Certain Dark Things, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s latest tale of warring vampires in Mexico City, is a finely stitched Halloween costume, deriving most of its horror and pleasure from the very human bones beneath it.
The world of Certain Dark Things proves an uncanny one, close to our own but just different enough to cause goosebumps. The turbulent 1960s are made more so by humanity’s discovery that vampires—a panoply of them, from the Dracula-esque Nachzehrer and Necros to wild Canadian Wendigos to the Tlahuihpochtin, winged warrior-priestesses and contemporaries of the Aztecs—are quite real. The expected political and social upheaval occurs, with some nations creating vampire-free zones, forcing them into ghettos and reservations or passing regulation to keep tabs on them, while others, including Mexico and various South American countries, do little to stem the tide. Attracted by these comparatively friendly stances, waves of vampires head to the New World, joining the species already there, an uneasy cohabiting that turns particularly pitched in Mexico.
Domingo, a trash picker in Mexico City, finds himself by way of a chance encounter in the middle of a vampire vendetta. He meets Atl, the daughter of a Northern drug queen and Tlahuihpochtli, in the subway, eventually forming an important bond as her blood donor and emissary. On the run for the relative safety of Guatemala, Atl is a refugee in a brutal drug war between a cartel of Necros. Atl and Domingo must avoid the police and sanitation patrols of the city as well as police detective-cum-vampire killer Ana Aguirre, human gangs bent on keeping the bloodsuckers out, and the Necro cartel’s hit squad, headed by the human Rodrigo and Nick, a vampire of the comme il faut sexy and savage mode who could have walked right out of Bret Easton Ellis’ The Informers.
For the most part, Moreno-Garcia’s rhetorical gifts pale in comparison to her creative ones; the story is celeritous but only beautiful when blood is shed—an amputation scene being the highlight here—while the line-by-line prose takes a backseat to Potemkin world building. All of the tropes are hit upon, albeit with enough makeup and formaldehyde to keep them from looking too dead, and the winking references to popular vampire depictions are fun, if not overused.
It is not in the vampires and mythology that Certain Dark Things takes its strengths—although they will surely appeal; a movie option is easily imaginable—but in the motivations of the antagonists and real-world framework she has laid upon her vampires. The parallels between Atl and Nick’s antagonism—the decapitations, mutilations, bodies in barrels—with the real drug war in Mexico are inextricable. In simply amplifying the lurid stories which already emanate like the scent of blood in the popular consciousness, Moreno-Garcia imbues her monsters with familiarity and gives us ghouls we already know exist.
More personal and terrifying is Nick’s motivation, who birddogs Atl with a passion driven as much by his dick as by drugs. Infuriated and infatuated by her repudiation of his advances even before their families were at war, he uses cartel business as an excuse to work out his sexual frustrations. Nick’s a lustful predator who is a particularly unsettling antagonist in the current political climate, the raging, sulking, violent libido made manifest. It is in those moments, when blood lust and corporeal lust commingle and hang like perfume, that Certain Dark Things is at its most frightening.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayis, and book/art critic based in Chicago. A former book critic for The Myrtle Beach Sun News, his work can be seen in Hazlitt, Sports Illustrated, The Chicago Reader, VICE Sports, The Creators Project, Sports on Earth and New American Paintings, among numerous other publications. You can find him on Twitter or at his website.