Reviews > Published on April 19th, 2023

"The Haunting of Alejandra" by V. Castro

For her latest novel, The Haunting of Alejandra (Penguin Random House), author V. Castro creates a beautiful hybrid of Stephen King’s It and the Disney film Encanto, in that the book features an unknowably old, maybe interstellar creature and it explores multi-generational trauma with a compass pointing toward forgiveness and self-actualization. Castro weaves the folklore tale of La Llorona into the proceedings as well, with healthy doses of history, psychology, curandera practices, and the horrors faced every day by women in domestic settings. 

For those unfamiliar, the story of La Llorona, like so many urban/rural legends, has many variations, but it almost always features a woman either suspected or guilty of drowning her children who takes her own life and spends eternity as a spirit wandering riverbanks and other watery areas, wailing for her lost offspring. In certain tellings, La Llorona snatches wayward children and pulls them into the water—surrogate youngsters to keep her company in her restless, mournful existence, an aspect of the tale used to warn kids not to stray too far from their homes. She most often wears a long, flowing white dress, and her origins either coincide with or predate the colonization of the Mexican people by Spanish conquistadors.

This La Llorona is pure, unadulterated nightmare fuel, so it's genuinely not a good idea to read "Haunting" before bedtime.

Castro’s interpretation of La Llorona isn’t the first to appear in popular culture—there were two films revolving around the legend released in 2019 alone, one connected to the bloated Conjuring universe—but hers is perhaps the most unique to appear in any media in some time. More a del Toro-designed, Doug-Jones-articulated practical monster than phantom woman, the figure seen in Haunting trades a white dress for strips and flaps of pale flesh; instead of a traditional veil, which some accounts of La Llorona have her wearing, this creature obscures its face in dead fish parts; no belt or sash of cloth around the waist of this wailing “woman” (Castro’s creation is genderless), rather opting for the severed umbilical cords of its victims, worn across the stomach not to cinch but to display its bloody victories. This La Llorona is pure, unadulterated nightmare fuel, so it's genuinely not a good idea to read Haunting before bedtime. 

As incredible and original as Castro’s take on the classic folktale is, however, the real star of this novel is her depiction of everyday feminine despair and rage. The title protagonist oscillates between overwhelming love for her children and feeling just plain overwhelmed, even resentful of their presence in her life—a truth that many mothers and society at large rarely likes to acknowledge, that domestic family life can be exhausting, particularly when the women are left to do all the work. This is the case with Alejandra, whose husband Matthew embodies the checked-out, workaholic dad, who provides playtime but little else, as he is more interested in his career and his own hobbies. He also tears down his supposed partner whenever he gets the chance, which is pretty much all the time, given how much of herself Alejandra has lost to the role of wife and mother. Matthew acts as a kind of missile programmed to destroy any glimmers of Alejandra’s true self that ever peek out from behind the domestic costume he has convinced her to wear.

In this context, La Llorona transcends mere monster and represents both Alejandra’s desire to break out of her mold and the feelings of impasse toward this breaking free, a sense of crushing immobility that drives her mind toward ending things. The monster serves as the cruel whispering voice that anyone who has ever experienced suicidal thoughts knows all too well. But Castro isn’t interested in telling a story of despondency and resignation. Some of Alejandra’s ancestors succumb to the monstrous machinations, but while its sway over her is seemingly insurmountable, Alejandra finds the strength to fight, significantly by admitting she needs help. Enter Melanie, a therapist and curandera healer that works with Alejandra to identify her internal and external issues and face them head on. She also receives assistance from her birth mother Cathy, with whom she recently reconnected, a woman who broke La Llorona's curse for herself but still inadvertently passed it on to her daughter, representing how even strong-willed, independent women can accidentally participate in overtly negative domestic and even patriarchal cycles. 

There are paranormal battles for these three women, of course, but the subtext beneath the supernatural is clear: women have power; they simply have to harness it and wield it to their advantage. This theme reveals itself time and again through stories of other women in Alejandra’s past, going back thousands of years, who either meet with defeat or persevere. Some readers may find these interludes into history distracting from the primary narrative, but they are essential aspects of Castro’s overall tapestry, an interlocked narrative revealing just how little things have changed for women—especially brown women—across land and time, from the beginning of Indigenous colonization to present day. Moreover, while this is a richly detailed novel, it is much more akin to Encanto than King, in that it embraces narrative economy over density. We walk with these ancestral characters for only as long as we need to before jumping back to Alejandra’s horrifying but ultimately inspiring tale, one that works toward breaking cycles and—much like Castro literally does in the book—redefining the ageless stories that have instructed, for better and worse, generations upon generations of people. Does this battle ever truly end? Perhaps not, but it is a battle, Castro seems to assert, worth fighting. 

Get The Haunting of Alejandra at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

Christopher Shultz writes plays and fiction. His works have appeared at The Inkwell Theatre's Playwrights' Night, and in Pseudopod, Unnerving Magazine, Apex Magazine, freeze frame flash fiction and Grievous Angel, among other places. He has also contributed columns on books and film at LitReactor, The Cinematropolis, and Tor.com. Christopher currently lives in Oklahoma City. More info at christophershultz.com

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