Dreams Do Come True

The past seven days have been amazing. Last weekend I attended an event, Necon 39, that quite literally changed my life. Not only did I get to meet and spend time with some of the kindest, most interesting, and hilarious people you could hope to meet, but I made my debut as a published writer. As some of you know, I have published short stories in anthologies, but this was the first time I got to sign copies of my novel, Invisible Chains.

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Photo credit: Michael Burke

Thanks to some very thoughtful reviews from readers who received advanced copies of the book, including A. E. Siraki, Ben Walker, and Mad Wilson, people actually came to the event with the intent of buying my book. Some people enjoyed reading the book so much, they promoted it every chance they got. I was overwhelmed with gratitude and awed by the level of support and kind words from people who had been strangers prior to the event.

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Photo credit: John McIlveen

If you have the opportunity to attend Necon, do so. It is a welcoming environment where you can connect with other writers, have informal conversations with publishers, editors, artists, and avid readers.

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Photo credit: Lynne Hansen

And, I was welcomed into two new families: the Necon family, and the Haverhill House family.

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Photo credit: Tony Tremblay

Although last weekend was technically a working weekend for me, it felt more like vacation and even though I was exhausted when I got home, I still felt recharged and ready to tackle whatever is coming next. I can’t wait to go back next year.

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Photo credit: Tony Tremblay

Invisible Chains was officially released on Monday, July 22 from Haverhill Housing Publishing. And, as friends received their shipping confirmations from Amazon, they contacted to let me know how excited they were to read the book. Folks who pre-ordered the hardcover and Kindle editions started receiving their copies this week and have shared pictures of the book, which is a truly humbling experience.

Earlier this week, I was interviewed for the Lawyers, Guns & Money podcast, where I got to talk about my book and one of my favorite subjects: vampires. I was also interviewed by fellow writer, Loren Rhoads for her blog, and wrote about My Favorite Things over at Speculative Chic. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that one of my favorite things is vampires. I talked and wrote about them a lot this week. Which, I have to say, is a dream come true.

So, what’s next? Aside from a few upcoming book reviews and guest blog posts, my first local book event is scheduled for Saturday, August 10 at 3 p.m., Why Do We Love Vampires and Narcissists. I’ll be reading passages from Invisible Chains and signing books, and local experts will share their knowledge about herbs, stones, symbolism, and narcissistic personalities. I’m really looking forward to this event and hope that some of you can attend.

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I will be attending the The 5th Annual Merrimack Valley Halloween Book Festival on Saturday, October 12, and the following weekend, I’ll be in Atlanta for Multiverse 2019 – SciFi & Fantasy Convention, where I will again be talking about vampires.

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Later this year, I’ll have short stories in two upcoming anthologies, The Monstrous Feminine (Scary Dairy Press) and The Dystopian States of America (Haverhill House Publishing).

As I add events to my calendar, I will share that information here, so check back if you’re interested in attending one of those events. Thank you to everyone who has given their support, encouragement, and helped promote Invisible Chains. It has been a labor of love, and I couldn’t have done it without your kindness and friendship.

Am I a Real Horror Writer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do the Writers of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow Think We’re Stupid?

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Last night I watched an episode from season one of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow that defied all logic. I’m not talking about the fact that the main story arc focuses on a band of lesser-known “heroes” on a mission to defeat an immortal villain with the help of a spaceship that functions as a time machine. No. I’m talking about the fact that the writers of episode 8, “Night of the Hawk,” expected us to suspend our disbelief enough to accept that the characters were completely uninformed about the history of gender, racial, and sexual orientation politics, and therefore, woefully unprepared for the sexism, racism and homophobia lurking in 1958 small town America.

Really DC?

Here’s Netflix’s synopsis of the episode:

In 1950s Oregon, Professor Stein and Sara go undercover at a hospital where Savage is working, suspecting that he’s behind a recent string of murders.

As you might guess, the synopsis does little to prepare anyone for what ACTUALLY happens in the episode. So, here’s my synopsis. And, um, as usual, spoilers, Sweetie.

Michelle’s more realistic synopsis of the episode:

True, Professor Stein and Sara do go undercover at a hospital to track down Vandal Savage. What the synopsis fails to mention is that Sara is shocked and openly annoyed by the fact that a doctor in 1950s Oregon makes sexual advances toward her while dressed as a nurse. Has she never seen an episode of Mad Men?

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Later, Sara flirts with another nurse who magically turns out to be a closeted lesbian. Sara tries to convince her to come out of the closet and again is shocked that the other woman has reservations about being out.

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Do you expect us to believe that a young, attractive white woman, regardless of the fact that she’s a former member of Ra’s al Ghul’s League of Assassins, has never had unwanted sexual advances from men? She’s never been discriminated against for being a lesbian? She has no knowledge of the Stonewall Riots that are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year? She’s never encountered a discussion of Queer Politics, gender identity, or the history of the LGBTQ+ movement?

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While Sara is attempting to seduce Nurse Betty, Professor Stein, who was in college in the 1970s, somehow fails to realize that bringing Firestorm along to investigate the disappearances/murders of locals in the small mainly white town in Oregon might cause some problems.

But, what really confused me was the fact that Firestorm takes it upon himself to sit at the counter of a white-owned restaurant and begin a conversation with a white girl he’s never met before. Equally confusing, is her almost immediate acceptance of the situation as if strange young Negroes talk to her every day.

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Do you really expect us to believe that a young black man living in 2016 America has never encountered racism? Never? And, that as a person of color living in the United States, he’s never heard of the history of oppression and racism that stems from slavery, Jim Crow Laws, and the deaths of people seeking freedom during the Civil Rights Movement? He’s never heard or seen people’s disapproval of black men talking to white women in social situations? Horseshit. It is dangerous to be a person of color in America and not be tuned in to your history. I find it highly improbable that his mother, a widowed single parent, never had The Talk with him.

While we’re on the subject of segregation (which was omitted from the episode), let’s take a look at the burgeoning romance between Atom and Hawkgirl. In 2016 interracial relationships are common. But, in 1958 they were illegal. So, when this gorgeous couple shows up to purchase a house together as husband and wife, you can imagine the realtor’s confusion. At least, you should understand it if you have a clue about America’s history of segregation and Jim Crow Laws.

