Transformation, Secrets, and a World in Flux

A review of Julie Czerneda’s A Turn of Light (Daw, 2013).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover Art for A Turn of Light by Matt Stawicki

Cover Art for A Turn of Light by Matt Stawicki

Julie Czerneda’s A Turn of Light is a transformative text on multiple levels. It is about Jenn Nalynn, a girl on the cusp of womanhood who is confronted with her own changing nature and the need to understand her own place and what has shaped her into who she is. Not only is her situation changing, but her understanding of herself has shifted and she is left with questions about where she has come from and what has shaped her, and what she is becoming. She is coming to realise that her world is shaped in secrets, things kept from her, and truths that are buried seemingly for her own protection. But, innocence can be dangerous, secrets can cause pain, and not-knowing often means actions taken in ignorance that can be harmful because they lack an understanding of the context in which they occur.

Jenn is in a place of magic, Marrowdell, a place that she has grown up with and seen as normal because it is the world that has shaped who she is. But, it is a place where people eat toad eggs, where toads guard houses, where trees move of their own volition, where water appears when needed, and where dragons play in the meadows invisible in the light but revealed in their majesty as the world turns to twilight. Only through a stranger’s eyes, by hearing about what wonders surround him, does Jenn see that the place she lives in is not “normal”, that it is wondrous. As a truth-seer, Bannan sees more than others – he sees that roads run as silver, that the house toads wear armour, that moths are able to write down what they observe. He sees what Jenn is incapable of seeing, notices what she doesn’t notice.

Jenn is met with the need to understand herself and her place in her world better, to see truths that have been hidden from her for her own protection. She is changing, and with those changes, she grows in connection to her home of Marrowdell (a place which she cannot leave without death to herself and the landscape) and also in her own magical ability. Yet, without being taught about her magic, with it constantly being buried and kept secret from her, she acts out of ignorance, causes damage to the people, places, and things around her. Cushioned in a world that doesn’t want her to experience hurt, she hurts others by accident. When power and ignorance are paired, damage is bound to happen.

Jenn, desiring companionship, transforms her childhood friend, Wisp, a creature who plays with magic, invisible, and ever-present, into a human being. He loses his dragon nature, trapped within a man’s shape and limited by it. He becomes something different, changed against his will by Jenn’s wish. Wisp has become Wyll, a stranger to Marrowdell, and a source of interest and fascination to a village that is accustomed to knowing everyone. He questions things, challenges ideas that are entrenched, and provides a foil for human actions, showing that what is assumed to be natural is only natural for human beings.

Photo of Julie Czerneda by Roger Czerneda

Photo of Julie Czerneda by Roger Czerneda

Czerneda creates a world in which everything and everyone is in flux, challenging and questioning themselves and the nature of the world around them while trying to uncover mysteries that have been left hidden in the desire to protect secrets. She reveals that worlds are always steeped in the mysterious and that everyone is always searching for their place in the world while only knowing a fraction of it, of themselves, and of those around them. There is a danger in ignorance, and a need to learn and reveal even painful truths to others to prevent harm.

To discover more about Julie Czerneda and her current projects, visit her website at http://www.czerneda.com/ . To discover more about A Turn of Light, visit http://www.czerneda.com/fantasy/turn.html .

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An Interview with Michael Kelly

An interview with Michael Kelly by Derek Newman-Stille

I was very pleased when Michael Kelly was willing to share some insights with readers of Speculating Canada. I have been reading his work for years, and was impressed at the depth of his insights and thoughts about Canadian horror. I hope that readers enjoy our conversation as much as I did.

Author photo courtesy of Michael Kelly

Author photo courtesy of Michael Kelly

Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell readers a little bit about yourself?

Michael Kelly: Thanks, Derek. I’m an author, editor, and publisher based near Toronto, originally hailing from Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. My work has appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including Black Static, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Postscripts, Space & Time, Supernatural Tales, Tesseracts, and others. I’ve been a finalist for The Shirley Jackson Award, and the British Fantasy Society Awards.

Spec Can: What inspired you to become a horror author? What appeals to you about horror?

Michael Kelly: Horror’s appeal is that it is, to me at least, the broadest and most inclusive of all literary forms. It truly has the widest canvas. If we are to categorize literature into genres, then certain works of science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, and mainstream literature can easily fit under the horror umbrella. Douglas Winter famously opined that horror is not a genre, it’s an emotion. Though that is a bit simplistic, I do ascribe to that basic notion, somewhat. Horror is a mode of literature more than a genre.

When I write, I don’t actually aspire to genre. I don’t sit down to write horror. I just write. What comes out, I guess, can loosely be described as horror. But, if we are to categorize (and I understand people’s need to do so), then I guess you could call my work horror, for the most part. I prefer Robert Aickman’s term “strange stories.”

