Tag Archives: #writingcommunity

Reality Meets Fiction: Excuse Me, Your Secret is Showing

by Sue M. Swank

Every once in a while I will come across someone with a dirty little secret, which they profess they are loudly and vehemently against.

A few years ago I was at a photoshoot with a young model. I am also a professional photographer. She was a lovely young woman in her early 20s with a truly stunning face, body, and a brain to match—which is always a much welcomed pleasure!

During the shoot we exchanged light conversation about news events and previous work relations with others in our fields.

The topic switched to the Miami party scene; she stood firm in her statement of never partying in the hottest south beach clubs, never drinking or smoking, and certainly never partaking in recreational drugs, because to her it was morally wrong and would greatly limit her modeling career.

As she continued her one woman crusade about how she had seen other models lose their looks and careers from enjoying the party scene, I was getting visions of her not only partying like a wild woman, but partying with a major Miami nightlife celebrity—Mr. Michael Carbone.

When her tone began to turn snooty and judgmental, I found myself annoyed at her and the constant flow of images I was receiving, including images about the precious weekend of partying at a hotspot nightclub with Mr. Carbone, along with other models.

Usually, I try to avoid mixing my psychic side with my photography side. It doesn’t always work that way though, and this time proved to be no different.

Casually, as I was touching up her makeup, I asked how Mr. Carbone was doing since she had last seen him the previous weekend. Without a second thought to ask me how I knew Mr. Carbone or about the previous weekend, she replied that he was good, but everyone was somewhat hungover after the massive club event he held. She followed up quickly by excluding herself in the mix.

After that slip of the tongue confession, she became quiet. I felt her become awkward and self-conscious, and it also started to show in the images.

I knew the shoot was over when that happened.

We called it a day and parted on polite terms.

She never contacted me again, nor asked me how I knew about that weekend.

But I know she wondered, and in all accounts probably still wonders how I knew about that weekend!

Just goes to show that people should be careful when bragging around a psychic, because that psychic has a private viewing of your secrets!


If you enjoyed this fascinating real-life story by Sue M. Swank, you won’t want to miss out on her next story, titled “Public Readings and Dirty Secrets,” which will be featured on September 1!

Those inspired to create gothic, horror, fantasy, or psychological realism short stories, poems, and art should consider submitting their work to The Dark Sire for publication. Works based on the “Reality Meets Fiction” series will be given special consideration.


If you have any questions for Sue, or would like to talk about your own psychic interactions, please leave a comment below. And, if you’d like to connect with Sue, visit her on Twitter (@sueswank) and Facebook (Sue M. Swank).


Reality Meets Fiction: Doom and Gloom

By Sue M. Swank

Ever since I can recall, my husband and children fondly call me “Doom and Gloom.” This stems from when I would say something and it would come true.

Just now, I thought back to an incident that occurred several years ago between my husband and myself.

We were getting ready for an evening out. I was putting on my makeup while my husband was talking with me when I got slightly fuzzy headed. This is usually how my guides send me visions.

I closed my eyes and leaned against the bathroom sink, which prompted my husband to ask what was wrong. I explained that I had a glimmer of a vision and began to describe it in detail: Dark and rainy, we are parked on the side of the road and surrounded by swirling red and blue lights. Then I heard a small pop that followed with a small fire explosion.

My husband was quick to respond with, “Alright doom and gloom! Don’t go jinxing us tonight!” I simply giggled, and then proceeded to finish my makeup.

In an effort to prove me wrong, my husband rushed to check the forecast for our area and proudly told me that the weather was all clear skies with no chance of rain. I just smiled and nodded, knowing that if the vision were to be correct, it would happen as we were on the road anyhow.

As we were getting in the car, the same vision hit me once more, only harder. I glanced over at my husband, who quickly exclaimed, “Woman don’t start that doom and gloom stuff!”

Just as we got halfway across the bridge, it began to sprinkle. I giggled. My husband gave a sideways look of annoyance.

It wasn’t long after we exited the bridge, when a deputy turned his lights on, signaling us to pull over. His lights were red and blue.

“Dear just pull over!” I exclaimed. Showing more displeasure at my persistence, he pulled over to the side of the road near the only streetlight.

Once we pulled over, the streetlamp went out, leaving our car flooded with red and blue swirling lights…and me giggling.

By now it’s raining solid. My husband rolled the window down in time for the deputy to walk up and ask my husband for his driver’s license and insurance.

Flustered to no end, my husband reached over to the glove box, and in doing so, he inattentively knocked a penny into the empty cigarette lighter.

A small explosion, along with a pop, erupted suddenly, causing me to hysterically laugh, which resulted in my husband blurting out jokingly, “You bitch!”

Not understanding the situation fully, the deputy requested my husband to step outside the car, as his partner walked around to my side of the vehicle. Mind you, I was still horse-laughing at the time, which probably made both deputies think I was some kind of a lunatic and my husband a jerk.

Several moments later, he returned with a ticket, and we drove to our destination silently.

Over drinks, my husband finally spoke, and his statement initiated ANOTHER round of wild horse laughter from me.

“So let me get this straight sweetheart,” my husband said. “You see a doom and gloom vision…I ignore the vision…the vision plays out…I am placed behind a squad car as they run a check on me…and I am then given a ticket and allowed to return to the car all because you forgot to renew our tag stickers on the car.”

What could I do? I paid for the drinks and dinner that night and horse-laughed the rest of the night!

It’s always interesting in our home!


If you enjoyed this fascinating real-life story by Sue M. Swank, you won’t want to miss out on her next story, titled “Excuse Me”, which will be featured on August 1!

Those inspired to create gothic, horror, fantasy, or psychological realism short stories, poems, and art should consider submitting their work to The Dark Sire for publication. Works based on the “Reality Meets Fiction” series will be given special consideration.


If you have any questions for Sue, or would like to talk about your own psychic interactions, please leave a comment below. And, if you’d like to connect with Sue, visit her on Twitter (@sueswank) and Facebook (Sue M. Swank).


The Creative Nook with Dan Klefstad

Back in March I had the opportunity to read Dan Klefstad’s wonderful vampire novel Fiona’s Guardians. It tells the story of a man named Daniel who is hired on as a guardian for Fiona, dedicating his life to acquiring blood for her survival. It’s also a story about Mors Strigae, a group dedicated for centuries to hunting down and destroying vampires. This book delivered in every way—so many moments that were dark and glamorous, a strong sense of adventure, and excellent scenes of compelling action. If you haven’t yet, be sure to read the full review.

Recently, I had the chance to chat with Dan on Zoom. He discussed his favorite characters and moments in the book, as well as the creative process. Best of all, he gave a reading performance, and his reading provided an exciting and compelling introduction to the novel.

If you want a chance to win a free copy of FIONA’S GUARDIANS, visit TDS on Twitter. Random drawing winner announced June 25, 2022.

And now, the full interview. You’re not going to want to miss this one!

https://youtu.be/6m2joeVgpA4


Dan Klefstad is a longtime radio host and newscaster at NPR station WNIJ who lives in DeKalb, Illinois. His latest novel, Fiona’s Guardians, is about humans who work for a beautiful manipulative vampire named Fiona. The book was adapted by Artists’ Ensemble Theater for their Mysterious Journey podcast, and in October 2022, a hardback edition with new chapters will be released. To connect with Dan, visit his website or follow him on Twitter (@danklefstad), Instagram (@danklefstad), and Facebook (Dan.Klefstad).


TDS is always seeking talented creatives to uplift and promote. If you craft fiction, poetry, art, or screenplays in the subgenres of gothic, horror, fantasy, or psychological realism, don’t hesitate to SUBMIT to us.


The Creative Nook with Zachary Toombs

We give a warm welcome to author Zachary Toombs. If you missed his most recent contribution, titled Oil and Fire and Flesh, you can find it in The Dark Forest. Do yourself a favor and go read it now. This is a wonderfully dark and disturbing tale sure to give you goosebumps. It’s the type of story that lingers with you like a ghostly companion long after you’ve read it, continuing to haunt your thoughts. It’s a story about a chef named Ian who is driven by a strangely possessive urge. An emptiness engulfs his life, and only three elements can fulfill it: oil and fire and flesh. We loved Zachary’s honesty and willingness to take this story to the dark place it wanted to go. I had the chance to chat with Zachary. He told me about what inspires him, the writing process, and his thoughts on the evolution of the horror genre in years to come. Do yourself another favor. Sit back, relax, and enjoy reading my conversation with this amazing author.


TDS: Hi, Zachary. Thank you for taking the time to chat with me. Give us a bit of background about yourself. What inspired you to become a writer? Was there an aha moment? Or was it something that gradually developed?

Zachary Toombs: As I’m answering this first question, here, I just turned twenty-one a couple days ago, which means that approximately twenty-one years ago I was born in a little, hard-to-pronounce town in upstate New York. Throughout those twenty-one years, I had an affinity for imaginary things that came from my reality. Though, they always had a dark or fantastical tinge to them. Regardless, there was never any other option than to become a creative person for my profession, a dream I’m currently pursuing after getting my creative writing bachelor’s degree.

TDS: What does it take to write a good work of horror/gothic fiction?

Zachary Toombs: I definitely don’t have all the answers here, but there are some things I do while approaching the concept of a horror narrative. I always try to remember the importance of character, and emphasize each and every detail to build toward the overarching theme I am trying to convey. Whenever I think of horror stories that have stuck with me, I think immediately of a single character whose behavior, demeanor, or dialogue is terrifying.

TDS: Tell us a bit about your creative process. Are there consistent routines you follow each time?

Zachary Toombs: I believe you’ve coincidentally answered this one yourself. I always try to emphasize consistency in my process. Sitting down and writing one thousand words of something each day can accomplish wonders. Even if the idea you have in your head is, according to you, “not good” or “crap,” getting it on the page is the important thing. The amount of stories that I have begun as one thing and transformed into something entirely different along the way is extraordinary and can be owed to this process. Also, I like to write with music on in the background—typically atmospheric black metal or long, unwinding pieces of electronic music.

TDS: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received about writing?

Zachary Toombs: I had a professor a while back who used to discuss the importance of “always writing.” This doesn’t mean sitting down at your computer for twenty-four hours each day and cranking out page after page—this simply means observing. Cast the lens of your creative eye over everything. If you are not at your desk, don’t scroll on Twitter or Instagram. Have a book in your hands and build that creative library of influences. Carry around a small notebook and scrawl little ideas and words and doodles in there.

TDS: Where do you see the horror/gothic genre in the next five to ten years?

Zachary Toombs: I’m not sure if I can predict the exact architecture of the scene in that time frame; I can only hope for what it will be. And to me, my hopes for the scene are in the upheaval of its stigma. This applies to all of the media/artwork that comes out of the scene. Many people classify the work as that of edgy people or those trying to be provocative while this is simply untrue, as I’m sure you agree.

TDS: This question’s just for fun: Anything scary hiding under the bed? Any skeletons in the closet?

Zachary Toombs: I do have a pet tarantula under there, actually. Though, the closet’s empty.

TDS: What can we look forward to from you in the future? Would you like to give us a teaser?

Zachary Toombs: While my first novel, Night’s Grasp, is available on my site (zacharytoombs.com) and on Amazon, there is a second one in the works of a different ilk. A third, too. While one of these is quite grounded in reality, this other one is a dream-laden journey of self-exploration.


Zachary Toombs is a writer and artist from a small town in upstate New York. His work has been published in numerous venues, including The Dark Sire, Bez & Co., Freedom Fiction, and others. His novel, Night’s Grasp, was released this past September. Want to connect with Zachary? Find him on Twitter: (@ZacharyToombs8), Instagram: (toombszachary), and his website: zacharytoombs.com.


TDS is always seeking talented creatives to uplift and promote. If you craft fiction, poetry, art, or screenplays in the subgenres of gothic, horror, fantasy, or psychological realism, don’t hesitate to SUBMIT to us.


Featured Author: Zachary Toombs

Oil and fire and flesh.

Like a silent incantation these words were laced throughout my every day. The oil in the cast iron fed an eruption of greasy fire, searing the sinews of dripping flesh. Yes, there was the neon-licked mist of the city, the chefs who worked under me, and the solitude of my apartment, but these three words were the operators of my limbs. The workers of my mind. The motivators of my smile.

Oil and fire and flesh.

I had red wine most nights. It swirled about in my glass as I sat in that engulfing leather arm-chair that occupied the living room. Most of the time a book rested in my opposite hand, taking my attention. Distracting me. But this evening only had the glass of red wine in its makeup. No book. But the longer I sat in total darkness, the only light spilling from the slit between the drawn curtains, that wine appeared thicker and thicker. The red hue glistened in the light that slit created like a morbid lantern. No book could satisfy me. Not like this urge that had been ripping at my insides. This hunger that ebbed and flowed.

Each filet I seared in the pan teased.

Served as a reminder.

A reminder that this hunger wasn’t going away—not unless I did something about it.

And that was when the phone rang. When its piercing blare cut through the thoughts and urges and hunger, beckoning. The tone unearthed a certain nostalgia, as it seldom rang, especially at this hour. I rose from the embrace of the arm-chair and made my way through the darkness. I stared at the handset as it shrieked. And once I held it to my ear, a familiar hunger spoke to me through the static of the landline, “Good evening.”

The call led me into the hills beyond the city. I had to leave my very own restaurant in the hands of one of my subordinate chefs. But I didn’t care. For, the way this man spoke over the phone dripped with a necessity to give it attention.

On the train ride over, I had wanted to catch up on the reading I had missed, but nothing of the sort was accomplished. I sat and stared at the words on the page, thinking only about the phone call.

About what it elicited

“Good evening,” I had said back.

“This is Ian, I imagine?”

“It is.”

“Offers like these don’t concern people in your position. You have a very successful grill there in town. You get to cook whatever dishes you want.” He let the hissing landline get a word in. “For an ordinary man there is no incentive to leave.”

Was this the call I had been awaiting?

“You don’t love to cook, Ian. What you desire does not contain love. It is empty.”

“What are you—”

“I’ve faxed over an address. A train for you to take. Once you get off, there will be a black car waiting for you.” Before hanging up, he ended with, “I can fill this emptiness.”

And after approximately two hours of sitting and staring and thinking, the train reached its station. I stepped off into the desolate autumn—which whispered winter down my neck—and into the backseat of a glossy black sedan. It was remarkably warm inside, almost shockingly so; the driver must’ve waited for the better part of an hour.

He wore a suit of some kind—one I couldn’t parse from the deep backseat. But based on his stiff demeanor, formal silence, and unenthused glances, I doubted this was the man I spoke to last night.

