/ Charlie Human / 6 am Mon, May 4 2015
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  • How South African tabloids inspired my novel

    How South African tabloids inspired my novel

    Here in South Africa our tabloids are spinning an epic serial of monsters and magic in their headlines every morning.

    annCharlie Human's
    Apocalypse Now Now is available from Amazon.

    In South Africa the spam is hand-delivered. Pamphlet-flickers (guys handing out flyers for sidewalk magicians that offer everything from debt-clearing to penis enlargement) try to outmaneuver me on my commute every morning.

    Bouncing on their heels they weave from side to side to intercept passers-by with their haphazardly printed offerings. Love spells, exorcisms, magic money purses. Diagon Alley with a bit more aggression, a bit more style, a little less polish.

    Make no mistake, there’s an incredibly dark side to it. There are flyers for brutally dangerous backstreet abortions offered R300 ($30). Magical HIV and TB "cures." Good people pull them down, deface them, scratch out the phone numbers, but they keep appearing. The advertising clearly works.

    There’s also a darkly comic side to this urban reality fantasy. Our tabloids are in on the game, spinning an epic serial of monsters and magic in their headlines every morning.

    I’ve always known that at some stage I’d write a book based on the myth, magic and mayhem that I encountered on my morning commute. Eventually I did. Here are some of the tabloid themes and ideas that inspired Apocalypse Now Now.

    The Tokoloshe

    tokotwerk

    The tokoloshe; he’s basically (and there’s no other way to say this) a small hairy monster sex predator with a huge penis. He’s a traditional myth that has been co-opted into a contemporary setting, a trickster with an insatiable sexual appetite that preys on the unsuspecting.

    In Apocalypse Now Now, the phantasmagorical underworld beneath Cape Town has its own entrepreneurial start-up scene, and a monster porn industry has sprung up to service the bizarre fetishes of businessmen and politicians. Not too hard to imagine.
    In this world the tokoloshe is the eldritch Ron Jeremy; a small hairy supernatural imp porn star making use of his natural physical talents to get by. Hey, a monster’s got to make a living.

    Magic

    Our tabloid headlines are full of magic, mostly lurid and sensational accounts of things that sangomas, traditional healers or shamans, have inflicted upon ordinary people.
    In Apocalypse Now Now the magic is a weird blend of African traditions and ideas; Xhosa, Zulu and Khoisan magical ideas added to concepts from Voudou and then sprinkled with an entirely made up Afrikaans magical tradition that I syncretised from Pennsylvania Dutch Powwow (Afrikaners being descended from Dutch settlers), mystic Christianity and, to be honest, just some really twisted creative licence.

    The resultant magic is dark, dirty and unpleasant; the kind of streetfighting magic that, if those headlines were real, would be needed to make it in South Africa’s magical underground.

    Teenagers

    image03

    The moral panic in tabloid headlines about the things that teenagers get up to was the first spark that ignited the novel.

    Baxter, the protagonist in Apocalypse Now Now and Kill Baxter, is that moral panic personified, a brash asshole, the ultimate unreliable narrator, Holden Caulfield meets Gordon Gekko by way of Ninja from Die Antwoord. He deals in monster porn. He’s manipulative. He thinks he’s fucking awesome.

    In him I hoped to capture something of the raw intensity of the teenage experience, that weird and dangerous time that for a lot of people is nothing like the moody staring or public school formality of some of the most popular YA.

    Bonus Inspiration: Chemirocha

    One of the mythological creatures that appears in the books is Klipspringer, a half-springbok (a type of antelope), half-human hybrid who collects kitsch bric-a-brac as part of his spiritual tradition.

    I created Klipspringer as a kind of African faun or centaur, inspired by the story of the Chemirocha. If you haven’t heard it the story goes like this:

    In the 1950s South African ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey went to the Kipsigi people in Kenya and recorded a song called the Chemirocha sung by young girls. It turns out that the Kipsigis had heard old records of the country singer Jimmy Rodgers brought by the British and decided that the wailing mournful tone could only belong to a half-human, half-antelope hybrid called Chemi(Jimmy) Rocha (Rodgers).

