African Horror Returns with Nuzo Onoh’s “Dead Corpse”

You may purchase Dead Corpse here.

My dear unknown friend,

I consider my initial discovery of Nuzo Onoh’s debut collection Unhallowed Graves to be not only a testament to the value of Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program  but also the greatest discovery of my time with Lovecraft eZine. I still remember those nights reading otherworldly tales, familiar yet strange, told with power and vision. That first volume led to a fascinating interview, a friendship, a novel, and now Nuzo Onoh returns with yet another tome of African Horror, Dead Corpse.

nuzoOne of the many pleasures in discovering writers from their first collection is watching them grow as they flex muscles and acquire new ones as their confidence allows them to take chances and explore new methods of expressing insights into their world. When one comes out of the gate as strongly as Ms. Onoh has then there’s always the question of how much further can the progression be pushed? I am pleased to say that Dead Corpse shows Nuzo not only continues to grow stronger as a writer but able to surprise and delight with an ease that is a joy to behold.

Dead Corpse continues Nuzo Onoh’s mission to bring African horror to the world and in this she succeeds admirably. Dead Corpse is a multi-generational saga that explores the costs and tribulations involved with placing one’s life in service to the gods and goddesses of the indigenous Nigerian faiths. The novel starts with the priestess Xikora and her struggles with a duo of unsettling African deities known as Walking-Grave and Corpse-Maker. This struggle leaves Xikora’s daughter, Ọwa, tasked with her own quest to fulfill during her life, one that she accepts without question and with all of her heart.

9781909484870_cov2.inddThe novel then focuses on Ọwa’s daughter Aku who has embraced Nigeria’s entry into the Western worldview. She attends the local Catholic school and is making surreptitious plans with her best friend Ego to move away from their village and into the city to pursue their shared dream of becoming fashion designers. Ego is one of the few villagers who does not shun Aku due to her albinism, a condition that marks the women of Aku’s family as servants of the gods yet also sets them apart as pariahs and outcasts. In other villages albinos are regularly kidnapped, maimed and killed as their value to the gods means their body parts are considered imbued with special relevance in ritual supplications. Within Ọwa and Aku’s village the fear instilled by their grandmother Xikora’s tenure as the village priestess to Aná the Earth goddess has allowed them a tenuous amount of safety. So while Xikora ruled with fear and reveled in the power her position granted her, the flaunting of this strength ensured her daughter and granddaughter could walk their village’s streets with little fear of being kidnapped. While Ọwa tries to correct the mistakes of Xikora’s abuse of power this leads to people perceiving her as being weaker than her mother and not as worthy of respect. Here the stage is set for the horrors within Dead Corpse.

Zora Neale Hurston once wrote, “Gods always behave like the people who created them,” and this is boldly on view within Dead Corpse. The struggles for power sets in motion forces that cannot be accounted for and consequences that cannot have been foreseen. That being said at all times the simplest of rules, those taught by parents to their children from the earliest age onwards, are the simplest of yardsticks at play here. It’s not as if there is a hidden surprise in how to lead an upright and virtuous life. We all know this yet we cannot help but want to bend the rules here and there then yelp at the unfairness of it all when it comes back to haunt us in the end. This is part of what makes Nuzo Onoh’s characters work so well. They are not evil for evil’s sake. They have goals and ambitions, wants and desires and are merely looking to shave a few corners in their quest to get there. I’ve sat in enough meetings where I’ve heard phrases to the effect of, “Bill Gates didn’t get to his position by playing fairly,” to know that if our politicians and business leaders were raised in a different cultural milieu they would not think twice about kidnapping an albino child from the side of the road. Enron did not occur in a vacuum. By rooting her character’s motivations in this universal language Nuzo brings even the antagonists within her novel into the realm of the understandable. Still loathsome and grotesque yet not the caricatures that lurk at the heart of far too many works of genre fiction.

9781909484856_cov1.inddNuzo Onoh’s work is filled with a brutality that can shock and surprise. It is not the brutality of mere blood and gore, though she does not shy away from these realms, rather she shows no sign of making any one character within her work sacred, safe from the carnage being meted out upon those about them. Several within Dead Corpse meet grisly ends and more than a few genuinely startled me. I have grown used to mores within storytelling that certain characters would be “safe” so when that pattern is upset it creates an unsettling tension that only heightens the unease of the reading experience. The manner in which this was accomplished, where once again the act was puerilely motivated and with hindsight seemed inevitable, instead of an arbitrary killing simply to say, “No one is safe here,” marks the skill with which Ms. Onoh approaches her work. On the other side of the coin there were moments of forgiveness and growth within Dead Corpse where I once again did not expect them and to witness her characters grappling with these concepts with heartfelt emotions rather than mouthing sanctimonious platitudes was equally fulfilling.

As should be obvious by now I not only thoroughly enjoyed Dead Corpse but I am also a huge fan of Nuzo Onoh’s work as a whole. By bringing her vision of African Horror to the world she expands our borders, broadens our imaginations and adds her writings to the treasure trove of our beautiful genre. I consider Dead Corpse to be a breath of fresh air at a time when so many writers on witchcraft and paganism appear hellbent on portraying the topic using the gauzy Instagram filters of candy cotton delight more useful for peddling lipstick within the pages of Teen Vogue. Dead Corpse shows a religion built upon dedication, perseverance and sacrifice that while infinitely rewarding requires a lifetime of toil and tribulation. Somehow my gut is telling me it’s not hard to figure out which of these lies closest to the mark. Read Dead Corpse for the wonderful fiction and let its deeper truths settle into your soul.

You may purchase Dead Corpse here.

Soundtrack for this review:

This review by Acep Hale.

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