Black Heritage in Horror Month 2024: An Interview with Tish Jackson
What inspired you to start writing?
—Many many moons ago, I entered a contest in elementary school on why an amusement park should relocate to our town and won! I won the essay contest and our town won the amusement park. It made me feel like my words had power. I started writing short stories right after that and finished a murder mystery in junior high and showed it to everyone I could get to read it. I was hooked and wrote everything! But scary stories reminiscent of the movies I watched with my Mom as a child came bubbling up more than any other ideas. I went from murder mysteries to ghost stories to mental murder to zombies and enjoyed every word.
After college I went through a period of writing political and erotic poetry, regularly attending spots like Dorsey’s Locker in Oakland to perform in front of crowds. I loved it but my real love of scary shit didn’t come across as well on a microphone. I heard about an open call for a horror anthology from Brandon Massey in a Yahoo writing group and was granted a spot for my story The Love of a Zombie is Everlasting. As it so happens, my writing paused for a number of years—until I heard about Sumiko Saulson’s book 60 Black Women in Horror which mentioned me. I was shocked and excited to hear that I was actually included in her list…which got me writing again. I moved back home to California and dove into a horror writing community I didn’t even know existed. I am thankful every day that Sumiko saw me, included me, and literally changed the trajectory of my life. The horror world is wild, isn’t it?
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
—As a kid, I enjoyed how there were rules for survival in horror movies that worked; that didn’t exist in real life. In real life even if you followed the rules bad things can still happen. In horror, the chances of survival increased when you knew the rules…so I made it my business to know all the rules by watching all the movies and reading all the books. If vampires took over the world, I’d survive. If the zombie apocalypse happens, I am machete-ready. Even as an adult, life can be hard to navigate through but viewing things through a horror lens makes everyday life problems seem a lot smaller. Sure, my boss is an asshole, but they aren’t trying to eat my flesh, so I can deal right? Horror and its rules provide a framework that helps make real-world problems insignificant and therefore solvable.
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
—As a kid, I enjoyed how there were rules for survival in horror movies that worked; that didn’t exist in real life. In real life even if you followed the rules bad things can still happen. In horror, the chances of survival increased when you knew the rules…so I made it my business to know all the rules by watching all the movies and reading all the books. If vampires took over the world, I’m surviving. If the zombie apocalypse happens, I am machete ready. Even as an adult, life can be hard to navigate through but viewing things through a horror lens makes everyday life problems seem a lot smaller. Sure, my boss is an asshole, but they aren’t trying to eat my flesh, so I can deal right? Horror and its rules provide a framework that help make real world problems insignificant and therefore solvable.
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?
—Initially, I did not make it a point to make my characters Black. I assumed with names like Talyna the reader would make the right assumption. Using certain code words and landmarks that only people from my community would know felt like hiding Black Easter eggs in the work and I enjoyed the thought of only a certain segment of people understanding the references. Turns out, I’m the only weirdo looking for clues. But I have been told that my character comes across as Black from the way they react. I never felt like I had to make a conscious effort; I’m Black and I felt my Blackness would just transfer to my characters. I’m finding out that is not necessarily true, but feel like being a Black writer—in Horror—is pretty revolutionary on its own. I’m still learning and evolving in my old age (ha) and discovering what works best for me and my writing is a forever learning experience. In some of my stories, race is a mandatory feature like in my African ghost story. Sometimes race is immaterial to my stories, but often my characters end up being Black anyway. It’s because I can’t stop my experiences from coloring my work…in fact, I don’t want to…I want the reader to see the story from a Black woman’s point of view. What does she do when confronted with a killer/ghost/entity, as opposed to the average protagonist? It’s a different outcome and a perspective I enjoy expressing.
What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?
–Horror has confirmed all the things I already knew. The good guys kick ass but the bad guys keep trying. I’m an ass-kicker from way back. Most of the people in the horror community are ass-kickers. Having these ideals reaffirmed by other people who understand and create horror validates me. However, it also shows me there are shades of gray within the rules. I can’t lump everyone into good and bad categories. All the aspects have to be considered in order to be successful. You think Ginny escapes Jason’s murderous rage in Friday the 13th part 2 if she hadn’t taken the time to consider the love and empathy those murderous impulses came from? She wouldn’t ever think to put on that nasty sweater and imitate Jason’s mother in order to take him by surprise. Life lessons, amirite?
How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? And how do you think it will continue to evolve?
—For sure, horror has become more inclusive. It remains to be seen how long that will be the case. As we see, this country is backtracking on its commitment to diversity pledged during the George Floyd uprisings. DEI departments are being disbanded and personnel laid off since corporate America may feel the crisis has passed. Will the same happen in horror? Will one box office failure stem the flow of creativity from people of color? I worry that may already be happening in publishing. It feels like politics is coming back into play, with so many instances of Black authors being attacked or edged out of projects.
