Fiction Fragments: Ronald J. Murray

Last week, Girl Meets Monster had a delightful conversation about how music inspires the writing process with J. Edwin Buja. This week, I welcome fellow horror writer, Ronald J. Murray.

IMG_20190909_184650Ronald J. Murray lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His fiction has appeared in The Ladies and Gentlemen of Horror 2017 charity anthology, Bon Appetit: Stories and Recipes for Human Consumption cannibal-themed anthology and recipe book, and the forthcoming Lustcraftian Horrors: Erotic Stories Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft from Infernal Ink Books. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association. You can find him enjoying his umpteenth cup of coffee at some ungodly hour while a film he’s seen a million times before plays in the background.

Three Questions

GMM: Tell me a little bit about your fragment. You gave me just enough to be hooked. Is this a traditional ghost story, or can I expect to see something different than the expected horror tropes?

RJM: Without giving anything major away, I can tell you that this story contains a lot of psychological elements, as in psychological manifestations of memories, feelings, and the consequences of actions taken in the past by two protagonists. These characters will be put through a gauntlet of horrors specially designed for them as individuals with some elements that are objectively observable and experienced by both.

In short, yes, there will be ghosts, literally and figuratively. But would I feel comfortable calling this a traditional ghost story? Definitely not.

What I hope to accomplish with this first novel, From Out of the Black Fog, is an anthology series of novels with new characters experiencing something different in an alternate version of Monongahela, Pennsylvania.

GMM: Speaking of tropes, I see that you have a short story in a collection called Lustcraftian Horrors: Erotic Stories Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft. What is the title of your story in this collection? Lovecraftian Horror is familiar to most people who read horror fiction, but the concept of Lovecraft meets erotica is intriguing. Have you written other horror erotica? What challenges did you face working within that subgenre?

RJM: The title of this short story is In the Labyrinth, about a sex-addict seeking extra-marital thrills that ends up wrapped up with a cult that worships the perverse fertility goddess Shub-Niggurath. I imagine that Lovecraft is rolling over in his grave at the creation of this anthology, considering his suspected aversion to sex and women.

I have had other horror erotica published, one of which was Cornelia in Bon Appetit. The biggest challenge I’ve faced working within the subgenre is weaving a sex plot in with a horror plot. I’ve reconciled the issue with the perspective that sex is one of the most intimate and vulnerable places a person can put themselves in. If something horrifying happens as a result, that subverts something that’s safe and pleasurable under normal circumstances. It’s a real Junji Ito solution!

GMM: Cannibalism is a taboo subject that makes a lot of people uncomfortable, which is probably why it is a recurring theme in horror fiction. One of my favorite fictional cannibals is Hannibal Lecter, because he is a complex character that blurs the line between the horror of murder and our fascination with the macabre. Which cannibals, real or fictional, inspired your short story in Bon Appetit: Stories and Recipes for Human Consumption?

RJM: I can’t say that I was inspired by a real or fictional cannibal to write this story. My inspiration for the cannibalistic antagonist in this story stemmed from the horrors of war. Doyle was a Vietnam War veteran who’d been separated from his unit during battle. He developed the taste for human flesh while surviving in the dense jungles of Vietnam until he was eventually rescued.

From Out of the Black Fog, A Novel by Ronald J. Murray

Lorne kept his eyes forward and high enough that he wouldn’t walk face-first into anything. He watched the glow and fade of streetlights illuminate the sidewalk, and he listened to the occasional whish of cars that rolled along Main Street beside him. He didn’t want to shift his vision elsewhere. He didn’t want to look up again and into any window that he’d passed. He just wanted to keep going forward, keep walking to his car, which he’d parked at the lot at the Aquatorium.

He looked up. His skin crawled. It’s like when your head knows there’s something you shouldn’t look at for too long or it’ll really screw you up, you just keep staring. You can’t help it.