He drove me further into the hills. The houses—small like huts—at our sides were thinning and the trees—bare and twirling—were growing more plentiful. They shrouded us in their embrace until becoming an engulfing tunnel. The road wound and wound on a continual grade, our sedan following suit. Despite the car’s heat, the air’s growing chill oozed out of the sights.

In a crescendo, in accordance with our altitude, a greater accumulation of frost clung to the dead grass and rotted leaves. The wind started presumably as a breeze but picked up into a mighty sigh. It toyed with trunks like toothpicks.

We never eclipsed the desolate wood. Our vehicle only plodded through a stretch of gravel path before braking amongst several other—nearly identical—black sedans. As the driver put it in park, I froze at the sight of a massive building. It had that ancient look of a castle but channeled the wind like a pair of lungs, to give off this sense that it lived.

I stepped out onto the gravel.

I was asked, by my driver’s demeanor, to approach the pair of doors at the front of the massive, stone-bricked beast. These doors were six inches thick of a dark—almost black—wood, but not even the biggest fool could get himself a splinter on them. And as I placed my hand upon the silver of the door handle, a deeply buried part of me emerged—if only for the span it took to open that slab of wood. It asked all the burning anxieties an “ordinary” person would ask.

Which is why I don’t need to list them here.

Inside, it was massive.

Fountains of rushing water were the pair of overseeing eyes perched in the back of the place. They supervised a long stretch of loft, equipped with red-clothed tables. The plates and goblets and silverware shimmered, even after those who ate from them were finished.

Yes. This place was a restaurant, far different from my very own. It ejected me from my body and sent me soaring to spectate an immense culinary gallery.

But what put me right back in my own little shell was the suited man who greeted me.

He was a slender person; each bone in his punctual face bulged against the tightness of his skin. That suit hugged those arms like a python does its victim. But what meagerness his frame presented was compensated for by the razors in that stare. Threats, secrets, commands—all spoken by a pair of irises. But when his lips moved, they uttered, “Good morning, Ian.”

It was like he was trying to formulize being normal. Over the phone it was, “Good evening,” and here, “Good morning.” These formalities—they dodged what his very own eyes told me about him.

“Allow me to show you the kitchen. No need to dawdle.” He coupled his hands behind his back and led me through the place.

I couldn’t absorb the rest of the dining room before we reached our destination. There were two aisles of organized chaos. Chefs in crimson coats communicated at a wicked pace. Even with my backlog of experience, their mutterings went unheard. Fire spewed from gas burners through a filter of cast-iron. Cookware hung from the ceiling like ornaments: Knives—sharp as eagle talons—pots—glistening like jewels—and cutting boards—bleached clean.

He brought me down one of the lines, his hands still coupled firmly. The cooks didn’t flinch as we brushed past them. They worked through the tickets without a formality to be spared.

He led me into an office. It, too, was immaculate in assemblance yet stark in composition. The chairs that framed the glossy, long black desk were without blemish. And that desk—free of dust—reflected his face as he sat behind it.

I sat across from him.

“I am the chef here.” And while he didn’t look like a chef—didn’t have a chef’s hands—these words were impregnable.

“And I’m assuming you own this place?”

“Everything is mine,” he proclaimed, giving me that look again. “Food draws the people. Pays every bill. Why shouldn’t the chef be the engine?”

I sat in silence, unable to speak on something I agreed on him with.

“I have no doubt you’ll catch on quickly.”

He had shown me every square inch of this place. Of this fortress. There were so many rooms that one could classify it as a manor from a different era. With as many bedrooms as there were—six or seven, I had lost count after a long while—there were also quite a few surprises. The handful of studies were, in isolation, like libraries.

We ended the tour at a stretch of stone-hewn balcony that overlooked the groaning army of naked trees. He had given me a glass of red wine on one of our stops—and with each sip I could feel myself becoming assimilated to this corner of the woods.

“One last stop.”

I turned to look at him.

His attention was seemingly elsewhere—out in the desolate wood.

We wandered through the forest. No birds—not even crows—cawed. No mole or rat scurried. Only the chef and I.

It was a bunker of thick sheet metal. No windows. One of its four walls hosted a steel door with a massive rusted lock chained to its handle. He sifted through various keys—presumably for all those damned rooms—until picking one out precisely with a slender index and middle finger.

The door groaned open once that lock had freed it. And on the other side, gazing with a spectral eye, was a long shadow exhumed by the dead forest. It cascaded down a narrow staircase. This darkness was only pierced by a yellow bulb that dangled from an anemic wire.

“Let us fill your emptiness.”

Emptiness.

Once I heard this again I immediately assigned it as dishonesty. What I sought was the satiation of my hunger. My desire. For, a desire is not empty. It is filled with vanity and impulse and destruction. It carves a path of fire until it is nullified by whatever forbidden fruit incepted it.

I took an initial step down the staircase. The stone carried a frost so cold it gnawed at my toes. The wind that made those trees groan disappeared once I took a second step. The bulb, as we passed it, made my ears ring with its brightness. And when that intensity fell away, I had reached the bottom of the stairs.

A racket emerged.

Another door stood before me. It masked that clatter which continued to drum and drum away. Though unlike a drum, it lacked rhythm. It wasn’t measured or composed or ready. No. This noise was pure catharsis. Pure primality.

The chef opened the door.

A door opened within me, too, only more ferociously, unleashing my hunger in all of its crude avarice. For, what was revealed took shape in a wide room lit by panels of white, buzzing, industrial light that flooded the space with sterility. It rained upon everything with no relent. It assaulted the steel walls. It made seeing painful.

But no greater pain was held within those four walls than in the eyes of those captives.

Cages barred them in at either side of me, and from each of them emerged that dreadful racket in the form of life. It was life that clung to desperation for survival. Life that dreamt of seeing the sun. Life that didn’t glare or gaze. Only life that stared through petrification.

Humans.

Their mouths sewn shut.

The hooks that hung from the ceiling made sense. The slight dips in the floor. The drains they led to.

I had been searching for something to fill this emptiness—and if that’s what it was, then it resided here, within this very room. In fact, it was much larger. It was as large as this entire sojourn. My desire spanned from the moment I had peered into my wine glass and that phone rang to now.

And thank God he had given me a tour of this place.

Because it let me know exactly what was to fill it.

“I need your help,” the chef said—something the others in this chamber would’ve said if they could’ve. “You see, no one knows of this chamber other than those that need to. The other chefs. Myself. You.”

“The customers—”

“They are clients. They know of this restaurant’s esteemed position in the culinary world; they know our filets are the best their palates will ever touch, but they know nothing else.” He took a few echoing steps toward one of the cages. And in response, like to opposite poles of a magnet meeting, those captives scrambled to the farthest corner of their enclosure. “And your help is needed immediately. It is needed tonight.”

“Tonight?”

He approached me again. “There is going to be a very special client dining tonight. In the culinary world, he could send this place soaring further. Further than even I can comprehend.”

I smiled and broke eye contact, shrugging my shoulders. “How can I be of service?”

He snickered—just about scoffed—and opened the vest of that suit. Inside was a pocket that perfectly sheathed the glistening Damascus of a cleaver. And upon revealing such a blade, he said, “Choose one to cook,” and offered the shimmering heap of steel to me.

I had dreamt of this scenario for so long. The nights upon coming home from my very own restaurant and wallowing in my apartment, wishing it were a dungeon like this. The days staring through pan-fire at someone, wishing they were in that pan and not a mere cut of cow. Oh, how I longed to have this exact cleaver in my hand and decide which walking cadaver to run it through.

Which to cook.

Which to eat.

And the one I chose was the man who gave it to me.

What I wanted so adamantly extended beyond the mere flesh on a man’s bone. What I hungered for was more than the tender sinew of a masterfully cooked filet. And in his final living moments, the look the chef gave me was not one of a chef—rather one of petrified cattle.

Cattle like those who cowered in our midst.

I chopped those vegetables not to appease the critic who arrived, shook hands with the hostess, and sat down, but to ensure you had a bed to rest in. Even if you had been reduced to this cut of flesh, you deserved such a final moment. After all, without you there could be no ravage to my hunger.

The critic sat near one of the fountains. He was a wide man who waddled, equipped with a thick set of jowls that moved as much as that crimson tie which dripped down his chest. Though, that tie was soon covered by a linen napkin that he had folded into a pretentious bib. He inspected the high ceilings. The tablecloths. Every aspect of the place as he jotted things down with a shimmering fountain pen.

Once I zigzagged the pan with oil, the cut of flesh went into the pan, igniting it. It sizzled in its baste, drawing sweat from my brow until it dripped. I could taste the salt from that sweat. Veins bulged from my red skin. And as the minutes passed and the sizzling continued, all else blurred. But when it was finally time, I wiped my face with a white rag and brought you out of the pan and onto that bed.

Once I stepped out of the kitchen, I did so into the office where you first brought me. I had ironed and hung your suit up on the wall. The colors of an imminent dusk pierced the windowpane, drenching that cloth in another orangey layer. And when I removed my own clothing, I bathed in that sunlight for a bit. That setting orb was so clear and honest it should’ve shed a tear from my eye. But as naked as I was no such tear fell.

And once I clamped that suit to my frame, I went back into the kitchen, gathering eyes from the staff as I approached you.

I carried you to a man whose mouth was wet with anticipation.

Who couldn’t wait to have a taste.


Zachary Toombs is a writer and artist from a small town in upstate New York. His work has been published in numerous venues, including The Dark Sire, Bez & Co., Freedom Fiction, and others. His novel, Night’s Grasp, was released this past September. Want to connect with Zachary? Find him on Twitter: (@ZacharyToombs8), Instagram: (toombszachary), and his website: zacharytoombs.com.

Featured Extra!

This story was a perfect fit for The Dark Sire. We loved the dark tone and the disturbing depiction of obsession. We needed to know more about the inspiration and creative process behind this story.

TDS: What was your inspiration for writing this piece?

Zachary Toombs: Inspiration is hard to nail for me. If I had to point to a specific source for this story’s premise, it was the swathes of metal music I have been listening to as of late. The artists that I have been listening to–Deafheaven, Paysage D’hiver, and ColdWorld just to name a few–bleed this sort of mood that I had to write about in reflection. It started with hunger, a sense of longing, and eventually a character formed, bringing with it a sequence of events and dreary setting.

TDS: What creative process did you use?

Zachary Toombs: I knew what I wanted to cover thematically, but I needed to get these feelings out. So, in a sort of catharsis, I wrote a handful of poems that reflected the way this music and my own ideas made me feel. Then I funneled some of this ambiguous language into the frame of a story. Filling in the gaps was easy.

TDS: What authors have influenced your work?

Zachary Toombs: For this piece I can point to Agustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh as a loose source. However, the narrator tells that story woodenly–to the story’s benefit–but I didn’t want to give off this stark detachedness in this piece. And so, regarding the language and narrator, I looked to Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair as a foundational inspiration.


What do you think of Zachary’s story? Let us know with a comment. And…there is another exciting feature to come. Enter The Dark Forest June 18 when we take a deep dive into this amazing author’s creative process, thoughts on the horror genre, and more!


As always, if you’d like your gothic, horror, fantasy, or psychological realism work featured, be sure to Submit.


The Pure World Comes: A Review

Rating: 💀💀💀💀

What is perfection?

If somehow we could harness the power to perfect ourselves and the world around us, how would we go about doing it? Sure, there are obvious errors we’d seek to fix immediately: physical defects like a missing leg, spinal or nerve damage, heart problems, various diseases, and the list could go on and on. Then we enter the territory of say aesthetics. What makes an individual beautiful or handsome? What authority decides such things? Such matters seem to involve a variety of variables that are subjective to the eye of the beholder. Some might even argue the same subjectivity would apply to ethics and values. The perfect ideal is a difficult thing to attain, let alone comprehend, and this is a resonant theme from Rami Ungar’s novel, The Pure World Comes.

Shirley Dobbins is a lowly housemaid who one day receives a grand opportunity, a chance of a lifetime. After the tragic death of the Master and wife of the current Avondale household, baronet Sir Joseph Hunting comes to the rescue, hiring her to become the head housemaid of his estate. The rest of the family comes along as well (after some arguably naïve, petty resistance). This includes Lucinda, an entitled brat for the most part, though she becomes more sympathetic as the tale goes on, Griffin, another entitled brat who is hopelessly head-over-hills for Shirley, and cute little Nellie, who is learning the ways of becoming a housemaid from Shirley. They all move into Sir Joseph’s lodge, an old place with cobwebs and mystery. The mystery plays an important role here.

One day Shirley gains access to one of the forbidden rooms in the estate to deliver Sir Joseph his meal. She discovers the secret that occupies his time for the most part, a large machine assembled with glass tubes, dials, and levers. He calls it the Eden Engine. It’s purpose: to harness the energy of the pure world and repair all the imperfections that currently exist in our world. Shirley becomes his assistant after this moment, allowing her access to many of his books on biology, physics, philosophy, and other sciences. She also witnesses his experiments first hand. There’s a scene involving a deformed pig that will make you gasp and moan in shock and sadness, as well as cringe in disgust, a potent mix. Some other odd happenings are going on around the old lodge as well, haunting things. Shirley soon comes to realize that Sir Joseph Hunting’s radical experiments, despite their ideal intentions, are inviting a presence of terror and pure malevolence. If these side effects are left unchecked, it could be the destruction of them all.

My favorite character in the novel was Shirley Dobbins. It was easy to become invested in her growing empowerment as she began studying science and assisting Sir Joseph in his lab. We all hope for life changing moments that aid our growth and development, and it’s easy to cheer for her as her experiences improve. Shirley is also a respectable character, the opposite of the entitled and petty variety that sometimes surround her, so you can sympathize easily. I loved the sense of adventurous mystery surrounding the laboratory and the descriptions of the Eden Engine and its function. I felt a combination of dread and anticipation as Shirley and Sir Joseph carried out each experiment. Surging electricity, the manipulation of dials and levers, all the moments in the laboratory nostalgically made me think of classic tales like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine.

A couple noteworthy surprises to enjoy: Jack the Ripper is in this tale, and no, he isn’t just thrown in willy-nilly. Rami develops a nice backstory for him with connections to Shirley Dobbins. In fact, some of the most genuinely frightening moments in the novel involve the backstory about Jack the Ripper. Let’s not forget the haunted toilet bowl. Yes, you read that correctly. Rami gives us an up close and personal scene of Shirley Dobbins encounter with the fiend in the toilet. What could such a scene rival? Stephen King’s shitweasels perhaps? I also have to mention I even liked the title of this book. Some other reviewers mentioned they found the title wasn’t catchy enough. The title immediately caught my attention the first time I heard it, motivating me to read the synopsis. The title fits the theme of the book, and rings with a sense of intriguing mystery that makes you think.

