When you think of horror as a genre, what comes to mind? Maybe Stephen King, ghosts, clowns, murderous clowns? I think Juan Martinez would tell you that true horror—the type that haunts and torments you—might be taking place outside of any novel you’ve ever read.
Extended Stay opens with a family on a road trip. Martinez’s main character, Alvaro, sings with his mother, father, and youngest sister as they drive to Ibague, Columbia for his 10-year-old sister’s swim meet. With educated parents and a seemingly well-off upbringing, Alvaro holds an air of carelessness and naivety—having dropped out of college numerous times—while still possessing an unfettered attitude toward his future. This naivety is shattered within the first few paragraphs of the novel, however, when his family is pulled from their car by rebel guerillas and the true horror begins.
Shepherded away from the life they once knew, Alvaro’s family is gruesomely murdered in front of his own eyes. The account of this massacre takes the reader’s breath away, oscillating between Alvaro’s memory of the fateful night and unsettling narrative comments. Visceral and unyielding, Martinez’s craft is like a blow in and of itself– one that you can’t look away from. In such an unthinkable situation, Alvaro makes a choice. To save himself from the same fate as his family, he must sacrifice his dying mother, father, and sister to a supernatural power in the form of a young girl. Though he escapes with his life, Alvaro’s decision will follow him for the rest of the novel.
Luckily, Alvaro’s middle sister, Carmen, was not with them the night of the massacre. With little money after buying forged documents and his sister by his side, Alvaro travels to Las Vegas, Nevada to work as a line cook at a very Stanley-esque hotel known as the “Alicia.” Weathered and unimpressive in comparison to the rest of Las Vegas, Martinez writes of the Alicia as a dream or mystery, one that Alvaro is strongly drawn to. It is at the hotel that readers meet an ensemble of unique characters from Ellie, the very Irish hostess with carpal tunnel, to B., the cartoon tie-wearing boss with an insufferable son and lackluster work-ethic.
Alvaro very quickly realizes the strangeness of the hotel. Things and people go missing, calls go unanswered, and hours are lost inexplicably. Despite signs of oddity and danger, Alvaro accepts the offer of a free room for him and his sister at the Alicia in exchange for looking out for spots of improvement at the hotel. Alvaro finds that the hotel is far more grandiose and unexpected than he once thought and, on top of that, hungry for the secrets Alvaro won’t admit even to himself.
As Extended Stay unfolds, so does a twisted web of absurdity. With each page, new passages are unlocked in more ways than one, and Martinez paints an otherworldly story. Written in the third-person narrative, Martinez often shatters the linear plot, inserting comments and statements without a specified source. Subsequently, the reader begins to wonder if the Alicia is speaking to them as well, further adding to the creepy, unsettling nature of the novel. The Alicia expands beyond just the confines of her dingy walls, instead serving as a conduit for a greater, more terrifying and ruthless power known as the Face Beneath the Face—one that won’t stop until it is satiated by the destruction of all its inhabitants. When Alvaro, Carmen, and those around the Alicia lose all sense of safety, shelter, and reality, Alvaro is forced to face his past head-on and decide if he will do what it takes to save his loved ones from massacre once again.
Extended Stay is horrifying, but not necessarily in the traditional literary sense. Sure, the novel is chalked full of scenes that make your skin crawl, bend reality, and exude the looming presence of death, but real horror is often much more common and realistic. The trauma that both Alvaro and Carmen carry from their family’s murders manifests in different ways, but both are crushing. Carmen loses all sense of her innocence, grief enveloping her and sending her into emotional lockdown. Alvaro, on the other hand, harbors such immense guilt from the night in the forest that it follows him everywhere—in his first motel room in Las Vegas, on his walk to work, and in the corridors of the Alicia. He cannot escape from the horrors he’s seen, but more prominently, he can’t escape from the thought that he should have died too. Additionally, Martinez masterfully depicts the plights and horrors that undocumented immigrants face in the United States. After fleeing the comfort and stability of their previous life, Alvaro and Carmen are dropped into an unforgiving society with barely any money and no recognized identity. Constant isolation and mistreatment force Alvaro and Carmen to adapt and work for a system designed to benefit a few at the expense of many.
Extended Stay by Juan Martinez is unlike any horror book I’ve ever read. It’s primal, confounding, honest, and terrifying, but brilliant nonetheless.
By Juan Martinez
University of Arizona Press
Published January 17, 2023