literature

The strange stories of Canada’s west coast

I’ve been sharing a series of lectures that I wrote for a Canadian folklore in literature and art class that I used to teach. Here is a lecture I wrote on one of my favorite authors, British Columbia’s Dick Hammond, who was a master of the short story. Please feel free to edit and use this lecture in any class.

Shawn Smallman

Dick Hammond

Terms:

Dick Hammond

House by the Talking Falls

mayoi-ga

Background

  • Canadian author Dick Hammond wrote of the B.C. coast in three volumes, in which he explored the remote communities that dotted Canada’s Pacific edge. 
  • He was born in 1929 and spent his entire life on the part of the Pacific Coast that is called the “Sunshine Coast,” because it is in the rain shadow of Vancouver island
  • He was self-educated, but extremely well-read
  • He used to collect rare operatic recordings (http://www.harbourpublishing.com/author/DickHammond/171)
  • He worked as a salvage logger, a form of life that is romanticized in Canada
  • There even used to be a tv series about it called Beachcombers, which was very popular when I was growing up in the 1970s
  • He married a teacher in 1970
  • Jo Hammond was herself an author, who wrote a memoir of her life: Edge of the Sound: Memoirs of a West Coast Log Salvager 
  •  http://www.abcbookworld.com/view_author.php?id=10107
  • she was quite adventurous and had traveled through the Panama canal on a freighter to come to the West Coast
  • she later worked as a salvage logger herself
  • they had two children, Patricia and Eric
  • Hammond died in 2008, in Sechelt Inlet on the coast
  • His stories often described the lives of the working class, and the strength and craftsmanship that they displayed.
  • His stories often do not have any supernatural characteristics, but focus upon special skills
  • In one story, a black smith is the only person who can repair a broken drill, which would take a week or more to obtain from Vancouver, which would be disastrous for the logging group
  • In another, one man is the only person who knows how to run a particular piece of equipment, and makes a visiting engineer look foolish
  • Some of the skills that he celebrates are quite mundane
  • A tinker who repairs broken pots is honored in one story
  • No skill is too small for Dick Hammond to celebrate it
  • But above all else, he celebrated the skills of the logger
  • Hammond work for years as a small hand logger
  • These men –and they were almost always men, despite his wife’s profession- would travel the coast in their boats looking for isolated stands of timber along the coast on public lands
  • They would work them in a small group, and then take the logs out to sell
  • It was a very hard way to make a life, that required someone who was really self-sufficient
  • That person had to know how to log, how to work machinery, how to run a boat in sometimes treacherous waters
  • These are the skills that Hammond celebrated
  • Very much books to celebrate the working class

