‘Say hello to my little friend’: tokoloshes and world horror

Posted: September 30, 2012 in Guest blogs
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Anecdotal evidence suggests that readers, publishers and reviewers are keen to receive reading material that diverges from the ubiquitous North American setting and perspective, and I had long intended to write a post on the subject, but I felt that I lacked the intellectual rigour and breadth of knowledge to do justice to the subject.

I count Pierre amongst my closest “friends that I have never met in person” because he thinks differently to anyone else I know. Sometimes the difference is subtle; other times he’s way over on the other side of the room. But he wears his eccentricities with gentleness and good humour, qualities that I value in a person even more highly than independent thinking.

Apparently, Pierre Mare owed me a blog post. Plus he is really, really smart. So I’m thrilled that he agreed to take on the challenge of addressing the topic of World Horror.

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When I was at university, I shared a room with a man who was stubborn and rational enough to make it through to third year maths and physics. If you have ever attended a very small university, you will know how rare this sort of individual can be.

 Dan is a member of the Xhosa tribe, so there were cultural differences. The most visible was the bricks beneath the legs of his bed. I asked why, and he told me it was so that the tokoloshe, a demonic midget, wouldn’t bump his head when passing through the room. The penny dropped immediately and the only question that remained was, once the tokoloshe walked under the bed and through the wall, who would take the blame when it fell five stories?

Apparently that wasn’t much of a problem. Dan applied his reason. He had fulfilled his side of the bargain and avoided hideous persecution by creating an environment in which a tokoloshe would not bump his head. The drop on the other side was the tokoloshe’s indaba. Fortunately Dan’s belief in the tokoloshe’s culpability for the drop was never put to the test. I know it never visited because I didn’t put my bed on bricks and I wasn’t afflicted with anything other than normal student hangovers.

When Tracie asked for guest posts on this blog, and suggested ‘world horror’ as a topic, I immediately remembered Dan and the tokoloshe.

I’m going to loosely define ‘horror’ as a paranormal phenomenon that shifts the reader or viewer out of a comfort zone. The comfort zone will be established by a set of unreasoned beliefs. Once a belief is marred there should, theoretically, be a disturbance in the comfort zone that can range from mild interest to closing the book and putting it out in the corridor until the sun rises when it can be safely chucked away in bright light.

The key concept is the idea of unreasoned belief. Being attacked by a lion is a reasonable proposition if you get too close to a lion that hasn’t hunted in a while or is bored. Being savaged by a demonic midget because it bumped its head on the bottom of your bed is not reasoned, but completely believable in the realm of folklore.

Most unreasoned beliefs arise from inexplicable phenomena. A healthy person who suddenly sickens and dies for no apparent reason could be the victim of a vampire, a tokoloshe or a witch’s curse. The unreasoned explanation is better than no explanation: randomness is senseless and painful, so something has to be the cause and take the blame. Stories are built around these events and they begin to travel. These folktales and their tellers preserve and curate a rich stream of belief.

The stories can also carry wisdom and advice. If a child drowns in the river, tell other children that it was an evil water sprite who will also drown other children who swim there. Parents will immediately understand the power and value of this type of deception: billions of children survived childhood due to these artificially instilled fears, no matter what modern day child psychologists might say.

Parcels of information become wrapped up in stories. The entertainment value of the stories carry them from mouth to By Foto: Andreas Praefcke (Own work (own photograph)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commonsear and head to head. As the stories travel they evolve. The vampire that sneaked into the room of the maiden, drank her blood and caused her to sicken and die, for instance evolved into a myriad of forms and thousands of stories. The wolf preying on vulnerable young ladies and grannies in the woods ended up as a hook-handed maniac preying on teenagers necking in cars.

Horror and other imaginative stories are, at their very best, reinventions of folk tales, myths and legends.

If you take that as true then world horror should add to the stock of knowledge on where not to wander or swim, what people believe and provide a generous degree of entertainment.

What’s the value for the reader?

Horror and other forms of speculative fiction have a way of becoming derivative. Familiarity breeds contempt: retreads of the same story, with minor and subtle deviations, often leave readers desperate for a difference. The zombie story is generally a set piece, involving survival of the individual or group, presented with all the variety of medieval theatre pieces. The forms of the vampire trope are vigorously defended until evolution is grudgingly accepted and then slavishly adopted and repeated. Were you thinking Stephenie Meyer? I was thinking Anne Rice.

Whatever the case, the continual rounds of derivation from previous works lead to content anemia. Unfamiliar tropes bring new blood to genres and new forms to jaded readers. Consider once moribund fairies, purer mythology and magic which have been given new leases on life by fairy punk, myth punk and magic realism.

