Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (translated by Megan McDowell) is the best horror novella / work of fiction of the year. Am I calling it early? Abso-fucking-lutely.
The opening of the novella not only sets the scene but almost immediately induces a level of tension that shouldn’t be possible so early in the piece. A woman – Amanda – lies dying in the hospital. Her world is dark, her sheets are rough and the only indication she has that a small boy is sitting next to her is that he keeps murmuring into her ear. Why is the boy there? Why is this boy so insistent that Amanda find that moment when the “worms come into being?” What do these worms have to do with dead horses, toxins seeping into the mud, and the migration of tainted souls? But most importantly of all – where the FUCK is Amanda’s daughter Nina!?
No, seriously, where is she?
The novella’s title gives you a sense of the tone. Amanda’s life is ebbing away and so there’s a dreamlike aspect to her interactions with this small boy and his probing questions. But there’s also a rhythm to the prose, propelling you through Amanda’s memory of the few days / weeks, as she pieces together what’s happened to her, her husband and her daughter Nina. It’s a memory fraught with doubt and uncertainty, often undermined by the creepy boy – his name is David – whose questions become an interrogation.
The novellas compact length means that Schweblin can sustain and amp up the tension and fear. The novella’s structure – essentially an extended dialogue between Amanda and David – would make for one terrifying audio play. I had to take a deep breath after I finished Fever Dream. I even took a pause before jumping onto the next book. If there’s a more propulsive and frightening work of horror fiction written this year I’ll be stunned.
And kudos to Megan McDowell for her superb translation.