Classics of Mexican Horror: The Houseguest and Other Stories by Amparo Dávila

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.

Six Books I Love to Reread

Apparently, today is National Book Lovers Day — and since I love books — I thought I’d share six books I love to reread over and over again. These are books that connect with me on a deep level. I’ve read each of these books at least twice, and I will likely reread them again in the future.

In fact, just talking about these books makes me want to pick them up again.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved by Toni MorrisonBeloved is a book about being haunted — at first Seth is haunted by the memories of being a slave and later by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless. This is a stunningly beautiful book, the culture, the characters, and the layers richly textured. I’ve read Beloved three times and each time I’ve been swept away by the poetry and power of Morrison’s story. Every reading offers new discoveries, new linguistic treasures.

It broke my heart this week to learn of Morrison’s passing. If you want some profound words in honor of her life and work, here are eight black female writers and thinkers on Toni Morrison’s legacy. For my small part, I’ll be rereading Beloved for the fourth time and seeking out some of her work that I haven’t had a chance to read yet.

Dune by Frank Herbert

Dune by Frank HerbertDune is a political science fiction book. The Atreides family is sent off to take control Dune, a desert planet and the only place where the spice Melange can be produced — the most valuable substance in the universe. The story is fraught with intrigue, with scheming and betrayal coming from every angle,

Story time: Years ago, I picked up Dune on the same day I was heading over to a friend’s house for a sleepover (because I always bring books with me on the chance I need something to occupy an empty moment). When my friend went off to tell her mother something, I picked up the book intending to read a page or two. . . . Then my friend returned.

What should have happened is me putting down the books so that I could hang out the way a socially aware, polite person would do. What actually happened is I spent the rest of the night reading — pausing only long enough to eat, go to the bathroom, and sleep for an hour or two. I finished the book early the next morning, very grateful that she was still willing to be my friend.

When I reread the book again years later, pretty much the same thing happened (except I had adult responsibilities to attend with).

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E ButlerI’ve long been a fan of apocalyptic dystopian tales, with Parable of the Sower being at the top of my list as one of the best. Set in a California ravaged by poverty, drugs, and chronic water shortages, the story follows Lauren Olamina as she escapes from her home after it burns down. Trying to forge her own path through a dangerous world, she develops a belief system built on the practicalities of the world around her, which she shares with the fellow refugees she gathers around her — all making their way North in pursuit of some somewhere safe to call home.

Parable of the Sower moves me each of the times I’ve read it. In a world full of desperate people, fighting brutally for survival, I love the way these characters come together and care for each other. I also find the Lauren’s parables, presented at the beginning of the chapters, fascinating and beautiful.

Her by Cherry Muhanji

Her by Cherry MuhanjiI discovered Her during a summer-long internship at the publisher Aunt Lute Books. The novel, which won the Lamda Literary Award in 1991, explores the relationships between a community of black women in 1950s Detroit. The language is liquid in its beauty, irreverently illuminating the streets of the Motor City, contrasting the hard work of the automotive plants with the rowdy bars leaking jazz out into the night.

My fellow interns and I read Her twice over while helping to helping to copy edit the book for its second edition — and I’ve since read it a third time for the sheer pleasure of the language and the story it enfolds. I’m so honored to have taken any tiny part in working with Aunt Lute on this book.

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

The Martian Chronicles by Ray BradburyThe Martian Chronicles is a novel comprised of interconnected short stories that imagine humanity’s repeated attempts and failures to colonize Mars, from the first visitors to the cities of humans that sprouted over the planet. The stories range in tone and styles, with some being thrilling, others being humorous or haunting.

On the whole, I’ve read The Martian Chronicles twice — but the individual stories, I’ve read many times over. “There Will Come Soft Rains” — one of my all-time favorite short stories and powerful in its standalone compact form — I’ve probably read a dozen times. Below is a recording of Leonard Nimoy reading the story:

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice by Jane AustenOne of the things my sister and I have in common is our love for Jane Austen, especially her well-loved novel, Pride and Prejudice. We have both over the years read this novel several times over (although I’m certain that my sister has me wildly beat on that count). We love this story of the Bennet sisters and their search for marriage and love, with all its ever present wit and misunderstandings and prideful mistakes. Reading Pride and Prejudice is a soothing pleasure and delight each time I pick it up. In the end, the characters we love come together and find happiness.

