Who’s Your Hoodoo Mama?
by Caroline Spector
I blame George.
It’s important to have someone to blame, especially in Wild Cards. There are always a lot of moving parts in any Wild Cards project and this means there are a lot of things that can go kerflooey. In these instances, I fall back on my stand-by: Blame George.
This is especially true with George’s creation Joey Hebert, better known by her wild card name: Hoodoo Mama. Her power is to animate the dead. They’re not exactly zombies, but Joey calls them that. She controls them, but they don’t act without her deciding what they will do. Fast zombies, slow zombies, whatever her heart desires. She sees through their eyes — if they still have eyes. She can animate people, other mammals, insects, and birds. Basically, if it’s dead, it’s hers to control at will, though she is limited by the state of decay of the corpse. (There’s more about her background and how her card was triggered, but I’ll get to that later.)
In other words, her power is pretty awesome. Yes, she’s physically frail, but her ability is powerful. When I started writing her, I got to thinking and realized just how much dead stuff there is just lying around waiting to be re-animated. Also, ew.
I’ve written her for three Wild Cards books (BUSTED FLUSH, SUICIDE KINGS, and HIGH STAKES) and one novella, “Lies My Mother Told Me.” I hadn’t planned on writing her, but when George sent out bios for all the characters at the beginning of the Committee triad, she really appealed to me. That and George suggested I do something with her. I’m pretty sure that’s what happened, but my memory is notoriously bad. In this situation, it’s best to blame George. (I’m not blaming Melinda for anything because far as I can tell, she can blame George for loads of stuff her own self. There’s a lot of blame to go around.) And next to my main character, the Amazing Bubbles, she’s the character I most like to write.
Of course, there was no seamless way to bring her into the first book, INSIDE STRAIGHT, but BUSTED FLUSH, where she made her debut, was another matter. Part of that book was set in New Orleans where Hoodoo Mama lives. Michelle meets Hoodoo Mama while trying to evacuate people from a hurricane that’s barreling down on the city. Hoodoo Mama has a group of her people (thieves, street performers, and the homeless) with her. They won’t evacuate the city because Hoodoo Mama already has a place set up to ride out the storm.
The first scene I wrote with her takes place in Hoodoo Mama’s home — a moldering Victorian mansion on the edge of the French Quarter. She was supposed to be hostile to my character, Bubbles, and she was. Fabulously so. Also, she was foul mouthed and ill-tempered. In other words, a lot like me.
I’m not saying I’m hostile, ill-tempered, and foul-mouthed, though those who know me might. I’ve noticed that often people’s main character in Wild Cards is their idealized avatar. If Bubbles is what I’d like to be, Joey might well be closer to who I am. And like many writers, at least most of the ones I know, we swing back and forth between self-aggrandizement (you should read my words because I’m AWESOME!) and neurotic insecurities. (Do you think anyone will like this? OMG, what if I suck? What if this sucks?) Or maybe that’s just me. But I digress…
Anyway, she’s foul-mouthed. Epically foul-mouthed. And this was how she was originally conceived by, wait for it . . . George. She calls people “fuckers.” A lot.
The problem with calling people “fuckers” is it gets old pretty fast. So I had to come up with more creative ways of swearing. At one point, I carried a spiral notebook to write down new and different ways Hoodoo Mama could swear. I also had friends who helped. Bob Yeagar, Maureen McHugh’s husband and drummer for the band Bland Lemon Denton, offered up “sour little dick blister” which sadly I didn’t get to use.
The spiral notebook with the swearing in it was also where I kept my list of stuff I needed from Target. As I was shopping there one afternoon, I wandered off from my cart as I’m wont to do. I came back to my cart and discovered someone else had taken off with it. With the notebook of swear words. (I’m not sure what they thought about the contents. Not everyone needs duct tape, a leaf blower, Velveeta, a package of women’s Hanes panties, and two cans of cream corn. But, again, I digress.)
Now I was a mite concerned seeing as how this is Texas and even in liberal Austin, a notebook with exciting and varied ways of swearing wouldn’t be looked upon kindly. Especially, not in a family-oriented store like Target. I dashed to the front of the store and explained my situation to the manager without referencing the cussing contained in said notebook.
The manager checked in Lost and Found to no avail. I checked all the carts in the vain hope the person who took my cart had left it with the notebook still there. I’m getting pretty sweaty at this point because I really don’t want to have to explain why my little spiral bound notebook is important. This is the conversation I imagined:
“Well, why is this so important?”
“Because I have twenty-five ways in there to insult someone using a plethora of words that would make a stevedore blush.”
As I stood by the cashier stand wondering where my cart and notebook were, a woman strolled up pushing my cart. “That’s my cart!” I exclaimed. She gave me a funny look and replied, “And your notebook.” Then she pushed the cart toward me as if it had cooties. I guess not everyone likes creamed corn.
