Small Town Ontario Bodies

A review of Jeff Lemire’s Essex County (Top Shelf Productions, 2009)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Jeff Lemire’s Essex County provides a fascinating look into small town Ontario life. Rather than just fixating on the lives of the young in this coming-of-age narrative, Lemire explores the multiple times in our lives that we come-of-age and expresses the idea that we are constantly coming of age as we change and our social and bodily circumstances change. 
Lemire explores ideas of escape and settlement in small town Ontario life illustrating the way that home is something that constantly shifts and changes and is something that is made up as much of relationships to others and to traditions as it is about a physical space. Lemire complicates notions of home, portraying his characters as constantly trying to fit in but also feeling a sense of longing when they leave. 
Lemire’s exploration is about the people in Essex County, but it is also about their bodies since many of the characters become disabled at different points in the narrative, shifting their understandings of their own bodies and their bodily identities. As bodies change and shift, relationships are also altered and changed, pointing out the ways that our bodies are complicit in our understanding of our world. 
The graphic novel format of Essex County brings attention to the ways that bodies occupy spaces and the absence that they leave in the spaces they cease to occupy. 
To discover more about Essex County visit Top Shelf Productions at http://www.topshelfcomix.com/catalog/essex-county/640

To find out more about Jeff Lemire, visit his website at http://jefflemire.blogspot.ca/ 

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ClosetTown

A review of James K. Moran’s Town & Train (Lethe Press, 2014)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of Town & Train courtesy of James K. Moran

Cover photo of Town & Train courtesy of James K. Moran

Small towns hold secrets. Because people in small towns tend to have the potential to know everything about their neighbours, secrecy is a big issue in small town life and people in small towns guard their secrets carefully. Small towns are often places of conformity, where being in any way outside the ‘normal’ is seen as a threat, a danger, and a challenge to the status quo.

James K. Moran’s Town & Train explores the rising tide of secrets in small towns and the notion that dirty laundry always eventually gets aired. Town & Train is shaped by an aesthetic of longing, a compounding of desires: the desire to leave the small town of Brandon, Ontario, for better opportunities, the desire for a sense of contact with others, a connection, the desire to keep secrets about the types of connections one is making, the desire to just change something, and the competing desire to just keep things the same and resist changes seen to be dangerous.

Moran brings a train into this small town, a train that offers the promise of new horizons, new changes, and all of the various escapes that one could desire. The conductor of the train offers tickets to dreams, but the only problem is that these dreams too easily become nightmares. Trains represent connections, the linkages between communities across the country, but this train resists connections, much like the small town of Brandon. It comes up from the subconscious to haunt the community with its darkest secrets, all that is suppressed and hidden.

Moran unites the fear of discovery with LGBTQ2 populations in Brandon, those who are at threat of losing their jobs, their friends, their family, and all of their connections if they end up coming out of the closet and acknowledging their desire. Through the train, Moran creates a parallel uniting fear and desire, which shape queer lives in small towns.

To discover more about the work of James K. Moran, visit http://jameskmoran.blogspot.ca/

Painful Intimacy

A review of Sean Moreland’s “The Rosy Boa” in Pavor Nocturnus: Dark Fiction Anthology (January, 2014 online at http://pavnoc.com/?p=419 )
By Derek Newman-Stille

Sean Moreland creates a fierce, almost painful intimacy with the reader in his short story “The Rosy Boa.” The reader is drawn into a conversation, sharing pains and desires with the text, folded into its papery arms, and kissed on the ears by the black tongue of dialogue.

Moreland invites the reader into the world of queer desire, a young man who has fallen in love with another young man in a small town of the 1980s. Like many queer youth, his life is a mix of fear of rejection and the desire to get away from all of the homophobic hate and the persistent threat of violence at home and in public. His desires are stretched between a want for a normal life and a deep drawing toward a potential love interest. The protagonist is perpetually guarded, mediating his feelings for fear of their reception, but he is hyperconscious of every touch of body to body, unsure if these moments of contact are embedded with meaning.

