If you’re a fan of horror movies, you know that with the best films, there’s at least one image that remains seared into your brain, one that you can’t unsee no matter how much you might want to.
Maybe it’s the flash of a demonic face in the shadows from “The Exorcist,” or the twins from “The Shining” that made identically dressed children scary forever after. Argentinian-born Samanta Schweblin’s short story collection “Mouthful of Birds” has these images in spades.
In the title story, for example, the narrator gets a call from his estranged wife about their teenage daughter. When he arrives at their home, his daughter is sitting with preternatural stillness on the couch. When her mother presents her with a bird cage containing a small sparrow, the daughter gets up, skips over to the cage and reaches inside; when she turns back around, “the bird wasn’t there anymore. Her mouth, nose, chin and both hands were smeared with blood.”
Other images, around which Schweblin’s haunting tales coalesce, are sometimes less gory, but equally unsettling. In “Preserves,” a woman manages to reverse her pregnancy until she is able to spit out her baby to preserve in a glass jar. In “Olingiris,” a woman earns a salary for allowing wealthy matrons to fulfill their fetish of plucking out her body hair with tweezers. “The Size of Things” features a man who lives inside his local toy store, playing out an unnatural childhood.
Weirdness — or perhaps more accurately, fabulism — is everywhere in contemporary short fiction. But what separates Schweblin from the pack is the firm foot she has planted in frank horror, and her laconic style, expertly translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.
It was this restraint, and the accompanying sense of mystery and resonance, that permeated Schweblin’s 2017 novel “Fever Dream” and that mark these 20 stories, causing them to linger in the mind long after their final lines.
In the closing story, “The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides,” a mousy man, Benavides, murders his wife and stuffs her body into a suitcase. He takes the suitcase to his doctor — we presume a psychologist — who decides, with the help of a “curator,” to turn the situation into a piece of performance art. At the “opening” of the exhibit, Benavides greets the rapt crowd, confesses his action and displays the suitcase; he’s given a standing ovation. The curator exclaims, “It’s extraordinary! … Horror and beauty! What a combination.”
Maybe we can’t map this perfectly onto Schweblin’s stories — Benavides is morally degenerate, after all — but “Mouthful of Birds” is precisely that rare mix: beauty and horror.
Colleen Abel is the author of three poetry collections, including the full-length “Remake.” Her reviews and essays have appeared in Quartz, Refinery29, Huffington Post and other places.
Mouthful of Birds
By: Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.
Publisher: Riverhead Books, 228 pages, $26.