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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Orangutan Voices

A review of Wendy Bone’s “Abdul” in Cli Fi: Canadian Tales of Climate Change (Exile Editions, 2017)By Derek Newman-Stille

Wendy Bone’s “Abdul” intertwines two narratives: one of an urban Canadian woman, and one of a Orangutan from Indonesia. Bone complicates ideas of humanity and the constant privileging of human wants over animal needs by providing a voice to a young Orangutan named Abdul. She examines human encroachments onto animal habitats and the power of capitalism to justify the treatment of animals as pests. 

Orangutan lives are sacrificed as the desire for palm oil causes people to push further into Organutan habitats, pushing them out of their homes and frequently killing them or abducting them to sell as pets. Abdul is a constant victim of human capitalism, having his home, his body, and his death monetized. Adbul is taught by his gaolers to participate in an elaborate set of performances to be considered valuable, including acting out his own death when people make shooting motions at him, a disturbing reminder of the way that people with guns engage in real slaughter of Orangutans.

Bone gives voice to the Orangutan, inviting human readers to question if their amenities are worth the devastation of animal lives. She reminds us that animals are not voiceless, but that we devoice them by ignoring their presence on the landscape and not looking at the fact that our creation of spaces of human industry mean homelessness and death for animals. 

To discover more about Cli Fi: Canadian Tales of Climate Change, visit http://www.exileeditions.com 

 

Old Enough to be Hurt

A review of Jeff Lemire’s “Old Man Logan: The Last Ronin” (Marvel Comics, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

With the “Old Man Logan” series, Jeff Lemire has been playing with ideas of ageing, displacement, and the changes in identity that occur with the passage of time. This is a Wolverine who has been displaced from time from an apocalyptic future to a present he isn’t quite ready to face.

In “Old Man Logan: The Last Ronin”, Lemire explores the connection between the passage of time and regrets and Logan has had a long enough life to have a plethora of regrets. Logan finds himself back in Japan, a place he visited when he lived in the future and where he encountered a cult called The Silent Order that sought to claim Japan for its own and had envisioned him as simultaneously a foreign threat and a prophesized figure. Logan encounters The Silent Order again in the present with his memories of killing people in the future and seeks to divorce himself from the person he was in the future. In the present, he is filled with the regrets of his future life and tries to resolve things peacefully with The Silent Order, but the Order has a prophet who has seen what Logan will do in the future and is angry at the loss of his friends. This young, but powerful boy is plagued by the fear of his encounter with Logan in the future and tries to stop Logan before he destroys everything he cares about.

Lemire explores the way that fear, longing, and regret shape us, and the way that these accumulate over a lifetime in a way that transforms instincts into mirrors of the pain and suffering of a lifetime. Logan is a figure defined by pain, pierced as much by his guilt and regret as he is by his claws as they extend to deal with threats he feels to old to cope with. Logan is a man displaced, with nowhere to call home, and yet every place he visits is one he has already been to and already left enemies in. His long life means that he develops all of the conflicts of home, but doesn’t ever get to experience any of its comforts or connections.

To discover more about “Old Man Logan: The Last Ronin”, visit http://marvel.com/comics/series/20617/old_man_logan_2016_-_present

UNsettling Homelife

A review of They Have to Take You In edited by Ursula Pflug (Hidden Brook Press, 2014).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Home is a complicated concept, but one that we often pretend is easy. We project “home” as a place of belonging, of comfort, of ownership, and an extended form of selfhood, and we connect ideas to home like family, security, safety…. But these concepts are always open to challenge, to question, particularly by those whose home lives don’t match the assumed standard. Ursula Pflug’s edited collection They Have to Take You In blends the speculative and realist literature that borders on auto-ethnographic in cases to explore this multiplicity of “homes” and to challenge the safe, secure image of “home” that society prefers to construct to the exclusion of other options. 

As much as They Have to Take You In is about home, it is more about exile: the experience of being Othered, of not being able to find that place of comfort and security that is promised through the notion of “home”. The authors in this collection remind readers of the unsettling power of home, its ability to make people feel excluded because it focuses so strongly on the promise of belonging, and that sense of belonging only works for people in positions of privilege. The characters in these stories are Othered from a sense of home through poverty, homelessness, alcoholism, dementia, the need to escape from abusive homes, as well as a sense of wanderlust. The authors explore the possibility that sometimes you have to leave the place where you have settled in order to find home… and sometimes you can’t ever find home, can’t discover a place of belonging. The multiplicity of these narratives provides a space for exploring  home as a place of security… and simultaneously suggests that, for some, ESCAPE from home is a place of safety.

