Recently, I came to the realization that I’d read three books set in fictional desert towns, all populated by unusual inhabitants who are trying to make sense of mysterious events. I’m not sure what it is about the Southwestern desert that draws writers of the supernatural, except that it’s hot, sandy and sparsely populated, and makes a great setting for isolated communities where weird stuff could happen, witnessed only by cacti and the occasional steer.
“It Devours!” the second novel in the “Welcome to Night Vale” series by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, was what brought me to recall Charlaine Harris’s “Midnight, Texas” trilogy and A. Lee Martinez’s “Gil’s All Fright Diner.” All three are mysteries of a sort and include both both humans and other entities. Even if you are not particularly a fan of novels that feature shape-shifters, vampires, ghosts and icky creepy crawlies, these make for entertaining and sometimes thought-provoking reads, especially “It Devours!” which is, by far, the most interesting of the three.
But let’s begin with Charlaine Harris, she of the myriad Sookie Stackhouse vampire books. In the “Midnight, Texas” series, she moves from the deep South to a little town barely clinging to life, but strong in its sense of community and casual acceptance of its residents’ diversity.
In the three novels that make up this series – “Midnight Crossroad,” “The Day Shift,” and “The Night Shift” – we are treated to an ongoing cast of characters. There’s Fiji Cavanaugh, a witch who spends most of her time whipping up pitchers of lemonade and batches of cookies for her friends. Then there’s Bobo Winthrop, the hunky proprietor of Midnight Pawn, and his tenants, Lemuel Bridger (a rather benign vampire) and Lemual’s lover, the enigmatic Olivia Charity, who may or may not be a hit-woman. A newcomer to town, Manfred Bernardo, operates an on-line business as a psychic and occasionally has flashes of genuine powers. A gay couple, Joe Strong and Chuy Villegas, own the Midnight Antique Gallery and Nail Salon. Spoiler Alert! (These two are actually angels.) At the far end of town is the Wedding Chapel and Pet Cemetery, presided over by Revered Emilio Sheehan, a dour, very private man who has secrets of his own. One of the most interesting residents, by far, is Figi’s marmalade cat, Mr. Snuggly, who has an unusual skill I won’t divulge. The murder mysteries that drive the plots of each of these books are rife with red herrings, which kept me guessing.
But despite a sprinkling of violence, there’s something overwhelmingly cozy about Midnight, and Harris devotees will enjoy her attention to homey details.
Two words describe Martinez’s “Gil’s All Fright Diner:” hilarious and gory. Although the diner, located on the outskirts of Rockwood, Texas, is called Gil’s, Gil has mysteriously disappeared, and its current proprietor is Loretta, an amply endowed bleached blonde, who deals with regular infestations of zombies with surprising equanimity. When a rusted out pickup truck pulls in, Loretta doesn’t seem to care that the driver, Duke, is a werewolf, or that his sidekick, Earl, is a vampire. She’s actually glad for their company and offers to put them up in return for some help around the place – including figuring out why the zombie attacks are increasing and what might be done about them.
Duke is a fat, slovenly good ol’ boy, and Earl is, considering his undeadness, a very timid and rather socially inept fellow. They rag at each other incessantly but, like all good friends, have each other’s back when trouble comes calling. In this case, the trouble is Tammy, a seductive teenager who calls herself “Mistress Lilith, Queen of the Night.” Tammy is intent on chasing Loretta away so that she can call forth the ancient evil that lurks below the diner and end the world as we know it. Tammy is aided and not very well abetted by her only cult member, the testosterone-filled and none-too-bright Chad, who will do whatever she orders, for obvious reasons. By now, you will have guessed that they don’t quite succeed, since I’m alive to write about them.
Like Loretta, the folks who live in Night Vale are curiously accepting of the weirdness that personifies their town in “It Devours!” But despite also including the threat of an apocalyptic event, unlike “Gil’s All Fright Diner,” this book focuses on a real-life quandary: science versus religion. This dissonance is perfectly embodied by the novel’s two protagonists: Nilanjana Sidkar, a young scientist devoted to facts and logic, and Darryl Ramirez, a well-meaning and totally committed member of The Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God. Despite their diametrically opposed sets of beliefs, this unlikely pair must unite to discover what sinister force lies behind a rash of collapses in the earth that swallow a house, Big Rico’s pizza parlor, and much of the Night Vale High School gymnasium, not to mention a bunch of people.
While the underlying debate between fact versus faith is serious and timely, “It Devours!” is also a real hoot, mainly because nothing makes sense in Night Vale. First, the town has the most perverse, irrational laws you’ve ever encountered. For example, the new dog park is off-limits to both dogs and humans, writing utensils, computers and any products made with wheat are strictly prohibited. Second, residents are governed by a City Council that consists of a “multiform, extra-dimensional beast” that has “a ravenous taste for humans.” And always on hand are the Secret Police, plus agents from “a vague, yet menacing government agency” and weird cloaked figures that tend to congregate at the dog park and the “house that does not exist.” And did I mention the enormous centipede? Even the food is bizarre. Darryl gives Nilanjana a falafel sandwich (minus the bread, of course), that she tells a friend was “a bit dry, but the paraffin wax chips and butterscotch marmalade were tasty.”
After devouring these books, I doubt I’ll be making a trip to the desert anytime soon, but I have to admit, they made me thirsty for more zany mayhem.