Latinx Heritage in Horror: Interview with Ángel Isián
Ángel Isián is the Puerto Rican author of El cuco te va a comer (The Cuco’s going to eat you, 2020), a collection of horror short stories that received an honorable mention in the International Latino Book Awards, 2021. Together with Melvin Rodríguez, he helped edit the first anthology of contemporary horror stories from Puerto Rico, No cierres los ojos (Don’t close your eyes, 2016). He has published horror stories and poetry in various anthologies and magazines. He works as an English teacher and is coeditor of Libros Eikon, a small independent publisher of Puerto Rican horror, fantasy, and sci-fi.
What inspired you to start writing?
The most direct answer is my mother instilled in me a love for reading. That is the first source of inspiration: she taught me to love reading and by extension the stories that she read to me as well as the ones she made me read. However, the moment I knew that I had a calling for writing came to me when I was eight years. I lived in New Britain, Connecticut at the time. Mami gave me an old notebook from one of her college classes that was mostly empty. She figured she’d give one to me and one to my sister instead of letting all that paper go to waste by throwing them away. I wasn’t sure at first what I’d do with it. My sister was good at drawing, but I wasn’t confident with my art skills. Then I remembered how much I loved reading and so I thought that I could write my own story. Before that summer was over, I had written a thirteen page, barely comprehensible story about a kid named Daniel and his adventures with his archeologist dad and how they found a hidden world of dinosaurs (don’t judge, I was eight). I fell in love with the experience and couldn’t stop there. I continued writing and making up characters and settings, and fantasy worlds, and sci-fi epics from then on. In fact, two years later, on the eve of my tenth birthday, my dad interviewed me with tape recorder and asked me: “¿Qué tú quieres ser cuando seas grande? (What do you want to be when you grow up?). I couldn’t remember the word in Spanish (it had been five years since I’d left Puerto Rico at the time and my Spanish was starting to get rusty). “How do you say, author?” I asked him in a whisper, fearing to ruin his recording by not responding in Spanish properly, especially because the tape was intended for my grandparents. “Author?,” he asked slightly confused, but then quickly added: “Oh, un autor… tu quieres decir un escritor” (Oh, an author… you mean you want to be a writer). The tape is still somewhere around, and it makes me very proud when I think back to that moment that I stuck to my dream and that I continually work to fulfill it in different ways, step by step, even if at times I don’t always feel I’ve completely made it yet.
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
It’s hard to say. I think having grown in a hodgepodge of various Christian religions and surrounded by the various Puerto Rican syncretisms and superstitions always gave the world the possibility of mystery, odd dangers hiding in the dark, of immaterial beings watching or lurking around, sometimes with malicious intent. When I was small, these superstitions seemed very real and would terrify me sometimes when I would hear stories of spirits, apparitions, brujería (witchcraft), and demons. As I grew older and reality and maturity started wearing away at the superstitions, horror helped give me the thrills, the goosebumps, and the terror of that lost, almost magical spiritual world I once believed in. Horror has the power to awaken such primal instincts, helping us reconnect with our most irrational fears, thus pushing us to ponder the real world through the dark lens of the most horrifying aspects of human nature and our belief systems, myths, and folklore. It’s not a power to be taken lightly, and I both respect it and am in awe of it.
Initially I was drawn to horror mostly to experience those chills and thrills of stories that existed merely to terrify you. The Puerto Rican equivalent of the campfire story is mostly listening to your friends, cousins or elderly members of your family tell you stories of apparitions of deceased loved ones, restless souls getting in your car, wisps of white light trailing you along dark mountainous roads and uncanny curses cured by Christian rituals or santería cleansing. I relished every single time a session of creepy “real life” stories would be told. And then, of course I had a combination of free access to horror movies and Goosebumps books as a kid, so I became that kid that couldn’t stop consuming horror stories even though they freaked me out every time and made me scared of the dark, or shadows in the corner, or creepy misplaced dolls in the middle of the night, or even the unilluminated spaces under the bed, down the drain, and in open closets. That said, it didn’t dawn on me that my talent for writing stories extended to horror until I was much older. My partner, Melvin (who is also a horror and fantasy writer) and I had recently become an item, decided to accept an invitation to take a horror writing workshop with Puerto Rican writer Eïrïc Rïchter Dürandal Stormcrow, who had been publishing fantasy, horror and sci-fi stories in his short story collections. I was able to turn out successful horror short stories one after the other with ease and had good feedback from my peers. Soon after, Melvin and I decided to focus our writing on the horror genre, which very few writers from the island actively published. In fact, a year or two later, we published the very first anthology of Puerto Rican contemporary horror stories.
Do you make a conscious effort to include LatinX characters and themes in your writing and if so, what do you want to portray?
In a way yes. Ever since I started writing horror, I was aware that the best contribution I could make to the genre was to write from my experiences and culture. My horror stories deal with Puerto Rican characters both from the island and those living in the US. I especially like to explore Puerto Rican queer themes in my writing, though I don’t limit myself to that. I think that it helps give my horror a very different flavor thematically, linguistically and in terms of story structure, setting and atmosphere. You could not write a haunted house story in the traditional way, for example: houses are usually much smaller and have only one story and no basement, attics, or long dark corridors. You could not rely on those to build atmosphere or dread, so you must rethink how to go about that culturally and narratively. As far as what do I want to portray, I would have to say that just a story that speaks to a person such as I. You don’t know how powerful connecting to story about people that are just like you until you’ve read one. For most of my life these stories that I loved never could seem even remotely real, because they were not written by or for people like me. Puerto Ricans and other Latinx people deserve their stories to be told and published with authenticity and respect, and to that I aim, though it’s not something I necessarily think about when I write.
