The Future(s) of Indigenous Horror: Moon of the Crusted Snow

Gage Karahkwí:io Diabo

In this chapter, we will explore approaches to the topic of Indigenous horror as it applies to Anishinaabe writer Waubgeshig Rice’s apocalyptic horror novel Moon of the Crusted Snow. This introduction provides context for the novel by discussing its place within recent trends in genre studies and Indigenous literary studies. In the following sections, we will consider a handful of critical approaches to help guide our reading of the novel before turning to an analysis of key sections from the text itself.

Introduction: Horror versus the Status Quo

Waubgeshig Rice, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Indigenous adaptations of genre fiction (an umbrella category for pop cultural genres like fantasy, science fiction, speculative fiction, mystery, and horror) are not a new phenomenon, but this genre writing has gained cultural currency and a renewed sense of urgency in recent years. In their introduction to a 2020 special issue of Canadian Literature centred on decolonial genre fiction, editors Lou Cornum (Diné) and Maureen Moynagh describe this category as being located “on the margins of the literary” (8)—that, until very recently, you weren’t (and perhaps still aren’t) likely to see these un-literary types of stories taught in English literature courses. Yet, more and more, these “margins” are making themselves central. Tuscarora (Haudenosaunee) writer Alicia Elliott, who famously declared in 2017 that “CanLit is a Raging Dumpster Fire,” heralded the arrival of Indigenous horror in particular with her 2019 CBC editorial, “The Rise of Indigenous Horror: How a Fiction Genre Is Confronting a Monstrous Reality.” “Indigenous writers,” says Elliott, “acknowledge the mundane horror of living in a country that dehumanizes you, weaving the reality of Indigenous life with fiction to scare audiences.” As Elliott suggests, the stories told in Indigenous horror are not that far removed from the ways in which Indigenous peoples experience life in Canada. More to the point, Cornum and Moynagh explain that “settler colonialism is itself a type of horror, and is imagined in those terms in Indigenous fiction, film, and visual art” (14). These stories’ power to terrify, captivate, and even empower audiences stems directly from their uncomfortable closeness to everyday reality—a reality that has much to do with the past, present, and future of Indigenous peoples under and beyond colonization.

An example of Indigenous horror, Waubgeshig Rice’s 2018 novel Moon of the Crusted Snow is the story of how an Anishinaabe community on a remote northern Indian reserve1 copes with an apocalyptic event. One day, with a brutal northern winter approaching, the power goes out. With it goes all contact with the world beyond the community: no television, radio, cellular, or Internet coverage, not to mention deliveries of food and fuel. The community of Gaawaandagkoong First Nation is split between those who have come to depend on the availability of electricity and commodity goods, and those who have become self-sufficient thanks to traditional land-based knowledge and practices. Those divisions are worsened by the arrival of a group of non-Anishinaabe settlers2-turned-refugees, led by a charismatic and violent white man called Justin Scott. All the while, the threat of the wendigo, an evil spiritual force with an insatiable appetite for human flesh, looms in the background.

On top of its sense of apocalyptic dread and desolation, Moon of the Crusted Snow works as a horror novel because it dramatizes a break from the status quo. We can understand this “break” on one hand as a form of escapism: as Alicia Elliott puts it, “there’s comfort in witnessing a world where the horror eventually stops” (“The Rise of Indigenous Horror”). That is, we can think of our engagement with Moon of the Crusted Snow as a safe space and a temporary pause from reality, where our feelings of dread and desolation are less easily escaped. On the other hand, we can also, to push this metaphor in another direction, understand the “break” as key to how the horror genre allows its audience to experience a sense of danger. Consider how often we experience horror as a break with our everyday notions of security and stability in popular genre narratives. Jaws: a monster from the sea threatens the safety of a small island community. Dracula: a mysterious entity from a foreign land arrives in London and threatens to corrupt its citizens. Get Out: a young black man’s trip to meet his partner’s parents devolves into a (deeply racialized) nightmare from which he cannot escape. As a horror story in its own right, Moon of the Crusted Snow arguably accomplishes both kinds of “break.” It puts readers from various positionalities in touch with a frightening alternate reality in which all senses of familiarity and security are wrenched away, yet it also does so from within the relatively safe and imaginative realm of stories, where we can always pause to reflect on exactly how and why we are affected by what we read. We should notice, too, that “we” the readers are not arriving at the novel from the same places and perspectives. Indeed, one of the novel’s greatest ironies is that, for the people of Gaawaandagkoong First Nation, this “break” with technological comforts is not all that different from the everyday experience of life on the land in the unforgiving north. What may feel for many readers like an apocalyptic “break” from our everyday comforts is, for the characters in the novel, more of a small but vital step in a familiar direction.

As we continue our discussion of Moon of the Crusted Snow in this chapter, we should hold onto the questions of how and why Rice’s novel invokes fear and comfort in different ways for different readers of varying identities and positions in society. Not only is this emotional dimension key to the horror genre, but for our purposes it will also help to anchor our discussion as we try to unpack the multiple layers on which this fear might affect readers from various backgrounds (especially, too, given the novel’s chilling resemblance to events that many of us have since experienced as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic that began only a year after the novel’s publishing). One last note: in the interest of self-care, I hope that throughout this conversation we will be able to attend to our own personal fears and to critically engage with them, without letting ourselves be hurt by them. Our fears are as real as they are vital—let us therefore proceed with love and caution.

Questions to Keep in Mind While Reading

  1. Alicia Elliott proclaims in “The Rise of Indigenous Horror” that “the only genre I really want to engage with these days is horror. But there’s comfort in witnessing a world where the horror eventually stops—even if that world is fictional.” How can we make sense of the irony that horror is, for some audiences, a comforting genre rather than an unsettling one? To what extent can we call the horror of Moon of the Crusted Snow either universal or particular, and why?
  2. In terms of genre and prestige, Moon of the Crusted Snow occupies a unique position between “popular” (or “genre”) fiction and “literary” fiction. These terms themselves are of course loaded with presumptions and expectations about how fiction is valued and what counts as “literary” writing. What (or, thinking in terms of tastemakers and gatekeepers with the power to determine literary value, who) informs your understanding of genres, their boundaries, and the expectations that come with them?


  1. Definition: a “tract of land, the legal title to which is vested in Her Majesty, that has been set apart by Her Majesty for the use and benefit of a band,” according to section 2 (1) (a) of the 1985 Indian Act.
  2. A complex term whose usage in this chapter takes after Métis writer Chelsea Vowel’s chapter “Settling on a Name: Names for Non-Indigenous Canadians,” in which Vowel explains that “settler” is “a relational term, rather than a racial category” (16). As a shorthand term for “settler colonial,” “settler” is used “to highlight the fact that settlement, as a facet of colonialism, continues” (17).

Works Cited

  • Cornum, Lou, and Maureen Moynagh. “Introduction: Decolonial (Re)Visions of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror.”Canadian Literature, 2020, no. 240, pp. 8-18.
  • Elliott, Alicia. “CanLit is a Raging Dumpster Fire.” Open Book, 7 Sept. 2017,
  • —. “The Rise of Indigenous Horror: How a Fiction Genre Is Confronting a Monstrous Reality.” CBC Arts, 17 Oct. 2019.
  • Rice, Waubgeshig. Moon of the Crusted Snow. ECW, 2018.
  • Vowel, Chelsea. “Settling on a Name: Names for Non-Indigenous Canadians.” Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada. Highwater, 2016, pp. 14-22.