African American Folklore, Magical Realism and Horror in Toni Morrison novels

 

2018 WiHM Black Women in Horror

This article is a part of a series of the Fifth Annual Black Women in Horror Month celebration, an annual February presentation of blog articles highlighting black women in horror for Women in Horror Month and Black History Month.  The series will include new lists of black women who write horror, interviews, articles, and book reviews. We are very excited to be presenting the Black Women in Horror project for the fifth year. Iconoclast Productions is the sponsor of the Black Women in Horror project.

This is a reprint of an article written by Sumiko Saulson for HorrorAddicts.net for Black History Month in 2017.

 

Toni Morrison goodreads photo
Toni Morrison photo from Goodreads

Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in 1931, eight-four year old Toni Morrison is one of the most prominent voices in African American literature. The bestselling author has won the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize, and earned such an enduring place in in American hearts and minds that she’s already a staple of many college English literature course curriculum in her own lifetime. Although her works often defy genre classification, the vagaries of genre politics have her firmly associated with the high-classed literary fiction genre. Literary fiction is the darling of critics and the academia alike.

Speculative fiction, and especially horror and the supernatural, are considered low-classed, tawdry genres. We sit in a dirty little niche corner, along with romance and erotica, as those genres that are just not prestigious enough for the so-called serious writers. Genre prejudice is so deeply ingrained that many do not recognize a horror story for what it is even when its nature is vastly apparent.

In essence, Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a gothic horror story. It is a ghost story set against a backdrop of slavery and the post-Civil War restoration. It takes on the tone of gothic horror immediately at the outset of the story with the line “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom,” referring to 124 Bluestone Road, the address of the protagonist Sethe’s home. The use of a building, most commonly a house, is a trope commonly associated with the gothic fiction genre.

The story also utilizes many elements of the subgenre American Gothic. English gothic Image result for beloved toni morrisonhorror took place in the Victorian era, the same period of time that the Civil War and the post war Restoration took place in the United States. The dark histories involving the African slave trade and the genocide of New World’s indigenous peoples were primary features of a guilt-ridden American conscience. Wronged native peoples and oppressed African slaves were some of the ghosts and bogeymen of American gothic. That is clearly the case in Beloved, which is about the petulant spirit of Sethe’s murdered two year old daughter, Beloved. Sethe killed her own child to protect her from slavery, and has been haunted ever since.

While Toni Morrison’s overall literary genre is American or African American literary fiction, Beloved is widely categorized as Magical Realism. Magical realism is a genre that involves the insertion of folklore and supernatural elements into otherwise realistic narratives. Beloved is not Toni Morrison’s only venture into magical realism. Song of Solomon, Sula, Jazz, and The Bluest Eye all use elements of the genre.

Image result for sula toni morrisonIf it weren’t for the fact that Sula won a Nobel Prize for American literature, we might think of it as magical realism, as it certainly utilizes many elements of the genre. Many supernatural elements are used to illustrate the town of Bottom’s discomfort with and rejection of the unconventional protagonist Sula Peace. These magical elements are illustrations of the town’s scapegoating behavior. They clearly symbolize the tendency to demonize women for liberal and sexually unrepressed behavior. However, there is a more than superficial resemblance between Sula’s connection to the paranormal occurrences and witchcraft. Sula seems like a witch, and the town seems to be on a witch hunt.

In magical realism, these things are seen as symbolic, not necessarily to be taken literally, as in horror. There is an additional layer of psychological complexity in magical realism, as it is often unclear whether the supernatural is at play, or characters are just superstitious. That mystery is part of what keeps magical realism psychologically terrifying.

The strange appearance of a swarm of agitated birds in Sula is a great example of this. They arrive when she returns to town, and they occur in such unmanageable numbers that some townspeople are driven to sadism in an effort to get rid of them. They are so populous that the birds create a danger to themselves and others. However, the book never explains their mysterious arrival and disappearance. That is where magical realism differs from traditional horror: in horror, a cause, usually a diabolical one is assigned. In Sula, people superstitiously connect the appearance to the protagonist and her sexually loose moral behavior, which includes interracial relationships and sleeping with married men.

