This is a quick ‘are you sitting comfortably’ post, as this coming week we seem to have numerous announcements.
Tuesday sees us launching the re release of a book that requires an act of faith in the early episodic chapters, but is adored by those who throw themselves into the journey, The office of Lost and Found by Vincent Holland-Keen. I’ll be linking to reviews from it’s original release in Tuesday’s post.
Later in the week I will be announcing the book to be launched at Edge.Lit. I’ve kept this very quiet so far, so it will finally be listed on the site. Right now, I’ll tell you it’s a collection and that we are sharing our launch space with the illustrious NewCon Press.
We also have news regarding our long planned line for younger readers, follow @kitthefennec for news as it comes on that. This is a busy week for us as lots of plans start to come to fruition.
We’d also like to remind everyone, that while it has been quiet on the FoxGloves front we will be launching that line with Neil Adams MBE’s autobiography covering the post Olympics years. This is an honest look at starting over and rebuilding after the day comes you discover you are no longer on the team and your sponsors have vanished. It’s a great insight into the world of top flight athletes when they have to confront life outside of competition and a tremendous story.
Finally a few updates.
Fox Pockets no. 7 is now out, 8 Piercing the Vale is in formatting and should be released at the end of this month with Evil Genius Guide and Reflections following swiftly on. We know you’ve been waiting for them, but they are all going to be with us this summer. Catch them all.
Eve of War is well underway and we are aiming for a mid summer release, we will announce soon on the exact date.
The Forbidden Planet signing event for African Monsters went very well in February, it was excellent to meet everyone for an enjoyable evening. There are a small number of copies, signed by the attending authors still available at the London store.
On the 3rd March we have our big exciting launch at Forbidden Planet London and we hope to see lots of you there to meet some of the people behind African Monsters and eat cookies. Margret will give a very brief introduction to the concept behind the series and then it’s just chat, enjoy, nibble cookies and get lovely books signed.
We are delighted to announce that an official launch party for African Monsters will be taking place on 3rd March at London Forbidden Planet, after which we will head off to the pub for more celebrating.
A number of the authors and artists will be attending along with Aunty Fox and both editors of the book. We will have badges identifying us just in case you haven’t met us before.
The format will be relaxed and casual with a quick introduction then mingling and signing of books. If you would like to ensure a book is waiting for you in the signing area they are available to pre order on the Forbidden Planet website.
We hope to see lots of you there. It’s our first London launch and we are all very excited.
In other news we are co hosting another Fox Bites with DMU Bookshop Leicester. At ‘Unromantic Tales’ on 11th Feb local writers will be reading short stories and excerpts that have nothing at all to do with romance and Valentines day. There may be something of a horror leaning. These are totally free events with drinks and nibbles, so do come along, enjoy some readings and support a local bookstore if you can.
For more information on this and other Fox Bites mini reading events please join the facebook group.
The last bit of news for now is that Fox Spirit are the Creative Leicestershire featured business this month. Creative Leicestershire are a local organisation supporting small creative businesses and helping bring them together. If you are in the region and are building a business in a creative industry it’s worth checking them out for opportunities for support and advice.
Have a look at Penny Miller’s (1979) wonderful ‘Myths and Legends of Southern Africa’ or, if you’re more academically inclined, try Nhlanhla Mkhize’s (1996) ‘Mind, gender, and culture: A critical evaluation of the phenomenon of Tokoloshe “sightings” among prepubescent girls in Kwazulu-Natal’ – via http://www.criticalmethods.org/bodtwo.htm
But, as for me, if you want the truth, the little monster called me to watch him…
The Tokoloshe smelt someone coming, even as the late afternoon air hummed with hot sun and clouds and a rainbow arch crumbled into a million dying pieces above his head.
Still, the river flowed strongly, swirling logs and leaves and dead fleshy things past him.
He stepped up onto the river bank to sniff the air, and he could smell the coming human was a she.
He grinned then, licking his sharp teeth, flicking fur out of his eyes and twisting his only garment, a leather strung hip pouch, into ready position. His witch would be pleased. The thick riverside bushes bustled with movement.
