What is it like to be a queer horror writer in 2015? We caught up with four up-and-coming writers of the dark, surreal, and horrific to ask about their experiences in the genre. Meghan McCarron’s genre-bending stories have been finalists for the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards, and she is one of the fiction editors at Interfictions. Brit Mandelo is the senior fiction editor at Strange Horizons and the editor of the critically acclaimed anthology Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction; her fiction has been nominated for the Nebula Award and the Lambda Literary Award. Rahul Kanakia’s short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Apex, Nature, and many other places, and his first novel, Enter Title Here, was published by Disney-Hyperion earlier this fall. Carrie Cuinn is the editor of Dagan Books and the quarterly magazine Lakeside Circus; her short fiction has appeared in a variety of places, including her latest collection, Women and Other Constructs. Here, they offer their insights into genre, identity, and the strange attractions of fear.
Thank you for taking part in our roundtable! I’d like to start by asking about your relationship to the label “queer horror writer.” Is this a description you would use for yourself? How do you classify your work?
Meghan McCarron: Like every other writer and queer person, I thrash around when it comes to labels. Like, queer best gets at the shape of my sexuality and gender expression, but you know, I’m not sure how well my life embodies the revolutionary side of the word. I write stories with vampires and monsters and ghosts (so many ghosts), but also I am terrified of most horror movies.
I am delighted to be called a horror writer, even as I ask questions like, “Can I be a horror writer if I was too scared to see It Follows? If I stopped reading House of Leaves when the book told me to stop reading it because I was too scared to go on?” This is a 100% true story.
I was a huge horror reader as a kid. Not sure why I fell off that wagon, but some of it was due to the fact the “adult” horror I encountered in the late 1990’s didn’t speak to me the way Point Horror, the grindhouse for girls, did. That and my inability, at that age, to take pleasure in stories that end with characters consigned to certain doom. I had trouble with the weekly situational reset on sitcoms. Seinfeld was enough of a horror story.
Brit Mandelo: Thanks for having me! This issue is a neat project—loving the whole “Queers Destroy . . .” ethos.
I’m definitely queer and definitely a writer, but I actually wouldn’t say I write horror fiction. I suspect the stuff I tend to lean toward falls far more under the header “dark fantasy,” because the affective punch I’m often looking for—both when I write, and when I’m reading other people’s work—isn’t the sensation of horror or fear; it’s that soft, gut-twisting upsetting feeling instead. Not scary, but thought-provoking or unsettling, maybe? Though I have written one more traditional horror piece, “The Writ of Years,” which was my take on a sort of classic faux-Lovecraftian thing, except without pronouns. (And on that note, I’ve found it very interesting to see how reviewers gender the protagonist. A rare few of them get that there’s a reason for the lack of gendered terms.)
I certainly gravitate toward queer issues and characters, though, because that’s what reflects the world I live in. There’s also an affinity, I think, between dealing with the discomforts and dislocations of contemporary life as a queer person that can be dealt with in some interesting ways in dark fiction; there’s a connection—I think a lot of people would agree—between horror and queer literature. I grew up on it, at least: I was a huge fan of Poppy Z. Brite when I was a youngling. But I wouldn’t say I write it. I could get behind the “dark fiction” thing a bit more, but it’s also a little reductive as a label (in the way of labels, I suppose).
Rahul Kanakia: I readily call myself queer, but “horror writer” is not a description I’ve ever applied to myself. Almost all of my stories are dark, and some have been published in horror magazines, but in general I’ve always found it hard to demarcate the boundary between horror and the other speculative genres.
Carrie Cuinn: I don’t usually think of myself as a horror writer, because I usually think of myself as just a writer. I write everything: lit, SF, magic realism, nonfiction; even poetry and screenplays. But I do write horror too; it’s the first kind of writing I was drawn to, and no matter what else I write, I always come back to it. Even when I’m doing other kinds of writing, there are still elements of horror in it, because fear, loss, and uncertainty are universal themes.