Image result for song of solomon toni morrisonToni Morrison’s Song of Solomon opens up with some of the most horrifying scenes I’ve ever read. One involves the hunting of a runaway slave by a pack of dogs, and the other involves an extended analogy about leaping to suicide while attempting to fly away from enslavement. Song of Solomon uses several elements of magical realism. Many of these are directly or indirectly connected with a character named Pilate, a woman who was born without a belly button.  She is guardian angel/earth mother figure in the life of the protagonist, Milkman.

Her lack of a navel suggests a supernatural origin, because bellybuttons are a sign of earthly birth. Created creatures, like angels or golem, wouldn’t need navels. Pilate shows other signs of supernatural knowledge or power, as does the ancient former slave Circe. Circe tells the protagonist Milkman of his great grandfather Solomon, who is the title character. Solomon was said to have literally flown to escape slavery. However, throughout the story, various attempts at flight are ambiguous and often seem more like suicide and less like escape.

Image result for the bluest eye toni morrisonThere is the further complication of determining whether or not supernatural occurrences are real in magical realism. In Toni Morrison’s controversial debut novel The Bluest Eye, Pecola Breedlove, a sexually molested young black girl, retreats into a fantasy world where she feels beautiful because she imagines she has blue eyes. The book has been banned multiple times because it deals with tough subjects like incest and child molestation. However, at the core of it is a deeper truth: our most terrifying monsters are the ones that are real.

Horror as a genre allows its readers to confront subjects that are too hard to look at directly. Like a filter that allows us to look at the sun without going blind, horror softens the impact of unimaginable subjects by replacing horrific human monsters with supernatural creatures. They are less upsetting than the idea that the real monsters are us.

There is a close synergy between magical realism and gothic horror. They are flip sides of the same coin. Magical realism is a genre label usually ascribed to people of color talking about ourselves, and integrating our own folklore, history, legends and mythology into stories that contain both realistic and fantastic elements. Gothic horror, especially American gothic, is written from a white person’s point of view and has to do with outsider fear and suspicion of the same folklore, history, legends and myths.

A novel like Beloved might have been considered gothic horror if it had been written from a white person’s perspective by a white author. A story like Bernard Rose and Clive Barker’s Candyman might have been mystical realism if it were written by a black author and from Candyman’s point of view. Both stories are about a tragic character that died unnecessarily as a result of racism and slavery who returns as an avenging spirit. The change in the point of view character is also key to the genre categorization here: Candyman is about how slavery impacted white people. Beloved is about how it impacted African Americans.

Toni Morrison’s forays into magical realism may not be universally considered horror for the same reason that not everyone considers Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein horror: the monster is so sympathetic that from time to time, human beings seem the real monsters. The monster is the one who has been wronged here. If we feel more sympathy for the monster than it persecutors, then we lose a lot of the fear we associate with the horror genre.

100+ Black Women in Horror debuts February 21st

100 Black Women in Horror print covere

February 21 is the official release date for the biographical reference 100+ Black Women in Horror. Containing the biographies of over one hundred black women who write horror, 100+ Black Women in Horror is a reference guide, a veritable who’s who of female horror writers from the African Diaspora. This volume is an expansion of the original 2014 book 60 Black Women in Horror.

February is African American History Month in the United States as well as Women in Horror Month (WiHM). 100+ Black Women in Horror is a result of the intersection between the two celebrations. It consists of an alphabetical listing of the women with biographies, photos, and web addresses, as well as interviews with 17 of the included women and an essay by David Watson on LA Banks and Octavia Butler. It is not limited to African American authors, but includes women from all over the diaspora!

