Welcome to our second part of Bookstr’s 5×5 on horror. The first focused on female horror writers which can be found here: 5×5 Women Horror Authors Share Their Wisdom
This time around we’ve spoken with five incredible horror writers of color which include Marc L. Abbott, Linda D. Addison, Stephen Graham Jones, Rena Mason and Steven Van Patten who are all a part of the HWA, Horror Writer’s Association.
Marc L. Abbott is an award winning writer. He is a novelist, playwright, storyteller and film director. His Anthology Hell at the Way Station is the 2019 winner African American for Best Anthology / Short Story Collection and Best Science Fiction.
When two Brooklyn horror writers meet up for drinks, and a little adventure, they end up in a lot more trouble than they bargained for. Armed with only their knowledge of the supernatural and their storytelling skills, they face off against an arcane evil determined to consume them both.
Linda D. Addison is a poet and writer of fantasy horror and science fiction. She is also the the first African American writer to have won the Bram Stoker Award four times. Her most recent book of poetry, The Place of Broken Things (2019), in collaboration with Alessandro Manzetti is a treat for all horror poetry lovers out there.
Construction of The Place started with the first bitten apple dropped in the Garden. The foundation defined by the crushed, forgotten, and rejected. Filled with timeless space, its walls weep with the blood of brutality, the tears of the innocent, and predatory desire. Enter and let it whisper dark secrets to you.
Stephen Graham Jones is a Blackfeet Native American author who excels in horror, experimental fiction, science fiction and crime fiction. His newest novel, The Only Good Indians, came out this past summer and has been nominated in the Best Horror category for the Goodreads Choice Awards.
Seamlessly blending classic horror and a dramatic narrative with sharp social commentary, The Only Good Indians is “a masterpiece. Intimate, devastating, brutal, terrifying, warm, and heartbreaking in the best way” (Paul Tremblay, author of A Head Full of Ghosts). This novel follows four American Indian men after a disturbing event from their youth puts them in a desperate struggle for their lives. Tracked by an entity bent on revenge, these childhood friends are helpless as the culture and traditions they left behind catch up to them in violent, vengeful ways. Labeled “one of 2020’s buzziest horror novels” (Entertainment Weekly), this is a remarkable horror story that “will give you nightmares—the good kind of course” (BuzzFeed).
Rena Mason is a horror fiction writer of Thai-Chinese descent. She is well accomplished, being the winner of three Bram Stoker awards. Her new novel, Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women, is a collaboration between Mason and other female South Asian authors of horror.
Almond-eyed celestial, the filial daughter, the perfect wife. Quiet, submissive, demure. In Black Cranes, Southeast Asian writers of horror both embrace and reject these traditional roles in a unique collection of stories which dissect their experiences of ‘otherness,’ be it in the colour of their skin, the angle of their cheekbones, the things they dare to write, or the places they have made for themselves in the world.
Black Cranes is a dark and intimate exploration of what it is to be a perpetual outsider.
Our last author is Steven Van Patten, a Brooklyn native, African American horror author. Like I said above, he has co-authored Hell at the Way Station with Marc L. Abbott in 2019. His own novels ,such as the Brookwater’s Curse trilogy, have reached critical acclaim, with a fourth coming soon.
Christian Brookwater is a former Georgia plantation slave who became a vampire during the 1860s. His long, tumultuous life takes a complicated turn when he is forced to travel to modern-day Senegal to rescue a child from a vengeful werewolf prince.
Q & A Time!
1. What/Who first drew you to the horror genre? Was it specifically a novel, a movie, or any other type of media?
Marc L. Abbott- My father was the one who drew me to horror. It started with movies, mostly. We used to watch the old Universal monsters on Saturday nights (Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman) and later the gothic Hammer films. Interestingly, my father’s interest in horror stopped there. My interest continued with films like Halloween, John Carpenters The Thing, Friday the 13th and my all time favorite, Psycho. In literature, it was my mother who introduced me to Edgar Allen Poe (The Tell Tale Heart was my first story) and stories like The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and eventually I found my way to Stephen King and Clive Barker. So, I would have to say in literature, the story that did it for me was Poe’s The Black Cat.
