Fiction Fragments: Corey Niles

Last week I spoke with Douglas Gwilym about his adventures exploring the wilds of Pittsburgh and his thoughts on writing female characters when you don’t identify as female. This week Girl Meets Monster welcomes Corey Niles, and yes, he’s a Pittsburgh writer, too.

CN Author PhotoCorey Niles was born and raised in the rust belt, where he garnered his love of horror. His recent and forthcoming publications include “Our Celluloid Prince” in Five 2 One Magazine: #thesideshow, “The Body” in Blood Moon Rising Magazine, and “What Lurks in These Woods” in Pink Triangle Rhapsody: Volume 1. When he isn’t nursing his caffeine addiction or tending to his graveyard of houseplants, he enjoys jogging on creepy, isolated hiking trails.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Corey! Congratulations on finishing your thesis novel and becoming a member of the Horror Writers Association. How does it feel to have written a complete novel while earning an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction? Can you tell me a little bit about what that experience was like? What did you learn about yourself as a writer? What surprised you most about the writing process? Would you recommend Seton Hill’s MFA program? Why or why not?

CN: Thank you so much! Having the opportunity to learn about popular fiction while actually writing it under the mentorship of established writers was an amazing experience. I often think of the program as a pressure cooker that enables writers to grow exponentially in a relatively short amount of time if they can put in the work. I can hardly recognize the writer I was when I started the program compared to the one I am today.

Over the course of the program, I was able to learn what draws me to fiction, which is the characters and the journeys they take in these stories. In my thesis novel, Blood & Dirt, I wanted to explore marginalized characters who are often forgotten about after falling victim to the antagonist at the beginning of a crime or horror story. Consequently, the novel starts with a gay couple who are attacked by a white supremacy group while on a jog, but readers then stay with these characters throughout the story. Examining what it means for my protagonist, Vincent, to be different and victimized in a country where hate crimes are on the rise was really what drew me to this project.

The program enabled me to take this character study and ground it in genre fiction. There is no doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t have written the novel that I completed without all of the amazing guidance and feedback from mentors and classmates in the program. I not only wrote a novel, but I also cultivated writing skills that I can apply to future writing projects. I became comfortable omitting what wasn’t working and heavily revising when it was necessary. Writing is a process, and while I think most of us are better revisers than we are writers, the Writing Popular Fiction program helped me trust that process. I can’t recommend it enough to writers who want to finish a novel and, more importantly, who want to take themselves and their craft more seriously.

GMM: Identity often plays a major role in what we choose to write about and how we develop our characters in stories. How does your identity show up in your writing?

CN: As a gay man who grew up in a small town, reading was a huge escape for me, and I often found it difficult to identify with the straight characters who were the protagonists of the majority of books that I read at that time. Furthermore, in the few instances where I discovered a gay protagonist, I was often disheartened by how the character was vilified or victimized in the story. As a result, I usually focus my stories on the gay characters who I wish I could have read about when the only exposure I had to other gay men was through fiction.

In Blood & Dirt, I wanted to start the story at a place where we often find queer characters, which is, unfortunately, in danger. However, from that point, the story follows Vincent’s search for his own agency in a world that has already labeled him a victim. Hatred and violence are realities that many people face in our country, so I try to confront that in my writing.

That being said, as a white man, I certainly recognize my own privileges, and I hope that we can continue to support and celebrate more diverse writers of all races, classes, genders, and sexualities. Our world is full of diverse people, and our fiction should reflect that reality.

GMM: Why horror fiction? What is it about horror that you can relate to as a writer or reader? What aspects of the genre inspire your fiction the most?

CN: I have always gravitated toward the horror genre as both a reader and a writer. I was definitely that kid secretly reading Stephen King from a young age and subsequently creating my own strange tales. The horror genre has a history of holding a mirror up to society in a way that has always fascinated me. While horror is often dismissed as mere blood and gore, it is a genre that challenges readers to understand what it means to be human as well as what it takes to survive in this world. These broader, and often existential, questions that the genre is known to examine are what really inspire the stories that I write.

In recent years, there has also been a significant shift in the genre to embrace more diverse voices and stories. I have read so many amazing works of horror fiction and poetry from women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQIA community in the last few years. Furthermore, there have been a lot of great opportunities for diverse writers in the publishing industry. I’m really excited to be a part of a mixed-genre, gay anthology from Lycan Valley Press, entitled, “Pink Triangle Rhapsody: Volume 1,” that is scheduled to be released later this year. As a lifelong fan of the horror genre, I am excited to see how it continues to grow and develop in the coming years, especially as I embark on the query process for Blood & Dirt.

Fiction Fragment by Corey Niles

The warmth had dwindled when he woke up. He yawned and went to check the time, but the clock on the wall was obscured by the curtain around his bed. The light leaking under the bottom of the curtain was little help. The hall lights remained on day and night. He searched the gap between the curtain and floor for the warmth that he’d found there when he’d been pumped full of pain medicine.

What he found was a piece missing from the ring of light at the bottom of his bed. Something blocked out the light from the hall. He blinked away the fog of sleep and focused his eyes. There was a pair of boots caked in mud. The sight was so strange that he just stared at them for a moment before they moved, and their significance registered.

Someone was standing at the bottom of his bed.

Someone with muddy boots who wasn’t making himself known.

Oh god.

Their attackers.

One of them had found him. Tracked him down to finish the job that the group had started in Panther Hollow. The boots moved around the bed toward him. Flakes of dirt littered the white linoleum in their wake. The curtain moved, hands searching for an opening.

He had to run. Jump out the other side of the bed and run for help, his pain be damned. He went to sit up in bed, but the restraints pulled him back down. Fuck. His wrists were still cuffed to the guardrails on either side of his bed. He was trapped. At the mercy of someone who had already tried to kill him, and this time, he was alone and truly defenseless.

I’m dying to read your fragments. 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.

Fiction Fragments: Gwendolyn Kiste

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel about motherhood and how it changes your view of horror, and this week Girl Meets Monster welcomes Pittsburgh horror writer Gwendolyn Kiste.

Gwendolyn Kiste HeadshotGwendolyn Kiste is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Rust Maidens, from Trepidatio Publishing; And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, from JournalStone; and the dark fantasy novella, Pretty Marys All in a Row, from Broken Eye Books. Her short fiction has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Black Static, Daily Science Fiction, Shimmer, Interzone, and LampLight, among others. Originally from Ohio, she now resides on an abandoned horse farm outside of Pittsburgh with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts. Find her online at gwendolynkiste.com

Three Questions

GMM: Hello Gwendolyn! Welcome to Girl Meets Monster. It’s February and that means it is Women in Horror Month. Why do you think it’s important to devote a month to female horror writers? What would you say to critics who claim that only men write good horror fiction?

GK: For me, Women in Horror Month is always a great opportunity to learn about new female horror creators. The industry is constantly evolving, and social media can be so loud and bustling, sometimes in the worst ways, so it can sadly be far too easy to miss a new female horror writer or podcaster or artist throughout the year. Women in Horror Month gives us all an opportunity to discover those voices.

As for what to say to anyone who doesn’t feel that women write good horror, I would remind them of Mary Shelley all the way back when and also of all the literally hundreds of women writing horror now. There’s no reason why readers can’t find a new female author who writes the type of horror they love; we’re all creating vastly different stories, from body horror and the weird to Gothic and grindhouse. There’s no single female writing style; if someone thinks that, it’s because they haven’t read enough horror, especially new horror. I would encourage them to look at the lists and lists of female horror books on the Ladies of Horror Fiction site; there’s something out there they’d enjoy, I have no doubt.

GMM: Where did your inspiration for your Stoker-award winning novel, The Rust Maidens, come from? I tend to put a lot of myself — emotions, experiences, past traumas — into my characters and stories, do you do the same, or do your ideas come from somewhere else? What motivated you to tell this story?

GK: Aspects of The Rust Maidens lived with me for a long time. I definitely draw a lot from my own experiences and emotions in my work. I went to undergrad in Cleveland, and it was something of a haunted time in my life, so that feeling stayed with me and definitely ended up in The Rust Maidens, which is set in Cleveland. Combining body horror and the economic and environmental troubles of The Rust Belt seemed really compelling and also very personal to me, having grown up in Ohio. I’d never seen anything quite like that combination of themes before, so I decided I wanted to make this my story to tell.

