My Top Ten Favorite Evil Effigy Movies (+1)

To celebrate the upcoming release of Mannequin: Tales of Wood Made Flesh (featuring my new story, “Husks,” as well as fiction by Ramsey Campbell, Michael Wehunt, Kristine Ong Muslim, Jon Padgett, Matthew M. Bartlett, Christine Morgan, and many more), I thought it’d be fun to make a list of some of my favorite evil effigy stories from that other great love of mine: cinema.

What exactly do I mean by “evil effigy” movies? Well, these are films about something that is made to look like a living thing, but it isn’t actually alive… until one day it is… and then it goes about making others living things into not living things. Get it?

Basically, I’m talking about dummies, dolls, scarecrows, statues, golems, homunculi, and, yes, mannequins. Some of them get up and kill on their own, while others make some poor schlub do the dirty work for them. My only two requirements here are: 1. there has to be at least a suggestion of the effigy’s autonomy (in other words, movies where we know right from the start that the dummy/doll/whatever is definitely not alive, those are out), and 2. the effigy itself has to be a primary focus for the movie, not just relegated to one or two smaller set-pieces (so flicks like Poltergeist, Maniac, and May, as well as anthologies like Tales From the Hood, Dead of Night, and Trilogy of Terror are also out).

Of course, there’s still a bit of wiggle room here, so some of you might disagree with which movies I judge meet the above requirements. In which case, you can go write your own damn blog. Anyway, remember that these are just personal favorites, not necessarily films I think are objectively great. Hell, some of these aren’t even good movies, at least not in a technical sense. But I love them anyway.

Okay, enough preamble. Here, in no particular order, are My Top Ten Favorite Evil Effigy Movies (+1)…

effigy (0)Waxwork

“More fun than a barrel of mummies!” boasts what might be my favorite horror-comedy tagline of the ‘80s, and Waxwork lives up to it. Starring Zach Galligan of Gremlins fame and David Warner of more-awesome-movies-than-I-can-list fame, b-movie auteur Anthony Hickox’s best film sees Warner as a suave warlock luring Galligan’s schoolmates into a wax museum so he can transport them into the gruesome scenes the dummies depict (such as a werewolf transformation, a zombie uprising, a bloody vampire dinner-party, and even an erotic torture-chamber lorded over by the Marquis de Sade). Why? Because once all the dummies have been “fed” they’ll come to life and kick off the “voodoo end of the world.” Obviously.

Waxwork is nonsense through and through, but damned if it isn’t fun. Hickox wears his love for the genre on his sleeve, using the movie’s daffy premise as an excuse to cram in as many classic horror characters as possible. Frankenstein’s Monster? Check. The Phantom of the Opera? You betcha. Jack the Ripper? Damn right. The Invisible Man? Despite the name, you can’t miss him. The Mummy? Not a barrel’s worth, but yeah, we got one. It’s like a Famous Monsters of Filmland greatest-hits compilation updated with a gory Grand Guignol flourish.

effigy (8)Kakashi

I’ve heard people refer to Kakashi, a semi-obscure adaptation of a Junji Ito manga, as “one of those movies where nothing happens.” Good thing those are some of my favorite kinds of movies! I mean, things do happen: a young woman travels to a secluded farming village searching for her brother, who disappeared after receiving a strange letter summoning him there. So far, so Silent Hill. When she arrives, she finds the townsfolk hostile, more interested in preparing for their upcoming “scarecrow festival” than answering questions. She begins dreaming of scarecrows and wakes up clutching fistfuls of straw. As the festival date approaches, how all these seemingly unrelated events fit together is slowly (and I do mean sloooowly) revealed.

