Some Ghostly Tales From South America

A Lackadaisical Overview of Magic Realists' Short Story Art

Jessica Amanda Salmonson


HangingJoao Guimaraes Rosa (1908-1967) was a Brazilian diplomat & physician whose short stories of rural Brazil are sophisticated, elegant & macabre. The term Magic Realism is frequently used to distinguish South American from North American fantasy. But Rosa's influences included Poe for weirdness & Hawthorne for descriptiveness, so that any distinction between the weird tales of the two continents is mostly artificial.

Primeiras Estorias (Rio de Janeira: Livraria Jose Olympio Editora, 1962) was translated by Barbara Shelby as The Third Bank of the River & Other Stories (NY: Knopf, 1968). It is a superior collection for anyone who loves a ghostly tale. The title story has been anthologized a couple of times so has a degree of fame among English language readers. Like the majority of Rosa's stories, "Third Bank" is set in the backlands of the state of Minas Gerais, somewhat comparable to a North American setting in, say, Appalachia. "Third Bank" is an excellent choice for a title story because it captures the double meanings & mysticism for which Rosa is duly famed to Portuguese language readers. In a general sense, a third bank is a place unachievable by the living. On a literal level, the story regards a young man's father who sets out in a canoe only to discover he cannot reach the second bank, nor return to the first bank. He remains a ghostly presence in his canoe on the river year after year, unchanging, near but unreachable. By the end, the narrator is reduced to stark terror when his father finally acknowledges him, this being an omen of his own impending death.

The eerie ambiguities of the title story is typical of many in the collection. "The Mirror" sets out to explain "the transcendent nature" embodied by the mystery of one's own reflection. It poses simple conundrums, like why do we always seem to see ourselves as the same in a mirror, whereas a roll of film shot all in one hour will reveal us to look very different one frame to the next. The intimation is that what we see in a mirror is a disguise that protects us from viewing our true & terrifying selves.

A more sentimental approach to the weird tale is provided by "The Girl from Beyond." It regards a strange village child whom nothing perturbs, whose capacity for working miracles increases during her short life, until she foresees even her own death with the same imperturbability. Another miraculous figure is "A Young Man, Gleaming, White" who is either a madman who survived an inexplicable cataclysm in the 1870s, or an angel who fell from another world (or out of heaven) instigating the cataclysm when he struck the earth.

An earlier collection, Sagarana (Rio de Janeira: Livraria Jose Olympio Editora, 1946) was translated as Sagarana: A Cycle of Stories (NY: Knopf, 1966). It seems not to be the equal of Third Bank, but this may be the fault of Harriet de Onas, whose translations of sundry authors from Spanish & Portuguese invariably read imperfectly. The tale "Woodland Witchery" regards a feud with a sorcerer. The supernatural element is strong, but the real strength of the story, as with the others, is in describing Brazilian village life & mores. The mysticism is weaker & there are fewer interesting ambiguities than in Third Bank. None of the Sagarana stories have the degree of emotion, whether of terror or sentiment, & seem really to be about people trying to get along with one another despite villagers' foibles & infighting.

Happily the better of the two collections is a little easier to find, though both can be fairly expensive whenever they pop up among booksellers.


Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908) was Brazil's first great short story writer. Between 1858-1906 he penned over 200 short stories, of which around thirty are available in English. The stories he penned from the 1880s until the end of his life are considered matchless in the Brazilian language. His translators unfortunately have not been as keen on that percentage of his work that is fantastic, & someone ought to provide us a selection of his satiric fantasies. In the meantime, a representative selection of nineteen stories from his mature period is available as The Devil's Church & Other Stories (Austin & Ln: University of Texas Press, 1977). There was an earlier collection The Psychiatrist & Other Stories (1963) but I read it so long ago that I remember nothing about it. The Devil's Church, however, is memorable & charming, & the American first edition is a very handsomely designed hardcover with old wood engravings heading each story (it has also a trade paper edition). The lovely engravings were unfortunately dropped from the later UK first.

The authors Machado most resembles are Swift & Twain at their most bitingly satiric. Machado's criticisms of church & state have a universality that transcends any specifically Brazilian situation he may have had in mind. Particularly Swiftian is "The Bonzo's Secret." The title (alluding to a bonze or Buddhist monk) provided a pun in Portuguese meaning both "solemn" & "hypocrite." The doctrine of the sect is to instill in others beliefs the priests themselves do not hold. They amputate noses which are replaced with "metaphysical noses." The followers accept these metaphysical noses as unquestionably real.