GMM: As a woman writing horror fiction, what challenges have you faced? What advice would you give other women and girls who want to tell their stories? And, most importantly, if you became the leader of a girl gang of horror writers, what would be your battle cry?

GK: I think many of my challenges are ones shared by other female writers. Dealing with harassment, from both men and women, for example. That’s always so hard, but fortunately, that’s been the exception rather than the rule. Trying to find homes for my female-centric stories was more difficult in the beginning, but fortunately, the industry is really coming around, so I think this might become less of a problem as we move forward, especially with so many more female editors out there.

As for advice, I would say to write what you believe in. There are a lot of naysayers in the world who can be incredibly discouraging, but do your best to ignore anyone who doesn’t support your work and your vision. There are readers out there who do want to hear stories from female perspectives, so don’t let anyone tell you differently.

Ah, a battle cry! I love that! Honestly, I think it would be something like “All together now!” We’re so much stronger when we work together, recognizing each other’s unique experience in the world and seeing that as a strength and an asset. Women in Horror Month really celebrates that togetherness. Horror, as the genre has been evolving over the years, is really celebrating that togetherness too. It’s a good time to be part of this industry with so many other amazing female authors out there doing incredible work. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for all of us.

Fiction Fragment, by Gwendolyn Kiste

My heart in my throat, I turn around and see someone there on the dirt road. It’s a man who doesn’t belong here, a face I’ve never seen before. Everything in me seizes up, and all I can think is it’s one of them. It’s a witchfinder come back to set the countryside alight again.

A hundred paces away, he’s so close now, which means it’s too late for me to run without being seen, so I grit my teeth instead, an incantation blossoming in my throat. Already, I envision cursing him, of speaking the words my mother taught me, a mere phrase or two that could send him wandering into a day that won’t ever end. After all, there’s always a fairy ring somewhere nearby, eager to gobble down a wayward traveler.

As he draws nearer, he spots me here at the side of the road, and though I make no effort to greet him, my hands clenched tight around my woven basket, he waves brightly anyway.

“Hello there,” he says, heading toward me, and my lips part, ready to direct him into a sweet oblivion.

Then my chest tightens, and I remember the promise I made to myself. No magic, especially not dark magic, especially not against a stranger. For all I know, he’s as lost and hopeless as I am. I can’t assume every man is a witchfinder, can I?

The incantation retreats within me, and I stand a little taller, pretending I’m not afraid. “May I help you?” I say, the words weak and inadequate compared to what I could have spoken.

He grins, dimples pockmarking his cheeks. “Could you please tell me which way to the nearest village?”

That would be our village. He wants to go to the place where I grew up, but I don’t know if I want him there. It’s not my home, not anymore, but somehow, it doesn’t feel right to send this stranger to them. If anyone is going to bother my village, it should be me, not a man who could be anyone at all.

His grin never fading, he inches closer to me now, closing the gulf between us, and my body rises up, nearly quivering off the ground, still desperate to escape. I strain through the whispering sound of the wind to hear other voices in these parts, but it’s just the two of us now. My breath twisted inside me, I could dart back into the woods, vanishing between the hemlock lace and the birch trees carved with symbols from the dead, but then he’ll know I have a reason to run. And he’ll have an excuse to pursue. So I steady myself instead, my hands knotted tighter around the basket, as I inspect him up and down like a laboratory specimen.

Worn brown leather boots, small satchel, thin coat. No horse in sight and no Bible to beat.

From the looks of it, he’s common enough, as plain as all the rest of us. This is a good sign. The witchfinders are fancier. They arrive with flair, armed with pomp and circumstance and enough iron and flint to ignite a whole village. In the past, they’ve always materialized on our streets, clumped together in groups, their black boots and black cloaks designed to put you on edge, as though they’re already mourning you before you’ve even died.

This man is nothing like them. Here he is, coming not from the North, the city that makes witchfinders the same way it makes sharp mead and wagon wheels, but from the West, the direction of the other villages where everyone is just as afraid as we are.

“Well?” he asks, flashing me that smile as warm as summer rot. “Can you help me?”

I back away a few steps, my guts churning. Even if he isn’t a witchfinder, that still doesn’t make him a friend. This is a cruel tale as old as time. Terrible things often start with a girl meeting a strange man in the forest. And after everything that’s happened here, I won’t fall prey to another terrible thing.

Would you like your own Fiction Fragments post? Send me your stuff at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel

Last week, I spoke with Brandon Getz about werewolves in outer space, and this week Girl Meets Monster welcomes Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel.

SSGHeadSheri Sebastian-Gabriel’s short fiction has appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines over the past decade. Spirits, her first novel, is out now from Haverhill House Publishing. She lives in the Northeast with her fiance, the writer Matt Bechtel; her three children; and her two diametrically opposed dogs, Nya, a German shepherd mix, and Kai, a Chihuahua.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Sheri. Congratulations on publishing your debut novel, Spirits, last year. 2019 was one hell of a year. What are some of your greatest accomplishments from last year? What do you have planned for 2020, and what are you working on right now?

SSG: Thank you so much! It’s been a crazy year. Publishing Spirits and doing the promotional work associated with that pretty much tops my list of accomplishments for 2019. I’ve read in front of some amazing crowds. I particularly enjoyed my reading at Otto’s Shrunken Head, this adorable tiki bar in the East Village of Manhattan. The staff there is just delightful. You should go the next time you’re in New York. They make a mean Stormy Skull.

In 2020, I’ll probably still be promoting the living hell out of Spirits. Chris Golden once told me it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

I’m working on my second novel now. It follows an African vampire named Wekesa. Wekesa experienced the horrors of slavery as a young man. He roams the Deep South, feeding on racists. Sam Rayburn is a single mom who rents out a room to the mysterious Kes. The tiny town of Helms, Georgia, experiences a rash of grisly murders, and Sam suspects her new boarder may be responsible.

GMM: I’ve been a die-hard fan of horror fiction and films since I was a kid and could watch or read almost anything your put in front of me. After I became a mom, the concept of horror changed for me. The Exorcist was no longer scary because of demonic possession. It was scary because a woman with a sick child couldn’t find the help she needed to save her daughter. The Babadook felt like a documentary about being a single parent dealing with mental health issues and a child with behavioral problems. Has motherhood changed the way you view and write horror? What scares you these days?

SSG: I think you’re so right about motherhood shaping our worldviews and changing our fears. When I was young, I was afraid of monsters. I believed there were things out there that could hurt or kill me. But when I grew up, I realized monsters can be destroyed. As a parent, and a single parent at that, I understand that real terror comes from the things we can’t control. My number-one fear is something awful and beyond my control happening to my kids.

GMM: Speaking of the horror of motherhood, your fragment taps into one of the fears most parents share — bad things happening to our children when we aren’t there to protect them. I think we would agree that some parents have an even harder time keeping their kids safe because of financial difficulties and sociopolitical issues like racism and sexism. Your fragment features a woman of color raising two boys. What inspired the story, and does the current political climate have an impact on your writing?

SSG: The current political climate has absolutely impacted my writing! Subversive art is necessary. We both have stories in the forthcoming Dystopian States of America, an anthology benefiting the ACLU Foundation. It’s a cause near to my heart, because the damage done by the current administration is going to be felt for a really long time. There are children in cages, for fuck’s sake. Can we really just turn a blind eye to that?

From Blood for the Soil, by Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel

Sam tapped the pen against the kitchen table. If she skipped the cable bill for another month, she might be able to pay both the power bill and the car insurance, and she’d still have fifty dollars left to buy groceries for the next two weeks. The laptop glowed in her face as she punched in her debit card number and hit the Pay Now button.

Her stomach roiled. Harper’s hadn’t reopened after being shut down by the health inspector, so her services as a table jockey weren’t exactly in demand. The Beehive Café might be hiring, but Sam couldn’t bring herself to speak to Azilee McVey after the bitter old hag yelled at Nat for trying to sell basketball fundraiser candy outside her over-hyped establishment.

