by Nuzo Onoh
I think I've found a small treasure.
In “Unhallowed Graves”, author Onoh takes us to a new world, but this is not a work of science-fiction. Rather it is a world hidden from Western eyes; an ancient world ruled by witchcraft and superstition, by ghosts and curses. It is the 'dark continent' of Africa.
In just the first few pages of the first story, “The Unclean”, the reader is transported into West Africa, 1953, a world few people today, especially women, would want to visit. It is a world where all women are subservient to all men, even little boys, and can be married off to the highest bidder without a say in the matter. It is a world of poverty and hard work. And it is a world where the dead are kept close to the living. It is their custom to bury the dead in the living room.
And here the witch-doctor rules over all.
Although I'm a student of history and various cultures, I admit I know only a little about the Yoruba culture of Nigeria. I can not say with authority that Onoh's vision of the region is accurate. But I can say it rings true.
Certainly ringing true is the Evangelical preacher claiming to be filled with the holy spirit of the archangel Michael—who is more than powerful enough to ensure the heroine, Desee, conceives a child. This humorous bit seems like the only good thing that happens in this poor woman's tragic life.
Desee's nocturnal trip to the oja-ofia, the graveyard of the damned, is not unlike Dante's descent into Hell. A closer simile might be Gehenna, the potter's field where the bodies of the unclean were thrown for fear of corrupting hallowed ground. There Desee finds a spirit that impels her on a quest to revive the dead.
From reading this story, I've determined that African exorcisms consist of taking the victim of a malediction—and making life even worse for them. Consider that “...these evil creatures assume the form of wicked goblins, raping the women and biting off their toes after the vile act so that people know what had taken place. Consequently, all future children born by the molested women must be killed.”
The second story, “Night Market”, shows the contrast of an English gentleman who finds himself in a far-off backwards country, riddled with superstition. I can't help but be reminded of the opening chapter of “Dracula”. But I'm also reminded of the Mexican legend of La Llorona, the crying woman who waits at the side of the road, wanting to be driven to a site where she can never arrive.
British diplomat Alan Pearsons, stationed in modern Nigeria, encounters a strange woman wanting a ride. But the woman turns out to be more dead than alive and she latches on to his family and only doom can follow—unless Alan is willing to bargain for reprieve at the Oja-ale, the strange night-market of the dead and undead.
The story has a definite whiplash moment as Alan returns to England. I had to read the line twice to make sure I got it right. And the ending is great.
The last story in the book, “Our Bones Shall Rise Again”, takes us deeper into the jungle, deeper in the past. This is a tale of vengeance from beyond the grave, in the steaming heart of primeval Africa. It's been done before, but I've never seen it done better, for it has not only supernatural events and justice from beyond, but also further tragedy.
For the most part, these three stories take place in a land well known to the author; rural West Africa. Yet it is not so different from Europe in the Dark Ages—the people are ignorant, bigoted, and superstitious. This was what led to the witchcraft trials.
Oh wait. In Europe, the majority of the witchcraft trials occurred not in the Middle Ages but during the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment. Think of that before you're too harsh on modern-day Africa. Witchcraft could never be as scary as the belief in witchcraft.
Again, I was very impressed with the authenticity of the book and I learned a great deal of Nigerian folklore: The Iduu—the Water-Mirror of Death, which sounds much like the waters of Lethe in Greek mythology. The Ogbanje, a kind of freshwater mermaid. And Alusi Onwu, the African Halloween, when the spirits of the dead are free to walk amongst the living.
But I hope I don't make “Unhallowed Ground” sound like a textbook of Nigerian customs and folklore. These are three very good horror stories, well composed, with believable characters with whom anyone can identify. The drama and the scares are well composed. A sign of Onoh's talent and range as a writer is that she can write about Alan Pearson in England with the same authenticity as Desee or Oba in their villages.
Cons: I almost hate to mention grammatical errors since they are few and I don't want to deter anyone from reading the book. For a great book, it's a shame there are a few mistakes that a proofreader might have caught. Onoh, whose English is excellent, nonetheless confuses lightening for lightning, and has one or two mix-ups of 'he' for 'she'. The Igbo people are referred to as the ten tribes and then as the twelve tribes. Another line, “I felt my soul reject his at first sight, a clear sign we had been antagonists in a previous reincarnation” is great, but 'reincarnation' should be 'incarnation'. And then there's the greatest horror in the book: “A feet kicked him in the stomach.”
It's not a mistake, but a little disconcerting to encounter the Chinese term chi in a story set in West Africa. Or, if the Chinese and the Nigerians both use the same word for the same concept, that's a coincidence that needs to be addressed.
But none of those minor quibbles invalidates this as a five-star book. I want to thank Nuzo Onoh for writing three really cool ghost stories. But I really want to thank her for showing me new traditions and a new world of horror.