Fiction Fragments: Sarah Read

Last week, Girl Meets Monster had a great conversation with horror writer, Todd Keisling, about religion in horror fiction and how COVID-19 has impacted his writing. This week, I have the pleasure of talking with Bram Stoker Award winner, Sarah Read.

Sarah ReadSarah Read is a dark fiction writer in the frozen north of Wisconsin. Her short stories can be found in various places, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year vols 10 and 12. A collection of her short fiction called OUT OF WATER is available now from Trepidatio Publishing, as is her debut novel THE BONE WEAVER’S ORCHARD, both nominated for the Bram Stoker Awards. When she’s not staring into the abyss, she knits. You can find her online on Instagram or Twitter @inkwellmonster or on her site at www.inkwellmonster.wordpress.com.

Three Questions

GMM: Hello Sarah. Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and congratulations on winning a Bram Stoker Award for your debut novel, The Bone Weaver’s Orchard. Tell me about how the book came about. What inspired the story, and what motivated you to finish your first novel?

SR: Thank you so much, Michelle! The book came about because I wanted to write a scary book that wedged between the gap of YA horror and adult horror. I had never been entirely satisfied with YA horror as a young reader–it wasn’t scary enough, or dark enough, it lacked honesty, and too often I could see the author pulling punches. I started reading adult horror when I was nine. I liked the scary side of it much better, but the stakes always seemed to hinge on grownup problems that I couldn’t relate to enough to fully sympathize with the characters. From there, I just took my love for Gothic lit and tossed in all my favorite ingredients. I wrote the novel for NaNoWriMo, I think back in 2014. My husband was working nights at the time, as a janitor in a hospital. Once I got our (then only) son in bed, I’d sit in my favorite chair with a notebook and pen and hit my word count for the day. I didn’t quite get that celebratory feeling when finishing it, because my inner editor had been keeping a tally of all the broken pieces I knew I was going to have to go in and fix. Writing “The End” was a moment of, “Oh shit, now the real work starts!” And it did, and lasted for several years.

GMM: Last week, I asked Todd Keisling to talk about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted his writing process. Many writers have shared on social media that they are struggling to focus on their work and haven’t been as productive as they normally would be. How has the pandemic affected your writing process? Has it inspired new stories? What advice would you give other writers who might be struggling to get words on the page?

SR: Oh gosh, my writing has been almost nonexistent for close to eight weeks now. I have two kids at home with me, stuck in the house. My eldest is 12 and has 4-6 hours of virtual classes a day, and my youngest is 5, and has no home schoolwork. My days are spent teaching 6th grade, playing with my youngest, troubleshooting eldest’s tech problems, fixing snacks every ten minutes, and I’m still also working as a librarian from home, doing virtual programs for our patrons. I’m also still freelancing (writing, editing), though I’ve had to cut back a bit on that. My husband is still at work full time. When he gets home and takes over with the kids is when my workday starts, and I’m usually not done until almost midnight. Honestly, though, even if my schedule wasn’t a shitshow, my anxiety would probably polish off any creative energy that might surface. I’ve had a few good writing sessions since this all started, but I’m definitely not anywhere close to my usual output. I’ve been at this level of anxiety once before, when I was pregnant with my second son and he kept trying to die in utero over and over and over. I was on bed rest for seven months. I thought I’d get so much done! But it was a terrifying time, and my creative energy was re-routed to self-preservation. Instead I burned through Netflix and played Age of Empires. Now it’s Animal Crossing, if I can catch a moment. I feel less guilty this time, and more comfortable focusing on taking care of myself and my family.

GMM: Your fragment has a definite fantasy feel to it, with a hint f Shakespearean drama with the death of the family patriarch and what is promising to be a dispute over who will take his place as Lord. Do you feel more at home writing fantasy or horror, or do you typically combine the two genres? Can you give a brief synopsis of The Atropine Tree?

SR: I definitely frolic in dark fantasy, and tend to blend it with horror fairly often, sometimes crossing into the Weird territory altogether. I don’t know that I prefer one style over the others. Each story feels like home while I’m writing it. The Atropine Tree definitely dances along the Weird line. It’s unabashedly paranormal, where I usually tend to keep my ghosties more ambiguous. I’m having a blast working on it, though.

The synopsis:

Alrick’s uncle Tredan has his father’s last breath trapped in a blue bottle in his lab. Which is good, because they’ll need him to weigh in on a matter of succession and the location of the missing will.