Does the novel have shortcomings? There’s a small few. The dialogue technique dealing with nervous stammering was repetitive at times, which made it come across as stilted and lifeless. The climactic showdown disappointed me. There are plenty of surprising, suspenseful moments throughout the journey, but this final revealing seemed to have something missing, or maybe the narration rushed us through too quickly. To sum up, this novel is short and sweet at around 208 pages, and it feels a little too sweet. Maybe we need a little more development about the Pure World, a place suggesting so much fascinating possibilities. Perhaps the novel could have depicted more experiments with the Eden Engine. However, would too much development of the Pure World ruin the sense of intriguing mystery, crossing over from gothic horror into the territory of fantasy? It’s a fine line. Would too many depictions of the Eden Engine become skimmable and boring? This brings to mind another point: we often feel disappointed about the final reveal in horror stories. When the monster unveils itself full-frontal, we sometimes laugh or think, “that’s not so bad.” Horror stories aren’t about the monsters, though, are they? They’re about the people reacting to the monsters, and the lives of Shirley, Lucinda, Nellie, Sir Joseph, and Griffin are changed forever.

I award The Pure World Comes by Rami Ungar a 4 skull rating. You will be drawn into the fascinating Victorian world he creates. The many hauntings that fill the novel will keep you hypnotically turning the pages. Happy reading.

You can find The Pure World Comes on Amazon.


RATINGS: TDS rates all books based on the dark content and how well the reading experience lends itself. Of course, author craft, storytelling, and mechanics are considered, as well. For this purpose, we use skulls (💀💀💀💀💀). And explanation of the skull system follows.

RATING: 💀

Boring, not dark, not interesting. Do not recommend.

RATING: 💀💀

Fair plot, not too dark, fairly interesting. Read at own risk.

RATING:💀💀💀

Good plot and mild darkness, good reading experience. Encouraged read.

RATING: 💀💀💀💀

Great reading experience with heaps of dark tone. Strong recommend.

RATING: 💀💀💀💀💀

Excellent prose, tons of dark tone. A MUST READ!


As always, if you’d like your gothic, horror, fantasy, or psychological realism work featured, be sure to Submit.


The Creative Nook with Dee Espinoza

Dee Espinoza has been a beloved part of the Dark Sire family from day one, her photography appearing in both issues 1 and 2. The following issues 4 and 5 introduced us to her writing, works such as the poignant and compelling poem Come Back. Most recently, she has entertained us with a new work of photography, a spooky image of a descending cave wall titled Depths, suggesting all kinds of haunting possibilities for the observer’s imagination. It was a great pleasure chatting with Dee and learning more about this amazing and versatile artist.


TDS: Tell us a little about your background, Dee. When did you get into photography and writing? Was there an aha! Moment, or was it a gradual progression over time?

Dee Espinoza: Hello Allen. I am currently working in Behavioral Health and taking classes to further my career in Alcohol and Drug Prevention (counseling). I have four grown children and five grandbabies.   I have been with TDS since issue 1. During the first TDS awards ceremony, my photo titled Guardian won the reader’s choice award. My poem Come Back won in the poetry category during the second annual ceremony. I have loved photography for as long as I can remember. My sister took a photography class many years ago, and I was amazed by her work, so I asked if she could teach me. This began my passion for photography. I started with a primary point and shoot or my phone. I stepped outside my comfort zone and entered a few photos into our local county fair one year. I was shocked; I was getting blue ribbons. The following year, I submitted again and won best in show and division. I was thrilled. I have upgraded to a more professional camera but haven’t taken many photos since covid. I’ll find my groove and get back to it.

TDS: Tell us about your creative process when it comes to writing poetry or attaining that perfect photo. Are there certain things you do every time when you approach a new project, or is it a different experience for you depending on the needs of a project?

Dee Espinoza:  I honestly do not have a specific creative process when it comes to my photos. I shoot whatever catches my eye or things the “average” person wouldn’t think to shoot.  I am incredibly partial to black n’ white. I feel it adds more drama and depth to the photos. Also, it’s intriguing and gives the viewer more options for imagination. For instance, my recent photo feature is titled Depths. However, it could be a staircase to a dungeon, a vampire’s lair, or it could be a portal to another world. It’s all in what the viewer sees.

TDS: What’s the best advice you’ve received about writing and photography?

Dee Espinoza: Just breathe and remember the best writers write what they know, and it’s not the camera that takes the perfect photo. It’s the person behind the camera.

TDS: This question’s just for fun: Anything spooky hiding under the bed or in the closet?

Dee Espinoza: Actually, lo, they don’t hide. I’ve been able to see spirits since I was very young. I wasn’t aware of my gifts until adulthood. Now, I embrace it and go with the flow. One resides in my apartment, and I’ve had to chat with him about letting me sleep and stop knocking stuff over. He likes to sit on my bed, pull covers, and say my name.  I have a few stories I could tell, but we will save those for another time.

TDS: What other interests and hobbies do you enjoy?

Dee Espinoza: Besides my passion for photography, I love to write and hike and am an abstract artist. I am currently very much into book folding and creating art pieces out of paper. My living room has become my gallery, and my dining room serves as my art studio.

TDS: What else can we look forward to from you in the future? Would you like to give us a teaser?

Dee Espinoza: Unfortunately, I don’t have any teasers for you, but I am working on part three of Self-destruction and Come Back  (the funeral scene) and a few different psychologically-inspired pieces. Maybe I’ll write something on my paranormal adventures.


Photographer Dee Espinoza is currently located in California. She is addicted to creating intriguing images that allow viewers to let their imaginations run wild. Dee is a self-taught photographer who uses natural lighting and inspiring places to capture those awe-inspiring images.  Black and white photography is her passion. She loves to keep it simple, accurate, and honest.. along with her photography Dee is an abstract artist and writer. She won the TDS  reader’s choice award for her photo titled “The Guardian,” which can be seen in issue four and recently won the poetry award for her poem titled Come Back. You can connect with Dee on Instagram (dee.espinoza.5).


TDS is always seeking talented creatives to uplift and promote. If you craft fiction, poetry, art, or screenplays in the subgenres of gothic, horror, fantasy, or psychological realism, don’t hesitate to SUBMIT to us.


The Creative Nook with Lisa Rose

Lisa Rose’s short story Swelling Ashes was featured in The Dark Forest on April 27, 2022. It tells the story of a girl named Ainsley who is abandoned by her caretakers as a ravaging plague encroaches upon them. Alone in a desolate place, she awaits for their return, but what shows up is something far more disturbing.

I loved her story so much that I wanted to talk to her more about the story, her work, and the horror genre in general. I decided to conduct a live interview with Lisa for THE DARK SIRE’s Creative Nook, which aired on DARK SIRE RADIO (Twitter: @darksireradio) on April 28, 2022 at 6pm (EST).

I enjoyed the pleasure of chatting with Lisa.. We not only talked about Swelling Ashes, but we also talked about the horror genre in general, what attracted her to it, and why readers seem to love it so much. This last part is always an interesting discussion, especially with someone like Lisa who’s courted the horror genre since childhood. And of course, Lisa shared her writing process with us and even her background in editing.

As part of the talk, Lisa shared some advice for emerging writers, which included to read everything. Although Lisa loves horror (and the horror films of the 80s), she is well-read in a variety of other genres, from fantasy to non-fiction. According to this very talented writer, the more you read—and the greater variety of reading experience, the more tools you will have in your toolbox.

Before the end of the interview, Lisa read a portion of her story for us, and she told me a little bit about her inspiration behind the fascinating monster portrayed in her story. This was the most beautiful way to complete our discussion.

I absolutely enjoyed talking with Lisa Rose and getting to know more about her work. This is one interview you wouldn’t have wanted to miss!


Did you miss the live interview? No worries! Listen to the full conversation on Dark Sire Radio until May 28, 2022:

https://twitter.com/i/spaces/1LyxBordkoYKN


Lisa Rose is a long-time educator turned emerging author. Her short story “Snow Globe” won Best in Fiction in a SJ Center for Literary Arts writing challenge, and her nonfiction has been published by ScaryMommy. Lisa has an MA in English Literature and works as an academic copy editor. She lurks between the trees in the PNW. You can connect with Lisa Rose on Twitter (@WordsRose) as well as her website (www.writeroseediting.com).


TDS is always seeking talented creatives to uplift and promote. If you craft fiction, poetry, art, or screenplays in the subgenres of gothic, horror, fantasy, or psychological realism, don’t hesitate to SUBMIT to us.


Featured Author: Lisa Rose

When they tore from the hospital, fleeing panic-stricken from the encroaching darkness, when they unplugged the oxygen and tucked screaming infants under their arms, they slammed, locked, and boarded the doors. In the sick rooms and long empty hallways they left only terrible, echoing silence. And Ainsley.

She stood on her toes, clinging to the rough-hewn wood that blocked her path. A twisted nail protruding from the haphazard blockade of busted furniture and broken planks scratched the back of her hand and drew blood. “Marta! Mother Marta!” Ainsley held up her injured hand for the woman on the other side of the windowed door to peek through the crevice from her place. Ainsley glimpsed the gold-brown eye, wet with tears, through the cracks in the wood.

“Yes, yes, girl,” Mother Marta called. “I am sorry! Believe me! I am so, so sorry! Some day, I will come back to you! Stay inside, Ainsley. Stay inside no matter what!” Tears dampened the bloodied collar of her disheveled habit. 

She wasn’t opening the door. Ainsley’s heart iced over and then thundered through her veins. She screeched and pounded her fists on the boards. “Let me out! Where are you going! Let me out!

She could see the nun’s dark form retreating now, away from the building’s bright fluorescent lights, into the growing dark. 

Ainsley screamed. She screamed until the rage and fear blinded her and the mucus and tears choked her into quiet sobs. She slid down onto the cool vinyl floor and wiped her face on the back of her sleeve. At least Mother Marta was not here to scold her for that. The thought made Ainsley’s shoulders shudder with another sob, but she had exhausted herself and couldn’t cry anymore. Instead, she lay there for a long time and stared out into the emptiness.

She listened for any voice, any sound, of anyone left. She whimpered. Waited. 

Silence. No beeps, no alarms. No buzzing chatter. Not even a groan. The silence reached down the halls and clawed into her chest, taking hold there. Alone. 

Ainsley wasn’t sure how long she lay there in that silence watching the last rays of light fade into fiery crimson and then purple and black. Her arms and legs ached, and her skin started to itch unpleasantly. A light cough escaped her lips, and the sound reverberated down the abandoned hall.

She dragged herself to her feet, wobbling a little from exhaustion. Her sneakers seemed to pull her down, and when she picked them up to take a step, they seemed to stick to the floor.

The lights were still on, at least. 

She inched forward, chilled by the quiet. Breathing in and wiping her face again, Ainsley started forward to search. She would look in every room and under every bed. Surely someone else had been left behind. 

She found corpses. Some still warm. Those too sick to escape—their machines had gone quiet. No beeping, no suck and squeeze of air through the endless tangled tubes draping like morbid decorations over their beds. The wires lay like ripped umbilical cords, strewn in the blood across the floor. Some of the others had pillows covering their faces. Ainsley did not disturb them.

She followed the blood.

She knew where they kept them all this time. In the past, straining from her bed to peek out the window, she had caught glimpses of the ones they had wheeled out to burn. Ollie had said their blood boiled black in the flames. But Ollie had left with Mother Marta. 

Now, wandering the austere corridors, Ainsley smelled the charred flesh. The smoke. She traced the blood, splattered and muddied with ash, spread along in scattered shoe prints. The ties dragged from her sneakers and wove labyrinths in the dark, wet red.

Mother Marta and the others had boarded this door too, closing up the whole wing before setting the fires to try to burn out the last of the sickness. She wouldn’t be able to see them after all. 

A wail pierced the heavy silence. A cry from the other side of the door. 

At once, Ainsley raced to find something, anything to break down the door. She scrambled up and down the hall and eventually settled on a discarded hammer. She began attacking the barrier between her and whatever made that cry. Hurriedly, she pried at each nail, yanked and shoved and kicked and screamed again. The wailing intensified.

“Hello?” she shouted as she worked. “Hello? Are you there? Hello! Please!”

She cracked at the wood with the back of the hammer and felt the sweat soak her back. Too long. Whoever it was would suffocate from the smoke before she could reach them. They would abandon her, too. They would die or escape and run out into the night through a broken window, leaving her alone again. 

“I’m coming! Just hang on! I’m coming!” Ainsley screamed with every swing of the hammer.

At last, she broke through. She kicked open the doors. Hot choking ash and a storm of smoke. 

Something small and black wriggled on the ground. Ainsley screeched and jumped back. Then it wailed again.

“A baby?” She scooped it up and tucked it against her chest. She tried her best to shield it from the smoke, coughing again. The baby cried shrilly. It clung to her. Ainsley raced back through the door away from the scorched hall. Away from the charred bodies and the ash and smoke and embers. She kicked the door shut again, shoved a wheeled bed toward it, and ran.

On the other end of the hospital, once more sitting beneath the door that Mother Marta had run through, Ainsley wrapped the naked infant in a striped blanket and cradled it in her arms. “Shh, shh,” she cooed at it. She cleaned the little face with a wet washcloth, gently scrubbing away the soot and grime.

The tiny thing was unharmed as far as Ainsley could tell. No burns. No bruises even. “I’m here now,” she said, remembering what Mother Marta told the little ones in the room next to Ainsley’s when she checked on them at night. “Everything’s alright, angel.”

The baby had finally stopped crying. It closed its eyes and cuddled against Ainsley’s shoulder. She kissed the top of its head. “You’re not alone,” she promised.

Ainsley didn’t remember falling asleep, still cradling the baby, but she remembered when she woke to the crack of the wood and the spray of shattered glass, and she instinctively tucked the baby deeper into her embrace to protect it.

The door opened. Just a fracture. Dark spilled in.

Long white arms reached through the blackness, pitch black night that had consumed everything, toward Ainsley and the baby. Ainsley jerked away, but a sickle claw caught her arm, needling through skin and muscle and bone. The pain ripped through her, too intense. She collapsed, losing her vision momentarily and stumbling. Darkness reached for her, but she caught her footing and the adrenaline found her instead. She recovered from the pain, threw every speck of effort into making her body move–and started to run.

The clawed hand still held the baby.

Ainsley stopped when she realized the child was no longer in her arms. She breathed in her fear and the cold wash of horror as she glimpsed the hand that held the squirming babe. On the other side of the door, standing there in the dark, stood something that resembled a man.

The silhouette of a man. But its shape was all wrong. Its body too tall, its limbs too long. It was grotesque…but strangely alluring, and its eyes seethed a liquid light that burned into her and sucked her closer. Ainsley found herself drawn to it in the same way she was drawn to the horror in Mother Marta’s features when she spoke of the closed-off wing, or when she snapped at Ainsley for asking to see the bodies burned, and the breathtaking terror when she told Mother Marta she had admitted to brushing her fingers against the dripping ooze that seeped beneath the door marked with ash. 

