Werewolf Ecology

A Review of Douglas Smith’s Spirit Dance (from Impossibilia, PS Publishing, 2008)
By Derek Newman-Stille

As the final installment in Werewolf Wednesdays for October (and on Halloween of

Author and Cover Photo of Impossibilia Courtesy of Douglas Smith.

course), I thought I would do a review of Douglas Smith’s short story Spirit Dance. Not only does this story feature werewolves, but also several other types of shapeshifters. Spirit Dance represents a blending of mythologies, combining European myths of the werewolf with myths from Canada’s indigenous peoples. When a non-indigenous person uses aboriginal myths, there is always a danger of misuse or cultural appropriation, and although Douglas Smith refers to elements of indigenous culture, he does this in a respectful way. For him, aboriginal myths appear to be part of the overall cultural mythos of Canada and his work shows a respect for Canada’s First Peoples as formative for the Canadian experience – he does not relegate aboriginal people to the background.  Unlike many authors, Smith does not put aboriginal people in the position of the cultural Other, nor does he try to put aboriginal people into the position of the “noble savage” archetype, trying to make them the holders of ancient wisdom.

As this was a short story, there was not room for him to explore the condition aboriginal people have been put in as a result of Canadian treaty violations, but hopefully he can expand on this in a later story. He does illustrate the uncomfortable relationship between the government and aboriginal people by showing indigenous people being mistreated by legal officers – in this case CSIS, who begins hunting shape-shifters to use their powers for undisclosed scientific ends. The parallels to the government use of aboriginal lands and properties for their own ends can be seen here with the exploitation of this group.

Smith’s story focusses on a small group of people living alongside human kind who predated the human population – a group of shape-shifters who the Cree people named Herok’a. This population is able to shift into specific animals – either deer, wolves, bears, or predatory cats. They are only able to take the form of one animal. Each of these beings only becomes a shape-shifter after being exposed to the body fluids of another shape-shifter (even if he or she shifts into a different type of animal). Only those with The Mark from birth are able to become shape-shifters, and although their powers are brought out by contact with another shape-shifter, they don’t necessarily shift into the same type of animal.

Similar to most modern werewolf stories, the shape-shifting contact behaves like an STD or blood-based pathogen, transferring through bodily fluids like blood, saliva, seminal or vaginal fluids. However, it is not treated as an infectious and dangerous disease as many werewolf narratives treat the werewolf bite. Instead, it is only shared through ritual and only if the person already has The Mark and requests to be changed into a shape-shifter. However, like many modern werewolf narratives, the shape-shifter is then free from contamination from any other disease (AIDS is specifically mentioned, likely due to the continuing fear over HIV infection in our society).

The shape-shifters have a close kinship with the animal kingdom, being able to take the form of animals and having an ability to communicate with them. This leads to a desire among several of the shape-shifting community to become environmental advocates. Smith uses this connection with the animal kingdom as a method of discourse about environmental mistreatment and the legal inclination to ignore issues of ecology and brand environmentalists as dangerous threats. In Spirit Dance several environmental protestors are killed when a logging company tycoon orders one of his drivers to drive over them while they are in a protest chain protecting an old-growth forest. The law does not charge them with murder and only fines them for poor machinery maintenance that causes this “accident”. The werewolf and other shape-shifters serve as perfect figures for examining the conflict between the human and the ecological, standing on the barrier between human existence and the animal, and part of the inescapable awareness that we are connected to all other parts of the environmental web. Smith, as many writers are beginning to do, wields the werewolf as a symbol for ecological issues, representing the fusion of the natural and the human in one form and representing an animal that is traditionally stigmatised as dangerous while also representing the deep woods and the image of untouched nature.

Smith presents a strong ecological mystery story where characters attempt to understand the root of this incident and his characters are forced into a space of moral question where values conflict with one another.

