Book Review: The Houseguest, by Amparo Dávila
By AM Larks
The Houseguest by Amparo Dávila, translated by Audrey Harris & Matthew Gleeson, is a collection of stories so haunting and so tinged with the surreal that it reminds the reader of the pleasure of being scared. Dávila, whose stories feel both timeless and timely, accomplishes this distress by blending well-known horror tropes with real-world details.
On that day, the sixth of August, Oscar had been unbearable since sunrise. One of the medicines he took, which calmed him down quite a bit, had run out at the pharmacy, and the doctor had substituted another that had little effect on him. He had been shouting for hours, howling, ranting, breaking everything within reach in the cellar, furiously shaking the padlocked iron door, throwing the furniture against it.
The monster in the basement is alive and well in Dávila’s “Oscar,” but it’s the details of the pharmacies and doctors that make this story resonate with modern readers, eliciting fears of madness that cannot be conquered by contemporary medicine. Strange sounds, unidentified creatures, and the buried returning to life throughout Dávila’s narratives.
At nearly six in the evening she heard a light rasping sound, something dragging itself across the floor, barely touching the surface; she sat still, without breathing . . . yes, there wasn’t the slightest doubt, that’s what it was, they were coming closer, closer, slowly and steadily . . . and her eyes perceived a faint shadow beneath the door . . . yes, they were there, they had arrived…
As evidenced in the above citation from “The Last Summer,” many of Dávila’s stories feature an actual or metaphorical haunting, but it’s the arrangement of The Houseguest that allows the reader to appreciate fully the interrelatedness of Dávila’s works. Each story is paired with its echo, a reverberation that allows the reader to recall details of the first story and reinterpret details. In “Moses and Gaspar,” the reader is introduced to a grieving narrator taking possession of his beloved departed brother’s belongings, which include Moses and Gaspar. Entering the apartment “[t]here were Moses and Gaspar, but when they saw me they fled in terror. The woman said she’d been feeding them twice a day — and yet, to me, they looked all skin and bones.” Moses and Gaspar are unidentified living creatures for the entirety of the story. Perhaps they are pets. Perhaps they are children, because what pets eat fruit and cheese?
It was after eleven at night when we arrived at my house. The train had been delayed more than four hours. The three of us were completely worn out. All that I had to offer Moses and Gaspar was some fruit and a little bit of cheese. They ate without enthusiasm, watching me suspiciously. I threw some blankets down in the living room so they could sleep, then shut myself in my room and took a sleeping pill.
As frightening as it is to read about the depersonalization in “Moses and Gaspar,” the story is followed by the titular story, “The Houseguest,” which is about another unidentified creature that is probably, hopefully, a pet. “I’ll never forget the day he came to live with us. My husband brought him home from a trip.” Though “Moses and Gaspar” may have ended, the reader continues to reflect on its narrative possibilities when reading about the creature in “The Houseguest.”
From the first day, my husband gave him the corner room. It was a large room, but I never used it because it was dark and damp. He, however, seemed content in there. Being quite dark, it suited his needs. He would sleep until night fell; I never discovered what time he went to bed.
This echoing allows each story to continue past its page count because each new piece shifts the perspective of its mate. Sometimes it’s a child, sometimes it’s a pet; sometimes it’s from the creature’s point of view, and sometimes from the family’s.
Every story seems possible in the world that Dávila creates, despite their fantastical nature which is reminiscent of Ursula K. LeGuin, who also shares the ability to make the surreal appear plausible It is quite workaday in a Dávila story for the narrator to watch himself walk down the street.
He was buying the evening paper when he saw himself walk by with a blonde woman. He froze, perplexed. The man was himself, no doubt about it. Not a twin or a look-alike — it was he who had passed by, wearing the English cashmere suit and striped tie his wife had given him for Christmas.
Dávila is a master of form and story, and the tales in The Houseguest will linger long after the last word has been read.
AM Larks writes fiction and nonfiction. She has performed her stories at Lit Up at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette, California. She is the former Blog Editor of The Coachella Review and contributes reviews and interviews to, and is a reader for, TCR. She has earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California Riverside–Palm Desert’s low-residency program. She lives in Northern California.