He shut his eyes and turned his head. The snap motion was almost dizzying. He didn’t care. Then, he looked again. He swallowed hard. His eyes locked to it this time. He’d heard of people seeing their dead loved ones in their peripheral vision or in the faces of others while they grieved. It started like that, earlier in the day, but it devolved to this disturbing level.

In every window that he passed, he saw Amber’s face. Drained of color and cold, expressionless. Her empty eyes looked at him, unblinkingly. She followed him, seemingly crossed the alleyways he’d passed unseen, and appeared again in the dark windows of the next building. Over and over. When the window was large enough, he saw more than her face. He saw her hunched walk that kept pace with him. He saw her head kept turned nearly ninety-degrees to watch him.

No. He shut his eyes tight. He shook his head. No. He was cracking. That was it. That had to be it. He was having a psychotic break or something. You don’t see shit like this if you’re a normal person with a quiet normal life who loses a loved one just like everyone else in the world.

He turned his head. He opened his eyes. He began walking again. Someone passed him from behind, and he shoved his hands deeper into his jacket pockets. He drew his arms tighter against his body. The person went into Jim’s Bar just ahead. The scent of fried food and cigarette smoke poured onto the street for a second.

Something thudded loudly beside him. Lorne jumped. A hand smacked glass beside him. Amber’s face stared through the square window of a thick wooden door that led to the apartments above a shop. Her hand was still pressed against the pane. The doorknob began to rattle.

Adrenaline found his limbs. He jogged away. People, he thought. I need to get around other people. He tore the door to Jim’s Bar open. A few patrons glared at him through a cloud of smoke illuminated by television screens. He took a few steps further inside and shot his eyes back and forth. He sucked a breath deep into his chest, and he hoped he wouldn’t encounter anything to extraordinary here.

Next week, I’ll be talking to EV Knight, so get excited. Do you have a fiction fragment to share? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Can You Judge a Book by Its Cover? An Interview with Artist & Writer Dyer Wilk

Dyer Wilk author picGMM: Hi Dyer, welcome to Girl Meets Monster. Back in July, I had the pleasure of chatting with you at NECON 39. It feels like that happened a very long time ago, but I enjoyed talking with you about your artwork. Each piece had a story. Can you tell us about where your inspiration comes from, and how you got your start as a cover artist?

DW: Thanks, Michelle. It was a pleasure meeting you, too, and getting a chance to talk a little bit about the art I had on display. I think inspiration is one of those things that’s a mix of conscious and unconscious. It ends up coming from just about everywhere, whether I realize it or not. I spend a lot of time thinking about what a particular book cover needs to look like, and I give a great deal of consideration to other pieces of art that look or feel similar to what I’m hoping to achieve, but a lot of the time, after a piece is finished, I’ll look back at it and realize it reminds me of something I’d never thought about while working on it.

Of course, I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. Art has always been a big part of my life. So, having it come full circle in unexpected ways isn’t unwelcome. My start as a cover artist was a lot like that – unexpected. When I was a kid I always figured I’d become a visual artist in some kind of professional capacity, even though I had no idea how to go about that. In my early teens, I decided I wanted to make movies for a living and was stubborn enough to major in film in college only to realize about halfway through that succeeding in Hollywood is highly unlikely, no matter how passionate you are about what you see as an art. It started to become obvious that there was a certain amount of poisonous egotism and greed surrounding the film industry and many of the people who work within it. Narcissism and back-stabbing aren’t something I want to be around, so that meant I had to look for something else to pursue. That led me to the idea of writing books instead.

After I started to see some of my short fiction getting published, I got to know other writers, and made a few friends. Occasionally, I’d share some of my artwork online. Sometimes as nothing more than a joke. Sometimes to cheer up friends who were going through hard times. But mostly because I have issues with social anxiety and it can take me a while to open up to people and get comfortable. If a piece of art I created could get across an idea in a way that I didn’t feel able to with words, I felt like I’d succeeded. But it did come as a surprise to me when people started to ask if I took commissions and what my rates were.

