Fiction Fragments: Christopher Golden

Last week I had a dream conversation with one of my writing heroes and fellow vampire enthusiast, Jewelle Gomez. I’m really proud of that intereview and hope you enjoy it, too.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes yet another writer who has been an inspiration to me, Christopher Golden. Not only is he an inspiration as a successful writer of scary stories, but also as someone who supports the work of other writers.

Christopher Golden is the New York Times bestselling author of Ararat, Snowblind, Red Hands, and many other novels. He is the co-creator, with Mike Mignola, of the Outerverse horror comics, including Baltimore, Joe Golem: Occult Detective, and Lady Baltimore. As editor, his anthologies include the Shirley Jackson Award winning The Twisted Book of Shadows, The New Dead, and many others. Golden is also a screenwriter, producer, video game writer, co-host of the podcast Defenders Dialogue, and founded the Merrimack Valley Halloween Book Festival. Nominated ten times in eight different categories for the Bram Stoker Award, he has won twice, and has also been nominated for the Eisner Award, the British Fantasy Award, and multiple times for the Shirley Jackson Award. Golden was born, raised, and still lives in Massachusetts.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Chris. Tell me about your newest book, Red Hands, which I believe is out now. Without giving away too many spoilers, what is the book about and what inspired the story?

CG: Thanks so much! Red Hands opens at a July 4th parade in a small town in the mountains of New Hampshire. A car plows through the crowd and a sick man staggers out of the vehicle. When people try to restrain him, everyone he touches becomes hideously sick within seconds and drops dead. When Maeve Sinclair steps in to stop the man, she ends up killing him, and the death touch he possesses—the Red Hands virus—passes to her. Ironically, I finished the novel in January of 2020, before the world became truly aware of the coronavirus. The idea for Red Hands had been bubbling in my brain for years before I set about writing it. Though it has a killing contagion at its core, and though it resonates strongly with Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” at its most basic it’s really about how much we rely on the people around us, how much we need them, and about what it would feel like to know that you could never touch them again for fear of killing them. Which, of course, has taken on a whole new weight in the current environment.

GMM: You’re obviously a successful writer, with several awards under your belt, as well as being a New York Times best selling author. For many writers, finding yourself on the New York Times best selling author list is like a dream come true. It’s something many of us aspire to. Something any writer could be proud of. How has that success affected you as you continue to write? A few months ago, I interviewed Paul Tremblay, who was very candid about his experiences with impostor syndrome and the feelings of doubt that creep into our brains as creative people. Can you share what your experience as a writer has been in terms of impostor syndrome and how you push through it to keep writing? Were there any negative side effects of becoming a best-selling author?

CG: It’s certainly a mark of pride to be able to call yourself a New York Times bestselling author, but beneath the umbrella of that phrase is a vast array of different experiences. There are NYT bestselling authors who make the list with every book and who consequently make many millions of dollars per year. Then there are those of us who were fortunate enough to break onto the list with one project or another, but who are far from the sort of household names that usually make the list. I’m happy and proud to be able to say I’ve been on the list, but it hasn’t really affected me very much. It’s a constant battle to get readers’ eyes on your work. Some people know who you are, but most people don’t, and some who do have made up their minds about what they think of you without ever reading your work. I don’t know until a book is in readers’ hands and I start to see the results whether or not it’s any good. And I certainly never know if something is going to sell. My sales tend to rollercoaster, with one book doing pretty well and the next crashing into the basement, so I have to start from scratch for the one after that. But I’ve been on that rollercoaster for dozens of books over the course of twenty-five years or so. I don’t love riding it, but I’m used to it by now. As for impostor syndrome…very occasionally I’ll have a day where I’m working and I think I may actually be fairly good at this job, but that lasts about half an hour, and then I’m frustrated with myself again. I always try to explain that when I want you to read my book, I’m not making a quality judgement about it myself. I’m asking you to read it and make that call for yourself, mostly because I love the story I dreamed up and I want to share it with you. Whether I told my story well is really up for you to decide. And that evaluation is going to vary from reader to reader.

