Craig Laurance Gidney on Loving a Haunted City

Craig Laurance Gidney on Loving a Haunted City

Craig Laurance Gidney on Loving a Haunted City - 574

Craig Laurance Gidney on Loving a Haunted City

To celebrate the release of the second season of Come Join Us By The Fire, our audio horror anthology, we’ve asked authors with stories included in this year’s anthology to join us and write about horror. Below, Craig Laurance Gidney, whose story “Spyder Threads” you can listen to here, writes about Washington, DC’s haunted, Black, queer history.

My hometown Washington, DC is a city full of ghosts. Not just the specters of dead presidents and other politicians––it is also filled with the shades of the marginalized and the disenfranchised. DC isn’t just the seat of power. It is also home to a large African-American community with a deeper connection to the city than the transient federal government workforce that matriculate into the population every four-to-eight years. It is full of neighborhoods that no person on Capitol Hill has ever visited, places beyond the “safe” Northwest quadrant: Petworth, Ft Lincoln, Ivy City, Benning Road. My hometown is as baroque and as filled with secrets as Dickens’ London, Durrell’s Alexandria, or Hugo’s Paris. Washington, DC is the perfect place for an atmospheric horror story or two.

I first became aware of the horror genre when I was a child in the 1970s. The local television station came up with the idea to play old movies in the afternoon, around 4 pm, just as soon as I got back from school. Just before homework and dinner, I’d come home to Twinkies, a glass of Tang, and whatever movie was playing on the television. The movies the station played weren’t campy B-movies, either. They played the crème-de-la-crème of late-60s and mid-70s movies. We’re talking The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, alongside made-for-TV fare like Trilogy of Terror and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. The movies were retrofitted to the television format (no blasphemous language, for instance). But in spite of that, a good amount of disturbing imagery made it on to the screen. For instance, the psychedelic cult horror film Let’s Scare Jessica to Death was approved and I remember nervously switching between The Banana Splits and LSJTD’s homoerotic vampires. This early exposure to horror cinema influenced my taste, which runs to more atmospheric and surreal work than it does to gore and cruelty. Slasher films, which gained popularity in the 1980s, by and large leave me cold. 

exorcist steps

My interest was further cemented by the knowledge that The Exorcist was set in the DC neighborhood of Georgetown. William Blatty wrote his novel after reading about a possessed boy who lived just outside of the city in the Washington Post.  The “Exorcist steps,” the steep stone stairway to M Street where two men were killed by Pazuzu in the movie, are on the historic register and as kids, fellow classmates dared each other to run down their length. (Those stairs, by the way, are rickety and you could easily fall down them and twist your neck). Subsequently I found tales of government buildings being haunted by a demon cat spirit, and nearby suburban Maryland even has its own cryptid, the ax-wielding Goatman. DC’s rich folklore predates its incarnation as an American city. There is an Algonquian legend about the Three Sisters islands in the Potomac River about three Indigenous women who were transformed into rocky islets following a tragic quest.

I have mined the hidden history of my hometown before. My short story “Conjuring Shadows” was inspired by Richard Bruce Nugent, an openly queer Harlem Renaissance writer and artist who lived in DC. The impetus to write “Zora’s Destiny” (published in the collection Skin Deep Magic) came from the fact that Zora Neale Hurston lived in the house directly behind mine when she attended Howard University. The story “Spyder Threads” is the latest story to be part of my DC-based mythology.

Nob Hill, one of the oldest gay bars in the country, is a block away from my house. Or, rather, it was — now it’s called Wonderland, and is a hipster dive bar. Nob Hill was Black-owned and catered to queer Black men. It came into existence because the mainstream, white gay bars were notoriously discriminatory to Black gay men, often asking would-be patrons for multiple forms of identification and having informal quotas on the number of Black people allowed in their establishments. A bunch of other establishments popped up — The Brass Rail and Delta Elite — but Nob Hill was the oldest of them, the “granddaddy” of Black gay bars. Behind closed doors, Nob Hill was a safe space for Black men “in the life,” where they could enjoy drag shows and go-go boys and cruise without being racially fetishized. The scene there was a precursor and adjunct to the Ball scene of the 80s, explored in Paris is Burning and the TV show Pose. Nob Hill had turned into the hipster bar before I had a chance to visit it, but I became interested in the whole Ballroom scene because it seemed like a sanctuary to misfits like me. 

Thus the idea for “Spyder Threads” was born. How would cosmic horror play out in such a milieu? Queer people of color are already outside mainstream society, and transformation is one of the major purposes of the contests. The juxtaposition of aesthetics, camp, and horror has always fascinated me.  “Spyder Threads” is my love letter to the Black queer city that flourishes in the capital.

Craig Laurance Gidney writes both contemporary and genre fiction. He is the author of the collections Sea, Swallow Me & Other Stories, Skin Deep Magic, Bereft, and the novel A Spectral Hue.

Listen to Craig’s story “Spyder Threads” on Google Play here, and listen the the entirety of the second season of Come Join Us By The Fire here.

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