Certain Dark Things is a re-released 2016 novel by best-selling author Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Part noir and part horror story, this vampire tale takes place in an alternate reality Mexico City where two lonely souls try to survive the dangerous streets of a town riddled with trouble.
Domingo doesn’t mean to start a conversation with the beautiful young woman sitting across from him on the subway, but when she catches him staring at her, he says something just to make the situation less awkward. He’s surprised when she doesn’t blow him off but instead invites him home with her. She’s clearly wealthy, far above a lonely garbage-collecting street kid like himself, but he follows her anyway, wary but hopeful.
Atl shouldn’t risk it, but she is too hungry not to. Mexico City is meant to be a vampire-free zone, but she has to be there in order to make contact with a mysterious former friend of her mother’s. Domingo is clean, drug free, and young enough to provide the kind of meal she needs. As a Tlahuihpochtin she does not have to kill him, she just has to take one long drink of his precious, life-giving blood. Domingo is surprisingly open minded about the issue, agreeing to her using him as a snack, and curious rather than horrified as they discuss it. When it’s over, she sends him home with an admonishment to never speak of their encounter.
But Domingo can’t forget her. Using some of the money Atl gave him in payment for his cooperation, he buys her a gift and returns to her apartment the next night. Atl initially tries to send him away, but he is stubborn, refusing to leave, and it occurs to her that she needs a Renfield (a servant/emissary). In that position, Domingo can get the supplies and papers she needs to make her escape. When he eagerly agrees to take on the job, Atl sends him to her mother’s cryptic contact, and plans for her departure begin in earnest.
But Atl is not the only vampire in Mexico City. Nick is a Necro, the vampires of whom most Western legends are made, and a member of the cartel who killed Atl’s family and is looking to kill her. While trying to locate Atl in this very vampire unfriendly town, he kills a girl, thus alerting the authorities – and the human crime syndicates – to his presence. And since the gangs are just as eager to keep the mean streets of Mexico City free of vampires as the police are, both groups go on the hunt for the blood suckers stalking their community.
The world building here is extraordinary. The author manages to capture the reality of Mexico City – the brutality of life on the streets, where one has to pay for “luxuries” like a weekly bath, and where finding an abandoned sewer space to call home is near affluence, where disease runs rampant, where gangs roam and people get beaten or killed on a regular basis, and where drugs flow more freely than clean water – and give it beauty, a richly diverse population and a dark, seductive magic.
In this universe, vampires have numerous subspecies: The Tlahuihpochtin, native to Mexico, beautiful and bird-like and once worshiped as gods by the Aztecs. The Revenants, terrifying and misshapen and powerful. And the Necros, a Western European breed that resemble the non “vegetarian” vampires of Twilight. The world has known of their existence since the 1970s, and nations have responded to their presence with varying degrees of horror and violence. Many (most) European countries have forcibly deported their vampire populations, which has compelled the varying breeds to share territories in the Americas. This hasn’t worked out well. A lot of them turned to the drug trade to obtain power and wealth, and Mexico is all but overrun by feuding vampire gangs. Mexico City where human gangs, with help from the authorities, have built a walled metropolis where the bloodsuckers are not allowed, is the exception.
I have to say I loved this analogy between the cartels that exist in our world and the monsters of lore. From the start it helps balance the story between fantasy and reality, reminding us that the methods of killing might not be the same but the horrific violence surrounding the drug trade is similar to that of the horror stories of old.
And that’s what the story is really about. While the vampires have some magical powers, the rampaging destructiveness of the tale doesn’t come from that but has a true to life, ripped from the headlines feel. Atl’s family was slaughtered as Nick’s Necro family took over their territory in the drug wars. Her family had been small time and had fallen to the much larger cartel rather easily. She is the last of them and Nick’s gang wants to make an example of Atl, to torture her to remind others that no one is safe and that it doesn’t pay to even try to stand against them.
Enter Domingo, the unexpected wild card. A seveteen-year-old human who has lived on the streets on his own for years, he’s been fascinated by and reading comics about vampires for years. But those stories did not prepare him for the real thing, for the gorgeous, alluring Atl and the dangerous men chasing her. He should be outclassed in this battle, easy prey for all the bloodsuckers he encounters but Domingo has learned to live by his wits, he is tenacious, familiar with the area, and becomes a genuine asset to Atl.
Atl is more than simply what her family did for a living. There is an underlying kindness and gentleness to her that is unexpected in a drug dealer and vampire. She can kill when she needs to, but it is clear she is weary of bloodshed and violence and would rather lead a quiet life. Her relationship with Domingo highlights the warmer, compassionate side of her nature and the tender vulnerability that lies at the heart of her.
Ana Aguirre is the police officer determined to stop Nick by killing both him and the vampire he chased into Mexico City. Ana moved there from a far more violent, vampire ridden province and has no intention of seeing this area become an equally dangerous, crime ridden ghetto. Like all the characters, Ana’s storyline is complex and reveals the many layers that are at play in the endless war on drugs.
There is a romance (with a sexual component) in the story, but it does not reach an HEA and is far from central to the plot line of the novel. It underscores how in this world joy can be fleeting and must be grasped with both hands when it becomes available
Certain Dark Things is an unexpectedly moving, penetrating look at the violence and the terror the drug trade brings into the lives of Mexican citizens cleverly disguised as an alternate reality horror story. If you enjoy TV shows like Narcos or if you are a fan of clever takes on the vampire legend this beautifully written novel about imperfect people trying to make the best of terrible circumstances will be perfect for you.
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