The Past

  • But they also evoked a coast haunted by its past, from the recent settlers to the deep history of B.C.’s Indigenous peoples.
  • There is a post by Mackie on a Northwest Archaeology blog that makes a very good case that aspects of indigenous mythology in Haida Gwaii regarding Raven retain memories of the landscape and environment from 12,000 years ago: https://qmackie.com/2009/12/10/raven-walking-geological-transformation/
  • The indigenous peoples of Canada have a history in the region that stretches so far back that their earliest campsites are likely buried deep under the Pacific Ocean, because of rising water levels
  • but traces -including such ephemera as footprints- can be found on some islands: https://www.westernliving.ca/How-Archaeologists-Found-the-Oldest-Footprints-in-North-America-on-BCs-Calvert-Island
  • The BC coast was settled by Europeans in the mid to late nineteenth century
  • Hammond romanticizes this period in some ways, and the strength and independence of the earlier settlers
  • But he is also aware of the negative aspects of this period
  • He talked about the social isolation, particularly for the women who stayed at home, and the family strains that this created, including within his own family
  • The main character in his stories is his father, and they are told as if they were stories that he heard from his father
  • His father had died in 1975, and like his son, spent much of his life as a logger who traveled the coast by boat
  • Other family members are minor characters, such as his uncle, who was gassed while a soldier in World War One and never truly recovered
  • These are strong people
  • Men –and it’s a very male look at the past- were stronger, braver, and less likely to complain than in the past
  • But this approach also gives an air of verisimilitude, an aspect of reality to these stories
  • At times it appears hard to tell- are these stories complete fiction or does he really believe the stories that he is recounting? 
  • The reader is left wondering if the narrator is playing a character, and is he just really good at never breaking character
  • Or are these supposed to be true oral traditions, the memory of one coastal family?
  • Certainly there are many characteristics of oral tales in these stories
  • One can imagine them being told and retold around a family table over the years
  • In one case Hammond said that his publisher insisted on publishing these works as fiction, but they were all true
  • Indeed, he said that his books were all true, and faithfully recorded his fathers’ tales http://www.abcbookworld.com/view_author.php?id=165
  • So perhaps he did views these stories as a record of the settlers’ experience of the coast
  • But Hammond is also very aware that the European history on this coast is a short one
  • This presents a problem, because his work is haunted by the past
  • In one of his less effective stories he tells the story of his father and his friend exploring caves on the coast, and finding some old candles that they learned had been left by the Spanish
  • The story doesn’t work, because it is so awkward to explain how the candles came to be there, or how the men came to learn that they had been left by Spanish explorers
  • At one point, Hammond said that he had the “soul of an antiquary.”
  • To people who have read M.R. James, perhaps the best known author of ghost stories in the English language, it was very clear that Hammond was evoking M.R. James
  • But unlike Hammond there were no ancient mansions, ruined churches, Saxon crowns, or other European aspects of the past to engage with
  • This meant that Hammond had to engage with the Indigenous history of the coast

Michael Crummy’s Galore- a lecture

I am sharing a series of lectures from a class that I used to teach on folklore in Canadian literature and art. Here is a brief lecture that I gave on Michael Crummy’s Galore, a novel which is set in Newfoundland. You are free to use, edit and adapt this lecture however you want for your own classes. I apologize for the formatting changes at points; as you might guess, I cut and pasted in the section on magical realism from a lecture in my “Introduction to Latin America” class.

Be warned- if you are just reading this lecture for fun, there are major spoilers in this lecture.

Shawn Smallman

Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach- a lecture

As you could see from my last blog post, I used to teach a class on Canadian folklore in art and literature. I’m going to share some lectures from that class. Please feel free to adapt and use this in your own classes. Spoiler alert: this lecture contains key plot material, so if you plan to read the novel (which you should), please do that first. You can also see my book review here.

If you are curious to learn more about Indigenous literature, please listen to my podcast episode with Grace Dillon about Indigenous Futurism; it’s episode eight. Or if you’d like to know how Indigenous peoples understood Sasquatch (and Ogopogo, a Canadian lake monster) please listen to this podcast episode of “The Secret History of Canada.”

The odd north- Canadian Folklore in Literature and Art

Henri Julien (1852–1908) Blue pencil, Study for La Chasse-galerie [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Nearly ten years ago I used to teach a short summer course on Canadian folklore in literature and film. I no longer have the opportunity to teach the class, but I wanted to share the syllabus in case it might inspire anyone else. I’ll also share a series of lectures for the class in coming days. Happy Halloween everyone.

Shawn Smallman, 2021

Mexican Gothic

Photo by Antonio Alcántara on Unsplash

Silvia Moreno-Garcia lives in Vancouver, Canada, but often writes novels set in Mexico, such as Gods of Jade and Shadow. In Mexican Gothic she tells the story of a socialite, Noemí, who is both frivolous and strong. When she is not eluding a besotted suitor or attending an elite social event, Noemí’s main ambition in life is to go college, which defies the roles allotted to a 1950’s Mexican woman. But in the opening chapter the family faces a crisis. Her cousin Catalina had married into a family that lived in a remote mountain village. After the wedding she began to make disturbing accusations about her husband. Noemí’s dad didn’t know the truth, and decided to dispatch his daughter to find out. If she would take on this task, he would fund her tuition. 

