Fiction Fragments: Jade Woodridge

Last week I chatted with Curtis M. Lawson about his new short story collection, Devil’s Night.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes fellow Seton Hill University alum, Jade Woodridge.

Jade T. Woodridge is a Washington D.C./Maryland native, currently living in Southwest Michigan. While her short fiction dabbles in various genres and styles, Science Fiction and Fantasy seems to be at the forefront. Her works can be described as emotionally driven, with the question of spirituality beneath its layers.

Jade has a BA in English Literature from Seton Hill University (2016) and a MA in Library and Information Sciences from the University of Maryland (2020). Her works have been featured in the Chiron Review, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, WitchWork, and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. [Untitled] is her first novel.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Jade. Tell me about the fragment you submitted. Something sinister seems to be happening, but maybe it’s just the imagination of little girls. Without giving away too many spoilers, can you tell us what’s happening to Marie and Louise?

JW: Marie and Louise are two little southern girls at the wrong place at the wrong time. Children are so innocent but very perceptive and I’ve always wondered about their response to tragedies like suicide. The girls don’t really know what’s going on, but they know that, whatever they are seeing, it feels wrong and scary. The comparison of Marie’s hair to a rope is the only thing little Louise — a black child living in the past — could think of to associate with death.

GMM: We share a table of contents in the recently released Midnight & Indigo anthology featuring 22 specualtive fiction stories by Black women. I just read your story, “Millenium,” and wondered if, like “The Sweeper Man,” if more of your stories feature children in really dark situations. Do you have a preference for writing younger characters, or is this simply a coincidence?

JW: Haha! Quite a bit of my shorts feature children. I have a piece of flash fiction in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature titled “Pigeons” about a little girl learning about acceptance and differences while feeding pigeons with her grandmother. It’s a fluffy piece compared to “Millenium” and “The Sweeper Man”. A longer work in progress of mine also features a little girl and, like Marie and Louise, she does go through a few things in her childhood that no child should have to go through. I was not very emotional as a child; though I was never put in situations like Marie, Louise, or my other young characters, it’s cathartic to write from the perspective and emotions of innocence. I’ve noticed that it is only in my short fiction that I have child characters, and perhaps that is the coincidence.

GMM: I’m writing these questions on election night, which is only three days from when this post goes live. I usually don’t wait to the last minute to get questions out to my guests, but I’ve really been struggling to stay focused with everything happening in the world. Are you having a similar experience? How have current events affected either your ability to write, or what you choose to write about?

JW: Current events haven’t affected the content of my writing. Writing has always been an escape for me. Sometimes I feel I need an escape at more times than others, though, and this has been one of those times! I told a writing friend recently that sometimes I just need to retreat into the worlds that I created where I am in control of what goes on. I can’t live in my own little world forever, though, and therein lies the problem.

Excerpt from “The Sweeper Man”

It was a hot day and Marie and Louise ran barefooted by the little lake looking for frogs and those slippery newts. Their toes dug into the cool dark muck and wiggled like worms. Marie’s toes stuck out like a sore thumb; the nails and little white toes wiggled like the long pale bellies of trout. Louise could barely distinguish her toes from under the mud they blended in so well.

“Your toes look like a trout when they go belly up.” Louise giggled.

Marie crouched down and frog-hopped her way to the grass, her long silky plat swinging. “Well your feet look like them bullheads wriggling in muddy water,” she said with each hop.

Louise giggled and frog-hopped after her. Her hair would never swing the way Marie’s did and Louise frowned some. Her long plat was like a tail. Seeing Marie crouched down in the grass with her long plat made Louise think of a wild cat. She wanted to be a cat too, just like Marie, so she crouched down real low in the grass too, crawling up to where Marie lay beneath the bushes, mesmerized by something. Her little feet sticking out plain as day made the perfect target, but Marie wasn’t playing anymore. “I got you frowg!” never escaped Louise’s smiling lips as she saw where Marie was looking: a girl was crying on the other side of the lake. She was a little older than Marie and Louise. They could tell by the way her breast buds jutted out from her stained shirt and the way her hips curved just a little as she waded through the water. She looked sick, Louise thought. Her eyes were red-rimmed and dark spots blotted her face, the type of spots you got when you get hit with the smooth lake stones when the school boys got to sneaking after you and tease you when no one was looking.

“Lou, she can’t go no farther, can she? Daddy said the lake’s too deep to go out too far.” Marie’s voice quivered just a little with uncertainty. Louise got this cold feeling all over her body as the girl went farther and farther out in the water until it was up to her shoulders. She had a far gone look in her eyes like she wasn’t seeing, and her white face seemed almost gray. She wasn’t in there, the girl with the water up to her neck now. She looked dead.

“No!” Marie screeched, jumping to her little feet. She darted across the grass to the muddy bank, “You come back here! Come back!” she cried, but it was too late: the water was up to her chin, then ears, as if she were using her last bit of strength to balance on the very tip of her big toe.

“Do something, Lou!” Marie screamed back to the bank under the bushes to where Louise lay frozen with dread. She knew what was going to happen. She had heard her grandmamma drown some pups before. She’d seen the life bubble from their lips with her own wet eyes. The girl was too far away, and Louise was too little; she didn’t have the powerful arms her daddy had to swim out and fetch her and back again.

Time seemed to go in slow motion just then. The girl in the water sputtered and coughed as if she had sudden begun seeing the error she had committed and her arms began to flail. She slipped. She went under. She bobbed up, lungs too clogged with water to scream. She went under. She bobbed up, closer to the center of the lake, arms flailing. She went under.

Silence.

Marie just stood there on the bank breathing hard. Her shoulders rose and fell with each breath and her little body shook. She didn’t quite understand what had happened. She was half expecting the girl in the lake to bob back up smiling and swim back to the bank, “I fooled ya real good, didn’t I?” she would say.

But nothing happened.

“I don’t wanna play anymore,” Marie’s voice went high at the end as if she were to start crying. She turned and walked away. Louise jumped up and followed after her, shaking uncontrollably. What just happened?

Marie’s plat swung with each hurried step she took and Louise watched it as it swung. It didn’t look like a tail anymore. It looked like a rope, a rope slowly tightening itself around her pale neck.

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: V. Castro

Last week I chatted with New England horror writer Renee S. DeCamillis. She took a deep dive into her novel The Bone Cutters, and the inspiration for the book. Go check it out.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes indie dark speculative fiction writer, V. Castro to talk about two of my favorite subjects: erotica and vampires.

Violet Castro is a Mexican American writer originally from Texas now residing in the UK with her family. When not caring for her three children, she dedicates her time to writing. She is also the co-founder of Fright Girl Summer, a website dedicated to women in horror and dark fiction.  For More information about her books and other publications, please visit www.vvcastro.com

For More information about her books and other publications, please visit www.vvcastro.com

You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram @vlatinalondon

Three Questions +1

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, V. I’ve been enjoying your posts on Instagram that feature beautiful Isle of White landscapes and spooky old cemeteries. My first question is, are you open for house guests? And second, what circumstances led to you becoming an expat from Texas to live in the UK? Aside from changing the settings of your stories, what impact has this cultural shift had on your writing?

VC: Writers are always welcome in my home and to join me in my adventures! I will be more than happy to travel everywhere once the pandemic is under control. Fingers crossed for StokerCon next year!

I moved to the UK with a previous relationship. We now co-parent our teenage son so that is why I am still here. The cultural shift has not impacted my writing as much as the travel. Since living in the UK, I have travelled across Europe, Japan, Africa, and Iceland. Experiencing various cultures and seeing different settings has broadened my world view.

My own cultural influences everything I write because it is who I am, and I am proud of my skin.

GMM: As you’ve probably guessed by now, I love vampires. And, your fragment is enough of an enticement for me to pick up this series of books. Vampires are definitely sexy and work well in erotica, but they are also monsters. How do you navigate the complexity of scary versus sexy? What makes vampires scary? What makes them sexy? Do you think male vampires are scarier than female vampires?

VC: I think what makes vampires scary is their superiority over humans. We have an arrogance that we are at the top of the food chain but with vampires in the mix we are not. Humans are also driven by a moral compass whereas I imagine as a vampire it would be easy to not live with the moral boundaries we find ourselves bound by. Why subscribe to monogamy when you might live for thousands of years? That is not how humans evolved. How is taking a life wrong when you must to survive.

I find vampires sexy because the act of draining someone of their fluids is very erotic. Someone allowing themselves to be submissive is sexy. The possibility of not having the same hang-ups as humans is also alluring.

As far as balancing scary and sexy, I write what feels right. I write the story in my mind guided by my own emotions, desires, past experiences, and pain. Vampires were once human too.

I don’t write many male vampires because so much time has been spent on male versions of everything. I think female vampires are scarier because we are often driven by more than base desires. I also feel if women had the power of the vampire, we would be unstoppable. Even male vampires would not know what to do with us.

GMM: When did you start writing erotica, and when did you first see a connection between horror and erotica? I mean, what is it about vampires, or monsters in general (werewolves, demons, ghosts) that turn people on?

VC: I wrote my first erotic piece in high school. I am a huge Danzig fan and would listen to music while writing. Having very strict Baptist parents at the time, it was something I had to hide. Despite this, my emotions and imagination gravitated towards the two. I can’t explain it any other way except it felt right. I wish I had kept my journal of writing, but I didn’t feel good enough and put thoughts of writing away.

During a difficult third pregnancy, I began writing again seriously because I needed an outlet. As a woman, age has only made me more sure of who I am. I haven’t stopped. Life is short and I want to live to the fullest not hampered by fear.

Why are we turned on by dark creatures? Human lives are dominated by the mundane and fear. Making oneself vulnerable carries consequences. It’s exciting to think about an existence that isn’t bound by time and age. What would you do knowing you had incredible strength and very few vulnerabilities? Creatures have a freedom we don’t believe we have. I think during sex there is an exchange of being in the dominant role or submissive role. Vampires take that concept further because there is an element of danger. Vampires can afford to take more risks. And again, the morality humans cling to is not at play. I often have my creatures in consenting, ADULT polyamorous relationships.

