Fiction Fragments: Bracken MacLeod

Last week, I talked with Todd Sullivan about anime, writing YA fantasy, and cultural differences while living abroad. And this week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Bracken MacLeod. I think I first met Bracken at StokerCon in Providence, but I’ve had the pleasure of bumping into him at other events and hope to eventually have time to just sit and talk one of these days. In the meantime, enjoy his fragment and interview.

2020-02-12 14.43.17aBracken MacLeod is the Bram Stoker and Shirley Jackson Award nominated author of the novels, Mountain Home, Come to Dust, Stranded, and Closing Costs, coming in 2021 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He’s also published two collections of short fiction, 13 Views of the Suicide Woods and White Knight and Other Pawns. Before devoting himself to full time writing, he worked as a civil and criminal litigator, a university philosophy instructor, and a martial arts teacher. He lives outside of Boston with his wife and son, where he is at work on his next novel.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Bracken. I’m so glad you could join me today. Thank you for taking time to stop by and talk about your writing. I enjoyed your fragment. There’s a lot going on in Harlow’s world, internally and externally. And, a boring train ride through New York City becomes an opportunity for you to highlight several aspects of the human condition, including: feelings of loneliness and isolation even though we are usually surrounded by people, the way our communication has changed over time, and the very serious subject of suicide. Can you tell me a little bit about what inspired this story? Or at the very least, this scene?

BM: Thank you. I am so glad you liked it. This is a selection from the beginning of a new novel I’m working on we’ll call Moral Panic (not my real title, but I’m going to be a little protective here of a turn of phrase I think is pretty boss). I wanted to introduce the character of Harlow in a way that depicts someone trying to get back on their feet emotionally after a significant trauma. But reminders of that ordeal intrude in her life periodically, threatening to drag her back down. In the case of this piece, she’s feeling surprise at her own disappointment in not winning an award, and is heading home, when the world around her stops and points out in stark detail exactly how painful things can get. The details of the piece are drawn from my own experience in several different ways, but specifically, and most obviously, being on a train delayed by a person who’d jumped. It’s one thing to hear the driver tell you something’s happened, and quite another to ride by slowly, watching workers spreading sawdust on the tracks to soak up blood. Despite not being a first responder, I’ve seen considerably more than my share of public tragedy. A lot of Harlow’s interiority here is my own.

GMM: Many writers struggle with the concept of imposter syndrome even after they’ve had their work published and had some success with their writing. As a writer who has been nominated for some prestigious awards within your genre, does that kind of recognition make it easier or more difficult to approach your craft? Personally, I suffer from a fear of success, because success often means there are greater expectations for your next effort, and that also means more work on your part. Has success in your writing been helpful or a hindrance?

BM: Being nominated for awards is nice, and with few exceptions, I wouldn’t turn one down that was given to me, but there is an odd feeling of competition with yourself that creeps into the aftermath of being recognized like that. It’s less about not winning (PRO-TIP: you don’t LOSE awards, because how can you lose something you’ve never had?), than it is about what I think of the quality of my work. Why did this book get nominated and not that one? What was it about the story that resounded with people so much, and can I do it again? Imposter syndrome never goes away, but it does lessen. Still, while I was writing Closing Costs (coming in early 2021 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), I had considerable anxiety about the book and whether it lived up to what people might expect from a “Bracken MacLeod Novel” (whatever THAT is—how arrogant to think there even is such a thing). You have to sublimate those feelings and just go on. I know how to do what I do, and ideally, I’ve learned lessons about what lands right and what doesn’t from prior work. A little bit of anxiousness is good, though; it keeps you working hard.

In all honesty, I think I’d worry a little about someone who says they have no imposter syndrome. It sounds to me like admitting to Dunning-Krueger.

GMM: The overall feeling of your fragment is one of either despair or a sense of not feeling connected to the world around you. Disorientation. Genre wise, this feels like suspense or horror, but your use of language and detailed observation of what’s happening around Harlow gives your writing a literary feel as well. Where do you fall on the spectrum of the literary vs. genre fiction debate? How do you classify your own writing? Has your work ever been criticized for being too literary or too genre driven?