You can explore more about Spirit Dance and the rest of Impossibilia at http://smithwriter.com/impossibilia . You can get a copy on Kobo at http://www.kobobooks.com/ebook/Impossibilia/book-920BLiV38U2erq3geBWO7A/page1.html

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A Dance of Blood and Light

A Review of Liz Strange’s The Embrace of Life and Death (MLR Press, 2011).
By Derek Newman-Stille

A lot of people who see a cover that features two half naked men would assume that a book does not have a lot of substance to it. However, after hearing Liz Strange speak at Can Con in Ottawa, I knew she had incredible insights and that I had to read The Embrace of Life and Death . The novel features a relationship between an angel and a vampire and that pairing itself evokes complications. The fact that both of the characters are male and that this is the vampire, Kieran’s first time being attracted to a man further complicates matters. The fact that his lover is the angel Azrael (the angel of death) means that there are a number of theological questions and considerations that are brought to the fore.

The Embrace of Life and Death is aptly titled, featuring a clash and synthesis of opposites: dark and light, cold and hot, damned and saved, reveling in pleasure and denying pleasure. A vampire and an angel make unusual partners, particularly when the other angels and their master The Supreme One have made Azrael an outsider for his love of the vampire. Her characters have a mutual interest and excitement of discovery about the encounter with the opposite, the foreign and strange to them.

Her novel represents a clash of duty and love, a complex relationship that evokes changes and challenges for both partners. Both experience conflicting feelings about the relationship as the past continues to haunt them and cause them to question the nature of their relationship and what it suggests about their identity. They have to sacrifice parts of their identity to be together, moving themselves out of the place of certainty about who they are so that they can form something new of themselves. Both characters experience moral struggles over their new relationship, and Liz Strange helps her reader to recognise that most things in this world exist in a place of moral ambiguity where good, quality questions can be asked, and that there is no such thing as a fixed, unchanging identity.

Both of the main characters Kieran and Azrael are highly masculine figures, deviating from the general feminisation of queer characters that tends to feature in representations of gay relationships.  Both are strong, complex, and avoid stereotypes, making them rich queer characters. Liz Strange uses this text, and particularly the figure of an angel (a figure generally central to Christian belief) to question anti-queer agendas advocated by many groups who claim this to be part of their religion. She suggests that this bias is from human beings, not from the divine. She encourages her readers to question anything that states that questioning is forbidden.

The vampire in this work serves as a symbol of nostalgia and the past as a taboo place. Despite his age, Kieran is firmly a figure of the present, a modern creature. He is a creature of ‘the now’ forced to go into his own past and research his roots, to know himself fully before taking changes for the future. Azrael similarly has to seek his own memories and the restoration of his memory in order to understand himself and his place in the world. His memories have been taken away by his leader The Supreme One, and it is only through this restoration of his selfhood that he is able to enter into his relationship as a complete person, a whole person.

Liz Strange makes great use of metaphor and richness of description in her work, creating a powerful sensory experience that draws the reader in. She is an author who recognises that fear and longing are similar sensory experiences, playing with the reader’s senses and evoking a kick of adrenaline. It is a tough book to put down.

You can read more about Liz Strange’s work at her website: http://www.lizstrange.com/ .

Macabre Marginalia

A Review of Postscripts to Darkness edited by Sean Moreland and Dominik Parisien (Ex Hubris Imprints, 2011)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover Photo of Postscripts to Darkness Courtesy of the Editors.

Sean Moreland and Dominik Parisien’s Postscripts to Darkness (Volume 1) is a roadmap into the Weird. Postscripts takes the ordinary and infuses it with the odd, reinventing landscapes, small towns, family, friendship, secrets of the heart. It represents the familiar made unfamiliar, distorted. Ordinary places like the hospital, schools, and gardens are converted into unnatural terrains.

Moreland and Parisien illustrate their interest in the body as a locale of horror, defamiliarising the body and making it an uncomfortable place: distorting and playing with ideas of identity and revealing the horror within. Parisien and Moreland look at the interplay between sex and horror – alternating attraction and revulsion and expressing the notion of forbidden desire.

