Fiction Fragments: Sara Tantlinger

Last week we had a visit from horror writer Cody Langille, and this week horror writer Sara Tantlinger joins Girl Meets Monster to share a fiction fragment and answer a few questions about why projects become abandoned sometimes and what inspires her fiction.

TantlingerSara Tantlinger resides outside of Pittsburgh on a hill in the woods. She is the author of the dark poetry collection Love For Slaughter, and her next collection, The Devil’s Dreamland: Poetry inspired by H.H. Holmes will be out later in 2018 with Strangehouse Books. She is a contributing poetry editor for Oddville Press, a graduate of Seton Hill’s MFA program, a member of the SFPA, and an active member of the HWA. She embraces all things strange and can be found lurking in graveyards or on Twitter @SaraJane524 and at saratantlinger.wordpress.com

Three Questions

Girl Meets Monster: When did you start writing horror poetry and why poetry instead of short fiction or novels?

Sara: I first started writing poetry in middle school after my dad suddenly passed away. It was my go-to coping mechanism and really helped me get through a lot. Right around that time we started reading Poe’s “The Raven” in an English class, and from there I wanted to read everything Poe had written. There was something about poetry, about having to say a lot with a little, that really drew me into it before I ever wrote short stories or a novel.

My poetry had always been dark, but it wasn’t until my undergraduate years when I started studying creative writing that I realized I could hone my horror poetry into something publishable. I took an independent study in horror poetry with Dr. Mike Arnzen at Seton Hill my senior year and haven’t stopped writing it since! Studying all horror poems for a whole semester and how to submit them to journals and magazines was incredibly inspiring and I learned so much. I’ve been writing more short stories lately, but I’m glad I started with poetry because I have no doubt that it has greatly contributed to sharpening my prose over the years.

Girl Meets Monster: You have a collection inspired by H. H. Holmes coming out this year, what other dark historical figures inspire your fiction?

Sara: Yes! I’m so excited about the Holmes collection. It’s titled The Devil’s Dreamlandand I really enjoyed doing all the research for it. Holmes was definitely the first historical figure I invested that much time in. Otherwise, I love reading about twisted women from history like Elizabeth Bathory and Mary Tudor. I’ve also been reading a lot about Ranavalona I, who is sometimes referred to as the most murderous woman in history. She has a fascinating story and is often viewed as having an unspeakably cruel reign, but like with H.H. Holmes, it’s hard to discern what was really true or what was fabricated. Either way, I’m saving the inspiration from the supposed ways she executed people for a short story (or something longer) someday soon.

Girl Meets Monster: Do you have more unfinished poems or more unfinished short stories? What stops you from finishing a writing project?

Sara: I have so many unfinished projects! Not so much with poetry, but when it comes to short stories or longer prose projects, I am an expert at starting them and leaving them abandoned. Usually what stops me is that I have a particular ending in mind that I like, but I get tripped up around the middle and can’t quite make things happen or I feel like the story is getting boring and you never want that to happen. I’ve been getting a lot better with outlining projects and that has helped me get more short stories out this year, but I absolutely have fiction fragments all over the place and probably always will.

Fiction Fragment, by Sara Tantlinger

Sometimes they’re gentle, a sweet clinking of glass sounds that echo through the woods and entice me like a siren’s song. Tonight, as my clock ticks into the hour of demons, the distant and haunting wind chimes are not gentle.

There is rage in that melody of dancing shards, rage that echoes from the fierce shaking of the trees as a late summer storm rips through the rustling leaves. The gusts conduct and command the angriest symphony from the wind chimes that I have ever heard. And I have heard them all.

I think I hear Luna screaming for me in between those violent breezes, but Dr. Fawning calls this some fancy word I can never remember, but it basically means I am projecting my feelings into a manifestation of noise. That it is all imaginary, in my head – “It’s not real, Andi,” my psychiatrist repeats, she always wears tan suits, sometimes white. She reminds me of a Key deer, something small and rare, found only in one area, something endangered…

“You could even make the noises go away, Andi. You’re a smart girl with your whole life ahead of you, but you have to stop this obsession.”

Obsession, means Luna. And “You’re a smart girl” means You’re off your dang rocker, Andi. She says my name too much and doesn’t act the way I think a shrink would. I am not the hysterical woman Dr. Fawning wants me to be, even though she’s biased against her own sex. But I keep going back to see her.

I don’t have a choice. Just like when the wind chimes call from that place of night howls and clues buried in the dark, that place in the woods I can’t quite find, I don’t have a choice but to listen.

There’s something there, connected between the violent songs of glass and with Luna’s disappearance. And it’s not a projection or a manifestation. Fuck that damned doctor, what does she know. I just can’t quite remember what happened. My memories after the accident don’t always feel like my own thoughts and recollections. They’re weighed down, like drowning a puzzle with water. My corners and edges are mush, not quite fitting as I desperately try to jam the pieces back together.

Luna, my moonlight girl, keep screaming inside those wind chimes. I will find you.

Next week, fellow comic book enthusiast and Seton Hill alum Jessica Barlow will join us with a fiction fragment about a superhero. Do you have an unfinished story to tell? Drop me a line in the comments below or send your fragment to chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

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Fiction Fragments: C. R. Langille

LangilleLast week, Patricia Lillie talked to Girl Meets Monster about the benefits of recycling abandoned writing projects. This week C. R. Langille joins me to share a fragment of his exceptional horror fiction. Cody is a fellow Seton Hill alum, and I always looked forward to reading his submissions when I was fortunate enough to be part of one of his critique groups. He writes wonderfully dark stories and illustrates dark words of monsters and mystery as if he vacations in them. If he ever decides to become a tour guide through the dark realms, I’ll be one of his first tourists.

C.R. Langille spent many a Saturday afternoon watching monster movies with his mother. It wasn’t long before he started crafting nightmares to share with his readers. An avid hunter and amateur survivalist, C.R. Langille incorporates the Utah outdoors in many of his tales. He is an affiliate member of the Horror Writer’s Association, a member of the League of Utah Writers, and received his MFA: Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University.  www.crlangille.com

Three Questions

Girl Meets Monster: What was the first story you read that really scared you?

Cody: The first story that I remember reading that really scared me, was Pet Sematary by Stephen King. I remember staying up way late and devouring that book and my mind started playing tricks on me when little noises would sound off in the house. I’d seen the movie first and it was creepy, especially that scene with Zelda…it always gave me the willies when she would call out for Rachel.

Girl Meets Monster: What was the inspiration for this fragment? And, do you usually begin writing when you get inspired to or simply out of habit? Do you have a solid writing routine?

Cody:  I got the inspiration to write this piece after listening to an audiobook chock full of urban fantasy mysteries. I can’t remember the name of that anthology, but it had some of the well-known greats out there like Butcher, Hamilton, etc… I wanted to try my hand at it, but put my own spin on the story. So I came up with my main character, Warwick, a war veteran suffering from PTSD as well as having to deal with the dead trying to trick him all the time. I try to follow a writing routine, but to be honest, lately it’s been tough. Life has gotten in the way and I just need to buckle down and show some good old fashioned discipline, especially for my novels. I generally write short stories when I get hit with inspiration.

Girl Meets Monster: Why did you stop writing this piece? Do you think you’ll finish it?

Cody: This story took a place on the back-burner because I was working on other projects. I will finish it sometime soon because I really like the setting, and I’d like to integrate the character into some of my other works.

Rocky Mountain Hocus, by Cody Langille

Lehi, Utah 1948

I’ve never liked dead bodies. They don’t shut up. I’d suggest not listening to them either. They’re not your loved ones or friends anymore. The simple fact of the matter is, once someone dies and their soul departs, it leaves a void. Sometimes things like to crawl into that void.

So don’t listen to whatever a dead body has to say. It will drive you insane, tell you lies, or try to trick you into doing something your mama wouldn’t approve of. This particular dead body liked to lie, and it was very chatty, which made it hard to concentrate.