Freelancing wasn’t something I’d considered up until that point. I’d become so fixated on trying to get to a place where I could write full time that I hadn’t considering being able to make some kind of income by working on the other side of the writing business. Ironically, after a few years of creating book covers full time, I’ve learned a lot more about publishing than I ever did when I was focused on writing alone.

The Ranger coverGMM: What is the most rewarding part of creating the hauntingly beautiful pieces you had on display at NECON 39?

DW: Definitely getting a chance to display them at all and see the positive reactions that people had to them. A lot of the time I feel like book covers are an under-appreciated art form. We live in a world where most book covers are now stock photos that resemble thousands of other stock photos. They’re posted online where a reader will scroll through thousands of other book covers, and most likely stop for only a fraction of a second before moving on. That can make all the effort to make a book stand out by investing a lot of time and passion into the design feel a little futile. But it feels good to be in a place where that art is appreciated and seen as something more than just a product.

GMM: Are there any artists who have influenced or inspired your work? Classical, comic book, or other cover artists?

DW: There have a been a lot of influences over the years, but off the top of my head (and probably most influential on what I’ve been doing more recently), I’d say Dave McKean, Bill Sienkiewicz, Russell Mills, John Jude Palencar, and Drew Struzan. Going further back, Michael Whelan, Frank Frazetta, Edward Hopper, Wayne Barlowe, Vincent van Gogh, Arthur Szyk, Alphonse Mucha, Gustave Doré, Bernie Wrightson, and Edward Gorey all definitely made a big impression on me. There are dozens of others who created various book covers, album covers, and movie posters that I’ve fallen in love with over the years. Sadly, I haven’t been able to track down the names of every artist responsible, which is a shame, because there are certain images that have absolutely mesmerized me – such as a particular paperback cover for The Dark Half, the Night on Bald Mountain sequence in Fantasia, John Alvin’s poster art for The Lost Boys, Paul Whitehead’s album art for Foxtrot by Genesis, the VHS box art for a copy of Goldfinger that I bought in the mid-‘90s, etc.

GMM: You also write fiction. What are your preferred genres to write? How is the creative process different for you when you write as opposed to when you’re creating artwork? Do you prefer designing covers to writing fiction?

The Moore House coverDW: When it comes to writing, I prefer horror and science fiction, often with an emphasis on history. The writing process itself is very different from cover design. I tend to spend several weeks or months researching and outlining a book before spending a few more weeks or months writing it, whereas I typically spend only a few days working on the average book cover. For that reason, I feel like I get something out of writing that I don’t get out of cover design. I can live with a book for a long time and enjoy walking around inside that imaginary world, getting to know its characters. Book covers come and go very quickly, and when it’s a cover I feel especially attached to, it seems to pass far more quickly than I would like, to the point where I end up feeling up I must have missed something or could have done a better job if I’d had more time.

GMM: How has your artwork evolved over time? Where do you see it going in the future?

DW: When I was a kid, my art was less personal in a lot of ways. Creating art was definitely an outlet for whatever was going on in my life, but I didn’t really see myself in it until later. I was more concerned with emulating whatever movies or comics I was into at the time. But somewhere around my early teens that started to shift a bit.

I went though a lot of phases, like most people do, and the art reflected that. If it was a goth phase, the art was gothy. If it was a metal phase, the art was still gothy, but now I could say it was metal. And since my love of horror has been lifelong, any goth or metal-inspired art still manages to fit into that enough to where I don’t feel too embarrassed by some of the cheesier things I once designed. But what I did come to realize later is that all of that art is me. I can look at a handful of drawings I’ve created over the years and trace how I’ve changed as a person, from a kid who liked scary movies but didn’t know much about how truly frightening real life can be to an adult who has some difficult years behind him but still enjoys scary movies and creating horror-themed art because they’ve become cathartic in a way.

I’m not sure what the future will hold for my art, but I hope that I’ll continue to find some kind of fulfillment in it. That said, getting more commissions and having a little more artistic freedom on projects overall is definitely what I’d like to see happen.

