“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.”
The 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. 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.” 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. In 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,
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.”