The author of ‘The Holy Hour’ may perhaps be better known for tales of another type:
With regard to my story ‘The Holy Hour’ soon to be presented to you under the auspices of Respectable Horror:
Respectable, you say? Well now, it’s a good job you came to me, my dears, for it is well known about these parts that I am the very embodiment of the well-turned heel of etiquette, the nine-time retriever of Lady Windermere’s Fanny, the epitome of Respectability. Its goddamned quintessence, I say. Yes, indeed, I am all about the corsetry and manners, my sweetest hearts, the decadently clad dandy wilt throw no shade on me. My writings, for the most part, are not that of some rabidly cussing blood-crazed termagant, it’s not all effing and bloody jeffing, with dismembered limbs akimbo and boiling pans of severed heads on the stove – I mean, I once wrote a story about a Sub-Aquatic Opera Company, for goodness’ sake. That’s a positively cultural orgasm of respectability right there, a full on lah-di-dah rigour of protocol and decorum.
Don’t listen to today’s rabble, my loves! Theirs is the voice of indignity and ignorance.
Free yourself from the restraints of the heathenism of modern hedonism and run with me into an old-fashioned gothic phantasmagoria that will chill your spine and … well, actually, I feel quite foolish now, because there aren’t any creaking old houses, or sinister mazes, or spinster phantoms plaguing ruthless rakes in the night. No tastefully bosom-heaving heroines or gargantuous-foreheaded uncles with their eye on their innocent ward’s prize, no creatures that will cause the blood to run slow in your veins, and there are most certainly no books that will twist you into folly itself. There’s a wife; she’s alone and she’s sad. She might be me one day. I hope not, but I fear it.
Wait! There’s a church, they are très respectable, aren’t they? Well, it might be a church, or it might not now I come to think about it, I’m not a believer myself, at least I don’t think I am… there’s definitely a dog. Everyone likes dogs, all respectable households have one.
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.
Getting an invite to write a story for an anthology is probably one of the best feelings in the world for a writer. There’s a kind of acceptance that comes with that invitation, a sense of ‘Yes, we believe you are capable and good enough’, and since writers are always fighting themselves and the multitude of blank pages which need filling, this kind of thing happening is not only a boost for the writer but also for the writer’s other projects. I certainly crowed with excitement when I read the email from Margret Helgadottir – not only because of the invite, but because of the publisher behind the anthology, Margret’s fellow editor Jo Thomas, and the idea behind the anthology. Accepting the invitation was a decision I didn’t have to think about – needless to say, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
My first instinct was to choose the Tikolosh or Tokolosh – I had done some research regarding this strange, mischievous and dangerous creature for an article I had written some months before, so I had a good place from which to start. The Tokolosh, however, had already been nabbed by one of my fellow storytellers, and so I had to find a new creature to build a tale around. I began thinking that I needed to choose a creature which hadn’t received a lot of (or any) press, something that the folks reading these tales would be intrigued and creeped out by. And when I came across stories and reports of the Popo Bawa, I knew I had my creature.
The first roadblock, of course, presented itself then and there – most of the stories I had read about the Popo Bawa came from Zanzibar… The only other country I’ve been to either than my home (South Africa) is Australia, so how was I going to convincingly write about a creature I’d just read about and a country I had never been to?
Obviously the first thing I did was panic.
Googling Zanzibar presented me with countless links and hundreds of articles – searching on Facebook brought me to tourist companies, and although their beautiful photos helped me to begin envisioning Zanzibar’s beautiful coast lines, that was about as helpful as those photos proved to be. Until I came across Stone Town. That was when it all began to click into place.
Stone Town is ancient and iconic – it has a long, varied and multi-cultural history, has been home to countless peoples, religions and beliefs, and was a trading hub between the Persians and Africa. *click* The link to my Tokolosh article bloomed in my mind, and then the rest of the tale began to fall into place.
I still needed a character to tell the tale through, however – someone who I could relate to (as the writer, having to ‘live’ inside his mind for a bit) and someone who knew just enough about the situation in the tale that I could comfortably explore Stone Town without coming across as a tour guide after a good tip.
