Canadian literature has long had a thematic interest in the uncanny, the strange, the frightening, the unknown. From the magical and sometimes terrifying inhabitants of First Nations myths and legends, to the paranoiac claustrophobia imbuing early literature, identified by Northrop Frye as the “garrison mentality,” to the continued dread within contemporary literature of the myriad options for death and damage both Canadian wilderness and urban jungle afford, Canadian literary output can seem fixated on terror. And it’s certainly not the only artistic medium with such a focus – the Canadian film world has David Cronenberg, of course, and a new film festival called Blood in the Snow.
Margaret Atwood’s work has been a prime example of this exploration of the frightening, violent and unknown.
Surfacing is a spine-tingling consideration of death and irrationality, metaphorical and literal. The poetry I most admire uses fear and violence to make incisive feminist criticisms of 20th century mores. In some of her most interesting prose, she links dramatic manners of particularly Canadian death to the terror and suffering to be found in ordinary Canadian life, fusing myth and domesticity in stories like “The Age of Lead” and “Death By Landscape,” which draw on the futility and cannibalism of the Franklin expedition, and the impenetrable forests depicted in the work of the Group of Seven, to explore Canadians’ lives in the 20th century. Her speculative fiction – The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake come immediately to mind – works similarly, presenting dystopic and horrifying scenarios that are all-too-possible extensions of flaws within contemporary society. Atwood’s criticism, too, reveals her interest in the dark things lurking in the Canadian literary psyche: her 1991 Clarendon Lectures at Oxford were titled Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature. She has publications entitled The Edible Woman, Bodily Harm and Murder in the Dark.
In this season, when we are acutely aware of imminent death within the natural world, Atwood has added another layer to her exploration of horror, a gift to the Halloween-mad. In collaboration with British writer Naomi Alderman, a lauded author herself who was chosen by Atwood for mentoring, and who shares Atwood’s interest in both social commentary and the blurring boundaries between speculative, pulp and literary fiction, Atwood is releasing the comic-horror novel The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home, set largely in Toronto, as a serial publication on Canadian story-sharing website Wattpad. The novel is and is not “young-adult fiction” (Atwood has published delightful alliterative books for children), and in this as in other respects it’s right on trend: it combines the zombie craze of the moment with that for teenage-horror, and plays with them (it’s important to see the ways it both participates in and mocks horror conventions) with style. Atwood’s zest for comedy has been under-recognized, I think: much of her humour has been unsparing satire and sarcasm, but she’s also created some wonderful comic strips, and now presents us with this example of pure fun.
The novel goes back and forth between the perspectives of Okie, who first lands in trouble with zombies (evil mother, of course), and her gutsy grandmother, Clio; these chapters are alternately written by Atwood and Alderman, who appear to have had great fun getting each other into and out of sticky writerly situations as the pages turn. As the novel is serial, we won’t know how it all turns out until January, but we can be assured there will be wisecracking, wieners, social comedy and commentary, and, well, much gore. Toronto will never be the same.