Journey to Forbidden Planet: Writing Speculative Fiction Set in Mexico
It’s a busy summer for me. I’m fundraising for my first novel, about narco vampires in Mexico City, Young Blood [http://igg.me/at/youngblood/x/166963]. Canadian lit publisher Exiled Editions is also releasing my first collection, This Strange Way of Dying. If there’s something that ties both projects together, other than the speculative elements, it’s the emphasis on Mexican culture. But I didn’t always write about Mexico. In fact, not so many years ago I was afraid to write anything related to my country.
As a teenager, I wrote Mac Europe fantasy worlds, science fiction stories set in the United States and horror tales in New England even though, at that point, I had never set foot in New England. I did it because I didn’t think we were allowed to write about Mexico. Everywhere I looked, in the movies and the television and in the bookstore, it was foreign worlds which attracted attention. Aliens never landed in Tijuana. They went to Washington or New York, or at worst, London.
There was magic realism and that had elements of my culture, but that lived on another shelf: Mexican Literature. On the Fantasy and Science Fiction shelves it was Tolkien and the Dune books. And though there was Mexican science fiction, it was a small market. Not an insignificant one, but it was always dwarfed by the gigantic spectacles put forth by Star Wars and Star Trek and the like. And foreign stuff was cooler! Because the colonial legacy of my country means we are always looking at foreign stuff as being better by default.
I grew up in Mexico. I also grew up in a culture alien to me. I recited catch phrases (I’ll be back! or i I find your lack of faith disturbing) in a language I didn’t speak. Imagine if you were able to spout French or Mandarin catch phrases easily not because you knew what they mean, but because it was everywhere on the TV, the radio, the subway.
There’s an imbalance of cultural power which created this situation, but I won’t delve into that too much. Best to say I grew up in a bizarre state of paralysis, both interested in speculative fiction and terrified that I had no place in it. People say to write what you know, but what if what you know is not good enough? If I wrote about Mexico, was it even science fiction? Would people read it? Would editors buy it?
I believe that every good story has a kernel of truth in it. But because I felt I couldn’t write about my experiences, my memories and culture, I wrote shitty stories that were all lies.
One day I stopped and started writing stories that used elements from Mexican folklore. I wrote stories set in Mexico. I wrote stories about my great-grandmother and my aunt and other people I knew. My stories got better. I was happy.
Still, it wasn’t all easy. There was an editor who rejected a story because it had too many foreign words (I actually try to use very few Spanish words, but a tamal is a tamal). I had lots of people rejected my stories because they were not stories or they were not speculative. For example, “Maquech,” which is about a near-future Mexico City and ecology, was deemed not science fiction before being published in Futurismic. I wrote “Jaguar Woman” and someone said it was “pseudo-central american spiritualist woo.” I cried because one time someone said I probably had only been published because I was brown and people were trying to be politically correct. Someone tried to correct my Spanish, even though it is my first language. The names of my characters sounded funny, even though nobody ever complained about Daenerys Targaryen being impossible to spell.
However, it eventually became clear that I was doing what I should be doing, that this was the real me, these were the stories I wanted to tell, and whether that would make it harder or easier for me to sell them was a moot point.
Writing is a compulsive act. Writing about Mexico is also compulsive. The tales my great-grandmother told me as a child, the smells of our kitchen, my relatives, all that filters into my writing. When I tried not to write about this, it was like trying to type with one arm tied behind my back. I was incomplete and my writing was therefore shallow and half-formed.
I’ve now lived for many years in Canada. I sometimes write stories inspired by Vancouver, where I reside. But Mexico is a part of me. I can’t cut off one of my hands. I need both of them to write.
Mexican by birth, Canadian by inclination. Silvia’s stories have appeared in places such as The Book of Cthulhu and Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing. Her first collection, This Strange Way of Dying, is this summer. She’s raising funds for her first novel, Young Blood [http://igg.me/at/youngblood/x/166963]. Find her at http://silviamoreno-garcia.com/
Silvia Moreno-Garcia Interview
By Charles Tan
Hi Silvia! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how are things with Innsmouth Free Press?
Good! We’ve got three books we are working on. There’s DEMONSTRA, a poetry collection by Bryan Thao Worra. It’s Weird poetry with a Laos angle. The sequel to the urban fantasy novel Fraterfamilias is out this year. It’s called Confraternitas. We recently revealed the TOC for Sword and Mythos, it’s an anthology of heroic fantasy tales with a Lovecraft Mythos angle. And we are working on the next two issues of Innsmouth Magazine.
Moving on to your fiction, at this point in time, how do you manage to juggle the time to write fiction amidst your various projects including publishing, editing, and fund-raising a novel?
After I put my children in bed, I generally have a couple of hours to devote to Innsmouth Free Press. That’s when I edit, send contracts, etc. Most of my time is taken by this stuff but I try to make some time for my writing.
I actually spend a small portion of my overall time writing. Maybe 25%. And I try to pre-write. I work a story in my head. I rehearse dialogue in the shower or on the bus (yeah, I can seem very weird). I solve plot problems when waiting in line. By the time I sit down to write I may not have everything solved, but I have a good idea of what the feeling and general thrust of the story might be like.
I can proof during my commute. If I have a day off, I can carve a couple of hours in the morning for writing. Sometimes I try to get up early so I can write before my family is up. I just try to make it work.
Could you tell us more about Young Blood?
It’s a novel about narco vampires in Mexico City. It grew from a short story I published in Evolve 2 a couple of years ago. The protagonist is a teenager who collects garbage for a living. He meets a vampire who is on the run from rival vampires. They get into trouble.
A lot of the books and stories I read have middle-class protagonists. I wanted to do something that is not like that. And I wanted to try something that is a bit noir because I think Mexico City is naturally noir. At the same time, Domingo, the teenager, is a pretty plucky hero. He’s an optimist. People might see sleaze and hardship, but he’s always looking at the bright side.
What makes your vampires different?
Everyone always says their vampires are different, it’s become a bit of a cliche, hasn’t it? Still, I think there are some differences.
Atl, the vampire Domingo meets, is inspired by Mexican folklore so she has certain characteristics borrowed from Mexican vampires: she only feeds on the blood of children and teenagers, she transforms into something that resembles a bird of prey, only women can be vampires. She’s from the North of the country and her family is a narco family.
The vampires after her are European refugees and they are more like the vampires you usually see in movies. They can’t go out in the daylight. They can infect you. Only you won’t turn into a vampire. It’s like a bad case of a venereal disease. You’ll just die eventually.
I guess the biggest difference is it all takes place in Mexico City. It seems like vampires are always European and they are either in England or maybe in the United States. And they’re sexy. But these people aren’t sexy. Atl is good looking and Domingo is quickly fascinated by her, but that’s in great part because he is attracted to the romantic image of the vampire found in comic books and fiction. He’s got the wrong idea about her. She’s not romantic. It’s not romantic to be a vampire or a narco. Atl and the people around her are all killers. They are predators.
I wanted to write a YA with vampires and I basically wanted to play around with people’s expectations of this type of work. So these are not white middle-class kids whose worst fear is that their prom will be ruined.
What made you decide to raise funds for it? Why Indiegogo?
I asked for a Canada Writer’s Grant for $3,000 because I needed the money to finish the novel. I’m halfway through and basically in my spare time I freelance. I know, apart from IFP I freelance! But if I have to worry about making extra cash in my spare time, I can’t write. So I thought if I could have $3,000 I could sit down and dedicate some time to the novel. Finish it. Everything would be great.
But I didn’t get the grant. I organized a successful Indiegogo campaign for the Sword and Mythos anthology. I wondered if I should do the same thing for this and publish the novel myself. There are risks, but I figure no one is clamoring to toss an advance or a grant at my feet, so I might as well make it happen some other way.
You’ve provided opportunities for diverse voices in the past few years, whether through your own writing, the books you edit, and those you’ve published. So far, what’s been the biggest hurdle in your experience?