Spec Can: What do you hope your readers will take from reading your fiction?

Michael Kelly: I hope they experience a shift in their perceptions, a slight subversion of the every day, a queer unease. Whether my approach is ontological or psychological, hopefully I can reveal to readers some small insight into human nature.

Spec Can: What is different about Canadian horror from that of other nationalities?

Michael Kelly: Is Canadian horror different from other horror fiction? Well, some say my raison d’etre is promoting Canadian horror. It’s the reason I edit the Chilling Tales series for EDGE Publications. Volume 2 will be out soon.

Canada is certainly fertile ground for imaginative minds.  What I’ve discovered is that Canadian writers explore the same themes as their contemporaries. Stories of corporate horror; side trips into surrealism and modern supernatural horror.  Tales of loss.  And the all-too-real horrors of everyday life, of existing in harsh climates, whether literal or psychological.  Not unlike any good horror fiction, then.  Except I sense a distinctly Canadian worldview, a disquieting solitude, perhaps, or a tangible loneliness, that permeates these stories and makes them truly chilling Canadian tales. There is definitely a Canadian aesthetic.

Cover photo of Scratching The Surface courtesy of Michael Kelly

Cover photo of Scratching The Surface courtesy of Michael Kelly

Spec Can: What can horror do to inspire readers or challenge the status quo?

Michael Kelly:  Hmmm, well, other than to entertain, much of horror fiction is grounded in philosophical treatises. Horror is, to me, so inclusive of themes and ideas, the outré, that by it’s very nature it challenges the status quo. Much of it is reliant on mood, atmosphere, and the unknown. It is a mode, especially, I think, in the short form, that tests our meager existence.

Spec Can: You have been instrumental in creating Undertow Publications, a small press that produces horror work. What is the virtue of small independent presses?

Michael Kelly:  I am a very small press, a micro-press, to be sure. I prefer the term independent press, though. Years ago, the independent press was a vital outlet for writers; a place where you could find literate, daring, and avant-garde fiction that bucked the mainstream, and eschewed commerciality. You can still find that, to be sure, but with the proliferation of DIY publishing, and the publication of four-hundred new eBooks every twelve seconds, it’s become increasingly difficult to find that fiction. It’s almost not worth looking for, but, like finding that needle in a haystack, the small amount of pain is worth the discovery. There’s good, bad, and terrible writing in both the traditional and self-publishing arenas. The independent press still plays a role, to be sure, and the savvy reader, whether by word-of-mouth, recommendations, or simple sleuthing, can usually find those innovative works. Hopefully, out of the morass of the DIY culture, we still have some savvy readers.

Spec Can: Could you tell readers a little bit about the anthology Shadows and Tall Trees that you edit? What are some of the key things that you hope the anthology will focus on?

Cover photo of Shadows and Tall Trees Autumn 2012 issue, courtesy of Michael Kelly

Cover photo of Shadows and Tall Trees Autumn 2012 issue, courtesy of Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly: I’ve just published issue 5 of Shadows & Tall Trees. It’s a journal of weird fiction, and strange stories. I’ve had the pleasure of publishing a number of distinguished authors in its pages, including Robert Shearman, Alison Moore, Steve Rasnic Tem, among many others, and Canadian writers Sandra Kasturi, Richard Gavin, Ian Rogers, and Simon Strantzas.

My focus is thoughtful, intelligent weird fiction. Fiction that gives you that genuine frisson. So far, I think I’ve accomplished that. It’s been very well received, with praise from Ellen Datlow, and Peter Straub. Five stories from the first four issues have been selected for reprint in six different “Best Of” anthologies.

Spec Can: You have written about and published stories about ghosts. Why do ghosts inspire our fascination as a society? What appeals to the human imagination about the idea of haunting?

Michael Kelly: Most of us have a good dose of empathy. Ghosts are mostly born from trauma or tragedy. When they return, when they haunt us, we still empathize with their circumstance, their condition, whether malevolent or not. It’s an interesting dichotomy — empathy for the dead. Ghosts, you see, aren’t about the dead, they’re about the living.

Spec Can: As a horror author, what frightens you? What inspires your fear?

Michael Kelly: I suspect the things that frighten me – loss and abandonment – are the same things that frighten many writers. My fears are less tangible, perhaps. It isn’t spiders or snakes or dolls or clowns. Those things are creepy, yes, but I am not afraid of them. I fear losing my children, my wife. I fear loneliness and aging. Death. Who doesn’t, on some primal level, fear death?

Spec Can: How does fear inspire your work?

Michael Kelly: It spurs me to write while I’m still among the living.