What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?
Mostly that no matter or dark or terrible a horror story can get, it will always pale in comparison with the horrors of the real world, although horror stories have in their favor that they are both fun to read and write. It has also taught me that horror writers are usually such cool and nice people, I mean there are always exceptions, but it’s rare that I’ll meet a horror writer who isn’t such a sweetheart. I also find it interesting that horror can be polarizing. Most people will fall under the “OMG, I love horror!” camp, or the “I can’t read horror because it scares me so much!” camp. I’m not sure if it’s because some people are more susceptible to their fears than others, but I don’t think there is a genre more polarizing. As far as what it’s taught me about myself, I think I has shown me how far am I willing to take a story. Sometimes I think I’m mild with my stories, but then people read them and then ask me if I’m ok. I’m usually flattered by the question.
How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? And how do you think it will continue to evolve?
Oh yes. Horror has changed so much, especially when it comes to the diversity of the voices that now exist within the horror communities. It used to be such a predominantly white-male-heterosexual genre. Now it’s much more diverse, and I love it. With that kind of diversity, horror has literally become an all you can eat buffet of every single subgenre you can think of within it coming from anyone from almost any background, from the most sophisticated and literary short stories or gothic poems, to the pulpiest of novels. There’s something for everyone and that speaks to the strength of the genre and how far the horror community has come, though there is plenty of ground that can and will be covered.
How do you feel the Latinx community has been represented thus far in the genre and what hopes do you have for representation in the genre going forward?
I cannot speak for the Latinx community at large. It’s a tricky thing to do. We are often reduced to a single group because we share a language, but our cultures, though similar, are rich and varied and distinct. We have distinct histories stemming from the strength and struggles of our home countries, as well as our situations with distinct diasporic cultural groups within the US. The Puerto Rican experience is not the same as the Mexican, or the Cuban experience, though we are indeed bonding by similar cultural backgrounds. In general, though, I’d say that Latinx writer in horror are on the rise. It’s been difficult for many of us to get into the market. And for people like me, even more so. I consider my main language Spanish rather than English and have done most of my writing in Spanish and later translate (currently translating my most recent short story book), but publishers get icky with writers who write in Spanglish or use Spanish words as part of their English narration, let alone whole books in Spanish (even though Spanish is such widely spoken language in the US). Are we represented enough? Absolutely not. Are we well represented? Yes, at least in the case of Puerto Rico, I feel very proud of seeing such successful horror writers as Gabino Iglesias, Cynthia Pelayo and Ann Dávila Cardinal. This is just the beginning and I’m excited that a lot more horror will be coming from Latinx people living in the US and from their respective countries. There is lots of horror being written in Spanish and I’m hoping some publisher will take note and help get these writers translated and published in the US so that Latinx reader will have much more access to horror books that speak to their experiences, not just in the general Latinx as one easy category, but actual Boricua horror, Chilean horror, Dominican horror, Peruvian horror, and so an.
Who are some of your favorite Latinx characters in horror?
I love Laura and Tomás from The Orphanage, Mercedes from Pan’s Labyrinth and The creepy disabled kids from the short story La gallina degollada (The Slit-Throated Chicken) from Horacio Quiroga. Also, a special shoutout to the his nightmare inducing tick from the short story El almohadón de plumas (The Feathered Pillow).
Who are some Latinx horror authors you recommend our audience check out?
I would recommend Gabino Iglesias, Anne Davila Cardinal, Cynthia Pelayo, of course, but also other lesser-known authors (at least for the English-speaking world), such as Amparo Dávila (her Gothic tales are wonderful), Horacio Quiroga (a master of the macabre in his own right) who are considered classic at this point, Mariana Enriquez a rising star of Latinx dark literature, Ana Maria Fuster (master of the Puerto Rican urban gothic tale, though her work is mostly in Spanish she was recently included in Ballantine Book of World Horror Stories vol. 2).
What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
Write more horror. It’s an ever-green genre and we can’t get enough of it. Keep the community as beautiful and welcoming as ever.
And to the LatinX writers out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?
Read what’s out there, find your voice and be yourself. Do what works best for you and refine that until you make an art out of it. Horror can be explored in so many ways, and it has a broad readership, so if you are being true to your authentic self, you will likely succeed. I also must remind some writers that a horrible situation from real life does not a horror tale make. I sometimes read about an everyday horrible situation as if it itself constitutes horror. I believe that in horror there must be intent and technique. The building of atmosphere, dread and menace, a play with perspective and setting, the building of intense suspense and a touch of mystery. Of course, the approach might vary from subgenre to subgenre, but overall, the horror writer must know what they intend to provoke in their reader and have an understanding on how to achieve that through their words and narrative styles and techniques rather than rely solely on the horrific nature of the scenes in their fiction.