Ooh, a young smell. She whom he served would be very pleased.
He slung his penis over his left shoulder and fumbled in his pouch for his stone, but there was no time. The bushes burst apart and a skinny, dishevelled girl was staring down at him.
She looked tired and her trousers were torn, with both her legs bleeding.
I know, fuck those thorn bushes, he thought, but the girl’s eyes opened wide in shock and she shrunk against the bushes.
He licked his teeth again, slowly, waiting for her to turn and run.
But she stood firm, returning his gaze.
He grabbed his penis, flailing it like a warning whip.
When Jo Thomas approached me with this project I was immediately intrigued. Recently, in the art world there’s been a surge of interest in Africa and the continent’s distinct visual style has extended far beyond its borders. African culture is embedded with deep metaphors and unique colloquialisms that have not been favoured with the degree of translation and ease of access often enjoyed by other cultures. In South Africa, our past of forced segregation has historically kept us apart from the rest of the continent; a separation that, to my mind, was reawakened and hard felt by the spate of xenophobic attacks on African foreigners by South African nationals over the last several years. On a daily basis the unfathomable is captured in the harsh contrasts of everyday life.
Our monsters give voice to us, they guide us, they hold our hands.
It begs the question: how much of our existence is encapsulated in our darker impulses? How much of our conciousness is denied rational conception? Halved as it is, the human soul strives to live in the light, yet the tenebrous remains ever-present. Consequently, I viewed African Monsters as a collective nod of the head to the sharing of shadows.
From an illustrative perspective, it’s rare to come across a book project where creative interpretation is given free reign. As a result, illustrating for African Monsters was just pure fun! For once the creative beast did not rear her head and all was well in Artland. I took my easel and art gear to a friend’s top floor office and from there painted and drew with the Cape Town cityscape as backdrop. At heart, I’m a spontaneous artist, making marks with great aggression and consequently, no idea what they’re going to turn into. In this case, however, I had to be a little more specific, given the brief and subject matter at hand. I’d select a story, read it in the morning and let it permeate my mind for the rest of the day. In the evenings I’d draw from the narrative inspiration and in quick marks capture the gist of my feeling on paper – from there, I’d give those initial marks a more subtle definition as the night progresses.
To recreate a story you have to retell it, as Neil Gaiman once said. He was specifically referring to a case where one of his graphic novels was unsuccessfully translated into a stage production. But that aside, drawing these illustrations for African Monsters was in a large part an act of retelling. A personal re-creating. It must be interesting from a writer’s perspective to see the illustrator’s interpretation. Imaginations are not shared, but subjective occurrences. I find it fascinating to see how a singular story elicits a wide arch of interpretation.
With that in mind, I’d like to thank Margrét Helgadóttir and Jo Thomas for organising such a great publication. I thoroughly enjoyed participating in it. I’d also like to thank the three writers I had to illustrate for: Nnedi Okorafor and Chikodili Emulumadu, your stories from Nigeria took my imagination to places rarely experienced before. Nerine Dorman, as a fellow citizen, I found your interpretation of an age old South African myth to be fresh and original. Let my last words then be, for those of you who read this blog to go read the book! You’ll like it.
I nearly expired from shock recently, when a casual friend – and fellow writer – suggested that my husband must feel cheated by me ‘using all my imagination in my book instead of elsewhere’. When pressed, he revealed he was talking about the bedroom.
As this was someone I admired, I tried to reason with him, drawing him out to expose the flaw in his thinking. I lead him down the footpath of obliviousness so that he could drink from the watering hole of enlightenment. We talked about writing, bills, working around children and so on. My intention was to reveal how similar to his, my own concerns were. Eventually in exasperation, I snapped:
“I am not just a vagina.”
“Interesting idea being a vagina,” came the reply. “That would have been great fun.”
ARRRGGGGGH. My friend is smart, but he just wasn’t getting it. I’d been reduced to a sum of my parts and ‘writer’ was not one of them. I was creative, yes, but what a waste! (Have pity, Chikodili, think about the positions you could be inventing!)