I clutched the medicine bag that hung around my neck. As soon as I did, the thing’s voice fell away in a buzz and I could think straight. The rest of the world came into focus and I let out the lungful of air I’d been holding. This medicine bag was a godsend, a gift from a friend of mine in the war. His name was Two Feathers. He found me in the med-tent about to lose my mind because one of those things had crawled into the dead man in the bed next to me. Needless to say, the medicine bag made day-to-day business bearable.

I didn’t want to get too close to the thing. They get stronger the closer you get. Whatever lived in that body now must have been powerful, because the bag started to heat up hotter than my granddad’s wood burning stove in December. I let it fall to my chest.

“Nice try cowboy. Didn’t your mama tell you it’s rude to ignore people?”

I ignored it. Talking to it wouldn’t do anyone any good.

“We should ask your mama. She’s in Hell doing some awful nasty things.”

More lies. I took a deep breath and tried to focus on the scene. I was looking for Herman West, a local carpenter and known chicken fighter in the area. He’d been missing, presumed dead, and I was supposed to find him. Finding dead bodies wasn’t a fun business, but one I had a knack for.

Next week, Sara Tantlinger joins Girl Meets Monster to talk a little bit about her new poetry collection inspired by H. H. Holmes. Would you like to be included in this blog series? Comment below, or send your fiction fragments to me at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: Patricia Lillie

Lillie_hatLast week, horror writer Lynn Hortel stopped by to share her fragment and talk about the things that sometimes prevent us from finishing a writing project. This week, my friend and fellow Seton Hill alum, Patricia Lillie is here at Girl Meets Monster. Two weekends ago, I had the pleasure of catching up with Patricia at our MFA in Writing Popular Fiction alumni weekend. I hadn’t seen Patricia in a few years and our visit, however brief, was long overdue. You just don’t realize how much you miss someone until you see them and get a chance to remember why you love them so much. We stayed up WAY too late talking about financial troubles, our favorite beers, traveling abroad, life goals and how they change in middle-age, and, of course, writing. I hope I have a chance to catch up with Patricia again soon.

Patricia Lillie grew up in a haunted house in a small town in Northeast Ohio. Since then, she has published six picture books (not scary), a few short stories (scary), and dozens of fonts. A graduate of Parsons the New School for Design and Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program, she is a freelance writer and designer addicted to coffee, chocolate, and cake. She also knits and sometimes purls.

Her debut novel, The Ceiling Man, was released in 2017 and is available for Kindle and in paperback. Find her on the web at www.PatriciaLillie.com.

Her much nicer alter ego Kay Charles writes cozy-ish mysteries. Ghosts in Glass Houses, the first Marti Mickkleson Mystery, is available now. Visit Kay on the web at www.KayCharles.com.

Three Questions

Girl Meets Monster: In the words of Chuck the Prophet from Supernatural, “Writing is hard.” Do you have a lot of unfinished projects? What do you do with them?

Patricia: I have a veritable shit-tonne of fragments stashed in various folders all over my hard drive. (Someday, I should collect them all in one place.) Most are beginnings that went nowhere. Sometimes, I find them later, they strike some chord, and I turn them into stories. Sometimes, they get published.

Girl Meets Monster: Which of your fragments have you gone back to and eventually published?

Patricia: “The Cuckoo Girls” (in Nightscript, Vol. 1, edited by C.M. Muller) started as a fragment I didn’t know what to do with and stashed away. Sometimes, they aren’t what I thought they were. What I thought was the beginning of a short story of quiet horror turned into the beginning of my first cozy mystery. (Boy, did I have to some cleaning up there!) Most of the time, say 99.9% of the time, they go nowhere.

Girl Meets Monster: What was the inspiration for this fragment?

Patricia: This was written in response to a prompt, at a time when I was stuck and making no headway in what I was supposed to be working on. I believe the prompt had to do with a character who shares a name with a character from a favorite book, but don’t recall exactly what it was. I do recall some of the places I thought it might go at the time, and yeah—none are good. Which is why it’s one of those unfinished fragments. No title, because I have a hard enough time coming up with titles for finished projects.

Untitled Fragment, by Patricia Lillie

Merricat Williamson wanted to write a ghost story. For that, she blamed her parents, who never told her the origins of her name, and her Freshman Comp professor, who led her to find out.

In her first class on her first day of college, he called her name. She answered “Present” even though she wished she was anywhere else in the world, but mostly in her room at home, instead of over-dressed and crammed into a tiny desk in an un-air-conditioned room at XXXX Community College, and he said something about living in a castle. At first, she thought he was calling her a princess. Dr. Benjamin George was beautiful. Merricat felt a flush rise from somewhere near her big toe up her body until her cheeks stung with heat. She heard the snicker from the back of the room—it had to be Miss Perky Blond Prom Queen—and she knew she’d been insulted. Tongue-tied, she said nothing and squirmed in her seat. Dr. Gorgeous-Georgous finished calling roll. Merricat didn’t catch the last two names, but one of them belonged to the Prom Queen.

As soon as she had a chance, she Googled “Merricat” and “castle” and discovered her parents were even more twisted than she thought. She spent the next two classes hiding in the back of the room, but over weekend she read We Have Always Lived in the Castle followed by The Haunting of Hill House. Had she read them before her first week of college, she might have answered the castle comment with, “Just call me Nell,” but she’d never heard of or read Shirley Jackson. For that, she blamed her high school English teachers.

Merricat Williamson always had lots of blame to spread around.

On Monday, she took what had become her regular seat in the back corner. Miss Royally Perky bounced into the room, scurried past five empty seats, and plopped down beside her. The girl was short. Really short. About a lollipop over Munchkin-level short. Merricat nearly gagged at the cloying smell of cheap perfume, but kept her mouth clamped shut and her eyes glued to the front of the room. Georgeous-Georgous was late. He needed to get there and start class before the pocket-sized prom queen tried to talk to her.

“We should be friends,” Little Miss Perky said. “I have a literary name too.”

Merricat ignored her and hoped she’d take the hint.

“Dorrit.”

Merricat burst out laughing. Her high school English teacher lived and breathed Dickens. Although Merricat had never read Little Dorrit, the title alone was enough to cause the pint-sized perk-miester endless grief.

“Yeah. Trust me. I’ve heard it all my life. My parents are barely above midget status themselves. I totally blame them.”

Merricat wasn’t ready to get too carried away, but maybe she’d found a friend. She didn’t make friends easily.

Next week horror writer C. R. Langille joins me here at Girl Meets Monster. Would you like to be part of this kick-ass blog series? Comment below, or drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: Lynn Hortel

Lynn

Last week VM Burns stopped by to talk about writing and unfinished projects, and this week Lynn Hortel is here to share an abandoned horror story. I met Lynn at Seton Hill University while earning an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. Like me, Lynn is a single mom who writes dark fiction inspired by her dark past. When Lynn submitted her fragment, she wrote:

This started out as a BDSM erotica experiment. Then I decided it would definitely be a short horror story. Then it got tossed in the fragment pile never to be looked at again.

This is not a Romance.

Look for Lynn’s debut  horror novel coming out next year.

Lynn Hortel has lived in several cities throughout the southwest. She never felt settled until she moved to Joshua Tree where she fell in love with the surreal landscape. At Seton Hill University she earned an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction, and Throwback is her first complete novel—partly written out in the desert, scribbled on notebook paper while surrounded by cacti. When she’s not writing, she enjoys hiking, stargazing, and wildflower viewing. She lives with her son and an Australian Cattle Dog named Richard.

Three Questions

Girl Meets Monster: When did you begin writing and why?

Lynn:  I wrote stories as long as I can remember, but when I was fifteen I wrote a short story for school, and the teacher told me she’d shared it with others, including the principal, and they all cried. It felt powerful to cause emotion like that. That’s when I knew I should be a writer.

Girl Meets Monster: Your fiction deals with dark themes, where does your inspiration come from?

