Earlier this week, Girl Meets Monster kicked off Women in Horror Month with a post about horror fanatic Dimi Horror whose social media platform is Black Girls Love Horror Too. And, on Wednesday, I had the chance to chat with horror writer and soon-to-be filmmaker, Kenesha Williams. Today, Nicole Givens Kurtz shares a fragment of her fiction and talks about her writing process, current projects, her role as editor for Mocha Memoirs Press, and what it’s like to write horror while Black and female.
Nicole Givens Kurtz is an author, editor, and educator. She’s a member of Horror Writers Association, Sisters in Crime, and Science Fiction Writers of America. She’s the editor of the groundbreaking anthology, Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire. She’s written for White Wolf’s Vampire the Masquerade 20th Anniversary Anthology, Bram Stoker Finalist in Horror Anthology, Sycorax’s Daughters, and Serial Box’s The Vela: Salvation series. Nicole has over 40 short stories published as well as 11 novels and three active speculative mystery series. You can support her work via Patreon and find more about her at http://www.nicolegivenskurtz.net.
About A Theft Most Fowl: Sent to investigate the theft of a sacred artifact, can Hawk Tasifa unravel the threads of the conspiracy before it destroys the Order?
Following her success in Gould, Hawk Prentice Tasifa returns to her university to unravel a mystery. Someone has broken into the Museum of the Goddess and stolen its most sacred artifact, attacked two of the guards, and is trying to frame her mentor. Under pressure from The Order, Prentice is urged to find the culprits, but not all is as it seems.
Can Hawk Tasifa see through the echoes of her own past and find the dirty birds before they destroy everything she loves?
GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Nicole. What projects are you currently working on? Is horror your primary genre, or do you write in other genres? If you write in other genres, which do you feel most comfortable writing, and why?
NGK: I am currently working on a science fiction mystery/futuristic noir series called Fawn & Briscoe. I write primarily in science fiction/fantasy mysteries, but horror is a close second. I feel most comfortable in mystery and horror genres, although I have written contemporary and paranormal romance.
GMM: When did you first know that you were a horror writer? How did you develop an interest in the genre? What initially attracted you to horror stories? Which writers influenced you then? Which writers influence you now?
NGK: I realized I was a horror author after I wrote my first scary story in 10th grade. It involved a Thanksgiving dinner gone horribly wrong. I fell in love with the horror genre when I was 4. Where the Wild Things Are was the first horror book I read, and it remains one of my favorites to this day. I graduated to King in elementary school along with Poe and then to others later in life like Shirley Jackson, L.A. Banks, and Tananarive Due.
GMM: Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019) explores Black horror and the portrayal (and absence) of Black people in horror movies. As a definition of what Black horror means begins to take shape, Tananarive Due says “Black history is Black horror.” What do you think she meant by that? Can you give an example of how this idea shows up in your own work?
NGK: So much of Black American history has been absolutely horrific from being enslaved to the Reconstructive Period to Jim Crow to the Civil Right Movement to the era of Black Lives Matter, living as an African-American in America is to be constantly enraged (Baldwin), but also a witness to the real monsters of the world–mankind. I draw much of my horror from those marginalized spaces that depict the true depravity of racism and the monstrous nature of white supremacy. For example, in many of my weird western stories, the protagonist is a Black woman in the west. The combination of freed slaves and disgraced Confederate soldiers in the southwest/west both seeking new identities and opportunities among scarce resources create a hotbed of horror stories…some very close to the truth.
GMM: As a WOC/Black woman writing horror/dark speculative fiction, do you feel obligated to have a deeper message in your stories? Can writers of color write stories without broader messages about identity, class, and racism? Is it possible to divorce yourself from that ongoing narrative within our culture when you set out to write a story?
NGK: I don’t start out writing stories to incorporate a deeper meaning or message; however, since most of my stories have Black women or POC women as protagonists, issues of identity, class, and racism appear because they are very much a part of our reality. It is difficult to divorce the effect those things have on me, as a person, a Black woman, a Black mom, etc. I can only speak for myself, but it is not something I can do with my storytelling. Because those items affect me, they affect my heroines.
GMM: What are your top five favorite horror movies, and why? Top five horror novels? Which book or movie scared you the most?
Top 5 Horror Movies:
- John Carpenter’s The Thing (original): The shapeshifting nature of The Thing and the paranoia amongst the crew are expertly done and continues to be peak awesomeness today.