100+ Black Women in Horror began as a series of blog posts, written for Women in Horror Month and Black History Month, between 2013 and 2018. This book contains seventeen of the interviews originally featured on Sumiko Saulson’s horror blog, Things That Go Bump in My Head, http://www.SumikoSaulson.com.  The women in this release are either primarily authors of horror prose or poetry, such as Tananarive Due and Linda Addison, or women who write in other genres primarily, but have one or more works in the horror genre, such as Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, and Zane.

A free version of the eBook will be available exclusively through Goodreads. Free eBooks will be made available to schools and libraries through a special distribution program through Smashwords.

Discounted versions of the book are available exclusively through Lulu.com, through buy links you can find at www.SumikoSaulson.com and the publisher, the non-profit www.IconoclastProductions.com.

The book is available everywhere else for the standard price of 99 cents for the eBook, available through Kobo, iTunes Store, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and Smashwords; $10 for the Standard Paperback, $12 for the Premium Paperback, and $30 for the Deluxe Hardcover with Case Wrap, perfect for libraries and schools wishing to keep it as a reference guide.

100+ Black Women in Horror will be a great addition to the libraries of horror lovers, African Diaspora or horror scholars, and fans of Black literature.

Ten Black Women in Horror List #1

2018 WiHM Black Women in HorrorThis Part One of the 2018 series on Black Women in Horror, a continuation of the Black Women in Horror project that started in 2013 as a part of Women in Horror Month, and lead to the publication of 60 Black Women in Horror in 2014. 20 more women were added to the list in 2017. This year, we have an exciting new 30 Black Women in Horror to add to the list. The new women were discovered largely due to Eden Royce’s 2017 blog series Black Women in Horror on the Dark Geisha, Colors in Darkness and their 2017 anthology Forever Vacancy, Graveyard Sisters,  Kintra Brooks, Linda Addison and Susana M. Morris’ anthology Sycorax’s Daughters, and my project with Nicole Kurtz, Black Magic Women on Mocha Memoirs. Iconoclast Productions will be releasing 100 Black Women in Horror on February 15, the same day Black Magic Women comes out.

  1. R.J. Joseph

R. J. JosephR.J. Joseph has had three horror short stories published in anthologies: “A Woman’s Work” in Transitions and Awakenings by Sanguine Press, “To Give Her Whatsoever She May Ask” in Sycorax’s Daughters, and “Mama’s Babies” in Road Kill: Texas Horror by Texas Writers, Volume 2.  She writes creatively and academically in and about the horror genre. In May 2017 she presented her paper, “Where My Girls At: The Absence of Black Femininity from Vampire Culture” at the International Vampire Film and Arts Festival in Transylvania.

rjjoseph.wordpress.com/

  1. Violette L. Meier

Violette MeierViolette L. Meier is an Atlanta-based speculative fiction writer, poet, folk artist and published author of eight books. Tales of a Numinous Nature is a spine tingling collection of her short horror stories. She writes horror-tinged paranormal tales like Ruah the Immortal, The First Chronicle of Zayashariya: Out of Night, Angel Crush, and Son of the Rock. Her other titles include: Violette Ardor: A Volume of Poetry, This Sickness We Call Love: Poems  of Love, Lust, & Lamentation, and Loving and Living Life.

www.VioletteMeier.com

  1. Chanel Harry

Chanel HarryChanel Harry is a horror novelist who combines psychological horror with paranormal terrors in her novel, The Other Child, about a child psychologist who has to separate a vengeful spirit from the traumatized children it inhabits at Black Hallow School for Blind and Disabled Girls. Other horror titles include Heebie Jeebies: Tales of Terror, a macabre and terrifying ten story collection; Skin Witch: Tales of Soucouyants; and The Restless: Evil Has Come Home. She hails from the Bronx, New York. Her mother is from Trinidad and Tobago, which she visits annually. She is immersed in her mother’s culture, and her book Skin Witch is about the Soucouyant vampire folklore from Trinidad.

www.facebook.com/FireLadyTalesOfTheSoucouyants

  1. Cinsearae Santiago

cinsearae santiago

Cinsearae Santiago writes under Cinsearae  S. She is a dark paranormal romance and horror writer, the creator of the dark paranormal romance/horror series, ‘Abraxas’ and ‘Boleyn, Tudor Vampire,’ Editor/Publisher of the award-winning magazine, Dark Gothic Resurrected. She received the Author’s Site of Excellence Award in December 2007 from Preditors and Editors, the Golden Horror Award from Horrorfind.com, and is a Cover Artist for Damnation Books.

