A woman’s place is not in the refrigerator

Several of my recent posts have addressed the issue of writing female characters, with me defending the position (which I do generally believe in) that it isn’t quite the minefield some people fear. Having said that, it occurs to me that I’m being a bit disingenuous: there are certain pitfalls that can ensnare the unwary writer. So consider this the first in a series of unknown length about easy traps to avoid.

The title of this post refers to one of the most egregious tropes, Women in Refrigerators. The name, coined by comic book writer Gail Simone, derives from a specific issue of the Green Lantern series, wherein the hero comes home to find his nemesis has killed his girlfriend and, yes, stuffed her corpse into the refrigerator. While that use of a major household appliance may be unique, the pattern isn’t: a female character is killed (or tortured, or raped) in order to motivate a male hero.

It’s particularly common in movies, whose limited run-time makes the shorthand very appealing to scriptwriters. All you need is a brief prologue in which we see Our Hero with his smoking-hot and devoted wife — sometimes with bonus kid — who then dies senselessly and sets him on his path of vengeance. But it shows up in narrative media all over our culture. And, like many such tropes, the problem isn’t that it ever happens; the problem is that it’s a pattern. One which routinely treats women as the objects of violence, and as plot devices manipulated in the interest of a man’s progress.

Let’s be clear here: you don’t have a Woman in Refrigerator every time a female character dies, nor even every time one dies and a man in her life chooses to do something about it. The real issue is agency, which we can shorthand as the ability to make meaningful choices, to take meaningful action. If the woman dies fighting for a cause she believes in, she isn’t in the refrigerator. If she uncovers the villain’s secret and is killed to keep her from telling, she isn’t in the refrigerator. It doesn’t even have to be noble; if she makes a stupid mistake and gets herself dead, I still don’t think it’s part of this trope. The point is that her death has a context related to her own actions. She’s a character, not a pawn sacrificed to push someone else’s story forward.

This trope is infuriating enough when the pawn in question is some throwaway blonde hottie whose entire characterization consists of her blonde hottieness. It’s a hell of a lot worse when I connect to an interesting and engaging character, and then the Hand of the Author comes down and chucks her in the trash for no better reason than to give the male protagonist some angst.

(And yes, it generally is a male protagonist. The heroine-side equivalent is that — wait for it — she’s been tortured or raped. Generally not murdered, though, unless you’re setting up some Crow-style back-from-the-grave vengeance.)

This? Is lazy writing. As most cliches are. And in this case, it’s lazy writing that feeds a sexist substratum of thought which says women exist as adjuncts to men, they can’t be meaningful actors in their own right, and they are the natural victims of violence. Which is, y’know, not something we should be perpetuating.

Find other ways to motivate your hero. Give your female characters some say in their own deaths. I guarantee you I’ll find it 600% more moving than Yet Another Woman in a Refrigerator.

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  1. 1. Peter

    So, for instance, “The Constant Gardener” is an example of a film that does *not* conform with the “Women in Refrigerators” trope?

  2. 2. Adam Heine

    Thank you for this post. I wasn’t even aware this was a cliche (and am now worried about one or more of my plots).

  3. 3. Margaret Y.

    I am very tired of seeing this in thriller movies. I never knew it had a name. Thanks for putting it front-and-center.

  4. 4. Tim of Angle

    I suspect that you misinterpret the function of this particular plot device.

    The whole point of the scenario is that, whatever the relationship between the protagonist and antagonist may be, the woman isn’t a party to it; she’s basically an innocent bystander that the antagonist has whacked just to angst the protagonist. It could be a warning for the protagonist to back off of whatever he’s poking his nose into, it could be revenge for real or supposed injuries in the past, it doesn’t really matter.

    This particular situation puts motivation on the male protagonist in three ways: It demonstrates that the antagonist is not just a threat to the protagonist but to society at large (and is therefore a wider problem than originally apparent); it triggers a natural desire for revenge in the protagonist, something that really speaks for itself; and it also triggers a massive load of guilt in the protagonist, because it was his duty to keep this woman safe and provided for, AND HE FAILED.

    You may (as many do these days) dismiss the latter as sexual stereotyping, but stereotypes exist because they reflect a common perception of reality, and many men actually do feel that it is their duty to see that the women in their lives are protected and provided for. One can denigrate that motivation all one likes but it does exist and it has tremendous power — and it is precisely that power that the author is using as the engine of his story.