“Queer” is a fine label that I use depending on the circumstances—when it’s appropriate to tack on an appellation for one’s sexuality, because of the particular project I’m involved in. If the project is about sex, if it’s about being queer, then absolutely, I’ve got nothing to hide. I think, though, that too often markets or editors want you to include that in your bio as a selling point, a way to make money off of the exoticness of your inclusion, and so I usually leave it out. We rarely see straight writers describing themselves as “heterosexual horror authors,” so why should my sexuality be something to trade on?
Rahul: That’s an interesting thought, Carrie. I feel like straight writers don’t describe themselves as “heterosexual horror writers” because they don’t need to. It’s assumed. But, in situations where their sexuality is in doubt, artists aren’t shy about correcting the impression that they might be queer (e.g. Michael Chabon and James Franco, despite their subject matter, are quick enough to avow their straightness). As queer writers, we belong to a community of both writers and readers who are hungry to see other queer writers. Personally, although I was never shy about my queerness on my blog, I never made an issue of it in my author bio, and it wasn’t much of a theme in my work. But somehow, through some strange mechanism—maybe nothing more than gossip?—people began to speak of me online as a queer writer. I have found it neither harmful nor helpful, career-wise, but there is something comfortable about it, and I think it has led me, over time, to be less wary about writing on queer themes.
Meghan: It is the strangest thing, to out yourself as a writer. But I do agree that visibility is invaluable, if not for me, then for every other LGBT person writing out there. And, let’s face it: all we have as writers is ourselves, our perspectives, and our stories. No one has to hew to writing about any one aspect of themselves, but if thinking of myself as a queer writer helps me dig into those issues in my work, I think that’s a positive thing. The question reminds me a bit of all of the pronoun stickers made available at Wiscon this year. I chose the sticker reading “no preferred pronoun,” because it was true. But I’ve never said that out loud before. The labeling was liberating. It deepened my sense of self.
What initially drew you to horror or dark fiction, and what draws you now?
Meghan: In 2009, the bookstore where I worked got in a new anthology of historic ghost stories. I read the whole thing, and contracted this mania for ghosts. The specific inspiration for that mania is tucked away in my subconscious, but I think it’s a combination of the rich history of ghosts in American short fiction, and the incredible power they have to address big questions of loss and grief. Ghosts are often tricksters, too, which is a great plot mechanism.
As for the larger question of horror, I’m really not quite sure. I generally do not know why I write about the things I write about, or in general why I like the things I like. Sometimes I suspect that’s a legacy of being heavily closeted. More generously, it keeps my creative process mysterious in a useful way.
One thought: I grew up Catholic, and Catholicism involves some gruesome shit. I definitely used to stare at gory crucifixes and think about how Jesus suffered—that was supposed to bring me closer to God, plus it killed time during math class. That wound in his side, man! I still remember a vivid description of the water and blood flowing out from that wound. I don’t even want to know if that was in the Bible or just something a nun told me. Like I said: useful mystery.
Perhaps my Catholicism is also why I’m less drawn to true, hopeless horror. I’ve been trained to expect a resurrection.
Brit: I appreciate stories that leave me feeling struck, even blindsided, emotionally and psychologically. Some folks can do that with joyful and pleasant stuff; in the end, though, I’d say it often comes from darker fiction, stories dealing with difficult and unpleasant things in honest and provocative ways. For example, I think that books like Kiernan’s The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl make a good illustration of what I think uncanny or dark fiction can do, in both directions: to upset you and to offer you some kind of hope.
I think maybe it’s more that I like stories that have a hell of a lot of affect, whether that’s pleasant or unpleasant for me? And horror is certainly a genre of affect and intensity, more generally dark fiction, too.
Rahul: I remember that when I was young (and I’m talking fourth or fifth grade) I loved to read about the Holocaust, and I went through what felt like dozens of Holocaust-themed kids’ novels. As late as my teen years, I could not get enough of the Holocaust. Today, that’s incomprehensible to me. Nowadays, as I’m approaching age thirty, I do my best to avoid all Holocaust-related fictions. I’m not sure what accounts for this change (and it’s possible that I am an outlier here, since Holocaust novels do well in the adult genres, too).
