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Black Heritage in Horror: Interview with John Edward Lawson


While John Edward Lawson has been called “The forgotten black man of horror” he also regularly publishes science fiction, nonfiction, and literary fiction. His work has been nominated for the Dwarf Stars, Rhysling, Stoker, and Wonderland Awards in addition to the Pushcart Prize. For his work as an editor John received the 2018 HWA Specialty Press Award. He currently serves as President of the Horror Writers Association.

What inspired you to start writing?

Growing up in the 1970s with parents who had severe mental and physical illness I sort of had to raise myself while being their caretaker. We were in poverty, being an interracial family we caught prejudice three different ways, and I was compensating for unaddressed PTSD and severe depression going back to age 3 or 4, apparently. In short, things sucked. And while there wasn’t enough food there were always books and TV, and movies because a family friend at the theater would sneak us in, and art back living around Washington, DC the museums are free. Art was always encouraged and served as a revolving door to multiple worlds of escape.

What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?

I guess…sad to say, but probably that it was the most relatable to me! I mean, nothing else really felt real in fiction, coming where I come from. Fantasy, science fiction, other genres, I love them, but there’s got to be some horror element for it to resonate with me. In the movie Inception the dream architects don’t have to create whole worlds, just provide the basics, and dreamers fill in the details with projections—their own experiences and opinions. I guess if we take that and apply it to reading it explains why horror is where I’m comfortable.

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?

I suppose I’m in a odd position because I don’t start off with a default type of character, either in terms of gender or love life or ethnicity, class, etc., but usually end up with a broad spectrum of people in my work. Lots of Black characters, mixed race folks, immigrants from the Caribbean or Africa. And definitely, throughout all of it, strong currents of Afrosurrealist influence. My jam is, generally, to root the emotional core of the story in an identity subduction zone. Unlike the stereotypical subduction zone, though, here you have the othered personality slowly being driven down under the tectonic plate of privileged society, ground down into the super-heated lava zone of transgressions. We end up with a 10.0 on the Richter scale. Or, at least I hope we do, if I’ve done my job as an author.

What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?

Over the years I would have answered this a bunch of different ways, but now I have to say the understanding that external negative stimuli is a good thing. It drives change and prevents stagnation when complacency threatens to take over. Change is life, and is creation. So I’ve learned to embrace pain as necessary and a good thing. Which is somewhat at odds with horror. Things don’t scare me, per say, and I’ve realized my standard dreams are what other people consider nightmares even though I just find them interesting and not scary (I’ve only waken in terror a couple times in the last 20 years, both of which were the result of me dreaming I was back in my1990s customer service job). Even so, I was writing from the perspective that pain was something people should avoid, which was in keeping with the fundamental ideas driving most horror narratives. It’s weird relearning the story creation experience now that I’m essentially, I don’t know, writing from the philosophical perspective of maybe a Hellraiser cenobite.

How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? And how do you think it will continue to evolve?

Honestly, it’s been like witnessing the creation of the printing press centuries back. When I started in the late 1990s gatekeepers were an actual thing. Not in the boogeyman, name-calling kinda way “gatekeepers” exist today. I mean you had to have a product that somebody else’s marketing team believed would perform well (meaning high sales within two to four weeks of release) occupying one of the maybe ten spaces available for new horror releases on a physical shelf in a brick and mortar store. There was no social media with which to build your own platform, there were no tools for easy cover design or freelance artist collaboration, no way to buy your own publicity that would appear as professional as what major companies were doing, no eBooks with which to reach people. Now? You can literally do anything you can think of through self publishing, or adding your own efforts to your traditionally published work. You can curate and educate or entertain by becoming a radio or TV host through the Internet. It’s wild out here. At this point, in comparison to where we were 25 years ago, nobody can stop you but yourself. Subgenres have exploded, and new subgenres have been created, and cross-genre work is something you can do now. We can fully explore our creativity, finally. And with the state of the world horror is entering a new golden age, so I expect even more of the same, including growth in traditions that are not English-first.

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?

It’s easy to think things haven’t changed that much, but going back and taking in the books and comics and films from three, four decades ago drives home how much we either didn’t exist in popular culture, or were the punch line, the sacrificial friend, or the scapegoat. I was reading survey results a few years ago indicating white consumers in the USA believed once you hit forty percent nonwhite characters they viewed it as no longer white-centric and not for them/not relatable. Even when they are still sixty percent of what is being represented! And that’s recent sentiment in our society. So, we have progress, a lot of it, but still so much more work to do. At least Black executives are finally in place to make some of the decisions about what happens with popular media, because even money doesn’t matter; HBO’s most watched new series in 2020 was Lovecraft Country, and Archive 81 was a hit for Netflix, but like so many other Black protagonist successes they were cancelled.

Who are some of your favorite Black characters in horror?

The characters I’m always motivated by are the ones bringing the chaos, driving the change, generally folks considered closer to villains by society. Maybe that’s because I’m often assumed to be dangerous when I show up in public as a large, dark-complected person. Somebody like Sethe, from Beloved, who’s willing to do things people would condemn her for in order to protect her children from the evils of the world. On the flipside, you have characters like Childs from The Thing and Parker from Alien, played by Keith David and Yaphet Kotto respectively, who are hard enough to not be ground down by entire nations set up against them, much less by a single hostile alien.

Who are some African diaspora horror authors you recommend our audience check out?

Folks I enjoy and are maybe not being read as much as they could be are R.J. Joseph, L. Marie Wood, Eugen Bacon, and Tracy Cross. I’ll add that folks ought to read beyond the one or two books hyped in the horror community by P. Djelí Clark and Victor LaValle too. Now that I think of it, Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson is way too slept on currently as well.

What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?

There are layers to this. We are all hand-hewn by the sharp edges of those around us; we create by slicing off and serving up something from our internal life of experiences and imagination; we carve out space for ourselves in the industry. Not just as an anatomical cutaway view of our trauma, but revealing unexpected beauty and complexity such as the striated rainbow-colored rock formations of the Painted Desert, or even those cakes made to look like everyday items. Or, professionally, not just art stacked on top of meaning, but ensuring multiple income streams from every work we create or achieving “economy of scale” so every promotional move we make pushes multiple types of products and/or events. So my advice is this: choose your blades and sharpen or dull them accordingly, mindful of your long-term end result intent. Because there are layers to this.

And to the Black writers out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?

We are the breath of our ancestors. We are the thought they willed into physical being. They were not wrong to sacrifice for you, to clear the way for you. You belong here. Take up space. Don’t go away. Publishing is a battle of attrition, meaning those who remain are discovered in one way or another…by readers, academics, libraries, movie producers, somebody. Most folks bounce after just three years in the scene, but it’s only after three years that a lot of people start taking you seriously. So remind yourself: you belong, take up space, don’t go away.

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