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As Coleridge taught us, the first task of the writer is to establish in the reader/listener a willing suspension of disbelief. This willing suspension of disbelief is particularly important for the writer who sets out to tell a story about a possible world of strange cults, vodou, and zombies set in modern New York City. How to tease the modern sceptical reader/listener into that state of suspended disbelief?
Shakespeare has done more than any other writer in the English language to assist. Everyone recalls the exchange between Hamlet and Horatio:
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!
And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Keep an open mind Horatio, for there are many things "in heaven and earth" that are beyond the normal. And early on in this book, the ninth in the FBI Special Agent Pendergast series, Pendergast quotes that passage to his sceptical colleague NYPD Lieutenant Vincent D'Agosta. So, after employing the authority of Shakespeare, the next step is to provide us with a sceptic, someone in the story who, like us, is sceptical of most things supernatural. D'Agosta is perfect for that task. At one point, for example, wandering around in the dark cult location and faced with the possibility of the living dead, he remarks, "This is f…ing weird!" and we agree.
Thirdly, allude to an expert in anthropology and biology, in this case, the Canadian Wade Davis, who has been described as "a rare combination of scientist, scholar, poet, and passionate defender of all of life's diversity." Davis's The Serpent and the Rainbow (1986) came from his anthropological work in Haiti where he investigated folk preparations implicated in the creation of zombies.
Preston and Child employ this strategy to establish a willingness to believe: authority, a resident sceptic, and a reference to scholarly work in the field. Next they place us in an atmosphere of old garbage truck with just a hint of rotting corpse plus a splash of gangrene and putrid matter which permeates the novel like a coiling miasma. In this possible world William Smithback, a New York Times reporter, and his wife Nora Kelly, a Museum of Natural History archaeologist, are brutally attacked in their apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Smithback is murdered in a bloody knife attack while Nora is out to get him a surprise present. Eyewitnesses and a security camera agree that the murderer is a strange, sinister neighbour, who, we learn, was already officially declared dead and buried at the time of the attack.
Pendergast and D'Agosta proceed to investigate this and other strange and bloody crimes that seem to be orchestrated by a strange cult who are residing in an ancient cluster of buildings on the very tip of the Island. They encounter weird rituals, strange vodou artefacts, a cult with a high priest and 144 followers who may have the power to call up zombies to protect and attack anyone getting too close to the truth of their religion. At one point a vodou expert from Louisiana is brought in by Pendergast to assist in the investigation. Nora Kelly is also trying to find her husband's killer and is joined by a newspaper reporter who says she will help in the investigation since Smithback was her colleague and was working on a series of articles about the cult at the time of his death. It seems the cult members have been offering animal sacrifices as part of their ritual and the screams of the animals have begun to irritate the neighbours. An animal rights group joins in the action to save the animals from the secretive, reclusive cult of Obeah and vodou.
The team of Pendergast and D'Agosta work frantically to unravel the strange case. They uncover evidence pointing to the cult, with hints that the dead are not dead, and that the first murder victim, Smithback, is not resting quietly in his grave. One of the suspects is a well-known movie producer/director who is funding the animal rights group and is helping with the investigation. Nora is kidnapped and will soon be killed if the two crime fighters cannot figure out what is going on in this strange case. In his attempt to find Nora, D'Agosta, the sceptic, runs into the strange being that protects the cult and finds himself in the dark underground of a completely weird crypt complete with screaming animals, skeletons, and hints of dark evil, fighting for his life.
But wait! Shakespeare also taught us: "All that glisters is not gold; / Often have you heard that told." Perhaps things are not what they seem? Will Nora be found in time? What is going on at the site of the cult? Did Smithback come back from the dead? Do these zombies really exist?
René Auberjonois does a fine job of reading in this production of Cemetery Dance. He presents the text with passion and clarity using the right amount of interpretive skill to engage the listener. A fine actor, he is also a fine reader, a skill that not all actors have.
© 2009 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.