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by Carlos Fuentes

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating


Vlad by Carlos Fuentes
© Dalkey Archive
Dalkey Archive, July 2012

Carlos Fuentes's novella Vlad reads like a B-horror movie that has outshone its nomenclature. Fuentes aims for a low, narrow niche and succeeds masterfully at creating a nostalgic horror story with an intriguing layer of allegory beneath its gloomy surface. Vlad features a vintage-horror thrill that is rare to find in genre novels today: a flashlight-under-the-chin campfire optimism that manages to obscure any bit of the story's fallibility. Dark hallways and long shadows accentuate the author's apparent wish to chill the spine and delight his readers in a spooky tale. Of course, Vlad is not a genuinely scary read - with the exception of one "historical" chapter, there's little here that will turn stomachs or scar a reader's imagination, but Fuentes isn't trying for that. This is a story for suspending disbelief and whatever literary standards you may think you have: a perfect bit of popcorn escapism to breeze through and look back on fondly.

Yves Navarro can hardly anticipate how his plot will unfold, despite the many traps and setups we as readers see looming in his future. Navarro works for the lawyer Eloy Zurinaga, an elderly housebound man who would occasionally call Navarro to his "gray stone mansion" for various meetings. As Vlad opens, Zurinaga presents Navarro with a curious proposition: one of Zurinaga's associates named Vlad intends to move to Mexico City and has a particular request for lodging. Working with his wife, Asuncion (who is a real estate agent), the Navarros must find a terrifying old castle for Vlad to move into, one fully outfitted with blacked-out windows and a tunnel for discreet entrances (and exits).

As readers, this sets off an entire color guard of red flags, but Navarro and his wife are none the wiser. Navarro's ignorance isn't frustrating so much as it is an exciting setup - Vlad aside, Navarro should have been tipped off that things weren't right just by looking around his boss's home. "This was a house without the slightest hint of feminine grace," Fuentes explains. "Hanging on the red velvet-lined walls were artistic treasures that, seen up-close and taken all together, revealed a shared macabre quality: disturbing engravings by the Mexican Julio Ruelas of heads drilled by monstrous insects; phantasmagoric paintings by the Swiss Henry Füssli, whose specialty was the depictions of nightmares, of distortions, the marriage of sex and horror, females and fear..."
Consider this setting a thematic prologue: much of Vlad's developments follow the distortions detailed in Zurinaga's home. Fuentes develops the Navarros with a slow, simple grace: we learn that they have a daughter, but that they had lost a son. Yves and Asuncion seem to balance out their stunted family life by maintaining a wildly passionate life in the bedroom-a detail not exactly boasted by Yves but explained in a way that suggests sex to be the one thing he and his wife can hold onto forever. As expected, Fuentes molds each new facet of the Navarro's picture simply to break apart these details later in the book.

Eventually, Count Vlad himself enters the story and despite his seemingly cordial behavior, Navarro grows slightly suspicious of his intentions. And who wouldn't be? "He wore all black: black turtleneck shirt, black pants, and black moccasins without socks. His ankles were extremely thin, as was his whole body, but his head was enormous, extra-large but strangely undefined, as though a hawk had disguised himself as a raven..." But, Navarro maintains his respectable, professional manner and continues to entertain his client's requests. When offered a drink, Navarro asks for some wine on the condition that Vlad join him. "I never drink," replies the Count. And with a pregnant pause that would charm any Vincent Price fan, he finishes his sentence: "...wine." One can almost hear Vlad licking his fangs.

As with any good B-Horror movie, there's a single essay-worthy layer underneath the story's frights. Why bring Vlad the Impaler, or Bram Stoker's Dracula (who was very much influenced by Vlad the Impaler's historic cruelty) to Mexico City? Considering Navarro's ignorance of his situation, one could posit that Mexico lacks the world folklore that has wildly spread throughout the ages in Europe. But Mexico City is not without a history of its own - Vlad is full of once-ambitious empty buildings that seem to serve no purpose to Fuentes aside from localizing some old-world European ideals. Fuentes provides readers with enough clues to show that there actually is something at the end of that dark hallway-Vlad can be read as a meditation on the literary canon, a book that details with a tight grip how history and genre can cross cultures, growing anew with each new host.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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