Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Kenesha Williams

Monday, I kicked off this month-long series of posts for Women in Horror Month and Black History Month and had the chance to chat with serious horror fan, Dimi Horror. If you haven’t had a chance to read that post, check it out.

Today, Girl Meets Monster welcomes horror writer and soon-to-be filmmaker, Kenesha Williams.

Kenesha Williams is an author, screenwriter, speaker, and Founder/Editor-in-Chief of Black Girl Magic Lit Mag a speculative fiction literary magazine. As an, essayist she has written for, Time Magazine’s, Motto and Fireside Fiction. She is also a screenwriter currently in pre-production on a horror web series and a short film. You can catch up with her on her website www.keneshaisdope.com

Ten Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Kenesha.  What projects are you currently working on? Is horror your primary genre, or do you write in other genres? If you write in other genres, which do you feel most comfortable writing, and why?

KW: Thanks for having me! I’m currently working on a proposal for a one-shot comic that’s a Zombie Western, it’s really exciting and a great opportunity to show how racially diverse the West actually was in the 1800s. I’m also writing a pilot script for a contemporary horror series that I like to think of as Insecure meets The Magicians. Horror is my primary genre, even when I try to write another genre, I usually throw in horror elements, LOL! I also write science fiction, urban fantasy, and mystery. Since I can’t help but throw some horror into most of what I write, I’d say that horror is the genre I feel most comfortable writing in.

GMM: When did you first know that you were a horror writer? How did you develop an interest in the genre? What initially attracted you to horror stories? Which writers influenced you then? Which writers influence you now?

KW: I think I knew I was a horror writer when I couldn’t write something without someone dying, LOL. My mother was a big horror fan, so I read from her stacks of books and got into the genre myself. She also took me to my first horror film, so she definitely influenced my love of horror. My initial influence was Stephen King because my mom was a big fan, so his were the first “adult” horror novels I read. I would also be remiss not to add in R. L. Stine with his Fear Street series and Christopher Pike’s YA horror novels as well.

When I was in my early twenties, I went looking for horror authors that looked like me and I found Dark Dreams: A Collection of Horror and Suspense by Black Writers. That collection introduced me to Brandon Massey and Tananarive Due. Then I started buying everything they put out and got put on to LR Giles (Lamar Giles) as well. Then that search lead me to Octavia Butler, who I had read, but her Patternist series, which was Science Fiction, because my mother had it in her library. But then I started to read her horror with Kindred and Fledgling. Finding all these new to me authors had me wondering, where had they been all my life and also like, hey we do write horror!

GMM: The documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019), explores Black horror and the portrayal (and absence) of Black people in horror movies. As a definition of what Black horror means begins to take shape, Tananarive Due says “Black history is Black horror.” What do you think she meant by that? Can you give an example of how this idea shows up in your own work?

KW: I believe the phrase Black history is horror means that our history in this country (the United States) has been one that’s been marked by horrific acts like the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the years of enslavement for our people, and of course the legacy of Jim Crow that we’re still fighting against. We can mine any of those moments in history for horror stories. 

The work I’ve done so far deals with the legacy of Black history in America and how it manifests today, though it is not always the source of the horror. For example, the story you’re featuring today I wanted to explore the idea of the reconciliation of the horrific past Black Americans have endured with the present climate, i.e. replacing statues of white slave owners with more progressive figures.  My main character believes that the changes that are being made are just lip service, and I think that’s a feeling that a lot of Black people can identify with. President Obama was voted in with the slogan of Change, but then his successor was a harkening back to the bad old days. It showed that a good portion of the country didn’t want change, in fact they wanted to Make America Great Again by returning to a time when whites were in power and minorities knew their place.

GMM: As a WOC writing horror/dark speculative fiction, do you feel obligated to have a deeper message in your stories? Can writers of color write stories without broader messages about identity, class, and racism? Is it possible to divorce yourself from that ongoing narrative within our culture when you set out to write a story?

KW: Often that is my biggest question, does everything I write have to have a deeper message? I don’t think I can write a story without infusing identity in it when I write Black characters, it’s not realistic to me to disregard identity. Black people are not a monolith, of course, but there are some experiences that I believe are universal. But I also want Black people to have genre literature that is fun without it having to be an issue book. So, I try to balance that. There are some of my stories that the horror ties back specifically to race, and then there are others where the horror is just horror with Black main characters. 

