Am I a Real Horror Writer?

Last night, I finally sat down to watch Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019). If you’re a horror fan and haven’t watched this amazing documentary, I highly recommend it. Based on Robin R. Means Coleman’s book, Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present (2011), the film not only discusses the historical lack of representation of black characters in horror films, but also examines the misrepresentations of black people when they appeared in them. As you might expect, the filmmakers and actors discussing the films and their historically important contexts talk about their fears and experiences with racism while trying to create art within a genre that subconsciously depicts monsters as The Other in relation to white people and culture in place of ethnic minorities.

After watching the documentary, I was inspired to watch a film from the Blaxploitation era, Sugar Hill (1974), which is about a woman, Sugar Hill, who uses Voodoo to avenge the death of her fiance. The film opens with what appears to be a Voodoo ritual with black people in traditional Haitian Voodoo garb dancing to a serious drum beat. I couldn’t help thinking of Angel Heart (1987), and expected to see Epiphany Proudfoot show up with her chicken. As the opening credits end, so does the dance and we become aware of the fact that the people dancing aren’t in a secluded location away from prying eyes, they are actually performers at a place called Club Haiti. They are performing Voodoo for a predominantly white audience. They are literally performing an aspect of blackness that is a stereotypical representation of black people in horror films. This also made me think of a similar scene in Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988).

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Typically, in horror films, Voodoo is shown as something evil, something to be feared. Depicting Voodoo practitioners as women who use their magic to hurt others, or exact vengeance, is a trope that I worried about perpetuating while writing Invisible Chains. I didn’t want to stick to the common stereotypes associated with black women, especially mambos, in horror narratives.

While Sugar is a strong female lead in a horror film, the film is still riddled with tropes like dangerous black women using magic for revenge. Her fiance, Langston, owns Club Haiti. A white gangster wants to buy it, but Langston refuses. So, he sends his henchmen to kill him. They beat him to death and leave his body in the parking lot of the club for Sugar to find.

Sugar doesn’t just use magic, she calls upon Baron Samedi who raises an army of the undead made up of former slaves who died of disease while still on slave ships. Their bodies were dumped in the water and washed up on the shore near Sugar’s childhood home. So, this movie has a lot going for it in terms of supernatural horror that looks at racism in the United States (in the past and in the present of the 1970s).

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In exchange for Baron Samedi’s help, Sugar offers up her soul, but he’s more interested in her body. But, Sugar’s final revenge is taken when Baron Samedi takes the racist girlfriend of the gangster back to the Underworld with him in place of Sugar. In my opinion, that gave the film a happy ending.

Black women in roles like Sugar are viewed as frightening and dangerous because they wield power. My protagonist struggles to accept her strengths and often downplays or hides her abilities for fear of being punished for either her knowledge or power. Her strength is a secret and she doesn’t make use of her power until she’s pushed to the limit. She protects herself and others, rather than seeking vengeance.

I worried that by writing her in this way, people wouldn’t accept her as being “authentic,” and I struggled with my decision, which I think says a lot more about me as a writer and how I see myself than it does about my character.

I also struggled with the belief that because this narrative isn’t a traditional horror story — a slave narrative with a black female protagonist — people wouldn’t recognize it as a horror novel. In fact, people challenged the notion that I was writing horror while I was in my MFA program. But, as Tananarive Due puts so succinctly in Horror Noire, ”Black history is black horror.”

I already knew that what I had written is without doubt a horror novel, but having my beliefs confirmed by another writer I respect and admire made me feel a lot better about releasing this novel into the world. Black women have plenty of horror stories to tell, and perhaps, a female slave is the most qualified protagonist for an historical horror story set in America.

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Invisible Chains will be released in a week on July 22, so my anxiety is on the rise. But after watching Horror Noire and Sugar Hill, I feel more confident about how I chose to write my protagonist, Jacqueline, and I may actually be a horror writer.

Invisible Chains: My Debut Novel

Michelle-LaneFor those of you who missed the news, my debut novel, Invisible Chains, will be released into the world July 22, 2019 by Haverhill House Publishing. If you’re as excited about this news as I am, you can pre-order a copy on Amazon, and while you’re there, you can check out my fancy new Amazon Author Page. Even though I’ve had my short fiction published, having my first novel published makes me feel like a bonafide author. See, I even have an author photo.

