Katrina Monroe's The Rack
The air is caked in something thick and rancid, like Greek yogurt gone south. Chunky. I could almost choke on it, but no one else seems to be bothered. Bunny is making childish chalk drawings of flowers and a picket fence on the floor and walls, humming a tune that can only be described as spritely. Even my guest, bound to a chair that’s charges a la Frankenstein seems mostly unperturbed.
I lean on the chair, fingering the switch that’ll send similar voltage to your typical Taser through Tim Waggoner’s body via needles plunged in his biceps and calves.
“Is it me?” I ask. “Is there something fundamentally wrong with me?”
He shrugs, attempting an answer, but I clap a hand over his mouth. His tooth catches on a web of skin and I flinch. “Don’t answer that,” I say.
I check the needles—they’re not going anywhere—and sigh.
Work, work, work. And for what?
I stand in front of the chair and pull a pair of rubber gloves on. Pink, with flower embellishments. “Not to brag or anything, but you're the second award-winner I've had on my rack. There might still be a bit of his blood there by your head. Don't smudge it! Anyway, did you set out to become a mentor (and thereby win the HWA Mentor Award) to up-and-coming writers, or did you just sort of fall into it?”
Tim hesitates, gaze darting to the switch. Daring me.
I don’t even bother with the threat. I flick the switch and something sparks at the back of the chair. Tim’s body lurches up, held only by a couple of ties around his wrists and ankles.
I switch the thing off and raise an eyebrow.
It takes a moment for his breath to return. “There’s a long tradition of mentoring in the fields of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and as a beginning writer, I was fortunate enough to benefit from established writers who believed in that tradition. In the VERY early days of social media – before email and webpages were widely available – I belonged to a service called Genie, which was a simple message board. Many writers were on GEnie, and they participated in discussions and responded to questions from newbies like me. Plus, GEnie had private areas accessible only to members of professional writers’ organizations such as the Horror Writers Association and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, so once you joined one of those organizations, you had access to these private topics and to the pros who posted there. Back then, being able to ask established writers questions – either on the boards or in live chats – was an amazing thing, and I learned a lot.
“Eventually, I started going to writing conventions and meeting established authors face to face, and many of them were generous with their time, happy to answer questions from newbies. Because of the people I met at conventions, I ended up joining a writers’ group with established writers like Dennis L. McKiernan and Lois McMaster Bujold, and of course I learned a TON from them.
“Paying it forward is a strong cultural value in SF/F/H, and after I’d started publishing regularly, it was my time to help others just as I’d been helped. Thomas F. Monteleone calls this “passing the torch,” and I believe it’s an important part of being a good literary citizen.
“I’ve always been interested in teaching as well, and I’ve taught college writing courses for thirty years. I teach composition and creative writing full time at Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio, and I’m a faculty mentor in Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program. So I mentor as a large part of my day job, too.”
Using a scarf wrapped around his forehead, I secure his head and neck against the back of the chair. We wouldn’t want him to hurt himself, would we? “Has a writer ever solicited your advice and then told you it was crap? Because, let's be honest, writers have the biggest egos on the planet, second only to super-villains. If so, what was the advice?”
The ends of the scarf keep getting caught in his mouth, making his response come out in bursts. “I’m sure lots of writers have thought my advice was crap but were too polite to tell me! Sometimes I have students who are resistant to feedback. I had a student once who would only write romance stories that had no conflict. People met, fell in love, and got married – no problem. No matter how many times I told her conflict was a main component of fiction, she said she just couldn’t be mean to her characters. Last semester, I had a student who, after reading in the text book that aspiring authors should read lots of fiction, said she resented that advice. “Writers shouldn’t have to read in order to be able to write a good story,” she said. In teaching or mentoring situations there’s often a tension at play: “Whose manuscript is this, anyway?” How much of teaching/mentoring is guidance versus collaboration? It’s an ongoing conversation between writers and their mentors, and one that probably can never have a clear resolution. I don’t take it personally when a writer or student doesn’t take my advice, but I feel bad for them if their manuscript doesn’t work out because of it, and they can’t find an agent or publisher.”
“Mistress never takes my advice,” Bunny mutters.
I kick off my boot—spiked heels, today—but it misses the mark. She sticks her tongue out at me.
When I turn back to Tim, he’s grinning. Can’t have that. I jab the needle in his bicep further in until it touches bone. His face pales as new blood trickles over the crusted brown tracks from the first stabbing.
I ask, “Do you have a mentor? How have they helped shape you as a person and a writer?”
He twitches, eyeing my hand as it hovers near the switch. “I’ve had a number of mentors throughout my life, but fantasy author Dennis L. McKiernan was the major one. We lived in the same town for a time, and as I mentioned earlier, I was in a writers’ group with him. He took me under his wing, and I learned so much from him as a both a creator of fiction and a professional writer working with agents, editors, and publishers. Thomas F. Monteleone has also taught me a great deal about what it means to be a professional. My mentors never behaved as if I were a lesser writer and they were the superior writers. They treated other writers as colleagues, regardless of experience, and of all the things my mentors have taught me, that’s perhaps the greatest lesson, that all of us are a community of writers.”
I begin to wonder aloud, “Perhaps that’s what I need. A group. People of like-minds who…” I groan. People. I hit the switch, harder that I needed to.