GMM: What are your top five favorite horror movies, and why? Top five horror novels? Which book or movie scared you the most?

KW: OMG, this is so hard. Okay, first I’m going to go with the horror movies that shaped me growing up:

  • Pet Sematary—This was the first horror movie I saw, and my mom took me to it. I couldn’t have been more than 11 because we were still living in Germany. My mom loved horror and had a sick sense of humor, so she kept making the slashing the ankles motion to me, scaring the bejesus out of me.
  • The People Under the Stairs—I probably watched this around the same age. I think this movie stuck with me because it was the first movie I saw where people were being cruel to children and as a child; I was just like, wow could this really happen. Also, it was the first horror movie I saw with a Black protagonist. I heard that Jordan Peele is remaking this movie and I’m excited to see what he does with it.
  • Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween—These two were my introduction into slasher films, which I still love. I mean, they’re classics for a reason.
  • It Follows—I know people either love or hate this one, but I loved the atmosphere and the idea of an apparition spreading like an STD was innovative.  

Top five horror novels in no particular order and exceptionally hard to narrow down:

  • Firestarter—I am a big Stephen King fan, and this was the first book of his that I read, borrowed from my mother at thirteen years old.
  • The Goode House by Tananarive Due—This was a “freezer” book for me, I had to put it on ice for a while so I wouldn’t freak myself out reading it. I’m a fan of the Haunted House subgenre of horror and I really loved this one. I am also a big Due fan and will read anything she puts out, so it was hard to narrow it down.
  • Thunderland by Brandon Massey—Another freezer book, this is a really atmospheric novel that made me look over my shoulder several times. 
  • Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix—This was hard because I’m a big Grady Hendrix fan and I really love all of his books for different reasons. The sad thing is I couldn’t say My Best Friend’s Exorcism because I didn’t finish it because it was scaring the heck out of me. So, I put it back in my TBR pile. I need to finish it. But Horrorstör was amazing because he took a setting that most people don’t see as scary and infused the everyday horror of working retail and doing repetitive, seemingly pointless tasks, with the supernatural underpinning of a haunted store. 
  • Night of the Mannequins by Stephen Graham Jones—This is a new favorite of mine. I don’t want to spoil anything because it has a nice twist, but let’s just say it’s weird in wonderful ways and if you like slasher-who’s next to die types of books, then you’ll enjoy this.

GMM: How do you feel about white-identifying writers who write stories about non-white characters? What problems have you encountered? What potential issues do you see with white-identifying writers telling BIPOC stories? What advice would you give those writers?

KW: I don’t have a problem with it if the white writer has done their research, doesn’t rely on stereotypes, and doesn’t act like their non-white character is just a white character with a tan. And I’ve seen it done well and I’ve seen it done marginally well, and I’ve seen it done poorly. A criticism I have that I see that happens a lot is that they’ll make the character disconnected from “Blackness” and I’m guessing that’s because they don’t really know what it’s like to be in community with Black people. We are never in isolation even if you live in a predominately white area, so if your character has no family to talk to or connect with or if they don’t have any friends of their same race, it makes me think you haven’t done your research. The advice I’d give is for the writer to ask themselves, why do you think your character should be non-white and why should you tell their story. Bonus question: Are there own voices writers telling this story, and would your time be better spent amplifying them? Nothing hurts more than a white identifying writer getting praise for writing something similar to something a POC has already written.

GMM: All writers have experienced some form of impostor syndrome. What has your experience with impostor syndrome been like? Did you ever have a particularly bad case of it? If so, what caused it and how did you manage it?

KW: OMG, yes. Every time I sit down to write. So, my bad cases have been at conventions. I am a big fan of both Grady Hendrix and Paul Tremblay, and I got to be on panels with both of them. I was like OMG what am I doing here, does anyone want to hear what I have to say, etc. etc. I had to call my husband, and he was like, Babe they asked you there for a reason you’ll do great. And he was right, I got asked for a reason and I ended up having a great time on both panels and both Grady and Paul are just really amazingly nice people, so that was even better. They say, never meet your heroes, but I can say that everyone I’ve met in the horror community has been just great, so I’m lucky.

GMM: Aside from writing, what other contributions are you now or have you made to the horror community, or to other speculative fiction communities?