BM: I feel like my work firmly falls in the categories of horror and, more often, thriller, but I strive for literary style. My temptation is to say “literary quality” here, but I think there’s tremendous quality in stripped down, no frills prose as well as “literary.” I don’t like this rivalry we have with each other over genre v. Literary Fiction. Lit Fic is a genre with its own reader expectations and tropes, and there’s no reason why good genre fiction can’t also be literary. Read Paul Tremblay and Priya Sharma and John Langan and tell me those aren’t amazing literary writers working in genre. Colson Whitehead and Victor LaValle are two other examples of wonderful writers who I think of as literary first, but who clearly enjoy writing genre and are great at it. Anyway, I’d like to think of myself as a “slipstream” thriller writer falling somewhere in between traditional thriller/horror writing and Lit Fic.

I think I’ve had more pushback with crossing horror and thriller lines than literary. People have told me while they like this story of mine, it isn’t horror, as if there’s a bright line distinction with no overlap. But then, I tend to prefer what I call “secular horror” over supernatural most of the time. If given the choice between something like IT and McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, I’ll more often than not pick the more human monsters.

GMM: Secular horror. I like the sound of that. I think I know what you mean, but could you explain it a bit for a layperson?

BM: “Secular Horror” is a term I coined for my work. It’s kind of like the opposite of supernatural horror, PLUS. The plus is a matter of representation. While I try to do my best writing characters of all backgrounds and beliefs, my protagonists are always atheists and hard skeptics. Part of it is to make a point, perhaps, but a larger part is to give readers in that audience someone to identify with. So, when I say I write secular horror, it usually means that I’m writing non-supernatural work (though I have done supernatural in both novels and short stories) with a point of view coming from a position of skepticism and incredulity. Jack Ketchum, I’d say, wrote that also. Scooby Doo falls into the category as well, ALL the ghosts and spirits in those shows were normal people performing fraudulent supernaturalism! Scooby Doo is secular horror for children.

Fragment, by Bracken MacLeod

The operator’s crackling voice came on the public address speaker and said, “I’m sorry. We’re experiencing a delay.” The train operator sounded tired. It was late, but there seemed to be more weighing on her than the hour. “There’s a… a medical… a passenger just jumped in front of a train at the stop ahead of us. We’re been held here until cleared to resume. I’m very sorry.” The train car was silent. Those kinds of announcements used to be made by euphemism—there was a “police investigation” or “a passenger seeking medical attention.” These days, if you were on the affected train, they told you how it was. Matter of fact. In a sad kind of way, the passengers took it better. While any delay was frustrating, a kind of hushed patience came with the news of someone’s death on the tracks. People from elsewhere could believe all they wanted that New Yorkers were cold and aloof, but people in the city understood that tragedy outweighed inconvenience. They were the same kind of human beings as everyone else, whatever politicians had to say about “coastal elites.”

Harlow closed her eyes and visions of blood and chaos swirled in her alcohol-loosened thoughts. She realized she was better off with her eyes wide open. Perhaps all night. A couple at the other end of her car spoke to each other in hushed tones, leaning into one another. Other riders kept to themselves, typing on their phones or with wireless earbuds in their ears while they played Candy Crush. One woman quietly wiped tears from her eyes and stared straight ahead at her own reflection in the dark glass of the subway car window.

Harlow checked her phone. There were a couple of texts from people inviting her up to room parties, not realizing she’d left the con, and one from her mother asking whether she’d won. She closed her texts and opened Kindle instead. She tried to pick up her book where she’d left off, but the first paragraph seemed impervious to interpretation; she read it again and again, trying to discern meaning from the collection of words she knew had to make sense together but couldn’t force into clarity. She closed the app and instead opened Snapchat, using a filter to look at herself with cat ears and whiskers, then in grainy sepia, then as a biker complete with black five o’clock shadow and a skull-cap bandana. It was a stupid waste of time, and while she would’ve normally found it oddly narcissistic to stare at herself in digital costumes for a half an hour, it kept her from focusing on what had happened on the tracks ahead.