- A Nightmare on Elm Street (original): As someone who suffers from insomnia since I was a child, this movie scared me to death. Exhausted and yearning sleep, the fact that something in my dreams could hurt me in real life completely terrified me.
- Midsomer: The beauty of Midsomer is that it lures you into a false sense of security with its brilliant sunlight, welcoming community members, and gorgeous grounds, until WHAM! It all goes topsy turvey in ways I could not have foreseen or predicted. Stunned. It bears multiple repeat viewings, too.
- The Girl with All the Gifts: Zombie. Black Girl. Doesn’t give one iota about humanity. Straight. Up. Insane. Love it!
- Event Horizon: I probably should’ve led with this one, because it is my favorite of the lot. Awesome if not over the top acting. Crazy blend of science fiction and horror. A real wild ride. Just good scary fun. I have to watch it every time I see it on TV. Sometimes I just watch it to relax or if I want to see a good horror film. I also liked how a Black man was in charge and not killed in the first 10 mintues.
Top 5 Horror Novels:
- Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley: I have multiple copies of this book and I taught it to high school seniors for 8 years. I still love everything about it and I still find wonderful themes on narcissism, abandonment, hubris, beauty, wealth, misogyny… the list goes on. It is a treasure.
- The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor Lavalle: This is a retelling of Lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook, his most racist story. Lavalle takes the story and subverts it. It is simply astounding.
- The Dark Tower by Stephen King: Most of my horror lands in the weird western subgenre, and this was the first one that not only captured my love for blended genres but presented a gunslinger unlike any I’d seen before. Roland and his ka-tet continues to be my favorite book series ever, but it also produces difficult and horrific situations. Terrible situations and consequences for everyone, Roland included.
- We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shriley Jackson: As a person who often sees herself as an outsider, this book of two sisters, ostracized from the town, and a tiny bit from each other, showed me that horror didn’t have to be bloody and messy. Human beings are monstrous enough, and the way Kat traps her sister and imprisons her scared me to death. It showed me the dangerous power of love.
- Minion by LA. Banks: The Vampire Huntress Legend Series was the first time I saw an authentic black woman slayer and I absolutely loved every single minute of this series. It didn’t frighten me so much as entertained me, while also centering blackness, which I loved.
GMM: How do you feel about white-identifying writers who write stories about non-white characters? What problems have you encountered? What potential issues do you see with white-identifying writers telling BIPOC stories? What advice would you give those writers?
NGK: K. Tempest Bledsoe and Nisi Shawl have a fantastic workshop and courses on Writing the Other. If white authors want to diversify the characters in their stories, I encourage them to do so. The potential issues are with not centering the non-white character’s culture as being a part of them. For example, Black characters are not monolithic, there’s diversity with different experiences, rearing, and education. However, there are certain cultural touchstones that aren’t advertised or communicated. I would give writers who are seeking to write the other to do the following: 1) write the character and make them as round as you would your white character. 2) Get two or three sensitivity readers to read over your story (Pay them please. This is labor.). Listen to their feedback and incorporate those changes into your revised story. Non-white authors should note that basing a character on your one BIPOC friend, is still tokenism. Try to expand your social group to a variety of different people to avoid stereotypes, tokenism, and offensive behavior in the story.
GMM: All writers have experienced some form of impostor syndrome. What has your experience with impostor syndrome been like? Did you ever have a particularly bad case of it? If so, what caused it and how did you manage it?
NGK: My imposter syndrome should start paying part of the mortgage! I had a terrible case of it at Blacktasticon in 2018. I was selected to moderate a panel that included Sheree Renee Thomas, Linda Addision, Kenesha Williams, Susana Morris, and an overwhelming number of Black women authors. Linda is a legend. Sheree Renee Thomas is a legend. Susana Morris is an amazing academic professor and author. These are REAL writers.
What the hell did I know about questioning them or leading these leaders in a conversation?! I managed it by writing out the questions with the intention that if they didn’t like it, they would go their own course, and I would let them. LOL! There were 10 people on this panel, and if everyone had a chance to talk, I may not need all the questions. I was prepared to, but I didn’t need to worry. The panel went well.
GMM: Congratulations on being awarded a Diversity Grant from the Horror Writers Association. If you don’t mind me asking, how do you plan to use the grant? What goals do you have in mind?
NGK: Thank you! I plan to use my grant to attend StockerCon for networking possibilities as well as take a MasterClass with Neil Gaiman course to improve my craft.
