Using Horror in Literary Fiction

Jenny StalterThe following is a guest post by Jenny Stalter, whose short story “Date With Crocodile Girl” appeared in Issue 18 of Typehouse.

_______________________________________

My cousins and I gathered around my stretched-out brother. We would laboriously lift him and feign stupefaction as he “floated” in the very air, unaided. “Light as a feather, stiff as a board, RISE! Light as a feather stiff as a board, RISE!” we would chant, over and over until we dropped him, which was—clearly the fault of whoever hadn’t been concentrating enough.

I recall sleepovers with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, read by flashlight. We would put pennies in our mouths and say, “This is the taste of blood.” We arranged our dolls on the windowsill, backlit by blue moonlight, and whispered that they were alive, they were coming for us, until we actually saw them move. We crushed leaves together with vinegar and Kool-Aid and the bodies of insects, concocting potions and we cast spells. We held hands and stared into mirrors and dared Bloody Mary to appear. We double-dog-dared each other into cellars and attics, returning with unspeakable tales about Raw-Head-and-Bloody-Bones or the Cucuy. We poked sticks at the bodies of decaying cats. We loved the thrill of the supernatural, of viscera and of fear. Mostly we were curious and alive.

Children’s games eventually gave way to reading the horror greats and when I was in the fourth grade, I wrote a novella called “Murder Island,” featuring hapless teenagers, a coven of witches, torture, a dungeon with a cage made from human bones, and forced cannibalism. Reading, writing and horror were in my blood. For me, horror elicits some of the most potent emotions: shock, disgust, hopelessness, fear. But mostly, it titillates my curiosity.

As a teenager I began reading literary fiction, becoming overwhelmed by its capacity to move me. Literary fiction stretched me across the entirety of the emotional spectrum. I felt connected to other people; humanity multiplied, the universe all packed into matter and consciousness. I began to use elements of horror when writing literary fiction to magnify this affirmation that we are alive. Humanoid creatures, body horror, gore, even tragedy—I implement each of these into my fiction to fully open the experience. To tease at our deepest existential fears and questions.

In my story “Date With Crocodile Girl,” I use a non-human, deadly creature to discuss human nature. There is a natural inclination to see a juxtaposition between a carnivorous reptile and a human woman but as the story unfolds, Crocodile Girl and her date discuss ethics and morality, and they find common ground. The woman discovers her most authentic self through her interaction and infatuation with the crocodile. But ultimately Crocodile Girl is still a monster. And by the end of the story, we grow anxious for the woman’s safety. We are left grappling, not only with the woman’s fate, but with the parallels between human and beast.

I want to cast spells. I want to leave you with the taste of blood in your mouth.

_______________________________________

Jenny Stalter is a writer and former private chef. Her work appears in New Flash Fiction Review, Eunoia Review, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine and Tiny Molecules. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee.

The Backstory of “Badass”

Pamela StutchThe following is a guest post by Pamela Stutch, whose short story “Badass” appeared in Issue 18 of Typehouse.

_______________________________________

During the summer of 2018, I had the opportunity to follow one of my favorite instrumental hard-rock bands. It was a chance to view a successful group up-close, devoid of any glamour. I became especially friendly with the band’s bassist and only woman in the entourage. She told me about driving around the country in their van, the equipment and luggage jammed in the back, for weeks, even months on end, and how the other band members relied on her for everything from hotel reservations to paperwork for the next gig. But she liked it, she said. They had been a band for twenty years. A family. She had never thought about doing anything else.

One evening, before the set, I encountered her in the ladies room.

“They can’t even order their own meals,” she said in an irritated tone, referring to the other band members. She plopped her knapsack on the floor with a thud and put her hands on her hips. “I had to take it all down on a napkin and bring it to the kitchen or else we wouldn’t have eaten tonight.” Then she added sheepishly, “I don’t mean to complain. It just gets to me sometimes.”

Inspired by her, when I returned home I began to write a story about a traveling rock band and its only female member. When I brought the piece to one of my MFA workshops, however, I quickly saw that it didn’t work.

“These people are too nice,” my instructor said of my characters. “Think of a middle-aged punk band with Joan Jett in it. Think of a woman who won’t take shit from anyone getting very sick of her life.”

