Horror authors talk race, gender and vampires at ULS event


Zoom screenshot

Horror authors Michelle Lane (left) and Jewelle Gomez spoke at a Zoom webinar on Tuesday night as a part of the University Library System’s Women in Horror series.

By Sona Sharma, Staff Writer

For horror authors Michelle Lane and Jewelle Gomez, vampires are more than cheap scares or sexy lovers — they are an art form, connecting aspects of literature and personal identity.

The University Library System hosted a Zoom webinar on Tuesday evening with Gomez and Lane to discuss how their personal experiences with race, gender and sexuality intertwine with the horror genre to create compelling narratives.

This one-hour panel was part of the larger Women in Horror series, a ULS project established to highlight the contributions of women to the genre. Pitt’s Year of Engagement grant, which provides funding to Pitt programming focusing on social change and equity, supported the event. Recordings for Tuesday’s talk, as well as all the other conversations sponsored by the Women in Horror project, can be accessed through the University’s Archives & Special Collections website.

The first half of the panel focused on the authors’ personal novels, and how they used supernatural elements to address the intricacies of real-life identities of race, gender and sexuality. In particular, both works explore the theme of vampirism and how it relates to their characters.

Gomez is an author, poet, critic and playwright known for her work in activism, her work in Broadway and her writing, which focuses on LGBTQ+ and feminist advocacy and her Black and Native American identities. Her first novel, “The Gilda Stories,” published in 1991, is her first work of horror and has since won two Lambda Awards. Lane writes horror and dark speculative fiction. Her first novel “Invisible Chains” was published just two years ago, and was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award.

Gomez discussed vampiracy through the lens of “The Gilda Stories,” which tells the story of a runaway slave who becomes a vampire after being taken in at a brothel.

“The most important part for me was the ability to re-examine the existing mythology, whatever was perceived as the reality of vampires,” Gomez said.

On the other hand, “Invisible Chains” paints a definitively more hostile stance toward vampires, as her main character, a runaway slave from Louisiana, struggles against them.

“I decided to make my vampire a monster because in my own reading of popular vampire fiction, I was seeing a lot of the contrary,” Lane said. “I want it to be clear that my vampire was a monster and not a potential idealistic mate for my protagonist.”

According to Lane and Gomez, vampirism also served as a literary tool to express both the protagonists’ connection to their personal identities, as well as the struggles they and other marginalized people face in their day-to-day lives.

According to Lane, the fictional horrors of vampires and other supernatural elements served to illuminate the real-life and still lingering horrors of slavery and discrimination.

“People were telling me that the scenes with monsters were like taking a break from what’s going on in the real world,” Lane said. “I had intentionally made my protagonist’s companions monsters because they were somehow safer than the world around her.”

Gomez opted to delve into the humanity of vampires, depicting their role as another identity in the natural order of society.

“I think, being a feminist and a lesbian, that I wanted to create a humanistic sensibility so that vampires, even those that are supernatural, consider themselves part of a natural order. And that balance was only maintained if they didn’t abuse their power by taking advantage of mortals or victimizing others. All of that stuff, as a feminist, I’m against,” Gomez said.

Both authors also discussed their roles as women of color in the world of literature, and the stereotypes and tokenization they have seen through their time reading and interacting with mainstream media.

Gomez talked about her desire to see more diversity in the field of horror, a sentiment that Lane also agreed with.

“I would like to see more people of color writing horror fiction, so that we don’t feel like we’re just out there on our own and people only come to us because we’re the only two people they know,” Gomez said.

Lane also gave some advice to aspiring writers who would like to write about characters from marginalized communities of which they are not a part. She encouraged writers to do their research and consult many people from that particular background to represent their stories accurately.

“Ask people from the culture that you’re writing about. But then also not rely on just one person to tell you that,” Lane said. “There’s no one monolithic Blackness, or whiteness, or womanhood. I mean, everyone has a very unique experience and I think that if you make your characters authentic enough, they will not show up as stereotypes on the page.”

The event concluded with each of the authors discussing their specific plans regarding their careers. Both authors expressed interest in continuing their works with a sequel, revisiting their characters from the previous novel.

Gomez said she is excited to revisit the character of Gilda from “The Gilda Stories,” 30 years after its original publication.

“For me going back to Gilda is like coming home. It’s the character that I have done the most research on, that I feel the most energy for and the most passion for. And I have often said this — if I get stuck doing something I always think, ‘What would Gilda do?’” Gomez said.

Lane also expressed enthusiasm at the idea of writing a sequel to “Invisible Chains” and going into more detail about Jacqueline, her protagonist.

“I’m looking forward to spending more time with Jacqueline because I feel like I need her strength right now,” Lane said. “And I think she’s going to get stronger as the story goes, because, you know, I’m going to keep doing terrible things to her.”

Ben Rubin — the Horror Studies Collection coordinator for ULS Archives and Special Collections and one of the moderators for Tuesday’s event — described a couple different factors, such as growing connections to female horror writers and a desire to showcase underrepresented groups, that led to the creation of the Women in Horror project.

“Part of it was just wanting to make sure that we were intentionally trying to focus on underrepresented groups and highlight their contributions, recognizing that there can be silences in the archive,” Rubin said. “Part of it also was we were getting some connections to female filmmakers as well as authors, and it seemed like a good way to organize our yearly activities.”

Rubin said he believes that these events are beneficial in engaging the public with the horror genre, and can help shed a new light on the genre that both fans and non-fans alike can appreciate.

“I hope they’ll get an appreciation for how broad horror can be, and that it has a lot of social and cultural value,” Rubin said. “The reason that we’re collecting horror stories and recognizing here at Pitt is the idea that genre fiction has a greater significance. There are wonderful writers who are using this genre as a way to tell their stories in a way that does have value, and is available for academic inquiry.”