Rigor Morbid LYB coverGMM: Are you making art that doesn’t end up on covers? What other visual mediums are you interested in pursuing?

DW: Freelancing sometimes has a negative side-effect of making me feel unconnected to the work. It’s rare, but there have occasionally been difficult projects with a lot of micromanaging, lofty demands for repeated changes, or hours of work being scrapped entirely. That side of things can be incredibly disheartening and leave me feeling like I’m only a set of hands that has to go through the motions and can’t contribute anything of myself to the art. But that also pushes me to explore art for myself whenever I can. I genuinely enjoy what I do most of the time, but when a difficult project comes along, I need to be able to sit down and put those same skills into something I care about, where there are no guidelines or expectations imposed on the work by anyone but myself.

A couple pieces like that ended up being displayed at Necon, but there are a lot more. The older I get, the more I realize that art (or at least the personal side of it) is a form of therapy for me. If I’m not sitting in front of the computer and painting digitally, then I’m working on something else that allows me to be creative. I’d very much like to shift back to working with real paint and ink. Waiting for something to dry isn’t always conducive to meeting tight deadlines, but there’s a certain look and feel real paint has that digital often lacks. Beyond that, I miss sculpting and working with Papier-mâché – both of which I haven’t done in nearly a decade now. I’d even like to pursue film on some level again, if the project is small enough, I could work with people I trust, and there’s an atmosphere during production that’s respectful and healthy for everyone involved.

TriggersGMM: What are you writing about at the moment?

DW: I’m currently working on a novel that I first started back in 2011. It’s been sitting in a drawer for a lot longer than I ever expected it to, but I don’t think I was really ready to write it during my first attempt. I was going through a very bad bout of depression at the time, and I couldn’t deal with writing about something along those lines until I was in a better place. It’s essentially a slasher movie in book form, but with a strong emphasis on the individual characters and the experiences that have led them to the terrifying situation they find themselves in. It’s definitely meant to skew more towards realism than cheesy B-movie fun though. I grew up watching a lot of schlocky gorefests on VHS, and I’m always going to have a soft spot for those, but I’m hoping to find a middle ground between the clichéd tropes and a believable reality in which people find themselves trapped and fighting for their lives, where the characters (including the antagonist) aren’t cardboard and we can actually empathize with them.

Fiction Fragments: K.W. Taylor

Last week, Girl Meets Monster had a visit from Lana Ayers who talked to us about her debut novel, Time Flash: Another Me and this week K.W. Taylor is here to share a fragment about a time-traveling elevator.

small_bw_headshot_professional_kw_taylor.jpgK.W. Taylor’s first science fiction novel, The Curiosity Killers, came out in the spring of 2016 from Dog Star Books. Her debut novel, The Red Eye, combines urban fantasy and horror (Alliteration Ink, 2014). Her work has been published in numerous periodicals. Anthology appearances include Ink Stains (Dark Alley, 2017), A Terrible Thing (555/Carrion, 2016), Life after Ashes (Alliteration Ink 2015), The Grotesquerie (Mocha Memoirs Press, 2014), 100 Worlds (Dreamscape Press, 2013), Sidekicks! (Alliteration Ink, 2013), Once Bitten, Never Die (Wicked East Press, 2011), and 555 Vol. 3: Questions and Cancers (Carrion Blue, 2018). Taylor holds an M.F.A. in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University, an M.A. in literature, and teaches college in Ohio, where she’s working on her Ph.D. She blogs at kwtaylorwriter.com.

Three Questions

Girl Meets Monster: What was your inspiration for this fragment, and why did you abandon it?

KWT: I started and abandoned this fragment in 2014, with the working title “Elevator Out of Time.” When I began it, I was noodling around with my thesis novel’s mechanics of time traveling, and I wrote this as a possible spin-off story that could explain how time travel worked. Ultimately, I didn’t like the mechanics, and I realized later that the setting was a little too on-the-nose for someone working in higher education (you’ll see what I mean).

