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For many of us, black horror appears something of a nascent field, with shows like Misha Green’s Lovecraft Country and filmmakers like Jordan Peele bringing such tales to our screens for what seems like the first time. The affinity between horror and authors such as Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, or more recently Nnedi Okorafor is not always recognized. And while some may be tempted to view Green rewriting Lovecraft or Peele recasting the tropes of vampirism and body snatchers under a postcolonial lens, this can have the effect of reducing their work to “just” a reaction against colonial history and ideology, when there are many creators working many different angles of black horror. One such writer is Zin E. Rocklyn, whose short fiction and essays have appeared in Bram Stoker nominated and Hugo award winning anthologies. Rocklyn turns their attention to longer form fiction with the novella Flowers for the Sea [2021] in a powerfully poetic yet mystifying tale of salvation and destruction.

The setting is heavily symbolic: a group of displaced boat people seeking safety after the waters rose and drowned the land. It doesn’t read as an analog for the various arks from the Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh, or other global flood myths, though—for one thing, we’re missing the animals; what we have instead are climate refugees fleeing persecution. But there’s a green room below decks with trees that ripen and bear fruit after the protagonist, Iraxi, gives birth; her child commands the water in her bath to move; the beginning and ending speak of enormous soaring birds above and colossal beasts rising from the depths. There are echoes here of familiar story patterns, symbols that permeate our collective unconscious. Rocklyn picks these up and twists them, inserting an element of dread, and none more viscerally than the relationship between mother and child. Iraxi fears her baby immediately, and we soon find out why: “I open my eyes. Only to be nearly blinded by the brilliance shining from atop my belly. My eyes adjust and it is then I see it. Her. My child. Sitting, back straight, feet tucked inward, eyes in mine. Swirling, glowing, bright purple without an iris to tame it” (33). The purple glow connects the child to the underwater beasts, which emerge via “muscled tendrils the colour of fresh purple bruises” (17). Worse than her eyes, though, worse than the fact that she can speak minutes after birth, is how she speaks: “Her voice does not make sense. It is not one but many. High and low, young and old converging, then separating, but ever deviating from one another. [...] The way she speaks. As if each word is carefully planned, deliberately feasted upon before easing from her tiny, puckered lips like elegant vomit. I recoil” (41). The newborn calls her mother naiem, “mother to all,” in an echo of the blooming Eden belowdecks. Iraxi is afraid of this child who can command the water in her bath to imprison her, to prick her with tiny cilia, to move her against her will. Before birth, Iraxi refers to her child as a parasite (9) that will “swallow [the world] whole” (19). We’ve seen the child of destiny figure before, even the birthed monstrosity that moves the mother to fear; this novella is billed as “Rosemary’s Baby meets Octavia Butler,” after all—an apt description. What Rocklyn pulls off so well, though, and that is so fresh is the unapologetic look at race, sexuality, bodies and control of them, and how these factor into (unwanted) motherhood.

Rocklyn’s novella asks readers to confront the distinction between horror and terror. As characterized by Ann Radcliffe two centuries ago, terror is the moment of fearful suspense that awakens the imagination while horror is the shocking confrontation which stuns it; if you think in terms of film, terror is the fear before the monster is revealed, horror the shock of seeing the monster. That distinction has become blurred by postmodernity, where most of us have experience with the shocking confrontation of acts of terrorism and readily buy tickets to sit in suspense at horror films. Radcliffe would say an act of terror is really horrorism which then provokes a terror of what else may occur, and when, and where. Like many writers today, Rocklyn makes use of both terror and horror, though leans more on the “higher” art of Radcliffean terror. The space between the two, muddied as they’ve become in popular discourse, is useful to delineate here because it helps to explain what gives Rocklyn’s novella such eerie, lingering mental presence. It’s confusing, heavily symbolic, often ambiguous—and hard to stop thinking about.

In Powers of Horror, feminist critic Julia Kristeva adds another layer to this discussion that I find especially pertinent to Rocklyn’s project. Kristeva builds on a psychoanalytic/Lacanian model which focuses on the tension between living while being faced with the confrontation of our unavoidable death. Later, Slavoj Žižek further expanded this concept in a study of Lovecraftian horror, but it is Kristeva’s study of abjection and the feminine that I’m interested in here. For Kristeva, the abject is a primal repression from before the division between subject and desire, conscious and unconscious. Abjection is, in a sense, the return of the repressed, the confrontation with a psychosexual ur-reality where the borders blur between the self and the other, between animal and human, between civilized and barbarous, between mother and infant. Horror, for Kristeva, is intimately connected with the primitive, with both the infant and the “uncontrolled” (i.e. demonized) woman. And here is where it connects back to Rocklyn’s work and helps us understand how and why this mysterious, murky text can simultaneously befuddle and bewitch.

