A short history of 20th century African-American horror literature

As I may have mentioned here before, I’m writing A Chilling Age of Horror: How 20th Century Horror Fiction Changed The Genre for Praeger (due out late spring 2020). A Chilling Age of Horror is, as the title says, a look (as panoptical as I could make it) at 20th century horror fiction, starting with the Machen Quartet (Machen, Blackwood, Dunsany, James) and following all the major and the important minor writers and trends in horror fiction published during the century.

This being Black History Month, and with the trailer to Us fresh on my mind, I thought I’d post my take on 20th century African-American horror fiction.

In a very real sense horror, in the form of slavery, was a part of the African-American experience from the beginning. Unsurprisingly, horror was a part of African-American narratives from the first as well. The folklore, legends, and myths brought over from Africa during the Middle Passage and turned into oral literature by the slaves was one significant element of pre-twentieth century African-American horror literature.1 A second, which long outlasted the African folklore and legends as a source of African-American horror, was the Gothic, which in its “Afro-Gothic” form was as popular by the end of the twentieth century as it was in its more primitive form centuries earlier.

Viewed collectively, the titles of canonical and lesser-known African-American texts project a long-standing–if unintentional–concern with the nexus between blackness, fear and terror. Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, in a Two-Story House, North. Showing that Slavery’s Shadows Fall Even There [Harriet E. Wilson, 1859]; “Mars Jeems’s Nightmare” [Charles W. Chesnutt, 1899]; Of One Blood; Or, The Hidden Self [Pauline Hopkins, 1902-1903]; Invisible Man [Ralph Ellison, 1952]; Shadow and Act [Ralph Ellison, 1964]; The Spook Who Sat By the Door [Sam Greenlee, 1969]; A Visitation of Spirits [Randall Kenan, 1989]; Let the Dead Bury Their Dead [Randall Kenan, 1992]–these titles’ common bloodline is that they pulsate with gothic traits: the split or divided self, a theme which has epidermal, psychological, spatial, and national implications; the preternatural concern with blackness as the unconscious horror haunting the personal and collective white American psyche; the omnipresence of blackness as a befouling but ineradicable presence in the American psychic landscape; and the irrepressible materiality of those things designated alien and grotesque–the black, the female, the homosexual, the nationally dispossessed, all of which constitute an abject morass sullying America’s mythic sense of innocence, equality, and opportunity. If the “unspeakable” is “one of the most distinctive of Gothic tropes”…then the gothic is and has been secretly implanted in the black imagination….2

The first published form of African-American literature, the slave narrative, was Gothic:

As Hannah Crafts astutely notes in her own slave storyline, the slave narrator’s life was extraordinary and innately gothic, needing no fictionalizing to augment market appeal. Despite their formulaic tales and determinations to prove their claim that they are not fictionalizing…the ex-slave writers, among many others, manage to inscribe gothic formulations within their narrative beyond mere plot. The very life of a slave is also inevitably a gothic existence. The murders/suicides, rapes, entrapment and escape cycles, torture (brutal whippings), and familial secrets (illegitimate births) that make up numerous gothic plots constitute real, daily existence under slavery. Therefore, these writers have recourse to gothic ideological tropes, exercising them as rhetorical asides upon an already gothic plot. Furthermore, as texts such as Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl illustrate, the slave narrative easily transitions, typologically and ideologically, into the gothic novelistic mode.3

By the turn of the twentieth century, when horror was cohering into a discrete and marketed commercial entity, African-American authors were producing Gothic fiction, both in stories and at novel-length. A number of the stories in Charles W. Chesnutt’s collection The Conjure Woman (1899) make use of Gothic elements either partially or wholly:

Although the stories do not achieve gothic effect–the shudder-provoking end often undone by the revelation of Julius’ varied ulterior motives–they do have frequent recourse to the gothic’s tropes. Chesnutt combines gothic elements with sociological observations to achieve a “gothic texture” (Edwards 90). Significantly, this “texture” is apparent in the cases of haunting, murder, inter- and intraracial violence, and implied rape that haunt Chesnutt’s stories. Chesnutt’s use of the genre results in a series of stories that invert the gothic tropes in ways similar to slave narrative use: the tales “identify the positive effects of darkness set against the demonic effects of whiteness associated with the perpetuation of slavery…[thus] situating whiteness…as the inspiration of fear and a more appropriate shade of the gothic” (Crow 2009, 90).4

Chesnutt “uses the gothic as a vehicle of an African-derived sense of time and space which allies nature with the sacred: time and space expand and alter because they are animated.”5 Similarly, his The Marrow of Tradition (1901) makes heavy use of the ruined, blasted Gothic landscape as “a metaphor for all of America when viewed through the lens of race.”6

