Modern American Horror and the Incredible Whiteness of Being: Where Do We Go From Here in the Age of Social Awakening?


Horror changes when you stop just being a reader of Horror and instead choose to write it.  

Not only do questions arise about who you choose for characters and how they are depicted, but questions take shape around the relevance of plots and the potential for constructing a Literary message that might emerge from your once-invigorating first draft. We often aren’t yet thinking too seriously about the Bigger Picture – the one that suggests we might be writing Horror in a bubble. We don’t notice we are picturing an editor who looks like us, and instead we occupy ourselves with the worries of most novice writers – worries about craft and relevance, about choosing just the “right” marketing venue. We are just writers writing. Or so we think.

We never really worry that we might be judged by too many assumptions, although if you are a woman in Horror you are always aware that both you and your work are being measured against a predominantly white male history, specially conjured and mindfully tended for the last several decades of American Horror. But something is happening here, now, in this country. And it would appear that we are starting to really wake up to a lot of truths we never really saw as coexisting with us… the real Monster under the bed.

Now in this age of Covid 19 and Black Lives Matter, the Horror genre finds itself forced to gaze at its reflection in the mirror and ask a seminal question: where do we go from here?

Where do we go from all of those Lovecraft anthologies? How do we pierce the thin skin of that bubble we have been suffocating in? And who, exactly, will we take with us? How do we stop being so darned white, and what do we do if as a writer we just…are?

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The Princess Epiphany (Fix Yourself a Drink. Don’t Lose Your Shoes.)

Being white and a writer of Horror, these past seven months of Covid 19 and Black Lives Matter has been a rude awakening. Sadly, I thought I was awake before, but just like a scene out of Nightmare on Elm Street, I discovered I had only dreamed I was awake…

Darn it.

We all wake up in different ways. For me it has been about searching for minority voices in Horror, and learning that most of my youthful favorites are no longer “recognized” as being Horror writers (as though re-categorizing their writings would preserve some “purity” of the genre). It came as a disappointment to realize that what so many of them had in common was simply not being part of an homogenous set – they were often from another race or culture, or gay, bisexual, or transgender writers… and it did not matter how good they were. They were simply made gone, cast into other genres for a “better Literary fit.”

Then I began really thinking about what I was hearing drip from the essays of genre Establishment and even from Critics, asking what they are always asking for, how do we push the genre out of the rut it is in…and then I began wondering why can’t we seem to talk about anything other than Lovecraft tributes?

But then all of …this… happened. And it was my Freddy moment. Say what you will, but I have never been so ashamed of being White, as if being made to be ashamed of being American wasn’t bad enough these last four years.

Watching endless hours of Real-Life horror on the television screen, all of that news coverage of inexcusable and seemingly shameless killings of so many African Americans right now when the world is watching… it all got me thinking about the prolific tenacity of racism in all of its forms – the most insidious of which for me is institutionalized racism – a racism slipped in your drink at the bar, when you are having a good time and not thinking about who is around you or their motivations.

It is everywhere. Lie to yourself all you want, you know it is true. It has been in Horror a for decades. And foolishly, I have let myself believe that it was only in the choices of who we allowed in the genre… I had never considered it from the standpoint that it also was about what we have the audacity to actually SAY we want in the genre, or what we SAY is in the factual HISTORY of the genre. Then there had to be yet another Lovecraft anthology…

(Surprise! I was feeling like the only one who was guessing up til now…)

The following is my epiphany of how institutionalized racism moves in Horror. This is how we as writers outside of the Sacred Realm of traditional publishing and its editors have been complicit.

The First Rule: Edify the Writers Who Reinforce the Narrative

New or under-published writers (often referred to as novice or amateur writers) often stand wide-eyed before the high priests of the Establishment and offer their prose souls in eager anticipation of discovery or helpful advice. They read editorial essays and devour the critical comments about staying in-genre and writing original traditional Horror all without a single word or reference as to how to do so. “Write what you know” we are told, “be original,” “Lovecraft is the height of perfection…”

It does not occur to us that we might be just one more obedient and compliant white writer in the herd of the unpublished masses. It never occurs to us that there is anything but a loose history written of the genre because no one in the Establishment endorses any writer of (or writes themselves) said history. We just accept the kool-aid in its enticing cups of promise. We fall all over ourselves hoping to ingratiate our way into print. 

So we feel unanchored, unmoored… and we flail about. We are white, so we do as we are told and write what we know – whiteness. But it echoes in empty chambers because we do not live in a white-only world. And it seems our writing bears only slightly more than a passing resemblance to older white writers – writers from decades ago, in styles that are antiquated. And we are again rejected. We are rejected until all we hear is phrases that include “Lovecraft anthology” and “Legacy Collection…” and how we are STILL not writing original work…  

Confession: writers write for an audience.  The audience inevitably looks like ourselves. Writers – Horror or otherwise – don’t get out much.

