This month, Madness Heart Press will release American Cult, an anthology of horror focusing on uniquely American visions of horror. It includes my short story “stuffed,” and is available for pre-order as we speak. In honor of its release, this is the third part of a three-part examination of American horror and the terrors and beauty that are part of life in this cult-drunk time and place in which we live. (You can read parts one and two here and here.)
The macro-narrative of American horror – just like any collection of American stories, of American dreams and nightmares – is defined as much by the stories that are left out as by the ones that are traditionally included. Those who have and wield power define not only the political and economic shape of a society, but its dominant ideologies as well, and ideology is built out of stories. Whether it is deliberately intended to or not, the art that America produces is as much a part of the language of power as laws or traditions.
Progress is much too slow, but it is being made. We are beginning to see a greater appreciation of stories featuring LGBTQIA perspectives and tales that feature women in roles other than as either a shrieking prop or “the final girl.” One tradition that has been particularly top of mind for me of late is Black horror cinema. That is due in part to the excellent documentary Horror Noire, which I can’t recommend strongly enough. Executive-produced by Tananarive Due and directed by Xavier Burgin, Noire is based on the book by Dr. Robin Means Coleman. Horror Noire tracks the history of Black representation in film and points out that Black history itself is a fertile source of potent and still-underemphasized horror. It touches on cinema from the shameful Birth of a Nation to the brilliance of Get Out, and illuminates the richness of the racial subtext in films like King Kong, Ganja & Hess, and Night of the Living Dead (whose release in 1968, a year in which America burned, couldn’t possibly have been more timely).
Speaking of Get Out, that brings us to Mr. Jordan Peele. I don’t think I’m telling tales out of school by divulging that Mr. Peele is something of a staff favorite at Madness Heart Press; my comrade Reed Alexander recently reviewed Peele’s second film, Us, and was interviewed by John Baltisberger on Madness Heart Radio regarding Peele, nostalgia, and toxic fandom. I don’t need to re-tread turf that Reed has already done an excellent job of covering. I’d just add that I wholeheartedly concur with Reed when he calls Peele “hands down the new master of horror,” and says that “Us and Get Out have simply set a new standard of horror.”
Jordan Peele is a horror auteur; one with a unique and exciting vision. In my previous piece about James DeMonaco’s Purge franchise, I said that the uniqueness and variety of DeMonaco’s stories might be in part due to the fact that it is so much his singular vision, and that if studios are smart, they’d take note and start offering creators more control over the direction of their art. I feel the same way about Peele’s films. The set dressing, the use of certain color palettes, a smattering of ceremonial-magick-level hidden messages and Easter eggs – it will take longer to tell for sure, but I’m fairly certain that we’re beginning to see the emergence of “the Jordan Peele style” in horror cinema. Us was a brilliant and unexpected second offering, one that shows us that Peele isn’t afraid to take huge swings at big ideas. More; Us takes us from the text and subtext of race and into a commentary on much more, a commentary that encompasses race (observe the complicated, delicate relationship between the Wilson and Tyler families) while simultaneously holding up a dark funhouse mirror to America in a broader sense. After all, asked who the Tethered are, Red replies “We’re Americans.”
I value original stories, well-told, and I’m pleased that representation has improved in horror. That said, we’ve got a long way to go – and I hope those of us who have privilege will use it to broaden the conversation and open horror to voices that have, thus far, been muffled or ignored. We’ll all be better for it.