Vampires have been long used (and sometimes over-used) in horror/paranormal literature, so that at times it seems that nothing new can arise from that corner of the genre. Then books like Certain Dark Things come along, and new life is breathed into the concept.
For starters, this story is set in Mexico City – quite a far cry from the usual mid-European foggy wilderness one would expect whenever vampires are concerned – and this gives the novel a very peculiar quality, enhanced by the discovery that there are several kinds of vampires, each with their own unique appearance and customs: in keeping with the various world-wide legends about a blood-sucking creature that preys on humans, the novel postulates that vampires are not all alike and they don’t necessarily look like pale-faced Count Dracula.
While the existence of vampires is a well-known fact in the history of the world as depicted by the author, their presence is not tolerated everywhere, and Mexico City is indeed one of the places where they are unwelcome, with “sanitation squads” making regular checks, not unlike those of the police in a totalitarian state, to root out and deport – or exterminate – any stowaway blood-sucker. Mexico City is, at least on the surface, a place where only drug cartels and other kinds of criminal groups can operate, but among the widespread corruption and the tired indifference of the authorities there are always dark areas where the occasional vampire can slip into the cracks.
This is what happens with Atl, the only surviving member of a clan of vampires whose roots go back to the Aztec civilization: her family was exterminated by a rival gang of Necros – which are a more “classical” variety of vampires – and she’s trying to bide her time until she can cross over to Bolivia where she will have better chances of survival. The Godoy family, here represented by brash, young Nick with his human sidekick Rodrigo, is on Atl’s tracks with the goal of eliminating the last survivor of the competition, although Nick has a further agenda, that of exacting vengeance on her for humiliating him when she managed to escape capture. Quite unexpectedly, Atl gains an improbable ally when she meets Domingo, a homeless teenager who survives by selling useful objects he searches for in trash dumps: at first she sees him only as a blood source and an errand runner (a “Renfield” in the vampire speak quite ironically derived from Bram Stoker), but his status will change as the danger increases and her enemies close in. The last point of view of this quick-paced, fascinating story is represented by Ana Aguirre, a police officer trying to do her job as honorably as possible in a city where dishonesty and lack of care are the rule.
The background for Certain Dark Things is wonderfully detailed, the characters well-drawn and believable – especially the “bad guys” whose ruthlessness and lack of any moral code is drawn with the skilled finesse they require – and the whole vampire culture is an intriguing revelation, but for me the real focus of this story is young Domingo: everything revolves around him, to the point that all the other characters, on every side of the fence, acquire depths and facets only in relation to him. In a way, he is a catalyst, and as it happens with every chemical reaction, his presence changes things.
On the surface, Domingo is a discard of society, not unlike the garbage he collects in search of valuable articles: his family rejected him, the rag-tag band of street kids he first joined treated him badly, and he now lives alone in the abandoned tunnels of the subway, leading a hand-to-mouth existence that nonetheless affords him a modicum of freedom and self-respect. With these premises, one could expect him to be angry, hateful, cynical – not so: Domingo is a gentle soul full of dreams, gifted with guileless innocence and an awkward goofiness that is quite charming. He’s fascinated by vampires and possesses a collection of graphic novels that taught him all he knows about them, or rather all he believes he knows: when he first sees Atl and her guard dog on the subway, far from realizing what she is, he simply sees a figure from those novels – a stark, black and white living illustration from those comic books, and that’s how the reader perceives her too, because Domingo is indeed our eyes and ears, allowing us to see the world through his perspective.
No one can remain indifferent to Domingo’s view of the world, nor to his loyalty: what starts as a sort of inescapable fascination for Atl, who has no other plan but to use and discard him in the fashion of her people, becomes steadfast devotion and unshakable support even in the face of mortal danger. The harrowing few days in which Domingo and Atl try to stay one step ahead of their pursuers, while seeking the means to leave Mexico City, see the young man’s change from unprepossessing street urchin to protector and shield: where he could not find the strength to stand up to those who mistreated him in the past, he now can find it for Atl, giving himself up to whatever awaits him down the line.
There is a point when a man may swim back to shore, but he was past it. There was nothing left than to be swallowed by the enormity of the sea.
And for her part Atl cannot remain indifferent to Domingo’s attitude and starts to see him as a person, if not an equal, going against everything she has been taught and the warnings of Bernardino, the ancient, creepy Revenant who accepts to help her. The feelings she starts to develop toward Domingo don’t come out of the blue but stem from the realization that, being alone and the last of her clan, she needs not follow the ancient rules but can forge some new ones, be a law unto herself. Even Bernardino, for all his ancient cunning and the dire warnings he imparts on Atl, seems to recognize something in Domingo, a quality that distances him from mere food and cannon fodder: there is a hint of acknowledgement, almost respect, in the old vampire that remains unexpressed but is however there.
At some point, during the course of the novel, the fascination exerted by vampires on human is likened to the attraction of the moth to a flame: in the same way, the reader is irresistibly drawn into this story, caught by the relentless pace of the action and held there by the fascinating characters and their journey. An amazing find, indeed.
