That several stories in Ezeiyoke Chukwunonso’s debut collection, Haunted Grave and Other Stories, deal with blight and pestilence on a national or international scale seems right, inevitable now, already four years since the book was published. Our world, in real time, continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. In “The Last Man Standing,” ADAIDS, an “advanced” form of AIDS, has decimated Nigeria (p. 28). The first-person narrator is a eunuch, a likely underdog who has survived the epidemic and seeks to gather other survivors “to fight loneliness with ‘African communalism’” (p. 29). Matched, as it can’t help but be, against our current experience, the story reads like more than a cautionary what if.
At one point, the narrator realizes the futility of waiting for a taxi-bus that will never come. We, waiting with him, understand this is a Nigeria (or there is a Nigeria) that will never come back as it was. Humans thought—innocently, ambitiously, nobly, arrogantly—that they could dial back or reengineer AIDS. But the new virus goes airborne. The narrator’s radio announcement does bring people together in his community … but society continues to crumble as everyday institutions vanish: “We were still waiting [to see who would seize power and lead] when the last surviving radio and TV station vanished” (p. 31). Except “weeks later we had all become accustomed to the new reality” (p. 31).
Chukwunonso, an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in Open Road Review, Future Lovecraft, and African Eyeball, reminds us that what we endure and withstand often can inspire as much hope as terror. Jack Kirby’s Kamandi, the so-called last boy on Earth, comes to mind. What do we do when everyone around us dies, is dying, or is dead? We go in search of the living. Naturally. Yet in classroom after classroom of a school he searches in Ninth-Mile, the narrator of “The Last Man Standing” “either saw lizards playing or rats making love” (p. 32). And then, in another, a very deadly cobra. The world has been doing what it does naturally, too: reclaiming its own.
Eventually, surprisingly, the narrator finds “a girl of about thirteen” to rescue (p. 34). But, “back home,” rumours of her being a witch—the reason for her lone survival, not, potentially, her sickle cell anemia—start to stir (p. 34). In a time ravaged by science, superstition holds much promise. Or is it still, always, just people who cause trouble? The self-declared witch doctor and village gossip Mrs Chioma is an instigator of deadly fear and dissent.
A weaker companion to “The Last Man Standing” is “Exorcism.” Chukwunonso’s use of language becomes imprecise the deeper into the book we venture, with articles and words missing. The poor proofreading is unfortunate. Concepts lack clarity and attraction because of all this distraction.
“Exorcism” seems to present a case of multiple personalities. “I know you are called Ifeanyi because your customers come at night and call me your name,” writes the narrator to, apparently, himself (p. 40). No less intriguing is what the story says about the divergent natures of Nigerians. Ifeanyi’s name means “nothing passes God” or “God can do anything.” Chioma’s means “good luck.” There are those who thrive on faith in this country, and those who rely on no one but themselves. Maybe a simpler proposition is that “Exorcism” is indeed about being two-spirited. Upon reading “Dear Chioma” as the opening salutation to an anticipated reply, Ifeanyi's reaction is, “Wait. Did he think I was a woman?” (p. 43). Here and elsewhere, characters grapple, do battle, with dodgy scenarios they refused to see coming.
As with the narrative of COVID-19, as with all tales of the unexpected, the eight stories in Haunted Grave are ruled by the cryptic or half-told. “Your mother was deep. She isn’t what you saw and what you think you know,” says a father to his son (p. 17). The father then slams the door as he enters his room. (The order of the action is oddly reversed.) “Eaters of Flesh” spins around this declaration of the father to his narrator son, Gozie, about the mother’s “disappearance” (or perhaps escape). Gozie’s response: “I collected the key to Mum’s room from Dad. I needed her memory like a junkie would need cocaine” (p. 7).
