Fiction Fragments: Denise N. Tapscott

Last week I talked with Jade Woodridge about the significance of why she writes about children in her dark speculative fiction, and she share an excerpt from her story, “The Sweeper Man.”

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes horror writer Denise N. Tapscott.

Denise N. Tapscott was born and raised in California. She left her heart in San Francisco, but somehow managed to leave her soul in New Orleans. When she’s not creating and cultivating her characters, she enjoys dining on spicy tuna rolls, sharing a bottle of red wine with friends and watching the latest flick (especially scary films). From time to time this radiant left-handed pirate will even challenge others to a fencing match or two. But, watch out. This Gemini is determined to win!

As a member of the HWA, one of her greatest joys is publishing her first novel Gypsy Kisses and Voodoo Wishes as well as the short story The Price of Salvation.  She’s currently working on a collection of short stories called The Friends and Foes of Grandmother Zenobia as well as a sequel novel, Enlightening of the Damned.

Website:  www.denisetapscott.com
Twitter:  @DeniseNTapscott
Instagram: @pyratesunny
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/TheDeniseNTapscott

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Denise. When did you first become interested in Voodoo? What about Voodoo makes you want to include it as a recurring theme in your fiction? What kind of research did you do for your novel, Gypsy Kisses and Voodoo Wishes?

DNT: Great questions! Voodoo first caught my attention when I watched the movie Angel Heart. It was awesome and freaked me out! Then a few years later I saw The Skeleton Key and all kinds of story ideas popped in my head. I eventually came up with an idea that it would be neat to read about Voodoo battling Romany magic. I traveled to New Orleans several times to research Voodoo and Marie LaVeau. The more information I came across I realized my perception of Voodoo was way wrong. I was mixing and matching Voodoo with Hoodoo. There’s a lot more to both of these African Traditional religions than dancing to drums and poking dolls. I came across an awesome Rootworker, The Broken Prophet in Atlanta who explained there are several kinds of Voodoo from Africa and Haiti, and New Orleans being the melting pot it is, also has it’s own Voodoo! Hoodoo is a whole different ball game as well. I hope Gypsy Kisses and Voodoo Wishes (as well as my future stories) honors some of the things I learned and show that it’s not the evil religion people think it might be.

GMM: My debut novel, Invisible Chains, is an historical horror novel set in Antebellum New Orleans, told form the POV of a young female slave. What drew you to set your novel and other stories in New Orleans? How does the setting shape the narrative of your novel and other stories? Do you treat the city like a backdrop, or like a character in the story itself?

DNT: There are cities that have a certain flavor, but something about New Orleans feels magical. Considering Louisiana’s dark and lively history, I think it’s the perfect setting for my novels and short stories. One of my main characters, Grandmother Zenobia, is also dark and lively so it’s the perfect place for her to exist. I created a fictional area in New Orleans and named it Carrefour Parish (Carrefour means crossroads in French). I treat it like a living backdrop, similar to the zombies in the earlier episodes of the tv show The Walking Dead. In some episodes, you know the zombies are there, but the characters have other life problems to deal with. I hope the reader is aware of how it feels to be in the south, with hints of magic and how the characters move around in its environment without overshadowing what they go through.

GMM: I grew up in Central Pennsylvania and spent sixteen years of my life living in Pittsburgh. I consider Pittsburgh more of a home than the town I grew up in, but like you, New Orleans is in my soul. Each time I visit, I see something new, learn something about its history, and always have a good time. Tell me your best New Orleans story, or your fondest memory of the Crescent City.

DNT: I love New Orleans so much that people think I’m from there! My favorite memory is visiting a small bar on Bourbon Street for my birthday a few years ago. I went to New Orleans by myself and wanted to listen to some live Jazz. Walking past a place called Maison Bourbon, I noticed they had a small band playing so I found a seat at the bar. The band leader asked if anyone was celebrating something special like an anniversary, wedding, or birthday. No one spoke up, which is odd because there’s always someone celebrating something in New Orleans. So I sheepishly raised my hand and said I was celebrating my birthday. They asked my name and I said Sunny, which is one of my favorite nicknames. The entire bar sang Happy Birthday to me and then played “When the Saints Go Marching In”. It was such a treat. The next night some of my girlfriends flew in and I told them my birthday story. We went back to Maison Bourbon and when I walked through the door, the band recognized me. They said, “Hey, Sunny’s back!” They played “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” for me. I will always cherish that moment, the feeling that I belong there and in New Orleans.