Like many queer youth in a small town, the protagonist is hyper aware of the levels of surveillance that gossip and the vigilant enforcement of normalcy have written over the community – everyone is watched, and everyone’s normalcy is policed. He feels watched in his neighbourhood, forever in fear and needing to manage and shape the perception of others about him – for queer youth, a small town is a horror story, a place of threat, observation, and control. Yet, his queerness also puts him in a position outside of the mundane, separate from every day life.

When the protagonist is able to visit the house of Cyan, the young man he loves, both are able to indulge in an escape from the norm through costume, wearing an antique feather boa that lets them both dance and play, yet this act of play is heightened by one of fear as darkness rolls in and strange sounds appear. In this place of heightened feeling, the protagonist is able to discover more about himself, opened to the world, where transformation and change are possible and where categorical meanings are disrupted. Love and fear meet in a place of desire that is a “mad mix of heaven and hell”. This heaven and hell create an intimacy beyond the mundane, the normal, the unquestioned. Hunger and desire play together at the edge of fear… and death does not know gender.

You can explore this story online for free at http://pavnoc.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Pavor-Nocturnus-Dark-Fiction-Anthology-Vol.-1.pdf

“Legends begin in small northern towns on the edge of places other people only drive through on their way to somewhere else, in station wagons and vans full of summer gear: Muskoka chairs in bright summer colours, coolers full of beer, canvas bags bursting with swimsuits and shorts and t-shirts, and dogs who slumber on blankets in the back seat and are bored by the entire process of long car trips….   But of the lives of the citizens of these towns – the men and women who live and die in them, who carry to the grave entire universes of their history and lore, and the happenings of the century – these suburban transients know nothing, and care even less. The towns they pass might as well be shell facades, their residents merely extras in a movie called Our Drive Up North to the Cottage, a movie with annual sequels whose totality makes up a lifetime of holiday memories.”

-Michael Rowe – Wild Fell (2013)

Quote – Legends begin in small towns

Meme Zombies

A Review of Tony Burgess and Bruce McDonald’s film Pontypool (Maple Pictures, 2009)
By Derek Newman-Stille

As many of you know, I tend to focus Speculating Canada primarily on literature. This is not meant to ignore other types of texts and media, but has been an area that fascinates me.  I have recently been drawn to the film Pontypool through my love of representations of the monstrous. Since it is based on the novel Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess, I thought it was worth exploring further.

I am not normally a huge fan of the zombie genre. I tend to find a lot of recent explorations of the zombie to be repetitive – involving the idea of viral contamination, chase scenes, and general body horror. This is not to say that there isn’t value in these zombie depictions, but it has been overdone a bit for my taste. I tend to like innovative new treatments of the zombie, and I think that is what drew me to Pontypool. The zombies in this film aren’t created by biting, scratching, an airborn virus… they are created by language.

Set in the small Ontario town of Pontypool, the movie features a small town radio station who gradually receives filtered news of a huge event. People have seemingly gone mad and are destroying the downtown, attacking one another, and mumbling gibberish the entire time. There is no official word on what is happening, and the radio station is only getting reports from random citizens as official channels stay silent on the issue.

Things hit close to home when people in the radio station itself begin to repeat phrases, alliterate, and get stuck in cycles of rhyming. This is the first stage of the virus – since the virus is contained in language, the body’s immune system kicks in to try to expel the virus by playing with language. When this immune response fails, the infected host seeks out others, homing in on them by the sound of their voice, fixating on the vocalisation of the English language to find new victims and spread to them.

Pontypool explores the idea that there could be something living in language, in consciousness that replicates itself when the brain of the new host recognises and understands words. This is a personification of the idea of the viral meme, made literal. It spreads through cultural expressions, replicating itself and moving from one area to another, expanding, spreading. Although most zombie movies involve a great deal of physical movement, one of the striking parts of this movie is that all of the movement occurs intellectually. There is little physical movement since the entire plot of the movie takes place in a radio station (and largely in the sound booth). The movement that occurs is through conversations, through hearing of events conveyed through voice and through leaps of awareness. All of the action of this movie is carried in words, through hearing action, which makes it a particularly apt medium for a movie about a virus that spreads through words. As one watches the movie, one becomes very sensitive to sound, noting differences in sound and becoming hypersensitive to the spoken word. Words feel weightier, more significant, louder, and awkward. The viewer becomes alienated from language itself.

