Winnipeg Horror: The Shadow Over Portage and Main

My Introduction to Winnipeg's Weird Fiction Anthology

At long last, Winnipeg’s place in weird fiction has been secured by the publication of The Shadow Over Portage and Main: Weird Fictions, a horror story anthology edited by Keith Cadieux and Dustin Geeraert.

I wrote the introduction for the book, which is reproduced below. The anthology also includes a short story by Richard Crow, an exciting and obscure author about whom nothing is known. (Rumours have it that Richard Crow is the pen name of Jonathan Ball, although I obviously deny any such rumours.)

Get your copy of The Shadow Over Portage and Main: Weird Fictions and support its amazing authors and editors! Discover what’s so terrifying about Winnipeg!

Preface: There Is a Thing That Should Not Be, So We Must Be in Winnipeg

“Why is Winnipeg so gothic and dark?”

This was not a question I had expected to answer, not something I prepared myself to answer, in the oral defense of my Master’s thesis. I don’t remember what I said. I had written a screenplay adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s classic horror story, “Der Sandmann,” as a creative thesis, and the question came from my external examiner, Cliff Eyland. Whatever I said satisfied him enough to move on to a different question, more on point. But now I didn’t care about those other questions.

Now I wanted to know why Winnipeg was so gothic and dark.

*

Winnipeg is so gothic that people actually use the phrase “Winnipeg Gothic” to refer to, in Eyland’s words, Winnipeg’s “part of a much wider gothic-influenced scene, [which] shares Romantic, Freudian, and popular horror film and fiction influences with a much wider world of art.” In an article on Jillian McDonald’s video project REDRUM, Eyland references a Gallery One One exhibition, “The Gothic Unconscious,” curated in 2003/04 (a year after my successful defense) by Sigrid Dahle.

Many of the artists Eyland lists as exemplifying or otherwise connecting to this haphazard aesthetic best described as “Winnipeg Gothic” also appear on my personal list of influences: Guy Maddin, Ivan Eyre, Diana Thorneycroft, Rob Kovitz, and the Royal Art Lodge. (I would add filmmakers Jeffrey Erbach and Solomon Nagler.) If “Winnipeg Gothic” means anything, it means that these artists with gothic sensibilities connect an atmosphere of threat, gloom, death, and despair to the urban environment of Winnipeg.

In My Winnipeg, for example, Guy Maddin spends a good deal of time talking about The Forks, that meeting place of two rivers, and claims that there are also two ghostly, subterranean rivers underneath them, which also happen to fork together in the same place. This makes Winnipeg, and The Forks, a dangerous place of magical, chthonic power. Since The Forks was traditionally considered a meeting place not just for the two rivers but also for the First Nations, Maddin’s film plays into horror tropes about the dangers of constructing your home (in this case, a settler city) on top of an aboriginal burial ground.

Even discounting Maddin-esque myth-making, Winnipeg seems ripe for horror. More than any other Canadian city, it conforms to the tropes of the horror story’s “bad place.” Winnipeg is Canada’s “murder capital” (so-named for, most years, claiming the nation’s highest per-capita homicide rate) and thus a place of violence, both personal (murder) and systemic (at the time of writing, Maclean’s stirred up national controversy by decreeing Winnipeg the “most racist city in Canada,” citing alarming statistics). Winnipeg’s environment itself is deadly, monstrous even — as I write this, it’s a balmy -31 degrees Celsius … before the windchill. (And it’s morning now. While I slept, in the darkness, we reached -42. One colder day, almost a decade ago now, I went to unplug my car in the morning and the extension cord snapped like a twig.) Winnipeg is not just a place of cold, but a place of fire — with alarming arson rates — and a city that seems like a small town, with barely three degrees of separation between any two people, thus allowing it to play into both urban and small town horror tropes. Add to this Winnipeg’s ruined landscape, gothic in its decaying architecture. A place famous for its ghosts, for bygone glory.

Most of all, its isolation. Winnipeg, the bad place that you can’t escape. The perfect place to die.