“Stop!” Ainsley commanded the creature, though it did not move. It held the baby still. It tucked the child into the crook of its arm and then—almost lovingly— against its chest. Ainsley’s voice was a hesitant squeak. She tried louder, “Give…give me back the baby and go.”

“This child is ours.” Its voice was the sickening sweet pitch of sugared death.

“Then…” Ainsley started, unsure of what she said but believing in the pulsing depths of her heart that she would not be left alone. “Then am I not, too?”

The creature blinked its moon-white eyes at her.

“Mother Marta said I’m infected,” she said quickly. “With the thirst plague.” She glanced at the baby in the too-long arms. Wrapped so snugly in the blanket, held against the hollow chest in the night. The baby was unharmed. No wounds. A giggle erupted from its little pink mouth, and a trickle of greasy liquid. Ainsley told the creature hurriedly, “Mother Marta–she said she would come back for me, but I had to stay here for now because I’m infected.”

The creature tilted its head.

“I’m sick,” she explained further, panic rising. It simply hadn’t heard her. It didn’t understand. She clutched her injured arm where the creature had struck her. She felt hot blood flooding over her hand. She told the creature, “They left me. They left me because I’m sick with the plague.”

The creature considered. A black tongue extended slowly from between sharp teeth and slipped across its own claw to taste Ainsley’s blood.

Ainsley said again, so sure, “It’s the plague.”

The creature said simply, “It’s not.” It turned toward the night.

Ainsley reached toward him suddenly, demanding, “Wait! Wait, wait!” 

The creature examined her for a moment. He studied the small cut on the back of her hand. The blood clotted bright red. 

Ainsley scrambled to get out, to get past it, to not be left alone again in this place.

“Wait! Wait!

The door closed. She punched the wood, driving splinters into her hand. She watched the creature carrying the baby away into the night. Alone again. 


Lisa Rose is a long-time educator turned emerging author. Her short story “Snow Globe” won Best in Fiction in a SJ Center for Literary Arts writing challenge, and her nonfiction has been published by ScaryMommy. Lisa has an MA in English Literature and works as an academic copy editor. She lurks between the trees in the PNW. You can connect with Lisa on Twitter (@WordsRose) and her Website (www.writeroseediting.com).

Featured Extra!

TDS: What was your inspiration for writing this piece?

Lisa Rose: This piece started when I read a prompt about abandoned places. A few of my writer friends and I decided to write some short pieces based on this idea. We also made a rule of no abandoned houses to challenge us away from cliches, too. I started thinking about the wider concept of abandonment and what that could encompass. I tried to weave a few levels of abandonment into this story. Fear of abandonment is one of those visceral universally human fears and perfect for horror. From the beginning, if we find ourselves abandoned, we cannot survive. What does it mean to be abandoned by your friends or family or anyone, especially when you need them most? What does it mean for your physical and psychological survival? Hospitals are a common setting in horror for good reason since they are so often a place of life and death.

TDS: What was the writing process you used when creating this story?

Lisa Rose: I like to look at images for inspiration when I am still shaping my story. I throw some words into an image search to get a feel and mood for what I might want. “Abandoned hospital,” “creepy hospital,” “empty hallway horror,” etc. After that, my process is usually the same no matter what I write. Do a mini outline of sorts that gives me a big picture to focus on, draft as much as possible in one sitting, and then go back and edit, edit, edit. I used to teach essay writing, and I’ve worked as an editor for several years—I think my approach is kind of mechanical, but it works for me. The hard part for this story was figuring out the end and keeping it focused. I was excited by the possibilities of the setting and had to reign it in.

TDS: Who influenced you as a writer?

Lisa Rose: I was born in the 80s, so I was fortunate to have a plethora of spooky media to consume. I read a ton of YA and middle grade fantasy (e.g. Tamora Pierce) growing up, but I’ve also always had that relatively darker side, and again I feel lucky to have been able to grow up consuming Anne Rice, Tim Burton, Jhonen Vasque, Courage the Cowardly Dog, etc. I was probably channeling some Silent Hill and Resident Evil vibes in this piece too. I also have degrees in English Literature, so I can’t discount the Romantics. I’m frequently inspired by and look up to contemporary authors like Hailey Piper, Sylvia Moreno Garcia, Erica LaRocca, Cassandra Khaw, and many authors whose work I read in anthologies and magazines. 


What do you think of Lisa Rose’s story? Let us know in the comments below. And… If you want to learn more about Lisa’s creative process and works, tune in Dark Sire Radio on April 28 to learn more about this fascinating author!


As always, if you’d like your gothic, horror, fantasy, or psychological realism work featured, be sure to Submit.


The Creative Nook with Keegan Milano

The forest. It’s a setting that has made numerous appearances in various forms of art. The forest is a place of inspiration and exploration. Yet there’s definitely something sinister about the forest, too. Sometimes a darkness dwells there, and Keegan Milano gave us that perfect dark and disturbing twist in his poem Crimson Sap. Keegan made the forest the monster. I enjoyed the pleasure of chatting with Keegan. In this interview you will learn fascinating facts about Keegan’s creative mind, influences, and creative process.


TDS: Do you remember the particular moment when you realized you wanted to become a writer?

Keegan Milano: I always knew I wanted to do something creative when I was young, but I didn’t get into writing until the end of high school and as I started college. My biggest inspirations can be drawn from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams and the Souls Series video games by FromSoftware. They’re very different mediums and genres, but they are both so captivating in their own universes that I always wanted to be able to create a world as rich as theirs.

TDS: What attracted you to the Gothic and Horror genres, and what would you say are your favorite books and movies amongst them?

Keegan Milano: I used to be terrified of anything remotely within the horror genre as a kid, but as I got older, I grew to enjoy it more and more. One of my favorite horror movies is Lake Mungo, directed by Joel Anderson. It is a documentary style horror movie that stands apart from traditional movies of that type. It is able to keep you scared through tension and suspense as opposed to the  jump scares found commonly in these type of movies. You can explore so many avenues with horror; life is scary and everything can be horrifying in its own way.

TDS: What do you find to be the most difficult task when approaching a new project?

Keegan Milano: I struggle with the distraction of other ideas. If I’m still in the beginning phases of a concept, and I think of another idea that I enjoy, it’s easy for me to drop the current one and go to the next. That cycle might repeat itself for some time, but I’ve gotten better at seeing these ideas through and resisting the siren’s call.

TDS: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received about writing?

Keegan Milano: Do not be afraid to take things. If you liked how a certain movie executed a scene, how an author delivered dialogue, or how a game seamlessly trickles in their exposition, don’t be shy and make it your own. Use techniques from those who you see are successful, and put them under your toolbelt. In any practice, others will learn from the successful and adopt their techniques. There’s nothing wrong with doing that in writing, as long as you make a fun and unique story.

TDS: How do you feel your personal beliefs influence your creative projects? Any fascinating experiences or ideas that become infused in your creative work?

Keegan Milano: I’m really into philosophy. In the projects I’m currently working on, I try to incorporate philosophical ideas with the story. If a story makes you think outside of reading it, not just of the story, but the concepts and ideas brought up within the story, that is a good way to know whether the writer did a good job or not. Specifically, I enjoy existentialism and whether or not we are autonomous in our motives, decisions, and the significance of that within the bigger picture of our lives.

TDS: Do you believe in writer’s block and, if so, what methods do you use to combat it?

Keegan Milano: One hundred percent. I deal with writer’s block a lot, and it’s not an easy fix. I try my best whenever the smallest idea comes into my head to jot it down, no matter the time. If I save all these little blurbs of thought onto something I can look back on, I’ll look through them and either use one idea, or a combination of them, to help continue my work, or to come up with something new. Watching new movies, reading new books, or playing new games helps. Emphasis on the new. Watching the same movies doesn’t always produce new ideas for me, but watching something I’ve never seen before will have me thinking of things I never would have thought about without that experience.

TDS: Other than writing short stories, what other creative outlets do you enjoy? What are some of your other interests and hobbies?

Keegan Milano: I’m a big Dungeons & Dragons nerd, and I love homebrewing all kinds of things for my games. One of my big aspirations is to put out content for others to use in their own games, and the horror genre is definitely a fun route to take tabletop games. I can create horrifying monsters and places for players to feel that looming terror lurking in the shadows.

TDS: Thank you so much for your time. One last question: Do you have anything new you’re working on right now? Would you like to give us a teaser?

Keegan Milano: Currently, I’m working on short horror stories that take place in a science fiction setting. The goal is to keep it as grounded as the genre can be in terms of technology. What types of horrors can we expect when we eventually set out and expand beyond earth? What are all the ways it can go wrong, and how would we deal with it? I’d love to make these horrifying stories not about monsters, but from our own failures and ambitions.


Keegan Milano is a creative writing student at Columbia College, Chicago. His interests are within fiction and game/narrative design for tabletop role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons. Genres that interest him are Horror, Fantasy, Sci-fi, and everything in between. Would you like to connect with Keegan? You can find him on Instagram (@keegz_mgee).


TDS is always seeking talented creatives to uplift and promote. If you craft fiction, poetry, art, or screenplays in the subgenres of gothic, horror, fantasy, or psychological realism, don’t hesitate to SUBMIT to us.


Featured Poet: Keegan Milano

In blood soaked soil, plants grow with pulsing veins

and sensitive roots, to feel the vibrations of those who lost their group.

The trees shift, confusing their prey.

From their bark, crimson sap leaks,

glowing bright,

capturing curiosity to draw in the prey.

The tall grass tastes the flavor that awaits.

The bramble moves, preventing escape, yet they hope it tries.

The thorns quiver in anticipation,

barbed and dried.

Thirsty and impatient.

The rustling leaves cry.

The roots rise from the ground, grasping the Feet. The Feet shake loose, and attempt to flee.

The bramble shakes excitingly, as it’s coiled branches catch the Torso, the Arms, the Legs.

The brush embraces the Flesh.

The trees sway.

The leaves emit a cacophony through the violent wind,

deafening the Screams.

The roots extend, wrapping again. The Feet squirm.

The roots tighten. It pulls.

The thorns tear streaks of skin. Blood spills onto the soil.

The earth opens beneath the Body. It pulls.

The Body sinks into the pit. Decaying corpses embedded in its walls.

The earth closes, the Body is gone.

The leaves sigh with the breeze as the bramble recedes.

The trees lie still.

The night is dark.


Keegan Milano is a creative writing student at Columbia College, Chicago. His interests are within fiction and game/narrative design for tabletop role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons. Genres that interest him are Horror, Fantasy, Sci-fi, and everything in between. To connect with Keegan, follow him on Instagram (@keegz_mgee).

FEATURED EXTRA!

We loved CRIMSON SAP and had to know more about the poem and its creator. So, we asked Keegan Milano some quick questions to learn more about his writing and creative process.

TDS: What was your inspiration for writing this piece?

Keegan Milano: The original idea came from a subreddit prompt simply put as “monster,” but  you couldn’t use the word monster, you had to convey the idea. I thought about having a monster in a forest and eventually transitioned to the idea of having the monster be the forest. From there, I thought about how each individual plant and their parts could be used to assemble a monster.

TDS: What was the writing process you used when creating this poem?

Keegan Milano: I tend to throw all of my thoughts out at once. If the idea comes to my head, I put it on paper as soon as possible, so I don’t lose the original concept. After that, I move everything around to where I think it fits best and adjust accordingly. I originally was going to have a specific person in mind fall victim to the forest. While moving stuff around however, I found it more compelling to have the victim remain anonymous to allow the reader more freedom with the scene. 

TDS: Who influenced you as a writer?

Keegan Milano: I take huge amounts of inspiration from the games I play. When it comes to horror, I specifically take inspiration from games like Bloodborne and Darkest Dungeon. I hope to achieve the heights of Hidetaka Miyazaki in FromSoftware with my own writing. The sense of horrific awe from Bloodborne has always stuck with me, and I aim to get that same feeling across with my own work.


What do you think of Keegan Milano’s poem? Let us know in the comments below. Be sure to come back to The Dark Forest on April 23 at 11:00 AM (EST) to read an extensive interview with our featured poet. It was fascinating learning about the writing advice Keegan found most useful to him, along with many other interesting topics we discussed.


As always, if you’d like your gothic, horror, fantasy, or psychological realism work featured, be sure to SUBMIT to us.


The Creative Nook with Logan McConnell

SHOULD I SCREAM? by Logan McConnell appeared in The Dark Forest on April 13. I loved the exquisite and poignant twist of this story’s climax. Thankfully, Logan was willing to speak with me in a more in-depth interview. I learned so much more about this fascinating and amazing author.


TDS: Do you remember the moment when you wanted to become a writer? Did a particular book, movie, or experience inspire you?

Logan McConnell: I don’t have one specific moment. I loved reading as a kid, and writing my own stories felt natural. There was no particular book or movie; it was the act of reading itself that inspired me to write. In some ways I think of reading and writing as two sides of the same coin.

TDS: What attracted you to the Gothic and Horror genres, and what would you say are your favorite books and movies amongst them?

Logan McConnell: Horror takes all the things you were told to avoid in life (murder, violence, death, monsters, danger) and puts those all in one place for you to experience at a safe distance. I think we all have a morbid curiosity, and horror fiction presents these themes in a way to satisfy our curiosity, sometimes with a visceral reaction, without overwhelming us like the real experience would. That is what attracted me to horror.

For books, I’ve always liked the classics: Dracula, Frankenstein, Shirley Jackson, and Edgar Allan Poe. Other contemporary short story horror authors: Thomas Ligotti, Christopher Slatsky, and Philip Fracassi.

Honestly, no horror movies inspire me. I do not enjoy most horror movies. That said, there are movies that are not labeled horror that still terrify me and served as inspiration for my stories. Those include Being John Malkovich, Requiem for a Dream, and anything by David Lynch.

TDS: What do you find to be the most difficult task when approaching a new project?

Logan McConnell: Logistics. As a writer I enjoy coming up with a premise and a powerful ending, but hammering out the details, such as how the character gets from the start to the end of the story and making sure there are no plot holes, is a challenge. Even having a character walk from one end of a hall to another can be more challenging than writing their abstract thoughts. Writing the stage direction of characters is a weakness I’m still working on improving.

TDS: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received about writing?

Logan McConnell: When you finish a first draft, put it away for a long time, at least 2 weeks for short stories. Then come back to it. You’ll see your own writing with a fresh pair of eyes that helps you polish the story in a way you couldn’t have done immediately after finishing your first draft.

