It’s easy to look at the frequently probed theme of generational trauma in horror fiction with a little suspicion these days, but even if you’re sick of hearing “it’s about trauma” pinned to all of your favorite scary stories, there’s still plenty of power to be drawn from those ideas. All it takes is the right storyteller, the right characters, and the right approach.
With The Haunting of Alejandra, rising horror powerhouse V. Castro makes the specter of general trauma in horror fiction her own with vivid, striking prose and a deeply realized heroine. Whether you’re obsessed with these kinds of horror stories or you’re looking for the right tale to lure you back in, it’s the kind of book that will keep you turning the pages well into the night thanks to Castro’s intimate, incisive journey into the heart of one woman’s darkness.
Alejandra, a stay-at-home mother of two, is haunted, not just by strange visions of a vicious creature who keeps appearing around her home, but because of the trap that is her life as it’s structured when we first meet her. Alejandra loves her children and logs for their warmth and joy, but she’s less attached than ever to her demanding and judgmental husband Matthew, and the grind of essentially being a single parent while he’s off on business trips is wearing her down.
But is Alejandra’s unhappiness more than the general weariness that comes from being overwhelmed at home? The more the visions emerge, and the darker things get, the more she’s convinced that she needs help beyond her husband’s apathy. With the help of a willing therapist who also happens to be a spiritual healer of sorts, Alejandra will dig deeper into the root of the darkness that’s stalking her, a darkness going back centuries through her bloodline, with teeth and claws to match its striking longevity.
Castro lays out the mythology of this curse, and the creature that comes with it, through careful use of flashbacks and even narration from the point-of-view of the creature itself, spooling out story threads that all pay off by the end of the novel while never tangling any of them to such a degree that the reader is mired in the worldbuilding. Instead, she focuses on the tactile, unsettling present of the horror unfolding in Alejandra’s life to really dial in the terror. The story is further enhanced by Castro’s riffs on the classic legend of La Llorona, one of the most well-known pieces of Latinx folklore out there. The hook of the legend does a little bit of the heavy lifting in terms of getting the reader invested, but once you’re locked into where Castro is going with her version of the story, and what it really means in the context of her characters, you’ll find it’s unlike any other variation you’ve found.
But what’s most wonderful about Castro’s work in this novel, and what makes The Haunting of Alejandra‘s scares and emotional beats land with equal intensity, is her focus on Alejandra as a woman at a crossroads. Her haunting, and the decisions she must wake to grapple with that haunting, is framed not just by the often equally unsettling appearances of her husband and the creature, but by every small choice she makes throughout her day.
Cuddling with her children, trying to keep the house in order, and even simply moving about in the world beyond her front door, are all treated with the same sense of emotional and psychological gravity by the author. There’s the sense that every step Alejandra takes is either a step toward darkness or a step toward the spiritual enlightenment that may save her, and it makes each sentence crackle with meaning. It’s a remarkably well-balanced piece of character-driven horror, and while sequences following other characters are also excellent, there’s never a question of who the star is here.
By the end, all of these elements have merged to deliver a satisfying, appropriately weighty climax to this warm, empathetic story of domestic and generational terror, and that makes The Haunting of Alejandra one of the best horror novels of 2023 so far. It’s perfect for new genre fans, for readers enchanted by books like Erika T. Wurth’s White Horse and Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, and for anyone hoping to get better acquainted with Castro’s work as a powerful genre voice.
The Haunting of Alejandra is available now.
Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.