GMM: What is one of the most personally rewarding experiences you’ve had as a writer, and what advice would you give to new writers in terms of how to define success in their writing careers?

CG: I’m going to come at this from a certain angle—with a story. Years ago, not long after Bantam published Baltimore, or, the Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire, which I wrote with Mike Mignola, we made a deal for New Regency Films to make a movie version. They optioned the rights to the book and hired me and Mike to write the screenplay. By that time, I’d already had loads of Hollywood disappointments, but this was my first screenwriting experience. I was truly excited about it, though still pretty realistic about the odds of making it all the way to a finished film. We had family coming over for someone’s birthday or one holiday or another, and my wife Connie bought a bottle of champagne. She wanted to celebrate the Baltimore movie and screenplay deal with the family. I refused to do that. I said we’d hold off on celebrating until the movie was actually made and released, because that would be the triumph, that would be the success for us to celebrate. Of course the movie didn’t get made—not then, anyway. At first the cynic in me thought that justified my original reaction, but over the years I’ve done a complete one-eighty on this subject. I regret not celebrating then. It was absolutely worth celebrating, an important step for me and a moment I should have been willing to rejoice in. Success is moment by moment. It comes in tiny victories. The really big ones are few and far between, and there are always setbacks, small failures and disappointments. Cherish the small successes, the small victories, every step you take that’s a step forward. Don’t hesitate to celebrate. You’re not going to jinx anything. Just keep your head down and do your work and when good things happen, pause to mark them and appreciate them…and then get back to work.

RED HANDS
by Christopher Golden

~1~

Later, Maeve Sinclair will think of the girl with the pink balloon, and her heart will ache with a sting unlike anything she’s felt before. She’ll feel that sting forever, or for as long a forever as the world is willing to give her. In her mind’s eye, the little girl’s hand will always clutch the balloon string so fiercely, and Maeve knows it’s because the girl lost her balloon at the Fourth of July parade the year before. When you’re three years old, that’s the sort of thing that can scar you, and little Callie Ellroy was three last year when she watched her Mickey Mouse balloon sail into the blue and vanish forever.             

It’s not Mickey this year, just an ordinary pink balloon, even a bit underinflated, as if Callie didn’t want to invest quite as much of her now-four-year-old adoration this time around. Yet she holds the string so tightly and smiles so brightly, showing all of her crooked teeth and every ounce of the joy bursting within her, that Maeve is sure the little girl can’t help but love that balloon. A little deflated or not. Plain, ordinary, boring balloon or not. Her sneakers are the same pink as the balloon, and though Maeve can’t hear the words she speaks when she tugs her mother’s arm and points at her sneakers, the pantomime is enough to communicate just how much delight she’s taken from this moment of pink epiphany.             

Maeve has watched Callie Ellroy grow. She can remember the moment five years ago when Biz Ellroy—short for Elizabeth—had rushed up to her, beaming, and shared the news that she was pregnant with the little bean that would become Callie. Biz had even picked out her name already.

At twenty-nine, the memory makes Maeve feel unsettlingly adult. She’d been standing in nearly the same spot where she stands today, watching a troupe of clowns toss candy from the back of an antique fire truck while the Conway High School marching band blatted on trumpets and thundered on drums in a rough approximation of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” But she’d been twenty-five then, still young enough that older people hesitated to take her seriously. Now she’s on the verge of thirty, unmarried, no children, steadily employed but not in love with her job, and looking for a change.

Maeve gets a little shiver as she watches Biz holding Callie’s hand. The same antique fire engine goes by, probably the same clowns on the back, throwing the same stale candy. Only Maeve figures the fire engine is a little more antique now than it was then, and aren’t they all, really?             

Time is fucking merciless, Maeve thinks. It doesn’t ever slow down for you, even when you need it to. Even when, for instance, you still live in your hometown and can never escape the certainty that there’s another life for you out there, somewhere. Maeve wants to work to improve people’s lives, but after four years studying global health and public policy at George Washington University, dipping her toe in the water of half a dozen D.C. internships, she felt lost. She came back to Jericho Falls and got a job working for CareNH, a White Mountains political action committee. The money sucks, but she loves New Hampshire. She loves her parents, and her brother and sister. Over the past year, she’s foolishly allowed an old flame to reignite, and that makes it harder to leave and all the more important that she does.             