One difficult thing is showing people that Innsmouth Free Press is open to diverse writers. A lot of writers see horror as a very closed arena. They see it as closed to women, minorities, etc. They don’t see it as a space they can inhabit. Spreading the word and convincing people that we are open to them takes some time. We have done very well with our anthologies and issues and managed to attract lots of talented writers, but it’s still not exactly easy to get the word out at times.
Personally, I’ve had issues with people saying my writing is not “science fiction” or “fantasy.” I’ve had editors say it is too literary. I also had one person say a story made me cry, but they couldn’t understand it, so they rejected it. I think we still have some narrow expectations of what a story is and when something comes and it’s a bit different, we don’t always react well to it.
It’s a weird space to navigate at times because I think literary publications may me a bit weirded out by my stuff and speculative places may think it’s too mundane. But, I’m doing much better these days! It’s always easier when people are now soliciting your stuff and you don’t need to wade the slush pile.
What projects are you currently working on?
Aside from the Indiegogo for the novel, it’s mostly Innsmouth Free Press stuff. Getting projects through the production funnel. I’ll probably write a couple more short stories before the year is done. One should be steampunk, probably two horror ones. Next year I will be editing one or two anthologies and, well, there’s the novel!
Anything else you want to plug?
My first collection, This Strange Way of Dying, is out this year. In the fall my first solo anthology, Dead North, containing lots of Canadian zombie stories, hits bookstores.
This week on the World SF Blog and as part of our sixth Author Week, we feature Silvia Moreno-Garcia‘s story, “A Puddle of Blood”, which inspired Silvia’s novel-in-progress Young Blood (the fund-raiser for which is currently running!). If you liked the story, do consider donating to the author!
The story was first published in the anthology Evolve 2 (2011).
A Puddle of Blood
By Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Six dismembered bodies found in Ciudad Juarez. Vampire drug-wars rage on.
Domingo reads the headline slowly. Images flash on the video screen of the subway station. Cops. Long shots of the bodies. The images dissolve, showing a young woman holding a can of soda in her hands. She winks at him.
Domingo waits to see if the next news items will expand on the drug-war story. He is fond of yellow journalism. He also likes stories about vampires; they seem exotic. There are no vampires in Mexico City: their kind has been a no-no for the past thirty years, around the time the Federal District became a city-state.
The next story is of a pop-star, the singing sensation of the month, and then there is another ad, this one for a shoulder-bag computer. Domingo sulks, changes the tune on his music player.
He looks at another screen with pictures of blue butterflies fluttering around. Domingo takes a chocolate from his pocket and tears the wrapper.
He spends a lot of time in the subway system. He used to sleep in the subway cars when he was a street kid making a living by washing windshields at cross streets. Those days are behind. He has a place to sleep and lately he’s been doing some for a rag-and-bone man, collecting used thermoplastic clothing. He complements his income with other odd jobs. It keeps him well-fed and he has enough money to buy tokens for the public baths once a week.
He bites into the chocolate bar.
A woman wearing a black vinyl jacket walks by him, holding a leash. Her Doberman must be genetically modified. The animal is huge.
He’s seen her several times before, riding the subway late at nights, always with the dog. Heavy boots upon the white tiles, bob cut black hair, narrow-faced.
Tonight she moves her face a small fraction, glancing at him. Domingo stuffs the remaining chocolate back in his pocket, takes off his headphones and follows her quickly, squeezing through the doors of the subway car she’s boarding.
He sits across from her and is able to get a better look at the woman. She is early twenties, with large eyes that give her an air of innocence which is quickly dispelled by the stern mouth. The woman is cute, in an odd way.
Domingo tries to look at her discreetly, but he must not be discreet enough because she turns and stares at him.
“Hey,” he says, smiling. “How are you doing tonight?”
“I’m looking for a friend.”
Domingo nods, uncertain.
“How old are you?”
“Seventeen,” he replies.
“Would you like to be my friend? I can pay you.”
Domingo isn’t in the habit of prostituting himself. He’s done it once or twice when he was in a pinch. There had also been that time with El Chacal, but that didn’t count because Domingo hadn’t wanted to and El Chacal had made him anyway, and that’s when Domingo left the circle of street kids and the windshield wiping and went to live on his own.
Domingo looks at her. He’s seen the woman walk by all those nights before and he’s never thought she’d speak to him. Why, he expected her to unleash the dog upon him when he opened his mouth.
He nods. He’s never been a lucky guy but he’s in luck today.
Her apartment building is squat, short, located just a few block from a busy nightclub.
“Hey, you haven’t told me your name,” he says when they reach the fourth floor and she fishes for her keys.
“Atl,” she replies.
The door swings open. The apartment is empty. There is a rug, some cushions on top of it, but no couch, no television and no table. She doesn’t even have a calendar on the wall. The apartment has a heavy smell, animal-like, probably courtesy of the dog. Perhaps she keeps more than one pet.
“Do you want tea?” she asks.
Domingo would be better off with pop or a beer, but the girl seems classy and he thinks he ought to go with whatever she prefers.
“Sure,” he says.
Atl takes off her jacket. Her blouse is pale cream; it shows off her bony shoulders. He follows her into the kitchen as she places the kettle on a burner.
“I’m going to pay you a certain amount, just for coming here. If you agree to stay, I’ll double it,” she says.
“Listen,” Domingo says, rubbing the back of his head, “you don’t really need to pay me nothing.”
“I do. I’m a tlahuelpuchi.”
Domingo blinks. “You can’t be. That’s one of those vampire types, isn’t it?”
“It’s vampire-free territory in Mexico City.”
“I know. That is why I’m doubling it,” she says, scribbling a number on a pad of paper and holding it up for him to see.
Domingo leans against the wall, arms crossed. “Wow.”
Atl nods. “I need young blood. You’ll do.”
“Wait, I mean…I’m not going to turn into a vampire, am I?” he asks, because you can never be too sure.
“No,” she says, sounding affronted. “We are born into our condition.”
“It won’t hurt much. What do you think?”
“I don’t know. I mean, do I still get to…you know…sleep with you?”
She lets out a sigh and shakes her head.
“No. Don’t try anything. Cualli will bite your leg off if you do.”
The kettle whistles. Atl removes it from the burner and pours hot water into two mugs.
“How do we do this?” Domingo asks.
Atl places tea bags in the cups and cranes her neck. Her hair has turned to feathers and her hands, when she raises them, are like talons. The effect is disturbing, as though she is wearing a curious mask.
“Don’t worry. Won’t take long,” she says.
Atl is a bird of prey.
The first thing Domingo does with his new found fortune is buy himself a good meal. Afterwards, he pays for a booth at the Internet cafe, squeezing himself in and clumsily thumbing the computer screen. The guy in the next cubicle is watching porn; the moans of a woman spill into Domingo’s narrow space.
Domingo frowns. He pulls out the frayed headphones wrapped with insulating tape and pushes the play button on the music player.
He does a search for the word tlahuelpuchi. Stories about gangs, murders and drugs fill the viewscreen. He scrolls through an article which talks about the history of the tlahuelpocmimi, explaining this is Mexico’s native vampire species, with roots that go back to the time of the Aztecs. The article has lots of information but it uses very big words he doesn’t know, such as hematophagy, anticoagulants and matrilineal stratified sept. Domingo gives up on it quickly, preferring to stare at the bold headlines and colourful pictures of the vampire gangsters. These resemble the comic books he keeps at his place; he is comfortable with this kind of stuff.
When an attendant bangs on the door Domingo doesn’t buy more tokens. He has more money than he’s ever had in his life and he doesn’t know what to do with it.
It is nearly dusk when he finds his way to Atl’s apartment. She opens the door a crack; stares at him as though she’s never met him before.
“What are you doing tonight?” he asks.
