In Fernanda Melchor’s story “La Casa del Estero,” from her collection Aquí no es Miami (2018), a group of friends spend the night in “la casa del diablo” (the devil’s house), an abandoned property near their hometown in the state of Veracruz that the locals believe to be haunted. Toward the end of the night, one of the women in the group appears to succumb to a demonic possession. Her eyes go blank, she hits her friends with astonishing strength, and she speaks in tongues. Her friends take her to a healer for an exorcism, which doesn’t work. During the process, the spirit—clearly a male force—claims he is entitled to the woman’s body because she chose to enter the house herself: “She sought me, she went looking for me!” it says through her transformed voice. “This bitch is mine!”
It would be easy to read the story as an allegory. Male violence against women is rampant in Mexico. There were 1,006 registered murders of women in 2019, a 137 percent increase since 2014. Veracruz, Melchor’s home state, on the eastern coast of Mexico, has the highest number of femicides in the country. But to read the story in this way would be to ignore the presence of magic in Mexican life. Veracruz is also the center of Mexico’s witchcraft industry, which peaked in the 1950s when a local warlock, Gonzalo Aguirre Pech, became famous enough to add politicians and film stars to his usual clientele of farmers.
The brujo’s success was partly the result of a shift in the trade itself. Though most brujos until then were sought for “white” services, mainly herbal healing, Aguirre Pech claimed to have ascended Cerro Mono Blanco, a hill near Lake Catemaco, and bartered his soul with the devil for dark powers. Ever since, the town by the lake—also named Catemaco—has been known for the black magic practiced by Aguirre Pech’s apprentices. Although many patrons still request limpias, or cleansings of evil spirits, most have become more interested in spells concerning sex and love—or, rather, sex and hate. People go for amarres (love spells) as much as they go for vengeance.
Belief in the existence of evil spirits has long flourished in Mexico. As with many aspects of its culture, Mexican spirituality is a combination of Catholic faith, pre-Columbian rituals, and, on the eastern coast, the heritage of African slaves. The invisible is as much a part of the Mexican world as the visible, so to write about these matters means to engage with fiction less than it might elsewhere. Melchor is a trained journalist, and Aquí no es Miami was advertised as a collection not of short stories—although that is, deliciously, how they read—but of literary journalism. (The Spanish term to describe them, crónica, has a wider scope than the English “memoir” or “report,” both accepted translations; whatever the pieces in this book are, most of them are narrated in Melchor’s own voice.)
Mexican writers have long been fascinated by this blend of dark myth and dark reality. An early and influential example is the journalist and novelist Jorge Ibargüengoitia’s The Dead Girls (1977), a novel about killings at a brothel written to resemble a police report, and based on real events. (One of the epigraphs to Melchor’s newly translated novel, Hurricane Season, is from Dead Girls: “Some of the events described here are real. All of the characters are invented.”)
Similar themes can be found in the work of Roberto Bolaño, that writer who himself turned into a myth. His 2666 (2004) includes exhaustive accounts—crónicas—of the murders of women and girls in the town of Santa Teresa on the Mexican-American border, a barely veiled fictionalization of Ciudad Juárez. The element of mysticism is less evident in Bolaño than in Melchor, but one senses it in the motives of a poet in Distant Star (1996) who goes on a killing spree (including of former lovers), in the improbable luck that guides a pair of writers to an encounter with their elusive literary hero in the desert, in The Savage Detectives (1998), and in the threatening atmosphere pervading every event in 2666, from the inexplicable presence in Mexico of a murderous German writer, in the book’s opening pages, to the ominous smile of a female politician toward the end.
The mysterious forces at play in Melchor’s stories are so palpable that one hardly questions their reality. In “La Casa del Estero,” Melchor asks her date, one of the men who had been at the devil’s house that night, “So you really believe in the devil?”