KW: Aside from my own writing, when I created Black Girl Magic Lit Mag in 2016, I created a platform to amplify other WOC’s writing in the speculative fiction genre. It’s one of my proudest accomplishments. Currently, I am part of several FB groups for diversity in speculative fiction and I use those to amplify other voices and encourage other WOC to join the community.

GMM: Has social media helped in getting you noticed as a writer? What has worked for to date? What hasn’t worked? What advice would you give new writers who are trying to build a social media following?

KW: Yes, social media has definitely helped with getting noticed. I feel like it’s a necessary evil because sometimes I don’t want to be “on” and also, it’s a distraction. I can spend so much time on social media and not realize that all these incremental check ins add up to HOURS. 

What hasn’t worked for me is Twitter, in terms of selling anything. I think people don’t go to Twitter to buy; they go to talk, and so it’s not a good promotional tool in terms of direct selling. I think Twitter is good for showing your personality if you want people to be interested in YOU, not necessarily your work.

I think the best advice I’d give to new writers is to use social media to get people to your mailing list because that’s something YOU OWN. Social media platforms owns the audiences on their respective platform and if for any reason you’re kicked off the platform or you just want to be a bit of a recluse you can’t take that audience with you, even if you garnered a million fans, if you don’t own that list it can all be taken away. Instead of traditional social media I think the best way to gain an audience is through websites like Prolific Works or Book Funnel, that unlike social media, aren’t free, but give you ways to build your audience through group promotions with other authors in your genre.

GMM: What are you reading right now? What else is at the top of your TBR pile? What classic horror novel have you secretly never read that you think everyone else has?

KW: Right now, I’m reading Death by Dumpling: A Noodle Shop Mystery by Vivien Chen and The Writing Life: Reflections, Recollections, and a Lot of Cursing by Jeff Strand. Also on my TBR is:

  • Dying With Her Cheer Pants On: Stories of the Fighting Pumpkins by Seanan McGuire
  • The Lodestone Puzzle by Lynn Emery, I preordered it and it arrives on my Kindle on Feb. 16th
  • The Bluesman: Lady of the Grave – it’s a comic based on the horror-adventure novels THE BLUESMAN by Stuart Jaffe, Illustrated by Garrett Gainey, with character design and production by John Jennings

I’m also reading a lot of screenplays because I’m writing a couple right now.

OMG, someone’s going to take away my Women in Horror badge because I’ve never read any of Shirley Jackson’s work. I’ve seen most of the film/tv adaptions of her work, but I haven’t read the books. I’m going to put The Lottery at the top of my TBR.

SERVED COLD by Kenesha Williams

“If you don’t hurry, we’ll be late.”

This didn’t push Trisha any harder to finish getting ready. Only one of them was excited about going to the naming ceremony, and that was only because Ella wanted to see Brent. Trisha didn’t care what they renamed her high school as long as it wasn’t another dead racist. The whole thing seemed like a farce, anyway. They didn’t change the name because they thought it was wrong. They changed it because of public pressure and then finally because someone had in the middle of the night toppled the slaveholder’s statue in front of the school.

Ella walked out of the bathroom to find Trisha lounging on her bed in the same position she’d been in when she left the room, “If you don’t want to come, just say so.”

Ella and Trisha were Irish Twins only eighteen months apart and with Trisha held back–red-shirted–a year because of her emotional immaturity they were in the same graduating class. No one ever mistook them for real twins, however, because Ella was white and Trisha was Black. Or biracial, if you were being technical.

Both of their dads were really involved, and they each called the other’s biological father, Dad, as well as their own. They couldn’t be happier if they lived on a commune, but instead of a commune they lived in a charming house at the end of a cul-de-sac with their Aunt Ginny, who had no children, save them.

“I’m coming. I just don’t see the big deal.”

“It’s history! Who would have thought they’d change the name? EVER. And I bet they choose a person of color or at least a woman.”

Ella was the eternal optimist, but it was easier for her to be. She wasn’t the one who had been stricken with anxiety and a panic disorder since she was eight. The doctor said it was a reaction to their mother’s sudden death, a kind of PTSD. Whatever it was a reaction to, it was hell on Trisha.

