Through the Night Like a Snake: Latin American Horror Stories (Review)

A new collection from Two Lines Press presents 10 translated stories from contemporary Latin American writers that explore the unsettling, unusual, and unspoken.

April 12, 2024

The cover of "Through the Night Like a Snake: Latin American Horror Stories" (Two Lines Press, 2024)

“I even suggested that maybe he had never been, had never existed, that his name wasn’t Lazarus, that he was merely a collective dream,” writes Claudia Hernández in “Lazarus the Vulture,” one of 10 stories in Through the Night Like a Snake: Latin American Horror Stories, edited by Sarah Coolidge of Two Lines Press. A collection of translated short stories by some of Latin America’s great contemporary writers, the text recounts expressions of dread, confusion, obsession, and desire; some stories lean towards the darkly magical, others towards the horrifically mundane. As Hernández’s lines point to above, the stories often revolve around the silences, erasures, and evasions harbored between friends, families, and communities—unspoken realities that haunt the characters and, in turn, readers.

In Tomás Downey’s “Bone Animals,” translated by Sarah Moses, a family without stable employment attempts to survive off of the land, only to be turned against one another by the mysterious appearance of animal figurines carved out of bone. “That Summer in the Dark,” written by Mariana Enriquez and translated by Megan McDowell, follows two teen girls obsessed with stories of famous serial killers and disillusioned by Argentina’s apparent lack thereof. In “Soroche,” translated by Sarah Booker and Noelle de la Paz, Mónica Ojeda’s posh cast of characters slyly shame the emotional breakdown of their “best friend,” a recent victim of a leaked sex tape, while claiming only the best intentions. 

The characters of “In the Mountains,” written by Lina Munar Guevara and translated by Ellen Jones, are haunted and disoriented by strange reflections and recurrences, cycles of time which force them to look back, forward, and back again, for the moment when it all went wrong. “The Third Transformation,” written by Maximiliano Barrientos and translated by Tim Gutteridge, chronicles the fascist tentacles that end up overtaking two curious friends in a small Bolivian town. Julián Isaza’s “Visitor,” translated by Joel Streicker, expresses the protagonist’s sense of alienation and rejection, her need to be needed, via a homicidal stuffed Kermit the Frog.

“The Man with the Leg,” written by Giovanna Rivero and translated by Joaquín Gavilano, explores a woman’s hormone-driven fascination with a panhandler’s gangrenous leg in New York City. In Antonio Díaz Oliva’s “Rabbits,” translated by Lisa Dillman, a former cult member reflects reluctantly on the shared repression between his community and the dictatorship governing the outside world. In Hernández’s “Lazarus the Vulture,” translated by Julia Sanches and Johanna Warren, one man suspects that the carnivorous vulture next door—though well-liked in the community—will sooner or later let loose his urges on the man’s young daughter.

In “The House of Compassion,” written by Camila Sosa Villada and translated by Kit Maude, a rural travesti sex worker stumbles upon a strange but pleasant order of nuns, whose canine companions are let out daily to fulfill their service of scaring cars off the road. Through each unsettling story, the reader passes attentively, careful not to startle what may be hiding underfoot.

Coolidge is right to suggest in her Editor’s Introduction that perhaps horror is too convenient a term for these stories, which alongside fear and unease induce compassion, humor, morbid curiosity, and sometimes confusion. The collection is unsettling, creepy, even disturbing at points, but the emotional resonances of each story are complex and varied.

Narrative of the Unusual, Language of the Unsaid

In her brief Editor’s Introduction, Coolidge is hesitant to name a legacy for what is referred to here as Latin American horror, or narrativa de lo inusual (narrative of the unusual), a term borrowed from Carmen Alemany Bay. The explanation of the latter as describing a genre “in which the reader is ultimately the one who decides what is possible and what is not” certainly tracks for many of the plotlines within the collection, but doesn’t attempt to illuminate the historical and political currents implicated by la narrativa de lo inusual in the Latin American context. While tracing a coherent literary lineage for the genre may be premature, there are clear stylistic and thematic connections beginning with literature developed during the Cold War era of dictatorships, state terror, and civil war, and leading into the post-dictatorship, post-war contemporary period.

One such literary touchpoint not mentioned in Through the Night Like a Snake is Chilean poet Raúl Zurita’s concept of lo no dicho (the unsaid), developed during and after the Pinochet dictatorship, which may provide a framework for interpreting the conditions leading to the emergence of the narrative of the unusual. Zurita uses lo no dicho to refer to the effects of state repression that silenced and disappeared individuals, censured artists, and essentially turned language into its own punishment and parody in the face of unspeakable violence.

According to Ricardo Yamal, however, lo no dicho also refers to the literature that “creates spaces with characters and settings which, through their ambiguity, send us to a zone where that which is unsaid—and yet still expressed—comes to take up a central role” [translation mine]. Lo no dicho creates absence—in its most concrete interpretation, through forced disappearances that cannot be traced—and yet gives a new articulation to absence as an expressive state.

