7 Spooky Short Story Collections by Latina Writers
Sofia T. Romero, author of "We Have Always Been Who We Are," recommends scary stories will send shivers down your spine
For me, it all started with Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Then came the tales of Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Ursula LeGuin. Storytelling that takes vivid imagination combined with some devastating reality to add up to something that is unsettling and disturbing.
You can get your socks spooked off by the supernatural, the ghostly, the otherworldly. But a story can also be really freaky even by just nudging at the thin veil between reality and fantasy. As stories like “The Lottery,” “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” show, sometimes the most alarming threat is coming from inside the house (like, literally in “The Tell-Tale Heart”). Sometimes, human nature is the creepiest thing imaginable. It’s us, hi, we’re the problem, it’s us.
The Latina writers on this list represent a range of cultures and creative sensibilities. Five are contemporary, but two are classics that are still worth reading today. As Silvia Moreno-Garcia, author of the new novel Silver Nitrate, described in “Saying Goodbye to Magical Realism,” they and other writers are pushing the boundaries of genre beyond the default descriptions for Latinx writers. Is it magical realism? Is it horror? Is it fantasy? Yes, and then some.
The books on this list are all collections of short stories. As short stories, each one has a fraction of the word count to pull the reader in, give them goosebumps, and leave them checking under their beds at night or sleeping with the light on. Or both.
Some of these tales are about ghouls and creatures. Some of them blur the line between reality and magic. Others find their creepiness in exploring the logical conclusions of some of humanity’s worst qualities: the tendency to fear the other, the desperate need to preserve the self at all costs, or the ability to be cruel at random. The horror!
Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez
The chilling stories of Things We Lost in the Fire by Argentinean author Enriquez tell of a bleak and sinister world where everything is imbued with a sense of isolation and loneliness. Add to this a menacing backdrop of the danger of living in an uncertain political climate. Otherworldly terrors walk among people, as in “Adela’s House,” in which the narrator recalls the grim circumstances that led to the death of her friend and her brother, and the macabre house at the center of all that transpires.
Enriquez deftly blends bizarre reality with even more bizarre unreality, such as the ghostly encounter that terrifies two girls (“The Inn”). Stories like “End of Term,” in which a girl’s strange behavior freaks out her classmates, further blur the lines between this world and an unearthly one.
The Rock Eaters by Brenda Peynado
The sharp details of these carefully crafted stories linger in the mind long after reading the final pages. Peynado drops readers into tensely realistic worlds where individuals and communities grapple with all-too-familiar uncomfortable issues coupled with strange happenings, as in “Thoughts and Prayers,” in which a community struggles with the aftermath of violence, while strange, mute angels reside on the rooftops of their homes, seemingly oblivious to the chaos that they cause.
But into the middle of these already fraught dynamics enters an unexpected element, often with dramatic results: kite-flying aliens, a girl with translucently pale skin, expats who can fly. In “The Stones of Sorrow Lake,” a woman visits her fiance’s hometown, where residents’ sorrows grow from their bodies as literal stones, which they pile up by a local lake. In “True Love Game,” while tensions mount at school with the white kids who bully them, the characters also contend with the strange ghosts who live in the basement.
Maria, Maria by Marytza K. Rubio
The stories of Maria, Maria inhabit a world that is firmly rooted in magic. These are not characters who wonder if something otherworldly is happening, they know it is. And in some cases, they are making it happen, such as the lonely young girl who unearths and resurrects the skeleton of a saber-toothed tiger (“The Burial”). “His roar is the song I didn’t know I could sing,” she says. Rubio’s stories are vivid renderings of the ebb and flow of the tension and harmony as humanity, the natural world, and the supernatural realm intersect. For characters who are stuck in place, colliding with this intersection gives them the momentum they need to move forward. In “Tijuca,” a woman travels to the jungle to fulfill her promise to her deceased husband that she will return his body to the earth and bury his head there. In “Carlos Across Space and Time,” two women take advantage of a mirror’s ability to show them alternate timelines to try and make sense of their friend’s death—and perhaps give him a better ending.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Before she wrote In the Dream House, in which she dissected the chronology of an abusive relationship in painful detail, Machado awed with this collection of stories that provoke cringes, gasps, outrage, grief—rinse and repeat. The characters navigate the ravaging impact relationships can have—on themselves, on their partners, as in one story that explores a long marriage marred the husband inability to accept that he can never know the meaning of the mysterious green ribbon around his wife’s neck (“The Husband Stitch”).
The stories play out in settings as quiet as the space between two married people or as large as a nation swept by a mysterious pandemic. But the results are often bleak. In “Real Women Have Bodies,” the narrator embarks on a new relationship while a mysterious illness is making women fade away until they are practically invisible. “Inventory” isn’t at all what it seems at first—the listing off of the narrator’s lovers turns out to be a way to tell a grimmer story that is happening at a much larger scale.
The Youngest Doll by Rosario Ferré
Images of dolls appear in several stories in this collection by Puerto Rican author Ferré, and it’s an apt metaphor for characters who chafe powerlessly against the gilded cages they live in, desperate to find meaning and purpose in their lives. There’s the title story, about a woman who makes strange, lifelike dolls for her nieces, which sets the tone for the collection, at turns both mournful and menacing. Then there’s “Marina and the Lion” starts with the main character Marina appearing at a party set in a box covered in cellphone as though she’s a doll—a 20th-century Puerto Rican Barbie. The stories are set against a backdrop of Puerto Rican politics, as the characters face the inescapable realities of their island’s occupation by the United States.
Forgotten Journey by Silvina Ocampo
In the foreword to Forgotten Journey, there is a quote from Argentinian author Ocampo talking about why she wrote short stories: “I think the short story is music,” she said. And in fact, each of the 28 stories in this collection are like songs, capturing in brief, poetic flashes disturbing glimpses into tragic moments. Ocampo writes matter-of-factly about death and dying, as in “Skylight,” when a bedtime battle between a girl and her caregiver quickly takes a tragic turn. Or as in “The Two Houses of Olivos,” when two girls exchange places and go to stay at the other’s home, but they forget to swap guardian angels. Reading these slight snapshots are like watching a car crash, as in “The Poorly Made Portrait,” in which a mother who has ignored her son’s attempts to distract her from her fashion magazine finds when she finally goes to search for him that she may have missed her last chance.
This Strange Way of Dying by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
This collection, which was published before Moreno-Garcia’s creeptastic novel Mexican Gothic, plays on many of the same themes: mysterious things that go bump in the night, fearsome folklore, and strange people with sinister motives. Whether it’s the vampire a journalist runs into at a late-night diner (“Stories With Happy Endings”—a very different twist to Interview with a Vampire) or the man who hires people to spend time with him and his boss, an octopus-like alien (“Driving With Aliens in Tijuana”), it’s often the
people who cannot be trusted more than the strange creatures.
Nature and fantasy are braided together in ways that are weird and wonderful, none more so than “Scales as Pale as Moonlight,” in which the narrator, grieving the loss of her unborn child, finds escape in a supernatural encounter. But for the characters in these stories, drawn an underworld of mystery and magic from which there is often no escape.