The Cat of Muritaro is a compilation of eight fantastical tales culled from the belly of Caribbean folklore. Peter Halder, a former journalist, pens a fast-paced, gnashing and melodramatic oeuvre that will terrorise the young and innocent while tantalising the curiosity of occult aficionados.
Although the setting is Christianburg, Albertown and Starbroek in British Guiana, the phantasmagoria belongs to every Caribbean folk who was spoon-fed with characters of the spirit world. Admittedly, this book is not for everyone. Some shy away from this genre for obvious reasons, but experience has taught me that the supernatural is part of the Caribbean archetype. Halder speaks to the reader in the vein of the griot, making Muritaro a part of our oral tradition. His prose is lucid and unencumbered with the extraneous detail and flattery of creative writing.
In the same breath, it can be faulted for being a tad short on suspense, and light on the flavourful Guyanese argot that generates richness and authenticity. However, when such vernacular graces the pages, we are in for a mouthful. "When cow ah go ah slaughter house, it nah care where it s—t;" and "when duck catch fish, it forget that gun ah wait for it;" and "Boat gone ah waterfall, it can't turn back," prove equally instructive. There are brilliant moments when Halder weaves comedy and sheer horror. He handsomely moulds and interfaces psychotic and antisocial behaviour into a lugubrious and disturbing tapestry. It is magical.
Muritaro tells more than a story of ghosts, possessions, discarnate souls, blood curdling creatures and necromancy. It speaks of a people, mores, a belief system, and a wondrous imagination. That there exist elementals and pretas (hungry ghosts) is beside the point. What is noteworthy is the realism and the pointed credence afforded the supernatural. It is distinctly Caribbean, and Halder wears his nationality and culture on his sleeve.
Steeped in gore, this is an offering that is also laden with timeless aphorisms. The perils of greed couldn't be more forcibly presented in The Flower from the Grave which emerges as the gem of the lot. It is vividly chilling and suspenseful. Here, spirits accompany the protagonists, Bertie and Mavis, to the cemetery - protecting them from evil and the unquiet dead - as they embark on removing a lilac from a grave. The conjuration of the spirits courtesy of Seemour, the spiritualist, is captivating:
"Come to me, come to me, You good spirits of eternity, Heed my call, I only need two in all to hear my command and obey my demand, two good jumbee go to this man Bertie at two in the morning when the darkness is flowing. Be with him and wife, to and from the cemetery. And protect them from evil and injury. My request your command. What I told you to do is my demand."
Swift and ghastly end
Attacks are parried repeatedly, thanks to these invisible helpers and the undertaking is a success. But Seemour's magic comes at an exorbitant price. Parting with $500 troubles Bertie. Upon delivering the mead, he falls to the power of avarice and murders the spiritualist. He, too, meets a swift and ghastly end as her spirits erupt with vengeance.
Throughout, there is a healthy dose of maxims. The biblical warning: "Those who live by the sword die by the sword," is ever present. For sure, the irrefutable realism of karma is the overriding message. Despite their occult prowess, Halder's characters are blighted and their demise is as revolting as the suffering they unleash on others.
In the world of magic and evil, victory is ephemeral, a flash that evaporates with deadly con-sequences. In Obeah Woman, the "eye for an eye" doctrine or the proverbial "what you sow is what you reap" is doubly embedded in the reader's psyche. Surely, Arissa, the protagonist, who sought retribution for being arbitrarily dismissed from her job, meets the same fate as her tormentor. Maybe she never absorbed the meaning of "Vengeance is mine" sayeth the Lord. Divine Justice cringes when Arissa's threatens her boss: "I take an oath before you today that you will regret until the day you die what you did to me today... I will live long enough to spit on your grave, you mark my words."
Halder rarely abandons the overriding plot. But there is some levity especially in The Dwarf of Christianburg. Here, an Amer-indian, yearning to marry a much older woman, defends his decision with the witty comment, "... but no addah woman live round here. For me is a case of stale, stale bread or no bread at all ... . Dem say the oldah the guitar the sweeter the tune ...".
For the most part, comic relief surrenders the reins to unbridled evil, classism, colour, and race in The Obeah Woman. And in Flower from the Grave, there is nostalgia, a feeling for the simplicity of yore as Halder poignantly details the typical Caribbean wake replete with the hymnal tones, dominoes, food, and strong drinks.
Finally, some will recoil at the barbarity of Devlin, the main character of the eponymous title whose evil knows no bounds.
More discerning readers will find Halder's tales wearily repetitious - almost cut from the same fabric. But for those who relish a generous serving of the supernatural, it just doesn't get better than the Cat of Muritaro.
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