#StokersSoWhite: 2016 Horror Writers’ Association boycott

Ace Antonio Hall, Suzanne Paul, Steven Van Patten, Linda Addison and Sumiko Saulson at the 2016 StokerCon Horror Writers’ Association after-party

Brian Keene’s boycott and the end of tokenism at the HWA, Part 1

Writing While Black, September 2019 edition

by Sumiko Saulson

Allegations of rape, sexual harassment and white supremacy scandalized the Horror Writers’ Association in 2016. By 2018, there was a Black sweep of the awards and the scandals had been swept under the rug. With no names given, the rape and sexual harassment stories disappeared.

The David A. Riley scandal promoted allegations of racial bias in the selections process. The awards had long been white dominated. David A. Riley, a juror on one of the Stoker Award panels, was a member of and political candidate with the far-right, fascist National Front Party in the UK from 1973 to 1983.

The party has a well known history of racism and was associated with neo-Nazi skinheads. Riley said it was a youthful indiscretion and that he was unaware the party was racist at the time and voluntarily stepped down from the juror position. Brian Keene and Simon Bestwick’s blogs on the subjects have since been deleted, but you can still find a thread accusing the boycotters of McCarthyism.

“Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined,” wrote Toni Morrison in “Beloved.”

Toni Morrison’s words certainly ring true here, as while many Black writers outside of the Horror Writers’ Association took Mr. Keene’s blog seriously, he was soundly ridiculed within the organization. Eventually, he rejoined the fold and took down the post. Simon Bestwick also took down his post defending Riley but part of it read:

“If DAR harassed or abused people at cons or used his position in fan organizations, I’d be the first to call for his expulsion/banning. But he hasn’t. If his fiction spewed racial hatred – well, I doubt most editors would handle it anyway. There comes a point where a kid has to be allowed to play in the sandpit, whatever you think of him. No one’s saying you have to play with him,” Simon Bestwick said.

Sumiko Saulson and Tananarive Due at the 2017 Horror Writers’ Association convention

My name is Sumiko Saulson. I was the first winner of the Horror Writers’ Association’s StokerCon Scholarship from Hell, an award consisting of an all-expenses-paid trip to StokerCon and unlimited access to special educational workshops in 2016. I sat in the back of the room during the HWA’s Stoker Awards that year, aghast as they roasted Brian Keene for choosing to boycott the HWA.

I am Black and the condemnation of David A. Riley resonated with many people of color. Brian Keene’s friend Jeff Strand was doing the roast, which included barbed comments directed at Simon Bestwick and was dismissive of the entire scandal.

“It’s not my place to say who’s wrong, but I think it’s appropriate to observe that there was inconsistent outrage. By which I mean there were people at their computers saying ‘How dare HWA not remove this person immediately? ‘How dare HWA remove this person without a thorough analysis of the situation?’ ‘We demand a knee-jerk reaction,’” Jeff Strand said in his 2016 HWA Awards Brian Keene roast.

“This person” was David A. Riley. The handling of the Riley scandal is indicative of the overall apologist tone in the horror writing community. The HWA’s official statement and many others defended Riley’s political views as freedom of speech. The Teleread article on it defends him but is very tongue-in-cheek in its view of his claim not to have known that the National Front were racists.

“I think the most charitable interpretation that can be put on this is that Riley must have been exceptionally naive to conclude that the NF wasn’t racist or fascistic in its tendencies from the start. I certainly had no such illusions growing up in the UK in the 1970s,” wrote Paul St. John Mackintosh in Teleread.

All of this misses the more essential question: Why is it that the Horror Writers’ Association’s entire awards history up until after the scandal was so white-centered? It certainly wasn’t just Riley. Part of the reason only white authors win is a confirmation bias that tells voters only white male horror writers are valid.

I am a Black author of Afrosurrealist, Afrofuturist and Multicultural Horror and Fantasy. My defining work, however, is non-fiction. My 2013 lists of “Black Women in Horror,” compiled as an ambassador for Women in Horror Month 2013 during Black History Month. I am also known for writing essays on subjects such as why confirmation biases lead to racial and gender biases in genre categorization that tends to exclude Black folks from consideration in horror writing awards.

For example, “’Beloved’ would have been considered gothic horror if it had been written from a white character’s point of view by a white author. … The nature of the protagonist informs genre categorization,” I observed in “Horror Elements in Toni Morrison’s Magical Surrealism” (2016).

If one believes all horror writers are old white men, then Clive Barker looks like a horror writer, and Toni Morrison does not. Therefore Clive Barker and Bernard Rose’s 1992 film “Candyman” is horror and Toni Morrison’s 1997 novel and 1998 film “Beloved” is not. This can only be changed if the marginalized take ownership of the narrative and define ourselves in our own terms, as in Jordan Peele’s films “Get Out” and “Us.”

