The Houseguest by Amparo Dávila
Reading Amparo Dávila’s The Houseguest is an experience of recognizing the ineffable: feelings of dread, paranoia, and angst adopt eerie and familiar forms in these twelve excellent stories. Dávila’s work echoes Nikolai Gogol and his many disciples, from Shirley Jackson to Leonora Carrington, and her very-short stories each flow with a confounding efficiency. Dávila writes in a way that is both dreamy and exact, surreal and oddly representational; The Houseguest feels like an exquisitely paced bout of somnambulism, in step with some of the best short work of the genre.
“Moses and Gaspar,” the first story in the collection, is a haunting introduction to Dávila’s world and shows readers how effortlessly she balances the thoughtful and the unsettling. A narrator is faced with the unpleasant task of making arrangements for his recently-deceased brother’s things, including dealing with Moses and Gaspar. Although the apartment caretaker said she had been feeding them twice a day, “they looked all skin and bones” after the man’s death. She was the one who found the body and saw them lying quietly at his feet, as if asleep. The story unfolds through memories of the narrator and his brother’s relationship, and drifts through the narrator’s grief and the inconceivable adjustments that he will have to make in his brother’s absence, particularly now that the all-consuming Moses and Gaspar are in his care.
After only seven pages (about halfway through the story), a sense of dread can be felt radiating from somewhere below the stomach. Dávila does not say it outright, but readers will know: Moses and Gaspar are most certainly not a dead man’s pets and Dávila’s working with something much more complicated. The story ends without an explicit unmasking of whatever strangeness she’s conjured, and readers are left to ponder these two entities. What if Moses and Gaspar are allegorical, not creatures but personifications of grief? Or of emotional baggage, or the idea of carrying memories that you might never want to lose?
In “The Houseguest,” a man allows a vampiric creep to stay in his house while he’s away on business, leaving his wife and their housekeeper to squirm in fear and discomfort. It’s a perfectly spooky story, and one that can also be unpacked like “Moses and Gaspar”: this guest may be symbolic of marital subservience, or of overcoming an unrecognized dependency on having a man in the house.
Many stories in The Houseguest can be read as feminist allegories, about women facing, recognizing, and occasionally conquering an inconceivable obstacle. In “The Cell,” a fearful woman is smothered (literally, maybe) by societal and marital pressures. When her fiancé takes a business trip to New York, “she felt a sudden happiness at the mere thought of being free of his presence for a few days. She felt the cage that had begun to close around her suddenly breaking apart.” But she loses this fight, declaring at the end of the story in a manic ramble, “how lovely to be prisoner in a castle, how lovely!”
In “Musique Concrète,” the longest and one of the best stories in the collection, a man learns of a old acquaintance’s struggles with a stalker who also happens to be a giant toad. These two characters discuss fear and imagination at length in scenes that allow Dávila an opportunity to articulate some of the more complex themes that she carries through the stories in The Houseguest:
“You’re letting yourself get carried away too fast by your imagination and your worked-up nerves,” the man says. “Stop, dear, it’s a very dangerous path, and sometimes it’s just one step, a step that’s very easy to take, and then…”
“How can you possibly say such things to me,” she replies. “It’s not my imagination, it’s not a dream, it’s not my nerves as you call them, it’s a reality so terrifying that it’s driving me insane…”
Davila’s stories show the power in recognition: her characters see through what some may diminish as fantasies or a woman’s hysterics. The Houseguest stirs from a dream, and sees the madness of the waking world.