The first thing I loved made me cry. When I first remember really feeling music it was Pearl Bailey singing a song from The Fox and the Hound. I heard the lyrics and the voice and felt the dreamy longing. I wanted a best friend.
I got it in my soul.
The next thing I remember hitting that place in me was horror. I was in the fourth grade and read an illicitly loaned copy of Firestarter. I was in the fourth grade and devoured it at night under the covers.
It scared the ever loving crap out of me. A little girl like I was could set fires with her freaking brain. Her brain man.
Okay, I know technically it was SF, but it terrified me.
I was hooked.
Since then I have been the greediest horror lover. Movies, literature, even sometimes the dorkiest horror music. I love it. All of it.
Let me flex some nerd cred.
In elementary school, I told a boy who bothered me that the two freckles on my neck were vampire bites and if he didn’t leave me alone I would come to his house at night and eat him. I consider it my first horror story. I got a talking to but I was so proud of myself. Yes, I borrowed heavily from Salem’s Lot but I was a baby.
For years I read everything scary, I could get my sweaty little claws on. I was obsessed with books like Nathaniel by John Saul and of course if Stephen King’s name was on it I read it. I watched every horror movie I could. I lived for monsters and serial killers and mad killers. Ghost stories, urban myths, whispered scary stories told between children.
At recess some of the other kids and I played Freddy. We chased each other while spouting things that kinda sounded like Freddy. One friend lived in an apartment building with hallways in the basement and we played scary versions of hide and go seek.
You feel me?
That is the power horror has held in my life.
From the beginning I have written horror. I remember trying to write a werewolf movie one summer with other creepy little kids, none of us had access to cameras or thought to write down lines but we spent weeks making the perfect blood and guts. Blackberries, clods of dirt, carefully stripped fern fronds and we strained the berries first. We ran around the apartment complex howling and contorting ourselves during our transformations.
That is where I began wanting to create horror.
I secretly wrote stories that now would be called fan fiction. Self insert terrible fan fiction. I wrote on scrap paper and always threw them away, but, I was growing the bones of how I create horror now.
As an adult I think about some more of those stories and realize I was trying to see myself in those very White worlds. I didn’t have the language to express my hunger to see Black people populating the fictional towns or saving the day.
When I wrote my first novel in high school, it was a vampire epic in a very Anne Rice style, my vampires weren’t pale and smooth as marble. They were dark and smooth as my Mom’s living room table. They didn’t come from France they came from Egypt, not movie everyone is White Egypt, they came from the Haitian Revolution and from Zululand. Their history was my history told and learned through the lens of the vampire mythos.
I recently turned 39 and have spent a lot of time thinking about thirty years of horror nerdery. As a child, I had no name for the parts of horror that hurt me and left me wanting. Now I know.
I wanted representation and inclusion. I needed it and not until well into adulthood did I even get a taste.
In my 20s one of my earliest print publications was an erotic horror story in a magazine created and edited by a Black man named Anthony Beal. Check out his food blog here. I want to say we met on a writing email list or something, but he was the first Black horror lover I ever got to call my friend.
During that time I was spending a lot of time developing the meat on the bones of the horror I wanted to create. I played tabletop style roleplay games online loosely based on things like Vampire the Masquerade and White Wolf. With other friends, we created a Lovecraftian world that allowed me to run wild with monsters and myth. I still play with a lot of those folks when the mood strikes.
My secret or probably to folks who knew me not so secret ambition was to build an Anne Rice/Stephen King level literary empire saturated in Blackness, nightmares and the erotic.
What happened was something else entirely.
For fans of color there is often a moment in our fandom when we realize that we are not really there. We realize authors or other creators we love are racist, that we are generally excluded from the worlds they create; it is heartbreaking and as they say, what has been seen cannot be unseen.
For me it was not gradual. It hit me all at once after a confluence of events. A writing workshop type thing where the story I’d submitted was not talked about in terms of craft or plot, but at great length about how unbelievable it was that the story took place in the hood and the vampire was Black. It was the rampant racism on horror literature related message boards, it was Racefail ’09 and other less huge race fails. It was realizing my lifelong hero Uncle Steve (Stephen King, of course) try to touch inclusion and rely on shuck and jive Magical Negroes. It was starting to use social media and being questioned about how -really- Goth (or whatever other subculture) I could be. Because obviously Black people don’t like -insert X thing here-, having to watch racist White girls be racist in my communities and be defended and forgiven because they were hot and I was not. It was all of the these things and so much more.
I was devastated and when I wrote horror my heart just wasn’t in it anymore. I understood that unless I kept my Blackness separate from that work I’d get nowhere with. And even at that age, I couldn’t do that. So I stopped trying to get into the horror markets as a writer. I stopped interacting in the community as a fan. I decided my horror love was over.
As with my involvement with any Alternative or subculture communities, I just withdrew. I stopped reading a lot of horror, I relied on old faithful things. When I found horror stuff that made me squee or gave me ideas, I kept my squee and writing to myself and a very few trusted friends.
I had a couple of horror publications between about 2003–2014 or so. My first try at zombie humor and an experimental horror story based on my own experiences with parasomnias. It was okay, but, I still didn’t feel those happy nerd feelings. I didn’t believe and still am not sure if my ideas about horror literature can or would ever be acceptable to the community at large.
It has been a hard fifteen years or so of figuring this stuff out.
As I get older I’ve figured out a few things I wish I could go back and tell baby Horror Nerd Shannon.
- Like, whatever the fuck you want to. My interests in weird things, horror, gothness, etc are part of my Blackness and there is space in the diaspora for me to express my Blackness and be into those things.
- “Success” does not have to look like the rock star super seller trajectory in the literary world. It just doesn’t. I get to define what is and isn’t successful for me.
- Write that shit. Don’t throw it away. Write the vampire stories and play with weird fiction and flash fiction that isn’t a “story-story”. Write it.
- Most importantly, it’s okay to like or love problematic shit. I love a lot of things that are not great in terms of my personal politics and that’s okay. I don’t have to dissect that. I can just enjoy it if I want to.
Horror has touched so much of my creative life, it has felt like a lie to try and distance myself. From something like this a story I posted on my writing blog to talk about craft and writing prompts a bit, to another piece I’m working on where I’m playing with horror tropes as applied to literary fiction. The technical details of trying to give a reader a particular sensation or feeling.
Horror made me. Horror shaped how I view the world, what comforts me, what makes me giggle, what excites me, how I parse out my own fears. Horror is my spiritual and creative Mother and I’m thankful for that.
I have hope. As I have changed how I write, I have hope that I will someday feel safe in entering horror fandom spaces as both a fan and creator. I have hope that I will be able to emotionally feel safe enough to write my ideas and get my perceptions of Blackness into an area of the literary world that lacks them.
I hope that I can be part of the representation I craved so badly as a little baby fan and didn’t know how to ask for or even think about.
Part of my plan to nurture this hope and return to my creative roots is that I will be making some of my experimental horror stuff more available. I’ll upload them or post them on my writing blog to talk about what I was doing with them.
I am not afraid and that is as terrifying and wonderful as the first time I read Firestarter.