I understand if some viewers find Kakashi too languid or subdued. But for those who enjoy quiet horror where thing feels just slightly off as opposed to outwardly ghastly, this film projects a mood I can only describe as straight-up hypnotic. It lulls you in with its surface mundanity, only pulling back the veil for very rare, very brief glimpses of how fucked-up shit really is. Only in the final third does all that build-up pay off, though in not as explosive a fashion as some would prefer. To torture a cliché, it’s not the destination that’s important here, but the journey. And this journey is one of delicate, haunting grief, the kind you never talk about but which is always there, just behind your eyes.

effigy (3)Child’s Play 2

It’s impossible to bring up killer dolls and not tip your hat to Charles Lee Ray AKA Chucky, the subgenre’s undisputed king. Despite an imminent remake, it’s noteworthy that the original franchise is still going strong, having released its most recent entry in 2017, with a spinoff television series currently in the works. Most admirably, the franchise remains the brainchild of prime mover Don Mancini, who wrote the first four movies, then wrote and directed the subsequent three, maintaining a surprising level of quality throughout. What’s more, Mancini is constantly pushing the narrative forward while staying true to three decades’ worth of continuity.

For my money the peak of the franchise remains the first sequel, Child’s Play 2. Director John Lafia’s use of extreme camera angles and distorting lenses gives this installment a uniquely nightmarish style that makes viewers feel like children themselves. It also allows the diminutive serial killer to tower over the audience with a grisly, grinning malevolence bolstered by voice actor Brad Dourif’s Jack Nicholson-inspired performance. The grand finale where Chucky stalks his victims through a brightly lit toy factory packed to the rafters with doubles of himself is intense, and its surprisingly brutal mutilation-by-assembly-line climax hits even harder when you remember that, despite looking like a lifeless doll, Chucky is still a thinking, feeling, bleeding entity.

effigy (10)Magic

Before Anthony Hopkins was Hannibal Lecter, he was Corky Withers, a bumbling nebbish with a deeply repressed dark side. Corky is only able to express himself through his ventriloquist dummy, Fats, a foul-mouthed smartass who isn’t afraid to speak his mind. But wait, shouldn’t it be Corky’s mind he’s speaking? What started as an outlet for Corky’s id is rapidly becoming a living thing all its own. When Corky begins an affair with a married woman named Peggy (played by a sympathetic, conflicted Ann-Margret), it isn’t long before Fats gets jealous. If you thought this dummy’s wit was sharp, just wait until he pulls out his knife.

Based on the William Goldman novel of the same name, Magic is at its heart a tortured romance. The question is, which of its pair of unhealthy pairings is the most unhealthy, Corky and Peggy or Corky and Fats? Playing things deadly serious throughout, Magic rejects camp humor in favor of building a methodical engine of tension that retains its air of mystery all the way to the bitter end. And all the while, the main attraction is Hopkins. Since he voices Fats too, the actor basically gets to play two different characters here. Such duality proves captivating; Corky is as pitiful as Fats is diabolical. In the end, though, it’s moments where we see hints of one within the other that prove most chilling of all.

effigy (17)Tourist Trap

Charles Band is no stranger to evil effigy flicks. As a director, producer, and head of two separate b-movie studios (Empire Pictures from ’83 to ’89, then Full Moon from ’89 onward), the man could be said to have a wee bit of an obsession. There’s the Puppetmaster series, for one. And the Demonic Toys series. And Stuart Gordon’s Dolls. And about a million other movies with “Doll” in the title. Seriously, Google the guy; his filmography goes on forever. Even with his name attached to so many of these kinds of pictures, 1979’s Tourist Trap is still arguably the best. If not that, it’s certainly the strangest.

