Baltimore Writers’ Club: Q&A with local writer Justin Sanders, editor of ‘The Horror is Us’

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Halloween feels different this year. Masks are now everyday attire; unable to tell friend from foe, we perceive threat everywhere. A shroud hovers in the air from coast to coast. Our fellow Americans are gasping for breath. In short, it’s hard to take pleasure in fear.

On this much, at least, most people agree. The United States, belying its name, is split in half, bisected like a body splayed on the operating table. Blood gushes forth; right atrium and left ventricle no longer seem like parts of the same organ; it’s possible an artery has been severed. In the words of historian David W. Blight, assessing the stakes of the upcoming election in the New York Review of Books: “We are essentially two political tribes fighting a cold civil war that may determine whether or not our institutions can survive the strife fomented by a pandemic, a racial reckoning, [and] an economic collapse.”

The Horror is Us, a new fiction anthology edited by Baltimore native and UB alum Justin Sanders and published by Mason Jar Press, unflinchingly renders the perils facing the Divided States of America. Opioid addiction; white nationalism; man-made climate change—all are here, in all their gory glory. Notwithstanding its weighty subject matter, however, the volume offers the kind of transporting escape one expects from horror. Indeed, the fact that it manages at once to probe our wounds and divert us from them gives some indication of the depth of its achievement.

The nine stories in the collection update the well-worn tropes of the horror genre—the remote locale; the overbearing patriarch; the inevitable transgression—for our current moment, this strange time when the world seems to be on pause. Unsurprisingly, these are predominately tales of transition, and, as we know so well, suspense and apprehension go hand in hand.

The narrator of “The Pine Witch” (Alexandria Baker), forced to return to her coven in the mountains, spends days in the car, trapped in a “state of transit” that proves calm compared to what happens when she finally arrives home. In “A Trick of Uncertain Light” (Laura Walker), a young woman embarks on the long, solitary drive from California to Texas; en route “from my old life to my new,” she finds herself at a dead end, wishing for a gun. Also seeking a fresh start, the narrator of “Your Cries Are Loudest in the Fall” (J.D. Hellen) moves to the west coast, where she must grapple with the realization that though “the trees are gorgeous, and the weed is legal,” her own destructive impulses remain unchanged.

In addition to their implicit, often devastating, social critiques, these stories are notable for being cleverly self-conscious but not heavy-handed. “The Heroine’s Eyes are Enormous and Terrified” (Jan Stinchcomb) depicts a bereaved graduate student writing a thesis on horror and gender. (“This is not the place to watch movies and be happy,” her advisor warns unnecessarily.) In “Get the Girl” (Taylor Sykes), a teen sneaks out to a slasher film dressed exactly like its victim. Leaving the house, she experiences “a sweep of déjà vu,” one she quickly if not quite completely dismisses with the thought that horror stories have “a way of repeating themselves.”

Retelling, of course, is crucial to the horror genre. In this vein, “Her Faithful Black Cat” (Alexis Brooks de Vita) reimagines Edgar Allen Poe’s classic with a historically appropriate twist: the specter of slavery. As the African-American novelist Richard Wright once proclaimed, vis-à-vis the institution’s legacy: “If Poe were alive, he would not have to invent horror; horror would invent him.”

On this score, arguably the most horrifying tale in the book is Sanders’s own, “Baphomet and Blue.” In prose that evokes the deadly precision of the expert marksman, he takes us through an unspeakable hate crime, one unnervingly close to home: “At 10:42 p.m. 911 dispatch received a call they logged as non-responsive. The call was traced by cell phone tower to a mobile phone in the area of Lake Montebello.” Read it; then read it again. I promise, you won’t be unresponsive.

Baltimore Fishbowl: I’d like to start by asking about your story, “Baphomet and Blue.” Given the recent uprisings against police brutality, it’s very timely. When exactly did you write it? Were you inspired by any event in particular—say, the death of Freddie Gray in BPD custody in 2015?

