Spooktober Fifteen Day Challenge

I’m thrilled that my work has been published in The Oracle‘s first issue, an anthology of horror-themed flash fiction and art. My piece, “Spooktober Fifteen Day Challenge,” is a creepy little story told in the form of a cursed social media game.

I recently read an article in Rolling Stone (this one right here) about the Momo Challenge, and this Halloween-themed story is inspired by the idea that a monster might prey on children through a series of social media challenge prompts. Although the format is nontraditional, my goal is for the reader to gradually get a sense of the loneliness and anxiety of the “you” to whom the prompts are addressed. 

The “Fright Flash” issue of the zine is very short, but it’s lovely to look at and quite spooky. If you’re interested, The Oracle is (here) on Twitter, and you can download a free digital copy of the “Fright Flash” issue via Google Drive (here).

An Unfound Door, Chapter Eight

Agnes and Fhiad meet in the library on the morning after the summer court opens. Agnes wakes before dawn out of habit, while Fhiad has been up all night reading. Fhiad left the library to get tea, and he returns just as Agnes is studying the books he left on a desk. They sit down together, and he apologizes for snapping at her and making wild proclamations.

When Agnes asks Fhiad if he would truly destroy Faloren if he found Soreiya’s Tear, he explains that doing so would be impossible, as the cost for performing magic on such a large scale would require an unimaginably high cost. Magic is taboo in Faloren, so Agnes knows nothing about how it works. Fhiad gives a demonstration. Agnes is so amazed that she asks a clueless question, thus chilling the warmth of an intimate moment. 

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This is the beginning of what Jessica Brody (of Save the Cat fame) calls the “fun and games” section of the novel. This section constitutes the bulk of Act Two. While the opening and closing of a novel should ideally follow a set formula that helps to guide the reader, the middle of the story offers much more freedom to the writer.

I’m going to use this freedom to indulge in all of the narrative tropes I enjoy, and this chapter includes one of my favorite narrative devices: An intimate conversation in a library helps the protagonist and her foil understand that they should be friends. At the beginning of this chapter, Agnes is characteristically blunt and ready to fight, but she and Fhiad manage to establish a common ground by virtue of the fact that they’re both giant nerds.

In this scene, Fhiad begins to show his true colors. He’s much more socially polished than Agnes, but he’s essentially a gentle person at heart. In fact, most of Fhiad’s trouble has resulted from him being something of a pushover. Although he gets in a few good jabs at Agnes, Fhiad also submits to her multiple times during their conversation in this chapter.

I was recently reading an academic book chapter about gothic fiction, and the author was saying that the erotic charge of the narrative is primarily generated by the question of whether a wild and mysterious man will sexually assault the heroine who fears him yet is still attracted to him. This sexual fear turns to romance when the heroine realizes that the man’s menacing aura is a result of his violent passion for her.

I unapologetically appreciate that sort of character dynamic, but it doesn’t fit what’s going on with Agnes and Fhiad. Agnes isn’t fearless, but her extreme pragmatism drives her to behave as if she were. Meanwhile, Fhiad is competent and talented in his own way, but he really has no business being “wild” or “menacing.” In a reversal of the classic gothic gender dynamic, Fhiad needs Agnes to push him forward, while what Agnes needs from Fhiad is his patience and kindness.     

Mainly, however, this chapter is about doing magic in a cool library. The next chapter is also going to be about magic and libraries. And the chapter after that? More magic and libraries. I love libraries and magic, what can I say. This is my story, so I write what I want.

Essay on Comic Fanzine Discourse

I’m excited that the essay I presented at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival academic symposium, “The Role of Dōjinshi in Comic Fanzine Discourse,” has been posted on Women Write About Comics (here).

Although this piece began as an overview of the culture of comic fanzines in Japan, it gradually evolved into a discussion of how English-language fanzines have been impacted by the intense pressures of a creative market that provides neither stability nor opportunities for emerging artists. Here’s an excerpt:

This level of competition in formerly free-for-all online spaces has resulted in the widespread frustration succinctly expressed by @rogvaettr’s tweet. From the perspective of someone who simply enjoys fandom culture and indie publishing, we’re living in a golden age of comics and illustration. For many aspiring artists and writers, however, these glossy fanzine anthologies are another shot of anxiety onto a battlefield already pierced with arrows.