I was still panicking – I hadn’t written a thing yet, and the deadline for submissions was fast approaching. So I began watching videos about Zanzibar on YouTube, and I began listening to Taraab on Soundcloud. Listening to that wonderful, energetic and rhythmic music someone helped to pinpoint the character I was going to use – a hard-bitten, cynical South African who was paid to investigate certain strange occurrences and deal with the creatures behind those occurrences.
So, I had my creature or monster, my setting, my character, and the details of a plot. I knew, however, that I would probably surprise myself with something in the plot – it usually happens, me getting this spark of inspiration which usually sends the plot off in a surprising direction while still leaving me the chance to connect it to the main plot.
And so ‘Taraab and Terror in Zanzibar’ took full shape; a tale about Terence and his trip to Zanzibar to investigate reports of resurgent and dangerous Popo Bawa. Except things are definitely not as they seem, and even Terence –with all his experience and street-smarts- is surprised when the full extent of the threat is revealed.
Be warned, though – I’ve taken some liberties (you’ll know them when you read them) in service of the tale.
Author of The Lonely Dark, Ren Warom, takes time out to tell us about the music behind the writing. Enjoy. – Aunty Fox.
The Music of The Lonely Dark
I don’t work to music. I’m one of those terribly dull types who functions best in silence. However, I am frequently inspired by music; sound landscapes opening story landscapes in my head that I can revisit by listening to particular tracks. I think it’s rather common for this to happen, whether it be an artist, writer, or another musician – music seems to reach in and open doors inside of you, showing you places or connections you didn’t know were there.
I live in future worlds in my head, they’re the ones I cleave to. Strange worlds on the whole. When I sit down to write, however serious my intent (NB: I’m no nowhere near intellectual enough to be serious in my writing, but I suffer from unfortunate delusions of literature. Yeah. *Eyeroll*), I get sidetracked by odd details, weird little moments crop up and spread like bacteria until all attempts at the serious (or rather, I suppose, the intellectual) have been eaten alive.
Think of it like a vampire virus in blood; the weird gradually gobbling every sane moment until only the skin and meat jacket look similar. Remaining so until that moment the inner weirdness is revealed in sharp fangs and predatory intent, provoking the expectation/reality shockwave created by the illusion of normality. Gosh… that makes my writing sound waaay sexier than it is, so I’m going to run with it. Possibly to Paris. Or Gretna Green, because I’m cheap. Or rather because I’m poor. So romantic!
I appear to be digressing. Habit.
On rare occasions the strangeness infecting my writing comes in the form of musical inspiration. Lyrics that reach under the skin and mutate the words even before I can begin to build them into a story. So it was with The Lonely Dark. I first discovered Purity Ring when one of the YouTubers I watch included them in a roundup of her favourite music. The track she mentioned was called Fineshrine and, accompanied by a wonderfully surreal video, it made me want to know who this Purity Ring were.
They are, to my delight, a Canadian electro-pop duo, and everything they do is just as wonderful strange as Fineshrine. The combination of eerie, beautiful music mixed with the peculiarity of the lead singer’s lyrics, all sung in her slightly child-like voice creates atmospheres of dreaming incongruity to become lost in. It was this atmosphere, as well as a combination of certain lyrics, that infested the DNA of The Lonely Dark. Changed it at a fundamental level from a story of exploration and horrifying discovery to one with an underlying tone of loss, loneliness and the too-real unreality of dreams.
Throughout the writing of The Lonely Dark, in moments when driving or doing household chores, or when my inspiration lagged and words refused to come, I would listen to Purity Ring and the world would open to me all over again, bringing me home when I was lost. I didn’t quite capture exactly what I wanted to (and oh how familiar is that? The frustration of writers everywhere!) but I am very proud of the story I created and I hope you might find in it some of what I sought to express.
Listen to Purity Ring. Read The Lonely Dark (Please!). If you can, do both together. They do, after all, share DNA.
NB: Just how many times did I write strange and/or weird in this thing? Where’s Roget when you need him!