    To complain that the female character is treated disrespectfully completely misses the point, however valid a criticism it may be in the abstract. It’s entirely possible to imagine a situation in which a female protagonist loses her husband (perhaps with small child) to an Evil Opponent and then goes all Steven Seagal (who, famously, uses precisely this scenario in many of his movies) on the antagonist, but I don’t know of any; and I suspect that, reversed, it wouldn’t work, or work nearly as well, because our culture doesn’t put that particular expectation on women, nor are they raised to internalize it psychologically.

    Criticize, if you will, a society in which men are cast in that particular role and women are not, but don’t ignore that fact that they really are, and people know that they are, and authors are as ready to exploit that aspect of our culture as any other. We use the tools that we have, not the tools that we wish we had.

  5. 5. Kelly McCullough

    Tim @ 4, actually one of the great charms of being an author is that we get to build whatever story tools we want. In fact, we’re generally rewarded for building new ones and not falling into cliche because cliche is by definition old and tired and not terribly creative.

  6. 6. Stephanie Burgis

    YES. Thank you!!!!!!

  7. 7. Lisa Bradley

    As a horror reader and writer, the particular subset of the “woman in the refrigerator” that I’m all-too-familiar with is the woman whose body gets to be a playground for supernatural forces, all to bring about spiritual epiphany for the male hero. Sometimes it’s a child rather than a woman, but that doesn’t help, because it just conflates womanhood with childhood, bringing a whole new level of fail to the discussion.

  8. 8. Megs

    To Tim of Angle:

    I think you might have missed her point.

    Yes, clichés are built on truths, and yes, she knows full well that there’s a reason the trope got popular in the first place. She’s an anthropologist.

    But she’s also right that the unintended side effect is to convey that the woman has no part of her own. As you put, she’s a bystander. Marie Brennan’s suggestion was that it would be more powerful to write each person as a fully realized character with their own parts to play–not the woman as part of the male’s motivation because he wanted to protect her and she was his, etc., etc.

    This post certainly didn’t misinterpret the RESULTS of the trope. And she described the function quite adequately in similar terms to yours. Her death motivates the hero.

  9. 9. Elias McClellan

    I had hoped to contribute with a link to Joss Whedon’s extended take on the movie ‘Captivity,’ tieing to a larger, societal misogyny that we all nod and go along with in popular entertainment. Sadly, I’m challenged and I could not easily find the link, so here-goes my 2-cents.

    Like Mr. Whedon, I’ve been guilty of objectifying women; for me it was as recently as this morning in fact. So I don’t claim saint-status in my writing. However, I’m sick and tired to death of fair-damsel in distress, fair-damsel as reward, and most tediously, fair-damsel as victim-trigger to some nut-job wigging-out and killing a ridiculous number of people. Often the ‘hero’ here is the just as heinous in action as the ‘villian.’ But that’s a different topic/different time.

    Most of all, I object to this trope as I hope to be a father soon. If God blesses my wife and I it will be an adoption through a coop between Children’s Protective Services and Catholic Charities. So, I will be father to an abused child; so abused that the parental rights will have been terminated in order for me to adopt. I’ll bring this all around, I promise.

    If I am to raise a daughter, then I have no intention of raising a victim, a reward, or a motivation, but a fully actualized and self-aware WOMAN. So I have no intention of writing a victim, reward, or motivation-character. I’m currently at the finish line of my book and prepping for a workshop. And, I’m struggling with the idea that the strong, independent, professional woman I have written would enter into a relationship with a character as bat-stuff, crazy as my protagonist. But if I can make it happen it will be upon equal-terms and not upon expediency.

    An excellent topic, Ms. Brennan and one I’ve printed as a guide/lesson to me in future writing.

  10. 10. Steph

    @9 Elias: I believe this is the link you’re looking for:
    http://whedonesque.com/comments/13271

    @4 Tim: “Criticize, if you will, a society in which men are cast in that particular role and women are not, but don’t ignore that fact that they really are…”

    So…how many men in your life have had their girlfriend/wife/mother randomly killed by their nemesis and then sought vengeance against them?