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Not only was interracial marriage banned in all 50 states (Anti-Miscegenation Laws), but people of color were not encouraged (that’s an understatement by the way) to move into white neighborhoods. Oddly enough, this didn’t occur to either character. Now, to be fair, this may be Atom’s first interracial relationship. Still, he’s supposed to be an incredibly smart dude. He’s never read a book or seen a film about 1950s America with black characters? I mean, it’s possible, but unlikely.

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And, while we’re one the subject, DC also wants us to believe that a woman of color who I assume has dated, or at the very least found herself attracted to other white males, has never experienced racism because of her choice in lovers. DC also wants us to believe she isn’t aware of the fact that interracial marriage was illegal until 1967 when the Supreme Court struck down all state laws banning interracial marriage as violations of the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment in the landmark case Loving v. Virginia.

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Seriously?

While this episode drove me nearly insane, I’m going to keep watching this ridiculous series. Why would I continue to watch a series that negates the realities of people living (and dead) in the United States who deal with racism, sexism, and homophobia? That’s a great question. And here’s my ridiculous answer.

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I absolutely adore John Constantine, and was heartbroken when NBC canceled the series starring Matt Ryan. So, when I discovered that one of my favorite DC Comic heroes (portrayed by an actor who is perfect for the role) returned to TV as a recurring character in this series, I signed on to watch.

Is it irresponsible of me to continue watching this absurd series given the unbridled whitewashing and heteronormalizing of the characters? Most likely. Am I going to stop watching the show because it is personally offensive and insults my intelligence? Probably not.

Honestly, if I stopped watching shows for those reasons, I’d have to stop watching A LOT of TV shows. I am almost ashamed to say that I will continue to watch this train wreck simply because John Constantine is back. Will I continue to examine the narratives and be completely aware of how flawed they are in recognizing the struggles of people of color, women, and members of the LGBTQ+ communities? Well, of course I will.

As a woman of color who has had a life-long love affair with speculative fiction, this isn’t the first time I’ve been offended by the absence or misrepresentation of specific identities, including my own. And to be perfectly honest, I doubt that experience will end anytime soon. Occupying certain identities while loving a particular genre can be complicated at times. Writers like the ones creating the narrative of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow aren’t the only voices telling tales about superheroes and other speculative fiction characters. Even if you continue to enjoy the stories that don’t include your lived experience, you can also seek out stories that do.

The Zen of Lawn Care

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

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Contained wilderness.

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

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

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

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

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My backyard is essentially a plush carpet of weeds.

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

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A staple of unintentional urban gardening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I think I inadvertently created a sacred space.

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

Invisible Chains: My Debut Novel

Michelle-LaneFor those of you who missed the news, my debut novel, Invisible Chains, will be released into the world July 22, 2019 by Haverhill House Publishing. If you’re as excited about this news as I am, you can pre-order a copy on Amazon, and while you’re there, you can check out my fancy new Amazon Author Page. Even though I’ve had my short fiction published, having my first novel published makes me feel like a bonafide author. See, I even have an author photo.

That’s great, Michelle, but what is your book about?

I’m glad you asked.

Jacqueline is a young Creole slave in antebellum New Orleans.  An unusual stranger who has haunted her dreams since childhood comes to stay as a guest in her master’s house. Soon after his arrival, members of the household die mysteriously, and Jacqueline is suspected of murder.  Despite her fear of the stranger, Jacqueline befriends him and he helps her escape. While running from the slave catchers, they meet conjurers, a loup-garou, and a traveling circus of supernatural freaks.  She relies on ancestral magic to guide her and finds strength to conquer her fears on her journey.

Oh, and here is the beautiful cover art designed by the very talented Errick Nunnally.

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As many of you know, writing can be a difficult and solitary pursuit. And, if your goal is to have your work published, the stages of writing, editing, rewriting, editing again, and submitting can feel like a never-ending climb up a hill while pushing a giant rock covered in your own entrails. Plus, if you submit and get nothing but rejections it sometimes seems like a good idea to just give up and find a different way to torture yourself.

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Can I tell you a secret? I’m glad I didn’t give up.

Believe me, I thought about giving up. I thought about giving up a lot. But this story lived inside me for a long time and it refused to be abandoned. This multi-genre slave narrative began its life as a short story back in the early 2000s and had a very different ending. That short story shared space on a thumb drive, untouched  with other abandoned writing projects, for several years. I mean, I would pull it out from time to time and read it but I never did anything with it until I applied to the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction (WPF) program at Seton Hill University (SHU).

Attending SHU was one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made. And, one of the scariest. At 40, I was completely dissatisfied with my life. I had a job I was on the verge of burning out on, I was unhappily married, and I was primarily responsible for raising my son who had begun to show signs of behavioral problems at daycare and school. I was the primary bread winner, I took care of the house, paid the bills, maintained social connections with friends and family, and one day I realized I was living my life for other people instead of living it for myself.

I began making a mental inventory of the things that brought me joy, and at the top of that list was writing. Writing was something I had done all my life. And, when I was writing I was happier. I started unearthing some of my unfinished short stories and realized they weren’t terrible. And then, I wondered what would happen if I took myself seriously as a writer. I made the decision to apply to SHU after asking a friend about the program. Jenda had nothing but good things to say about the program, and honestly, I think SHU should consider sending her a check each month for her excellent marketing skills.

My short story, “Freedom is in the Blood,” became Invisible Chains over the course of six years. Three years writing my thesis novel in the low residency MFA program, and three years of rewriting, editing, pitching, and submitting. In the process of writing the novel, my protagonist evolved into a stronger character who stands up to monsters to make a better life for herself.

In many ways, my protagonist evolved with me as I made changes in my own life. Deciding to write this book was the first step towards reshaping my life on my own terms. I’ve encountered my share of set backs, obstacles, and people who behave like monsters, but like Jacqueline, I keep moving forward.

In the process of moving forward, I’ve made new friends, reconnected with old friends, and built stronger relationships with the people who cheered me on through the highs and lows of writing this book. They’re good people. And I couldn’t have survived the process without their love and support.

I am very fortunate to be included in such diverse and supportive writing communities like the HWA and as an SHU alumna. And, of course, I wouldn’t be able to brag about getting my book published if I had never met the Editor-in-Chief of Haverhill House Publishing, John M. McIlveen.

I met John last year at StokerCon™ 2018 in Providence, RI. I pitched Invisible Chains to him, a book that took close to five years to write, in about ten minutes. And, much to my surprise, after babbling at him in what I believed to be incoherent nonsense, he said he’d be interested in reading it. That was the first spark of hope, and it has been one pleasant experience after the next working with John and Haverhill House Publishing.