Girl Meets Monster: Time travel is obviously a very popular trope in genre fiction, what was the first time travel story that caught your attention, and why?

KWT: Some of my first exposure to time travel was via the first Back to the Future film, which came out at a formative time in my life. BttF is a much more historic/nostalgic view of time travel, however, and the physics elements of it as well as the connection with space travel is much more apparent in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels, which I read as a kid. Perhaps because of these two early influences, I tend to blend that sense of mystery and nostalgia with the element of physics and space travel, and my own time travel work is a bit more hybrid as a result.

Girl Meets Monster: In your opinion, what are some of the worst examples of how time travel has been used in fiction? Some of the best?

KWT: Some of the best examples of time travel fiction other than the above include Quantum Leap, which hits that history/nostalgia element really hard, and Stephen King’s 11/22/63, which does the same but goes much, much darker. In the latter, I especially love the added fate and horror elements that imply that while you may be able to travel in time, changing history is going to get you in some serious hot water and may indeed kill you. Conversely, some of the worst examples of time travel in fiction are those that are poorly researched. If you’re going to dive into the past, you need to recognize that you’re writing not just science fiction but historical fiction, too, and that even the recent past is much different culturally than the present. There were some dodgy examples of this in the recent hulu series Future Man and in the Hot Tub Time Machine films, for example, but comedic takes on time travel can overcome a lot of problems if the comedy is solid. Literature-wise, I have to admit to not being a huge fan of H.G. Well’s The Time Machine, mostly because I think future time travel can come off heavy handed, as that book reads today.

Elevator Out of Time, by K.W. Taylor

Cheryl nodded to the other passenger in the elevator, a tall man with dark skin wearing what she thought of as the quintessential college professor attire—white shirt, corduroy suit jacket, and jeans. Cute. Awfully tall, and cute, she thought. She turned around to face the doors as they slid shut.

The elevator crept along and stopped at the second floor, where two students got on. “Oh, hey, Mrs. Tucker!” one chirped at her.

Cheryl cringed at the “Mrs.” but didn’t correct her.

“Hi,” she said. “How’s your semester going?” She avoided using the girl’s name, which escaped her, but she recognized her from a seminar the previous year. Kayley? Kelly? Something…

“Not bad,” the girl replied. She gestured to the boy beside her. “He’s graduating this term, though. Can you believe it?”

The boy gave Cheryl a wan smile. Cheryl knew him, too, from a different class. “Whoa, I just had you in 101!” she said. “Can that really be four years ago?”

“Yup,” the boy confirmed. He turned to the girl. “Kayla, text me when you get home,” he said.

Kayla, that’s it.

The doors opened on the third floor. “See ya, Mrs. Tucker!” The boy exited the elevator, and another girl got on, occupying the space he left. She hit the button for the fourth floor.

“You going to the quiz bowl meeting?” Kayla asked.

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Cheryl answered. She realized a deeper voice had joined her own, and looked up at the man beside her. “Oh, gosh, are you Dr. Middleton?” she asked. She held out her hand. “I knew the new history department member was co-chairing this time, but I don’t think we’ve met yet.”

The man smiled and shook her hand. “Yeah, Jeff Middleton. Dr. Tucker, is it?”

“Ms.,” she corrected. “Still working on the ‘doctor’ part.” She willed herself to ignore the pang tugging at her with that admission and instead turned back to Kayla. “What’s your subject area going to be?” she asked.

“Mm, I’m thinking the world wars,” Kayla replied.

The elevator lurched and came to a stop, but the doors remained closed. An alarm sounded.

“Ah, crap.” The girl from the third floor leaned in front of Jeff and punched the “door open” button. “I got a class in ten minutes.” She started rummaging in her purse before pulling out a cell phone. “My battery’s dead. Anybody got a phone?”

“There’s an emergency panel,” Cheryl said, pointing at the rectangle beneath the buttons. “Here.” She scooted next to the girl and opened the panel. Instead of a phone there was an intercom speaker and a button. Cheryl knelt and pressed the button. “Hello? Hello? I think we’re stuck. We’re in the Roberts Hall elevator.”