    They invented songs about this creature that are both haunting and beautiful:

    And here’s a cover I like by South African band Bye Beneco:


    Excerpt from Apocalypse Now Now, by Charlie Human

    ‘Jump, jump, jump.’ The low chant from the class grows louder.

    Miss Hunter, our maths teacher, stands at the window quivering, her dishevelled blonde hair whipping in the breeze. Encouraging a sweet and fragile teacher
    – distraught at the thought that we don’t care about her class, and driven to hysteria by consistent and vicious undermining of her authority – to throw
    herself from the second storey is wrong. But it’s also fun. Miss Hunter is the kind of teacher who will never last. Shebelieves in our inherent goodness.
    That’s her first mistake.

    Control. Teachers know that they now have less of it. They know things have become more complicated and more dangerous, that the student populace is now a
    networked entity, a hive mind, a multi-cellular organism intent on destroying them. Teachers seek individuals within the crowd to blame for bad behaviour,
    but we are a faceless mass, absorbing punishment and spreading it among us.


    Two teachers have already had nervous breakdowns this year. Mr Henri ran from the classroom screaming, finally cracking after seeing messages about his
    wife scratched onto his desk. Miss Franks had just never returned after that picture of her landed on the Internet. Gross, even by the Spider’s standards.
    If she had given me better marks perhaps she could have avoided that.

    Miss Hunter turns to the class. ‘I’m doing this for you,’ she says and it seems like she’s looking straight at me. Sure, Miss Hunter. You’re doing this for
    us and not because you’ve watched Dead Poets Society and Dangerous Minds a few too many times. Give me broadband and YouTube and I’ll have the maths
    curriculum down in a week. The truth is, Miss Hunter, that you’re obsolete and your inability to see that is pathetic.

    Still, maths is the first class of the day where the whole of the Spider are together and it’s time to get some real work done. Miss Hunter gives me a
    meaningful look and then flees the class tearfully.

    ‘She’s definitely got a thing for you, Bax,’ Kyle says in his mumbling murmur.

    I ignore him. ‘Let’s get some feedback before we discuss strategy,’ I say.

    ‘Stats say there is a trend toward creature porn,’ Kyle says, putting his phone in the middle of the desk. We lean over the screen displaying graphs of the
    previous month’s sales. ‘We’re going to have to make more copies of Tokoloshe Money Shot.’

    Creature porn is a strange new addition to the porn canon. Guys and girls dressed in supernatural fancy dress and going at it have captured the warped
    imaginations of the student body, and we’re planning to exploit the trend to its full potential. Sales are fuelled by conspiracy theories circulated on
    Internet forums that the werewolves, zombies and other humanoid beasts getting it on with humans are real. Proof that people will believe anything if it
    helps them get their rocks off.

    ‘Make more copies but keep an eye on it. It may just be a fad like the Swedish sauna orgies,’ I say.

    Kyle nods to Zikhona. She’s our security liaison officer, our enforcer, a mountain of Xhosa sturdiness in the gold bomber jacket that she wears over her
    school uniform.

    Strictly speaking, we didn’t choose Zikhona, she chose us. I remember the day a convoy of black bmw suvs had pulled up outside the school. Two men who
    looked like they fought in cages stepped out of the front car and put their hands inside their jacket pockets. A huge black girl squeezed herself out of
    the door of the centre bmw and stood at the gate, trying to extract a wedgie from her tights.

    A teacher walked over to welcome her and perhaps gently remind her that school had started twenty minutes earlier and that the gold bomber jacket she was
    wearing had to come off. One of the bodyguards stepped forward and shook his head sternly. The teacher backed off. The girl gave up on the wedgie and
    sauntered through the gates, surveying the groups of assembled students before walking over to where we were and shoving a kid in front of us out of the
    way.

    ‘What’s up, fuckers?’ she said by way of introduction. That’s how we became friends.

