Off/Kilter: Dark literature through a Canadian lens
Welcome to Off/Kilter, a brand new blog column on All Lit Up devoted to books of a magical and surreal nature, featuring alternate realities, dystopian worlds, strange beasties and more. From the dark and fantastical to the joyfully absurd, we’ll explore how books within related genres create a space for us to dream bigger and encourage new ways of seeing, thinking and being.
To kick things off, we asked a panel of authors writing in these spaces to tell us more about why literature of this nature remains important today and what role it might serve in a particularly Canadian context + authors & books that have influenced their work.
– Your Off/Kilter host, ALU staffer and resident ‘weird lit’ aficionado, Leyla TopSee more details below
1. Why is literature that contains elements of the gothic, surreal, dystopian or macabre important and what role it might serve in a Canadian context?
Caitlin Galway: The Gothic and the macabre provide a form of subconscious escapism. We're allowed to confront anxiety, fear, and destabilizing questions of morality in a way that tiptoes to the edge of our psychological boundaries without dissolving them. Fiction incorporating the speculative also cracks open the imagination. Surrealist and dystopian works, perhaps in particular, are mechanisms by which we deconstruct reality, and reshape our understanding of the world.
In a specifically Canadian context, Southern Ontario Gothic can offer incisive social criticism, and much like Southern Gothic literature, it often examines highly concentrated, localized bigotry and hypocrisy. I say this fully aware that my settings are typically American, but as a nation we tend to have a spectatorial fascination with the US and often focus on their social failings more than our own; Southern Ontario Gothic literature helps to pull that critical eye back home.
Evan Munday: I’m far from the first person to say this, but any art that deals in the gothic and macabre is wonderful because it often explores and interrogates a culture’s anxieties and fears, whether consciously or not. These may be subjects too unsettling to approach in other forms. Or – more likely – they may feel too much like an after-school special if they were explored in literary fiction, say, or an essay. Accordingly, it serves a very important role in a Canadian context by looking at those tension points and divisions that plague us, but we often don’t deal with. I like to look at the recent rise of Indigenous horror literature and film (something that author Alicia Elliott has written about). Books like Waubgeshig Rice’s Moon of the Crusted Snow (ECW Press) or films like Jeff Barnaby’s Rhymes for Young Ghouls speak to cultural realities and reach a different audience than a book of nonfiction about residential schools might. Much in the same way that a book like David Demchuk’s The Bone Mother (ChiZine) explores intergenerational trauma (via an Eastern European lens), but through monsters and mer-people.
Victoria Hetherington: Gothic, surreal, dystopian, supernatural and macabre elements in Canadian literature are important because it's us, it's here, it's real. Recently I've been doing research at the IWM in London England, and took a bit of a poll with people here. Largely, their perception of Canadian literature still involves vast, bleak prairies in winter, stoic families tending to their patch of it, and perhaps a significantly barren cow, a cropless summer, or a stopped clock that, despite the best efforts of the family patriarch, will never start again. In many ways, and of course not just literary ones, the global perception of Canada diverges from what it's really like here.
2. A book, or any authors that have influenced you in your writing within these literary spaces.
CG: There are some authors and works I've read so often and for so many years that I've almost certainly absorbed some influence: the Brontë sisters, Murakami, Shirley Jackson, Dickens, the poetry of Rimbaud (a surrealist avant-la-lettre), and the works of Plath, which I think qualify as a kind of Post-War American Gothic.
EM: There are certainly a bunch of Canadian books and authors that work within this genre that I love and am inspired by (though maybe it’s not 100% clear from my own writing. Ones that come most readily to mind are Derek McCormack’s The Haunted Hillbilly (ECW Press), Tony Burgess’s Pontypool Changes Everything (ECW Press) , Mona Awad’s Bunny (Penguin Canada), Alexandra Grigorescu’s Cauchemar (ECW Press), Jonathan Ball’s Clockfire (Coach House Books), Andre Alexis’s incredible Days by Moonlight (Coach House Books), and Eden Robinson’s Trickster Trilogy (Knopf Canada). And in the world of Canadian comics, Kris Bertin and Alexander Forbes’ The Case of the Missing Men (Conundrum Press) blew my mind. Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim books (Oni Press) and Jillian Tamaki’s Supermutant Magic Academy (Drawn & Quarterly) are also big influences, too, but they aren’t quite macabre enough to fit the genre.
VH: The Southern Ontario Gothic has been discussed to death, but of course these authors influenced me, largely because the dark, crazy Canada described therein was so familiar. Respectfully, I don't like talking about authors who've influenced me, so I won't. My work has been far more significantly shaped – maybe warped – by the Canadian urban landscape, specifically Toronto, which has a kind of blankness to it, a kind of collective anxiety oozing around beneath the glitter, that's tough to explain. Sometimes I'll arrive at a concrete reason, like discovering that an entire graveyard was exhumed and relocated in wagonfuls to make way for the intersection of Yonge and Bloor. I've never liked crossing that street.
But before that, and before I grasped the genocidal and colonial history of our land – textbooks in early 2000s Ontario classrooms reframed Canadian history to an astonishing degree – I knew I lived in a deeply haunted place. I'd dig in sandboxes, but gingerly, and at night, I'd look out my little window and see spotlights moving against the clouds. I habitually felt hurt and rage and fear. This tension and horror and fear is our legacy, and a tiny bit of it comes out through my writing, I think. Even Northrop Frye expressed a kind of literary anxiety that resonates with me: "to enter Canada is a matter of being silently swallowed by an alien continent." I feel that. When I wrote [Mooncalves], my characters were perpetually fighting off being swallowed, because, to an extent, so was I. So am I.
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A special thank you to our panelists for helping us ponder the dark corners of the abyss. Find their books and more on All Lit Up:
Bonavere Howl (Guernica Editions), Caitlin Galway
Mooncalves (Now or Never Publishing), Victoria Hetherington
The Dead Kid Detective Agency (ECW Press), Evan Munday
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