The Second Rule: Don’t Get Caught…

We have all heard the mantra “write what you know”… it is kissing cousins with the one that says “don’t write about people and cultures you don’t know.“

What becomes the startling discovery is how hard it is to follow that advice – especially as a modern person living in contemporary American society. We are surrounded by people and cultures, by color… vibrancy… unknown differences. The temptation to use those differences in our worst imaginings is only reinforced by what is held out to us in the genre as all but “perfect” Horror – Lovecraft.

We are rejected again and again until we learn the hidden lesson: it’s not the cosmos, the monsters, the syntax. It’s the subtext. And it’s so obviously the subtext, I now wonder if the editors and the Critics even hear themselves, because thinking that they do is just plain….scary.

In Horror – especially the kind inspired by H.P. Lovecraft – differences and unease around the unknown masses surrounding us feeds the atmosphere we have been groomed to believe belongs in Horror. The exotic unknown provides the magic, the mystery, the sinister imaginings that stalk us…it is so easy to ascribe a monster to some unknown culture, some obscure religion or cult, to create an imaginary group of monster-worshippers with secret powers and ancient, unknowable deities. Worse, we feel endorsed if not pressured to create these mystery stand-in peoples, to flirt with Fantasy and Science Fiction world-building by making up a whole culture in the pretense we are not referencing the very ones living around us. This way, we can have our cake and eat it, too…

Who could possibly be offended? How could this be wrong?

It takes some doing to hear the dog whistles…  

The Third Rule: Don’t Spook the Herd…

But it also leaves white writers in the genre with a conundrum: try to include our growing racial diversity and or risk getting it way wrong and being accused of “entitled profiteering,” or sticking to writing exclusively about other white people and being called racist or tone deaf.

And this is why we really need to learn and study the history of the Horror genre itself: the history of American Horror is a mirror of American history, and as long as we are pressured to ignore that, there will be a lot less Literature happening in the genre.

In his book Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession With the Hideous and the Haunting, W. Scott Poole states: “Something wicked this way comes when we look into the historical narrative…Belief and ideology, the social realities produced and reproduced by the images of the monster, turn into historical actions and events. It is not enough to call these beliefs metaphors when they shape actual historical behavior or act as anxious reminders of inhuman historical acts, a cultural memory of slaughter. How limp and pallid to use the term ‘metaphor’ for cultural structures than can burn the innocent to death, lynch them, imprison them, or bomb them. The monster has helped make all of these things possible in American history.” (25)

Yet, this isn’t really discussed –not in class, not in genre. We are directed to metaphors. And there we languish on the beach, seashells whispering sweet nothings in our ears…

Yet we cannot separate ourselves or our writing from our history as we live it — at least not honestly. And neither can the writers who have gone before. And as we edify certain writers over others, as we hold them out as near-perfect, we lean in… we study with hungry eyes and untold ignorance…and then we mimic. We do not see a difference because the difference is not there. We are still living in Lovecraft’s world of fearing the Other.

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The Fourth Rule: Mindless Recitation Becomes Truth

There is systemic and institutionalized racism in our modern version of the Horror genre. We do not admit many writers of color, we do not admit writing that does not conform to an accepted narrative that most of us have not been taught to SEE in its sub-textual proliferation. We are convinced because it is the preferential truth that we are done with all of that. We just “innocently” repeat it because we see it as a requirement, a harmless convention of the genre. We don’t question its presence or its function. We don’t question the success of our own publication, because it doesn’t occur to us that we don’t deserve it, or that someone might deserve it more. That is the very definition of systemic racism…

We have ALL been snowed. We have all been lied to. And worse, we have all been groomed to continue the tradition, with the punishment of manuscript rejection or banishment from the genre to keep it “traditional.” But who defines what is “traditional”? Who IS this Horror cabal in charge of our genre’s narrative?

Do you not find it interesting (if not coincidental) that at the exact time in our history that the Black Lives Matter movement arises in response to a rise in white supremacy and nationalism, that a movie like Get Out! gnaws at the fringe of the Horror universe currently packed with finger-wagging editors seeking more Lovecraft?

And while minorities might think it must be easy-peasy for white writers in the genre to get published, do they know that only white writers ghostly imitating the white patriarchal style of the 1940’s are rewarded, along with “Other” (including female) writers only if they very mindfully write un-offensive stories that do not overtly threaten the status quo?

The Fifth Rule: Rewrite the History to Support the Narrative

You want to know why there is so little Literature happening in American Horror? We aren’t allowed to talk about things that Establishment editors don’t want to hear… not child abuse, not child sexual abuse, not sexual harassment, not rape, not health issues, not homelessness, not job loss, not disenfranchisement or disillusion… and sure as heck not politics or race.