Connected to home is the notion of family, an idea that has been shaped by historical circumstances (industrial systems, labour, political and religious ideologies), but that has pretended to be natural and enduring. They Have to Take You In complicates family as a natural category. In addition to showing assumptions about traditional family structures, these stories complicate these structures, invite speculation and open them up to question the ways in which “family” as a category can be exclusionary, delimiting possibilities for other interactions. 

Many of the endings in these stories are open, uncertain things because the reality of home life is that nothing ever really ends and everything is always open to change and reassessment. Homes are places that are always complicated and always haunted by the potential failing of the home as a place of belonging, security, and safety. Deep down, we, as readers, know that while we feel safe in our homes, there are those who are homeless, those whose homelife is marked by domestic violence and who need to escape, those whose housing is precarious because of poverty, and so all houses are haunted places… haunted by the myths of belonging, security, and safety that are not as ubiquitous as they pretend to be. 

To discover more about They Have to Take You In, visit Hidden Brook Press at http://www.HiddenBrookPress.com

To discover more about the work of Ursula Pflug, visit her website at http://ursulapflug.ca 

Cityscapes

A Review of Lisa Poh’s “Graffiti Borealis” in Tesseracts Seventeen: Speculating Canada From Coast to Coast (Edge, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo for Tesseracts Seventeen courtesy of Edge

Cover photo for Tesseracts Seventeen courtesy of Edge

Our urban environments are places of identity, places where one can find oneself, but they are also places of loss. Lisa Poh’s Graffiti Borealis is about the notion of finding a voice and finding a place in the city. Daniel, having moved to Canada for his dream job, finds himself out of place. The city is a strange place, particularly since all of the graffiti on the walls come to life around him and call his attention to him.
Graffiti is generally seen as a form of vandalism, but Poh explores the potential for it to be a medium for people without voices to speak, to claim the urban environment for themselves as they are pushed to the fringes and to be able to say something despite being largely silenced. Graffiti can represent the need to speak, to express, and graffiti can be a form of resistance to erasure. In Graffiti Borealis, the graffiti literally NEEDS to speak, not for the author, but for itself, calling the attention of Daniel, who is one of the few people who can see graffiti art move and hear it speak. He is called upon by urban art to save tags and other street art from a section of the city that is being demolished as part of an urban renewal project. The graffiti itself fears being erased as the city re-forms itself once again to privilege certain architecture and certain inhabitants.
Daniel finds another person who is out of place, a Haitian-Canadian graffiti artist who has been able to see her graffiti move, but not had the opportunity to speak to her own art. Calling herself La Gueparde, the artist also wants to rescue the graffiti from obliteration and bring it into new vitality elsewhere, to give it a home in an urban environment where everyone is trying to find a sense of home.
The connection between graffiti and the notion of finding home is made even stronger when La Gueparde refers to the rescued works of art as “refugees”, bringing to mind the search for a home and the need to find a place of one’s own. Despite being an inherently temporary medium, constantly being erased, tagged over, and modified, graffiti serves here as an evocation of a love of place, a way to make a place of home out of an isolating urban environment. Poh, by making the graffiti in her fiction a portable medium, alive, vibrant, and full of movement and identity, underscores the power of this art form for creating a sense of belonging, and since Daniel and La Gueparde are both figures trying to find their voice and place in the city, giving them the power to move the graffiti by summoning it off of the surfaces it occupies gives them the power of being mediators in discovering a place of belonging.
To find out more about Tesseracts Seventeen, visit Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/tess17/t17-catalog.html

Adrift

A review of A.M. Dellamonica’s Child of a Hidden Sea (TOR, 2014)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Home is a complicated, multi-faceted, problematic notion, and A.M. Dellamonica captures this complexity in Child of a Hidden Sea. She begins her novel seemingly mid narrative, with her protagonist floating in the sea, facilitating the sense of dislocation for the reader that would shape Sophie’s experience of her new/old world. The reader is swept up by a whirlwind of prose and submerged in an unfamiliar realm, just as Sophie, in her quest to find her birth family, has been placed in a confusing muddle of conflicting stories, feelings of rejection, and torn obligations.

Sophie finds herself in a different world, one that is largely made up of islands located distantly from one another, and yet there is something familiar about this place. The stars are the same as on Earth, but the cultures and languages are entirely different… and there are species of animals that she as a scholar has never seen before on our Earth.