    As writers, we have the option to decide what motivates our characters. And I agree with Marie: this particular motivation is supremely tired and has become the sign of a lazy writer. It’s literary shorthand for “whoo hoo, vengeance time!”

  11. 11. Eliza Wyatt

    While I agree that it’s an (effective but) overused trope, I fail to see how the ‘reverse side’ (the tortured/raped heroine) applies.

    While a ‘she was raped and now has motivation/problems’ can certainly be a cheap trick, it most certainly doesn’t have to be if the author takes what has happened seriously, and if there’s a good reason for it.

    At that point, it’s just a matter of good or bad writing.

  12. 12. Elias McClellan

    Thanks Steph. I’m book marking it now. I keep coming back to read comments on this topic. I don’t want to mug Tim but I also I can’t leave this topic alone. Nor can I find good cause for the use of this trope.

    It was antiquated when Frank Herbert wrote Dune. What was that ’63 or ’64. That was my reference point to (not strong or fierce or powerful) REAL women in scifi. If can’t write stories 1/2 as good as that I’d rather not write. If I can’t write women as good as that, 100%, I’d rather not write women.

  13. 13. Marie Brennan

    Peter — I don’t recall the movie well enough to say, but looking at the plot summaries of the book and film on Wikipedia, no, I wouldn’t say it’s an example of the trope. Tessa had her own story; the hero’s story is (among other things) the discovery of hers.

    Tim — As other commenters have said, no, I don’t think I’ve misinterpreted anything. What I’ve done is point out the cliche nature of this device, and also the harmful message it sends. You in fact reinforce my point when you say, “It’s entirely possible to imagine a situation in which a female protagonist loses her husband (perhaps with small child) to an Evil Opponent and then goes all Steven Seagal (who, famously, uses precisely this scenario in many of his movies) on the antagonist, but I don’t know of any”. Our narrative patterns say, over and over again, that women are not the ones who get vengeance; they are the ones who get avenged. And I object to that rather strongly.

    Lisa — woman-as-vessel is also problematic, because again, she doesn’t have agency. She’s simply the locus upon which someone else’s struggle is projected.

    Elias — Whedon has definitely misstepped on this front (Dr. Horrible comes to mind), but yes, yes, YES to what he said about Captivity. The torture-porn corner of the horror film industry disturbs me on a fundamental level. And good on you for being aware of these things as you look forward to raising a daughter.

    Eliza — the female-side equivalent is especially widespread in comics; a bit less so elsewhere. The problem with it is that, again, it’s a narrow pattern, and one that makes women the targets of violence. Why not more heroines who are motivated by the death of family members (for example a husband)? Or by an injustice they once saw? Or by ideology? Or any of the other things that are used to motivate male characters? (Flip side: why not more male characters kicked into action because they were tortured or raped?) You’re right, of course, that a lot depends on how well the author treats the topic — but the sad thing is, rape-as-motivator is done very, very badly more often than not. So we need improvements on both the quality and variety front.

  14. 14. Elias McClellan

    Ms. Brennan, thanks for the heads-up. I had heard but not viewed ‘Dr Horrible’ and I had no idea of any negativity of content. I want Mr. Whedon to be better than what he is; as I want to be better than what I am.

    And again, thanks for this topic, I think this is one of the most important ones I’ve read in my short time visiting here.

    Most importantly of all is the questions it makes us (men AND women) ask ourselves after the fact. Am I imaginative enough to find another path, device, trope in my writing? Am I willing to settle for yet another damsel XYZ in my reading? Would I want my Mother/sister/daughter to read how I am writing this woman or man for that matter?

    I think misogyny begins as a joke or ‘scene’ and ends in a veil or a beheading. You can fill-in the steps in between points; the idea is too distasteful to me.

  15. 15. Alma Alexander

    Tim – it’s a question of different interpretations of the trope – and the classic one (and the one you picked) was the “guilt being piled on the (male) protagonist… because he was supposed to keep *his woman* safe and protected… AND HE FAILED” (That’s what you said, more or less verbatim.

    The problem, for me, lies in several layers. The concept of a big hunky hero being responsible for his pretty and useless “woman” kind of makes me want to snarl, just a little, because it so completely fails to take into account the remotest possibility that (a) the woman might BE the protagonist and (B) even if she isn’t she might be more than capable of taking care of herself (except under really dire circumstances, some which might involve the possibility of coming to grief as a HUMAN BEING, and not just and simply and solely as a woman.