“You’re not getting any more money, alright?” she says. “I don’t need food right now. There’s no sense in you coming here.”
“You only eat kids, no?” he says, blurting it.
“Yeah. Something in the hormone levels,” she waves her hand, irritated. “That doesn’t make me a Lucy Westenra, alright?”
She raises an eyebrow at him.
“I figure, you want a steady person. Steady food, no? And…yesterday, it was, ah…it was fun. Kind of.”
“Fun,” she repeats.
Yeah. It had been fun. Not the blood part. Well, that hadn’t been too awful. She made him a cheese sandwich and they drank tea afterwards. Atl didn’t have furniture, but she did have a music player and they sat cross-legged in the living room, chatting, until she said he was fine and he wouldn’t get woozy and told him to make sure he had a good breakfast.
It wasn’t exactly a date, but Domingo has never exactly dated. There were hurried copulations in back alleys, the kind street kids manage. He hung out with Belen for a little bit, but then she went with an older guy and got pregnant, and Domingo hadn’t seen her anymore.
Atl lets him in, closing the door, carefully turning the locks.
The dog pads out of the kitchen and stares at him.
“Look, you’ve to get some facts straight, alright? I’m not in Mexico City on vacation. You don’t want to hang out with me. You’ll end up as a carpet stain. Trust me, my clan is in deep shit.”
“You’re part of a clan?” Domingo says, excited. “That’s cool! You’ve got a crest tattoed? Is it hand-poked?”
“Jesus,” Atl says. “Are you some sort of fanboy?”
Domingo shakes his head. “No.”
“Why are you here?”
“I like your dog,” he says. It is a stupid answer. He doesn’t have anything better. He wonders if she’ll go with him to the arcade. He went there once and drank beer while he tried to shoot green monsters. It would be cool. Maybe she is too old for arcades. He wonders what she does for fun.
“It will bite your hand off if you pet it,” she warns him. “I’ll give you a cup of tea and you leave afterwards, alright?”
“Sure. How come you drink tea?”
She doesn’t reply. Domingo is about to apologize for being crass, but he isn’t up to date on tlahuelpocmimi diets. Except for the kid part.
A knock on the door makes them both turn their heads.
“Health and Sanitation.”
“Open up. Don’t tell them I’m here,” she whispers, moving so quickly to his side it makes him gasp.
She goes towards the window and jumps out. Domingo rushes after her, pokes his head out, and sees Atl is climbing up the side of the building, her shoulders hunched and looking birdlike once more. She disappears onto the roof.
Domingo opens the door.
Three men waltz in, faces grim.
“We have a report there’s a vampire here,” one of them says.
Domingo, with the experience of a master liar and a complete indifference to authority, shrugs. “I don’t know. The guy that’s renting me the place didn’t say nothing about vampires.”
“Look around. You, I’m going to check you, give me your hand.”
Domingo obeys. The guy presses a little white plastic stick against his wrist. It beeps.
“You’re alone?” the guy asks him.
Domingo takes out a chocolate bar and starts eating it. The dog is sitting still, eyeing the men.
“What are you doing?”
Domingo can hear the other two men opening doors, muttering between themselves.
“It’s all empty,” one of the other men says. “There’s not even clothes in the closet. Just a mattress in there.”
“You live here?” asks the first guy, who hasn’t moved from Domingo’s side, carefully cataloguing him.
“Yeah. For now. I move around. Been working for a rag-and-bone man lately. I used to wash windshields and before that I juggled balls for the drivers as the stop lights, but this guy I worked with beat me up and I’ve got the rag-and-bone gig now.”
“Just a damn street kid,” says the man, and Domingo thinks he must have an earpiece on or something, because he sure as hell isn’t speaking to Domingo.
The men leave as quickly as they’ve come. He locks the door, sits on the rug and waits. Atl doesn’t fly in — not technically — but she seems to jump in with a certain grace and flexibility that is birdlike.
“Thanks,” she says. The feathers disappear, leaving only pitch-black hair behind.
“How’d you do that?”
“The bird thing.”
“It’s natural. We all do it after we hit puberty.”
She goes into her room. Domingo stands at the entrance, watching her pull up floor boards with her bare hands, taking stuff from under there and tossing it into a backpack. She rips the mattress open and begins to throw some money and papers in the bag.
“It’s been nice meeting you. I’ve got to find another place now.”
“What sort of trouble are you in? What do those guys want?”
“Those guys aren’t the trouble,” she says. “That’s just sanitation. But if they got word there is a vampire here, that means the others aren’t far behind.”
“Who are the others?”
Atl gives him a narrow look. “One month ago my aunt’s head was delivered in a cooler to our home. I left Ciudad Juarez and headed here before I also ended in a cooler.”
“Who killed her?”
“A rival clan. It’s part of our territory fights. We were trying to kill a certain clan leader and botched it. She’s got a big scar across the middle now, and she’s mighty pissed at us. I hope you can appreciate the situation,” she says, zipping her jacket up.
It sounds very exciting to Domingo. He’s only seen the gang fights from afar. Mexico City has managed to insulate itself through the conflict, partly because it keeps the vampires who are waging the wars out of the city limits, and partly because it is so damn militarized. The drug dealers in Mexico City are narcomenudistas; petty peddlers, small-scale crooks focused around Tepito and Iztapalapa. If they kill each other, they have the sense to do it quietly, without attracting 20 special forces ops who are ready to put a gun up your ass and shoot before bothering to ask for identity cards.
Atl goes down the stairs. Domingo follows her.
When they reach the front door she turns to look at him and he thinks she is going to tell him to beat it. Her hands tighten around the dog’s leash. She takes a step back.
Thirty seconds later Domingo is in a comic book.
Half a dozen men pour in. The dog growls. Somebody yells. “Stay the fuck still. Stay the fuck still,” they say. Big bubble speeches.
A guy grabs Domingo by the collar and drags him out, pinning him against the ground and putting a plastic tie around his wrists.
Domingo doesn’t know if these are cops, or sanitation, or narcos. All he knows is he can hear the dog barking and he is being dragged against the pavement, then kicked towards the trunk of a car. They’re trying to stuff him in the trunk.
Domingo panics. He tries to hold onto something. The guy punches him and Domingo folds over himself.
It doesn’t really feel like he thought it might feel. Action. Adventure. Comic book manic energy.
The guy pulls Domingo by his hair and Domingo gets a glimpse of teeth, half a smile, before Atl pulls him off Domingo with a swift, careless motion that breaks his bones.
Domingo, on his knees, looks up at Atl. She cuts the plastic tie and the dog comes bounding towards her.
She’s got three sharp needles sticking out of her left leg. Blood puddles next to her shoes.
She vomits. A sticky, dark mess.
The dog whines.
“Come on,” he says grabbing her arm, propping her up.
He tries not to look at the bodies they leave behind. He tries not to wonder if they’re all dead.
If this is a comic book, then it’s tinted with red.
She’s awake. He knows it because the dog raises its head. Domingo looks at her. Sure enough, her eyes are open, though he can’t make her expression.
“How you feeling?” he asks.
Atl looks down at her bandaged leg. He knows he didn’t do a great job, but at least he took out those weird needles.
“My bag. Do you have it?”
She clutched it all the way there. There was no way he could have left it behind. Domingo nods.
“There’s a blue plastic stick in it. Small. Hand it to me.”
He does. She presses it against her tongue and shivers.
She unwraps the bandage around her leg. The skin looks odd. Blackened, as if it were stained.
“What’s that?” he asks.
“Anaphylactic reaction from the silver nitrate. Lucky for me they didn’t want me dead yet.”
“It makes me sick,” she explains.
“You’ve been out for about an hour.”
Atl brushes the hair back from her face. She looks around at the little room and the piles of old comic books, hybrid personal protective clothing, and all the other assorted junk he collects and sells together with the bone-and-rag-man.
“Where are we?”
