Monday, August 2, 2010

Zombie Review: Tell My Horse

Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica by Zora Neale Hurston

ZPAA rating

Teen and up

Gore level

2 out of 10--This book is pretty low on the gore. Some animal sacrifices are talked about but only occasionally in detail. No zombie gore at all, amazingly enough.

Other offensive content

There's some sex talk as a part of voodoo ceremonies. The ceremonies also include some minimal blood and gore related to animal sacrifice. Some sects of voodoo are described as cannibals. Also, an extensive description of a wild boar hunt is given, along with killing and cooking the boar.

How much zombie mythology/content

This book is famous for providing a first-hand account of a "real" zombie in a Haiti hospital. Also the book describes in detail the process of raising a zombie and cites many examples of Haitian zombie folklore.

How much fun

The book is part history and sociology of Haiti and part presentation of Hurston's experiences with voodoo practitioners and ceremonies. She uses anecdotes well to give life to discussions of the voodoo pantheon and voodoo beliefs. For a serious work about the topic it isn't dry or academic. It's more of a mild adventure exploring the Haitian culture. The writing is especially clear and engaging. The first hand accounts give the reader a feeling of "being there." But if your looking for a blood-soaked zombie splat fest, look elsewhere.

Synopsis & Review

Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaicais part historical review of certain major events in the history of those two countries, part travelogue and mostly overview of the religious beliefs and practices of the locals. The historical review is about a third of the book and is less fascinating than her own personal experiences as an initiate to the voodoo religion.

Hurston says that Haiti is rife with zombie folklore and most anyone can tell stories of both recent and long past raisings of the dead. The rich and well-to-do generally pass off the stories as myth but the poor people take it more seriously, or at least present it as real.

Her experience with voodoo was not limited to collecting stories. She also stayed with several houngans and bocors (both types of voodoo priests) and witnessed various ceremonies with her own eyes. The religion is a mishmash of Christian and African elements along with some local innovations and terminology. Often after reciting a Catholic litany of saints, a litany of loas (voodoo gods) is chanted as well. The voodoo gods are separated into the Rada or Arada gods (the good ones) and the Petros gods (the evil ones). She never says if raising the dead is done by only the good or only the bad gods, but she does say that the bocors and houngans who do the raising are considered evil.

Generally, three reasons are given for raising the dead. First is to have slaves for hard labor. Many tales are told of relatives seeing their recently deceased working the dock yards or hauling supplies like a mule. By the time the authorities are involved, the workers have moved on and the foremen have no idea who the relatives are talking about. The second purpose in raising someone is to take revenge. What better way to get some payback from an enemy than to make that person a pack mule after death? Finally, people who have requested a favor from a loa (voodoo god) need to pay back that favor with victims who will be raised and put into the loa's service. The ceremony is called the Ba Moun or give man ceremony. This last is especially unnerving, because the victims must be someone known and loved by the debtor, typically relatives. Since the debt must be paid yearly, it's quite possible to run out of people to offer, in which case, the debtor's life is forfeit. Only desperate people sign up for this.

The ceremony itself is detailed in the book. While not gruesome, it is thrilling and chilling to read. The most chilling description is of a patient at a hospital who is claimed to be a zombie. Hurston went to investigate. The woman was found naked wandering a street in 1936. She went to a farm claiming it was her father's farm. The boss of the farm finally met her and recognized her as his sister who died and was buried in 1907. Now she was in a hospital. Hurston met the woman and even took pictures, giving this description of her last picture: "Finally the doctor forcibly uncovered her and held her so I could take her face. And the sight was dreadful. That blank face with the dead eyes. The eyelids were white all around the eyes as if they had been burned with acid. It was pronounced enough to come out in the picture. There was nothing that you could say to her or get from her except by looking at her, and the sight of this wreckage was too much to endure for long." (page 195) Unfortunately, the picture of this woman on page 180 does not bear out this frightening description. And, of all the voodoo ceremonies Hurston participated in, none of them involved raising or using zombies.

Many other stories of voodoo and zombies are told in the book. The writing is very fluid and conversational. The reader is completely engaged while reading. I would definitely recommend the book for those interested a first hand description of life and voodoo belief in Haiti.

Sample Text

A Jamaican burial ceremony to prevent the return of a loved one: "So as soon as the body was placed in the coffin, the pillow with the parched peas, corn and coffee beans sewed inside it was placed under his head. Then they took stronger methods. They took four short nails and drove one in each cuff of the shirt as close to the hand as possible to hold the hands firmly in place. The heel of each sock was nailed down in the same way. Now the duppy [i.e. ghost] was 'nailed hand and foot.' The brother of the corpse was summoned and he spoke to the dead and said, 'We nail you down hand and foot. You must stay there till judgment. If we want you we come wake you.'" (pages 42-43)

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