I will also give a shout out to two books that have immensely helped my writing: On Writing, by Stephen King, great for writing any genre of fiction, and Writing in the Dark by Tim Waggoner, essential for any beginning horror writer.

TDS: How do you feel your personal beliefs influence your creative projects? Any fascinating experiences or ideas that become infused in your creative work?

Logan McConnell: One belief that drives my writing is to find some universal notion (existential dread, identity crisis, loneliness in a crowd, questioning the existence of God or free will) and turn those abstract experiences into stories that will resonate with people now and in the future. That is the one belief I try to adhere to for every story I write. That is why I will never reference political beliefs (may exclude some readers) or mention pop culture (may not be relatable in the future). We’re all suffering in some way, and I aim to write a story that can touch as many readers as possible.    

TDS: Do you believe in writer’s block and, if so, what methods do you use to combat it?

Logan McConnell: Yes, I very much believe in writer’s block. When I have time to write but can’t decide what, I’ll open a blank word doc and write the first sentence that comes to mind. I never know where the sentence will lead, but if I write four or five beginning sentences with an unusual premise, one is bound to inspire my imagination, and I go where the story takes me. That is how I try to beat writer’s block.

TDS: Other than writing short stories, what other creative outlets do you enjoy? What are some of your other interests and hobbies?

Logan McConnell: Running and hiking. Especially hiking in forests. Sometimes when I’m burned out from writing or my day job, I’ll go on a hike with my fiancé to clear my head.

TDS: Thank you so much for your time. One last question: Do you have anything new you’re working on right now? Would you like to give us a teaser? 

Logan McConnell: I always have four to six short stories ready to submit; it’s just a matter of finding a good home for them. I don’t want to give away what they are about, so I’ll just list one word from each story:

                Decapitated. Stalked. Glutton. Shrink. Forever. Dolls.

Also, I can be found on twitter, where I’ll tweet/ celebrate any time a story of mine is accepted and published.


Logan McConnell is a 30-year-old health care worker. He is a lifelong reader but is new to writing fiction. He has upcoming short stories for the webzines Schlock! and Yellow Mama. He is influenced by the works of Mary Shelley, Octavia E. Butler, and Thomas Ligotti. He currently lives with his boyfriend in Tennessee. To connect with Logan McConnell, find him on Twitter (@LMwriter91).


TDS is always seeking talented creatives to uplift and promote. If you craft fiction, poetry, art, or screenplays in the subgenres of gothic, horror, fantasy, or psychological realism, don’t hesitate to SUBMIT to us.


Featured Author: Logan McConnell

The sunrays were so intense they stung the farmer’s eyes, and for moments the daylight was as blinding as pitch black. Long sleeves and a wide brim hat shielded his skin from the brutal sun, growing wet and sticky with sweat by noon. Looking out on land this flat and remote, the farmer felt abandoned and isolated. Nobody to threaten him, nobody to aid him. He toiled alone.

The farmer caught sight of nothing but his home, which was really a large gardening shed, and land that disappeared beyond the horizon, dipped beneath the curvature of the planet. That and haze from suffocating heat that had lingered for days.

Only a week ago, the farmer had collapsed from a heat stroke, later waking up face down in the dirt, stinging with sunburn. He was naked with no memory of removing his clothes. Delirious ramblings had wheezed out through his cracked lips. He used his remaining strength to crawl to the water pump to avoid death. Never again. Never again would he allow that to happen, and he wouldn’t begin farming without being fully hydrated and protected from the sun.

He wiped sweat from his brow and pondered how farming provided a precarious kind of freedom that only seemed glamorous until you tasted it. Until he actually started farming, he couldn’t fathom the crushing hardship of watching his plants wither. Now it’s all he knew. These barley-living plants haunted him night and day.

Dull. That’s what his crops were. Dull green, bordering on brown colored, languishing in the hardening dirt. A few were bright green though, managing to look healthy. He felt a kinship with the vibrant hue, as if nature noticed and appreciated his hard work.

He crouched down to hold one of the few green leaves between his fingers, the reedy texture, so different from the unhealthy flaky crackle of the other plants, could be felt through his thick gardening gloves. The farmer tugged upwards a little on the stem and saw…white. White. That shouldn’t be. He wasn’t growing anything white. He yanked a little harder, lifting up the plant to reveal that the stem and roots were made of something round with firm turgor pressure. This was soft, fresh bone. 

When he pressed a finger on the surface he created an indent that popped back into position. He pulled the plant all the way out of the ground to come face to face with a human-like skull, with the start of a spine growing at the base, three vertebrae long. People were forming under the soil.

He plopped the skull in his hand, brushed off dirt around the eye sockets and teeth, and swished his own tongue around his gums, as if he too had dirt in his mouth. Squeezing the skull again, his stomach churned as he watched the skull squish in his hand. The farmer shut his eyes and shuddered.

Underneath his boots could be others. This field, that he thought held feeble produce, may very well contain hundreds of corpses forming in the earth, ready to be born in graves. Questions swirled in his mind, too quickly for his attention to seize just one, and he became dizzy with dread.

One question finally settled in the forefront of his mind. Not how this happened, or why, but what would these appear as when ripe in the autumn. Skeletons need skin, and there was no guarantee the bones would grow an outer layer of human flesh. Or that the bodies would be adorned by nature with human souls.

The farmer grabbed the nearest leaves and pulled again, revealing a second skull. Then a third. After ten different samples from random spots in the field he feared this was the entirety of the farm. His knees buckled and his body lowered until he stopped himself from sitting on the ground, disgusted by the thought of brushing up against the crowns of these crops.

While the farmer had slept these past summer nights, an evil something must have floated over his farm —his livelihood— and tainted it with a touch of grotesque ingenuity, warping the terrain he thought he had understood so well. That had to be the origin of this nightmare. The farmer slowly stumbled away from the plants, as if the dozens of heads would worm their way out to writhe and mew the second the air hit their faces, biting through his boots in a confused, newborn-like anguish. 

Possible that this was another heat stroke, another assault on his mind from the unforgiving sun and he simply needed shelter. His home was a hundred yards away. So he walked, then jogged, then ran, putting as much distance between himself and the macabre roots as he could.

At the water pump, through slurps of water, he found no clarity as to what was happening. He turned his back on the skulls he had unearthed, still resting right where he left them. After more sips of water, he marched up to his shed, went inside and shut the door behind him.

Finally in shade, he bowed his head, took long, deep breaths, and listened to his speeding heartbeat begin to slow. When he looked back up he gasped, his heart once again pounding in his chest. He saw, through the window, a crowd of people, maybe twenty, walking to his shed. In the heat they undulated like a mirage. They were not. They were very much real, and getting closer.

All the men were bearded and wore identical clothes: white shirts, black pants, and suspenders. The women wore plain dresses with muted colors. They had the same grim expression he possessed in the morning when he began the laborious duties for the day.

These could be the monsters who contaminated his farm with evil for their own, unknown purpose. These could also be helpful strangers, Good Samaritans who have come to aid him. Either way, they were coming to his shed. Escape was impossible. The farmer straightened his back, clenched his hands into fists, and stepped outside to face them.

The horde of people dropped to the ground in terror. Some cried out. Some turned away. Each one cowered at the sight of him, swung their arms up and covered their ears, hands pressed so tight their arms trembled.

“How?” one of the women cried, “how did the mandrake get himself out?”

Mandrake?

“Cover your ears!” yelled a man.

Why?

The crowd slowly backed away, but the farmer walked after them and they froze. He opened his mouth, but no words came out, just garbled gibberish. He hadn’t spoken to a person since… since… he couldn’t remember. He couldn’t remember seeing a person before, or what exactly it was that he thought was growing on his farm, or how long he’d been there. Really nothing before the heat stroke when he woke up in a daze.

The farmer wanted to talk to the terrified people but more disjointed grunts came out, his face twisted in frustration. He locked eyes with the husband and wife who led the group.

“You woke up too early,” the husband said, not taking his hands away from his ears. “You’re a mandrake. We grow you and collect your roots. You… you weren’t supposed to wake up yet.”

The farmer looked down and slowly pulled one glove off, peeking at his skin. Brown and course, not soft like the flesh on these frightened faces. Last week there was no heat stroke, that was his birth. All thoughts after that were wishful thinking. Born to be uprooted, killed before a chance to scream. A life seconds long. He was the evil something.

The wife turned to the crowd. “It thinks it’s people.”

But I am. I’m a farmer. 

“It thinks it lives in the tool shed.”

I do. This is my home.

The husband eyed the mandrake. “Can it understand us?”

Stop calling me ‘it’! The mandrake tried to respond but only muttered incoherent murmurs.

Again, everyone pressed their hands to their ears. The wife whispered to her husband, “if it screams…”

The wife didn’t need to finish, the mandrake understood. His screams killed. He covered his bare hand again, and pressed his gloved palms up to his forehead, shaking, now feeling stems where his hair should be.

The husband pulled a knife out from his pocket.

What are you doing? Don’t hurt me!

The husband crept closer, pointing his blade at the mandrake’s throat.

Should I scream?

Other members of the crowd took out weapons.

Don’t make me scream!

The wife clasped her hands together. “Kill it!”

The mandrake tilted his head back, filled his lungs with air and emitted a piercing cry. The echo of his own scream reverberated for miles as bodies struck the ground.


Logan McConnell is a health care worker. He is a lifelong reader and new to writing fiction. He has upcoming short stories for the webzines Schlock! and Yellow Mama. He is influenced by the works of Mary Shelley, Octavia E. Butler, and Thomas Ligotti. He currently lives with his boyfriend in Tennessee. To keep up with Logan, follow him on Twitter.

FEATURED EXTRA!

We loved SHOULD I SCREAM? and had to know more about the story and its creator. So, we asked Logan McConnell some quick questions to learn more about his writing and creative process.

TDS: What was your inspiration for writing this piece?

Logan McConnell: Skulls. I was coming up with ideas for a story premise, and the image of a skull popped into my head. I knew I wanted a story where multiple skulls were featured. 

TDS: What was the writing process you used when creating this story?

Logan McConnell: I came up with the first half of this story spontaneously, but I didn’t know the ending when I started Should I Scream? When I got half-way through, I took a break and spent hours thinking of the most obvious/likely endings, then ruling them out. I wanted something unexpected, and eventually came up with an ending I liked. 

TDS: Who influenced you as a writer?

Logan McConnell: Fyodor Dostoevsky and Vladamir Nabokov are my two favorite authors. I discovered them in high school and have been reading them ever since. They aren’t horror writers, but they do explore the darker side of human nature using creative narratives. 

As far as horror influences, I would list Mary Shelly and Thomas Ligotti. I think Shelly tapped into the relationship of man/monster really well in her writing, and I admire Ligotti’s creative out-of-the-box thinking in crafting stories.


What do you think of Logan McConnell’s story? Let us know in the comments below. And… If you want to learn more about Logan’s writing process and other works, be sure to come back to The Dark Forest on April 16 at 11:00 AM (EST) to read a more extensive interview with him.


As always, if you’d like your gothic, horror, fantasy, or psychological realism work featured, be sure to SUBMIT to us.


The Creative Nook with Samir Sirk Morató

Samir Sirk Morató’s story STAND NOT AT YOUR GRAVE was featured in The Dark Forest on April 6. I was enthralled from the start by this story’s bleak, harsh atmosphere. The climactic moment was so intimate and disturbing. I wanted to learn more about Mx. Morató’s creative process, influences, and other works, so I requested an interview. Join me as I delve even deeper into the fascinating world of this amazing author.


TDS: Do you remember the particular moment when you realized you wanted to become a writer? Did a particular book or movie inspire you? Or something you experienced or observed?

Samir Sirk Morató: I don’t think I ever had the realization “hey, I want to be a writer.” That desire overtook me the same way boiling water overtakes a frog. I was a voracious reader and scribbler from day one; as a child, I littered countless composition notebooks with plagiarized retellings of stories I had just read. Horror story anthologies, science fiction, and dark swashbucklers – escapist fiction that embraced horrific outcomes without flinching – were lifeboats for me. I wanted to create those for someone else too.

TDS: What attracted you to the Gothic and Horror genres, and what would you say are your favorite books amongst them?

Samir Sirk Morató: Moody atmospheres, monsters, body horror, and the layered decadence of decay all attracted me to the Gothic and Horror genres at an early age, though I was a B-roll creature feature fan before I was anything else. Full disclosure: I prefer short stories to novels. Peter Watts’ “The Things,” Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” Jeff VanderMeer’s “Annihilation,” and Alan Moore’s 1980s “Swamp Thing” are all favorites of mine. If we started getting into my favorite movies we’d be here all day.

TDS: What do you find to be the most difficult task when approaching a new project?

Samir Sirk Morató: Figuring out how to turn ideas and a handful of notes into a fully realized, fleshed out story is always the hardest part for me. Without fail, every time I start a project, I overwhelm myself by imagining all the themes / threads in the final product, then despair over how complicated it seems. The solution to this is always simple: just write the damn rough draft. Worry about editing in finesse later.

TDS: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received about writing?

Samir Sirk Morató: Few pieces of writing, or sentences, are irreplaceable. Learn to let go. Don’t be afraid to reframe or restart if something isn’t working. In ceramics, there’s a tradition of taking failed works outside and shattering them before zealously trying again. That’s the attitude to have here too.

TDS: How do you feel your personal beliefs influence your creative projects? Any fascinating experiences or ideas that become infused in your creative work?

Samir Sirk Morató: For better or worse, who I am permeates my writing. My rural upbringing and longtime fascination with death influence everything. As a nonbinary person who has suffered from Depersonalization/derealization disorder (DPDR), I also have strong feelings – and questions! – about what it means to perceive and inhabit a body. What scares you when you spend every day longing to crawl out of your own skin? What is flesh, really?

My DPDR in particular influences my approach to Gothic and Horror. Mental illness is a staple in both genres. Sometimes its inclusion is compelling; oftentimes, it’s cruel. Disorders that include hallucinations or disconnection from reality tend to be portrayed with malignant ignorance. I’ve become numb to these depictions, but in my own projects, I reject them.

I aim to create horror that viscerally discomforts readers without mocking them. If they feel uncomfortable but understood, that’s even better.

TDS: Do you believe in writer’s block and, if so, what methods do you use to combat it?

Samir Sirk Morató: To me, writer’s block is all too real. Unfortunately, there’s no shortcut to getting around it. If I’m facing writer’s block I’ll designate time to write something, anything, and see if that helps. Sometimes, in severe cases, I abstain from writing and focus on other hobbies to let myself recharge. When I feel rested, I’ll buckle down and try to write again. There’s no point in looking for water in a dry well. You need to let it replenish itself. I remind myself that it’s also impossible to write if I haven’t been consuming new material or absorbing new experiences to write about. There’s a life outside the rough drafts.