One of the strengths of Postscripts to Darkness is its willingness to engage with a mixture of media: literary, graphic, and even interviews with authors. It allows for an inclusive engagement with Weird Fiction and heightens the experience of voyaging into the odd.

The volume is made up of small 2-4 page stories: short snippets of terror like a quick punch to the heart before a new story begins. These flash fiction stories illustrate the strengths of the authors – their ability to world-build in only a few pages and construct identifiable characters without resorting to quick fixes like stereotypes or shallow personalities. Their stories are engaging in their depth and their exploration of the breadth of the human experience. The stories in this volume were chosen for their brevity, but are not lacking in complexity or quality. They are like marginalia written around a darkened core.

I hope you enjoy these snapshots of the surreal as much as I did.

You can read more about the Postscripts to Darkness volumes at http://pstdarkness.wordpress.com/

Textual Bodies

A Review of Helen Marshall’s Hair Side, Flesh Side (ChiZine, Forthcoming November 2012).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover Photo courtesy of the publisher.

Helen Marshall’s Hair Side, Flesh Side is a textual body in itself. Each of the short stories contained in the volume is named after a body part, and her work focusses on the body as a textual entity, as something that is written upon, written about, and that writes itself. She shows a fascination with defamiliarising the body, making the body (once something familiar and known) into a foreign territory full of questions, ambiguity, and terror. The reader is hyper aware of their body at the same time as they are driven to question its very nature.

Helen Marshall’s passions as a scholar of antiquated texts comes through in her stories, illustrating a passion for ideas of past and memory. Her characters are haunted by the past, objects and bodies from the past infiltrate the modern, texts from beyond the grave write themselves on the living, researchers are haunted by past atrocities. Marshall illustrates that the past is only buried by a thin layer, a skin of present-hood that contains a deep, living body of history. Memory is something that haunts the living, returning and reminding us of things that have been lost, buried, or broken. Objects, physical things, come to embody memory and hold feeling in Marshall’s work, and the body is an object that is inscribed with layers of experience. People are manuscripts of memory.

Hair Side, Flesh Side encompasses a wide variety of stories and is not bound by one genre, but rather the general “Weird” category that orbits around Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and all of the genres in between. Marshall illustrates her strengths in each of these genres.

The stories in this volume vary around the theme of the unfamiliar. A man is compelled into a perpetual flight due to his fear of home and settling, the ghosts of dead authors haunt living experiences, speaking to and acting through modern bodies, a woman exists only at the moments that others approach death, angelic narrators of death are forced to question the permanence of things and the lack of narrative in God’s plan, the social desire for perfection results in mass transformations into statues, the desire to consume runs rampant and becomes a vehicle for change, hearts torn out in mourning return to haunt the melancholy, ghosts seek oblivion in the urban rush, things forgotten fade, and skin is written upon, haunted textually by the past. Death, memory, forgotten things, and the past are always writing themselves on our experiences. Marshall illustrates for her readers that death is an ever-present part of life, haunting us in memory of place, relationships, bodies, and objects that surround us.

To read more about Helen Marshall’s work, visit her website at http://www.manuscriptgal.com/ . To explore Hair Side, Flesh Side, visit ChiZine at http://chizinepub.com/ . You can also check out the website for Hair Side, Flesh Side at http://hairsidefleshside.com/ to check out the book in detail.

Interview with Karen Dudley About Food For the Gods

An Interview with Karen Dudley
By Derek Newman-Stille

I want to thank Karen Dudley for taking the time to do this interview. As someone with a background in Classical Studies, it is always exciting to hear about an author’s insights about the ancient Greek world. Karen Dudley is the Author of Food For The Gods by RavenStone Press (an imprint of TurnStone Press). I will let her introduce herself.

Spec Can: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself to start this interview?

