Behind-the-Scenes: “The Monster of Gander (Newfoundland, of course)”

This is another one of my (irregular) posts looking behind-the-scenes at individual stories in my collection of Canadian superhero stories — which I’m posting, well, in the hopes you might stumble upon this blog, get mildly intrigued, and buy the book (and then maybe post your own review somewhere, ’cause I’d love to see how more people react to the tales). Originally the book was called Masques & Capes but I’ve actually revised and expanded it into a two volume series titled The Masques Chronicles.

So today — a magician battles a deadly creature in Gander, Newfoundland during World War II!

One of the things I like about Canada — one of its strengths both as a country, and as an “idea” (and a source of stories) is its very diversity. The second largest country in the world, broken up into various regions each with their own histories and idiosyncracies, and then marinated in the philosophy of multiculturalism. People sometimes scoff and say this very diversity and complexity means Canada has no defining identity. I would argue that is Canada’s defining identity.

And so part of the idea in my collection of stories was to deliberately embrace Canada’s diversity and complexity, the stories scattered from sea to sea to sea; I wanted the anthology to feel like a travelogue — and a romp through 20th/21st Century history — as well as being a series of adventures and mysteries. But I also like to mix n’ match things, too. Because, as I say: diversity and complexity is part of what makes Canada interesting.

Which brings us to today’s focus: the ominously titled “The Monster of Gander.”

Set in the 1940s during WW II, as the title implies it’s set in Gander, Newfoundland. At the time, Gander was an important location in terms of air travel (planes being less fuel efficient back then, they needed to stop at Gander before heading off to Europe, or when travelling from Europe into the North American interior). To be honest, I was only vaguely aware of Gander’s historical importance before I saw some CBC TV movies such as Gordon Pinsent’s Heyday! and Above and Beyond (starring Liane Balaban, Allan Hawco, Jonathan Scarfe and Richard E. Grant if memory serves). Since then I’ve realized that if you watch old movies about trans-Atlantic travel, Gander is referenced (such as the Jimmy Stewart movie, No Highway in the Sky).

Something I want to address at some later point in more detail is how little serious research I did for these stories. And I realize that sounds crazy! A collection of stories set in different decades, in different provinces, featuring heroes of different backgrounds — and I’m admitting I did little research? Wha-at??? But see, that was kind of my point. For years whenever I (or others) bring up the idea that Canadian stories can be set in Canada, often the braying response is “NO! It Can’t! There’s nothing interesting about Canada!” (Or my personal pet peeve: the ol’ “I can’t set my story in Canada because I don’t want to write about maple syrup harvesters!” argument). Soooo…I wanted (mostly) to draw upon casual, common knowledge in crafting these tales — to say look at what I could come up with without even trying too hard.

So, anyhoo, early on in the process of assembling these tales, I knew I wanted to do one set in Gander during WW II (I think “The Monster of Gander” was a title that popped into my head early). At one point I considered setting it at the RCAF base, but then decided on a hotel in the area, instead, and wrapping it around what is often called a “base under siege” plot. Snowed in during a blizzard, staff and guests find the hotel has been infiltrated by some unknown creature.

So now I had checked off both my regional and historical boxes with the Gander during WW II setting. But as I mentioned at the start, sometimes it’s nice to mix things up. So the narrator is a local Newfoundland girl, but other characters include international travellers, a black man from Africville (Nova Scotia), and the story’s nominal heroes: a French-Canadian woman and an English-Canadian man.

Now the whole idea behind my stories is mixing up both Canadiana and real world history and culture — with comic book tropes and archetypes. So now let’s look at the story’s heroes and their comic book roots.

Because this story is set during WW II, I wanted to riff on clichés and archetypes from that era of comics. And one archetype was the stage magician crime fighter. I think this began with the comic strip hero, Lee Falk’s Mandrake the Magician, but also included Fawcett’s Sargon the Sorcerer and DC Comics’ Zatara and I suspect a few others (many of these characters are still around today — or are otherwise represented, such as by Zatara’s daughter, Zatanna — but the mid-20th Century was I think their heyday). Often they shared traits: they were publicly known as stage performers (as opposed to wearing masks or operating in secret), often depicted in tuxedos and with suave mustaches.

So as an homage to this idiosyncratic sub-genre of superherodom, I decided to create my own version. And a story set at a luxury hotel seemed an ideal milieu for a “celebrity” hero (the character could be en route to entertaining the troops). At one point I considered swapping genders and making the magician a woman. But then I settled on the idea of a duo: a male magician and his female assistant (allowing for some reflection on past/present gender roles). I gave him the typical mustache, but went for a white tux as opposed to the usual black, and called him Shamano the Supernaturalist (deliberately riffing on the alliteration of Mandrake the Magician, Sargon the Sorcerer, etc.). The slightly cheesy name Shaman-o, of course, for its Indigenous connotation. After all, part of the gimmick in these stories was both to tell stories to be read at face value (taking the characters and their adventures for themselves) but also self-reflectively, as if these really are old Canadian comic book characters. And Canadian pop culture has often drawn upon (or appropriated) Indigenous symbols and themes much more than American culture has. So I figured a “typically” Canadian 1940s spin on the idea of the American stage magician superhero might do something like that. Meanwhile, his lovely assistant is French-Canadian.

But, of course, I wanted to do more than just evoke Mandrake/Zatara/etc. After all, without its own unique spin, an affectionate homage can easily be just an unimaginative rip-of. So there are (hopefully) a few twists on the cliché.

As for the plot itself… As mentioned, it falls into the “base under siege” sub-genre. A group of characters in an isolated location (thanks to a blizzard) find themselves in danger. I tried to write the story in such a way that the threat escalates scene by scene (as first they think a wild animal is outside the building, then they realize it might be inside, then they fear it may be more than just an animal…). But also with some wry wit and some deeper themes.

I sometimes write in an almost cinematic way. And this seemed particularly appropriate in stories meant to riff on comic books (another visual medium). So I deliberately tried to write a few scenes in such a way that they unfold in the reader’s mind like a movie, as the characters come upon troubling scenes, or wander dark halls. Whether that always worked — I don’t know. Perhaps one of the most obviously “cinematic” scenes is when a cluster of people in the lobby hear the elevator activate and watch nervously as it slowly descends to their floor — unsure who or what is inside. It may not entirely work in a written medium, but I gave it a shot — and hopefully the reader will appreciate the spirit of the scene.

And of course beyond all the stuff I’ve articulated here, the story hopefully has some suspense, some wit, a plot twist or two, all while offering a few philosophical kernels to chew on…and is just an enjoyable little confection. At the very least: I’m guessing this is the first story ever written entitled “The Monster of Gander”!

See what you think: it’s included in the first volume of The Masques Chronicles.

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