Writing Horror While Black

By Eden Royce

My beautiful picture

When I first started writing, I didn’t identify myself online as a black author. Not because I was hiding, I just didn’t think to add it to my online profile. No, I didn’t have a picture up at the time because they always make me look fatter or drunker than I really am.

It didn’t register until a reader sent me this message: “You write a lot of ethnic characters.”

Even though I replied without sarcasm, I thought, Well, duh… But I realized readers didn’t know me. They may have read my work, but they didn’t necessarily know me or my heritage. I hadn’t shared a lot of information about myself when I began writing; I’ve since rectified that. A bit.

When I write, I tend to create characters of different ethnicities, and combinations of cultures because that’s my personal experience. I find that being from a household that embraces different backgrounds, is at the core of my desire to write. At a book signing once, I mentioned that I was featured in the book, 60 Black Women in Horror Fiction Writing. Someone in the audience said, “I didn’t know there were sixty black women in horror.” That experience fueled me to write my features on Graveyard Shift Sisters where I read and review the work of women horror and sci-fi authors of color.

I’ve also had people say what I write isn’t “technically” horror. I disagree. I place characters of color in both protagonist roles, where they can take center stage. Something that historically rarely happened in horror. Their stories, their histories, what’s important to them drives the story forward. In my work, conjure magic—voodoo, root, hoodoo, Santeria—is not portrayed as evil as it often is in horror. Having grown up around these ritual magics, I know they weren’t truly used for the purposes Hollywood tells you they are. They were used to protect and provide, and in some cases…defend.

Horror is nothing if not personal, but it’s also subjective. I know a woman who thinks Taken is the scariest movie she’s ever seen. It sends her trembling to a corner because it’s one of her biggest nightmares put onto the screen. So why do people have trouble accepting Toni Morison’s Beloved as horror? It’s because the traditional definition of horror is narrow. Author Chesya Burke says it better than I ever could. People fear using the word horror, instead opting for the safer, more socially acceptable terms like “paranormal” or “supernatural”.

Why this narrow definition? People of color have played many secondary and tertiary characters in horror fiction and film. But why not many lead roles? (One exception I’m looking forward to is Jordan Peele’s Get Out, releasing in theatres this month.) The experience of people of color can be different than mainstream horror. But it is still viably horror—the strange, the grotesque, the feeling of fear in what should be a comfortable place.

In the African-American community, especially in the South, it’s a hard road being a horror author. When I’m asked what I write, many times the response I receive is less than accepting. I get the stay-away-from-me look or the God’s-gonna-strike-her-down-any-moment look. That my mind conjures up these plots and characters must mean I’m the devil’s own.

Writers of color can expand the current definition of horror, and ensure our work is categorized with the best of genre writers. Many readers didn’t associate our names with genres of dark fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, and horror. But thankfully, that is slowly changing. We are getting our stories, our vision, out in the public eye—publishers large and small are beginning to listen. We’re sharing our work online, contacting bloggers for reviews, attending writer’s conferences and events, and joining communities of other multi-cultural writers to promote and boost each other’s signals.

There is room for us in these underrepresented categories. Once I sent in a dark fantasy short story set in the late 1960’s in rural South Carolina to a large publisher. They loved the characters, loved the setting. They didn’t accept the story because they wanted me to explain how the magic worked. As a descendant of a Charleston root worker, I’m not sharing all of my secrets. I’ve since self-published that story in a collection and it has been the one with the most positive feedback. So I keep writing and presenting my work as horror because to me, it is.

How can readers and watchers of horror help expand the scope of horror? I usually choose titles by cover art and blurb. But when I hear of work by authors of color, especially within the genres I write, I go out of my way to get a copy. Not sure where to start? Check out my blog post form this past Halloween on suggested horror reads by POC.

If you do read one or more of these books, consider sending the author a message of support if they’ve left their contact information. (Psst, Authors: please have a way to contact you on your website or blog. Surprising how many websites and blogs I come across where there is no way to contact the owner of the site.)

If you’re a POC, like me, writing horror can be a lonely thing, especially when you don’t receive appreciation for your hard work and you don’t have a community of supporters. It’s encouraging to know you’re not alone in the struggle for agents and publishers. For shelf space. For readers. To be seen as a writer of horror in a—for now—narrowly defined genre.

So reach out to authors if you enjoy their work, especially ones underrepresented in the horror genre. Even me. I’m at edenroyce.com and @edenroyce on Twitter.

About Eden

Eden Royce is descended from women who practiced root, a type of conjure magic in her native Charleston, South Carolina. She’s been a bridal consultant, reptile handler, and stockbroker, but now writes dark fiction about the American South from her home in the English countryside.

Eden is the recipient of the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Diverse Worlds grant for 2016 and is one of the founders of Colors in Darkness, a place for dark fiction authors of color to get support for their projects.

She occasionally updates her website edenroyce.com and is on Twitter @edenroyce.