Alrick’s father is dead, but the lords and ladies of House Aldane are restless spirits. When Alrick’s half-brother Aemon (bitter and cruel) and his sister Nelda (whose mouth is stained black from poison and who sways on the line between living and dead) show up with a lawyer and a dodgy will, Alrick and his alchemist uncle must turn to some dark arts to harness the voices of their household spirits. They must win witchy Nelda’s loyalty and turn her against the powerful demonic specter of her mother, and learn to swallow her poisons in the process.

Tredan’s army of young urchins rescued from the streets of London—the scratchlings, only half of whom survived his medical administrations—will aid them in their quest to secure the land and title for Alrick.

The Atropine Tree is a weird, Gothic Victorian ghost story about family loyalty and feuds that span generations, both living and dead. They all want a home of their own—and they all want House Aldane. It’s like Downton Abbey set in Hell House with the characters of Oliver Twist and a chaser of nightshade.

The Atropine Tree, Sarah Read

Chapter One

Alrick had arrived in time, but only just. The collar of his shirt strained against his throat, his cuffs pinched his wrists like ropes binding him to his father’s bedside.

Lord Drummond’s chest rose with a sound like chalk on slate, like plough on stone—each exhalation a surrender against the struggle to draw breath.

Alrick’s uncle Tredan leaned in and held a blue orb jar to the old Lord’s slack mouth. The fog of his breath that had clouded the glass only an hour ago now barely reached past the rim.

Tredan stood poised with the lid.

Alrick counted the breaths. Counted the beads of perspiration gathered in his uncle’s beard, counted the coarse ridges of his father’s knuckles that he held between his hands. The Lord’s cold, dry hands seemed to wick the moisture from Alrick’s hot palms. He spun the ring that hung loose on his father’s finger. Those hands had once been thick with callous, rough with half-healed tears, but now the skin draped from his fingerbones like half-drawn curtains. Like the end of an act. The end of everything.

Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen. He counted.

He wondered if his school had somehow been frozen in time. If in his six years there, a hundred years had passed at House Aldane.

“Thirteen. Twelve. Eleven.” His half-sister, Nelda, counted, too. Whispered, so that the fine veil across her face barely stirred.

“Three. Two.” Nelda’s voice faded.

His father wore at least a hundred years across his brow. The jar pressed into the greying skin, burrowed in thinning whiskers. Covered the lines Alrick had watched as a child, searching for that rare trace of humor. The lines that had faded, erased after his mother died.

The lid of the jar snapped into place—and that was how Alrick Aldane learned that his father, Lord Drummond Aldane, was dead.

Uncle Tredan held the jar up to the candlelight. The mist of Alrick’s father’s last breath stretched like a ghost down the side of the jar.

While Alrick watched the light play over the droplets condensing in Tredan’s bottle, the other eyes in the room watched Alrick.

He had come home to bid his father farewell, but he would not be returning to school.

The gold signet ring stuck at his father’s knuckle. He feared he’d tear the soft crepe skin if he twisted or pulled too hard. Alrick looked to Tredan.

“I’ll take care of it. I’ll have it back to you this evening.” He slid his blue bottle into the pocket of his long coat, and for a moment, Alrick thought the bulge it formed moved as if it were breathing.

Alrick nodded and laid the slack hand on the sheet.

“Best to wait.”

Alrick turned to the voice, to his half-brother Aemon who sat in the far corner beyond the reach of the candlelight, save for its shine off his eyes and teeth.

“And why is that?” asked Alrick. If a hundred years had passed at House Aldane, a thousand had passed since he’d seen his brother. Not since his mother sent Nelda and Aemon away, to live with their mother’s family. Just before she had died. Their return to House Aldane was a special exception. Alrick himself had granted it. Lord Drummond had been their father, too, and now the four of them—Alrick, Aemon, Nelda, and Tredan—were all that remained of the ancient Aldane family.

“Father’s will hasn’t been read, yet.” The shine of Aemon’s smile stretched wide.

“Let’s not speak of such things now,” Tredan said. He waved the housekeeper Merewyn over and she began to see to Lord Drummond, a half-hitch in her breath that stirred Alrick’s own grief.

The powder smell of her apron pulled at his heart like a chain yanking him back to his childhood, to her lap, the soft cushion from which he had learned his home—the whole world. His whole world.

He reached up and ran his fingers over the wood of the wide beam that spanned the low ceiling. It had seemed so high when he was young. How he had leapt, in this very spot, to reach these distant beams. Landed there on the bed where his father now lay.