Well, now the book is written and available for pre-order. The hardback edition will be available July 22, 2019. In the meantime, I have a stack of proofs that I would very much like to get into the hands of book reviewers and people who would be willing to blurb the book. If you or someone you know might be a good fit for a book like this, let me know and I’ll reach out to them.

What’s next, you may ask? I don’t know, but I suspect I might have to write another book.

Anxiety is the New Black

About a year ago, I had a moment of clarity in which I realized that I have been suffering from anxiety since I was a child. What sparked this moment of personal insight? The fact that my son also suffers from anxiety and I began to think back on what life was like for me at his age. I’m sure that if you asked my friends and family, many of them would tell you that my childhood was good and they have many fond memories of me growing up. My memories aren’t always in line with theirs, and that’s okay as long as I’m allowed to remember things the way they happened for me through my perception of things.

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I was born in Central Pennsylvania in 1972. My mom is a white woman who grew up in a small rural community that wasn’t really thrilled about her dating choices and in many ways shunned her after she decided to marry my biological father. While living with my father’s family, a group of migrant workers living near Chambersburg, PA, my mother grew up fast. According to her, my father fancied himself a ladies man, which actually translates as pimp in the real world, and when she found out she was pregnant with me, two things occurred to her: 1) At least three other women were pregnant to my father at that time, and 2) Her unborn child deserved a better life. She told me that she sat in the dark waiting for him to come home and thought about killing him. Knowing she had to be around to take care of me changed her mind. So, she left him that night and filed for divorce soon after.

When I was born, we lived with my grandparents in the same small town where my mom grew up. To say that the town I grew up in lacked diversity is quite the understatement. Aside from my mom’s boyfriend, Gene, and his family, I don’t recall seeing other people of color, with the exception of people on TV, until I was about four or five and we moved to a larger town, Carlisle, PA.

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Carlisle was and is segregated. People who have lived here their whole lives aren’t always conscious of that fact, but when you meet people who move here, it’s one of the first things they notice about the place. Have things changed since I was a child? Yes. But to be fair, one of the changes I would be happy to point to is the fact that when I was a child, people felt completely at ease driving by in their cars and shouting “nigger lover” at my mother while she walked with me downtown.  No one has called me a nigger to my face since I was in an undergraduate in college, but I know some people were thinking  it while they spoke to me. It’s like Spidey senses, but for racists.

So, while I was growing up I experienced a multi-layered effect of racism and bigotry from strangers, teachers, friends, and family. Apparently, this isn’t uncommon for mixed race kids. I haven’t interviewed people or sent out surveys, but I know I am not the only person in the world who had this experience.

What idiot called it a human skull instead of an anxiety cabin.

— Doth (@DothTheDoth) December 2, 2018

Thanks to a series of unfortunate events in my life, I recently spent a year (August 2017 – June 2018) employed but underpaid, and lacking health insurance. During that time, when my anxiety levels were astonishingly high, I couldn’t afford medication to help with my chronic depression and anxiety. I couldn’t afford to see a therapist. Hell, I could barely afford to pay my bills.

But, Michelle, why didn’t you apply for assistance?

I did. And, I was denied assistance even though I was making $15 an hour working for a temp agency after I left another job where the owners of the business couldn’t pay me. They still owe me money, but much like the child support I keep hoping for, I doubt if I’ll ever see it.

A few weeks ago, I tried to apply for assistance again, because even though I am working full-time and have health insurance, I’m only making $0.82 more than what I was making at the temp agency. I was also working part-time as an online writing tutor for $11 an hour. Because I had made an extra $60 during the month of February from my part-time job, my income was considered too high to receive any assistance.

Yep, America is definitely great again.

I was told by a very sympathetic caseworker that if I quit my part-time job, and got a psych evaluation for my autistic child, we might qualify for assistance. So, as long as I make less money and can prove that my child is mentally ill, I’m allowed to receive help.

No wonder my anxiety levels keep rising.

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The good news is that since I have health insurance again, I can take my medication. But, even though I have access to services like therapy, the co-pays are too high for me to afford even with insurance.

Where does that leave me? At the moment, I don’t have any good answers. I keep looking for higher-paying jobs, but I no longer have a reliable car. Transportation is an issue. Fortunately, I am able to share my mother’s car and have some mobility. But using her car to drive back and forth to work every week day isn’t an option. Especially since I would most likely have to drive to Harrisburg, Hershey, Lancaster, York, or elsewhere that would require anywhere from 30-60 minutes or more of travel time to and from work. So, I’m kind of stuck.

I try to appreciate what I do have while not focusing on what I don’t. Each day gets a little better, but I’m exhausted. Frustrated. Melancholy. Angry. I’m feeling a lot of feelings all the time.

Thoughts

But, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. I’ll share my good news with you later this week and you can help me celebrate brighter days ahead.

Fiction Fragments: R. J. Joseph

Last week, Girl Meets Monster talked with Glenn Rolfe about the challenges of writing Splatterpunk. This week, R. J. Joseph is here to talk about what it means to be a woman of color writing horror.

Author Central PicR. J. Joseph is a Texas based writer and professor who must exorcise the demons of her imagination so they don’t haunt her being. A life-long horror fan and writer of many things, she has finally discovered the joys of writing creatively and academically about two important aspects of her life: horror and black femininity.

When R. J. isn’t writing, teaching, or reading voraciously, she can usually be found wrangling one or six of various sprouts and sproutlings from her blended family of 11…which also includes one husband and two furry babies.

R. J. can be found lurking (and occasionally even peeking out) on social media:
Twitter: @rjacksonjoseph
Facebook: facebook.com/rhonda.jacksonjoseph
Facebook official: fb.me/rhondajacksonjosephwriter
Instagram: @rjacksonjoseph
Blog: https://rjjoseph.wordpress.com/
Email: horrorblackademic@gmail.com
Amazon Author Page: amazon.com/author/rjjoseph

Three Questions

GMM: As a woman of color writing about black and queer characters, what obstacles have your faced when writing within the horror genre? When did you decide you were a horror writer? What influenced or inspired you to write horror stories about women of color?

