Black Heritage in Horror: Interview with P.M. Raymond
P.M. Raymond hails from New Orleans but currently lives on the East Coast with 27 cookbooks and an imaginary dog named Walter. You can find her enjoying a café au lait and indulging in the storytelling mastery of Shirley Jackson, M.R. James, Joe Hill, Tananarive Due, and manga maestro, Junji Ito. Her work has appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine, Kings River Life Magazine, Dark Fire Fiction, Pyre Magazine, The Furious Gazelle, Dark Yonder, and Rock, Roll, and Ruin anthology from Down & Out Books. Find her at www.pmraymond.com or follow her on Twitter.
What inspired you to start writing?
As a child, I was always a bit of an introspective daydreamer and liked to make up stories about the world around me when I got bored. I am a native of New Orleans so there is a lot to conjure up being exposed to that culture!
When I lived in St. Louis in the mid-2000s, I edged into professional writing by submitting lifestyle articles to a regional fashion and nightlife magazine. The articles were so popular that I had a regular section for a few years. All of that laid the foundation for when I moved to the East Coast to get serious about my writing.
As a transplant to a new area with no social net, I started attending the local Sisters in Crime chapter events to meet people. Oddly enough, I found a fellow horror enthusiast in SinC who introduced me to Horror Writers Association.
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
Horror was not an obvious genre for me growing up in the late 80s. I sort of fell into it. I read books that I liked. For me, The Stand by Stephen King, Ghost Story by Peter Straub, or Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews, wasn’t categorized as “horror” in my mind. I was drawn to writing that reflected the edges of uncomfortable real or perceived danger in the world. Growing up in predominately White spaces was always a bit uncomfortable and carried social danger based on whom you associated with. Those kinds of feelings provoked through a horror narrative didn’t feel like horror with a capital “H” to me. I always carried a bit of anxiety in my teen years, so I felt ‘seen’ within the horror construct.
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?
Many of my characters are African American and my short stories touch on themes of identity, belongingness, and, in some cases when I’m having fun, retribution. In my story in Pyre Magazine, “The John Hughes Guide to High School Girl Transformations”, I recount the microaggression that many African American women and girls face around hair texture. My story in Dark Yonder, “The Entitled Life and Untimely Death of King Booker” recounts how a man underestimates the power of his wife and mother-in-law to his detriment in segregated 1960s New Orleans. I pivot into male-led stories but most of my work-in-progress features black women protagonists finding their power whether that is paranormal or exercising choices at their disposal.
What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?
My writing journey has taught me to believe more in my creative process and ability. Getting my first short story acceptance email, I thought it was a fluke. Then I quickly received multiple acceptances, which was not what I expected. But now I can see there is space for a black woman to create horror and I can do it on my own terms and without a lot of fanfare.
How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? And how do you think it will continue to evolve?
Every story by a Black author that I read growing up or that was assigned on reading lists was one of identity and trauma. There was never, NEVER any genre fiction, at least not as we would define it today (Lord of the Flies and The Metamorphosis are clearly horror but were considered literary in a school setting). I think it leads many people of color to think that genre fiction isn’t “for” us until we discover that it is!
It seems like the general publishing industrial complex only wants to see narratives about being Black with a side of pain, suffering, and overcoming. And while that is a very real part of our lives, it can lead readers of all races to believe that we can’t write genres like romance, mystery, sci-fi, or fantasy because it’s trivial compared to our very real traumas.
I’m seeing a welcome change in genre fiction, especially horror with more people of color, LGBTQIA+, women, and other underrepresented voices making a massive impact. Have I ever wanted to write in the romance genre? Sure, why not. If the great Walter Mosley can write crime noir (Devil in a Blue Dress), horror (The Tempest Tales), and sci-fi (Inside a Silver Box), why can’t I? We no longer have to limit what we write and how we write it.
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?
The Black community has been, by default, disposable, gentrified, and used as trope fodder for a long time in the horror genre. I am not breaking any new ground in pointing that out. The way to disrupt this cycle is to have more Black horror writers writing about Black characters. We can’t and shouldn’t rely on someone else to tell our stories in a balanced way. The good news is that we have never waited for change but created the change we want to see. Many exciting voices are entering the genre to widen the perspectives.
The opportunity to define the narrative is increasing, therefore, representation is showing a vast spectrum of Black storytellers with unique ideas to share. We are not a monolith of people with one experience.
Who are some of your favorite Black characters in horror?
Candyman was a BIG deal when that came out. I was obsessed, like everyone else, with Tony Todd’s performance. I was a big fan of Rachel True’s character, Rochelle, in The Craft. I have started watching older movies from the 70s and recently caught Ganja and Hess and the lead characters Ganja Meda and Dr. Hess Green stuck with me. Really weird movie but I was definitely there for the weirdness. And this may be controversial, but I like the book version of Dick Hallorann in The Shining. Scatman Crothers did him justice, but the movie did him dirty by killing him!
Recently, I’ve been impressed with the updated version of Interview with a Vampire and all of the lead characters, but Bailey Bass as Claudia is a standout. I love this version of Claudia!
Who are some African diaspora horror authors you recommend our audience check out?
I know I’m late to the party on this one but one of my favorite books in recent memory is The Good House by Tananarive Due. I hung on every word like it was life or death. Horror adjacent but still notable for its increasing creepiness is the debut novel, The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris, about a woman who is the only Black person working in an NYC publishing company. Let that sink in.
Because I write only short stories at this point, I am seeking out more horror short story collections and have Skin Folk by Nalo Hopkinson, a Jamaican-born writer, and Let’s Play White by Chesya Burke, a dark fantasy and horror writer out of Kentucky, on my reading list. And I may sneak in White Is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi, a Nigerian-British writer, since I like a good spooky house story featuring twins since I am a twin.
What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
Read outside of the genre. Write outside the genre. Take risks and write in a different format like a screenplay or poem or 2nd person. Do something different at least once a year. It may not be publishable, like my awful screenplay, but you get your mind to work differently and that can bring a breakthrough. My short story, “Adventures in Babysitting”, was an exercise in 2nd person POV that I was experimenting with that I thought would go nowhere. I was shocked when I got the email that it was one of two finalists in The Furious Gazelle Halloween contest in 2022.
This year for my “something different” I am writing a story in French which is my second language. The output will be terrible, but I am going to try it anyways and see where it takes me.
And to the Black writers out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?
Read and write consistently. Period. You should already know that but it’s worth repeating. Beyond that, don’t feel the need to apologize for, overexplain, or change certain aspects of cultural content to appease an editor or codify their comfort level. Why am I saying this? I recently came across a colleague who was asked to change the voice of her piece, explain every detail of culturally specific words, and italicize the foreign words. Basically, dumb down everything and strip it of its uniqueness under the guise that the readers won’t understand nor want to learn any of it on their own.
Know your value and your voice and say NO to requests to sanitize the culture out of your story. You don’t need editors who ask/demand that you do this. I promise! I am a member of a critique group so when my work makes references to New Orleans-specific things like the neutral ground or parishes instead of counties, it has been recommended that I explain these terms. I have never done it and the stories have still sold without the editor asking about it either. So, the lesson is that a good editor will not be afraid of your diversity. They will embrace it. And they know how to use Google search.