Sitting in a stationary subway car in a tunnel felt different than a delay at the station. Looking through the windows at people on the platform, moving from the gates to the exits, arriving and seeing a train waiting, was of a separate character than sitting in a car with black windows with only one’s own reflection looking back. A car one couldn’t easily exit and return to the world as it was. This felt like being lost. The tunnels weren’t made for lingering; they were intended to be sped through, viewed at a blur. This was a place of motion, not hesitation. And sitting still felt like being lost in time. Like being dead.

Like the person ahead of them on the tracks.

After nearly forty minutes, the train operator came back on the P.A. and told them they were clear to move; however, theirs would be an express train through the next stop. Buses would be waiting at the following station to shuttle riders back. A couple of people on the car softly groaned, but no one made more out of it than that exhaled utterance.

The car began to move again, and the riders slipped from their pocket of stilled time into the continuity of life in the city.

As they emerged from the tunnel and passed through the station, Harlow tried to keep her eyes fixed on her smart phone, but she’d been through all the filters in her app, checked her e-mail and texts. There was nothing unseen to draw her eyes from the bright hardhats of the workmen visible through the window across from her, and she looked up. Two of the them spread what looked like sawdust onto a darkened patch of track on the opposite side of the center divider, separating inbound and outbound trains, while a third looked on. He stood stoically, having already done his job, or waiting to take his turn, so no one would ever know death had come to that small space in their underground world. But he knew it had. His co-workers knew. And so did Harlow. He looked up, eyes meeting hers and in that moment she thought of Gentileschi’s Judith slaying Holofernes—figures standing in the dark, captured in a golden ratio of elemental violence too far complete to be stilled, yet frozen. She hovered in that instant unable to look away, confronted by the workman’s face, his impassivity, but seeing deeper in his eyes a sense that blood was not unfamiliar, and despondence infected him. Had changed him. She understood, and felt pass between them a kind of grieving kinship. Harlow blinked and when she opened her eyes the man had looked away and she couldn’t be certain he’d ever looked at her. The train continued to move and another wave of bleary drunkenness washed over her, bringing Harlow fully back into her body.

A teary woman across from her stifled a sob. Harlow turned her head and tried to catch her gaze, and convey solace to her. She tried to be the presence in between violence and death for this other human being who was about to be overtaken. The way she did. The woman gave her a weak half-smile and turned her eyes toward her hands in her lap.

Harlow leaned back in her seat and for the next two stops, stared at the advertisement next to the door. A size zero woman with a heavy-lidded expression stood stiffly in a yellow bikini next to the legend,

ARE YOU
BEACH BODY
READY?

The scars over Harlow’s ribs itched.

The operator announced her stop and she snapped out of her trance. Harlow didn’t recollect walking home, but waking up the next morning in her bed, had found her way.

Do you have a fragment you’d love to share here at Girl Meets Monster? If so, send it my way at: chellane@gmail.com.

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: Jeff Carroll

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that it’s been a year since my last Fiction Fragments post, which featured black female horror writer, R. J. Joseph. In the time that has past since the last post, a lot has happened. I published my debut novel. I published two short stories in horror anthologies (Terror Politico: A Screaming World in Chaos and The Monstrous Feminine: Dark Tales of Dangerous Women), and wrote a bunch of other blog posts for Girl Meets Monster, Speculative Chic, and Medium. I attended my first Necon and sold all the copies of Invisible Chains my publisher brought to the Merrimack Valley Halloween Book Festival, and was finally able to answer the question: Am I a Real Horror Writer? Spoiler alert: The answer is yes.

But, that’s enough about me. Today, I am thrilled to share a fragment by Jeff Carroll with you. I met Jeff Carroll a few years ago at StokerCon, but I didn’t have a chance to pick his brain and talk about his writing. So, I’m excited to have him as my first guest in this second season of Fiction Fragments.

Jeff C low res 2018Jeff Carroll is a writer and a filmmaker. He is pioneering what he calls Hip Hop horror, Sci-Fi and fantasy. His stories always have lots of action and a social edge. He has written and produced two films, Holla If I Kill You and Gold Digger Killer which won BEST Picture at the International Hip Hop film festival. His short stories have appeared in both The Black Science Fiction Society’s anthology and their magazine. He is also is the Hip Hop dating coach is a leading voice of Hip Hop reform and his book The Hip Hop Dating Guide is used by public schools and community groups nationwide. Jeff Carroll is also the author of the non-fiction book The Hip Hop Dating Guide. When he is not writing Sci-Fi stories he enjoys speaking on Healthy Dating to college and high school students everywhere and goes by Yo Jeff. He writes out of South Florida where he lives with his wife and youngest son.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Jeff. Tell me about Hip Hop horror, Sci-Fi and fantasy. How do you define these genres? What characterizes them as having a Hip Hop element? And, when did you begin developing these genres?

