Review: Ana Kai Tangata: Tales of the Outer the Other the Damned and the Doomed

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Nicolay, Scott. Ana Kai Tangata: Tales of the Outer the Other the Damned and the Doomed. Fedogan and Bremer (2014).

“Horseshoe arches crammed both floors, most opening on nothing. Dense mocarabe toothed them all, suggesting stalactites and giving even those that tramed only wall a more cavern-like appearance. Mosaics sprawled across every intact inch of the ground floor facade. The white had lost its purity, red was faded with shades of crusted blood or rust, and the yellow was all but gone, but the blue had darkened almost to black.”

Scott Nicolay, “Geschafte.”

A few years ago, they were building a new clump of condos and stores on formerly industrial land near my apartment. The condos were very nice, very expensive, but sales had not been as great as expected and the area was a bit of a ghost town. However, a pharmacy had opened there and since it was closer than the previous nearest pharmacy, I walked there one afternoon.

It turned out I was the lone customer in the whole pharmacy, the lone person in the whole little complex. When I was paying for my stuff, the cashier joked with me, saying he hadn’t seen a single customer all day long. “Please come back,” he said.

I laughed. It was funny. But as I walked home in the dark, the shiny new complex suddenly seemed sinister.

I could be murdered here and no one would know, I thought.

Those are the kinds of cheery thoughts I sometimes have with myself. I suspect Scott Nicolay has similar ones.

Ana Kai Tangata is a bizarre, unsettling book of Weird fiction with some very urban and very bleak settings. It’s a book in which the mundane transforms into something toxic. So, an empty mall becomes a source of evil (“Eyes Exchange Bank”), a rundown apartment plays tricks with your mind (“Geschafte”), and what should be some sort of island paradise melts into a nightmare (“Ana Kai Tangata”).

The protagonists of Nicolay’s stories are often down-on-their-luck fellows, trapped in urban hellholes. And when I mean hellhole, I’m not talking about a small apartment with Ikea furniture. I mean total urban decay. The protagonists are not nice people, either, but who cares? They’re interesting and they are troubled, and they stand at the edge of the darkness, ready to be swallowed by it.

Most of the stories in this collection are long, descriptive, the Weird infiltrating them little by little. And that’s a good thing. These are not slasher films; there’s no easy pre-defined monster in the corner. These tales feel more like bizarre David Lynch movies. They’re raw and uncomfortable.

I was surprised to discover several of the protagonists are people of color, something that can be an odd finding in Lovecraftian or Weird titles. There are many mentions of Navajo culture in the stories, but we also get a Latino protagonist (and accurate Spanish! You don’t believe how hard this feat is). In fact, “Phragmites” takes place entirely in Navajo territory. The author has lived in the Navajo Nation since the 1990s and his experiences show in the narrative, helping to weave a detailed, intriguing tapestry. When you layer in the fact that Nicolay’s protagonists are often at the fringes of society, poor and troubled, you realize exactly how odd this all is. We don’t really get that many poor people in speculative fiction. It’s a land of upwardly mobile folks, not nearly homeless weirdos. These really are “the outer and the other” at more than one level. It’s a refreshing experience.

The collection, at $30, was pricier than what I usually purchase. Plus, these days, I’m more likely to buy e-books in an attempt to keep my small apartment from flooding. So, a book has to be really special to catch my attention enough for me to pony up such cash and drop it onto my bookcase. This is a highly recommended read.