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/ 

The Courtesan Prince Reading Questions

Some Book Club Discussion Questions for Lynda Williams’ The Courtesan Prince
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of The Courtesan Prince courtesy of Edge Publications

Cover photo of The Courtesan Prince courtesy of Edge Publications

What do you find appealing about Reetion society?

What makes you uncomfortable about it?

What do you find appealing about Gelack society?

What makes you uncomfortable about it?

In what ways was Von’s personality shaped by his experience as a courtesan?

Why do you think the Reetions and Gelacks drifted so far apart in terms of their values and social behaviours even though they both came from Earth?

What do you think of the idea of Reality Skimming as a method of space-faring? How does the fact that it causes bodily damage add to or take away from its use as a plot device?

What were some of the biggest questions you found yourself asking as you read this novel?

What were some of the things that were most notable about Ann’s personality?

What would you focus on from this novel if you were to adapt it into a play?

What do you think of the Reetion idea of Social Transparency? What are some of the benefits and dangers of this idea?

What was most notable to you about Okal Rel? Why do you think this religious system developed?

Why is secrecy such a prevalent theme in the novel? What are the different ways that the theme of secrecy appears?

How does trauma shape and change these characters?

How does the theme of racism and cultural difference play out in this novel? Why is it so significant and how does Lynda Williams tackle racism differently than other authors?

Abstract – Speculating Diversity: Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl In The Ring and the Use of Speculative Fiction to Disrupt Singular Interpretations of Place

A few readers have expressed some interest in my academic work researching Canadian Speculative Fiction. I have sent out versions of my abstracts for upcoming conferences to people directly, but I thought it may be worthwhile for me to post them on Speculating Canada so that people can see them.

For those of you who are not from academic backgrounds, abstracts are sort of like teasers for a paper that you are going to present at a conference. They give the reader a general idea of what the paper will be about so that they can determine if they would like to attend your conference paper or not.

The abstract below is for a paper I will be presenting at the Academic Conference on Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy on June 7th in Toronto. You can explore the conference at http://www.yorku.ca/accsff/Introduction.html and determine if you would like to attend. I highly recommend it since it is of interest to academics as well as accessible for the general public.

Speculating Diversity: Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl In The Ring and the Use of Speculative Fiction to Disrupt Singular Interpretations of Place

By Derek Newman-Stille

In Brown Girl In The Ring, Nalo Hopkinson uses speculative fiction to suggest an alternative reading of the space of Toronto. In order to assert a form of belonging in a space that traditionally denies racialised and ethnic others, Hopkinson rewrites the Toronto landscape of the future. Denied a past in Canada because of the erasure of blackness from the Canadian landscape, she instead writes diversity into the Canadian future. Hopkinson uses the speculative fiction medium to take an iconic image of the Canadian cityscape, the CN Tower, and transform it through a Caribbean-inspired vodoun ritual into the world tree and pillar of the vodoun temple. Toronto becomes temporarily a space where the Loa (vodoun spirits) walk the landscape.

She transforms the Canadian landscape by disrupting notions of the set role that artifacts and architecture are constructed to represent and by suggesting another dialogic possibility. She reconfigures aspects of the traditional Canadian landscape into a traditional Caribbean landscape, marking the space as multivalent and subject to multiple interpretive frameworks. She illustrates that meanings are not static, but constantly shifting, being reinterpreted and reconfigured by new people with new ideologies and new systems of meaning. The CN Tower in Hopkinson’s proposed future Toronto is not a static thing, but is rather transformative, changing with the populations that shift in Canada. The landscape and its meanings are constantly shifting as our social and political landscapes shift and things that are traditionally Canadian, like the CN Tower are able to shift as Canada’s traditions and ideologies shift to include a more diverse group of Canadians with more diverse readings of the features of heritage.

Hopkinson sets her Toronto in the slight future, creating a city that has been ghettoised and cordoned off by the Canadian state. It has been designated an unsafe space and becomes a place where racialised people are trapped. Hopkinson plays with ideas of invisibility of difference by having her characters literally become invisible through Caribbean magic. She seems to be suggesting in her narrative that the only place that Canadian racial geographies can be transformed is in a science fictional reality.

Literature has the ability to create diverse spaces even when it seems as though it is impossible to transform the physical landscape. Speculative fiction can propose an alternative reading to the landscape and allow a space for diversity. For New Canadians, literature and the arts can become a space where the Canadian landscape can be transformed into an inclusive space that challenges dominant narratives of belonging and suggests an alternative reading of the world and its spaces. The meaning of objects can shift in the consciousness of diasporic people as they assert their own identities and prevent their erasure from the Canadian landscape. Hopkinson uses literature as a space for the assertion of the idea of home for people in diaspora.