Kay Chronister’s 2022 Desert Creatures is a stand-alone post-apocalyptic horror novel.
Nine-year-old Magdala, trying to deflect neighborly hostility, spun a marvelous tale of her father’s supernatural powers. Her fables did not had the effect that Magdala intended. Rather than being cowed into leaving father and daughter alone, the terrified townsfolk have driven the club-footed girl and her father out into the desert.
It’s a grim existence and likely to be a short one.
The desert may be spared the poison rain that more verdant regions endure, but that only adds thirst to the list of hazards faced by travelers. Desert plants are filled with poisons, some immediate, others more subtle. Eating desert plants can lead to a swift death … a lingering death if one is lucky. Nor is death the only option. Travelers risk hideous transformations or horrifying tumors.
Children do not fare well in this unforgiving desert. Magdala’s clubfoot makes travel even more challenging for her. This might be mitigated to a degree if she and her father could ally themselves with other travelers. However, even those wanderers who aren’t homicidal bandits want companions who offer some utility. Magdala has little to give.
Religion offers a solution. Many believe the relics in the holy city of Las Vegas have the power to heal. Others have been healed of conditions as challenging as Magdala’s — or so it is said. Perhaps Magdala can be cured as well?
Los Vegas is far away. To reach the fabled city, Magdala will have to find allies, overcome her physical limitations, and master many skills.
The first and most important lesson is that in a world where everyone is one moment of bad luck from death, nobody has the luxury of being trustworthy.
The desert folk believe very sincerely that while the desert is a slow death sentence, the rest of the world is even worse off. Obviously, nobody is inclined to check that out; presumably, those who were driven by desperation out of the desert never returned. Maybe the rest of the world is a green hellscape. Maybe it’s a paradise which nobody cares to leave. Nothing in the book supports the second hypothesis.
Exactly what happened is unclear. Certain elements of the catastrophe may have due to human poor judgement. Or perhaps plants have adapted to human incursions in a hostile manner (for example, infecting and using animals, as Cordyceps fungi does now to insects). There’s even some evidence that the catastrophes are supernatural in origin.
Humans of course interpret these setbacks as proof that humans have angered God.
This novel is all-round bleak, consisting as it does of a long series of encounters with people who consistently turn out to be useless or predatory. At least Magdala stays alive through the whole book. There are even occasional hopeful moments, although how much trust one should place in them is open to question.
It’s a credit to the author that the writing kept me going despite a plot that veers from tension to terror, in which most characters are either willfully morally compromised or forced by circumstance into regrettable choices. Even for a horror novel, this is grim reading. Ah, well. If the characters wanted to be happy, their ancestors should have made different choices.