The men who marry the desert (bad things happen to them)

Two young people try to make the best of their lives in a desert town struggling after the local mine collapsed. But the desert is drowned in secrets and raw with untapped power that threatens to consume them. Alyssa Wong has crafted a superb story that is shrouded in mystery and humming with myth.

Full disclosure: I love the desert and I love myth-making. Any story that can combine the two, bringing the desert to haunting life until you can hear the dead and smell the hot breeze is almost certain to win me over. Even when it’s written in second person narrative (after all, I’ve already admitted once this month that this can be unexpectedly powerful – and Wong has certainly mastered it).

Like Jackalope Wives, You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay casually paints a desert that I could instantly picture, built of tropes and little details that bring it to life. It’s familiar, almost intimate – and very discomforting. The dead walk this desert, and nobody knows why. “You” (Ellis, as we eventually discover with – for me at least – that delightful tickle of surprise that “I” am a boy today) run wild when the desert calls, running with the coyotes and coming home covered in blood not always your own. 

It has shades of The Secret History, but I was unclear whether Ellis was shapeshifter, witch, necromancer, or something else – and totally hooked. In fact, Ellis is all these things and something else, setting the pattern for the story: nobody is quite what they seem, identities layered to protect or deceive. 

Familiar bones – the prostitute, the Madam, the preacher, the company man – are given new flesh as Wong constructs her story. Of course we can’t trust a company man in the desert, but what does he want – and what does he know about Ellis? Who is the preacher who smells of death? Can Marisol’s loyalty save Ellis from these men – and from the desert?   

The mysteries build up as the pressure mounts within Ellis to embrace the desert that rides him like a loa. Where there has been no consent, there has been no control – he is taken by the powers that rule him – but can he embrace them and master them? And what might he do if he could?

I don’t want to give too much away, because the beauty and the heartache here are in the fine details scattered through the text. Ultimately, it doesn’t capture the mythic feel of Ursula Vernon’s desert tales, because it crafts a tone all its own, dark and mirror-twisted. But it has a strong heart, with a thread of devotion and loyalty that reminded me of Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers

Is it about trying to come to terms with your heritage? About not fitting in and being unsure where there’s a place for you? Possibly. It’s certainly about love and loyalty and what we’re prepared to sacrifice. And it’s definitely uncanny. Excellent stuff.

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You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay can be read online at Uncanny.

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