“Change is in the air. I finally stopped being the only Black with a Bram Stoker in 2018, when the Jordan Peele script for ‘Get Out!’ and the Damian Duffy comic adaptation for Octavia Butler’s ‘Kindred’ won Stokers. In 2019 Victor LaValle received the Bram Stoker in the Graphic Novel category for his fantastic book ‘Destroyer,’” said Linda Addison, first Black Bram Stoker Award winner.

Can you imagine if, way back in 1997, Toni Morrison’s Pultizer Prize and Nobel Prize winning novel “Beloved” had been considered for a Stoker Award? It was not, but perhaps not coincidentally, the first and last novel by a Black author was nominated the same year. The first Black person was a Black woman, Tananarive Due, nominated in 1997 for the prestigious novel category. Her novel, “My Soul to Keep,” remains the first and last nominated in that category to this day.

“A few years before I won, Tananarive Due was on the final ballot for a 1997 HWA Bram Stoker® award in the Novel category for ‘My Soul to Keep.’ I was sure she was going to win, but it didn’t happen,” said Linda Addison.

Due did not win, and Linda Addison’s win in the Poetry category took place several years later in 2001. She remained the only Black to win a Stoker until 2018. In 2018, 14 years after the release of “Kindred,” and 12 years after the death of Hugo Award Winning sci-fi author Octavia Butler, the Damian Duffy graphic novelization of ‘Kindred’ won Octavia Butler a posthumous Stoker Award, making her the second Black woman to win one.

“When your rage is choking you, it is best to say nothing,” writes Octavia E. Butler in “Fledgling.”

This officially ended Linda Addision’s 17-year reign as the only Black winner of a Stoker Award. Linda Addison was the first African American to win a Bram Stoker Award back in 2001 when she received the Stoker Award for Poetry for her collection “Consumed, Reduced to Beautiful Grey Ashes.” She later won three additional Stoker poetry awards in 2007 for “Being Full of Light, Insubstantial”; and 2011 for “How to Recognize a Demon Has Become Your Friend.” Her fourth win was in 2013 for “Four Elements” with fellow horror authors and poets Marge Simon, Charlee Jacob and Rain Graves. Charlee Jacob, who passed away recently on July 14, 2019, also won a Stoker Award for her novel “Dread” in 2005.

“I didn’t actually know I was the first Black to win until days later when someone mentioned it to me,” Addison said. “I went through the award history and discovered it was true. I was surprised but not shocked because even now, 18 years later, there are firsts happening in different fields, not just writing.”

Four awards is a lot to receive without anyone else of your complexion winning any. As a result, Linda Addison made it her job to end her reign as the only Black Stoker winner, taking on mentorship roles over the years. Toni Morrison, the first Black woman to win a Nobel Prize, surely would have both understood and approved. Morrison passed away on Aug. 5, shortly after the June 21 release of “Toni Morrison: The Pieces That I Am,” a documentary about her life that relays the experience.

Sumiko Saulson and other San Francisco writers who are members of the Horror Writers’ Association

“I tell my students,” said Toni Morrison, “When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.”

Addison would surely blush at any comparison to Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison, but, like Morrison, Addison is now an editor. Book editing is part of how she assists other Black women in horror to achieve. And so her 2001 Stoker win started her on the path that would eventually lead to her role in “Sycorax’s Daughters,” an anthology of horror writing by women from the African Diaspora that Linda Addison put together with Kinitra Brooks, PhD, and Susana Morris, PhD.

The book was one of several Black authored works to appear on the 2018 Stoker ballot, along with “Searching for Sycorax: Black Women’s Hauntings of Contemporary Horror,” a non-fiction work by Dr. Brooks on Black women in the genre. The anthology I edited, “Black Magic Women: Terrifying Tales by Scary Sisters,” was on the Recommend Reads list that year, although it never got any further. Both of these anthologies were inspired by the Sheree Renée Thomas “Dark Matter” anthologies, “Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora(2000) and “Dark Matter: Reading the Bones” (2005).

“Winning the award started me thinking about how to bring more others into the bigger genre field, not just the HWA, since I also wrote science-fiction. I wasn’t sure how to do this but several things happened. I sold a story to Sheree Renée Thomas’ “Dark Matter” anthology in 2000 and through the first anthology of African-Americans writing speculative fiction discovered a lot of new Black writers in the genre. I never forgot what she did to introduce the world to Black authors.,” said Addison.

I was introduced to Linda Addison by local author Rain Graves, herself a groundbreaking horror writer, breaking many ceilings for women in horror since the early to mid ‘90s. Rain no longer lives in the Bay Area but back in 2013, when I first started blogging about Women in Horror Month, Rain still lived here. She was part of San Francisco’s local Goth community and local literary world. Although she was already a multiple Stoker winner, Graves was down to Earth enough to participate in events with me and our friends Emerian Rich and Serena Toxicat. Serena is my best friend of some 25 years.

