The Religion of Mystery Literature

The Religion Of Mystery Literature
By Derek Newman-Stille

Like many people, I have a distinct love of mystery stories. I like the act of figuring out who did the crime. I like following the clues. I like believing that I can solve crimes before the investigators do.

One thing that always frustrates me is the finality of a mystery tale, especially when it is on television. There is generally little ambiguity left, little debate about guilt or innocence. So often mysteries (especially when they are tied to a police procedural show) are about reifying the idea that police always catch their criminal and that they are always right. This moral absolutism has always bothered me, as has the lack of questions about guilt or innocence.

One of the ways that mysteries tie up moral ambiguities is through the confession. What is odd is that actual murderers, thieves and other criminals rarely admit to their crimes unless they have worked out a deal with the prosecution for a reduced sentence because they admit to the crime.

Yet, the vast majority of mystery narratives (especially on television) have the killer confess to their crimes and admit guilt. Frequently, mystery narratives on television don’t even bother to wrap up the story, ending right at the point of confession. This highlights the importance of the confession narrative to mystery narratives by considering this the penultimate moment and the ending of the story.

So why are confessions so important to mystery narratives?

I made a connection when watching the television series Father Brown, a tale about a priest who solves crimes in his spare time. As I was watching, I noticed that Father Brown always sought to get a confession from the criminal, linking the confession of crimes to the confessions of the confessional. It occurred to me that this speaks beyond Father Brown and that there was a tint of Judeo-Christian moralizing in many mystery narratives.

Like religions, mystery narratives frequently portray a simple moral system: good/bad. Like religion, mystery narratives provide us with an image of punishment for crime/sin. Like religion, mystery narratives tend to focus on the confession as a key moment in the guilty person’s life.

I started to wonder – have we been primed to like aspects of mystery narratives because of centuries of Judeo-Christian influence on idea of crime? Do we write our mystery narratives along these lines because of the weight of Judeo-Christian ideologies in our society?

Since Judeo-Christian texts are treated as so important in our society, we often replicate aspects of those religious texts as ways of understanding the world even if we don’t prescribe to those religious beliefs. The tremendous impact of Judeo-Christian texts on other texts in our society mean that they often filter through into texts that are not related to religion.

So what is it that we like about mystery tales? What speaks to us about them? Is it the fact that they provide a tidy, easy moralism? Is it the fact that they present us with a world where crime is stopped? Is it the fact that criminals are punished? Or is it the power of the confession that gives us a sense that people can admit guilt and be rehabilitated or redeemed?

Although there are more complex mystery narratives out there and I have read them, there is something about simple mystery stories that appeals to me like Father BrownMurder She Wrote, and Sherlock Holmes.

* As a disclaimer, I am writing about this narrative connection to Judeo-Christian beliefs as someone who is not part of those belief systems,

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Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 8: An Interview with Marie Bilodeau and Karen Dudley About Myth and Canadian SF

In this interview, SF authors Marie Bilodeau, Karen Dudley, and I explore the mythic underpinnings of modern Canadian SF. Prepare for us to open up mythic worlds within all of those little corners of reality.

Marie Bilodeau is an award-winning, Ottawa-based Science Fiction and Fantasy author and a professional storyteller. A modern mythographer, Marie creates worlds of wonder with pen and voice. Marie is the author of the Destiny and Heirs of a Broken Land series of novels.

Karen Dudley is a Winnipeg-based author of environmental mysteries and historical fantasy. Evoking the wonder of the past and the mysteries of the present, Karen blends humour with the paranormal. Karen is the award-winning author of the novels Kraken Bake, Food for the Gods, Hoot to Kill, Macaws of Death, and multiple others.

Together, we examine the continuity and changes of myth, moral grey areas in Canadian SF, the development of the figure of the hero, the villain, and the monster… and, of course, the ultimate villain: Winter!

Explore Trent Radio at www.trentradio.ca

Explore Trent Radio at http://www.trentradio.ca

 

This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support.

Make sure to allow a few minutes for the file to buffer since it may take a moment before it begins to play.

This interview was taped in preparation for the event – A Mythic Night: An Author Reading by Karen Dudley and Marie Bilodeau at Sadleir House (751 George Street North in Peterborough) taking place on Thursday June 19th at 7:00 PM.

A Mythic Night poster 2 revised

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 2: An Interview with Chadwick Ginther and Discussion of his Work

In this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio, check out an interview with Winnipeg author Chadwick Ginther where he discusses his Thunder Road trilogy. In our interview we talk about notions of heroism and villainy, moral ambiguities, the interplay of Canadian legends and Norse myths, the landscape, urban fantasy and horror.

After our interview, I get a chance to talk about his novels Thunder Road and Tombstone Blues.

Explore Trent Radio at www.trentradio.ca

Explore Trent Radio at http://www.trentradio.ca

This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support.

Make sure to allow a few minutes for the file to buffer since it may take a moment before it begins to play.

Escaping North – Zombified Canada

A review of Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction, edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Exile Editions, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover Photo of Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction

Cover Photo of Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction

In American zombie movies, Canada is a place of escape, a place to run to in the event of a zombie apocalypse to escape from the ravening hoards. I am not certain what sort of magical barrier our country’s border has, or whether perhaps zombies just really don’t like winter, or perhaps zombies are threatened by public health care, but somehow the Canadian landscape is seen as anathema to the zombie apocalypse. Dead North tackles that notion of the zombified Canadian landscape and rustles up our dead to wander in search of Canadian flesh… adding to the BODY of literature.