“My place. It’s safe. We’re in a tunnel downtown. It’s very old. I think the nuns used it. There was a convent nearby. Benito Juarez closed it fifty years ago.”
Atl chuckles. “You’re talking about the mid-19th century.”
She gives him a funny look. Domingo frowns. He doesn’t know lots of stuff and obviously she does. He doesn’t like it when people make fun of him. It’s unpleasant. Even Belen was rude at times, though there was no reason for that.
“It’s cool,” she says. “This works. It was smart thinking.”
She opens her arms and the dog rushes towards her, pressing its great head against her cheek. She scratches its ear and smiles at Domingo.
“How come your dog’s so big?” he asks.
“Cualli’s a special breed. He’s an attack dog.”
“Were those the gangsters?”
“Those were freelancers. Health and Sanitation must have tipped them off that there was something odd going on. Or somebody else did.”
“You were fast. Like really fast. Are all vampires like that? I’ve read a lot about the European ones and the Chinese, and how there’s all the infighting with them up north and if you go to Mexicali it’s like all run by the Chinese. But they say they’re all stiff, no? Jian shi and they can’t really be green, can they? I don’t know much about your type. Funny, it’s probably …”
“Please. Stop,” she says, pressing her fingers against her temples. “I don’t want to talk about vampires. Or gangs.”
“What do you want to talk about?”
Domingo wants to talk about everything. He sits in front of her, brimming with questions as she curls up and closes her eyes.
This is like a vampire sleeps. Not in coffins. Curled up, with a dog by her feet and a boy watching her.
He gets up early and goes above ground. It’s raining, so he ties a plastic shopping bag to his head as he heads to purchase food. He buys bread, milk, three cans of beans, potato chips and pastries. He feels very happy as he pays for the stuff, like it’s Christmas.
On the way back, he scans the screens at the subway in search of news. There’s nothing about the confrontation of the previous day.
As he stands in the subway car, listening to the tired music on his player, he conjures a story in which he’s making breakfast for his girlfriend, and she’s real pretty and they live together. Not in the tunnels. In a proper place.
When he returns to the tunnel he’s humming a tune.
She’s sitting, back against the wall, browsing through a bunch of magazines. When she looks up at him, the tune dies on his lips.
“Where did you go?”
“I went to get us breakfast.”
“I don’t need breakfast. It was stupid of you. Someone might have seen you.”
“Sorry,” he mutters and then, tentatively, to diffuse her anger. “How do you like my collection?”
“It’s great,” she says quirking an eyebrow at him and jumping up to her feet, showing him the cover of a comic book. “Not a fanboy, hu?”
It’s an old-style thing with a guy in a Dracula cape. She picks another one. This is a recent clipping from a magazine he stole a few weeks before. It talks about the narco-vampires in Monterrey.
He wets his lips, struggling for words. “Why are you angry?”
“I am not a goddamn hobby.”
“Who’s talking about a hobby?”
She shoves the magazine against his chest, pushing him back.
“Do you like vampires? Hu? You like reading about them? You like looking at the pictures of dead vampires?”
“Yeah, well…it’s exciting.”
“Do you know how long my kind can live? Three-hundred years. You know what’s the average lifespan of my kind? Thirty years. Do you want to know why?”
Domingo does not answer. She’s grabbing him by his shirt, holding him up.
“Because we’re all getting massacred. Before I arrived in to Mexico City, I was at the market in Ciudad Juarez. The decapitated body of a vampire bled onto the pavement, right next to a food stand. People kept eating. They bought soda. They were more bothered by the heat than the corpse.”
She sets him down. His feet touch the floor.
“I’m going to be a puddle of blood.”
He’s scared to say a thing. She sits down, folding her legs and staring at the wall. Eventually, he sits next to her.
“What are you going to do?” he asks.
“Hell if I know,” she whispers. “I need to eat. I need to sleep. I need to think.”
He pulls up his sleeve, offering his arm to her. She smiles wryly.
“You’re going to get hurt one of these days,” she tells him, “if you keep helping strangers like me.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he replies.
She presses her mouth against his skin.
Domingo is groggy when he opens his eyes. Atl’s still asleep. He doesn’t try to wake her. He flicks a battery-powered lantern on and looks at his magazines, feeling odd when he runs his hands across the vivid picture; the splashes of red.
The dog growls. Domingo lifts the lantern and listens. He doesn’t hear anything. The dog growls louder. Atl shifts her body, fully awake.
“What is it?” he asks.
“People,” she says.
He still can’t hear anything. Atl grabs her bag and pulls out a switchblade.
“Cualli, stay,” she tells the dog, then raises her eyes towards him. “Don’t move. The dog will keep you safe.”
“What are you doing?”
“I’m going to take a look,” she says.
She runs out. Domingo crouches next to the dog, trying to listen for anything odd. The tunnels are quiet for a bit, then he hears loud sounds. Might be gun shots. The sounds seem to be getting closer. He’s nervous, heart beating very fast. He twists the dog’s leash between his hands.
Atl returns; she’s running and her face is very tense.
“Lead me out of here,” she says.
Domingo scrambles ahead of her, holding his lantern. He turns left and finds himself face to face with three people wearing a mask and goggles. They raise their guns. He blinks and is yanked back, thrown against the floor. The air is knocked out of his lungs.
There’s the zing of bullets; the loud blast of a shotgun. Domingo covers his ears. One of them lunges past Atl, towards him. Atl plucks him back, her claws and teeth tear the protective mask apart and she bites into the man’s face.
The man is trying to escape and Atl bites into his face like he is a ripe fruit.
The dog is also biting, tearing.
Domingo looks dumbly at all the blood.
“The place is crawling with them,” she says, angrily. “They must have followed you back. You’ve got to lead us out.”
“We’ve got to keep going straight,” he mumbles, picking the lantern off the floor.
The light illuminates a shadow, the figure of another man with a mask coming just behind Atl.
“Look out!” he yells.
The man’s head rolls onto the floor.
It literally rolls onto the floor.
Atl’s fingers are stained crimson. Brains are splattered over her jacket.
It’s his turn to vomit.
Dozens of mariachis in charro costumes litter Garibaldi Plaza. They’re waiting for someone to hire them to play a song and do not pay attention to two dirty beggars with a stray dog. That’s what Atl and Domingo look like, covered in grime and dirt after running through the tunnels.
“I’m heading to Guatemala, kid,” Atl says, her bag balanced on her left shoulder.
“Do you have friends there?”
“Sure. I’ll go,” he says.
She stares at him.
“You’re going to need to feed,” he says. “You’ll need someone to watch your back.”
“I don’t need help.”
“I can shoot a gun,” he blusters.
“You’ve almost died twice in less than a week.”
“The life expectancy of a street kid isn’t much higher than yours,” he says, knowing he’s got nowhere to go. There’s nothing but forward.
She smirks. “Find another way to commit suicide.”
She slips a couple of bills into his hand.
“Atl,” he says.
“Keep the dog,” she replies, handing him the leash. “It’ll slow me down.”
She takes a couple of steps. The dog whines.
“Stay with him,” she orders.
“Atl,” he repeats.
She walks away. She doesn’t turn her head. He tries following her, but the square is crowded at this time of the night and he looses her quickly. She must have flown away. Can vampires fly? He’ll never know.
A trio sings “La Cucaracha” while the rain begins to fall. He sniffles, eyes watery.
He pulls his plastic bag from his pocket and ties it above his head. He’s out of chocolate. He’s out of luck. He pats the dog’s head.
We’re back for our sixth special Author Week feature, and this week we have with us Mexican author Silvia Moreno-Garcia!
Silvia, who now lives in Canada, is the publisher behind Innsmouth Free Press, co-editor of several highly regarded anthologies including Fungi, Historical Lovecraft, Future Lovecraft, Candle in the Attic Window and is forthcoming sole editor of Dead North.
A short story writer, her fiction has been published widely and her first collection, This Strange Way of Dying, is out in June.
