Black Heritage in Horror: Interview with Wrath James White
WRATH JAMES WHITE is the author of such extreme horror classics as THE RESURRECTIONIST, SUCCULENT PREY, and it’s sequel PREY DRIVE, YACCUB’S CURSE, 400 DAYS OF OPPRESSION, THE BOOK OF A THOUSAND SINS, HIS PAIN, POPULATION ZERO, IF YOU DIED TOMORROW I WOULD EAT YOUR CORPSE, HARDCORE KELLI, and many many others. He has co-wriiten books with Edward Lee, J.F. Gonzalez, Maurice Broaddus, Matt Shaw, and Kristopher Rufty.
Wrath lives and works in Austin, TX.
What inspired you to start writing?
This is a hard one to answer. Do I tell you about when I was in 4th grade and wrote a horror poem titled “The Easter Fright” about the Easter Bunny attacking people? That was the first time I received praise for something I had written. I was asked to read it in front of the entire school.
Or, do I talk about when I was in 6th grade and I wrote a story about flying whales with hearts that were a source of perpetual energy who were being hunted by humans who wanted to use their hearts to fuel their spaceships? I wrote that to try to raise some money to buy ninja stars. It was the 80s. You’d get it if you were a kid in the 80s. Everyone wanted ninja stars.
Or, when I was 17 and a creative writing major at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) and submitted a short story to a magazine called Night Cry and got my little heart broken?
Or when I started writing my first novel when I was 24 after finding out I was going to be a father because I wanted to be something my son could be proud of? I’d read a book about life growing up in a ghetto in Oakland that was just so unrealistic it pissed me off. When I told the owner of a Black bookstore in San Francisco how unrealistic I thought that book was she asked me if I could do any better, and I thought I could. So I wrote Yaccub’s Curse. It took me ten years to get that book right.
All of these answers are equally true.
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
Horror is exciting. It’s dark. It’s broad and all-encompassing. It can contain almost every other genre from comedy to erotica and even literary fiction. It is primal. It feeds my controlling nature by giving me the power to manipulate emotions. I love writing a scene I know will repulse the reader or make them choke back a tear or sleep with the lights on or question their views on a subject. I like drawing out the rawest emotions in my readers. Horror is one of the many ways I indulge my sadistic side.
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 make a conscious effort to tell my own stories that are unique to me. Sometimes that means the characters will be Black and sometimes not. Whatever best allows me to convey my own peculiar perspective on the world as seen through the prism of my lived experiences, my ideas, and emotions. Since a lot of my inspiration comes from arguments or subjects that piss me off, and I am a Black man, I cannot help but include race issues in my writing.
I can recall back when I was 21 years old or so, realizing that with all the poems and short stories I had written both throughout school and as a spokenword performer, I had never written anything about being Black. When I sat down to unfuck that and express my feelings on being a Black man in America I just vomited out all this anger and pain. It surprised me because, at that time, I didn’t think I had any issues with racism.
My writing has always been like that for me. It’s how I uncover my true thoughts and feelings. It’s a type of therapy. That’s probably where the intensity in my work originates from, and why there’s so little humor in it.
What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?
That there is horror everywhere, in the world and in myself. When I write an antagonist I begin by finding their motivation. Then I look within and ask what would have to have occurred in my experiences, my upbringing, or my environment to make me that type of monster. I am continually amazed at how little it would take. One or two bad decisions. One or two major failures or tragedies. That’s usually it.
How have you seen the horror genre change over the years?
Since I was first published in 2001, ebooks and audiobooks have almost taken over as the primary way horror fiction is consumed. I wouldn’t have guessed that. Print On Demand technology, as well as the invention of the Kindle and other ereaders, have made self-publishing and small-press publishing more widely accessible and acceptable. It has given authors more alternatives than the big publishing houses. But, in the last ten or twelve years, the number of small press publishers have begun to dwindle again as self-publishing has risen. There used to be such a stigma around self-publishing, and most of that is gone now.
I will also say the horror genre has become much more diverse. The sad thing about that statement is how much it still lacks diversity. It is still a rare thing to see more than three authors of color or more than two openly gay or trans authors in an anthology. To think it was so much worse when I started gives me hope, but that it hasn’t come as far as I imagined it would have in the last twenty years is depressing.
And how do you think it will continue to evolve?
The world is changing. Society is changing. Culture is changing. As a society we weren’t even talking about BDSM and kink fifteen years ago. We weren’t talking about respecting people’s pronouns even ten years ago. We weren’t talking about asexual or aromantic people even five years ago. Everyone thought it was just BIPOC folks being ignored, who were invisible. Turns out there’s a wide spectrum of races, nationalities, gender expressions, and sexual orientations we haven’t properly represented. I think that will change, but it will be frustratingly slow.
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?
Poorly. I think we have all, collectively, done a poor job of reflecting the intricacies and beauty of Black culture. And I include myself in this. Too often we use the very small window of opportunity we have to portray BIPOC characters to repeatedly show the same aspects of Black culture.
I grew up in Philadelphia in the 80s, so it is hard for me not to write about the drugs and violence I saw growing up. Or to write about single mothers and absent fathers, hip hop culture, kids growing up navigating racism, poverty, and the constant threat of bodily harm. I want to write about other facets of Black culture, but much of it is outside my experience, so I need suburban Black kids to write about their experiences growing up. Bi-racial authors to write about their experiences. Gay, bi, trans, and non-binary Black authors to talk about their experiences. I have made more of an effort lately to show those other sides, but it won’t help if there’s only a handful of us doing it. But, I also recognize that it remains difficult for many of us to get editors to accept those stories. They want the same old stereotypes. That’s comfortable for them, but horror is not about what makes people feel safe and comfortable. The exact opposite in fact.
Who are some of your favorite Black characters in horror?
I tend to write the things I want to read, so my favorite characters are the ones I wrote. I know that sounds terribly narcissistic, but I’m getting too old to be coy and shy away from honesty. If I really thought about it though, most of my favorite Black characters, like Candyman for instance, were actually written by white authors. That probably says a lot about how much access and exposure we have to Black characters written by Black authors.
Who are some African diaspora horror authors you recommend our audience check out?
Tanannarive Due, Maurice Broaddus, Victor Del Valle, and Chesya Burke would come first to mind. I’ll add Rowland Bercy Jr. in there as well. I like what he’s doing.
What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
Don’t follow trends. Set them.
And to the Black writers out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?
Tell your stories. Show us your lives, what makes you beautiful and unique. Be fearless in expressing yourself