GMM: Polyamory seems to be a bit more normalized these days in terms of more people being open about their relationships. Plus, there are podcasts, blogs, books, social groups, conferences, and the concept of polyamory is also becoming more prevalent in romance and erotica. One of the most famous series of novels featuring polyamorous relationships is Laurell K. Hamiliton’s Anita Blake Vampire Hunter series. I just finished reading her latest novel, Sucker Punch. I enjoyed the novel, but my two major complaints were that I felt like she was hitting me over the head with her discussion of polyamorous relationships, and there wasn’t a single fucking vampire in the novel. Jean-Claude, Asher and Damien were mentioned but none of them made an appearance. How do you incorporate polyamory into your stories? Is it a focal point of the narrative? Are you trying to be the spokesperson for polyamory like Hamilton seems to be, or are you simply incorporating it as a preference for your characters?

VC: I’m not trying to be a spokesperson for polyamory. I just think life is short and people should explore themselves and their desires. Just as gender and sexuality can be fluid, I don’t see why relationships can’t be. Writing these types of relationships in my stories just reflects my open mindedness towards life and the unexpected that it usually lays at our feet. I also don’t feel horror has to follow a formula. It can be sexy, dark and fun. It is an escape to those places of fantasy we don’t venture in our daily lives.

An excerpt from The Erotic Modern Life of Malinalli the Vampire

It is my last night in Dublin before I head to the south coast of Ireland. Even though it is summer, there is always a damp chill in the evening air. What a change from the southern hemisphere of the world, the part I am most used to. This is exactly why I have decided to cross the pond and explore the Old World.

I am on my final pub and third glass of white wine with “Big Love” by Fleetwood Mac playing. What a great way to end the evening. The paunchy bartender bellows last call over the din of the bar. People neck whatever they’re drinking and shuffle towards the door. Through the thinning herd, a corner booth comes into view.

There he is, sitting with his mates at a table covered in Stella Artois bottles and pint glasses. A box of books, the contents of which all look the same, rests at his feet. Was he peddling them? Did he write them? Doesn’t matter. I want him.

We don’t find chemistry, it finds us. Perhaps it is a sign that all those long-lost particles blown to bits in the beginning of time have found their way to one another again. Stardust finding itself in another body. Until we reunite with it, our thoughts and desires will burn like meteors, scalding skin, brain, bone, and soul. Fate has decided I’m not going back to my room anytime soon.

The question is, will he notice the only brown girl in the place with the leather jacket, dress too short to bend over, large hoop earrings and lips tinted so red they’d leave a ring around his cock?

The bartender shouts last call again for those of us that remain. I drink the dredges of my wine, waiting for a glance from the stranger in a tweed newsboy cap, jeans, and black t-shirt that reveals the bottom half of tattoos on both arms. I watch him take the beer bottle into his mouth then lick his lips. Now I’m convinced I want to take him home. Just one last souvenir from my time in Dublin. He’s perfect.

Our gaze locks. His eyes are the colour of stormy coastal waters and mine so dark they look nearly black, or so I’m told. Suddenly my thighs are slick—something I notice since I’m wearing nothing underneath my thin jersey dress. The wetness between my legs becomes harder to ignore the longer I stare. His look says, “I’m here,” and my body answers, “I’m coming.” In this moment I’m a piece of driftwood being pulled to shore by a current I can’t control.

I walk over to the table; his friends eye the brazen woman with a hungry look on her face. They are certainly drunk, talking too loud with heavy lidded eyes, but he’s not. He knows I’ve come for him.

“Hey fellas.” I only greet the others to be polite then turn my attention to the man I’m even more attracted to the closer I get. A stubbly five o’clock shadow covers his face, but not so thick you can’t see his cleft chin. I touch his shoulder to let him know my presence is a formal invitation.

“So, can I help you carry those books home?” A cupid bow mouth curls to a slight smile. He looks at his friends who are too gobsmacked to say anything except stifle their boyish schoolyard giggles. I could give zero fucks what they’re thinking, because all I have on my mind is fucking this guy tonight.

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: Renee S. DeCamillis

Last week I chatted with Sonora Taylor about the zen of drinking tea during an alien invasion. Go check it out if you haven’t already.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Renee S. DeCamillis. A few months ago I participated in an online coffee house where we both read some of our work. I really enjoyed listening to Renee’s reading from her novella, The Bone Cutters. I haven’t had a chance to read it, but it is on my TBR list.

Author of the psychological thriller/horror/supernatural novella The Bone Cutters, published through Eraserhead Press as part of their 2019 New Bizarro Authors Series, Renee is a member of the Horror Writers Association, the New England Horror Writers, and the Horror Writers of Maine.

She is also an Editorial Intern for the 5-time Bram Stoker award-winning speculative fiction and dark fiction publisher Crystal Lake Publishing, and a writer for Phi3 Comics. She has her BA in psychology from the University of Southern Maine, earned her MFA in Popular Fiction Writing from the Stonecoast Graduate Program, and attended Berklee College of Music as a music business major with guitar as her principle instrument. Her short fiction appears in Deadman’s Tome: The Conspiracy Issue, Siren’s Call eZine Issue 37 the 6th Annual Women In Horror Month Edition, The Other Stories Podcast. She has a story forthcoming in the 2020 anthology Wicked Women, a collection showcasing women writers of the NEHW. Also forthcoming is her first comic book, with a publication date TBD. Her poetry appears in The Horror Writers Association Poetry Showcase Volume IV. Renee is a former model, school rock band teacher, creative writing teacher, private guitar instructor, A&R rep for an indie record label, therapeutic mentor, psychological technician, and preschool teacher. She is also a former gravedigger; she can get rid of a body fast without leaving a trace, and she is not afraid of getting her hands dirty. Renee lives in the woods of Maine with her husband, their son, and a house full of ghosts.

Website: reneesdecamillis.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/ReneeDeCamillis/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/renee_s._decamillis/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/ReneeDeCamillis

Three Questions

GMM: Hello, Renee. Welcome to Girl Meets Monster. I’m so glad to have you here for a chat. After listening to your reading from The Bone Cutters back in July, I got very excited about reading your book. I’m slowly working on the sequel to Invisible Chains, and an asylum will be one of the main settings. My novel is set in the mid-nineteenth century, but your book opens in a more modern setting. A lot of mental health facilities closed in the 1980s and 1990s, what time period is The Bone Cutters taking place in? Is it an asylum or a hospital with a mental health ward? What kind of research did you do for the setting?

RSD: The time period for The Bone Cutters is now, today, and the setting is a psychiatric hospital, inspired by one that I used to work at as a psychological technician. That last part—the position I held while working there—is a bit of a funny because Dory, the main character of my book, really rips on psych techs because of her horrible previous experiences in mental health facilities with subpar staff who go unchecked by those in power. (Though I say it’s a bit of a funny, I do not mean that mistreatment of patients by staff is funny at all. I’ve witnessed neglect and mistreatment of patients by co-workers, and I reported all of it, which is part of what inspired me to write about horribly inept psych hospital staff.) I didn’t really need to do much research for this book because I have a degree in psychology, and I worked in the mental health field for quite a few years in various positions, providing various services. So, my research for the setting consisted of simply recalling memories from my experiences working in the mental health field, including my time as a psych tech in a psychiatric hospital.

GMM: The internal dialogue of your protagonist was fantastic and really conveyed the sense of confusion and discordant thoughts she’s experiencing while trying to come to terms with her new environment and her own mental illness…if she is really mentally ill. Without too many spoilers, can you give a little bit of background on your protagonist, what she’s experiencing, and what inspired this character?

RSD: Dory is quite a mixed bag of fucked up and beautiful. She is someone trying to stay safe while traveling through this crazy fucked up world that’s filled with predators and betrayers and manipulators. She’s a creative-minded loner who has suffered from multiple traumas and has no “real” family to speak of. She’s been betrayed and severely harmed by people who had claimed that they loved her, and she has developed serious trust issues from those experiences. This makes connecting with others and developing friendships exceedingly difficult for her because she feels like everyone is going to harm her eventually. She has also experienced multiple traumas while seeking mental health treatment in the past. The culmination of all her experiences has also created some festering anger issues within her that she tries hard to keep under control. Then when she gets blue papered, involuntarily committed, to this dysfunctional psychiatric hospital, they keep pumping her with all sorts of different psychotropics, which makes it difficult to tell who the real Dory is and what is just the medication taking over her mind and what are just rumors from those around her.

These days, where many teachers and doctors and social workers want to label “unusual” behavior as something other, we all pretty much can say we have a “psychological disorder” of some kind: anxiety, depression, ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, etc. That aspect of our society makes me feel like Dory is a relatable character for many people. Dory is an odd duck with some quirks others don’t understand, but people around her want to label every single “odd” action as some sort of mental disorder. Maybe she does have a disorder, maybe more than one, but does she really have all the disorders that she’s accused of having? Which disorders does she truly have, and which ones are misdiagnosed or simply assumed by people incapable of making such claims? This is all left up to the reader to figure out as they read the story and get to know Dory.

GMM: Mental illness is a familiar trope in horror fiction, but the idea of harvesting bone dust to be used as a form of drug is not. The harvesting really is a horrifying process, but you execute the imagery in a way that makes it almost beautiful. Enticing. Which is why I suppose there are willing “Donors”. Where did this nightmarish idea come from?

RSD: Well, your word choice—”nightmarish”—hits the nail right on the head. The idea was inspired by a nightmare of mine. Isn’t that where it all begins anyways—in our nightmares? That crazy group counseling session from chapter one that you heard me read, that is where the story began, the part pulled out of my nightmare, though it didn’t happen exactly that way in my dream; I changed it to fit the story and the characters.

In my dream, I was at a First Friday Artwalk in Portland, Maine with a close friend of mine. She asked if I’d mind if we made a quick stop to see one of her friends. She had told him she’d swing by while we were in the city, and she promised me it would only take a few minutes. I agreed. When we stopped to see him, we walked into a large open room that had a big group of people all gathered and sitting around on the floor in a circle. There was no furniture in this room. I had no idea what was going on or who any of the people were. I noticed that one man, an extremely skinny guy with a gapped-tooth grin and a large grotesque scar around his collarbone (He is now my Slug Man in the book.), was addressing the whole group. My friend and I stood off to the side and remained quiet. While we stood there, I was trying to figure out why they were all gathered here and what they were doing. As I looked all around the circle of people, I noticed that every person there was grotesquely scarred, all in different locations on their bodies. I thought they might all be cutters, or maybe they had all attempted suicide and that this was a counseling group for people in those situations/mindsets. Trying to figure this all out, I focused in on what that man was saying. That’s when I realized that this was an NA group for people who harvested bone dust and used it as a drug, like heroin. They harvested from themselves, as well as from others. I was mortified. I was even more mortified when I realized that the man speaking was the “friend” my friend was there to see. She knew these people, was friends with these people. That’s when another realization hit me—this friend of mine, someone I’d been close friends with for many, many years, all of a sudden seemed like a complete stranger to me. I woke up after that and I immediately knew that scene needed to go into a story. I started writing The Bone Cutters (titled Chiseled High back then) that same day.