It was more than a little odd to her that Azilee gleefully hosted a carwash for the marching band a week later. She’d driven by to see a dozen or so white kids scrubbing cars and spraying each other, laughing in the carefree midday sunshine. Her boys would always face people like Azilee and cops who are scared of unarmed black boys whose only crime is existing. And her parents. Her blood ran cold.

Failing them wasn’t an option. She logged out of the power company’s website, typed in http://www.helmsherald.com, clicked on the classifieds section, and scanned the site for a way to place an ad. When she found the right form for apartments for rent, she filled in:

Room for rent in quaint farmhouse. $300 a month, utilities included. Smoke-free household. Must be neat. Call Sam at (706) 531-2243. 

She hit the submit button and clicked the X to close the browser.

The clock on her laptop told her it was a quarter past seven, and her heart jumped. The boys should have been home by now. She leapt up and dashed to the door. The crickets had started their evening serenade. Lightning bugs blinked on and off. The sky was navy blue and a smattering of stars punctuated it. The grass tickled the bottoms of her feet as she walked into the yard.

“Nat! Kyle!”

Her voice echoed through the trees that ran the perimeter of the farm. Something metallic rattled in the distance. Sam ran, barely noticing the gravel of the driveway jabbing her feet. The gravel turned to asphalt as she reached the roadway. Two shadowy figures emerged from the diminishing daylight. One lurched. The other walked alongside a clanking bulk. Sam’s legs burned and her feet slapped the craggy ground as she ran toward the figures.

She met them at the edge of the forest. A moan rose up from the dark.

“Mom! Nat’s hurt! Someone hit him as we were turning into Cooper’s. I’ve got his bike. I had to leave mine at the store.”

Sam’s stomach fell. She scooped the younger boy up and carried him, draped across her forearms. He whimpered and tucked his head into her shoulder like a shy toddler. He was heavy, but she shuffled and redistributed his weight until they made it to the front porch. She set him down and knelt in front of him. Blackened blood streaked his shin. A gash on his knee crusted as the blood dried.

“What happened?” she asked.

“This old lady was turning into the grocery store parking lot as we were crossing the street, and she crashed right into Nat. He fell off, and her car crushed his bike. The wheel is so bent, I had to push it home. Is he gonna be okay?”

Sam examined the wound. It was dirty but seemed superficial.

“Let’s go inside and get you cleaned up. I think you’ll be okay. Thanks for taking such good care of him, Kyle. You’re a good brother. We can go back to Cooper’s tomorrow to pick up your bike. So, what did the old lady say about hitting you?”

Nat’s eyes flashed with anger.

“She took off,” he said. “Just left me there.”

Sam hefted him onto his feet. Blind rage warmed her face. Her body quaked as she suppressed the urge to launch into an expletive-filled rant, focusing instead on ushering them both back into the house. Kyle stayed behind in the living room as Sam led Nat to the bathroom.

He sat on the toilet. Sam pulled the first aid kit from under the sink and placed it at his feet.  She ran a washcloth under the tap. Nat’s eyes were trained on the white tile floor. Tears lined his bottom eyelashes, and his bottom lip quivered. She dabbed at the red wounds, careful not to rub or irritate the raw skin. Blood flaked up and left maroon streaks on the cloth.

“What if I died?” he whispered. Sam wasn’t sure she’d heard him right.

“What, sweetie?”

His soulful brown eyes met hers.

“What if I died? That woman. The old lady who hit me. She took off right after she hit me.”

Nat’s breath came in ragged bursts. A single tear streamed down his cheek.

“She didn’t know I was okay,” he said, his shaky voice growing in volume. “I could have died, and it wouldn’t have mattered to her.”

Sam lowered the cloth, placed her hands on either side of his face, and pulled his head to her chest. His warm tears soaked her shirt, and she stroked his hair.

Do you have a fragment you’d like to share with Girl Meets Monster? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: Errick Nunnally

Last week I chatted with EV Knight about cats and her debut novel, The Fourth Whore. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Errick Nunnally. I met Errick in person at Necon 39, but was first introduced to him virtually as the cover artist for my debut novel, Invisible Chains. When I asked Errick to submit a fragment, he had this to say about his submission: “This is the second part in a series of stories I’ve been putting together about a Boston animal control officer, Nora Tuttle (mixed ethnicity), who has found herself dealing with animal…anomalies…each worse than the last. My hope is to collect them as a novella. Which is nigh impossible to sell, of course, but… I can’t overstate how much I love this character.”

ErrickNunnallyErrick Nunnally was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, and served one tour in the Marine Corps before deciding art school was a safer pursuit. He enjoys art, comics, and genre novels. A designer by day, he earned a black belt in Krav Maga and Muay Thai kickboxing by night. His writing has appeared in several anthologies and is best described as “dark pulp.” His work can be found in Lamplight, Transcendent, Monarchies of Mau: Tales of Excellent Cats, The Final Summons, Protectors 2, Nightlight Podcast, and the novel, Lightning Wears a Red Cape. See more of his work online at erricknunnally.us

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome, Errick. I just finished reading Blood for the Sun, and I loved it. I love vampires and werewolves equally, but I always seem to root for the werewolves when they go to war. What made you decide to cast vampires as the villains in the novel? What was the inspiration for your wonderfully complex protagonist, Alexander Smith?

EN: Hello, and thank you for having me. I’m so glad you enjoyed the novel!

As for inspiration, I love monsters more than the other aspects of horror and I always rooted for the werewolves in movies–especially when they were subbed to vampires. Because they’re relegated to wild animal status, it wasn’t often, in popular movies and TV, that you got to see someone in control of themselves. The closest that I recall is the television series, Werewolf, where the main character had a modicum of control when transformed, but that control was eroding over time. I got a kick out of the Werewolf By Night comics and really liked the idea that Jack Russel finally makes peace with his beast, taking more control and revitalizing the series for a while. That is basically what drove my initial decision and fundamentally reimagining where these abilities come from–which is part of the trilogy’s overall arc. Smith himself was a long time in development, from that point. It all started in college, around ’95 or ’96. I painted a three-page comic of this loose idea that was jangling around in my head: a werewolf living on a frontier whose neighbors–Chinese immigrants–are murdered and their child stolen. He tears off after the culprit, recognizing that a wild vampire has taken the child. He saves the baby, but not before she’s bitten. He knows he should get rid of her, but he keeps her, instead, initially raising her out of guilt for crimes he’s already committed. And that’s basically the origin story of his adopted daughter, Ana. I loved the idea of Alexander growing up pre-industrial and Ana growing up post-industrial. It makes their personalities decidedly different. Over the years, I had other ideas for both his backstory and personality: he’s half-and-half African-American and First Nation. His dad escaped slavery in Louisiana, up the Mississippi River and married a Kainai woman, before settling in Saskatchewan and becoming a coal miner. Alexander is one of three kids, raised on a homestead. His sisters are married back into the tribe. His father dies of black lung, his mother dies of old age. The shapeshifter aspect is handed down bloodlines and Alexander is infected by a great-great grandfather. After a century or more the aspect starts eating memories, producing wild monsters that feed into myths. That memory stuff came from watching my grandmothers’ memories deteriorate and how disorienting and horrifying it was. Alexander’s skills were added with the idea that constant learning helps our brains stay sharp. The idea for sorting out missing children’s cases as a challenging puzzle as well as a parallel to his daughter’s existence. He fears the madness and roams from his homelands to avoid handing the lycanthropy down to someone else. I’ve always liked the irredeemable character, so I put things in Alexander’s past that he’ll never overcome. So much of his character stems from my counter-stance on pure heroism, popular vampires, and the unimaginable beauty associated with the supernatural in so many “urban fantasy” novels. On and on and on, over the years, until I got laid off around 2008. Being unemployed for a couple years put a lot of time in my lap and I came up with a bucket list. One of the items was to finally write that damn novel.

GMM: Judging by the fragment you submitted, Nora Tuttle is about to have her hands full. Nothing good comes out of mysterious egg sacs in my experience. You mentioned that you love this character, and that she is of mixed ethnicity. How important is it to you to write about characters who are people of color? Why are their stories important?

