Beyond the Pale (Vampire)

A review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Certain Dark Things (St. Martin’s Press, 2016).

By Derek Newman-Stille

One type of vampire story tend to flood the market – the sexy male vampire who is iridescently pale, wealthy, and feeds on women in an erotic embrace. Silvia Moreno-Garcia has again and again demonstrated her love for horror, but also her desire to shift the tired old narratives, dust off the layers of racism and sexism to find new narratives. Certain Dark Things is a revitalization of the vampire narrative, allowing it to kick off the detritus of the past to tell some new stories. 

Moreno-Garcia sets her story in Mexico City in contrast to the vast number of vampire narratives set in the United States or the United Kingdom. Her vampires are not the pale, white European figures of vampire romances, or, at least not all of them are. Her narrative focuses on Atl, a Tlahuihpochtli, an indigenous vampire of the Mexico region who can trace her lineage back to the Aztecs. Moreno-Garcia’s vampires have multiple different subsets, each with different characteristics and hailing from different geographies, and often the only thing they share in common is their hunger for blood. There are European vampires in her narrative, calling themselves Necros and fitting most of the characteristics of the vampires that generally populate the pages of paranormal romance novels, but these vampires are not sexy, otherworldly beings. They control human beings through their bite, which can turn human beings into slaves, without any will. 

Moreno-Garcia explores displacement narratives in her interactions between the Tlahuihpochtli and the Necros, exploring the way that the European Necros brought diseases with them when they came to Mexico and have been trying to push the Tlahuihpochtli out of their native landscapes. She makes connection between this displacement by Europeans and historical displacements of human indigenous populations by Europeans. The Necros brought pathogens with them that made the blood of many humans intolerable to the Tlahuihpochtli, and with the rise of a new disease Croneng’s disease, the government has decided to create sanitation groups whose goals seem to be as much about harassing the homeless population and institutionalizing people with disabilities as they are about dealing with the spread of a pathogen. 

Health is a huge part of Moreno-Garcia’s narrative. Uniting the vampire with ideas of health is powerful since the vampire is often a figure of excessive health, and yet, in most vampire narratives, vampirism spreads like a pathogen. In Certain Dark Things vampirism is an ethnicity, a genetic group and cannot be passed from one person to another, but that doesn’t eliminate the health narrative Moreno-Garcia explores. She examines the role of institutionalization and its impact on populations in poverty, exploring the way that health and wealth often go hand in hand. The bite of the Necros vampires, although not able to turn someone into a vampire, does take away all of their agency, turning them into a slave through a viral contagion in their saliva that will eventually kill the human host. All vampire species are hard to kill and long-lived, but one of the other vampire species is especially known for its interaction with health – the Revenant. The Revenant subspecies is exceptionally long-lived, and can feed on both blood and the life force of others. These Revenants seem to de-age when they are infused with enough life force, appearing younger, and in creating them, Moreno-Garcia plays with the traditional narrative of the person who gains eternal youth by becoming a vampire. These vampires always look somewhat disabled no matter how young they become, still having a hunched appearance, complicating ideas of the excessive ability of the vampire and the ableism that often comes along with this portrayal of the vampire. Many of the governments in the world of Certain Dark Things perceive of vampires as a plague even though they are a racial group, and this complicated relationship between ideas of health, illness and race bring attention to the way that in our own world there is often an assumption that illnesses come from outside, which affects travel, immigration, and often means that any pathogens that arise are eventually believed to come from other regions. 

Certain Dark Things doesn’t create a romantic story of wealth, but rather explores poverty. Her central human character, Domingo, is a street teen who has made his living collecting and purposing garbage. Domingo relishes his invisibility, the way people work to ignore him and pretend that he isn’t there because it is easier to do so than to admit that there are homeless young people. Yet, in pointing out the invisibility of homeless Youth, Moreno-Garcia brings it to the reader’s attention, reminding us of how hard we work to ignore social inequalities. This is a story of drug cartels, poverty, government and police abuses of power, and the monstrousness of corruption itself, which is a far more dangerous monster than Atl or her vampire cousins. But, she does use the figure of one Necros vampire, Nick, to point out the excesses of privilege that come with wealth and whiteness, having Nick frequently prioritize himself over anyone else, having him eat in excess, and showing the ease with which he exercises his power over women around him, particularly marginalized women. 

Certain Dark Things disrupts the Eurocentrism of vampire tales, providing an under-represented tale that needed to be told. 

To discover more about Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s work, visit her website at http://www.silviamoreno-garcia.com/blog/ 

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In Darkest Memory Submerged

A Review of Nick Cutter’s The Deep (forthcoming January 2015, Gallery Books).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo for The Deep courtesy of Simon & Schuster Canada.

Cover photo for The Deep courtesy of Simon & Schuster Canada.

There are unexplored places in our world, places of darkness, places of depth, places that are so hostile to human life that we can barely explore them. They are places whose contemplation itself inspires a reassessment of our fundamental understanding of our world. In The Deep, Nick Cutter asks what is submerged in that murky darkness where light can’t reach, what hidden, forgotten, lost, and suppressed things dwell in the pressures of the deep.

As much as The Deep is about the deep ocean and the strange, haunting landscape beneath the waves, it is also about other things suppressed, the mindscapes that we deny, submerge, and work to forget. The Deep begins with a disease that has spread across our world, the ‘Gets, a disease that causes us to forget, to lose our memories and identity in waves of illness. The population tries to hold on to normalcy and rituals as a way to feel normal, but nothing has ever been normal and Cutter’s exploration of humanity’s desire to forget about the ‘Gets reflects the suppression we enact in everyday life, refusing to ask the questions that we don’t or can’t have answers for.

