Five reasons why I loved 'African Monsters' edited by Margrét Helgadóttir and Jo Thomas

by - 01:07

Where to begin with African Monsters - the edited collection of stories, illustrations and graphic novels by Margrét Helgadóttir and Jo Thomas? 

I'll begin with the aesthetics - this is an absolutely gorgeous volume that needs to be in plain sight for everyone to see when they walk into your home - smack bang on a coffee table in a living room. Do not hide it.

The cover illustration by Italian artist Daniele Serra is hauntingly stunning and really does evoke vividly on the outside what you are about to experience once you open the book. It's dark and eerie and you know if you walk into that building on the left, you are not coming back - and if you do you're not coming back as you. 

Open the pages and you are transported to a world of well, monsters. Not the ones you would expect. These stories are meant to introduce you to creatures you may have never heard of in your life, which have one aim - to scare the heck out of you; and trust me you will be scared. There's absolutely nothing wrong with sleeping with the light on - even if it's the light from your phone.  

The thing is growing up in Nigeria, European and American monsters never really terrified me because they were far away. Even when I watched a horror movie or read a horror story, I knew I was safe. They were all the way 'inna foreign' (as my mum would say) so they couldn't catch me. Nigerian horror stories, now those seemed possible - they could be at the back of my house for all I knew. I'm sure there was a spirit or two lurking in the corridor in my home when there was no light (electricity/power for my fellow non-Nigerians). So African Monsters terrified me in a way that a horror story hasn't in a long while because I could really relate to the monsters - even the ones that were set in other African countries. 

In the introduction, Helgadóttir and Thomas explain that they 'are on a mission: to rescue monsters'. They want monsters to be able to do what they 'were originally designed ' to do - to put 'terror into people's hearts'. For that I say thank you for trying to terrify me. I really continue to be excited (and in this case freaked out) about the work that is being produced for fan girls like myself. That is number two on my list of why I loved this anthology (the first, being the cover illustration). 

African Monsters is the second of Helgadóttir and Thomas' 'world' series - European Monsters came out in 2014. I haven't read European Monsters, but I also want to say a genuine thank you to the editors for producing an anthology about African monsters, in which most of the authors are either from an African country, are of African origin or are currently living in or have lived in one or more African countries. That to me is a beautiful thing - and the third thing I loved about this volume.

Now here comes the fourth. This collection has 14 short stories and 2 short graphic novels from some kick-ass Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror writers. It's an almost who's who of African SFF in 198 glorious pages. I also love that it has male and female writers and artists, but also stories with LGBT characters and some strong ass female protagonists.  And yes I know there are mainly Nigerian and South African writers in this volume, but there are a couple other non-Nigerians and South African's in the mix. Each story was also accompanied by an illustration - which I absolutely loved. They gave a physical representation of the monsters - made it even more freakier as the images stuck in my head even more. Also, I think the illustrations are a great idea, especially if these creatures might be foreign to readers -  I know I hadn't heard of all of them.

All this and I haven't even gotten to the stories, which is number five on my list of why I loved this entire collection. African Monsters begins with a story from Nnedi Okorafor, On the Road. It's about a Nigerian-American cop who is back in Nigeria visiting her grandma and auntie. Now my first thought was just because you've been in America for a while now does not mean you open the door for a little boy with an evil grin that's at your door at night. Chioma shouldn't have opened that door - that's all I'm saying! That leads to a series of strange events and in this story we are introduced to the mmuo (masqueade ... spirit) - and there was something about the way Okorafor wrote the character's experience of coming face-to-face with a mmuo, which was pretty realistic; as well as the crazy, horrifying things that were happening to her in the forest. I feel like I would have had the exact same reaction - fear, mixed with disbelief, mixed with omg! this is really happening, mixed with so many other things. This story also sets the tone for the rest of the collection and let's you know that in African Monsters no one is safe and this collection also isn't here to make the reader feel comfortable  - you have been warned.

The next story Impundulu by Joan de La Haye, involves a bird - the impundulu - a shape-shifting elderly witch and her daughter who has just recently experienced a serious violation of her body and the consequences of that on the humans in the village - not good! First, however, a sacrifice must take place. 

Tade Thompson's One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sunlight is a lesson in restraint  - don't kiss anyone, you have no idea what those lips will turn you into. The story begins with our monster in a grave and you can't help but wonder why. Thankfully he doesn't keep us guessing for long. In it we learn about the main character's family history, the demons in the village that had to be destroyed and how our protagonist ended up getting 'infected'.  His life story is fascinating - from his family who supplied gold and slaves to the Portuguese (because let's be honest, we don't like to talk about it, but that did happen); to how he 'turned'; to the priest who taught him English (and how to write in Yoruba as well). 

