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by Jordan Peele and John Joseph Adams, eds.
Random House, October 2023
400 pages
ISBN: 059324379X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Jordan Peele's films NOPE, US, and especially GET OUT have transformed horror Hollywood, using the genre to critique it, and Hollywood's, treatment and exclusion of Black subjects and artists. Peele's genre is horror to a great extent because terror infuses twenty-first-century African-American life. Peele co-edited OUT THERE SCREAMING with Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy editor John Joseph Adams. Every story is worth reading, as is Peele's forward, which is a kind of creative and social manifesto.

The anthology's organizing notion, Peele's foreword explains, is the oubliette. Recognizable to readers of fellow Black Diaspora writer Alexandre Dumas pčre's THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK (the final part of Dumas's sprawling serial THE VICOMTE DE BRAGELONNE), an "oubliette" is, in Peele's words, "a dungeon shaped like a bottle with only a small covered opening at the top that barely let in any light In the oubliettes of ancien regime France, prisoners were "left for days" in the dark, able to hear and smell lively goings-on in the free world, while "their screams fall on deaf ears."The oubliette, Peele explains, "became… the foundation for the Sunken Place" in Get Out. In that film and reality, "Black people are sent to these psychological oubliettes," in which "you could see life going on around you, but you were essentially a bystander—forgotten."

In the stories proper, an array of exceptionally talented writers explore various kinds of oubliettes, mostly in the United States at present, but also going back to the Civil Rights struggles of the mid-twentieth century and moving in space to other locations encompassed by the Black diaspora. It's difficult to pick out favorite stories because they are all so good: creative, economical with words, vastly varying in style, genre, and perspective, and uniformly terrifying.

In the opening story, "Reckless Eyeballing," Carl, a white cop with an entirely believable secret rap sheet starts to see eyes in the headlights of the drivers he's compelled to pull over. After one of many egregious—and secretly recorded—incidents makes him a threat to his own employment, he's bailed out by another division's policeman, Bo, who wants, among other things, Carl's Porsche. Things take a turn that gestures to Edgar Allan Poe yet is entirely contemporary and believable.

Most protagonists, however, are African-American. I really liked three who brave intense terror to keep their born or found families safe or to find lost loved ones. These are Zelda, whose grown-up baby brother is a professional exorcist in Rebecca Roanhorse's “Eye and Tooth,” the ethereal Haitian heroine of Haitian-American writer Erin E. Adams's "Lasirčn" (‘the siren'), and Pat, a teenager Freedom Rider who finds herself driving her bus through hell and back.

In Cadwell Turnbull's "Wandering Devil," the oubliette is inside the hero. The central metaphor of Muddy Waters' often-plagiarised "Rolling Stone" song comes to life as a young man whose intergenerational trauma makes him want to flee everyone and everything.

Leslie Nneka Arema's "Invasion of the Baby Snatchers" is a timely pulp-horror inspired exploration of the implications of white moralizing politicians regaining ownership of Black women's reproductive systems and, in consequence, bodies and souls. Chesya Burke's "An American Fable" is the most horrific of these horror stories, beginning with a lynching and following its hero, Word War II veteran Private First Class Noble Washington, just one of the countless African-Americans whom fear propelled into the Great Migration, on his journey from the South to Chicago. "Coming back home presented horrors that even war could not parallel," Noble finds. He tries to "defuse a situation" created by a white mob, the sort of people who would lynch "a nine-year-old," rescuing a girl who turns out to be exceptionally strange. What happens next is very much of the world of Jordon Peele's mystery-fantasy-speculative fiction. The final two sentences of this story are searing, perfect, and reveal in their protagonist the "nobility" that his combination of names was intended to deny him.

The final story, Tochi Onyebuchi's "Origin Story," is more of a challenge. A high postmodern experiment scripted like a screenplay, it takes place in the Ivory Tower ("Setting: Humanities Building Classroom… Thirty Minutes Before Ms. Geraldine Cunningham's Grand Unified Theory of Whiteness Seminar") and stars four "white boys" identified only by number. It has a lot to say, and it's mysterious and horrifying, but more a dissertation than a tale. Everything that precedes it merits reading twice—and keeping on the shelf if you need to demolish your oubliette, or be reminded that the oubliette still exists.

§ Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and co-edits Reviewing the Evidence.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, October 2023

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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