Discovering Why ‘Hell Hath No Fury Like a Woman Haunted’ but also why this applies to the work of Black Creators in Horror

Hell Hath No Sorrow Like a Woman Haunted
By Rhonda Jackson Joseph
Seventh Terrace Press
Release Date: August 7, 2022
Available as eBook, paperback, and special edition hardcover

Here is a list of some of the major trigger/content warnings that readers may wish to be aware of before reading:

  • Sexual assault
  • Deaths of children and violence against children
  • Domestic abuse and assault
  • Emotional abuse

Before I start this review and commentary, I feel it is incredibly important to make it crystal clear that I am in no way shape or form attacking any horror organization or award commitees who have decided past final ballot nominees and winners. However, a crucial and often-ignored aspect of discussing the works of Black horror creators is that their work quite often fails to get the recognition it deserves. I am not saying this for any benefit to myself, or some ulterior motive. I am not part of the “woke” brigade (a term which grates on my nerves any time I hear it).

However, I have the strong conviction and belief that it is our role as non-Black writers to support our Black colleagues and friends, not to capitalize on a trend or a hashtag, but because they are human beings who are amazingly gifted, tirelessly hardworking, and face tremendous obstacles that many of us don’t, particularly those of us who are white or who have a white appearance like myself despite ethnic origins that are not Western or Eastern-European.

Rhonda Jackson Joseph is a name that should be on every horror award and speculative fiction award list and at the top of every major bestseller list. Like L.A. Banks before her (may she rest in peace), as well as Jewelle Gomez and Linda Addison, it’s an unacceptable oversight that Rhonda’s work has not yet received the recognition that it deserves. Horror needs the voices of more Black creators across different backgrounds and intersectional identities, and she is one of them. Horror needs more powerful women like Nicole Givens Kurtz, Sheree Renée Thomas, the enormously talented and recently departed Valjeanne Jeffers, who was a pioneer in so many ways (and may she rest in peace). We need more women like Michelle Renee Lane, to share stories that are gripping, and moving from Black perspectives. Voices like Paula D. Ashe who go places that dark fiction seldom goes.

To echo Nia Davenport‘s words, we need to fight to make this system far, far better, because as it stands:

“Women of Color and Black women often have to work twice as hard to gain half the recognition and accolades that cishet, white males are often more readily afforded.”

Nia Davenport, guest post, Locus Magazine

Now, I want to properly launch into my discussion of Rhonda Jackson Joseph’s short story collection. The introduction to this highly anticipated short story collection by another superb voice of Black horror, L Marie Wood, is a testament to that. As titan of horror and speculative fiction, Tananarive Due said, Black history is Black horror. However, despite the excellence of Black creators in speculative fiction, particularly in horror, there are still far too many white editors who feel perfectly fine commenting that a Black writer’s protagonist is ‘not Black enough’ or ‘too Black.’ There are an enormous amount of barriers and obstacles that Black writers face in publishing their work, and having to hear racist comment after racist comment telling them that Black people “don’t read” is beyod harmful.

It is bad enough that women and folks who identify as women in horror keep hearing, and have heard for many years, primarily from white men, that we don’t know how to write horror, or that we are incapable of scaring the audience, or any number of other fragile, white male commentary that they spew because they are threatened by anyone who doesn’t look and think exactly like they do.

And when Black women have called for solidarity among white female and female-identifying authors, in most cases, one of two things happens. a) performativity–wherein a white author will proudly proclaim that they are a supporter of the works of marginalized authors, include them on a few lists and a few social media posts, but then do nothing meaningful or actionable to demonstrate a lifelong commitment to supporting their marginalized peers. Or, b) they will pull the famous repertoire out of the book of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. They will say they demand the want the vote for women, that they are suffragettes, and that they demand equality…. and then they will actively suppress the voices of Black women in the movement like Frances E.W. Harper. And they’ll say equality…but only for white women. (For more on this, read Kyla Schuller’s recent book, The Trouble with White Women).

Getting back to horror, some cishet white female authors focus on themselves and become very insular. They don’t stop to think how much more difficult it is for women of colour to get published. They don’t stop to think how many more barriers there are to attending conventions, networking, getting graduate degrees, arranging child care, socio-economic income disparities, and so much more. While that’s certainly NOT to say that white women don’t also experience those things, it is crucial for them to understand that they do not face the additional barriers I’ve mentioned above, like a hotel desk attendant demanding money up front from a Black conference attendee but not a white one. Asking if a Black person owns the car they’re driving. The gift shop attendant calling security to tail this person to make sure they don’t “steal anything.” And on, and on, and on.

Black horror author Wrath James White remembers what it was like to be one of the few in the genre in the late 90s and early aughts, something he has spoken about at conventions, in blog posts, and online. Here is a particularly painful and resonating point that he made in February of this year:

It is a frustrating oversight that year after year, most horror awards–primarily the Shirley Jackson and the Horror Writers Association’s Bram Stoker Award, continually fail to nominate Black women’s work on their ballots, and also that in more than three decades, not a single Black author has won in the Superior Achievement in a Best Novel category at the Stokers. While it was great to see LaTanya McQueen’s When the Reckoning Comes nominated on the 2021 final ballot in the category of First Novel, and Jessica Lewis for Bad Witch Burning in the YA category, the winners of both of the categories were white.

