Fiction Fragments: Michael Burke

Last week, I spoke with Gabriela Vargas about feminism, poetry, and why you should submit your work for publication. And this week, I am happy to welcome comic book aficionado and speculative fiction writer, Michael Burke.

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Michael Burke was born and raised in Massachusetts. His love of books was sparked by finding his father’s stash of pulp hero novels at a young age. The lurid, frenetic art of Frank Frazetta captivated his imagination and he needed to know what was happening to the characters behind those covers.

A Spider-Man comic book purchased for him by his father was his steady companion as he taught himself to read. This effort was not only rewarded by finally discovering what happened to those pulp heroes but also with a lifelong love of the comic book medium.

He co-founded the comic book store, Comicazi in 2000. It has won several Best Of Boston awards and in 2017, won the prestigious Eisner Spirit Of Retail award. Michael is also a licensed pharmacy technician. He has had all manner of jobs in his life ranging from painter to photographer to bouncer to roadie to office work to construction. He still does not know what he wants to be when he grows up but he’s enjoying the ride. Through it all, he has written and told stories. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, the best story he’s ever been a part of.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Michael. Comic books have a reputation of being one of the first forms of fiction children become connected with as readers. Comics have obviously had a positive impact on your life, how have they influenced your writing? What titles would you recommend to kids who are reluctant to pick up a book?

MB: Hi Michelle. Thank you for having me. Comic books have definitely impacted my life in a positive way. My dad saw my interest at a very young age. I had found a shoebox full of his paperbacks. Conan, Tarzan, Executioner, Doc Savage. In the late 60s, lots of those pulp-era characters had been reprinted by publishers. The covers captivated me. He fostered that interest and got me a Spider-Man comic book. He and my mom helped teach me to read when they could but I was ravenous and forged ahead on my own.

That early exposure to comics helped my reading comprehension at an early age and propelled my interest in seeking out all manner of reading material. My formative years were spent with my head buried in books and comics. I’ve loved the comic medium my whole life. I started writing my own stories in third grade; they were very much influenced by the comic characters I was reading. When I was ten-years-old I even created my own superhero complete with origin and costume design and mailed it off to Marvel Comics. I never made a copy of that, darn it! On some level, I feel that I’ve always written with that certain measure of bombast inherent in comics. Well, super-hero comics. As I got older and my tastes expanded, I saw that comics could tell even more stories.

One of the reasons comics are great is that they’re unique in that they have always both influenced and reflected popular culture. I daresay that I would not have read half as many of the books that I have if it weren’t for comics. And, of course, my passion for comics lead me to co-founding a comic book store. We focus our efforts on building and maintaining community and welcoming all with open arms. Some of my favorite recollections of time in the shop are of speaking with new fans of the medium and of talking with kids.

There are scores of comic titles to recommend to kids today. Far more choices than there were for me as a kid. Our shop has a large all-ages section we keep well-stocked. Lots of families come in and kids from pre-school to teenage come in. I’d recommend the Amulet series by Kazu Kabuishi; any of the books by Raina Telgemeier (Guts; Smile; Sisters; Drama; Ghosts); Nimona by Noelle Stevenson; Bone by Jeff Smith. There are plenty of Star Wars Adventures digests for younger readers because, let’s face it, most kids like Star Wars at some point. There’s always an audience for the standby titles like Disney characters and Archie and Classics Illustrated. There’s really no shortage of comic titles that a kid can get started reading.

GMM: Tell me about your fragment. Who is Ahanu, and where will his journey lead him? Can you share a synopsis of the story without giving away too many spoilers? What inspired this story?

MB: My excerpt is from a novella that I’m writing. It’s called A Parliament of Owls. It’s a sword-and-sorcery tale with horror elements and influenced by Native American folklore. I struck upon the idea last year and wrote it as a short story for my writing group. I got tons of constructive feedback and with that, plus the notes I took, I realized that this was a longer story. I’ve been sitting on it for a bit, letting it simmer in the back of my head, as I worked on other things. But it’s ready to come out now.

The inspiration for the story is very much from my love of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. My dad’s old paperbacks were definitely the fuel for this. Sword-and-sorcery is a subset of fantasy; it has elements of the supernatural present and the tales are often fast-paced, placing the protagonist in a personal struggle. They’re often set in a semi-mythic realm, although there can sometimes be some historical aspects present. The stories do not deal with earth-shattering problems and epic dangers like Lord of the Rings and other high fantasy sagas.