*

I was once asked, for a documentary on the Winnipeg filmmaker John Paizs and his 1985 masterpiece Crime Wave, why Winnipeg seemed to breed so many strange, experimentally minded filmmakers. My response there seems to apply here: because Winnipeg is a city without hope.

Winnipeg is fate. It dooms its artists to obscurity, to failure, before they have begun. And so, ironically and paradoxically, it breeds artists who don’t even bother to try to succeed, and thus don’t water down their art to make it more marketable (it’s impossible to market, since it’s from Winnipeg) — and can therefore succeed, in an artistic sense if not a commercial one.

Winnipeg the ruin, Winnipeg of the haunted past, Winnipeg of murder and flames. Winnipeg of cold and death, Winnipeg of the hopeless, Winnipeg the doomed. It seems significant that so many of the writers in this anthology, which proclaims to feature stories inspired by Winnipeg, don’t bother to offer any actual indication within the stories that they are set in Winnipeg. Few of them mention Winnipeg, or mention any Winnipeg landmarks.

Why bother? It all goes without saying. Since there is horror here, and since the horror cannot be stopped, since hope is gone and the world is a nightmare of chaos, we must be in Winnipeg.

Get your copy of The Shadow Over Portage and Main: Weird Fictions and support its amazing authors and editors! Discover what’s so terrifying about Winnipeg!

Interview with Armand Garnet Ruffo

On Norval Morrisseau and where biography and poetry intersect

Armand Garnet Ruffo draws on his Ojibway heritage for his writing. In 2014, his creative biography Norval Morrisseau: Man Changing Into Thunderbird appeared with Douglas & McIntyre. In 2015, The Thunderbird Poems, poems based on the paintings of the artist, was published by Harbour Publishing. He currently lives in Kingston and teaches at Queen’s University.

Photo credit: Pearl Pirie

Your two most recent books, the biography Norval Morrisseau: Man Changing Into Thunderbird and the poetry collection The Thunderbird Poems, both come out of your research into and engagement with Norval Morrisseau’s life and work. Can you talk a bit about what drew you to Morrisseau and his artwork, and why you found yourself responding to his work in these different ways?

I have to say at the outset that from the very first time I saw Norval Morrisseau’s work at Robertson Gallery in Ottawa in 1982, I was mesmerized by it. Of course I had seen his work in magazines prior but I’ll never forget the first time I actually saw his paintings. Of course I wanted one! So I guess I have always been drawn to Norval’s work.

And it goes without saying that Norval Morrisseau’s best work is magnificent and a truly singular achievement. I mean he created his own style of art! And for someone of Ojibway heritage like myself, it is a profound statement about cultural survival, and beyond to rebirth.

That said, what got me onto Norval’s trail so to speak was an invitation by the National Gallery of Canada to write something for the Norval Morrisseau “Shaman-Artist” retrospective catalogue, and one thing led to another until I had the two books. I have to say though that at first I was hesitant. Like many people, I had heard a lot about him, but I really didn’t know very much. Right from the beginning, then, I knew that if I took on the project I would have to learn a great deal, everything from visual art history, aesthetic theory, Ojibway material culture, the Ojibway oral storytelling tradition, about the Ojibway “Manitous,” and I knew it would be daunting. Not to mention that I would have to learn the details of his life!

So while I was thinking about all of this, I guess you can say I had a kind of epiphany, where I suddenly realized that his life was indelibly connected to what had happened to Aboriginal people in Canada during the first half of the 20th century. (He was born in 1932 or thereabouts.) Sure he was unique because of his artistic gift, and he had an extraordinary life, but what happened to him, the abuse, the poverty, the displacement, the stereotyping, was conversely not unique to him.

Furthermore, the NGC ended up giving me carte blanche as to how I wanted to approach the subject, which also opened a door for me, and which I found both intriguing and challenging. And so, after the NGC’s catalogue came out, I continued to work on the project, and I ended up with the two books. I’m still not sure how that happened, but the poetry came naturally, if not always easily, and in the end there were simply too many poems to include in the one book.

There is connection between the two books other than just the subject matter, because I included a few of the more lyrical pieces in the biography and a few of the longer prose poem pieces in the poetry collection. I like the idea that they are connected in more ways than one to each other.

