TITLE: Certain Dark Things
AUTHOR: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
GENRE: Fiction, Horror, Urban Fantasy, Young Adult
PUBLISHED: October 25, 2016
PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: Mobilism
The appearance of the Twilight series in the literary scene did not bode well for vampire fiction. Though it created a resurgence of popularity for that particular genre, it is also true that Stephenie Meyer's series showed just how low the genre could go - for that matter, just how low young adult fiction as a whole could go. It was only later, with the appearance of the E.L. James' Fifty Shades series that readers realised it is possible to go even lower than that already very low bar.
However, it appears that fans of vampire fiction (myself included) are finally seeing the end of the tunnel because in 2016 Silvia Moreno-Garcia's novel Certain Dark Things arrived on the literary scene. It tells the story of Atl, a vampire on the run from a rival vampire clan that is out for her head. While in hiding in Mexico City she meets Domingo, a street kid who makes his living by collecting and selling garbage. She intends to keep Domingo around only long enough to help her survive her current crisis, but when she finds herself responding to Domingo’s cheery personality and unexpected devotion to her, she realises that she might not be as hard-hearted as she wants - or needs - to be.
Things get worse when the police find out about a murder that has all the hallmarks of a vampire attack. Cop Ana Aguirre has had experience dealing with vampire-related murders, and she is determined to find the creature that is leaving these dead bodies behind - no matter who or what stands in her way.
The first most notable aspect of this novel is its setting. Plenty of vampire novels have been set in densely-populated urban centres, especially in urban fantasy and paranormal romance stories, but I have not read one that was set in Mexico City. Additionally, those novels do not often go into the darker, grittier side of the cities they are set in, often choosing to focus on the parts that are just seamy enough to titillate, but without really showing the associated ills of urban life, like poverty, homelessness, and gangs.
Certain Dark Things, on the other hand, does not try to hide the ugly realities of its setting. This is made clear right at the beginning, in the first chapter:
Collecting garbage sharpens the senses. it allows us to notice what others do not see. Where most people would spy a pile of junk, the rag-and-bone man sees treasure: empty bottles that might be dragged to the recycling centre, computer innards that can be reused, furniture in decent shape. The garbage collector is alert. After all, this is a profession.
[Domingo] was a big fan of the subway system. He used to sleep in the subway cars when he first left home. Those days were behind. He had a proper place to sleep now, and lately he collected junk for an important rag-and-bone man, focusing on gathering used thermoplastic clothing. It was a bit harder to work the streets than it was to work a big landfill or ride the rumbling garbage trucks, sorting garbage as people stepped outside their houses and handed the collectors their plastic bags. A bit harder but not impossible, because there were small public trash bins downtown, because the restaurants led their garbage in the alleys behind them, and because people also littered the streets, not caring to chase the garbage trucks that made the rounds ever other morning. A person with enough brains could make a living downtown, scavenging.
Reading about this aspect of Mexico City is interesting, mostly because it resembles a lot of what I know of Manila. Garbage-pickers, homeless people on the streets, seedy clubs, dark alleyways hiding all sorts of sordid crimes and misdeeds - indeed, there were times when it was only the names of places that would remind me that I was not reading about Manila after all. I suppose this should not be so surprising; the Philippines and Mexico have a long, shared history, one that goes deep into the culture fibre of both countries. Poverty, corruption, and crime take on many different faces all around the world, but it does not surprise me that they look almost the same in the Philippines and Mexico.
Another aspect of the world-building that I greatly appreciate is the diversity. Every country in the world has its own vampire myths, and though they all share certain similarities they also are unique to the culture that created them. This diversity is something the author uses to great effect in the novel, creating groups of vampires with their own unique cultural identities, prejudices, histories, and rules for interacting with humans and other vampires.
This diversity has two effects: first, it expands the scope of the novel’s world beyond the slice that is presented in Mexico City. By showing diverse vampires, the author suggests a world that is equally diverse without having to show more of it than necessary.
The second effect is that it allows the author to comment on issues such as colonialism and immigration, illustrated in the following excerpt:
Most countries had taken measures against vampires since the ‘70s, measures that grew increasingly hostile. Many vampires, a lot of them from Europe, knowing how these things went, simply underwent a mass migration toward the countries that would take them. Countries with corrupt officials who would issue admission papers for vampires who should have been turned back at the airport. Places where citizenship was easy to purchase or sanitation officials were not too stringent if one could cough up the necessary dough. Mexico, corrupt yet stable, free of wars and political upheavals, was a favorite destination, though Brazil and Argentina also enjoyed a steady influx of vampires.