The tensions always implicit in any creative industry have been exacerbated by prolonged economic recession and steeply rising costs of living in urban areas, the combination of which has forced freelancers to take on more work while also maintaining an active social media presence. To many people, the intrusion of professional-level competition into ostensibly amateur fandom spaces feels like a betrayal of the sense of community based on affective attachment that formerly provided a relief from professional pressures and anxieties.

This essay was an enormous undertaking that spanned almost half a year, and I want to acknowledge the support of my brilliant editor Kat Overland. Writing about online discourse is difficult, and Kat helped me make good decisions while also directing me to number of useful resources on indie comics. I should mention that Kat is a lot of fun to follow on social media, and you can find them on Twitter (here). I’m also highly indebted to Masha Zhdanova’s essay “A Brief History of Webcomics: 2010 to Now,” which is an interesting and excellent discussion of webcomics in a transcultural context. You can read the essay on WWAC (here) and follow Masha on Twitter (here). Last but not least, I want to thank Anna Peppard (on Twitter here), who organized the TCAF Academic Symposium and encouraged me to share my initial draft with an amazing group of Comics Studies scholars.

An Unfound Door, Chapter Seven

Fhiad leaves the court and walks through the halls of the castle as he reflects on the circumstances that have brought him to Faloren. Guerig, the king’s secretary and acting regent, enthusiastically granted Fhiad permission not only to study the castle, but also to live there while supposedly doing research on the building’s architecture. Fhiad curses himself for being drawn into a complicated situation, but he has few resources and fewer choices. As he wanders, Fhiad’s thoughts reveal that he did indeed once study architecture, and that Faloren Castle is an architectural monstrosity whose continued existence almost certainly relies on powerful magic.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

An Unfound Door is written in limited third-person perspective, and this is the first chapter that focuses on Fhiad. As the B Story character, Fhiad represents the “upside-down world” of Act Two, which begins when the A Story character’s status quo is disrupted. Fhiad is the catalyst for this disruption, but his arc is also a mirror of Agnes’s character development. Fhiad and Agnes ultimately want the same thing – the power to choose the direction of their own lives – but their initial motivations and goals are drastically different.

Fhiad may have told Agnes that he intends to destroy Faloren, but what he truly wants is to understand what happened to him. He’s suffering from severe trauma that he hasn’t been able to process, and he alternates between distraction and intense anger. He attempts to distract himself from his grief by tasking himself with a quest. Meanwhile, his anger has no outlet save for Agnes, who became his target simply because she’s the only living person he knows. Fhiad is doing his best to survive, but he’s a hot mess.

More than anything, this chapter establishes how and why Fhiad is now living in Faloren Castle. It also provides a second perspective on the characters and setting.

What the reader is able to see through Fhiad’s eyes are two things that Agnes takes for granted. First, Agnes is subtly shunned by the members of her court; and second, Faloren Castle is impossibly large and labyrinthine. These two observations help justify the “fun and games” portion of Act Two, which will involve Agnes and Fhiad hunting for a hidden relic. In other words, Fhiad’s observations hint that Agnes is free to search the castle precisely because she doesn’t have many social obligations, and that her search is going to be interesting because it isn’t going to be easy.

Something else Fhiad has noticed is that there’s something suspicious about Agnes’s cousin Galien. This is fair, as Galien is hiding a number of unpleasant secrets. Still, Galien is no more a villain than Fhiad is. An Unfound Door is a “gothic fantasy mystery,” which means that everyone has secrets. This is why, at this point in the story, the main task of the characters is to learn how to communicate with each other.