The truth is, a lot of men on our continent don’t get it either. Even the more liberal fellows can slip up. They spout statements that show a beastly Hyde of misogyny and privilege lurking underneath the Jekyll of refinement. And I understand it, I do, even if I wish I didn’t. Putting oneself in another person’s shoes is bloody hard work, especially when one has not had practice. Centuries of being the apex predator and suddenly one has to rewire one’s brain. The process must be disconcerting.
In course of my life, I’ve met many men who don’t read books written by women, who cannot see themselves reflected in female protagonists, who find their minds wandering when presented with the absence of a phallic central figure. Women have been othered beyond comprehension for these men so our experiences seem alien.
We, on the other hand, having been socialised over the years into second class status are at an advantage. As a child I feasted on works by R.L Stevenson, Dickens and Rider Haggard. I was Jim Hawkins and Oliver Twist and Allan Quatermain. Not once did I stop to consider that their protagonists were everything I was not; white and male. Their travails were mine as were their triumphs.
So, for the benefit of those at the back, here is a short list of some things that occupy my thoughts:
Bills, bills, bills
Success in writing
Money and success
Sex, Topped with more sex. Sprinkled with sex. Eaten with a sex spoon.
However, to hold any one of these things to be the entirety of my being, would be a mistake. Having a vagina is fantastic. But being one would not, contrary to opinion, ‘be fun’. I’m a writer and wife, a child and a mother.
Shadow depends on light, and light can penetrate the darkness.
There was a time in my life when, as a young adult, I read mostly horror novels and sought out horror movies. Darkness characterised most of these: we got midnight terror, lightless cellars, clouds drifting across the moon at the precise moment the graveyard begins to stir. The movies were frequently frustrating to me, just because I couldn’t see what was happening.
All very scream-inducingly terrifying, but gradually I realised that unease felt in a brightly lit landscape could be a lot creepier. I remember a sun-drenched early movie version of Stephen King’s short story Children of the Corn, and too the subtle escalation of apprehension in Peter Weir’s exquisite heat-hazed Picnic at Hanging Rock, with something or nothing always just beyond the edge of sight.
I have felt that same unease under a bright blue sky, walking in a sun-bleached sweep of veld not far from Johannesburg.
I always felt that if ever I turned to writing creepy, I must remember that Africa especially lends itself to creepiness in sunshine.
Chimamanda Adichie has talked of ‘the danger of a single story’, and for many, even today, Africa the Dark Continent is that single story. When I was invited to contribute a story to African Monsters, I knew I wanted to write one with sunlight in it, although not necessarily without shadow.
Ichitapa was the most seductive of the African monsters I researched. The Ndola sunken lakes in Zambia, with their pristine water brilliantly lit by the African sun, were ideal, surrounded by the shadowy mushitu forest, dark yet admitting sufficient light in places for shadows to be cast. Together, they fired my imagination, and my story Severed is the result.
Light begets shadow, and our shadows seem to be an intrinsic part of us. In some cultures, not only in Africa, and especially in earlier times, they could represent the soul, or even the darkness that exists in us all. We can speculate as to what sort of meaning JM Barrie attached to the human shadow. Peter Pan loses his shadow, and he desperately wants it back to play with, so that he can be ‘real’. Wendy sews it back on, perhaps recognising its significance as an essential part of the boy, giving him humanity.
Without our shadows, we are incomplete, so if you ever visit the Ndola sunken lakes, be careful not to let your shadow fall on the water. You don’t know what might happen.
South Africa is an arid country. Apart from a thin strip along the south coast and the sub-tropical east coast, much of the interior consists of semi-desert or bushveld. Yet there is water, and where there is water, there is life.
When many of my friends went on holiday to the coast, my parents used to take me into the mountains – specifically the Cederberg, which is situated near the dry West Coast. Sometimes we also went hiking further inland, in the Karoo semi-desert. I learned to love the big sky, the emptiness of the landscape and yes, the blessing of the rivers which wind a ribbon of life through the landscape.
