A review of Catherine MacLeod’s “The Stone Alphabet” in Earth: Giants, Golems, & Gargoyles Edited by Rhonda Parrish (Tyche Books, 2019)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Catherine MacLeod’s “The Stone Alphabet” is a refreshing collection of microfiction stories. Each of the stories is only a few lines of text but shows incredible worldbuilding, character development, and each has a delightful twist ending. MacLeod plays with the senses of the reader, moving us from world to world and story to story, immersing us in little drips of horror instead of a larger pool of story.
Like the rest of the Earth collection, MacLeod’s collection focuses on the multiplicity of the element, illustrating the idea that Earth can be articulated in a variety of ways. She tells stories about characters with an appetite for stones to stories of the underworld, tales of dark cellars that suddenly appear, addictions to beauty mud, statues carved into life, and stories about stoning.
Despite the short length of these tales, MacLeod explores deep and powerful social patterns and ideas. She explores ideas of life and death, oppression and violence, loss and imprisonment, representation of the human body and the implications of creating something so close to the human. MacLeod invites her reader to speculate and imagine new possibilities, using the “weird” to invite readers to question their norms and everything that is taken for granted. Playing with the theme of the earth, she shakes the foundation of the reader’s reality and invites new philosophies and ideologies. The rapid succession of worlds and stories allow for a sense of cognitive dissonance, immediately putting the reader in a reflective, questioning space.
Reviewed By Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD (They/Them)
A review of Chadwick Ginther’s “The Enforcer” in Rhonda Parrish’s Earth: Giants, Golems, & Gargoyles (Tyche Books, 2019).
By Derek Newman-Stille
Chadwick Ginther’s “The Enforcer” is part of a collection on the element of Earth by Rhonda Parrish, titled Earth: Giants, Golems & Gargoyles, yet his vision of the earth is unique. He associates the earth with the things that go in it – bodies. “The Enforcer” is a necromantic tale, a story of raising the dead and challenging the barrier between the living and the dead. It’s about things that rise from the earth.
Ginther’s take is a Frankensteinian story, with a character named Frank who happens to be an assemblage of different body parts. Of course, he isn’t the original Dr. Frankenstein’s famous creature, but he, like the classic monster, is made up of parts of dead bodies. Where Dr. Frankenstein reanimated his monster through science, Frank is resurrected through magic performed by a cult. He is made up of parts of the bodies of multiple soldiers. Frank is a creature defined by his parts, defined by memories and thoughts of multiple different soldiers that intrude on his consciousness. He isn’t one thing. He is always a multiplicity. Frank’s body is shaped by pain and he is constantly in pain. Ginther imagines possibilities for a fragmented life filled with pain for his monstrous hero.
This is a narrative of autonomy and control, exploring what it is like to have control over a body that is fundamentally resistant and what it means to unify multiple minds and resist external control.
Ginther imagines Frank in a way that several scholars have done – picturing him as a golem made of flesh rather than of earth (because flesh becomes the earth and is placed in the earth). For those who haven’t encountered the mythology of the Golem, it is a figure from Jewish folklore who takes on a human shape, but is made entirely from mud, clay, or earth. Often the golem is created to work for someone or achieve a task for them. In Frank’s world, golems are creatures made of earth that often have a dead body at the centre of them. They are figures that are brought to life by necromancers. So although Frank is made of flesh, he has something in common with these figures of earth. Frank is also an artificial body made up of matter.
Ginther centres his narrative in Winnipeg, imagining a magical undercurrent to the city and secret clubs and bars only available to the undead. In this strange underbelly to Winnipeg there are constant struggles over who has control over life and death and Frank finds himself trapped in the middle of these struggles, needing to find a way to survive.
A review of Cherie Dimaline’s Empire of Wild (Random House, 2019)
By Derek Newman-Stille
A fascinating blend of Red Ridinghood, werewolf fiction, Greek myth, and Rogarou legends of Metis people from the Georgian Bay area, Cherie Dimaline’s Empire of Wild weaves together monstrous wolves into a book that is partially horror story and partially a call for social change. Like many werewolf tales, Empire of Wild calls attention to predatory masculinity, and the Rogarou (from Loup Garou, French for werewolf) she creates are transformed into their animal form by transgressions, primarily against women. The Metis people in Dimaline’s tale all grew up with Rogarou lessens and were taught not to wander too far away from the main paths or they would be stalked by the Rogarou, much as Red Ridinghood’s mother tells her.