A funhouse mirror take on familiar horror tropes, Tourist Trap is an eerie, disorienting tale about a bunch of teens whose jeep breaks down along an abandoned stretch of highway. The only souls to be found for miles are a helpful weirdo who calls a destitute roadside attraction home, a masked mystery man with a froggy voice and a habit of suffocating folks under globs of gooey plaster, and, oh yeah, a friggin’ army of mannequins that seem to follow our protagonists everywhere they go. The movie plays its cards close to the chest for much of its runtime, stringing you along through one surreal set-piece after another (the part where the mannequins’ jaws drop open so they can, for lack of a better word, sing is pants-shittingly freaky). In time, the rest of the universe seems to disappear entirely. All that’s left is an isolated night-world where batshit insanity and department-store dummies reign.

effigy (1)The Doll

I’ve often said that when it comes to film I prefer ambitious failures with interesting ideas to competent successes that take no risks. Take the most recent entry on this list, 2017’s The Doll. Being an extremely low-budget indie production its problems are legion, including a tenuous and inconsistent script, amateur acting, laughable kill scenes, a meandering non-sequitur cameo from Ron Jeremy (!), and more. But it does have one gold-star advantage that no other horror movie before or since has ever had: Valeria Lukyanova. The uncanny onscreen presence of this Ukrainian model, who made global headlines as a “Human Barbie Doll,” is the result of pure stunt-casting genius. It recontextualizes not only the movie’s story—in which Lukyanova plays an animate but lifeless synthetic woman pimped out by the devil-worshiping mad scientist who created her—but also the movie itself as a product and the audience’s reaction to that product.

On a personal note, I’ll point out that I consider myself a transhumanist and body-autonomy radicalist. As such I have serious ethical concerns about any movie which further others someone who has already been othered to a depressing degree (the fact that Lukyanova has some rather noxious ideas about race does little to alleviate my concerns, though it does add some new ones). Even still, I can’t deny the subtle power and morbid fascination inherent in sophomore director Susannah O’Brien clumsy but brash weaponization of the male gaze.

effigy (2)Black Devil Doll

Where The Doll turned the male gaze against us, Black Devil Doll happily indulges it to absolute excess. As soon as we see the introductory animation claiming this film has been “rated X by an all-white jury,” we know exactly what we’re in for. African-American director Jonathan Lewis parodies the blaxploitation genre with a horror-comedy sleazefest centered around Mubia Abul-Jama, an executed black-militant serial killer whose disembodied soul possesses (and subsequently “blackifies”) a Howdy Doody doll. After his long stint in the slammer, Mubia is understandably horny. Thus begins what mythologist Joseph Campbell might call “the hero’s journey,” as Mubia seeks out “a fresh fuckin’ batch of strange.” But murderous habits die hard, and so too do a number of buxom beauties.

Ruthlessly skewering every slasher-movie cliché and African-American stereotype in the book, Black Devil Doll is actively stupid, often mean-spirited, and always offensive. Fortunately, the sheer level of absurdity here makes it difficult to take any of its politically incorrect grotesqueries seriously. In between many, many, many leering shots of actresses Heather Murphy, Natasha Talonz, Precious Cox, Erika Branich, and Christine Svendsen, there are also graphic, Troma-esque scenes of puppet fucking, puppet shitting, and puppet drug use. Set to a druggy jazz-funk score by The Giallos Flame, this mix of mature content and immature execution makes Black Devil Doll a live-action cartoon perfect for perverts and psychos alike.

effigy (11)The Golem

Silent horror films, especially those in the German Expressionist tradition, are unlike anything else you’re likely to ever watch. They’re otherworldly, mythic, and rare; indeed, a huge number of these movies have been lost to time. The one under discussion here is actually the final part of a trilogy, with no complete prints of the first and second entries still existing. This 1920 classic (the full title of which is The Golem: How He Came into the World) is actually a prequel to the other two. Set in medieval Prague, prejudice against Jews prompts Rabbi Loew (a fictionalization of the real-life kabbalah mystic of the same name) to create a clay golem as a protector for his people. When Rabbi Loew’s assistant discovers the woman he loves in bed with another, he tries to sic the golem on the man. This selfish act of jealousy opens the colossus up for possession by the demon Astaroth, who drives it on a rampage through the city, terrorizing the very people it was built to serve.