However — just like Black history in this country, we are not going backward. Now that we have a foot in the door, I feel as a Black author I’m not getting pushed out of any more spaces. With the current technology, we no longer have to wait to be published, or have scripts approved—we can do it ourselves now. We can crowdfund our projects, green light our own stories, and put them in front of the biggest audience of them all — the internet. For that reason, I believe you will continue to see our stories come to light. More than just Jordan Peele blockbusters, but upstarts like Juel Taylor will share their stories with the world. More Eden Royce and L. Marie Woods; Victor LaValle and Maurice Broaddus; SA Cosby and Jewelle Gomez.
Who are some of your favorite Black characters in horror?
—I am a big fan of Tony Todd in 1990’s Night of the Living Dead. It thrilled me to see this tall strong Black man striding through the house throwing commands around, and slicing zombies left and right. I thoroughly enjoyed his confrontations with the basement dad and how all the other characters naturally deferred to his authority.
A no brainer is Jada Pinkett in Demon Knight. I wanted to BE her in that movie! lol. She was badass; talking back to CCH Pounder in any fashion is life-threatening! But the way they played Billy Zane time and time again was delicious. When she spit that blood in his face, my soul soared. Loved it. I desperately wanted a part two of that story. With the new demon being Mark David Kennerly up against Jada? I would love to see it!!!!
I also have to give a big up to Sennia Nanua from The Girl With All The Gifts. Little sis schooled those folks nicely, didn’t she? LOL. I love how the story starts with the so-called child monster being dependent on the adults and how it slowly turns around. It gives shades of Matheson’s I Am Legend by asking, who is the real monster here? Is it progress or annihilation? The way Sennia sees through Glenn Close from the beginning and turns them all into her creatures at the end? Chef’s Kiss.
Who are some African diaspora horror authors you recommend to our audience check out?
—Please check out works from: Linda Addison / L. A. Banks / R. J. Joseph / Tenea Johnson / Helen Oyeyemi / Marc Abbott / Denise Tapscott / Kai Leakes / Stephen Van Patten / Nicole Givens Kurtz / Chesya Burke / I could do this all day! Carole McDonnell / Sheree Renee Thomas / John Lawson / Paula Ashe / Wrath James Write / Rasheedah Prioleau / Nnedi Okorafor / Candace Nola / Erick Nunnally / Jewelle Gomez
—Off the top, Linda Addison is one of the BEST people in this horror business. Dedicated to helping new writers, Linda is probably responsible for hundreds of new writers in this genre. She is a fantastic human being, an ass-kicker from way back with a tender heart that showers love on people. She gave me my second chance to write in this genre and I am forever grateful. She has been paving the way for all horror writers—but definitely for Black writers—to be seen and heard in this business. Give her all the things.
—Tananarive Due True Story: Right before I was published for the first time, I got a chance to meet Tananarive Due at Marcus Books in Oakland. She gave the still true advice everyone gives: don’t give up, keep writing. It may seem trite and overused but it felt like she reinvigorated me by saying it. Even though she had never read anything I wrote, this famous person looked me directly in the face and encouraged me to do what I love…I will never forget that. Every time I see her, she is always so kind and gracious and makes you feel like whatever fan-based craziness you’re babbling to her is valid.
These are all writers whose work I’ve read and have NEVER been disappointed. Like not one word.
What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
—Don’t be afraid to write that story. So many times we may limit ourselves to what we THINK we are supposed to do/feel/write. Some folks will try to follow trends and write what they think people want instead of writing what they long to put on paper. Stop saying “It’s too _____” –bloody, gory, sexy, disgusting—just write it! There is an audience for the weirdest things—and the most pragmatic. I heard someone say their ghost story is too boring for horror…but I promise you, some quiet introvert somewhere will love reading that boring ghost story and will love it when she scares herself silly afterward. Write it. Don’t limit yourself. Write. It!
Did I say Write It?
And to the Black writers out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?
–Find your people! Find those authors that speak to your interests and befriend them. One thing I love about this community is that you can literally email famous writers and receive a response. So many horror writers are perfectly happy to talk shop and provide feedback. Go to writing events. Attend conventions. Take advantage of programs like the HWA’s scholarships and immerse yourself in the craft. You will find that opportunities open up once you position yourself in the right place. Please keep writing. We need your voice. We need all the voices!
Happy Horror Writing!
Bio: Once upon a time there was a brown girl who loved horror. She was delighted to find it loved her back. When life circumstances did not turn out the way she wanted, horror provided her with the justice she was denied in real life. The trials of high school bullies were mitigated by books with nerds triumphing over evil clothed in adult attire. Finding out her uniqueness did not allow conformity within groups, the girl found solace in reading scary stories that celebrated differences. The girl was thankful for the gifts her friend Horror had given her, helping her cope and grow without bitterness; it was a given that she would do her best to spread horror to others. So she began to write. The girl told stories that executed the karmic wheel on cheating boyfriends. Her zombies did their best to be capable of true love. When the nightmares were particularly bad, Cthulu tales wreaked vengeance upon the world in her stead. When real life let her down, Horror always had her back. The girl grew into a chameleon and navigated the world of corporate America while on the inside she saw vampires and ghouls. She maintained a happy visage; people commented on her glowing personality, not knowing the dark depths that moved inside her. For it was Horror that allowed her to be happy through all that had befallen her. Horror reminded her it could always be worse. So she embraced it as it had always embraced her.