Joan is a woman who walks her own paths, and even though early in her childhood, she encountered the Rogarou, she still seeks her own way, often telling herself that the stories of her people are just stories. Yet Joan becomes embroiled in a cosmological battle for her land, her husband, and her lifeways. She has to learn from the stories of her elders and partake of their magic in order to keep herself and her family safe from the predators around them.
Cherie Dimaline brings attention to the predatory nature of white men in particular, highlighting the way that white people have predatorily taken Indigenous lands and continue to try to consume more and more. Whiteness is the personification of consumption in Dimaline’s narrative. Her Metis characters seek to buy back land taken from them by white people, constantly fighting against business interests who try to consume more of their land and fill the land with mines and pipelines. She brings attention to the continuing action of businesses to pollute Indigenous territory and displace Indigenous people from their traditional lands. She explores the implications of the church in that theft of land, pointing out that the church seeks to alienate people from the traditional practices of the land in order to pave the way for businesses to buy up land. One of her characters, a miner, tells her protagonist Joan that the church works to control Indigenous people and saying that “the only real threat to a project – to our jobs – are the Indians. They’re the ones with the goddamned rights, I guess. Always protesting and hauling us into church… But when the missions come through? They’re too busy praying to protest. The missions are good at changing the way people see shit…. Mission tents are an important part of mining, of any project really – mining, forestry, pipelines. That’s what’s going up in here next, a pipeline conversation.” Dimaline brings critical attention to current issues around land rights and pipelines, pointing out the continual exploitation of Indigenous peoples. Dimaline points out that colonialism is not only consumptive, it is predatory and the rogarou becomes a symbolic manifestation of this constant territorial violence.
Dimaline uses the image of predation to talk about the loss of selfhood and identity, creating the danger of a wolf that consumes a person from within, consuming everything that makes them who they are and leaving a hollow shell. But, Dimaline also links the rogarou and its predation to missing and murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, pointing out the way that Indigenous women and girls are especially at threat to predatory behaviour, violence, and death. Dimaline, in particular, highlights the predatory and violent nature of toxic masculinity, providing a critique of the way that masculinity is constructed and the violence of the image of the so-called “alpha male”.
Dimaline’s story is an interplay of fairy tale, myth, legend, and Indigenous cosmology, and, like most tales and traditions, it has powerful implications for rethinking and challenging contemporary issues.
Dionne Brand’s Theoryis theory given life, a speculation about the nature of beauty, thought, and social interaction. Focussing on a graduate student nearing the end of their dissertation, Theory takes us into the conflicted world of emotion and intellect, exploring the way that passion and dispassionate investigation collide.
Brand’s unnamed narrator, only referred to as Teoria (Theory) by one of her girlfriends, finds herself at odds with the social world, always observing it from a distance and finding herself flabbergasted at the complexities of human interaction. It is through her relationships rather than her analyses of texts that she engages in social consciousness and stretches herself beyond the conventional world she was born into. The narrator positions herself in conflict with conventions and norms, but constantly finds herself drawn into them, facing her own ordinariness no matter how much she tries to push away from it. She is a haunted character, constantly dragging along the baggage of having no baggage and wishing she had a more complex life.
Brand’s narrator is chimerical, constantly changing to reflect her environment and her partners. Yet this changeable, uncertain quality allows the reader to reflect on the fluidity of our experiences and the permeability of identity. We are creatures of change and perhaps it is our changeability that defines us more than any presumed identity or selfhood.
Although the narrator fancies herself a creature of the mind and intellect and reason, someone who eschews the occult, she is haunted by the spectre of her last partner, Odalys, who is an occult priestess. Odalys defies the start realism of the narrator, never appearing by accident even when she appears in dreams. She offers insights that the narrator isn’t ready for and that she rejects primarily because they offer toomuch insight, too much knowledge. Part of Odalys’ ritual practice involves the presence of Nkisi, dolls made to include nails and blades, and this figure takes on a revelatory light for the narrator, making her face her own erasure of Odalys’ world even while the narrator writes her dissertation that focussed on social erasures, absences, and voices repressed. Odalys and her Nkisi take on the function of everything that the narrator is repressing, knowledges that she rejects even as she writes about the need to include silenced perspectives of marginalized people.
Brand’s Theory is an exploration of absences, of communities lost, and of a narrator who seeks insights into the world even as she ignores insights into herself that are offered by the women she dates. Though obsessed with figuring herself out, she rejects knowledges and perspectives that confront her own.