Thanks for letting me spend time on Girl Meets Monster.

Excerpt from “Price of Salvation”

I dragged myself through the open doorway and when I entered the humidity vanished.  Cool air caressed my face. I stood up straight and sighed.  When was the last time I took an honest deep breath, without coughing or puking? The aroma of freshly baked cinnamon rolls filled the air. My escape from the southern heat was glorious.

“Settle down,” I heard from the darkness.

“Close the door, and have a seat, Mrs. Jurel.”  

The voice of the Voodoo woman was clear and melodic, only slightly tainted with a New Orleans drawl.  

After blinking a few times, I saw a small metal folding chair. My eyes still hadn’t adjusted to the darkness so I fumbled around until I could sit obediently.  The chair was more comfortable than I expected.  Resting in the darkness was wonderful.  Once I regained my focus, I noticed I sat at a small table covered in soft black velvet. I wanted to brush my fingers across it, but my hands were dirty, accented with ragged nails, so I opted to fold my hands in my lap.

Sitting on a large purple and gold throne across from me was a pleasant-looking-dark skinned woman.  Her hair was covered with a purple turban, matching the royal purple on her front door.  She wore a black gauze tunic blouse.  Around her neck, a shiny copper Ankh glowed against her skin.  She didn’t wear any other jewelry, except a large black and gold fleur-de-lis ring that adorned well-manicured fingers.  Was she wearing a skirt or pants?  Why did I care about her outfit?  She was not the toothless, gray-haired woman I expected.  She looked like she was in her 40s?  My assistant Tasha joked “Black don’t crack”.  I could never say that, but she’s right.  This woman didn’t look old enough to be a grandmother.  She reminded me of that lady with the popular television talk show.  Everyone in her studio audience went home with expensive vacations and new cars.  

Three fresh, tapered candles, one black, one blue and one white, formed a triangle on the table on my right.  A thicker, taller, purple candle sat close to the Voodoo Woman. From my research, I knew the black one warded off negative energies and promoted healing. Royal blue was for seeking wisdom and truth. White was for protection, and purification.  Lastly, the purple one was for spiritual protection.  All the candles on this table represented protection but the purple one supposedly canceled negative effects of bad karma.  The Voodoo woman made interesting choices.

I lifted my head to take in my surroundings.  My neck was sore from my head being tossed back and forth every time I vomited.  There were shelves of books, crosses, various kinds of statues and other religious-looking artifacts.  If I was not mistaken, there was a shrunken head in the corner.  To my left, there was a jade dragon perched on a shiny black surface. Was that a human skull staring down at me?  Heavy red velvet curtains with gold trim covered windows, presumably protecting us from the sun.  In another corner there were large, dusty trunks. Simply being in this spooky room was worth my $500 dollars.

“Mrs. Jurel, you look like you could use some water.”

Grandmother Zenobia handed me a chilled, plastic bottle of water.  I was scared to drink it; when I vomited all over the luxurious black velvet table, I would be mortified.

“Go on, drink.”  

I swirled the cool water in my mouth a few times before swallowing. I braced for the burn.  Instead the liquid was sweet and went down smoothly.  It was an ordinary bottle of water, but it felt like I drank tears from heaven.  I paused, waiting for my stomach to betray me. It rumbled for a moment but then, silence.  Carelessly, I chugged the water as fast as I could.  Panicked, I look around for a trash can, for when my body-double crossed me and the water forced its way back out.  

There was no trash can.  There was no vomit.  There was peace, while sitting in a cool room.  I was so grateful that I cried.

“Do you need a moment to collect yourself?”  She asked, while passing me a soft tissue.  Wiping my tears away, I noticed my eyes didn’t sting when I blinked.  I cried even more.  It would take centuries to stop sobbing and catch my breath.

Attempting to compose myself, I noticed that I sat taller. My fever faded away.

“Thank you, Zenobia.”  

“Feeling better?” she asked.

“Yes,” I can’t believe that I do feel better.  Thank you for seeing me.”

“I prefer to be called Grandmother Zenobia.”

