/ 24 June 2024

A different kind of screamer

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Last laugh: Jordan Peele, one half of Key & Peele, which produced short comedy skits, has turned his talent for writing to the horror genre. Photo: Anna Webber/Getty Images

One of the many favours the internet has done us is to afford a brand-new appreciation of the episodic format of entertainment.

There is a whole generation of people who will never know what it was like to wait an entire week to find out about the latest exploits of JR Ewing or Bart Simpson or Ross Geller and Rachel Green. 

A mere 20 years ago, you had to wait an agonising seven days to find out if the latest will-they-or-won’t-they romance TV executives shoved down our throats would advance to the next step.

Now, in the age of the information superhighway, where we feel left behind if the football scores are more than a minute old, humanity has no appetite for suspense anymore. It’s all momentum, all the time. And this has served to resurrect episodic entertainment via the binge watch.

You want to know if they did or didn’t? Just click that “forward” button, baby, and you’ll find out in minutes. Momentum and instant gratification, all in a single button press.

But another facet of that is how we can view short-form entertainment in a completely new light. So many videos online are supercuts of our favourite bits of our favourite programmes. And so many entertainers focus on shorter, more intense segments of whatever they do, dropping many of them at once and letting the viewer decide how much is enough.

I mention all of this because the editor of the anthology that is the subject of my review, Out There Screaming, is none other than Jordan Peele, one of the kings of short-form entertainment.

Along with Keegan-Michael Key, Peele was one half of Key & Peele, or K&P to those in the know, a troupe specialising in short comedy sketches. 

Many who enjoyed K&P’s sketches did so because they so quickly and effectively set up frameworks from which powerful comedy could be derived, the very definition of Shakespeare’s “brevity is the soul of wit”. 

While not always highbrow, their sketches were always high-concept, no mean feat considering that they were set up and executed in the span of a few minutes. 

No surprise, then, that they have had a viral presence on video-sharing websites for 12 years now.

What is perhaps surprising is that a master of short-form comedy should be editing a book of short-form horror. But the surprise is muted when you look behind the curtain.

Behind the scenes, it was always known that, while Key was the better actor, Peele was the better writer. And when the duo dissolved to pursue other interests, Peele turned his formidable writing talent to horror. 

This also wasn’t surprising. The sketches primarily written by Key were high-energy and relied on character stereotypes, whereas Peele’s sketches were more cynical, introspective and darker around the edges. 

He explored that in full force when he became a film writer and director, and gave the world classic horror films like Get Out. And then he turned his newfound position of authority in contemporary horror into a platform to assist up-and-coming black authors.

And that’s where Out There Screaming comes in. Peele and co-editor John Joseph Adams have sought out the best in new short horror stories that are written by people of colour. 

Horror as a genre feeds very much on the fears of society in general and/or the individual in particular. And when the two intersect, it stands at its most powerful.

This is where the distinction of having authors of colour comes in. Societal dread in minority communities differs vastly from their corresponding majority populations and this comes through very strongly in this collection. 

More than one story is about a black person in recent American history fending off a racially motivated attack with some sort of supernatural assistance.

This overlaps with another unique aspect that authors of colour bring to the table — their heritage often includes forms of traditional folklore and magic absent from that of people of primarily Global North heritage. This can form the basis for enthralling tales.

People of colour also have very different lives to the global majority when they live rurally. Different experiences with economic stability bring about different fears, which is subject matter, as well.

But, as the world increasingly becomes “one village”, so many fears are no longer confined to a single segment of the population. It does not matter who writes them down, they will be equally chilling.

Peele and Adams have also done well to include authors who run the gamut from multiple Hugo and Bram Stoker award winners to white-collar professionals moonlighting as authors. But where this collection shines is how the quality of the stories never wavers.

Out There Screaming

Highlights of the collection include:

Eye & Tooth: A pair of monster-hunter siblings have the tables turned on them in rural Texas.

The Rider: Two sisters participating in the Freedom Ride civil rights movement receive supernatural help when they are ambushed in Jim Crow America.

Dark Home: A Nigerian-American must settle spiritual debts that her immigrant father incurred when she returns to Nigeria for his funeral.

The Most Strongest Obeah Woman of the World: A little girl in a rural community faces off against the water monster that claimed her family.

A Bird Sings By The Etching Tree: The spirits of two women killed in car accidents along the same stretch of highway deal with their unique afterlife experiences.

Your Happy Place: A worker at a prison conducting semi-unethical experiments on the inmates works to take the system down … Or does he?

Hide & Seek: Two young boys train to deal with the consequences of their mother’s dabbling in sinister magic.

Origin Story: A deconstruction of the concept of white privilege, cunningly written as a one-act play.

In summary, the stories in this collection are familiar enough to horror readers to be comfortable reads but introduce enough new elements to be genuinely thought-provoking and exciting. A worthwhile read.