Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Valjeanne Jeffers

Last week I had some very interesting conversations with Violette Meier and Aziza Sphinx. If you haven’t checked out their posts, or the previous posts in this Women in Horror Month/Black History Month series, please do so.

Today, Girl Meets Monster has the pleasure of welcoming Valjeanne Jeffers.

Valjeanne Jeffers is a speculative fiction writer, a Spelman College graduate, a member of the Horror Writers Association and the Carolina African America Writers’ Collective. She is the author of ten books, including her Immortal and her Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective series. Valjeanne has been published in numerous anthologies including: Steamfunk!; The Ringing Ear; Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. ButlerFitting In: Historical Accounts of Paranormal SubculturesSycorax’s Daughters; Black Magic Women, The Bright Empire, and, most recently, All the Songs We Sing, Bledrotica Volume I, and Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire.

Ten Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Valjeanne. What projects are you currently working on? Is horror your primary genre, or do you write in other genres? If you write in other genres, which do you feel most comfortable writing, and why?

VJ: Hi Michelle, thank you for having me. I’ve just released the 3rd novel of my Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective series: The Case of the Vanishing Child. It’s a horror/steamfunk novel based in an alternate world, and the main character, Mona, is both a sleuth and a sorceress. I’m also working on a screenplay of my novel, The Switch II: Clockwork.

Horror isn’t my primary genre, but it’s one of my favorites. I write under the broad umbrella of Speculative Fiction, so I also write science fiction/fantasy, which is also described as Afrofuturism. I feel comfortable writing in almost any genre, and I tend to mix them. The Switch II: Clockwork, for example, is a steamfunk novel, but it is also Afrofuturistic.

GMM: When did you first know that you were a horror writer? How did you develop an interest in the genre? What initially attracted you to horror stories? Which writers influenced you then? Which writers influence you now?

VJ: I actually didn’t think of myself as a horror writer until author Sumiko Saulson featured my writing in 100+ Black Women in Horror. Sumiko told me that my readers had approached her and asked that she include my Immortal series. I was both amazed and honored. That’s when I decided to add horror to my writing menu, and I went out of my way in my Mona Livelong series to scare my readers.

I’ve always enjoyed reading and watching horror. I can remember watching horror movies with my parents (for example, The Shining), and as a little girl, I was addicted to Dark Shadows. The first horror writer I fell in love with was Stephen King. Of course, when I first began reading horror there were no writers that looked like me. All of this changed in the 1990s. I discovered Octavia Butler, and later Nalo Hopkinson, Brandon Massey and Tananarive Due. These are writers, along with Richard Wright and James Baldwin, that I credit as my earliest influences. They continue to impact my writing, as well as Keith Gaston and N.K. Jemison.

GMM: The documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019), explores Black horror and the portrayal (and absence) of Black people in horror movies. As a definition of what Black horror means begins to take shape, Tananarive Due says “Black history is Black horror.” What do you think she meant by that? Can you give an example of how this idea shows up in your own work?

VJ: I’m sure she meant that African America history is one of trauma and violence: from our being kidnapped and dragged to American shores, through the Jim Crow and the Civil Rights era, our history is filled with tales of horror. Our stories are often those of pain and trauma.

Richard Wright, in Black Boy, says, “This was the culture from which I sprang, this was the terror from which I fled.” Yet our stories are also those of incredible victories because we refused to submit, to give up. Instead, we pushed on. We blossomed, and we continue to blossom like a garden of black roses.

As a black woman, I am grappling with issues of those that came before me, and those that we face in present times. This may find its way onto my pages. But I write with optimism and hope. And I always strive give my readers an exciting tale they can sink their teeth into.

GMM: As a WOC writing horror/dark speculative fiction, do you feel obligated to have a deeper message in your stories? Can writers of color write stories without broader messages about identity, class, and racism? Is it possible to divorce yourself from that ongoing narrative within our culture when you set out to write a story?

VJ: I don’t feel obligated to include a deeper message in my stories, and some of my favorite authors write without doing so. I’ve certainly never started one with this intent. Sometimes a story is just a story, meant to entertain and nothing more. But I do find myself writing about flawed heroines and heroes, men and women who are fighting to save themselves and their worlds. Often the demons they’re fighting are personal ones; life is always in session. There are no perfect people, and so my characters are imperfect as well. Who you are, and what you’re battling, will always find its way onto the page, and this is where I find myself writing, too, about larger issues of race, gender and class.

GMM: What are your top five favorite horror movies, and why? Top five horror novels? Which book or movie scared you the most?

VJ: My top five horror movies are: The Shining; Tales from the Hood; Get Out; Dr. Sleep, and When a Stranger Calls. I like horror movies with well-developed plots and characters, and layers of suspense that build to a nail biting crescendo. I also prefer horror flicks with a racially diverse cast of characters, which is a lot easier to come by nowadays.

My top favorite horror novels are: Wild Seed (Octavia Butler); Into the Dark (Brandon Massey); The Good House (Tananarive Due); It (Stephen King) and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (N.K. Jemison). I’d have to say Into the Dark scared me the most.

GMM: How do you feel about white-identifying writers who write stories about non-white characters? What problems have you encountered? What potential issues do you see with white-identifying writers telling BIPOC stories? What advice would you give those writers?

VJ: There are some white authors who are very skillful at creating “flesh and blood” non-white characters. One writer in particular, who is also one of my favorites, is Tad Williams; his Otherland series is brilliant. What I mean by “flesh and blood,” are well rounded characters, who black and brown folks can identify with. In contrast, there are other white authors I’ve encountered, whose non-white characters are cardboard cutouts, overlaid with stereotypes.   My advice to these authors is: if you don’t have black and brown friends, real friends mind you, perhaps it’s best if you don’t write about people of color. This might sound harsh, but one of the first pieces of writing advice that I received was: “Write what you know.” Every character I’ve created is a compilation of diverse men and women I’ve met, studied, or both, and myself.

GMM: All writers have experienced some form of impostor syndrome. What has your experience with impostor syndrome been like? Did you ever have a particularly bad case of it? If so, what caused it and how did you manage it?

VJ: I have experienced feelings of self-doubt and feelings that I don’t “measure up” as a writer. But when I’m at my lowest, my readers, and other writers, often help me get through it. I’ve received uplifting emails from folks who love my latest project, and sometimes even a post on my Facebook page. I think I speak for most authors when I say: we write for ourselves and for our readers. I cherish every one of them.

GMM: Tell me about Mona Livelong. What or who inspired this character? Without too many spoilers, can you give some insight into her backstory, and why she became a detective? Why a paranormal detective as opposed to a detective who solves basic human problems?

VJ: Mona Livelong sprang from the same inspiration as Karla, the main character of my Immortal series. Both characters are based upon Carla, a young woman who babysat me when I was living in Los Angeles. Carla’s mother, as well as her youngest brother, died and she was raising her two surviving siblings while attending college. I remember her as an intelligent, compassionate young woman, who was determined to achieve her goals.

Mona is cut from this same cloth. She’s strong, but also vulnerable, and she’s known tragedy. She was born a sorceress and decided to use her gifts to help her community, solving cases regular detectives can’t solve. As to why she’s a paranormal detective, when I create a character, he or she will almost always be supernatural. I love Speculative Fiction just that much.

GMM: Some writers work best in silence, and others prefer to listen to music when they write. How has music influenced your work? What kinds of music do like to listen to when you’re writing? How does it help with your process?

VJ: I can write in silence, but I prefer listening to music when I write, especially if I’m working on character or plot development. If I’m doing either one, I usually listen to jazz or R&B (for example, WAR and Barry White). If I’m writing an action scene, I’m definitely listening to Hip Hop or Classic Rock. I’ve actually acted out action scenes while listening to music; it helps me visualize what’s happening to my characters, and if the scene will “work.”

GMM: If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your younger self? How would you have approached becoming a writer? Would you have done anything differently, or would you have followed the same path?

VJ: If I could give young Valjeanne any advice I would tell her, “Keep writing Speculative Fiction, sweetheart, and don’t stop. No matter what anyone says.” I began writing poetry and stories as a young girl. My only regret is that I took a hiatus and didn’t dive back in until years later. This is the only thing I would change.

Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective III: The Case of the Vanishing Child. (synopsis) The threads of a blood chilling mystery … A world torn in half. A young black man desperate to avenge his murdered brethren. A white supremacist with the terrifying power to alter reality. And a little girl trapped in the eye of the storm. Detective Mona Livelong takes on her most dangerous case yet, as she races to save the life of an innocent child, and countless others hanging in the balance. Cover art by Quinton Veal.

Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective III: The Case of The Vanishing Child (excerpt)

Breath brings word
Nappy Dusky Longing Song
Song like my own
—Maya’s Kwansaba

A solitary cafe au lait-colored man with freckles, his thick hair tied back with cords, walked to the lot behind the Constabulary Station. Keeping his head down, Richard Starks moved silently through the rows of steam-autos parked there. He walked past them, looking carefully at the numbers painted on the auto doors. When he found the one he sought, he crouched on the other side of the steam-auto and waited.

He didn’t have to wait long. Minutes later, a burly white Constable exited the station and walked through the lot. He hunkered down before the auto and started turning the crank.

Richard drew a dagger from the folds of his shirt. Moving swiftly, he crept from the side of the car. As the Constable rose from his haunches, the black man sprang— stabbing him over and over. The Constable fell to his knees and then toppled over, twitching and bleeding at Richard’s feet. Moments later, he was dead.

Shaking and crying, Richard stood over him. At length, he calmed himself and slipped the dagger back

inside his shirt. He wiped his face with his arm and stepped over the dead Constable to the side of the auto. He drew a symbol on the steam-auto door with his bloody fingers and spoke the mantra, “Kuja kwangu mpendwa wangu kwa maana ni kisasi mimi kutafuta … Come to me my beloved, for it is vengeance I seek.”

Diaphanous shades smudged into view. In the next instant three figures towered over him, their faces shifting in the darkness … from black to red … green to blue … female to male … It made him dizzy trying to hone in on their features. He realized that perhaps he was not meant to see their faces. Perhaps it would drive him insane. He fixed his vision on a point beyond their huge shoulders.

The one on his left spoke, “You summoned us, little one?”

“Yes,” Richard whispered.