I came back to the piece with a different perspective. I rewrote it again and again, imagining my protagonist on stage, braced with an attitude, and her bandmates jaded, crude, and much different than they were in real life. I bent, shaped, and stretched my characters way beyond their original boundaries. To depict the culmination of my narrator’s frustration, I conjured up a modern-day female Jimi Hendrix who uses hairspray instead of lighter-fluid to torch the band’s equipment. The story “Badass,” which appeared in Typehouse Issue 18, resulted from those efforts.

By coincidence, the evening I found out that “Badass” had been accepted, the band I had followed was scheduled to play at a nearby club. I greeted the bassist at the end of the show and excitedly conveyed the news about the upcoming publication.

“I don’t know what to say.” She grinned, her eyes shining in the post-show club lights. “I’ve never been the inspiration for a story before. I’m flattered.”

I promised to send her a copy and she hugged me. As I left the club and walked to my car, I felt a renewed sense of gratitude for the perseverance to struggle through the writing process, as difficult as it is, and bring stories to life.

_______________________________________

Pamela Stutch received her MFA from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program. Her stories have appeared in Typehouse Literary Magazine and Five on the Fifth. Another story will be published in The Woven Tale Press later this year. She is currently employed as an attorney and lives in Scarborough, Maine, with her husband, son, one cat and one dog. Photo credit Matt Jones.

One Writer’s Dilemma: Whether to announce a new story publication to mother and family.

Elizabeth FergasonThe following is a guest post by Elizabeth Fergason, whose creative non fiction work “Soup Day” appeared in Issue 19 of Typehouse.

_______________________________________

All my life my father, my birth-father that is, was a secret. Growing up, whenever I’d inquire, my mother would tell me I wasn’t old enough yet to know. Once I was an adult I heightened the asking. Finally, I threatened to never return home. “Okay, okay,” she said as she flipped through her Roledex and dialed his number. Just like that.

I recently wrote a short piece about the one and only time I met my birth-father and now it’s out in print. Normally, I announce my work once it’s published. I want friends and family to read my pieces. But this story is different, this is my mother’s secret I’m releasing. She’s kept the circumstances of my birth from so many — including her last husband to whom she was married for 27 years.

Revealing a family secret can be tricky. Revelation has its consequences. Writers understand this more than most. A writer friend of mine is holding off until after a family member dies to share a story they don’t want told. This is one way to handle it. The Wait.

There can also be a question about who exactly has the right to tell. It’s all about freedom of speech – say some. This is called Anything Goes.

The story my mother chooses to suppress is her own but I’m quite certain it is my story too. Am I under familial obligation to keep it out of circulation? Do I have to buy in to the revisionist family history she puts out to the world? I would say no.

Yet, despite having every right to share the secret, I feel uncertain. I dig into my values. Do no harm is a personal aspiration. Sharing a squashed and buried history is bound to make my mother suffer. I’ll be butting up against my own moral code.

On the other hand, I’m convinced that sharing the story will help me to heal from years of questions and uncertainty about my identity. Do I forfeit my own healing to accommodate my mother? True compassion involves fostering one’s own well-being before moving on to others. I need to take care of myself by speaking freely. If I want to say it, write it, share it, I will.

Or I won’t.

As much as I’d like to put the story out on every front, even more than this I wish to not create hurt. And so, I reconcile myself as the reluctant co-conspirator — a role I despise.

But then I rebel a little, and draw a snaky line in the road: I will share the published piece with my friends but not my mother, nor any of the people she knows. If by chance or karma, she happens upon the piece — well, let the fates take hold.

_______________________________________

Elizabeth Fergason is a native North Carolinian and an emerging writer who graduated from the MA English program at San Francisco State University. Recent literary publications include Flash Fiction Magazine, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Parhelion, Ligea, and Blue Moon. These works may be connected to through elizabethfergason.com.

Breakwater Stones: How Stories Are Shaped by Erratics

Eric ScholzThe following is a guest post by Eric Scholz, whose short story “Three-Day Bleed” appeared in Issue 16 of Typehouse.