Standing at the remove of years, I struggle to articulate what it was about the Holocaust that appealed to me so much. There’s something terrifying about even putting the words “Holocaust” and “appealed” in the same sentence. Because horror stories contain a disquieting truth about human nature. If you see a movie that happens to contain some horrific element, it’s easy to allow your feelings to pass uninterrogated. But when you’re seeking something out, over and over, you have to face up to the notion that you’re deriving some pleasure from this topic. I think there is something in the human psyche that delights in hatred and destruction. For instance, whenever there’s a natural disaster on the news, I’m horrified and feel terrible for the people who are suffering, but there’s also a part of me that’s awed by the scope of the destruction. It’s a very ugly emotion, and it’s something I try not to think about. Bad novels and television shows are those that allow me to experience that delight without questioning it, while good ones are those which hold it up to the light and expose it. Although, honestly, whether a given work of dark fiction is good or bad, it’s still profiting from the same impulses. Even a show that’s as complex and uncomfortable as The Sopranos, for instance, draws its fundamental appeal from my delight at seeing mobsters exercise their will to power.
Carrie: Humanity survived until now by forming collectives and working together against outside dangers. Because you needed a tribe to support you, casting someone out almost always meant their death. When we grow up knowing we’re different from those around us, we live aware of the risk we take every time we expose our true selves to another person. We can do our best to fit in, or stand out in a way that changes the people around us, but that fear is always in us, no matter how far down we bury it or how safe we think our lives are at that moment. Even though humans no longer need to be homogenous in order to be safe, there are still many who resist change out of fear, misunderstanding, or a need to control. We grow up in a world that’s often waiting for us to be unlike the rest, defying categorization—and then that’s it, we’re out.
That fear affects us no matter what makes us different—our sexuality, gender presentation, race, family dynamic, physical or mental ability, it doesn’t matter. In a way, I think that’s what makes horror and dark fiction so appealing to anyone on that spectrum of difference: you recognize something true to your life, even if the person in the story doesn’t look or act like you. The story is what you recognize, and there’s some comfort in a familiar feeling, even when it’s fear.
Over the decades, writers and literary critics have made all kinds of connections between horror tropes and queer identities: the vampire’s bite represents forbidden sexual desires, the werewolf’s uneasy merger of two selves parallels the experience of being closeted, and so on. Do you see a particular relationship between queerness and the horror elements of your work? Or do suggestions like these make you roll your eyes?
Meghan: Personally, the fun of writing in genre is the tropes and all their baggage. All that cultural power is extremely enticing.
Over the past ten years, I’ve been exploring, obsessively, the process of finding a queer identity. That exploration has involved a lot of monsters. A vampire and a ghost are alive and dead, a werewolf is a person and a wolf, etc. I don’t think queers are monstrous, but I do think queer sexuality often involves boundary-crossing—and monsters straddle boundaries. They’re liminal.
I do think, like Brit and the others mentioned, that there’s a danger of queer horror trending into a sad and doomed kind of place. But we should be able to have our miserable, nightmarish hopelessness without it suggesting some equal hopelessness in our romantic lives.
Brit: As I noted before, I think that historically it’s hard to deny that queer writers have written a lot of horror fiction—and that something about dealing with feelings of abjection, fear, and othering in fiction kind of tends to create dark stories. There’s also, of course, a strong field of writing by queer folks that isn’t horror. Because, you know, there are a lot of things to write about besides how sad and doomed we all are, et cetera. So I resist a sort of totalizing equation of queerness with horror, but that doesn’t mean that horror doesn’t also contain elements of queerness and otherness that speak to people—if that makes sense.
On the work I’ve done, though, I think that it’s often less about queerness and horror being linked and more about the fact that I sometimes write darker fiction and I mostly write about queer people, so. It maybe evens out into an interesting relation, but I’ve also written science fiction starring queer folks and regular old fantasy starring queer folks and contemporary speculative stuff with queer folks and—you get my drift. But I do think that dark fiction lets us explore issues of loss and pain, fear and despair, all of those raw human feelings; I think it also offers a unique opportunity to represent the fraught relationship between otherness and those feelings. So there’s a sideways kind of linkage, then.
