Wednesday, August 31, 2011

SpecFic Colloquium Blog: City Myths

By David Nickle

Could it be that a vampire is prowling the Entertainment District smugly preying on binge-drinking sons and daughters of Etobicoke, from the saddle of a 24-speed hybrid mountain bike that during daylight hours he stores next to his taxpayer-subsidized coffin somewhere deep in St. Lawrence?

Is there a Minotaur lurking at the centre of the Path, dangerously over-caffeinated on Starbucks House Blend and drunk on undeserved self-satisfaction? Has the zombie apocalypse come to Scarborough, and everyone's just somehow failed to notice?

Yeah, urban mythology. It means different things to different people. Writers of horror and fantasy—and their legions of readers – are intrigued by the confluence of traditional myths . . . ghosts, vampires, zombies, or the Gods . . . and the complexity and richness of life in the big city.

I've never shared that fascination. And for evidence, I point to the bulk of my work in horror and fantasy so far. I tend to see creatures of myth in the woods, the more sparsely-populated rural communities, and the dimly-lit, superstitious past.

But that's not to say I don't have a healthy respect for urban mythology. I'm setting this down a couple of days after my local MP Jack Layton received a hero's send-off, after his death from cancer. I remember Jack in the flesh: an ambitious, optimistic and energetically affable man. As a reporter, I knew him and liked him and respected him. I had never, however, mistaken him for a paragon. And that's what he is now: an addition to the pantheon that makes up Toronto's breathing, not-quite-real (but that's the point, isn't it?) mythology.

As a journalist who writes about many things Torontonian on a daily basis, I'm intimately concerned with this mythology. It's how, when I'm feeling the need to generalize and not think about things too deeply, I'm tempted to understand my city. It's a narrative.

So I understand that the Entertainment District (where I don't really spend much time) is populated at night by drunken Etobians, even though that may not be entirely the case (Mississauga parents have a lot to answer for, as do the founders of Liberty Village, and—okay, I admit it—likely my own neighbours here on the Danforth). I've navigated the Path (a network of underground retail tunnels here that connects downtown office towers in such a way that denizens need never step outside) like the labyrinth that it is. There's no minotaur there, but sometimes I feel like I should bring a spool of thread to find my way out of it. And as for Scarborough? People from other parts of Toronto make zombie apocalypse jokes about the east-end former city. People from Scarborough are of the view that there's nothing former about Scarborough, and the only thing standing between it and Elysium are a couple more subways and a little respect, thank you very much.

Suburbanites are a horde of socially conservative proto-fascists who are probably homophobic. People from the former City of Toronto are a bunch of libertine communists and probably gay. Suburbanites don't like that about downtowners. Downtowners don't like that about suburbanites. If Toronto is Heaven, there's a war in it—Mayor Rob Ford and Margaret Atwood are the generals—and bicycles and motorcars are the artillery.

And in the end, there's just not much room for vampires and minotaurs, angels and demons. The city has already made its own mythology, with the materials at hand.


The 2nd Toronto SpecFic Colloquium will take place on Saturday October 15, 2011 at the Toronto Underground Cinema (186 Spadina Avenue). Register now at


David Nickle is the author of the novel Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism and numerous short stories, some of which are collected in his story collection Monstrous Affections. In 2010, Monstrous Affections was awarded the Black Quill Reader's Choice Award for best dark genre collection.

His fiction has been published in magazines, anthologies and online, and been adapted for television. He lives and works in Toronto.

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