Instead the cry for allegedly “traditional” Horror is deafening…  Yet the truth is that “traditional” Horror addressed exactly those issues.  We have reinvented the term “traditional” and hijacked it to reflect the monsters as white males designed them. Period.

Is that where the ghost story (the vehicle of discontent for women and minority writers historically in the genre) went? Is it a coincidence that it has been “determined” by some that between Sheridan Le Fanu and M.R. James (two white males) all of the worthwhile and legitimate ghost stories have been told? One wonders… Because isn’t that a little too convenient?

Is also it an attempt to rewrite our history to the exclusion of what is known about Horror in order to favor a very white, very male patriarchal “success story””? And doesn’t that remove the “teeth” from monsters in general?

It is that history of interacting with ourselves and Others that we bring with us and hide under our beds, importing select suspicions when not directly transplanting whole belief systems onto new soil. Says W. Scott Poole: “Our monsters…are not simply delusions, whether they slither toward us as folklore, urban legend, or popular entertainment. Nor are they simply mirrors of social fears or expressions of social anxiety, the catharsis interpretation of the horror tale. They are so embedded in the way Americans talk about class, race, gender, and social structure that they offer a way for people to mark, comprehend, and just as frequently, misunderstand their world.” (xix)

Yet we continue to pretend that monsters don’t exist, all while they frolic in the shadows and dance naked in the sunlight in full view.

Again Lovecraft is the example. Is it any coincidence that perhaps the single most racist writer in the genre – H.P. Lovecraft – is now the genre’s premier Golden Child? Or that the demand for “original” Horror comes with… tentacles?

“Original” is a code word.

“Original” does not mean “different” or “other”… It sure as heck does not mean “new” … It means “differently told, modern” Lovecraft stories.

Can you say censorship and “traditional” in the same sentence?

Lovecraft is often given a “pass” because he is so clearly an institutional racist. Like ourselves, he believed what he was raised to believe and what society reinforced. And when he tells his stories it is not with a conscious purpose to “convert” but is an example of that simple-yet-horrendous assumption that his readers will “get” the terror in ways we may not today interpret it. And this means that modern readers may not pick up on the racism alluded to, but that being presumably, eternally white, we would simply gather in the general atmosphere of imminent dread and make of it what we will. The problem is, we are internalizing that narrative in order to mimic it. How often do we say it, and read it, and edify it before it starts to make some kind of weird sense?

Literary Criticism digs deeper than that first reading, that fan-driven desire for frisson… Criticism looks at subtext. And this is yet another reason why Literary Criticism needs to be introduced to readers in high school – right when Horror becomes a rite of passage.

Look, Lovecraft can be enjoyed, and reading or liking his work does not make you a racist. But I am saying that the longer we emulate and praise the narrative, the more likely we are to become numb if not deaf to the subtext that says Others are scary and are out to end us all.

If a Horror reader is and prefers to remain a “surface dweller” then Lovecraft is fun and kitschy and an awesome representation of British Horror done American style. Nothing has to “change” as long as we clearly identify subtext for what it is: a marker of a moment in time… But isn’t it interesting that we don’t quite know what to do with things when the truth comes out, when we look beyond the surface? The experience is jarring, because when you first fall in love with Horror, the surface is what you fall in love with – the idea of being scared. We do not start out in Horror looking for hidden messages…

So what do we do when we find them? It is a certainty that there will always be subtext – consciously or unconsciously inundating our writing – because we are human and we cannot always stop ourselves. And as time passes and history moves past the moment, we Freudian-slip onto the stage naked. But there is a difference in discussing subtext and how it found its way into our subconscious and conscious behaviors, how it dictates social currency and acts.. and endorses or excuses it.

The fact is, there is indeed an unsavory if unconscious subtext in Lovecraft. And if we are asking for more of that in the Horror genre, what are we really trying to say?

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Yes, We Are Waking Up: And We Were Promised a Handsome Prince…

If we are going to fix the problems we have in the genre, then we have to stop trying to avoid responsibility for where we are. This doesn’t mean we must go through and purge offensive writers or racist ones. It doesn’t mean we should write with future Literary Critics in our heads, either.

However it does mean we have to acknowledge as white gatekeepers of the genre, we have let the genre be pixie-led down a dead-end path where a racist and sexist narrative has been used to limit our growth and originality. White writers have also been victimized by this narrative. And no, it is not our duty to apologize to all Other writers, to hang our heads in shame for being somehow complicit.

