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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Super Psychiatry

Super Psychiatry
A review of Kim Goldberg’s “Bluefields Reharmony Nest” in Tesseracts Nineteen: Superhero Universe Edited by Mark Shainblum and Claude Lalumiere (Edge, 2016).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Kim Goldberg’s “Bluefields Reharmony Nest” asks the question that those who have grown up reading Batman stories with Arkham Asylum in them have wanted to know – what happens to the superheroes who need psychiatric help. Rather than telling another supervillain psychiatric story, Goldberg creates a psychiatric facility for superheroes who are perceived to be in need of psychiatric care. She opens with a counselling session in which superheroes are narrating the experiences that motivated them to seek out psychiatric care (this is a voluntary facility). 

Goldberg’s superheroes are an interplanetary group whose psychiatric needs are tied to their experience of colonialism, ecological destruction, and alienation. Goldberg doesn’t automatically follow traditional representations of psychiatry and place all responsibility for mental health upon the individual, but rather looks at a few systemic violences that have contributed to people’s psychiatric needs. She questions the ability of psychiatry to achieve mental health goals by bringing attention to the diverse methods by which people are able to achieve healing and the way that each individual defines healing
To discover more about Kim Goldberg’s work, visit her site at https://pigsquash.wordpress.com 

To discover more about Tesseracts Nineteen: Superhero Universe, visit http://edgewebsite.com/books/tess19/t19-catalog.html  

The Religion of Blood Medicine.

A review of Rich Larson’s “Maria and the Pilgrim” in Apex Magazine Feb 4, 2014 (available online at http://www.apex-magazine.com/maria-and-the-pilgrim/ )
By Derek Newman-Stille

Rich Larson’s “Maria and the Pilgrim” explores a future in which contagion has spread and a small group of people have applied religious meanings to the spread of disease. Seeing themselves as preserved by Jesucristo against a contagion spread by the devil, this group of survivors have sought a pilgrim.

As part of their religious dances, this religious group gives blood, allowing machines to pull forth sanguine liquid, offering it to pilgrims in the same way as they believe Jesucristo gave it to his followers. The pilgrim, however, uses the blood to test children for plague resurgence and health, determining the healthy development of the community.

This is a community shaped by eugenics, made to conform to a breeding programme due to the threat of Contagion. Health is policed, controlled, and regulated, permitting little variation from a set programme. Any children born without a membrane in this world are supposed to be exposed, left for dead, but this community wants the pilgrim to heal a child, restoring her membrane to help her survive. In exchange, they promise not to slip open the pilgrim’s membrane to give him the Contagion.

This is a future where even aggression is seen as considered genetic and an accusation of genetic aggression is enough to have a village sterilized and culled.

Religion and health combine in a system of control and regulation, shaped by a fear of exposure to disease. Life is regimented and controlled, and the body is a subject of policing. The policing of the body from a religious and medical perspective are intertwined in Larson’s narrative, exploring the multiplicity of bodily control that our social systems can impose. Fear becomes a powerful motivator for bodily regulation and control, allowing a population to submit without revolutionary thought.

You can explore “Maria and the Pilgrim” yourself at http://www.apex-magazine.com/maria-and-the-pilgrim/

Some of Rich Larson’s publications can be found at Amazon.com/author/richlarson.

 

What is Barbarism?

A review of: Regan Wolfrom’s The Hill Where Thorvald Slew Ten Skraelings (OnSpec #88, Vol. 24, No. 1, Spring 2012)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Regan Wolfrom’s The Hill Where Thorvald Slew Ten Skraelings recreates a Norse worlds where Seidr, magic, meets Viking might and ideas of strength. Wolfrom challenges ideas of masculinity in this short story, using a group of people, the Norse, who are often associated with the extremes of masculinity and male violence, to complicate notions of heroism and the masculine.

Wolfrom creates two protagonists: Sveinn, a young Norse man at the height of his strength, and his uncle Thialfarr, a Seidrman, magician, whose body becomes weak with the more seidr he performs. His strength, his power of magic is antagonistically linked to his physical strength and health. His social purposes are collective, sacrificing himself for the greater good of his people. Sveinn, much like our modern conception of the Norse, is heavily individualistic, assertive, aggressive, and fundamentally threatened by idea that don’t fit into his world view. He sees Thialfarr as fundamentally feminine and threatening, but possessing a power that he desires to claim for himself. Sveinn fears that cooking and other ideas associated with the feminine will bring shame upon him, while Thialfarr tries to teach him to shift his ideas to a broader understanding of collective power and the need to protect his people and care for them.

Christian and pagan are set side by side in this Norse world where magic and masculinity are put in opposition to one another to open questions about what the idea of ‘power’ means.

Wolfrom also questions ideas of the monstrous and situates the Skraelings, an enemy of Norse people as not monstrous, but, rather, a different group of human beings with similar life challenges and experiences. Re-situating the Skraelings questions the idea of ‘otherness’ and suggests the need to explore cooperative practices and understandings rather than violent opposition. Worlfrom privileges the notion of understanding other people over constructing others as monsters. Wolfrom reminds us that words and thoughts really do hurt, and, in the world of magic, can literally change the surrounding environment and patterns of fate.

This story is well researched and insightful, posing a different conception of the Norse while challenging ideas of individualist, violent masculinity.

The Hill Where Thorvald Slew Ten Skraelings was published in the most recent volume of OnSpec, a magazine of the Canadian fantastic, and you can explore OnSpec at http://www.onspec.ca/