Fruiting Bodies Review on WWAC

I recently had the honor of writing a review of Ashley Robin Franklin’s graphic novella Fruiting Bodies for the website Women Write About Comics. Here’s an excerpt:

Franklin joins Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Jeff Vandermeer in the pantheon of contemporary writers and artists who have celebrated the uncanny invisible world that stretches deep below our feet and proliferates in the warmth of our bodies. Classical botanical horror has its roots in concerns over cultural hybridization, but Fruiting Bodies resists the genre’s Victorian anxieties in favor of a probing exploration of the primal fears surrounding the collapse of bodily autonomy. In the end, Franklin suggests, human social distinctions of gender and sexuality are meaningless to a natural world that devours everyone equally.

You can read the full review (here), and you can find the book’s page on Silver Sprocket’s website (here). You can follow Ashley Robin Franklin on Instagram (here), and I also recommend checking out her other short comics on her Etsy store (here). As always, I want to acknowledge the good work of my patient and brilliant editor, whom you can follow on Twitter (here).

An Unfound Door, Chapter Six

The summer court opens with a celebration attended by the wealthy families and nobility of Faloren. After the ailing king retires for the evening, Agnes is introduced to Fhiad, who claims to be a university student from Cretia studying architecture. Fhiad has altered his appearance and accent, and he pretends not to recognize Agnes. Later, when Agnes escapes to a shadowy corner for a moment of quiet, Fhiad approaches her. He initially seems kind but quickly becomes cruel and insulting. He tells Agnes that his homeland of Erdbhein has been destroyed, and he declares his intention to take revenge by visiting the same ruin on Faloren.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This chapter is the transition between Act One and Act Two. Fhiad, the B Story character, has returned, and he establishes himself as an antagonist. He states his goal to uncover Faloren’s magical artifact with the intention of destroying the kingdom. In Chapter Eight, Agnes will state her own intention to solve the problem he represents by opposing him. Fhiad’s anger is not the real problem, however, and this is the wrong solution.

It’s always bothered me when a villain is angry about something legitimately upsetting, but then the writer has them kick a puppy to show that this anger is bad. What I mean by “kicking a puppy” is that the villain will do something excessively violent or disturbing that is either entirely out of character or framed in such a way as to make their actions seem irrational and done solely for the sake of being evil.

A villain typically represents a challenge to an established order, especially an order built on arbitrary divisions that inform a strict hierarchy. In the case of fantasy especially, there is often a class of “monsters” who are sentient yet still positioned as being okay to kill. When a villain wants to establish an alternate power structure in which “monsters” are not killed, it’s only natural to wonder if they might not be justified in doing so. The villain must therefore be shown kicking a proverbial puppy so that we do not begin to feel sympathy for them. Based on my observations of various fandom discourse wars, a surprising number of people take this puppy kicking very seriously as an indication that a villain is irredeemably evil.

It’s important to me that Fhiad is portrayed as a legitimate antagonist, at least at first. In this chapter, he proves himself to be two-faced, manipulative, and more than a little creepy. He invades Agnes’s personal space, physically threatens her, and mocks and insults her. He verbally attacks her at a vulnerable moment, and he says horrible things that are all the more hurtful because they’re true. Even worse, he’s cruel to Agnes precisely because he knows she can do nothing to stop him. In addition, the curse laid on him is still active, and it’s implied that he may no longer be entirely human.

Still, the root cause of Agnes’s problem – the decline of her kingdom – is not Fhiad, nor is it anything he’s said or done in the past or the present. Rather, this problem is a direct result of a horrible atrocity committed in the past by Agnes’s ancestor. I therefore had to make sure that what Fhiad does at the beginning of Act Two is upsetting but doesn’t fall to the level of puppy kicking. In other words, I attempted to create tension by means of the antagonist’s bad behavior while still being fair to the complexity of his character and his experience of justified anger.

The Best Witch of Her Generation

I’m excited to share another short story I wrote for Goddess Reborn, fanzine celebrating the female (and nonbinary!) characters of the Legend of Zelda series. You can download a free digital copy of the zine on Itchio (here), and you can read my full story on AO3 (here).

A Link Between Worlds is one of my favorite games in the Zelda series, mainly because I find the characters so charming. I’m especially fascinated by the figure of “someone who wants to be a hero but isn’t the fated Chosen One,” a character trope the series plays with but never fully explores. Groose from Skyward Sword is a good example, as is Ganondorf from The Wind Waker. There are several such characters in A Link Between Worlds, and Irene is my favorite.