 

bloodtouch.webs.com/

  1. Tiara Jante

Tiara Janté 2A speculative fiction author, her short story, L’innocent is in the horror genre and was published originally in Black Girl Magic Literary Magazine and later self-published on Amazon. It was reviewed on the Grave Yard Shift Sisters web site. She writes horror, sci-fi, fantasy, urban romance, traditional romance, paranormal romance, African American fiction, and general fiction. Her bylines can be found on Amazon and at Blacksci-fi.com, Black Girl Magic Literary Magazine and xoNecole. Tiara is also a ghostwriter with Gotham Ghostwriters, one of the leading ghostwriting agencies in the country.

tiarajante.net/

  1. Tabitha Thompson

tabitha-thompson1.jpgTabitha Thompson is an African American horror writer from Florida. Her first short story Heading West, was picked up by Sirens Call Publications in 2013 for their online magazine issue #12 Dead And Dying. West Nile was released in 2014 also with Sirens Call Publications for their issue #16 Apocalyptic Fiction. She has released several horror short stories and flash fiction. Her latest release, Decency Defiled, a workplace based horror short story, was released through J Ellington Ashton Press as part of the anthology titled Rejected For Content 6: Workplace Relations.

tabithathompson391.wordpress.com/

  1. Kai Leakes

Kai LeakesSt. Louis native and vampire lover, author Kai Leakes began her obsession with all things fantasy, romance, and the dark as a teen. Kai is the creator of the popular dark fantasy/horror series ‘Sin Eaters: Devotion Books & Sin Eater Chronicles’ novellas. She has short stories in several Afrocentric speculative fiction anthologies Taste the Taint: A Cursed Story in Sycorax’s Daughters, Sisters in Black Magic Women, Free Your Mind in The City: A Cyberfunk Anthology and Traveler’s Song, a Pulse Prelude in Rococoa. She cowrote Christmas Kind of Love with Nikki Michelle.

kwhp5f.wix.com/kai-leakes

  1. Kamika Aziza

kamika_azizaKamika Aziza is the writer of a childrens’ book series and a comic book series both based in Jamaica. She studied Radio and Television broadcasting at Trident Technical college where she also graduated with a certificate in Radio Production. She works on a comic book series titled “League of Maroons” based on Caribbean folk lore, and a children’s book series titled “The Adventures of Kam Kam”, both currently available for Amazon Kindle, as well as the poetry chapbook “Random Poems from a Desperate Mind,”

www.facebook.com/Kamika1990

  1. Tiffany Austin

Tiffany AustinTiffany Austin is a poet who contributed “Toward a Peacock Poem” to the horror anthology Sycorax’s Daughters, she also wrote essay “The Gendered Bias in Sonia Sanchez’ Haiku,” which is a part of the anthology “Sonia Sanchez’ Poetic Spirit through Haiku.”  Tiffany Austin presently lives in Nassau, Bahamas, where she teaches.

www.goodreads.com/author/show/16436472.Tiffany_Austin

  1. Tracey Baptiste

Tracey BaptisteContributor to Sycorax’s Daughters, she wrote the short story “Ma Laja,” and is the author of the horror-tinged midgrade dark fantasy series “The Jumbies and Rise of the Jumbies,” the contemporary young adult novel Angel’s Grace and nine non-fiction books for kids in elementary through high school. She’s a former elementary school teacher, currently on the faculty at Lesley University’s Creative Writing MFA program.

traceybaptiste.wordpress.com/

Stay tuned for the next two lists on February 7th and February 14th!

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