“You know what it is you seek?” said the second one asked.

“We cannot harm the innocent,” the third entity intoned.

For the first time anger crept into the young man’s voice. “They ain’t innocent. They’re murderers.

The spirits spoke in one basso profundo voice, “So be it.”

Rivulets of blood ran down the Constabulary building. The dead officer sat up. His wounds healed, and

his eyes glazed over with a white film. Then they turned blue once more. The blood vanished. The Constable got to his knees, crouching before the auto, and finished turning the crank. The motor sputtered to life. He stood and walked to the driver’s side, got into the auto and drove from the lot.

Constable Burt Phillips, a thick-set white officer, pulled his steam-auto up to the curb beside his flat. Burt put his auto in park, got out and turned the crank on his steam-auto, shutting the engine off. He was feeling good this evening—better than he’d felt in weeks. For awhile, he’d thought that Eddie Plumb, the unarmed black man he’d killed months ago, was haunting him.

He’d been drinking the night he killed Plumb and in a foul mood. I just wanted respect. That darkie needed to be put in his place.

Plumb had walked pass Burt that night, his eyes insolent, his back straight and proud. Something had snapped inside Burt. He’d shouted at Plumb over and over to stop walking, but the young man ignored him. So Burt shot him in the back. When questioned by Internal Affairs, he’d told a different story: Eddie was a robbery suspect, who’d fled when he ordered him to stop.

The DA cleared me. That’s that.

The week of his death, Eddie Plumb had appeared in Burt’s steam-auto and, for weeks afterwards, he’d rode beside Burt—mocking him, insulting him, calling him a murderer. Then just as suddenly he was gone. Burt had dismissed Eddie as a hallucination brought on by the stress of the hearing.

Certainly. he bore no guilt over killing Plumb. Darkies getting out of control. In my daddy’s time they knew their place. That’s one that won’t make trouble no more.

His daddy had been a hard man, and even harder to love. But love him Burt did, through all the beatings, through all the times he’d found his mother bloodied from his old man’s fists.

His father’s most essential rule, THE RULE, was that he should hate anyone who wasn’t white. “Keep ‘em under your boot son,” this was said with the utmost emphasis during the few times he’d shown Burt affection. “For a white man, ain’t nothing more important.” His daddy had hated black and brown folks, and Burt loved his daddy. So, he hated them too. He opened the door to his flat and stepped inside.

——

Richard sat in the darkness. The only illumination came from the moon and the streetlight outside his window. He shut his eyes.

When he opened them, his room had been transformed. Thick grass grew under his feet. He stared into a gold, orange and blue sunset, a half-smile of wonderment on his face. To his right, the walls and door of his flat remained. Straight ahead, camel thorn trees spouted in the brush. In the distance, he could hear the steady rhythm of drums and a faint whisper. Richard cocked his head to the right. Listening.

He nodded and shut his eyes once more. His spirit rose from the chair. He looked back at his body then walked out into the night. Those he passed on the street could not see him … But they felt him as a breeze.

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you Friday!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Aziza Sphinx

Wednesday, I chatted with Violette Meier about her writing, what inspires her, and she shared a fragment of her soon to be released Oracles.

Today, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Aziza Sphinx. I met Aziza in a chat room during Multiverse this past year. We were the only ones in the room, which might have been awkward, but I ended up having a very interesting conversation. We shared our thoughts on the political climate, why we write horror and other dark speculative fiction, and what we were working on at the time. Connecting with other writers who look like you can really make a difference. Community is everything.

Aziza Sphinx sees the world through peaches and pecans and a canopy of weeping willows. Family matters, and not just blood, for those who care for us are the truest who stand and fall during the winding road. When the hills and valleys of the journey summon and the pen becomes mightier than the sword, this is the world Aziza Sphinx breathes for.

Ten Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Aziza.  What projects are you currently working on? Is horror your primary genre, or do you write in other genres? If you write in other genres, which do you feel most comfortable writing, and why?

AS: I’ll preface my answers to these questions in the context of the idea that I am not always the writer of my stories. I am an empath and I channel my characters, so I walk the role of the scribe while not necessarily controlling the story content. I have quite a few projects in the works which span multiple genres. The Nai, a race of entities with energy manipulation responsibilities, have been speaking as of late so I’ve been a bit focused on that alien origins stories for the Of Lies and Nai series. My wraiths and reapers are still at odds and I believe The Burning Queen has said her due and is ready for the world to read her tale. For me, comfort comes from sanity. So long as I do as I’m told and write the stories of the voices in my head, I write in whichever genre they deem appropriate for their stories.

GMM: When did you first know that you were a horror writer? How did you develop an interest in the genre? What initially attracted you to horror stories? Which writers influenced you then? Which writers influence you now?

AS: I’ve been writing dark stories since I was a child. Some of the love grew out of exposure from events in my life and others from my favorite books and shows. I grew up in the time of old school comics and television such as CreepshowTales from the Darkside, and Twilight Zone. These were staples in my household, and I find myself to this day still venturing back to watch them.

Though I was exposed to authors such as Amiri Baraka, Octavia Butler, and Maryse Conde at an early age due to my mother being an English teacher, truth be told, as far as influence is concerned, my writing is more influenced by mythos, mythology, history, legend, theoretical science, and transpersonal psychology than the writings of others both stylistically and in content.

GMM: The documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019), explores Black horror and the portrayal (and absence) of Black people in horror movies. As a definition of what Black horror means begins to take shape, Tananarive Due says “Black history is Black horror.” What do you think she meant by that? Can you give an example of how this idea shows up in your own work?

AS: I’m inclined to agree with the assessment that “Black history is Black horror.” As I look around at my experiences and listen to the stories of others in my community Black history both past and in its ever-evolving state, is a form of horror I would not wish on a friend nor an enemy. It shows up in my writings in the subtle manipulations of intentional omissions for the sake of those in power to control the narrative of the very entities they proclaim to be protecting. As one of my characters so eloquently reiterates, “selective omission is still a lie.”

GMM: As a WOC writing horror/dark speculative fiction, do you feel obligated to have a deeper message in your stories? Can writers of color write stories without broader messages about identity, class, and racism? Is it possible to divorce yourself from that ongoing narrative within our culture when you set out to write a story?

AS: Because I am but the conduit from which my stories are told, I am less inclined to feel obligated to structure my stories with a deeper message. However, with the nature of the transpersonal as an influence, I do find deeper meaning in the experiences of my characters. Whether from unconventional ideas and approaches to what could be black and white situations to the questioning of the actions of ancient civilizations within the context of their view of existence during their time and even being open to anything as a future possibility my characters reflect on these options as they stumble their way through their own revelations. Whether intentional or not I can see in my stories a replay of events in my life through both a fictional representation and a therapeutic lens affording me the courage to face and comprehend the trauma of present-day culture and society and continue to contribute in the ways that I can to help others like myself see themselves as important even when society tries to reiterate, we are not.

GMM: What are your top five favorite horror movies, and why? Top five horror novels? Which book or movie scared you the most?

AS: Movies: Vampire Hunter D; Bloodlust because of its exploration of not just the idea of evil that has traditionally surrounded the role of vampires in storytelling, but because of the psychological motivation presented in the characters and what drives them in their quests. Blood, gore, and sheer terror are fulfilled with the Russian movie Nightwatch (2004) and The Host (Gwoemul, 2006) both of which focus on the fear of unknown creatures lurking in the darkness. Though cheesy by today’s standards I still love to lounge around with Tales from the Hood playing in the background. And for the movie that made me suspicious of every doll in existence even before Chucky’s reign Dolls (1987).

Books: I love a good vampire story from both the perspective of the hunter and the hunted, so I fell in love with Minion by L.A. Banks the first time I stumbled upon it in a bookstore. And because I have an affinity for cemeteries myself, Amana Stevens’ The Kingdom fills the need in her character Amelia Gray’s desire to discover why she is called The Graveyard Queen. The rhythmic cadence of The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe draws me in and soothes the poetic desire that sometimes gnaws at my psyche. Smoke and Shadows by Tanya Huff reminds me that ghost stories come in many forms and so do protagonists, while Kelley Armstrong’s Omens melds the modern world with mythology.

As for the movie or book that scares me the most, I will admit that Dolls is at the top of the list. Not just because of the creep factor, the beady little eyes of every toy stalking prey in the night; but also because of the cultural parallels as many believe dolls and other possessions contain a piece of the soul of their owners.

GMM: How do you feel about white-identifying writers who write stories about non-white characters? What problems have you encountered? What potential issues do you see with white-identifying writers telling BIPOC stories? What advice would you give those writers?

AS: For me, the fact that we are still having the conversation about white-identifying writers writing stories about non-white characters continues to pour salt in a festering wound. The question itself is a constant reminder that those controlling the capitalist machine continue to value stories about non-white characters only when written through the eyes of white identified writers. That BIPOC writers are not worthy of access to the machine’s markets when telling their own stories with their own voices. For any white-identifying writer who deems it absolutely necessary for the core of their story to include a non-white character in a primary role, instead of sequestering a person providing you incite for the sake of authenticity to the role of a resource thanked into obscurity in the acknowledgement section, give the person the opportunity to share your platform as a co-writer and allow them to tell that part of the story in the most authentic way.

I’ve had the greater challenge of being informed that my Black characters aren’t authentic in academia more than anywhere else. Specifically, I was taking a course and receiving feedback that my Black characters weren’t authentic and that I was portraying stereotypes and needed to change my stories. Because this was a course for academic credits, I signed up using my legal name so those providing feedback assumed I was not Black either because of my name or the choice of language presented in my writing. Their responses only reiterated the idea that my experience as a Black woman writing my story from my perspective could only be told from what they deemed to be an acceptable point of view. That my character’s actions and responses were only a stereotype and not authentically portraying what may have been a true to life experience from someone in the Black community.

GMM: All writers have experienced some form of impostor syndrome. What has your experience with impostor syndrome been like? Did you ever have a particularly bad case of it? If so, what caused it and how did you manage it?