Trisha and Ella made their way to the crowd and found a group of their friends. All the kids had pushed to the front, while most of the parents and other adults hung back. There was a new statue in front of the school, and a drop cloth covered it. The signage for the school hadn’t been adhered yet to not give away the surprise, but they had a man in overalls standing in a scissor lift waiting for the signal to begin screwing in the metal letters.

“I wonder who it will be?” Gemma, their shared best friend, stage whispered to them while they stood elbow to elbow. Gemma was wearing something impractical as usual, a crinoline skirt with gym shorts underneath, rubber boots, and a tank top that had a picture of Garfield on it. It was darling. On some people it would be an insane look, but Gemma could make anything work.

“Probably another dead guy that no one remembers.” Trisha replied.

Ella rolled her eyes and then stood on her tippytoes, surveying the crowd. “Have you guys seen Brent?”

Trisha and Gemma traded a look. Sometimes it was like they had ESP. They knew things about the other, even when they were nowhere near each other. Trisha never said it out loud, but she felt closer to Gemma than she did her own sister.

Gemma didn’t have anxiety like Trisha, but she’d been in therapy for a couple of years dealing with her own issues. She’d had an eating disorder in middle school and her parents put her in in-patient treatment for an entire semester. When she came back, she was a healthier weight, but some of the light had gone out of her eyes. Trisha knew what that felt like.

The principal and the mayor made their way out of the school and stood in front of the crowd. They had erected a small podium for the occasion, and the mayor looked at it hungrily. Mayor Collins had opposed renaming the school, but when he realized that all of his constituents weren’t as backward as he was, he changed his tune.

Trisha wondered what meaningless platitudes he’d espouse once he stepped up to the mic.

A gush of wind picked up and teased the bottom of the drop cloth, threatening to unveil the surprise before the mayor. Trisha wished they could get on with it and just announce the damn thing. What were they waiting for? 

The wind played with the drop cloth again, and it looked as if the statue underneath were moving. The cloth undulated in ways that seemed to defy natural physics. It was like someone was trying to free themselves from the shroud of the cloth. Trisha rubbed her eyes, wondering if her meds were playing tricks on her.

Of course, she’d had to pop a few to get through this debacle. Any event with more than a handful of people could trigger an anxiety attack that would sideline her for the rest of the day. These weren’t new meds and she shouldn’t have been seeing things, but she swore someone or something alive was under the cloth and not a statue of brass or concrete.

She looked at Gemma to see if she noticed anything strange, but Gemma was busy snapping pics for her social media. Trisha looked around to see if maybe Ella saw, but Ella had slipped away, probably to stand near Brent. It was the whole reason they were out here, anyway.

This time when Trisha looked at the statue, she clearly saw a foot step forward. So she wasn’t surprised when she heard the first scream from the crowd as the statue jumped down from its perch, cloth still over its head, and rushed over to the mayor.

As the statue ran, the cloth slipped away, revealing that it was a rendering of Nat Turner, of the infamous slave rebellion. It was probably a mistake to have made his likeness holding a sword because the now animate object used it to thrust straight into Mayor Collins’ rotund belly.

The screams got louder as the crowd realized what was happening. Trisha watched the blood drip from the sword and thought to herself that she was so glad she hadn’t missed the naming ceremony. She was going to have to find and thank her sister for bugging her to come.

Once everyone stopped screaming and running.

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you Friday!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

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).

Sugar_Hill_Poster.jpg

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).

Zombies

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.

InvisibleChains_v2c-cover - 2

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.

Interview: Tim Waggoner, The Way of All Flesh

Tim-WaggonerAccording to Tim Waggoner’s online bio, he “wrote his first story at the age of five, when he created a comic book version of King Kong vs. Godzilla on a stenographer’s pad. It took him a few more years until he began selling professionally, though.”

Tim has published more than thirty novels for adults and young readers, including two tie-in novels with the Supernatural franchise and three short story collections. His articles on writing have appeared in Writer’s Digest and Writers’ Journal, and he teaches creative writing at Sinclair Community College and Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program.

His future plans are to “continue writing and teaching until he keels over dead, after which he wants to be stuffed and mounted, and then placed in front of his computer terminal.”

Last week I reviewed Tim’s 2014 surreal existential horror novel, THE WAY OF ALL FLESH, which takes a very philosophical approach to the zombie genre. If you haven’t read it, you should. This week, I talk with him about the book and explore the idea that horror fiction is the fiction of social change.