Rahul: It took me years to realize that a significant portion of my writing was driven by my horror over my own queerness. For instance, for years I would write story after story about doublings: clones, evil twins, alter egos, mirror universes, etc. And I’d think, hmm, that’s an odd theme, isn’t it? Why am I so obsessed with men who’re forced to face their own denatured bodies?
Carrie: I think for some authors, sure, their queerness is expressed in the horror elements of their work, but all queer writers everywhere? Ridiculous. That’s like saying one’s inability to be attracted to a person who isn’t an opposite of the binary sexual dynamic they impose on their perspective of humanity is expressed in science fiction as a preference for big, shiny, metal, phallic-shaped rockets. Sure, for some people, it is. For others, they just like space transportation, and write about the most culturally recognizable forms of it.
My queerness informs my writing in the best ways, I think. It’s made me more open minded, more cognizant of people’s differences and similarities. I can see what’s beautiful, or terrifying, in others, in ways that people who aren’t queer may not. I understand horror, and fear, and having to run, to hide . . . And because I recognize darkness when I see it, it’s easier to write about.
Queers Destroy Horror!, the title of this special issue, parodies the negative responses that are sometimes sparked by queer content in the horror genre. Has your work garnered certain responses based on either queer content or your own identity?
Meghan: I’ve had random online reviewers wonder aloud about my mental stability, and I’ve gotten a number of ignorantly handled “positive” reviews. I’m not sure if that’s so much because of the queer content of my stories than the frank and sometimes fucked up sex I’ve written.
What jumps to mind is how I’ve tried to “destroy” horror in workshop. Contrary to my previous point about hopelessness and queerness needing to be separated in horror, I never, ever, ever, ever want to read a story that ends with one half of a same-sex couple dying, leaving the other tragically alone. Someone has to die at the end of a horror story, is the problem. I submit that gay couples should get a ten year reprieve. In 2025, they can start dying tragically again.
Brit: The immediate thought I had to this was, “well, everyone gets yelled at on the internet, right?”—though some folks get yelled at more than others, sure. I’ve had more negative interactions as a critic writing about and trying to draw attention to queer content in the speculative field, though, than I have as a fiction writer—which is interesting to me in its own right.
But probably the thing that irks me more than specifically rude negative responses to queer content are the responses that elide the issues of gender and desire. I sort of expect that some people are just, well, hateful assholes. Like I noted before, though, I’m more frustrated by readings that seem to erase the protagonists’ identities. This is particularly true of stories with genderqueer characters, or asexual characters, or bisexual characters—situations where it’s easy for someone to overwrite the complexities or nuances of gender and sexuality into something more binary. Being a queer and genderqueer person myself, it gets under my skin a little more than I’d like sometimes.
Overall, though: I think the field of speculative fiction—including the darker end—has been growing more and more inclusive, though the shift causes plenty of conflicts still.
Rahul: Honestly, no. I’ve published a number of queer stories at this point and haven’t yet gotten an overtly bigoted response.
Carrie: My identity is not just as a queer person, but also as a woman, which is a category of horror writer that still struggles with negativity and abuse, because a lot of horror fans are straight, white, male, and looking for hate porn—that kind of story which is satisfying to read because it’s violent, sometimes sexually so, and whose victims are usually women. Even people who don’t think they’d ever like that sort of story buy in droves the exact same tale, as long as one man saves one woman in the end. Being a woman who writes scary stories means you are sometimes putting yourself out there to be commented on and criticized by people who’d much rather see you as a victim than an author.
Being queer means you’re doing the same thing, but instead of a victim, many would rather see you as the monster.
I think I’m best known as an editor of queer horror for my work on Cthulhurotica, an anthology that subverted H.P. Lovecraft’s racist, homophobic, and misogynistic view by using his settings but populating them with a wide spectrum of characters. Including, yes, sexually active characters. It’s definitely exposed me to a certain segment of his fanbase who were rabidly opposed to seeing the Mythos in a new way. At the same time, there were huge numbers of people who loved what we did and couldn’t wait to see more.