Silvia was a contributor to The Apex Book of World SF 2 and translated a story for us for volume 3. She is a Carter V. Cooper Memorial Prize winner (in the Emerging Writer category), and was a finalist for the Manchester Fiction Prize.
Silvia is currently fund-raising in order to complete and publish her first novel, Young Blood, about vampires and drug dealers in Mexico City.
But first – a giveaway!
We have one copy each of Silvia’s anthologies Fungi and Future Lovecraft to give away! To enter simply post a comment down below (not forgetting to include your e-mail).
Our winners of our Jagannath giveaway are: Kyle, Francene Lewis, and kummakissa. Congratulations!
Last night I dreamed of a landscape by the sea. I had traveled there to investigate a ruin that once was a sorcerer’s tower. I had lost most of my tools in the transition to this place; I’d managed to create a makeshift wind shelter out of an old sheet, and was sitting on the flagstones counting my coins, which at that moment was important. The sky overhead was purple with swollen clouds, the air heavy and still, waiting for the storm.
A man came walking along the beach and up the stairs to the tower. He was dressed in clothes from the Italian renaissance: two-coloured hose, doublet, a little cape, no hat, but an unfriendly sneer.
“We entered from there”, he said, and gestured down the waterfront. “This is our territory.”
“Who are ‘we’?” I asked.
“The rest of us. We’ve made camp in the forest. Come.” He started down the steps.
Down in the surf, the waves rose up in the shape of a lion’s head, glowing in red.
“Mind the beasts”, said the man.
Thinking about it, this is the first time I’ve met another traveller.
The stories in Jagannath were written over the course of ten years, and have very diverse origins. Coinciding with the release of the collection is the publication of my first novel in Swedish, Amatka, the result of a process that has run parallel to the creation of the stories in Jagannath. Since I’ve mostly talked about the collection to the English-speaking audience, I’d like to mention some things about Amatka. It’s about mapping an old continent.
I spent about three years recording my dreams. I wasn’t interested in analysis or symbolism, but instead if my dream realm could be mapped as if it were an external place. What were these reoccurring places? Where were they in relation to each other? Who were the people and creatures populating them? Over the months, patterns emerged, although in ways difficult to map: it was a country or continent, with cities, villages, flora and fauna, all shifting depending on what time it was in the dream, what time it was in the waking world, in what order they appeared, how they related to each other.
There’s a great plain, and a village where the houses have eaten their inhabitants and extend lanterns above their doorways to lure passers-by in; other parts of that plain are covered in enormous skeletons of long-dead migrant insects. An ocean to the west is dried out, all its water held in clouds above, and bright lights weave in and out of them. Further to the west there’s a forest of enormous trees from whose branches dangle sperical bathyscaphes. To the east, the celestial bodies crowd the sky and the giant orrery that holds them up becomes visible (and audible).
After some experimenting, I found that the best way to describe this world was boiling the images down into poetry: a process both uncontrolled and very much so. The resulting collection was partly published in Lyrikvännen, a Swedish poetry journal. I then laid it to rest on the compost heap and collected what seeped out a few years later:
Amatka is the story of colonizing a world where physical reality is mutable, and language both a tool and a threat. Vanja, a researcher who has failed to fulfill most of the duties expected of a good citizen, travels the distant colony Amatka to map hygiene habits. What she finds during her research leads to something quite different, unraveling the truth about the colonies and their history.
The idea for the novel partly originates in the dream project, with a series of dreams I had over the course of a couple of weeks. In the first one, I found a row of trucks on a dirt road, the drivers standing outside smoking. They were delivering goods to a town that lay far north and that no-one ever visited. The drivers refused to tell anyone what went on up there. In the second dream, I woke up in a town built entirely out of concrete, and knew in the fashion one knows things in dreams that this was that northern town the drivers visited. In the third dream, a copse of cast-iron pipes stood on a plain. Some of them were bent at the top like periscopes, others torn, like something had exploded out of them.
Amatka isn’t set in the dream world, but has borrowed some of the geography: the placement of the colonies that correspond to existing cities; topography, occurrences, elements, but above all, the fact that the fabric of reality, its base matter, is entirely controlled by language. The story itself is the result of plonking a socialist commune down in that universe and taking the consequences of the clash between them and the world they encounter. How would living in a mutable world change their way of thinking about reality and themselves? What would happen to social structure, philosophy, language? How much would they allow the world to change them?
By the time I’d finished the novel, I realized that the world I had mapped no longer resembled the landscape I now visit at night. The project is over. All that remains is to translate the story into English, so that I can show you what I mean instead of just talking about it. Meanwhile, I hope you’ll enjoy Jagannath.
Illegal Mingling: Karin Tidbeck’s Jagannath: Stories
Reviewed by Sofia Samatar
In a long twilight, the sound of tiny bells hangs in the air: a young woman’s mother is coming for her from the forest. Elsewhere, by the side of a lake, a family reunion is in progress, merry aunts and cousins hatching from cocoons. And in a tin can provided by charity, a tiny creature made of spit, salt, menstrual blood and a carrot kicks its legs, while the first October snow begins to fall. These are some of the strange, seductive images you’ll find in Karin Tidbeck’s stories.
Jagannath: Stories (Cheeky Frawg, 2012) is Tidbeck’s English-language book debut. It brings together works previously published in English, the author’s translations of her own stories—most of them from her Swedish collection, Vem är Arvid Pekon?—and original material. On the strength of Vem är Arvid Pekon?, Tidbeck won a grant from the Swedish Authors’ Fund; her first novel, Amatka, is forthcoming this fall from Sweden’s largest publisher. Jagannath gives English-language readers the chance to enter the shifting territory of Tidbeck’s marvelous multiple worlds.
The stories in Jagannath are fascinating, frightening, and above all, tender. There’s an intimacy to them that’s immediately enchanting: several take the form of diaries or letters, or words exchanged with a close friend. “Some Letters for Ove Lindström” is written to the narrator’s dead father. I first read this story in Shimmer Magazine earlier this year: that’s when the name “Karin Tidbeck” stuck in my mind, along with the haunting melancholy of this story of a broken family, lost hope, and magic. “Some Letters” concerns a young woman, Viveka, who returns to the place she grew up, an old schoolhouse where her parents lived with the other members of a commune: the loss of Viveka’s nuclear family (her mother disappeared when she was three; she lost her father to alcoholism and then death) is mingled with the loss of the commune, which was both an extended family and a vision of a utopian future. Loss fills every line of the story, like Viveka’s last memory of her mother: a red dress and the sound of tiny bells. Who was Viveka’s mother? That question both deepens the sadness of the story, and expands it outward toward mystery, toward the forest.
The red dress returns in “Reindeer Mountain,” where it becomes the sign of the vittra: tall, handsome, magical people who live inside the mountain, and like to wear red. Two sisters struggle with fear of madness and envy of each other in this story of a family with mixed human-vittra blood. The theme of human contact with other species, subtle in “Some Letters from Ove Lindström” and explicit in “Reindeer Mountain,” runs through the collection. “Pyret,” a sly gem in the form of an encyclopedia entry, details the habits of vittra cattle. A footnote informs us that the most common crime among those accused of witchcraft in medieval times was “illegal mingling”: humans consorting with non-human beings.
Many of the stories in Jagannath play with this theme: in “Beatrice,” a woman’s love affair with a steam engine produces a whistle-voiced, coal-chewing child; in both “Miss Nyberg and I” and “Cloudberry Jam,” children are grown like plants. The narrator of “Brita’s Holiday Village” discovers two families at once: while her memories of her relatives begin to emerge in her writing, she dreams the life of a second, insect-like family. And in the collection’s title story, the mother of a family carries her brood inside her.
