Monthly Archives: October 2015

The Most Insidious Halloween Trick Ever

In the last few years, everyone has become at least passingly familiar with the Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos (or Día de Muertos). It’s an important tradition, not just because it’s a unique transfer of prehispanic traditions into post-colonisation culture and therefore very important to the Mexican identity, but because it’s an excellent way to deal with death and bereavement. It’s about celebrating with loved ones returned for a single day; death is a transformation, when something doesn’t work you change it (which is from this video, a pretty good explanation). Modern Halloween, by contrast, is all about superficial spooky things.

Halloween is in the process of invading Día de los Muertos. This is not a grass roots movement. Sure, there are kids who wander around looking for dulces or pesos, chanting the “la calavera tiene hambre” song, and the occasional university student costume party, but mostly people aren’t interested – they don’t see the point.

Large stores like Walmart and its recently-bought subsidiaries, for example, do see the point. The point is for them to sell a lot of crap, disposable merchandise. Selling disposable crap for four holidays at the same time (Méxican Independence Day, Octoberfest, Día de los Muertos and Christmas) isn’t enough, and they want to put in Halloween as well. I can see their interest – people by a lot of things for Día de los Muertos: Copal, papel picado, calaveras, marigold flowers, but most of the decorations for the ofrenda come from what was loved by the people being remembered. So purchases for Día de los Muertos pale in comparison to what people would spend to have a “good” Halloween.

So far this hasn’t been very successful, but that has never stopped them before. The latest attempt is to insidiously conflate Halloween and Día de los Muertos, such as with the decoration in this image. DayOfTheHalloween

This is La Catrina, one of the most famous calaveras in México. You’ll notice that for some reason she’s covered in spiders and holding a pumpkin. There’s a ghost, an owl in a sorcerer’s hat, and a witch, none of which have anything to do with Día de los Muertos or La Catrina. Obviously her skirt is in Halloween colours – they use orange black and purple in Día de los Muertos, for example with papel picado, but also different shades of yellow, pink, blue, green, white…pretty much every colour you can think of. The aim of this decoration is to get people to conflate the two holidays, to start thinking that rubber spiders and ghosts and other spooky things are part of Día de los Muertos, so they’ll by them. It’s a marketing ploy intended to trick Mexican into changing their shopping habits, and therefore they way they celebrate Día de los Muertos, over the long term. Walmart doesn’t care if it takes twenty years or more, if they have to wait for a new generation, as long as their sales will increase. And they know the best way to increase sales is to make people think they have to buy a bunch of disposable rubbish dressed up as celebration decorations every year.

Maybe you don’t think this is serious, maybe you think I’m being paranoid, maybe you think Mexicans would never fall for such an obvious ploy. My wife was just like you. When we saw this decoration at the restaurant where we had lunch (chiles en nogada for me, clemole for my wife) I told her what I thought about this, and she dismissed it. So I asked my six year old daughter what the decoration was for, and she said it was for Halloween, because of the spiders and witches and stuff. When we pointed out that Día de Muertos was written across the top, she said “it’s the same thing”. It took us a long time to explain to her that Día de Muertos and Halloween were completely different holidays, because they had already become intertwined in her mind despite the fact we never celebrate Halloween. Now my wife is more cautious about this.

This is an insidious ploy, and people need to be aware of it.

If you want to celebrate Halloween, go ahead. But don’t let Walmart and other large corporations trick you into turning one of the most important Mexican holidays, and one of the most psychologically useful holidays ever, into just another marketing opportunity with no real meaning behind it.

A Reverie On Words

The English language has over 750,000 words in it, so there’s a high chance there is a word for whatever you want to say. Sometimes I come across a concept that I can’t think of the word for, and I wrack my brain and I search Google and thesaurus.com, and I pretty much always find the word.

For example, today I wanted something to describe the process of imagining if your life had been different somehow, a mixture of daydream (make up fantasy) and deduce (figure out, understand). To make up a fantasy to understand something. I was dreading having to come up with a word myself (dayducing? ew), but after a long search including five pages of synonyms on thesaurus.com and maybe ten searches on Google I finally did this search, and found the word…

Reverie: a state of dreamy meditation or fanciful musing

There’s a word for pretty much everything, and I think that’s beautiful…

Review: If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love

If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love by Rachel Swirsky is a second person POV story that works really well. It starts with a tone of wistful reverie – what would the world be like if you were a dinosaur? What would my life, our lives, be like? It flows nicely from this to show nonjudgmental love, and then to accepting that sometimes you have to let people go.

