Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Through the Night Like a Snake: Latin American Horror Stories

Two Lines Press / Calico
215 pp


I think I'm finally back from my long hiatus caused by the when-it-rains-it-pours syndrome that seems to plague my house every so often and just knocks me mentally on my can.  I've declared June a drama-free,  stress-free month here so it may actually last a while.  

I don't remember where I first heard about this book but I was so excited for its release that I preordered it back in December of 2023.   Through the Night Like a Snake is volume of ten dark and beyond-edgy stories written by "an ensemble cast of contemporary Latin American writers,"  with each translator's name featured prominently at the beginning of each new tale.  It is also the ninth in the  Calico series of books published by Two Lines Press, which as posted at the blog at the Center for Translation, is 
"dedicated to capturing vanguard works of translated literature -- curated around a particular theme, region, language, historical moment or style ..." 
As also stated on that blog post, the series is an opportunity to learn from translators "what's being left unread by English readers," which is the bottom-line draw for me.  

 In the editor's introduction to this volume (not included in the finished product but so generously provided by Kelsey at Two Lines Press via PDF),  Sarah Coolidge refers to a subgenre called  "narrativa de lo inusual," a phrase coined by literature professor Carmen Alemany Bay. I'd come across this term last year while reading Mariana Enriquez's Our Share of Night, while looking up different articles about the author.   Alemany Bay is quoted by Benjamin Russell in his 2022 article in the New York Times entitled "Women, Horror and Fantasy Capture Everyday Struggle," saying that  the "depictions of normal life" offered by these writers  "aren't intended to heighten the effect of the fantastic or supernatural; instead the unreal is used to sharpen readers' view of what's true." The style reminds me somewhat of reading  Bora Chung's Cursed Bunny, where she also used the strange to bring real-world horrors more clearly into focus.  

 I'll offer just a few examples of what's in this book, beginning with the first story.  I've always believed that an anthology should start with an offering that points to what a reader can expect from the rest, and if the idea here is to examine modern anxieties of the realities of life in different parts of Latin America, then  "Bone Animals" by Tomas Downey (translated by Sarah Moses) definitely succeeds.  After reading that one, I couldn't wait to get on with the rest.  In this story, a family has been "moving from village to village" over several months, "unable to find shelter or work," and they've just been asked to leave the school where they've been sleeping. Luckily, they are told about a shack that doesn't belong to anyone -- a "single room, just a roof over our heads, really."   They survive by living off the nearby land, and soon discover  a "small, carved animal, almost hidden ..." at first a bobcat, then a piranha, which "could have only been carved by an impossibly skilled hand."   They are cleaned, collected and displayed in a corner, and soon multiply with more discoveries.  However, as the collection begins to grow, things begin to take a dark, thoroughly unexpected and frightening turn.  "The House of Compassion" by Camila Sosa Villada, translated by Kit Maude, also starts on a normal note, but then takes off in a direction that I guarantee nobody will expect.    I was so in awe of this the author's writing that I immediately bought two of her books, I'm a Fool to Want You and Bad Girls, also translated by Kit Maude.     Flor de Ceibo (named after the national flower of Argentina) is a travesti sex worker in a rural area on the Córdoba Pampas, where the highway is plagued by a large number of car crashes; as we're told, "the side of the road is littered in crosses." After getting caught robbing her clients one day, they come after her, and during a chase through a cornfield, she collapses.  The next thing she knows, she is waking up at the convent of the Sisters of Compassion, where the nuns are taking care of her  and also a number of dogs -- evidently the convent doubles as a sort of dog sanctuary.  When she's feeling better and is ready to leave, the  dog Nené has asked the nuns to keep her there is not allowed to go.  Believe it or not, it gets weirder and more mystical/horrific from there.   I had to read this story twice and it still kept me awake after finishing it, and it turned out to be my favorite.    "Rabbits" by Anotonio Diaz Oliva (ADO -- translated by Lisa Dillman) is another fine tale, set in a commune/cult in Chile during the time of the Pinochet government.  A former member looks back to his experiences there,  a place of "old fogeys willing to sacrifice anything, even their families, to avoid confronting what was happening on the outside ..."  while slowly revealing the truth of what happened on the inside.   A story by Mariana Enriquez is also included here with her "That Summer in the Dark," translated by Megan McDowell.   In this story, as in Our Share of Night, Argentina's past is part of the contemporary moment.    It is the summer of 1989 in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Las Torres, a time of rolling blackouts due to a lack of funding. As the narrator notes, it was also a time of "energy crisis, hyperinflation, carry trade, due obedience, pink plague ... and there was no future."   It was during that hot summer that she and her friend "got obsessed with serial killers" bemoaning the fact that Argentina hasn't had any.  It's only when a murder hits close to home that she feels things shift, with "the crime" that "did us all good."   

Considering that there are only ten stories in this book, these authors manage to cover a wide scope of issues that range from the political to the personal, engaging with issues that are not only relevant within geographical boundaries, but which also, in some cases, take on universal importance, especially for women. At the same time, the actual horror content is solid enough to please readers of more sophisticated work in the genre, so it's a win-win all around.  

Most definitely and very highly recommended.  I loved it. 

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