[Schaffner Press; 2023]

Tr. from the Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger

In the opening poem of Muriel Rukeyser’s 1938 documentary sequence, The Book of the Dead, the speaker narrates an action that the poet’s traveling companion, photographer Nancy Naumberg, no doubt performed with regularity: “Now the photograph unpacks camera and case, / surveying the deep country, follows discovery / viewing on groundglass an inverted image.” Readers understand that the poetic vantage is being merged with that of a camera, the implications significant for a project that would become a paradigm of so-called objectivist poetry. Though Rukeyser had less reason to be suspicious of the camera’s liberatory capacities in the 1930s than we do in 2024, a close reading reveals her reservations. There to document the Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster, the deaths of workers who contracted silicosis of the lungs by dry-drilling a tunnel from New River to a hydroelectric plant, Rukeyser’s description of the camera lens as “groundglass” reads as glass-from-the-ground. The Book of the Dead is choked with references to glass, and silica is a glass-like material. Also, how can we trust a technology that has to turn the world upside down in order to record its truth?

Álvaro, the protagonist of Gustavo Eduardo Abrevaya’s horror novel The Sanctuary, is similarly prone to looking at the world through a camera—both when he is and when he isn’t holding one. His motivations, at least at the beginning of the novel, are quite different from Rukeyser’s. Álvaro, an Argentinian indie filmmaker traveling to a cabin in the south of his country to finish writing a screenplay with his wife (and star of his films), Alicia, simply can’t shut off his attempts to turn every real-life event into a plot point of an ever-evolving screenplay. His behavior and narration are rampantly referential—“‘Elizabetha, I give you eternal life,’” he ominously shifts into Gary Oldman’s Dracula in the midst of seducing Alicia—to the point that it becomes questionable whether or not he has a personality of his own.

The opening conflict of The Sanctuary, as well as the opening conflict of a script he improvises amidst the unfolding dilemma, is that their car has broken down in the desert far from known civilization. Álvaro’s narration becomes a sly way for Abrevaya to filter in oblique, unreliable exposition as the spontaneous film and the reality of the novel become blurry. Álvaro’s subjectivity seems to “infect” the speaker of the novel’s voice with film terminology: “High-angle view that zeroes in on Alicia’s feline features, detects the tip of her tongue peeking out between her bloated, flame-colored lips.” It’s made too easy for us to forget that these people are in trouble. That maybe they should be doing more to fix the car. That maybe this is a bad place to start having roadside sex.

Then a stranger stops to help them. Uh oh.

Abrevaya’s novel was originally released in 2003 in Argentina as El criadero (a more literal translation would be The Nursery or The Hatchery) and soon won Spain’s José Boris Spivacow Award. It is available in English for the first time in Andrea G. Labinger’s crisp but dream-like translation from Schaffner Press and was named a Best Horror Book of 2023 by the New York Times. Aspects of the book proceed along the lines of a horror trope popular enough to have been coopted as the title of a film, Wrong Turn (also 2003). Álvaro and Alicia follow the stranger’s advice to abandon their car and walk to the nearby town of Los Huemules. It ends up being way further away than he promised, and of course all is not well in Los Huemules. The couple checks into a seedy hotel and fails to learn their lesson regarding sex and horror narratives, this time filming some demon/peasant roleplay, the camera left recording as they fall asleep. In the morning, Alicia is gone.

Elements enter the story that do more complex work than simply hybridizing the horror genre with outside tropes. The ghostlike nature of the seemingly cursed provincial town recalls Mexican writer Juan Rulfo’s surreal 1955 novel Pedro Páramo, and the bureaucracy and frustration of the constant dead-ends Álvaro encounters as he bounces from the car mechanic to a bar full of locals to the mayor’s house to the morgue to a church to the police station to a law office to an orphanage in search of contradictory answers feels Kafkaesque at times. (I’m fighting my disinclination as a reviewer to make so many comparisons, as Álvaro’s endless allusions seem to not only warrant but to favor such an approach.) At times the novel’s generally R-rated ongoings explode into more shockingly misanthropic and violent monologues reminiscent of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas’s darkest dystopias. There is also something going on, readers will gradually realize, on the level of religious allegory—or anti-religious/anti-Church allegory. The novel’s chapters and larger sections are structured after the texts and sequences of the requiem mass in a way that initially mixes strangely with the book’s investment in film. During a service that Álvaro observes, a priest named Father Dupree intercuts text from the requiem with chilling exhortations not to forget that, for example, “No one gets out of here alive.”