An epic in under 90 minutes, The Golem may not be as stark an example of Weimar-era cinema as Nosferatu, Warning Shadows, or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but its shadowy, stylized images (courtesy of pioneering cinematographer Carl Freund) stay with you long after the film is over. What’s more, few icons of the period cut as imposing a figure as the title character (played by co-director Paul Wegener), whose lumbering movements and blank expression suggest dangers both physical and spiritual.

effigy (13)Scarecrows

Gun-toting antiheroes versus ambulatory burlap-sacks. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Of course it’s a product of the ’80s. Taking the Predator/Aliens action-horror route, the imaginatively titled Scarecrows drops a squad of well-trained and well-armed crooks into a cornfield late one night following a daring multimillion-dollar heist. With the authorities on their tails and greed and paranoia splintering the group from within, the last thing they need is some curiously specific form of supernatural comeuppance wherein killer scarecrows remove their internal organs and replace said guts with hay and money. But, oh yes, supernatural comeuppance wherein killer scarecrows remove their internal organs and replace said guts with hay and money is exactly what they get.

After an deceptively restrained and suspenseful first act, Scarecrows swings for the fences with splattery abandon, pitchforking hands, knifing faces, and gouging out eyeballs with barb-wire. But what really makes Scarecrows special is its potent doom-laden ambience. The sky is always pitch-black; no day-for-night shots here. The movie’s namesake villains move silently among the stalks, only speaking telepathically to mimic the voices of their victims. And in a refreshing break from convention, the script skillfully sidesteps any real explanation for the scarecrows’ origins. There are implications of black magic and a recurring photograph of three farmers, but nothing is explicated. For all the film’s indulgences, it knows the darkest dread lurks in all the things we don’t know.

effigy (6)Ghosthouse

Remember that scene in Poltergeist where the kid’s clown doll turns monstrous and attacks him? Umberto Lenzi remembers. Legend says that if you hold a copy of Ghosthouse to your ear, shut your eyes, and listen closely, you can actually hear Lenzi’s voice whisper “Hey, what if we made a movie where instead of just being a one-scene-wonder that spooky clown doll was the main attraction?” And so, from little acorns mighty oaks grow.

Bizarrely marketed in some territories as an unofficial Evil Dead sequel, Ghosthouse reimagines the Poltergeist plaything as property pilfered from the restless dead. Given as a gift to the cat-stabbing daughter of a grave-robbing mortician, the clown doll transforms into a conduit for supernatural mayhem, promptly killing the young girl’s family. Skip ahead ten years later and some ham-radio enthusiasts track a mysterious broadcast consisting entirely of carnival music and screams to the now abandoned funeral home (fun fact: Lucio Fulci used the same shooting location in House by the Cemetery). Before you can say “mama mia,” Italian cinema’s signature blend of gory, nightmare-logic mayhem kicks into high gear. Guillotine bisections! Hatchet head-chops! Exploding lightbulbs! Ecloplasmic sinkholes! Spectral dobermans! THE GRIM FUCKING REAPER! None of it makes any sense, but you won’t care.

effigy (7)Pin

All I have to do to sell you on this one is to tell you what the title refers to. Pin is the name for an anatomically correct life-size dummy resembling a man without any skin, which aloof Dr. Linden uses as a teaching tool for his two young children, Leon and Ursula, encouraging the rugrats to talk to it as if were a real live person. Let me repeat that in case you missed it: this is an anatomically correct life-size dummy resembling a man without any skin. That’s disturbing even before little Leon catches his father’s nurse fucking it. Yes, that is a thing that happens.

Understandably, Leon grows up with a few screws loose, developing an obsessive relationship with Pin not unlike the one Anthony Hopkins shared with Fats in Magic. And much like in that film it’s never 100% clear whether Leon’s conversations with Pin are solely the product of a disturbed mind or something more arcane. Another parallel is that Pin is also based on a novel, this time by Andrew Neiderman. Pin, however, is so much weirder and more lurid than Magic, even if it does dance around the source material’s more overt themes of incest (small wonder that Neiderman went on to ghostwrite books for the estate of deceased Flowers in the Attic author V.C. Andrews). Whether the lack of explicit brother-sister boots-knockin’ is a flaw or an improvement is a judgement I leave to you.

