Ghosts, the grotesque and haunted houses draped in darkness. These are the images I crave as we move into the heart of autumn, when I find myself reaching for stories that will send a shiver down my spine. But year after year, it’s hard not to notice that horror reading lists focus on the same nineteenth-century Western European and American writers (Mary Shelley, Henry James and Ann Radcliffe, to name a few). While these authors clearly merit the praise, the genre has since evolved.
After all, the role of modern horror fiction is not only to terrify: it is also a means for the writer to comment on important issues and inequalities within her life and society. Think of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (Viking Press, 1959), Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties (Graywolf Press, 2017).
And then I find myself wondering, how does the frightening and malignant manifest in the modern literature of other cultures and countries? This, of course, is a vast question. While the following list of translated novels –– from the Japanese, Spanish, French, and Arabic –– only begins to cut into the rich fabric of literary horror stories available in English, these six titles show the multitude of ways that writers use the surreal and supernatural to explore issues in wider society.
Matsuda Aoko, Where the Wild Ladies Are, translated from Japanese by Polly Barton
With a subtle humor, writer and translator Matsuda Aoko describes the encounters between women’s ghosts and credulous humans in these contemporary, feminist retellings of traditional Japanese ghost stories. Translated by Polly Barton and first published by Tilted Axis Press in February 2020, the stories in Where the Wild Ladies Are are surreal, comical and beautifully interconnected through the mysterious characters they feature. Marking the second full-length translation of Aoko’s work in English after The Girl Who is Getting Married (Strangers Press, 2017), this masterful collection also serves as a deeper exploration of the socio-cultural changes faced by Japanese women today. Take a sneak peek at one of the stories excerpted in Granta.
Cristina Rivera Garza, The Iliac Crest, translated from Spanish by Sarah Booker
In The Iliac Crest, an unnamed narrator experiences a home invasion when two mysterious women appear on a stormy night. The two visitors have come to interrogate their unwilling host’s identity and eventually accuse him of being not a man, as he professes, but a woman. In an overwrought bid to defend his alleged masculinity, the narrator eventually finds himself in a sanatorium. Praised for the way in which it “destabilizes male-female binaries and subverts literary tropes,” The Iliac Crest was originally written in Spanish by the award-winning Mexican writer, translator and critic Cristina Rivera Garza, and published in Sarah Booker’s translation by Feminist Press in the US and And Other Stories in the UK in 2017.
Norah Lange, People in the Room, translated from Spanish by Charlotte Whittle
Norah Lange was a prominent writer and figure of the Argentine avant-garde in Buenos Aires during the mid-twentieth century. She was known best for her poetry and novels as well as for being Jorge Luis Borges’s muse, although her works have only recently begun to receive more widespread attention. Originally published in 1950, Lange’s People in the Room was published in English for the first time in August 2018 by And Other Stories, in a translation by Charlotte Whittle. It tells the story of a young woman in Buenos Aires who begins to spy on three women living across the street from her family home. As her imagination runs wild with hallucinatory vividness, she begins to envisage the women as anything from criminals to suicidal spinsters to sinister figures. The novel has been praised as a twentieth-century masterpiece for its eerie treatment of topics such as “desire, domestic space, voyeurism and female isolation.” You can read an excerpt on Words Without Borders.
Marie NDiaye, My Heart Hemmed In, translated from French by Jordan Stump
Originally published in 2007, Two Lines Press released Jordan Stump’s translation of the prolific French-Senegalese writer Marie NDiaye’s nightmarish, psychological novel in July 2017. My Heart Hemmed In follows Nadia and Ange, a middle-aged couple who realize that they have been completely ostracized from their community. When Ange discovers a terrible wound on his stomach, Nadia is determined to save him. While their undesirable neighbor, Noget, imposes his help on them, fattening them up with rich foods, Nadia decides to visit her ex-husband and estranged son with the desperate hope that settling the past will save Ange. You can read an excerpt from My Heart Hemmed In on the publisher’s website.
Asa Nonami, Now You’re One of Us, translated from Japanese by Michael and Mitsuko Volek
As a member of the Mystery Writers of Japan, Asa Nonami is well-known in Japan for her crime fiction novels and psychological horror stories. Now You’re One of Us has been described as “Daphne du Marier’s Rebecca meets Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby” for its exploration of the uncanniness within a family, their personal rituals and secrets. When a bride meets her husband’s family, she soon learns one surprising truth after another about her new relatives, and she herself begins to spiral into a state of uncertainty. Michael Volek and Mitsuko Volek’s translation was published by Vertical in 2007.
Ghada Samman, The Square Moon, translated from Arabic by Issa J. Boullata
Ghada Samman is a Syrian novelist, journalist, and translator who began writing fiction in the early sixties. Much of her creative and journalistic work centers around a search for personal liberty and a denial of the social expectations placed on women. The Square Moon was originally published in 1994, and The University of Arkansas Press published Issa J. Boullata’s translation in 1999. Samman’s collection of magical realist stories incorporate elements and figures from traditional Syrian folklore, with several of the stories’ characters experiencing moments of cultural shock at the intersections of traditional Arab culture and modern European settings.
Want to add to this list? Get in touch with your thoughts on these novels, and other works of horror fiction in translation that you would include on this list. Happy reading!
Text by Cassandra Bertolini