Lynn: My dark and traumatic childhood provides the biggest inspiration, but not just that. Even if my early life had been idyllic, I’d be obsessed with the need to understand bad things. Part of it is a silly, superstitious belief that if I keep my eye on evil, I can protect myself and my loved ones. Plus, dark things are delicious.

Girl Meets Monster: What stops you from finishing writing projects?

Lynn: Things that a lot of people struggle with — fear of success, fear of failure, resentment that I can’t pour myself into a project the way I want to because I have to work, so why bother. I think one of the biggest things that defines successful authors is their ability to write through any circumstance, so I’m working on it. At the end of the day it just boils down to putting down the words even though my tired, overworked self would rather read someone else’s.

Not A Romance, by Lynn Hortel

Katy walked down the musty apartment complex hallway and descended several flights of stairs to the first floor. Then she paused in the stairwell to check her phone. Maybe Mr. Bishop had left a voice mail. I want to do the right thing, Katy. I tore up the contract. See you at work on Monday.

No messages on her glossy, black android. Just a text from the driver. Bishop’s driver waiting out front.

She felt a sudden, strong urge to pee but didn’t want to climb back up all the stairs to use the bathroom. She might not come back down. Just nerves. It’ll go away. Maybe the bladder pressure would distract from the dread.

In the smooth, white landscape behind the glass entrance, a long, black limousine sat parked in front of her apartment complex. The first snow of winter fell and dusted the vehicle in lacy flakes.

She paused, took a deep breath, and pushed the lobby door open. Cold air stung her cheeks.

The biting cold combined with anxiety made her lungs seize. Katy put the flat of her hand against her chest, coughed, and forced a deep breath. This is what her poor daughter felt like—this and much worse. Katy could follow through if she focused on the real purpose- to help Annie.

A short, stocky man with brown skin and a black beanie cap exited the limo and opened the door to the backseat. He gave her a nod, huddled in his long black coat, and rubbed his mitten clad hands together while he waited for her to enter.

Did he know the deal she’d made? “Hi,” she said.

“Morning.” He smiled and gestured to the open door. It beckoned her inside like a hungry mouth.

Her heart hammered. Frozen, her limbs wouldn’t move. Was that pity in his eyes? He looked like someone who might live in her building rather than a bank employee. This comforted her a little. Still, she’d be consumed by the time she finished this, swallowed and digested, never the same. Was she doing the right thing? It didn’t matter. Too late to back out.

The poor man must be freezing while he waited out in the cold for her to get in the car. If for no other reason than to relieve his discomfort, she willed herself forward a few steps, so he could get back inside and warm up. Her black, leather boots crunched in the dirty, fallen snow.

Mr. Bishop’s assistant popped her head out and waved. “Hi Katy. Hop on in and let’s go. You’re letting all the heat out.” She wore deep red lipstick, and her glossy, brunette hair in a twisted, complicated up-do.

Katy paused in the silent stillness. She hadn’t known she’d have an escort. Another person who knew the truth about this arrangement, but not the whole truth. “Oh. Hi, Diane.”

Diane said, “That’s all right. You get in whenever you’re ready. I’m going to close the door, though. It’s cold out there.” She disappeared back inside the black monster limousine and shut the door. The driver followed suit and started the engine but just idled.

For a few seconds Katy’s mind spun in a million directions for a way out of  this—for a solution that didn’t end in a potentially fatal lack of medical care for Annie—or else the terrible, looming, irreversible tryst with Mr. Bishop. But there was nothing she could do except ride this dark wave towards the inevitable. All that mattered was Annie’s health.

Decision made, her pummeling heartbeat mellowed to a dull thud. In a daze she opened the door, sat down, and shut herself inside the black beast. “Good morning.” She tried to act normal, although, there was nothing normal about this situation.

Diane returned her good morning with a warm smile and the whitest teeth Katy had ever seen. Her coat was deep, rich, emerald green, the color of money.

Katy hadn’t thought it possible, but her stomach clenched even more when the limo pull away from the curb and drove down the street. Don’t let me be sick. Please don’t let  me be sick.

They picked up speed and drove in silence for a while. Diane had told her not to bring anything, no clothes or toiletries. Everything she needed would be provided. Like prison—they go in and leave with the same single set of clothes and their personal items in a paper bag. Through the car window, buildings and street signs moved along and got left behind along with her low income neighborhood. Butterflies flapped their wings harder and harder inside her belly. Screw butterflies. More like pterodactyls. She smiled. When she’d asked Annie if she wanted a giant painting of a butterfly on her bedroom wall for her birthday, Annie asked for a picture of a dinosaur instead, so she’d painted a cool prehistoric landscape mural with flying pterodactyls that covered an entire wall in her bedroom. Annie wasn’t fragile like a butterfly. She was tough. Toughness ran in the family.

They pulled into the valet lane in front of a huge hotel in a wealthy part of the city Katy had rarely driven through—even though she’d lived nearby for years. Huge glass doors displayed a giant lobby with black and gold décor and a ruby red carpet similar to the one in the upstairs hall of the bank.

She clenched her teeth until her jaw ached. Why couldn’t he just give her a pass on her stupid money mistake out of the kindness of his heart? Obviously, he could afford it and spare everyone involved a hell of a lot of pain and suffering. If only he’d accept her offer to pay the money back in payments, but no can do. Now this had to happen. Of course she’d do everything she could to spare him the consequences, but for the most part, it was out of her hands. Boy, would he be sorry.

“Well, here we are.” Diane said. Two young men in black bow ties and vests opened their doors in unison and then stepped back so they could exit the limo.

Katy willed her body to get up, but she remained glued to the seat.

Diane stuck her head back inside the car and smiled her perfect red-lipsticked smile. “Are you coming?”

Katy swallowed. “I’m just going to stay here.”

Diane offered her slender, pale hand. Long, polished nails matched her lipstick. “Come. It’ll be all right.”

No, it wouldn’t. But Katy sighed, took her hand, and exited the limo. The prescription bottle filled with sleeping medication rattled inside her backpack. For mercy’s sake, she hoped she’d brought enough. Mr. Bishop was built like a behemoth.

The driver drove the limo away and disappeared into the parking garage. They entered the hotel through the giant glass doors.

Dressed in a black and red uniform with gold embellishments and a ridiculous cap, the bell hop greeted them with a nod. “Hello, Ms. Diane.” He leered and winked at Katy with brown eyes that shone with a maroon glow. His jaw lengthened. He smiled with a mouth too wide and revealed broken, yellow teeth mottled with brown stains.

Katy looked down and away. It’s starting. No, his eyes must reflect the red carpeting somehow.

A portly man with a salt and pepper beard played a grand piano. Amongst red square pillars from floor to ceiling, men in suits talked to skinny, beautified young women at small, round tables with what looked like cocktails in front of them. Maybe they were virgin. It was early for alcohol, and the girls appeared too young.

Katy felt out of place in her thrift store jacket, Levi’s, and uncombed, wavy brown hair.

Diane introduced her to the satanic bellhop whose face had somehow returned to normal. “This is Katy. She works for Mr. Bishop.” He extended his respectful welcome.

All three of them entered the elevator. Katy did not look at the bellhop but listened to him banter with Diane in a mild, friendly tone of voice about the new, snowy weather. She must have imagined the red-eyed grin. Anticipation had her seeing things. He sounded nice enough. As long as she didn’t look at his face, it would be okay, but she knew, just knew if she looked at him again, his eyes would glow red.

The door created hundreds of years ago by ancestors she’d never met was already opening.

Red lit numbers rose all the way to the top floor. When they exited the elevator, instead of the usual endless row of doors that led to cookie cutter rooms like in motels. the hallway revealed only one set of huge, ornate double doors.

They walked down the long hallway towards the entrance all the way at the end. Katy’s heart pounded so loud and hard, she thought Diane and the bellhop must hear it. She smelled something—like burnt matches or sulfur, but she kept moving forward with cold, leaden limbs.

“Here we are,” Diane said. She knocked on the door and entered without waiting for an answer. “He’s expecting us.”