JC: I started calling my works Hip Hop horror in 2003 when I was promoting my movie Holla If I Kill You. The movie had some basic differences from many of the other films. It wasn’t just Black people in a horror film it was a different type of character behavior. Hip Hop Horror and sci-fi are stories that have the energy of hip hop subculture. They are multicultural, urban and young type of stories. Hip hop horror and sci-fi are based in hip hop culture and not the music only. However, I did write a hip hop story. Rasheeda the Zombie Killer is the closet story I have to a Hip Hop music influenced story.

GMM: Why speculative fiction? What draws you to these genres? What stories influenced your writing?

JC: I was drawn to speculative fiction because I am a big dreamer. I am also a futurist at heart. I love thinking about the future and solutions to the problems of the world. I loved “What if” stories like The Spook Who Sat by the Door and Planet of the Apes. Those stories influenced my Harlem Shake series. Stories like L. A. Banks’ (RIP) Vampire Huntress Legend series motivated my first horror book Thug Angel: Rebirth of a Gargoyle. I enjoyed the urban setting and the real world connection. I remember reading Street Lethal by Steven Barnes and was blow away about the freedom of sci-fi.  You could destroy the world and reshape it in any way you want. And finally, my favorite sci-fi book Zuro!: A Tale of Alien Avengers by the late William Simms showed me how revolutionary a Black imagination could be. My book Welcome to Boss Lady’s Planet was more like Star Wars and Serenity than Zuro!: A Tale of Alien Avengers because I thought I needed to lay off the Black story lines to get a publishing deal.

GMM: Do you have any new film projects in the works? Can you tell us about it?

JC: Yes, I have a movie coming out this winter called The Death Pledge. It tells the story of a group of pledgees that have to spend the night excavating an African burial ground. It features my first monster like Jason and Freddy.

Excerpt from The Programmable Man, by Jeff Carroll

Lonely Love

Sometime in the not too distant future a girl waited for a booty call. Stacey Maplewood a single independent woman who is the head pharmacist and the only female in charge of a drug store in the city. In her bedroom the smell of jasmine flavored incense filled her candle lit room as Stacey lay in her bed. Her arm dangled off the side of her bed holding a glass of wine. On a well-decorated table not far from her bed was another wine glass, which was empty and next to that was a bottle of 1978 Merlot. The décor was straight out of a Rick James song. On the same table was a plate of scallops wrapped with prosciutto crudo (raw ham) with small cubes of aged cheddar cheese and wheat crackers. Her bedroom was decorated in a dark red and white matching the wine. Inside the wall opposite from her bed a clock said 12:00 a.m. Dressed in a red silk nightgown with a matching red waist clenching garter belt skirt and red net-laced stockings, which came right above her knees Stacey looked like a French can-can dancer. Not wearing any panties on she let her hand slide between her spread open legs and lightly massage her vaginal hairs to the soft tunes of her classic love music mix with all of the import old school singers and groups. She mixed groups like Journey and Foreigner who song Feels like the first time is her favorite. She had singers like the two Barry’s Barry Manilow and Barry White and of course that British singer Maxwell whose album runs from beginning to end with no interruption. She drifts into a semiconscious slumber. She listens to the words of the love from all of the crooners.

“That’s right love me baby” she says under her breath. After being single for so long she had become a skilled pro at pleasing herself and in fact she had gotten so good at it she was scared she had ruined herself. Maxwell’s music had become her regular stimulant. “Damn they don’t write songs like this anymore” Her hand moves with melody and her back starts to arch. Her eyes close and her body temperature increases. As her natural body fluids start to mix with the jasmine incense, she lets out a soft sigh. Her sigh reminds her that no matter how good she is she can only make up half the feeling that a real bedroom partner can give. I can’t believe I have to do this to myself again and whoever said the hand is mightier than the sword never had a good sword she thought.