As a tool to both create and express fear and dread, it’s no wonder that the narrative of the unusual emerges from post-war, post-dictatorship contexts in Latin America. In a 2019 interview, Hernández gives voice to this process. During the war in El Salvador, she explains "just as occurs with nervous breakdowns, during the war you keep relatively stable, you bear it or resist to not succumb, but once [the war] is over, and what I referred to as the silence begins, fear appears” [translation mine].

The lingering presence of lo no dicho snakes its way through each story in a different way. In some narratives, the presence of monsters is sensed precisely by this absence. In “The Third Transformation,” the specter of a dead Nazi attracts a morbid and ultimately deadly fascination; the old man is dead, but continues to occupy the curiosity and eventually bodies of Barrientos’ protagonists. The teenage girls of “That Summer in the Dark” are obsessed with the monsters their community seems to lack—dashing serial killers—and yet smirk lucidly at the ubiquitous violence of cops and former Junta generals: “You’re the only wolf here…” In “Rabbits,” a secluded Chilean cult is left in peace by Pinochet’s soldiers in exchange for hosting torture sessions on their grounds—a perfect cover within the bubble of a utopian community, an untraceable blip where absence may be enacted. The vulture in “Lazarus the Vulture” never quite does harm, but it is what he doesn’t do that makes him a threat to the narrator; his hunger—unseen, unmeasured—always wields the potential for violence beneath an apparently cheery façade.

In many stories, fear is marked by the inability to articulate what is happening, to oneself or to others. In “Bone Animals,” as the husband and son of Downey’s protagonist turn silently against her efforts to keep the family alive, she states plainly that “A man who doesn’t say what’s on his mind is dangerous.” In “Visitor,” years of estrangement between mother and child culminate in a violent release of resentment and grief, prodded by Kermit the Frog, a conveniently silent and limp villain. The ladies of “Soroche” say very little by talking a lot, recounting petty criticisms and subtly victim-blaming their friend, only to absolve themselves in investigations into her sudden lurch over a cliff, about which few explicit words are dedicated. The unlucky characters of “In the Mountains” are literally in a doomed, unexplainable time warp, unable to understand their patriarch's only warning—don’t cover or touch the twin mirrors—and unable to avoid their deadly fate.

In other stories, desire is the vehicle of lo no dicho, inspiring teenage girls to fantasize about those who would do them harm in “That Summer in the Dark” and grown women to project hope onto the disease of a prophetic, conveniently less privileged man in “The Man with the Leg.” The protagonist in “The House of Compassion” is, on the one hand, being held by the nuns against her will. On the other hand, she feels a pleasant sense of belonging and safety letting the nun’s canine doppelganger take her place on the side of the road.

In each story, characters are unsure where to direct their fears, unable to articulate what exactly they’re afraid of and, often, simultaneously attracted to. In this way, the presence of the unsaid takes center-stage throughout the collection, whether expressed through an absent villain, an unarticulated danger, or an unspeakable desire. It is this slipperiness that creates unease, strangeness, and alienation, both in the characters and in the reader. Of the enduring dread left behind by horrifying acts, Enriquez’s 15-year-old protagonist says it best: “We all know that bloodstains are the hardest things to clean, even once they’re impossible to see.”

Of course, violence is invisible until it isn’t, remains hidden until it strikes out from the grass like a snake through the night. Indeed, the girls long for a local serial killer until their neighbor brutally murders his wife and daughter, lending their fear the legitimacy and corporeality they craved. The violent exposure of the leaked sex tape in “Soroche" is denigrating precisely because the volume of the violation—in significance, in decibels—drowns out the protagonist’s voice or ability to consent. Similarly, Downey’s protagonist sees plainly what her husband is capable of once she sees that he has dug her grave. Lo no dicho, then, speaks also to the inadequacy of words in the face of violent acts.

Keeping in mind Hernández’s reflection that fear and silence arrive together and only when the immediate danger has passed, the authors writing about the horrifying and unusual flourish here—writing against silence, toward a fear that can, in fact, be articulated, contextualized, and shared.

Taking into account the role of lo no dicho in the stories of Through the Night Like a Snake, the achievement of the collection’s translators also comes into view: how does one translate the absent, silent, and unspeakable? How does one carry over what is hidden, erased, or covered up? Through deft reconstruction in English of the clues, evasions, and fixations language does articulate, the translators of the collection reveal the silhouette of lo no dicho, slithering underneath the words.

Through the Night Like a Snake is available for purchase now. In a recent Message of Solidarity, the Center for the Art for Translation and Two Lines Press pledged to divide $15,000 of Two Lines Press book sales this spring between Middle East Children’s Alliance and Palestine Children’s Relief Fund.

Liliana Torpey is a writer from Oakland, California and NACLA’s Development Associate. She received her B.A. in International Studies with a concentration in Literature and a regional specialization in Latin America from the University of California, San Diego.

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