RJJ: I’ve been a lifelong horror fan. I was a small child devouring horror comics, Twilight Zone, and Stephen King novels, well before I could understand any of the themes these stories presented. The horror genre appeals to my naturally dark nature, which was apparent and already well entrenched by the time I was 6 or 7 years old. I always questioned why the folks in the genre I loved so much didn’t look like me, from the writers to the actors to the characters in the books. I wanted to be the monster. I figured creating the monsters was the next best thing, so I had to write them. I started then, even though I didn’t always embrace that part of my writing persona. I couldn’t imagine not writing about the world I inhabited and navigated, a black female experiencing life through this lens. I wasn’t seeing these stories and I had to fill the void.

I wanted to be the monster.

I appreciate that you frame this question in a way that shows you know we have obstacles. They aren’t a figment of our imagination or a quest for race-baiting and creating issues. One of the biggest problems I have is in always wondering why stories are accepted or rejected. I know my writing isn’t perfect and I still have so much growth to experience within my craft, but sometimes I get rejections that just don’t offer any clarity, not even the blanket forms where the spaces between the words don’t reek of any additional interpretation. Sometimes, though, what isn’t said speaks volumes. I get that editors don’t have time to give personalized rejections all the time. But I always go back and read the publications I submit to so I can see which stories made the cut. Reading what was ultimately accepted can be excruciating. So many times, I wish the editors would have just said, “We don’t know what to do with you, blackity black woman, or your blackity black characters with their blackity black fears”. That would make me feel so much better.

I once had an editor explain to me at a book launch for an anthology one of my stories appeared in that he didn’t want me to feel as if my story was a token acceptance because I’m a black woman. He made it a point to let me know he had read some of my previous work and thought my story for the anthology was great. I had to be professional and put on my Appreciative Writerly face, but I really wanted to hug him and cry. That meant so much to me, especially coming from a white male professional in the field. Unless the project is strictly for writers of color, I’m always wondering if the acceptance was just a diversity checkmark or really based on my story.

GMM: I wrote a supernatural slave narrative as my thesis novel at Seton Hill University, and I struggled with figuring out where it fit within a genre. The novel is due to be released sometime next year and I still struggle with that idea of where it belongs. What makes it a horror novel? The violence of slavery? The fact that my narrator is a witch and that her companion is a vampire?

How do you define your chosen genre or genres when you begin with characters that may not typically appear in those genres? Is there an absence of women of color in horror?

RJJ: First, I gotta read your novel! I need to know when pre-orders open. I absolutely love historical horror. That it has people of color and witches? Super plus. My answer to what makes this horror really loops back to another obstacle I try to navigate and that is not knowing where our work fits; really, not knowing where we fit. I would say your novel is an all-around horror novel because it’s rooted in the abject terror of slavery and there is a vampire. I don’t think all witches are necessarily monsters, though, so that’s debatable. Even without the supernatural characters, slavery is horror. Yet, there’s a clear hesitance to categorize this experience in this way because that would require owning up to the facts that 1. Slavery really happened; 2. There was nothing good about it; and 3. The repercussions are still felt today. Stuffing these topics into other corners like literary fiction (the way Beloved was first categorized) or creating a whole new category like urban fiction takes some of that responsibility away. If it isn’t called horror, then the events cannot be deemed horrible. So then when serial killer novels fill the horror shelves, I’m left to wonder why lynchings or slavery aren’t considered serial killings, too…

Black women horror writers have always been around, but there hasn’t always been a willingness of the industry to see us. I think we’ve just had our writing either flat out ignored or placed in different genres because we’re women. I’ve seen industry leaders say publicly that readers only want a certain kind of horror, or that every story/book acceptance is based solely on merit. Both of these prevailing responses mean gatekeepers are fine with keeping certain stories and writers out of the genre. The only thing that might help increase visibility is more gatekeepers of color and black female writers continuing to kick the doors in and create anyway. It’s astounding that the first black female horror anthology wasn’t published until 2017. A second followed this year. How is it that both books managed to locate numerous black female horror writers and yet other anthologies/magazines/publishers can hardly ever find any? What is not genuinely sought will never be found.

GMM: When I write about monsters, I have a habit of turning the relationships between monsters and my main female characters into romantic interests even though I write about dark subjects. Is there a connection between horror and romance in your mind? Do your characters fall in love with monsters? Why, or why not?

RJJ: I envy that you can blend romance and horror so effectively! My thesis at Seton Hill was a romance novel, and while I write in both genres, I’ve not yet mastered blending the two. I do think romance and horror exist on the same continuum, in that both genres evoke such extreme feelings in readers. My favorite series ever is the Vampire Huntress series by L. A. Banks. She intertwined horror and romance so expertly that I’ve never seen anything else quite like it. I make attempts. But I tried to submit a romance short story to a major market once and the editor replied that the story was well written but it was too dark. The monsters in my stories tend to be those created through no act of their own, so they are sort of tragic creatures for whom at least one other character has an affection and some sympathy. Full on romance, though…I still aspire to that.

Left Hand Torment (excerpt), by R. J. Joseph

RJJ Book CoverI was on door duty that evening, although we found we did not really need a protector. Most passersby tended not to notice our nondescript entryway in the worn down building. Even those who did notice it were deterred by the dark cloak of misery in our eyes. Despite my queerness and my race, those doorways to my soul that broadcast unspeakable rot allowed me kinship with the men inside. Her eyes held the same blackness, despite their light gray color, and it announced her as kindred, served as her password into the club. I let her in and followed her up the stairs, as my shift was done.

There was more to her life story than her eyes, apparently. The foulness of whatever tortured her spirit bubbled just underneath the surface of her being. Her dusky colored skin shone with determination and…fury. She glided ahead of me up the stairway and into the parlor, removing long white gloves as we walked. Severe burns covered both hands, the puckered skin reflecting in the lantern lights.

Even Whitson, the resident playboy, did not set his flirtations upon her. He simply asked her what she was drinking, the same as he did the rest of us. He often told us that he did not seek companionship with fellow sufferers. He said their beds were already too full with them and their demons.

“Bourbon, please.” The rich tones slid from her throat and escaped into the quiet murmur of the fifteen of us. She accepted her glass gracefully and settled herself into a chair close to the fireplace.

Not forgetting our Texas manners, we quieted down and allowed the lady the floor. I watched her take a sip from her glass.

“Merci.” She accented the appreciation with a brisk nod to the side. When she gazed back at us, the flames from the fire flickered around the shadows resting beneath the smoky orbs of her haunted eyes. She pulled her bonnet off and placed it on the table next to the chair. Kinky curly strands spilled down to her shoulders and the room gave a collective gasp as the flames caught the sandy tresses. This was the only acknowledgement we gave to her beauty that night.

