8 Surreal Books to Introduce You to Southwestern Gothic Horror

Things are just a little stranger out west. 

The western United States, and in particular the southwest, with its mountains and mazelike canyons, holds a special place in our psyche. It’s a place where things are a little looser and less defined, a landscape of wide skies, vast plains and deserts, and hidden places. It’s a place with a violent history, a very long memory, and the kind of odd folk legends and traditions that come from living for a long time against that vast emptiness in a place where violence and injustice reigned. In horror, the West is a more liminal space than most, home to old ghosts, older gods, and where the memory and history of the land lie just beneath the surface, waiting to be reawakened. For your reading pleasure, we’ve assembled an eight-book primer to the strange, haunting genre of southwestern gothic, a roadmap to the strange, sinister places of the west. 

 Little Heaven, Nick Cutter

Deep in the New Mexico desert, a trio of mercenaries were hired for a retrieval job: Go to the cult settlement of Little Heaven and “check on” her nephew, who might be held against his will. Years later, haunted by a deal they made with the sinister power at Little Heaven’s center, they find themselves drawn back to the cult to finish what they started. Cutter’s ’70s horror throwback comes on strange and gets even stranger, beginning with its protagonists reuniting for their rematch with Little Heaven’s mysterious black stone and then building both tension and horror as it flips from past to present, drawing terror from the isolated desert and forests of its New Mexico setting, the sinister secrecy of Little Heaven, the eldritch evil of the monolith the cult worships, and the abominations stalking the woods around the compound.  

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 The Silverberg Business, Robert Freeman Wexler

In Wexler’s truly unique and deeply weird Western mystery, a PI named Shannon takes a missing-persons case from a rabbi in Galveston to find a businessman who vanished. What seems to him like open-and-shut fraud soon spirals into a nightmarish struggle between good and evil featuring skull-headed gamblers, an infinite saloon, sinister eyeless faces, and at the center of it all, a demonic red-eyed gambler and his army of criminals. Wexler uses the history of Texas (in particular the 1900 Galveston flood) and a series of repeated images and motifs to build his own original mythos, one where the eldritch forces of chaos and decay attempt shady land grabs and the wrong door can send you into a bizarre alternate dimension. 

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 The Ghost Tracks, Celso Hurtado

After an experience with an urban legend called the Ghost Tracks, Erasmo Cruz becomes a reluctant local celebrity in his home city of San Antonio. When his friend Rat suggests the two take their shared interest in the paranormal and go into business on the back of Erasmo’s reputation, he’s reluctant at first, but between his grandmother’s cancer treatments and the rent he needs to pay, he takes Rat up on the offer and the two start investigating a series of strange cases that aren’t quite what they seem. Hurtado’s view of San Antonio is one where scenes of quiet, haunting expansive beauty and horrifying, claustrophobic scenes of violence can exist side by side with each other, underscoring a downbeat but hopeful story about belief, truth, and how the past can sometimes have unsettling influence over the present. 

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 The Drive-In Trilogy, Joe R. Lansdale

The Orbit Drive-In is the place to be on a Friday night: free-flowing snacks and soda, a raucous crowd, and an all-night horror fest providing all the gore and beasts a B-movie fan could ask for. That is, until the horrifying comet with the toothy grin shows up, the stars all go out, and the crowd at the Orbit find themselves trapped by a black barrier that dissolves anything it touches. Not long after that, the cannibalism, body horror, TV-headed cowboys, and the cosmic horrors behind “central casting” start upping the stakes, pitting the inhabitants against each other in their own bloody B-movie extravaganza. Few things are as large a part of southwestern horror as the drive-in (as at least one horror host would attest), and The Drive-In Trilogy finds Lansdale in his element colliding the drive-in culture with the movies they love so much, and in the process creating a hardcore horror classic. 

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 Queen of the Cicadas, V. Castro

There’s a lot to love about V. Castro’s twisted gothic epic about a migrant worker murdered in a hate crime, a ghost story that endures for centuries, and the darker secrets buried underneath the surface. For one, it offers sickening viscerality (Castro’s descriptions of mundane food are the stuff of body-horror nightmares in some cases), terrifying mythology, and an underlying sense of horror not seen since The Books of Blood and in particular, the iconic short story “The Forbidden.” But in the story of Milagros Santos, her flayed patron deity, and the numerous deaths her atrocious end demands is also a story of trauma, darkness, and the monsters that thrive off suffering caused both by individuals and institutions. It’s a gothic tale steeped in the history of the Southwest, both in the legends of its past, and in the twisted way they shape the present. 

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 All the Beautiful Sinners, Stephen Graham Jones

In Nazareth, TX, a sheriff gets gunned down when what should be a routine shoplifting arrest reveals two dead children in the perpetrator’s trunk. Sheriff’s Deputy Jim Doe takes up the manhunt, but is met with interference from both racist Texans when it’s revealed that the killer is a descendant of the Blackfeet Nation like Jim Doe, and from state police and FBI profilers, who take an interest in the case when it’s revealed that the killer has ties to numerous similar child murders. As Jim Doe rushes to solve the case, more and more connections are revealed to past incidents in Nazareth, and to the disappearance of his own sister, making the case that much more personal and driving Jim Doe even harder to solve the murders. Jones understands the West like few do, mixing horrifying violence and unusual beauty (a brutal exchange early on is set against a backdrop of gorgeous skies and torrential hail), letting the atmosphere build painterly in the individual moments while shattering the quiet with scenes of brutality. 

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 Sundial, Catriona Ward

Rob does her best to live a normal life in suburban California despite her toxic relationship with her husband Irving and the roiling discomfort lying under the surface, but she tries to keep it all together. But her daughter Callie starts exhibiting unusually violent and disturbing behavior, leading Rob to make a last-ditch effort to save her daughter and possibly herself. Spiriting Callie away to Sundial, her former childhood home turned family vacation spot, Rob tries to connect with her daughter and reckon with the violent secrets in her past that might hold the key to Callie’s outbursts. Ward’s narrative recalls that of Shirley Jackson with a strange desert hippie compound standing in for a gothic castle, but uses the wild animals, lonely and mountainous desert, isolated farm compound, and the hints of danger lurking just around the edges to wrap a blanket of malevolent suspense around the hairpin turns of the story.

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 The Devil’s Bag Man, Adam Mansbach

Picking up right after The Dead Run, Mansbach’s (Go the F**k to Sleep, You Have to F**king Eat) previous work of Southwestern noir and supernatural horror, The Devil’s Bag Man finds hunted mob courier Jess Galvan fighting a centuries-old sorcerer-turned-crime boss named Cucuy for his body. As Galvan fights to stay one step ahead of Cucuy, his twisted section of the afterlife, and his minions both supernatural and terrestrial, everything seems to converge on the border town of Rosales. The book is awash in atmosphere and uses its neo-western flavor to the fullest, with Galvan forced to navigate a desert full of ghouls, ghost towns full of gangsters-turned-apocalyptic cultists, and the police as he fights against threats both without and within, desperate not to fall into Cucuy’s clutches or the merciless underworld hoping to claim him. It’s beautiful, brutal, and incredibly twisted. 

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