“I can’t tell you it doesn’t exist,” he answered me. It had started to rain again. “It would be selfish to say no: the universe is vast; there must be incomprehensible, immeasurable energies at work in it. We humans are microscopic shits in this universe; we are nothing. What we know is nothing compared to what we do not know, to what we cannot control.”
There is much that remains unknown in Melchor’s Hurricane Season. Published originally in Spanish in 2017, the novel tells the story of a femicide that occurs in an inhospitably hot, God-forsaken town in a region that is unnamed but is revealed by the plantations of sugar cane, the presence of an oil company, and the effects of industrial development to be a fictionalized Veracruz. The victim is a social outcast whom everybody calls “the Witch.” Her mother had been the local sorceress (“the Old Witch”) to whom people used to turn when they needed supernatural help. Most often, the clients were women; most often, their requests involved men: “Potions to pin down the men, to really knock them off their feet, and indeed potions to ward the bastards off for good.” (Also, it is revealed later, potions to get rid of the creatures “growing inside” the women as a result of the efficacy of the first potion.)
After learning of the Witch’s murder, we are told about her mother’s earlier death in a hurricane that devastated La Matosa, the village where the Old Witch and her fatherless child lived. After the village is rebuilt, presumably many years later (how long exactly is not clear), only the child begins to appear in the streets again, now grown: a tall, thin spectral figure, always clothed in black, as if in permanent mourning.
Most of the novel is recounted in flashback: the Witch inherits the Old Witch’s house on the outskirts of the village but not her place among the locals, who respected and feared her. We only ever learn about the Witch through the eyes of the villagers; her own perspective is unknown to us, as it is to them. We know that she lusts after the workers who are laying new roads because we see her spying on them from the other side of the cane fields. We know she doesn’t lack for money because she refuses payment on the only occasion one of the villagers requests a potion from her (from this, we also know that she’s familiar with her mother’s trade). Most perplexingly, we are tantalized with the prospect that she might be a man, because we hear locals whispering about her stature, her voice, and her strong, claw-like hands. But the obscurity of the Witch’s gender is not the only plausible explanation for the ostracism; this is a society with as much of a place for the concept of transgender women as for the concept of women who can live without a man.
Either way, we also learn that the Witch is not all that alone. Late at night, when the women of the town are sleeping, the men who disparage her during the day attend the booze- and drug-filled parties she hosts in her basement. And we learn that one of them is Luismi, her killer; the young man has a seemingly romantic relationship with the Witch but only allows himself to be seen with her at these clandestine parties.
The novel’s themes—poverty (and all that comes with it: dire working conditions, educational deprivation), repressed sexuality, political corruption, and the opium of religion—all point to its main subject, which is violence. But to list these as elements of a Mexican story is to assert a platitude, and Melchor’s novel is not a catalog of the country’s troubles. Hurricane Season is, first and foremost, a horror story—its horror coming from rather than contrasting with the lyricism of Melchor’s prose. Instead of supplying a welcome breeze in the heat, the local river is where the children who find the Witch’s body “finally recognized what was peeping out from the yellow foam on the water’s surface: the rotten face of a corpse.” This face appears to the children as a “dark mask seething under a myriad of black snakes.” The air itself is suddenly thick with “a terrible smell that hit them harder than a fistful of sand in the face, a stench that made them want to hawk it up before it reached their guts.”
The lush imagery gives way to the kaleidoscope of stories that converge in the Witch’s murder. There is the story of the Old Witch, who was rumored to be sleeping with the devil. There is the story of a family whose matriarch, Doña Tina, enforces a system of racist and sexist beliefs that benefit only her son, Maurilio, and her grandson, Luismi, at the expense of every woman in the family, including Doña Tina herself. There is the story of Chabela and Munra, a married couple supported by Chabela’s sex work. (Chabela justifies the burden by saying, ruefully, that while no longer “a real handsome fucker,” her husband can still “do things with his tongue you wouldn’t believe.”)