EN: That fragment is from a story I finished recently. It’s the second time I’ve used Tuttle. She debuted in a story about dog fighting and genetic tampering that I wrote shortly after Blood for the Sun was published. She is mixed and that experience comes with its unique problems here in America. I’m not the sort that writes about “race” in particular, but it factors in because that’s the lived experience I have among the people I grew up with. It’s important to me because as I grew up, I didn’t see much of myself, the people, or the world I knew reflected in fiction. And I love science fiction! Non-white adults of my vintage will recall the lack of reflection when it came to stories about the future, as if entire swaths of humanity wouldn’t make it, that “white” folks would live forever. It was frustrating. Even more, in hindsight, as I’ve gotten older and seen so much more successful representation in media. Nora Tuttle, in particular, came into existence because I didn’t want to write a male protagonist and I wanted someone who would have some relationship with law enforcement, but wasn’t a cop themselves. The better to entangle them in danger without the offensive capabilities or resources to deal with it. Enter an officer for Boston Animal Control! Add monstrous elements and I had someone in way over their head. I think it’s very, very important to write protagonists who are as fully-formed as possible. Because of my experiences and background, that’s always going to include various POC. Tuttle has all sorts of background that I mine in the second story, further complicating her life. Because I love her, she will be in a third and final story before I step away from, uh, complicating her life.

GMM: I haven’t had a chance to read your latest novel, Lightning Wears a Red Cape, but it is on my list of books to read in 2020. What are you working on right now? Do you have any projects coming out in the next year?

EN: Blood for the Sun is currently out-of-print, but a newer, re-edited version will be back in circulation this summer, from Haverhill House Publishing! Two sequels will follow shortly afterward. The second, All The Dead Men, is already written! I can’t wait to start reveals of the covers et al. I’m also working on a few short stories–one of which has a home if I can get it done right–and two novellas that I’d like to release into the wild. There are two novels in the pipe that I need to get crackin’ on. One is a thriller–no speculative elements–about an Afghani translator and the father of a fallen Marine that he has befriended. The translator has to go on the run with evidence of a conspiracy to escalate conflict in the region. Both he and the father are pursued by bad actors, of course. There’ll be international action, mercenaries, political intrigue, all the good/bad thriller stuff. Everyone I’ve explained the full premise and story to is intrigued by the idea and I think it’ll be a good challenge for me to write. The second novel’s content is TBD, but a couple of good friends are pushing for a slippery, magical idea that builds off of my life when I was much younger. We’ll just have to wait and see about that one, at this point!

The Keeper of Taswomet, by Errick A. Nunnally

The slow whine of a cicada cut through the warm air and mixed with the other chirps and clicks of insects. A light breeze came in from across the marsh, tickling the tall dry grass. The dense green could barely be seen through a narrow corridor in the trees surrounding the last home on the lane.

Joshua shot out of the back of his house, cutting across the lawn and into the trees before the screen door banged shut. He wore the summer-ready haircut of most twelve-year old boys: buzzed short on the sides, his brown hair lightened by the sun. The day was especially warm, so he wore his favorite, tank top: light blue with Mjölnir on the front. Partway down his skinny biceps, the skin went from its usual fish-belly pale to cinnamon-toasted, exposing what his mother referred to as a ‘farmer’s tan.’ The youngster was an anachronism, belonging instead to the days when scores of children roamed through nature, picking it apart, living in it and on it. These days, most of his friends were more interested in music or the latest dramas of the latest pop stars.

He rushed to check on the well-hidden, briny pool he’d found just before lunch, a gift born of the marsh that defined so much of his life. Joshua was fortunate, he enjoyed the area to a degree that other kids did not. Taswomet Marsh made summers the best time of year and it made school bearable. The natural wonder’s proximity bent the science program to its will. And Joshua loved it.

A trip to the hardware store and chores with his father had kept him from exploring the discovery further, earlier in the day, but the precious gift of extra daylight during the summer meant he had some time after dinner.

He wound through the oak and pine wood, rooted in a sandy surface, cutting through to the well-worn path that meandered along the greater portion of the marsh. Insect cries intensified in constant whirrs and clicks. He imagined the long shadows were the devastating ice clubs of frost giants and Joshua danced around them. He slowed when he reached the next path, exposed to the setting sun on.

Bright light and heat slammed his face and arms as he eased the pace, picking his way along the narrow path that cut through low brush too thick to pass otherwise. He’d promised to get back before sunset, so he didn’t dally when a plover snapped out of the tall grass, capturing his attention. It beat quickly into the sky, then broke into the tree line before he could determine whether it was a western or a white-rumped.

The backpack he wore added a layer of unneeded warmth to the small of his back. It contained his notebook, sample bags, a small shovel, and other knick-knacks for research and sample collection. He shrugged the bag off and carried it by the handle. Just ahead, there was a less worn path cutting towards the marsh proper. Softer soil gave beneath his feet as he wound his way through the flora to the pool, pushing tall grasses and thick underbrush aside. The stink of mosquito repellent stung his nose. It was necessary to wear in the marsh, but he always felt like his mom laid it on too thick. Still, he was fortunate to be part of a new generation allowed to roam, to drift away and explore only to return when hunger saw fit to remind him. As long as it happened before dark.

He crouched down at the edge of the hidden pool and peered into the dark water. Just below the surface, he could make out eight gelatinous sacks about the size of raviolis and trending in color from brown to translucent to gray. He couldn’t tell if there were more of them deeper in the water, but it didn’t matter. He only wanted one for his project. Being careful not to fall in, and using a heavy-duty zip-locking bag, he scooped up one of the sacs and as much of the brackish water as he could. He only wanted a sample, something to study. Of all the species he knew that reproduced in this manner—he presumed they were egg sacs—this one escaped him. It looked like the egg case of a catshark, but square and smaller. The marsh was a cornucopia of ecology accentuated by the sea.

Joshua held the bag up to the sunlight and peered through the odd mass. Inside the sac, a tiny creature lay curled into a tight ball. It twitched in the glare. Overhead, two Osprey observed the marsh in widening circles. Joshua was anxious to get his find settled into the glass habitat he’d constructed in his room. He’d dubbed the thing a “terraquarium” since it approximated, as best he could manage, the mixed environment of the marsh. He was going to have the best summer project on display when school started again.

Thoughts of the future danced in his mind as he hurried home, the kind of open-ended musings only a 12-year old could think of; a future of discovery and fortune.

Do you have a fragment that should probably see the light of day? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: Ronald J. Murray

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

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

Three Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction Fragments: J. Edwin Buja

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking with Ed Kurtz. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes J. Edwin Buja. I met J. Edwin Buja at Necon 39, where we both released our debut novels for Haverhill House Publishing. If you haven’t read The King of the Wood, I highly recommend that you do.

IMG_5942J. Edwin Buja has spent his life surrounded by books and has written everything from children’s novels to software technical manuals. With an MA in history he discovered early on that researching and writing hold the key to happiness. Who else would think scanning through years of microfilm to index an old newspaper would be a dream job?
The King of the Wood is his first novel in the genre of magical realism, but it will not be his last. For more than thirty years, he has been married to the most wonderful woman on the planet. He lives in a small village somewhere in Ontario.

Three Questions

GMM: Since music is a major theme in your fragment, I thought about the fact that a lot of writers listen to certain styles of music or create playlists to match the mood of a piece they’re working on. Music has always been an important part of my life. Music is more than just background noise. Certain music has been more like a soundtrack for the phases of my life. Your story feels like it has a soundtrack and even without the inclusion of dates, most readers would recognize the time period based on the bands. How important is music to your other writing projects? What do you usually listen to while you’re writing? When you develop a story, do you have a specific soundtrack in mind like a film or TV show?

JEB: I don’t listen to music while I write for two reasons.

First, I prefer to immerse myself in the music so I listen wearing headphones, with my eyes closed, and the lights off. This started after my sister introduced me to Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Mott the Hoople, and Uriah Heep all in the same week. She was the music nut, I only read. I was hooked instantly. However, it was difficult to listen to records because the loudness disturbed my parents. As soon as I could afford it, I got a stereo system and headphones. From then on, whenever I listened to records, I would pretend I was one of the musicians at a concert. That has stayed with me for over forty years. I still rarely listen to a complete album. That’s the joy of an iPod: I can create playlists of “concerts” that I would like to hear.

Second, I tend to bang on the keyboard in time with the music which is noisy and causes the people around me to complain. This happened at my first tech writing job, and I never listened to music at work again.