By user Thander (http://pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ficheiro:Golem.JPG) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsMyths, legends and folk tales have already broadened the speculative fiction genre. The zombie, originally ‘n’zambi’, comes from West Africa. It was carried by slaves to Haiti and migrated to the northern hemisphere to become one of the primary tropes. Tolkein’s Middle Earth pantheon preserves lesser known elements of Anglo-Saxon and Nordic mythology: orcs and wargs, respectively. The golem, one of the less-used tropes, comes from the pages of Judaic mythology. So do the Behemoth and Leviathan. Mythology or folk tales that are assimilated enrich the genre.

There is a wealth of writing cues and inspirations out there. It just has to be mined.

If not yet, then why not?

Part of the problem with the slow journey of world horror lies with readers. It feels as if the majority of horror readers are more comfortable with ‘the devils they know’. It’s not just a matter of limiting fears. The nature and strength of the belief that led rational and scientific Dan to put his bed on bricks is not easily comprehended and assimilated.

There is an emerging trend towards world horror. The first time I came across it, excluding those sometimes dull but well-meaning books of African or other folktales from around the world, was Alan Dean Foster’s African romp, ‘Into the Out Of’. Dan Simmons ‘Song of Kali’ showed the heights to which adaptations of beliefs can aspire. ‘X-Files’ came along and happily mined a good number of tropes from a fair number of cultural locations. The TV series ‘Supernatural’ featured a couple of creatures from around the world. More recently, there has been the buzz around the Norwegian ogre movie (which I have yet to see).

The seed has been planted but it grows slowly.

If there is cause for it to grow faster, and I believe that the inbreeding and interbreeding of current tropes is ample justification (you know you’re in trouble when the next big nightmare is a vampire that mates with a werewolf), then it will lie with publishers and editors to begin welcoming world horror into the mainstream.

The natural place to begin is in anthologies which attract horror spotters looking for new sensations. It will not be enough to publish anthologies of world horror (though this would be very welcome – Kindle format please, if you take the hint) as this sort of anthology will attract a smaller number of specialist readers. A greater number of world horror stories in mainstream anthologies will provide exposure to mainstream readers and further open doors or gateways to new blood.

There is sound commercial reasoning in this as well. The same stories very often appear in the different anthologies published in the same year. A new source of stories could give anthologies the chance to better differentiate themselves.

The upside: preservation of cultural heritage

Stories stay relevant through the adaptation of retelling in different forms. Reboots of the Brothers Grimm prove this point. Giving new and relevant contexts to the story is probably the most successful way of doing this. By bringing old beasties and demons to our attention, world horror preserves cultural heritage in addition to being a source of entertainment. If wisdom is apparent then that is preserved as well. That’s an incredibly valuable proposition.

 The downside: cultural adaptation

The zombie emerged out of Africa and now bears little or no resemblance to its ancedents. Orcs and wargs are associated with Tolkein and Middle Earth, not Anglo-Saxon or Nordic folklore. Cultural adaptation can change the tropes while preserving them. Evolution and survival of the fittest produces adaptation.

The tokoloshe has survived with relatively limited alteration due to the fact that it has not traveled far from its Sub-Saharan roots and has not been significantly reinterpreted to make it more understandable. Even so, its propensity for rape and extreme violence has been swept under the carpet in the effort to sanitise it for children who carry its memory forward. How might it adapt and evolve in New York, for instance?

The weird bit: cultural ownership and sensitivity

 Tracie speaks elsewhere on this blog of folklore to which was imputed ownership by the Maori people. Trying to own a folk legend or story which travels from mind to mind is like trying claim ownership of air because you have breathed it before. It is only the shape of the author’s words which can be copyrighted in this instance, unless the story is protected by UNESCO Intangible Cultural status.

Even if this were the case, who would want to prevent its spread? The tango, for instance, is listed for Uruguay, and they don’t complain at all when the music is played all over the world. Try telling the tokoloshe that you own it. Add a few more bricks beneath the legs of your bed while you are at it.

Issues of cultural sensitivity may arise, but if the story is not denigrating then the issue can easily be dismissed.

Conclusion: bring it on!

There are plenty of stories out there. There are tokoloshes, bunyips, taniwha, chupacabras, kitsunes and so much more, all of which hold huge potential for people who love stories. By diversifying the paranormal gene pool of the horror field, world horror can re-enliven the field. Vampires and their ilk are getting old in more ways than one, and fresh blood keeps readers interested. Bring it on.

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 Pierre Mare watched ‘American Beauty’, and left behind a life of advertising to write about things that are really important: pop economics, conspiracy theories, parenting, gun culture and refrigerators.

He enjoys challenges, and once made Christmas dinner for a Catholic, a Moslem and a Jew.

He was born, lives and writes in Namibia.

You can purchase his e-book collection of essays, “The Writing is on the Coffee Cup”, here and visit his blog here.

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