It’s a snapshot from the darkest chapter in human history. A crippled slave ship, dismasted in the heart of the Middle Passage, comes to resemble a hellish island where there is no escape from the suffocating heat, from the circling sharks, from each other. But there is something else in their midst. Something ancient. Something evil.
Based on real events from the slave trade era, this intelligent approach to the zombie origin pursues a fly-borne plague to its African roots through a series of letters, log entries and balanced narratives from European and African perspectives, to an ancient pact forged between a dying Vodu witch and Sakpata, the god of disease. The product of the dark bargain is a creature both beautiful and terrifying to behold, relying on bloodsucking insects and a booming slave trade to spread its bloodline overseas to the shores of its new homeland, an island known as Hayiti.
Vincinte Madeira is escorted down to the Main Deck. They’ve moved a furnace down there, where a heifer is being butchered. Kettles of rendered fat boil and froth over their rims. Kneeling tanners rise and fall upon the hides like Mohammedians, scraping their fleshing blades with the regularity of lapping waves. Sailcloth is spread all around them, beneath heaps of boned flesh and innards. It looks as though a cow has exploded.
Madeira’s gaze climbs the walls to the Quarterdeck, where the gray-green corpses of those three unruly Negroes continue to sway from stretched necks, their bellies distended like wormy pups. They turn on their shoulders with the rhythm of the ship’s lilt and pitch, like a troupe of necrotic dancers depicted on some painting from the black plague era. As the Redlowe crests a wave, all three corpses leap from the wall to kick up their feet and clap their putrid hands.
“Vin-ciiiin-taaaay!” High above, Joaquim waves from the Quarterdeck.
Guardsmen seize Madeira by his upper arms and drag him on his heels past the furnace of boiling fat. There, they bind his wrists and ankles to the great stump of their fractured masthead. Joaquim disappears from the sky’s edge. Below, an accordion player picks his way through the piles of boned meat, eyes closed, pumping away at his queer instrument as if he were strolling the starlit boardwalks of some Venetian canal.
For Madeira, the odor of rendered fat is richly nostalgic. The brothel where his mother worked served a chowder of shellfish and beef marrow. On the days the marrow was rendered, the brownish bovine essence would permeate every fiber of his clothing. He would smell it for days after the last bowl had been consumed. It was disconcerting to consider that although the last scrap of the bygone beast had been ingested, its spiritual presence lingered still on the longcoat of the son of a whore.
Joaquim appears atop the ladder, following the Slavemaster, Duarte Davila, down to the Main Deck. Madeira closes his eyes and breathes savory steam in and out through his nose. His heart rate quickens. Spanish spurs ring over the braying accordion, and ever more sharply as the Slaver draws near. The bootsteps stop, a short distance away. Madeira opens his eyes.
Smiling, Joaquim slips through the steam behind Davila. He creeps past the row of bobbing tanners toward the pile of boned meat. The Slaver withdraws a cat-o-nine from his sash. He presses the coils of leather to his nose, inhaling with such ecstatic force as to suggest the braids contained the antidote to a malady with which he was afflicted. The whip’s tails, black as the heart of Africa, glisten in his fist like a nest of vipers. No doubt, he tanned this leather from the hide of some unusual beast, for nothing about this scourge of humanity be affected with the ordinary. Unlike the ephemeral odor of a bull rendered to chowder, the spirit of whatever black-skinned creature was immortalized into the coils of the Slaver’s whip should outlast the remains of its screaming victims. Woven into its oily braids are ivory stars of intricate design, likely whittled from the same bone from which the weapon’s handle was fashioned. ‘Tis about the girth of a human femur.
Davila lowers the writhing leather mass into a kettle of boiling lard. Displaced foam spills over the side. Yellowish ropes of fatty froth hiss and spit as they slither down the scalding metal. Before they ever reach the deck, they have evaporated into pearly trails. Davila lifts the flails from the pot and lowers them to a pile of Guinea salt at his feet. He rolls them back and forth until each sting is wholly encrusted. Davila’s spurs sing with every step. His whip drags behind him like a cord of salted slugs. “There was once a guardsman at Axim who allowed himself to be overtaken by the Negroes, moments before the dungeon was locked-down for the night. I found what was left of him the next morning. What remained of that man had to be collected in a scuttle tub. That was fascinating to me, what enraged men are capable of doing to another with their bare hands. I salted and preserved those discorporate parts for the purpose of making a keen point in the training of that gentleman’s replacement. So, tell me your story, Pirate. How did you manage to survive your night below deck with them?”