More to the side of Twain is the collection's title story. The Devil finds it easy to win converts to his new Church by pandering to the most furtive, secret, & petty sins of otherwise pious people. But after he has won them to the overt sinfulness required by his doctrine, he is frustrated in his desire to completely corrupt humanity by their tendency to commit furtive good deeds.

Irony is Machado's truck & trade, as in the tale of reincarnation, "A Second Life," narrated by a man who died young, or the outright comedy, "A Canary's Ideas," a charming fable of a caged bird's misguided impressions of himself as master of the world. Perhaps the cruelest of the stories is "An Alexandrian Tale" which might be regarded as heroic fantasy, if a reader immerses herself in the incidents as literal rather than as satiric reflections on idealism used by modern governments to justify totalitarian evil. It recounts the career of a Ptolemaic surgeon, whose scientific theory for a perfected world requires the most grotesque experimentation upon living humans.


Horacio Quiroga (1879-1937) was born in Uruguay & died in Argentina of suicide by poison after he learned of his cancer. His life was enriched with adventure & marred with violence & tragedy, so that the abrupt hazards & cruelties of so many of his tales reflect actual experience. He was not without tenderness, however, & his children's fantasies, Cuentos de la selva (1918), available in English as Jungle Tales, make pleasing adult reading.

Quiroga revered Poe. A great number of his more than 200 stories are weird tales. They are available in Spanish in the Biblioteca Rodo Series under the collective title Cuentos (1937-1945). If someone with a love of the macabre & a good ear for translation mined this set, we would be given a truly great collection of supernatural horror. These haven't been what his translators have preferred up to now, but we do have a serviceable collection that shows Quiroga's full range in The Decapitated Chicken & Other Stories (Austin & Ln: University of Texas Press, 1976), which in its first hardcover edition is handsomely designed & illustrated. There is also a trade paperback.

In this representative set of tales, Quiroga comes across most often as a Spanish language d'Isle Adam possessed by the contes cruel, as in "The Decapitated Chicken" or "Drifting." His main theme is always death, even in the one story that ends well, "The Son." Some of the tales are pure adventure. "A Slap in the Face" reminded me of Owen Wister, an emotive author of westerns. "In the Middle of the Night" is a breathtaking tale of surviving a flood along the Upper Parana River, with a man & woman "spurred on by madness & disillusion" & doing in the Tropics what Jack London did for the sub-Arctic.

This collection is masterful despite under-representation of the supernatural stories Quiroga personally thought so important. There are, however, just enough weird tales in the mix to make the book sought-after by readers of same. "The Feather Pillow" has become famous among the current horde of vampire fans, as I've seen The Decapitated Chicken on many vampire readers' wantlists. The pillow itself is the vampire. "Sunstroke" is an elegant ghost story wherein a man's dogs observe the descent of Death upon their master.

A truly superior jungle tale is "Juan Darien" which one-ups Kipling at every stroke. This story could easily slip into an anthology about were-beasts. Juan Darien is a tiger who has taken the outer appearance of a human being to undergo human education. He soon learns of the faithless cruelty of men & how his own race is infinitely to be preferred. Another jungle tale, "Anaconda," is a powerful adventure told with unutterable sincerity from the anaconda's point of view.



In 1962, three earlier collections & a bestiary by Mexican author Juan Jose Arreola (b. 1918) were collected together with new stories as Confabulario Total 1941-1961, then done into a large English language hardcover with four divisions, & titled Confabulario & Other Inventions (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964), with negligible illustrations by Kelly Fearing. The volume begins with "Bestiary," of vignettes often a half-page each in length. Some have the tone of poems-in-prose, others of whimsical character studies commenting on the human state while disguised as natural history. The second section, "Prosody," consists of prose miniatures of varied subjects, some of them close to Baudelaire in attitude. Sixty-one pages into the collection, we reach the short stories & short-shorts, mixed into sections called "Confabulario" & "Various Inventions."

