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Black Heritage in Horror: Interview with Vaughn A. Jackson


Vaughn A. Jackson began writing somewhere around the time he could grasp a writing utensil, and has since authored two novels: Up from the Deep and Touched by Shadows. His writing falls under the speculative fiction umbrella, often blending elements of fantasy, horror, and science fiction. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association, and lives somewhere outside of Baltimore. When he isn’t writing, Vaughn is probably playing video games, watching bad (read: great) science fiction movies, or trying frantically to keep up the guise of being an adult. You can find Vaughn screaming into the void @Blaximillion on Twitter or posting photos of whatever tickles his fancy on Instagram @blaximillon_author.

What inspired you to start writing?

I’ve been doing some form of writing for as long as I can remember. And for as long as I’ve been able to write, I’ve wanted to be a writer. Both of my parents raised me with a healthy interest in amazing stories both through reading to me as a child and providing easy and open access to books as I grew up. Of course, I’ve not just been inspired by books, but video games, comics, and even the occasional concept album.

It wasn’t until college that I started writing in a way that could actually lead to authorship, and I suppose the inspiration for that was probably a tipsy conversation I had with one of my roommates about an idea that I had for a science fiction novel which at the time I believe I explained as The Hunt for Red October meets Starblazers/Space Battleship Yamato. It reminded me how passionate I was about writing and while that novel has yet to see the light of day (if it ever will) it spurred me to write my second story, which eventually became Touched by Shadows.

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

I feel like I might be a weird case here, because I didn’t set out to write horror, and wasn’t particularly drawn to it at first. In fact, I thought I’d be really bad at it. The first novel-length thing I wrote was science fiction, but most of the feedback I got from friends was praise for the more horrific elements that I did include.

I wrote my first horror story—the thing that became Touched by Shadows—in response to the 2015 Baltimore Riots over the murder of Freddie Gray. I used the piece as a way to process and vent my feelings in a way that felt safe and controlled. The first draft of that was a rather angry piece, but in writing it I realized that horror as a genre could be a way for me to make sense of the senseless so to speak, not to explain it away, but to help me work through it. In a weird way, horror as a genre became a safe space for me…something I can turn to when things get rough.

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?

Yes, because I want my people to see themselves well portrayed in different genres. White people grow up and see heroes and protagonists and whatnot that all look like them. That in and of itself is not bad, but if every hero is white, what are black people going to think: That we can’t be heroes? That we can only be comic relief, gangsters, drug dealers, or some horrible conversation of all three? That if shit hits the fan we’re going to be the first to bite it? That is where it gets bad. So I try to write heroes, villains, characters of all kinds that look like us, in situations that we can relate to for better or worse, and I try to show that we can be the protagonists to our own stories, we can survive the horror movies, and that our feelings and situations matter. I try to portray us as fully realized people with flaws, feelings, and futures.

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

Honestly? It’s taught me that in some ways, the real world is far more horrifying than anything I could ever put to words. I mean, at least if an Elder God kills you, you can be pretty sure it wasn’t racially motivated. Like I said earlier, horror has become a sort of safe space for me.

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

So I really have to give props to Jordan Peele here, because I think he has and still is very much popularizing the idea of “black people horror” and bringing it to the mainstream. It’s been interesting to see the rise (particularly in film) of more black writers and the breaking of the tropes that used to bind us (i.e. the black guy always dies first). Obviously it still happens, but I do notice it less and less as I watch.

Along with that, I think that horror has finally started getting more of the respect it deserves. Everyone seemed to accept that Science Fiction and Fantasy could be “literary” — but I feel like horror had still been treated as “those penny dreadfuls” going so far as to classify anything horror-ish that was also literary as a different genre (i.e. Frankenstein as solely sci-fi, Dracula as gothic). Neither of these are false, but those are still very much horror stories.

As far as the evolution of horror, I think the biggest thing to expect is the diversification of horror. Now that there is more good POC, LGBTQ+, neurodivergent, etc representation in horror, people of those dispositions will be encouraged to consume and create more of it going forward. And this in turn I think will create more and more branches of horror, because people of different subcultures fear different things and react to fear in different ways. The best example of this in my opinion is Get Out (spoilers) at the end of the movie when the cop car shows up, all of the black people in the theater where I saw the movie groaned in despair—because cops aren’t a good thing to us. In a story with a white protagonist, the cops showing up at the end is a sign that it’s over, it’s a sense of relief. Not so much for black people.

I think this might be me rambling, so for a tl;dr: “Horror has become a more respected and more diverse genre that will continue to expand and branch and discuss new issues going forward.”

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?

I feel like I accidentally answered part of this in the previous question, but to answer in a way that I hope is not reiterative: In recent years, the black community has shifted away from being just the cannon fodder or comedic relief of horror. We’ve taken up starring roles in the genre, and are starting to become more recognized as creators of it as well. My ultimate hope for representation of the black community in the future is that it is as ubiquitous, diverse, and well-handled as the plethora of white representation.

Who are some of your favorite Black characters in horror?

Oh, let’s see…Candyman (not that you’ll ever catch me saying his name out loud), Sgt. Apone from Aliens, Ben from The Night of the Living Dead, Adelaide from Us, Lamar Reed from Brian Keene’s Dead Sea, Charles Thomas Tester from Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, Atticus from Lovecraft Country, Lex Woods from Alien vs. Predator…and I’ll stop there or I might ramble on forever. (Honorable Mention to Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Russell Franklin, for making me choke on my drink at the ridiculousness of his on screen death).

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

Another list, okay: Victor LaValle, P. Djeli Clark, Tananarive Due, L. Marie Wood, Rodney Barnes, and Octavia Butler are all probably good places to start! Oh and Vaughn A. Jackson, I hear he’s pretty good…

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

In reference to the back and forth discussion I see of “Is it okay X kind of person to write Y kind of person?”

People are not stereotypes, or monoliths. You can write about people of any race, sexuality, and so on, so long as you do it with respect. Or more to the point, don’t try to write a “black character” — write a fully fleshed out person, who is black, and then carefully consider what that means for them AND their story.

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

Hmmm. Writing advice is weird for me, because what works for me — or what I think is right might be absolute garbage to someone else. And I don’t think there is much writing advice I can give that isn’t floating somewhere out in the ‘verse…so how about some encouragement instead:

You may have a harder time of it, but you are just as capable and just as worthy of being a great writer as any of the names you see touted around as being the “greats” — but don’t try to be the next S.A. Cosby or Samuel Delany or Charles Saunders, be the first you, and make it brilliant!

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