Justin C. Key Wants You to Learn From Fear

We talk with the author and practicing psychiatrist about his new short story collection and how getting scared can be a healing experience.

In The World Wasn’t Ready for You: Stories, Justin C. Key creates worlds of speculative fiction inhabited by Black people trying their best to live, love and survive. His short stories blend elements from horror, science-fiction and fantasy, with something for every kind of speculative fiction fan, but especially body horror, medical horror, darkness and dystopia.

Take the darkly humorous “Customer Service,” a tale told entirely through email exchanges with a particularly unhelpful customer service agent for Two Places At Once—a tech company that provides users with body doubles that, in theory, make customers’ lives easier by making the impossible possible. In “Spider King,” Key takes us to a not-so-distant future where Black inmates can earn early release if they agree to participate in off-book medical trials. And in the title story, the author, who is also a practicing psychiatrist, skillfully manifests all the anxieties of a Black parent raising a Black child in contemporary society in a story of an interstellar father and son navigating a futuristic world where old technology has been replaced but prejudice hasn’t.

A man with a beard poses for a photo in a shirt and slacks
Key’s short fiction blends elements from horror, science-fiction and fantasy. Ruth Marie Photography

Another of Key’s stories—not featured in the book—will be included in the upcoming horror anthology Out There Screaming, edited by filmmaker Jordan Peele. Key’s writing caught the eye of the collection’s co-editor, John Joseph Adams, who previously selected his story “The Algorithm Will See You Now” for the 2022 edition of his series, The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. “I honestly don’t know how much Jordan Peele knew about me before,” Key says humbly, “but he knows my name now, so I’m excited about that.”

I recently spoke with Key, whose short story collection comes out on September 19, about pessimism as a creative faucet, what working in the medical field has taught him about vulnerability and his desire to explore his African roots through fiction.

In your author’s note, you say, “I write to understand my own perspective.” Can you elaborate on what that means and how it guides your approach to horror writing?

In the books that I grew up on, the default had mainly been white characters. When I started to write, if I were to write Black characters, [I’d ask myself] ‘Am I doing something special? Am I writing a Black book? Do I need a reason for it?’ My experience was seen as different from other people in my writing group. They’d read a story about me and say, “I didn’t know that this was a Black character until halfway through.” I was like, “Why wouldn’t that be default for me?” Knowing that a lot of people would read my stories as ‘others’ because I was seen by society as ‘other,’ I wanted to explore through the page what that meant.

What does it mean growing up in the society I did? Growing up in all-Black settings and then stepping outside of that, entering a profession where I’m the minority? I went to medical school, and I’m a doctor. Historically, medicine has had a contentious relationship with the community I come from. The institution of medicine was advanced by taking advantage of or experimenting on disadvantaged populations. So, how do I enter that space and learn medicine and how to be a doctor while also recognizing that when I go in with a patient in the hospital, there is that distrust there? How do I exist on both sides of that?

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On a page, I am in control of the narrative, what a reader sees and the ending. A lot of what horror is about is getting to raw emotion and being able to evoke fear. What people are afraid of can tell them a lot about themselves. It can also be fun and exhilarating. It’s the same reason people go to amusement parks, to have that thrill or terror of being in unsafe spaces that are actually safe. You wouldn’t get on a rollercoaster if you thought you would really get hurt. Watching horror or reading a horror story, there is the exhilaration that comes from feeling that extra life and being able to have those emotions come out. I think it’s a place where healing and learning can happen. It did that for me as I was growing up, and I’m trying to bring that out when I write. 

Two of the stories, “The Perfection of Theresa Watkins” and “Spider King,” confront the large specter of the American prison system in body horror. Why do you focus on incarcerated people as subjects, or victims, in your stories? 

I grew up an only child, but the person who was closest to me was my cousin, Douggie. I named a character in one of the stories after him. He was about eight years older than me, and he was in and out of the juvenile hall system and jail. Going through that system affected him, his trajectory and society’s and even our family’s expectations of him. It did a big injustice to him. He was shot and killed when he was 25. I was 18. It’s a big part of my story and also a big part of why I write. When I write, I’m trying to change that past somehow, which I know I can’t.

Through my work as a psychiatrist, I’ve been in diversion settings where people with mental health issues who are incarcerated are diverted out of jail into treatment programs to get them back into society. Seeing the difficulties they face, and also the stigmas that exist in society, and in psychiatry and the healthcare system, showed me they’re a population that our society likes to put to the side so we don’t have to see them. I see that with the prison system, too. It’s very removed. A lot of people would not be familiar at all with the prison system unless they have a family member who’s been there or has been through it themselves. It’s not in the middle of our cities. It’s a place you wouldn’t have to pass, you wouldn’t have to think about. What I see of our justice system and how it’s structured is that it feeds into society wanting to believe that there’s something ‘other’ about the people who end up incarcerated or commit crimes. The narrative you see with sentencing is that this act by this person is an example of, colloquially, how ‘evil’ or different they are.

