Review: Sugar Skulls by M.R. Tapia

‘The Aztecs believed the common soul would travel to Itztepetl, the third level of Mictlan. It was a mountain whose surface was a mantle of razor-sharp obsidian.

Pinup Girl, she is my gorgeous mountain. She is the future death of my soul’

- p.65, Chapter Nine, Sugar Skulls.

Hindered Souls Press, 2012.

We are all going to die. This is a fact. All things must end. We will all eventually know death. The last five years have brought the Reaper into my life four times, from the sudden ripping away of beloved animals as well as the slow death of grandparents as their bodies failed. There is the continuous death of my father, who chose never to know me and therefore I always fizzled with a potent cocktail of loss and joy at Christmas. Joy that my life turned out the way it did, despite the Reaper, but loss at someone I would never know.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that many of us are frightened by the idea of death. I don’t fear my death, because I know one day it will happen, but I fear the before and the after. I don’t want to die slowly and in pain, I don’t want my death to mean someone else is left alone. I don’t pretend to have any ideas about what waits for me after the flatline. I fear that the death of others will leave me completely alone and that is a kind of middle death, a limbo that you can’t escape until The Reaper sharpens his blade for you. We make cages for ourselves if left alone too long.

Sugar Skulls is about Micah DeAtta – or ‘Meeks’ - who’s woken up on a cold slab before the Grim Reaper sharpening his blade with a whetstone. Micah is a father who will never see his son, a son who has lost his mother, a friend who has lost friends. Micah is terrified of life, but has more than a few bones to pick with Death.

M.R. Tapia takes the reader on an enlightening and thoroughly gripping exploration of the Mexican culture of death and the afterlife, dating back to the Aztec traditions. Micah must pass through the nine levels of the Aztec underworld, represented by reliving the deaths of his loved ones before learning about his own death. He relives the journey his mother over Rio Grande so that her children might have a better life, a life he wasted with drugs and drink. If taken at face value, this book is a tragic story about an arrogant young man who could never make a right choice or stand up for himself. On closer inspection, Sugar Skulls is a lengthy conversation about death – who is Death? What is death? Can we cheat death? How does Death feel about taking life? Can we blame death – an inevitable force – for our own mistakes?

The character of Death is that of a psychiatrist. He is curious about Micah’s life, forcing his patient to relive and analysis horrific events. Despite Micah’s rage and immature attempts to coax him into an argument, Death remains on top for most of the novel and I started to cheer Micah on, willing Tapia to give us an intriguing conclusion where Micah might finally win. Death has depth, he enjoys taking the lives of rapists and murderers, hints that he finds little satisfaction in taking the lives of innocents. There are a few interesting surprises about Death and why he chooses to carry his scythe.

I always find language a tricky area when it comes to horror. Some writers excel at it, others let the gore or horror motifs get in the way of good writing. They sometimes forget about the skills in exchange for attempting maximum effect. However this is not the case with M.R. Tapia, whose language is well-crafted, vivid and easy-to-read. There were many beautiful lines! The story is told in the first person, which is my personal favourite as it allows us to get closer to the characters. Micah is a complex character, who never fights his addictions and never gets the chance to hold his son after his partner AJ leaves him while still pregnant. There are many reasons we shouldn’t like Micah, and yet he is also fierce, fearless, passionate and keenly aware of his own faults. I found his dialogue a little conflicting at first, as his casual everyday language often develops into deeply insightful philosophical observations. For a man who is addicted to drugs, drink and a bad life, I found his dialogue contrasted with his personality. Yet this didn’t spoil the book for me and when I got to the conclusion, I understood why M.R. Tapia may have made this decision – but I don’t want to spoil it for you!

There is one part of the book that has a few typos and the language gets a little disjointed, this is about 3/4 of the way through, but otherwise everything rolled smoothly, which isn’t easy when dealing with a transgressive work such as Sugar Skulls. I wouldn’t call it out-and-out horror, more fiction with a surreal twist. I really enjoyed this book, it proved interesting on many levels: culturally, historically and of course as a work of fiction. I must confess myself a fan of M.R. Tapia now, having read and reviewed his short story in ‘Deadman’s Tome II: Monster’s Exist’ and ‘The Die-Fi Experiment’, both proved Tapia’s skill as a writer.

This is a quick read, short in length and I would recommend it to anyone. I am in fact giving my copy to a friend so she might also enjoy it!