"A Pact with the Devil" takes its cliche subject & places it in an unusual environment. Satan in a cinema house attempts to bargain for the soul of a man who is watching a film about a deal with the devil. He fortunately refuses to finalize the bargain until he sees how the film ends! A handful of the stories resemble early Tom Disch. The fantastical "Announcement" satirizes the very advertising techniques Disch lampooned in "Fun With Your New Head." The excellent "Parable of the Exchange" tells of used-car-style misleading sales techniques for inducing husbands to exchange their old wives for robotic ones, from the point of view of a husband who is so out of step with things that he would rather keep his old wife. Other of the tales are highly mystical. "Paul" is a cashier in a bank who unexpectedly rises out of the banality of his everyday life & sets outward & inward on journeys that reveal to him the whole of the cosmos; there is something of the Kabbalah in this story, & is a clear precursor to Borges's justifiably famous "The Aleph." "God's Silence" is told in two letters, one left open on a table so that God will read it, the other God's reply. These mystical fancies are very beautiful & convey the author's interest in Gnosticism.

"I'm Telling You the Truth" is literary science fiction about a device for teleporting camels through the eye of a needle. A particularly eerie story is "The Bird Spider" about a man deathly afraid of spiders who nevertheless purchases a gigantic deadly poisonous variety to turn loose in his house. In "Small Town Affair," the attorney Don Fulgencio awakens one morning to discover splendid bulls' horns have sprouted from his head. The vignette "Autrui" swiftly outlines the paranoia of a corpse. "The Prodigious Milligram" is a long fable of an ant who in the course of diligently pursuing her duties steps slightly out of the line. To her surprise she must undergo trial & punishment in the Kafkaesque anthill. Unlike Kafka's maltreated heroes, however, our ant's martyrdom transforms the entirety of the hill. "The Fraud" is a strange, vague ghost story about a stove manufacturing mogul whose stoves cease to function after his death. In all, this is an inventive collection with a wide ranging approach to storytelling art.


To attempt to review Jorge Luis Borges (hard "g") is too daunting, so I will only mention a couple of my favorites among his many books. It is the rare writer who becomes a household name outside his original language, & rarer still that so great a genius is widely recognized, as opposed to some potpoiler novelist or television actor who becomes universally admired. From the point of view of a fantasy, horror, or ghost story reader, it is wonderful to think that a writer so gleefully influenced by American pulp magazines should indeed be recognized as a giant of letters. Few of the many academicians who have published their numerous monographs on Borges like to admit the great man read pulp magazines from the USA & even submitted stories to them: he accumulated rejection slips from science fiction pulps, but Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine was more rewarding for him. If any ghost story fan has avoided Borges out of the sentiment that anybody the academics delight in must therefore be stultifying – overcome your prejudice at once!

The Book of Sand (NY: Dutton, 1977) is predominantly supernatural. "There Are More Things" is Borges' homage to H. P. Lovecraft. "The Other" is his homage to the Poe of "William Wilson." Other stories have the avowed mark of H. G. Wells or Kafka to them. Most of the tales represent the author's last "period" of creativity, when he was somewhat apologetic about repeating themes already well-handled throughout his career. More representative of every period of his creative life is The Aleph & Other Stories 1933-1969 (NY: Dutton, 1970), a fat collection most of which is fantasy. Typical is my favorite, the title story, about an ordinary man who glimpses all of creation in a single letter of the alphabet.

A couple of my other favorites among Borges' titles are a bit less storyish: Dreamtigers (Austin/Ln: University of Texas, 1964) is a handsome slender book half poems & half poems-in-prose, the second category very winning; then there's an anthology of poems-in-prose co-edited with A. Bioy Casares, Extraordinary Tales (Ln: Souvenir Press, 1973; with a 1971 US edition I've not seen). Borges also edited, together with fantasists Silvina Ocampo & her husband A. Bioy Casares, The Book of Fantasy (NY: Viking, 1988), a thoroughly international & grand anthology first published (in Spanish) in 1940 & expanded in 1965. The US edition has an Ursula LeGuin introduction added.


I've often thought I'd one day write a good long essay about feminist supernatural writers of Latin America, but doubt I'll ever get around to it. As an introduction to women's weird tales I most strongly recommend Alberto Manguel's anthology Other Fires: Short Stories by Latin American Women (NY: Potter, 1986). Though not packaged as fantasy, almost all the stories are fantastic, in all senses of the word. A bit harder to find, but quite as good, is Short Stories by Latin American Women: The Magic & the Real (Houston: Arte Publico, 1990) edited by Celia Correas de Zapata, a big anthology that does not overlap Alberto's selection at all.