Once I sat to write the story, I decided to change the setting and circumstances, and, of course, I changed the character who discovers this group of addicts from me to Dory. (She is not me, though there are aspects of Dory’s character that I can relate to.) I’d been wanting to write a dysfunctional psychiatric hospital story for quite some time, and I had made other attempts before—some of which are still works-in-progress—so I went with that setting, finding it very fitting for this situation. Also, I have a love for the unreliable narrator, so I thought it would be great to cast the main character as someone of questionable mental faculties and often under the influence of “questionable substances”, which is how Dory was born.

Also, where the whole crazy, villainous drug addict type of character came from: throughout my life I have known many drug addicts, some former friends, former partners, some family members, some simply acquaintances. Some of them I had long, close relationships with. Because of those relationships and experiences I had with them, I had once tried to write a novel, my first novel, with a main character who falls into heroin addiction. I tried my best to make her a sympathetic character, as I was simultaneously trying to sympathize with and understand the loved ones in my life who were struggling with lifelong drug addictions. That character in my book started out extremely sympathetic, but where many beta readers lost that sympathy was halfway through the book when she started using heroin and fucking up her life even more than it already was. That book and that character, along with what began happening in my life with those close to me who were abusing drugs, made me realize I was not writing the right story or the right character for me. (I guess you could say that my beta readers lost their sympathy for my fictional drug addict character in my novel, just as I lost my sympathy for the real drug addicts in my life.)

The Bone Cutters goes much, much darker than my first novel, showing just how far certain addicts, like the ones I had once been close to in my real life, will go to get their fix. They hurt themselves. They hurt others. They’re sneaky. They’re manipulative. They lie about everything. And the depths to which they’ll stoop to get what they want or need is lower than low. No, not all addicts are the same, but I am a firm believer that there are many addicts who cannot be saved. No matter how much help they get, no matter how much support they have, they never stop using, they never stop their harmful and destructive behavior. I may get some hate mail for saying that, but it’s the truth; I know addicts like that. The ones that never change. To the people in their lives who aren’t users, it appears as though they enjoy the life of drug addiction, they enjoy all that goes along with the drug addict lifestyle. If they didn’t like it, wouldn’t they try to make changes? The Bone Cutters takes this idea and puts a dark spin on the why of this type of drug addict. Why can’t they stop using? Even when they have all the support and all the resources to help them get clean—why do they not stop? What makes them keep using? What makes them keep hurting themselves and others? What makes them keep destroying their life? What is their motivation? What is it pushing them to go that low with their behavior? This is where my horror-brain kicks in.

No, my book is not all about looking down on drug addicts and making them the bad guys, the villains, the monsters. It’s not like that at all, as readers will realize when they get to the ending (or maybe I should say the “non-ending”, since there’s a sequel coming). I do also know addicts who have recovered and moved on to do amazing and wonderful things with their lives, ones that move on to have success and happiness in their work and personal lives, and I do include characters like that in my book as well. There are many, many wonderful people out there who recover from drug addiction. So, my story wouldn’t be a truthful look at drug addicts if I made the users all bad guys and lost causes.

Excerpt from the sequel to The Bone Cutters (The title of the book is withheld for now.)

Chapter 1: The Carver, The Collector, and The Stitcher

A cloth is secured in his mouth, knotted behind his head, to keep him from screaming. A blindfold stretches across his eyes. The white-hot sting of the blade slicing through the skin of his shin makes him grit his teeth.

Only a whimper escapes.

Buck knife in hand, The Carver gets down to the bone quickly. Twin serpent-like scars run up the outside of both of The Carver’s forearms. They writhe and pulse as he reaches out and swaps the knife for a chisel and mallet. Like a modern-day Michelangelo, he begins whittling away at the victim’s tibia, the bigger of the two shin bones. Serpent scars slither around while he works.

Every hit of the mallet sends a shaking jolt through the restrained man. The chair legs rattle against the tiled floor with every jostle. His ankles are zip-tied to the wooden chair legs. His wrists are zip-tied to each side of the back of the chair. Tears soak the blindfold and leak down his cheeks from underneath. Snot bubbles at his nostrils. Strands of his shaggy brown hair stick to his sweaty temples.

Rather than creating a work of art, The Carver extracts bone shavings to crush into dust at a later time. With the help of The Collector, who is beside him, curls of shaved bone are caught onto a sheet of tinfoil.       

The foil is filled fast.

From behind The Carver, someone with gnarly scarred knuckles passes The Collector a second sheet of tin foil. The filled foil is switched with the empty.

The Carver reaches for a new tool. The chisel and mallet are swapped with a small utility knife.

Rapid shaving motions slide down the tibia over and over and over again.

More whimpering.

More chair rattling.

Sibling serpents shake and slither along with every movement of The Carver’s arms.

Bone dust is collected this time. The second batch is for immediate consumption.

Mixed with blood, the dust looks like sticky black tar heroin. Bone Cutters call it Dark Heaven or Red Sugar or simply Dust.

Deal done, The Stitcher steps out of the shadows, thread and needle held in grotesquely scarred hands, to seal the wound.

The victim is no longer whimpering.

The victim is no longer crying.

The victim is now passed out, head hung low, chin to chest. Whether from shock or blood loss is of no concern to The Carver or The Collector or The Stitcher.

All they’re here for is the Dust and the high that will come with it, as well as—

the money they’ll make off what they don’t smoke or inject themselves.

The Stitcher is thankful. Not just for the high-to-come and the money they’ll make—

It sure is easier to stitch the wound without all the shaking and blubbering that was going on a few moments ago.  The needle and thread zips back and forth through the flesh as smoothly as a whisper floating with the wind.  

Wound now sealed shut, it’s time to clear the scene. With two tips of the chair by The Collector and The Stitcher, The Carver carefully slides out the blood covered plastic tarp that is spread out underneath the victim and the chair. He rolls it up, preps it for disposal.

Then the zip-ties are snipped from the victim’s wrists and ankles and tucked securely into the tarp. Add in a few rocks from the park on the walk back to their den, and these Bone Cutters will send all remnants of this event down river.

All except the product and—

The buck knife.

The hilt of the knife is wiped clean. Then it’s placed in the victim’s hand, with his fingers wrapped around it, assuring only his prints are found.

The Carver, The Collector, and The Stitcher are good at covering their tracks. Maybe not the tracks in their skin or the scars that double as their own living entities (Those they wear with pride, like badges of honor.), but definitely the tracks of the assaults against all their unwilling victims.

Not all victims are unwilling.

Some enjoy the rush of the slice like a bite from a vampire.

The Donors.

Minions or Lackeys if you’re a non-dust-user.

Some might call them Renfields.

Many Bone Cutters (A.K.A. Dusters) also get a rush from the slice, but it does wear you down after a while. All that blood loss. All that pain. It’s much more satisfying and stimulating to inflict that pain on another. But when times get desperate—

they will again slice into themselves.

Scene all cleaned and sparkling, as though only the victim has been present, the three junkie-cutters vacate the premises. The tarp is rolled up tight and worn like a backpack by The Collector. After one last wipe of the outside doorknob, the three practically skip down the hallway and out onto the sidewalk, as giddy as children approaching an ice cream truck.    

While strolling away from the scene of the crime, as though nothing unusual has taken place, they hear the flutter of large wings overhead. The sound is moving towards the house they just left behind.     

They all look up, wondering if it’s what they think it is. A glimpse of huge, black wings zooming past the beam shining from the streetlight is confirmation.

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: Sonora Taylor

Last week, Paul Tremblay stopped by Girl Meets Monster and we talked about impostor syndrome and how he deals with it, and he shared an excellent fragment from his short story, “We Will Never Live in the Castle.”

This week, I have the pleasure of speaking with Sonora Taylor. I haven’t had an opportunity to meet her in person, but I’m hoping to change that soon.

Sonora Taylor is the author of Little Paranoias: Stories, Without Condition, The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales, Please Give, and Wither and Other Stories. Her short story, “Hearts are Just ‘Likes,’” was published in Camden Park Press’s Quoth the Raven, an anthology of stories and poems that put a contemporary twist on the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

Taylor’s short stories frequently appear in The Sirens Call. Her work has also appeared in Frozen Wavelets, Mercurial Stories, Tales to Terrify, and the Ladies of Horror fiction podcast. Her latest book, Seeing Things, is now available on Amazon. She lives in Arlington, Virginia, with her husband.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Sonora. I really enjoyed your fragment, because I love when horror/science fiction blends with humor in a story. There’s something about the humor that makes the horror a bit more unsettling while simultaneously more palatable. Like a cup of tea you drink while watching an alien invasion. Where did this story come from? What inspired it, and do you often include humor in your horror/science fiction?

ST: Thank you! I wrote this in 2016, which was when I’d gotten back into writing short stories and was seeing what forms, themes, and genres stuck with me. I’d been reading Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett around this time and was definitely influenced by their style of writing. I love absurdist and humorous horror, and I found myself thinking it’d be funny to write in the style of one of those self-care articles, but for how to relax during one of the least relaxing experiences I could think of. I originally considered writing a book of these sorts of essays called Consider This, but I didn’t have enough ideas. Then I started writing my first novel, Please Give; and all my attention went to that.

GMM: You mention the importance of self-care rather ironically in your fragment, but the idea of self-care has become a cultural phenomenon that has social, political and economic relevance, especially at this moment in our history. We obviously aren’t facing an alien invasion (not yet, but 2020 isn’t over), but we are facing a pandemic and an outcry for social change. How do you view self-care in this time of uncertainty, and what do you do to look after yourself on the darker days?

ST: I see self-care as a way to step back and focus your attention on taking care of you, especially in a time where we feel an even more pressing need to look out for each other and be caretakers–for loved ones, for marginalized people, for the greater good. Many of us, especially women, are taught to put ourselves last after we’ve taken care of the kids, the spouse, the world. But to me, this is all backwards because you can’t do those things if you haven’t been tending to yourself! I find I’m a better wife, daughter, dog mom, friend, writer, and activist when I’ve taken a breather and set aside time to reset myself.

