In the sentient, immersive horror novel that is this year, bookstores, book blogs, and social media have come up with any number of important anti-racist reading lists. Those of us who do not experience the harmful effects of systemic racism and racial injustice have snapped up and sold out various nonfiction and fiction titles in a (mighty late) effort to educate ourselves.
But I’ve been thinking about what the world of horror can teach us about our real-world inequities. As usual, the genre has much to say — if we’re willing to listen.
Ring Shout, P. Djèlí Clark
Clark’s latest novella (out October 13) blew me away, so much so that I’ve had a hard time writing a review more eloquent than “WHEW.” It’s just a hell of a book, particularly given our current climate. Imagine an early 20th-century America in which racism is an actual plague, The Birth of a Nation has sorcerous power, and the Ku Klux Klan is led by otherworldly monsters. Standing against these forces is literal Black Girl Magic in the form of Maryse Boudreaux, her super-powered sword, and a diverse band of resistance fighters. There are various body and eldritch horrors here, but the most terrifying aspect of Ring Shout is how in-the-moment this “historical fiction” feels.
Beloved, Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison needs no introduction, least of all from me. But before I say anything else, let me make one thing clear: Yes, Beloved is a horror novel, even if the literary establishment would rather not sully itself with the genre classification. Pulitzer Prize or no, few novels are more chilling. This is a ghost story in the literal sense: Sethe, who escaped slavery nearly two decades prior to the novel’s action, is still haunted by the ghost of her murdered, unnamed baby. Beloved is also a ghost story in a figurative sense, picking at the racial wounds America wishes would scab over, even centuries later, without ever healing.
Lovecraft Country, Matt Ruff
Ruff’s episodic tales of a supernatural Jim Crow era are about to get an even bigger audience as the Jordan Peele-produced HBO adaptation gains traction. It’s worth picking up the original material before you start watching. When looking at the horrors of racism, there’s a certain amount of sense in picking up a book that gives the middle finger to H.P. Lovecraft. And oh, is there nothing Lovecraft would hate more than to see his cosmic horror in a novel with a Black American cast. In 1954 Chicago, Atticus Turner learns his father has gone missing in New England. The road trip to find him is itself dangerous, and the rescue mission uncovers massive malevolent conspiracies.
Note: I’d be remiss not to note that Giving the Bird to Lovecraft is a new modern subgenre. If you want to see more of his racist themes flipped on their heads, pick up Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom and Cassandra Khaw’s Hammers on Bone.
Coyote Songs, Gabino Iglesias
Iglesias’s second novel is slight, but it does not lack for punch. It’s a novel of the here and now, embodying the pain, injustice, and horror that plagues the lives (at least of those with brown skin) that dwell and move along the U.S.-Mexico border. The violence in this interconnected story is firmly of this world, even when it involves creatures from another. But the scariest myth of them all in these pages? It’s America, as the land of opportunity, ready and willing to welcome all who reach its shores.
The Only Good Indians, Stephen Graham Jones
As with most of Jones’s horror works, The Only Good Indians isn’t explicitly about the devastating consequences of colonialism — but it is also entirely about them. Nothing in this novel can be divorced from cultural realities for Native Americans. Four Blackfeet men are forced by supernatural vengeance to reckon with a night’s mistake they thought they’d left behind many years ago. While these friends are unnerved by the deadly occurrences, they’re not altogether surprised. They have learned life will yield few happy endings for them. This bleak, beautiful novel grapples with the push-and-pull of trying to leave behind the reservation.