Pontypool plays with ideas of fear and the spread of fear, focusing on the idea of voice as a medium for both understanding, but also for the spread of fear. The shock radio jockey star of this movie, Grant Massey (Stephen McHattie), begins his radio broadcast of the morning by trying to shock his listeners when he describes the threat of drug culture and drug dealers coming into small towns to create grow-ops. When his producer, Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) tells him not to scare the small town populace, he informs her that fear is what sells news, and getting people angry means bigger ratings. Here, Burgess and McDonald provide a subtle warning about the nature of media and the use of fear as a marketing tool, as well as the conflict that happens in small town Ontario where people often are both attracted to the idea of hearing about threats, but also don’t really want to hear too much about the potential horrors of the world.

The idea of fear in the media is played on further when people come into the radio station in Arabic-face (i.e. white Canadians painted to appear Arabic) in order to play music about the Middle East. Calling themselves Laurence and the Arabians, one of the members of the group is compared to Osama bin Laden and he ends his song on the radio by firing a toy machine gun in the air. This musical interlude occurs as the first inklings of a crisis begin to filter into the radio through reports, and comments well on the state of today’s society where often the Middle East, and images of terror far away, is used as a mechanism for distracting people from threats and issues close to home.

The image of terrorism resurfaces again when Massey talks to a reporter from the BBC who is calling to get clarification about reports he has received that an act of terrorism has occurred. When Massey tells him that they don’t have any details and that information is scarce, the BBC correspondant begins discussing Canada’s history of French separatism and ends his broadcast by concluding that the issue in Pontypool Ontario is actually a terrorist attack by French separatists. The media once again focuses on the notion of easy scapegoats and figures that inspire fear rather than further investigating and interrogating the notion that threats can occur locally. It is easier to search for a pre-established and culturally accepted threat than to look for new threats.

The character Grant Massey brings critical attention to the issue of the military and fear culture when he says to the military personelle who are monitoring his broadcast as they begin bombing the small community to stop the threat: “You are just killing scared people.” He later notes, when talking about how people who have the zombie virus stop making sense: “We were never making sense”, bringing critical attention to the notion of the spoken word and its ability to disseminate confusion. Pontypool evokes in the viewer a sense that more is being said through the figure of the zombie and its location in a centre of media – one finds oneself contemplating the notion that terrorism makes zombies of us all, that fear of terrorism and radical responses to beliefs in the threat of terrorism make us willing to blindly follow the voices that guide us. As a society, we are more willing to follow voices (like the zombies in this movie do when seeking new hosts for the virus) than to think for ourselves and look deeply at underlying issues.

You can check out a trailer for Pontypool at http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi1386283545/

Postcolonial Vampirism – Consuming Resources

A review of Michael Rowe’s Enter, Night (ChiZine , 2011)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of Enter, Night, courtesy of ChiZine Publications

Cover photo of Enter, Night, courtesy of ChiZine Publications

In Michael Rowe’s Enter, Night, the true terror is not the vampires, but rather the spectre of the small town and its ability to suppress all forms of difference. Small towns are places of secrets because very few secrets can be kept in a place where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Secrecy and hiding become particularly important in small towns for people that show any difference from the norm, and Rowe’s narrative focuses on two outcasts returning to the small town where they grew up: a woman who became pregnant out of wedlock and her gay brother-in-law who fled from the small town to avoid persecution and torture by groups that wanted to make him conform to a heterosexual image.

For them the town is a haunted, dark, and dangerous place, but there is more to the depths of the town’s horrifying history – a history of secrecy and suppression extending back to the moment of European colonialism. Small towns are haunted places and often haunt the imaginations of those who have left them to avoid persecution. This small town is literally contaminated by a history that it seeks to suppress and remake in a “more respectable” (i.e. suppressed and glossed over) image, much as if tries to make its residents conform to a homogenising notion of respectability and ‘normalcy’ that prevents any sort of individual difference.