The appearance of other memorable characters provides an almost mini-boss sense of confrontation. The mayor is an immense, ever-recumbent, ever-snacking man who lives on an estate that makes Álvaro think of Xanadu. The hope that Álvaro invests in the mayor’s assistance quickly gives way to discomfort over the man’s suspicious interrogations of this “liberal” city-dweller in their midst. Mother Aurora is a quadriplegic nun who runs the Agnus Dei Home for Children with Special Needs (called by locals “the Sanctuary”) and who provides Álvaro with background into the mythological impetus behind a gruesome nocturnal sport practiced by the men of Los Huemules. “Here I am, trapped forever,” she confronts Álvaro’s reluctance to believe her story. “Do you understand? I’m just a head, and that’s what I work with.” Álvaro is widely warned against trusting a drug-using lawyer named Casero—but by locals who themselves seem far from trustworthy. Drugs or no drugs, the best council Álvaro will receive comes from rock bottom.

The novel’s most memorable scene occurs in the final moments of the “Lacrimosa” chapter of the “Sequentia” section. After rejecting the car mechanic’s encouragement to flee town and forget about Alicia for now, Álvaro returns to the room he’s renting and finds that the police have gone through his things. He decides to watch the full video that he and Alicia had recorded their first night at the hotel, and what he sees is even more disturbing for the knowledge that the powers who are tracking the couple’s movements have probably also viewed it. We watch, in a sense, over Álvaro’s shoulder, over the police’s:

She entered the frame of the shot and exited again, but she reappeared, searching for her sandals when something happened and she turned her gaze toward the window. She walked over to the window, drew the curtain, raised the blinds, and looked. Álvaro rewound. Alicia was looking for her sandals; something was happening. Álvaro rewound again, turned up the volume, now you could hear a pop, like a cottony thud, again the tape ran backward, pop, another pop, and he began to understand.”

That level of tension is simply a hard thing to achieve with words on the page.

Without giving away the ending, a shape-shifting novel kind of decides on being one particular type of book, genre-wise, in the final chapters. As it builds toward a brutal climax, Álvaro experiences a self-discovery the reader has long since arrived at: “Álvaro didn’t know how to do things right; he lived in a celluloid world and saw life the way people went to the movies—in his padded seat, eating popcorn.” He goes on, “This wasn’t a movie, but it was the only thing he knew how to do—to be a harmless idiot who amused himself with his own inventions. An artist, that’s what he was, and the truth was that artists didn’t bother anybody; they just dedicated their lives to pursuing the crazy dream of feeding a joyful hole that demanded new ideas.” Belying this critique is The Sanctuary itself, a work of entertainment that verges into something dangerous, at times risking ickiness in long-iffy horror tropes like disability and female victimhood. Amidst all the demon murals, desert beasties, and brimstone sermons, there are moments of trippy beauty. “The asphalt was an infinite tape,” the treacherous road itself is transmuted into celluloid, “it stretched to the end of the universe and then folded downward. When he climbed a hillside, he managed to see the rounded horizon.” At its finest, The Sanctuary reads like a book that itself has broken down in the deserts of recognizable form and narrative and medium.

Joe Sacksteder is the author of the story collection Make/Shift (Sarabande Books), the novel Driftless Quintet (Schaffner Press), and the forthcoming Hack House (Astrophil Press). Recent publications include The Offing, DIAGRAM, West Branch, and Michigan Quarterly Review. He has a PhD from the University of Utah and teaches at Sweet Briar College in Virginia.

Become a Patron!

This post may contain affiliate links.