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DarkEcho Horror
deccoclock by Rick Berry
Book Review

El Dia De Los Muertos
Brian Hopkins
Earthling Publications/ 109p / $30.00 (Limited Hardcover, a lettered edition is also available)
ISBN: 0-9721518-0-X
October 2002

Cover "El Dia De Los Muertos" is probably the finest story Brian Hopkins has ever written. Intelligent and well-executed, it builds to a stunner of an ending. The horror of death is juxtaposed against the horrors of life in an enthralling story that also explores history, mythology and profound differences between the cultures of Mexico and the US. Archeologist Ricky Bennington has lived in Mexico for 14 years working on a great archeological find at Cacaxtla.

While his wife and daughter are on an outing to a new mall in a nearby town, an earthquake hits. Tatiana, his wife, is grievously injured. Their daughter, Estrella, is killed. Driven by desperate grief, he sets out to arouse and appease bloody ancient gods in order to regain his daughter. The novella is fueled by emotional truth and a narrative that informs the reader of place and considerable background without slowing the novella's cinematic pace. After vast supernatural power has been pyrotechnically unleashed, the story ends in an inevitable, realistic, and terrifying darkness.

Stephen King has said (with dissatisfaction) that his famous raising-a-child-from-the-dead novel, Pet Sematary, "spirals down into darkness" at the end. His protagonist, Louis Creed, destroys his revivified demonic son in the time-honored monster-killing manner, but King goes past that and leaves the world inhabited by more monsters. King may have been displeased, but his ending is scarier because tradition has been breeched. Hopkins doesn't bother with the triumph over the monsters. He leaves them undefeated and thus the reader is left both frightened and fascinated.

But --"El Dia De Los Muertos" should probably be a novel. In this form, Tatiana -- carefully introduced along with the fateful tale of her romance with Ricky -- is never developed as a character. She is a remarkable woman who abandons a great deal to stay with Ricky, but other than a reference to her design for a tent at an archeological site, we are never given a glimpse of her life or personality in the decade of her marriage and motherhood. We know, eventually, that Ricky must "atone for his indifference and neglect" of the marriage, but without knowing who Tatiana became, we can never understand the pivotal choice that Ricky must make at the story's climax.

Hopkins, even though dealing with the supernatural, successfully abandons the conventional battle of good vs. evil. Another element is missing though. Blood may be, as Ricky suspects, "the animating substance" of his universe, but that doesn't mean the substance, its magic, the animation, or the universe is evil. This universe and its inhabitants are amoral and readers must come to their own conclusions. Even in a gray cosmos, the characters still need a spiritual dimension. A lovestruck Ricky mumbles pseudo-metaphysically about old souls. Tatiana, raised as a Muslim, asks the central question, "What if...[a]ll the gods and demons of the past are real...as real as Christ, as real as Allah?" Perhaps all that is needed for the gods to exist, she theorizes, is belief.

But neither she nor Ricky seem to place any real credence on this or anything else except, perhaps, fate. We never know their rational thoughts on life, death, and the beyond. Ricky later shows he understands the pre-Hispanic Mexican belief now symbolized by the festival of the Day of the Dead: "Life extends into death...Death becomes not the natural end of life, but just one phase within the infinite cycle." We are even reminded of what Octavio Paz said: "The Mexican is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his toys and his most steadfast love." But Ricky is not so accepting of death. If he were, his grief would not push him to such dire actions. Nor do we see the process by which Ricky comes to believe in the powers of the ancient gods, yet he somehow comes to it after Estrella's death. We need to understand the method of his madness, we need some concept of Ricky's transformation from rational to irrational. Earthquakes, love, death, betrayal, the powers of the gods are certainly all terrors, but the realization that we can be pushed beyond our own limits, past any understanding, that we could become Ricky -- that would be truly disturbing. ("Waves of Fear," Cemetery Dance #43)

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Copyright © 2003 Paula Guran. All Rights Reserved.