Brief EncountersInternational LiteratureShort Fiction

31 Days of Stories 2020, Day 3: “Musique Concrète” by Amparo Dávila; Audrey Harris and Matthew Gleeson, trans.

From The Houseguest

The Houseguest by Amparo Dávila

Amparo Dávila has been referred to as “the Mexican queen of the uncanny”, and with good reason. Her stories are not precisely works of horror, but they do traffic in the realm of the subconscious and there are indisputably weird and terrifying incidents contained in her work. In “Moses and Gaspar,” the protagonist adopts the titular pets after his brother’s death; they proceed to wreak havoc on his life (they may be possessed by demons, or even be demons themselves). In “The Houseguest,” a wife feels threatened by a mysterious visitor her husband installs in the house. And in “Oscar,” a woman is tormented by the eponymous figure, who rules her life from the shadows of a basement cellar.

The straightforward plots of Dávila’s stories might appear to evoke Poe, who is one clear antecedent, but the strain of paranoia that runs through her fiction also recalls Kafka. But where the source of Kafka’s paranoia was institutional, in Dávila’s work it is always domestic: the tormentors and antagonists always reside close to home. (Dávila has also been compared to Shirley Jackson.)

The central conflict in “Musique Concrète” involves a love triangle. The story’s protagonist, Sergio, has recently reunited with Marcela, an old friend (their romantic entanglement is limited to “a few innocent kisses” many years in the past). Marcela is the wife of Luis, whom she has discovered is having an affair. To this point, the story remains solidly in the realm of naturalism. It takes a hard left turn to the bizarre when Marcela admits the reason she is so unnerved: she is convinced that Luis’s lover is stalking her at night, standing outside her window and croaking like a toad. The distraught woman thinks that her husband’s lover might actually be some kind of hideous monstrosity that resembles a humanoid toad.

Marcela describes the mistress’s “bulging, expressionless” eyes and the “one sound that stood out among the rest, growing stronger and clearer, closer and closer until it reached my window.” Sergio tries in vain to convince Marcela that what she hears is simply the croaking of an actual toad in her garden, but she insists that she is being hounded into madness by the approach of the monstrous woman who is her husband’s lover.

I’m not sleeping anymore, I haven’t dared to sleep for a while now, I’d be at her mercy, I spend my nights lying awake listening to the noises from the garden, and among them I recognize her sound, I know it when she arrives, when she comes close to my window and spies on my every move; the slightest bit of carelessness and I’d be done for.

The sense of creeping dread that Dávila creates is palpable and all the more heightened for her refusal to become overly specific in Marcela’s descriptions of the mysterious figure she believes is harassing her. The monster outside her bedroom window may be a manifestation of her own troubled psyche, it may be a figment of her imagination, or it may be Luis’s hideous lover actually trying to drive her insane or worse. The uncanny elements in the story are rendered more chilling by the absence of any explanation.

Sergio, meanwhile, exhibits a strain of machismo that is bruised by his inability to say anything that might shake Marcela out of what he clearly believes to be a nervous delusion. “Fantasies belong to childhood, it’s absurd to be so cut off from reality at her age,” says Velia, Sergio’s girlfriend. Sergio agrees but also realizes that his old friend is being driven to distraction – or is driving herself to distraction – by the degree to which she actually believes in the horrendous sounds and visions she narrates.

Overcome by a sense of impotence in his inability to make things better for his old friend, Sergio tracks down Luis’s mistress and confronts her; the scene ends in an act of violence when Sergio finally takes action on Marcela’s behalf.

Whether Sergio has been infected by the same paranoia that has possessed Marcela or whether he in fact sees the other woman for what she really is remains unclear. Is Marcela’s particular madness rubbing off on Sergio or is he so consumed by what he feels is his masculine duty to protect his friend that he convinces himself of something unreal and impossible? A lesser writer would answer these questions. By leaving them hanging, Dávila ensures her weird, uncanny, psychologically warped story has a much greater impact than would be the case otherwise.

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