Linda D. Addison- When I was young, I used to watch scary movies on TV with my Mom and always liked the chill/thrill of being scared, but knowing it wasn’t real. Then, when I went to school and started reading children’s fables, I found the same feeling – in a different way – of how danger would come up in a story and then resolve.
Stephen Graham Jones- The first horror novel I read was The Wolfen, by Whitley Strieber, and the first horror movie I saw was The Howling—no, that’s a lie. The Howling imprinted on me deep. I can still feel its footprints, the impressions of its claws, but the actual first horror movie I saw was The Watcher in the Woods, back when you could only get a VCR if you were either rich or were first in line to rent it at the gas station. My uncle came back from the gas station with one horror film one Thanksgiving when I was – I don’t know – young, and stashed all us cousins in a back room with The Watcher in the Woods, which must have had a cover that said “kids” or something. But that movie fundamentally disturbed me, and forever programmed me. And, really? The first horror novel I read was and will always be The Wolfen, but the first horror story I read was “The Stone Boy,” by Gina Berriault. That one’s still with me, too.
Rena Mason- Truly, my “love” for horror began in Kindergarten with stories like Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. I remember thinking that Max was the villain in that story because of his bratty behavior toward his mother, and that the monsters should have tracked him down and dragged him back to the island. Then my class got to watch Disney’s Jack and the Beanstalk, and that was the gamechanger for me. It was the first time I got invested in the characters from the very start of the story, and I was genuinely scared and worried about the outcome. The knots of fear that twisted my gut when they were hiding, and that rush of adrenaline when they had to run and escape the giant, were emotions I hadn’t ever felt before, so they were big and powerful, and I wanted more.
Steven Van Patten- There were several things. I was kind of a bookish, lonely kid. Naturally, any form of escapism, whether it be comic books, movies or an exciting TV show would grab my attention. My mother would watch horror movies, but has since shied away from them. With me, they stuck well into my adult life. The list of influences is endless. As far as novels go, Stephen King was definitely up there, with Salem’s Lot, Carrie and The Shining. They eventually led me to the classics, Dracula, Frankenstein and even Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Along with the early Stephen King movie and TV adaptions, I was knee-deep into the old Hammer and Universal monster movies. Then, I discovered Blacula and Marvel Comic’s Tomb Of Dracula series and it was a wrap.
2. When you decided to write horror novels, did you feel called to write the genre only, or did it take you a while to figure exactly how you wanted to express yourself through writing?
Marc L. Abbott- Writing has always been my first love. Growing up, I got in trouble in class a lot for not paying attention and writing short stories when I should have been doing math. Though horror wasn’t originally what I was writing about when I reached high school, slasher films were all the rage and I found myself trying to write those kinds of stories. But after awhile, I started to develop my own creepy ideas and started fleshing those kinds of stories out. As a teenager, everything is dark and melancholy and horror was the best way for me to express myself. You can say I embraced that darkness and found it be exciting and terrifying at the same time. It allowed me to think outside of the box when it came to writing horror.
Linda D. Addison- When I started writing/submitting my own work, it was more in the SF vein until I felt comfortable with my own inner fears, then all bets were off. Once I was able to face my fearful memories and emotions, the writing unfolded in a darker way.
Stephen Graham Jones- I write a lot of horror, but I write a lot of other stuff as well. I just like telling stories and provoking responses, making people think, getting them to laugh, maybe cry — I want the reader to feel things. Horror’s a pretty good way to get all of that done, it seems to me. I feel a lot when I’m reading it, and I think about it later, wondering what I would have done in that situation, and I laugh, I cry, I shudder, I leave the lights on, I get challenged, and I want to participate. So, I write horror novels.