TDS: Other than writing short stories, what other creative outlets do you enjoy? What are some of your other interests and hobbies?

Samir Sirk Morató: I love to embroider, create collage art, hike, and send postcards. I’m also a casual birder. That being said, fellow birders, please don’t ask me to identify any bird via calls. If it’s not a Red-winged Blackbird, a Red-tail, or a nuthatch I won’t know it.

TDS: Thank you so much for your time. One last question: What stories have you published since appearing in TDS?

Samir Sirk Morató: I haven’t been too active this year, but I have a forthcoming short story in Cuir Kitchen Brigade’s queer ecology anthology, which I’m thrilled about. Thanks for having me!


Samir Sirk Morató is a scientist and an artist. They draw much of their inspiration from their love of horror movies and their experiences in rural landscapes. Some of Samir’s work can be found in The Hellebore Issue #5, Color Bloq’s RED collection, and Somos En Escrito’s 2021 Extra Fiction Contest honorable mentions. To connect with Samir, visit them on Twitter (@bolivibird) and Instagram (@spicycloaca).


TDS is always seeking talented creatives to uplift and promote. If you craft fiction, poetry, art, or screenplays in the subgenres of gothic, horror, fantasy, or psychological realism, don’t hesitate to SUBMIT to us.


Featured Author: Samir Sirk Morató

You have always been close to your youngest sister. Whether that is through love or duty is questionable, but the closeness itself cannot be denied. As the eldest, it was you who pressed balls of pemmican into her maw during the wintertime, you who let her watch the pouring of lead into blinding bullet crucibles during summer, you who cleaved her favorite hound’s skull in half with an ax when he began slavering and staggering in the spring.

            Your mother made Carolina, but make no mistake: you crafted her. Not the plump, melancholic woman who thrust Carolina’s care upon you so she could tend to the six other children and the farm. Not the sow who rolls over for men’s advances between waves of sorrow and deep pits of torpor. Not the soiled damsel who wallpapered your father’s darker skin on you in the womb, then took it as proof you are a caretaker, or a grown thing in a girl-body.

            Though eleven-year-old Carolina lies in a coffin two feet beneath the brittle soil, you tend to her still. Is that not devotion rivaling love?

            You run short of breath as you lug a water pail across the yard. The sunbeams that stroke your sweaty locks and thinning, trembling hands are almost autumnal in their capacity for coolness, for bloodletting life while they pretend to grant it. It’s strange to feel their sucking warmth in early winter, when death has already homed itself in the landscape. Your lungs seize. You set your pail on the frosty mud.

            When you cough into your handkerchief, no pearly molars come this time. No blood—though there is never blood. Despite what your watching mother fears, despite all the moments she spends searching your handkerchiefs for red splotches, no tuberculosis afflicts you. You feel her gaze as you seize the pail again, as you limp another half of the yard before you must begin your coughing anew.

            It takes grace not to smile at your mother with the handful of teeth you have left. You sense her presence in the window of your crooked, creaking miscarriage of a home. Newborn guilt grants you restraint. After all your shared loss, it is difficult to continue despising the woman before you. She cannot escape the purgatory she knows she inhabits. That is a punishment greater than anything you could inflict. Forgiveness still stays difficult. Fondness, too.

            I am not sick, you want to tell her. I am paying penance for my sin of destroying you. You taught me to do that.

            But the doughy figure in the window won’t understand. She and the youthful ghosts of her that live alongside you in the house fear everything beyond death. They creep about the topics like rats clinging to walls. No practicality guides them. Not the way it guides you. You tip your gaunt chin up in pride, heft the pail up a final time, and stagger to the doorstep.

            Take heart! your posture cries, even as your waning skin and waxing skeleton urges terror into your siblings’ hearts. Persist! you cry to your mother, while your waning strength sets her to crying into dinner’s soup. She flees to her slender bedroom. The children finish eating before they scatter into the pine-board shadows.

            It’s a shame that you cannot tell your family what choice you have shouldered for them. Still, in your heart of hearts, you know this is a choice for you, too. The cure for your devotion would be unthinkable: an exhumation of Carolina’s grave, the burning of her heart and liver, a tonic of organ ashes funneled into your esophagus. The conjoining of your bodies even as you lost your sister forever.

            Settler medicine, your father would say. Whether he would help the doctor pry open your jaws or fistfight the man to prevent that, you don’t know. He has gone too. The sole person to return to you is Carolina.

            Maybe out of duty. Maybe out of love.

            She comes at night.

            She always comes at night, ravenous for care. You hear her nails scraping at the clay seams of your room walls. The three children in your room murmur restlessly in their sleep. Darkness adorns every crevice of your room, of the mattress, of the spider and thatch-cluttered ceiling that strains beneath the roof’s tomb of snow. The scratching at the windowsill belongs to this darkness. You gnaw your chapped lip as surprise strikes you alongside tired dread. She came last night. Why has she come again so soon?

            The scratching at the window latch starts inscribing nightmares in your other siblings’ dreams, so you resolve to stop it. “Come in,” you mutter, despite the exhaustion corroding your bones. You are not sure if you speak aloud or not. Your words sound in the paralytic space of the night where sleepwalkers live.

            The window creaks open in sound alone.

            Carolina’s outline scrambles through the window in a flurry of knees, lacerated palms, and torn shifts. No chill accompanies her. Though her outline is not the fat of her, you recognize it. The gaunt, heart face is hers. The knobbly elbows. The twisted back. The coils of black hair, coarse with corpse grease and lack of combing. This sister shade slinks from the windowsill on all fours and clambers to your bedside. She kneads her claws into your quilt. Presses her torn cheek to a paisley drunkard’s path. Her bead pupils devour you.

            “Lucy,” Carolina trills. “I’m cold. Can I sleep with you?”

            Her voice, too, is hers, if choked by curdled blood. It succeeds in closing your throat. She is gone, but you haven’t lost your little sister to eternity. Not the way you lost your father, or how the others lost Carolina. Her presence nearly empties the well of tears inside you.

            “Yes, Lina,” you say. “Come here.”

            She does not wait for your pat on the bedspread to invite herself in. Carolina wiggles into the snarl of covers headfirst, seeking the warmth of your side. The dirty soles of her feet glint at the ceiling. Her leather boots shoe her corpse, but her hungry outline rid itself of them months ago. It doesn’t need them.

            You drive an arm into your covers, pinning a fold of quilt beneath your side. Carolina whines in disappointment when her face does not meet the velvet curve of your armpit. She kicks her feet, settling close, like a dog. You wait for her chin to prick your breast. No pulse tints her veins.

            “You’re back early,” you say. You swallow every fearful second that you behold your sister in the murk, hoping to store this glittery etching of her deep in the cellar of your memories, a place where it can cure with all of Father’s pemmican and recollections of dressing her as a baby. An untouchable store. If you are to feed her, she must also feed you.

            “I got hungry.” Carolina chews at a sprig of yarn on the quilt. Stale blood stains her mouth. Rings her collar. “How’s Mother?”

            “She’s the same. Still sinking in and out of herself. Still messing with men she shouldn’t. She misses you terribly.”

            “Mm,” Carolina says. “That’s good. I’d be devastated if she didn’t. And nôhtâwiy?”

            “Father’s ceased coming around. Grief over giving you his sickness brought him low. Or… tuberculosis has.”

            “Terrible. I’ve missed him.” She sighs.

            Carolina’s breath is rich. A combination of moldering pine needles, fermented lung blood, and moist particles of throat. It twists your innards in remembrance. You hewed the pine boards for her coffin, after all. Emptied her chamber pot of retched blood when Mother couldn’t bear to.

            Your siblings twitch in their cots around you, unaware, distorted larvae in differing stages of growth with some of your features baked into their faces. White maggots that writhed out of your mother’s body. The half-fond leeches in your care. They don’t deserve to see Carolina; it is imperative they don’t. Their need for care kept you from boarding school. They fill you with pitying hatred.

            Carolina’s broken claws tug at your quilt.

            “I’m hungry,” she says.

            “Not yet.” Desperation cleaves you open. Her impatience has doubled. You feign an older sibling’s annoyance, swatting away her decay-softened hand. “I want to talk more.”

            Carolina grunts.

            Concern tightens its snare about your neck. Rage, too. The girl who read you fragments from Father’s English primer, who talked for hours on end until Mother despaired, is fast vanishing into this shimmery, offal gilded sketch. This beast who cannot entreat or jest—only eat. Fury commands you to grab her by the bonnet, to tear out her hair pins and tamp coins into her eye sockets and hurl her onto the yard, mewling, by her scruff and spine. That hungry gaze will bother you no more.

            Yet whenever you look again, you see the sister who clung to your leg as a toddler, who stole your maple syrup candies as a child, taught you to read several letters, declared you her favorite over Father, shared a handful of his words with you. Your heart caves beneath the weight of these memories. Your anger ebbs.

            Carolina runs her tongue across her shattered palisade of teeth. Her skin clothes her skull as dun muslin, fabric that has long forgotten its orange undertones. One of her hands finds yours above the quilt. Her digits have bloated into imitations of your mother’s, but necrosis has hardened her fingers into withered, purple tips. She is, at once, viscera sap and bone. A wispy nightmare. Another draft whistles through the house.

            “What do you want to talk about?” she says.

            “Mother,” you say.

            Carolina’s not-body settles against you.

            “What of her?”

            Carolina’s outline hasn’t reckoned with the devastation rot has brought upon her corpse, but she has changed. Tendrils of rot have spread her preteen body in a mimicry of maturation. Her thighs and arms have thickened, brimming with cities of little live things forbidden to appear in the outline; her belly hangs pregnant with gasses. Death’s doing. He stole her maidenhood in every way possible.

            Though you fed Carolina yesterday, her gums are already receding again, her widow’s peak sharpening, her sinews creaking in anguish.

            “I fear I’m being too hard on her,” you say, pinning your arm over the quilt more tightly as Carolina tries to tug it free. “She’s been plagued by demons most of her life, and they worsened while she carried me. Something about my birth loosened her grip on their collars. I’ve realized this after watching her grieve. She’s incapable of caring for herself. That is why she almost sent me away.”

            Carolina’s knee prods your calf. She gulps in your heartbeat. Fans her filthy hair across your chest in an attempt to hide her impatient wiggling. You dwarf her. The blood between you ties you together less than proximity.

            “Perhaps my hatred of her is misplaced,” you murmur. “Do you think so?”

            Carolina shrugs.

            “You used to voice many, many theories about the source of Mother’s sickness.” You try again, doubt consuming you. Where has Carolina’s passion gone? “You defended her, Lina, even if I didn’t listen. Surely you have something to say now.”

            “Don’t really,” Carolina says. “Mother got eaten by the imps she birthed alongside all of us. Erred and let us suck her brains and happiness out of her breasts. Hate her or love her, it doesn’t matter: she’s gone. Just a shell. The way you’d be if she had sent you to Carlisle.”

            “It’s naught but a school, Lina.”

            “It’s naught but a coffin.”

            “At least if she’d have sent me there,” you say, nauseated by the knowledge in her voice, “I would have known she thought I needed care.”

            “They would’ve cared for you as death did for me.”

Carolina—tender, sharp, unblinking Carolina—tugs at the quilt once more.

            “Hungry,” she gurgles. “Hungry.”

            Despair braids with your resentment. Carolina’s translucent hands snag at your wrist and your bicep. The others roil in their beds, still more your children than your mother’s, and the unfairness of your constant giving wrings you in half. Pain sits copper-heavy in your mouth. Did your mother intend on making a revenant of you too? All the hatred you fend off in the daylight comes easily in the dark. The promise of agency burns your palms.

            “Nisîmis,” you say, “make me a promise.”

            Carolina’s nails pierce the quilt.

            “About what?”

            Her words hiss free from a blend of collapsed lung and loam, though neither weighs her body constellations. Your sister putrefies cleanly. Saline wets the corner of your eyes. It is unfair that you are both half-made things: conqueror and conquered, monster and child, daughter and mother, undead and unalive. No wretched pioneer parent can fix you.

            “Promise me, Lina,” you say, “that you will feed from Mother next time. So she finally nurses you when it matters.”

            Carolina laughs. It is an echo of you. Mother could never laugh like this. Broken pride clutters your chest until you cannot breathe.

            “Anything for you, nimis.” Desire animates Carolina’s dead gaze. “But it’s not next time now. Lucy. Hungry.”

            If you feel guiltless, if you feel nothing at all, have you really committed a transgression? Have you done anything? You are a brittle collection of fifteen years and paltry pounds of muscle when Carolina yanks at the quilt again. Everything begins sliding away from you.

            This detachment must be victory.

            It is duty, not love, that leads you to unbar your arm from the quilt. Carolina burrows into your armpit, hissing in pleasure. The November night clenches your heart. Jagged teeth find the familiar, bruised circle of skin beneath your arm that they love—your witch mark. But you are no foul witch nursing her familiar. You are an eldest daughter committed to the holy practice of tending to your family. This is dutiful and good and natural.

            Carolina’s fingertips graze your ribs. Your jaw clenches.

            Her fangs slice through your nightshirt. They do not touch you at all. You flinch. Life waterfalls out of you into Carolina’s lapping mouth. No blood. There is never blood. Carolina drinks spiritual marrow. Star clusters lace your vision while you stare at the ceiling, paralyzed, skin sallowing, strength fading, muscles weakening. Carolina croons the way she did as a babe. The frost laden grass outside shudders in its casing.

            Two miles away, past chilled fields, barren brier thickets, falling fences, and crisscrosses of rutted dirt roads, Carolina’s cadaver writhes in its coffin. She kicks at the sagging ceiling in joy, reinforcing the earthen crust of armor above her legs. Fresh blood leaks from her pores. She fattens. Seeps. Your calves spasm at the thought of flesh Lina feeding. You washed that body, dressed her, sewed her in a sheet, encased her in wood, put her away. More than ever, she is of you now.

            Carolina imbibes the invisible lining of your liver. You think of your mother weakening in mind and body as she nursed you. Shameful empathy cuts you.

            “Enough!” You gasp, shoving the crown of Carolina’s moldering head away. Your breath comes in rattles. “No more, Lina! Stop!”

            Carolina withdraws. She sits back on her heels and her tattered pile of dress layers. Wipes her mouth. A strand of spit snaps beneath her wrist. She slides that spittle-glossed hand atop your seizing one. Her visage smiles at you in the murk, bright with borrowed life, her eyes sunken, her skin ashen. The children shiver.

            “Kisâkihitin, Lucy,” your sister says.

            The potential that she means it kills you.