Music does inspire a lot of my writing and sometimes I have a soundtrack in mind. This is usually to help with the mood and inner thoughts of a character. If a tune makes me happy, then it makes my character happy. I do have a group of what I call Suicide Songs. These invoke such strong memories (times, places, events) that I get the feeling that I should give up and not bother doing anything else. It’s not so much physical death as the death of new ideas, aspirations, inspiration, and of doing anything but reading or watching TV. These tunes have been very useful in setting the mood for several characters.

Sometimes, tunes give me the kick I need to start writing. There’s nothing specific, simply the urge to get back to the keyboard.

In my first novel, I have the main character listening to tunes while he walks. I removed the exact references (Free’s Highway, the remastered version) because my tastes are sometimes obscure and readers might get confused. Several of the streets in town are named after bands or musicians.

GMM: I’ve only ever seen one concert in Detroit. I had the pleasure of seeing Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at a Masonic temple with my friend Tracy. That was a memorable evening that might eventually end up in a story. How much of your fragment is based on real events? And, how often do you pull from your own experiences in your writing?

JEB: In the fragment, all the concerts listed are ones I attended. This is important because I am a fanatic for correct geography in a story. If a character is heading for some location, then his journey must be logical. For example, if a building is seen from someone’s back window, but they leave through the front and arrive there from the wrong direction, I am taken out of the story. I draw maps of towns and house plans to keep everyone in their right place. For the fragment, knowing the layout of the concert venues, what could be seen from a particular seat, how to get in and out, and what kind of movement was possible during a concert, is vital to the story.

As far as anything else from my experiences, I use them all the time. There may be specific events. The feelings and thoughts from those events are blended, mixed up, turned around, and used in whatever way helps the narrative. For example, seeing a girl repeatedly and not knowing anything about her. What to do? How do I find out who she is? What happens once I know about her? I was a history major at university, so I know how to do research, following several paths to reach a conclusion. There’s also the frustration from lack of sources or contradictions in facts.

Experiencing depression is an absolute gold mine. It’s not a pleasant gold mine, but one that is hard to ignore. Writing about this is also therapeutic.

By the way, I saw Rush, Nazareth, and Uriah Heep at the Masonic Auditorium.

GMM: Based solely on the fragment, I get the sense that a romance is blooming. However, since the narrator has mentioned his terrible luck in meeting women, I assume that getting to know the curly haired woman in the red jacket won’t be easy. I anticipate some heartache. Beyond the developing romance, what else is happening in the story? Can you give us a synopsis of what you think is going to happen without too many spoilers?

JEB: What is the story all about? A teen sees a girl at almost every concert he attends. Despite attempts to get closer to her, she disappears every time. None of his friends know her. He falls instantly in love with her. After several years, he stops going to concerts. Nothing is done about the girl because he is unable to act on his desires due to shyness, lack of knowledge, and a sense of ‘what’s the point, anyway?’ Fifteen years later, he goes to a concert and sees her. She hasn’t changed in the slightest. She’s even wearing the same clothes from that last concert. They finally connect, but not in the way he had hoped. She disappears before his eyes. And so, his quest begins. Who is she? What happened to her after his last sighting? Why is she back? The gatefold of the Kiss Alive album (not the CD) plays a vital role in his quest. (I have never seen Kiss in concert.)

A fragment from J. Edwin Buja’s novel, Rock ‘n’ Roll Never Forgets

Part One – Music and sightings

The last time I saw her was December 27, 1977. The J. Geils band was doing an encore and she was in her usual spot down by the right of the stage.

It took fifteen years for me to find her, and when I did it broke my heart beyond repair.

Uriah Heep/Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, 25th of July, 1974 Cobo Arena Tier A Section A2 Row G Seat 9

Things started when I was attending a Uriah Heep concert at Cobo Hall in Detroit. This was back in the day when you could just send your money to the venue, ask for specific seats, and you’d get your tickets about a week later. But that doesn’t matter right now.

This happened to be my very first concert. I was twenty and a late starter when it came to music.

Like I said, I was in Tier A at Cobo getting in to Mick Box as he went nuts doing one of his solos. The audience had slowly crept closer to the stage but the security guys were keeping everyone well away from the stage. My buddies and I had tried to get down to the main floor but security had been much more alert than usual, according to Terry, the guy who got the tickets and convinced me to go in the first place. Apparently, Terry was able to get down to the main floor at most concerts because he knew one of the security guys and always slipped him a doob when passing.

His friendly guard wasn’t on duty this night. It was probably because I was there.

I had a pair of binoculars because I had never been to Cobo and had no clue how big it was inside or how close we’d be to the band. As it turned out our seats weren’t too bad and I didn’t need any help seeing though they came in handy when I wanted a close-up of Mick Box wailing on his guitar.

It was during a bit of talk from Ken Hensley the keyboard player when I happened to look into the crowd in front of the stage.

Most of the time, my eyes were glued to the stage but once in a while I’d scan the audience looking for cute girls. I may have been twenty but my hormones were in high gear so I was always on the lookout for a girl. Not that I would ever have had the nerve to talk to a girl. I was deadly shy at the time and my luck with girls had been poor to say the least. I was pretty much reconciled to never meeting the girl of my dreams.

Still am for the most part.

Something flashed and caught my attention. One of the spotlights from the rig above the band had moved and lit up the section of the crowd below Hensley. Standing about three people back from the barrier between the stage and the audience was a girl who brushed her long curly blonde hair out of her eyes. She was listening intently as Hensley spoke. I couldn’t be sure, but it looked like she was taking notes though why anyone would do that during a concert remained a mystery to me at the time.

There was something magical about her. I couldn’t really see any details, like the colour or her eyes, but I saw enough to make me pay more attention to her than the band. And she was wearing a bright red jacket.

My eyes kept flitting back to her as Heep finished their set then came back out for an encore.

The band finished their last tune, left the stage, and the house lights came up. I immediately focused my attention on the spot where the girl was standing but she was already gone. Feeling a little disappointed, I scanned the crowd to try and spot her. That jacket would be hard to miss. As always, I had no luck.

For me, it had been business as usual. Attend some thing, be it movie, concert, party, see a girl that catches my eye, then do nothing about it because I had no balls and never see her again.

I didn’t give the girl at the concert any more thought.

J. Geils Band/Mountain/Golden Earring, 3rd of November 1974 Cobo Arena Tier A Section A17 Row B Seat 3

She was there again. I couldn’t miss that bright red jacket and the curly blonde hair. This time I was on the other side of the arena so I didn’t see her right away. When Corky Laing set his drums on fire, she was there in the glow of the flames.

Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band/Rex, 5th of September, 1977 Cobo Arena Tier A Section A6 Row E Seat 6

So, I’m at the Seger concert, getting in to the sax, and I spot something in the corner of my eye. Something yellow. I turned and it was hair. Long curly blond hair. The girl who owned the hair was perhaps three feet from the barrier where the security guts were patrolling. There was something about her that got me interested. Maybe it was the hair. I have a weakness for long curly hair. Maybe it was the tune.

I decided to get a better look at her. I inched my way through the crowd and got to within ten feet of her when for some reason, she turned around. My heart almost stopped. She had to be the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. It may have been my imagination but I could have sworn she saw me and smiled. Wishful thinking, maybe?

Do you have a fragment you’d like to share? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: Ed Kurtz

Last week, I talked with Lucy A. Snyder about her Lovecraftian space opera, Blossoms Blackened Like Dead Stars. This week, Girl Meets Monster has the pleasure of welcoming Ed Kurtz.

edkurtzEd Kurtz is the author of over a dozen novels and novellas, including Sawbones, Nausea, Angel of the Abyss, and the forthcoming Boon. Ed’s short fiction has been collected in Nothing You Can Do: Stories and Blood They Brought and Other Stories. A Wind of Knives, a reissue of Ed’s queer Western novella, is out December 9. Ed lives in Connecticut with author doungjai gam.

Three Questions

GMM: When I finished reading your fragment, my first thought was, holy shit, I want to read more of this story. And my second thought was, is this story part of a larger subgenre? Are queer westerns a thing? So, I did a quick Google search and was reminded that yes, there is a history of queer and/or LGBTQ+ narratives (fictional and non-fictional) dealing with the American West. When you wrote A Wind of Knives, did you research the history of the queer West(ern), or did something else inspire your novella?