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Cover & Contributor List for Mannequin: Tales of Wood Made Flesh

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Do you walk a little faster whenever you pass a storefront with still, silent figures standing sentinel in the window? Do you feel their blind plastic eyes watching you, hear their painted rictus grins laughing at you? Do you ever worry that maybe they’re not the ones on display for us, but that we’re on display for them?

If you don’t now, you will after reading Mannequin: Tales of Wood Made Flesh, the debut anthology from Silent Motorist Media (the same good folks who named me one of their “Ten Weird Writers to Save Us All“). Showcasing 16 stories of deadly dummies, diabolical dolls, and other eerie effigies, Mannequin promises to plunge readers deep into the darkest region of the uncanny valley. And the best part? I get to help!

Marvel at the Don Noble cover art above, then drool over the recently announced list of contributing authors below:

Ramsey Campbell
Michael Wehunt
Christine Morgan
Richard Gavin
Kristine Ong Muslim
Nicholas Day
William Tea (hey, that’s me!)
S.L. Edwards
Matthew M. Bartlett
S.E. Casey
Austin James
Jon Padgett
Duane Pesice
Daulton Dickey
Justin A. Burnett
C.P. Dunphey

Introduction by Christopher Slatsky

Mannequin: Tales of Wood Made Flesh is due out June 1st, and will be available in both paperback and ebook formats wherever eldritch tomes of forbidden knowledge are traded for human souls. So, like, Amazon.

R.I.P. Wilum Hopfrog Pugmire

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I sadly never had the chance to meet W.H. Pugmire in person. Nevertheless it was impossible for anyone seriously interested in Lovecraftian and weird fiction to not feel like you knew him somehow. Spend any amount of time researching the genre at all and you will undoubtedly run into him, either as one of its most critically esteemed modern-day practitioners or as one of its most vocal and enthusiastic fans.

Pugmire’s reverence for weird fiction, its history, and its progenitors was unparalleled. His own contributions were similarly unrivaled, the words he put down on paper just as singular, idiosyncratic, and inspired as his unapologetically eccentric persona. The entire Sesqua Valley, and all who have ever passed through it, is in mourning today. We have lost a truly unique, irreplaceable voice in the one and only Queen of Eldritch Horror.

The Best Horror Film of 2018 isn’t a Film at All

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Gory greetings, boils and ghouls!

Some of you may know that in addition to writing fiction I also occasionally writes reviews and other articles pertaining to the horror genre, mostly for The Ginger Nuts of Horror. Well, this month I had a chance to do a guest post for the website Dread Central, where I reviewed the 3-part comic book miniseries Bottomfeeder from Eibon Press. I won’t say too much here (read the review, that’s what it’s there for!), but I will provide you with just one quote from my write-up, which I think gives you a nice taste of why I consider Bottomfeeder, a comic book, to be one of the best horror movies of 2018:

“The most important thing Bottomfeeder has is balls. Big, swingin’, sweaty, ugly, gross, hairy balls. And the willingness to teabag you in the face with ‘em every chance it gets.”

Finally, I just want to say thank you to the good folks at Dread Central for having me. Here’s hoping this is just the first time, not the last.

Now Available: Caravans Awry & Weirdbook #40

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As if there weren’t enough reasons for a horror fan like me to love October, I’ve got some great news to share, just in time for Halloween: This month, yours truly has two new stories available for purchase! C’mon, you know you want ’em.

