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Thursday, August 04, 2016


Datura Stramonium
THERE ARE A LOT OF ZOMBIE STORIES OUT THERE. In the past ten years (give or take), they've resurfaced and recaptured the public's attention as brain-eating, mindless (or not so mindless) monsters. In previous decades, movies such as I Walked With A Zombie (1943) and Night of the Living Dead (1968) contributed to the popular culture; character origins might have been as early as the 1800's. Theories abound as to why zombie stories are so popular today - anything from a general belief in an inevitable and future dystopia, to a common need for more control in a society where people don't feel they have any. (What better way to experience a sense of control, than to vicariously kill something?)

Truth be told, I don't particularly enjoy zombie-themed stories unless they're well written, and even then, I insist on seeing something authentic (Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring), or funny (as in Shaun of the Dead). I'll also give a shout-out here to Kristi Charish's Voodoo Killings: A Kincaid Strange Novel, a contemporary fantasy/detective tale, which I also enjoyed. But as for the 'we gotta kill them before they kill us' theme, I can do without the mindless violence that has little in the way of depth. In the minds of many writers and readers, it's become a given that 'zombies eating brains' are what zombies do. It's become a cliché, unless handled with a twist.

So what are zombies really about? An excellent resource is Wade Davis's, The Serpent and the Rainbow, a book to which I referred (among others) to properly depict zombification in The Tattooed Queen. The word zombie (in French, zombi) comes from the Kongo term nzambi, which means 'spirit of the dead'. The process involves a bokor (a sorcerer - one who practices 'with the left hand' or who is willing to commit an evil deed, 'evil' depending upon one's point of view. Many of those who are zombified are actually malefactors themselves, having committed wrongs against members of their own community). To create a zombi, a bokor composes and administers a combination of powdered poisons (coupe poudre) to his victim. Every bokor has his particular recipe, but generally, these powders originate from toxic sources, including the bufo marinus or marine toad, several varieties of puffer or blowfish, millipedes, tarantulas, and noxious plants. The toad and puffers, in particular, are loaded with tetrodotoxins that contribute to paralysis, cyanosis, and, if the victim ingests too much, death. There are several ways to administer the coupe poudre; generally, the poison is rubbed into a wound or inhaled with the target unaware. If the bokor has administered a proper dose, his victim will be pronounced dead, then awaken in his coffin days later, where he'll be given a psychoactive antidote which renders him submissive. He becomes enslaved to the bokor's will.

One incident of synchronicity (that pleased me to no end) while doing this research, was discovering that the antidote to the coupe poudre is Datura (also known as Devil's Snare, Hell's Bells, Jimson Weed, etc. I've depicted it in the upper left-hand corner of this post.) In Haiti, a variety of it (Datura Stramonium) is called the Zombi Cucumber. It causes delirium and counteracts some of the effects caused by the coupe poudre. In the first book of my trilogy, The Tattooed Witch, I introduce Datura as Dartura, a goddess herb which, in small doses heals, but in larger ones causes paralysis. Dartura also plays a role in the second book, The Tattooed Seer, and an even greater one in The Tattooed Queen. I had no idea it would become so important, but sometimes, that's just how the writing goes. (If you're wondering when The Tattooed Queen is going to be released, I've been told by Five Rivers that it will be out this December. Right now, I'm awaiting the galleys.)

I hope you've found these posts about voodoo and zombies interesting. For those of you who are attending the When Words Collide Festival in Calgary, this August 12-14, I'll be reading from The Tattooed Queen on Saturday, 1:00 p.m. in Kananaskis 1, Atrium Building. I'll also be discussing similar topics of interest to the audience (more on zombies, gypsy culture, psychic abilities, etc.), some of which I've covered on this blog. Hope to see you there!

- Susan.

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