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Lost Children by Nerine Dorman

If you’re into independent South African horror, fantasy or weird fiction, you’ve probably come across Nerine Dorman’s excellent work as both an author and editor. She runs the Bloody Parchment short story contest in conjunction with the South African Horrorfest, and has a respectable oeuvre that firmly establishes her in the SA indie scene. So I was quite excited when she offered a free copy of this self-published anthology of some of her favourite stories as a bonus for signing up for her newsletter.

I’ll never know who turned me into a vampire. Or why. The dude didn’t do me a favour. I went from being a scum-of-the-earth junkie to being a bottom-of-the-pecking-order vampire. No diffs, really. I exchanged my drug problem for a blood problem.

Lost Children is a collection of eight stories: “On an Empty Shore” tells the story of a Capetonian vampire who is trying to survive a zombie apocalypse. In “Class Outing” a field trip to the botanical gardens goes horribly wrong. “All That Remains” changes tack, being a more serious story of grief, depression and hope, as a woman encounters the ghost of a little girl in an empty house. “Homecoming” is slightly less weird or fantastic, telling the story of a man who leaves his family in order to provide for them, while in “Pinion” the absent husband is replaced by a mysterious stranger known as Jonny Copper, bringing a bit of sex and fun to the party. “When in Africa” is hilariously told through the voice of a futuristic game ranger, although it wouldn’t be in this anthology if things didn’t get a bit gruesome. “Night’s Caress” was originally written as flash fiction, and is a little more thoughtful, showing the final moments of a creature facing execution. Finally, the crowning jewel of the anthology is “Shame”, in which a biracial couple trying to find acceptance during the post-apartheid transition have the worst night of their lives.

We all stared, slack-jawed. This was the botanical equivalent of the unicorn – rare and almost impossible to lay hands on. Lethal too, if it was the flowering season, though few botanists had gone close enough and lived to tell the tale. “Now we will approach, but with caution,” the professor said. “And keep well away from the tentacles.”

Having never read Nerine Dorman’s fiction before, but knowing her reputation, I had mixed expectations. I don’t usually enjoy horror, supernatural, or spooky books. I don’t like them because the tropes are so tired: the forbidden love between humans and vampires, and a werewolf, for spice, and, oh, what the hell, let’s add some glitter! A vengeful or sorrowful ghost that doesn’t know it’s dead. Or, perhaps the protagonist is the dead one after all – SURPRISE! Zombies, zombies, zombies. I’m tired of these narrative patterns. If something is supposed to scare me, then it won’t succeed by being predictable. So, with Dorman’s anthology, I expected to see some great writing, but I also expected it to follow the set patterns that were established by Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker. Boy, was I wrong.

“…believe me when I tell you, it’s like a massive weight that presses down on you, paralysing you. All actions are futile save for the one that will release you from the dull, thudding ache. It’s like a negative sun that sits here.” I pressed my hands to my chest. “It’s like an octopus with its tentacles stuck deep in the very fibre of your being…”

In her brief for the 2014 edition of Bloody Parchment, Dorman sets out what she wants from a short story: ultimately, she wants writing that subverts the genre and takes it in an exciting, new direction. She sets a fine example in this anthology. Subtly and masterfully she takes a vampire who could have been sparkly, and instead makes him a homeless junkie who simply exchanges one addiction for another. A zombie uprising serves as a vehicle to discuss racism, violence, and shame. A haunted house enables a grief-stricken woman to overcome her depression and regain agency. The neglected wife who is seduced by the mysterious trickster instead seizes control over her sexuality. The future is seen not through the eyes of an urban, western caucasian but through those of a working-class African. The fantasy-world villages have kraals and the houses have stoeps, and someone is playing kwaito in the background.

Why the hell foreigners feel the need to wear khaki when visiting Africa, I don’t know. I mean, it’s not like we’re going to be slogging through the bushveld on foot. We pick them up at their hotels or the airport, directly from slick, climate controlled environments, and whisk them out to our game lodge in a luxury, air-conditioned anti-grav shuttle – a smoother ride than taking the space elevator to Asimov Depot.

Oh, the words. The beautiful South African code-switching, descriptiveness of Afrikaans mixed with isiXhosa and everything else. The sheer South Africanness of this book made me deeply homesick, which I am sure has affected my bias. Jawelnofine. However, if I try to be objective about it, and consider it from the viewpoint of someone outside, the use of South African dialect gives the stories an innovative and evocative feel which is very refreshing. Nerine Dorman spins a sensory cocoon around the reader, cosily wrapping them in the flavours and music of South Africa, making locals feel at home and outsiders feel welcome. She’ll throw in a few jokes to put you at ease. On the blurb, she says, “Step closer and take a seat. There’s a warm fire, and the wind is rattling the windowpanes. Stay a while; let me whisper in your ear. Dream.” Then, when you’re nice and comfy and bouncing innocently along through this world, she scares the shit out of you.

So I sit in the worn armchair, wide-eyed and unable to sleep, while Thulani twists and turns on the bed. There’s a shebeen a few houses down that’s playing kwaito. Men talk and laugh while they walk down the road. A dog begins howling, only to have its vocalisations taken up by canines nearby until an almost unholy chorus tears at my soul. The ululating shrieks make me shiver, and I can’t help but recall a quotation from Dracula, about the children of the night and what beautiful music they make. Not quite music to my ears, that’s for sure.

Not all the words are pretty; sensitive readers might find their nerves twitching at the swear words. However, they are not excessive. They feel natural and authentic, instead. Dorman’s stories do away with the gratuitous violence-for-the-sake-of-it and she gleefully chops the tropes and clichés into tiny pieces before scattering them to the wind. Unsettling tales that linger long after I put the book down, these stories are unlike any I’ve read before. Better than Angela Carter, I would put this collection on the same shelf as Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning. Lost Children is a brilliant, modern read that has reignited my interest in the genre. I want more.