Katy had everything under control for so long. How had the world spun so far off its axis in just the last few weeks? She followed Diane inside.

Next week, Patricia Lillie and her alter ego, Kay Charles, joins Girl Meets Monster to talk about the benefits of recycling your abandoned fiction. Got some unfinished fiction you’d like to share? Comment below or send it to chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: VM Burns

Author PhotoLast week poet B. E. Burkhead dropped by for a visit, and this week V.M. Burns is here to share an unfinished mystery. I say unfinished rather than abandoned, because not only am I hoping to read the finished novel, but Valerie told me she fully intends to finish writing it when she has some time. Of course, she’s a little occupied right now with her three mystery series: The Mystery Bookshop Mystery Series, The RJ  Franklin Mystery Series, and The Dog Club Mystery Series.

I met Valerie in the MFA for Writing Popular Fiction Program at Seton Hill University a few years ago, and we became fast friends during late night conversations where we planned our futures. I learned about raising poodles and a great recipe for sweet potato pie, and Valerie learned WAY more than she ever wanted to about vampires and other spooky stuff. I’m looking forward to seeing Valerie this weekend at Seton Hill’s MFA Alumni weekend.

V.M. Burns was born in Northwestern Indiana. She is a lover of dogs, British historic cozies, and scones with clotted cream. She currently lives in Eastern Tennessee. Her debut novel, The Plot is Murder was nominated for a 2017 Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Readers can learn more by visiting her website at vmburns.com.

Three Questions

Girl Meets Monster: What made you decide to write a mystery inspired by fairytales?

VM Burns: After I completed my thesis novel and Mystery Bookshop series, I struggled to find a home for either series. I slowed down on sending queries and decided to write something fun. I loved watching Once Upon A Time on ABC and thought how fun to combine Fairy Tales with cozy mysteries.

Girl Meets Monster: Aside from time, what stopped you from finishing this project?

VM Burns: My agent isn’t excited about this project. She feels it may be too far out. So, when its done I will need to edit and market it myself which is going to take more time than I have.

Girl Meets Monster: Without giving us any spoilers, do you know how this story ends?

VM Burns: Not yet, but I’m a pantser so this isn’t unusual.

Once Upon A Murder, by VM Burns

Chapter 1

The day I discovered my archenemy dead with one of my brother’s arrows through her heart changed the course of my life forever, and turned my brother into a fugitive. My dreams of happily ever after were shattered and I became a huntress of truth and justice. But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. I’ll start at the beginning.

Once upon a time in the small sea side village of Andersonville, lived a beautiful princess named Boadicea, or ‘Bo’ for short. Well, she wasn’t really a princess, as in someone of royal birth. However, she definitely wore the mantle of privilege and superiority like a robe befitting a royal. Bo was tall and slender with long blonde hair which was thick and curly. Not curly like the thick red, wiry mane that tops my head and frizzes up into a birds nest when it’s humid. Nope. Bo’s hair never frizzes. In fact, the more humid the weather, the curlier her hair becomes. It was magical the way the weather had the exact opposite effect on her than it did on me, but then Bo’s life was charmed. Blue eyes like the sea in the early morning. Skin like butter milk without a zit in sight, she often boasted she’d never had a zit in her twenty-five years. Hard to believe? Truly, I’ve known her my entire life and I’ve never seen her with a blemish or imperfection of any kind. During our teenage years when most girls, myself included resorted to unique makeup diversions and fashion accessories like scarves, hats and veils to hide the red, puss-filled mounds that erupted at the worse possible moments; or the scars and craters that followed. Oh no. Not Bo. She, like Mary Poppins was practically perfect in every way. But, I’m not bitter. Well, maybe a little, but I’m working through it.

“Hey freak.”

Unfortunately, Bo’s obnoxious attitude wasn’t helping. I should be used to her after all these years. Freak, Red-headed Freak, and clown head were the pet names she’d used to address me since grade school. The fact that she had no compunction against shouting them across the village square during the middle of the day while the villagers chuckled and stared at me was another reason bitterness had become my constant companion.

Time taught me ignoring Bo would only make matters worse. Thankfully, the gods only saw fit to crown her with beauty rather than wit. Brains were the only weapon I possessed and in a battle of wits, Bo was ill-equipped for the fight. With a heavy sigh, I turned and faced my opponent.

I bowed low and mumbled, “You screeched your majesty.”

Bo and her entourage, which consisted of her two closest friends, Mary Lamb and Dee Locke (Goldy to her friends) stood in the middle of the market and stared at me as though I smelled of dung. Which might have been true since I had taken a short cut through a couple of fields to get to the market early enough to setup my booth. Darn, I would never be able to sell enough baked goods if I smelled of cow dung. I’d have to get someone to watch my stall and change clothes. Or at the very least, I’d change shoes. But then maybe the scowl on their faces was just their normal pained expression.

“What is that god awful stench?”

Seriously, I want to read the rest of this story.

Next week, Lynn Hortel joins Girl Meets Monster with an unfinished horror story and a few words on why it’s hard to finish projects sometimes. Would you like to be included in this blog series? Comment below, or send me your writing fragments to chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Black Like Me

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Family photo taken in the early 1990’s with my friend and classmate, “Vampire Liz.”

Just over a year ago, something happened to me that made me question my identity. In fact, since the election results came in and I woke up in Trump’s America on November 9, 2016, I’ve been thinking about identity a lot — mine, my son’s, my friends’, my neighbors’, my co-workers’, and complete strangers’. I’m not 100% sure what made me think about the incident that caused me to question the very nature of my own “blackness,” but it might be any number of news stories you can read at your leisure online dealing with the shocking reality that blatant racism is back in style.

At any rate, whatever resurrected this experience for me, I started thinking about it a bit more deeply. During a meeting I attended about a year ago to discuss the qualifications of candidates applying for a social equity position at a state university, a topic related to current events came up. Bill O’Reilly had said some stupid, unprofessional, racist bullshit about Congresswoman Maxine Waters’ appearance.

I could launch into a tirade about that alone, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about. Not today. What struck me about the topic of discussion, was the fact that the white woman who was upset about O’Reilly’s statements (even after his apology, he wouldn’t shut up and continued harassing Congresswoman Waters), managed, in the same breath, to commit her own act of unconscious racism.

The same woman who was talking about how upset she was because Congresswoman Waters had been attacked/criticized/mocked/marginalized for being “culturally authentic.” And then, she looked at me and said, “That’s the right term, isn’t it?” She committed an act of unconscious racial microaggression.

Now, to be fair, we were a group of faculty and staff working together at a university and engaged in friendly conversation about something we all took issue with, but then suddenly I was assigned the role of Black Person Expert. This wasn’t the first time, and I assure you, it won’t be the last time I get asked to put on that hat.

When I was younger, I operated under the misconception that if I was one of the only people of color in the room, it was my responsibility to speak for All Black Folks. I assumed it was my responsibility because it was an expectation of white people. Each time I was asked to speak for All Black Folks, it made me uncomfortable to be put on the spot by a room full of white people who were expecting me to educate or enlighten them on the mysteries of “blackness.” It made me uncomfortable for several reasons, including the fact that I worried I would say the wrong thing. The “wrong thing” was a double-edged sword, because I was either going to misrepresent black people by giving my opinion as an individual who had very little access to other black people growing up, or I was going to disappoint white people by not saying what they wanted to hear. These situations became even more uncomfortable when other people of color were in the room, but weren’t being asked for their input. By the time I was done speaking, I was almost 100% guaranteed to have enemies on either side of that one-sided conversation.

Why would I be chosen as the spokesperson for All Black Folks when other people of color were present? Well, because I’m not really black. I mean, unless it’s more convenient for me to be black.

When the white woman looked at me for confirmation that she was using the appropriate, politically correct terminology for…I don’t know…black people in their natural state of being, a few buried memories and neglected emotions came to the surface of my mind. But first, I laughed out loud at the absurdity of her question and the fact that she was using the term incorrectly.