Rhonda’s work has never made it to a final ballot of either the Stokers or the Shirley Jackson awards, to my knowledge. She has had eligible works in both fiction and non-fiction categories, including short stories and essays.

Rhonda’s work, in a nutshell, is visceral and unflinching in its detail. So without any further tangents, let’s get into the meat of the collection and dive right in.

The first story, ‘Left Hand Torment,’ tugged on my heartstrings as I knew it would, a story of a woman of colour, Dominique Aimee Beaulieu, born and raised in New Orleans, a placée. In antebellum Louisiana, the relationships of women like her with white men, mostly consensual, were very common despite the Code Noir and other legal provisions that sought to thwart such unions. I promised myself that I wouldn’t bore readers with the historical research into quadroon balls I have done, so I will stop at saying simply that I am an aficionado of the setting and universe in which the author has set this tale as well as the details of the character’s relationships.

‘Angela Eternal’ starts off with an artist’s exhibition that generates a lot of buzz. It turns into a tale of a woman desperate to become a mother only to face another life-threatening health issue who discovers a disturbing link to the painting at the start of the story.

‘House of Haints’ centers on a woman who needs to repair a house, much like herself, after a painful divorce. She thinks she’s seeing things when she glimpses an older woman in the parlor of the house and gets to work setting things up. She encounters a series of ghosts, each more terrifying than the last.

In ‘Mama’s Babies,’ the protagonist laments the lack of support from her husband in taking care of their children and dog. It also sets up one of the recurring themes in the author’s work, Black motherhood and trauma. When two of the girls come home with a virus that makes their eyes look like they’re bleeding tears, things take a turn for the worse. They need to go to the emergency room, but the protagonist’s husband disagrees. The transformations of the children and the protagonist’s decision at the end show the depths of a mother’s love.

‘Conflict Resolution’ is a zombie-like tale of a fearsome creature and a couple’s decisions on what to do, faced with mortal danger. Dealing with an abusive mother and a history of sexual abuse is heart-rending territory, and one of the other themes explored in the author’s work. The protagonist’s only respite seems to be her boyfriend, Brandon. At first, their situation with a creature they have discovered gives the impression of being a great boon, but as the old saying goes, everything comes with a price.

One of my other favourite stories, ‘Bad Feet,’ starts off with Minerva Pitts, who the author describes as having an old lady name and old lady bad feet. She looks younger for her age, but her feet are a source of misery. The story gives new meaning to the phrase ‘happy feet.’ She grew up loving to dance, but her parents couldn’t afford ballet lessons. When they experience upfront the damage her feet can do, it’s an understatement to say they’re terrified. Later on, Minerva’s talents attract negative attention from her teammates at school. On a trip, she encounters vicious colourism from one of the lighter-complexioned girls. The story is also significant for its concept of females as leaning into what’s seen as more villainous territory, and using that as affirmation. It’s a tremendous tale, expertly woven.

‘I Want to Be Free’ also deals with abusive parents, this time placing that role on the father of the family. It’s a body horror tale that also emphasizes the theme of being careful what one wishes for. Even though there are monstrous selves present here, the metaphors run deeper and represent intergenerational trauma.

‘I Get Mad, Too, Sometimes’ follows the protagonist on her search for gold wedding rings that show up in a bayou. It revisits the theme of men who seem like they are going to be good and decent but who turn out to be philanderers, or stick with one partner until thier educational and job mobility improves, then abandon their wives and children.

In ‘I Will Only Love You Better After Death,’ readers will explore a queer love story of of a formerly enslaved woman who was the servant of her plantation master’s daughter, Emily. It’s another of my favourite stories. When her secret is found, she’s sold to another plantation owner. There, she stays with the root woman, Odessa, who the planter referred to as a midwife. She also meets Deecy, who the master describes as barren, and thus a disappointment to him because she cannot give birth to children. It’s one of the saddest and most gut-punching of all the stories, and I can’t say sing its praises enough.

Historical fiction set in the antebellum South, particularly from the perspective of Black voices, is something that we need more of in horror. Readers seeking more authors of this type of material should flock to the author’s work.

‘Paid in Full’ explores a woman asking to get her hair back. She has lost most of it from menopause, and the woman she is asking for assistance demands payment to Mama Ziti. As with the previous tales, the protagonist learns the hard way that everything comes with a price.

In ‘All Who are Sleeping Will Not be Awakened’, readers contend with the protagonists who are not welcome to the neighbourhood because TL;DR racism, and even though they keep out of the way as much as possible, one neighbour in particular, Elizabeth Barton, hates them. It’s a tale of Black people being made to feel unwelcome in so-called ‘white’ neighbourhoods, some of whom do their best to show that they are sorry for the misbehaviour of those like Elizabeth. But the protagonist knows the score. It speaks to contemporary issues of redlining, of Black people being resented by racists, especially whites, who do not think a Black woman like Zion should be able to afford a nice house.

