Best Adult Novel). She has a new story collection just out from Grimscribe Press (In This Endlessness, Our End), and another upcoming.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Gemma. Thank you for taking time to chat with me a bit. Tell me about your newest collection of stories, In This Endlessness, Our End. Is there an overarching theme, or threads that connect the stories? Are all of the stories new, or are there some reprints? How do you decide which stories to include? Did you have a plan in mind when you started the collection?

GF: So, the funny thing is that as it turned out, all the stories in this collection were essentially written—finished, at any rate—within the time-period from about a year before Trump’s election to almost the end of his (hopefully only) term in office. The fact that they were originally intended to be published by my former home imprint, ChiZine Publications, which suddenly and acrimoniously collapsed in November of 2019, is also interesting, in hindsight; so is the fact that Jon Padgett at Grimscribe chose to pick the book up during a global pandemic. Which means that the overarching theme of all these stories is the sort of fear you feel when the world you think you know tilts on you in a way which only seems “sudden” at the moment it happens, as well as the guilt and grief which come when you realize you saw [this, whatever “this” is] coming from miles away, and simply chose to ignore those warning signs as they mounted because…well, because you wanted to. Because you liked your life, and the illusions it was rooted in. Because you hoped things had gotten better, and you forgot that every ten years, a generation comes of age who haven’t lived through the same things you have, so they have to have experiences which will prove the same basic facts about human nature over and over and over again. Etc.

It’s easy to say, of course, that the theme of every horror collection is fear. But I do find it oddly significant that the first story in the TOC—“This Is How It Goes”—happens to be set during the aftermath of a body horror plague that rips around the world like a creepypasta come true, moving from urban myth/internet rumour to immediate reality within forty-eight hours at the most. When I read it on The Outer Dark Podcast recently, I called it a “pre-pandemic post-pandemic tale.” So, these particular stories ring with a very current sort of fear, for me. Whether other people will see it that way as well is up to them, I guess.

The stories are all reprints, basically, though because I often get published in fairly obscure places, I expect that a lot of them will be new to most readers aside from those solicited by people like Ellen Datlow (“Cut Frame,” from her Hollywood Horror anthology Final Cuts; “The Puppet Motel,” from Echoes: The Saga Anthology of Ghost Stories). And no, I didn’t have this in mind when I put the book together, it just shook out that way. The one thing I have in common with the Joker is I’m not much of a planner.

GMM: So, you mention that you’ve written a story-cycle and a Weird Western series. What is the difference between a story-cycle and a series, and how does your process change from project to project–short stories versus stand-alone novels versus a series, etc.? Do you decide on what shape your stories will take before you write them, or do the stories evolve into the appropriate length to fit the story as you write them?

GF: The Weird Western series—my Hexslinger books—basically filled in a three-act, chapter-driven narrative over three separate novels. I’d made an outline at the very beginning for what I thought would be one book (A Book of Tongues), only to find that by the time I’d written 100,000 words I’d only gotten to what was fairly obviously the first break-point; I kept to that outline throughout, moving through it linearly, as if I was writing a trilogy of screenplays. The story-cycle, on the other hand—We Will All Go Down Together: Stories of the Five-Family Coven—was built around a base of stories reprinted and slightly polished from earlier in my career, ones which inhabited an urban paranormal universe I only slowly realized was anchored by the same cast of characters, all of whom were literally related to each other. I sprinkled them through in non-linear order, introducing those characters and the five families they belonged to as I went, while also writing/finishing four new novellas that made these connections clear and brought the overall story to a climax. I like to call it my Alice Munro book, except with evil angels, witches, monster-killing nuns and the Fae.

As for whether I made either of those decisions strategically…yeah, not really. Sometimes I think the only method I have for knowing if a story is finished is: “Does it feel ‘right?’ Okay, then.” I do know that with the Five-Family Coven stuff, I essentially wanted to prove to myself that polite, clean Toronto, Canada could be just as dark, weird and potentially awful as any other city written about from that angle by one of its citizens. It started out as what I called my Toronto Dark phase, then got more and more complicated, like a bunch of in-jokes which grew legs and started to walk on their own. And even now, I still continue to use that universe as the back-story of a lot of my more recent tales; a minor character from We Will All Go Down Together plays a main role in “Cut Frame,” for example, plus a minor role in “The Puppet Motel.” It’s there if you look for it. 

Otherwise, the shape of a story is usually dictated by the voice of the person who’s telling it, or the perspective of the person who’s living it. My plots are often a little more complicated than they need to be, but I don’t believe that plot and character can be completely separated. It’s not just “this happened,” it’s “this happened, because someone did something.” As Bill Duke says in Menace 2 Society, speaking for/to almost all my protagonists, “You know you fucked up, right?”

GMM: Why horror? What draws you to the genre? Have you written in other genres? What do you like most about horror as a writer? As a reader? After winning the Shirley Jackson Award, did you automatically feel like a bonafide horror writer, or do you still struggle with impostor syndrome? Has winning awards changed you as a writer?

GF: A deep and sparkling darkness has always been what draws me towards the things I love, at least in terms of art. I mean, I started out ostensibly liking science fiction, but soon figured out A) what I liked was actually space opera, because B) I’m really not that great with science, outside the purely biological. Also, my formative life was full of fear, so horror seemed like “home” to me…normal, natural, understandable.