Panting as though physically exerted, Madeira maps the barber surgeon’s scarred face. One of Davila’s eyes, he just notices, is distinctly hazel, while the other is a murky green. This is no man standing before him. It cannot be. It is a daemon that barely manages to retain its human form. “They presumed me an officer. I was protected by a few who believed that to save my life would assure their freedom.”
“And which charter would that be?”
“Which Negro race did shelter you from the rest?”
“’Twas a mixed lot, Sir. Not any one Race that I could tell.”
Davila dipped his chin. “And what of the missing pistol?”
“A pistol, Sir?”
“Aye. You know of it. Copper fluting with a scrimshaw grip. A finer weapon than I ever did own. Where is it?”
“We were separated in the skirmish … it was dark, Sir.”
Davila takes three steps back and turns, all too naturally, into a flogging stance. “Negroes are not subtle creatures, pirate. Whoever stole that pistol would’ve trumpeted it all throughout the hold, leaping about and chanting, he’d have been. Aye, if there’s one thing I know well, pirate, it’s Negroes.”
The Slaver intends to whip him to death. Biting down on the insides of his cheeks, Madeira beseeches the Heavens. Stinging droplets roll into his eyes. “If this is about the journal, then dispose of it. Throw it overboard.”
“I know you have it, and you’ve every right to be disappointed with the content. Destroy it. Destroy it and let me work for you, earn my keep. You’re desperate for able hands.”
“I’ve no airthly idea what you mean, pirate.” The Slaver grins. “I’ve acquired no journal.” With a delicate flip of his wrist, Davila unfurls nine braids across the timbers.
M.C. Norris is an Active HWA member, whose first four novels, all published by Severed Press, are slated for release in fall of 2014: Deep Devotion (09/01/14), Krengel & the Krampusz (11/01/14), The Dread Owba Coo-Coo (11/15/14), and Nod (TBA). His nineteen short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies, magazines and e-zines, including: Withersin, Wrong World DVD, Brainharvest Magazine, Pseudopod, Malicious Deviance, and Dead Bait. M.C. Norris also won 5th in Chizine/Leisure Books 13th Annual Short Story Contest.
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Just how bad can things get?
Aboard the Dread Owba Coo-Coo, you'll find that not only can dire circumstances worsen, they always, always will. One technique that I like to apply to horror stories that is exemplified in Dread Owba is to first choose a setting that is inherently bleak in its own right. Next, I steadily worsen the situation by way of a circumstantial layering process. Lastly, I inject the story with a good dose of the supernatural. It's a terrifying trifecta that I find effective in creating that nail biting experience that horror fans crave.
In Dread Owba, my goal was to write a compelling origin for the zombie plague, tracing it back to ancient African roots, and delivering it to its proper homeland in Haiti. Obviously, this delivery depended on the slave trade. The big question was where and when to inject the supernatural into a chapter of human history that is already so horrific? Traditionally, a zombie story culminates in some sort of a stand-off between the living and the undead in what might be a shopping mall, a prison, or an abandoned building. In my story, I didn't want to allow for any chance of escape because the winner, in this case, was going to be the zombie plague. What situation could be more inescapable than aboard a crippled slave ship in the heart of the equatorial doldrums? These gruesome vessels, I learned, were pursued back and forth across the Atlantic by great numbers of voracious sharks that were attracted to the trail of corpses thrown daily over the bulwarks.
Trust me, it gets worse.
I tangled over whether or not to apply a delicate, politically correct touch to the sensitive subject. I felt that the souls of the millions lost to the slave trade deserved for the true horrors that they suffered to be showcased, and not marginalized to the novelty of zombie fiction. In the end, I poured myself into a year's worth of research to create what I felt was an accurate representation of the most terrible experience that a human being could endure, portrayed through balanced narratives from both African and European perspectives. Although there's no way around being controversial in a book like this, I put forth my best effort to be respectful--and by that, I mean that I attended to every detail of the in-your-face racism, brutality, and destruction of human identity that every one of those Africans suffered.
Once I felt that I'd done the slave trade some justice in its portrayal, I began to pull out all stops. Anything and everything that could happen aboard a crippled slave ship happens in the Dread Owba Coo-Coo. Use your imagination, consider every possible disaster or beleaguering circumstances, and I trust that you will find that I considered and included them all. In a nutshell, this is a nightmarish story of historical horror based on real events from the darkest chapter in human history. Yes, the zombies are waiting for you in there. You will face them. But I believe that the true horrors will rise above the supernatural as being the most disturbing aspects of the story.
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