Rena Mason- When I decided to write, I knew it would be dark; I knew it would be horror. The genre and the gamut of emotions it encompasses and evokes is like being a painter and having every color imaginable to use on the palette before beginning. I’d spent a wretched summer reading books that were recommended to me by friends. They were frustrating stories about relationships between spouses, lovers, families, and friends that went nowhere and had no interesting external conflicts to keep my attention. I remember thinking that if the authors had written some horror into their stories, relationship statuses would be solved, and I probably would’ve enjoyed them much more. That’s when I decided to pen my own, knowing the horror genre would give me the most leeway with eliciting readers’ emotions in the ways that I wanted.
Steven Van Patten- Nope, it was always going to be horror. It was the thing I loved that didn’t love me back, with its one dimensional characters of color, who would either be dead before the opening credits were finished or be the second to last to die so some white boy could look up at the sky and scream ‘Nooooo!’ and then save the day. That and William Marshal’s dignified performance as Bacula. I realize the movies don’t hold up to the CGI savvy eyes of modern day, but it still meant a lot to see that performance done with the same gravitas Christopher Lee would put to any of his Dracula performances. There is also the resentment I still harbor over Scatman Crothers taking an axe in the chest in the movie version of The Shining, when his character survives in the book.
3. Since the horror genre is still so saturated with white writers and characters, what do you think can be done to continue to help diversify the genre?
Marc L. Abbott- This is a hard question to answer because there are so many things I feel need to happen. Our stories have to get more exposure for starters. We should see more diverse writers in magazines and on bookshelves based on the power of their work and how well the stories are told. We have to get past the idea that only one group of people can write in this genre. Publishers should really invest more in stories that aren’t grounded in the same old tropes and characters need to have a great deal of depth to them; not just judged because they are of a particular color. I think more collaboration would be good between white writers and POC. This gives us an opportunity to talk horror, talk character development and get to understand the building blocks that make each writer unique. But definitely our stories need to be given more exposure, and there needs to be the opportunity to be heard.
Linda D. Addison- There are several things happening at the same time that is increasing the amount of work available by non-white authors:
A: Technology is allowing Black individuals, and companies, to create and expose the genre to exciting new work (ex. MVmedia LLC. (Milton J. Davis), Jeff Carroll (writer and filmmaker), Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa edited by Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald, Joshua Omenga, Zelda Knight—the first from Africa; to name a few). There are others who are gathering resources that answer the question “where are the Black creators in genre?” (Ex. “100+ Black Women in Horror” by Sumiko Saulson; HWA The Seer’s Table column in monthly newsletter which introduces membership to diverse creators, etc.).
B: Traditional publishing outlets are becoming increasingly aware that they have to be mindful of making projects more inclusive and putting in the work to reach out to creative communities that they haven’t contacted before. Projects are also being called out by the genre community when they ignore this concept and when they publish work that is not diverse.
C: The gatekeepers (decision makers/editors/readers at publishers, etc.) need to become more diverse. For example, the editors of “Twisted Book of Shadows” anthology (Christopher Golden and James A. Moore) made the decision to have a diverse editorial group read the blind submissions. This is important because if you’re not used to reading a different kind of voice/style, you can reject the work just because you’re not open to the difference.
Clearly, more needs to be done but the work has begun.
Stephen Graham Jones- Just reset the default settings. As easy and as tricky as that, right?
Rena Mason- Continue promoting diverse authors and diverse works. Get conversations going about the authors and their work – whether they’re stories you’ve read, nonfiction, movies, short films, or documentaries you’ve seen – post or comment on social media, or write reviews. There are a lot of organizations out there doing it on a larger scale, and signing up for their newsletters and following their lead and then spreading the word is a great way to help other voices get heard. Join in on virtual cons and participate, recommend the diverse works you’ve enjoyed. Being involved and volunteering are also great ways to get the word out in writing and reading communities. When I was more involved in writing organizations, I made it my duty to diversify whatever I could and rarely did I ever see any pushback, and if there was any, it happened very early on in my career. More recently, I’ve seen a lot of great things happen from word of mouth recommendations or from posts or comments, but I think you also have to be out there actively seeking the works and their creators as well. I think it’s important to encourage readers and viewers to try something different.
