• Bryson Edward Howe

Hurricane Season: A Terrible Beauty is Born

The witch is dead. God is nowhere to be seen. The devil doesn't seem to care. Melchor's modern classic is a post-Eden limbo. Welcome to the new canon.


Artwork credit: "The Witch" by Barry Windsor-Smith, 1978

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Set in the fictional Mexican village of La Matosa, a muted dreamscape painted with a hue of nocturnal gloom, where boys are fierce and feral and women are grated into submission like livestock; where the moon's mistily glowing halo illuminates the shadowy midnight darkness and where black masses and midnight sabbaths are more than just mere myth, Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season (translated into English by Sophie Hughes) awakens us to a small Mexican village as a magical bestiary, where the boys slither and dance through the phantom perfume of violence in the air that hangs thick, sticky and warm like candle wax; boys born in the eye of the storm, where lightning seems to strike through stygian skies just to illuminate a crude sorcerer’s lair, where they are chugging alcohol murkily in damp corners trying to drown out the witch’s wretched wailing. In La Matosa erosion is slow and boundless, the novel taking its name (La temporada de huracanes in its original Spanish) from the crudded clouds that saddle the rayless sky as if to forecast the violence to come: because “the Witch is dead” proclaims the book’s blurb, a statement rustling with sinister connotations drawn from a festering literary history seeped in the Gothic and the occult.


The classical figure of the witch in history functioned as a symbolic means of understanding the negative feelings of desire, fear, and hatred (all things that make you sweat) that they arouse, leading to religious and societal dissension thought to be dangerous and unpredictable, engaging in wanton sexual gratifications at will and ready to destroy the social order and return the cosmos to chaos at a moment's notice. Well, look around. Melchor paints a town already devolved into chaos: as above, so below. Like looking to a God for hope, the townspeople look to the witch for someone to help them, or to blame, directing their hatred outwards where the transgressions are inflicted onto the witch, not by her—“girls from the highway […] were the only ones the Witch chose to help for free, without charging a peso, which was just as well because most […] of them didn’t own so much as the towels they used to wipe away the bodily fluids of the men who screwed them”—where the villagers crudely imagine the witch mother fornicating with the devil, later coming to understand that her child is the result of a break-in and gang-rape.


And if magic is essentially the practice of manipulating these invisible forces that shape our visible world, then this link between magic and art is something that reveals these hidden rules, or beyond, exploring the shadowy inner realms of dreams and desires. I think creating art is kind of a form of magic, where there is that sense of it being an act of observing, both acts stemming from the need to better understand the world around us, Melchor here desperately kicking over stones looking for the reason for the senseless violence of men. Because Hurricane Season conjures a world that is, yes, extreme but connected to something familiar, a drastic tapestry of what we have glimpsed and know to be true. This isn't Melchor painting on the blank slate of the ether but rooted in the unfathomable violent murders of women in Melchor’s home state of Veracruz which led the country in femicides the year before this book was published.


The Devil makes work for idle hands to do. So says she, she who tramples through the Garden seeking something—anything­—to occupy herself, Melchor finding both less and more than she’d hoped for. Surrealist painter and novelist Leonora Carrington wrote on the job of an artist that “the task of the right eye is to peer into the telescope, while the left eye peers into the microscope.” This is an omniscience not content with solely the macrocosm or the microcosm, and where the omnipotence of Melchor’s prose is what people usually associate with a God’s-eye-view, here it is the Devil's. Thick, serpentine sentences spin themselves tight around the novel’s rotten core, like overgrowth or that of an endless river current following a storm, moving in a vicious tidal motion, rushing downstream before it hopelessly overflows and floods the nearby village. Written in eight uninterrupted paragraphs that act as chapters, moving back and forth in time, that tumble out in streams of consciousness told with such an eagerness in scenes of such ferocious cruelty that feel so in line with the anger, the venom, and the (delighted) emotion of each narrator; an explosion of perspectives rendered in long passages that seem to leak out of the hazy minds of drug addicts, murderers, and child rapists, drawn from true stories but which feel especially perverted because these moments transcend their darkness and are dripping with empathy and humanity.


Jerry Saltz once referred to art as “an undoing of death”, a journey to the underworld to bring something back, and while Melchor was desperately trying to understand the core of charcoal-black-hearts, to make meaning out of suffering, she herself thinks that she ultimately failed because when the savagery she finds herself locking horns with is this senseless, the result of a community robbed of empathy, the acts become that which is beyond the limits of what we can conceptualise or understand. Because when stripped of what separates us, as humans, from the animals, or what separates us from the chaos, Melchor’s language twists itself deeper into its own inherent innocence, singing a lyrical brutality that runs glimmering throughout the novel, woven uncannily into a rodeo of devils, demons, desire and deliverance that can be traced back to the very beginning of human creation itself, an exercise in malefic extravagance where the agonising and the marvellous are combined in a delicate alchemical dance of arcane symbolism, superstition and a nightmarish socio-political realism. It’s not journalistic—although Melchor does cite Capote’s In Cold Blood as a major inspiration—but works so feverously because it leans into the emotion of its characters, an empathy for characters too sick to describe, an empathy born from language sometimes getting off on itself—it’s a voice so unique I’m trapping myself in contradictions trying to unravel its secrets. The Devil’s work, indeed.


Dear Bryson, I hope you enjoy this demented novel!” reads the inscription scribbled into the opening of my now-battered copy of Hurricane Season, words inked after a brief conversation with Melchor following the London stop of her book tour for her second novel to be translated into English, Paradais, where we spoke about the dark delights of reading such macabre material. Everyone you speak to about Hurricane Season will surely harp on about the shock, the horror, the unease they felt reading it—but I asked her, had anyone come up and told her that they got off on this stuff? She said no one had, but I had a gut feeling that maybe there were some people who were just too scared of what she or someone else might think. I reminded her that we were in a room full of people who had bought copies of her books, so maybe I was right. She gave me a wry little smile, muttered something about “psychopaths” and scribbled the little note after noticing my bookmark at the halfway point.


Because when turning the pages of this future classic, you realise that exploring the darkest parts of soul-deep-desires can only take you so far—I think to find the secret, blackest parts of the human heart, you need to travel through an even more twisted, sickening route: what we really fucking enjoy.

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