The Serpent’s Shadow, by Daniel Braum

“I didn’t feel like I was doing the tourist thing anymore. I was in the real world. The real jungle. And it terrified me. These were real monkeys. And real Mayan people. Everything was much stranger than I could have imagined. I’d seen real guns. And a dead body. Someone had gotten hurt. This was living without a net. I was small. I was vulnerable. I reached for Anne Marie’s hand.”

61ms48j3laL[1].jpgThe one and only time I stood in the shadow of the Mayan empire was when my family’s cruise ship had a port of call in Belize. I gazed at the ancient temple (a paid excursion) with awe and wonder. My father-in-law, who is Peruvian and compares any ancient structure to Machu Picchu, strolled up next to me, casually leaned over, and said, “Don’t get too excited. These are very minor ruins.” Some of the awe and wonder dissipated, but I didn’t let him completely take away my appreciation. Daniel Braum’s novella/short novel, THE SERPENT’S SHADOW, eviscerates, in some ways, tourists like me. Set against the backdrop of the hotel district in Cancun and the surrounding environs, Braum weaves a mostly successful tale of cosmic horror steeped in folklore, history, and contemporary political and environmental concerns. THE SERPENT’S SHADOW is published by Cemetery Dance Publications, and came out on July 2, 2019. I am grateful to Mr. Braum for sending me a free e-ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The plot centers on David, who is on a long promised vacation in Cancun with his sister Regina and their parents. During a night of partying, David meets up with the enchanting Anne Marie, her sister Trudy, and Trudy’s boyfriend, Reginald. Quickly, very quickly actually, Anne Marie and David are inseparable, and she invites him to accompany her on a horseback riding trip. Reginald has a sort of surprise proposal planned for Trudy, and the horseback jaunt provides the excuse to get to the beautiful secluded spot perfect for a romantic engagement. Only, while Reginald and Trudy are off getting engaged, Anne Marie and David are led by their guide Ramon deeper and deeper into the jungle. Take it from Daniel Braum folks: never go into the jungle. That’s where bad things can happen, as indeed, they begin to do here. roq_quetzalcoatl[1]Braum begins to introduce his folklore in this section, calling our attention directly to the Santa Muerte cult (that I also wrote about here, in a Brian Hodge story) and indirectly to the legend of Quetzacoatl, the Plumed Serpent god of Mayan culture.  The reality of all that goes on is called into question by the near-constant presence of Xtabentun, a plant local to that part of Mexico known for its hallucinogenic and psychedelic properties, out of which a liquor and tea can be made. Things begin to spiral out of control here and I can’t say more about how without spoilers, but suffice it to say that the horror elements ramp up quite a bit, and the cosmic horror elements poke their heads around the dimensional corner.

It’s also at this point that Braum begins to write about twinned worries for the indigenous people and the native land of the Yucatan peninsula. He’s clearly done his research on this matter and equally as clearly his genuine concern shines through. I suspect this is a matter of some importance to Braum, though whether it is personal or not I have no way of knowing. On the one hand, we read lines like this, “Listen, and I tell you the story of our history. The Spanish came to take from us. The Mexican Government came to take from us. Everyone takes from the Mayan people. They kill us. They kill each other. For treasure…for our true treasure. This land. This beautiful land.” NIGHT-CLUBS-JOYFUL-LIFE-CANCUN[1]Laments about the ugliness of the hotel district and the blight that is the tourism industry are liberally sprinkled throughout. But Braum doesn’t give in to easy hand-wringing. He counters his own argument with the second of the twinned concerns in lines like this, “My father worked in the chicle fields,” he said. “All day. I thought I would grow up and do that too. Now the plantations are all gone. I am glad for Cancun,” he said. His words sounded defiant and a little like a confession. The fact of the matter is that the tourism industry employs thousands of native persons who might otherwise have no job, or at least for whom the prospects for a better life would be far slimmer. Scylla and Charybdis.