Before I delve into what this one seemingly harmless question awakened for me, I just want to make something perfectly clear, just in case you didn’t know, THERE IS NO MONOLITHIC BLACK IDENTITY.

You can’t point to one person’s experience and say, “that’s culturally authentic.” Also, “cultural authenticity” is a literary term used to measure how well a book depicts a specific cultural group regarding language, everyday life, etc. So, I’m not sure you can even use the term to describe real people. And, even if you could, the woman’s use of the term in relation to Bill O’Reilly’s comments and the reality of Congresswoman Waters’ hairstyle doesn’t make a lot of sense. What distinguishes Waters’ hair as being culturally authentic?

To satisfy my curiosity and to make sure I wasn’t spouting bullshit like Bill O’Reilly, I Googled the term, and the only hit I got that referenced actual people was in relation to tourism and the practice of “performing” cultural authenticity. I think this is also called staged authenticity, in which an indigenous culture creates a version of their culture for tourists that may not match the actual lives of people living in that culture.

Even after confirming my suspicions about the term and its correct usage, it still struck a chord with me, and I felt the need to explore how I was feeling about it being used to refer to non-fictional people. People who don’t necessarily fit into the misconception of “blackness” being one identity. So, I Googled “what does it mean to be black in America.” Go ahead. Google it. I’ll wait.

A lot of people are talking (and have been talking) about the meaning of “blackness” and how we view ourselves and others. Now, this is a subject I could really sink my teeth into. I realized that reading about other people’s experiences would help me unpack my own feelings and reactions to that white woman’s question and expectation that I had the answer.

FYI, I don’t have the answer.

After searching for “what does it mean to be black in America,” I felt validated, comforted, empowered, and relieved to know that I wasn’t alone in dealing with this identity issue as a woman of color who doesn’t always fit people’s world view of “blackness.” I especially enjoyed reading a Washington Post article that looked at the experiences of three women and what it means to be “black enough.”

“According to Jelani Cobb, a historian and writer at the New Yorker, defining “blackness” is inherently complicated — because race is an invented category dating back to slavery, and the category can encompass a range of identities and cultures. People identify as black, African American, African, Muslim, Native American, biracial and sometimes more.”

Identity can be a slippery slope when you don’t fit into one checkbox. And, as most people who aren’t completely clueless realize, the shaping of your identity is more complex than simply belonging to one racial group of people. This is especially true if you don’t belong to ONE racial group of people, but rather two or more. And, don’t even get me started about the intersectionalities of class, gender, sexuality, political views, religious beliefs and economic status that make the complexities of race and ethnicity even more complex.

Just like there is no monolithic blackness, there is no monolithic whiteness (although, the implication/belief of its existence is the foundation of so many problems we’re all facing in the world today), no monolithic femaleness or maleness, no monolithic gayness or straightness, or any monolithic version of any identity. That’s right angry fascist Americans, like it or not, we really are all a bunch of snowflakes. But, that’s a good thing. Our differences make us stronger and more interesting at dinner parties.

My entire life has been about finding a place to fit in. Wondering how I will ever be enough — black enough, feminine enough, pretty enough, smart enough, financially stable enough — which really boils down to being loved for who I am and who I am not.

Who am I?  I am a college educated middle-aged woman of color who writes dark speculative fiction. I am a divorced single parent of a tween boy who can pass for white in the right setting. I am the daughter of a white woman and a black man. I was raised in rural Pennsylvania by my mother’s working-class white family who were not actively racist, but culturally bigoted.

As a teen I experimented with drugs and attended hardcore shows in Central PA with skinheads, skaters and punks. I identified with Goth culture, dressed all in black, and read every piece of vampire fiction I could get my hands on. Hell, I even met Glenn Danzig.

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Me and my BFF.

My best friend is a white man I have been friends with for over 30 years and we have family dinners and celebrate certain holidays together each year. We’re family. And, speaking of family, I’m really fortunate to be so close to my cousins who make me laugh and remember not to take myself too seriously.

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Cousins make the best friends.

So, if you’re hoping to put me into one monolithic category, good luck. The color of my skin does not determine the unique and diverse nature of my life experiences. And, it certainly doesn’t make me an expert on “blackness.”

Fiction Fragments: B. E. Burkhead

B. E. BurkheadLast week Jennifer Loring shared an unfinished piece of fiction and talked to Girl Meets Monster about what gets in the way of finishing writing projects. This week I’m joined by B. E. Burkhead. I met this horror-inspired poet a few years ago in Philadelphia while touring the Eastern State Penitentiary as part of a fun-filled weekend hosted by Raw Dog Screaming Press.

 

B. E. Burkhead was born dead to a barren woman. He is a poet, author and artist. His collection of poetry The Underside of The Rainbow is available from Raw Dog Screaming Press. He lives on the vestigial tail of Maryland with his wife, son and army of cats.

Three Questions

Girl Meets Monster: When did you start writing poetry?

BEB: Memory is a funny thing, but I’ve found evidence of this. The first poem I ever wrote was about “the night.” I wrote it when I was seven.

Girl Meets Monster: Where does your inspiration come from?

BEB: I think about things and play ideas against each other. I mishear or misremember things. I take an idea and write it out, and gather every thought I have on the subject onto the page. I look at other poems and song lyrics and attempt to emulate what I like about that writer. I free write random words and phrases on a page and then mash them together in new ways. I draw a lot from my past, or stories people have told me. Everything is poetry. If you can find the right words.

Girl Meets Monster: What stops you from finishing a poem or piece of short fiction?

BEB: With poetry I’m good at never completely abandoning an idea, I have work books that I write my poetry in and I steal from myself constantly. What I consider my best poem, the underside of the rainbow, has a full stanza in it stolen from a terrible piece I’d written months before. Everything in those books stays in play even if my desire to express that thought in that way dies. I go by gut and ear. If it doesn’t feel or sound right I may set a poem down. But I may reread it much later and find something usable there. The original piece gets abandoned when the spark isn’t there. When I read it as a whole and have no desire to express those thoughts or feelings.

With fiction it tends to be laziness on my part. I will usually hit a point where either I don’t know what happens next, or I can’t think of a reasonable way to connect what is happening to what happens next. And I stop writing in the moment. If I don’t make myself go back to it again and again until I have an answer it will just get forgotten. My first attempt at a novel I learned I have a nasty habit of trying to edit if I reread more than a few sentences of what I did before. If that happens evidence suggests it will never get done. I’ve made that mistake a few times. Short fiction is better for this. If I can manage to get done, it can sit forever in a not edited enough for me to be happy state. But if I start trying to fix it before it has an ending I’ll just have too many other ideas bubbling up. Or too many other things outside of creative endeavors to do. You have to allow for life to interfere in you writing. And allow for your juices to refill. Never set your goals so tight that a small real life emergency ruins everything. Or that you have no down time.

Poetry Fragments, by B. E. Burkhead

  • “It is to our credit that, being mortal we endeavor more than even gods would dare to dream…”
  • “Life and death are such things
    Paper moons and cardboard kings
    Foolish sayings lost to time
    A madman’s words robed in rhyme”
  • “Saint Peter didn’t know the son of man
    Until his cock had crowed three times
    Within that Babylonian whore”
  • “She is smitten with the memory of a bridal negligee,
    Of a virginity surrendered to love…”
  • “I’ve always done my best but failed at being a man
    Cowering in shadows and sitting where I should stand
    So call me down to judgment
    My name’s not on your list
    And know me as a coward
    By the stutters on my wrist.”
  • “Lick you, rip you,
    Tear you all apart
    I’m an iconoclast
    And you’re a work of art.”

Join me here next week when cozy mystery writer, VM Burns shares an unfinished mystery and some insights on why certain writing projects are abandoned. Looking for a place to brag about your writing accomplishments and share some of your own unfinished work? Comment below or send your writing fragments to me at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fuck, Kill, Eat: Werewolves and the Death of Love

I’ve been thinking about werewolves a lot lately.

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No, really, like a lot.

