When you’re looking for a creepy read this October, you might turn to your typical Stephen King or get nostalgic with a tattered copy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. However if you’re looking for something different – something with a moody atmosphere, a culturally significant monster and enough drama to cement the story in reality – you’d be looking for a copy of Five Midnights by Ann Dávila Cardinal.
Lupe is visiting her uncle in Puerto Rico when she learns of a series of murders of young men in the area. The murders appear to casualties of living a life of drug use, until another unsettling pattern emerges. All the young men were childhood friends.
What follows is a story steeped in lore – introducing a boogeyman of sorts called El Cuco, who pointedly preys on kids and has a particular affinity for those enshrined in the world of drugs.
Themes of cultural identity and the true monster of addiction are explored here. It’s not just an actual monster stalking these kids, but the grounded reality of an island on hard times, where teens can easily fall into the world of drugs in order to escape. Some blame these hard times on gringos, which makes Lupe’s time challenging as she appears white. She butts heads with a girl named Marisol, whose anger is a short fuse ready to go at any time.
Parallel to Lupe’s story is Javier, a Puerto Rican teen caught up in the issues of a life post-drug use, seeing his friends preyed upon by a mysterious assailant. His side of the story is very touching – he’s a good kid who still continues to struggle with leaving his addictions behind. When it becomes clear that he’s on the list of kids being killed, the proverbial ticking clock counting down to his 18th birthday ups the stakes.
All this supernatural and realistic horror is tied together with a truly lovely portrayal of Puerto Rico, described in such detail as to put you on the very streets that Lupe and Javier walk down. Cultural significance, like with funerary services being more lighthearted and celebratory rather than grim, round out this story. You can taste the food they describe, while also feeling the cold claws of a hungry monster reach for your back.
We talked with Cardinal about her book and dove into the supernatural side of Puerto Rico in Five Midnights.
Den of Geek: Lupe’s cultural identity is a major issue for her to deal with throughout the book, as she figures out her roots but also deals with people lumping her in with the white people they see as having ruined Puerto Rico. I noticed in your bio you describe yourself as “Gringa-Rican” just like Lupe. Are her experiences based on your own?
Cardinal: Only the spirit of them. My Puerto Rican family embraced me at the worst time of my life, when my mother was incapable of parenting me, and they accepted me totally and completely. The judgement I felt as a gringa was from outside of my family, and I was generally young enough it bounced off. It wasn’t until I was older and tried to own this identity that I got the worst kind of “you don’t belong” response. Not as much from people on the island, more from the community on the mainland, and, if I’m being honest, from within myself. But with age I’ve come to peace with that. I know that the island runs through my veins next to my father’s blood. I feel closest to that side of my family because of what they got me through and if I’m not Puerto Rican enough for some people, that’s okay. But it took me years to get here and I wanted Lupe to come to that understanding at a younger age.
Part of what I loved about this book was the authentic nature in the description of Puerto Rico. Even when a funeral is taking place, there’s clear cultural significance tied to it. Javier describes the PR version of a funeral, with its laughter and food — as a more honest experience than the American version.
I’m so glad you felt I captured that. Puerto Rican culture is so honest and rich it reaches beyond death. And so many things that are whispered about here, are not there. When you gain weight they say, “Ay m’ija! You’re getting fat!” This is not considered hurtful, simply truthful and said out of affection and concern. And food? Well, food is at the center of every family gathering. My editor at Tor Teen, Ali Fisher, really pushed me to describe the food. “Make my mouth water and run out for alcapurrias!”
I think you made some nice commentary here on mental health with Javier’s mother and Marisol’s blackout rages. Was this the intention with these two characters?
Without giving away too much, Marisol’s fits come from outside of her, they are not a mental health issue. She is an angry character at her core, yes, but for good reason. At this point in my life Marisol is the one I identify with the most. Puerto Ricans are American citizens, but you’d never know it from how they’ve been forgotten. Marisol has a right to be pissed, but, as you find out through the book, there is more to her rage than just colonization.
But Javier’s mother? She’s the opposite in some ways. She’s what I imagine comes from living in a land of denial, something that can particularly happen in families struggling with addiction. She misunderstands the difference between a positive attitude and sticking your head in the sand. I feel badly for her more than any of the other characters. She was tough to write.
As a recovering drug addict, Javier made an especially sympathetic character, especially each crucial time his sobriety is tested. Why do you think it’s important to have a character like this — who might otherwise be painted “a bad guy” — in YA fiction?
Addiction is a disease that takes control of your body and mind like a parasite (sorry, horror writer, you know). To battle that monster so young is so incredibly difficult. It was very, very hard to push him to the point of using, but I felt it necessary for the story, and, honestly, for it to be realistic. I wanted teen readers to see that these are not just adult problems, they can come quite young. Addiction is a foe that never quite goes away, just lays dormant in our mind and bodies. I wanted the reader to feel for Javier—and Izzy and Lupe’s father, for that matter—to understand what that pull was for him when all hell was breaking loose and he just wanted to escape. He’s the most vulnerable character in many ways, so if a junkie is often depicted as “bad” I’m glad I had the opportunity to show the humanity of one.
It seems to me that El Cuco represents the perfect last coming-of-age hurdle for the kids before they turn 18. What made you decide on El Cuco as your monster?
I find him fascinating. Parents threaten their kids with, “if you don’t behave, El Cuco is going to get you!” What a dark and horrifying thing to say, but it seemed particularly poignant from the teen perspective, kind of like their parents’ last-ditch effort to assert power over their lives, particularly when they see them heading in a bad direction. Then I wondered, what if it went terribly wrong?
What theme would you like to resonate most with your young readers?
That identity is yours to decide. What you are inside is what you are, no matter what anyone tells you. And addiction is a monster that can be overcome if you’re willing to come face-to-face with it, and having family—chosen or blood—behind you is invaluable.
Thank you for your time. I enjoyed reading Five Midnights!
Thank you! I loved your excellent questions and appreciate your thoughtful reading of the book!
Five Midnights was published June 4, 2019 by Tor Teen. Find out more about it here.