It’s hardly surprising that the original inhabitants of this land – the Khoe and San hunter-gatherers – had myths related to the denizens of these bodies of water. One such, that has persisted into the modern era and possibly blended with stories European settlers brought over is that of the Karoo mermaid.
It’s not uncommon, in some of the smaller communities, to encounter someone who knows someone who had some sort of supernatural experience. In fact, many folk beliefs persist despite the average rural South African paying lip service to the dominant religion of the country – Christianity.
Much like our Uniondale Hitchhiker (and yes, I’ve met someone who says their son experienced this phenomenon – it’s always a friend of a friend), the Karoo Mermaid persists. She is said to sit by the waterside, combing her hair. She’s been likened to a genius loci much like Zambia’s Nyami Nyami – a water spirit intrinsically linked to the water source that one wouldn’t want to anger.
It didn’t take me much of a leap of the imagination to play on the fluidity of this being, to tap into the darker undercurrents that sweep away the protagonist in my story. As a child (and something that has persisted into adulthood) I’ve always had a deep, abiding fear of water where I cannot see the bottom. What else do I share the river with when I go swimming? Will cold, fish-pale hands reach up from the depths to drag me under? I’m the one who sits on the bank while my friends cavort in the mountain pool. Unless the water is crystalline (which isn’t the case with most Cape watercourses due to high tannin contents) I simply refuse to swim. Logically, I understand that there is nothing in the water more malicious than hidden rocks and submerged branches. I have nothing to fear, right?
Rivers are life in this dry land, yet the water itself presents unpredictability, danger. Perhaps our older generations personified the rivers, in order to give a name and known qualities to the water courses. Sometimes the rivers dwindle to nothing during drought. Sometimes nature rages and brings down a torrential flood. To have some sort of entity to propitiate was a way to gain a a modicum of control over this force of nature.
Truthfully, we’ll never know. These days we dam our rivers, divert them or fill in our wetlands. Nature bows to our whims. We ignore her at our own peril.
Personally, I immerse myself in the magic of the beauty of nature, and love asking, “What if?” and take the story from there. And no, I won’t go swimming with you.
Nerine Dorman is a South African creative who loves to tell stories. You can follow her on Twitter @nerinedorman.
I thought it was just the lack of TV that made our elders to tell us stories in the darkness of the night, mostly in the kitchen as supper cooked on a charcoal stove, a paraffin candle providing the only light, and our lips the only entertainment. But recently, on two occasions, I happened upon a group of children telling each other those same stories. One group was waiting to start rehearsals for a music dance, and since their teacher was late, they took to entertaining themselves. Another group was eating supper, and though all the lights were on, they still shared these stories. It pleased me that even as a plethora of TVs, radio stations, the internet, and all other forms of entertaining have flooded urban towns in Africa, these stories that I first heard as a child over thirty years ago continue to be told, orally, with the same effect on children. Sometimes horror, but mostly to generate a real big laugh.
When Margret approached me to contribute a story for the African Monsters anthology, I at once thought of three creatures that I kept hearing throughout my childhood. The one I eventually wrote about was my third priority, for in it I found a tale to fit the theme of the anthology. They did not want anything humorous, and that was a bit difficult, for as I’ve said above, the African monsters I know have comic elements. This might call for a bit of investigation into the correlation between horror and humor in the oral tales of Uganda (and maybe East Africa), maybe an academic paper of sorts, but I am not an academic, and so I’ll only list the monsters as I remember them.