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I recently listened to the audiobook of Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf, which is probably one of my favorite books of all time. I own a print copy and have read it twice, but decided to listen to it in my car on my way to work over the course of two weeks. I have a 40-minute drive to and from work Monday – Friday, and when I don’t feel like listening to music I listen to audiobooks that I download for free through an online service provided by my local library.

Over the past several months I listened to two Joe Hill novels, Heart-Shaped Box and NOS4A2, and the first two novels in the Vampire Diaries series by L. J. Smith. I had to stop listening to the Vampire Diaries novels, because I was getting pissed off at the fact that there are no people of color in the stories, and Elena Gilbert is a spoiled rich white girl who doesn’t deserve the love and attention of either Salvatore brother. I prefer the TV series to the novels mainly because of the diversity of characters and well…Damon Salvatore is a beautiful monster.

I would happily listen to more Joe Hill novels in my car, but I’ve either read or listened to all of them and last summer I even listened to Doctor Sleep and got my Charlie Manx fix through the world(s) shared between Joe Hill and Stephen King. I got very excited while listening to NOS4A2 when Charlie Manx talks about the different “inscapes” and the people he’s met that use them — Pennywise’s Circus (IT), the True Knot (Doctor Sleep), Christmasland (NOS4A2), the Treehouse of the Mind (Horns), the Night Road and Craddock McDermott (Heart-Shaped Box). Seriously, NOS4A2 is an Easter egg treasure-trove for readers of King and Hill. Treat yourself!

Reality has been kicking my ass, so my goal when choosing entertainment of any kind is to get as far from reality as possible. I often jokingly tell people that if a TV show, movie, or book doesn’t have vampires, werewolves, demons, witches, ghosts, or other paranormal characters, I’m not interested. But, it’s not really a joke.

I have been feeding my brain a steady diet of paranormal romance and dark speculative fiction. I binge-watched seasons 12 and 13 of Supernatural recently and now I’m suffering from Winchester withdrawal. Fox decided to cancel Lucifer, so I watched the last two bonus episodes and now that’s over and done. I started rewatching season 2 of Preacher to psyche myself up for season 3, but I’m not 100% sure of the date of its return to AMC. Then, on a whim, I decided to finally watch Lost Girl on Netflix. It has a Buffy vibe that I really enjoy and it is loaded with sexy, interesting, and often hilarious supernatural creatures. I like the dynamics between the Dark and Light Fae, I like the slow unfolding of the long cultural and political histories of this dual society, and I like the relationships that form between the characters. But, I’m not going to lie, the main reason why I’m watching right now is because of a certain werewolf.

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In the first season of Lost Girl, Dyson and the main character, Bo Dennis, become lovers. Because he is a werewolf chock full of Id and raging sexual energy, he is the first lover she’s ever had that didn’t die after having sex with her. Which, you know, is kind of a big deal when you’re a succubus.

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I mean, imagine if you had spent most of your adult life making love to people you’re attracted to or have strong feelings for, and each time you follow through on your sexual attraction, they end up dead. Sex with you is literally deadly. You are the embodiment of the death of love. Then, one day, you not only discover what you are and why your partners are dying, but you also find a mate who can provide you with what you need — companionship, acceptance, answers to your questions, finger-licking mega-boost sexual energy, and death-free sex. Death-free sex that is totally mind-blowing for both of you. You’d be tempted to think that love might still be in the cards for you.

I mean, love is still in the cards unless the person you love loves you so much that they inadvertently sacrifice their passion for you in an effort to save your life. Hence, the death of love. I mean, what’s more tragic than loving someone so much that you sacrifice everything for them with the consequence of never being able to love them again?

I’ve been on a werewolf kick for a while. Like I said, before I started watching Lost Girl on Netflix roughly a week ago, I listened to Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf, read by the late Robin Sachs, who lent his uber-sexy deep British accent to the first-person narrator, Jake Marlowe. Jake is a 200-year-old British werewolf who is facing the certainty of extinction of his species.

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For most of the novel, he accepts the fact that death is coming for him. In fact, he welcomes it. After 200 years, 147 of which he’s spent as a monster killing and eating humans, he’s done. He believes he’s seen it all and there are no new mysteries awaiting him. And then, the Universe has a few more laughs at his expense.

I suppose that most werewolf stories are really about love and it’s loss when you examine them closely enough. Lycanthropy is typically viewed as a curse that ruins the lives of the people who contract it. In most cases, lycanthropy is passed from werewolf to human through a bite. Unless lycanthropy is inherited through a family bloodline, or achieved through magical means, like wearing a belt made from a wolf’s pelt with a little black magic for good measure, werewolves are usually the survivors of violent attacks. And, once their physical wounds heal, the psychological ones are usually just beginning. If the werewolf has a conscience, they will most likely experience the early stages of a mental collapse after the first full moon when they turn into a homicidal maniac in wolf form.

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Jake Marlowe became a werewolf because he was bitten by one and during his first transformation he killed his wife. After killing and eating her, he read her journal and discovered that she was pregnant. His first act as a werewolf was to literally kill and eat love. For 147 years, he spent his life observing the sacred rites of werewolves: Fuck, Kill, Eat. He never found love again. At least, not until he realizes he’s about to be extinct. The Universe likes to laugh at us, but it seems to be especially jovial where monsters are concerned. At least romantic monsters who cling to their humanity in the midst of an extreme identity crisis. Jake assumes he’s the last living werewolf on Earth until he meets his female counterpart, Tallula Demetriou. So, not only is Jake no longer the last werewolf on Earth, but now he has a reason to live: Love.

So, what’s the deal with werewolves and romance? Well, who doesn’t want a passionate lover driven by their Id with superhuman strength, stamina, and a biological need to mate for life? A werewolf mate will literally kill people to keep you safe…or as an insane response to their unbridled jealousy.

At the heart of all werewolves is murderous rage and rapacious sexual energy. Left unchecked, they commit atrocities like Jake Marlowe killing his wife and unborn child, and while in human form they are often slaves to their libido. Without love, werewolves are basically fucking, killing, and eating machines.

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Typically, werewolves are portrayed as strong, handsome men suffering from some sort of identity crisis, or extreme guilt over becoming a murder once a month, and possibly an unbearable, soul-crushing melancholy brought on by unrequited love.

What I like most about Glen Duncan’s Last Werewolf Trilogy is the fact that we see the lives of werewolves from two perspectives, both male and female. Jake Marlowe’s acceptance of his true werewolf self — the good, the bad, the ugly, and the murderous — makes him an oddly likeable character. He has sex with prostitutes and somehow manages to not be a misogynist. He kills and eats humans once a month and somehow manages to be endearing in his descriptions of his own psychology. He’s a conundrum of horror, repulsion, intellect, cynicism, and raw sex appeal. Werewolves are mythological bad boys and they make excellent romantic characters when making terrible choices is your raison d’etre. I probably mentioned this before, but falling in love with monsters is usually a bad idea, regardless of what popular paranormal romance tells us. Whether you join Team Jacob or Team Edward, you’re essentially signing up for assisted suicide.

But, what if the werewolf is female?

If the 2000 cult horror film Ginger Snaps teaches us nothing else, it teaches us that female werewolves are dangerous monsters (and super-fucking cool). Their danger lies not only in the physical power that comes with their transformations each month, but in the empowerment that comes from shedding all the bullshit societal expectations of femininity. Female werewolves embrace their sexuality and engage in the mental gymnastics required to deal with the implied duality of being vessels for the creation of life and choosing to murder to satisfy the bone-rattling hunger for human flesh.

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But hey, don’t most women deal with similar dualities in every day life? Women are expected to be attractive to appease the ever-present male gaze, but only if they maintain the illusion of virginity. Women who ignore the male gaze and express their unique brand of sexuality or lack of interest in sex all together are accused of being sluts or hags. Let’s face it, there’s nothing more monstrous than sex-positive women who take full ownership of their bodies and decide who can and can’t have access to them.