Then there is Norma, a thirteen-year-old girl who runs away from an abusive home and ends up in La Matosa by chance, interrupting her original plan to reach a coastal town farther south, where she hoped to find a cliff she remembered from a happy trip and then jump off it. And there is Brando, a young man who struggles to come to terms with sexual desires that both scare and tempt him and which he must keep secret from his fanatically religious mother. Finally, traversing them all is Luismi, an opaque character whose behavior swerves from repulsive, as when he remains impervious to the suffering of his own family, to sympathetic, as when he takes in the wandering Norma, when he too struggles with his sexuality, and when we read about the impossibly beautiful voice with which he sings at the Witch’s underground gatherings.
Melchor never explicitly states that Luismi is the murderer, but it is obvious. A motive is suggested from the start: rumor has it that along with that massive house, the Witch received, as part of her inheritance, a treasure of some kind that would ensure she would never have to work. Surely there is something of value in that room upstairs, the one that, whenever some drunk guest strays from the debauchery of the basement, she madly rushes in to guard?
Melchor’s kaleidoscope keeps circling around the untold source of the horrors, and we, like the men tempted by that room, are increasingly keen to unveil it. This is an effect of the structure of the novel as much as of its writing. Sophie Hughes’s translation renders the expansive, punishing spirit of Mexican slang so impressively that one wonders whether the harsher sounds of English, with its recurrent k’s and t’s and its shorter words, in fact suit the novel better. (Then one peeks at Melchor’s Spanish and is reminded of the original’s expressive force.) Sentences are so long that one loses one’s breath reading them.
In the long section of 2666 called “The Part About the Crimes,” Bolaño warns us in the voice of a female journalist: “No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them.” The point of Bolaño’s detailed homicide reports is to make us aware of some universality that transcends them. There is a hidden truth in the Witch’s murder as well—we can sense it. What is this secret?
Melchor has said that she was inspired to write Hurricane Season by a story she saw in the newspaper:
I was surprised because the journalist told the story in a way that made it sound normal to think that a crime could be motivated by witchcraft. The murderer had killed the witch because she was doing witchcraft to make him fall back in love with her. I was stunned by this and I just wanted to write the story behind the crime.
People have asked Melchor if the novel reflects Mexican reality. She has answered, rightly, that “there are lots of different environments in Mexico’s society” and that, among them, “it’s true that there [exist] these really dark and really dangerous places.” But the boundaries between those environments are porous. Reading Hurricane Season, I saw the really dark and dangerous places I’ve grazed the surface of during my travels across the country, belonging myself, like Melchor, to a safer sphere—the educated, middle-class, urban minority. At the same time, memories came back to me of the way my grandmother would take an egg and pass it over me, then crack it in a glass of water, to rid me of evils. (Once she suspected a neighbor had given me the evil eye; another time, she considered the stomach bug I had to be mysteriously stubborn.) How much of La Matosa’s “dark and dangerous” superstitions permeate Melchor’s and my safer worlds?
The belief (or perhaps it’s a hope) that goodness is worldly but evil is supernatural is presumably not unique to Mexico. It is only too human to blame misfortunes on some distinct agent other than ourselves. In a scene late in Hurricane Season, Brando, who helped Luismi with the murder, sits in a cell listening to another inmate howl, “Mamaaaaaaaa…mama, forgive me, mamita.” His cellmate explains: “This junkie kills his own mother, smashes her head in on some crackhead fucking rampage then says the devil did it! I mean, Jesus fucking Christ!” Early last year, a real crime in Mexico City reflected both this extraordinary violence and this denial of responsibility. A man came home from a night out drinking and responded to his partner’s complaint by stabbing, disemboweling, and skinning her. A video that was leaked to the media—along with photographs of the victim’s body—shows him saying that he had been possessed by the devil.