ML: I couldn’t help noticing while I read the novel that there were lots of references to Jesus’s experiences before and after resurrection. Was I imagining that, or was that intentional? If it was intentional, why a zombie messiah?

TW: I honestly don’t remember putting in specific references to Jesus, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t. The idea of a zombie messiah was definitely a conscious one on my part, so perhaps allusions to Jesus crept in as I was writing, whether I was aware of them or not. (I should say that OF COURSE the Jesus stuff was deliberate; that way I’d sound smarter!) The zombie messiah seemed like such a natural idea to me, and it was out there in popular culture before I wrote my novel. I remember watching a bit from the comedian Sam Kinison on TV years ago. Kinison was talking about how normal people would view Christ’s resurrection, and he acted out a witness’ screaming reaction to seeing Christ leaving his tomb: “The dead walk! The dead walk!” And one of the characters on Futurama, Professor Farnsworth, once exclaimed “Sweet Zombie Jesus!” The idea of transcending death is of course appealing to mortal beings such as ourselves, but it’s also a terrifying notion, a deeply profound violation of the natural order.

ML: The book deals with a lot of uncomfortable social issues that most people don’t want to talk about. You address racism, sexism, homophobia, and gun control with an ease that makes me wonder if horror fiction might be a good vehicle for opening up discussion about these topics. Have you found this to be the case in other horror novels? Is horror fiction the fiction of social change?

TW: I think it can be. Horror fiction allows us to look at some of the darkest elements of life safely, the same way we look at an eclipse indirectly in order to view it without damaging our eyes. The nightmarish distortion of horror creates a buffer that allows readers to comfortably confront all sorts of unpleasant and even repellent ideas. This includes the darker aspects of human nature and society. And since horror fiction is also entertaining, people don’t feel like they’re being lectured at when social issues are part of the story. “The Night They Missed the Horror Show” by Joe Lansdale is a prime example of how effectively horror can deal with social issues.

ML: I loved the relationship that develops between Kate and Marie. Why did you choose to include a same-sex relationship in the novel? An interracial one at that. Were you hoping to appeal to a wider audience, or simply include characters that typically don’t appear in popular fiction?

TW: I don’t worry about appealing to a wider audience. If I did, I’d write something other than surreal existential horror! When I write, I try to reflect the world I live in. Women make up slightly over half the human race, so I tend to alternate the gender of my main characters from one project to the next. I’m 51, and I’ve witnessed decades of increasing diversity in America, and I want to reflect that richness as well.

ML: Horror fiction has a long history of being most closely related to literary fiction among all the genres, and seems to be going through a phase in which more thought-provoking works of fiction are being written by horror writers. When you sat down to write THE WAY OF ALL FLESH, what message did you have in mind?

TW: My first goal was simply to have fun riffing on the zombie apocalypse trope. I usually don’t have a message or theme in mind when I start writing, although eventually themes do start to emerge. I often write about duality, and zombies lend themselves to that nicely. The Dead vs. the Living, the world before and after the apocalypse, etc. I decided the defining characteristic of the modern-day zombie isn’t the fact that it’s dead. The “zombies” in 28 Days Later and its sequel aren’t dead; they’re living humans infected by an artificial virus that turns them into homicidal maniacs. The defining characteristic of zombies and zombie-like beings is hunger for human flesh, so I decided to use hunger – and desire – as a central metaphor for the story. In Buddhism, desire is the root of all evil, right? As for a specific message, I’d rather leave that for readers to find on their own. Explaining art is like explaining a joke. If you have to explain it, it didn’t work.

ML: I don’t want to give the ending away, because I’d really like for people to pick up a copy of the novel and read it. So, no spoilers, but I was pleasantly reminded of Gary Braunbeck’s short story, WE NOW PAUSE FOR STATION IDENTIFICATION. Has Braunbeck’s work influenced you? Which authors have inspired your fiction the most? Where else do you draw inspiration for your stories?