“Winning was surreal,” recalled Addison. “One of my best memories is having my mother at the banquet, who was my first writing inspiration because, even though she didn’t finish high school, she was a natural story teller and filled my childhood with original fables. It is an unforgettable memory. Years later she developed Alzheimer’s and couldn’t remember my wins after that, but the first one stayed with her a long time.”

So how is it that it took 17 years for someone other than Linda Addison to win? Why were the awards around 14 years before Linda won? HWA diversity issues date back to the founding of the lauded organization. The HWA or Horror Writers’ Association is the predominant international association of horror, and is also the group that gives out the most renowned of all horror awards, the Stoker Award.

The coveted Stoker Award for Novel Writing went to two novelists the first year the association was established back in 1987. One of them was Stephen King – for “Misery.” He went on to win awards for “The Green Mile” (1996), “Bag of Bones” (1998), “Lisey’s Story” (2006), “Duma Key” (2008) and “Doctor Sleep” (2013).

Another massive repeat novel category winner is Peter Straub, who won in 1993, 1999, 2003, 2004 and 2010. Peter Straub and Stephen King have five novel Stokers each, which is 10 in the 31-year history of the award. That means that King and Straub combined have about a third of the awards.

When I won the Scholarship from Hell, I was excited and posted on Facebook that I felt like a Goblin Princess going to the Monster Ball. But I wasn’t without trepidation. The Horror Writers’ Association was in the middle of a boycott by Brian Keene, who had been blogging about numerous issues with the HWA, including racism.

“At the time, there were allegations of expressed racism and misogyny, sexual harassment and even assault regarding several members of the field – some of whom were HWA members.” Said Brian Keene. “I felt, at the time, that the organization’s leadership hadn’t done enough to address these allegations. Publicly, they represent our corner of the industry, and I felt they needed to be a part of the conversations that were taking place, particularly since some of those allegations involved their members.”

Several Black authors concurred and some spoke to me about the appearance of tokenism. The 2015 WorldCon diversity scandals in the adjacent world of sci-fi were still fresh in everyone’s minds. But it was a wonderful opportunity for me, and I took it.

The Scholarship from Hell doesn’t include a ticket to the Awards Dinner, which costs $75. I couldn’t afford one, so I didn’t go. I am eternally grateful for that. Because I didn’t go, and was admitted later with a group of volunteers who wait to be called in to the back tables after the eating part of things, I had a moment with one of the many famous authors Linda Addison introduced me to while I was walking the halls of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas.

Dallas William Mayr, better known as Jack Ketchum, died Jan. 24, 2018, but back in 2016, he was one of the dozens of famous people I met while I was down there signing books in the dealer’s room. He was laid back, exuded James Dean eternal cool and was mildly amused that I had no idea how famous he was. He issued a very quiet note of protest against the HWA’s (lack of) response to the scandals by intentionally refusing to buy a $75 dinner ticket. He subsequently walked as slowly as possible, dragging his feet intentionally to make sure that his absence was felt.

“There are a number of top creators, like Brian Keene and Jack (aka Dallas) Ketchum, who have been and continue to support change in the genre. Brian and I have been friends for a long time; he’s always been passionate about fairness and inclusivity. Dallas was an early supporter of my work before anyone had heard of me and was well known for supporting, respecting and acknowledging work by others, regardless of their status,” observed Addison, the first Black Stoker Award winner.

Dallas told his companion they would let him in right away the minute they saw him. Instead of going in, he held back and listened to the two young men who volunteered at the convention play old horror movie themes from The Munsters and The Addams Family while I danced around in my 8 inch tall Demonia platforms while clutching my cartoon bat Skelanimals purse, a Goblin Princess at the Monster’s Ball with all those famous authors.

When I came back in 2017, Tananarive Due was a guest of honor along with George RR Martin and there was a Latino Scholarship from Hell winner. In 2018 there was another Black female Scholarship from Hell winner, three Black Stoker winners out of five nominees, and my anthology was on the Recommended Reads list. It would be exceedingly naïve to believe that this had nothing at all to do with the Keene boycott.

Stay tuned for the October issue next month for Part II: The End of Tokenism at the HWA, all about the 2018 awards sweep on #WritingWhileBlack #StokersSoWhite.

Bestselling author Sumiko Saulson writes award-winning multicultural sci-fi, fantasy, horror and Afrosurrealism. Winner of the 2017 Afrosurrealist Writer’s Award, 2016 HWA Scholarship from Hell, and 2016 BCC Voice Reframing the Other Award, her monthly series Writing While Black follows the struggles of Black writers in the literary arts and other segments of arts and entertainment. Support her on Patreon and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.