At first things remained pretty much the same. This stasis was interrupted in the ‘90s. More vampires arrived or expanded their power base, rivalries grew, alliances evaporated. … In other states near the border, Tlahuelpocmimi clans that had commanded respect by their sheer age—they could trace their roots to Pre-Hispanic Mexico—saw their authority undermined by well-armed bloodsuckers fresh off the airplane.
Ana remembered speaking to an old, toothless Chinese vampire who said that what had really altered the balance of power had not been ease of movement among vampires itself: the Necros changed the game.
“The Necros, they hold nothing sacred. …”
What I find most interesting about the excerpt and the world it paints for the reader is that it shows exactly the sort of thing people who are anti-immigrant and anti-refugee always fear will happen: that an influx of the wrong kind of people (i.e., anyone who is not white) will destroy local culture, bring pestilence, and create crime. In Certain Dark Things, this notion is inverted: the refugees are white, expelled with good reason from their countries of origin, and fleeing to countries that can be bribed to take them in. In doing so, they wreak havoc and destroy traditional cultures and systems, while at the same time spreading disease and criminality in their wake. These are the fears of those with anti-refugee sentiments but seen through a glass darkly.
Another way of looking at it is to see it as the experience of colonialism through the eyes of the colonised. Consider the Puritans: they fled an England that considered their beliefs a plague upon the social and spiritual fabric of the country and set up new homes in the New World. In doing so, they disrupted societies and cultures already in place (Native American culture and societies); they spread disease (smallpox) and practiced criminal acts (theft of Native American lands, to say nothing of murdering them outright for slights sometimes real but mostly imagined). That history follows a similar pattern to the one the author uses for European vampires in the novel - a deliberate choice, in my opinion, and one I can readily appreciate.
The second most notable aspect of this novel is the characterisation. Twilight is not the first series to focus on teenaged vampires and their romantic travails, but it did set a very low bar for all other vampire-centric YA stories thereafter. (Some readers would argue that it set that very low bar not just for vampire-centric YA stories, but for all YA stories as a whole.)
Certain Dark Things changes all of that. If the reader compares this to Twilight, the roles are reversed: the vampire is a girl instead of a boy, and the human mooning after her is a boy instead of a girl. I find this interesting because Domingo’s attitude towards Atl is generally attributed to love-stricken female characters; boys with crushes are generally portrayed as being more aloof, maybe even cruel towards their “object of affection” because internalised misogyny dictates that no boy can admit to having “softer” feelings. Therefore, reading about a boy who admits to having these softer feelings is refreshing, especially in a YA story.
Atl, on the other hand, acts in exactly the opposite way a girl in a YA romance tends to act. She is clearly reluctant to interact with Domingo beyond using him as a food source and fights her inclinations to befriend him for an enormous portion of the book - unlike Edward, who starts creepily watching Bella while she sleeps in the first third of the first Twilight book. She is always conscious of her power and of her situation, and does her very best to keep Domingo out of it - at first out of a moral inclination not to get more innocents involved in her predicament, but (much) later because of her own feelings.
Another way this novel does things differently from Twilight and its clones is that the reader is always aware the protagonists are in constant danger and that the protagonists are aware of this too, but since they are also teenagers they are not always given to rational thought. Atl is entirely aware of this, and though she does not like it, she can’t really help herself, either:
…bruises heal, marks fade from purple to blue to yellow, but what about the damn mark he was making right now? How do you get rid of that? Fingerprints that cannot be wiped and incisions that don’t cut muscles or tissues. How? She had no idea.
She was losing her head over a boy. But it’d be him who’s lose his head. Or them both, depending on how things went.
The thought made her feel cold.
Domingo had lain perfectly still so far, but when she dragged her knuckles against his clavicle he pushed himself up on his elbows, kissing her, dragging her down. The coldness melted away and she kissed him back. He embraced her again and they lay like that, quietly, until she fell asleep.
This scene might seem familiar enough to readers that more than a few may be inclined to roll their eyes, and I will admit that I felt the same way. This was precisely what I did not want to happen in this novel: another love story that had no place in the face of the greater dangers that surround the protagonists. However, I was also not totally opposed to it, in the sense that I knew it was coming and I was able to accept it for what it was - which just goes to show how well the author has balanced out the story, that I did not flinch at how quickly this romance set in. I cannot go completely into it without giving away spoilers, but suffice to say that the author is able to build this admittedly hurried romance in a way that comes off as relatively sensible, despite my preference for having no romance at all.
Overall, Certain Dark Things is everything that vampire fiction can and perhaps should be. It features a diverse cast of well-written characters, most of whom are women with their own unique backstories and motivations. The world is rich and deep, and comments on issues such as immigration and colonialism in a way that does not interfere with the slickly-paced plot, but still tackles them in a way that gives the reader something to think about. If the reader is looking for a book to restore their faith in vampire fiction, this novel is precisely what he or she is looking for.