We have ALL been manipulated and lied to, some of us being more willing to buy into the fairy tale than others. But we must also consider the cost to the genre… Horror is not meant to be spoon-fed to the masses, but to leech into their comfort zones through the skin. And now that we have been roughly awakened, it is time to acknowledge the total absence of the prince.  

We simply need to acknowledge that this love affair with the carefully constructed and insulated world that Lovecraft wrote from within is not a sustainable or defensible (let alone healthy) relationship to have with our genre history or its future. To do so is creatively limiting.

And to demand more of the same is a love song to fan fiction – not genre writing.

What we do going forward in the Horror genre is going to matter, and it is going to hinge on how we treat subtext in writing, how we identify monsters.  But it also means demanding that history remain in its context, and that we in fact and practice live and write in the time we are in. That means hearing all voices, fearing none, welcoming the envelope-pushers, and redefining what Horror is by providing agreed-upon criteria.

Horror in America is still white, because we choose to do little more than briefly mention (and then ignore) the fact that at the precise time in American Literary history that Horror flowered on our shores, we were in the cold embrace of white male elitism, of racism, of misogyny. And then we insisted on telling ourselves a beautiful mythology full of shiny objects to distract from intolerable truths. People do that when they need to believe their own delusions…when the truth is so terrible that the guilt alone would melt us like a Martian ray gun… when the night terrors torment our American Dreams.

How do we get out of this? Be careful how we wake up… and don’t expect a prince.

Says Natalie Wilson in her book, Willful Monstrosity: Gender and Race in 21st Century Horror, “…monsterizing the Other was – and continues to be – one of the primary ways to maintain power and shore up existing hierarchies. One such endearing hierarchy, that of East/West, lies at the heart of colonialism and conquest. While denigrating the Other has spanned history, the Western world, as Partha Mitter puts it, ‘forged a monopoly on this’ (339).  Importantly this monopoly is linked to the emergence of race as a concept…thus laying the groundwork for the concept of monstrous races.” (6)

We cannot hope to change things if we refuse to change our trajectory of accepting what institutionalized racism continues to do in its currently unchallenged, understated state of being.

It means that we have to start seeing Horror where Horror is… and that means right here in the ordinary lives of ordinary peoples. It means we have to start talking about all of those things editors have said they want to hear no more about, because out here in the Real World, people are living those things, THOSE Horrors. And they  — we – deserve the acknowledgment of the struggle it is to be a decent human being in this world of subtext. We all have a story to tell.

Horror is not Fantasy, it is Horror.

And we have had enough of the Fairy Glamour.

Take your spells and be gone.

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References

Poole, W. Scott. Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting. Second ed. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, c2018.

Wilson, Natalie. Willful Monstrosity: Gender and Race in 21st Century Horror. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., c2020.

Horror as a Second Language (Fresh New Horror From Other Places & Cultures)


When we look at the tradition of Horror, we tend to embrace its ethnocentrism as a characteristic of the genre – a living trope, if you will.

We think that the construction of the genre happened in a Western vacuum and that there exists some kind of “proof” that no one else shares in the tradition of true scary tale telling. It is as though it is not legitimate if it is not published in an English-speaking country and contains predictable Western characters living out a familiar plot. We point at the acknowledged (and therefore “official”) history of Horror without recognizing that those who have judged our stories and uplifted the genre’s profile to (at times) cult status have also been “traditionally” white and male and Western – the same ones who historically controlled the presses and the public’s choice of content and access to the written word. Are we right, then, to assume that no one else is (or has ever been) writing Horror of value?

The answer is a resounding no; Horror is neither exclusive nor rare – not in experience nor the storytelling. And perhaps the key as to why we seem at a creative and Literary stalemate in our modern writings is ensconced in the significance of “how” – in having fashioned this odd, culturally exclusive bubble – all of our best efforts have resulted in a kind of genetically compromised inbreeding of ideas. In our hand-over-fist attempts to understand what we think Horror formula is or should be, perhaps it is we who have become the victims of our own intent to discredit others.

This means our contemporary problems (especially in American Horror) may well have grown in its isolated and lonesome Petrie dish to be not only about who is telling what stories, but about the future of the American side of the genre. We are unquestionably at a Literary and creative impasse.

And we had better start asking what happens when all of the 1970s-1980s bestselling authors stop writing. What exactly will we do then?

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Robbing Horror From Other Cradles

At a time when we are unwilling or unable to create the kind of Horror that excites our readers and grows our constituency, we need an infusion of original DNA – the kind of DNA that descends from folklore and fairy tales – the gritty stuff of childhood fears. And we need to do this shamelessly – borrowing from those older traditions tucked neatly into vague heritages because while we were being all puffy and proud about our modern sophistication and electronic gadgets, what we call The Old World was still telling scary tales of things that go bump in the night. And people who grow up with those storytelling traditions clearly have a thing or two to teach us about where we all (and our monsters) come from.

