ARC Review: DESERT CREATURES by Kay Chronister (2022)

Genre: Adult Horror Western
Year Release: November 8th, 2022
Buy Links: Bookshop.org | Unabridged Bookstore | Libro.fm

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Read a physical ARC from the publisher
Content warning: death of a parent (father), ableism, body horror, misogyny, gun violence, realities of pregnancy, dead baby

Magdala is an eleven-year-old with a club foot, on the run from her settlement with her father across the Sonoran desert, where desert sickness overtakes more organic matter, turning them into horrifying corpse-cactuses. It’s a little bit Annihilation (the movie) and a little bit Red Dead Redemption with a creepy atmosphere and unexpected but delightfully unnerving Christian religious overtones. Where faith in humanity clashes with faith in the divine, it’s a great perambulation through a nightmare scape where everyone kind of sucks, but the supernatural dangers aren’t much better.

Chronister displays a command of both the Western and horror genres in this novel. The dread she builds develops independently from the shadiness of almost every individual Magdala and her father run into. They mesh together so well, building a heady atmosphere that’s bound to leave one as disoriented as the wayward pilgrims in this world. Desert sickness runs amok and, towards the end, even ghostly apparitions make an appearance. No one can be trusted, and the past literally haunts Magdala on her journey. So many horror things in one neat package.

The partitioning of this book is really interesting. We start with Magdala in her childhood, on the run with her father. They meet up with a posse and a series of tragedies and accidents leave her alone again. Then, through the perspective of a priest, we see her fiercely navigate a ruthless society while the priest ruminates on his excommunication and the choices that caused him to be kidnapped by a child. Finally, we have Magdala the adult on a heist to steal saint’s bones. If you like the trope of grizzled mercenary suddenly becomes a parent, this one is a treat. Each part builds on themes that lead before the other, but each contains its own story. In terms of flow, it works well and keep the reader familiar with the themes and dangers established in the section before it.

The prose is clean, and though the action comes in fits and starts, this is definitely a more meditative piece on survival and belief in the divine. Creepy, unnerving, with interesting perspective choices that still afford the central character, Magdala, a ton of agency in a world that would rather her have none.

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