Tag Archives: Writing Horror

A modern-day lynching & how horror helps make sense of life’s demons

This week, a story of an attempted lynching came across my Twitter feed and put a stone in my stomach: white teenagers in Claremont, New Hampshire, stood an 8-year-old biracial boy on a picnic table, tied a rope hanging from a tree around his neck, and left him to hang. According to witnesses, the child swung three times before he was able to free himself with a badly bruised neck. I first saw this story saw in the black online publication The Root, with no signs of it anywhere else. I could barely believe it was true. (It has since run in the Boston Herald and other media outlets, including the Washington Post.)

Like Emmett Till’s mother in 1955, his mother made sure the photo of her son’s injury was public—and we may know about this story only because of her tweet. His family has since alleged in Newsweek that police were slow to investigate and were dismissive of the case, saying “There’s nothing we can do” after the teens claimed it was an accident. (Apology for the graphic photo of his injury.)

“The doctors said he should have been dead,” his grandmother, Lorrie Slattery, said.

attempted lyncing claremont

According to Newsweek, the teens had previously targeted the boy and called him “Nig–er.” At his Claremont vigil Tuesday, someone yelled out “White power!”

This incident is particularly troubling in my mind on the anniversary of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson (all 14) and 11-year-old Denise McNair lost their lives. Many more were injured. Racist attacks existed before Trump’s presidency, obviously, but he stands out as a president who has been noticeably slow to condemn them — or silent — no doubt in part over fear of alienating the racist core of his base. 

Birmingham bombing girls

Silence, tacit approval, and false equivalencies from the top almost guarantee that more racially motivated attacks will follow.

When I first saw the story of the New Hampshire attack, I was equally disturbed that Police Chief Mark Chase’s only initial comments centered the well-being of the perpetrators without a single denouncement of the crime.  “Mistakes they make as a young child should not have to follow them for the rest of their life,” Chase was quoted as saying.

His department has also been tight-lipped on the story further, with no statements making it clear that hate crimes will not be tolerated in his community—a case of dangerous, enabling silence instead of leadership.

Claremont now joins Charlottesville as another example of a spike in hateful rhetoric and attacks that have taken root during the Trump era of coddling white supremacy. Trump’s tepid response to the Charlottesville neo-Nazi march that resulted in the death of anti-racism activist Heather Heyer prompted Congress to pass a resolution condemning white supremacy. But even after signing it, Trump has returned to “violence on all sides” rhetoric that ignores the rise of armed right-wing militia group and hate crimes.

Heather heyer

Heather Heyer

 

My tweet about the attempted lynching got more “likes” and retweets than anything I’ve ever tweeted on my years on Twitter, as of now, 209,501 likes and 167,552 retweets. I also got more trolls than usual, quickly blocked: people more offended that I attributed it to “Tr*mp’s Amrica” than by the act itself; people who believe it’s racist to even discuss racist acts; people who apparently believe we should ignore racism rather than speak up for a brutalized child. Much of the blowback was denial; much was also the fear of societal change that fueled Trump’s election.

But most people of all races and ethnicities were simply as outraged as I was.

It actually goes deeper than outrage: despite everything I know about this nation’s violent racial history, I didn’t want to believe the story. I read the original story twice before I tweeted it, and even then I called the victim a “young man” because I made myself forget he’s only eight. Eight! A baby. Who could do such a thing to such a young child? On one level, I couldn’t wrap my mind around it, and neither could thousands of others who shared the story.

Soon before I read about the child in Claremont, I saw the new film adaptation of Stephen King’s It, where the terror of childhood bullying is personified in the form of an evil clown named Pennywise. In King’s story, and in the film, small-town bullies target all children who are misfits—including a black child named Mike Hanlon. In one scene, a pack of white bullies is severely beating Mike while Pennywise gleefully stares on.

pennywise

Pennywise fomented evil in humans. That made perfect logical sense. Part of the success of the film is the idea that chasing and vanquishing Pennywise as a unified front provides cathartic release.

But there was no Pennywise in Claremont—only teenage boys whose friends and family members might characterize their behavior as typical “boys being boys,” perhaps from families who are “very fine people,” and a police chief whose primary focus seems to be to protect the perpetrators rather than condemning their crime and protecting future victims.

Lynching_Banner_NAACP

Banner hanging at NAACP headquarters in New York, circa 1920-1938.