The reverie is illustrated with a poetic tactic, starting each paragraph by musing on the final sentence of the preceding paragraph. For example:

They’d work until they’d built you a mate.

If they built you a mate,

This works as a poetic device to add cadence to the musing, but is also very useful in showing when the musing ends; the sudden abandoning of this trick coincided with considering actual past events, rather than completely imaginary hypothesis.

The story flows on, naturally becoming more melancholy, until the situation that started this wistful reverie is revealed. It is disturbingly mundane, which emphasises that it is the mundane that we should truly fear, not the fantastic.

It is the language that makes this story good, the ideas that crop up in the daydream, the poetic use of words. A couple of favourites:

  • “deceived by the helix-and-fossil trappings of cloned dinosaurs”
  • “decanted their lives”
  • All in all a good read, to the point where I’ll be following the links at the bottom of the story to read her other work.

    Review: Things You Can Buy For A Penny

    Things You Can Buy For A Penny by Will Kaufman has a number of interesting features about it. The point of view is a sort of second person – the voice is one of a storyteller narrating the tales to an audience. The storyteller has a slightly superior tone, as if the tale is meant to be instructional.

    The story has a good rhythm and good foreshadowing, starting by talking about stories that would later appear, working through them backward (with each story influenced by the one that is set at an earlier time) and then forward again through the protagonists. I liked that structure and thought it was effective at maintaining interest, and linking the disparate tales.
    As for prose, it is fairytale lyrical, a very good choice for this type of story (after all, fairytales are exactly odd stories that are meant to be instructional).

    I felt as if there was something lacking from the story, something that stopped it being great, but I can’t figure out what it is. It could be that the story seems very familiar, either because I’ve read it before or because I’ve read something very similar. I knew how each story would go, and how the overall story would end, so maybe it lacked any surprise for me. Also, maybe I would have enjoyed it more if I wasn’t so tired and stressed when I read it.

    Día de los Muertos Short Film

    This film neatly summarises non-Mexicans reaction to Día de los Muertos. First they think it’s macabre, and sad, and scary, and it can take a while before they accept that it’s happy, pleasant, and the scariest part is worrying if the house is clean enough for your mother to come and visit. The girl in the film is supposed to be Mexican, and the least believable part is her reaction to the calaveras she meets.

    I really like Día de los Muertos, I think it’s a great and healthy way to deal with death and the loss of loved ones. Forget painting your face like a sugar skull, get to the meat of the celebration.

    The people who made this won a student academy award, and their social media links and so on can be found on this post.

    Be Original – Or Not, Whatever

    There’s a whole debate, or at least people saying opposing things, about exactly how original a writer has to be for a story to be worthwhile. Into the mix comes: 13 True Stories Behind Edgar Allen Poe’s Terror Tales. It’s an interesting read… some of the examples are just light influences, a jumping off point, but some he appears to have written about almost verbatim.

    And he’s a legend.

    Review: Candy Girl

    Candy Girl by Chikodili Emelumadu is the other story I am to review for my writing course, and I didn’t like it nearly as much as We’ll Be Together Forever. It deals with much the same subject matter in much the same way, and the writing is poetic enough, so it took me a while to work out why I didn’t really like it. After my first reading I could only say that it seemed less believable – which is an odd criticism for stories about functioning magic – but on rereading it I realised the problem was the characters.

    The main man in the story, Paul, the villain, does not seem like a real person. He has a long list of negative qualities – weak, obedient, obsequious, self-serving, tries to force his way into another culture, arrogant, entitled – and absolutely zero positive qualities, except maybe attractive toes. Personality-wise, he is more like a puppy that no-one finds cute than a human. He certainly does things that a puppy would do but no man would do.

    The other characters are also cookie-cutter characters but less fleshed out. What we know of the main character Muna (not really the protagonist, she doesn’t do much) is that she can’t tell the difference between zombies and mummies, even when the name of one of them is in the movie she’s referencing, and is apparently stupid enough to date a man with every type of patheticness and absolutely no redeeming qualities.