Without preamble, she spoke, in accented tones. “My name is Dominique Aimee Beaulieu and I was born and reared in New Orleans. I had an ordinary childhood, if that as the daughter of a placee` on Rampart street could be called such. Papa and Maman loved me very much and I was a rather spoiled child. They loved each other, as well. I know Papa loved her more than he loved his wife. But he could not stay with us all the time. I once asked Maman why he had to leave and stay away so often and she explained to me that we could not be selfish and keep him all to ourselves. He had another family with whom he had to stay most of the time, but he was always thinking of us.

“Maman had a picture of a beautiful woman with blond hair and she often gazed wistfully at it when she thought Papa and I weren’t looking. I would ask her about the woman, whose features I saw staring back at me in the mirror, albeit through darker skin. Maman would evade the answer until I turned sixteen. When I finally got my answer, I also got the explanation for our way of life.

“‘This is my sister, your aunt. Papa’s other wife. He met me as he courted her and wanted me for his left hand wife. She knows about us but cannot acknowledge us publicly. But she must accept our existence. You are of courting age now. Papa will arrange for you to attend The Quadroon Ball next year, to find you a wealthy, white husband. Do not waste yourself frivolously on any colored man. Even if he has money, he can’t elevate your status or guarantee that your children will be free men.’

“She grabbed my hand. ‘Just take care to always respect your husband and do his bidding. Love and honor him despite the feelings of jealousy that will come when he takes another to wife. We are the wives they choose, when their other will be chosen for them through making familial alliances. These arrangements are our only way to freedom.’

“I didn’t understand why she beseeched me so dramatically on these points. Our system of placage was shocking enough to discover without her telling me I had to accept it, that I had few other choices. I knew nothing of love between a man and woman, but I could see the love between Maman and Papa. If it meant she had to share him with her sister, did that make it of any less value? Did that make me, the product of their left hand union, any less valuable? Of course, I would love my husband, legally bound or not, because of all the things I did not understand, there was one thing I knew and never wanted to change: my freedom.

She paused her story here, seeming to look at us for the first time. She turned her fierce gaze on each of us, one at a time, her fellow beasts of demonic burdens. She settled her gaze finally on me, the lone other woman in the group. I did not know how I understood that she knew my secret. My fellow club members knew and did not care. “You understand when I say fighting for one’s freedom is a frantic battle when losing means losing your personhood and often, your very life.”

I nodded in acquiescence. I did know what a constant fight for freedom to simply exist required. Dying was preferable to giving in to bondage of any kind, hence my membership there. These, my brothers in terror, did not make anything big over my masculine clothes and obviously feminine body. My haunted heart bore witness to more important things to them. The rest of the world did have problems with me, as soon as my “charade” was discovered. Explaining that this was who I am did nothing but result in a trail of bodies. Thus far, my own body did not increase those numbers.

Do you have a fragment of fiction you’re dying to share? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you soon!

Fiction Fragments: Glenn Rolfe

Ron Gavalik joined Girl Meets Monster for Fiction Fragments Friday on November 30. Things have been a little crazy for me, so the schedule is a little out of whack. Today is obviously not Friday, but I wanted you all to have a chance to read this writer’s submission, and schedules be damned. So, without further ado, please welcome Glenn Rolfe.

37623541_10217464806718996_9108904857699352576_nGlenn Rolfe is an author/singer/songwriter from the haunted woods of New England. He and his wife, Meghan, have three children, Ruby, Ramona, and Axl. He is grateful to be loved despite his weirdness.

He is a Splatterpunk Award nominee and the author of Becoming, Blood and Rain, The Haunted Halls, Chasing Ghosts, Abram’s Bridge, Things We Fear, and the collections, A Box Full of Monsters, Out of Range, Slush, and Land of Bones.

Check out his latest novel, The Window.

He is hard at work on many more. Stay tuned! And, in the meantime, visit his website.

Three Questions

GMM: When I was a teenager many moons ago, I was hell-bent on reading every vampire novel I could get hands on. And, my introduction to Splatterpunk  was John Skipp and Craig Spector’s The Light at the End. What was your introduction to the genre? What do you believe defines a work as Splatterpunk? What do you enjoy most about the genre?

GRMy intro to Splatterpunk was Off Season by Jack Ketchum. My jaw dropped time and time again turning those pages. It was so brutal. But like with all great books in the genre, and any good book, he made you care about the characters first.

Splatterpunk is a story that pushes the writer and the reader. A story that is brutal and no holds barred. The best of the genre keep your eyes glued to the page, even though part of you wants to put it down and shove it away.

What I like is the freedom it gives you as a horror writer. It also pushes you as a writer. How brave are you? How far are you willing to go and how much are you willing to show? It’s a challenge to walk the line between outrageous and realistic, but when you get the balance right, the result is powerful.

GMM: I have a pretty high threshold for the creepy, weird, and gross, but I have to admit, your slug creatures grossed me out. Actually, to be fair, the slugs weren’t the problem. The act of Craig cleaning out the bottles and allowing his curiosity get the better of him while doing a disgusting chore at a minimum wage job. I’ve had my share of gross tasks, what inspired this opening scene from Becoming?

GRI worked at a movie theater a while back. Tuesday nights we did extra cleaning projects. It was the slowest night of the week. I was lucky enough to get bottle duty. It seemed like a perfectly harmless gig,right? But my manager told me I’d want to wear gloves while handling the bottles. I didn’t get it, but put them on anyway.

It was all great until I found the first of the spit bottles. People that used chewing tobacco would use them while watching movies. It was nasty. And when I opened one bottle to empty it, it let out a wild hiss and a spray. I almost puked. It was only after I’d done two of these gross things that my manager told me I could just throw away the ones with spit in them. When i got home, I started thinking of those bottles and imagining the nasty juice as a living thing. So, pretty much, that opening scene was mostly a true story.

GMM: I love the horror genre, but I often wonder if it is a prerequisite for characters to be a little dumb in order for certain plot development to happen. I mean, most horror movies wouldn’t work if the characters didn’t willingly do stupid things like go down in the basement or read Latin from a book bound in human flesh, but I wonder if making characters do dumb things is just expected within the genre. Is it possible to have a good horror story without people making terrible mistakes even though they should know better?

GRI think all the good to great horror stories have realistic characters acting and talking in realistic ways. That’s totally where a lot of books in the genre fail or make the ride less enjoyable. For me, it’s all about the characters. You’ve got to bring these people to life and you’ve got to give the reader a reason to care. You also have to make the characters’ motivations realistic.

