Read This! Volume 22:
New Horror Fiction You Should Know
I had a curious experience when I watched the trailer for the Netflix series The Sandman. The comic book debuted in the nineties while I was living in L.A. I was immediately hooked. One of my favorite characters among The Endless—immortal beings that rule over aspects of humanity from dreams to desire—was Death, the younger sister of Morpheus, lord of Dreams, the titular Sandman.
I usually try to know nothing about new shows beyond their premise so I can enjoy them without spoilers or others’ opinions in my head. I was thoroughly familiar with The Sandman, having eagerly read each issue as it came out, so I was willing to risk a preview. (There may be spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet.) I was surprised to see that in their casting, some of the characters had changed from familiar forms I was used to seeing in print. Lucian, Dream’s bespectacled librarian was now Lucienne, a woman and Black, styled much the same in suit and glasses, ears pointed, but with stylishly close-cropped natural hair. Cain and Abel were played by actors of Pakistani descent who look more appropriate to the biblical characters they’re derived from than their white counterparts in the comics. (A recent article tried to suggest they had no relation to the sons of Adam and Eve, despite Cain’s repeated killing of his immortal brother in every encounter and numerous references over the years to their origin. Yes, they are dreams, but they’re also who they represent . . . Gaiman gets Zen now and then.)
Lucifer was played by a woman who didn’t at all resemble the Bowie-inspired original, but made the role non-binary and her own. Losing Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Dream actually worked better for me as I didn’t know the actor who replaced him and was entirely able to accept him as the comic book character he so resembled.
More of a shock was the revelation that Death had been cast with a Black actress. I have long been enamored of the thin, totally white goth girl in black jeans and tank top as drawn in the comics, a large mop of black hair and large silver ankh around her neck. She was infinitely kind and compassionate to her charges as she collected them for the next world, and after a decade of losing friends to AIDS in the eighties, it was comforting to think of someone like her as their first taste of eternity.
I felt a slight twinge of guilty disappointment as I watched the clip, caused by what Buddhists would call ill-advised expectation. I discussed my reservations with a white Jewish female friend who was ironically the one to remind me that, appearance aside, the real question was whether or not the Black actor captured the essence of the character I knew so well. I hated that I’d had even a moment of doubt, but knew it was only a mild echo of the outrage I was sure some had felt.
After watching the full first season I knew my friend had been right. The cast from Death to The Corinthian all embodied their characters with enviable assurance, the writing and production were spot on, and I eagerly await a second season. But the experience made me muse about recent changes in how things are done.
As we move from a restrictive view of reality to one more open and accepting of differences among us, there is much discussion of where we have been and where we might go. The first book I review for this month’s column triggered an epiphany that finally made me codify my ideas on diversity and inclusion, two very different things that are often used interchangeably.
In an ideal world, the best performer for any part would get the role, whether young, old, male, female or other. In fact, for some time, casting was done from a limited pool of actors who looked like the studio perceptions of their market—choices often made for purely economic reasons—to make more money, not necessarily to satisfy viewers.
Hollywood’s more recent embrace of colorblind casting was often really just the insertion of a Black actor into a familiar role, from Felix Leiter to Kingpin. I cynically saw it largely as an acknowledgment that studios had realized how many of the tickets sold were paid for with Black dollars. We may not be a majority of the population, but everything I read tells me we spend enough to be more influential than our numbers.
True diversity isn’t only making an occasional concession to the way the world really looks. It isn’t about claiming not to see color or seeking a carefully measured balance of representation to make every group happy by casting one of each. To me the last is more about inclusion than diversity, the idea that somehow every story, whether film, TV, print, or digital, needs to include some of everyone. Again, in an ideal world, that would come naturally and would reflect the world those works were made in, but we are still far from fair and balanced.
While I enjoy inclusionary writing and casting, it has too often been practiced as a knee-jerk response to the recent criticisms of a long-term lack of diversity. If there’s one of everyone on screen or the page, no one can complain. Everyone will buy it. I would prefer a world that’s fully blended where anyone really can be anything, but until we get there—and we are on the way—art must still imitate life to some degree and that reflection tells us what we still need to work on.
Discussions among POC about Seinfeld and Friends after they became hugely successful always pointed out that they were characters living in what seemed to be an almost exclusively white heterosexual New York. As residents of one of the most diverse communities in America, we didn’t see ourselves or our city on screen. The only time a non-white character was introduced it was because the story somehow revolved around their race, as with Ross’s Asian and Black girlfriends. It seemed weirdly myopic that there wasn’t more interaction until I talked to white people I was friendly with at work, but not enough to be social with after hours.
