Brian A. Hopkins, El Dia de los Muertos (Earthling Publications, 2002)

Brian A. Hopkins is an acclaimed writer and editor (he has won Bram Stoker Awards under both guises) who also operates an innovative publishing company (Lone Wolf Publications, which produced the multimedia anthology Tooth and Claw, Volume One and another Stoker winner, The Imagination Box), yet who still has time to crank out terrific work for other smaller houses like Earthling Publications. El Dia de los Muertos ("the Day of the Dead") is his most recent Stoker recipient, winning the 2002 award for best novella.

Richard Bennington is an archeologist for an oil company in Mexico, protecting the Cacaxtla ruins while the company drills. In addition to his grief over his dead daughter Estrella (killed by an earthquake while shopping), he is also losing his Uzbekistani wife, Titania (who was badly injured at the site), to her own despair. This drives Bennington to distraction until he is reminded of the local Aztec traditional New Fire Ceremony — which used to happen every 52 years but hasn't been performed since the sixteenth century — and seeks to take advantage of its upcoming anniversary. Perhaps he can get earth goddess Coatlicue (mother of Huitzilopochtli) to trade one life for another.

Coming in at a mere 100 pages, El Dia de los Muertos is tight, crisp, and fast, with not a word wasted. It is not a book that allows a quick scan of the pages to grasp everything — careless reading results in lost information — but even his digressions into the history of Aztec deities are enthralling. El Dia de los Muertos shows just how well a writer's skill at plot and character development can be enhanced by a well-researched setting. Mexico City felt real and his depth of knowledge of Aztec deities makes their appearance in the story more than just another dark fantasy element. In this case, less is more because, as he mentions in the afterword, inserting all the detail would have been as befuddling to the reader as it originally was to the author. (In the back, Hopkins includes a selective glossary and, for those interested in further research, a bibliography of his sources, although he warns that "if you like confusion, study Mesoamerican gods.")

El Dia de los Muertos' recurring theme is of the horror of life in the midst of death. Hopkins makes Bennington's loss palpable by offering up flashbacks of the seemingly fated romance with Titania, and makes sure we feel the devastation wrought by the mall collapse by describing every second of Bennington's place in the aftermath in excruciating detail. During his frantic search for his family among the dead and dying, he gets swept up in the situation as they cry out for assistance and he struggles with the opposing forces.

But the most horrifying scene comes during the early stages of the ceremony, when the chosen victim remains alive and awake during the process of her own flaying. This is the most brutal writing I have encountered in years: truly visceral prose in what is the best novella to ever cross my desk. As soon as I was finished, I wanted instantly to reread it. Hopkins doesn't let up, making sure that his reader is as aware as Bennington, both now and especially soon after, of the consequences of wanting to change the past. This is one story that has stuck with me long after I was done compulsively turning the pages; a full week after finishing it, I am still in awe.

[Craig Clarke]

More information is available at Earthling Publications