Shadow Box

‘Box of Bones’ sifts through horrors, searching for a complete sense of self

What fiction could possibly frighten Black folks? What is more harrowing than enslavement? Jim Crow laws? Sundown towns? Having bombs dropped by a government that is supposedly for the people? Witnessing police fire bullets at Black folks all across the United States? Being Black is, ostensibly, a state of living horror.

Being Black in the U.S. is being constantly enraged and terrified. Any fictional fear—any imagined tale of horror and dread that centers around Black folks—has to be an exceptional work to even hope to compete with the creeping anticipation of the horror that can be Black lived existence.

With the graphic novel, Box of Bones (Rosarium Publishing), Ayize Jama-Everett, also the author of Liminal People and Liminal War, does just this. He takes the mundane horror of Black life and connects it with the deepest folk and mythic understandings of the world. He gives agency to Black people’s cruelest historic traumas. And the results are frightening—not in the “jump scare” way that most contemporary horror operates, but rather in a way that gets under one’s skin. It’s the fright caused by a whisper when no one is around, by the shadow that doesn’t conform to anything in the room.

Box of Bones is the story of Lindsay Ford, a doctoral student engaged in folklore studies, and her journey to discover the secrets of the book’s central artifact. The Box’s denizens shift and change according to time and place. There’s “The Dark,” which is the ultimate manifestation of historic and forecasted Black subjugation and servitude. “The Nobody” is a cultural wound that refuses to heal. “The Suffering” is an amalgamation of demonized Black masculinity. And “The Wretched” is a lynching tree, alive and powered by the rage and indignity of those hanged from its branches.

As a whole, this miserable demi-pantheon represents Black trauma unchecked. What happens when Black folks take it and keep on taking it; when Blacks folks hold onto the traumas ceaselessly visited upon them? All of that pent-up anger, sadness, loss of hope, grief and pain doesn’t just evaporate. It festers until it takes on a life of its own. This is what makes the Box of Bones frightening and, admittedly, alluring.

Unlike horror’s other famous magic boxes—Clive Barker’s Hellraiser’s “The Lament Configuration” chief among them—this Box of Bones doesn’t allow the user to push the boundaries of their desires, nor does it allow for transport to other dimensions. What the Box does allow is for that pent-up trauma to be unleashed on a target. The problem with this is that the lines between justice and vengeance are wholly blurred. This key argument is explored from multiple sides: When do we know that a grave injustice has been righted? Is it even possible to right a grave injustice, such as rape? When does a necessary evil—such as opening the Box of Bones—become an enjoyment to be indulged?

It’s easy to think of all of the things one would do if they were in particular situations. Box of Bones shows, via the Black-folk whisper stream, what happens when one immediately seeks to redress a heinous wrong. It shows the impacts and the repercussions of vengeance.

Doing research for her dissertation, Lindsay reveals her skills as a folklorist; but she also becomes a witness to Black historic trauma, while simultaneously performing the duties of a cartographer of the African Diaspora. Through Lindsay, Jama-Everett leads us to the Black Atlantic. The skillfulness with which Jama-Everett contextualizes Black trauma in temporality and geography illustrates just how culturally astute he is, and how important he believes the global Black experience is. 

With art from such luminaries as John Jennings, Stacey Robinson, Sole Rebel, Tommy Nguyen, Bryan Christopher Moss, Frances Olivia Liddel, Jamal and Jarmel Williams, Box of Bones is the type of book that invites readers to confront that which lurks in their own personal shadows, forcing them to decide whether or not to befriend what lives there.

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