EK: There is definitely a small but vocal movement in academia and elsewhere to recover the lost and buried histories of marginalized peoples in the story of the American Frontier, which I should hope would pick up some steam as it goes along. One book in particular I cannot recommend highly enough is Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past by Peter Boag (University of California Press). Chris Packard’s Queer Cowboys (Palgrave MacMillan) is also pretty indispensable. Now of course, these are both academic, non-fiction works. The only Western fiction dealing in queer themes that I’ve ever come across falls more under the umbrella of romance/erotica rather than traditional Western literature. That makes something like A Wind of Knives fairly rare and unusual, though I’d rather it wasn’t! It is my most sincere hope that younger folks will discover or re-discover the Western through this lens of the diverse stories yet to be properly told and ignite a new passion for such a rich genre with such a troubled and exclusive past. When I was writing the novella, then, no, there wasn’t much more to inspire it than my own desire to see someone like me in the kinds of stories I love to read.

GMM: Speaking of genres and subgenres, you’ve written under more than one fiction umbrella. What are your favorite genres to read? Do you prefer writing in one genre more than others? When you set out to write a piece, do you already have a genre in mind, or does the story evolve before someone else labels it as fitting within a specific box?

EK: It’s easier for me to say what I don’t do than what I do, but even then it tends to not be exactly true. For example, I can tell you I don’t write romance, and yet the vast preponderance of everything I’ve written, dark as it may be, tends to be love stories. I like to write about down-and-out people, folks who have been knocked around by life some in ways that maybe others haven’t so that it gives them a different perspective and maybe an edge. That kind of character is all over my work, whether it’s horror, crime, or Western. People you won’t find on the Hallmark Channel (though I find those people the most deviant of all). Most novels I’ve written started as more than one small idea over time that I eventually realized go together to form a bigger picture, so I wouldn’t say I start thinking about genre so much as who these people are and what kinds of problems they’re going to be facing. A Wind of Knives was originally going to be a sci-fi story, if you can believe it!

GMM: Something else occurred to me after reading your fragment. This reissue of your novella might be the last thing I see of yours in print. And, the more I thought about it, the angrier I got. I’m not going to go into too much detail about the terrible treatment you and others were subjected to by ChiZine Publications. If people are interested in learning more about the ChiZine controversy, they can read about it at their leisure.

Many writers, including myself, suffer from impostor syndrome and it often prevents us from moving forward with projects, or at the very least creates space for long periods of procrastination. ChiZine’s unethical treatment of you has led you to make a decision to quit writing altogether. I’m sure I am not alone in feeling cheated and saddened by that fact given that what happened to you hasn’t stolen your ability to craft good stories or diminished your past successes.

I know you can’t predict how long it will take for you to heal from this experience, but do you think there’s a story inside you that would change your mind about continuing your journey as a writer? What would it take for you to start writing again?

EK: There is at least one more thing you can expect to see from me later in 2020, which is my first full-length Western novel, Boon. The genesis of that one, which I wrote over the winter of 2018-2019 (and haven’t written anything since) is kind of fun. I had been tearing through dozens of traditional Western novels, all of them featuring these beautifully painted covers of white men astride horses against stunning vistas in the background, determined and hard, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how it would look if that rider was my Asian-American female fiancée instead? (So not very different from A Wind of Knives in that I’m still playing in the traditional Western sandbox, just without the white, straight, cisgender male exclusivity.) Eventually I sat down and just started writing the story of a Thai (then, Siamese) woman in 1874 on a nationwide mission of bloody, familial revenge. I like it a lot and hope others do, too. But really, I just wrote it for her.

Boon is the only novel I’ve written since 2015 other than a movie tie-in I did based on The Ranger. I hadn’t really planned on doing it, either, but the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. In that sense, it is entirely possible that particular brand of lightning might strike again, but I honestly don’t know. My experiences in the world of the small press over the last few years has been so overwhelmingly traumatic in terms of the way people are treated and cheated that I’m not sure high school can measure up to the pettiness and ugliness of the whole thing. To date, I have published with well over a dozen small press publishers and can name only one that has ever consistently paid me on time. On the other hand, I can name five or six that never paid me at all and ran for the hills with my money. Meanwhile, I’ve watched at conventions and other writers’ gatherings how writers often step on anyone they can to get ahead, often with a smile on their face, just to see their name on the cover of a book. It’s silly and gross and just plain exhausting to deal with all of it when all I ever wanted to do was tell some stories I hoped others would find something valuable about. Most of this really came to the surface by way of the whole ChiZine debacle, of course, but as outlandishly awful as that situation is, it’s not entirely unusual, either. It’s a pretty ugly business, deep down, and too often the ugliest actors are rewarded for their bullshit.

So, yes, it remains within the realm of possibility that I’ll write again. I can’t say for sure either way. I only know I’m not doing it now, and I have absolutely no drive to do so at all.

The mere idea of it makes me feel nervous and nauseous, like I’d be walking back into an abusive relationship I’d already gotten away from. But for now, there’s A Wind of Knives, and Boon is coming. Also, there’s still a fair amount of stuff in my files that hasn’t found the right home yet, or that needs a re-release, so I expect there’s more Ed Kurtz on the horizon, even if I’m not writing it at this moment. After that, who knows?

Exerpt from A Wind of Knives by Ed Kurtz

The dusk gathered purple on the hills a few miles distant from Daniel Hays’ fence, the sun having vanished behind them. Clouds hung low to the earth, thin; nothing above them but gray-blue sky and the first emerging stars. Daniel narrowed his eyes and took it all in, a familiar view, common enough, though he had not yet grown tired of it. Most evenings he watched the sun set and the black night take control of his modest farm, those he did not spend away from home or sick abed. But it was never the same, not to one with an eye for the subtleties of Texas at sundown. This one in particular held its own, remarkable in the way the wispy clouds soaked up the color of the setting sun against the northern hills, the thrushes hurrying to the treetops before pitch fell. It was a time Daniel typically spent with Steven, his long-time hand, often on the porch Steven himself built three summers previous. Neither of them was on the porch tonight. Tonight, Daniel stood by the fence, grasping the sanded elm for support and keeping his gaze trained on the hills. Behind him, halfway between the fence and the main house, Steven hanged silent and still from the high branch of a juniper tree.

It was a beautiful evening, but a bad one. And bad beget bad. He spent a few more minutes with the sunset, and when it went from purple to a deep, dark blue, Daniel turned back to Steven and pushed a sigh out of his lungs. The corpse was stripped naked; red, raw stripes checked its back, its ass, and the backs of its legs. Blood had crusted black where the stripes opened, attracting flies. Steven’s face was a swollen, bruised and broken catastrophe, his lips split and curled to reveal broken and missing teeth. His feet were dark with the blood settling in the lower extremities. His groin was reduced to a yawning, red-black pit—they had sliced the man’s genitals off with a knife, though whether this was done before or after they hanged him Daniel did not know.

As good a man as any Daniel ever knew, Steven was the last to deserve such an outrage, though his simmering anger did nothing to heal the wounds, replace his severed manhood, or resurrect a purpling corpse from the dead. Daniel had yet to cry out, or scream, or rage at the gathering night, and in all likelihood he never would. Instead, he tramped back of the main house, to the shed, to collect a ladder and an ax.

He climbed the uneasy rungs and brought down the whole branch. Later, when all was said and done, he chopped the tree down and salted the soil. For now, he removed the rope from Steven’s red, ripped throat and carried the body in his arms to the bunkhouse at the south end of the property. Once the bunk served as sleeping quarters for half a dozen hands, hard working Texans who toiled on foreign dirt, Mexican dirt, for Daniel’s late boss. When the War Between the States broke out, those who were left lit out; either gone to war on conscription or run off further west, to keep from raising arms against the Union they still viewed as their own country. Only Steven remained behind. Three largely quiet years on the frontier, two men and the farm they worked. Now there was no one.

