Saturday, August 18, 2012

Bluewater Voodoo -- Zombies, Voodoo, and Yachting

Zombies, Voodoo, and Yachting...

They’re all integral parts of the culture of the Caribbean.  I know yachting from intimate experience, but writing about the other two required some research.  Weaving these three elements into the third book of my Bluewater Thriller series was a challenge.  There were elements of Voodoo in the local culture of Savannah, where I grew up; it’s not surprising to find vestiges of Voodoo in the Deep South – references to Obeah, the plait-eye, and conjure women.  Most folks in the U.S. associate Voodoo with New Orleans, but its reach extends far beyond New Orleans.  Voodoo’s origins can be traced back to West Africa, and it moved to the New World aboard the slave ships.  Its presence is pervasive in the islands.

The common notion of Voodoo is that it’s black magic.  Although popular, that idea is incorrect.  Certain elements of Voodoo seem like magic to people without a grasp of the cultural context.  The same might be said of elements of Christianity, or indeed any other religion.  Voodoo is a religion, as much so as any other faith-based social structure, and its central focus is maintaining a balance between man and the forces around him; social, spiritual, and natural.  Because it evolved in cultures that depended more heavily on oral history than written history, Voodoo is a difficult subject for casual research.  The most comprehensive and credible reference that I found was Voodoos and Obeahs: Phases of West India Witchcraft, by Joseph J. Williams, S.J. (copyright 1932).  Although the title itself sounds prejudicial, Dr. Williams, a serious ethnologist, provided a thorough background on the evolution of the belief structure upon which Voodoo is based.

From Dr. Williams’s work, a number of brief but easily found references on the Internet, my own limited exposure, and my imagination, I developed a grasp of Voodoo sufficient to my purpose in writing Bluewater Voodoo.  Since publishing Bluewater Voodoo, I have read The Serpent and the Rainbow, written in 1985 by Wade Davis, which provides a more modern perspective on Voodoo and its role in the Haitian culture than Dr. Williams provided.  I read it with great interest and some anxiety, having been unable to lay hands on a copy before releasing my novel.  I was relieved to find nothing in Mr. Davis’s work that contradicted my own guesswork.  Writing as a novelist, I certainly had the latitude to present Voodoo as I wished in order to further my story, but I’m ever mindful of Mark Twain’s statement that “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't.”

I wanted to write a thriller that presented a reasonably accurate view of the culture in which it was set, and I wanted to afford that culture the respect which it richly deserves.  So, what about zombies?  How are they related to Voodoo?  If Voodoo is a religion and a force for good, providing a framework for its practitioners to function constructively in society, how do zombies fit in?  Interestingly, Williams didn’t mention the word; Davis dwells on zombies obsessively.  Pop culture today makes monsters of them.  There is ample evidence that there are (or have been, in recent times) zombies; not the mindless, flesh-eating monsters of TV and the movies, but mindless, pliable creatures; victims of the darker elements within the culture that embraces Voodoo.  The case of Clairvius Narcisse, which I mentioned in Bluewater Voodoo, is well-documented and is not unique. 

The question of why someone would turn a fellow human into a zombie has many answers.  Based on my research, the motivation of the houngan who created the zombie in Bluewater Voodoo was not far-fetched.  It appears that one of the less atrocious reasons for turning someone into a zombie was as a form of capital punishment.  Whether it’s more or less acceptable than the death penalty or life imprisonment depends on cultural norms.  

As to the question of how someone could make a zombie, the effects of tetrodotoxin and its use as a poison are no secret; it’s readily found in puffer fish and other natural sources.  The use of puffer fish as an exotic food in some Asian cultures results in a substantial number of people experiencing death-like states every year.  Some recover and some don’t.  The death-trance itself is the reason for its popularity there, along with the risk.   The sources and uses of tetrodotoxin to create a death-like state are covered in a number of published works related to the darker side of Voodoo, as is the use of other herbal concoctions to keep the victim docile and obedient afterward.

Could they be used to turn someone into a zombie?  Probably.  Children, don’t try this at home.

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