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Northern chills: conversations on Canadian horror literature

(illustration: Louise Reimer)

(illustration: Louise Reimer)

As Canadian literary horror gains mainstream readership, authors, publishers, and experts share their opinions on the genre’s bloody popularity

Horror asks us what we hide, what we bury, what skeletons lurk in our closets. It asks us to investigate our collective subconscious and look into those dark suppressed bits from which we shield ourselves. Our monsters reveal things we deny or cast aside: anxieties, preoccupations, fears, and taboos. We stitch onto them all of the things we tell ourselves we shouldn’t do, feel, or be.

One question that occupies Canadians is, “Who are we?” We are a nation in perpetual identity crisis. Horror literature plays with this question by asking, “What aren’t we?” as we turn to face our culturally manufactured opposites, our monstrous twins.

Horror creates a distorted funhouse mirror that lets us see what lurks beneath the surface and to speculate about things we prefer be left in the dark. However, the dark subconscious is certainly not stirred by horror alone. There is a deep fissure of Northern Gothic that runs through much of CanLit, filled with ideas of secrecy, social issues, and the desire to escape, to be free of whatever life one is born into but perpetually forced to revisit.
Canadian literary horror reminds us that we live in a haunted landscape; one embedded with a history we deny in our attempts to construct the notion of a “just nation.”

We are haunted by the fact we live in a landscape that was taken from aboriginal peoples. We are haunted by Japanese internment camps and head taxes on Chinese immigrants. We are haunted by a history of slavery that we ignore, preferring to see ourselves as the nation at the end of the Underground Railroad rather than revealing that the railroad travelled both ways. The history we deny lurks as a revenant under the superstructure of a multicultural landscape that promises acceptance for all.

Our artists and authors have always been fascinated by the power of the physical landscape and the potential it embodies for both destruction and beauty. The North often appears in our literature as a monstrous figure – one that we constantly confront in order to survive, but that also evokes desire. It is changeable, transformative, overpowering, and impossible to capture in its entirety. It is a beautiful monster.

And, of course, Canadian literature is haunted by the most dangerous monster of all: it is vampiric, siphoning away our body’s heat; it stalks us, impedes us, and we feel heroic when we conquer it. We call it “snow.”

Derek Newman-Stille is founder of the Aurora Award–winning website Speculating Canada and a radio show of the same name (trentradio.ca). He has published articles and presented on Canadian speculative fiction at academic conferences, such as the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts.