Fiction Fragments: Curtis M. Lawson

Last week I had a great conversation with Steven Van Patten about vampires and what it means to write horror while black.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Curtis M. Lawson.

Curtis M. Lawson is a writer of unapologetically weird dark fiction and poetry. His work includes DEVIL’S NIGHT, BLACK HEART BOYS’ CHOIR, and IT’S A BAD, BAD, BAD, BAD WORLD.

Curtis is a member of the Horror Writer’s Association, and the host of the Wyrd Transmissions podcast.

Social Media:
curtismlawson.com
@curtismlawson on Instagram 
@c_lawson on twitter  
facebook.com/curtismlawson

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Curtis. Since we timed this post just right for the release of your new book, Devil’s Night, tell me about the book. Why Devil’s Night instead of Halloween? Why Detroit? How do the short stories in this collection connect to each other?

CML: The book is a collection of loosely connected stories that take place over the course of Devil’s Night, 1987 in Detroit. They explore different urban legends, traditions, and draw upon the troubled history of the city.

Joe Morey at Weird House Press approached me with the idea of putting together a themed collection. One of his suggestions was a Halloween theme. I considered this, but there are a lot of Halloween books out there and I wanted to do something a little different. I’d always been intrigued with the concept of Devil’s Night, going back to the first time I saw The Crow, so I suggested we go with that, and pitched it with the additional hook of the stories intertwining to a degree, kind of like a Sin City vibe.

Detroit is the only place that ever took Devil’s Night or Mischief Night, or whatever you want to call it, to such an extreme. It also has a rich history
and is steeped in urban myth and folklore. There’s a gothic element to the city’s story that appeals to me too – the concept of a once great city that offered economic, technological, and artistic promise but fell into ruin.

As for how the stories connect, there is a mix of thematic and narrative links. Fire, crime, and poverty are fixtures in many of the stories. The myth of the Nain Rouge manifests in various interpretations. Characters in one story are referenced in another, sometimes in a subtle way, sometimes more direct.

And then there is the overall story that the smaller stories tell. Each of the pieces in the book help to form the tale of a single night, shared by many.
I actually chose the order of the stories so that there was a steady thematic shift, but I doubt anyone else will notice. I tend to do stuff like that a lot, more for my own satisfaction and amusement than anything else.

GMM: Which Motor City urban legends inspired you the most, and how much research went into recreating them in fiction? Which one scares you the most?

CML: The legend of the Nain Rouge definitely impacted Devil’s Night the most. Also called The Hobgoblin of Michigan, it is intrinsically tied to the land. The are stories of the Nain Rouge going back to the founder of Detroit and its history seems to be a hybridization of French and Native American myths that symbolize the history of the city very well.

One of the things I enjoy about myths and legends is that various accounts are often incomplete and contradictory. That makes them more mysterious and murky, which I find appealing. I tried to draw off that, using the Nain Rouge in different roles throughout the stories. Sometimes the monster is an omen of terrible things to come. Sometimes it is an active antagonist. Other times it is an unlikely benefactor.

I did a lot of research for this book, not just the folklore, but also the history and geography of Detroit. It was important to me to not only draw upon
the actual myth, culture, and history of the city, but also to approach it with honesty and respect. There are a lot of pitfalls that you can fall into when writing about a city with a history of racial division, poverty, crime, and violence. This goes double when you’re doing so as a middle-class white man who grew up in Boston of all places. I don’t believe in shying away from difficult topics, but I think it is imperative that they are approached in good faith and with as much accurate information as possible.

What myth scared me the most? Easily, the Hobo Pig Lady. Interestingly, I couldn’t find a single written source for this myth, even online. I had several Detroit natives tell me different versions of the urban legend, however, each of them terrifying.

GMM: The cover art for this collection is beautiful and spooky. Who designed the cover? How important is cover art? Can you really judge a book by its cover? What are some of the worst cover art designs you’ve seen on books you actually love?

CML: Luke Spooner of Carrion House did the artwork. I had worked with him on my novel Black Heart Boys’ Choir and I was wildly impressed with his work and his professionalism. When Joe asked who I wanted for this, Luke was the first and only name I mentioned.

Not only did Luke produce the incredible cover for Devil’s Night, he also drew nine full-page interior illustrations, which are all in full color in the limited edition hardcover.

Cover art is important to me. I wrote, colored, lettered, and published comics for ten years before shifting my focus to prose. As such, I place a high value on not just the technical quality of the art, but it’s ability to convey story, theme, and emotion.