The horror and even the cosmic horror elements are all present, and when combined with a pair of real world concerns for the people and the land, this ought to have been a beautifully devastating story, but unfortunately for me it did not reach those heights. I think the writing is where it falters. Oh, not in every place, for in the beginning we get gems that just throw us right into the midst of these characters lives like, “I waved to Anne Marie and she made like she was holding a camera with her fingers and pretended to take my picture. Neither of us had a camera, but it didn’t matter.” That’s just so real, so human, that it made me ache for younger, simpler days. mayan-ruins-of-chichen-itza-built-by-may[1].jpgIn the action-packed horrific moments of the story, too, Braum succeeds in hurling us into the middle of it all. Most of the time his brief, staccato sentences were effective. But it is in the characters reactions to things, how they accept so quickly and easily truly horrible sights and experiences. These are experiences that should traumatize and in many ways debilitate, not ones that could be internalized after some weed and few beers before a quick sleep and then, hey, let’s do that again! I found my ability to suspend disbelief stretched, and that caused my interest to dwindle. This was my main issue with this novella, but I had a few minor quibbles too. Two side characters with annoyingly similar names (Regina and Reginald) for example, make it hard on the eye. Also, by the end, I felt like the concerns for the marred natural beauty of Cancun to have gotten too heavy handed.  We got it. Less might have been more.

In the end, this is an enjoyable, if flawed cosmic horror tale wrapped in well researched and deeply felt history. Awe and wonder to be sure, but minor ruins. Fans of Latin American settings in their horror will find plenty to enjoy, while cosmic horror buffs will also get a satisfying helping of what they desire. I really enjoyed and had fun with the ideas Braum presented, which is what kept me coming back, but they could have been tighter with more believable character reactions. Despite that, I look forward to what Braum comes up with next, because, with his ideas and concepts, I want him to keep getting better. Lovecraft could never write positively about other cultures. I love it when authors like Braum set their cosmic horrors in places Lovecraft would never have tread.

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Yug and Neb,
~The Bibliothecar

Novenas to Saint Death: “I dreamt we were wrapped in xtabentun vines; vines that had crept along the stones and bound us together, their white flowers open to the night. I rolled over. Light was ready to return to the sky. I reached for her. My hand felt sand. She wasn’t next to me. I sat up and saw her walking out of the ruin…”It’s time,” she said.”

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West of Matamoros, North of Hell, by Brian Hodge

“Now you didn’t have to look hard at all to find her. Santa Muerte was everywhere, never more so than during the last decade, ever since the cartel wars erupted into a never-ending series of bloodbaths and massacres. Saint Death, Holy Death, had really come into her own.”

e_chizmar07_360x540[1]It is a testament to Mr. Hodge’s writing that I hadn’t originally planned on reviewing this story, having just recently reviewed another by him, but in the weeks since I read this, it has haunted me like few stories have. Some terrors are far too real, and I think that is the main reason this has stuck with me the way that it has. When combined with a visceral writing style possessed of a certain immediacy, the twin horrors of this story bleed through the page into your mind, your soul, and I, at least, found myself trembling. Originally published in “Dark Screams, Volume Seven” put out by Hydra in 2017, West of Matamoros, North of Hell was chosen by Ellen Datlow for inclusion in “The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Ten,” which is where I found it. It is easy to see why it was included.

Rock stars Sebatián, Sofia, and Enrique put out a certain kind of music, the kind that your mom probably wouldn’t approve of. Their latest album was a huge success and they want to follow it up by going deeper, getting more real, and strengthening their chosen personas as traffickers of evil and death. The fans love it, but it’s all showbiz. guadalupe-santamuerte[1]So, they line up a video shoot down in Matamoros, Mexico—the heartland for Santa Muerte worship. If you know even a modicum of Spanish, you know that translates to Saint Death. Santa Muerte worship has been around forever, in some form or another, most likely having its origin in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican religion. When the Spanish conquer what is now Central and parts of South America, they bring Catholicism with them, and it co-mingles with the native faith, ultimately producing a vibrant and popular cult of saints unlike anywhere else in the world. Above you can see the similarities in the icon images of La Virgen de Guadalupe (the Virgin Mary, as she appeared in Guadalupe), and Santa Muerte. Traditionally, Santa Muerte isn’t actually all that scary, being associated with healing, protection, financial well-being, the assurance of a path to the afterlife, and the guardian of the LGBT community. santamuerte061[1]However, she has also been adopted (probably on account of the imagery associated with her that gives her more of a Grim Reaper appearance, complete with scythe) by the cartels and other criminal elements in Mexico. Shrines to her can be found everywhere from people’s homes to large, public shrines erected for community celebrations such as this one pictured here, at the International Temple of Santa Muerte, in Estado de Mexico, Mexico. There’s a bunch of other great images and interesting information about her cult in this article, Worshipping at the Altar of Sweet Saint Death, by Allison Meier.