Anyway, I start writing my section for SUICIDE KINGS using all the colorful swearing I’d come up with. Beaucoup swearing. The kind that, to paraphrase Jean Shepard, leaves a purple haze behind it.
Of course, George decides it’s too much. So my barrage of fancy profanity is down to meat and potatoes profanity because the other way is too distracting. And I blame George. In all fairness, she is his character so I should really shut all the hell up about that.
Actually, Joey is just plain fun to write. There’s real challenge in writing a character who has profound issues of trust and personal anguish, and curses a blue streak, while also keeping a delicate touch with her power which can veer into the goofy.
The reason I’ve been so glib thus far is because there’s part of writing Hoodoo Mama that isn’t about cursing and just isn’t funny.
All of the stories where I’ve used Hoodoo Mama involve sexual abuse.
In Wild Cards, there is usually a traumatic event that causes the character’s card to turn. And usually the power they get reflects that trauma or something personal inside them. For instance, my character Bubbles is shot and her card turns, causing her to become invulnerable to damage and turning it into fat. There’s much more to her power, but that’s not a thing right now.
Hoodoo Mama’s change was created by sexual violence when she was a child. She was raped by her mother’s most recent boyfriend the day of her mother’s funeral. The twelve-year-old’s card turned and she raised her mother from the dead. Her zombie mother killed Joey’s rapist. Her mother, who had abandoned her by dying, came to save her after all — even though it was Joey who did it. Her fear, sorrow, and anger ultimately saved her, but she was profoundly changed, unable to move past her anger.
This rage informs everything about Hoodoo Mama’s character. She has rare moments of sweetness when her guard drops, but those are fleeting and replaced almost immediately by near-perpetual fury.
One of the reasons I find Hoodoo Mama so compelling is because she is a victim of sexual violence (or a survivor depending on your point of view). We live in a world where so much sexual violence is visited upon women (and yes, men too) that it’s almost like background noise.
And women aren’t supposed to be angry — or show anger, at any rate — in our culture. But Joey is beyond all that. Her power allows her to express her rage in the most visceral way possible. And express it she does. She may be a criminal and almost feral, but she is also a righteous bringer of justice. Those fuckers who hurt women and children? They best beware, because if she finds them, they will die.
Frankly, it’s difficult to write about the brutality of sexual assaults and Joey’s card turning. In BUSTED FLUSH and SUICIDE KINGS, I was able to dance around the issue — there are other more immediate concerns in those books. In BUSTED FLUSH Hoodoo Mama and Bubbles are trying to rescue people from a hurricane and, down the road, that leads to them eventually saving each other in the other stories.
Writing the strange and complicated relationship of Bubbles and Hoodoo Mama has been an interesting proposition. I’ve written this relationship over the course of ten years and during that time I’ve been allowed — I blame George here — to help them change and grow. They started out pretty much as children — Bubbles was 19 and Hoodoo Mama 17 — but thanks to the Wild Cards rule that people age in the fictional world, they are now in their late 20s, pushing 30. I get to write them informed by the kind of Wild Cards world experience, and that’s some pretty grim shit.
In SUICIDE KINGS, Hoodoo Mama and Bubbles are trying to find a child who has been the victim of genetic experimentation using the wild card virus. In order to find this child, and the other children that are also being experimented on, they have to go up-river on the Congo. As the story progresses, Hoodoo Mama is slowly going mad from all the dead things in the jungle, including the women and children. As in our own world, perpetual war has been waged in certain parts of Africa. Having an already emotionally unstable character become even more unstable was tricky to write. But by this point I knew that her power, though it allowed her to protect herself and others, also made her constantly aware of the dead around her. Given enough bodies, even someone who can raise the dead would be overwhelmed. Especially by the bodies of women and children she couldn’t have saved.
But the piece that was the toughest to write was the novella, “Lies My Mother Told Me,” for the story collection DANGEROUS WOMEN. I’d wanted to write Hoodoo Mama’s origin story for some time and I called George up to ask him if I could do it — Hoodoo Mama being his character and all. Generously, and maybe a bit grumpily (as he wanted to write about it himself), he allowed me to.
I briefly described above what happened to Joey to make her card turn, but that description has none of the horrific emotional punch telling that story required. The closer I got to writing the scene that reveals how her card turned, the more difficult it was to write. Though the scene is actually very short, it took me three weeks and two visits to my therapist to finally write it. Delving into her abuse wasn’t done lightly. At the point I wrote this story, I’d written about her and thought about writing her for eight years. It was like making a friend or loved one suffer a painful experience all over again.
But the story needed to be told.
Hoodoo Mama is a combination of great power and great frailty. She teeters on the edge of mental instability while managing to see certain things in a hard-eyed rational manner. She hates and loves passionately. She is vast.
And writing her has allowed me to explore not only Hoodoo Mama, but other characters as well. She’s far more than just a girl, now a woman, who raises zombies. Her zombies are the least of her as a character.
And it is this complexity that makes her very difficult, but incredibly rewarding to write.
And for that, I blame George.