Originally published in the Sunday, October 2nd, 2022 edition of the Stabroek News
The best craft happens when writers are safe, well-fed and comfortable. Currently, Teri Clarke (aka Zin E. Rocklyn) is trying to start a newer safer life so that she can meet her basic physical, emotional and mental health needs.
But she needs our help. She has set up a GoFundMe campaign to raise the funds she needs to get a safer housing arrangement to meet these needs, and she has a Ko.Fi available. If you can, please consider donating so that Teri can start her newer, better life. Then, when she is safe again, she can have the time and peace of mind to do what she does best: scare the living shit out of all of us.
In her 2018 essay entitled “My Genre Makes a Monster of Me”—which was published in Uncanny Magazine’s September/October 2018 Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction special edition—horror writer Zin E. Rocklyn laments the ways her own body makes her feel monstrous. As a Black, fat, disabled immigrant and queer woman living in the United States, there are many ways that people have been taught to fear her, even when she’s just minding her own business.
As such, she notes in the essay that she has come to empathise with many of Hollywood’s monsters. In many horror movies, many of the villain’s monstrosities are just cruel re-skins of disability and injustice. For example, the “monstrous” people from movies like The Hills Have Eyes and the Wrong Turn series are victims of illegal radioactive waste dumping that leaves them and their offspring disabled and deformed. But they aren’t depicted as the victims of an environmental disaster. They are juxtaposed with the pretty white people wandering into their isolated territories, their differences making them dangerous threats to the people snooping in their backyards. Similarly, when indigenous and Black people protest environmental injustices on their own land or in their cities, they are branded as nuisances and either dismissed or attacked. Their attempts to save themselves, their future and their children’s futures are seen as monstrous.
So, what the monsters could tell their own stories and lay their injustices bare? What would happen if those who are branded as monsters for fighting for their lives and rights embraced their monstrosity? What would they become? What would they do to change themselves and the world? Rocklyn explores these ideas in her stories The Night Sun and Flowers for the Sea. By subverting our ideas of who is a monster and dropping her characters into unsettling situations, she creates some truly chilling horror that has stayed with me beyond my first reading.
The Night Sun
“The deer was long dead before my husband struck it with our car.– Opening of The Night Sun
“The fur was mottled with blood and fluids, tendons of the neck naked to the air while threads of muscle clung to the mass of the deer’s body. It’s head stood high, all nineteen points of its antlers aimed toward the heavens, its pulse visible in the exposed veins. I could see the forest behind it, the rest of the deserted highway as clear as a clean windshield threaded with red, palpitating stratum.
“I have its blood on my hands.”
The Night Sun is a contemporary horror novelette which begins when Avery and her husband, Jonas, are travelling along the back roads of Colorado on their way to a rented cabin in the middle of the woods. But this is no relaxing weekend getaway. Avery and Jonas are on the cusp of divorce and this weekend is supposed to test whether they can sort out their relationship and move toward a healthier, happier marriage.
Before they even get there, they begin arguing and Jonas begins assaulting Avery mid-drive. In his distraction, he doesn’t see the deer and slams into it head-on, injuring them both and wrecking the car in the process.
Shortly after, the sheriff and his emergency medical technician (EMT) find them, help patch them up, and warns them about the beasts roaming in the woods at night. They both seem suspicious about some of Avery’s injuries, and after driving them to their cabin, the sheriff gives her his number in case she needs any more help. All the while, Jonas hovers over her, overbearing with his apparent protectiveness.
The pair settle in for the night, shaken but alive, and for a moment, it seems like their near-death experience might lead to a marriage-saving revolution. That is until Avery is attacked by one of the beasts in the woods. Unbeknown to Jonas, she begins to transform both physically and mentally, and her newfound monstrosity gives her the strength she needs to end the abuse and reconnect with a community she thought she lost.
Flowers for the Sea
“Every once in a while, an affliction is cast upon we birthing folk.pp. 6-7
“I am the only one to carry this far.””
“Forty have perished for the sake of continuing our wretched lineage, their blood stained on our deck.
“…Hubris could not shield us from the sun’s head, from the boldness of below-surface creatures caressing the innocent flesh of our curious young ones. We were the finest coastal traders of the continent. Sea-battling vessels, fish, fruit and labour were our currency. We were hardbacked and hardworking. We were proud.
“And now we are dying.”
Flowers for the Sea is a novella that straddles the line between fantasy and science fiction. It opens with a woman named Iraxi lamenting her condition. She is one of the last of humanity trapped aboard a ship floating aimlessly and endlessly around a flooded world. Most importantly, she is heavily pregnant, even though she does not want to be.
A part of her resistance to motherhood stems from the fact that she is the last surviving member of an oppressed minority group who was suspected of having the ability to commune with and control the dangerous sea creatures patrolling the rising seas. She bears the mental, emotional and physical scars of her people’s genocide and, despite being the only one aboard to bring a child to term, she is still shunned by the other passengers.