Karen Dudley: Of course! My website says I’m a writer of fine novels, preparer of fine foods and all ‘round good egg, but apart from all that I’ve got a degree in Archaeology and Classical Studies, I’ve worked in field biology and advertising, and I’ve been reading ever since my Dad punished me by making me sit in the living room all afternoon with only a copy of Mary Poppins for company. I make great food in my kitchen and scented soap in my basement, I love a good laugh, adore the research end of writing, and I’ve been a sci-fi/fantasy/folklore/mythology buff forever. My vices are books and chocolate with almonds. I listen to opera in the concert hall and sing it in the shower. I drink tea instead of coffee, and more often than not, I am covered in cat hairs of various colours.

Spec Can: What got you interested in writing about the ancient Greek world?

Karen Dudley: It wasn’t so much a ‘what’ as a ‘who’. When I was in university. I had the most amazing Greek history professor, Dr. R.J. Buck, who really brought the Classical period to life for me. The man was the master of understatement. Whenever he talked about the reasons behind a war, he always started off by saying something like, “Well, when someone steals your women and cattle, you’re liable to get a little cross about the whole thing.” He wouldn’t just give us dates and places for these armed conflicts, he’d act them out, marching up and down the classroom like a hoplite, talking the whole time about how ‘cross’ they all were with each other. He did tell us who won the Battle of Salamis and why, but he also told us about things like Alcibiades and the incident of the Theban dancing girls.  He made it real. I was hooked from then on.

Spec Can: What can the past tell us about the present?

Karen Dudley: A very great deal! There’s a marvellous quote by Carl Sagan which I’ve got hanging in my den. He says, “Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time.”

Books really do break the shackles of time. At first glance, the past seems so distant, so far removed from our own reality, and yet when you read an old book—a book from the past—not only can you hear the author’s voice, but there is an immediate recognition of shared experiences, a realization that in many ways, the author is really not that different from yourself. It can close the distance of history, forge a connection with this ancient soul, and allow us to more deeply explore the human experience in our world.

I had a rather interesting moment with this when I was researching Food for the Gods. I had been reading a book called Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens, which is basically all about the debaucheries of ancient Athens (clearly, a must-have reference book when one is working on a project of FFTG’s nature). Anyhow, I came across an account of a dinner party that had been held in Athens around 500 BC. Dinner parties—or symposions—were supposed to be dignified affairs where men would get together, eat food, discuss philosophy, and drink well-watered wine. But at this particular party, the wine had obviously not been watered quite enough and the participants were most decidedly three sheets to the wind.

They somehow got the notion that they were on a trireme (a Greek warship) and that there was a storm so they needed to eject the ballast. They started throwing all the furniture out onto the street to lighten the load—tables, couches, cushions, dishes, the lot. All the neighbours came to gawk, the officials came to see what was going on, and it was the talk of Athens for some days afterward. And from then on, that house was known as The Trireme.

Well, I read that and, remembering my own somewhat ill-spent youth, my first thought was, ‘Huh, I think I was at that party’. But more importantly, I felt an immediate connection with those ancient Greeks. It wasn’t just the wild party, it was the fact that the house was known as The Trireme afterward. It just seemed so funny, so understandable, so modern. And I realized then that people really haven’t changed much in 2500 years.

Spec Can:  What is the role of mythology in the modern world?

Karen Dudley: I think it plays a very important role in the modern world. Joseph Campbell once said that myths were “clues to the spiritual potentialities of human life”. They explore how we live and die, how we are in the world. The truth is that mythology spells out all the things we want, fear, hope, and dream in pretty basic imagery and themes. These are not timeworn tales with nothing to say to us, because our fears and desires really haven’t changed since these stories were born. They illuminate us, they transform us. That’s why ‘old’ myths still resonate.

Spec Can: What is the role of humour in literature? What can humour do to change the perspective of a reader?