I don’t write Splatterpunk all the time. Of my ten works, I think maybe a quarter of them could be counted as Splatterpunk. I enjoy the challenge and the craziness of the sub-genre. It’s not an easy type of horror to write well. Making real characters and then putting them through a hell most writers don’t dare to. Some stories demand characters to be ridiculous, but I prefer to write the ones like Off Season. Ones that, as horrible as they seem, leave you thinking this could actually happen. And that’s freaking scary.

Fragment: Becoming (original version), by Glenn Rolfe

CHAPTER 1
“Where do you want me to do this?” Craig Hickey said, hauling a thirty gallon bag of empty bottles over his shoulder.

“Take ‘em in the sink. You’re gonna want to dump some of that stuff out, trust me,” Hunter said. Hunter Hanley was Craig’s boss at the Hollis Oaks Cineplex. The man was only in his late thirties and already had his own successful chain of theaters. Sure, they were all placed in Maine, but it was still an admirable accomplishment. Compared to a twenty eight year old high school dropout, shoveling popcorn next to a bunch of teenagers on a Friday night, Hunter Hanley looked like the CEO of GE.

He watched Hunter walk over to handle a guest complaining about her movie being too loud. Craig lugged the giant bag of bottles into the little sink and storage area of the theater. He placed the bag down, singing a Taylor Swift song as he undid the knot at the top of the large black sack.

“Hey Craig?” It was Evan, the concessions manager.

“What’s up, Evan.” Craig said.

“You’re going to want to use those plastic gloves,” he pointed up to the little rack above the sink.

Craig spied the box of latex gloves to the far right, next to a bucket of scrub pads.
“Yeah, thanks, but I think I’ll be all right.” He had to laugh to himself- these guys sure are worried about these bottles.

“No, really, you are going to want to use them. I’ve done this job for the last five years, and have been stuck doing bottle duty more times than I care to remember, take my word for it.”

Craig acquiesced, reaching up and grabbing a pair of the little clear gloves and tugging them on. “Happy?”

“Have fun,” Evan smiled as he disappeared back to the front.

It was a Tuesday night at the theater, usually the slowest night of the week. Unfortunately, this meant that it was chore night. Last week Evan had Craig scrape this black stuff off from the old popcorn warmer. Craig thought it looked like some sort of devil mold, but Evan had said it was just burnt residue from years of running the warmers too hot, for too long. Tonight, he got the bottles. There were six of the huge recycling containers, one in front of each theater, and each one was overflowing with empties. Craig had figured it would take about an hour to get the job done.

The first bag had gone quick and easy. Craig managed to sing his way through half of the Speak Now album without so much as running into one of these horrors that everyone seemed so worked up about. It wasn’t until he reached the halfway point that he came up against his first gag-worthy container. There had been a couple of Coke bottles filled with spit from people using chewing tobacco in the theater, but as he got to the bottom of the fourth bag, his bare hand (he’d abandoned the latex gloves after the uneventful second bag) made contact with something wet and slimy. An overwhelming smell nearly knocked him on his ass. It was like a mix of vomit, soda, and putrefied flesh, not that he knew what the latter smelled like, but he’d seen enough movies to imagine the scent- and this was it. After three dry heaves, Craig’s esophagus opened up to deliver his stomach contents to the sink.

“You all right, man?” Evan had come rushing to the doorway to check on him. “Hey, where are your gloves?”

After another mouthful of upchuck, Craig wiped his lips and chin with the back of his hand, and felt something greasy on his lips. A taste that matched the overpowering scent from the bag, exploded in his mouth. He pulled his hand away and saw the disgusting brown slime he’d bumped into at the bottom of the bag. He spat into the sink, trying to rid his mouth of the contaminant. Contaminant? He wasn’t sure why he’d thought of it as such, but wasn’t taking any chances.

“Do we have any mouthwash around here?” he said, still hunched over, spitting in the sink.

Evan looked a few extra shades of white standing in the doorway. “Uh, maybe Kathy has some,” he said. “I’ll go ask her.”

Craig watched him scurry off and heard crinkling; the bag behind him was moving. He turned to see the bottom of the sack protrude and retract, like something was trying to find its way out. Washing his hands in the sink, he donned another pair of the latex gloves and opened the foul smelling sack; the movement ceased.

“Here, man,” Evan returned to his perch at the entrance holding the mini-bottle of Scope out to him as if he were afraid to enter the room.

“Evan, come check this out.”

“Don’t worry about the bottom ones, man. Just throw them away with the bag. That’s what we always do.”

Craig, as if not hearing Evan, reached into the large bag. He had to put his head inside to reach the bottom. “There’s something down here.”

“Craig, don’t-”

“Whoa!” Craig yanked his hand out as if it had been stung by a bee. “Evan, come look at this.”

Evan looked back out at the empty lobby, praying for a customer; the next movie didn’t start for another forty-five minutes. “Hunter wants me, I’ll be right back,” he lied. He had seen the strange slug things at the bottom of the bags before. He didn’t plan on messing with them again. Hell, he’d had nightmares about the fat little slimy things for months. He was glad to have a new guy at work to do the true dirty work. He decided to focus on Kathy’s great ass instead, leaving Craig to tend with the nastiness in the sink room alone.

Craig picked the bottle bag up out of the barrel and holding one corner, brought up the end to dump the mix of loose juices and old soda out into the sink, and with it, the slimy thing at the bottom. He watched the dark, chunk filled fluids pour out into the sink; bits of candies, popcorn and discarded chew pouches gathered around the drain. After he was certain that the bag was empty, he gave it a good shake and then fingered through the collection of crap clogging the drain. He couldn’t find slug thing anywhere. “Where did you go?” Craig said as he tried shaking the bag out again. After another few seconds of searching and coming up empty, he gave up. “Hmm.”

An hour and a half later, Craig managed to reach the final bottle of the last bag. He wrapped his latex gloved hand around the one liter bottle and brought it out from the dark and rancid smelling bag. At the sight of the murky brown slime inside the bottle, Craig’s stomach threatened to purge again, but this time, he kept it down. Holding the bottle up to the fluorescent light above the sink, he tried to get a better look at its contents. On first glance, it appeared to be another bottle of chew-spit, but as he tilted the plastic bottle, observing the way the brown sludge seemed to cling to the plastic container, he wasn’t sure what it could be. Not wanting to look at the nasty concoction any longer, he decided to drain it in the sink like he had the rest. The cap was tight, but after a few good yanks, he managed to get it to turn-

Swoosh

“Arrgh.” The unleashed carbonation exploded a sour mist all over him. As he inhaled the nasty particles, he dropped the bottle in the sink. He didn’t notice the brown sludge ooze free of its prison, and slip down into the drain.

