By SHAWN MACOMBER
When V. Castro was 9 years old, she tagged along with her grandfather for a nearly 800-mile-drive from San Antonio, Texas to Guadalajara, by way of Mexico City. At some point, they stopped at a church. Where exactly this house of worship was, the dark-fiction author extraordinaire and fierce advocate for diversity in literature could not tell you today. What she saw inside, however, left an indelible mark: Mummified bodies of all ages, including babies, on reverent display. The visceral closeness to death frightened young Castro, but also ignited a Mexican-American imagination already steeped in horror books and films, as well as the Catholicism and folk tales with supernatural elements that were—and remain—an intrinsic part of her heritage.
“I have horror stories with illustrations from grade school,” Castro tells RUE MORGUE. “But including my experience as a woman and Mexican American came later. Thinking about all the books I read made me realize how lacking in diversity genre fiction was. It’s getting better, but Latinx culture is still greatly underrepresented across the board. The reason people might discriminate against me is the very thing that gives me strength as a writer. I don’t want to be like everyone else. My skin and my gender inspire me and drive me.
“There are so many books telling the same tropes through white male eyes,” she adds. “What about us, the Other? Our voices and experiences are valid. Oppression is a type of horror. The history of many marginalized folks is horror.”
This cultural inheritance and cross-pollination of experience is on full, vibrant display in the trio of stunning, imaginative, convention-upending books Castro has released over the last two years. First came MARIA THE WANTED (2018), the rousing, deeply affecting story of a “would-be immigrant turned vampire in Juarez, Mexico” who uses her powers to fight on behalf of the vulnerable against monstrous enemies, both supernatural and all too human. The other two hit this year: SED DE SANGRE, a scorching hot trio of ultra-dark erotic horror stories—“Snake Hips,” “Carnival of Gore” and “The Four Horsemen Inn”—leaves you wondering whether you should fan your flushed cheeks or cover your eyes. Finally, Castro’s stunning, poignant reimagining of the shapeshifting mythos, HAIRSPRAY AND SWITCHBLADES, tells the tale of Maya, a young woman born into a Mexican-American family with the power to transform into jaguars—a clan that is divided, temporarily they hope, from their true destiny by the border.
“You see, before Texas was annexed, our people roamed this vast land,” Maya’s father explains to her early in the book. “It is by our blood that our great, great ancestors in Mexico were immune to the diseases of the colonizers. We crossed the river, living in harmony with the indigenous tribes. There was no border. Then the Mexican-American War happened. It is by blood that we could hide in plain sight during the war, all the human wars. But it is that war that tore our family apart. Your mother’s and my ancestors stayed to fight with the Americans and the others fought on the side of the Mexicans. It is a wound we need to heal in person because now we are all that remain in Texas. When I retire and before you take over the [family] business, we will go.”
Alas, it is not to be: A sketchy home invasion robs Maya of her parents as well as her meticulously planned future. The bloodline, it seems, will not be fully restored. When we catch up with Maya, she is a streetwise and sultry exotic dancer, working the pole to provide for her younger sister. Magdalena is unaware she is part-jaguar, and though Maya would prefer to let it ride, her hand is forced by the rampage of the San Antonio Stripper Ripper, whose kills are dropping way too close to home, and the arrival of a powerful ancient antagonist determined to consume and repurpose Maya’s cursed blessing for her own diabolical ends. Now, the sisters must survive and retake all that has been stolen from them by monsters. By humanity. By the border. By ignorance and fear. By the vagaries of history. By their own uncertainty and disconnectedness.
HAIRSPRAY AND SWITCHBLADES is a real melting-pot novella. It is touching and beautiful, sexy and vicious, wildly savage and nuanced, thrilling and thought-provoking. Castro says she didn’t “want to be like everyone else,” and she sure as hell isn’t here. And that is a very good thing. Because by telling this story, depicting one of those marginalized others as a fully formed, real human being who finds the strength within herself and her heritage—and executing it so well—Castro is in fact actualizing her goal of helping to open the floodgates to a more diverse spectrum of creators.
“I do see a lot of change happening,” she says. “The horror community has really embraced me. I appreciate everyone who shouts out my book or books by women and marginalized creators. It does matter. People should venture beyond their own worlds, because you fear what you don’t know. By listening and trying to understand people different from yourself, there is an opportunity to grow. Reading diversely can bring us together.”