Daniel laid the corpse on the cot and arranged the legs and arms so that it almost looked at rest. Steven’s left eye stared glassily; Daniel pushed the eyelid down with his thumb, but it popped back open. He felt his throat constrict and averted his gaze to the shadows filling the corners of the musty room. Daniel struck a match and touched its flame to the wick of the lantern on the floor. The lantern offered little light, but enough to see that which he would have rather not seen at all. Yet none-the-less, he looked. He looked at what was left of Steven Houpe, a good man. It occurred to him then that was what he would carve on the marker when the time came: a good man. He could not think of anything better.

“I am sorry,” Daniel whispered, touching his fingertips to the cool palm of Steven’s hand. It was not enough.

Do you have a fragment that has yet to see the light of day? Blow off the dust and send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: Lucy A. Snyder

Last week, I talked with writer and film maker, Jeff Carroll, about Hip Hop horror and sci-fi fiction. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Lucy A. Snyder. I met Lucy while earning my MFA in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University. She was my second mentor in the program. Her guidance, support, and dark sense of humor helped me finish writing my thesis novel and I couldn’t be happier with the results.

Lucy4Lucy A. Snyder is the Shirley Jackson Award-nominated and five-time Bram Stoker Award-winning author of over 100 published short stories and 12 books. Her most recent titles are the collection Garden of Eldritch Delights and the forthcoming novel The Girl With the Star-Stained Soul. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Asimov’s Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, Nightmare Magazine, Pseudopod, Strange Horizons, and Best Horror of the Year. You can learn more about her at www.lucysnyder.com and you can follow her on Twitter at @LucyASnyder.

Three Questions

GMM: You mentioned that this fragment is from a novel that is being serialized at Eyedolon Magazine. Is the process of writing and submitting chapters of a novel as you complete them easier than submitting a completed novel? What is the writing process like? Are you typically a linear writer? What have you learned from this experience?

LAS: In some ways it’s harder, but in some ways it’s easier. One advantage to submitting a novel a chapter or two at a time is that I have to maintain good plot tension for every section I submit. It’s a built-in way of avoiding middle-of-the-book narrative sag! Another advantage is that I get regular editorial feedback, so if something seems to be going off the rails I get questions about that and I can address potential problems early before they’re entrenched.

A disadvantage is that I’m 75% a plotter, but 25% a discovery writer. One thing I discovered, ten chapters in, is that I needed another major character. Fortunately, I was able to introduce her in a way that would make sense to the readers who’d been following the serial, but I also went back and edited the existing novel to foreshadow her arrival so that she’s a presence from the very first chapter.

I am typically a linear writer; I think writing a serial would be much harder if I were not. Or anyway I’d probably need to finish much more of the novel ahead of time. Right now, Broken Eye Books is pretty much publishing sections as I complete them, although I’ll probably get further ahead in coming months because of the limitations of their publishing schedule.

GMM: What is a Lovecraftian space opera? Can you define the elements of this cross genre? Are there any tropes that readers of science fiction can easily identify? What makes a piece of fiction Lovecraftian?

LAS: It’s pretty much what it says on the tin: it’s a space opera with Lovecraftian themes.

Space opera, which has become more popular in recent years, is a science fictional narrative set in space (or on other planets) that focuses on adventure, epic battles, futuristic technology, etc. Star Wars is space opera, for instance. So it should be a fairly familiar subgenre to most readers!

Lovecraftian fiction refers to stories or novels that use elements from Lovecraft’s fiction, particularly aspects of the Cthulhu mythos he created. Look for references to Elder Gods, tentacled horrors, madness-inducing knowledge, cosmic terrors, cults, fish gods, and general doom for mankind. Lovecraft’s influences have worked their way into a whole lot of science fiction and horror. Stranger Things has some strong Lovecraftian themes in it, and The Shape of Water contains several nods to Lovecraft’s work.

In my novel, the narrative takes place after the spawn of Azathoth (a deep-space deity in the Cthulhu mythos) invade Earth and wreak a variety of horrors. My protagonists, Joe and Bea, were physically and psychologically transformed by their experiences with the spawn, and they’ve been sent into space as part of a special mission to hunt down the spawn’s hives on other planets and destroy them to eliminate any further threat to our planet.

GMM: Over the past several years, there has been quite a bit of controversy over whether or not we should be honoring the work of H. P. Lovecraft due to his racist beliefs. How do you approach a piece of fiction that mimics the work of Lovecraft and make it something wholly your own as someone who is very much against racism?

LAS: I’ve written a lot of stories and several novels that are inspired by and are in dialog with Lovecraft’s fiction. That’s a different thing than mimicking or honoring his fiction. I am often inspired by things that appall me or anger me.

Lovecraft’s fiction, like Lovecraft himself, is complicated. Yes, there is a whole lot of xenophobia and racism — so much, in fact, that I’ve heard some critics claim that you can’t separate xenophobia from Lovecraft’s work. My take on that is that it’s entirely possible to write a piece of Lovecraftian fiction that doesn’t contain a trace of xenophobia. Or, you could write a narrative that addresses his racism directly and critically, as Victor LaValle does in The Ballad of Black Tom, which is a razor-sharp response to Lovecraft’s most notoriously racist story (“The Horror at Red Hook”). But LaValle’s novella also employs plenty of the kind of mind-blowing cosmic horror that made Lovecraft’s work memorable in the first place.

Lovecraft himself openly borrowed a whole lot of ideas from other writers: Lord Dunsany, Ambrose Bierce, M.R. James, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Edgar Allan Poe, and Robert Chambers (Ramsey Campbell’s gonna argue with me about the influence Chambers had; regardless, Chambers’ King in Yellow mythos has been absorbed into the Cthulhu mythos). Lovecraft in turn encouraged his writer friends to work with his worlds and he collaborated with other authors. So Lovecraftian fiction is much more than what Lovecraft himself wrote, and it’s been that way from the beginning.

I think of Lovecraftian fiction as a microcosm of genre fiction as a whole. We can all point to classic horror or science fiction stories that are racist, ableist, misogynistic … or just plain horribly written. Those cringey parts are not a reason to abandon those genres. They’re a reason to read the classics critically, identify why they’re awful … but also why they captured people’s imaginations in the first place. And then it’s on us to take the good, engage critically with the bad, and use that as a jumping-off place to write even better stories and novels for our readers.

Excerpt from Blossoms Blackened Like Dead Stars, by Lucy A. Snyder

I rest my hand on the wrapped, dormant root ball as the autopiloted shuttle glides into the docking bay of the USS Flechette. The bay walls and deck are matte gray tarakium, same as all the other ships in the fleet. My dreams are turning this color. The shuttle lands with barely a bump, and after the clack of the pressure lock disengaging, the rear door slowly lowers with a hydraulic hiss. I unbuckle my flight harness and walk down the ramp, my booted steps light in the artificial gravity.

This is my first command. I feel a mix of pride and dread about being here, and I don’t even properly know where “here” is, at least not in relation to Earth. There’s only so much I can know about my own missions, just in case I’m compromised. Nobody tells me I can’t ever be fully trusted, but distrust is baked into every scenario I or any of the other “enhanced” personnel are involved with. And frankly, I don’t know if they can trust us, either.

It’s chilly on the flight deck, which is fine. Extreme temperatures don’t bother me nearly as much as they used to. The doctors tested me extensively after my transformation, and we discovered that I can handle temperatures of about 60°C without passing out and −10°C without suffering serious hypothermia or frostbite.

My spawn-hybridized cells produce a new polypeptide that acts as antifreeze in my blood and tissues. For one test, they entombed me in solid ice for over an hour. I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. Never lost consciousness thanks to my cells doing some dark-cycle chemosynthesis that produced enough oxygen to keep my brain working. If that sounds like a fun afternoon . . . it really, really wasn’t. Cold that doesn’t kill me still hurts plenty, and it turns out I’m more claustrophobic than I thought. But since there wasn’t enough air to breathe, there wasn’t enough air for me to start screaming, so I emerged from the frosty coffin with my dignity intact. I’ve gotten good at coping with whatever they do to me in the name of science or safety. I’ll certainly encounter worse out in space with the spawn; there is only so much evil that the human mind is capable of imagining.

There’s concern that the polypeptide might build up and damage my internal organs over time, but the only thing to do about it is wait and see. Nobody has any real idea of what condition my body will be in even a year from now. The unspoken worry, obviously, is that I’ll transform into a spawn and kill everyone around me. Betray everyone in the name of Azathoth.

Of course, my spore-laden breath means I’m likely to kill people purely by accident. But I’m far too useful to lock away in a research lab, and so far, I’ve passed all the psych evals. The brass decided to give me command of my own small ship, point me at the spawn, and hope for the best.

Eight android drones stand at attention on the flight deck, patiently waiting for me. They’re all the same drab, clay-white Boston Dynamics Xenophon model, clunky looking but dexterous. Each has a differently colored stripe around their torso so people can tell them apart when they’re turned around. Some have metallic colors, and I’m guessing that they hold mission-critical roles. Their human pilots’ faces are mapped onto the curved tarakium screens on their heads. The crewmembers are stationed light years away on warships or stations, linked to the drones by the new quantum paired network. They’re certain to lose their connections during hyperspace jumps, and I’ll probably never know where any of my crew actually are.

The irony of my command is that my crew will always know more about the brass’s plans than I do. One of them—I don’t know who—is authorized to take over the ship the moment I show signs of compromise. The situation would probably frustrate a lot of other commanders, but I never expected to be in charge of a ship. I had to take an alarmingly compressed command school curriculum in between the godawful medical tests. Honestly, I’m glad someone here is qualified to run things in case shit gets real. I’d have a raging case of impostor syndrome if I’d deliberately chosen any of this.

A human lieutenant commander stands behind the line of drones. My sole crewmate during jumps. I blink. At first glance, I thought he was wearing some kind of dark protective gear, but he isn’t. He towers a head above the androids, and his skin is crocodile rough, blackened as if he’s been charred by a fire. Is he even human? He’s wearing a short-sleeved uniform, and his arms, neck, and face look as if he’s been torn apart and put back together with steel staples.

As I stare, trying to make sense of what I’m seeing, recognition dawns. “Joe?”

His grisly face splits into a smile. “Yep, it’s me. Good to see you, Bea.”

“What happened?” I blurt before I can stop myself.

He gives a laugh like stones grinding together. “Long story. Let me introduce you to your Alpha crew.”

Do you have a fragment you’re dying to share with the world? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TriggersGMM: What are you writing about at the moment?

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

The Zen of Lawn Care

This past weekend, I decided to tackle a project I had been putting off for weeks. Saturday morning I got up early, made coffee, put on enough clothing to not be indecent, and went outside to make my backyard more presentable. If it were up to me, I might let the yard go completely wild and see what plants choose to make their home there. But, there’s a rule in my renter’s agreement that states I am responsible for cutting the grass.

Lawn_1

Contained wilderness.

To be fair, my lawn is not huge by any stretch of the imagination. And, my property management company provided me with a manual push mower when I moved in six years ago.

Mower

I sharpened the blades myself and still have all of my fingers.

I think I used this potentially hazardous contraption once or twice after I moved in. That same summer, while I was working on my MFA, writing my first novel, adjusting to life in my hometown after living in a city for 16 years, learning the ropes at a new job, figuring out how to get divorced, becoming a single parent, and dealing with the inevitability of my dad’s death, I got a call from my property management company because they thought my grass was too high. No, seriously. Someone who works for them literally drives around checking to see if people are cutting their grass. After cursing a blue streak about how fucking ridiculous it is to hold ADULTS accountable for cutting grass on some imaginary timeline, I came to my senses and accepted the fact that I couldn’t possibly do all of the things I was juggling AND care about lawn maintenance. The height of your grass shouldn’t be cause for anxiety. If it is, you may want to re-examine your life and look for another source of meaning.

For most of the time I have lived in this house, I have paid a man in my neighborhood $10 a week to cut my grass. Albert, and usually one of his sons, would show up bright and early on a Saturday or Sunday morning (depending on Albert’s full-time job schedule) and mow the lawn in about 10-15 minutes. They’d cut the grass, whack weeds along the fence, and occasionally make suggestions about what should or shouldn’t be allowed to grow in my yard.

Lawn_2

My backyard is essentially a plush carpet of weeds.

One of my favorite plants that grows wild in my yard each year, is morning glory. According to Wikipedia, the species growing in my backyard is the Ipomoea nil, or Japanese Morning Glory.

Morning_Glories

A staple of unintentional urban gardening.

I look forward to seeing the lush green leaves and dainty purple flowers each year. According to the website Useful Tropical Plants, “Japanese morning glory is a climbing, herbaceous annual or perennial plant producing stems that either twine into other plants for support or sprawl along the ground.”

Morning_Glories_2

Not only is this plant lovely, but it obscures the view of the neighbors I dislike.

The Japanese Morning Glory lives in harmony next to another weed that grows in my yard: Pokeweed. The dark purple, almost black berries complement the purple flowers and I enjoy watching the snaking tendrils entwine themselves with the pokeweed that grows 3 – 4 feet high next to my fence.

Pokeweed-berries-on-mature-plant

These berries are poisonous. No matter how delicious they look, do not eat them

One year, Albert decided that I didn’t need these beautiful wild plants and used a weed killer to destroy most of the growth. I typically don’t plant anything in my yard, except in pots — flowers or herbs. So, after he sprayed the toxic plant killer, my yard looked barren. I got really pissed about it, because he didn’t ask me if I wanted him to do it. He assumed he knew better than me and made a decision about MY yard. It was the gardening equivalent of mansplaining. The following year, I told him to just cut the grass and trim the borders of the yard. He asked me three times if I was sure.

Yup.gif

 

This year, I decided not to make use of his services. Now, it’s up to me to cut the grass, weed, rake, and whatever else I need to do to avoid a phone call from my stupid property management company.

I spent nearly 4 hours in my backyard on Saturday. Using the manual push mower was extra work, and I began to think about the fact that there isn’t anyone else in my life to share the day-to-day labor. I feel the same way every time I have to shovel the sidewalk and dig out my car after a big snow. I often think that it would be nice to have someone to help me, or just do those things for me. But, as I worked my mind wandered. It wandered through the usual things I worry about. It wandered through fears I have about possible futures. And then, my mind wandered into the realm of questions and creativity. It occurred to me that I usually drown out my own thoughts with background noise like music, audio books, or the TV. Saturday, I chose not to listen to outside noise and listened to my own thoughts instead.

I tried to remember the dreams I’d had the night before. I thought about possible story arcs for my next book. I thought about how fortunate I am to be meeting so many new and interesting people, and why I believe some of them were sent to me so I can learn more about myself and grow. (Thank you, Universe.) I thought about why I’m not making more of an effort to take better care of myself. I thought about how the hell I was going to write all the things I’ve agreed to write over the past few weeks and months. And, I thought about the fact that there are so many opportunities ahead of me — personally, professionally, and creatively. I thought about adapting a series of paranormal romances I’ve been trying to finish into a graphic novel or comic series that an artist friend of mine would illustrate. I thought about how excited I am about attending my first Camp Necon in July. I thought about what I would talk about with my friend Megan if we started a podcast. I thought about making drapes. I thought about applying what I had learned from Marie Kondo in order to lighten my material object load. I thought about first kisses and the awkwardness of being naked with someone for the first time. I thought about how wonderful and terrifying the prospect of falling in love can be.

And, I thought about my grandfather. I thought about all the hours he spent taking care of his own lawn. I thought about how much time he must have spent alone with his own thoughts. I wondered if he used that time to solve problems, or gain a better understanding of the people he loved and the world around him. I wondered if all that time working with his hands, caring for his own yard, alone with his thoughts, was the reason he always seemed to have such amazing insight into human behavior. I thought about how much I miss him, and I wondered if he would be proud of my accomplishments. I shed a few tears, and then I got back to work.

When I was done, I treated myself to a beer like my grandfather used to do, and enjoyed the beauty of my freshly mowed and weeded lawn.

Beer

I think I inadvertently created a sacred space.

My lawn will never be immaculate enough to be featured in Better Homes and Gardens, but it’s a space where I can think and work with my hands until I am too tired to do anything else. Something I had been dreading and putting off became one of the best meditative experiences I’ve had in a long time. I made peace with my thoughts and feelings, and completed a task that left me with a real sense of accomplishment. I’m sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere about finishing writing projects.