Cough-cough-cough

“Uhhh…” Craig’s Cineplex work shirt was covered in the little bits of slime that sprayed out at him. The brown mess was also present on his exposed forearms, neck, and chin and even on his teeth. “Uhhh…” Craig stumbled past the sink and towards the lobby.

“Oh shit, Craig,” Kathy said, “What the hell’s all over you.” She plugged her nose, taking a step back.

Craig’s breath was coming in gravelly wheezes as he stumbled across the still empty lobby, and toward the restrooms. Holding his gloved hands out before him, he smashed through the men’s room door and rushed to the sink. As he vomited (his second round tonight) in the much smaller, much cleaner basin, getting nearly as much spew on the cool grey counter top as he was inside the white porcelain enclave, he missed the little brown specks that slipped their way into the corners of his eyes.

Fifteen minutes later, cleaned up, and sipping a bottle of water, Craig sat recovering from his little incident in the employee break room.

“Hey man, you feeling any better?” Evan took a seat across from him at the little square card table.

Craig forced a smile, “I’m hungry. Does that say anything?”

“Yeah- that you’re gross.” They both laughed as Evan stood back up. “Just call it a night. I already sent Kathy home. I thought for sure she was going to blow chucks after she heard you in the bathroom. Besides, it’s pretty dead out there. No one wants to see the new Kevin Hart movie. Go figure.”

“Yeah, I think I’ll take you up on that.” Craig rose up, grabbed his sweatshirt from the coat hanger behind him, and followed Evan back out to the front.

“Hope you feel better,” Heath called out as Craig reached the front doors.

Craig waved back to his boss and pushed out into the cool night. He placed a finger to his nose and blew a snot rocket to the sidewalk as he made his way to his car. He was starting to feel queasy again. His hunger had slipped away.

On the sidewalk behind him, the brown glob of mucus he’d launched began to wiggle, and breathe.

Next week, Rhonda Jackson Garcia joins Girl Meets Monster. Do you have a fragment you’d like to dust off and send my way? If so, send it to chellane@gmail.com. See you soon!

Fiction Fragments: Ron Gavalik

So, a few weeks have passed since we heard from Kristin Dearborn. Life and a holiday got in the way of progress, but this week I’m back on track with a visit from gritty Pittsburgh poet, Ron Gavalik.

Ron GavalikThe eternal search for truth in the dark forest of false prophets has been my life’s pursuit. As an author, it’s my role to explore and reveal the unique perspectives that broaden our understanding of the world. The poetry and stories I forge from whiskey-soaked memories and fervent observations awakens passions among devoted readers and ignites debates. When we engage in critical, independent thought we are then free to live our truths.

Raised by hard-boiled Catholic trade unionists in the Rust Belt of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, my writing style is a smooth and uninhibited reflection of the once gritty region. In total freedom, I bleed untamed language onto each page to capture the powerful moments of life. My words paint portraits of the hidden beauty that’s often lost within the madness of our struggles. Now grasp my hand, and we will walk this treacherous path together.

Read Ron’s work. Get cool rewards: Patreon.com/RonGavalik

 Three Questions

GMM: When did you begin writing poetry, and why?

RG: The first poem leaked out of my pen at the age of 20. The words were pure trash, some kind of whiny ode to love or some other horse shit. The ripping sound of that paper as I tore it from that overpriced journal was quite satisfying. I decided then and there life must be lived before writing truth. That’s what poetry is to me: the purest form of truth. If one is still grappling with their place in the world, their poetry is going to read like shit. When the poet knows something worth sharing, that’s music on the page. I told myself that if I were still alive at 40, I’d revisit free verse. I then spent my early adulthood years pursuing avant-garde journalism in the arts and politics. Reporting on the acts of others honed my writing skills and often threw me into the mix of often unique and sometimes dangerous situations. I also dabbled in blog essays, short fiction, and I wrote a novel that will never see the light of day. Twenty years later, I authored Hot Metal Tonic, my first poetry collection. It went #1 on Amazon in its first week. I’ve penned three more collections since, and last year The Pittsburgh City Paper named me the second best poet in Pittsburgh.

GMM: Your poetry has an edge and the tone often feels angry. Are you angry? Should I be angry? What angers you the most?

RG: As I said, my work is my truth. That truth encompasses a broad spectrum of emotions. Rage, joy, sadness, eroticism, faith, love, betrayal, it’s all represented in my work. I wouldn’t characterize my poetry as angry, but I do find that perspective interesting. What you find angry, I probably penned as a representation of sorrow. The good news, Michelle, is that sadness that fuels anger reveals your righteous mind. Now, as for a broader viewpoint on anger in society, I am perplexed how any person can make it through life and not feel fucking rage at the murder of people and the murder of our souls. That shows me the power of apathy under empire.

GMM: As a poet, do you feel more of a responsibility to speak the truth than you might in another art form? Is it easier to convey the emotional realities found in your poetry than it is in your fiction? Do you prefer writing poetry?

RG: I love this question, and it deserves a 20 page response. The short answer is this: the best writing in any form reveals truth. Nonfiction and poetry are the most obvious arenas to really delve into facts that lead to conclusive truths. However, we cannot ignore the power of fiction. The works I’ve read by George Orwell or Cormac McCarthy have revealed to me some of our most powerful truths. I like to believe my voice represents our generation. Let’s be honest, we live under the rule of empire that most of us believe can no longer be controlled. Therefore, we gravitate toward identity politics as we watch greed destroy the social contracts that once held our heads above water through the 20th Century. If we ever wish to retake control of our lives, we must seek out our truths. Responsible authors were born to help us on that journey.

Selected Poems from Gothic Riot Dreams, by Ron Gavalik

Hard Labor Love
I came up in Pittsburgh,
the Rust Belt of hard labor
with a deep love of community.
As children, we collected railroad spikes
from the tracks and we cut our shins
on random iron shards in slag hills.
Some of us were union middle-class
while others breathed the gray air of poverty.
That hardly mattered.
As we stood atop foothills
that overlooked the city skyline,
soot embedded under our fingernails,
we lived as kings and queens
who oversaw the future.