Other themes include transformation, the nature of time, and the judgments of God. The stories “Augusta Prima” and “Aunts” take place in the same world, a fairyland of the actual fairytale type, where games are bloody and casual torture is the order of the day. The stories show two different perspectives on what happens when time enters this timeless realm. These stories—like “Rebecka,” in which torture leads to salvation—explore different types of illegal mingling, mixing transgression with law and cannibalism with comfort. The intimate tone of so many of Tidbeck’s tales invites the reader to blend in as well, to imagine a personal shift into something slightly different. The words of “Some Letters for Ove Lindström” are ostensibly written to a dead man, but when you read them, you’ll know better. Like all of the stories in Jagannath, these letters are for us.
First off, what made you decide to pursue writing?
I’ve always made up stories, and I couldn’t imagine not writing. I did make a decision to work towards getting published when I was about 20, although actually getting published felt very distant at the time. I made another decision to start a new life with less money and more time when I was 29, and left my hometown to spend two years at one of the best creative writing workshops in the country. But I don’t think I ever made a decision to pursue writing. There just was no question about where I was going – it was a matter of how hard I was going to work for it.
For me, your fiction could easily fall under several categories. How would you describe your writing, or what term are you comfortable with?
I don’t consider genre when writing. Jagannath, like you say, is very diverse that way. I just published a novel in Swedish that’s been classified as a dystopia, which isn’t really true but was a solution for marketing purposes: fans of fantastic fiction will understand it has a fantastic or science fictional element, while readers who are put off by an sf label will accept a dystopia because it’s classified as literary. But any genre term will inevitably create expectations that will colour the reader’s experience – if they haven’t dismissed the book because it’s in the ”wrong” genre. So I’m not really comfortable with any terms. The ones I’m the least uncomfortable with are weird or fantastic fiction. But, you know, someone will always complain that X is the wrong term and that my stories are easily classified as Y.
In several of your short stories, there’s usually something that’s dark, unsettling, or tragic. Is this a conscious decision on your part and what is it about that aspect that fascinates you?
I wrote about the melancholy tradition in the afterword for Jagannath. It’s a kind of wistfulness that pervades much of our culture, and that became a natural element when I wrote the stories set in the fictional Swedish North. The themes or atmospheres aren’t a conscious choice, though, just like I don’t choose genre. Ideas show up and I write the stories in the way they need to be written. I don’t find what I write unsettling, most of the time not particularly dark or tragic either. But maybe my weird-o-meter is off? Because even when I think I’m writing beautiful, happy, utopian froo-froo someone will come up and say it gave them nightmares.
I will say that I have a lifelong fascination with madness, and the idea that reality – on the inside and on the outside – is a very frail thing. And that I like trying on mindsets or ethics that are alien to me, to see what it looks like from the inside.
How did Cheeky Frawg Books end up publishing Jagannath?
Ann Vandermeer had bought two pieces from me – Jagannath and Augusta Prima – and she and Jeff knew I’d published a short story collection in Swedish. They asked to see the rest of it, so I translated it and sent it over, and they thought it’d work with some additional material. We collected the other stories I’d published in U.S. magazines and anthologies that year.
What is it about the short story format that appeals to you? How different was the experience writing short stories vs. Novels?
I’m usually interested in exploring an idea or a concept, and am not too keen on drawing it out or surrounding it with fluff. I like the sport of boiling a story down to its bare bones, and then seeing how much flesh it needs to walk around but still have that concentrated taste. And I just have too many ideas, I want to work with all of them.
The long form is a different beast altogether. Writing Amatka was grueling. An editor I’d sold two short stories to asked if I had a novel. I didn’t. I did have an old, old project: a bunch of short texts and a poetry collection set in the same world, and which I’d begun trying to turn into a novel at some point. So like any sane person would, I told the editor ”Certainly! Let me just do some edits”, and finished the first draft in a blind panic. I’m very happy with the result, but I’m not sure I’ll revisit the traditional novel format anytime soon. The idea of nested stories is appealing, though, or short stories with an overarcing narrative.
How did your experience at Clarion 2010 influenced the way you write, or the way you view the industry?
Clarion changed a lot of things. I knew little about the industry outside Sweden – only what I’d gleaned from working in a bookshop and reading the occasional issue of Locus – so that was a whole new world. I got the tools for breaking into the industry. As for writing, I started writing longer pieces, and it was a magnificent exercise in pushing mental boundaries: there’s too little time for self-censorship, too little time to question what the hell you’re on about. I wrote Jagannath (the short story) during the last week. People living inside a biomechanical centipede, sure. Who was I to argue? I’m a huge fan of Keith Johnstone, especially what he talks about the dangers of censoring your first impulse because you’re afraid it’s ”obscene, psychotic or not original”. This became a demonstration of the wonderful things that happen when you gag the censor. People wrote some incredible things during those final weeks.
At the end of your collection, you talk about translation and some of the nuances between English vs. Swedish. What was the most challenging and rewarding aspect of translation?
The main challenge is to bring nuances and atmosphere over to the other side. It became very clear over the course of translating from Swedish to English that there were more layers to my language than I’d been aware of. It’s not just finding the right words, it’s also about cultural shorthand and wordplay that doesn’t even appear as such on the surface. Peeling those layers back was a huge learning experience. The same goes for English to Swedish, really. There are tones and built-in references in the English language that only carries over to Swedish with difficulty. I admire professional translators who can do this with other writers’ works. At least I have myself right here for reference.
How different is your process when writing in Swedish? In English?
Writing in Swedish is very intuitive. I can sit back and just record what I see in my head. With English, there’s always an extra language filter, so the process is slower – unless I’ve been speaking and writing in English for more than a few hours and my brain has had time to shift gears. (I’ve been wondering if my English and Swedish would score differently on a readability index, but I haven’t found a calculator that can take both languages.) Other than that, I don’t think the processes differ much.
What’s the Swedish genre scene like?
It’s perked up dramatically over the last few years. Not long ago it was near-impossible to publish fantastic fiction – there were two or three fanzines that published sf or fantasy short stories, and maybe a handful of indie publishers. Larger publishers were uninterested in fantastic fiction unless it could be marketed to children or sold as literary. But things are definitely looking up, both in that fantastic fiction has seeped into the mainstream market and is now much more visible in mainstream media, but also in that blogs, magazines and publishers are popping up everywhere. There are a bunch of very exciting new authors that I hope will get the international attention they deserve, like Mats Strandberg and Sara Bergmark Elfgren with their brilliant Engelsfors trilogy (the first installment, The Circle, was recently published in English); Nene Ormes and her unique urban fantasy novels set in Malmö (the second installment, Särskild (”particular” or ”special”, came out just a couple of months ago); Jenny Milewski’s meta-novel Skalpelldansen (The Scalpel Dance) is one of the most exciting books to happen in the horror field lately. Add to this a HUGE surge in graphic novels and comics – I haven’t seen anything like it since the late ’80s. Artists like Lina Neidestam, Fabian Göransson, Kim W Andersson and Karl Johnsson will hopefully become internationally known before too long.
Who are some of your favorite writers?
I have many, but to mention just a few: China Miéville, Ursula K Le Guin, Elizabeth Hand, Tove Jansson, Caitlín Kiernan, Chip Delany and P C Jersild. On the graphic novel side, Neil Gaiman and Roman Dirge.
Anything else you want to plug?
Nothing other than that I’d ask everyone interested in Sweden to check out the names above. There’s so much cool stuff happening on the Swedish scene right now, it deserves more attention.
Brita’s Holiday Village
by Karin Tidbeck
The cab ride from Åre station to Aunt Brita’s holiday village took about half an hour. I’m renting the cottage on the edge of the village that’s reserved for relatives. The rest are closed for summer. Mum helped me make the reservation—Brita’s her aunt, really, not mine, and they’re pretty close. Yes, I’m thirty-two years old. Yes, I’m terrible at calling people I don’t know.