Pauline Hopkins wrote her Of One Blood; or, The Hidden Self (1902-1903) to raise what she called the “stigma of degradation” from African-Americans and to stress the unity of biological kinship of all human beings, but its concluding chapters rely heavily on the Gothic. A riot is described in Gothic and horror story terms, with lingering, nightmarish effects, rioters described as vampires, a doctor makes his way through a landscape of mutilated black corpses;

the novel notably ends in this environment of horror, its characters surrounded by scenes of mob violence and brutality in which white men become the bogeymen to blacks. The atmosphere and haunted landscapes introducing each of these texts hint at the actual problematic recurrence of violence and racial oppression reminiscent of slavery, and thus illustrates important moments of temporal collapse.7

The earlier appearance of a ghost, a traditional Gothic trope, is by contrast “tempered: ghostly appearances in these novels are not traditionally Gothic in that the ghosts evoke neither fear nor dread in the reader.”8

Jean Toomer’s collection Cane (1923) is critically acclaimed as one of the masterpieces of Harlem Renaissance literature, and one of the first novels to sensitively and insightfully portray the African-Americans of the American South. Cane is also a Gothic: “Toomer’s interest in generic and genetic impurity (for example, the U.S. history of miscegenation) places him firmly within the territory of the Gothic, as does his exploration of the history and meaning of slavery and the modern insistence on uniformity and conformity that he associates with industrialization.”9 As with other African-American Gothics, the ruined landscape of the South–ruined in this case by what Maisha Wester calls “slavery’s haunting specter”10–is a recurring Gothic trope in Cane: “the entirety of the South proves a wild and ruined ‘home’ that hints at a terrible past of sexual violation, gross abuses of authority, and criminal disenfranchisement, much like the haunted houses of the traditional gothic.”11

It might be expected that there would have been African-American horror writers from the beginning of horror as an organized commercial genre. There may well have been such writers during the dime novel era of the nineteenth century and the pulp era of the twentieth century, but they remain unknown: “As Harlan Ellison once noted to Samuel Delany, nothing is known of dozens of the writers of the pulps of the first half of the 20th century. Many of them might have been women or people of color.”12 So the first known horror story of the twentieth century by an African-American author is Zora Neale Hurston’s “Spunk” (1925). “Spunk” is told in the vernacular of African-Americans of rural central Florida and displays the author’s expertise in the folk beliefs of the people she portrays—beliefs alien to most readers of “Spunk,” then and now. “Spunk” is a well-wrought distillation of local folklore into the form of horror fiction, with Hurston’s strong narrative voice and expert use of dialogue emphasizing the horror elements of the story; an intriguing theory that the story is a “complex allusion to Shakespeare’s Hamlet” should add to the reader’s appreciation of Hurston’s artistry.13

Ann Petry’s The Street (1946) is about the life of a black woman and single mother, and deals with themes of racism, sexism, and classism. The Street was critically acclaimed on publication and was seen as breathing new life into the social criticism novel and the naturalistic novel. Less commented upon by critics are the deeply Gothic aspects of the novel. Keith Clark is undoubtedly correct when he writes that “at least through the 1960s, the preponderance of black literature might be considered a ‘literature of terror,’ with slavery of course standing in as the ‘original sin’ which provided the artistic matrix for subsequent black authors,”14 with The Street standing as an exception:

Petry’s Afro-Gothic defies such jejune categories as protest gothic or feminist gothic or Afrocentric gothic…the scope of Petry’s narrative concerns—horror; sexual and racial neuroses; unquenchable materialism and the dis-ease it engenders; spatial confinement; commodity, racial, and gender fetishisms—moves The Street beyond the realm of “social” terror. The novel’s catholicity marks Petry’s as a malleable gothic architectonics, the framework of which she manipulates and alters for manifold rhetorical ends.15

The list of the Gothic tropes in The Street reads like a checklist of archetypal Gothic elements: “catatonia, paroxysmal, blood-curdling violence; confinement and entombment; psychosexual neuroses; villainous and shape-shifting characters who worry and dislocate the line separating ‘good’ and ‘evil’; and an omnipresent and palpable specter of impending death.”16

Alice Walker’s “The Child Who Favored Daughter” (1973) makes for horrifying, if mesmerizing, reading. About a sullen, Bible-thumping African-American sharecropper who deals with the guilt over his sister’s life and suicide and with his attraction to his own daughter by imprisoning, torturing, and killing her, “The Child Who Favored Daughter” has no supernatural elements, but needs none to be thoroughly horrific and terrifying. The story is a thoroughly professional mixture of technique, emotion, storytelling, horror, and confronting what in the African-American literary community of the 1960s aroused only “silent but unreconcilable antipathy.”17 Further, as Maisha Wester argues, “The Child Who Favored Daughter” “challenges the ideas of black monolithic identity and allegiance using the tropes of incest, murder, torture, and suicide to illustrate the dire consequences of melancholic subject formation in connection to the construction of racial allegiance.”18

