Ann Davila Cardinal wants to scare your teenagers.
The Morrisville author writes horror fiction for Young Adult readers. Her first two novels feature ghosts, the Latino version of the boogeyman and protagonist who happens to be a Vermont teenager named Lupe investigating homicides in Puerto Rico.
The teenager, it turns out, shares a bit of Cardinal’s backstory.
“In order to inhabit a character and make them believable, you have to have some element of yourself in them,” Cardinal said. “It might be aspects of myself, it might be aspects of my story but my characters always have some elements [of my life] so that I can make them realistic.”
In Cardinal’s novels, Lupe’s father in Vermont has a drinking problem. In her own life, it was her mother who started drinking after her father died. At that point, her mother sent her to Puerto Rico every summer to stay with a great-aunt, whose house in Bayamon was located on 2 acres of jungle in the middle of the suburbs.
Those visits forged her deep connection with the island and the writer has said that spending summers in Puerto Rico as a child saved her life. Almost everything she has written in recent years is set on the island.
Cardinal describes herself as a Gringa-Rican, embracing both her father’s European heritage and her mother’s Puerto Rican roots.
During her years growing up in New York and New Jersey, Cardinal fell in love with the horror genre. She watched Dracula and other classic horror films with her siblings and read voraciously, devouring Gothic novels and magic realism by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortázar and Mario Vargas Llosa. The reading matter came from her mother’s bookshelves.
“My whole childhood, I loved horror,” Cardinal told VTDigger. “It definitely affected me. I mean, I had nightmares, but it also made me feel better about my life. When you’re reading a horror novel, it justifies so much fear but at least when you’re done, there are no zombies.”
Cardinal believes that, because part of her childhood was spent growing up in a Latin culture, she became obsessed with magical realism.
“You accept the fact that the supernatural is not necessarily an outrageous concept,” she explained. “There’s no question that there are ghosts.”
Ghosts play a prominent role in Cardinal’s second novel, “Category Five,” which is set in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico in 2017. Lupe is back visiting her uncle the police chief when dead bodies start turning up near a luxury resort under construction. Someone is scheming to privatize beaches on Vieques, a small island that is part of Puerto Rico. Lupe and a cousin help her uncle investigate the deaths.
Cardinal has her protagonist struggling with the clash between the two cultures of Vermont and the Caribbean homeland of her family. It’s a theme the author often addresses in her writing.
“That’s what I grew up with and I want to reach kids who are dealing with that,” she said. “That is getting to be more and more the story. We’re all mixed race or mixed ethnicities and mixed cultures. But you oftentimes don’t feel at home in either. It’s important to me to deal with that.”
In her first Young Adult novel, “Five Midnights,” Lupe goes to Puerto Rico, where a series of teens with substance abuse problems are being done in, possibly by El Cuco, the Latino boogeyman used as a tool by parents to get their kids to behave. Grappling with substance abuse is clearly something she has thought about as the daughter of a woman who drank too much.
“She certainly has some social messages within the book that she gets across without necessarily being too didactic or hitting the reader over the head,” said Paul Tremblay, a successful horror novelist who blurbed the book. Tremblay teaches math at a high school outside Boston and he found the teens in “Five Midnights” to be very authentic.
When Cardinal was a teenager in New York City, she was on hand for the final years of the punk rock movement, which she said was a game changer for her. During the week, Cardinal donned a uniform and went to a Catholic girls school, but the weekends were a time for club-hopping. The outsider status of the punk movement, as well as its “cool and angry” mindset, appealed to her at the time.
Fast-forward a few decades and the former punk rocker tells you that what she loves about Vermont is that life is “so calm and makes so much sense here.”
Here’s how she migrated from Manhattan to Morrisville. An older brother went to Goddard College in the late 1970s and Cardinal came to Plainfield for his graduation in 1980. She was shocked when he assured her that she needn’t worry about walking alone at night in the area. How else would a young woman who had been mugged three times as a child react?
After a brother-in-law was brutally mugged in New York City, he and his wife moved to Vermont and settled in Morrisville. Eventually the mother, who had stopped drinking, joined them. While Cardinal was still in college, she moved there to help her sister take care of their ailing mother.
The mother, who is now deceased, told Cardinal that Vermont reminded her of Puerto Rico in the 1950s, where the bank employees knew your name and would send you a card on your birthday, where strangers would actually stop to help you if your car broke down.
It took Cardinal a while to get used to the friendliness of strangers in Vermont. When a woman in a restroom struck up a conversation with her, Cardinal at first feared that the chatty stranger was trying to pick her up, but eventually accepted the fact that she was just being friendly.
Cardinal now works as a recruiter for the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she helped establish a winter writing program in Puerto Rico. Two of her cousins on the island are also writers.
When Cardinal was earning her Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, she was befriended by the writer and critic Rigoberto Gonzalez, then an instructor at the college. Gonzalez, now a professor at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, said he finds Cardinal’s work compelling because it is part of a larger vision of a troubled Puerto Rico worth fighting for.
Gonzalez, a Chicano who grew up in America, writes mostly about Mexico. Despite the fact that she was born in the U.S., he considers Cardinal an immigrant writer who is part of the Puerto Rican diaspora.
“People come to the United States and they’re still writing about India, they’re still writing about Latin America, they’re still writing about Europe,” Gonzalez said. “She’s part of that. I think that, when you leave your homeland, you keep your homeland in your heart. Any immigrant writer will tell you that. This is one way to remain connected. This is one way not to forget where we come from and what we love.”
Cardinal is now in her mid-50s and this heavily tattooed, mountain bike-riding Vermonter doesn’t look like she’s a snowbird, but will concede that moving snow at her home in Morrisville is something that exhausts her and her 65-year-old husband. Eventually, she said, they hope to be down in Puerto Rico for much of the winter. “At this point in my life,” Cardinal said, “my heart is in Vermont and Puerto Rico.”