Horror & Dark Fantasy



Horror Is . . . Not What You Think or Probably Wish It Is

All right, boys and girls, we’re going to have an adult conversation. This isn’t Racism 101. If you don’t “see race” or don’t know why the very idea is offensive, this essay isn’t for you. If you know racism exists, but don’t understand it’s not about individuals calling other individuals “colored” or other offensive words, and don’t understand how it’s about the anti-black system in place to oppress blacks and other minorities, then this essay is going to be above your head. Save us both the headache and the angry email that you will be prone to write me because your bigotry is showing. I publicly post all racist commentary. Enter and engage at your own risk.

“Horror is not a genre, like the mystery or science fiction or the western. It is not a kind of fiction, meant to be confined to the ghetto of a special shelf in libraries or bookstores. Horror is an emotion.”

—Douglas E. Winter

Anyone familiar with the horror genre is familiar with this quote. In fact, the Horror Writer’s Association (HWA), a professional writing organization within the field, donned this quote on t-shirts for many years, and still, as of this writing, holds this quote up as the proud “rallying cry for the modern horror writer.” In other words, this quote is seen as the “true” and pure definition for any work seeking to call itself horror.

Except when we’re dealing with minority writers. Too often, when it comes to Black and minority writers, this definition of horror is often twisted and contorted until it is no longer acceptable. Or more bluntly, Black and other minority writers are not allowed to simply create a “horrific emotion” within their (white horror) readers and be welcomed into the fold, instead there are always more and higher hoops that these writers must jump through (hoops dictated and controlled by the mainly white male readers and writers) seemingly with the sole purpose of excluding them.

For the sake of argument, however, we will not rely on one quote to define horror. Although this has been enough for white writers to find inclusion in the genre in the past, it seems this quote by Winter is not enough for many white readers and writers to accept one of the most notable works of fiction by a black writer. Dario Argento, the Italian film director, is famously quoted as saying, “Horror by definition is the emotion of pure revulsion. Terror of the same standard, is that of fearful anticipation.” For Argento, too, horror is grounded in emotion, as well as revulsion and the anticipation of fear.

With these quotes from people who famously deal in horror for a living, I think we can understand horror to fundamentally be an emotion, the anticipation of fear that it creates within the participant. Horror, of course, is and can be many more things than this, but this is its definition at the fundamental level that even white men have willingly accepted. So, while you, as an individual reader or writer, can add many differing definitions to what you believe horror should be, you cannot take away these basic, essential principles that have long been established as horror, simply to exclude certain writings or writers.

So what, then, of the magnum opus of books? The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of horrific revulsion, Beloved?

Now mind you, Toni Morrison is not waiting in the sorrow, dark corners of her tiny bedroom in her little shotgun house, for horror to welcome and accept her. I think her Pulitzer is more than enough to get her through the dark, lonely nights. But, that is irrelevant. The point is that if this mammoth work can regularly and systematically be overlooked for not being horror-enough for white readers, what does this say about horror and who is included? What does it say to upcoming writers of color who don’t write about the middle class white family fighting against malevolent forces? What of the black writer that writes of welcoming those forces into their lives, as it is less horrific than living under white oppression? What of the minority writers that pen tales of torture and horror at the hands of white abusers simply because of their race, nationality or religion? Because horror seems to have built an entire sub-genre around women being tortured simply because they are women. And what of the tales of horrific murder, bondage, and racism in the vein of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Saw or Hostel?

These are important questions, because in February 2016 Tor.com published an article titled, “Beloved: The Best Horror Novel the Horror Genre Has Never Claimed” (bit.ly/2aT0MP3). In the article, Grady Hendrix, the author, compares Beloved to The Handmaid’s Tale, which unlike Beloved and the horror genre, is openly welcomed as a work of science fiction. Hendrix goes on to say that while Atwood’s novel is often listed on the best of science fiction lists, Beloved is “rarely if ever seen on lists of ‘Best Books in Horror.’” The author goes on to discuss why horror has not accepted Beloved, concluding:

Horror has walked away from the literary. It has embraced horror movies, and its own pulpy twentieth century roots, while denying its nineteenth century roots in women’s fiction, and pretending its mid-century writers like Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, or even William Golding don’t exist. Horror seems to have decided that it is such a reviled genre that it wants no more place in the mainstream. Beloved could not be a better standard-bearer for horror, but it seems that horror is no longer interested in what it represents.

True to its title, the comment section (Tor readers, and thus genre readers) went about jumping right back through those hoops to exclude Beloved from being horror. Readers tended to agree that the novel is horrific, however, they cite “author intent” (in other words, it wasn’t Morrison’s intent to write horror, so the novel is in fact not horror), that the novel is not “fun” and many compare Beloved to Lovecraft and Stephen King to prove that it is not worthy to be considered horror.