_______________________________________

I find a certain poetic beauty in the fact that my first visit to Lake Michigan served as the catalyst for a story set at the New Jersey Shore. The story’s ubiquitous setting amalgamates the various beach towns of my childhood, but the breakwater stones that characters Louise and Pete climb on make their way into the story like glacial erratics (Latin errare, meaning “to wander”)—giant rocks carried hundreds of miles and dropped in new lands by advancing and retreating glaciers. I was on tour with my band, A Film in Color, and feeling very homesick. Jumping between those big stones with my best friends on the shores of Milwaukee’s McKinley Beach, I finally felt like I didn’t totally hate my life, despite the gnawing fear of slipping and falling into the lake. As I lay across the backseat of our 1990 Chevy Beaumont deathtrap en route to the next show, I recorded all my thoughts about those breakwater stones. In this blogpost I’ll analyze some of the other erratics that found their way into “The Three Day Bleed.”

“The Three Day Blow” by Ernest Hemingway”

The story’s title came to me one afternoon while flipping through Hemingway’s Complete Short Stories as I waited on the porch for a bass to arrive in the mail. I noticed a story called “The Three Day Bleed.” Of course, no such story exists. I noted the misread in my phone and it resurfaced in my consciousness months later when I was home from tour and expanding my breakwater free-write into a proper story.

“Franny” by J.D. Salinger

A lot of the protagonist’s naivete is the result of me not knowing what things are called, but Louise’s real spiritual ancestor is Franny Glass. I was reading Franny and Zooey and thinking a lot about my mother, who, over the course of the 2010s underwent a number of surgeries to remove skin cancer caused by sunburn, leaving scars across her nose and cheeks. I was in my late twenties and beginning to understand the horrible ways in which decisions made by our younger selves come back to disfigure us. This is why Louise and Pete tease one another about sunscreen in much the same fashion as Franny is teased by her beefheaded boyfriend, Lane.

“‘Am I dying?’: The miscarriage that leveled me, and brought us closer” by West Moss

West Moss was my first real writing mentor, and her collection, The Subway Stops at Bryant Park, is one of my all-time favorites. This essay predates the aforementioned collection by at least three years, but it is every bit as moving. I remember sitting in Moss’s fiction workshop and listening to her read the essay aloud and thinking I could never write something so emotionally stirring. In the essay, a younger Moss learns she is pregnant and excitedly tells her partner. The two laugh and then panic, and her partner blithely asks: “When are the adults coming home?” Weeks later, Moss learns she will miscarry. She calls her parents, but her father answers the phone. She tells him the news, and he responds: “Wait… I don’t have my hearing aids in,” before handing the phone off to Moss’s mother. If I learned one thing from Moss (the lessons I learned from her are countless) it’s that well-placed levity enhances the emotional impact of a scene.

_______________________________________

Eric Joseph Scholz is a writer and musician from New Jersey. He holds an MFA in Creative and Professional Writing from William Paterson University and plays bass in A Film In Color and Heavy Sigh. His work has been featured most recently in Typehouse Magazine, Construction Literary, Watchung Review, and the New Jersey Bards Anthology. In 2019, his fiction was awarded the NJCEA Graduate Student Writing Award. He teaches composition, literature, and creative writing.

Poetry Groups: A How-To for Participating & Managing

Cathryn SheaThe following is a guest post by Cathryn Shea, whose poetry appeared in Issue 16 of Typehouse.

_______________________________________

While there are several types of poetry groups and workshops, this article talks about one of the more common formats. Participants of my workshop/poetry group meet in person and are on equal footing. The format has a few house rules to ensure everyone is heard and the meeting ends on time.

Where to Find a Group of Poets

Poetry readings, book launches, and communities of writers are a good place to meet poets who already meet up or who want to form a group. A poet named Yvonne who I met at a library reading had a small group and invited me to submit my work to see if the other poets might like me to join. That was fifteen years ago. I’ve been with this group ever since.

Informal Chair

Yvonne, over the years, has become the informal chairperson of our group, which means that she maintains our address list, sends out email meeting reminders, and handles the email correspondence with prospective new members.

Schedule, “Venue,” and Snacks

We meet every two weeks on Monday night. Our meeting starts at 7:00 PM and we aim to end by 9:00 PM due to work schedules and commutes.

