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Unseen Forces Menace 'The Houseguest'

Speculative fiction in Latin America is like Schrödinger's cat: It exists and doesn't exist at the same time. Though there are no significant speculative fiction imprints, fantastic fiction can be found under the literary label, especially using the moniker of magic realism.

Magic realism has served Latin American writers in translation well, familiarizing English readers with authors like Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar or Jorge Luis Borges, to the point that works like One Hundred Years of Solitude are synonymous with Latin America. But looking at the pantheon of writers of the fantastic in translation, you'd think no Latina women ever wrote short stories in this vein. Therefore, the importance of the recent reissue of The Youngest Doll by Rosario Ferré and the publication of The Houseguest, a collection of short stories which translates the work of Amparo Dávila for the first time (Audrey Harris and Matthew Gleeson did the translation).

Dávila, who was born in 1928 and began publishing in the 1950s, could be summarized as Mexico's answer to Shirley Jackson. She fell out of vogue a few decades ago, but has been recently rediscovered and there is now a fantastic short story award named after her, probably the only fantastic fiction award in Mexico.

Though Dávila's stories take place in Mexico, they do not work as ethnography. Readers wanting folkloric tales or tour guides into another country won't find that in these minimalist episodes. In fact, readers might be jarringly surprised to find that the Mexico in this collection is not the world of narcos, poverty and sugar skulls which the media has led them to believe in. Dávila's protagonists are members of the Mexican bourgeoisie. They have cooks, maids, French perfumes and English cashmere suits.

Another constant manifests in Dávila's fiction: the unseen menace. Over and over again characters find themselves in danger, or in thrall to a horror that is not described, only hinted at. "The Houseguest," Dávila's most famous story, which gives this collection its title, has a housewife living in fear of a mysterious houseguest who could be either an animal or a person. In "Moses and Gaspar" a man inherits what we think are two dogs from his brother, but by the end of the story it's not clear what they are. "The Cell" features a young woman afraid of a mysterious "he" who comes to her at night. A woman returns to her house in "Oscar," where a hideous someone or something lives in the cellar.

Even when the shape of the evil force at work is clearer, doubts remain about the nature of the creature. In "Musique Concrète," a woman suspects her husband of infidelity with a seamstress — who is also a toad that keeps her awake at nights with its croaking. Or she may just be having a nervous breakdown.

... at her best, Dávila radiates an interesting sense of unease and calamity.

This is another attribute of The Houseguest. It's hard to tell whether the characters are in fact assailed by terrifying entities or if they are simply losing their minds.

After a while, there is a sameness to the proceedings (a horror which is not described threatens to plunge the protagonist into death or madness), but at her best, Dávila radiates an interesting sense of unease and calamity. Moreover, many of her characters are women under siege, often housewives who must endure indifferent husbands and useless families. Their lives are already horrid before any monster or shadow enters their rooms.

Domestic noir is in vogue right now, and many people have wondered why. I posit that for a very long time, women have sought comfort in the darkness when their own lives were full of quiet despair. It is this silent scream which permeates The Houseguest.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is an award-winning author and editor. Her most recent novel is The Beautiful Ones. She tweets at @silviamg.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia