Horror takes on a whole new meaning when told by and about Black people. With so much of history for people of the African Diaspora bound up in enslavement, it’s difficult to separate any artistic expression from the generational trauma and the continued weight of racism. Though it is as disturbing to read those stories as it is to tell them, those stories still must be told. With Box of Bones Book One, Ayize Jama-Everett and John Jennings tap into that horror on a terrifying, Tales From the Crypt-esque trip through Black history.
How did the collaboration between the two of you come about? How were the other people involved in Box of Bones brought into the mix?
Jama-Everett: So John channeled this crazy image and idea about a box filled with bad things that travelled through black history and murdered everyone. Kind of like a Hellraiser Lament Configuration only for black people. I had nightmares. In order to keep myself sane, I crafted a narrative around the Box — Who wanted it, what they did with it, how to control it, etc.
John was all about drawing the entire thing. He then got married and ended up getting a new position. Also, he was working on the adaptation of Kindred by Octavia E. Butler with Damian Duffy. Then he got a fellowship at Harvard. So, there was a lot going on that kept disrupting things on the production side. While it was always a collaborative project, with Stacey Robinson on covers, we got David Brame, Avy Jetter, and some other awesome artists to step in and do pencils, inks, and other things. John couldn’t help putting his touch on all the colors and the flats, but it all just made the project look better.
What is your relationship with horror? What was your first experience with the genre and how have your views and interest in it evolved over time?
Jama-Everett: I grew up down the block from a theater that showed a constant stream of blaxploitation, kung fu, and horror films. I remember seeing the movie Scanners in the theater when I was around seven years old. A dude’s head exploded. I was hooked. I remember reading Clive Barker when I was way too young and classic gothic texts like The Monk and The King in Yellow. Horror is in my blood. Over time I’ve become more concerned with conceptual horror, Ito’s Uzamaki being a classic example of something that freaks me the hell out. In terms of horror films, now I’m more concerned with how they’re made or the funny ones. I loved the Wolf of Snow Hollow for example.
Jennings: My mother was a huge horror and science fiction fan and she passed that love onto me. My grandmother would tell me ghost stories or “h’ants” as they say and also she would have these strange beliefs that I thought were superstitions but now I realize were probably generated from her being exposed to Conjure culture. I’m from rural Mississippi and there’s a lot of Hoodoo permeating the folklore. So, I grew up watching things like The Twilight Zone, The Nightstalker, Night Gallery and just a slew of horror films with my mom. Later on around age 11, we started going to see movies at this grindhouse theatre called Cinema West and it would run the most schlocky, inappropriate, over-the-top films you could imagine. I was also a huge fan of horror comics so I had a steady diet of the old black and white Warren Magazines like Creepy and Eerie (which, of course, were very much influenced by the old EC Comics books like Tales from the Crypt) and also the great horror comics from the ’70s and early ’80s from DC Comics and Charlton Comics. I’ve been a horror fan my whole life it seems.
Why is it important to you to tell these stories?
Jama-Everett: “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” Zora Neal Hurston said. It’s been an honor to help tell the story of those that have come before, to expose their horror so that no one can say they enjoyed the pain they went through. And that they also didn’t sit down and take it. This is a book crafted as a psychic defense against a re-writing of history which states Black people don’t care about horror, or history, or conjure magic, or magic as a form of painful reparations. It’s deep.
Jennings: I have to echo what Ayize said. I felt compelled to make stories about these issues and to make images that reflected the trauma heaped upon Black people the world over. The monsters in the box are very particular to the malady of racism. Each creature is a symbol of not just one story or experience but many.
John, you’ve spoken about the “EthnoGothic” movement and the opportunity it presents to unpack the horrors of oppression experienced by marginalized groups. In what ways do you hope to see this subgenre of speculative fiction/horror evolve?
Jennings: The EthnoGothic is definitely concerned with exorcising those demons and getting to the point where we can move forward. My hope for the future is that we can make speculative fiction or horror that doesn’t have to center our responses to a traumatic past. It would be great to just make a story for the sake of doing it. My friend Stacey and I often speak of how the need to destroy White Supremacy and its effects dominate the focus of Black art. Black joy is radical as well and I think we need to get to space of joy one day.
The covers of each chapter and the monstrosities summoned within are grotesque, mesmerizing and memorable. Can you tell us about their design? Was it a collaborative design approach? What about the design of the Box itself?
Jama-Everett: All praise to Stacey Robinson for those Covers. Dude put his foot in it!
John came up with the first box but what was dope was that each artist sort of riffed off of the previous version. The box changed, it became alive!!! At one point, we started thinking about all the different names the box could have, given that it travelled throughout the Black diaspora: Caja de huesos, Boîte d’os Caixa de ossos, etc.
Jennings: Yes! Stacey Robinson did a great job on the covers. We were all fans of Dave McKean; the brilliant cover artist for Neil Gaiman’s Vertigo Comics series The Sandman. Each cover had this gorgeous photo-collage work and we wanted that kind of feel for these covers. Stacey was given the stories in advance and designed around the themes. He took inspiration from various collage artists for each cover. Another design element that we fell in love with is the fact that the title Box of Bones is ten letters and there happens to be ten chapters. So, I designed a logo that doubles as a counting system. The design uses bones to count the chapters.
Jennings: As Ayize stated, at first there was a particular box and then we thought well, “wouldn’t the box change like the stories”? That’s when we decided to let the other artists just play around with the design.
As educators, how does your experience teaching students influence your storytelling and vice versa?
Jama-Everett: I wish I had this text to teach Black history. I think it would work. A narrative’s first job is to be engaging, these days that translates to entertaining. But in the educational world, we still get to speak uncomfortable truths to the youth as a way of preparing them for an uncomfortable world. At least we should be able to. Box of Bones has the vibe that I love in books where it doesn’t lay out the history in a neat package for the reader but if their curiosity is perked, they can do research on their own (I’m talking a google search) and see that the reality is far more horrendous than anything John or I could come up with. Teaching has taught me to be concise, clear, and engaging. Essential characteristics for any narrative.
Jennings: I teach a course on Afrofuturism and the Visual Cultures of Horror so, my teaching, research and creative practice all intersect and support each other. I didn’t set out to create a book that we could use for history classes. Box of Bones became something like that after we started thinking about the implications of how historic narratives are created in the first place. I share a lot about my working practice with my students. They like seeing practical applications of process. I think it’s very hard to not have one aspect of your life affect the other.
The first volume of Box of Bones is available next month from Rosarium Publishing.