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A Study in Ugliness coverThe ten stories in H. Pueyo’s debut collection of speculative fiction, A Study in Ugliness & Outras Histórias, are not for the faint of heart. They are disorienting, absorbing, imaginative, and, at times, grotesque. The evocative writing, complex narratives, and richly rendered worlds lure the reader deeper into the stories, even though it’s clear that horror is often lurking and lying in wait. The terror is sometimes supernatural: a corpse speaks, a cat is placed through a mirror and reemerges turned inside out, a werewolf is chained in a barn, a coterie of school children’s eyes begin to itch so intensely that they want to scratch them out. But, just as often, the terror comes from the dark parts of the real world: sexual violence, the brutality of colonial history, child abuse, racist fears of miscegenation, bullying, and intergenerational trauma. Reminiscent of the sharp, unsettling, and finely crafted fiction of Carmen Maria Machado, Mariana Enríquez, Samantha Hunt, and Samanta Schweblin, this book is thought provoking, alluring, and strange.

Pueyo, an Argentine-Brazilian writer, presents the text in Portuguese and English; the pages alternate between the two languages. This bilingual arrangement reflects the multicultural content and nature of the stories. “The Diamond Family Glitters” describes the experiences of a Sephardi family with magical powers that has fled to Brazil from Portugal to escape persecution. “Saligia,” a compelling werewolf narrative, follows a mixed-race woman who marries into an aristocratic Spanish family living on a colonial farm located between Brazil and Uruguay. “Juan Clemente’s Well” takes the reader into the basement of an Argentinian church, where a haunted wishing well is visited by tourists, soldiers, and pilgrims from all over the region. The stories are deeply rooted in the history and diverse cultures of Latin America.

This is a book that raises many difficult questions and provides few answers. It deftly explores issues related to gender roles, otherness, trauma, and the limits and mysteries of the body. The stories dig and dig at these questions, but their excavations do not provide clean or simple results. One of the collection’s central concerns is what happens in the aftermath of abuse or extreme acts of violence. It asks, again and again, how perpetrators reckon, or don’t reckon, with their crimes. What’s so interesting and confounding about the perpetrators in these stories is that they don’t follow the traditional or expected character arcs of the guilty. In fact, they rarely feel guilt at all. In “Rabbit’s Foot,” a group of adult friends feel that they’ve been cursed ever since they participated in the gang rape of a teenaged classmate. But they don’t think that their bad luck is karma for their wrongdoings or manifestations of their guilty consciences. Instead, they blame the victim and a broken rabbit’s foot charm. There is no comforting arc of repentance, retribution, realization, or forgiveness. The stories unfurl into unexpected shapes, challenging notions about justice, accountability, and satisfying endings.

One of the most compelling explorations of what happens in the aftermath of trauma here is “The Mob, or The People vs. Nadia Marijuán,” a powerful, intensely weird, and haunting tale. The story begins with a shocking act of violence in the middle of a schoolyard: a bully holds down “that big-nosed kid no one really likes” and rips her clothes off, while her classmates laugh and jeer, “all smiling, floating mouths with white and yellow teeth floating around her, going ha-ha-ha” (p. 59). Nadia, the victim, is used to this type of treatment, which normally goes unpunished. But this time the school authorities are forced to act, half-heartedly trying to figure out what an appropriate response should be. What does justice look like in the wake of this collective act of abuse? Who is culpable? Is it only the bully Julián, who is popular and well-liked despite—or perhaps because of—his sadism? How complicit are the dozens of spectators who cheered him on? Is Nadia herself to blame?

The story is structured like a trial, including subsections such as “The Injury,” “The Jury,” and “The Verdict,” but the judicial process and outcomes seem random and wildly inadequate. There’s the hypocritical court of public opinion, in which Nadia’s classmates suddenly turn against Julián, as if they hadn’t formed the mob that thrilled at his actions. There’s the ambivalence of teachers and the “slap on the wrist” gendered violence workshop Julián must attend. And then, finally, there are several supernatural punishments. Julián wakes up the morning after the assault with a red stain on his hand, which oozes onto everything he touches. Nadia also has a new, gruesome alteration of her own: a cord of flesh begins to unwind behind her ears, forming words and tangling around her like “a flesh necklace” (p. 81). This story stayed with me; I’ve been thinking about and fretting over it for weeks. I love it, and, still, I don’t fully know what to make of it.

Many of the stories also grapple with the weight of history, and the way the past throws a long shadow over the present. In “The Memory-Eater,” a gravedigger who escaped the Spanish Civil War becomes a memory-eater who consumes the troubled memories of the dead. He lives in an Argentinian cemetery and absorbs recollections of violence, war, massacres, invasions, and other horrors that have beset the region. In “An Open Coffin,” a caretaker is employed to watch over a glass coffin that holds the preserved body of a general. Admirers come to fawn over the corpse, telling the young caretaker, “You don’t know how life was—how beautiful, how glorious this country was” when the general was alive and powerful (p. 95). Their uncanny adoration leads to some of the most unsettling images in the collection, and their implied nationalistic fervor adds to the unnerving atmosphere of the story. In “Juan Clemente’s Well,” it is “the military,” and the “Spanish, the Portuguese,” that have “tainted the well” and transformed it into a place to be feared (p. 157). The haunting has sprung from the (in this case metaphorical) wellspring of the region’s conflicted past.

If there is one clear guidepost in the muddy and complex moral landscape of these stories, it’s that our sympathies almost always lie with those who are considered the other. Our protagonists are victims of bullying and harassment, seafolk who are kept on land and separated from their kin, abused children, and all those who are made to feel like outsiders. The stories investigate how people who are different are made into outcasts. The title story begins with a teacher telling her class, “Ugly girls will never be happy” (p. 159). In another story, the narrator muses, “there is something thrilling about ostracizing a single individual in a crowd” (p. 59). In another, tormentors exploit a young nuerodivergent woman’s face-blindness. We are on the side of these outsiders, whether they are righteously angry, seeking revenge, trying to escape their fate, or hammering their life into a new shape. The result is that we wind up, occasionally, rooting for girls who want to transform everything beautiful into rot, or for the mistreated werewolf to devour his family.

There is depth and there are layers to these stories, but they are also fascinating, engrossing, and enchanting. They can be enjoyed for their twisting plots and sharp language as much as for the heady themes that underlie them. For example, “Saligia,” which first appeared in Samovar, may be, at its core, a story about intergenerational trauma and abuse and white supremacy, but it’s also a wholly original werewolf tale that moves forward at a steady clip, and includes my favorite line of the whole collection: a sister casually reminds her werewolf brother, “Don’t kill the maids” (p. 243).

A Study in Ugliness is an apt name for the book, which is unflinching in its examination of the ugly parts of life. It asks challenging questions about our cultures, histories, and legacies, and it refuses to look away from the messiness of the answers. The writing is also rich, sensual, and evocative. The haunted well’s voice “sounds like the wind as [its victims] descend the stone stairs” (p. 157); the souls of the dead “chase the siren song of oblivion, ready to depart from the love and the rage, the fear and the unrest” (p. 11); a being from another world gaily remarks, “Everything here is so pretty, so delicate, so marvelously stiff … It makes me want to break all of it” (p. 169). Pueyo is a conjurer as much as she is a writer. For fans of horror and dark speculative fiction, especially horror grounded in social and cultural commentary, this book will be a satisfying, grotesque delight.

Rebecca Turkewitz is a writer and high school teacher. Her debut collection of stories, Here in the Night, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2023. Her fiction and humor writing have appeared in The Normal Schoolthe Masters Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, the New Yorker’s Daily Shouts, and elsewhere.
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