Part of my journey after my son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder was coming to realize that if a diagnosis of Asperger’s had been something people were looking for (in girls, or at all) back when I was at my worst as a kid, I might well have gotten one. I’m 52 now, so I’ve worked very hard to pass as neurotypical, but most of my life has been spent second-guessing my own instincts and berating myself for being born somehow “wrong.” The fact that that alone doesn’t make me super-different from a lot of other similarly diverse people isn’t lost on me, either; I’ve gotten away with a lot over the years, on account of reading as a typical cishet white lady. But again, I think it still has a lot to do with me feeling as if horror is the place where all the non-default people can meet, a place where becoming or realizing you’ve always been what most people see as “a monster” might not be such a bad thing.

“…horror is the place where all the non-default people can meet, a place where becoming or realizing you’ve always been what most people see as “a monster” might not be such a bad thing.”

I spent my high school years reading Tanith Lee, Peter Straub and Clive Barker, my university years reading Caitlin R. Kiernan, Billy Martin (then Poppy Z. Brite) and Kathe Koja. My favourite movies were things like Nightbreed and Near Dark, stuff about found families bound together by hunger rather than affinity. And all of this stuff came together in my writing, which from the very beginning was dictated by the old adage that if you can’t find what you want in the world, you may well be forced to make some. One of the things I’ve become very proud of, over the years, is the idea that I’ve somehow indulged or inspired other people doing the same thing, giving way to their own ids/needs and letting the devil drive. Someone told me once that my story “Kissing Carrion” told her it was okay for women to do that, and I was like: “Oh, the story about a woman who makes a puppets out of a human corpse so she can fuck her necrophile boyfriend with it, while the ghost that used to be the corpse hovers nearby invisibly going WHAAAATTTT?!? Cool!” I’m down for monster pride in any and every form.

Winning the Shirley Jackson Award for Experimental Film was a huge surprise, but that was also absolutely the award I knew I’d be happiest winning, because I’ve never pretended to be anything but a horror writer. Even my fantasy is always “dark”; even my nonfiction is always Weird. As Yukio Mishima put it, my heart’s yearning has always been to night, and death, and blood. But yeah, imposter syndrome truly doesn’t go away. I fight it by writing to a deadline, writing like it’s a job, and never fooling myself into thinking that the stuff which comes out of me is somehow so pure and beautiful it doesn’t need to be cut, tweaked or otherwise rewritten. Things can always get better, and an outside eye is a gift.

500+ WORDS OF SOMETHING NEW

Gemma Files

One thing a job like mine teaches is that people will say all sorts of things when they’re dying. It’s like the process breaks something open inside them, some long-buried infectious reservoir, a quick-draining sick-pocket. They don’t even have to know what’s happening, let alone accept it; they might still be entirely convinced they’ll survive, but it doesn’t matter. A sort of punch-drunkenness takes over, an irrepressible urge to confess.

 “I put my hand under the pillow, and that’s where I found it,” Mrs Camp told me, one morning, as I stripped her mattress so I could check it for night-sweat and all sorts of other fluids. “Then it bit down, so I couldn’t get it out again.”

“Found what, ma’am?” I asked, only half-listening. Wet bedsheets I could deal with; did, almost every day, and hardly just with her. It was sponging down the rubber mattress covers that always took up the most time, because we had to move the clients while they dried; bleach on urine never is the best smell, and it does tend to stick around. Some of (the bulk of) the lazy fools I worked with would just stick whoever they’d cleaned up for back in bed immediately, ignoring the fact that bedsores don’t react any better when crossed with cleaning product than feeble lungs do when exposed to corrosive funk. But screw it—no matter how much I longed to get shed of this job, I was determined to at least be a little better at it than those assholes.

“A mouth, wide open, like I said already. With teeth.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound good,” I told her, to which she smiled, revealing her own teeth.They looked like a busted-up china doll’s.

“No, it does not. Are you married, Kevin?”

“KeVon, ma’am. And no.”

“Oh, that’s a shame, then—big, good-looking fellow like you. I bet you’ve made a fair deal of women cry, in your time.”

Probably, I thought, the faces of all those poor girls I’d “dated” in high school suddenly coming back to me in a weird sort of flip-book flash, fluttering across my inner eye before breaking apart against the hard bone bell of my skull, disappearing into darkness. But not ’cause I wanted to, no, ma’am. Only ’cause I wasn’t strong enough yet to know who I really was, let alone to say it. 

“I do try not to, ma’am,” I told her, angling her wheelchair next to the flower-pots where I knew she liked it best. Those gardenias, heads bent over and dripping, plumped up fulsome on the very edge of decay. You could just see her faded eyes light up at the sight of them.

“Beautiful,” she told me. “Oh, Kevin. There’s still a whole lot to love in this world, isn’t there? Even now. Even here.”

“Yes, ma’am, there sure is.”

She nodded, sunk in thought. Then whispered, almost to herself, as I was turning back to see what might or might not yet be on offer from the kitchen: “But then the sun goes down and the lights go out. Then I go out, and they come in.”

At that last part, my heart gave a strange little leap, tapping itself against my breastbone like it was knocking on some door hid inside my chest. “Who’s that, ma’am?” I asked her, standing there with my hip thrown out so awkward it hurt, but not quite able to go on to my next step ’til she replied.

(God only knew, the membrane between sleep and death certainly did seem to stretch thin enough to see things through, sometimes, in life’s very last stages. Things you shouldn’t be able to see, under more normal circumstances.)

Mrs Camp just kept on staring at those damn flowers, though, like she was waiting for them to speak instead. “Oh, nothing at all, I’m sure, Kevin,” was all she said, at last. “Must be I’m being silly—mixing stuff up. Old people do that, you know.”

“Yes ma’am,” I agreed. “And young people too, on occasion.”

She nodded and lowered what she had left for lashes, then threw me a glance I’d’ve surely called flirty if she weren’t terminal, and knew herself to be so.

“Mmm-hmm,” she said. “That’s surely true.”

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.

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.