Rahul: I think Brit makes a really interesting point regarding erasure of queer readings. I remember growing up and imbibing the idea, from somewhere in the speculative fiction world, that queer readings of literature were “overreaching.” They were critics imposing a reading onto a text “that just isn’t there.” By and large, I think that populist art forms in general tend to have a suspicion of the critic and of any reading of the text that’s not right at surface level. The argument is, well, we’re inside these characters’ heads, so if they’re gay, why don’t they just say it.
But the result, for me, of that thinking was that I didn’t understand any conception of gender or of desire that didn’t fit exactly into preconceived notions. Some of my favorite creators were right out there, faithfully transcribing or transmitting the messiness that exists in peoples’ heads, but I didn’t see that. To me it was all overreaching. It’s the job of the writer to show us the things that are in plain sight but rarely seen. However, it’s also the job of the reader to try to go there and to strip ourselves of preconceptions and see things in a different way.
(This leaves aside, of course, the whole question of reading meanings into a text that an author didn’t intend. That too is a completely valid activity. For instance, I recently saw a production of Twelfth Night that played up the possibility that Sir Andrew’s real attraction was for Sir Toby. Now, did Shakespeare intend that? Who knows and who cares? The real fun was in seeing the words in a new light.)
Much as we can point to Mary Shelley as the woman who invented science fiction, we can also argue that queer people created horror. The eighteenth-century Gothic novelists Horace Walpole and William Beckford had well-known relationships with young men, while the influential ghost story writers M. R. James and Henry James might be claimed as asexual. Does this history of the genre seem useful or important to you?
Brit: Well, this might be the scholar in me, but I think it’s always important to know you’ve got a history—to know that things aren’t written on sand, and that other folks have come before and can offer a sort of genealogical tracer to the types of work that different types of people have done. It’s interesting to look at the ways in which genre fiction has been used to theorize and represent marginalized identities for decades upon decades—ever since the novel form was the weird new thing for ladies, et cetera. Connections to the past remind us of the fact that we aren’t alone, to some extent.
And, in more recent terms, things like the history of the plague years of the AIDS epidemic are in some sense only accessible in affective terms to people as young as I am through narrative. Some of that fiction is going to be weird and dark and upsetting, because the time was weird and dark and upsetting, though that wasn’t all it was to the people who survived it. It’s important to mark our experiences, to share them, to communicate narratively to other narrative-seeking creatures. It’s sort of a thing humans do, I’d say, and I think it’s important.
Rahul: It was pretty late in the history of the Western novel before an explicitly queer individual could be portrayed as anything other than haunted and doomed. Even queer authors like Baldwin wrote books like Giovanni’s Room, where a same-sex relationship—almost as a matter of course—becomes obsessive and murderous. Before that, you have all the doomed, decrepit relationships in Proust’s novel or Thomas Mann’s Aschenbach, wasting away in Death in Venice. There’s a sense of self-loathing and despair buried so deeply inside all of these novels that it seems to spring from the essential nature of the protagonists’ desires. Any queer person reading these books would have a difficult time coming away from them without feeling as though same-sex desire was a flawed, horrific impulse.
When viewed within that environment of disgust, horror novels almost offer a more hopeful view of same-sex desire, in that the darkness is segregated and is explicitly contrasted with the light. For instance, Beckford’s Vathek is, like the characters in Baldwin and Proust and Mann, obsessed with the pursuit of pleasure. And, like them, he comes to a bad end. But at least he manages to achieve a sort of majesty. He’s an anti-hero: someone in control of his destiny; a person who proceeds forward in full knowledge of the possible consequences. And when he is cast down, it’s not—as in these other novels—because of some internal rot in his soul. Instead, it’s an external punishment visited upon him by the forces of Hell. It’s not a hopeful vision of the passions, but it is, in some ways, a more nuanced one.
Meghan: Totally! Yes! Any and all queer lineages please! Honestly, that’s the sum of my reaction. I like what Brit and Rahul had to say about how fiction has evolved to process the dark side of the queer experience, whatever that dark side might be.