Sophie, motivated by a desire to discover, a desire to understand the unusual or unfamiliar is placed in a scholar’s dream – an entire world that is new and exciting… and yet her curiosity isolates her here. She is viewed with suspicion when she asks questions, interrogating things that those around her treat as taken-for-granted truths. This is a world of magic, which differs greatly from the comfortable world of home, governed by rules that she understands – physics, mechanical properties, and simple rules of causation. She treats this whole world as an object of inquiry. Her curiosity is seen as a threat and it only furthers her persistent feeling of rejection which has shaped her life but gained sharper focus when she finally met her birth mother, who rejected her and reacted with horror at her return.

She is filled with wonder at Stormwrack, a world which she discovers she has familial connections to. She alternates from feelings of belonging, finally finding a place of “home” and discomfort, particularly when she discovers a religious cult whose approach to the world is homophobic and sexist. When she brings her adopted brother Bram with her to Stormwrack, he encounters homophobic violence at the hands of this religious group as part of their general attempt to annex an entire island that is based on polyamorous notions of diverse sexual and love relationships.

Dellamonica explores the isolating power of homophobia and its ability to displace LGBTQ populations in her general narrative of displacement. Child of a Hidden Sea is powerful as a narrative because it embodies both curiosity and the desire to find a sense of home and place to belong as well as its ability to point out that displacement is still a persistant feature in our world, one that is further sharpened by economic inequalities, sexism, homophobia, and general power structures that serve to elevate certain groups of people over others.

You can discover more about the work of A.M. Dellamonica at http://alyxdellamonica.com/ .

To read more about Child of the Hidden Sea visit http://www.tor.com/stories/2014/05/child-of-a-hidden-sea-am-dellamonica-excerpt

Definitely Not A Chameleon.

A Review of Jason Loo’s The Pitiful Human-Lizard Issue 1 (May, 2014)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Few superheroes call themselves “pitiful”. Most tend to hypermasculinize themselves to try to make themselves seem beyond the human, more powerful, further beyond moral critique, but Jason Loo’s The Pitiful Human-Lizard plays with the superhero genre and opens it to critique, question, and, yes, pity.

Jason Loo brings a distinctly Canadian aesthetic to the superhero genre and challenges the notion of moral ease for heroic work. His superhero The Pitiful Human-Lizard has few powers at the start – glue that allows him to stick to walls, but no super strength, no laser vision, no power ring… and he keeps failing his Brazilian Jujitsu classes. Also… he has to hold on to a regular day job… and, with transit time on the subway, that doesn’t give him much time to engage in the superhero business. In order to make ends meet and pay for the repairs to his costume, he even has to undergo drug trials.

Loo creatively takes on the hypermasculinity and intense gender divisions of the superhero genre by creating a superhero who is nominally pitiful, and minimally powerful. He is incredibly outclassed by Toronto’s female superhero Mother Wonder, who has all of the powers (super strength, invulnerability, laser vision) of Superman AND is also a mother with children. The Pitiful Human Lizard just wants to have a chance to collaborate with the big leagues, which is a nice change from the majority of the comic industry which generally leaves the superheroine in the support role. The Pitiful Human-Lizard dwells mostly in the shadows around greater heroes, often serving as a distraction for villains rather than a key threat.

Most superheroes are created by a fundamental loneliness, which is constructed as the necessary setting for creating a figure dependent on no one but themselves to emphasize the superhero’s personification of the American dream of ultimate independence and self reliance. But, he is not a self made man. The Pitiful Human-Lizard relies on his (very much living) parents, piecing together various networks of support in order to conduct his acts of superheroism.

Jason Loo is comfortable expressing the fallibility of superheroes, disrupting their certainty, and in so doing, pointing out the arrogance of the “regular” superhero and our need as a society to have a superhero who is uncertain.

Loo has created a Toronto superhero, putting him in battles at Toronto scenes like the Royal Ontario Museum to counter the habit of Hollywood for trying to create Toronto as the Everycity, filming in Toronto but then calling it New York, Seattle, or whatever city they need for the plot of their film. He has created a superhero who talks about the issues of Toronto life as he travels from place to place on the TTC (subway) and, at the end of this first comic, encounters a supervillain who bears a striking resemblance to Toronto’s Mayor Rob Ford.

This is a lizard who is not a chameleon… he is fundamentally at odds with his place, uncertain, and questioning. He expresses the diasporic feeling of many people in large cities, lost to obscurity but wondrously awkward.

To find out more about The Pitiful Human-Lizard, visit the facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/PitifulHumanLizard or the kickstarter page at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/761064731/torontos-new-superhero-the-pitiful-human-lizard-is