AS: Because my writing tends to be an amalgamation of genres imposter syndrome rears its head when faced with the challenge of classification for publishing purposes. Having to balance the need to categorize my works within the current market restraints while understanding the idea of reader expectation has led to the frustration of feeling as though my stories will be judged with the eye of one set of reader’s expectations while not being afforded with another classification option for the wider market. There is still the constant push to get the publishing industry to expand its classification structure allowing for new types of works that the big publishers may not deem as profitable to have their own classification. To manage, I try to align my works with the genres I feel would be most appropriate for each work while focusing more on key words when marketing and remaining aligned with who I’ve deemed to be my target market.

GMM: I recently picked up a copy of your novel, A Moment Before Midnight, which is near the top of my TBR pile. You mentioned that your vampires are different, which I think you meant as a warning. However, I’m always excited to see new approaches to how vampires show up in fiction. What should readers know about your vampires? What sets them apart?

AS: There is always the story behind the story and what shows up on the surface is just that; surface. My vampires usually don’t know the full extent of their power or purpose on their respective plane and part of their journeys is discovering their truths and greater role they are expected to play in the futures that lay before them. While this idea is present in the Naverro Vampire Tales series it comes to the forefront more in my novel A Licentious Storm where my vampires as the Doridian is specifically introduced.

GMM: I assume that as a horror writer who writes about vampires, you enjoy reading about them, too. And, most people experience vampires on film first before they pick up their first novel. Which vampire narratives and characters inspired you the most? What did you like about them? What did you feel was missing?

AS: In truth I drop in and out of the desire to read vampire stories. I don’t typically go searching for specific types of stories to read so I’m all over the place on the speculative fiction spectrum. My first exposer to vampire stories probably was in movies like NosfertuFright Night, Interview with a Vampire, and Life Force. If any of those inspired me, it would probably be Life Force. Just the idea of vampirism in terms of energy rather than the blood approach is a perspective that has stayed with me. Also, the sentience of vampires presented in Interview with a Vampire is present in my approach of my stories not just of my vampires but of other entities as well.

GMM: Tell me about Of Darkened Woods. Without giving away too many spoilers, what is it about? Do you retell a specific fairytale, or did you create your own new story? What is it about fairytales that makes them so easily adaptable to horror? Have you written other stories based on fairytales?

AS: Because I like to delve deeper into a story and seek out the origins and purpose of its creation from a historical perspective, Of Darkened Woods is one of my interpretations of the Hansel and Gretel story drawing more from the original German tale and spiritual interpretations while exercising creative license to add a twist on the potential true villain of the story.

Excerpt from Of Darkened Woods

My day begins with ravens. Big black broad-winged squawking harbingers of death omen ravens. They perch on the roof, their repetitive cacophony generating a pounding headache forcing me from bed long before sunrise. I’d seen them gathering at twilight, one by one, taking up residence along the roofline. But they’d been silent until now affording me a few hours of Sandman surrender before sounding off in a deafening chorus.

Luna! Luna! Luna! Witch.

The last squawk of my name stings. Though barely a whisper, it strikes as hard as a slap to the face.

“I hear you! I hear you! Now cease that infernal racket.”

The flapping of wings against the pottery roof reminds me of the pelting of rain, something long overdue. I toss back the lace curtains. Streaks of light slicing through darkened skies greet me. And so, the routine begins. Wash. Dry. Dress.

“Good morning, my beauty.” My fingers tiptoe over the walls, trailing down the hallway as my humble abode gently sighs. “Oh, how misunderstood you are.”

Me and this house in the woods came to an understanding many moons ago. The binding sentiment between us, the wish to be cared for and left in peace. Our harmonious symbiosis endures as I venture to the other world by day and return to nurture by night.

A dash of dusting. Wipe down the walls. Basket of fruit placed just so. My melodious voice soothes the temperament of my uneasy hearth. “There. There,” I mutter as I trace a newly formed crack in the doorjamb. “Fear not my lovely. I’ll fix that right up upon my return.”

The groan from the wooden floors offers assurance. One last gentle caress and I lock up shop to gather items to make the repair.

As I step from the stoop, feet sinking into moist dirt, the spell of the house falls away. The first frightening layers of reality smack me in the face. Heat bears down on my lungs. Thick and heavy, draining me of the need to pad over to what I see as a stone wall and entryway into a world no longer my own. No need for acclimation, for this place in-between where the glamour possesses less of a hold lasts merely ten paces, I scurry forward.

The ravens eye me suspiciously, though maybe my mind is anthropomorphizing. Might ravens actually consider the conduct of mere mortals? Not that I am a mere mortal. The conspiracy stalks my every move, heads rotating in unison as if by a puppeteer’s strings; their beady little eyes boring into my back as I reach for the latch on the iron gate. Once over this threshold, the glamour will fade in its entirety and the outside world will see me as they wish.

“Will you gawk at me all day?” I chide, lifting my cloak over her head. “Shoo now. Be on your merry way.”

The clank of the lock disengaging sends the conspiracy a-flight the sky falling black as the winged mass rises to the heavens before dissipating. Silence follows, not a chirp to be heard as I cross into the other realm and secure the doorway behind me.

An intoxicatingly sweet aroma of honeysuckle and cherry blossoms wraps around me as I turn to see what others see. Colorful arches revealed through wispy willow fingers hang heavy with candy apple fruit. Iridescent winged creatures flit about. Roof shingles reminiscent of icing cascade to trim toasted mouthwatering walls of gingerbread. Beds of not flowers, but gum drops and lollipops, line the windows and walkway of peppermint pavers. If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear the windows formed eyes for the house to watch me. The door, an ‘O’ of surprise.

Can it see the truth? Does it know why I venture out? Breaking eye contact, lest the house learn my secret, I gather my composure, lowering my hood. Oh, I see how the charm draws outsiders in. An oasis in the center of the thick of foreboding forest. The trees rally with me to discourage trespassers. Yet some still venture through the forbidden following the curious creatures in league with the house, their doom written to the ancients for daring to tread too close. Still, the façade actually works against the true nature of the spirit of the home. Instead of warding others off with the peculiarity of such beauty in this desolate land, it encourages curiosity seekers to explore further. And once trapped in its spell, the house disposes of threats as it sees fit.

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Tonia Ransom

Wednesday, I talked with the multifaceted Sumiko Saulson about writing and how identity shapes her life as a writer of speculative fiction.

Today, Girl Meets Monster welcomes writer and podcast creator, Tonia Ransom.

Tonia Ransom is the creator and executive producer of NIGHTLIGHT, a horror podcast featuring creepy tales written by Black writers. Tonia has been scaring people since the second grade, when she wrote her first story based on Michael Myers. She’s pretty sure her teacher was concerned, but she thinks she turned out fine(ish). Tonia tells horror stories regularly on Twitter @missdefying, and her debut novella Risen was released early December 2020. She lives in Austin, Texas.

Ten Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Tonia.  What projects are you currently working on? Is horror your primary genre, or do you write in other genres? If you write in other genres, which do you feel most comfortable writing, and why?

TR: Thanks for having me! Right now, I’m working mostly on my podcast, NIGHTLIGHT. We just began Season 4, and I’m excited about the stories we have in the queue for listeners. I’m also working on an audio drama that is a cross between Lovecraft Country and True Blood. It’s got hoodoo, monsters, and unnatural disasters and I’m anxious to see it out in the world. On top of that, I’m working on my second book, 13 Kills, about a vampire girl who must kill 13 times to grow up, and a feature film about the conflict between people who live above ground and those underground called The Dark People.

Horror is absolutely my primary genre, though I have written one piece of literary work based on the death of Tamir Rice. It felt wrong to write horror about that, but I needed to process my feelings about it as the mother of a Black son, so literary it was. But at the end of the day, I feel most comfortable writing horror.

GMM: When did you first know that you were a horror writer? How did you develop an interest in the genre? What initially attracted you to horror stories? Which writers influenced you then? Which writers influence you now?

TR: I wrote my first horror story in the second grade for a school assignment. It was Michael Myers fan fiction! My teacher called my mom, but I was always a good student whose teachers called my parents to praise me, so I thought she just loved the story. I’d scared her and I was hooked on the feeling and have never looked back, though I have doubted myself many, many times. I think my interest in the genre came from having a dad who enjoyed horror, and older brothers who also loved horror movies. I looked up to my brothers, of course, and didn’t want to seem scared when I watched movies with them, so I looked at all the cool things about them. So, my love of horror definitely came from film. It wasn’t until much later that I developed a love for horror writing, mostly because I grew up in an extremely conservative community and my library did not have many horror books at all. I did, however, enjoy The Twilight Zone very much as a child and came to love Richard Matheson’s episodes in particular. He’s still a huge influence on me, as are Shirley Jackson, Octavia Butler, and Tananarive Due.

GMM: The documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019), explores Black horror and the portrayal (and absence) of Black people in horror movies. As a definition of what Black horror means begins to take shape, Tananarive Due says “Black history is Black horror.” What do you think she meant by that? Can you give an example of how this idea shows up in your own work?

TR: I think the fact that so much of Black history in America (and honestly, worldwide, but particularly America) has been so horrific that Black history and Black horror are intrinsically linked. Black writers, like all writers, are shaped by their experiences, and unfortunately, African American writers have had to deal with a lot of racial horror in their lives. You cannot have Black horror without Black history because all stories are made from the seeds of history, whether personal or national. As for me, I tend not to write directly about the horrific history of what it’s meant to be Black in America. Writing more indirectly is more my style, and I often don’t know what it is that I’m really writing about until I reflect on the story after I’m done. But I am my experiences and growing up as a biracial girl in the South shaped me. I don’t know my white mother’s family because they do not believe in “racial mixing”. Being isolated from one side of my family definitely comes out in my work in the forms of abandonment and being alone, rejected, and forgotten, which all are hallmarks of horror stories.

GMM: As a WOC writing horror/dark speculative fiction, do you feel obligated to have a deeper message in your stories? Can writers of color write stories without broader messages about identity, class, and racism? Is it possible to divorce yourself from that ongoing narrative within our culture when you set out to write a story?