The new job’s in Boston. A non-profit called Liquid Dreams, which she thinks is a stupid name but she admires the hell out of the company’s mission, fighting for clean drinking water in the U.S. and around the globe, and fighting against corporations trying to monopolize control of the water supply. It’s a fight worth having, and so what if her job is as an events coordinator and not impacting the company’s political efforts—she’ll be serving that admirable goal, and that’s what matters to her.             

It’s time to leave Jericho Falls. She just has to tell her family. And she has to tell her…Nathan. Her Nathan. She guesses he’s her boyfriend, but that seems too concrete a word for the tentative way they dance around each other. Or, more accurately, the way she dances around him. Maeve is sure he’ll want to carry on seeing her, even if it means a long distance relationship. Three hours in the car doesn’t seem that long to begin with, but Maeve already knows it’s going to wear on them, and the truth is she never really thought of her thing with Nathan as long-term, just like she never thought she’d stay home for seven years after college. Both things just sort of happened. She wonders if she ought to leave both of them behind—Jericho Falls and her relationship. Nathan’s sweet and a comfort to be around, but so were the plush animals in her childhood bedroom.             

Today’s parade feels like an ending of sorts, and maybe a beginning, too. The Mayor rolls by, sitting in the back of an old Cadillac convertible with his leathery wife, who’s never quite learned how to apply her makeup. Maeve feels a rush of love for the old bat and for her town, because in other places the Mayor’s wife might’ve been replaced by a younger, blonder version, but in Jericho Falls, she looks just the way you’d expect her to look. The future is going to catch up to her town soon, and though Maeve yearns to be a part of the rush of the real world, it saddens her to think of Jericho Falls changing. She thinks, momentarily, that the Mayor’s wife should ditch him for a younger, more attractive husband, and then run for Mayor herself. If the future has to come to Jericho Falls, Maeve wants it to arrive in heels.             

All of these thoughts spin through her head while she glances around the crowd. Her dad munches an ice cream sandwich from a street vendor. He’s with Rue Crooker, maybe his best and oldest friend, so close that when the kids were little they called her Auntie Rue. Maeve’s brother Logan is over beside their mom, on the other side of the street, which is a good illustration of their lives since Ellen Sinclair finally had enough of her husband Ted’s alcoholism and changed the locks on the house. None of it had been as ugly as Maeve feared, but it hasn’t been pretty, either. Her dad’s had a rough time with addiction, but he’s kicked the pills at least, and he’s trying, which is maybe why Ellen and Ted can stand across the street from each other and offer a smile and subdued wave.             

Maeve likes that. They’ll always be family, thanks to the three children they share, so it’s nice if they can manage not to hate each other. The youngest member of Maeve’s family finally arrives, her twenty-one year old sister Rose, who grins nervously as she approaches their mother and Logan while holding hands with her girlfriend in public for the very first time.

This is the Sinclair family today, doing their best to reenact a tradition begun decades earlier. The Jericho Falls Fourth of July parade, held at 11 a.m. on the actual goddamn Fourth of July, no matter the weather and no matter the stink some locals put up because they like the parade but they want to be on vacation somewhere nicer, somewhere with a great fireworks display, on the actual holiday. Other cities and towns cave to the pressure, celebrate a few days before or even after the Fourth, but not Jericho Falls. Fuck that. It’s another thing that makes Maeve proud of her town.             

She’ll dwell on all of this later. She’ll turn it over in her head, wondering if there was something she could have done differently, anything that might have changed the outcome. If she had been paying more attention to her family, or the parade, or the crowd instead of lost inside her head and worrying about breaking the news of her new job and impending departure to her mom, would she have been able to save lives?             

Would she have been able to save herself?              

Of course, she’ll never know.

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: 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.