LJ Talks with Debut Horror Writer Donyae Coles

Debut novelist Donyae Coles talks with LJ about horror’s emotional resonance, the roles of Black characters in the genre, and her other creative outlets.

Debut novelist Donyae Coles has written short work for publications such as Nightmare Magazine, Pseudopod, and All These Sunken Souls. In her first full-length novel, Midnight Rooms (Amistad: HarperCollins), she experiments with a key tradition of the horror genre: creating a story that challenges previous conceptions of the gothic. Coles talks with LJ about horror’s emotional resonance, the roles of Black characters in the genre, and her other creative outlets (she is also a painter and hopes to one day make a comic).

Your novel is solidly in the gothic tradition but with a few awesome twists on that classic. Can you introduce readers to the unforgettable Orabella and explain how she is both part of the gothic tradition and a reaction to it as well?

Orabella is a Black woman living in Victorian England. Her parents died when she was young, and she’s raised by her uncle, her father’s brother, who is white. She’s quiet because she’s been taught to be for fear of saying the wrong thing. She is polite and well-mannered to mask her perceived flaws. She is soft, and I wrote this character because so often we do not see Black femmes in this position, as the new bride instead of the help, but also we don’t get to see them be soft.

I am “of an age,” and like all the other creepy tweens and teens, was reading Anne Rice in the ’90s and falling in love with Bram Stroker’s Dracula and these big dresses, dark halls, candles and balls, and this romance of history. But if you see any Black people in these worlds, it is always in service of the real characters, the white people.

How tiresome it is never to be a real person in the stories you read, the stories you watch, the things you love…. In my work I try to challenge that, rewrite that, let us be fully, unapologetically in these stories, with a wide spectrum of experiences not constrained by ideas of what a Black femme should be. We can be anything, even soft.

I think some people might think, oh, Orabella should be brassier! More outspoken! Because that’s how Black femmes tend to be portrayed. That they’ll think, oh, you’ve made her weak. But soft is not weak. Softness too is a way to survive, and to remain soft is a powerful thing not often afforded to Black femmes.

While Midnight Rooms is drawing comparisons to novels like Jane Eyre, this is not your grandmother’s gothic, and there are influences of weird fiction. Did you set out to merge these genres, or did their traditions find you along the way?

When I started writing Midnight Rooms, what I really thought I was writing was a romance novel…. But I am a horror writer…. When the heroic ending I had originally planned started to shift, when it twisted, the edges frayed and revealed something else, that’s when I knew for sure, I wasn’t writing a romance. That’s when I knew that this was a true gothic, a real horror show. Once I realized that, the work started to take form organically. I had already been writing weird fiction…stories about familiar things turned strange for reasons we don’t or can’t understand. Weird fiction is birthed from the gothic. And that is what Orabella is experiencing.

How does horror in general speak to you as a writer? How do the genre’s emotions work for you as a way to explore the larger themes at work in the stories you want to tell?

I think horror is a really interesting genre because it sinks into you in a lot of different ways. When we think about it, most people think of the fast, shocking horror, the terrible, blood-soaked twist at the end, but there’s quiet horror too. The kind that creeps up, covers you, drowns you before you realize you’re wet. And the sad, sudden realization-type horror, the “you’re fine, everyone is fine, but you’re not, and the world will never be the same again” horror.

I don’t always set out to write horror, but I end up there a lot. It’s the process of, how can I explain this feeling to a person who I will never see if I don’t put it in the body? If I can’t show you how it destroys and transforms? How will you understand ecstasy if I don’t show you despair?

I think horror is an honest and true thing that exists a little bit in everything that we experience as humans. In our highest joys, our deepest despair, and everything in between, there’s fear, there’s terror. And in that fear that’s buried in everything we experience, we can find the true edges of our humanity—really understand what connects us, what separates us.

You’re a writer and a painter, able to express yourself through the written word and in a visual medium. How does that function as part of your creative life?

Although I do want to make a comic, for the most part the two formats don’t intersect much! I do create art and write around a lot of the same themes, but they are their own creative spaces.

My art is bold and expressionist. Visible brushstrokes in the oils and acrylics, blooms and bleeds in the watercolors…. The point of my work is not to trick the viewer into thinking they’re looking at a photograph. My purpose is to make the viewer have an emotion. But unlike with my writing, I don’t get to decide what that emotion is.... In many ways, I write like I paint. I take an idea, put down its skeleton (the outline, the sketch), and then I build the form through instinct. Decide the parts as I go; this is right, this doesn’t fit. If it’s wrong, delete it, paint over it. Keep poking at it until I can feel the vibration of the work’s song in my bones. In the approach to both things, I am the same. But with the art, everything is more raw, more visceral for me.

What books and authors are you excited about?

I love Paula Ashe’s and Zin E. Rocklyn’s work. Joe Koch and Hailey Piper are instant buys. Oyinkan Braithwaite, Tlotlo Tsamaase, Carmen Maria Machado, and Gretchen Felker-Martin.

Recently, two books that knocked me off my feet were False Dawn by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Making Love by Melanie Tem and Nancy Holder. I’m on a retro horror kick.

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