In Macon, Ga., 1922, magic sword–wielding Maryse Boudreaux leads a group of African American women in battle against the demonically possessed Ku Klux Klan, who are using the film The Birth of a Nation to conjure an apocalyptic confrontation. Ring Shout (Tor.com, Oct.), which PW’s starred review called a “thrilling, provocative, and thoroughly badass fantasy,” is the latest work of science fiction by P. Djèlí Clark, the pen name of historian Dexter Gabriel. In the book, he examines America’s racial trauma and violence through a Southern gothic narrative of weird fiction and body horror. Clark, author of three previous novels and a Nebula Award– and Locus Award–winner for the short story “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington,” spoke with PW about what haunts America and how speculative fiction can illuminate history.
Why write Klansmen as literal demonic creatures?
It’s complicated—when I told people about Ring Shout I was sometimes asked, “Are you saying the Klan are occult monsters?” Much of my inspiration came from accounts of formerly enslaved people who described the first iteration of the Klan in the 19th century as being these horned, fearsome beasts; members of the Klan consciously cultivated that image. Still, the actual Klan doesn’t need to be composed of otherworldly creatures to be inhuman.
What’s the significance of The Birth of a Nation?
D.W. Griffith’s movie was responsible for the second iteration of the KKK, which became widespread throughout the country. The Birth of a Nation exploded because it was such a change in media. The movie influenced people in ways they never had been before. It seemed real to people at the time. In the same way that lots of people are radicalized into the “alt-right” today through the internet, the movie became a recruiting tool for the Klan.
How can speculative fiction address issues of racial injustice?
As an example, in 1902 the Black writer Pauline Hopkins wrote Of One Blood, a science fiction novel about a doctor who discovers an ancient African city run on advanced technology. Hopkins wrote this entirely as an attack on notions of white supremacy. For me, the great ability of speculative fiction is that it allows people to critique this present by both looking to the past and imagining a future, and to wrap those issues in the fantastic so as to draw in people who might otherwise not pay attention.
In what ways do you see the contemporary U.S. as haunted by its history?
As a historian, I can tell you that the past haunts us. Ring Shout is about how these legacies of slavery, or racism, never really fade away. We feel them, even traumatic events that happened centuries ago. There is a sense in which the psychic power of the Middle Passage stays with you. We are constantly in the presence of that history.
What genre is Ring Shout?
When people asked me what I was writing, I would say “Southern gothic horror,” but honestly I said that because I needed an answer. As I was writing, I began to think of it as a Southern fantasy—after all, you’ve got a heroine with a magic sword fighting monsters. It occurred to me that not all fantasy stories need to be set in some imagined medieval world, so I brought a little bit of the South to the genre, and the rest fell into place.