Fallen. Already sinking through the linens into the straw, as if life itself had buoyancy, and now the Lord was leaden.

Merewyn rolled a bit of blanket under his chin to hold his mouth closed. A sliver of rheumy yellow flashed from beneath his eyelids, the stillness of those soft folds uncanny. It sent cold down the back of Alrick’s neck. No living eyes could ever be so still.

“He’s with Mother, now,” Nelda said.

“With Burgrune.” Aemon put his hand on his sister’s shoulder.

Tredan nodded. “Yes, and Eleanor. He loved them both.”

“I know,” Aemon said, “I saw.”

“So you did,” agreed Tredan. “We should go. Give Merewyn room.”

Three children entered the room. All wore undyed linen smocks, their heads shaved close. Their faces were scarred with the ravages of old pox that left their skin like masks. They were urchins from London—orphans that Tredan claimed and cured.

I’m an orphan. The thought came unbidden to Alrick’s mind.

No, I’m a young man. Not a child. A Lord.

The children set to helping Merewyn—cleaning the room and folding clothes. Alrick almost wished himself in one of those smocks. Something to do. A duty. A place in the world, instead of spinning uncertainty.

Tredan’s hand rested on his shoulder and steered him toward the door. Alrick stole a final glimpse back at his father. His eyelids had slid further back. His pale eyes stared out into the room, each rolling to the opposite side. Perhaps there was a wife at each bedside and he greeted them both. Perhaps one eye looked to the past and one to the future. Or perhaps he was roving, surrounded by devils.

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: Todd Keisling

Last week I had a great chat about comics and writing inspiration with writer and illustrator, Cat Scully. This week, Girl Meets Monster is thrilled to welcome horror writer Todd Keisling.

todd 1 bw KodaKrome

Todd Keisling is a writer and designer of the horrific and strange. He is an author of several books, including Devil’s Creek, The Final Reconciliation, and Ugly Little Things: Collected Horrors, among other shorter works.

A pair of his earlier works were recipients of the University of Kentucky’s Oswald Research & Creativity Prize for Creative Writing (2002 and 2005), and his second novel, The Liminal Man, was a finalist for the Indie Book Award in Horror & Suspense (2013).

He is a former editor for The Self-Publishing Review, hosted Crystal Lake Publishing’s Beneath the Lake interview series, and co-hosted the popular live YouTube series Awkward Conversations with Geeky Writers alongside Mercedes M. Yardley, Anthony J. Rapino, Nikki Nelson-Hicks, Eryk Pruitt, and Amelia Bennett.

He dabbles in graphic design under the moniker of Dullington Design Co., and his work has graced the covers of titles published by Silver Shamrock Publishing, Flame Tree Press, Third Crow Press, Crystal Lake Publishing, Precipice Books, and Nightscape Publishing.

His written work has been praised by Cemetery Dance, This Is Horror, Night Worms, The Eyes of Madness, Hellnotes, and Horror Novel Reviews.

A former Kentucky resident, Keisling now lives somewhere in the wilds of Pennsylvania with his family where he is at work on his next novel.

Share his dread:
Twitter: @todd_keisling
Instagram: @toddkeisling
www.toddkeisling.com

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Todd. I’m so excited to have this chance to ask you some questions and learn more about you. I’ve enjoyed reading your short fiction and you seem to be publishing quite a lot lately, both short fiction and novels. During this very strange time of social distancing and the fears associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, some writers, including myself, have been struggling to get words on the page. How are you staying motivated to keep writing? What obstacles have you experienced? What does your process look like at the moment?

TK: Thanks for inviting me! Honestly, I wish I had a good answer to this, but I’m afraid I don’t. Truth is, I’m in the same boat as you and all the other writers out there who are struggling to make the magic happen on the page. I was talking to a writer pal of mine earlier today, expressing my concerns about my complete lack of focus on…well, anything, really. My productivity has nearly dropped to zero, and what little writing I have done over the last several weeks has been in small bites. On a good day, I used to average anywhere between 500 to 1K words. Lately, I think I’ve written maybe 2K words in the last three weeks.

I’ve made it no secret that I deal with anxiety and depression on a daily basis, but with the threat of COVID, the monotony of quarantine, and how uncertain our futures are, everything’s been turned up to eleven. At times it feels like we’re living with a real-life version of Delillo’s “airborne toxic event,” with the concept of our mortality much more upfront and in focus than usual. Working on my next novel just seems kind of minuscule right now in the scheme of things, you know?