And yet, in neither of the definitions cited earlier is it stated that the author must have intent, make it “fun” for the reader, nor be H.P. Lovecraft or Stephen King to be considered horror. Including these things, I’m not even sure Lovecraft or King are writing horror.

But Hendrix has overlooked one very important fact. Race. Toni Morrison is black, has only black characters and Beloved is about the black experience.

Think about it. The idea that white male writers must be used to define horror, and then juxtaposed to those who are not white male writers to define what is included in horror, but more importantly excluded from horror, is absurd and honestly, quite racist. Not only that, but one of the writers, H. P. Lovecraft, was a known racist and xenophobe. This seems to suggest that for some horror readers, racist writing can in fact be horror, but anti-racist writing, which Beloved is, cannot be included in the definition of acceptable horror.

So now we must truly ask ourselves why, when we have defined horror in a very specific way for so long, are we now changing the perimeters to exclude this, and no doubt, other works of fiction by and about black peoples?

In other words, what does it mean to define horror by the writings of white men? What does it mean for the cannon of horror to almost exclusively be white? Is this intentional or not?

Well, to the observant reader, defining horror by the writings of white men means one clear thing: exclusion. It means that horror writing has in the past (and willfully into the present, if you listen to some readers) been defined by Western ideas. It is too often in the genre that horror is seen as an invasion of some outside force that must be exorcised in order to restore balance. When you see this, and only this as horror, you leave out those whose worlds are already defined by outside forces (e.g. the white gaze), and often use an invasion of another force as a welcomed reprieve from systemic oppression. When you have historically seen the black, the dark, the other as scary, you create an entire genre around fearing them and their cultures. Does Voodoo, loas or perhaps entire countries (Haiti) and continents (Africa) come to mind? When you define horror by white men, you not only exclude others, but you vilify them. You see, in the end, horror still must be “scary,” and who and what, you should ask, are more scary to white men than black and brown people?

When you define horror by the writings of white men, the white men become heroes and everyone else is a villain.

It is no surprise then, when you, white men and women, say that horror must be “fun,” you are saying that you do not want to be confronted with stories that make you uncomfortable. The stories that may force you to confront your history and your continued participation in the subjugation of others. It is so perfect a ploy to silence certain voices. In no other way that I have ever seen would horror fans claim they want to be coddled, to be entertained in a fun, pleasurable way when engaging with horror fiction. Except when blacks are involved. Because when blacks are addressing whites, they too often must “change their tone” to be considered acceptable. Blacks often are forced to entertain whites (as if a minstrel in a show), to make the racism they experience palatable for whites to digest. Claiming that blacks must write fun things for whites to read is basically telling them to don blackface and give you a great, entertaining, funny story that will not offend, confront or make you uncomfortable.

Now, quick! Name for me one of your favorite horror novels or stories that doesn’t offend, confront or make you uncomfortable.

Furthermore, I tell you that intention is irrelevant. Not the intention of the author, because Hendrix already addressed this point in his essay, but the intention of the horror genre itself. It does not, in fact, matter if those trying to exclude Beloved from the ranks of horror are in fact racist and mean to do so or not. The outcome it still the same. Blacks and other minority writers are still excluded, their types of writings are still not accepted as horror, and they are still villainized. And you, white people, are still your own heroes.

So, make no mistake, I do not accept your idea that works of horror should be compared to those of white men (and, in the case of Lovecraft, an outright racist, at that) or must be fun to be justified, and I will not allow you to define an entire genre through your simple-minded views.

You may remain forever stubborn, bullheaded and racist. And you may get old and scream about the new kids fucking up your garden of good lightly digestible horror fiction, and you may die. But horror will move on without you—you can be part of the progression or stay your ass right in the 1980s where you belong.

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Chesya Burke

Chesya Burke

Chesya Burke has written and published nearly a hundred fiction pieces and articles within the genres of science fiction, fantasy, noir and horror. Her story collection, Let’s Play White, is being taught in universities around the country. In addition, Burke wrote several articles for the African American National Biography in 2008, and Burke’s novel, The Strange Crimes of Little Africa, debuted in December 2015. Poet Nikki Giovanni compared her writing to that of Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison and Samuel Delany called her “a formidable new master of the macabre.”

Burke’s thesis was on the comic book character Storm from the X-Men, and her comic, Shiv, is scheduled to debut in 2017.

Burke is currently pursuing her PhD in English at University of Florida. She’s Co-Chair of the Board of Directors of Charis Books and More, one of the oldest feminist book stores in the country.