Then I realized there were white people around me who weren’t at all racist, but simply didn’t consider getting closer to someone they met of another race or culture, as if there was an invisible wall that required more effort to penetrate than with someone of the same background. In contrast, friends of mine who are white have relationships with people of varied backgrounds and thought nothing of establishing a relationship with me any more than I considered their race before embracing values and convictions that aligned with mine.
The realization that New Yorkers live in social bubbles every bit as real as the geographic ones I’d seen in L.A.—where people drove between like-minded communities without encountering anyone different in between—was shocking. We had the subway, buses, and streets where we mingled. I’d assumed that we knew each other well enough to be better blended, but then, I knew Black people who refused to go south of 125th Street, contemptuous of any culture not Afrocentric, gay men who avoided women or straight people, and others from communities equally insular. The same accusations of exclusion leveled at those two shows could be made of any all-Black cast Tyler Perry series, for much the same reasons.
In that light, Friends and Seinfeld did represent our real world, and in doing so, showed us in a way no other medium had how limited we can all be in our thinking. Seeing that plainly and questioning it let us see ourselves more clearly and change. What does all this have to do with the books I read? The first reminded me of the difference between diversity and inclusion.
The Spirit Phone
Arthur Shattuck O’Keefe
Format: Hardcover / Paperback / Ebook
BHC Press (November 15, 2022), 300 pages
I’d gotten about two thirds into O’Keefe’s The Spirit Phone when I was struck by something I usually don’t notice. It takes place in a historic setting and the main characters are a fictionalized Nikola Tesla and Aleister Crowley, along with an assortment of other famous figures of the day. As I raced to a notably tense climax, I realized I was reading a book about white men saving the world with no POC characters or prominent women in attendance, much less helping them.
I grew up reading books by white male writers with an occasional novel or collection written by a woman, in a time when that was the norm. I didn’t resent not seeing myself in what I read because I had no idea it was even possible. When I was older, I finally found books and stories by Black writers, though none in the fields of science fiction or horror that I preferred. That came much later. Finding characters and stories I identified with more has been a delight, but not a requirement. So my realization didn’t prevent my continued enjoyment of what is a very darkly fun novel.
I initially had reservations about Crowley, as he’s an obvious supernatural choice who’s been ill-used by many authors and filmmakers. O’Keefe avoids their pitfalls by introducing us to him as a young man in the early stages of his paranormal development, rather than the bald, bloated dissolute figure usually portrayed as an all-out Satanic villain.
After a visit to a curious crime scene, we meet Crowley when he falls into Tesla’s parlor from a hostile demonic encounter on a mountaintop. He’s still in his climbing gear and disoriented from the effects of what he claims was the magical teleportation used to bring him there. Scientist Tesla requires more than Crowley’s word on that and his assertions of additional mystic powers. Moments later a quick practical demonstration of astral projection convinces Tesla to join the investigation and offers them an important clue that will take them time to understand.
What follows is a slow spiral into a world of mysterious doppelgängers, a living disembodied hand, deadly surprise assaults, the slow unveiling of the full danger to the world at large, and who’s behind it. The “magick” Crowley uses is based on both his actual work and fanciful expansions into new terrain that give O’Keefe’s horrors a fresh feel. Magick can summon force, move matter, and generate force fields. Summoned demons are dapper in their anthropomorphic forms and reluctantly cooperative with their human masters, obeying them only to the letter of Hell’s law.
The road is also paved with amusingly casual cameos by familiar figures like Thomas Edison and others of that era. Their real histories with each other are artfully interwoven with fictional extrapolations and alternative explanations for actual events nicely resulting in a perversely plausible account. The fact the story is mostly about straight white males (though Crowley alludes to a degree of sexual fluidity a few times) makes sense in the time they inhabit and in the circles their investigation takes them.
When I noticed this I had to decide how I felt about it, and that’s when I realized what I want in my entertainment is diversity. That doesn’t always mean inclusivity in every work. While many stories benefit from a mixed cast of characters varied in gender, race, religion, sexual preference, and all the other aspects of human existence, I don’t need to see some of everyone in everything.