    If your own point is now being misunderstood in its turn, I’m sorry for misreading you – but that seems to be the gist of what you said or implied, and as far as this particular topic goes, I’m with Marie.

    Get the women out of the refrigerators.

  16. 16. AJD

    I don’t have time to contribute anything else to this discussion at the moment, but:

    Tim writes: “It’s entirely possible to imagine a situation in which a female protagonist loses her husband (perhaps with small child) to an Evil Opponent and then goes all Steven Seagal (who, famously, uses precisely this scenario in many of his movies) on the antagonist, but I don’t know of any.”

    I’m pretty sure, though I haven’t seen it, that that’s the exact plot of Kill Bill.

  17. 17. green_knight

    Fantastic post.

    The thing that Jack Aubrey fears most is to be stranded on land on half-pay, unable to a) do what he loves and b) provide for his family. That motivates him, that guides him while he decides what he does, that wars with his desire to do the right thing and look after his men and defend his country. It provides endless tension.

    During all of his adventures, he faces death and disability. _All the bloody time_. They’re very real dangers, and yet, they’re not central to his story at all.

    I love the complexity of it, the tension, the ways in which he wars with himself over doing the right thing and faces his fears.

    I want to read about a wide range of humanity. Not just cardboard cutous reaching for the obvious clichee. And, in a similar vein, I want to read about protagonists – male and female – who decide that someone needs to do something and that they are that someone, even if it means risking a lot, rather than people who have nothing to lose being pushed into revenge by the authorial fiat. Give me proactive, protagonistic characters any day, people who make a hard choice, people who are risking personal happyness for the greater good.

  18. 18. Amber Smoot

    Dude… you know, I had never really noticed this, but you’re completely right!

    (I haven’t read the comments, so I’m sorry if I’m redundant) Do you have any suggestions for other plot devices that could be used instead of this to the same effect? Or, what would you think if there was more equality to the “refrigeratoring”?

    Do you think that writers are generally aware the sexist nature of this plot device, or does it just come out as a familiar bad habit?

    ~Amber

  19. 19. Damien R S

    The first example that came to mind was Tytania, an anime we’re watching this term. On the surface it’s not an example, since the proto-girlfriend gets herself killed fighting for The Cause, and the safety of the Hero. Lots of agency! OTOH, the narrative function is that the previously apathetic Hero now is driven to get Revenge. On one level she was a feisty person who knew what she wanted; on another level, she was introduced to be the love interest then motivation. So I’m not sure if this is Good or Tropearrific.

    What came to mind for a reversal was Girl Genius, when Lars dies, inspiring Agatha to break out the guns. But again, he put himself in harm’s way to save her.

    Whedon… well, there’s Jenny Callendar for Giles. But she’d been Involved, and he’s not the Hero… arguably a better example is Tara, killed by accident, and inspiring Willow to action. Dark action, but action.

    Happily, for all the anime I’ve watched, very little of WiR has occurred in it.

  20. 20. Megs

    Someone mentioned up there the woman being motivated by vengeance, and it’s funny you’d mention that. I had a story in my head where the woman was part of a house of martial artists (lousy summary, but the closest real world comparison) and they were all assassinated by a rival house, including her new husband. She put her considerable talents toward vengeance. In the end though, it was still a trope, backwards or no, and I decided not to write it. If I ever come back to her and her varied history, it will probably be just that: history. Not the story.

  21. 21. Marie Brennan

    Elias — “I think misogyny begins as a joke or ’scene’ and ends in a veil or a beheading.” Why cushion it in terms that deflect our attention towards other societies? Closer to home, it ends in domestic abuse, rape, and men who murder their wives for adultery.

    green_knight — That’s why Prophecied Heroes almost never interest me. I’d far rather read about the person who CHOOSES to step up to the plate, rather than being shoved there by destiny.

  22. 22. Marie Brennan

    Now that I’ve gone back and approved the first-time commenters . . .

    AJD — You’re right, I do think Kill Bill qualifies. And it’s not the only one, I’m sure; but it’s far less common than the standard gender configuration of the trope.