TR: I don’t feel obligated to have a deeper message in my stories, though there usually is one because writing is my way to process the more hidden emotions I have. Unfortunately, I think a lot of editors expect Black and other marginalized writers to have a deeper message in their work, and I think that’s unfortunate, particularly because they expect that deeper message to be a bit more overt. Editors seem to prefer stories about the struggle and pain of being part of a marginalized identity, and we are so much more than those struggles. For me, stories are first about entertainment. That’s why I read stories and watch movies—to be entertained, to escape. If there’s a deeper message, great. If that message is there, but you have to work to see it, that’s okay too. As long as I was entertained, I consider it successful. There is certainly a place for work with deeper meanings, but I do think that the entertainment of the story shouldn’t be sacrificed for that meaning; rather they should work together to create a cohesive whole. I certainly think it’s possible to divorce the two superficially, but again, we are our experiences, and there is always a deeper meaning, though it may be quite obscure, and that’s okay.

GMM: What are your top five favorite horror movies, and why? Top five horror novels? Which book or movie scared you the most?

TR: Movies: 12 Hour Shift (directed and written by Brea Grant) is a wild ride. It’s funny, gory, and one of my favorite movies of last year. I also love Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and The Girl With All the Gifts, primarily because of how race changes those stories to have a completely different meaning than what might have originally been intended. Les Diaboliques is also a favorite of mine—I love a good twist! And finally, I love Hush. I was so tense the entire time I was watching the movie and it’s very difficult to get under my skin. Mike Flanagan did an amazing job with that movie.

Books: The Family Plot by Cherie Priest. Haunted house stories are so hard to pull off, but Cherie did it beautifully. Through the Woods by Emily Carroll is such a macabre graphic novel. Between the stories and the creepy illustrations, it’s a delight to read again and again. Tananarive Due’s The Good House is another amazing haunted house novel. And Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle exceeds The Haunting of Hill House in my opinion. Finally, I loved Hoodoo by Ronald L. Smith, it is an excellent middle grade horror.

As for which book/movie scared me the most, I’d have to say Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House. Nothing so far has really scared me, but that show definitely creeped me out a few times.

GMM: How do you feel about white-identifying writers who write stories about non-white characters? What problems have you encountered? What potential issues do you see with white-identifying writers telling BIPOC stories? What advice would you give those writers?

TR: Whew, what a question. I’m actually going to be moderating a panel about Lovecraft Country at Boskone on February 12, and I have thoughts about a white writer taking on a story about the Black experience. To me, it feels like a colonization, particularly because Black writers writing about that very thing have been shut out for so long. I think if a book/story is almost entirely based on the Black experience, a non-Black writer should have a Black co-writer. For me, Lovecraft Country the novel just felt off. You could tell Matt Ruff definitely did his research and wanted to be respectful, but it still felt hollow because the deeper parts of the Black experience during that era just weren’t there. I couldn’t finish the novel because it just felt wrong to me in ways I couldn’t quite describe, even before I knew the author was white. There’s something intangible about marginalized experiences that you can’t get from research or interviewing someone from that background. It’s the type of stuff that comes out as you’re writing it. Marginalized folks sometimes don’t consciously realize precisely how they’re marginalized or how they feel about it until they’re writing that experience.

GMM: All writers have experienced some form of impostor syndrome. What has your experience with impostor syndrome been like? Did you ever have a particularly bad case of it? If so, what caused it and how did you manage it?

TR: OMG, impostor syndrome is a constant battle for me. I constantly feel as though I’m not a good enough writer, or producer, or editor, despite some very prominent people publicly saying they enjoy my work. I think a big part of that comes from my own ideas of what I want to be, and falling short of that ideal. We often have a vision in our head for something and the execution just doesn’t match that, and for me, that leads to imposter syndrome. I work very hard to let go of perfectionism and the resulting imposter syndrome by reading positive comments about my work when I feel as though I’m falling short of my own ideals.

GMM: Tell me about NIGHTLIGHT. How did the podcast get started? Who have you featured on the podcast? What were some obstacles you may have encountered when getting the podcast off the ground? Where can people find the podcast? How can writers submit their work?

TR: I started NIGHTLIGHT back in 2018 after a Fireside Fiction report came out detailing the demographics of published writers. Approximately 2.5% of published stories were by Black writers, and we discussed the report in my all-Black writers’ group. I learned that Black writers’ stories were being rejected for being “too Black” and “not Black enough” by non-Black editors. I’d wanted to start a podcast for years, even before podcasts were a thing. I loved old time radio and wanted to revive the medium, and when podcasts were created, I knew that dream was within my reach. I put it off for years, making excuses about lack of time and money, but once that report came out, I knew what kind of podcast I wanted to create. I wanted to uplift Black writers and give them a space to tell whatever story they wanted, rather than being tied to writing about the Black experience. I’ve had writers such as Linda Addison, Tananarive Due, Lamar Giles, Justina Ireland, Zin E Rocklyn, and Sumiko Saulson on the podcast, and can’t wait to see what the coming years bring.

Justina Ireland graciously donated a story based in the Dread Nation universe for our inaugural episode, and I raised almost $2000 for my first season with no platform whatsoever, so my path has been easier than most. It’s *a lot* of work, much more than I expected, which has been compounded by the fact that I have an old injury that limits my time at a keyboard and mouse, but I feel very certain this is my path because every time I’ve encountered an obstacle, something has happened to remove it. I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to produce NIGHTLIGHT. We’re found on just about every podcast platform out there, but you can visit our website at nightlightpod.com. We’re on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @nightlightpod, and our Patreon is at patreon.com/nightlightpod. We’re open for submissions February, April, June, August, and October every year, and instructions can be found on our website at nightlightpod.com/submissions.

GMM: Without giving away too many spoilers, what is your novella, Risen, about? And, where did the idea for the story come from?

TR: The idea from Risen actually came from a nightmare that I had shortly after my dad’s death about a woman being trapped in her body. My father’s death was long and painful, and he was trapped in his body due to seizures wreaking havoc on his brain, so I think the nightmare was my way of processing that. In short, Risen is about a staunch atheist who’s murdered only to learn that not only is there an afterlife, but magic exists too and now she’s trapped in her body by the conjure man who raised her from the dead. It’s about her struggle for freedom, and her reconciliation of her familial magic with her scientific mind. Not only must she escape the zombi magic that traps her, but she must fight Baron Samedi, a prominent figure in voodoo, for her soul. You can buy Risen on Amazon. The paperback will be out in a few weeks!

GMM: Do you prefer writing your own fiction, or featuring the work of other writers on your podcast? What other creative projects would you like to try in the future?

TR: This is a tough one! I love them both equally. I do wish I had more time for my own writing, though. Writing keeps me sane, featuring the work of other writers gives me purpose. Both are necessary and finding the balance has been difficult, but I’ll arrive there at some point! In the future, I’d love to have NIGHTLIGHT or the audio drama I mentioned earlier adapted into a TV series. I’d love to be able to uplift more Black-centered stories for TV/film because I truly believe showing those perspectives to a wider audience is our best way of combating bigotry and racism. Stories may be primarily for entertainment, but people learn from them too—both the good and the bad. I want to put more good out there in the world to foster more compassion amongst each other.

Fragment by Tonia Ransom

The bullet severed my spinal cord, so I can’t tell you if it hurts to die. What I can tell you is that being raised from the dead feels like being burned at the stake with no promise of death to bring you peace.

I haven’t been dead very long, if you can call me dead. I’m still not quite sure what I am. Two weeks ago I was standing at my stove, waiting for my watched pot to boil and reading the latest research on emerging infection diseases.

The house was silent, almost eerily so. Only the sound of me clicking around on the computer accompanied the sound of my breathing.

The door usually squeaked, but he managed to come in without it making a peep. Closed it behind him without the latch calling attention to his presence.

All I knew was something whacked me from behind, hard enough to knock me off the barstool and smack my chin on the edge of the counter on the way to the floor. A white flash of light behind my eyes receded and I tried to focus, but everything was blurry and doubled. I lay there, ears ringing and vision dimmed, my favorite scrub-blue shirt blooming into a deep red. I didn’t recognize it as blood at first and thought about how beautiful it was, how purple embraced the blue and gave way to red, like a drop of dye in water.

It took me even longer to figure out why I was bleeding. The only part of me that hurt was my chin, but when I reached up to inspect it, there was only tenderness. I lifted my shirt, where the red had first overtaken the blue, and found the hole, small, but defined. He didn’t use a hollow point.

I assumed that I’d been lucky, that the bullet caused some damage, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

I was wrong.

I willed my legs to move, to stand me up, but they refused to comply.

The bullet had pierced my spinal cord. Exited via my abdomen. I was losing a lot of blood, quickly––so quickly, I knew my abdominal aorta was severed.

I never knew when to give up, still don’t, so I didn’t stop trying to live, despite the fact that I knew more movement would cause me to lose blood faster. The alternative––lying there and waiting for death to take me––was something I couldn’t do.

I took a few breaths, steeling myself for the next push, watching the blood that was inside me moments ago form a crimson-colored reflection next to me, worming its way into the grout that separated my newly installed travertine tiles. In that macabre mirror, I saw him, gun in hand, wearing a maniacal smile.
Watching me smear my blood all over my floor. Blood that he had drawn, without a hint of sadness or remorse in his eyes.

With renewed strength tempered by anger, I inched toward him, but when I looked up again, he was gone. Deflated and weak, I rested on the cold floor. I told myself I had to formulate a new plan, but the floor felt so good, my eyes so heavy. The pool of blood crept forward and warmed my face, but the rest of me grew cold. Even so, I broke out into a sweat.

I was going into shock.

I knew the process of bleeding to death on a physiological level, and now I would know it intimately. There was nothing I could do nothing to stop it. Copper and iron, that familiar smell of the mortally wounded, was the last thing I smelled before I drifted into unconsciousness, oddly comforted by the odor I had become so accustomed to in my work as an emergency room doctor.

I don’t know how much time passed before I stood next to my dining table, looking at the body that was once mine. My skin had changed from a beautiful chestnut to a sickly gray, the dark jelly around my body making my skin look even more devoid of color than it was. My eyes were closed, but I didn’t look like I’d just fallen asleep. No freshly dead body ever does. The dead always look dead until a funeral home gets ahold of them.

I didn’t hear him close the door as he left. I just suddenly felt alone and turned around to see the blinds swish back and forth on the upper half of my back door. I never even considered following him. I was still processing what happened in what couldn’t have been more than five minutes.

He had gotten so lucky. His shot tore my abdominal aorta, basically the interstate highway of blood. An inevitable death.