A review of James Alan Gardner’s Commitment Hour (Eos, 1998)
By Derek Newman-Stille
I was originally trained as an anthropologist (for my Bachelor’s Degree and my Master’s Degree), so I always find books that explore the notion of anthropological researchers fascinating. James Alan Gardner’s Commitment Hour centres on a story of a scientist and his assistant visiting a small town where all of the residents alternate gender identities (between male and female) every year until they reach their 21st birthday where they “commit” to a gender. Their gender options are male, female or “neut” (essentially intersex). Each person has a different look and different personality in each of their gender identities.
Yet, Gardner also points out the issues of the anthropological researcher since, although the researcher says he is committed to noninterference, he irrevocably changes the society he contacts, leading to murder, religious upheaval, and a fundamental change in how their society views gender.
Gardner’s narrative focuses on the perspective of a currently male member of this society who is about to commit to a gender identity. We are able to get insights from a believer in that society who views the researcher’s presence as an interference at best and a travesty at worst.
Using a researcher doing ethnographic research in a science fiction novel immediately evokes the work of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hanish Cycle of books, and having the story about gender and a society where people alternate genders immediately evokes Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Indeed, Le Guin’s parents were famous anthropologists Theodora and Alfred Louis Kroeber, which is perhaps why her explorations of culture are so powerful. Gardner’s work reads as a love letter to Le Guin, examining her ideas and giving another perspective to a gender-alternating culture.
Yet, Gardner’s exploration of gender takes a different path than Le Guin’s, and where Le Guin doesn’t explore the notion of taboos in society (something that people have critiqued The Left Hand of Darkness for because it ignores the treatment of LGBTQ2IA people as other in our own society), Gardner explores taboo and violence against sexual minorities by featuring a society that technically allows people to choose to be “neut”, but lynches them, kills them, or drives them out of their society violently. Where Le Guin takes a utopian view toward gender diversity, Gardner brings in the realities of human violence and bigotry.
Like Le Guin, Gardner’s Commitment Hour is about a gender experiment – partially his own use of Sci Fi as theory to rethink and critique gender, but also to examine what it would mean to have to choose gender.
As a nonbinary person, a person who exists outside of the binary of male/female, I found reading Commitment Hour fascinating. I was particularly fascinated by the “neut” option for gender identity. This third gender option is a reminder that notions of gender are not fixed or unchanging, but, rather, subject to change. Gardner experiments with ideas of gender and the aspects of gender that are constructed as “natural” and how societies reinforce these ideas.
Commitment Hour explored aspects of the gender binary and assumptions about what characteristics are feminine and which are masculine, while also examining a fluidity between these gendered characteristics. Gardner explores the way that social norms, expectations, and taboos reinforce the idea that there are only two ways of being in the world – male and female and explores the social punishment that people receive for being outside of that binary.
Although these are ideas that are discussed much more often now and although we have new language for exploring gender identity including pronouns other than “she”, “he”, and “it”, Gardner’s Commitment Hour was written in 1998 and challenged some of the entrenched ideas of the time. It is definitely a book that deserves to be looked at anew and that still has something to say about gender.
Loa in Dreamland A review of Nalo Hopkinson and Neil Gaiman’s House of Whispers Vol 1: The Power Divided (DC Vertigo, 2019)
By Derek Newman-Stille
For those of you reading Speculating Canada over the past few years, you have probably noticed that I am a huge fan of Nalo Hopkinson’s work. I’m also a huge fan of Neil Gaiman and of comics, so I was extremely excited to find out that the two collaborated on the comic series “House of Whispers vol 1: The Power Divided”, set in the Sandman Universe and to see their voices mingle in an exploration of the potential of that imagined universe.
Hopkinson and Gaiman have always demonstrated a continuing fascination with border crossing and the implications of the collision of the physical and spiritual world and “House of Whispers” happens at that point of contact when the spiritual realm of the Loa (Afro-Caribbean deities) is partially pulled into the world of dreams and the goddess Erzulie finds herself outside of her space of worship and cut off from the world she knows and her ability to help her worshippers.
At the same time, a spiritual virus is released amongst the human population, making the infected feel as though they are dead, yet alive. Medical practitioners can’t see anything wrong with the infected people, but they are left without feeling or joy or connection to the physical world. Their spirits are sent to the world of dreams and they are left empty, wandering meaninglessly across the world. This virus is spread by words, through a phrase, and this instantly reminds me of the Canadian film Pontypool where a zombie virus is coded in language. It makes me wonder if there is a trend occurring where people are both recognizing the power of language and also questioning what language can do. Hopkinson has always demonstrated a fascination with the power of language in her novels and short fiction, linking words to magic, exploring the way that language shapes us, and playing with the sounds and taste of language.