Like the flesh of the creatures in its pages, the stories in this collection are morally grey, defying the easy morality of most zombie movies and the Us-Them dichotomy that often shapes the zombie genre (and allows for the killing of zombified human beings without guilt). Instead, these zombie stories play with the notion of Us versus Them, breaking down barriers and complicating the possibility of distancing ourselves from the figure of the zombie. The zombie is intimately connected with humanity and these stories question whether it is the zombie who is the monster… or the human who hunts them. The zombies in this volume make the normally straight forward ascription of humans as heroes and zombies as villains complicated, slippery, challenging.

Dead North brings zombies into Canada, but does so with a sense of play with the tropes of the genre, challenging traditional patterns of zombie apocalypse literature and film. These zombies are issue-laden, exploring notions of environmentalism, history, colonialism, protest culture, technological relationships to human beings, capitalism, aging, sexuality, and diversity. These zombies present a mosaic of the dead, a landscape of multiplicity in the types of rotting flesh.

Zombies have something in common with the North: cold, blanched… and they take the notion of a “biting chill” literally!

You can explore a few reviews of the individual short stories in this volume at:

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/11/29/necrosexual/

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/11/25/zombie-survival-training-101/

and

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/hunger/

Find out more about Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction at http://www.exileeditions.com/singleorders2013/deadnorth.html

Hunger

A review of Tyler Keevil’s “The Herd” in Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction (Exile Editions, 2013).

Cover Photo of Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction

Cover Photo of Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction

By Derek Newman-Stille

Tyler Keevil’s “The Herd” reverses the hunter/hunted dynamic in zombie fiction. Zombies, often characterised by their herd mentality in fiction are treated like a herd of prey and hunted by a man who has acquired a taste for human flesh.  Keevil mixes the mythology of the Wendigo with that of the zombie, creating a monster who craves human flesh and even inhuman flesh.

Cast from his tribe when starvation forces him to eat human flesh, the hunter finds a place of belonging in the north, characterised by its long periods of hunger and the cold, unmarked landscape that creates a place of moral ambiguity for him. The spread of zombiism makes this northern landscape an ideal place for inhuman acts of violence.

Many zombie tales feature the zombie as fodder for human aggression – a human body that can be killed without any moral consequence and Keevil plays with this genre trope and presents the human (or perceived human) hunter as a monster, a predator with an insatiable hunger much like that of his prey. This equivocation of human (wendigo) and zombie brings the reader into a place of instability between the category of the monster and the human (a category that is often presented in the zombie genre as something that is firm and only passes one way – from human to zombie through infection).

By making the zombie the object of hunger, the food that fuels the desire for consumption instead of the consuming figure, Keevil situates hunger as a human characteristic.

You can explore more about Tyler Keevil’s work at http://www.tylerkeevil.com/

To check out Dead North, visit http://www.amazon.ca/Dead-North-Canadian-Fiction-Anthology/dp/1550963554

Quote – Blank Page With No Boundaries to Transgress

“Those who haven’t been here, and seen it, simply cannot imagine the endless expanse of white. It is stark and harsh as a blank page, or a map with no borders, no boundaries. No sense of right or wrong. In this blighted snowscape, anything is possible. Here you are free to cross over, to transgress. It is a map of madness that I negotiate alone.”

-Tyler Keevil, The Herd (in Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction)

An Eldrich Digital Light

A review of Kent Pollard’s A Perfect Circle (in Misseplled edited by Julie Czerneda, Daw 2008)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Thorn was created to be evil, he was made to be an evil wizard… that’s the way he was designed. But, what happens when a wizard designed for a video game accidentally summons the overseer programme for the game? What happens when that wizard becomes aware of the role that he is locked into by his design? In A Perfect Circle, Kent Pollard explores the morals of gaming – creating characters as disposable figures and locking the players into a notion of moral exception by virtue of the virtual nature of the character as well as his label as “evil”. Video games are a space where moral absolutes are possible and can lock the player into black-and-white binary moral thinking – “I kill that because it is evil, and save that because it is good”. As a society we tend to ascribe moral absolutes on figures that we construct as enemies and our politicians use terms like “evil” to abdicate moral responsibility. We similarly digitise “enemies”, constructing them as less than human and quasi-virtual to treat their deaths as less impactful than those who we count as “Ourselves”. With digital warfare, this becomes easier – when the killing lens can literally be a digital scope. Thorn, like the overall notion of “enemy” is an archetype, but Pollard invests in him human feeling, experience, and the ability to overwrite his assigned role, to question the paradigm in which he has been placed and break out of the code confines that define and control him.

Pollard invests his wizard Thorn with AI (artificial intelligence) technology, a consciousness and ability to think for himself, and raises the question of whether video games in the future will do similar things when AI technology is further developed. What happens if we create consciousness in a digital construct and what does it mean to kill something that we have created with a form of conscious mind? Would using AI technology in video games be moral?

Thorn experiences an existential crisis, debating his place in his world, his understanding of selfhood, and the constructs that surround him. Worlds and layers of reality become destabilised, questioned, shaky, and understandings slip and break.