I didn’t bring a lot of stuff. Clothes and writing things, mostly. The cottage is a comforting old-fashioned red thing with white window frames, the interior more or less unchanged since the 1970s: lacquered pine, green felt wallpaper, woven tapestries decorated with little blobs of green glass. It smells stale in a cosy way. There’s a desk by one of the windows in the living room, overlooking Kall Lake. No phone reception, no Internet. Brita wondered if I wanted a landline, but I said no. I said yes to the bicycle. The first thing I did was bike down to the ica store I saw on the way here. I stocked up on pasta and tomatoes and beans. I found old-fashioned soft whey-cheese, the kind that tastes like toffee. I’m eating it out of the box with a spoon.
“Holiday village” is a misleading expression; the village is really just twelve bungalows arranged in two concentric circles with a larger house—the assembly hall—in the middle. The dark panelling, angled roofs and panoramic windows must have looked fresh and modern in the sixties, or whenever they were built. The wood is blackened now, and the windows somehow swallow the incoming light, creating caverns under the eaves. I’m a little relieved to be staying in the cottage.
Brita said that before she bought the holiday village, back when they were building it, the old man who owned the cottage refused to leave. When he finally died, the cottage was left standing for private use. It’s much more cosy, anyway. I’d feel naked behind those panoramic windows.
I got up late and unpacked and sorted music. I’ve got a playlist with old punk and goth for the teenage project, an ambient playlist for the space project, and a list of cosy music, everything in order to feel at home and get into the mood and avoid writing. Did some cooking. Rode the bike around until I was tired. Found an old quarry. Tried to go for a swim in Kall Lake and cut my feet on the rocks. Bought goat whey curd. Finally, I couldn’t avoid it anymore: writing.
So I have two stories I want to do something about. First there’s the science fiction story about child workers in the engine room of a spaceship. It’s a short story really, but I’d like to expand it into a novel. I know you’re not supposed to worry about form or length—it’s a guaranteed way to jinx the whole thing—but I’d really like to. I like the characters and their intense relationships, like Lord of the Flies in space.
The other story is a pseudo-biographical thing about a teenager growing up in the Stockholm suburbia of the 1980s, during the heyday of Ultra, the tiny house turned punk headquarters. I suppose it’s a cooler and bolder version of myself. Also, older. I was too young to ever hang out at Ultra. It had already burned down by the time I discovered punk. I used to go to Ultra’s next iteration—Hunddagis, the club housed in an old day care centre for dogs. I still remember the punk aroma: beer, cigarettes, cheap hair spray, and day-old sweat.
So, that’s what I’ve been doing: writing down a bunch of teenage memories and transposing them onto a little older and bolder version of myself and it’s just slow and boring work. I had a go at the science fiction story instead, but it wouldn’t happen. I ended up shutting everything down, realized it’s now one o’clock in the morning (actually it’s 1:30 now), and I’m going to bed.
I took a walk through the village this morning. Things that look like white, plum-sized pupas hang clustered under the eaves. They’re warm to the touch. I should tell Brita—it’s some kind of pest. Wasp nests?
Biked to the quarry after coffee, gathered some nice rocks—very pretty black granite. Went home, made pasta with chickpeas, tried to write. Writing about punks at Hunddagis doesn’t feel the least bit fun or interesting. Mostly because I’ve realized what a lame teenager I was. I was always home at the stroke of midnight; I didn’t like drinking mash; I didn’t have sex. I read books and had an inferiority complex because I was afraid to do all that other stuff. I don’t know anything about being a badass punk rocker.
It’s the same thing with the story about the engine room kids— what do I know about child labour? What do I know about how kids relate to each other under circumstances like that? Not to mention, what do I know about spaceships? I’m talking out of my ass.
So there I am. I can’t write about what I know, and I can’t write about what I don’t know. Better yet, I’ve told everyone that I’m staying in Åre until I’ve finished the novel. I somehow thought that saying it would make it happen.
Hang in there for another couple of weeks. And do what? Try some more. Go on biking trips and eat whey-cheese.
I’m taking a break. I’ve scrapped everything I was working on. I rented a car and drove west over the border into Norway, where I bought ice cream in a lonely little kiosk. When I was a kid, I thought the sign in Norwegian that said åpen, open, meant apan, the monkey. It was the most hilarious thing ever.
I had my ice cream, and looked at the Sylarna Mountains and the cotton-grass swaying on the bog. There was a thick herbal smell of mountain summer. Little pools and puddles were everywhere, absolutely clear, miniature John Bauer landscapes. I considered going on to Levanger, but it felt too far. I went for a swim in Gev Lake on the way home. It was just like when I was little: warm and shallow enough that if you walk out into the middle, the water only reaches your waist. Tiny minnows nibbled at my feet.
I’m having coffee in the little cabin on Åreskutan’s Summit. It’s a clear day, and I can see the mountain range undulating in the west, worn blunt by the ice ages. Mum once said that when she was a kid, there was a leathery old man who every morning hiked all the way up the mountain with a satchel full of coffee thermoses and cinnamon rolls that he would sell in the cabin. This was before the cableway, somewhere in the 1950s. The old man had done that since time immemorial, even when my grandmother and her sister were kids and dragged baking troughs up the mountain to ride them down like sleds.
I went for a walk in the holiday village. I became a little obsessed with the thought of stuff you can do when nobody’s looking. Build a pillow fort outside cottage number six. Streak howling through the street. I was thinking specifically of howling when I spotted the pupas. They’re the size of my fist now. That was fast. I forgot to tell Brita. Of course, I had to touch one of them again. It felt warmer than my hand.
Went shopping in Kall, had a cup of coffee, bought the newspaper, went past Brita’s house. I told her about the pupas. Her reaction was pretty strange. She said something about the pupas sitting there in summer, and that I should leave them alone. That’s why she’d put me in the cottage outside the village, so that the pupas would be left in peace. Yes, yes, I said. I won’t do anything. Do promise you won’t do anything, said Brita, and suddenly she was pleading. They have nowhere else to go, she said; you’re family, I can trust you can’t I? Yes, yes, I said, I promise. I have no idea what she’s on about.
I dreamed that there was a scraping noise by the door. Someone was looking in through the little side window. It was human-shaped, but it sort of had no detail. It was waving at me with a fingerless paw. The door handle was jerking up and down. The creature on the other side said nothing. It just smiled and waved. The door handle bobbed up and down, up and down.
It’s five past ten. I’ve slept for almost ten hours.
I went into the village to check if the pupas had grown, but all that remains are some empty skins hanging under the eaves. So that’s that.
There’s a knock on the door and someone’s waving at me through the side window. It’s a middle-aged man. When I open the door, he presents himself as Sigvard and shakes my hand. He’s one of the groups of tourists who live here during the summer. They’ve rented all the cabins, and now they’re throwing a party, and they’ve seen me sitting alone in my cottage. Would I like to join them? There’s plenty of food for everyone. I’m very welcome.
The party takes place in the little assembly hall. People are strolling over there from the other cabins. They’re dressed up for a summer night’s party: the women in party dresses and lusekofte sweaters tied over their shoulders, the men in slacks and bright windbreakers. Inside, the assembly hall is decked with yellow lanterns, and a long buffet table lines one of the walls. The guests are of all ages and resemble each other. I ask Sigvard if they’re family, and Sigvard says yes, they are! It’s a big family meet-up, the Nilssons, and they stay here a few weeks every summer. And now it’s time to eat.
The buffet table is covered in dishes from every holiday of the year: steak, roast ham, tjälknul, hot cloudberries, new potatoes, patés, pickled herring, gravlax, lutfisk, seven kinds of cookies, cake. I’m starving. I go for second and third helpings. The food has no taste, but the texture is wonderful, especially the ice cream mingled with hot cloudberries. Everyone seems very interested in me. They want to know about my family. When I tell them that Brita is my great-aunt, they cheer and say that we’re related then; I belong to the Anders branch of the family. Dear Brita! They love her! I’ll always be welcome here. Everyone else here belongs to the Anna branch: Anna, Anders’ sister and the eldest daughter of the patriarch Mats Nilsson.
