Mayan Blue is a horror novel written by Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason, also known as the ‘Sisters of Slaughter’. As the novel’s title implies, it involves grisly rites of human sacrifice, as well as the darker aspects of Mayan myth, featuring the underworld, Xibalba, the Place of Fear, which is ruled by Ah-Puch, the Lord of Death.
Professor Lipton has discovered proof of his theory that a group of Mayans migrated from what is now Mexico to a forest in Georgia. To provide proof of his findings, he has removed a disc there, a seal preventing the demons of Xibalba from emerging in the land of the living and finding more victims. His removal of the seal has made him the first modern victim, of course.
Before this, however, he has informed his young assistant, Wes, and four university students–Alissa, Tyler, Dennis, and Kelly–of his findings. They all come into the forest in Georgia to meet with him by the entrance to the Mayan world. But instead of meeting with him, they encounter a living nightmare.
This debut novel has been met with near-universal praise, and for good reason. It is not only an exhilarating read, a story that draws you in and keeps your attention to the end, but it is also well-written in terms of prose style. There is a poetic musicality to the assonant narration, full of vivid, figurative description.
Technical errors and typos are so rare as to be easily overlooked. This is a novel that is begging for a movie adaptation. Indeed, provided that such a production will have a talented director and actors, as well as a budget that will do justice to the special effects (preferably a maximum of practical effects and a minimum of CGI), and above all, of course, a well-written script (ideally, written by the Sisters of Slaughter themselves!), such an adaptation should make for a powerful film experience.
I’m going to do a largely psychoanalytic reading of this novel; now, the Sisters of Slaughter, in all likelihood, think of their novel as meant just for entertainment (and entertaining it most assuredly is!), and therefore probably don’t think it necessary to intellectualize their work (something I get a kick out of). Nonetheless, the point of psychoanalysis, which I dabble in, is to find meaning in the story that I suspect the writers put into their story unconsciously.
Let’s start with the title: Mayan Blue. Why blue? If you recall Mel Gibson’s movie, Apocalypto, you’ll remember that the Mayans’ sacrificial victims were covered in a blue dye before being killed, as the victims are so coloured in this novel (page 71). I see a deeper symbolism in the colour blue, though.
Blue can represent all kinds of things to people, depending on their situation: blue skies suggest happy days; blue can suggest icy coldness; blue can also mean sadness, the extreme of which leads to despair and even suicide. Now we’re getting closer to the meaning of blue in this novel, with all the killing and death in it. (Ixtab, the Goddess of Suicide, is referred to on page 74.)
Connected with sadness, despair, and suicide is the deadly sin of sloth. There is more to sloth than mere laziness. Sloth involves a loss of meaning or direction in life, related to sadness and despair. It’s been said that many people are addicted to porn because they’re unhappy. They over-indulge in physical pleasure because they lack meaning in their lives, or more crucially, lack strong human relationships. These porn addicts are more guilty of sloth than of lust. Remember the man in Se7en who, having lost his Christian faith, was labelled with the sin of sloth? The killer didn’t complain of him being too lazy: he called him a “drug-dealing pederast”.
Consider these ideas in light of Tyler, Dennis, and Kelly in Mayan Blue. All they want to do is smoke marijuana, get drunk (pages 22-24), party, and have sex (pages 44-46). They have no deep interest in the professor’s discovery, as Wes and Alissa do in contrast. And these three partiers are killed off first, despairing as they crawl toward death.
These five young people, as well as the professor, are from the university world, from city life, civilization, suggestive of the conscious mind, with its censors against bad behaviour and thoughts. The underworld caverns, tunnels, and shadows of Xibalba, the Place of Fear, with its demons and their bloodlust, symbolize the unconscious, the turbulent, non-rational world of not only libido, but also of Thanatos, the death instinct. The surrounding forest, a potentially dangerous place also untouched by civilization, suggests the preconscious mind, where unconscious thoughts may surface, as the attacking owls do (pages 78-79).
Normally, the mind houses a fairly even combination of internalized good and bad object relations (based on our relationships with our primary caregivers, especially Mother), the good and bad aspects being reasonably integrated to give a person a healthy, realistic view of the world, a mix of good and bad. A despairing mind, however, will know mostly, if not all, bad objects; hence the army of demonic tormentors that the five young victims and the professor suffer. Only the Skeleton Queen, along with the Shadow Priestess (who, guiding Alissa with her whistling, represents both the ‘good mother’ and Jung’s Shadow) and her Skeleton Coats, provide help and hope. They are the only good internalized objects in the despairing unconscious mind symbolized by Xibalba.