The description of the living death that Hopkinson describes not only evokes the idea of the zombie, but also evokes depression. Most of our society looks at depression as a form of sadness, but for those of us who experience clinical depression, we often feel a sense of emptiness, a disconnect, and a hollowness that strongly differentiates depression from sadness. The feelings of the characters in House of Whispers evoked this sense of depression. This depiction is as powerful as it is painful to read. I could feel myself resonating with the sense of loss and pain that the characters were experiencing. Hopkinson’s creative energy wound itself throughout this powerful narrative, giving it life.
As always in her work, Hopkinson highlights diverse bodies and identities. The majority of her characters are BIPOC, which is a fantastic change from the normally excess of white characters in comics. Moreover, her narrative focuses on diverse body sizes and Erzulie, for example, is represented as fat, which is an exciting shift that allows for the recognition that fat is beautiful (especially since Erzulie is the Loa of love, desire, and beauty. Hopkinson also features disabled people and LGBTQ2IA relationships including lesbian couples and nonbinary characters. This is a comic that engages the multiplicity of human experience, and it is so much stronger for that reason. Her characters are highly developed, relatable, and carry so many waiting to be told stories in their every sentence. This is a rich comic that is filled with the potential of narratives yet to come.
Like most comics, House of Whispers: The Power Divided is a collaborative work, both with other writers such as Gaiman and later with Dan Waters, but also with artist Dominike Stanton, whose artistic talent brings Hopkinson’s words to visual life and adds to the power of the story she tells, particularly by emphasizing bodily diversity and evoking the beauty of the human (and magical) form. Set partially in a dream world, this comic is a form of dreaming given physical form.
‘Twas The Night Before Krampus A review of Sam Beiko’s Krampus Is My Boyfriend By Derek Newman-Stille
As a folklorist, the figure of Krampus has fascinated me for years. Krampus is the devilish companion of St Nicholas and while the saint passes out gifts to good children, Krampus passes out beatings to the bad ones. He’s got a Pan-like look with goat legs and horns and he often is depicted carrying a switch for beating children and a bag or basket for carrying them away.
Originally a figure from Austria and the Bavarian regions of Germany, Krampus has gained popularity in North America as the “anti-Santa”, and Sam Beiko’s Krampus from her comic “Krampus Is My Boyfriend” is inspired by that image of the creature. In fact, when the German exchange student at St. Gobnait’s Academy first mentions the demon, she is greeted with the response “he’s the anti-Santa Claus, right?”
Beiko’s use of the graphic format is a powerful part of the narrative since Krampus is a visually stimulating figure. But, more than just the striking image of the demon himself, Beiko evokes the demon’s character through her comic pages, often featuring chains and vines binding one scene to the next and wrapping them all up in her image of Krampus as a pagan deity that pre-dates Christianity. Her motif of the natural world reinforces the pagan origins of Krampus, making him something connected to the forest even though he operates in an urban environment.
Beiko situates “Krampus Is My Boyfriend” in a tale of teen bullying, connecting the demon to ideas of childhood and youth, but also to ideas of punishment for bad behaviour. The demon is summoned by high school student Olga when she is bullied at her prestigious private high school by wealthier students. She is described as a “bursary kid”, denoting her poverty and is mocked for her weight.
Beiko plays with the notion of importing a custom from Germanic tradition by having a German exchange student first mention the demon, but also plays with the notion of Krampus expressing something intrinsic to all youth by having Olga call out the Krampus ritual as if she knew it. Beiko explores the notion of traditions extending beyond their place of origin and moving to a new location, which mirrors what has occurred with Krampus as a folk entity. Krampus has begun to be a figure celebrated in American holiday traditions with people gathering at celebrations dressed as the demon, and even importing the tradition of the Krampuslauf (Krampus Run). Beiko explores the way that Krampus in North America occupies a strange space of both tradition and newness, being from another country’s traditions, but, also, new to this region. Beiko reinforces this collision of tradition and newness by having mythical creatures use technology to track Krampus while having this tech connected to trees.
While drawing on the legend of Krampus, Beiko creates her own mythology – one intimately connected with aspects of science fiction – to create a fascinating new take on the Christmas devil.
A review of Dorothy Palmer’s “Crutch, Cage, Sword, Kerfuffle” in Nothing Without Us (Renaissance Press, 2019).
