One of my favorite authors on the planet is Eden Royce, a woefully under-recognized maven of the Southern Gothic story, and all-around excellent human being. She graciously agreed to indulge me in answering some long-burning questions, despite being hard at work on her debut novel Root Magic, which will hit stores in January of 2021.
Tonia Ransom: I’m always interested in how different writers get in the zone to create their stories. What is your most interesting writing quirk?
Eden Royce: I always write while wearing a fragrance of some kind. Scent is evocative, and it enables me to walk around wearing the mood I want to create, taking it with me wherever I go. Which right now is to different rooms in my house.
TR: I love the idea of using scent to evoke particular feelings or moods. Speaking of, every character has a particular energy. Of all of the characters you’ve written, which one do you most identify with?
ER: There’s a little bit of me in all of my protagonists, even those in historical settings, so it’s almost impossible to choose one. I identify with The Poet in “Sweetgrass Blood” – torn between revealing the traditions of her people in her work and keeping to the seclusion that has kept her people for centuries.
I also identify with Big Mama in “Hag Ride” from my collection Spook Lights: Southern Gothic Horror – warning those unschooled in Southern Conjure and rootwork to be careful of what you don’t understand, as it may have disastrous consequences. Big Mama gives her warnings, but knows at the end of it all, people make their own (sometimes ruinous) decisions.
My debut novel Root Magic has several characters I identify with. Those who are protectors, dreamers, griots, supporters, those who feel fear and forge ahead anyway. It’s also the book I wanted to read as child: full of magic, mystery, and triumph, along with Black Southern traditions and folklore.
TR: “Sweetgrass Blood” is such an amazing story. It’s probably my favorite thing I’ve ever read from you. If you had a choose a favorite story of yours, what would it be?
ER: My short story “The Choking Kind” is to date my favorite. It’s based on a Gullah folktale, specifically one my grandmother told me when I was a child. It sent chills down my spine at the time, and has always stuck with me. As a writer, at times I’ve wondered whether a story will come together by the end, but I never – at any point – worried about this one. I knew it would work from the moment I started typing.
TR: Speak of a horror story “working,” what do you think all great horror must do?
ER: All good horror should beguile, deceptively enchant, and have the ability to lure you in. It’s seeing or reading something so grotesquely fascinating you can’t turn away. Somewhere in your mind, under your skin, you’re unnerved, but you must stay with it until the end. You just have to know, even though you’re sure you’ll never be the same afterward.
TR: What’s one thing you hope readers take away from your stories?
ER: That there’s more than one type of dark fiction and the Black experience is not a monolith. (Okay, so that’s two things.)
For the first, not all dark fiction is horror. I consider most of my work to be Southern Gothic, which isn’t a genre many Black writers claim. Southern Gothic at its core includes elements of horror and the grotesque. Adding a speculative element only furthers what’s already there.
For the second, the Black experience is incredibly varied. We are from many different walks of life: financial, socio-economic, cultural… the list goes on. I’d love to see a move away from editors and reviewers saying, “Black people don’t live like that, so this book is an unrealistic portrayal.” Especially when it comes to our Own Voices creative works.
TR: Let’s talk about Black horror. Horror, especially Black horror, is gaining in popularity. How do you feel about this?
ER: I’m glad. Some say horror is universal, but the intricacies of what scares us can be vastly different depending on who you are and your experience in the world. How Black people move through the world, how women move through it… (the list goes on) is different when it comes to where we feel comfortable, what situations we avoid, who gives us bad vibes.
Showing what horror is to Black people widens its definition, which has been incredibly narrow for a long time. (I’ve had the argument of “Beloved is a horror novel” way too many times.)
It can also help those not from our background slowly begin to see how horror seeps into our everyday life. It can create empathy. People tend to be governed by their own experience – unless they are presented with alternate points of view and ways of life. What about being followed through a store because of the way you look? Or being forced to prove you belong in a place, even when that place is your own apartment building? Or people who chase you down and kill you because of your skin color?
Placing Blacks in horror leading roles is powerful; media shapes culture whether we like it or not. Typically we’ve been used as throwaway characters, killed to show the evil’s strength even before we’ve been around long enough to show us as more than bodies for the slaughter. Having us drive the story allows us to show the full scope of ourselves. Our vulnerabilities, our multi-layered personalities, our skills, our triumphs, and our failings. In short, our humanity. Which for far too long has been taken from us – in horror fiction and in life.
TR: Let’s talk about something a little lighter. You can only pick one horror movie to watch for the rest of your life. What is it and why?
ER: I went through at least four other movies in my mind before choosing. But if pressed to select one, I’d choose John Carpenter’s The Thing. Great performances and I appreciate the choice to not spoon-feed the viewer who the thing is at the end. It has befuddled people for years, provoked heated debates, and I love that.
TR: One last question: Who is a rising star in horror you’re keeping your eye on?