    ‘Increased low-level attacks on the Form by the ntk,’ she says in her purring baritone, her large hoop earrings jangling as she speaks. ‘Word is that
    Denton is organising a big retaliation.’

    ‘Shit, we need to get in there before a full-blown war starts,’ Kyle says.

    ‘I have a meeting with Anwar at lunch break,’ I reply. ‘If I can get him to commit to a temporary truce maybe I can bring the Form around.’

    ‘I don’t know, Bax,’ Zikhona says, raising a carefully manicured eyebrow. ‘Denton is acting pretty tough and Anwar isn’t taking itwell.’

    ‘Idiots,’ I hiss and my forehead begins to throb again. ‘Can’t they see that starting a war is going to take us all down?’ I feel light-headed and sweat
    prickles on my skin. ‘They’re all in it for themselves, they can’t see the bigger picture.’ My forehead is pulsing now and I can’t think of anything else
    but the forces encroaching on us.

    Suddenly it’s as if there’s a visual overlay on reality. Spectral shapes move across my vision, women and children being marched into camps. ‘They take our
    land, they rape our women, they kill our children. Fokken Engelse duiwels! Ek is ’n Siener.’ I slam my palm down on the desk. After a moment the pulsing in
    my forehead subsides and I see the Spider peering strangely at me.

    ‘Um, are you ok, Bax?’ Kyle says. ‘You’re not having a stroke, are you? Can you smell burning rubber? Is one side of your face numb?’

    ‘No,’ I say quickly. ‘C’mon, it was a joke. I was joking. They’re always banging on about South African history, I’m just sick of it, that’s all.’

    ‘Uh-huh,’ Zikhona says and waves her hand in front of my face. ‘Just promise me you’ll never give up porn for stand-up comedy.’

    ‘Ok, I promise,’ I say with a half-hearted laugh. Jesus, Zevcenko, try to keep your shit together. Whatever the hell is going on in your head it’s going to
    have to wait until this thing with the gangs is over.

    ‘IK, how are new markets looking?’ I say, quickly changing the subject.

    The Inhalant Kid cups his hands and huffs from a bottle of Tipp-Ex. It doesn’t take much to make him nervous and it’s clear my little freak-out has jangled
    his nerves. The Kid is our sales and pr person. He’s short for his age, which is unsurprising considering his hobby, with a mop of curly brown hair and
    large elven ears that make him look like he’s always listening to something in the distance.

    He’s what you might call a connoisseur of chemical contaminants, or perhaps a sommelier of spray cans. Despite the gaps in his memory and a solvent-induced
    stammer, he is an amazing salesperson. He has the ability to simultaneously make people feel sorry for and scornful of him. It’s the perfect sales
    stimulant. ‘The partnership with Dirkie Venter is on,’ he says softly. ‘If everything goes to plan, we’ll double our sales by August.’

    I nod approvingly. Dirkie Venter is a possible new distribution partner at Mulderberg Technical High School in the Northern Suburbs. So far we’d kept our
    operation within the boundaries of Westridge, but we’re big fish in a small pond and we need to diversify. Dirkie is our link to the predominantly
    Afrikaans Northern Suburbs. His hatred of English-speakers has destroyed any previous attempts to pursue this avenue, but he is slowly coming round. He has
    the greed hook in his mouth and all I need to do is reel him in.

    Everyone looks at me. They’re awaiting some inspirational words from their leader and now, more than ever, I need to show them that I’ve got my shit
    covered.

    ‘This is not going to be an easy week,’ I start. ‘I don’t need to tell you the threat we face. If war happens and we’re caught in the fallout, expulsion is
    almost certain.’

    The Inhalant Kid switches to wood glue and sniffs viciously to calm his nerves.

    ‘I’m not forcing anybody to continue on our current course of action. If anybody wants out, say so.’ My voice becomes more resonant. ‘We have the
    opportunity to do something great here.’ I look at the faces of my team. Not one of them flinches from my bespectacled gaze. I’ve never been prouder.

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