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  • Writer's picturePete Mesling

A Brush with the Horror of Racism

Life is precious and meaningful. That’s why I’m drawn to dark subject matter, in both fiction and nonfiction. That which threatens, either by choice or circumstance, to exploit, deny, quash, or ridicule the simple morality of compassion intrigues me.

The idea that horror writers (and fans) tend to be kind, good-natured people has become a cliche of sorts. And the question of what attracts such people to the dark side of life has been covered often and eloquently. Neither topic would ordinarily rise to the top of my list of themes to blog about, even though I believe wholeheartedly in the assertion that most horrorfolk are benevolent in the extreme, despite rather odd preferences in reading and viewing material (usually alongside far less odd preferences).

Why, then, am I bothering with all of this? Well, as you may know, a British horror writer who has openly expressed racist views and affiliations has been serving as a juror for the Horror Writers Association (HWA). Many people are baffled, disappointed, and angry that this was allowed to happen. Me? Not so much. That a white supremacist might squirm his way into a position of some potential influence within a volunteer-based organization doesn’t surprise me unduly. The HWA is not the villain here, ostensibly. David A. Riley made his own bed. Turns out he never learned the trick of hospital corners, and the bedclothes have come undone as a result.

But Riley is only part of the reason I’m writing this. In fact, I had never heard of him until it came up recently on the HWA’s Facebook page that he was serving as a juror in the fiction anthology category for their Bram Stoker Awards. The ensuing Facebook controversy that erupted is easy to jump into, if you’re so inclined, but beware: it’s not so easy climbing back out again. The discussion, to my way of thinking, has highlighted the limitations of social media for engaging in thoughtful and complex debate. Facts tend to run astray, and countless misconceptions emerge. It’s like professional wrestling, but with the added feature of one or more lunatics rushing the mat and cutting the ropes so that it becomes a free-for-all instead of a contained match.

None of this could stop me from chiming in, however, when Riley himself entered the fray. I’ll let our brief Facebook exchange speak for itself ...

Riley (not addressing me in particular): “Weirdly, my words don't seem to be sinking in. I have already stated that I have messaged Lisa Morton and offered to stand down if that is what is deemed to be for the general good of the HWA. All that is needed is for this to be accepted. Far from being bothered about nolonger being a juror for the anthology category I'll be saved a lot of unpaid work [sic]. As for impartiality, I know myself that this is not a problem for me. All that would have mattered would have been the quality of the writing. I have already been so impressed by the originality and quality of stories sent to me by a young black British writer that I am prepared to put all the time and effort needed to edit, proofread, and format his collection and pay for a cover for it, which I'll be publishing later this year at my own expense. Anyone involved in the small press will appreciate just how much work this involves. Yes, I am that much prejudiced!”

Me: “David, why is a response from the HWA important at this point? If you believe it's the right thing to do, why not call it a day and save them from having to confirm that it would be best for you to step down?”

He never responded to my questions, and the matter has since resolved itself. The HWA has indeed cut ties with him.

It is important to note that the HWA’s response to the uproar over Riley’s involvement with the organization was swift. It had to be, in this age of immediate gratification, I suppose. Their initial commitment to inaction, posted to their Facebook page by president Lisa Morton within a week of my being made aware of the situation, did not go over well, and a day later, the HWA had taken more concrete measures. Still, some people have sworn they will be leaving the HWA over this incident. Giving the HWA the benefit of the doubt with respect to their presumed prior ignorance of Riley’s detestable views—and in the spirit of full disclosure, I am an affiliate member of the HWA—they acted with as much celerity as could have been hoped for, the way I see it. In fact, I suspect it was a sense of urgency that may have caused them to jump the gun, and induced Morton to issue the following statement without letting it steep for a while longer …

“I have asked both HWA's Board of Trustees and the chair of our Diverse Works Inclusion Committee to advise on a recent situation surrounding a member who is serving on a Bram Stoker Award jury who holds certain political views. After considerable discussion and research, here is the official response: ‘The HWA does not support discrimination of any kind, including discrimination based on political views. Not only is this form of discrimination specifically illegal in a number of U.S. states, HWA's Board of Trustees also does not believe it's in keeping with our principle of supporting and practicing freedom of expression. In specific regard to HWA's Bram Stoker Award juries, the HWA will certainly act if/when a juror's personal views have a provable impact/bias against a writer or his/her works.’”

It was my dissatisfaction with the above stance that prompted me, in part, to become involved in the Facebook conversation, short lived though my involvement was. And I have to admit, it was reassuring to read the following, which, as I already mentioned, came a day later …

“In regards to the situation involving David Riley, who announced on his blog that he would be serving on the Anthology jury: We've reached out to Mr. Riley, and both Mr. Riley and the HWA have agreed that it's in the best interest of all for him to step down. Mr. Riley will be replaced on the jury immediately by Nicole Cushing. The HWA thanks Nicole for stepping up, and we would also like to thank everyone who has shared their opinion on this matter.”

I’m proud of my association with the HWA. Horror remains a misunderstood and under-appreciated literary genre in many circles. The HWA’s members and leadership have been instrumental in trying to change that. Like any organization, it is only going to be as good as its members, and I would hope to see David Riley voluntarily relinquish his membership. I won’t hold my breath, but it would be the right thing to do.

At any rate, let’s not be hasty in bidding adieu to the HWA and what it stands for in terms of providing support for writers. This isn’t the first controversy to assail the organization, and it won’t be the last. That’s immutable, but so is the fact that writing is a lonely undertaking. Support from friends and family can be hard to come by, especially in a genre that those closest to us may not always understand or sympathize with. That’s okay, by the way. Solitude is one of my favorite states. I suspect I have that in common with many a writer. But that doesn’t mean we want to end up like Burgess Meredith in the classic Twilight Zone episode, “Time Enough at Last.” In that episode, Meredith is a misanthropic bookworm and the sole survivor of a nuclear holocaust. Wandering through the rubble of his town, he happens upon what remains of the public library, and a waking nightmare is transformed into a kind of utopia. Suddenly he has all the books he could ever want, and time enough at last to read them. But fate in the Twilight Zone is seldom as kind as all that, and when our hero loses his Coke-bottle spectacles, he finds them again only when he crushes them accidentally. His reading days are over. Writers probably don’t tend to be joiners by nature, but we want our words to be read. There’s a paradox there that I find appealing, and telling. We need each other, especially those of us who think we don’t.

What we don’t need is to walk in fear of the great vampire Ignorance, which is a more formidable adversary than its fictitious counterpart by far because it, in fact, exists. It goes among us unseen much of the time, but when it does rear its head, the results can be stupefying. Ignorance hungers for sympathy, but what it actually feeds on is its own kind. We can cut off the supply at any time. All that is required is the will to do so.

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