Ahanu Foxcloud is a young man, barely twenty, and an orphan. His mother was a powerful witch with a mysterious past. This fact put her at odds with the elders of her tribe. Ahanu wants to know more about his mother but feels stymied by the village council. He also feels like an outcast among his own people. There may be a reason for that and some of that may be his own insecurities. There’s a young girl in the village, Halyn, that he sees as a sister. She keeps him on an even keel. Ahanu often butts heads with authority and is frustrated by the traditions his people follow when he imagines a larger world beyond his own.

The world makes itself known as even larger than he could have imagined when Halyn and other children go missing. Ahanu scoffs at the explanation given to him for this and sets out on his own to discover what happened. That confrontation will expand his horizons and teach him a thing or two about growing up.

I plan on writing several short stories about Ahanu and his adventures. I’m starting to flesh out the world I want to have him populate and having fun doing so. Looking into more Native American mythology to help influence further adventures has been very interesting and I look forward to adding more of these components. As I move forward with Ahanu, I plan on teasing out facts of his mother’s past and how that ties in with the character that I want him to become.

GMM: You write speculative fiction, but what genre is your favorite to read? Write? Why do you feel drawn to that genre? Is there a genre you enjoy reading but haven’t written in, and why?

MB: Oh gosh, that’s tough. I’ve followed a general pattern through my life. It started with my dad’s Conan and Tarzan books. Those lead me to other books by those authors, of course, but after that, I read other fantasy and adventure books. From there, I moved into science fiction, then horror. Back to fantasy in the nineties when there was no end to those multi-book high fantasy series. Then it was urban fantasy and science fiction. Then mystery and horror. Those were the big beats and I tried other things that struck my fancy at the time. I’d have to say science fiction is probably my favorite to read. It’s a sprawling genre that hits many of my buttons. What I like about science fiction is that element of social commentary. When I was younger and reading works by Ursula K. LeGuin and watching Star Trek reruns and didn’t know the term “social commentary”. I liked thinking about the lesson it put forth.

My favorite genre to write is the first one I was exposed to. I’m having fun with Ahanu’s sword-and-sorcery tale. It just came a lot easier to me than other pieces I’ve written. Maybe because it’s been with me for so long. I love horror and science fiction, too, but I think I struggle a bit more with those genres.

I’ve read a lot of detective/mystery stuff. Parker’s Spenser; the Burke series from Andrew Vacchs; the classic authors of the genre: Chandler, Hammett. Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Poirot. I’m really digging Walter Mosley’s Leonid McGill character right now. I like a lot of it but I’ve never attempted to write a mystery. As I travel along my writing path, I’m beginning to find the value in outlining my stories. Typically, I imagine a scene/idea and just write. A friend of mine calls it “discovery writing”. I know there are writers who do it that way and there are writers who outline and there’s probably a number who fall somewhere in between. There’s no right or wrong way to write your tale. But I don’t think I’ve tried my hand at a mystery because I feel that it would require more of an outline style than my discovery method. Perhaps as I settle into a writing method that works best for me, I’ll give a mystery tale a shot one day.

Excerpt from PARLIAMENT OF OWLS

A gibbous moon filled the sky, its eerie half-light falling between the canopy of branches above Ahanu’s campsite. The air had only cast off some of the day’s humidity; the night was close and thick. Low sounds echoed throughout the forest as nocturnal creatures stalked. The campfire sputtered low. Ahanu sat with his back to a big stump and gazed into the dying flames, worry gnawing at his gut. The past day filled his mind. Anger and fear continued their hold on him as images of Moki and the elders sneered at him. His mother had always been at odds with Moki and he knew, just knew, that they had it in for him.

Dim remembrances of his long-gone mother replaced the angry visages of the tribal leaders. Feelings, more truly. A sense of comfort. He was so young when she was taken, it was all he could do to keep her face in his memory.

That melancholy flowed into the reason he was out here in the woods. He had to find Halyn. She had been gone too long. And she was little older than he was when he lost his mother. She was as a sister.

Grim thoughts stayed with him as his head lolled. His eyes drifted shut and the fire sparked its last.

An indeterminate time passed. The moon kept its counsel. All was tranquil.