Female werewolves choose their own paths. They embrace their sexuality. They choose multiple partners or mate for life. They become mothers or remain childless. They give the middle finger to societal expectations and rip out the patriarchy’s jugular.

As it turns out, Jake Marlowe is not the last werewolf. Tallula, his lover, his mate, his salvation, the love of his life (no pressure), makes the inevitability of extinction less likely. In fact, he gains strength in knowing that she is a better werewolf than he could ever hope to be. Tallula struggles with internal chorus of right and wrong that developed from her American upbringing and the expectations that women can only occupy certain roles — maiden, mother, and crone. And possibly, harlot. Tallula likes sex and engages in murder with the same ardor. She and Jake kill together and then have sex over the corpse in werewolf form, which ironically brings them closer together as a couple in their human guises. Essentially, their a serial-killing couple. Murder mates. Even monsters need love, right?

So, if female werewolves are more powerful and scarier than male werewolves, that might help explain how male werewolves have become sexually-charged eye candy in a lot of paranormal romantic fiction. I’m just stating that as a fact. It’s not a criticism in the least, because that would make me a hypocrite. There’s nothing I enjoy more than objectifying sexy werewolves…and examining the potentially dangerous ramifications of sexualizing monsters.

Peter Rumancek of Hemlock Grove, the Netflix original series based on Brian McGreevy’s 2012 novel by the same name, is an interesting monster. While he is physically appealing, his real attraction comes from his delightful irreverence and cynicism, and while his Romany upbringing predisposes him to criminal activity, his internal struggles are more geared toward keeping the people he loves safe rather than his guilt over killing and eating people.

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Then we have Alcide Herveaux, who could possibly be the sexiest werewolf ever in paranormal fiction. Charlaine Harris has kindly given us countless fuckable fictional characters, but Alcide is in a class all by himself.

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In Alan Ball’s adaptation of Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels for the HBO series True Blood, Alcide gets a much broader story arc than he does in the novels and his flirtations with Sookie Stackhouse got much further. He’s an interesting character who embodies strength and loyalty to a fault. And jealousy. Let’s not forget jealousy, which is essentially Alcide’s kryptonite.

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I have a soft spot in my heart for Alcide because he makes worse relationship decisions than I do. I mean, this guy has TERRIBLE luck with romance and his choice of partners, including Sookie Stackhouse, are pretty much all bad ideas. Plus, there’s the added bonus of him being naked a lot of the time.

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So, in the process of writing this blog post I realized that I have a lot more to say about werewolves and this post might be the jumping off point for a short series of posts. I definitely feel like I have more to say about female werewolves vs. male werewolves, and I’d like to talk more about Glen Duncan’s trilogy. But, I need to think about the subject a little more deeply.

Which reminds me, while I was listening to the second audiobook in the trilogy, Tallula Rising, I was able to solve or at least recognize the solution to an issue in my own writing. Tallula talks about her feelings in relation to motherhood and the acceptance of the terrible things she does and that are done to her. It was a moment of clarity that confirms the idea that in order to become a better writer, you need to read more books. I’m not going to talk about that moment of clarity in this post. I’ll save it for a future post. But, I will say that the irony of finding clarity about my own identity, my own writing, and the world I live in through stories about monsters is not lost on me. My own otherness has made me feel connected to monsters since childhood and I have always felt empathy toward characters who have no control of who or what they are. I suppose, I feel a kinship to monsters and the older I get, the more I take pride in that fact.

I’m going to keep up the ongoing process of self-discovery through writing in the hopes of becoming not only a better writer, but hopefully, my best self. And, I’m going to keep thinking about werewolves.

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I mean seriously, can you blame me?

Fiction Fragments: Jennifer Loring

JennLoringLast week I introduced a new blog series, Fiction Fragments, in which I will share abandoned writing projects. Each week, a different writer will be featured. You’ll learn a little bit about their writing process, you’ll learn a little bit about them, and get a chance to read some of their unfinished work.

This week, I welcome my good friend and fellow writer, Jennifer Loring. I met Jenn during my first MFA in Writing Popular Fiction residency at Seton Hill University. She was one of my first critique partners and I always looked forward to reading the pages she sent me. Since then, we’ve visited a haunted penitentiary, attended horror writing conventions, and talked about our shared love of vampires over many beers.

Jennifer Loring’s short fiction has been published widely both online and in print, including the anthologies Tales from the Lake vol. 1 and vol. 4 and Nightscript vol. 4. Longer work includes the novel Those of My Kind, published by Omnium Gatherum, and the novella Conduits from Lycan Valley Press. Jenn is a member of the International Thriller Writers (ITW) and the Horror Writers Association (HWA). She holds an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University with a concentration in horror fiction and teaches online in SNHU’s College of Continuing Education. Jenn lives in Philadelphia, PA with her husband, where they are owned by a turtle and two basset hounds.

Three Questions

Girl Meets Monster: What inspired this fragment?

Jenn: It was a long time ago, but I believe it was inspired at least in part by a Velvet Acid Christ album cover. Music is always a huge inspiration for me. The general concept was, as you can probably tell from the title, a dying man’s dream. However, this particular man is about to be executed.

Girl Meets Monster: What kept you from continuing with the story?

Jenn: Mostly because I felt I couldn’t do justice to the idea in my head. Which is something we all deal with throughout our careers and something I’ve learned to work through, but I was still fairly young at this point—26 or so, I think—so I didn’t have the confidence in my writing that I’ve gradually built up since then.

Girl Meets Monster: Do you know how this story ends?

Jenn: Great question! I honestly have no idea. I’ve kept it for almost 15 years, so I guess I had the intention of finishing it at some point. His being executed would be too obvious, so maybe he would get a last-minute pardon?

Last Dream of a Dead Man, by Jennifer Loring
The mattress damp with fluids not his own huffed as he sat up and peered at the dirt-encrusted floor beneath him. A dim light came from somewhere, perhaps the same place as the voices that crawled through the walls and into his ears like hissing cockroaches. Liquid puddled in the corners of the room. Too dark to tell if it was water or blood.

Wake up, the voices screamed inside his head. He pinched himself. Awake. He did not know where he was, though the cell looked vaguely familiar.

The girl rolled into his room in a wheelchair, sewing a new leg onto the stump of her left thigh. Both arms and her right leg bore stitch marks made of heavy dark thread. She was the same as that night when he’d taken her, with the pink headband in her long blond hair. “Are little girls made of sugar and spice and everything nice?” she asked him, the needle diving in and out of the leg she held with her other hand. He wondered whose limbs they were or if, being a child, she even cared that they didn’t belong to her. “Or are they made of flesh and blood like everyone else?”

He looked down and found his arms and legs lying in a red pool, the remaining stumps spurting an alarming amount of blood. The girl laughed maliciously and he remembered. He had told her that he wanted to see what little girls were made of. No one ever found her arms and legs, and he never told. “Where am I?” he asked.

“The Needleman is coming. No one will weep for you.” She smiled with a cruelty particular to children, tucked the needle and thread into the pocket of her dress, and wheeled herself into the corridor.

He told himself to move his limbs and they, attached to him again, obeyed. He walked to the door to follow her, but she had vanished into the darkness. Flies coated the bloodstained walls, a living and moving black paint, an ever-shifting shadow. Metallic clanks of doors slamming shut echoed through the hallway. The voices whispered but he did not understand, or didn’t want to.

He felt the stares of invisible eyes upon him and ran to the end of the hall; he pushed open a set of double doors and stared up at the sky. All the stars were gone, and the moon’s huge infected eye spilled bloody light onto the dead grass, staining his clothes and hands. He turned back to the doors. They had become a brick wall.

Ahead of him, the little girl wheeled herself out of the shadows. Beside her, walking on the insides of her feet because he had fractured her ankles, was his favorite. She was the first, and he’d told her to be very quiet. Now a rusted zipper stretched across her mouth so she could not scream, but he imagined the little girl would do the talking for her. In her television eyes flickered images of her grieving parents, her suicidal fiancé, her two younger sisters robbed of their idol. Then flashing video loops of a snuff film worse than any fantasized by even the sickest mind. Each murder, there in her eyes, each moment captured by the camera lens of her pupils.