            Carolina’s small figure fills your vision as it clambers out the window, heading for the woods that separate your home and her grave: the mistletoe-lumped hickory trees, the frozen ropes of poison oak, the slender grove of chestnuts wheezing beneath blight. A world of beautiful parasites you both learned of together.

            Lina latches the ghost window behind her to prevent other starved things from creeping towards the rotting, weakening Host of your body. Tomorrow, you think, wheezing, she will sup from Mother.

            Maybe out of duty.

            Maybe out of love.


Samir Sirk Morató is a scientist and an artist. They draw much of their inspiration from their love of horror movies and their experiences in rural landscapes. Some of Samir’s work can be found in The Hellebore Issue #5, Color Bloq’s RED collection, and Somos En Escrito’s 2021 Extra Fiction Contest honorable mentions.

FEATURED EXTRA!

We loved STAND NOT AT YOUR GRAVE so much that we had to interview the talented Samir Sirk Morató to learn more about their inspirations for this story and who has influenced their writing.

TDS: What was your inspiration for writing this piece?

Samir Sirk Morató: “Stand Not At Your Grave” is inspired by Mercy Brown, a teenager whose ritual exhumation was one of the New England vampire panic’s most famous cases. Mercy was a nineteen-year-old who lost her mother and sister to tuberculosis before following in their footsteps, yet due to coincidence, ignorance, and superstition, her town labeled her a vampire. Mercy’s older brother Edgar – the last tuberculosis-afflicted Brown child left – consumed a tonic made of her cremated liver and heart in an effort to break his sister’s purported spell on him. He died two months later.

There’s something terrible and intimate about the concept of consuming a sibling’s organs to survive, especially if you consider the old belief of one’s soul being in their blood, and the vampire’s tendency to pray on their family once reanimated. The questions of what hungry intimacy (or lack thereof) would lead someone to protect their sibling’s remains sparked the creation of this story.

TDS: What was the writing process you used when creating this story?

Samir Sirk Morató: I’m a planner, so I wrote an outline detailing scene breakdowns and emotional beats before going back and filling in details. Then I wrote out any dialogue exchanges and key moments that I could visualize regardless of when they happened in the plot. After I had the rough draft of this story written, I spent time considering its themes and incomplete character interactions, then went back and added in details related to the new development I was thinking of. There was a lot of rinse and repeat here, but it kept me organized, thinking, and excited to finish writing, which is the most I can ask for.

TDS: Who has influenced you as a writer?

Samir Sirk Morató: R.L. Stine, Susan Power, and Dario Argento have all influenced me. I also want to give credit to the scriptwriters of all the schlocky horror movies I consumed as a kid. I would not be the same without having watched Squirm (1976) and The Killer Shrews (1959) at a formative age.


What did you think of Samir Sirk Morató’s story? Let us know in the comments below. And… if you want to learn more about Samir’s writing process and other works, come back to The Dark Forest on April 9 at 11:00 AM (EST) to read a more extensive interview with the author.


As always, if you’d like your gothic, horror, fantasy, or psychological realism work featured, be sure to submit to us: http://darksiremag.com/submissions.html.


Fiona’s Guardians: A Review

Rating: 💀💀💀💀💀

“When she hires you, you’ll wish you were dead” is the tagline for Fiona’s Guardians by Dan Klefstad. After following the main character, Daniel, through his day-to-day life as a guardian for the vampire Fiona, the sentiment of the tagline is certainly understandable. Life has changed for vampires in the modern world. Now that modern policing includes far more sophisticated means of detection, vampires can’t so easily hunt down people like they used to. Humans nowadays have become their partners in crime, hired on as guardians to not only protect the vampires they serve, but they also must supply the blood, using an investment portfolio to buy the blood from secret suppliers who steal from hospitals. Fiona is a 250-year-old vampire. She requires 10 pints of blood every night, otherwise she begins to waste away, shriveling into a hideous, monstrous shell of her former self: “…her hair starts to fall out on the second. Then her skin wrinkles and begins to smell, and her eyes harden to the point where I think she’d eat an entire schoolyard of children. I work very hard to make sure I never see that look again” (234).

The one who makes the tremendous commitment as a vampire guardian must be willing to give up any connection with their family and friends and say goodbye to vacations. The plus sides of the job: recreation with the finest wines and Cuban cigars. Oh, and how about a frocking great retirement settlement, somewhere in the realm of 10 million dollars. When we are introduced to Daniel, he is in the process of retiring. He’s given his all to Fiona, even lost an arm in his service to her. Daniel is a man nearly stripped of all his sense of humor; the rosy tint has completely faded from his view of life, and it’s easy to understand why. Enter Wolf, Daniel’s upcoming replacement for the job, who’s ignorant and arrogant, though not necessarily stupid. Daniel hopes to quickly get him trained and hand over the reins for good, though there’s a little complication that gets in the way. Yes, little is an understatement. How about a complication hundreds of years in the making?

Mors Strigae is an order of monks existing within the Catholic church. The full name for this group is a mouthful: “The Prefect for the Sacred Congregation for the Inquiry into all Things Preternatural.” Back in 1900 they battled the vampires, and now they’re on the rise again, also adapting to the modern world with more sophisticated weapons and technology for hunting down vampires, and their devotion to the mission has been deepened by hundreds of years of tradition. Both vampires and guardians alike are being hunted down and executed.

The novel jumps between the point-of-view of those in the vampire clan and those serving within Mors Strigae with quite a balanced approach throughout the narrative, meaning the reader attains a very in-depth understanding of the intentions of both sides. This produces an intriguing effect. It never becomes clear who the good or bad guys are. The reader can easily sympathize with either side for various reasons. The vampires are hell-bent on surviving. Obtaining blood is their only purpose in life, and they will reach to any extreme to attain it. Many of those sired to become vampires become so without a choice. They are victims in the purest sense, damned to their state of endless lust and done so completely against their will. The reader can easily sympathize with this wretched state. Yet, one can easily sympathize with those who serve Mors Strigae. They are the protective force surrounding humans, preventing us from falling to either death by the vampire or the worse state of becoming a vampire. It should be obvious that we root for them. Right? It’s not, because the novel shows the contradictions that exist within Mors Strigae, their own moments of ignorance, moments when their own lust for power destroys them. One of the great strengths of this novel is its ability to explore with depth the contradictions between both sides.

Well-executed dialogue is another strength. The dialogue crackles with life and feels genuine to the characters. One of my favorite passages involves a conversation between Daniel and Wolf during their first meeting:

            I grab my fresh drink. “And how do we pay for all this bloo—”

            “The product?” Daniel’s voice drowns me out, and he
scolds me with a look. “You invest her money.” Then he
swirls the dark, heavy liquid under his nose before sipping
“Lately we’re staying away from tech stocks. New admini-
stration, playing it safe. We’re in toothpaste, deodorant—
stuff people use every day.”

            “So they smell good if we experience a ‘hang-up.’”

            “Very funny.”

            “Tell me: How often will I… disappear people?” (pg. 27)

This exchange between Daniel and Wolf depicts their personalities well. Daniel’s sense of humor is all dried up; he’s all business and knows the serious cost if things aren’t done right. Wolf is ignorant and arrogant; he’s still not sure if he believes any of it or not. The dialogue flows so naturally and reveals so much about the characters. The reader will find that Klefstad’s deft touch with dialogue drives the narrative along. Much of the time the wonderful dialogue keeps the reader turning pages.

The narrative is told in the first-person form, jumping from different characters’ point-of-views. One chapter in particular, titled “Epistles,” utilizes an epistolary method, taking us back to 1900 when the order of monks Mors Strigae first battled the mysterious vampires near a small village called Campoleone. This chapter is pivotal, lending a sense of depth and intrigue to the story as a whole. Letters between Abbot Martinez and Cardinal Soriano tell the story, unveiling much of the folklore surrounding the vampires. We learn of the origins of Mors Strigae as well as the meaning of the vampire name— “striga”—meaning “evil spirit” or “witch.” The vampire hunters come to learn during encounters with the strigae that much of their folklore is debunked. For instance, crucifixes and holy water do nothing but make the vampires angry. Yet silver does have an effect on them, prompting the monks to produce armor made of silver. Also, the old practice of stabbing the heart and removing the head before cremation is unnecessary to those who are victims of a vampire attack, for it takes more than mere exsanguination to transform someone into a vampire. The old conflict between science and religion comes up as well, when Abbot Martinez mentions the continued rise of diarrheal diseases due to the haphazard disposal of waste amongst the men of the camp. The Abbot had been reading scientific journals and realizes better hygiene practices such as providing shovels in the brethren’s travel kits for the purpose of waste disposal could protect the men from the growing plague of dysentery. We well know that the standard-bearer for the vampire genre—Bram Stoker’s Dracula—is suffused with themes about advancing technology prevailing and/or conflicting with age-old superstitions, and that’s the other reason this chapter in the book is so entertaining—it lends depth and intrigue and serves as a homage to Bram Stoker’s vampire tale.

Fiona’s Guardians by Dan Klefstad displays the full entertainment package. Some moments are dark, gritty, and disturbing. Others are lightened by fun, comedic timing. And still other moments are titillating and lustful. All of it resonates with a strong sense of adventure. You will find unexpected plot twists and complex characters wrestling the contradictions within themselves. I strongly recommend reading this book.    

You can find Dan Klefstad’s Fiona’s Guardians on AMAZON.


RATINGS: TDS rates all books based on the dark content and how well the reading experience lends itself. Of course, author craft, storytelling, and mechanics are considered, as well. For this purpose, we use skulls (💀💀💀💀💀). And explanation of the skull system follows.

RATING: 💀 Boring, not dark, not interesting. Do not recommend.

RATING: 💀💀 Fair plot, not too dark, fairly interesting. Read at own risk.

RATING: 💀💀💀 Good plot and mild darkness, good reading experience. Encouraged read.

RATING: 💀💀💀💀 Great reading experience with heaps of dark tone. Strong recommend.

RATING: 💀💀💀💀💀 Excellent prose, tons of dark tone. A MUST READ!


Do you have a short story, piece of art, poem, or screenplay that you think might be a good fit for Dark Sire? If so, visit darksiremag.com/submissions.html.

Self-Editing Your Manuscript Series: How to Line Edit Your Manuscript

Line editing, by nature, requires the structure of your story to be solid and complete. Finish developmental edits first. It is not an efficient use of your time to perfect sentences that you may not need later. We’ve just wrapped up our series on developmental edits of short fiction. You can find them here:

6 Elements of Characterization
How to Assess Your Plot
How to Assess Your Pacing
How to Assess Your World-building
How to Revitalize Your Setting

We defined line editing in our initial post as working on a sentence level. It is digging into your craft to improve the clarity and reception of your manuscript.

These are some of the many questions line editing will ask:

Do the sentences make sense to a reader?

Did you use the right word for that scene’s mood, or does a different one have more impact? Do you need to make sure that you didn’t use overly long sentences in your fast-paced fight scene?

Everyone has a different writing and editing process. Some elements may cross over, but at the end of the day, use whatever method works for you. Let’s start off with some format elements that can benefit your line editing before we dive deeper into the process.

Change the format:

Some may suggest you even print the story out. However, if you are looking for zero cost to low budget ways to elevate your writing you can work around that.

If you have been looking at your manuscript on the standard 8.5in x 11in page that comes with word documents, and 12pt Times New Roman font, it may become difficult for you to start seeing any mistakes. This is specifically because the writer of the manuscript can go story-blind.

Story blindness is when you miss obvious mistakes, or subtle ones, in your own writing because you are overexposed to the material.

Change it up.

Use a smaller page size. Example: 5 in x 8 in.

Use a different font. Georgia, Courier New, even the oft-dreaded Comic Sans can make the manuscript look new.

It may also help to change the page color and font color. 

For example:

When I write I use white font on a black page.

When I edit I use black font on a white page.

Read the story aloud:

This age-old advice comes in handy for a reason. When the material is read to you by another person or a device, you can’t add in the tonal changes to help push your meaning to the reader. And while you may miss a double word, the computer will read it it aloud. Notice the previous sentence used it twice.

If you aren’t comfortable reading aloud or listening to the computer speakers blaring your manuscript, there are options–and they come with headphones.

Microsoft Word and Google Docs both have text-to-speech features that can read your MS to you. There are also online programs such as naturalreaders.com, and ttsreader.com

Common Mistakes (and how to fix them):

While the above is a way to see your manuscript differently, let’s look at some line editing examples and how you can apply that to your own work.

Please note: This list will not be comprehensive. You may or may not come across these depending on the strengths and weaknesses of your own manuscript.

Too many words:

For example, this is the process of using entirely too many words than the manuscript calls for at any given time, in a way that can cause run-ons.

Cut the fluff.

How many ways can you find to rewrite the above sentence? There is no one right or best answer. Use the version that best suits your manuscript and *relevant era.

*Relevant era: Some line editors and copy editors will take the setting into account when marking up a manuscript. Certain time periods have slightly different grammar rules for authenticity.

Pronouns for clarity:

You may have come across a sentence like the following either in your own work or in another’s.

He plunged the stake into his chest, and he screamed as black smoke poured from his gaping maw.

Bare with the lack of imagination, but can you see how the reader may not understand that there is both a vampire and a vampire hunter in this sentence?

Bonus! Did you also notice that this sentence needed to be split? There is simply too much happening…

Hunter plunged the stake into the vampire’s chest. The creature screamed, black smoke poured from his gaping maw.

Gerunds and when they hinder plausibility:

While the advice may be met with staunch resistance, let me show you what editors mean when they say gerunds and past participle phrases.

Action scenes, or when speed is necessary, the past participle phrase seems an easy answer to make things happen quickly.

This is, by far, one of the most common errors I see when working with authors.

Jumping up, he ran down the stairs and flipped the breaker.

Our brains are hardwired to see these as chronological events. First this, then that. However, that is not what has been written. In the above example, the character is running down the stairs while jumping up–something that the author clearly intended to be two separate actions.

A quick fix:

He ran down the stairs and flipped the breaker.

Unless the character’s jumping is relevant, it’s not an important word. The reader will know that in order to run down the stairs he stood in some manner. Keeping or cutting the phrase in the sentence is a matter of personal taste.

Make sure that, if you are using a gerund (an -ing word) to start a sentence, it makes sense.

The right emotional word:

The character and their emotions are how a reader experiences a story. It is true that you can show emotions by describing the way a character feels, and how it affects their body and mind, but you also have to make sure that you have utilized your narration properly. This is not to say that you should be using telling words like “angry,” “happy,” or “sad.” The right emotional word means, to ask yourself “Is this the best descriptor word for my character’s, or my scene’s mood?”.

Which of the following examples sounds more like the creature is dangerous?

Example 1:

Snow crunched under the weight of the creature as he trudged through the ice-laden briar patch. Wispy flakes of magic fell from his scaled skin and swirled in the air like campfire embers.