I call the one in the book ‘monwor.’ In reality, that name does not exist, for these creatures are called different names in different places. Sometimes they are called genii, in the cultures influenced by Swahili, most times they are called by the word for spirit or ghost in a language, words like misambwa (Luganda) or yamo (Jopadhola). The story often goes of a man who picks up a woman in the streets, at night, and takes her home, or to a lodge. Then comes the punch line; the woman either she stretches her hand until it’s over twenty feet long to turn off the lights, or the man wakes up and finds his bed has been moved out maybe to a garden, maybe to a graveyard; or the man discovers that she has goat feet. I once heard of a man who picked up a woman on the highway, but just as she was about to enter his car, he saw that she had goat feet, and so he sped off in terror. A little way up ahead, he met a group of women. From their luggage, he thought they were traders returning home from a market, so were waiting at the roadside for a bus or kamunye (commuter taxi). After meeting the goat-feet woman, he was scared of driving alone. The nearest town was still ten miles away. He thought these women’s company would give him security and comfort, so he offered them a ride. On the away, he told them of the goat-feet woman, and then the woman on the seat beside him said; “You mean she had feet like this?” She lifted up her dress to show him a cute pair of goat feet.
I think these stories arose to discourage women from staying out at night, or maybe as urbanization grew to discourage prostitution. In the town I grew up in, they called the creatures ‘yamo’, a word for spirit. The mythology was that if you heard women laughing outside at night, they most likely were yamo, and if any woman knocked on your door in the dead of night, claiming to be lost, don’t let her in. If you did, and you served her food, chances are that she would eat everything, including the plates and forks and utensils, for spirits think all that is part of human food.
The creature I love the most is called an abiba, a witch, and she can fly, but not on broomsticks. She just flies, with fire blazing out of her anus. I don’t know if the fire is similar to the flames that jet out of a rocket, if they propel her forward, but the image of a flying witch with fire in her anus is hilarious. I have tried to write a story featuring this creature, and failed. It all comes out too funny. As a child, I heard of another version of an abiba, this time it was a man, but he was not flying. A neighbor claimed to have met him in the dead of the night, as she was heading back home. He was moving upside down, with his hands on the ground and his legs up in the air, and fire spurt out of his anus. Both stories came from Luo/Nilotic communities, with the abiba coming from West Nile region of Uganda, and the second one I heard from a Luo woman of Kenya.
Second to the abiba is the night dancer. In other places they are called night runners, but in Uganda we call them the night dancers, though every nation has its own word for these people. And they are people, ordinary people. I think they are afflicted with a form of sleep walking, in which the victim runs around the village paths or town streets, dancing stark naked. They are often benevolent, doing no harm other than throwing feces into your bed if you leave your window open, or throwing stones on your roof to keep you awake at night. They are often thought of as a nuisance. There are methods of trapping them. One is to plant razor blades on your door, because they are said to rub their naked bums on the doors while dancing. Once they do it the blades cut them. They bleed, leaving a blood trail back to their home, and hence their identity is revealed. There are also charms that you put around your house to hide time from the night dancer, and the dancer won’t know when the sun rises, so he will keep dancing until daytime. Then, his identity will be revealed. There are numerous accounts of people caught in this way. Often, it was someone from within the neighborhood, and often, it was a man. I don’t know why.
Closely related to the night dancers are abasezi (a term from Buganda, one of the nations in Uganda). They are cannibals who eat zombies – well, not the rotting corpses you see on TV, but a different kind of zombies. Today some people think night dancers and abasezi are the same, but while growing up tales of the night dancers were different from tales of the abasezi. A musezi (singular) will kill a person using charms. Once the dead person is buried, the corpse cannot rot, because the musezi will have charmed it. At an appropriate time, the musezi will perform magic, and the corpse will walk out of the grave to the musezi’s home. To be eaten. Or sometimes to work the gardens until the musezi eats it. In recent years, tales of abasezi have become so common that they regularly appear in the news. In some parts of Uganda, every month someone is arrested on suspicion of this kind of cannibalism. In a recent news article, a corpse refused to be eaten until the musezi buys it a phone – the article never explains why it wanted a phone.
Tales of abasezi are the most hilarious, and the most popular. A few months ago I was in South Africa, and a few Ugandans had gathered around a table. Someone started a tale, and we laughed so much that one girl fell to the floor holding her sides. There were Americans in the group, and a few south Africans. They never understood why we were laughing. We tried explaining the joke, but they only looked at us wondering what was funny. I think you need to have lived in Uganda to get it. It puzzles me. In many communities people live in constant fear of being eaten. Whenever a person dies, some families will perform extensive rituals to make sure the corpse doesn’t end up on a musezi’s plate, for no one can be certain whether the death was natural or the work of a musezi, so why is it fodder for comedy?