I like to decompress with simple beauty rituals, which I can fortunately do at home since I still don’t feel comfortable going to a salon (though I do miss getting pedicures and massages). I love taking baths with nice bath bombs and music. I also like to use face masks and sheet masks to give myself a boost. Drinking tea is one of my self-care practices, but that’s more a daily habit than anything special. I also like to plan and prepare really nice meals. I made a pasta last week with chanterelles and I felt so good serving it and eating it.

GMM: What can we expect from you next? What are you currently working on? Have the events of 2020 had an impact on your writing, either your process or what you’re writing about?

ST: Right now I’m working on my next short story collection. It’s called Someone to Share My Nightmares and will focus on romantic/erotic horror. I’m also formulating my fourth novel, an apocalyptic nature novel called Errant Roots.

I do find that it’s harder to sit and write this year than in previous years. My mind is in a lot of places and it can feel exhausting to sit down and write a whole other reality. I’ve written, but it’s been slower than normal. When I finish a piece, though, it feels fantastic.

Tea Time by Sonora Taylor

You should always take the time to make yourself a cup of tea.

With the stress of the day-to-day, it can often be difficult to remember simple acts of self-care. Or we remember, but choose not to partake because they seem selfish, or mundane, or useless. This could not be farther from the truth. Any act of self-care is worthwhile, and this includes the pouring of hot water onto cold tea leaves.

Consider the practice itself. You take a mug, you choose your tea, you warm the water, you pour the water, then await the allotted time for your tea to steep. The preparation itself is meditative. To make yourself a cup of tea is to close yourself off from the stress around you, be it an obnoxious co-worker or a troublesome spaceship landing outside of your building.

The relaxation does not end with preparation. The act of sipping tea is one of the most relaxing things you can do. Each sip delights the tongue with flavor, steam, and comfort. Picture yourself sipping tea. Notice how the noises around you, like phones ringing or people screaming, just seem to disappear as readily as the tea in your cup.

Once the cup is gone, the sense of ease remains with you, warming your hands like the sun or an errant laser. Tea transports us to worlds we never knew, worlds where we are alone and comfortable, not visited or invaded. To make yourself a cup of tea is to grant you an escape from everything.

Many have shared their wondrous experiences with tea. Consider Martha, an accountant who never missed her morning tea. Each morning after breakfast, no matter what she was doing or who was in her presence, she’d stop and make herself a cup of tea in the company kitchen. She found the ritual conducive to her work. One morning, Martha heard her phone ring and several emails ping in her inbox. But alas, it was 9 o’clock – tea time! She ignored the shouts from her office and went to the kitchen to make her tea. She was not gone for five minutes, yet when she returned with her mug, she found not her office, but a smoldering crater where her desk and wall had been. Had she not held to her morning ritual, she too would have been blown to smithereens! Thankfully her morning tea that day was soothing chamomile, otherwise the sight might have scared her dead.

Tea is much valued for its life-saving properties. Green tea is often seen as the healthiest, with its antioxidant power. But all teas have some sort of health benefit to them. Black tea improves your breath. Peppermint tea aids in digestion. Hibiscus tea seems to frighten off the invaders, seeing how they recoiled in fear from Mrs. Thompson’s hibiscus plants when stomping through her garden. All tea has something special to offer.

But perhaps what is most special about tea is what it can do for you. Even when you are most alone, a cup of tea is there for you, warming your hands as you stare out your window and watch your neighborhood, city, and state burn to ash. The skies have turned red and the ships have grown in number, but your reliable kettle burns on the stove and whistles to you, calling from the rabble and chaos, “Time for tea!”

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: Cindy O’Quinn

Last week, Girl Meets Monster talked with John M. McIlveen about his forthcoming collection of short stories, A Variable Darkness, and the fact that he is somehow able to function on only 4 hours a sleep each night.

This week, I am thrilled to welcome Bram Stoker Award nominated writer, nature lover, and extremely kind and supportive cheerleader of her fellow writers, Cindy O’Quinn.

Cindy O’Quinn is an Appalachian writer who grew up in the mountains of West Virginia and is now living, writing, and homesteading in northern Maine.

2019 HWA Bram Stoker Award Nominee in Short Fiction for “Lydia”, and multiple Rhysling nominated poet. “Lydia” was published in the anthology, THE TWISTED BOOK OF SHADOWS, edited by Christopher Golden and James A. Moore, which was nominated in the anthology category for the Bram Stoker Award, This is Horror Award, and it won the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Anthology.

Works published or forthcoming in Shotgun Honey Presents, Twisted Book of Shadows, HWA Poetry Showcase Vol. V, Star*Line, SFPA Halloween Reading, Sanitarium Magazine, Eerie Christmas Anthology, Space and Time Magazine, Speculative City, Chiral Mad 5, and others.

Social Media:
Facebook @CindyOQuinnWriter
Instagram cindy.oquinn
Twitter @COQuinnWrites

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Cindy. I loved your fragment and definitely want to read more. The fact that your protagonist is a writer reminded me of how Stephen King often writes about characters who are writers. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s a trope in his fiction. Are there certain tropes you rely on in your own fiction? Do you create characters who are similar to other characters you’ve written about, or are there distinct qualities about them that set them apart? Without too many spoilers, can you give a synopsis of “The Handshake”?

COQ: Michelle, thank you for having me on Girl Meets Monster. I’m glad you enjoyed my fiction fragment. Yes, my novelette is about a young writer. I enjoy Stephen King stories with writers, as well. I loved The Dark Half, and Misery. It isn’t a trope of mine. Most of my characters have been fairly different from one another, thus far.

A quick synopsis of “The Handshake,” which was first published in Sanitarium Magazine Fall 2016. The magazine has since changed hands, and the issue is no longer available. I’d love to see it accepted in the future as a reprint.

Torrence Eastlin is a young writer. He has the chance to meet his favorite author, Hudson Greenbrier. Something happens when the two shake hands, at least it feels that way to Torrence. His writing improves, and he begins getting one acceptance after the next. When Hudson requests a private meeting with the young writer, Torrence knows his feeling must be true. He fears whatever transferred with the handshake must be what Hudson Greenbrier wants back. To what lengths will someone go to keep their gift or to take another’s?

GMM: What defines you as an Appalachian writer? Is it simply the fact that you were raised in Appalachia, or are there specific elements within your writing that make you an Appalachian writer? Settings? Characters? Tone? Plots? How would we recognize the work of other Appalachian writers?

COQ: In the beginning, my bio would simply state I was a writer who lived in West Virginia or Virginia. That changed when I moved to northern Maine. I felt disconnected from myself. It no longer felt right to say I was a writer who lived in Maine. That became evident when I spoke. People made sure I knew I was “from away”. I dedicated my novel to my husband and sons, but also to the Appalachian Mountains that stood guard around me for so many decades. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, You can take the girl out of the mountains, but you can’t take the mountains out of the girl. It’s true in my case. The Appalachian mountains are a part of what makes me, the person I am. All of it, the way I talk, write, cook, parent, homestead, down to how I dress.

I’m not sure one would recognize another Appalachian writer unless it’s known. It’s known of writers like Ron Rash, Silas House, and David Joy. If I’m drawn to a writer’s work, I’ll check out their bio.

GMM: Aside from short stories and poetry, have you written any longer fiction or nonfiction? Have you written any novels? If not, why? What projects are you working on right now?

COQ: I self-published my first novel, Dark Cloud on Naked Creek in the fall of 2016. I went through a couple small runs with it. Return to Graveyard Dust was my first collection of poetry. I have a novella currently out for consideration, I’m working on my second poetry collection, and another novel.

Fragment from “The Handshake” by Cindy O’Quinn

I glanced back at the line of fans and realized I’d hogged far more time than I should have. I stood and reached out my hand to my favorite writer. His enormous hand clasped down around mine, causing it to all but disappear. That’s when, once again, I felt that magical haze that had been hovering close all day. I was back in that tunnel, just like before when the writer was speaking at the podium. This time, there was actually a white glow around the two of us. Our hands together produced an electrical heat that I could feel up my arm and into the base of my skull. It felt like it lasted an hour, when in all actuality it was probably only a matter of several seconds. When the tunnel and light melted away, the writer was handing me the novel he so graciously autographed for me, and saying, “Good luck with your writing.”

“Okay. Thank you,” I said. Before walking away, I saw something in Hudson Greenbrier’s eyes that hadn’t been there before. Fear.

The drive back to Charlottesville was nothing like the drive to Sweet Wine. My mind was in a fog, and I was unaware of my surroundings. The fall foliage could have turned black, and I wouldn’t have noticed. I wasn’t fully alert again until I pulled into the driveway at home. I looked down in the passenger seat and saw Hudson Greenbrier’s book. I picked it up and looked inside. I hadn’t even bothered to look at what the author wrote. It read:

Here’s to Torrence Eastlin, the next big deal. I know there will be many who love your words. Hudson Greenbrier

I read the words over and over. I couldn’t remember, for the life of me, having told him my name. I must have, though. In my star-struck state, I must have told him my name. How else would he have known? There was a peck on my window that caused me to slam the book shut like I was hiding a secret. It was my brother, and he was laughing at having caused me a fright. Dell asked, “Well, did you meet him?”

I answered as I got out of the car, “Hell, yes, I met him. Here’s the selfie to prove it.” I handed my cell over to my brother. “He signed his book for me, and we talked a while.” I went on to tell my brother how I’d made an ass out of myself outside the bookstore. He got a real kick out of that. I didn’t tell him about the tunnel, the light, or the fact that I didn’t recall having given Greenbrier my name.

Later that night in my room, when the day had finally started to calm down, I wrote a three-thousand-word short story. I thought it was the best I ever wrote, and I wasn’t the only one to think it was good. My parents and my brother all agreed that I should submit it to Word Burner Magazine, so I did. A day later, I received an email saying they wanted to publish my story in their next issue. I received three hundred dollars for that short story. I went on to write seven more short stories, and they all sold. With each story published, my paycheck grew. Every time I sat down and started writing, I could feel myself floating back into that tunnel I was in the day I met Hudson Greenbrier. Never once did I question it. I just chalked it up to having been inspired by my favorite writer. As I look back, deep down I knew it was much more than inspiration. It went on this way for three months, until I decided it was time to move on from short stories and on to writing my first novel. Within a month, I had written a three-hundred-page murder-mystery novel, and had gone back over it twice to weed out any mistakes, which were few. My contact at Word Burner Magazine referred me to the editor at Nelson County Books, a small publishing house in nearby Afton, Virginia.

