folklore

The Changeling | Victor LaValle

the changelingThe Changeling by Victor LaValle is the fourth book I’m reading for the Shirley Jackson Awards 2017 nominees. If I had to put my money down, based on what I’ve read so far and looking at its stats, I would say that this book has the strongest chance to be the winner. That said, I have not finished all five yet (still have one left). Also, The Changeling has just won the 2018 Locus Award for Best Horror novel.

This novel has “two starts” but for good reason. The first is Apollo Kagwa’s parents’ love story and the beginnings of Apollo. Apollo is mixed and from a low-income family. His father mysteriously disappears but continues to appear to Apollo in dreams/nightmares. Apollo grows up and becomes very involved in dealing/collecting/selling rare books and is himself an avid reader. As things progress he too falls in love (the second start) with Emma and together they have a baby boy. At this point the novel takes a term from slightly creepy and mysterious to supernatural stellar writing. I liked the way the Goodreads synopsis puts it without spoilers: “Before Apollo can do anything to help, Emma commits a horrific act—beyond any parent’s comprehension—and vanishes, seemingly into thin air. Thus begins Apollo’s odyssey through a world he only thought he understood to find a wife and child who are nothing like he’d imagined.” That…is putting it mildly. This novel is a roller-coaster ride, and it somehow does it by creeping up on you. You start slowly and you’re being fed one odd thing at a time, until you find yourself so deep you forget how you got here in the first place. I had to consult the synopsis because by the end I wasn’t sure what would be considered a spoiler.

What I particularly loved about LaValle’s writing was the way he brought the dark fairy tale to the city: New York. As a passionate Lore fan and reading these kinds of stories with supernatural elements, I can’t help but notice they are almost always set in an isolated town, in a rural part of a very abandoned state, or in some very small place with few inhabitants. Dropping this dark fairy tale in New York while simultaneously poking at the very contemporary “here and now” elements of parenting, social networks, and media is something that I never considered could come together so well in one cohesive narrative. LaValle challenges the spaces one thought of as ‘safe’ due to their bright lights and overpopulation and turns this concept it on its head. Parallel to these writing techniques, unstable setting, and atmosphere LaValle still places at this novel’s core the essence of what makes us human in exploring our strengths and weaknesses when it comes to family, love, parenting, and how our origins, or ‘where we come from’ or the literal ghosts of our past can influence our present. I really enjoyed this book, and even though it took me a lot longer to read this one than the others it was worth the effort. I recommend this if you like Aaron Mahnke’s Lore and Cabinet of Curiosities, dark fairy tales, gothic atmospheres, and of course…Shirley Jackson.

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The Bone Mother | David Demchuk

Boy Eating

The Bone Mother is the first novel I’m reading for the project I’m currently working on: reading the nominees for the Shirley Jackson Award. The Bone Mother has already hit a very good spot with me and I enjoyed it immensely. I think in many ways it’s like Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children for adults, and has a resemblance to Lore. As I mentioned before I’m from Romania, but I have been educated and raised in Canada. This book is written by Canadian author David Demchuk and it draws its inspiration from photographs made by Romanian photographer Costică Acsinte between 1935-1945, and Eastern European folklore, so in many ways it felt very familiar and close to home. This novel was also long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which is very impressive as it is his debut novel.

This ‘novel’ isn’t quite a novel in the traditional sense. It is a series of stories, each prefaced by a black and white photograph from Acsinte’s collection, with a new name in the title. The names are both Romanian and Ukrainian/Russian. The tales focus on three villages on the border of Ukraine and Romania, neighbouring “The Thimble Factory.” Images of thimbles are present throughout the book, and we quickly learn that those who inhabit these villages must work five years at the thimble factory. There are narratives surrounding those working in the thimble factory which are more snippets of daily life, interspersed with fables and folkloric anecdotes featuring the supernatural like Strigoi (Romanian myth, troubled spirits of the dead rising from the grave, sometimes similar to vampire folklore) and Rusalkas (Russian myth, water spirit). At the center of it all is the fear of the Night Police who take people in the dead of night, and the  most frightening figure at the center of the forest, not belonging to any village: the Bone Mother—she cooks and eats people who fail the tasks she gives them.

There are some phenomenal features to this work. The first is its juxtaposition of ‘regular’ folk next to these ‘supernatural’ beings as co-existing in the same spaces, while narrating it in a simplified, casual tone. The Bone Mother is never trying to scare you, but presents some narratives side by side of a history that may or may not have been. The way Demchuk also incorporates queer narratives gives the reader the impression that he is trying to look at various angles on the story of marginalized groups contrasting historical superstitions with contemporary oppression. There is also the juxtaposition of post-industrialism influence: the thimble factory, existing as a machine in the garden of folklore. The Bone Mother reminded me very much of a branch of literary theory contrasting naturalism with technology in literature. A work that comes to mind is the academic book by Leo Marx called The Machine in the Garden which explores the ways North America started out with such promise on untouched land with possibility, yet entered it with full industrial, assembly-line force, and how this is reflected in literature when the pastoral ideal clashes with technological advance. The way Demchuk presents these ideas in fiction is subtle but ever-present. Overall The Bone Mother very well written and had an innovative take on Eastern European folklore.

My only “problem” with this novel is that it’s not a novel. I thought the stories would combine as one, or that we would be introduced to some characters and then it would merge in novel-form. It maintained its short anecdote format, separated by images, that it was a little frustrating at times not knowing if it will merge or not. The short story format worked for what it is, however I’m wondering how it will rank against the other four nominees, and if this format would hold it back. What helped me a lot with this was getting the audiobook from Audible and following along in the text because they had different voice actors for each character and it brought them to life as diverse voices, with heavy Eastern European accents. Considering this is also a debut work, I think we can look forward to more from Demchuk and the book has done quite well so far making it on the list of two literary prizes already. This was a strong start!

