Women in Horror Week: Amparo Dávila

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

I will never forget the day he came to live with us. My husband brought him back from a trip. We had been married for nearly three years, had two children, and I was unhappy. I represented for my husband something close to furniture, which one is used to seeing in a determined place, but that causes little impression. We lived in a small town, isolated and distant from the city. A nearly dead town, or about to disappear.

“The Guest” by Amparo Dávila

A way to snub the work of Dávila is to condemn it to the horror literature shelf. The other is to read it from the couch: to say that that does not exist, that those apparitions and beasts and voices are mere fantasy, fables of repressed characters. But that does exist, if not in the world, in literature.
Rafael Lemus, Letras Libres

I had not considered discussing Amparo Dávila until Nelly Geraldine Garcia-Rosas mentioned her short story “El Husped” (The Guest). And then I thought, Why not? True, Amparo Dávila is unknown to Anglo writers, but perhaps this could be remedied if more people learned about her.

Amparo Dávila was born in 1928 in Zacatecas, Mexico. She distinguishes herself for her short stories, which, as Alberto Chimal explains, “often dealt with what is not seen and not said, the imprecise – the unsettling – which is just beyond language and experience.”

In style, she could be compared to Shirley Jackson and Daphne du Maurier, often dealing with female characters, madness, violence, and death. However, due to the mechanics of literary classification in Latin America (which I won’t go into), she is not defined in her native country as a speculative writer but as a short storyteller (cuentista). León Guillermo Gutiérrez states that:

It has been insisted that her work belongs to the genre of the fantastic, but it is more pertinent to say that she has used phantasmagorical beings to reinforce reality.

Nevertheless, to Anglo readers, Amparo would most likely reside in the realm of psychological horror. This is exemplified in her most famous story, “The Guest.” A housewife watches in horror as an unnamed visitor comes to stay with her family. Whether “the guest” is human, animal, or some monstrous entity remains unsaid. This makes the dread greater as, day by day, the guest invades the woman’s space. The only solution, in the end, is murder.

Most of Dávilas’ stories follow a similar pattern. The main character (often a woman) lives a mundane existence until something shatters the facade of normality. In “El patio cuadraro” (“The Square Patio”), the protagonist experiences deathly premonitions, including the suicide of a man, a vision of a friend as a corpse without a face, threatening encounters. Nightmare or insanity? Reality slowly is chipped away, leaving only naked terror.

La señorita Julia (“Miss Julia”) tells the story of an ordinary office worker who descends into madness due to a case of severe insomnia. She hears noises at night, blames it on rats, and begins a fight against the invisible vermin:

When the noise subsided, it was early in the morning. Julia rose full of anxiety to see how many rats had fallen into the rat traps. She did not find a single one.

Música concreta” (Concrete Music) centers on a woman who believes her husband’s lover can change shape and become a woman-frog who croaks below her window every night.

A man inherits two pets in “Moisés y Gaspar.” The “pets” move furniture around, scream and take over his apartment. Are they pets? Demons? Has the man gone insane?

I had to get up at six to go buy milk and the rest of the groceries – then make breakfast, which took me until seven, according to their customs. If I was late, they grew angry, which frightened me, for I did not know how far their rage could reach.

Amparo Dávila occupies an odd space in Mexican literature. An award-winning writer, her predilection for the macabre made her difficult to classify (as can be seen by some of the quotes included in this article). Unable to fit in the realist post-Revolutionary storytelling mode or the magic-realist stream, she straddles both the fantastic and the mundane. For a long time out of print, her stories were collected in 2009, in Cuentos reunidos (Collected Stories). Several of her most famous tales are also easily found online, albeit in Spanish.

Interested in reading Amparo’s work? The only story I’ve found in English is “The Guest,” which is included in the anthology, Three Messages and a Warning, which collects more than thirty fantastic stories by Mexican authors. The book was released last year. I blame myself, and only myself, for not giving it a proper review (Cthulhu eats up my spare time). Take that as your cue to check it out.