You can’t always judge a book by its cover, but you can measure how much value the publisher/author puts on their own product. If I see an amatuer cover my first thought is “this person doesn’t care enough to put a decent package on their work, so why should I care about it?” Sure, sometimes they might lack artistic sense or self-awareness, but more often than not a terrible cover means amateur writing and poor editing.

Worst cover designs from books I love? Well, I really dislike movie tie-in covers. I get the pragmatism of them, but I just don’t typically care for that
aesthetic. More specifically, there is an edition of The Shadow Over Innsmouth & Other Stories with a transparent fish-person in a suit, set against what looks like a desert town in the old west, with bright blue skies. It looks like they superimposed a Scooby-Doo villain over the cover to some forgotten western.

An Excerpt from THE WORK OF THE DEVIL

By Curtis M. Lawson

On Maya’s twelfth birthday she saw the Devil on her way home from school. He sat on the edge of a dumpster in the alley between Little Caesar’s and some bank whose name she couldn’t remember. He stared back at her, a cigarette hanging from his black lips. At first, she thought he was a kid in a mask, maybe a fourth or fifth grader judging by his height.

But when he turned to look at her, she could see that the monster’s face was not made of plastic or rubber. Those ebony lips curled into a smirk, pushing up crimson cheeks. Yellow teeth clenched around the burning cigarette. The bitter October wind rustled the Devil’s midnight locks and his long, patchy strands of beard. Gleaming black eyes, like polished marbles, glared at her with all the warmth of a Michigan winter. When he winked at her, she knew for sure: this was not some kid dressed up a day early for Halloween.

Maya ran from the alley as fast as she could. She sped the whole way home, lungs burning, and didn’t slow until she turned the corner onto Hoyt Avenue. She thought she’d feel safe once she could see her house, but she hadn’t been expecting the flashing lights and uniformed men. She hadn’t been expecting the firetruck and ambulance. She hadn’t been expecting the flames engulfing her home.

Her dad would try to hide it from her, but she’d learn that the fire wasn’t set by some Devil’s Night arsonist. It was the result of her mom passing out with a lit cigarette. That’s what was written in the official report, at least. But Maya knew the truth. The fire had been the work of the Devil.

In the year following her mother’s death, Maya learned all she could about devils and demons. She read the Bible from front to back, watched The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby on repeat, and scoured through the library for urban legends and local folklore. She came to believe that the Devil she had seen was a monster called the Nain Rouge—a terrible imp that brought tragedy upon anyone who caught a glimpse of it.

When her thirteenth birthday came around, Maya saw the Devil again. This time she was on her way to school, and the Devil sat drinking in the wreckage of a junked Charger outside of a rundown garage. Her mind was flooded with anger and fear at the sight of his scarlet flesh and charcoal hair. The instincts to fight and flee battled against each other, leaving her paralyzed.

The Devil drank Jim Beam, the same whiskey as her father. He tipped the bottle out through the car window and poured a swallow onto the ground. The whiskey seeped down through the loose gravel, into the packed, dry earth below.

Panic won out over anger. Maya turned tail and ran to her grandmother’s house, where she and her father had been living since their own home burned down. Horrible visions possessed her thoughts as she sped down sidewalks and cut through alleys. Broken traffic lights strobed red, like the flashers of an ambulance. Dead leaves in varying shades of orange and yellow shifted in the wind, like flickering flames. Passing cars exhaled gray exhaust, like the smoke from melting siding and burning wood.

When Maya turned the corner of the block she lived on, she almost couldn’t believe what she saw—or more accurately, what she was not seeing. There were no emergency vehicles. No rising flames or black smoke. Her grandmother’s house was intact.

Maya rushed inside, afraid that she would find her grandmother dead, but she didn’t. The old woman was just fine. Maya collapsed into her arms, crying her eyes out, babbling on about the devil that killed her mother.

Maya’s grandmother told her that there was no such thing as the Devil and that sometimes bad things happen for no good reason. She let her take the day off and made her a birthday cake—chocolate with buttercream frosting dotted witch chocolate chips along the outer edge. They pored over an old photo album, reminiscing about Maya’s mother. It helped dull the pain of that terrible day—the anniversary of her birth and of her mother’s death.

As the day progressed, Maya’s thoughts turned toward her father. She wondered how he was holding up. He was an old-fashioned kind of man, hardworking and quiet about his emotions, but she knew he was hurting. His pain was as clear in his eyes as it was in the empty whiskey bottles on his nightstand.