Stacey is a child of the early years of music, which she refers to as the second golden age 1980’s and 90s. She feels nothing has changed since then. Men are still dogs and it’s still hard for an independent woman. Even though the 80s was decades ago things haven’t changed. To her it was weird how man had solved so many problems with science but still doesn’t have a clue how to deal with man to woman relations. We could create a man for a cell of another man in something as small as a Petri dish but we can make one who knows how to treat a woman. Bullshit future. People in the 80s use to dream about the future flying cars and stuff but with no man who gives a fuck about a flying car. Stacey would rather go back to riding horses when a man only traveled around in his village. Shit of it weren’t for selfsex she would have surely slipped into a permanent depression. She was so close to marriage with her X two years ago. So, close she could taste it.

Damn she thought Martin was going to be the one who was a break from the norm. He was fine. She met him filling a prescription for Vicodin. He was recovering from knee surgery after a basketball accident. He even came to her spinning class with her. For the life of her she could not figure out why he wouldn’t call her when he was running late. She had been dating him for only two weeks and he had given her just about every excuse for coming late to their dates. He had such interesting conversations. He was her African prince. He talked about how his father had three wives and he never wanted to be like him. He had gained her trust. Maybe he was different than American men. She was still willing to give him a try. Waiting for him always made her mind wander. She would not let her head drift into fully out distrust because once she went there breaking up was the next thing to happen. So, she focused back on her handwork to take herself to a place where her thoughts could not penetrate.

“Excuse me ma’am” the voice made Stacey jump interrupting her magic. It was a mechanical voice. One Stacey had gotten used to but in this moment any voice would have startled her. She quickly moved and sat up so fast she spilled her wine. She looked at the clock and it was 1:00 a.m. She covered herself with her gown. A human like robot stood outside her bedroom door and continued “I have finished washing the dinner dishes and bagging the garbage”. Spike’s metallic finish was clean and sparkling like the day she bought him. “May I stand by the door until your date arrives?” he continued.

Damn these men she thought. Turning the music off she says, “Thank you Spike.” Taking a deep breath, she finishes “Sure stand by the door and let Martin in when he arrives.” She rolls over and takes a sip of her wine finishing it.

“As you wish ma’am” Spike says as he turns and walks down the stairs.

Spike was the treat she bought herself after she heard of her X boyfriends wedding. She ordered the male Z200 home protection model. She named him Spike after the bulldog on her favorite old school cartoon Tom and Jerry. Her personal robot made her feel secure guarding her house at night and charging itself during the day. The Z200 is very life like it looks just like a human. The come in male and female versions for the comfort of the owner. In a short time these robots have become a staple in almost every household. They provide both security and assistance replacing both domestic help and home security systems. Many people like Stacey have gotten so comfortable with their laser red eyes that they have allowed them to replace even pets.

Stacey grabs a small remote and pushes a button labeled Digi screen. The entire wall lights up and a woman standing in Times Square in front of a women next to a male robot.

“That’s right We’ve heard from hundreds of satisfied customers. So, why should you be unhappy and lonely. Let The Ultimate Companion fulfill your needs.”

That’s it I quit. Martin is just like every other man. I should have never given him my number. Why do I keep believing Jennifer when she says he’s nice? Stacey thought.

The picture on the wall changes to a man throwing a Frisbee in a park with a dog running to catch it in the air. Then the picture changes to an old man playing chess in the park with a robot man. “There are limits to what your dog give you.”

Paying no attention to the infomercial Stacey turns the channel to a lifetime movie and slowly falls asleep.

Next week, Girl Meets Monster chats with Lucy A. Snyder. Do you have a fiction fragment you’d like to share? Send it to me at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Invisible Chains: My Debut Novel

Michelle-LaneFor those of you who missed the news, my debut novel, Invisible Chains, will be released into the world July 22, 2019 by Haverhill House Publishing. If you’re as excited about this news as I am, you can pre-order a copy on Amazon, and while you’re there, you can check out my fancy new Amazon Author Page. Even though I’ve had my short fiction published, having my first novel published makes me feel like a bonafide author. See, I even have an author photo.