TW: Gary’s been a good friend of mine for years, and as much as his fiction has influenced me, he’s influenced me so much more as a human being. There are so many writers who’ve influenced my work: Shirley Jackson, Dennis Etchison, Ramsey Campbell, Charles L. Grant, Caitlyn R. Kiernan, Lawrence Block, Stephen King, Piers Anthony, Steve Gerber, Marv Wolfman, Chris Claremont, Kafka, Poe, Lovecraft . . . I could go on and on. I draw inspiration from being an imaginative person living in the real world. Anything I see, hear, or read can spark an idea in me that could become a story or novel. For example, a while ago I saw – within the space of several days – two different men walking backwards. One was walking backwards up a hill, and the other was walking backwards around a parking lot. I have no idea what these men were doing. Maybe it was some kind of exercise I’m not aware of. But those two backward-walking men struck me as so strange that I quickly jotted down the experience, and I’ll probably use it in my fiction someday. Writers – especially horror writers – need to develop their own special “weirdness filter” and view the world through it. That way, they’ll write the stories that only they can tell.

Book Review: The Way of All Flesh, by Tim Waggoner

WAY-OF-FLESH“Dear Christ, was the thought of eating children actually making him hungry, too? What kind of monster had he become?” (Waggoner 129)

What kind of monster indeed. Tim Waggoner’s apocalyptic horror novel, THE WAY OF ALL FLESH (2014), is a multiple POV tale that puts the reader inside the minds of some very disturbed and disturbing characters. One of which is a zombie. This is not the first novel featuring a zombie protagonist, but these stories are still few and far between, especially when you’re talking about a zombie in the midst of an existential crisis who may or may not be mankind’s next messiah.

Calling David Croft a zombie is a bit too simplistic. This complex monster has a lot more on his mind than consuming human flesh. He hungers for answers to what went wrong in his world to transform the familiar comforts of modern urban life into an unrecognizable dystopian nightmare. Demons hunt him, buildings are in ruin and have taken on the unmistakable appearance of human innards, and his fellow humans have developed a taste for flesh that rivals Hannibal Lecter’s.

David is on a quest to find his family and reestablish some normalcy in his world. Wait, isn’t that what zombie apocalypse survivors usually do? Waggoner subverts the genre and asks us to put ourselves in the place of the zombies. Technically, aren’t they survivors too? An altered humanity that had no say in what happened to them after being infected by Blacktide.

The novel opens with David waking up, or regaining consciousness without any solid memory of how he got there. He finds himself in a reality so distorted and terrifying that you might initially think he’s landed in an alien landscape far from Earth. Time, space, and perception are at odds with his fleeting memories of the recent past. We gain a keen sense of David’s confusion and repulsion as he sleepwalks through an Ohio city in the grips of urban decay synonymous with Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings of Hell. Waggoner’s full-sensory descriptions of life after near-human extinction inspire much facial cringing and utterances of “eww.”

Here’s a small taste of the horror buffet Waggoner paints with words:

Black liquid coated large chunks of something that David couldn’t identify. At first he thought they might be pieces of his body, that he had literally puked his guts out. And that black shit! What the hell was that? Some kind of poison? Maybe cancer? Is that what he’d done, thrown up a bunch of tumors? Was something like that even possible? (72)

David’s brain isn’t functioning properly. It could be a side effect of the disease that has made him undead, but we don’t really know. The brain does deteriorate as we approach death, with areas slowly shutting down and sometimes causing hallucinations. How would zombies see the world?

We don’t realize how badly David’s perception is altered until we meet some of the other characters in the novel. Kate, Nicolas, Marie and their fellow human survivors seem to have a better grasp of reality and provide at least a temporary sense of grounding for the reader since we can more easily identify with humans trying to survive a zombie apocalypse than we can with the undead. Right? If you survived a world-altering event that meant mass extinction for the human race, you’d probably be hell-bent on surviving by any means necessary. Killing zombies would be your raison d’etre if you managed to avoid being claimed by Blacktide. Isn’t that what we’ve come to expect from most zombie fiction? Humans vs. zombies.

But what if Blacktide doesn’t equal extinction for humans? What if it is transformation? Evolution? What if becoming a zombie is just the next logical phase for humans? An evolutionary inevitability.

Waggoner’s zombie tale calls into question our understanding of consciousness, perception, and reality in terms of who really survives or has the right to survival after the apocalypse. Should humanity take a backseat and allow the monsters to flourish and rule the world? Is there a way for zombies and humans to live harmoniously without the need for violence?