Steven Van Patten– From an audience standpoint, our community has to support it as much as it needs to do better supporting black entrepreneurship in general. You can’t go see Aliens, 14 and Nightmare On Elm Street: This ****er Is Back Again, and all these other movies, then walk past a black horror writer and question what they’re doing. IT SHOULD BE OBVIOUS. And stop telling black horror writers they need Jesus and all this other stuff. I’m telling a scary story, presumably because I’m good at it. Doesn’t mean I’m home pulling heads off chickens or that my daddy is Satan; it just means I have an imagination.
Unfortunately, we are in the habit of waiting for white people to put someone on before they get taken seriously. How about YOU put me on! And from the writer’s standpoint, well, the first thing I would say is we need to write black heroes into our stories with the same care and diligence that other people write their heroes. Flush your characters out so they are characters, not caricatures. Make sure they have wants, needs, insecurities and flaws so that the reader will care and see themselves reflected. Then, when you throw in the physical jeopardy, when it comes from it being a horror story, that’s how you draw out that emotion. I’m at my happiest when a reader tells me how upset they were when one of my characters died. Why? Because I was sitting in my bedroom making shit up. This story that didn’t happen got you to cry or get mad, and I did that. That’s real. I love that.
4. Have any classic horror staples (characters, tropes or stories) inspired your own stories? If so, how do you find ways of making your novels unique and stand out among the genre?
Marc L. Abbott- I am big fan of the creature feature. I love all those stories of bizarre experiments, things from other worlds, ghosts, nature (i.e. spiders, killer plants) and, of course, the traditional vampire and werewolf. Nature shows are great for learning about odd things you never knew existed and they often make for a great horror story. For me, it’s about the setting and why these monsters do what they do. My goal is to tell the story in a way no one has read before. Or take a trope and turn it on its head so that the reader will go into it thinking they’re on familiar territory but then pull the rug out from under them. For example, I have an alien story in Hell at the Way Station where a town is over run by creatures from outer space but the creatures are actually yams that are holding the place hostage for a very sinister purpose. I have made a few people mad at me because now they can’t go near yams without thinking about the story. So, using something very unconventional as the antagonist is one way in which I make my stories unique.
Linda D. Addison- I’m inspired by everything in the world, including classic horror concepts. Most of my work reflects the psychological horror of human’s inhumanity to others. I suspect what makes my work stand out is the mix of writing from my soul and incorporating poetic music fed early by children fables (which had a kind of rhythm that appealed to me). Also, some of the authors I read out loud because of the sound of the words and the music in their writing, even if I didn’t always understand them: Shakespeare, Ralph Ellison, Edgar Allen Poe, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, etc.
Stephen Graham Jones- Yeah, I dig playing with the usual suspects from the Universal Monsters playset. Always and forever. When I did a werewolf novel, — say Mongrels — if it was any different from the other stuff, it was just because I pushed myself to answer the question “What if werewolves were real?” But, really, I’m hardly the first person to do that, and I was stealing stuff all along the way, from Carrie Vaughn, from George RR Martin, and from Robert McCammon.
Rena Mason- Absolutely. Yes, tropes inspire my fiction. My first novel, The Evolutionist, came about from one of my favorite tropes, because stories (including nonfiction) along those lines personally make me uneasy: horror in the suburbs. Something’s not right with that wife, or her husband or daughter or son in that perfect family, living in that perfect house in that perfect neighborhood. Or maybe it’s the family pet, or neighbor….
I like to take what’s expected and toss the unexpected into that mix and see how the characters make their way through it and survive, if they survive. I think that because I’m a fan of so many genres and subgenres, my stories tend to blend with that base of suburban life or routine that’s happening now, in the past, or future. Sometimes straight on with my own cultural perspectives, sometimes in metaphors, resulting in a dark speculative fiction that leans more toward horror.
Steven Van Patten- Going back to what I said about the movie version of The Shining, and other films where I felt we were portrayed as one dimensional and stereotypical, all I can say is that I treat us better. Not that I write any other race or creed differently or with less care. I’m all about treating others how you want to be treated, even in the case of fictional characters.