I’ve talked before about how happy I am to see gay, Black or othered characters in a story that’s not solely about their natures. Who we are, how we were raised, what we know, all of that determines how we respond to stimulus. It’s why varied characters offer a wider range of reactions and create more possibilities for new stories or fresh takes on old ones.
There’s variety in all literary creations if well drawn, even among groups of straight white men. The members of O’Keefe’s cast are not monolithic copies of one idea of anything—manhood or whiteness. Even those who mysteriously turn out to be literally identical have distinct personalities and purposes.
If it was the only book ever written or read, the lack of anyone else could be objected to, but the blessing of recent changes in publishing is that we enjoy a broader spectrum of styles and stories to enjoy. I can no more fault The Spirit Phone for featuring who it does than I could insist that L.A. Banks needed to stop writing vampire novels set in an urban predominantly Black world, or that Maureen Kilmer’s Suburban Hell, recently reviewed, shouldn’t have been so much about a group of female friends. No more than I would take Ally Wilkes’ All the White Spaces to task for being about white males on an arctic expedition, when it features multiple gay men and is told by a young transman on a literal journey of self-discovery.
The Spirit Phone is an enjoyable occult mystery with one foot in historic reality and the other in a preternatural apocalyptic whirlpool that keeps you spinning from one shocking revelation to the next at breakneck speed.
I won’t reveal where it takes you as it keeps raising the stakes, but the best thrillers keep you reading with no idea how their protagonists can possibly pull off a victory up until the last possible moment. O’Keefe steers his story deftly enough through the rapids to keep you guessing.
Hardcover / Ebook
Berkley (October 25, 2022), 416 pages
Sign Here also takes on the consequences of dealing with demons, in a very different way. Peyote Trip works on the Fifth Floor of Hell in Deals, hustling to sign souls, a step up from the actual assembly line of torture he worked for what felt like forever. He’s living a life of sustainable misery, better off than the damned, but plagued by the kind of minor nonstop irritants that make his life, well, Hell. Noisy neighbors, awful commutes, rubbery food, and the bars in Hell serve only Jägermeister. It is an unbearable eternity of annoyance. Life, or rather death, gets more interesting when he’s teamed up with a new hire from the lower depths, Calamity Ganon.
Cal seems shy and easily embarrassed until Peyote gets past the protective coloration she uses to keep a low profile while she advances bigger plans than rotting in Hell. Each time he thinks he knows her well enough to trust her, he’s hit with fresh betrayals as she relentlessly pursues her own secret goal. It isn’t long before hers begin to get in the way of his.
Signing five generations of a single family will give Pey a highly prized Complete Set and a reward well worth the effort. His target: the Harrisons, and he only needs one more. Damning the family makes a larger ploy possible and much of the novel involves Cal and Pey jockeying to get what each of them wants while negotiating a reluctant but growing affection.
Lux alternates Pey’s story with that of his potential soul scores, Silas and Lily Harrison, their teen children Sean and Mickey, and Mickey’s new best friend from school, Ruth. When she’s invited to join the well-to-do family for a summer at their lake house (the setting of a past tragedy), a new engine of destruction roars into motion.
The parallel plots both ring true in style and tone, as Pey and Cal bounce between the surface world and their perversely prosaic damnation in a horribly plausible Hell. Chapters play out like the turn of cards in a complex game where you only learn the rules as you play, and every reveal that answers one question raises even more.
There is death, desire, and buried secrets galore to the very end, and like The Spirit Phone, as I neared the climax I wondered how so many rising catastrophes could possibly be resolved in the pages that remained. Like magicians who whip the cloth from a table, leaving the settings miraculously intact, the authors of both books managed to leave me more than a bit breathless by story’s end.
• • • •
Though neither are about me or my experiences, I’m glad these two books exist, and wouldn’t want to live in a world that didn’t make both possible. For me, diversity is macro, not micro. I don’t need every tale told in a way that will satisfy everyone because that means they’ll ultimately all be the same. True diversity means everyone’s story gets told, even if not all are published.
We deserve as many stories as possible to choose from, whether inclusive or homogenous, and though we can’t necessarily enjoy them all, an increasingly diverse publishing landscape has been able to provide us with many more to choose from, as the last decades and these books show us.
I want what is impossible, except perhaps in Morpheus the lord of Dreams’s library: for us all to be able to read enough of each other’s narratives to see past the surface to the truths beneath that unite us.
Spread the word!