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The H Word: The Search for Romanian Horror

Much like The Last Unicorn in her woods, I one day set off to find my own kind.

And by “kind,” I mean a community of Romanian Horror writers; something I thought I’d surely find within minutes. After all, what other country could be a better petri dish for all sorts of dark fiction? It’s hard to imagine a place more represented in Horror than Romania, except maybe suburban Maine. For most of us fans of the genre, one of our first dark forays was Dracula, partially set a stone’s throw from where I live now: in the historical region of Transilvania. We know all about garlic and crossroads and words like “strigoi.” We know about the Romani woman predicting death in the cards. We know about the dragons and the castles and the wolf people.

Yet, the longer I looked, the less I found. No groups, no workshops, no societies, no social media presence. A keyword search of Twitter revealed a thread where someone asked for recommendations of Romanian Horror books. Hundreds of replies all delivered the same result: “It’s not by a Romanian author, but so-and-so has a book set in Romania!”

Even when I started to lament my lack of a community of compatriot horror writers, a well-intended friend chimed in to say, “If it’s any consolation, my next book has a Romanian character!”

Reader, it was not any consolation.

So how is it possible that Romania has nothing to contribute to the Horror library? Do we just . . . not have a lot of writers among our twenty million inhabitants? Do the ones we have not write very well? In a country where most everyone born after 1990 was raised bilingual with English? A country rife with folklore and legends? Odd.

A Snapshot of Real Censorship

To figure out what happened to my Unicorn kin, we have to take a walk into history. Not ancient history by any extent, but a time so recent it’s likely most of you remember exactly what you were doing then—The winter of ’89. Playing MegaDrive games? Taking Applied Thermodynamics courses? Rocking out to The Stones records?

My family and country at the time were fighting for their lives, and many lost.

Up until the winter of ’89, Romania was under a totalitarian dictatorship. The Party decided what you wore, who you spoke to, how you cut your hair, what media you consumed, and what you could write. Musicians recorded albums about pastoral life and woodland creatures, hiding symbolism about “living in the shadow of the Great Bear” among the lyrics as a jab at Russia’s control over our country. There was a mass purge of intellectuals; students and teachers deported, exiled, murdered.

Bootleg vinyl records and books crossed the border in, endangering the lives of the people who smuggled them just for a glimpse of foreign media, while at the same time, local musicians, artists, and authors were being smuggled out in bass drum cases and wheat crates. For decades, Romanian literature was all about how hard, but ultimately soul-fulfilling life as a Romanian shepherd was. Angry, grieving, and tired, in the days right before Christmas ’89, the unarmed and malnourished people of my hometown, Timisoara, rose up against the government.

Although the reign of terror was over then and our borders opened again, it took a very long time before the effects of those days truly started washing off. About thirty years, in fact—just long enough for people who were born after those traumatic times to become adults. Just enough time for me to get here.

The Romanian Horror Scene Today

Desperate for any sort of clue as to where The Red Bull—and as I write this, it strikes me just how apt this metaphor is—hid my kind, I appealed to the Horror Writers Association. They were swift and encouraging in their reply: they’d love to do anything in their power to set up a base for Horror writers in Romania. They need five members to form a chapter.

How many are there, currently, I asked? Two, they said.

Two?

Including yourself, yes, two.

Of course, I can’t guess how many Romanians are right now writing Horror tucked away by the fire in their villages, or while sipping kalimotxo on the balcony of their high-rises, certain—as we were all raised to be—that everything from “elsewhere” is better and everyone “foreign” is better than us. Certain that no matter what they do, they won’t matter in the greater scheme of things. But two official members, out of twenty million? I was livid.

I still am. It makes me angry that Romania exists in Horror without the Romanian people. It makes me angry that in the gap where we should have been, but couldn’t be, others came in and took it all. Our history and geography and legends and folklore formed the backbone of so much fiction in the English-speaking world. They were used to the point that the publishing industry is “tired” of them—but they were never used by us.

You may know the word “strigoi,” but I know the thirty-odd ways to keep the dead from rising that each region’s rural areas still practice today. I know how to trap one of the magic women that dance on the surface of lakes at night, and where to find the modern amusement park inside an ancient underground salt mine, and whose grandmother still sings them the old blessings using the first flower of spring, even over Skype.

For us, every cry of “we’re tired of European folklore” is like a stab to the heart. How can you be tired of it? We’ve never told you any of our stories. The tattered pieces that got out there and keep getting passed around from book to book are grey, threadbare rags compared to the rich, vibrant tapestry of what we have to say. No wonder the world is tired of them; so are we.

Romanian Horror: Raised from the Dead

I don’t believe the situation is hopeless, not by a long shot. The fact that I’m here and angry means there’s still something to be angry for. The fact that I got to write this article means there are still people willing to help.

Six years ago, I left Romania under the same delusion as anyone else in my country: that “elsewhere” would be better. I came back this year, more in love with it than I’d ever been, and ready to loudly shout about the spirited and wild magic still deeply embedded in our culture, landscape, and lives. I’m here because I want to research and publish volumes about the folklore, because I want to run writing workshops and foster writers of speculative fiction, and because I want to raise that community I dream of out of the dirt with my bare hands if I have to.

And if you’ve read this far, that means you care enough to help, too.

It doesn’t take much to make a difference. Pick up some books by Romanians. Cut them some slack if they’re not quite what you expect; that’s bound to happen when you read so far outside of your own experience. If you’re going to ask a Romanian writer to proof your spelling or pronounce words for you, which happens to me almost daily, consider leaving a tip, a review, a recommendation. If you’re going to write something set there, consider taking your next vacation there. Hire a local guide, take in the sights, and both your story and my country will benefit. Hire a local editor. Take online tours of our museums and watch our documentaries. Share them, talk about them, add a list of resources to the back of your book.

There’s an endless number of ways to give back, and the fact that none of them ever happen is a testament to just how absent the writing community thinks we, Romanians, really are. The literary world’s honor system store: take what you want, pay what you will.

Well, we have been, that’s true. For a very long time, we were not there to stand up for the value of our own stock. But do you know what the first two lines of our national anthem say?

Awaken, oh Romanian,
From your deathly sleep.

We’re finally listening.

Alex Woodroe

Alex Woodroe is a Romanian writer and editor of dark speculative fiction. She’s a member of SFWA and HWA, an acquiring editor for Tenebrous Press, and a staff writer for the videogame Decarnation. Among her latest publications, her Weird SF “Midnight Sun” appeared in Dark Matter Magazine, and her Folk Horror “Abandon” in Horror Library Volume 7. She’s passionate about infusing her country’s culture, food, and folklore into her work, and loves talking shop at @AlexWoodroe.