The encounter she had with the Devil, or the Nain Rouge, or whatever the hell it was, fell to the back of her mind. Maya was focused on doing something nice for her father when he got home, the same way her grandmother had tried to make the day better for her. Together they prepared her father’s favorite meal—a medium-rare steak with thick homemade fries.

Her father always got home by 6:30, so Maya had the table set and dinner ready by 6:15. By 7:00 p.m. the food was cold, and Maya’s father still wasn’t home. Sometime after 9:00, the police came to the house. Maya watched from the other room as the somber-faced officer told her sobbing grandmother about the car accident.

Her grandmother would try to hide it from her, but she’d learn that the crash wasn’t some freak accident. Her father had been driving while under the influence. That’s what was written in the official report, at least. But Maya knew the truth. The crash had been the work of the Devil.

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: Steven Van Patten

Last week on Girl Meets Monster, I chatted with Jessica Guess about her horror novella, Cirque Berserk (2020) and how she created a space for herself in a genre where she felt absent.

This week, I welcome award-winning horror writer, publisher, screenwriter, and TV stage manager Steven Van Patten.

Brooklyn native Steven Van Patten is the author of the critically acclaimed Brookwater’s Curse trilogy, about an 1860s Georgia plantation slave who becomes law enforcement within the vampire community. In contrast, the titular character in his Killer Genius series is a modern day hyper-intelligent black woman who uses high-end technology as a socially conscious serial killer.

SVP’s short fiction includes contributions to nearly a dozen horror anthologies, including the Stoker Award nominated New York State of Fright. A collection of short horror and dark fiction stories entitled Hell At The Way Station, published by his company Laughing Black Vampire Productions and co-authored by acclaimed storyteller, Marc Abbott hit shelves in 2018.

Along with a plethora of other honors and accolades, SVP won three African-African-American Literary Awards in 2019, two for Hell At The Way Station (Best Anthology and Best In Science Fiction) and one for Best Independent Publisher. He’s written about everything from sleep demons to the Harlem Hellfighters of WWI for episodes of the YouTube series’ Extra Credit and Extra Mythology. He’s also a contributor for Viral Vignettes, a charity-driven YouTube comedy series benefitting The Actor’s Fund. He uses his full name on Facebook but goes by @svpthinks on Twitter and Instagram. When he’s not creating macabre literature, he can be found stage managing television shows primarily in New York City and occasionally on the West Coast. Along with being a member of the New York Chapter of The Horror Writer’s Association, he’s also a member of The Director’s Guild of America and professional arts fraternity Gamma Xi Phi. His website is www.laughingblackvampire.com.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Steven. I am almost ashamed to say that I haven’t read the Brookwater’s Curse trilogy, but it is on my TBR list. I’m interested in reading the trilogy because I love vampires, and I wrote a slave narrative featuring a vampire. Your story is about a male slave who becomes an important part of vampire society, and my story is about a young woman who escapes slavery but still has a lot of obstacles to maneauver while gaining a better understanding of her identity in the context of the antebellum South while traveling with a vampire. My first question is why vampires? And my second question is why slavery? What about these two subjects/characters called to you to tell a story? How does being part of vampire society help or hinder your protagonist? What inspired this trilogy?

SVP: Well, first of all, thank you for having me. I’m thrilled to be talking to a mavin such as yourself. I think I was drawn to vampires because as a kid, I didn’t always see them all as monsters. I mean, I saw Christopher Lee’s Dracula as a monster, but William Marshall’s Blacula was a different case. There were some shades of grey. He tried to end the slave-trade. He was in love. He was misunderstood and in many ways his own worst enemy. And it’s that line from Scream, Blacula, Scream that stuck with me forever. It’s from the scene where he is cornered by two rather stereotypical 1970s pimps after disregarding their hooker. After listening to their nonsense, Blacula said, “You’ve made a slave of your sister and you’re still slaves imitating your slave masters!” Then he proceeds to kill them. But for me, a few things happen there. First, as a kid, I get to see this super dignified brother handle some street mess, but I also get a glimpse of how social ills can get addressed within the horror genre. So the only thing left in my head was, since Blacula, aka Prince Mamuwalde was of direct African descent, I began to wonder what an African-American would experience, feel and say if put in that situation. By the way, in Brookwater’s Curse, I don’t spend a great deal of time on the plantation. In fact, I let him get taken by the supernatural and get himself isolated very quickly. And I let him struggle with a sort of survivor’s guilt, while never losing his soul as a black man. This gets him in trouble more than once, because anytime he develops a relationship with black and brown humans, he ends up going against his marching orders, which are to hunt werewolves and protect the secret society of monsters in general.

