Thursday, December 29, 2016

Incorporating Voodoo in Historical Fiction

For kids that grew up in the 1970's, Geoffrey Holder was a fixture on the TV set as the pitch man for 7 Up. What most people don't realize is he was recreating a character he had brought to life on the silver screen in the James Bond flick Live and Let Die based on the Ian Fleming thriller. Geoffrey Holder didn't have to do much to thrill me. All he had to do was smile his Cheshire cat smile, speak in his Trinidadian calypso accent, and doff his panama hat while sipping a 7 Up as if it was the elixir of the gods. I was even more mesmerized by his no-holds-barred performance as the villainous Voodoo witch doctor Baron Samedi in Live and Let Die. The way he danced across the screen with his writhing, twisting movements so typical of West Indian performers, it ignited in me a life-long fascination with the culture and history of the West Indies.
You can watch Geoffrey Holder's performance here.
Geoffrey Holder as Baron Samedi in Live and Let Die (1973).
Holder almost seemed like the perfect foil for Roger Moore: where James Bond reflected the posh, stoic, orderly world of England, Geoffrey Holder typified the mysterious, exotic world of the Caribbean. His performance as Baron Samedi made such an impression on me that it continued to haunt me even decades later. When I decided to write "Island of Eternal Fire", a novel about the cataclysmic 1902 eruption of Mount Pelee that destroyed the city of St. Pierre in Martinique, I knew I had to include voodoo themes. Even in the 21st century, voodoo and black magic are important elements of life in the West Indies. The discovery of ritualistic voodoo objects still makes headlines in local newspapers and is the source of much fear and anxiety among the population.
Even today, voodoo ritualistic objects can still be seen in Martinique.
I felt that any novel set in Martinique had to contain a voodoo witch doctor character (called quimboiseur in the French West Indies), and I based my character, the Grand Zamy, on an actual witch doctor called the Gran-Zongle who terrorized the island in the 50's and '60's with his particularly lethal brand of voodoo that killed up to 402 people until he killed himself in 1965 due to remorse. The scenes in my novel are based on eye witness testimony as reported by 2 French journalists who conducted an extensive study of the phenomenon, but the story is fictional and all my characters are products of my own imagination. This is where history, sorcery, voodoo and black magic collide in my own particular brand of historical fiction.
The Gran Zongle was a real voodoo quimboiseur in the 1960's who may have killed up to 402 people with his particularly lethal brand of black magic according to his suicide note.
Here is a scene from my novel "Island of Eternal Fire" featuring the Voodoo witch doctor The Grand Zamy. In this scene, Emilie Dujon, the daughter of a cocoa planter, seeks his assistance in ridding herself of a philandering fiance:

Standing up to his full height, the Grand Zamy lit the black candles on the chandelier and said, “Spirits, I invoke you, tell me how I can solve this young woman’s problem.”
The black candles flickered for a minute and then mysteriously snuffed out. Taking out a deck of tarot cards, he asked her to shuffle them and cut them, and then he spread them out on his desk in the form of a cross. After turning them over, he studied them with great concentration and said, “You are caught between two warring people…or perhaps you are caught in the middle of something, possibly between two choices. I see two people together, sharing and exchanging cups, perhaps an unexpected encounter that can change the course of your life. Perhaps it is a new passion or a new love. This is the Ace of Wands. Over there the Ace of Cups represents a new love or a fork in the road, a new path or a struggle between two choices. Beware of overconfidence, the danger of rushing in too soon. I see difficult times ahead: great strife. I see a maiden, bound and blindfolded, surrounded by danger and cannot see her way out. I see a powerful, broad-shouldered man carrying a great burden. He is in command and has the burden of responsibility. This is the Ace of Swords over there. Finally, I see an awakening to a new, greater challenge. I see a large goal ahead of you down the road. That is all I see, Mam’selle. I believe your problem is not too severe and can be solved by a simple potion.”
“Are you sure?” said Emilie.
“I've dealt with much worse cases.”
“Are these potions dangerous? I mean, can they cause great harm?”
“My dear, anything can be dangerous if applied in the incorrect dosage,” he said. “That is why one must always consult an expert. For ten francs I will prepare a powder for your fiancĂ© that will calm his ardor and hopefully cause him to break off your engagement. Perhaps that will set your destiny in motion. Have no fear that irreparable harm will come to him, at least from the potion." He erupted into a house-shaking laughter that caused her hair to stand on end.
Emilie opened her purse and extracted ten francs and handed them over to the Grand Zamy. He placed the money in a strong box, locked it, and immediately went to the wall and selected a few bottles containing different powders and herbs. He mixed them in a wooden bowl and added some crushed beetles from a bottle, a bit of tafia, and then poured the mixture into a sachet which he handed to Emilie.
“There you are, Mam’selle,” he said. “Give me the young man's name and date of birth.” She gave him the information and he wrote it down. “Good. Now listen carefully. The next time he comes to visit, light a white candle in front of a mirror and place this powder in his rum punch. In a short while his behavior will start to change. He may seem erratic at first, and perhaps even appear to be sick but he will ask for his ring back and your problem will be solved.”
“Is it that simple?” she said.
The Grand Zamy smiled. “For you my dear it is simple, for me it is a bit more complicated. I will recite the appropriate incantations, perform sacrifices, petition the spirits—but that is the special task of the herbalist. I do not expect a fine, young lady like you to sacrifice a chicken.”
The Grand Zamy roared with laughter at his little joke while Emilie almost jumped out of her seat. She clutched the sachet, thanked the quimboiseur, and hurried out of the store. 

No comments:

Post a Comment