GMM: How long have you been the editor of Mocha Memoirs Press? Do you prefer editing to writing, or vice versa? How did you get started as an editor? Do you perform and other roles at the press? How can interested writers find out about calls for submission?
NGK: I have been the editor and owner of Mocha Memoirs Press for 11 years. I prefer writing! I got started editing others when I taught English for 18 years in public school. I am the owner of the press so I have assisted in all areas of the business: slush reading, edits, proofreading, formatting, marketing, etc. Interested writers can find the call for submissions at https://mochamemoirspress.com/write-for-us/.
GMM: What about your writing makes it unique within the horror genre? Are there any subjects you’re afraid to write about, or stories you avoid telling?
NGK: My tagline is Strong Heroines. Fantasy Worlds. In the horror genre, I primarily writer weird westerns and as a Black Woman, that is very rare. There are subjects I don’t write stories about and those are slavery, rape, and incest. Those are topics that I don’t find tasteful, and so I don’t write about them. I am aware that horror has a tendency to push the envelope of those things we fear, but those topics fall outside the range of what I want my work to focus on.
Excerpt from A Theft Most Fowl: A Kingdom of Aves Mystery ©2020 Nicole L. Kurtz
The University of Sulidae was the oldest college in Aves. Originally, its location resided in the Audubon Nest, close to Lanham, home of The Order. Political infighting forced the intellectuals to put some distance between themself and those at court. Experience taught them that the closer one got to power, the harder it was to survive. In response, The Order opened an intelligence file on university members. Despite the history of hurt feelings and tensions on both sides, many of those within The Order’s rank traveled and studied at the university’s new location in Sulidae Egg, in Edmonds Nest. It sat on the banks of the Plume River at the apex of the Audubon and Edmonds nests. The campus was its own island in the egg; everything revolved around the university.
Rook Bjorn Renner’s entire life orbited around Sulidae University, most importantly the Museum of the Goddess. As curator, Rook Renner’s true passion to which his entire life was devoted was collecting goddess artifacts. As a renowned expert in all things goddess, he received a consistent stream of requests to verify and validate recently discovered treasures. Over time, his teachings gained more urgency around authenticity.
Prentice found it strange that a devoted bird like Rook Renner would steal the Five-Feathered Crown. Why now? Why only that artifact? Why not something less obvious? He wouldn’t be able to get birdsong for the relic. No one would take the risk of being caught with it. No one would dare touch the crown for fear of death.
The theft didn’t add up.
Hawk Prentice Tasifa sat on the train speeding from Gould to Sulidae. She picked up Cardinal Wick’s letter and read it again.
Your services have been requested in the Sulidae Egg. Arrive within two days and greet Dove Raz Haq. The situation as we know at this time:
1. Missing sacred goddess’s feathered crown.
2. Proposed magical use.
3. Possible suspects: Rook Bjorn Renner
The truth is light. Bring it forth as hawks see what is unseen.
She rolled the parchment up again.
Someone did break into the museum and they stole the Five-Feathered Crown. In the ensuing massive manhunt, the eagles who served as security for all eggs, searched but came up empty. Request for assistance from the public produced nothing, according to the reports. No doubt, Rook Renner was frantic with worry and he stood accused of stealing it himself.
Prentice sipped her tea as ideas formulated in her mind. Drinking Earl Grey became a simple pleasure among the stickiness of investigative work. The ancient cogwheel train raced across the rails, and it gently rocked as it chugged its way through the Edmonds Nest. She’d left the Bailey’s rolling hills and the Adams Mountains with their snow-capped tips. They grew smaller in the distance along with Bailey Egg’s red-roofed buildings.
Now, two days later, she meandered along the Adams River. She missed Gould, and if the circumstances changed, she’d return again, but not for work.
Ahead, Sulidae Egg appeared. Prentice had the sleeping car to herself, an ornately decorated car whose features included carved, wood paneling, pressed metal ceiling, frosted glass, lamp oils and a night seat which folded down for a bed. Over the last couple of days, the car had started to feel like home. She sat in the small, overstuffed chair and removed her notepad.
When not on an active investigation, Prentice wore casual clothing; her dark wings identified her as a hawk no matter what she wore. Today she had chosen a sapphire headdress which bore silver embroidered wings and matched her frock. A silver, satin scarf draped from her neck across her left shoulder. She put away the boots in exchange for flat, closed-toe sandals. Sulidae lay in the Edmonds Nest, just southwest of Lanham. The weather remained warm throughout the year due to the Avian Sea currents. She dressed accordingly, but only by chance. Unable to return home from her last assignment for a change of clothes, Prentice happened to have packed cooler clothing.