    Amber — I don’t think most writers see the sexism, no. It’s just an easy shortcut to their actual goal (hero out for vengeance!). As far as other plot devices are concerned, well, it depends on what you really want to achieve. Setting up a story about why somebody puts on a crazy costume to fight crime is different from setting up a story about why somebody closes himself (or herself) off from relationships with other people; you could do either with a Woman in Refrigerator, but you also have other (less cliched) options.

    Damien — Whedon plays the Senseless Death card a little too often, but I do appreciate the fact that it isn’t always Male Hero, Female Victim. Sometimes random, pointless death does happen, and you can still make good story from such an event. I just think he goes back to that well a bit too frequently, and tripped and fell into it with Dr. Horrible.

  23. 23. Kate Elliott

    Hmm. Maybe I will follow up this fabulous post with one about mothers. Hmm.

  24. 24. Marie Brennan

    Kate — please do! They’re a sadly mistreated group in fiction.

  25. 25. Damien R S

    “dead mothers in anime”.
    Or maybe dead or absent parents in general in teen-oriented media.

  26. 26. Elias McClellan

    Ms. Brennan, I assure you that it was not my intend to ‘deflect attention’ as much as to draw parallels. We say of course women are treated horribly OVER-THERE, but it’s so much better here. My intent was to demonstrate that we, as men, are not so far removed from the supposed bad-guys.

    I read an interesting argument that John Wayne was attempting little more than an ‘honor-killing,’ in the ‘Searchers.’ Maybe that would’ve been a better point to make or appropriate. Of course I don’t get to decide if I am a racist or a sexist or a xenophobe. Other people make that judgment based on my words and behavior. Still, I assert that I have deep respect for a culture that has been around at least as long as my own and has contributed as much to humanity as my own. I simply cannot help but see the flaws my own culture in relationship to others.

    Deepest apologies for any offense given.

  27. 27. Marie Brennan

    Elias — no problem; it’s less that I ascribed a deflection to you, and more that I wanted to wake up anyone who might let themselves be deflected. It’s much more comfortable to think about the misogyny elsewhere in the world than to admit to our own.

  28. 28. Elias McClellan

    Hey, I get you. But I gotta go now. I’m gonna watch some Mel Gibson movies, while reading (?) Hustler, and completing my John Birch Society T-shirt. The kind that says I’m with Stupid->

  29. 29. Greg

    I guess the TV series Supernatural begins with two women in fridges — the mother and the girlfriend. Hmm.

  30. 30. Marie Brennan

    Greg — yes, and Supernatural‘s treatment of women is the biggest flaw in the show, as far as I’m concerned. On the other hand, there’s a fourth-season episode that takes Mary out of the refrigerator — not by un-killing her, but by adding to the context around her death, so that it’s not simply a matter of “the writers offed her to set the boys on the road.”

    Jessica, sadly, stays firmly in the trope. Even to the point where the creature that killed her admits openly that it did so because Sam was “going soft.” Which is another problematic facet of this trope: gacking the love interest because otherwise the hero is “domesticated” and unable to do Manly Hero Things. For examples, see every movie that ends with “hero gets girl” and is followed by a sequel which begins with “hero loses girl.”

  31. 31. Jaws

    There’s a worthwhile variant on this theme that doesn’t get explored often enough: Character (gender immaterial to this one) who does NOT resort to pure violence in response to torture/rape/etc., but instead acts as a peacemaker — and I’m not talking about a Rodney King-type of ineffective peacemaker, but one who actually catalyzes real change. Kris Smith’s Jani Kilian is a good example; she’s not averse to violence, and doesn’t shy away from it, but to her violence is just another part of humanish behavior — not its goal, not the sole means of effecting change.

  32. 32. Marie Brennan

    Jaws — that too; our fiction is a bit too fond of running straight to violence as the answer to its problems.

  33. 33. Jed

    Brava! Well said, and well-explained.

    See also my blog entry on some related tropes: http://www.kith.org/journals/jed/2008/05/23/11165.html

    (Which was a followup to a more general entry about female characters in fiction, especially in movies and comics:

    http://www.kith.org/journals/jed/2008/02/03/10932.html

    )

  34. 34. Marie Brennan

    Jed — well, there went *my* morning. :-)

  35. 35. Katharine Kerr

    Thanks for a thoughtful post!

