Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica by Zora Neale Hurston
Review by Bryan Cebulski (@BryanOnion)
Whenever I think of voodoo, three narratives now come to mind: Wes Craven’s film The Serpent and the Rainbow, Jane Jensen’s point-and-click adventure Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, and Nalo Hopkinson’s novel Brown Girl in the Ring. I noticed that one key detail separates the two former titles from the latter. That being, voodoo’s position on the good versus evil morality scale.
In Serpent and Knight, both written from a Western white perspective, voodoo is treated with a sort of distant scholarly fascination, and ultimately winds up as something to be feared. By the end of each story, voodoo is mainly presented as something to be used by the villains for corrupt and evil purposes. In Serpent, a Haitian paramilitary captain uses human sacrifice and bizarre ritual torture as means to scare away the protagonist before he discovers the secrets of voodoo zombification. In the adventure game, meanwhile, the titular Gabriel Knight acts as a sort of inquisitor figure, pitted against the corrupt cartel-like voodoo cult wreaking havoc on New Orleans.
Hopkinson’s novel is unique in that voodoo is used by both the heroes and the villains. Voodoo is demonstrated as ambivalent to human conceptions of morality—the gods perform both good and bad deeds in equal measure.
Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica is an excellent background for this more accurate interpretation of voodoo. Part travelogue, part anthropological research, part history, part mishmash of notes and impressions, this book is full of interesting information. It is admittedly uneven (and frankly not worth reading in some areas unless you’re a scholar researching the finer details of specific voodoo rituals during the 1930s), but it offers a more holistic view of voodoo than the greater majority of Western media will allow.
Analyzing this book within the context of this list means filtering out and emphasizing the bits that constitute horror. Voodoo in general will suffice—for certainly many voodoo myths are made up of worthy scares—but Hurston’s exploration of Haitian zombies deserves particular consideration.
Have a quote to get a taste:
“Her name is Felicia Felix-Mentor. She was a native of Ennery and she and her husband kept a little grocery. She had one child, a boy. In 1907 she took suddenly ill and died and was buried. There were the records to show. The years passed. The husband married again and advanced himself in life. The little boy became a man.
[…]Then one day in October 1936 someone saw a naked woman on the road and reported it to the Garde d’Haiti. […] Finally the boss was sent for and he came and recognized her as his sister who had died and been buried twenty-nine years before. She was in such wretched condition that the authorities were called in and she was sent to the hospital. Her husband was sent for to confirm the identification, but he refused. He was embarrassed by the matter as he was now a minor official and wanted nothing to do with the affair at all. […]he was forced to come. he did so and reluctantly made the identification of this woman as his former wife.
How did this woman, supposedly dead for twenty-nine years come to be wandering naked on a road? Nobody will tell who knows.”
It’s an eerie premise, in point of fact the foundation of The Serpent and the Rainbow‘s plot. But where Serpent goes for the sensational, the Hollywood good-vs-evil narrative, Hurston explains this phenomenon as a curious fact of life in Haiti. Creepy, sure. An event that often makes people uneasy. But in the greater context of Haitian culture, this zombification is merely another strange happening in a country saturated in weird spirituality and mysticism.
Hurston’s breakdown of the basic tenants of voodoo is great. Though nowhere near comprehensive, it offered a lot of context which helped me to better appreciate the voodoo elements of a novel like Brown Girl, and to see clearly how media like Gabriel Knight and Serpent misunderstand the nature of voodoo. In the book, Hurston herself admits that voodoo is far too diverse to possibly give an adequate outline of it all. Indeed there appear to be dozens of regional gods and practices, cultivated through generations of tradition, with many variations even between neighboring towns and villages.
Not all of this book is necessary for a casually interested reader like myself. One need definitely read up more on the political histories of Haiti and Jamaica before tackling that section of the book—I don’t know much about the subjects myself, however other reviewers have expressed disappointment in Hurston’s treatment of them. Thus I would urge potential readers to get acclimated with the history so they can judge with deeper insight.
Tell My Horse was worth reading to me because of its general outlining of voodoo and its descriptions of daily life in Haiti and Jamaica. Hurston was clearly at her best when taking a Gonzo-style anthropological perspective. The scenes she describes of her meeting with locals and learning more about the history and culture of these places are definitely the strongest.