There is no demon to vanquish in Claremont—except the curse of human frailty and our country’s long history of racial and ethnic violence against the Other. The teenagers in Claremont were just the newest actors in a long-running play, like the men who beat 14-year-old Emmett Till to death over a lie.

Emmett Till

Emmett Till

Did someone “teach” the teenagers in Claremont hate? Or is hate in the air our young people breathe because of the stranglehold of white supremacy that makes it more offensive to call out racism than to act it out? When the president built his political credibility as a racist “birther,” calls Mexicans “rapists” during his campaign, surrounds himself with white supremacists, targets Muslim refugees, and is reluctant to call out neo-Nazis with the full authority of is office,  that is lesson enough for all of us.

Sometimes fiction is the only way to make sense of the insensible.

I was 14 when Miami burned in insurrection after police officers were acquitted for murdering black motorcyclist Arthur McDuffie in 1980, and I discovered that writing might save my life when I wrote a utopian prose poem called “I Want to Live”—simultaneously envisioning the better I future I wanted and staking my claim in it.  I also tackle the inter-generational cost of racism in my novel The Good House, where a demon again shoulders at least some of the blame.

Author Kai Ashante Wilson was shortlisted for both the Hugo and Nebula awards for his unforgettable 2014 novelette “The Devil in America,” which contextualizes racial violence as the work of the devil and makes the devil real enough to touch. It’s not a happy story, but it’s an instructive and gut-wrenching one that many readers of all races and ethnicities believe was the best speculative fiction story of that year. (IF you haven’t read it, read it here NOW.)

As painful as Wilson’s story is, the logic of devilry at work in “The Devil in America” seems strangely comforting in the face of our ongoing challenge of healing our nation’s racial wounds. At the core of Wilson’s story is a cautionary tale of what happens when we abuse power even a little, or when we make deals with those we shouldn’t.

In real life’s headlines, all we’re left with is a horrid tale of a child’s lynching and the stubborn belief by so many people around us that when it comes to racism, the only devil is the messenger.

*****

JOIN ME LIVE:  I’ll discuss the case in Claremont, It, “The Devil in America” and how art can uplift us and help us process pain in this week’s “Afrofuturism Live” on Facebook Live with my husband and collaborator Steven Barnes. Tune in HERE at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT Saturday, 9/16.

Tananarive Due is an American Book Award-winning author who teaches Afrofuturism and Black Horror in the African-American Studies Department at UCLA. 

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Writing & the Art of a Good Scare

 

I try to sound sympathetic, but secretly   the stories are music to my ears.

I couldn’t sleep.  I had to put your book   down for a while.  The cover was so  scary that I had to take if off.  I can’t look at dead leaves the same way.  My husband dressed up like your character and scared me to death when he jumped out of the closet. (He’s a keeper!)

The great Harlan Ellison once advised me to avoid labels like the plague, and I know some readers are forced to argue my case at their book club meetings.  The scariest book I’ve ever read may be Toni Morrison’s Beloved, alongside novels like Pet Sematary by Stephen King.  Horror is just a label.

But I like to write scary stuff.  I don’t know why.  If I want to write about a woman in a difficult relationship, her lover is an immortal.  If I’m reuniting a character with her grandmother, Grandma has been dead for years.  I can’t help myself.  Sometimes I wish I could.

Often, the supernatural element is more gentle and metaphysical, but once in a while I set out to give readers nightmares.

Original hardcover: My Soul to Keep (1997)

It’s not an easy task.  Novelists have to compete with real-life headlines and everyday turmoil that are far scarier than anything we can dream up.  Haunted house—so what?  The bank just foreclosed on your house.  Your boss just laid you off.  Your parent is in a nursing home.

The challenge of writing scary fiction, I think, rests with the very thing that appeals to us as readers and writers:  We’re looking for an escape. No matter what else happens to us over the course of our lives, we won’t have to confront a demon that can possess us.  Most of us, anyway.    Horror fiction scares us in a safe context.  As both a writer and a reader, I look to characters unfortunate enough to land in these books for tools about how to behave when the world caves in on us.

My favorite experiences as a writer are when I can make myself cry…or scare myself.  The crying is easy—I’m a softie.  I can find myself bawling as I write a scene a reader might encounter without the blink of an eye.  Whatever pain I’ve pricked might be purely personal.

But if I scare myself…chances are, I’ll scare the reader too.

