Certain Dark Things and Dynamic Description

Reading Like a Writer with Allison Wyss

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Certain Dark Things is about Atl, a vampire on the run in Mexico City, and Domingo, a teenager who lives on the streets and decides to help her. I’m interested in the way Atl is described, how the sequence of the details creates a dynamic—and magical—understanding of her.

We first meet Atl in the subway, through Domingo’s POV. Domingo thinks she is attractive and stylish, human but with a particular magnetism. Then he learns she’s a vampire. It’s important to Domingo’s understanding of vampires—and the reader’s—that she is not initially introduced as a monster. When we first see her as human, we are seduced into admiring her. When we learn how she is different, her vampire characteristics are made stranger by the contrast. More importantly, our first understanding of her is not erased but written over, so it layers with the later one. She is both like and unlike us. She is both beautiful and terrifying. That competing understanding of same and different can create a sense of the uncanny. It’s frightening and compelling. 

Let’s look at how this works in a very specific moment, in which Domingo describes Atl’s hands.

Atl removed her gloves. Her fingers were long and beautiful. But the nails were sharp and black. It was not nail polish. These were her natural nails. These were a bird’s talons.

She raised those long hands and placed them on either side of his face. Domingo thought his previous idea about vampire powers might have been right, because he didn’t flinch. He just stared at her as her hair turned into feathers and her hands seemed to grow more talon-like.

Domingo knows she’s a vampire, but he’s still seeing her as human, describing her hands in terms of human beauty. The reader is very likely to picture her hands as human, too. This does something special for the movement that happens in the reader’s awareness. First her hands are human and beautiful. So when her fingernails are sharp and black, we think it’s just her manicure—they must be filed to points and painted with dark polish. When we’re told it’s not nail polish, it’s a slight shock, and a new image overlays the first one. Even then, it’s the birdlike nails that are called “natural.” The strange overlaps the known. Finally, they are a bird’s talons.

This is a deliberate layering of imagery, in which sequence really matters. When we get a detail, we keep it, even if the next detail challenges it. A later detail is always a change or addition, never quite an erasure. It’s just the way most brains work—the first image remains, even as a newer one is placed on top.

In this passage, the layering creates a particular kind of movement from one form to another. It makes the description dynamic instead of static and thus more interesting. We see the manicure. Then we see the talons. And even after we know they are bird talons, the first image of a human hand, carefully tended, will remain. So the image is layered and complex. And because it contains like and unlike at the same time, the image is especially scary. 

The fingernails might be literally changing as Doming watches, or it might simply be his way of describing what is already birdlike. In either case, the reader’s sense of transformation arises due to the sequence of his description. And that’s important because in the next moment it happens more explicitly. Atl does physically change when her hair turns into feathers. 

Also, consider the effect of starting with beautiful and moving to strange. If the description moved in the opposite direction, if we first saw Atl as monstrous or birdlike or frightening, it would be more difficult to overlay the vampire image with one of human beauty. The reader might not believe it, because the grotesque image might be too strong to dismiss. But starting at what is comfortable and moving into the strange is an easier progression. It’s much harder to settle what has been unsettled.

As the book goes on, we learn more terrifying things about Atl—her past, her priorities, her hunger. But we don’t dismiss her as evil. Because we’ve already learned to admire her, we’re stuck with it. Our acceptance may make her even more frightening. 

Physical description can sometimes drag down the action of a scene or make it seem like time has stopped. Dynamic description is a strategy to counteract this tendency, because it creates movement and change. Atl literally changes as we watch. But even in the moment when she doesn’t, our perception of her transforms. And because of the overlap of contrasting imagery, there is depth to what might otherwise be shallow. There is movement in what might otherwise be still. The description is alive.