Carrie: I think it’s useful to see this as part of the history of genre, but it’s just the most recent tip of the iceberg. The horror label may be new, but writing about and telling stories about horror are as old as humanity. We have always huddled around a fire, warning of the dangers in the dark, or the secret monsters lurking within our midst. How many stories of shape changers or possession or witches were really about regular people who just happened to be a little different? Hiding yourself from ignorant townspeople isn’t a new phenomenon. Neither is being queer.
Finally, what are the current trends in horror that interest or excite you? What’s coming up next for your own work?
Meghan: I’m excited about the ongoing conversation about, and critique of, Lovecraft’s racism. I’m excited to see great horror writers like Nathan Ballingrud become popular far outside the normal bounds of the genre. I’m excited to see a larger number of writers examining Poe, I’m excited about the unstoppable groundswell of Shirley Jackson worship, I’m excited about the Shirley Jackson Award. This is not nearly queer enough a list of things. Here is a queer thing—I am very excited for Blood: Stories, Matthew Cheney’s collection from Black Lawrence Press. I don’t think he would call himself a horror writer, but the title story, “Blood,” is dark as fuck.
I’ve recently completed a fantasy novel, which is not horror but some terrible things do happen and also there is a ghost; I can’t put down the ghosts. I’m also working on a cycle of stories about a deadly flu outbreak in New York City, another horrible thing that is not horror. As a writer, I’m always trying to terrify myself. It’s great how many different genres you can do that in.
Brit: I like seeing more nonbinary characters in fiction, and I like seeing more stories that deal with issues of gender and sexuality, obviously—things that I do think are happening more and more in dark fiction. I also like darker stories with meta elements that explore the things the genre is doing and can do, more explicitly. I’m excited about things like this special issue, drawing attention to all the awesome and varied ways queer writers and stories can adapt and employ the tools of genre writing.
As for me, I have a few short stories that I’ve been working on, and I just finished a second Master’s degree program. So, that sort of ate up a lot of writing time I’ll have back now. I look forward to settling down to do more work again; I also look forward to writing more criticism. I’ve been working on an article about the two Kiernan novels I mentioned previously that I hope will be picked up somewhere, too.
Rahul: Is it awful for me to say that I don’t read very much contemporary fiction nowadays? Certainly not enough to be able to opine on the trends within any particular genre.
As for my own work, I can tell you that I’m writing young adult and middle grade novels, and the YA field, in particular, tends to be very trend-driven. For some reason, certain motifs or sub-genres will catch on and tons of books will be purchased and published, while others will go completely fallow. Recently, there was a trend for YA thrillers, including many with traditional horror elements. I have no idea about the source of that trend, since it doesn’t seem tied to any particular kidlit bestseller (I suppose, if anything, it was an outgrowth of the success of Gone Girl).
Given my own early fascination with Holocaust novels, I’ve always felt that teens have an appetite for dark fiction, and I know that when I’m writing for kids I never worry that my work is too dark, because I think kids have a real fascination with death and with the darker side of life. If anything, the stumbling block here isn’t the kids, it’s the editors. I recently wrote a middle-grade thriller—a novel about a boy who becomes convinced that all the other kids at his twelfth birthday party have entered into a conspiracy to humiliate him—and, due to my agent’s intuition that its bleakness would make it a hard sell, I’m currently in the process of giving it a happier ending.
Carrie: My favorite current trend is the one toward greater inclusivity. The same old stories over and over again have gotten stale, haven’t they? Allowing a more inclusive take on what “horror” is enriches the genre—think of Nathan Ballingrud’s award-winning work, which can just as easily be described as “magic realism” as horror, and yet is generally considered to be fresh, and brilliant. Allowing more diverse creators and characters means there are new stories and new variations on old favorites. That’s better for everyone.
I’ve actually got a couple of short stories, and a novel, that I’m working on now which fall into the “horror” category. The upcoming trend which interests me most in my own work is that I’m planning to start working a little less toward the end of the year, so I can devote more to my writing. (I currently work two full-time jobs, which leaves almost no time for anything else.) I miss having the luxury of time, of being able to take a story idea and put it on the page, instead of having to wait for days or weeks before I catch enough of a break to scribble some words down. Once that changes, you can expect to see a lot more fiction from me!
Spread the word!