First, I’ve returned to the prestigious pages of Weirdbook Magazine, alongside some of my favorite writers working in the genre today, including John Linwood Grant, Russ Parkhurst, Glynn Owen Barrass, and more. My story, “The Thirteenth Step,” sees a man’s home mutate into a maddening labyrinth, one that reflects the traumatic memories of a childhood spent in the shadow of his mother’s crippling obsessive-compulsive disorder. Weirdbook #40 can be purchased in paperback from Wildside Press and Amazon.com.

Then, in another happy return, the good folks at Planet X Publications have included my longest story published to date (it’s a novelette, really) in their new anthology, Caravans Awry. This is a story that has been rattling around in the back of my head for quite some time, so I’m especially excited to share it with you all. Inspired by the fiction of Ray Bradbury, the music of Nick Cave, a Catholic upbringing that didn’t quite take, and an adolescent visit to the sideshow that did, “Red Right Hand” finds a young runaway would-be rock-star torn between loyalties, one to a benevolent carnival freak and the other to a seemingly supernatural, misanthropic clown. Caravans Awry can be purchased in ebook and paperback from Amazon.com.

Oh yeah, and here’s the most important thing I have to tell you…

Happy Halloween!

Bow Down to the Savior of Modern Literature!

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Don’t mind the post title, I’ve just gone a little bit mad with power. It seems Silent Motorist Media has named yours truly as one of their “10 Weird Writers to Save Us All in 2018.”

While my kneejerk response is to quote a certain Stabbing Westward song (“I cannot save you / I can’t even save myself”), I can’t deny that it’s insanely flattering to see my name listed alongside writers I myself look up to, such as Jon Padgett and Betty Rocksteady and S.L. Edwards and… well, I don’t want to spoil the whole list for you. Give it a read yourself; hopefully you’ll discover some authors you haven’t heard of yet.

That is, after all, what the list is really all about. That whole “savior” thing is just a fun way of bringing together a motley mismatch of under-the-radar and up-and-coming writers beneath the same umbrella. As the folks behind Silent Motorist Media themselves said to their readers when asking for authors suggestions a few weeks ago, this list is meant to shine a light on “weird, bizarro, horror, and otherwise experimental writers who haven’t quite received the exposure you think they deserve.”

And that, more than anything, is why my inclusion on this list means so much to me. It’s not just a list put together by some random blogger rattling off his or her own personal favorites; every writer on this list is there because actual readers liked their work enough to email Silent Motorist Media. As a relatively new author with few published credits to my name, Imposter Syndrome weighs heavily on me. I often find myself wondering if anyone even reads my stories, let alone likes them.

So thanks to anyone and everyone who nominated me for this list, thanks to Silent Motorist Media for putting it together, and thanks to the other writers on it for being such damn good company.

Diversity in Publishing: Good Ethics, Good Business

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Don’t mind me. I’m nobody.

I have no experience as a publisher, editor, or anthologist. Hell, I’ve only been an active member of the genre writing community for a couple years, and I have barely a handful of published credits to my name. As such, my opinion carries little to no weight.

That’s okay. I don’t think I’m smarter than people who have been doing this for decades. I don’t think I have all the answers. I don’t think I know better. All I know is what I believe, and if you don’t agree with me, well, feel free to chalk it up to me talking out of my ass.

Recently, the issue of diversity in publishing has reignited as a hot topic in the horror, bizarro, and weird fiction communities. It’s not a new issue. Nor is it one that necessarily impacts me, a (mostly) hetero-leaning white cis male, all that directly. I’m fortunate in that way. I’m privileged enough to not have to look very hard or very far to find my own perspective reflected back at me. A vast majority of the art and entertainment I consume is dominated by characters I can easily relate to, produced by creators who come from a similar background.

That doesn’t mean the issue of diversity in publishing doesn’t impact me whatsoever, though. It impacts every last one of us, in fact, and we should all view it as a matter of utmost importance. After all, isn’t the value of reading widely one of the great truisms which both readers and writers hold dear? That doesn’t just mean reading a wide variety of styles or genres; it also means reading a wide variety of authors, voices, and perspectives. Being open to a multitude of different worldviews, lifestyles, experiences, and identities is not just the hallmark of a good reader, but of a good person. In turn, our own life experience becomes all the richer for it, exposing us to possibilities we might have otherwise never dreamed of.

