Vancouver novelists make spring journey to the dark side

Themes of fear—and even a little loathing—haunt new releases by Amber Dawn, Kevin Chong, Maureen Medved, and Sam Wiebe

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      The subject matter in this sample of new, top-shelf local fiction may seem bleak for a season of returning light. We’ve got obsession, corruption, deep shadow, even a touch of the bubonic. But there’s always been hope implicit in troubling stories, hasn’t there? By showing us fearsome things, they help us imagine ways out.

      Black Star

      By Maureen Medved (Anvil Press)

      The scholarly life has lent itself to fiction and satire for decades now (centuries, if you want to go back to Chaucer). Campuses are full of thwarted ego, garbled theorizing, clanking bureaucracy—in short, regular life, only here mutating in a sealed petri dish, perfect for a novelist’s uses. Delorosa Hanks, the chaotic narrator of Black Star, is the latest heir in this line. By the second sentence of the scalding new novel by Vancouver author Maureen Medved, Hanks is referring to her academic rival as “a lesion of carcinogenic proportions capable of rotting and destroying departments”. It just gets darker, funnier, and more acidic from there.

      The Plague

      By Kevin Chong (Arsenal Pulp Press)

      God is still dead in this bold update of Albert Camus’s famous 1947 novel of the same name. And the doctor trying to face down a bubonic outbreak is still named Bernard Rieux. But local author Kevin Chong has moved the setting from Algeria to circa-present-day Vancouver, and expanded the source book’s existential cosmos so that it contains more than just white dudes. This allows him to dwell on some of Camus’s enduring questions about life and death while drawing out themes that Vancouverites will recognize as part of the background hum of this town. Among these, as Chong has pointed out in an interview, is “how suffering coexists with prosperity”—something as familiar to us as the sight of a homeless person’s sleeping bag in front of a high-end shop.

      Sodom Road Exit

      By Amber Dawn (Arsenal Pulp Press)

      Never mind old asylums and overgrown hilltop houses, there’s no better setting for the paranormal than a small town with a dead amusement park on its edge. This is where Vancouver’s Amber Dawn takes us in her much-anticipated second novel, laying out a landscape that both haunts and seduces her disillusioned young protagonist during the recession-plagued summer of 1990 (the era of George H. W. Bush—plenty creepy in its own right!). It’s hardly Amber Dawn’s first venture into the uncanny. Nine years ago—even before her award-winning debut novel, Sub Rosa, which itself had a streak of the fantastical—she edited and contributed to Fist of the Spider Woman, a story collection described as “subversive, witty, sexy, and scary” that asked two things: “What do queer women fear the most?” and “What do queer women desire the most?” The figure at the heart of this new work is pursued by a strange force that wants answers to both questions at once.

      Cut You Down

      By Sam Wiebe (Random House Canada)

      There’s clearly something in Pacific Ocean air that brings out the worst in people. Look at the moral swamps mapped by the likes of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain, as if the western edge of the continent also happened to be the limit of human nature—the Garden of Eden in a constant state of falling. Cut You Down is the second novel featuring PI Dave Wakeland by rising crime-fiction star Sam Wiebe, and it has much that would excite those early hard-boiled writers: a troubled shamus tailing gangsters and crooked cops, a student gone missing with a stack of cash, and a fast-changing city—in this case, our own—that breeds violence and deceit. Like his ancestors, Wiebe sharpens his prose to a point and uses his twisting, high-paced plot to take on big themes about money and the warping pressure it exerts on everyone it touches.