I’d still be alive if I’d leaned my weight onto the other foot.

It all seemed horribly unfair, as if the whole world had conspired to murder me.

But this, this, was all wrong. Death meant lights out. No part of me should have been there. My body, dead and motionless, but my consciousness left to contemplate what had happened. I had never really believed there was a God, at least not one that paid any attention to us foolish little people on our tiny little rock around our run-of-the-mill sun. I’d never said there wasn’t a God really, I just didn’t believe his existence mattered one way or another. And I’d certainly never believed in Heaven or Hell, Nirvana or the Great Beyond.

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Sumiko Saulson

This past Friday, I chatted with Nicole Givens Kurtz, one of the first recipients of the Horror Writers Association’s Diversity Grants. Today, Girl Meets Monster welcomes another Diversity Grant recipient, Sumiko Saulson. Sumiko provided me with multiple versions of hir bio and there is so much interesting information in each one that I felt like using only one would somehow rob you of knowing all the cool shit ze has done and is doing. As a woman of color who writes speculative fiction that often crosses the lines of genre and gives my readers a glimpse into my various parts that make up the whole, I can completely respect and wish to honor all aspects and intersectionalities of a fellow woman of color who writes horror.

So…here are all the bios Sumiko sent me. Bask in the glory of hir muliplicities.

50 Words
Sumiko Saulson is a cartoonist; horror, sci-fi and dark fantasy writer/blogger; editor of Black Magic Women and 100 Black Women in Horror. Author of Solitude, Warmth, Moon Cried Blood, and Happiness and Other Diseases. Author/Illustrator of Mauskaveli, Dooky, Dreamworlds and Agrippa, writes for Search Magazine and the San Francisco Bayview Newspaper.

100 Words
Sumiko Saulson is a cartoonist, science-fiction, fantasy and horror writer, editor of Black Magic Women, Scry of Lust and 100 Black Women in Horror Fiction, author of Solitude, Warmth, The Moon Cried Blood, Happiness and Other Diseases, Somnalia, Insatiable, Ashes and Coffee, and Things That Go Bump In My Head.  She wrote and illustrated comics Mauskaveli, Dooky andgraphic novels Dreamworlds and Agrippa. She writes for the SEARCH Magazine and the San Francisco Bayview column Writing While Black.  The child of African American and Russian-Jewish parents, a native Californian and an Oakland resident who’s spent most of her adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is pansexual, polyamorous and genderqueer (nonbinary).

100 Words (but different)
Sumiko Saulson is an award-winning author of Afrosurrealist and multicultural sci-fi and horror. Ze is the editor of the anthologies and collections Black Magic WomenScry of LustBlack Celebration, and Wickedly Abled. Ze is the winner of the 2016 HWA StokerCon “Scholarship from Hell”, 2017 BCC Voice “Reframing the Other” contest, and 2018 AWW “Afrosurrealist Writer Award.”

Ze has an AA in English from Berkeley City College, and writes a column called “Writing While Black” for a national Black Newspaper, the San Francisco BayView. Ze is the host of the SOMA Leather and LGBT Cultural District’s “Erotic Storytelling Hour.”

150 Words
Sumiko Saulson is a science-fiction, fantasy and horror writer and graphic novelist. She was the 2016 recipient of the Horror Writer Association’s Scholarship from Hell, and 2018 winner of the Afrosurrealist Writers Workshop Short Story Award. Sumiko Saulson is a cartoonist, science-fiction, fantasy and horror writer, editor of Black Magic Women, Scry of Lust and 100 Black Women in Horror Fiction, author of Solitude, Warmth, The Moon Cried Blood, Happiness and Other Diseases, Somnalia, Insatiable, Ashes and Coffee, and Things That Go Bump In My Head.  She wrote and illustrated comics Mauskaveli, Dooky andgraphic novels Dreamworlds and Agrippa. She writes for the SEARCH Magazine and the San Francisco Bayview column Writing While Black.  The child of African American and Russian-Jewish parents, a native Californian and an Oakland resident who’s spent most of her adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is pansexual, polyamorous and genderqueer (nonbinary).

Ten Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Sumiko.  What projects are you currently working on? Is horror your primary genre, or do you write in other genres? If you write in other genres, which do you feel most comfortable writing, and why?

SS: I have three works in progress. The one I am currently focused on is Akmani, which is the fourth book in my paranormal romance / horror erotica series Somnalia, which begins with Happiness and Other Diseases. I promised Mocha Memoirs Press, publisher of my anthology Black Magic Women (and another anthology I am in, SLAY: Tales of the Vampire Noire) the first option on it when it is completed. It’s about 85% there at this point. I also have a manuscript for Disillusionment, the sequel to my first novel, a sci-fi horror story called Solitude, about 75% complete, but that one is tabled for now. And finally, I have a file I put all of my poetry in (I write quite a lot of it, on my blog and social media) which is called “Emotional Side Chicks.”

Horror is definitively my primary genre, but I do a lot of crossover into other genres that are combined with horror. Sci-fi horror, monster porn, paranormal romance and horror erotica are some of those, and my Afrosurrealism and Afrofuturism tends to be dark and essentially horror. I have a significant amount of erotica in my short story portfolio now, and some of it isn’t horror, but is fantasy, or sci-fi erotica. Poetry is the only genre I work in which isn’t usually horror flavored, as I am a beat or spoken word poet. However, I do have a poem in the current Horror Writers Association Poetry Showcase.

GMM: When did you first know that you were a horror writer? How did you develop an interest in the genre? What initially attracted you to horror stories? Which writers influenced you then? Which writers influence you now?

SS: I started out as a poet and a journalist, and hadn’t completed any short stories or novels. I was a published poet as a teenager, and showcased as an upcoming beat poet in the San Francisco Chronicle at the age of twenty. So, the first short story I submitted anywhere was to Phantasmagoria when I was eighteen. They sent it back and said we would love to see more work from you, but this is suspense, not horror. I had sent it to four magazines but only they wrote back. I was easily discouraged and didn’t try again for a long time. I had a half written sci-fi horror novel that I never finished when I was twenty-five called The Chain. I think I tried writing things that weren’t horror, and it just didn’t work.

On my first novel I just gave up on the idea of writing anything other than horror, or trying to not sound derivative because I had consumed so much Stephen King that his voice was ingrained in my mind. So I finished Solitude and was bummed out when Under the Dome (the book, not the television show) came out and I saw that the time bubbles in my book were similar sounding to his dome. They were written at the same time, so it was almost like I had gotten so influenced by him that I was mind reading. Well… after the first book I got really good at having a distinct voice, and you gotta start somewhere.

The more I felt that my voice as an African American was important, the more that I felt my voice as a disabled author was important, the more I had a distinctive voice.

GMM: The documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019), explores Black horror and the portrayal (and absence) of Black people in horror movies. As a definition of what Black horror means begins to take shape, Tananarive Due says “Black history is Black horror.” What do you think she meant by that? Can you give an example of how this idea shows up in your own work?

SS: I think that Victorian era horror, Gothic horror, which is at the root of modern horror, is filled with white voices othering people of color, and then expressing fear that the people they oppressed would come back to destroy them. Consequently, American Gothic horror was filled with slaves cursing white people, Native Americans cursing white people, etc. British Gothic horror was filled with curses by Egyptians, East Indians, and people from Romania who had been oppressed by the Empire or the Church. Black horror switches the focus to us, so instead of it being about how we want revenge for all of the horrible things done to us… it is about how horrible things done to us were. Even in Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” where the house is haunted by the child Sethe killed, the visceral horror of the institution of slavery is cloying, overwhelming, and more horrific than the ghost. Sethe’s terrible deed was done to save her child from slavery.

The institution of slavery itself was the stuff of nightmares, I believe, is what Tananarive Due is saying. The horror of our ancestors being stolen from Africa, the heinous deaths aboard the overcrowded slave ships where we were treated like chattel, and the abuse at the hands of the slave owners and slave hunters.  Then, the abuse continued during the Reconstruction, during segregation, through Jim Crow laws, and voter suppression, the birth to prison pipelines, racial profiling, and police brutality.

GMM: As a WOC writing horror/dark speculative fiction, do you feel obligated to have a deeper message in your stories? Can writers of color write stories without broader messages about identity, class, and racism? Is it possible to divorce yourself from that ongoing narrative within our culture when you set out to write a story?

SS: My horror stories almost universally have broader messages about identity, class, racism, disability, and/or queerness. I don’t think that I personally can easily divorce myself from that narrative when I set out to write a story, but I do think that, in general, writers of color have the ability to write outside of those parameters. I was in a horror writing contest that HorrorAddicts put on, called “The Next Great Horror Writer” contest back in 2017. The runner up, Naching T. Kassa, was able to turn in several excellent horror stories that HorrorAddicts loved. They do not like political horror. That’s a fact. I got sixth place, but the more political my horror has become, the more rejection letters they send me. They probably have more people applying, but the rejection letters express their distaste for political horror. However, some of the most powerful work by authors of color addresses these issues. Toni Morrison refused to stop writing for Black audiences, and frankly, so do I. I have had to find markets that want political horror. Let someone else write for the ones who don’t.

GMM: What are your top five favorite horror movies, and why? Top five horror novels? Which book or movie scared you the most?

SS: Candyman is my favorite horror movie. I am so jazzed for the new Jordan Peele one. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Bones (yes, that Snoop Dog movie), Dawn of the Dead, and Queen of the Damned (even though I know Anne Rice hates it, so hopefully she won’t read this interview). Novels – gosh, so basic. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Steven King’s The Stand, again Anne Rice’s Queen of the Damned, Toni Morrison’s Sula, and Mark Helprin’s A Winter’s Tale. Please don’t tell me you don’t think all of those are horror novels, because I am not trying to hear that. The movie that scared me the most was a sci-fi movie, The Planet of the Apes, the original one. I had terrible nightmares about it as a child. Apocalyptic themes frighten me the most, so naturally, The Stand was the scariest of those books, although, The Bluest Eye was also terrifying.

GMM: How do you feel about white-identifying writers who write stories about non-white characters? What problems have you encountered? What potential issues do you see with white-identifying writers telling BIPOC stories? What advice would you give those writers?