A feminine trill whispered through the darkness. The night fell quiet. Ahanu breathed deeper but did not stir.

Again, that soft sound. Kijiru awoke and snorted, head and tail high.

“Easy, girl,” Ahanu opened his eyes. “What is it?” he clambered to his feet, grabbing his axe from the ground as he rose. He walked to the mare, all the while his amber eyes darted. He whispered reassuringly to the horse but she was uneasy.

The fire had died but the high moon cast more than enough light, albeit the effect through the trees made it appear some manner of spectral plane. The heavy, humid night air leant a certain lethargy to Ahanu’s movements. His head was still fogged with sleep. He stood beside Kijiru, slowly brushing his hand through her brown mane.

A long, low rasp sounded. It sounded very much like a sharp blade being dragged across a stone. Ahanu started, tightening his grip on the axe handle. Kijiru shuffled her feet. He moved from the horse, looking about. That sound worried at the edges of his memory but he could not recall the context. He moved about the site in a slow circle, eyes trained into the dark.

A short, vibratory song called next, almost as if a caged bird were nearby. Ahanu saw nothing. The fine hairs on his arm stood straight and he felt a cold tickle at the base of his neck.

“I bid thee greetings, O man” a soft voice came from the dark. It seemed to come from all directions at once.

Ahanu whipped his head about left and right, trying to ascertain the voice’s origin. “Who goes there?”

“Just a wanderer of the wood. I saw your fire and thought to avail myself of a fellow wayfarer’s kindness,” the voice crooned. It seemed to come from his left.

Ahanu’s thoughts felt sluggish. He stood a moment, determining if this were a dream. He shook cobwebs from his mind and glanced at the ashes of the campfire. It was dead.

“My fire, eh? When was that?”

“Do you not offer hospitality to another traveler, then?” The voice was now behind him.

Ahanu whirled, his knuckles white on his axe handle. “Step forward, woman, if woman, you be, and not some damned forest spirit!”

A slight glimmer of motion rippled in the corner of his eye. He turned to his right and took a step in that direction. Kijiru whinnied nervously. Ahanu’s eyes widened as a face materialized from the dark. Ice-white tresses cascaded in a silvery frame about a beautiful face. Eyes darker than arboreal shadows regarded him coldly. Ahanu stopped, awestruck.

He stared, enrapt, following the bodiless face as it moved about the campsite. He dimly noted that it was odd how the face would sometimes change in height as it moved. Almost as if it were a bird alighting on branches.

“No forest spirit am I, but a woman.” A note of anger sounded deep in her voice. “And you would do well to accord me respect.”

Ahanu retreated a step, superstitious fear driving him back. He considered his next words but held his tongue. The face had not moved. It hovered, ghostly, in the moonlight.

“Well? Boy.” The word dripped from cruel lips.

The tableau held for several moments until Kijiru let loose with a loud snort. Ahanu blinked hard and in a fluid motion, hurled his near-forgotten axe at the apparition.

A horrible hiss sounded and the lovely visage winked out like a blown candle flame. Ahanu heard heavy wings and could swear he glimpsed a dark form take flight. He shook his head in an effort to clear his dazzled vision.

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: Lucy A. Snyder

Last week, I talked with writer and film maker, Jeff Carroll, about Hip Hop horror and sci-fi fiction. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Lucy A. Snyder. I met Lucy while earning my MFA in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University. She was my second mentor in the program. Her guidance, support, and dark sense of humor helped me finish writing my thesis novel and I couldn’t be happier with the results.

Lucy4Lucy A. Snyder is the Shirley Jackson Award-nominated and five-time Bram Stoker Award-winning author of over 100 published short stories and 12 books. Her most recent titles are the collection Garden of Eldritch Delights and the forthcoming novel The Girl With the Star-Stained Soul. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Asimov’s Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, Nightmare Magazine, Pseudopod, Strange Horizons, and Best Horror of the Year. You can learn more about her at www.lucysnyder.com and you can follow her on Twitter at @LucyASnyder.

Three Questions

GMM: You mentioned that this fragment is from a novel that is being serialized at Eyedolon Magazine. Is the process of writing and submitting chapters of a novel as you complete them easier than submitting a completed novel? What is the writing process like? Are you typically a linear writer? What have you learned from this experience?