That’s great, Michelle, but what is your book about?

I’m glad you asked.

Jacqueline is a young Creole slave in antebellum New Orleans.  An unusual stranger who has haunted her dreams since childhood comes to stay as a guest in her master’s house. Soon after his arrival, members of the household die mysteriously, and Jacqueline is suspected of murder.  Despite her fear of the stranger, Jacqueline befriends him and he helps her escape. While running from the slave catchers, they meet conjurers, a loup-garou, and a traveling circus of supernatural freaks.  She relies on ancestral magic to guide her and finds strength to conquer her fears on her journey.

Oh, and here is the beautiful cover art designed by the very talented Errick Nunnally.

InvisibleChains_v2c-cover - 2

As many of you know, writing can be a difficult and solitary pursuit. And, if your goal is to have your work published, the stages of writing, editing, rewriting, editing again, and submitting can feel like a never-ending climb up a hill while pushing a giant rock covered in your own entrails. Plus, if you submit and get nothing but rejections it sometimes seems like a good idea to just give up and find a different way to torture yourself.

84f09108808c48fe2958b8f311d398ac

Can I tell you a secret? I’m glad I didn’t give up.

Believe me, I thought about giving up. I thought about giving up a lot. But this story lived inside me for a long time and it refused to be abandoned. This multi-genre slave narrative began its life as a short story back in the early 2000s and had a very different ending. That short story shared space on a thumb drive, untouched  with other abandoned writing projects, for several years. I mean, I would pull it out from time to time and read it but I never did anything with it until I applied to the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction (WPF) program at Seton Hill University (SHU).

Attending SHU was one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made. And, one of the scariest. At 40, I was completely dissatisfied with my life. I had a job I was on the verge of burning out on, I was unhappily married, and I was primarily responsible for raising my son who had begun to show signs of behavioral problems at daycare and school. I was the primary bread winner, I took care of the house, paid the bills, maintained social connections with friends and family, and one day I realized I was living my life for other people instead of living it for myself.

I began making a mental inventory of the things that brought me joy, and at the top of that list was writing. Writing was something I had done all my life. And, when I was writing I was happier. I started unearthing some of my unfinished short stories and realized they weren’t terrible. And then, I wondered what would happen if I took myself seriously as a writer. I made the decision to apply to SHU after asking a friend about the program. Jenda had nothing but good things to say about the program, and honestly, I think SHU should consider sending her a check each month for her excellent marketing skills.

My short story, “Freedom is in the Blood,” became Invisible Chains over the course of six years. Three years writing my thesis novel in the low residency MFA program, and three years of rewriting, editing, pitching, and submitting. In the process of writing the novel, my protagonist evolved into a stronger character who stands up to monsters to make a better life for herself.

In many ways, my protagonist evolved with me as I made changes in my own life. Deciding to write this book was the first step towards reshaping my life on my own terms. I’ve encountered my share of set backs, obstacles, and people who behave like monsters, but like Jacqueline, I keep moving forward.

In the process of moving forward, I’ve made new friends, reconnected with old friends, and built stronger relationships with the people who cheered me on through the highs and lows of writing this book. They’re good people. And I couldn’t have survived the process without their love and support.

I am very fortunate to be included in such diverse and supportive writing communities like the HWA and as an SHU alumna. And, of course, I wouldn’t be able to brag about getting my book published if I had never met the Editor-in-Chief of Haverhill House Publishing, John M. McIlveen.

I met John last year at StokerCon™ 2018 in Providence, RI. I pitched Invisible Chains to him, a book that took close to five years to write, in about ten minutes. And, much to my surprise, after babbling at him in what I believed to be incoherent nonsense, he said he’d be interested in reading it. That was the first spark of hope, and it has been one pleasant experience after the next working with John and Haverhill House Publishing.

Well, now the book is written and available for pre-order. The hardback edition will be available July 22, 2019. In the meantime, I have a stack of proofs that I would very much like to get into the hands of book reviewers and people who would be willing to blurb the book. If you or someone you know might be a good fit for a book like this, let me know and I’ll reach out to them.

What’s next, you may ask? I don’t know, but I suspect I might have to write another book.