Spec Can: What mythologies inspire you? What mythical themes and ideas imbue your work?

Michael Kelly: I wouldn’t say any particular mythology inspires me. My fiction is often reality based, psychological in nature, with an emphasis on characters, mostly flawed.

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

Michael Kelly: Oh, gosh, that’s a good question. The short answer is ‘I don’t know.’ I think of my fiction as realist. If you say “horror,” a set of readers are going to have certain expectations. Mostly blood and viscera. That’s not me. My definition of horror is broad. “Alien” is a horror movie. “The Road” is a horror novel. Weird fiction that takes an ontological approach can open a new philosophy to some. But realist fiction can do the same. It’s all in the writing.

Spec Can: Why is so much of horror literature fascinated with the body? What can horror reveal about the body?

Michael Kelly: We’re made of blood and bone, skin and gristle, teeth and tissue. These are the fragile vessels that propel us around this fragile world. Bodies give us pleasure and pain in equal amounts. When the body is invaded and hurt, when it is mutilated or begins to erode, when disease attacks, it reminds us of our mortality. But there’s also, to some, something inherently deviant and taboo about seeing unnatural things happening to our bodies. Body horror brings a new level of intimacy to our lives.

Spec Can: In what ways do you hope your fiction will inspire readers? What do you hope readers will take away from reading your work?

Michael Kelly: Other than what I mentioned further above, I just hope readers enjoy the tales, and that the themes and ideas resonate. Hopefully the stories will linger a little with the reader.

Spec Can: Where do you see Canadian horror going from here? What does the future of Canadian horror look like?

Michael Kelly: Canadian horror fiction is having a renaissance. It’s definitely in a good place, thanks to publishers like ChiZine and EDGE, and authors like Craig Davidson, Gemma Files, Richard Gavin, Sandra Kasturi, Lisa L. Hannett, Helen Marshall, David Nickle, Ian Rogers, Michael Rowe, Simon Strantzas, Tia Travis, and Halli Villegas, to name a few. The future of Canadian dark fiction is bright.

Cover photo of Shadows and Tall Trees Summer 2013 courtesy of Michael Kelly

Cover photo of Shadows and Tall Trees Summer 2013 courtesy of Michael Kelly

Spec Can: Is there anything further that you would like to add to this interview or any other ideas that you would like to share?

Michael Kelly: Thanks, Derek. I’d just like to point readers to Shadows & Tall Trees, the journal I edit. As a one-person operation it is hard to get the word out. I think lovers of weird and strange fiction will enjoy the journal. As a very small independent press the only way to keep afloat is to sell copies. Issue 5 is now available at all the major online retailers. I do hope you’ll take a look. I guarantee it’ll be worth your time and money. You can find more info and order back copies at:

www.undertowbooks.com/issues

I want to thank Michael Kelly for this incredible conversation about Canadian Dark Fiction and being willing to share his passion for the dark and the thoughts and speculations that come out of pondering the dark.

“What I like is getting my head turned around. I get off on fresh perceptions, widening horizons, new thoughts, and I like them best when they occur as a process in my own mind, rather than an exposition at which I am a passive spectator/ receiver. What I look for in SF is the story (or verse – occasionallly film – sometimes even essay) conceived and written in a way as to suggest alternatives that will cause me to exercise my own imagination to broaden my own vision. To ask the next question.””

-Judith Merril – Afterward (Tesseracts)

Quote – Like When SF Broadens Vision

Upcoming Interview with Michael Kelly on Wednesday June 19th

Teaser for Michael Kelly Interview

I was so excited to hear from Michael and share in the incredible and insightful comments he was able to provide. It is absolutely amazing to have an author provide deep and poignant insights that help the reader to see Canadian Spec Fic in a new light.

Author photo courtesy of Michael Kelly

Author photo courtesy of Michael Kelly

This Wednesday June 19th, check out Speculating Canada’s interview with author, editor, and publisher Michael Kelly. Michael discusses the appeal of horror, the link between good writing and emotional experience, issues with categorisation of genres, the difference between “horror” and “strange stories”, the ability of good literature to reveal something about human nature, the difference between Canadian horror and horror of other nationalities, the power of horror to question and engage with philosophical ideas, independent presses, and the power of body horror in general to provoke insights and speak to a common experience.

Here are a few teasers from our upcoming interview:

Michael Kelly: “Horror’s appeal is that it is, to me at least, the broadest and most inclusive of all literary forms. It truly has the widest canvas.”

Michael Kelly: “I hope they experience a shift in their perceptions, a slight subversion of the every day, a queer unease. Whether my approach is ontological or psychological, hopefully I can reveal to readers some small insight into human nature.”