For those of us on this side of the pond, it’s time to climb out of the creative box we have put ourselves in – from what we call our genre to who writes in it. We have no proprietary rights here; just because some smarty-pants marketing department decided to print the word “Horror” on the spines of countless Western paperbacks in the 1970’s does not mean it is the correct name to call our genre, or the one with which the rest of the world concurs. Nor does it mean that the rest of the world interprets “Horror” in the same way as we do in the West.

Why has our Horror all become one-dimensional? Homogenous and flat? Because “we” have decided what formulas constitute Horror, all to the denigration of other traditions of storytelling.

Yet isn’t that where we got our ideas about Horror in the first place? It’s time we confessed the truth: the West did not invent Horror. We may have perfected a branch of the tree, but we are not the whole of it. Our roots go much, much deeper and come from afar…

And every person who came here brought a little piece of that with them.

We cannot claim to not-know this entirely. Our genre’s historic use of Orientalism and racism to further heighten a presumed white reader’s fears or to elevate the exotic mystery and exploit the willing ignorance of a class of readers groomed to see themselves perfected in an ethnocentric mirror is no different in Horror than in any other genre. But in Horror, it has fast become this almost-necessary ingredient we are directed to mimic. Because we have not been able to “move the Literary needle” in American Horror since Lovecraft, that is where we are directed to learn about how to write the good stuff.

But what if we don’t want to because no one does Lovecraft better than Lovecraft, and most importantly, because the rest of us are no longer as threatened by different peoples or cultures? What happens when dread and fear turn away from dimly lit rural areas with secret histories to vibrancy, exploration and inclusion? What happens to Lovecraft mimicry?

What happens when we have outgrown that narrow Worldview?

Today most of us are able to acknowledge the pinch of this and dash of that from other cultures and folkways that have driven the more muted successes that line the cages of our genre and we are increasingly curious about it. From Japanese filmmakers to Russian folklore, we are intrigued by the monsters some part of us always suspected were watching us from the shadows. More importantly, we are starting to ask what happens when in following the Lovecraft-enamored lead of the Western Horror Establishment we continue to drown out international and “minority”- voiced Horror, displacing it as an anomaly or christening it Other-relevant “Literature” to keep it at a safe distance.

Horror should never be “safe.” And trying to hold onto Lovecraft and the singular whiteness of Horror is contributing to the lack of historical awareness so necessary in our genre.

It so reminds me of that unfortunate music fan who suggested that Paul McCartney was lucky to receive a “break” from Kanye West and might someday make something of himself “Cuz Kanye just handed this guy a career”… (not a shining moment.)

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Why don’t we KNOW where we come from? And isn’t it possible that this very tone deafness is one of the contributing causes to the endless cookie cutter “plateauing” of scary in the genre as we know it?

If we really dare to look at the Horror genre’s origins, we will find the richest veins in folk and fairy tales from our Old Countries – the very things an “advanced” and “civilized” culture likes to mock. But in the dark of the night, isn’t that where Horror gets under our skin uninvited, rummaging about and prickling our skins? Does it really matter where the scary images come from if they are coming after us?

It’s time we started researching the rest of the world’s stories – rediscovering some, and hearing others for the first time. Because these are the stories and the traditions we carry with us as we move through the world, colliding with each other. Of course this means learning about other people, how they live and think. It means letting ourselves sink into other life ways in order to find the Horror we crave.

And it means allowing ourselves to be corrected… To acknowledge real history, real traditions, and the real Peoples who live them intimately. It also means admitting to ourselves that we live in bastardized, cannibalized times. We bring fragments of Horrors from our lineages, and those halflings collide unceremoniously with Things That Were Already Here. Isn’t it time we exploited our own ignorance? Paid the price of our own desire to minimize our once hidden roots? Our personal roots?

We don’t need sacred Indian Burial Grounds or gypsy curses to amp up our Horrors… we have our own sins making monsters in urban factories right now.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read those first-hand accounts and value them for themselves…to inspire and remind us that we have our own stories if we will just stop and look. It helps us to see how other people tell these tales, to “spin” our vocabulary, to look askew at what we cannot see directly. We need to, not only for ourselves, but because of the obvious: we no longer live in a vacuum no matter how many walls we endeavor to build. We need to see that even Lovecraft would have a hard time being Lovecraft today.

And is it really such a bad thing – really – to stop “using” other peoples whose customs we don’t know to scare our readers with? Because in a global economy, there are no secrets – not really. If a writer makes something up for the benefit of plot, he or she will ultimately be exposed for the careless or arrogantly conceived error and deservedly so. But there are wondrous stories to be had, to savor just as they are – cultural accents and all.