SS: I think that own-voices are really important, but I know that I am not the only Black horror fan who swooned the minute Akasha showed up in Anne Rice’s Queen of the Damned. My love affair with Akasha still has not ended. Even though I love Akasha, it was many years later before Black vampires who weren’t villains showed up in the Vampire Chronicles.  Also, it took years for her to write dark skinned characters who weren’t supernaturally faded by vampirism.

Stephen King’s treatment of African American characters in The Stand was horrific. He martyred two different major Black characters in a book about the near-end of humanity, and didn’t even bother to show any Black children being born. It creates a creepy inference that all of the Black folks have died off. After many letters from concerned fans, Stephen King started writing stories where the martyring of Black folks came to an end, but there were other issues. Don’t even get me started with Bag of Bones… the black characters in that book are totally objectified, go through horrendous things, and yet are vilified, othered, and made into a backdrop for a story about a four year old white Last Girl.

My advice to white writers telling BIPOC stories is to try to avoid tokenizing. If there is only one Black person, and only one Latina, then if one or both end up dead, or as a villain, then you have no heroic person or even neutral person in that role. A diversity of different kinds of characters of any given race makes it more likely that you will have at least one sympathetic character in that demographic.

GMM: All writers have experienced some form of impostor syndrome. What has your experience with impostor syndrome been like? Did you ever have a particularly bad case of it? If so, what caused it and how did you manage it?

SS: Oh gosh, I am having it right now. I have been putting out tons of short stories, but haven’t managed to finish a new novel since 2015. The more political my short story writing has become, the more I worry about potentially problematic things in my novels, which are mostly multicultural and take place in urban settings. I just wrote when I first started, and didn’t second guess myself as much. Now I am like, “Oh wait, I am writing about people who are different than me – did I do it right?”

My experience with impostor syndrome is that the fastest way to get past it is to set aside perfectionism. Sometimes I pick up a book I was told is terrible that got published, and read it and tell myself that I suck less than that. Then I tell myself that all of an author’s books aren’t masterpieces, and it is okay to write a book that isn’t Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. In fact, if none of my books are ever as good as Toni Morrison, that will be okay. I am a horror writer. Then I pick up a really crappy Stephen King book like The Tommyknockers and remind myself of how many mediocre books he has put out. And yet, I am a fan.

GMM: Do you write about characters who share as many intersectionalities as you do? Did it take you a while to develop the confidence needed to tell their stories, or did you simply write the stories you needed to tell without worrying about what other people might think? Have you experienced any backlash for the stories you write?

SS: I am half Black and half Ashkenazi Jewish, am a non-binary femme who is woman-identified, am mentally ill and pansexual. Some of my characters have as many intersectionalities, but not all of them. The protagonist in “The Moon Cried Blood” is a thirteen year old biracial Black/Mexican girl, and the protagonist in “Happiness and Other Diseases” and “Somnalia” is a biracial Chinese/Hawaiian man. There are tons of queer characters in the Somnalia universe, which is based on Greco-Roman mythology. The Roman pantheon was queer as all get out.

I have a few trans and gender noncomforming characters, and X’ashia, the alien in Solitude and Disillusionment is a major one. He is composed of multiple subatomic creatures, and although he is biologically agender (because he procreates through cellular division), he shapeshifts a bunch and eventually acquires a gender identity, as male. There is a transman in“Insatiable but he is not a major character. Flynn Keahi, the main character in “Somnalia,” shapeshifts into a leopard who is female.  Angelo and Shiela are two people who share a body in a three-story arc in the “Scierogenous” anthology – both of them African American. They are a technologically created system. A chip was implanted in Shiela’s brain, which created a new person, Angelo, for a companion. Although they are sexually involved with each other, both are primarily attracted to men.

People in the African American community of writers and in the Horror community have both been very supportive, so not a lot of backlash there. Early in my career, I had a handful of cisgender white men I knew from my twenties get drunk and come at me for trying to write. Trust me they all think they are liberal. One of them drunkenly rage-posted about how women can’t write horror until I blocked him on Facebook. Another bought one of my early self-pubs and then drunkenly rage-posted about there being typos. I have also had to deal with micro aggressive behavior at conventions.

GMM: Tell me about the “Erotic Storytelling Hour.” What’s the backstory of how it began and how have you had a hand in making it a reality?

SS: The Erotic Storytelling Hour is run by the San Francisco Leather and LGBT Cultural District. Our Cultural District is in the South of Market neighborhood in San Francisco, California. We are the world’s first LEATHER & LGBTQ Cultural District. The Cultural District was created by a resolution unanimously passed by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on May 1, 2018 and signed by the Mayor on May 9, 2018. We will have a Cultural Center there in the future, so this is literally bigger than me.

I have been very active in the local leather community since 2015, but did not become involved with the SF Leather District organization until after the pandemic last year.  The original host, Bicoastal Beth, moved to the East Coast. I was a regular participant there, both as an attendee and as a reader. I had no idea they were considering me until they offered me the position. My boss, Cal Callaghan, actually took over Bicoastal Beth’s position as the District Manager. He said he wasn’t an entertainment type, and asked them to hire a separate person to host it. 

Now, Cal and a very active board member, David Hyman, co-host the Erotic Storytelling Hour (ESTH) with me. Cal and David are behind the scenes running technical aspects of the Zoom call, and David makes announcements for the SF Leather Cultural District. The purpose of the ESTH is to support the members of the Cultural District, so every week we have four community readers and one feature. The feature is usually a name in the Leather community, such as a Leather titleholder, someone who runs community spaces or meetups, or someone who runs safe spaces for marginalized groups within our community. Sometimes the feature is an erotica author. People who attend virtually are a part of our community, as well as people who live here, and people who visit the Cultural District when they are in town. The event also serves to broaden awareness of our historical Cultural District as a tourist destination for people in the Leather community worldwide.

Part of my role and responsibilities is to help ensure that we have a diversity of readers. Because San Francisco’s Leather Heritage District was initially established by predominately white cisgender gay men, this includes making sure that ethnically diverse kinksters, and other members of the LGBTQ Leather District community such as trans, nonbinary, lesbian, bisexual… pretty much any queer person who isn’t a white cisgender gay man… get to read. Straight kinky people are also a part of the leather community.

GMM: What advice would you give to new writers who occupy more than one identity and embody the intersectionalities of race, class, ethnicity, disability, gender, sexuality, etc.? If you could go back in time, would it be the same advice you would give yourself as a novice writer?

SS: If I could go back in time, I think that, as a novice writer, I would have done some things differently. I didn’t find out about Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward’s “Writing the Other” until after I was well into my novel writing career. I have since become more aware of the fact that a person, while being a minority at many intersectionalities, can still be writing the other. I had some inkling, because I talked to my cousin, Heather, who is a quarter Hawaiian (a really big deal, since Europeans brought diseases to Hawaii that wiped out a lot of the native population) about a lot of things that went into the Somnalia series. Especially Book Three, Insatiable, which takes place in Hawaii, where I lived for seven years. Flynn Keahi, the protagonist of the series, is Hawaiian and Chinese and was raised by a Hawaiian single mother. Asking people to give you perspective on the characters that are unlike you is a good idea, even if you have no one available to do a sensitivity read.

Things I did actually do as a new writer that I would suggest, include getting involved in writers’ groups. I was in school at Berkeley City College, where I got a lot of advice from teachers and critiques from student peers that were useful. I started a Black Women’s Writing Group with a fellow student, and joined another Women Writer’s Group that was not exclusively, but predominantly, Black. As a disabled author, I got a lot of support from the disabled student’s services, and I also joined WryCrips, a disabled women’s writing and theater group. I was not out as a nonbinary person at that time. I started a Writing Group for kinksters after I came out as nonbinary. There were a lot of transpeople and queer folks of every ilk in it. It is good to have both mainstream (such as educational) and community writing spaces, in my opinion. 

I am a firm believer in completing your first draft before getting perfectionist and hyper self-critical. It is a difficult lesson for a lot of first-time writers. You need to complete a first draft in a timely manner to avoid having a metric shit-ton of consistency and chronology errors. While you are sitting there, re-writing the same sentence fifty times, you are losing momentum on your plot points. Rewrites can occur during editing, and the flow is sometimes more critical than the perfect turn of phrase. 

Get other eyes on it after you finish your rough draft. Other eyes during the writing of the first draft, that I choose, are much less critical than the ones I choose to allow to help me after the first draft is done. Hypercritical people during the writing of the first draft give me pretender’s syndrome and writer’s block.

“The Calico Cat” by Sumiko Saulson

“Don’t bring that thing in the house!” his mother shouted, as Joe slipped in the door after three p.m., a raggedy patchwork shadow at his feet. The cat, which couldn’t have weighed more than five pounds, had been following him since he walked off his school playground four blocks back.

“Aw, mommy, why?” he cried. “I was hoping to keep her. Can I keep her?” The cat was too thin. Her patchy fur was infested with angry fleas that bit his ankles when she rubbed up against them, begging for a pet. She wasn’t very pretty, but she was so sweet. She… he knew it was a she because calicoes are almost always female… already acted like he was her human.

“Out, you damned flea-bitten mangy mongrel!” Mom screamed. Could the cat understand English? She hissed at his mother, orange eyes blazed like campfire blazing.

“Come on, Mom!” Joe begged, but to no avail. Mom came running for the door, straw broomstick in hand.  He jumped out of the way so she wouldn’t hit him with it on her way to the cat. She swatted madly at the calico, who responded by hissing, back arched like a Halloween decoration. Her claws dug into the pine stick, but to no avail. His mother struck the cat firmly in the hindquarters, and it skittered out into the yard.

“Mom’s right…” his older brother Stan whispered with a haunted look in his eyes. “We don’t want a cat in here, not that cat, anyhow.”

Joe wondered what was bothering Stan, but his older brother wouldn’t tell.

The next night, the calico showed up in his back window at dinnertime, meowing and begging to be let in or fed.

“Don’t feed it!” his father warned. The boy ignored him, and snuck table scraps to the calico at the back door. The calico licked her slender, black lips in anticipation as he offered her a strip of bacon. She must have been starving. She leapt up and nipped his wrist with her tiny fangs so hard that it bled. 

“Told you so!” his dad said, shaking his head. “Those things are dangerous.” The boy yelled at the cat, and she skittered over the back fence, disappearing.