LAS: In some ways it’s harder, but in some ways it’s easier. One advantage to submitting a novel a chapter or two at a time is that I have to maintain good plot tension for every section I submit. It’s a built-in way of avoiding middle-of-the-book narrative sag! Another advantage is that I get regular editorial feedback, so if something seems to be going off the rails I get questions about that and I can address potential problems early before they’re entrenched.

A disadvantage is that I’m 75% a plotter, but 25% a discovery writer. One thing I discovered, ten chapters in, is that I needed another major character. Fortunately, I was able to introduce her in a way that would make sense to the readers who’d been following the serial, but I also went back and edited the existing novel to foreshadow her arrival so that she’s a presence from the very first chapter.

I am typically a linear writer; I think writing a serial would be much harder if I were not. Or anyway I’d probably need to finish much more of the novel ahead of time. Right now, Broken Eye Books is pretty much publishing sections as I complete them, although I’ll probably get further ahead in coming months because of the limitations of their publishing schedule.

GMM: What is a Lovecraftian space opera? Can you define the elements of this cross genre? Are there any tropes that readers of science fiction can easily identify? What makes a piece of fiction Lovecraftian?

LAS: It’s pretty much what it says on the tin: it’s a space opera with Lovecraftian themes.

Space opera, which has become more popular in recent years, is a science fictional narrative set in space (or on other planets) that focuses on adventure, epic battles, futuristic technology, etc. Star Wars is space opera, for instance. So it should be a fairly familiar subgenre to most readers!

Lovecraftian fiction refers to stories or novels that use elements from Lovecraft’s fiction, particularly aspects of the Cthulhu mythos he created. Look for references to Elder Gods, tentacled horrors, madness-inducing knowledge, cosmic terrors, cults, fish gods, and general doom for mankind. Lovecraft’s influences have worked their way into a whole lot of science fiction and horror. Stranger Things has some strong Lovecraftian themes in it, and The Shape of Water contains several nods to Lovecraft’s work.

In my novel, the narrative takes place after the spawn of Azathoth (a deep-space deity in the Cthulhu mythos) invade Earth and wreak a variety of horrors. My protagonists, Joe and Bea, were physically and psychologically transformed by their experiences with the spawn, and they’ve been sent into space as part of a special mission to hunt down the spawn’s hives on other planets and destroy them to eliminate any further threat to our planet.

GMM: Over the past several years, there has been quite a bit of controversy over whether or not we should be honoring the work of H. P. Lovecraft due to his racist beliefs. How do you approach a piece of fiction that mimics the work of Lovecraft and make it something wholly your own as someone who is very much against racism?

LAS: I’ve written a lot of stories and several novels that are inspired by and are in dialog with Lovecraft’s fiction. That’s a different thing than mimicking or honoring his fiction. I am often inspired by things that appall me or anger me.

Lovecraft’s fiction, like Lovecraft himself, is complicated. Yes, there is a whole lot of xenophobia and racism — so much, in fact, that I’ve heard some critics claim that you can’t separate xenophobia from Lovecraft’s work. My take on that is that it’s entirely possible to write a piece of Lovecraftian fiction that doesn’t contain a trace of xenophobia. Or, you could write a narrative that addresses his racism directly and critically, as Victor LaValle does in The Ballad of Black Tom, which is a razor-sharp response to Lovecraft’s most notoriously racist story (“The Horror at Red Hook”). But LaValle’s novella also employs plenty of the kind of mind-blowing cosmic horror that made Lovecraft’s work memorable in the first place.

Lovecraft himself openly borrowed a whole lot of ideas from other writers: Lord Dunsany, Ambrose Bierce, M.R. James, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Edgar Allan Poe, and Robert Chambers (Ramsey Campbell’s gonna argue with me about the influence Chambers had; regardless, Chambers’ King in Yellow mythos has been absorbed into the Cthulhu mythos). Lovecraft in turn encouraged his writer friends to work with his worlds and he collaborated with other authors. So Lovecraftian fiction is much more than what Lovecraft himself wrote, and it’s been that way from the beginning.

I think of Lovecraftian fiction as a microcosm of genre fiction as a whole. We can all point to classic horror or science fiction stories that are racist, ableist, misogynistic … or just plain horribly written. Those cringey parts are not a reason to abandon those genres. They’re a reason to read the classics critically, identify why they’re awful … but also why they captured people’s imaginations in the first place. And then it’s on us to take the good, engage critically with the bad, and use that as a jumping-off place to write even better stories and novels for our readers.

