Amparo Dávila is a beloved figure in Mexican horror. During the Petrified Trees, Enchanted Mirrors: The Gothic Universe of Female Mexican Horror Writers panel at WorldCon 76, speakers Raquel Castro, Andrea Chapela, and Gabriela Damian Miravete, as well as moderator Pepe Rojo praised her work as being vital and foundational in the genre. Her writing examines the social conditions of women within Mexico under the guise of chilling tales.
Dávila has been writing horror stories in Spanish since the 1950s. Now for the first time, her work appears in English translation through the publication of The Houseguest and Other Stories in mid-2018 — which I had to pick up as soon as I was aware of its existence.
Translated by Matthew Gleeson and Audrey Harris, the language presented in Dávila’s collection of stories has a subdued beauty that calls forth underlying tensions and terrors of daily life. The titular story, “The Houseguest,” is one of the author’s best known and well-love stories. The lady of the house is horrified when her husband invites a guest to stay with them, a guest who terrifies her and the women and children of her household. When she brings this up with her husband, he ignores her concern and demands that she show this guest every respect due. As the days go on her horror slowly increases, as it becomes less and less clear whether this guest is a man or something else.
“The Houseguest” perfectly illustrates Dávila’s unique brand of horror, which is centered around the mundanity of every day life. When looked at from one angle, everything seems normal with any fears the result of the generalized anxiety of being a human being in the world. But if you look at it from another angle, the strangeness of the events bubbles to the surface, one moment added together with the next revealing surprising answers.
Other stories carry the same sense of the banal laced with horror. “The Last Summer” is the story of a woman who is dispirited by life and aging. The news of an unexpected pregnancy does not cheer her, but instead feels nothing but foreboding.
In “The Breakfast,” a family’s sense of normalcy is shattered, when the daughter begins relating her bad dream. As much as the family tries to carry on with their morning breakfast, they become increasingly unsettled by her haunted expression and frightened words.
In “Oscar,” a woman returns home from the city, prepared to face the judgement of the men in her family and the oppression of a family secret that rears up from the basement.
Although many of these stories focus on horrors faced by women — such as the causal violence enacted by men — women are not alone in facing the ever-present disturbing-side of the world. For example, in “Moses and Gaspar” (one of my favorite stories in the collection), a grieving man inherits two creatures, named Moses and Gaspar, following his brother’s death. The sorrow of these “pets” is just as great as that of the main characters, and they show their grief through tears and angry outbursts. This story is terrifying to me, since it’s not clear what kind of creatures Moses and Gaspar — cats? dogs? monkeys? or are they even animals at all? Although the man tries to care for them in honor of his brother, they disrupt and destroy his life. It would be easier to just dispose of them — except that they are all bound by the shared experience of immense loss.
In addition to their discussion of Dávila’s work, the Petrified Trees, Enchanted Mirrors panel also discussed a number of other great female horror writers from Mexico. You can listen to the full panel via The Outer Dark podcast, where you can also find a list of authors discussed listed in their show notes.
The Houseguest pairs well with Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enríquez.