Black Heritage in Horror: An Interview with Steven Van Patten
Steven Van Patten is the author of the celebrated Brookwater’s Curse vampire trilogy, and the Killer Genius serial killer series. He’s also co-author of Hell at The Way Station, which won Best Anthology and Best in Science Fiction at the 2019 African American Literary Awards. Numerous short stories have been published in over a dozen anthologies and he’s a contributing writer/consultant for the YouTube channel Extra History as well as the Viral Vignettes series. He’s a member of the New York Chapter of The Horror Writer’s Association, The Director’s Guild of America, and professional arts fraternity Gamma Xi Phi Incorporated. He’s also the publisher of Growth: The Basics of Our Gardens, a how to guide for anyone interested in growing medicinal marijuana. A fourth of the Brookwater’s Curse series and a final Killer Genius installment are in the works now that Hell at Brooklyn Tea dropped in early 2021.
What inspired you to start writing?
That fact that I used to murder English class was probably the foundation. Like, almost effortlessly. One A+ after another. Plus, I was a voracious reader and would nail my book reports especially if I liked the book. It was something I wanted to explore after I read Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. I think I was twelve. Before that I had watched a ton of horror movies with my mother, who has since lost her taste for it outside of reading my stuff. She also had Interview with the Vampire laying around so I sort of commandeered that. With a little more guidance as a kid, I think I would have seen my way into the writing game earlier and probably not gone into stage managing TV shows. When you think about it, it makes sense that after I got my break at MTV and began that tumultuous part of my life only to be left unfulfilled creatively. Stage managing is all logistics and impatient celebrities, so I still needed an outlet for these creative muscles I built up in school. Work on my first book, Brookwater’s Curse began after a few years of working on TRL. And the wild thing is, working on it kept me sane and drove me to a new level of crazy at the same time. It was during this time that I found my stride, as a creative, as an artist and in some ways as a man. I was becoming in tune with what to expect from myself.
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
I was drawn to horror because I needed it. I needed the distraction, the escape. The truth is, I was sort of an outcast and a latch-key kid until high school, where I would settle into just being awkward. I’m the quintessential late bloomer. With that, all that we now label ‘nerd stuff’ drew my attention and helped keep my little mind off some of the more challenging aspects of my life. Because of my strange interests, the other kids didn’t get me, and to be fair, I may have handled it badly. To give you a sense of how early my problems started, the first fight I ever had in school was over a Planet of The Apes action figure which I mistakenly brought to school only to have someone try to steal it. That was second grade.
As far as horror was concerned, everything I was exposed to became part of this rich fantasy world I developed in my head. At any given moment my imagination let me either hunt Dracula or be just like them. Naturally, this was balanced out with fantasies about being Batman or Spider-Man but as I approached my teens, these fantasies became an addiction. I think that’s possible; being addicted to your own imagination. And mine is a beast. It’s been fed some of the best horror books and movies. There’s also been a lot of cross pollination within genres, like drama and comedy. That’s why there are certain things I cannot stop doing, like inserting humor into some of my work, or creating these dialogues that could easily be inserted into a family drama, if not for the fact it’s a vampire and a werewolf having the argument.
Do you make a conscious effort to include African diaspora characters and themes in your writing and if so, what do you want to portray?
Well, my two solo novel series are about an 1860s Georgia plantation slave who gets turned into a
vampire and a socially conscious Black woman with a near godlike intellect who becomes a serial killer, so I’m pretty much wearing my conscious effort on my sleeve. In the Raise Some Hell series that I have worked on with my podcast mates, Marc Abbott, and Kirk Johnson, we have a mix of straight horror stories where the characters could be any ethnicity and others that speak directly to the experiences of the Black Americans.
As for what I want to do, I want to be the anti-Woody Allen. You know how Mr. Allen will make these movies set in New York but think nothing about not having a single Black person in the movie? I mean, not even a waitress or delivery person! Yeah, that sort of thing annoys the **** out of me. So, I try to be inclusive, but not in the (what I feel to be) slightly condescending way some TV shows are. White hero? Check! Black sidekick? Check. Gay couple? Check! But that’s just my storytelling in general. A more horror genre specific answer is I want to end the Black tropes. These include, but are not limited to, the one Black character not making it past the opening credits and poor character development for the characters of color. I mean, I get it. In many cases, the death of the Black character in the early stages of a horror movie is to establish how lethal the monster really is, since many white people probably can’t imagine too many things more dangerous than us. And the poor character development and stereotypical behavior is usually a result of the writer not having been properly exposed to people of color, so the depictions are either one dimensional or episode of ‘70s sitcom level buffoonish. They don’t even understand that they’ve created a caricature and not a character because they’ve bought into a fabricated version of how Black people are supposed to operate from jump.