Example 2:

Snow crunched under the weight of the creature as he trudged through the iced-over thicket. Wispy flakes of magic fell from his scaled skin and swirled in the air like little fairy lights.

We covered some common problems and solutions for line editing, however, you may have a more specific manuscript problem to address. Do you have any specific line editing questions that we missed? Drop them in the comments below.

Next Self-Editing Topic:

Next time we’ll continue our dive into prose and cover the big one everyone thinks about when they hear editing. How do you copy edit your own work?

Self-Editing Series: How to Revitalize Your Setting

Self-Editing Your Manuscript: Revitalizing Your Setting

The setting should be as essential to the manuscript as the character and plot. Without the setting, your characters would meander around an abyss of nothing with no discernible life, just floating people and an occasional pop of something like a dagger in their hands, or even a staircase. Have you noticed that that happens as you read back over your manuscript?

The setting should be intrinsic to the world. If characters appear in a place, there needs to be a reason for it, and if the characters are in a setting they need to interact with it. Otherwise, they have become floating bodies in an abyss of white with nothing to help ground the readers in their reality. The setting is more than what we see with our eyes. It should involve all the senses: sight, touch, sound, taste, and scent. Word count is precious in short fiction; do not let the eyes have it all.

Note: if your character is missing any of these senses, simply skip over it and think of how you can use the others to better let your reader imagine the world as the characters are experiencing it.

As you work through your manuscript, also ask yourself if you are using the right words to describe your character’s senses. A character’s personality and emotion will heavily impact the words used to describe the setting. Imagine coming upon a pond in the forest. That little bit of water is going to have a different description to a group of friends on a nature hike than it would to stranded travelers who are lost and dehydrated. In the same way, it would be different to someone who is afraid of the water as opposed to someone who loves it. The character(s) should help you define the word choice for setting your scenes.

Sight:

This is one not often forgotten when working through a manuscript. Many writers find themselves hacking away the words ‘see’, ‘saw’, and ‘seen’ like thorny brambles around a golden treasure chest. You are free to simply describe things that the characters are observing because it is your description that lets us follow the camera pan of their eyes.

Did you have a quick blanket-style description to start the scene before you focused on the more intricate details? This establishing shot is a quick view to place the main elements of your story so that the reader understands what to imagine. This makes it less confusing when your characters start interacting, as you’ve already established certain things were present.

Touch:

It can be easy to forget to include what things feel like when writing, as most of the feeling goes into the emotions. Rough bark on a tree scratching against someone’s hand, or how hot or cold something is as it touches the skin. That blade may be cold when pressed to your character’s neck by an enemy, or it could still be warm with the previous victim’s blood.

Did you make sure that your character was able to touch/feel things in the physical world of their setting? Patting someone on a shoulder in congratulations will feel different if they’ve freshly bathed, or they’ve just been covered in monster entrails.

This is not always another character, but their surroundings. If they do not interact with where they are, it may be time to consider why they are even in that particular place.

Sound:

Whether hearing the trilling of monsters closing in, the groaning of another character, a babbling brook, or the scratch of pencils on paper… Sound is just another way to breathe more life and immersion into your character’s world.

A note on filters. Heard and hear, while valid at times, do not always need to be used to describe the sound in one’s fiction. Simply being told that a piano played softly, or nails scratched against wood is more than enough for the reader.

Did you incorporate sound into your manuscript, in more than just dialogue?

Taste:

This is where food is always fun to play with in a manuscript, but with short fiction, what if you don’t have a scene where the characters eat? You don’t have to add those kinds of scenes just to fulfill this sensory element.

Maybe you have a character just wanting to get through the story so they can have a delectable piece of pie that they may or may not get by the end. If a character has their face pushed into the dirt, dirt has a taste. The grainy texture can make them overly aware of their tongue, and even bring bile–which also has a taste–to their mouth. Blood can leave a metallic flavor, and there’s a powdery substance on gloves.

Have you included taste in your manuscript, either through action or memory?

Scent:

Much like with taste, it’s not hard to want to toss in every delicious sounding word to describe the way food smells, or even someone–sandalwood is quite popular. However, scent goes beyond food and even people when it comes to setting a scene.

An unused and dusty room can smell musty, or if there is something old and decaying in the cellar, rot and death can choke your character. It is also easy to flip the script, as they say, and include appealing scents, a common one being the cleanliness of lemon, or freshly baked cookies, and have it at war with the scene–more disturbing for your reader.

Bonus Setting Tip: Weather.

One of the easiest ways to set the mood and even speak for a story’s theme is the weather. By nature, humans–readers–take cues from their surroundings. Dark clouds gathering in the distance can be an omen, and a storm with a torrential downpour when you finally enact your vengeance can be a visual theme of washing the old version of the character away. In that same way, your character can have a happy, shining day, with no clouds and blue sky when something tragic happens–the weather helps the irony of the concept of a perfect day hit a bit harder.

How have you used the weather to set the mood in your manuscript? You may notice that you placed everything organically. If you didn’t, consider ways to pull more depth of the world up for the reader. Is there an interesting way to play with the weather of your setting to make the story mood have more impact?

Next Self-Editing Topic:

Next time we’ll start diving into your prose. How can you line edit your own work?

American Southern Gothic

There’s no doubt that the origins of Gothic literature came from England, rich in medieval history. Not surprisingly, then, that American Gothic differs from the old world, especially since it grew from the New England tradition, with its own unique twist on the genre.  When the Gothic genre crossed the ocean and appeared on American shores, it was championed by Edgar Allan Poe, whose Gothic tales of horror set the standard for American authors.  It is interesting to note that Poe’s Gothic tales are virtually all set in New England, the oldest part of America (1850s), with the kind of places that paralleled the dark and haunted places in which the English authors set their Gothic tales.  Hardly anyone stops to think that Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher is actually set in Boston.

But then something happened: The Civil War, and a once grand and pastoral part of America was reduced to ruins, destruction heaped upon it by the conquering Northern Armies.  Plantation houses were abandoned; dark forests reclaimed the land. Places once bright and sunny became grotesque and macabre.  It became the perfect milieu for the birth of a literary sub-genre: AMERICAN SOUTHERN GOTHIC.

Unlike its predecessor, American Southern Gothic uses the tropes of the Gothic not only for the sake of suspense, but also to explore the social issues besetting the country.  There is a realism in the American Southern Gothic that makes it unique.  Disturbing rural communities replace the magnificent plantations of an earlier age. Madness, decay and despair are common themes as is the blurred line between victim and villain.  You find these themes developed in the works of William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor and Truman Capote.

The roots of Southern Gothic can be traced back to such authors as Henry Clay Lewis and Mark Twain in portions of their works.  Originally “Southern Gothic” was used as a dismissive way to pan an author’s works.  Many early critics were not fond of the style.  One early critic panned William Faulkner’s novels as being filled with aimless violence and fantastic nightmares.  Obviously, the Nobel Committee did not feel that way when it awarded Faulkner the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949.

In Faulkner, the clash between Old South and New South becomes uniquely Gothic as it explores the suppressed sins of slavery, patriarchy, and class strife. And all this takes place in a landscape of swamps, deep woods, and decaying plantations. Add to this the language of Faulkner’s works, which creates a singularly Gothic sense of uncertainty and alienation.

A perfect example of Faulkner’s Southern Gothic genius is A Rose for Emily. Narrated from multiple viewpoints, the story tells of the spinster Emily Grierson, who after her father’s death scandalizes the community when she takes up with the northern carpetbagger Homer Barron. Homer disappears shortly after Emily has purchased arsenic making her the talk of the town.  Decades later, after living a reclusive life, Emily dies, and when the townspeople break open the door to an upstairs room, they discover a man’s “fleshless” corpse on the bed, the remains of him “rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt.” Next to the corpse is a pillow, with “the indentation of a head” and “a long strand of iron-gray hair.” The story’s themes of necrophilia, sin, repression, revenge, and secrecy mark it as Gothic, yet the locale mark it as uniquely Southern Gothic.

American theater of the 1940s and 1950s was infused with a heavy dose of Southern Gothic thanks to the plays of Tennessee Williams. Characters with varying degrees of illness populate his works, and his own sexual orientation (socially unacceptable at the time) found its way into plays such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.   In other plays, Williams created Gothic spaces in which familiar tropes of the Southern Gothic, such as disintegrating southern families, alienation, loneliness, alcoholism, and physical and psychological violence abounded.

Is Southern Gothic here to stay?  You only have to look at your TV guide or movie selection to discover that Southern Gothic has become a staple of the entertainment industry.  Even in music, Southern Gothic has influenced a genre called Dark Country, which is an acoustic-based alternative rock with songs featuring themes of poverty, criminal behavior, religious imagery, death, ghosts, family, lost love, alcohol, murder, the devil and betrayal.

Yes, I would say that American Southern Gothic is here to stay.


When you are satisfied, share your setting with us in the comments below.  We would love to read about the setting of your next Gothic piece. And, if you turn your setting into a full short story, poem, piece of art, screenplay, or novella, don’t forget to submit it to us by visiting darksiremag.com/submissions.html.

Self-Editing Series: How to Assess World-building

Self-Editing Your Manuscript: How to Assess World-building in short fiction

When most writers hear the term world-building, the first thing that generally comes to mind are sprawling epics, i.e., A Song of Ice and Fire or The Wheel of Time. However, world-building applies to any type of fiction, even contemporary pieces.

Magic and royalty are just as important as knowing how to ride a subway and how an elevator works in others.

Suspension of disbelief is how well you have suspended, portrayed, and consumed the reader with your story. Do they accept the well-written world and its characters as they are, or have small things snuck into the manuscript that makes them pause within their reading and tilt their heads, questioning “but why?”

This is especially true when writing fantastical fiction with supernatural or paranormal elements where the reader needs to accept the implausible as plausible.

Not everyone believes in ghosts, but in your story they need to be real.

Not everyone believes in magic, but in your story it should be as much the truth as breathing.

For the theme, it is perfectly fine to give the reader a reason to think, a thing to dwell on long after the story has ended. That is valid and intentional. A writer should never want the reader to question if something was necessary to include. Questioning the intention can break the suspension of disbelief or seem outright illogical.

These inconsistencies with world-building can make it look as though the writer didn’t quite have the grasp on their world and their characters.

Real World World-building:

Notice, this was not titled Contemporary World-building, and that’s because our world spans so many things and time periods. It is making sure that you aren’t using a type of car before it was made. It is writing real-world places based on actual maps, or even creating a fictional town and remembering where you put city hall.

For example, your 1920s mafia will not have cell phones. If your character is ever on the phone, you will need to know how early landlines and rotary phones work.

What if you have a character with a snake bite and want to inject them with antivenom? The story should take place from the late 1890s to the present day. There are some exceptions, as present-day may not have access to everything. For example, a dystopian short story may have characters that don’t have access to anti-venom.

If your characters have traveled in your manuscript, to help keep your world-building consistent with your Real World stories, you can use basic tools like Google Maps to physically visit places you may not have access to.

If you are editing a form of a historical piece, it can help to jot down relevant notes on a Google Doc, Word file, or even in a physical notebook so that you can keep to the facts of the time. If you are a plotter, someone who writes things down to varying degrees beforehand, you might do the research before you write. However, a panster, someone who likes the freedom to just write as it comes to them, then jotting down this information can be targeted research after the draft has made it onto paper.

Whatever era you have written in, research is going to be your best friend, and if you aren’t entirely sure how to flesh out this research, reach out to fellow writers. The #writingcommunity on Twitter is fabulously supportive!

Secondary World World-Building:

This is most likely what you think of with world-building. Creating an entire world from scratch, or loosely based on our own, is what many fantasy authors love to do. The religion, the culture, the people… events, days of the week, and maybe a touch of conlanging (creating a new language).

Short fiction, unlike those sprawling epic sagas mentioned above, doesn’t have the time to build up the world to the same degree and dive into all the details. While you can still have a beautifully thought out world, sometimes the little details you can slip into longer pieces don’t have a place in your story.

Any secondary world-building detail needs to be as precise as the other elements, completely owned by the characters and the world without leaving unexplained sections. If the reader has to question the inclusion of any part of the story, particularly with short fiction, then you have not held their suspension of disbelief.

  • Was (this element) necessary to this particular story?

Fantasy is a particular beast on its own, given that the worlds can be entirely made up, and with short fiction we may only explore the smallest parts of it at a time.

It may help you keep your world consistent and be extra fun for your future readers if you dabble in map-making. However, you do not have to be a cartographer to put together a basic map (especially if it’s just for you). You can find easy-to-use tools here at inkarnate, which will let you work as small as a city/town. As a bonus, they have both a free and paid version based on your needs.

https://inkarnate.com/

Helpful Tip!
Even if you only have one planned story in a particular secondary world, it never hurts to write down the world-building information either before you’ve penned the story, or after, so that you can revisit it without making mistakes on your own creation.

Magical Systems (if applicable):

In fantasy worlds, be it on our earth or a secondary one, you may have a magical system in place. Whether your character actually casts spells or uses more intuitive skills, there are some rules it would benefit your manuscript for you to know. The best part about those rules is that you create them.

Magic aspects come in many forms and are sometimes spiritual or energy-based. To see the vast differences in magical systems, compare the differences and similarities in Naruto and their chakra energy and Dragon Ball Zs chi. You can also compare the differences and similarities in Elise Kova’s Air Awakens series and the TV show Avatar the Last Airbender.

The rules that you created for your character’s magic system should answer some very basic questions:

  • What can they do with their abilities?
  • What supplies/feeds their ability?
  • What can’t they do with their abilities?
  • Does this differ from person to person, or is it universal?

When you go through your manuscript to self-edit, make sure that you worked these answers in when applicable. For example, did you have your character using multiple high-energy types of magic and forget to add in the corresponding consequence? Shortness of breath, feeling dizzy or potentially needing to rework a battle so that they had the ability for their climactic hit to the antagonist. Understanding your magic system can help you figure out if you’ve created realistic magic, or if you’ve got Mary Sue/Gary Stu magic running around in a *god-mod mode.

*god-mod mode for anyone unfamiliar with the terminology is when you have essentially removed all consequences and obstacles from your character and they have no true opposition. This is the opposite of what readers want. Readers want someone to cheer for, someone whose journey they are excited to see, because they actually have something to overcome, unlike a god-mod mode character.

Bonus Tip on World-building:
Remember, if it hurts your writer’s heart to cut aspects of world-building that you put so much thought into, you are allowed to write another story in that world where that aspect of the world-building is more relevant to the story! You have that freedom. Go forth and create!

Next Week’s Topic:

We’ll dive into the setting and discuss how your self-edits can create a more immersive experience for future readers!