Her thoughts turned to Rook Renner. No doubt, the rook sowed the seeds of his own demise with his erratic behavior.
The train bumped over the railroad tracks as it slowed into Lizard Mountain Train Station, with the setting sun. A whistle announced their arrival and Prentice disembarked with her luggage and satchel. As soon as the heat hit her, she missed the cool mountains of Gould. Along the platform, coachmen carried signs advertising their services. She secured one and found herself quickly seated in a carriage, her luggage bags secured outside in the rear, her driver holding the reins in front. Two beautiful horses pulled them away from the train station and into the waiting night.
In what seemed like no time, she reached campus. Being early suppertime, the egg bustled with life. Students clutched heavy satchels and walked or bicycled through the streets. People clustered together in casual conversations at outdoor cafes, illuminated by votive candles. Pedestrians hiked alongside cyclists with ease in a practiced rhythm.
In the hushed carriage interior, Prentice embraced the nostalgia rushing over her. She hadn’t been here in years, not since graduation. Outside the carriage window, the Plume River glistened as it snaked its way through the egg. A clear sky put the constellations on display, and she warmed at the memory of nights spent in Rook Ioan’s astronomy class, charting and memorizing the heavens, gazing through telescopes, and listening to how they came to be. A hawk was never lost as long as they had the sky.
“We’re here.” The coachman wrenched open the door and disappeared around to the carriage’s rear. He clambered up the short ladder and threw down her luggage bags. They smacked the ground.
“By the goddess, be careful!” Prentice bellowed as she exited. Vultures!
The coachman came back around with said baggage stuffed under both arms. He glared at her as he placed the bags beside her. His tight, grayish skin bore thin scars. The bright scarlet birthmark across his sharp nose drew attention away from his dark beady eyes.
“Thank you.” Prentice took five birdsongs from her leather punch. She dropped the copper coin with the five emblazed on the tail and the goddess’s likeness on the front into the coachman’s gloved hand.
“Evening.” The man bowed, his face softened by the tip, before leaping up to the driver’s seat. His agility surprised her; his girth didn’t hinder his movements at all.
She turned her attention to the pristine cathedral that consumed the center entrance of the university campus. The air was heavy with the fragrance of frankincense and sage. A cobblestoned maze of dark corridors threaded through the grounds and connected the buildings. Dark hallways stretched out in a monolithic maze of nooks and crannies, making it impossible to take in the enormity of the university at a glance.
Ahead, a figure approached through the growing dark. Brightly colored lanterns illuminated the square and entranceway. She could make out the red turban atop a head. A sudden strong wind billowed his dark robes. Prentice didn’t need her hawk abilities to recognize Rook Renner. Her jaw tightened as he advanced.
Once the wizened old man reached her, he wasted no time embracing her.
“Hoot, Prentice.” Renner pulled her close.
His voice was stronger than Prentice expected.
She returned his hug but pulled back. “Hoot, Rook! How are you here? Shouldn’t you be in a cell?”
Rook Renner’s jovial face held bemusement. He didn’t seem distraught. “It would seem my rapidly eroding reputation has kept that action at bay.”
His rawboned features, decorated with broad red lines beneath each eye and a vertical one from his forehead down to his chin, disappeared beneath a bushy white beard.
“Come. I’m glad you’re here.” He clasped her hand in his bony one. The soft flesh palm spoke to the rook never doing physical labor in his life.
“Me too.” She meant it.
He motioned ahead. “I’ve had a small instructor apartment set up for you.”
Prentice took back her hand. “An apartment? Rook, you know I’m here to investigate you and the theft…”
She trailed off. A quiver filtered through her feathers.
Rook Renner raised his hand. The silver rings he wore caught the pale moonlight as he held his hand up to silence her.
“I’m aware. It’s a studio, nothing luxurious. The Order cannot say I attempted to bribe you. My status may not be what it once was at court, but I’m greatly injured at this intrusion. The sooner we get this resolved, the sooner I can get back to my work.”
“Rook…” Prentice’s cheeks warmed at his words.
But she didn’t travel here to rekindle their student-instructor relationship. She’d been assigned to this case and she had a job to do.
See the unseen.
She adjusted her satchel across her torso and then hoisted her luggage.
“Lead the way.” Rook Renner smiled. “Follow me.”
Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at email@example.com. See you next week!
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