All Gothic novels are about the past intruding into the future. In this case, this is not only a Gothic novel, but also a post-colonial one. When Noemí arrives in the remote mountains, she soon begins to learn the family legacy that stains every aspect of the strange house. She hears about the mines, and the workers’s suffering. And she learns about the eugenics and racism of the family patriarch, an Anglo-Saxon grafted into Mexico’s mountains. The fact that Catalina’s husband is named Virgil is no accident. It’s no coincidence, as well, that Noemí finds help in an elderly woman and herbal doctor, who draws on the region’s botanical resources and Indigenous knowledge.

Despite its Mexican ambiance, while reading the work I soon wondered if the novel didn’t deliberately refer to a story by the 1930’s author of the fantastic and horror, H.P. Lovecraft. Without giving away too much away, part of the plot seemed to draw on a short story set in one particular house in Providence, which you can still walk by. A little digging let me know that not only had Moreno-Garcia written her thesis on Lovecraft’s work, but also that she named the character Howard in this novel after him. 

Besides evoking Lovecraft, Moreno-Garcia brilliantly describes the claustrophobia and menace that surrounded the house. The key element that defined this space was that it was unwelcoming, from the frigid dame who defined its rules, to the molding rooms within the house itself. The house itself became a character, with a sense of history that appealed to some characters, and menaced others. With its rich writing, odd characters, and tense climax, this book will please everyone who likes horror or Gothic novels. 

I now nominate the author to now write a series of novels drawing on Latin American folklore, which should include El Sombrerón, El Cuco, la Sayona, Amazonian dolphin spirits, as well as the sacred trail, Peabiru. And if Guillermo del Toro should read this blog, will you please option a movie based on this wonderful novel as quickly as possible?

My favorite fun fact about the novel: there is a paper doll kit for the main character on the Random House website. 

Shawn Smallman, 2021

Indigenous Futurism with Grace Dillon: A Dispatch 7 podcast

I’ve just published my latest podcast episode of Dispatch 7, which is an interview with Dr. Grace Dillon about Indigenous Futurism. I’ve known Grace for a long time. She kindly wrote the preface to my own book -Dangerous Spirits- on the windigo, an evil spirit in Algonquian narratives and history. I like to think that this preface captured the enthusiasm, breadth of knowledge and humor that Grace shows in this podcast episode.

It’s ironic that in this podcast I briefly brought up the Indigenous knowledge of how to manage a landscape with fire, in order to avoid mega-fires. About a week after our interview much of the West Coast of the United States went up in flames. I am deeply worried for many old friends and former students. I’ve left that short comment in, because the point is still valid. But I would have spoken differently if I had known what was about to happen.

One of the great things about talking with Grace is that she always leaves me with a long list of novels that I want to read. This conversation was no different. Please see the show notes for a long list of novels, graphic novels and programs that Grace recommended. If you are looking for some reading suggestions, this is the right podcast episode for you.

Shawn Smallman

Wylding Hall, a book review for Halloween

The Rotunda, Stowe Landscape Gardens. Photo by Philip Halling. Creative Commons license, Wikipedia

Every year I cover an appropriate international mystery for Halloween. For example, last year I talked about ghosts of Hong Kong and Macau. Earlier this month I talked about the ghost ship the Baltimore, which was found with only a single survivor, a woman, who soon vanished from Nova Scotia and was never seen again. This year I want to review a novel, Wylding Hall, by Elizabeth Hand. The novel is a ghost story set in a remote English country house in the 1960s. The characters are primarily members of an English folk band, who came of age in the era of Fairport Convention in the late 1960s, when the folk rock movement was a pop culture force in Great Britain. Even though the pop culture of this period will be familiar to most Western readers, the specifically British context will be alien to most Americans and Canadians. The story begins after a terrible tragedy, which leads the band manager to isolate the band in an old country-house, not only to heal the group’s members but also to create a new album.