WRD Fairbairn, in an early paper (Fairbairn, pages 249-252, ‘Psychology as a Prescribed and as a Proscribed Subject’), discussed the universities’ dismissing of psychoanalysis as a kind of pseudoscience, explaining that such a dismissive attitude comes from a fear of exploring the demons, as it were, in our unconscious minds. In his wish to prove to his university the validity of his theories, Professor Lipton dares to explore the Mayan world that symbolizes the unconscious; and he learns of its dangers after removing the disc, which Wes and Alissa must use to reseal the entrance to Xibalba, to keep bestial urges repressed.
In a later paper, Fairbairn compared the bad object relationships we internalize to demons that possess us (Fairbairn, page 67, ‘The Dynamics of the Influence of Bad Objects’, Part 5 of ‘The Repression and the Return of Bad Objects’). “…it is worth considering whence bad objects derive their power over the individual. If the child’s objects are bad, how does he ever come to internalize them? Why does he not simply reject them…?…However much he may want to reject them, he cannot get away from them. They force themselves upon him; and he cannot resist them because they have power over him. He is accordingly compelled to internalize them in an effort to control them. But, in attempting to control them in this way, he is internalizing objects which have wielded power over him in the external world; and these objects retain their prestige for power over him in the inner world. In a word, he is ‘possessed’ by them, as if by evil spirits. This is not all, however. The child not only internalizes his bad objects because they force themselves upon him and he seeks to control them, but also, and above all, because he needs them. If a child’s parents are bad objects, he cannot reject them, even if they do not force themselves upon him; for he cannot do without them. Even if they neglect him, he cannot reject them; for, if they neglect him, his need for them is increased.”
Fairbairn also noted how we may pursue superficial pleasures (e.g., drugs, alcohol, sex, porn) when we cannot find joy in human relationships (Fairbairn, pages 139-140, ‘Object Relationships and Dynamic Structure’). “…from the point of view of object-relationship psychology, explicit pleasure-seeking represents a deterioration of behaviour…Explicit pleasure-seeking has as its essential aim the relieving of the tension of libidinal need for the mere sake of relieving this tension. Such a process does, of course, occur commonly enough; but, since libidinal need is object-need, simple tension-relieving implies some failure of object-relationships.”
Tyler, Dennis, and Kelly pursue superficial pleasures, while Alissa would rather find joy in human relationships, for she has a crush on Wes. Wes’s admiration for Professor Lipton shows his preference of relationships, too, hence his and Alissa’s ability to hang on to hope, over the other three victims’ quick succumbing to despair.
A brief digression into psychoanalytical theory, if you’ll indulge, Dear Reader: I’ll relate this to the novel soon enough.
Melanie Klein noted that a baby’s first object relation is with his or her mother–or more accurately, her breasts as part-objects; then later in the baby’s first year, it recognizes the mother as a whole object. When the breast provides milk for the baby, this is the ‘good breast’, coming from the ‘good mother’ object; and when no milk is given, this is the ‘bad breast’ of the ‘bad mother’ object. This dichotomous thinking leads to splitting in the baby’s mind, to love for the ‘good mother’ on one side, and hostility to her (the ‘bad mother’) on the other, the paranoid-schizoid position.
As the baby feels this hostility, it bites at the breast, like the thorns that “were embedded deeply in [Wes’s and Alissa’s] flesh, suckling from their blood” (page 266, my emphasis). For the vines, human blood is their milk. On page 132, the sucking, biting thorns, which “sink in [Wes’s] skin like the teeth of a hidden predator”, are on “vampire vines” that are “yearning for the blood of the living”. So Wes’s and Alissa’s skin is symbolically a large breast of blood-milk, if you will.
This biting at the breast is part of the stage of oral sadism, also called the cannibalistic phase. Remember the half-human, half-beast demons that feed on the flesh (page 146) of their dead victims, Tyler, Dennis, and Kelly, and hope to feast on Wes and Alissa: “Their mouths slavered like hungry carnivores…Ah-Puch plunged his arms into the dead man’s abdominal cavity to gather gifts for his men. Each was granted a fistful of gore on which to feast voraciously, spreading their terrible countenances with blood.”
