Have you read this book?
Among the guidelines of some horror fiction editors you will find a plea that goes something like, “For God’s sake, don’t send us stories set in clubs or where the hero picks up a woman in one only to find out later that she’s a vampire, a witch, a demon, Satan, a Jehovah’s Witness…” or something to that effect.
This is because the eighties and nineties were filled with those kinds of stories, a few of them were good enough to spawn wretched imitators, and the chances of equaling or improving upon the few good ones are, well, minuscule. Been there, done that, as the saying goes.
So, onward to Tonton Macoute, which opens in a club in which Tommy, jazz-playing saxophonist hero, picks up a woman who happens to be a voodoo priestess. When tensions in his band come to violent fruition, the voodoo priestess offers a solution that, who’d have guessed? makes matters worse.
What, exactly, is different here, and so different or better that we ignore the foregoing editorial advice and press on?
Sure, there is some interesting information about voodoo, but it isn’t explored enough to turn this into a historiographic creep-out, nor is it utilized in such a fashion as to generate an enduring sense of otherness, of fear, of genuine engagement with frightful things; instead, the voodoo comes across as a functional curiosity of the plot, as simply the defining term by which the plot is understood instead of the malevolent presence that haunts, drives, and colors the far corners of the tale. What this points to is lack of development that has nothing to do with the constraints of the novella form, but rather a lack of attention to the language and its employment. Sentences and paragraphs are short and variations occur with largely similar periodicity. Nouns and verbs, fiction’s brick and mortar, are shortchanged by their commonality, by conspicuous absence of the strange. The effect of relatively static rhythms combined with pedestrian word choices renders monotonal a work that should instead whisper, growl, and scream. The result is something that looks as if it were written for a Young Adult audience yet contains adult levels of sex and violence.
A side-effect of this developmental deficiency (vocabulary choices, static patterns) is that the novella and its three parts lacks the all-important ingredient of horror: atmosphere. Upon this matter both Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft were in agreement, the former saying that the creation of a sustained atmosphere was the primary function of the short story, while from the latter we have this additional bit of clarity:
Atmosphere is the all-important thing, for the final criterion of authenticity is not the dovetailing of a plot but the creation of a given sensation… — From Supernatural Horror in Literature, by Howard Phillips Lovecraft, chapter 1
Certainly William Allan manages the dovetailing of plot, each of Tonton Macoute’s three parts building one upon the other with connect-the-dots proficiency, but Lovecraft went on to say:
…we must judge a weird tale not by the author’s intent, or by the mere mechanics of the plot; but by the emotional level which it attains at its least mundane point. — From Supernatural Horror in Literature, by Howard Phillips Lovecraft, chapter 1
The story reaches its least mundane points with little preparation for the reader: those points are neither surprising nor especially horrific, and they are not surprising because the plot is a bare construct of formula — we see these moments coming well before they arrive — and they lack horrific nature not simply because the moments of their occurrence are atmospherically anemic, but because the atmosphere of the rest of the work, by which we might be more willingly induced to jump and cringe, remains similarly anemic.
Part of this anemia arises from deficiency in character development, the very means by which our emotions become entangled with a story and by which its “emotional level” may be judged when, for instance, sympathetic characters are put in jeopardy. This weak character development also has the effect of shortchanging motivations, which in turn disrupts readers’ willing suspension of disbelief. For instance, there occurs a scene early in the second part of this three-parter wherein Tommy confesses to another character the recently suffered traumatic experience he endured in part one, “An Eating,” though the two have only just met. Certainly William Allan has arranged things to make said confession possible, even natural — the confessor is, after all, a former voodoo practitioner — but the moment isn’t compelling, and it isn’t compelling partly because we don’t have much reason to feel for Tommy. All we really know about him is that he’s a good saxophone player and he thinks his confessor is a cutie-pie. Yet even that assessment isn’t quite hitting the nail on the head: you get the impression that the scene should work but isn’t, and it isn’t largely because it doesn’t seem fresh or new — it is simply the place where the hero must confess his dark and terrible past if he is to find help and begin to overcome what haunts him. This is not to say that close adherence to formula is crippling, but rather to say that only following formula lets down both the material and the readers who deserve more.
Speaking of feeling let down, Tommy has another problem: he’s one of those protagonists who doesn’t protag. In each of the novella’s three parts, “An Eating”, “Tonton Macoute”, and “Demon Heart”, Tommy bears witness to the final action but is not the decisive factor in any, rather like a lesser kin to Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China, who had the annoying tendency of getting knocked out or otherwise removed from the action (except for that knife-throwing incident). Similarly, Tommy is reduced to staring while someone else fights the bogeyman (which happens to the be the translation of the Creole expression, tonton macoute, by the way). If we had trouble identifying with or rooting for Tommy before, we have more now; these neutralizations are precisely the moments that provide an opportunity to find out something about the character, except we don’t.
There is, however, one commendable moment in Tonton Macoute that flares brightly above its spare iteration of formula, making you wish the rest of the work showed similar ingenuity, and this has to do with an interesting use of a crucified Christ as a voodoo doll used against the bogeyman. Unfortunately, it is not by manipulation of this totem that the bogeyman is defeated. Instead, something far more Van Helsing-like occurs, utterly defeating the coolness of the voodoo doll. This is not merely a betrayal of readers’ expectations, but a betrayal of a really neat idea, one that raises an important philosophical issue. Perhaps worse, this mode of dispatch remains in mind when the final defeat of the bogeyman occurs, a scene that leaves readers wondering: if physical trauma defeated the monster in part two, why doesn’t it work in part three? Unfortunately, this is not the only question that lingers: there is also the question of Reverend Deke first finding himself divinely inspired, then divinely abandoned; there is the question of why a werewolf tries to make an appearance; why the police don’t put on a more thorough search for Tommy or … and so on.
On the whole, Tonton Macoute is completely average horror fare treading all-too-familiar ground with journeyman-like skill. William Allan knows how to construct a formulaic plot but offers readers little more than that, and certainly nothing to distinguish this work from the masses, which is the most disappointing horror of all.