The work is inspired by the genre of pop music band histories that focus on juxtaposing the differing voices of band members. Hand, an American, has an amazing ear for dialogue. I think that dialogue is always tricky for a writer, as the smallest error in tone or wording can be jarring. At the same time, it is perhaps the best tool for characterization, and this is how Hand employs it. Dialogue propels the novel, so that the reader is soon swept into the jealousies, loves, and secrets of a British band. All ghost stories are dominated by the past. In Hand’s novel, however, the past at times seems distant and undefined. In truth the book is dominated by the 1960s in one summer in the life of a band. It differs from the stories of M.R. James and many other English authors of ghost stories because the past doesn’t seem to overwhelm the present. Even though the past intrudes, this novel is truly the story of the band itself. …

Literature and Espionage

Sometimes you just can’t make up a story as strange as reality. For anyone following the inquiry into possible Russian collusion with the Trump White House, the endless details are as fascinating as they are intriguing. Clive Irving has a wonderful piece, “What Would Le Carré’s Master Spy Think of Trump and Russia?,” in the Daily Beast, which imagines what George Smiley (the fictional master spy) would make of current events.

Espionage is also in the news because of the case of Sergei V. Skripal. A former spy in Russia, he and his daughter were both found seriously ill on a bench in Salisbury, England. This particular case has many parallels to the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, which was covered in a book titled “A Very Expensive Poison.” To date, both of the victims are alive; let’s hope that the terrible events associated with Litvinenko aren’t repeated.

In online forums a vigorous discussion has already begun regarding the likely poison. If I had been working for the FSB (AKA Moscow Central), I would have chosen fentanyl. It would be deadly at a low dose, and the victim could be blamed for ingesting or inhaling it. After the debacle with polonium in the Litvinenko case, it seems unlikely that a radioactive substance would be used again. While poisons from Himalayan plants may be difficult to detect, they also raise too many questions. Much the same could be said ricin. Nerve agents also point to a state actor, as was the case last year in Malaysia. I will be very curious to see if a poison can be identified, and whether that information will be released.

Shawn Smallman, 2018

PS- the poison has now been identified by the British authorities. According to press reports, it was a nerve agent, which would seem to be a means to draw attention. One of the police officers who responded has now been hospitalized and is in serious condition, likely because of exposure to the poison. George Smiley would have done more subtle and careful work.

Love, hate and novels

When I talk about globalization in my introductory class, it’s common for my students to think immediately of economic globalization, rather than other aspects such as cultural globalization. Yet to be a global citizen entails making connections between our worlds and that of others, and one of the best forms to do this is through music, art and literature, which make an emotional tie to other cultures. I recommend this interview with Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan, in this article “The Profound Reason we should all Read Internationally, not Locally.”

Shawn Smallman, 2017

The art of Strange Things Done

I love mystery novels, and northern mysteries in particular. My sister, Ellen Wild, has a new book Strange Things Done coming out this September. The lead character of the novel is Jo Silver; after a body is found in the Yukon river, she is drawn into a mystery that leads her to fear for her own life. You can hear about the local reaction to the body’s discovery in this brief video. I love the visual look of the website for the book, with the superimposed photos of an old Yukon building and a cemetery. This aesthetic carries through to the trailer for the book, which she filmed in the Yukon. The imagery -the woman’s hair in the river, the ice, Brandy Zdan’s music, the quirky northern bar, the barking dog- create an atmospheric glimpse of a town with secrets. Think a northern Twin Peaks. The book already has won an impressive set of awards:

2015 Unhanged Arthur Award for Best Unpublished First Crime Novel ― Winner
2014 Telegraph/Harvill Secker Crime Competition ― Shortlisted
2014 Southwest Writers Annual Novel Writing Contest ― Silver Winner
2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award ― Longlisted

You can find preorder the book (in the United States for October 18, 2016 or Canada for September 24, 2016) before “the freeze-up hits and the roads close.”

Shawn Smallman, 2016

Strange Things Done, quote by Ian Hamilton

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