Karen Dudley: As I said before, I’ve always loved a good laugh mostly because I connect with humorous words and situations at a gut level. I think it’s that ability to forge connections which makes humour so important in literature. Humour is quite distinctive from culture to culture and yet, even if we’re not from that culture, we can generally recognize and appreciate its jokes. Because of this, humour gives us insights into other people’s world experience and we can relate to them because of it. I love that. I used a lot of anachronistic humour in Food for the Gods not only because it’s fun, but because it also lends a sense of immediacy to the story and therefore better connects the reader with the characters and setting—despite the historical distance. After all, the ancient Greeks did not think of themselves as ‘ancient’.

Spec Can: What is your favorite ancient Greek author/ poet/ playwright?

Karen Dudley: Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is a lot of fun. In the play, Lysistrata is a woman who persuades the other women of Greece to withhold sexual favours from their menfolk unless the men agree to end the Peloponnesian War. It’s bawdy and witty (the men walk around bent over as if in a wind storm), and a lot of fun. But I think my favourite poet would have to be Homer. When I was a kid, I saw a television production of The Odyssey. It was from Italy and, in retrospect, it probably wasn’t the greatest adaptation, but I was completely, utterly entranced by it. My love of Greek mythology was born then and there, and I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for The Odyssey ever since.

Spec Can: How much does your Canadian identity influence your work?

Karen Dudley: This probably hearkens back to the question about humour, but I do believe that Canadians (myself included) have a distinctive sense of humour – part bawdy British, part self-deprecating Canadian. I’m not sure an American, for example, could have written a book like Food for the Gods. Canadians also have a reputation for being nice. I’m not sure if I’m nice or not (I like to think I am!), but as a Canadian, I can’t relate to the more extreme or paranoid political cultures. This can’t help but inform my work, and my characters tend to display a certain tolerance and trust in their world which matches my own.

Spec Can: In what ways can mythology speak to the modern Canadian reader?

Karen Dudley: Apart from the same way it speaks to any modern reader, I think here in Canada, we have a unique perspective on mythologies simply because so many of us come from different cultures and traditions. That’s a lot of stories, a lot of different perspectives on how we live our lives. With such an incredibly rich diversity, these myths have something to say to just about anybody regardless of which cultural tradition they come from.

Spec Can: What role does research play in your writing?

Karen Dudley: Oh, it’s huge! I’m a bit of a research buff; I really enjoy that aspect of writing. And I’m probably a bit anal-retentive, so I need to get my facts straight. But I’ve also found that research will often lead me to interesting and unexpected story lines, plots, or even characters. For example, I’d never heard of the dinner party-gone-bad that I mentioned earlier until I was doing research for Food for the Gods, so naturally, I had to open the book with that particular symposion (although I did throw a couple of gods into it for good measure). It worked out wonderfully! In fact, there is an author’s note at the back of Food for the Gods which talks a bit about my research process as well as which events and people in the book were real.

Spec Can: Where do you think Canadian mythic fiction is going from here?

Karen Dudley: I’m not sure if I can predict where it’s going; I know where I’d like it to go! I’d like to see more humour (too much mythic fiction takes itself far too seriously!), and more stories from traditions other than the Greco-Roman one that I was raised on. Obviously I love the stuff, but I think it would be really interesting to delve into some mythic fiction from a tradition that is totally foreign to me. I’ve always been intrigued by The Mahabharata…

Spec Can: What can Speculative Fiction do that realist fiction can’t?

Karen Dudley: It can liberate you! I’ve written four contemporary mystery novels, and when I started to write Food for the Gods, it took me a while to realize that I didn’t have to be limited by reality. Gods crashing dinner parties? No problem. Furies attacking the Athenian marketplace? Why not? It was incredibly freeing. As a writer, speculative fiction allows you to take your characters that much further. They’re still human, of course (well, most of them are), but you’re taking them beyond the normal human experience and seeing how they deal with it. It’s a lot of fun!