This novel doesn’t skimp on violence. There’s plenty of gun-toting, head-bashing, and vagina-munching good times. Gore, ichor, and a whole lot more. Make no mistake, THE WAY OF ALL FLESH is a horror novel. But it’s a horror novel that asks the reader to think a little deeper about the concepts that define humanity and life itself. Waggoner’s novel packs a philosophical punch and provides a read you can really sink your teeth into.

Interview: Craig DiLouie, Suffer the Children

Craig-DiLouieSome critics of horror fiction have speculated that the zombie sub-genre has reached its saturation point with an almost infestation-like abundance of zombie novels, movies, and TV shows paying homage to the flesh-eating undead. But, in a recent interview with George Romero for Quora.com, Bradley Voytek, Zombie neuroscience expert (it’s totally a thing) and Zombie Research Society advisor, examines data that suggests that the popularity of zombie fiction is actually on the rise. He attributes some of its success to the fact that the genre is “more or less a blank slate upon which a writer can cast any number of big, unfathomable societal and psychological fears or concerns.” This week I talk to apocalyptic horror writer Craig DiLouie about his 2014 Stoker-nominated novel SUFFER THE CHILDREN to find out why writing about zombies really matters.

ML: Many people consider Horror the redheaded stepchild of speculative fiction. Why do you write Horror fiction? Why not another genre?

CD: I came to horror through an interest in apocalyptic fiction. The end of the world has fascinated humanity throughout recorded history; in fact, some of the world’s oldest literature, from the tale of Gilgamesh to Genesis, contains apocalyptic elements.

As a young man, I found wish fulfillment in these stories. As an older man with a family, I face my worst fears and survive them.

There are so many storytelling possibilities with such scenarios, all involving ordinary people dealing with crisis. Some rise to the occasion, some fail, the ethical choices are often horrible, but the struggle to survive is heroic, particularly when people fight not only to live but to preserve what makes them human.

Several of my books deal with a zombie apocalypse and allowed me to explore these themes and more wrapped in an action-packed thriller. My first major foray into real horror was SUFFER THE CHILDREN, a story in which the world’s children become vampires who need blood to survive, the parents are compelled to feed them out of love, and once the blood supply starts to run out, the parents begin to prey on each other. Many parents will admit they’d put their arm in a shredder for their kids, but would they put somebody else’s arm in a shredder? Two people’s arms? Five? Would they kill an innocent person? Good horror holds up a fractured mirror to that which is dark in us, and it makes us uncomfortable. The question in SUFFER THE CHILDREN is, how far would you go?

ML: Why zombies? Why not other monsters? What broader meaning do they have for you as part of your creative process?

CD: I like zombies because they’re us, which multiplies the sense of tragedy. I’m not the kind of zombie author who says, These people are zombies, shoot them without conscience. The zombies may be monsters, but they wear the faces of people we love. I also like apocalyptic stories where the protagonists must work together against a common monster enemy. I think that makes the story more unpredictable, the struggle to survive more heroic, the stakes more dire. The trick is to make the reader believe that these monsters are real.

For me as an author, anyway. Zombie novels may be considered either akin to AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD or Syfy’s Z NATION. THE WALKING DEAD takes its subject matter seriously. Everything is fairly realistic and has consequences. The people suffer. The stakes are higher. This is really happening. It’s a visceral experience for the reader. Z NATION is more like a comic book. The characters are likeable people fighting their way through difficult situations involving zombies, there are no mind-bending ethics or people dying or wondering what they’re surviving for. It’s just plain fun, and it doesn’t pretend to strive for pathos.

My favorite zombie novels, and the ones I like to write, are of THE WALKING DEAD flavor, but they’re harder to pull off. They tend to be loved, but frankly, I think the Z NATION-type books have broader appeal.

ML: While I was reading SUFFER THE CHILDREN, I couldn’t help making parallels between your book and Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND. Like Matheson’s monsters, your undead aren’t clearly defined as being zombies or vampires. They’re somewhere in between. Did Matheson’s work inspire you? Who are your Horror heroes?

CD: I love I AM LEGEND. It’s one of my favorite apocalyptic stories. It didn’t directly inspire SUFFER THE CHILDREN, however. The story came from my worst fear, which is if something bad happened to my children. The question of how far a parent would go to protect his or her child. In that, I guess influences might include “The Monkey’s Paw” and PET SEMATARY. Whether doing the right thing based on the purest love in the world could end up being an instrument of evil.