Family cookouts and community festivals, however, don’t figure so much into this tale of terror. After the video shoot, our earnest musicians are ready to get out of dodge. After all, when going for realism in your video and shooting on location in the Mexican desert, you are actually placing yourselves well within the jurisdiction of the cartels who worship Santa Muerte in, shall we say, less than wholesome ways. As they’re rolling out, the most terrifying lines of the whole story appear, suddenly and irrevocably.  “[Enrique] was slumped into the door with his head against the window when he perked up at the sight of something shooting out of a bush ahead of them. Thinking in that instant, holy shit, it was the biggest snake he’d ever seen, even though he knew that wasn’t right.” When I read that, I thought, “oh shit, tire spikes…” and sure enough…“An instant later came the sound of blowing tires, a double bang in front, another double bang in the rear.”

SONY DSCSudden, final, and immediate violence follows. The kind that makes you wonder, even as you read, is this really happening? Did that just happen? Hodge manages to communicate the confusion of the blur of action and blood in an incredibly convincing way, especially the speed of the event. When the dust settles, our cast of characters is somewhat reduced and they find themselves imprisoned in an underground cell of some sort with a bunch of other unsavory folks. There is a small, ceiling-level window, out of which a nightmarish scene is displayed. “Not far beyond the front doors was the biggest Santa Muerte he’d ever seen. She stood fifteen feet tall, easy. Her blue robes were voluminous, enough material there for a festival tent. She seemed too big to have found her a scythe that wouldn’t look like a toy. Yet they had. Somebody must’ve made it just for her, a scythe big enough to cut the moon in half. And somehow…somehow the skull was at scale. “That can’t be real, ” Sofia said. No. It couldn’t. It just looked real. The yellowing of age. The uneven teeth. The missing teeth, random gaps in the jaw. They’d had it made, that was all.”

A gruesome human sacrifice to this Santa Muerte follows, presided over by a man with a skull tattooed over his face and head. I’ll not describe the sacrifice here, but it is drawn from reality, at least as far as the news can report on the atrocities of the cartel gangs. (Descriptions of the skull faced man reminded me of Rick Genest, pictured here, who holds the Guinness Book of World Records record for most tattoos of human bones. Though I’ll use him to illustrate this story, I draw no connections between this awful fictional character and Mr. Genest, who died tragically in 2018.) This is one of the things that makes this story so terrifying. It’s not fake, this sort of thing has happened and continues to happen to innocent people. Be in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and you could be kidnapped for ransom money, or just flat out killed for no reason. rickgenestbanner1200x627[1]However, in this story, Skull Face has a reason. He targeted these band members because he was a fan of their hellish music and wanted to know how they got it all so right. What was their inspiration? He’d carve it out of them if need be.

As the story draws towards its cringe-worthy conclusion, the cosmic horror begins. While not strictly Lovecraftian, there are themes of placating an outer god reminiscent of the bayou scene from The Call of Cthulhu, or perhaps even The Festival. I don’t want to spoil the ending for you, so you’ll just have to trust me when I say that the terror moves from the realm of the all-too-real cartel violence to a moment of the cosmically fantastic. Either way, I’m crossing Matamoros off my list of possible vacation destination.

Brian Hodge writes with a fluidity that just pulls you along without calling attention to itself. There’s not a lot of flowery passages or clever turns of phrase. There’s just great, solid writing that allows you to get lost in the story that he’s telling, and that is a very good thing. This is only the second or third story I’ve read by Brian Hodge but I will be reading more, and in part that is because they are just so readable. In this one, I felt the fear dripping from the sweat of his protagonists.  I winced with the characters as the knives went in, and I thought wtf? with those who were stunned by the dizzying whirlwind of violence. Brian Hodge is a master.

That about wraps it up for this one, mis amigos. This was composed listening to the Spotify playlist, “Santa Muerte – Cartel de Santa” compiled by Hilario Ramirez.

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nug and Yeb,
~The Bibliothecar

The Liturgy of Santa Muerte: “‘And me, see, I know blood. I know sacrifice. I’m one of the ones they call when they really want to send a message, because I can do it and not blink.’ He motioned to the towering Santa Muerte, the body parts laid out before her. They buzzed with flies and gave off a stink like roadkill. ‘It’s just another day’s work to me.'”