The chair squeaks and cries with his thrashing.
Off. Something’s smoking.
“Of your TV show tie-ins (Grimm, Supernatural, etc.), which is your favorite? I'm particularly intrigued by the Grimm books. All those interesting looking torture devices...”
He whimpers. “is a lot of fun, and I like the series’ mythology a great deal, but my novels edge it out as my favorites, primarily because of the relationship between Sam and Dean. In the show, I enjoy seeing the strong bond between the brothers, and I like seeing how hard they work to maintain a focus on family while dealing with so much darkness in the world. This makes them great characters to write about. Plus, they get to fight a wider variety of supernatural threats, which gives me more freedom as a writer, which is always cool.”
I’ll admit, I’m jealous. It’s for this reason he’s spared another 50,000 volts. At least, for now.
“What's the worst mistake you've ever made as a writer? Aw, don't squirm like that. It's just a question.”
He freezes, though a muscle in his arm twitches on its own, like an animal struggling to be free of his fleshy prison. He speaks through the corner of his mouth, whether intentional or a result of the electrocution, I don’t really care. “Creatively, the dumbest mistake I ever made was in my novel Darkness Wakes. I mentioned that a calico cat was male. But it was later pointed out to me that calicos are always female. What made it worse was the main character of the story was a veterinarian who was examining the cat!
“Professionally speaking, my worst mistake was staying with my previous agent for so many years, even though it was clear he had lost interest in my work. He was happy enough to go over contracts that I found on my own, but he’d long ago stopped working to try to find me deals. There’s an old writers’ saying that no agent is better than a bad agent, and it’s true.”
The screech of chalk on wall pierces my ears. Bunny has started drawing a cat.
I hit the switch—accident, I swear—and watch Tim convulse into different styles of question mark. Drool dribbles down his chin and his veins throb like angry, purple licorice.
Off again, and I continue. “If you wrote a memoir, what would you call it? Better yet, what would your spouse call it?”
Light flickers in his eyes. Ah, his poor wife. Probably wondering if he’ll ever get home to her again. “I’d probably call it because in the sixties and seventies, when I grew up, that’s what a horror geek was called. My wife might call it
And I’d call mine Or perhaps
“My wife doesn't read much fiction, so when I come to her with a new and interesting idea, she just sort of looks at me like I'd brought her a dead mouse. How does your family react regarding your writing?”
He opens his mouth. I flick the switch, but it doesn’t catch. By now he knows better than to show any relief and instead, charges into his answer. “My wife loves my fantasy stories but won’t go near my horror. She can’t stand reading anything scary. My kids are proud of me, but they don’t read my writing. It’s not special to them because I’ve been a writer all their lives. My fiction is just “Daddy’s work.” My oldest daughter did try to read my novel Like Death. It’s a surreal, erotic horror story that gets very nasty in places – AND it employs some real-world settings, a number of which my daughter is familiar with. One of the most extreme scenes takes place in a park she used to play in as a child. Once she hit that scene, she stopped reading. She said while it was cool to see how I used parts of our life in fiction, she felt more than a little weird getting a peek into the darker side of my imagination!”
The switch engages on its own. Tim’s mouth forms an O and I fight the temptation to stick something in it. I still have more questions that can’t be answered with a broken jaw and missing teeth. I wonder if he’ll include this little bit of life in a book. I hope he does.
I turn off the thing once again. The room smells like barbeque. My mouth waters. The faster we finish, the faster I can get to lunch. I’m thinking smoked pork. “Was there one title that solidified a love of horror or fantasy?”
“ by Norman Bridwell, the author of the Clifford the Big Red Dog books. I read this when I was five, and while I was already in love with dinosaurs and monsters, the idea of the book – that it was a guide for people who had monsters as pets – fascinated me. It was such a fun and different way to look at monsters, and it opened my eyes to new possibilities in the kind of stories that could be told with them. When I was a bit older, I read an anthology called , which is where I first encountered Ray Bradbury’s classic story “Homecoming.” It too was a very different look at monsters, and it showed me that horror and fantasy could be serious literature as well. It became one of my favorite stories of all time.”
Hitchcock is a minor hero of mine, too. It’s not often there’s a happy ending in one of his stories. How like life, eh?
I pat Tim’s head—it’s hotter than I expected—and circle round the back of the chair. So far, the wattage has been at a relatively safe level. I increase the power.
His eyes are bloodshot, but not pleading as most people are at this point in the interrogation. I respect that.
“What are you working on now?” I ask.
“I’m writing the novelization to the film . Both the film and the book are due out in January. This is the first novelization I’ve done, and it’s been a fun learning experience. It’s like collaborating with someone (in this case, director and screenwriter Paul W.S. Anderson) who I don’t know, don’t get to consult with, and will probably never meet. It’s been challenging but rewarding.”
Challenging, but rewarding. Also like life, eh?
A subtle nod is the only thanks I give as I flick the switch one last time.
I turn and stalk away from the chair. Away from Bunny. Away from the library, humming a melody to accompany the chair’s clap-clap-clap against the floor.
Tim Waggoner writes fantasy and horror for both adults and young readers. He also teaches creative writing at Sinclair Community College and in Seton Hill University's MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program.