When we’re done eating, it’s time to dance. The raspy stereo plays dansband music: singers croon about smiling golden-brown eyes, accompanied by an innocent and sickly-sweet tune. Everyone takes to the dance floor. Sigvard asks me to dance. This is like a cliché of Swedish culture, I say without thinking. Yes, isn’t it, says Sigvard and smiles. He holds me close. Then I wake up.
I started writing again. Throwing the old stuff out worked. Something else has surfaced—it’s fairly incoherent, but it’s a story, and I’m not about to ruin it by looking too closely at it. It has nothing to do with teenage trouble at Hunddagis, or Lord of the Flies with kids in spaceships. It’s about my own family in Åre, a sort of pseudo-documentary. Some mixed memories of my grandmother’s and mother’s stories of life up here, woven together with my own fantasies to form a third story. Above all else, I’m having fun. I refuse to think about editing. I write and stare out over Kall Lake.
The dreams are a sign that things are happening—I keep dreaming about the same things, and it’s very clear, very detailed. It’s the same scenario as before, that is, Sigvard knocking on the door and taking me to the assembly hall. We eat enormous amounts of food and dance to dansband classics. I talk to all my relatives. They tell stories about Mats Nilsson’s eldest daughter and how she started the new branch of the family when she married and moved north from Åre. I don’t remember those stories when I wake up.
I started with Mother’s stories, continued with Gran’s generation, and am working my way back in time to form a sort of backwards history. I wrote about the war and how Great-gran smuggled shoes and lard to occupied Norway. Then I wrote about how Gran met Grandpa and moved down to Stockholm. Right now Gran is a teenager, it’s the twenties, and she’s making her first bra out of two stocking heels because she can’t afford to buy a real one. She and her sister are getting ready to go to a dance in Järpen. It’s an hour’s bike ride. I’m looking forward to writing the story about my great-great-grandfather who built a church organ out of a kitchen sofa. Some things you can’t make up.
The dreams change a little each night. I’ve discovered that I have a fair amount of control of my actions. I wander around in the cabins and talk to the inhabitants. In true dream fashion, they all come from little villages with names that don’t exist like Höstvåla, Bräggne, Ovart; all located somewhere north of Åre, by the lakes that pool between the mountains.
Sigvard’s wife is called Ingrid. They have three teenage children.
I’m a little disgusted by the direction this is all taking. I don’t know how to interpret what’s going on. The front doors are always unlocked, I go where I wish. Last night and the night before last, it happened several times that I walked into a house and people were having sex. On all surfaces, like kitchen tables or sofas. They greet me politely when I open the door and then go back to, not making love, but fucking. Nobody seems particularly into it. They might as well be chopping onions or cleaning the floors. In and out and the flat smack of flesh on flesh. And it’s everyone on everyone: man and wife, father and daughter, mother and son, sister and brother. But always in heterosexual configurations. I asked Sigvard what they were doing. We’re multiplying, he said. That’s what people do.
It’s Midsummer. I’ve managed just over eighty pages. I’ve gotten as far back as great-great-great-grandfather Anders, son of Mats Nilsson, and if I want to get even further back I’ll have to do some research on Anders’ five siblings or just ramble out into fairy tale country. Not that making stuff up seems to be a problem. There’s no end to it. I’ve gone back to the start to fill in holes, like Mother and Gran’s siblings. No editing just yet, just more material. Brita asked me if I wanted to come with her to celebrate Midsummer. I declined. All I want to do is write. Besides, it’s freezing outside, and the gnats are out in full force. It’d be a good idea, research-wise, to see Brita, but I don’t feel like being around people.
Sigvard came knocking on my door. He was wearing a wreath of flowers and held a schnapps glass in one hand. We danced to dansband music, the legendary Sven-Ingvars; we competed in sack racing and three-legged racing. Most of the women and girls had large, rounded bellies and moved awkwardly. When the dancing and playing was over, we ate new potatoes and pickled herring, little meatballs and sausages, fresh strawberries with cream, toasting each other with schnapps spiced with cumin and wormwood. It’ll get darker now, said Sigvard. He burst into tears. Yes, I replied. But why is that so terrible? It makes me think of death, he said.
150 pages! That’s an average of five pages a day. Very well done. The last ten days have been about putting more meat on the bones I finished building around Midsummer. In other words, embroidering what facts I had with more ideas of my own. Editing is going to take a lot longer, but I have a solid structure from beginning to end—no bothersome gaps or holes.
I decided to stop at Anders. I need to check the other siblings now, especially Anna. I’ve tried to talk to Brita, but she’s always busy whenever I come over. I’m done with this place, though. I’m homesick. I’ve booked a ticket to Stockholm for the sixth. I can go back home with a good conscience.
They’re weeping and wailing. They’re all dressed in black. They won’t say why. I’ve told them I’ll be leaving soon, but I don’t think that’s why they’re sad.
I finally caught Brita for a cup of coffee. She apologized for being so busy. I asked her about Mats Nilsson’s children, but she doesn’t know much outside our own branch. Still, I asked her if she knew anything about Anna, the eldest daughter. Not much, she said. But then there wasn’t much to know about her. She disappeared without a trace when she was twenty years old. The consensus was that she probably drowned herself in Kall Lake, or in one of the sinkholes in the quarry. In any case, she was never seen again.
I’m leaving on the night train. I cleaned out the cottage; all that’s left is to hand over the keys to Brita.
Sigvard knocked on the door in my dream. The whole village was crowding behind him. They looked aged and crumpled somehow, and they were weeping loudly. Some of them didn’t seem to be able to walk on their own—they were crawling around. Sigvard came in first; he dropped to his knees and flung his arms around my legs. I sat down on the floor. He put his head in my lap. My dear, he said. It was the best summer ever. We’re so grateful. Then he sighed, and lay still. The others came, one by one. They lay down around me and curled up. They sighed and lay still. I patted their heads. There, there, I said. Go to sleep now, go to sleep. Their bodies were like light shells. They collapsed in on themselves.
I was woken up just after seven by an ice-cold draft. The front door was open. I went for a last walk in the village. Clusters of tiny spheres hang under the eaves.
We have another Author Week here at the World SF Blog after our hiatus. This time, it’s Swedish writer Karin Tidbeck, and to mark the release of her latest collection, Jagannath: Stories, published by Cheeky Frawg, we’re giving away three (3) copies of the book. For a chance to win, simply comment down below, and make sure to fill in your e-mail address so we know to contact you if you won. Competition closes on Friday, and we’ll announce the winners on Monday.
Karin Tidbeck has published short stories and poetry in Swedish since 2002, and in English since 2010. Her 2010 book debut, the short story collection Vem är Arvid Pekon?, awarded her the coveted one-year working grant from the Swedish Authors’ Fund. Her English publication history includesWeird Tales, Shimmer Magazine, Unstuck Annual and the anthology Odd?. She also recently sold her first novel to Sweden’s largest publisher.
Ursula K. Le Guin wrote: “I have never read anything like Jagannath. Karin Tidbeck’s imagination is recognizably Nordic, but otherwise unclassifiable–quietly, intelligently, unutterably strange. And various. And ominous. And funny. And mysteriously tender. These are wonderful stories.”
Update: From Jeff VanderMeer in the comments: Just to make it interesting, Cheeky Frawg will also throw in ebooks by Amal El-Mohtar, Amos Tutuola, and Leena Krohn for those winners who want them (the Tutuola and Krohn will be available by the end of the month). In addition, we will stick in a couple extra treats with the Jagannaths that are sent out….
Update 2: The winners are Kyle, Francene Lewis, and kummakissa. Congratulations!
2013 BSFA Award winner!
2013 Kitschies Black Tentacle Award winner!
2011 World Fantasy Award Nominee.
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