Which is why it disappoints me so much when I look at the table of contents of some new anthology and see not even one woman, person of color, or LGBTQ author listed as a contributor. It’s the kind of thing that makes me double-check the copyright page just to make sure that, yes, I am indeed holding a product of the current century.

Even when unintentional, this kind of oversight is especially damning when it comes to anthologies, wherein part of the whole point of the thing is to offer up a veritable witches’ brew of diverse voices. For all the variety that differing writing styles, plots, themes, and characters can provide, even if some contributors are specifically trying to represent perspectives different from the ones they personally identify with, the fact remains that you can line up a hundred hetero white guys and not one of them will be able to reproduce the unique viewpoints of just one woman, person of color, or LGBTQ author.

Of course, we are, all of us, different and unique and we all have our own singular life experiences, blah blah blah. That’s a given. But there are nevertheless some experiences which more or less all individuals of a certain background are more likely to be able to relate to. One hetero white guy may overall have very different life experiences from another hetero white guy, but chances are there remains a common baseline of experience uniting them simply because they are both hetero white guys. It might seem like a small thing, but that’s the kind of fundamental difference that stacks up over time. It affects the way you think and what you expect from life. It affects the very way you understand reality.

In a very real, meaningful way, women experience the world differently than men, people of color experience the world differently than whites, and LGBTQ individuals experience the world differently than straight folks. This does nothing to diminish the value of any individuals’ experiences, nor does it validate or invalidate any of those experiences above or below the others. None of this should be seen as excuse to hold biases against those who are different. Quite the opposite, it should motivate us to reexamine what biases we may already hold because of our individual privileges (or the lack thereof).

Therefore, an anthology which deprives readers of a truly diverse lineup of contributors in turn deprives readers of entire swaths of possibility and experience. Such an anthology inevitably falls far short of its full potential. And, frankly, in a market overflowing with competition, why should any reader be expected to waste their time and money on something that isn’t the very best it can be?

A few days ago, I said as much in a thread on Facebook, only to have my opinion completely dismissed by a writer and editor far more experienced and respected than myself. I don’t disagree with this person being held in high regard (in truth, I count myself as a fan). Nor do I dispute the validity of said person’s own experiences.

And yet…

Here’s the thing. In the simplest terms, this person’s argument boiled down to a rehash of the idea that it is not an editor or publisher’s responsibility to seek out and cultivate diversity, and that an editor or publisher shouldn’t be expected to do anything beyond simply rifle through whatever submissions they receive and select the very best stories they can, regardless of who wrote them.

Seems like pretty sound logic, right?

Eh, not so much.

I’m not even going to go in-depth into the disingenuousness of claiming editors/publishers always accept only the best stories regardless of author (admit it, if Stephen King submitted a pile of barely readable crap, most of us would probably accept it sight unseen, if only to guarantee the book healthy sales numbers and a shot at attention from mainstream media). Nor am I going to spend much time tackling the ugly underlying implication that women, POC, and LGBTQ authors would be published more if only they were good enough writers (independent from the fact that many of the very best writers working in genre fiction today are women, POC, and LGBTQ individuals, this notion blithely ignores years upon years of marginalization and homogenization through which minority voices have often, at best, been treated as novelty items and, at worst, been told in no uncertain terms that they are not welcome here).

Instead, I’m just going to focus on the question of what constitutes an editor or publisher’s “responsibilities.” At first blush, it seems reasonable to suggest that an editor/publisher should be beholden to nothing more and nothing less than the requirement that he or she put out the very best anthology they can, selecting the very best stories from whatever submissions that have found their way to them. Putting aside my earlier assertion that an anthology without a diverse set of contributors is inherently not the best it can be, the flaws with this line of thinking become apparent the moment we start thinking about everything else that we, both writers and readers, contributors and customers, expect from any publisher who wants to be taken seriously.