For instance, Part II begins with some backstory:

They called us nims. A word with hardly any meaning other than to spit upon its victim.

It morphed, much like forked tongues who spoke it, an encapsulating slur that reduced one to shreds, to the foam of the sea we feared, to nothing but the scent of a bowel movement. My grandmother, my father’s mother, was the only to spit back. She paid for it dearly, forced to flee with her only living kin as the hate licked at her back, the fire behind her cleansing the town of our name, of our contributions to the Crown who did nothing to stop its rabid townsfolk from murdering the ones they deemed strange, a strangeness they refused to understand because of our bond with the sea. (7)

We get hints of the context here—a vague Crown who didn’t help Iraxi’s people, a bond with the sea, some persecution—and the writing is evocative, strange, beautiful. But it’s also a little overwrought, tripping over itself and getting in the way of clarity. And a few pages later when a messenger boy comes to summon her to the doctor:

He expects me to lose my patience with his insolence, but I swallow back the burning in my chest and say,

“Take me to her?”

It is a requisition. He looks up in panic, then pride. I watch the colour of those eyes shift and swirl, no iris to tame it. I briefly wish my child the same beauty, knowing its likelihood is nonexistent. Borim is presumed to be a child of the sea, his father unknown, his mother thus long dead. He is not the only to be . . . blessed with these eyes, eyes we know nothing of yet they worship for its uniqueness, a differentiation considered beautiful in its strangeness. A blessing unafforded to the eccentricities of my own. Unreasonable anger fills my limbs, balling my hands into tight fists, as I await this impudent child’s answer. Me. Waiting for a being years my junior to accept my request. (10)

What is insolent about delivering his message? Why does he appear panicked then proud that she asks him to lead her? What’s with his eyes? Why is she so angry? These questions could easily have been avoided by emphasizing clarity over charged prose. It frustrates the reading experience, continually having to retread passages thinking you’ve missed something, searching for the key to unlock the tangle of text. Let’s assume, however, that this is intentional, that being bewildered and out of sorts and surrounded by a confusing, emotionally charged environment is deliberate. Why take the risk? and what’s the payoff?

Rocklyn has spoken in interviews of their affinity for monsters stemming from being a Black child viewed by society as the monstrous other. In an essay for Uncanny Magazine in 2018, they wrote, “As a bigger Black woman, both in height and size, who does not fit the convention of female attractiveness nor femininity, I understand immediately how to present myself when walking into spaces. Size and shade must be proportionate to geniality and approachability”. Iraxi experiences this in the novella, shunned by the crew for her blackness, her otherness, even her pregnancy at a time when all other women are mysteriously miscarrying. Rocklyn notes that, “the darker and heavier the Black woman, the kinder and gentler they are expected to be” (ibid.), and this societal expectation is precisely what Iraxi flies in the face of. Her shipmates define her by her anger, her blackness, her fertility, her power—simultaneously fearing and loathing her as a result.

Rocklyn continues in the same essay, “Black women... are the forgotten monsters, the invisible help, the unheard, yet influential magic who deserve to be front and center, who deserve to be seen for all that we are: beautifully flawed and like all humans” (ibid.). To be frank, the text was occasionally hard to read—Iraxi’s rage, the heavy symbolism, the feeling that most of the story was lurking under the surface of the page—but I came to appreciate that it was supposed to be challenging, that Rocklyn wants to challenge readers to see a complex, Black female character—powerful and frightened, angry and despairing, sexualized and sexual, mother and unmotherly—without our preconceived biases clouding that vision. The richly symbolic imagery and confusingly absent context work to decenter readers from the “familiar” or assumed role/s for black mothers in fiction, and the blend of terror and horror accentuate the goal of showing this woman as a beautifully flawed human being.

What we’re left with is a mesmerizing text that forces us to empathize with a character who could so easily have been unsympathetic, and to find a horrifying fulfilment as she and her monstrous child wreak an uncompromising destruction. For all the frustrations of the text, there was a grimly satisfying completeness in the end, a lingering presence the tale leaves in the mind. Rocklyn’s work speaks to a burgeoning field of great promise within the horror community; here’s to hoping to see much more from their pen in the years to come.

A. S. Moser is a writer and teacher. His current project is a near-future novel about rising seas, the collapse of currency, and smuggling. For more, follow him on Twitter.
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