Three single-author collections stand out for me. Silvina Ocampo's Leopoldina's Dream (NY: Penguin, 1988) is a large choice of fantasy, including many ghost stories, such as the "House of Sugar" about a woman who quite rightly knew she should never have lived in a house that had previous occupants. Maria Luisa Bombal's New Islands & Other Stories (NY: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1982) is a small collection of weird tales all written before 1940, my favorite being "The Unknown," about a sunken ship whose crew does not realize they are dead. Lygia Fagundes Telles, a Brazillian, has published many collections in Portugese, a selection of which appeared in English only in small paperback format as Tigrela & Other Stories (NY: Avon Bard, 1986). The title story regards a woman possessed by a she-tiger's spirit & acts accordingly. The lead story, "Ants," tells of a box containing the bones of a dwarf. Night by night the box is visited by an army of ants who by stages put the skeleton together. This is a tremendously good collection & I dare say it would not have been relegated to paperback original except that a woman had written it.


I guess I'm getting pooped rereading stories a bit too hastily to refresh my memory, & am wearing down on the subject besides, so I'll end with a few rapid-fire recommendations. If the following books are getting short shrift, it's only because I ran out of steam, not because they are secondary; for the Columbian Gabriel Garcia Marqez is very likely the best of the lot, and I've practically skipped him entirely. I often regret selling my set of US first editions (in an hour of need) so that I have the majority of his tales only in the big omnibus Collected Stories, plus a follow-up volume of novellas, this set containing many of my truly favorite tales in the whole world. His later collection is Strange Pilgrims (NY: Knopf, 1993), contains a dozen first-rate weird tales.

Carlos Fuentes' Burnt Water (NY: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1980) includes Mexican ghost stories. My favorite tale is "Chac-Mool," about a householder who obtains a statue of the Rain-god which comes to life, drives the householder to suicide, & takes over the doomed man's house in order to live a typical (if rather damp) suburban life. Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa's The Beggar's Knife (San Francisco: City Lights, 1985) was translated by the great Paul Bowles. The small book consists of a great many short-short tales, many about ghosts, witchcraft, &c. Of slightly lesser interest (because it is closer to science fiction than supernatural) is his The Pelcari Projeact (Ln: Peter Owen, 1991), a single short story reading like a cynical, sadistic version of Kafka's The Trial.

Brazilian Jorge Amado's The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell (NY: Knopf, 1965) is a slim book consisting of the one short story. Though it never with great certainty leaps into outright supernaturalism, it is nevertheless a splendidly bizarre & funny tale of friends who invade Quincas's wake, steal his body, & take him on a last tour of adventure in the slums he'd loved so much more than his middle-class family life. Quincas's story is one of greatest tales ever to come out of Latin America. Another Brazilian, Murilo Rubiao, is inferior to most of these others, but The Ex-Magician & Other Stories (NY: Harper & Row, 1979) is chiefly weirds & contes cruel. One tale, "Teleco, the Rabbit," is memorably strange & sad, making up for the misogynist fables that mar parts of the book.

Julio Cortazar has a plethora of collections available in English, all with at least a bit of fantasy in them. A collection top-heavy with weirdness is A Change of Light & Other Stories (NY: Knopf, 1980). My own favorite of his books is very odd in style & emotion, quite different from the greater body of his story collections, one that rests halfway between short stories & poems-in-prose (which I love). That book is Cronopios and Famas (NY: Pantheon, 1969) which not long ago, I noticed, had a reissue in paperback, so it should be easy to find, though the original hardcover is almost unfindable, & my own copy is rather shoddy (unlike the bulk of these books I've named, which I have as Fine Firsts). A typical story is about a decapitated man who continues living because there is a gravediggers' strike. My favorite & most fully storyish is "Simulacra" about a family that decides to build an elaborate gallows in their front yard, an occupation that brings everyone even closer together, "Addams' Family" style, while causing the entire neighborhood to go through various stages of curiosity, alarm, annoyance & expectation leading up to the wonderful day of the gallows' completion.

This connected series of commentaries is a dynamic work & I will expand it as I have time to read or re-read select volumes of short stories by magic realists.

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