Luke’s own existence is shaped by the interplay of suppression of memories and the simultaneous draw that those memories represent. Having lost his son, a mystery that was never solved, he lives in a place of absented presence, coping both with the possibility that his son may be somewhere in the world and the awareness that he is likely gone. Luke’s family life has always been shaped by a desire to forget – from the abuse and torment he faced at the hands of his mother, to his coping with the likelihood that his brother, a scientist, is likely sociopathic, with no capacity for guilt, sympathy, or emotional connection.

When Luke is called to a deep sea research station where his brother is conducting experiments on a life form that could cure the ‘Gets, he is forced to submerge both into the watery darkness of the deep ocean and simultaneously into the depths of his own memory, imagination, horrors, and fears… and to confront those fears that he has suppressed but that nevertheless have shaped his awareness of the world around him. The deep sea station itself and the research team are shaped by a dualistic desire to discover and a desire to suppress. The research team has ceased communicating with the surface world, ceased filing psych reports that were deemed necessary for ensuring their psychological health in the depths of a foreign and forbidding terrain. Yet, they are obsessed with the notion of discovery, of uncovering secrets that the universe has veiled in layers of sea water, darkness, and geological history. Scientific curiosity has met science’s suppression of likelihoods that are impossible for science to grasp. Luke’s brother Clay seeks to understand the odd and unusual but can’t comprehend it as this new substance at the sea floor called ambrosia consistently slips from his grasp, opening new possibilities as he systemically closes them out of his belief that they are impossible.

Cover photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster Canada

Cover photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster Canada

When Luke arrives at the station, he is physically confronted with the sea pressure of the ocean depths, the darkness that prevails, and the unimaginable foreignness of the sea floor, which contains creatures so odd that they slip from our understanding of life on this planet. These physical sensations are paired with the psychological as he faces the pressures of the unknowable, the darkness of buried and suppressed memories and the haunted things that have shaped his imagination, and the sense of the unfamiliar that enters his mind at the moment of entry into the station. Luke is forced to confront the threat that curiosity and the desire to know represent… particularly when knowing itself can be a trap for mind and body.

To discover more about the work of Nick Cutter, visit his website at http://www.craigdavidson.net/

To discover more about The Deep, visit Simon & Schuster’s website at http://books.simonandschuster.ca/The-Deep/Nick-Cutter/9781501101519

Interview with James Marshall

An Interview with James Marshall
By Derek Newman-Stille

Author photo courtesy of James Marshall

Author photo courtesy of James Marshall

After reading Zombie Versus Fairy Featuring Albinos, I was fascinated with James Marshall’s different take on the figure of the zombie and his use of the zombie medium to question the zombie-like state of uncritical thought in our society. I appreciate that he was willing to have a conversation about his zombies and about his writing overall to provide some insights into the world he has observed and reflected in a dark, distorted mirror.

James Marshall is the author of Ninja Versus Pirate Featuring Zombies and Zombie Versus Fairy Featuring Albinos (both available from ChiZine publications), and known for his darkly satirical look at society.

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

James Marshall: I was born and raised in Alberta. I moved to BC after high school. Writing is my passion. I play guitar for fun.

Spec Can: Two of your novels that are out from ChiZine currently feature zombies. What is the appeal of the zombie for you?

James Marshall: I like the zombie because I feel sorry for it at the same time that I fear it.

Spec Can: Why do you think zombies are so popular right now? What is their appeal to our society?

James Marshall: I think there are a number of reasons. People are terrified of dying so the idea of living on, even in a severely diminished capacity, is fascinating. In the age of air travel, the fear of a contagion spreading rapidly seems very real. And a lot of people want to bash out some brains.

Spec Can: In Zombie Versus Fairy Featuring Albinos, your zombie characters seem to offer a distorted window of our world. In what ways can literature about the zombie offer a critique of society?

James Marshall: The zombie does two things: it consumes and reproduces. It does those things unthinkingly and unfeelingly. That’s a pretty damning indictment of society. The zombie reproduces via infection rather than sex but it’s the same thing.

Spec Can: In Ninja Versus Pirate Featuring Zombies and Zombie Versus Fairy Featuring Albinos, the zombies have created an education system that essentially creates the preconditions for kids to become zombies – rote learning, behaviour control, suppression of creativity. What inspired you to look at the education system from this perspective and what would you like to see change?

James Marshall: I’d like to see everything change. I think the whole system needs to be fundamentally rethought. But I don’t think it will be because we’re dealing with such huge numbers.

Spec Can: How can Weird or Dark fiction challenge the status quo and get readers to think outside the box?

James Marshall: I think that by satirizing, we can expose the absurdity of certain ways of thinking.

Spec Can: What can Weird or Dark fiction offer readers that realist fiction can’t?

James Marshall: Zombies. 🙂

Spec Can: Your character Guy Boy Man (from Zombie Versus Fairy Featuring Albinos and Ninja Versus Pirate Featuring Zombies) advocates for a religion that focuses on ending human suffering. What inspired your exploration of religion?

Cover photo courtesy of ChiZine Publications

Cover photo courtesy of ChiZine Publications

James Marshall: Reason. I hope that reason will be popularized someday.

Spec Can: What impact do you hope your novels will have on readers?

James Marshall: I’d be really happy if they just make people laugh and think a little.

Spec Can: Is there anything further you would like to add to this interview?

James Marshall: To learn more about my books, please visit my website www.howtoendhumansuffering.com and to connect with me, please follow me on Twitter @james_marshall or friend me on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/authorjamesmarshall

I want to thank  Mr. Marshall for taking the time to answer questions and share his insights with readers. I know many readers are fascinated with Canadian dark fiction and the figure of the zombie in particular, so I am happy that Mr. Marshall was able to provide thought-provoking responses.

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