There are many other things in Uganda that don’t stay dead, especially corpses. We lived near a man who performed hearse services. He was of mixed racial origin, what they call ‘kosa kabila’ (those without a people). We feared him, and we feared his car, a pickup truck. I still remember the number plate. UUD 999. Some people thought the 999 was inverted 666, that this man was real evil. Whenever there was a death, he was the only one who would transport the corpse. His children told us wild stories that they claim he told them. Often, before setting off on the journey, he would put four eggs on the road for each tire to roll over as sacrifice, but some corpses wouldn’t accept this sacrifice. Then his car would break down. Sometimes, the car would just stop moving, for no mechanical reason. Sometimes, they would have to call a shaman to perform rituals to appease the corpse to allow the car to move. Other times, he would get angry, grab a stick, and whip the corpse and it allows them to transport it. Today there are several professional funeral services in the city, but tales like this persist. I recently saw news of mourners who had to whip a corpse because it wouldn’t allow them to transport it, they whipped it so bad that the flesh got torn in some places, and only then did their car move.
Other undead things include mukalabanda (a walking skeleton) and a mizumu (ghost). But tales of ghosts are not so common, I don’t know why, maybe because of ancestral spirit worship, and the idea of ghost as seen through Western/Christian/Islamic eyes has not gotten real roots. If you encounter one its sometimes not a bad thing. Ghost tales do the rounds occasional, but they are not as popular as tales of evil spirits, which include mayembe, a spirit that is sent to cause trouble. Sometimes, like the night dancer, it announces its presence by throwing stones onto tin roofs. Most times, whips victims with invisible sticks. Many people use it to drive off rivals in land disputes. Some people use it to torment those they have grudges against, either with sicknesses, or bad dreams, or sleepless nights – it can haunt a house the way a ghost will haunt a house. About a decade ago, I read a news article about a woman who went to a shaman in Tanzania to get a mayembe. She intended it to disrupt a family, so that the man can chase away his wife and marry her instead. On returning home, she found the wife had already run away, so she released the mayembe thinking it was of no more use. However, the mayemba went on rampage, raping several women in the village before the shaman came to arrest it.
The most feared evil spirit is kifaro. It is essentially an assassin. You use it to kill your enemies, or rivals, or people you don’t like. Other than kill, it can cause severe sicknesses, or disability, or madness. I have seen one such thing, in a calabash. It was a cock’s bloodstained head and a lot of other ingredients. A shaman was kind enough to show it to me. There are two kinds of shamans here, the good kind, who heal, and are sometimes called herbalists, and the evil kind, who use things like kifaros and mayembes. Colonialism, Christianity and Islam mean they are all called witchdoctors, but in every nation there are two names for shamans, one to denote a do-gooder and another to denote the evil doer.
In Uganda, the evil kind are notorious for child sacrifice, which gives us another kind of monster. Head hunters. Children in Uganda are traumatized, for a few years back stories of children mutilated in ritual sacrifice was a very common headline. One newspaper was notorious for showing gross pictures of severed heads and dismembered bodies. But while I was growing up, we only heard about these head hunters in whispers. This is one tale that was rarely told in humor. It would chill our bones, and it made us terrified of strangers. They always ended with a; ‘If you walk out alone the headhunter will kidnap you and put you in a sack.’ It’s an image that has lived with me all my life, a chloroformed child in a jute sack on the back of a headhunter, who calmly walks through crowded streets with no one knowing what is in the sack.
