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.

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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.

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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!

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