Are there any books that you’ve read more than once? Which are your favorites?


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Song of Susannah – Reading The Dark Tower, Part VI

Here are Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IV, and Part V of my journey through Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series.

The Story

Song of Susannah is a cool 400 pages or so — quite a relief from the 850+ pages of the two previous volumes in the series. Strictly on a physical level, it’s a lot less book to heft around. However, the condensed nature of the book does not negate the value of its storytelling. Song of Susannah is tight in its action and character development, which makes the story all the stronger. 

At the end of Wolves of the Calla, the battle was won but the katet was divided — Susannah, pregnant with a demon’s child and being overtaken by Mia (a new personality), has stollen the Black 13 (a powerful and dangerous stone) and absconded to another world and time. Song of Susannah opens in the midst of this loss, with Roland, Eddie, Jake, and Callahan nursing their wounds and working to come up with a plan to both save Susannah (in one time and place) and obtain the empty lot with the rose from an obsessive bookseller named Tower (who exists in a completely different time and place).

All their planning doesn’t help much, however, because ka has its own designs, immediately setting everything awry — Roland and Eddie find themselves fighting thugs while chasing after the bookseller, while Jake, Callahan, and Oy find themselves going after Susannah.

Unlike the previous book (with it’s slow build to battle), the action in Song of Susannah comes quick and bloody. Roland and Eddie are immediately attacked when they land in the past, and Susannah’s struggles are constant, if internal. The intensity is ever present, since the characters (and the readers) know they are facing virtual ticking bombs — time is desperately short. Failure to achieve either of their goals will result in death of Susannah and/or the destruction of all the universes. 

Structurally, Song of Susannah is different from any other book in the series — each chapter is titled as a verse, making the book itself the overall “song.” Each chapter also concludes with a two stanzas of a commala, which is a kind of call and response song. The structure and inclusion of verse lends the story a folky vibe, like a legendary tale shared over a campfire. This feels fitting considering the revelations that come later in the book, with the writing down of tales being vitally important to the characters survival. 

Commala-ka-kate
You’re in the hands of fate.
No matter if it’s real or not,
The hour groweth late.

Commala-come-eight!
The hour groweth late!
No matter what shade ya cast
You’re in the hands of fate.

Continue reading “Song of Susannah – Reading The Dark Tower, Part VI”

Book Love: The Rust Maidens by Gwendolyn Kiste

The Rust Maidens by Gwendolyn Kiste

Description: “It’s the summer of 1980 in Cleveland, Ohio, and Phoebe Shaw and her best friend Jacqueline have just graduated high school, only to confront an ugly, uncertain future. Across the city, abandoned factories populate the skyline; meanwhile at the shore, one strong spark, and the Cuyahoga River might catch fire. But none of that compares to what’s happening in their own west side neighborhood. The girls Phoebe and Jacqueline have grown up with are changing. It starts with footprints of dark water on the sidewalk. Then, one by one, the girls’ bodies wither away, their fingernails turning to broken glass, and their bones exposed like corroded metal beneath their flesh.

As rumors spread about the grotesque transformations, soon everyone from nosy tourists to clinic doctors and government men start arriving on Denton Street, eager to catch sight of “the Rust Maidens” in metamorphosis. But even with all the onlookers, nobody can explain what’s happening or why—except perhaps the Rust Maidens themselves. Whispering in secret, they know more than they’re telling, and Phoebe realizes her former friends are quietly preparing for something that will tear their neighborhood apart.

Alternating between past and present, Phoebe struggles to unravel the mystery of the Rust Maidens—and her own unwitting role in the transformations—before she loses everything she’s held dear: her home, her best friend, and even perhaps her own body.”

My Thoughts: I’ve been hearing about The Rust Maidens for a while now, the book continually recommended by others in my social media feed as a stunning work of horror. Having now read it myself, I can whole heartedly agree with each and every one of these observations.

