My Favorite Bit: Ilze Hugo talks about THE DOWN DAYS

Ilze Hugo is joining us to talk about her novel The Down Days. Here’s the publisher’s description:

In the aftermath of a deadly outbreak—reminiscent of the 1962 event of mass hysteria that was the Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic—a city at the tip of Africa is losing its mind, with residents experiencing hallucinations and paranoia. Is it simply another episode of mass hysteria, or something more sinister? In a quarantined city in which the inexplicable has already occurred, rumors, superstitions, and conspiracy theories abound.

During these strange days, Faith works as a fulltime corpse collector and a freelance “truthologist,” putting together disparate pieces of information to solve problems. But after Faith agrees to help an orphaned girl find her abducted baby brother, she begins to wonder whether the boy is even real. Meanwhile, a young man named Sans who trades in illicit goods is so distracted by a glimpse of his dream woman that he lets a bag of money he owes his gang partners go missing-leaving him desperately searching for both and soon questioning his own sanity.

Over the course of a single week, the paths of Faith, Sans, and a cast of other hustlers—including a data dealer, a drug addict, a sin eater, and a hyena man—will cross and intertwine as they move about the city, looking for lost souls, uncertain absolution, and answers that may not exist.

What’s Ilze’s favorite bit?

Down Days cover image

Ilze Hugo is joining us to talk about her novel The Down Days. Here’s the publisher’s description:

In the aftermath of a deadly outbreak—reminiscent of the 1962 event of mass hysteria that was the Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic—a city at the tip of Africa is losing its mind, with residents experiencing hallucinations and paranoia. Is it simply another episode of mass hysteria, or something more sinister? In a quarantined city in which the inexplicable has already occurred, rumors, superstitions, and conspiracy theories abound.

During these strange days, Faith works as a fulltime corpse collector and a freelance “truthologist,” putting together disparate pieces of information to solve problems. But after Faith agrees to help an orphaned girl find her abducted baby brother, she begins to wonder whether the boy is even real. Meanwhile, a young man named Sans who trades in illicit goods is so distracted by a glimpse of his dream woman that he lets a bag of money he owes his gang partners go missing-leaving him desperately searching for both and soon questioning his own sanity.

Over the course of a single week, the paths of Faith, Sans, and a cast of other hustlers—including a data dealer, a drug addict, a sin eater, and a hyena man—will cross and intertwine as they move about the city, looking for lost souls, uncertain absolution, and answers that may not exist.

What’s Ilze’s favorite bit?

Down Days cover image

MY FAVORITE BIT:

My debut novel, The Down Days, is set in a quarantined Cape Town, where a mysterious laughter epidemic has ravaged the city. Bodies are piling up and laughter has been proclaimed illegal.

I got the idea of a fictional laughter epidemic from the real life Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic that occurred in in Tanzania (then called Tanganyika) in 1962. It started with one school girl who couldn’t stop laughing and soon spread through the school and across the region. At the time, authorities didn’t know what was causing the epidemic and were worried that it might be viral. Scientists now believe the epidemic was a form of mass hysteria or mass psychogenic illness. 

Sounds unreal, right? Maybe. But it’s not at all unusual. Instances of mass psychogenic illness have occurred across the world throughout history and are thought today to be caused by chronic stress. Another famous and bizarre example is the Dancing Plague of 1518, when a woman in France started dancing in a street and soon up to 400 people joined in and danced manically for days until, as the story goes, dancers started dropping dead from exhaustion. More recent examples include a suspected case among school girls in Leroy, New York in 2011 (with the girls exhibiting muscle twitches, garbled speech and facial tics). 

Much like in today’s Cape Town (in fact, eerily so) the epidemic in my novel sees borders closed, police patrolling the streets and everyone wearing masks. It’s a novel about the impact of disease on culture. About fake news (with myths, misinformation and rumors spreading like wildfire). About masks. About the resilience of the human spirit. But it’s also a story about ghosts. 

American journalist Colin Dickey wrote in his book, Ghostland, that ‘ghost stories are about how we face, or fail to face, the past – how we process information, how we narrate our past, and how we make sense of the gaps in that history.’ Cape Town is a city with a very real history of racial segregation and displacement. And many of its citizens are still reeling from the traumas inflicted during Apartheid. Along with the idea of a laughter epidemic, ghost stories were one way to deal with this very real history or trauma, and mass ghost sightings seemed like an apt response to the trauma of a fictional epidemic. 

In fact, it didn’t seem that far-fetched, considering that after the 2005 tsunami in Thailand the dead lingered on throughout the country in the form of mass ghost sightings. The local newspapers were running stories on all sorts of spirit sightings and some experts believe the sightings were a way for the country to deal with the trauma of the event. American neurologist, Oliver Sacks, also wrote in his book, Hallucinations, that between 30 and 60 percent of elderly widowed people are visited by visions of the ghost of their loved ones after they’ve passed on and that these kinds of hallucinations are a natural way of processing grief. 

Enter my favorite character in the novel, Fred Mostert, ghostbuster, sin eater, comic relief, and then some. Fred was dreamt up for a short story I wrote for an anthology of South African short stories compiled by SA author, Diane Awerbuck. I loved him so much that he snuck his way into The Down Days as a side character. In the novel, Fred is an ex member of the occult unit of the South African Police Service – a real unit created in the 80’s during South Africa’s satanic panic era, when even The Simpsons and ThunderCats were cause for alarm. The unit was formed to fight Satanism, along with investigating everything from muti murders to “spectral evidence, including spiritual intimidation and astral coercion; curses intended to cause harm; voodoo; vampirism; harmful cult behavior; animal mutilation and sacrifice where evidence of occult involvement was believed to be indicated, human sacrifice, and the interpretation of alleged occult signatures.” When I started writing the novel I thought, along with a lot of other people, that the unit had been disbanded after Apartheid had ended, but it turns out it’s still a very real part of the South African police force today.

Truth is often so much stranger than fiction and I’ve always had a love of arcane, weird bits of history. Weaving all these real, uncanny facts into my fiction was one of my favorite bits about writing the book. 

LINKS:

The Down Days Universal Book Link

Website

Twitter

BIO:

Ilze Hugo is a South African freelance journalist with degrees in fine arts and English studies, along with a Masters in creative writing from the University of Cape Town. She lives by the ocean in Muizenberg, Cape Town. The Down Days is her first novel.

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