Good stories only become great narratives when filtered through a gifted storyteller. In Border Lore, professor and author David Bowles takes the tales that make South Texas such a culturally diverse and interesting place and breathes new life into them by updating, enriching, and sometimes entirely reshaping them. From classics that have shown up in literature before, like La Llorona and La Mano Pachona, to bizarre ghost encounters and even cryptozoological creatures like El Chupacabras, what this book offers is a dazzling and wonderfully illustrated look at the magic — and horror — that make up the unique folklore of our nation’s southern border.
The first thing that should be understood about Border Lore is that Bowles is a scholar, and that has a great impact on his storytelling because research and history are two of his fortes. The stories in this collection, while generally falling within the boundaries of flash fiction, almost always offer a historical context to frame the action. The result is the kind of book that entertains while educating. Take, for example, the introduction to The Flying Witch of Monterrey:
“Since the time of the Mayan kingdoms, witches have been feared and respected in Mexico. These men and women have for thousands of years used spells and other means to manipulate teotl, spiritual energy, to accomplish their goals. Depending on what those goals are, their magic is considered white or black. White witches usually prefer some other label: curandero, shaman, granicero, santero. For most people in Mexico and the US Southwest, the Spanish word “bruja” (probably derived from the Latin “plusscia” or “knowledgeable”) is immediately associated with black magic and evil deeds.”
Between historical context, information, and gripping narratives, Bowles navigates most of what the border has to offer in terms of folklore and does so in less than 150 pages and with a very enjoyable speed. From Mexico all the way up to San Antonio, Texas, the book stretches the reaches and significance of the border while also moving back and forth chronologically. This flexibility allows Bowles to write about some of the oldest frontera tales, as well as some far more recent urban legends in a way that makes the reader understand that all are part of the same cultural fabric, and the narratives receive the same respectful treatment regardless of their degree of improbability.
Perhaps the best thing about this collection of short stories is that Bowles manages to deliver a wide array of styles. From vignettes that read like short stories about love gone wrong, to pieces that seem to have been pulled from a night spent telling scary stories around a fire, there’s something for everyone here. In fact, despite the academic touches (something that comes accompanied by eight pages of notes that’s proof of the work that went into the book and an invitation to explore further), there are passages that will even satisfy those who enjoy their folklore with a touch of horror:
“As they neared the entrance to the ranch, a horrifying shape squeezed its way through the gate. Bluish-green reptilian skin stretched taut across a bony, emaciated but wiry body. Long hind legs ground prehensile claws into the sand earth, tensing for a leap. Along the knobby ridge of the creature’s spine, black quills jutted viciously, a dangerous line that terminated at the sleek, almost canine head. Red eyes turned on the hunters, and the black lips pulled back in a hideous snarl.”
When taken along with the colorful illustrations by artist José Meléndez, Border Lore takes a step further and becomes a conversation piece as well as very well researched book about the eerie, tragic, and bizarre stories of the Texas/Mexico border and nearby areas. If you have any interest in the stories that make up the storytelling foundations of this country, as well as in new urban legends, then this one is a must read.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of Gutmouth, Hungry Darkness, and a few other things no one will ever read. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.