Latinx culture and horror go together like… chupacabra and farm animals. I mean, we have some of the best dark myths after all: La Llorona, El Cuco, and of course, the aforementioned goat sucker, just to name a few. In my Puerto Rican family, the existence of ghosts was an accepted part of life: that imprint in the blankets on the end of your bed? Abuela stopped by to check on you. As Edwin Pagán, founder-in-chief of LatinHorror.com, said in an interview: “Traditionally, we have always loved ghost stories and the macabre and Gothic tales,” he says. “They’re just sewn into the fabric of who we are as a people.”
But though there are more horror writers with Mexican, Caribbean, and South American heritage every day, they haven’t been as visible as they should be in the mainstream of horror publishing. Luckily, change seems to be coming, albeit slowly. The arrival of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s novel Mexican Gothic on the New York Times Bestseller list was a triumph on so many levels, but even she had to work hard to get there. The bestseller is her sixth book, and as she told Library Journal, “I remember shopping one of my books and one editor said the book was good, but it was set in Mexico, so they wouldn’t buy it. It would not sell, they said.” Her latest—set in Mexico, ahem—has spent weeks on the list.
With the cold bite of spooky season in the air, I set out to highlight some of my favorite Latinx writers of horror and share them with you. They are the well-known and the should-be-well-known, and they are all worth your exploration… if you dare.
Puerto Rican author Gabino Iglesias is a total badass. He writes books and reviews, has a PhD in journalism, teaches in an MFA program, but always finds the time to raise up other writers. He refers to his style as “Barrio Noir,” but I love that he manages to bridge literary fiction with horror and crime, breaking the old biases about “genre” being ‘less than.’ His latest novel, Coyote Songs, is set on la frontera, the boundary of South Texas and Mexico. Told through a kaleidoscope of six point of view characters, its tale is spun in the voices of human traffickers and artists, children and mothers, ghosts and monsters. This one is not for the faint of heart––if you need to consider trigger warnings, you might want to pass––but if you’re ready to be scared and moved and lulled by beautiful writing, this is not one to be missed.
Mexican-American, London-based author V. Castro writes books that are complex, sexy, feminist, and, dare I say it? Scary. As. Hell. Her latest novella, Hairspray and Switchblades, part of Unnerving Magazine’s Rewind or Die series, features two sisters who were orphaned during a home invasion. The older sister, Magdalena, works as an exotic dancer to support them as the “stripper ripper” stalks the streets of San Antonio, killing dancers. The sisters come from a line of jaguar shapeshifters from Mexico, and as Magdalena fights off threats both economic and supernatural, she also struggles with a life of two skins, metaphorically and physically. Castro does not shy away from gore: this is true horror, but she explores it with rich cultural roots and kick-ass female characters. I guarantee once you start reading you won’t put it down, and by the end you’ll be cheering on the fiercest supernatural girl squad in this world, and the next.
Puerto Rican/Cuban creator Charlie Vazquez is a visual artist, teacher, social activist, poet, and author, but it’s in this last role that I came to know his work. I discovered his latest story collection, Fantasmas: Puerto Rican Tales of the Dead, by accident, seeing a horror writer friend’s post about it. I have no idea how it escaped my notice, given that ghosts, Puerto Rico, and beautiful writing are some of my favorite things. This collection digs into the horrific experiments committed against soldiers and prisoners in Puerto Rico over the years, as well as the economic struggles of the island through several characters’ eyes, the lingering impact of Hurricane Maria, and ghosts born of heritage, fear, and guilt. This collection is literary fiction, but though it is not straight-ahead horror, it is an illustration of the island’s national trauma due to generations of colonization, poverty, and natural disasters through tales that are both realistic and supernatural. It’s dark and gorgeous and packs an emotional punch.
Puerto Rican writer Cynthia “Cina” Pelayo is the author of six books and many stories that fall largely under the categories of horror or crime. She has an MFA, is working on her PhD, and her fiction has won her an International Latino Book Award. But it is her poetry collection, Poems of My Night, that I find most striking (and yes, poetry can be horror too). Written as a response to the work of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, these works are dark, intricate, and beautiful. Here’s just a snippet of “Ni siquera soy polvo,” (I’m not even dust) after Borges’ poem of the same title about Don Quixote. Cina told me that her version is about “how she, as a human, came into being” taking us from Spain, to her native Puerto Rico, to Chicago:
King and Queen of Castile and Leon said we ‘shall make war against you’
And so, they took your wives and took your children and made slaves of them
For five hundred years my Borinquen bled
Then you gave me Jones Act and called me free
Then you gave me Operation Bootstrap and put me to work
The mainland didn’t allow us to call her home
We sang in steel cars of our palm tree lined port
We felt bites of hounds and blasts of water cannons on Division Street
Nights were terrors of New World unfounded
I’m no good as dust, and you’ll never dream of me
For Puerto Ricans, colonialism is its own brand of horror, and Pelayo bars no holds. Broken mirrors and nightmares, oppression and coffins; as Cina says in another of the collection’s poems, “Death is beauty in poetry.”
Finally, the aforementioned Nebula Award-Winning author Silvia Moreno-Garcia blessed us with her brilliant novel Mexican Gothic. Released this summer, this period thriller follows Noemí as she tries to save her cousin from her new, creepy in-laws at their equally creepy plantation in the countryside. Noemí goes from intelligent-but-bored debutante to detective, all while dressed in glamorous fifties couture (the fashion is so well described you can practically see it, not to mention the glorious cover art). You get pulled in early, and Moreno-Garcia does not let up on the tension. I don’t want to give anything away, but this is colonialism as fungus.
These are just a sampling of Latinx horror writers, the ones that I have been excited to find and wanted to share with you, dear readers. So, what makes these Latinx horror writers different from writers of other backgrounds? Well, other than a theme of anti-colonialism, or what I call “Oppression Horror,” not much. I think that’s my point in wanting to shine my small light on these artists: I would love for Latinx speculative writers to be considered part of the “canon” without differentiation (other than their brilliance). But first, we need to publish more Latinx writers and put their work in front of readers.
The image of hunkering down in a comfy chair with a cup of tea (or glass of bourbon) and a horror book is the perfect activity for autumn. So, get yourself a copy of one of these books, or all of them, settle in, and let them move, impress, and scare you.
Best do it, or El Cuco’s gonna get you.
Ann Dávila Cardinal’s novels Five Midnights and the sequel, Category Five, are published by Tor Teen. Ann lives in Vermont and likes to spend her free time reading, cycling, and preparing for the zombie apocalypse.