Silence.

“My battery should be good,” Kayla said. She pulled out her own phone and started touching the screen.

“Call campus security,” Cheryl said, standing back up. She rattled off the number.

“How do you have that memorized?” Jeff asked.

Cheryl shrugged. “I’m probably not the only woman on campus who does,” she replied. “Unfortunately.”

“Oh, dear.” Jeff furrowed his brow. “I thought crime wasn’t a problem here. When I interviewed—”

“It’s not, not really,” Cheryl interjected. “I just work a lot of late nights and stuff. Can’t be too careful.”

Kayla frowned and pulled her phone from her ear. “I don’t think I have any bars,” she said.

“Not surprised,” the other girl said. “Probably not awesome reception in here, thick walls and all this metal. Crap, we have a quiz today!”

“It’s okay,” Cheryl said. “What was your name?”

The girl opened her eyes wide. “Simone. Don’t you remember me? I was in your class like last semester.” She held out her palm and pointed to a spot in the middle of it. “I sat right next to that guy who never shut up, the older dude.”

Cheryl laughed. “Yes, right, sorry sorry.” She shook her head. “I get pretty busy and sometimes names escape me.”

Except I’ve had trouble remembering a lot of things, Cheryl mused. Sure, I have a lot of students, but still . . . She thought back to a day the previous week when she’d driven herself home from work, only to realize she was at an apartment complex she hadn’t lived in for eight years.

“I have a mobile,” Jeff said.

Cheryl noticed for the first time that he had a slight lilt to his voice, not a thick accent but a hint of one. She imagined time spent abroad, studying and traveling. Interesting. And who calls it a mobile?

Jeff’s phone was an ancient device with a flip up panel. He opened it and started pressing buttons. “Wait, here we go, I think it’s ringing.” He held it up to his ear. “Hello! Yes, yes, we’re stuck in a lift in Roberts Hall. Four of us, two students, one staff, one faculty.”

Cheryl’s jaw clenched.

“Right, so d’you think you’d be able to send . . . Mm hm. No, Roberts Hall. What?” He pulled the phone from his ear and frowned at it. “This is campus security, yeah? Alpha College? Well, then, I don’t know what sort of . . . Blast!” He shut the phone. “They hung up on me.”

Cheryl looked up at him. “What? Why?”

“You’ll love this. They said there’s no such building as Roberts Hall and I should stop making prank calls.” He shook his head. “What sort of school have I signed on to here?”

The alarm ceased, and the elevator car began moving again, only this time it appeared to be going down instead of up. “My quiz!” Simone shrieked. She reached out to push the fourth floor button again, but Kayla put a hand on her shoulder.

“No, don’t mess with it! At least it’s moving now. You can run up the stairs,” she told Simone. “I’m sure your prof will understand.”

“Four flights? Ugh,” Simone muttered.

“Why would campus security say stuff like that?” Cheryl asked.

“Beats me,” Jeff said. He tucked his phone inside his jacket. “Perhaps they’ve got a new employee or some such.”

The elevator came to a stop, and the doors opened. Blazing sunshine greeted the four of them. Cheryl shielded her eyes.

Kayla leaned forward and peered through the doors. “What the hell?”

Cheryl blinked and looked outside.

Field. Everywhere, as far as the eye could see. Unblemished, mostly, save a few patches of earth that looked to be in the middle of being ploughed for crops. Cheryl recognized the highway, but the dozens of fast food restaurants occupying the east side were gone. The only familiar sight was a greasy spoon called Smithee’s, a run-down spot where one was prone to contract foodborne illness. But right now it didn’t look run-down, it looked pristine, a “GRAND OPENING” banner fluttering from its front awning.

Next week, Stephanie M. Wytovich will drop by to talk about vampires, which you know, is one of my favorite subjects. Do you have a fragment you’re dying to share? Open a vein and drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!