'Certain Dark Things' Is A Compelling New Take On VampiresSilvia Moreno-Garcia's new novel is set in a realistic, multidimensional Mexico City, where a young human boy meets a mysterious girl and gets caught up in a whirlwind of vampire-gang drug wars.
I think often about cities and the stories we tell about them.
Some cities are gravity wells of story: The more we read about them, the more we write about them. London, New York, Paris, Los Angeles — these places are so often movie sets, so often represented in novels and songs, that people are drawn to visit, photograph, and write about them in turn. We form relationships with these cities: just as we pave their streets with layers of history and names out of books, so do images of them make up the brick and mortar of our minds. We build cities out of the stories we tell about them — cities that sometimes barely overlap with those in which people actually live, existing somewhere between dream and reality. This is how television shows like Girls and Friends get made without people of color in them; this is how cities like Beirut or Baghdad become synonymous with destruction, violence, danger, stripped of any feature but the brokenness forced on them.
I say all this because one of Silvia Moreno-Garcia's great achievements in Certain Dark Things is her representation of Mexico City as a real place, a city with history, districts, subways, with beauty and ugliness, with problems. It is not a book that renders Mexico City according to its distance from New York City, or even from the United States; this book's face is turned towards Guatemala, Cuba, Brazil. The people who live in Mexico City love it or hate it the way I love Ottawa and hate Toronto. It would have been a simple matter to give in to the gravity well of stories around Mexico City, fetishize it, make it into something to draw tourists or elicit smug thrills, render it in a way that people would write up as "exotic" — but Moreno-Garcia shows us, instead, a lived-in place, a place for her characters to know and navigate completely outside an Anglo gaze.
And then there are the vampires.
In Certain Dark Things, vampires are not made, but born. Vampires have been a publicly known quantity since the 1970s and have had a considerable effect on our geopolitics: several European countries have deported their vampire populations, and those forced migrations are shifting the balance of power in Central America as they clash with indigenous vampire species. In Mexico, Zacatecas is all but overrun with feuding vampire gangs, but in Mexico City human gangs have banded together sufficiently to keep vampires out entirely.
Enter Domingo, a 17-year-old human who makes a living collecting garbage, sorting treasure from trash. Independent, cautious, resourceful and kind, Domingo learns about the wider world from horror comics and subway ads, or the occasional bits of television he glimpses through shop windows. He's content with his lot — until he meets Atl, a mysterious young woman with a strange dog and a frosty attitude, and his orderly life gets caught up in a whirlwind of drug-dealing vampire gang wars.
I loved Domingo utterly. All the characters in this book are as sharply realized as the city in which they live and fight, but I found myself feeling profoundly protective of Domingo, literally shouting at the book whenever he was in any kind of danger, physical or emotional. (Which was often. I became very hoarse.) He's a character type I don't often see, and part of a dynamic I see even less: a kind, loving young man in devoted service to a fierce, mean, flawed woman. The wearied, older perspectives of Ana Aguirre, a human detective, and Rodrigo, another vampire's "Renfield," are fantastic counterpoints, and the whole is a beautifully balanced portrait of imperfect people making terrible choices and gritting their teeth magnificently through the consequences.
I love to see compelling new takes on vampires, and Certain Dark Things succeeds beautifully, reading vampires through geography and mapping the consequences of their movements. Smart, tender and insightful, I enjoyed this tremendously, and hope to see Moreno-Garcia write more stories in this world.