Mary Ann Cotton — Dark Angel

31290822I recently got immersed in the world of Mary Ann Cotton, branded as “Britain’s first female serial killer.” Although Cotton being “the first” is disputed as there might have been many others before her, she is fascinating nonetheless. Martin Connolly wrote a short booklet on the town he lived in, titled The Potted History of West Auckland. After reading his work, many requested that he write a book about Mary Ann Cotton. Who was she? What do we know about her? Connolly decided to go to all of the possible sources to find out as much information as he can on Mary Ann Cotton. Connolly writes in the introduction:

“When I had brought together all my material and thoughts, I then turned to see what books on Mary Ann Cotton were being recommended. In this, two stood out, Mary Annn Cotton –Her Story and Trial by Arthur Appleton and Mary Ann cotton Dead, But not Forgotten by Tony Whitehead. Arthur’s account has some factual and date errors, but was a good read. It was on reading tony Whitehead’s book that I had a moment of wishing I had started with that particular book. In it, he had amassed a large number of images of birth, death and baptismal records. It would have saved me a great deal of time, energy and money.”

What I enjoy about Connolly’s book is that he frames the structure of Mary Ann Cotton’s life chronologically and in each sequence he tells us what we can know from the facts without interference. He doesn’t make assumptions or tell us what to believe. He collected so many pictures, certificates, and documents simply presenting them to us as images with a brief explanation of where he acquired them. After laying down the entirety of Cotton’s documented life, he presents to us her trial, documents from the trial, letters to and from Mary Ann Cotton whilst she was in jail, and accounts of the day she was hanged with all the details (including how long her body convulsed upon being hanged). After, Connolly tells us who survived Mary Ann Cotton (from people she knew and lived with), and subsequent rural stories that circulated about potential ghost sightings of Cotton. She entered English folklore for quite some time. He also gathered medical recordings of how the doctor examined the corpses to indicate that it was in fact Arsenic poisoning—which was used as ‘proof’ of her guilt. Connolly even covers a brief biography of all the men and women involved in her trial, doctor supporting evidence, and police officers involved in her arrest.arsenic

On one hand I liked being presented with facts/proof around Mary Ann Cotton’s life without biographer interference or flowery language. On the other hand, I found this work lacking in setting the atmosphere. Although Connolly makes a brief mention at the beginning that she came from a mining village with low wages, and death was aplenty; he didn’t quite set the atmosphere of the time. He jumps from one section of her life to the next without much more introduction. I would have appreciated a sensory experience, an induction into this Victorian life to try and understand. Connolly concludes with:

“was she guilty of murders? I struggle to answer this question. It would be anachronistic to try and look at the situation with a modern mind. In that period, many things were black and white in legal terms…to judge her then is difficult…I suppose I arrive at a place where I would bring in the Scottish legal judgment of ‘not proven.’”

That is a pretty dark note to end on (considering the woman was hanged).

DarkAngel_MasterpieceI read the book at the same time as watching the PBS three-episode miniseries called Dark Angel featuring Joanne Froggatt as Mary Ann Cotton. The show helped me with what the book was lacking which was atmosphere. The imagery, and the details in costumes and setting really put things in perspective.

What the show focused more on was Cotton’s seduction abilities. They presented her sexuality as being far more overt than any Victorian character I’ve encountered thus far, which made me think they appropriated a slightly modern take. The book tells us to assume she was at least charming because she managed to lock down four husbands but her seductive abilities weren’t notorious. Something missing from the show though, was the ambiguity and potential innocence that Connolly presented to us in the book. In the television program they pretty much show her carrying spoon-fulls of Arsenic into everyone’s tea, including her four husbands, lover, several step-children, her mother, and best friend. If you ‘judge’ her based on the show you ‘know’ she murdered everyone, whereas if you look at the documents and transcripts of what we actually can know….it’s pretty ambiguous, and certainly doesn’t make the case for a death penalty.

Both the book and miniseries kind of gloss over something kind of important. Mary Ann Cotton gave birth to 13 children, 11 of which died. I recently read The Light Between Oceans showing how much damage can be done to a woman’s psyche after losing a single living child, or even experience a miscarriage. To have lost eleven children she gave birth to is so much proof to me that Cotton was certainly not mentally stable. Postpartum depression alone will mess you up, let alone burying so many children of your own. The show and book gloss over it as if it was no big deal, as if it’s to be expected of the time; but even in the Victorian period the death of a child was not so simple. We have records of how much Dickens, and Darwin grieved over the loss of a single child (as fathers). Skipping over this concept to me, is kind of missing the point. I think when people read books on “serial killers” they are intrigued by character and the how they got to be that way. Skipping over the grieving process, and the bodily damage from each pregnancy and subsequent burial of tiny bodies completely hides from the readers and audience what messed this woman up so much (IF she was guilty at all). The presentation of economic circumstances of women at the time and their dependency on men really placed a contemporary feminist angle of how difficult it must have been to lack autonomy and how desperate things can really get.

So if you embark on this grim adventure I recommend reading something about the Victorian period first, and perhaps read the book alongside watching the miniseries so you have a full picture of Mary Ann Cotton. I really did enjoy this narrative altogether. The book is published by Pen and Sword, and the miniseries by PBS.

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Ah, now I get that line from Chicago