By Carlos Fuentes (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 1965)
A small gem of the macabre that deserves to stand with the classics. AURA, a standout novella by Mexico’s late Carlos Fuentes, has been fairly influential in its way (see Peter Straub’s remarkably AURA-ish novella THE GENERAL’S WIFE), yet remains frustratingly unknown to the horror community at large. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s one of the most vivid and fecund ghost stories in existence, with a premise that is quite original and a second person narrative that never feels self conscious or distracting.
The protagonist is the young scholar Felipe, who answers a newspaper ad that seems to be addressed to him personally. The ad leads Felipe to a rundown house owned by the ancient Senora Llorente, who wants Felipe to reside in the abode and edit the memoirs of her deceased husband. Also living on the premises is the Senora’s fetching young niece Aura, with whom Felipe becomes instantly besotted. As the days and nights in the house stretch on Felipe experiences horrific visions and nightmares, all the while growing increasingly close to Aura. He comes to suspect that the old woman is holding Aura in the house against her will, based on the way the two behave when they’re around each other, with Aura constantly mimicking her aunt’s movements and vice versa.
Other points of interest/suspicion include the vast garden that borders the house, odd snatches of text in Senor Llorente’s memoirs involving magic and sorcery, and some old photographs of the deceased Senor Llorente–who looks exactly like Felipe! The supernaturally tinged mystery at the heart of all this is never fully explained, but enough clues are provided to convey the gist of what is happening. In this way the tale resembles the enigmatic horror fiction of England’s late Robert Aickman, one of the true masters of the form.
AURA’S true spark is the great beauty of its prose, very ably translated by Lysander Kemp. Carlos Fuentes was a master of baroque yet subdued description, and in AURA he’s created a short, shocking masterpiece of supernatural apprehension.