Mestiza Blood by V. Castro
2022’s Mestiza Blood is a horror story collection by V. Castro. As the title tells us, all of the protagonists of these dreamlike, horrifying tales are Latina women, grappling with horrors that are futuristic, mythic or just plain everyday.
A disclaimer: This book is filled with body horror, splatter horror, graphic violence and graphic sex. The women in these stories are filled with rage and fear as they battle appalling horrors with nothing but their strength, their will and their heritage. In some cases, they are the appalling horrors. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The Table of Contents lists:
“Night of the Living Dead Chola:” A murdered woman dumped in the Rio Grande returns to exact justice on her killer.
“The Demon in My Eye:” A group of mutated women fight against an evil pharma company and religious zealots, in a surreal, post-apocalyptic near future.
“Donkey Lady Bridge:” Is the “Donkey Lady” a myth, a ghost, a victim or a monster? Our protagonist finds out the truth, and the truth of the bridge she haunts.
“Nightmares and ICE:” A homeless teenager and her baby face the twin monsters of La Lechuga and USA border enforcement.
“Cam Girl Sally:” A woman whose face was terribly scarred in a school shooting stumbles across a way to make those responsible pay.
“Dancehall Devil:” The three women at the bar just want to drink with each other. When a drunk man wants to dance and won’t take “No” for an answer, he quickly learns to regret his aggression.
“Street Fighter:” The narrator shares a story of the time her mother, driving them home, gave a ride to a man being bullied. Soon the two of them are fighting off a savage monster, with no help for miles.
“Mal Do Ojo:” Curses have a way of rebounding on the people who cast them.
“The Most Wonderful Time of the Year:” Some mothers will go to any length to provide a child with the perfect gift. Any length.
“Pentagram Peep Show:” In Amsterdam, a woman runs a sex club and a peepshow. Plainly, the place has more influence than most sex clubs, and when her identity is revealed, we understand why.
“The Cold Season:” The book’s one science fiction offering looks at the lengths people might go to live forever.
“The Latin Queens of Mictlan:” One of the three Queens of the middle kingdom of death explains to us how she transformed. Along the way she reveals what’s happened to earth. Exquisite, vivid imagery fills this story.
“Truck Stop:”. Who are the real monsters? Who are the real grotesques? Sonora, an orphan raised by nuns, confronts these questions as she finally learns to accept herself.
“The Final Porn Star:” This will be Thalia’s final film before she retires from the adult film industry. The set is a remote ranch house in rural Texas, miles from anyone, with zero cell reception. What could possibly go wrong?
To my utter shock, my favorite story of Mestiza Blood was “The Final Porn Star.” I’m not offended by adult films or graphic sex, but I don’t seek them out either, and, as you probably guessed, Thalia, the hero of this story, is a porn star, making her last film before she retires. Thalia feels that the industry has been hamstrung by internet porn, and at forty, even though she recently had breast augmentation surgery, she thinks it’s time to leave the screen. At the back of her mind is a fear that if she continues, her daughter will find out how Thalia has made her living. This fear flares up when, on their way to the set of Vaquera, her director Chase tells her he’s also shooting a documentary about her on his phone. The set, in rural Texas, is isolated and ramshackle, with no cell phone reception. Relaxing in the hot tub the first night, Thalia hears a scratching and scraping sound that scares her. She hurries back to the house but sees nothing out of place on her way. We know better, because we saw the prologue to this scene, where a neighbor found a group of dismembered animals in his front yard. Sure enough, the next morning the crew finds a mutilated coyote near the hot tub.
Beat for beat, “The Final Porn Star” follows the horror movie map — but you knew that as soon as I mentioned a hot tub. They film scenes for the movie, and despite the fact that it’s porn, there is no graphic sex in the story, although there’s a lot of graphic language. Ratcheting tension, a slow-scare, a fake-scare, a jump-scare are all interspersed with Thalia’s musing on the industry that made her successful and how it could have been different. The gorefest kicks up in the third act as the monster, revealed, tears its way through the crew in no time, leaving Thalia and a valiant stray dog to face it down. Without spoilers I will say that Thalia’s choice of weapon left me laughing out loud — and still terrified.
“Pentagram Peep Show” pivoted perfectly on the revelation of the main character’s identity, and the image of the case of skulls next to the bar stayed with me after I finished the story.
“Dancehall Devil” and “The Latin Queens of Mictlan” explore female folkloric beings. The Latin Queens rule the middle kingdom of the dead, and our first-person narrator tells us how she went from being human to being what she is now. The vivid, eerie and beautiful imagery in this story made it a standout for me. In a much different setting (a dive bar) equally vivid imagery made the biter-bit tale of “Dancehall Devil” a standout too, as three women, dressed in strangely old-fashioned but beautiful clothing, educate the entitled lout who insults one of them. The final line of the story is, “Now Friday night is Ladies Night, and the men are always on their best behavior.”
Sonora was found in the desert as a baby. She was raised by nuns. At first, the pictures she drew of strange looking creatures gave her comfort, but the nuns taught her to be afraid and ashamed of them — and ashamed of herself and her unusual body. When I started “Truck Stop,” I also identified Sonora as a grotesque, a sympathetic one. As this long story progressed and Sonora learned more about herself and others like her, I began to visualize her as the beautiful and strange person she is. At first take, Castro seems to be using the tried-and-true horror trope of the conjoined twin, but that isn’t what is going on here. Something different is happening, and it’s happening to more and more people. The story is less horror and more a fantasy thriller, as Sonora and another like her agree to a sting operation to infiltrate a neo-Nazi group but end up captured. Graphic, gory, violent and cruel, “Truck Stop” is triumphant at the end, with a new world opening up for Sonora and the others like her.
La Lechuza, a folkloric monster, makes her first but not only appearance in “Nightmares and ICE.” When Ariela’s parents are beaten and detained by ICE, she hides out of sight with her daughter, while her father lies and says he and her mother are the only ones there. The border enforcement troops don’t believe him, and they’ve staked out the house, forcing Ariela and her baby to live in her car. She is down to her last five dollars and has no money for milk. When La Lechuza, part woman, part owl, all monster, attacks the car and the baby, Ariela follows it back to a tunnel. La Lechuza offers her a deal. Ariela is in a tough position with no good choices, and if she prevails, she must still face the other monster, ICE. This tale is a modern myth.
“Demon in my Eye” was another story I thought I probably wouldn’t like much. Graphic violence, graphic sex, and organ harvesting aren’t usually at the top of my Favorite Things list, but the situation Valencia and her friends face, combined with the energy and fast pace of this story, left me breathless, feeling like I’d just sat through an ultra-gritty, high-intensity post-apocalyptic thriller movie.
If my descriptions weren’t clear enough, let me re-state the “this book is not for everyone” chorus here. Once I got into Mestiza Blood, I was pretty surprised at how much of it was for me. Through characterization, voice and incredible energy, V. Castro sucked me into story after story that I thought I probably wouldn’t like. She’s a brutal yet surgical high priestess of horror, a writer whose name is now on my “watch for any new books by…” list.
Normally you’d have lost me with the warning (and thanks for that). But this is such a good and positive review, I’m hemming and maybe even hawing