 “Why are you afraid of cats?” Joe asked his father.

“Doesn’t she look familiar?” Dad asked him.

“She does,” Joe admitted. “But all cats kind of look alike, don’t they?”

“That’s one of your grandmother’s cats,” Dad told him. “She had about four of them, all but this one black. Last year, she died of a heart attack. We were shocked when we got home and found all four cats eating her corpse.”

“My goodness!” Joe shrieked. “Eating her?”

“Eating her face right off,” Dad nodded. “That one right there is named Amanda. She was eating your grandmother’s eyeball like she thought it was a mouse. And the smell… just awful.”

“Smell? How long was grandmother dead?” Joe asked. “Maybe they were just hungry.”

“Like hell!” Mom yelled. “Those cats are evil. Vile, plotting little things, they are, wicked! And she had the audacity to leave this house to them in her will.”

“She left everything to them,” Dad laughed. “Her lawyers probably think those cats still are living here and we’re giving them all the money. Fat chance of that!”

His brother Stan looked spooked. “Why don’t you tell Joe the truth?” Stan demanded. “Grandma was a witch. She left the house to those cats because they’re her familiars. That’s why they hate mom and dad. And they’ve been trying to get into the house ever since!”

“That’s crazy,” Joe said. But he wasn’t so sure. He’d been away at summer camp when Grandma died. When he came back, they’d moved into this nice house. They used to live in a trailer before that. No one explained where the house came from until now.

“The calico was their leader,” Stan insisted. “You’ll find out.”

Joe had terrible nightmares that night. Amanda had gotten into the house, along with three other cats, all of them black. She chased him to the bedroom, but he pushed her out and locked the door. He climbed into the bed, and hid under the sheets, but he couldn’t sleep. There were terrible screams coming out of the other rooms in the house.

The next morning, he got up and went down to breakfast, but no one was there.

“Mom?”  he called out. Joe walked through the house looking for her, but didn’t find her. When he went to his parent’s bedroom, and opened the door, they weren’t inside. Instead, there were two black cats, sleeping in their bed.

He walked down to his brother’s room, and opened the door. There was a black kitten sitting on his bed.

Thinking he missed them, he walked back down to the kitchen. There, he saw a strange woman. Her black, orange, and white hair was up in a bouffant hairdo. It reminded him of the cat’s fur.

“Hello, Joe…” she purred. “My name is Amanda. I’ve come to take back what is mine.”

“But you’re a cat,” Joe said, his jaw dropping as he took a seat so he wouldn’t fall down.

“I am a witch,” she informed him. “I am your grandmother’s sister. You know, all of our family members can turn into cats. Too bad your no-good parents didn’t know that before they tried to steal my inheritance.”

Joe looked down and saw a bowl of cereal sitting on the table in front of him. In a state of shock, he began to eat it without thinking. He tried not to imagine his grandmother’s sister eating her eyeball while he was doing it.

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you Friday!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Nicole Givens Kurtz

Earlier this week, Girl Meets Monster kicked off Women in Horror Month with a post about horror fanatic Dimi Horror whose social media platform is Black Girls Love Horror Too. And, on Wednesday, I had the chance to chat with horror writer and soon-to-be filmmaker, Kenesha Williams. Today, Nicole Givens Kurtz shares a fragment of her fiction and talks about her writing process, current projects, her role as editor for Mocha Memoirs Press, and what it’s like to write horror while Black and female.

Nicole Givens Kurtz is an author, editor, and educator. She’s a member of Horror Writers Association, Sisters in Crime, and Science Fiction Writers of America. She’s the editor of the groundbreaking anthology, Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire. She’s written for White Wolf’s Vampire the Masquerade 20th Anniversary Anthology, Bram Stoker Finalist in Horror Anthology, Sycorax’s Daughters, and Serial Box’s The Vela: Salvation series. Nicole has over 40 short stories published as well as 11 novels and three active speculative mystery series. You can support her work via Patreon and find more about her at http://www.nicolegivenskurtz.net.

About A Theft Most Fowl: Sent to investigate the theft of a sacred artifact, can Hawk Tasifa unravel the threads of the conspiracy before it destroys the Order?

Following her success in Gould, Hawk Prentice Tasifa returns to her university to unravel a mystery. Someone has broken into the Museum of the Goddess and stolen its most sacred artifact, attacked two of the guards, and is trying to frame her mentor. Under pressure from The Order, Prentice is urged to find the culprits, but not all is as it seems.

Can Hawk Tasifa see through the echoes of her own past and find the dirty birds before they destroy everything she loves?

Ten Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Nicole. What projects are you currently working on? Is horror your primary genre, or do you write in other genres? If you write in other genres, which do you feel most comfortable writing, and why?

NGK: I am currently working on a science fiction mystery/futuristic noir series called Fawn & Briscoe. I write primarily in science fiction/fantasy mysteries, but horror is a close second. I feel most comfortable in mystery and horror genres, although I have written contemporary and paranormal romance.

GMM: When did you first know that you were a horror writer? How did you develop an interest in the genre? What initially attracted you to horror stories? Which writers influenced you then? Which writers influence you now?

NGK: I realized I was a horror author after I wrote my first scary story in 10th grade. It involved a Thanksgiving dinner gone horribly wrong. I fell in love with the horror genre when I was 4. Where the Wild Things Are was the first horror book I read, and it remains one of my favorites to this day. I graduated to King in elementary school along with Poe and then to others later in life like Shirley Jackson, L.A. Banks, and Tananarive Due.

GMM: Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019) explores Black horror and the portrayal (and absence) of Black people in horror movies. As a definition of what Black horror means begins to take shape, Tananarive Due says “Black history is Black horror.” What do you think she meant by that? Can you give an example of how this idea shows up in your own work?

NGK: So much of Black American history has been absolutely horrific from being enslaved to the Reconstructive Period to Jim Crow to the Civil Right Movement to the era of Black Lives Matter, living as an African-American in America is to be constantly enraged (Baldwin), but also a witness to the real monsters of the world–mankind. I draw much of my horror from those marginalized spaces that depict the true depravity of racism and the monstrous nature of white supremacy. For example, in many of my weird western stories, the protagonist is a Black woman in the west. The combination of freed slaves and disgraced Confederate soldiers in the southwest/west both seeking new identities and opportunities among scarce resources create a hotbed of horror stories…some very close to the truth.

GMM: As a WOC/Black woman writing horror/dark speculative fiction, do you feel obligated to have a deeper message in your stories? Can writers of color write stories without broader messages about identity, class, and racism? Is it possible to divorce yourself from that ongoing narrative within our culture when you set out to write a story?

NGK: I don’t start out writing stories to incorporate a deeper meaning or message; however, since most of my stories have Black women or POC women as protagonists, issues of identity, class, and racism appear because they are very much a part of our reality. It is difficult to divorce the effect those things have on me, as a person, a Black woman, a Black mom, etc. I can only speak for myself, but it is not something I can do with my storytelling. Because those items affect me, they affect my heroines.

GMM: What are your top five favorite horror movies, and why? Top five horror novels? Which book or movie scared you the most?

NGK:

Top 5 Horror Movies:

  • John Carpenter’s The Thing (original): The shapeshifting nature of The Thing and the paranoia amongst the crew are expertly done and continues to be peak awesomeness today.
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street (original): As someone who suffers from insomnia since I was a child, this movie scared me to death. Exhausted and yearning sleep, the fact that something in my dreams could hurt me in real life completely terrified me.
  • Midsomer: The beauty of Midsomer is that it lures you into a false sense of security with its brilliant sunlight, welcoming community members, and gorgeous grounds, until WHAM! It all goes topsy turvey in ways I could not have foreseen or predicted. Stunned. It bears multiple repeat viewings, too.
  • The Girl with All the Gifts: Zombie. Black Girl. Doesn’t give one iota about humanity. Straight. Up. Insane. Love it!
  • Event Horizon: I probably should’ve led with this one, because it is my favorite of the lot. Awesome if not over the top acting. Crazy blend of science fiction and horror. A real wild ride. Just good scary fun. I have to watch it every time I see it on TV. Sometimes I just watch it to relax or if I want to see a good horror film. I also liked how a Black man was in charge and not killed in the first 10 mintues.

Top 5 Horror Novels:

  • Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley: I have multiple copies of this book and I taught it to high school seniors for 8 years. I still​ love everything about it and I still find wonderful themes on narcissism, abandonment, hubris, beauty, wealth, misogyny… the list goes on. It is a treasure.
  • The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor Lavalle: This is a retelling of Lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook, his most racist story.  Lavalle takes the story and subverts it. It is simply astounding.
  • The Dark Tower by Stephen King: Most of my horror lands in the weird western subgenre, and this was the first one that not only captured my love for blended genres but presented a gunslinger unlike any I’d seen before. Roland and his ka-tet continues to be my favorite book series ever, but it also produces difficult and horrific situations. Terrible situations and consequences for everyone, Roland included.
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shriley Jackson: As a person who often sees herself as an outsider, this book of two sisters, ostracized from the town, and a tiny bit from each other, showed me that horror didn’t have to be bloody and messy. Human beings are monstrous enough, and the way Kat traps her sister and imprisons her scared me to death. It showed me the dangerous power of love.
  • Minion by LA. Banks: The Vampire Huntress Legend Series was the first time I saw an authentic black woman slayer and I absolutely loved every single minute of this series. It didn’t frighten me so much as entertained me, while also centering blackness, which I loved.

GMM: How do you feel about white-identifying writers who write stories about non-white characters? What problems have you encountered? What potential issues do you see with white-identifying writers telling BIPOC stories? What advice would you give those writers?

NGK: K. Tempest Bledsoe and Nisi Shawl have a fantastic workshop and courses on Writing the Other. If white authors want to diversify the characters in their stories, I encourage them to do so. The potential issues are with not centering the non-white character’s culture as being a part of them. For example, Black characters are not monolithic, there’s diversity with different experiences, rearing, and education. However, there are certain cultural touchstones that aren’t advertised or communicated. I would give writers who are seeking to write the other to do the following: 1) write the character and make them as round as you would your white character. 2) Get two or three sensitivity readers to read over your story (Pay them please. This is labor.). Listen to their feedback and incorporate those changes into your revised story. Non-white authors should note that basing a character on your one BIPOC friend, is still tokenism. Try to expand your social group to a variety of different people to avoid stereotypes, tokenism, and offensive behavior in the story.