    There’s a similiar motif that occurs at the end of episodic ficitons: woman dies so hero can be free to go on and seduce someone else in the next episode. The original STAR TREK had several of these, for example.

  36. 36. BeckyZoole

    I think that the woman-in-the-refrigerator death in “Dr. Horrible” was not Whedon tripping into a cliche.

    I think it was Whedon deliberately diving into a cliche, as part of his whole send-up of super-heroes.

  37. 37. Elias McClellan

    Considering the comment on my statements of accord, I can’t wait to read the response to BeckyZoole @ 36.

  38. 38. Marie Brennan

    Becky — the problem is that I didn’t see any “sending up” in Penny’s death. It felt just like an uncritical replication of the standard comic-book trope, without any particular commentary added. Which saddened me, both because I’d been enjoying the way the rest of the story skewered various tropes, and because I thought it was a missed opportunity to do something more interesting. I’d been rooting for her to turn out to be a supervillainess herself, or a superheroine, or something that made her more than a playing piece and symbolic representation of various issues in Dr. Horrible’s narrative. Or Whedon could have left her as a symbol, but critiqued the way in which the characters around Penny put her into that role. All on my own, I can think of half a dozen other approaches that would have been more original and meaningful; instead Whedon gave me the most boring and unoriginal of them all.

  39. 39. Daemon

    Sure, you have plenty of cases of the girlfriend getting fridged, and very few of the boyfriend of a female protagonist, but there’s so very many cases where other random friends, family members, pets or entire villages get whacked to get the story rolling.

    Seriously, I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen “farmer goes on to become a hero(ine) because their village was destroyed in chapter one” as a fantasy plot.

    Just to give one very typical woman-free fridging from a very well known fantasy series: The death of Garkin in Robert Apsrin’s MYTH series. Narratively speaking Garkin dies to force the main characters to team up and get on with the adventuring.

    How is “you killed my father/master” significantly different, other than the gender of the victim?

    But we treat violence differently depending on the gender of the victim. It’s seen as “worse” when the victim is a woman. Make a video game in which you kill a few hundred men gratuitiously, or mixed-gendre crowds, and nobody will blink an eye. Make it so that you kill a few hundred women, and you’ll have a firestorm of controversy. Men’s lives are apparently expandable and unworthy of notice.

    I believe the “women in regerigerators” name has been pretty much been replaced by “stuffed in a fridge” since people realized that a lot more guys were being fridged than was intitially noticed.

  40. 40. Jed

    Marie: total agreement on Penny not being a send-up in Dr. Horrible. I was loving Dr. Horrible until Penny’s fridging, which ruined the rest of the show for me. And which got me thinking about all the other times and ways that Whedon has fallen down on this kind of thing.

  41. 41. Ted Chiang

    Just wanted to mention the first episode of the TV series Alias, in which the murder of Sydney Bristow’s fiance motivates her to become a double agent and take down her evil boss. I found it quite effective, and I’m not sure if that was entirely because of the gender reversal. The fiance has a handful of scenes before he’s killed, but not enough to really flesh him out as a character; his murder is also not the result of his own agency, but is explicitly a consequence of Sydney Bristow’s actions. My reaction may have had something to do with Jennifer Garner’s ability to effectively portray grief, which is not something you typically see in male action heroes.

  42. 42. Tom

    Eh.

    Something i wholeheartedly agree with, i hate this trope, amongst others (like i hate how a fandom can try to use this trope a lot in order to ‘shaft’ women that ‘goes beyond their places’).

    Btw, what’s you people’s take on a series like Damages?

  43. 43. Marie Brennan

    Belated replies to several people . . .

    Daemon: the difference is patterning. Killing off a village full of people doesn’t systematically single out a particular gender or ethnicity as the target of violence. It also doesn’t slot into the larger pattern of voyeuristic exploitation of women in pain (see: Captivity and other such movies). Nor the larger pattern of women not having agency, and being treated as adjuncts to a male character’s story. Yes, the mentor gacked by the rival ninja clan is probably a man, but he probably goes out like a badass, and there’s hardly a shortage of other men in the story who get to do other interesting things.

    Ted: good example; that’s definitely a case of trope inversion.

    Tom: haven’t seen Damages, so I can’t say.

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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