The result is a different kind of vampire story, though the children are hardly vampires in the traditional sense. The children aren’t monsters. The real monsters in the book are the parents. They become monsters one little decision at a time, and they do it out of love. It’s a dark, horrible book—the most authentic and disturbing thing I’ve ever written.

Otherwise, I admire different horror authors for different things. Jeff Long for his imagination and original ideas. Stephen King for his empathy with ordinary people and slow builds. John Skipp for channeling the inner hilarity that is part of horror. Jack Ketchum for his lack of inhibition. Peter Clines for his easy voice. Joe McKinney and Jonathan Maberry for their productivity, with each book better than the last they wrote. David Moody for the realism he builds into characters in crisis. Stephanie Wytovich for being able to boil fear and loathing into a simple poem. The list goes on.

ML: H. P. Lovecraft has been quoted as saying, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” By the end of your novel, we still don’t really know what caused the epidemic. You play on multiple fears for your readers. Which of your own fears did you delve into to create this sense of dread?

CD: I went through an emotional journey with each of the characters as they each dealt with the unending crisis differently. Nobody becomes a monster as a sudden thing. It happens as a matter of one little decision leading to the next. Some of the characters try to resist the madness, others are swept along, others embrace it and go all the way. I really came to love the characters over the course of the book, making the writing a harrowing experience. It was painful to watch them go through what they did.

ML: Talk a little bit about your writing process. When you sit down to write an apocalypse novel, zombie or otherwise, what inspires you? Where do your ideas come from? How do your keep your genre fresh (there’s a zombie joke in there somewhere)?

CD: Writing a novel is like climbing Everest. You look up and you say, No way am I doing that. But then you take a step, and then another, and then another, and you look back and you’re suddenly halfway up. That first step is the hardest. To take that step, you need inspiration. For me, it’s an idea that needs to be written. Something fresh and powerful.

I’m a commercial writer by trade; I write about an industry, and I write as work. A novel is different. If I were a commercial fiction writer, I’d take a familiar idea, add a little twist, and write it in accordance with the bestseller formula to have the broadest appeal to the greatest number of people. But I’m not a commercial fiction writer. I’d never take that first step in the climb because I really wouldn’t care about the idea or the story. So for me, the idea is everything. Something compelling that hasn’t been done before, or a familiar idea that in my view hasn’t been done right. Everything inspires me. I immerse myself in the genre and find tiny bits of inspiration in little things. The little things add up to big ideas.

ML: What advice would you give to new Horror fiction writers? What do you wish you had known as a beginning professional writer?

CD: It’s a great time to be a horror writer. Digital media has democratized publishing and created new paths to publication, each of which has its pros and cons. Whether somebody else publishes you or you publish yourself, be prepared to treat your writing as a business and take an entrepreneurial approach, particularly with marketing your work.

Typing is not writing. There are many approaches to writing a novel, but one I use is to think an idea through for a few months and then start typing after that. Writing isn’t just typing, it’s also thinking, taking notes, planning and researching. If you like this approach, keep a small notebook in your back pocket and a pen in your front pocket at all times. Think about your book in the still moments during the day and write down snatches of character, plot and dialog. When you reach a critical mass, start typing.

One approach is not better than another, though one will be better for you. Some writers like to crank out a horrible rough draft, get notes from beta readers, and then do a polished rewrite. Others like to write a close-to-finished draft from the get-go, editing the whole way. Do what feels good to you, while being open to innovation and new ideas.

It pays to know where you’re going. The idea should start with a killer point A (the hook) and point B (the climax and perhaps a denouement that leaves the reader thinking). After that, do a general outline of the plot so you continually ramp up tension (increasing stakes punctuated by critical change) without long empty stretches where you have no idea how to fill the page. A great book on plot structure is STORY ENGINEERING. I highly recommend it.

You’ve asked a big question where the answer could go on quite a while, so I’ll end it there. For more advice on how to write a horror novel, here are links to a series I wrote about that subject on my blog:

Fright for Your Write, Part 1: Why Do We Read/Write Horror

Fright for Your Write, Part 2: The Horror Element

Fright for Your Write, Part 3: Plot

Fright for Your Write, Part 4: Character

Thanks for inviting me to visit your blog, Michelle! I enjoyed it.