At the same time, of course, speculative fiction has always been used to reflect or comment on contemporary issues and society through the creation of worlds that are different from our own, but still recognizable. While Food for the Gods isn’t intended to be political in any way, it still allowed me to address some timeless themes—including the trials of being an outsider in a foreign land; the need to escape the “sins of the father”; and the complex and sometimes treacherous relationship between people and their gods.

Spec Can: When writing your novel Food For the Godswhat were the biggest challenges as a modern reader getting into an ancient Greek mindset?

Cover Photo from Food For The Gods Courtesy of Karen Dudley

Karen Dudley: In some ways, the ancient Greeks were a lot like us, but in other ways their culture and society seem quite foreign. I think the biggest challenge was how to explain differences in social mores and beliefs without slowing down the narrative (I am, after all, first and foremost, telling a story). I chose to do this in a humorous fashion with a series of interstitial chapters—everything from advertisements that look like they come from ancient Greek tabloids to excerpts from self-help scrolls. They’re goofy and funny, but they also impart some fairly crucial information for understanding the Athenian society of the Classical period.

Spec Can: Is there anything further you would like to add for our readers or anything I haven’t covered yet?

Karen Dudley: I guess the only other thing I’d like to add is to let everyone know that I do have a website, which I don’t update nearly often enough (though I’m trying to be better at this!): http://www.karendudley.com  I’m also on Facebook, which I use for professional purposes (i.e. go ahead and ‘friend’ me [https://www.facebook.com/karen.dudley.37604]!). And finally, I’d like to thank you, Derek, for ‘having me on the show’ as it were. Cheers!

I want to thank Karen Dudley for this fantastic interview and the chance to talk to another fan of the ancient Greek World and to get some of her exciting insights about the interrelationship between her sense of humour, her love of research, and her authorship. To find out more about Karen Dudley’s current projects, check out her website at http://www.karendudley.com . You can read my review of Food For the Gods posted on October 12, 2012.  

Home is Where The Ghosts Are

A Review of Ian Rogers’ Every House is Haunted (ChiZine, October 2012)

Cover Photo Courtesy of ChiZine

By Derek Newman-Stille

Ian Rogers makes the familiar strange in Every House is Haunted, taking comfortable locales, experiences, and people and turning them into unfamiliar territory, the realm of the unexpected and weird. Rogers conducts a hauntology of place, showing the role of memory that swirls around the places we visit, the continuing, lurking presence of the bizarre in the dark corners of our existence.

True to its name, Every House is Haunted contains several short stories about haunted houses, but Rogers takes the notion of home and expands it to homely, familiar experiences, and illustrates that haunting can be an experience of the unusual within the ordinary, a subversion of everyday experience. Rogers de-familiarises everything from the experience of constructing buildings, island life, small towns, urban spaces, starting a new job, books, family, and even makes the body itself a foreign and forbidding place. Everything has a dark undercurrent, illustrating the role of secrets and the hidden the underlies our experience.

In Rogers’ stories, small towns are places of hidden secrets, urban spaces are places where anything negative is blocked from view, jobs can be places of dark importance where one’s experience is benefitting an unknown party, family histories lurk under their current experiences rising like ghosts from the grave to haunt the descendants, and new knowledge from books can contain a hidden price. There is a predatory quality to objects in Rogers’ books, a haunting un-life and intention that makes everything foreboding. After reading Every House is Haunted, nothing is familiar any more, and everything takes on a sinister quality.

Rogers illustrates his fascination with the power of literature and stories by bringing into his own short stories books that can transpose their writing onto human bodies to evoke ancient evils, mediums using stories to help the dead find their way into the otherworld, writing as a means to keep sane during an apocalypse, and the role of stories for giving voice to the under-represented people and even ecologies denied voice. Rogers brings us into moral grey areas, encouraging us to question stories, delve deep into them and interact with them, and also reminds us that every story contains the potential for both danger as well as ecstasy.

To find out more about Ian Rogers’ current projects, you can visit his website at http://www.ian-rogers.com/ . You can find out more about Every House is Haunted and other ChiZine books at http://chizinepub.com/ .