The one consistent thing that came out of the Dark Matters: Weird Fiction from the African Diaspora panel at Necronomicon was that weird fiction in black imagination isn’t really concerned much with Cosmic Horror. The idea of a vast, indifferent universe isn’t terrifying when you are consistently othered and in the Eurocentric worldview, you are already treated with indifference. We have to deal with our horrors away from the spotlight. In panelist Chesya Burke’s short piece “Walter and the Rat,” the cosmic horror is infrastructure of White Supremacy, which causes disenfranchisement. “The Rat in the Wall” is the literal point of view character in this story. In panelist Victor LaValle’s “The Ballad of Black Tom,” the title character, who was the monstrous other in Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook,” has a different relationship to the indifferent, malevolent chthonic deities. For myself, I am drawn more towards ‘weird fiction’ that is imbued with dream-logic rather than fear or horror. As discussed in the panel, many of the tropes used in Euro-horror, like possession, zombies and voodoo (Vodoun) are, in the diaspora, not necessarily evil or bad things. The gods we hid behind the edifice of Christianity are not good or bad. They are both. Possession is an intimate joining with these spirits. It is not an invasion; it is an invitation to partake of the Divine. Yes, there is sacrifice in Vodoun/Santeria/Candomble; but the rituals are prayers and not demonic summonings. Our wise woman weren’t burned at the stake. Tituba escaped that fate. Mining the black folkloric traditions creates it’s own wonderful cosmology, once freed from the White Gaze.
My interview with the multi award-winning literary horror writer Victor LaValle is now posted at the Washington Independent Review of Books.
I’m particularly proud of this one–I am a fan of LaValle’s work.
Over at Greydogtales, a weird fiction blog, author/critic Paul St. John Macinktosh has an essay that examines the latest kerfuffle in the weird fiction community. (Lovecraft’s racism and the legacy of his fiction in many ways mirrors the current culture war over Civil War monuments). In the essay, he highlights POC writers (N.K. Jemisin, Victor Lavalle) who subvert/revise/challenge the subtextual xenophobia in HPL’s work in addition to calling out the denialism/minimizing that many aficionados use.
If there was a huge racial component to Lovecraft’s definition of “unknown,” then you could almost read into such remarks a frustrated longing to engage with other unknown peoples, as much as fear and distaste towards them. That’s as plausible an interpretation as any claim that Lovecraft’s mature work is some kind of systematic dog-whistling for underlying racism, with Deep Ones and ocean-going cultists standing in for black Americans and Catholic immigrants.
Link: Lovecraft’s Legacy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Last week I went to a panel hosted by the National Academies of Sciences called “Identity, Race, and Genetics.”* It featured an author/editor, a PhD Candiate who wrote on the History of Science, a NIH geneticist and a law professor. The law professor–who was also an artist. The lawyer-scholar-artist mentioned the virulent racism of H.P. Lovecraft and suggested that black people lived in Cthulhuscene Period, due to the past and ongoing history of (pseudo)science and the black body. Lovecraftian mythos shows mankind as the inevitable victim of a hostile universe; existing while black (in a hostile/racialized universe) is part and parcel of the Black Experience.
I immediately thought about LaValle’s novella. The book is dedicated to Lovecraft (and H.P. even has a cameo). The Ballad of Black Tom is kind of an answer/re-positioning of the notorious Horror at Red Hook. It’s written from the perspective of a black first generation immigrant grifter and concerns his unfortunate dabbling in the occult. Imagine a collaboration between Richard Wright’s social realist fiction with Lovecraft at his lurid best, and you would have this novel. In place of Lovecraft’s rampant eugenical musing, LaValle shows what it was like to be of African descent in 1920s New York, complete with run ins with the police and racists. The novel compares and contrasts the horror of White Supremacy with the horror of Elder Gods. The reader is left to decide which is worse.
*DC Art Science Evening Rendezvous (DASER) Participants:
Sheree Renee Thomas, World Fantasy Award-winning editor and author
J. Cecilia Cardenas-Navia, Ph.D., History of Science and Medicine, Yale University
Bill Pavan, Senior Investigator, National Genome Research Institute
Michael Bennett, Associate Research Professor, School for the Future of Innovation in Society + Center for Science and the Imagination, Arizona State University
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Big Machine by Victor Lavalle is an ambitious horror novel about secret societies with subtextual issues about race and class that is full of laugh aloud moments. It’s a sort of tonal patchwork of A Confederacy of Dunces, The DaVinci Code and The Intuitionist.
Ricky Rice is a bus station janitor who receives a mysterious summons to someplace in remote Vermont. Because he’s an itinerant ex-junky, he uses the free bus ticket and arrives at the Washburn Library along with other African Americans misfits and petty criminals who all seem to have turning points of Epiphany buried deep in their checkered pasts. They are branded collectively as the Unlikely Scholars and charged with collecting and cataloging reports of esoteric phenomena. After a period lasting perhaps a year, Rice manages to crack the code, and is sent on a quest to Northern California to track down a heretical Unlikely Scholar.
The wild plot, full of incident and conspiracy and supernatural occurrences is as expertly paced as a Stephen King novel. But it was the narration and characters that kept me glued. Rice tells his story in the first person, full of quips and asides about lower class African American life that ring true. The repartee between Rice and his partner the Gray Lady (aka Adele Henry) zings like the best of Nick and Nora. The scenes of horror and degradation, both personal and environmental, are chilling. It’s a pleasure to read this kind of fiction with such well-realized characters that you don’t often see on the printed page.
Ultimately, I don’t think Big Machine succeeds as well as Lavalle’s most recent novel, The Devil in Silver. The ambition and scope of the plot gets the better of him. But it’s a fun ride, full of beautiful writing.
Pepper is a working class furniture mover who, through an act of misguided gallantry, and the laziness of the a trio police officers, gets thrown into a psychiatric unit in Queens. What is initially supposed to be a 72-hour hold turns into a months long stay, due to bureaucratic incompetence and Pepper’s foolish decisions (a failed escape attempt among other mistakes). After being drugged and reprimanded, Pepper finally acclimates himself to the ward, he meets his fellow patients/prisoners and learns their back stories. Loochie (or Lucretia), the nineteen-year bipolar young woman who’s been in and out of hospitals for most of her adolescence and has a wild temper and can kick ass if need be. Dorry, an old white woman who’s been in the ward for decades and is full of wisdom. And Coffee, a Ugandan refugee who is obsessed with contacting the president and letting the world know about the miserable conditions at the New Hyde psychiatric unit.
And miserable the conditions are. The building is in need of repair, there’s a rodent problem, the administrators are overworked, and code violations are routinely broken. Finally, there is a violent patient, whom the patients call the Devil, who picks them off one by one. The staff seems to be in some conspiracy with the Devil, and steadfastly refuses to do anything significant to stop the murders.
If all of this sounds grim and depressing, it’s not. Humor—sometimes gallows and sometime Keystone Cops like—suffuses the text. There’s suspense, yes, but it’s also backed up by mordant social commentary about the state of public mental health and touching back stories for all of the characters—including various staff members. LaValle has created a horror story, a Swiftian satire, and a black comedy of errors in one story. Imagine Colson Whitehead writing One Who Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and you have some idea of The Devil In Silver. It’s a powerful novel, and I want to read more LaValle!