Good Morning, Everyone:
Today in the Madhouse, I'm sitting down to chat with a bloody brilliant lady who just so happens to be one of my most favorite people in the world: Michelle R. Lane. Michelle and I met in graduate school at Seton Hill University and became fast friends after a few classes and a trip to New Orleans together. Since then, we've traveled the country, drank in more bars than I can count, shared our share of laughs and heartbreak, and probably talked about Hannibal a little too much for it to be considered normal.
But before I let Michelle take the stage, I want you folks to think about how you define horror, and then beyond that, what the social, cultural, and political ramifications are of writing a horror story that primarily deals with issues and topics of/surrounding race. Furthermore, I invite you all to think about the last horror novel/poetry collection/short story that you read by a person of color. If you're finding yourself coming up short, might I recommend: Linda D. Addison, Octavia Butler, N.K. Jemisin, Chesya Burke, and Nisi Shawl.
Am I a Horror Writer?
By Michelle R. Lane
I graduated from Seton Hill University in January 2015 with an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction, and was pleasantly surprised to have a full house at my thesis reading. My thesis novel, Invisible Chains, is a slave narrative told from the POV of a teenage girl experiencing the real-world horrors of living on a plantation in Antebellum Louisiana. She witnesses a lynching, she is tied to a fountain and whipped, she is raped repeatedly, loses people she loves to gruesome deaths, hunted by slave catchers, and stalked and seduced by a vampire who claims to love her. I read the following excerpt as part of my presentation:
"The gentle babble of the water should have been soothing, but there was nothing peaceful about having my hands tied in front of me as I embraced the copper statue at the center of the concrete structure. I looked up into the nymph’s face. Drops of water splashed my cheeks and mixed with the tears. I wished my body were solid like the statue the first time the whip struck my back and split it open. After the fifth lash I lost count. Each time he struck me a new gash opened on my back. The pain was so bad I couldn’t catch my breath, which made it harder to scream. My dress was in shreds and so was the skin on my back. Blood and sweat mixed into a salty sticky mess that ran down my sides, stung my open wounds, and dripped into the fountain. Salt, musk, blood, and leather combined into a perfume of odors that on their own usually pleased me. Now, they would only remind me of pain and fear. My eyes were shut tight. I cried and begged, but no one heeded my pleas. Then, all of a sudden, the beating stopped. My back tensed as I waited for the next blow, but it didn’t come.
“What are you waiting for? Strike her again, James,” Lottie shouted.
“Hush, Charlotte. I heard something in the alley behind the house.”
Near the rear wall of the courtyard there was a sound like a low growl. I opened my eyes
and looked down into the fountain. The water had turned pink from my blood. I didn’t recall
throwing up, but vomit floated in the water, too. The growl came again, but I couldn’t see what
“Jimmy, go see what that is, but come right back. We’re not done here,” Lynch said.
I held onto the nymph to keep my balance, but my grip was slipping. All the strength had
left my body. Pain covered every inch of me. I couldn’t fight now if I had to. More than anything
I just wanted to lie down and die there in the garden. They could bury me under the herbs for all
I cared. I was about to fade from exhaustion, when something jumped over the wall and attacked Lynch. Lottie screamed.
With the little strength I had left, I turned to look at what could only be a wolf tearing its
way through Lynch’s throat and chest. It was the biggest animal I had ever se
en. At least as tall as a man, taller, and covered in course black fur. It stood on its hind legs and treated itself to a meal of that bastard’s flesh. It actually picked Lynch up and shook him from side to side in its jaws and then dropped him to the ground. Then it came at me. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Lottie crawl across the yard to kneel beside her husband’s corpse.
I was so tired and scared I couldn’t even scream when the animal fell forward onto its
front paws and walked towards me on all fours. Big John came around the corner of the house with an axe in his hands. He raised it over his head and ran at the animal, but he wasn’t fast enough. The wolf turned and snapped his teeth at Big John. He jumped back just in time and didn’t get bit, but the wolf bore down on him and chased him toward the house. Lottie rose up on unsteady feet. Blood covered her hands and the front of her dress. She pressed her forearm to her mouth to hold in another scream and quietly backed away from Lynch’s body. She followed Big John into the house.
No one was coming to save me."
And yet, when I finished my presentation, people asked me if my novel was really a horror novel. They questioned the fact that I alluded to the real horrors of slavery and the society that allowed it to continue, as opposed to writing about ghosts, monsters, and serial killers. I wasn’t sure how to answer their questions, but I was certain my understanding of horror fiction was broader than theirs.
Genre is a tricky thing sometimes, especially when you’re attempting to write within a genre that has too many rules or assumptions made about it. Horror, is the fiction of fear. In fact, one of the most famous quotes about horror fiction is attributed to H. P. Lovecraft, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Lovecraft is half right. We do fear the unknown, but we also fear the things in our past that have hurt us the most. We fear being hurt again.