Irene is the granddaughter of the Potion Witch, and she serves as the game’s fast-travel mechanic by flying Link around on her broom. She seems to be modeled half on Hermione Granger – she calls proudly herself “the best witch of her generation,” a play on Hermione’s famous epithet – and half on Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service. Like Hermione, Irene sees herself as a hero; but, like Kiki, her character arc involves her journey to understand and acknowledge her own specific set of talents.

What I wanted to capture was a moment of Irene’s life in which she’s happy and confident of herself as the protagonist of her own adventure. Irene understands that what she’s doing is just as important as Link’s quest, and she’s absolutely correct. Although the player may see Hyrule through Link’s eyes, the female characters who surround and support him are absolutely vital to Hyrule’s history.

While writing this short story, I wanted to get as close to the tone of “early-reader fiction” as I could. I’m not used to this style of writing, so it was a fun challenge. I was aided immensely by the story’s illustrator, Leh Latte. Leh helped me with the diction and rhythm, as well as with structure and balance. She also showed me what it means to work with page formatting in mind. Although the story itself is short and simple, it’s the product of a few good conversations during a collaboration between me, Leh, and Aven Wildsmith, the zine editor.

Leh and Aven are both fantastically talented and creative people who work in a variety of media. You can find links to all of Leh’s social media accounts on her Carrd (here). Aven’s website is (here), and you can find links to all their socials on Linktree (here). And again, Goddess Reborn is free to download on Itchio (here). There’s a lot of love on every page, and this zine is really something special.

An Unfound Door, Chapter Five

After returning to Faloren Castle, Agnes rises early the next morning in order to attend to the correspondence that has accumulated in her absence. As she dresses herself, she reflects on how her mother’s charm and social graces seemed to slow the kingdom’s decline. Unfortunately, her father has done nothing to alleviate the grim atmosphere of the castle since the late queen’s death. Agnes proceeds to her study, a dilapidated yet still handsome room where she secludes herself to work until interrupted by her cousin Galien. Galien encourages her to open the summer court, and Agnes agrees. She believes that a large and lively celebration will be an appropriate symbolic marker of her vow to rejuvenate the kingdom.   

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This chapter is about Agnes’s comfortable existence in the status-quo world. It is indeed a very comfortable and cozy chapter, if I do say so myself. I enjoyed writing it, and I enjoyed reading it again as I made edits.

Aside from establishing the scene of the next chapter, which will be the opening of the summer court, not much happens here. As I wrote in my notes for the previous chapter, it’s important for the reader to understand why Agnes is willing to remain in the status quo.

It seems as though Agnes is doing good work and making good plans, but none of this actually means anything. An astute reader should be asking the questions that Agnes is aggressively ignoring: How did she get out in the woods on the border of Erdbhein? Where did the demon come from? Who kidnapped her? Was it someone in the castle? Are they still there?

Agnes needs to start asking herself these questions soon, because Fhiad is going to come back and cause trouble. For the time being, though, it’s nice to have a small interlude of peace.  

I recently read a Tumblr post (here) regarding how the Gothic genre is all about taking four pages to describe a staircase, and there’s a bit of that in this chapter. I want the reader to see and understand how run-down and decrepit Agnes’s castle is, and I want them to have an opportunity to enjoy this state of decay.

All of the chapters in this story have titles, by the way. I’m not sure if I’ll end up using them, but I especially like the title for this chapter: “A Slow and Silent Decay.”

Decomposition: Tales of Botanical Horror

My newest short fiction zine, Decomposition, collects six short stories of botanical horror and dark fantasy. It features a number of guest artists and spot illustrations, as well as a gorgeous cover created by the botanical art wizard Frankiesbugs. I’ve listed the zine on Etsy (here) if you’re interested.

The past few years have been tough for me. It’s become somewhat taboo in American culture to admit that the pandemic wasn’t the best thing to ever happen to you, so the less said about this the better.

