The whole land shall be a desolation, yet will I not make a full end: Kay Chronister’s liminal Desert Creatures
Desert Creatues. Kay Chronister. Erewhon Books, November 2022.
The word “liminal” is having a moment on the internet. As with so many things having a moment on the internet, though, it’s being flattened by overuse and drained of its larger meaning. It isn’t a vague synonym for “creepy” or “odd.” The actual, more useful definition pertains to the transitioning of thresholds or boundaries. This is not the same thing as the uncanny, which I think is actually what many people are reaching for when they use “liminal” these days. Even more specifically, in anthropological usage, it refers to the ambiguous state in the middle of a rite of passage, the disorienting in-between when the previous stage has been shed but the new one not yet attained. As I’ve argued before, it’s a concept that lies at the heart of weird fiction.
It also lies at the heart of Kay Chronister’s Desert Creatures, my most-anticipated novel of 2022. A work of weird feminist eco-horror, it does for the Southwest desert what Jeff VanderMeer did for Florida’s swamps and Algernon Blackwood did for the Danube, and it more than lives up to my expectations. It’s a beautifully accomplished work, capturing the uncanny weirdness of the lonesome Southwest landscape, with its Joshua trees and nigh-endless arid landscapes, peopled with atavistic cowboys, desert-bound orphans, and the opulent, vice-ridden church of a post-apocalyptic Las Vegas.
Everything here is in a liminal state: characters, environment, church, reality itself. It’s a work concerned with boundaries and autonomy, faith and endurance, redemption and violence. You’ll see it compared to The Canticle of Leibowitz, which is apt, but it struck me more as the American Riddley Walker, with which it shares a deeply-rooted sense of folk and place and uncanny prose. Cormac McCarthy’s work—particularly The Road and Blood Meridian—is a forebear, but so is the lineage of feminist post-apocalyptic works like Walk to the End of the World and A Gift Upon the Shore.
Desert Creatures takes place in “the Remainder,” a vaguely defined area containing the Sonoran and the Mojave deserts, a vaguely-defined number of years after a vaguely-defined apocalypse: a world which has left behind our own but not yet resolved itself into a clear new one. Unlike most post-apocalyptic works, the narrative never revels in the downfall of modernity, but scavenges in the remnants of what was and calls forth the twinned opulences of medieval Catholicism and Las Vegas as its guideposts. The characters themselves also do a lot of scavenging, of course.
The novel opens with a girl named Magdala and her father Xavier stumbling onto a town of bandits called Caput Lupinum, a Latin phrase literally meaning “wolf’s head” but figuratively used to refer to outlaws, and the confusions between human, animal, plant and landscape never let up from there. The book really blossoms after Magdala, Xavier, and five other refugees flee into the desert on a pilgrimage to the seat of the Holy Church of Las Vegas, where Magdala hopes to appeal to the relics of a folk saint to heal her clubfoot. The pilgrims take turns recounting stories to one another in a kind of dusty, desert-stricken Canterbury Tales. The first story is Xavier’s symbolic recounting of the Remainder’s origin story, referencing the Hopi Skeleton God Musauwu to root the destruction of the Remainder in the apocalyptic creation of the colonial US itself. From there they spiral downward from epic mythologizing toward the individual, shedding layers of metaphor and symbolism. The final story, Magdala’s, is a short, devastating personal confession that marks the end of their fellowship, leaving her alone in the desert; the second part of the book picks up seven years later when the adult Magdala kidnaps a heretic priest to guide her through her resumed pilgrimage.
In the Remainder the desert is a malignant presence, haunting and intrusive, not an entity in and of itself but a disembodied threat which is always present. It’s not unlike a weird eco-horror doppelganger of the Christian concept of grace, ambient and independent of human free will. Anything “desert sick” is fated to “become something not itself.” The Remainder is littered with “stuffed men” merging with cacti or javelinas before taking root or endlessly wandering, filled by the desert itself. In this wasteland Las Vegas sits “like a poisonous fruit amid the hideous briar patch of the Remainder, on all sides surrounded,” a decrepit post-apocalyptic Vatican of the desert, opulent and hypocritical. The boundaries between church and desert break down as unevenly as those between human and beast, flora and fauna, reality and the veil. In the Remainder names do not hold fast to meanings, and even death, usually the clearest transition we can make, is not certain.
It’s an astoundingly well-realized setting, not in the usual sense of world-building as discussed in much of the modern fantastic, but as the perfectly realized vessel for Magdala’s story. The religious signifiers of liminality very much apply here, that sense of tension and incompleteness in a world becoming something not itself. The desert also reads as an extended metaphor for patriarchy, as it (and a kind of ur-cowboy ghost that ends up personifying it) wears against her autonomy and insists that she give up her personhood and let him/the desert inside. Magdala begins the novel being led by one patriarch and closes it leading another, her liminal journey toward self-actualization guiding the narrative without ever becoming pat, sentimental, or overly conclusive.
The uncanny slipperiness in the narrative is an integral part of the prose and structure of the novel as well, off-kilter details and word choices keeping the reader continually estranged. Guns referred to as revolvers turn out to be rifles, and during a gunfight their bullets “land” or “sink” into flesh, lending the whole thing a kind of slow-motion affect. The whole thing feels somewhat out of time and space, cowboys and gambling hall churches side by side with hideous monstrosities shambling through the desert; American Western dialogue placed side by side with homilies and psalms direct from the Bible. This is very much not a work of realist science fiction, but something much weirder and more interesting, and thank God for that. You might say it has the same relationship to post-apocalyptic fiction that Blood Meridian has to cowboy Westerns, although of course Desert Creatures has Blood Meridian and those same Westerns in its DNA as well.
The old world is dead, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters, a secular folk saint once said, and this is the book of monsters our liminal year deserves. After loving Chronister’s debut collection Thin Places in 2020, my expectations for this novel were as boundless as the Sonoran horizon. Desert Creatures has surpassed them.
This review was commissioned from a hard pitch and was edited by Jake Casella Brookins and copyedited by Misha Grifka Wander. The author is an editor with ARB but received no compensation for this review, beyond the review copy of the book, which was furnished by Erewhon Books.