Often they would warn us to beware of strangers, of people you don’t know, of the obibi, which is another monster, but this time from the folk tales of Acholi (my mother’s people). Nobody knows what the obibi looks like. There are other names for it in other languages, but all stories have it as resembling human beings. In some stories it comes in the shape of a handsome man. In other stories, he is a kind of shape shifter, turning into a beast just before devouring his victims. Unlike the shape shifters in Western mythology, like the werewolf, that eat raw flesh off a living being, the obibi will often use tools and even sometimes cook his victims before dining. In one story, a victim hears him sharpening a knife as he chants a song that transforms him from man to beast. In another story, the obibi is a mother whose daughter Lapogo has a friend called Kila. Min Lapogo (Lapogo’s mother) encourages her daughter to invite Kila to stay with them, and when Kila does, Min Lapogo turns into a hyena at night and drinks Kila’s blood (a mix of werewolf and vampire, I think).
There are other monsters, many other monsters, that might require a whole book to discuss, but one of the most memorable is the nyawawa. It’s not exactly a monster as much as it is ancestral spirits, or maybe ghosts, that roam around a neighborhood. When they come, people are supposed to make so much noise to scare them away, otherwise they will possess your house. Housewives then, lacking drums, beat saucepans, jerry cans, any household item, so crazily so that the demons fear to come into their home. This is mostly found in Western Kenya, a few miles from where I grew up, and we kept hearing stories of how welders, metal workers, and other jua kali craftsmen who mend broken household utensils could sometimes provoke people into thinking that nyawawa is attacking. The next day, they are sure to find a long line of housewives with broken pans and cans that need fixing.
It always seems hard to discuss the origin of a story. Like those triumphant moments in junior school when you proudly announced the answer to a question and someone says “now show your working please” and suddenly all your triumph fades—all you can wonder is how did I get here in the first place?
It’s very tempting, at least for me, to be over analytical. Just layout the steps one by one and that should give you the answer but writing is not mathematics and besides, the writer in you points out, shouldn’t it be dramatic? Isn’t it your job to tell a story people will like? (the irony being half the reason writers tell stories is we hope that people will find them more interesting than we feel!)
If I were to list the steps in the creation of “Sacrament of Tears” I’d have to start by admitting that I chose the Abiku because the Lightening Bird was already taken.
Simple as that from a practical stand point.
Second in line? Drat!
Okay I’ll just grab something else from the menagerie.
Except it didn’t turn out to be simple at all – I should have known I was in trouble when I presumed it would be.
The moment I started to read up on the Abiku I was intrigued – what terror could be worse than the prospect of losing a child? Worse the child itself being complicit in that loss.
My spooky senses were positively tingling. This was way creeper than any straight up blood and gore monster this was something that nested in your family, made you love it and then stole all your happiness – monster gold, surely?
But no sooner had I confidently agreed to write my story than I realized what a complex task I had undertaken.
The Abiku is not just a monster, it is a fact of life. There was a time when the threat of wolves in a harsh winter might have given similar weight to ravening werewolves or the sight of un-decomposed bodies might have inspired whispers of vampire, but these things are distant now, weekend thrills and movie-house ghosts. The jump-scares and startled screams that colour so much modern horror just weren’t going to cut it.
The Abiku is insidious, for all it cuts closer to the bone, thus it is also harder to depict. How can one grasp the slow horror of a child slipping away from you? Particularly in parts of the world where infant mortality rates have fallen so much.
I faced the question of how I might do this African monster justice?
The terror of the inexplicable loss of a child is echoed around the world in stories of changelings, fey abductors, even cats that come to steal a child’s breath. It is of particular concern in African cultures where until relatively recently the view of the world beyond the homestead was of chaos kept at bay.
I thought long and hard of all the parallels, all the shared experiences both ancient and modern that lend weight to the profound terror that the Abiku should represent. The flavour of the monster may be African, but the concept is truly universal in its menace.
So that’s where I started, with a stranger looking in from the outside.
Well not really, there were a few rewrites before that, but the angle from which the story was told ended up becoming key. As far as communicating what it must be like to have one’s life touched by an Abiku goes—I know I failed and was presumptuous to have thought I could succeed but hopefully Martin Faircut’s letter does something else.
Like any true horror the Abiku is beyond anyone who has not experienced it but in the voice of the outsider, the explorer who may take one step too far in the wrong direction I hope I have conveyed at least some of the unease and foreboding that drew me to the monster in the first place.