8 Hauntings in Latinx Literature
Stories about hauntings as political commentary, ghostly love stories, anti-colonial pulp horrror, and more
As a Mexican American, I’ve learned to expect hauntings. That shouldn’t surprise most. The iconography of the Day of the Dead has become well disseminated in American popular culture, from Coco to Halloween face paint to calaveras on sale at Target. For the uninitiated: over two days at the beginning of November, those who celebrate Día de los Muertos welcome spirits of departed loved ones into their homes with ofrendas, altars with photos and offerings of food and mementos. We take time out of our lives to sit with the memories and sometimes presences of family members who have passed on.
But the more I reflect on it, the more I believe that living alongside ghosts is a part of the reality of being Latinx in the United States. Burdened by the so-classic-it’s-cheesy ni de aquí, ni de allá, are we not haunted by the versions of ourselves that we think we should be, the doppelgängers who are American enough, the imaginary doubles who speak better Spanish than us? Likewise, our families are haunted by the sacrifices, traumas, and griefs caused by migration to and life in the United States. Often, these are too heavy to be spoken aloud; they are handed down from one generation to the next like the names that pass through our families, ghostly, silent heirlooms that permeate everything we do.
These hauntings are metaphorical. Others less so. My debut novel The Hacienda imagines the scars left by colonialism as an actual supernatural presence with a bone to pick with the living. When Beatriz’s new husband leaves her at his family’s country estate, Hacienda San Isidro, she is determined to make a home for herself there. At first bemused by the strange behavior of those who live on the property, the sinister darkness of the house after nightfall convinces Beatriz that it is haunted and drives her to seek help from a local priest, Padre Andrés. Like the malicious spirits Beatriz and Padre Andrés face in The Hacienda’s pages, the hauntings that populate the following works are quite tangible. They run the genre gamut from long-buried classics with hauntings-as-political-commentary, to contemporary YA fantasy, to a stiff draught of horror to finish.
Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo
“I came to Comala because I had been told that my father, a man named Pedro Páramo, lived there” is as classic a line as “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” but rare is it that the North American reader has encountered Mexican author Juan Rulfo’s slim opus. When narrator Juan Preciado’s mother dies, he promises her to go to Comala and seek out his father, whom he has never met. Upon setting foot in Comala, however, he discovers that all of the rural town’s inhabitants, from his guide to his hosts—all old friends of his mother or enemies of his father—are dead. Comala is, quite literally, a ghost town. And as Juan Preciado travels deeper into Comala uncovering his father’s past, the town might not let him back out alive. Told in fragments that jump between different plots and narrators, the very structure of this novel lends itself to a haunting, disorienting read.
Aura by Carlos Fuentes
One of the best known Mexican writers of the Latin American Boom, Carlos Fuentes utilizes magical realism and doppelgängers as he grapples with postcolonial identity in Aura. Narrator Felipe Montero, a young unemployed historian, is hired by an old widow named Conseulo Llorente to edit and publish the memoirs of her late husband, who was a general of the deposed emperor Maximilian I of Mexico. This work requires Felipe to live in Consuelo’s old, crumbling house in Mexico City. Though initially reluctant to do so, Felipe’s attitude changes as he becomes increasingly infatuated with Consuelo’s niece, the hauntingly beautiful Aura. He slowly loses his sense of time and identity as he edits the dead general’s memoirs and in his obsession with Aura, with whom he begins a secret nocturnal affair. Prepare yourself for a gut-wrenching twist at the end of this brief novel, but I implore you to go in spoiler-free for maximum shock value.
“House Taken Over” by Julio Cortázar
Most Anglophone readers know Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar for his short story “Axolotl” or his fragmented novel Hopscotch, but few are familiar with the utterly haunting 1946 short story “House Taken Over” (“Casa Tomada”) from the collection Bestiary. A brother and sister live in an enormous house that becomes taken over by a threatening haunting, slowly forcing them to retreat into smaller and smaller spaces in the house. Cortázar imbues his spare prose with tension and dread; though the antagonist of the story is never heard nor seen, you cannot help but share in the narrator’s claustrophobic terror as it draws closer and closer. At the time the story was published (and for many years after), this brief, disturbing story was read as a political text with incisive commentary on the Peronist regime.
Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas
In the YA contemporary fantasy Cemetery Boys, Yadriel, a 16-year-old trans boy is determined to prove his gender to his traditional family. To accomplish this, he performs a ritual that only brujos, male witches, are capable of: summoning ghosts. Though Yadriel meant to summon his murdered cousin, the ghost he is stuck with is none other than his school’s recently-deceased bad boy, Julian Diaz, who refuses to be gotten rid of until he finds out what happened to him. Yadriel agrees to help him so that he can get the acceptance he craves and Julian can find closure, but the longer they spend together, the less Yadriel wants Julian to leave. Part murder mystery, part queer romance, the ghost boyfriend trope of Cemetery Boys is close to my heart, but it is the themes of family acceptance—and how complicated that can sometimes be—that make this novel a modern classic.
Flirting with Fate by J.C. Cervantes
I’ve learned that not all ghosts mean ill. Some just want to spend a little time with you. Some, like in J.C. Cervantes’s lighthearted but touching YA contemporary fantasy Flirting with Fate, linger because they have urgent messages they need to pass on. When a flash flood and a fender bender with a strange boy prevent teenage Ava Granados from reaching her beloved grandmother’s deathbed, she forfeits the precious heirloom of their family by mere minutes: a magical blessing passed from woman to woman upon death for generations. Days later, apparitions begin appearing to Ava. Her grandmother’s ghost and the ghost of a medieval saint bear the news that the blessing that should have belonged to Ava was accidentally bestowed upon someone else. With the help of these ghosts and her two sisters, Ava goes on a quest to track down the boy who bears her blessing and somehow get back her grandmother’s last gift.
“Adela’s House” in Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enríquez, translated by Megan McDowell
Though well-known in Latin America, internationally bestselling Argentinian writer Mariana Enríquez burst onto the Anglophone horror scene with the 2017 translation of her collection Las cosas que perdimos en el fuego. Here is where my recommendations take a sharp tonal shift: these macabre stories feature settings in which horrific inequality, violence, corruption, and the vanished desaparecidos of the military dictatorship and its dirty war loom large. Not for the faint of heart, these stories tip their hats to Shirley Jackson and Julio Cortázar as they study brilliantly-realized human characters in horrifying situations, such as one in which a group of women set themselves on fire to protest a viral form of domestic violence. My favorite of these—and the reason this collection is on this list—is “Adela’s House,” in which Adela, a spoiled, one-armed girl, is jeered into visiting the neighborhood haunted house, an abandoned, bricked up monstrosity that turns out to be even more horrific on the inside than it appears on the outside.
This Strange Way of Dying by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Whenever someone tells me they loved Mexican Gothic, I always point them toward this lesser-known work of Silvia Moreno-Garcia. I first encountered her work through her short stories, and while I am as much of a fan of her novels as the next fangirl, I believe her unique voice shines brightest in the brief, intense stories of This Strange Way of Dying. The theme of being haunted—or hunted—runs through this collection, which features hauntings by shape-shifting, stalking nahuales, vampires you just can’t shake, döppelgangers, and even Death himself. Moreno-Garcia’s prose is deft, spare but vivid, and nothing short of masterful in its economy as it moves effortlessly from genre to genre. The evocative imagery of gleaming beetles and clicking scorpions will stay with you for years after you shut the cover.
Goddess of Filth by V. Castro
Billed as taking inspiration from The Craft, V. Castro’s Goddess of Filth opens with a stone-cold classic horror setting: the seance gone wrong. As four female best friends, including Lourdes and Fernanda, become increasingly tipsy, they lose control of what they are summoning, and their laughter dies when Fernanda begins chanting in Nahuatl and crawling toward the other three. In the weeks that follow, Lourdes notices that formerly modest Fernanda smears her face with black makeup, shreds her hands on thorns, and sucks sins out of the mouths of the guilty. She has been possessed by the spirit of an Aztec goddess. Determined to save Fernanda from the increasingly predatory attentions of a self-righteous priest as well as possession, Lourdes enlists the help of her friends and a professor to understand what is happening. While still bearing the trappings of deliciously pulp horror, Lourdes’s journey to help Fernanda enables her to reconnect with her identity and heritage in a uniquely feminist and empowering anti-colonial way.