Justin Sanders:  I wrote the first draft of that story almost three years ago, and I didn’t have any specific event in mind. I’m Black, so for me these things—police brutality and racist violence—are timeless, to be honest. I just read the writing on the wall, sometimes literally. Did you know there are QR codes for white nationalist websites? You can scan a piece of bathroom graffiti with your phone and wind up on a site trying to incite racist terrorism.

The story is fictional, but the elements are true. Satanic-Nazism is a real—and growing— white power ideology, and it recruits largely through National Socialist black metal music [a type of heavy metal]. The Order of Nine Angles is a real Satanic, neo-Nazi cult that believes in ritual human sacrifice. “Baphomet” is the central icon they worship. “Blue” among other things, refers to how they encourage members to join law enforcement and the military. Again, it’s just the writing on the wall.

BFB: Tell me about the origins of the anthology. What gave you the idea for a volume of “social horror,” as you call it in the introduction? How did you end up at Mason Jar Press?

JS: The idea sort of came out of my first book, for all the other ghosts (2016), which is based on my personal experiences growing up in Baltimore and traffics in the supernatural. One of my big interests as a writer is why we’re scared of things. I wanted an anthology that uses horror to force us to examine our fears. I wanted stories that disrupt our safety, not for spectacle but in order to make us confront our beliefs, our blind spots.

I’d recently been published in American Short Fiction when Mason Jar approached me and asked if I wanted to do a project. I was like “Hell yeah.” It’s an incredible press. I was really excited to work with them. They have some great books by writers like Dave K, Jaime Fountaine, and Dave Ring, among others. Not to mention they published Tyrese Coleman’s incredible How to Sit. Plus, they’re based in Baltimore!

BFB: The anthology contains nine stories total, including yours, culled from over 350. You must have been faced with some hard choices! What principles guided your selection?

JS: The biggest guiding question is obvious: Did it scare me? If yes, how? Did it make me jump or shudder, or did it unnerve me, or did it show up in my nightmares later? If a story is inspiring those feelings for me, then it’s doing the work it should be doing. At that point, it becomes about thinking about what the stories have to say, each on its own and then as part of a conversation.

BFB: On that note, putting together an anthology like this seems as if it could be tricky. How did you balance coverage and coherence? Was that as challenging as it sounds?

JS: It was challenging, for sure, but in a fun way. I think of anthologies kind of like mix-tapes. You have to identify the pieces that are really intense, and the ones that are more of a slow burn, and then assemble them in a way that gives each piece the space it needs to stand out.

Scott Bryan Wilson’s story, “The Enthusiastic Butcher,” for example, I definitely wanted to include but it was sort of hard to fit in. It’s about the grotesqueries of social media, all the ways people will self-mutilate for an audience. As you can imagine, it ends up being extremely gory . . . Likewise, Abigail Teed’s “Rise” was tough because it alludes to sexual violence against a minor. Not in a way that I felt was exploitative, but still . . . it’s a delicate issue. In these cases, placement matters a lot.

BFB: Speaking of location, I couldn’t help noticing that most if not all of the stories take place in America. Indeed, they span the country: Baltimore; Brooklyn; the Maine woods; a cul-de-sac in small-town Indiana . . . Does the “Us” in the title also refer to “U.S.”?

JS: That’s cool. I wasn’t consciously thinking that, but, yeah, that works, sure. I definitely had intended for the collection to be more overtly political, but I gotta say, it’s so for the best that it isn’t. Personally, I’m exhausted, and there’s nothing I wanna read less right now than a bunch of political commentary masquerading as horror stories. No question, these are real horror stories. Above all, they aim to make you feel fear with these characters in these moments.

Mason Jar Press, Justin Sanders, and the anthology’s other contributors—Alexandria Baker, Alexis Brooks de Vita, J.D. Hellen, Jan Stinchcomb, Taylor Sykes, Abigail Teed, Laura Walker, and Scott Bryan Wilson—will celebrate the release of The Horror is Us in a virtual event sponsored by The Ivy Bookshop on Wednesday, October 28, at 6:30 p.m. Click here to register.

Jennie Hann


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