There are currently nine members, but on typical meeting nights five or six show up. If fewer than four can make it, we usually call off the meeting. We maintain the same schedule, however, which means if the meeting is cancelled, we will meet in two weeks from that date, not one. This is what works for us so we can plan around Monday nights and not have as many calendar conflicts.

We now meet only at Yvonne’s home. We used to rotate but as circumstances changed, we are happy to meet at the same place. Most of us bring cookies, nuts, or fruit to share. Our host provides tea and hot water. At all my poetry groups we do not drink alcoholic beverages. Alcohol would make us too giddy and silly. In my groups we are chatty and laugh a lot. For some reason, tea is the default beverage of choice instead of coffee.

Logistics

We begin by handing out copies of our poems around the table. Then someone (typically Yvonne) says, “Who wants to go first?”

We take a few minutes in silence to read the poem to ourselves.

The author reads their poem to the group. (No explanations or apologies if you can help it.) We do not strictly time each poem, but some of us remind the group about time. It helps to have a dictionary and thesaurus handy, and optionally, a book of poetry forms. Each turn typically takes fifteen to twenty minutes, depending on how many people are in attendance

This is important: the author remains quiet while the group discusses the poem. No butting in.

We are not strict about the order of who speaks as we go around the table and say what we think works well and what we think does not work, and suggest changes to punctuation, wording, order. We argue good naturedly over commas, line breaks, word choice, stanza order, titles, etc. Places in the poem that threw us out and obscure or archaic words. To outsiders it can sound like we are fighting, but we are amicable and friendly. We never attack anyone personally. We all want honest feedback no matter how bad the news may be for our poem.

After everyone has given their feedback, the author can speak and ask any questions or explain anything they wish. Sometimes we continue debating a few points or we might look up a word or bring out the thesaurus.

We write helpful notes and feedback on the poem, typically during the discussion and quickly before we hand the poem back to the author. (Make sure to sign the poem.)

After we hand our copies of the poem back to the author, we move onto the next person. The next person might just be counterclockwise or might be a volunteer who says, “I’ll go next.”

How and When to Bring in New Members

If after someone has dropped out or attendance becomes low, we might start to feel that the group has too few members. Then we start to think hard about recruiting. This typically happens every few years as people’s lives change. We used to post on Craig’s List if we were stuck for ideas of who to invite; we don’t love this method though. Word of mouth is best. The past few years we’ve been lucky to have members recommend poets to the group.

Our chairperson sends an invitation email to the new person and asks them to send three or four poems. Then the members of the group respond only within our group with their high-level feedback on the poems. We do not copy the new person.

We vote via email to invite the person and schedule a meeting when the new person can attend to try us out and for us to try them out. We hold a final vote via email. Keeping the count at eight or nine ensures that enough people will be available to meet, but is not too unwieldy to manage.

We all feel fortunate to have this community of poets with whom to bond and share our stories of submission and rejection and our new publications and books. These are perks in addition to developing our craft with the group.

_______________________________________

Cathryn Shea is the author of four chapbooks, including Backpack Full of Leaves (Cyberwit, 2019) and Secrets Hidden in a Pear Tree (dancing girl press, 2019). Her first full-length poetry book, Genealogy Lesson for the Laity, is forthcoming from Unsolicited Press in September 2020. Cathryn’s poetry was nominated for Best of the Net and appears in Typehouse, Gargoyle, Permafrost, Rust + Moth, and elsewhere. Cathryn served as editor for Marin Poetry Center Anthology. See www.cathrynshea.com and @cathy_shea on Twitter.

Thoughts on Writing about Time Travel

Mike NeesThe following is a guest post by Mike Nees, whose story “The Shifts” appeared in Issue 16 of Typehouse.

_______________________________________

How many times have I wished that I could revise the past? More than I can count. And yet, it’s not until the late 19th Century that anyone seems to have fantasized about a mechanism through which one might do this. No shortage of ancient tales explore other aspects of time’s relativity; Hindu, Buddhist, and Jewish stories all send figures into distant futures, for example, where time has passed without them. So why did it take so long for anyone to explore the idea in reverse?

Did God know in advance that Adam and Eve would eat from the tree? I think it’s a very different kind of story if so, and I can see how one would get caught up in the question. Omnipotence is the kind of conceit that I’m happy to indulge in a good story, provided I’m allowed to scrutinize it, and the author is willing to think it through. Like time travel, it requires the author to make bold predictions about how reality works. I love to see what authors do when out on these limbs.

