The Trials of Cynthia Pelayo
Horror writer forced to scrap ‘Cops vs. Monsters’ anthology after online anti-police outcry
Cynthia Pelayo released Children of Chicago, a crime procedural that follows a homicide detective hunting a Pied-Piperesque child killer, in April to national praise. Two months later the acclaimed horror writer of Santa Muerte and Loteria announced plans to compile an anthology called Cops vs Monsters–and the public had a very different response.
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The online backlash against Pelayo editing a compendium of (presumably?) pro-police narratives was quick and fierce, and the problem metastasized when a small book publisher entered the Twitter fracas and started railing against content warnings. Within days Pelayo had scuttled the project and tweeted her intention to close down her bookpress and quit writing entirely after fulfilling her existing contracts: “So i think everyone accomplished tearing me down as much as they wanted this week … i’m leaving Twitter and Instagram on Friday. Enjoy. Have a nice life.”
Reportedly, Pelayo received much of the criticism privately; she deleted the most furious public responses. But her frustration is evident in surviving screenshots:
Pelayo makes a nontraditional target for antipolice ire: she’s a woman of color, an independent artist, a small business owner, an advocate for marginalized groups, and a George Floyd supporter. She reportedly implied in a since-deleted blog that she may have drawn more attention thanks to Children of Chicago’s exposure in national markets, but the novel itself, which follows a cop protagonist, seemingly ducked the scythe.
Cops vs Monsters detractors pointed out the timing of Pelayo’s announcement coming a month after the one year anniversary of Floyd’s death, saying portraying cops as heroes while communities are in the grips of civic tension after high-profile police killings and abuse was at best insensitive. And while her defenders agree that law enforcement needs reform, they wonder why fiction, a medium that explores abstraction, moral ambiguity and human inscrutability through unreality, should necessarily reflect its audience’s sociopolitical values.
The horror genre has always side-eyed authority in favor of the everyman clawing his way out of hellish circumstances: don’t call the cops because they won’t help you. Many people groups in America can connect with this sentiment today, for real reason. But Pelayo pointed out paranormal classic The X-Files, where cops give dark stories ethical depth: the upright G-Man figure sharpens the eventual terrors in The Wicker Man, Seven, 30 Days of Night, Constantine and Silence of the Lambs. If horror is a narrative space to explore the tension between good and evil, fear and redemption, who better embodies that ambivalence than morally complex characters whose profession divides our culture’s opinion?
Ironically, applying the same censorial diktat to film would have robbed audiences of iconic non-white military and lawfolk in horror and sci fi: Dwayne Johnson in Doom, Idris Elba in The Dark Tower, LeVar Burton in Star Trek, Denzel Washington in Fallen, Edward James Olmos in Battlestar Galactica, Michael Jai White in Spawn, Tessa Thompson in Men in Black, Jesse L. Martin in The Flash, half of Will Smith’s filmography, and Carl Weathers in Predator.
Horror/thriller stories exploring non-white policing and marginalized communities are blooming as writers retool the genre: End of Watch, Training Day, Black and Blue, and Spiral are a thorny survey of police corruption; Regina King in Watchmen and Mary J. Blige in Body Cam face a paranormal reckoning with the psychological aftermath of racist violence. What was to stop a contributing Cops vs. Monsters writer from taking a page from Jordan Peele’s Lovecraft Country script and making a racist bully with a badge the real monster? We’ll never know.
Credit the thawing post-Covid publishing industry, social media’s tentacles or the strange American ability to politicize a Skittle: censorship is an ever-evolving cultural flashpoint as reformists and gatekeepers from all ideological corners slapfight over the politics of writing as publishing platforms expand. Ironically, many of those being silenced by the literary Twitter mob are independent writers of color. As Pelayo puts it, “A lot of these people will in one tweet champion mental health & in the next destroy someone’s career.” The dustup over Cops vs Monsters is the latest churn in the industry itself as publishers are excising controversial pieces of their writers’ work in response to reader protest, while employees and authors are boycotting upcoming title releases from their own publishing houses. After all, who will need the cops or the censors when we all police ourselves?
Weeks later, all mention of the controversy has been scrubbed from Pelayo’s social media and she’s back to work, saying she will continue writing. The only trace of the fallout remains in her blog where she explains, “I’m sad, I guess, if i’m being honest, but i’ll be ok because i have no choice but to be ok … Some of us write to have James Patterson fame and money. Others write because if we didn’t we would be broken. I’m in that second camp.”
One thought on “The Trials of Cynthia Pelayo”
A month after the one year anniversary of George Floyd’s death? If you’re going to count that as insensitive timing is there ever a time she could have made the announcement that wouldn’t have been insensitive timing?