The black candle, the one for healing, flared brighter than the others.  The voodoo woman mumbled to herself; the flame obeyed her muttered commands and returned to its regular state. I re-adjusted in my seat and for the first time in months, I was almost my old self.  I took in another deep breath and appreciated the smell of cinnamon again. Aware I was on the clock, I got down to business.

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.

Am I a Real Horror Writer?

Last night, I finally sat down to watch Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019). If you’re a horror fan and haven’t watched this amazing documentary, I highly recommend it. Based on Robin R. Means Coleman’s book, Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present (2011), the film not only discusses the historical lack of representation of black characters in horror films, but also examines the misrepresentations of black people when they appeared in them. As you might expect, the filmmakers and actors discussing the films and their historically important contexts talk about their fears and experiences with racism while trying to create art within a genre that subconsciously depicts monsters as The Other in relation to white people and culture in place of ethnic minorities.

After watching the documentary, I was inspired to watch a film from the Blaxploitation era, Sugar Hill (1974), which is about a woman, Sugar Hill, who uses Voodoo to avenge the death of her fiance. The film opens with what appears to be a Voodoo ritual with black people in traditional Haitian Voodoo garb dancing to a serious drum beat. I couldn’t help thinking of Angel Heart (1987), and expected to see Epiphany Proudfoot show up with her chicken. As the opening credits end, so does the dance and we become aware of the fact that the people dancing aren’t in a secluded location away from prying eyes, they are actually performers at a place called Club Haiti. They are performing Voodoo for a predominantly white audience. They are literally performing an aspect of blackness that is a stereotypical representation of black people in horror films. This also made me think of a similar scene in Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988).

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Typically, in horror films, Voodoo is shown as something evil, something to be feared. Depicting Voodoo practitioners as women who use their magic to hurt others, or exact vengeance, is a trope that I worried about perpetuating while writing Invisible Chains. I didn’t want to stick to the common stereotypes associated with black women, especially mambos, in horror narratives.

While Sugar is a strong female lead in a horror film, the film is still riddled with tropes like dangerous black women using magic for revenge. Her fiance, Langston, owns Club Haiti. A white gangster wants to buy it, but Langston refuses. So, he sends his henchmen to kill him. They beat him to death and leave his body in the parking lot of the club for Sugar to find.

Sugar doesn’t just use magic, she calls upon Baron Samedi who raises an army of the undead made up of former slaves who died of disease while still on slave ships. Their bodies were dumped in the water and washed up on the shore near Sugar’s childhood home. So, this movie has a lot going for it in terms of supernatural horror that looks at racism in the United States (in the past and in the present of the 1970s).

Zombies

In exchange for Baron Samedi’s help, Sugar offers up her soul, but he’s more interested in her body. But, Sugar’s final revenge is taken when Baron Samedi takes the racist girlfriend of the gangster back to the Underworld with him in place of Sugar. In my opinion, that gave the film a happy ending.

Black women in roles like Sugar are viewed as frightening and dangerous because they wield power. My protagonist struggles to accept her strengths and often downplays or hides her abilities for fear of being punished for either her knowledge or power. Her strength is a secret and she doesn’t make use of her power until she’s pushed to the limit. She protects herself and others, rather than seeking vengeance.

I worried that by writing her in this way, people wouldn’t accept her as being “authentic,” and I struggled with my decision, which I think says a lot more about me as a writer and how I see myself than it does about my character.

I also struggled with the belief that because this narrative isn’t a traditional horror story — a slave narrative with a black female protagonist — people wouldn’t recognize it as a horror novel. In fact, people challenged the notion that I was writing horror while I was in my MFA program. But, as Tananarive Due puts so succinctly in Horror Noire, ”Black history is black horror.”

I already knew that what I had written is without doubt a horror novel, but having my beliefs confirmed by another writer I respect and admire made me feel a lot better about releasing this novel into the world. Black women have plenty of horror stories to tell, and perhaps, a female slave is the most qualified protagonist for an historical horror story set in America.

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Invisible Chains will be released in a week on July 22, so my anxiety is on the rise. But after watching Horror Noire and Sugar Hill, I feel more confident about how I chose to write my protagonist, Jacqueline, and I may actually be a horror writer.

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.

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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.

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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.