Canadian Gothic

March 15, 2013 | Maureen

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Where does a librarian go on a night off? To a book launch, of course. Actually, it was my first. I was amazed at how many people were crowded into the room at the Gladstone Hotel – all seats were taken, and many were standing -- but then, there’s a lot of buzz around Andrew Pyper’s new book, The Demonologist, predicted to be the Gangnam Style of 2013 by Mark Medley of the National Post.

  Luckily, I arrived early enough to get a seat close to the authorial action. Despite the large turnout, I was reminded of a place I'd never been: a parlour where you might pull yourself closer to the fire to chase away the shivers after hearing a dark tale. On the stage, two plush chairs the shade of unripe squash flesh were set on a rug patterned in colours that brought to mind dark jewels. Between them, a table held a delicate vase of white flowers. The atmosphere seemed perfect for the launch of a book about a Columbia University professor of literature, David Ullman, who tries to recover his twelve year-old daughter Tess from the Unnamed, a demonic entity.

While waiting, I wondered if the blossoms in the fragile glass symbolized the innocent, vulnerable daughter. And did the pale orange chairs and stack of flame coloured books in front of the vase signify the fires of hell entrapping her? And, I wondered, is seeing symbolism everywhere an unfortunate and distracting side effect of studying literature? Wouldn’t it be more productive to prod the tiny, withered math zone in my brain by attempting to calculate something? But if I were math oriented, I probably wouldn't be eagerly awaiting a Canadian author who writes disturbing, scary fiction.



First, the audience was treated to the chilling book trailer, which you may watch below:

Then Andrew Pyper read from his new book.


After the reading, author Russell Smith interviewed Pyper, who was engaging and funny -- not the moody, tormented soul one might expect. I was intrigued when Smith said that for him, the scariest part of the book was the trip to Canada. In response, Pyper touched upon what he called, 'Canadian Gothic'. He pointed out that in Canada, we don't have the typical settings for frightening tales that some places have, such as castles -- what we have is the immense north, the wilderness. The city, Pyper said, is safety -- the woods, the river, the cabin -- that's scary. 


I thought of Margaret Atwood's book Survival: a thematic guide to Canadian literature, which offers one way of approaching Canadian literature. Atwood suggests that "every country or culture has a single unifying and informing symbol at its core." The symbol for England may be The Island, for America, it may be The Frontier. For Canada, the unifying symbol is Survival. This symbol can have various facets. It can refer to survival of "hostile elements" or the "grim" survival of a disaster, or cultural survival (here, Atwood refers to French Canada trying to keep its culture and language alive "under an alien government". Provocatively, she says the symbol has a similar meaning for English Canada in relation to America.)

"But the main idea is the first one: hanging on, staying alive. Our central idea is one which generates, not the excitement and sense of adventure or danger which The Frontier holds out, not the smugness and/or sense of security, of everything in its place, which The Island can offer, but an almost intolerable anxiety. Our stories are likely to be tales not of those who made it but of those who made it back from the awful experience -- the North, the snowstorm, the sinking ship --that killed everyone else."

Though Survival was published in 1972, the patterns Atwood observed in Canadian literature may still be seen today. Without giving anything away, in Pyper's The Killing Circle the hostile elements become a factor in the survival of the main character, Patrick Rush, when he leaves Toronto and goes north on the trail of his kidnapped son. Things get scarier in The Demonologist when David Ullman heads north to Canada. Will David Ullman survive? Atwood points out that "in many Canadian David-and-Goliath stories, Goliath wins." I'm looking forward to reading The Demonologist to find out if this particular David will be added to the long list of Canadian literary victims.

Strange things: the malevolent north in Canadian literature


If this post has piqued your interest in Margaret Atwood's perspective on Canadian literature, consider reading Strange things: the malevolent north in Canadian literature, a collection of lectures Atwood delivered at Oxford University in 1991. Yes, it's literary criticism, which may sound like the kiss of death if you're seeking pleasure reading, but it's fascinating and witty. Trust me.


For a blast from our poetic past which nicely exemplifies Atwood's ideas in Survival, consider the classic Canadian poem The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert W. Service, which involves another ill fated trip into Canada, and yet another victim of the malevolent north, where the cold stabs "like a driven nail." You can read the whole poem on the Poetry Foundation website. Some of you will know the first verse by heart:
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
      By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
      That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
      But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
      I cremated Sam McGee.

Sam McGee