That said, in the times when I’ve managed to plant my ass in front of the manuscript, I’ve constantly reminded myself that what I’m writing isn’t permanent. It’s a first draft. It’s okay for it to be shit. And it’s okay not to write every day.

I know that’s all very basic Writer 101 stuff, but I’ve found that’s what works for me in times when my mental health isn’t at its best. And, really, I think that’s what might be best for all of us right now: take things a day at a time, remind yourself that it’s okay not to be perfect, and do what you can. We’re all in panic mode right now, whether we want to admit it or not, and I think it’s imperative we be kind to ourselves above all else.

GMM: Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were plenty of scary things happening in the world — politically, environmentally, economically, socially. How have current events shaped your writing? Is it easier to write horror during times characterized by fear and uncertainty? What scares you the most?

TK: I think those things are always in the back of my head one way or another, and they usually inform my characters or their motivations. Writing horror has always been an outlet for me, a way of exorcising my demons and dealing with those issues by way of writing them down. So, when it comes to facing the socio-economic uncertainty of our times, I tend to do so through my characters.

For example, I’ve been working on revising and expanding my first two novels while also writing the final novel in that trilogy. The main character and his wife are Millennials, he’s had to take on a crappy job in order to provide for her since she has health issues that prevent her from working, and the issue of money is a constant source of friction between them.

Over the course of the series, the protagonist’s job, life choices, and his inability to escape this box he’s built for himself serve as a subtext for the horror that unfolds. There’s a kind of unspoken economic anxiety that manifests in certain situations throughout the story—the idea of being sold an education that doesn’t live up to its promise, the debilitating cost of healthcare, the way we’re forced to compromise our goals in order to scrape by every day, and so on.

I’m a Millennial. I worked in a single income household for half a decade. I’ve experienced those hardships, lost sleep over hating my job, put off doctor visits because of the expense (even with insurance), felt completely lost and trapped, and had ridiculous arguments with my spouse over money. Losing my home, losing my family, losing myself—those things are what scare me, and all those situations, fears, and anxieties usually manifest in my fiction. Often in horrific ways. It’s the only way I know how to deal with them.

GMM: After reading your excerpt, I started thinking about the role religion often plays in horror fiction. You describe what I assume was a religious community with cult-like followers that ended in tragedy, as they are often wont to do. I sometimes joke about the fact that most of my knowledge of religion comes from horror fiction and movies. How much of an impact has religion had on your writing? Is it a recurring theme in your horror fiction?

TK: “I sometimes joke about the fact that most of my knowledge of religion comes from horror fiction and movies.”

It’s funny you said this, Michelle, because I’m the opposite. Almost everything I know about horror comes from a religious background.

I grew up in southeastern Kentucky, in a Southern Baptist household. When I was a kid, I was indoctrinated in that way of thinking, so everything I did was overshadowed with this impending doom of eternal damnation if I didn’t live the way I was told. I had a very clear picture of Hell from a young age, and now that I think about it, it probably had something to do with the anxiety issues I deal with now. There’s always this fear of not measuring up, of always falling short, and so on.

Anyway, when it comes to horror, religion is always going to be a place to find the darkest aspects of mankind. So much has been done in the name of a god, be it one with a capital G or otherwise, and all for the purpose of manipulating minds, curating division, or justifying bloodshed. I’m reminded of the song “Mist and Shadow” by The Sword: Why do people wonder if there is evil in the world? / If it’s lurking in the darkness until its plans can unfurl / When it’s standing before you in the clear light of day / In a finely tailored suit with a smile on its face.

All of that is my long-winded way of saying “Yes” to your question. Religion tends to be a recurring theme in my fiction, especially over the last few years. In relation to my forthcoming novel, Devil’s Creek, religion is a means of revealing the worst in people. If I had to sum up the book, it’s about how an infectious religion—and the resulting zealotry—can destroy a community.

DEVIL’S CREEK – Excerpt

Silver Shamrock Publishing – Release Date 6/16/20

His mind wandered into the dark, and his imagination had its way with him again. Being alone in this ghost town unsettled him, put him on edge like he’d never felt before. He felt like a trespasser in a graveyard. The folks who’d pulled up stakes, sold all their belongings, and given it to his father’s church for the sake of building a utopia in the forest all died here. Their spirits would roam here for the rest of eternity, walking hand in hand, replaying the final moments of their lives.

“Stop it,” he said, ignoring the chattering of his teeth. “You’re scaring yourself.”

Maybe it was the dark. Maybe it was the empty village of the dead. Maybe it was the fact his friend hadn’t come back.

