A miasma hangs over every page of Andy Davidson’s latest novel, The Boatman’s Daughter. Its Arkansas swamp setting clings to the narrative — clings, as a matter of fact, to Miranda Crabtree, the unfortunate young protagonist of this sordid Southern tale.
Since her father disappeared, Miranda has eked out a tenuous living ferrying drugs through the bayou for corrupted preacher Billy Cotton. Hiram Crabtree went missing the night he and Miranda brought the witch Iskra to deliver Cotton’s unusual child. Seven years later, with his spiritual kingdom in tatters, Cotton’s on his way out of this world and desperate to appease the ghost of his wife with a sacrifice.
Miranda finds herself unexpectedly in the middle of Cotton’s perverse plans, as manmade and supernatural threats loom over them all. The atmosphere of The Boatman’s Daughter is thick and fetid, compelling as it is unpleasant. And it had me itching for more stories that plunge us deep into the swamp to reveal the creatures of darkness therein. Here are four:
Beware the Wild, Natalie C. Parker
This spooky YA transports you to Sticks, Louisiana, squatting just to the side of a swamp that keeps residents up at night. Teen Sterling learns that such fear is well-founded when her brother Phin storms off into the swamp after an argument. He doesn’t return, but a girl named Lenora May does. Strangely, Sterling seems to be the only one in Sticks who remembers she had a brother — not a sister. Just who or what Lenora May is makes for a mean mystery that’ll draw you deep into town lore.
Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer
Speculative and weird, VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy doesn’t fit neatly into genre categories; accordingly, Area X, its setting, doesn’t seem like any swamp, marsh, or bayou you know. But it is psychologically horrifying: a haunting bogey-land eating inward from the Florida coast. The trilogy’s first novel opens with the four women who make up the 12th expedition party to enter Area X since nature reclaimed the land decades ago. Their mission is to map the terrain, while avoiding the various ill fates of the 11 previous expeditions.
Wormwood: A Collection of Short Stories, Poppy Z. Brite/Billy Martin
Let us start here: Wormwood was originally published in 1993 as a collection of stories called Swamp Foetus. Does that set the scene? The various shorts here are diverse in the types of horror they portray, but one of the running themes is the dark, strangely sensual nature of their settings. In these pages are body horror tales and creature features, criss-crossing the South with the swamp as a rotting, murky backdrop.
The Toll, Cherie Priest
I’ll stop recommending this book at every opportunity as soon as Priest pens her next steamy gothic fright. For now, however, it remains a perfect example of swamp-horror form. The little town of Staywater, Georgia, is no stranger to the dead and the merely gone. Sitting along State Road 177, perched ahead of the Okefenokee Swamp, the town has a cyclical history of disappearances. The latest is Melanie, a honeymooner who’s plucked into thin air as her husband Titus drives their car along a mysterious stone bridge.