This town was infected by a vampiric influence at the moment of European colonial contact, and that vampiric connection permeates the town from its early years both in the random acts of violence that the vampiric spirit evokes, but also in the consumptive character of the town itself. Michael Rowe uses his vampiric narrative to comment on some of the vampirisms of modernity: the consumptive quality of capitalism where the rich suck the life blood from the workers they exploit (this town is a mining town with one wealth family and a population in poverty) and in the image of conversion that permeated the early European settler narratives – much like early European settlers, the vampire seeks to make its victims in its own image. In Rowe’s narrative this vampiric colonialism is literal when an early priest who sought to convert the Indigenous Peoples of Northern Ontario brought his vampiric contamination with him and, much as the European settlers brought disease to Canada’s Indigenous Peoples, he brought a vampiric virus the spread through the population bringing waste and destruction to the people as well as re-making them into his image. The vampire is a figure of exploitation and the exploitative narrative runs through this novel, exploring the destructive power of greed and conquest.

Rowe’s narrative is one that gives life to the suppressed aspects of history and modernity, the hidden corruptions and exploitations that are often understated in a society that does not want people to raise too much trouble or question things too deeply. Rowe also shows incredible skill in giving life to the victims of the vampiric attack. Many horror writers gloss over the life and history of their monster’s victims, portraying them as essentially statistics without individuality or depth, but Rowe creates every character as though he or she could be a central character, a character of significance and makes the reader feel a deep connection to the character before taking them away. He illustrates that no person is a statistic and that each death should effect us on a deeper level and be felt as a personal loss.  Horror is not about numbers, but about feeling loss as though it is our own, as though we have had some part of ourselves ripped from our chests and Rowe is able to make his reader feel every loss.  He illustrates that the real horrors of society are the repressions and suppressions of individuals: the transformation of people into statistics without substance, figures of consumption rather than unique and individual lives.

You can explore more about Michael Rowe at his website http://www.michaelrowe.com/ .  And you can get your own copy of Enter, Night at ChiZine Publications’ website http://chizinepub.com/ .

Home is Where The Ghosts Are

A Review of Ian Rogers’ Every House is Haunted (ChiZine, October 2012)

Cover Photo Courtesy of ChiZine

By Derek Newman-Stille

Ian Rogers makes the familiar strange in Every House is Haunted, taking comfortable locales, experiences, and people and turning them into unfamiliar territory, the realm of the unexpected and weird. Rogers conducts a hauntology of place, showing the role of memory that swirls around the places we visit, the continuing, lurking presence of the bizarre in the dark corners of our existence.

True to its name, Every House is Haunted contains several short stories about haunted houses, but Rogers takes the notion of home and expands it to homely, familiar experiences, and illustrates that haunting can be an experience of the unusual within the ordinary, a subversion of everyday experience. Rogers de-familiarises everything from the experience of constructing buildings, island life, small towns, urban spaces, starting a new job, books, family, and even makes the body itself a foreign and forbidding place. Everything has a dark undercurrent, illustrating the role of secrets and the hidden the underlies our experience.

In Rogers’ stories, small towns are places of hidden secrets, urban spaces are places where anything negative is blocked from view, jobs can be places of dark importance where one’s experience is benefitting an unknown party, family histories lurk under their current experiences rising like ghosts from the grave to haunt the descendants, and new knowledge from books can contain a hidden price. There is a predatory quality to objects in Rogers’ books, a haunting un-life and intention that makes everything foreboding. After reading Every House is Haunted, nothing is familiar any more, and everything takes on a sinister quality.

Rogers illustrates his fascination with the power of literature and stories by bringing into his own short stories books that can transpose their writing onto human bodies to evoke ancient evils, mediums using stories to help the dead find their way into the otherworld, writing as a means to keep sane during an apocalypse, and the role of stories for giving voice to the under-represented people and even ecologies denied voice. Rogers brings us into moral grey areas, encouraging us to question stories, delve deep into them and interact with them, and also reminds us that every story contains the potential for both danger as well as ecstasy.

To find out more about Ian Rogers’ current projects, you can visit his website at http://www.ian-rogers.com/ . You can find out more about Every House is Haunted and other ChiZine books at http://chizinepub.com/ .