Plenty of horror stories have something monstrous at their center. For some, the monster comes from somewhere else: another world, an isolated space, somewhere mysterious. With others, the monstrous emerges from within: think about nearly every vampire or werewolf story, and how the familiar is slowly corrupted into the terrifying. There are certainly works that bridge the gap between the two: Sarah Langan’s The Keeper, in which a troubled young woman becomes the haunted vessel for a town’s unease and corruption, is a prime example. The four works collected in Mame Bougouma Diene’s Dark Moons Rising on a Starless Night venture into a similar space. Here, the creatures that bedevil communities are not far removed from the needs of the community themselves, leading to an unsettling duality.
Opener “Fistulas” is the most traditional of these four stories. Our protagonist is Dr. Saibo, a crusading man of science who’s earned international attention for his treatment of FGM. He learns of an isolated village whose residents may be in need of medical attention; he travels there and discovers a culture centered around a massive, ancient tree. Dr. Saibo’s character feels almost archetypal at times: he’s brilliant, idealistic, and committed to doing good–all admirable things–but he’s also blind to the presence of danger around him. The story’s conclusion turns the body horror way up, though its handling of gender has also been critiqued. One could also argue that Saibo’s conclusion here illustrates the duality of the uncanny: for some of his characters, the story’s conclusion is utopian; for the good doctor, less so. But again, the duality persists.
“Popobawa” illustrates this tension best: it’s about a series of killings on Zanzibar, carried out by a demonic creature. A pair of nuns are the only authority figures interested in stopping this; the primary representative of the police is largely interested in promoting a homophobic take on the killings. And, it turns out, the monster in the narrative is hosted in the body of a well-meaning resident of the island. It’s here that Diene again touches on familiar tropes: in this case, the tormented soul grappling with the demon within.
Isolation and international relations are a running theme within the collection, from Dr. Saibo’s frustration with the international media to the plot of the final story, “Black & Gold,” in which a European company’s efforts to search for oil in Senegalese territory has consequences that are increasingly surreal and apocalyptic. It’s touches like these that make Dark Moons Rising on a Starless Night particularly interesting: they connect some of horror’s more well-work tropes with unexpected narrative paths, and they blend the unsettling with a greater sense of the larger world.
Dark Moons Rising on a Starless Night
by Mame Bougouma Diene
Clash Books; 152 p.