What went into your decision to blur the borders between poetry and criticism, as you do (for example) when you preface the poems in The Thunderbird Poems with notes about Morrisseau’s life and art and sometimes respond to or comment on the paintings themselves?

I did that for practical purposes, because I figured that some of my readers would know little about Norval’s life and probably even less about Ojibway culture. I wrote the poems first and then went back and added the prose, but once I started doing it, I realized that it was exactly what the poems needed; to my mind, the “commentary,” or criticism as you call it, adds a kind of gravitas to the book.

I was also interested in adding another form to the book, something that would mirror the poetry. Form and genre is something that has always interested me.

What are some of the challenges of writing about a real person, either in biography or in poetry, where you need to respect them and their families but also maintain a certain distance and perhaps be critical?

That’s a tough one, isn’t it? First, I can say that I adhered to the facts of Norval’s life as I understood them. In other words, I never tried to make anything up. If I have him riding the taxi-boat from Cochenour to McKenzie Island, rest assured he took the taxi-boat! As for personal things that might be controversial, like sexual abuse, I tried not to leave anything out but at the same time I did not want to sensationalize things either.

I think that’s one of the reasons the poetry happened. I found that I could handle things in the poems that would have been difficult in the prose. I found I could say things through implication in the poetry that I would have had to spell out in prose at the risk of sounding sensational. To my mind, then, I think the two books compliment each other in that together they serve to bring all the disparate facts and events to light.

I suppose you could say they echo each other to provide a kind of dimensionality to Norval; together they plumb straight down into his life and art.

Morrisseau’s work is well-regarded and its importance is established. How might you have approached the books differently if he was relatively unknown? What benefits or difficulties does his already-existing reputation provide?

Certainly it would have been a very different book, because Norval’s fame is part and parcel of who he was; for example, the money that came with the fame allowed him to do things that most artists can only dream about. Think about it, he never had to worry about his material life. He constantly had a following of groupies, apprentices, and acolytes, whatever you want to call them, who basically worshipped the ground he walked on. No unknown artist could possibly have had the life that he led, sold out shows, everyone constantly after him, wanting to represent him, wanting to be his friend.

The most difficult thing I encountered as a biographer was that there were people who knew Norval, but, for whatever reason, they wouldn’t talk to me. Norval was a very complex person, and likewise his relationships were very complex. On that note, I was lucky — though Norval probably wouldn’t call it that — because despite his fame, mine is the first full-length book about him, and so I didn’t have to compete for the story.

Conversely there were many people who were eager to talk about him. It’s also interesting to note that while Norval has this huge reputation, few people actually know the full story of his life. People could tell me about a small portion of his life, some aspect of it, such as the “Red Lake Years,” for example, but not much else. So it was left up to me to piece all these disparate facts together.

And, yet, there are still many, many untold stories about him, and I suspect there will be other books, though probably none using the narrative and poetic techniques I’ve employed. In fact, I know a scholar who is currently writing an academic book about him.

Outside of the fact that they are generally regarded as his masterpieces, what made the paintings of “Man Changing Into Thunderbird” so important to you, so that you titled both books around them and so on?

To put it in a nutshell I think the theme of transformation is central to Norval Morrisseau’s life. As I say in the book, he was always the thunderbird man changing into someone else. For example, he had this ability to walk away from people, his family, friends… objects, his art, personal possessions… whatever, and simply move on. How many times did he start over in another part of the country? Only later to move on again.

The theme thus connects him to the idea of rebirth, starting over, relapsing, one step forward and one step backward, and I think this too is integral to who he was. And, further, I see it representing his deep-rooted connection to his Ojibway culture, the mythology and epistemology of the Anishinaabe, which informed who he was as an “Indian” (as he always said) and, of course, as you note, to his artistic practice — which, I can say with confidence, will live on as long as human-kind has a place for art and beauty in the world.

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Norval Morrisseau: Man Changing Into Thunderbird ( McNally | Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM )

The Thunderbird Poems ( McNally | Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM )