I wish I could tell you the story about when I met KL Pereira. That day blurred in my memory, probably because I didn't yet realize what a stout-hearted, creative, generous, and true-to-herself person I'd just encountered. But as we co-edited a street magazine together in Boston, one that combined "arts and awareness" and was sold by homeless and low-income people on streetcorners and trains, it was my joy to discover her many colors.
As we together tried to figure out the thorny issues that came our way -- an article we published appears in another magazine! a vendor is rude to people who don't buy the magazine! a music writer wants us to call him a music editor, but he doesn't want to edit things! how do we make these pages good anyway? -- my respect for her became immense. This is the kind of person who is devoted to living an honest life of imagination and integrity. My favorite kind. And while I no longer get to hang out with her in Boston cafes, or Cambridge bookstores, or Jamaica Plain streets, or our Wednesday night open meetings at 23 Dartmouth, it's no less true. It is an honor to call her my friend.
So you can see why I'm so chuffed about introducing her new occasional column: Literary Gothic. Ms. Pereira has become quite an accomplished fiction writer and teacher. She chose the "Literary Gothic" name because "it's evocative, recalling the Grant Wood painting, Poe, and hinting at the underlying darkness found in so much of literature." The column comes in two parts: the first, which appears below, is a close reading of a work of "gothic" literature. Part Two, which will be published tomorrow, will detail how to bring the book into the classroom: she'll share her creative ideas for teaching it in an engaging way with emerging writers.
Pretty great, right? By the way, hear more from KL Pereira and being a teaching artist in the Isak interview. We talked about "reading comprehension as an art form, The Bell Jar, the uneasy notion that critical reading 'ruins' good books, and the fiction anthology that is making Pereira swoon."
But let me back out of the room now. She's got the floor now.
By KL Pereira
There aren’t enough short story collections that are bravely dark, and there are even fewer by women--especially women who use the richness and deathly beauty of Mexico as inspiration and backdrop for many of their tales. In her recently published collection, This Strange Way of Dying, Silvia Moreno-Garcia invites the reader into words and worlds that echo with all the things that make you shudder: doppelgangers, creepy children, and Death in various finery.
Reading the short prose in this volume is like opening 15 compact yet radiant gifts from the story gods. And indeed, the author creates her most compelling narratives with the economy and grace of a poet, eschewing breadth for bursts of haunting imagery and surrendering often to the lyrical rhythms of her lines.
The most powerful tales in this volume take as their subject characters (all of whom, it should be noted, are women) who are somehow entrapped or disempowered, either by their society (the machismo of traditional patriarchy lurks constantly, whether in father figures, social mores, or abusers who take submission to their power for granted) or by supernatural beings or circumstances. These characters, be they mothers, children, teenagers, students, lovers, warriors, all take control, some through involving intermediaries: by whispering promises to scorpions, summoning doppelgangers to replace those who displease, making deals with Death. Other characters are able to take control by their power alone, without the assistance of anything but the blood in their veins, the rage in their hearts.
Tales like “The Doppelgangers”, “Bed of Scorpions”, and the eponymous "This Strange Way of Dying” are brimming with gothic sensibility, yet the story “Shade of the Ceiba Tree” is the most potent example of what I term literary darkness; literary as in imbued with velvety but not over-wrought language, stunning imagery, and unique characters, and dark as in treading deeply and unflinchingly in the deep and disturbing recesses of humanity and folklore, fear and resilience. In this tale, Sak Imox never forgets that when she was a small child, her older sister was sent away to marry an unnamed god, sacrificed, even though all in her village are forbidden to speak of it. Ten years later, Sak Imox has developed the talent of listening, of hearing what others do not, which helps her sneak off in place in the next virgin girl to be married, sacrificed. Traversing through a great jungle, she finds the god and, of all the girls who have come to him over the years is able to truly hear his voice: “…she discerned beneath the layers of beauty the subtle murmur of death and the splash of blood against the earth.”
Sak Imox never falters in the face of her opponent, and though she “thought of the knife, of her throat arched against a black blade, she did not shudder. …He would not pry her open so easily.” Instead, Sak Imox asks the god for a wedding gift of her sister’s bones. This request is granted, and it is in this passage of the story that we bask in both the lushness of Moreno-Garcia’s prose and the sinister shimmering magic of her images:
He placed his hand against the silver trunk of the tree and whispered a word. The roots moved uncoiling like snakes, and from the earth the skull and bones emerged, gleaming white and lay there at his feet. She leaned down touching the brittle shell that had held her sister’s mind.
The resilient power of Sak Imox’s character shines as asks her sister to sing her songs again, removes her clothes, and has sex with the god under the night sky. And though she falls into the darkness, as Moreno-Garcia puts it, she is never swallowed by it; Sak Imox is ever awake and in control, especially as she kills the god, just as he has killed countless young women:
The bones continued to sing as Sak Imox sliced the man’s throat. Blood soaked the ground. Blood dripped down Sak Imox’s hands and the man’s silver eyes snapped open. He tried to speak, perhaps to weave his magic around her, but no sound could escape his mouth.
The god is powerless against the woman who can listen and act with power, without fear. The message here is powerful; the craft exhibits the best of what we yearn for in folktales: plosivity and sibilance in the prose that creates a rhythm that is intoxicating to the ear. In a more psychological sense, the imagery works hard to enchant the eyes and the mind, invoking a mythology that bathes in the literal blood of what Jung termed our deepest shadow selves, the aspects of us that can both sacrifice ourselves and kill another to survive. In essence, this piece is exemplary of the marriage of deftly sewn language and image with allegiance and indeed, revelry in the black magic of magical realism, horror, and the strange that is swimming throughout the collection.
KL Pereira likes to traipse around dark, woody crevices where most would rather not wander. Her fiction, poetry and nonfiction are published or forthcoming in Innsmouth Free Press, Mythic Delirium, Jabberwocky, The Medulla Review, The Pitkin Review, and other publications. Pereira writes a column for the Grub Daily (grubdaily.org) called "Slaying Genre: A Monthly Column on Horror, Noir, Fantasy & the Other Red-Headed Step-Children of the Literary World," and is working on two collections of short fiction and a novel. Her website is: darknesslovescompany.com and you can chat with her on Twitter (@kl_pereira).