My search for interesting short stories (and a quick sample of authors who are new to me) continues… I have recently discovered the dedicated section over at Tor com, and found many interesting offerings. This week’s choice is for:
The vampire myth has been explored in all its forms and variations, so one might think there is no room for a new angle or a different perspective, yet at times you can find authors able to put a different spin on the trope. This is the case of Meat+Drink, indeed, a story told from the perspective of vampires who have none of the glamour, attraction or sophistication that’s usually associated with the most classical point of view of the genre.
The narrator here used to be a 17-year old girl but is now meat, as opposed to flesh – dead as opposed to living. She shares a hiding space with four other undead, one of them a child, spending their days in a basement, away from the sun, and their nights either scavenging in search of money or valuable objects, or hunting for prey – for drink.
This former girl’s voice is quite peculiar, more like a stream-of-consciousness report than a organic tale, grammar and punctuation as decayed and still decaying as the walking meat these vampires have become once they lost the vitality of flesh. As the unnamed narrator says: “flesh is ever-changing, flesh is self-aware. meat is insentient, meat is stagnant”. The horror in this story does not come so much from seeing these vampires prey on the living, but from the feeling of hopelessness and despair of such a condition, so much stronger and poignant because they remain unexpressed and probably unfelt.
And yet something of the former personality must remain after the transformation, as the events show when the little “family” undergoes an upheaval that changes the internal dynamics. It might be wrong to use the world “hope” in such circumstances, but the end is a little less bleak than the rest of the story. And that’s enough.
When I read M.R. Carey’s novel The Girl with All the Gifts I was aware that the movie rights for the book had been optioned, but since I heard nothing further about the project, I thought it had been abandoned as it’s bound to happen sometimes: imagine then my surprise when I discovered that a movie was indeed filmed in 2016. I have no way of knowing whether the movie was a direct-to-DVD production or more simply it skipped the theatre run in my part of the world: what matters is that I was recently able to see and appreciate the filmed version of this amazing story.
The premise might seem taken out of a classic horror scenario: a fungal infection taking possession of the victims’ cognitive faculties turns them into ravenous zombies, and the few survivors live in military enclaves surrounded by the hordes of the “hungries”. In one of such besieged areas, a group of children is used as test subjects to find a cure for the infection: they were all born after the spread of the disease and, while affected like the rest o humanity, they retain both intelligence and rationality. These children represent the next stage, or the new humans, but for Dr. Caldwell (a chillingly efficient Glen Close) they are nothing but specimens, to be used in the search for a cure, and likewise the military personnel treat them like unthinking animals, unmoved by some of the children’s continuing demonstrations of intellect and empathy. The only person on the base ready to see the humanity beyond the danger is the teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton), whose special pupil is Melanie (portrayed with amazing skill by emergent Sennia Nanua), narrating voice of the inspiring book.
Like the novel, the movie leaves little space to the zombie-like hordes roaming the Earth, and concentrates instead on the psychology of the characters, going beyond the somewhat limited focus of book-Melanie’s observations to delve deeper into the other characters: Sergeant Parks, the rough-mannered soldier trying to keep them all alive after the base has been overrun by hungries, the most vocal about the need to keep Melanie constrained like the dangerous animal he sees in her; Doctor Caldwell, whose “the end justifies the means” attitude allows her to conveniently forget that she’s killing children to save a doomed humanity, that they are alive and possess feelings – something she is unwilling to accept; and Miss Justineau, who enjoys teaching her young charges and is too happy to read them tales from the classical myths instead of instructing them in math or chemistry.
And a Greek myth is indeed at the core of this story, that of Pandora who set free all the afflictions contained in the proverbial box, but ended her act by also freeing hope as a parting gift: hope is indeed what remains for a beleaguered humanity in this post-apocalyptic world – not the hope of being saved by some miracle cure, but the hope represented by the next generation, the children who will inherit the changed Earth. It’s not exactly a comforting scenario but it’s definitely better than the usual total-annihilation solution that so many offerings of the genre portray.
What makes the movie – and the book – quite special is Melanie’s voice, given life on the screen by an emerging performer whose amazing talent gives the lie to her young age: Sennia Nanua shows Melanie’s transition from the initial secluded innocence to the awareness of who and what she is with remarkable skill, managing the coexistence of the helpful child – able to navigate unscathed the dangers of the changed world – with the feral creature who needs to feed on living flesh, or the merciless fighter battling against the wild children of the city to defend the adults who find themselves suddenly in need of her protection. The visuals are quite stunning as well, not so much because of any special effects (the movie does not possess the feel of the huge, money-heavy production) but because it’s able to create the right atmosphere with the abandoned buildings chocked by fungal growths and peopled by unmoving hungrier waiting for a sign of life to jump into murderous activity.
The soundtrack deserves a special mention as well, since it mostly consists of human voices raised in a wail-like song that seems like a lament for the end of the world: it’s eerie and terrifying and it complements to perfection the images rolling on the screen.
The Girl with All the Gifts is not exactly an uplifting movie, and neither was the book that inspired it, but if offers so much inspiration for thought, as a window on the human soul, that I can heartily recommend it.