There is a danger in attributing male violence to impaired states of mind: the fictional murderer was a “crackhead”; the real one was blind drunk. “A murderer of women is not a sick man,” read several placards in the women-led protests that reached the Presidential Palace following the murder in Mexico City; rather, “he is a healthy product of patriarchy.” This is a piece of painful wisdom, and it casts the forgiving of men and the blaming of demons in a new, political light. To see the truth about male violence one needs to look beyond individual crimes to the larger system of oppression.
What may have first struck the reader as inconsistencies in Hurricane Season—is this a book about misogyny? Transphobia? Repressed sexuality?—are in fact manifestations of the same thing: patriarchal violence. Women, trans people, and gay men are all its victims. The secret forces behind the horrors in Melchor’s novel are not sicknesses of the mind or evil spirits, but the system of beliefs and concrete practices that maintain the patriarchal order.
In one of Hurricane Season’s most heart-wrenching scenes, Doña Tina, having received the news that her grandson has been arrested on suspicion of killing the Witch, cries herself into a fatal fit but manages still, in the midst of her spasms, to cast one final, hateful glance on her eldest granddaughter, Yesenia, whom Doña Tina knows to have “snitched” on her adored Luismi:
In the faintest of voices Yesenia begged for forgiveness and explained that it had all been for her, but it was too late: once again, Grandma hit Yesenia where it hurt most, dying right there, trembling with hate in the arms of her eldest granddaughter.
The news that kills Doña Tina is not that Luismi might be a murderer (the Witch’s life has, after all, no value to her); rather, it is the unbearable fact that Luismi’s own cousin betrayed him and that, worse yet, Doña Tina herself failed in her primary duty, as the family’s matriarch, to protect him.
Latin America is not, of course, the only place ruled by patriarchal law. But it’s noteworthy that the practice of exonerating men there is supported by a system of magical beliefs. These narratives of exoneration can, at times, yield gripping literature. Salvador Elizondo’s Farabeuf (1965), another horror story about murderous desires (in this case, a man’s obsession with dissecting a living woman), is told through the voice of the murderer; his aim is to remind his victim that she had, in a past life, sworn she’d let him kill her. The man’s fate and the woman’s are said to have been sealed by a secret ritual; vivisection is supposed to be the man’s ultimate act of love toward her. “You must concentrate,” he insists to her throughout the novel; “you must concentrate so that you will never forget.” And he repeatedly asks her, “Do you remember? Do you remember?”
Bolaño’s Distant Star is the portrait of a troubled young poet. His first killing, of twin sisters, occurs matter-of-factly, as a natural, if extreme, consequence of the aura of wickedness that surrounds him. It is the same aura that attracted the sisters—and, presumably, the rest of his victims—in the first place, and which explains his uncanny literary talent. Finally he confesses his crimes to his closest friends and family during a private literary performance. Just as femicide was, for the murderer in Farabeuf, the ultimate display of love, in Distant Star it is the poet’s ultimate artistic gesture.
Mystical narratives are responsible to some extent for the belief that the lives killers are taking are not as valuable as their own. In The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950), Octavio Paz described the unsettling way women are viewed in the Mexican imagination:
The Mexican considers woman to be a dark, secret and passive being. He does not attribute evil instincts to her; he even pretends she does not have any…. She is an incarnation of the life force, which is essentially impersonal….
Woman does not seek, she attracts, and the center of attraction is her hidden, passive sexuality. It is a secret and immobile sun.
If a woman’s life is closer to an animal’s or a plant’s, even to a cosmic body, then her death is just nature purging itself of an outgrowth, and the man who kills her is simply facilitating a natural process.
It is considered bad taste to take Paz’s view of Mexico seriously these days. Surely the culture Paz was describing must be extinct, we tell ourselves; Mexico has modernized substantially in the past seventy years. Yet murderers still blame demons for their crimes; journalists still present those crimes as stories about “possessed” men murdering “witches.” The writers with whom Melchor shares an interest in femicide—Ibargüengoitia, Bolaño, Elizondo—may have been drawn in by the politics of the subject. Only Melchor has exposed the “secret” behind these murders as the moral—that is, human—failure it is.