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: L. Marie Wood

Last week, I chatted with P. D. Cacek about what it means to be a NECON legend, and she gave some sound advice on writing a sequel. If you missed it, check it out.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes award-winning horror writer L. Marie Wood. I’ve had very limited face-to-face interaction with her. I’m hoping to change that fact in the coming year, because I have so many more questions for her that go beyond the scope of Fiction Fragments.

L. Marie Wood is an award-winning author and screenwriter.  She is the recipient of the Golden Stake Award and the Harold L. Brown Award for her fiction and screenplays.  Her short story, “The Ever After” is part of the Bram Stoker Award Finalist anthology Sycorax’s Daughters.  Wood was recognized in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Vol. 15 and as one of the 100+ Black Women in Horror Fiction.

Her first two novels, Crescendo and The Promise Keeper are available as audiobooks, which is fun!  The Promise Keeper‘s re-release is also scheduled for 2020.  She’s a member and mentor of the HWA, an officer in Diverse Writers and Artists of Speculative Fiction, and the programming director for the horror track at MultiverseCon.

Website:  www.lmariewood.com
Twitter:  @LMarieWood1
Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/LMarieWood/

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster! Your involvement in the horror community goes way beyond writing fiction, and I wanted to highlight some of your different roles that support the work of other writers and help to educate people about the horror genre. Can you tell me about your roles within DWASF and MultiverseCon? How has the pandemic made your roles more difficult? What experiences have helped you in your role as an HWA writing mentor? What other ways are you supporting the work of horror writers?

LMW: I’m so excited to be a part of Girl Meets Monster! Thank you so much for letting me talk about some of things I am most passionate about. I am the Director of Curricula and Outreach at Diverse Writers and Artists of Speculative Fiction (DWASF), which allows me to pair my love of teaching with the genre I hold dear. I created the soon-to-be-launched horror fiction curriculum at DWASF and continue to find new and interesting ways to bring industry knowledge to diverse communities. Alongside horror, we will have science fiction and fantasy modules available in the future and we look forward to diving into the intricacies of world building and character development from unique genre perspectives. At MultiverseCon, I serve as the Director of Horror Track programming. This allows me to create panels that speak to real considerations in the genre – topics like writing strong female characters, accessibility, and LGBTQ+ representation in horror fiction hold court alongside how to build a better monster and horror antagonists in folklore. The conversations that come are invigorating, to say the least.

The pandemic has presented challenges, for sure. Not being able to gather in person has been difficult to navigate and will continue to impact things like conventions and signings. But we are all adjusting. MultiverseCon will be virtual this year and while that will be different than our inaugural event, different is kind of what we do. I look forward to the ways that MultiverseCon shows what it’s made of as we navigate this pivot.

Being an HWA mentor was a natural next step for me. I am an English Professor and, at one point in my career, I created a taught an introduction to horror writing course. We explored the classic antagonists, the role that tone plays in the genre, the nuances of the many sub-genres. It was wonderful – I was absolutely in my element. At the same time, I write a lot. Stories, novels, novelettes, novellas, flash fiction, micro fiction. I did a stint as a freelance journalist. Did a little ghost writing. I used to write poetry and I still write screenplays. I’ve been writing psychological horror since I was a kid and doing so professionally for the better part of 20 years. I live and breathe this thing – I’ve learned a lot along the way and I still learn something new about what I do every day. So, when the opportunity to help an author get their footing presented itself, I jumped in with both feet and have not looked back.

What other ways am I supporting the work of horror writers? In short, I read. And then I talk with people about what I’ve read and encourage them to try it out too. As an author, I understand that to be the ultimate goal – to have someone read my work and enjoy it, be touched by it. So, I too am dedicated to that cause so that other authors – their dreams – can be realized. Sometimes I step outside my genre, serving as a sensitivity reader or as a line and/or developmental editor. Occasionally I host workshops for young writers. For all writers who are serious about their craft, I am a tireless cheerleader, a high-fiver, and a virtual hugger.

GMM: Tell me about winning the Golden Stake Award. What story won? Can you give a synopsis of the story? What do you think set your story apart from the other nominees? How cool was it winning an award for vampire fiction while attending The International Vampire Film and Arts Festival in London? Have you written other vampire fiction?

LMW: Winning the Golden Stake Award was nothing short of amazing. My novel, The Promise Keeper, won the award in 2019 – the 100th anniversary of Polidori’s “The Vampyre”… the vampire tale that is credited with starting it all. It is the first vampire tale to be written in English; it was a product of the night of storytelling he shared with Mary Shelley and her husband, poet Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron where Mary Shelley famously wrote Frankenstein as he wrote this groundbreaking work – so this anniversary was an important moment in the genre. I remember thinking that I was just excited to be a part of it – me, with my unconventional vampire story about a young African girl who is swept into the world of the undead before she even understood who she was or the woman she could become – a female vampire who travels continents over centuries of time to outrun her destiny… to keep her promise. Over the course of the festival I met people who were familiar with vampire lore that I had never heard of before and exchanged ideas with people I am happy to call friends now. When my name was called, I almost missed it. I could not believe they were talking about me. The moment was so surreal.  Here’s the back-cover copy for The Promise Keeper:

A young girl, on the cusp of maturity, in what is now known as Benin, West Africa, is seduced by a beautiful stranger, a man the likes of which she has never seen before. Their encounter changes her forever. She runs, her travels taking her to Europe and the Caribbean over centuries to escape him.  She finally settles in New York City, convinced that she has eluded him, until she falls in love. 

When I did a reading the day before the awards ceremony, several people in the audience commented on the detail and description that I use in my writing and how it transplanted them from the space we shared together to the apartment where blood stained the bed. Perhaps the judges agreed – I don’t know… all I know is that the trophy is literally a golden stake replete with a blood-stained tip. So incredibly awesome.

Yes, I have written more vampire fiction. Apparently, this is the antagonist I go for when I want to write something outside of my sub-genre (who knew?). My short story, “The Dance”, about a chance encounter with a vampire at the club, will be part of Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire from Mocha Memoirs Press later in 2020. I wrote a story years ago about a vampire who had to choose between love and need called “Baie Rouge”. And the second book in my series, The Realm, may or may not have a vampire lurking in the shadows. The first book in the series comes out this year from Cedar Grove Publishing (exciting!), so part two is a little way off…. I guess that means I may need to write another vampire short story in the meantime.

GMM: How do you find balance with all of your roles as a writer, mentor, con organizer, and all of your other responsibilities? Do you have any advice for other writers, especially women of color, who are trying to write and publish, while attending school, and/or working a full-time job, and/or caring for a family? Do you find yourself saying yes to every project that comes your way, or have you learned to say no? Asking for a friend.

LMW: To be honest, I don’t think about it. Let me say it differently. We all know people who drive miles and miles to get gas because it is cheaper across state lines – either we know that person or we are that person. As ridiculous as it might seem to that person and many others, I don’t think about the price of gas or go hunting for cheaper. I need gas to drive. I need to drive to get where I want to go. So, I just buy it. Along those same lines, I need to write. I don’t plot out time to do it, devise a schedule, set a word count, etc. I just do it or something related to it, like research or character development, because I have to. Just like I need to breathe to live. 

Writers write. 

When I had such debilitating writer’s block that I couldn’t string together a full sentence if it was even remotely frightening, I wrote gardening articles and community feel-goods until the block lifted (and boy did it take a loonnggg time – several years). Because I had to write something.   Recognizing my drive helps me understand other people’s needs. Someone needs a second eye on a piece they are excited about; panels need to be pinned down; edits are needed to help move someone’s story forward – it sounds like a lot but all of these tasks are in the same family and they are associated with the thing that I greatly respect in others and recognize in myself as well – the burn. It’s what makes us do what we do – it’s what makes us push. I’ll never get in the way of that.

1 a.m. is a great time to be productive. 

My advice to writers who are trying to get it all done is to do exactly that. On the surface that doesn’t sound helpful but let me explain. I did that very thing – I was working full time, writing, going to school, and had familial responsibilities all at the same time. And the burn that I mentioned before – the desire to be present in my home life, to earn well, to ace the class, to finish the story… to scratch the itch – I let it propel me every day. Sure, I got tired sometimes. Sure, it was hard. But there’s nothing like coming out on the other side accomplished. There’s nothing like showing the children in your life that they can succeed with hard work and dedication – that pushing themselves is absolutely worth it. They see. They understand. And they admire. So, keep at it. Try and fail – it will make you stronger. Try and succeed, then assess what worked so that you can keep that strategy in your toolkit. Share both the triumphs and failures with those closest to you not only to unburden (which is important), but also so they can see you picking yourself up and trying again. Maybe it will inspire them to help you dust off and go again. Maybe, just maybe, it will encourage them to go after something they want too. I do not say yes to everything because spreading yourself too thin is real. I would rather do well with a few things than have a finger in a lot of things that I ruin because I am not giving them the attention they deserve. This can be difficult because sometimes you end up turning something away that sounds interesting. But stress never helps anyone, so sometimes ‘no’ is the answer.  At 1 a.m. I am pretty productive. Not so at 4 a.m.

Fragment from The Realm

It didn’t happen the way they said it would.

No angels came to greet him; no bright light funneled a path through the darkness. No relatives called to him from the beyond.

He didn’t feel warmth, acceptance, or love – he felt emptiness.

He saw nothing in the moments before death. Just an impenetrable darkness that crowded his vision like oil spreading in water, encroaching on the faces of his son and daughter-in-law, blackening them: obliterating them. He could hear them after his eyes dimmed, standing open and blind like black holes. His tear ducts dried up as his son cried over him.

The sound of Doug’s grief, the guttural moans roiling and meshing with his pleas—his barters with God to save his father—was more than Patrick could take. Trying but failing to lift his hand from his side and stroke his son’s head, Patrick silently prayed that his hearing would dissipate as quickly as his sight had.

Patrick could only imagine what Doug and Chris were seeing as his body broke down in front of him. Images of eyes ruined by broken capillaries filled with blood, his slacked mouth allowing a discolored tongue to peek through tortured his mind. He struggled for every breath now, death’s grip holding fast and firm. The thought of the kids seeing him fight for air, his face a twisted mass of pain and effort, upset him more than he thought it would. Death was not pretty.

Doug moaned and Chris cried while Patrick’s eyes grew drier and his skin grew paler. He thought it would never end, the display, the sick, cruel game death was playing. That he should witness it, that he should have to hear the calmness his son usually displayed crumble and fall away, was torture if ever there was a definition of the word. The devil, then. It was his work after all, he supposed. He was on his way to Hell and this was but a taste of what was to come.