So let’s say we create a protagonist and send her back in time to stop a disaster. No matter how modest our literary intent, we have to make some bold decisions. Does our hero find that fate is unbendable, and that everything—including her own time travel—is the predetermined course of a clockwork universe? Or does she discover the opposite scenario, in which her every actions triggers a butterfly effect of staggering consequence? I think these are the two extremes that we see most often. Both fascinate me, personally, but both have some significant trappings.

On the deterministic end, we risk revealing our own crass sense of omnipotence. We risk writing the Architect scene from the Matrix sequel, in which the audience is expected to have their minds blown by a pompously delivered diatribe about how our decisions have no meaning. I have no business saying that to a reader whose struggles I don’t know. And yet, I would argue that a skilled author can pull it off to great effect. Ted Chiang invokes this premise in “Story of Your Life” to contemplate the nature of grief. Kurt Vonnegut does it in Slaughterhouse Five to criticize America’s self-assuredness.

Whenever an author speculates on something unknowable, they expose—above all—themselves. We see their fingerprints riddling the worlds they’ve created. In fiction, that can be a problem. But sometimes we crave a glimpse of God’s fingerprints—even if they are those of a lesser God. A mere, mortal author.

_______________________________________

Mike Nees is a case manager for people living with HIV in Atlantic City, where he also hosts the city’s Story Slam series. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Typehouse Literary Magazine, matchbook, and Heavy Feather.

Adding a Bit of Quirk and a Bit of Me

The following is a guest post by K.B. Carle, whose story “Paper Darts” appeared in Issue 16 of Typehouse.

_______________________________________

With every new story I write, I try to include a bit of quirk and a bit of me. “Paper Darts” is no exception to this rule.

My bit of quirk appears within the first line, paragraph, or the form the story takes such as a receipt or recipe. The most important role of the quirk is to entice the reader. I consider setting when experimenting with quirks: how a story’s unusual location—inside a cabinet, an eyeball, on an imploding star—might transform a common occurrence such as a marriage, dinner, or a job interview, and encourage readers to read one more sentence. One more paragraph. One more page to see what happens next.

Then, I consider the emotional resonance. Something in my stories that will make readers cringe, cry, or laugh. Something that readers will carry with them even after they’ve finished my story. My “bit of me” is oftentimes the source of the emotional resonance in my stories and in “Paper Darts,” it is my fear of forgetting.

I’m terrified of memory loss triggered by dementia: my earliest introduction to memory loss was witnessing the slow deterioration of my grandmother which prompted me to explore this experience and why dementia frightens me in my writing. Her love of food transformed into forgetting she had just eaten, as evidenced by the crumbs on the plate balancing on her lap. She remembered the names of her children but could no longer remember the faces those names belonged to. She knew, once relocated to a nursing home, that she wanted to return to her bed and chair by the doorway so she could wave to all the cars that honked when they drove down the gravel path.

But she couldn’t remember where she lived.

I observed this deterioration of the mind with my mother during extended stays at the hospital to ensure my grandmother always had someone to talk to. I witnessed her moments of clarity as they were tinged with pitfalls of forgetting. I was fascinated by the life she had lived but frightened by all the moments her mind could no longer grasp.

I try to include these moments when writing about the mind’s decline. My goal is to provide readers with the emotional resonances I carry within me in hopes that they will reflect upon a moment in their life and consider a new angle. Awaken, in their memories, the slightest of details they might have missed.

Combining a bit of quirk and a bit of me is my way of searching for something I might have missed. I encourage all writers to experiment, inserting quirks into their stories. A plant that offers unsolicited advice regarding parenting or a break up between a laptop and USB, making everyday situations more enticing to read. I encourage all readers to take a moment to reflect upon these quirks and emotional resonances within the stories they love, and to remember the reasons why these stories or moments remain with them.

_______________________________________

K.B. Carle lives outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and earned her MFA from Spalding University’s Low-Residency program in Kentucky. Her stories have appeared in CHEAP POP, genre2, Jellyfish Review, Milk Candy Review, and elsewhere. She can be found online at http://kbcarle.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter @kbcarl.