Elizabeth is a character who, much like her real-life counterparts, has so much white fragility. If someone were to point out her outrageous racism and micro aggressions as well as her misguided and harmful beliefs, she would shriek like a banshee and deny it rather than take any time to make meaningful reflections on her actions.

‘To Give Her Whatsoever She May Ask’ goes into religious horror territory with a protagonist who prays for a child. One night, she sees a glowing orb that a neighbour, Mr. Frank, warns her about. He tells her that it’s a malevolent creature trying to make her think that it’s a baby that has come to her as if in answer to her prayers. It shows the lengths some people will go to for their wishes, and the consequences of ‘be careful what you wish for.’

In ‘Queen of Monsters,’ it starts off with someone delivering children to a monster and it goes downhill from there. Again, there’s a strong element of religious horror and the body horror is at its most extreme. More stories need to highlight women embracing villainy and getting revenge rather than being apologetic and meek about it, as we have also seen in the work of V Castro.

‘Keep on Trucking’ is about a pair who have seen some things in their day, which is putting it mildly. Although there are supernatural frights, there’s also the real terror of driving while Black. A police officer tells the protagonist to get out of the truck, not sure if he or the monster are the worse threat. What follows is a surreal horror tale.

In ‘The Lost,’ an artist fires her manager after having needed to do so for a long time. What ensues is more difficulty from being with her husband, with whom she is having a child, but then a supernatural twist complicates matters.

‘Bloodline’ is another story of a pregnant mother with vivid nightmares. There’s a disturbing family history at play but with a deep connection to a swamp. There’s a sick saying within the family, as well, and it’s one of the most memorable tales of the bunch.

‘A Woman’s Work’ starts off with a bad relationship between a couple. Their children need new clothes and bedding, and their mother doesn’t know how the money is going to come to take care of those things. She has an interesting relationship with an ex-boyfriend who she goes to see. An empowering transformation follows, which makes this another great tale.

In ”Til Death Do Us Part,’ a woman with few options in life marries the first man she has a horrible relationship with. She dreams of escaping to Los Angeles or Australia and longs for a different kind of life. One of the most graphic and traumatic of all of the stories and very powerful.

Stories that I read in other anthologies including ‘Soulmates’ and ‘An Old-Fashioned Type of Girl.’ They are phenomenal, and I cannot wait for more readers to discover them.

Another interesting tale was ‘Into the Nothingness,’ which shifts the most prevalent setting of the author’s work from the heat of Texas and the South to ice and freezing temperatures. The protagonist is the only Black person on campus who doesn’t run into very many writers of color. It highlights the racial disparities within academia and is also a very well-told story.

To bring it back full circle to Black creators, I think it is hugely important for non-Black writers to put our money where our mouth is, so to speak. I want to highlight another Black female creator, Tonia Ransom, who works tirelessly behind the Nightlight podcast as well as her own fiction, and a campaign for Afflicted, which she fully funded on Indiegogo, which is going to be an audio production of epic proportions. It’s like Lovecraft Country meets True Blood.

In a recent interview, she talked about her dreams:

You know, my big dream, honestly, is to be like the Rod Serling of this generation. I want to tell stories that get deep into the psyche of humanity and society and sort of lay that bare for us all to learn from and to grow from and get better from. The secondary part of that is I would love to just be like the Shonda Rhimes of horror. You know how she has like all these dramas, you know all these really successful dramas. I would love to do that, whether that’s in podcasting or in TV. I would like to be that. That’s the goal.

I’m feeling very optimistic.

Tonia Ransom, interview with Tonya R. Moore

We need to help our Black colleagues and friends smash down these barriers so that amazing, talented individuals like Tonia can become the Shonda Rhimes of horror as well as the Rod Serling of this generation. For every time it feels like things are moving in the right direction, we will hear news items about white supremacist hate groups who go to libraries, threaten children, and break out more than just drag queen reading time. I’m not going to try to summarize the insanity that is attacks against CRT, which most of its opponents can, quite honestly, not even spell, and do not realize it does not mean what they think it means.

As I said at the start of this post, we need to fight back against these harmful actors–some overt, some ignorant–people like Joyce Carol Oates who are trying to weaponize their resentment toward a position of elite privilege that they think they earned in the publishing industry. They have a lot of learning to do about ‘earning’ and several other things but that’s neither here not there.

The tireless work and decidation of Black horror authors needs far better representation. This needs to be reflected not only in award considerations and nominations, but also in library acquisitions and displays, talks and events, lecture series, conventions and invited guests, bookstore stock, and book festivals, writing residencies, and any other opportunity that can provide financial as well as other forms of support. My hope is that this collection, Hell Hath No Sorrow Like a Woman Haunted, will allow far more horror readers to discover the brilliance and genius of Rhonda Jackson Joseph’s works and to reflect more critically on writers like her who deserve far, far greater recognition for her works.

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