Skinny Cigarettes
The old cashier at the car dealership,
she chain-smoked skinny, long cigarettes
all day, every day.
Her voice sounded like a bullfrog
that recently learned how to curse and laugh.
The crease lines around her mouth
and the folds in her neck
conveyed a relaxed style, confidence
earned from a hard life
and dangerous choices.

Sometimes there were no customers
in front of the cashier’s window
and no mechanics around to bust her chops.
That’s when she’d rest her elbows on the counter
and cradle a skinny cigarette
between two fingers near her cheek.
That woman’s eyes would gaze outside,
glossed over in what looked like daydreams
about all those lovers in their graves,
and their cliché widows
with their tiresome grandchildren
and their lovely lives.

Back in the day,
men in gray suits and skinny ties
never could resist her,
but then again,
few ever tried.

Pause and Look Down
The best sidewalks
are discolored
from the blood of youth
and the tears of victims.
Those sidewalks
tell stories, they provide lessons
of hard choices under
difficult circumstances.
Jagged cracks in the concrete
resemble the struggle
of so many souls
long gone.

Next week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Glenn Rolfe. Do you have a fragment you’d like to share? Send it to me at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: Kristin Dearborn

Last week, Elsa M. Carruthers stopped by Girl Meets Monster, and this week, Kristin Dearborn shares her thoughts on why she prefers horror fiction to reality.

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If it screams, squelches, or bleeds, Kristin Dearborn has probably written about it. She revels in comments like “But you look so normal…how do you come up with that stuff?” A life-long New Englander, she aspires to the footsteps of the local masters, Messrs. King and Lovecraft. When not writing or rotting her brain with cheesy horror flicks (preferably creature features!) she can be found scaling rock cliffs, zipping around Vermont on a motorcycle, or gallivanting around the globe. Learn more at www.kristindearborn.com!

Three Questions

GMM: For some reason, while I read your fragment, the old adage, “write what you know” came to mind. Hopefully, no one ever pointed a gun in your face, but this feels like it was inspired by a real-life event. How much of your fragment is based on something that happened to you, or someone you know? How often do you draw from your own experiences as a writer?

KD: Thankfully I’ve never had a gun pointed at me, but I have been on an airboat ride in Florida! I’ve also worked a lot of retail in my day. I used to be the assistant manager of a Gamestop (I know, I know, NERD ALERT) and some of my coworkers were robbed once. Whenever I was counting the drawer at the end of the night I imagined the worst. Bethany’s case takes it a step further. The man with the gun isn’t just there for the money—that would be easy. You tell yourself if you do what they ask, you’ll be fine. This guy wants more than that, he wants to get into the swamp in the dark.

GMM: Is it easier to find your voice and convey your thoughts and emotions by writing horror? If so, why? Aside from Lovecraft and King, what drew you to this genre and why do you continue writing in it?

KD: Horror had me in its talons from the moment I read James Howe’s Bunnicula. I didn’t see a lot of horror movies as a kid, but I read a lot of books: Crichton, Koontz, King, John Saul, Dan Simmons. Horror stories make more sense than reality: when something awful happens, characters band together and fight it. Usually they win…that the outcome is not guaranteed only makes it sweeter when good triumphs. Horror is a fun way to process the awfulness in the real world, to escape from the 24-hour news cycle, most of which is a horror show on its own. Great horror is never about the monsters, it’s always about people and relationships—authors and filmmakers who struggle with that and paint the walls with gratuitous gore aren’t going to stand the test of time. I think it’s a testament to King’s staying power: he writes memorable characters that we come to care about.

GMM: You mention in your bio that people don’t think you look like a horror writer. What do horror writers look like? Do you think it’s because you look “normal”, or is it because you, like your character, have breasts?

KD: I think the average human expects a horror writer to be a bald guy with a beard and a black skull t-shirt. Now, I know, love, and respect more than a handful of super talented bald, bearded, black skull wearing horror authors, but there’s so much more to us than that! When I show up for work I wear a blazer and high heels, nice long sleeves covering up all my artwork. If I’m feeling wild and crazy I’ll show off one small velociraptor tattoo on my ankle. My eyebrow piercing has been gone for over a decade (RIP eyebrow ring, 2000-2007) and I don’t color my hair at all, let alone fun colors never found in nature. Subverting expectations is part of the horror genre, and I want to do my part.

Fragment, by Kristin Dearborn

Bethany looked up from counting her drawer when she heard the crunch of tires on gravel. A black sedan, windows tinted. It tucked itself in next to one of the rental cars the tourists brought. She watched, waited. As she gave up and resumed re-counting for the third time, the door opened, and a man stepped out.

Something in her gut twisted. Spidey senses tingled. Nothing terribly offensive about his appearance at first glance. Black slacks, cheap black dress shoes. Tan jacket. He wore his dark hair slicked back, and a pair of expensive sunglasses perched on his head. His skin, like most residents here, was deeply tanned, and wrinkles creased his face though he didn’t look much older than forty something. He carried a messenger bag over one shoulder.

If you didn’t go to college in Florida (heck, if you didn’t finish high school) and sometimes if you did, you basically doomed yourself to a life in the service industry. Bethany liked people, especially liked the kind of people who came here, a little ways off the beaten path and wanted to see real Florida.

This guy set off alarm bells in Bethany’s head. The way he carried himself, the bulge in his jacket even though the sun hadn’t gone down yet and the air was still warm. Lots of people carried guns, but something about him…

“Help you, sir?” she tried to sound cheerful.

He gobbled her up with his gaze, lingering on her breasts before meeting her eyes. She wanted to puke. On him. Instead she gripped the edge of her table as hard as she could. They’d talked about putting a gun in here, Cap thought it was ridiculous they didn’t have one. “A girl’s got to defend herself.” Jack believed in trusting people.

“I need to get on your last airboat. Gators after dark?”

“I’m so sorry, you’re about twenty minutes too late.”

She couldn’t even hear the buzz of Rebel Yell’s fans anymore. The Eastern sky had taken on a deep purplish hue, and soon Cap and his charges would be starting to look for alligators.

“I’ll pay for a private tour.”

Bethany pasted a smile across her face. She injected a faux brightness into her voice. “Sorry sir! Thursday is the next night we run the Gators After Dark tour. It’s supposed to be a full moon and clear that night. It’s going to be a great tour—”

Do you have a fragment collecting dust that you’d like to share? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!