Horror Writer Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Certain Dark Things
I was lucky enough to get an advanced reading copy of Moreno-Garcia’s latest release, Certain Dark Things. Yes, it’s about vampires, but not as Hollywood—or even other bloodsucker literature— has portrayed them: with Aztec heritage. Atl is a Tlāhuihpochtlin, the last of a clan of matriarchal vamps from the pre-Spanish colonization of Mexico able to take on an avian aspect. Her family slaughtered by a rival clan, Atl’s mission is to escape capture and finally make her way out of Mexico. Weak from a lack of food when the young, vampire-obsessed Domingo happens by, he’s a distraction she doesn’t need.
The first thing I noticed was the novel’s style. Vamp novels are notorious for trying too hard: creating monumental back story, elaborate and labyrinthine class systems, and flashbacks for your life—some that last up to a quarter of the book. Certain Dark Things is not that vampire novel.
It feels modern, but with just enough of a head nod to history so we’re grounded in why these characters are as we read them now. Sure, there are various vampire strains, but their differences aren’t the crux of the story. At its core, Certain Dark Things is a tale of woman (er, vampire) against self—her internal battle to determine if she’s the same person she was then. “Then” meaning the time when she made the most integral decision of her life. Or has she changed?
And if she’s changed, can her life be different?
I appreciate that Moreno-Garcia isn’t gentle with her characters. She puts them through it: physical and mental anguish, regret, loss of life and limb. I rooted for her on her journey as she raced around Mexico City, deciding who to trust, healing some ancient wounds, and creating new ones.
Silvia agreed to be interviewed about her latest book and about how the work of authors of color can be perceived, especially by mainstream white media.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your new release for those that may be unfamiliar with your work.
I grew up in Mexico and moved to Canada as an adult. My debut novel, Signal to Noise about teenagers casting spells with vinyl records, was listed as one of the best novels of the year at io9, Buzzfeed and many other places. It won a Copper Cylinder Award and was nominated for the British Fantasy, Locus, Sunburst and Aurora awards. My second novel, Certain Dark Things, has two members of rival vampire cartels clashing in Mexico City.
I have to ask: Why vampires?
I’ve written several vampire short stories, doing very different things with them. In “A Handful of Earth” (Expanded Horizons, 2011) it’s a look at Dracula’s brides, in “Stories with Happy Endings” (originally published in my collection This Strange Way of Dying but available online) it’s musings about Mexico City and a bit of a swipe at Interview with the Vampire. I can’t tell you exactly why I’ve used vampires several times, it’s just been interesting. I also write a lot of stories that have to do with water and rain.
One thing I don’t like is the romantic vampires. Every time I read a description that says so-and-so-vampire has waited forever for the love of his life to appear, I wonder, really? Didn’t he get bored? What did he do for three hundred years? So I play with this a bit in Certain Dark Things. Domingo sees vampires as romantic, but it becomes clear they really are not the type of perfect lover who is going to sweep you away to a world of glamour and joy.
Mexican and Aztec culture—pre-and post-colonial—feature heavily in Certain Dark Things (CDT). How did you perform your research to bring together the historical and supernatural elements of this?
I’ve had an interest in Prehispanic cultures since I was small. Elements of Aztec thought are sprinkled in several stories, especially in “Abandon All Flesh” (available at Pseudopod). I find the notion of sacrifice interesting. This is also related to growing up in a Catholic country. We are told Jesus died for our sins. Aztec or Mayan sacrifice is not the same. For the Mayan people, suicide was a great idea. Catholics, that’s a sin, but there are common points. I like to think about sacrifice because it’s not something we value in our culture. Someone who self-sacrifices would be thought as being weak.
I am also interested in the idea of cycles, the concept of duality and ideas of life and death. In the very first draft of Certain Dark Things I included a line of poetry from Nezahualcoyotl, which I removed in the end. But it said:
"For this I cry - Yeehuya!- feeling desolate, abandoned among men on the earth. How do you decide your heart - Yeehuya! - Life Giver?"
I found Atl’s voice in Certain Dark Things to be a believable one: she’s a tough loner, but we get to see moments of her physical and emotional vulnerability. How can authors prevent falling into the usual stereotypes when creating characters and magic systems?
When you have super-powered, invulnerable heroes or villains, it’s no fun because the deck is stacked in their favour. I didn’t want a “kick-butt” heroine who can deal with all problems with a snap of her fingers. So you have Atl who is basically a vampire heiress, and has been kept spoiled and safe. I wasn’t very wealthy, but had a scholarship to a very nice school. My classmates were very rich. The kind of rich where they are driven around by chauffeurs. Their world was completely different than mine. They didn’t know how to navigate some things I could deal with. It wasn’t that they were stupid, but when you’ve had someone to drive you around your entire life, when stuff is handed to you, figuring out things on your own can be a pickle. So, I taught someone how to use a washer, to do their laundry. And like I said, this wasn’t an idiot. He just had his clothes pressed and washed by someone.