Oral sadism is originally an infantile phase, but those hostile urges can remain, repressed in the unconscious, especially in the case of oral fixation, which is manifested in such things as smoking (including marijuana), drinking (remember Kelly’s bottle of whiskey, page 22), and oral sex (something Tyler and Dennis were probably hoping to enjoy from Kelly).
These oral fixations and sadistic hostilities can be projected onto others, and they are, when Kelly’s skin is worn by one of the flying demons: “[Dennis saw]…a flying creature…[that] wore a face as a mask, Kelly’s sweet angelic visage with bloodied edges, and that’s when Dennis realized it had breasts…not breasts of its own, but it wore Kelly’s tanned skin like a suit stretched over its own deformed body, morphed into something between man and bird, with its feathers protruding through her soft skin.” (pages 139-140)
What is projection from the first person is introjection into the second person. As Melanie Klein explained in “Weaning” (1936): “To begin with, the breast of the mother is the object of his [i.e., the baby’s] constant desire, and therefore this is the first thing to be introjected. In phantasy the child sucks the breast into himself, chews it up and swallows it; thus he feels that he has actually got it there, that he possesses the mother’s breast within himself, in both its good and in its bad aspects.” (Klein, page 291)
So, the flying creature has introjected Kelly’s projected oral fixations, symbolized by her face, skin, and breasts, as a baby sucks in its mother’s milk and, in unconscious phantasy, breasts.
Healthy emotional development for a baby, particularly in its relationship with its mother (symbolized in this novel by Xibalba, the underworld, chthonian Mother Earth, the collective unconscious of instincts and feelings we share with those who came before us, including Mother, and the Mayan civilization of centuries past), comes by passing out of the paranoid-schizoid position, with all its persecutory anxiety (the Place of Fear), and through the depressive position, a period of painful reconciliation with the mother, after fearing the consequences of the baby’s former hostility to a mother who sometimes didn’t give milk. To save themselves from Xibalba’s horrors, Wes and Alissa must reconcile themselves to this underworld of the unconscious.
The thorns that cut into Wes’s and Alissa’s skin can represent the teething, biting baby in its destructive envy; but through introjection, the mother can be in the baby’s unconscious, meaning the ‘bad mother’ object (of which the Blood Maiden can be seen as a manifestation), angry from the biting, or hostility in general (towards the Blood Maiden in Alissa’s blinding of her [page 206]; or towards the ‘bad father’ object, represented by Ah-Puch, angry with Wes’s defiant hope), may want revenge. Hence, Xibalba switches roles, from hostile baby to hostile parent.
The paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions are phases alternated back and forth throughout one’s life; they only begin in infancy. These shifts back and forth between hostility and the need for reparation, between splitting and integration, are felt not only for Mother, but are later displaced onto other people. Alissa feels annoyed and contemptuous of Kelly, Tyler, and Dennis, inwardly giggling from the foul marijuana she’s given them to smoke (pages 16-17).
Later, when the Blood Maiden (the ‘bad mother’ object) is sucking away Alissa’s energy and showing her a vision of Kelly’s suffering, Alissa feels guilty over having brought Kelly, Tyler, and Dennis to this place of death (pages 199-200). She would have reparation with them. This depressive position is part of the sadness engulfing Xibalba. The absence of Mother brings about the depressive position, a fear that the child has in unconscious phantasy destroyed Mother; the baby waits in terror for Mother to return, as Alissa does when Shadow Priestess (the ‘good mother’ object) temporarily leaves: “Alissa trembled as she awaited the shadow’s return.” (Chapter Fourteen, page 193)
But Alissa and Wes would keep hope, and fight their way out of Xibalba, wishing to die “[their] way and not his [i.e., Ah-Puch’s]” (page 251). This is a successful going-through of the depressive position, the way to health, back up to the forest. So when they die, it’s a selfless sacrifice to save the living world from the living nightmare of Xibalba. They don’t die of despair. Their spirits are good internalized objects in the hellish unconscious.
Indeed, Xibalba is a land of bad dreams, where one never truly dies (page 139). The spirits of dead Kelly, Tyler, and Dennis are Ah-Puch’s possessions. One is reminded of Hamlet’s soliloquy: “To die, to sleep;/To sleep, perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;/For in that sleep of death what dreams may come/When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,/Must give us pause.” (Act III, scene i, lines 64-68)
And the interpretation of dreams, Freud reminds us, is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious. While too much repression of the id can lead to neurosis, overindulgence in its bestial impulses can lead to the dangers symbolized by the owls and demons coming out into the forest. Some repression (Wes’s and Alissa’s resealing of the entrance) is needed.