The story takes on body horror with young women at the center. This seems a natural progression, since, as the book illustrates, young women’s bodies are already not their own. One of the aspects of this book is how the mother’s rule the block, meeting out rules, structures, and punishments for their girls. When one of the girls gets pregnant, it’s the mother’s who decide what to do with her and her baby, regardless of what the girl wants (the boy is also irrelevant in this). So, when the young women’s bodies begin to change, taking on the oily, glass-strewn decay of the city, it goes from seeming to be a strange disease at first to seeming like an act of defiance. All the wrongs quickly become cast onto the shoulders of these girls, who dare to be anything other than the kinds of girls people expect them to be.

Maybe that’s why Phoebe remains untouched by this metamorphosis — she’s already something other than the kind of girl she’s expected to be. We see the story from her point of view — both during the events and long after. All at once, she is both horrified by the changes she sees in her cousin and the other girls, and awed by them, finding a strange beauty in their transformations. She holds so many levels of loss and guilt, feeling she’s made all the wrong choices along the way. I love her as a character, not because she’s perfect — she’s far from that — but because she comes off as so human, housing anger, sorrow, and compassion for the people and community around her.

This story is so touchingly beautiful on so many levels, providing a blend of deep, unsettling horror with human love and hope. I particularly love the way the relationships between these girls changes and evolves over the course of this story. It’s just so, so good. As soon as I read the last page, I clutched the book to my chest and just held it. I’ll be looking for all the things by Kiste in the future.

If you want to get some more insight into Kiste’s process writing The Rust Maidens and her love of horror, the Darkness Dwells podcast has a great interview.


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Women in Horror: Things Withered by Susie Moloney

Things Withered by Susie Moloney

Things Withered is a brilliant collection of short horror stories, in which Susie Maloney plays on the anxieties of everyday life to deliver horrifying chills. Whether it’s the need to hold onto a job, unfortunate deaths in the neighborhood, or competition between friends, the drive of each story is grounded in human beings with their own frustrations so that by the time things get really weird, the reader is already on edge.

Take, for example, “The Audit,” in which a young woman faces a growing mountain of paperwork as she attempts to prepare for being audited by the IRS. Taxes are an ordinary kind of fear, but the story manages to build an increasing tension through the escalating mountain of papers that need to be addressed combined with the indifference of the people around her.

In “Petty Zoo,” a mother and her son are stationed in a line of families waiting to get into a mall petting zoo that is more than an hour late from opening. The growing anger and annoyance of the parents, who are caught between their desperation to keep their children happy and their their own desire to leave is the vivid center point — at least until things go terribly, terribly wrong.

Another kind of anxiety is offered up in “Poor David, or, The Possibility of Coincidence in Situations of Multiple Occurrences.” David has the misfortune of finding the dead body of his girlfriend’s aunt, a traumatic experience that’s quickly compounded by the discovery of another body. There is nothing suspicious about these deaths, all due to natural circumstances — and yet it seems to be David’s misfortune to discover them. The story beautifully portrays his escalating anxiety, which makes it difficult for him to function in the world. And yet, it’s also about his relationship with Myra and how the two of them continue to build a life together through this trauma.

“Reclamation on the Forrest Floor” also deals with relationships, in this case between two girlfriend and the brutal outcome of their ongoing competition with each other. The story opens with murder and evolves into a stunningly written body horror as the consequences of that act reveal themselves.

Some of my favorite stories in the collection, are those that features older women as their protagonists. “The Last Living Summer” is a story of three little old ladies in continue on in a beach town that has emptied out since all their neighbors abandoned the place in the face of a strange, unsettling apocalypse. It’s a story with such melancholy beauty.

In “The Neighborhood, or, To the Devil with You,” a woman who has lived on the same block well into her old age relates the history of her neighborhood, which carries a series of tragedies. With it’s meandering style and “times have changed” tone, the story balances between the events being simply the horrifying misfortunes of an ordinary or all part of some larger, sinister design.

On the whole, Things Withers is a phenomenal collection of stories — highly recommended.


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