What’s safe for us as people is to imagine that we can never do that act, that we can never be in a situation where we would make those types of choices. And that’s not true. Since they’re a part of the population that’s out of sight and out of mind, they have historically been more vulnerable. Historically, prison is a place where our society may look first to do medical experimentation or to try new things. Their being removed from the protections of society was something ripe in my mind for a ‘what if.’ What if there was a way to get out of jail or a hopeless situation where you’re faced with “consenting” for this service versus spending the rest of your life in prison or knowing you’re on death row, and nothing’s going to be there for your family? That’s what I was trying to get at with those two stories.

A lot of characters in your stories are dealing with anxiety, and something you’ve been outspoken about is wanting to destigmatize mental health issues. Can you explain how you see literature as an avenue to do that? 

One of the most rewarding things that I’ve heard since my writing started to get out there is people telling me they felt heard reading my work. A powerful part of writing is when I take my experiences and make them words on a page, and then those words interact with somebody else.  It manifests for them based on their experiences and their understanding of what they read. To be able to evoke in them, “Oh, I get this,” or “This relates to how I see the world,” or “This reminds me of the anxiety I have when going to work,” or the “anxiety I have in relationships,” or “the fear that I have over death.” A person feeling heard in that space helps them to see that their world isn’t so isolated or closed off. Part of dealing with mental health struggles is feeling like you’re the only one, that you see the world differently than everyone else, that this is hard for you, whereas everyone else is thriving. That’s especially prevalent in our social media age where we only get the best of everybody else’s story.

Were your early readers Black? Did you try and see what Black people specifically were getting out of your stories? Or were you open to anyone’s feedback?

A lot of my first readers naturally were my friends and, as an African-American male, a lot of my friends are Black. Seeing how they connected with that experience was particularly important. But those conversations came organically. I didn’t have pointed questions like, “How do you relate to this as a Black person?” What I listened for when I would send it out to non-Black readers was what their takeaways and interpretations were. If I’m representing my background to somebody who may not have that much experience with people of my background, am I representing it well?

Knowing my words have power, and knowing that my experience isn’t everyone else’s experience, I think there’s a lot of responsibility in that. You may see that in some of the stories, in terms of how characters talk or act—there’s a line where, if I lean into it too much, it becomes like a caricature or stereotype. But some of those are genuine to my experience, so I want to put them in but also make sure that if somebody is reading it, it’s not reinforcing any negative stereotypes they may have. That nuance is there.

There’s a Black Mirror-esque technopessimism to many of the stories in the book. Are you prone to catastrophizing? How do your real-life worldview and your voice as a storyteller diverge?

I’ve always been both optimistic and pessimistic. Ever since I was a kid, I would think about worst-case scenarios. I’ve always thought a lot about consciousness, what it means to be alive and what it means to die, and what happens on the other side of that. I’ve been able to enjoy things like being married and having three healthy kids, so it isn’t debilitating for me.  I think some of that comes out in my writing as ‘what ifs,’ as a way to process my feelings. But I’m also very hopeful. I’m hopeful about my future, my kids’ futures and the world’s future. I think I have it both ways. I wouldn’t say I’m pessimistic, but I do consider pessimistic outcomes in my creative mind.

One of the things I’ve learned from writing both long works and short works is that shorter short stories have a little bit more room to not have happy endings. That’s one of the things I’ve liked to explore with short stories. In not having happy endings where everyone lives happily ever after, I show how life actually is. It also makes whatever lesson may be there land a little bit harder. Reading books or watching movies where everything is wrapped up in the end, or there’s a savior, sometimes leaves a sense of, ‘Were there really consequences here?’

These are self-contained stories, but there is connective tissue beyond race. Adesokash, a Black woman warrior from a fictional West African kingdom, shows up in multiple tales. What’s the story behind those Easter eggs? 

I love Stephen King. He’s one of the writers that I’ve resonated with a lot and loved, and the folklore behind Derry, the main town in the story “It,” shows up in some of his different novels and short stories almost like a sign that they exist in the same universe. After I started writing short stories, I wanted to write a type of medieval fantasy-ish story but didn’t want it to be set in the same European medieval background that I was familiar with. I wanted to see if it could be set where I’ve come from.

I’m an American descendant of slaves. I’ve been able to track back to the plantation that my ancestors were on but don’t know much more past that. I imagine it’s rooted in West Africa, so I started looking at some of the culture and religious practices there to create something true to that but also not voyeuristic. I’m not an expert on what the culture may be because my family isn’t directly from there, but I have roots there. I made a whole story that’s not in the collection set in the kingdom that exists there and I was thinking, “Okay, some of the stories in my collection are less science fiction-based and have more fantastical elements—what if this was an explanation for that? What if this is rooted in that same folklore that I made?” There is a base story, a longer story, that I’m hoping to develop into something bigger, and that is the origin story of those seeds that are planted in those different stories in the book, so I do consider them loosely based in the same universe.

Justin C. Key Wants You to Learn From Fear