GMM: I am intrigued by the concept of a “socially conscious serial killer”. I immediately thought of Dexter Morgan who channeled his drive to murder into a public service by eliminating threats to his community. How is your character different from Dexter?

SVP: Dexter comes up every once in awhile, but the truth is, my Killer Genius series was inspired by Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lector more than anything else. It occurred to me that if someone were to write a story about a black woman killing a bunch of people, it’s usually over some man being an asshole. Like an elongated episode of ‘Snapped’. I never saw a socially conscious black woman, so I invented Kendra, a black woman who is able to keep ahead of law enforcement by being super smart like a Dexter Morgan or a Hannibal Lector. One of the biggest differences between her and Dexter is that she’s actually more versatile. She can kill up close in a disguise, or she can hack into a military satellite and blast you from space. I’m particularly proud of how I came up with her kill for this one misogynist rapper while he’s performing on a 106 & Park derivative. The other big difference is of course, her agenda. Dexter was like a king snake of serial killers and he in a way, was feeding this horrible disfunction born from childhood trauma. While my Kendra certainly has her own childhood and adolescent demons, she’s more focused. I want to say she has a clearer vision and is more of a zealot, or a crusader literally attacking ignorant white and black people as a way of motivating change in society over all.

GMM: I’ve always written about dark subjects and over the years people, especially people with a strong religious background, have asked me “why horror?” As I’m sure you’re aware, there is often a misconception about horror writers being maladjusted people. Have you encountered similar questions about your writing? Have you been accused of being a “bad” person because of what you write? Has your connection to a larger community of horror writers helped you feel more confident about being a horror writer, or have you always felt at ease writing about monsters?

SVP: Here is where I may piss some people off, but since I get pissed off when confronted by the kinds of statements you mentioned, I’m going to just say it. Truth is, I have studied just enough history to see most organized religion as a construct meant to hold certain people in place. I’m not knocking the fellowship, being grateful to the universe, Kirk Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, none of that. But, when our black ancestors were brought here, I can’t say for certain what they all were worshipping, but I’m pretty sure it was not a blonde, blue-eyed Jesus. Unfortunately, a lot of folks can’t get past that, because whatever we had was beaten out of us while something else was beaten into us. Follow that up with Hollywood bastardizing and misrepresenting hoodoo, voodoo, Santeria and Yoruba cultures for white folks to kick up their heels and scream ‘eek’ and now they have us rejecting something we might actually need if we bothered to understand it. At least, those are my thoughts on the subject.

No one has ever come out and called me a bad person, but it’s been insinuated that something is wrong with me. And yes, I have been confronted by the naysayers and I’ve received the shade, particularly if I picked the wrong event to be a part of. But the people looking down their nose at me are often the same people wouldn’t know a decent horror movie if it bit them in the ass AND won’t tell Jermaine that no one cares about his mixed-tape. Because of that, I don’t exactly lose a lot of sleep over those people or their opinions. 

Being a part of the larger community, finding people like yourself is a morale boost. It lets me know I’m not alone in my horror nerdom or my pursuit to write about things that go bump in the night. And it’s funny you should bring it up because growing up around certain kinds of dudes, I only let a handful of friends know I was into this sort of thing. But I’m older now, and not as worried about rejection as I used to be. And yes, I will be comfortable with monsters until the day I die.

Excerpt from “The Patron Saint”

“You’re my motherfucking lawyer! You’re supposed to make this kind of shit go away! As much money as I made the label last year! Y’all got me hiding in this hotel room like some kind of fugitive! This is some bullshit!”

Sitting at the edge of the super king-sized hotel room bed wearing only a bathing suit, Kimberly stared absently at the TV on the wall in front of her. This bore a stark contrast to fully clothed Manuel’s animated pacing back and forth across the room as he screamed into his cellphone. She thought about turning the TV on so she wouldn’t have to listen, but figured in his agitated state that she would only get yelled at or worse.

“Seriously! What the fuck am I paying you for?”

She couldn’t hear the lawyer’s side of the conversation, but could tell that the lawyer was asking uncomfortable questions.

“What? No, she’s fine! She loves me and she loves Vegas. You sound like that punk ass cop that left a message a few minutes ago.”