Such a perverse need. The truth is—the problem is—many of the characters need something, often from each other, that remains buried in the unsaid or partially explained. No wonder the mother seemed afflicted either by “a spiritual attack” (p. 8), jealous relatives who “struck her with madness” (p. 8), or religious zealotry turned unhealthy obsession that “began a day after her forty-fifth birthday” (p. 8). One cause seems as plausible as the other in the isolated and isolating spaces Chukwunonso’s characters sparsely populate.
Oh, Gozie has questions. He is “the last of [his mother’s] two surviving sons to be weaned from her presence when the illness began to take too much of a toll on her” (p. 9). Is his mother’s family full of people who “think backwardly” (p. 10)? Why does his father say this? Because he suspects they killed his eldest son, Ebuka, or because of the horrific way they may have done it? His father’s near contradictory lack of respect for boundaries (and his own suspicious behaviour) make it difficult for Gozie to determine. His questions to Gozie about masturbating, whether deliberate or incidental, make conversation an act his son avoids with him.
So there is a distance between father and son that the son seems to encourage. That both are in pain over the unaccountable loss of mother and wife is clear. Some of the emotion is muted, routed by clichés or rickety scaffolding. His mother’s journal is not initially described as having a “white paper that veiled the thick cover” (p. 15). What Gozie means when he says his father’s domineering attitude “was one of those existential crosses I had to bear for being his son” rings dubiously rather than sympathetically (p. 12). And how swift is the flash of a shooting star anyway?
In keeping with the thrust of “haunted tales,” nothing and no one is what it at first seems in Chukwunonso’s world. All the stories are set in Nigeria except the last in the book. Who to trust and where is safe for us is a recurring concern. In the father’s inexplicable upset over Gozie’s use of the family’s 504 Peugeot to get around is a debilitating mash-up of the forbidden, superstition, and paranoia. Even if he does seem to be trying to save his son, what from never comes into focus as it should for Gozie or us.
Similarly, there should be more to “Exorcism” beyond the priest’s visit and the recognition that Ifeanyi is absent or dormant. The story remains underdeveloped, which is frustrating given the level of intrigue generated by a life half-lived in only a few pages. “Haunted Grave,” “A Cursed City,” “To Love is Strange,” “The Game of Aids” [sic], and “The Green Race” are also semi-formed—with thin characterization, unconvincing narration, abrupt endings, and indifferent editing. The result is that, midway through Haunted Grave, the storytelling grows steadily less credible than it might otherwise have been.
The title story should shine. Instead, its awkward use of a youthful patois contributes to making it one of the most unappealing pieces. The curse of “To Love Is Strange” is perfect: Ginika and Juliet and the women in their clan can love without destroying themselves or their lovers, but that love must be unselfish, not just chaste. In the end, Chukwunonso is overly preoccupied with declaring his moral rather than serving the story.
An audience’s reaction to a speaker’s sexist and racist comments in “The Green Race” reveals the fictional reality he inhabits while reflecting the real-life one we do—one with ongoing prejudices that lead to endless distortions of the Truth. “I am not racist,” says Brown, “the only historian that travelled with the astronomers who discovered the Green Race”—but he clearly is (p. 107).
The really scary part of the story is how approving the audience is of Brown’s fantasy-fuelled, self-serving nonsense. Who gets to decide who is human? By what reasonable measure? The point is sharp: while presumably very intelligent people are making false, corrosive, divisive comments, the only thing the rest of us seem to do is crack up. “There was a roll of laughter from the audience again” as the academic made another absurd point (p. 111).
Even if its moral is timely, “The Green Race” is more message than story: an overly obvious allegory with only old monsters to slay. In this context, the effort is almost enough. Crowds willing to give a standing ovation to people with views like Brown’s do exist. They come together at rallies. They energize political bases. They make their leaders feel legitimate. “The Green Race” is both cautionary tale and protest writing.
For it and the other stories in Haunted Grave to be deeply felt and engaging, though, Chukwunonso would have had to deliver a more sustained performance himself, and be better guided by stronger spirits.