Of course, with Jordan Peele and the rest of us running around, things have improved. But there is always room for improvement, especially these days.
What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?
I’ve learned that some people are very limited in their thinking. I’ve learned that some so-called friends have a very limited view of me.
Real talk, I’m past being criticized for being a horror writer. I mean, critique the work, but don’t judge me for doing something that makes me happy. Once, I have an ex-girlfriend who had serious issues with it. Meanwhile, she would attend this mega church that had a full band, TV crew and ATMs on the premises! Yes! ATMs in a church and I’m being belittled for an overactive imagination? I’m not going to cuss, but GTFOH!
I swear if another person comes at me funny about my horror writing because I’m Black or because of their religious hang-ups y’all might see me on the news. There’s this adage in the memes: complete strangers will be more supportive of your creative endeavors than people you know. Some real truth in that, even though I’m happy to say I do have friends and family who get it.
I’ve also learned that there is no more terrifying monster than the human. In researching certain atrocities both to give my horror work and my Black History work I do for the YouTube channel Extra Credit the authenticity that it needs, I have learned some terrifying things that were not covered in school. And that was before we had bans on books and certain kinds of curriculum.
Side note* I can’t wait to get banned. I mean, on the strength of my first novel, I had a white supremacist website once refer to me as a ‘clever monkey’ so who knows? Hope springs eternal.
How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? And how do you think it will continue to evolve?
The networks and Hollywood are starting to get the message and because of that some of us are getting more shine. They have seen Jordan Peele and others hit homeruns and they’re empowering some of us the budgets because in the end, they’ll make their money back. They also get to silence critics by perpetuating the ‘illusion of inclusion.’ They get to say, “We paid everyone scale and we own the rights to everything, but we made a movie with Black people in it!” I know how cynical that sounds, but seriously, can you blame me?
How do you feel the Black community has been represented thus far in the genre and what hopes do you have for representation in the genre going forward?
While Black individuals have been in the mix since Night of The Living Dead the community is a whole other matter. The good news is my answer to that question is no longer, ‘what representation?’ There have been some strides in recent years, with vehicles like Lovecraft Country, you saw a huge step forward.
Of course, we also saw that same ridiculously popular show not get renewed for another season. It’s almost as if HBO went from, “Do a good job!” to “Hey! Not that good!” Truthfully, it might be for the best. If the last few seasons of The Sopranos and that less than cohesive close for Game of Thrones are any indication of what happens to a show when it sits in the HBO garage for too long, it’s all together possible that multiple seasons of ‘LC’ would have suffered from some form of neglect and closed with tarnished legacy.
I’m struggling to think of something that made us look as complete and respected as the characters in Lovecraft Country. Outside of Get Out, of course.
Who are some of your favorite Black characters in horror?
In no particular order, I’ll start with Blacula and Blade. They changed my life and possibly my style of dress.
In fact, all of the Black people in Blacula and Scream, Blacula, Scream (with Pam Grier getting a side shout out for reasons that have nothing to do with horror), have my undead love.
Danny Glover and Sanai Lathan get props for surviving Predator 2 and Aliens vs. Predator respectively.
Both Candymen- Tony Todd and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II can’t forget them!
Keith David for The Thing and being the voice of SPAWN.
Kevin Grevioux holds a special place in my heart for creating the Underworld franchise and starring as a werewolf in said movie series.
And I’m about to go old school on you! Shout out to Marsha Hunt for her roles in Dracula A.D. 1972 and The Howling II.
I know I went with some real names and not character names, but you get what I’m saying.
Who are some African diaspora horror authors you recommend our audience check out?
Outside of my two podcast mates, Marc Abbott and Kirk Johnson I have Valjeanne Jeffers, Denise Tapscott and the constant award winner, L. Marie Wood.
What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
Stay true to your visions but stay open to fine tuning.
And to the Black writers out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?
Do the research. Not just on what you’re writing about, that should be a given and something you have no excuse to be lazy about with the Internet at your fingertips. I’m talking about the background checks you might need to get on these people who decide they want to pair with you because you might be a hot commodity. Or maybe they’re promising to make you a hot commodity. I have fallen for the BS multiple times because I was so desperate for help. I lost a lot of time and money messing around with unqualified, fast-talking individuals, which is galling because some days I actually consider myself and intelligent man. So how did these things happen? Because they promised me the moon and the stars and I in the end, I got the shaft and the balls.