Another pause.

“What? Her father? I don’t care about him. Fuck him! If he was a real nigga, he’d call me himself. Going to the damn cops like a little bitch!”

No matter what you hear or see, do not turn around. Do not face me, child!

Kimberly’s breath stopped as her mind struggled to process where a disembodied voice could possibly be coming from.

“Sam? Sam! I know this motherfucker didn’t just hang up on me…”

If he hadn’t been in such an angry state, Manuel might have noticed the growing shadow moving behind him as the form of a curvaceous, statuesque woman with undulating hair drifted off the wall and into the room.

Manuel threw the cellphone on the bed, just behind Kimberly. “I’m so fucking mad right now. I need to fuck you again just to calm my ass down. Take them damn clothes off, girl!”

He began to unbuckle his pants.

Kimberly neither moved or gave any indication that she heard him.

“Bitch, perhaps you didn’t hear Daddy! I said…”

Then he heard the hissing. He turned around.

“What the fu—”

The entity grabbed Manuel by the shoulders, accosting him as if he were a small child, with a strength that dwarfed his. The ten snakes in the apparition’s hair lunged forward, each of the mouths burying fangs into his flesh. His chocolate brown skin turned a marble-like grey as the poisons filled his body. He screamed for only a few seconds as the toxins quickly petrified his vocal chords.

Kimberly peripherally caught a split second of Manuel’s agonized last moments before she closed her eyes. The monster must have sensed that Kimberly had peeked because she heard the voice again.

DO NOT LOOK AT ME!

A moment later, Manuel’s lifeless body crashed down to the floor with a ‘thud’ in front of Kimberly. Her eyes drifted down. Whatever had been injected into him was toxic enough to literally melt him. Flesh and muscles bubbled into a jelly. Bones disintegrated to ash trapped inside the jelly. Hours from now, a large black stain on the carpet would be all that remained. She closed her eyes but couldn’t escape the image of the mess on the floor.

Go to your grandmother, that she might teach you the ways of your ancestors and not the way of the idolaters that brought your people here in bondage.

“My grandmother? Who are you?”

I am the one who was defiled by one of my gods, made an abomination by another, and rejected and vilified by my own kind. It was only in the underworld that I found the orishas and loa and ascended ones of Africa. Like me, they want actual justice meted out in this world and the next. I am Medusa, The Accursed One! Evil men feared me hundreds of years ago and they shall fear me again!

The shadow drifted back towards the wall from where it had entered and disappeared. Sensing that the gorgon had left, Kimberly opened her eyes and looked again at what was left of Manuel. Recoiled on the bed, she suppressed a scream and cried quietly for a few minutes.

It would take her some time, but she eventually found the strength to get dressed, grab her things, and leave the hotel.

~*~

“This bastard is gonna act all indignant, like he was parent of the decade! Fucking dream-slaying, hating-ass Negro!”

Cathy drove her white BMW M4 Coupé as fast as New York City’s FDR Drive would allow, which during rush hour on a Wednesday wasn’t nearly as fast as she preferred. Before her girlfriend Nicole called, Cathy had been cursing up a storm as she cut off more cautious drivers with signal-free lane changes and flipped them her middle finger whenever they dared honked their horns in protest.

“So he’s blaming you?” Nicole’s voice blared over the car’s speakers. Nicole, like Cathy, was a dedicated party girl, enabler, and equal opportunity narcissist. She was the shoulder to cry on, the friend who took Cathy’s side no matter how horrible she’d acted or how ridiculous her course of action. “Him and his damn cupcakes! Fuck him! Y’all are doing the right thing! Manuel is going to make your baby a star. He told me so!”

“That’s right. And so what if she lost her virginity to him? Shit, that’s Manuel Hightower! The motherfuckers we lost our virginity to wasn’t even close to that stature!”

“Child! I know that’s right!”

Betrayer of women! Betrayer of your own child! You gave your child’s innocence and honor away for nothing!

“Bitch! What you said?”

“I said, ‘child, I know that’s right’. What you thought I said?”

Cathy’s eyes caught a flash of the gorgon’s red gaze in her rearview mirror. The hair snakes’ fangs found Cathy’s ears, neck, and skull. The last thing Cathy saw was her milk chocolate complexion turning green-ish grey as the car swerved out of control, bounced off an Acura RDX, then slammed straight into a guardrail. Despite the damage to the car, Nicole’s voice could still be heard asking if her friend was okay.

Until the gas tank exploded.

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.