Excerpt from Blossoms Blackened Like Dead Stars, by Lucy A. Snyder

I rest my hand on the wrapped, dormant root ball as the autopiloted shuttle glides into the docking bay of the USS Flechette. The bay walls and deck are matte gray tarakium, same as all the other ships in the fleet. My dreams are turning this color. The shuttle lands with barely a bump, and after the clack of the pressure lock disengaging, the rear door slowly lowers with a hydraulic hiss. I unbuckle my flight harness and walk down the ramp, my booted steps light in the artificial gravity.

This is my first command. I feel a mix of pride and dread about being here, and I don’t even properly know where “here” is, at least not in relation to Earth. There’s only so much I can know about my own missions, just in case I’m compromised. Nobody tells me I can’t ever be fully trusted, but distrust is baked into every scenario I or any of the other “enhanced” personnel are involved with. And frankly, I don’t know if they can trust us, either.

It’s chilly on the flight deck, which is fine. Extreme temperatures don’t bother me nearly as much as they used to. The doctors tested me extensively after my transformation, and we discovered that I can handle temperatures of about 60°C without passing out and −10°C without suffering serious hypothermia or frostbite.

My spawn-hybridized cells produce a new polypeptide that acts as antifreeze in my blood and tissues. For one test, they entombed me in solid ice for over an hour. I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. Never lost consciousness thanks to my cells doing some dark-cycle chemosynthesis that produced enough oxygen to keep my brain working. If that sounds like a fun afternoon . . . it really, really wasn’t. Cold that doesn’t kill me still hurts plenty, and it turns out I’m more claustrophobic than I thought. But since there wasn’t enough air to breathe, there wasn’t enough air for me to start screaming, so I emerged from the frosty coffin with my dignity intact. I’ve gotten good at coping with whatever they do to me in the name of science or safety. I’ll certainly encounter worse out in space with the spawn; there is only so much evil that the human mind is capable of imagining.

There’s concern that the polypeptide might build up and damage my internal organs over time, but the only thing to do about it is wait and see. Nobody has any real idea of what condition my body will be in even a year from now. The unspoken worry, obviously, is that I’ll transform into a spawn and kill everyone around me. Betray everyone in the name of Azathoth.

Of course, my spore-laden breath means I’m likely to kill people purely by accident. But I’m far too useful to lock away in a research lab, and so far, I’ve passed all the psych evals. The brass decided to give me command of my own small ship, point me at the spawn, and hope for the best.

Eight android drones stand at attention on the flight deck, patiently waiting for me. They’re all the same drab, clay-white Boston Dynamics Xenophon model, clunky looking but dexterous. Each has a differently colored stripe around their torso so people can tell them apart when they’re turned around. Some have metallic colors, and I’m guessing that they hold mission-critical roles. Their human pilots’ faces are mapped onto the curved tarakium screens on their heads. The crewmembers are stationed light years away on warships or stations, linked to the drones by the new quantum paired network. They’re certain to lose their connections during hyperspace jumps, and I’ll probably never know where any of my crew actually are.

The irony of my command is that my crew will always know more about the brass’s plans than I do. One of them—I don’t know who—is authorized to take over the ship the moment I show signs of compromise. The situation would probably frustrate a lot of other commanders, but I never expected to be in charge of a ship. I had to take an alarmingly compressed command school curriculum in between the godawful medical tests. Honestly, I’m glad someone here is qualified to run things in case shit gets real. I’d have a raging case of impostor syndrome if I’d deliberately chosen any of this.

A human lieutenant commander stands behind the line of drones. My sole crewmate during jumps. I blink. At first glance, I thought he was wearing some kind of dark protective gear, but he isn’t. He towers a head above the androids, and his skin is crocodile rough, blackened as if he’s been charred by a fire. Is he even human? He’s wearing a short-sleeved uniform, and his arms, neck, and face look as if he’s been torn apart and put back together with steel staples.

As I stare, trying to make sense of what I’m seeing, recognition dawns. “Joe?”

His grisly face splits into a smile. “Yep, it’s me. Good to see you, Bea.”

“What happened?” I blurt before I can stop myself.

He gives a laugh like stones grinding together. “Long story. Let me introduce you to your Alpha crew.”

Do you have a fragment you’re dying to share with the world? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!