The scariest book I’ve written may be a novel called The Good House.  It’s my only book about characters facing a force that’s Evil through and through—so evil it had to be put to sleep hundreds of years ago, and my characters accidentally woke it up.

Every writer of scary fiction has a different philosophy about how to scare the pants off of readers, but I’ll use The Good House as an example of what worked for me.  (And bear in mind that many of these tools are useful in creating engaging fiction across the board.)

1.)    Create characters your readers believe.

This is probably the most oft-ignored rule in bad horror movies and fiction.  You can create the most frightening concept imaginable, but if you don’t have real people to unleash it on, your readers will yawn.  Who would read a 300-plus page novel about a dog barking outside of a Pinto unless they really cared about the mother and son trapped inside?  (Cujo.) Ask Stephen King how important characterization is in creating horror fiction.

While I was writing, I tried to make the protagonist in The Good House especially vivid by pinning up a photo of Angela Bassett, after whom my lead character was named.  I tried to infuse my book’s Angela with the brittle strength Bassett conveys in so many of her movie roles.  The rest was just trying to imagine how I would behave if I found myself in her horrible predicament.

2.)    Delve into your own fears.

This might sound like a no-brainer, but sometimes writers do everything they can to avoid touching the heart of what frightens them.  The Good House was chock full of real-life horrors:  A friend’s sudden loss of her teenage son.  A story from a shaman about a demon gone wild.  A bizarre newspaper story about a man who drowned his son in front of his playmate.

Most of all, I was grappling with intense feelings of isolation during the six years I first moved away from my family, job and friends in Miami to live in the Pacific Northwest.  I expressed my own sense of rootlessness in a character with similar feelings, only amplified.   It’s no coincidence that I wrote my first supernatural novel, The Between, after experiencing 1992’s Hurricane Andrew.  (And that hurricane later showed up in my novel The Living Blood.)

3.)    Create a real world.

On one level, your readers are daring you to scare them.  They’ve hunkered down into a mindset that says I-know-this-isn’t-real-so-there.  A short prologue that introduces your supernatural element or gives them a tastes of the horror to come is a fine hook…but after that, slow down and take your time.  Ground your story in the mundane aspects of life we all know and recognize…and then slowly begin to show your supernatural hand.  By the time your readers realize you’ve roped them into believing the unbelievable, it’s too late.  They’re stuck on the ride.

Also, give your characters—and your readers—time to breathe.  One thrill-ride after another will desensitize them for the moments you really want to count.  Slow down.  Add some levity.  A quiet dinner.  A love scene.  Then…gotcha!

4.)    Steer clear of movie clichés.

The Good House has elements of both a traditional haunted house novel as well as an Exorcist-style demon…but I didn’t set out to imitate anything I had seen before.  My challenge was to try to re-imagine familiar concepts and make them my own.  In her last novel, Fledgling, Octavia E. Butler delved into vampire mythology with her own unique interpretation, drawing on her skills as a science fiction writer.  In my view, far too many writers set out to write horror fiction because they’re inspired by movies rather than the route any good writer should follow—reading a lot of good literature and developing a unique voice and perspective.

If you’ve seen it a million times before, so have your readers.

Don’t watch horror movies, except for fun.  Read, read, read.

Note for screenwriters:  This applies to you too.  If you want to write horror scripts, READ horror scripts.  And Oscar-nominated scripts.  And any quality scripts you can get your hands on.

I wrote three drafts of a screenplay adaptation of The Good House for Fox Searchlight with my husband and collaborator, Steven Barnes. My creative breakthroughs as a screenwriter during that time came after reading scripts like Josh Olson’s A History of Violence, Alex Garland’s 28 Days Later and 12 Monkeys, by Chris Maker & David and Janet Peoples.

Watching the films is cool too, but I learned far more from reading the screenplays before and while viewing the final product.

Where’s the movie version of The Good House?  So far, still on paper.  In my imagination.  Like most film projects, it fizzled out, awaiting a new home.

But meanwhile, Steve and I are collaborating on our first horror novel together—a zombie novel called Devil’s Wake.  (It originated as a short story, “Danger Word,” we published in an anthology called Dark Dreams, recently reprinted in The Living Dead 2.)

And yes, it’s going to be scary.

*****

2015 update: The Good House is currently optioned again. My newest short story collection, Ghost Summer, is on sale now. My YA zombie series with Steven Barnes, Devil’s Wake and Domino Falls, is also available now. WATCH the short film adapted from “Danger Word”: www.dangerword.com.

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