5.Horror has been used to reflect turbulent times, do you use your writing in the same way? Especially with the resurgence of The Black Lives Matter Movement which shed light on the injustice and institutional racism Black people have to endure. What advice would you give horror writers of color on how they can reflect the times in their writing if they chose to?
Marc L. Abbott- I’m very subtle with social commentary in my work. I don’t like it to dominate the story I write but I do interweave it into the plot. For example, some of my most recent work deals with gentrification and how locals fight back using the supernatural. I even incorporate nature into the stories, as to show how the effects of gentrification have caused a disruption to the natural order of things. My goal is to make the outcome as frightening as I can but reinforce that those who disrespect the people have made the causes of this situation possible, and places that already have roots there. As for advice on how to reflect the times in your writing, write on how the times affect the horror. What I mean is make the monster(s), or whatever you have created, be a manifestation of what’s going on in the world. Have them lash out because of the events going on. You can have the monster respond to what’s going on around it, much like how during the atomic age monsters grew to enormous sizes due to radiation. You can have a ghost come back to haunt someone because of systemic racism. Or vampires join a BLM march to hunt down agitators in the crowd and feed on them. Just be sure that you stay true to cause that brings about these attacks and not use the backdrop as just a mere set piece, but incorporate the importance of it in your work.
Linda D. Addison- Since I write from my heart/soul reactions to the world around me, I don’t wonder if my work reflects what’s happening socially — it can’t help but do so. I’m constantly nauseated by how humans treat others, the lack of compassion and empathy. I would say, to horror writers of color, to write from their authentic feelings. If you do that, you don’t have to consciously write to reflect the world.
Stephen Graham Jones- Just, don’t try to. If you try to, the piece’ll probably come off didactic, or not engaging. Just make yourself do real people on the page. Making them real will automatically push back against all the bad stuff, and maybe creak the door open a little more to let all the people in who have been waiting.
Rena Mason- I don’t always do it consciously, but it’s there in who I am. So if, as a writer, I’m “bleeding” my soul onto the page, then yeah, whatever injustices and racism I’ve seen, felt, experienced in the past, or am feeling at the time will make it into my stories. I think that it comes naturally to writers who write from the light and the darkness in their heart and mind. Monsters and horrors that are sometimes indescribable are great ways to depict the evils I’m fighting in reality, which makes writing horror an often cathartic experience, and a way to get those demons out that haunt and hurt. My advice to other writers of color is to be true to yourself and pen those monsters lurking inside. They’re always there, and in so many forms.
Steven Van Patten- Actually, here I am going to borrow some advice from Chris Rock, who I worked for briefly when I stage managed Totally Biased w/ W. Kamau Bell. There was a skit one of the writers on the show wanted to do, but some of the facts that were being pushed by the skit were questionable. After some rehearsing, Rock killed the skit. His reasons? Well, I’m paraphrasing here, but in essence he told the writing staff that white people do enough ****ed up stuff without us having to make stuff up. How does that relate to this? Well, for me, it’s the fact that I’m always looking for an opportunity to use a true historical fact to illustrate the evils of racism and the damage it has caused. Even in a vampire story, I don’t have to make up a villainous plot when I have the true history of either redlining or highway displacement, or whatever happened to Henrietta Lacks. I love working stuff like that into my stories, even as a backdrop piece, because regardless of how many Black History Months we have, we are never really taught the truth of everything we’ve gone through as a people in schools. I mean, that makes sense. If you told little children, white and black, the truth of how this nation came to be you’d have a nation of anarchists, or at the very least more Fred Hammonds and George Carlins and less Kanye Wests and Rush Limbaughs. So, that’s my advice. When you can, when it makes sense, when it speaks to your spirit, do the research and incorporate lesser known atrocities (y’all just saw the Tulsa Riot in Watchmen AND Lovercraft Country, right?) into your horror story and watch people freak out. Because at the end of the day, nothing is scarier than the African-American journey through this country. And as long as the story is whitewashed in classrooms all across the country, the pain remains an untapped resource.
Thank you for joining us for this horror themed 5×5! And Happy Halloween!