The wave of paperback horror novels during the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s was in some respects similar to the wave of pulp horror stories published in the 1920s and 1930s, with a number of novels written by authors about whom there is little information. Just as with the pulps, so too with the paperback horror novels: some or perhaps many of these authors could have been men or women of color. One author who is known to have been African-American was Joseph Nazel, the writer of the Blaxploitation horror novel The Black Exorcist (1974), a Blaxploitation version of Blatty’s The Exorcist. The Black Exorcist uses familiar Blaxploitation tropes, from a Satanic cult that was a front for the Mafia to the protagonist, a former pimp who found God, as well as a surprising dose of realism: “Nazel was an African-American man deeply tied to his community, and so The Black Exorcist has a real feel for L.A. street life.”19 However, The Black Exorcist did not spawn imitators or create a wave of African-American authors writing commercial horror novels.

Arguably the first work of horror by a professional African-American writer of fantastika was Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild” (1984). “Bloodchild,” a science fiction novella which tells the story of human males on another planet who bear alien children, won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Award in 1985. “Bloodchild” “explores the paradoxes of power and inequality, and starkly portrays the experience of a class who, like women throughout most of history, are valued chiefly for their reproductive capacities.”20 “Bloodchild” does this through squirm-inducing implantation scenes, creating a body horror narrative that is both visceral and philosophical, and which Butler wrote as a way to “ease an old fear of mine…I worried about the botfly—an insect with, what seemed to me then, horror-movie habits.”21

Gloria Naylor’s Linden Hills (1985) centers around an affluent black suburb and spotlights its material corruption and moral decay. A contemporary allegory with Gothic overtones, Linden Hills is

a modern version of Dante’s Inferno in which souls are damned not because they have offended God or have violated a religious system but because they have offended themselves. In their single-minded pursuit of upward mobility, the inhabitants of Linden Hills, a black, middle-class suburb, have turned away from their past and from their deepest sense of who they are.22

As Maisha Wester writes,

Naylor’s text is overtly gothic. The villain, Luther Nedeed, is a mysterious and anachronistic mortician often described as better placed in the nineteenth century. The neighborhood of Linden Hills winds and rambles, replacing the gothic’s sprawling mansion with its unusual occurrences and haunting noises, and its residents are inhuman automatons who serve the will of a single, demonic, seemingly ageless man. Willa, the novel’s heroine, is not only a variation of the stock “mad-woman-in-the-attic” character, but also frequently compared to Poe’s vengeful Madeline Usher…Naylor even symbolically evokes cannibalism to round out her gothic story.23

Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) is a ghost story about the horrific prices slavery demanded from the enslaved. Although Beloved contains a number of frightening supernatural moments, its central purpose is to conceptually horrify–that is, to appall the reader through the knowledge of what was done to slaves like the protagonist and her family and loved ones. “Beloved is more of a work of magical realism than it is a traditional ghost narrative in that the appearance of the supernatural is not necessarily a disturbing disruption of reality, but instead an accepted part of the daily world.”24 Beloved is, as S.T. Joshi notes, “an exquisite prose poem…[that] focuses so intently on the horror and tragedy of slavery that all other features in it dwindle to insignificance.”25

Randall Kenan’s A Visitation of Spirits (1989) depicts the traumatic effects of slavery on generations of African-Americans, but the primary driver of events is the protagonist’s confusion, guilt, and disgust at his own homosexuality. The protagonist ends up possessed by demons–who may only be imaginary–and commits suicide after a night of horrifying psychological struggle. As Maisha Wester writes, Kenan “performs revisions of the Gothic that prove particularly noteworthy and complex. Kenan uses the genre to reveal the archetypal depictions of racial, sexual, and gendered Others as constructions useful in the production of (white) patriarchal dominance.”26 Kenan’s stylistic razzle-dazzle is technically superb but diminishes the emotional impact of the horror aspects of protagonist’s struggle, leaving it only conceptually horrific.

Jewelle Gomez’s novel The Gilda Stories (1991) is both the first vampire novel with a black protagonist and the first vampire novel written by an African-American author. A kind of revision of Stoker’s Dracula and of the literary vampire tradition more generally, The Gilda Stories not only makes the vampire a hero–an authorial maneuver that was becoming more common in 1991–but also a black lesbian. This “‘recasting the mythology’ of the vampire…into a black, lesbian, fugitive slave politicizes a nexus of issues, including sexuality and race,”27 and its positioning of the protagonist vampire as the hero of the story, both signal the author’s intention not to tell a traditionally horrifying vampire story. Instead, the horror is, as with most of the narratives described in this chapter, primarily conceptual: what is done to the protagonist through her history, because of her ethnicity and sexuality, is disturbing, even without the expected scenes of vampires menacing innocents.