Oh shit.

Zeke stood and crept to the edge of the doorway. He peered out. Moonlight filtered through the trees, illuminating a path through the remains of the holy compound.

“Waylon?” The forest rustled and breathed around him. He cleared his throat and spoke louder. “Waylon, stop fuckin’ around, man.”

The forest said nothing, and neither did his friend. Another chill swept over him, racking his body with shivers for a full minute until he got a grip on himself.

This is stupid, he thought. You’re freaking yourself out for nothing. That dipshit is out there laughing his ass off at you. He knew all along what this place meant to you, and he brought you here just to fuck with you.

“And it’s working,” he mumbled. The forest absorbed his voice, masking it with the primitive sounds of nature, of crickets and rodents in the brush and brambles, of rustling leaves in a wind far too cold for this time of year. He called out to Waylon again and waited, listening to his heart thud heavily in his chest.

One-one-thousand.

Two-one-thousand.

Three-one-thousand.

Four-one—

A guttural scream tore through the night, shredding any hope of this being a joke. Heart racing, his legs like jelly, Zeke scrambled out of the shack and into the fractured moonlight. He called to Waylon once more, but his friend was silent. The forest swallowed his cries as easily as it swallowed his mind, projecting phantoms through the undergrowth, shadow puppets in the dim glow of the moon. Everything moved around him, driven by the wind, and the constant hiss of rustling leaves filled his head with serpents.

Confused, his heart in the grip of an icy terror he’d not felt since he was a child, Zeke Billings pumped his legs and forced himself forward into the dark. He followed the dim outline of a trail through the center of the village, past a dozen overgrown structures, their slipshod windows filled with the faces of the dead. He saw them from the corner of his eye as he ran, and he told himself they weren’t there, they were tricks of moonlight, broken by the limbs and leaves and reassembled by his feral imagination.

His drive to find Waylon was fueled by a desire to leave this place, to leave its silent memory of servitude and damnation behind forever, cast back into the darkened halls of his nightmares.

So he ran. He ran until a phantom fist clenched at his ribs, tugging with each step he took. He ran until his heart pumped steam and his lungs burst with fire. Tears streamed down his face as he shot forward to the clearing ahead, each step more laborious than the last, and when his feet caught the rotted husk of a fallen log, he welcomed the sweet collapse. The hard, musty earth and soft grass of an open field met his face.

Zeke pushed himself from the ground and rose to his knees. He wiped his eyes, and when his vision finally cleared, his heart sank deep into his gut.

“No, no, no, not here, anywhere but here…”

Calvary Hill rose in the center of the clearing, the old stony pathway up its face overgrown with weeds. The church was long gone, of course, burned to cinders and ash decades before, but its ghost remained in the window of his imagination.

A full moon hung overhead, aligned perfectly over the hill like the unblinking eye of God. Susan’s words filled his head, a memory from earlier when the world still made some semblance of sense to him. It’s a full moon tonight.

Zeke stood on his knees, staring up at the silent monument of his childhood, watching incredulously as the earth breathed in the moonlit glow. He was so enraptured by the sight, he didn’t register movement from the corner of his eye.

There were sucking sounds coming from behind him. Slurping, cracking, crunching sounds. A spike of fear wedged itself into his belly, filling him with a numbing cold leeching his last ounce of resolve. Slowly, Zeke turned his head toward the sounds, his heart shooting back into high gear when he saw the hulking shadow leaning over the dead log.

The shadow moved, allowing the moonlight to wash over the log, and Zeke froze in horror.

Waylon lay sprawled on the grass, one leg twisted back at an impossible angle, his glassy eyes locked on the indifferent sky above, and a grotesque sneer of agony frozen to his face. His shirt was ripped open, his chest nothing more than a cavity of exposed meat and gore. A light tendril of steam rose from the warmth of his entrails.

The shadow reached into the hole of Waylon’s chest, snapped off one of his ribs, and began sucking on the marrow.

“Oh God,” Zeke mumbled, the words barely more than a rasp, and the shadow heard him. It raised its head and turned toward him, revealing a face coated in mud and blood. Worms writhed through the thing’s greasy hair, feeling their way along the curve of its forehead and around the dried “o” of an old gunshot wound. The shadow crunched down on Waylon’s broken rib and cast its gaze upon him. Its eyes glowed, two sapphire orbs floating in the dark.

Zeke Billings met the living face of his nightmare and began to scream.

Jacob Masters flashed a grim smile. “My little lamb,” he rasped.

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.