Inspiration for this novel came from learning of a theory that some Maya migrated to parts of the southern US. This migration, I’m guessing, may have been in response to the Conquistadors‘ taking over of what is now Yucatan Mexico and parts of Central America. Despair at European imperialism’s destruction of their world may have prompted the Mayan move, and part of the despair of the priestess when sacrificing the boys to seal the entrance to Xibalba the first time (Prologue, pages 7-9).
Despair leads to Hell, and Xibalba is in more than a few ways comparable to Dante’s Inferno (‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.’ Canto III, line 9), with its windy second circle (for those guilty of lust), the Mayan equivalent of which Wes must endure (page 226); though since Wes isn’t susceptible to lust as Kelly, Tyler, and Dennis are, he laughs defiantly, feeling immune to it. Later, there is the blue maw of a cenote, similar to any of Satan’s three mouths in the centre of Dante’s Hell, mouths that eat traitors like Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. The defiant hope of Wes and Alissa can be seen as a kind of treason in Xibalba, where fear and despair reign supreme.
When our two heroes fight their way to the surface, resolving that “if it was going to end, it would end her way [and Wes’s]” (page 262), they are reconciling themselves to the bad objects (Ah-Puch, the half-human, half-beast Wayob and Nagual, as well as the Blood Mistress) by joining the good objects (Shadow Priestess and Skeleton Coats); this is the integration of good and bad that leads to better health. Wes and Alissa know they cannot return to the world of the living, but they’ll be damned (literally) if they die in despair and suffer the living death of Kelly, Tyler, and Dennis, the “sleep of death” that “must give us pause”. Remember that Wayob comes from a word meaning “sleep”, and they can transform into an animal while asleep in order to do harm. And sleep and dreams represent unconscious processes.
There are dialectical tensions at work here: we can’t have one opposite without the other. Xibalba, like any Hell, is a living death. As Bane told Bruce Wayne, “There can be no true despair without hope.” The deep despair of the demons is coupled with the hope of passing their pain onto others, hence their delight in tormenting Wes and Alissa: “The crowd gathering at the bottom of the stairs shrieked eagerly as [Wes] was paraded by. A beating of wings above him told him the Wayobs had joined the train…A chunk of broken roadway was picked up then tossed at his face by a mummified onlooker. His blood brought them great satisfaction for they howled in triumph as it burned his eyes. This prompted a handful of other malevolent creatures to do the same, stoning him with any debris their decrepit hands could attain.” (pages 236-7)
Our two heroes feel a mix of hope and despair, knowing they’ll die, but not to die as despairing Tyler, Dennis, and Kelly did. Wes and Alissa save the lives of those in the upper world, and their own souls, by killing themselves so their blood will reseal the entrance to Xibalba. Their souls will join the Shadow Priestess and Skeleton Coats in battling Ah-Puch’s tyranny. Similarly, the Skeleton Queen dies in thwarting the Blood Maiden (pages 268-9). Hope in despair. Life in death: like the heartbeat-like drum that presages death. “The drumming was the signal: she had witnessed it before. It was the instrument bringing about the change from living to living dead.” (page 238)
Blue and Red, in a way, are also dialectical opposites: cold, blue death and despair, versus hot, red life and hope. Wes has the blue dye all over him, mixed with his blood, the draining away of his life and hope. Still, the heat of his angry defiance helps him survive the freezing room. The mixing of red and blue also symbolizes the needed integration of good and bad objects to return to health, never a perfect mental health, but one good enough to deal with life’s horrors, as Wes and Alissa learn to do when their spirits re-enter Xibalba.
In Christian myth, Satan is the ultimate one to despair, especially after Christ’s crucifixion. The mutual sacrifice of Wes and Alissa–suicides considered honourable to Ixtab–is obviously Christ-like, too, sealing the doom of Ah-Puch, the Mayan Satan (for the purposes of this novel and analysis), and his demonic brethren, who now have no more hope even of sharing their pain with new victims.
Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason, Mayan Blue, Sinister Grin Press, Austin, 2016
WRD Fairbairn, Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality, Routledge, New York, 1952
Melanie Klein, Love, Guilt and Reparation and Other Works 1921-1945, The Free Press, 1975