“Tell us why you did it. That’s all they ever wanted to hear. And if they believed you, they might have kept the Needleman away. Maybe they still can. Go on, you can tell me.” The girl leaned forward, feigning profound interest.

He stepped back, startled. Was that all they really wanted? Was that what could save him? No, he didn’t believe it. She was tricking him. He had no reason to trust her.

“Go on, tell me. Maybe the nightmares will go away. Maybe they’ll save you, and the nightmares will never come again.”

“You’re lying. What’s in it for you if I tell you?”

“Peace. It’s what you want, it’s what we all want. Hurry! The Needleman doesn’t like to be kept waiting!”

“Leave me alone!” He ran into the dark, with the disembodied little-girl voice chasing him.

“We’ll never leave! Not in this life and not in the next! We’re all yours now―you wanted it that way, remember? All yours now.”

He stopped running when both girls blocked his path, wherever it might lead. The tall girl who was once beautiful unzipped her mouth, and a swarm of maggots squirmed out, dropping onto the grass at her feet.

Next Friday, B. E. Burkhead will share some of his poetry fragments here at Girl Meets Monster. Would you like to submit your unfinished writing and talk about what stops you from finishing certain projects? Comment below or submit your fragment to me at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Life I Learned from InspiroBot

I’m not sure if you noticed, but there seems to be a surplus of inspirational platitudes out there to help us get through everything from bad break-ups to writers block to staying motivated while pursing our personal goals. Don’t believe me? Spend five minutes on Pinterest and let me know what you find. In fact, here’s the board I use to collect inspirational platitudes.

These tired, often recycled quotes that encourage us to keep our chins up and move forward, no matter how bad the reality of our situation might be, are for the most part well-meaning sentiments. However, if you’re a cynic like me, and have a dark sense of humor, or if you’ve simply been through some truly terrible experiences in life, traditional motivational quotes might piss you off. At the very least, they will inspire a need to mock them.

I’ve been going through some rough times lately. And, by lately, I mean for the past several years. As a divorced, middle-aged woman of color who is a single parent living paycheck to paycheck, I can attest to the fact that the struggle is real. This isn’t my first Everything is Going to Shit Rodeo. In fact, I have developed this uncanny ability to remain calm and keep moving forward in the face of every challenge that has come my way.

So far.

I have yet to curl up and die, but don’t assume that I’m a superwoman who doesn’t need anybody’s support to get through the tough times. That just isn’t true. I cry. I scream. I write.  I cry some more. And, I am blessed with an amazing network of people who want to see me succeed. Friends who want to help if they are able. Family who is always there for me. I’m not fighting these battles alone, but after a while, I get worn out from dealing with these challenges day in and day out. I’d like to be able to put down the plates spinning above my head without letting them shatter on the ground.

You may be asking yourself, “How does she cope?” To be honest, although my struggle is mainly the product of a lack of stability, I still have a roof over my head, enough money to pay most of my bills (my defaulted student loans not included), and as always, I have a back-up plan. Okay, one or two back-up plans.

There are people in this world, in this country, in my neighborhood, who are worse off than I am. Yes, I am struggling for stability, but I won’t have to go live on the street with my son, and I won’t have to do anything seriously demeaning to earn money. Like I said, I have a back-up plan.

As you might imagine, people who want to see me succeed have lots of kind words of support and encouragement, and yes, even platitudes. Again, all given with good intentions. And, I believe that people are sincere when they offer their words of support. But, the darker side of me, my cynical self, needs humor to deal with the struggle. Because, let’s face it, if I’m not laughing, I’m more likely to start shouting obscenities at people which only makes matters worse.

My taste in humor runs from absurdist to gallows. For example, last year around this time I was watching Twin Peaks: The Return and one of the funniest scenes in the series that made me literally laugh out loud, was in episode 11, in which Gordon Cole (David Lynch) makes the following assessment while staring at a man whose head exploded without explanation, leaving only the bottom half of his face: “He’s dead.” I replayed the scene three times and laughed over and over. Sometimes, gaping head wounds can be hilarious. In my opinion, overstatement of the obvious, especially in the context of the finality of death, can be extremely funny.

Around the same time last year, a good friend of mine introduced me to the AI inspirational meme generator, InspiroBot. Initially, I just laughed at the random  inappropriateness of the memes. But then I realized that this alternative to insipid, empty platitudes about finding happiness in the worst of times, was exactly what I needed in my life. In fact, I’ve been playing with InspiroBot almost every day since I became aware of it. And, I’m not the only one who’s enjoying the nearly Dadaist memes that range from the absurd to the eerily thought provoking to basic common sense. InspiroBot introduces itself like so:

I’m InspiroBot.
I am an artificial intelligence dedicated to generating unlimited amounts of unique inspirational quotes for endless enrichment of pointless human existence.

So far, InspiroBot has brought me hours of enjoyment, stimulated my own creativity, and reminded me that laughing at things that make most people uncomfortable is actually soothing to me. The memes it generates are funny enough, but the interface is also humorous in a scary science fiction sort of way. It reminds me of AI in films, like Hal 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Skynet Corporation from the Terminator franchise, and David 8 from Alien: Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. The darkly humorous interface inspired Michael Walsh to write an article about InspiroBot suffering from an existential crisis for The Nerdist.

I don’t know if InspiroCorp©™® will be the catalyst for the destruction of humankind, but while I’m waiting to find out, I’m learning lots of interesting things from InspiroBot. As an agnostic who continues to search for meaning in the Universe, I’m open to finding meaning in places that might not make sense to others. At the moment, InspiroBot is one of my preferred forms of meditation. If meditation can be compared to a slot machine that generates bizarre Jungian Stream of Consciousness platitudes that either enlighten or confuse. Even if the path ahead for me isn’t clear, it’s clear to me that InspiroBot wants me to look at things differently. Here are five examples of wisdom I’ve gleaned from the AI meme generator.

Number 1: InspiroBot reminds us that our fear of dying alone may be the primary force that drives us to seek out romantic relationships. Marriage is the logical conclusion for most people who find love in this life, much like death is the logical conclusion to life itself.

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Number 2: Sometimes, you need to start with a clean slate. Which means, you need to learn how to not only accept the fact of change, but embrace it. Starting over can be scary, but it is often necessary to move forward to the next phase of your life. Whether that means quitting a job you hate, leaving a relationship that is sucking the life out of you, or literally setting something you’ve created on fire, like a short story or a painting, so you can begin again with a fresh perspective.

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Number 3: It’s okay to be weird. Being weird, especially in the company of fellow weirdoes can be an intense mood elevator. Getting together with like-minded people, whether they’re horror writers, furries, or goths, can really lift your spirits and remind you that you’re not alone in the world, and more importantly, you aren’t completely crazy. Unfurl your freak flag!

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Number 4: Life lessons aren’t always happy occasions. In fact, I often believe that the more traumatic the lesson, the greater the learning opportunity. People like to tell us to “move on,” or “suck it up,” or “get over it.” Bullshit. Embrace your bad times and learn from them so that you don’t have to repeat them in the future. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.”

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Number 5: The previous meme reminds us that we can learn from our mistakes. One of life’s lessons I have to keep relearning is to not chase after people who do not have my best interest in mind. I have a terrible habit of finding myself attracted to people who will most likely cause me harm. I mean, honestly, my love of monsters relates to both fictional characters and literal people from my past. The idea of seeking out a partner who will either consciously or unconsciously hurt you due to who they are, their life choices, or a history of bad behavior in romantic relationships is almost always a bad idea. Breaking this habit is an ongoing project for me. At least when it comes to real people. My love of fictional monsters will probably never go away. Vampires, werewolves, and Lucifer just do it for me.

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Inspiration can come from unexpected sources. Some people seek enlightenment through religion, others seeks answers in Nature. For now, my answers come from InspiroBot. Laugh if you must, but don’t knock it until you try it.