Of course, this means getting out of our comfort zone. But that is the nature of Horror, isn’t it? And haven’t we learned that wondrous things await if only by way of Japan and its gift of Godzilla, and its ghost traditions pushing into our own culture by way of films like Ringu (The Ring)and The Grudge and the world of Manga?

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 It’s All About Language and Culture and Horror Underfoot

While it’s hard to believe that modern music fans don’t always know the names of the bands and musicians that shaped the genre they are in, we of the Horror genre should not throw stones. We are doing the same thing right now, oblivious to our own genre history, crashing about like the proverbial bull in the china shop looking for a new mythos when we don’t even know the last one. We don’t learn our genre history, which squares so nicely with no one teaching it to us. We just keep clinging to the Lovecraft life raft, even if it happens to be the Titanic.

How long before we have a Paul McCartney-Kanye West moment of our own? You realize it is more likely to happen the smaller we make our universe, right?

We like to think that the Horror galaxy revolves around a white, Christian, English-speaking sun – because the little of “everything” we know tells us this…

Yet we could not be more wrong. All of our best tales descend from our Old World roots…and that must mean that out there somewhere is the motherlode of scary… It’s not, after all, like we haven’t drank from that well before – Horror was seeded in our early days of human history, and we have carried remnants of it out into our new and ever changing world with countless diasporas. Yet we tend to not use this personal version of Horror DNA. Instead we look askew at stories presented by “other” countries, often in “other” languages.

Up to this moment, we have hidden behind our world dominance. We have blatantly bragged that those who want to be heard need to speak the way we want to hear language. We don’t read foreign authors, we don’t like names or place names we cannot pronounce, cities we cannot picture, weather that does not mirror our own. We also don’t like the pools of secrecy we ourselves create when we push groups of humanity into the shadows of our entitlement and the people there speak words we don’t know the full meaning of. This is true whether such people on the margins speak Spanish or Black English or something from the Middle East.

Let’s just admit it: we are control freaks. We have a driving need to understand the nuance of every word we read, every meaning implied. And even though in the Horror genre, that can be an absolute necessity to “getting” it, there is still more to our aversion to works that come from “Other” places…

From International writers writing in other languages, to works written that speak of other traditions and cultural importances… we dislike the feeling that there are secrets being coded for certain readers. We feel that way about slang and inner city lingo as surely as we stink eye the immigrants speaking Spanish in the lunch room. Yet we need to get beyond our own Lovecraftian self-importance… we are missing out on some great storytelling – the kind that sends you to your own keyboard and pokes the Muse.

And alas, we are going to have to work for it…because language has its own cultural complications— the most obvious being when dealing with those which are “not-English.”

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One of the biggest problems for international writers is being read by English Speakers. We are less likely to be bilingual than most other cultures, assured as we are that it is English that will continue to dominate everything that matters on the world stage.

And what this means is that we take our arrogances into the Literature we read… We not only fully expect to read things in our language, but we judge it differently even when it is delivered thusly. We underestimate what it means for a work to be translated.

In fact, we all too often misinterpret a writer’s talent by the fluency of the translator. However sometimes translators are “functional” but not “artistic.” Where all writers need translators with the eyes and ears and imaginations of poets, all too often we get novels that instead of reading like Dostoevsky, read like Google. This is due to cost, availability of a good translator, and having someone who can judge the finished product properly. Once one leaves their native language, this can be a real challenge – for writers and editors.

This is a real problem. The author needs a fluent translator to make their work accessible in other languages – languages they likely do not speak. And because they do not speak it, they cannot easily judge when a translator is fluent in both languages – fluent enough to tap into nuance and vocabulary yet still capture both those necessary interpretations as well as the voice of the author.

Translation matters, whether we are talking editing an inner city/urban work or a foreign one. And just as we ascribe proofreading errors to writers and their talent, we associate a translation with the quality of the original work if not the literal intelligence of the author. Yet nothing could be farther from the truth: nuance of the native tongue once lost results in a confusion of original intent, of the poetry of the prose and disagreement about what the original text meant.

 

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Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s I Remember You: a Ghost Story – an example of how translation should work FOR the work…

 

So we have to expect this kind of disparity to happen in translations of works that come from other language traditions. We have to be patient…flexible.

But we also have problems with writers who use what we have been institutionally guided to consider “bad” “incorrect” or “flawed” English…the most noticeable of which has been “Black, Regional, or Urban” English. In fact, we have the exact same problem in native speakers of English when it comes to interpreting and accepting slang, and cultural diversity within a work.