In general, we expect publishers to not only produce “good” products, but ethical ones as well. Otherwise, why would it cause a scandal when a publisher violates a contract, infringes copyright, fails to pay their writers, exploits rookie authors through predatory “for the love” submission calls, or employs someone with a proven history of sexual assault or who is literally Hitler?

Conducting business in an ethical manner is not just a responsibility of publishers; it’s a responsibility of all people, everywhere, at all times. Arguably, you can be a “good” publisher without being an ethical one, and you can be ethical publisher without being a “good” one. But, as previously noted, the market is awash with competition. When there are publishers out there who are indeed both “good” and ethical, why settle for anything less?

So then, what does it actually mean to be an ethical publisher? Well, aside from avoiding the obvious aforementioned pitfalls of shortchanging authors, employing white supremacist scumbags, etc., being an ethical publisher means, surprise surprise, seeking out and cultivating diversity.

Actively encouraging diversity is important. Not just because it inherently improves the quality of your product and enriches your costumers’ experiences with it, but also because it’s simply the right thing to do.

Why? Because women, POC, and LGBTQ individuals are still drastically underrepresented and often reduced to stereotypes, both on the page and behind the scenes. Because decades of this exact sort of thing has made the overall literary community into a place that is in some ways subtly intolerant and in other ways openly hostile towards voices which do not reflect the already accepted status quo. Because minority voices are already starting from a disadvantaged position which their majority peers can breeze right past, thus making “equality” an impossibility unless steps are taken to correct systemic prejudices.

These days, publishers are too frequently viewed, both by themselves and by writers, as godlike behemoths who exist to pass judgement on that which “good” and that which is “bad,” blessing the “good” with publication and banishing the “bad” to the hell of rejection. Publishers, in this context, become passive beings, monuments which we writers must trek to and grovel before, and if we don’t or can’t make that journey, well, that’s just one less supplicant for the publisher to pass judgement on. No worries; there are still many, many others eager to take our place.

Not all publishers embrace this view, but those that do, those who see no reason to actively search for and court new and different voices, are just plain lazy. Good publishers are not stationary gods. Good publishers are treasure-hunters.

Some publishers may protest, claiming they don’t have the time, energy, or resources to reach out to authors beyond their established pool of reliable contributors. As a reader, though, how am I supposed to trust that such a publisher will indeed put in the work required to make a final product worthy of my hard-earned money if I can’t even trust that publisher to put in the work required to put together a fresh, diverse line-up of contributors?

No one expects the unreasonable. No one expects your average small-press publisher to send out a network of undercover scouts to every community-college workshop and open-mic night on the eastern seaboard in hopes of discovering the next great diamond in the rough. But is it too much to request that a publisher or editor put in a few extra minutes of effort to ensure their latest submissions call explicitly asks for and encourages diversity? Or to ensure that said submissions call is posted in places where diverse authors might actually see it? Like I said at the start, I myself am not an editor or a publisher, so maybe I’m wrong here, but it doesn’t really seem like that taxing a request.

Either way, being that I’m not an editor or a publisher, I don’t really have a whole lot of power to directly correct what I perceive to be a genuine injustice in genre fiction. As a writer, though, I do have the power to say “No thank you, I don’t want to be involved” to any project pretending it’s 1955 and that heteronormative whitebread sausagefests are still acceptable. And, more importantly, as a reader I have the power to say “Fuck you, you will not get my money” to any product whose creators are too lazy to be bothered to put in even the bare minimum of effort to ensure diversity.

I may be nobody and my opinion might not carry much weight, but my cash sure does. Some editors and publishers can’t see past their own privilege, but they sure as shit can see the difference between good business and bad business.

Vote with your dollars, friends. Don’t just ask for better. Demand it.