And then there was silence.

Utter silence.

The sound of his son’s anguish was gone, mercifully. The hum of the respirator, the clicking of the rosary beads the man in the next bed held, the squeak of rubber soles on the sanitized tile floor as the nurses and doctors hurried to his side – all sound had disappeared. He wondered what would be next to go. His memory? He quizzed himself just to see if it was already gone. What’s my name? Patrick Richardson. How old am I? 59. Was is more like it, he corrected himself. After all, he was dead. Dead. Gone. Finished.

Patrick stood in the pitch-black silence confused and unbelievably sad. He was dead. He would never see the baby that Chris was carrying, his first grandchild. He wouldn’t ever watch another boxing match with his son and friends over beer and pizza. He wouldn’t get the chance to watch the waves break on the shore from a beach chair in the Caribbean. He wouldn’t do anything anymore—not eat, drink, or fuck—ever again. Because he was dead.

And death was dark. Impenetrably so.

How did this happen? he asked aloud using a mouth he could no longer feel. He thought back to that morning, when he was taking out the garbage. He could remember walking to the back of his house and getting the garbage can. The damned cat had gotten into it again; the little stray he left food and water for had knocked the top of the can off, torn through the garbage bag, and gotten to the trash inside. The little monster made a hell of mess too, strewing soggy newspaper, chicken bones, and juice cartons all over the brick patio. Patrick remembered cursing out loud and casting his eyes around the backyard, looking for the cat. He remembered turning back to the bowl he’d left out the night before and finding it full of food. ‘That’s what you were supposed to eat, damn it!’ he’d said as he bent down to clean up the mess.

On his way back into the house to get another garbage bag, a piece of the dream he had the night before came back to him. It hung in front of his eyes like a transparency over real life, framing everything with the hazy film of familiarity, all soft edges and anticipation.

Déjà vu.

As usual after those dreams, the dark ones that made him wonder if he was there, really there, walking, talking, living within them, he wondered if he was the character whose face the audience never sees.

The memory was faint, as it always was the morning after, but he knew what happened next. This time the scene was identical to his dream. There was usually something askew, some crucial piece off center, but this time nothing was out of place. He knew he would turn away from the door instead of going inside to get the garbage bag. He knew he would squint from the sun when he did, and that he would place his hands above his eyes, shading them like a visor. He knew it just as well as he knew his name, for as easily as that knowledge came, it dragged heavy fear and worry in its wake.

He obliged. It wasn’t like he had a choice.

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.

The Cuckoo Girls, An Interview with Patricia Lillie

Patricia Lillie grew up in a haunted house in a small town in Northeast Ohio. Since then, she has published picture books, short stories, fonts, two novels, and her latest, The Cuckoo Girls, a collection of short stories. As Patricia Lillie, she is the author of The Ceiling Man, a novel of quiet horror, and as Kay Charles, the author of Ghosts in Glass Houses, a cozy-ish mystery with ghosts. She is a graduate of Parsons School of Design and has a MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. She also knits and sometimes purls.

Follow her on Twitter @patricialillie.

Patricia Lillie’s collection of disturbingly beautiful short stories, The Cuckoo Girls, takes on a journey through the darkest parts of the fairy tale forest, into houses haunted by memories as well as ghosts, and reminds us that there is horror in everyday events if we’re willing to peek behind the curtain and allow the madness to seep in. If you haven’t picked up a copy of The Cuckoo Girls, I suggest you do.

GMM: Welcome back to Girl Meets Monster, Patricia. It’s been, what? Two years since your first visit for Fiction Fragments way back in July 2018. You were one of the first writers I featured in that series and since then, you’ve had quite a bit of success. What have you been up to? What are you currently working on? And, what can we look forward to from you?

PL: Wow! That was two years ago? It doesn’t seem like it, which is odd since January of this year feels like ten years ago. As for success—congratulations on Invisible Chains and your Stoker nomination! You should have seen me doing happy dances for you. I take that back. You’re lucky not to have seen me doing happy dances since I’m a klutz. But, do know dances were danced.

What I’ve been up too? A handful of the stories in The Cuckoo Girls were written after the Fiction Fragments piece. As I mentioned there, I had lots of fragments scattered all over my hard drive and I needed to organize them. I did. Which led to some of them turning into stories. Which made me happy—so thank you for setting me on that path.

Aside from that, I have the beginnings of two novels which both keep changing direction. It sometimes takes a while for things to gel with me. I’ve also refilled that fragments folder with more beginnings. I’m evidently good at getting down the first 500–800 words of a story, and sometimes I even know the end, but finding the story that goes in between often takes time. A lot of time. This year, like for many people, hasn’t exactly been conducive to writing, but I’m slowly finding my way back. At least, I hope I am.

GMM: I finished reading The Cuckoo Girls recently and I really enjoyed the collection. I’ve always been able to lose myself in your writing, but there were a few stories that really pulled me in. One of my favorites is “The Robber Bridegroom,” which is a delightfully dark fairy tale about a young woman who is spurned by her family and community because she isn’t as attractive as her younger sister. In fact, she has some sort of deformity that requires her to wear a veil in public. But, she has a secret lover that she meets at night in the forest, and each night he confirms his desire for her even though they know almost nothing about each other beyond their carnal interests. Despite the fact that she suspects that he is dangerous she continues to see him night after night, and even chooses to be his after she finds out the truth about him.

Fairy tales are obviously an influence on your work. Not just this story, but other stories in the collection like “Mother Sylvia.” What is it about fairy tales that draws us back to them again and again? What fairy tales inspired “The Robber Bridegroom”? Which fairy tale was your favorite as a kid? What’s your favorite now? Why?

PL: Thank you—I’m so happy you enjoyed the collection!

I do love fairy tales—or folk tales—but not the idea of “fairy tale” that springs to mind for a lot of people. I didn’t have a favorite fairy tale as a kid. I didn’t dislike them, but none of my favorite stories fell into that definition. I came to love them as an adult when I studied them in conjunction with children’s literature and discovered they weren’t all the happy-ever-after, prettied-up, suitable-for-children stories we’ve come to accept. Oral tradition stories change as they’re told and retold, but some of the greatest changes come when the stories are collected and published. Those changes are often designed to make the stories more palatable to readers.

In the original 1812 edition of the Grimm Brother’s collections, the stepmothers in “Snow White,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and others were biological mothers. The idea of a birth mother planning to slaughter and eat her seven-year-old daughter (Snow White) was culturally abhorrent to the sanctified ideal of motherhood. The bad-mothers were changed to step-mothers in later editions.

Rapunzel and the prince enjoy a “merry time together” resulting in pregnancy, which leads to discovery by the witch. Imagine that in a Disney movie.

At the same time, I discovered stories from cultures beyond the familiar (to me at the time) Western European tradition. As striking as the diversity of these stories is, there’s also a surprising commonality. There are over three-hundred cultural variants (from all over the world) of what we (in our Euro-centric outlook) think of as a Cinderella-story. I’m rambling, but what I’m getting at is the fairy tale tradition is both darker and richer than the “she meets her prince and he is her salvation” idea so many of us were sold. At the same time, many revolve around women. Sometimes they are a prize to be won. Sometimes they are the protagonist. But (at least in the Euro-centric tales) they are often robbed of their agency, either by other characters or by the roles they are expected to fill in family and society. The pressure to be a good girl and find that prince is immense.

“The Robber Bridegroom” uses the main theme from the Brothers Grimm tale of the same name along with elements from Norwegian, British, and other variants of the story. The original story differs from the “meets her prince” fairy tale trope. A young woman escapes from an arranged marriage to a rich man who is not what he appears to be. Which all sort of happens in my story, but as you noted, I took it in another direction. Both of the sisters in my version are expected to fill the role which provides the most value to the family. Because they are female, they’re commodities, and their value is determined by their appearance. Both rebel. It works out well for one of them—because she makes it work out.

GMM: Your stories are often about girls and women who have experienced some form of trauma, or have been given a responsibility that weighs heavily upon them. Where does your inspiration for these characters come from? Do you consider yourself a feminist writer? How much of yourself can be found in the pages of this collection?

PL: When I began to pull this collection together, I was more than a little surprised to discover, “Oh. Hey. There is a theme here.” Where did it come from? Hell if I know. My best guess is from my coming of age during the decades of Second Wave Feminism. It’s hard to imagine now, but I was in high school when women were given the legal right to get credit cards without a man co-signing for them. That’s hardly the only change, but I like to use it as an example because it’s so inconceivable today and it wasn’t that long ago.

Of course, young and optimistic me thought things would continue to get better. Of course, they didn’t. Women’s rights came to a standstill and then moved backwards—as has the fight for equality for POC, LGBTQ people, and anyone who doesn’t fit into the 1950’s standards of power and perfection. It was all supposed to be better by now and it’s not. Life for anyone who doesn’t fit those standards is often a trauma.

As a straight, white, cis woman, the trauma inflicted on women who don’t fit into predetermined roles—or choose not to fill them—is the situation I understand the best. It’s the one I know, and apparently it creeps into my writing. I am a feminist. Am I a feminist writer? I think that’s for others to decide. I always thought I just liked spooky shit.

GMM: The theme of motherhood can be found in many of your stories. Motherhood can be really challenging and sometimes traumatic for many women without the added terror of body horror and supernatural pregnancies. “The Cuckoo Girls”, the first story in this collection, speaks to the horrors associated with pregnancy and motherhood and is an extremely unsettling tale. Why do you think this story is scary? What about pregnancy and motherhood frightens you? Why do you think pregnancy is a trope within the subgenre of body horror?

PL: Pregnancy is terrifying. Another being, nestled and growing inside your body, feeding off you—and at the same time being dependent on you for their life—is bad enough, but add in the pain of giving birth—yeah. Body horror, indeed. My fear of pregnancy is so great, it’s the main reason I’ve never given birth to a child. I have been deeply involved in the raising of a few children, and as wonderful and rewarding as that is, it’s also terrifying. So much responsibility. So much love. So much to gain, but so much to lose if things go wrong. Honestly, parenting is the hardest job a human can take on. I made an active choice not to go through pregnancy and an active choice to be involved in the lives of the children of others. I think the unsettling aspect of “The Cuckoo Girls” is there is no choice. Because motherhood is still a default expectation for women, the lack of choice and lack of control is frightening.