That’s great, Michelle, but what is your book about?

I’m glad you asked.

Jacqueline is a young Creole slave in antebellum New Orleans.  An unusual stranger who has haunted her dreams since childhood comes to stay as a guest in her master’s house. Soon after his arrival, members of the household die mysteriously, and Jacqueline is suspected of murder.  Despite her fear of the stranger, Jacqueline befriends him and he helps her escape. While running from the slave catchers, they meet conjurers, a loup-garou, and a traveling circus of supernatural freaks.  She relies on ancestral magic to guide her and finds strength to conquer her fears on her journey.

Oh, and here is the beautiful cover art designed by the very talented Errick Nunnally.

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As many of you know, writing can be a difficult and solitary pursuit. And, if your goal is to have your work published, the stages of writing, editing, rewriting, editing again, and submitting can feel like a never-ending climb up a hill while pushing a giant rock covered in your own entrails. Plus, if you submit and get nothing but rejections it sometimes seems like a good idea to just give up and find a different way to torture yourself.

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Can I tell you a secret? I’m glad I didn’t give up.

Believe me, I thought about giving up. I thought about giving up a lot. But this story lived inside me for a long time and it refused to be abandoned. This multi-genre slave narrative began its life as a short story back in the early 2000s and had a very different ending. That short story shared space on a thumb drive, untouched  with other abandoned writing projects, for several years. I mean, I would pull it out from time to time and read it but I never did anything with it until I applied to the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction (WPF) program at Seton Hill University (SHU).

Attending SHU was one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made. And, one of the scariest. At 40, I was completely dissatisfied with my life. I had a job I was on the verge of burning out on, I was unhappily married, and I was primarily responsible for raising my son who had begun to show signs of behavioral problems at daycare and school. I was the primary bread winner, I took care of the house, paid the bills, maintained social connections with friends and family, and one day I realized I was living my life for other people instead of living it for myself.

I began making a mental inventory of the things that brought me joy, and at the top of that list was writing. Writing was something I had done all my life. And, when I was writing I was happier. I started unearthing some of my unfinished short stories and realized they weren’t terrible. And then, I wondered what would happen if I took myself seriously as a writer. I made the decision to apply to SHU after asking a friend about the program. Jenda had nothing but good things to say about the program, and honestly, I think SHU should consider sending her a check each month for her excellent marketing skills.

My short story, “Freedom is in the Blood,” became Invisible Chains over the course of six years. Three years writing my thesis novel in the low residency MFA program, and three years of rewriting, editing, pitching, and submitting. In the process of writing the novel, my protagonist evolved into a stronger character who stands up to monsters to make a better life for herself.

In many ways, my protagonist evolved with me as I made changes in my own life. Deciding to write this book was the first step towards reshaping my life on my own terms. I’ve encountered my share of set backs, obstacles, and people who behave like monsters, but like Jacqueline, I keep moving forward.

In the process of moving forward, I’ve made new friends, reconnected with old friends, and built stronger relationships with the people who cheered me on through the highs and lows of writing this book. They’re good people. And I couldn’t have survived the process without their love and support.

I am very fortunate to be included in such diverse and supportive writing communities like the HWA and as an SHU alumna. And, of course, I wouldn’t be able to brag about getting my book published if I had never met the Editor-in-Chief of Haverhill House Publishing, John M. McIlveen.

I met John last year at StokerCon™ 2018 in Providence, RI. I pitched Invisible Chains to him, a book that took close to five years to write, in about ten minutes. And, much to my surprise, after babbling at him in what I believed to be incoherent nonsense, he said he’d be interested in reading it. That was the first spark of hope, and it has been one pleasant experience after the next working with John and Haverhill House Publishing.

Well, now the book is written and available for pre-order. The hardback edition will be available July 22, 2019. In the meantime, I have a stack of proofs that I would very much like to get into the hands of book reviewers and people who would be willing to blurb the book. If you or someone you know might be a good fit for a book like this, let me know and I’ll reach out to them.

What’s next, you may ask? I don’t know, but I suspect I might have to write another book.