    Her cousin, Ginika, is only slightly better. We know she’s hyper-violent, visits Nigeria a lot, and is smart enough to get a scholarship to a posh school. Then there’s the magic-user Ozulu, who is a generic magic-user who despises those who don’t understand the forces they’re playing with.

    Bearing all this in mind, particularly that the most fleshed-out character was Paul, the story reads as nothing more than an attack on the kinds of men the author doesn’t like, all wrapped up into a single character. I suspect it was published because the setting is exotic; the descriptions of the Nigerian town are beautiful and evocative.

    To be fair, it’s possible I may have found the plot more interesting if I hadn’t just read another story with basically the same plot. If I’d read Candy Girl first I may have been less interested in We’ll Be Together Forever, but it wouldn’t change the fact that I find the characters in the latter far more believable than the characters here.

    Review: We’ll Be Together Forever

    I’ll start by saying that We’ll Be Together Forever by Joseph Allen Hill is the best story I can remember reading in Lightspeed Magazine*. It’s a magical surrealist story looking at the way two people relate to each other in a relationship that probably should have ended a fair while before the story starts.

    The characters and their relationship are fleshed out in the first tenth of the story: The man who wants to push the relationship to the next level irrespective of the wishes of the woman, who has inferiority issues; the woman who is passive-aggressive and doesn’t seem to really care about the man but is to lazy to end the relationship and strike out on her own. The relationship is basically the man nagging the woman into having the deeper relationship he wants while the woman distances herself from the man to keep the relationship shallow, the way she wants.

    The story could be read as an allegory for the most likely outcome if these people stay together – he absorbs her completely so she no longer appears to exist, but she controls him from inside the relationship so he never really does what he wants to do.

    It’s the magical surrealism of the story that kept me hooked. The absurd and peculiar turns the story takes, getting creepier and more disturbing, until finally the end arrives with the promise that, for the characters, the horrorshow will continue for the rest of their lives.

     

    *There probably have been others – I have a hard time remembering what magazine my favourite short stories were in – but the preferences of John Joseph Adams often don’t mesh with my own.

    Last Drink Bird Head

    WonderbookThe “textbook” for my writing course came today, about one working day after I ordered it. This blows my mind, because I’m used to books from Amazon taking weeks to get here. This book was ordered from Amazon Mexico, and I am now A FAN.

    I’ve already done one of the exercises for my first class, a loosening up writing exercise based on the title Last Drink Bird Head. There are some examples at the Wonderbook site, and I’ll include the one I wrote here just as an added bonus for all of you!

     

     


    Those who are familiar with the dim lights of a bar close to closing time, when the pool tables are finished with the clacking of balls and the jukebox has been tuned to the same rotation of sad songs paid for by the heartbroken guy who sobbed into the street a couple of beers earlier, when the tables that hosted shots and nibbles are being wiped down by a tired barman and the only lights left on are those bulbs above the final drinkers, one and all on shaky stools at the bar nursing the glasses they’d received in the hectic minutes following the call of “closing time”, those people are familiar also with the Last Drink Bird Head.

    At this point the place of ground the bar stands on is facing directly away from the sun, and on a melancholy Tuesday any who have the slightest reason at all to be at home, or to get up in the morning, are in bed snoring and dreaming and sticking the foot out from under the covers. The rest of us, we whose home is less preferable to the sad stickiness of the final few minutes of a bar’s business day, who wake in the morning and wish we hadn’t, we slouch with elbows on stained wood either side of a weeping glass full of cheap beer. Our necks are too weak to hold our heads, which dip on a regular basis, our face diving towards the glass only to be caught at the last minute by a simple neural program that stops us face-planting into agony. Our heads jerk up, oh-so-briefly before falling again towards our final beer. The Last Drink Bird Head.

    Our sips are small, like a swallow at a fountain, brief and tiny and rapid. They are quick, to avoid predators, we draw out our final drink to avoid our own predators, prowling from the depths of our minds to rake us with loneliness and self-loathing despair. The Last Drink Bird Head is a last, desperate attempt to hide from ourselves.

    But nothing lasts forever, not the Last Drink Bird Head and not the final beer, and the barmaid turns off the lights behind us as we are purged into the grimy street.