Tananarive Due’s The Between (1995) is a combination horror novel, detective story, and suspense/thriller, about a man who was saved from drowning as a child, but as an adult begins to believe, thanks to messages from his subconscious, that his survival was a mistake. An intriguing story, full of suspense, tension-filled moments, and elements of Ghanian folk tales and ghost stories, The Between also boasts strong characterization and a protagonist whose crumbling sanity is chillingly drawn.

Linda Addison’s collection Animated Objects (1997) contained science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories and poems. Addison’s horror is variable, appropriate for each story but without a unifying theme or underlying philosophy. Technically, though, Addison is a skilled horrorist, capable of describing bleak and frightening urban landscapes, literally hellish paranoia, and nightmarish claustrophobia with equal intensity.

  1. When the writer Zora Neale Hurston went on an African-American-folklore-gathering expedition in 1927 and 1928, she gathered nearly 500 primarily west African folktales, of which fifteen were in the categories “Devil Tales” (stories in which the Devil was either the protagonist or the antagonist) and “Witch and Haunt Tales” (stories about witches and ghosts). While these stories were told by people unexposed to Western horror literature or traditions, they nonetheless had substantial horror elements and provided a foundation for the first African-American horror writers.
  2. Keith Clark, The Radical Fiction of Ann Petry (Baton Rouge, LA: LSU Press, 2013), 93-94.
  3. Maisha L. Wester, African-American Gothic: Screams from Shadowed Places (New York: Palgrave, 2012), 35.
  4. Wester, African-American Gothic, 69.
  5. Ellen J. Goldner, “Other(ed) Ghosts: Gothicism and the Bonds of Reason in Melville, Chesnutt, and Morrison,” MELUS 24, no. 1 (Spring, 1999): 71.
  6. Wester, African-American Gothic, 71.
  7. Wester, African-American Gothic, 72.
  8. Christine A. Wooley, “Haunted Economies: Race, Retribution, and Money in Pauline Hopkins’s Of One Blood and W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Quest of the Silver Fleece,” in Haunting Realities: Natguralist Gothic and American Realism, ed. Monika Ebert and Wendy Ryden (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2017), 134.
  9. Daphne Lamothe, “Cane: Jean Toomer’s Gothic Black Modernism,” in The Gothic Other: Racial and Social Constructions in the Literary Imagination, ed. Ruth Bienstock Anolik and Douglas L. Howard (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004), 56.
  10. Wester, African-American Gothic, 107.
  11. Wester, African-American Gothic, 109.
  12. Jess Nevins, “The Black Fantastic: Highlights of Pre-World War II African and African-American Speculative Fiction,” io9.com, accessed Feb. 18, 2019, https://io9.gizmodo.com/5947122/the-black-fantastic-highlights-of-pre-world-war-ii-african-and-african-american-speculative-fiction.
  13. David G. Hale, “Hurston’s ‘Spunk’ and Hamlet,” Studies in Short Fiction 30.3 (Summer, 1993), 397.
  14. Clark, Ann Petry, 95.
  15. Clark, Ann Petry, 97.
  16. Clark, Ann Petry, 97.
  17. Trudier Harris, “Tipotoeing through Taboo: Incest in ‘The Child Who Favored Daughter,’” Modern Fiction Studies 28, no. 3 (Autumn 1982): 495.
  18. Wester, African-American Gothic, 150.
  19. Hendrix, Paperbacks from Hell, 30-32.
  20. Sherley Anne Williams, “Sherley Anne Williams on Octavia E. Butler,” Ms., March 1986, 70.
  21. Octavia E. Butler, “Afterword,” in Bloodchild and Other Stories (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1995), 36.
  22. Catherine C. Ward, “Gloria Naylor’s Linden Hills: A Modern Inferno,” Contemporary Literature 28, no. 1 (Spring, 1987): 67.
  23. Wester, African-American Gothic, 150-151.
  24. June Pulliam, “Morrison, Toni,” in Supernatural Literature of the World, ed. S.T. Joshi and Stefan Dziemianowicz (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2005), 821.
  25. Joshi, Unutterable Horror, 684-685.
  26. Maisha Wester, “Haunting and Haunted Queerness: Randall Kenan’s Re-Inscription of Difference in ‘A Visitation of Spirits,’” Callaloo 30, no. 4 (Fall, 2007): 1035.
  27. Cedric Gael Bryant, “‘The Soul has Bandaged Moments’: Reading the African-American Gothic in Wright’s ‘Big Boy Leaves Home,’ Morrison’s ‘Beloved,’ and Gomez’s ‘Gilda,’” African-American Review 39, no. 4 (Winter 2006): 550.
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