It’s rare for a book to do exactly what its title says it will do without any caveats or reservations. It’s even more rare for a book to achieve the kind of woozy, elliptical, intimate horror implied by a title like Fever Dream. But this debut novel by Argentinian short story writer Samanta Schweblin — translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell — does exactly that.
Fever Dream operates on the level of pure atmosphere. Its action is minimal: A woman is lying in a bed. Her name is Amanda. She is talking to a child named David, who is not her son, and their dialogue is the text of the novel. It’s presented in one long unbroken string, with David’s speech in italics and Amanda’s in roman type.
David and Amanda are concerned about the worms growing inside her body. Amanda is also worried about her daughter, Nina — but Nina, David tells her, is not important:
And Nina? If all of this is really happening, where is Nina? My God, where is Nina?
That doesn’t matter.
It’s the only thing that matters.
It doesn’t matter.
In a series of questions that begin to feel like a catechism, David presses Amanda to talk through the events of the past few days, to determine the moment when the worms were born. Her narrative spirals in on itself in confused loops, repeatedly returning, the way dreams do, to certain images: David’s mother Carla in a gold bikini, the idea of a rope stretching between Amanda and Nina, a glass of lemonade sitting by the pool.
Eventually Fever Dream acquires a mythology to explain the worms and David’s persistent oddness, one that involves toxic chemicals and a village healer, but nothing ever comes fully clear. The form of the story stays amorphous, because the plot isn’t meant to be coherent. It’s meant to make you feel as though you are trapped in a nightmare with no way out, as though you are Amanda lying in bed, menaced by worms and by an implacable, unresting voice.
And because there are no textual boundaries between David’s speech and Amanda’s — no quotation marks or em-dashes — they blur into each other. David’s questions feel less like dialogue and more like an intrusive and imperative voice pushing its way into Amanda’s inner monologue.
The result is astonishingly and profoundly unsettling, in a way that few books ever quite achieve. Fever Dream is a novel stripped down to its barest elements, all dialogue and atmosphere, and working with only those elements, it manages to create an authentic nightmare.
“Authentic nightmare” is not the experience everyone wants to get out of a book (I confess it’s not my ideal read, personally), and if it sounds deeply unpleasant to you, then Fever Dream is not your book. But if you’re after creeping, insidious, psychologically compelling horror, then you won’t do better.