As Iraxi goes into labour, she quickly realises that there’s something wrong with her child. It controls her body and mind in terrifying ways, forcing her to relive her horrific past and see visions of a doomed future. It forces her into unsafe spaces aboard the ship and, when it’s finally born, acts unlike any newborn she has ever seen. The child terrifies Iraxi.
Yet, as she reluctantly bonds with it and leans of its intent and origins, she accepts that she is but a vessel for the child’s otherworldly agenda and her own rage.
One thing that I appreciated about Rocklyn’s work was the way she combined sensory details, limited settings, and short word counts to create unsettling, claustrophobic horror.
For example, the majority of The Night Sun is set in a cabin in a beast-infested woodland. The characters are stranded and have no access to transportation to escape should things go wrong. Rocklyn amps up the anxiety with this because Avery is in an abusive relationship, and from the opening scene we already know what Jonas can do to her. The dead deer just makes The Night Sun a riveting read as you feel just as trapped and alone as she does.
Flowers for the Sea is even more claustrophobic as it’s set on a ship with what’s left of humanity on a flooded world. Iraxi can neither escape this confinement nor can she have any true privacy because, despite the number of casualties in the years of the ship’s voyage, it’s still a crowded, disgusting place to be.
It’s even worse for Iraxi because she is a minority aboard the ship who has to deal with an endless stream of microaggressions from passengers who both fear and hate her. While she has developed a sort of reverse psychology for herself, choosing to savour and revel in the passenger’s hatred, we see that she’s broken by the endless stream of hate.
Iraxi’s claustrophobia doesn’t stop here, however. In an interview on the Castle of Horror Podcast with Jason Henderson, Rocklyn notes that Iraxi’s own body is a source of claustrophobia. Pregnancy is already hard on a body, but Iraxi is weeks overdue and thus sleep-deprived, achy and uncomfortable as she cannot move her body the way she wants. While these are relatively normal issues many pregnant people face, her condition is made worse when they begin within her awakens, and she discovers that it can control her body in ways no human child can. Iraxi’s lack of control and agency over her body and life makes Flowers for the Sea a truly unsettling read.
Becoming a monster to save yourself
Both The Night Sun and Flowers for the Sea have one important detail in common: they are both about Black women becoming monstrous to protect themselves from abuse. This transformation and their monstrous forms give them agency and power in situations where they have none. In the end, their abuser’s shock reverberates in the silence they were forced to inhabit as their actions scream louder than the words they were never allowed to say.
However, the difference between the two stories has to do with what kind of oppression the women are facing in their respective lives.
The Night Sun opens with Avery is on a precipice. She has been in an abusive relationship with a white man for fourteen years and is in a position where she could either go through with her divorce or go back to him, thinking that maybe they could make it work out somehow. Later in the story, we come to understand how and why she got into that relationship, how much she was isolated from her friends and family, and how much Jonas has hurt her. Her transformation gives her access to more information from her surroundings and gives her the ability to fight back if she needs to. She uses this fully to her advantage.
On the other hand, Flowers for the Sea is also about embracing monstrosity, but unlike Avery—who finds community and help because her monstrous transformation—Iraxi uses her monstrosity to reject the community that has already shunned her. Throughout the story, we get several glimpses into how Iraxi is mistreated both as an individual and along with the rest of her community of nims when they were still alive. Little by little, the oppression eats away at her psyche, and we actually see the ways she has tried to harm herself in order to escape the pain of her existence.
In “My Genre Makes a Monster of Me”, Rocklyn poses these questions to her readers: “Why didn’t those monsters rise up together and say fuck this world, it’s time to start over? Why continuously strive to prove humanity to those ingrained with their own vanity?” Iraxi answers these questions. She deliberately isolates herself from the people who hate her, but on the prompting of her otherworldly child, she uses her transgenerational rage to make the world a better place for herself.
Both The Night Sun and Flowers for the Sea were stories that made me anxious while reading, many of their disturbing details staying with me long after I finished reading them for the first time. But most of all, I the way Rocklyn subverted our ideas of who monsters are and what monstrosity can mean for marginalised people. By the end, while I felt both empathy and righteous rage and joy for both Avery and Iraxi, I was also a little bit terrified of them. It was gorgeously executed horror.
So, I would recommend these stories to anyone who wants quick, scary reads that go beyond superficial jump scares, and I really look forward to what Rocklyn will be cooking up next. Judging from these pieces and her essay, I know that it’s going to be great.
If you can, please help Teri start a newer, safer life.
The Night Sun was published by Tor.com and is free to read online!
What to read some more subversive short horror? Try the following:
- Choke by Suyi Davies Okungbowa
- The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
- The Backbone of the World by Stephen Graham Jones
- Bloody Summer by Carmen Maria Machado
- The East Hound by Nalo Hopkinson
One thought on “Monstrosity is Self-Defence in Zin E. Rocklyn’s Horror Stories”
Pingback: Thursday Link Dump | Clever Manka