Written by: Robert Fleming
Published by: Dafina Books

After lamenting the state of the horror market for black readers as well as black writers, I stumble across Havoc After Dark, a horror short story collection by Robert Fleming.

The stories are thoroughly black stories–with black characters, black POV, and black sensibilities–without overwhelming the reader with “blackness.” Let me unpack that a bit. One can read a Stephen King, a Brian Keene, or a Gary A. Braunbeck and know you are reading about blue collar folks in blue collar worlds doing blue collar things. The stories feel natural and the reader is drawn into their world.

At the same time, the stories draw on the mythology and folk wisdom of African Americans, lending Havoc After Dark a historic feel at times. Fleming tells the tales of soldiers from World War II or the terror of being at the hands of a lynch mob. Some of the ideas feel a little tired, like the bluesman who makes a deal with the devil, but are saved by Fleming’s voice and narrative. Though sometimes the racial aspects of a story are forced, even intrusive, such as in “Bordering on the Divine”, told through the eyes of Edgar Allan Poe’s Negro servant.

“Do you believe in God?” the redbone man suddenly asked. “You know, all of that garbage about original sin, shame, guilt, and repenting your sins. Judgment Day, Satan, Heaven, the Bible, and all that foolishness.” –Speak No Evil

We are told to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12) and at the root of what it means to “do” horror is the idea of fear. Part of the cathartic experience of horror is out exorcizing of some of the things that scare us, that shadow of fear that we live our lives under. Ultimately, horror is about the fear of death and horror is excited by the reality of evil. We fear for our lives and the lives of those we love. We live in fear of good being consumed by evil. Frankly, evil should be feared because we live with the consequences of evil all around us.

We have to wrestle with the idea of “the depravity of man”. Sometimes this comes out as wrestling with the theme of man having a darker nature to resist, restrain, or kill. It may have characters wondering, when confronted with personified evil, “Where is the part of God within him?” (Arbeit Macht Frei).

“He thought briefly about praying, but only briefly, since he wasn’t especially religious and not a person to be screaming and shouting in some Baptist church on Sunday. God had forsaken him anyway. He really didn’t want to think about what happened after Death or the final tallying of sins. All bullshit. But the notion of going to the Other side did sometimes intrigue him. Did you face Judgment Day immediately after dying?” –The Inhuman Condition

Horror not only acknowledges a spiritual dimension to life, but that transcendent reality often intrudes into our own. Even as we hunger for this transcendent realm and can’t help but grapple with the idea of its existence, nothing scares like the unknown. This is why speculation about the afterlife intrigues, if not terrifies, us.

“Value your life. Waste not even a minute. Life is a precious and wonderful gift.” –In My Father’s House (115)

We often sense, if not experience, an existential terror; a gnawing emptiness that claws at our souls. A darkness, the deep, that threatens to suck the joy for all aspects of our lives, that can lead to a spiraling sourness to life that makes us want to crawl into bed and never get out. The darkness helps focus us on what is truly important about life. Living life in light of death means to love without regrets and always be answering the question “how are you going to spend today?”

Havoc After Dark is ambitious, but falls short in execution. An inconsistent collection with stories that either come off like black Twilight Zone tales, too dependent on twist endings, or need to much longer. I was frustrated with each of the stories for the first third of the collection when it hit me: some of his stories want to be novels. Short story writing exercises a different set of literary muscles than novel, which leaves my quite hopeful of Fleming’s novel length work, Fever in the Blood.

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