Cover photo of Chilling Tales courtesy of Michael Kelly

Cover photo of Chilling Tales courtesy of Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly: “I sense a distinctly Canadian worldview, a disquieting solitude, perhaps, or a tangible loneliness, that permeates these stories and makes them truly chilling Canadian tales. There is definitely a Canadian aesthetic.”

Michael Kelly: “Horror is, to me, so inclusive of themes and ideas, the outré, that by it’s very nature it challenges the status quo.”

Michael Kelly: “Ghosts are mostly born from trauma or tragedy. When they return, when they haunt us, we still empathize with their circumstance, their condition, whether malevolent or not. It’s an interesting dichotomy — empathy for the dead. Ghosts, you see, aren’t about the dead, they’re about the living.”

Michael Kelly: “We’re made of blood and bone, skin and gristle, teeth and tissue. These are the fragile vessels that propel us around this fragile world. Bodies give us pleasure and pain in equal amounts. When the body is invaded and hurt, when it is mutilated or begins to erode, when disease attacks, it reminds us of our mortality. But there’s also, to some, something inherently deviant and taboo about seeing unnatural things happening to our bodies. Body horror brings a new level of intimacy to our lives.”

Michael Kelly: “The future of Canadian dark fiction is bright.”

I hope that you enjoy Michael Kelly’s insights as much as I did. This is a truly thought-provoking interview that will leave you thinking for hours (if not days) afterward.

Join Spec Can on Wednesday June 19th for the full interview with Mr. Kelly.

Voudoun Visions of Toronto

A Review of Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in The Ring (Grand Central Publishing, 1998)
By Derek Newman-Stille

In Brown Girl in the Ring, Nalo Hopkinson blends urban fantasy and near-future science fiction together in a Toronto environment. She creates a Toronto that has been cut off from the rest of Canada, ghettoised and locked off from the rest of the country and made into a controlled space where entrances and exits from the city are carefully monitored and controlled. Yet, this space of conflicted identity, a Toronto that is searching for its new identity, searching for what it should become from a past that has been conflicted and confused. Toronto’s identity has been cut off from the wider Canadian identity through its rejection, and yet this could be an opportunity for it to find a new identity.

Despite its near-future science fictional setting, Brown Girl in the Ring is a space of fantasy, incorporating into it magic, mythic figures, Loa (gods and goddesses of Haitian Vodoun), and visions. Ti-Jeanne is a woman who is conflicted between her Torontonian identity and the rich Caribbean heritage that her grandmother has passed down to her – Caribbean foods, creole, healing herbs, and some elements of vodoun. She has had visions and magical power passed down to her that has attracted the attention of the Loa, the gods of Vodoun and her grandmother, Gros-Jeanne has pointed out that if she denies this aspect of herself, if she ignores the magic, it will over-ride her. If she lives in conflict with this aspect of herself, she will be warring with herself instead of integrating herself and accepting all aspects of her identity.

Hopkinson’s Toronto is a place where magic can occur, a place where cultures intersect and assert themselves and where people search for identity and meaning as they see their community in new lights, push for change, and come to find new definitions of home. Her Toronto is not one steeped in one history, but a place where multiple histories intersect, where the visions of diverse people come together to see a more complex, more magical, and more inclusive space.

To find out more about Nalo Hopkinson, you can visit her website at http://www.nalohopkinson.com/ . You can explore more about Brown Girl in the Ring at http://www.nalohopkinson.com/writing/fiction/books/brown_girl

Report from the 2013 Academic Conference on Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy

By Derek Newman-Stille

The term “Academic Conference” often intimidates the general public. To many people “Academic” has come to be synonymous with “inaccessible language”, “boring discourse”, and “pomposity”, but the Academic Conference on Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy’s real potency is the focus of the conference on accessibility to an interested public. Organiser Allan Weiss wants the conference to be open to the pubic and the conference’s position in the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy means that it is in a more public space. The conference brings researchers, authors, and fans together in discussions about Canadian SF.

As you have probably noticed from my posts, I really enjoy opportunities to bridge the gap between people engaging with Canadian SF in different ways. The ACCSSF conference is all about bridging the gap between those interested in Canadian SF and inviting everyone into the discussion.

Speakers engaged in discourse about the richness complexity of Canadian SF and perspectives on Canadian SF. From genre questions to French Canadian science fiction metal music, from place and identity to mythic themes, this conference raised questions and excited attendees to incredible discussions. As often happens at academic conferences, some of the richest places for examining ideas happened between sessions around the tea pot and after sessions at dinner and the pub. It is exciting and heartening to know that there are so many people excited about Canadian SF and interested in looking beyond the surface of their favorite novels.