In Severed  by Jayne Bauling we learn that it doesn't matter where you are in the world, young people on a road trip to an isolated and creepy location in the middle of nowhere will always ignore the signs and still walk straight into danger. This time, however, the danger is an evil spirit - the Ichitapa  - in the lake. Don't get too close to the edge. 

Isn't it terrifying? Illustration by Eugene Smith for 'Severed'. Image via
After the first four stories there is a short graphic novel, The Death of One, from Sue Opperman - very little words, amazingly haunting images about a fight to the death of two creepy creatures.The next ten stories are as haunting as the first four. 

There's the Chikwambo  by T.L Huchu, in which the monster seems to have a penchant for leaving two large holes in the chest where its victims breasts should be - a short but terrifying story with a not-so-happy ending. There's Monwor by Dilman Dila,  which features another female cop-lead, who is also bad-ass, and an experiment that goes horribly wrong. I have to say while reading the story Nelly Furtado's 'Man-Eater' was in my head the whole time. In That Woman by S Lotz, we are introduced to widows in Ghana that are accused of witchcraft by mostly men in their communities. Still, all is not what it seems in this village - and here we are made to wonder who really is the monster? 

I found Sacrament of Tears by Tony Bennett to be absolutely beautiful - the way it was written from start to finish. It's a story about an English man in 1897 writing a letter from Lagos to his brother in England about the demise of his nephew (who was a priest and doctor in a community in Nigeria). There was something about the way it was written - I felt like I was reading the diary of an Englishman and the way Africans were viewed. The way abiku (spirit children) was written about from an Englishman's perspective ... the story was beautiful. 

It also seemed that each story was placed where it needed to be placed in the collection - where it was meant to be. From 1897 Nigeria, we are transported to modern day Nigeria with Bush Baby by Chikodili Emelumadu - another amazing story. I'm just going to say I love my older brother, but if he comes to my house in the middle of the night with a stolen mat from a bush baby, he is on his own. I'm sorry, he is! Bringing me into his own battle with demons - how cruel is that? This story perfectly captured the 'joys' of family and how they can drag you into something you have nothing to do with. I really enjoyed this story, and this one was especially haunting for me as I know the bush baby story - I grew up in a bungalow, there was -(and still is) - overgrown bushes and trees at the back of my house up to their own devices. I don't think I would have been able to read that story if I was in my home in Lagos today. Imagine if the power went out while reading it?

After the Rain by Joe Vaz was haunting. A young man had returned to Johannesburg after many many years away and decides to search for his old home where he grew up. He finds it, he leaves, it rains, he takes cover in a shebeen - but this area isn't safe and the miners have been experiencing attacks from were-dogs.  In Taraab and Terror in Zanzibar by Dave-Brendon de Burgh an old problem that should have been forgotten never went away. I like how the uprisings in the 1960s in Zanzibar were linked to the Sultan releasing monsters (the popobawa's), but who really was, and is, the threat in this story? 

A Whisper in the Reeds by Nerine Dorman was genius - mer-ladies trying to tempt a young man to join them. Guess what's it's kinda hard when you're not his type. If at first you don't succeed, send one of the young mer-men to try their luck. Beautiful story. In Acid Test by Vianne Venter - a city is in ruins from environmental damage but might soon be safe to return to. There's also a story of unrequited love with a lizard like creature lusting over a born-leader with a rather, can't find the word, maybe it's intimately sinister ending.
Su Opperman's illustration for 'A Whisper in the Reeds'. Image via Foxspirit

One thing I liked about this collection is that you should not expect happy endings. Thandiwe's Tokoloshen by Nick Wood  - the final short story in the collection - is not your average kids story, even though there is a rainbow and pot of gold. It wasn't easy getting to her rainbow - a long journey and a scratchy ride, and once she gets there, we learn that we don't always get what we want and sometimes you can go on a long journey and return empty handed. I laughed at the foul-mouthed little girl angry at the result of her quest, but we do sometimes live in a cruel world. She just learned it at a young age.

The collection ends with a graphic novel, A Divided Sun,  by James Bennet and Dave Johnson (artist) about a young boy who relocates with his father (who got a job) to Johannesburg from Sussex; and the different kinds of monsters he encounters in South Africa during apartheid.

This was a truly beautiful collection and it felt like a lot of thought was put into it from the front cover to the last line of the biographies (which were really fun to read). African Monsters showcases amazing writing and art, and if you want to learn about mmuo's and impundulu's and ichitapa's and monwors' and bush baby's and popobawa's to name some of the monsters in this collection, grab a copy of this coffee table book series. Do be warned, you might want to sleep with the lights on!

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