That’s Atl’s situation. She’s young and she’s smart, but she’s also in a bad spot and all alone for the first time in her life. Nick Godoy is a similar story. They both may try to build themselves up, think themselves super-capable, but they fuck up at times. Domingo is the opposite story. He’s a street kid. We tend to think people who are poor or less educated are stupid. But he isn’t. He’s resourceful. He doesn’t have cool powers, but he can navigate the city. My great-grandmother was illiterate, but she managed to survive a war, survive as a single mother.
You have a glossary for terms used in CDT and other vamp information. Was that because you found such interesting info that you couldn’t include in the book but still wanted to share?
My editor asked for it. I’m not fond of glossaries and I doubt I’ll ever include one again.
When did you start writing and what drew you specifically to horror?
I started writing seriously about 10 years ago. I don’t just write horror. I write magic realism, science fiction, crime, etc. I had written before, but never with a real focus and goals. I had also written stupid pastiches, stories about MacFantasy Lands. It was all very white, very generic. Then in 2006 we had moved to Canada and things weren’t working out. We were broke and with a baby. I was angry. I started writing again because I was so angry and then slowly I started figuring out who I wanted to be as a writer, the stories I wanted to tell. It was, in many ways, a de-whitening process. It was harder back then. There were fewer POC visible. I think it’s been steadily changing, but back then it was all looking inward and chugging along.
What scares you? Do those fears help or hinder your work?
I’m afraid of dying. It’s an OCD thing. I don’t sleep sometimes, just lay there thinking I’m going to die if I sleep, so I stay awake. Sometimes I’ll use that time to write, since I’m up anyway. I’m afraid of being poor, too. I’ve been there. Don’t want to go back. So I work very hard. I plan ahead, I have measurable goals. You either let your fears and issues drown you or you ride them like a wave. I ride them. They’re there, they’re real, but they help carry me.
What’s the most difficult part of writing for you?
Waiting and getting paid. There’s a lot of waiting, long stretches of silence. And hardly anybody ever sends you a prompt check.
How can authors of color better succeed in horror circles? How can women? Do you feel your work has been received differently as a person of color?
You gotta get in there, first of all. Your work is not any worse than average White Dude Joe’s work. I’ve read a lot of slush, I just edited POC Destroy Horror for Nightmare Magazine and it was the same story as in other slush piles: 90% of the work is no good. But then there’s the 10% that is decent and that magic 1% that is great. That may sound depressing, but you have to understand first of all there’s a lot of markets and second of all you don’t have to be perfect. There’s a lot of people far worse off than you and you can improve. And you’ll never know if you don’t send stuff out and keep sending it. I am original fic co-editor at The Dark and we are a semi-pro magazine, so if you have something that is horror or dark fantasy you can give us a try. We could always use more POC in our submissions box.
As to how has the work been received? In general, it’s been received well. There are small frustrations. So, for example, I’ve had people say that they wished my characters showed more of the “dialect” of Mexico or they sounded more “Mexican.” Are you shitting me? That’s like those stupid movies where the cast is supposed to be in Russia, everyone is speaking English but they’re supposed to be Russian, and suddenly someone speaks with a Russian accent or inserts a random Russian word to remind you they are in Russia. Like they say “hi” in Russian. Excuse me, I’m trying to immerse you, not bump you out of the story.
Sometimes people will say my work is exotic or not exotic enough. They want you to be a Fodor’s Guide to Mexico. It’s stuff they don’t ask of books written by white people in New York. You don’t see someone saying, “man, that novel wasn’t white enough.” Like there’s a brown quotient you have to hit or not hit. Someone complained there were too many social issues in my books. That’s like saying you don’t like Lethal Weapon because of all the PTSD. White media can have all the social issues in the world (substance abuse, mental health, money woes) but the cast is Latino and suddenly oh, no, that’s too much of a social issue if we mention they are having trouble with the rent or are feeling sad.
I’m ignored at times, I’m devaluated. And I’m not trying to depress you. What I’m saying is you have to figure out who you are, what kind of writer you want to be, and stick with that.
What’s your next project?
Thomas Dunne Books is publishing my third novel, The Beautiful Ones, in 2017. It’s a light, romantic fantasy.
I’d like to thank Silvia for this interview and for her honest responses.
Grab a copy of Certain Dark Things. Or a copy of a book by an author of color. Review it. Share it. Help broaden the definition of horror.
I share these interviews and book reviews because we as authors of color struggle for acceptance and visibility: in writer’s circles, with publishers, even with reviewers “getting” our work seeing it as important.
Eden Royce is descended from women who practiced root, a type of conjure magic in her native Charleston, South Carolina. She’s been a bridal consultant, reptile handler, and stockbroker, but now writes dark fiction about the American South from her home in the English countryside. She has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Dirge Magazine, and is one of the founders of Colors in Darkness, a place for dark fiction authors of color to get support for their projects. Find out more about Eden’s brand of horror at edenroyce.com or follow her on Twitter (@EdenRoyce)