I’ve got some promising horror books on my shelf at the moment, so I thought I’d clear some of them away before spooky season in the Fall brings even more my way. Bad Cree by Jessica Johns was a big spring book here in Canada; everyone was talking about it, and I was excited to see another Indigenous-authored novel show up on my doorstep, especially one I could compare and contrast to another famous Indigenous horror writer who I enjoy reading, Stephen Graham Jones. This book is more creepy than gory, but there is still some blood and guts to cringe along to as well. It also successfully mixes new millennial horror elements with those we are used to from the horror classics of decades ago, so no matter what gives you chills, you’ll enjoy this one.
Mackenzie moved away from her small-town Alberta home shortly after her kokum (grandmother) died. She moved to Vancouver, where she lives in a small apartment and works at Whole Foods, and rarely talks to those at home, happy to have escaped the sad memories she left behind. But when strange dreams start invading her sleep, including some that feature her recently deceased sister Sabrina, she decides to return home, her extended family begging her to reconnect, taking these dreams as a sign she must do so. Her dreams get even more frightening and realistic when she wakes up clutching items she grabbed onto while in the dream, and then she begins to notice crows following her around while awake. While home her aunties and cousins help her search her painful past for clues as to why this is happening, when she discovers her other Cree relatives have also had special dreams that foretold something dangerous. Together, they make a plan to banish these dreams and the terrifying creatures within them, but it requires Mackenzie to face her difficult decisions from the past that hurt more people than she realized.
This debut novel is an impressive example of plot-driven writing blended with an artistic flair. The descriptions of nature are always critical in an Indigenous-authored novel, but nature itself is a character in this book: the crows that follow Mackenzie around, the snowy weather that threatens her in dreams, the forest that surrounds and chokes her ability to flee. Emotions and family dynamics are also at the forefront of this story, how we relate to our relatives, and the pain we inflict upon each other without realizing it. The deaths that occur in Mackenzie’s family are a constant background noise in her life:
“I knew I was bad for not feeling more reverence about death, for not holding the understanding of how it worked for nehiyawak. All I could see was a deep crater in the ground and the people left behind grasping at the edges.”-p.92 of Bad Cree by Jessica Johns
The book description focuses on the fact that Mackenize is a millennial, and this plays into the kind of horror she experiences. For example, she begins to receive creepy text messages from a something that appears to be her dead sister, and although it may sound cheesy as I write it, the way these texts are introduced are quite chilling. More typical elements of horror are also used; unexplained disappearances, possessed people, even rotting animated corpses make an appearance. There are cinematic qualities that would make this the perfect fit for the screen, so I’m hopeful it will be snapped up by a production company in the near future.
The characterization isn’t very in-depth, Mackenzie is the only person we get to know closely, and she has a significant number of extended family that rally around her once she returns home. However this isn’t a criticism of the writing – instead it’s a signal to the reader to the other characters are most relevant when they are together, and their patterns they fall into are only important as they relate to one another. Family is something that is both resisted and welcomed in this story, so it’s a complicated dance that Johns describes, but one we can all relate to as well.