I have to admit that I’m a gremlin who doesn’t really care about germs, but for a while I found it very difficult to relate to other people. I didn’t want to see other human beings at all if I could help it. This is why, after I moved to Philadelphia, I started spending a lot of time wandering around abandoned spaces.

Philadelphia is a fun and interesting city with a steadily growing population and multiple vibrant local cultures, and I find it annoying when people take pictures of a normal street or an early-morning empty parking lot and tag their photos as “urban decay” on social media. That’s just rude. Still, I think it’s easier to get funding to build new construction than it is to repair existing structures, so there’s a surprising density of ruins and wild spaces in and around Philadelphia.

What surprised me while walking around the emptier areas of Philadelphia is just how quickly most architecture returns to nature. Maybe stone castles and granite walls and asphalt roads can last for centuries without maintenance, but a normal house or Burger King or whatever is going to last for one or two decades at most. It’s only going to take about five years before the roof goes; and then, once the water damage gets started, that building is finished. The shell of the walls becomes its own little ecosystem, with plants pushing up through the brick and concrete. In Philadelphia, fig trees and sumac shrubs grow wild just about everywhere, providing food and shelter for insects, birds, and larger animals like opossums and raccoons.

On one hand, it’s lovely to see these pockets of green in postindustrial urban areas. On the other hand, it’s a bit creepy how aggressive plants are in taking over space formerly occupied by people. If you think about it, plants have been on this earth for hundreds of millions of years, and they will remain here long after the last human draws its final breath. Their green dreams are beyond our comprehension as their roots silently feed on the soil of our bodies. Plants are forever growing and forever hungry, and they’ll take everything back from us eventually.

An Unfound Door, Chapter Four

Agnes returns to Faloren Castle under the escort of her aide Myla, who had been searching for her. She immediately goes to see her father the king, who is bedridden from a lingering illness. She is met at the door to his chambers by her cousin Galien. Galien has conspired with Myla to hide Agnes’s abduction, and he informs her that it was he who sent the knight Caelif to her rescue. Without inquiring further, Agnes visits her father. He does not wake, and Agnes reflects on the decrepit state of the castle. She excuses herself and uses a discrete servant’s passage to visit the kitchen. The head of the castle’s staff, Taibh, gives her bread and wine and asks no questions.   

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This chapter presents the bleakness of the status-quo world to the reader. There are no people on the roads. The castle town is depopulated. The castle itself is a mess. The king is dying.

Fhiad parted ways with Agnes at some point before the start of the chapter, and she seems to take it for granted that he won’t find anyone in his home kingdom of Erdbhein. This presents a mystery. Why does she think this? What happened there? In Chapter Six, Agnes will explain what she understands about Erdbhein, but the truth is worse. Erdbhein has gone full Dark Souls, and it’s filled with ruin and blight and zombies.

In terms of the Save The Cat story structure, this chapter establishes the “debate” of the main character. Agnes thinks about how she wants to leave Faloren, but she feels that she can’t. In the next chapter, the reader will see that she takes comfort in routines, especially when these routines make her feel smart, powerful, and in control. She ends her debate with herself in this chapter by saying that she needs to concentrate on “work,” which she is obviously using as an excuse for not allowing herself to imagine an alternative to the shittiness of her current situation.

This debate makes a lot of sense to me personally, because I used to be the same as Agnes. I was driven by a need to be “productive,” and I was always working. Those routines made me happy at the time, but they weren’t sustainable. This is all the more true because the busyness distracted me from more important issues, namely, that there was something deeply wrong with my environment.

I had to go through this cycle a few times – and I got very, very good at it – before I realized what it was. I thought I could somehow fix things by simply working harder, and damn did I work hard. Realizing that the cycle itself was the problem was extremely liberating.

I’m not saying that we should all quit our jobs to live our best lives or whatever. Nobody has the money for that. Rather, I think it’s good to at least consider a shift in mindset, and it’s important to chill out and allow room for new ideas and new perspectives.

I also think it’s worth considering that some environments are just rotten. You can try to keep the lights on, but this requires a lot of effort and yields diminishing returns. Sometimes it’s better to allow things to decay.