October 2023

A Haunting in Hialeah Gardens

By Raul Palma
Review by
In Raul Palma’s brilliantly constructed nightmare, the prose is as consistently fresh and inventive as the devil is inescapable.
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Hugo Contreras is a babaláwo (a practitioner of the Afro-Cuban religion Santeria) who is drowning in debt, both spiritual and material. Though he’s attached to the premier Cuban botanica in Miami, Hugo has no real faith and no belief in himself. Guilt-ridden dreams of exposure as a fraud haunt his nights, and collection calls hound him by day.

But Hugo’s gifts are real: He can see secrets and sometimes the future. So when his archnemesis Alexi Ramirez—the attorney turned debt collector who has tormented Hugo night and day throughout his wife’s sickness and after her death—finds his new home plagued by malevolent spirits, he turns to Hugo for help. The deal Alexi offers is almost irresistible: Get rid of the spirits in his suburban mansion, and he’ll wipe out everything Hugo owes. No more stalking from debt collectors; no more scraping by after exorbitant monthly payments that never make a dent in the principal. Though Hugo is loath to accept a deal with a man he considers the devil himself, his boss Lourdes convinces him to take what looks like a win-win opportunity to absolve him and Alexi both.

Of course, nothing is ever so simple. Even after accepting Alexi’s offer, Hugo dreams of exacting some petty humiliation while completing the task. Grappling with long-buried ghosts that have nothing to do with Alexi’s extortionate loans and reeling with guilt about his beloved wife Meli’s last days, Hugo is frequently overcome with anger. Author Raul Palma excels at reflecting Hugo’s excruciating emotional states through flashbacks to Meli’s illness and moments of body horror. In one instance, when Hugo feels vulnerable, “it remind[s] him of the way his indebtedness would seize his wrist and turn over his forearm, exposing the network of veins and capillaries.”

A Haunting In Hialeah Gardens ingeniously uses metaphor and horror to explore the many dimensions of debt, including those that have precious little to do with money. “All devils dabbled in the business of debt,” Palma writes. In this brilliantly constructed nightmare that contains a surprising amount of humor, sometimes the lienholder is a bottom-feeding lawyer; at other times it’s a mountain-dwelling spirit who steals children’s souls. Palma’s spectacularly chilling and original debut novel is as fresh and inventive as the devil is inescapable.

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