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.

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.