To go back to your previous question, apparently there is a lot of me in these stories. Damn you for making me think so hard. <smiley face here>

GMM: “That’s What Friends Are For” is a great haunted house story with a surprising ending. Have you had any paranormal experiences in your life that inspired this story?

PL: Ha. That story takes place in the house I grew up in. (Seriously. I grew up in a haunted house on the corner of Erie and Elm streets. Explains a lot, doesn’t it?) The bedroom with the closet doors? Mine. The sleepwalking brother who peed in that closet? While not paranormal, also mine. The idea that the unseen residents of the house were simply part of our life and our friends? That’s how we viewed them. Not scary at all.

Long after my parents sold the house, my sister met the then current residents. They were having the same experiences we had. However, they were terrified and convinced the presence was evil. Which made me wonder, what if ghosts are a reflection of how we see them?

GMM: What is your favorite story in this collection and why?

PL: I’m not sure which is my favorite, but I’m fond of “Alyce-with-a-Y” simply because of how it came about. You’ve probably noticed I have a habit of dropping references to Lewis Carroll’s Alice into my writing. I decided to embrace it and use Carroll’s world as the basis of a story. Frankly, I thought maybe doing so would break my Alice habit. I started the story with no real idea where it was going, and I didn’t care. I was writing for fun. I was writing to exorcise Alice. When Alyce showed up, I thought she was someone entirely different than she turned out to be, and she took me on a wild ride all the way to the end. It was a story that just happened. Is it the best story in the book? Probably not. But I had so much fun writing it! (It remains to be seen whether or not the exorcism was successful.)

Thank you so much for inviting me back to Girl Meets Monster! It’s been a blast.

Dark Blood Comes From the Feet: An Interview with Emma J. Gibbon

Emma J. Gibbon is a horror writer, speculative poet and librarian. Her stories have appeared in various anthologies including Wicked Weird, Wicked Haunted, and The Muse & the Flame and on the Toasted Cake podcast. She also has a story upcoming in Would but Time Await: An Anthology of New England Folk Horror from Haverhill Publishing. This year, she has been nominated twice for the Rhysling Award for her poems “Fune-RL” (Strange Horizons) and “Consumption” (Eye to the Telescope). Her poetry has also been published in LiminalityPedestal Magazine and is upcoming in Kaleidotrope. Emma is originally from Yorkshire and now lives in Maine in a spooky little house in the woods with her husband, Steve, and three exceptional animals: Odin, Mothra, and M. Bison (also known as Grim). She is a member of the New England Horror Writers, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association, the Angela Carter Society, and the Tuesday Mayhem Society. Her website is emmajgibbon.com.

I recently had the pleasure of reading Emma J. Gibbon’s anthology of short horror fiction, Dark Blood Comes From the Feet. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this collection of literary horror tales that put relatable characters under the microscope to show us the darker side of the human condition. Gibbon takes us to weirdly familiar settings that quickly turn macabre, like a strip club in Purgatory, a Lovecraftian orphanage, a day at the beach that would make Cronenberg proud, and a haunted house on a hill that I won’t forget any time soon.

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Emma. Congratulations on the release of your short story collection, Dark Blood Comes From the Feet, that comes out today! I really loved reading your stories, not just because they were well written, but also because I couldn’t help wondering where the stories came from. You write about a diverse group of characters from different backgrounds with different experiences and I kept wondering which of those characters were you. That might seem like a strange thing to wonder for some people, but because I write dark fiction as well about women of color, there is a part of me in each story. Some really terrible things happen to the people in your stories, but at the most basic level, they’re human. How much of yourself is in this collection? Where do the lines blur between you and your characters?

EJG: Thank you so much! I’m so glad you enjoyed it! That’s a really tough question to answer because in a way, they are all from me but are separate at the same time. I’ve had an interesting and varied time on this earth so far, so it does sometimes feel like I’ve lived a lot of lives. There is no doubt that I use elements of myself and my life when I create characters, some on a surface level and some on a deep emotional level. When I do the latter, it’s often not a conscious decision but something I realize later, sometimes years later. For example, on a surface level, the narrator of “Cellar Door,” Karen, resembles me in that some of her memories she mentions are my memories and she lives in my house. That house is my house! That basement is real! I’m not convinced it was the best idea, it’s like I haunted my own house.  But personality-wise, she’s not like me. Janine in “Janine” is a character I have enormous sympathy for. She is someone who had the cards stacked against her from the start, who made some bad choices and has really suffered for them, much more than she deserves. I have the sense that I could have easily been someone like Janine, but I was just luckier.

Ultimately, there is a lot of me in this collection, probably more than I like to admit. Dark Blood Comes from the Feet, is a line from “Cellar Door” and it’s a reference to having old trauma that you have trouble letting go of. I have a lot of stuff that I psychologically scratch at, over and over, old wounds. They’re in my stories but I skew it and dress it up in monsters and distinct voices and the supernatural so that I don’t even recognize it myself at times.

GMM: While reading the stories, I compared your work to other writers in the genre, including Poe, Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Cronenberg, and there’s even a reference to Donnie Darko (Tolkien), which brought a smile to my face. Which writers have had the most impact on your own writing style? Whose stories inspired you the most?

EJG: I do love Donnie Darko! And thank you so much! That’s a very flattering and intimidating list! I definitely have a group of authors whose work has inspired me. I know I’ll forget a major influence but a very obvious one is Shirley Jackson, but also Angela Carter, Daphne du Maurier, Neil Gaiman, Mervyn Peake, M. Rickert, Kelly Link. I think Brooke Bolander is astonishing. I’m inspired by many people writing horror right now. More than that though, I think the key is I was an early and voracious reader who came from a family that weren’t huge readers. We didn’t go to the library. My parents bought me books, but there was no way they could have kept up with me. I read everything and did a lot of rereading (I’ve slowed down since then, I mean, the internet exists now.) I’d get books from car boot sales (the British equivalent of yard sales). Half the time I didn’t have to pay. I think people were a bit weirded out by this little girl carrying a stack of Stephen King and Alfred Hitchcock books, I especially liked the ones with the yellow edges, so they just gave them to me. Because my reading was very autodidactic and random, I have a personal canon that’s my own. I had no sense of high or low culture (which I still think is nonsense anyway,) or genre or nonfiction vs fiction, so I’d read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest then V. C. Andrews, an anthology of classic ghost stories and Salem’s Lot with a book of feminist stories. Much later, I’d carry on this habit even as I specialized in English—Macbeth with The Mammoth Book of Vampires Stories, a nonfiction book about the cultural effects of tuberculosis with The Name of the RoseWide Sargasso Sea with The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. So all of these stories are all in there and they come out in my stories in a completely unconscious way.

GMM: You have an incredible talent for showing us the horror and reality of the settings in each of your stories. I’m an avid reader, but I also have spent a lot of time watching and studying films in many genres, which I think has had an impact on how I tell stories. Would you say that the written word, or film images have inspired your work more? What films have influenced the way you craft a scene?

EJG: Thank you so much! That really means a lot to me because I have aphantasia. This means that I don’t imagine or think in visual images. It’s hard to describe but I have a strong internal dialogue and think in concepts (almost as if my mind can feel the edges of a 3D representation that I can’t see.) Some of my settings are based on places where I have lived or visited—as I said, the house in “Cellar Door” is mine, the tunnel in “Bobby Red-Eyes” really existed when I was a kid (and Bobby is an urban legend in my hometown), the Black Shuck Tavern is based on a famous Hollywood nightclub. Others were research, I’ve never been to any of the places in “Whitechapel,” for example.

I am very influenced by film too. I grew up in the peak-VHS 80s with very little screen supervision, so we watched a lot of horror films. My big ambition as a teen was to be a music video director. I was a double major in college in English and Art History but most of my art history classes were the history of film or film theory and honestly; it burnt me out a little. A lot of my favorite films are before then. So films like Heathers, The Lost Boys, Donnie Darko, Amadeus, The Faculty, Beetlejuice, The ‘Burbs, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nightbreed and May have had an enormous impact on me. Despite the aphantasia, it’s the colors of the scenes that I often remember and the way they affect mood.

That said, I’ve been influenced and inspired by all kinds of things—personal anecdotes, scenes from my own life, books and movies, music videos, songs, photographs and other pieces of art, TV shows and video games. It’s the story that I’m always most interested in, not necessarily the format.

GMM: I enjoyed reading all of the stories in your collection, but I have a few favorites, including “Devour,” “Cellar Door,” “Whitechapel,” and “St. Scholastica’s Home for Children of the Sea.” Which stories in the collection are your favorites, and why? Which were the most difficult to write?

EJG: As far as being hard to write, two stand out particularly. “Cellar Door” because it was the kind of story I have always wanted to write and fear of failure meant I couldn’t get out of my own way for the longest time. In the end, I made it a NaNoWriMo project and got a good chunk of it done by not looking back as I wrote. “This is Not the Glutton Club” was hard because I hand wrote it while bedridden with pneumonia! It was also the story that needed the most research, and my Facebook friends really saved the day on that one!

It’s really hard to have favorites, they’re like children (I’m guessing). What is nice is that I’ve got enough distance between them all that I like them all. I don’t regret putting any of them in there. I do really like “Sermon from New London.” It was a lot of fun to write. Should we get to the other side of the apocalypse, I think there are worse ways to survive than being part of a matriarchal cult based on punk music. It was first published on the Toasted Cake podcast performed by the editor, Tina Connolly, and there had to be a language warning because there is so much swearing in it. What really makes me laugh is that when I played it to my husband, he didn’t notice, which I think tells you about the level of discourse in our house!

GMM: While you write from the POV of both male and female characters, your strongest characters seem to be women and girls. And, even though terrible things happen to them, not all of them are victims. Many of your female characters make the most of the bad situations they find themselves in, and become survivors. Would you say that feminism has had an impact on how you create your female characters? Or, are you simply showing us the strength of the human spirit? Rarely, do your stories have what I would consider a happy ending, and I really appreciate that. How would you describe your writing style to someone who has never read your work?

EJG: Feminism definitely plays into it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind straight white guys, I even married one! But they have had their time being at the center of stories. They’ve had centuries of being the heroes and saving the day. I’ve made a conscious decision to give people who don’t traditionally get to be the protagonists take center stage or have the happy ending—women without children, women who are not straight, trans women, working-class women. Part of it is being a woman from a working-class background who has not conformed to social convention and having mainstream fiction just not resonate with me at all because of that. I still have a way to go. My writing is far too white, for example, and that is something I have to work on—my experience of the world is not a default and I think the more that I reflect the world as it is, the more powerful it is when I tilt it somewhat. Something that is at the core of who I am is that I will always root for the underdog, always. There is never a time when I’m on the side of the people with all the power so that’s going to come through.

