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?
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…
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.
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?
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.
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.