Anyone searching for a spooky summer read should pick up The Queen of the Cicadas by V. Castro. While some folks might prefer to save all things spooky for Halloween time, Castro’s novel is perfectly timed for the emergence of Brood X cicadas, and even though it does not relate to Brood X directly, having them as a soundtrack can only add to the story’s effect.
The novel begins when Belinda attends a friend’s wedding at a renovated farmhouse in Texas. As she explores the venue, she learns that the place is actually the site of a terrible murder and the origin of an urban legend she heard as a child. Rather than leaving with the other guests when the wedding is over, Belinda stays behind to investigate and becomes involved with the supernatural forces still at work on the old farm. She explains her decision in terms any true crime fan can relate to: “I held so much sorrow for Milagros the woman, but the strangeness of it all captured my curiosity, numbing me to the fear and horror.”
At first, The Queen of the Cicadas appears to be a straightforward ghost story, and horror fans will undoubtedly see the shape it begins to take: a murdered woman’s spirit seeks revenge against her killers. But that’s only the surface level, and before the novel’s midpoint, it becomes clear that much more is going on. In 1952, a migrant worker named Milagros was murdered on the farm. Her final calls for help were heard by Mictecacíhuatl, the Queen of the Dead, and as the novel continues, we learn why her call was heard and what the results of this connection will be — for Milagros, for Belinda, and for the world.
Castro’s writing is incredibly descriptive and vivid. She makes it easy for readers to feel the insects crawling over them or to hear the blood dripping from Mictecacíhuatl’s fingertips. We can picture each event as the terror comes to life on the page. In true pulp horror style, this level of description is also used for the occasional sex scene.
But as many genre novels do, Castro’s work also reflects the larger culture in which it was written, and The Queen of the Cicadas takes a position in defense of migrant workers. Milagros’s murder is a direct result of racism, and she is especially vulnerable because she is undocumented and isolated. Having rejected the advances of a man in her hometown, she left her family and the woman she loves to travel alone to Texas. The spirit of Milagros, aided by Mictecacíhuatl, is committed to not only avenging her own death but also to defending those who call on her for help.
The Queen of the Cicadas is a quick-read horror novel, and it does have some features that many consider problems of genre fiction. The novel stays as focused as possible on Milagros and Mictecacíhuatl, and further development of characters like Belinda could slow down the momentum. This is not a problem with Castro’s writing; rather, it demonstrates a commitment to the pulpy heart of horror fiction. By remaining true to the genre she’s working in, Castro creates an enjoyable book, while also supporting her argument that “People from marginalized communities should not have to flex to show they belong or are worthy. We can write pulp, crime, horror, science fiction, erotica, romance. Literary fiction is not always best.” Often we see literary fiction where the protagonist’s story is constructed entirely of struggles related to their identity, and while those stories are important, they cannot capture the full lives of marginalized people.
Work like Castro’s allows for a wider range of experiences and perspectives to be included in the literary world. In discussing her work, Castro has noted that “there were no Latina final girls, villains, heroes, writers, directors of storylines that reflected the horror of growing up Chicana” when she was a young person discovering horror. In The Queen of the Cicadas, Castro plants herself firmly within the horror genre while also bringing a unique voice and perspective to the page. As she has said, “Diversity means stories are filtered through my worldviews and experiences as opposed to someone else throwing in a brown, female token.” The Queen of the Cicadas delivers on this definition of diversity, while also being seriously creepy.
The Queen of the Cicadas
By V. Castro
Flame Tree Press
Published June 22, 2021