I’ve had to pull myself up from the ashes a few times in my life, start again from nothing and reinvent myself. I’ve seen people, especially women, do that again and again and I like to reflect that in some of my stories. It makes you stronger, like tempering steel, but it has a cost, you can get brittle and break. Even the phoenix has to go through the fire.

Describing my writing style is difficult. It’s one of those things where I would be interested to know how other people describe it. A lot of it is instinctual. Once I get the voice of a story, it usually pulls me along. That said, I like to challenge myself to see if I can write in a wide a range as possible—can I write a nested story in the voice of a Victorian gentleman? What if I had an unreliable narrator talking to someone who wasn’t there? Can I write a speech in mostly misheard punk lyrics? What would Shirley Jackson do? I think that is what it comes down to mostly: What would Shirley Jackson do?

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: Jessica McHugh

Last week, Girl Meets Monster spoke with Nick Cato about the relationship between horror and humor. And this week, I am pleased to welcome the delightful Jessica McHugh.

authorpicJessica McHugh is a novelist and internationally produced playwright running amok in the fields of horror, sci-fi, young adult, and wherever else her peculiar mind leads. She’s had twenty-three books published in eleven years, including her bizarro romp, “The Green Kangaroos,” her Post Mortem Press bestseller, “Rabbits in the Garden,” and her YA series, “The Darla Decker Diaries.” More information on her published and forthcoming fiction can be found at JessicaMcHughBooks.com.

Three Questions

GMM: Hi, Jessica. Welcome to Girl Meets Monster. I’m dying to know what happens next for Duncan Dwyer; I wanted to keep reading when your fragment ended. Can you give a brief synopsis of this story? What inspired the story and where on Earth is Dickety Downs? Is it based on a real place?

JM: This story was originally inspired by a publisher’s plan to release a series of RL Stine Fear Street-eque books. It didn’t happen, but I ended up with several chapters of this WIP story and some characters that I’d grown to love. Nuts and bolts synopsis: it’s about loss coming to terms with how loss changes us, but it’s also about reinvention and not always with a positive spin. Dickety Downs, and the town of Alton where it’s nestled, is pretty much a dead space to the rest of the world. And to a lesser extent, so is Hampstead, the town where I grew up in the 80s and 90s. I was shocked a few years back when I realized my once idyllic suburban neighborhood enveloped by lush and tangled woodland where I pretended to be an explorer and soldier and unicorn and spent countless hours making joyful noise with my friends had become a silent stretch of empty houses hastily vacated. All around my childhood home where my father and brother still live are trash-filled shells of suburban dreams. A few years ago, my high school even closed down, and the police department moved into its still-warm corpse.

Hampstead definitely inspired the town of Alton where Duncan Dwyer and her father move at the novel’s start, but as much as I hope my old hometown is able to reinvent itself, I hope it doesn’t go down the same dark path as the one laid out in this story.

GMM: When did you start writing YA fiction? As an adult, is it easy to get into the headspace of children and teens, or do you struggle to find their voices? How much of yourself is in your young female characters? Do you prefer writing YA fiction or fiction for a more adult audience?

JM: I’ve been writing YA for a while, though I didn’t always write with a YA audience in mind. Because of the protagonists’ ages, Rabbits in the Garden and Danny Marble & the Application for Non-Scary Things were marketed to a younger audience that…ahem…might not have appreciated the gore level. However, even though my 5-book series, the Darla Decker Diaries, was written for middle grade and up, I still pushed the boundaries a bit. (And by now, you’ve figured out that I *really* like alliteration, right?) I don’t feel like I struggle to channel a younger voice, but I’ve also spent a lot of time around kids and teens teaching creative writing, and living and working in downtown Frederick provides a lot of inspirado and research opportunities.

I feel like there’s a sliver of me in every character I write but certainly more than others, at least in the beginning. Darla Decker was directly inspired by my childhood diaries, so she started out very much like me. But she grew as a person over five books and made lots of decisions I never would. Duncan Dwyer, on the other hand, feels already grown. She’s gone through a lot more than Darla—death, abandonment, depression and anxiety—and just when she’s starting to heal, she’s thrown into this dilapidated town teetering on the success of an experimental private school. I started writing this story a year or so after my cat died when I was having severe depression and panic attacks so bad I couldn’t hold a pen. I was on medication for the first time in my life, and in the first few chapters Duncan discusses her meds and visits her new therapist.

As for what I prefer…I just don’t know. But based on my published works, this work-in-progress, and the two middle-grade horror books I’m writing currently, it sure seems like I unconsciously prefer YA.

GMM: Your story has a light-hearted humorous feel to it, but I suspect Duncan is about to experience something strange or even traumatic. Is there usually an element of horror in your work even though you write in several genres? Last week, Nick Cato talked about how humor and horror work together in his fiction. How would you describe the relationship between humor and horror in your own work and in other fiction you’ve enjoyed reading?

JM: Oh, absolutely, there are always horrific elements in my work. Maybe it’s because real life seems to overflow with all varieties and intensities of horror, it just comes out naturally. I truly can’t help it, nor would I want to.

While I’m not sure I’m as adept as Nick Cato at incorporating humor into horror, there’s no doubt I love using it. It’s a great way to manage the intensity of the reader’s fear. While humor can diffuse a tense situation, it can also prolong the reader’s comfort so terror can creep up slow—or methodically unravel in the background while the characters are having a nice laugh. Again, I believe real life follows similar patterns, so I’m just keeping it real creating this delicious genre goulash.

Who Died in the House Next Door, by Jessica McHugh

Chapter One

The squirrel on the porch was dead before Duncan dropped her suitcase on its head. That’s what her dad said anyway. While he scrubbed blood out of her luggage, he repeated frantic assurances like, “This isn’t a bad sign, honeybee,” and “It could happen to anyone.”

Of course it could happen to anyone, but it happened to her, Duncan Dwyer, less than two minutes after arriving at her new home. So maybe it wasn’t a bad sign, but it sure as hell wasn’t a good sign.

Her dad blamed himself, and she wanted to blame him too. It was because of him that she had to uproot her life in Joliet and move to a neighborhood too empty and boring to be called something as crazy as “Dickety Downs.”

She sighed. Duncan Dwyer of Dickety Downs. That should go over well at the new school.

Her father’s bushy black eyebrows formed a somber “w” between his eyes, and Duncan launched into assurances of her own. That’s what they did—what they had to do to protect each other. So, yes, even though he was the reason they left Joliet, he’d done it for the greater good, in pursuit of a better life for them both. Besides, no sane person could’ve refused the generous offer from the principal of the newly constructed Alton Academy. A free house and double her father’s previous teaching salary was more than they could’ve asked for. Add in the privilege of attending the trial run of Alton Academy’s so-called Experimental Learning Facility, and Duncan’s dad was packing up their possessions before Duncan could even think of objecting.

Not that she would have. After more than a year of homeschooling with Dad, she wasn’t eager about returning to a typical school setting, but he obviously was. He missed the madness of high school halls and unpredictability of being a teacher who actually cared about underachievers and outcasts. Besides, if her dad was telling the truth about Alton Academy, it wasn’t exactly a “typical” school.

“We needed our own doormat anyway,” Duncan said as her dad dropped the faded straw thing into the trash bag with the squirrel. The word “Welcome” permeated the white haze like a mocking grin, but she refused to let it venture beyond the rim of her vision. “What do you think? Something nice and flowery, or maybe something a little more realistic? ‘Buzz off’ comes to mind…”

His eyebrows relaxed, and his mouth stretched to a grin. “No shock there, honeybee.” He dropped the bag and wrapped his arms around her, but for all the ways his embrace filled the fractured places, it was as temporary as chewing gum. It lost its flavor quickly, and she swallowed it dry as he lugged the dead squirrel and tainted rug down their new driveway to their new curb in their new, severely weathered, neighborhood.

Anxiety curled her veins like frayed ribbon as she scanned Dickety Downs. They’d entered the town of Alton in the teasing pink of evening, before the trees scraped off their makeup and hunkered down in their truth, gnarled and hideous in the dull light of faulty streetlamps. Most had shed their summer skin and stood as cracked and bare as the numerous driveways leading to dark, empty houses.  Not only were the Dwyers the only ones rustling in the falling evening, they appeared to be the only ones who actually lived in Dickety Downs.

Duncan backed inside and turned on the foyer light, followed by the living room, kitchen, and the long slate throat to the basement. Her dad closed the front door, and she scuttled back to the hall to see his pointer finger fall on the lock like Midas before the rude awakening. From the lock, his fingers leaped to the delicate curvy trim bisecting the foyer walls. He didn’t look up, but he knew she was watching, otherwise he wouldn’t have kicked up his index finger and made a dancer of his hand. He dashed and tapped his fingertips over the trim with his usual flair, but he soon ran out of dance floor. There were no picture frames for leaps or rond de jambe, no chachkis for him to bounce between. There were only the walls and Duncan, and she didn’t feel like being danced on tonight.

Cumbersome boxes surrounded her, wearing labels like “basement,” “kitchen,” and the name “Gail,” which had been angrily x-ed out. None were labeled with Duncan’s name, much to her disappointment.

“When’s the rest of our stuff getting here?” she asked.

Dad’s dancer didn’t land; it simply ceased to be as he strolled past Duncan to wash his hands.

“Some are going to be late, but the furniture should be here soon. The mattress and couches at least.”

“How late?”

He dried his hands and tossed the towel on the sink. “It might be a few days, Dunc. I messed up some of the forms and—“Exhaling, he grabbed the towel again and whirled it as he opened the refrigerator and said, “Ta-da!” A raspberry drizzled cheesecake stood alone on the center shelf, with “Welcome Home” written in shining scarlet glaze.

Dad carved a large slice of cake and flopped it onto a paper plate. “Water, Milady?”

“Is there anything else?”

He started to give an answer she knew wouldn’t please her, so she added a quick “Never mind” and “Yes, please.”

They sat cross-legged on the cold blue tile, which clashed like peanut better and kale with the orange planks of wood paneling clumped along the kitchen walls.

I know you have a fiction fragment or two hiding in a drawer. You should totally send them my way 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.