As a woman of color born in the United States, my ancestors were slaves. Recent science tells us that the traumas of our ancestors become part of our genetic code. The violence my ancestors experienced as slaves lives inside my flesh, like ghosts. Toni Morrison’s Beloved is one of the best examples of a ghost story about slavery. It shows how the trauma of violence, both physical and psychological, can manifest as a literal ghost. Ghosts have stories to tell, and most ghost stories are about unspeakable horrors.
Despite the fact that my protagonist practices Vodun, has a vampire traveling companion, hides from slave catchers in a circus that only exists behind a magical door, and befriends a werewolf, people still felt the need to ask if I was writing Horror fiction. One of my mentors, Dr. Michael Arnzen, asked me to think about the social, cultural and political ramifications of writing a novel like Invisible Chains, because he was certain other people would be asking those questions.
I had thought about the social, cultural and political ramifications while I was writing the novel. I struggled with the fact that I was writing a slave narrative that not only focuses on the real horrors of slavery, but depicts white slave owners as the real monsters. I worried about how the novel would be received, because it deals with issues that might make some readers very uncomfortable if not angry, including:
● Rape. When a woman of color writes about the rape of a slave by her white master, focusing only on the violence rather than the sex, it will almost undoubtedly anger the people who subscribe to revisionist history and uphold rape culture in America. Sexual violence is a trope within horror fiction, and aside from the blood and gore, is one of the reasons horror films almost consistently have an R rating. When you strip away the fetishization of female bodies and remove the script of rape fantasy, in a way, you are rewriting an expected aspect of horror fiction. Body horror is almost always in reference to violence done to female bodies. And weirdly enough, no matter how traumatic or terrifying, writers and filmmakers still manage to sexualize that horror.
● Racism. America is not a post-racial society. Racism is alive and well and living in the United States. Racism helped to get Donald Trump elected. Racism is why police officers are killing black people in the streets with little to no consequences. Racism is why it’s not okay to say #BlackLivesMatter. Despite what a lot of people would like to believe, including the people who insist that they are color-blind, racism didn’t end with the Civil Rights Movement. It simply went underground and took on a more insidious guise while pointing fingers at White Supremacists as if they were just a bunch of dangerous crazies. Extremists. The fact of the matter is, Trump’s cabinet is bursting at the seams with racists, and not just their favorite scapegoat, Steve Bannon. Racism isn’t just a specter of our dark past, it is an evil that lives in the hearts of our co-workers, neighbors, family members, and government leaders. It’s worth writing about, and in my mind, it qualifies as a topic for horror fiction.
● Interracial relationships. While my protagonist plans to settle down with a black man, that character is lynched. She later develops a relationship with a white man, and her vampire traveling companion is also white. I worried that writing about a woman of color who chooses the company of white men despite her treatment as a slave, would generate criticism from people of color. That hasn’t happened yet, and several of my beta readers have been women of color. Of course, Octavia Butler wrote about interracial relationships in Kindred, which also deals with the horrors of slavery.
So why were people asking if my novel fit into the Horror genre? Was it because I have a vampire antagonist? Vampires are monsters, right? So what if they appear in Paranormal Romance novels and take teen girls to prom? They’re still scary if you’re paying close enough attention, and my vampire is definitely a monster. Black magic is still scary, right? Was my genre in question because I chose to write a slave narrative? What’s more horrifying than slavery? Was my genre in question because my protagonist is a woman of color? I mean, judging by the number of horror films I’ve been watching lately, you’d think the only scary thing out there is crazy white women who nearly kill their children, and yet somehow don’t end up in prison or shot in the streets by police.
Like most writers who receive multiple rejections, I’ve begun to assume that the novel is just terrible. But then, people read it, like it, and keep asking when it’s going to be published. I’m not sure what to tell them, because I don’t know if the issue is a matter of genre, confusion over how to market it, or simply that people don’t think that women of color write good Horror fiction. Of course, I have had short stories included in Horror anthologies, so I must be doing something right.
My fear of rejection has not stopped me from writing. My protagonists are women of color. They are threatened by dark forces, sexual violence, and the realities of the past. And, despite how smart and strong they might be, they all seem to have the unfortunate habit of falling in love with monsters. Horror isn’t just the fiction of fear. It’s the fiction of facing your own demons, the fiction of self-discovery, the fiction of healing. When you write about the things that make people uncomfortable and ask them to look at themselves in relation to those things, most people don’t want to look. Horror writers hold up a mirror to society and have the nerve to show people what they fear the most: themselves. Perhaps, my novel raises too many questions about the past that make people uncomfortable. Or, maybe they just aren’t ready to hear that story told in the words of woman of color.
Author Bio: Michelle R. Lane writes dark speculative fiction about women of color who must battle their inner demons while falling in love with monsters. Her work typically includes elements of fantasy, horror, romance, and occasionally erotica. In January 2015, Michelle graduated with an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. Her short story, “The Hag Stone,” was published November 2014 in the anthology Dark Holidays, available from Dark Skull Publications. She is a single mom who writes digital content for a toy maker and historic restoration company in Lancaster County. She lives in South Central Pennsylvania with her son.
Feel free to stalk Michelle online at Girl Meets Monster: https://michellerlane.