While sometimes we cannot connect to the story because we are not the intended audience, it is a fact that we tend to shy away from stories that involve language we are unable to “decode”…

Sometimes it is because we simply cannot pick up on the important nuances, the cues, the double entendre – the dog whistles. Never mind that this is because we are used to our own dog whistles…We feel shut out in the same way people from other cultures feel shut out when reading about ours. We simply have gotten used to the idea that being “top dog” in the publishing of Horror, it was “everyone else’s” job to understand the nuances of what we meant.

The shoe always pinches when it is on the other foot…But pinching is a sign that there is something alive in the shoe – that maybe the shoe is wrong, not the foot. We need to have the patience to unwrap the mysterious gift. Yet we have been institutionalized right out of the curiosity.

We bristle for example when non-Christian references are in the stories, unless we can give them the appropriate “Lovecraft spin” where exotic means “sinister” and “threatening”… And if the character does not look and act like us, we feel summarily “excluded”… as if “our” genre has been pirated…invaded. This is one reason why women wrote pulp and men wrote Literature back in the day…and why the inference remains a ghost on the battlefield of diversity in Horror today.

Because “today” we are excluding Horror from all over – including right under foot. We have been taught that reading should be easy and entertaining. We have forgotten that reading – especially Literature with its references to history and socio-economics and tyranny and justice– is work…

Publishers “get” this – that we are now not only lazy but expected to remain content to be lazy from here on – and clearly consider that this is far too complicated an issue to fix. So instead of new and exciting and different Horror, we have Horror from “Other” countries and cultures being farmed out to other genres or marketed as Literary statements – fodder for Critical Thinkers and Lit-lovers to decipher and ruminate upon. The face value of the story-telling is simply dismissed.

The very idea that Horror should include more than monsters is being banished while having the Bible of Lovecraft waved in our faces. Talk about contradiction. No wonder American Horror writers are all-too-often writing peculiarly ineffective and vacant fiction…

Banishing all works by “Others” which doesn’t carry a pre-approved Lovecraftian exploitation of fearing the same “Others” only re-confirms our suspicion that this makes these works not really Horror…Because Horror comes in only one color and one flavor: vanilla.

We further conjecture that all American Horror should be non-threatening and easy-to-digest, even when salaciously gory. And as the market for Horror tightens, the belief is becoming reinforced – making the whole idea that we all should be writing in some way like Lovecraft while being all pulpy and writing fast moving, two-dimensional action figure prose right into that very pair of cement shoes dragging the whole genre to the soggy bottom…

We have a tendency to decide that we are better off to reject works which require a bit of decoding.

We don’t want to think and we don’t want to go outside our comfort zone. But isn’t that exactly the price of admission? Isn’t that the very essence of Horror?

We have done this with African Americans for decades. We shrink from the use of Black English because we are just not sure what to do with it. Is it a dialect? Is it just “bad” English? Is it a regionalism? Slang?

And what about regionalism? Does a Southern character or a Southern accent make the Horror Southern Gothic and Literature because we don’t want to work to understand it in Horror? Why is Horror only Horror if the dialogue fits in a comic book balloon?

Why does it matter in Literature? How many Cockney accents have we navigated in English Literature because it was part of the story? Part of the setting? The time-and-place of historical value?

Experts are still in debate over it. And meanwhile editors everywhere – especially in traditional publishing – are at a loss as to how to edit such fiction. It is far easier to call “Black” and “Other” writing niche and reject the work, or pronounce it too burdened with Literary elements because most likely it will take African American and “Other”editors to edit such works submitted for publication…editors from the culture the story comes from in order to edit the right things out and clarify the things that need to stay in.

Decisions have to be made as to whether the language in the work is supposed to (pardon the pun) add “color” to the language, to orient characters and setting, but also as to whether or not it is also meant to exclude certain readers not in the intended audience, or to educate them into a different culture and viewpoint.

This is not as easy as it would seem. And this affects international and national works as quickly as it effects regional U.S. ones…

For one thing, we have been taught that language is either right or wrong in its execution. Yet we have so many regional subcultures in the English language alone we should be familiar with the fact that such “color” when added to Literature seats that work firmly in a time or place – it becomes part of setting and character. The only good excuse for exclusion on these grounds is when the work cannot be in some way “accessible” and its meaning appreciated by outsiders to a storytelling degree.

For example, when a work comes from another culture, country or language, the author or translator should allow for some “redundant” coaching… some of the native language should stay in the story – reminding the reader where it is coming from.

Example: “Mira,” said Pablo, “Look.” (Mira means “look.. And we learned something from the redundancy without losing the author’s proficiency of language.)

But there are also other cultural things that need explanation for new and “reverse-Other” readers.