GMM: All writers have experienced some form of impostor syndrome. What has your experience with impostor syndrome been like? Did you ever have a particularly bad case of it? If so, what caused it and how did you manage it?

NGK: My imposter syndrome should start paying part of the mortgage! I had a terrible case of it at Blacktasticon in 2018. I was selected to moderate a panel that included Sheree Renee Thomas, Linda Addision, Kenesha Williams, Susana Morris, and an overwhelming number of Black women authors. Linda is a legend. Sheree Renee Thomas is a legend. Susana Morris is an amazing academic professor and author. These are REAL writers.

What the hell did I know about questioning them or leading these leaders in a conversation?! I managed it by writing out the questions with the intention that if they didn’t like it, they would go their own course, and I would let them. LOL! There were 10 people on this panel, and if everyone had a chance to talk, I may not need all the questions. I was prepared to, but I didn’t need to worry. The panel went well.

GMM: Congratulations on being awarded a Diversity Grant from the Horror Writers Association. If you don’t mind me asking, how do you plan to use the grant? What goals do you have in mind?

NGK: Thank you! I plan to use my grant to attend StockerCon for networking possibilities as well as take a MasterClass with Neil Gaiman course to improve my craft.

GMM: How long have you been the editor of Mocha Memoirs Press? Do you prefer editing to writing, or vice versa? How did you get started as an editor? Do you perform and other roles at the press? How can interested writers find out about calls for submission?

NGK: I have been the editor and owner of Mocha Memoirs Press for 11 years. I prefer writing! I got started editing others when I taught English for 18 years in public school. I am the owner of the press so I have assisted in all areas of the business: slush reading, edits, proofreading, formatting, marketing, etc. Interested writers can find the call for submissions at https://mochamemoirspress.com/write-for-us/.

GMM: What about your writing makes it unique within the horror genre? Are there any subjects you’re afraid to write about, or stories you avoid telling?

NGK: My tagline is Strong Heroines. Fantasy Worlds. In the horror genre, I primarily writer weird westerns and as a Black Woman, that is very rare. There are subjects I don’t write stories about and those are slavery, rape, and incest. Those are topics that I don’t find tasteful, and so I don’t write about them. I am aware that horror has a tendency to push the envelope of those things we fear, but those topics fall outside the range of what I want my work to focus on.

Excerpt from A Theft Most Fowl: A Kingdom of Aves Mystery ©2020 Nicole L. Kurtz

The University of Sulidae was the oldest college in Aves. Originally, its location resided in the Audubon Nest, close to Lanham, home of The Order. Political infighting forced the intellectuals to put some distance between themself and those at court. Experience taught them that the closer one got to power, the harder it was to survive. In response, The Order opened an intelligence file on university members. Despite the history of hurt feelings and tensions on both sides, many of those within The Order’s rank traveled and studied at the university’s new location in Sulidae Egg, in Edmonds Nest. It sat on the banks of the Plume River at the apex of the Audubon and Edmonds nests. The campus was its own island in the egg; everything revolved around the university.

Rook Bjorn Renner’s entire life orbited around Sulidae University, most importantly the Museum of the Goddess. As curator, Rook Renner’s true passion to which his entire life was devoted was collecting goddess artifacts. As a renowned expert in all things goddess, he received a consistent stream of requests to verify and validate recently discovered treasures. Over time, his teachings gained more urgency around authenticity.  

Prentice found it strange that a devoted bird like Rook Renner would steal the Five-Feathered Crown. Why now? Why only that artifact? Why not something less obvious? He wouldn’t be able to get birdsong for the relic. No one would take the risk of being caught with it. No one would dare touch the crown for fear of death.

The theft didn’t add up.

Hawk Prentice Tasifa sat on the train speeding from Gould to Sulidae. She picked up Cardinal Wick’s letter and read it again.

Hawk Tasifa-

Your services have been requested in the Sulidae Egg. Arrive within two days and greet Dove Raz Haq. The situation as we know at this time:

1. Missing sacred goddess’s feathered crown.
2. Proposed magical use.
3. Possible suspects: Rook Bjorn Renner

The truth is light. Bring it forth as hawks see what is unseen.

Peace,
Cardinal Wick

She rolled the parchment up again.

Someone did break into the museum and they stole the Five-Feathered Crown. In the ensuing massive manhunt, the eagles who served as security for all eggs, searched but came up empty. Request for assistance from the public produced nothing, according to the reports. No doubt, Rook Renner was frantic with worry and he stood accused of stealing it himself.

Prentice sipped her tea as ideas formulated in her mind. Drinking Earl Grey became a simple pleasure among the stickiness of investigative work. The ancient cogwheel train raced across the rails, and it gently rocked as it chugged its way through the Edmonds Nest. She’d left the Bailey’s rolling hills and the Adams Mountains with their snow-capped tips. They grew smaller in the distance along with Bailey Egg’s red-roofed buildings.

Now, two days later, she meandered along the Adams River. She missed Gould, and if the circumstances changed, she’d return again, but not for work.

Ahead, Sulidae Egg appeared. Prentice had the sleeping car to herself, an ornately decorated car whose features included carved, wood paneling, pressed metal ceiling, frosted glass, lamp oils and a night seat which folded down for a bed. Over the last couple of days, the car had started to feel like home. She sat in the small, overstuffed chair and removed her notepad.

When not on an active investigation, Prentice wore casual clothing; her dark wings identified her as a hawk no matter what she wore. Today she had chosen a sapphire headdress which bore silver embroidered wings and matched her frock. A silver, satin scarf draped from her neck across her left shoulder. She put away the boots in exchange for flat, closed-toe sandals. Sulidae lay in the Edmonds Nest, just southwest of Lanham. The weather remained warm throughout the year due to the Avian Sea currents. She dressed accordingly, but only by chance. Unable to return home from her last assignment for a change of clothes, Prentice happened to have packed cooler clothing.

Her thoughts turned to Rook Renner. No doubt, the rook sowed the seeds of his own demise with his erratic behavior.

The train bumped over the railroad tracks as it slowed into Lizard Mountain Train Station, with the setting sun. A whistle announced their arrival and Prentice disembarked with her luggage and satchel. As soon as the heat hit her, she missed the cool mountains of Gould. Along the platform, coachmen carried signs advertising their services. She secured one and found herself quickly seated in a carriage, her luggage bags secured outside in the rear, her driver holding the reins in front. Two beautiful horses pulled them away from the train station and into the waiting night.

In what seemed like no time, she reached campus. Being early suppertime, the egg bustled with life. Students clutched heavy satchels and walked or bicycled through the streets. People clustered together in casual conversations at outdoor cafes, illuminated by votive candles. Pedestrians hiked alongside cyclists with ease in a practiced rhythm.

In the hushed carriage interior, Prentice embraced the nostalgia rushing over her. She hadn’t been here in years, not since graduation. Outside the carriage window, the Plume River glistened as it snaked its way through the egg. A clear sky put the constellations on display, and she warmed at the memory of nights spent in Rook Ioan’s astronomy class, charting and memorizing the heavens, gazing through telescopes, and listening to how they came to be. A hawk was never lost as long as they had the sky.

“We’re here.” The coachman wrenched open the door and disappeared around to the carriage’s rear. He clambered up the short ladder and threw down her luggage bags. They smacked the ground.

“By the goddess, be careful!” Prentice bellowed as she exited. Vultures!

The coachman came back around with said baggage stuffed under both arms. He glared at her as he placed the bags beside her. His tight, grayish skin bore thin scars. The bright scarlet birthmark across his sharp nose drew attention away from his dark beady eyes.

“Thank you.” Prentice took five birdsongs from her leather punch. She dropped the copper coin with the five emblazed on the tail and the goddess’s likeness on the front into the coachman’s gloved hand.

“Evening.” The man bowed, his face softened by the tip, before leaping up to the driver’s seat. His agility surprised her; his girth didn’t hinder his movements at all.

She turned her attention to the pristine cathedral that consumed the center entrance of the university campus. The air was heavy with the fragrance of frankincense and sage. A cobblestoned maze of dark corridors threaded through the grounds and connected the buildings. Dark hallways stretched out in a monolithic maze of nooks and crannies, making it impossible to take in the enormity of the university at a glance.

Ahead, a figure approached through the growing dark. Brightly colored lanterns illuminated the square and entranceway. She could make out the red turban atop a head. A sudden strong wind billowed his dark robes. Prentice didn’t need her hawk abilities to recognize Rook Renner. Her jaw tightened as he advanced.

Once the wizened old man reached her, he wasted no time embracing her.

“Hoot, Prentice.” Renner pulled her close.

His voice was stronger than Prentice expected.

She returned his hug but pulled back. “Hoot, Rook! How are you here? Shouldn’t you be in a cell?”

Rook Renner’s jovial face held bemusement. He didn’t seem distraught. “It would seem my rapidly eroding reputation has kept that action at bay.”

His rawboned features, decorated with broad red lines beneath each eye and a vertical one from his forehead down to his chin, disappeared beneath a bushy white beard.

“Come. I’m glad you’re here.” He clasped her hand in his bony one. The soft flesh palm spoke to the rook never doing physical labor in his life.

“Me too.” She meant it.

He motioned ahead. “I’ve had a small instructor apartment set up for you.”

Prentice took back her hand. “An apartment? Rook, you know I’m here to investigate you and the theft…”

She trailed off. A quiver filtered through her feathers.

Rook Renner raised his hand. The silver rings he wore caught the pale moonlight as he held his hand up to silence her.

“I’m aware. It’s a studio, nothing luxurious. The Order cannot say I attempted to bribe you. My status may not be what it once was at court, but I’m greatly injured at this intrusion. The sooner we get this resolved, the sooner I can get back to my work.”

“Rook…” Prentice’s cheeks warmed at his words.

But she didn’t travel here to rekindle their student-instructor relationship. She’d been assigned to this case and she had a job to do.

See the unseen.

She adjusted her satchel across her torso and then hoisted her luggage.

“Lead the way.” Rook Renner smiled. “Follow me.”

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.