By Derek Newman-Stille
Combining protests of the G20 summit, a sword from Roman Brittain, a disabled body, and the loss of a foetus, Dorothy Palmer’s “Crutch, Cage, Sword, Kerfuffle” examines the way that disabled women’s bodies are politicized and that disability itself is an act of protest. Using complex imagery of cages and walls, Palmer brings attention to the way that our lives are shaped by restrictions and controls.
Wrapping up the mythic from Arthurian legend into the complex stories around the G20 summit, Palmer brings attention to the nature of storytelling and the way that stories are complex, fluid, and ever-changing things. She explores the culture of surveillance and police violence around the G20 summit and the bodily impact of protest (as well as the need for protest), but this story revolves around the need to speak up and fight back.
A review of Elliott Dunstan’s “Oliver Gutierrez and the Walking Stick of Destiny” from Nothing Without Us (Renaissance, 2019).
By Derek Newman-Stille
For folks like me, who are disabled, we develop a certain intimacy with our accessibility devices. They are both part of us… and not at the same time. They are extensions of our personhood, ways of challenging the idea of a singular, biological body and we engage with them in unique ways that often shift. One could say that we are in a conversation with our accessibility devices. For Elliot Dunstan’s character, Olivier Gutierrez, that conversation is literal.
Gutierrez, who uses “xe/xem” pronouns, first discovered xe was in conversation with xyr accessibility devices when xe was given xyr first pair of hearing aids at 4 years old. Xe quickly discovered that xyr hearing aids would talk to xyr.
Gutierrez feels that xyr life has been a series of steps away from the idea of normalcy and Xe asks at the beginning of the story “how many things could one person have wrong with them”. Xyr story has been one of being treated as abnormal, as Other. Xe experienced a life of labels, some avoiding words like “crazy” by calling xyr “imaginative” or “creative” or “odd”, but these words didn’t mask the intended meaning. Xe describes xyr self as “deaf. And crazy. And queer”, illustrating an intersection of different oppressed identities.
Gutierrez has an opportunity that few of us do, to enter into direct conversation with our accessibility devices and xe is able to learn how to negotiate xyr own identity through this conversation, figuring out what works and what doesn’t.
In Oliver Gutierrez and the Walking Stick of Destiny”, Dunstan examines the multiple intersections of disabled identity, exploring the complex milieux of overlapping experiences and knowledges while also illustrating to the reader the complex oppressions and internalized ableisms that occur at that intersection.
A review of Tonya Liburd’s “Sometimes You…” in Nothing Without Us (Renaissance Press, 2019)
By Derek Newman-Stille
People with mental illness or those who identify themselves as part of the Mad Community are statistically more likely to be victims of violence than they are to be perpetrators of violence. I think this is something that needs repeating, especially since so much media attention is focussed on making mentally ill people seem as though they are dangerous, threatening, and in need of police action. So, let me repeat – they are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators.
Before getting to my review, I want to also nod toward the work of activists in the Mad Community, who have created a space for the reclamation of terms like “mad” and have worked to critique oppressive psychiatric and medical systems that have done damage to the Mad population. In acknowledgement of their work, I will be using “Mad” throughout this review.
I bring up the violence against the Mad population because Tonya Liburd brings attention to this violence in her story “Sometimes You…”. Whereas many people don’t seem to retain the statistic that the Mad population is more likely to be victims of violence, Liburd provides a powerful story about that violence, exploring both the pain of violent abuse against a person in the Mad Community as well as the internalized damage that comes from abuse. Not only does Liburd give a recounting of a violent encounter, but she positions the reader as the person in the Mad Community who is being attacked, using the second person throughout the story.
Liburd illustrates the predatory nature of people who prey on the Mad Community, giving details about how they target people and how they make people in the Mad Community feel unsafe in public spaces. Liburd illustrates the lasting damage of these encounters and the fear and pain and feeling of not belonging that gravitates like a miasma around people after violent encounters like this. She points out that even spaces that are constructed as “safe” frequently still have gaps and can still allow damage and violence to happen.
Liburd examines the precarity that exists particularly for homeless Mad people and the systemic violence that they experience from a system that doesn’t provide them with resources they need. Yet, Liburd points to other communities that can be found and developed to create a support network.
“Sometimes You…” is a powerful story that speaks to the need for community and the need for safe spaces for people in the Mad Community. It is a story that invites the reader into the mind and experiences of a member of the Mad Community, allowing them to experience the real world violence that people in that community are subject to and the repercussions of that continued violence. Liburd uses her gift of storytelling to paint a picture that goes beyond simple statistics about the Mad Community and instead gives a realness and three dimensionality to the population and their experiences.