My dear unknown friend,
I spend a lot of time utilizing the Kindle Unlimited program to seek out unknown voices. After all, we are talking horror. Exploration of the unknown should be part and parcel of the equation. I shall not bore you with any pronouncements of having to slog through mountains of material. I’ve worked enough bad jobs in my life. Complaints about being forced to read is enough to make one retch in a bucket.
I knew I had definitely not heard of Nuzo Onoh before stumbling across her collection Unhallowed Graves. The four reviews the book had gathered on Amazon were not only glowing but well thought out and insightful. “What the hell,” I thought to myself, unaware Onoh’s creation would consume me for the next two days.
“The Unclean”, the first story in the collection, opens with the following Igbo Proverb:
There is nothing the eyes will see that will cause them to shed blood-tears.
Be that as it may, this story by itself, bereft of any supernatural elements, caused me to shed tears. Set in the West Africa of 1953 it tells the tale of Desdemona, Desee for short, first daughter of Ukah, in a world where women are subservient to all men, even young boys like her indolent younger brother Ibe. Women exist to be sold into marriage to whomever pays the dowry that satisfies their father. The women themselves have no say in the matter. This is the fate that falls upon Desee when members of the Onori family come to visit.
You know, my dear friend, I do not like reviews wherein they walk you through the story step by step so let me just say the preceding was merely the first few pages, the setup that allows the story to unfold.
William Friedkin once said, “True horror is seeing something approach.”* Nuzo Onoh’s work exemplifies this saying. You can see the events unfolding, you know something is coming, and yet you protest, “No this cannot be,” as you crawl backwards in your seat.
Then she introduces the ghosts.
Here is where the proceedings may become tricky. Upon seeing the word ghosts you may fall back on cultural assumptions built from years of familiarity and a feeling of disbelief may descend. “Ghosts? Been there. Done that. Bought the t-shirt. Next.” My friend, you have not met Nuzo Onoh’s ghosts. Her ghosts are terrifying. Some may say that it is the mythology she draws upon for her creations, for as Onoh has made clear in her interviews her work is African horror, yet this is not merely a catalog of mythological devices. Nuzo Onoh’s writing is potent. She is capable of endowing the description of a tree with power and dread until it is as dire a creation as anything I have seen placed upon the page. So when she turns this talent loose upon ghosts with as fertile and otherworldly a mythology as this? Stand by, dear heart. You will be burning the midnight oil.
I believe in the West we usually fall into two camps. Either you die and go to Heaven, or you die and that’s it, finis. Either way, you’re done here. Our ghosts tend to be mindless apparitions with little bearing upon our lives. In contrast, as Nuzo Onoh states in this interview, “… in Igboculture we have four categories of death: sudden death (murder), natural death, very bad or evil death (suicide, execution) and sad death (dying without having kids, thereby ending the bloodline). The type of death will determine the the kind of ghost that will return, and the kind of haunting you will get.”
Another point is Onoh’s stories share modalities with J-horror. When Nakata’s Ringu, Shimizu’s Ju-on, and Kurosawa’s Kairo first hit Western shores they were a breath of fresh air. First of all, they were hauntings stripped of cause and effect. What made The Grudge chilling was the fact that Karen did nothing wrong, she was not an evil-doer being punished for past mistakes. Nope. Simply wrong place, wrong time. Doomed.
Similarly Kairo’s evocation of the loneliness that exists in an over-crowded and inter-connected world where death is not an ending but rather a beginning, a continuation of self-inflicted despair that intensifies and amplifies in an eternal feedback loop of perpetual motion.
Onoh’s creations share similarities with these themes and adds to them. The friction between what we’re familiar with and these new, unknown elements were so compelling in creating a sense of unease and fascination I found myself in that all too recognizable place of staying up late into the morning, reciting that beloved litany, “just one more page.” “The end of this chapter.”
Flannery O’Connonr wrote, “Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.” Nuzo Onoh’s creations captivate because they are born of dust. We intrinsically understand the motivations of her characters because they are honest, not mere mouthpieces for the author to speak through. In “Night Market”, the second tale of this collection, Alan Pearson a British diplomat working in Nigeria orders his driver to stop and pick up a bedraggled young woman walking beside the road through a thunderous downpour, overruling his driver’s protests that the poor woman is a witch or “half dead” as superstitious nonsense. With this act of charity Pearson sets in motion a chain of events few could see coming, right up to and including the final pages of the story. In addition to all of the awful elements Onoh introduced us to in “The Unclean” she now adds the Night Market, a shadowy domain where sorcerers, ghouls, and witches meet to barter for one’s deepest desires with the most grievous of results. This story may be the most damning indictment of trade I’ve read, it approaches myth in its effectiveness.
The final story of the collection, “Our Bones Shall Rise Again”, takes a historical tragedy/stirring sacrifice to the power of refusal as its basis and weaves a tale of reincarnation, resistance, witch doctors and self-initiation. I turn to Flannery O’Connor again not in an attempt to impress, simply because as a bear of limited intelligence she succinctly expresses what would take me reams of paper and far too much of your time to say in three simple sentences. “A story that is any good can’t be reduced, it can only be expanded. A story is good when you continue to see more and more in it, and when it continues to escape you. In fiction two and two is always more than four.” By this or any definition “Our Bones Shall Rise Again” shines brightly. In the days since I have finished reading this tale I find my thoughts returning again and again, finding hidden connections, concealed resonances, latent images rising unbidden in my mind’s eye.
While reading Unhallowed Graves I was continuously reminded of the spellcasting origins of words from my own culture. The very act of writing itself is seen by many as the first magical act. Nuzo Onoh has stated in interviews that her writing is African horror and I feel that in giving us this gift of African horror Onoh has bequeathed us the benefit to reflect upon our own culture’s horror through this difference. Whatever it does mean I know this for certain: I have discovered a new voice until now unknown to myself, one that I eagerly look forward to hearing again. And I say thank you to Mrs. Onoh for those quiet hours of “just one more page.”
* A hat tip to Alasdair Stuart for first bringing Friedkin’s quote to my attention in the introduction to Whispers from the Abyss.