Example: “When she calls out to Ashoke, she doesn’t say his name. Ashima never thinks of her husband’s name when she thinks of her husband, even though she knows perfectly well what it is. She has adopted his surname but refuses to use it, for propriety’s sake, to utter his first. It’s not the type of thing Bengali wives do. Like a kiss or a caress in a Hindi movie, a husband’s name is something intimate and therefore unspoken, cleverly patched over. And so, instead of saying Ashoke’s name, she utters the interrogative that has come to replace it, which translates roughly as ‘Are you listening to me?’” (From Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake)

(Here we have learned about the character, her husband and her culture…yet presented in a way that does not offend the outsider or someone from that culture because it adds color to the prose.)

This is how good writing and proper editing is done. It is not the job of the reader to figure things out, but the job of the writer to draw us in – to make us want to learn more and to learn something by way of the story in spite of ourselves. And it is the job of the editor to help us all get there, especially in translation and even in our own language.

Those of us who like Horror already speak a second language – the language of our genre. Most of us who like Horror like it for the escapism – and the one predictable trope that never, ever changes: not the one about white creation myths, but the one that proves time and again, through ghost and monster and sheer coincidence that justice will prevail through the impersonal and savage law of nature because we are none of us innocent.

In the world of Horror where cross-pollination is key, we need different voices – ones whose different cultures or ways of speaking frame Horror in a new light, cast shadows in familiar yet peculiar angles…

Sometimes I think it must just feel like too much work to resolve in the eyes of traditional publishing – too much work for too much of a gamble…And that is exactly how we keep winding up with the same voices in Horror and Literature, all speaking the same way…It’s how we lost our DNA, our sense of direction and originality nested in our commonality.

So take a minute. Peruse the following list of writers from all over – including a few right here in these United States whose work was probably labelled a bit “niche.” You want new Horror? Original Horror?

Start here. And yes, there are Americans on it – either from or influenced by somewhere else, and in one case from traditions outside the mainstream but homegrown nonetheless…These are voices of different cultures…

Get your crucifixes… because these writers are the future of Horror – if we will only open our eyes and read.

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Horror Authors Unseen – A List From Here to Everywhere Else

Asa Nomani (Japan) Now You’re One of Us

Otsuichi (Japan) Goth

Asamatsu Ken (Japan) Queen of K’n-Yan

Mariko Koike (Japan) The Graveyard Apartment

Yrsa Sigurdardottir (Iceland) I Remember You

John Ajvide Lindquist (Sweden) Let the Right One In

Karin Tidbeck (Sweden) Amatka

Eden Royce (African American/Gullah and Southern Gothic influence) Spook Lights, Tying the Devil’s Shoestrings –YA coming Summer 2020

Tananarive Due (African American/Nigerian influence) My Soul To Keep

Violet Kupersmith (Vietnamese American) The Frangipani Hotel

Stephen Graham Jones (Native American) Mapping the Interior

David Bowles (Mexican American) Chupacabra Vengeance

Jeremias Gotthelf (Germany) The Black Spider

Daniel Kehlmann (Germany) You Should Have Left

Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Netherlands) Hex

John Harwood (Australia) The Ghost Writer

Michelle De Kretser (Sri Lankan-Australian) Springtime, a Ghost Story

Simone St. James (Canada) The Haunting of Maddie Clare

Cherie Dimaline (Canadian First Nations) The Marrow Thieves

Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Canadian-Mexican) Certain Dark Things

Samuel Marolla (Italy) Black Tea and Other Tales

Giorgia de Maria (Italy) The Twenty Days of Turin

Samanta Schweblin (Argentina) Fever Dream

Guillermo del Toro (Mexico/Mexican American) Pan’s Labyrinthe

Luis Abbadie (Mexico) El código secreto del Necronomicón(The Secret Code of the Neconomicon)

Julio Cortezar (Argentina) Tomada House

Bernardo Esquinca (Mexico) Demonia (and Other Stories)

J.F. Gonzalez (Spanish American) Clickers

Carmen Maria Machado (Cuban American) Her Body and Other Parties

Andres Barba (Spain) Such Small Hands

Zhou Haohui (China) Valley of Terror

Han Kang (South Korea) The Vegetarian

Rene Depestre (Haiti) Hadriana in All My Dreams

Carolina Sanin (Columbia) The Children

Sadegh Hedayat (Iran) The Blind Owl

Otessa Mosfegh (Croatian Iranian) Eileen

Ahmed Khaled Tawfik (Egypt) Beyond Nature

Ania Ahlborn (Polish American) Within These Walls

Anna Starobinets (Russia) The Recrudescence of the Cold

Tony Vilgotsky (Russia) Eye of Satan (aka Warriors of the Church)

Ludmila Petrushevskaya (Russia) There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales

Nuzo Onoh (Nigerian British) The Reluctant Dead

Amos Tutuola ( Nigeria) My Life in the Bush of Ghosts